I'm running terribly, terribly late.

It's a recent tendency of mine. I was almost late for a holiday get together of my own organizing, and I'm regularly the last one up in the mornings. I'm not proud. But, as I'm here with a silky, milky, lush bowl of breakfasty goodness, well, maybe you won't mind the tardiness much.

Poached + Blistered Figs

Over a month ago, verging on a month-and-half ago, Megan's book, Whole Grain Mornings,  was released. She's a busy lady, not just with the book, but writing for The Kitchn and elsewhere, and she's behind the exceptionally-hearalded Marge Granola (a line named after her grandmother, with super cute packaging and an apricot flavour that has my attention). 

Since I am one of the people who helped test recipes, I can't offer up a full-on book review. I can tell you, however, that in my cupboard there is a jar of her whole grain pancake mix (with spelt, oats and buckwheat), and that the resulting flapjacks are surprisingly, unbelievably fluffy, despite their virtue.

Creamy Breakfast Grains

I can also be frank about her creamy breakfast grains, a bowl of which I'm eating right now, in the middle of the afternoon, with a cup of tea. 

I made my snack with pearled barley, because I already had some cooked. I don't think Megan will mind, as one of the most charming things about her is her repeated encouragement to make her recipes your own. She supplies are footnotes and headnotes of suggestions, and her cheerful enthusiasm for the dishes is apparent.

In this grain porridge, barley was a fine fit. Its roundness seems to contribute to its chewiness, and the smooth pearls retain all their shape and springiness, even after a second cooking. The pistachios have a hint of crunch, but not that much; the waxy nuts are almost the same density as the grains, and match exceptionally nicely. The stars of the affair are, of course, the figs. The recipe calls for fresh, but if none are around, her method would be the way to encourage some life back into dried ones.

Megan poaches the figs gently, to the point where they feel plump and heavy, just this side of bursting. They absorb the resiny murmur from the honey in the cooking liquid, while the syrup gains a musky edge from the fruit. Split, then draped in an extra dressing of syrup, the figs are a proper treat at breakfast, and would be as welcome at dessert as they were at tea time, which could be said of many of the book's recipes. Though I've mentioned the sweeter side of the collection, it has a savoury side to share — lunch and dinner inspiration may be found, too.

Congratulations Megan, on all the success. Hurrahs from here. xo

Creamy Breakfast Grains

CREAMY BREAKFAST GRAINS with HONEY-POACHED FIGS + PISTACHIOS

From Whole Grain Mornings: New Breakfast Recipes to Span the Seasons (Ten Speed Press, 2013). 

Rice pudding is one of my ultimate comfort foods, so developing this creamy whole-grain breakfast rice was a real treat, and I now turn to this recipe year-round. It's not too sweet on its own, relying instead on the earthy flavour of ripe fall figs. While many people prepare breakfast rice by actually cooking the rice in milk, I love this cheater's version because it uses cooked rice that's quickly heated in a pot of milk, so it gets super creamy and soft while still maintaining its characteristic chew. I'll often make a double batch of rice for dinner in the evening, knowing I want to get a pot of this going the next morning. 

Poaching figs is simple, but there's a fine line between perfectly poached and overdone. I poach figs with the stems on and remove them later—this will help keep them from getting mushy. Smaller figs cook quicker. Ultimately, you want the figs soft but not splitting or bursting open—always a delicate balance. Erring on the side of underpoaching is preferable. — Megan

Serves 4.

FOR THE FIGS

  • 3 cups water
  • 3/4 cup / 180 ml honey
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 10 washed ripe fresh gigs (about 8.5 ounces / 240 g; I like black Mission or Brown Turkey)

FOR THE CREAMY GRAINS

  • 3 cups / 400 g cooked long-grain brown rice
  • 1 1/2 cups / 360 ml whole milk or nut milk (low-fat or nonfat milk will make a thinner rice)
  • 2 tablespoons maple syrup 
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/3 cup / 45 g pistachios, chopped

To poach the figs: Bring the water, honey, and salt to a boil over medium-high heat in a small saucepan. Decrease the heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until all the liquid begins to reduce and thicken to the consistency of a light syrup about 20 minutes. Ultimately, you should be left with about 1 3/4 cups liquid. Set the figs into the honey syrup. To poach the figs successfully, you want to make sure they're mostly covered in liquid, so if you need to switch to a smaller saucepan, now is the time. Simmer over medium0low heat until tender, 8 to 10 minutes, gently turning them and scooting them around so each side is poached evenly. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the figs to a plate to cool slightly. Once cool enough to touch, carefully slice off the stems and cut the figs in half. 

To make the rice: In a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat, combine the cooked rice, milk, maple syrup, vanilla, cinnamon, and salt and cook, uncovered, until the mixture begins to thicken, 10 to 12 minutes. Stir occasionally to avoid sticking. Note that this should be a looser, almost milky dish: the rice won't soak up all of the liquid, and it will continue to thicken off the heat. Remove from the heat and let sit for a few minutes to cool ever so slightly and firm up a bit.

To serve: Divide the rice between 4 bowls. Top with the poached figs and the pistachios. I like to spoon a bit of the syrupy poaching liquid over the top of each bowl, too. If you have leftover rice, reheat in the morning, adding a dash more milk. 

Notes from Tara:

  • As said before, I used cooked barley instead of rice. I changed the title to reflect the photographs, but the recipe remains as written in the book.
  • I skipped the maple in my barley and used the same honey I'd used for the figs, since it was already out. Some hemp hearts and bee pollen were added to the pistachios.
  • I have a weakness for roasted figs. After poaching and splitting, to get some direct, dry heat on these pretties, I introduced them to a hot broiler for a few minutes — just enough to curl their edges and create a slightly caramelized crust.
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I'm going to get straight to the point, because the point  here is peaches, and as of my count taken at 2:27 p.m. on Monday, August 5, I've had two servings of said peaches.

