I'm going to get straight to the point, because the point  here is peaches, and as of my count taken at 2:27 p.m. on Monday, August 5, I've had two servings of said peaches.

I'm strongly considering a third.

 

5SpicePeachPlate.jpg

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

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

 

5SPicePlate7.jpg

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

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

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

My third helping will be with ice cream.

5SpicePeachPlate2 .jpg

FIVE SPICE ROASTED PEACHES WITH GLAZED SESAME OATS

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

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

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

FOR THE OATS

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

 

FOR THE PEACHES

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

TO SERVE

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

 

 

METHOD

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

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

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

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

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

Enough for 4 servings.

5SpicePeachPlate3.jpg
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Date squares. Or do you call them bars? By whatever name, they were not a product of my childhood kitchen. My earliest association with these fruit-stuffed cookie sandwiches was elementary school bake sales, set up in the halls of our school for some charitable endeavour or another.

Those were exciting times, when our milk money was augmented with a few extra coins from Mum so that my brother and I could purchase a treat of our own choosing. Of our own choosing! I remember being giddy at the thought of such power. Upon arrival at school, all eyes would grow wide as the exotic array of baked goods emerged from backpacks. The riches were transferred to the careful hands of parent volunteers who laid them out on long tables in the hall outside our classroom. I don't know how I kept myself from swooning at the sight. Nor do I know how we lasted through what surely seemed an interminable wait until lunchtime.

A child of specific tastes, the exact moment the big hand and the little hand met at the top of the clock and that lunch bell rang, I'd make a beeline for the Rice Krispie treats. How do I love thee, you golden bricks of marshmallow-and-butter-bathed cereal. They were first-class sugar bombs, and a guilty favourite to this day. I vaguely recall date squares had their place on those tables, but they resided only on the edge of my awareness.

Fast forward to yesterday, when I had in my possession a stash of Medjools. I'd bought some for the specific purpose of a sticky-toffee-pudding-inspired cake; but when the matter of the cake was taken care of, a few handfuls remained, succulent and sweet beneath their sugar-flaked skin. In consideration of my previous nonchalance, it was surprising choice that I set about knocking together a pan of date squares. The first date squares I've ever baked.

I consulted various recipes, and took the best from the varied incarnations of date squares (bars?) I found. Some were with a shortbreadish base that had the butter and sugar creamed together before the introduction of the flour. A few had eggs involved, while most did not. There were oats and nuts to consider, and then there were dialogues in regards to the filling; sweeten or not to sweeten. Options galore.

I decided my treasures should be left as they were, so I stewed the dates briefly, then processed them into a dense, gungy purée that squelched pleasingly when spooned. The kicker in the filling was the few specks of floral-sharp clementine zest, which light up the mellowness of the dates like sparklers in the night sky. It was a modest elaboration that made all the difference.

The rest followed a simple method, you make the same sort of crisp topping I like for crumbles; cold butter is cut into a flour mixture to form irregular clumps, clumps which melt upon baking and crisp the surrounding dry ingredients into a rough and golden landscape. In this case the flour and oats are divided, with half patted into a tin to form the bottom crust. The dates slump in next, then the rest of the mixture is scattered over top.

When baked, the date filling sinks and seeps into the lower crust, so that the line between the two is blurred and what is left perfectly-bound strata of oats and fruit. The topping is not invited to their party and so turns sandy and delicate, crunchy only here and there. The perfect offset to the heft that lies beneath.

From the oven, the pan must rest, first on the counter and then in the fridge. The butter, and there is a good deal of butter here, firms up just enough to give it all some additional structure and the layers get a chance to settle into each other. All that's left is to cut the pan into bars (squares?) before you take a piece in one hand, a cold glass of milk in the other, and feel rather smug about your handiwork. There is something to be said for the act of slicing a tray of cookies that gives such a gratifying feeling of provision - a few swift swipes of the blade and you can feed a household for days. Happily. Handily.

I do not know what I was expecting with that first bite, but I surely wasn't expecting this. The skimpy serving of spices I had granted the crust had made their presence known in the most wonderful way; the squares were perfumed with the dark, deep notes of the wintry spices, and tasted of everything homespun and old-fashioned. And I liked it very much.

