Category Archives: General

Ruby Red Rhubarb

Rhubarb Marmalade on Fresh Biscuits

Over the years, many Island homes, particularly those in the country (including mine) have had (and many still do) a rhubarb patch. The tiny shoots of the perennial rhubarb plants poking through the earth are always considered a harbinger of Spring and a welcome one at that. After many long Winter months in Northeastern Canada, it’s always good to see this sign of life in the corner of the garden. In fact, some local groups on PEI host fund-raising “Rhubarb Socials” each June at which they serve desserts made with rhubarb so it appears the lowly rhubarb has gained some social status!

Rhubarb Signifies Spring

A number of years ago, I suggested planting a rhubarb crown (rhizomes) in the corner of our cottage garden. The idea was not met with grand enthusiasm but, nonetheless, I went to the garden center and landed home with two rhubarb crowns which did get planted (I knew they would once they were onsite!). Well, now that rhubarb is just the greatest thing ever planted! It grew alright – in fact, we now have more of a rhubarb “bush” than a patch! Some stalks are about 18” tall. Local supermarkets are currently selling rhubarb for $3.99/lb (Cdn $). In fact, I saw some at a local farm stand last Saturday where they were selling for $4.95 and they were not overly fresh either. Sometimes, we take for granted the value of what we have in our backyard gardens. In fact, in Spring 2011, I planted two rhubarb crowns in the backyard of my suburban home. I’m pleased to say they are doing very well – long, strong stalks (ribs) with huge triangular-shaped leaves. I can’t remove any stalks from these plants this year but, next year, I can harvest one-third of the produce and, the following year, as much as is available since the rhubarb will be well established by then.

In PEI, we harvest rhubarb from early-mid May until mid-June. Harvest when stalks are long and still slender as thicker stalks tend to be older and, therefore, tougher and more stringy. To harvest, grasp the rhubarb stalk down close to its root base and give it a good tug to pull it out of the ground. Immediately cut off and discard the bottom whitish part of each stalk. The early Spring stalks are the most tender and yield greater juiciness.

If you are buying rhubarb at a farm market or grocery store, look for stalks that look dry, have crispness to them and are not limp, soft, wilted, or showing signs of turning brown at the ends.

Rhubarb is available in many varieties and shades of color that range from green to stalks that are red-green speckled or graduated in color from red to green, to deep crimson red. When purchasing a rhubarb crown for your garden or when buying rhubarb stalks, I recommend looking for varieties that have a deep red color. They will have the most flavour and give the richest pink color to recipes. Stalks that are primarily green are less flavourful and do not add appealing color to culinary dishes. As a rough, general guideline, 1 pound of raw rhubarb will yield approximately 4 cups chopped.

There has long been a debate over whether rhubarb is a fruit or a vegetable. It is often referred to as the “pie plant” because one of the most common and recognizable uses of it is in rhubarb pie and we tend to think of dessert pies as being made with fruit, not vegetables. Rhubarb is generally considered to be a vegetable notwithstanding that, in 1947, a New York court decided that, since it was primarily used as fruit in the US, rhubarb would be considered a fruit for the purposes of regulations and duties. So, while rhubarb is often treated as a fruit in many culinary dishes, botanically and by general consensus, it appears to be more accepted as a vegetable.

Regardless whether it is a fruit or a vegetable (we’ll leave that to botanists and other scientists to make the definitive call on that), it is a very versatile ingredient in many recipes. From jams, marmalades, sauces, chutneys, and drinks to pies, tortes, puddings, muffins, and ice cream, there are an endless number of recipes in which to use rhubarb. While I don’t fancy it raw, it is not uncommon to find our young glasscutter hopping off the mower to head over to our rhubarb patch to grab a rhubarb stalk to snack on! Guess he must like the sour, tart taste better than I do!

Rhubarb freezes very well and we freeze a number of bags each Spring. Chopped and frozen in recipe-specific portions and labelled accordingly, rhubarb is then available to us year-round to use in our favourite recipes.

From a nutritional standpoint, rhubarb is a source of Vitamin C, calcium, potassium, and dietary fibre. Because rhubarb largely consists of water (one source claims it is 95% water), it has no cholesterol, fat, or sodium. However, because rhubarb is so tart, it needs sweetening so, adding other ingredients such as sugar, or combining it with fruits such as strawberries, apples, etc., will obviously alter the cholesterol, fat, and/or sodium content of the dish you make using rhubarb.

I have a multitude of favourite rhubarb recipes but one of my all-time favourites is this Rhubarb Marmalade (recipe follows). Combined with three citrus fruits, it has a tart, fresh taste and, best of all, it is the first of my jamming and preserving processes of the season. I use this rich-colored and flavourful marmalade on toast, biscuits, scones, and I particularly like a dollop of it on a warm cream custard.

Time to bring out the jam pots and bottles and capture some of this Springtime goodness before the rhubarb gets too old and tough to use. If you do try this recipe, please be sure to leave me a comment about your impressions of it.

Jamming and preserving season is officially underway!

Rhubarb Marmalade

 

Rhubarb Marmalade

Ingredients:

8 cups rhubarb, thinly sliced into pieces between 1/8″ and 1/4″ thick)
4¼ cups sugar
1 large orange (or 1½ small oranges)
½ pink grapefruit
½ small lemon

Method:

Chop rhubarb into thin slices. Set aside.

Wash the orange, grapefruit, and lemon well.

