Saturday, November 15, 2008

Goodie Goodies

I love cooking. Well actually I should clarify that a little. I love to bake. I also enjoy cooking, but baking is what I prefer. I grew up in a house of bakers. My mother and grandmother are exceptional bakers. I can hardly remember a time when there wasn't some homemade goodie in the house. My mother would make her own donuts, gingerbread cookies, carrot cake, banana name it, she could make it. And for whatever the reason, maybe through osmosis, I've acquired the skill of baking.

When I first moved out on my own I never baked, but now that I'm married and have kids of my own, I love to bake for them. There is something so wonderful about serving them something you made yourself and hearing them enjoy it. With Christmas just around the corner, I'm already getting ready for my annual Christmas goodie baking. My mother and I decide who is going to make what and then it's three weeks of baking. We each fill containers with our nanimo bars, butter tarts, shortbread cookies, Italian peach cookies, hello dollies and mincemeat pies. Our houses are rich with the smells of homemade gingerbread and strawberry jam tarts. It really is my favorite time of year.

I can remember how excited I would be Christmas Eve morning when my mother would lay out all the delicious treats she had been so busily making the weeks before. The table would look like a painting with the yellows, pinks, greens, and whites of all the pastries she had made. Now I see that same excitement in my own children's eyes when Christmas Eve rolls around and the table is set with all the sweets.

Baking is a very pure and tactile activity. Often you have to get your hands and fingers dirty mixing and kneeding things, and there is something so gratifying about it. It's very soothing, and for me it's a time when I can be alone with my thoughts. I can work out all the issues of the day while I vigorously stir my chocolate chip cookie dough. And the best part of baking, is that I get to eat it when it's done. Yum!

Here is a recipe for a very yummy lemon cheescake and asparagus quiche that is perfect served hot or cold. Enjoy!

Mother’s Homemade Pastry Dough

1375 ml – 5 ½ cups of flour
15 ml – 1 Tsp. baking powder
15 ml – 1 Tsp. salt
45 ml – 3 Tsp. brown sugar
1 egg
20 ml – 1 Tbsp. white vinegar
add water to make 250 ml – 1 cup of liquid
1 pound – 454 g. of shortening

In a large bowl mix all the dry ingredients together. Using a fork or pastry cutter blend in the shortening until the mixture resemble coarse meal. Add just enough egg, water and vinegar for the dough to hold its shape. Roll dough into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

When you are ready to use, roll dough out onto lightly floured surface. Place dough into a pie or quiche pan. Make sure the edges are slightly higher than the edge of the pan so your quiche mixture will not spill over. Place a sheet of tin foil onto the bottom of the pan and then add pastry weights (dried peas or rice). Bake in a 400-degree oven for 15 to 20 minutes or until lightly brown. Cool.

Asparagus Quiche

Pre-made and baked pastry shell
3 eggs lightly beaten
250 ml –1 cup creamo
7.5 ml – ½ Tsp. salt
7.5 ml – ½ Tsp. pepper
1.5 ml – ¼ Tsp. nutmeg
3 slices of bacon, crisply cooked and crumbled
250 ml – 1 cup of grated hard white cheese (cheddar, gruyere, or swiss)
8 asparagus spears, 4 sliced down the center and then cut in half. The remaining 4 spears should be diced into bite size pieces
60 ml – ¼ cup of water

Saute the diced asparagus in a little butter for 3 to 4 minutes. Add water, cover and cook until tender. Once cooled, place asparagus on the bottom of the pastry shell and then sprinkle with bacon and grated cheese.

In a medium bowl mix the eggs, creamo, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Pour mixture into the pie shell. Arrange the remaining halved asparagus on the top of the quiche in a spoke like design. Bake in a 375-degree oven for 35-45 minutes, or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.

Serve with a light green salad or roasted tomatoes.

Lemon Cheesecake

21 graham crackers
60 ml – 4 Tbsp. melted butter
40 ml – 2 Tbsp. sugar

125 ml – ½ cup sugar
grated rind of two lemons
185 ml – ¾ cup of sugar
28 oz. - 625 g. of cream cheese at room temperature
185 ml – ¾ cup dry cottage cheese
60 ml – ¼ cup sour cream
4 eggs
60 ml – ¼ cup fresh lemon juice
1.5 ml – ¼ Tsp. salt
125 ml – ½ cup whipping cream

Lemon Topping:
1 large egg
125 ml – ½ cup sugar
20 ml – 1 Tbsp. water
40 ml – 2 Tbsp. melted butter
pinch of salt
juice and rind of one lemon

Blend graham crackers in a food processor until fine. In a medium bowl mix graham cracker crumbs, melted butter and sugar. Mix well and press firmly into the bottom of a springform pan. Bake on the middle rack of a 325-degree oven for 15 to 17 minutes, or until lightly brown. Cool.

