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You’ve heard it before, many times in fact.  Like many of my fellow blog colleagues I’m not a baker, I’m not much for sweets and I’m astonished at how many food holidays are devoted to desserts.  (Little wonder we have an obesity problem in North America.)  And with this in the distant recesses of my mind I have arrived at Pecan Sandie  Day.   Of all the desserts in the world cookies are the least likely to make me reach for one, the least likely to induce “mmmmmm’s” and also the thing I am least likely to make at home.  Like anyone with young kids in the house, cookies have been part of my culinary repertoire but those days are long over.  So what to do on a day that asks you to make something you don’t particularly like or that fit into your current healthy eating commitment?

I had planned to get all nostalgic and make cookies with my daughter.  I thought I would tell you some charming stories about cooking with my children, about the fun that occurred with them standing on kitchen chairs around the kitchen counter, about the family ties bonded with gooey chocolate chip cookies.  It sounded better in my head.  First, anyone who knows me well would have called me out on my fabricated domestic bliss.  I did cook with my kids, but we spent a good deal more time at hockey, figure skating, soccer, lacrosse, gymnastics, ballet… you get the idea.  I always cooked well for my family and we always ate together at the dining table, but there were few Hallmark moments in our kitchen.  It was a more of a factory operation than anything – cooking large batches of core ingredients that could be one thing today and something completely different tomorrow – packaging some into individual dishes for lunch – prepping what could be done ahead for the next meal.  I mentioned in the pastry blog a few months ago that spanokopita was great for the freezer and worked well in entrée sized portions – in those hectic years I never made fewer than a dozen of the entrée sized pies.

I know.  I am still avoiding the subject.  I didn’t want to admit that I hadn’t actually cooked my mandated dish.  I really had planned on it, but the month has sped past me much more quickly than I anticipated.  In my defense I haven’t been home since the end of May.  The fridge is empty and we’ve been living on take-out for the last two days.  The plan to bake with my daughter in Montreal was foiled by her work schedule and a more demanding conference schedule than anticipated.  So there you have all my excuses.

However, I can tell you what I would have cooked.  Martha Stewart is my go to when it comes to cookies and bars.  Her 1995 book “The Martha Stewart Cookbook: Collected Recipes for Everyday” bears all the hallmarks of a well-loved cookbook, replete with splatters and grubby finger prints.  In that book you will find this recipe for Pecan Cookies on page 544.  I’ve made these cookies for Christmas a few times to rave reviews I might add.  When I was assigned Pecan Sandies, I knew immediately what I would cook.  Please enjoy.

Pecan Cookies

  • 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  • ¼ teaspoons baking powder
  • ¼ teaspoon baking soda
  • ¼ pound unsalted butter, softened
  • ½ cup granulated sugar
  • ½ cup loosely packed dark brown sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
  • ¾ cup finely chopped pecans
  • 36 pecan halves
  1. Sift together the flour, baking powder and baking soda; set aside.
  2. Cream the butter and sugars until light and fluffy.  Beat in the egg and vanilla.  Gradually add the flour mixture, a bit at a time, until thoroughly blended.  Stir in the chopped pecans.
  3. Shape the dough into an even cylinder approximately 1 ½ inches in diameter.  Wrap in plastic wrap and chill for at least 15 minutes.
  4. Preheat the oven to 3500F.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  5. Remove plastic wrap and cut the dough into slices approximately ¼ inch thick.  Place the slices on the baking sheet (leave room for them to spread) and lightly press a pecan half into the center of each.  Bake until lightly browned, about 12 minutes.  Cool on a rack.

Makes 30 to 36 cookies.

There is another recipe on Martha’s website for Pecan Sandies that has larger chunks of nuts and no baking soda.  The website recipe will make a flat chewy cookie, but I prefer my cookies thin and crispy.  The cookbook refrigerator cookie is the one for me – if I were to make cookies that is.

My sincerest apologies for there are no photos of my kitchen in the ‘90s, no pictures of fresh from the oven cookies.  But trust me on this one.  It’s a good recipe.  If cookies are required I will use this recipe again.  Given the choice, however, I’d prefer to use my pecans for pie.

I promise not to disappoint on Catfish day.

With 80″s nostalgia sweeping the zeitgeist of north america (think A-team and the Karate Kid), I was tempted to turn National Strawberry Shortcake Day into an homage to those strawberry shortcake toys that were so popular with little girls in the 1980’s.

