Book Review – Baking as Biography

Baking as Biography – A Life Story in Recipes
Dianne Tye
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 260 pages, $24.95

Most of us can look to a mother or grandmother as a cooking mentor; someone who taught us the basics of home cooking, and who shared their love of the craft and inspired us to try new dishes and expand our cooking repertoires. But what of the poor souls whose mothers didn’t cook, or worse, who didn’t cook well? What of the people who mothers cooked, but hated it?

Dianne Tye had one such mother. A minister’s wife in the Maritimes during the 70s, Tye’s mother was obligated to cook, not just for family, but for myriad church and community events, but never truly enjoyed it.

Tye herself went on to become a Women’s Studies professor at Memorial University, and tells her story in two distinct voices; first the clinical voice of science, observing trends in food and social norms during her childhood, and analyzing how they affected her mother, and in turn her family with regards to what she baked, when, and for whom. But when recalling specific stories about her mother, her baking for various events or a description of the dish, Tye’s voice becomes softer, more familial, verging at times on romanticized. This jump can be disconcerting as Tye attempts to distance herself from the information.

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Grain on the Brain

I’m not typically a cake mix purchaser. When you still need to add milk, eggs, etc., it’s usually just as easy to make your baked goods from scratch. So I bought this bag of Grainstorm muffin mix at the Green Barns Farmer’s Market out of curiosity more than anything else.

The premise is that the various mixes (muffins, pancakes, oatmeal cookies and a vegan muffin) are all made from ancient grains, grown in Ontario and ground and mixes and then vacuum-sealed for freshness. They’re also peanut and nut-free. The grains though are not all that exotic – to me anyway – and include spelt, kamut, oats and red fife grains, all of which can be purchased as flours with relative ease, at least in Toronto. So I don’t know that buying a mix would really be saving me anything – I have most of these flours (plus buckwheat) in my cupboard at any given time and cook with them regularly.

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Tortas de Aceite

So after finally making it to the new Longo’s down at Maple Leaf Square, Greg and I are wandering through the place, filling our cart with many, many thing we don’t need. (Seriously, biggest one-stop grocery bill ever!) Anyway, added to the cart full of things we don’t need but want, is a package of Spanish torta de aceite. I have no idea what they are, but they come in a Seville orange flavour. That’s enough incentive for me. And since I’m being a greedy girl and buying many things I want but don’t need, into the cart they go, even though they’re eight bucks for what look like 8 individually-wrapped 5-inch crackers.

The torta come in a variety of savoury flavours; olive oil, sesame seed, anise, and one sweet variety, Seville orange, sprinkled with sugar and the dough studded with bits of Seville orange peel. The package says they are to be eaten with cheese.

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Cupcakes For Daniel

I can’t remember the last time I baked anything from a mix. Greg had a passing fancy with a disappointing Boston Cream Pie mix at one point when I had a broken arm and he was attempting to do some of the cooking, but it was a sad affair that we agreed never to repeat. Besides usually being not very good, cake mixes have the uncanny ability to suck absolutely all the fun out of baking. Dump powder, add water or milk. Stir. Meh. I get that this is exactly the amount of effort that is desired by people who do not like to bake but for some reason want to “make a cake”, as opposed to going out to a nice bakery and buying something. But for those of us that dig the process, it’s not a lot of fun.

Which is why this particular box of cake mix is such a conundrum.

When Greg’s uncle Daniel passed away at the end of November, he left an apartment full of stuff that needed to be dealt with. Daniel wasn’t a hoarder, but he definitely had some packrat tendencies, and his tiny little apartment often felt like a delicate dollhouse to my lumbering built-like-a-brick-shithouse frame, exacerbated by the fact that there was so much stuff everywhere.

As Daniel spent most of his adult life working as a chef, much of what he collected was food-related. Every time I saw him, he gifted me with cookbooks, or baking pans or little gadgets and utensils. Many of these he’d pick up at thrift shops and yard sales, treasures that he couldn’t pass up but likely knew he’d never need.

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Chicken Math (With Some Physics Thrown In)

The question:

Sheryl has a deep freezer full of food, which includes 4 frozen chickens. She needs to make room in the freezer for for 5 bags of Christmas cookies. She removes 1 chicken and cooks it, resulting in 8 servings of meat, 4 of which are eaten and 4 of which are placed in containers to become part of a chicken pot pie. If she returns the 4 uneaten portions of meat to the freezer, along with the chicken carcass to use for stock at a future date, how many bags of cookies will fit in the freezer? Note – Show your work or points will be deducted.

Students unable to complete the question through standard mathematical formulae are welcome attempt to solve the problem using physics. Those wishing to attempt to find a solution using Freezer Tetris™, please contact the professor to book an examination date.