Peel orange, grapefruit, and lemon.  Chop the pulp, remove and discard any seeds, and place pulp in bowl.  Scrape the pith from the fruit peelings and discard.  Chop the peel into small pieces.  Set aside.

In a large pot, place the rhubarb and sugar.  Add the citrus pulp and peel. Bring to a boil over medium high temperature, stirring to prevent scorching.  Immediately lower the temperature and cook, uncovered, at a slow gentle boil until mixture thickens and reaches a sustained temperature of 217°F on a candy thermometer (see Note 1 below for alternative testing method).  Stir mixture regularly to prevent scorching. Be patient, this can take an hour or so.

Rhubarb Marmalade Ingredients
Rhubarb Marmalade Ingredients

While the marmalade is cooking, fill a large pot of water, about ¾ full.  Place 7 half-pint jars, upright, into the water.  Ensure the jars are fully submerged, each jar filled with water, and that the water is at least an inch over the tops of the jars.  Cover, bring to a boil, and boil for 10 minutes. Turn off heat and leave the jars in the hot water while the marmalade finishes cooking.

Meanwhile, fill the canner about one-third to one-half full of water. Cover and bring to a boil to have it ready for the filled jars.

When the marmalade is cooked, use a jar lifter to remove the hot jars from the water.  Using a canning funnel, pour marmalade into sterilized jars, leaving about ¼” headroom in each jar.  Wipe the jar rims with a clean cloth. Seal jars with heated lids and fingertip-tightened ring bands.

Place jars in hot water bath wire basket, ensuring jars do not touch each other or fall over. Carefully lower basket into canner of hot water. Ensure the water level is at least 1” above the tops of jars, adding more boiling water as necessary. Cover with canner lid. Increase the heat to return the water to a rolling boil then decrease the heat to just keep the water at a rolling boil but not boiling over. Process half-pint jars in the hot water bath for 10 minutes, adjusting time for altitude. Start timing the processing from the point where a full rolling boil is reached after basket of jars has been added to the canner. At the end of the processing time, turn off heat and remove canner lid. Wait 4-5 minutes, until the water stops boiling then, using a jar lifter, carefully remove the jars, one at a time, and transfer them to a wire rack to cool completely. Listen for the “pop” or “ping” sound as the bottles seal over the next few minutes or hours. The lids of properly sealed jars will curve downward. Let jars rest, undisturbed, on wire rack for 12 hours. Store in cool, dark place. Refrigerate marmalade once opened.

Boiling the Marmalade
Boiling the Marmalade

Yield:  Apx. 7 half-pint jars

1-DSC04775

NOTE 1: If you don’t have a candy thermometer, place 2-3 freezer-safe saucers in freezer. To test for doneness of the marmalade, place a small amount of marmalade on chilled saucer and swirl saucer around. Let marmalade sit, untouched, for about a minute, then gently push your finger through the marmalade.  If the marmalade holds its shape (i.e., does not immediately run back together after the finger has been removed from the marmalade), it is set and ready to bottle.  If not, continue to cook mixture, repeating the “chill” test about every 3 minutes or so (always removing the pot from the heat while conducting the chill test) until the marmalade passes the “chill” test.  Do not overcook as it will result in a very thick marmalade, dark in color.

Note 2: After jars have completely cooled, if there are any on which the lids have not curved downward, refrigerate them and use within one month.

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Savour the Flavour at PEI’s Food and Wine Show

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For the past four years, the PEI Restaurant Association has presented a Springtime event that brings together the best chefs from the Island’s finest restaurants and pairs them with producers and distributors of fine wines, beers, and spirits to bring Islanders the ultimate gourmet tasting experience.

Chefs at Savour Food & Wine Show

On Thursday, May 24, 2012, I attended the 4th Annual “Savour Food & Wine” Show held at the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown. To be frank, this was the first time I had attended and I was not sure what to expect.  I was quite impressed with the calibre of the show.  This was a high-end smorgasbord event that definitely had a party atmosphere!  In the words of exhibitor Julie Shore of Prince Edward Distillery who has participated as an exhibitor in the Show for four years, this event could very aptly be described as “a big cocktail party – and the host hired the best caterers!” 

Lot 30's Creativity
Samples at Savour Food & Wine SHow

The show is an occasion for local restaurants, wineries, distilleries, and other beverage producers across the Island to promote their products directly to foodies, restaurant patrons, and beverage enthusiasts.  Carl Nicholson, President of the PEI Restaurant Association, says the Show “is also an opportunity to showcase what members of the Association do with Island products.  Members want to promote the fact that they support local [producers] and feel the quality of Island products is superior”.  Guests attending the event get to meet and chat directly, one-on-one, with the chefs and beverage vendors, something they would not otherwise get to do in a typical restaurant setting.  Shore says “It is a great opportunity for us to enjoy all the wonderful feedback.  We love seeing people’s reaction to our spirits!  They enjoy the delicious cocktails and we enjoy the reactions!” 

 

 

Prince Edward Distillery

The show also provides the occasion to introduce new products on the market and offers guests an opportunity to sample products that they may not have had before, or even knew were produced on PEI, like Wild Blueberry & Tart Cherry Juice or Wild Blueberry & Rhubarb Juice produced by PEI Juice Works Ltd. of Alberton, PEI.    Says first-time exhibitor, Ryan Bradley, VP of Sales and Marketing for PEI Juice Works, “We were asked to participate at the PEI Flavours booth this year to help showcase unique new Island products.  This show allows us to provide samples to people with a keen interest in quality foods. It also allows us to interact one-on-one with people and get valuable feedback. Because we are so new, any activity that helps us create more awareness [in our products] is very important.” 

