Friday, September 16, 2011

Cheese Strata - Just in time for the weekend...

Everyone wants to be a star. Make this and everyone will think you are one. I promise. This dish is fabulous for many reasons; the first is that you prep it the night before your big brunch so all the work is done ahead of time. The morning of the event, pop it into the oven about an hour before your guests arrive and voila – a gourmet and beautiful dish that looks like you spent hours slaving over a hot stove and/or oven to prepare it.

When you slice into the puffy and golden strata, you see layers of melted cheese and gorgeous, crispy onions. The bread has soaked up all the eggy goodness and has become sort of like a souffle. It's light, savoury, and delicious. The wide-eyed guests at your table will marvel at the good-to-the-last-bite flavours in this dish, and you will leave them begging for more. Tell them to come back in a few weeks for the sweet version of this dish - a baked French toast that involves apples, cinnamon, brown sugar, and cream cheese (I promise to post this one soon).

This recipe was adapted from one of my favourite cookbooks (gifted to me by my sister-in-law Bryony), Cooking Jewish – 532 Great Recipes from the Rabinowitz Family, by Judy Bart Kancigor. The original recipe calls for dried, minced onions (which is silly when you can use fresh, caramelized onions), and whole milk (which can easily be substituted for skim), and also calls for cutting crusts off bread (which is a waste of time in my opinion). So here is the recipe, with my adjustments.

Cheese Strata
12 slices of white bread (I use French bread, not baguette)
8 tbsp butter (1 stick or ¼ cup), melted (more on this later – I omit the butter)
10 ounces Swiss or Cheddar cheese, grated (~2 ½ cups) (Note: I use Emmenthal)
1 bunch (6 to 8) green onions, white and green parts, chopped
1 bunch flat-leafed parsley, chopped (~1/2 cup)
2 large sweet onions, sliced thin and caramelized (more on this later)
6 large eggs
1 tsp salt
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1 cup sour cream (go with full or low fat, but not no fat)
3 cups milk (whatever kind you want – I use skim)

To caramelize the onions, slice them thinly and put them in a frying pan with a few tbsp of grapeseed or vegetable oil. Start the pan on high heat and then lower as soon as they start to sizzle. Cook them on low to medium heat for 20 to 30 minutes until golden brown and irresistible. The photo below shows them about 2/3 of the way cooked.

You can cut the bread in half diagonally, or you can just begin laying the bread in the 13 x 9 inch casserole dish in full pieces. I do not cut them diagonally. 

Place as many full slices in as you can and then use half pieces to fill in the gaps. The recipe calls for the melted butter to be poured into the bottom of the pan before you begin doing this. Since I use caramelized onions, instead of dried onions, the onions come with a bit of oil on them so I omit the butter. Do as you wish. You might want to spray the bottom of the dish with a cooking spray just in case.

Once you have a single layer down, spread half the grated cheese on top, then half the caramelized onions, half the green onions and half the parsley. Repeat this process with the second layer.

Whisk the eggs, salt, and mustard together in a bowl. Beat in the sour cream until smooth.

Then add the milk and stir it up. I like to add a very generous grinding of black pepper to this mix as well.

Pour the egg mixture over the layered bread, cheese, and goodness.

Cover, and refrigerate overnight.

When you are ready to bake the strata, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Bake 40 minutes until puffed and golden brown. Sometimes I do a little top broil in the oven for the last 5 minutes if it doesn’t look golden enough. Serve immediately, with a nice salad. Be prepared for a round of applause.

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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Everyone likes a good chocolate chip cookie, right?

Tonight after supper my kids asked if they could have cookies for dessert. I never pass up an opportunity to make cookies with my kids - we all enjoy it very much, so of course I said sure. Noah gathered the ingredients from the cupboard as Sam pulled up a chair. We decided against aprons since it was the end of the day and their clothes would be heading straight for the laundry after bathtime anyway. The measuring cups were pulled out and we started mixing. Here's our recipe.


1 cup butter
1 cup brown sugar

Cream these two ingredients together and then add two eggs.

