Monday, January 31, 2005

The Joy of Mexican Chocolate

If you’re looking for a nice dessert accompaniment to Baja-style fish tacos (see "A Little Taste of Baja in Montreal," directly below), look no further. My sister gave me a call last week and tipped me off to this cookie recipe. She’d tried making them a day or two earlier, and she was raving about them. I’d read the Saveur issue it came from, but somehow I’d glossed over this particular recipe. Maybe it was because this year’s “The Saveur 100” issue was so lackluster. For the past few years their New Year’s extravaganza has been something we really look forward to. The last few lists of Saveur’s faves have not only made our mouths water, they’ve been hugely inspiring. This year, in spite of Editor-in-Chief Colman Andrews’ claim that they, “haven’t run out of things to write about after all,” I think it’s safe to say that the list contains a little too much filler. The smell of bacon? The kitchen window? Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches? Pain au chocolat (not from anywhere in particular, just in general)? C’mon! Don’t get me wrong, the issue as a whole contains a lot of the quality food reportage we’ve come to expect from Saveur, but…

In any case, these Mexican Chocolate Icebox Cookies are a true winner. I think I’ll even venture to say they’re the best chocolate cookies I’ve ever tasted. When baked on a baking sheet, they turn out thin, like a crisp-style cookie (not like the thick cookies featured in Saveur’s accompanying photograph), but they still manage to have a rich, chewy, chocolaty center to them. This combination of crisp and chewy is ideal, but the real kicker comes from the flavors. The “Mexican” aspect to this cookie comes from the spices, not from the chocolate—any “Dutch-process” unsweetened cocoa will do (although we used Valrhona because we find its flavor to be the best). Your first sensation is the rich chocolate flavor, then, a second or two later, comes the cinnamon, and finally, a few seconds after that, the peppers kick in, giving the chocolate flavor a wonderful spicy warmth. The whole experience is really something else. Oh yeah: and be sure to try a nibble or two of the cookie dough. Michelle and I both thought the exact same thing when we did: Mexican Chocolate Icebox Cookie Dough Ice Cream (stay tuned, recipe to follow)!

We brought some Mexican Chocolate Icebox Cookies to a lovely vernissage (Felicitations, Val!) hosted by our friend Hermine the other night. They were so good, and they were so popular, that she ended up hiding a few of them so that they wouldn’t disappear completely. Today, she asked me if we were going to post the recipe. Voila!

Mexican Chocolate Icebox Cookies

1/2 cup flour
3/4 cup quality “Dutch-process” unsweetened cocoa
3/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp cayenne
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 egg
12 tbsp cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

Whisk the flour, cocoa, cinnamon, cayenne, salt, and pepper together in a medium bowl and set aside. Put sugar, vanilla, and egg into a large bowl and beat with an electric mixer on high speed until thick and pale, about 3 minutes. Add butter and continue to beat on high speed until smooth, about 3 minutes more. Using your fingers, work flour mixture into butter mixture until dough is just combined (in other words, do not overwork the dough).

Divide dough in half and roll each half into a 9” log. Wrap each log in parchment paper, twisting ends tightly to make a uniform cylinder. Freeze dough logs for at least 8 hours and as long as overnight.

Preheat oven to 350˚ F. Unwrap dough and slice each log into rounds and 1/3” thick. Place rounds 1” apart on parchment paper-lined cookie sheets. Bake cookies until slightly puffed and tiny cracks appear on surface, about 8 minutes. Transfer cookies to a rack to let cool.

Makes about 4 dozen cookies.

[This recipe, with a couple small changes, comes from Saveur’s “The Saveur 100” issue for January/February 2005. The original recipe comes from the Liberty Bar in San Antonio.]


