Category Archives: baking

cardamom {carrot cake}

carrot cake is far from exciting, i know.  there are recipes for it everywhere, and they’re all much the same: take a mildly spiced cake, mix in some shredded carrots for moisture and sweetness, and top it all off with lashings of cream cheese icing.  it’s a classic, so there really isn’t any need to reinvent it, is there?

the recipe i tend to use for carrot cake comes from the rebar cookbook (i’ve shared another one of their recipes here).  rebar’s ‘coconut carrot cake’ is most excellent as is, though it does stray somewhat from your typical carrot cake recipe by including crushed pineapple and coconut in the cake, and white chocolate in the icing.  sometimes, however, one needs a bit of a change from routine.  well, that, and i didn’t have any  pineapple, and i didn’t want the super-sweet white chocolate icing.  so, i improvised.  i subbed in an extra dose of carrots to replace the pineapple, and mixed in some cardamom for a bit of a twist.  and.  it.  worked.  the cake is just as moist and light as the original, but with a subtle warmth and exotic spice from the cardamom, which makes it feel as if it hails more from the middle east rather than the tropics.

i decided to extend the semi-exotic flavours to the icing by mixing in some fresh orange juice and orange flower water (finally, a use for the little bottle that has been languishing in my pantry for years!).  i also cut the icing sugar by almost two-thirds, so i could taste the tang of the cream cheese and the orange without being smothered with sugary sweetness.  this made for a much lighter frosting, which i think i like even better than the original.

sometimes a little forced variation is a good thing.

what do you think about altering classic recipes?  is it best to leave tried-and-true recipes alone?  does it seem pretentious to substitute new flavours and techniques?

•  •  •

cardamom carrot cake (adapted from ‘rebar, modern food cookbook’ by audrey alsterberg and wanda urbanowicz)

cake
2 1/2 cups grated carrots (peeled first, of course)
1/2 cup dried cranberries or raisins (i’m not sure if i like this addition or not, though sultanas would work well with the theme – they’re totally optional)
3/4 cup unsweetened coconut (i did include this but would consider it optional as well)
3/4 cup vegetable oil
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup white sugar
3 large eggs
2 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 cups unbleached flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 – 1 tsp ground cardamom (or freshly grated)
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg (or freshly grated)

icing
9 oz package philadelphia cream cheese (yep, i do think this is one application where phily is waaay superior – the no-name stuff tastes chalky)
1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp orange flower water (to taste)
1 tbsp fresh orange juice (to taste)
1/2 – 1 cup icing sugar, sifted

pre-heat oven to 350°.  butter and flour (or line) two 8″ sandwich tins.
•combine grated carrot with any of the additions you’re using and set aside. in your mixing bowl, beat the sugars with the eggs, then stir in the vanilla and whip on high-speed until the volume has tripled. on low-speed, pour in the oil slowly to blend in.
•combine the remaining dry ingredients and gently stir into the batter. fold in the carrot mixture. divide batter evenly between the two pans and smooth the tops. bake 30-35 minutes, until a tester comes out clean. cool in pans on a cooling rack for 10 minutes, then invert pans to release the cakes and cool completely.
•to make the icing, beat the cream cheese on high until smooth and fluffy. beat in the vanilla and butter along with the orange flower water and orange juice. blend in 1/2 cup icing sugar, adding more if needed for the consistency you desire.  adjust the orange flavourings if needed, and beat the icing until it is thoroughly combined.
•when cakes are cool, place one cake on serving plate and spread with no more than half of the icing. top with the second cake and frost with remaining icing. i find this cake keeps well, at room temperature or in the fridge, for days.

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catching up (in photos)

there has been a lot of undocumented stirring and stitching going on this summer.  here is a small taste of what the last couple of months have looked like…

all of that and a trip to killarney, many a hot run, working five days a week and some lovely chats with lovely people at the studio tour has made this a full and fulfilling summer.  i hope that you have had a marvy summer, too!

