Ultimate Chocolate Birthday Cake

(For the blog post below, a close foodie friend of mine, Laura, has a delicious and decadent recipe to share. Laura is an academic based in Canada, who inspires me with her scratch-made recipes for family and friends, from hummus to sweet buns. Until she has a blog of her own, she can be reached by email at letthiel@gmail.com)

Chocolate is known as a Food of the Gods. In my family, birthday cake is always chocolate. Also, one of my “deal-breaker” questions for my future spouse was: chocolate or vanilla? (Yes, there is a correct answer). Lucky for him, he said chocolate!

I like to think that my German-Dutch heritage plays a role in my family’s obsession with chocolate. While consumption of the fruit of cocoa tree traces back to the Aztecs who drank the unsweetened xocolatl in rituals, cocoa became a Colonial addition to the European diet through the Spanish in the 15th century. In the tumultuous years to follow of European exploration, appropriation of lands in the Americas and the enslaving of inhabitants, and the race to find the fastest spice routes, the port city of Amsterdam in the Netherlands grew to be the European hub of the cocoa industry. According to ECOM Dutch Cocoa, the Dutch not only controlled the sale of cocoa beans by the 18th century, but innovatively developed the cocoa press and utilized alkalization to process the cocoa mass…leading to the modern “Dutch process” cocoa we use today.

In the 1700s, wealthy Europeans could afford to consume the beverage at chocolate houses in Paris and London, as well as in private homes. The porcelain market responded to the new trend. Famous factories, such as Meissen (founded 1710 in present-day Germany), crafted elaborately painted chocolate pots and sets of chocolate cups. This lidded chocolate cup with saucer is a Dutch example, created in 1785 in The Hague.
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Chocolate Cup and Saucer, porcelain, anonymous, Porseleinfabriek Den Haag, 1785. Photo credit: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, BK-1968-109-B.

By the 19th century, cocoa was sold as a wholesome, if not medicinal, product to upper and middle-class European consumers when it was more readily available. As two contemporary Dutch advertisements suggest, a fashionable woman could enjoy a warming cup of chocolate after the fun of skating, but it could also serve as a restorative beverage for a wounded soldier on the battlefield. Themes of family, nutrition, and palliative care commonly intertwine in the early years of Dutch cocoa advertising. Personally, I’m convinced of the health benefits of chocolate.


Left: Dutch Skate Cocoa. Designed by Johann Georg van Caspel and printed by Steendrukkerij v/h Amand, 514 x 381 mm, paper, 1897. Photo credit: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, RP-P-1912-2469. Right: Blooker’s Cacao. Nederland-Lombok, designed by Frederik Willhelm Schottelndreier and printed by Elsevier, Rotterdam, 390 x 285 mm, paper, Oct. 1894. Photo credit: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, RP-P-0B-89.752-2.

My mother’s birthday was last week, so I decided to one-up my traditional recipe and try out the Ultimate Chocolate Birthday Cake recipe below. Not only does this cake call for two types of chocolate—cocoa powder and baking chocolate—but the frosting is a silky ganache, instead of a typical buttercream. Decoration is optional because it is so wonderful.
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The result was amazing: a very moist cake thanks the buttermilk, a ridiculously indulgent ganache, and overall the dessert was not too sweet. This recipe is also not difficult to make (don’t be intimidated by the number of steps) and is best served to people you love, for any occasion.

But be warned; the chocolatey power of this dessert is not for the faint of heart.

ULTIMATE CHOCOLATE BIRTHDAY CAKE
Serves 12-14, depending on cake tin size. See note below.

For Layer Cake:
3 ounces (about 1/2 c. chopped) best-quality-you-can-afford semisweet chocolate,
preferably 65% cocoa & Belgian
1 1/2 c. hot brewed coffee
3 c. white sugar
2 1/2 c. A/P flour
1 1/2 c. unsweetened cocoa powder (I used Dutch process, but regular would work too)
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
3 large eggs, brought to room temperature in a bowl of warm tap water
3/4 c. canola or vegetable oil
1 1/2c. buttermilk
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract

For Ganache Frosting:
1 pound best-quality-you-can-afford semisweet chocolate
1 c. heavy cream
2 tbs. white sugar
2 tbsp. corn syrup
¼ c. unsalted butter

Note on equipment, preparation, and storage:
*This recipe requires parchment paper or waxed paper, and two 10” by 2” round cake tins.
If you only have smaller tins (mine were 9 1/2” by 1”) you will get an additional layer OR about 9 cupcakes. I decided to make cupcakes, which was great because the chef gets to taste, along with a few other lucky people.

*Layer cakes can be made up to a week in advance. Remove from pan when fully cool, wrap each layer tightly in plastic wrap and then in a plastic bag. Freeze. Defrost on the counter on the day you will frost and eat the cake.

