Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Grandpa's Blackberry Jam

When I think of my Grandpa I think of bear hugs and whisker rubs.  I think of long afternoons sitting in the carport watching him guide wood across the surface of his table saw, showing me how to do it safely, how to measure carefully so no wood went to waste.  He built furniture with sturdy frames, generally covered in laminate with a wood pattern - he thought laminate with a wood pattern was a marvel.  When I smell sawdust, or wood glue, or contact cement those memories rush back.

My Grandpa was a teacher, not so much with his words as with his actions.  Despite growing up in an era where a woman's place was securely in the home, he sent my Grandma off to go shopping and socializing with her girlfriend's every weekend.  He stayed home and invited all of the neighborhood children over for a big pancake breakfast.  I am sure that there was no mess for her to clean up afterwards, that would have been an unacceptable way to treat a wife he loved deeply.

I have so many memories of growing up with him.  When I turned five, he dressed up as a candyman for my birthday party.  He pinned bags of candy all over his shirt and pants and then ran as a horde of young girls chased him down ripping off the candy.  The before, during and after pictures are hilarious and he is smiling in all of them.  During Christmas he let the grandkids decorate his bald head with the bows from our presents because it made us laugh.  He loved making people laugh.

What I remember the most though is how openly he loved us.  His cards were always the corny floral ones with one on my mantle reading in his carpenter's print, I want to thank you for the treasure you have become to me.  It's from several years ago but I pick it up and read it often.  He was such a treasure to me.

He loved me despite the distance between our world views, despite my back covered in tattoos and my hair dyed a platinum blonde.  It is through him that I first began to understand what unconditional love looked like in real life.

He passed away a few months ago, after several years of decline, first his body, then his mind.  I mourn that the newest generation, my baby nieces and nephews, will never remember his bear hugs.  In my mourning though I realize the honour of sharing his love falls to those who knew him.  That I can make epic pancake breakfasts, hug my niece tightly and love her unconditionally. 

At this time of year, late-August moving into fall, blackberries are at their peak and blackberry jam was my Grandpa's favorite.  I decided to ask him for the recipe a few years ago, I wanted to know his secrets, the story behind the recipe that I was sure had been passed down through the generations.  In his common sense way, he looked at me and said, "Just follow the directions on the pectin box dear."  So as I attempt to capture late summer in a jar by carefully following the directions on the pectin box please know that his love is my inspiration.


Follow the directions on the pectin box.  With blackberries you may want to strain half the berries to remove some of the seeds as it is quite a seedy fruit.  That's the one tip Grandpa gave me.

Thanks Grandpa.

Eat on toast with cream cheese or butter.


Shonagh explores the guts of food in An Offal Experiment.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Pesto: Freezing a Summer Day

Basil is funny to grow.  It starts as a spindly plant, often with just a few leaves, so few in fact that to take any feels wrong.  To snip a couple off for a tomato salad makes me worry that I might kill the plant.  In the beginning I always straddle the line between wanting to taste and not wanting to kill.  More times than not in early summer I skimp on the basil leaves or I (ahhh!) buy basil.

Then late summer rolls around and my basil plant has turned beast.  There are so many leaves that I don't know where to cut.  And then I see them.  The seed pods and flowers, inching their way out of the top, getting ready to turn my basil into a bitter compost addition.  Not on my time.

Basil, you're about to get whacked.

The scissors emerge from the kitchen.  I grab the entire basil plant and cut it off at the ankles.  Brutal to be sure, but necessary because it is at this moment, when the heat of the late summer is overbearing and I am praying for rain as if I live in a desert that I know it is time to make pesto for the winter.

To learn about the history of pesto is to free yourself from recipes and proportions and rules.  The word itself is from the Latin word pestle, which mean to pound and to crush.  Historically, pesto is a herb sauce made from crushed basil and cheese, but the possibilities are endless.  Play with different herbs and seeds and nuts and oils to create a pesto that tastes amazing for your palate.  Here is one possibility.