I'm strongly considering a third.

 

5SpicePeachPlate.jpg

I should say, the peaches aren't just peaches, though peaches alone are fine, especially when it's August in Ontario and you happen to be in a place known as the buckle to the region's fruit belt. These are spiced and roasted peaches, paired in a bowl with toasted oats. And those oats aren't just plain old oats, but rather glistening and nubbly with a thin, sweet shellac studded with sesame seeds.

I started on the combination after making a slapdash of a crumble last week, with some peaches that ripened faster than we could eat them. It was a buttery crumble, and I'd let the oats get quite crisp in the process. The next morning, rooting around the fridge, I came across the scant leftovers from the night before  — a few lush chunks of peach, errant scraps of topping, and I thought to make stretch the loot and call it breakfast. I grabbed yogurt and a spoon, and in a last-second addition, I anointed the cold crumble with maple syrup spiked with Chinese Five Spice, since the blend's base of cinnamon, clove, anise and fennel makes good sense with peaches, and its touch of Sichuan peppercorn would lend its pep to the fruit's intensely honeyed flesh.  

 

5SPicePlate7.jpg

The result was so good, so exactly what I was looking for, that I became set on another go round, this time with peaches and oats expressly made for breakfast.

What I ended up with was a miserly recipe for granola, with the flakes faintly frosted and balancing the border of savoury. The sesame seeds, for which I used a mix of black and white, break up the texture of the oats, and their flavour is suprisingly, satisfactorily pronounced.

The peaches barely require a recipe, brushed with their own allotment of maple syrup, seasoned with that Five Spice and a vanilla bean, then baked in a moderately hot oven. The fruit emerges fragrant and shining, retaining its shape but supple enough to give way to a spoon.

My third helping will be with ice cream.

5SpicePeachPlate2 .jpg

FIVE SPICE ROASTED PEACHES WITH GLAZED SESAME OATS

The choice of sweeteners and fat here is up and open to debate. Honey and brown rice syrup are candidates for the liquid sugar, and natural cane sugar or even Demerara could stand in for the grainy stuff. As far as oils, I like how an olive oil brings a note of green, fruited pepperiness, but a neutral oil like grapeseed could be bulked up with coconut oil, almond oil or even sesame oil, if used judiciously. Feel free to use what interests.

A batch of oats yields more than needed for a cluster of peaches, so in 20 minutes you're well on your way to breakfast tomorrow, and possibly the next, too. The oats keep well, and also make a worthy canvas for wild blueberries, the teeny ones, almost winey in flavour, which are at the farm stands around here right now. Douse the business with milk and eat as a cereal. 

If using larger peaches, you'll need to adjust cooking time accordingly. 

FOR THE OATS

  • 2 tablespoons maple syrup
  • 2 tablespoons golden brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup olive oil or coconut oil
  • Fine grained sea salt, maybe 1/4 teaspoon
  • 2 1/2 cups large-flake rolled oats
  • 1/2 cup flaked almonds
  • 1/4 cup sesame seeds

 

FOR THE PEACHES

  • 4 small peaches, firm but ripe, halved and stone removed
  • 1/4 cup maple syrup
  • 1/4 teaspoon Chinese Five Spice Powder
  • Seeds scraped from a vanilla bean

TO SERVE

  • Yogurt, fresh ricotta or cottage cheese
  • Hemp seeds, bee pollen, optional

 

 

METHOD

Make the oats first, in fact, make them the night before, if possible. Preheat an oven to 375°F / 190°C and line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, stir together the maple syrup, golden brown sugar, olive oil, 2 tablespoons water and a good pinch of salt. In another bowl, toss together the oats, almonds, sesame seeds and another pinch of salt. Fold the oats into the syrup mixture until coated. Turn the oats out onto the prepared baking sheet, patting into an even layer. Bake in the preheated oven until the oats are golden and lightly toasted, 15 to 20 minutes. Turn the pan once during the cooking time, and flip and shuffle the oats around regularly to ensure even colour. Cool the oats on their tray for at least 20 minutes to crisp up before serving or transferring to an airtight container for later use. (Store oats at room temperature if made in advance.)

For the peaches, preheat the oven back to 375°F / 190°C if needed. Line a rimmed baking sheet or large roasting pan with parchment paper. Arrange the peaches on the pan, with space in between each. If they cuddle up too close, they'll steam, not roast. 

Grab a small bowl and mix together the maple syrup, Five Spice Powder and vanilla seeds. Brush the peaches with about half the mixture — let some collect in hollow left by the pit, but don't drown the fruit —  and place in the hot oven, keeping the rest of the maple syrup aside. Bake the peaches until they look soft and juice filled, and scorched where the skin meets the flesh, which should take around 20 to 25 minutes. If you'd like to give the fruit a proper bronzing, place them under a hot broiler for a few moments — don't dare leave them too long, or they'll burn fast enough. Remove the fruit from the oven and let stand a few minutes before serving with yogurt, a raining scatter of seeds, and the rest of the spiced maple syrup, for further gilding at the table.

Eat straight away, or at room temperature, or chilled enough that the peaches are cold, but the juices still loose and running. 

Enough for 4 servings.

