Strawberry shortcake, deconstructed

Blog strawberry shortcake photoSharon Jessup Joyce

It’s strawberry season, so we’re eating as many of those juicy heart-shaped berries as we can right now. We’re roasting strawberries to add to muffins and ice cream, stirring them into yogurt, slicing them into green salads, pureeing the soft ones for smoothies and daiquiris, and enjoying them whole on fruit plates. And of course we’re eating them in that iconic dessert, strawberry shortcake.

Today I wanted to take a treat to our kind friends at Princess Animal Hospital. Mina, Seth and Spenser have been their patients for over a decade, and we’ve often wished the health care our human family members got was as loving, skilled and timely as that given to our four-legged family members. Since it’s the last week in June, I really wanted to bring them strawberry shortcake, using the juicy berries I had on hand. But while it’s usually a crowd-pleaser, this dish didn’t seem to be a treat that would be easy to enjoy during a workday in a veterinary hospital. So I decided to deconstruct strawberry shortcake, and let our friends assemble their own dessert. Another advantage to the deconstructed presentation is that people can choose to eat one, two or all three components of the dish.

Usually I make strawberry shortcake with only slightly-sweeted biscuits, unsweetened cream, and sliced or halved sugared berries. But the berries are so perfect right now that I wanted to keep them whole or halved. I also thought that would work better for anyone who wanted to eat only berries or needed to enjoy their treat later on. So I increased the sugar in the biscuits, and added a bit of sugar and a generous dollop of vanilla paste to the cream, leaving the berries just as nature made them.

Biscuits

This recipe is adapted from the Five Roses Cookbook — as I’ve mentioned before, it was my grandmother’s favourite cookbook, and is great for classic baked goods. The original recipe calls for shortening and regular milk, but you can’t beat the flavour of biscuits made with butter and buttermilk.  The recipe also calls for all-purpose flour only, but I find a mixture of all-purpose and cake flour gives the biscuits a silky texture. When I am using sugared berries, I reduce the sugar in the recipe to 2 tablespoons.

Blog strawberry shortcake deconstructed

Ingredients

  • 3 cups flour (2 cups all purpose and 1 cup cake flour)
  • 4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • Pinch salt
  • 6 tablespoons cold butter
  • 1-1/5 cups buttermilk

Directions

Delicious biscuits are about great ingredients, careful handling and not overbaking.

  1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F or 400 degrees F convect.
  2. Line a baking sheet with parchment.
  3. Blend all dry ingredients thoroughly in a large bowl.
  4. Cut butter into 6 pieces and drop into dry ingredients; using a pastry blender, cut butter into dry ingredients until butter pieces are about the size of small peas.
  5. Pour buttermilk all at once over dry ingredients and butter mixture.
  6. Stir gently until milk and dry ingredients are blended. Don’t overmix! Dough will be very moist and shaggy.
  7. Turn dough onto lightly floured board and rub your hands with a bit of flour.
  8. Gently flatten dough with hands to form a rectangle about 1-1/2 inches thick.
  9. Using a sharp knife, slice biscuits into squares OR use a round biscuit cutter.
  10. Place biscuits on baking sheet, approximately 2 inches apart. This recipe makes 12 large or 18-20 small biscuits.
  11. Bake biscuits for 12 minutes (small size) to 16 minutes (larger size). Cooked biscuits should be slightly golden, never brown.
  12. Sprinkle tops of warm biscuits with a little sugar (optional).
  13. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Vanilla whipped cream

For each cup of whipping cream, add 2 teaspoons sugar and 1 teaspoon real vanilla paste or extract. Add sugar and vanilla once cream is almost whipped. If you’re transporting the cream to another location, as I was, make sure the cream is beaten until peaks are quite stiff.

The treat was received with kind enthusiasm by our friends at the best veterinary hospital there is. Even Princess, the hospital’s CEO, seemed intrigued when I set the plates of food down. Here she is, looking at me through a window. Perhaps she’s daydreaming about whipped cream?Princess looking out low window at PAH

 

Sharon divides her time between Kingston, Ontario and St. Margaret’s Bay, Nova Scotia, and enjoys cooking, eating and sharing food with friends.
Welcome to our family’s discussion forum on food. If you’d like to submit a post, please consider yourself family, and email us at familyfoodforum@gmail.com.

After a good dinner, one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relations.”

