golden

These scones, these knobby specimens far removed from any thought of dainty, came to be through the generosity of an aunt by way of my parents. It started with their cranberries.

My folks had returned home from a recent trip and, not ones to come back empty handed, I was handed a bag of dried cranberries. They'd been to British Columbia, they'd seen my aunt and uncle, who, I'm told, have these local cranberries with their breakfast most mornings. The berries were large and not particularly dry; less like raisins and more like large, flattened rounds, slightly cupped. The first comparison that came to mind was a berry version of orecchiette, the concave pasta with a fingertip-sized indent, but imagine them bright crimson and  made of fruit. These were were plump and full of juice, and as they were only barely sweetened, the tart, lip twisting sharpness of the cranberry remained. 

I ate a handful on the spot. Benjamin did too. 

IMG_18632

Then Mum and I got talking and we settled on making scones. Scones aren't new. Scones aren't innovative. Or trendy. Scones are a soft spot for me though, and my Dad and Mum too. Scones are herehere and here already. And so, if I start nattering on about scones, you'll most likely know what I'm going to say because we've talked scones before - about their tender substance, the intricacies of their crumb - but there's a familiar sense of ease in that, in those known phrases and anticipated tastes. 

I will say, at their most rustic as these are, scones involve straightforward skills and little more. Bring together your flours; a mix of flours here to bring a subtle interest, but nothing too challenging for a Sunday morning. Cut butter into that flour with knives or fingertips, then add the buttermilk with the most indolent of stirring - lumps are fine, and long as the flour is pretty much dampened and beginning to clump together. Bring in the cranberries and nuts with a few turns of the spoon.

If even that level of industry feels monumental, and I don't blame you as this is the route I took, use a stand mixer instead. On its lowest setting the mixer will gently distribute the butter and incorporate the buttermilk; freeing you to sip your coffee leisurely, with no greater task than occasional peek into the bowl to make sure things are progressing nicely.

Either way, the ramshackle dough gets tipped out onto a board, kneaded briefly and patted together into rough and tumble disks. Slice the rounds into triangles and they're ready to bake.

For those looking for extra credit, stir together a spoonful of sugar with the same amount of fresh lemon juice and, there, you've made a syrupy glaze to brush atop the par-baked scones. In the oven, this scant gilding will go from sticky to glistening, seeping in some cracks but mostly giving the scone's surface a crystalline makeover. It's an edge of sugared tang before the nutty, mellow wheaten sweetness of the crumb beneath. It's not necessary, but it's a nice bit of fuss.

this one was mine

I made these the morning after our visit with Mum and Dad, in the sober quietness of the cool, blue hours before light touches the windowsill. That muted glow cast by the day's beginning felt the natural companion to a scone that was homey, reassuring. 

A feeling not unlike a good conversation with those you missed, after a time apart.

*******

There's a pair of links to share today. First, a heartfelt thank you to Babble.com for selecting this site as one of their Top 100 Mom Food Blogs for 2011. It is an honour to be in such company.

And my friend Jess wrote this poignant post on her site, Sweet Amandine. It's a special one. She's got a restrained honesty as she figures out "what feels right" for right now. I thought I'd point you in her direction as I think it's not one to miss.

A happy day to you all.

******* 

MIXED FLOUR SCONES WITH CRANBERRIES AND ALMONDS

Our dried cranberries were markedly less sweet than the raisin-like ones sold in many grocery stores. Using the latter style might warrant reducing the granulated sugar to a 1/3 cup. With inspiration from the Buttermilk Scones from Susan Fenniger and Mary Sue Milliken.

INGREDIENTS

For the scones

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup whole wheat flour or oat flour, see note
  • ¼ cup flaxseed meal
  • ½ cup granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • Finely grated zest from one lemon
  • ¾ cup (1 ½ sticks) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small dice
  • 1 cup dried sweetened cranberries, see headnote
  • 3/4 cup flaked almonds, toasted and then chopped
  • 1 cup well-shaken buttermilk, plus more if needed

For glaze (optional)

  • 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice

METHOD

To make the glaze, stir together the sugar and lemon juice in a small bowl. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 400°F (200°C). Use parchment paper to line a standard baking sheet and set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, combine the flours, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt and lemon zest. On the machine's lowest setting, cut in the chilled butter until the mixture resembles course meal. The butter should be in small pieces approximately the size of peas. Mix in the cranberries and almonds. 

