Christmas is known for bringing out the ancestral origins in all of us, with every culture celebrating the holidays enjoying their specific holiday foods. Although my parents were born here in Canada, our German heritage was very evident in my mother’s cooking and baking.
One cookie that has been made specifically for holidays for hundreds of years is gingerbread. Across Europe you will find many versions of the spicy cookies in different shapes, colors and textures.
‘Lebkucken’, a traditional German gingerbread was invented by medieval monks in Franeonia, Germany in the 13th century. Prepared in monastery bakeries with ingredients that not only had symbolic religious meaning but were highly prized for their healing properties.
There are a variety of types of lebkucken, each distinguished by slight alterations in ingredients. Most common ingredients include: * honey, flour, sugar and eggs * gingerbread spice mix or ‘Lebkuckengewurz’ * almonds, hazelnuts and/or walnuts * candied lemon and orange peel. The most critical ingredient being the ‘exotic’ spices from all around the world such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, anise, cardamom, coriander and ginger.
Lebkucken can be round, square or rectangular. They can be glazed or not. Sometimes cocoa is mixed in with the dough making it rich and chocolaty. Other times, roasted apple, marzipan or cashews may be mixed in to add different flavors and textures.
‘Elisen lebkucken’ are the highest quality made. They must have at least 25% almonds, hazelnuts and/or walnuts and must contain no more than 10% flour if any. The ‘Nuremberg lebkucken’, baked in the city of Nuremberg, Germany, are known worldwide to be the best. Marzipan is often an ingredient in these gingerbread.
Of course this brings me back to another memory. Some years ago I had the experience of spending some time in the presence of a Dutch baker. At Christmas time, he would bake these incredible Dutch cookies called ‘Speculaas’ that were filled with marzipan and had that glorious similar spice blend. I just loved it and can’t resist making some version of it every Christmas season since.
Today, I’m making a large batch of lebkucken which I’m going to divide. Half of it is going to be made into ‘glazed’ triangles and the other half I want to dip in white chocolate and add a little holly decoration. Should be good!
Preheat oven to 350 F. Spread hazelnuts on a baking sheet & toast until the skins blister, about 5 minutes. Let cool slightly, then transfer nuts to a clean kitchen towel & rub together to remove the skins. Cool completely.
In a small bowl, combine almond meal, flour, baking powder, baking soda, spices & salt. Transfer hazelnuts to a food processor, add walnuts, candied citrus rind & crystallized ginger along with 1 cup of the dry ingredient mixture; pulse until very finely chopped. Add remaining dry ingredients & pulse ONLY to combine.
In a large bowl, using a mixer, beat butter with brown sugar until creamy. Add honey & beat until smooth. Add eggs & vanilla, beating to combine. Fold in dry ingredients then beat until evenly combined. Divide the dough in half. Wrap in plastic wrap & chill for at least 4 hours or overnight.
Line an 8 x 8-inch square baking dish with 2 pieces of parchment paper (this will allow you to easily remove squares fro the pan). Spread the half of the chilled dough evenly into baking pan & bake in the center of the oven until surface is dimpled & a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 20 minutes. The cake should be springy but firm. Let cool on a wire rack for 15 minutes.
In a bowl, whisk powdered sugar with your choice of flavoring & water to make a thin but spreadable glaze. Spread glaze on just-warm cake & let cool completely. Remove cake (with parchment) from pan onto cutting board. Cut 16 squares then cut each square into 2 'triangles' giving you 32 pieces.
Making Individual Cookies
Line a large cookie sheet with parchment paper. Scoop about 1 1/2 Tbsp dough out at a time. Roll into balls. Place on parchment about 2-inches apart & bake at 350 F. for 15 minutes or test with a toothpick. Remove from oven & cool completely.
White Chocolate Icing
In a microwave safe bowl, melt white chocolate chips with 1 Tbsp shortening on HIGH for 10 second intervals, stirring between intervals, until melted, smooth & fairly runny. Dip half of each cookie in melted white chocolate mixture then run bottom of cookie slightly along edge of bowl to remove excess. Place on parchment paper to set at room temperature.
