Date Nut loaf

I’ve been neglecting my baking. Not in real life – that would never happen – but here on the blog. So this month’s recipe is for date-nut loaf, a quick and easy treat, perfect for morning coffee outside on the deck while listening to the birdsong and admiring the eighty daffodil and tulip bulbs I planted last fall. I know it sounds like a lot but they barely made a dent in my big back yard so next year I need to double it.

These daffodils are forecasting sunny days ahead…
April showers bring May flowers….

And if company is allowed in your neck of the woods, they might enjoy it too. We’re still in lock-down and I don’t have my furniture outside yet, so the only company I’ve seen lately is the nest of baby bunnies living under the deck. (No photo, as they’re camera shy and quick like rabbits.)

This is an old recipe from the my mother’s farmhouse cooking bible.

The Purity Cookbook

She used to make this when I was a kid and it was always a favorite after-school treat after a long and hungry bus ride home. Sometimes she would add raisins too, but I don’t, because some people think eating a raisin will kill them. (If you’re reading, you know who you are) It’s doesn’t contain a ton of sugar as it’s sweet enough with the dates, and add in the nuts, and it’s a fairly healthy quick bread. I started making this over a decade ago, when the cookbook was re-issued, and make it several times over the course of the winter. It’s one of those never-fail recipes, although I like to use a glass pan to make sure I don’t burn it and I only leave it in 50 minutes.

The Recipe:

The Ingredients:

The Directions:

Pour 3/4 cup of boiling water over the dates and one teaspoon of baking soda, to soften them. I buy the chopped dates. Let cool.

Mix together 3/4 cup of white sugar (not brown), 1 beaten egg, 1 teaspoon of vanilla and 2 tablespoons of softened butter. I use butter instead of shortening as I grew up on a dairy farm, but it’s an old recipe from the days when people used Crisco etc.

Add the date mixture, 1/2 cup of chopped walnuts or walnut pieces, 1 and 3/4 cups of flour and 1/2 tsp of salt and stir until combined. I use the premixed flour with the salt and baking powder already in it, and omit the baking soda from step one.

The mixture will be fairly thick. Pour into a greased 9X5 inch pan and bake in preheated oven at 350. Check after 50 minutes. The recipe says 60-70 minutes but in my oven that would be burnt.

The End Result:

It’s nice slathered with butter, but tasty without too.

Enjoy outside while communing with nature.


And smelling the cherry blossoms.

And if company drops by they might be persuaded to pose for a picture.

Somebunny was caught tip toeing through the tulips…

A Christmas Carol – Food, Glorious Food!

     I’ve written before about A Christmas Carol being one of my favorite books, and in part one A Christmas Carol with Recipes, I review the Book to Table classic edition of this perennial favorite. I had expected the recipes in that book to be related to what they might have eaten in Dickens time (1843) instead of the usual modern dishes, but after staring at all those mouth-watering photos I’m hungry, so in part two, let’s discuss the food in Dickens famous novel – food, glorious food!  

From the 1967 musical Oliver Twist

There are many glorious descriptions of food in A Christmas Carol – who doesn’t remember the famous goose or the pudding singing in the copper?

The first mention comes in the introductory scene where Scrooge is nursing a head cold beside his meagre fire.

I’ve often wondered about the gruel.   Yes, I know it’s that bland watery substance that Oliver Twist got in trouble over, asking for more, but what exactly is it and what does it taste like?  According to the dictionary, gruel is “a thin liquid food of oatmeal or other meal boiled in milk or water.” It was a staple for the poor in the past, peasant food for the masses. According to Wikipedia (link) it was on the supper menu for the third class passengers on the eve of the Titanic sinking. (How about that for your last meal?) No more for me thanks, I’d rather have Quaker Oatmeal, thick like glue with raisins and brown sugar, and maybe a hot toddy for my next head cold, or one of those hot lemon drinks designed to knock you out.   

The first major description of food and drink comes in the scene with the Ghost of Christmas Past, at Old Fezziwig’s work party and will have your toe tapping and your mouth drooling over the festive spread.   

Negus is a beverage made of wine, often port, mixed with hot water, oranges or lemons, spices and sugar – an old-fashioned name for mulled wine. Yes, to that and to the cake and mince-pies too. Mince pie is another tradition which many people don’t care for anymore, along with fruitcake, but I love them both. Port is a type of fortified red wine, often blended with a spirit such as brandy, making it stronger and more shelf-stable. My father used to have a class of port with a piece of fruitcake on Christmas eve, while watching midnight mass, and sometimes I would join him, but it’s a strong drink which would send me straight to bed. A tradition inherited from his Irish ancestors, that was the only time of year the bottle was brought out, so a bottle could last for years.

You have to admire generous old Fezziwig for having an open bar for his poor overworked underpaid employees. I like to re-read this passage as I don’t recall ever having such fun at an office party myself.

The next major food section takes place with the appearance of the Ghost of Christmas Present, the big jolly guy with the cornucopia of food spread out at his feet.

I’ve always wanted to make a twelfth night cake, twelfth night being Jan 5.   An old British tradition, it’s a rich fruitcake with royal icing into which was baked a pea or a bean or in modern days a trinket. Whoever gets the piece with the lucky charm is crowned King or Queen for the Day.  I found a package one Christmas in one of those overpriced boutique stores – basically it contained a dry cake mix and a gold foil- covered coin – a gimmick for $20 and probably not worth a trip to the dentist over a broken tooth, especially in these times of COVID precautions, but it’s an intriguing idea – perhaps more suitable for a New Year’s dinner some other year.