With the machine still on low, slowly pour the buttermilk into the flour and butter mixture in a thin stream, stirring until just combined. Use only as much buttermilk as needed to bring the dough together - don’t worry if you don’t use it all, or if you need to add a tablespoon or more. Small bits of butter should still be visible, but almost all the flour should be incorporated. 

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Working quickly, gently knead the dough, folding and pressing gently until it just holds together. Divide the dough into two, and shape each ball of dough into a 6-inch round about 1-inch thick. Cut each round into six wedges, and place on the prepared baking sheet. 

Bake scones in the preheated oven for about 12 minutes, then carefully pull them out and brush the top of each lightly with the glaze, if using. Return the scones to the oven and continue to bake until the the tops are lightly golden and the cut sides look flaky and dry, around 5-8 minutes more. When fully cooked, the scones should feel light for their size and sound almost hollow when tapped underneath. 

Cool on a wire rack for at least 5 minutes. Best served warm the day they are made, but can be toasted or rewarmed in a low oven. Store in an airtight container at room temperature.

Makes 12 medium scones.

Notes:

  • In lieu of whole wheat flour, toasted oat flour also works quite well. To make your own, spread 3/4 cup of rolled oats on a baking sheet and bake in a 375°F oven until lightly golden, stirring occassionaly, around 7 minutes. Allow to cool, then grind in a food processor into fine meal.
  • I would like to try these using whole wheat pastry flour and 1/2 cup of butter. I'll be sure to report back.
  • This recipe can, of course, be done by hand using a pastry cutter or a pair of knives and a spoon. I've also had great success using a food processor for scones; the method for both is here.
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It was Tuesday's dusk; the sun was on its way but hadn't quite left, and the night was at the door. That's when the rain arrived. Those last few glimmers of day hung in the wet air, and turned the raindrops to prisms and set our backyard aglow.

March rain is like the gentle hand of a parent on the shoulder of an eager child. It keeps us closer to home than we might like. It reminds us to please wait, only for a moment, to slow down and tread lightly as the world outside isn't ready just yet for our boisterous play.

Spring may be awake, but she still bears the imprint of her pillowcase upon her cheek. Soon she'll join us, in her finest dress in shades of sunbeam yellow.

In no time she will arrive, and our world will change. Spring is the most rambunctious of seasons, skipping across the landscape, with cascades of cherry blossoms tumbling from her hair and leaving trails of mossy green footprints.

In the blink of her eye, the Firsts of the season will be upon us. The first crocuses, drowsy headed and darling; the first evening walk when the breeze is mild and sweet; the first dinner eaten outdoors, preferably with strings of lights overhead.

And as we anticipate Spring's approach, we also mark the celebration of the Lasts of Winter. The last day to wear those woolen socks you loved in December but resent four months later; the last fire to crackle in the fireplace; the last of the Sunday roast suppers. Well maybe not the last, but at least the less frequent for those.

A habit of a meal for us, and for many; in our kitchen it is most usually the Zuni Café version, complete with the necessary bread salad.

It was during the stay of Mr. Winter that I ran into trouble, wanting rice not bread on a particular Sunday night. With that classic recipe as my inspiration, I served a brown rice salad rocky with almonds and tangy currants, with the spice of arugula there to light up everything. And while its bready predecessor has my lifelong devotion, I was pretty fond of how it turned out.

Now back to that night of that rain I mentioned to start. There was to be roast chicken for dinner. Without currants or arugula, I did have cranberries and parsley, and chose to build upon my previous improvisation. I included a pinch of ground coriander for good measure, bringing the subtle suggestion of grass and citrus beneath the direct flavours of clementine and fresh herbs. We were well fed.