Sunday, January 30, 2005

A Little Taste of Baja in Montreal

Back in 2001 I spent most of the summer in Southern California. At the end of the summer my sister and I took her jalopy south of the border to Baja for a few days. It was that trip that brought an end to 11 years of vegetarianism for me. I’d already decided that if I were to travel to, say, China, that I wouldn’t want to pass up on the local specialties in order to maintain my diet. Well, it wasn’t Chinese food that did me in on that occasion (although I guess it could have been, seeing as we did pass through Mexicali’s Chinatown during our stay in Baja), it was a combination of the local Mexican specialties. Almost immediately after we got down to the small fishing village that was our primary destination, it was clear that very little down there was going to be vegetarian, strictly speaking. I didn’t think I was ready to try everything on offer, but seafood was the local specialty and I was pretty sure I could handle freshly caught fish and shellfish. Most days we only ate twice, and my favorite two meals were chilaquiles for breakfast, and fish tacos for dinner. Chilaquiles has since become one of my preferred brunch meals. I find the combination of fried tortilla strips, sautéed onions, garlic, tomatoes, bell and chili peppers, and scrambled eggs absolutely irresistible. It’s the perfect meal to make with day-old corn tortillas, and few meals get you off to a better start in the morning. The fish tacos were served up simply—just a few pieces of fried fish in a couple of corn tortillas—but what really made them (and what distinguished our favorite fish taco haunts from others) was the assortment of condiments that accompanied them. The best places provided us with a vast assortment of condiments that were both fresh and tasty. These included salsa fresca, guacamole, pickled jalapeno peppers, pickled onions, pickled cabbage, lettuce, green onions, crema, and an assortment of hot sauces. We’d order three tacos each (they were usually about $2 (US) for three), overstuff them with fixings, and feast on them. With a couple of cervezas and a seafood cocktail as an appetizer (the clam cocktail was the most delicious one we came across), we were set. Afterwards we’d wander over to one of the ice cream shops, have a cone, and take in the streetlife.

You can find a pretty good ceviche in Montreal, but you’re hard-pressed to find any fish tacos. We have no lack of good seafood here, though, so I’ve taken to making a trip to Nouveau Falero (5726-A Ave. du Parc) to pick up a couple of fresh filets for my homemade Baja-style fish tacos. There’s one major difference between my fish tacos and the ones I had in Baja: I don’t fry my fish. I’m not the hugest fan of fried fish, so what I do is I take my filets (I always use a firm-fleshed fish like blue marlin), I chop them into one-inch cubes, I marinate them in a mixture of tequila and lime juice, and then I sauté them over medium-high heat for just a few minutes (3-5) in a wok. I then serve the fish in warm corn tortillas, with homemade refried black beans, steamed rice, and an assortment of toppings: homemade salsa ranchero and guacamole, sour cream, lettuce, carrot salad (made with green onions and lime juice), and Tapatío hot sauce (nothing finishes off a taco like Tapatío, in my opinion). My dining room doesn’t quite have the atmosphere of those outdoor fish taco stands in San Felipe, but the tacos do a pretty good job of bringing back seaside memories of Baja California.


Thursday, January 27, 2005

On a cold day when you don't feel like cooking...

Serrano's chicken sandwich
Originally uploaded by michelle1975.

...sometimes a spicy chicken sandwich is just what the doctor ordered. Serrano serves one of our favorites: a fresh Portuguese roll, mayonnaise, shredded lettuce, juicy, tender rotisserie-roasted dark meat, and that famous hot sauce.

Rotisserie Serrano/Serrano Bar-B-Q (161 St Viateur W.) is located in Mile End. When the temperature remains steadily in the -10 C to -30 C range for long stretches of time like it does around here, you need extra rays of sunshine. Serrano is one of our secret weapons.


Monday, January 24, 2005

Halal 786

Last night, Kazi, Michelle and I had plans to go out for Turkish food. Michelle and Kazi had tried a Turkish place on Jean-Talon called Doruk a few months back and they'd raved about it afterwards. Michelle claimed it was the best Turkish restaurant she'd ever been to. We were a little bit anxious as we made our way up to Jean-Talon because another good Turkish restaurant downtown had recently closed down, and, sure enough, when we got to what had been Doruk's location, it had closed down. Even a very positive review in the Montreal Gazette couldn't save it. It had been replaced by a Turkish cafe/bar called Agora, and the walls were now plastered with Turkish soccer team banners. We asked the bartender if he knew what had happened to Doruk, but he was none the wiser. It was time for Plan B.

Luckily, Jean-Talon west of Park Avenue is a pretty easy place to come up with a Plan B. That section of Park Extension, as many of you well know, has all kinds of tantalizing restaurants and specialty stores of all stripes. We decided to go to a Pakistani restaurant that Michelle had been to during the summer, but that neither Kazi or I had experienced yet: Halal 786.

There are a couple of mysterious things about Halal 786, right off the bat. First off, the name: its address is 768 Jean-Talon, not 786. We tried and tried to find some kind of alternate rationale for the name, but came up empty*. Secondly, the decor: the restaurant has nets containing "fish" and other "sea-catch" hanging from the ceiling, the walls are covered with nautical motifs (ships' steering wheels, portholes, etc.), and the whole place just generally has the look of a Long John Silver's franchise. They've got fish on the menu, and one of the specialties of the house is a grilled tilapia (which Michelle had on her first visit and apparently is phenomenal), but it didn't seem like they had enough seafood on the menu to warrant such surroundings. Later, we asked one of the employees how long Halal 786 had been in operation and we found out that the restaurant had been a Greek restaurant for a number of years in the late-'90s (bingo!), and then an Indian restaurant, before the present management took over.