While Scrooge is out wandering the streets, he comes upon a poulterers, home to the prize turkey, and a fruiterers shop.   

Fruit and nuts were a rarity in Dickens’ time, in much the same way as older folks remember getting an orange only at Christmas.   When I was growing up on the farm, after the dishes were done (by hand, no dishwasher with well water) and the table cleared, a bowl of fruit and a bowl of mixed nuts was set out to be nibbled at leisure, for no one was truly hungry after the main feast. The nuts were in their shells (hazelnuts, walnuts) and they required work to get at the meat. We’ve lost this old tradition, but I still have the silver nutcrackers and the slender picks. The Cratchits put a shovelful of chestnuts on the fire after their feast, but I’ve never tried roasted chestnuts before, although I’ve seen them in the grocery store this time of year. Which brings us to the grocer’s…    

Not sure I would rhapsodize about grocery shopping like this, as it’s still my least favorite essential activity, but I am grateful for the ability to buy food.

Not my grocery shopping experience….

I particularly like his descriptions of the good cheer expressed by the shoppers – I’m not sure that is still applicable today, when people pummel poor sales clerks over having to wear a mask or fight over the last Sony Playstation on the shelf.   

Scrooge pays particular attention to the dinners of the poor, for not having an oven of their own their meals would have to be conveyed to the Bakers to be cooked, and then fetched back home again.  

Some of that pixie water might come in handy….

There was much hunger and poverty in Dickens time, with poor houses and work houses being common experiences for many. The ghost warns of the dangers of Want and Ignorance in the two malnourished youths at his feet.   

It’s heart-breaking to see those long line-ups of cars at the food banks during the pandemic, many of whom have lost their jobs and have never had to use such a service before.   

The Cratchits were a “working poor” family, and of course Dickens most famous food scene is that of their Christmas dinner.

It was tradition then to have a goose for the feast, and my parents, being rural people recall having goose for Christmas dinner in their younger years. Most farms had a goose on the premises which could be sacrificed for the cause, whereas a turkey was a rarer bird.

Photo from 1920-30, sent from Seattle relatives after a visit home.

Although turkeys are mentioned in the book – the prize turkey hanging there still which the remarkable boy goes forth to purchase for Scrooge – they did not become the more popular Christmas fare until later.

And oh the pudding, born aloft in a blaze of holly and fussed over as to the quantity of flour, and Bob Cratchits compliments to the chef for pulling off such a grand feast on such a small budget. This is one tradition I do uphold but this year my plum pudding will come in a box complete with prepared sauce, although normally I would make the sauce.

And at the end of the book, a reformed Scrooge extends an invitation to his lowly clerk, Bob Cratchit, to share in a Christmas bowl of Smoking Bishop punch.

Smoking Bishop was another type of mulled wassail drink, with the lemon or orange spiked with cloves and roasted over a fire before being added to a mixture of port wine and spices. (Wikipedia link)

As Tiny Tim proclaims at the end, “God bless us every one!” 

Wherever you are and whatever you are eating this holiday season remember to give blessings for the food on the table and the company around it.  And if you happen to be home alone, as the young Scrooge was reading by the fire, then a book such as a Christmas Carol is always good company.    

PS.  Portions of this were adapted from A Christmas Carol as Applied to Modern Life – Dec 2018.

A Christmas Carol – with Recipes

A Christmas Carol is one of my favorite books, and I make time to re-read it every December.  In fact I’ve read it so many times I have entire sections memorized. No matter how Scrooge-like I’m feeling (especially so this year), it never fails to get me in the mood for Christmas.  I came across this beautiful hardcopy on the bookoutlet site recently, one of the Book to Table classic series, and decided I needed a new edition – because who doesn’t like a new cookbook too!

Publisher’s Blurb:  A deluxe, full-color hardback edition of the perennial Christmas classic featuring a selection of recipes for your holiday table from Giada de Laurentiis, Ina Garten, Martha Stewart, and Trisha Yearwood!

Have your book and eat it, too, with this clever edition of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol featuring delicious recipes from celebrity chefs. Plan your perfect Christmas feast with a carefully curated menu of holiday dishes, from succulent baked ham to smashed root vegetables. And top it all off with fruitcake cookies and pecan pie. Celebrate the holiday with a good meal and a good book!

Book includes full, unabridged text of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, interspersed with recipes, food photography, and special food artwork.

My Review:  It is a lovely book, there’s no doubt about it, but I must admit I was a bit disappointed in the recipes.  I’m not sure what I was expecting, perhaps something from the Dickens era?  What’s in a bowl of Smokin’ Bishop punch? (see Part Two) Or at least a recipe for plum pudding?

My turkey breast is never that perfectly sliced….

