Pumpkin Gorgonzola Custards

I've been testing recipes for my upcoming French Nibbles & Hors D'heurves class on Friday. I can't think of too many other things I'd rather be doing on a cold day in November! This recipe wasn't actually on my list of must-haves for the class but I ran across it again in the amazing Around My French Table cookbook by Dorie Greenspan and decided I must try it (she calls hers "pumpkin gorgonzola flans, but I LOVE anything "custard"!). I was leaning more toward her Cheesy Creme Brulees but pumpkin is one of my favourite foods of all time so I took a chance. It is definitely a winner!

This is not a sweet custard, but a drizzle of honey and a dollop of thick yogurt goes perfectly with the blue cheese flavour. These would make excellent starters at a cold-weather dinner. I liked eating mine warm - the cheese was still melted enough that it ran throughout the pumpkin, infusing every single bite.

*Warning: Alan came home and tucked into one of the custards (at room temperature) and he is definitely NOT a fan. I still am, though. 

Pumpkin Gorgonzola Custards
Serves 6.

1-15 ounce can pumpkin
3 eggs
2 egg yolks
1/2 cup whipping cream
1/2 tsp fine sea salt, or to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
3 1/2 ounces Gorgonzola, crumbled (a generous 1/2 cup)

Greek yogurt and honey for serving

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Butter 6 (or more) ramekins and fit them into a baking dish or roasting pan that holds them comfortably. Lind the bottom of the pan with a double layer of paper towels or a clean dish cloth and place the ramekins in the pan. Boil a kettle of water.
Process the pumpkin, eggs, egg yolks, and cream in a food processor and process until well blended. Season with the salt and pepper and pour the custard into the ramekins. Divide the Gorgonzola among the custards and poke the  cheese down into the custard a bit. Sprinkle the tops with the chopped nuts.
Pour enough boiling water into the roasting pan to come halfway up the sides of the cups. Bake the custards for 35-40 minutes, or until a knife inserted into the middle of one comes out sort of clean. Remove the baking pan from the oven and carefully remove the custards from the hot water. Allow to cool till warm or room temperature.
Top with Greek yogurt and a drizzle of honey.


Grilling Spice Mix

I love making food gifts and now is the time to start thinking about getting organized for the holidays. I have been inspired by a great little book - Gifts from the Kitchen by Annie Rigg. It is definitely worth a look. This recipe is based on one of the recipes in that book. Feel free to tinker with the amounts and types of herbs. It's all up to you!

This grilling spice mix is perfect for your friends that love to BBQ throughout the year. Package the mixture up into little mason jars with handwritten tags for your favourite people. Include a bottle of gourmet barbecue sauce, and a grilling utensil or two, and you have the makings of a great gift. I made lamb burgers last week and I added 2 tablespoons of my spice mix. They were fantastic!

Grilling Spice Mix
Makes about 1 cup.

6 green cardamom pods
2 tsp black peppercorns
2 Tbsp cumin seeds
4 tsp coriander seeds
4 tsp fennel seeds
1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
2 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp smoked paprika
2 tsp fine sea salt
2 tsp dry mustard powder
2-3 tsp sugar

Gently crack the cardamom pods by giving them a sharp tap with a heavy object. Remove and discard the papery green outer husks and put the little black seeds into a dry skillet. Add the peppercorns and the cumin, coriander and fennel seeds. Toast the spices in a dry skillet over low heat for about 2-3 minutes, until they start to smell very aromatic and begin to brown slightly.
Immediately put the toasted seeds into a mortar, add the crushed red pepper flakes, and finely grind with the pestle. Add the remaining ingredients to the mortar and mix to combine. (If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, you can use a clean coffee bean grinder)
Scoop the spice mix into a sterilized jar, seal, and label with grilling instructions.

*** Sprinkle the spice mix over steaks, chicken or veggies and leave to marinate before grilling. Store the spice mixture in a cool dark space for up to 2 months.


Layered Pumpkin Cheesecake

When my best friend's mom called yesterday with a question about pumpkin cheesecake, she knew what she was doing. I used to be a cheesecake maker of the highest order. Not necessarily the best looking cakes you've ever seen... But I baked cheesecake after cheesecake with a level of enthusiasm that could have been mistaken for obsession. Thankfully, that phase in my life passed a long time ago. However, I still have a soft spot for a really good cheesecake and I LOVE anything pumpkin.  

Margaret remembered a layered cheesecake she had made years ago that had a layer of the cheesecake batter and a pumpkin layer, flavoured with ground cardamom. She wondered if I would have any ideas on how to recreate this dessert for Thanksgiving this weekend. We discussed the finer points of the dessert and here is my rendition. It is delicious and I think your family is going to love this, Margaret! Call anytime.