We started off last night's meal with Dood Pati, the Pakistani-style tea brewed in milk recommended by the waiter. Then we ordered our main and our sides: 1 whole BBQ chicken, chick peas, lentils, and spinach with paneer, rice, and an order of nan. Everything was fantastic, but the chicken (Lahori Chargha) was truly amazing. It was made with a salt and spice dry-rub and the resultant chicken was both succulent and piquant. The lentils were of a different variety than your average dal. They had more texture to them and were beautifully seasoned. The palak paneer was the best I've tasted in Montreal. The channa masala was exceptional, with more kick to it than the chick pea dishes I've come to expect from my favorite Indian restaurants. Pakistani cuisine is renowned for being fiery-hot. Halal 786's dishes definitely had some heat to them, but they were complex and flavorful without being overwhelming.

The portions--especially the chicken--were very generous indeed, so we got full before we could finish everything that had been laid out before us. (We were quite happy knowing that we'd be having Halal 786's amazing cuisine as leftovers the next day, though.) Even with my legendary sweet tooth, I really wasn't thinking about having dessert afterwards, but Kazi had decided that we HAD to try one of their desserts, so she insisted. I'm glad she did. She ordered what the waiter described as being the specialty of the house: rice pudding. He told her that it had just been made an hour earlier. The rice pudding came served in a plastic container, but that was the only thing that was mundane about it. It was creamy and rich with lots of pistachios in it, and just a hint of perfume. I'm pretty sure it was the best rice pudding I've had since I was in Cairo during Ramadan in the early '90s. Between the three of us, we finished that poor pudding off in a matter of seconds.

[Halal 786 is located at 768 Jean-Talon West (Park Extension). Their telephone number is 514 270 0786 and they deliver until midnight.]


*When we got home that evening we found out that the name had numerological significance.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Madeleines, Pt. 3

tiny rose madeleine flowers
Originally uploaded by michelle1975.

I know these Madeleines aren't classical in shape, but I wanted to make miniature rose-flavoured ones and thought what better mold to use than my tiny flower one? I found it in a toy store in Bonn, Germany, in the cutest "kitchen" section I have ever seen. They had tiny groceries, pots and pans, ovens, shopping bags... They also had all kinds of toy molds which were made of metal. I couldn't see any reason why I couldn't use one in a real oven, so I bought one to try. A couple of weeks ago I decided to test my flower mold out with this new recipe.
These Madeleines were delicate and cute, perfect for yet another of my tiny tea parties. The recipe I used would fall under what I would call a "nouveau" type of Madeleine, one which diverges from the plain or lemon-flavoured classics. I have tried tea-infused ones--I used a recipe from Chez Pim--and they were excellent. They had just the right amount of "nouveau" to them. I wouldn't want to go too far into the realm of fusion with Madeleines, but a bit of experimentation can produce something unexpected and delicious... It can also justify all those special little molds you might have in your kitchen cupboard.


Tuesday, January 18, 2005

confiture d'oignons, pt. II

the return of confiture d'oignons
Originally uploaded by ajkinik.

The last recipe for confiture d’oignons I made (see the post for December 26, 2004) turned out wonderfully in terms of taste, but it was made with butter so it congealed somewhat when I chilled it, lessening its visual appeal. I decided I would try out another recipe just as soon as I ran out of the first batch. Well, I ran out of oignons confits about ten days ago and I suffered for days afterwards. Yesterday I finally tried a new recipe.

This recipe includes no butter at all. In fact, it includes no fat whatsoever. As a result, it maintains its visual appeal even after its been in the refrigerator.

Once again, things start out slow, but then wonderful things start to happen. Even though this recipe has a lot more wine, syrup, and vinegar in it than the last one, it takes much less time to cook. The resultant confiture has a much darker hue to it. The onions turn out a deep ruby red, and they glisten in the light like little jewels, too.

There’s an old Jewish proverb that goes something like, “If there’s nothing in the pot, there’s nothing in the plate.” The converse of this could read, “If there’s confiture d’oignons in the fridge, there’s confiture d’oignons in my sandwich.” And every day that there’s confiture d’oignons in my sandwich is a good day. Well, it’s better than it would have been otherwise.

