We are staring down the last week of school and we are all too ready for the holiday.

The other night, at the end of the longest day, I realized how much I'm looking forward to this season. Not just for the days at the pool, the road trips planned, and ice cream cones promised after dinner. There's also the need to feel the exuberance of it somehow. It's a feeling I've had before. And, it feels good to feel it again, as things seemed slightly offset lately. Like when the printing plates don't line up exactly right so whatever you're reading has a shadow aura hovering slightly to one side. You can see what things are supposed to look like, but can't quite trick your eyes into seeing them right.

And so, here's to summer, and to Strawberry Rhubarb Almond Crumble — it has a trick in the crumble that changes the game entirely. It's a recipe to keep for when stone fruits are around. Happy days, pals. Talk again soon.

 

STRAWBERRY RHUBARB ALMOND CRUMBLE

The first of many Always Good Recipes from Tara O'Brady and Nikole Herriott. 

Recipe HERE

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. 

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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.

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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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Most often an optimist, my moments of pessimism sometimes pay off. Last week, not even an hour after we talked about melting snow and bare earth, it snowed. I just knew that would happen.

That night, we shoveled the driveway.

Then, starting two days later, it snowed for three days straight. We cleared and shoveled often. We almost broke a shovel.

With the romantic fancy of my burgeoning hope for spring, I'd be blameless in muttering a sailor's curse or three as I tromped up and down and back and forth across our driveway and up the garden path. Maybe it is the madness of midwinter, but I have, shockingly, embraced the snow.

And shoveling. I really like the shoveling.

I volunteer to shovel. Trippingly pulling my boots on, and with the words only halfway out of my mouth, I'm out the door. I try to wait until after dinner, so everyone's fed and happy; when the darkness has settled in and all the streetlights are on.

In that quiet, the scene that greets me is especially beautiful. The languid wind of our street, the glow of porches lit in rows, a car rolling slowly past with its wheels crunching the snow the plows haven't cleared yet.

Tethered to our house with the task of shoveling, it's a snow globe existence; a world contained by how far I can see around the bend of the road.

There is a deep satisfaction in the feel of a blade cleaving through the weight of snowdrift, the metallic scratch of the shovel against the pavement. There is a thought of productivity and industry, a chest-puffing pride in getting a job done.

And yet, moving back and forth across the drive, the pattern of my footsteps is simultaneously meditative. The imagined dome of my small world condenses my thoughts and clears out the rubbish. I come back inside, cheeks flushed and arms tired, my mind full of a hundred new ideas.

I'm an odd duck, I know. But it makes me happy and I always sleep well after.

Yes, I really do like shoveling. Not something I'd ever thought I'd say.

And, while we're on the subject of likes, I really like cakes made with tangerines and almonds. It's a like I think you'll find easy to understand.

I made this cake as an interpretation of Nigella Lawson's Clementine Cake from her book How to Eat, which as it happens is an interpretation of Claudia Roden's orange and almond cake.

It's made without flour; at its most simple the recipe only requires fruit, nuts, eggs, sugar and baking powder. I've fussed up the cake because of the ingredients I had, and appreciated the effect of those additions. Neither version disappoints though, so either way you're set.

It reminds me of marmalade, with the pith and peel used to their fullest. It is modestly sweet with a sourness you feel on your teeth. That devastating bitterness humming underneath the waxy fat of the ground nuts.

The exterior bakes to a glossily sticky bronze, with a blond crumb underneath. The scent of almonds and citrus is remarkable, smelling as you'd imagine wintertime should.

To eat this is to swallow the March sun, a beam of brightness on a snowy day. Or, if you're like me, it's just what you want when you come in from an evening of shovelling.

TANGERINE ALMOND CAKE

Adapted from Nigella Lawson. I use skin-on, raw almonds for colour and texture. Blanched almonds or pre-ground meal can be used as well.