*The frosted cake keeps well for around 3-5 days, refrigerated. But really, will you have leftovers?

Directions:

MAKE CAKE LAYERS
1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees F and brew some coffee. Put whole eggs in a bowl of warm tap water and set aside.

2. Line cake tins with parchment and butter them VERY well, on the parchment bottom and on the sides…you want your lovely cakes to release from the tins and not crumble!

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3. Chop the chocolate (3 oz. portion) and combine in a bowl with hot coffee. Let the mix stand, stirring occasionally, until fully melted and smooth.

4. In a large bowl, stir together the sugar, flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. In the bowl of a stand mixer (or another large bowl), beat the eggs until thickened slightly and lemon coloured (about 3 minutes with a stand mixer, or 5 minutes with handheld mixer).

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5. Slowly add the oil, buttermilk, vanilla, and melted chocolate/coffee mix to the eggs, beating until combined well. Add the sugar mixture and beat on medium until just combined. Don’t be tempted to overbeat, or your cakes will be tough! If extra batter, set aside in refrigerator until you have time to make cupcakes.

6. Divide batter between the pans, filling a little more than half-way. Tap them on the counter to release air bubbles. Bake in the middle of the oven until a toothpick comes out clean: 1 hour to about 1 hour and 10 minutes. Cool layers completely in tins on a rack. Bake your cupcakes now, if desired.

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7.Run a knife around the edges of the pan and invert the layers onto racks. Carefully peel off parchment and allow layers to cool completely before frosting. (Same with cupcakes: cool completely).

MAKE FROSTING
1. Finely chop the pound of chocolate. In a 1 or 2 quart saucepan, bring cream, sugar, and corn syrup to a boil over moderately low heat, whisking until sugar is dissolved. Remove pan from heat and add chocolate, whisking until melted. Cut in the butter and whisk until smooth and glossy. If needed, transfer frosting to a bowl and cool until spreading consistency. You may choose to refrigerate it for a few minutes. Place cake layer on cake plate, spread frosting between the layers and then over the top and sides, covering completely. Use remainder on cupcakes, or place in air-tight jar and it will keep up to a week in the refrigerator.

Curry for a Crowd

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Spring is a busy time at my office. Many people put in a number of overtime hours, and because of this, we have Saturday lunch provided to those clocking time on the weekend. Usually, Saturday lunches involve catered sandwiches, or perhaps chain Mexican food.

However, over the past few months, my coworkers have realized that I like to cook. So, for a change, I decided that for the Saturday lunch I was in charge of organizing, I would cook something. It is still fairly cold in Canada, and a hot lunch on a grotty day is always appreciated.

Because I would be cooking for close to two dozen people, and because our kitchen facilities are limited, I needed to make something that was crockpot-friendly. I decided on curry. It is filling. Fairly straightforward. And budget-friendly. Curry is an ideal entertaining food. It can sit on the stove and bubble away, flavours melding, as the host mingles with guests. Similarly, it can bubble away all morning while staff are busy working and don’t have time to stir every few minutes.

I made two curries for Saturday lunch. We have a gluten-free employee, so I easily adapted the recipes to accomodate that simply by swapping out standard vegetable and chicken stock to gluten-free stocks.

For inspiration, I looked to a Lentil and Sweet Potato Curry recipe on the BBC Good Food Guide website, and a new favourite of mine: Chicken Korma, which I have previously adapted to make just two servings for myself! I cut back on the heat of the recipes because we had some curry newbies at work that I did not want to scare away. In fact, one of the nicest compliments that I received from the lunch was from a co-worker who had never tried curry, convinced it was too “spicy,” yet she tried the lunch and enjoyed it immensely!

Both recipes below make enough for about 20 servings each, depending on the crowd and how hungry they are. Serve with basmati rice and naan bread.


Lunch in action, and the final result.

Lentil and Sweet Potato Curry

2 tbsp vegetable oil
3 tbsp butter
3 large onions, chopped
6 garlic cloves, chopped finely
2 tsp ground cumin
1 tbsp yellow mustard seeds
2 tbsp garam masala
1-2 tbsp mild curry paste (or more, to taste)
1 cup green lentils (dried)
2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 inch cubes
1 L vegetable stock
1 can coconut milk
400g can chopped tomatoes
400g can chickpeas, drained

1. Heat the oil and butter in a large pot, add the onion and cook for a few mins until softened. Add the garlic and continue to cook for a couple minutes.
2. Add the spices to the onion mixture and cook for 1 min more, stirring constantly to avoid sticking.
3. Stir in the lentils, sweet potatoes, stock and chopped tomatoes.
4. Bring to the boil, then cover and simmer for 20-30 mins until the lentils and sweet potatoes are tender. Add the chickpeas, then heat through.
5. Season, sprinkle with cilantro, if you like. Curry is easy to heat up the next day in a crockpot to serve a large group.

