Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Homemade vanilla extract

The gorgeous vanilla caviar.

This will be short, as it's just a copy of these instructions at Vanilla Review. It felt pretty cool to make homemade vanilla, it took only a short time and wasn't at all expensive.

Vanilla beans in stores can be $5 each, so you would need a small fortune if you wanted to make some serious extract working with what's available in your local store. After reading a few tips, I looked at the offerings on eBay and found something that looked decent: 30 organic beans for $23 Cdn. And when they arrived there was a bonus pack of 10 more. I chose grade A, but apparently grade B provide more flavour by weight, so if you're buying by the pound go for that option.

Slice beans lengthwise, and scrape out the inner "caviar". Stick caviar and bean husk in alcohol, shake like a hot-damn, let sit for several weeks, and you're good to go. Use 6-8 beans per cup of alcohol. I used vodka, as it's a more neutral alcohol, but it might be fun to try other flavoured alcohols. On the advice of the instructions I chopped the bean husks up, to allow for better flavour extraction. Done and done.

Ceramic cutting board (our wooden ones would have absorbed so much vanilla flavour, I thought), knife, bottle, vodka, beans.

You can't really see, but the vanilla stuff is just under halfway to the top of the alcohol.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Merry Christmas to me: new measuring tools!

New tools. I won't show you my old measuring ones.

I had a wonderful Christmas in snowy Vancouver: family, food, drinks, movies, games and so on. And presents: chocolate, Drambuie, gloves, books, among other things.

After spending so much time baking, though, I realized that I wasn't at all happy with my measuring and mixing tools. They are plastic, ugly, and have started to deteriorate. Today, after the soup and biscuits, we went to look at some kitchen/housewares at Boxing Day sales. The offerings at nood weren't particularly good, so bidding our friends adieu we wandered over to Ming Wo in Chinatown. (Great store; not a great site.)

I love Ming Wo. Love love. All the essential cookware, good prices, and friendly Chinese ladies eager to help. I've only been to the original one in Chinatown, so I can't speak for the other locations, but every time I go in I spend more than I should and I have a great time.

At home I had checked out the Cookworks site, hoping to find measuring tools on sale. Booooo. Cookworks may be a great store but everything is overpriced. At Ming Wo I found similar or identical products for 1/2 or 3/4 the price. And here is what we bought:

1 set stainless steel oval measuring cups
1 set stainless steel measuring spoons
1 large stainless steel mixing bowl
1 plastic spatula-like scraping tool (for getting muffins out of cursed non-stick tins)
1 handheld electric mixer (no more egg beater mishaps for me)

We looked at paring knives but couldn't decide which one to get. Next visit. We also need muffin tins, a 9" x 9" pan, and.... ack, I'll wait till I get there so I can enjoy the browsing.

Edit: Nina wanted me to clarify: she bought everything. So when I say "we bought", I mean "Nina bought".

Cheese biscuits (sorry, no pictures)

With so much damn turkey left over, we had naught else to do but make soup. Stock this, vegetables that, and done. But what to have with it? Easy: biscuits. So I whipped up the ol' standby: my grandma's baking powder biscuits. Simple, fast, and take less than half an hour start to finish.

1 3/4 - 2 c. flour*
some salt... 1/2 tsp?
2-3 tsp baking powder
maybe a sprinkle of sugar if you want

Cut in:
1/4 c butter
You want the butter to still be in small chunks, so that when it hits the hot oven it melts and spreads across the dough, creating layers in the biscuits.

Stir in:
2/3 - 3/4 c. milk**

Flatten to about 3/4 inch thick. Cut into biscuit shapes.
Bake at 425 F for 13-15 minutes.

At the death (footie terminology), someone suggests adding the cheddar cheese. So we grated some up and I worked it in, then stuck them in the oven. I'm not sure how much; maybe a half or whole cup loose?

The results were fantastic. Light, crisp, cheesy and chewy. Perfect buttered and dipped in turkey soup.

* I'm not sure why it's approximate. Also, I commonly use some corn flour (not meal), spelt, maybe some whole wheat, and occasionally throw in some poppyseeds. Doesn't seem to make a difference.

