Monday, November 30, 2009

Christmas Cooking the 100-Mile Way

On Saturday December 5, 2009 at 1 o'clock Niagara Cooks, from farm to table author Lynn Ogryzlo will be at Chapters in St. Catharines signing copies of Niagara Cooks, perfect for the locavore on your Christmas list.

In addition to showing off the latest edition of Niagara Cooks, Lynn will be talking and telling the stories of local farmers, how to shop for local ingredients, how to make a 100-Mile menu for the holidays and she'll be serving up delicious Niagara Christmas cookies complete with complimentary recipes.

Come out, do some shopping, enjoy some holiday cheer and be inspired to do some of your own holiday baking - after all, it is the season!

Friday, November 27, 2009

Holiday Cookies

My mom was an excellent baker; every Christmas she would put out a magnificent display of her culinary talents with impressive trays of holiday cookies. She always made her famous shortbread that everyone fought over, there were never enough of her mini pecan tarts or thumbprint cookies; her iced cut out cookies was sheer holiday decadence and everyone would wrestle for her mincemeat tarts.

Sometimes she would make her luscious chocolate and mint squares, her festive dried fruit icebox cookies, Italian pitzel’s or anything else that caught her eye that season. She would even craft the most beautiful gingerbread house that adorned our table, begging to be nibbled at throughout the season.

My favourite holiday gift from her was a tin filled with her cookies because it represented a gift from the heart. Holiday baking is more about sharing than about eating. At this time of year these irresistible cookies become icons of enchantment, perfect for gifting, decorating the tree and of course, leaving for Santa.

I try my best to bake during the holiday season but her shoes are big ones to fill. My house is filled with my moms traditional cookies and I’ve also added my own cookie traditions with the Toblerone Shortbreads, Niagara Biscotti and Cream Cheese Sugar Cookies. For younger children, nothing says Christmas more than sugar cookies cut out into holiday shapes and iced with different coloured icing and sprinkled with red and green sugar or multicoloured little candy beads. They’re not only great for eating, but can you imagine anything more festive than a beautiful Christmas tree decked out with sugar cookies?

The kind of cookie you bake is not as important as the flavour. If you like that “melt-in-your-mouth” burst of flavour decadence in a cookie, nothing gives that to you better than butter. I’ve discovered through trial and error however, that cookies made with shortening hold their shape better. It must be because butter melts at lower temperatures, body temperature in fact and that makes the cookie spread out over the baking time. I don’t use margarine, but if you do, never use a whipped margarine, the solid sticks are much better for baking and besides they’re easier to measure anyway.

If you’re a fan of chewy cookies you can melt the butter before adding it to the sugars and of course, cook them a few minutes shorter than the recipe calls for. Brown sugar will give you a chewy cookie while white sugar makes them crisper. If you like your cookies crispy, try using two egg yolks instead of a whole egg.

As children grow up holiday cookies evolve from iced sugar cookies to gourmet and chocolate renditions. A new trend in cookies is making their way into the holiday season; they’re the small round one-bite sandwich cookies with creamy filling mounded between two little puffy cookies. They come in hundreds of flavours and colours. All around the world there are upscale little boutique stores that sell nothing but these little pillows of deliciousness simply called meringues.

Wine in holiday cookies should be a natural for Niagara home cooks who spill a little Chardonnay into a saucepan or Merlot into a roasting pan. Cookies with a vinous flair include Black Chocolate Baco Noir Cookies, Lavender, Raspberry Cassis Cookies and Cabernet Crescents. Even the trendy pillow cookies take on a Niagara flair with framboise cream between two little raspberry coloured cookies and champagne cream in light gold cookies.

Christmas is a hectic time of year, a time when people who usually don’t bake find themselves in the kitchen trying out new recipes. If you are new to baking you can start with some of these easy recipes.

If you don’t have time to bake perhaps this years festivities will include a cookie class. Southbrook Vineyards in Niagara-on-the-Lake and the Niagara Culinary Trail have teamed up to offer a cookie class creating some delicious holiday cookies that include fine Southbrook wines, delicious fruit wines and some cookies that just taste good with wine. Adult Cookies for the Holidays takes place December 13 at 1:30. I will be teaching the class and will be giving a few lucky people beautiful boxes of holiday cookies for enjoying or gift giving. For more information call Southbrook Vineyards at 905.641.2548.

Black Chocolate Cabernet Cookies

1 1/2 cups (375 mL) all-purpose flour

3/4 cup (180 mL) cocoa powder

1 teaspoon (5 mL) baking soda

1 teaspoon (5 mL) salt

½ cup (125 mL) butter, softened

3/4 cup (180 mL) granulated sugar

3/4 cup (180 mL) packed brown sugar

1 large egg

1 teaspoon (5 mL) pure vanilla extract

1/2 cup (125 mL) Cabernet Sauvignon or dry red wine

1 cup (250 mL) dark chocolate, broken into chunks

Preheat oven to 375F (190C). Whisk together flour, cocoa powder, salt and baking soda in a bowl. In a bowl of an electric mixer combine butter and sugars until fluffy. Add egg, vanilla, and wine and beat until well mixed. Slowly add the flour mixture until just combined. Fold in the chocolate. Place a heaping tablespoon of dough for each cookie about 2 inches apart from each other. Bake 8 to 10 minutes. Makes about 3 dozen cookies.

