Wednesday, April 01, 2015

A kitchen corner

For the last few months I've been purging and reorganizing our kitchen cupboards. Slowly and painfully, one shelf at a time. For each item I held in my hand, I kept asking myself the same questions: When was the last time I used this? Is it really useful? Do I enjoy using it? Who else is using it? Where could I store it to give us easier access? Why am I really keeping it and what should go away instead? You get the picture... :) It was like playing Tetris. Fun but exhausting.

I found it hard to stay honest with myself about many items that cluttered our cupboards and I still have a long way to go! :) So far it was worth the trouble though. In return, I found lots of free space to play with to provide better access to the items I love. The result was so uplifting that I even removed a door from a cupboard to fully display the big bowls I enjoy and the cookbooks I actually care to read and use.

The open shelves are far enough from the stove and the books and bowls do get used so they get washed and wiped often enough which prevents too much dusty, greasy, buildup. That's my reasoning anyway. For now, it works! :) We ditched a big fancy microwave that came with this house and replaced it with a tiny one from Marc's bachelor days. The big one had many cool features but took the whole corner. This little one is handy but doesn't take much space. Moving it gave me more options.

Also, a fun addition happened over a week ago when I treated myself to a vintage breadbox I found for cheap on Etsy. It's from France and probably from the 70s. For years I had been playing with baskets, trays and big dishes to store our bread. Then this breadbox caught my eye. The colour was fun, the size seemed perfect and the price was right. Inside, I can store a loaf of bread, a bag of bagels, english muffins and even leftover pita we made the other day. If I have too much, I do what I always did and store the extra in the freezer for rainy days and to prevent spoilage. It's just handy to contain what we use for the week. It has many scratches and a small dent but it looks and feels right, as if it always belonged here.

Below is what it looked like without the box. Nothing bad but the space was allowing for clutter to pile up (mainly books, magazines, cellphone charging which were all removed before that picture was taken). Breads in various packagings are technically not a problem but they don't help in terms of looks. The breadbox just keeps it together.

It's been slow but good progress and with each little change I can tell after a week if it works or not. So far so good. The kitschy Moomin lamp next to the food processor is working for me at night and lightens up a dark corner during the day. I'll eventually install lights under the cabinets but this one is close to my heart. Many could wonder what a grown woman like me is doing with such an ugly thing but it represents a whimsical world that I discovered and fell in love with at the age of 10 and that I still love now at the age of 44. I'm a huge Moomin fan and a Tove Janson fan and this lamp which was a present from Marc 8 years ago, makes me smile even if it goes against my style. What I love even more is that at this level my youngest one can see the details very well.

Next to that, more books and my precious iPod station. Music keeps me sane and saved me many times from meltdowns. It's great for healing, motivating, spontaneous dancing (with the girls or by myself). Music, just like food, is necessary in a kitchen!

Since then I removed a picture, lightened the load of books and kept the ones that I know well and that I keep going back to. It breathes better (see below) and I'm considering painting this wall charcoal or black. Thoughts?

One day I will tackle a backsplash (hopefully with my own tiles). I dream of white or very pale upper cabinets with the lower ones in a lush dark colour like navy blue, avocado peel or dark grey but you know... Kids, money, time... For now I'll focus on what I can actually do which is clearing a few more shelves and drawers, the pantry (ugh) and definitely clearing a few layers off our fridge below. It's a happy colourful one but it needs to lose a few pounds! :)

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Peach clafoutis (or flaugnarde)

A sweet creation was in the works a few nights ago.

I'm not someone who craves desserts often but when it hits me I can't let go. We had gone through a few rough weeks and I needed something to bring me comfort on a cold sad night. I won't talk about the sad part but I can say it's been a long winter with too much bad news, sickness and just recently the loss of a dear pet.

As I was rummaging through the freezer for dinner, I found a bag of frozen peach slices. Images of cobbler, pie and upside down cake came to mind. I was left dreaming of warmer days and Summer.

Without hesitation and no real plan, I grabbed the bag. Turns out they weren't very sweet or flavourful so to boost them up, I let them thaw and macerate in a mix of rum, almond extract and sugar. While they soaked up that tasty elixir, I tried to figure out my options. In the end I went with what was familiar. A billowing, vanilla scented peach clafoutis. With rum.

This was much needed and a refreshing change from brownies, junk and fatty addictions.