Chicken Curry

2 kg chicken breasts, cut into 1 inch cubes
4 tbsp canola or vegetable oil
1/4 cup butter
3 large onions, chopped finely
6 large carrots, peeled and cut into 1 inch pieces
4 tsp ginger paste
6 garlic cloves, chopped finely
1 tbsp ground cumin
1 tbsp ground coriander
1 tbsp ground turmeric
1 tsp mild chilli powder
2 tbsp garam masala
1/2 cup mango chutney (i.e. Patak’s)
2 fresh mangos, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1 L hot chicken stock
2 cans coconut milk
2 cups frozen cut green beans

1. Heat 3 tbsp oil in a large dutch oven or pot, and brown the chicken over a medium-high heat for 5-6 mins, turning occasionally. Avoid crowding the pot by browning chicken in batches. Transfer the chicken to a plate using a slotted spoon or spatula and return the pot to the heat. Keep the chicken warm by covering in foil or placing in the oven on a low heat.
2. Add the remaining oil, butter and onions to the pot and cook over a medium heat, stirring often, for 10 mins, or until the onions are soft and lightly browned. Stir in the ginger and garlic paste and ground spices and cook, stirring continuously, for a further 1 min.
3. Add the mango chutney, stock, and coconut milk to the spiced onions and bring to a simmer. Add carrots and cook for about 20 minutes, or until sauce has reduced and carrots are tender.
4. Return the chicken to the pot, add frozen green beans, and simmer gently, stirring occasionally, for 5-6 mins, until the chicken and beans are piping hot and cooked through.
5. Garnish the curry with toasted flaked almonds and scatter with cilantro, if you like.

Note: If you want a thicker gluten-free curry, add a 1/2 cup of red lentils to the pot at the same time that you add the carrots. The lentils will break down as they cook.

New Orleans Food, Part 1

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Jackson Square

In addition to its rich history, New Orleans is known as one of the great food cities of the United States. When I visited earlier in the month, I was determined to eat good food, and boy, did I manage to have some delicious meals! I researched restaurants and “the best [insert food here]” but naturally, as much as one can plan, a trip often unfolds a bit more organically than that. Still, I had some excellent dishes, and I accomplished my goal of trying a new type of seafood—crawfish, because it is apparently crawfish season in March.

On our first evening in New Orleans, I knew we would be tired and hangry, since our plane did not land until early evening. Our hotel was located in the Central Business District—an area that may lack a lot of the historical and architectural charm of the French Quarter, but still has quite a few solid places to eat. A stone’s throw from the hotel was Juan’s Flying Burrito. Tex-Mex may not be New Orleans’ speciality, but the place was close and open on a Sunday evening.

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The bar at Juan’s Flying Burrito

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Jerk Chicken and Pineapple Tacos

We started with the Bacon Bean Dip appetizer. It was so damn tasty that I forgot to take a picture! Imagine: black beans, bits of bacon (and probably bacon greas), blended together and topped with a swirl of cream cheese. It was a bit decadent, and a delicious, simple combination that I will try to recreate myself.

For my main, I had the Jerk Chicken and Pineapple tacos. In all honesty, I think they were good, but I was recovering from a cold and didn’t have fully functioning tastebuds. It was spicy, and the pineapple slaw was a nice, sweet contrast to the main taco filling.

Our drinks were very potent. We may have staggered out from the restaurant when finished. But then, it’s New Orleans and they are known for decadence!

The following day, we went on a walking tour of the French Quarter to orient ourselves. Bourbon Street was seedy, smelly, and rather disgusting—I generally avoided it. We got some good recommendations for food from the tour guide, though many places I would never go to—I don’t like oysters, olives, okra, or gumbo. For lunch, we wanted something close to where we ended up. There is a lot of fried food in the Southern US, and we didn’t feel like that, either, or the New Orleans classic Muffaletta sandwich, which is a soft bun packed with cheese, cold cut meats, and an olive salad.

We ended up at the Café Pontalba, overlooking Jackson Square, the main square of the French Quarter. The location was picturesque, and the café itself had large mirrors and wide open windows to let in the hazy sunlight of the day. It was hot that day— 27C —and we appreciated the cold beverages that the server promptly brought to us.

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Interior of the Café Pontalba

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The roast beef Poboy may not look like much, but it was pretty goood.

We split a Roast Beef Poboy sandwich between two people: each half of the sandwich was probably six inches long! The sandwich came with a waving of lettuce and tomato (on the side) and a “debris” gravy, which is a savoury sauce/gravy that, in essence, incorporates “tasty bits” of meat and caramelized goodness from the bottom of the roasting pan. The beef was tender, and the sauce was just enough to moisten the sandwich bun. Again, I couldn’t taste the gravy as well as I would have liked (given my cold), but my mother, with whom I was travelled, assured me that the gravy possibly had traces of BBQ sauce in it as well.