Blend 125 ml - ½ cup of sugar with the grated lemon rind. Add the remaining 185 ml – ¾ cup of sugar. Set aside. Measure cottage cheese into the food processor and blend until fine. Add the sour cream. In a large bowl mix the cream cheese until smooth. Add cottage cheese, sour cream and lemon sugar. Mix well. Add 1 egg at a time until well blended. Next add lemon juice, salt, and whipping cream. Mix well, but do not over beat. Pour batter in springform pan. Bake in a 325-degree oven for 50 to 70 minutes. The cake is done when the sides are firm and the center is slightly wobbly. Turn off the oven and allow the cake to cool while still inside. When cooled, take the cake out and let it cool to room temperature. Allow the cake to cool overnight in the refrigerator or freeze in the freezer (a refreshing twist on a hot summer’s day). Pour topping over it prior to serving.

In a small saucepan beat eggs with a wire whisk. Add sugar and cold water and continue mixing. Gradually add melted butter, salt, grated lemon rind and the juice of one lemon. Cook over medium heat stirring constantly until thickened. Remove from heat and place plastic wrap directly on the top of the filling to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate until you are ready to serve the cheesecake.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Jillian Stole My Post Title.


I am a certified danger to myself and others in a kitchen. Disasterous, one might say.

I burn my fingertips, catastrophically spill things, routinely set off the smoke detector and strike terror into the hearts and tiny minds of the cats upon entering the kitchen for any purpose beyond opening a bag of munchies or making myself a latte (don't be impressed - I have one of those coffee-bot thingies that requires almost negative effort on the part of the user to create frothy caffeinated delights).

I. Do not. Cook.

My mother is a great cook.
Sadly this is not a genetic thing -- or, if it is, it has most defintely skipped a generation.

My mother reads this blog.
When she saw the topic for this week's postings, I think she fell off a chair she laughed so hard.

Then she sent me gag recipes.

Love you, Mom...

Actually, I blame her for my lack of culinary awesomeness. When, throughout the course of your formative years, you have sumptuous meals prepared for you on a regular basis by someone else, what possible earthly sense does it make for you to learn to cook?

Nowadays, I just blame John for reinforcing that early learned behaviour. He is also a terrific cook. And, insofar as he refuses to starve to death waiting for me to make food go, he has claimed the kitchen as his domain. (It's also probably because he wisely doesn't trust me around knives or open flame.)

They say cooking is a number's game. All measurements, and timing, and proportion and degrees.


In that case? Here's my best recipe: 416-967-1111.
And just like Europe's flashiest chefs, I can make that one happen with a flourish of the wrist!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Recipe for Disaster?

I have confession to make: I am not a good baker.

Sure, I can cook. I can roast a chicken, boil potatoes, steam vegetables, make complicated pastas and chili, and concoct a pretty good chopped spinach salad. But when it comes to baked goods, forget it. No matter how hard I try, I always manage to end up with a, let me say, oddly misshapen product.

Case in point: my husband’s birthday cakes. His favorite cake is pineapple upside down cake, and this is what he always wants for his birthday. Three years in a row, I managed to mess it up – and not just a little bit, but to the point of disaster, where I had to throw my hands up in the air, throw the “cake” away, and quickly try to order one from a bakery instead. Last year, I skipped the drama and just ordered it from the bakery from the get go.

On my last attempt, two years ago, the cake literally imploded. When I took it out of the oven, it was a concave mess, with a dip in the middle that looked like a bowl. Forget trying to flip the darn thing over (which was my undoing the year before, when the entire pineapple top stuck to the bottom of the pan and made a mess).