Clafoutis is a French dessert made of black cherries baked in a custard-like batter which is similar to crêpe batter. It is rustic looking and so simple to make yet I never get tired of the wow factor. You can tell it's ready when the sweet vanilla fragrance permeates the house and when the clafoutis is golden and puffy. As soon as it's out of the oven, the glorious clafoutis deflates and sets around the soften fruits. It is best served lukewarm. If another fruit is substituted (like my peach slices), then it's technically a flaugnarde. My husband loves to butcher that word and since nobody cares about that technical detail, I go with the flow and just call it clafoutis. In the end, I just want it to taste good.

This is my method and there is a million out there. I can't even say if it's authentic but it works for me. I often vary the temperature, baking time, liqueur or extract depending on the fruit, the season, the ripeness and sweetness. I tried orange blossom water, rum, port, kirsch, Grand-Marnier and a few others depending on the fruit and mood. Whichever I choose, I try to not go over 2 tablespoons and I always add vanilla regardless. Sometimes I add ground almonds to the flour (it makes it denser and I love the flavour) or I scatter almond slices on top which offers a nice contrast in taste and texture when toasted. It's also irresistibly pretty. This recipe is heavily adapted from the one in Chef John's Food Wishes. I baked many clafoutis before randomly viewing this video but Chef John's amusing and almost nonchalant explanations sort of stayed with me. His casual approach is beyond simple and whenever my mind gets frazzled, I start doubting myself on quantities and stall so I go see Chef John for a refresher. I like listening to him (I'm easy to entertain) and many of his recipes worked for me so I recommend his site.

Back to what's happening in the pics below... I buttered a 10" wide dish and sprinkled that with sugar as one would do with flour. The peaches were thawed and ready (soft and cool to the touch) so I carefully laid them in the dish in a circular pattern. The syrup that accumulated at the bottom of the bowl was delicious. There was about 1/4 cup. I was going to drink it but decided to add it to the batter instead.

With most fruits, I'll throw them in casually but with peaches or pears, I find that a pretty circular pattern works better. I then sprinkled the peaches with sugar.

I quickly made the batter to which I added the leftover juices. I then gently poured this over the fruits. Some fruits always float to the surface or move around a bit, that is normal and to be expected.

I carefully transferred the dish to a hot oven. Mine was already cranked to 400˚F. After 10 minutes, I lowered the temperature to 350˚F. Why? I'm not sure... I think I doubted myself and most recipes say 350˚F. I let it bake for 45 minutes. Like most baked dishes, I usually go by smell first to see if it's ready and then by looks. It smelled amazing. When I peeked, it was golden and very puffy. It wasn't as brown as my usual clafoutis and I suspect it was because of the lower temperature. It doesn't matter. It was getting late and I couldn't bother to bake it longer. The moment I took it out of the oven it still jiggled a bit (totally normal) and started to deflate (also normal). By the time I set this down and grabbed the camera, the clafoutis was already down by half an inch. As far as I know, a clafoutis always deflates as it sits to cool off (see pics below). I would have been more worried if it didn't! :)

At this point it was still pretty hot but I couldn't resist anymore. I took a big spoonful to taste and mildly burned my tongue. Was it worth it? Yes. It was all I expected from this first bite. A moist and sweet custardy blanket with vapours of vanilla and rum, wrapped around a soft poached fruit. Pure comfort. I even went for a second bite. To really enjoy this though, it has to rest and cool down till it gets lukewarm. It's even great cold the next day but to be honest, I rarely have leftovers. To allow the cooling process, I had to step away. That part is always hard but necessary. Watching an episode of Person of Interest was easy to distract me. So I guess 45 minutes went by. I then grabbed the dish and two spoons. Husband and I agreed to respect each other's sides and we scarfed it down while watching an other episode.

No pictures of cute slice, no sprinkled sugar on top. Just this dish, spoon, my guy and a tv show.

Total satisfaction.

