About two weeks ago I walked out on a pier that stretches into Lake Ontario. That pier runs parallel to another one, one that crops out from the edge of the neighbourhood where I grew up. It was a grey and windy day, with cotton batting clouds to almost the horizon, but you could still see Toronto from this shore. There was a queue of steamships, the kind my father used to sail, anchored in deeper water; they were waiting for their turn up the canal, or for a pilot to board, or something like that. The pier doesn't look that long until you've made it to its end — at which point you'll find a park bench, a collection of boulders, and a life preserver on a stand. 

Ships on Lake Ontario | Tara O'Brady

Over the last two months, I finished my book. Recipes, headnotes, and photos, sent off into the world (really to the offices of my publisher). We've worked through one round of edits, the design is well underway, and in just less than seven months from now, it will be in bookstores. Then it will really, no-turning-back-now out in the world. 

Very soon I'll be able to share more, including, fingers crossed, a peek at the cover (!!) and some of the nitty gritty about what you'll find inside.

It's funny. A friend told me recently that she thought I'd been quiet about the book, and I was speechless; flabbergasted even. (As an aside, flabbergasted is such a fine word.) From my perspective, I've lived and breathed this book for the last year or so. I've often heard it said that writing a book is like having a child, like the delivery part — the effort, the stress, the worry and then the relief and reward. For me, writing a book was like having a child. Not being in labor, but when the baby is home and you're tasked with the care of it. The Book was on my mind always, even when I was away from it. I went to it first thing in the morning, and put it to bed each night. Some nights, I went to bed with it, quite literally sleeping with a stack of pages on the nightstand. 

Pistachio-lemon Israeli Couscous | Tara O'Brady

Now it's a Sunday afternoon and I'm reconstructing our dining room. When I was in the depths of the book I found it more productive if I could write right beside the kitchen instead of working upstairs. Even if I wasn't cooking from the manuscript, cooking while writing kept me in the proper mindset . So this table, intended to seat eight, currently seats a monitor, keyboard, mouse, printer, external hard drive, a stack of notebooks, another of books, my camera, its battery, a bottle of Tylenol, a pile of receipts, and a tin of cookies a friend sent me from Paris. 

One of the books in said stack, fittingly enough, is David Lebovitz's My Paris Kitchen. Since that book came out, it's not made it to my bookshelf, but rather has spent its days on this table or in my kitchen, since I've been using it so much. In the first week, we made David's croque-monsieurs twice, with lots of mustard and cornichons on the plate, and a salad of bitter greens to join them. Then I made two of his tapenades —the artichoke with rosemary and the green olive with almonds — for summer afternoon snacking, then, when the basil and vegetables were plentiful in our weekly CSA box, his soupe au pistou made quick work of the bounty. Now that the weather is cooling I'm eyeing the scalloped potatoes with blue cheese and roasted garlic and the roast lamb with braised vegetables and salsa verde. 

I have such faith in his recipes that the first time I made the dish that follows, I went for a double batch. It's a bowl of fat couscous studded with nuts and fruit, including preserved lemons. We had it warm with a roasted chicken and some green beans, then the next day I had it at room temperature with bronzed slices of halloumi. It was filling without too much heft, fragrant and refreshing with fruit. The pinch of cinnamon provided an elusive, purring sort of backnote of spice that was especially effective.

This is such a useful book, full of the kind of recipes my family and I adore, including unexpected additions like caramel pork ribs, meatballs with sriracha, and naan stuffed with Laughing Cow cheese. And I've not even gotten started with the desserts (why hello, coffee cème brulée and carrot cake). 

My Paris Kitchen is beautiful. Ed Anderson's photography is stunning; he conveys the beauty of Paris as artfully as he does the food. Then there are David's essays; longer passages that give context to the recipes, and offer a glimpse into his past experiences and his present days. He is sharply funny, charming, and so damn knowledgeable. This is the kind of book you want to spend some time with.

Speaking of spending time, I've missed this. It's good to be back, and it's good to see you.

 

LEMON-PISTACHIO ISRAELI COUSCOUS

Recipe by David Lebovitz, from his book My Paris Kitchen. (Copyright 2014. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House. All rights reserved). The recipe and method as they are in the book, with my notes below. As David says in the headnote, orzo is a good substitute for the Israeli couscous. 

