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Entries in review (16)


Martha, Martha, Martha; a review of Martha Stewart's Cookies

As of late, Martha Stewart, baking and food blogs seem to go hand in hand. With Sunday's launch of the cookie-centric contest at, it is an appropriate opportunity to take a closer look at the prize up for grabs; copies of Martha Stewart's Cookies (Clarkson Potter, 2008). The latest cookbook from the editors of Martha Stewart Living, it is a comprehensive collection of 175 their most versatile and tempting treats.

With its ingenious imaged-based table of contents, coupled with chapter headings organized by cookie texture, this book speaks directly to cravings and their indulgence. I have read some recipes delightfully described as "everyday", a phrase that evokes idyllic notions of an overfilled cookie jar; these are chocolate chip cookies in a myriad of variations, fudgy brownies, delicate sugar cookies and shortbread. Other recipes range from the festive (from Crumbly and Sandy: Vanilla-Bean Spritz Wreaths) to the elegant (from Crisp and Crunchy: Sweet Cardamom Crackers) to the downright decadent (from Rich and Dense: Chocolate Pistachio Cookies).

In regards to content it should be noted that some of these recipes have been previously published in various publications under the Martha Stewart mantle, specifically the special edition Holiday Cookie series. Some readers could be frustrated by this repetition, while others may appreciate having their best-loved favourites in a trade paperback version.

The layout of the recipes is clear and concise, each featuring a photo of the finished product. Although some follow the expected Martha Stewart aesthetic of colourful but simple styling, others depart from this look entirely. These shots are mid-range to close up photographs against a white background which, in comparison to the charm of the former, do seem a bit austere. That said, the minimalist approach does highlight the characteristic textures of the cookies quite well.

Two appendices, one on packaging and the other with information on techniques and cook's tools, are helpful additions. Inspired presentation ideas show off the cookies beautifully for giving, and the instructions frequently include step-by-step photos. The baking notes serve as a useful introduction to the novice baker and as helpful reminders to those more experienced.

In the name of research, the Peanut Butter and Jelly Bars (above and below) were the first to be made from this book. The luscious batter inspired nostalgic thoughts of childhood. Its rich scent reminiscent of the best peanut butter cookie crossed with Reese Pieces; the sort that has greedy fingers fighting over rights to lick the bowl. The finished cookie lived up to the charms of the dough, with tender cookie underneath, a layer of tangy-sweet jam in between and the salty crunch of peanuts and crisp crumble as a crowning crust. Perfect for a lunchbox or after-school treat, these cookies will surely become a household classic.

Peanut Butter and Jelly Bars
From Martha Stewart Holiday Cookies 2001.

The recipe featured in the book is subject to copyright but is quite similar to this version.


• I used a combination of mixed berry jam and homemade mixed berry compote for the filling as I wanted a bit of tartness to offset the buttery-rich cookie layer.

• Toffee bits, coconut, honey-roasted nuts or white chocolate chips would be a wonderful substitution or addition to the peanut topping. For those looking for true excess, a chocolate spread or dulce de leche could be used instead of jam filling.


Taste to Go: Kozlik's Canadian Mustard, Balsamic Figs & Dates

“Taste to Go” entries feature foodstuffs from my favourite purveyors and products of interest.

This past weekend, I had one of those leisurely Sundays – the type where if someone asked you what you did to spend each minute of every hour, you’d have no clue. All you know is that you had a lovely day. Graciously invited out by the ladies of S’s family, we headed to the always picturesque town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, for a “Girl’s Day.”

For those not familiar with the area, Niagara-on-the-Lake (NOTL) is a small town located at the juncture of the Niagara River and Lake Ontario, across the Canada/U.S. border from Youngstown, N.Y.

Historically the town has figured heavily in the founding of Canada. A freshly-named Niagara was the capital of Upper Canada in 1792, but due to concerns of proximity to the States the city soon lost the title to York (now Toronto).