Peach clafoutis
Heavily adapted from Chef John's Food Wishes video recipe 

1/2 tablespoon butter (for greasing)
2/3 cup sugar
3-4 cups peach slices (mine were frozen stiff when measured so it was probably 3 cups when thawed)
2 tablespoons rum
1-2 teaspoons almond extract (went by taste here)
1/2 cup flour
1 1/4 cup milk (in this recipe, 1/4 cup of that milk was replaced with the rum/sugar/peach syrup)
3 eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla
salt (about 2 pinches)

Thaw peach slices if frozen. This is one of those dishes where you put as much as your dish will allow. If you have too much, eat the rest or set it aside for something else. In a bowl, mix peach slices with rum, almond extract and about 3 tablespoons of sugar. You want the liquid to be pleasantly sweet like syrup. Let that sit for a bit. Mine sat for 2 hours. If your fruits are fresh, ripe and sweet, by all means skip that step. If you have some peach schnapps, feel free to use that instead. My rum almost made me go for cinnamon but I held back. This is all about improvising. I did it to improve the lack of flavour. You might want to try it with a very specific flavour in mind.

When you're ready to start, crank oven to 400˚F.

Grease your dish with butter. I used a flan dish which (10" wide and 1.5" high). Any shallow casserole dish (about 2 quarts) would do. I even tried it in my 9" cast iron pan with success. Sprinkle a tbsp of sugar to coat the bottom but you might need more for the sides. I usually end up using 1 1/2 tbsp. Shake and tap the pan as you move it around to distribute the sugar as much as possible (just like you would do with flour). Add a bit more to the sides if needed. You can return the excess sugar in the bowl you'll use for the batter. Many skip that step but I find it worth it. It doesn't stick (in fact it's super easy to remove a slice of clafoutis when cooled and set) and makes for a nice caramelized crust.

Take your fruits and place one slice at a time in a circular pattern. You could strain them in a bowl first to collect the juice but I just gently shake each slice from it's liquid as I lay it in the dish. When done and satisfied, sprinkle sugar over the fruits. I rarely measure but I'll guess 3tbsp.

In a bowl, whisk your flour, rest of the sugar and a pinch of salt. Next is the milk. Sometimes I go all milk (or mix with cream) but if I have a nice sweet syrup from the fruit I'm using, I'll use that instead (it's usually between 1/4 to 1/2 cup) and I top that with milk to make 1 1/4 cup. It's okay if you end up with a bit more (I once went as far as 1 1/2 cup). Hope I'm not confusing but when I cook or bake I just do that. It's like alchemy with food! I play with things, take notes and hope for the best. :)

Gently pour that batter over your fruits in the dish. I usually pour it slowly in a big wide circle till everything is covered. Some will move, it's okay. Some will float, it's okay too. Carefully bring this to your hot oven (without spilling or creating a tidal wave of batter) and close the door. Exhale. Set the timer for 40 minutes and move on.

After 40 minutes, you can open the door and take a peak or you can rely on your nose. I usually wait for the aromas of vanilla and pancake to waft through the rest of the house. Then I take a look. Sometimes I leave it for an extra 5-10 minutes to give it more colour. Sometimes that sneak peek costs me to see the glorious golden mound to deflate but such is the life of a clafoutis. Remove from the oven, smell, smile and sprinkle sugar on top if you wish. I often don't bother.

Now walk away. This is not a dessert that gets eaten hot or too warm.

You want this to cool and set. About 30-40 minutes. If you cut this too early (we've all been guilty), it won't hold as well. It also needs to rest so that the flavours between the poached fruits and sweet vanilla batter get to mingle and mellow. Please try to wait but I'll understand if you can't. A light dusting of icing sugar can make it pretty (if no sugar was sprinkled on top when hot). some serve this with cream or ice cream... Honestly, I never tried.

Just grab a spoon and scoop right out of the dish with a loved one. Or act civilized, slice and serve.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Advent calendar fun

When I look at the girls' advent calendar, I won't lie, I get stressed. All those little open windows remind me that the days are just flying by! In fact time is flying so fast that this new pic below is already dated by 2 days. I started this post 2 weeks ago but pushed it to the side for other activities. Some were good, some were me just having issues. I'm recovering from a long and nasty depression and I'm still feeling fragile. I'm slow by nature but now I'm even slower. I struggle with focus, simple decisions and block things out when I have too much on my plate. Great timing for the Holidays right? It's okay, I take it slow! ;) Maybe too slow but based on the many notes I wrote in the last few years to future me, I'm right on time with things. I feel like this calendar is rushing me and rubbing it in but it's a busy time of the year and keeping track of the dates is important so I'll let it go. I'm ok. Go ahead calendar, keep me up to date.

