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Shake it Sugar Baby

So there’s good news and there’s good news. First, the good: I’m going to be doing two more appearances baking from In the Sweet Kitchen on Cityline this fall! The first will air Monday November 1, the second airs Wednesday December 8. Hooray! Look for early Christmas things… I feel cookies coming on….

The second good thing is totally related, and I’m so tickled to have discovered it I could die. In the course of planning the first appearance, for the Monday (Around-the-House Day) show, I was emailing with Cityline’s intrepid Monday producer, Kate Moore. And we’re talking cookies and she writes that she wonders if I would mind wearing one of these aprons they’re hoping to feature on the show that day, to promote the start of their Holiday Cookie Swap.

Now, I don’t generally wear aprons when doing demos on TV, mostly because they make me look a bit like a potato. Also, the plain white ones make me look as though I work in a restaurant, which I definitely used to, but haven’t in forever, and I’m always worried about giving people the wrong idea. I know – I’ve thought way too much about this. Really, they’re just supposed to keep goo off your dress. Right?

Kate sends me this terribly deferential note along the lines of “If you REALLY wouldn’t mind… yadda yadda yadda…. VERY pretty aprons…. yadda yadda… Check out the website…. here are some I though would look great on you….” And my first reaction is, Ok, if I like them, well, maybe; and if they’re too, um, potatoey, then I’ll politely decline.

The company is called Sugar Baby Aprons, which is already a promising start. So I click on over to the site, and it takes me all of one second to realize that not only are they not tuber-like, they’re FAB! They’re divine. They’re so sexy and sweet, they’re more like sassy little demi-frocks than aprons. Instantly, I wanted ALL of them, which, I know, is perhaps a tad unreasonable. Though don’t pretend for a second that I didn’t very quickly mentally justify possibly buying one of each. But then I’d need matching shoes, and nail polish, and it just starts to get out of hand.

The thing is, they actually sell shoes… (I KNOW, RIGHT?) so the jury’s still out on the whole buying the lot deal.

I did, however, abuse the English language just a tad in my haste to write a note back to Kate saying, HELLS YES I’d love to wear one one the show, and if at all possible, could it be the full leopard print one? Because really, I have a bit of a thing for leopard, and honestly, once I saw that they even made one in leopard, there was no other choice.

So for those of you still here, on my site, I’m absolving you of your sense of loyalty. You don’t have to finish reading this. GO – go now, buy aprons. Buy the flirtiest one there, and when it arrives, put in on with your highest heels and your most encouraging undergarment, and bake something! Make cupcakes, make a pie, make chocolate chip cookies and eat the dough right out of the bowl. Because baking is supposed to  be like this: sexy, full-bodied, and fun.

Sexy Ingredient #4

Nuts

Oh, the jokes and naughty laughter. But seriously, I can’t tell you how grateful I am that none of my kids are allergic to nuts, because I bake with them all the time. Nearly as often as I bake with booze. Plus, in moderation, they’re super-healthy. Best of all, they’re like magic as far as baking is concerned, lending flavour, texture, moisture, tenderness, colour and richness to everything from cookies and cakes to ice creams and mousses.

When you hear mention of nuts in reference to baking, you probably think first along the lines of pecans, walnuts, maybe hazelnuts. But there are so many other varieties out there, and best of all, you can more or less switch them up to your heart’s content. Nuts are basically protein and fat (don’t run away; it’s the good fat) (also, you need fat in baking, otherwise you’re making crackers). There isn’t a lot of difference between most varieties in terms of how they perform in a recipe, so feel free to experiment with different sorts and flavours; suddenly, your baking repertoire is three times as big as it was before:

Instead of pecans in the chocolate chip cookies you love, try peanuts.

Make the filling for the lovely chocolate pear tart with hazelnuts instead of almonds next time.

Try the shortbread recipe with pistachios instead of walnuts, and give it a pretty hint of pale green while you’re at it.

One of the lovely things about nuts is that they all contribute a rich and distinct flavour to the finished product, but won’t ever overpower other flavours. In the book, I’ve got a big ol’ section about Flavour Pairing, and this is just the kind of thing it’s for: “Hm. I’ve got this tart recipe, which calls for almonds, and I’d rather use pistachios, but maybe another kind of fruit would go better with pistachios than pears.” Like peaches, for instance. Cashews, pecans, walnuts, peanuts, pistachios, even buttery and luxurious macadamia nuts all pair beautifully with white, milk, and dark chocolate, fresh and dried fruits, and classic flavours like vanilla and caramel or toffee.

Often in baking, a recipe will call for nuts to be toasted before being chopped or ground or added to the rest of the ingredients. While this is ridiculously easy, I screw it up a lot, mostly by forgetting I’m toasting nuts until I smell them burning. My big professional advice is to use a timer. Do as I say, not as I do. For most nuts, spreading them in a single layer on a baking sheet and baking at 350 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes, or until they are warm and fragrant, is all it takes. Let them cool, and use as desired.