** I sometimes sub some yoghourt or an egg, keeping the total wet at the same amount. The recipe is really forgiving.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Gingerbread and applesauce

Sweet, rich, spicy and wonderfully complimented by the applesauce.

Growing up, one off my favourite desserts was my mom's gingerbread and applesauce. It's cake-style, not cookie, and if you don't know, my mom makes the best applesauce in three counties.*

It's a simple cake recipe, but uses an entire cup of molasses. My mom would use blackstrap, which lends such an intense molasses flavour and colour to it. I did a bit of research into the different types of molasses, and found a few interesting bits:

1) Fancy is sweeter and lighter. Also known as first, from the first boiling of the cane.
2) Dark is from the second boiling.
3) Blackstrap is the third and final boiling and has the least sugar and darkest colour.

On to the baking:

1/2 c. shortening and 1/2 c. sugar.

Whisk in:
1 egg, 1 c. molasses, fresh grated ginger. (I bought fancy molasses without knowing how much lighter it would be. In the future I would go with dark or blackstrap.)

2 1/2 c. flour
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ginger (if you don't use fresh ginger)

Add dry to wet, alternately adding dry with 1 c. hot water.
Bake at 350 F for 45 min.

Top with applesauce, preferably from Transparent apples. (Picture of apples here.)

Over at smitten kitchen they've just posted a recipe that uses Guinness instead of water, considerably more sugar, more spices and more eggs.

Wet ingredients mixed. Much lighter than my mom's.

* copyright Matt Turner, circa 1994.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Choco-lemon bomb

Flambe? More like flam-don't....errr....

With an excess of chocolate cupcake batter (and a criminal deficit of muffin tins), I needed something in which to bake it. I found the spring-form and dumped it in, making a thin cake. I wasn't quite sure what to do with it, until the lemon butter (see below) wound its way into my sight the other night. Layered chocolate cake? Six layers, I ended up with: chocolate cake, strawberry jam, choco-cake, lemon curd, choco-cake, lemon curd. Then I figured booze would make it better (I know there are a few of you that think this about almost anything). A drizzle of Cointreau and an attempt to flambe later, and I had a choco-lemon bomb (in homage to Calvin). Delish.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Cupcakes and lemon tarts

Our busy baking kitchen.

A couple of nights ago Nina and I went to the store and came back armed to bake: pounds of butter, dozens of eggs, kilos of sugar, and so on. Nina wanted to make sandbakels (Scandinavian cookies) from her grandmother's recipe with lemon butter and I was considering simple sugar cookies; then I read that the dough would need to be chilled for a couple of hours. I considered alternatives, and decided on the simple chocolate cupcakes from Zoe's and my weekend of baking.

There are two things about baking that I love: easy, repeatable recipes and other people baking for me. The cupcakes fulfilled the first criterion, Nina's sandbakels the second.

I made two slight changes to the cupcake recipe. Both Zoe and I agreed they could be more chocolatey, so I added two ounces of chocolate. And because the chocolate was semi-sweet, I reduced the sugar to 1/2 c. I also soured my own buttermilk: 1/2 c. whole milk, 1 1/2 tsp. lemon juice, let sit for 5 min.

Nina's sandbakels sound easy but took a bit of doing: Cream 1 lb. butter and 1 c. sugar. blend in an egg, then 5-6 c. flour and 1/2 c. ground almonds. Press into tins, bake at 350 for 15 min. We couldn't find proper tart tins, so we used muffin tins, which resulted in a chunkier, heavier cookie when they are meant to be light and crisp, but we were quite happy with the result.

Sandbakels, with lemon butter.

Lemon butter (lemon curd, to the English): In a double boiler combine 1/2 c. lemon juice, 2 c. sugar and grated rind from two lemons. Add 1 c. butter, stir until melted. Stir in 4 well-beaten eggs, continue stirring until thick. Let cool.