I’m not sure where I go wrong. I’ve the blamed the recipes – which have ranged from Internet finds to boxed mixes. I’ve blamed my oven. (Maybe it’s not cooking evenly?) I’ve blamed my husband’s taste in cakes – I mean, couldn’t he just like a simple iced vanilla cake? (But don’t get me started on the way I’ve messed this up, too. I don’t understand the way people actually get icing to look good?). Yet, I’ve also ruined brownies from mixes that turn mushy, Trader Joe’s Green Tea cake (Don’t even ask!), and cupcakes that have exploded out of their foil wrappers in the oven.

I did have one baking success, once. A few years back at Thanksgiving, I set out to make a dairy-free pumpkin pie from scratch that my then milk-allergic son would be able to eat. I diligently condensed my own soy milk, a task which required me to stand in front of the hot stove constantly stirring and boiling for nearly an hour. And despite the complaints from my family, (who know my track record and were concerned that their Thanksgiving pie would be ruined), the pie actually turned out really well. Tasty and beautiful enough to appear bakery bought.

So my husband’s birthday is coming up in less than two weeks, and I’ve been telling myself that I’m going to attempt the pineapple upside down cake one more time. I mean really, if I can write and revise an entire novel, I should be able to bake one silly little cake, right?

The only problem is, I need a pineapple upside down cake recipe. So, if anyone has a good one -- preferably one that is tested and guaranteed not to fall apart in the oven, send it to me. I’d love to give it a try. And if it all works out, I’ll post a picture of it here in a few weeks. [Actually, either way I'll post the picture -- the cake or the ruins!]

Wish me luck! I'll probably need it.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

My own cookbook?

Recipes are in the forefront of my mind today. And it’s not all because it’s our topic of the week. First off, we’re creating a recipe book at my day job. I work at a historic house here in Franklin, Tennessee and the staff is putting together a cookbook for visitors to take home as souvenirs. Some of the recipes are from long ago (the house was built in 1826 and is remembered today for the role it played as the largest confederate field hospital during the Battle of Franklin. If anyone has read The Widow of The South, by Robert Hicks, that’s the place!) The rest of the recipes are contemporary and it’s been fun to see the different tastes of so many of the people of Franklin who have submitted recipes. I never thought I’d assist in the authoring of a cookbook, but the opportunity happily presented itself. Hmm, I feel my own dreams of cookbook authorship bubbling to the surface!

I’m thinking about adding a few recipes to my novel, Whistlin’ Dixie In A Nor’easter. A large part of the book takes place in Vermont, where my very southern heroine, Leelee Satterfield, owns a restaurant and inn. Incidentally, inn ownership was never her idea. It’s the brainchild of her narcissistic husband and Leelee reluctantly gives in to what she feels, at the time anyway, is her wifely duty. Having no restaurant experience whatsoever, Leelee is not only a fish out of water in Vermont but feels like an interloper within the walls of the 4 star commercial kitchen. To add insult to injury, the former inn owner – an extra-tall, mean German woman named Helga Schloygin - takes an immediate disliking to Leelee and ruthlessly schemes her demise. The cuisine at the Vermont Haus Inn, at least, is scrumptious and I hope to talk my editor into including some recipes from its menu.

When Leelee’s husband decides inn ownership is no longer the dream for him, he skips out and leaves her to work alongside the German spinster alone. That’s when she discovers her true grit and transforms the dingy Teutonic inn into a charming southern getaway in the mountains of New England. Leelee adds a southern bill of fare as a weekly special and changes the name of the place to The Peach Blossom Inn.

One of my literary heroes is Fannie Flagg. I love that she includes recipes in several of her books. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café spawned it’s own cookbook, the Original Whistle Stop Café Cookbook. I’m going to allow myself to dream that dream too - the publication of my own cookbook, Leelee’s Original Peach Blossom Inn Cookbook!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Ah, recipes.

Six or seven years ago, I would’ve told you that I can’t cook and I’d never be a writer. Pizza, only interrupted by a brief interlude of boxed spaghetti, was the main staple of my diet. Cooking, although I was dying to start, just seemed like too much work, tons of effort and my brain couldn’t quite wrap my mind around the idea of meal-planning.

It was the same with writing. I knew it was something I wanted, but it seemed too big a concept, too scary, too…much. So, just as I dreamed about someday cooking the perfect pot roast or lasagna, I relegated my writing passions into dreaming about walking into a bookstore and seeing my name on the spine of a book.

But then, about three years ago, something happened. It was like I woke up. I started writing, without even really knowing where I was going or what I was writing about. My book started off as stream-of-consciousness humor; a collection of words that cracked me up. I didn’t care if it was good or not—I was doing it for myself. For my own catharsis.