5SpicePeachPlate3.jpg
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I went back and forth on whether or not I should write about these rhubarb Danishes. The trouble is, they're fussy. The dough requires a start the night before you want to bake, and so does macerating the rhubarb, and that's still only two of the three components done. And that dough, one that usually accepts a boost of whole wheat, demands all-white flour for truly gratifying puff and flake in this free-standing rendition. What's more, the quantities are awkward; in regards to the volume of rhubarb, there is the need for a certain surface area, not really weight, making it difficult to pin down a specific amount. A batch of the almond cream  (the last piece to this puzzle) yields more than needed; in light of which, there's the option of making only a half recipe with clumsy math, or doubling the pastry and rhubarb, or accepting that there will be leftover and making almond croissants with what remains.

After the details and wait, these Danishes are frustratingly good. The pastry is crisp at the edge but tender still. The almond cream is fragrant and ever-so-slightly-gritty, providing delineation between the smooth layers of the pastry below and the yielding rhubarb above; rhubarb which, only lightly sweetened, retains a glinting sharpness, cutting back the richness of the overall bite. 

WIthout naming names, there's a few folks who have made habit of putting away two (two!) per sitting, with no crumb neglected on the plate. By all accounts these Danishes are worth the trouble. 

plain3.jpg

Scratch that. It's not trouble to make these, it's work. Not even difficult work, only an involved process. 

There was a reason behind the endeavour, besides really liking the idea of rhubarb Danishes, and that was the rhubarb itself. Sean brought bunches from a farm stand, two big bundles of stalks a few feet in length with leaves attached. He laid them in my arms in much the way a bouquet is handed to a crowned beauty queen, cradled in the crook of the elbow. These hot pink lookers, firmly pliant and none wider than my index finger, they called for similar pageantry. 

They needed a proper stage, not hidden under a crust or crumble, but left as they were for the most part and shown off. Danish dough as backdrop to neatly rowed rhubarb would do exactly that.

IMG_80712.jpg

I also know myself well enough to admit that I made these Danishes because I was avoiding another job I should have been doing. As I have a tendency to do when I'm daunted. I look for a different challenge to skirt around the one that really scares me.

I finally got around to listening to the audio copy of "The War of Art" (Warner Books, 2002) by Steven Pressfield that Sean put on my phone. When I've been playing it for a while and stop, I feel as though I've broken the surface after being underwater. It's an immersive listen, as Pressfield accounts the process and pitfalls of a creative life. I've been thinking of getting a hard copy, wanting to have the words laid out before me instead of rewinding and replaying the recording as often as I do. 

The first chapters of the book are about resistance, about what it means to commit yourself to work. In talking about the difficulties in getting started and the dangerous fear of coming to the end of a project, I thought about aiming for the middle. That comfortable place when momentum is behind you and you're not thinking yet about the sprint to the finish. It's when we fall into stride. Infuriatingly, despite anxiety of beginning, the only way to get there is by putting your head down, setting your shoulders, and simply do the work. 

There's no way around it; the following recipe reads long and boring and far too much effort to be worth it. It's doable. Promise. I've made them once a week for the last three.  As Pressfield says: 

"Set one foot in front of the other and keep climbing."

(I keep repeating that part.) 

OBDanish.jpg

RHUBARB DANISHES WITH ALMOND CREAM

A collection of recipes. The ingredients for the almond cream (with added vanilla bean) come from Bouchon Bakery (Artisan, 2012) by Thomas Keller and Sebastien Rouxel. It is a book you want on your shelf when it comes to anything baked, full of insights and tricks, and essential recipes. With great respect to the authors, I've rewritten their instructions — with larger capacity stand mixers, I find the small batch of almond cream (as this amount is called in the book) easier to make by hand, especially if you chose to halve the recipe. What's below reflects that.

FOR THE RHUBARB

  • Approximately 1 1/2 pounds (700g) fresh rhubarb, trimmed of leaves but left whole
  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • seeds scraped from half a vanilla bean, plus the pod

FOR THE PASTRY

  • One recipe quick Danish dough, with white bread flour used to replace the same quantity of whole wheat

FOR THE ALMOND CREAM (makes approximately 1 1/2 cups, more than needed)

  • 1/2 cup + 2 1/2 tablespoons (73 grams) almond meal
  • 2 1/4 teaspoons (7 grams) all-purpose flour
  • 2.5 ounces (73 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons (73 grams) powdered sugar
  • Seeds scraped from half a vanilla bean
  • 2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons (44 grams) lightly-beaten eggs, see note

TO ASSEMBLE

  • 1 egg, beaten for egg wash, see note
  • Granulated or sanding sugar for sprinkling


METHOD

Up to 24 hours before you want to bake, trim the rhubarb stalks to fit in a 9x13-inch dish. Combine the sugar, water, vanilla bean and pod in a saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, then reduce the heat to low and simmer for 2-3 minutes, stirring, until the sugar is fully dissolved. Pour the hot syrup over the prepared rhubarb, turning the stalks to coat. Leave at room temperature to cool, then cover and place in the fridge at least overnight and as much as a full day, shuffling the rhubarb around in the syrup now and again.

The night before you want to bake, start the Danish dough. (You will complete the folds and finishing in the morning.)

The next day, about 2 hours before you want to bake, make the almond cream. Sift the almond flour into a medium bowl; break up any lumps in the sieve, and add to the bowl. Sift in the all-purpose flour and whisk together. 

Place the butter in a medium bowl and beat with a silicone spatula or a hand mixer until the butter lightens to about the consistency of mayonnaise and holds a peak when the spatula is lifted. Sift in the powdered sugar, stir to incorporate. Once blended, beat the sugar and butter together until fluffy, around 3 minutes. Scrape down the bottom and sides of the bowl. Add the almond mixture in 2 additions, stirring to combine, then stir in the vanilla. Pour in the eggs and mix until smooth. Transfer to an airtight container, pressing a piece of plastic wrap against the surface to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate until cold, about 2 hours. (The cream can be made up to 4 days ahead of time.)