The biggest factor when buying and using nuts in baking is to make sure they’re fresh. Nuts, being high in fat, can go rancid rather quickly. They should be stored for no more than 6 months, in a cool, dark, dry place in an air-tight container. The trick is to make sure that the nuts are fresh when you buy them. I have often bought nuts that are already this side of rancid. Because they show no obvious signs of spoilage, stores with low turnover on their stock can have old nuts for sale, and you won’t know till you taste them. If tasting them before you buy isn’t possible, definitely taste them before using them at home. You should be doing this with as much of the ingredients you bake with as possible – anything that tastes off going in isn’t going to taste any better after baking.  Buy nuts from a store with high turnover, and in as small quantities as possible.

They can be the star, or the supporting player, but I honestly couldn’t be the baker I am without them. And don’t forget to play around, and try replacing the old stand-by with something new and sexy. It’s too much fun.

One of my favourite after dinner-with-liqueur-or-espresso cookies are these lovely chewy little macaroons. The recipe, from In the Sweet Kitchen, calls for good quality almond paste, which is available from baking supply stores, or fine food shops. If you’d rather though, you can make a fabulous almond paste (and soooo yummy) in no time. Most almond pastes are about 50% almonds to 50% sugar; that works beautifully,  but for these cookies, I use a 70%-30% ration which is slightly firmer and less sweet. Either can be used in any other recipe calling for almond paste.

Almond Paste

14 ounces whole blanched almonds
6 ounces icing sugar, not sifted
1/4 to 3/4 cup sugar syrup (see recipe below)

1. In the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade, pulse or whir the almonds and icing sugar until they come together in a fine evenly-ground mixture.
2. With the machine running, dribble in the simple syrup, about 1/4 cup at a time, until the mixture comes together into a paste. The amount of simple syrup necessary with depend on how much moisture is in the almonds.
3. Transfer almond paste to a clean container and cover tightly. The paste can be kept at room temperature for a few days; for longer storage, refrigerate. Use at room temperature.

Makes approximately 24 ounces almond paste.

Simple Syrup
1 cup sugar
1 cup water

1. Combine both ingredients in a small heavy-bottomed non-reactive pot. Stirring until sugar dissolves, bring the mixture to a boil. Remove from heat and cool completely before using. Refrigerate until needed.

Chewy Almond Macaroons

A small, richly-flavoured, chewy cookie with a succulent texture. The secret lies in using almond paste, rather than ground almonds in the dough. The oils released in the paste make the macaroons moister and more evenly tender than those made with freshly ground nuts. Do use almond paste, and not marzipan, as the latter contains too much sugar in relation to almonds. Almond paste is available in specialty food stores and baking supply shops.

8 ounces good-quality almond paste (not marzipan)

1/2 cup icing sugar, not sifted

2 large egg whites, at room temperature, preferably at least several days old, or even frozen whites, thawed

1/4 teaspoon pure almond extract

1. Preheat the oven to 325°. Line two heavy but not non-stick baking sheets with parchment paper, and set aside. In a medium-sized bowl, break up the almond paste, and gradually knead the icing sugar into the paste by hand. This may take 6 or 7 minutes, but the mixture will eventually become homogenous and smooth. Lightly beat the egg whites, and add all at once to the almond mixture. Beat the mixture until the whites are fully incorporated, then continue to beat for 2 to 3 minutes until the batter is lightened. If the batter looks to runny to pipe, chill for a few minutes until firmer.

2. Spoon the batter into a strong piping bag fitted with a medium-small tip, and pipe the batter in little mounds of about 3/4” diameter onto the baking sheets, spacing the macaroons 1-1/2” to 2” apart. The cookies will not spread very much, and will retain the mound shape well. Bake the macaroons in the centre of the oven for approximately 15 minutes, or until the edges and tips are lightly golden, and the undersides are golden and firm. Transfer the sheets to wire racks, cool for 5 minutes, then remove the macaroons to the racks themselves and cool completely. Rinse the baking sheets under cold water and dry well before repeating with the remaining batter. These cookies are absolutely fantastic the day they are made, but keep well stored in an air-tight container for up to 3 days. Makes about 3-1/2 dozen bite-sized macaroons.

Variation:

Chocolate-Dipped Chewy Almond Macaroons: Melt 4 ounces of finely chopped semisweet or bittersweet chocolate in a bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water, stirring occasionally. Alternatively, melt the chocolate in a non-reactive bowl in the microwave set on medium power for about 1-1/2 minutes, stirring every 30 seconds. With both methods, remove the chocolate from the heat when it is 3/4 melted, and stir to melt completely. Take care not to let any moisture, even steam, come into contact with the chocolate, or it will seize, and become unsalvageable. Dip each macaroon into the warm chocolate, tip first, up to the flat bottom. Feel free to dip these any way you like, but I find leaving the bottoms free of chocolate make them easier to dip, and lets a little more of the almond flavour through. Transfer the dipping macaroons to a parchment lined baking sheet, and allow the chocolate to set completely before stacking the cookies between layers of waxed or parchment paper in air-tight containers. Store at room temperature.