For the holly decoration, melt candy melts, one color at a time. Place in a small piping bag with a #4 tip & pipe decorations. Allow to set up at room temperature. You should have around 26 cookies.
If you would like a dark depth of flavor, add 2 Tbsp dark, unsweetened cocoa to your cookie dough as well as using a dark brown sugar instead of the light.
If you prefer to not make 2 different versions, make the whole recipe into either bars or rounds -- your choice!
This is one of those cookies that gets better as it ages.
Something I did & found it worked well was to portion out my cookies before chilling the dough.
Creativity and imagination is part of the fun of baking from scratch. The pairing of flavors been going on ever since people put food to mouth, but the science of it has now become big business.
As a rule of thumb, desserts usually have one or two predominate flavors, but some may have small amounts of additional flavor elements to help support the main flavor combination.
I have always loved the sweet, nutty flavor of hazelnuts especially in baking. The other day I was thinking about a square my mother used to make at Christmas. It had a very simple ‘shortbread’ base that was neither too sweet or buttery. My next thought was to pair hazelnuts, dried cranberries and glazed citrus peel to form the top layer. To add a little pizzazz, I baked them individually in different shaped tartlet pans.
I was real curious to see what Brion would think of these little ‘bites’. After tasting one, he felt they had good flavor but were a little dry. My solution to this was to make an orange coulis sauce to serve with them.
There’s something about the citrus notes of orange with the tarty sweetness of cranberries that makes for an aromatic amorous marriage of flavors. The end result produced a great tasting Christmas dessert!
Hazelnut & Dried Cranberry Bites with Orange Coulis
In a medium bowl, combine flour, sugar, salt & orange zest. Add butter, mix until well combined. Divide shortcrust among 24 tartlet pans. Evenly press pastry on bottom & up the sides of each. Set aside.
In a large bowl, beat eggs with sugar, flour, extract, corn syrup & melted butter. Fold in chopped hazelnuts, cranberries & citrus peel.
Preheat oven to 375 F. Place tartlet pan on a foil lined baking sheet. Carefully fill tartlet pans (should be enough for 24). Bake for about 20-25 minutes or until lightly golden. Remove from oven & cool on a wire rack.
Peel orange in a circular fashion, being careful not to go to thick & getting the pith. Cut in slivers. Juice the orange, straining into a small saucepan. Heat water, orange juice & sugar, bring to a boil. Add slivers of orange peel; simmer about 15 minutes until peel is cooked.
When ready to serve, make a design with some coulis on dessert plates, place tartlets on top. Decorate with a bit candied orange rind!
If you don't care for the orange coulis, try serving these little bites with a bit of Grand Marnier flavored whipped cream OR some white "Old English" cheddar.
Bread pudding always gives me reason to remember good things. Why is it so beloved, aside from the extreme comfort food factor? It’s not that the dish was invented here — that honor likely goes to clever medieval or even ancient cooks in Europe and the Middle East who had a surplus of stale bread on their hands. The perfect embodiment of the virtues of frugality and indulgence: day old bread, too precious to waste, is bathed in a mixture of milk and eggs and made into either a sweet or savory bread pudding (with a few other additions) and baked into something sublime.
In 2015, ‘The Taste of a Memory’, a memorabilia/cookbook I wrote as a tribute to my wonderful parents, was published. It contained a compilation of stories, articles, recipes and reflections that evoke an intimate memory, special time period and fond emotion brought about by the aroma and taste of food. Writing them down not only puts them in print but allowed me to take a mental journey back to a gentler time. Hopefully this book will be enjoyed by future generations or just anyone choosing to read it. As with my other book endeavors, Brion’s strong support and technical savvy were invaluable.
For today’s blog, I chose a recipe from the book called APPLE-ANISE BREAD PUDDING. The licorice flavor of anise is one we both enjoy.
