The Cooking Chronicles: The Art of Balance

I’m not sure what it’s been, but if you don’t count experiments with our new barbecue, we haven’t really been trying out as many new recipes as of late. I think part of it has to do with summer – we’re doing our best to take in as many festivals as we can so we’ve ended up falling back on recipes we know and love.

Anyway, two new dishes we made recently were both pretty well-received, and exemplified the need to balance between recipes you want to make all the time and recipes you should make more often.


I saw a brief clip of Ina Garten putting together pastitsio, a Greek-influenced baked pasta (while at the dentist of all places!), and was sure it would be a dish Mack would enjoy. But then again, like bacon, it would be hard for him to pass up a cheesy, sauce-entwined casserole.




One bowl was enough

My only grievance with the dish is the length of time it took to make from start to finish – about two and a half hours. Between the meat sauce (we used beef all the way through), béchamel, and baking time, it’s definitely something you had to plan for. On the plus side, we had leftovers for days!

Quinoa-Veggie Burgers

I was immediately attracted to the quinoa-veggie burgers pictured on the July 2011 edition of Chatelaine. On a day where I wanted anything but a heavy meal, it was the perfect dish to make. Mack’s biggest problem with the dish was its name. To him, the word “burger” connotes meat, and bread. This recipe features neither, being both vegetarian and gluten free.

The patty was comprised of sautéed vegetables, quinoa, egg, cornstarch and seasonings, and came together quite quickly. I also loved the technique of pressing the mixture together into a measuring cup – overturned into the pan, perfectly circular patties were formed once the mounds were pressed down.

Quinoa-veggie burger

Quinoa-veggie burger

I loved the crunch – both from being pan-fried and the inherent texture of the quinoa. Instead of the mushroom base though, I would have actually preferred a bun. Roasted tomatoes (as recommended in the recipe) would have been a great addition, as would have been the tahini sauce, also recommended.

Mack’s verdict? Besides the fact that it shouldn’t have been called a burger, he liked it enough to say we should make it again! How’s that for a coup?

The Cooking Chronicles: An Evening of Food and Wine

Since beginning this (food) blog last year, my interest in the culinary arts has not been contained to cooking and eating out alone. Due to repetitive exposure to Giada de Laurentiis and Ina Garten’s entertaining strategies, I had embraced the notion of hosting my own dinner party for some time. I had purchased paper invitations on sale at the end of last year, but didn’t yet have a large enough repetoire of recipes under my belt to really build a menu from. Over the last six months, however, I’ve experimented with enough dishes to put together a coherent meal, from appetizer to dessert. And though I knew June would be a busy month, I also acknowledged that if I didn’t throw the party before I left for Europe, it would likely not happen at all, at least not in the immediate future.

So the planning began about three weeks earlier, with “save the date” e-mails to four of my friends (plus Mack, who had agreed to host the party at his house). A week after that, I mailed out the invitations, following rather formal conventions gleaned from the web, including, for example, in place of the standard “RSVP,” the phrase “Favour of reply is requested.” As well, to mark this as a special occasion, I specified a semiformal dress code (in my post-party research, I stumbled upon a great website that offers free, printable invitation templates, most with a whimsical theme – worth checking out if you’re in a creative pinch).

As for the menu, as I am of the belief that I was Italian in a previous life, planned to cook several of Giada’s recipes. I was really interested in making individual servings of dishes wherever possible, not only to make the food easier to serve, but for presentation purposes. And with the dessert, for example, its ‘make-in-advance’ nature is perfect for such an occasion.

Panna Cotta with Fresh Bertries

So on Sunday, at Mack’s house, with the vinaigrette and panna cotta made the day before, we got to work cleaning, decorating, and preparing the majority of the food. With careful planning and a well-stocked fridge, it wasn’t as taxing as I had anticipated.

