Chai tea: Perfect for thunderstorms.

When I was young, my parents had some very good luck with daycare providers. There weren’t after school programs or “amenities,” but there were very interesting people like Mrs. Gill and Mrs. DiAntonio, immigrant women with fantastic recipes who were at home all the time, cooking. And looking after me, I guess, but mostly cooking. And more often than not, they shared. From Mrs. DiAntonio, I learned about the other kind of amaretti cookies – the soft ones with the almond thumbprint in the centre, about how magnificent just tomato sauce could be on pasta, that mozzarella doesn’t come in bricks, and that wine is something that happens after you squish grapes with your feet. I never got to taste the wine, but Mr. DiAntonio would make it that way, and grew his own grapes to boot.

From Mrs. Gill, I learned about bright red tandoori chicken, still one of my favourite things, about samosas (and, incidentally, ketchup on samosas which is still the only way to have them) and potato pakoras and twisty orange jalebis and chai tea. At one point, Mrs. Gill and my mother traded skills – my mom taught Mrs. Gill to sew, and Mrs. Gill taught my mom about Indian cooking. Armed with spices Mrs. Gill had given her, my mom was able to make that chai tea at home. I still remember the taste of Mrs. Gill’s chai – it’s nothing like the Starbucks iteration, and nothing at all like what you buy in teabags labelled “chai tea.”

Today it rained a lot, and there was thunder (and I discovered that Molly is a scaredy cat), and I had a lot of housecleaning to do. A regular cup of tea would not quite have done. I don’t have Mrs. Gill’s recipe, but I remember the taste. If you don’t keep them in your kitchen, go buy the spices – you can buy them at Indian grocery stores, and you get a lot of them for not very much money. I buy most of my spices from Indian grocers (or from the Indian section of Superstore), because they are so plentiful and inexpensive.

So, here. A recipe for chai tea, which I’ll hope you enjoy anytime there’s thunder and downpour, even if you end up drinking it while cradling (and reassuring) a bawling kitten.

Chai tea

(Makes two cups)

  • 2 cups cold milk
  • 2 tbsp. honey
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 1 tbsp. whole green cardamom
  • 2 tsp. whole cloves
  • 2 tsp. black peppercorns
  • 1 tsp. fennel seed
  • 3 allspice berries
  • 1 slice of ginger (sliced horizontally from ginger root, about the thickness of a quarter)
  • 1 piece dried orange peel (optional, but if you have it, all the better!)
  • 2 teabags of black tea

In a saucepan over medium-high heat, toast whole spices until just fragrant, about two minutes, moving them about the pan frequently. Reduce heat to medium, and add milk and honey, stirring to dissolve the honey. Add teabags once honey is dissolved, and allow to come very slowly to a gentle boil, about 40 minutes.

Once it begins to boil, remove the mixture from the stovetop and strain into mugs. Serve immediately.

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Meyer lemon shortbread.

I’ve been thinking about shortbread lately, and I wasn’t going to give in to temptation (especially after I consumed 80% of the butter/cream/cheese buns the other day), but then I needed comfort food and my stew failed last night and cookies always make everything better when we’re out of the stuff to make pudding (pudding is the most soothing of comfort foods). My grandpa died yesterday, and though we all knew it was coming, that kind of advance warning doesn’t make the news any less surprising or unpleasant. And while I certainly have thoughts on the matter, I think I’d best save them for now – I’m well past the age of emo, and besides, it’s impossible to think clearly about anything until you feel able to focus.

So this morning, I am busying myself with shortbread cookies, the kind that sparkle with Meyer lemon and whisper vanilla. Regular lemon – or any citrus you like – will do if your local market didn’t surprise you with Meyer lemons this week. To replicate the taste of Meyer lemons, use two tablespoons lemon juice and one tablespoon orange juice (preferably mandarin orange juice), and that should give a suitable impression.

Meyer lemon shortbread cookies

(Makes about 24.)

  • 1 cup butter, softened (room temperature)
  • 1 cup confectioner’s sugar
  • 2 Meyer lemons, zest and juice (zest = about 2 tbsp., juice = 2 to 3 tbsp.)
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour

Cream together butter, sugar, lemon zest and juice, vanilla, and salt until liquid is absorbed into the mix. Mixture should be shiny and light.

Add flour, stirring until a soft dough forms. Form dough into a log (make sure the ends are equal to the middle in girth), and wrap tightly in plastic. Place in the freezer for up to one hour.

Preheat your oven to 350°F.

