Two Posts for the Price of None! March 19, 2010

Filed under: Desserts — sotsil @ 11:30 am
Tags: , , , ,

For today’s blog, I’m featuring two Easter sweet tooth treats.  The first – which I made – is a colorful Neapolitan cake.  I got the recipe from the Robin Hood web site.  Their cake looked much better than mine, but I’m happy I managed to get the swirl (middle photo).  Robin Hood says all you need is a toothpick to create that swirl effect. 


When I made it, I thought I’d get some matching ice cream to complement the cake’s pink, brown and white colors.  As you know, Neapolitan ice cream comes in the same colors, and when it’s sunny outside and the air smells of spring, this cake and ice cream combo would tickle the fancy of both young and old.

neapolitan cake  neapolitan cake 2 neapolitan 3


The second sweet tooth treat is from King Arthur Flour of Vermont.  I received their newsletter this morning and I was immediately hypnotized. I’m going to try them soon because I was "enchanted" with the way Mary Jane Robbins shared her step-by-step instructions.  As you read her post, you get that feeling that she’s smiling as she’s describing it.  She’s a blogger for the King Arthur Flour (KAF) web site and she talks about how her love for pysanky (decorated Ukranian eggs) inspired her to create these incredible cookie designs.  I’m posting the photo here of the cookies but you’ll have to go to the KAF web site  if you want to learn how to decorate the cookies (  Talk about true inspiration.  Looking at the photos lures you into some sort of Wonderland. Again, all you need are toothpicks, pastry decorating bags (you can use plastic ones) and your Microsoft Word program to make the oval shape for the cookies. 

You have to read Ms. Robbins post.  Just look at these cookies! One look at them and in no time, you’ll be itching to don your apron and to put your fingers into gear!


eastereggs_450w(Image:  King Arthur Flour)  


Happy Easter everyone!  Whatever you choose to do – cake, cookies, or both – make them with that Easter spring feeling!


Going Bananas…or Missing out on Dates? March 15, 2010

Filed under: Desserts — sotsil @ 8:53 pm

Not with this banana and date square recipe!  It has plenty of bananas and an equal amount of dates.  I think of this dessert as the happy compromise between blah-blah bland bananas and tweety-tweety sweet dates.  If you have ripe bananas sitting on your kitchen counter and you can’t figure out what to do with them (you’ve already made banana breads the umpteenth time so banana bread is out of the question), how about banana and date squares?  You may have to run out to buy dates, but it’s well worth the trip.

bananas date squares1

You won’t be using oats as topping – that would only remind you of those common-place date squares that don’t jiggle your appetite.  Instead you’ll be making a flour dough that will sandwich the banana and date filling.  When the dish comes out of the oven, you brush the top with butter and then sprinkle cinnamon and sugar on top.  The dessert that can be an air freshener at the same time!

The picture on the left may seem lacking in artistic presentation but it delivers BIG on taste.  I’m not saying that because I myself am disappointed with the look of the wrinkled dough.  Blame it on the clumsy way I spread it.  I had used more dough for the bottom layer and by the time I was ready to “crown” the banana and date filling, I didn’t have enough left to finish the top layer.

Like I said, these squares were big on taste.  I first had them at a cooking school in the west island.  I had signed up for a Chinese dumpling course but it was cancelled.  In place of a refund, I chose to have cash credits so I could come and pick up prepared meals and desserts.  I liked the banana and date squares and asked the owner if I could have the recipe, berating myself afterwards for even asking.  I’ve grown accustomed to food entrepreneurs who jealously guard their recipes. 

Surprise:  she e-mailed it to me the next morning!

I’ve made this recipe twice, and each time I scold myself for falling short. The first time I thought the dough wasn’t enough so I increased the flour to three cups.  The second time – just when I thought I had enough dough – I took far too much to make the bottom layer, not leaving a sufficient quantity for the top layer.  I’ll probably get it right the third time and I will avoid that fragmented crater look, aiming for a more appealing layer that’s even and smoother.

You’ll find identical recipes on the Net but this one from the cooking school is excellent. You may want to increase the quantity of the flour.  Also, I used low-fat margarine (is there such a thing?) instead of butter.


250 g butter (1 cup butter)

200 ml sugar (1 cup)

2 eggs

500 ml flour (2 cups – you’re safer using 3 cups)

pinch salt

10 ml baking powder (about 3 tsp)

4 bananas (I used 3 large ones and partly mashed them)

250 g dates (about a cup – chopped)

15 ml melted butter (2 tbsp)

5 ml cinnamon (3/4 tsp)

30 ml sugar (2 tbsp)


1.  Preheat oven to 350 F.

2.  Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy.

