Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Smoked salmon is better when shared with a loved one

I found myself craving smoked salmon for a few days now (thanks to a friend who shared a tasty looking photo on Facebook). I knew there was a small amount lost in the deep freezer since Christmas so today I caved, fished it out and made a quick lunch. The small amount was actually tiny so it was more like a quick snack. I enjoyed it all neatly piled on a slice of toasted, buttered bagel with a thinly sliced French shallot, a sprinkle of kosher salt and a little drizzle of olive oil. It was very pleasant but something was missing. I wondered if it was the small amount that was disappointing or the lack of cream cheese? Better bread? Capers? In the end I think it was the lack of sharing. No one else was there to experience the pleasure with me. Usually that would make me happy because (I'll admit it), I can be a bit greedy ;) but why is it that sharing always makes this treat better?

I'm the only one in this house that enjoys smoked salmon. Aside from the occasional visit from my mother who would be my accomplice for this treat, my real partner in crime used to be a cute, furry little feline friend. His name was Yoshi. Named by my oldest (it was actually her cat) but after she moved away, he stayed and after 19 years, he was definitely an old friend. He sadly passed away 6 months ago. Funny enough, I was thinking of him really hard yesterday. I was clearing some pictures from my super full laptop and there it was pictures of Yoshi, politely waiting at the table to share smoked salmon with me.

I miss him but it's easy now. One of the last memorable smoked salmon treat I had was with this little guy and thankfully pictures were taken. The best part of it (aside from the fact that it was so freaking delicious), was definitely the sharing. I loved how he sat next to me so patiently, waiting for me to choose the right plate, waiting while I took some pictures, waiting while I switched plates, waiting for that special bite and then finally having me sitting by his side to share and indulge.

He loved the cream cheese just as much. A nice break for me which meant I had time to make little bites for myself and feed him in between.

Thanks for the memories, Yoshi.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Wiener Winks! Who knew?

School lunches.

They can be a pain, a curse, a drag, the bane of a parent's life! In general, I like to play, prep and cook good food but the moment you do it through the perspective of a kid (picky or not), you just face a whole new world of challenges. That challenge gets bigger when you feel like a zombie at the crack of dawn, looking at the clock and trying to make that food to go on time. If you want your kid to eat it, it has to taste good and travel well. It can't look gross, oxidate, get bruised or leak by the time they eat it. It can't be boring but it can't be too new, or weird or touch other ingredients that would take the crispness away or make things wet. It can't shed crumbs on other items (apparently it's too hard to remove one from a carrot stick) and it shouldn't sweat (the cheese has been challenging). Of course that's all before you add your own requirements: It has to be reasonably healthy, include some variety, be safe to eat after it sat in a warm school for hours and most of all, it has to be affordable to repeat the same old routine 5 days a week, 4 weeks a month, 10 months a year… Multiply that by the number of kids you have to feed... Omg, am I really making 400 lunches a year!?? Okay, minus the holidays, PD days... Maybe 340. I need for someone to correct me on this. Oh and how could I forget the school's own demands: To be nut free and to include a "healthy" non sugary snack for the morning. As a parent, I can live with that one but sometimes all I want to do is slap a PBJ sandwich together and call it a day! 

Whoever beams about enjoying making them everyday is full of it!! That or they just started and are being idealistic newbies that will wake up soon enough. Or they're just not the kind of person I can relate to. Ok I'm being a bit harsh and ranting. I'm just struggling and venting. What I really want to talk about is Wiener Winks! It's where this whole frustration led me. When I looked through an online list of lunch ideas, someone mentioned those two funny words and I heard myself say: "Wiener Whaaat?" Not only I felt and sounded like this guy on the right (he and the movie Jaws gets quoted way too often in this house) but I honestly had to look it up.

I was baffled! I had no idea that such a concept officially existed. I mean I had a wiener in a slice of bread before when running out of buns or when feeling depressed (extra yummy when fried in bacon fat if really depressed). You know, the kind of food that says "I know you're hungry and you don't give a fuck right now but it's okay. Things will turn out. So go ahead, eat me! Tomorrow is another day." In my world (or in the dark side of my mind), hotdogs in a slice of bread say that to me. They said that a lot. Followed by shame. So the fact that it has an official happy sounding name and that it's easy to find on Google really, REALLY surprised me! I got curious then figured the girls would get a kick out of it so yesterday I made some. The twist with mine is that I used cocktail wieners.