Sexy Ingredient #3

White Chocolate

I know, I know:  we covered chocolate in number 2. And most of the time in baking ‘chocolate’ does mean the brown stuff: milk, semisweet, bittersweet or unsweetened chocolate. White chocolate isn’t properly chocolate at all, since it contains none of the cocoa liquor or cocoa solids that gives dark chocolate its characteristic colour and flavour. But it is a close cousin, made from the rich cocoa butter combined with sugar, milk solids and vanilla. And it is, in its own right, a fabulous thing.

Before you leave now, thinking how much you don’t love the tooth-hurting pasty stuff you think white chocolate is, hear me out. Most of us probably have pale memories of waxy white chocolate in the dubious shapes of bunnies and eggs, but if that’s what comes to mind when you hear the words, you’ve been unforgivably scarred. It’s ok: Healing is big fun. Real, high quality white chocolate is incomparable.  Its flavour is milder than dark, but is full, warm and incredibly rich. It’s divine on its own, just a little square left to melt on your tongue until it becomes a thick warm liquid, but I happen to think white chocolate’s sexy, friendly flavour is best as a partner with others. It goes at least as well with the flavour of mint as does dark chocolate, and is even better with fresh berries. Toffee, caramel, any dried fruit, and virtually every type of nut are equally good matches. See? Suddenly, you can nearly double the number of desserts you can make! Just swap out dark chocolate for white, and Poof! Whole new kind of yummy.

In spite of the name, white chocolate should be a distinct ivory colour; any truly white white chocolate is vastly inferior as it’s been made with vegetable fat rather than the necessary cocoa butter. Remember, the thing with cocoa butter is that aside from the gorgeous creamy nutty flavour, it happens to melt at the exact temperature of the human body. (Which in my opinion is as much proof of the existence of a good force in the universe as I need.)

Which chocolate, like milk chocolate, has a shorter shelf-life than its more bitter cousins, thanks to the increase in milk solids and cocoa butter. It needs to be stored in a cool, dark, dry place, and used within 6 months.

There are usually fewer options in terms of brands when it comes to white chocolate, but fortunately one of the very best, Lindt, is widely available. I think the Swiss chocolatiers still make the best white and milk chocolate – smoother and just that much more voluptuous than some others. But there are some great domestic white chocolates out there too, and since it’s so lovely to eat on its own, it makes a great excuse for trying a few different brands when you come across them.

Try using it in place of dark chocolate in recipes that call for the chocolate to remain relatively intact: as chunks in cookies, or grated into an angel food cake. Melted, it makes silky rich icings and is wonderful melted and drizzled over cookies, cupcakes and truffles. One caveat with white chocolate is that again due to the milk solids and the cocoa butter content, it has a lower melting point that dark, and can scorch easily. It melts incredibly easily: just make sure you chop it into evenly small pieces, and then take it slow. If you prefer to use the microwave, keep the power low, try half-power, and go in 20 second increments. If you’re using a bowl over a pot of simmering water, make sur the water never actually boils, and watch carefully as it melts, stirring often. Either way, remove the bowl from over the bain marie or from the microwave when it is about 3/4 melted. The residual heat in the chocolate will melt it the rest of the way. Heck; at this point, you’ve more or less got a great dessert component ready-to-go: drizzle melted white chocolate over pound cake, ice cream, fresh fruit, or dip shortbread into it.

Below is one of the easiest ways to use white chocolate to it’s greatest advantage: in the form of a gorgeous creamy ganache, perfect for drizzling, spreading, or dipping. Or, of course, spooning into one’s mouth directly.

White Chocolate Ganache

8 ounces of finely chopped, very good-quality white chocolate

3/4 cup 35% (whipping) cream (a few tablespoons more or less cream can be used to achieve a looser or thicker ganache)

1. Pour the cream into a small, heavy-bottomed pot, and place the pot over medium heat. Bring just to a boil, then immediately remove the cream from the heat. Meanwhile, place the chocolate in a medium bowl. Pour the hot cream over the chocolate, and stir slowly with a wooden spoon or a wide-looped wire whisk until the ganache is smooth. Transfer to a clean container, and refrigerate until the ganache is the desired consistency, or until needed.

2. For glazing cakes and confections, you want the ganache to be still liquid and smooth, so it is best to chill it for only a short time, stirring often so it cools evenly. For a spreadable ganache, to frost layer cakes, spread onto tart shells, or use as a filling for truffles, chill the ganache until it is firm, but still malleable. The ganache can be made up to 4 days ahead of time, and stored, covered, in the refrigerator. It can be gently warmed or even re-melted in the microwave or in a heat-proof bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water. Makes about 1-1/2  cups; can be doubled.

Sweet on Cityline

Mark your calendars, oh you fans of stone fruits: I spent this morning in air-conditioned bliss taping an episode of Cityline (do you call it an episode if it’s a magazine show?). They tape the show live, and this one will air Monday, July 12, at 9:00 am EST. I did two segments, both recipes from the book: Rustic Apricot Galette, and Peaches Baked with Frangelico and Hazelnut Frangipane with Vanilla Bean Ice Cream. We had variations ready to show as well: a galette made from gorgeous ruby plums, and a dish of pears baked with Amaretto and Almond Frangipane. Lovely, fresh and summery.