Add 1 1/2 tsp vanilla. Don't be stingy. Here is a photo of the vanilla I prefer to use - I call it the elixir of the gods. I get my vanilla at Penzeys Spices in Santa Monica, CA, whenever I am there. But if you can't make it all the way to the west coast, you can probably find Mexican vanilla at Kensington Market in Toronto, or Atwater or Jean Talon Markets in Montreal. Come to think of it, I am pretty sure I have seen Mexican vanilla at Bulk Barn. Of course, you can also just buy regular, straight up vanilla at your local grocery store.

Beat until light and fluffy. Now you must add the secret ingredient: 1/8 cup maple syrup. Mix again.

Then add 1 1/2 cups of whole wheat flour, 1/2 cup of white flour, 3/4 cup of oatmeal (not instant oats!), 1 tsp baking soda, 1/2 tsp salt. Mix until dry ingredients are absorbed and then add about 1 1/2 cups of semi sweet chocolate chips.

Now you're ready to form your cookies. But first, I recommend a quality control exercise whereby all Chefs get to taste the cookie dough, just to ensure it is super delicious. Taste it? Check.

Take two teaspoons. Use one to scoop up a small amount of dough and use the other to push that dough off the spoon onto the cookie sheet. Note: I use a Silpat on my cookie sheets which means you don't have to spray the cookie sheet with cooking spray, nor do you have to clean it afterwards - you just have to clean the Silpat.

Once your dough balls are on the sheet, take a small pinch of sea salt and sprinkle it over the top of the cookie. You won't regret it.

Bake at 375 degrees F for 10 to 12 minutes. I like to rotate my cookies halfway through the baking time to ensure all sides are even. If you prefer to cook on convection, lower the heat to 350.

Cool on a wire rack.

Put the masterpieces on a pretty plate. Watch out for small children.

Asparagus, Leek and Roasted Fig Soup

Asparagus, Leek and Roasted Fig Soup

Fall is fast approaching, and if you were in St. John's this summer, you'll know the season was a prequel with its vast majority of grey, rainy days. To combat the foul moods I played around with a few old soup standards; one of my favourite soups is quite simple, pulled from Gourmet Magazine and now found on the resourceful epicurious website. The deep flavour of asparagus pairs nicely with slowly sauteed leeks and onions and the proverbial splash of wine [make sure to splash more of said wine into your glass].

I am a major fan of Mexican and Middle Eastern flavours and I modified this soup to suit my needs. What was originally an avocado-coloured soup has now become something more...earthier in tone with a simple addition of one modest, pan-roasted dried poblano chile and some red Za'atar. This spice is hard to come by in my town (I am the sole possessor) and I therefore rely on friendly travelers and friends 'across the pond' (Witaj, Marcin i Ania!) to keep me spice-happy. 

Recently, a good friend and co-worker came back from carnivorous Montreal transformed from vegetarian to vegan. I therefore modified my soup to accommodate her needs for our most excellent lunches! Caveat: there's honey on my roasted figs...While I normally use chicken stock for my soup base, I instead made a vegetable stock, and the final product was not finished with cream. In order for the garnish to float, however, I added a thick, Balkan-style yoghurt (caveat #2) on which I placed the sliced asparagus tips. 

All this to say, this baby can be modified to suit your personal or public needs. Here we go.


0.5 Kg asparagus
3 leeks, roughly chopped
3 medium yellow onions, roughly chopped
1 large, dried poblano chile
1 shallot, diced
2 tbsp vegetable oil
3 tsp red sumac Za'atar powder
6 tsp garlic, chopped (reserve half for garnish)
2 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp dried Mexican oregano
3 tsp honey (room temperature)
3 tsp salt
3 tsp pepper
8 cups vegetable stock
1/2 cup white wine
2 tsp Balkan yoghurt (a dollop per bowl)
Une Baguette :) 

I make my own vegetable stock; in this case I substitute the standard celery portion for diced  turnip that adds a deeper flavour. I find this works better with the mellowness of the poblano chile, as opposed to competing with the tangy bite of celery. Grab a small pan and turn the burner to medium high. When it's hot, place the poblano directly on the surface, and dry fry two minutes per side, turning 4 times. You'll smell it when she's ready. 

All photos care of iphone 3, you've been warned.

Once it's warm to the touch, remove the seeds - if you like a hotter soup, throw them in the soup while cooking. Otherwise, off to the garbage bin. Put the seared poblano into your food processor with the halved shallot and pulse it to bits, so as to generate moisture and they will therefore stick together nicely.