Slice cookie roll into approximately 24 equal pieces. Place cookie slices on a baking sheet, and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, checking after 15 minutes for doneness.

Shortbread is different from regular cookies, in that it’s best if it isn’t allowed to bake until golden. The other thing that’s different is that you don’t want to eat it warm. Like bread, there are changes that occur when the shortbread cools, and you want the texture to have a sandy fall-apartness that you have to wait for. Troublesome, isn’t it? Not really, but they smell so good when they bake you’ll want to dive in right away.

Allow to cool on the baking sheet for five minutes before removing to a cooling rack. Serve with tea.

Mexico, St. Lorenzo, and some brunchy buns that belong to both.

My mom keeps talking about these little bread treats called St. Lorenzo buns. Apparently they’re a buttery Mexican treat that have a glob of cheese in the centre, and they are served warm at breakfast-time at at least one resort. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to exist anywhere but that resort and/or my mom’s imagination, as a Google search turned up nothing, even when I varied the spelling. All I’ve got to go on is that they’re pretty much savoury, and that they have a soft cheese in the centre.

I emailed Alana at Eating from the Ground Up, as she’s doing some very accessible (and delicious) homemade cheeses these days, to see if she knew of a cheese similar to what Mom vaguely described. She had a few good ideas, but I wasn’t sure about the texture, and about using apple cider vinegar – aren’t apples a rare treat in Mexico? I wanted to use limes. (Even when asking for help I’m a stubborn know-it-all. The worst kind.)

If you know how the cheese in these is supposed to be, or if you know what these buns are and can help me, please let me know. I think the cheese should be something like panela, which is similar-ish to ricotta, I guess. My mom said it should be creamier, like cream cheese (or mascarpone), which you could use as well (1 tbsp. per bun). I like a challenge, but I’ve started with too few facts to produce a reliable facsimile of the buns. Unless you can determine that the following recipe is a reasonable facsimile … in that case, compliments and adoration will do.

Saint Lorenzo buns

Cheese (based on this recipe here):

  • 4 cups whole milk
  • 1/2 cup cream
  • 2 1/2 tbsp. lime juice (lemon’s fine if that’s what you’ve got)
  • 1 tsp. salt

Buns:

  • 1 package dry yeast (2 1/4 tsp.)
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 1 cup cream
  • 1 egg
  • 3 cups flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt

The night you make the buns, set cold milk and cream in a pot over low heat. Add lime juice. Using a candy thermometer, bring milk to 180°F. Don’t rush it. This should take an hour. Once there, increase temperature to medium, and allow liquid to come to a boil, just over 200°F. The curd will begin to separate from the whey – the whole thing will resemble icebergs in a murky sea.

Remove pot from heat, and let stand 10 minutes. Drain in a colander lined with cheesecloth, 15 minutes.

Stir salt into mixture (still in cheesecloth), then knot around a cupboard door handle and allow to hang for two or three hours, until liquid no longer drips from cheese.

Press cheese (still in cheesecloth) between the bottoms of two small plates, the top plate weighted with a brick or a couple cans of beans, and refrigerate overnight.

If you’d rather go with store-bought ricotta, you’ll still want to drain the excess liquid out – strain about a cup of ricotta in a colander lined with cheesecloth, a clean (non-linty) dish towel, or some paper towel overnight in the fridge.

To make the buns, begin by pouring yeast into the bottom of a large bowl. In a saucepan, combine cream, honey, and butter, heating until butter has just begun to melt. Whisk to ensure that honey doesn’t stick to the bottom. Pour over yeast and allow to stand until yeast is frothy, about five minutes.

When yeast is frothy, whisk egg into the mix, then add flour gradually, forming a paste at first, ensuring it is well-combined every step of the way. Continue adding flour until a soft dough forms. Turn out onto a floured surface, dusting with additional flour as needed for kneading. Knead until dough becomes smooth and elastic, about five minutes.

Let stand in a lightly greased bowl covered in plastic wrap until doubled in size, about an hour. Lightly butter 12 muffin tins. Slice pressed/drained cheese into 12 equal pieces (about one tablespoon each).

Turn back out onto a floured surface and cut the dough in half. Cut each half into three equal pieces, and then cut each piece in two, so that you have 12 pieces. Stretch each piece out in your palm, pressing a piece of cheese into the centre and folding the edges of the dough around the cheese, pinching the opening closed at the top.

Drop each bun into a muffin tin, and cover the whole thing with plastic. Allow to rise again, until doubled (ish), another hour.