The town was the backdrop for much of the drama of the War of 1812, with the nearby battle of Queenston Heights a definitive point in Canadian history. Niagara was burned to the ground during occupation by American forces, but the British rebuilt. The city adopted its present moniker of NOTL in the 1880s to clarify its distinction from Niagara Falls. Today the town maintains much of its historical charm, albeit with a sometimes overly-glossy veneer of a booming tourist industry.

Home to not only meticulously restored historic sites, NOTL is well placed in Niagara’s Wine Country and caters towards a diverse clientele. Gracious spa hotels do flex their influence, but quaint B&Bs abound, as do a variety of restaurants and speciality shops.

We enjoyed a sumptuous brunch at one of the larger hotels in the area; a meal that stretched out for hours as we gossiped and laughed over everything and anything. Is it not a wonderful thing to have the opportunity to get together for some fabulous food and frivolous conversation?

After the meal, we descended upon the bustling shops of Queen Street, the town’s centre. We had no specific plans, choosing instead to flit from shop to shop and stopping whenever something caught our eye. Such was the case with our visit to Greaves Jams and Marmalades. Established in 1927, Greaves Jams is a fixture in NOTL, offering up their luscious jams, jellies and chutneys.

They have expanded their selection to include some choice gourmet and local products, including Kozliks Canadian Mustard. Intrigued by the Balsamic, Figs and Dates variety, I happily added a bottle to my already groaning shopping bags.

Heading home I pondered the combination of mustard seed, balsamic and sweet fruit. As mentioned before I have a bit of a collection of mustards at home, finding it to be one of the most versatile of condiments – adding depth to sauces, emulsifying vinaigrettes and dressing up a summer’s hotdog with its iconic yellow lashing. With an established love for Dijon, fiery English-style, sweet-sour German and hearty whole grain, this new variety would have a happy home.

The Kozliks Balsamic, Fig and Dates has an assertive pungency upon opening the bottle. The piquancy of mustard seed is there, set off by the astringent tang of balsamic. Tasting the gorgeously thick brown sauce you first experience the high notes of vinegar, followed by a base of sweet fig. The label suggests use with game and pork, and I do believe it would be an excellent basis for a crust for pork tenderloin or duck. With its depth and spice though, I enjoy it paired with lamb (as pictured) and could see it as a flavoursome addition to North African dishes and tagines. Further experimentation is definitely warranted.

Anton Kozliks Canadian Mustards

Greaves Jams and Marmalades


A friend for dinner, Nigella Bites

This is my third instalment of my series in exploring my cookbooks, this time featuring Nigella Bites by Nigella Lawson.

I find that different books respond to different moods. When I want to know the minutiae of proper hollandaise technique, I know that there is nowhere to turn but a dog-eared copy of Larousse Gastronomique. A desire for “classic American cooking” is easily sated by flipping though one of the many books by Marion Cunningham. In the mood for adventure? Madhur Jaffrey’s soothing tone can lead even the novice home cook through the complex world of spices.

But there is one author I turn to most often when I’m looking for companionship - Nigella Lawson. One known for her conversational prose rather than complex (or always accurate) preparations, her books bring pure comfort; it is rainy day reading at its best. She doesn't take herself to seriously, with recipes ranging from classic to kitch. Charming and engaging, her writing is like having a chat with another food-loving friend. Details are scattered sometimes, and the stories can be rambling, but it really is all about the food.

I find her books to be inspirational, not in the sense of something to aspire towards, but rather a style of cooking that is closely related to my own everyday routine yet full of new ideas. It is accessible and simple, but still with a world-travelled palate and with an evident fondness for the social aspect of preparing and sharing food.

I will admit, I rarely follow her recipes to the letter. I usually try to make them as written the first time, but after that I usually tweak and fiddle to suit my own tastes. The fact that Lawson includes space for notes in her books speaks to me of her desire for the reader to make each recipe personal - she does not aspire to be the definitive expert on a dish, but rather seems content in introducing you to a method or an ingredient.

