Friday, August 31, 2012

Back to school Blondies

The end of summer is near, and today, the clouds are rolling in. Stella looks at the clock: 1:00 pm. In the summer months, baking in the heat of the afternoon was done only when necessary, but now as the weather is quickly turning more autumnal, a fresh warm batch of baking can be seen with increasing regularity on the counter after lunch.

School is starting up in a few days for Stella's girls, and they have, if the truth be told, very mixed feelings about returning to the school routine. "Mommy," Kendra had asked wistfully this morning, "remember, how you always make us Walnut Blondies in the fall?" Stella decides to make a batch of the rich, buttery squares covered in a thin layer of white chocolate and sprinkled with walnuts, in an effort to cheer everyone up, including those parents and children that come in for a break from back-to-school shopping. Saying goodbye to the carefree, happy days of summer seems bittersweet, but as ever, the march of the seasons waits for no one.

Stella thinks about what soups to offer for tomorrow's menu. Soup, always her biggest seller, is the best way to warm a day with a fall nip in the air. She decides Carrot Ginger soup, and Corn Chowder will fit the bill with the freshest in-season ingredients. Stay tuned!

Walnut Blondies  - adapted by Emma from The Hawthorn Series 'simply delicious slices'
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup of brown sugar, lightly packed
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 eggs
1/2 cup chopped almonds (or pecans)

150 grams white chocolate, chopped (I used 200 grams for a thicker layer of chocolate)
1/4 cup cream (or milk)
2 tablespoons chopped walnuts

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Lightly grease a 8 x 8 inch pan and line it with parchment paper, leaving the paper hanging over the sides.

2. Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. Cream the sugars, butter and vanilla in a bowl until light and fluffy. ( an electric mixer works best) Gradually add the eggs, beating well after each addition. Fold in the flour with a large metal spoon and gently stir in the walnuts. Spread the mixture into the tin.

3. Bake for 30 minutes till golden and a skewer inserted comes out clean. Leave the tin for 10 minutes, then cool on a wire rack.

4. To make the icing, place the chocolate and cream in a small bowl over a sauce pan of simmering water. Stir until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth. Remove from heat, cool slightly then spread over the cooled blondies. Sprinkle with walnuts and you're done!

Writing by Emma and Rebecca, photos by Emma. Happy Labour Day Weekend, friends!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Garden Harvest Pasta Salad

The harvest has reached its peak in Kevin's garden, and he has been sharing his bounty with his friends and neighbours. Stella always gets first pick of the crop, however, after Kevin himself, so this morning, he brings in purple beans, vidalia onions, some early cherry tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, chives, basil, Italian parsley, romaine lettuces and nasturtium flowers at her request. Stella has her trademark pasta salad in mind for today's lunch special, and will serve it on a bed of romaine lettuce with a triangle of delicious chewy foccacia bread created by the wonderful baker down the road.

One of her regular lunch customers, James the bookseller next door, pokes his head in the door. "What's for lunch today, Stella?" he asks, sniffing the air for some hint of what is cooking in the kitchen. When she answers him, he asks, "With or without sausage?"

"Optional!" Stella calls out from the kitchen.

"Then, with!" he calls back. "See you at noon, then."

Stella brings a large pot of water to the boil. She adds a tablespoon of salt and adds two 750 gram packages of cheese-filled fresh tortellini pasta.  She brings it to the boil again and then lowers the heat to a gentle boil, stirring all the time. She cooks the pasta until it is firm yet tender, about six minutes, then drains the pot into an extra large colander. She gently shakes the colander up and down to make sure all the water is drained from the pasta and then pours it all back into the empty pot. She mixes in a few heaping tablespoons of pesto Genovese* to coat the pasta while it cools and to keep it from sticking together. After letting it cool a little more, she pours the pasta into a large bowl to cool completely.

Assistant cook Savannah washes all the veggies thoroughly, and then cuts the purple beans into bite sized pieces. She halves the cherry tomatoes, dices the cucumber and vidalia onion, and chops the basil and parsley, and cuts the bunch of chives into short pieces with scissors. She grates a few carrots and after plunging the romaine leaves into a deep sink of cold water, she tears them into smaller pieces and puts them in the salad spinner to dry. She tells Stella that she thinks some slightly bitter endive would be a nice addition, but Kevin hasn't brought any today. Stella says the nasturtium flowers will add a peppery kick instead.

