15 December, 2008

Nannie's Darkest Fruitcake (Gluten-free)

This is the first time I've had the opportunity to make my grandmother's unctuous fruit-filled cake in many years. While I was in Japan I usually worked over the holidays, up until New Year's eve when we could look forward to a glorious week off, but even then some of the ingredients would have been hard to come by or impressively dear. Even here it is not an inexpensive undertaking to make the recipe, which produces a large round cake and a large loaf. Because of the cost, and also because I was trying out a gluten-free version for the first time, I halved the recipe and still came out with two good-sized loaves and a 6-pan of muffin tins, about two thirds full each as pre-Christmas tasters.

For the vegans among you, I have a bit of bad news. I don't think this cake would be as good without butter. Yes, I am allowing myself just a bit, as it's Christmas. Local and organic, mind you, and limited to only 1 cup in this large recipe, but still it makes a big difference to the flavour. For the daring bakers among you, I would be delighted if someone tried it with margarine and reported on the result. As I am making it for family gifts, I just couldn't take the chance.

For gluten-free folks, though, I`m happy to report that this is just as good, if not better than the wheated version. The texture is fine, the taste sublime, considering that I tasted it in the day or two after baking, when the flavours had not been allowed to develop. Nor had I given it the bath of brandy that it will be getting soon. Right now it`s swaddled in waxed paper and foil topped with slices of apple to keep it moist.

I can barely keep my hands off it, having tasted it with deep dark coffee, surely one of the best seasonal parings imaginable. Especially as the secret ingredient, and I`m letting the cat out of the bag here, is good brewed coffee. Really. And you'd never know, if I hadn`t told you. But it makes a difference.

The other good news is, though most fruitcakes benefit from aging, and you're supposed to make them about a month ahead, this one is good right after it`s baked or aged only for a week, with or without the liquor bath. If you're going to add the brandy, rum or even bourbon then you poke a few holes down in the cake and bathe it from all sides, wrap it up tight with just a bit of compression to maintain its shape and put it in foil or a tin to await the glorious day on which you decide to serve it. Traditionally I would wrap it in liquor soaked cheesecloth, as the underwrapping, especially for keeping longer, but waxed paper works too.

This cake is not iced, but sliced in thinish slices and served with a drink of coffee or tea. It`s not too sweet, so it can follow a richer meal. But of course, if you like, you could make a nice white icing and gild the lily.

Whatever you do, be sure to share it with someone who appreciates an old-fashioned fruitcake. Serve it on a nice plate, with a few shortbread cookies on the side, if you like. Make sure you are sitting down, because this one might make you a bit weak in the knees.

If it does, Nannie would be pleased. She was proud of this one. And I am too.

Happy Christmas!

Nannie's Darkest Fruitcake (Gluten-free) Double if you dare!

2 lb (900 g) raisins ( I use a combination of golden and the large dark seeded ones)
1 lb (450 g) currants
1/4 lb (110 g) mixed citrus peel ( I made home candied: orange, grapefruit, lemon and lime)
2 oz (50g) walnuts ( I used pecans)
1/4 lb (110 g) candied cherries ( I omitted and added extra raisins, peel, and pineapple)
1/4 lb (110 g ) candied pineapple ( I candy my own from tinned pineapple in juice, but fresh would be glorious)
1/4 lb (110 g) dates
1/4 lb (110 g) figs ( I used black mission, de-stemmed and sliced and chopped)
juice of 1 orange (I used tangerines) and 1 lemon
1/2 -1 tsp ( 2.5-5 ml ) all-spice
2 tsp (10 ml) cinnamon
1/2 tsp ( 2.5 ml) cloves
(I added about a tsp (5 ml) of ginger and 1/8 of a fresh grated nutmeg)

1/2 lb (250 g or about 2 cups) brown sugar
1/2 lb (250 g) butter
4 eggs
2 cups mixed gluten-free (or all-purpose, if you're not GF) flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2-1 cup good brewed coffee, black

Get your biggest bowl or roaster and cut up all the fruit and nuts into about 1/4-1/2 inch dice.
Use the flour in the recipe to dust over the fruit and mix it through with your hands as you go, breaking up any clumps.

My mixture was: 1/2 cup cornstarch, 3/4 cup white rice flour, 1/2 cup tapioca flour and about 1/4 cup potato flour, 2 cups in all.

Mix up the cake batter by creaming the butter and sugar (in another bowl) and then beating in the eggs one-by-one until they are incorporated. Add the baking powder and coffee and fruit juices. Alternatively, if you are preparing the fruit a day or so ahead, dust the spices over the floured fruit and nuts, and add the coffee and distribute it through. This will help to keep everything moist, as you cover and refrigerate it.