Instead, it’s the standard holiday fare, turkey, baked ham, mashed potatoes, with an assortment of the traditional side dishes, cranberry sauce, candied carrots, buttermilk biscuits, pecan pie. The recipes for spinach salad and asparagus with hollandaise sauce look good, but that’s spring-time food in my opinion! There are 13 recipes in all, grouped according to starters, entrees, side dishes, and desserts.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with trying something new, and these recipes by Martha & company look delicious, but this is the time of year we crave tradition, even more so this year, and there’s comfort and joy in having the same menu year after year. Besides, every family has their own version of these old favorites, a time-honored way of preparing the potatoes or the stuffing. In my dad’s big Irish family, the  dressing/stuffing was made outside the bird, in pans so there would be enough to go around and the recipe is pretty basic – sauteed onions in butter poured over stale broken-up bread crumbs and sprinkled liberally with savory, and a pinch of thyme and sage, cooked in the oven until soggy and then re-heated later.   We still make it that way, but in a white Corning-ware casserole dish.   From my maternal grandma, we inherited mushy peas – smashed peas with butter.   No green bean or sweet potato casseroles here in my Canadian family, nor pecan pie – that’s southern fare. Our other vegetable is squash – acorn only. And although the buttermilk biscuits in the book look good, we must have the same soft white dinner rolls bought from the same bakery, but only for the holidays. (I wonder what we’ll do if they ever go out of business.)

Dessert is plum pudding served with rum caramel sauce, and occasionally mince or apple pie.  When I was growing up, dessert was just sliced fruit cake and cookies, served on a gold glass cake platter and a big bowl of fruit jello, red with bananas and grapes and topped with whipped cream – because everyone was just too full and what kid lingered at the dinner table when there were new toys to be played with! Back then the turkey was a twenty pounder, straight out of Norman Rockwell, as there would be turkey pies and stew later.   My mother would get up at 5 am to put it in the oven as we would eat at 1 pm after church. Now with a smaller number, a double turkey breast is better and far less messy, while still leaving plenty of leftovers of white meat, which is all we like anyway.

Since I won’t be making a fruitcake this year, I might try the fruitcake cookies, but I don’t need 5 dozen.

and the apple-cranberry crisp might be nice on a cold January day.   

Overall, it’s a visually appealing book, and if you don’t already own a copy, it’s well worth the discounted price ($9 vs $34 Cdn), plus it would make a nice Christmas present for someone who likes to cook.   

PS. What are some of your traditional Christmas recipes?

PS.   Charles Dickens was a master of description – so if you’re in the mood for some more food, hop on over to part two – Food Glorious Food – for a sample of his fare.

Peach Galette

The expression “life is a bowl of cherries” translates to life is wonderful or things are going very well. For the sake of simplicity, let’s change this slightly to “life is a bowl of peaches” so I have something to write about this week and can experience first hand how truly wonderful this new block editor is supposed to be.

Peaches in a Blue Bowl

This months recipe is a peach galette. Galette (from the Norman word gale, meaning “flat cake”) is a term used in French cuisine to designate various types of flat round or free-form crusty cakes, with a combination of sweet or savory fillings. A fruit galette is a French tart made with one flat piece of pastry that is wrapped around a fruit filling. Being free-form it’s easier than pie and for those of us not adept at making rich flaky pastry, a store bought pie shell is perfectly acceptable. The aim is to make it look rustic, like something you would serve under the shade of a tree in Provence.

Photo from Victoria Magazine July/Aug 2018

As my favorite vendor is no longer at the Farmer’s Market, I made the trip to their farm to pick up a box of peaches for making jam. I’d ordered ahead and specified over-ripe seconds as I had already sanitized the jars in the dishwasher that morning. As in years past, the seconds were a bargain at $10 for a big box of peaches.

Canning Peaches

Except….I’d already paid for them and the clerk had put them in the trunk of the car before I realized they were small, cold and nowhere near being ripe. Where were their usual big juicy peaches? I might have gone back in to inquire but the storefront was crowded and there was absolutely no attempt at social distancing. (How much effort would it take to mark the floor with tape and only let so many people inside, especially with the higher COVID numbers in some of these agri-food areas?) So I grumbled and left and five days later they were starting to spoil and get soft and spotty on the outside while the insides were still not quite ripe, but cut up they were, and two batches of freezer jam produced, with extra sugar to make up for the lack of juicy peachy flavor. It hasn’t exactly been a stellar year for most fruit here, with everything behind due to the cold late spring and snow in May.

After making the jam I still had 24 peaches left so a small peach crisp was created and then some peach trifle, both with good results and more sugar (but no pictures as I forgot before they were consumed), and then the “piece de resistance”, the famous French galette, and there were still a few left over for eating. It was the box that kept on giving…..even if it wasn’t a vintage year.

Now the head chef (moi) was not above borrowing a recipe from another source, said source being the Lifestyle section of the local paper, so here’s the recipe.

The filling called for 5 peaches cut in half, pit removed and sliced, 1/4 cup brown sugar, 2 tbsp flour, and 1/2 tsp cinnamon and ground ginger. I doubled the sugar but it still could have used more. I left out the ginger as it had expired in the last decade. I made this at my mother’s and her spice rack is suspect and her oven temperamental, but she enjoyed peeling the peaches as it reminded her of life on the farm and canning every summer.

The Tenderflake deep dish pie crust I bought, did not look any too deep to me, as by the time the fruit was piled in the middle,

there was not much pastry left for crimping the border.

The pastry is folded over the fruit, aiming as I mentioned, for the rustic, not too perfect look.

The finished product was not pretty, the filling having bled a bit around the edges, and gotten rather burnt in spots while trying to brown the pastry, having to be scraped off by a kitchen knife before any photo-ops ensued. Plus the lighting in her kitchen is not good at all, not flattering to anyone, least of all a French galette. It did however taste better with some French vanilla ice cream.

