Sunday, January 23, 2011

Putting things in the past

Almond cookies!
Every academic department has its social traditions. At my alma mater, for instance, on Thursday evenings after the weekly departmental colloquium (i.e. lecture and discussion), we all flocked to the faculty club to have a drink (on the department's tab, of course), gossip talk philosophy, and fight over the one sad bowl of peanuts or pretzels that the bartender put out.
Things are a little different at my new department. On Friday afternoons after the last talk has let out, everyone similarly gathers in the departmental lounge for a few hours to unwind over food and drink--only here, it's traditionally the responsibility of members of the incoming class to put the (modest) budget to good use every week and provide whatever sort of food and drink they want within the budget's constraints. This, of course, has made for both really good and really bad outcomes. I've been told that sometime ago the weekly spread was always Cheetos and PBR, as though teenagers had taken over the budget. But this year, I must say, my fellow first-years and I have been doing a pretty stand-up job. There's been plenty of fruit, cheese, hummus, and, ahem, the occasional bottle of twelve-year-old whisky.
I was responsible for last Friday's fare, and as you might imagine, things could easily have gotten out of hand with me, food, and a budget with which to do whatever I willed. I dreamed up something like this: at least two kinds of home-made hummus, maybe a red lentil dip, home-made pita bread, poached pears, dark rye bread, apple slices and caramel dip, mulled cider...but I restrained myself (there is that business of reading and research that I'm also supposed to be doing, if you remember) and drew the line at making cookies.
Okay, so I know that the last recipe I shared with you was from Berley's Modern Vegetarian Kitchen, but I love this book--it was the first real cookbook I worked with back in my early undergraduate days when I was just starting to get a feel for the kitchen, and I've never really put it down for very long since. It's clear, well-written, and full of reassurance for the novice cook--there are some very elegant illustrations, for instance, that demonstrate how to deal with odd-ball vegetables like artichokes and leeks, and there's lots of helpful information for vegetarians, new and old, about what to do with things like tempeh or seitan.
However, the reason that I've been turning to this book rather frequently as of late is its vegan desserts. As much as I love butter and eggs, I can't of course exclude my vegan friends from the table. I really like Berley's desserts--not only because they don't rely on things like butter substitutes or egg replacers but especially because they're amazing as they are. They don't taste as though they're missing something.
These toasted almond cookies are particularly outstanding. You start with raw almonds, which are toasted in the oven until their sweet nuttiness really comes through. You then grind these along with flour, salt, and baking soda into a beautifully aromatic meal. Finally, the real magic happens: maple syrup and a generous heap of orange zest go into the batter. Just shape the cookies as you would their peanut-butter counterparts, finish them with a sprinkle of sea salt, and into the oven they go. (And because they're vegan, you can definitely lick the spoon when you're done.)
The Friday crowd really enjoyed these cookies. They'd munch contemplatively on their first bites, not quite having figured out what was in them, and then smile knowingly when I told them. You'd almost think that they were peanut-butter cookies--the maple syrup mutes that distinctive almond flavour a little bit--but then the orange blooms in your mouth, and you know that this is no ordinary cookie.
Hopefully, these helped everyone put the old days of Cheetos and PBR behind them.

Toasted Almond Cookies with Orange Zest
Adapted (barely) from Peter Berley's Modern Vegetarian Kitchen

1 cup whole almonds (6 oz)
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour or 1 cup whole-wheat pastry flour and 1 cup all-purpose (8.4 oz of AP or 4.2 oz each of AP and WWP)
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup pure maple syrup (5.5 oz)
1/2 cup pure olive oil (or melted coconut butter or melted unsalted butter) (4 oz)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1 teaspoon finely grated orange zest
1/2 cup sliced almonds (2 oz)
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spread the almonds, both whole and sliced (while careful not to mix), on an ungreased baking sheet and toast in the oven for eight minutes.
  2. Set the sliced almonds aside. In a food processor fitted with a metal blade, combine the whole  almonds, flour, salt, and baking soda and grind to a fine meal.
  3. Lightly grease two baking sheets or line them with parchment paper (or, if you're short on half-sheets like me, just grease the one on which you toasted the almonds--no need to wash it, either).
  4. In a bowl, whisk together the maple syrup, olive oil, vanilla, almond extract, and orange zest. Add the almond mixture and sliced almonds and mix together with a wooden spoon (or your favourite silicone spatula).
  5. Moisten your hands and form the dough into walnut-sized balls (or, get out your trusty scoop--I used a #30, which I think means that it's a one-ounce scoop). Place the balls three inches apart on the baking sheet(s) and gently flatten into 2-inch rounds with a fork. Dust each cookie with a few grains of your favourite salt (I have Himalayan Pink that I like quite a bit).
  6. Bake for 15 to 18 minutes, rotating the baking sheets halfway through for evening baking, until cookies are golden brown.
  7. Transfer the cookies to a wire rack to cool.
Yield: the original recipe says about 24 but I only got 19. It's possible that I overfilled a few of my scoops. The smaller cookies were the prettiest.