– Oscar Wilde, A Woman of No Importance

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Proud to be crunchy granola

Granola breakfast 3Sharon Jessup Joyce

 

When I started making my own granola, about 30 years ago, some people seemed to think I was being excessively DIY, like someone who would insist on weaving and dying the fabric for all her clothing. But I liked the flavour, price and health benefits of the homemade product, and I obviously wasn’t alone: making your own granola has become pretty commonplace.

I’ve developed a formula for granola, which results in a cereal that tastes great with yogurt and takes Bob, Adrian and me through to lunchtime. In a fit of scientific enthusiasm, I once worked out the protein, fat, carbohydrate and sodium per serving for my granola, but that information appears to have disappeared with the death of my previous computer. (Yes, I should do backups more regularly than I do, and yes, there was a lively discussion at our house that day about what constitutes “a serving.” Just so you know, my serving is a quarter-cup of granola with about two-thirds of a cup of yogurt.) I’ll crunch those nutritional numbers again and post them in the comments section. For now, let’s just say this granola is fairly low in both sugar and fat. My version does not have added salt.

One of the best parts about making homemade granola is the fun of combining flavours. Right now we are eating an almond-cherry-vanilla granola that is delicious. In the fall I use dried apples and cranberries, lots of pumpkin seeds and maple sugar. Another tasty combination uses dried peaches, pears and apricots, with powdered and diced candied ginger and slivered almonds. A granola that has dried cherries with pieces of dried peach and sliced hazelnuts is ridiculously good.

Granola proportions

  • 9 cups grain
  • 3 cups seeds or nuts
  • 2 cups dried fruit (or 2-1/2 cups, if I’m being honest)
  • 1 cup freshly-ground flax seed
  • 1/4 to 1/3 cup sugar (brown, maple or white)
  • 1/4 cup nut, seed or vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon spices (optional)
  • Pinch of salt (optional)

Granola

Method and ingredient considerations

Grain: I’m boring. I like to use large-flake non-quick-cook oats for my grain. I used to put wheat germ or wheat hearts in my granola. I stopped using it for Summer’s sake, and then we all decided we liked the cereal better without the wheat anyway. I’ve flirted with other grains, but I always come back to oats.Lots of people do cool things with quinoa and the like, and I’ve given it a whirl, but I am now at peace with my oat preference.

Seeds or nuts: Use raw or roasted, and not salted or with added oil. My favourites are almonds, which go with lots of flavours and are widely available sliced and slivered, and pumpkin seeds, which are yummy. We have various nut and seed allergies and aversions at our house, so this turns out to be the trickiest bit for us. But all nuts and seeds work. Don’t use whole nuts, since you’ll lose that nice experience of having some nutty flavour and texture in every bite of your cereal.

Dried fruit: It’s fun to use a combination. If the fruit is bigger than a raisin, cut it into raisin-size bites, on the same principle as using sliced or slivered nuts. The prettiest granola I make has a combination of cranberries and apricot and apple pieces (all dried). The batch pictured here has two kinds of cherries, because when there are cherries in a dish, I get mad if I have to eat any fruit that is not a cherry. You may not suffer from this issue, and can mix cherries and other fruits with abandon.

Flax seed: White, brown or red are all fine (and have been found to be nutritionally equal). Keep the whole seeds in a sealed container in the freezer and grind only as much as you need for a dish. I grind mine in a coffee grinder that never, but never grinds coffee.

Oil and sugar: I mix the ground flax seed with the oil and sugar. I usually use pumpkin, sunflower or almond oil. If I want to use honey or maple syrup instead of sugar, or if I am adding vanilla extract or paste, I still mix it with the flax and oil. Mix it together with a fork or your hands  — I use my hands because I do like to play with my food — until you have grainy-textured nuggets around the size of a pea. Blend this mixture well with the grain and nut/seed ingredients and spices and a bit of salt (if using). You will still  have little lumps of flax/oil/sugar, but try to make sure they are very small lumps. They will be tasty little treats in your finished granola.

Bake: Don’t add your dried fruit yet. Put the rest of the granola on a large baking sheet. For the above quantity, I use a commercial half-sheet, covered in parchment. I bake my granola in a 275-degree F oven for about 40 minutes, stirring it 2 or 3 times. Don’t let your granola get brown. You are lightly toasting everything, that’s all.

Add fruit: Add the fruit when you take the granola out of the oven. Let the granola cool completely before bagging it. I keep granola in the freezer in 2-cup amounts, and keep out just enough at a time to fill the granola jar, pictured here.