In the end, the rain lasted the night, today we're again beneath its watery cloak, and tomorrow looks to be cold. But we have a date with warmer days penciled in our calendar.

It'll be soon enough, and we'll be ready.

BROWN RICE SALAD FOR A MARCH EVENING

You'll note that there aren't quantities for many ingredients, and there is a reason for that. I treated our dish much like a salad, dressed with a deconstructed vinaigrette. But, you can easily consider this more like a pilaf, seasoning it instead with a subtle hand and omitting the vinegar, leaving the flavours more mellow and round.

You might think that there is a lot of parsley, and it is. It is an ingredient here, not a garnish or an accent. I like the effect of the whole leaves for their juicy crunch, but chop them roughly if you prefer.

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1/4 minced shallot
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • A good pinch of ground coriander seed
  • 1 cup brown rice, rinsed
  • 1/2 cup raw nuts, I like a mixture of flaked almonds and whole cashews
  • 1/4 cup dried currants or 1/3 cup dried sweetened cranberries
  • One clementine
  • Champagne vinegar, optional
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2-3/4 cup parsley leaves
  • Salt and freshly-ground black pepper to taste

METHOD

In a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the shallots and cook, stirring, until soft but without colour, around 3 minutes. Add the garlic, season with salt and ground coriander, and cook for 30 seconds more.

Add the rice, stirring to coat each grain with the butter. Toast for around 30 seconds, then add water and cook according to your rice's package instructions.

Meanwhile, toast the mixed nuts in a dry pan over medium heat, tossing often. When well-toasted and bronzed in places, remove from the pan to a bowl to cool. Set aside.

When the rice is done, pour into a serving bowl and fluff with a fork. Add the dried fruit to the bowl and grate over some of the zest from the clementine (do this when the rice is still quite hot, the heat of the rice plump the fruit and will diffuse the oils from the rind). Squeeze over some of the juice from the clementine, a splash of Champagne vinegar, if using, and a drizzle of olive oil. Fork through again. Season with salt and freshly-ground black pepper to taste.

Can be served immediately, warm or at room temperature. Stir in most of the nuts and parsley right before serving, saving some for garnish.

Serves 4.

Notes:

• I think this is especially good with a brown and wild rice blend; the wild rice adds an extra chewiness I like.

Heidi has a wild rice salad that is served with goat's cheese, an idea I'll be borrowing in the future.

Today is Monday dressed up in Thursday's clothing. Of this, I am certain.

Unexpected company for the last two days led to Tuesday and Wednesday's schedules taking on the traits of Saturday and Sunday respectively, with a weekend-ish pace to boot. But that didn't mean we were exempt from the requirements of midweek days, so that was packed in too.

Today is back to its usual routine, behaving decidedly like the start of the week rather than the end.

But the calendar says it is Thursday, and the fourth Thursday of November at that, which makes it American Thanksgiving. But then, all the chatter about turkeys and pies and pumpkins conjures memories of the Canadian holiday of the same name, which we celebrated in October. On the second Monday of the month to be precise.

Here we are, back to Monday. On Thursday. I'm not sure if I should be coming or going, getting ready to face a new week or eager to bid goodbye one.

Thank goodness that on this Monday-ish Thursday there is still some kale around. Kale might not sound like a consolation, but when your mind is awhirl, a plate of kale is as good as a spot as any to choose to settle gently. In fact, I would say that on a rainy fall evening that nothing is more soothing than sitting someplace comfy, tucking your feet up, and scooping up your supper by the emerald forkful.

This kale is roughly torn, with some of the bitterness blanched out of its leaves before it slumps into a pile of soft onions and garlic. As it hits the heat, the resulting steam is savourily-aromatic, damp and dense with the vegetal essence of sturdy greens. After cooking the kale softens to supple leatheriness, its sinewy leaves still hale and hearty but more relaxed. Fleshy crowns of walnuts add autumnal bulk, and cranberries give both a tempered sweetness and an appreciated touch of acidity.

The final effect is one of Rudolph among the evergreens, complete with the white flecks of a light snowfall; and as this Thursday is the last before December, it might be perfect timing.

