Winter Baking—Anise-scented Fig and Date Swirls

After a week of frosty mornings and gloriously warm sunny days, the weekend has brought us cold, drenching rain. 

So, the only thing for it was to bake!

I stocked up on my homemade granola and made a batch of Mommy’s Magical Crackers, but the fun baking for the day was a batch of fig and date pinwheels. I’ve only made them once before, but loved them. Flavoured with anise and rich in figs, they have a unique taste and texture that improves with age.

These are straight from my favourite cookie cookbook (the book itself is a work of art), The Gourmet Cookie Book. They take more time to make than many cookies, but the results are as attractive as they are delicious—well worth the effort.

1 cup dried figs
1 cup pitted dates
1/3 cup water
1/2 cup plus 2 Tbs sugar
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 Tbs ground anise seeds
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
125 g (1/2 cup) softened butter
125 g (4 oz) cream cheese
1 tsp vanilla
1 large egg yolk
1/4 cup raw sugar (optional)

In a food processor or blender, puree figs, dates, water and 2 Tbs sugar. Set aside.

In a bowl, whisk together flour, anise, baking powder, baking soda and salt. In another bowl beat together butter, cream cheese, and remaining 1/2 cup sugar until light and fluffy. Add vanilla, egg yolk and flour mixture and beat until a dough forms. Form dough into a disk and wrap in wax paper. Chill about a hour, until firm enough to handle (I found in my winter-cool house I didn’t need to chill the dough at all).

On a floured surface, roll out dough into a 33 x 25 cm (13 x 10-inch) rectangle about 8 mm (1/3-inch) thick. Gently spread fig and date mixture evenly over the top, leaving a narrow border around the edges. Starting at one long edge, roll the dough into a jelly-roll-like log. Optional: roll log in raw sugar to coat. Wrap in waxed paper and chill 4 hours until firm.

Slice into 8 mm (1/3-inch) rounds and place on a greased baking sheet. Bake about 13 minutes at 180ºC (350ºF) until golden.

No-fuss Bliss Balls

I like the idea of the now-ubiquitous protein balls/energy bites/bliss balls/whatever they’re called. I thought they’d be great for my athletic daughter, to keep her weight up.

But when I bought some, we found them more candy bar than energy boost—overly sweet and not particularly tasty, either.

So I was intrigued when I found the book, Energy Bites, by Christine Bailey in the cookbook section of my local library. 

My excitement quickly turned to disappointment as I flicked past recipe after recipe that included such hard-to-find ingredients as xylitol, yacon syrup, matcha, colostrum powder, and lucuma powder. Surely, one should be able to concoct a not-too-sweet high-energy treat from ingredients I already had in the cupboard.

I pulled out my food processor and started dropping things in and buzzing them until I had a mixture of the right consistency and flavour.

  • A cup of walnuts
  • A handful of coconut
  • Two spoonfuls of unsweetened cocoa
  • A handful of dates
  • A few spoonfuls of peanut butter
  • A pinch or two of cayenne pepper
  • Several gratings of coarse salt

The result was bitter with chocolate, rich with nuts, and just a little zingy with salt and cayenne. A definite improvement over the store bought ones, and easy to whip up with staples from my cupboard.

Apple and Quince Pie

Sometimes inspiration strikes and it’s glorious.

That’s what happened yesterday afternoon when I decided I had to do something with the remaining apples and quince before they went bad.

I wondered…was apple quince pie a thing?

A quick glance at the internet told me it was, and confirmed my suspicions that the quince needed to be cooked before being put in the pie.

So, making it up as I went, I created this absolutely stunning pie. It was fabulous warm with whipped cream, but I think it was even better at room temperature the following day. More work than your average apple pie, but this isn’t your average apple pie.

4 cups sliced quinces
4 cups sliced apples
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp cloves
1/2 tsp nutmeg
2 Tbs flour

Pie dough for a single-crust pie

Topping:
2/3 cup flour
2/3 cup walnuts, finely chopped
2/3 cup brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
5 Tbs butter, melted

Place quince slices in a medium saucepan with a few tablespoons of water and cook gently until soft (5-10 minutes). In a bowl, combine apples, flour, sugar and spices. Stir the cooked quince into the apple mixture. Roll out your crust and place it in a pie plate. Combine all the topping ingredients in a bowl and mix with a fork until crumbly. Pour the apple mixture into the pie crust and top with the topping. Bake 50 minutes at 190ºC (375ºF).

Vilma’s Eggplant–better late than never

I’ve blogged about Vilma’s Eggplant in the past, but it’s worth repeating a recipe this good.

This year’s eggplants took a long time to get going, and it’s only now that summer is over that they’re really giving well. But it’s never too late for Vilma’s Marinated Eggplant. This stuff could make an eggplant lover out of anyone.

Vilma was the sister of our host mother during Peace Corps training in Costa Rica. She was loud and fiery-tempered, and regularly stayed with our host family when she was fighting with her partner.

When she was with us, she cooked—glorious Italian food she’d learned to make from her partner. Her food was a flavourful gift in a house where vegetables were usually boiled to death and served plain. 

