Earning Brownie Points November 27, 2009

Filed under: Desserts,Tip of the Day — sotsil @ 9:31 pm
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You ever get those days when you don’t feel like having a fancy store-bought dessert (which these days cost an arm and a leg anyway) and instead choose to have a homemade dessert, minus the labor-intensive effort?  You think hard about it, leaf through your recipe collection and then…the idea hits you.  Why not brownies?  They can be made in a jiffy, they don’t require that many ingredients, and they go great with coffee!  And after you make them, you don’t end up slumped on the chair out of sheer exhaustion.  They’re virtually error-free and can be innovated upon a hundred ways.  My innovation – not exactly an original one – is to top it with slivered roasted almonds.

Brownies – they’re like an old lover you always go back to.  Or they’re like outdated, comfy shoes.  No splash, no pizazzz, but the ideal comfort food when it’s grey outside or you’re running out of positive thoughts.  Brownies are also the classic initiation rites for a pre-teen who’s itching to impress mom and the siblings.

One day my neighbor rang and she sounded excited.  Turns out the guy she’s madly in love with agreed to come to her house for dinner.  I asked what dessert she was going to surprise him with.  I was expecting her to say a mango flambé or a Chocolate Charlotte or something impressive.  When she said, “brownies!” I had to control myself from giggling.  But like I said, brownies are like an old lover that you run to each time you find yourself in a desperate bind.

Everyone knows how to make brownies, even four year-olds.  So I won’t post my recipe.  I bet you’ve got excellent brownie recipes of your own.  But I’d like to share a tip about using butter.  Two things I watch out for:

  • the butter must be completely melted.  That means if you’re going to nuke it, it’s got to be all liquid, no lumps, no humps;
  • the butter must be set aside to cool.  And I mean really cool.

I usually don’t have a problem with the first, but sometimes when I’m in a rush, I throw the butter in while it’s still lukewarm.  What this does is it produces lumps in my batter.  No matter how much I “smash” them with my wooden spoon, they come back right up when I stop mixing (it will probably be different if you’re using an electric mixer).  Then when the brownies bake, the chocolate all come together in one thick slab.  Result?  The brownies are heavy, the chocolate unevenly spread.

But the texture of brownies is really a personal choice.  Some like it chewy, some like it fudgy and yet others like them cake-like.  Someone wrote that when you want your brownies fudgy, use a minimum of flour with no leavening.  Also, you obtain that fudgy – dense – effect when you melt the butter instead of creaming it with the sugar.  Cake-like brownies have more flour and less butter with some baking powder.  This helps them rise, producing a lighter texture.  Adding milk will also make brownies softer.  I like to add milk – evaporated or 1% milk – because I don’t like the chocolate to have a concentrated taste.  Milk also “loosens” up my batter, making it easier to mix manually.

I like middle-of-the-road type of brownies.  Chewy and light, and not too fudgy. I don’t like to feel that I’m biting into a slab of fudge.  I probably would never use icing (I don’t know of anyone who does), but I like to throw in walnuts or almonds.

A few have shared their “brownie” secrets.  One baker says to add corn syrup.  She says it makes brownies more moist.  Another says he adds 1/3 cup of cooked black beans which, he says, cuts down the fat because they replace some of the butter.  I wonder what he calls his brownies – fibrous brownies or beany chocolate squares?


Say Cheese! (Quebec Cheese, That is) November 24, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — sotsil @ 2:52 pm
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quebec cheese Susan Semenak’s front page story in the Montreal Gazette’s Weekend Life section (Saturday, November 21, 2009) hooked my attention.  I guess it’s because it triggered a sense of pride. Not only is the province oozing with electric power but  is also gushing with cheese power – the kind of cheese that garners top honors in world cheese competitions.

Ms. Semenak featured Le Cendrillon cheese which she calls a true to life Cinderella story.  Le Cendrillon grabbed the gold medal in the World Cheese Awards held in Spain’s Canary Islands. 

Fame comes with a steep price tag, or shall we say, comes with stepped up demand. Manufacturers can’t keep up with orders; for awhile, the cheese was noticeably absent from store shelves.