Anise seed is native to the Mediterranean basin and has been used throughout history in both sweet and savory applications. Anise seeds are not botanically related to star anise, but have nearly identical flavors and in ground form can be substituted for each other. For most part, Europeans use anise in cakes, cookies and sweet breads where as the Middle East uses it in soups and stews.
I don’t particularly recall my mother using anise in her cooking or baking but for my sister Loretta and I, it’s definitely one of our favorite flavors. I hope you enjoy this bread pudding recipe.
Preheat oven to 350 F. Pulse bread CRUSTS ONLY in a food processor to make bread crumbs. Reserve 1 cup for the topping. Butter an 8 x 8-inch baking dish & coat with 1-2 Tbsp of the remaining bread crumbs.
With a mixer, beat eggs & then add the sugar. Mix in anise seeds, cinnamon, vanilla & milk until combined. Pour into a large bowl & add bread bread cubes. Fold together gently with a spatula then pour into prepared baking dish. Top with diced apples & chopped walnuts.
In a small dish, combine reserved 1 cup bread crumbs with 2 Tbs melted butter & 1 Tbsp sugar. Sprinkle topping evenly over pudding.
Prepare a 'hot water bath'. For this you will need another pan that's larger than & at least as deep as the bread pudding pan itself. When you set the bread pudding pan in it and add water it should go about halfway up the sides. This will ensure even, slow baking for a smooth velvety result.
Bake about an hour or until it tests done. Pudding should be puffy & golden. Serve as is or with whipped cream, your choice!
ANISE SUGAR - for tea, on top of cookies or over fruit.
In a blender, combine 1 cup sugar with 1 T. anise seed
Blend on high speed until mixture is thoroughly combined
Being one who appreciates both roasted vegetables and the origins of things, I was curious as to when roasting vegetables became a ‘thing’.
The presence of a platter of blistered carrots and parsnips on our dinner table is happily commonplace these days. However, this was not always the case.
Restaurant chefs have forever roasted vegetables for certain preparations, especially classics like roasted plum tomato sauce and charred red peppers for antipasto.
Dry-heat cooking in an oven has traditionally been associated with meat, poultry and game. Roasting other foods like fish, vegetables and fruit seals in and intensifies flavors, imparts an attractive burnish and often uses less ‘fat’ than other cooking methods. The use of ‘professional’ quality sheet pans, roasting pans and ovenproof skillets is best for such roasting.
This roasting technique came into vogue in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Clearly, roasting is the only way to treat vegetables. The taste is legitimately superior to older techniques in almost all cases as it concentrates and enhances via caramelization. So, it begs the question, why did it take so long to become the default vegetable cooking technique? A lingering preference for boiled, steamed and sauteed veggies seems to be the main reason. Although technology has not changed that much in several decades, sensibilities regarding how certain foods should be prepared have shifted greatly. The days of limp, tasteless, boiled vegetables are gone!
This simple recipe is one Brion and I enjoy often.
Pork tenderloin can be stuffed with anything, imagination is the limit. What’s not to like — easy to prepare, boneless and fork tender. The pairing of pork with cornbread seems perfect, add caramelized onions and you got it!
Cornbread is one of those nostalgic foods for me. It always brings me back to my mother’s kitchen. I remember very clearly that wonderful smell of fresh cornbread coming out of the oven and that small Pyrex, rectangle baking pan she always baked it in. Those special memories came to mind today as I was trying to come up with a supper ‘idea’.
I love stuffing or dressing, whatever you prefer to call it. Of course, my ultimate favorite is the one I grew up with. On the other hand when you just need a very small amount, I see nothing wrong with using a box of ‘Stovetop Stuffing’. Of course I can’t resist telling you just a bit of the history about the product itself —
In 1972, General Foods which is now known as Kraft Foods introduced ‘Stovetop Stuffing’. It was quick, convenient, tasty and therefore was an instant hit.