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{peanut butter crack bars}

i’m sorry to do this to you.  really, i am.  because i am fair and kind, i will warn you: these bars are highly addictive – exercise caution in their presence.

these peanut butter crack bars owe their high addiction factor to two variables: they are childs’ play to make and they’re terribly easy to eat.  their moreishly smooth and creamy peanut butter base is topped with a thin lid of chocolate melted with peanut butter – a highway to the danger zone, if there ever was one.  i dare you not to consume spoonfuls of the base before it makes its way to the pan.

i found this recipe on la creativite de la fille and have tweaked it ever so slightly, so i am sharing my version of her lovely recipe below.

the main tweak i made was to use natural peanut butter instead of regular, processed peanut butter.  i’m always cautious when doing this, though, as there are instances where it just doesn’t work.  in this case, however, i’m happy to report that it worked out brilliantly (probably due in part to the fact that they’re not baked).  to compensate for the natural peanut butter and the unsalted butter substitutions, i’ve added a little bit of needed salt.  i also upped the quantity of peanut butter, which makes my version more peanutty-sweet than knock-your-teeth-out sweet.

and, for those of you who don’t trust yourselves in the presence of this confection, i can tell you that a half-recipe fits quite nicely into a standard loaf pan, which makes these bars far less dangerous.

•  •  •

peanut butter crack bars (adapted slightly from ‘creativite de la fille’, who credits ‘let’s dish’)

for the base:
1 cup unsalted butter, melted
2 cups graham cracker crumbs (i blitzed more or less 1 sleeve of graham crackers in my food processor)
2 cups icing sugar
1 1/4 cups natural peanut butter
1/4 tsp of salt

for the topping:
4 tbsp natural peanut butter
1 1/2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips

•in a large bowl, mix all of the base ingredients together until well blended. tip into an ungreased 9″x13″ pan and pat down evenly.
•melt the topping ingredients together (i do this in the microwave on 50% power for 60 seconds, stopping to stir, then in 30 second intervals, stirring each time, until it is melted. you can also do this in a pyrex bowl over a pan of simmering water, stirring frequently). pour overtop the base and spread evenly.
•refrigerate a minimum of 1 hour before cutting into squares.
•if you live in a hot/humid climate, or if you’re storing them for more than a day, you’ll want to keep these in the fridge.  either way, you’ll want them in an airtight container.

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{lavender shortbread}

as i’ve said in previous posts, it doesn’t take much to make me don my apron (random cravings are usually considered valid excuses to bake), but this week i do have a legitimate need to bake: it is my duty to contribute 6 dozen delicious cookies for the studio tour this weekend.

last year i baked up a couple of batches of ginger crunch and they were received with oohs and aaahs.  i was planning a repeat performance this year until inspiration struck when i was cutting some lavender from my garden.  i dug out my ‘celebrate lavender festival 2002 cookbook’ and read through the recipes.  there’s a lovely lavender sugar cookie dipped in dark chocolate which i’ve made several times, though i envisioned them all melting together in the heat this weekend and decided i needed something sturdier.  lavender shortbread cookies fit the bill perfectly.

these pale and speckled little bites taste like summer (well, like my imaginary summer in the south of france).  they are mysteriously fragrant – buttery and floral.  they are indeed sturdy, though they taste delicate and soft and not at all like they should be consumed with egg-nog.  they are so easy to eat on their own, one after another, though they beg to be paired with some lavender lemonade on a hot afternoon, or to be taken with tea (proper cup and saucer, and at least one lace doily).

this recipe is as simple as it gets.  the most taxing step is making the lavender sugar, and really, it’s not too taxing at all.  the notes suggest using a food processor or spice mill.  i found my food processor didn’t mince up the lavender buds adequately, so instead i pounded them with my mortar and pestle, which ground up the buds nicely.  the contents did look much like lawn mower clippings, but i went with it and everything turned out beautifully.  as long as the buds are broken up into little threads, you won’t detect their texture in the finished cookies.

my plan for the weekend cookies is to sprinkle them with some lavender sugar prior to baking so they look a little more dressed up (but i’ll sift the lavender out because, though the whole buds do look pretty, they aren’t so nice to chew on).  i hope that they will garner a few oohs and aaahs as well!