The famous top placer in the World Cheese Awards is, as Ms. Semenak’s describes it, an “ash-covered soft goat cheese that has a strong tangy taste.”  After it won the gold prize, retailers started ordering it and bloggers/cheese lovers raved about it.  Once upon a time, stores were indifferent to Le Cendrillon saying that it was good cheese but it was nothing to write home about.  They’ve since changed their tune after Le Cendrillon proved to be the “shiningest’ star on the cheese podium.

Quebec’s cheese makers ought to be proud.  Ms Semenak interviewed Yannick Achim, owner of a cheese outlet in Montreal and St. Jerôme.  Mr. Achim said that Quebec cheeses win a lot of awards.  The one in the Canary Islands is just one of many.  For instance, in the American Cheese Society Awards in Chicago, Quebec collected 21 awards; in Switzerland’s Caseus Montanus, Quebec cheeses were also a hit.  But something is missing.  Mr. Achim believes it’s a lack of marketing clout and the fact that cheese makers here in la belle province are too modest.

Ms. Semenak raised a crucial issue about Quebec cheese and it deserves closer attention, enticing venture capitalists or entrepreneurs with excess cash to unload.  They should turn their capitalist dreams to cheese.  While Quebec cheeses are excellent, manufacturers don’t have the marketing mettle to turn this cottage industry into a giant.  Artisanal cheese makers in Quebec also don’t possess the export knowledge and only a few have been able to refine distribution networks.

Perhaps it’s time that Quebec’s venture capital pool work their magic on Quebec cheese so that it can melt its way into international taste buds and become a force to be reckoned with in the future.  But then again, maybe the reason our cheeses are so good is that the artisanal cheese community has remained small and is focusing on what they do best, without necessarily wanting to rake it in. 

Just a thought – what would happen to the quality of our cheeses if we turned this small community into multinationals?

Le Cendrillon is made by Alexis de Portneuf in Quebec City, a division of the Saputo Group.  These “technical specs” below were taken from the company’s web site in its product catalogue (the URL is provided at the top of the photo).


saputo source


Bread: ‘Tis the Season to be Shapin’ (and Wrappin’) November 19, 2009

Filed under: Breads — sotsil @ 10:10 pm
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I keep going back to my all-time favorite:  sweet breakfast buns!

Do you like vanilla as much as I do?  I found a recipe from that not only had visual appeal but also had that pleasant sniff of vanilla.  I was supposed to use a fresh vanilla pod but didn’t have one. Our supermarkets here don’t sell it (unless I’m looking in the wrong aisle).  The next time I visit a natural food store, I’ll have to buy those vanilla pods as I’m sure they would put more “definition” to the taste.  The recipe says you can use pure vanilla extract in place. 

I had enough for two batches so I used round and rectangular pans.  The picture on the right gives you a close-up of one piece; notice how intricate the folds are.  Their visual appeal comes from the uneven browning, giving you an attractive contrast of yellow and golden brown.


The first time I made this recipe, it was long and arduous, but when it came out of the oven, I was convinced it was well worth effort.  I was also overjoyed to see that my vanilla buns very much resembled the one shown on the web site.

I fell in love with this recipe and decided to adopt it to make round buns.  I divided the dough into strips and coiled them.  Half way through, however, I got bored with coiling, and decided I would let my fingers “do the walking” and experiment with shaping.  Don’t ask me how I came up with the shapes below.  I was thinking I’d form them into brioches à tête but had forgotten the steps that Peter Reinhart described in his Bread Baker’s Apprentice book.  I wasn’t going to flip through the pages and review the steps because I was afraid the dough would dry out.  Here’s where my momentary madness took me:

vanilla shapes

When they had cooled, I sprinkled some sugar and some grated cheese on top (opted for strong cheddar).  I said, “if I sold these in a bakery, they’d never pass the test because of their strange, non-uniform shapes.”

Then I thought of Christmas.  These vanilla buns would make a delightful giveaway during the holidays, and with just the right wrapper, you could always camouflage the irregular shapes.  Or you could do the the original recipe and present them in a round disposable aluminum pan, wrapped in cellophane.  I had some leftover wrapper and started to pretend that I was preparing them to give away to friends.  I also wanted to see if my brother would ask me where I bought them.