Such was the case with this gorgeous Chocolate Cloud Cake. Featured in the book, Nigella Bites, it was such a success I ended up making three in the same amount of days. True, no two cakes were identical (I also took ideas from recipes from Williams-Sonoma and Ina Garten), but hers was the original inspiration — and really, isn’t that saying something? Densely fudgy with a crackling, brownie-like top, this cake is deceptively simple to make, with results far greater than the effort involved.

Chocolate Cloud Cake
Also available online (including US measurements) at

On days when I want the warmth of the hearth rather than the hurly burly of the city streets I stay in and read cookery books, and this recipe comes from just the sort of book that gives most succour, Classic Home Desserts by Richard Sax.

The cake itself (which was the pudding I made for last New Year's Eve dinner) is as richly and rewardingly sustaining: a melting, dark, flourless, chocolate base, the sort that sinks damply on cooling; the fallen centre then cloudily filled with softly whipped cream and sprinkled with cocoa powder. As Richard Sax says 'intensity, then relief, in each bite'.

For the cake
250g (9 ounces) dark chocolate, minimum 70% cocoa solids
125g unsalted butter, softened
6 eggs: 2 whole, 4 separated
175g caster sugar
2 tablespoons Cointreau (optional)
Grated zest of 1 orange (optional)
23cm (9 inch) springform cake tin

For the cream topping:
500ml double cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon Cointreau (optional)
Half teaspoon unsweetened cocoa powder for sprinkling

Preheat the oven to 180ºC/gas mark 4.

Line the bottom of the cake tin with baking parchment.

Melt the chocolate either in a double boiler or a microwave, and then let the butter melt in the warm chocolate.

Beat the 2 whole eggs and 4 egg yolks with 75g of the caster sugar, then gently add the chocolate mixture, the Cointreau and orange zest.

In another bowl, whisk the 4 egg whites until foamy, then gradually add the 100g of sugar and whisk until the whites are holding their shape but not too stiff. Lighten the chocolate mixture with a dollop of egg whites, and then fold in the rest of the whites. Pour into the prepared tin and bake for 35-40 minutes or until the cake is risen and cracked and the centre is no longer wobbly. Cool the cake in its tin on a wire rack; the middle will sink as it cools.

When you are ready to eat, place the still tin-bound cake on a cake stand or plate for serving and carefully remove the cake from its tin. Don't worry about cracks or rough edges: it's the crater look we're going for here. Whip the cream until it's soft and then add the vanilla and Cointreau and continue whisking until the cream is firm but not stiff. Fill the crater of the cake with the whipped cream, easing it out gently towards the edges of the cake, and dust the top lightly with cocoa powder pushed through a tea-strainer.

Serves 8-12

• You can make this into an Easter Nest Cake by folding 200g melted chocolate into the cream topping and dotting with the sugar-coated eggs instead of the cocoa. Leave the Cointreau out of both the cake and the cream. (NL)
• When I made this cake, I took some license and added 2 teaspoons of instant espresso powder to the egg yolk/chocolate mixture. I also used a mix of bittersweet and semisweet chocolates, for added depth.
• I ran out of parchment paper, and had fine success using a non-stick pan that I buttered and dusted with cocoa powder.
• Miniature versions of this cake are adorable, using six 4-inch springform pans. Adjust cooking times accordingly.


Bistro at home

The continuation of an exploration of some of my cookbooks, featuring Laura Washburn's Bistro.

I must admit I started out with a somewhat prejudiced view of French cuisine. Growing up, I was only really exposed to the stereotypical view of haute cuisine – I’m sure some of you will recall Donna Martin spitting out calves brains on Beverly Hills, 90210.

Luckily for me, somewhere along the way I realized that I should not learn my culinary lessons from Aaron Spelling, and I ventured out into the wonderful world of cooking — mainly through my mother’s cookbooks. I was 12, and did not have many opportunities for gastronomic safaris.