  • 1/4 pound of garden fresh basil
  • A few sprigs of mint (they were in the fridge and I didn't want them to go to waste)
  • 1/2 cup of toasted pumpkin seeds 
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • Honey to taste (I started with a tablespoon)
  • Enough oil to make it smooth
  • Salt to taste
  • Thai chili peppers (please see point 2 in the directions)

1) Some people might want to strip the leaves off the basil plant.  I chose not to.  I just threw the whole clump of basil into the blender with the mint, garlic, honey and some oil.  You might be wondering why I am using a blender considering my obsession with tradition and authenticity.  Well I had a quarter pound of basil to get through and I have rheumatoid arthritis in my hands so modernity won this battle. 

2) Previous to making my pesto I had been making my latest batch of chili paste to ferment so instead of washing out my blender I decided that spicy pesto was the order of the day.  It was a win-win situation, less clean-up for me and more flavour for my pesto!

3) You will be adding a lot of oil to make your pesto blend properly.  Just be patient and once the blender stops blending productively (the pitch increases because it's not blending anything), turn it off, open up the lid and press the basil leaves back down onto the blades using a wooden spoon.  Don't do this while the machine is on please.  I know it can be tempting.

4) As I am blending up the leaves and oil, I am toasting my pumpkin seeds.  Some recipes call for pine nuts, but to be honest, they are really expensive and I had pumpkin seeds on hand.  Once the nuts are toasted and the basil is of a nice consistency, add the nuts and keep blending.  Blend until smooth but not necessarily perfectly smooth.  Imagine the texture that an old Italian Noni would approve of, I think she would raise an eyebrow and perhaps a tut-tut at a perfectly smooth pesto.  Go for rustic over elegant. 

5) Taste and adjust for salt and honey.  Now pour your pesto into a clean ice cube tray (thanks Auntie Kathleen for this idea) and freeze.  Once the pesto cubes are frozen, pop them out of the tray and into a ziploc freezer bag.  Use whenever you need a hit of summer.

The verdict: At the farmer's market this week I took home some beautiful Italian zucchini, which I sliced thick and sauteed before topping it with my pesto.  Delicioso!

  • Uses: on pasta, on veggies, on bread, on sandwiches, in dips and spreads
  • If you want a lower fat version, substitute broth for some of the oil.  Make sure you taste before adding extra salt because most broths are quite high in sodium.
  • Be warned that pesto is used a symbol of love in Italy, so be careful who you serve your pesto to...  Think of it as a garlic laced cupids arrow.
  • Find this recipe and other sugar free ones here.

Pesto Recipes
History of Pesto

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

My Award Winning Sour Cherry and Dark Chocolate Pie

Yeah.  Uh-huh.  I placed first in my category!  I can officially say that I have an award winning pie recipe!  But before I get to the recipe, let me explain my process.

The night before, I blind baked my pie crust.  To blind bake is to bake an empty pie shell.  I like to use parchment with mung beans on top to weigh my pie crust down.  This time, I also decided to shroud my crust in tin foil so it didn't get too brown.  It worked perfectly.  In the past I have tried using a pastry shield but I find that because the pastry shield sits on the crust it actually makes it brown more and faster.  Has anyone else found this?

As well, the night before, I made my sour cherry filling.  I mentioned in an earlier post that I had purchased, roasted and frozen some sour cherries.  To make the filling, I thawed the cherries, cooked them a bit on the stove top just for good measure and then added sugar and Instant ClearJel (see recipe later).  Instant ClearJel is pre-cooked corn starch that thickens acidic fruit without needing heat.  My test pie failed because the thickener I used couldn't handle the acid in the cherries and basically turned my pie into a sopping wet disaster.  This was not going to happen with my sour cherries.

With my filling and crust ready to go, all that was left in the morning was making the ganache.  I gave myself two and a half hours to make ganache and paint it on the crust.  It took me about fifteen minutes.  Yeah, I'm a bit anal about time management.

Then into the car I went.  Normally I am a hard core cyclist.  I don't even own a car in fact.  The competition was in Langley though and I was not going to cycle or skytrain out to Langley with my precious pie.  The heat would kill it!  So I found a car (thank you Grandmummy), loaded up the painted crust and the cherry filling, turned the air conditioner on full blast and made my way out to the Langley Bypass.  As I drove, with chattering teeth and goose bumps from the car's chilly air, I reflected on what I was willing to do for this pie:

1. Use chemicals.  I don't think they used Instant ClearJel to thicken up their pies in the old days.
2. Drive.  I hate the car, especially spending an hour on the highway.
3. Air condition myself.  Just the term air condition freaks me out, but hey, what the pie needs, the pie gets.

