This morning I went to an Italian market in town to buy jars. There, the jars are for sauce and soups, but each year around this time I snatch empty ones for eggnog. I never liked eggnog much until I started making it; this one has rum and bourbon, and gets aged for 10 days before we start sipping. It is a work in progress— I've never even typed up the recipe, but it feels like it'll always be a part of our holidays.

I started writing on November 30th, but never got far. I've spent the last half hour trying to remember where I was planning to go from that paragraph, and what I'd hoped to say, but I can't reconstruct the memory. Maybe it's still as good as a start as any, because I'm happy to be here and talking again. 

Rum Ginger Sticky Toffee Cake | Tara O'Brady

The bulk of that eggnog went to the annual holiday party Nikole hosts at the Herriott Grace studio. I held some back for our household supply, but went through it faster than expected and December 15, the fridge was dry. We made another batch, the halls were decked, and the holidays were as bright as we could make them.

There was a rice pudding I forgot to serve one night that was eaten in the morning as porridge, dusted aromatically with Ceylon cinnamon. I made gingerbread dough and the boys decorated cutout snowflakes on Christmas Eve. (On the topic, do you have a favourite gingerbread cookie recipe? I wasn't thrilled with the one we used.) The trifle on Christmas Day was one of the best in recent memory, its surface regal in gossamer silver leaf. Instead of the usual sponge, the base was an egg-rich coconut cake. It was heavy with vanilla and woolly with shredded coconut, and it held its own against the black raspberry filling, custard, and cream.

Through the days, and those meals, all the things I've wanted to mention have been rattling around my brain. So, we've got ground to cover.

I've been revising favourite essays of the year and finding new ones by working my way through this list: Longreads best of 2016.

Speaking of Herriott Grace, Sean and I have a pair of these little earthenware cups for our household nog—they are matte and feel like velvet in the hand. At the party we served it in these beauties, and they were equally perfect. 

George Michael rehearsing for the Freddie Mercury tribute concert . (Yes, that's David Bowie watching from one side.) 

Back in September, I started another column with The Globe and Mail. I am still in the Life section every month, and now in the Style section too, as part of Kitchen Cabinet. It a feature in rotation with three other cooks—they're proper chefs, actually, and I'm chuffed to be the odd one out. That cake up top was for my December column, and it was inspired by both sticky toffee pudding (a cake I enduringly associate with winter) and the Dark and Stormy cocktail (a drink I'm happy to have in hand any time of year). The cake is vaguely stodgy, freckled with waxy nubs of walnut, the leathery chew of dates, and fiery flecks of candied ginger. You soak the cake with some toffee syrup while it's still hot, then save the rest to offer at the table. I think it's a cake that will take us to spring.

A friend was looking for vegetarian recipes and one I recommended was Heidi's Green Lentil Soup with Curried Brown Butter. It's terribly good.

I want to make these for the lads before the winter break is over. And I'm bookmarking this cake

Ashley wrote about the Everyday Yellow Dal from Seven Spoons; I've often said that dal and rice, finished with a pat of ghee, flaky salt, and finely minced onion, is my never-fail comfort food. Ashley's words, capturing the fortifying effect of gathering at the table, are its ideal partner.

And finally, if you haven't seen it already, this piece by Molly isn't to be missed. 

May this new year bring you such happiness. xo

 

RUM AND GINGER TOFFEE CAKE

FOR THE CAKE

Butter for pan

  • 3/4 cup | 180 ml water
  • 1/4 cup | 60 ml dark rum
  • 1 tablespoon finely grated fresh ginger
  • Zest of half an orange, finely grated
  • Zest of a lime, finely grated
  • 12 ounces | 340 g pitted dates, Medjools preferred
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 ounces | 60 g walnuts, toasted and cooled
  • 2 1/4 cups | 290 g all purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • Scant 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 cup | 215 g dark brown sugar
  • 3/4 cup | 170 g unsalted butter, soft
  • 4 eggs
  • 1/4 cup (50 g) finely diced candied ginger

FOR THE SAUCE

  • 1/2 cup | 115 g unsalted butter, cubed
  • 1 1/4 cup | 260 g dark brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
  • 1 tablespoon black treacle or molasses, optional
  • 2 tablespoons dark rum
  • 1/2 cup | 120 ml heavy cream
  • Seeds scraped from half a vanilla bean, or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

METHOD

Please refer to my column in The Globe and Mail. 

 

 

 

 

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I am stuck in a monochromatic palette; mounds of pristine snow and a bleached-out sky offer a pale landscape out my window. The much-appreciated sunshine is bright and clear, but with none of its summertime golden hue.

While still beautiful, late winter makes you work just that little bit harder to feel welcomed. Whether it be wardrobe choices (layers are key), weekend plans (more layers) or what to eat (layers of flavour), these last few months of the season seem to require more effort than those preceding.

Late fall brings excitement over the return of slow-cooked braises, the opportunity to fill the kitchen with heat and heady smells of herbs and spice. Winter follows with resplendent holiday celebrations, with tables groaning under grand feasts. But now, in the doldrums of early March, the mornings dawn gray and pale. The sun valiantly attempts to stay awake for dinner, but often fails.

It is amongst all these pallid hues that we must still attempt to eat our greens. Spring and summertime salads can be made seemingly without thought; all I need are some sparingly-dressed tender young lettuces, or some grilled asparagus or sugar-sweet tomatoes freshly plucked from the garden.

Late February and March are a bit more challenging. Hardy winter leaves are often rather unyielding in their assertiveness, and can require equally dominant accompaniments to temper their influence.

That is not to say that the effort is unrewarded; milk-coloured Belgian endive, paired with pungent Roquefort and pears is a wonderful balance of bitter, savoury and sweet. Juicy grapefruit segments are the classic counterpoint to aromatic slivers of shaved fennel. Or, as in here, the wild, barely-green curls of sharp frisée compliment salty Parmesan and a honeyed vinaigrette. The lively layers of texture and taste (almost) make one forget the winter lurking just outside the door.

Epilogue: I should mention that I started writing this post over the weekend, when we were blanketed under snow and dealing with temperatures in double-digit negative degrees Celsius. Mother Nature was evidently in a benevolent mood, as today the sky is positively robin's egg blue and we have been granted an absolutely balmy 15ºC. The snow has melted, and I even have some windows open.

Tomorrow is going to be -4ºC.

Salad of frisée, apples and Parmesan
My own simple creation. Candied nuts can be used instead of the roasted, and pear substituted for the apple. White balsamic vinegar, albeit untraditional, adds an interesting character to this vinaigrette. If unavailable, Champagne vinegar would be my recommended choice.

Ingredients
1 teaspoon grainy Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon honey
2 1/4 teaspoons white balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper
12 pecan or walnut halves, unsalted
1 small head frisée, washed and dried, root end removed and roughly torn
1 small apple, gala or cameo preferred, thinly sliced
A few shavings of Parmesan cheese, to garnish

For the vinaigrette; in a small bowl whisk together the mustard, honey and white balsamic until combined. Whisking constantly, slowly add the olive oil until the vinaigrette becomes emulsified and thick. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside.

In a dry skillet over medium heat, lightly toast the nuts until fragrant. Remove from pan, set aside. In a bowl, toss together the frisée, apple and nuts. Pour over about half of the vinaigrette and toss gently. Check for seasoning.

Divide the salad between two serving plates, garnish with Parmesan shavings. Drizzle additional vinaigrette over the plates, reserving some to be served alongside if desired.

Serves 2.