Monday, November 28, 2011

Healthy Double Chocolate Brownies

Once upon a time, I believed that brownies were the best invention in the history of the world. In grade school, I set upon a quest to find the fudgiest, chocolatiest, most delicious brownies ever and learn how to make them. The search led me to my younger brother’s friend’s mom’s brownies. When she heard about how eager I was to acquire her recipe, she gave it to me. But when I made the brownies for myself at home, I knew at once that they weren’t the brownies I had fallen for. I had been dubbed, deceived, deluded, probably at no fault but my own. The brownies in my memory would always taste better because my mind had transformed them into something so delicious that nothing else could compare.

 I’ve since lost that magic recipe and adopted a new one. These brownies are fudgy and rich and chocolate-y, but I’ve never been able to get over the fact that it uses so much butter, eggs, and sugar—no wonder it tastes so good. Every time I make those brownies, I can visualize my arteries clogging up and my teeth rotting away.

Then, one day, my uncle brought brownies when he came to visit. The brownies were moist and pretty good overall, but I noticed that they lacked richness and depth. Also, there was just something that tasted a little bit off about them... When he emailed me the recipe a couple days later, I read the ingredient list and realized that the reason these brownies tasted peculiar was because they were made with apple sauce. The brownies were okay, not the best, but not good enough to inspire me to make them.

I set out a new quest, to make healthy (or at least healthier) brownies that still tasted great. The journey led me to my best friend Jenny’s book shelf, which was lined with various recipe binders and cookbooks. From her collection, I tried a low-fat brownies recipe, which used oil and yogurt instead of butter. The brownies tasted pretty good, but when I tried to replace the white flour with whole-wheat (again in a futile attempt to make healthier brownies), the brownies turned bitter.

I gave up. It seemed that nothing else could measure up to the real, high-far, high sugar brownie. I stopped baking brownies for a while and focused on cookies and pies instead. Then, something happened that would change the way I bake. The school board passed food and beverage policy requiring healthier baked goods to be sold at bake sales. All baked goods had to have 5 grams of fat or less and 2 grams of fibre or more, effective immediately.

At first, I groaned and grumbled with the rest of them. How would we ever fundraise if we couldn't sell baked goods? Cup noodles only went so far—bake sales are the money makers. I worried about how the baking/cooking club would fundraise; I had planned to hold a bake sale the next week. But then I talked to the staff advisor of the Food For Life club, which I am also a part of. (Food For Life is the name of a club at our school which fundraises through bake sales and donated the money to various charities.) I’ve heard many great things about her from my former culinary arts teacher and seen pictures of the gorgeous cupcakes that she had decorated so I couldn't help but regard her with the slightest bit of baker awe. We talked about healthy baking and how many muffins and coffee cakes and bars could be made with apple sauce or low-fat yogurt and mashed bananas and the like.

That conversation really inspired me to make more healthy baked goods. I decided to begin testing recipes right away. The first recipe, of course, had to be these Healthy Double Chocolate Brownies. I found the recipe from the Bake It Up recipe collection, which was purposely designed to comply with the new bake sale policy. After multiple trials and some minor tweaking in ingredients and technique, I developed a brownie recipe I could be proud of.

These brownies are moist and rich and taste pretty darn good, considering how healthy they are. There’s a secret ingredient in these brownies that make them so healthy, but you won’t be able to tell, and neither will a bunch of unassuming high school students.

Click below for the recipe.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Mom's Whitefish Chowder

My mom makes the best soups. Not only does she make her own chicken or fish broth, but she knows how to use it to make other delicious soups, such as this Whitefish Chowder. The soup is thick with diced potatoes and chunks of tender whitefish. A creamy soup flavoured with bacon and dill, it’s delicious and filling and a total comfort food.

I couldn't wait to ask my mom for the recipe and she wasted no time in dictating it to me; as she spoke, I scrambled to write everything down. My mom started the soup with a homemade fish broth, made from water, fish bones, and fish skin. The mixture was simmered for an hour and then all the bones and skin were discarded, resulting in a flavourful and concentrated fish broth. 

Then she sautéed several strips of bacon, paper clip-sized, in a large soup pan until crisp. She added chopped onions and continued to cook until they were softened. Equal parts fish stock and chicken stock entered the pan, along with grated and diced potato (the grated potato cooks down and helps to thicken the soup without the use of flour or cornstarch). To make the soup a creamy one, my mom added a cup of light cream and a couple cups of milk.

Seasoning was simple: pink Himalayan salt, freshly ground black pepper, nutmeg, and fresh dill leaves, chopped. Before serving, my mom poached the cubed white fish in the soup until just cooked. The result: a flavourful, full-bodied broth which is creamy yet light and rich with tender whitefish and potatoes. This soup is the perfect dish to usher in the frigid months ahead. 

