Monday, 18 June 2018

Chocolate, Pecan and Dried Cherry Squares

Whipping cream, dried sour cherries and the slowly being used up crystallized honey were the basis of this rich, chocolatey, chewy and crumbly square. There are a lot of ingredients to measure out, but once they are ready to go the whole thing comes together pretty quickly.

I made and baked the crust, and prepped all of the filling ingredients while it baked. Then the filling was made while the crust cooled, poured into the crust and the whole thing baked.

The crumbly shortbread crust is a good contrast to the creamy, rich, chewy filling. The squares do freeze well, and actually taste just as good if eaten frozen as they do when eaten at room temperature!

To make the chocolate shortbread crust, sift the dry ingredients into a bowl:

1 cup flour
3 tablespoons cocoa
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 cup sugar

Stir in:

4 ounces melted, cooled butter
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Mix until the wet and dry ingredients come together to form soft clumps of dough.

Press the dough into the bottom of an 8" X 8" pan that has been lined with foil, and lightly greased.

Bake for 12 - 15 minutes, until the pastry is no longer wet, and is firm to the touch. Remove from the oven.

To make the filling, heat the following in a heavy bottomed pan until the butter has melted, and the honey and sugar have dissolved:

3 tablespoons butter
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup whipping cream
1 1/2 tablespoons honey

Turn the heat up and bring the mixture to a full rolling boil (it cannot be stirred down).

Boil for 30 seconds.

Immediately remove from the heat and whisk in:

1/2 cup flour

Return to a low heat and cook, stirring for another 30 seconds. Remove from the heat.

Whisk in:

1 teaspoon vanilla

Stir in:

1 1/2 cups roughly chopped pecans
2/3 cup roughly chopped dried sour cherries

Stir in:

4 ounces chopped dark chocolate

Scrape the filling onto the baked crust, spreading it evenly.

Bake at 350F until the centre of the filling is set and firm to the touch; the edges will bubble a little bit. The surface will be less shiny than before it was baked.

This should take about 22 - 25 minutes.

Allow the squares to cool completely before gently lifting the foil out of the pan, and peeling it away from the sides. Cut into squares, and serve at room temperature.

  • What I love most about this square is how versatile both the crust and the filling are. One recipe can be changed around in so many ways to use up bits and pieces that are available to you...
  • If you keep the crust chocolate consider adding a pinch of cayenne pepper as well as cinnamon; finely ground instant coffee or espresso powder can be used as a flavour; Earl Grey tea is also an option.
  • No cocoa? Omit it and use flour in place of the cocoa. 
  • Make the crust using flour, but no cocoa. In place of the cocoa use dried coconut.
  • For the filling, the nuts can be changed by using a different nut to replace the pecans. You can also use a combination of different nuts...this is a great way to use up small amounts of two or three nuts. Some nuts that would work well in the square include almonds, walnuts, cashews, macadamias, pistachios or peanuts.
  • Try other dried fruits instead of cherries...cranberries, raisins, blueberries, figs.
  • Use white or milk chocolate instead of dark.
  • Add sea salt into the filling to achieve a salted chocolate square.
  • Grated orange zest will brighten the filling, and works well with fruits such as cherries or cranberries.

Monday, 11 June 2018

Pork Meatballs in a Hoisin Barbecue Sauce

Inspired by my daughter mentioning a dinner of pork meatballs and hoisin sauce, this was sweet and sour, spicy and rich and made enough for two meals.

It also used the opened can of tomato paste, the last of the jar of hoisin sauce, the last of the tamari, some chopped toasted peanuts and the ground pork that has been in the freezer for a couple of months. All in all, a success!

The barbecue sauce has Asian as well as western influences, is quick and easy to make and freezes well. So making a large batch is a no brainer for me. I added ginger and sesame oil to the meatballs to bring more of the Asian flavours through, and serving it on the steam fried noodles gave the sauce something to soak into.