Why? Well, when the weather gets cold or after the first snow, we enjoy fires in our wood stove and when the fire mellows down, sometimes we roast marshmallows with the girls. The last time we did, someone mentioned that it would be fun to do the same with hotdogs so I made a mental note of it. Long story short, when I went to the store to buy some, I was looking for regular sized hotdogs but there were cocktail versions on sale. Practical me thought it would be easier and faster to roast in our wood stove and lets face it, mini food is just cute! I knew the girls wouldn't resist. I thought it would be a fun thing to do around the holidays. It seemed like a good idea at the time and I stored two packs in the freezer and kept it secret. Then I totally forgot about it! That's pretty much it.

I must have felt a bit guilty though. You know, for puttering over cheap sandwich bread and cocktail wieners for dinner because as I went through the process, I found myself humming a song from Fred Eaglesmith called White Trash. It's a silly song (the lyrics are here if you're curious). I have nothing against Fred Eaglesmith (or Johnny Cash who gets mentioned in the song). They both tell great stories in songs and ballads and that one just happens to pop in my head whenever I give up on being classy which is more often than I'm willing to admit.

Okay so I'm the girl who never heard of wiener winks before and now that I tried some and show you my take, you realize that this looks nothing like what you expected or saw elsewhere online. I'm just full of it and crazy. I tried to do the classic way but the sneaky little cocktail wieners kept slipping out, it was not fun. Plus I was getting away from why I bought them in the first place. Mini food! I had to change the technique with the bread a bit. I cut each slice in half. I knew it would change the look but nobody cared and I was working with what I had. I also decided to do it in my cast iron pan for better control and as you can see we are out of toothpicks too! Bamboo skewers to the rescue! :)

I should mention that in our house it's rare to find processed sliced cheese which seems to be the standard choice for wiener winks. I'm always surprised at how expensive it is for what you get! The truth is, I wasn't raised on it so it's not something I would usually buy. If we're going to spend on cheese we go for medium or strong cheddar. It's common enough to be found at the pharmacy with eggs and bread on a milk run. We prefer white cheddar but sometimes the only option is orange (what I used in this picture). In this case, I grated the cheese for easy melting. Not a lot is required. About 4-5 good swipes of the brick of cheese on the grater seemed enough for one slice of bread.

I'm sadly aware that some look burnt here, but they still tasted great! Unfortunately it's the only pictures I have. By the time I made the next batch of golden perfection, I couldn't bother to take more pics. I was busy with real life, eating and serving. Maybe next time.

Apparently I'm a DORK for taking pictures of my half eaten wiener wink but he still loves me!

I can't share a recipe for this but I can describe what I did. I simply spread butter on one side of the bread (whole wheat was all we had and kids didn't mind) then I cut it in half. I flipped the 2 pieces of bread over (it greased the counter a bit but I didn't care). I sprinkled a bit of cheese over the two pieces (about 4 swipes on the grater) and placed a little wiener on each piece of bread before folding them over. I had no toothpicks to keep them together but long bamboo skewers did the trick. I didn't even bother to cut them. I placed two a time in the hot pan (on medium heat). It was an experiment so I wasn't confident to do more on the first try. As they cooked I made more. Once it was golden on one side, I would pull out the bamboo skewers, turn the wiener winks over and stab them again with the skewers just long enough to hold the bread in place till it would get golden and crispy. It didn't take long for them to be ready. It sounds complicated but it really wasn't.

The girls and I enjoyed these. It was tasty and fun! A little goes a long way. I guess they're like a cross between a grilled cheese and a hotdog but we actually found that they tasted like pogos. Is that weird? Especially when dipped in ketchup (because in this house, we might be doing it wrong but we like to dip pogos in ketchup). They both ate 4 and polished their plates with a big glass of milk and half an apple. I was relieved and they were satisfied. 

Now I have a million questions. How many people actually knew this existed? Pigs in a blanket don't count. Is it an American thing or do Canadians eat it too? French Canadians? How does one pack it up to school? Did people really eat that at school often? How does it stay warm without being steamy? Or do kids eat it cold? Would it be safe sitting there for 3-4 hours before consumption? Living in Québec, our schools are overheated for 3/4 of the year so I'm not sure. I need answers because my girls did ask to try them for school lunch. My youngest had pizza day today (a freaking blissful break) but she's not the picky one. Guess what the other one brought to school though? ;) Fingers crossed!!