Of course, focusing on a blog post instead of shopping, or making pie crust sure doesn't help but somehow it makes me feel better. I wanted to talk about this advent calendar. It is a very special present we received 5 years ago from a really close friend of the family. I love getting surprised by the fun note that came with it which we taped in the back. It's a good thing we did because somehow we always forget. I was pregnant with my youngest when we received this and she could only be referred to as "Peanut" but I forgot about that. I like that this note reminds me. Thank you Jo-Ann for what will surely become a heirloom.

The truth is, as much as we loved it, we would often forget to use it or kept struggling with last minute ideas to fill it. We were so used to the cardboard ones with the little chocolates inside that it was hard to get into the habit of this design. We decided that this year would be different. Marc pulled it out of our basement early enough and after the holidays are done, I plan on storing it ceremoniously on the top shelf of our pantry right next to the other treasures I save for the holidays. Before December first, we bought little bags of good chocolates. For a low cost there was enough to fill this calendar with leftovers for the next year! Except, I should have known better. After the girls were sent to bed, Marc opened the bags to sample... Doom. We managed to save the Kinder-eggs and saved the girls a few good Lindt chocolates but the rest went in our bellies. The shame.

Back to the store. This time I saw an opportunity to do it the fun way and headed to the brand new local Dollarama to see my options. I have mixed feelings about that place but the wallet decided to embrace it. I knew I would find variety without spending too much. I admit I had a lot of fun shopping for it and kind of got lost in there for hours. I'm slow! In the end I was quite pleased with my selection, the bill and the fact that I have extras for next year! ;) Some items were chosen specifically for hanging in the tree on the day that we would decorate and some were chosen for crafts on the weekend. I tried to diversify to break the monotony, to cheer up Monday mornings or the middle of the week.

The loot included: Rainbow sugar canes, 2 Hello Kitty mini-figures, a craft kit to make 2 felt snowmen, 2 glass snowmen ornaments containing styrofoam snow, jiggly/rubbery bears that blink and shine when hit, squishy snowmen stickers, candy rings, fun erasers, fancy tapes for crafts or to decorate, 2 Lego mini-figures, gold coins and other chocolates.

I found the mini Lego and Hello Kitty figures at the local pharmacy of all places. They were between $3.00 to 4.00 each and were considered a splurge (especially when bought in pairs). I could have gone without and I don't think I'll do that each year and the girls know it but it was fun! Homemade items would have been just as nice and little love notes too. The girls would have loved it but my nerves, not so much. Did I over do it? Maybe but so far the reactions were worth it. It's amazing how an eraser or one sticker can brighten a morning and start a conversation. I made sure to alternate the trinkets with chocolates. The result, a fun box full of surprises with no more last minute stresses to fill them. 

Most of this will be forgotten but a few will be remembered. Like these little snowmen the girls had to put together while Marc and I slept in. What a sweet deal that was! When we came down that morning, our little Évangéline was proud to show us what they discovered and created. Geneviève her older sister helped her figure what to do with it and as much as I would have loved to be there to see it, I like that this was their little moment. It was worth eating all the chocolates for that! ;)

Just like the merry expression on this little guy's face, I'm wishing you all a good time (with a good side of crazy), at getting ready for the big day. It's time for me to jump on my list of things to do so if I'm not back here soon, I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Healthy, Happy New Year! :)

Friday, December 05, 2014

Leek, mushroom and cheese galette

Marc introduced our 4 year old to Mary Poppins yesterday. I had to watch that movie on VHS many times with my oldest (20 years ago), so I know the movie pretty well. That said, there is an expression from Mary Poppins I had never heard before. In the scene, she tucks the chatty children to bed after a crazy adventure and the boy is asking her to promise something. Her reply is quick: "That's a piecrust promise. Easily made, easily broken."

I just loved it! I kept repeating it in wonder. As a parent of 3 I learned to be careful about that. The hard way. I know how easy it is to break a promise. I also know how easy it is to make pie crust and break that too. I went through a few failures that made me understand the basics better. This too I learned the hard way. Pies used to intimidate me. I used to hold my breath so drastically when making my special Christmas eve tourtière that I would make myself dizzy! Now I chill. Just like pie crust. I'm still no expert but the fear is gone and that feels great. So all this to say that I found myself dreaming about pies right in the middle of the movie. Like this little savoury pie below that I made a couple of weeks ago. It was a treat that helped me make good use of some mushrooms and leeks that were crying in the fridge.