Now if by some rift in the space-time continuum third-grade me happens to be reading this, please take my advice and maybe give date squares a chance. And while we're at it, let me tell you now that our brief, torrid dalliance with crimped hair in the fifth grade is not a good idea. I don't care if all your friends own crimping irons, it's not a good look for them either.

Heed my words, younger me, you'll understand when you're older. And save your pennies for the next bake sale.

OAT AND NUT DATE SQUARES

Adapted from a variety of sources. I used some clementine to flavour the filling, but a few grates of orange zest would be just as good.

INGREDIENTS

  • 10 ounces (around 2 cups) pitted dates
  • 1 cup water
  • zest from half a clementine
  • 1/2 cup ground nuts, see note
  • 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • a pinch of ground clove
  • 1 cup dark brown sugar, packed, see note
  • 6 ounces (3/4 cup, 1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter at coldish room temperature, diced
  • 1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats

METHOD

Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C). Grease and line an 9-inch square pan with parchment paper so that the paper hangs over the sides of the pan.

In a small saucepan, pour the water over the dates. Bring to a boil over medium high heat, stirring often. Reduce the heat to medium low to maintain a simmer, cooking the fruit until all of the liquid has been absorbed and the dates become a soft, concentrated paste, around 10 minutes. Stir often. Set the fruit aside to cool, stir in the clementine zest.

Once the dates are cool, purée them in a food processor fitted with the metal blade attachment. Scrape out the dates to a bowl as best as you can, but don't worry if there's a bit left behind. Set the fruit aside.

Into the processor, add in the nuts, flours, salt, baking soda and spices. Pulse to combine. Add the sugar and pulse again. Using your fingers to keep the pieces separated, crumble in the butter into the dry ingredients. Pulse again a few times until the flour and butter mixture resembles a coarse, uneven meal. Pour the mixture into a large bowl and stir in the oats.

Press a generous half of the crust mixture into the prepared pan. Spoon the date filling over, spreading it to cover the crust completely. Sprinkle the rest of the crust mixture over the fruit. Bake in the preheated oven until the top crust is golden brown and crisp, around 30 minutes. Rotate the pan once during baking.

Cool the bars completely on a rack, still in the pan. Once at room temperature, chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes to firm up. Slice as desired, serving them at room temperature or chilled.

Makes one 9-inch square pan, can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature or refrigerated (my preference).

Notes:

• You can choose the nuts to use here. I went with walnuts (robust), but pecans (buttery) and almonds (fragrant) are also good candidates. In the case of nut allergies (hi Hannah!), use an additional 1/2 cup of either of the flours.

• The kosher salt remains noticeable in the crust; if you prefer a less discernible result, use a finer-grained salt and possibly use less.

• I am tempted to try these again with 3/4 cup brown sugar and 1 1/4 cup of oats, but my family has said that they should be as they are. Just thought I'd mention.

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Lightly toasted; an adapted Irish soda bread slathered with butter and black raspberry preserves, served on my Grandmother's china.

When I married my husband, I adopted his surname. Lucky for me, attached to that marvelous man was a name that suited my own and came with an added bonus - an apostrophe as its crown. And so, on our wedding day, my Indian self became an Irish girl.

At birth each of our sons were claimed by their history, given names which carry meaning in our respective families. As the boys grow, I am time and again amazed by the echoes of their heritage as they become evident. William's smile is the replica of his father's at the same age. Benjamin's eyes carry my expressions. Family members tell stories of relatives we have never known, and how they are mirrored now in our children.

I am struck by the wonder of it, the way that traits find their way through bloodlines, inextricably weaving generations together in repeating pattern. It is an unending chorus, sung in round, sung back.

Our sense of identity is in constant evolution; carrying on and adding on, as we move forward in lives and relationships. Despite this change, we often remember back as we move ahead - gesture a nod of acknowledgement to the clans, countries and cultures from which we came.

Although I cannot pretend to be an expert Indian cook, I do attempt to speak that language of spice in our kitchen. My chicken curry might not exactly be my father's, but it is the one my children will know as "theirs". I have made a refrain of my commitment to maintaining that vocabulary of food, so that it will remain familiar.