You remember her, don’t you? She was a little girl with red hair, and a pink cat called Custard. During the 1980s, Strawberry Shortcake became a huge fad for children throughout the United States and Canada. At the time, there were many related products, such as sticker albums, clothes, a video game (you played on the Atari system!). Strawberry shortcake had all these friends who had names like Apple Dumplin’, Raspberry Tart, Plum Puddin’, Orange Blossom, Lemon Meringue…

However, my plans for a more extensive walk down memory lane crumbled when I remembered that the manufacturers of Strawberry Shortcake used to infuse the plastic of these toys with the most ridiculously stinky chemicals to make the toys smell like the food they were named after. Even as a little kid, I remember thinking the chemically smell was just wrong wrong wrong… and so I can’t dedicate a food blog to our little plastic friends.

I can, however, tell you how I managed to make a delicious strawberry shortcake which was free of eggs and cow dairy! In my world, where deserts are few and far between because of my dietary restrictions, this was a major coup! 🙂

First, I found a biscuit recipe in the Joy of Cooking, which was egg free, but was made of lots-o-butter:

Preheat oven to 450F

1 tbls sugar
2 c flour
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
6 tbls COLD butter, cut into small chunks
1 cup goat milk

Mix all the dry ingredients. Cut butter in with knives or a pastry cutter until the texture is crumbly. Make a well, and pour in the milk. mix quickly and lightly until the dough is just wet. Drop only a cooking sheet covered in parchment paper by the large spoonfuls and bake for 12-15 min, until the tops are brown.

Meanwhile, top and slice the [local!][organic!] strawberries. Set aside 1/3 of the strawberries in a small bowl and mash them with a fork. Add a little Grand Marnier if you have it handy. Sprinkle the remaining strawberries with a little sugar and allow to macerate for 20 min.

And now, to pull it all together… crack open a shortcake. On the bottom half layer strawberry sauce, strawberries, sheep yogurt (yes, my secret ingredient!) and a little sprinkle of sugar. Top with the other half of the shortcake, and another dab of yogurt.

The brilliant thing about this desert is that there was no goaty-sheepy taste, which is always the challenge with these dairy products, as opposed to using the much milder cow’s milk. It was just… yum.

Enjoy, on your back deck, with two drunk friends and a whole lot of whiskey (more about that on National Whiskey Day, coming up in July!).


ps – thanks to Rumon for the photos…

Talk about a big dose of nostalgia. Licorice and grilled cheese really are the foods of my youth, a not so distant youth that I revisit on an almost weekly basis.

When left to my own devices, particularly as a child and as a young adult, I practically lived on grilled cheese sandwiches. Quick, easily adapted to create any flavour, and most importantly, easy to make for one. Grilled cheese is the ideal meal for a solo diner. Then, as now, when home alone grilled cheese is my go to meal.

Like most comfort foods, people have very specific expectations regarding the “correct” flavour and texture for grilled cheese. I am not among them. Sure, cheddar on sour dough is always a satisfying alternative. But I rarely make an unembellished sandwich and I never know what I’m going to make until I open the fridge. Among my favourite combinations are brie and caramelized onion, swiss with shredded chicken, smoked cheddar with shredded pork, mozzarella with tomato and basil and, of coarse my standby, aged cheddar with a fried egg and hot sauce. As for the bread I can be inspired by almost anything that looks good at the bakery that day. Olive bread is awesome with any cheese and tomato, olive oil and rosemary with chicken, or how about a dark rye to go with salmon and goat cheese. And don’t stop with yeast breads. I made a chicken, pickled jalapeno and Monterey jack on left over corn bread one time. I’m not sure how many Weight Watchers points it was worth but it was one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever made. When it comes to grilled cheese, my only real criteria are crispy bread and gooey cheese.

Today’s creation – smoked turkey and gruyere with Spicy Apple Chutney on multigrain bread. The whole meal took less than 15 minutes including walking to the grocery to buy bread. (I knew I’d forgotten something yesterday.) I wasn’t planning on using the chutney but my jar of cranberry sauce was MIA and the chutney had somehow crept to the front of the fridge – a little culinary serendipity.

The sandwich was awesome – the perfect combination of salty, sweet, crispy and creamy. (Why is Fred Penner in my head again?)