Of course, you can’t visit New Orleans without trying Cajun food, though we learned that true Cajuns are not found in New Orleans, but rather west and south of the city. For our supper that evening, we had a reservation for KPaul’s, which was the flagship restaurant for Chef Paul Prudhomme. Their menu changes nightly, depending on what is in season, but they focus on traditional flavours. The restaurant was packed that evening (a Monday!) so I was glad that we had reserved a table.

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Blackened drum

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Tender, juicy blackened beef

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Paneed Chicken with Jambalaya

Normally, I am not indecisive about the menu when I order. However, at KPaul’s, I waffled, because too many dishes sounded delicious! I ended up splitting a surf and turf—basically, one person orders steak, and the other orders the fish, and you split it. The beef was a succulent sirloin steak, blackened with herbs, and covered in a rich, beefy debris gravy. It was cooked to a perfect medium.

The fish was a blackened drum, a local type of fish found in many restaurants. It was served with a chipotle butter and small crawfish. The fish was a nice, flaky whitefish that the salty butter complemented. Crawfish are like a small lobster (when served whole), and I was determined to try one. They were tiny! No more than the size of a nickel. The flesh was sweet, and reminiscent more of shrimp than a lobster. I ate several crawfish, much to my surprise.

I also tried the paneed chicken with jambalaya. The chicken was pan-fried, almost like a scallopini. The jambalaya it was served with was mild, made with sweet (probably local and fresh) tomatoes and shrimp. Again, the flavours melded well.

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Dessert

Dessert was less spectacular. Although the Custard Marie Crème Brûlée with a Praline Bottom was good (basically, a crème brulee with a pecan praline bottom), the bread pudding was ho-hum. It needed a Bourbon-laced cream sauce to cut the heavy stodginess. Nevertheless, the overall meal was a good introduction to Cajun/Creole flavours, and I would definitely eat at KPaul’s again.

Bourbon Chicken

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It’s no secret that I love food and flavours from other countries and other times. There’s something intrinsically appealing to me about a curry, or a medieval meat and fruit pie, or just an unfamiliar combination of spices. When I travel, I seek out “local” flavours and restaurants in my quest to try new flavours.

In a couple weeks, I will be visiting New Orleans for the first time, so I’ve been in a Creole and Cajun frame of mind lately. The city is famed for its cuisine: fresh seafood, spices, African and Caribbean influences combined with French flair. The food scene sounds excellent, and I look forward to exploring it.

In the meantime, I decided to cook up some New Orleans-inspired recipes of my own. This was a weekend meal, and it takes some time to marinate the meat. As a starting point, I found an interesting recipe for Bourbon Chicken, which I modified to suite my tastes (and to cut down on the sodium and overall richness). Bourbon Chicken may not be “authentic” New Orleans food, but certainly bourbon is associated with the Deep American South. The resulting recipe was a sweet and salty tribute to Southern Food that I will definitely be making again!

Bourbon Chicken

Marinade
1/2 cup Bourbon
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/2 to 1 cup chicken stock
4 cloves garlic minced
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tsp fresh ginger minced
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
1/2 tsp sesame oil

2 lb chicken thighs (boneless and skinless), cut into 1.5″ cubes
2 tbsp canola oil

1 tsp corn starch

1. Whisk all the marinade ingredients together in a medium bowl thoroughly. Add the chicken pieces to the bowl, and refrigerate for 30 minutes to one hour.
2. In a large skillet or wok, heat the canola oil over medium to high heat. Brown the chicken pieces, cooking in batches as needed to prevent overcrowding.
3. Return all of the chicken to the skillet. Add the marinade to the chicken and continue cooking until the chicken is fully cooked.
4. Thicken the sauce by adding a corn starch slurry (1 tsp corn starch mixed with 2-3 tbsp water) and cook until the sauce is clear.
 
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The “Holy Trinity” of Cajun Fare: onion, bell pepper, and celery.

I served the Bourbon Chicken with dirty rice, another Cajun staple. For the rice, I used a boxed Dirty Rice mix, and added some chopped onion, celery, green bell pepper. Onion, celery and bell pepper is considered the “holy trinity” in Cajun cooking, and forms the basis of many famed dishes, including gumbo and jambalaya. I softened the vegetables with a half-pound of ground beef, then followed the box instructions. To serve, I sprinkled chopped green onions on the rice.

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The finished product may not have been beautiful, but it was homey and delicious!

Making Jam at St. Lawrence Market

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A couple weeks ago, I visited St Lawrence market in Toronto for the first time. I’d been meaning to go for years, but there was always some reason—it was never open on the day I was in Toronto, or I was off elsewhere in the city.