Have a marvelous, school lunch FREE weekend!! 

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Biscotti my way with roasted almonds and chocolate brandy beans

I'm not Italian. I'm from a French mother and a Canadian father and born in Germany where I spent half of my childhood. Of all the foods and treats that got my full attention in life, biscotti was not one of them. I never cared to try them at cafés and never thought I would care to bake any. Yet, somehow, during the Holidays one year, it became a thing and it sort of never stopped. It was around 1997 or 98, after baking up a storm for the holidays. I found myself with a bit of extra time and leftover ingredients before cleaning up and packing to join my boyfriend at his parents' home in Kingston. I flipped through the pages of my big Christmas book, looking for a quick recipe. Maybe something I could take with me as a present to offer. There was this recipe that I always saw but never bothered to try and it seemed to fit the bill in terms of ingredients and time I had. In the book it wasn't even called Biscotti. It was simply called Crispy Almond Cookie (in French). It was also described as an Italian style cookie to enjoy with warm drinks.

I had all that was needed and that was all that mattered. I unfortunately nibbled on almonds as I read and found myself a bit short when I noticed that it asked for 3/4 cup. I was missing a good 1/4 cup. The next decision I made started a tradition that lasted almost 2 decades! I figured that the empty space in the cup could be replaced with dark chocolate brandy beans (chopped up). Chocolate brandy beans are part of an other story but I always have them when the holiday season comes. Always. It should probably be served at room temperature but I find them amazing when cold and hard from the fridge. I love the way the thin dark chocolate shell breaks under the tooth, giving way to the sweet and strong brandy liqueur, slowly warming up the throat and mouth as the flavour lingers. If you're like my husband you will think it sounds cheesy and I agree but it's the truth! :)

Okay, back to the low count of almonds, I needed about 7 to compensate. I froze them while I gathered my ingredients (it makes the chopping easier and less messy) and added them to the recipe. I'm not sure how the Grand Marnier joined in (I was probably running out of vanilla or almond extract) but the idea stayed. It's amazing with the orange zest and I'm not even a big fan of zest. Whenever I whip the wet ingredients my nose gets excited. Brandy, orange, almonds, vanilla, melted butter, sugar and eggs... To me it just smells like sweet Christmas in a cookie! I followed the biscotti recipe with the few minor changes and couldn't believe how easy it was. I kept checking to make sure I didn't miss a step. I brought those with me to my in-laws, not expecting much but the biscotti were a big hit. It was requested again so I made more and shared more and now even my own mother (the master of German butter cookies) expects them every year.

It became something we all look forward to when December comes. For years the smell became part of a tradition. My boyfriend became my husband and as Christmas got close, we would prep and create and get ready for the big day. I would bake biscotti and he would create sculptures out of polymer clay that he would also have to bake before painting. They were specific smells in the house that would set the mood. It would join the smells of the Christmas tree and it would mingle with Christmas music and excitement as we got busy for the Holidays. It's associated to great memories shared with my oldest daughter and now my youngest.

Below is a series of pictures that show step by step, how it's done every year. If you don't have the patience to look at them, too bad. The pictures are pretty and I went through a lot of trouble to stop, clean my hands and snap them with each step. I'm joking. Just scroll all the way down for the recipe. I really hope you try them and enjoy them as much as we do.

I'm interrupting this pretty picture show to explain that things are about to get frustratingly sticky at this point. This is the part where I might gradually add 1/4 cup of flour to the mix if things are not cooperating. I will also generously cover the counter with flour. Heavily. Don't be shy, flour that counter! A lot! See this below? Not enough.

I also use a genius contraption that my mother came up with. Rubber spatulas are nice but when it comes to greedily scrape a bowl clean to the last sticky drop, I use a plastic lid from a big yogourt or ice cream container. It's amazing! Just cut the edge off with scissors and make sure you get a good sized circle to hold in your hand. It bends super well, and picks everything up! It evens scrapes my wooden spoons extra clean. I dip it in flour and make short, fast scraping movements as I gather the mass of dough with it. Everything comes out in a ball as I scrape it out of the bowl. When it gets too old, throw it in the recycle. Easy. Now back to work!