30 or so minutes before you want to bake, finish the Danish dough by completing 5 turns (folds). Chill for 20 minutes. (Dough can be made ahead and frozen, then defrosted in the fridge before using.)

To assemble, preheat an oven to 375°F / 190°C. Line a baking sheet or half sheet pan with parchment paper and set aside.

On a lightly-floured work surface, roll the Danish dough to a 11x22-inch rectangle. Cut the dough into eight 5 1/2-inch squares. Refer to this diagram, and decide which shape you want to make. If making the vol-au-vent or envelope as I did, working one at a time, fold each square diagonally onto itself (forming a triangle, with corners lined up neatly). Leaving a thin border, cut a thin line starting from the bottom right corner of the triangle, parallel to the edge, almost up to the top. Repeat on the other side, leaving the tip attached. Unfold the package, brush with egg wash, then pull one of the cut edges over the other, lining it up with the interior edge of the square. Do the same with the other side, pressing lightly to seal, then place on prepared baking sheet. Repeat with remaining squares.

Spread the well of each shaped Danish with about 1 tablespoon of almond cream. Remove rhubarb from the sugar syrup, draining any excess liquid back into the dish. Trim the rhubarb to fit the pastries and line them up to cover the almond cream. (There may be rhubarb left over, do not discard.) Sprinkle entire Danish with sugar. Set aside to rise in a warm, draft-free area for 20 minutes. 

Meanwhile, pour the rhubarb sugar macerating liquid into a saucepan along with any remaining rhubarb, cut to into chunks. Bring to a boil over medium heat, then reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook, stirring, but not breaking up the rhubarb, until the liquid has thickened to a light syrup. With a slotted spoon, remove the rhubarb from the syrup. Turn off the heat but leave the syrup on the stove to keep warm.

Bake pastries in the preheated oven until puffed and golden, around 20 minutes. With a pastry brush, glaze the rhubarb and almond filling with the syrup. Remove the pastries to a baking rack to set for a few minutes, then serve warm. 

The Danishes are best eaten the day they are made. 

 

Notes: 

  • You may have egg left over from making the almond paste.  This can be kept aside and used for the egg wash. (If amount looks scant, you can bulk it up with a bit of heavy cream.)
  • The rhubarb removed from the syrup can be recombined with any extra glaze and served over ice cream or yogurt.  
  • If process shots will be of some aid, here is one, and another
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It was Tara (Austen Weaver) who introduced me to the idea of pie for breakfast.  She's a smart lady, that one.

 cranberry blueberry breakfast cobbler

cranberry blueberry breakfast cobbler

She serves hers at room temperature, with milk, the day after things like Thanksgiving dinner. It makes perfect sense, as fruit and pastry and dairy are hardly unheard of a.m. foods, and I like the carryover of continuing celebrations.

And, as it happens with the best conversations you have with friends, that idea of hers got me thinking. I wondered about those times when you don't happen to be so lucky as to have a pie in the fridge, but wanted something similar.  Since pastry-making doesn't easily lend itself to spontaneity, cobbler was my proposed answer — one that could be thrown together the morning of, even, with some whole grains in the mix, and less butter and sugar than the usual. 

But breakfast cobbler required some thought. My instinct when it comes to cobblers it to lean towards the biscuit ones, the kind that has a velvety stew of fruit beneath a crisply crusted and golden top. However, that breed of cobbler requires cutting butter into flour, often enriching that with cream, and then either rolling out the resulting dough or dolloping it over the pan of fruit. And biscuits mean not only some work, but also a considerable cooking time, neither of which suited my breakfast aim. 

So we came to batter-style cobblers, a subject upon which I am no expert. Thank goodness I know some folks with opinions on the matter.

Batter cobblers are entirely different from the biscuit variety. Some have the batter on top, in a cakey, even layer. I've seen some  that are close to clafoutis, which soufflé up when baked, and are almost custardy at their middles. I chose to concentrate on recipes with a quick bread-like mixture poured into a skillet of melted butter, as in the procedure for Dutch babies or Yorkshire pudding, with then the fruit on top. 

 berried breakfast cobbler

berried breakfast cobbler

I was stuck on the hope to keep baking time short, and the prep time even shorter. I nixed the consideration of any fruit that required cutting, pitting or hulling, or any that were so dense or rich with juice as to require long cooking. I had hoarded cranberries through December, so pillaged my frozen stash. In the freezer was also the last of the local blueberries I'd saved from last summer, tiny and wild ones still dusky indigo with bloom, so out they came too.

I cobbled together a simple batter, one that can (and has in our household) be whisked together by a child with minimal supervision or an adult who hasn't yet shaken off the ragged ends of sleep. It uses the muffin method of wet ingredients into dry, stirred only until everything is incorporated, but without any worry for lumps, and then it is scraped into a preheated skillet. Handfuls of fruit are spread on top, then a shimmering, scattering of demerara sugar, before all goes to the oven.

30 minutes later without any attention, and granting time enough for a shower and getting the table set and kettle on, the cobbler is done.

To borrow Tara's line, if pie and milk is like cereal (only better), a breakfasty batter-style cobbler with yogurt is like a pancake and muffins and cream of wheat mashed together into something unquestionably wonderful ( and not the mess that that sort of sounds to be).

By using a blend of white and whole wheat flours, the cobbler ends up with the best qualities of both. It is toothsome at the edge where it meets the pan, but plush where it cradles the fruit. The tart berries seep and relax into the batter, and the candied ginger and orange zest grant personality and fragrance to their twang. It is generous, gratifyingly warming eating, especially when spooned into bowls with dollops of yogurt or a pour of cream.