Without any further ado:

500 gr. onions, peeled and finely minced
1 glass* grenadine syrup
1 glass* red wine
1/2 glass* red wine vinegar
100 gr. granulated sugar

Cook the minced onions in a non-stick saucepan for about 10 minutes over medium-low heat.

Add vinegar and red wine and reduce over medium-high heat for 5 minutes, stirring from time to time. Lower the heat and add sugar and grenadine syrup. Add salt and pepper to taste. Stir well and simmer over medium heat for about 40-45 minutes. The mixture will reduce considerably until it thickens and takes on the consistency of a proper confiture. Remove from heat and allow to cool.

Place in jars and refrigerate.

*1 glass = about 8 oz.

(adapted from Conserves Maison in the Les Recettes d'Amandine series, published by Marabout (2002))


Monday, January 17, 2005

Highlights: Marseilles

OK, I’ve already written about that amazing pizza truck my sister and I found back in September (see “Pizza in Marseilles”)—time to recall some other finds. I’d been meaning to do this for a while, but tonight’s meal—Moules aux Safran at Chez l’Évêque (1030 Laurier W.)—brought back all kinds of memories.

Among the highlights of our brief 3-day stay:

• Moules Frites at Brasserie de l’Hotel de Ville PMU: There are a whole host of restaurants with terrace seating down along Quai du Port on the northern side of the Vieux Port. La Brasserie de l’Hotel seemed to be attracting a good crowd that included a lot of locals. Inside the bar, things were quite boisterous—the place doubled as a local betting center (hence, the PMU), after all—outside, the scene was relaxed. We sat outdoors and looked at the menu, but we already knew what we wanted—we’d seen it on the board posted by the sidewalk: mussels. Karina ordered the moules marinière and I ordered the moules sauce Béarnaise, and we split a salade chèvre chaud. The mussels were delicious—they were perfectly prepared and came with excellent frites—but what I really remember was how fresh they tasted. I rarely remember moules tasting that fresh.

• Street food along Rue Longue des Capucins: We hit the North African market district of Belsunce one day around noon. We took in the sights, the aromas, and the sounds and tried to decide which stand we’d visit for a snack. We ended up at a place called Le Soleil d’Égypte. There they had these lovely crêpe-like flatbreads that they filled with a vegetable stew. They were savory but they had a sweetness to them that came from the onions and peppers—more importantly, they were really, really tasty. The guy behind the counter picked up on my accent and asked where we were from. I told him I was visiting from Canada. The word “Canada” clearly conjured up all kinds of arctic visions in his mind. He asked me if we ever got weather like that of Marseilles (it was about 25˚C that day) in Canada. He seemed shocked when I told him that temperatures could get well above 30˚C in some parts of Canada. Then he asked me if we had ever had anything like Egyptian food back home. He was surprised to hear that although I couldn't find many of the specialties available in Belsunce back home, other types of North African and Middle Eastern food were plentiful in Canada.

• Our final night in Marseilles we treated ourselves to a local legend: Toinou on Cours St-Louis. For generations now, Toinou has been THE place for shellfish for tourists and locals alike. On one side of the Cours sits Toinou’s open-air stall where you can pick up your shellfish to take home with you or have a half-dozen of this or that right there on the street. On the other side sits the restaurant which is open for both lunch and dinner, and which packs them in every day for both. We sat inside and ordered a plateau de dégustation and a couple of glasses of white wine from les Pays d’Oc. We were floored by the platter that arrived. We’d never seen such a wide assortment of shellfish, and all of it (there were at least 40-50 items, including three different types of clams, oysters, mussels, and shrimp) for the extremely reasonable price of about € 15.

Café Noailles on Canebière: Definitely our favorite café. Earthy atmosphere and top-notch coffee (roasted on premises)—a great place to study the local dialect.


Sunday, January 16, 2005

City of Cake

This is a cityscape cake that Reema and I made this weekend for a party hosted by Studio XX here in Montreal. According to Robert Filliou, art was born some 1,000,042 years ago. We were commissioned to make some kind of a virtual urban landscape as art's birthday cake.

Now that it's over, I can breathe easier--we didn't run out of cake, it tasted great, and we managed to get it to the venue in one piece.

Funnily enough, the New York Times just ran an article today in their magazine about a woman in New York City who delivers high-end cakes for a living. We were stressed enough trying to get our creation down three flights of stairs and into a cab--I'm not sure what I'd do if I had to drop off a $25,000 cake in downtown New York during a heatwave. Believe me, she earns every cent she makes.