To make the sauce, cook in a bit of olive oil until soft:

1/2 cup diced onion
2 teaspoons minced fresh garlic

Add the remaining ingredients:

2/3 cup tomato paste
2/3 cup hoisin sauce
5 tablespoons honey
5 tablespoons Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons soy sauce
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
2 teaspoons chili powder
3/4 teaspoon ground cumin

Simmer the sauce while you make the meatballs.

In a large bowl, combine:

1 pound ground pork
1/4 cup finely chopped green onion
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1 teaspoon garlic, minced
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, minced
1 egg
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

Mix in:

2/3 cup breadcrumbs

Mix with your hands until well combined. If the mixture is too wet and does not hold together when you form a ball, add more breadcrumbs.

Form the meat mixture into 16 meatballs.

Heat a bit of olive oil in a wide, shallow sided pan.

Add the meatballs and brown quickly on all sides.

Add the sauce to the pan, cover and simmer.

The meatballs should be fully cooked after about 30 minutes. The sauce will have thinned down from the steam in the pan, as well as the meat juices released from the pork.

Skim any excess fat from the top before serving.

I served the meatballs on a bed of steam fried noodles and green beans, garnished with chopped green onions and peanuts.

  • The meatballs can be made with any ground meat...beef, chicken, turkey. The amount of breadcrumbs may differ, as some of the meats have more moisture. I always start with 2/3 cup and add more a bit at a time if needed.
  • The meatballs can be made ahead...refrigerate for a day, or freeze for another time.
  • Cilantro can be used instead of, or as well as, the parsley if you have some.
  • Add chili flakes to spice it up a bit.
  • The sauce can be used with burgers, on pizza, in stir fry, on meatloaf, or it can be used to braise beef, pork or chicken (add some chicken or beef stock to thin it down).
  • Use rice wine vinegar instead of apple cider.
  • Hoisin sauce is very sweet, so feel free to cut the amount of honey added. You can always add some in at the end if you need to.

Saturday, 9 June 2018

Salted Caramel Apple Cheesecake Bars

The story behind this bar is long, but I made it to use up some graham crumbs. Adding in the toasted hazelnuts I found, and using up more of my crystallized honey made perfect sense when I decided to use 3 of the apple pie cheesecake idea turned into salted caramel apple cheesecake.

I was making this for a coffee break treat, but it can be served as dessert as well. The sweetness of the honey is understated because of the tartness of the cream cheese and apples. The salt enhances the caramel, and there were just enough hazelnuts to add interest to the crust without overpowering everything else.

To make the salted caramel apples, combine in a heavy bottomed pan:

2 ounces butter
1/2 cup honey

Heat on a low heat until the butter has melted.

Turn the heat up to medium high, and stir until the caramel starts to bubble. Then leave it to cook until it is a deep golden colour, stirring occasionally.

Add the apples:

3 peeled, cored and sliced apples (1/4" thick)

Turn the heat to low. The caramel will seize up from the cold apples, and then start to melt again.

When the apples are tender, but still hold their shape, use a slotted spoon to remove them from the caramel. Reserve the caramel.

Add the salt and cinnamon to the apples and stir gently to coat each slice:

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Set the apples aside until needed. Heat the oven to 350F and line an 8" X 8" pan with parchment paper.

To make the crust,  combine the following in a food processor:

265g graham crumbs
20g toasted hazelnuts

Process until the hazelnuts are finely ground.

Place the graham crumbs and hazelnuts into a bowl. Add:

70g melted butter

Mix until well combined, and moist crumbs form.

Press the crust onto the bottom of the prepared pan and bake until set and slightly golden, about 8 - 10 minutes.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool while you make the cream cheese filling.

In a stand mixer, using the paddle attachment, mix until smooth and creamy, with no lumps remaining:

1 pound brick cream cheese, room temperature
1/2 cup sugar

Add, one at a time, scraping the bowl down in between:

2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla

Mix in:

5 tablespoons whipping cream

Remove 1/4 cup of the cream cheese filling, and combine it with:

2 tablespoons of the cooled caramel from cooking the apples

Set aside until needed.

Place the cooled apples on top of the crust.

Scrape the cream cheese filling into the pan, spreading it gently over the apples.