The cobbler is moderately healthy, managing somehow to giving the impression of being decidedly less so. It is sweet, but not too sweet, a firm possibility for breakfast, but also in the afternoon with a cup of tea, broken into pieces and eaten with your fingers, as a skinny snacking cake. If hard pressed, come dinnertime, I'd bet it could even be dessert.

As you may have noticed, there's been some renovations here. Fingers crossed, it's all gone smoothly and fiddly things like subscriptions should be maintained. That said, please excuse any wonky bits as the dust settles. Feel free to poke around and please let me know what you think.

berrybreakfastcobbler3.jpg

BERRIED BREAKFAST BATTER-STYLE COBBLER

In working up this recipe, I spent a lot of time working down the quantities of butter and sugar. The butter I think is at a good place; there's enough to get the edge of the cobbler nice and crisp, with a hint of richness even, but without superfluous weight. The sugar, which is already reduced in comparison to a dessert cobbler, is what I'm still unsettled upon. The next go round I might try to lose those two pesky tablespoons and cut the sugar to 1/2 cup — maybe split between cane and golden brown, or maybe using golden brown entirely, I've not decided yet.

Enough for 6-8.

For the cobbler

  • 4 tablespoons (2 ounces, 1/2 stick) unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 cup natural cane sugar, plus two tablespoons
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped crystallized ginger
  • zest scraped from 1/2 an orange or a whole clementine
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1 egg
  • 1 1/4 cups frozen cranberries, thawed a little
  • scant 3/4 cup frozen blueberries, partially thawed if large
  • 1 tablespoon demerara, or other coarse sugar

To serve

  • Yogurt, sweetened or unsweetened, or milk or cream. I like Greek yogurt thinned with the juice of the clementine left from zesting.
  • A few tablespoons hemp hearts, sliced almonds, pepitas, toasted, or other crunchy add-ons for sprinkling. Granola, even.

Preheat an oven to 350°F (175°C). Place the butter in a 10-inch cast iron skillet, then set in the oven to melt. 

In a large bowl, whisk together the flours, sugar, baking powder, salt, crystallized ginger, and zest. In a small bowl or glass measuring cup, beat together the milk and the egg. Whisk the milk mixture into the flour mixture until just combined. 

When the butter in the pan has melted, carefully remove pan from oven. Pour batter into the pan and, without stirring it into the butter, coax it into the edges of the skillet with the back of a spoon. (For the record, the batter will look a stingy amount; have faith that it will be enough, as it does indeed swell and spread as it bakes.)  Scatter the cranberries over the batter, followed by the blueberries and the demerara. Bake until the batter browns, and the centre of the cobbler springs back when gently prodded, around 25-30 minutes. Let cool 10 minutes before serving with whatever toppings suit your taste.

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:::

I'm terrible at Christmas. Birthdays too. When it comes to gift giving, it is rare I make it to the finish before dropping hints to the recipient as to the present that's been purchased with them in mind. In dire cases of eagerness, I end up breaking down and giving presents early. It might be smart for me to purchase two sets of gifts at the get go.

The trouble is, I get so excited at the giving, that I fail miserably at the waiting. 

In the case of sugar buns, I waited as long as I could. That ends today.

I was hesitant to mention another butter-sugar-and-oh-have-some-more-butter bread when we were on with brioche so recently, but when those brioche were welcomed with such enthusiasm I tucked such qualms aside. 

Plus, sugar buns don't need my help. They state their own case.

sugared swirls

I've been making sugar buns for a good while now. And before that, I had a long history with cinnamon rolls, including a dark period in high school involving a scandalous fling with those monstrous ones they sell at the mall. I'm not proud. I returned to homemade for a time, until we parted ways after a disappointing batch one Christmas morning.

They only returned to our circle when Benjamin, my eldest, had a less-than-impressive meet-n-greet with a cinnamon roll from a shop. I attempted to salvage their burgeoning friendship by baking cinnamon rolls with him, thus rekindling my affection anew ... which was stoked ablaze soon after with an introduction to Tartine's morning buns. That proved the tipping point; cinnamon-sweet breakfast breads and I were back to spending time in each other's company.

I tried the Tartine recipe with croissant dough. I saw somewhere the suggestion of swapping in Danish dough, and thought it an excellent one. Then I found a like-minded individual who suggested a cheat's method for Danish dough, and it proved to be what I was really looking for. Laminated doughs, rather than the bread dough usual for cinnamon rolls makes for a pull-apart delicacy that traditional buns sometimes lack.

Over all those twists and turns, there's been tweaking and fiddling, shifting and settling into the relationship. And, wherein through the course of such intensive decided companionship, it was determined that the balance of butter in the dough and swirl is crucial — a too generous of a quantity much makes these buns open up between their swirls and crisp, with a sharp shattering of the crumb. I prefer softness at their coiled centres, a doughiness beside the crunch of sugar. (That is not to say that these buns include only a miserly serving of butter, as the proportion could hardly be called stingy.)

An addition of whole wheat bread flour encourages softness and adds weight, and almond extract contributes a mellow something or other that reminds of bostocks when it meets up with the orange zest that spikes the filling. I double down on that nuttiness, upping the ante with browned butter too.

Speaking of that filling, it's rare I go for cinnamon alone when baking. Which is surprising, as again back in high school I was big time crazy for Big Red gum, and thought cinnamon hearts better than chocolate. In those dramatic years, it was the full hit of cinnamon and nothing else. At present, however, I consider cinnamon best in combination with the other aromatic, warm-bodied spices that share a shelf by our stove. And so, nutmeg, cardamom and ginger tag along. 

