Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Yet More Cookies - Summer on a Plate

As we prepare for the dreaded 'packing-up-of-all-we-own' for the great trans-Atlantic move, we have, in a very organised fashion, made a list of the food that we have left in the house and are planning our meals around it. It's all a bit 'Ready, Steady, Cook!' - which allows me to cheekily insert this picture, which always gives me a giggle.

Anyway, this means that I am no longer able to justify buying any more ingredients, not even for baking. However, I do still have some diminishing stocks of flour, butter and sugar, and I was delighted to find the perfect use for them this week, in the form of a simple shortbread cookie... with a twist. On a visit to my friend Sarah's house a few days ago I was admiring her garden when I remembered that I have long been keen to use lavender in my baking, inspired both by Paola and Welshie. I had also found a recipe in Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's excellent 'River Cottage Year', which had caught my eye in the past. Having gathered a small handful of lavender flowers, I wanted to try the very simplest of recipes with the lavender, so eschewed the chocolate version in favour of the plain, using a combination of Hugh's and Welshie's recipes. I liked the small quantity produced by Welshie's recipe (being a little unsure about how they would turn out) but I used the plain flour plus cornflour suggested by Hugh. I'd like to pretend that was a purely culinary decision, but as usual at the moment, it was all down to what was in the cupboard...

It pleased me greatly to be able to use my lavender-coloured mixing bowl to stir all the ingredients together. It looked beautiful. Now in full domestic-goddess mode, I fell upon my ever-growing but all-too-rarely-used collection of cookie cutters. What better shape to use than a teapot? The dough was fairly friable, but I managed to cut out the cookies, trying to make some thicker and some thinner, to see which I preferred. I dredged them with caster sugar before baking them in order to get that just-crispy crust on the top.

Despite chilling the dough well, some of the cookies 'bubbled' very slightly - not quite the smooth look I was after - but all were attractively flecked with lavender flowers. The thinner cookies were predictably a little crisper, but the thicker ones were far from problematic. I was very pleasantly surprised with the taste - not a hint of the 'soapiness' I was dreading, but a delicate floral flavour that is the perfect compliment to a cup of afternoon tea. Bliss!

Saturday, 5 July 2008

From one Extreme to Another

We are currently enjoying some wonderful Summer weather. The temperature is hovering around the late 20s and the dramatic 'thunderstorm season' seems to have passed now, taking any uncomfortable humidity with it.

I can't help thinking that Canada enjoys what is - for me - the 'perfect climate'. It has wonderful Summers and wonderful Winters too. I'll concede that I have missed the beautiful English Springtime - Canada seems to lurch quickly from Winter to Summer, with a short period of dullness in between - but I'm really going to miss the 'proper' snowy Winters here (particularly when we're in the middle of a grey January in the UK) and the 'proper' sunny Summers where you can mindlessly throw on a pair of shorts and a t-shirt every day for months without worrying about the weather forecast.

At its most extreme we have experienced a nearly 80 degree centigrade range in temperature here. It can reach minus 40 degrees (although this is rare in Ontario, more common on the Praries) and the Summer heat can peak at plus 40 degrees (again rare, but all too possible).

Last Winter was a loooong one here. Our last snowfall was on April 13th (the first one having been last November!), but here we are, 3 months later, wearing shorts and sunglasses.

I've been enjoying looking back through some photos this week, and have been particularly fascinated by remembering back to certain places in different seasons. Here are just a few:

Chez nous, last Summer (late Summer I'd guess, looking at the maple tree next door!)

The house in Winter. Note the great walls of snow... I shovelled that there. Well, until we mastered the petrol-driven snowblower, which brought yet more excitements!

Me, cycling down the Trillium Trail last week, enjoying the lingering warmth of the evening sun.

The same trail in January. I XC-skiied down it then.

Relaxing on Wasaga Beach last weekend. We both swam in Georgian Bay; it was beautiful.

Just as beautiful, Wasaga Beach in Winter. We both skiied on Georgian Bay, and clambered over the frozen waves.


Yes, the Winter can bring its problems (driving in freezing rainstorms or white-out blizzards was none too fun...) but by and large the country is well-equipped to deal with it and life goes on. I like that about it. All part of the typically laid-back Canadian attitude.

Canadian weather, eh? I love it!