The show was just as peachy as the sweets – I have to say, it was the most fun I’ve had during a publicity gig since being on Proud FM, the gay radio station here in TO.  But it was as smooth and enjoyable as I’ve ever done TV, and that’s a huge testament to the crew and producers, not to mention Tracy Moore, all fab 7-plus months pregnant and all. Seriously, I think she’s bionic. She was wearing these killer platform heels, about three ounces of Spandex and she changed a tire, people. I couldn’t do that now, and I’m not even a little bit pregnant. Plus she’s all cheerful and relaxed and actually looks you in the eye when she’s talking, and you know she’s actually listening, rather than just thinking about how she looks talking to you. Which, incidentally, is pretty great.

Basically I’m totally ready to run away with her. I could bake, she could change tires in stilletos. So hot.

The only mishap of the morning was, naturally, mine. I was making a hazelnut frangipane, and though I had a pre-made one already to go to actually fill the peaches, I wanted to demo how easy it is to make frangipane. ‘Cause really, it’s THAT easy. You basically toss a bunch of nice ingredients in the Cuisinart and pulse away. Chill, use, ta-da. Sounds fancy, tastes fancy, and monkeys could do it. So I had all these cute little glass dishes with perfectly measured out ingredients: my toasted and skinned hazelnuts, icing sugar, flour, soft butter, an egg, yummy hazelnutty Frangelico liqueur, and my all-important food processor.

I knew the food processor was going to be a tough thing to remember. I knew this because I’m the girl who frequently forgets her bathing suit when going swimming.  So I left myself all these notes all over the house this weekend, saying things like, “CLEAN FOOD PROCESSOR”, and “PACK PROCESSOR SUNDAY NIGHT”, and  “REALLY. DON’T FORGET FOOD PROCESSOR” and stuff. And it worked: I cleaned it to within an inch of its life, and nestled it prominently in one of the bins I use to transport gear. Then I left it with the other bins to go to the show in the middle of my kitchen, so I wouldn’t forget it.

And I didn’t! No way, not me. I know you thought you knew where I was going with this but, no! I am a professional, and also, I am awesome. So this morning, I hoist my shiny processor onto the counter on set, set up for the apricot galette, put everything I need for the peaches and frangipane demo on the back counter, and do the first segment with Tracy.

The segment ends, and I have about 15 minutes to clear the galette stuff and set up for the peaches while Tracy does another interview. I lift the lid on the processor to tip in the hazelnuts so I’m all ready to start the segment (keener that I am) and I realize I’ve left THE BLADE AT HOME.

H-o-m-e.

B-l-a-d-e. Choppy thing that makes things be smaller and mush together to make FRANGIPANE. So I spend a few seconds just looking at the empty bowl of the machine and imagining the segment, with me dumping all the ingredients in, one by one like you’re supposed to, and pretending to process them.  Should I make the Brrr-Brrr-Brrr noise, or  just talk through it?  How would one make a food procesor-y noise, exactly? Damn. I should have practiced…. This is actually going on inside my head as I’m standing there surrounded by a live audience. It could work, right? Only, the cameras, and, well, the people…  seeing… Ok, I think, Plan B. Which is, well, nothing.

So I psst a really quite compassionate producer and ask if she has a food processor, and she looks at me kinda funny and for a bit too long, but she (God bless her) doesn’t actually laugh out loud, and she whispers into her lapel so the whole control booth can know that Yes, The baking lady is ever-so-slightly crazy, and would any of them like to be the one to tell me that the one segment will be enough for today, thank you? But they’re all too nice to say anything, so they mumble to each other and manage to look genuinely apologetic as they shrug silently at me from across the set, like, ” Oh… man, if you’d just asked for a yogurt maker, we TOTALLY could have helped you out, but a food processor, ouch… Soooo sorry (YOU CRAZY WOMAN).”

Meanwhile, I’ve sort of come to my senses, and decided to just go with it. Mention the ingredients, point to them even, describe the food processor’s involvement, but skip right to the peaches. Right. That will be just fine. I can fill in any time at the end of the segment by talking about seasonal fruit.

And then just as I’m clearing away the old processor, two women show up beside me with a huge box. Inside are, unmistakably, the bits and pieces of a rather fancy food processor. “It was a demo one day!” one of them whispers. “Will this work?”

Are you kidding? Of course! Ok! Let’s build this thing! But three minutes before the peaches segment is supposed to start, the three of us are still trying to figure out how to get the blade to even fit onto the motor in the bowl. It becomes abundantly clear that a crucial piece is missing. Of course. There is, however, a blender attachment. Well, bring it on, sister-friends! Blender frangipane it is.

