Valentines Day Marbled Heart Brown Sugar Cookies

assortment of hearts 625 sqI would not describe myself as an overly affectionate person. (OK, all those who know me can stop choking with laughter now) Neither my husband or I are big on PDA’s . We don’t really celebrate Valentines Day, certainly not in a traditional cards, flowers or a box of drugstore chocolates (shudder) kind of way. My husband knows better than to show up with a bouquet of roses for me. I hate roses, especially red ones. Their aroma conjures up images of death and decay in my mind.  However, if a big bunch of tulips were to come my way, I would never refuse them!

That being said, there is something about heart shaped cookies for Valentines Day that is just so sweet and endearing, especially if they are home made. I could not resist making these this year. I love to decorate sugar cookies with royal icing. I am not a huge lover of the overly sweet taste of royal icing, but I am a frustrated artist and the canvas of a cookie fills my soul with such joy when I hold a piping bag and begin creating.Red and White heardsI had a few extra hands on deck last week to help me make these. My mom, who is very creative, was visiting. As well, my old babysitter, Sarah, who is a whiz with a piping bag, was also visiting. She was so excited when I told her what we would be making. She runs a dance school and bakes beautiful decorated cookies for all her students for any and every occasion. When I had tendonitis in my elbow, from a repetitive strain injuty (piping too many gingerbread snowflake cookies), she filled in as my designated piper.

Marbling royal icing is probably one of the easiest ways to create some spectacular looking cookies. There is no right or wrong way. You just have to let your creative freak flag fly here. The marbling technique basically boils down to using contrasting colours of wet royal icing. You pipe lines or dots or whatever you fancy, and just use a toothpick to swirl the lines or connect the dots. It couldn’t be simpler.Heart ZigzagsYou can use any sturdy cookie recipe, like gingerbread or a sugar cookie. I used my favourite sugar cookie recipe, which calls for brown sugar, instead of the usual white sugar. It adds a real depth of flavour. Adter making the dough, I divide the soft dough into 4 pieces and roll out each piece of dough between 2 pieces of parchment paper. Then I chill the sheets of rolled out dough before cutting. It is much easier to do this rather than chill the dough first and then roll it out.

dough mixeddivide dough

rolling between parchmentcutting out hearts  I found the cutest set of cookie cutters at Michael’s.Wilton CuttersYou will need some disposable piping bags, piping tips (#2 and #3 size) and couplers,  some paste or gel food colouring and toothpicks. If you are planning to buy red food colouring, make sure it is the “no taste” red. In order to get a vivid red, you need to use a lot of the food colouring, and the regular red departs a very bitter taste.

It is best to make the cookies and royal icing the day before (or even several days) you plan to decorate them. Set aside a few quiet hours to allow your creative decorating juices to flow. 

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Click here to print recipe for Sugar Cookies with Brown Sugar.

Click here to print recipe for Royal Icing.

Red and White hearts on felt heart placemats

Hearts lines

For further inspiration check out these very talented bloggers:

Julia Usher

Colleen of Royal Icing Diaries

Sweetopia

 

Challah Monkey Bread and Goldilocks

Shabbat dinner at our house just got a whole bunch more fun this week. piece removed 2If you have never heard of monkey bread, let me enlighten you. Essentially it is a yeast dough that is rolled into small balls, dipped in melted butter, then rolled in sugar and cinnamon and layered in a Bundt pan to rise. As it spends time in the oven, the little balls fuse together like  pieces of an interlocking puzzle-cake. Once it is baked, everyone pulls off the little balls of delicious dough with their hands and pops them in their mouth. As much fun to make as it is to eat. More fun than a barrel of monkeys!

How it got the name, “monkey bread” is up for debate. Some say that since monkeys are known for pulling at everything, when humans pull the warm butter drenched, cinnamon and sugar coated balls of baked dough off the finished loaf, we resemble a bunch of monkeys. Others have suggested that the way it is eaten, torn, piece by piece off the loaf resembles how monkeys pick at their food. Whatever the explanation, monkey bread is irresistible.