I could have trimmed the edges to make it look nicer but that would mean less crust! :) I think I prefer pies to cake. The crust especially (if it's well done, buttery and flaky). I made a few great serviceberry pies last year which were tasty and addictive and I now enjoy making the special and colossal Christmas eve tourtière (without passing out). I always do it old school with 2 knives to cut the fat in the flour. Last month though, I enjoyed a piecrust recipe that is done in the food processor. With it, I made a quick and seriously good chicken potpie (a future post, I hope). It's also what I used two weeks ago for this savoury mushroom galette. I simply LOVE mushrooms and that galette stayed with me long after it was eaten and gone.

There is an other kind of pie I love below. A sweetie pie. An enthusiastic little assistant that helped me with the operation even though she doesn't care for mushroom galettes (at all). Secretly it was for the best because as much as I love sharing pie, I hate sharing mushrooms.

So here is how it happened. I had some mushrooms that had seen better days. Same deal with 2 leeks that never went in a soup. So I washed it all up and sliced away. I melted some butter in a pan on medium high-heat and threw the mushrooms in first with salt and pepper. Once they were brown but still moist, I tossed in a small amount of fresh parsley and transferred it all in a plate. The sliced leeks went in the pan next. I cooked them on medium-low till soft and sweet then returned the mushrooms to the pan. I'm shocked I didn't add garlic (never happens with me and mushrooms). I just didn't. I adjusted the seasoning, took it off the heat and put a lid on top to keep it warm and moist. Simple. I ate a few (ok many) delicious spoonfuls as I tried to decide what to do with it.

Toast? Bruschetta? Awesome but I only had cheap, old sandwich bread. Not worthy. Mixed with pasta? That would have stretched it too thin and would never match the spoonfuls I just had. Picky, picky. Oooh! In an Omelette? Aarg! Not enough eggs. It was that time for groceries again. So in the fridge it went (after a few more spoonfuls) till I would get eggs or good bread. Sadly I got distracted, and the day moved on without it. The next day I randomly flipped through a book on pies and saw a mushroom galette in it. Bingo! My filling was quite different from the one in the recipe but the decision was made. Those mushrooms were going in a pie crust. Lunch!

It was perfect and tasty. Salty and earthy. Even Marc who isn't a fan of mushrooms, freakishly admitted to enjoying this and went for more. It was cool and annoying because I had to share! It was for the best though. This was a rich dough with a heavy little secret. 

The dough is an all butter recipe from Martha Stewart. I can handle that and it's only for a single crust. The thing is, I had little to no butter (barely 3 tablespoons). Remember, I had to go to the grocery store. Apparently, we like to wait till we're desperate. Anyways, I figured since I do my tourtière with 100% lard what would be the harm in using *gasp* bacon fat? Don't answer that. I'm wincing here and feel judged but whatever, I went for it. I grabbed the tin that I store in the fridge. It was firm, I scooped what I needed, put it in the freezer to make it harder then cut it up in cubes to add to the butter and moved on with the recipe. You know what? It tasted good, it was a one time deal and YOLO!

You could definitely taste the bacon with the mushrooms, leeks and cheese and even though I won't choose this method again (I choose life), I'm glad I did. It was pleasurable and I got to share it with my guy who now likes mushrooms in a pie. So there! Seriously though, next time, just butter.

Once the dough was made, I quickly shaped it in a disc, wrapped it in plastic and put it in the fridge to firm up. The trick here is to move quickly so things stay very cold.

After 30 minutes, I floured the counter and rolled the dough to about an 1/8-inch thickness. It was still very cold and I love how you can see the little pieces of fat. A must for flaky crust. I also love how you can see the little particles of bacon. Bonus! :) 

That's when the sweetie pie came in. She watched me roll the dough so she could help with the rest. We spooned the mushrooms on top, spread it out, topped with cubes of old cheddar. Swiss would have been nice or goat cheese... Mmm! We worked with what we had. She was really good at topping it with cheese. Then I showed her how to fold the edges and brushed some egg wash all over the dough. She was pretty effective with that too! We both felt pleased with the results.

For the record, there should have been more filling in there. I sort of enjoyed it by the spoonful. Once the galette went in the 350˚F oven for 30 minutes, my assistant moved on to doodles, colouring books and pencils. I thought she would go for it once the beautiful golden disk came out. She loved to look at it and felt very proud with the results but wanted to be kept out of the sampling business. Unlike me who indulged a bit too much. As always. 