SERVES 4 to 6

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 preserved lemon
  • 1/2 cup (30 g) chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 2 tablespoons salted or unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup (80 g) diced dried fruit (any combination of cherries, cranberries, apricots, prunes, or raisins)
  • 1/2 cup (65 g) unsalted (shelled) pistachios, very coarsely chopped (almost whole)
  • 3/4 teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 1/4 cups (225 g) Israeli couscous or another small round pasta
  • Freshly ground black pepper

METHOD

Trim the stem end from the lemon and cut it into quarters. Scoop out the pulp and press it through a strainer into a bowl to extract the juices; discard the pulp. Finely dice the preserved lemon rind and add it to the bowl along with the parsley, butter, dried fruit, pistachios, salt, and cinnamon.

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the couscous and cook according to the package instructions. Drain the couscous and add it to the bowl, stirring until the butter is melted and all the ingredients are well mixed. Season with pepper and serve.

 

NOTES (from Tara)

  • The same weekend I made this salad, my good friends Adam and Tamara catered an event with a salad of couscous with grapes and pine nuts. So inspired , I used diced red seedless grapes instead of the dried fruit, adding them once the couscous had cooled to warmish room temperature. 
  • I went a bit generous with the herbs, using a mix of (mostly) parsley and cilantro — probably using about 3/4 cup (45 g) chopped herbs in total. 
  • I bashed the few pistachios left in the jar  to a powder in a mortar and pestle as garnish.
  • To serve, I layered the couscous with about 9 oz ( 255 g) halloumi, which had been cut into 1/4-inch slices and fried in a medium-hot nonstick pan until they were golden on both sides. 
  • If you don't have preserved lemons, this quick version from Mark Bittman is quite good and only takes a few hours of sitting at room temperature. The ratio of lemons to salt and sugar is 1 : 1 teaspoon : 2 teaspoons, so you can do as many or as few lemons as you'd like. If using these lemons, simply mince the flesh and peel very finely and add them, along with accumulated juices, to the bowl in Step 1.
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In late April we had a frost. After an unbelievably-mild winter that required only two or three shovellings, and a spring that had us in sandals by March, the raw cold of April 29th came as a harsh surprise. 

That said, what was merely startling to us was devastating to the farms and farmers we call neighbours. The fruit trees — apple, peach, pear, plum, cherry and others — were already festooned with early blooms; the fragile flowers couldn't handle the biting, sudden freeze, and were largely wiped out

So, there's been months of waiting. Talking to friends with farms to see how they're doing, peering down the rows of orchards as we drive by, craning our necks in the hope of seeing some fruit on the branches.  

The good news is, pockets of fruit survived — the yields are low, and the season will be short I hear, but there are peaches. There were cherries too, though less than what we've come to expect.

We are thoroughly spoiled by where we live. Smack-dab in the middle of farmland, there's markets almost every day, and roadside stands full up with produce, well into autumn. We're used to the strawberry festival, the cherry festival, and the peach celebration that closes down the main street of a nearby town every August, and by September we're in the orchards, picking apples for cake. We greedily bide our time until the late-summer glut of fruit arrives, and then snatch up the harvest, flat by flat, to be preserved. 

This year, there won't be that boon. I don't know if there will be peaches for canning, there's hope, but not for certain. And so, what we have is all the more precious. I want to take grateful note, as their time is fleeting. 

We often take those days of feast for granted. We've fogotten our luck at what we have nearby.

We bought our first basket of peaches. They smelled like summer holidays, like nostalgia and growing up. They reminded of humid evenings in the backyard, of shortcakes and crumbles, and fruit eaten out of hand sitting at Mum and Dad's old picnic table, with sticky juice running down to our elbows. They made me think of how we seek out the sweetness in so many things, peaches, plums and nectarines among them, and how we find an edge of sharpness in each bite. 

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I didn't want to muss up these peaches; I wanted them for their simple peachy-ness. Pure, straight fruit, helped along maybe, but not essentially changed. That need manifested into peaches soaked in wine, perfumed by honey and vanilla. I chose not to poach the fruit exactly, rather giving them a gentle bath, in the thought that suggestion of warmth would coax a that bit more vanilla out of that pod, and bring that much more tenderness to the peaches, as if there had been an extra day of sunshine.