The secret lies in the crumb size. If the dried crumb is too small, adding water to it makes a soggy mass; too large, and the result is gravel. The nature of the cell structure and overall texture of the dried bread crumb used in this invention is of great importance if a stuffing which will hydrate in a matter of minutes to the proper texture and mouthfeel is to be prepared.
Ruth Siems, a home economist that spent more than three decades on the staff of General Foods was instrumental in arriving at the precise crumb dimensions — about the size of a pencil eraser.
That being said, here is my idea for this great little combination. We really enjoyed it!
Stuffed Pork Rolls with Cornbread & Caramelized Onions
In a large skillet, heat oil. Add onion & sprinkle with salt. Cook & stir about 15 minutes or until moisture is evaporated & onion is soft. Reduce heat; sprinkle with cider vinegar. Cook & stir until golden. Sprinkle with brown sugar; cook & stir until caramel brown color.
Prepare as directed on package.
Slice tenderloin into 4 pieces. Using a meat mallet, pound into thin slices. Divide caramelized onions between them and spread over meat. Top with a layer of prepared cornmeal stuffing. Roll tightly encasing the filling inside & tie with kitchen twine. Roll pork rolls in the 1/4 cup flour that has been seasoned with salt & pepper to coat lightly.
In a large skillet, heat butter & oil; brown pork rolls well on each side. Remove rolls to a platter,
Red Wine Gravy
Stir 'brown bits' remaining from frying rolls, with garlic, thyme & red wine. Simmer about 5 minutes. In a small dish, combine cornstarch with chicken broth; add to wine mixture, season to taste. Return pork rolls to the pan. Cover, simmer gently for another 8-10 minutes.
Place pork rolls on serving platter & stir fresh parsley into gravy. Spoon gravy over pork rolls & serve immediately.
In a small saucepan, bring sugar, salt & water to a boil. Add cranberries, reduce heat & simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Cool slightly then process for a few seconds in a food processor. Add orange zest; stir & set aside to cool completely.
Pumpkin Spice Roll
Preheat oven to 375 F. Line a 15 x 10-inch jelly roll pan with parchment paper.
In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, spices & salt. In a large bowl with an electric mixer, beat eggs, vanilla & sugar until mixture is pale yellow & fluffy. Add pumpkin puree & mix to combine. Fold in the dry ingredients. Using a rubber spatula, spread the cake batter evenly into prepared pan. Bake for about 10-13 minutes or until top of cake springs back when touched & tests done in the middle.
While cake is baking, make CREAM CHEESE FILLING. In a medium bowl, beat cream cheese, powdered sugar, butter & vanilla until smooth. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Remove cake immediately from the oven; invert onto a clean tea towel that has been lightly sprinkled with powdered sugar. Remove parchment paper & carefully roll cake in jelly roll fashion in tea towel.
When cake has cooled completely, carefully unroll & spread with a layer of cranberry jam. Next top with a layer of cream cheese filling. Carefully re-roll cake. Wrap in plastic wrap & refrigerate at least one hour or overnight.
Decorate with remaining cream cheese topping & cranberries (I saved a few whole ones from the cranberry jam). Add a few 'kiwi' leaves & you got it!
One of the most interesting facets of the culinary revolution is our growing fascination with culinary history. It seems the more I learn about the ethnic melting pot that makes up our dinner table, the more curious I become about regional cuisines and the origin of specific dishes.