Here is a rough estimation of the amount of ingredients used:
  • fish bones, skin, fat etc.
  • 1 litre water
  • 2 cups chicken broth
  • 8 strips of bacon, paper-clip-sized
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 3 potatoes, 2 grated, one finely diced
  • 1 cup table cream
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon nutmeg
  • dill leaves, chopped
  • 1 lb whitefish, cubed

Monday, November 21, 2011

Coffee-Flavoured Bavarian Cream

There are so many rites of passage associated with turning sixteen: getting your driver’s licence; getting a new photo health card; getting a job. So far, I’ve gotten my G1 (although I lost it temporarily misplaced it) and my health card. The job thing hasn’t happened yet, but I can always hope.

Another privilege of being sixteen: finally being old enough to taking continuing education classes at George Brown College. My mom and I have been talking about taking baking classes there for years and now I’m finally old enough to do it. As I waited impatiently for my best friend Jenny to turn sixteen so we could take the classes together, I fantasized about learning how to bake in a professional kitchen for a real college certificate.

This past September, we started our classes. Every Friday night, we meet at the subway station and take the train down to the St. James Campus. After three or four gruelling hours, we re-emerge from the culinary arts building, holding boxes filled with treats, and retrace our steps to go home.

Jenny and I are by far, the youngest ones at George Brown. In a class of adults, I’m glad that Jenny and I took the class together. Even more so, I’m glad that we have a reason to see each other at least once a week. Since the school year started, we’ve both gotten so busy that we don’t have time to see each other on the weekend.

The kitchen where the classes are held is huge and industrious. Two sets of sinks line one side of the room and opposite them, a huge shelf stacked with cake pans and sheet trays. At the front of the room, there is a demonstration counter, complete with huge mirrors hanging of the ceiling that allow students to look up when there are others blocking their view. Behind the counter sits two ovens and a refrigerator. There are six four-people work stations, each unit containing a miniature fridge, an industrial sized stand mixer, and a portable induction stove top.

The work stations don’t come with utensils, however. Students are expected to bring their own spatulas, whisks, bench scrapers, dough scrapers, and most importantly, kitchen scales. Whenever I bake at home, I measure ingredients using volume measuring cups. I know that weight is a more accurate unit of measurement when it comes to baking, but my baked goods turn out fine even if I use measuring cups.

But I’ve wanted an electronic kitchen scale for quite some time now and I jumped at the opportunity to buy one. After all, my mom couldn’t deny me such an essential piece of equipment if it was required for a class. So we bought a new $80 kitchen scale, good for up to 11 pounds.

In the past weeks, we made apple pie, bran muffins, and tea biscuits. This week, we made crème caramel and Coffee-Flavoured Bavarian Cream. I didn’t care much for the crème caramel, especially since it upended itself and spilled over the sides of the ramekin (maybe it was undercooked...?) while I carried it home, but the Coffee-Flavoured Bavarian Cream was deliciously sweet, rich, and creamy. Heck, how can you go wrong with coffee, custard, and cream?

Click below for the recipe.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Pumpkin Cheesecake

A couple weeks ago, I lost my license. Now that I type it out, I can understand why someone would misunderstand and think that I lost my license; that it was taken away from me by some burly police officer because I forgot to signal or turned right on a red light without stopping or, I don’t know, rear-ended another car. I guess it’s totally understandable to think that I’m an incompetent driver, just because I have terrible hand-eye coordination.

I didn’t forget to signal or turn right on a red light without stopping or rear-end another car (at least not in view of a police officer—kidding). I’ve never gotten a ticket or gotten pulled over by a police officer, even in the early days when I drove at 20 kilometres an hour, or turned onto the wrong lane. (Of course, I’ve only been driving for seven or so months—my driving life is young). I’m a competent teenage driver, cautious and attentive.

I merely misplaced my license.

See, when you say “I lost my license,” to friends, some of them might assume that it was taken away because you rear-ended another car or something. Just getting it out there: I’m a great fine adequate driver. I just tend to misplace things and forget other important things (like where I put my wallet...)

So for the last couple of weeks, I’ve been without a license. Generally I practice my driving with my mom at least once a week, usually on Saturday mornings. Because driving to an actually destination with an actual purpose is a much more justifiable reason to use gas, we drive to various grocery stores and supermarkets to buy food. I love going grocery shopping with my mom; she buys almost anything I want, like chocolate chips or flax seeds or cashews.

This week, I wanted to buy pumpkin puree and cream cheese to make a Pumpkin Cheesecake for the Improv Cooking Challenge. Then, all of a sudden, Sheryl, who started the Improv Cooking Club, disappeared off the face of the blogging world. Her blog, Lady Behind the Curtain, vanished and her email account was deactivated. Sheryl, wherever you are and whatever you are up to, I hope that you are okay. You've left a legacy; the Improv Cooking Challenge continues, thanks to Kristen of Frugal Antics of a Harried Homemaker, who picked up the party.

Pumpkin Cheesecake is one of those quintessential fall desserts, something that can be made year-round (thanks to gourmet canned pumpkin puree), but only feels right during the fall. Earlier this year, I made a Pumpkin Pie and it was delicious, but it just didn’t feel right. Hopefully I’ll have time to make another one soon because the window of fall-pportunity is closing quickly. Soon it’ll be winter and snowboarding and hot chocolate and no school. Oh, how I look forward to those long winter days.

Click below for the recipe.