I cut the wrapper into nine pieces and wrapped the buns individually.  As you can see below, my wrapper had tiny gold stars.  If you think of it, these buns would look very attractive in a large white box. Your recipient won’t notice their funny shapes – or  else think that you deliberately shaped them comme-ci, comme-ça!


What are you planning to give friends and family this Christmas?

You’ll find the recipe for these delectable, delirious vanilla buns here:


Not Enough Time to Whip Up Dessert? IKEA to the Rescue! November 15, 2009

Filed under: Desserts,Tip of the Day — sotsil @ 9:47 pm
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I had a wonderful IKEA experience last Wednesday.  Those of you who shop at IKEA know that it not only sells nuts and bolts and beautiful kitchen furniture, but also food.  And at very reasonable prices.  Emphasis on “very reasonable.”

Their meatballs and mashed potatoes (you can have fries instead of mashed potatoes) with a knob of their cranberry sauce – ah – it sure hit the spot! 

I wanted to get a mortar and pestle that was advertised in the paper, and I decided why not invite my brother for Swedish meatballs?  We got there at 1:45 pm and we deliberately timed it so we wouldn’t run into long lines.  Guess what?  I still had to wait in line for half an hour.  Looks like the word’s out that IKEA’s chefs know a thing or two about simple but good food.  I get this feeling that half of Montreal’s population goes to eat at IKEA.  I believe there’s another IKEA in the south shore.

On our way out, I decided to have a look-see in their food store and was tempted to pick up a book of Swedish recipes, but I had to resist.  You know what happens.  You keep collecting recipes but get to try only a third of your collection.  So I opted instead for a bottle of Swedish sparkling gooseberry drink and a box of princess cakes – Frodinge in Swedish.

princess cake 1

Imagine fussing over appetizers, cocktails, the main meal and home baked bread and then you realize you hardly have any time left to whip up dessert.  I’ve got a simple solution for you.  Run to your nearest IKEA and head straightaway for their food department (where they also sell hotdogs and cinnamon buns) and pick up a Frodinge.  If by chance they don’t have it, they also sell two other kinds of dessert.  Years ago, I tried their chocolate and almond tart with a top crunchy layer and that too was excellent!  They still sell it.

Saturdays are “elaborate meal” days at home.  That means I prepare something special for lunch.  This Saturday, however, I had some deadlines to meet including a funeral service I had to go to, but we still managed to have something special and had the most delicious, daintiest Swedish princess cake with mocha coffee. 

The picture below shows I  sliced apples in a hurry for this blog’s “mug shot.”  But when guests are coming for dinner, you can buy some raspberries and kiwis and arrange them artistically on a dessert plate – befitting a princess!  They would look attractive in a bed of tiny fruits and perhaps a thin layer of brown or white chocolate syrup.

These princess cakes have a sponge as the bottom layer, and a rich white cream with a sliver of jam.  The whole cake is topped with green-colored marzipan and a chocolate swirl on top.  A visual delight, not to mention the not-so-sweet, not-so-heavy taste.  It’s a wonderful slice of Sweden!

princess cake 2


Two Pies, One Lie November 11, 2009

In my previous blog, I said that we think of recipes in terms of successes and failures, hence the phrase “keepers and poopers.”  Or we think of them as recipes that we can cheat on by skipping a step or two, substituting ingredients or varying the temperature and cooking time.  When we cheat on a recipe, the taste will be different, but chances are no one will ever know; that is if you don’t breathe a word about your naughty attempts.  The only risk is the dish could turn out a disaster, bad news especially if you’re hoping to serve it to guests who are due in an hour.

These are two pies that I made on different occasions.  One is a raspberry tart which I made back in July and the other is a Dutch apple pie that I made three weeks ago when apples seemed to be everywhere.  I cheated on one;  on the other, I followed the recipe to the letter.  Can you tell which one of them is the lie?

         dutch apple 1

If you look closely at the raspberry tart – examine the crust – it’s obvious isn’t it?  This recipe was posted by a fellow member on TFL – paddyscake.  She said that the recipe called for mascarpone and a pie crust from scratch.  She said she didn’t have time to make a pie crust so she bought a ready made crust from Pepperidge farm.  She also didn’t have mascarpone cheese, so substituted cream cheese instead.