The Cookie Project - Part 5

My friend Tom loves carrot cake. In fact he loves it so much that he once swapped one of his beautiful framed black and white photographs (this one to be precise) for one of my carrot cakes. OK, it's a slightly longer story than that, but I can't help feeling that I got the better end of the deal...

Anyway, when Tom's partner Catherine asked me to help with the catering at his 50th birthday party last weekend, Martha's Carrot Cake Cookies were one of the first things that came to mind. Thankfully Martha has saved me the trouble of typing out the long recipe by publishing it on her website here - and this is one recipe that I didn't feel any need to change in any way whatsoever. The cookies are just perfect, although it may be a sensible precaution to warn you that they are really more like mini cakes than cookies, being soft and squidgy as opposed to having any kind of crunch. However, the addition of the oats does give them a delicious chewiness, and quite possibly stops them falling apart too. They are filled with the traditional carrot cake topping of sweetened, buttery cream cheese, so you end up with little cakey sandwiches, quite filling but one of those things of which everyone somehow manages to eat 'just one more'. As the order of the day was 'finger food' I made them slightly smaller than Martha suggests, thereby getting many more than the 3 dozen that she indicates in the book. I'm not sure exactly how many it was, but they more than filled all 4 of my wire cooling racks.

Despite Rob's initial reaction that they looked rather odd (I won't repeat his exact comparison) - it's the grated carrot, what can you do?! - Tom said they made him 'weak at the knees'. What more can you ask? I think that's a pretty great endorsement.

Happy Birthday Tom!

The Cookie Project - Part 4

And so begins the long and sad process of saying goodbye to our friends here in Canada. The end of the school term was a particularly bittersweet moment for me. I felt the inevitable relief of a teacher - having been dealing with classes of increasingly hot, fractious and unwilling-to-work children, the idea of sending them all home to their parents for 2 months was a very attractive one. However, I have also had a fantastic time teaching here, in particular at St Paul's Catholic Elementary School in nearby Alliston. This is the school where I have done the vast majority of my supply teaching over the last year, teaching in all of the 11 classes and also often teaching French (tres drole!). Over the year I have got to know the children really well, and also the wonderful staff. I'd like to hope that my popularity at St Paul's had something to do with me being a capable teacher, but I suspect it also had something to do with my blatant attempts to gain favour by regularly bringing tins of cookies into the staffroom... If there's one thing that schools across the world have in common it's the appetites of the staff for baked goods!

During my final week I wanted to bring in one last batch of cookies to say thank you to my friends there, so chose a new recipe from Martha's 'Cookies' - Lime Meltaways. This was my first attempt at this kind of dough, one where you roll it into a cylinder, refrigerate (or freeze) and then slice and cook. The process was strangely satisfying, especially when you get to speedily slice the cookies; it's great to be able to get them from fridge to oven within minutes. I felt that it's the kind of thing that you should always keep in the fridge for when the craving for freash cookies strikes.

The finished cookies are a citrussy shortbread and have, as their name suggests, a melting texture. They are delicate and elegant, and not too sweet. I had also made a batch of my favourite chocolate chip cookies (using the recipe on the back of the Chipits chocolate chips packet) and it was interesting to see how the two tins of cookies disappeared... those in desperate need of a quick sugar rush went straight for the chocolate, but the cookie connoisseurs took the time to appreciate the quiet appeal of these lime meltaways. I felt that I had managed to please all-comers, and will definitely be making these shortbreads again. I can visualise serving them as after-dinner petit-fours with coffee. If only I ever had elegant dinner parties...

As an aside, I was asked to come along to the St Paul's staff end-of-term lunch. I was surprised and delighted to be presented with a lovely goodbye gift from the staff, a wonderful book called 'Anita Stewart's Canada'. It is not just a recipe book, but full of tales behind the hugely varied cuisine that this great country calls its own. I have since been reading about Anita Stewart and she too has a blog, all about her latest book tour across Canada.

Here's what the staff had written inside the book for me: "God must have looked down at St Paul's School and thought 'something's missing', so He sent us Kate; someone who could fill any one of our shoes with ease, someone who was talented, and so willing to share, someone funny (cause He knows we love to laugh), and someone who knew just how much we loved home-baked cookies!!"

What a wonderful gift. I'll miss everyone there so much and will think of St Paul's every time I cook from this book.