Preheat oven to 375°F. Remove plastic from buns, pinch closed any buns that have opened, and stuff the whole thing in the oven, for 18 to 20 minutes, or until golden on the tops and fragrant all over.

Serve warm, possibly for brunch, definitely with something delicious, like breakfast cocktails. The buns are lightly sweet, and very buttery, flaky and soft in the centre. So, maybe a cava and orange juice would be ideal? I’ll leave that part to you.

A little list for the lovely Miss Rosa.

Dearest Miss Rosa,

Bated breath, you say? Desperation? Sure. I got your back. I’m glad you don’t think it’s all butter, bacon fat, and liver failure around here. It often is, but sometimes I like to give our livers something they can use.

Here are ten things you might enjoy, all of which you can adjust to fit the GI diet and your fabulous new figure. Whenever we’re cutting back, I increase the amount of spice that goes into things, which makes it easier to go without the fat. While there’s popular research that suggests certain spices affect one’s metabolism favourably, I find that the biggest thing is that we eat less and also more slowly when there’s more zing to things, which means that after 20 minutes of eating we feel satisfied, not disgustingly full. (Also, don’t forget that fat is your friend sometimes too, you know?)

Soups:

Avgolemono – this lemony chicken broth and rice soup is perfect when paired with a little whole grain bread and a salad (salads need not be boring … but that’s a whole other post). You can substitute vegetable stock, if you like. Also, homemade chicken stock goes a long way – start with better quality chicken (free-range/organic), and veggie scraps. I like homemade because you can control the salt and fat that goes into it. Better for dinners or weekend lunches, as it doesn’t re-heat as well as other soups.

Red bean soup – this soup contains an impressive amount of fibre, thanks to the red beans and sweet potatoes, and almost no fat. Reheats well, and if you use less liquid it’s versatile as a dip or spread.

Heartier fare:

Winter chili – similar in taste and ingredients to the red bean soup, to make this a little more GI-friendly, use low-carb beer or skip the beer all together and use stock or water.

Easy tomato curry – use low-fat coconut milk, yogurt, or buttermilk, and this will be all kinds of all right. Even better the next day, over whatever grain you like. We eat a lot of brown rice, but you could certainly serve it over barley, bulgur, or kasha.

Chana masala – another dish that’s even better the next day. Eat it as a side dish, or as a main dish with low-fat raita and brown rice.

Tomato sauce on pasta – well-tested by the Internet, this one is flavourful, and a complete cinch to make. It’s also super versatile. Best made with sub-par tomatoes, which benefit from a long cooking time. The longer you roast the tomatoes, the better. The olive oil unlocks the lycopene in the tomatoes, which makes the dish a cancer-fighting super entrée.

Lamb burgers – use fresh local lamb and whole wheat buns (make sure there’s no secret high-fructose corn syrup hidden in the ingredients list), and you will be all kinds of pleased. Alternately, if you make a few adjustments to the venison burgers (no butter, no brie, and do the duxelles with olive oil), they can be quite good for you as well.

Baked goods:

Leftovers muffins – when you end up with leftover rice or whatever, make these muffins. Use whole wheat flour instead of all-purpose, and applesauce instead of melted butter to cut calories, and low-fat yogurt or yogurt and buttermilk instead of the yogurt-milk combo, and honey instead of sugar.

Olive oil orange cookies – again, use whole wheat instead of white flour, a whole wheat pastry flour which will produce a nicer textured cookie. There’s also whole wheat flour now that’s ground so fine it can be used in place of all-purpose with relative ease – I’ve tried it and don’t mind it one bit. And use applesauce again, but this time instead of the wine. I haven’t tried liquid sugars like honey or agave syrup with this recipe yet, but if you do, let me know how it works out.

Carrot cake with blood orange – cut down the sugar by substituting honey, about 1/2-cup, and go with the whole wheat flour, which you won’t even notice here. You can make this into muffins if you want it to be more portable.

Of course, there are a million things you can do and a ton of resources online as well (I’d be happy to point you to some, or some others, if you’re interested, but I’ve already taken up a lot of space with no pictures). Stay tuned for a few wholesome, healthy recipes this week as well, as we’re tightening our belts a bit – nothing sexy about back fat in a bikini, as you may know. Tomorrow I’m making something like chana dal, and I’m pretty certain it will be a spicy little vegan number you will be able to carry to work with you. The day after will not be particularly healthy (probably), but I’ll keep you in mind so you don’t get too bored and fall off the wagon.

Love,

Emily

PS – because there weren’t any pictures here and this doesn’t count as a recipe post, here’s a picture of my cat. For visual interest. And because I don’t care who thinks I’m weird.