In the end, it went swimmingly. Besides, I’m improving – last time I was in that studio, a month ago filming Breakfast Television, I arrived and set up, and then realized I’d forgotten an entire flat of prep in my fridge. The good news was that I live nearby, and my intrepid publicist Josh offered to send a cab to collect the stuff. The bad news was that it was 6:15 in the morning,  and we only have one phone, and it’s on the main floor, and before I left the house I closed everyone’s doors and put on their fans so they wouldn’t wake up when I left. So there was me, being all nonchalant on set, pressing redial for 40 minutes and wondering how long it would take before the aggressive twitch in my right eye became obvious to the producers and they gently asked me to go on home. It all worked out in the end: Liam woke Rob up just before 7 (“Daddy, the phone won’ t stop ringing and it’s driving me CRAZY.” Duh.), Rob popped the stuff in a cab, and BT went fine.

But seriously, if this continues, I’m going to need a full time handler.

Sexy Ingredient # 2

Really Good Chocolate

It’s the pinnacle of the sweet pantry. Well, it is if you’re me. I have a bit of a thing, actually; I’m never more than arm’s reach from a bar of at least 70%. No, I’m not exaggerating. Even my kids’ friends know it. “REGAN! WE-NEED-CHOCOLATE-AND-DON’T-TELL-US-YOU-DON’T-HAVE-ANY!” from across the playground every two days. Bloody cheeky, if you ask me, but they’re always right, so I go through a lot.

And it has to be good. Banish memories of the overly sweet Easter Bunny you drooled over when you were 5. Today, there’s just no excuse for eating (or baking with) mediocre chocolate. Even my corner 7-Eleven sells bars of Lindt 70% dark chocolate, right beside the KitKat.

So what’s the difference?

While it’s used in baking as a single ingredient, chocolate is actually a compound of several ingredients. The main component is cocoa solids, also called cocoa liquor. This is the paste made from grinding or conching roasted cocoa beans. It is extremely bitter, and quite variable in flavour: here’s where you will get the unique characteristics depending on the beans’ particular variety, origin, and method of processing. Next comes cocoa butter, the natural fat from the bean. It has a very delicate flavour, but we’ll get to its real value in a bit.  Added to this base is vanilla, to round out the flavour; a measure of sugar, depending on the desired sweetness; and usuallly lecithin (from eggs) as an emulsifier. Milk chocolate also has milk solids added.

In good-quality chocolate, great care is taken in the process. Many artisanal chocolatiers are crafting single-origin chocolate made from beans grown in a single location; or single varietal chocolate, made from one particular type of bean. Only pure vanilla is used, and nothing beyond the ingredients listed above are included in a good plain dark chocolate.

In cheap chocolate, including the big-name brands sold in newsstands and grocery store aisles, the focus is on creating a homogeneous product as cheaply as possible. They use many artificial ingredients to compensate for the qualities missing when they don’t use the few good ones.  These big companies start with huge batches of blended cheaper cocoa solids, selected for hardiness and consistency rather than quality. Artificial flavour and artificial vanilla are standard, both of which ruin the inherent flavour of the beans. Vegetable shortening generally replaces all or most of the more expensive cocoa butter.  The problem here is that one of the most magical things about good chocolate is it’s mouth feel: cocoa butter, unlike butter, vegetable shortening, or other fats, melts at body temperature, which accounts for that luxurious experience of holding a piece of chocolate in your mouth and feeling it slowly cover your tongue. Your tongue tastes it incrementally, in much the same way you taste wine: with overtones, differences between flavours at the front or back of the mouth, and lingering aftertastes.

With the cheap stuff, what you taste is what you get: one-dimensional, artificial, even vaguely metallic or plastic-tasting. And if that’s what you’re using in your baking, that’s the best you can hope for in an outcome.

People occasionally tell me they don’t think “fancy” chocolate would make much of a difference to them. After all, chocolate is chocolate, right? Especially if it’s baked into something. “Besides, I like ANY chocolate – it doesn’t have to be expensive!”

Liking chocolate is one thing, but deceiving yourself into thinking you wouldn’t notice the difference between waxy, artificially flavoured supermarket chocolate and the complex, silky richness of the good stuff is like saying you wouldn’t be able to appreciate the difference between coffee out of a hockey arena vending machine or a freshly ground, freshly made espresso. They’re both coffee, but they’re not in the same league. And really, if you’re going to have coffee – I mean, chocolate – make it as good as you can.

There has never been a time when the average baker has access to so much outstanding chocolate. And each one is as unique as fine wines: some are distinctly fruity, others earthy, still others have overtones of coffee or spice. I go into more detail about the unique qualities of chocolate from different countries and even brands in the book; also when to use what types for best results. In general, though, any recipe that relies heavily on chocolate – brownies, chocolate mousse, flourless chocolate cake – is a perfect opportunity to explore the gourmet chocolate section at the local market or fine food shop.   And if cost is a factor, try combining two or three different chocolates of varying prices in the same recipe. I do this often, and finds it adds a depth and complexity to the flavour of the finished dessert. The thing is, I can make the exact same recipe, using the same technique and all the other identical ingredients, but when I use really good chocolate, it’s like cheating: I get so much more depth, richness and extraordinary flavour. It’s incredible what a difference it makes.

Plus, who doesn’t love an excuse to try great chocolate? Think of it as an assignment: Go Forth, Find Chocolate, Taste, and Bake. You’re welcome.