We had mixed results. The cupcakes were good, but I had a disaster trying to repeat the buttermilk icing. Our egg beaters broke and I got grumpy. Nina's sandbakels were a smashing success. Filled with the lemon butter, they were a tart, gooey, crunchy delight. I also used the lemon butter in a scrumptious chocolate dessert the next night. Stay tuned.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Burgoo - hearty stews for our chilly winter

Simple presentation for simply good food.

Faced with -2 weather in Vancouver (that's the high for the day, and it's not getting warmer anytime soon), Nina and I decided a visit to Burgoo* was called for. It's warm, cozy and friendly and specializes in hearty comfort food: stews, thick soups, grilled-cheese sandwiches and such from around the world. Exposed wooden beams and a small room make it feel pub-ish, without the fire. I've eaten there a few times, and with one exception it's been wonderful. Unfortunately that exception was today.

I was looking forward to their Irish stew, which I've enjoyed before: "Guinness braised lamb with vegetables and homemade dumplings, served over garlic mash potatoes". It's thick and tasty, perfect for a cold, wintry day. Nina suggested we try the Beef Bourguignon instead, and having only had good experiences with their menu, we thought it would probably be fantastic. It was good, but not great.

The meat was tender and flavourful, the vegetables were perfectly done, and as always the mashed potato base (they use it under all their stews) was very good. The accompanying biscuits were wonderful. The service was great, they use cloth napkins (a must, in my opinion), and even the utensils were nice and heavy.

Beef Bourguignon is a traditional French stew made from beef braised in red wine and broth, caramelized onions, carrots and mushrooms, with some tomato paste added to the sauce. The problem with Burgoo's Beef Bourguignon was in the sauce: the entire dish was fairly spicy, enough to drown other flavours, but from black pepper, not from chilis. I've only had it once before, so I'm no expert, but I'm pretty sure it's not meant to be spicy. When you cook cracked pepper for any length of time the heat in it really comes out, which is why one adds it to taste near the end of many recipes.

It was unfortunate, and won't stop me from returning. I've tried their Kentucky burgoo, their Irish stew, the French onion soup, the biscuits, and they've all been wonderful. I highly recommend a visit, and if you like black pepper I would even recommend the Beef Bourguignon. There are line-ups at mealtimes, a testament to the quality of food and service, but don't be put off. When it's this nasty and cold (and there's wolves...), we need warm, hearty comfort food. A visit to Burgoo will defiantly give winter the finger while wrapping you in a big warm foodie hug (a bit much?).

For a more comprehensive review, read On the Bone's experience at Burgoo.

* What is a burgoo, you ask? A thick meaty stew. Like chili, there is no set recipe. Burgoo's burgoo (how fun is that?) is "slow cooked meats with lima beans, corn, tomatoes, cabbage and okra served over garlic mash potatoes" and is pretty damn tasty.

A warm and cozy feel to the place helps when it's negative degrees outside.

Thick and hearty, just too peppery.

Wonderful cheese and parsley biscuits.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


I just read a good article in the New York Times: Butter holds the secret to cookies that sing. Good tips on handling and baking with butter, something that I've had trouble with in the past. I really noticed the difference when making pie crusts this summer. Allowing the dough enough time to chill was so helpful in making good crusts that easily roll out.

Some tips from the article:
For mixing and creaming, butter should be about 65 degrees: cold to the touch but warm enough to spread. Just three degrees warmer, at 68 degrees, it begins to melt.

For clean edges on cookies and for even baking, doughs and batters should stay cold — place them in the freezer when the mixing bowl seems to be warming up. And just before baking, cookies should be very well chilled, or even frozen hard.

The best way to get frozen or refrigerated butter ready for creaming is to cut it into chunks. (Never use a microwave: it will melt it, even though it will look solid.) When the butter is still cold, but takes the imprint of a finger when gently pressed, it is ready to be creamed.
I'm already looking forward to making some cookies soon.