Burger night, but we had no buns or money.

It occurred to me recently that the reason all of my work clothes were faded and full of holes is that I haven’t actually bought anything for work in years, which also explains why I had begun to look so slovenly and outmoded. I am the kind of person who will go shopping for pants and come home with a sequined party dress, so was no surprise that I didn’t have anything practical that I could wear for a job interview I’ve got this week. So we looked at our bank accounts, decided that we’ve been responsible enough with our bills lately and that they could be ignored this payday, and determined that I could go shopping if I was smart about it and promised not to buy anything with sequins. If I get the job, I’m going to buy whatever dress I want.

So, because I had to buy a lot of grey and black clothes, and because we were down to our last as far as essential grocery items, and because life is full of surprises, this has been a big spending week, and now we’re poor again. But I wanted turkey burgers, because had ground turkey thighs in the freezer and one last jar of zucchini relish in the cupboard. The only thing we didn’t have was buns. Solution? Homemade hamburger buns.

The recipe is based on a recipe I dug out of the old Fannie Farmer, but I’ve adapted it to suit normal people’s lives. Who keeps dried milk powder on hand, and how many people other than me hoard lard in their freezer for no particular reason other than greed? I have no idea, but I think no one. This is a more modern, much more convenient take on things.

Hamburger buns

(Makes 12)

  • 2 packages (or 4 1/2 tsp.) dry yeast
  • 1 tbsp. honey
  • 1 1/2 cup milk, warmed slightly
  • 1/3 cup butter, melted (alternative: use olive oil, if you prefer)
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 5 cups all-purpose flour

In a large bowl, whisk together yeast, honey, and milk. Let stand for five minutes, or until yeast has begun to foam on top.

Mix butter, egg, and salt, and stir into the yeast mixture. Add two cups flour, and stir until a paste has formed. Gradually add the rest of the flour until the paste becomes a dough.

Turn out onto a floured surface, knead for about a minute, and then cover with a kitchen towel and allow to rest for ten minutes.

After ten minutes, return to the dough, kneading until smooth and elastic, about eight to ten minutes. Place in a greased bowl and cover with plastic wrap and a kitchen towel, in a warm place, and let stand until doubled in bulk, 60 to 90 minutes.

Punch down dough, and divide into two equal pieces. Divide each piece in two again, and then each of those pieces into three, for twelve pieces of dough, roughly equal in size.

Grease two baking sheets, and sprinkle with cornmeal, if desired.

Roll each piece into a ball, pinching the bottom to secure the shape.

Place dough balls on baking sheets, pressing each ball flat with your palm, so that each ball forms a disc about a 1/2- to 3/4-inch thick. Let rise again, covered in plastic wrap and dish towels, until doubled, about 45 minutes.

Bake buns at 425°F, for about 20 minutes, until golden, then place on a wire rack until cool.

Slice in half and top with your favorite burger patty and condiments. Serve with “easy frites.” Or use as bread for your favourite sandwiches.

Bread pudding with spinach, feta, and ham.

Well, it’s official. This past weekend has been the laziest on record, with no signs so far of an upswing toward productivity or wise time-use. I blame the fort, which we have only just dismantled because I was beginning to worry that at a certain point, my trajectory toward the hobo lifestyle would be irreversible, and I was dangerously close to packing my crap in a bindle, crafting a few sturdy shivs, and finding a van to live in, down by the river. (You can build excellent forts around vans.)

Here’s my fort.

On Thursday night, Corinne came over in her pajamas and we sat in the fort, eating homemade pizza and watching many episodes of The Muppet Show on DVD. The cat was there, and made things difficult, so we had to lock her in the bathroom.

By Friday morning, the roof was gone (the cat also thinks forts are super fun, especially jumping on them), so we ended up enjoying an open-air fort, the kind of fort kids in more temperate climates probably build.

We came to love the fort, and even considered making it a permanent fixture; is anything more fun than doing stuff in a fort? The correct answer is no. The problem is, it was beginning to function as a vortex into which all of my motivation (and Nick’s, which has always been perilously low anyway) was completely sucked. If I hadn’t needed to go downtown in the middle of the day on Friday, I might still be in those same, smelly pajama pants, hair not brushed, and covered in food because you cannot eat sitting upright in a fort.

So we agreed that today we’d get rid of the thing, put our furniture back up like how grown-ups have their furniture, and do the dishes because a lot of mess accumulates when you’re spending all your time horizontal on a pile of cushions but still eating the same amount (if not more). We did take it down, but not before playing in it most of the day.