My main reason to go was that I signed up to take a cooking class on Marmalades and Jams. But of course, who goes to a food market and doesn’t buy some delicious things to eat?

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Above: Slicing some succulent bacon at Carnicero’s.

My first stop was to buy a breakfast sandwich. Carousel Bakery might have the “World Famous Peameal Bacon Sandwich” but those sandwiches at Carnicero spoke to me. They had gorgeously dark and roasted side bacon and back bacon laid out just waiting to be consumed. The staff member sliced off thick slabs of bacon for me and laid them on a fresh bun. It was almost too much to eat in one sitting, but I tried my best. It had a delicious crust, and moist bacon inside. If I had a cooler, or lived in Toronto, I would have purchased some of the maple chili pork chops they had on display. Alas, I shall just have to make my own!

(One downside to St Lawrence market is that they seem to have neglected people who may want to eat and linger. There are few places to sit down to eat, so be sure to snap up whatever bench or chair becomes available.)

Conveniently, most of the bacon sandwich stands are located right by the main entrance of the market. Coincidence? I think not!

The market does not have many fruit and vegetable stands—San Lorenzo market in Florence is far better for that! However, there was a fresh pasta stand I perused, and some cheese stalls, where I found some Lincolnshire Poacher cheese. One highlight was the cheese and mustard breadsticks at Kozlik’s Mustard shop. I bought one: it was a glorious cheddar and grainy mustard combination, twisted into a croissant dough, and baked with more cheese on top. The combination of flavours is one of my favourites! (I tried the mustard and gruyere cheese stick, which was also excellent).

After some snacking, I went to the demo area upstairs for my cooking class. It was a nice, airy space with a long island workspace. My skills with jam making are already pretty good, so I was primarily there to get some tips and new ideas. I’d never made any sort of marmalade before, nor worked with any professional chefs. It was interesting, and insightful. And the smells of the fruits cooking down was divine!

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Meyer lemons have a rich, almost orange-hue, and are full of sweet juice.

We made a batch of Meyer lemon marmalade. The skins are fairly soft and delicate, so it took less time to cook down. The Seville oranges, in contrast, were thicker and more robust, so they needed to cook down for a good hour or more. I’m not much of a fan of marmalade, but those that we made were inspiring and so, so fragrant! We also made a Hot Pepper Tequila jelly, which is excellent with cheese. It has jewel-like flecks of hot pepper in a beautifully clear jelly that catches the light wherever you put it! We got to take home a jar of each of the types of preserves we made. They are so pretty I almost hesitated to open them!

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Ladling the Seville orange marmalade into the jars for processing.

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Top to bottom: Tequila Hot Pepper Jelly, Meyer Lemon Marmalade, Seville Orange Marmalade.

After the class, I met up with friends for lunch at one of my favourite Toronto restaurants. Buk Chang Dong Soon Tofu is a little joint in Koreatown that specializes in soon tofu jigae, a delicious and hearty stew filled with tofu, kimchi, and different cuts of meat. Every time I have been before, the place has been packed. Because of the grotty weather that day, it actually was only about two-thirds full, so we did not have to wait. The menu is small and limited, making food choices simple. I ordered the same thing I do each visit: Kimchi Soon Tofu, which includes little bits of beef and pork in a spicy broth (you pick how hot). The meals are served with banchan, little appetiser-like dishes of kimchi, vegetables, and other pickles. I love the sweet-and-savoury pickled daikon and the umami¬-rich kongjang (soy beans braised in sweetened soy sauce). Our table went through two rounds of banchan—and we ate every little mung mean scrap!

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Hot, comforting Korean food on a cold day in Toronto.

When I visit a favourite restaurant for the first time in a while, I always worry that my food won’t live up to the memory I have of it. However, my Kimchi Soon Tofu was as delicious as I remembered, bubbling hot and filled with fluffy clouds of soft tofu. It was the perfect food for the cold, drizzly afternoon we had. If I had easier access to Korean ingredients in my town, I would love to try making my own version of the dish. Perhaps a future experiment?

Buttermilk Scones

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When I lived in the UK, one of the many foods that I discovered were scones. I’d heard of them before, of course, but I’d never had any reason or inclination to try them. Friends of mine used to enjoy whipping up a batch as an afternoon snack. One afternoon when I visited, we made a fresh batch and ate them with strawberry jam and heaps of double cream. They were simple, sweet, and delicious. After that, I made a point to a) find my own go-to recipe, and b) have scones whenever the opportunity presented itself, especially when visiting country houses and castles.

Scones originated in Scotland, where they were with unleavened oats and baked on a griddle before being cut into triangular sections for serving. The word is first recorded in the early 16th century, so they have been around in some form for the better part of 500 years. Scones became a popular component of the Afternoon tea, after Anna, the Duchess of Bedford (1788 – 1861) ordered her servants to bring her tea and some sweet breads, which included scones.