While Savannah is preparing the veggies, Stella makes the Creamy Garlic salad dressing. When all the salad ingredients are prepared, Stella mixes everything except the nasturtium flowers and the romaine lettuce together. After putting aside a bowl full for younger daughter Kendra who does not like salad dressing and will be coming down to eat her lunch shortly, she adds the dressing, tastes the mixture and deems it worthy of the lunch crowd. She'll dice some locally made farmers sausage and offer it as an optional addition and some added protein.

At 12:00 sharp, Savannah is slicing the foccacia bread into triangles when James walks in looking quite cheerful. Despite the warm late summer day, he is in his trademark woolen vest and shirtsleeves. A little gaunt looking and on the deeper end of his fifties, James sits at his favourite table by the bay window. When Stella brings him his salad (with some diced sausage added) on a bed of romaine leaves and garnished with a couple of bright and cheery nasturtiums, James eyes it with satisfaction. "You're looking sprightly this morning, James," she says.

"I finally sold that set of Haig-Brown first editions," he says, with something resembling a grin. Then he tells Stella that he will be finishing his meal with a piece of blueberry pie and a pot of Earl Grey tea with a small jug of cream on the side. He tells her he deserves the pie today, especially, as it is his birthday. Stella wonders where she put those candles...

Stella makes this salad for her family often, and she'd like to share the recipe with you in case you ever want to make it, too. The recipe is quite loose, but then, that's what makes it great. It's never the same salad twice.

Garden Harvest Pasta Salad

1 pkg fresh filled pasta of your choice

*A good tablespoon of fresh or jarred pesto (recipe found here)

assorted garden fresh veggies, a few tablespoons each of various herbs, and edible flowers for garnish; amounts depend on preference and availability. Broccoli florets, fresh peas and sweet bell peppers are all great, too.

a link of good quality farmers sausage (optional)

one small head Romaine lettuce or mixed salad greens

Creamy Garlic Dressing to taste (at least half a cup, though - you'll want to taste it!) Recipe follows.

Method: as written above

Creamy Garlic Dressing (adapted from Moosewood Cooks at Home)

3 garlic cloves, minced or pressed
3/4 cup mixed vegetable and olive oils (I do about half and half) ( 177 ml)
1/4 cup red wine vinegar (59 ml)
1 Tbsp (15 ml) chopped fresh basil ( or 1 tsp dried)
1 tsp salt (5 ml)
1 Tbsp grated Parmesan cheese (15 ml)
1/2 tsp coarsely ground black pepper  (2 ml)
1/2 cup milk (118 ml) - any variety will do from skim to creamy

Put the garlic, oil, vinegar, basil, salt, Parmesan, and pepper into a blender and whirl for a couple of seconds. With the blender still running, slowly add the milk, whirling until the dressing is thick and smooth. Covered and refrigerated, this dressing will keep for a week.

This salad tastes best the day it's made, but it will keep for another day quite well if necessary.

Friday, August 10, 2012

A Summer Spritzer

Stella turns up the air conditioner as she wipes the sweat off her forehead. She watches the heat waves rising up off the pavement outside the cafe. A yellow Volkswagen Bug zooms by with ribbons flowing off the back and a big Just Married sign plastered on the rear window. Stella smiles as she remembers her wedding. She then frowns remembering her husband had just flown back to Dubai after a brief visit. The family had spent their 6-day holiday in a small cabin by the ocean. Collecting sea shells on the beach, roasting s'mores over a campfire and falling asleep to the soothing sound of waves breaking on the shore. But Stella has work to do, and her husband is badly needed in the busy holiday months.

The summer heat hits its afternoon peak as the final lunch dishes are cleared off vacant tables.
Customers give a sigh of relief as they step into the cool cafe. Air conditioning is expensive, but much appreciated. They order iced coffees, Italian sodas and a Stella Summer special, Homemade Spritzers. These iced drinks cool and refresh the entire body as they are eagerly gulped down.

The sound of ice tinkling on tall drinking glasses is heard throughout the rest of the afternoon.

Green Tea Cranberry Spritzer - Makes 4
Bring 1/3 cup water and 1/3 cup sugar to a boil in a saucepan.
Cook, stirring, until sugar dissolves. Let cool completely
Steep 4 green tea bags in 2 cups boiling water for 2 minutes.
Remove bags. Let cool completely.
Divide tea, 1/2 cup chilled unsweetened cranberry juice, and the simple syrup among 4 ice-filled glasses.
Top with 3 cups chilled seltzer (club soda works great too)

Recipe Credit: Martha Stewart Living Magazine, April 2011 Edition

Writing and photography by Emma.