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Apple Pissybeds

I’ve written before about learning to cook at the side of my Grandmother. I’ve also written about the revelation that this same Grandmother, who has been responsible for preparing 3 meals a day, for a varying number of hungry mouths, for the past 70 years, actually hates to cook. My cousin and I always assumed that the fun things she let us do while helping her prepare food were meant to be, well, fun. For us. As it turns out they were often ways for her to make the process more interesting for herself, and if she was able to take a shortcut or two in the name of “fun” then all the better.

The “pissybed” is really just a free form pie. In France, it would fall under the header of “galette” if galette meant “shit, my pastry is crap today and isn’t going to roll out properly!” Because this kind of pie is usually what you end up with, albeit unintentionally, if your pie crust is crap. You can make them if your pie crust is fine, as was my Grandmother’s – and mine – but know that unless they get to taste it, people will think this is because your dough is a no-go. My Grandma wouldn’t know a galette from a whosit – there weren’t a lot of fancy French people in rural Nova Scotia. Well, there were once but the English shipped them off to Louisiana to become Cajuns.

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Bounty Bar Cupcakes

Working on the theory that everything is better with coconut, I came up with these the other day. They’re meant to resemble an inside-out bounty bar. Flavourwise it works, but next time I’ll incorporate more coconut right into the buttercream frosting.

Bounty Bar Cupcakes

1/4 cup butter
1 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 egg
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup coconut milk
1/4 cup milk

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Cream butter and sugar until smooth then add egg and vanilla. Beat until light and fluffy. Blend flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda and cocoa in a separate bowl. In a measuring cup, mix milk and coconut milk together. Alternate small amounts of  the flour mixture and the milk until fully incorporated and smooth.

Line a cupcake pan with papers and fill each approximately 3/4 full. Bake for 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean. Allow to cool completely.

Coconut Buttercream

1/4 cup butter
2 cups icing sugar
coconut milk

Combine butter and icing sugar and enough coconut milk to create a thick but spreadable icing. Spread onto each cupcake and then sprinkle with toasted coconut.

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Experimentation

The flavour combination of dark chocolate, dulce de leche and sea salt is not new. You might even say it’s a bit passé, but it could also be one of those things that become a classic, like chocolate and mint.

I had wanted thimble (aka. thumbprint) cookies, but I was also craving chocolate. And when my pal David at Circles and Squares Bakery tweeted about making dulce de leche brownies, the idea hit me.

This first batch is really a prototype – I made one pan and put the caramel into the thumbprints first, before baking, as you do when making the regular version with jam. This created a big oozing mess of melted caramel. Filling the prints as soon as the cookies come out of the oven works better – it melts just enough to smooth out, without creating too much of a river.

I also used 100% cacao chocolate, because that’s what I had on hand. It’s not readily available, but I don’t think I’d go below about 80% or the cookie will be way too sweet – otherwise the amount of sugar would have to be adjusted. And, I cheated and used dulce de leche from a jar, but the caramel is not hard to make.

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Proof of My Insanity

Go big or go home. Not my life’s philosophy, but apparently one I follow when baking.

See, I got a freezer, right? And not eating meat, I needed something to put in it. I filled it up somewhat with summer delights; fiddleheads and berries and pesto and tubs of peach chutney. But my original plan for the thing included cookies. I could start making Christmas cookies in September! Thus saving me from running around frantically in November to get everything done.

It was a great theory, but what actually happened was that I had all that extra time on my hands and so made more… much more. Ironically we found homes for most of it and now have a happy postman, building superintendent, co-workers, friends and relatives.

Cookies: clockwise from the top: chocolate coffee crinkles, zimsterne (a rolled meringue cookie with almonds and hazelnuts), white chocolate cranberry and pistachio biscotti, honey sand balls (a shortbread sweetened with honey and studded with walnuts), pfefferneusse, chocolate orange icebox cookies and eggnog shortbread squares. In the centre: zesty lime and coconut shortbread.

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Follow the Scent of Cookies to the Happiest Place on Earth

 

Mary Macleod’s Shortbread
639 Queen Street East
416-461-4576

Some people say Disney is the happiest place on earth. I’d say those people are wrong. I have proof that the happiest place on earth is on Queen Street East, just past the Don River, where Mary Macleod and her small team of bakers make the very best shortbread ever.

Don’t believe me? Take James’ Beard’s word for it – on a visit to Toronto in the early 80s, the acclaimed chef declared Macleod’s shortbread the best he’s ever tasted.

Mcleod emigrated to Canada from Scotland in 1955 when she got married. She shares a story of meeting her mother-in-law for the first time; her reputation for being a great cook had preceded her, and her mother-in-law had asked that she bake an apple pie. Not used to the differences in North American flour compared to the softer, more delicate products used in Europe, Macleod’s pastry was a disaster, and she set about researching the different flours and how she could add other natural ingredients to manipulate the dough to work more like the European products she was used to.

