Right now, I don't think I have the words to properly convey what it was like to launch Seven Spoons the book. My book. Please bear with me, as I try.

Vietnamese Coffee Ice Cream, Caramel and Candied Cacao Nibs | From the book, Seven Spoons by Tara O'Brady

The launch happened in stages. Last night, some of my nearest and dearest gathered at Ben McNally Books in Toronto. (If you've never been, please go. It is an utterly charming space, straight out of Harry Potter in the best way, all wood and warm lighting. And Ben is even better.) I had to make a speech. I did so with my sons and nephews nearby — they stole the show. And, even though I had the distinct sensation of my windpipe vibrating while I spoke, looking out onto that room of people, shaking or not, I felt exceptionally lucky.

We had cheese from St. Lawrence Market with pickled strawberries, charcuterie, and chocolate chip cookies. There were a few rolls of Instax film (evidence, here), and bubbles and oysters around the corner to end the night with Nikole, Michael, and Julia. There again, that lucky feeling. 

Today was a blur; interviews and tastings, and a lot of excitement. A highlight was when some readers took time out of their day to come and say hello. It is because of all of your that I have this opportunity in the first place. So, to share this day with you feels right.

Very quickly, there's something else to share — a recipe from the book, and the one I may crave the most. It's my Vietnamese Coffee Ice Cream, swirled with espresso caramel and topped with candied cacao nibs. It is no secret that I love ice cream. I announced the book with one, so launching it with another lines up nicely. I'm also quite a fan of coffee. Thus, putting them together was inevitable, and condensed milk in the mixture sealed the deal. I describe it in detail below.

For now I'll sign off, with gratitude. Here's to you, with ice cream. 

 

By the by, a few people and places have written about Seven Spoons. If you'd like to read their thoughts, here they are:

  • I spent a day cooking with Chris Nutall-Smith, talking about the book, butter tarts, and inspiration, while sipping on some Palomas. It was a good time. (The Globe and Mail)
  • Deb declared the Mushrooms and Greens on Toast a "one-pan miracle" and I don't think I could hope for higher praise. (Smitten Kitchen)
  • Heidi makes the case for green smoothies, with my Default Smoothie with kale, pineapple, and nut butter to make her point. (101 Cookbooks)
  • Sara, a person I consider an expert on Huevos Rancheros, gave her stamp of approval to my Huevos a la Plaza de Mercado, and I couldn't be more chuffed. (Sprouted Kitchen)
  • I was so happy to once again appear on Design*Sponge's "In the Kitchen With ..." series, this time with my Esquites and Yellow Tomato Gazpacho. Sincere thanks to Grace and Kristina. (Design*Sponge)
  • Food52 asked me to write about the inspiration behind the book, and I was honoured to oblige. (Food52)
  • Epicurious calls my Chicken with a Punchy relish a knockout, in a pun I appreciate. (Epicurious)
  • Ashley made the Roast Chicken with a Punchy Relish, and used lentils as the base. Brilliant. (Not Without Salt)
  • Shauna and Danny prepared a gluten-free feast from the book, including their adaptation of the Bee-stung Fried Chicken, and naan. (Gluten-free Girl and the Chef)
  • Olga made the Lentil Kofta Curry, and some thoughtful words about community. (Sassy Radish)
  • Julie's Bee-Stung Fried Chicken (+ her fritters!) look brilliant. (Dinner with Julie)
  • ... and Julie invited me to her other site to talk music and dinner parties.As an aside, have you seen the documentary It Might Get LoudI found it fascinating. (Rolling Spoon)
  • Vy posted a detailed and thoughtful look at a whole collection of recipes. (Beyond Sweet and Savoury)
  • Shelley also discussed the book as a whole, and then featured the Fattoush with Fava Beans and Labneh. (Cookbooks 365)
  • My publishers invited some new-to-me bloggers to the launch last night, and I am so glad they did! Nikki and Christine were firecrackers. So fun. (Nikki the Knack and Padfoot's Library)

 

VIETNAMESE COFFEE ICE CREAM 

Indians make something they call espresso, which I've talked about before, but it’s unlike any espresso you’d see in Italy; it’s actually closer to a Greek frappé, a bold brew of instant coffee whipped with an enthusiastic amount of sugar, and then combined with hot water and milk. The slurry magically blends, then splits, with a layer of thick foam above a rich, creamy elixir below.

