Thursday, December 15, 2011

Peanut Veggie Stir Fry

The other day at work we had our annual holiday potluck. Rather than make something sweet, I decided it would be good to have some vegetables available for myself since potlucks in the past have tended to be rather meat heavy, and I am a vegetarian. To my great surprise, everything on offer at the event was vegetarian!!!

This is a very quick meal to make once your veggies are prepped. If you want to make it during the week and find yourself pressed for time, you could cut up the veggies in advance and keep them in the fridge until you’re ready to go.


For the sauce, the only items that might not already be in your pantry and fridge are sesame oil, and Sambal Oelek (Thai red chilli paste). The other magic ingredients are peanut butter and soy sauce.

As you prep your veggies, group them with other veggies that take similar cooking times (for example, celery and carrots together, beans and peas together, peppers and zucchini together). The more organized you are with your mise en place, the faster the cooking process will go.


1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 large carrot, thinly sliced
2 stalks celery, chopped
A large handful of green beans, cut into bite sized pieces
A large handful of snap peas or pea pods, cut into bite sized pieces
1 small head broccoli, cut into florets (you can also add cauliflower if you like – I didn’t have any on hand)
1 small can water chestnuts
1 small can bamboo shoots, which have been julienned (you can buy them in a can this way)
1 medium zucchini, sliced
1 red or yellow pepper, sliced (or ½ a red and ½ a yellow)
You can add mushrooms as well if you like, I don’t care for them so I leave them out J
2 – 3 tbsp peanut butter
2 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp grapeseed oil
1 tbsp sesame oil
Crushed peanuts (optional)
Cilantro (optional)

Rice or rice noodles (optional)


In a large wok or non stick pan, put 1 – 2 tbsp grapeseed oil and 1 tbsp sesame oil. When it’s hot, add onions and cook for about 5 minutes (you can lower the heat so they don’t burn). Add the garlic and stir for a minute or so. 


Add the celery and carrots. Stir for 2 minutes. 


Then add the beans and peas, broccoli and cauliflower (if using). Stir for 2 minutes. 


Then add the rest of the vegetables. Stir for a couple of minutes – don’t overcook.


Add 1 tsp Sambal Oelek (Thai red chili paste, or if you can’t find Sambal, use another chili sauce). Add 2 – 3 tbsp peanut butter, and 2 tbsp soy sauce (approximately). Salt and pepper. Stir to combine the sauce with the vegetables. Taste it and adjust seasonings as you require.

You can serve it with rice, or rice noodles, or on its own. The julienned bamboo shoots look like noodles and have a similar texture so you might not even notice that the noodles aren’t there. You can add crushed peanuts on top when you serve it, and also cilantro if you have some around.


“Healthy” Chocolate Chip Cookies

A couple of summers ago I took the kids to the US to visit our friends, Karen, Chris, Abby and Bridget. When we arrived, thankfully Karen had baked. It had been quite a long trip and we needed sustenance. One of the Tupperware containers sitting on the counter had her Mom’s tea biscuits in it – yummy and not at all good for you because they are baked with white flour and other bad things.I will share this delicious recipe later with Karen's (and Pat's!) permission.

The other container had these cookies in it. I immediately grabbed one because I have a serious problem with chocolate and I simply cannot pass it up. These cookies looked like regular cookies, but when I took my first bite I realized that there was something different. I thought I detected a hint of maple, but just to be sure, I took another cookie. In the second cookie I confirmed to myself that there was definitely maple in there, but I still could not put my finger on what else was different. So I thought I had better try just one more, just to be certain. I still could not put my finger on it, but knew I could not possibly have a fourth. Instead, I asked Karen for the recipe.

The title was Healthy Chocolate Chip Cookies, which I immediately objected to. Who’s fooling who, I thought to myself. Upon closer inspection I noticed that the cookies were made with spelt flour. OK, that’s fine, but that doesn’t make them “healthy”. Then I noticed no eggs – OK, that makes them have low cholesterol, but “healthy”? The recipe also contains oatmeal – so they had extra fibre, maybe that’s a little big healthy. Finally I noticed that instead of sugar, they used maple syrup. So in summary, there is no refined sugar or flour, no eggs, and oatmeal to give extra fibre.

