Grilled Duck Breasts & Strawberry Shortcake

Yesterday I decided to cook something I’d never cooked before: duck. I’d eaten it before, generally in Asian fusion food, but I’d never cooked it. It’s different than most of the poultry I’m used to working with (i.e. chicken and turkey) in that it’s a red meat. It’s honestly more like ostrich. Somehow I’d managed to cook up ostrich long before I’d ever worked with duck, which is a little odd seeing as duck is domestic and ostrich is most definitely not. But I digress.

I found the duck breasts in the frozen section of T&T Supermarket a while back, and I bought them because they looked interesting and they were on special (my favourite combination). I’m not sure if this is usually the case, as I have no baseline, but that day they were significantly cheaper than beef. The breasts weren’t whole; they were already cut up into what I think of as tiny little steaks.

I used the marinade from a Grilled Wild Duck Breast Recipe that I’d Googled, knowing full well that since I liked all of the ingredients separately I’d probably like them together. I only did a quick marinade of about half an hour, since I wanted to taste the meat and not just the sauce. Then I threw the steaks on a preheated gas grill. The real challenge here was not to overcook them. I didn’t want them to be rare in the center, but they were so small that I really worried that I’d accidentally turn them into shoe leather. I settled on about five minutes per side, and that ended up being perfect. There was just a bit of char on the outside, but the middle was tender and soft.

I served the duck breasts on a bed of basmati rice, alongside some green zucchini that I’d sliced and grilled at the same time as the duck breast. Timing is always an issue with this kind of meal, so I cooked the rice first, then put the duck on, and then the zucchini, since it was sliced fairly thinly. It all came to the table piping hot and delicious.

For dessert we piled into the car and drove over to my parents’ house for strawberry shortcake. This time my mother made it, but she basically followed my Nan’s recipe. It was an assemble-it-yourself kind of affair (which the kids love), so if mine ended up being sloppy and leaning, that’s nobody’s fault but my own. Part of the problem with structural integrity is that I had to use a non-dairy whipped topping, which never beats as stiff as true whipping cream. Also, we upped the sweets game by drizzling dark maple syrup over the top, further compromising the tower’s support but definitely enhancing the taste.

Dessert finished and hands (and tables, and place mats) cleaned of sticky syrup residue, we headed back home to put the children to bed and to spend some quiet time digesting.

Maple Walnut Pouding Chômeur

Last night I had an urge to make pouding chômeur (“poor man’s pudding”), which is a kind of upside-down maple syrup cake that is baked with its own sauce. I wanted to use some of the lovely dark maple syrup that I picked up from McCannell Craftwork at Russell Flea over the weekend. Sadly, a copy of Anita Stewart’s Canada (2008) wasn’t immediately available at the library, and I haven’t yet bought a copy (although it’s down to $15.00 online so I really should), so I didn’t have access to the first recipe that I used and liked so much. Instead, I grabbed a few cookbooks with their own versions of a pouding chômeur recipe from the library, and then I went home to pick my favourite.

I thought that I had all of the ingredients at home, but it turns out that some of them had spoiled, so I had to improvise a little bit. I ended up combining the recipes from two different books. The final cake ended up being a little bit drier and with a sauce that wasn’t quite as runny as I’d been hoping. It was pretty darned good anyway.

Unfortunately, I found that the walnuts really overpowered the maple flavour, much to my dismay. Although it was a tasty dish all in all, I was really looking forward to that creamy maple syrup sauce dominating. I think I’ll stick to a more simple pouding chômeur recipe next time, whether it be from Anita Stewart’s Canada or another source.

Na na na na na na na na Bat Pie!

Tonight I’m off to another friend’s birthday celebration, and I think it’s safe for me to write about his gift since so far as I can tell he doesn’t read my blog. At least, he seemed genuinely surprised when I asked him if he’d like a pie for his birthday and, if so, what kind is his favourite. He did say that fruit pies, especially strawberry-raspberry-blueberry or strawberry-rhubarb were his top-ranked. However, rhubarb is almost impossible to get this time of year (although knowing this now, I’ll freeze some in advance next year when it comes in season). And red fruits just didn’t seem dark enough for what I had in mind.

You see, my friend is a huge Batman fan, and I wanted to make him something appropriate to his fandom. After all, as LEGO Batman says, Batman “only works in black, and sometimes very, very dark grey” — although I’d go so far as to say that Adam West’s cowl was a deep purple or blue, depending on the lighting. Since I didn’t want to add food colouring to the filling, so I went with blackberry-blueberry. As usual, I used the Purity Pastry recipe from page 73 of The All-New Purity Cook Book (Elizabeth Driver, 2001). As my father and his mother before him taught me, I made the crust using lard instead of vegetable shortening, which I’ve always been told makes the crust flakier. The filling was 3 1/2 cups of blackberries, 2 1/2 cups of blueberries, 1 cup of sugar, 3 Tbsp corn starch, and 1 1/2 Tbsp lemon juice.

