Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Olive oil brownies

I stumbled upon a recent post on The Traveler's Lunchbox about a new Italian cookbook that features a recipe for brownies made with olive oil rather than butter. I was immediately intrigued – not only because the cookbook itself got a rave review, but also because one of my favorite cake recipes is Mario Batali’s zucchini olive oil cake, also made with olive oil rather than butter. The zucchini olive oil cake is light and airy, and has a subtle fruitiness that you would never imagine comes from olive oil. It is truly a secret ingredient.

The brownie recipe comes from Faith Heller Willinger’s new cookbook, Adventures of an Italian Food Lover. Olive oil and chocolate struck me as a particularly nice combination. I had to try the brownies. Luckily a family dinner presented an excuse for baking.

The recipe was quick and simple and delivered a moist batter that did not disappoint (well, I was not disappointed). I particularly loved the salt in the recipe which seemed to stand out against the chocolate much more than it would have had the brownies been laden with butter. Interestingly, half of the guests at the dinner loved the brownies for their moist non-cake-y texture and the other half lamented the richness of butter, and felt the chocolate was somehow not quite chocolate-y enough. Argh! I loved them and I’d happily make them again (skipping the nuts which I always feel are just in the way). I am also intrigued by Faith’s cookbook and have it squarely on my wish list.

Olive oil brownies (all text that follows reprinted verbatim from the Traveler's Lunchbox)

: adapted from Adventures of an Italian Food Lover by Faith Heller Willinger

4 ounces (115g) finest quality bittersweet chocolate (at least 70% cocoa), chopped
1/3 cup (80ml) fruity extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup (70g) all-purpose/plain flour (Faith prefers using a soft flour like Italian type 00 or White Lily; if you go this route add an extra tablespoon)
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
2 large eggs, at room temperature
3/4 cup (150g) superfine/caster sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2/3 cup (70g) lightly toasted hazelnuts, chopped (Faith uses walnuts)
whipped cream, for serving (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350F/175C. Line an 8-inch (20cm) square baking pan with a lightly oiled and floured piece of parchment paper that overhangs the pan on two sides (this aids in removal later).

Melt the chocolate over low heat on the stovetop or in the microwave and whisk in the oil. Let cool.

Mix the flour and salt together in a small bowl. In a large bowl, beat the eggs and sugar until pale, thickened and billowy, about five minutes. Fold in the vanilla and the cooled chocolate mixture, then fold in the flour and optional nuts, stirring just until everything is combined. Pour into the prepared pan and distribute evenly.

Bake for 22-26 minutes (note from the Traveler's Lunchbox: I would recommend checking earlier to avoid over-baking - mine were just on the verge after 22 minutes). The top will be dry and crackly, though a toothpick inserted in the center should emerge still a little wet. Cool completely, then cut into squares. Serve with whipped cream, if desired.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Sorghum walnut cookies from Tennessee

We had a wonderful week-long vacation in the Adirondacks and Tennessee. The Adirondacks were particularly fun because we had our dog with us and we spent the days outside with her hiking, walking and watching her splash in and out of the lake. Tennessee was similarly an outdoor experience but this time we were on our own and were able to horseback ride and tool around the 9,000+ acre property that belongs to the privately-owned hotel we stayed at. The hotel is a working farm complete with honey bees, livestock (primarily sheep), a dairy, and a wonderful vegetable, herb and cutting garden that the kitchen draws from daily (both for inspiration and supplies). In January, the hotel is adding its own cheese-making facility as well as dedicated space for making jams. It already produces its own sheep’s milk, honey and jam (in small quantities).

We were able to spend time with the chef, the dairy farmers, the bee keeper, and produce farmers throughout our stay and pepper them with questions and observe their respective trades. It is such a pleasure to be exposed to artisans and to know that what you are eating is locally and freshly made. We got the biggest kick out of the head farmer who was a very well spoken and well traveled man who takes great pride in developing the best possible produce (he tested 50 different types of tomatoes this year) and continuing a time-honored tradition of nurturing and preserving heirloom beans (he has a separate area dedicated to crops he does not want to cross-pollinate). He had a story and explanation for everything and could remember the provenance of every special variety he brought to the far to cultivate.The meals we had were extraordinary in a very inventive way. Even the informal lunches, several of which were pic nics, were exceptionally well done and artistically presented. We had a lot of southern treats (particularly for breakfast) that provided a fun change. I couldn’t get enough of biscuits with sausage and gravy as unappetizing as that might seem, and the pastry chef’s cookies and desserts were addictive. I’m posting a recipe for sorghum walnut cookies that were divine. I’ll have to post a photo later as I’m waiting for a special delivery of sorghum syrup from my mother-in-law from the south!

Sorghum walnut cookies
(adapted from Blackberry Farm)
(makes ~32 cookies)

1.5 sticks butter
1 cup sugar
1 egg
3/8 cup sorghum syrup
2 3/4 cups flour
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp cinnamon
3/4 cup walnuts

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

In a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter and sugar. Add eggs, then sorghum syrup.