Then, on baking day, just make the cake batter, pour it over the rest of the ingredients and slowly distribute it through, gently lifting it over and around the fruit so you won't break it up too much. When it is evenly wrapped around the fruit, pack it into two standard bread loaf pans, buttered and prepared with waxed paper draped in the bottom and over two sides and buttered again. This will ensure that you can get the cake out nicely in one piece. I simply accordian-fold the excess paper up to sit on the outside rim of the pan as it cooks. Since the cake is meant to cook slowly at 275 degrees, for between 1-2 hours, you may need to put a piece of waxed paper and tin foil, with the reflective side out, on top at some point in the cooking to prevent the top from being scorched.

I always do as my grandmother did when packing the cakes into the pans, that is, use the back of the spoon to push the batter down and into the corners, layer by layer, and then sharply drop the pan on the counter a few times to release any air bubbles. This is one cake you don't want to be light and airy, but dense and heavy. Make sure to smooth the top of the cake with the spoon, so that it is level.

The full double batch cooks for 2-3 hours at 275 degrees F, but that is for a very large solid round cake. Smaller cakes cook more quickly. To test, put a thin-bladed knife or cake tester in the center. When most of the moisture is gone, and there is no uncooked-looking liquid on the tester, they can be taken out and allowed to cool in the pans on cake racks. I let them cool completely before I try to unmold them. Depending on the cooling time, there may be some bits of waxed paper that you need to scrape out or off with a knife. Don't be worried about that; just take patience in hand, pressing back any fruit that may flake off. The result will be worth it.

The cake can be wrapped and stored for from a week to several months, topped with a few apple slices to make it moist, and a liquor bath, if you want to guild the lily and increase its keeping power or eating punch. Just make sure that it's well-wrapped. My mom always used metal tins when she was keeping it for a long time, and wrapped it up inside them.

Note: I have just made the 2009 batch and I made a few edits to the recipe. I added metric measurements and corrected an ommission ( currents). I hope it is now a better, more accurate recipe. Merry Christmas everyone. May your holidays be filled with...fruitcake!

14 December, 2008

We Three Kings

Decorated the tree here last night, complete with Christmas music and a little christmas cheer.

One of my favourite carols is one I used to sing in the church choir with my grandfather and grandmother. It was a small Baptist country church with stiff wooden pews and a glorious pipe organ. The bass section was only three or four men, so I could clearly hear "Bumpy's" voice. Hearing the carol always brings back that experience, along with a few tears, as they are both gone now.

I've found what I think is a fantastic, modern, and artistic version of the carol, nothing like the old choir sound, but one I love and want to share with you. With thanks to its extremely creative maker, here is the version of We Three Kings called 3K :

08 December, 2008

Thai Noodles - Gloriously Gluten-free

Picture courtesy of The Cook's Thesaurus where you can find good descriptions and pictures of Asian Rice Noodles.

Living in a household that is neither vegetarian nor particularly ecumenical in its tastes has been providing me with the opportunity to stretch my cooking in different directions. When in my own kitchen, I have learned to rely on dishes based on fresh vegetables, beans and grains, as much as possible, usually in world-inspired dishes like curries and Japanese rice dishes, Italian soups, Middle eastern and Mexican-inspired dishes, and adaptations of comfort foods I enjoyed here in Nova Scotia as a child.

But now I often find myself cooking for a number of people who may include decided carnivores, flexitarians, those who prefer a traditional British diet relying heavily on roast meat and fried everything else, teenagers who like pizza, tacos, and chili, and me, the lone wheat-and-dairy-allergic vegetarian at the table.

I don't often find something that everyone likes, but occasionally I hit on something enjoyed by the majority. I can tell you categorically that none of those dishes includes tofu, however much I wish they did. I enjoy tofu and love the protein and texture it adds to dishes, though by and large the North American tofu we get here is abysmal by Japanese standards. Why? I think it is largely a matter of freshness. Japanese tofu doesn't hang around the store for weeks, getting sour and tough in the process. What's left over after a few days is generally used to make ready- to eat take home food, prepared fresh in every supermarket daily.

Not marked three weeks forward (or more), with tofu in prepared "cheeses" and fake meat products probably kept around for months, as a conservative estimate.

So if not tofu, then what? One of the foods that is most satisfying for wheat-hungry but intolerant eaters are noodles. Noodles can be hearty and filling and nicely take the place of the hole in the stomach that a lovely crust of bread or pasta used to fill.

If they are good ones, that is.

I have tried quite a few since I got on a gluten-free diet and let me just say that many of them were spongy, gummy, and unworthy of the sauce which which they were lovingly bathed. Luckily, I live in Canada, and to the extent that I can find Tinkyada pasta, I am a happy pasta cook and consumer. It is neither gummy, nasty nor even a little unworthy and I am pleased to say that the brown rice pasta, dressed with a nice sauce, passes the taste test for even the most finicky eater in the household.


Love, love, love it with an easily thrown-together Pasta Inferno sauce of extra virgin olive oil with lots of garlic, and a few dried red peppers sauteed in it, and occasionally a couple of small-chopped tomatoes, seasoned with salt and pepper and sometimes a conservative amount of grated Parmesano Reggiano, or vegan parmesan topping.