I managed to eat a whole quarter of this mushroom galette goodness by myself. It was too easy. Then Marc stepped in and I had to use self control. He later helped me finish it which was for the best.

I can definitely say that it's at it's best when fresh out of the oven but a little resting time is good as you don't want to eat this too hot. 20-30 minutes works but room temperature wasn't as good. There would have been more filling if it wasn't for my many samplings of the mushroom/leek mixture. The cheese was nice but feta, goat or swiss would have been better than cheddar. I only had a little bit of parsley but 1/4 cup would have been good. Fresh thyme would have been spot on and garlic wouldn't hurt. In the end, this was really tasty in it's simple form. It required discipline to not eat the whole thing in one sitting. I will do this again very soon. Maybe this weekend (no bacon fat this time) and a big side of salad.

Leek, mushroom and cheese galette

Pie crust recipe adapted from Martha Stewart.

Pie crust
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour (spooned and leveled), more for work surface
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon fine salt
1/2 cup  (8 tablespoons) cold butter cut in 1/2-inch pieces (or try cold bacon fat if you're curious)
3 to 5 tablespoons ice water

1 pound mushrooms
2 leeks (white and pale green part only)
1-2 tablespoon butter
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup fresh parsley
1/2 cup cheddar or swiss or feta or goat cheese

1 egg
1 tablespoon water

In a food processor, pulse together flour, sugar, and salt. Add butter and pulse until mixture resembles coarse meal, with a few pea-size pieces of butter remaining. Sprinkle with 3 tablespoons of ice water. Pulse until dough is crumbly but holds together when squeezed (if necessary, add up to 2 tablespoons of ice water). Do not over-mix.

Form dough into disk, wrap tightly in plastic, and refrigerate until firm, 1 hour or overnight. 30 minutes worked for me.

On a floured work surface, roll out your dough to a 12-inch circle. It should be about an 1/8-inch thick. Transfer the dough to a baking sheet and put back in the fridge while you get the filling ready.

Wash, slice mushrooms and leeks. In a medium pan on medium high heat let the butter melt and foam. Sauté the mushrooms, season with salt and pepper to taste (my measurements above are just guidelines). Cook for about 5-8 minutes until brown but still moist. Lower heat if too high. Add some chopped parsley, mix, and transfer to a plate. 

Add leeks to the pan on medium-low heat and cook till soft and sweet. Don't let them brown or dry up. Add the mushrooms, stir it all up, taste and adjust the seasoning. Let cool a bit.

Get your pie crust out of the fridge. Spoon the filling in the middle of your circle of dough and spread it around evenly, leaving a 2-inch border all around. Sprinkle the cheese evenly over the filling. 

Fold up your 2-inch border over the filling, overlapping the edges a bit and pressing down gently. Beat the egg with 1 tablespoon of water in a small bowl for the egg-wash and brush the edges of the pie with it. 

Put in 350˚F oven and bake for 30 minutes or till golden brown. Let it cool for at least 20 minutes before pigging out. Great with a salad for lunch or with drinks and at least one accomplice.

Try it and let me know what you think.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

A birthday and chocolate Malteser cake

It was Émilie's 25th birthday this week! My first born... I still remember her as a little one. The birth, her peach skin, finding out she was a girl, blond curls, she looked so different from what I was expecting. She was perfect. I was 19. Life was for ever changed. Seems like yesterday yet a quarter of a century went by. It is true that as you get older life goes by faster and with our two youngest girls, life is definitely bustling by! All I can do is hold on and smell the coffee once in a while. 

The actual party was Saturday night when my girl went out with her fiancé for drinks at the 3 Brewers downtown Ottawa. They were joined by a whole bunch of friends in their mid and late twenties. Marc and I had no babysitter so he stayed home with the young ones and I joined the merry bunch for a few pints of dark brown goodness, a shot of Tequila and lively conversations with familiar and new faces. I left around midnight to catch the last bus while the birthday girl moved on to a dance bar. I made it home safe by 1h00 a.m. with a smile on my face and cozied up with Marc who was watching a movie. My girl was happy I attended and it was nice to see her old friends and meet new ones. Overall a good time which was followed by a mild hangover (unlike the party girl who apparently nursed a major one for the next 24 hours).