Beverages

 

 

 

 

 

Upon presentation of their $75.00 ticket at the door, each of the 500 guests is handed a wine glass and a program and show floor plan.  From there, guests follow the tantalizing scent of food and tour through the 45 booths each preparing their product for tasting.  Each food booth has a supply of small plates and guests are welcome to taste samples of whatever each booth is offering.  Their wine glasses get filled with their favourite libation which can be found at the many beverage booths that serve anything from local and imported wines and beers to locally distilled gin or blueberry juices.

All within the span of two hours and under one roof, visitors to the show have the opportunity to experience foods and beverages they might not otherwise try or even have access to, be educated on food and beverage products available locally, or simply enjoy the abundance and array of foods and beverages available at the show.  The event offers not only treats for the tummy but also for the eyes too as chefs outdo themselves with the creativity and presentation of food as well as their tastefully decorated booth displays.

Wine Offerings

This Island has long been associated with good food and talented chefs.  Complimenting that repertoire, PEI is now gaining a solid reputation for award-winning locally produced wines and spirits.  Both the Island and the exhibitors (all members of the PEI Restaurant Association) pulled out all the stops for this year’s Savour Food & Wine show.  It was a fine gala event that signaled the kick-off to summer dining when, as Islanders, we eagerly await our favourite seasonal restaurants to open their doors to patrons.  If what I saw at the Show was any indicator, visitors and Islanders alike are in for a real treat when dining around PEI this summer.  As Carl Nicholson says, “we tend to go to restaurants we know.  The Show allows guests to try samples from different restaurants which hopefully will encourage them to then go and try out the restaurants for a meal.”  I have already started my Summer 2012 list of restaurants to try – some, of course, are old favourites but some are new based on what I saw and sampled at the Savour Food & Wine Show.  Could be a hard summer on the waistline!

Tempting Desserts

Who Serves the Best Seafood Chowder on Prince Edward Island?

Each summer I set a food challenge for myself.  Last summer, I went on the hunt for the best fish and chips on Prince Edward Island; there was no shortage of good ones…really good ones, in fact –  but I did pick my favorite.  I checked out some restaurants that I liked anyway but I also asked friends, colleagues, and acquaintances to recommend their favorites to me.  I took my Mom, always a fish and chips fan, on my taste-testing mission as I covered the Island from tip-to-tip in search of the hands-down, no-question-about-it, best version of the perennial seafood favorite.  By the end of the season, neither of us seriously wanted to see fish and chips again for a good long while!

This summer, my challenge is to find the best seafood chowder on PEI and it starts now as all the multitude of seasonal restaurants open on the Island for the summer tourist season.  At the end of the summer, I will post a blog about my personal favorite from amongst those I sampled.  So, if you have a favorite eating spot that you think serves the absolute best seafood chowder on the Island, let me know so I can try it out.  I will be criss-crossing this great Island of ours over the next several months so feel free to suggest establishments from North to South, East to West, and all points in between!  Let’s hope these establishments serve “cups” of chowder and not large bowls as my waistline may suffer the consequences!  To recommend a favorite to me, either send me a direct email using the contact form on this website or leave a comment to this blog posting, naming your suggestion and the restaurant’s location!

The challenge is on!

Lady Lilac Afternoon Tea

Tea table set in front of a blooming lilac tree
Lady Lilac Afternoon Tea

 

We have always had this old lilac tree in the front yard of the home in which I grew up.  Some years, only one side of the tree will have blooms but this year, it is pretty well covered in beautiful mauve lilacs.  It was always a sign of Summer when the fragrant lilacs began to bloom and a big yellow monarch butterfly paid a visit.  I love lilacs.  In fact, they are one of my favorite flowers – I love their color (purple and mauve are my favorite colors) , their shape and flow, the delicate small petals, and yes, even the strong scent of them.  They are not, however, generally well accepted as an indoor flower by anyone who is superstitious, probably because of the flower’s association with death or broken engagements.

Tea Table set in front of a lilac tree
Afternoon Tea by the Lilac Tree

But there is certainly nothing wrong with enjoying lilacs in the great outdoors.  And, there is no better way than to sit amidst the color and fragrance enjoying a tranquil and relaxing afternoon tea beside the lilacs.  No monarch butterfly visited on this sunny afternoon but several birds, including a hummingbird, hovered around and some of them twittered and tweeted.  They probably wondered why the humans were invading their private habitat that they were not accustomed to sharing!

Cup of tea in front of the lilac tree
Tea Time by the Lilac Tree

Today, I visited a local garden center and purchased two French lilac trees.  They are very small but, hopefully, in time, they will grow and provide wonderful blooms and fragrance in the backyard of my own home.  It will be a long time before they reach the size of our big old family lilac tree but maybe at some point in the future they, too, could form a backdrop for a lovely early summer afternoon tea.

Tea cake for afternoon tea in front of the lilac tree
Tea Time Treats by the Lilac Tree

Floral Centerpieces with Michael Jackson of Prestige Floral Studio

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Of all the centerpieces found on dining room tables, the most common will likely involve flowers.  For the low-down on floral centerpieces, I sat down for a chat with Michael Jackson of Prestige Floral Studio.

 

Michael, let’s start by talking about the appropriate height of centerpieces.  What is considered to be the optimal height of a floral centerpiece?