Stuffed peppers probably go further back than the 1890’s. Many cuisines around the world have a traditional stuffed pepper that has been passed down for generations. Here’s a few I found interesting: Denmark: Fyldte Peberfrugter – Bell pepper stuffed with bulgur, mushrooms and kale Hungary: Toltott Paprika – Bell pepper stuffed with ground meat, rice and paprika. Served with sour cream. India: Bharawn Shimla Mirch – Bell pepper stuffed with spiced mashed potatoes Korea: Gochu Jeon – Chili peppers stuffed with tofu Mexico: Chili Rellenos – Poblano pepper stuffed with carnitas meat, kielbasa and topped with cheddar cheese Phillippines: Pandak na tao pinalamanan peppers – – Bell peppers stuffed with shrimp, pork and water chestnuts Romania: Ardei Umpluti – Bell peppers stuffed with pork and rice and served in a creamy sour cream sauce Spain: Pimientos Rellenos de Arroz con Salsa de Tomatoes – Bell pepper stuffed with Valencia or arborio rice and saffron, then cooked in a tomato sauce Tunisia: Fil Fil Mashsi – Bell pepper stuffed with lamb, rice and sprinkled with nutmeg, saffron and cardamom United States & Canada: Classic Stuffed Peppers – Bell pepper stuffed with ground beef, rice and cooked in a tomato sauce
The recipe today, pairs flavorful bacon risotto with colorful sweet bell peppers. The fact that they can be frozen for up to 6 months sure makes for an easy meal on a busy day.
In a large saucepan, cook bacon over medium heat until crisp. Lay on paper towels, reserving 1 Tbsp of the bacon drippings in saucepan; set aside. Cook onion & mushrooms in drippings until tender; add rice, cook & stir 2 minutes more. Carefully stir in broth; bring to boiling & reduce heat. Simmer, covered, about 20 minutes or until liquid is absorbed. Remove from heat; stir in bacon & peas. Let stand, covered for 5 minutes. Stir in cheese. If desired, season with salt & pepper to taste.
Preheat oven to 375 F. Cut large peppers in half lengthwise. Remove membranes & seeds. Spoon risotto mixture into peppers. Place in a shallow baking dish. Cover with foil; bake, covered, for 30-45 minutes or until heated through. If desired sprinkle with shredded mozzarella cheese. Serve with heated zesty pasta sauce.
Can be chilled for up to 12 hours then baked for 50-55 minutes.
Can be frozen for up to 6 months then baked (frozen), covered, about 1 hour or until heated through.
The humble pot pie was once the height of culinary style. During the Elizabethan era, these savory pastries — decorated with flowers, fancy designs, etc. were elaborate assertions of the chef’s skill in the royal households of France and England. Among the lower classes, pot pie were popular because the addition of a crust helped feed another mouth or two, while individual pastries, empanadas and perogies were well suited for sale by street vendors as portable meals.
Fortunately, the resurgence in so called ‘retro’ foods has brought pot pies back to the table. There is no reason why they shouldn’t do just as well in the 21st century. To some, chicken pot pie is a staple comfort food. The recipes mix of meat and vegetables in a chicken broth seasoned with herbs, produces a spectrum of flavors that’s like no other.
The trick is getting all the ingredients to the right degree of doneness at the same time. It may be these timing issues that led to the abandonment of the homemade pot pie in favor of the frozen variety. One thing for sure, is that they are definitely worth the time and effort. It makes good sense to make a big recipe, freeze them unbaked (if you choose) and there ready when you need them.
In a large skillet, heat 1 Tbsp oil. Add chicken, season with 1 tsp salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until chicken is no longer pink on the outside but not dry, 4-6 minutes. Remove from skillet & set aside.
Decrease heat & add remaining oil. When oil is hot, add onions, mushrooms, carrots, celery, garlic, remaining 1 1/2 tsp salt, pepper, dried thyme & savory; stir to combine. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onions have softened, about 5 minutes. Add margarine & melt.
Stir in the flour & cook for 1-2 minutes; gradually stirring in chicken broth & milk. Bring to a simmer, continue stirring until sauce thickens, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat & stir in peas, thyme, mustard & reserved chicken. Cover & set aside while preparing pastry.
In a large bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, baking powder & salt. With a pastry blender, cut in white & yellow Crisco. In a measuring cup, place the egg & vinegar; add enough cold water to make 1 cup & whisk together. Make a well in flour; pour in all of the liquid & combine.
Roll out pastry. For 6 individual pies, prepared in mini foil pot pie pans, cut 6 - 8" (20 cm) circles for the bottom shells & 6 - 5 1/2" (14 cm) circles for the tops. Preheat oven to 350 F.