The cakes we made came in three different flavours: vanilla, lemon and chocolate.

This is by far the largest cake I've ever made (it was big enough to feed 150 people!). Thank God Reema and I worked together on this one. Now the only question is: in order to celebrate, do we treat ourselves to a fancy dinner, or buy some bigger cake pans...

And yes, those are little marzipan cars and trees... M. Filliou would have approved, I'm sure.


Saturday, January 15, 2005


black truffle, December 25,2004
Originally uploaded by ajkinik.

In its most typical form as found among the Kwakiutl tribe [of British Columbia] the potlatch is a great solemn feast, during which one of two groups, with much pomp and ceremony, makes gifts on a large scale to the other group for the express purpose of showing its superiority. The only return expected by the donors but incumbent on the recipients lies in the obligation of the latter to reciprocate the feast within a certain period and if possible to surpass it. This curious donative festival dominates the entire communal life of the tribes that know it: their ritual, their law, their art. Any important event will be the occasion for a potlatch—a birth, a death, a marriage, an initiation ceremony, a tattooing, the erection of a tomb, etc. A chieftain will give a potlatch when he builds a house or sets up a totem-pole. At the potlatch the families or clans are at their best, singing their sacred songs and exhibiting their masks, while the medicine-men demonstrate their possession by the clan-spirits. But the main thing is the distribution of goods. The feast-giver squanders the possessions of the whole clan. However, by taking part in the feast the other clan incurs the obligation to give a potlatch on a still grander scale. Should it fail to do so it forfeits its name, its honour, its badge and totems, even its civil and religious rights. The upshot of all this is that the possessions of the tribe circulate among the houses of the “quality” in an adventurous way.
--J. Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture

Many thanks to Kazi for Czech duck, “Saddle of Venison,” and vanilkovi rohlicky (see “Of Czech Ducks and Viennese ‘Venison’” and “St. Nicholas Day”), Benoit for Malpeque oysters (see “Traditions, New and Old”), Tamar for soujuk, basturma, and a host of other Armenian specialties, Anna for Mexican candied fruit and dried chiles (see “A Very Special Fruitcake”), Ira and Shawna for socca and other treats (see "Socca in Ottawa (and Montreal)"), Marie-Odile for macarons and a lovely bottle of something special (see “A (Brief) Trip to Heaven” and “Traditions, New and Old”), Geoff and Sirpa for a veritable cornucopia of delicacies from Bologna, Helsinki, and beyond, and Gabe and Hermine for a wonderful Christmas Day brunch that included that beautiful little black truffle pictured above.


Friday, January 14, 2005

Petits Fours

coffee petit four
Originally uploaded by ajkinik.

I don't know what it is about these things that makes them irresistible...
Is it the shiny glaze, which is often a dainty baby pink (but in this case is cappuccino-hued)?
The buttercream layered between slices of cake?
The cute size, only one or two bites big?
The complete nightmare they are to make?
I don't even mind the absurd attention to detail they require.
When I see them gleaming up at me, it is worth everything.
The fact that most people find them kind of "tacky" and "way too sweet" doesn't deter me.
I love them.
If I had daughters, I would make these for their tea time (and for their dolls, too).


Sunday, January 09, 2005

Socca in Ottawa (and Montreal)

About ten days ago, Michelle and I happened to pass through Ottawa. We were there on family business, but we managed to tear ourselves away in order to (finally) pay a visit to our friends Ira, Shawna, and Saidye. We only really had time for afternoon tea and some holiday season catching-up, but we somehow got treated to all kinds of impressive snacks in the short time we were there. The showstopper came a couple of hours into our visit, shortly after Shawna suddenly asked us if we’d be interested in some homemade socca. Socca is one of the local specialties in Nice [see “Highlights: Nice” for tales of socca, pan bagnat, salade Niçoise, and other delights], and Shawna knew full-well that I was a fan because she and Ira had imparted all kinds of Nice-related wisdom to me before I made my trip there—including “Have some socca!,” if memory serves me right. When I got back we’d bonded in Montreal over our collective Niçois culinary experiences. So Shawna ran off to the kitchen and literally minutes later she ran back in with the first of three of those lovely chickpea flour crèpes. She served them as they should be served—with the best olive oil you have on hand drizzled on top, and sprinkled with a bit of coarse salt (in this case, we were treated to Alziari olive oil and fleur de sel)—and with four of us there, we made short order of them. I had come back from Nice with a recipe for socca, but I hadn’t really thought of making them myself until that afternoon in Ottawa. At Ira and Shawna’s, everything fell into place. There was something about having socca—its uniqueness, its warmth—that made Nice seem not so far away in spite of the geographic and climatic distance separating us.