Poor raspberry tart.  It went through two rounds of foul play.  When I decided to make it, I, too, gave in to the temptation of cheating.  Paddyscake said that despite her substitutions, the pie was deliciously evil and to die for.

I did buy mascarpone cheese because of my weakness for tiramisu, but at the last minute, I didn’t feel like making pie crust.  So I used a Graham cracker pie crust that had been sitting in my cupboard for two months.  Criminal.  Tell me why I would buy expensive mascarpone cheese only to pair it with a ready made crust?  There’s a disconnect, wouldn’t you say? 

Disconnect or not, the pie was heavenly.  It didn’t seem to bother paddyscake, so why should it bother me?  The combination of mascarpone and white chocolate jolts the palate.

The Dutch apple pie is from Canadian Living Magazine (online version).  It’s the perfect dessert to accompany a homemade meal.  I’m not an apple person, but I always have a soft spot for apple pie or any dessert made with apples.

Here are the recipes:

For the Raspberry Pie: (courtesy of Paddyscake)

paddyscake 1  paddyscake2

If that’s hard to read, go to this link: (and scroll much further down).

For the Dutch Apple Pie (from the Canadian Living Test Kitchen):


Pastry for deep 10-inch (25 cm) single crust pie

5 large apples (about 2 lbs/1 kg total)

1/4 cup (50 mL) whipping cream

3/4 cup (175 mL) packed brown sugar

2 tbsp (25 mL) all-purpose flour

3 tbsp (50 mL) cold butter

1/2 tsp (2 mL) cinnamon


On a lightly floured surface, roll out pastry and fit into 10-inch (25 cm) pie plate; trim and flute edges. Peel and core apples; cut each into 6 wedges. Arrange wedges snugly in single layer in pie shell; drizzle with half of the cream.

In a small bowl, combine sugar and flour; cut in butter until crumbly. Sprinkle over apples; dust with cinnamon. Drizzle with remaining cream.

Bake in 450°F (230°C) oven for 15 minutes; reduce heat to 350°F (180°C) and bake for 30 to 35 minutes longer for until apples are tender, shielding edges of pastry with foil if browning too much. Let cool.


Variation on King Arthur Recipe for Cheese Rolls November 8, 2009

Filed under: Breads — sotsil @ 9:30 am
Tags: , , ,

Last summer, I blogged about trying a King Arthur Flour recipe that uses Vermont cheese powder.  Since I had no intention of driving to Vermont to buy the cheese powder, I decided to try the cheese packet in Kraft’s macaroni and cheese.

It worked beautifully.  Even Molly from King Arthur said that using this powder from the macaroni and cheese box was certainly a clever substitute.  This was the blog I posted back in July  King Arthur said to make burger buns, but I was in a playful mood so I twisted them and came out with these.

king arthur rolls

The July blog had larger photos.  These were cropped just to show you how they came out. 

Two weeks ago, I wanted to do a more ambitious shape.  I was a little nervous, but earlier in the day, I had played the motions in my mind over and over again to make sure I wouldn’t end up with a dough fiasco. 

Pardon the vulgar expression but I managed to come up with an “artsy fartsy” shape  that almost made me want NOT to slice the bread.  I wanted to throw cement over it so I could preserve it and hang it in my kitchen.  Who cares about a Cordon Bleu diploma when you’ve got the proof right there sticking out from the wall?

Using the same King Arthur Flour recipe (, I made a “boule” then took out a piece of dough to create two braids.  I laid them over the ball in crisscross fashion. 

This is how it came out:

boule1   boule2

If you’re into shaping bread and have created nice shapes that you endlessly stare at, do you sometimes think of turning them into pieces of sculpture?  Crazy thought, but since yeast breads are a tricky (and moody) lot, it would be nice to preserve those shapes that remain intact from start to finish, without collapsing or exploding in the oven. 

I get this funny feeling that shaping bread is like playing golf.  You get good days and bad days.  Just when you think you’ve got it down pat, the dough either gets runny or feels like rock.

Sorry, can’t help it, but here’s one more shot:


Peter Reinhart has written books on bread (Crust & Crumb, Bread Baker’s Apprentice and others) and devotes pages to shaping bread with step by step instructions.  I have his Bread Baker’s Apprentice and flip through the photos for inspiration.