The fruit goes into the wine whole and unpeeled. There's rather ceremonial beauty in a peach, served whole. The peels are slipped away, like silk across shoulders, just before eating. The skins leave rosy marks on the flesh of the peaches, and also offer some protection from the simmering wine so that their centres are just barely cooked; they retain the direct sour-sweet of the farmstand, tinged with the taste of the wine. And that wine, well, as the peaches sit their flavour fully blossoms, mingling into the liquid — so that wine makes for a boozy consommé, sparkling, bracing and bright. 

I let some runny crème fraîche meander through the juices, it's twang perfect against that of the fruit. The peaches feel fresh, firm and bouncy cheeked, through-and-through fragrant. I like them very much, straight from the fridge. Their taste is clear, that of a July afternoon without cloud.

There are those moments when I look around and wish I could stop time. I wonder for a way to hold everything, as it is, still and somehow the same, to keep safe for the times ahead, for times of frost and freezing.

This is the closest I've come. 

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PEACHES SOAKED IN VANILLA WINE

The peaches require a few hours to chill, so plan with that in mind.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups (500 ml) dryish white wine
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1 vanilla pod, split
  • 4 medium peaches, washed, stems removed but left whole
  • Crème fraîche, to serve

In a saucepan that will fit your peaches snugly, stir together the wine and honey. Run the blunt end of a knife across the vanilla bean to scrape out the seeds, add the seeds to the saucepan, along with the pod itself.

Bring the wine mixture to a boil over medium heat, then reduce the heat to a simmer, stirring occasionally. Allow the wine to bubble gently for a few minutes, until the honey is melted and the mixture starts to thicken just a bit. Carefully lower the peaches into the barely-simmering liquid — they should be submerged — and cook gently for 5 minutes.

Remove from the heat, flip the peaches over, and cover with a lid. Set aside to cool to room temperature, then chill the peaches for at least 8 hours, preferably overnight.

When you're ready to eat, carefully remove a peach from the liquid. Gently pinch the skin with your fingers and it should pull away from the flesh. Peel the peach and place it back in the liquid. Repeat with the remaining fruit.

Thin some crème fraîche with a bit of the wine mixture; it's nice at a pouring consistency. To serve, place a peach in a bowl, spoon over some of the wine, followed by the crème fraîche.

Serves 4, or maybe 2, depending on the day. 

Notes:

  • The peaches must be fully covered by the liquid while chilling, or they will discolour. If needed, top up with some extra wine to keep them dunked, or seal out air by pressing a piece of clingfilm against the surface of the peaches.
  • For those who prefer a thicker syrup, the wine can be further reduced after the peaches have had a chance to soak. I'd remove the fruit, boil down the liquid, then get it good and cold again before serving.
  • Any extra wine in left in the pot can be sipped, or reduced to a syrup as above and saved for eating with ice cream.
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People are already starting to talk about summer in the past tense. And it makes me want to weep.

I am evidently the vulnerable sort. Or just a trifle prone to the dramatic. Either way, its making me a bit emotional. We're only just barely two weeks into the month of July, and I've heard the hushed mention of back-to-school. Really?

A few days ago I was innocently flicking through a clothing catalogue and noticed sleeves were getting longer than those shown a month before. And while I might have gazed longingly at a particularly-tweedy ensemble for a nanosecond, I rallied myself against that affection. Surely the season cannot be over already, before it has even really begun?

We've only had one carnival, the tomatoes are still green and I have not had nearly enough time in the pool. And the other night, there were fireflies. There is still so much of summer left.

I hope that there are days to come with time for walks on warm evenings, the sort that lead you to meander through neighborhoods until the last of the light. For strong coffee in the quiet of the early morning, when the air is already thick with heat. And opportunity to savour sunwarmed peaches, and raspberries picked by eager hands, brought home in baskets stained purple with juice.

And picnics. Days and days for picnics, please and thank you. Did I tell you? We've become the sort to picnic. Picnic folk, if you will. Give me a tree, a patch of grass, even a rock and a box of takeout, I am blissful to sit and while away a minute or an hour or an afternoon. I will find each and every possible excuse to pack up our boys, pack up some nibbles, and make our way to the great outdoors - even if that just means the backyard.

