Monthly Archives: August 2012

Ambivalent Birthday Cupcakes

You always remember your first. No, I’m not talking about THAT first. This is a not that kind of blog!

I have the good fortune of being blessed with 14 nephews and 9 nieces. I have a special place in my heart for each and every one of them, but there is something quite special about becoming an aunt for the first time. My oldest nephew was an adorable, sweet-natured baby and has turned into a wonderful, responsible, very funny young man with a strong sense of family. His 29th birthday coincided with a visit to our cottage last week. I wanted to make a family dinner for him. I know he has been following the Paleo diet for some time now, and birthday cake is not really on the approved Paleo list. However, a birthday without cake is just too sad for me to contemplate, so last week I sent him the following e-mail:

Would you eat cake on your birthday? If so, what would your preference be? Chocolate, Berry Shortcake, Carrot, or anything else.

I got the following response:

Well, I would have some cake if there was one in front of me, but I’d rather not.  I know I’d enjoy it in the moment, but I’d probably regret the sugar and gluten the next day.  But if I had to choose?  Chocolate or Berry Shortcake sounds great.

As far as what I eat…pretty much meat and veg these days – still on the Paleo diet.  I basically stay away from gluten/grains, dairy, and most processed food.  That being said, however, given your penchant for baking (I don’t remember the last time I was at your cottage and didn’t see something delicious cooling down on those huge racks you’ve got) I’d imagine I’ll be doing a bit of cheating those few days.
Anything I can bring?
WHAT???? Talk about an ambivalent response! How was I to interpret that?
This party was beginning to look like no fun at all. I fired off a quick e-mail:
Do you still drink alcohol?
He responded:
Yes, just wine and tequilla. 
Whew, he hadn’t completely lost his mind.
Now I had to decide if I would be the Evil Aunt and tempt him with something anti-Paleo, or should I be considerate and respectful of his diet and make him a Paleo Chocolate Birthday Cake with Coconut Honey Frosting?
I decided that to go with a full-on, loaded with gluten, dairy and sugar cake would be cruel, but it really seemed to me that he was asking me to help him cheat. So. I decided to make cupcakes, because they’re small and not really a true cake. Sort of an ambivalent cake for his ambivalent response.
For the base of the cupcakes, I knew chocolate was the right road to follow. I have tried many different chocolate cake recipes over the years, and have come to the conclusion that butter is not always better when it comes to the moistest cake. Vegetable oil really does make a better cake. Our family’s go-to chocolate cake comes from Noreen Gilletz’s “Pleasures of Your Food Processor.”  Rich, moist and very deeply chocolate, but not too sweet, it makes a perfect cake or cupcakes every time.

I am thrilled with the Cocoa Barry brand of cocoa powderI just bought. (Cocoa Barry is the French division of Callebaut)

I wanted to try a different buttercream this time. A few years ago I had dinner at a wonderful restaurant in Ottawa called Beckta. Before the meal they brought bread and some type of butter spread to the table. I was smitten from the first bite! I begged the waiter for the recipe for this spread. He told me that they melt butter until it turns a medium nutty brown colour. Then they chill it ao that it becomes a solid again and whip it with a little regular butter. This was my first foray into the land of browned butter (the French call it beurre noisette) and I must say that it has haunted my dreams ever since.
Given my success with browned butter berry tarts, I suspected that browned butter in a buttercream would be fantastic. Something magical happens when you brown butter. It enhances the flavour of just about anything you add it to, and the aroma will drive you wild. Making brown butter is quite simple. Use a saucepan with a light coloured bottom, so that you will be able to judge when the butter is browned to perfection. A dark bottom pan can lead to burned butter and trust me, that aroma and taste will not leave you craving more!

As the butter melts, it will begin to foam. Swirl the pan to ensure even melting. The color will progress from pale yellow to golden-tan to, finally, a burnt sienna (remember that crayola crayon colour?). Once you smell that nutty aroma, take the pan off the heat and transfer the browned butter into a heat-proof bowl to cool.

The milk solids will cook faster and you’ll see them settle on the bottom of the pan. You can strain the brown butter through cheesecloth to leave those milk solid particles behind, or you can incorporate them into the buttercream. I really like the almost burnt taste of them as well as seeing the specks of browned butter in the icing, so I did not strain mine.

The brown butter is chilled for about an hour until it becomes solid again. The ideal temperature of the brown butter for making the buttercream is room temperature. If it becomes too hard in the fridge, leave it on the counter to soften a bit. Beat the brown butter with icing sugar, a pinch of salt and a little vanilla extract.

Fit a disposable piping bag with a large star tip and frost the cupcakes.

The cupcakes were a huge hit. My nephew inhaled two of them and asked for two more to be wrapped up to go. I have a feeling he may have had a bit of a gluten-sugar hangover the next morning, but I think he will agree that they were worth it.

Click here to print the recipe for Chocolate Cupcakes with Browned Butter Icing.

P.S. Just read about browned butter on field fresh tomatoes. Check it out!