I am still not sure if that is enough to make these cookies “healthy”, but one thing I can tell you for sure is that they are delicious. So here is the recipe, with props to Karen.

Dry Ingredients:
2 cups whole spelt flour
1 cup chocolate chips (the recipe calls for non-dairy chocolate chips; I use regular semi sweet)
1 cup chopped walnuts (optional; I don’t use them because my kids don’t like nuts in cookies)
¾ cup rolled oats
½ tsp sea salt
¾ tsp baking soda
1/8 tsp cinnamon

Wet Ingredients:
2/3 cup maple syrup
2/3 cup grapeseed oil (or safflower, or olive)
2 tbsp filtered water (I use tap water, let’s get real here people)
1 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. 

Place dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl and mix well. Combine wet ingredients in another large bowl. Add to dry and mix well. Refrigerate for 15 minutes. (Note: I put it all in one bowl because I don’t like to clean too many dishes. And try not to refrigerate for longer than 15 minutes because the dough gets crumbly.)

Drop by spoonfuls onto a cookie sheet. Bake for 10 minutes. Makes about 3 dozen.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Auntie Martine's Carrot Cake With Cream Cheese Icing

Ever since I started this blog I have been debating whether or not to include the family recipe for The Ultimate Carrot Cake. There are pros and cons to consider. If I share it, how would my family feel? If I share it, will credit be given where credit is due? If I share it, it won't be a secret anymore. If I share it, it might lose its specialness. 

On the other hand, if I don't share it, people won't get to experience the moist perfection of the eggless (yes, eggless!) cake, and the creamiest possible cream cheese icing. If I don't share it people may possibly continue to think that their own carrot cake is The Ultimate Carrot Cake. If I don't share it, I would be keeping secret one of the recipes I am known for. If I don't share it, well, the list goes on.

As long as I can remember, my Auntie Martine has made this cake for most special occasions. Growing up in Newfoundland, this cake was even more special because Auntie Martine lives in Montreal, so we would only get the cake when we traveled to visit the family. My Mom never tried to bake this cake - she had her own specialties. This cake was truly Auntie Martine's. We knew that we could rely on getting to have this cake on every visit we made to the house on Elmwood Drive in Pointe Claire. Whether it was a birthday, an anniversary, Christmas, or after a long, humid summer day spent playing Marco Polo in the backyard pool, there would be carrot cake for dessert.

We'd sit at the counter in the kitchen, where the four cousins (now there are 11) always sat, polishing off whatever dinner or lunch we had been served, keeping an eye on the confection on the corner of the kitchen counter. It would call to us. On other days we might sneak our hands into the cupboard above where the cake was sitting, reach into the cookie jar that lived inside, and come out with an Oreo, or better yet, a Fudgeo. Or we might run down the basement stairs to the big freezer and move the frozen hamburger meat around looking for a popsicle. But when the carrot cake was on the counter, all other options were off the table. 

Even if we finished eating before the grownups, who were sitting at the table behind us in the bright kitchen wallpapered with yellow gingham, we had to wait for the cake. Dessert was eaten together, as a family.  And perhaps that is one of the reasons we all love it so much - because it reminds us of family, of love, and of carefree days gone by.

I can picture her now, Auntie Martine, taking the plate that the cake was on and carrying it over to the counter. "Du lait, s'il vous plait" we would cry, pounding our little fists on the counter, "du lait s'il vous plait!" We got our milk, and our cake. Then all would be silent for some time while children and grownups alike took bite after precious bite of the cake.

I keep the tradition alive, as do my cousins. My kids' first taste of cake was the carrot cake. I continue to make it for every birthday in the family - whether I bake it as cupcakes, a bundt cake, a double (or once a triple) layered round cake, or the standard square cake. For Noah's first birthday I made it in the shape of an ark, and placed little plastic animals all over the pillowy clouds of cream cheese icing. It has become the favourite cake of my father in law, Joseph, and I recently made it for his birthday as per his request. My brother Joel's wife, Maureen and her daughter Rebecca have discovered myriad of uses for the extra icing - spread it on ginger snaps, sandwich it between chocolate cookies, eat it off a spoon.