One of the most wonderful things Vilma made was thinly sliced eggplant marinated in garlicky vinegar. She’d leave a jar of it in the fridge when she left, and we would savour it for a week on our sandwiches or with our mushy, flavourless boiled vegetables.

I foolishly never asked Vilma for the recipe, but a bit of trial and error was all it took to recreate Vilma’s marinated eggplant. 

This recipe mostly fills a quart-sized jar. It keeps for a long time in the fridge and makes a lovely addition to sandwiches. Serve it on crackers for party appetisers—it’s not the prettiest food, but after one bite, none of your guests will care.

2 small to medium eggplants
1 clove garlic, crushed
½ cup red wine vinegar
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Peel eggplants and slice very thin (1-2 mm). Steam until the slices are tender and limp (but not falling apart completely). Whisk all the other ingredients together in a small bowl, and toss them gently with the hot steamed eggplant. Refrigerate at least an hour before serving (the longer the better, as the eggplant will soak up more marinade).

Gazpacho–Cool Food for a Hot Day

Gazpacho depends on good quality tomatoes. Only use the best.

While many of you in North America are shivering in the cold, we’re sweltering in the heat here. Our daily highs are in the mid-30s (the mid-90s F). After dripping sweat all afternoon, the idea of cooking is unappealing.

So we resort to hot-weather foods. Fortunately, the garden makes this easy. One of my favourite cool dinners is gazpacho—a cold vegetable soup. I think there are as many variations on gazpacho as there are cooks, but here’s my version. Serve with crusty bread and butter for a more substantial meal.

5-6 medium tomatoes (about 10 cups, chopped)
2 medium cucumbers
1 small red onion
handful fresh basil
1 clove garlic
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 tsp salt
black pepper to taste

Peel and coarsely chop the cucumbers. Process in a food processor until finely chopped (not pureed). Remove to a large bowl.

Core and coarsely chop the tomatoes. Process in a food processor until finely chopped. Remove to the bowl with the cucumbers.

Finely chop the onion and basil (I find this easiest by hand, but it can also be done in the food processor). Add to the bowl.

Crush the garlic and add to the bowl, along with the vinegar, salt, and pepper.

*Optional—add a finely chopped jalapeño or a dash of hot sauce.

Mix all ingredients together and chill 2 hours before serving. If you’ve got no time to chill it, add crushed ice to the soup.

A Passion for Pickles

I’ve blogged about pickles before. How could I not? I love pickles. I plant pickling cucumbers only every other year, to prevent me from becoming the Crazy Pickle Lady, but this year is a pickle year.

Our favourites, without question, are dills. I made seven quarts of dills last weekend, and this weekend I put up another nine quarts. Plenty more to come before I’m finished pickling.

I can most of my pickles in a water-bath canner, so they last two years. But the canning process leaves them less crisp than I like, so I also make fresh pickles to eat right now. They’re crisp and sour, and super easy to make.

For a 1-quart jar, you’ll need:
1 kg pickling cucumbers, washed and cut in half lengthwise
1 head fresh dill
1 small red chilli (fresh or dried)
1 clove garlic, cut in half
1 bay leaf
1 cup vinegar (white or cider)
1 cup water
2 Tbsp coarse salt
3 Tbsp sugar
1 Tbsp mixed pickling spices (you can buy commercial, but I make my own mix to have on hand, see below)

Combine vinegar, water, salt, and sugar in a saucepan. Tie the spices into a cloth bag (or use a stainless-steel tea ball) and drop it into the vinegar mixture. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer, covered, for 15 minutes.

Shortly before the vinegar is ready, fill your jar with hot water (from the tap is fine, but make sure it’s as hot as you can get it). Let it sit for a few minutes, to ensure the jar is hot. This step minimises the risk of heat stress cracking the jar when you pour boiling liquid into it.

When the jar is warm, pour out the water. Drop the dill, chilli, garlic and bay leaf into the jar, and then pack the cucumbers in tightly. Try to arrange them so the cut sides are not pressed against one another—you want the pickling liquid to penetrate the flesh. Remove the spice bag from the simmering pickling liquid and pour it over the cucumbers, covering them completely.

Allow to cool, and then store in the refrigerator for 3-5 days before eating.

If you have leftover pickling liquid, save it in a jar, and just heat it up to make your next batch of pickles.

Pickling spice mix (makes about 1 cup):
6 Tbsp whole mustard seed
3 Tbsp whole allspice
6 tsp whole coriander seed
1 tsp whole cloves
3 tsp ground ginger
3 tsp red pepper flakes
3 bay leaves (crushed)
3 cinnamon sticks (crushed)

Happy Halloween!

We don’t really do Halloween here, as the celebration makes no sense in springtime, but for all you Northern Hemisphere folks, I pulled together a list of all the pumpkin recipes and food ideas I’ve blogged about in the past. I was surprised at how long the list was. There are some great Halloween party options here. Enjoy!

Pumpkin Pancakes
Pumpkin Pizza
Pumpkin Cupcakes
Pumpkin Ricotta Lasagne
Cinnamon-Pumpkin Bars
Pumpkin Ravioli
Baked Pumpkin Slices
Pumpkin Cranberry Muffins
Pumpkin Galette
Pumpkin, Blue Cheese, and Tofu Burgers