Andalusian Gazpacho Soup

I literally had a gazpacho soup epiphany the first time I ate this version of it. Thick, creamy, silky, tangy, and just pure tomato goodness. I have had versions of gazpacho where all the vegetables are pulsed together in the food processor, and I have always found the texture and flavour to be murky, reminding me more of  V8 cocktail juice, than of gazpacho soup.

This gazpacho soup was served to me several years ago, at a friend’s cottage on a girl’s weekend. When I asked her how she prepared it, she said it was  pureed tomatoes, thickened with bread soaked in a little water, olive oil, sherry vinegar, garlic and cumin. This was classic gazpacho soup, prepared the Andalusian way. Andalusia is the Spanish town, where Gazpacho soup originated. I could not believe that these few simple ingredients created this astounding soup.

Now, I feel that I must disclose the event that immediately preceded the ingesting of this soup. It was a blustery day.

We all had afternoon naps and woke up feeling a little chilled, so we made a fire.  We were just beginning to prepare our cocktails, when the wind really started whipping around.  It came straight down the chimney and the cottage began to fill with smoke.  Within minutes the smoke alarm began its piercing cry and chaos ensued.  Our hostess managed to rip the smoke alarm from the wall and we opened windows and doors, but it wasn’t helping very much.

Someone suggested dousing the fire with water, but after much discussion, we decided that was a bad idea from a cleanup perspective.  Then someone suggested we use the fireplace tongs to lift the burning log, take it outside onto the deck, walk down the stairs and drop it into the lake.  This led to quite a discussion about safety.  The wind was really blowing and sparks from that log could fly off and begin a forest fire.

Finally, after about an hour and much coughing and choking, someone came up with the bright idea to use the fireplace tongs to lift the burning log, place it in a metal bucket and use that to carry it down to the lake.  All were agreed.  One person manned the tongs, the second person ran to get oven mitts (the bucket would be hot).  The third person wore the gloves and held the bucket and the fourth, opened the doors to the deck.  Mission accomplished.  The burning log was deposited safely in the lake.

Now I want you to know that we are all intelligent women, quite accomplished in our various fields, but as you may have surmised, not one of us earned a fire safety badge in Girl Scouts. However, this story perfectly demonstrates the ability women have to work together as a team to accomplish great things, like clearing a house from smoke so the cocktail hour could properly begin! After a few glasses of wine, we sat down to dinner and this gazpacho soup.

When I reflected back on the weekend, I surmised that perhaps all the excitement and wine had played tricks on my mind. There was no way that this soup was really that incredible. So I got the recipe from my friend and made it myself.

The beauty of this soup is that there is no need to peel or seed the tomatoes. Fresh ripe summer tomatoes are quartered.

Into the blender they go with a piece of baguette soaked in water, olive oil, sherry vinegar, salt, garlic and cumin.

After pureeing, the soup is poured through a sieve.

Chill and serve! While the soup is delicious as is, I love a little bit of crunch added, so I toasted up some tiny croutons and diced some cucumber and peppers.

Yes, the soup was just as delicious as I remembered.

Deeply flavourful and complex. The small amount of bread really thickened the soup and the olive oil created an emulsion that contributed to the soup’s silky texture.

Click here to print the recipe for Classic Andalusian Gazpacho Soup.

Addictive Blogger Award

Imagine my surprise when I opened my email last Friday morning and discovered that the Addictive Blogger Award had been bestowed upon Salt and Serenity. So exciting! I must admit that sometimes when I am sitting at my computer, typing away, I wonder, if there is anyone out there even reading this stuff? So, it is quite rewarding to know that someone is out there reading what I have so carefully crafted and that some readers even find me addictive! I suppose it is a basic human need to want to feel validated and recognized for what we do.

A great big thank you to the talented blogger behind at350degrees for the award! I do not know her name, but I can tell you that she is a busy student and still has time and a great big passion for baking. It’s inspiring! Check out her blog. It’s lovely!

My award comes with a few rules:

  • Thank the person awarding you
  • Share a little about why you blog and how the journey started
  • Paste the blog award on your page
  • Nominate 10 other bloggers you feel deserve the award

I actually stumbled into blogging by accident. I never intended to be a blogger. In the spring of 2009, I was surfing the net, doing some research for a food column I was writing  for our local newspaper, when I came across a wonderful food blog called Pinch My Salt , by Nicole Hamaker.  Nicole was about to embark on an exciting journey, baking her way through Peter Reinhart’s book, “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice”, one recipe at a time.  She was looking for company.

The next thing I knew, I was e-mailing Nicole to tell her to count me in.  I am not ordinarily a goal oriented person and the thought of joining any group usually makes me shudder, but for some strange reason I was drawn to this challenge.  I have several bread baking books on my cookbook shelf but have never gotten around to baking anything other than challah.  I have always wanted to learn to bake amazing baguettes, Ciabatta bread and other artisan breads but just never got around to it.  It always seemed like such an ordeal.  This was just the kick I needed.

It seemed like a simple exercise.  We would go through the book in alphabetical order and bake one bread each week, for the next 43 weeks, beginning with Anadama Bread and ending with Whole Wheat.  Within 2 weeks there were 216 bread freaks from all over the world, who, just like me, decided that their life would not be complete if they failed to bake their way through this book. Our main way of keeping in touch was through a Google group. We decided to share photos of our finished breads on Flickr.