•  •  •

lavender shortbread cookies (from ‘the 6th annual celebrate lavender festival 2002 cookbook’, this recipe was contributed by ‘the herbfarm cookbook – 2000’)

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, chilled, but take out of the fridge 15 minutes before making the dough
4 tbsp fresh lavender buds, or 2 tsp dried lavender buds
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour

• make lavender sugar: you’re basically grinding the lavender buds with the sugar and there are a few ways you can do this. if using a spice mill or coffee grinder (clean, of course), mix the buds with 1/4 cup of the sugar and grind until fine, then mix in the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar. if using a food processor, mix the buds with all the sugar and blitz until fine. i used my mortar and pestle (see notes in post above) to grind up the lavender buds, then mixed with 1/4 cup sugar and ground some more, then stirred in the remaining 1/4 cup sugar.
• beat the butter (which was on the counter for 15 minutes) with the lavender sugar in your stand mixer on low-speed until the mixture is smooth and there are no detectable lumps of butter when you roll a tsp of the dough between your fingers. DO NOT beat until fluffy. add the flour all at once and mix on low-speed until it forms a cohesive dough.
• turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface (i use a tea towel*) and form it into a smooth rectangular block with no cracks. using a rolling-pin (and more flour, sparingly), roll dough into a 12″ x 9″ rectangle, 1/4″ thick, rotating the dough a quarter turn (gently) each time you roll to ensure it doesn’t stick (i never have this problem when using a floured tea towel). using a straight edge and a paring knife or pastry wheel, cut the dough into 3″ x 1 1/2″ bars, or cut with cookie cutters (i cut into smaller squares and slightly oblong bars). using a spatula, transfer cookies to parchment lined cookie sheets, leaving 1/2″ between the cookies, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before baking.
• preheat oven to 300 f. bake cookies until they are coloured lightly like sand, not browned, 22-25 minutes (mine were ready at 18 minutes so start checking early! you don’t want these golden or brown, just pale). lift one to check the underside; it should be just a shade darker on the top. place pan on a rack and cool completely on the pan before moving. stack the cooled cookies in an airtight container and store at room temp for up to a week.  makes 24 cookies (unless you cut them smaller, like i did).  enjoy!

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old-school {rhubarb-strawberry double crisp}

i love rhubarb.  it is the only plant in my garden that thrives regardless of the degree of neglect it faces (which is significant).  my initial investment of a few dollars for the cutting and a few years of patient observation has finally yielded a boisterous looking plant that is established enough to support our seasonal need for rhubarb crisp.

there are so many lovely things one can do with rhubarb, but our favourite is an old-fashioned crisp with some strawberries mixed in to balance the tang.  it’s a simple enough dish – one that i’d like to be able to throw together without a recipe, but each year i learn the hard way that i really do need some help to get the topping just right.  i’ve made several different recipes so far this season, and i think i’ve found the ultimate (if you’re of the ‘you can never have too much crisp in a crisp’ persuasion).  with an ample golden buttery topping, a sweet and sour filling of just the right consistency, and a surprise layer of a deliciously thin oatmeal cookie-like crust beneath, this recipe from dorie greenspan is guaranteed to make crisp-lovers swoon.

now, before i share with you dorie’s recipe, i must say that in the kitchen, there are some things that simply can’t be improved upon and shouldn’t be meddled with.  the first time i made dorie’s strawberry-rhubarb double crisp, i followed her recipe obediently.  after all, who am i to question the wisdom of a baking goddess like dorie?  the thought of crystallized ginger studding the crust and ground ginger flavouring the fruit filling sounded amazing, but i have to say that i found all of that gingery zing a bit unpleasant and out-of-place (and i am a certified ginger-lover).  sorry, dorie.  the rest of the recipe, however, was perfect, so i tried it again this weekend, sans ginger, and i am much happier with the more traditional flavour.

this recipe is a little fiddly because you make what is essentially a strawberry jam to pour over the rhubarb before baking.  the beauty of this approach is that it guarantees a non-soggy crust and a non-soupy filling, but you kind of lose the texture of the berries.  in my next iteration of this recipe, i’d like to see what happens if i skip the cooking of the berries and just toss them together with the rhubarb and sugar, though that approach may be better suited to the truly old-school single layer crisp.  thankfully my neglected rhubarb plant continues to push up enough brilliantly red stalks of goodness to allow me a little more experimentation.