KALE WITH WALNUTS AND CRANBERRIES

A interpretation of recipes from Gourmet, available here and here.

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 pound kale, washed well, trimmed of tough ribs and torn into large pieces
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 small onion, minced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
  • 1/4 cup dried cranberries
  • Kosher salt and freshly-ground black pepper

METHOD

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil.

Boil the kale until bright green and just tender, about 5 minutes. Immediately plunge the greens into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Once cooled, drain well but do not squeeze.

In the same pot over medium heat, melt the butter with the olive oil. Add the onion and cook, stirring occassionally, until the onion is fragrant and beginning to turn translucent, about 2-3 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook for 30 seconds more. Tumble in the walnuts, tossing to coat well with the butter/oil. Continue to cook until the nuts are golden and lightly toasted, around 2 minutes. Stir in the cranberries.

Using your hands or tongs, separate the kale as best as you can and add to the pot. Stir to combine, and continue to turn the leaves through the onion and walnut mixture until they are warmed through and softened. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Serves 4.

Above, the Caramel Apple Pie. Below, A relish so versatile that I might make it year -round; Cranberry Chutney from Clean Food.

It's just after lunch on a chilly Sunday and I feel like this is the first moment I've had to collect my thoughts in a good, long while. I hope to coast my way through the rest of the afternoon, with time to stare at the leaves that have caught fire outside my window. Last week there were only sparks of colour flickering amongst branches of green. Now the scene is almost fully aflame.

Whenever the world gets the better of me, I find I rely heavier on the recipes of others. Do you do that too? It's the culinary equivalent of handing over the wheel, and when my mind is taken with the business of other things there's that certain feeling of relief in the ability to relinquish responsibility and to say "here, you drive."

On Thanksgiving there was a Caramel Apple Pie with a boozy applejack and almond crust inspired by Andrea. Believe you me, that pastry was a stunner. Then the other day I tried Nikole's Walnut Oats, which were exactly the thing one should make for breakfast on a grey morning, preferably with your woolen socks on and a broad-bowled spoon at the ready. Later this week I'm making Ashley's Chocolate Chip Cookies and I have a feeling they're going to be tremendous*.

Using their recipes feels like there is a friend with me in the kitchen. I like that.

Even if it is my hands that are doing the heavy lifting, their guidance is there - a voice in your ear through words on a page - and it is a comfort. It is almost as good as having someone there to cook for you. Yes, only almost, but not quite. But it is something.

In case of the circumstance that you too might need similar inspiration, I thought I would tell you about a few the new-to-me books and the recipes that have been filling our table and keeping us fed.

Happy reading. And eating.

* Psst. I made the cookies last night, and tremendous does not even begin to describe how good they are. They are deserving of every superlative imaginable.

Earth to Table (by Jeff Crump and Bettina Schormann, Random House, 2009)

This book is as much of a treatise on seasonal, local cooking as it is a cookbook alone. And let me tell you, I will solemnly swear my allegiance the succulent perfection of their Braised Short Ribs; they are a lusty, gutsy affair with the braising liquid reduced to lacquer that coats the ribs in thick gloss. The robust combination of wine, port and balsamic vinegar is elevated by the firecracker brightness of Gremolata and the sweet subtlety of Apple and Parsnip Purée.

My adopted Irish roots grew proudly at a taste of Colacannon Potatoes, a shameless combination of potatoes, butter, wine, and bacon folded through with tendrils of Brussels sprout. The Heirloom Beet Salad with Feta and Pumpkin Seeds lives up to the quote from Tom Robbins on the facing page; these roasted beets beets are "the most intense of vegetables, ... deadly serious."

Recipes from Earth to Table

• A selection of recipes, including Roasted Autumn Fruits with Torched Sabayon and Mulled Cider and Cranberry, can be found here.