At Joseph's recent birthday party, I talked about the cake with my sister in law Bryony's boyfriend Micah, who happens to be an actual writer (not a wannabe like me). We discussed the internal struggle I was having with myself as to whether or not I should share the recipe. He suggested that I just write about it, and see what happens. I took that to mean that I would know at the end of the piece if I should share the recipe or not. And I do.

For now, it's staying in the vault. Later, who knows?

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Not My Mom’s Sour Cream Coffee Cake

My Mom used to make a coffee cake that was TO DIE FOR. It came from a recipe book called A Treasure For My Daughter. According to Mom, there were not too many other good recipes in that book, but because of the coffee cake, she held on to it. When we moved from Newfoundland to Montreal in 1988, the book was misplaced. I tried for years to find it but it was out of print. I checked used book stores in Montreal, Toronto, New York... to no avail.

Enter the internet; to be precise. I found the book last night and quickly ordered it! It should be here in two weeks. In the meantime, I was craving coffee cake so I opened my trusty bible, The Joy of Cooking, by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker to see what they had to offer.

I also opened my fridge and found that we had no sour cream. What we did have was Greek yogurt, 0% fat (Liberty). So I figured that yogurt and sour cream have similar textures, and if I used yogurt instead I’d be getting extra I decided to give it a whirl.

The recipe turned out pretty well, but I have to say, it is not the coffee cake I had been dreaming of. So I promise to return here once the cookbook arrives, to reveal to you the most delicious sour cream coffee cake you will ever have.

In the meantime, this one is pretty tasty. I made it last night and it’s already gone. In terms of texture, this one is heavier than the one I remember. When I was spooning it into the pan to be baked, it seemed to be almost like a cobbler topping. If you are familiar with that you will know that it is heavy and doesn’t spread easily like a regular cake batter.  The other thing I noticed about this cake is the streusel topping – which wasn’t as brown sugary as I had hoped. On the plus side, the cake took only 20 minutes to bake, and as I mentioned above, it’s very tasty.

So enjoy this recipe, and come back to visit in two weeks for another version!

Ingredients (all should be at about 70 degrees F):
For the cake:
1 ½ cups all purpose flour
¾ cup white sugar (Note: Original recipe called for 1 cup)
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
¼ tsp salt
1 cup sour cream (Note: I used Greek-style yogurt, 0% fat)
2 eggs

For the streusel topping:
3 tbsp flour
3 tbsp butter
5 tbsp brown sugar
¾ tsp cinnamon
Mix together with a pastry cutter or a fork until crumbly. You can add some nuts if you like. 

Sift dry ingredients into a bowl (truth be told, I never sift anything). 

My eggs had just come out of the fridge and were definitely not 70 degrees F, so I put them into a mug of hot water for about 30 seconds before cracking them.

Blend the sour cream and the eggs together using a stand mixer. 

Add the flour mixture and mix until just combined. Do not over-mix because this makes the dough stiff.

Spread into a 9 x 9 inch square pan that has been sprayed with cooking spray, or greased. As I mentioned above, this is not as simple as pouring regular cake batter into a pan - you will have to press it into the pan corners with a spatula. It will spread out as it bakes so just do the best you can.

Sprinkle the streusel topping on top of the cake.  


Bake at 350 degrees F for 20 minutes. Stick a toothpick in there – if it comes out clean, it’s done.


Enjoy with a nice cup! Or a mug of tea. Or even a big glass of milk.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Spiced Nuts from David Lebovitz

In April of 2011 the King of Soup and I traveled to Paris and Barcelona to celebrate our ten year wedding anniversary. We had an amazing time in both cities – we rented apartments and tried to live like the locals. We ate, walked, ate some more, walked some more, and enjoyed each other’s company (without our children around!). I loved both cities, but definitely felt more at home in Paris. Ever since we returned, I find myself drawn to anything that is from Paris, says Paris on it, smells like Paris, etc. I admit that this could become a problem in the future, but for now I am embracing it (until I can get back to Paris and experience that city again in person).