3.  Beat eggs one at a time.

4.  Add flour, salt and baking powder.  Mix well.

5.  Place half the mixture into a greased 9 x 13 baking dish.

6.  Cover the dough with banana slices and chopped dates.

7.  Place remaining dough over as a topping.

8.  Bake for 30-35 minutes until golden brown.

9.  Remove from oven, and then brush melted butter over the top while still hot.

10.  Mix cinnamon and sugar and sprinkle over the top.

11.  Cut into squares and cool on wire rack.

Tip:  I made the squares the night before.  When the dish came out of the oven, I let it cool for 2 hours and sliced them into squares but did not take them out. I refrigerated the entire dish.  The next day, I took it out two hours before serving and then microwaved each square for 22 seconds.  These squares are excellent when served warm; this was the square I had, as it came tumbling out of the baking dish.  Yum!

bananas date squares2


Smith’s Fish March 11, 2010

What’s in a name?  What’s the risk of having a common name like John James or Tom Jones?  Chances are you could be in a watch list of some sort or be mistaken for someone else.  People with common names have their share of identity troubles, but people with odd or rare names could very well have the same troubles too.  They have to spell or repeat it a few times, and probably get asked, "where are you from?"


The name Michael Smith is simple enough.  Straightforward, easy to pronounce, easy to spell.  How many Michael Smiths are there?  One web site says there are about 40,500 people in the United States with that name.  I suspect there are more than that.  I wonder how many there are in Canada?


If you add the word "chef" to the name "Michael Smith", I’m afraid there’s only one Michael Smith in Canada:  the Michael Smith.  He’s been called the roving culinary ambassador, an accomplished Canadian chef who lives in rustic Prince Edward Island with his wife and child.  His whitefish provençale which I made two weeks ago was one of many palate-teasing dishes in his book, Chef at Home, (Whitecap books 2009). 


I eat fish once a week and cook it in a number of ways, so I wanted to try something new.  Michael Smith’s whitefish provençale evoked images of a small Mediterranean family restaurant in a sleepy town that’s lost in the vastness of its shoreline. As I was making the dish, I imagined cooking for a few "accidental" tourists who were eager to sample a fresh catch from the salted seas – a whitefish smothered with  black and green olives and tangy capers.  Add to that a hint of Balsamic vinegar to spike the taste right before serving.



I wish I had cooked more than one bag of frozen cod (Michael Smith says you can use any whitefish for this recipe) because my brother and I wanted to have it again the next day.  The pieces of fish are "showered" with a blend of green and kalamata olives, capers, tomatoes and oregano, producing a sharp, arresting flavor.

This recipe for Whitefish Provençale was plucked out of page 127 of Mr. Smith’s book, Chef at Home:


You’ll need:   msmith2

a splash of extra virgin oil

4 pieces of fresh halibut (if you can’t get fresh fish, I would go ahead and use frozen)

a sprinkle of sea salt and freshly ground pepper

4 large ripe local tomatoes (or 1 28-oz can of whole tomatoes)  

1 large onion, minced

1/2 c of capers, drained

1/2 c of kalamata olives

1/2 cup of green olives

2 tbsp of balsamic vinegar

1 tbsp fresh oregano (or 1 tsp dried)


Here are the steps from Mr. Smith:

1.  Preheat a large heavy skillet over medium-high heat.  Add olive oil – enough to cover pan with a thin film.

2.  Pat the pieces of fish dry and then season them lightly with salt and pepper.

3.  Put all of the fish in the oil and sear on both sides, patiently browning them until they are golden brown and beautiful.  They don’t have to cook all the way through at this point.

4.  Remove the fish from the pan and add the tomatoes, onion, garlic, capers, olives, vinegar and oregano.  Bring the mixture to a vigorous simmer, then return the halibut to the pan and lower the heat a bit. 

5.  Nestle the fillets into the tomato mixture and continue cooking until they are cooked through, just a few minutes longer.

6.  Serve the fish with several generous spoonfuls of the tomato mixture.



I will make this recipe again.  The capers and olives gave this dish a subtle oomph; I’m sure my fish-loving friends would ask me for the recipe.   Michael Smith’s book carries ISBN # 978-1-55285-984-1.  It’s available on Amazon and sells for US$30.00.


About Michael Smith

The chef’s credentials read like a Who’s Who.  He received the James Beard award for Cooking Show Excellence and hosts three shows on the Canada Food Network which are aired in 26 countries.