Layered Pumpkin Cheesecake
Serves 12

1 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs
1/3 cup butter, melted
3 Tbsp granulated sugar

Cheesecake filling:
3/4 lb cream cheese, at room temperature
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup sour cream

Pumpkin Filling:
3/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1/2 tsp fine sea salt
1 tsp ground cardamom
2 eggs
1 3/4 cup pumpkin puree
1 cup coconut milk

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line the bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform pan with parchment paper. Set aside until needed.
Combine the graham cracker crumbs, melted butter, and sugar in a medium bowl and mix well. Press the crumbs evenly into the prepared pan. Set aside.
Beat the cream cheese in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add the sugar and continue beating until very smooth. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each one. Add the vanilla and the sour cream and mix until just combined. Pour the mixture over the crumb crust and set aside.
Combine the brown sugar, salt, and cardamom in a large bowl. Whisk in the eggs. Add the pumpkin, making sure the mixture is well blended. Stir in the coconut milk.
Gently spoon the pumpkin mixture over the cream cheese mixture, trying not to mix the two layers. Cover all of the cheese mixture with the pumpkin and bake for 1 hour in the oven. If the cake is still wet in the middle, leave it in for another 10 to 15 minutes. Turn off the oven and crack the oven door. Leave the cheesecake in the oven for another 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow the cake to cool to room temperature. Refrigerate the cake and serve cold or at room temperature.


Raspberries on now!

 I didn't go raspberry picking once this summer. Or strawberry picking either. Gross oversight? No. I just don't love picking berries in the heat of July and August when I can wait until the perfect days of September and October to get out into the fields and really enjoy myself. At one of my favourite local hot-spots, Cooper's Farm, the berries are grown under high tunnels. High tunnels allow the plants to receive lots of sunshine but shields the plants from rain and other elements that can sometimes affect them. This makes for very healthy plants with tons (and I'm not exaggerating) of berries. As I was picking berries there last week, I kept thinking, "I've died and gone to raspberry heaven."

Here are a few of the reasons I think picking berries in the fall is so great....

- The raspberries are big, sweet, and there are lots of them. Same goes for the strawberries. In fact, I think the fall strawberries are sweeter than the early summer ones.
- There are way fewer people that you are competing with for the best rows.
- If you are under high tunnels, you can comfortably pick berries while it's raining. 
- Fall is a much more civilized time of year to be making jams and jellies.
- The weather is usually glorious. Throw on a pair of jeans and a long sleeved shirt to avoid the scratchy brambles and you'll be perfectly comfortable.

If you can find a farm with berries on, go now and start picking!

Once I get my berries home, I spread a single layer out on a baking sheet and pop the pan in the freezer. After about an hour, I transfer the frozen berries to large ziploc bags and continue until all of my berries have been "IQF" or "individually quick frozen". I LOVE having local raspberries and strawberries in the freezer over the winter. To have enough to last for any time at all, I have to make several trips back to the farm but it is seriously such a pleasure, I don't mind in the least.


Lavender Madeleines

I finally broke down and bought my first madeleine pan this summer. I suppose I didn't need it, but it sure has been nice to have! I have also made Earl Grey madeleines and the classic recipe with just vanilla and lemon zest. They are half cookie, half cake and they sort of blow my mind with a cup of tea. Maybe it's the history behind them or maybe I'm just a sucker for all things French... Or maybe I just love a nice treat! 

The lavender above is out of my garden and is now hanging in our garage. Once it's dry, I'm going to remove the flowers and enter them in the Harrow Fair. Yes, the fair is coming up and I'm as eager to win ribbons this year as I ever have been. Much to my family's chagrin....

Lavender Madeleines

5 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp edible lavender
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
Pinch fine sea salt
1/3 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs, at room temp
2 Tbsp honey
2 tsp pure vanilla extract

Melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Stir in the lavender and let sit for 15 minutes. Line a small small sieve with cheesecloth and strain the butter; discard the lavender. 
Whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt together. 
Place the sugar and eggs in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat until pale yellow and thick, about 2-3 minutes. Add the honey and vanilla and beat for another minute more. Using a rubber spatula, fold in the flour mixture. When the flour is totally incorporated, fold in the butter. Press a piece of plastic wrap against the surface of the batter and refrigerate for at least 3 hours or up to 3 days. 
To bake the madeleines, preheat the oven to 400 F. Butter and flour the madeleine pan. Spoon the batter into the molds. Don't worry about leveling the batter. Bake for 12-14 minutes, or until the madeleines are golden and the tops spring back when touched. Remove the madeleines from the pan and enjoy warm or at room temperature. These should be eaten within a couple hours of being baked.


