Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Pumpkin Patch

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I really do love fall. It’s definitely one of my favourite season—the other being spring. I love the fall colours, the cooler temperatures and best of all, the harvest. I love going to the farmer’s market on the weekend and seeing the stalls set up with local apples, pears, pumpkins, squashes and other root vegetables.

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With Halloween just around the corner, it means that for one night, we can eat as much sugar and not feel (too!) guilty about it. Originally, I wanted to make something with candy in it, in keeping with the spirit of Halloween. But I got pulled in the opposite direction after I saw these little pumpkin candy corns at the store, and decided to make Pumpkin Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Icing instead.

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This is another Martha recipe. I made an extra half batch of cupcakes to get enough cupcakes for everyone in my class, and they turned out great. They have a nice light crumb, and unlike some cakes and muffins, the pumpkin isn’t overpowered by the spices. It’s definitely a nice and cute variation from the normal pumpkin pie, which I unfortunately did not have a chance to have this year. And don’t, don’t skip the cream cheese icing. It’s really the icing that makes these cupcakes so irresistible, and the sweet tanginess of the icing goes perfectly with the spices of the cupcake. These would also be great for a children’s Halloween party!

I have some pureed pumpkin leftover. Hmm…I foresee pumpkin pancakes in the making this weekend…

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Grocery Woes

So, I know that a lot of people have been a little down little, what with the constant bombardment of the downward-spiralling economy and the dreaded “R” word being thrown around by the Canadian media every day. Times are getting a little tough, pocket change is starting to dwindle, and the ridiculous prices they’re charging for food now just shocks me.

High grocery prices aren’t much of a surprise nowadays. People have been grumbling about the hike in food costs for the past couple of months. Yeah, I’ve noticed it too last year, as I saw my food bill go up slightly. But it wasn’t until yesterday that the reality of high food prices hit me as I stood in Metro in the produce section, staring in complete aghast at a stall of English cucumbers. $2.49. Say wha—? **Blink eyes in disbelief** Yes, $2.49 for a cucumber. A cucumber?! When did cucumbers suddenly cost $2.49? I could get a coffee for less (a rather good cup of coffee at that!). And let’s not even get me started on the issues of lemons…

What is a girl to do when she needs to eat? While the thought of going on a food strike in order to protest these insane prices seems really empowering and tempting, I highly doubt anyone would care if I just sat on the sidelines starving myself (and frankly, I doubt my will-power would last any longer than three days…). Treks to Asian supermarkets help with their lower prices, and I’ve frequented farmer’s markets more; while they may not always been cheaper than supermarkets, at least I know I’m supporting local farmers at the same time. But if this continues, honestly…will I be resorted to rationing my groceries? Obsessively counting how many slices of cucumbers I can put into my salad? That…that my friends, is a terribly sad image, and one I hope not to partake in anytime soon!
(And if you’re wondering, no, I did not dish out the $2.49 for the cucumber. Luckily the Sobey’s right by my place offered the same thing for a more reasonable price.)

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A Quick Fix

As I much as I love being in the kitchen, there are days when I walk through my door at the end of a long day, plop myself on my couch and just wish that, with the snap of my fingers, dinner would be on the table waiting for me. Granted, living in the twenty-first century, life is almost as easy as a snap of a finger. Pick up the telephone and you have delivery in half an hour. Open the fridge or the cupboards and you’re bound to find some frozen or dried, over-processed food that requires reheating or minimal cooking (yes, even I have a few of those stashed in the dark depths of my cupboard/freezer for backup and emergencies).

The thought of ordering in or eating something frozen doesn’t always appeal to me. The better half of me tells me that it’s a healthier choice to just get my lazy ass in the kitchen and whip up something quick and easy, even if it’s just boiling pasta and opening a jar of pasta sauce. Better yet is when I can make use of whatever I have lying in my fridge and just toss them into my dinner as well.

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I saw this recipe a couple of weeks ago in one of my favourite food magazines, delicious, a gorgeous Australian import that makes quite a dent in my wallet each month, but is oh-so-worth it. I love how the recipes featured in the magazine are always simple and easy, with a touch of flare to it. There’s always something for everyone, and luckily, I flagged a recipe that was perfect for a weeknight. The Sesame Chicken with Buckwheat Noodles and Bok Choy, featured in Vol.5, Issue 6 of delicious is great because it’s so forgiving; you can easily substitute many of the ingredients it suggests for something else.

Thinking I had buckwheat soba noodles in my cupboards, a thorough search through them made me realize that I was wrong in my presumptions, thus I substituted the noodles with spaghetti. I also poached a fillet of salmon in lieu of the chicken. You can also play around with different vegetables; I’m sure this dish would taste just as fabulous with some napa cabbage thrown in. As for the sauce, you can just as easily substitute the tahini with peanut butter to make a peanut dressing. Add a bit of spicy chili sauce to it and you’ll have a Sichuan flare. And do tinker around with the sauce to your own tastes. I personally found it a bit bland-tasting at first, so I played around with it until I was happy with the flavours.