• • •

strawberry-rhubarb double crisp (from ‘baking, from my home to yours’, by dorie greenspan)

for the crisp:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1/4 cup old-fashioned oats
1/2 tsp ground ginger (not for me)
pinch of salt
pinch of ground cinnamon (i increased this to 1/4 tsp)
1/2 cup finely chopped walnuts
1/4 cup finely chopped crystalized ginger (skip if going old-school)
1 stick (8 tbsp) unsalted butter, melted and cooled

for the filling:
1 pound (4-5 medium stalks) rhubarb, trimmed and peeled (i never peel my rhubarb. is that so bad?)
3 tbsp cornstarch
1/2 cup cold water
3 cups (about 12 ounces) strawberries, hulled and sliced (i can say that frozen berries work as well as fresh)
1 cup sugar (don’t skimp as i did the first time)
1/2 tsp ground ginger (skip if going old-school)
1 tsp pure vanilla extract

•dorie says to use a 9″ square non-reactive baking pan and place it on a lined baking sheet. i just used my oval 3 1/2 quart le creuset, which was deep enough to avoid any bubbling over. preheat oven to 350°f.
•put the flour, brown sugar, oats, salt and spices in a large bowl and sift the ingredients through your fingers to break up any lumps of brown sugar. mix in the nuts (and crystallized ginger, if using), then pour over the melted butter. stir the ingredients until they are thoroughly moistened. spoon half of the mixture into the pan and pat it down lightly to form a thick crust; set aside the remaining mixture for the topping (don’t eat too much of it!).
•slice the rhubarb into 1/2″ chunks and scatter them over the pressed-in base.
•dissolve the cornstarch in the cold water and set aside. put the berries, sugar and ginger (if using) into a medium saucepan and crush the berries with a fork or potato masher. place the pan over medium heat and, stirring occasionally, bring to a full boil. pour in the cornstarch mixture and, stirring, bring back to a boil. keep cooking and stirring until the berry filling is thick and no longer cloudy, about 3 minutes. remove from heat, stir in the vanilla, then pour the filling over the rhubarb.
•scatter the remaining topping evenly over the filling.
•bake for 60 minutes, or until the topping is golden and the strawberry jam is bubbling up all around the edges. cool on a rack and serve warm or at room temperature (with ice cream, of course).  this crisp is best served the day it is made, as the bottom layer of crisp becomes a little less crisp on days two and three (if it lasts that long).

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short, dark and handsome {chocolate loaf cake}

not every occasion calls for an iced layer cake (though i could be convinced otherwise without much effort at all).  there are times, of course, when a more modest treat is required – something plain and non-fussy, but equally delicious and satisfying.  when it is one of those times, this is what you should make.

i know, this slab of chocolate loaf may not have the allure of its more glamorous counterparts (really, who can compete with a frosted cupcake?), but rest assured, it more than makes up for its simple looks with its knock-out taste.  its flavour is deep and intense and chocolatey.  its texture manages to be both dense and light at the same time.  it is surprisingly moist and moreishly smooth, and on day three it is still swoon-worthy.  have i convinced you yet?

this recipe comes from one of my intellectual kitchen crushes, nigella lawson.  my copies of her books are dog-eared and spattered with regular use.  i’ve called upon her ‘chocolate cake hall of fame’ chapter (in ‘feast’) so frequently that the book naturally falls open to those pages, and this beauty, on page 272, has become one of my new favourites.  sure, this chocolate loaf cake may not be tall, but it is dark and handsome (and humble and classic and delicious).  what more could you want?

•  •  •

quadruple chocolate loaf cake ( from ‘feast’, by nigella lawson)

for the cake:
200g plain flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
50g cocoa
275g caster sugar (regular granulated sugar works fine here)
175g soft unsalted butter
2 eggs, room temperature
1 tbsp real vanilla extract
80mL sour cream
125mL boiling water
175g dark chocolate chips (or chopped chocolate)

for the syrup:
1 tsp cocoa
125mL water
100g caster sugar (again, i used granulated)
25g dark chocolate (this is shaved for the topping, which i didn’t use)