Height of table arrangements should be approximately 10”-12”.  The flowers should not be positioned so that they are at the height of your guests’ heads as it obstructs their view of each other.  An arrangement 15” high would fall into this range.

If you are using a tall, slim pedestal container or a tall, slim glass vase and starting the floral arrangement above the 15” height point, that is okay because the tall slim container will not obstruct guests’ views of each other and the flowers will be up above their viewing range.

Does the shape of the table influence the shape/style of container and floral arrangement?

It is not set in stone but try to keep the shapes of the container and the table the same because it looks better.  If you have a round table, use a round container.  If your table is square, use a blocky, square container.  If you have a long oval table, consider using three round containers or one main centerpiece with smaller satellite arrangements along the length of the table.  If you have a long rectangular table, you may wish to consider using three to six smaller containers to extend the flowers outward from the center.

What ideas and suggestions can you give for containers a host or hostess might use for flowers?

You can invest in several different containers that can be used for different dinners.  You can also look through your cupboards and use something you already have.  For example, soup tureens make suitable containers.  Colored bottles of different sizes can be effective containers for single blooms which can then be collected into a grouping arrangement on the table to form a centerpiece.

What considerations should one address when selecting the kind of flowers to use in a tabletop arrangement?

The first is to use unscented or very lightly scented flowers.  Second, try to stay with flowers of the season.  For example, tulips make a lovely Spring arrangement but are less suitable on a Fall dining table.  Third, if you are using flowers from your own garden, make sure they are clean and bug-free and that any pollen has been removed.

Let’s talk about color of the arrangement.  What should be matched when selecting colors of flowers?  Do I match my dinnerware?  For example, my china is mainly white with a border of tiny pink and purple flowers and green leaves.

Yes, match the centerpiece color to your dinnerware.  In your example, your arrangement should mainly consist of white flowers with pink and/or purple accent flowers.

Other than a traditional floral centerpiece in the middle of the table, what other options are there for including flowers on the dining table?

Groupings (always use odd numbers) or multiple arrangements – for example, three separate arrangements on a long table.

Including small matching individual arrangements at each place setting is another way to disperse flowers around the table.  The host/hostess can then present each guest with one of the miniature arrangements to take home at the end of the dinner.

Terrariums and low glass planters are becoming a trend in table centerpieces.  They have an earthy look to them and can have thematic arrangements inside that include stones or shells, plants, driftwood, and mosses.

So, this would be suitable on a table set with earthenware dishes but perhaps not so appealing if it was set with my fine bone china with pink and purple flowers?

Correct.  Be sure to match the surroundings and dinnerware.

So, what are some other trends in table centerpieces?

In the Summer, consider citrus colors – orange, lime, and lemon.  You can add citrus fruits to the floral arrangement or place some on the table around the arrangement.

In the Fall, sunflowers, vases of chestnuts, acorns, grasses, and candles can be used singly or combined to make wonderful seasonal decorations for the dining table.

What suggestions or recommendations do you have for the host or hostess who wants to create his or her own centerpiece?

Go simple and use a single variety of flowers only – for example, use all roses instead of a mixed bouquet of flowers.  Don’t try to do stylized arrangements and worry about getting the flowers arranged just so but don’t just stick them in a vase either.  I suggest clustering the flowers together in your hand to form an appealing looking bouquet and then fitting them into an appropriate container.

Thank you, Michael, for these great tips on using flowers for dining table centerpieces.  And, thank you for the stunning Summer table setting you prepared for this interview!

 

Michael Jackson is the florist at Prestige Floral Studio located at 595 Read Drive, in Summerside, PEI.  Michael studied floral design at Humber College and worked on Toronto’s Bay Street for over 20 years designing high-end corporate and wedding floral arrangements.  The lure of family and the opportunity for a floral design business drew Michael back to his native Prince Edward Island in early 2011 when he opened Prestige Floral Studio.  You can check out some of Michael’s extraordinary floral designs by visiting his website at www.prestigefloral.ca.

 

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Let’s Set the Table!

In my view, there are three elements to a wonderful meal:  Great food, a properly well-set table, and good conversation.  In this post, my focus will be on the well-set table.  For pointers on how to properly set a table, I went to the experts at The Culinary Institute of Canada, part of Prince Edward Island’s Holland College, in Charlottetown.  There I was met by Tina Lesyk, Banquet and Catering Coordinator, in the Lucy Maud Dining Room, the Institute’s teaching restaurant.  What follows is the substance of our conversation as we covered the gamut of topics that need to be considered in setting the proper table suitable to any occasion the home host/hostess is likely to encounter.

 Types of Table Place Settings

Tina tells me there are three principal types of place settings:  Formal, Informal, and Buffet.  Let’s look at each one individually.

Continue reading Let’s Set the Table!

Mother’s Day Tea

Happy Mother’s Day to all mothers.  I hope you were wonderfully spoiled today.

There are so many ways to celebrate Mom on Mother’s Day.   Some years we have been travelling, other years we have gone to brunches at a favorite hotel restaurant, and other years we have stayed home and had our first lobster “feed” of the season (which is part of what we did this year, too).  However, I decided to host a Mother’s Day Tea this year, also.

I love afternoon teas – they harken back to the genteel days where life moved at a slower pace and times seemed gentler.  Hosting a tea is a wonderful, relaxing way to savour a light meal.  Afternoon teas need not be extravagant (although they are wonderful when they are!).  They can be very simple but, for Mother’s Day, the special day to celebrate mothers, it is nice to dress up the event.  Do set a lovely table complete with pristine linens and your finest china (we all know that tea, for some reason, always tastes best when served in a china cup, right?)