It was by no means a Michelin five star job, but the best I can say is I tried and the end result was certainly rustic. Maybe next time with apples? The same can be said for the block editor. It’s certainly doable – but do I want to do it? I think I’d rather stay with the classic.

(This is the first post I’ve drafted in block and I seem to be using a hybrid of block and classic, with things popping out at me and the draft itself shifting from right to left to center for no discernible reason. If it was closer to Halloween I’d swear it was haunted.)

Baked Alaska and a Book

Recipe for A Perfect Wife

         This month’s recipe was inspired by a book.   Recipe for a Perfect Wife, by Karma Brown, is a quirky look at the lives of two newly married women living in the same suburban house sixty years apart – Nellie, a typical 50’s housewife, who is trying to get pregnant, and Alice, a reluctantly transplanted New York City writer, who is trying not to.    Told in alternating voices, Nellie 1956 and Alice 2018, with quotes of outdated advice at the beginning of each chapter and lots of 50’s recipes, it’s an interesting look at marriage, then and now.     

Link to the publishers/GoodReads review.   

       This book appealed to me because of it’s unique format, plus I thought it would nice to read about what life was like for my mother’s generation – my mother had 4 children under the age of 7 by 1960.  (It’s exhausting just thinking about that.)   The book was immensely readable, but not quite the light fluffy read I had expected.   While it started out okay, it soon took a dark turn and ended up with a strange ending.   I didn’t really like any of the characters, dishonesty seemed to be a common trait – hard to base a marriage on that, even  back then when people often didn’t know each other well before becoming engaged.    Of course the author was trying to make a point, and it would make an excellent choice for a book club discussion.   You could even make some of the 50’s recipes like Baked Alaska.   I always like it when the book club dessert matches the book club selection.   

       My recent Hermit Cookies blog, sparked a discussion about family cookbooks, Betty Crocker and Fannie Farmer being old favorites, although my mother’s bible was the Purity Flour Cookbook.   Growing up on a farm in the 60’s, my family meals were invariably our own home-grown vegetables and meat, and of course no meal was complete without a potato.    No rice or noodle casserole dishes for us, and spaghetti was simply pasta doused with a can of Campbell’s tomato soup.   My mother did not experiment with recipes like Tuna Noodle Casserole or Chicken A La King because my dad and brothers would simply not have eaten them, and I myself was a picky eater, although she did make a good meatloaf and macaroni and cheese with bread crumbs on top. 

Tuna Noodle Casserole

garnish with a layer of potato chips?

For many modern housewives that era saw the ushering in of convenience foods, instead of made from scratch.   Although we had boxed cake and brownie mixes, my mother made enough homemade pies and tarts to feed a threshing crew and just once that glorious Sixties Desert – Baked Alaska. 

Perhaps I remember this momentous event because of it’s rarity.   It was not for a special occasion, but simply on a summer evening, a couple of hours after supper to ensure that no one was too full for dessert.   If you go to all that trouble, you want to make sure your masterpiece is appreciated.

     For those of you unfamiliar, Baked Alaska is basically a mold of frozen ice cream and cake, smothered with a layer of toasted meringue.

Baked Alaska

Baked Alaska

   Although both my (2009 reissued) Purity cookbook recipe and the one in the book, call for white sponge cake and strawberry ice cream, my mothers version was reminiscent of this Martha Stewart creation, with chocolate cake and vanilla ice cream.   

Baked Alaska

It was a marvelous sight to behold, with the meringue all puffy and peaked, and who would believe you could put ice cream in the oven!   Perhaps I also remember it as chocolate cake was always my birthday choice growing up.   

      Baked Alaska can be complicated, if you want to mold it into a perfect dome shape, or use tea cups to make individual portions as in this Martha Steward recipe which calls for strawberry and vanilla gelato and of course, being Martha, she’s making the cake from scratch.   What exactly do you do with all those separated egg yolks? 

Baked Alaska

But it can also be easy if you just cut your cake and ice cream in a slab, layer it up, freeze it hard, and then smother it with meringue, as per this recipe in my mother’s 1965 version of the Purity cookbook.  

Baked Alaska

Maybe not as fancy as the dome-like creation, but wouldn’t it be the same thing?   I even wondered about using a carton of liquid egg whites but some sources said the heat from the pasteurization process would negatively affect the egg proteins.   (Cream of tartar is included as an acidic stabilizer to keep the proteins in the egg whites from sticking together thus enabling a smoother stiffer consistency.   Alternatives are lemon juice or white vinegar.)  

So, I did a grocery run yesterday and bought a carton of liquid egg whites, and decided to experiment last night, and they whipped up just fine.   I used lemon juice as I couldn’t find any Cream of Tartar at the store.

I forgot to buy cake, so I used two portions of Mug Cake mix from the pantry, not the best idea as the shape was not ideal and there wasn’t enough cake.

Baked Alaska

I froze two portions of vanilla ice cream in teacups (a la Martha above), and assembled them over the cake, and then added the meringue. 

It wasn’t bad, but plenty sweet.   I made the mistake of putting the assembled product including the meringue in the freezer for about ten minutes (as it said you could), while I cleaned up the mess, but I wouldn’t do that again, as it made the meringue hard and cold, and then it took too long to brown and by the time I took it out the ice cream was melting.   Better to just put it in the oven as soon as it’s assembled.   Of course I also stopped to take a few pictures, so that didn’t help.  