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You can either toss this together in a bowl, making for a nice cool (or even warm) dish, perfect for a summer’s day, or toss it all in a skillet during the chillier months. Simple, quick and nutritious, you’ll be happy to know that dinner is only 20 minutes away. And yes, that is faster than calling for pizza.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

C-C-C-Cinnamon Lips

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There are a couple of smells that I absolutely love early in the morning: coffee brewing, bacon frying, and cinnamon baking. Any of those is likely to pull me out of my warm, cozy bed, which, on most days (I admit!), I’m reluctant to do.

For some reason, it’s been feeling like a long week this week. Monday and Tuesday just seemed to never end, so I thought the whole class could use a bit of a pick-me-up on hump day (a.k.a. Wednesday). At first, I was planning on making muffins, since they’re quick and easy, but I thought, ‘If I’m going to go all the way and really give everyone a midweek boost, I should do it with lots, and I mean lots of sugar.’

It’s a shocking confession, but I’m actually not a huge fan of cinnamon buns. I know, I know! How can I not love those deliciously buttery, sugary, cinnamony concoctions?!? But alas, I always found them far too sweet even for my own sweet tooth, and so I often stayed away from them. It doesn’t mean that I don’t love the smell of cinnamon buns though. Who can resist the delicious smell of warm, spicy cinnamon? Plus cinnamon is definitely in my list of top ten favourite spices.

Thus, with a recent craving to make cinnamon buns, I finally got down to business. Since Cinnabon Cinnamon Buns seem to be the queen of all cinnamon buns in the epicurean world, I was able to track down a recipe that claimed to be “just like the real thing.” The recipe intrigued me and I knew I had to give it a try.

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Like most recipes I try out, I also made changes to this one. I think the amount of butter used in the original recipe gave me such an initial shock that I could not resist decreasing the amount. Looking at the nutritional value also made me think that I had to justify making these, and so I replaced half of the all-purpose flour with soft whole wheat flour to made these babies slightly “healthier.” I made the buns the night before, placed them into the pans, covered them with plastic wrap and stuck them in the fridge overnight. All I had to do was wake up an hour earlier than usual on a Wednesday morning, pull the pans out of the fridge to bring them back down to room temperature and allow them to double in size, and then popped them in the oven and let them do their magic.

I glazed these buns with a cinnamon-spiked glaze. These would be just as delicious with a cream cheese frosting if you want to go that route, and I’m dying to try these with a maple-laced cream cheese icing the next time around. The buns turned out super soft and sugary. I’m glad they were still warm by the time I got to school (unlike the time I had to fight against -20°C when I made a Caramelized Pear Upside-Down Gingerbread Cake for my Italian lit class), because cinnamon buns are only really delicious when they’re still warm, gooey and sticky. Be sure to serve these with a lot of napkins!

So, are they like the Cinnabon buns that they claim to be? I can’t tell, because I haven’t had a Cinnabon bun in ages. More importantly though, have I been converted to a cinnamon bun-lover? Not quite. I don’t think I could ever truly love cinnamon buns, since I’m a pancake kind-of-girl, as I’ve confessed many times before. But I’ll definitely be making these again, if not because they make such a wonderful aroma in my apartment that can’t be any air freshener or candle out there.

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Cinnamon Buns

Adapted from this recipe
Makes about 30

4 ½ tsp active dry yeast
1 cup water, at 105°-115°F
2/3 cup + 1 tsp granulated sugar
1 cup milk, warmed to about 90°F
2/3 cup butter, melted
2 tsp salt
2 large eggs, slightly beaten
3 ½ cups soft whole wheat flour *
3 ½ cups all-purpose flour (or more if needed, up to 4 ½ cups—8 cups flour total)

Cinnamon sugar filling
½ cup butter, melted
¾ cup granulated sugar
¾ cup light brown sugar
3 tbsp ground cinnamon

Cinnamon glaze
1 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1 ½ to 2 tbsp warm milk
½ tsp cinnamon (optional)

Prepare the dough: In a nonreactive bowl, combine the 1 tsp of sugar with the warm water and stir to dissolve. Sprinkle in the yeast and set aside until foamy, about 10 minutes.

In a separate bowl, sift together the whole wheat flour and the all-purpose flour.

In a bowl of a standing mixer, combine the warm milk, remaining 2/3 cup of sugar, melted butter, salt and eggs. Using the paddle attachment, mix on medium-slow until combined. Add the yeast mixture and ½ cup of the flour mixture and mix until smooth. Continue to add flour to the dough mixture, ½ cup at a time, until the dough begins to slightly stiffen; it will still be sticky.