And thus we began a kinship with these sugar buns.

morning baking

As for the moniker, sugar buns comes from Benjamin; who, in his six-year-old wisdom, declared the final tumble in granulated sugar is what makes these buns his favourite. Since he was part of the reason I welcomed cinnamon rolls back into our kitchen, he deserved the honour of naming.

That said, if it floats your boat you could call them "mixed spice rolls with brown butter and orange zest," but sugar buns is less of a mouthful. And, well, easier to say when your mouth's full. (That's the type of joke that makes my boys giggle, it might even get a real belly laugh, so excuse the pun. It's for them. But the buns, I'm giving those to you.) 

SUGAR BUNS

With inspiration from a variety of sources. They're cinnamon rolls mashed up with the morning buns from Tartine Bakery and Café, along with a touch of a bostock, in accordance with the specifications of the sort of pastries my family likes. Just a head's up, the Danish dough requires at least an overnight rest — so plan accordingly. 

Ingredients

  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar, plus extra for dusting
  • 1/3 cup golden brown sugar
  • Zest of 1 orange, depending on taste (if you happen to have 3 clementines, use them)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • A good pinch of kosher salt
  • 6 tablespoons (3 ounces, 3/4 stick) browned butter, cooled
  • All-purpose flour for dusting 
  • 2 pounds quick Danish dough, recipe below

Combine sugars, zest, spices and salt in a small bowl. Set aside. 

Brush the wells of a 12-cup muffin tin (see note) with a thin film of browned butter, using maybe 1 tablespoon in total. Set aside the rest. Coat the wells generously with granulated sugar, tapping out excess. Set aside.

On a lightly-floured work surface, roll your Danish dough to an 8x20-inch rectangle. Brush the remaining browned butter across the dough, leaving a 1/2-inch border on the long sides. Sprinkle the sugar mixture evenly atop the butter. Press the sugar lightly into the dough. Starting from the long side closest to you, carefully roll the dough into a tight log. Once completely rolled, pinch the seam to seal. Turn the rolled dough onto its seam and cut into 12 equal portions. Turn each slice onto one of its flat sides, and press down lightly to level. Place slices in prepared pan. Set aside to rise in a warm, draft free spot until just about doubled in size, around 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat an oven to 375°F (190°C).

Bake the buns until puffed and golden, around 20 minutes. Immediately turn the buns out onto another sheet pan. Carefully flip buns right side up, cool until just manageable to touch, around 5-10 minutes. One by one, roll the hot buns in a small bowl of granulated sugar, coating completely but shaking off excess. 

Best when eaten still warm. 

Makes 12.

Notes:

  • For ease of baking, 12 buns work best. However, my preference is to make 14, cutting the dough into 1 1/2-inch slices and dividing the buns between two muffin pans  — one 12-cup and one 6-cup. I like this size as they stay neat in the tins, and make for the (slightly) more modest bun as seen in the photos.

Quick Danish dough 

The is a whole wheaten adaptation of Nigella Lawson's Food Processor Danish Pasty Dough from How to be a Domestic Goddess, which I make by hand (a modest effort for less dishes). It can, of course, be pulsed together in a processor instead. 

  • ¼ cup warm water
  • ½ cup milk, at room temperature
  • 1 large egg, at room temperature and lightly beaten 
  • A few drops almond extract, optional
  • 1 ½ cup all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
  • ¾ cup whole wheat bread flour
  • 2 ¼ teaspoons (1 packet) active dry yeast
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 cup (8 ounces, 2 sticks) unsalted butter, cold and cut into small dice

In a small pitcher or measuring cup, stir together the water, milk, egg and almond extract, if using.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flours, salt, sugar and yeast. Scatter the cubed butter across the flour mixture. With two knives or a pastry cutter, cut the butter into the dry mix, as you would in making biscuits or pastry. Stop cutting once the butter is distributed but chunks still visible.

Make a well in the centre of the flour mixture,  then pour in the milk/egg mixture. Stir quickly to bring everything together into a messy dough. It won’t be pretty, it will be shaggy and sticky and uneven. Not to worry. As long as the flour is all combined, it is ready to go. Cover the bowl with clingfilm and refrigerate overnight, or as much as two days.

When ready to proceed, bring the dough to room temperature. On a lightly-floured surface, roll out the dough to a 20-inch square. (The dough may be hard to work with on the first rolling, but it will get silkier and easier with each turn.) Fold the dough in thirds, as with a business letter. Turn the package 90 degrees counter-clockwise, so that the closed ends are to your left. Roll out again to a 20-inch square, and fold again, then turn. Repeat the process of rolling and turning 3 more times, 5 folds and turns in total. If the dough seems to be getting sticky or greasy, chill briefly in between turns.

Wrap the dough in clingfilm and refrigerate for 20 minutes before using, or freeze for a later date.

Makes 2 pounds.

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I'm over being sick, hooray for that — and hurrah for your company and all of your magical home remedies. The combination made for fantastic one-two-punch to knock out that pesky cold. While I'm no longer under the weather, I am under the spell of a bout of nostalgia, just so you know. 

And, so you know, sometime tomorrow you'll be wanting to preheat your oven to 400°F. There's brioche to be baked.

My husband Sean and I are coming up on an anniversary — not an "official" one exactly, and maybe not the most major in the grand scheme of things, as we've been together long enough that our calendar is peppered with small remembrances to mark our journey of getting here.

It's not an event that warrants a fuss, really. We've both got milestone birthdays next month, so there'll be fuss to spare. He is seven days my senior, a fact that hasn't lost its charm to me in all this time of knowing him. There's a smile in the thought that on the day that his parents were celebrating his one-week-old-ness, my parents were celebrating my arrival.