Once I arrived at the competition, I assembled my pie in the car.  I waited until then because I didn't want to risk a soggy crust.  While the chocolate ganache was there to protect the crust, I still didn't want to take any chances so I waited until just before dropping it off to spoon the cherry filling in.  Then, like an anxious mother, I hustled my little pie into its special room where it sat with all the other pies, waiting for judgement.

The verdict: And I won!  Yeah, cherries and chocolate are pretty good and it looked so pretty, though you'll just have to imagine what it looked like because in my anxiety I totally forgot to take a picture...  Sorry about that.  Ironically, I'm not really sure what it tasted like.  I only bought enough sour cherries for one pie so I am going to have to wait until next summer to make another one.  I just love the patience in seasonal fruit.


Pastry crust
Cherry Filling

  • 4 cups sour cherry
  • Pinch of salt and pepper
  • 1 tbsp of peanut oil
  •  ¾ cup white sugar
  • 10 tsp instant ClearJel

Chocolate Ganache
  • 100 grams of 70% dark chocolate, chopped finely
  • 1/3 cup whipping cream


1. Cut together flour and butter, add liquid ingredients, chill for 30 minutes minimum or up to 24 hours.  Roll out thinly, pat into pie pan and crimp edges nicely.  Wrap and freeze shell overnight.
2. Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit, line shell with parchment and pie weights and put in the bottom third of the oven and turn the temperature down to 400 degrees for 20 minutes.  Pull the shell out, remove the parchment and weights and put back into the oven until golden brown, approximately 10 minutes.
3. Sprinkle baked shell with almond flour.

Cherry Filling
1. Coat sour cherries with oil, salt and pepper.  Bake at 350 degrees for approximately an hour or until the cherries split.  Let cool.
2. Add ClearJel to sugar and mix well.  Stir into cooled cherries and stir to combine well.  Thickens up in approximately 5-10 minutes.  Chill in the fridge.

Chocolate Ganache
1. Put whipping cream in a saucepan and warm at medium-low heat until small bubbles form at the edges. 
2. Pour half of the cream over the finely chopped chocolate and let sit for 30 seconds.  Whisk gently as chocolate melts.  Once almost smooth add the rest of the warm whipping cream and stir to combine.

To Assemble

1. Paint the warm chocolate ganache on the baked pie shell.  Make sure to spread the chocolate over the entire base of the shell and up the edges.  Let chill in the fridge until the ganache hardens. Approximately an hour before serving put the chilled cherry filling in the chocolate-filled shell and allow to come to room temperature.


  • Instant ClearJel needs to be added to the sugar before being added to a liquid to prevent clumping.  If you find the fruit mixture too sweet after doing this you can use a little bit of balsamic vinegar to balance it out.
  • I highly recommend checking out BBQ on the Bypass.  There is tons of free BBQ sampling and for people who love to BBQ you get a great opportunity to check out BBQ set-ups and chat with people who BBQ a lot.
  • I am going to add a new pastry recipe soon because I am actually not super happy with the one I am using.  I think using egg makes it too crispy so look out for that.
  • This is actually a great pie for entertaining because the majority of the work is done the day before.  
  • I saw this dog wearing sunglasses and I needed a picture.  Isn't that the cutest thing you've ever seen?

Shonagh explores the guts of food in An Offal Experiment.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Shonagh vs. Fruitcake: Day 2

It is now time to tackle the fruitcake itself.  If you decided to skimp out and purchase pre-dried fruit, I want to encourage you to do a wee re-think.  Store bought dried fruit might work but it lacks the spirit of the fruitcake.  As you bite into your decadent cake in December you want to maximize the power of recollection and labour does this.  You get to picture each fruit, painstakingly dried and pitted and chopped.  Just sayin'.