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Frangipane Tart

I’ve been making variations of this little beauty all summer. Pretty much any fruit goes well with almonds, so all it takes is some fresh fruit and about 125mL of jam in a similar flavour.

The crust is a Martha Stewart recipe, although I’ve tweaked it slightly because it’s pressed into a pan, not rolled out. The frangipane itself is a recipe featured on a BBC food show called What to Eat Now. I’ve tweaked this a wee bit as well since I found the batter to be so soft that the fresh fruit added on top sunk into the batter before it could cook and firm up.

I’ve used plums here, but I’ve also used raspberries, peaches and it would work with apples or pears as well.

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Margaritaville – Where Cupcake and Cocktail Collide

Here’s why purging your belongings every now and then is a good idea. Greg and I have been meaning to cull our bookshelves for a couple of years now. We live in a small apartment and shelf space is at a premium, which is to say that we’ve completely filled the four standard bookshelves in our living room. While I try to live with the rule of “something in, something out”, the husband is a bit more of a collector and the old bookshelves were beyond the point of full this past spring with stacks of books on beer piled in corners and selected food politics titles jammed in wherever they might fit.

So we started filling a box, looking at every item on the shelf, assessing whether it should stay or go. You get to keep that Clive Barker novel if I get to keep my dog-eared Nabokovs, you can keep the Michael Jackson beer books if I can keep those Marion Nestle tomes… but I can live without the Gordon Ramsay biography if you’ll part with all those old Wired magazines…

One of the things I refused to part with is my collection of 50s and 60s era cookbooks – not because I’ll ever use any of them, but because they’re cool in their own “gallery of regrettable food” kind of way. But in beside them I discovered a cupcake cookbook. Relatively new (maybe a year or two old), I remembered purchasing it but could not for the life of me remember why it got banished to the Siberia of books I never look at but must keep.

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Here We Go ‘Round the Mulberry Bush

Everybody on the intarwebs has been all over the serviceberries this past week or so. Also known as Saskatoon berries (we called them Indian berries growing up in Nova Scotia), they became the meme of  local food foraging junkies and everybody had to have the things – right NOW! Except that it seems that nobody actually knew what a serviceberry looked like because they’re actually all over the place, and by the time most people had discovered that they did indeed know the whereabouts of a serviceberry bush, the birds had gotten to most of the berries and devoured them.

Another local berry popular with the birds and overlooked by people (until some local food expert points out that they’re tasty) is the mulberry. Similar in shape but slightly smaller than a blackberry, the mulberry is a popular tree in Toronto neighbourhoods – except during actual berry season when the berries fall off like small purple hailstones and turn everything in their vicinity purple. Beloved by both birds and squirrels, any sidewalk or paving stones underneath a mulberry bush get stained doubly so – once from the berries themselves and again from the bird crap.

It was this telltale purple sidewalk that alerted me to the mulberry bush in the front yard of a house along my regular dog-walking route. The tree was loaded, the sidewalk was covered in the things, and I figured if the owners were just going to let the berries go to waste on the ground, they wouldn’t mind if I helped myself to a few that were hanging over the sidewalk.

I picked about a pint’s worth (didn’t want to be greedy, and the birds were becoming increasingly unimpressed with my presence); not enough to make jam, but definitely enough for a batch of mulberry scones.

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It Is Done

No, there are no photos. Not that I couldn’t take photos, it’s just that every surface in the house is covered with gobs of chocolate, and I just don’t have the energy.

Christmas baking, I’m talking about, in case you were confused.

3 kinds of fruitcake, 4 types of cookies, 4 flavours of truffles, plus coconut creams, peppermint patties and candied nuts. And despite the fact that it all fits nicely into tins to ship, it doesn’t feel like I did enough. Nevertheless, the box of presents is honkin’ big and it needs to go to the post office tomorrow before we get any more snow (it’s too heavy and unwieldy to carry so it’s gotta go in my old lady shopping buggy and thus must go before there is more snow on the ground because – huh – wouldn’t that suck?), so I’m done with all the stuff to be baked for other people.

Next year I start in September and make better use of the freezer, which is part of the reason why I bought the freezer, if I recall correctly.

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Where Can I Find – Rugelach

rugelach

My first encounter with rugelach was in the early 90s when I worked for a company owned by a Jewish family. During the Jewish holidays, they’d bring in platters of treats to share with the staff and the little rolled cookies had me coming up with all kinds of reasons to wander by the break room.

 

Yiddish for “little twist”, rugelach was originally made with a yeast dough, but American Jews introduced a dough made with cream cheese. The pastry is rolled around fillings such as chocolate, raisins, nuts or preserves such as apricot or raspberry.