At first I thought I might make the top crust with a large cutout so that it looked like the Bat Signal, but a friend had linked to a recipe for Rustic Cast Iron Skillet Peach Pie on social media, and I really liked how they’d made their top crust. I thought that cookie-cutter cutouts would look a bit like a cloud of bats against a night sky, which is an image used repeatedly in Batman media. Of course, the fruit filling isn’t totally flat and the bats warped a bit during baking, so they look their most bat-like from directly above. It’s a really simple technique and can be achieved using any shape of cookie cutter, although I have a feeling that the simpler the shape, the more recognizable it will be when cooked. I do have a feeling that I’ll be using this technique in the future to customize my pies. If you don’t like making crust from scratch, I see no reason why it wouldn’t work equally well with store-bought dough.

Valentine’s Day Sweets

Yesterday was Valentine’s Day, which for me meant that the day before was spent in the kitchen baking. Okay, well, not the whole day; some of my time was spent in the kitchen dealing with a leaking dishwasher. That slowed things down immensely. Luckily, the issue was a slightly-clogged drain pipe and dirt in the door seal that kept it from being watertight, and a good cleaning of the machine fixed the leak. If your dishwasher is going to leak, a fix without having to purchase expensive parts is best, really. Also, there wasn’t enough water that came out to cause much damage. The basement ceiling is a drop ceiling and the walls and floor are only half-finished, so there’s not much there for the water to damage anyway.

When I did get to bake, the first thing I tried was a double-batch of White Layer Cake found on page 110 of Essential Cooking Basics: The New Cook by Mary Berry & Marlena Spieler (1997). I used crab apple jelly that I’d made back in the fall as filling. This recipe was very nicely illustrated and easy to follow. It yielded lovely cupcakes that had a crumbly, buttery texture, which were similar to a good cornmeal muffin on top but with a softer middle. The recipe does call for self-rising flour, which I’ve come to realize is a really common ingredient in British recipes, but isn’t something the average cook would have in the pantry around here. Heck, not all grocery stores carry it. Fortunately, it’s easy enough to make with all-purpose flour, baking powder, and salt: directions here.

As I discovered, a single batch only yields about a dozen cupcakes, and I wanted to make 48 (half for Thing 1’s Guide troupe, and half for Thing 2’s Sparks troupe). By the time I’d figured this out, I’d run out of a few ingredients; this recipe takes a lot of eggs. I was getting a bit pressed for time, so I dug out a package each of IKEA Muffinsmix Choklad and Muffinsmix Citron (just-add-water chocolate and lemon cake mix, respectively). Thing 1 got the IKEA cupcakes and Thing 2 got the Mary Berry ones, and I honestly think that Thing 2 got the better end of the deal by a long shot.

Next came the treats for the treats for the girls’ homeroom classes at school. I’d planned on making orange sugar cookies for which I’d found a vintage Bake King recipe sheet tucked into an old cookbook, but those required the dough to be chilled and I had simply run out of time. I fell back on a recipe that I’d used successfully in the past for Fudgy Pumpkin Coffee Brownies (minus the coffee, since the intended audience was children). This recipe can be found on page 222 of Purely Pumpkin by Allison Day (2016). Once again, I substituted whole wheat flour for einkorn or light spelt flour, and even with this change, the brownies turned out great. This recipe invariably yields moist, rich brownies with just the right level of sweetness. As a bonus, I got to use up some of the Halloween pumpkin puree that’s still in my freezer. And none of the brownies came back home, so I figure that at least some of the kids (and/or the teachers) liked them.

Boxing Day

Boxing Day in our family is mostly a relaxing day where we play with our new Christmas toys and then head over to my parents’ place for the traditional turkey dinner. (I would have taken pictures of the food, but we all dug in so quickly that I didn’t have a chance!) Mom’s turkey dinner includes stuffing, gravy, Brussels sprouts, mashed potatoes, butternut squash and apple casserole. Dad makes Yorkshire pudding that we either cover in gravy or spread with butter.

My contribution to the meal this year was my usual pumpkin pie. It’s usually one of my best desserts, but I was really disappointed with it this time. The consistency was good, the crust was reasonable (considering it was in the fridge for two days), but the filling was almost bitter. I distinctly remember putting sugar in the filling, but I doubled the recipe and I think what I did was double everything except the sugar. This also means that I have a second, bitter-tasting pumpkin pie sitting in my freezer that I might just throw out. What a waste. It was almost palatable smothered in whipped cream, but that’s not a ringing endorsement.

See, this is what happens when you bake for three days straight in preparation for a holiday: something’s bound to get messed up. I should have just thawed one of the berry pies that I’d frozen for future use back in the summer. I wanted to be traditional with pumpkin pie, but in retrospect it would have been better to lighten the cooking load a bit. Oh, well. Maybe I’ll have learned my lesson by next year.