The recipe I am using is a blend of several recipes.  Originally I was going to use a gluten-free recipe (that is where the ginger inspiration came from) because my mom doesn't eat gluten.  However, she really hates fruitcake and the probability of changing her mind is low so I decided to go with wheat flour.

  • 1 cup of butter
  • 1/2 cup of anise sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • Juice and zest of one lemon
  • 2 cups of dried fruit
  • Cup and a half of homemade candied ginger
  • 2 tbsp homemade ginger syrup
  • 2 shot glasses of cognac
  • Cup or so of almonds, peel removed, toasted and ground
  • 2 cups of flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 250 ml homemade ginger syrup
  • 175 ml spice infused vodka
Directions (pre-heat the oven to 325 F and prepare a pan of suitable size with buttered parchment paper, I used an 8-inch spring form pan)

1) At least an hour before you plan to start making the cake, put the dried fruit in a bowl with the two shot glasses of cognac so they can soak in all that boozy goodness.

2) Like most cake recipes, the first step is to cream the butter with the sugar.  I made my own anise sugar when I was playing around with my pie recipe so it had been sitting, infusing for about a month.  If I do say so myself, it was a stroke of genius to use it.  Beat the butter and sugar together until they are light and fluffy.  This step builds the foundation of your cake.

3) Once your butter and sugar are creamed, start to add the eggs, one by one, beating well in between additions.  Don't rush through this step.  Don't rush through any of the steps.

4) Now the recipe I was working from called for the folding in of the liquids and the fruits including the lemon zest.  I did this and it gave me a moment of pause and worry.  Because I am folding by hand rather than beating by machine, the creamed mixture doesn't mix well with the fruit and liquids.  You will finish this step with what looks like wet creamed butter.  Have no fear, keep moving forward, all is not lost.

5) The next step is to sift or whisk your dry ingredients together and then fold them into your wet creamed butter.  This is where it all comes together beautifully and you arrive at a dense batter.  Spoon this batter into your prepared pan and pop it into the oven for an hour.  Once this hour is over reduce the heat to 300 and leave for another hour to hour and a half.  Mine was ready after two and a quarter hours in total.  Poke your cake with a skewer to check for doneness. The skewer shouldn't have wet batter on it.

6) Let your cake cool to room temperature then savagely attack it with your skewer poking it full of holes.  This is to allow booze/syrup entry.  Now you must soak and wrap your fruitcake so it ages properly.  

Start by laying down aluminum foil, two layers perpendicular to each other.  Then lay down two layers of saran wrap, again perpendicular to each other.  Then lay down a large piece of cheese cloth that has been soaked in two shots of ginger syrup and spiced vodka (see note below).  Place the fruit cake on top and drizzle another shot of ginger syrup and spiced vodka on top making sure to spread the booziness all over the whole cake.  Wrap the cheesecloth firmly around the cake, wrap the saran wrap and then finally the tin foil.  You will have to flip the cake onto another piece of tin foil to wrap it completely.  You want the cake secure and as airtight as possible.

7) Now find an appropriate spot.  I chose my storage closest again because it is cool and dark.  Thank goodness I have a new key, let's hope that I can hold onto that for the duration of the fruitcake feeding process.

What a cake!  Look for future posts to learn more about the aging process.

Long live fruitcake!

  • On batter mixing: For those who bake a lot of cakes, this method of mixing the batter seems a bit funny.  Often when making a cake the whole point is to incorporate a lot of air into the dough so that the final product is light and fluffy.  Fruitcake is supposed to be dense though so it lasts for longer hence the folding rather than the beating.
  • On aging: A fruitcake needs age to ripen properly and reach its full glory.  According to the blogosphere the tannins in the fruit peel ripen much like wine getting richer and deeper with age.  The density and the booze facilitate this process.
  • On spiced vodka: I made a large bottle of spiced vodka last July so it has been aging for a year.  Basically I just took a bottle of Polar Ice and put cinnamon sticks, cardamom, cloves, vanilla bean and nutmeg in it and left it to infuse.  It's now amazing to use in baking and aromatherapy.
  • On taste testing: I had to do a little taste test before sealing up my precious fruitcake and the flavour blew my mind.  The cake is dense without being stupid heavy and the fruit is absolutely delicious.  I almost cut off another piece (to be perfectly honest I thought about turning it into a square knowing full well that I just wanted to eat a ton more rather than it needing to be a freakin' square) but managed to resist.  That was self-control.