It was through these books that I began not only to learn names like Auguste Escoffier and Antoine Carême, but also about mother sauces, demi glace and, my greatest discovery, French home and country cooking. It was this food of the hearth, dishes like boeuf bourguignon and terrines, I found most inspiring; featuring deceptively simple flavours and complex results.

This fixation continued, bringing about my obession with a good baguette, and my frequent patronage of bistros and brasseries. Give me a good steak frites, and I’m set; a long-simmered shank with a robust reduction, and I do not know how to be closer to heaven.

I was in one of these moods when I came across the book Bistro, by Laura Washburn. Hungry and waiting for S in a bookstore (he should know better than to keep me waiting in a place with cookbooks nearby), I was idly leafing through their selection when my eyes fell upon a mouth-watering goat’s cheese tart pictured on the back of a book. Turning it over, I was greeted with a bowl of tempting French onion soup, perfectly presented with a cap of blistered gruyère. The book came home with me that night, and very rarely is far from at hand.

Washburn recalls holidays in France from her childhood, with a nostalgic patina of romance and discovery. The book features both classic recipes, from the ideal crème caramel to the venerable cassoulet, and personal creations like a cumin-scented chick pea salad.

She encourages substutions when necessary, but never loses sight of traditional preparations. It is this respect for the culinary history, while not putting limits on your experience of the food, which spoke to me of her affection for these flavours; she evidently wants to share these tastes and stories.

Le grand aïoli
From Bistro, by Laura Washburn.

Salt cod and snails are traditional ingredients in this Provençal dish, but salmon and shrimp are easier to come by for most people. Be sure to use very good oil; despite great quantities of garlic, the flavour base of the aiöli comes from the oil, so it is worth investing in something special. Serve for a crowd, with everything freshly cooked and warmish, or at room temperature. Wash it all down with a chilled white or rosé from Provence.

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
4 salmon steaks
8 oz. unpeeled shrimp tails
10 oz. small new potatoes
12 oz. asparagus tips
8 oz. small green beans
1 fresh bay leaf
6 baby carrots, sliced lengthwise
1 cauliflower, broken into florets
1 broccoli, broken into florets
8 oz. baby zucchini, halved lengthwise
6 eggs
6 oz. cherry tomatoes
4 cooked beets
Coarse sea salt

2 egg yolks
About 1 2/3 cups best-quality extra virgin olive oil
6 large garlic cloves
Fine sea salt

Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large non-stick skillet, add the salmon, and cook for about 3 minutes on each side, or until just cooked through. Season with salt and set aside. Add another 1 tablespoon of the oil to the pan. When hot, add the shrimp and cook until pink and firm, 3-5 minutes. Do not overcook or they will be tough. Season and set aside.

Put the potatoes in a saucepan with cold water to cover and bring to a boil. When the water boils, add slat and cook until tender, 15-20 minutes. Drain and set aside. Meanwhile, cook the asparagus tips and beans in boiling salted water until just tender, about 3 minutes.

Bring a saucepan of water to a boil with the bay leaf. When it boils, add the carrots and cook until al dente, 3-4 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. Return the water to a boil, add the cauliflower florets, and cook until just tender, about 5 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon. Return the water to a boil, add the broccoli, and cook until just tender, 3-4 minutes.

Rub the zucchini all over with the remaining oil. Heat a ridged stovetop grill pan. When hot, add the zucchini pieces and cook, about 4 minutes per side. Alternatively, cook the same way in a non-stick skillet. Remove and season.

Put the eggs in a saucepan with cold water to cover. Bring to a boil and cook for 6 minutes from boiling point. Drain, cool under running water, then peel and slice.

To make the aiöli, put the egg yolks in a small, deep bowl. Beat well, and then gradually beat in the oil, adding it bit by bit and beating vigorously, until the mixture is as thick as mayonnaise. Stir in the garlic and season to taste.