Overly-dry dried fruit: If you think the fruit is too dry or has a crystallized texture, pour about 1/4 cup boiling water or apple cider on the fruit, stir it around, let it sit for a few minutes, then drain. Spread fruit out on a plate or board covered in a towel or paper towel to remove extra moisture. If you want a crunchier granola texture, you can add the water you used to soften the dried fruit to the flax/oil/sugar mixture. You may need to bake the granola a few minutes longer if you do this.

We eat our granola with yogurt, either plain or plain that has been jazzed up with some boiled apple cider, vanilla paste, honey or maple syrup (or a combination). There is a bit of tension in our granola world between Adrian, who wants it sweeter, and me, who doesn’t. Bob cheerfully eats whatever granola is in the jar. We have now negotiated a peace treaty whereby our granola is much less sweet than any commercial variety I have tasted, but still offers a little sweetness if you eat it with plain yogurt. If you want it to be sweeter, you can support your local maple syrup or honey producer and pour a dollop of syrup or honey into your yogurt.

 

Sharon is back in Kingston, Ontario, where she is pining for the Atlantic Ocean, but grateful for her KitchenAid range.
Welcome to our family’s discussion forum on food. If you’d like to submit a post, please consider yourself family, and email us at familyfoodforum@gmail.com.

After a good dinner, one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relations.”

– Oscar Wilde, A Woman of No Importance

Dates and cocoa

By Summer

blog brownie photo summer

Working insane amounts and being on a cleanse (don’t worry, I can still manage to “cleanse” and eat copious amounts of food) isn’t very conducive to food blogging, but I decided to buckle down and write about the two ingredients that currently feature high on my shopping list: cocoa and dates.

The first recipe isn’t mine at all. I’ve taken it directly off the great blog My New Roots. There are only three main ingredients, plus salt, but the whole is definitely more than the sum of its parts in this case. It’s unbelievable how much these dense little squares actually taste like brownies. They in fact don’t taste like dates at all. And they are cleanse-friendly! My boss Mark loves them.

The hot cocoa was invented out of my desire for dessert while on this ^&*^% cleanse. It had to be in liquid form (those are the evening rules) and could not contain any sugar or dairy. One evening I decided to blend up a couple of dates with some cocoa and the non-dairy milk I had in the fridge. The result was surprisingly rich and delicious. Even better than the real thing, dare I say?

Raw brownies

2 cups whole walnuts

2 ½ cups Medjool dates, pitted (use nice plump ones)

1 cup raw cacao (I actually don’t bother with raw)

1 cup raw unsalted almonds, roughly chopped (or just more walnuts or pecans)

¼ tsp. sea salt

 

Grind up the walnuts in the food processor. Add the cocoa and salt and pulse to combine. While the food processor is running, add the dates one at a time. The end mix should be a moist crumbly mess that will stick together when pressed.

Empty the contents of the food processor into a bowl and fold in the chopped almonds (or other nuts). Press into a pan lined with foil or parchment paper. Cover and refrigerate until firm. Cut into squares and return to the fridge or freeze.

 

Desperation hot cocoa

  •  2 or 3 small dates
  • 1 tbsp. cocoa
  • pinch of salt
  • 2 cups non-dairy milk (anything unsweetened: almond, rice, oat, millet, hemp)

It’s important that the dates be soaked first. I put a bunch in a bowl (they don’t have to be very soft ones but should be nice quality) and pour boiling water over top to just cover. I then cover them and stick them in the fridge overnight. This softens the dates so that they blend well, and the soaking water turns into a deliciously sweet syrup that you can add to the cocoa or anything else (especially when you’re on this cleanse).

To make the cocoa, put two or three of the soaked dates in the blender along with a splash of the syrup the dates are sitting in. Add a bit of whatever milk you’re using and blend until the dates are pureed. Next, add the cocoa, salt and the rest of the milk and blend until frothy. Pour into a pan and heat.

Apologetic site administrator’s note: If these recipes have an autumnal air, it’s because I forgot to post this contribution from Summer back in October when she sent it. But it’s always the right time for a good brownie, so enjoy!

Summer lives in Switzerland. In her spare time, she is either on her bicycle or in her kitchen.
Welcome to our family’s discussion forum on food. If you’d like to submit a post, please consider yourself family, and email us at familyfoodforum@gmail.com.

After a good dinner, one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relations.”