Candied Violets

Catching the season for violets can be tricky if they aren't growing in your own garden. Today they were in full bloom at Farmer Jones' place, but he predicts the blossoms will be gone in less than a week or so, depending on how much shade they have. And the season for violet blossoms might be long over if you are living anywhere south of me. The moral of this story is that things are going in and out of season quick - keep your eyes peeled and don't miss out on these opportunities!

One of the reasons I wanted to candy violets this year is to try and get an edge at the baking competitions I want to enter this year. The Mount Albert Sports Day Fair is coming up fast (June 2nd) and there is a new category - Decorated Cupcakes: Spring Garden theme. Truth be told, my icing flowers stink... so this is going to be my version. I will also be candying rose petals this summer and I will try to use those for the Harrow Fair at the end of August.

Candied Violets

What you need:
Tiny paint brush
Fresh violet blossoms
1 egg white
Granulated sugar

Gently beat the egg white till frothy. Using a paint brush, lightly coat the petals with egg white. Wait for a few seconds and then sprinkle with the sugar. Set the flowers on a piece of parchment paper and allow to dry overnight. The flowers will last for a week or two (maybe more) in an airtight container stored in a dry place.


Cheddar Gougeres

These little cheese puffs are one of the recipes that we'll be making on Friday at the French Nibbles & Hors D'hoeurves class. Made from choux paste, there is a generous amount of old cheddar added at the end. Traditional gougeres are usually made with Gruyere or Comte, but I see no reason not to use whatever you have on hand, so long as it is a hard cheese with lots of flavour.

There are so many great French appetizers and this is the perfect place to start. 

Cheddar Gougeres

1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup butter
1/2 tsp fine sea salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
5 eggs, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups aged cheddar, grated

Preheat the oven to 425 F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside until needed.
Bring the milk, water, butter, and salt to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add the flour all at once and stir together immediately with a wooden spoon. Lower the heat to low and continue stirring vigorously for about 2 minutes. The dough will be very smooth.
Place the dough into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add the eggs one at a time, beating each one in completely before adding the next one. Beat in the grated cheese. Spoon approximately 1 tablespoon of dough per gougere onto the prepared baking sheets, for each one, spacing them about 2 inches apart. Place the baking sheets in the oven and immediately turn down the heat on the oven to 375 F. Bake for 12 minutes, rotate the pans, and bake for another 12-15 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature with your favourite aperitif.


Poached Egg on Fried Polenta

Maybe I should have had a nice green salad for lunch. But some days, leafy greens are just too hard to wash... So for a day when comfort is my top priority, it is hardly surprising that I reached for a farm fresh egg from my friend Marc. 

I stopped in at Marc's house yesterday. Marc lives in the middle of a busy town with his wife, my friend Marguerite, and his beautiful brown chicken, Joanne. Joanne has lived in Marc's backyard for about a year now and she is a VERY happy hen. She has an elaborate home, two compost piles to root around in, and enough space for her to be extremely "free-run" - all in the small area of a townhouse backyard. With a lot of ingenuity, Marc has created a little oasis that come the summer, will also be full of tomato plants, blackberries, and a prolific pear tree. 

While we were out admiring Joanne, Marc checked her roost and gave me the honours of picking up a slightly warm egg. I somehow got the egg home without incident and the results were my lunch today. Another fun note about Joanne - she doesn't mind traveling. Joanne drove (in her crate, in the back seat) 3+ hours for Thanksgiving last year. Although I imagine Marc being quite content to cart Joanne around for family get-togethers, the whole business of egg laying in the backseat quite possibly put his wife over the edge!

Along with my poached egg, I fried some leftover polenta in a little olive oil. The edges of the polenta get nice and crispy and the soft yolk soaks into each piece. A sprinkle of sea salt and freshly ground pepper topped it off. And a good cup of tea. Happiness. 

Serves a crowd.

The cheeses in this recipe are just a suggestion. I would use whatever combination you have handy. Polenta can act like bread or it can replace potatoes. It is a jack-of-many-trades.