Meanwhile, slice the figs in half and sprinkle with a dash of olive oil, the thyme, and smear or drizzle the honey on top. I use my toaster oven for this, at 400F. Roast them for 25 or 30 minutes, and then set aside to cool somewhat. Once they are not so hot, toss 2/3 of them into your food processor with 1/4 of the vegetable stock, and make a nice mush. The rest will be saved for your garnish. 

By the time you're ready to add them to the soup they'll have been sufficiently cooled for you to handle comfortably; incidentally they'll pretty much look the same when you pull them out, except they will smell like happiness.

When prepping the vegetables, shave the asparagus and reserve the tips for garnish. Cut them into 4 cm pieces. Chop off the tough end parts, and stick them in a bowl with the rough green parts of the leeks. I save this stuff in a ziplock bag in my freezer, adding to it whenever I cook. It makes a great base for vegetable stock, and make sure to toss in the rinsed ends and peels of the garlic and onions as well. 

Below is the asparagus, chopped leeks/onions, mixed dried spices, chili seeds, and the poblano/shallot mix.

Grab a stock pot and fire it up on high. Once hot, add the oil and wait a couple of seconds before adding the onions, leeks, shallot and chopped poblano. Cook until somewhat translucent, and add the chopped asparagus and the wine. Stir it around for 3 minutes or so until the alcohol burns off, and add the dried spices.

Stir occasionally on medium high for 25 minutes, and don't forget to check on those figs! Once you have a sufficient vegetable mush, toss in the vegetable stock and 2/3 of the processed figs. Bring to a boil and then simmer for about 45 minutes; as the Good Book says, vegetable soups should only be cooked for an hour or so, and remember that your stock has tons of flavour.

At the end of this, grab your hand blender and start smoothing out that soup until the vegetable matter is blasted, about two minutes. Keep the blender in the centre of the pot, as all solid matter will gravitate to the blades (SCIENCE!). Strain the soup using cheesecloth into a few big stainless steel bowls. The following blurry photo is brought to you by the aura of excitement and Quidi Vidi Honey Brown

This takes about 20 minutes or so, so pour another glass while you wait, and begin to prepare the...


Get a small sauce pan, add a cup of hot soup, and toss in the asparagus tips. Cook for 3 or 4 minutes until semi-firm. Strain the tips and put that soup right back into your stock pot. Slice each tip three times and reserve the nicest looking parts for garnish.

Take the remaining roasted figs and gently quarter them. They will not float in the soup, but make for a nice surprise at the bottom of the bowl!

Cut your baguette on a 45 degree slant, two centimetre thick slices. Smear some chopped garlic on them and pop them in the toaster oven for 6 minutes or so...just make sure they do not burn and, as they say in my province, you're Top Shelf.

If you are opting out of the vegan option, stir in 3 cups of warm cream. And forget about the honey on top of the figs; maybe try some agave syrup or brown sugar. Let it sit for five or ten and you're ready to serve.

First photo is the lovely vegan broth, with the rogue asparagus and fig occasionally surfacing like Nessie:

Second we have the more velvety soup finished with cream, and the whole kit and kaboodle:

That's it, friends! 

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

It's amazing the things you think of when you are delayed at the airport

I am sitting here in the Porter Lounge at Toronto Billy Bishop Airport. My flight to Ottawa is delayed. Definitely annoying but I'm not going to let it get to me. I have my laptop and I can do some work while I am waiting. But first, a blog entry.

There is no recipe attached to this blog, but instead some memories that will likely lead to recipes later.

Last night I found the eulogy that my Auntie Karla delivered at my Grandpapa's funeral many, many years ago. His birthday just passed so I have been thinking of him often these days. 'Tempus Fugit' was something he had typed and hung on the wall of his office - Time Flies. I can't believe how the time has flown by since he died. I graduated university, started my career, met and married my husband, gave birth to two beautiful children (one of whom has my Grandpapa's name), started a second side career, and then a third side career...the list goes on. All this time, he wasn't here in body, but somehow I do believe he was here in spirit.

In memory of my Grandpapa, I plan to post some of his recipes - perhaps tonight when I return from my trip. I think the first one will be his infamous Baking Powder Biscuits, which he loved to eat accompanied by either a hot cup of tea, or a tall glass of skim milk with ice.