If I was to make it again for a crowd, I’d do the slab cake, and maybe strawberry and chocolate gelato, which isn’t as sweet.   Maybe when I can have people over again and hold a book club under the trees.   It’s so brutally hot here this week, 35 C (95 F) and 42 (106 F) with the Humidex, that any ice cream served outside would melt lickety-split.  

 Despite my love of all things vintage, especially fashion, I don’t think I would have wanted to live in the fifties –  it seemed very much a man’s world.   I posed that question to my mother, and she said – it seemed okay at the time.  Like many things, some decades are best viewed through a veil of nostalgia.     I’ll leave you with some marriage advice quotes from the book – relics from the past….    

Vintage 50's Marriage Advice

Vintage 50's Marriage Advice

Vintage 50's Marriage Advice

Vintage 50's Marriage Advice

 

Postscript:   Have you ever made Baked Alaska?

Hermit Cookies – A Pandemic Recipe

Since many of us are still living like good little hermits these days, I thought Hermits cookies would be a good topic for this weeks blog – which might also be my last blog for awhile depending on how well it goes with the new WordPress editor next week.  I didn’t like the new Block editor when I tried it last spring (see Blockheads post) and am not in the mood for a new learning curve.   Wordpress might think this is a good time to switch (or begin the migration as the Happiness Engineer called it), because we are all stuck at home, but call it computer fatigue or lockdown fatigue or whatever, I need less not more screen time right now.    

Back to the Hermits – Webster’s dictionary defines a hermit as:  “a) one that retires from society and lives in solitude especially for religious reasons : recluse,   b) a spiced cookie.

Hermits are an old-fashioned recipe dating back from to the mid-1800’s in North America, or even earlier, possibly originating in the hermitages of the middle ages.   They refer to any kind of spiced cookie containing dried fruit such a raisins, currants or nuts.  They may have white or brown sugar and come in either bar, square or drop cookie format.  They’re made from  ingredients you might already have in your pandemic pantry, which along with the addition of cinnamon, cloves and spices produces a soft cookie which keeps well.   Nutritionally, their sweetness comes from raisins and dates, and nuts are a good source of omega-3’s and protein. 

There are various theories about the origin of the name.   Some sources say they were called hermits because they looked like a hermit’s brown sack cloth, (the ones containing molasses).   Others say the spices become more distinct with age, making the cookies taste better if they have been hidden away like hermits for several days.   Very likely the oldest recipe goes back to the 12th or 13th century religious hermitages, where the basic ingredients would have been in common use at bakers’ tables.   The terms for those abodes— “hermite” from the Old French or “heremita,” from the medieval Latin — may have been assigned to this treat by their inhabitants.   Another possibility is that the Moravians, a German Protestant religious group known for their thin spice cookies in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, were sometimes called “herrnhutter” in German or Dutch, and that might have sounded like “hermits” to an English-speaking cook.   At any rate, they are spiced cookies based on raisins and nuts…..so let’s get to it!

My recipe today will be from my mother’s bible of country cooking, the Purity CookBook, first published by the Purity Flour Company in 1911.  Her edition dates from 1945 and is well stained, and is in fact held together with that old Canadian standard – duct tape.  

As well as main courses and desserts, it contains a large section on canning  vegetables and making various jams and jellies.   Nothing of course is low in fat or calories as those were not deemed important back then.   When it was re-issued in 2009, I bought a copy for myself, which you can see is still in quite pristine condition. 

Purity recipe cookbook new

Here’s the recipe:

Hermit cookie recipe

Hermit recipe

This did not make 5 dozen….more like 30 cookies….

and the ingredients…nothing fancy, although this version includes dates. 

Hermit cookie ingredients

I used butter instead of shortening, and not as much, 1/3 cup.   My Allspice container said it was a mixture of cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg, but allspice can also be a spice (from a plant berry) on its own.   If Allspice is not in your spice rack, Google has plenty of references for substitutes, including one on one cloves, but I find cloves strong, so best not to overdo it. 

 The finished product:

Hermit cookies

My mother was not much of a cookie baker, as my dad preferred pies and cakes, so I don’t remember her making these very often when I was growing up but I always enjoyed them when she did.  (She was more likely to make peanut butter or chocolate chip).    Back in the 1990’s, I worked at a rural hospital where the dietary department still made much of the hospital food from scratch.   Hermits were often on the cafeteria menu for morning coffee break, as were scones and homemade cinnamon buns.  I hadn’t had hermits in years, so imagine my delight on seeing them at the bakery in my  local grocery store last year.   They’re baked up fresh, although from a mix ordered in, according to one of the staff, and they have regular customers, mostly older folks like me who remember them from childhood.           

Hermit cookies Of the three versions I’ve sampled, they’ve all have been a bit different, mainly in the spices department, but I think the bakery’s is the best, and probably comparable in price to homemade, ($5.49 for 12 large cookies), nuts and raisins being fairly expensive here unless you go to one of those bulk bin places.  The key is the right combination of spices.  Despite buying two dozen from the bakery, we ran out before the next grocery run, so I had to resort to making them from scratch.   Mine did not taste the same as the last time I made them but I suspect my nutmeg was too old.   That would have required a trip to the store, and I’m more like a hermit crab these days, scurrying around doing my essential errands quickly so I can return to the safety of my own home. 