Martha Stewart's Dinner at Home (by Martha Stewart, Clarkson Potter, 2009)

It takes a lot for me to introduce a completely new, untested recipe to our holiday table. But leave it to Martha to charm her way into a seat at our Thanksgiving spread with her Gratinéed Baked Squash Halves. An acorn squash is cleaved in half and then anointed with sage and garlic infused cream. It's then baked in a shallow water bath, so that the steam turns the thick flesh tender but the dry heat causes the cut edges to curl and brown. Once soft, gruyère is grated over and back into the oven until its all golden and bubbling. Brilliant. It was so delicious that I made some more two days after the festivities for a particularly-sumptuous lunch. (Just so you don't worry about my health I should say that there was a salad of bitter greens as well, but the squash was the main attraction.)

After those days of excess, the Tofu and Scallions in Mushroom Broth was a welcome change. Simple and straightforward, dried shititakes bring character to the broth. Even though The Warm Swiss Chard and Bacon Dip is suggested as a part of a larger menu, it does make a fine, fine addition to a lazy Sunday afternoon of watching movies. An icy beer as its partner isn't a bad thing either. Not that I'd know anything about that.

Recipes from Martha Stewart's Dinners at Home

• A slideshow of menus and recipes from marthastewart.com

• Watercress-Cauliflower Soup

Chicken Paillards with Walnut Sauce

• Gratineed Baked Squash Halves

Clean Food (by Terry Walters, Sterling Epicure, 2009)

This is the book I wanted to cook from when summer began to wane. Full of healthful recipes and an emphasis on whole foods, it offered the substance sought as the cold sets in, but still with a produce-centric perspective that celebrated fall's harvest. The Refried Pinto Beans with Chiles were a quick dinner alongside the Skillet Cornbread and some chopped tomato and avocado. In the beans, the unmistakable tang of lime brought dimension, the classic match to the grassy notes of cumin. As for the cornbread, the texture was light and bouncy, with only a slight sweetness from a modest pour of maple syrup. Leftovers made a merry weekend brunch, with a fried egg perched upon the beans with fresh pico de gallo, and the cornbread toasted with butter alongside.

The Wild Rice, Barley and Arame Salad is what I'll be eating until the winter comes I think, the hearty combination of grains and nuts is somehow soothing and restorative at the same time. Finally, Walters' mother's Cranberry Chutney was the second untried recipe to make its debut on Thanksgiving Day; full of autumnal flavours of maple and ginger and spice, the addition of apple and celery brings a freshness and subtly that allows its easy pairing with the other dishes of a holiday meal.

Recipes from Clean Food

• A selection of recipes are available on Walters' own site.

CRANBERRY CHUTNEY

As a child, I insisted on store-bought cranberry sauce – no chunks, just that smooth roll, complete with indentations from the can. When I finally tasted my mother’s homemade chutney, I was converted. I now make it in huge batches, give it as gifts around the holidays and even freeze it to have throughout the year. It goes great on a turkey sandwich with avocado and honey mustard or with vegetable pot pie. Once you taste it, you’ll understand why I’m addicted. - Terry Walters

I chose to dice all the ingredients so that the chutney cooked into a softly-textured relish. - Tara

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 cups fresh cranberries
  • 1 cup raisins
  • ½ cup sucanat
  • ½ cup maple syrup
  • 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 3 medium apples, cored and chopped
  • 4 stalks celery, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon grated lemon peel

METHOD

Combine cranberries, raisins, sucanat, maple syrup, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and water in Dutch oven. Place over medium heat and cook 15 minutes. Stir in onion, apples and celery and cook 15 minutes more. Remove from heat, fold in lemon peel, and serve.

Chutney can be made in advance and stored in an airtight container in the freezer.

Makes 4 cups

Note: Coincidentally, all three books are organized by season; I have only been cooking from the Fall chapters of each. Author biographies and further information about the books can be found through the links provided. Cover art and recipe reprinted with permission from the respective publishers.

Whew. I know it is just Monday, but I already feel as though I have had a marathon week. These last few weekends have flown by, more hectic than relaxed, and I am feeling the effect.

The busyness of it all is mostly with happy tasks, thank goodness; the sort of work that is wholly gratifying, but not always easy. Renovations, projects, an almost-four-month-old delight who believes that he is grown up enough to debut his first two teeth, a most wonderfully-mischievous toddler, friends, baking, cooking, planning, organizing, birthdays ... I'll say it again. Whew.