Scones can be sweet or savoury. Some are made from oats or potatoes; others include dried fruit or nuts. My favourite way to eat a scone is with the ubiquitous strawberry jam and double (or clotted) cream. Double cream can be hard to find in North America, so I don’t have scones as often as I did in the UK.

My favourite scone recipe is and old one from cooking.com—from so long ago that the website no longer exists! You can easily halve the recipe, which I often do, and they freeze well.

Buttermilk Raisin Scones

Makes 9 scones

2 cups A/P flour
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 cup granulated sugar
4 tbsp unsalted butter, chilled
1 cup raisins
1 large egg
1/2 cup buttermilk (or 2 tsp lemon juice topped with milk to total a 1/2 cup)

1. Preheat the oven to 385 F. Lightly oil a baking sheet.

2. In a large bowl, mix the flour, baking powder, salt and sugar. Cut in the butter with a pastry blender or by hand until the pieces are the size of peas. Add in the raisins.

3. Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients. Add the egg and buttermilk to the well. Stir liquid ingredients, then mix everything together until just combined.

4. Turn the mixture onto a floured surface. With floured hands, pat the dough out to a rectangular shape about 1 inch thick. Fold the dough over itself, pat out again, then fold it back into a circular shape. (Basically, fold the dough over itself twice)

5. Cut scones into triangular shapes, or use a 2-3” diameter biscuit cutter to cut the dough evenly into 9 scones.

6. Place the scones about 2 inches apart on the baking sheet. For a nicely golden top, brush scones with milk or an eggwash (optional).

7. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until the tops are golden. Serve with jam, and butter or double cream.

Chef’s Plate review

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(Note: No one paid or encouraged me to write this review. I just want to share my food experience with others!)

Does anyone else find themselves in a food rut from time to time? Usually around January every year I find myself in a “food rut.” I’m tired of the same old recipes we’ve been making for the season, but I can’t seem to think of anything interesting or exciting to make. Or if I do come up with a different idea, I don’t have the time or inclination to make it on a weeknight.

Some of my work colleagues swear by Chef’s Plate, one of the many meal kit services that deliver door to door. I was intrigued by some of the recipes—Spicy Chicken Taquitos, Greek Turkey Burgers, Pork and Ramen Stir Fry. These were recipes I could easily make myself, but hadn’t thought of on my own. Like most people, I have my usual repertoire of recipes, and have to be in the right cooking frame of mind to do something completely new.

My colleagues raved about the food. “Everything has been delicious!” one told me. I was a bit skeptical, as my colleagues happily eat stale cookies and think those are fantastic. Nevertheless, I wanted to get outside my food rut.

We decided to order food for the week. You have a choice of how many suppers: two, three, or four. To get the best price with our introductory discount, we choose three suppers. The box of food was delivered by courier, and packed well: produce on the top, followed by a divider, with ice packs and the meat on the bottom. The meat was still partially frozen when it arrived, which alleviated my fears about the fish and chicken.

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First Night: Lemon and Za’atar Basa with Broccoli Tabbouleh

I was intrigued by this meal. I had never eaten Basa before, and I like broccoli. Unfortunately, the website does not allow you to filter out (or pick out) most foods you don’t like. I do not like fresh tomatoes, so I set those aside.

All of the ingredients were portioned out, from the spices to the vegetables. The recipe cards are very time specific, and you have to follow the steps exactly. My cooking tends to be a bit more freestyle, with a bit of mis en place and a bit of chopping and adding extras to taste as I go. I did my best to follow the steps religiously, and the timing of the meal (30 minutes from start to finish) was pretty much spot on.

I admit, I doctored the meal. Firstly, I don’t like raw garlic or tomatoes. So I added the garlic and about 5 baby tomatoes to the millet as it cooked. I also added some chicken stock paste to the water to better flavour the millet. When mixing the millet “tabbouleh,” I added some feta cheese as well.

Result: The meal had good flavour. I liked my changes to the broccoli tabbouleh, especially the added feta, which added a nice salty, creamy hit to the roasted broccoli. Roasting the broccoli was delicious, and I would do it again for different recipes. Because I had extra tomatoes left over, I gave them to a colleague the next day.

The fish was good with the za’atar, but better with only lemon. The texture was a bit soft for our tastes. Perhaps a piece of sole, or a thin piece of cod would be tastier.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 plates

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Second Night: BBQ Chicken with Warm Potato Salad

This meal was one of the “15 Minute Meals,” so everything is pre-chopped for you. The instructions, again, were pretty straight forward.

The green beans were a bit sad looking, so I chopped the ends off. I usually buy much smaller, tenderer beans. The beans included were very old and stringy. I wasn’t sure how they would turn out.

I had to dry off the pre-roasted potato chunks, then warm them in the oven with the beans. Chef’s Plate uses a LOT of the same style of cooking: something in the pan, and something roasted in the oven. This recipe was consistent with that style.