6 cups water
1 tsp. fine sea salt
2 cups stone ground polenta (I used Bob's Red Mill corn grits)
3 Tbsp. butter
1 cup grated aged cheddar
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Butter a 9x13 inch baking dish. Set aside until needed. 
Heat the water and salt to a boil in a large stock pot. Stir in the polenta and continue stirring frequently to prevent sticking. Cook for about 25-30 minutes, until the mixture is very thick. Remove the polenta from the heat and stir in the butter and cheeses. Spread evenly in the prepared pan and serve immediately or cover and refrigerate. Once the polenta is cool, it can be sliced and fried in olive oil till crispy. The insides will be nice and creamy. Will keep for up to 5 days.

Here is my ritual for making poached eggs (taken from "The Good Egg Blog"). 
Bring a small saucepan of water to a gentle boil. Add a splash of white vinegar. Crack one very fresh egg into a ramekin and slowly let the egg slip into the boiling water. If you are cooking more than one, repeat this step. I don't like to poach more than two at a time in a small pan. Don't let the water boil too vigorously once you have added the egg. A gentle boil is good. If the egg seems to be stuck on the bottom of the pan, carefully nudge it off the bottom of the pan with a spoon. For a medium egg, it usually takes around 3 minutes or so to cook. When the egg is cooked to your liking, remove from the water and drain on a piece of paper towel. Dry well. Place on the toast of your choice and mash with a fork. Sprinkle with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Enjoy!


Chocolate Silk Icing

For my friend Allana's (see note below) 40th birthday party on Saturday, I made cupcakes. As per usual, I obsessed over the flavours, the icings, the timing, and the transport of the little cakes, amongst other slightly less important details like - what to wear... By Friday I had my list narrowed down to two.

1. Chocolate cupcakes (made from the Double Double Chocolate Cake from The Harrow Fair Cookbook) with their tops cut off and a small scoop taken out, filled with white chocolate/peanut butter mousse, tops replaced and a swirl of mousse to finish it off. YUM.

2. Red velvet cupcakes with a fluffy white icing. These aren't my favourite, but I wouldn't turn them down if I was desperate for a sugar fix.

My kitchen bakery was in full swing by Saturday afternoon. My family and some friends were out on a garbage hike around town (which I had bowed out of). I knew when the gang got back to the house there would be a lot of disappointed faces when they were told that the finished cupcakes were off limits. So I whipped up a batch of yellow cupcakes and made this chocolate silk icing to go with them. They turned out to be my favourite ones.

This is the most beautiful chocolate icing I have ever made - and that is saying something! Do not refrigerate this icing unless you like your cupcakes with hard caps on. I would also suggest not making this when you are really hungry....

Chocolate Silk Icing 
(adapted from The Sweeter Side of Amy's Bread by Amy Scherber & Toy Kim Dupree)

3 cups bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate chocolate (chips are fine)
1 1/2 cups icing sugar
3/4 cup cocoa powder
1 pound butter, at room temperature
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract

Melt the chocolate in a heat-proof bowl set over a pan of simmering water. Set the chocolate aside to cool. Sift the sugar and cocoa powder together in a separate bowl.
Cream the butter at medium speed for about 2 minutes in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add the sugar mixture and continue to mix of low-medium speed until the sugar and cocoa are well incorporated. Add the melted chocolate and vanilla and mix again on medium speed until it is smooth and a good spreading consistency. The icing can be used immediately or stored in an airtight container at room temperature, but it should be used within 3 days.

** For more information about Allana Harkin, read her blog on babble.com called "Eating Over The Sink". It is laugh out loud funny!


Fresh Mango Sorbet

The mangoes that I used for this sorbet are called "ataulfo" and they come from Mexico. The case I bought are perfectly ripe and sweet, nothing at all like those big green-red things that are supermarket staples. I bought mine at a Thai grocery store and the woman told me that they sell about 100 cases of those mangoes a week when they are in season. She said that they started arriving the beginning of March and that restaurants in the area buy many cases while they are so perfect, cutting them up and freezing them to use for the rest of the year. Sounds like a good endorsement to me!

The "ataulfo" is not to be confused with the "alphonso" from India. According to my sources, the majority of the crop from India is bought and canned to be sold throughout the year. My Thai grocer doesn't carry the cans of alphonso mangoes, but I will continue to keep my eyes peeled. My impression is that they have no equal in the world of mangoes.

Fresh Mango Sorbet

4 cups ripe Ataulfo mangos, peeled and diced
1 cup berry sugar (or to taste)
2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
2 cups water

Check to be sure that your ice cream maker is ready to go.
Place the mangoes in a food processor with the sugar and lemon juice. Add the water and process until smooth. Taste for sweetness and add more sugar if needed. Strain the mixture through a fine sieve to remove any bits. Freeze the sorbet according the manufacturer's directions.
Serve small serving garnished with fresh mango and berries.