Meemaw’s Cookie Recipe

I have a number of friends and family who are huge fans of the television show The Big Bang Theory, and I don’t mind the show myself. I thought that, since Christmas is coming up, I might try to make a show-based recipe that has been floating around the Internet for a while. It’s for a type of cookie purportedly baked by Meemaw (Sheldon Cooper’s grandmother). My Google-fu has failed me and I haven’t been able to find the original source, else I would link back to it to give proper credit.

Sheldon Cooper (played by Jim Parsons) holding a cookie baked using his Meemaw’s recipe, as baked by Amy Farrah Fowler (Mayim Bialik) in The Big Bang Theory, season 8, episode 11.

The recipe I’ve found is a cookie press or spritz cookie, although from the reference photos I’ve found that the final product looks more like something made with a cookie cutter. Or possibly they started with a flat cookie and created the tree design on top using a pastry bag filled with dough? Granted, you don’t see the cookies in the show for very long, and I could totally be wrong. I thought I’d try the spritz version anyway.

Thing 1 and Thing 2 being very serious about getting the cookie dough just right.

Thing 1 and Thing 2 did most of the work this time (okay, mostly Thing 1), so it’s definitely a simple recipe to follow. The kids really like working with the caulking-gun-like cookie press, and they also love to add the sprinkles. Of course, this meant that the final product looked far from perfect, but who cares so long as they had fun and it tastes great?

In the end, I was really happy with this recipe, even though it may not be a hundred percent screen accurate. Here’s what I did:

Meemaw’s Christmas Cookies
Makes about 8 dozen small cookies

Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C).
Beat together until creamy:
1 1/2 cups unsalted butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp almond extract*
Beat in, about a third at a time:
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
Insert any shape of disk into cookie press (the ones in the show are tree-shaped, but any shape will do). Press dough onto an ungreased cookie sheet one inch apart. Alternately, use a pastry bag with a wide tip to create designs.
Decorate with:
coloured sugar or sprinkles
Bake for 10 to 13 minutes, or until firm and very slightly browned.
Remove from cookie sheet onto a cooling rack. Serve immediately, or place into a container once they are cooled, where they can last up to a week.

*If nuts are a problem, vanilla extract may be substituted (although the flavour will change a little bit).

Clean Out Your Refrigerator Day

I’m still working away on that last-minute costume. I got so caught up in the process that I stayed up until almost 2:00am without even realizing it! I had absolutely no intention of staying up too late. When I get into problem-solving mode, I hate to stop when I’m on a roll. If I’d been super-frustrated, I would probably have stopped earlier (although there was a large seam that I “sewed” without realizing that the bobbin had run out).

I couldn’t find my meter stick, so I did end up using a wooden prop sword in order to trace a long, straight line on my fabric. My father pointed out afterward that I could have just called and borrowed his, but the sword was only a few feet away from where I was sewing, and it worked out fine!

November 15th is Clean Out Your Refrigerator Day, so I made a dinner entirely out of what I had around the house. This had nothing to do with the fact that I’ve been so engrossed in costume construction that I haven’t gone out to do groceries, I swear. I went with one of the simplest clean-out-the-fridge dishes: stir fry. I cooked up the veggies I had on hand (celery, zucchini, and frozen peas), scrambled in some egg, threw in some cooked rice and shrimp, and gave it all a good drizzle of sesame oil and soy sauce while I cooked it all together for a few minutes. My husband asked for seconds, which I figure means it wasn’t half bad.

After the kids went to bed, I wanted to treat myself to some banana bread, which is pretty much my favourite quick bread. I even had some bananas I’d frozen before they went bad that I needed to use up, so the timing was perfect. I’d seen a Tasty video for 6 Desserts To Make In Your Microwave, so I thought I’d give their individual microwave banana bread a shot. Sadly, as with the microwave oatmeal bread I made a while back, I was disappointed. The more I try it, the less I think that microwaves can be used for half-decent baking.

First of all, there was a recipe in the YouTube transcription of the recipe. If you watch the video, the ingredients include 3 Tbsp brown sugar and 1/2 tsp baking powder, but the recipe under the video calls for 3 Tbsp brown sugar and then another 1/2 tsp brown sugar, with no baking powder. Luckily I noticed that there was no rising agent before I started cooking, but by then I’d already added the extra 1/2 tsp brown sugar, too.

Once the banana bread was cooked, I found it to be largely tasteless. I found that interesting, because it contains basically the same ingredients as the more traditional banana bread in the Joy of Cooking; what really differentiates the two, other than size, is the cooking method. I think that because the Tasty version is made so quickly in the microwave, instead of cooking for an hour or more in the oven, it doesn’t have a chance to develop its flavour, which probably mostly comes from the crust. Microwave cooking, in general, doesn’t create proper crusts. Also, I found the consistency of the microwave banana bread to be less like a quick bread and more like a sponge or a pudding. I cooked it for an extra 30 seconds over the recommended time and tested it with a cake tester for doneness, so I know it was definitely cooked all the way through. Even so, the consistency was more like microwave scrambled eggs than like bread.

Of course, opinions may vary, and you may like banana bread made this way. I think that I will stick to baking in the oven from now on, except perhaps for the occasional experiment.