The article talks about the variety of butters available to the home baker. I can't think of more than a few in our local stores: the store brand, one bigger brand, and maybe something from Lactancia. Where are all the artisan butters? Is it a function of our dairy board/milk quota system? We're experiencing a flourishing of small cheese-makers in BC, but so far I haven't seen anything similar in the world of butter.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Simul-blogging: rusks, cupcakes, popcorn

This weekend I made my way over to Victoria to visit friends. Zoe (of the wonderful Art Loves Craft) bakes, crafts and does web things, and I was looking for help with my nascent website (and by nascent I mean a grey page with a button on it. A pretty nice button, though.) and some quality family time with them and their baby, seeing as I am Unca Biff. I was also looking forward to baking and blogging with Zoe. Simul-blogging, if you will.

We put together a line-up of recipes to try: rusks, cupcakes and candy corn. Nothing fancy, though at one point I asked how difficult croissants would be. Time-consuming was the reply.

What are rusks, you say? Stale scones, is the answer. Dry, stale scones. Aka double-baked scones. Like biscotti are to coookies, rusks are to scones. And they're from South Africa.

Zoe and I got started, halving a recipe from Grate 1/2 lb. butter into 2 lb. self-raising flour (9 1/2 c.), then work in with your fingers. Add 1 tsp. salt and 1 c. sugar. Combine 1 tsp. vanilla and 2 med. eggs (1/2 of 3 large, doesn't really matter), roughly add to flour mixture. Work in about 3 c. buttermilk.

The recipes says to form into balls 1/3 smaller than tennis balls (an odd sizing, that). We tried that, but decided simple logs would work just as well, and it did; about 1 1/2 inches thick. Bake for 45-60 min. at 350, until golden brown-ish. We could have left them longer, I think, because they were still quite moist and not really crumbly like the recipe says.

Break them into chunks and dry out in your oven. (Overnight at 175 with the oven door open a tad. Seems a bit much. We're trying 225 with the door open and closed.)

Verdict: The rusks are busts. See Zoe's similar conclusion here. Partly it's my fault: I added too much salt. This wouldn't be too bad, except that there isn't any other flavour. Booooooring. If I made them again (though I wouldn't) I would double the sugar and add something with FLAVOUR.

Double-baked, and edible. That's a low bar to set. (Zoe's photo)

Right now Dan is making candy corn, with the simplest recipe imaginable: 1/3 c. Oil, popcorn... when it starts popping add (1/2 c?) sugar, then sprinkle with salt when done. Really, that's it. I'm skeptical, but luckily I only have a few minutes to wait....

Verdict: Crispy, salty-sweet popcorny goodness. Will definitely make this with Nina soon.

You can kind of see the cooked sugar.

And on to cupcakes: one-bowl chocolate cupcakes from Melt 1/2 c. butter and 4 oz. chocolate with 1 c. hot water; whisk in 2 c. sugar. Let cool; whisk in two eggs. Add 1/2 c. buttermilk, vanilla, 1/4 tsp. salt, 1 1/4 tsp. baking soda, then 2 c. flour. Bake for 20 min. at 350.

Zoe made up a buttermilk icing recipe, and it's wonderful: 1/2 c. butter, 3/4 c. sugar, 1/2 c. buttermilk and 6 oz. bittersweet chocolate in a double-boiler. It's pretty wet right now, so we're going to have to add some sugar and cocoa I think, but it tastes divine. Could use some lemon zest (next time).

Verdict: A creamy chocolatey cakey good time. We added 1/4 c. cocoa to the icing, and it solidified nicely. I will be surprised if we eat dinner tonight after 4 cupcakes each... Edit: Dan made us fried-egg sandwiches. He's good for that.

Mmmm, chocolatey goodness. I didn't put sprinkles on mine. (Zoe's photo)

All-in-all, quite a wonderful weekend. Thanks, gang!

Rusk dough about to go into the oven: mine, Zoe's and the tennis balls -1/3.

Zoe whisking cupcake batter. Recipe online on the laptop. Sooooo po-mo. Or something.

Me whisking cupcake batter. Simul-baking. (Zoe's photo)

Small cupcakes out of the oven. I think you can tell; they were nice and cakey.

Zoe's better picture of the cupcakes. What nice composition. (Zoe's photo)

Simul-blogging: taking pictures for my blog of Zoe taking pictures for her blog. Blog-dorks. Blorks.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Spaghetti Bolognese - the short version

Served with Parmesan and a candle.