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 pound tangerines, around 4 medium, washed well
  • 1-2 tablespoons orange flower water (optional)
  • Butter for greasing a pan
  • 9 ounces raw almonds, see note
  • 6 eggs
  • 8 ounces granulated sugar
  • Seeds scraped from half a vanilla bean
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt

METHOD

Place the tangerines in a medium pot. Pour over the orange flower water if using, then fill the pot with cold water until the fruit is covered. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to maintain a simmer. Cook until the tangerines are quite tender, around 2 hours. Drain the fruit and set aside to cool.

Over a large bowl to catch the juice, split each tangerine in half horizontally, and pick out any seeds. Put the flesh, peel and pith to the bowl, and discard the seeds.

Preheat an oven to 375°F (190°C). Lightly butter an 8-inch springform pan, then line with parchment paper on the bottom and sides (with a collar of paper extending a little past the rim of the pan).

In the bowl of a food processor with the blade attached, grind the almonds to a fairly even meal. Add the tangerines, and process to a thick purée. Bits of nut and tangerine skin will still be visible.

In the large bowl used for the juices earlier, beat the eggs until blended but not frothy. Stir in the sugar and vanilla bean seeds, then the baking powder and salt. Fold in the fruit mixture.

Pour batter into the prepared pan and bake in the preheated oven until a cake tester inserted in the centre of the cake comes out clean and the cake is pulling away from the sides of the pan, around 1 hour. If the cake is browning too quickly towards the end of baking, tent with foil. Remove from the oven and cool, still in its tin, on a wire rack.

Makes one 8-inch cake that's even better after a day.

I am feeling more than a tad under the weather. I know that a lot of people, including my dear husband, are in the same circumstance just now, but even company is not making this misery go away any faster.

The company is appreciated though, as Sean and I are spending our time comparing analogies to our symptoms. At last count he was mired in a rather fog-shrouded bog, whilst I was enjoying the company of particularly-prodigious pachyderms as they perched upon my head.

I am not so sick as to require reinforcements to help me wrangle the boys or make it through my day, but I am sick enough that said wrangling sometimes sets my mind aswirl and by the end of the day I am reaching for the coziest of sweaters and the softest of pillows. I am not so sick that I did not get dressed today, but I am sick enough that when I noticed my socks did not exactly match, I shrugged my shoulders and pulled them on anyway.

I had meant to write about bread baking and chocolate cakes and other such interesting things. But to be honest, I am not in the mood for food just now. I have little appetite, and when I do eat, that's not the food I am wanting - I want warmth, and I want it in a bowl.

Wandering about the kitchen this morning, I set about making a pot of steel cut oats; hearty and filling, a regular winter breakfast for us. I took pause however, and thought of baked oatmeal instead. This is the goose down duvet of breakfasts; stewed fruit is tucked beneath a layer of soft, pillowy oats, with a thin, crisp crust atop. My banana and blueberry version is like eating banana bread combined with a fruit crumble, with the best qualities of a breakfast bar and oatmeal cookie thrown in for good measure.

The potent mix of spice and fruit filled the kitchen with a soothing fug that brought appetites to the table. Textured and toothsome, the oatmeal was greedily spooned out and gobbled up, warming both our hearts and bellies. It was just what the doctor ordered.

Be well.

Endnote: If anyone might happen to find me, still in my robe (and possibly mismatched socks) eating this cold out of the fridge (and directly from the dish), please don't judge.

BAKED OATMEAL WITH BLUEBERRIES AND BANANA

Perfect for a cold morning, this baked oatmeal can be served as is or, as I like it, with a splash of extra milk or a dollop of yogurt.

INGREDIENTS

  • Softened butter for greasing the pan
  • 2 cups large flake rolled oats (not instant)
  • 1/2 cup sliced almonds, lightly toasted
  • 1/3 cup brown sugar, packed
  • 1/4 cup pepitas, lightly toasted
  • 2 teaspoons flax seeds
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground clove
  • 1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 cups milk (I use 1%)
  • 1 large egg
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 teaspoon pure maple syrup
  • 2 medium bananas, diced
  • 1/2 cup frozen blueberries (not thawed)
  • Coarse sugar, optional

METHOD

Preheat oven to 375°F (190°C). Lightly grease the inside of a 8" round baking dish (around 2 quart capacity) and set aside.