She came to our house 2 days later to hang out on her actual birthday while I baked her a cake and a homemade lasagna. Here is the cake! A fun chocolate one with a mild malty flavour, buttercream icing and Maltesers on top! 

If your inner child doesn't smile at this, well, I feel sorry for you. It was my favourite candy when we arrived to Canada (after Mars bars). In 1980, they would sell for 1 cent at the corner store and if I was lucky to have a quarter to spend, I would ask for 25 of those beautiful orbs that the clerk would give me in a small paper bag. I even remember a few decadent days where I had a whole one dollar bill to myself. 100 malt balls!!! A kid can learn to do math quickly on a deal like that!

The recipe is from Nigella Lawson's book Feast. I enjoyed her book for 8 years and I love the chocolate Guinness cake that is featured in her impressive chapter "Chocolate Cake Hall of Fame". For some reason, no matter how fun it looked, it took me that long to try this Maltesers one. Mainly because finding malt powder was always an issue at my local store. There is no Horlicks here (a hilarious and ugly name by the way) and I never found substitutes like Ovaltine or Carnation. Then the other week I came across this imported Columbian product called Chocolisto with malt and chocolate. Yay malt! I went with that. The other break I got was to find Maltesers at the new Dollarama for $2.00 the bag. I grabbed 4 packets and went on my merry way knowing that this cake was finally going to get baked. 

I admit I had serious issues with the conversions. Maybe I just couldn't focus that day but my old notes from other cakes were missing and the web kept giving me different numbers for the oven temperature or various ingredients in the recipe. It was a frustrating hour of surfing and guessing instead of baking. In the end I managed and wrote my notes directly in the book. The other thing is that the recipe said to mix the malt powder with the butter in hot milk. I tasted it out of curiosity and wasn't satisfied with the flavours. So, I cheated. I boosted the small amount of chocolate malt powder from 2 tbsp to 4 generous good ones. Once you cheat it's hard to stop though. ;) I figured it wouldn't hurt to add more butter as well! So I went from a lame one tablespoon to two, three, four spoonfuls. It's butter in cake batter! How bad can it be? Just as I was about to mix the wet mixture with the dried ingredients, I realized that I had forgotten the cocoa powder and had no proper conversion for the amount that was requested. 25g didn't sound like a lot to me. It was also too small for my scale to read. What is it? 1/4 cup? 1/3 cup? The truth is, I was planning on cheating with a good 3/4 cup but wanted to know what the original amount really was. 

That made me go back online to research and I suddenly stumbled on a blog that actual tried the recipe (conversions included). Excitement and relief! Except my smile turned into frown when all I read were negative comments. Her link lead to an other blog that I actually love who echoed the same review. What!? Words like: "gross", "tough", "dull", "rubbery", "mousy colour", "taste of failure" were burning my eyes as I read in disbelief that it didn't taste like chocolate or malt. My heart was sinking. How could this cool kitschy looking cake from the domestic goddess be so bad!!?? I was cursing and swearing and losing my groove so fast. What to do?? I had to start on the lasagna, the little one kept pestering me to help, the clock was ticking, the room still needed to be tidied, presents had to be wrapped and I had no idea if I should continue or quit and grab my coat to run to the store for new ingredients. 

I usually bake a trusty old favourite that never fails: Dark moist chocolate cake filled with whipped cream and strawberries then topped with chocolate ganache. Perfection. It was tempting but it was also predictable (in this house) and I was stubborn. I decided to stick to my malt/choco creation with a possibility for plan B (quick cocoa brownies) if this turned to disaster. I'm glad I did!

This birthday girl wasn't sure if she was crazy about malt balls but the look of this cake was pretty cool and change is refreshing. Also she tasted the buttercream icing and approved. It rocks. It's different from the other buttercream icings I've done before. It was suspiciously easy and not as greasy as some old standards I used to do. I cried over buttercream before. Not this one. I did boost the amount of cocoa powder a bit and did the same with the malt. It tasted great but the coloured contrast between the pale icing and the chocolate malt balls was gone. I didn't think about that detail until I assembled the cake. They both shared the same shade of brown which didn't look as cool as in Nigella's book below. I will go with taste though and this icing tasted right.