I always* thought spaghetti bolognese (spag-bol in the UK) was just spaghetti with tomato/ground beef sauce. That is, I did until I saw Heston Blumenthal make his perfect version of it on his show In Search of Perfection. For those that don't know, Blumenthal owns/runs The Fat Duck in England, rated the top restaurant in England in 2007 and 2008, best in the world in 2005.

He starts with oxtail, simmers things for hours upon hours, and in general makes simple dishes look amazingly complicated. His recipe here is a shortened version of that on his show. This is an earlier and even simpler version.

His version runs about 3 days long, time that I didn't have. I found a shortened and simpler recipe over at Just Hungry, and I was on my way. At 4pm I left to shop, and by 5:30pm the vegies were frying away. I mostly followed the JH recipe, but halved it-ish. I hope to eat at 8pm. (Edit: We ate at 7:45pm.) The sauce simmered for 1 3/4 hours; I would have liked to let it go another hour at least, but when you have a hungry date waiting, you cut corners.

Fry 1 c. each carrots, onion, fennel and celery, all finely diced.
Brown ground meat (I used 1/2 lb. lean beef, 1/4 lb. pork, 1/4 lb. veal), add to veg, along with herbs (rosemary, thyme, oregano, bay leaf), some red wine, some olive oil, 1/2-ish 796g canned tomatoes and 2 c. fresh diced tomatoes.
Simmer for hours.

It sounds simple, and it is. It also turned out well. With a sprinkling of fresh Parmesan (a blend from my local deli), the dish was rich, creamy (some people add milk) and satisfying. It did taste a lot like a simple pasta/tomato sauce/meat dish, and essentially that's what it is. Maybe I'm simply missing something from the debate about differences in Italian regional cooking, though it's not nearly as tomatoey as standard American pasta sauces, which are more like the Neapolitan version (Naples, in southern Italy) than the Bolognese. (Thanks again, Wikipedia.)

Both JH and my man Heston use dry pasta, and while I do love a good dry pasta, I haven't read anywhere why dry instead of fresh, though I seem to remember him discussing it on the show. The fresh pasta turned out just fine, though I did miss that wheaty durum taste you get with dry pasta.

The meat that I used wasn't particularly fatty, and I think this was a mistake. My options at the butcher were lean or extra-lean, though I suppose I could have asked them to grind some with the fat still attached. The pork and veal looked kinda fatty, so I thought it would make up for it. Next time I think I'll pay attention to JH's recipe and throw some bacon (pancetta) in the pan as well. I also don't think I browned the meat very well. I think I needed a hotter pan, or more oil, but the meat released a lot of liquid and stewed as much as it fried. Tips?

* always, Brenton? Hadn't really registered the phrase until a few years ago.

The sauce starts to simmer.

An hour or so in.

A very fine Valpolicella that was a gift from a friend.

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Great Bagel-Off of '08

Welcome, everyone, to the Great Bagel-Off of '08. This momentous occasion was inspired by visits to two bagelries in the span of a week, and it got me to thinking: Who makes the best bagels in Vancouver? There aren't that many in the running, though we could have expanded our group of contestants just to make sure we didn't miss any hidden gems. As it was, we decided to have a head-to-head with the two acknowledged leaders in bagel baking in the city: Solly's and Siegel's. Both have multiple locations, making for a difficult choice: Do we try to include bagels from all locations? In retrospect we maybe should have,* but we decided on bagels from two Solly's locations (South - 28th and Main; and North - 7th and Yukon) and one Siegel's location (Granville Island), mostly out of convenience. Off we went.

We decided we would try three classic varieties from each place: sesame, poppyseed and cinnamon-raisin. Why not plain, you ask? Not sure, but it made sense at the time (and would quickly complicate things; see below). We also grabbed some cream cheese and jam, though they didn't really factor into the contest.