In a medium bowl, mix together the oats, almonds, brown sugar, pepitas, flax seeds, baking powder, spices and salt. Set aside.

In another bowl, whisk together the milk, egg, almost all of the butter (save about 1 teaspoon for drizzling over the finished dish), vanilla and maple syrup. Set aside.

In the prepared baking dish, spread the diced bananas in an even layer, then scatter the blueberries over top. Pile the oat mixture to cover the fruit, but do not pack too tightly. Carefully pour the wet milk mixture over the oats; it will look as if there is too much liquid, but not to worry, it will be absorbed during baking.

Drizzle over the reserved butter, sprinkle with a scant teaspoon of coarse sugar (or to taste), and bake for 35-40 minutes, until the oatmeal is puffed and set, with a golden brown top.

Remove from the oven, allow to cool for a few minutes, then enjoy.

Makes about 4 hearty servings.

Notes:

• Although I have given measurements, the fruit simply needs to completely cover the base of the baking dish. You might need to adjust your quantities to suit your baking dish. Speaking of which, an 8x8 inch square baking dish can be used in place of the round; the oatmeal will be crisper, though.

• This is one of those recipes that allows for a host of variations; I simply pillaged my pantry for ingredients and went from there. Almost any nuts and an array of fresh and dried fruit would all work here. Some specifically-tasty combinations: grated apple with almonds, bananas, dried cranberries and pecans, blackberries and peaches with almonds, dried figs with pistachios, or diced pears with walnuts. In each case, spices should also be adapted accordingly.

Menu for Hope V update:Marty McCarthy, winner of CA06: The flavours of Canada, please email me at tara[at]sevenspoons[dot]net with your contact information.

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These Chocolate Almond Toffee Bars look innocent enough, but are two bites of true, gooey indulgence. Photos courtesy of Irene Powell.

Even though one may not mean to become caught up in things, sometimes it is unavoidable. Such was my case recently, as a (thankfully-mild) strain of the chicken pox made its way through our little ones, forcing our household into a state of quarantine and oatmeal baths for two weeks. This was followed closely by an infection that had Mummy curled up on the couch, slippers on and blanket pulled up tight, for another few days. Suddenly almost a month has gone by, and it seems all in a blur.

Now we are about ankle-deep in holiday preparations; events with family and friends are already scheduled, decorations are already being considered, and menu ideas are already floating around in my head. Where did this autumn go? It feels like Halloween was just yesterday.

Lucky for us, I had the book In the Kitchen with Anna: New ways with the Classics standing by at the ready. In it, chef Anna Olson offers up meals and menus that have a nostalgic appeal; a bit retro, a bit kitch sometimes, but always tasty. This is feel-good eating at its best, and just the sort of food one craves when life gets a bit hectic.

While the book does include entertaining-worthy recipes like unctuous Mushroom Potato Brie Tarts and an impressive Garlic Roasted Turkey Crown with Chardonnay Pan Sauce, it is the modern classics like the Contemporary Cobb Salad, Ultimate Cheese Fondue and Baja Fish Tacos, that are, in my mind, the real draw.

Through the craziness over the last few weeks, I found myself turning to this book numerous times for inspiration. And rarely did it disappoint.

I have pledged my allegiance to steel-cut oats, but I tried Olson's version using the rolled variety when I found my cupboard was bare of the former. Surprisingly light due to the addition of oat bran, the oatmeal was delicious. So good in fact, that when mornings dawned cold and grey, I reached for this breakfast again and again.

The Rockwell Bake, a savoury bread pudding that combines all the flavours of Thanksgiving dinner, was hearty and soul-satisfying. Anna's Pot Roast was fairly-standard comfort fare, brightened through a second addition of vegetables towards the end of cooking. While good, however, what stole the show that night was the recommended accompaniment of Fluffy Dumplings. True to their title, these dumplings were pillowy-light, and an ideal way to sop up the roast's beer-soused gravy.

For those visiting the Niagara Region, Olson's two specialty food shops sell dishes from In the Kitchen with Anna as some of their prepared foods. It is a wonderful opportunity to taste some of the food before purchasing the book and also a testament to Olson's confidence in standing behind these recipes - a true mark of quality.