When I opened my inbox earlier this month and saw that Alexandra Penfold at Serious Eats was struck by the genius idea to create monkey bread from challah dough, I knew I had to try it. I make challah every week. My favourite challah dough is made with 2/3 all-purpose white flour and 1/3 whole wheat flour. Alexandra said that bread flour is best for making this version, so I followed her recipe. My mom was visiting me this week, so we made it together. I made the dough on Thursday and stuck it in the fridge for a slow overnight rise. You can make this all in one day if you like, but I find it easier to make the dough a day or two ahead of time and let it sit in the fridge until the day I want to serve it.

The dough gets divided into 64 pieces and then each piece is rolled into a ball. My mom has lots of patience for these kinds of projects. It would also be a perfect thing to do with kids! My daughter wants to make it with me when she comes to visit later this month.dividing dough

rolling into ballsThen each little dough ball is plunged into a bath of warm melted butter, followed by a dip into a tub of brown sugar and cinnamon.dipping in butter and sugar-cinnamonThe challah dough balls are then layered in a greased bundt pan. ready for oven 2After a 90 minute rise, the bread is ready for the oven. Once baked, it needs to cool for a bit before you can turn it out of the pan and cover it in cinnamon bun type of icing.icing

close up of insideThe monkey bread elicited lots of oohs and aaahs as I brought it to the table. We made the blessing on the challah monkey bread and then everyone tore into it. If you envision the best part of a cinnamon bun, that gooey center bit of dough, then you will understand the genius behind monkey bread. Each piece of monkey bread that you rip off is coated in that perfect sticky goo! After dinner, I left the remainder of the bread on the counter. It was gone by morning. I suspect we may have been visited by a barrel of monkeys in the middle of the night.all icedThrilled as I was by the results, I was a little disappointed that the finished bread was a bit squat, not tall and majestic as I had hoped. I suspected that Alexandra used a smaller sized Bundt pan. I used a standard 12 cup Bundt pan.  So, I did a little research and discovered that there is a smaller size Bundt pan, a 6 cup size. I ordered the smaller one and made a second challah monkey bread.

I used my challah dough in this version. The smaller pan filled up quite nicely.small pan ready for ovenAs the bread was baking, and filling the house with the insanely delicious aroma of cinnamon and brown sugar, I decided to take a peek into the oven. Ooops!pan too smallI failed to take into account that the dough would continue to rise. I felt like Goldilocks in the Three bears story. The first pan was too big for the dough. The second pan was too small. Then I emailed Alexandra to find out what size pan she used. Apparently there is a 9 inch silicone Bundt pan that holds 10 cups… just right!

The overflowing disaster monkey bread disapppeared just as quickly as the first one. The feedback I got was that everyone preferred the softer texture of the dough made from the all purpose flour and whole wheat flour combo dough, over the chewier texture from the bread flour dough. I did briefly consider ordering the 9 inch pan and remaking it a third time so my photo would be perfect for this post. My family told me that as much as they loved the Challah Monkey Bread, a third one in the span of one week was just too much fun for them to handle.

Click here to print recipe for Challah Monkey Bread.

If you are curious and would like to try Alexandra’s bread flour Challah Monkey Dough, click here.

Kale, Chicken Sausage and White Bean Soup

ready to eat 2 625 sqIf you keep up on these things, you may know that one of the hottest “it” foods in 2013 was kale. I realize that we are already a month into 2014 now, so forgive me if I’m just a little late to the party.

Dubbed the “Queen of Greens”, Kale has a ton of health benefits. Low in calories, high in fibre and anti-oxidant rich, kale contains calcium, potassium and vitamins A, C and K. Research shows it helps fight age-related diseases too!

Last year I read about The Kale Effect  (TKE). Defined as an “immediate, and observable, autonomic nervous system response to the absorption of the vitamins and minerals in nutrient rich kale.  Symptoms may include uncontrollable smiling, laughing, and jumping up and down in the kitchen.”

I wanted in on “The Kale Effect” in the worst way possible. I mean who wouldn’t? I suspected the only way kale was going to make me laugh uncontrollably was if I chopped it finely, rolled it in paper and smoked it. But I was game to give kale a chance.