I consider this cake, this raspberry-rippled marvel you see before you, to be my sticking point, my line drawn in the sand against all of those eager to write off the season and look forward to fall.

A buttery base is drowned in an ocean of blue-black raspberries, dolloped with more batter, then covered in a nut-flecked crumble. It is a cake full of berries and peaches and it is ideal for a picnic. Pretty as it is, it is a sturdy sort of beauty. It is a cake as easily eaten out of hand as it is with a knife and fork, and truth be told, I prefer the former method. It makes for effortless picnic-ery.

No siree Summer, I'm not letting go of you yet.

Raspberry Peach Crumb Cake

Adapted from a Better Homes and Gardens recipe, via Inn Cuisine. It is a fine dessert, a grand snack, and I'm sure nobody would sneer if it was offered alongside that aforementioned early-hour coffee.My wonderful (and super cool) nephews, ages 5 and 10, were kind enough to pick these for us - bringing in not one, but two generous harvests. Thanks to you both for your enthusiasm and stained knees.

Ingredients

6 ounces raspberries, fresh or frozen, I used fresh wild black ones

2 medium peaches, peeled and sliced into chunks

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1 egg

1/2 cup sour cream

1/2 cup milk

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 cup granulated sugar

3/4 cup butter, cold and diced

1/3 cup sliced (flaked) almonds

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/8 teaspoon salt

coarse sugar for dusting

Preheat an oven to 350°F (175°C). Butter and flour a 10-inch tart pan with a removable bottom, or a 10-inch springform pan.

In a medium saucepan, toss the raspberries and peaches with the cornstarch to coat. Stir in the sugar and cook over medium heat until bubbling and thick. Remove from the heat and mash the berries and peaches slightly. Take approximately 1/3 of the mashed fruit and transfer to a medium bowl. Set a sieve over the same bowl, and a little at a time, push the remaining fruit through the mesh to remove any seeds and large pulp. Remove the sieve, discard the seeds and pulp, then stir the purée to combine with the reserved fruit. Set aside to cool slightly.

For the cake, in a medium bowl stir together the sour cream, milk, egg and vanilla. Set aside.

Combine the flour and sugar in a large bowl. Using fingers, two knives or a pastry cutter, cut the cold butter into the flour mixture until you have a texture that resembles coarse meal. Remove 1/2 cup of the crumb mixture to a small bowl and stir through the almonds. Set aside.

To the remaining flour mixture, whisk in the baking powder, baking soda and salt. Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients and pour in the liquids. Using light, quick strokes, stir until only just combined. The batter should be thick, but smooth.

Take about 2/3 of the batter and spread it across the bottom and up 1-inch of the sides of the prepared pan. Damp fingers or a wet palette knife make easy work of this. Spoon the reserved raspberry filling over the batter, gently spreading to cover and leaving a 1/2-inch border at the edge. Dollop irregular mounds of the remaining dough over the fruit layer, again using damp fingers or a wet palette knife to coax the batter to almost cover - some gaps are good. Top with the crumb topping over all and then sprinkle with a couple of teaspoons or so of coarse sugar.

Place on a sheet pan and bake in a preheated oven for 30-35 minutes or until a cake tester inserted in the centre comes out clean and the cake starts to pull away from the sides of the pan. Cool, in pan on a rack, for 15 minutes. Remove from the tart pan and serve at warm or at room temperature.

Makes one 10-inch cake.

Notes:

• Although I have not tried it, I am certain another berry or fruit could be substituted in the filling. The original recipe asked for all raspberries, with all the pulp and seeds removed. I am one who believes that sometimes a bit of seeds is a good thing, somehow making the berries taste all the more like themselves, and so I kept some seeds for texture. By all means though, follow what is your preference.

in the spoon

What would you consider the value of a bowl of frozen yogurt?

To be clear, I don't mean its sentimental value, nothing as romantic as all of that, I'm talking about nitty-gritty, slap-a-pricetag-on-that-puppy value.

Hold on, let me give you the details before you all start yelling out answers all The Price is Right-style on me.

This is not just any frozen confection. It is removed from the insipidly-sweet ranks of those frozen yogurts parading as ice cream. It has the unmistakable twang of yogurt, softened only slightly by sweetness. This is one that puts Greek yogurt front and centre; yogurt so thick that when spooned it falls lazily back upon itself in luscious folds. This is one where the yogurt plays equal partner to handful upon handful of mixed berries that have been squished and squashed into a violet-hued pulp.