Table set-up

Toasting the almonds for the salad was a straightforward procedure, and really brought out the flavour of the nuts. Also, I cheated this time around in using canned orange pieces, but I promise to learn how to segment an orange next time. We did have a bit of trouble with moulding the parmesan frico cups at first, but with Mack’s “ingenious” idea of using a plastic water bottle in place of a glass, we were able to move on to the tomatoes.

Mixed Greens with a Citrus Vinaigrette served in a Parmesan Frico Cup

The inclusion of a splash of tomato juice and decrease in the amount of breadcrumbs (as observed on my first try) made a noticeable difference to the spinach-stuffed tomatoes – the side as a whole was more moist and tasted better.

Spinach Stuffed Tomatoes (before baking)

Individual gratin dishes (from Dollarama!) made the penne with four cheeses easy to serve, and though we didn’t miss the gorgonzola we left out, it probably would have thickened the sauce just that little bit. I did, however, like the hint of tomato mixed in with the cream (and yes, Mack even offered each of the guests “fresh ground pepper” to go with their pasta).

Penne with Four Cheeses

As for the “fire-raising” moment of the night – in hindsight, I should have warmed the focaccia round with the tomatoes in the 375 degree oven and not alongside the pasta in the 500 degree oven. My apologies to my friends who were too polite to not consume burnt bread…

Overall, the timing of the dishes worked out quite well. A wonder what planning ahead can do when setting up a multiple-course meal. Also, Mack’s wine picks did much to set a more mature tone to the evening – a Naked Grape Chardonnay and a bottle of White Zinfandel. I didn’t get to try the Zinfandel myself, but from what I heard, it accompanied our pasta nicely. Lastly, though the table was a bit small for six people, meaning that we had to serve each person individually instead of utilizing a shared platter, it may have been better as each of the guests then felt taken care of.

Ready for dessert!

I had planned for an early 5:30pm start to accommodate one of the guests, so the sun was still quite bright when we began to eat. As the night progressed, however, there was a moment while we were having dessert, close to dusk, candles flickering, with jazz playing softly in the background that I really appreciated the moment and the small accomplishment that (Mack and) I had completed.

Mini Linzer Cookies with Organic Strawberry Jam

But to give credit where credit’s due – I could not have pulled this off without Mack’s help – not only gracious enough to lend me his home, but a hand in everything from music selection to table setting to food to clean up.


I found that cooking for six was manageable, with perhaps eight being the upper limit to maintain sanity. I would do it again, but in a different form – backyard BBQ bash, dessert night, wine and cheese evening – but likely not for a while. I’m happy to check off “throw a dinner party” off my list of 43 Things.

Group shot

The Cooking Chronicles: Lemon Yogurt Cake

Though my time would have been better spent testing out recipes for my upcoming dinner party, I couldn’t resist testing out Barefoot Contessa‘s recipe for Lemon Yogurt Cake. The seminar I’ve been attending this weekend has been serviced by a fabulous caterer, who makes the most delectable citrus pound cake. Needless to say, I was looking to have more of such treats at home.

I used our fancy new Cuisipro Accutec grater I recently bought my Mum to zest a few lemons. With my usual tendency to be careless, I made sure to watch my fingers! I ended up doubling the recipe – baking one batch of mini loaves and one large loaf. The latter took forever to set, after over an hour ten in the oven total (though in fairness, I jumped the gun and took it out much too early). After this experience, I have been reminded of the necessity to conduct the clean toothpick test clear down the middle – at an angle just won’t cut it.

The recipe called for an odd post-baking infusion of sweetened lemon juice. It really only worked for the large loaf, as the smaller portions didn’t burst at the top to allow for absorption of the liquid. I’m not sure if this step is entirely needed, as I found the zest added quite a bit of flavor on its own.

I did like the overall taste, however – the yogurt really contributed to the light and fluffy nature of the cake, especially when compared with its butter-based counterparts. Combined with the freshness of lemon in general, this would be the perfect treat to have on the patio on a warm summer’s night, or out on the grass packed in a picnic lunch. Ina Garten has another winner!