Stay tuned.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Choco-Chestnut Pudding

I have a really good friend named Anne and she introduced me to a crazy Trainer-to-the-Stars named Tracy Anderson. TA, as we refer to her, has some work out DVDs and You Tube segments that keep you moving around like a lunatic for about a ½ hour, and then force you to do some leg, arm and ab exercises that would make Sylvester Stallone shed a tear, never mind a pound or two.

She also recommends an eating plan. Unfortunately for me, it’s an eating plan full of meat so I cannot partake. But she does have one tasty non-meat treat in her arsenal, and that is Chocolate Chestnut Pudding.

It’s easy to make and you can keep it in the freezer. Just take it out when you need a serious chocolate hit, then put it back in there and carry on.


1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
2 tbsp peeled and cooked chestnuts (you can just buy them in the bag all ready to go)
1 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
4 whole pitted dates (you can substitute prunes or dried blueberries)
2 tbsp unsweetened coconut flakes

Melt the chocolate chips slowly in a double boiler and set aside.  

Puree the rest of the ingredients.  Add the melted chocolate and pulse until all the ingredients are combined.  Add about ½ cup of water and check the consistency.  It should be soupy.  Poor it in a container and pop it in the fridge or freezer. 

If you plan on eating it the day you make it, leave enough time so that it can sit in the fridge for a few hours at least before eating.

According to TA, a portion size is 4 ounces. This doesn’t sound like a lot, but once you have eaten 4 ounces it is likely that you will be satisfied.

Thanks, Anne (and TA)!

My Mother’s Flourless Chocolate Torte

I can’t get enough of this torte. Mom made it a few weeks ago for the first time, and since then, we have made it twice more. Once we cut it into small bit-sized morsels and snacked on it for the weekend. This past Friday my Mom made it for my Mother-in-Law for her birthday. There are three ingredients: chocolate, butter, and eggs. That’s it, that’s all. And really, what else do you need?

1 pound semi sweet chocolate (we don’t mess around – that’s 16 ounces of goodness)
½ pound butter
6 large eggs

Start by cracking the eggs into your mixing bowl and beat them at medium speed for 1 minute, and then at high speed for 9 minutes (this obviously works better in a mixer since your arm will be very tired if you try to beat these by hand). 

While the eggs are being whipped into a frenzy, grease a 9” springform pan with butter, and line the bottom with parchment paper.

Then crack the chocolate into pieces, place it into a glass measuring cup, and melt it by cooking it in the microwave on high for 2-3 minutes. If you’re a purist and prefer to melt chocolate in a double boiler, knock yourself out.

Remove the melted chocolate from the microwave and cut the ½ pound of butter into large chunks. Stir it into the chocolate while the chocolate is still warm. Let the mixture cool.

Once cool, fold the chocolate mixture into the beaten eggs in small increments. 

Pour the batter into the pan.

Bake it for 20 to 30 minutes in a 400 degree F oven. After the first 5 minutes, place a sheet of tin foil on top of the pan to prevent burning. If you have a hot oven, you can cook it at 375 degrees F for closer to 30 minutes. Shake the pan a little when you check for doneness – if it jiggles in the centre, pop it back in for a few more minutes.

Remove the cake from the oven and place the pan on a wire rack. Let it stand for about 10 minutes. Then use a knife to loosen the cake around the edges anywhere it has stuck. Undo the springform pan and lift the bottom out of the round form. Flip the cake onto a wire rack. Remove the bottom of the pan and the piece of parchment (carefully). Let cool then transfer to a pretty plate.

To serve it for my Mother-in-Law’s birthday, I mixed unsweetened cocoa powder with icing sugar and dusted the top of the cake with this mixture (put the mixture in a strainer and tap the side of the strainer while holding it over the cake). 

And to make it more festive, I added raspberry coulis and vanilla ice cream.

To make the coulis, just put some raspberries in a food processor with some lemon juice and a tad of sugar and mix it up.

If you like, you can add some ground almonds to the cake (I would say about 1/2 cup), and a tsp of almond extract. This will give it a more dense texture, and a nuttier flavour. You can also beat extra egg whites until stiff peaks form, and fold these into the mixture as well - this will make the cake a bit taller, and will lighten the texture. It's kind of hard to ruin this cake, so have fun experimenting. And eating, of course.