As good as Tinkyada is, lately I have been experimenting with rice noodles from Asia, inspired by a Thai cookbook I found in my daughter's cupboard. To my surprise I have discovered that Thai rice stick noodles, when fancied up in a Pad Thai dish, with nuts and vegetables and a homemade sweet and sour peanut sauce, almost outshine the Italian style noodles that I had come to think of as as good as it could get.

Whether because these are a new love, or because I have discovered an Asian grocery near where I am staying, I have taken to preparing this dish regularly with a bit of breathless anticipation, and find it satisfying, tasty and requested-again. Hope you will treat yourself ,too, since it's easy and fast to make and might make it onto your family's favourite menu. Give it a try and be sure to let me know if you have any favourite variations!

ขอให้เจริญอาหาร! (koh hai cha-roen ar-harn) Bon appetit!

VJ-Style Vegetarian Pad Thai with Root Vegetables
(With a nod to The Blue Elephant Cookbook by John Hellon and Tony Le Duc.)

My main contribution to this dish is to make it a bit more Canadian friendly by replacing some of the hard to get and over the 100-mile limit vegetables for sweet and tasty root vegetables and cabbage that are available in the winter here. I also use natural peanut butter which is one thing I always have on hand, when ground peanuts might be scarce. My aim is to present a dish that is easily made with whatever you have on hand, if you have stocked your cupboard with some packages of the rice noodles, which keep a long time, yet still has the essence of Pad Thai.

You can vary the vegetables. Parsnips are delicious. Mild turnip would also be good. You should aim for 3 or 4 types of vegetables used a bit sparingly, maybe a cup or two in all. Traditionally, you would use ground peanuts but I have used peanut butter, dissolved in the juice or some added warm water. I also recommend adding extra small amounts of juice or water as you cook so the noodles are not too dry. You can also reheat by adding small amounts of water in a similar way, loosening the noodles, stirring gently, and not allowing them to stick to the pan.

1 Package Thai Rice Stick noodles (about 150 g, 3mm wide/1/8 " wide)
Large bowl of cold/ hot or boiling water (out of the kettle)

Soak the rice noodles in cold water to cover for about 10-20 minutes until softened, then drain.

If you are using wider or thicker noodles or the noodles haven't softened enough, then drain them and cover them with hot or boiling water for 5-10 minutes to complete the softening. They shouldn't be as soft as cooked noodles, but flexible and easy to put in the pan.

Meanwhile, add these to a large frying pan or wok:

3 Tb. cooking oil
2 whole garlic cloves
1-2 whole dried red peppers (depending on your taste, you might want more or less)
1 Tb. tamari soy sauce
1 Tb. sugar
half a lemon, squeezed or half a grapefruit or other fresh citrus. (Lime is good.)
2 big tablespoons natural chunky peanut butter
2 Tb (or to taste) sweet and sour sauce
1 julienned parsnip
big handful or two shredded cabbage
2 green onions chopped
any other root vegetables you have, such as carrots, 1 med julienned
If you have fresh bean sprouts you can use a few good handfuls to replace or in addition to the cabbage
a handful of cashews, if you have them

Saute the garlic cloves in the oil, toasting on all sides and take them out before they scorch. Put them on a wooden or other board and mash them with a fork to add back to the pan later. The red pepper can be toasted at the same time, taking it out along with the garlic.

After taking out the garlic and red peppers add the soft noodles to the pan and saute on high heat for a few seconds in the oil. Add the tamari, sugar and lemon or other juice. Give it a stir and add the root vegetables, cabbage, and sweet and sour sauce, mashed garlic. Smash the peanut butter into the pan with the back of a spoon or fork, squeezing juice or pouring a small amount of water on it as you do so and making sure to dissolve and distribute it throughout the noodles. Alternatively, you could dissolve it in a cup with a small amount of hot or warm water and pour it over the noodles. Stir fry for a few minutes just until the vegetables are almost tender, add the nuts and fry for a few seconds, then toss in the green onions and bean sprouts if you are using them.

Mix everything together and taste it. I usually add a bit of salt (and pepper) at this point to taste, and more water or juice if it's looking too dry. A nice squeeze of lemon or lime or even grapefruit juice at this point freshens the taste.

Put the whole thing on a platter, or serve from the pan, family style, garnished with a few more green onions, roasted ground peanuts, if you have any, and lime or lemon wedges if you wish.

Sorry I have no picture, but will post one as soon as I make this again, very soon!

For the Sweet and Sour Sauce:

3 oz (1 small) onion chopped
5 cloves garlic
3 1/2 oz pineapple (fresh or canned in juice)
5 oz. sugar
2 Tb cider vinegar
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup tomato ketchup

Put the onion, garlic in a food processor or blender and puree it. Add the pineapple if needed to get it going, or after the first two ingredients and turn the whole thing into a liquid. Put into a saucepan, add the other ingedients and turn on the heat. Simmer it for a few minutes until it looks melded, then put it into a jar ( I like small mason jars for this) and refrigerate it for up to a week. It makes about a cup or so.