Use a spoon to drizzle the caramel cream cheese over the vanilla cream cheese filling, to create a swirled pattern.

Put the 8" X 8" pan into a larger pan and adding about 1/2" of hot water to the large pan.

Put into the oven and bake until the centre of the filling is set, but still moves slightly when the pan is tapped.

This takes about 45 - 50 minutes.

Turn the oven off, leave the door ajar and the cheesecake inside for 5 minutes.

Take the cheesecake out of the oven, and out of the hot water bath. Run the tip of a sharp knife around the edges between the cheesecake and the parchment paper.

Allow to cool completely and then refrigerate overnight before cutting.

To serve, carefully lift the parchment paper out of the pan. I cut the cheesecake into 9 squares, as I was serving men who eat a lot! This can be served with coffee, or as dessert...add whipped cream and some fresh berries.

  • The apples can be sliced or chopped, just make sure to remove them from the caramel before they turn to applesauce.
  • Pears, nectarines or plums can be used instead of apples.
  • Brown sugar can be used instead of honey: increase the amount to 3/4 cup of brown sugar, and cook over low heat until the butter melts, the sugar dissolves and it starts to bubble.
  • Maple syrup could also be used instead of honey.
  • The salt can be omitted; it can also be increased. Taste your apples after the salt has been incorporated. I felt that 1/2 teaspoon was enough.
  • Save the caramel for the swirl in the filling; any extra can be heated to use as a sauce for serving the cheesecake, or drizzling over ice cream.
  • No hazelnuts? Use another nut such as pecans or almonds, or substitute graham crumbs for the nuts.
  • The apples and crust can be cooked and baked a day ahead to save time. The cream cheese filling can also be made ahead and kept refrigerated until you are ready to bake the bars. 
  • I find that brick cream cheese is better for cheesecake than the soft spreadable type as it remains firm after baking. Allowing it to come to room temperature before mixing it with the sugar helps to eliminate any lumps.
  • The caramel from cooking the apples can be used instead of, or as part of, the whipping cream.
  • To make this into an apple pie cheesecake, sprinkle streusel or crumble over the top of the batter before baking.
  • The cheesecake cuts better when completely cold; making it a day ahead is the best way to do this if you can.

Saturday, 2 June 2018

Balsamic Strawberry, Fennel, Hazelnut and Goat Cheese Salad

For me, one of the best parts of summer is that when you make a salad, you can add whatever you want to it, which leaves no excuse for ignoring things that are waiting to be used up!

For this salad I combined the handful of strawberries that were not as flavourful as they could have been (marinating them in black pepper and Balsamic vinegar), a handful of hazelnuts, half a bulb of fennel  and a small piece of soft goats cheese.

I rounded out the meal with grilled pork tenderloin. This salad was refreshing, tangy, crunchy and creamy...a flavour surprise in every bite!

Combine and marinate for at least 30 minutes:

2 cups sliced fresh strawberries
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 tablespoons Balsamic vinegar

Drain the vinegar from the strawberries and add olive oil to make a vinaigrette. I added 2 tablespoons of oil; taste and season with salt and pepper.

In a large bowl, combine:

4 handfuls of mixed baby greens
the drained and marinated strawberries
1/2 fennel bulb, thinly sliced

Add the vinaigrette and toss gently to coat all the ingredients.

To plate, mound the greens, fennel and strawberries onto the plates.

Sprinkle with toasted hazelnuts and crumbled soft goat cheese.

I served the salad with grilled pork tenderloin that I sliced and marinated in minced garlic, finely chopped fennel greens, olive oil and lemon juice. This made use of the fennel tops, which are full of flavour and need not be wasted.