Smith graduated with honors from the tony CIA (no, not the Central Intelligence Agency but the Culinary Institute of America) – the institute that many aspiring chefs wish they could graduate from).  After he graduated, he joined The Inn at Bay Fortune (Prince Edward Island), one of Canada’s top ten restaurants.  He has since collected awards and honors for his creative cooking and television shows.  When he’s not cooking, he enjoys windsurfing and collecting maps. 


Visit Michael Smith’s web site at:  Be sure you read his journal about his trip to Egypt and the "ish baladi" – a flatbread that is popular in the country and how watching the bakery that makes it takes it to a back alley and sells it for a penny a loaf.  The flour that is used is subsidized by the government and after talking to the bakery staff, he realized how lucky we are out west to be able to enjoy so many bread varieties.  In the town that Michael visited, the bread plays a central role in the lives of the town folk. An engaging travelogue!  To read it, click here:


Farl: Three Experiments, One Basic Recipe March 6, 2010

Every morning, I look up the "Word of the Day" in the Montreal Gazette.  If it’s a word I think I might use, I memorize it and  write it in my notebook; if it’s a word that produces no reaction, I head for the business section.

Two weeks ago, one word caught my eye:  farl.  The Gazette defined it as a "wedge of oat cake".  I had never heard of it so I went on the Internet for a recipe.  It turns out that farl is also known as Irish Soda Bread.  The one I chose was Peter Mum’s recipe which you’ll find here:  Read his article; he not only shares the recipe, but also talks about the history of soda bread and how different regions in the UK make it.  The variations are regional.  What he says:


"In Ireland, "plain" soda bread is as likely to be eaten as an accompaniment to a main meal (to soak up the gravy) as it’s likely to appear at breakfast. It comes in two main colors, brown and white, and two main types: cake and farl. People in the south of Ireland tend to make cake: people in Northern Ireland seem to like farl better — though both kinds appear in both North and South, sometimes under wildly differing names.

Cake is soda bread kneaded and shaped into a flattish round, then deeply cut with a cross on the top (to let the bread stretch and expand as it rises in the oven). This style of soda bread is normally baked in an oven."


Discovering farl was a godsend.  One, it has only four ingredients, two, you don’t need yeast, three, you knead for only 30 seconds, and four, you can substitute the buttermilk by combining milk and vinegar (1 cup milk to 1 tsbp vinegar).  The best reason?  You can bake it or cook it on a heavy skillet!

I wasn’t sure I would like farl.  The list of ingredients sounded as bland as a poor man’s snack.  There was nothing "sexy" about it, but I liked the word so much that it’s been added to my dwindling vocabulary.  And  I enjoyed Peter Mum’s romantic narration so decided I had to try it.

Whoa! Glad I did…

The first time I made it, the taste hit me.  This is just about the best homemade bread you can make for your favorite people.  Although the shape and texture went awry, I developed a schoolgirl type of crush, making it two more times and improvising like a scientist gone mad.

Here’s my farl story in three parts.  First, here are the ingredients from Peter Mums’ recipe:


3-1/2 cups flour (either cake flour or all-purpose)

1 tsp sugar (optional)

1 tsp salt

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)

8-10 fl ounces of buttermilk


First Farl:  I combined 35% whipping cream and 35% cooking cream and mixed in 2 tbsp of fresh lemon juice (to make my buttermilk).  These creams were almost expiring and I didn’t want to waste them.  Bad move.  I paid dearly for that unjust act.  This is how the farl came out, looking more like a weather-beaten baseball glove minus the fingers.  It was hard.  But the taste was something else.  I was smitten!



Second Farl:

Made my buttermilk by using 1-1/2 cans of evaporated milk mixed with 2 tbsp of white vinegar.  I left it for 20-30 minutes to let the vinegar sufficiently sour the milk.  I then baked the bread at 450 degrees for 10 minutes and then at 350 degrees for another 30 minutes.  Tremendous rise (for a no-yeast bread).  Excellent flavor. 


re-recombined farl 2

Third Farl:

This time I used 2 cups all-purpose, 1 cup whole wheat flour and 1/2 cup semolina flour.  I also added dried potato flakes because I was afraid the whole wheat and the 45-minute baking time would harden the bread.  I also used more milk and the dough was really wet, so wet in fact that the 30-second kneading was a struggle.  When it came out of the oven, I smothered the crust with butter.  The result?  Again, delicious bread!


re-recombined farl3

Farl will be part of my breakfast and snack routine from now on.  We ate the first slices with strong cheddar cheese.  The next morning, we put slices in the toaster oven and slathered peanut butter on them.  Farl will go with anything.  Or with nothing.  Either way, it’s wonderful bread.