With the day for St. Patrick approaching next week, my thoughts took a Gaelic turn. Irish might make up only a fraction of our family, but its brand upon us is indisputable - therefore it seemed proper to herald the feast of the patron saint of Ireland. Ever-present on the Irish table, hearty, satisfying soda bread made its way to our plates, with its unassuming stature and nubbled crumb. Although its rough-hewn crust seems substantial, its cheeks are tender. Soda bread is heavier textured than a scone, and with a flavour more subtly-complex than the all-out buttery-ness of a biscuit.

The romantic side of me wants to say that the reason my sons and husband enjoyed this bread so much was because of some genetic predisposition - a subconscious recognition of an ancient root in their geneology. That may be the case, or it might have just been some good bread. Either way, the intent was there; a meal to celebrate not one day, but all those that had passed before.

IRISH-ISH SODA BREAD

Traditional Irish soda bread only contains flour, buttermilk, baking soda and salt. This version uses a mix of flours, along with oats for texture, and an egg for richness. Since I more often than not have yogurt in the fridge, I have used it as my liquid. A quick bake in high heat allows you to have bread on the table, from start to finish, in about an hour.

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 cup old-fashioned rolled oats (large flake, not instant)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 tablespoons golden (light) brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 1/2 cups yogurt (I use non-fat)
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 4 tablespoons (1/4 cup, 1/2 stick) cold, unsalted butter, diced

METHOD

Preheat oven to 425°F (220°C). Line a standard baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flours, oats, salt, sugar, baking powder and baking soda.

In a small bowl, whisk together the yogurt and egg. Set aside.

Using a pastry cutter, two knives or your fingers, cut the butter into the flour cutting and work the butter until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Stir in the yogurt, mixing until you have a rough dough. Use your hands to turn and lightly knead the bread in the bowl, incorporating all the dry ingredients.

Working quickly, turn the dough onto a lightly-floured work surface and knead gently for about 30 seconds; the dough should be soft and elastic. Form the dough into a boule, about 8-inches across with a gentle dome and slightly-flattened top. Dust the surface of the bread with a sprinkling of flour, then use a sharp knife to slash a shallow cross from edge to edge of the loaf. Transfer bread to prepared baking sheet.

Bake for 35-45 minutes, or until the bread is golden brown and sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom. If the crust gets too dark during baking, tent loosely with foil. Cool on a rack for at least 10 minutes, then enjoy.

Makes 1 loaf.

Notes:

• The dough make take a few turns in the bowl to fully come together. If only absolutely necessary, add a bit more yogurt, a teaspoon at a time, to incorporate all the dry ingredients. Work the dough as gently as possible.

Covetousness is probably not the most noble of things to admit, but I am guilty nonetheless.

I have, at some point or another, yearned for the following:

• Eyeglasses. I do not wear them, but I have often thought that a well-chosen pair can make the wearer look instantly infinitely more interesting. I have a love of sunglasses for this same reason.

• A pair of slouchy, winter-white suede boots with layers upon layers of fringe and little silver beads adorning said fringe that would click as you walked. I thought them fabulous, and my heart tightened a bit every time I heard the distinctive sound they made as my classmate skipped about the playground. How I would have skipped had those boots been mine.

• Curly hair. Or straight. I had curls when I was an infant, fairly-straight hair in my teens, and now it falls somewhere (infuriatingly) in between.

• A jaunty accent. Or a mysterious one. Or a charming one, even. Now I know I have an accent, a Canadian one, and could easily move to a foreign country and attain this aspiration. Problem is, I like living in Canada. And, if we are being honest, I do not often hear comments on the lilting tone of the Canadian manner of speaking. Give me a good, rich Irish brogue or something equally melodic.

• The set of wicker Barbie doll furniture (loveseat, two chairs and a table) owned by my friend who lived up the street when I was six years old. How I wished it was mine. Looking back, I assume that this set was not an officially-branded Barbie product, as all of her furniture was molded plastic and this, this was the real thing. Delicate rattan interwoven into pattern upon pattern, with twists and arabesques and florets as decoration. My friend would bring her set over to play, which was fun, but deep down I wished it was mine. I imagined that my Peaches n' Cream Barbie, renamed Scarlett or something fittingly-dramatic, would flit gracefully about the verandah of her Dream Home as best as one without fully-operational joints could flit, only to finally alight upon the edge of the wicker settee as she entertained her gentlemen callers.