Hermit crab

Stay in your home and stay safe!

We all might be getting a little crabby these days from too much sheltering in place, but a sweet treat always helps!   Remember to savor – according to the Petsmart website, hermit crabs take small bites and eat very slowly, usually at night.   Enjoy! 

Postscript:   Do you have a favorite cookbook you use or may have inherited?

 

Home Alone Chocolate Pudding

What to write about when you’re home alone, especially when your secret stash of chocolate has run out?   Like many bloggers I get most of my blogging ideas from my daily activities, but since my calendar is now as clear as the newly recovered Venice canals, such planned activities as the apple blossom orchard tour, the Jane Austen tea party or the visit to the Van goth exhibit are all off the table for the unforeseeable future.   But we all have to eat…..and chocolate has an excellent reputation for cheering people up.   

I was moaning about the Easter Bunny not visiting my house this weekend, so a chocoholic friend send me a recipe for a microwave chocolate pudding just like mom used to make.   This makes one large portion, or two small ones.  You can repeat for how ever many family members you are stranded with on your COVID life raft.   The best thing is you probably already have all the ingredients in your kitchen, so no need to risk your life by going to the grocery store, although I did add cornstarch to my list – does cornstarch have an expiry date?  

Mix together 2 tbsp cocoa powder, 1 tbsp cornstarch, 3 tbsp sugar, either granulated or icing sugar, and add 3/4 cup of milk.  I used regular sugar.  Whisk until well blended.    

Chocolate Pudding

Microwave, COVERED, 90 seconds on high.   Remove, whisk again, microwave another 90 seconds.   Add 1/4 tsp vanilla after cooking.   Best served warm, but refrigerate if not eating right away.

This makes one large portion but was very rich so I split it into two ramekins.

Chocolate Pudding

If you want to double the recipe, then microwave the whole thing for an additional 90 seconds, or just make a separate batch.    Adjust the cooking time for the size of your microwave – 90 seconds for an 800W microwave, for 1000W microwave try 75 seconds at a time. 

Adjust the amounts of sugar and cocoa to your liking, depending on your brand.   My initial recipe called for 3 tablespoons of cocoa, but it was way too chocolatey, so I decreased it to 2 tablespoons, and even that was more than sufficient with my fancy French cocoa.  I might try a bit less next time.  I also used a LEVEL or calibrated tablespoon measuring device to measure the dry ingredients (something I seldom do), so I would know for the future what proportions worked best.   Whisk well or you will have lumps of cocoa in the final product.      

hot chocolate

The COVID Easter Bunny

As my friend, who has surely forgotten my lack of cooking expertise, did not specify re covered and as I’m always one to admit to my cooking disasters, my first attempt, using a large cereal bowl covered by a paper towel resulted in the pudding spilling all over the sides onto the microwave plate, requiring much swearing and many paper towels to clean up, so make sure you use a large enough ie a quart size bowl.  (I made this same mistake the first time I made microwave strawberry jam so I should have known better).   The next time I used a Corning-ware casserole dish with a glass lid and put the cover on slightly ajar – no mess.  

Yummy, quick and so easy, especially on the days you’re craving chocolate, plus unlike a box of chocolates, there are no left-overs to tempt you later. 

PS.   I much prefer butterscotch pudding but the brand I bought for years, which required heating on the stove and was the staple of many a Sunday night supper, was discontinued long ago, so I tried to make this same recipe with butterscotch ice cream topping and light brown sugar but didn’t get the measurements quite right – it looked and tasted like a very sweet very pale caramel glue.   Oh well, lots of time to experiment these days.    Must remember to add Easter Bunnies to my next “mission impossible” list – they’ll be on sale too!   Happy Easter, or Passover, or just have a good weekend!  

PS.   I’m only doing a grocery store run every three weeks now.   If we run out of something, we just improvise or do without, mostly the fresh produce, milk etc.   I really stock up but I’m also buying for my mother who still lives in her own house at 94, and I am grateful she decided she wasn’t ready to move yet as many of our COVID deaths have been in nursing/retirement homes.   My mother grew up during the (1930’s) Great Depression and WW2 remembers people being out of work and getting ration coupons for sugar, meat etc.   Her family always had enough food to eat, but she had classmates who did not.  So although we may be frustrated with the current situation, we’re all safe in our own homes with food on the table.   A small dose of perspective…..

 “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without!”  – a Depression era saying.   

Easy Strawberry Trifle

Chocolate and strawberries are traditional Valentine’s Day desserts, so here’s an easy strawberry trifle to make if you are craving something light, fruity and not too sweet – and it’s much better than my low-fat chocolate brownie disaster.  As an added plus, it’s not so much made as assembled, requiring only three ingredients, cake, instant custard and strawberries.

Strawberry trifle

Grocery store strawberries are not so good this time of year in Canada, so I mixed them with some strawberry freezer jam from last summer.   (Click here for blog link).   As I use No Sugar Pectin in my freezer jam, it’s more of a strawberry puree than a sweet jam, but you can also mush up the strawberries and add sugar to taste.   

Strawberries For the cake you can use those mini golden cakes from the grocery store or angel food cake, but I had some leftover cake which had been in the freezer for awhile but when thawed it was just as fresh as the day I made it. 