I spent quite a bit of time last year trying to like kale. Everyone gushed about kale chips. They said that eating these would make any craving for potato chips vanish. They said that kale chips were just as satisfying as potato chips. They were wrong! Kale chips taste like crispy seaweed that turns to dust in your mouth.

Then I moved onto raw chopped kale in a salad with apples and walnuts. Swallowing that raw kale felt like someone was trying to scratch the inside of my throat.  Then I heard that you should massage your kale first, before eating it. Apparently massaging it breaks down the cellulose structure and raw kale goes from bitter and tough to silky and sweet. I never did try the rubdown. I have my limits. I mean, good lord, what’s next, a mani and pedi for your Brussels sprouts?

I worked my way through kale and onion pie, sautéed kale with olive oil, garlic and red pepper flakes, stir fried kale, smoked kale and braised kale with cabbage and balsamic vinegar. None of these were terribly awful (except for the smoked kale), but I certainly did not want to make any of them for a second time.

But damn, I wanted to get in on The Kale Effect. When would I begin smiling and laughing uncontrollably? It seems that the key to kale love, for me, was to combine it with lots of other ingredients so that it became filler and not the star of the show. That way you have lots of other delicious ingredients and still get all the benefits of kale.

The two main types of kale you are likely to encounter in the grocery store are curly kale, which is quite pungent, dinosaur or black kale, (also called calvolo nero) which is sweet and delicate in flavour.
curly-kale 2Fdinosaur kaleFTry this kale soup and soon, you too, may begin smiling and laughing uncontrollably and jumping up and down in your kitchen!prepI adapted a similar recipe for Sausage and Kale Soup with Black Eyed Peas from Serious Eats. I decided to lighten mine up a bit and I used spicy chicken sausages instead of traditional pork sausages. I also opted for canned white beans instead of soaking my own black eyed peas.sauteeing chicken sausagesimmering soupThe chopped kale gets added during the last 10 minutes of cooking. Just enough time to wilt and soften it. Before the kale is added, about a quarter of the soup is pureed in the blenderblenderThe finished soup gets a final garnish of freshly grated lemon zest, chopped fresh rosemary and a shaving of Parmesan Reggiano cheese.

I loved this soup. The spicy chicken sausage packed just the right amount of heat to keep this soup from being bland. Pureeing just a quarter of the soup created an amazing thick and comforting texture. The bitter kale, added right at the end, had just enough time to mellow slightly, while still retaining some texture. Lemon zest as a garnish added just the right extra hit of freshness and brightness. I am a kale convert.cropped bowl 1 625

Click here to print recipe for Sausage White Bean and Kale Soup.

P.S. Duking it out for super fruit of 2014 is the buffaloberry and the pichuberry. You heard it here first folks!!

 

Pomegranate Molasses Glazed Carrots

ready to eat 2 625 sqYou know it’s January because every food blogger worth her salt is writing about the joys of vegetables . Those sweet food porn days of December are long gone, buried under the 5 pounds of butter and sugar, tucked oh so discretely under a layer of skin, in my case, just below where my waist used to be.

Although we squeal with delight and burble over with joy at summer produce (remember wild blueberries?), winter in the produce aisle can produce some gush worthy moments as well. It just requires a bit more work.

Carrots are often bypassed as too pedestrian, but in deft hands, carrots can be magical. These carrots were way too pretty to leave behind at the supermarket.carrots in a circle 2I have a secret ingredient that turns ordinary roasted carrots into something quite special. It’s pomegranate molasses. Not actually molasses at all, but just pure pomegranate juice, and a bit of sugar boiled down and reduced to a thick, syrupy reduction. Dip your finger into this thick, garnet coloured syrup and you will be instantly transported back to your childhood! sweet tarts fIf you are of a certain age you will remember with fondness that powerful puckering of your lips from these candies. Pomegranate molasses has that tart/sweet quality, but in a grown up way. It adds an intense earthy depth of flavour to so many things. I have been using it in a chicken sauce for years now, and everyone who eats it always asks, “what is in this sauce?” It can be found in many supermarkets now, as well as in Middle Eastern specialty shops. If you can’t find it, here is a recipe from Alton Brown to make your own pomegranate molasses.