Tomorrow a dear, dear loved one will jet off for a faraway land for an extended trip. As exciting as that is, the last few days have been abuzz with expectant, frenetic energy as we all aid in preparations for departure and simultaneously prepare ourselves for three weeks of missing someone terribly.

I am looking ahead though; this weekend is Canadian Thanksgiving, and there is cooking to be done. Although this year we are not hosting the festivities, we are contributing to the celebration. I am thinking of doing David Lebovitz's showstopping Spiced Pumpkin Cheesecake with Caramel Bourbon Sauce. Jim Lahey's No Knead Bread has been requested, and I might pack a tin of Pecorino Crackers from Giada De Laurentiis (these are featured in De Laurentiis' new book; look out for my review next week). My only decision left is to settle on a cranberry sauce to make.

With all of this going on, I want something quick I can nibble while doing any number of other things through my day. And so, with a bit of time to throw together something, I turned to my favourite snack for these sort of days - granola bars.

Far from the overly-cloying packaged versions that verge on candy bar status, these little offer a bit of salty and sweet; as well-suited for breakfast with coffee as they are as a mid-afternoon bite all on their own. Delicious and portable, a balance of nutrition with a bit of treat, multitasking has never been as appealing than this.

Endnote: I feel compelled to mention that Thanksgiving is my favourite holiday; in fact, this time of year is my absolute, preferred season. All of this is a wonderful sort of busy, and though I might wish for more hours in the day sometimes, I would not wish away a second of it.

APPLE CRANBERRY GRANOLA BARS

My version of a base recipe from Alton Brown. By adding the cashews at the end their salt does not get fully mixed into the bars, resulting in little pockets of salty goodness.

INGREDIENTS

  • 8 ounces old-fashioned rolled oats
  • 2 ounces wheat germ
  • 1 1/2 ounce flax seed
  • 2 ounces raw pumpkin seeds
  • 3 ounces sliced almonds
  • 1 1/2 ounces shredded coconut (sweetened or unsweetened)
  • 4 ounces honey
  • 2 ounces golden syrup
  • 1 3/4 ounces light brown sugar (sometimes called yellow or golden)
  • 1 ounce unsalted butter, plus extra for pan
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 ounces dried apples, chopped
  • 2 1/2 ounces dried cranberries, chopped
  • 1 1/2 ounces salted cashews, roughly chopped

METHOD

Butter a 9 by 9-inch baking dish and set aside. Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C).

Spread the oats, wheat germ, flax seed, pumpkin seeds, almonds, and coconut onto a baking sheet. Place in the oven and toast for 15 minutes, tossing to toast evenly.

Meanwhile, combine the honey, golden syrup, brown sugar, and butter in a large, microwave-safe bowl. Heat, on a low setting, stirring occasionally. Once the sugar is completely dissolved, stir in the salt and vanilla extract.

When the oat mixture is lightly toasted, remove it from the oven and reduce the heat to 300°F (150°C). Quickly add the oat mixture to the sugars, then the dried fruit and nuts, stirring to fully combine and coat. Pour mixture into the prepared baking dish.

Using the back of a greased spatula, press and flatten the mixture until evenly distributed. Bake in the preheated oven for 25 minutes, rotating once during baking. Remove from the oven to a rack and allow to cool completely. Turn out onto a cutting board and slice into desired squares or bars. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to a week.

Makes one 9x9 inch pan.

Notes:

  • I put a second baking dish of the same size on top of the bars as they come out of the oven, weighted down with cans. This extra compression makes for bars that will cut easily and hold their shape. For a crisp bar, allow the pan to completely cool before removing the weights. If you prefer a softer bar, you can do this for only part of the cooling time, or skip the step entirely.
  • In my mind, the perfect portion of these is achieved by cutting the pan into 2 1/4" squares. This yields 16 small bars.
  • Obviously, this is a recipe that can easily be tailored to suit personal preferences; as long as the general ratio of liquids to solids remains, sensible substitutions are easily made.