Thursday, December 15, 2016

Biscotti my way with roasted almonds and chocolate brandy beans

I'm not Italian. I'm from a French mother and a Canadian father and born in Germany where I spent half of my childhood. Of all the foods and treats that got my full attention in life, biscotti was not one of them. I never cared to try them at cafés and never thought I would care to bake any. Yet, somehow, during the Holidays one year, it became a thing and it sort of never stopped. It was around 1997 or 98, after baking up a storm for the holidays. I found myself with a bit of extra time and leftover ingredients before cleaning up and packing to join my boyfriend at his parents' home in Kingston. I flipped through the pages of my big Christmas book, looking for a quick recipe. Maybe something I could take with me as a present to offer. There was this recipe that I always saw but never bothered to try and it seemed to fit the bill in terms of ingredients and time I had. In the book it wasn't even called Biscotti. It was simply called Crispy Almond Cookie (in French). It was also described as an Italian style cookie to enjoy with warm drinks.

I had all that was needed and that was all that mattered. I unfortunately nibbled on almonds as I read and found myself a bit short when I noticed that it asked for 3/4 cup. I was missing a good 1/4 cup. The next decision I made started a tradition that lasted almost 2 decades! I figured that the empty space in the cup could be replaced with dark chocolate brandy beans (chopped up). Chocolate brandy beans are part of an other story but I always have them when the holiday season comes. Always. It should probably be served at room temperature but I find them amazing when cold and hard from the fridge. I love the way the thin dark chocolate shell breaks under the tooth, giving way to the sweet and strong brandy liqueur, slowly warming up the throat and mouth as the flavour lingers. If you're like my husband you will think it sounds cheesy and I agree but it's the truth! :)

Okay, back to the low count of almonds, I needed about 7 to compensate. I froze them while I gathered my ingredients (it makes the chopping easier and less messy) and added them to the recipe. I'm not sure how the Grand Marnier joined in (I was probably running out of vanilla or almond extract) but the idea stayed. It's amazing with the orange zest and I'm not even a big fan of zest. Whenever I whip the wet ingredients my nose gets excited. Brandy, orange, almonds, vanilla, melted butter, sugar and eggs... To me it just smells like sweet Christmas in a cookie! I followed the biscotti recipe with the few minor changes and couldn't believe how easy it was. I kept checking to make sure I didn't miss a step. I brought those with me to my in-laws, not expecting much but the biscotti were a big hit. It was requested again so I made more and shared more and now even my own mother (the master of German butter cookies) expects them every year.

It became something we all look forward to when December comes. For years the smell became part of a tradition. My boyfriend became my husband and as Christmas got close, we would prep and create and get ready for the big day. I would bake biscotti and he would create sculptures out of polymer clay that he would also have to bake before painting. They were specific smells in the house that would set the mood. It would join the smells of the Christmas tree and it would mingle with Christmas music and excitement as we got busy for the Holidays. It's associated to great memories shared with my oldest daughter and now my youngest.

Below is a series of pictures that show step by step, how it's done every year. If you don't have the patience to look at them, too bad. The pictures are pretty and I went through a lot of trouble to stop, clean my hands and snap them with each step. I'm joking. Just scroll all the way down for the recipe. I really hope you try them and enjoy them as much as we do.

I'm interrupting this pretty picture show to explain that things are about to get frustratingly sticky at this point. This is the part where I might gradually add 1/4 cup of flour to the mix if things are not cooperating. I will also generously cover the counter with flour. Heavily. Don't be shy, flour that counter! A lot! See this below? Not enough.

I also use a genius contraption that my mother came up with. Rubber spatulas are nice but when it comes to greedily scrape a bowl clean to the last sticky drop, I use a plastic lid from a big yogourt or ice cream container. It's amazing! Just cut the edge off with scissors and make sure you get a good sized circle to hold in your hand. It bends super well, and picks everything up! It evens scrapes my wooden spoons extra clean. I dip it in flour and make short, fast scraping movements as I gather the mass of dough with it. Everything comes out in a ball as I scrape it out of the bowl. When it gets too old, throw it in the recycle. Easy. Now back to work!

The book doesn't mention this but it's worth getting some parchment paper to line your cookie sheet. Seriously. Things won't stick and it's easier to clean after. I appreciate this when I have 4-6 batches to bake. Also another tip that works for me is that I mark on the paper the length of the log required (in this case 12 inches) before I place it on the sheet. It helps me keep the same length with each batch I bake.