The 9 Sexiest Ingredients Part 1

Real Vanilla

Real vanilla – bean or extract – is extraordinary, and there’s a reason it’s in luxuries as decadent as French perfume and silky custards.  Rich, exotic, complex, with an amazing depth of aroma and flavour, it is the furthest thing from the descriptor it’s long been saddled with: plain. Real vanilla is one of the most precious liquids on earth, and is second only to saffron as the world’s most expensive spice. And for good reason.

The vanilla bean is the fruit of a tropical orchid which originated in Mexico. Each blossom must be pollinated on the one night a year it opens, either naturally, by the melipona bee, or painstakingly by hand. The resulting beans are harvested, then alternately sweated in heavy wrappings,  and sun-dried. This process is repeated multiple times; the beans go from being firm, green, and odorless, to being sticky, black, and extremely fragrant.

The beans at this point are sold as is, or used to make a potent, heady extract. You’re probably familiar with the extract, but if you haven’t tried using a real vanilla bean in your baking, you’re in for a transformative experience. The beans are used in different ways depending on the application: if you’re making a custard, pudding, sauce, mousse, or ice cream, you can split the bean and add it directly to the liquid before heating or mixing. Always leave the bean in the mixture as long as you can – it can be cooked and chilled, so no worries there, and the longer you leave it in the more flavour it will impart. If you’re making a batter where there wouldn’t be any infusion possible, such as for a cake or cookies,  you can still use a fresh bean in place of extract: simply split the bean in half lengthwise, and, using the blunt edge of a pairing knife, scrape out the sticky black paste in the middle. That paste is made of of thousands of tiny vanilla seeds (remember those little black flecks in good vanilla ice cream?) and is super-concentrated flavour. Add the paste at the beginning of mixing a batter so it gets spread around and evenly distributed.

What to do with a scraped-out hull if all you need is the seeds? Be European: find an airtight container, fill it with white sugar, and stick spent vanilla bean hulls in each time you use one. The beans will impart a gorgeous scent and flavour to the sugar, making it perfect for sprinkling on cookies, cupcakes, or fresh fruit. It’s also lovely in tea or coffee.

Some producers are now marketing a bottled vanilla paste, which is simply the scraped-out contents of many beans, but then you miss out on the vanilla sugar.

Today, vanilla is harvested in three main regions, each specializing in it’s own variety: Mexico produces the full-perfumed vanilla planifolia, but in spite of being the land of origin, does not produce a large amount for international sale. Bourbon or Madagascar vanilla is sweet and round-flavoured, and is the most widely available type. Contrary to the name, it doesn’t have anything to do with actual Bourbon, but is grown on the islands of the Indian Ocean, such as Madagascar and Reunion, formerly known as Ile de Bourbon. Finally, Tahitian vanilla beans, from French Polynesia, are considerably larger than their cousins, and have a seductive floral aroma.

Each variety has a unique perfume and flavour, and each can lend a different accent to a dessert, especially when vanilla is the primary flavouring. Have fun – visit local markets, fine food shops and European delis, and see what they have in stock. If you can, find a few different varieties and do a scent test – then choose one and bake something lovely.

Vanilla is one of those powerhouse ingredients that in small amounts can accent and enhance another, more prominent flavour such as chocolate. In fact, the best chocolate always has vanilla as one of its few ingredients. As a primary flavouring, in custards, pound cakes, ice creams or even cookies, good vanilla can take a deceptively simple recipe and turn out something ethereal.

So let’s sum up: Real vanilla: Rare, heady, glorious; comes from an orchid, pollinated on a moonlit night (ok, I made up the moonlit part) and can make sugar cookies a full-body experience. Definitely sexy.

Artificial vanilla, on the other hand, is so very, completely entirely not sexy. Yes, it is cheap, brown, and liquid, but it contains not even a whiff of actual vanilla. In fact, it’s made from a by-product of the pulp and paper industry. In other words, it is juice from wood pulp.

Wood. Pulp.

Case rested.

Now grab a bean, and try it out. This is easily one of my favourite recipes, and is deliciously a grown-up treat. Ok, kids will actually love it, once they get past the fact that it’s fruit, not gobs of icing. It goes smashingly with a scoop of homemade Vanilla Bean Ice Cream, or a healthy pour of Vanilla Crème Anglaise. But for those recipes, you’ll have to buy the book.

Pears Poached in Gewürztraminer with Tahitian Vanilla and Ginger

The great beauty of this recipe lies in its wonderfully complementary flavours: floral, tropical, and delicate. Seckel pears are small, seasonally available pears that are perfect for poaching: firm, flavourful, and too hard to eat raw. Beautiful Forelle pears are similar, but slightly softer and sweeter, and won’t need as long to poach. Adjust the cooking time depending on the variety, size, and ripeness of the fruit.