Of course, Mother’s Day in Canada, falling on the second Sunday in May, always coincides closely with the opening of the Spring lobster fishing season in Prince Edward Island.   The first traps were set on May 1st this year with the first catches being landed on the following day.  Many families celebrate Mother’s Day along with their first official “feed” of lobster of the season.  Many a lobster are cracked open and savoured on Mother’s Day weekend in PEI!

For my tea, I opted to make lobster the star attraction.  I made lobster sandwiches and also tried a new recipe for lobster salad in puff pastry from the Spring 2012 issue of Victoria Classic “Teatime Bliss“.  I was not disappointed.  The delicate, flaky pastries filled with lobster salad were a tasty savory addition to my tea.  For those not liking lobster, I included the quintessential cucumber sandwiches as well.

On the beverage front, I served Yellow Tail “Bubbles Rosé” followed, of course, with tea.  My tea offering was “Traditional Afternoon” from Williamson Tea.

For the Mother’s Day cake, I chose a traditional teatime cake – the Battenburg cake.  This is a sponge cake of two colors, assembled in checkerboard fashion, then covered in marzipan and iced with fondant icing.  This made a colorful finale to a wonderful afternoon tea.

Sweets included an assortment of tiny cookies, French Macaroons, coconut macaroons, squares, Scotch cakes, and lemon Madeleines.

I highly encourage afternoon tea any time of the year as a relaxing way to spend some quality time and have some great conversation with those who mean the most to you.  What a grand afternoon!

 

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Hot Cross Buns

Hot Cross Buns

“Hot Cross Buns!  Hot Cross Buns!  One ha’ penny, two ha’ penny, Hot Cross Buns!  Remember that nursery rhyme?

I didn’t grow up with Hot Cross Buns being a tradition in our home at Easter.  In fact, before I made them this morning, I had never even tasted them.  I was aware of their existence but that was about the extent of my knowledge of Hot Cross Buns.  I decided this year was the time to try them.

I did some research to see what I could find out about these buns, their origin, and their connection to Easter.  Here is what I learned.

The buns are made of a rich, sweet yeast dough with spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cloves, and sometimes cardamom.  A mixture of raisins, currants, and/or mixed fruit are also added to the dough.  The dough is twice-raised, meaning it is risen to twice its size, punched down, and formed into individual rolls and allowed to rise again before baking.  Each bun is highly glazed with an egg and milk wash and has a cross shape outlined with an icing glaze made of icing sugar and milk.

Traditionally, the buns have been eaten on Good Friday and, for Christians, the mark of the cross on the top of each bun symbolizes the crucifixion.  There are a mixture of pagan and Christian stories and legends as well as superstitions surrounding Hot Cross Buns.   One school of thought suggests that Hot Cross Buns have their origin sometime around 1361 when an English monk was said to have made the spiced buns for distribution to the poor who were visiting a monastery in Hertfordshire in Southern England on Good Friday.  Another theory suggests that the buns were eaten by the Saxons to pay homage to Eostre (whose name means Easter), the goddess of Spring with the four marks of the cross in this theory symbolizing the four quarters of the moon.

My research also revealed some interesting superstitions surrounding Hot Cross Buns:

– The English believed that bread baked on Good Friday would protect their homes from fire and bad luck for the next year

– Sailors were reported to have taken Hot Cross Buns on voyages to guard them against shipwrecks

– Some believed the buns had medicinal properties

– Others believed that, if prepared on Good Friday, the buns would never get mouldy.

There is even a story associated with the Protestant Revolution that indicates English Protestants tried to ban the sale of the buns as they were seen to be a sign of Catholicism because they were baked from dough made for communion wafers; however, the story goes that the buns were so popular and were still being made despite threats of punishment that, in the late 1500s, the Queen is supposed to have decreed by law that the buns could be sold but only at Christmas, Easter, and at funerals.  So, lots of myths and folklore about Hot Cross Buns.  How much is fact and how much is fiction is anyone’s guess.

I went on the hunt for a Hot Cross Bun recipe.  I’m a fairly experienced bread maker so I’d consider myself a reasonably good judge of whether a recipe will work or not.  This helps tremendously when determining if a recipe is accurate and reliable or not.  For example, I found one recipe that called for 2 tablespoons of cinnamon for 3 ½ cups of flour – right away, I questioned the credibility of the recipe since that’s a lot of cinnamon for a small amount of flour and it would have been way too spicy for my liking.  I found several other recipes that called for 1 teaspoon of cinnamon for approximately the same amount of flour which is much more reasonable.  For ‘seasoned’ cooks and bakers, they can usually quickly detect if a recipe is “on the mark” or not.  For novice cooks, however, it’s not as easy and they can fall for trying recipes that are not reliable.  This causes frustration when their efforts do not turn out a positive result.  My advice is to, first, read through a recipe for the ingredients and to determine if the directions are well laid out and easy to understand and follow.  Then, find a few other recipes for the same food.  Compare how much flour, yeast, milk, spices, etc., each takes.  If you find recipes that really seem way off compared to the others or the directions are not sufficiently clear, don’t waste your time and ingredients on them.  Second, check with friends about which recipe sources they trust and try those.