Once the dough has been shaped, brushed with egg wash and slipped in the oven, the waiting game begins. With my oven it's 20-25 minutes to start till it gets firm and golden. Then it needs to rest 10 minutes at least to cool off and firm up before slicing. Some people will disagree with that and claim the opposite. The slicing made me curse many times through the years. Especially because they were presents. It would squish the delicate logs and push down the almonds, driving me nuts along the way and ruining the end result and mood. Turns out a very sharp knife is required. Mine has sharp teeth that could cut through frozen food, bone and can. Yep. Dull knife will make this pointless so get yourself a sharp one. This slicing gets done guillotine style. I don't saw my way through them. I find that if you do, you'll wreck the almonds and fragile dough.

Place the sliced biscotti like in the picture with enough space in between to cook a bit more and brown. Another 20-25 minutes of waiting. Usually by this point, the smell will tell you if they're ready. You might have to check early if you want to keep them golden but we like them on the brown side. They just taste better!

I'm sharing those 2 pics to show how efficient a sharp knife can be when it comes to cut slices that are chock-full with almonds and chocolate. The truth is, I can't resist the juicy colours of those cutting boards! :) Sadly, I lost the red one (the pic is from last year) but my guy surprised me with this bright yellow one below which is even better and more stable with it's rubber ends.

What it looks like after the first 20 minutes of baking.

What it looks like after the 2nd baking.

The size will vary between batches. I sometimes get short ones and sometimes very nice long ones. Some are cut 3/4 inch wide, we prefer a generous 1/2 inch.

Approved by the youngest who had to taste one or two or three or four...

Biscotti with roasted almonds and chocolate brandy beans

Heavily adapted from Le Livre de Noël - Coup de Pouce

1 3/4 cup flour (might need an extra 1/4 cup)
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 to 3/4 whole almonds (with skins and toasted in pan or in oven)
1/4 cup chocolate brandy beans (stored in freezer to make chopping easier)
2 eggs
3/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup butter, melted (for this recipe I use salted butter)
2 tsp pure vanilla
1/2 tsp almond extract
2 tsp Cointreau or Grand Marnier (not necessary but man, it's worth it)
1 1/2 tsp grated orange zest (it's the equivalent of 1 orange. I use a rasp for this)
1 egg (for egg wash)

Crank oven to 350˚. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. You can draw guide lines to help you guess how long the logs will be (in this case, 12 inches). Roast your almonds. It's quicker and easier for me to do in a pan set on medium high. I can keep a better eye on them while I shake the pan around. Shake the pan until the almonds are fragrant and toasted. You might have to lower the heat to medium. Or you can put them in your 350˚ oven, on a cookie sheet and check every few minutes till satisfied. Careful, they burn fast. Let them cool in a cold plate while gathering the rest of the ingredients.

In a big bowl, mix flour and baking powder. Add your almonds. In an other bowl, whisk eggs with sugar, melted butter, vanilla, almond extract, orange zest and if you have it Cointreau or Grand Marnier. Chop the chocolate brandy beans into 5-6 pieces each and add them to the wet mixture. You can use the chocolate brandy beans at room temperature if you forgot to freeze them but with the years I found that keeping them in the freezer makes the syrup thicker and the chocolate more brittle. I personally find that it breaks into better rough pieces. It's up to you. Whisk one more time till all is well amalgamated.

Scrape the wet mixture into the dry ingredients and mix till it becomes a supple sticky mass. With a rubber spatula or with the help of that smart plastic container lid I mentioned above (see the pics), scrape away onto a very well floured counter. It's sticky so make sure there is plenty of flour. Flour your hands too. With your hands, shape the dough into a smooth ball. Cut in half. Take each half and gently roll into a log of about 12 inches. You can adjust the length by smoothing it out on the cookie sheet with the help of the marks you made on your parchment paper. If not, you can use a ruler as a guide. Overall it's not important, it just helps to keep the size consistent when baking many.