It was at her St. David's, Ontario, location that we were able to try the Beef, Caramelized Onion and Smoked Cheddar on Foccacia sandwich. Hot off of the panini press, the exterior was shatteringly crisp, giving way to melt-in-your-mouth slices of beef, accented by sweet onions, a slathering of grainy mustard and subtly-smoked cheese.

Since Olson is famous for her desserts, far be it from me to ignore that chapter. The Lemon Cheesecake Mousse tarts had an beautifully light texture with the perfect sharp citrus note. They managed to be delicate but luscious, all at once. Dangerously-easy to make are the Chocolate Almond Toffee Bars (photographed above, please see recipe below); to call these rich would be a gross understatement. A sturdy crust of oats and graham is scattered with both toffee and chocolate, then almonds, and finally a blanketing of sweet condensed milk. This modest effort results in a bar cookie that is tender in its belly, but slightly burnished and crisp above. Ridiculously addicting stuff.

Only one recipe fell short of expectation; the Artichoke Asiago Squares. The appetizer, somewhat akin to crustless quiche, is billed to taste like the popular dip of the same name and readers are urged "if there is no other recipe you make from this book, please make it this one." With such an introduction, these were a definite must-try. But while the squares are good, none of my tasters thought them great. The consensus was that they were best served warm, but even then the texture was not a favourite and some found the asiago could have been more pronounced. I would not call this a failure, but I would say that there are stronger dishes in the book.

The book itself is bright and colourful. The food looks fresh, shot simply, but beautifully, by Ryan Szulc. Minimally styled by Olson, the images are homey and inviting, with little fuss marring our look at the the food.

I particularly enjoyed how the recipes were laid out. Accompanying each was not only general notes included in the header, but also a three-part footnote outlining the taste, technique and tale of that particular dish. This additional information included more in-depth information about the ingredients or preparation, and also were a peek into the personality of Olson herself; the chatty, convivial tone was charming to read.

From the every day to almost every celebration, for lazy weekends and when the weekdays are flying by, In the Kitchen with Anna: New Way with the Classics includes recipes that are excellent additions to any cook's repertoire. Showing us easy, accessible cooking with touches that make each dish feel special, Olson makes a lovely kitchen companion.

CHOCOLATE ALMOND TOFFEE BARS

This recipe is one of my most requested, so I'm happy to include it in this book. — Anna Olson

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 1/2 cups (375 ml) rolled oats
  • 1/2 cup (125 ml) graham cracker crumbs
  • 1/4 tsp (1 ml) fine salt
  • 1/2 cup (125 ml) unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 cup (250 ml) Skor toffee bits
  • 1 cup (250 ml) chocolate chips
  • 1 cup (250 ml) sliced almonds
  • 1 can sweetened condensed milk

METHOD

Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Grease and line an 8-inch (2 L) square pan with parchment paper so that the paper hangs over the sides of the pan.

Stir the oats, graham crumbs and salt in a bowl to combine, then stir in the melted butter. Press the crumbly oat mixture into the prepared pan. Sprinkle Skor bits evenly on top, followed by chocolate chips and sliced almonds. Pour condensed milk evenly over pan (it will sink in as it bakes) and bake for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and the edges are bubbling. Cool to room temperature in the pan, then chill for at least 4 hours before slicing into bars.

Store toffee bars in the refrigerator for up to a week.

Makes one 8"x8" pan.

Taste

This is decadence in a pan. The sinful combination of chocolate, toffee and almonds enveloped in condensed milk that caramelizes as it bakes is irresistible. At least these have oats in them to redeem themselves, just a little bit.

Technique

This is a simple recipe to execute—you gather the ingredients and layer them, basically. The challenge is in waiting for them after they've finished baking!

Tale

My head pastry chef at Olson Foods + Bakery, Andrea, brought this recipe to my attention. She is an excellent baker, and we go way back. She started with me as a high school co-op student, while I was just picking up professional baking myself on the job, so we learned together. That was about 15 years ago, and after her stint at cooking school and gaining other work experience, I'm thrilled that we are working together again after all these years.