•preheat oven to 170°c (this is almost 350°f). line a 21cm x 11cm and 7.5cm deep loaf pan with tinfoil and brush/spray with oil (leave some edges of foil sticking out for removing cake from pan).
•put flour, baking soda, sugar, butter, eggs, vanilla and sour cream into food processor and blitz to form a smooth batter (you can also follow the usual routine and make it in a mixer or by hand). scrape down the sides, then pulse again while pouring in the boiling water. stir in the chocolate chips by hand.
•pour batter into prepared pan and bake for about 60 minutes (mine took about 70 min, but my oven is labile), until the loaf is risen, split somewhat down the middle and a cake-tester comes out mostly clean (“…don’t be alarmed at a bit of stickiness in evidence; rather, greet it”).
•not long before the cake is finished baking, put the syrup ingredients into a small saucepan and bring to a boil, then continue to boil (CAREFULLY) for 5-10 minutes, until the liquid is reduced to a slick syrup.
•when the cake is done, place it on a cooling rack and pierce it here and there with a cake tester, then pour the syrup overtop and allow the cake to cool completely (though this is amazing, if a bit delicate, when still slightly warm).
•when ready to serve, remove cake from the pan and shave over some of the dark chocolate (i skipped the shaved chocolate, though it does make the cake look even more glorious).

•  •  •

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{moira’s brownies}

when it comes to baking, i’m suspicious of the ornate.  i’ve always been compelled by apparently simple treats that lure you in with taste over presentation.  thus, my adoration of the old-school brownie.

i’ve been fickle with brownie recipes over the years, moving from moosewood to ina to nigella, temporarily satisfying my quest for brownie perfection.  since i found moira’s brownies, however, i’ve never strayed.  loyalty is easy when you find a recipe this good.

i first tasted moira’s brownies at a holiday fete several years ago, where they were served for dessert, still warm from the oven.  until then, i had been of the icing-free brownie camp, but had to admit that the smooth, dark icing on those brownies made them look terribly enticing.  and the taste?  it was love at first bite.  the top of the brownies was ever so slightly crisp beneath the cocoay icing and the brownie beneath was delectably fudgey and satisfying without being overly sweet.  per.  fec.  tion.  it turned out those beauties had been baked by the hosts’ daughter, moira, who was 9 or 10 at the time.  a negotiation for the recipe soon began.

moira is a clever girl and wise beyond her years.  she has the discerning palate of a well-traveled, open-minded…tween…and knows a good thing when she tastes it.  she had sought out this recipe from friends of theirs and made her first batch when she was just 8.  since she loves to bake, she suggested that her prized brownie recipe could be traded for an equally desirable recipe of mine.  i had brought some holiday baking along, so i suggested she might consider my humble scottish shortbread worthy of the transaction.  she agreed, selected a square and began her assessment.  thankfully, after a well acted dramatic savouring, she smiled and nodded and the deal was done.  phew.

i have since shared moira’s brownies, and her recipe, far and wide.  i’m always careful to explain where the recipe originated, as i think it’s part of the charm of these brownies.  after i tell the story, i also mention that the key to the come-hitherness of these brownies is to ice them while they’re hot.  i know, i know, icing hot brownies flies in the face of collective baking wisdom, but in this case, it’s an exception worth making.  trust me – i know my brownies.

•  •  •

moira’s brownies (though it traveled through many hands before it got to mine, this recipe is said to have originated in the calgary herald, circa the late 1900’s)

1 1/2 cups brown sugar (dark brown is preferable)
1/2 cup melted unsalted butter
2 eggs
1/4 cup cocoa (best quality)
1/2 tsp vanilla (real, of course)
1 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup chopped toasted nuts (optional – i still haven’t joined the nuts-in-brownies camp)

•preheat oven to 325°f and grease and line an 8″ or 9″ pan with parchment (i use an 8″ pan).
•mix the brown sugar and melted butter. stir in the eggs one at a time and mix well, then add the vanilla. sift the cocoa in to the mixture, followed by the flour and stir until combined. stir in the nuts, if using.
•spread in prepared pan and bake for 35-40 minutes. prepare the icing as you ice these when they come out of the oven.

1/3 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1/3 cup cocoa
1 1/2 cups icing sugar
1 1/2 tsp vanilla
2 tbsp milk, more or less

•mix butter and cocoa until you have a smooth paste. stir in the icing sugar and vanilla, beating in the milk a little at a time until you have a nice consistency (remember, this will melt into the brownies, so thick is ok).
•gently spread icing atop the brownies when you take them out of the oven. leave to cool on a rack and try to wait until the icing is set before serving (but they’re quite delicious, if not as clean-cut looking, with molten icing running down the sides…)

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•  •  •

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