I’ve been a longtime fan of that coffee, so when I was first introduced the Vietnamese version, a drink with very much the same uncompromising intensity, the same weighty, toasted, caramel flavor, this time tempered with sweetened condensed milk, I was lost. When I decided to freeze it, well then things got even better.

This is my full-stop favorite ice cream, both to make, and to eat. It is brazenly prepared without a traditional custard base, which isn’t missed in the least, and skipping that step makes it quick work to pull together. A voluptuous mix of evaporated milks and cream gets infused with ground coffee, then chilled, churned and swirled with caramel. Easy peasy, that's that, and you’re left with an ice cream worthy of any and all accolades. Have a spoon at the ready.

Makes about 1 quart

 

Ingredients

  • 1 (14-ounce/400g) tin evaporated milk
  • 1 (14-ounce/400g) tin sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 cup heavy (35%) cream
  • 2 ounce (57 g) coffee beans, ground, see note
  • Seeds scraped from 1 vanilla bean, or 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • A good pinch of salt

To Serve or Swirl

  • Espresso caramel and/or Candied Cocao Nibs, recipes follow

Method

Combine all the ice cream ingredients in a medium saucepan set over medium heat. Cook, whisking often, until the mixture begins to steam. Remove from the heat and leave to steep for 20 minutes.

Using a fine-meshed sieve, or a standard sieve lined with cheesecloth or a coffee filter, strain the mixture into a bowl. Cover and chill for 3 hours, but preferably overnight. Freeze the base according to your ice cream maker’s manufacturer’s directions.

Spoon 1/3 of the ice cream into a storage container. Smooth the top, and pour over a few tablespoons of caramel in long stripes. With the tip of a knife, lightly swirl the caramel into the ice cream. Layer in half of the remaining ice cream, and repeat the layers two more times, ending with a drizzle of caramel. There will be caramel left over. Set this aside. Cover the ice cream and freeze for at least 6 hours.

Serve as is, or in a sugar cone, or scattered with candied cacao nibs. Then, dive in.

Note: The coffee beans should be medium ground. Café Du Monde French Roast Chicory is the traditional choice for the hot preparation that inspired this cold one. For a milder, rounded flavor, use 2 tablespoons of instant espresso powder or 3 tablespoons instant coffee powder instead of ground beans.

Chocolate fudge can take the place of the caramel.

Masala Chai variation: Replace the coffee with 2 tablespoons black tea such as Darjeeling, a short cinnamon stick, 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger and 1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom and 3 peppercorns. Omit the espresso in the caramel, or omit the swirl entirely.

 

ESPRESSO CARAMEL

Makes about 2/3 cup

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup (106 g) dark brown sugar, packed
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons corn syrup
  • 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1/4 cup (60 ml)  heavy cream
  • 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon finely-ground espresso beans or espresso powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Method

In a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high, heat the brown sugar, corn syrup, butter and salt, stirring until the butter is melted. Pour in heavy cream and espresso beans. Bring to a boil, whisking until smooth and the sugar is dissolved. Lower the heat and simmer, undisturbed, for 1 minute longer. Remove from the stove and stir in the vanilla. Set aside to cool, stirring occasionally. If making ahead of time, cover and refrigerate until needed, then rewarm gently before using.

Note: Any leftover caramel can be used on pound cake, or plain ice cream, or stirred into a milkshake or warm milk. Those sips can be made all the more warming with a share of whisky.