We spent the morning in the fort, napping and brunching. Last night I assembled a bit of bread pudding, and put out some sausages to defrost, so that breakfast could be in the oven by the time we were ready to move from bed to fort floor. It’s a recipe that I’ve played with a bit, and it comes from the December 2008 issue of Gourmet (see the original recipe on Epicurious, here). The two best things about this recipe are that it’s best if you assemble it the night before you want to bake it, and also that it’s very versatile. I’ve made it vegetarian with basil leaves, sundried tomatoes, and pine nuts, and I’ve used sausage and cheddar when I had leftover sausage and no Gruyere. Here’s my Greek-inspired adaptation, which is quite delightful and I insist you make it as soon as you can. If you end up with leftover Easter ham, well, then you’ve no excuse not to. It’s also good as a side-dish with dinner, so you could even make it for your next family feast.

Bread pudding with spinach, feta, and ham

(Adapted from a recipe from Gourmet, December 2008. Serves four, or six as a side-dish.)

  • 1 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 1/2 cup cream
  • 5 large eggs
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. dried oregano
  • 1/4 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1/2 lb. ham, cubed
  • 5 cups roughly chopped spinach
  • 6 cups cubed stale bread
  • 1 cup grated mozzarella cheese
  • 1 cup crumbled feta cheese
  • Good-quality extra virgin olive oil

Night before:

Butter two-quart shallow baking dish.

Whisk together milk, cream, eggs, garlic, pepper, oregano, and nutmeg in a large bowl.

In another large bowl, toss ham, spinach, bread, mozzarella, and feta. Transfer to baking dish and pour liquid mixture over top. Cover, and refrigerate over night.

Next morning:

Preheat your oven to 375°F.

Remove the dish from the refrigerator, and drizzle olive oil over top the uncooked bread pudding. Cover with foil, and bake for 30 minutes. Then remove foil and bake until golden in spots, about 10 minutes more.

Serve as part of a completely delicious brunch, or alongside a fancy dinner. Serve hot, so cheese is at its melty best. And, if desired, eat in a fort. In your pajamas.

Radishes are the new whatever we were eating all winter.

Today was supposed to be another errand day, but laziness and that pesky but inevitable St. Patrick’s Day hangover took hold in the morning and I ate one of Grace’s magnificent cupcakes (from this recipe here) for breakfast and thought that I could probably spend most of the day in the bathtub reading Kerouac and imagining I had the oomph to find and follow adventure someplace else. And then, I realized that the breeze blowing through my window was warm, and thought that today was a day I could venture outside in a sundress, with a sweater, of course, so I hopped on my bike and crossed the errands off my list like a champ.

Apologies for the exceedingly blurry photos of late – I discovered after I uploaded these, after lunch had been snarfed down gluttonously, that the lens was dirty, because I am a slob.

It’s so warm and pleasant right now, it’s as if summer is just around the corner. Everywhere I looked, there were rhododendrons and cherry blossoms, and occasionally I caught sight of tulips with petals splayed so wide that spring might as well be half over. It was a glorious seventh day of unemployment, and at this point, I’m not sure I ever want to go back to work. I wish there weren’t so many rules for working – I would be the happiest, most productive worker bee ever if I could follow my own schedule, eat something fresh and homemade at lunchtime, and nap in the sun when I felt like it. There has to be a way to do that. If there is and you’ve figured it out, let me know.

Because it is now spring, and a new season of veggies is upon us, today’s something homemade was radish bruschetta, loosely assembled and flung onto a few crusty slices of rustic baguette. I ate the overflow with a fork, and sipped sweet German Riesling all the while.

And I’ll tell you the ingredients, but there’s not really a recipe, because all you do is throw in a bit of this and that, to your taste, and dump it all out onto a few slices of bread. You can make as much or as little as you need, and you can add anything you like. If you cut the radishes bigger it can be more like a salad, and if you chop them a little finer, they could pass for a sandwich filling.

Radish bruschetta

  • Bread
  • Radishes
  • Feta cheese
  • Mint
  • Parsley
  • Lemon, zest and juice
  • Good olive oil
  • Coarsely ground black pepper

Slice the bread, and into a bowl slice the radishes, crumble the cheese, chop the mint and the parsley, and zest and juice the lemon. Drizzle with olive oil, and grind as much pepper as you like into the mix. Toss. Then spoon out onto bread. This is nourishing springtime lunching at its best.

I think it’s time for a nap now, then a wander to the wine shop, and then to build a fort in my living room.