*I served the sorbet on meringues for a gluten-free, dairy-free dessert for company.


Roasted Eggplant with Buttermilk Sauce

 Since I began teaching cooking classes almost two years ago, I have had several requests for vegetarian classes. Although there may be vegetarian recipes interspersed here or there in my classes, I haven't done a class strictly devoted to vegetarian cooking. I prefer thinking of myself as a "thoughtful flexitarian" or a "happy omnivore".

Last weekend I was coming down off the high of teaching the Celtic Feast class (definitely not for vegetarians!) and I spent an enjoyable afternoon reading through some cookbooks from the library. I found the book Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi totally inspiring. Before I knew, I had a new class planned (see the cooking class schedule) and I've been testing and trying recipes ever since.

You will see that the spice za'atar is called for in this recipe. I have to confess that I had polished off two halves of the eggplant before I realized that I hadn't sprinkled the za'atar over any of it. I did sprinkle some over the remaining two halves and had a couple of bites. It does add a little something, but it's by no means necessary. Za'atar is available at finer spice shops or Middle Eastern grocery stores. If you want to make your own, see the recipe below.

When I made this earlier today, I used two baby eggplants instead of the large ones. The eggplant turned out to be so delicious, I'm kicking myself now.

Roasted Eggplant with Buttermilk Sauce
Serves 4.

2 large eggplants
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
Finely chopped fresh chives
Fleur de sel and freshly ground black pepper
Finely chopped red onion
1 tsp za'atar (optional)*

1/2 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup Greek yogurt
1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil + more for drizzling
1 small garlic clove, minced
Pinch fine sea salt

Preheat the oven to 400 F. Cut the eggplants in half lengthways, cutting straight through the stalk. Make several cuts on each side of the eggplant with a sharp knife, without cutting through the skin. Place the eggplants, cut side up, on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Brush each half with olive oil and continue brushing until all of the oil is used up. The oil will soak into the eggplant nicely. Sprinkle with the chives, salt, and pepper. Roast for 50-60 minutes, depending on how big the eggplants are. Remove from the oven and allow to cool to room temperature.
Whisk together all of the ingredients for the sauce. Taste for seasoning and chill until needed.
To serve, generously spoon the buttermilk sauce over the eggplant halves without covering the stalks. Sprinkle with the finely chopped red onions and the za'atar, if using. Drizzle with olive oil and serve.
*Za’atar Spice: 1 part ground sumac berries, 2 parts dried thyme, 1 part sesame seeds. Mix all together and store in an airtight container.


Neeps & Tatties Soup

You might be wondering what in the world "neeps & tatties" are. Turn'eeps and Po'tatties, of course! I've been on a good-for-you soup escapade that has had some delicious results. It all started with a book by vegetarian cookbook author, Anna Thomas. Love Soup is my favourite book this week, but you may also know her by her very popular book The Vegetarian Epicure.

The first step to the soup is making a quick vegetable stock. I make countless pots of chicken stock throughout the year, but I rarely make veggie stocks. I think I've found a good reason to turn over a new leaf! For my veggie stock I used: onions (with their brown skins on for added colour), celery, carrots, leeks, fresh tarragon, 1 clove of garlic, parsley, and the stems from a bunch of kale. Cover all of the above with cold water and simmer for 45 minutes. I think the bunch of tarragon that I threw in really pumped up the flavour.

I must admit that turnips aren't my usual veggie of choice, but this soup is so much more than just turnip. It is savory and creamy and just plain good.

Neeps & Tatties Soup

2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes
1 pound turnips
1 tsp fine sea salt
2 large leeks, white and light green parts
2 Tbsp butter
4 cups veggie stock
Freshly ground black pepper
3 Tbsp whipping cream
Extra virgin olive oil

Peel and chop the potatoes and turnip into half-inch dice. Place the potatoes and turnip in a large stock pot. Cover with 4 cups of cold water, and a teaspoon of salt, and bring the water to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for at least 20 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender. 
Meanwhile, trim and thoroughly wash the leeks. Dice the white and light green parts of the leeks. Melt the butter in a large skillet and cook the leeks over medium heat, stirring often, for about 10 minutes. Add them to the potatoes and turnips and simmer another 10 minutes. Add the veggie stock.
Puree the soup in batches in a blender or with an immersion blender. Be careful not to overprocess. Return the soup to a clean pot and bring it back to a simmer. Taste the soup and add more salt if needed. Grind in plenty of black pepper and add the cream.
Bring to a simmer until it is just heated through. Garnish each bowl with swirl of olive oil.