Shonagh explores the guts of food in An Offal Experiment.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Who is Top Hobby Chef?

No.  I'm not talking about a television show or a television audition.  I'm talking about a real life food competition being hosted right smack dab in Vancouver on Commercial Drive.  I'm talking about Slow Bites on the Drive, a celebration of the slow food movement, locally grown food and getting to know your neighbours happening on October 20.

Sounds pretty cool right.

How does it work you ask?  Please let me explain.

We start with the hobby chefs.  Each hobby chef gets a free box of beautiful certified organic produce, think eggplant, zucchini, heirloom tomatoes, garlic, onion, etc. etc.  Using this box as a foundation the hobby chef creates an awesome dinner menu.  There are two seatings with four diners at each seating, meaning that the hobby chef needs to make enough food for eight people.  Your guests bring the bevvies, you provide the food, both of which inspire the conversation.  All of the foodies are local so you also get a chance to meet other people in your 'hood.

That's not even everything.

At the end of the night, after the diners have tried two separate chefs, everyone wanders on over to a dessert spot for the crowning of the Hobby Chef winner.  Trust me chefs, putting in your best effort will pay off with prizes and of course the satisfaction that winning brings.

And to top it all off???  A portion of the proceeds goes to Slow Food Vancouver in support of their mission to spread the pleasure of regional cuisine.  To learn more about the event, please visit Social Bites, the partner business helping to produce the event.

If you think you have what it takes to be the Top Hobby Chef, send an email to for more information and to register.  

Food lovers around the Drive who want to attend as diners can use the same address to sign up.  It's sure to be a delectable evening full of inspired cooking.

P.S. The pics are from the Klipper's stand at the market last week.  Those are just some of the beautiful veggies you could be cooking with.  Just sayin'.


Shonagh explores the guts of food in An Offal Experiment.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Shonagh vs. Fruitcake: Day 1

So I decided to take on fruitcake.  Why I don't remember.  I think it came up in some sort of search, perhaps I was looking up preserved fruit or apricot cake.  Either way, I have decided to become the queen of fruitcake.  It is my new Christmas tradition or should I say, it will become my new Christmas tradition.

I am a little obsessed with tradition, how it orients our lives, creating rhythms and familiarity, a cycle.  Often we think of traditions as old-fashioned, and they can be, associated with grandparents and parents.  However, it is entirely possible and quite joyful to start new traditions.  I already have one Christmas tradition - my Christmas Eve Brunch and now it has a companion - Gingery Fruitcake.

When I came upon my first fruitcake recipe it made me think.  What is the purpose of fruitcake?  So many malign it terribly, but somehow it has clung on.  As I pondered the purpose of fruitcake, surrounded by fresh fruit I had brought home from the Farmer's Market, it hit me!  The purpose of fruitcake is to capture summer!  This fruit-filled cake exists to ease the chill of winter and to keep people going until spring.  So with this purpose in mind, I decided to radically redesign my fruitcake turning it into the height of fantastic deliciousness.

Creating a fruitcake is a process and the process should begin the day before you actually bake it.  The first steps are drying the fruits you want to use and candying your ginger.  I chose a ginger fruitcake because ginger is one of my favorite things in the world and in my opinion makes almost everything better.

Fruit Directions

1) I selected apricots and cherries for the fruit portion of my cake.  They came from a local shop.  I quartered the apricots and halved the cherries, putting them on baking sheets at 200 F.  If you have a dehydrator then use that, but don't suck all the moisture out.  They should be dry but not dry to the bone.  You want some plumpness in your fruit still.  This took most of the first day, over night and a bit more time in the morning.  I turned the oven on for several hours, turned it off over night but kept the fruit in the oven, turned it back on for an hour in the morning and then turned it off again leaving the fruit in the oven for another five hours or so.  I snipped the apricot quarters in half again once they were dry.