The potato salad, again, required doctoring because we don’t like fresh dill. Instead, I chopped up some green onion and swapped out half of the regular mayo included for Miracle Whip. It needed a bit of sugar as well.

The chicken needed more BBQ sauce. This was an easy fix with our bottle of Sweet Baby Ray’s.

Result: Like the first night, this meal also had good flavour. I don’t think I would roast beans again with panko crumbs, but we agreed that we would make the potato salad again. The chicken portions seemed a bit small, though we didn’t feel hungry after eating. Less leftover sides this night.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 plates

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Third Night: Balsamic Steak with Parmesan Potatoes

I was particularly looking forward to this supper, because I like to eat a good piece of steak!

After cutting the potatoes, I decided that they seemed a bit anemic seasoned only with salt, pepper, and olive oil. Some paprika and oregano helped kick the potatoes up a notch before I started roasting them.

The salad was simple: lemon juice, honey mustard, oil, salt and pepper, and oil. All of the recipes assume you have some sort of oil on hand, so for the dressing, I used a lemon-infused olive oil, which ramped up the flavour. We also added some dried cranberries and feta to the salad for texture and flavour, because spinach leaves on their own aren’t terribly exciting.

The balsamic reduction for the steak didn’t make enough. I increased the amount of balsamic vinegar and butter, and added a bit of sugar to counterbalance the sourness.

As for the potatoes, I was immensely disappointed that the meal kit included a package of ground canister-style “parmesan.” If you are going to have parmesan, have the real umami-filled Parmegiano Reggiano (or at least Grana Padano). Of course, I grated some real Parmegiano to add to the potatoes.

Result: This was probably our favourite meal. The salad was tasty. The potatoes we would definitely make again. The steak sauce was luxurious with the buttery balsamic shallots. However, the steak itself had a big piece of grizzle running through it. We had to hack around it, and gnaw at it like Neanderthals. Flank steak is not my favourite cut of beef in the least. I also wanted a shade more meat, since there was a fair bit of wastage once we got the grizzle out.

Rating: 4 out of 5 plates with a different cut of steak

Overall, I thought it was worth a try. It did give us some different recipes from our usual, and I enjoyed having everything delivered to my doorstep. However, there was a LOT of packaging—everything was individually packaged in little bags or containers. At least it is nearly all recyclable or reusable.

For a person who doesn’t cook much, or needs a lot of guidance in the kitchen, a meal kit would be a great way to improve their cooking. If you have a hard time with portion size, or cook only for one, it would also be a good investment. For me, though, it was fun to do for a week, and I like getting ideas from their upcoming menus, but it won’t be a regular thing.

Mustard Cheddar Chicken

Years ago, when I lived in the UK, I saw a recipe for Mustard Cheddar Chicken in a magazine. Because this was such a simple recipe to convert for one serving, it was perfect (not to mention a delicious way to use up the dregs of a bar of cheddar). Also, it incorporated the flavours of cheese with mustard, which is a classic British combination I came to highly appreciate.

Mustard happens to be one of my favourite condiments. I love the classic tangy yellow mustard on sandwiches. I add Dijon mustard to salad dressings and serve it with meat. I could eat it by the spoonful. Mustard has been cultivated for nearly four thousand years, and is used as a condiment in cultures across the world, from France to India. Ancient Romans mixed unfermented grape must with ground mustard seeds. In medieval England, mustard seeds were rolled into balls with flour and spices. In the fifteenth century Italian cookbook, Libro de Arte Coquinaria, by Maestro Martino (c. 1465), the author provides several recipes for the condiment, including one that combines mustard seeds with ground almonds, and another with raisins and cinnamon.

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Sinapis (Mustard) in the Tacuinum Sanitatis, a late medieval health treatise (BNF NAL 1673, fol. 23, first half of fifteenth century).

In the depths of January, I was searching for something to make for a weeknight supper, and remembered this recipe. However, we also had the remains of holiday and charcuterie boards lurking in the fridge. So I adapted the recipe to use up ingredients. Instead of bacon, I used pancetta, which crisped up wonderfully in the oven. I also added some caramelized onion chutney to round out the flavours. The swaps made the chicken just as good—maybe even better—than the original! You could easily switch up the type of cheese used, and potentially the type of mustard.

This is not a very photogenic dish, but it is tasty. And a clever way to use up bits leftover from a holiday or dinner party! The sticky bits left behind in the pan are particularly addictive.

Mustard Cheddar Chicken

Makes 4 servings.

150g grated cheese (i.e. a strong cheddar)
2 tbsp herb cream cheese, such as Boursin
1 tbsp wholegrain mustard
Dash of Worcestershire sauce
3 tbsp caramelized onion jam
4 skinless boneless chicken breasts
8 slices of prosciutto or bacon

1. Preheat oven to 380F.

2. Mix the cheeses, seasonings, and mustard together. It will be fairly stiff. Divide the mixture into quarters, and form log shapes.