So, as I indicated above, after researching several recipes, I opted to use the one provided by Joy of Baking and I was not disappointed.  Here is the hot link to the Joy of Baking’s recipe for Hot Cross Buns.  The great thing about Hot Cross Buns is that they do not take a lot of ingredients or ones that would be difficult to find.   It’s very important to make sure that the temperature of the water is accurate for the yeast to raise and, for this, I highly recommend using a food thermometer.  You will need a good, heavy-duty stand mixer with the dough hook to knead the dough to ensure that it is smooth and elastic.  While not difficult to make, Hot Cross Buns do require a significant amount of time, first to allot about 10-15 minutes for the yeast to rise and become foamy, then time to mix the ingredients and knead the dough, third to allot a couple of hours for the dough to raise the first time, then another hour or so for the buns to raise, and lastly about 15-18 minutes for the buns to bake.  This is a factor when considering any recipe as it is important to be able to set aside the necessary time for the entire process.

Mixing Dough for Hot Cross Buns

 

Hot Cross Buns Dough

 

Hot Cross Buns

I served the Hot Cross Buns warm with butter and raspberry jam.  They received the thumbs-up and delicious rating.  They made a great Easter Sunday morning breakfast treat.  Happy Easter, everyone!

 

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St. Patrick’s Day Dinner – 2012

Irish Coffee

So, St. Patrick’s Day 2012 has come and gone.  A belated Happy St. Patrick’s Day to you all.   We are all a wee bit Irish on March 17th, aren’t we – either Irish by heritage or Irish at heart!

My St. Patrick’s Day Menu this year consisted of Prince Edward Island Blue Mussels steamed in Guinness, herbs, and vegetables and served with Cows Creamery Sea-Salted butter, melted; Spirited Irish Stew served with Irish Soda Bread; Irish Cream Cheesecake; and Irish Coffee as an after-dinner drink in front of a cozy fireplace.

PEI Blue Mussels Steamed in Guinness

PEI cultivates great mussels.  Local supermarkets sell them bulk by the pound which is good because I am the only one in the household that likes them.  The key to steaming mussels is to use very little liquid and steam them just until their shells open.  If you use too much liquid, it will dilute the flavour of the mussels and they will have a very bland taste.  I have steamed these shellfish in water, beer, and in wine in the past.  However, the Guinness I used yesterday, along with the vegetables and herbs, made the mussels a very rich and delightful treat.  The mussels were infused with the Guinness and herbs but not so much that the seafood taste of these tasty morsels was lost.

So, for one serving, this is what I used:

2 Tbsp carrots, very finely chopped

2 Tbsp celery, very finely chopped

2 Tbsp. onion, finely chopped

½ tsp garlic purée

½ tsp. dried dillweed

1 – 1 ½ Tbsp butter

Melt butter in saucepan and sauté ingredients 2-3 minutes, then add:

1 cup Guinness

Bring to a boil

Add 9-10 oz. PEI mussels (about 15).

Cover pot.  Reduce heat to medium.  Steam approximately 3-5 minutes or until shells are open.  Using slotted spoon, remove mussels from liquid and transfer to plate, discarding any unopened shells.  Serve with melted butter.

PEI Blue Mussels Steamed in Guinness

 Irish Stew

Spirited Irish Stew

According to legend, traditional Irish Stew was made with cheap cuts of mutton or lamb and basic root vegetables like carrots, potatoes, onions, and turnips. Years ago, these would have been ingredients that were, no doubt, simply what would have been available in Ireland where sheep were raised for their wool and for food and, before the potato famine, potatoes were a primary Irish crop.

Over the years, Irish Stew recipes have changed according to the locale and what was available in the cook’s local area.  For example, beef is often used in North America today instead of lamb in Irish Stew and other ingredients are added to make a more flavourful, hearty stew as opposed to a broth-like dish.  Purists might argue that these changes result in a new stew recipe altogether and is something entirely different than the original Irish Stew.  Regardless what it is called, I like my version of a Spirited Irish Stew.  It has a nice rich, robust flavour and a splendid reddish-brown color that comes from the addition of tomato paste.  Using Guinness and red wine helps to tenderize the meat and also adds to the flavour of the stew.  I don’t add huge amounts of either as the intent is not to “drown” the natural flavours of the beef and veggies but rather to blend and enhance flavours.  The nice thing about Irish Stew (once you have all the veggies cut up) is that it is an all-encompassing meal with all the vegetables in one dish (no worries about getting different pots of vegetables all cooked at the same time and a real bonus of only having one pot to wash).  It really needs nothing more than a slice of warm Irish Soda Bread, fresh from the oven and slathered with butter and perhaps some homemade mustard pickles on the side.

I like to slow-cook this stew in the oven at 325ºF for a couple of hours as opposed to cooking it on the cooktop.  I find oven-cooking allows the flavours to slowly blend and the stew to become nice and thick.  Recipe follows at end of this blog posting.

Irish Soda Bread

Irish Soda Bread

Irish Soda Bread is a quick bread in which baking soda, and often baking powder, are used as the leavening agents as opposed to yeast.  My research revealed that ingredients for a basic Irish Soda Bread would include flour (often both all-purpose and whole wheat), baking soda, baking powder, salt, buttermilk, and molasses.  More elaborate breads might include raisins, currants, or nuts.  I also learned that it was not uncommon for the soda bread to be cooked on a griddle although I am not sure how the bread would have gotten baked all the way through without first getting burned on the bottom!

Soda bread dough is not kneaded like yeast breads and, in fact, it is recommended that the dough not be handled any more than is necessary for the dough to stick together.  In this respect, it is somewhat like tea biscuit dough except that it is a heavier, denser texture.