The recipe Shawna made came from a special issue on Nice put out by Bon Appétit four or five years ago. The method is quite different from the way socca is made in Nice—it involves frying and baking, whereas in Nice the dish is only ever baked—but Bon Appétit said that they’d made changes to the recipe because of the unavailability of Provençal chick pea flour in North America. They claimed that this recipe worked best with the type of chickpea flour available on this continent. The results are quite different from the socca you get in Nice, too—it tends to be thinner and crispier there, almost like an Indian dosa, whereas this recipe results in a somewhat puffier pancake—but what really matters is the taste—the way the chickpea flour, the cumin, and the olive oil come together.

Shawna’s soccas all came out perfectly—she’d made this recipe before. My results were a bit more mixed. The first one was a bit of a disaster—it tasted nice but its aesthetics were a bit wanting. The second one came out in one piece (an improvement over the first) but it still didn’t have the crisp edges it was supposed to have. The third one, however, turned out perfectly. By then I’d gotten the hang of it.

I made only one change to the recipe. I toasted whole cumin and then ground it myself with a mortar and pestle instead of using pre-ground cumin—a habit I picked up from Annie Somerville’s Fields of Greens cookbook (another one of our favorites).


2 cups chickpea flour
1 1/2 tsp salt
3/4 tsp whole cumin, toasted and then freshly ground
2 cups water
1/2 cup + 9 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
Olive oil, coarse salt, and pepper (garnish)

Preheat the broiler. Combine flour, salt and cumin in a blender. Gradually blend in the water and 1/2 cup of the olive oil. Blend until very smooth, about 1 minute.

Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a 12-inch non-stick, broiler-proof skillet over high heat [note: I found medium-high worked best, but then my electric burners run hot]. Swirl the oil carefully to coat the skillet entirely. Pour 1 cup of the batter into the skillet. Cook over high heat [or medium-high] until golden brown on bottom, about 3 minutes. Transfer skillet to broiler and cook until pancake is brown and crisp around the edges, watching closely to avoid burning, about 2 minutes. Slide pancake out onto a platter, garnish with additional olive oil, a bit of coarse salt, and some freshly ground pepper. Cut into irregularly sized pieces and divide among plates. Eat while it’s hot. Repeat with remaining batter.

Serves 4-6 as a snack or accompaniment to a meal.

[Chickpea flour is available from select Italian specialty stores—we found ours at Milano in Little Italy (6862 St Laurent Blvd.). You can also find it in many Indian grocery stores.]


Holy Trinity

panforte from La Forchetta
Originally uploaded by michelle1975.

A number of years ago, when I was still living in Vancouver, Italian baked goods began to be a part of my holiday season rituals. I would go buy my fresh pasta at First Ravioli Store (1900 Commercial Dr.), I’d get a latte or a con panna at Continental Coffee (1800 Commercial Dr.), and then I’d go pick up some Crotonese (the dry kind, not the semi-soft version) or some other nice Italian cheese at La Grotta (1791 Commercial). Every year, as the holidays approached, there was a young woman at La Grotta who would bake homemade pignoli. They are still the best I’ve ever had—crisp on the outside, and studded with numerous pine nuts, unbelievably chewy on the inside. I think that’s where it all began.

Anyway, around the same time, I started going to Florida again for the holidays every once in a while. Our family had been going to south Broward County since the late ‘60s, and during the ‘70s we were there regularly for Christmas, but by the late ‘90s we really hadn’t spent much time in Florida in years and years. The first time we went back to Dania, my sister and I were driving around Hollywood nearby when we stumbled across a couple of Italian delis that have since become mainstays of our Florida experience: Gino’s Market and Mimi’s Ravioli (5729 and 5714 Johnson St., respectively). There’s nothing like going to Gino’s on Christmas Eve. The crowds are out of this world, and the waits for the deli counter can be absurd, but everything works out and people end up talking to complete strangers about what they’ve got on the menu for the next few days, trading recipes, sharing jokes. One year I remember Gino was giving the crowd the hard-sell on pannetone. “It ain’t Christmas without a pannetone!” “How you gonna face the kids without a pannetone?” And so on… Gino’s also had pretty good pignoli, and we always picked up a box to take home, but that was when I started picking up a pannetone for Christmas, too.