3. Cut a slit into the side of each chicken breast, then stuff with the cheese logs.

4. Divide the onion jam between the chicken breasts, stuffing it alongside the cheese mixture.

5. Wrap each stuffed chicken breast with 2 bacon strips or pancetta slices – not too tightly, but enough to hold the chicken together.

6. Season, place on a baking sheet and roast for 20-25 mins, or until the juices in the centre of the chicken breast run clear.

Cheese Ball

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Every family has holiday foods that they like to make each year to celebrate. They aren’t always glamourous. They aren’t always fancy or beautiful. But they are traditions that you simply must have, or the holiday does not feel right.

One of our favourite holiday foods is a cheeseball. We snack on it from Christmas Eve to New Year’s. We eat it at home, and we bring it to gatherings with extended family. It is tasty on Ritz crackers, sliced baguette, in a sandwich, or snuck from the refrigerator in the middle of the night. It wouldn’t be a Christmas spread for us without our cheeseball.

Originally, the cheeseball recipe came from an ex-girlfriend of my uncle. He appropriated it from her after they split up, and every branch of our family has since adopted it. It is simple to make, and lasts for several weeks. We use old orange cheddar for the colour, though any mature cheddar will do. The green onions add a fresh punch of colour and flavour to the mixture. The recipe is so simple that anyone—even someone who rarely cooks—can mix it up!

Cheeseball

3 cups (3/4 lb) old cheddar cheese, shredded
250g package of cream cheese
1/4 to 1/2 cup sour cream
1/4 cup chopped green onion
Dash of tobacco sauce
Dash of Worcestershire sauce (I use a very liberal dash of this)

1. Using an electric hand mixer, cream together cream cheese and sour cream. Add Worcestershire sauce and tobacco sauce. Cream until everything is smooth.
2. Fold in green onions.
3. Fold in shredded cheese.
4. Line a mould or plastic container with cling-film. Spoon in cheese ball mixture to fill mould. You can make two small cheeseballs if you prefer and divide the mixture between two containers.
5. Allow cheeseball to mellow in the fridge for 6-12 hours before serving.

Hazelnut Shortbread

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Not all Decembers are created equal. Unfortunately, this year for my family, we’ve been dealing with relatives in the hospital, and an all ill cat (who subsequently died, RIP Wolfie). Nevertheless, there are some recipes that I strive to make for the holiday season, be it a good year or a trying year. Hazelnut shortbreads are one such stalwart recipe.

I came across the recipe a few years ago, Painted Hazelnut Shortbreads My attempt at the recipe, I painstakingly painted fancy patterns on the hazelnut trees using the eggwash paint. It took hours. They were pretty, but oh so fussy! I swore to myself I would simplify things, so the next year, I omitted the paint. The cookies were simpler, but tasted just as a good. When you have so many other tasks to do and people to visit at the holidays, taking the time to paint patterns on cookies isn’t for everyone (unless you have unlimited time and help, which I do not).

These shortbreads must use whole hazelnuts—do not try to use pre-ground hazelnuts; it won’t work. Most of the prep can be done in a food processor, but use your hands to make sure all of the dough is evenly mixed.

Hazelnut Shortbreads

1 cup whole hazelnuts
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1 cup unsalted butter
2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp salt
2 cups all-purpose flour

1. Preheat oven to 350F. Place whole hazelnuts on baking sheet, and roast for 8-10 minutes. Allow to cool, and peel the skins from the hazelnuts. Most will come away easily by hand.
2. Pulse toasted hazelnuts and sugar in food processor just until nuts are very finely chopped.
3. Add butter, vanilla and salt; pulse to blend. Add flour; pulse just until blended and a soft dough forms.
4. Dump dough into a mixing bowl, and mould dough into a ball by hand, making sure to combine any crumbly bits into the dough. Divide dough into fourths; shape each into a 4-in.-round disk. Wrap in plastic and chill 30 minutes.
5. Heat oven to 300°F. You will need 2 baking sheets.
6. Place 2 disks of dough on each ungreased baking sheet; sprinkle with a little flour. Pat or roll each disk into a 7-in. round, about 3/8 in. thick. Flute or crimp the edges of each round with your finger. With large knife, cut each round into 8 wedges (don’t separate)
7. Bake 1 sheet at a time (refrigerate remaining sheet) 30-35 minutes, or until pale-golden around edges. While hot, recut wedges. Cool slightly on baking sheet before transferring to wire racks to cool completely.

Makes 32 shortbreads. You could also dip the edge or the end into melted chocolate if feeling fancy, but I enjoy the cookies plain with a good cup of milky chai tea.