Irish Soda Bread Dough

Some recipes suggest that Irish Soda Bread should be baked in a pan or casserole dish for a softer crust or, for a more crispy hide, baked on a parchment-lined baking sheet which is how I baked mine.

Irish Soda Bread Ready for the Oven

The Irish Soda Bread recipe I used comes from Tea Time Magazine.  I found the bread was a good accompaniment for the Irish Stew but it is a dense, heavy bread and one that is probably best eaten fresh, warm from the oven, and on the day it is made.

Irish Soda Bread

 Irish Cream Cheesecake

I figured if I was going Irish on this St. Patrick’s Day, I might as well go all out and make a cheesecake that had Irish Cream Liquor in it.  I have often relied on recipes from Company’s Coming Cookbooks because I find them quite reliable, not containing ingredients I either wouldn’t have in my pantry or be able to readily source locally, and the directions are presented in a clear, easy-to-understand format.  That’s why I turned to Company’s Coming for the recipe for the Irish Cream Cheesecake.  I didn’t want a large cheesecake so I halved the recipe and used a 7” springform pan.

Irish Cream Cheesecake

I could not have been more pleased with the result.  The cheesecake had a lovely smooth texture, not over-powered by the Irish Cream Liquor but yet with a pleasing taste.  I served it simply with a dob of whipped cream, a drizzle of rich chocolate syrup, and a chocolate.  A superb and fitting finish to my St. Patrick’s Day meal!

Slice of Irish Cream Cheesecake Drizzled with Chocolate Sauce

My Island Bistro Kitchen's Spirited Irish Stew

By Barbara99 Published: March 18, 2012

  • Yield: (5-7 Servings)
  • Prep: 30 mins
  • Cook: 2 hrs 0 min
  • Ready In: 2 hrs 30 mins

A rich hearty stew with beef, a variety of vegetables, and flavoured with Guinness and red wine

Ingredients

Instructions

  1. Assemble ingredients.
  2. Chop stew meat and vegetables into bite-size pieces
  3. Brown meat in 1 - 1 1/2 tbsp olive oil.
  4. Place vegetables and meat in roaster.
  5. In large bowl, combine sugar, herbs, garlic, tomato paste, beef consommé, Worcestershire Sauce, red wine, Guinness, and water. Whisk in flour until smooth. Pour over vegetables in roaster. With large spoon, stir mixture to combine. Add bayleaf.
  6. Cover roaster and place in pre-heated 325F oven. Cook for approximately 2 hours or until vegetables are fork-tender when tested.
  7. Serve with Irish Soda Bread, rolls, or French Bread.

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“Pickled Cabbage” – A Plain Old-Fashioned PEI Winter Meal

Pickled Cabbage/Sauerkraut
Pickled Cabbage/Sauerkraut

Growing up, pickled cabbage was often on the menu in winter at our house.  Some might know this dish by its more sophisticated name of “sauerkraut.”

Making pickled cabbage was always a labour intensive (and messy) exercise.  The cabbages had to be chopped into chunks, cores removed, then placed, layer by layer, with coarse salt into a large earthenware crock.  Each layer would be tamped down with a stick that had a block on one end that was fitted with blades.  This did two things.  First, it chopped the cabbage up into bite-sized pieces and, second, it drew the water out of the cabbage which, when combined with the salt, made a pickling brine.  As soon as juice from the salt and cabbage appeared, in went more cabbage and salt.  This process continued until the crock was full.  Then, a large plate was placed on the top of the cabbage and pressed down with a heavy weight (like a large brick or two).  This squeezed the cabbage mixture and forced the water in the cabbage to be drawn out so the brine would form and then the fermentation process would start.  The crock would be placed behind the wood stove in my grandmother’s kitchen.  The heat would facilitate the fermentation process that would last several days.  The “brew” would be checked every day to see if small bubbles appeared around the top of the crock which would signify that the mixture was “working” (fermenting).

After the fermentation period was completed, the cabbage would be frozen.  To cook the cabbage, a piece of pork (with bone in) would be put in a large pot of water and a hefty amount of the pickled cabbage added.  My grandmother would simmer this on her wood stove for probably a couple of hours or more because cabbage takes a long time to cook.  The tantalizing smell of the pickled cabbage cooking would permeate throughout the house and whet the appetite on a cold, frosty winter day!

Over the years, I’ve tried a number of different commercial varieties of sauerkraut but none of them ever compared to the pure homemade variety of pickled cabbage I grew up with.  I took the notion this winter to make a batch of my own pickled cabbage but that met with little enthusiasm around me.  One day at my local supermarket, I happened to notice a brand of pickled cabbage (cum “sauerkraut”) that I had never seen before.  Since I didn’t get much (read “any”) encouragement to make my own, I decided to try a package of Lewis Mountain Sauerkraut that was made in New Brunswick.  I knew as soon as it started to cook that it smelled just like what I used to remember our homemade pickled cabbage smelling like!

Lewis Mountain Sauerkraut

It was tradition in my family to serve blue potatoes boiled in their jackets to accompany the pickled cabbage.  I don’t know why blue potatoes but that was what “went with pickled cabbage” at home.  I couldn’t find any “blues” so I served boiled red potatoes.  I was so pleased with the Lewis Mountain pickled cabbage (they call it “sauerkraut”).  It tasted just like what I grew up with.  It’s an all natural product – no additives, no preservatives and I believe that’s what gives it its true, authentic flavour.