Right around the same time, I started cooking. I would watch the food network with sponge-like absorption, salivate at Rachael Ray’s creations and then attempt to recreate them in my little apartment. I didn’t worry much about the quality at first, I was just proud to be experimenting. (Not to mention, it was just my husband and I, and I’m pretty sure he was just as sick of pizza and spaghetti and ramen noodles as me.)

Over the course of that same year, my book began to take form. It became an actual manuscript, with layers of subplots, character quirks and emotional depth. And my cooking did the same. I branched out from written recipes and added my own twists to dishes. It was in that year that I realized just how much I love to cook and how much I desperately wanted to be published.

Now, I come home from work each day and head straight into the kitchen. Cooking is my time to decompress from the work day and allows me to express my creativity in a whole different way. Then, when my son is tucked into his crib, I open up my laptop and write. Cooking and writing have become not just a hazy part of my life, but in the forefront. An essential piece to my sanity and mental clarity.

This topic is particularly relevant to me this month. After those years of fumbling through recipes and manuscripts, of screwing around with subplots and tweaking spices, I feel like I’ve reached an important peak: My book is coming out next year and this Thanksgiving, for the first time, I’m hosting my family.

I’m either reaching a fantastic, symbolic culmination in my life…or writing has officially made me insane!

Monday, November 10, 2008

A Spoonful of This and a Pinch of That

When I realized this week's topic was recipes, I paused for a second. Mostly because I wasn't sure if I wanted to talk about real recipes or writing recipes. BUT seeing how my debut book, A Taste of Magic, is about a woman who owns a bakery and then finds out she has magic--and that everything she bakes will now have a pinch of wishes-can-come true, well it just seemed that maybe that was what I should write about.

So I am.

Writing about writing recipes, that is.

Determining what "ingredients" need to be layered into a story (any story) can be difficult. Readers read a lot. That means they've seen just about everything, so for a book to really stand out, well--it needs to incorporate many different things in the right amounts, and told at the right pace. Of course, take any book and you'll find readers that love, love, love it and those that would declare it among the worst books ever written. So I guess, the first thing when planning the recipe for a book is to remember "You can't please everyone." Nor should any writer try.

Rather, they should try to find the right mash of ingredients to tell their characters' story in exactly the right way.

So, when I decided to write A Taste of Magic, I had a very vague idea. I wondered what it would be like for a woman who was still emotional/bitter from her divorce to the only man she'd ever loved (heck, ever dated, as their relationship began in high school) to have to bake his wedding cake to the woman he left her for. Ew, right? Well, "ew" was my thought anyway, but that's where the very beginning of this story clicked in my brain.

But when I began writing was sooo heavy, and Elizabeth (my heroine) was not a heavy type of character. She was funny, and smart, and while she was dealing with a lot of stuff, she wasn't massively depressed. It was more that she was trying to figure out what went wrong AND trying to find her place in a world where she'd never dated. And trust me, this woman? She sooo wanted to date.

She also wanted to laugh, have fun, and feel sexy.

So out of nowhere the whole "magic" element came at me, and in that second, I knew I had the missing ingredient that would help me tell Elizabeth's story in exactly the right way. So I pushed up my sleeves and dug in. Layering in the humor, magic, and fun along with the very real emotions, wants, and confusion Elizabeth experienced wasn't always easy. Just like if you dump too much salt into--oh, say oatmeal cookies, the cookies might look perfect when they're baked, but they're not going to taste quite right.

But when you get the combination of ingredients just right in a story, it truly is magic...and with the help of my editor, A Taste of Magic is now exactly the way it should be. That doesn't mean everyone will love it, but that's okay, too. Because there will be people who click with her story, with the "recipe" I put together, and will walk away feeling like they read a totally terrific story.

And isn't that what we're after as writers? Sharing our stories?

At any rate, before I get more off track--each writer knows their characters, their story, and working to find the proper "recipe" to show it off to the best of their ability isn't always easy. But when it's like feasting on the most decadent chocolate cake ever. Or, if you're not into chocolate--then whatever makes your tastebuds happy.

And now, as I write this, I've wrapped up the second book in the series, A Stroke of Magic, and am waiting to hear from my editor on what I layered right, what might need some work, and honestly? I can't wait to dig my hands in it again to make it the best it can be.