The method is idiot-proof:

Pre-heat your oven to 450 degrees.

Step 1:  sift your dry ingredients once, making sure the salt, sugar and baking soda blend into the flour.

Step 2:  put your sifted ingredients into a large bowl and make a hole in the center.

Step 3:  pour your buttermilk (or your improvised buttermilk).  You may want to add the milk gradually.  Don’t be afraid to end up with a tacky and wettish dough.  Once blended, transfer your dough on to the counter and knead for 30 seconds – no need to do it vigorously and don’t knead for more than 60 seconds!

Step 4:  form into a ball and put it on a cookie tray or pan.

Step 5:  bake at 450 degrees for first 10 minutes.  Reduce to 350 degrees and bake for another 35 minutes.

Step 6:  Farl is done when golden brown in color and it produces a hollow sound when tapped from the bottom.  Transfer to a cooling rack and cover with a clean kitchen towel.

Warning:  Farl – or Irish Soda Bread – is addicting.  So far no cure has been found…


Italian Cooking in 400 Pages – and over 200 Recipes March 1, 2010

Shame, shame on a foodie blog that does not do the occasional book review.  Man doesn’t live by bread alone.  As my mother used to say, “develop a voracious appetite for reading.”

I’m still trying to finish David Vise’s book about Google, but client work has kept me away from that goal.  I will finish it soon, not because I want to learn Google’s algorithms for determining page rank and Adsense mumbo-jumbo, but because it is inspiring to read about businesses that start in a garage with hardly any venture capital and yet end up giants who take over some aspects of how we communicate with each other.  Don’t tell me you’ve never once used “google” as a verb?

I don’t want to mislead you. This post is not about the Google book I’m reading.  It’s about the OTHER book I found in my local library by accident – The River Cafe Classic Italian Cook Book by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers.

It isn’t unusual to find books with two gourmet authors sharing the credits.  What’s unusual is how Gray and Rogers combed the entire country – Italy – to taste every possible dish whipped up by the regions’ culinary enthusiasts.  Their travels took them to Sicily, Tuscany, Puglia, Maremma and to all those places we can only dream about. 

Their story, however, does not begin in Italy.  It starts in the banks of the Thames River in London.  That’s where they opened the River Café in 1987.  Although perhaps not as well-known as Rachel Ray or Nigella Lawson, Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers have just about turned the gourmet world upside down!

  • After they opened the River Café, they travelled all over Italia.  The book says “they cooked with friends, chefs and wine makers who shared their traditional recipes…”  From that experience, this book was born.  Mind you, this dynamic duo has 10 cookbooks to their credit!
  • They earned a Michelin star in 1997.  They also appeared in the show Top 50 Restaurants in the World and did a TV series (in 12 parts) on The Italian Kitchen for England’s Channel 4.

book review 1

They have learned much from the Italians.  Call it close encounters of the best kind.  They say, “It is our friendships with those who grow the grapes, tend the olive trees, make the wine and olive oil we use, the cheesemakers and salami producers that have taught and inspired us.”

The River Cafe Classic Italian Cookbook is a book that not only delivers recipes you’ll want to try, but also narrates the simple joys of discovering ingredients, observing habits and methods, imagining aromas and textures, and inhaling herbs from the hills and valleys that stimulate man’s ravenous nature.

There is something in this book for everyone; it offers generous sections that cover:  soups, pasta & gnocchi, risotto and polenta, breads and pizza, fish, meat, poultry & game, vegetables & salads, sorbets and ice creams, cakes, sauces & stocks.  On the last pages of the book, they share a list of their favorite places.

The photographs are stunning. Not all of the recipes come with a photograph but the clear and engaging way that Rogers and Gray describe the recipe steps will help you imagine what the finished dish should look like.  The book is rich with photographs of landscapes,  stalls and corners,  unpretentious countryside, open markets, and the elegant dining rooms of the country’s fine restaurants – the kind where starched linens, gorgeous waiters and dark mahogany walls tell you what you’re about to savour!

The book’s ISBN is:  978-0-718-15349-6.  Famous chef Jamie Oliver put his words on the back cover of the book:  “They have changed the way British people eat – here’s to them both!”


What’s your most precious cookbook – the one you WOULDN’T lend to even your best friend?