Lemon Yogurt Cake (I really should have taken a picture of the slices…)

The Cooking Chronicles: Strawberry Scones

I’ve always been a fan of scones, but I’ve never before attempted a from-scratch recipe without the aid of Bisquick. After seeing Ina Garten’s Strawberry Scones on Barefoot Contessa, however, I figured it was time to give it a try.

Besides choosing to use a pastry blender over my KitchenAid mixer, and substituting milk for the heavy cream, I followed the recipe word for word (though really, in the face of 3/4 pound of butter, what’s a little cream?). For the additive, I used a small package of dried strawberries I had bought on a recent trip to Vancouver.

The scones baked up very quickly, browning at 12 minutes instead of the suggested 20. And because of the mass quantity of butter, the dough resembled flaky pastry more than what’s typically expected from a breakfast biscuit. I’m not sure I’m a fan of the dried strawberries, however, as they’re slightly chewier than I originally expected. I think I’d much rather use frozen blueberries or perhaps dried cranberries and a hint of orange zest next time (the latter being Garten’s idea). I did really enjoy the sweetness provided by the dash of sugar on top though – it transforms the scone into a treat in itself.

These strawberry scones would make a lovely tea time indulgence, and really are worth the extra effort!

Strawberry Scones

The Cooking Chronicles: Chocolate Cupcakes with Peanut Butter Icing

Given all my harping about cupcakes, it’s a surprise that I haven’t yet tackled the challenge of making them myself. So tonight, I attempted Ina Garten’s recipe of Chocolate Cupcakes with Peanut Butter Icing.

It was certainly the most prep-intensive recipe to date. Between ensuring that the eggs, butter, and sour cream were at room temperature, remembering to brew the coffee, and letting the buttermilk mixture stand, I definitely exceeded the time guidelines listed on the recipe. Moreover, though I dislike using an electric mixer (I’m strangely traditional that way), I thought I’d experiment with my Mum’s KitchenAid mixer this time. It wasn’t as complicated as I had expected, but I did cop out near the end and chose to hand-incorporate the buttermilk and flour mixtures.

I also used Ina’s method of ice-cream scooping the cupcake batter into the baking cups, but boy, do I need a better scoop in the future; I think gravity was a more effective helper than the lift button itself.

As for the icing – it is without a doubt the star of the show. I’m known for eating spoonfuls of peanut butter out of the jar, but with the fluffy sweetness of the peanut butter icing, I’m liable to take the bowl and run. I highly recommend this recipe for anyone with frosting-related needs.

The ‘cakes themselves rose nicely, and frosted with icing and topped with chopped peanuts, look absolutely delectable. I’m not sure if I’d go through with making the cake batter from scratch again, as it was time consuming without much difference in taste when compared with the Betty Crocker/Duncan Hines variety, but the icing gets two big thumbs up from me.

Think anyone will buy my creations for $2.50 a pop?

Chocolate Cupcakes with Peanut Butter Icing

The Cooking Chronicles: Mini Linzer Cookies

My original plan was to replicate Ina Garten’s recipe for Mini Linzer Cookies in time for Valentine’s Day so I could bring the treats to work to share with my colleagues. Due to my difficulty in locating the specialty cookie cutters however, I had to delay my excitement (Call the Kettle Black didn’t have them…tsk, tsk). Luckily, my Mum found a set at Winners, so my cooking project was back in the works.

I only had enough room temperature butter for half of the recipe, which was a shame in the end, as the preparation was fairly time consuming with only a moderate amount of product to show for it. Though the directions were simple enough, between the half hour to chill the dough, the fifteen minutes to chill the cut-out cookies, and the ten minutes to allow the cookies to cool before decorating, the “idle” time dragged the process out quite a bit.

Despite slightly-burnt cookies and a dash too much confectioners sugar, I was ultimately happy with the experiment. They’d make a lovely tea time accompaniment or a gift-worthy treat. I hope my workmates enjoyed them!

Mini Linzer Cookies (with organic strawberry jam)