Additional recipes from

In the Kitchen with Anna: New ways with the Classics

Huevos Rancheros

Pot Roast with Dumplings

Luncheon Sandwich Torte

Permission to print recipe and cover image courtesy Whitecap Books.

With our impending arrival well on its way, we are currently attempting to reiterate the importance of sharing to our first born. Though his universe has happily (and steadily) revolved around Ben for the past two years, we have come to the point when patience, respect and understanding are becoming part of our daily conversations.

I am terribly thankful for his gaggle of contemporaries who help him in his education. He has had to learn that not everyone plays with blocks in exactly the same way, that many little hands can create stories with the Little People and that cuddles can be given to cousins and friends - not just Mummies and Daddies. He has started to learn to take his time with those younger, to allow for the independence of those older, and to realize that he is not the only one who would like a cookie. He has seen that our lives are interconnected with those of others; we share our days and ourselves, as well as our toys.

Such is the case with our Valentine's Day festivities. Even though Sean and I will have our own evening out, the day itself is saved for the shared celebration of both the sweethearts in my life. Each bring me such happy contentment, Benjamin will see that instead of choosing just one (something I could never do), I would rather choose to spoil everyone. He will see that treats, consideration and hugs can be shared equally, and that there is as much joy in the giving as in the receiving.

A weeknight family dinner calls for a dessert that is special but does not take too much attention away from enjoying everyone's company. Nothing too elaborate or fussy, an offering as perfectly sweet as those gathered around the table.

This cake is dense and moist, with the fine texture of a pound cake. The richness of butter and cream cheese is underscored by mellow almond and luscious bits of white chocolate that only almost melt into the batter. Perfect on its own, sublime when topped with raspberry sauce, and decadently stodgy as the base of a midwinter trifle - it is sure to send more than one heart aflutter.

If one happens to have miniature tube or Bundt pans, this batter makes adorable little plated desserts; the perfect size for two, or in our case three, forks to share.

White chocolate almond cake
From a variety of inspirations.

Ingredients
Melted butter for greasing the pan
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 cups unsalted butter, at room temperature
8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
3 cups granulated sugar
6 large eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
3 tablespoons milk
1/2 cup finely chopped white chocolate

Almond simple syrup (optional)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup water
1/4 teaspoon almond extract

Preheat oven to 350°F (175°C). Using a pastry brush or kitchen towel, lightly coat a 10" tube pan with melted butter.

Sift together flour and salt in a medium bowl. Set aside.

In a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, or with an electric beater, cream together the softened butter, cream cheese and sugar on medium-high speed until light and fluffy. This will take about 5 minutes, being sure to scrape down the sides of the bowl periodically. Add the eggs, one at a time, scraping down the sides again and beating well after each addition. Beat in vanilla and almond extracts.

With the mixer on low, add the flour in two additions, alternating with the milk. Mix until just combined. With the mixer still on low (or with a rubber spatula), stir in the white chocolate. Pour the batter into the prepared pan, mounding the edges up slightly and leaving a bit of a furrow through the middle. Hit the pan against the counter to remove any trapped air bubbles.

While cake is baking, combine the water, sugar and almond extract in a small saucepan over low heat. Cook until the sugar is dissolved and the syrup becomes thick.

The cakes should be done after 75-85 minutes, until a cake tester inserted in the centre comes out clean and the top is golden brown. Allow to cool in pan, on a wire rack, for 10 minutes.

Turn the cake out onto the rack (see note) and, use a pastry brush to coat the cake entirely with the syrup. Allow to cool completely.

Notes:

• You will want to suspend the rack over a sheet pan to catch the excess glaze. A spoon can also be used to glaze the cake, but I prefer the finer finish a pastry brush offers.
• For a citrus variation, omit the almond extract and white chocolate from the cake. Add 1 teaspoon grated zest of your choice and one tablespoon of freshly-squeezed juice replaces the same amount of milk. For the syrup, omit the extract and substitute juice for the water.
• For a chocolate chip version, the white chocolate can be substituted with 3/4 cup bittersweet and the almond extract can be omitted (but this is not necessary). The syrup is made more of a glaze, substituting the extract with 1 teaspoon cocoa powder and boiling the mixture gently for 5 minutes. Spoon this over the top of the cake, allowing it to dribble down the sides.