 

CANDIED CACAO NIBS

Makes approximately 1/2 cup

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup (43 g) cacao nibs
  • 1/2 teaspoon unsalted butter

Method

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a Silpat.

In a wide, heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat, warm the sugar for a minute, without stirring. Scatter the cacao nibs over the sugar, and leave the pan undisturbed until the sugar begins to melt in spots. With a wooden spoon or silicone spatula, quickly stir the cacao nibs into the liquid sugar, incorporating any unmelted sugar as you go. Once most of the sugar has coated the nibs, remove the pan from the heat and quickly stir in the butter. Immediately scrape the cacao nibs onto the prepared baking sheet, pressing them into an even layer with the back of the spoon or spatula. Allow to cool.

Break the cacao nibs into tiny clusters by hand. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 month.

caramel self-saucing walnut puddings

There is a quiet gentleness to the word pudding, or even better its diminutive form, pud. I’m considering it in its larger scope, the loosely-defined notion of desserts in general, not the narrow view of custard alone.

Pudding has a welcoming, nursery-school comfort to its sound. Placing the phrase “Caramel Self-Saucing” as a prefix only serves to amplify that quality.

However, for all their soothing reputation, these petite darlings gave me a world of trouble.  Well, not these ones, as these ones right here are the ones that were made after the hair pulling. After the whispered mutterings punctuated by half-swallowed curses. These ones were the ones that reminded me when made well, a proper pud is your bestest bud on an autumn afternoon. These are the ones that made me do a happy dance in my kitchen, right there by the stove.

What was it that caused all my trouble? Only this - I wanted these cakes to be darned special for all their humbleness. I wanted them pleasantly solid and touched with caramel, and perfectly spoonable. 

Before I get into the account of my failure, it would be remiss to jaunt merrily ahead when I've not given Self-Saucing Puddings the introduction they're due.

To make this miraculous invention, you stir together a simple batter that's spooned into a buttered baking dish. Then your pour a watery syrup, in this instance a caramel one, over top the uncooked cake. Yes, overtop. It looks a right mess, and you're thinking you've ruined the whole recipe, because who is going to want to eat something that looks like a sludge-covered bog, and gracious, will your friends ever even want to come over again after you serve them swamp pudding? Steel yourself and pop that dish in the oven.

Take a deep breath and uncross your fingers. You needn't worry. Promise.

The cake will take care of itself. As it bakes, the modest batter grows, rising above the murky darkness of the liquid. And that syrup, so unceremoniously displaced, will sink and ooze its way down, around and through the cake, ending up as a thickened puddle at the bottom of the dish.

And, as someone smart recently said to me, "what could be better than finding warm caramel on the bottom of a yummy cake?" Good question.

Now suitably lulled by that blissful notion, here is the story of my failures. 

My first go gave me a cake that was perfectly serviceable. Its top had a light sugar glaze that was crystalized and pretty - a sugared crust created by the syrup as it sank. But the caramel was where it faltered - I'd pulled muscovado from the pantry, craving its burnt-toffee sweetness and the suggestion of treacle. What I ended up with was far more than a suggestion, it was a manifesto yelled from the depths of my bowl. It was so sugary it hurt.

I tried again. This time with dark brown sugar and a greater ratio of water to sugar and less syrup on the whole.

Then the cake. Serviceable wasn't enough. I was going for better than that. I'd put roasted walnuts in the first try, which gave a rough crumb that reminded me of tweed coats and cable knit sweaters. This time around, as I was melting the butter, it hit me - let it brown. So I did, watching with far more glee than is probably normal for one to feel over a saucepan of bubbling butter, as it went from buttercup to deeper golden, and finally touched with umber.

The aromatic butter was transformative. The cake was given voice against the caramel, in harmonious tandem. 

The third try was a minor tweak - seeds from a vanilla bean. It is a sleepy spice, with a murmured warmth that is without edge. It's the accent of a hushed baritone. The duet turned a trio and was improved by the collaboration.