The last time I made this dessert I used French vanilla pudding cups, but this time I decided to use the more traditional custard.   I bought a package of instant custard from The British Shop, a brand recommended by the owner as I figured the British must know their custards (she also told me last year the shop spent $20,000 on import fees).Custard

Just add 360ml of BOILING Water and stir for a minute and Voila – a nice and creamy custard.   (Next time I might add a teaspoon of Vanilla extract as it was fairly bland). 

As I’ve just spent a fairly productive week cleaning out the basement storage areas and reorganizing things, including some old family heirlooms and crystal, I decided to use my  grandmother’s parfait glasses.   

Crystal glasses

I never met my grandmother as my dad’s parents both died before I was born, but I’ve often wondered what her life was like.   She married in 1919 and as an older mom had her kids at 37, 40 and 41 and died fairly young at age 65, after breaking a hip.   So it’s possible these glasses are a hundred years old – maybe they were part of her wedding trousseau?   My mother said they were in the old farmhouse when she got married in 1952.    Or they may even have been from my great grandmother Ellen farther back in 1900, part of a  collection of crystal from the Edwardian age, of which I have several pieces.   I remember my mother using the matching glasses at family dinners along with her good china, but they are so thin and delicate they require hand-washing.   There are only seven parfait glasses left, plus two with small handles which look like they might be hot toddy glasses.   Anyway, I felt they deserved an outing sometime this century!

I crumbled the cake in the bottom, then layered the strawberries and custard, then cake again (I could have used more cake), custard and more strawberries on top.   You can also garnish with whipped cream and a strawberry, but I ran out of room.      

Strawberry trifle

The parfait glasses seem tiny, so I suspect portion sizes were smaller back in the days of Downton Abbey.    The same with plates – compare this new red Rachel Ray plate to the older pink plate from the thrift shop.    

Pink and red plates

The same with supersized restaurant plates.   While it’s customary to want to fill your plate, maybe that isn’t such a good idea anymore? 

This makes a nice light dessert after a big meal.   There’s something to be said for moderation and family tradition, and strawberries in the middle of winter!  

Happy Valentine’s Day!

PS.  For those of you who are mad for plaid like I am, the plaid charger plates are from Michael’s craft store, after Christmas sale – $1.50 each vs regular $8.        (600 words) 

Pink plates and Valendtine's Day

Low-Fat Chocolate Brownies

          Last week’s Books and Brownies blog left me craving something chocolatey and as Valentine’s Day is fast approaching I decided to make brownies.   I’m not one to say no to convenience food if it tastes good, being perfectly content to bow to the expertise of Betty Crocker, but my favorite mix had turned out dry the last few times I made it.   I used to take brownies to work for birthdays and my brownies had always been a hit, the secret ingredient being butter not oil – I was raised on a dairy farm where butter ruled.   It was always a treat getting off the school bus if my mother had made a big pan of brownies, chewy, no icing but walnuts in them, usually still warm from the oven, but even back in the sixties she used a mix.   After a family member was diagnosed with gallbladder problems, I switched to a low fat mix which eliminated the added oil/butter, but then it too was discontinued. 

Brownies

What’s up Betty Crocker?

After wasting more time than I care to admit pouring over low-fat recipes in cookbooks, online and on that food vortex otherwise known as Pinterest, I discovered that both applesauce and strained prunes can be substituted for some of the fat in a recipe.  I settled on one that called for strained prunes, the baby food kind was okay it said.   So I set out for the grocery store which apparently doesn’t even sell baby food anymore as everyone makes their own.   Luckily, the drugstore had an organic line in plastic pouches – they might want to revisit those old glass jars which can be recycled in all kinds of ways.   A pouch held 125ml, exactly the amount I needed, but when I opened it, it tasted so awful, that I decided to use a different recipe with applesauce instead.   The reviews were all good, except for one dissenter, who said don’t bother, waste of ingredients.   Here’s the recipe for Rich and Chewy Low Fat Brownies.   

Brownie ingredients

Ingredients

½ cup cocoa

1 cup flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 ¾ cup white sugar

2 egg whites

¾ cup applesauce unsweetened

  • Cream butter and sugar in a large bowl using a hand mixer. Add egg whites, applesauce and vanilla.
  • Mix all other ingredients in a separate smaller bowl and add to the wet ingredients in the large bowl. Do NOT overmix!
  • Spray 8×8 dish with PAM and bake at 350 degrees for 30-35 minutes.   Yields 16 brownies.

The lumpy texture was a bit strange, not sure if that was from the applesauce or my failure to read the recipe as I dumped the sugar in with the dry ingredients by mistake.   They baked up alright, a bit denser than my regular brownie mix but the appearance was good, soft in the centre, slightly crusty at the edges and on top. 

The Verdict:   Well they were certainly rich and chewy, but were they good? 

Never having made brownies from scratch before I had nothing to compare them to but they seemed tasteless, kind of like eating cardboard.   Guilty as charged IMO.   The rest of the jury was polite but noncommittal, preferring the slightly safer remark, “They’re okay, but they don’t taste like your regular brownies.”    Several people thought they were cake.  