It's darn good stuff.

Still can't decide? I'll be more specific. Would you think that the aforementioned frozen yogurt was worth, hmm ... I don't know ... say, a bouquet of peonies?

I'm totally serious. You can keep your dollars and cents, thank you very much, I will happily hand over pints in exchange for armfuls of blooms.

Why, you ask? The peony is one of my two absolute favourite flowers. They are, without a doubt, the most feminine of beauties; debutante-dreamy with their frilled crinoline petals. And I am surrounded by them, everywhere but in our yard. While our neighborhood is filled plentiful bushes, heavy with showy blossoms, ours is a peony-free zone. Our yard is too shady for their liking.

In lieu of turning to a life of floral theft, I am seriously considering a trade with our neighbors. Or, better yet, a frozen yogurt stand at the end of our driveway. One bloom for one scoop of equally girly-girl pink yogurt sounds fair, doesn't it?

Epilogue:

My father has glorious peonies growing at home; if our neighborhood's contingent are debs, his are divas. His bushes boast bountiful blooms, bodacious in their size. He kindly gifted me with some recently, on Father's Day no less. (If you look carefully in the photograph above, you'll catch a glimpse of his flowers in the reflection on the spoons.)

The next day, I made Dad a batch of mango frozen yogurt.

So all's well that ends well, dear reader. The only thing wanting is that I do wish I offer you some frozen yogurt. We could sit around my kitchen table, leaning into our bowls, and have a good chat. I could excitedly share with you the news that I am a contributor to the summer issue of UPPERCASE magazine.

I came to know about UPPERCASE gallery through the art of Jennifer Judd-McGee. When she unveiled the piece she had completed for an upcoming show, I was curious to learn more about the (Canadian!) gallery hosting the exhibit. And when I did, I became an immediate fan of Janine Vangool and her many creative endeavours. The magazine is her latest, and I am happy to be included in its pages.

The issue will out on July 2nd. Here's a sneak preview of what I made, and a peek between the covers. In other news, I have also been working on a revised About section, with a little more about me and answers to often asked questions. See the link at the left.

MIXED BERRY FROZEN YOGURT

Greek yogurt is rich to say the least, and heavy on the tongue. It provides a rounded base to all the high-note acidity of the fruit juices.

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 cups fresh mixed berries, I used strawberries, blueberries, blackberries and raspberries
  • 2/3 cup granulated sugar, see note
  • 1 tablespoon freshly-squeezed lemon juice
  • 2 cups Greek yogurt, or well-drained whole milk yogurt

METHOD

Take your lovely berries and, in a large bowl with 1/3 cup of the sugar, crush the life out of them with a potato masher or the back of a spoon. Add the lemon juice, stir briefly, and cover. Allow the berries to macerate at room temperature for about an hour.

Using a coarse sieve set over another large bowl, press the berries through the mesh with the back of a spoon. Underneath the juices should be thick and slightly pulpy, but all seeds and larger fibers should remain above. Once all the berries have been sieved, you should have a generous 1 cup of purée.

Stir in the yogurt. Sweeten, a little at a time, with the remaining sugar. As so much will depend on the sweetness of your berries, add the sugar judiciously, tasting often. You want to take the mixture to where it tastes balanced to your palate, then sweeten it a little bit further. Sweetness is dulled by freezing, so this extra oomph will compensate.

When satisfied with the level of sweetness and all the sugar has dissolved, cover and chill the mix for two hours. Freeze according to your ice cream maker's manufacturer's instructions.

Makes about 1 quart. Soften at room temperature for a few minutes before scooping.

Notes:

• I have used as little as a 1/2 cup of sugar, and as much as almost a full cup for this recipe.

• As Elise points out, frozen yogurt will turn icy once frozen for more than 6-8 hours. So really, the universe is telling you to eat this yogurt the day its made. If you really must store it for longer than that, follow her advice and "add a tablespoon of vodka or kirsch to the mixture right before churning."

It is beautiful out.

No wait, let me say it again for those who feel differently about heat than I do. It is hot. It is humid, with clear sunshine interspersed with rather-impressive thunderstorms and torrential rain.