Whisk together the remaining dry ingredients (except the walnuts) and mix in with the batter.

Mix in 1/3 lb. walnuts until just combined.

Scoop onto sheet pans using a tablespoon-sized ice cream scoop or a tablespoon. Flatten slightly, brush with egg wash, and sprinkle with sanding sugar.

Bake for 10-12 minutes until golden. Remove from oven and transfer to a wire rack to cool.

P.S. As you might have noticed my blog is sporting a new look! I'm proud to say that up until this point, I did it all myself. That said, although I checked it in multiple browsers, I'm sure I created a problem somewhere. Please let me know if you see anything funky and I'll fix it. I'm also open to any comments and suggestions. I'll keep tweaking!

Friday, September 14, 2007


A quick update on my pickles (see the original post here). We had a little tasting. Overall, the pickles were a success. They were flavorful, smelled wonderful and no one contracted botulism.

The only version no one was crazy about was the pickles made with cider vinegar. Everyone thought that one was too sweet. The pickling spices were not nearly as powerful as I had feared and no one had an issue with the mixture of spices. The unfermented version was good, albeit a bit too sharp for my taste.

After some discussion, everyone seemed to perfer the fermented version but we all agreed it need more flavor: more garlic, maybe more dill. I wish the pickles had been crisper. I've read there are ways to increase crispness, including adding unflavored Tums to the brine! I'll have to go back and work some more to come up with a sensational recipe. No wonder families have spent generations perfecting the pickle craft!

P.S. Thanks R for holding my pickle!

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Apple and almond tart

R and I are just back from a week’s vacation in the Adirondacks and Tennessee. We had a great time and lots of culinary adventures. I’m planning a post with a recipe or two from our travels. In the meantime, I put a teaser of the photos we took and uploaded on to flickr in the bottom right-hand corner of the blog (click through to link to the entire set).

Some time before we left, I decided it was time to get more serious about food photography. I think my photos are fine, but I’ve been interested in really learning more about what makes a great shot, how to use props, and how to get lighting right. I started looking more carefully at magazine photos, researching the topic on the web, and joined a flickr food photography group that hosts a monthly challenge and critique.

In my opinion, the most beautiful and consistent food photography comes from Donna Hay and team. I’d be pretty happy if I could get my shots to look a fraction as good as hers do. I love her aesthetic and love how she sets up simple shots that are full of beauty. Her magazine is gorgeous and inspirational, and her recipes are pretty good to boot! I’ve tried a number of recipes from issue 29, among which is a gorgeous apple pastry that I had to try simply because it photographed so beautifully. It turned out to be delicious too; slightly reminiscent of baklava on the inside with a petal-like topping of apples soaked in sugar syrup. Since you buy the puff pastry, it’s not that hard to make either.

I took my own take on her recipe omitting the pistachios and walnuts and increasing the quantity of almonds instead. The most readily available pre-made puff pastry sheets in the supermarket that I could find is Du Four, which is shaped such that dividing it into two rectangular-shaped pieces, (as opposed to rounds), worked best.

I decided to use the tart as the basis for one of my submissions to the flickr photo group for August’s challenge, diptychs. Having never thought about diptychs in my life I found myself considering every potential shot as a part of a broader composition. It was a lot of fun to think differently and learn about something entirely new. My first submission was entirely sub-par but I got better as the month went on. I’m looking forward to September’s challenge.

Apple and almond tart (from Donna Hay)
Serves 6

2 x 9 3/4 inch ready prepared pastry sheets, thawed (see my note above re: Du Four)


1 cup almond meal (ground almonds) (I ground my own in the food processor)
½ cup caster (superfine) sugar
1 ¼ oz unsalted butter, melted
1 egg, whisked
2 tablespoons honey
¼ cup pistachio nuts
¼ cups chopped walnuts

apple syrup

2 cups water
2 cups caster (superfine) sugar
4 pink lady apples, thinly sliced (really must use a mandoline for this)

To make apple syrup, place the water and sugar in a small saucepan over lover heat and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Simmer for 10 minutes and then remove from the heat. Allow the syrup to cool completely then add the apples, set aside.

Preheat oven to 355ยบ F. To make the filling, place the almond meal and sugar in a bowl and stir to combine. Add the butter, egg and honey and stir well to combine. Fold through the pistachios and walnuts and set aside.

Cut out 2, 9-inch rounds from the pastry sheets. Cut out a 7 ½ inch round from one of the rounds to create a border and discard the center. Place the border on top of the larger pastry sheet. Place on a baking tray lined with non-stick baking paper. Spread the filling over the centre of the pastry and cook for 20-25 minutes or until puffed and golden.

To serve, remove the apple slices from the syrup, place on top of the pastry and drizzle with the apple syrup.