Niagara Holiday Biscotti

½ cup (125 mL) butter

1 cup (250 mL) sugar

2 eggs

1 teaspoon (5 mL) pure vanilla extract

2 cups (500 mL) all purpose flour

1 ½ teaspoons (7.5 mL) baking powder

dash of salt

1 cup (250 mL) Niagara walnuts

½ cup (125 mL) dried cherries

Preheat oven to 325F (160C). Beat the butter, sugar and eggs in a large bowl of an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Meanwhile, whisk flour, baking powder and salt together. Add dry ingredients to the whipped butter mixture and stir only to incorporate. Add the walnuts and died cherries.

Shape the dough into 2 logs on a baking sheet. Flatten the logs into ¾- thickness. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and reduce the temperature to 300F (150C). Slice the log into 1-inch slices and place each slice on its side. Bake for 10 minutes, remove from oven, turn the cookies over and bake another 10 minutes. Remove from oven and cool. Makes approximately 4 dozen cookies.

Butter Tasting

If you've heard of wine tastings and cheese tastings, then it won't come as much of a
surprise to learn that food tastings are now the rage. A few months ago I did a Parmesan tasting and yes, I included the grated, fluffy white stuff you find in the grocers deli counters all the way up to the real Italian stuff and locally made. Yes, we do have a locally made Parmesan cheese. Paron Cheese is on Highway #20 about a mile from the Centennial Parkway intersection (but way on top of the mountain).

Anyway, Paron Cheese came out on top with not their Parmesan but with their grated Montasio! That's right, they beat out the imported varieties. The flavours of the top Parmesans are complex, earthy, robust and rich compared to the cardboard, gritty, pasty imitations. So when I did the butter tasting last week, it was no surprise to find the unexpected results.

In Canada we’re surrounded by a sea of commercial butter made with the milk of the high yielding, low fat Holstein cows. And why not? Canadians are obsessed with hating fat, but here lies the first problem. Canadian cream is a skinny 35% compared to the European 48% and it’s the butterfat content in cream that seduces us into loving butter. So how can our butter compare when we’re starting with inferior raw ingredients?

It's hard to find a selection of butters in any area in Canada. You can find imported French butter in Quebec and Belgian butter in Ontario, but butter doesn’t seem to spread itself across the country very well. For example you’d never find a pound of British Columbia’s delicious Foothills Creamers Butter in Ontario or a Quebec Lamothe Cremerie butter in Saskatchewan. So I gathered what I could from specialty food stores in Niagara, Toronto and Buffalo and this is what the results were.

Butter Tasting Notes

These butters were tasted blind at room temperature to encourage them to release as much flavour as possible. The Ontario prices are listed for comparative purposes only. They were rated out of a 10 point scale, 10 being the highest score (scored on aroma, flavour, body and price).

Unsalted Butter

President’s Choice Normandy-style, Cultured butter, Ontario, 26% fat, $3.99, ½ lb (7.98/lb). Rated: 10

Bio Organic made by Fromagerie L’Ancetre, Quebec, 27% fat, $5.39, ½ lb ($10.78/lb) Rated: 10

Lurpak, an imported butter from Denmark, 35% fat, $3.99, ½ lb ($7.98/lb). Rated: 8

Plurga, (red wrapper) an American made European-style butter, 35% fat, $5.99/lb. Rated: 8

Organic Meadow cultured, unsalted butter from Guelph, 26% fat, $9.99/lb. Rated: 6

Life in Provence, French imported, AOC butter, 36% fat, $5.99, ½ lb ($11.98/lb). Rated: 5

Lactantia. My Country, Swiss flavoured, cultured unsalted butter, 26% fat, $5.99/lb. Rated: 4

Salted Butter

Hasting’s Whey Butter from Sterling Creamery, Sterling, Ontario, 27% fat, $6.99/lb. Rated: 10

Peller Estate Winery Butter, Ontario, $ priceless. Rated: 9

D’Isigney Burre, French imported, AOC butter, 38% far, $7.49, ½ lb ($14.98/lb). Rated: 8

For the whole butter story with detailed tasting notes, look for the January issue of Tidings Magazine or go to - while you're there, click on the Paris story on the right hand side and read of my amazing award winning journey to Paris this summer.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


Dancing in the kitchen means leading with the left. That and plenty more sharp advise is what Knife Master and Chef Greg Willis of Kitchen Made ( taught a small group in my home today. We learned how to chop, slice and dice our way through vegetables. And yes, at the end we all enjoyed the salad we'd made.

Ok, each of us had a cutting board and knives and we practised everything from how to hold the food and not chop off your fingers to preping techniques that included chiffonading, julienning and dicing. All we need now explained Chef Willis, is another 6 months of practice and we'll be wielding a knife like a master!

Topics of discussion between sips of the apricot-icewine cocktails focused around qualities that make a great knife for what you want to do, how to buy the best knife for the job your doing and fitting the best size for your hand. We chatted about the best cutting boards, what to look for in a steel, we even got into discussions on flatware versus holloware.

So what does dancing in the kitchen have to do with anything. Well, I've never really noticed it before but in the kitchen we lead culinary activities almost exclusively with the left. We hold food to be cut with the left, hold pots with the left, even wash dishes in the left hand side of the sink. What we do with the right is cut the food, stir the pot and dry the dishes. Everything starts - or leads with the left.

So for all you foodies that are reorganizing your kitchens, remember you need to organize so that you can easily lead with the left!

Want some help? Reach out to Chef Willis -