As we were preparing for our travels, one of my friends who gets to go to Paris regularly, told me about David Lebovitz. David has written a book called The Sweet Life in Paris, and also writes a blog. I started following the blog in preparation for the trip, and continue to read it daily now that I am home.

About three weeks ago, I was reading a recent post and at the bottom of the post there were some links to older recipes. The one that caught my eye immediately was called Spiced Glazed Nuts and Pretzel Mix. I decided to try it and immediately was hooked. Uh oh.

I have made this several times in the past three weeks. Each time I have shared it with other people – thank goodness or I might weigh 300 pounds very soon. I have two small adjustments: first, I used light brown sugar instead of dark, because it is what I had on hand in the pantry. Today I made it with dark, just to see if it would turn out differently. The only difference I can detect is that the mixture is darker in colour than my last three (maybe four) batches. But it tastes the same – wonderful. The second adjustment I made was to increase the cayenne pepper from ¾ tsp to 1 tsp. But that is up to you.

This would be a great holiday gift, packaged nicely in a Mason jar with a pretty ribbon around the neck. Or, you can keep it all for yourself.

2 cups raw nuts (I used ¾ cup pecan halves, ¾ cup almonds and ½ cup cashews – you could also use hazelnuts and peanuts – whatever you prefer)
1 tbsp butter (David Lebovitz specifies unsalted, but I always use salted because I don’t buy unsalted butter – what’s the point?)
3 tbsp dark brown sugar (again, I used light brown sugar)
1 ½ tbsp maple syrup
¾ tsp cayenne pepper
½ tsp cinnamon
2 cups pretzel twists, small (I used sticks once when I could not find the twists – the twists definitely work better because they are more bite-sized)
1 tsp flaked or Kosher salt


Place the nuts on a cookie sheet and roast them for 10 minutes at 350 degrees F. Stir the nuts halfway through for even toasting.

Meanwhile, place the butter in a large-ish bowl and melt it in the microwave for about 20 – 30 seconds. Remove the bowl from the microwave and add the sugar, maple syrup, cinnamon, and cayenne pepper. Mix it all up until the sugar is dissolved. 

Today I forgot to melt the butter first so I just put it all into the microwave.

Pour the mixture over the warm nuts when they come out of the oven. Stir to coat. 
Add the pretzels and the salt and stir again.

Return to the oven on the cookie sheet and bake for another 12 to 18 minutes. 12 is perfect in my oven. Be sure to stir halfway through for even toasting. David says to stir twice, but I only did it once and all was well with the world.

As the mixture cools, you can break it apart – it will stick together in clumps because of the sugar and maple syrup.

Additional Notes:

Today when I made the recipe, I bought already roasted nuts, just to see if it made a difference. In doing so, I eliminated the first 10 minute roasting period. The end result was pretty much the same so it’s up to you what you prefer to do.

Note as well that you add the salt at the end so it doesn’t dissolve. Be sure to use coarse salt so you get the texture that makes these nuts so delish.

The mixture can be stored in an airtight container for up to a week – but it won’t last that long, trust me.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Grown Up Macaroni and Cheese

When we were growing up, my younger brother and I were lucky enough to have a housekeeper who lived with us. Her official title was housekeeper, but really she was more like a live-in grandmother. Her name is Mary Hunt, she is 88 years old and lives in Greenspond, Newfoundland. She still lives on her own, in a yellow clapboard house with green trim. When you stand on her front porch you see the ocean.

This past summer, The King of Soup and I traveled to beautiful Newfoundland with our kids. We went for two glorious weeks (never enough time) and experienced the best of the best (beautiful Gros Morne, whales, puffins, great friends, family, and B&B’s wedges with gravy), and the worst of the worst (fog as thick as pea soup and having to wear a warm jacket in August). One of the things on the ‘best’ list was visiting with Mary and bringing my husband and two children to meet her. I hadn’t seen Mary in person since I was 18 just before I left for university; although we continue to stay in touch through Canada Post (she still sends me $10 for my birthday!).