 

 

 

Rugelach are supposedly easy to make at home, but while I consider myself an accomplished baker, I’ve never been able to get the cream cheese pastry to work well for me, despite trying a variety of recipes. As such, I’m always on the lookout for places that sell the things, because rugelach are quite addictive.

 

And while I’m sure there are any number of Jewish bakeries and delis in the north end of the city that make fantastic examples of this cookie (please feel free to share your favourites in the comments), I’m sticking to what is accessible to me, a car-free downtowner.

 

Note that as rugelach is considered a seasonal item, not all the places listed may have it at all times. While it should be readily available for the next week or so until the Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah have passed, I’d advise calling ahead if it’s out of season and you really need a fix.

 

Future Bakery (93 Front Street East, St. Lawrence Market) – cream cheese or raspberry filling.

 

Harbord Bakery (115 Harbord Street) – offers a variety of flavours with chocolate being the most popular.

 

Wanda’s Pie in the Sky (287 Augusta Avenue) – a variety of flavours, likely seasonal as they don’t show up on their website.

What a Bagel
(421 Spadina Road, and others) – carry the cookies year-round, with 4 flavours plus a sugar-free version.

Whole Foods
(87 Avenue Road) – offers rugelach seasonally, sold pre-packaged, by the kilo.

 

Yitz’s Deli (346 Eglinton Avenue) – sold singly or by the kilo, there’s usually a nice mix of flavours including cinnamon and walnut.

 

I’ve also bought rugelach at Benna’s (135 Roncesvalles Avenue), but the person I talked to on the phone for this piece didn’t know what I was talking about, so I can’t guarantee they have them all the time.

 

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Breakfast Shortcake

Who says strawberry shortcake can’t be for breakfast?

With berry season upon us, I’ve been shoving juicy Ontario strawberries into my face whenever I can get them, and while I like the idea of shortcake, I’ve never come across a recipe that I really enjoy, finding many that I’ve tried too dry. And those odd yellow spongy things from the supermarket and just odd… and yellow.

Enter the oatmeal scone. Perfect consistency to replace a shortcake, plus you know, oatmeal, so we can pretend it’s healthy. Top it off with sliced berries and vanilla yogurt instead of whipped cream, and suddenly it’s breakfast!

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More Rhubarb

I grew up reading and re-reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder “Little House” series, but it wasn’t until years later that I realized that the pie plant she uses to make a pie for the field workers was actually rhubarb. (I think I imagined it to be eggplant, which we never ate as a kid.)

While we always had rhubarb in our house growing up, it usually got made into squares or stewed with sweet dumplings and after acquiring a pretty huge bunch a couple of weeks ago, I considered a pie. Turns out most of the rhubarb pie recipes I have are sour cream-based, which is odd to me. They’re probably good, but I dunno, something just doesn’t sound right. Greg always likes the strawberry rhubarb pie, although I am not a fan – I find it too mushy and wet.

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Rhubarb Coffee Cake

My Mom and Dad have a massive rhubarb patch in their back yard. I think it might actually be one gigantic plant, in fact, but it keeps them well-stocked in rhubarb all summer long. This recipe gets made a lot in their house, to use up the rhubarb, but also because it’s really good. My Mom cuts these smaller, into squares (16 from an 8-inch pan), but I tend to think of this as more of a coffee cake, and given the small amount of fat in the recipe, don’t feel terribly guilty serving up larger pieces and thinking of it as cake.

I cook this at a slightly higher heat than the original recipe calls for, and I also tend to find the original a bit too sweet for me, so I’ve switched the topping to brown sugar from white, and cut the amount slightly.

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Someone Left the Cake Out in the Rain…

For some, it’s a dream come true, for others, it’s something they fall into and love, but lots of people end up running food-prep businesses that they start from home. Some of these are catering businesses, many more are baking businesses where folks use their love of pastry and mad skills to bake, decorate and sell cakes and pastries, doing what they love and making a little cash on the side.

I have family members, friends and know of a number of online (blogger) acquaintances who are all either running or starting a home-based food business.

Unfortunately, they’re all really, really illegal.

Home Business Advocate Beverly Williams explains about food-prep businesses on her site:

You must call the Department of Health in your area FIRST to find out if you are allowed to prepare food for sale in your home kitchen. The answer will be NO! I have never found a jurisdiction that allowed food for sale to be prepared in a home kitchen. Some areas do allow you to have a separate commercial kitchen for this purpose but the cost may be prohibitive. In some areas, you may be able to find a commercial kitchen that is not being used all day that might be willing to rent their kitchen to you. Most jurisdictions will require you to have your own business license as well.

 

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