Raw, uncooked Pickled Cabbage (Sauerkraut)

I know some serve sauerkraut with sausages and in a myriad of other ways.  However, in my books, it is never better than when simply boiled as a vegetable flavoured with pork and served with boiled potatoes dressed with butter and seasoned with pepper.  The cabbage does lose its color when pickled and then again when boiled so don’t look for it to have that ‘spring green’ color of fresh cabbage.  However, the wonderful naturally pickled taste makes up for the loss of color.  My guess is that, if you didn’t grow up with this as menu item, it is probably something that would require an acquired taste.

It’s hard to make an attractive plate with pickled cabbage served only with boiled potatoes.  However, my goal was not to create a designer repas with this dish but rather to enjoy a traditional, plain, wholesome Maritime winter meal.

Pickled Cabbage Served with Boiled Red Potatoes

I’m thrilled to have found a Maritime producer that makes pickled cabbage that tastes just as I remember it as it gave me my pickled cabbage “fix” that I was craving this winter without me having to do all the work to make it!

“Sweetheart and Roses” Valentine Tea

So, it’s Valentine’s Day – the day of all things sweet.  This year, I decided to host an afternoon tea to commemorate the special day.  As I soon discovered after just a wee bit of research, there is more than one kind of afternoon tea.  There are Cream Teas where tea, scones, jam, and cream are served.  There are Light Teas where you are likely to find sweets served along with tea and scones.  Then, there are Savory Teas where you might find such tasty temptations as tiny sandwiches (crusts removed, of course), small quiches, or appetizers on the menu….and you get the idea.  Teas can be relatively simplistic or they can be lavishly elaborate.

To my knowledge, on PEI in winter, we don’t have any hotels or restaurants that offer a traditional full-scale formal afternoon tea.  In the summer season, the Dalvay-By-The-Sea Hotel on PEI’s North Shore, Mrs. Profitt’s Tea Room in the Orient Hotel in Victoria-By-The-Sea on the Island’s South Shore, and the Blue Winds Tea Room in Clinton, near New London, offer tea service.  I’m not sure why this niche has largely escaped the Island but, from my afternoon tea experiences elsewhere while travelling – most notably at the Empress Hotel in Victoria, British Columbia, at different hotels in London, England, and on several cruise ships, it’s a very charming and relaxing way to while away an afternoon.

For my “Sweetheart and Roses Valentine’s Tea”, I chose a pink theme (still a little tired of all the red from Christmas!) and I sort of crossed a Light Tea with a Savory Tea.  The appointed hour was 4:30pm.

Valentine’s Afternoon Tea

On the Menu:  Currant scones and tea biscuits with raspberry jam, small quiches followed by a selection of dainty sweets that included French macaroons, melting moments, shortbread, squares, decorated sugar cookies, and Linzer cookies.  For dessert, I served a vanilla layer cake covered in buttercream icing swirled in a rose design.  For my tea selection, I chose Stash English Breakfast.  While that may sound odd to have a “breakfast” tea in the afternoon, it is my favourite kind of tea so that’s what I went with.  I set the table with a white Irish linen tablecloth and my finest China (including lots of tiered and pedestal plates) and we were off to enjoy our Valentine’s Day Afternoon Tea.

“Sweetheart and Roses Valentine’s Tea”

Valentine’s Day is all about spending time with the people who mean the most to you.  It’s less important the big bouquets of red roses, the Valentine-themed boxes of chocolates, or teddy bears carrying hearts or any of a myriad of other commercial and material gifts than it is spending time together.  So, whatever your Valentine’s Day carries for you, I wish you the time well spent and enjoyed with your favourite people.  Happy Valentine’s Day everyone!

Afternoon Tea on a Cold Winter Day

There is just something especially comforting about a warm cup of tea accompanied by fresh currant scones straight out of the oven.  And, of course, it’s made all the better when the tea is served in a china cup and saucer!  Is there anything more relaxing after a busy day than to sit down late in the afternoon and recharge the batteries while enjoying a cup of tea in front of the fireplace!

Afternoon Tea with Currant Scones

SMELTS – A Prince Edward Island Winter Meal

Growing up on PEI, it was customary in our home to always have a “feed” of smelt fish sometime during the winter.

Smelts are a winter catch and, therefore, a winter meal in many households on PEI.  Sport fishers set up camp on the frozen waterways around the Island.  By setting up camp, I mean they haul little buildings, locally referred to as “smelt shacks” out onto the ice.  It is from the ‘comfort’ of these tiny rustic shelters that they fish for smelts, typically using spears or nets, to catch the tiny fish below the ice surface.  Smelts, in general, measure about 5 ”- 7” long.  The picture below was taken of a smelt shack community in Summerside, PEI.

Smelt Shacks, Summerside, PEI

 

Smelts

I am making an effort to honor my self-imposed commitment of trying one new recipe or dish a week for 2012.  So, when I saw fresh smelts at the local supermarket, I decided a “feed” was in order; I figured this would qualify for a new recipe because I had never actually cooked them before.  When my Mom cooked the smelts, she would simply dip and coat the cleaned fish in flour seasoned with salt and pepper and pan fry them in butter or oil.  Smelts were usually served in our house with homemade bread and butter although some would also serve potatoes boiled in their jackets.

 

I decided to jazz up the breading a bit so I mixed some spices into the flour for dredging the smelts. I added a bit of garlic and onion powders along with a smidgeon of cayenne pepper and dried mustard.  The smelts were fried in olive oil and I served them with seasoned oven-roasted potato wedges and homemade mustard pickles.