That was the charm, as they say. For here was the pud I'd wanted, one that lived up to its name. 

SELF-SAUCING CARAMEL WALNUT PUDDINGS

INGREDIENTS

For the syrup

  • 1/2 cup brown sugar, lightly packed
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/8 teaspoon kosher salt

For the cake

  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 4 ounces walnuts, toasted and ground into meal with a food processor
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar, lightly packed
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • Seeds scraped from one vanilla bean
  • 4-6 small fresh figs, sliced (optional)
  • Lightly-whipped cream to serve

METHOD

Start with the syrup. In a small saucepan, over medium heat, melt the butter. Once liquid, stir in the brown sugar to combine along with the salt. Pour in the water and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer for five minutes. Set aside.

Preheat an oven to 325°F (160°C).

In a saucepan over medium heat, melt the 6 tablespoons butter. Cook until the butter begins to brown and smell toasty, around 5 minutes. Set aside to cool, stirring occasionally - it will continue to darken as it sits. 

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. In another bowl, stir together the browned butter, walnut meal, eggs, brown sugar, milk and seeds from the vanilla bean. Once combined, stir in the dry ingredients until just blended. Do not overmix.

Divide the pudding mixture between 6 x 1-cup capacity greased oven-safe dishes. Top with sliced figs. 

Give the syrup a stir if needed, then carefully pour some over the back of a spoon onto each of the cakes, trying not to disturb the figs. The cakes will look a mess, but don't worry. Bake in the preheated oven until the cake is puffed and set, with a dry, glistening crust and you can see the syrup bubbling around the edge of the dishes, around 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool for 5 minutes before serving with the cream.

Makes 6.

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Authortara
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the last of august

I do believe that summer may have left us.

Despite the weekend's warmth of a sun that seemed especially golden, the rustle of leaves this morning speaks in murmurs of autumn. The sky looks a painterly depiction of the layers of a feathers on a dove's wing. 

I wore jeans the other day, and a shirt with long sleeves. What's worse is that I didn't mind. I may have even cast a longing glance at a pair of wool socks.

And then there's school. Yesterday was the the first for our First, Benjamin's first day at school. Backpack and new shoes, a fresh haircut and the whole nine yards. September is forever changed in what it means to him. And to us, as we zipped up that backpack and mussed up that hair and thought to ourselves, "my, how time does fly."

Not to dwell too long, or next thing you know I'll be humming The Byrds and we'll all be lost. 

Let's rewind. Back to summer. And back to this pie - it's Blackberry Cream Pie, in case you're wondering. And it was the way we said goodbye to our August, with a send off and a salute. 

If you ask me, there's no doubt, blackberries are the end of summer, swallowed whole. I feel like their sourness differs from that of strawberries and raspberries. It seems to hit further back on the tongue, at the back of the jaw and tannic. Like their looks, they taste darker, of fruit that should grow among brambles, of wildness and things overgrown.

And to me, this pie, is all that is an August afternoon, transfixed.

Inspired by a pie from Sweet Fine Day, this version has a golden shortbread crust beneath a filling of whole berries bound by a soft-set blackberry purée. It's voluptuous and beguiling like jelly without the wobble.The whole fruit, those ebony clustered bubbles bursting upon biting, are full of all of August's heat and humidity. 

There's patches of pink where the filling seeps into the pale cream, but mostly the fruit just shines duskily, jet and juicy.

The wind is picking up now, with the curtains at my side puffing in and out with the breath of September. The start of something new is upon us, but this summer, and it was a good one, is still on my mind. 

BLACKBERRY CREAM PIE

Adapted from the Fresh Strawberry Pie from Sweet Fine Day. Most packets of powdered gelatin contain 1 tablespoon, or 3 teaspoons - this recipe will use an entire packet, with 2 teaspoons for the filling and 1 teaspoon reserved for the topping.