Arrange all the vegetables and fish on a single platter, or on several platters. Serve, passing the aiöli separately.

Serves 6

• While I love this dish in its full-blown glory on the weekends, for the weeknight it is not always the most sensible. For the photograph above, I prepared my fallback version; potatoes, salmon, asparagus and beans, all oven-roasted and served with the aioli.
• For those adverse to using raw egg yolks, there are pasteurized egg products on the market which can be substituted. Check the packaging for how much to use to replace each yolk, as producers may vary.


Taste to Go: Pane Fresco by Marc Bakery Café

As announced, I’m starting a new style of articles on the site. “Taste to Go” will feature foodstuffs from my favourite purveyors.

This past Sunday, S and I were feeling particularly virtuous after spending our Saturday devoted to packing up our apartment. And so, when Sunday dawned clear and bright, we decided we deserved a little treat – namely, brunch. What is more luxurious than to start the morning with a leisurely meal of favourites, light conversation and laughter, all enjoyed with the knowledge that the day stretches out full possibility ahead of you?

Heading to Burlington, Ontario’s lakefront area, I’d already scouted out our destination. Evidently, I my stomach had overruled my brain, and during my scouting I had researched the menu, the musician who would be providing entertainment and our seating options. My brain, however had neglected to notice their hours of operation for the restaurant I had chosen. Shows you where my priorities lay.

Arriving half an hour before opening, S and were left to wander the area for a distraction – seizing upon the opportunity to shop for food, I suggested we head over to Pane Fresco by Marc Bakery Café. This small bakery specializes in artisan breads, an ever-changing selection of pastries and is well known for their gorgeous pizzas and sandwiches at lunch. Weekends offer decadent looking Belgian waffles as a special.

With its open kitchen, I cannot help but grin when I walk into this store, the air is thick with the smell of freshly baked bread. Their staff is gracious and knowledgeable, cheerful and chatty with customers. Trying to reign in my ever-increasing appetite as we still planned to keep our brunch plans, I steered myself away from the delectable assortment of treats – but not without first admiring the array of perfect croissants, individual butterscotch bread puddings and savoury cheese-crusted breadsticks.

I knew I had to have one of their focaccia, choosing between the classically flavoured rosemary, the summer perfect pomodoro, or the caramelized onion with goat’s cheese. Eyeing the latter variety, glistening and fragrant, practically groaning under the weight of creamy pillows of cheese and striped with umber strings of sticky-sweet onion, my choice was made – and not one of the adorable piccolo muffin shaped loaves, I wanted a slab. Airy and dense all at the same time, the rich bread was perfect on its own.

Armed with my purchase, I could not help but think that with such offerings before me, a single loaf would be blasphemy. Faced with the decision between beautifully golden French epis, the tempting ciabatta and expertly formed boules of sourdough I knew I was over my head.

Asking the counter staff for a recommendation proved a godsend, as I was steered towards the Fig, Walnut and Date bread; a dark oval shaped loaf artistically slashed lengthwise and dusted with flour. Bearing a slightly chewy crust that was toothsome but still crispy, and a well-formed crumb studded with succulent bits of fig and date, this bread was simply delicious. I detected a bit of spice that seemed reminiscent of hot cross buns, but it could have been the intensely flavoured fruit that was leading me astray. The walnuts added a depth and underlying richness, brought out even more by a light toasting (and a slathering of sweet butter).

For anyone who is in the area,I cannot recommend Pane Fresco highly enough. Though I should mention that I personally found their baguette was not as outstanding as their other loaves. The enthusiastic staff adds to the bustling atmosphere, with a small indoor eating area and patio for café items. My apologies for lack of a photo for Fig and Walnut and Date bread. It was immediately packed up as a gift. Next time, I promise.

Pane Fresco by Marc Bakery Café
414 Locust Street
Burlington, ON
7:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
7:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.