Me: Your fearless correspondent. Rode around Montreal on an old cruiser eating bagels and drinking espresso alongee. Some bagel-cred.
Matt: Thinks he knows bagels, but has NEVER BEEN TO MONTREAL! (that I know of)
Kaia: Lived in Montreal. Mad bagel-cred.
Lucas: His brother lives in Montreal. Bagel-cred by association.
Joanie: Has also lived in Montreal. Great hair.
Nina: A peripheral bagel-tester. Mostly napped, but made coffee for everyone.

First up, untoasted sesame:
Siegel's was warm and fresh. A bit doughy, but that's to be expected of a warm, fresh bagel. Kaia was having none of it, though. Solly's South was decent if unremarkable. Solly's North had good texture, nice and chewy, and a bit more salt. The winner. Lucas agreed with me that the fresh Siegel's deserved better. A stand-up guy, that one.

Next we tried untoasted poppyseed:
We quickly discovered that the clerk at Siegel's had made a mistake and given us plain instead of poppyseed. Marks off for incompetence. Solly's North had great flavour but was a bit too chewy. Solly's South was too thick and too chewy.

Siegel's plain deserves special mention at this point. Top marks overall, and by a wide margin, but with no direct competitors. The outside crust was a bit crunchy, split with the perfect sound and had great texture. It was a bit sweet, which was curious, but this was a great bagel. All four specimens were gone by the end of the Bagel-Off. Kaia really loved this bagel. A lot.

We got the toaster involved for the cinnamon-raisin round:
Solly's North and South went head-to-head out of the toaster. Neither had much flavour. North didn't have many raisins. South had better texture. Siegel's came in with a great-looking bagel that had a bit more cinnamon flavour but was also a bit doughy. This round was a disappointment for everyone, with no winner and real desire to repeat the cinnamon-raisin experience.

The fourth and last round was toasted sesame:
Siegel's was a great-looking bagel, with nearly no difference between the top and bottom. It was a little gooey (never good for a bagel), but tasted like a sesame bagel should. Solly's North took this round with a great entry: good texture and the best flavour. Solly's South was similar to North but their entries varied widely in the coverage of sesame seeds. (It should be noted here that Matt thought the South took this category while Joanie thought it tasted a bit weird.)

Siegel's definitely wins this. Thin, bumpy (can't think of a better word), round without being symmetrical. Both the Solly's were too thick, and some from South were horrible to look at.

Solly's North. South was puffy, Siegel's suffered from some doughiness.

Solly's North edged this category, but Siegel's plain was the best overall.

A fine Bagel-Off, as bagel-offs go. No doubt there will be more in the future. I can't help but think that this was only round one, and that round two will be far more comprehensive. Benny's Bagel's was suggested. Any other suggestions? I know Mount Royal Bagels has a factory in North Van to supply Choices and/or Capers.

* Great Bagel-Off of '09, anyone?

It all started with a few bagels and a few labels.

Note-taking was an important feature of the Bagel-Off, obviously.

Those are some fine looking bagels from Siegel's.

A horrible, horrible specimen from Solly's South.

The aftermath. Not much of an aftermath, true, but we did start with 26 bagels. And if memory serves, the three plain bagels in the Siegel's pile were gone shortly after this photo was taken.

Monday, December 1, 2008


Just made applesauce. It is so quick and easy, there should never be a reason to not make it. This batch took all of 20 minutes from start to finish, helped along by some mushy Macintosh apples. I wouldn't normally buy or cook with Macs, but I saw the bag of organic Macs at Granville Island yesterday and figured I needed some quick healthy snack food around. Well, they turned out to be bruised and a little mushy rather than crisp (which is really the only reason to buy Macs. That and their perfect apple shape/appearance).

Anyway... Peel and chop the apples. The size of the chunks depends on the structural integrity of the apples: high and you want small chunks; low and it doesn't matter. I used Happy Planet apple-pomegranate-blueberry juice for liquid to start the sauce, though water is fine, and you just need a splash. I added a sprinkling of cinnamon, a sprinkling of cane sugar and the juice from half a not-so-juicy lemon. It would usually take 20-25 minutes to get the apples to sauce consistency, but these guys were practically begging to be sauce-ified. Seriously, in about 7 minutes they were done.

Now I just need to go buy some cute molasses and make that gingerbread I keep going on about (up and to the right).