I baked my first bread (cornmeal molasses bread called Anadama) on May 12 2009.  I logged onto our Google page and under the conversation thread titled, “Post your Anadama Bread links here” I told the group I had made my bread and they could see pictures of it on Flickr.  While on our Google page, I decided to check out what other group members were up to.  I was blown away.  Many of the participants had their own food blogs and told a whole story with photos about their Anadama adventure.

What had I gotten myself into?  These were serious food people with their own web sites.  As I perused some of their blog entries I became somewhat jealous.  I wanted to start a food blog too.  I could do this!  The next day as I baked our second bread I took my camera into the kitchen and shot every step of baking “Artos, a Greek Celebration Bread”.  By the end of the day I was sweating and my camera was covered in flour.  But I was so proud.  That night I began researching blogs and within 48 hours I had my very own blog set up with my first post, complete with photos.

I must admit, that when I told my children what I was doing, they mocked me and told me to “get a life.” I quickly shut them up with homemade bagels, cinnamon buns, kaiser buns,  and 40 other wonderful breads.

I actually finished the challenge in July 2010 and surprisingly, I came to love the writing and photography almost as much as the baking. I found that blogging was an amazing outlet for my creative energy. I love the generosity and camaraderie of food bloggers. They are, by and large, a wonderful and supportive group of people. After the challenge was done, I decided to continue blogging and see where it would take me. It has now been over three years and I think that my writing and photography skills have improved and I learn so much from other bloggers. I continue to gather more followers each day and am up to over 459 followers at this point. I am grateful for those who subscribe to my blog and want to hear what I have to say.

In the spirit of food blogger generosity, here are 10 food blogs that I think deserve the Addictive Blog Award. Check them out, and I think you’ll agree that they are indeed addictive!

Aprons and Sneakers, A Healthy Life For Me, Biscuits and Bobbins, Bob Vivant, Bravetart, Dash and Bella, Emmy Cooks, Raspberri Cupcakes, The Patterned Plate, The Usual Bliss.

Avocado Toasts

I’m about to confess something that may get me drummed out of the tribe. I’m sick of eating humus! Truthfully, I have only myself to blame for this unfortunate state of events. I have been eating humus with carrot and celery sticks  for lunch everyday for the past year. Seriously, everyday! I know, you must be wondering, how is that possible? She’s a food blogger, she must create all kinds of wonderful lunches, each day more imaginative and fantastic than the last. But the sad truth is that I get into a rut, it’s just easy, plus it’s healthy and fairly low cal and so then I feel justified later in the day to indulge in my daily aperitivo!

I confess my boring lunch habit not so you will feel sorry for me, but as a way of sharing with you the discovery of a fantastic and simple appetizer to serve with drinks when company comes to visit.

Every summer for the past 26 years we have been gathering at our cottage with my husband’s University housemates and their spouses. Over the years our numbers have swelled as everyone started having kids. We had our annual get together this past weekend. It was just a small group of 15 this year as several members had other commitments. Each family is responsible for one meal over the weekend. It’s fantastic because it means that I am not in the kitchen the entire weekend cooking for everyone and I can enjoy my company instead of resent them!

As I began to plan what to serve my guests with drinks before dinner, I ruled out the usual suspects: humus and pita (sick of humus, see above!), tortilla chips and salsa (too predictable), a big bowl of pistachios or peanuts (nut allergies). As I was reading my July issue of Bon Appetit magazine, the photo on the editor’s letter page stopped me cold. It was just simply grilled bread topped with ripe avocado, sea salt, olive oil and red pepper flakes. I have to say that since Editor-in-Chief  Adam Rapoport took over at the helm of Bon Appetit, I have really started to enjoy reading this magazine once again. He has injected it with a fresh modern vibe and it just inspires me to cook everything on the pages. I still miss Gourmet (a moment of silence please!), but Bon Appetit is really doing a great job to partially fill the void.

The beauty of these avocado toasts is in their simplicity. The key is to gather together the very best ingredients for this dish. There is no real cooking or recipe involved here. Think of yourself as an orchestra leader, bringing together some gifted musicians. Each on their own, sounds quite nice. Together, they create a beautiful harmony. Look for good Artisan bread that has an “open crumb structure” (that’s baker speak for bread with lots of holes – more holes means more crusty spots to give added crunch and crevices for the olive oil to drip into).

A big fat clove of fresh garlic gets rubbed onto just grilled bread.

The avocados should be perfectly ripe, so buy them a few days ahead so they have time to ripen to perfection.

Table salt need not apply for the job of topping these crostini. Pull out the Maldon Sea Salt or some Fleur de Sel. The large crystals of salt will give added crunch and provide a perfect counterpoint to the bland creamy avocado. Pull out that expensive bottle of fruity, slightly bitter olive oil that you have been saving for a special occasion. The nooks and crannies of the grilled Artisan bread will soak it up. Finally, a very light sprinkling of red pepper flakes to wake up the taste buds.

These Avocado Toasts will have your friends and family toasting you!!