Beat your egg to make an egg wash and brush the logs with it. Bake in a 350˚ oven for 20-25 minutes. The extra 5 minutes depend on your oven. I often have to add that extra time to get the logs golden. Remove the logs from the oven and let them cool. The original recipe suggests 5 minutes but I struggled too often with the cutting when it was too warm and soft. I find that 10-15 minutes is ideal (if time allows). When ready cut in 1/2 inch slices. You need a very sharp knife to cut through the almonds  without breaking the dough. A sharp serrated knife works for me. I keep the point of the blade on the cutting board and cut down guillotine style with each slice. Once in a while the blade gets sticky and it can affect the cutting so it's good to wipe the blade clean halfway through to get nice clean cuts. Put the slices back on the baking sheet with a bit of space in between to let them cook and brown a bit more. Bake for 20-25 minutes more. Your house will smell amazing.

Let them cool on a rack. I always get 36 slices but we always eat the short ends. When ready to store, gently shake off the crumbs of each slices and layer in a big hermetic cookie tin with pretty paper in between to keep the layers neat and from getting messy. Hey, I said it was going to be my way. It's the extra special touches that makes this extra pleasant. Especially if it's a gift.  It's up to you. :) The biscotti will keep well for a few weeks. The flavours also seem to improve with the days. Hope you get to try them. We really enjoy them but it's always better if we can share with others! Happy baking!

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Soul fixing soup


I've been away for so long... I'm still kicking though. I'm still eating too! :) I don't know where I'm going with this blog but in the meantime here is a comforting soul-fixing soup to try.

Okay, it won't really fix your soul. That's silly but it will fill you up when you're down and if you have a cold or feeling hungry with little to nothing in the fridge to eat, this will feel good and satisfying. It's more broth than soup with a few extra goodies like egg, Parmesan and garlic added to it. It's like Stracciatella but it's whisked instead of stirred. I used to eat a German-ish version of this (minus the cheese). It's too bastardized for me to call it anything but yummy. :)

The truth is, it's post Halloween here. I swear I don't steal chocolate from the kids but we do have a big bowl left that is full of cheap candy. I'm not really a sweet tooth but somehow I found myself eating about 12 bite size BabyRuth chocolate bars! Maybe more... I don't want to know. Yeah, not my best moment. I figured I should eat something smart to help me forget. It also had to be quick! I had 30 minutes before picking up the girls from school. I needed fuel! I was feeling off and tired and the poison I just binged on wasn't going to make things better. I needed a magic potion. Soup!

The good news is that last week, I made lots of vegetable broth so I had something to tinker with. I also had some canned beef broth to finish and little leftovers of this and that with big flavours. This is barely a recipe. Just good things put together. It only serves one. Just double it up or make more if you have to share. So here is what I used.

1 cup beef broth

1 cup vegetable broth

1 small handful of thin pasta like vermicelli, capellini or spaghettini, in pieces (small pasta works too)

2 garlic cloves, sliced thin or chopped

2 teaspoons tomato paste, pizza or pasta sauce (I used a small leftover of tasty tomato bread soup)

Olive oil to taste (it's probably a good tablespoon but I just drizzle)

1 large egg

Parmesan, grated (a good 1/4 cup)

Black pepper from grinder

Salt (I use Kosher salt and I'm hooked)

Cilantro or parsley finely chopped (I often have a small leftover kept in the freezer for such use).

In a small pot pour in your cups of broth. If it's all vegetable or all beef or chicken, that is fine too. Bring to a boil. Throw in your pasta and cook till it's close to ready (check the package's instructions). Add your garlic a couple of minutes before the pasta is done with a generous drizzle of olive oil. You can do this step first but if you forget like I do, it will make no big difference. I do it for taste. Speaking of taste, stir in your tomato paste or sauce if you have it. Stir it in and taste, if you want more, add more! While the pasta, broth and garlic simmer, quickly whisk your egg and grated Parmesan in what will be your bowl till it forms a runny paste. Grind some pepper, add a few good pinches of salt. Whisk that in and while still gently whisking, add your broth, pasta and garlic concoction. The hot broth will instantly cook the egg. It will be slightly thickened thanks to the starch of the pasta and the egg, Parmesan mixture.

At this point it's ready to eat but you can add finely chopped parsley or cilantro if you have it. It's a way for me to finish small leftovers that I keep in the freezer. I've been known to experiment with what's on hand. In this particular bowl, I added some lime juice and Sriracha with the cilantro. The Parmesan still worked but I have done without cheese many times. 

So there it is, lip-smacking good and ready to eat. Grab a spoon!

Saturday, January 09, 2016

Happy Weekend!

Hope you chill like this guy!