I wish I could say that every dish I made had a fabulous backstory. Something compelling, or educational or even enticingly tempting. Heck, I would even settle for vaguely amusing sometimes. But sadly, that is not the case.

In truth, most of the dishes that reach our table do so out of a straightforward need to stop the grumbling of our bellies. And more often than not, there is an emotional whim attached.

Such was the case with the menus we have enjoyed this week. A bitterly cold spell and some particularly heavy workloads took their toll by Tuesday, by which time we found ourselves in need of sustenance of both the body and spirit. That afternoon I called my dear Mum, not only for a bit of cheer but also for her minestrone recipe - a dish I have not had for years.

Preparing it for Sean and Benjamin brought instant comfort. All it asked of me was some idle chopping, followed by lazy stirring now and again. Just the sort of demand I could handle. The pot gently simmered on the stove, filling the kitchen with a heady steam. A mere half-hour later we were rewarded with a hearty meal, all slurped up with a spoon. I had meant to take a photo but we were far too impatient to allow for such an interruption.

On Wednesday the mood continued, though we were buoyed by the meal the night before. In anticipation of another late evening for Sean I set about making one of his all-time, desert island desserts - a crumble. Without enough produce to make the preferred apple version, I nosed my way through our pantry to assemble this apple and mixed berry hybrid. The frozen berries, a direct violation of my commitment to eating seasonally, add a bit of brightness to a dreary month with their luxuriously velvet juices coating the apples beautifully.

My finished product was what I had hoped; a buttery crust that gave way to a filling more subtle in its sweetness than other versions, with just enough spice to add some resonant warmth. An offering that was everyday but just a bit special, and altogether satisfying.

I wish I could say that this dessert was ground-breakingly interesting, but it is not. It is simply familiar, uncomplicated and good. Sometimes, that is more than enough.

Apple and mixed berry crumble
My own recipe. As laziness is an integral part of comfort cooking, the version pictured used frozen berries and their juices; resulting in a luscious sort of fruit slump on the plate. If you prefer a less juicy version, defrost and drain the berries before adding to the filling.

Ingredients
1/2 pound cold butter (2 sticks), diced, plus more at room temperature for pan
2/3 cup blanched, sliced almonds
1/3 cup unsweetened flaked coconut
2/3 cup packed brown sugar
3/4 cup rolled oats
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1 1/2 pounds tart baking apples, preferably Granny Smith, peeled, cored and cut into medium dice
1 1/2 pounds frozen berry mix, see note above
Juice and zest of 1/2 lemon
2/3 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/8 teaspoon ground ginger

Preheat oven to 375ºF (190ºC). Lightly butter a 9"x13" baking dish and place this on a parchment-lined baking sheet.

In a large bowl, or in the bowl of a stand mixer with a paddle attachment, combine almonds, coconut, brown sugar, 1/4 teaspoon salt, oats and flours. Using a pastry cutter, or the mixer on its lowest speed, cut in 1 3/4 sticks (14 tablespoons) butter into the dry ingredients. When finished the mixture should resemble a coarse, uneven meal. Set aside.

In a large bowl, combine apples, frozen berries, lemon zest, lemon juice, sugar, cornstarch, spices and remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt. Toss gently to combine well. Pour fruit mixture into prepared baking dish and dot with the reserved butter.

Sprinkle topping evenly over dish, leaving a bit of the fruit peaking out at edges. Bake for 55-60 minutes, until the filling is bubbling and the top is golden brown. Allow to stand 5-10 minutes before serving.

Recipe Notes:
• You may want to adjust the sugar depending on your taste and the sweetness of the fruit.
• The coconut is an addition I always enjoy for textural contrast, but is not essential.
• The spice measurements are an approximation of "one good pinch" of each. Again, adjust as you see fit.

Sidenote:
• I our house this is a crumble, but I do see that some would call it a crisp. What would call it?