Now for the licorice side of this equation. I was the kid that always ate the black jellybeans and jujubes, the one that ordered licorice ice cream and the one that actually liked the hard-as-rock licorice candies in my Halloween bag. I’ve never been much of a sweet tooth and I think I can explain my love of licorice with this one simple fact – licorice is never super sweet. Now, I could turn this into herbal medicine lesson, but I’ll leave it to you to find all the healthy excuses you could deploy to justify your licorice indulgence. As for me, I’m comfortable saying that I don’t need any other reason than I love it.

Your love of licorice does not have to end in the candy isle of course. I made chai infused crème brûlée a few months ago. The star anise was the standout in this very popular dessert. You can also infuse licorice flavour into your dinner. Fennel and orange salad is a great alternative to cabbage slaw. Pernod pairs beautifully with prawns and other shellfish. Tarragon and a splash of sherry make ordinary button mushrooms truly special. The following recipe was inspired by a trip to Granville Island. All those fresh ingredients just called out to me.

Mushroom Tarragon Cream Sauce with Parpadelle
Serves 4

• 1 pound fresh parpadelle or other wide noodle

• 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cubed
• 3 large shallots, julienned
• 6 cloves garlic, minced
• 1 1/2 pound mushrooms, sliced or quartered
• 2 tablespoons Brandy
• ½ cup dry White Wine
• 1 cup chicken stock
• 1 cup cream
• 3 tablespoons butter, divided
• 6 tablespoons tarragon, chopped
• ½ cup parmagiano regiano
• Salt and pepper
• Lemon juice

1. Bring large pot of well salted water to a boil.
2. In a stainless steel sauté pan (you’ll get better caramelization than in a non-stick pan) heat 1 tablespoon each of olive oil and butter.
3. Brown chicken and remove from pan.
4. Add shallots to pan and sauté until soft. Add garlic and sauté for another minute.
5. Add mushroom and sauté until they release their water and begin to brown.
6. Deglaze pan with brandy and white wine.
7. Add chicken stock and cream. Simmer until reduced by about a third.
8. Add chicken to sauce reheat.
9. Salt and pepper to taste.
10. While the stock is reducing cook the pasta. Fresh pasta only takes 3 to 4 minutes so don’t put it on too early.
11. When is pasta is cooked, drain thoroughly, reserving a cup of pasta water.
12. Toss pasta in sauce and thin with pasta water if required.
13. Toss with tarragon, cheese, butter and a squeeze of lemon juice.
14. Serve with an extra sprinkle of grated parmagiano reggiano.

And why stop with dinner? Licorice makes me happy. And, happy hour makes me happy. So logically, licorice at happy hour should make me practically euphoric. Now, I may have moved beyond flaming sambuca shooters, but a steaming sambuca coffee (hold the cream) is still on my menu. Or, if you prefer a shi-shi girly version, a Galliano, vodka and espresso martini with chocolate shavings is quite delicious. Of course, everything that comes in a martini glass is delicious. And then there are the classics – when was the last time someone offered you a Harvey Wallbanger? In the name of nostalgia it’s high time, don’t you think? Or you could try this variation of an old standby created by the lovely Monique.

Tarragon “Mojito”
2 tablespoons tarragon leaves
½ a lemon cut into small wedges
1 tablespoon simple syrup
Soda Water

Muddle tarragon, lemon and sugar syrup in a glass. Add ice and top off with soda.

The version we made with lemon was quite tasty. But we both think lime would be better. Maybe that’s just an excuse to make them again.

So there you have it – two foods that I associate with my youth that have grown up with me. No more processed cheddar on white bread for me. The grilled cheese of my past was barely food, but the grilled cheese of my present can be decidedly gourmet. And I can accept that there are no more trick-or-treating expeditions in my future, but I know that I will savour that first sip of my martini today as much as I did any licorice rope pulled from the candy bag then.

If there is a lesson to learn, it is probably that we remember our childhood favourites so fondly because they appeal to our palates on some fundamental level. I would argue that even the foods that you have rejected in adulthood contain some element that you continue to enjoy. The flavours that you loved then are the foundation of the sophisticated palate you possess today. Be they ketchup, fish sticks, mac and cheese or over-sweet wine, they are all part of a culinary journey.

Sorry for the lack of photos.  I keep getting error messages and have to get on a plane very soon. But trust me, it all looked great 🙂

Bon appétit,