These small things, these scraps of our shared history wrapped up together, is what led to today's baking.

You see, also tucked in that package of sentiment is the day in May, ages ago, when Sean asked me to live with him. With that question he was also asking me to move to another city. After years studying, then teaching, then working abroad, and across this country, he had returned to the city where he was born. A city he knew well, and was full to its borders with his stories, but one I'd only visited.  

I moved. And I fell for that city as I'd fallen for him. 

I got to know his friends and made them even more mine. Those guys have good, strong arms for lifting furniture up three flights of stairs, arms that are even better for opening wide in welcome of a newcomer into their Club of Locals. 

Together Sean and I discovered the places that had changed in his absence, and he introduced me to his old haunts that had stayed the same. One of those places was a particular deli.

That deli, which is still there though we're not, has aisles of mustards and oils, along with a bakery and a meats counter, and one side where you can sit down to eat things like cabbage rolls and soup. Sean and his folks had gone there when he was a child, and I don't know if it was a habitual stop, but I do know it made quite an impression on his young senses. It was the place where he tried his first chocolate spiked with liqueur. He didn't like it much.

What he did like was their egg bread. 

IMG_9288

Their bread is actually made into buns, though not the ones we've got here. Theirs is most likely close to challah, though I've never asked. (I really should.) It's scattered with poppy seeds and is deeply yellow and sweet. When he and I would go, we would buy a bag of buns on every visit. They were our usual, back in a time when having a "usual" with someone else felt new and kind of exciting in a silly way. 

Today there's brioche on our counter and not challah — the Francophile version (read: stuffed with butter), if you will. It's probably excessive to be considered a usual. That said, it's exceptionally appropriate for a sort-of celebration. 

Brioche lives in between bread and pastry, which is a nice place to hang out. It has a proper crust like a bread, with a soft, almost cakey crumb that peels apart in lacy layers like the interior of a croissant. It is deceptively light, dangerously so, as it takes a pat of butter like nobody's business. Top it with jam and, well then, you do things right.

Brioche is yeasted, enriched with eggs, and is hardly a fuss either, though it requires an overnight rest. I prefer to look at that lull in activity as a boon, with the work spread out over two days. One evening, you bring together this smooth, rich dough that does in fact feel much like a baby's cheek — so much so that if you told me that brioche dough was the inspiration for the phrase "soft as a baby's bottom," I wouldn't be surprised.

Then, tucked in the fridge, everyone's off to bed.

the last of the raspberry

I lost something recently; small enough that I didn't notice its absence until yesterday — and then I spent the following hours upturning every drawer I could find, turning out every pocket I came across. It distracted me. I kept looking for it in corners and running to another end of the house, with a sudden inspiration of where it might be. I woke up this morning with what was lost tugging at the edge of my thoughts, like a loose thread caught on a splinter.

But there was bread to be made, dough that had waited hours for my attention. With two small lads in my aid, we learned that silken dough is no match for hands skilled with Play-Doh, and made quick work rolling that dough into teeny rounds, which were then tucked snugly into a well-buttered pan. The buns rested, and brushed with beaten egg as a glaze."Dab, dab, dab, paint, paint, paint" we said. Instructions work best in threes. 

Into the oven went our handiwork, and in 20 minutes the brioche rose and bloomed, like clovers. 

So on this Monday, as much as I'm annoyed with myself for what I've misplaced, the loss is that much easier to swallow with bread, butter, jam, made and shared with good company, in reminder of all that's been found.

Bubble-Top Brioches

From Dorie Greenspan, as printed in Bon Appetit magazine, October 2009.

Recipe

This recipe was part of a brilliant article; it is full of charm, helpful anecdotes, and a goldmine of information when it comes to producing dependable results when baking this sublime bread. I highly recommend you give it a read.

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This isn't the story of cookies. Although, there was a cookie the approximate size of my hand involved.

Nor is this the account of astounding breads baked in wood-fired ovens, though we had some of those too. Nor is it about Schmuffins, teeny cakes that want to be doughnuts, which are not only exceedingly tasty, but are also the most adorably-named breakfast ever.

It's not even about Texas-style beef brisket tacos, with meat that's been smoked long and low for hours. Or the crispy jalapeño rings that set fire to that smolder, and matched dangerously well with tall, skinny glasses of Lynchburg Lemonade. It could be about the waiter we met, with his shock of blond hair and high cheekbones. He talked really fast and he knew his stuff. But it's not.

It's really a story of an unexpected friendship that became one of the most important in my life. And how, last fall, that friendship took us to Louisville, Kentucky.

More years ago than I'll mention, I was sitting in a university Canadian Lit lecture. It was the first day of class. I was next to a friend, and he and I were chattering away, waiting for things to get started when, right before the professor began to speak, this lanky guy wearing a baseball cap plunked himself down in the chair on my other side. He had a grin that took up nearly three-quarters of his face.

In one of those painful exercises of "getting to know everyone", the professor decreed we were to introduce the person we were sitting beside to the rest of the class. I looked to my buddy and laughed at the prospect of how I could embarrass him in front of the girls assembled. But then, she added "you're talking to the person on your left." 

That would be the random boy in the hat. And that's how I met Brett. Thanks, Professor Rose.

Years later, years of postcards and basketball games and cups of coffee, Sean and I had the honour watching Brett marry Kathryn, a woman with a smile that somehow manages to overshadow even his, and who is far more vivacious, talented, sharp and funny than he probably deserves (and I say that with honest affection). She's a gem.

I only wish they lived closer. They settled in Kentucky, and had two of the cutest children you'll ever see. Those two imps call us Miss Tara and Mister Sean, and it is knock-you-over sweet.