The book doesn't mention this but it's worth getting some parchment paper to line your cookie sheet. Seriously. Things won't stick and it's easier to clean after. I appreciate this when I have 4-6 batches to bake. Also another tip that works for me is that I mark on the paper the length of the log required (in this case 12 inches) before I place it on the sheet. It helps me keep the same length with each batch I bake.

Once the dough has been shaped, brushed with egg wash and slipped in the oven, the waiting game begins. With my oven it's 20-25 minutes to start till it gets firm and golden. Then it needs to rest 10 minutes at least to cool off and firm up before slicing. Some people will disagree with that and claim the opposite. The slicing made me curse many times through the years. Especially because they were presents. It would squish the delicate logs and push down the almonds, driving me nuts along the way and ruining the end result and mood. Turns out a very sharp knife is required. Mine has sharp teeth that could cut through frozen food, bone and can. Yep. Dull knife will make this pointless so get yourself a sharp one. This slicing gets done guillotine style. I don't saw my way through them. I find that if you do, you'll wreck the almonds and fragile dough.

Place the sliced biscotti like in the picture with enough space in between to cook a bit more and brown. Another 20-25 minutes of waiting. Usually by this point, the smell will tell you if they're ready. You might have to check early if you want to keep them golden but we like them on the brown side. They just taste better!

I'm sharing those 2 pics to show how efficient a sharp knife can be when it comes to cut slices that are chock-full with almonds and chocolate. The truth is, I can't resist the juicy colours of those cutting boards! :) Sadly, I lost the red one (the pic is from last year) but my guy surprised me with this bright yellow one below which is even better and more stable with it's rubber ends.

What it looks like after the first 20 minutes of baking.

What it looks like after the 2nd baking.

The size will vary between batches. I sometimes get short ones and sometimes very nice long ones. Some are cut 3/4 inch wide, we prefer a generous 1/2 inch.

Approved by the youngest who had to taste one or two or three or four...

Biscotti with roasted almonds and chocolate brandy beans

Heavily adapted from Le Livre de Noël - Coup de Pouce

1 3/4 cup flour (might need an extra 1/4 cup)
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 to 3/4 whole almonds (with skins and toasted in pan or in oven)
1/4 cup chocolate brandy beans (stored in freezer to make chopping easier)
2 eggs
3/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup butter, melted (for this recipe I use salted butter)
2 tsp pure vanilla
1/2 tsp almond extract
2 tsp Cointreau or Grand Marnier (not necessary but man, it's worth it)
1 1/2 tsp grated orange zest (it's the equivalent of 1 orange. I use a rasp for this)
1 egg (for egg wash)

Crank oven to 350˚. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. You can draw guide lines to help you guess how long the logs will be (in this case, 12 inches). Roast your almonds. It's quicker and easier for me to do in a pan set on medium high. I can keep a better eye on them while I shake the pan around. Shake the pan until the almonds are fragrant and toasted. You might have to lower the heat to medium. Or you can put them in your 350˚ oven, on a cookie sheet and check every few minutes till satisfied. Careful, they burn fast. Let them cool in a cold plate while gathering the rest of the ingredients.

In a big bowl, mix flour and baking powder. Add your almonds. In an other bowl, whisk eggs with sugar, melted butter, vanilla, almond extract, orange zest and if you have it Cointreau or Grand Marnier. Chop the chocolate brandy beans into 5-6 pieces each and add them to the wet mixture. You can use the chocolate brandy beans at room temperature if you forgot to freeze them but with the years I found that keeping them in the freezer makes the syrup thicker and the chocolate more brittle. I personally find that it breaks into better rough pieces. It's up to you. Whisk one more time till all is well amalgamated.

Scrape the wet mixture into the dry ingredients and mix till it becomes a supple sticky mass. With a rubber spatula or with the help of that smart plastic container lid I mentioned above (see the pics), scrape away onto a very well floured counter. It's sticky so make sure there is plenty of flour. Flour your hands too. With your hands, shape the dough into a smooth ball. Cut in half. Take each half and gently roll into a log of about 12 inches. You can adjust the length by smoothing it out on the cookie sheet with the help of the marks you made on your parchment paper. If not, you can use a ruler as a guide. Overall it's not important, it just helps to keep the size consistent when baking many.