FOR THE CRUST

  • 2 cups shortbread cookie crumbs
  • 1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

FOR THE FILLING

  • 6 cups blackberries, divided
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest
  • 2 teaspoons powdered gelatin
  • Ingredients for the topping
  • 1 1/2 cups heavy, whipping cream
  • 2 tablespoons caster sugar
  • Seeds scraped from half a vanilla bean
  • 2 tablespoons sour cream
  • 1 teaspoon powdered gelatin
  • 2 tablespoons milk

METHOD

To make the crust, preheat an oven to 325°F (160°C). In a large bowl, stir together the cookie crumbs and salt. While stirring, start to drizzle in the butter. Only use enough butter to dampen the crumbs - depending on the cookies used it might be as little as 1 tablespoon or as much as 3. If you compress the crumbs with the back of a spoon they should pack like sand at the beach, but not appear sodden.

Press the crumbs into a 10-inch springform pan, forming an even layer across the bottom and a 3-inch crust up the sides. Bake in the preheated oven until lightly golden and set, around 8-10 minutes. Set aside to cool completely.

To make the filling, take 3 cups of the berries and put them in a medium saucepan with the sugar and the of the salt. Bring to a boil over medium heat, then reduce to a simmer. Cook, stirring, until the fruit becomes soft and the juices begin to thicken, around 7-10 minutes.

Carefully remove the blackberries to a blender (or use an immersion blender), and process until smooth. Push the puréed sauce through a sieve, back into the saucepan. Return to the heat and bring again to a simmer, stirring often. Cook the sauce until it becomes thick, with a clear, glossy look, around 5-7 minutes. You should have around 1 cup of purée.

Off the heat, stir in the lemon zest, followed by the soaked gelatin, stirring quickly to dissolve.

Tumble in the reserved berries, give them a few turns in the pan to coat, then pour into the cooled crust. Refrigerate for 10 minutes to start to firm up.

To make the topping, pour the whipping cream into a bowl along with the sugar and scraped contents of the vanilla bean. Beat the cream to firm peaks, then fold in the sour cream. 

In a small saucepan, soak the gelatin in the milk. Once soaked, heat the gelatin gently over low heat until it melts and the mixture is smooth. Working quickly but gently, fold the gelatin into the whipped cream. Spread the topping over the blackberry filling, return the pie to the fridge and chill until set, around 2 hours. 

To serve, remove from the pan and cut with a warm knife, wiping the blade clean between slices. 

Makes a 10-inch pie.

Notes:

  • I used an oatmeal shortbread cookie to make the crumbs for the crust, but a plain shortbread or graham crackers will work beautifully. In the case of the latter, you will need to use extra melted butter for the crumbs to hold together properly.
  • Earlier this summer I made this pie with raspberries and a graham cracker crust. If they're the berry for you, don't hesitate to do the same. 
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IMG_69912

Eton Mess, at its simplest, is technically only one step up from strawberries and cream but what makes it somewhere around a million times better is the addition of crumbled meringues. Named after the famed boy's school in England, there are a variety of stories regarding the origin of the recipe but few that dispute its charms. 

It is something that wandered into my consideration a while ago, a recipe I'd made before but had unaccountably fallen by the wayside. 

There it was, back again, distracting me while I was folding laundry. Eton Mess. And then as I was supposed to be paying attention to a movie. Raspberry Eton Mess. And again in the midst writing a grocery list, what leaps onto the page but all the ingredients for Frozen Raspberry Eton Mess.

Eton Mess, Eton Mess, Eton Mess. It was my Tell-tale Heart, only delectable.

IMG_69962

And yes, frozen. The impulse for ice had hit me the the day before, when we turned down a street outside of our normal route, seeking its shade from a particularly-hot afternoon.

It's a street I love, a long avenue - so long that it is difficult to see its end. When you stand at its top you feel that distance stretch in front of you like a current. That length, that space, that breath of air.

Ash trees line the street. Each has a partner directly opposite and they are old enough that their branches meet in the middle and intertwine, like pairs of hands clasped in that song I remember from when I was little. "Here's the church, here's the steeple ..." 