Flexible fruit muffins

Sharon Jessup Joyce

Blog blueberry muffin

My sister Susan is a Cordon Bleu-trained chef. But even before her formal food education, she was creative and gifted in the kitchen, with a passion for sustainable and local eating when it was considered a bit odd, instead of hip or responsible. She has  always loved the challenge of using what you have on hand. Susan’s starting point for a meal is usually “What ingredients do I have?” or “What’s in season?” as opposed to “What ingredients do I need to get?” She has run professional kitchens and raised five children on this philisophy, turning out amazing meals, day after day, year after year.

I thought of this recently when I ran out of flour, sugar and buttermilk at the Nova Scotia house. I wanted to make blueberry muffins, using a memorized recipe from the good old Five Roses Cookbook, a standby in my grandmother’s kitchen, and a favourite of mine for classic baked goods, such as pound cake, biscuits, scones and cake-style muffins. But I didn’t want to drive into town to the grocery store, so I improvised, Susan-style, using maple sugar instead of regular sugar, 1 part corn meal to 3 parts flour, and 1 part yogurt whey (I was making yogurt cheese at the time) to 2 parts buttermilk.

It occurred to me, when I made these substitutions, that Susan’s philosophy has influenced me much more than I realized: I’m not even using the Five Roses muffin recipe as published. I’ve already tweaked this recipe by reducing the  sugar or using maple sugar, increasing the amount of fruit (my late mother-in-law used to say my muffins were mostly fruit, with just enough batter to hold a muffin shape), and using buttermilk instead of regular milk.

After decades of trial and error in the kitchen, I know the more we understand how ingredients and flavours work, the more we are freed from a recipe straightjacket. I’ve found my kitchen art by developing my understanding of cooking chemistry (the function each ingredient serves) and cooking math (the proportions of each ingredient needed). Getting out of the recipe straightjacket allows us to change any dish to our tastes or needs. For example, I can now create low-fat, non-wheat, dairy-free and vegetarian versions of all sorts of dishes that I wanted to keep in my repertoire. Of course, this brave experimental approach sometimes results in garbage. I once created an homage to the song “Scarborough Fair,” by seasoning sole with parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. It tasted horrible. That day I learned delicate white fish does not want to be paired with robust, woodsy herbs like rosemary and sage. But since that combination of herbs is lovely with poultry, maybe it would work in a vegetarian stew with root veggies and great northern beans? It did. It was delicious.

So here, as a tribute to Susan, who has always encouraged me to have fun, be brave and “just try it and see,”  is my favourite fruit muffin recipe, which – in true Susan style – is not a recipe, but a set of guidelines and proportions I’ve worked out over the years. The nice thing about experimenting with muffins is that they are the most forgiving of pastries.

And those blueberry-corn meal muffins tasted sensational, by the way.

Blog blueberry muffins batter (2)

Fruit muffins (with the Five Roses Cookbook recipe as a starting place)

Ingredients

  • 3 cups flour
  • 1/4 to 1/3 cup sugar
  • 4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 to 1 teaspoon spices (e.g., cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, allspice)
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/4 cup melted butter or vegetable oil
  • 1 1/2 cups buttermilk or other milk (e.g., almond milk)
  • 1 teaspoon  vanilla (optional)
  • 1 1/2 to 2 cups fruit

Directions

  1. Blend all dry ingredients in a medium-sized bowl.Blog blueberry muffins ready for oven (2)
  2. Melt butter and mix with buttermilk.
  3. Stir in vanilla (if using).
  4. Beat eggs and add to milk-butter mixture.
  5. Pour liquid mixture all at once over dry mixture and stir gently until just blended.
  6. Scoop muffin batter into muffin tins. Many recipes suggest filling muffin tins 2/3 full; I suggest you fill them above the top (see photo above), so the muffins will be prettier and more tender.
  7. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F or 400 degrees F convect bake.
  8. Bake muffins in fully preheated oven for 14 to 20 minutes. Muffins are done when tops are golden. You will probably need the full 20 minutes if you used lots of fruit.

 

Tips for variations

Flour: I usually use Five Roses Never Bleached all-purpose flour or a mixture of wheat flour with spelt, kamut or oat flour. If I use whole-grain flour, I reduce it by 1 ounce for each cup of flour and increase the baking powder by 1/2 teaspoon. I find that up to 40% whole grain flour or cornmeal doesn’t really affect texture much. Spelt and kamut are silkier than wheat, so the resulting dough or batter is softer and stickier. Resist the temptation to add more flour! The muffins will be fine, though easier to manage if cooked in paper muffin tin liners.