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Happy Epiphany!

It's the 6th of January. For those who don't know, it's a Christian feast day. So Happy Epiphany! :)

Some like to jump in a river, we prefer to eat cake! :) More precisely, something called: Galette des rois (kings cake). It's better than cake though with it's buttery, flaky, golden pastry and frangipane filling. Frangipane is a mild and sweet almond flavoured paste that is usually made with butter, eggs, sugar and ground almonds. It's good! It is definitely something I'm looking forward to. The kids look forward to the little ceramic trinket that is hidden inside. The person who gets the trinket in their slice, gets to be king (or Queen) and wear the crown! It's a tradition that is practiced by religious, not very religious and non practicing people. Well, French people. I can't speak for the rest of the world but I know others do it too with subtle differences. For us (usually), my mother comes for a visit around this time and buy the special treat in one of the special shops she finds on her way. We also get some bubbly. She couldn't make this week so I was willing to go without. It's not a Quebecer tradition so you won't find this in a grocery store or any bakery. A French person would easily have to learn to go without or bake their own (which is doable but not as simple as it looks).

That's when Marc surprised me! He took a chance and visited a little French deli down the main street that we rarely visit (mainly because it's out of our way). He thought that if a shop was going to sell some galette des rois, this would be it. He was right! They sell them! Yay! I have to be thankful that in this day and age, we can be spoiled with special shops who specialize in foods we usually wouldn't have access to. Time for me to encourage them and visit more often! ;) We don't have any bubbly or a fancy dinner to entertain us with (plain buttered noodles and a green salad is on the menu) but I will gladly take this with the girls to celebrate the closure of Christmas holidays. After today, we officially take the tree down. I'm ready!!

We mainly do the French tradition but I will always remember being around the age of 6 or 8 and dressing up as one of the Kings with my brother when we lived in Germany. I mainly remember the dressing up part and the crafty crowns. Oh how I loved those. 

I'm going to shamelessly quote Wikipedia for further explaining since I'm running out of time... I only copied the French and German traditions. Those are the ones I can relate to but the rest of the countries mentioned in the "National and local customs" on this link are all interesting to read. If you find it boring, skip it but I find other people's cultures fascinating. I like all the differences and similarities.

"In France people share one of two types of king cake. In the northern half of France and Belgium the cake is called a galette des Rois, and is a round, flat, and golden cake made with flake pastry and often filled with frangipane, fruit, or chocolate. In the south, in Provence, and in the south-west, a crown-shaped cake or brioche filled with fruit called a gâteau des Rois is eaten. Both types of cake contain a charm, usually a porcelain or plastic figurine, called a fève (bean in French).[70]
The cake is cut by the youngest (and therefore most innocent) person at the table to assure that the recipient of the bean is random. The person who gets the piece of cake with the trinket becomes "king" or "queen" and wears a paper crown provided with the cake. This person has a choice between offering a beverage to everyone around the table (usually a sparkling wine or champagne), or volunteering to host the next king cake at their home. This can extend the festivities through all of January!]"
"In the German-speaking lands, groups of young people called Sternsinger (star singers) travel from door to door. They are dressed as the three Wise Men, plus the leader carrying a star, usually of painted wood attached to a broom handle. Often these groups are four girls, or two boys and two girls for the benefit of singing their songs in four-part harmony, not necessarily three wise men at all. German Lutherans often note in a lighthearted fashion that the Bible never specifies that the Weisen (Magi) were men, or that there were three. The star singers will be offered treats at the homes they visit, but they also solicit donations for worthy causes, such as efforts to end hunger in Africa, organized jointly by the Catholic and Evangelical-Lutheran churches.[72] As a sign of gratitude, the young people then perform the traditional house blessing, by marking the year over the doorway with chalk. In Roman Catholic communities this may be a serious spiritual event with the priest present even today, but among Protestants it is more a tradition, and a part of the German notion of Gemütlichkeit. Usually on the Sunday following Epiphany, these donations are brought into churches. Here all of the children who have gone out as star singers, once again in their costumes, form a procession of sometimes dozens of wise men and stars. The German Chancellor and Parliament also receive a visit from the star singers at Epiphany."

