samedi 25 avril 2009

Stem Ginger Shortbread

Being Scottish, shortbread has always been a part of my life. My mother always made shortbread in fingers (small rectangles) with the distinctive fork tine imprints. Scots are renowned for having a sweet tooth and shortbread is probably the simplest satisfier of it.

Shortbread is a combination of 3 parts flour to 2 parts butter to 1 part sugar. The key is to have the best ingredients – a flour that is not too soft, butter that is fresh and slightly salted and sugar that is not too fine. Or so it is said. The best shortbread is buttery and crispy/crumbly.

My mother, true to tradition, made shortbread for every New Year’s Eve. She had to adapt her recipe to the flour that was available in Canada but stayed true to the basic recipe. She probably made it at other times too but I remember more the platters with shortbread and mince pies at New Year’s. My Aunt Janet (my mother’s sister) told me that my mother was renowned for her pastry making. So by extension shortbread would have been a snap to make. My Aunt Christine (my father’s sister) is an amazing baker of all Scottish pastries (shortbread, cookies, pies, etc.).

I had to make my own way in the art of baking but would love to have sessions with my Aunts to find out the true techniques. I don’t get much opportunity to bake these days but I decided to give Stem Ginger Shortbread a go. Instead of kneading in the stem ginger, I pulsed it in at the end of the food processor step – this resulted in a mild evenly distributed ginger flavour rather than little hits of ginger in the shortbread. Not bad for a 1st attempt I would say.

Stem Ginger Shortbread
Makes 24 fingers

250 g (9 oz) all-purpose flour
85 g (3 oz) sugar
170 g (6 oz) butter, at room temperature
5 mL (1 tsp) ground ginger
4 pieces preserved stem ginger, chopped into pea-sized pieces
15 mL (1 Tbsp) cassonade (Demerara or other cane sugar)

Preheat oven to 160°C (320°F).

Place flour, sugar, butter and ground ginger in a food processor and process until the mixture is thoroughly combined and forms a ball of dough*. Knead in the chopped stem ginger; press shortbread mixture into a 20 cm x 20 cm (8” x 8”) baking pan; level with a spatula or the back of a spoon. Score top of pressed dough into 24 small rectangles and poke evenly over the surface with a fork. Sprinkle with sugar and bake for about 30-40 minutes or until the shortbread is a pale golden colour. Allow the shortbread to cool in the pan for a few minutes; cut into 24 fingers. Carefully remove from pan when completely cooled to avoid breaking the pieces.

Shortbread can be stored in an airtight tin for about a week.

* This can also be done by hand: Cream together butter and sugar then work in the flour to form a ball of dough.

lundi 13 avril 2009

Easter Mini Meringues with Strawberries

Happy Easter!  Joyeuse Pâques! Frohe Ostern!

Easter has so many symbols – crosses, bunnies, eggs, chocolate, hot cross buns, chicks, lambs, bonnets and lilies.  Easter to me is about colour – not just the yellow and purple traditionally associated with it.  Easter marks the change from the sombre colours of winter to the ever-changing spring colours in hues from pastel to neon bright.  Last Easter we had snow and this Easter weekend brings temperatures of +20°C and sunshine.

 As a little girl, there was the promise of a new outfit complete with lovely new Easter bonnet.  Somehow the weather never cooperated in Nova Scotia to be able to wear such an outfit leading me to wonder just where that tradition originated.

In Germany, there is a tradition of hanging coloured eggs from trees.  The Easter bunny is also thought to have originated in Germany.  As the hare and the rabbit being the most fertile of animals they are therefore the symbol of new life.  In Luxembourg, men are waiting to see if the ‘bretzel’ they gave to their sweethearts a couple of weeks ago will be reciprocated with Easter eggs.  There are pageants and parades to celebrate Easter.

Easter is rather unique in that the date changes from year to year.  In France the school holiday of two weeks can start anywhere from mid-March to end of April.  The statutory holiday varies between Friday and/or Monday.     On Easter Sunday, children hunt for the hidden dyed and chocolate eggs.  We normally buy brown eggs here but this year I spotted some white eggs, which would be more conducive to dying.  The grocery stores version of coloured eggs looked gaudy and streaky to me.  I think we only got to make dyed eggs one year at Easter as kids but after seeing the beautiful robin’s egg blue dyed eggs on Martha Stewart’s web site I wanted to give them a try, but alas it was too late and all the white eggs were gone.