It is perpetually cool and dim there this time of year, to all appearances existing in its own climate. And as you walk under that arched roof of branches, translucent green leaves above that cast a filigree shadow below, creating a grey and black damask upon the pavement. You feel as though you're down the emerald corridor on you way to meet the Wizard in Oz. 

We were halfway down that road when it struck me, I wanted a dessert that tasted as blessedly chilled as that place felt. My Eton Mess would be a frozen one.

i do like a sugar cone

To end my preoccupation, I settled on pureéd raspberries and a generous pile of meringue, stirred into peaks of cream touched with the tart freshness of crème fraîche. Against the toothy sweetness of the meringues, whose soft middles are marshmallow-rich, that crème fraîche helps to keep everything sprightly and springy. 

Although already peppy with fruit and coolly sour, I've included a few spoonfuls of lemon curd. It has a pure acidity that suits the chill of the fridge, and the nip of the freezer even better. Cold, its very lemoness seems to brighten even more if that's possible. It's like an exclamation mark to finish a phrase.

What we ended with was a dessert that had the qualities of pavlova but the citrus-twanged hit of a Creamsicle. 

That said, this is not ice cream, but is iced cream. It will freeze quite solid but wait and it will, all of a sudden, turn soft and yielding, as lush and rich as a semifreddo. We scooped ours, and if you plan to follow suit I would recommend a large shallow dish (rather than the tall one I've pictured) to ensure even freezing and optimal scoopability. Or, for ease, you can freeze individual portions in ramekins to be turned out as molded desserts.

Either way, it's up to you. It suits a spoon but is immensely lickable. But if you opt for the latter, I'll give you one last piece of advice and whisper two words: Sugar Cones. Truly. If you're going to do it, go full on.

I've mentioned Oz, I've invoked Poe, I sang and told you about Eton Mess. My work here is done and my mind is free and clear.

I have a feeling though, it won't be for long, because there are blueberries about and peaches (peaches!) are in season. 

Until next time.

FROZEN RASPBERRY ETON MESS

This recipe from BBC Good Food was my jumping off point for the lemon curd, and I think it is what makes this dessert. I have added a concentrated sugar syrup (basically a pale caramel) to the cream in an attempt to keep it as luscious as possible when frozen.

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 tablespoons caster sugar
  • 2 cups heavy (whipping) cream, divided
  • Seeds scraped from half a vanilla bean
  • A pinch of salt
  • 1/3 cup crème fraîche or sour cream
  • 1/4 cup raspberry purée, divided, see note
  • 1/4 cup lemon curd, divided, see note
  • 4 ounces meringues

METHOD

In a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan stir the sugar into 3 tablespoons of water until it is dissolved. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Leave to bubble, without stirring or agitation, until the sugar becomes thick and syrupy and the bubbles begin to slow. This will take around 6 minutes.  

Meanwhile, warm 1/2 cup of the cream on the stove or in the microwave. Do not boil, just warm. 

When the sugar syrup is ready (it may have a hint of colour and that's okay), carefully whisk the warm cream into the sugar. Keep stirring, bring back to a boil and cook until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from the heat, scrape in the vanilla seeds and sprinkle in the salt. Stir again to combine. Set aside to cool.

Once cool, pour the sweetened cream into the remaining heavy cream and refrigerate until cold.

Strain the chilled cream through a fine-meshed sieve into a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer. Beat the cream into soft peaks. Fold in the crème fraîche.

Roughly crumble in the meringues. Drizzle almost all of the raspberry purée over top and fold for a rippled look. Spoon most of the lemon curd into the dessert, folding one last time until lightly marbled. Pour the dessert into a freezer-safe container. Use the remaining purée and curd to decorate the top.

Freeze until firm (the timing will depend on the specific dimensions of the container used). 