1 bottle (750 ml.) good-quality Gewürztraminer wine

1 cup water

1 cup granulated sugar

1 plump Tahitian vanilla bean, split lengthwise

One (1-1/2”) piece fresh ginger root, peeled and sliced in 1/4”-thick slices

2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

6 medium-sized, ripe but firm pears, such as Bartlett or Anjou; or 10 to 12 small firm dessert pears, such as Sugar, Seckel or Forelle pears

1. In a heavy-bottomed 2-quart saucepan just large enough to hold the pears with about 2-inches of head-space to spare, combine the wine, water and sugar. Bring the mixture to the boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Remove the syrup from the heat, and add the vanilla bean, ginger slices, and lemon juice. Peel the pears, removing the skin as thinly as possible, leaving the stems intact. Follow the gentle curves of the pears as you peel them so they retain their beautiful shape.

2. Add the pears all at once to the pot of syrup, and press a small, clean dish cloth directly onto the surface of the mixture, soaking the cloth. Place a circle of parchment paper onto the cloth; this will prevent the pears from poaching unevenly, or drying out on one side. (If you find the pears are still floating, you can place a little plate or saucer onto the cloth to weigh them down, keeping all of the fruit submerged and poaching evenly. The trick with this system is to keep the fruit under the syrup, without having it rest on the bottom of the pot! Do your best; I have found one side plate that is the perfect size and weight: heavy enough to hold the fruit under, but not so heavy that the pears are squashed against the bottom. Experiment! Somewhere in your kitchen is the ideal dish!)

3. Return the pot to the element over medium-low heat, and slowly bring the syrup to a bare simmer. Watch closely: you don’t want the mixture to boil too vigorously at any point, or the fruit could cook too quickly and begin to break down in the syrup. Reduce the heat slightly, and keep the syrup just below the simmer. Tiny bubbles should dance up around the pears and barely break the surface. Too low is better than too high a heat; the pears will just take a little longer to poach, but will remain intact and tender.

4. Poach the fruit until the tip of a very sharp knife slips in and out easily. Let the pears cool in their syrup, then refrigerate until needed. If the pears have poached to the point of being extremely soft, carefully remove the pears to a shallow container, and refrigerate until cool. Cool the syrup separately, then pour it over the pears and refrigerate together until needed. (The pears can be poached up to 4 days ahead of time, and refrigerated, submerged in their syrup.)

5. To serve, remove the fruit from the refrigerator about 1 hour before you plan to serve them. Pare off a little slice from the bottom of each pear to create a flat plane for the fruit to stand on, and place one pear in each of 6 shallow dessert bowls. Spoon some of the syrup over top, and accompany with a scoop of Vanilla Bean Ice Cream, page 553 in In the Sweet Kitchen, and a flavorful biscuit. Crème Anglaise, page 649, also makes a lovely accompaniment. Makes 6 servings.

Recipe adapted from In the Sweet Kitchen, paperback edition copyright 2010, published in the US by Artisan Publishing, New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada, Toronto.

Pears Poached in Gewürztraminer with Tahitian Vanilla and Ginger

This is one of my favorite desserts, and is deceptively simple: not the kind you get wildly excited fantasizing about, but the kind that seems so perfect when you eat it. Its great beauty lies in its wonderfully complementary flavours: floral, tropical, and delicate. The pears are great accompanied by a scoop of Vanilla Bean Ice Cream, page 00, and the Macadamia Nut Biscotti or Sugar Cookies with Rock Sugar Borders. Seckel pears are small, seasonally available pears that are perfect for poaching: firm, flavourful, and too hard to eat raw. The beautiful Italian Fiorelle pears are similar, but slightly softer and sweeter, and won’t need as long to poach. Adjust the cooking time depending on the variety, size, and ripeness of the fruit.

1 bottle (750 ml.) good-quality Gewürztraminer wine

1 cup water, preferably filtered or still spring water

1 cup granulated sugar

1 plump Tahitian vanilla bean, split lengthwise

One (1-1/2”) piece fresh ginger root, peeled and sliced in 1/4”-thick slices

2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

6 medium-sized, ripe but firm pears, such as Bartlett or Anjou; or 10 to 12 small firm dessert pears, such as Sugar, Seckel or Italian Forelle pears

Vanilla Bean Ice Cream, page 00, to serve

1. In a heavy-bottomed 2-quart saucepan just large enough to hold the pears with about 2-inches of head-space to spare, combine the wine, water and sugar. Bring the mixture to the boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Remove the syrup from the heat, and add the vanilla bean, ginger slices, and lemon juice. Peel the pears, removing the skin as thinly as possible, leaving the stems intact. Follow the gentle curves of the pears as you peel them so they retain their beautiful shape.

2. Add the pears all at once to the pot of syrup, and press a small, clean dish cloth directly onto the surface of the mixture, soaking the cloth. Place a circle of parchment paper onto the cloth; this will prevent the pears from poaching unevenly, or drying out on one side. (If you find the pears are still floating, you can place a little plate or saucer onto the cloth to weigh them down, keeping all of the fruit submerged and poaching evenly. The trick with this system is to keep the fruit under the syrup, without having it rest on the bottom of the pot! Do your best; I have found one side plate that is the perfect size and weight: heavy enough to hold the fruit under, but not so heavy that the pears are squashed against the bottom. Experiment! Somewhere in your kitchen is the ideal dish!)