  • The strawberries I had were not as sweet and juicy as they can be...but by marinating them in the vinegar and black pepper, they absorbed the flavours and imparted some of their flavour to the vinaigrette. 
  • Marinating disappointing berries in Balsamic vinegar, wine, liqueur or fruit juice will bring them to life. The strawberries can also be served over ice cream.
  • Sweet, perfectly ripe, juicy berries will add tons of flavour to the salad, and the sweetness is also a nice contrast to the tartness of the goat cheese and the acidity of the Balsamic vinegar.
  • If you choose to use soft berries such as raspberries, do not marinate them or they will turn mushy. Blackberries and blueberries can be marinated.
  • Try other fruits such as figs, peaches, plums or apricots.
  • The cheese was a choice between two small or goat, and my husband chose goat cheese. Either would have been a good choice for the salad.
  • Strawberries or watermelon tossed with Balsamic vinegar, black pepper and feta or goat cheese are both refreshing, tasty summer salads. Add some chopped fresh basil just before serving.
  • I shaved the fennel bulb on a mandoline. You can also use the blade on a food processor, or a grater. If using a knife to cut the fennel, cut as thin as you safely can.

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Baked Polenta Fries with Smoked Tomato Dipping Sauce

My husband was smoking chicken thighs, to make pulled chicken for dinner and I was trying to come up with something to serve with it. I had no buns to make pulled chicken sandwhiches, no potatoes to make fries...and then it came to me...polenta fries!

Running with the idea, I cleaned out the fridge and found some shaved Parmesan, a small piece of soft goat cheese and about 3/4 cup of smoked tomato soup. The cheeses went into the polenta, and the soup was heated up and used as a dipping sauce.

Crunchy breadcrumbs on the outside and soft, creamy, cheesy polenta on the inside...Baking them also eliminated the need to deep fry, which is a healthier alternative, but it also allowed me to prepare them earlier in the day when I had the time. It then came down to popping them into the oven and heating the sauce.

The recipe also made enough for our lunch complaints from either of us about that.

Start off by making a batch of polenta, spreading it into a plastic wrap lined 8" X 8" pan and allowing it to cool completely. This can be done earlier on in the day, or even the day before.

Follow the method in the link below to make the polenta. I used 1/2 cup of cornmeal : 1 1/2 cups of milk, and added in 1/3 cup of goat cheese and just under 1/4 cup of shaved Parmesan.

Basic Polenta Method

Turn the chilled polenta out onto a cutting board, unwrap it and cut it into 1" X 3" pieces.

Set up for breading the polenta: flour seasoned with salt, pepper and a pinch of cayenne; an egg beaten with 1/4 cup milk, seasoned with salt and pepper; breadcrumbs.

Coat the polenta fries on all sides with the seasoned flour, and shake off the excess before moving on to the egg wash.

Place the floured polenta into the egg wash, make sure all sides are coated and allow the excess to drip off.

Lastly, place the polenta into the breadcrumbs, turning and coating all sides, gently pressing the breadcrumbs to make sure they stick.

Place the breaded polenta onto a parchment lined baking sheet, and place in the fridge to chill for
at least 30 minutes.

Heat the oven to 400F.

Bake until the breadcrumbs are golden and crunchy, and the polenta is hot in the middle, about 20 minutes.

Serve immediately.

To serve the polenta fries, I stacked them on the plate, and poured the hot soup / dipping sauce into a ramekin. We had the pulled chicken, and a grape tomato and avocado salad with the fries, and it was a fun meal to eat, full of flavours and textures, and casual enough to eat while watching Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.

  • Polenta fries are usually breaded polenta sticks that are then deep fried. Baking them eliminates the need for all of that oil. The end result is not as crispy on the outside, but you still have a contrast of crunch and creaminess.
  • Next time you are making a batch of polenta, make extra, chill it, cut it into fries and freeze them, well wrapped.
  • Flavour can be added to the fries in any, or all of the steps: herbs, garlic, roasted red peppers, olives or cheeses added to the polenta itself; season the flour with cayenne pepper, garlic powder, lots of black pepper, seasoned salt; adding mustard or hot sauce to the milk; process the breadcrumbs with fresh or dried herbs, garlic, grated Parmesan or nuts.
  • I used leftover smoked tomato soup as my dipping sauce. You can use any soup, hot sauce, pesto, mayonnaise based dip or salad dressing.
  • Serve these as an appetizer or snack. They can be baked ahead of time and then popped into a 400F oven to reheat.