Place pastry lined pans on a baking sheet & divide chicken filling among them. Moisten edges with milk or water; place pastry circles on top, crimping edges with a fork. Whisk together 1 egg & 1 Tbsp water; brush tops of pot pies with egg wash. Bake 20-25 minutes or until golden.
This amount of pastry will actually make enough for a double recipe of filling or just some extra for another time. If wrapped tightly it will freezes well.
Sour cream is often thought of as topping for potatoes or an addition to sauces. Due to its creamy texture, sour cream can be added to a variety of baked goods and recipes in order to yield moister results. The use of sour cream has been associated with the cooking traditions of Eastern Europe, Germany, Ukraine and Russia since the first half of the 20th century. Originally made by allowing cream to sour naturally, today’s commercial version can contain the addition of lactic acid, gelatin or guar gum.
Probably one of the first recipes I ever used sour cream in was coffeecake. I just couldn’t believe how tender and moist it was and the heavenly smell when it came out of the oven. Looking through my mother’s recipe files, I see there were many recipes that contained sour cream that she had used.
I saw this recipe on a site called love2cooksweets.ca It was posted back in 2010. Nothing fancy but makes a wonderful sour cream oatmeal cookie. These can be filed under ‘comfort food’ I’m sure.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a small bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda & salt. In a medium bowl, cream butter with sugars; beat in egg & vanilla. Add flour mixture alternately with sour cream. Stir in raisins & oats.
Preheat oven to 375 F. Scoop dough onto cookie sheet a few inches apart. Bake 12-15 minutes. Allow to cool on pan about 30 seconds then remove to wire racks.
Stews have been an important food for most of the world’s people for thousands of years. They are wonderful concoctions, savored for their flavorful combinations as well as their reminders of home and family.
Geographical location plays a big role in how beef stews are made from different regions. In areas where the cold season is longer, the stew will usually be thicker in sauce, cooked longer and have heavier or more flavorful ingredients. In areas that have a warm climate, stews will be a lot spicier in flavor for inducing perspiration to cool the body.
In the Western world, meat stews are categorized as ‘brown’ or ‘white’. This means that the meat is browned in fat before liquid is added for brown stew; meat for the white stew is not cooked in fat before liquid is added.
The culinary history of both Canada and the United States includes numerous examples of stews brought by European settlers. Beef stews have been the most popular recipes among this legacy. In addition to being versatile in their ingredients, stews can also be used as filling for pastry shells, over mashed potatoes, rice or biscuits.
Brion and I have always enjoyed the combination of beef and barley. To my knowledge, the idea originated from the ‘Scotch Broth’ soup. In today’s particular stew the vegetables are roasted, using their natural sugars to caramelize, helping to create additional flavor in the stew.
In a large bowl, combine flour, 1/4 tsp salt & 1/4 tsp pepper. Add meat; toss to coat. In a Dutch oven heat 1 Tbsp olive oil over medium heat. Add half of the meat; cook until browned, stirring occasionally. Remove meat from Dutch oven; set aside. Repeat with another 1 Tbsp oil & remaining meat.
Add onion, garlic & thyme to Dutch oven. Cook & stir for 3 minutes. Add 1 3/4 cups broth, stirring to scrape up any browned bits from bottom of the Dutch oven. Add remaining beef broth & water. Bring to boiling; reduce heat to low. Simmer, covered, for 1 hour.
Preheat oven to 375 F. In a shallow roasting pan combine potatoes & carrots and/or parsnips. Drizzle with the remaining 2 Tbsp oil; sprinkle with 1/4 tsp each salt & pepper. Toss to coat. Roast, uncovered, for 35 - 45 minutes or until vegetables are tender & lightly browned, stirring once or twice.
Stir barley into beef mixture. Cook about 35 minutes more or until barley is tender.Stir in roasted vegetables. If desired, sprinkle with fresh parsley.
Stew can be placed in an airtight container, covered & refrigerated for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 2 months.