Beat your egg to make an egg wash and brush the logs with it. Bake in a 350˚ oven for 20-25 minutes. The extra 5 minutes depend on your oven. I often have to add that extra time to get the logs golden. Remove the logs from the oven and let them cool. The original recipe suggests 5 minutes but I struggled too often with the cutting when it was too warm and soft. I find that 10-15 minutes is ideal (if time allows). When ready cut in 1/2 inch slices. You need a very sharp knife to cut through the almonds  without breaking the dough. A sharp serrated knife works for me. I keep the point of the blade on the cutting board and cut down guillotine style with each slice. Once in a while the blade gets sticky and it can affect the cutting so it's good to wipe the blade clean halfway through to get nice clean cuts. Put the slices back on the baking sheet with a bit of space in between to let them cook and brown a bit more. Bake for 20-25 minutes more. Your house will smell amazing.

Let them cool on a rack. I always get 36 slices but we always eat the short ends. When ready to store, gently shake off the crumbs of each slices and layer in a big hermetic cookie tin with pretty paper in between to keep the layers neat and from getting messy. Hey, I said it was going to be my way. It's the extra special touches that makes this extra pleasant. Especially if it's a gift.  It's up to you. :) The biscotti will keep well for a few weeks. The flavours also seem to improve with the days. Hope you get to try them. We really enjoy them but it's always better if we can share with others! Happy baking!

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Soul fixing soup


I've been away for so long... I'm still kicking though. I'm still eating too! :) I don't know where I'm going with this blog but in the meantime here is a comforting soul-fixing soup to try.

Okay, it won't really fix your soul. That's silly but it will fill you up when you're down and if you have a cold or feeling hungry with little to nothing in the fridge to eat, this will feel good and satisfying. It's more broth than soup with a few extra goodies like egg, Parmesan and garlic added to it. It's like Stracciatella but it's whisked instead of stirred. I used to eat a German-ish version of this (minus the cheese). It's too bastardized for me to call it anything but yummy. :)

The truth is, it's post Halloween here. I swear I don't steal chocolate from the kids but we do have a big bowl left that is full of cheap candy. I'm not really a sweet tooth but somehow I found myself eating about 12 bite size BabyRuth chocolate bars! Maybe more... I don't want to know. Yeah, not my best moment. I figured I should eat something smart to help me forget. It also had to be quick! I had 30 minutes before picking up the girls from school. I needed fuel! I was feeling off and tired and the poison I just binged on wasn't going to make things better. I needed a magic potion. Soup!

The good news is that last week, I made lots of vegetable broth so I had something to tinker with. I also had some canned beef broth to finish and little leftovers of this and that with big flavours. This is barely a recipe. Just good things put together. It only serves one. Just double it up or make more if you have to share. So here is what I used.

1 cup beef broth

1 cup vegetable broth

1 small handful of thin pasta like vermicelli, capellini or spaghettini, in pieces (small pasta works too)

2 garlic cloves, sliced thin or chopped

2 teaspoons tomato paste, pizza or pasta sauce (I used a small leftover of tasty tomato bread soup)

Olive oil to taste (it's probably a good tablespoon but I just drizzle)

1 large egg

Parmesan, grated (a good 1/4 cup)

Black pepper from grinder

Salt (I use Kosher salt and I'm hooked)

Cilantro or parsley finely chopped (I often have a small leftover kept in the freezer for such use).

In a small pot pour in your cups of broth. If it's all vegetable or all beef or chicken, that is fine too. Bring to a boil. Throw in your pasta and cook till it's close to ready (check the package's instructions). Add your garlic a couple of minutes before the pasta is done with a generous drizzle of olive oil. You can do this step first but if you forget like I do, it will make no big difference. I do it for taste. Speaking of taste, stir in your tomato paste or sauce if you have it. Stir it in and taste, if you want more, add more! While the pasta, broth and garlic simmer, quickly whisk your egg and grated Parmesan in what will be your bowl till it forms a runny paste. Grind some pepper, add a few good pinches of salt. Whisk that in and while still gently whisking, add your broth, pasta and garlic concoction. The hot broth will instantly cook the egg. It will be slightly thickened thanks to the starch of the pasta and the egg, Parmesan mixture.

At this point it's ready to eat but you can add finely chopped parsley or cilantro if you have it. It's a way for me to finish small leftovers that I keep in the freezer. I've been known to experiment with what's on hand. In this particular bowl, I added some lime juice and Sriracha with the cilantro. The Parmesan still worked but I have done without cheese many times. 

So there it is, lip-smacking good and ready to eat. Grab a spoon!