Friday, January 14, 2011

On Homecomings

Friday lunch
It feels good to be home again. As nice as it is to have someone else cook for me, and as nice as it is to work in a kitchen with what feels like endless counter space, it feels good to be back in my kitchen cooking for myself (and others) again. I feel more vital just in doing simple things like making my own lunch (pictured above: a veggie burger on one of the challah buns I made yesterday, with roasted sweet potatoes and slaw). It is good to be back to doing things with my own hands.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A Belated Birthday

Birthday Cake!
Last week, one of my friends neglected to tell anyone that it was his birthday until it had all but passed and so spent it at home alone. We remedied this later in the week by taking him out to Karyn's on Green, where he could eat his vegan heart out. And though I will never be so virtuous a person as to be able to give up such things as sauteing my mushrooms in butter or topping my greens with a poached egg, I ate with relish that night. The "chicken legs," especially, were a work of genius. Most vegetarian meat substitutes lack something texturally--they're...spongy at best. But these legs were something to really sink one's teeth into and, even two days later as leftovers, were great--they even had the sort of satisfying fattiness to them that you'd expect from a good chicken leg. All of us left the restaurant overstuffed and content.
And if that were not enough, having just fantasized about baking towering birthday cakes draped in snowy frosting earlier that week--and because, of course, I hold my friends dear--I baked a (belated) birthday cake the next day to coincide with our weekly listening party. And so we spent Saturday evening digging into (not quite vegan) maple birthday cake with the strange and lovely croonings of Joanna Newsom's Ys flooding the room.
This cake, kind of like Joanna Newsom, is not for the faint of heart. It's not the buttercream-frosted vanilla cake from your childhood birthday parties, anyway. It has such grown-up things in it as maple syrup (a cup's worth!) and whole-wheat pastry flour, which make the cake's sweetness warm, dark, and deep. And to offset the maple intensity is a crown of meyer-lemon frosting, adding just enough brightness to make it all come together. This is exactly the sort of cake you want on a cold, dark January night, whether or not it's your birthday. (Apologies for the absence of shots of the cake's insides--we polished it off too quickly.)

(Vegan) Maple Birthday Cake with Meyer-Lemon Frosting
Cake base adapted (barely) from Peter Berley's Modern Vegetarian Kitchen

Note: This cake can be made vegan, just follow the substitutions below. For some reason or another, this cake tends to fall a little in the centre--I will have to do so more testing in the kitchen to get this worked out. However, this is an easy fix: just level off the top of the cake with a serrated knife (it doesn't have to be perfect) and cover it all up with the frosting. One last thing--the recipe for frosting below doesn't quite make enough to fully cover the cake (as you can see), so you'll have to scale up, probably by 1.5, if you don't want a bit of cake peeking out from underneath. Personally, I think it looks just fine this way.

For the cake:
1 1/3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2/3 cup whole-wheat pastry flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 cup pure maple syrup
2/3 cup water or 2 eggs + 3 tablespoons water
1/3 cup pure olive oil or melted butter
2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly oil a nine-inch springform pan and dust with all-purpose flour.
In a mixing bowl, sift together the flours, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the maple syrup, eggs (if using), water, olive oil/butter, vinegar, and vanilla. Add the wet mixture to the dry and stir until just combined, taking care not to overmix.
Pour the batter into the cake pan and bake for 25 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean. Set the cake pan on a rack to cool.

For the frosting:
1 stick of butter or 8 tablespoons of a vegan substitute like Earth Balance (4 oz), cut into one-inch pieces if using butter
1 1/2 cups of confectioners' sugar (4.5 oz)
1/2 teaspoon Meyer lemon juice
zest of one Meyer lemon

Cream butter and sugar together until smooth. Add zest and juice to combine.

Heap frosting on top of the cooled cake and spread into an even layer with an off-set spatula. Add candles, light them, and get ready to bellow out 'Happy Birthday'.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Old friends, old favourites

Life after graduation is a strange time, it seems. More than a few of my friends from my undergrad days haven't quite found their places yet. Those who haven't gone back to school (for now) have largely flocked to Toronto, looking for a change of pace, for inspiration in deciding what to do next. And I feel for them. As we grew up, we were told to dream big, and so the nine-to-fives of our parents' generation seem like too little to settle for. We want to do things that we'll love, to do good for the world--but it's not very clear how we're to go about this or what we should do to be the best that we can be. We might have some sense of what the good life is in the abstract, but it's difficult to see what that comes down to here and now. There's virtue in doing whatever it is one ends up doing well, but that doesn't quite seem enough. What does it mean to live courageously in our world? Maybe we're just overprivileged, but there's still time to sort these things out...
...over splendid brunches at Aunties and Uncles...
...and undoubtedly the best cappuccinos in town.
Toronto and friends, you will be missed and thought of often.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

A Pick-me-up

Some first bites are revelatory. You have to pause for a moment and contemplate as you chew, and when the bite is over, you sit back and sigh in bliss before going for the second. The best are unexpected, like the one a couple of nights ago on the way home. We were trudging through the dim, dreary streets on our way back to the centre of the city when a store-window display caught my eye--a golden tree made of macarons. We weren't really hungry, but I insisted that we stop for a quick bite.
We found ourselves in a bright, white cafe with rows of pretty confections on display--gin-and-tonic marshmallows, croissants, cakes, and macarons, of course. And beyond the cafe tables, a large glass window revealed a handful of kitchen staff, pastry bags in hand, piping away dedicatedly. The aesthetic was clinical, in a cute way, like a laboratory but for sweets.
We chose three macaron flavours to sample: salted butter caramel, mojito, and chestnut. Each was transcendent--delicate, generously filled, and deeply flavourful. It was difficult not to order a dozen more to take home. The mojito, especially, was incredible--it was minty, of course, but also surprising fresh  and not at all like toothpaste (always a danger with minty things, it seems). I will definitely be back, if only to sample the other flavours.
So if you find yourself dragging your feet along Queen St W in Toronto on a dreary day, stop in at Nadege Patisserie for a sweet little pick-me-up and a good cup of tea.
Oh yes, and Happy New Year.