I decided to make a sweet treat with strawberries since they are plentiful even though not in season for tastier local ones.

Mini Meringues with Strawberries
Serves 6

3 egg whites
185 mL (3/4 cup) sugar
5 mL (1 tsp) white vinegar
250 mL (1 cup) whipping cream (35%)
10 mL (2 tsp) icing sugar
6 strawberries, sliced lengthwise

Preheat oven to 120°C (250°F).

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, grease and dust with flour, shaking off excess. Beat egg whites in a small bowl with an electric mixer until soft peaks form; gradually beat in sugar until dissolved. Beat in vinegar. Spread into 6 circles placed 4 cm (1-1/2”) apart on baking sheet. Bake for 40 minutes or until meringues are dry and firm to the touch. Turn oven off and leave to cool in oven with door slightly open. Beat cream and icing sugar together until stiff; spread over meringues, top with sliced strawberries and drizzle with sauce*.

5-6 strawberries
5 mL (1 tsp) Crèmeux du Vigneron “Violette”** (cassis or other liqueur)

Purée strawberries, strain to remove seeds and mix with the liqueur.

dimanche 5 avril 2009

Tajine of chicken, preserved lemon and olives

Springtime brought back memories of buying large bouquets of 50 tulips in Paris for a small price. Buying bouquets of flowers every week was a treat I gave myself for the first few years that I lived there. Flowers were inexpensive, at least in comparison to Toronto prices, and brightened up the apartment. Somehow it seemed to me to be a very Parisienne thing to do. And the spring arrival of the tulips was extra special. I even bought a large vase on one of my trips to Amsterdam to accommodate these large bouquets.

This bunch of tulips I bought in Luxembourg brought back the memories of the spring tulips in Paris.

Another bonus of this week was that I found preserved lemons. This gave me the chance to try another Moroccan recipe - a tajine of chicken with preserved lemons and black olives.

Preserved lemons are lemons (usually small ones like Myers but any will do), slit lengthwise about 2/3 of the way, then packed in salt, water and lemon juice in a sterilized jar for about a month. The tartness of the lemon is mellowed and the flavour enriched by this process. Preserved lemons are often used in North African cuisine.

Saffron is probably the world’s most expensive spice. These red filaments are the dried stamen of the crocus flower. There are large variations in the quality of saffron. Saffron is used to give dishes a yellow colour and add a subtle flavour. Saffron is common in Mediterranean and North African cuisine. Fortunately a little goes a long way with saffron.

Turmeric is a dark yellow power that also gives a yellow colour to food. It is sometimes referred to poor man's saffron. The taste is different and the two spices are sometimes used in combination.

The black olives that I used for this dish were of the large Greek Kalamata variety. They are probably my favourite black olives.

Chicken Tajine with Preserved Lemon and Olives
Serves 2-3

15 mL (1 Tbsp) olive oil
500 g (1 lb) boneless chicken breast or thigh, cut into large pieces
1 large onion, sliced
5 mL (1 tsp) finely diced fresh ginger
2 cloves garlic, finely sliced
Pinch of saffron pistils
2 tomatoes, seeded and coarsely chopped
2 preserved lemons, quartered, peel only
2 medium carrots, quartered lengthwise and cut into 2.5 cm (1”) pieces
250 mL (1 cup) water
250 mL (1 cup) black olives, pitted and coarsely chopped

125 mL (½ cup) olive oil
7.5 mL (½ Tbsp) turmeric
7.5 mL (½ Tbsp) mild paprika
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Mix together marinade ingredients, add chicken pieces and leave to marinate for 4 hours (or overnight in the refrigerator). Heat olive oil in a large pot or Tajine. Brown marinated chicken pieces and set aside. Cook sliced onions until softened and lightly coloured. Add ginger, garlic, saffron, tomatoes, preserved lemon and carrots; cook for 5 minutes. Return chicken to pot or Tajine and add water; simmer over low heat for 20 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through. Add olives just before serving.