Sugar: I substitute brown sugar or maple sugar for white sugar. We use a lot of maple sugar at our house, which we often buy at Acadian Maple Products. Maple sugar is good with everything, but especially nice with apple and rhubarb, and brown sugar is lovely with peaches. If you use honey or maple syrup, the texture of your muffins will change (they will rise less, for one thing), but they will still be tasty. Cut back your milk by 1/4 cup.  I do take into account the relative sweetness of the fruit, adding a little less sugar for peach muffins, for example, and more for rhubarb.

Butter or oil and nuts/seeds: I usually use melted butter, but vegetable oil, or nut or seed oil work well, too. I don’t often put nuts or seeds in my muffins because Adrian doesn’t care much for them, and there are some nut and seed allergies to consider, but I have put slivered almonds in peach muffins and topped cherrry muffins with roasted hazelnut dust – both tasty additions.

Toppings: You can put a topping on muffins. Brush the cooked muffins, when they are still warm, with a bit of melted butter, and then roll them, top-down, on cinnamon sugar, or powdered or chopped nuts. I have given apple-spice muffins with a cinnamon-sugar topping as a gift, and they are always a hit.

Using fruit in muffins

Fruit: Most fruits work better in this recipe if they have been cooked down or roasted first (see below). As I said, I love to really pack the fruit into my muffins, which means the muffins take a little longer to cook. If you open one up fresh from the oven, and it is not quite cooked in the centre, put the muffins back in the warm oven (still in the muffin tin), with the oven off, for another 5 minutes.

Cooking down fruit: This works well for apples, peaches, nectarines and apricots. Peel and dice the fruit and cook it, uncovered, in a small saucepan, along with a bit of water, a bit of maple syrup, boiled apple cider and apple-loving spices, such as cinnamon, cloves, allspice and nutmeg, or peach-loving spices such as ginger or cinnamon. Cook the fruit until it is soft and the liquid has reduced down to the consistency of thin syrup. If you want to cook fruit until it is just tender, strain and measure the liquid in the saucepan, and replace that amount of buttermilk in your recipe with the fruit cooking liquid. I generally use 3 or 4 apples or peaches per batch of muffins, depending on the size of the fruit. When it comes to the best variety of apple for muffins, I like Macintosh, Granny Smith, Northern Spy and Cortland, but I’d say anything except Delicious or Golden Delicious works. A combination of different apple varieties is great in late summer/early fall, when there are so many fresh apples to choose from.

Roasting fruit: Clean and cut fruit (e.g., strawberries, peaches, rhubarb, cherries) into bite-sized pieces. I usually roast mine in a pyrex cake pan, which is easily cleaned. Allow 2 cups of fruit for every 1 cup of finished roasted fruit. Add a bit of sugar to taste (I use very little, but Adrian prefers more) and roast in a 350-degree F oven until fruit is falling apart and juices have been fully released. Stir in cornstarch (about 1 tablespoon for every two cups of raw fruit) and return to oven for 15 to 20 minutes. Your finished product should be about the consistency of canned cherry pie filling – but it will taste much, much better!

Raw fruit: Rasberries, blackberries and wild blueberries can be used fresh or frozen. Just toss the fruit with about a teaspoon of flour for every cup of fruit before adding to the batter. A mixture of rasberries and blueberries makes very pretty and tasty muffins.

When these various fruits are in season, I prepare batches of them according to how we use them (e.g., cooked peaches, roasted strawberries or fresh blueberries) and put Blog Millen farms blueberriesthem in freezer bags in 1-cup or 2-cup batches. They don’t take up much room and are delicious in so many things. Here in Nova Scotia, I don’t have access to my freezer of fruit, so I bought a container of local frozen blueberries from Millen Farms. I got a 1 kg tub for less than I would have to pay in Ontario for fresh wild blueberries in season, and they are perfect – firm, ripe berries with no twigs or leaves to sort and discard, and really nice flavour. These are a great find, and I’m supporting a local food producer – I know Susan will approve!

 

Sharon lives in Kingston, Ontario, and Hacketts Cove, NS, and is grateful for everything she learned from her big sister.
Welcome to our family’s discussion forum on food. If you’d like to submit a post, please consider yourself family, and email us at familyfoodforum@gmail.com.

After a good dinner, one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relations.”

– Oscar Wilde, A Woman of No Importance