Now I'll admit, I am a lucky one; I am one of those sorts that lives for heat and revels in temperatures others may consider rather sweltering. Dry heat or sticky with humidity, I will always choose a day that is blistering over a day that is remotely cold.

I even take particular joy the dramatic tendencies of our climate. There is something wholly romantic about a midday thunderstorm. The day suddenly turns to dusk, the air heavy and thick with moisture; and afterwards, who cannot enjoy the green, green, green smell of wet grass and soaking leaves, and the reward of a cool breeze. Even as I write this, rain is pouring through trees alight with sunshine and I can hear not-so-distant peals of thunder.

But, even though I consider the weather to be lovely and sultry, I can see my loved ones virtually wilting as the days go on. And so I feel compelled to aid as only I know how - with food.

While I will admit my days have been busier as of late, what with the arrival of our newborn son and the constant entertainment that is his big brother, I have still managed to get back in the kitchen. Like the lovely familiarity of a tune you've hummed for a lifetime, getting back to cooking and baking has brought me the satisfaction of beloved habits. In this mood I have been looking over my cookbook collection, rediscovering old favourites that somehow seem new again.

With that in mind, I have brought together a few of my best-loved recipes I hope will keep you cool for the summer nights ahead.

As of late, Martha Stewart, baking and food blogs seem to go hand in hand. With Sunday's launch of the cookie-centric contest at marthastewart.com, it is an appropriate opportunity to take a closer look at the prize up for grabs; copies of Martha Stewart's Cookies (Clarkson Potter, 2008). The latest cookbook from the editors of Martha Stewart Living, it is a comprehensive collection of 175 their most versatile and tempting treats.

With its ingenious imaged-based table of contents, coupled with chapter headings organized by cookie texture, this book speaks directly to cravings and their indulgence. I have read some recipes delightfully described as "everyday", a phrase that evokes idyllic notions of an overfilled cookie jar; these are chocolate chip cookies in a myriad of variations, fudgy brownies, delicate sugar cookies and shortbread. Other recipes range from the festive (from Crumbly and Sandy: Vanilla-Bean Spritz Wreaths) to the elegant (from Crisp and Crunchy: Sweet Cardamom Crackers) to the downright decadent (from Rich and Dense: Chocolate Pistachio Cookies).

In regards to content it should be noted that some of these recipes have been previously published in various publications under the Martha Stewart mantle, specifically the special edition Holiday Cookie series. Some readers could be frustrated by this repetition, while others may appreciate having their best-loved favourites in a trade paperback version.

The layout of the recipes is clear and concise, each featuring a photo of the finished product. Although some follow the expected Martha Stewart aesthetic of colourful but simple styling, others depart from this look entirely. These shots are mid-range to close up photographs against a white background which, in comparison to the charm of the former, do seem a bit austere. That said, the minimalist approach does highlight the characteristic textures of the cookies quite well.

Two appendices, one on packaging and the other with information on techniques and cook's tools, are helpful additions. Inspired presentation ideas show off the cookies beautifully for giving, and the instructions frequently include step-by-step photos. The baking notes serve as a useful introduction to the novice baker and as helpful reminders to those more experienced.

In the name of research, the Peanut Butter and Jelly Bars (above and below) were the first to be made from this book. The luscious batter inspired nostalgic thoughts of childhood. Its rich scent reminiscent of the best peanut butter cookie crossed with Reese Pieces; the sort that has greedy fingers fighting over rights to lick the bowl. The finished cookie lived up to the charms of the dough, with tender cookie underneath, a layer of tangy-sweet jam in between and the salty crunch of peanuts and crisp crumble as a crowning crust. Perfect for a lunchbox or after-school treat, these cookies will surely become a household classic.

Peanut Butter and Jelly Bars
From Martha Stewart Holiday Cookies 2001.

The recipe featured in the book is subject to copyright but is quite similar to this version.

Notes:

• I used a combination of mixed berry jam and homemade mixed berry compote for the filling as I wanted a bit of tartness to offset the buttery-rich cookie layer.

• Toffee bits, coconut, honey-roasted nuts or white chocolate chips would be a wonderful substitution or addition to the peanut topping. For those looking for true excess, a chocolate spread or dulce de leche could be used instead of jam filling.

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?