• Gorgeously-ripe, local strawberries in March. Crimson to their cores, such jewels that if you strung them on some silk you could wear them as a necklace. Juicy, luscious fruit, tasting of sun.

As you might surmise, dear reader, that last object of desire is my most recent fixation. My preoccupation developed when I looked at Helen's site a few weeks ago. Ooof. That first photo brought all my want for springtime into one perfect image, and it hit me with the weight of all the snow we have had this season. The mint is so green, the soup so vivid, the berries so vibrant, they belong in a jewelery box.

My longing was only exacerbated by two gloriously-sunshiney days that came that same week; the wind had turned mild, carrying the kiss of spring to our cheeks. Sadly, it was not long lived, and we were back to a windchill of -17°C by the weekend. But although the warmth was gone, my desire for strawberries remained.

I could not ignore the cold, and so I looked to make something that would appease my craving, but still took its inspiration from my meteorological circumstance. I settled on oatcakes, ones that incorporate cooked steel-cut oats, griddled little cakes that are substantial without heaviness. The oats contribute not only a slight chewiness and nuttiness, also a cobblestoned texture.

Of course I needed to have my strawberries. This was one of those occasions when the habit freezing local berries when in season comes in handy. A scarely-sweetened sauce, simply crushed fruit, a sprinkle of sugar and a squeeze of lemon, brought zest and brightness and smacking sharpness to the pleasantly-stodgy oatcakes. The most modest drizzle of maple syrup rounded out that edge, with a mellow sweetness that worked with both the berries and the oats.

Breakfast done, I could not help but smile in the knowledge that both our appetites and my want were satisfied.

STEEL-CUT OATCAKES WITH QUICK STRAWBERRY SAUCE

FOR THE OATCAKES

  • 1 cup of all-purpose flour

  • 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 cup of prepared steel-cut oats
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 1/2 cup yogurt (I use nonfat)
  • 1/2 cup milk (I use 1%)
  • 3 tablespoons melted clarified butter or neutral oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

FOR THE SAUCE

  • strawberries, frozen in my case, fresh if you are lucky
  • freshly-squeezed lemon juice
  • granulated sugar
  • salt

TO COOK AND SESRVE

  • melted butter, optional for cooking
  • maple syrup, optional for serving

METHOD

In a large bowl, whisk or sift together the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, stir together the oats, egg, yogurt, milk, oil and vanilla. Stir these wet ingredients into the dry, mixing until incorporated but not completely smooth. Allow to rest while you make the strawberry sauce.

For the sauce, take a few handfuls of strawberries, and put them in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add a squeeze of lemon juice and a sprinkling of sugar. Cook, until the berries begin to soften and release their juices, about 5 minutes. Crush the berries using a potato masher or the back of a fork, until you have a coarse, chunky sauce. Taste, adding sugar accordingly and a pinch of salt if desired. Bring to a simmer and cook another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until the juices have reduced to your liking. Take the sauce off the heat and allow it to cool slightly while you prepare the oatcakes.

To cook the oatcakes, preheat a non-stick or cast iron griddle over medium high heat. Lightly brush with melted clarified butter if desired. Ladle about 1/4 cup of the batter onto the pan. Cook until the edges become dry and bubbles begin to form in the centre, about 3 minutes. Flip and cook on the other side until golden and puffed, about another 2 minutes. Remove to a platter and keep warm in a low oven if needed. Continue until all batter is used. Serve the oatcakes with the strawberry sauce and a drizzle of maple syrup.

Makes 20 small pancakes, serving about 4-6.

Notes:

This blueberry sauce (scroll down) would also be a fine accompaniment. And congratulations to Carrie and Andrew on their 50th post.

• For those with fresh berries, you might want to forgo cooking the sauce entirely, instead crushing the fresh berries and allowing them to soak in their juices, along with the sugar and lemon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be well.

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

BAKED OATMEAL WITH BLUEBERRIES AND BANANA

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

INGREDIENTS

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

METHOD

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

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

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

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

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

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

Makes about 4 hearty servings.

Notes:

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

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

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

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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?