I moved on with the lasagna which was great, no pics but it's begging for it's own post. Managed to tidy up and wrapped some presents with Marc's help. Birthday girl was initiated to My Little Pony with her younger sisters in the afternoon, then she moved on to play Battleship with Marc and continued with a serious vintage board game from the 60s called Stratego. Her fiancé joined us, so did her girlfriend and my father. Who all treated her with various gifts. There was chips, wine, records being played and a hockey game to watch. After some digesting and presents-opening, the cake was lit and coffee was poured.

Cake verdict: I think this cake was simply misunderstood. Poor thing. I'm glad I gave it a chance. If you want something that has the characteristics of a box cake, this isn't for you. If you want to make cup cakes out of this, this cake is so not for you. I was expecting the worse but it wasn't like what others described. Sure it wasn't the moist sweet cake that is so common with North American desserts. It was sturdy but not heavy and tasted great with the buttercream icing which was the perfect sweet complement to it's texture. It had time to sit and mellow in the fridge (my kitchen was too warm). The chocolate and malt flavours were definitely present but not overly sweet. It reminded me of European cakes of my childhood. Especially the spice cakes from Germany (but without the spices). Maybe it was the changes I made, maybe it was the icing but nobody at our table of 8 thought it was dry and we were rather amused that it made me look like I overcame the infamous challenge of the Malteser cake. Fist pump! It's the perfect thing to have with a coffee! Even 3 days later! You have to look at the whole package here and how it gets served. This cake is firm and definitely needs the soft, rich, sweet contrast of the buttercream to balance things out. It's better served in thin slices and the Maltesers on top add a fun touch of crunch. Coffee or tea a must. A happy ending to a busy little evening which turned out to be a pretty fun affair. Maybe our best one yet! 

Recipe after the pics.

Oh yes and it's high time I introduce my little buddy. Meet Vincent. Our little hedgehog who loves to attend our little fêtes.

Malteser birthday cake

Heavily adapted from Nigella Lawson's recipe in Feast

The cake
3/4 cup soft light brown sugar
1/2 cup sugar
3 eggs
3/4 cup milk
4 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons Chocolisto (or other chocolate/malt powder like Horlicks, Ovaltine or Carnation)
1 1/2 cup flour
3/4 cup cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda

Icing and decoration
1 1/2 cup icing sugar
1 tablespoon cocoa powder
1/2 cup Chocolisto (or other chocolate/malt powder like Horlicks, Ovaltine or Carnation)
1/2 cup (1 stick) + 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 tablespoons boiling water
2-3 x 100g packets Maltesers to decorate and eat as you go

Take whatever you need out of the fridge so that all the ingredients can come to room temperature.

Preheat the oven to 325˚F. Butter and line two 20cm (8 inches) tins. Mine were 3.5cm (1.5 inches) deep and had no removable bottoms. The cake will come out  as long as the bottom is lined. Wax paper works fine here. No need to freak out if you have no parchment paper. Butter that too and move on.

Whisk together the brown and white sugars and eggs in a stand-mixer. This allows you to prep the other ingredients at the same time. Or you can give your wrist a good work out.

In the meantime, heat the milk, butter and malt powder in a saucepan until the butter melts, and it is hot but not boiling.

When the sugars and eggs are light and frothy, beat in the hot malt mixture. Then fold in the flour, cocoa, baking powder and baking soda. I think using a sieve for those last 4 ingredients would have helped with a few lumps but I managed without.

Divide the cake batter evenly between the two tins and bake in the oven for 25 minutes. The cakes should spring back when pressed gently. Let them cool on a rack for 5-10 minutes. You can then run a knife along the edges before turning them out of their tins. Peel the wax paper off the bottoms.

Once the cakes are cold, you can get on with the icing. A food processor makes this really easy. No need to sieve the icing sugar. Just put the icing sugar, cocoa, malt powder in the food processor and blitz to remove all lumps. Add the butter and process again. Stop, scrape down if you have to and start again, pouring the boiling water down the funnel with the motor running until you have a smooth buttercream. Magic!

Sandwich the cold sponges with half of the buttercream then ice the top with what is left, creating a swirly pattern rather than a smooth surface. Stud the outside edge with a ring of Maltesers. It will hold nicely in the cold buttercream. I should mention that the top layer was turned upside down so I would get a nice flat top for the icing. It left a gap between the 2 layers though so I saw this as an opportunity to add more Maltesers by nudging them in between.

Put in the fridge to let it set and mellow. Brew some coffee, invite peeps and share thin slices with extra Maltesers on the side! Just because.