Place the dessert into the refrigerator of 20 minutes, or at room temperature for 10 minutes, before serving. Spoon into bowls or scoop into cones and enjoy. 

Notes: 

  • For the raspberry purée, I make a small batch of this recipe, substituting the strawberries.
  • When making the lemon curd I used one lime (and its zest) in with the lemons; it has a deeper, sharper sourness that I think is especially nice with raspberries. While we're on the subject, passion fruit curd would be heavenly.

*******

Just in case you'd like to know, the latest issue of UPPERCASE Magazine is out! In it you'll find my recipe for Black Raspberry Milkshakes, the testing for which pretty much convinced our eldest that milkshakes should be considered an essential part of his everyday. A look at the shakes is here, and a glimpse between the covers is here.

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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.

The other day, I met a chair. It is solid walnut, and exceedingly handsome, with four sturdy legs and a softly-curved back that cradles the body and encourages the spine to recline. It is worn in places, with dings and nicks from days upon years spent in service.

It is a chair that should belong to a studious sort, one predisposed to a woolen wardrobe, layers upon layers of gray and black. The sort of owner that bears the weight of a long scarf wound endlessly about the neck.

One that would ponder in this chair. Consider. Discuss obscure literature and drink very strong coffee. By candlelight, most likely, or at most an antiquated fixture that would offer the dimmest circle of golden light.

It is a chair that encourages me to change my name, to cast off the trappings of the world, to instead choose to "live in a garret and eat black bread". It would be quite theatrical. And I would be quite comfortable.

That is, as long as you understand that by garret I mean our den, and by black bread I mean bittersweet chocolate scones. This chair inspires scones. Demands them, even.

Slightly austere in their sweetness, and comparitively meager in their fat, these scones revel in their dusky depth. The tenderness of their crumb is mitigated by the edge of cocoa and shot through with bitter chocolate.

You can call me Nina if you'd like.

BITTERSWEET CHOCOLATE SCONES
 

Think of these as the biscotti of the scone world; slightly sandy textured and subtle in their sweetness, and pair well with coffee and tea.

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar, plus additional for sprinkling
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, diced
  • 1 large egg plus one egg white for glazing
  • 3/4 cup 18% cream, chilled
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped

METHOD

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 flour, cocoa powder, sugar, baking powder and salt. 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. Alternatively, sift together the dry ingredients in a medium bowl, then cut in the chilled butter with two knives or a pastry cutter. As before, the blend should be rough, with uneven pieces of butter still visible.

Lightly whisk together the whole egg, cream and vanilla. With the machine running still on low (or stir), pour the liquids slowly into the flour and butter mixture, stirring until just combined. Small bits of butter should still be visible, but almost all the flour should be incorporated. With the mixer still on low, stir in the chocolate. If proceeding by hand, use a wooden spoon or silicone spatula to fold and turn the flour mixture to incorporate the liquids, then stir in the chocolate. Do not overmix.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Working quickly, gently knead the dough, folding and pressing gently until fairly smooth. Divide the dough into three, and shape each ball of dough into a 4" round about 3/4"-1" thick. Cut each round into four wedges, and place on the prepared baking sheet. Once finished, brush each scone with the egg white and sprinkle with extra granulated sugar.

Bake in preheated oven for about 15 minutes, or until the tops are matte and the cut sides look flaky and dry. When fully cooked, 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.

Makes 12 smallish scones.

Notes:

• As mentioned, these scones are only modestly sweet. For a more indulgent treat, substitute the bittersweet chocolate for a semisweet or even a milk chocolate. I encourage cutting up bar chocolate rather than morsels as bar chocolate is free from the stabilizers in chips that help them keep their shape. The uneven shards of chocolate will slightly melt into the dough, turning into little puddles of oozing darkness.

• For added richness, substitute 1/2 cup heavy cream for the 18% and use 2 large eggs instead of 1. In this variation you may need more flour for the dough to come together. Add it sparingly, a bit of stickiness to the dough is good.

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