3. Return the pot to the element over medium-low heat, and slowly bring the syrup to a bare simmer. Watch closely: you don’t want the mixture to boil too vigorously at any point, or the fruit could cook too quickly and begin to break down in the syrup. Reduce the heat slightly, and keep the syrup just below the simmer. Tiny bubbles should dance up around the pears and barely break the surface. Too low is better than too high a heat; the pears will just take a little longer to poach, but will remain intact and tender.

4. Poach the fruit until the tip of a very sharp knife slips in and out easily. Let the pears cool in their syrup, then refrigerate until needed. If the pears have poached to the point of being extremely soft, carefully remove the pears to a shallow container, and refrigerate until cool. Cool the syrup separately, then pour it over the pears and refrigerate together until needed. (The pears can be poached up to 4 days ahead of time, and refrigerated, submerged in their syrup.)

5. To serve, remove the fruit from the refrigerator about 1 hour before you plan to serve them. Pare off a little slice from the bottom of each pear to create a flat plane for the fruit to stand on, and place one pear in each of 6 shallow dessert bowls. Spoon some of the syrup over top, and accompany with a scoop of Vanilla Bean Ice Cream, page 00, and a flavorful biscuit. Crème Anglaise, page 00, also makes a lovely accompaniment. Makes 6 servings.

9 Sexy Ingredients That Can Make Your Baking Spectacular

Welcome to a new series here at ITSK headquarters: Sexy Food. Specifically, the 9 ingredients in the Sweet Kitchen that can elevate your baking to whole new levels, without pesky baking courses or burning yourself learning how to pull sugar. It’s almost shameful, really, how much of a difference these gorgeous ingredients can make: each one of them can take a ho-hum recipe and make it completely extraordinary. It’s the biggest secret of the trade – use the very best products to begin with, and you’re already miles ahead. Plus, so incredibly yummy.

To kick off the series, Sexy Ingredient number 1 will be up this afternoon. (No, I’m not giving hints.) After that, I’ll post one new Ingredient every few days; you know, to give you a chance to get down and dirty and play with the previous one before falling for something new.

So slip into something more comfortable, turn down the lights, and get ready to get fresh with a new friend… or nine.

What? Flour goes BAD?

Notes From The Sweet Kitchen: Volume 1: Getting Fresh

Picture it: it’s the holidays. A cozy fire crackles in the grate, $94 worth of wrapping paper sits waiting in the corner, and you are overcome with the slightly unfamiliar yet powerful urge to bake something. Cookies! You’ll make cookies! Nothing fancy, but you pull out the batter-stained recipe card for your grandmother’s best ever Snickerdoodles and get to work. Nana Mouskouri warbles in the background as your kitchen fills with the comforting aromas of butter and cinnamon. You mix, you cream, you bake, and you smile an only slightly smug smile to yourself as you envision family and friends swooning with delight at your awesome baking prowess. Finally, the cookies are cool enough to eat. Selecting the most tender and sparkly, you taste your efforts. And……

Meh.

Not bad, really, but, well, Grandma’s they ain’t. But you did everything right! So what went wrong?

Well, it might just come down to the ingredients. Technique is important, but to be honest, a whole lot of the to-doing in baking consists of mixing thing together. Generally, it’s not the brain surgery of the culinary world. Most recipes in baking consist of a very few ingredients; their freshness and quality is critical to the overall product.

I’m going to go out on a limb, and say that in the above scenario, the baker in question doesn’t routinely spend evenings kneading dough and icing cupcakes. It’s entirely likely that he or she bakes a few times a year at the most, not counting the odd batch of banana bread or muffins. This doesn’t mean he or she is an incompetent baker; far from it. But it does likely mean that the ingredients he or she is pulling out of the pantry have been there for a while. Like, last Christmas.

What does that matter, you say? They are DRY GOODS after all. Bomb-shelter food. Right? I mean, if it’s not furry or petrified, it’s pretty much good to go, yes?

Well, no. Even the pantry staples in your kitchen have best-before dates, and using them past their prime can be a sure-fire way to sabotage your hard work. And while old flour might just make your cookies taste dull and stale, old baking powder can prevent your cake from rising properly. So how long should you keep things hanging around? Below is a handy chart; tape it to the inside of your pantry door, and hang a Sharpie on a string beside it. When you bring home new ingredients, just mark the Use By date on the container, and you’ll never be caught holding a stale bag. And remember: keep all dry goods in airtight containers in a cool, dark, dry place.

Sweet Kitchen Pantry Staples Best-Before Dates

All Purpose Flour: 1 year

Whole grain flours and meals (oatmeal, oatbran, whole wheat flour, cornmeal, etc.): 3 to 6 months

Baking powder and baking soda: 6 months to 1 year

Nuts and seeds: 3 months (That’s if they’re fresh to begin with! Many stores with low-turnover sell already-rancid nuts. Always taste before using.)

Dried fruit: 3 to 6 months

Dark chocolate: 1 year

Milk and white chocolate: 6 months

Ground spices: 6 months to 1 year

Sugar and other sweeteners keep indefinitely, as long as they’re free from moisture