When it comes to shaping bread, there’s no end to your creativity.  When you get tired of shaping, you can venture into creating two-tone or three-tone breads, another fun activity that puts my concentration on overdrive hours before baking.  From comments on The Fresh Loaf, I learned that artificial coloring is still the failsafe method; Shiao-Ping, a talented and much admired “fresh loafer” said that natural coloring (e.g. beets for purple color) changes during the baking process.  She said that natural beet color makes the dough look nice and purple before baking, but you end up with a dark brown color after baking, possibly due to oxidation.

If you browse online, you’ll be surprised at how many new products there are to delight the bread shaper or coloring artist in you!


Broccoli Need not be Boring! November 5, 2009

I don’t think broccoli itself is boring but we have it at least once a week – it’s the talk of health town.  It’s supposed to be rich in antioxidants, helping us ward off cancer.  It’s eating it once a week – steamed – that provokes this boring sentiment.  Aren’t all health foods somewhat boring anyway?

broco rice pilaf1

Which is why many cooks put on their creative caps to come up with different ways of eating this cruciferous vegetable.  You get plenty of casserole type recipes and Ms. Cheese is a frequent partner of Mr. Broccoli when they dance their way into the oven.  The broccoli and cheese pairing is also a great way to make kids eat it.  Try serving a four-year old plain steamed broccoli and you’ll get “arrrgh, gross!”

I found a recipe from the Dairy Farmers of Canada which was published in a Canadian Living Magazine newsletter I receive regularly.  The recipe is here:

At first I had doubts that this Broccoli Rice Pilaf would excite my taste buds but I’m glad I tried it.  So what’s the vote?  Is it a keeper or a pooper?

Keeper!  The recipe is now in my bulging binder and will be cooked again and again, especially during this winter.  This dish takes the boring out of broccoli and if you’re a rice lover like me, you’ll like the way it teases the palate.  It must be the combination of the grated cheese, rosemary, and rice that did it.  The first spoonful tells you that you’ll be back for seconds.  My brother had three huge servings. Despite the quantity that this recipe produced, it was devoured in no time.  I was hoping to eat it again on the second day, but by the time supper was over, platter was squeaky clean.  The next time, I’ll double the recipe.

Two things I would change: 

  • instead of the 1 cup hot water in the recipe, I would increase that to 1-1/2 cup (I found that after about 10-12 minutes, the liquids (you also add 2 cups of chicken or vegetable broth) are absorbed quickly, even in medium heat.
  • instead of the 15-minute simmering time, I’d reduce that to 12 minutes.

The first step is to mix the butter, carrots, onions, rosemary, salt and pepper in a large pan for five minutes; you then add the rice, making sure the grains are well coated.

broc rice pilaf2 The rest of the recipe is easy (complete recipe is given in the link above – prep time 15 minutes, cook time 30 minutes).  If you’re serving it to guests, by the way, it would look nice on a plain colored platter.  In the picture above, I used a decorative platter.  Big mistake.  It clashed with the dish’s colors.  For the sake of good photography, I’d use a one-color serving platter for dishes that bring out a lot of colors. 

I think this broccoli rice pilaf dish would look festive against a black platter but I don’t have one.  I’m having guests from Toronto during the holidays and this recipe’s a good candidate for the menu so I just might run out and get myself one of those gleaming, all-black serving dishes.

Do visit the web site of Canadian Living Magazine –  They have a genuine variety of recipes that are well presented (prep and cooking times are provided along with nutritional information and tips for each dish).  I was also curious about the Dairy Farmers of Canada web site and I will use only one word to describe it:  sassy!  I’ve bookmarked it.

The Dairy Farmers of Canada web site has a lot to offer.  Easy to navigate interface with large fonts so that you’re not squinting; and the recipes, colors and images – well – they do work up an appetite!  They’ve got excellent articles about dairy health too.  And they run a huge network of web sites (I counted about eight) that promote milk, cheese health and nutrition.

And let me repeat what I said in the past.  I’m not getting paid or getting my arm twisted for promoting certain web sites.  I promote them because I like them.  You would like them too if you’re on the prowl for recipes!