I never had panforte until I came back to Montreal a few years ago. I was invited for a dinner party one time at a colleague’s house, and for dessert she served up thin slices of panforte with ice cream. There were a couple of panforte aficionados at the table that night, and I heard all about panforte’s lore as we ate. While pannetone comes from Milan originally, panforte hails from Siena. The recipe for panforte dates back to the High Middle Ages, and all attempts have been made to keep modern-day panforte true to its roots. The classic way to serve panforte is with a glass of dessert wine, preferably a Vin Santo. Panforte isn’t easy to find here in Montreal, but you get it at some of the city’s better Italian specialty stores. It costs a pretty penny, though, and it tends to be a bit dry because of the journey. A couple of years ago our friend Kazi came back from a family trip to Italy with a lovely artisanal panforte for us and it was something special. It was so beautifully packaged we found it a bit difficult to crack it open, but we were glad when we finally did. Panforte is essentially a type of fruitcake, but this one had a subtlety and sophistication rarely found in a fruitcake.

This year, however, we caught wind that one of our local Italian delicatessens, La Forchetta (234 Laurier E.), makes their own panforte for the holidays. We couldn’t believe the news and we ran out to get one. OK, here’s the story… First off, whereas imported panforte retails for around $15-25 here in Montreal, La Forchetta was selling theirs for a very reasonable price of about $10. So far, so good. Secondly, while it didn’t have the packaging that our artisanal version had, La Forchetta’s panforte was still very fetchingly wrapped (as you can see above). Most importantly, though: this was an excellent panforte, both moister and more chocolatey than any panforte I’d ever had previously. It didn’t last long, but it lasted long enough to leave a deep impression. I can see panforte joining pignoli and pannetone to form a holiday holy trinity.


Thursday, January 06, 2005

Marsala-Baked Pears

Marsala-Baked Pears fig. a:  baked pears

A few months ago we were looking for a dessert to accompany a somewhat rich meal we were making for a dinner party [see “Edible Gold”]. Scratch that. We didn’t want something that would just “accompany” this meal, we wanted something that would bring it to a close in style. Michelle had initially thought that she might whip up a pastry-based dessert, but the meal we were making was already quite complex (both in terms of procedure and in terms of flavors), so I suggested that we opt for something fruit-based and something simpler. That’s when we turned to Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse: Fruit cookbook (one of our favorites), and found her Marsala-Baked Pears recipe. The recipe couldn’t be any more basic, but, like all the best recipes, the results far exceed the sum of its parts—in this case, exponentially so.

The key is to have good pears. The recipe calls for Bosc pears (Beurré Bosc), and I wouldn’t recommend any substitutions. Bosc pears have exactly the firmness necessary for this recipe, and their elongated forms (which are often “charmingly inclined,” as Waters points out) and distinctive tones are perfect for this dish. “A ripe Bosc has dense, tender flesh that is sweet, rich, and aromatic,” Waters writes. Those with light russeting will show that they are ripe by turning yellow, but those that are heavily russeted will not show a change in color, and therefore must be tested by “pressing gently on the neck area.” Boscs are firm-fleshed, so a ripe one “will give only slightly.” Like other pears, Boscs should be ripened at room temperature in a loosely closed paper bag. Pears that are particularly firm can take a week to ten days to ripen, so be sure to choose your fruit carefully.

Here's the recipe:

6 [or 7, as the case may be] medium Bosc pears
1 1/2 cups Marsala wine
1/2 cup sugar

Preheat the oven to 425ºF.

Slice 1/8 inch off the bottom of each pear so it will sit flat. Arrange the pears in a ceramic baking dish just large enough to hold them snugly. Pour the Marsala over the pears and sprinkle with sugar. Bake the pears for about 1 hour, basting them every 15 minutes with their cooking juices. They are done when they can easily be pierced with a knife and look caramelized and golden. Serve the pears on individual dessert plates, drizzled with the juices from the baking dish and with a dollop of crème fraiche or mascarpone alongside.

Serves 6 [or 7, as the case may be]


Saturday, January 01, 2005

Madeleines, Pt. 2

The story goes that a long time ago a young pastry chef was having an affair with a married woman. One night, her husband found them in an embrace and flew into a rage. He threatened the pastry chef’s life and said he would kill him unless he baked 12 cakes in one hour. This being impossible, the pastry chef dropped to his knees and prayed for help. Saint Madeleine appeared to him and helped him bake 12 small, scalloped-shaped cakes. The husband had no choice but to pardon him, and Madeleines were born.

This recipe is for the pound cake variety: dense, buttery and rich. It comes from Larousse Gastronomique.