 

The idea of roasting carrots with pomegranate molasses came from Melissa Clark’s book “In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite.” The first time I made them, I found the flavour to be delicious but the carrots were a bit shrivelled in appearance and leathery in texture. As I thought about how to avoid this issue, I remembered that I boil potatoes for a few minutes before roasting to get a crispy not leathery skin. I wondered if the same treatment with carrots would work? I peeled them and cut them on the diagonal, to increase the surface area that would come into contact with the roasting pan. peeling carrots They got a quick 2 minute dip in boiling salted water. Then I drained them on paper towels for a few minutes before roasting.boiling carrotsdraining carrotsI tossed them with a bit of olive oil, salt, pepper and a pinch of cayenne and roasted them in a hot (425°F) oven for about 45 minutes. I added the pomegranate molasses and some honey during the last 5 minutes of roasting as I did not want them to burn.ready for oven

pouring glaze on carrotsThe finished carrots were crispy without being leathery. The pinch of cayenne added a nice kick and the pomegranate molasses added an amazing sweet tart punch. I gilded the lily and sprinkled on some pomegranate seeds. They glistened like little jewels.

Click here to print recipe for Pomegranate Molasses Glazed Carrots.

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The best thing I ate today in Puerto Vallarta

This week, while on a family vacation in Mexico, we took a food walking tour in Puerto Vallarta. We had signed up for “A Three Hour Tour.” Luckily this tour was on land and not on the high seas! We met our guide, Ricardo, at the entrance to the restaurant Mole Rosa. He promised us an adventure and lots of little tastes of the local food of the region. A little humour and a few short history lessons would be thrown in for extra flavour. Here are my favourite bites of the day.

Our first stop on the tour was Taco Robles, a birria taco stand. Birria is Spanish for slow braised meat. Large pieces of meat, originally made with iguana, but now, made with goat or beef, are smeared with a spicy adobo rub and steam-baked overnight. At Taco Robles, you have a choice of either goat or beef. Lined up three deep, this is arguably the most popular taco stand in Puerto Vallarta. Their tacos are a well known hangover remedy!Tacos Robles 2Ricardo had us pegged as less than adventurous eaters and ordered the beef ones for us. I was mildly insulted, but kept it to myself! The beef tacos were packed full of meltingly tender beef, topped with onions and cilantro.  The beef was muy flavourful, redolent of of chiles, bay and cinnamon. Robles serves their taco “dorado” style, basically meaning fried. They use two corn tortillas for each taco. The inner one is soft and pliable, to hold in all the juices, and the outer one is crispy from being fried in the birria fat. taco robles platterRicardo gave us a crash course in choosing the best taco stands. Obviously, the biggest problem associated with taco stands is hygiene, since they do not have running water. Here are his top 3 tips:
1. Make sure that that the person who handles the money and dirty dishes is NOT the same person who handles the food.
2. Check to see if the paper or plastic plates are reused or are covered with a fresh plastic bag for each new customer.
3. Generally the stands with the biggest lineups are usually a safe bet!

I was anticipating our second stop, Cesar’s Coconut Stand, with great excitement. In business since 1984, Cesar lops the top of the coconut off with a razor sharp machete. A veritable Mexican Zorro! The clear liquid was then poured into cups for us to sample. Full of magnesium, potassium and electrolytes, the coconut water tasted so pure and fresh, a far cry from the stuff we buy in a can back home.cesar with machetteWhat he did next really surprised me. He scooped out the flesh of the coconut, cut it into strips and then stuffed the coconut into a plastic bag. He added a squirt of fresh lime juice, some brown sugar, a pinch of cayenne and tiny dash of salt. Then he shook the bag to distribute the seasoning evenly all over the coconut. The Mexican version of Shake ‘n Bake! We all sampled it and most of us discretely deposited the remains in the garbage can when Cesar wasn’t looking. I guess it must be an acquired taste. I prefer my coconut baked into a macaroon.cutting out flesh Fseasoned coconut flesh FOur next stop was at Tacos el Cuñado. According to Ricardo, they are the top carne asada taco stand in town. “Carne asada” is literally translated as grilled meat. It refers to thin marinated beef, usually skirt steak, that has been grilled. Tacos El Cunado 2Ricardo explained to us that while cuñado means brother-in-law, the reference is usually an insult. In guy code it is interpreted as a brother-in-law that is mostly hated by the husband and all his brothers for being an idiot. The exchange might go something like this:

Brother 1: “Oh man, my wife is making me take el cuñado with us to the hockey game”
Brother 2:  ”Dude, that sucks big time. That guy is such a dick, I can’t stand him.”

This place has been in business since 1968. It is currently run by the original owner’s son, Jorge, and his brothers. I do not believe there are any brother-in-laws working there with them!! In addition to the skirt steak tacos, they also do pork tacos. Both are served on soft corn tortillas. Lined up on the counter are an assortment of salsas or topping your taco. They are arranged in order of heat, from “salsa for wusses” all the way up to “a fiery habanero” that would put hair on your chest. I tried the Vallarta style guacamole which was blended with a mildly spicy tomatillo salsa.

To put out the fire in our throats and bellies, Ricardo took us to for a glass of “tuba water.” Created by a sweet little old man by the name of Conception, tuba water is made from the sap of the coconut palm, lightly fermented and mixed with palm sugar, walnuts and diced apples. He serves it chilled and it was smooth and very refreshing. The only tree I have ever had the sap from is a maple tree, but palm sap is quite yummy too! I bet it would be great on macadamia coconut pancakes
Tuba 1Tuba 2Then we treked off to the charming family owned restaurant Mole Rosa.mole rosa signSpecializing in various moles, Chef Gunther treated to a sampling of chicken enchiladas covered in three varieties. This is one of the most beautiful plates of food I have ever been presented with. three molesThe “mole rojo” sauce on the left is made from a Guajillo and Ancho chiles, garlic and it is finished with a tiny bit of mexican chocolate. The “mole verde” in the center was my favourite bite of the day! Made from green tomatillos, ground coriander seed, Serrano and jalapeno peppers, and roasted pumpkin seeds, this was light and really fresh tasting. This mole is not simmered for hours with tons of spices. It’s characteristic fresh taste is derived from the addition of herbs at last minute of preparation. The “mole rosa” on the right is made with Serrano and jalapeno peppers, pine nuts, white chocolate, aniseed and roasted beets which create the most gorgeous shade of pink. It was quite earthy tasting with a hint of sweetness.

At Gaby’s Restaurant we all trooped upstairs for a bowl of Tortilla soup. Garnished with fried tortilla strips, avocado and cotija cheese (a hard crumbly Mexican cow’s milk cheese), we all licked our bowls clean.tortilla soupWe finished the meal off with a shot of tequilla. Apparently I have been shooting tequilla incorrectly all my life! The lick of salt, shot of tequilla followed by the wedge of lime is for gringos! Ricardo taught us the proper Mexican protocol. You begin with a shot of lime juice to cleanse the palate. Then you follow that with a shot of tequilla. The chaser is a shot of Sangrita. Sangrita, (literally “little blood” in Spanish) is a mixture of tomato juice, orange juice, lime juice, worcestershire sauce, tabasco sauce and salt and pepper. sangrita 2Sangrita was my daughter’s favourite taste of the day!

Our final stop on the tour was to Orgullo Azteca Candy Store, a veritable Mexican Willy Wonka Factory! The shop was started by two partners who wanted to teach future generations all about the joys of traditional Mexican candies. They started small, with a tiny cart, then moved into a store across the street and now have four stores in Puerto Vallarta. candy store 1candy store 2We got to sample many local treats but my favourite were the candied pecans. candied nutsVallarta Tours was the perfect way to get to know the people and taste the local flavours of Puerto Vallarta. If you are visiting the region and have a spare afternoon, Ricardo would love to show you his town.