Regardless, Happy Epiphany! Happy New Year! It's a wrap.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

A copious and quiet evening into the New Year

Our New Year's Eve was a quiet and pleasant one. I'm not sure if it was what we wanted but it was certainly what we needed. When we returned from our "out of town" Holidays on the 28th, we were happy but fried. We decided to ignore our suitcases, ordered some grub, made a fire, watched a movie and played with our new toys and treasures. We pretty much cocooned ourselves in which was also great timing as a snowstorm was about to start. Our bare, snowless area went from greyish green to instant white that night. The denial (for me) was over, kids were ecstatic, winter officially arrived. I have to admit, for now, it's pretty.

My father was expected for a visit but we had to juggle the dates a bit to give the snow blizzard enough time to spew out it's white fury. We decided to wait and go by feel, depending on what the weather was serving. I'm happy to say that 2 days later my father made it for New Year's Eve. He joined us early on the 31st just in time to shovel our driveway (sorry p'pa) and to help me to the store for some last minute purchases. Once done, we cozied ourselves inside, got set up, made a fire, opened a bottle of Caribou and it was chin-chin right away! :)

I took out some Kalamata olives and some St-Albert cheese curds (the girls love both) while my father opened a perfectly ripe Roquefort and sliced a crusty baguette along with some good dry sausage which I think was a Rosette de Lyon (kids are addicted to it). I just added butter to the table and we just kept munching until we realized we had to stop to save room for dinner! That was round 1. Even the cat joined in.


Round 2 was a hearty dish called: Ragoût de boulettes et de pattes de cochon. I'm not sure why it sounds better in French but the translation in English is: Stew of meatballs and pork hocks. I hope I didn't lose you after this. Ha ha! You should know that the words don't work for me either. :) That said, it's a delicious and hearty Quebecer classic worth trying. Tender morsels of pork (pulled off the bone), happily swim with meatballs made of ground pork and spices in a rich gravy made from the cooking liquid and beef broth for more body. A vegetarian's nightmare. We followed this recipe from Ricardo.

My girls were being hams. Very appropriate.

It was delicious but I'm not convinced it's THE recipe I want to repeat next year. It was lacking a little something (maybe acidity) but for a first timer, I definitely recommend it. We even talked about non traditional additions like Maggi sauce (my German roots talking) and mushrooms. Maybe a few tablespoons of red wine vinegar, or wine... We like to break rules! I'm definitely looking for variations and will keep playing. It's traditionally served with potatoes and we added nice yellow ones but because of it's luscious and savoury gravy, we opted to serve it over egg noodles which believe me, was verrrry satisfying. Napkins a must!

After a couple of days, leftovers are amazing and I have to say that the potatoes were definitely the prized pieces I was looking for yesterday! Pickled beets, especially if homemade (and at room temperature), are also a big winner with this. This dish made me eat half a jar but back to our New Year's Eve feast! Red wine was poured and boy was I happy as a pig in shit. Terrible Pun intended! ;)

As we ate, we realized we had no room for dessert. Which was great because there was none. Ha ha! Well, I planned it simple. Vanilla ice cream (with raspberry swirls in it) and lots of fresh berries. Plump blackberries (a favourite with our 5 year old) and very sweet raspberries (a winner with our 8 year old).

All were happy. My father went for a nap, I went online, tasted a 10 year old tawny port I received from my father earlier (not bad with ice-cream and walnuts) and took it easy.

Marc and the girls played new video games. Low-key is the best way to describe it. As we got close to 11h00 pm, my little one begged me to take her to bed. She's usually a party animal and danced till 3h00 am last year but not this time. She was done. As she settled in with glee, my father woke up from his slumber just in time to take out the bubbly. Geneviève definitely wanted to stay up with us but she doesn't care for bubbly or fizzy drinks. She was happy to cheer with McIntosh apple juice! With the help of the laptop and a live connection to the big countdown in NY, we counted and cheered and that was that! HAPPY NEW YEAR!! Within seconds we settled down. :) Marc got on the phone with family while my father and I settled at the table. After 20 minutes, Geneviève announced that she was done and went off to bed.

Here is Marc with our first selfie of 2016!! We finished the bubbly which turned into fancy fizzy, fuzzy navels. We didn't last long. By 1h30 am Marc was heading upstairs but I had just enough energy to tidy up and chat a few more minutes with my father while making a little chair (a tradition) with the remains of the New Year's bottle. I have a drawer full somewhere... Future post. :)

I hope that this new year is an easier one. I could use it! Wishing everybody a good one. 

Happy New Year! 
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