250 g. sugar
250 g. cake flour, sifted
250 g. melted butter
4 eggs
pinch of salt
vanilla or grated citrus zest

Butter and flour Madeleine mold. Place sugar, flour, eggs, salt and flavouring in a bowl. Mix until smooth. Add a bit of batter to the melted butter, mix and add to batter. Spoon into molds, filling them 2/3 full. Bake at 375ºF for 15-20 minutes.


Traditions, New and Old

A few days ago we invited our friend Benoît over for a small New Year’s Eve soirée we were in the process of organizing. He told Michelle he’d be delighted to come over, but that it was his tradition to eat oysters on New Year’s Eve, so would we mind if he brought over a bag of 50 Malpeques. She told him she was pretty sure we’d be able to accommodate him and his tradition. To my knowledge, I’d never had oysters for New Year’s Eve—not in quite some time, in any case. Our family has tended to be in warmer climes at this time of year—ones where good oysters are less readily available. I could hardly think of a better way of ushering in the New Year. With the exception of a decade of vegetarianism, I’ve been a dedicated oyster eater since I was a toddler, and a veteran of oyster festivals stretching from Hull, Quebec (now Gatineau, Quebec) to Urbanna, Virginia (home of the Virginia State Oyster Festival). Michelle had never had oysters until a couple of years ago, but she quickly became an amateur of oysters. I have a tradition of having smoked salmon for brunch on New Year’s Day, but that’s New Year’s Day. I was desperately in need of a New Year’s Eve tradition.

Anyway, once we’d found out about the oysters, we set about coming up with a menu that would complement them nicely. That’s when I thought of Waterzooi. It seemed like an ideal accompaniment, and I’d been meaning to try making it since I first heard about it last winter while in Belgium.

Pressed to tell me what the local specialty was when I was visiting them in their hometown of Ghent, my friends Steven and Hilde placed this dish at the top of their list. It has a rather vague name—Waterzooi translates as “simmering water”—and it can be both a seafood dish and a poultry dish, strangely enough, as it is made with both fish and chicken (never at the same time, mind you), depending on who makes it. But when it’s at its best, as in this recipe, its balance of flavors—between its fish, its winter vegetables, and its creamy broth—is wonderful and it makes for a elegant centerpiece on days when the weather is cold and/or damp, as it is in both Flanders and Montreal this time of year. One of our favorite local restaurants offers a Salmon Pot-au-Feu as one of its signature dishes. If I had a restaurant here in Montreal, I think Gentse Waterzooi van Tarbot would be one of our signature dishes.

Everyone agreed that the Waterzooi had been an ideal follow-up to the oysters (which were absolutely perfect, by the way—all fifty of them), and with bread and cheese, and a lovely mixed greens salad, we’d hit upon a terrific combination for New Year’s Eve: a light prelude to our desserts (Pears Poached with Marsala, Michelle’s Homemade Vanilla Ice Cream, and Crêpes Suzette) and our champagne toast (thank you to Marie-Odile), and a comforting and refreshing way to greet the New Year. I can easily see this whole meal becoming a New Year’s Eve tradition. In fact, I’m making it one of my resolutions.

Ghent-style “Waterzooi” with Turbot

3 tbsp butter
2 medium leeks, trimmed (white and pale green parts only) and julienned
2 medium carrots, peeled, trimmed, and julienned
1/2 celery root, peeled and julienned
2 shallots, peeled and minced
1/2 cup dry white wine
4 cups fish stock (+ up to 2 cups of water, if necessary)
1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
1 bay leaf
1 pinch saffron threads
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 lbs boneless, skinless turbot, cut into 1” cubes
1 1/2 cups whole milk
3 egg yolks
Leaves from 8 sprigs parsley

Melt the butter in a medium pot over medium heat. Add the leeks, carrots, celery root, and shallots and cook until they are slightly soft, about 5 minutes. Add wine, stock, thyme, bay leaf, saffron, and salt and pepper to taste. Cover, and reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer until vegetables are soft, 10-15 minutes. Add the fish and poach it until cooked through, about 6-8 minutes.

Whisk the milk and egg yolks together in a medium bowl. Gradually add 1 cup of the hot broth from the pot, whisking constantly, then stir hot milk mixture back into pot. Heat stew until hot (do not allow to boil otherwise it will curdle). Adjust seasonings. Garnish with parsley.

[adapted from a recipe in Saveur (August/September 2003 issue), which itself was adapted from Everybody Eats Well in Belgium Cookbook by Ruth Van Waerebeek]