I've not told Brett this, but Louisville suits him. His Canadian accent has changed, so that certain words now sound deeper when he speaks them. There's a hint of drawl, a warm rumble in tone that sounds the way Bourbon tastes.

I wrote about the trip we took to see him and his family in UPPERCASE magazine, issue 12. There, I share the details of our adventures. Adventures, and a recipe for buttermilk biscuits.

+++++++

I don’t have any direct biscuit heritage; I am without pedigree when it comes to those storied biscuits of the American south. My only claim, the only reason I hold the making, eating and sharing of biscuits so high in nostalgic regard is the simple fact that I like biscuits a whole darn lot.

It’s a bit of an obsession. The trouble is, biscuits are one of those things that you can spend a lifetime perfecting. Close cousins to a scone, the type of biscuits I’m talking about are a simple quickbread; the purest forms are flour, a levener, a fat and a liquid. My recipe isn't bang-on traditional; it instead borrows from a few sources, and has a few tricks, in the aim of assuring those of us who didn't grow up making biscuits the guarantee of success. 

IMG_7349SS

Although the biscuits are saved for UPPERCASE, I do have a recipe to share. Let me introduce you to the Hot Brown, what's usually an open-faced sandwich of roasted turkey and bacon, under a blanket of Mornay sauce (a cheesed-up version of Béchamel) that's then broiled until bronzed and bubbling. It was invented in the 1920s at the Brown Hotel in Louisville by one Frank K. Schmidt, as a late-night offering to their guests who'd tired of the dance floor. It is a divine mess of salt and richness and gooey cheese that doesn't suit every day, but is gluttonously welcomed once in a long while. Thank you, Mr. Schmidt.

While a Hot Brown is usually served with sourdough toast, you can see that's not the direction we're taking today. And, much like a journey down south to catch up with old friends, it's a good trip to take.

Kentucky Hot Brown on a Biscuit

My variation on a classic, inspired by a slew of recipes, including that from the Brown Hotel. Use your favourite sturdy biscuits here, as they're the base to an impressively weighty filling. 

I apologize for the egg on top. It's not conventional, and I seem to be fallen into an unintentional theme:"if it's tastyput an egg on itIt'll be even better." For once, the blame is not entirely my own. On our last morning, with Brett and Kat and their charming children as company, we went out for breakfast. Sean ordered a Hot Brown, and the waiter suggested two eggs on top (Louisville's got some great service). He is a brilliant man. Seriously. Crack an egg and don't look back. It's the business.

For the Mornay sauce

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 1/2 cups 10% cream

1/3 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano, divided

A grating of fresh nutmeg, less than 1/8 teaspoon, optional

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

To assemble

2 eggs

2 buttermilk biscuits, split

1 medium tomato, a good meaty variety, sliced

2 thick slices roasted turkey breast, maybe 4 to 6 ounces total

2-3 slices thick-cut bacon, cooked crisp and kept warm

1 recipe Mornay sauce, kept warm

Flat leaf parsley, to serve

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter. Slowly whisk in the flour, incorporating fully so there are no lumps. Continue to cook the mixture, stirring constantly, for a minute or so more. In a slow, steady stream, pour in the cream and whisk to combine. Cook, stirring often to make sure the sauce isn't catching, until the sauce comes to a boil, around 3 minutes. Turn the heat to low, and stir in 1/4 cup of the cheese. Season to taste with kosher salt and ground black pepper, and nutmeg if using. Keep the sauce on the lowest heat to keep it warm, stirring occasionally.

Preheat a broiler. Cook the eggs to your liking; my preference is either fried sunny side up, or poached. At most, over easy. But, it's your breakfast so do what you'd like. My only note is that they can be slightly undercooked as they'll be blitzed under the broiler and nobody likes rubbery eggs. Get them ready and then set them aside for a moment. Place the two bottom halves of the biscuits on a small baking sheet or an oven proof plate. Top each bottom with a few slices of tomato. Place a slice of turkey on top, then divide the bacon between the two (breaking the slices in half to keep things neat, if needed). Place your eggs on top. Pour over some of the Mornay sauce and sprinkle the reserved cheese on top. Keep the rest of the sauce hot for serving. Put the biscuit tops beside the filled bottoms, cut side up. 

Toast the sandwiches under the broiler until the sauce starts to bubble and the cheese begins to brown. This should take maybe a minute. Remove from the oven, garnish with whole parsley leaves (which bring a much-needed, fresh crunch), and top with the second half of the biscuit. Serve immediately, with the remaining Mornay sauce passed alongside.

Makes 2, which should serve 2, but I won't bat an eyelash if you don't want to share.

Notes:

  • Of course fresh, vine-ripened, fragrant-as-all-get-out tomatoes are the ones you want for a sandwich, especially one of such lineage. That said, there comes a time in darkest winter when said sandwich is on your mind and there's no such beauties to be had. I realize I've not helped matters by talking about Hot Browns in January. In these desperate times, I wish I could be so steadfast as to say to wait until September, but I can't. I'll tell you to get yourself some local offerings and roast them in a low oven to concentrate their sweetness to at least a suggestion of summer's best. I roasted my slices, seasoned with salt, pepper and a miserly pour of olive oil, at 300°F (150°C) for about 2 1/2 hours. You can go lower and slower, about 200°F for as much as 4 hours, if you're that patient. 
  • A few drops of hot sauce, dripped over before the biscuit lid is squished on, is how I like to do things.

Places and people

The Original Makers Club

21 C Museum Hotel

Proof on Main

Garage Bar

Blue Dog Bakery and Café

Doc Crows Southern Smokehouse

Hillbilly Tea

Cake Flour

Jack Fry's

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