I did cut back on the sugar by half a cup to 1 1/4 cups as some of the reviewers had suggested as it seemed like a lot of sugar for a small 8X8 pan.    My chocolate powder was the very expensive French imported stuff which possibly made it too rich.   They didn’t seem sweet at all, even smothered in my regular 2 inches of Canada’s favorite icing (see label). 

brownie icing chocolate

They did look pretty on my pink plates though. 

Brownies

But food is to eat!   I hate it when you’re in a fancy restaurant and you order something outrageously expensive off the dessert trolley because it looks good, and it turns out to be disappointing.   Of course not everyone is a fussy  foodie like I am (except that lone dissenter), but I would not have served these to company.   They were mediocre at best – if I’m going to indulge in a brownie I want it to be great. 

Were they even as healthy as promised?  Here’s the nutrition label:

Serving Size: 1 (812) g

Servings Per Recipe: 1

AMT. PER SERVING% DAILY VALUE

Calories: 147.9

Calories from Fat 16 g 11 %

Total Fat 1.8 g 2 %

Saturated Fat 0.9 g 4 %

Cholesterol 3.8 mg 1 %

Sodium 118.6 mg 4 %

Total Carbohydrate 31.9 g 10 %

Dietary Fiber 0.8 g 3 %

Sugars 21.9 g 87 %

Protein 1.8 g

Add in the nutrition label from the icing:

Betty Crocker icing label

Add up the 1.8g of fat from the brownie, but you would be lucky to get 16 brownies out of a small pan like that so let’s round that up to 4g, with the 5g of fat from the 2 tablespoons of icing (again a stretch), and you have about 9g. 

Now compare that to Betty Crocker’s new product, Fudge Brownie in a Mug with fudge topping:

Mug cake brownie

Nutrition Label:

Mug cake nutrition list

You add some water and nuke it in the microwave for one minute.  One pouch with fudge topping also gives you 9 g of fat, and about the same number of calories as the low fat recipe, but better taste, in fact it was so rich tasting I could only eat half of it.   Is there such a thing as too chocolatey?   I know death by double chocolate is all the rage but I much prefer regular milk chocolate over the often bitter darker stuff.   Plus unless you’re baking for a family who ever eats just one brownie?  The mug box has built-in portion control –  not sure how they came up with 3 portions, why not 2 or 4, but maybe the extra one is to stash away for an emergency on days you need chocolate.   So why not let Betty do all the work?   Now it’s back to the pastry board for a better Valentine’s Day dessert…stay tuned.    (950 words)  

PS.  Do you have a favorite brownie recipe or mix?  

 

 

 

Santa’s Favorite Chocolate Cookies

One of my favorite Christmas traditions is making several batches of no-bake chocolate/oatmeal/peanut butter cookies a week or two before Christmas and distributed them to all the hungry little elves who are slaving away trying to make Christmas good for everyone.   They are always a crowd-pleaser at pot-lucks too.   I don’t know what they are called, but I inherited the recipe from a sister-in-law back in the eighties so we refer to them as her cookies, but you could call them Santa’s favorites.  

Chocolate cookies

I don’t make them any other time of year, just at Christmas, although with the chocolate they would be suitable for Valentine’s Day too.   It’s hard to justify the calories, but they do contain some good-for-you ingredients, like oatmeal (for lowering cholesterol), milk (source of calcium), peanut butter (for protein) and cocoa (source of antioxidants), even if there is a fair bit of sugar in the recipe.   I find good old-fashioned grocery store Fry’s cocoa works best, as the one year I tried a fancy imported French brand, they were way too chocolaty, so I needed to add less.   (Note: some versions of this recipe only use 1/4 cup cocoa but I’ve always used 1/3 cup of Fry’s, so you could adjust to your taste if you have a richer cocoa.)    

Fry's Cocoa

Recipe:

1/4 cup butter

1/2 cup Peanut Butter 

2 cups white sugar

1/3 cup cocoa  

1/2 cup milk

3 cups oatmeal (rolled minute oats)

2 tsp (10ml) vanilla

Mix sugar and cocoa in a pan.  Add butter and milk and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly.    When it starts to boil, boil 1 to 1 1/2 minutes exactly.   This is a full boil, not just a few bubbles.   Do not under boil as the mixture will not set properly after you add the other ingredients.

Chocolate cookies

As the chocolate mixture has to be boiled in a pan on the stove, these cookies are not suitable for kids to make.   Santa’s little helpers could help measure the ingredients though. 

Remove from heat and stir in vanilla, peanut butter and rolled oats in that order.    I use Crunchy peanut butter as that’s what I buy, but Smooth is okay too.

Chocolate cookies

Once you have added the peanut butter to the boiling chocolate mixture and whisked it through, and then added the oatmeal, you have to work quickly to scoop out the mixture before it sets.   Drop by teaspoon onto wax paper or non-stick baking pans.   Let cool thoroughly.   Makes 24 cookies.    Keep them in an airtight container.   If they dry out too much after a few days, you can zap them in the microwave for ten seconds to make them moist again. 

Chocolate cookies

Some batches turn out drier than others, depending if I have let it boil too long, but it doesn’t affect the overall taste.   It’s all good.   They can be stored at room temperature or in the fridge, or frozen for later.    

I usually keep a batch in the freezer and defrost when needed, even it it’s just one cookie as a treat with a cup of tea before bed.   Heating them up in the microwave for about ten seconds makes them even better as there’s nothing like a warm chocolate cookie.   Don’t forget to leave some out for Santa!  

Christmas mug with cookies