Ginger Directions

1) I love candied ginger.  This is a really easy way to do it and leaves a beautiful texture to the root.  Peel your ginger bulbs and then cube the ginger.  The easiest way to cut ginger is to cut lengthwise first (with the fibres) and then against the fibres.  If you are finding that your ginger is really stringy then it might be a touch too old.

2) Add your cubed ginger to a heavy pot with two cups of sugar and two cups of water.  Turn the heat on to medium and let the whole mess simmer for two hours or until the ginger is at a nice level of softness.  The liquid should be reduced by half.  Pour everything through a strainer, reserving the syrup.  Dust your candied ginger with sugar and let cool.  At this point you really should treat yourself to a little spoonful of the ginger syrup.  Watch out though it will blow your socks off!  Spicy and fantastic!

You are now ready to make the fruitcake itself but that is being saved for another post.  Check back in a few days for the next stage of glorious ginger fruitcake.

Do you love fruitcake?  Have you ever met a fruitcake that you didn't like?  What is your take on those green candied things that try to pass themselves off as fruit?


Shonagh explores the guts of food in An Offal Experiment.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Roasted Sour Cherries

Every once in a while I get lucky and today I got lucky.  I am landscaping a section of my parent's garden, which means I have to go up to their place in North Van.  If I have a car on my trip up there and it is the summer time then I always, always, always stop at Bob's fruit stand.  This is especially true during peach season.  I can easily eat five peaches in a sitting and allow myself to gorge on them during their short, beautiful season.  Bob's trucks their produce up from the Okanagan so their stuff is local and absolutely gorgeous.

As I was preparing for my peach fix, I happened to notice a little something new at Bob's.  Sour cherries.  I asked about them and discovered that the season here is about a week long, which is why I have never seen them before.

These little beauties are going to be my secret weapon in an upcoming pie competition.  Yes.  You read that correctly.  My next pie competition is coming up and the judges are not going to know what hit them!

Right now my plan is top secret so I can't share too many details.  One ingredient that my utterly delicious pie will contain though is roasted sour cherries.  Here's how to do it.


1) Stem your cherries, toss them with a little olive oil, salt and freshly ground black pepper.  Pop them in the oven at 350 F and stir every ten minutes or so.

2) The cherries will split and release their juice and once they are soft, they are done.  Let them cool and then remove the pits.  I am freezing mine because I didn't want to take a chance on them spoiling if canning didn't work.  I drained the juice before freezing and froze it separately.

Check back in September for my ultra-decadent pie entry.


Shonagh explores the guts of food in An Offal Experiment.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Late Summer at the Market - On the Cheap!

The summer is moving into fall, slowly, as each day gets a little cooler.  In Vancouver we tend to stay hot through September so it is not quite time to mourn.  It is time to start snapping up late summer deals at the market.

There are two main deals at the market right now: seconds and large crops.

It is the height of the stone fruit growing season and stone fruits ripen fast and don't transport well.  If you want to make jam or pie or any sort of baked good with stone fruits, ask the vendor if they sell stone fruit "seconds".  This is code for damaged fruit that is perhaps not a consumer's first choice, however, it tends to be ripe and sweet meaning it is perfect for canning and baking and saucing.

The best way to score deals on seconds is to, again, get to know your farmer.  Let them know you are wanting to make jam or preserves or what have you and that you are looking for seconds.  Of course be polite and wait until they aren't super busy with other customers.

The heat wave also leads to large amounts of some produce ripening at the same time, this is what I mean by large crops.  Cucumbers, for example, were plentiful last weekend at Klipper's and were on sale for a buck a cucumber, any size!  That is a great deal for a certified organic, locally-grown cucumber.

As with the seconds, just keep your eye out for possibilities and ask your local farmers.  Because we don't really live in a bargaining culture we can think that it's rude to ask for discounts, it's not.  Just let them know that you are trying to feed yourself and your family healthy food on a limited budget and ask if they are expecting any large crops.  Maybe they have bulk discounts and you can pair up with a few friends?  It never hurts to ask.

Good luck and happy hunting!  I would love to hear about success stories!


Shonagh explores the guts of food in An Offal Experiment.