Needless to say, we all enjoyed the visit. As we sat in her little kitchen, with her wood stove cranking out the heat and helping to warm our cold and foggy bones, we had Purity crackers with margarine and jam, tea with Carnation evaporated milk, and homemade fruitcake. She apologized for not being able to make us lunch but says she just wasn’t up to it. If she had been able to cook for us, there is only one request I would have made, and that is for her homemade Macaroni and Cheese.

Before I left for university, there were three recipes I asked Mary to share with me. They were for White Bread (she used to make 6 loaves every Sunday and I can still picture my mother ripping open a steaming hot loaf and dipping her piece in a mixture of milk and molasses), Sour Cream Coffee Cake (made on special occasions, with a thick brown sugar crumble on top), and Macaroni and Cheese (a staple at 26 Waterford Bridge Road).

I often make her recipe for Mac ‘n’ Cheese – but I divide it into two portions. One is for the kids (they haven’t yet realized the amazingness of the crunchy, cheesy, buttery bread crumb topping and they prefer it before it gets baked in the oven). The other portion is for the grownups and to that I add hot sauce, caramelized onions, and panko.

The basic recipe is below, and in brackets I tell you how to fancy it up.

2 cups elbow macaroni, boiled and strained
2 cups cheddar cheese (I use 1 cup extra old cheddar, ½ cup edam, ½ cup parmesan – you can mix it up however you want to)
3 tbsp butter
3 tbsp flour
2 cups milk (I use skim but Mary used to use 2%)
Salt and pepper
Breadcrumbs (about 1 – 1.5 cups, depending on how crunchy you like the top)

Caramelized onions
Sambal Olek (hot sauce)
Panko – Japanese bread crumbs – mix these with regular bread crumbs to take it to the next level of crunchiness

Melt the butter in a saucepan, add the flour. Mix until the flour is blended into the butter. Lower the heat and cook this mixture for a few moments (this is your roux and the longer you brown it, the more flavourful it will be – but don’t let it burn!)

Add the milk and keep the heat on medium. Stir until the mixture thickens (coats the back of a wooden spoon).

Once the milk mixture is thick, remove it from the heat and stir in the grated cheese. You need to take it off the heat at this point otherwise the cheese and milk will curdle. 

Mix the cooked macaroni into the sauce once the cheese has been stirred in. Add salt and pepper to taste. You might want to leave the pepper out of the kids’ portion, if your kids are anything like my kids.

If you are portioning off the mixture, take out the amount your kids will want to eat, and then put the rest to the side while you cook your onions.

Slice sweet onions thinly and put them in a frying pan with 1 – 2 tbsps grapeseed oil. The oil should be hot before you put the onions in the pan. Cook the onions first on high heat for a few minutes, then lower the heat and cook them on low to medium until they are golden and brown. Remove from heat. 

Stir the onions into the macaroni and cheese mixture. Add some Sambal Olek (or other hot sauce) to taste.

Pour it all into an 8 x 8 casserole dish and top with breadcrumbs. If you took out half the mixture for the kids, the 8 x 8 pan will be too big so you will need to either find a smaller casserole dish, or make more of the recipe from the beginning (x the recipe by 1.5). 

If you are using panko, you can either mix it in with the regular breadcrumbs, or use just panko. Dot the top of the breadcrumbs with some knobs of butter. You can also grate some additional parmesan or cheddar for the top of the breadcrumbs. But be careful not to put too much cheese on top – you want there to be some crispy breadcrumbs available for biting.

Bake at 350 degrees F for about 25 minutes, until golden on top and bubbling inside. I use a glass casserole so I can see the insides bubbling.

Serve hot!

Note: If you are wondering where the onions are in this photo, there are none. As I was prepping the ingredients I realized I was out of onions!!! But it was too late to stop at that point.