Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Easy as 1 - 2 - 3

There is nothing that can match the aroma and flavour of vanilla. When it comes to baking and cooking, I use more vanilla extract than any other flavouring. Most of the world’s vanilla is grown in Bourbon, which is a small region in Madagascar and in parts of Indonesia. Growing and producing vanilla is incredibly complex and labour intensive, which contribute to making it the second most expensive spice in the world.

I have been making my own vanilla extract for some time now and am delighted with the results that I get. I am happy to add that there is nothing easier to make. I simply fill a clean, dry, large mason jar with good quality vodka, add ten or more whole vanilla beans, seal the jar, store in a cupboard and then just wait. With time, that amazing vanilla goodness gradually becomes infused in the vodka. I have found that a minimum of six months waiting time is ideal for an intense flavoured vanilla extract. When the vanilla extract is ready for use, I strain it, either through cheesecloth or a very fine mesh strainer, into small bottles. I then add half of a vanilla bean into each of the small bottles, so that the extract can continue to intensify.

Making my own vanilla extract is much more cost effective than purchasing good quality vanilla. Another advantage is being able to use the seeds from the beans to add to crème anglaise, ice cream, custards and much more. To extract the seeds from a vanilla bean, run the tip of a sharp knife down the bean from end to end. Then use the flat edge of the knife to scrape out the seeds. After I have removed the seeds, I put the bean back into the large jar of vanilla extract.

If you want to make your own vanilla, I would suggest looking for “Madagascar-Bourbon” vanilla beans, as this variety is an excellent quality bean. There are a number of places to find vanilla beans, including specialty stores and large farmers’ markets. It pays to comparison shop for quality beans and price. Avoid vanilla beans that are dried out and break easily, as these beans are past their prime. Once you start making your own vanilla, like me, you will probably never go back to “store bought” vanilla extract again.

Friday, March 26, 2010


My oldest daughter, Andrea, loved to watch me bake when she was little, especially when I was baking a birthday cake for her. She would drag a kitchen chair over to the counter where I was working, climb up and stand on the chair so that she had an ideal view of what was happening. She would patiently wait until the right moment, then ask if she could lick the spoon or beaters. The birthday cake that she remembers best is one that I made into the shape of a bear, but most years her choice was always a triple layer dark chocolate cake with dark chocolate icing. I always made a birthday dinner of her choosing and it was always her favourite, spaghetti.

This year we celebrated Andrea’s birthday a little differently and yet, it was as familiar as always. Andrew and I went to Andrea and Stephen’s home for the birthday celebration, along with Dan and Liz. Liz had recently had a birthday, so we were celebrating her birthday, too. Andrea and Stephen prepared dinner, spaghetti with an amazing wild boar, mushroom and black olive sauce. Absolutely delicious.

As I had done for so many years, I made a chocolate cake, but this year, I made a single layer French cake made with Valhrona chocolate. The cake was similar to a Sacher torte but thinner and was adorned with dark chocolate “leaves” and a dusting of icing sugar. This is a cake that is rich in chocolate flavour but not very sweet. This is a very “adult” dessert and an excellent choice for chocolate lovers.

Presents from me to Andrea and Liz included packages of cookies that I had made for them, dark chocolate cookies sandwiched with white chocolate ganache.

Andrea had a special birthday treat for Liz; gorgeous macarons from Nadege Patisserie on Queen St. West in Toronto.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Lovely Avocados

One of my goals this year is to continuously create new recipes, try recipes that I have never used before and to use more fruits and vegetables that I have either never tried before or tend not to use very often. Along this line of thinking, this week I have decided to use avocados in a variety of ways, for two reasons; for its flavour and for all the amazing health benefits that avocados provide. I’ve heard people say that they avoid avocados because they are so high in fat. It’s true that avocados contain about 30% fat, but two thirds of that is a very healthy monounsaturated fat. There are so many health benefits to avocados that I am shaking my head and wondering why I haven’t been using them more often! Avocados are rich in vitamin B6 and vitamins E and K. They are high in fibre and a good source of potassium. A diet rich in avocado intake has been shown to decrease LDLs in the body which is harmful cholesterol and to increase HDLs, or “good” cholesterol.

Typically, I don’t use a lot of avocados and I had forgotten how lovely they are to eat. They are so easy to use and I love the creamy, buttery texture and how beautiful they are on a plate. The first thing to do was to select them at the grocery store. When shopping for avocados, look for avocados that are firm, but have a slight give to them. I chose Haas avocados, which is the most common variety. The skin of Haas avocados is black when they are fully ripe. If they are not fully ripe when purchased, they will ripen within a few days when kept at room temperature. Once ripened, they can be kept, refrigerated, for up to a week.

The first dish that I made using avocados was a salad with romaine lettuce, 2 slices of bacon (per serving), sliced avocados, grated parmigiano reggiano and a lemon/dijon mustard vinaigrette. I rinsed and dried the romaine lettuce leaves and simply arranged them, whole, on the plate. I sliced all the way around the avocado lengthwise, then simply twisted the halves apart. The pit can easily be removed by hitting it with the blade of a chef’s knife or other large knife, twisting the blade slightly and lifting out the pit. Avocados brown quickly, so once each half is peeled and sliced into wedges, I dropped the wedges into a mixture of two cups water and juice from half of a lemon. The lemon juice stops the avocado from turning brown. When the slices are needed, remove them from the water/lemon mixture and pat the slices dry with a paper towel. I arranged the avocado slices around the bottom of the romaine leaves and topped the romaine with the vinagrette, the grated parmigiano reggiano and the bacon slices. Alternately, toasted walnut pieces could be used instead of the bacon.

Catherine’s Lemon/Dijon Mustard Vinaigrette

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp. Dijon mustard
1 tbsp. tarragon white wine vinegar
Juice of half a fresh lemon
Freshly ground black pepper and salt to taste

Whisk all ingredients together until blended and thickened.

A few days ago I cooked five pounds of beef brisket in my slow cooker, using an entire bottle of wine (among other things) for the brisket to “bathe” in during the cooking process. Needless to say, I had lots of leftover brisket slices to use up and thought they would work well in fajitas. To accompany the brisket, I created a simple but flavourful avocado salsa.

Catherine’s Avocado Salsa

1 English cucumber, peeled, seeds removed and chopped
2 medium sized tomatoes, chopped
1 Hass avocado, peeled and chopped
juice of ½ lemon
splash of extra virgin olive oil
freshly ground black pepper and salt

Prepare the avocado first and squeeze the lemon juice over the chopped avocado, gently tossing to blend. Add the other ingredients and toss gently again. Add the salt and pepper to taste.