Switch the hook attachment and knead on medium speed for about 10 minutes, adding a bit of flour occasionally if the dough sticks too much to the bowl. The dough will still be a little tacky after it’s done kneading, but it should still be easy to handle if you flour your work surface well.

Place the dough in a well-greased glass or plastic bowl, cover and let rise in a warm, draft-free place until doubled in size, about 1 to 1½ hours.

While the dough is rising, make the filling. Combine the granulated sugar, brown sugar and cinnamon in a bowl and mix well.

When dough is doubled, punch down dough and let rest for 5 minutes. Divide the dough in half; cover one half of the dough with a clean teatowel, and roll the other half on a floured surfaced into a rectangle that is roughly about 10 x 12 inches. The dough should still be thickish, about ¾ to 1 inch, which will ensure that your cinnamon buns will turn out soft and fluffy.

Spread half of the melted butter onto the dough. Sprinkle half the cinnamon sugar over the buttered dough, using your hands to spread the sugar to the edges and to press it into the dough. Sprinkle a bit more of the butter over the sugar to make sure it sticks to the dough. Starting with the edge closest to you, tightly roll up the dough like you would jellyroll and pinch the edge together to seal. The middle of the roll will be thicker, so roll it out a bit to even out the roll. Cut into 1½-inch to 1¾-inch slices and place into a well-greased nonstick baking pan (or a pan lined with parchment paper), leaving about a ½-inch space between each roll. (I ended up with 30 rolls with this recipe because I made mine much smaller than was suggested in the original recipe. I ended up using one 13- by-9-inch pan, which held 12 rolls, and two 9- by 9-inch pans, which held 9 rolls each.) **

Let the cinnamon buns rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 45 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the rolls are nicely browned. Cool rolls in the pan for about 10 minutes before drizzling the glaze over top. Serve warm.

To prepare the glaze: In a medium bowl, mix the confectioners’ sugar and cinnamon together. Drizzle in the warm milk and whisk together until a thick, but drizzable, paste is formed. Drizzle with a spoon or the whisk over the warm cinnamon buns.

* I used a combination of soft whole wheat (which is cut specifically for cakes. You could use regular whole wheat, but you’ll get a much rougher texture in your cinnamon buns because of the larger grains of wheat) and all-purpose flour to make these buns slightly healthier, but feel to just use all-purpose flour if you want.

** At this point, you can stick the rolls in the fridge if you don’t want to bake them off immediately. This is great when you don’t have a lot of time in the morning. You can make the buns the night before, and stick them in the fridge. In the morning, just pull them out of the fridge an hour before you plan to bake them, placing them in a warm place to let rise until doubled, and then continue the baking process from there.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

When I say muffin, you say...

Most people, when they hear the word “muffin,” think of those lovely cup-like, part-bread, part-cake, sweet concoctions that go down well with a morning cup of coffee, or a lovely afternoon tea. How many—and be honest—of you would actually think “Oooh, savoury!” Most likely very few, and it is such a shame that savoury muffins are overshadowed by their more popular and sweet counterparts. Why should we discriminate against the savoury muffin then, and think that muffins are only sweet? Savoury muffins want to show the world that they are just as delicious too, and want to feel equal love that the sweet versions get splashed with.

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Case in point, I made a batch of Tomato and Goat Cheese Muffins (courtesy of my Williams-Sonoma Muffin book) for a friend’s housewarming party, and she was absolutely boggled and excited over the fact that I brought over savoury muffins. Yes…savoury…like it was some alien, but delicious concept. Much of this has to do with the way muffins have been promoted in our society. When have you ever seen Have you seen a savoury muffin at your Tim Hortons, your Starbucks or your local grocers (and I’m not talking about the English muffin here)? I think not… The fact that commercialism has practically forced us to accept that muffins are, and should only be sweet is unfair and unjust the equality savoury muffins.

I made these Tomato and Goat Cheese Muffins then, not only as a way to offer up something different to my friends, but to prove that the world of muffins is more than just chocolate chip, banana, carrot, or bran. They are incredibly easy to put together, just like any other muffins, and the combination of flavours, from the sharp onion flavour, to the sweetness of the tomatoes, and the tanginess of the goat cheese, makes for an incredible snack, or a very special breakfast treat.

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So go show the savoury muffins some love and make yourself a batch. They are delicious warm or at room temperature, make a great accompaniment to a hot bowl of soup, are easy to pack for lunches and make a great breakfast alternative to the sweet ones (because sometimes, we really can use a little less sugar—as much as I hate to admit that myself). And just like the sweet ones, they are just as easy to play around with: try making them with different cheese, vegetables, herbs, or even add some fried-up bacon or pancetta. The limits are endless, and you’ll soon be salivating over savoury muffins just as much as you used to for the sugary ones.

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