Monday, November 14, 2011

100% Whole Wheat Rolls

I’m a voracious reader, the kind of person who uses reading to procrastinate. I figure that reading since reading is actually educational,  I can feel a lot less guilty about "educating" myself about nineteenth century courtship (courtesy of Jane Eyre) while I'm really supposed to be doing my homework. I will readily admit that a portion of my allowance goes towards expanding my admirable collection of books and that Chapters is my favourite store, ever. Currently, I’m trying to work through the College Board’s 101 Great Books Recommended for College-Bound Readers. So far, I’ve read about four, but hey, I’ve got two more years to read the rest of the books on the list.

Besides trying to slug my way through the long list of impressive classics deemed “great” by the College Board, I also borrow heaps and heaps of cookbooks from the library. I rarely buy cookbooks because I can’t justify spending $40 on recipes that I could just google. But when I won the Culinary Arts Award at my school last year and received a $25 giftcard to Chapters, it seemed only fitting that I use the giftcard to buy a cookbook.

I ended up buying Peter Reinhart’s Artisan Breads Every Day. I’ve tried making bread before, using random internet recipes, but with no avail. Each failed attempt further cemented in my mind that there was a complicated science behind breadmaking which internet recipes were not explaining thoroughly enough. 

The first recipe I tried from ABED was Whole Wheat Pizza Dough. Not only did the end product taste amazing, but prepping the dough was relatively simple and quick. Encouraged by the success, I endeavoured to make 100% Whole Wheat Bread for the November Have the Cake Challenge. Whole wheat bread had been the source of many frustrations (why is the dough so tough? Why isn’t my loaf rising? Why does the bread look like a brick?) in the past, but I was determined to master it.

Following Peter’s overnight rise method, I produced light and airy bread, even though I had deviated slightly from the recipe. I forgot to dissolve the yeast with the wet ingredients as instructed in the recipe; instead I had mixed it with the dry. I also used whole wheat bread flour instead of regular whole wheat flour as called for in the recipe so I had to add more flour to the dough to achieve the correct consistency.

My older brother commented that the bread had tasted the same as store-bought, which I took as the ultimate compliment considering my past history of dense brick-like loaves. Sometimes the clarity and thoroughness of instruction in a cookbook written by a pro really does make a difference. Not all cookbooks are worth buying in my opinion, but this one definitely was.

Tips for Making Bread:

Use the fresh yeast; many of my brick-like loaves were a result of old yeast which didn’t rise properly.

If you use a machine to knead the dough, be careful not to over-knead; if you are kneading by hand, make sure you knead the dough enough.

The temperature of the water or milk is very important. Anything too cool and the yeast will not be activated; anything too hot and the yeast will die.

A small kitchen scale is particularly useful in the breadmaking venture. Volume and weight are two completely different things and depending on how packed your flour is, the actually amount that you measure out using a volume cup could be different from the weight of flour that is called for in the recipe. My kitchen scale is almost at antique status by now and mostly retired, so I borrowed my friend Jenny’s electronic scale. According to her, kitchen scales are pretty cheap these days, so if you are into baking, you may want to consider investing in one.

Click below for the recipe.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Banana Chocolate Joltbars

In every school, there are always those teachers that everyone loves to hate. In ninth grade, it was a certain English teacher who would bite your head off if you forgot to call her Doctor. Everyone despised her, and I  worried that my marks would go down in her class (thanks, Big Brother, for all your eleventh-grade English horror stories, starring the Doctor). I need not to have worried; I did all my assignments, stayed under the radar, and got a decent grade.

Then in tenth grade, it was a certain math teacher. In all honesty, I didn’t enjoy the way she taught, but looking back, I realize that I could have done more to facilitate my own learning. Blame, like respect, is a two-way street.

This year, people are complaining about a new English teacher. (Well, actually, people still complain about the math teacher I had last year and they surely would about the English teacher from ninth grade if she hadn’t gotten fired...) Originally, I had a different teacher, but since I insisted on switching into enriched World History during the second week of school, my timetable got rearranged. I knew I would enjoy the World History class because I liked the subject and because I’d heard good things about the teacher in charge of the enriched class, so I decided to take all other class changes in stride.

Despite all the complaints, I actually really like my (new) English teacher. She’s a little bit quirky and her assignments are vague, but that’s what I like. The freedom to change things up, to do what I think is the right answer. Besides that, the class discussions that she leads are actually quite thought-provoking.

Our most recent assignment revolved around the novel Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. Throughout the novel, which is set in the future, Atwood creates many different products and our assignment was to choose one and create an ad for the product. Originally, I was going to choose Watson-Crick Student Services (James Watson and Francis Crick, the guys who discovered DNA; cool play on words, no?). Watson-Crick is the name of the school which Crake goes to, so I thought “student services” would entail care-packages and laundry and the like. And then I reread the section where these “student services” are mentioned. How wrong I was...

So I chose to market a Joltbar. In the novel, a Joltbar is an energy bar which contains steroids and helps build muscle. Instead of creating only the packaging, I decided to take it a step further and create the actual product as well. Enter these Banana Chocolate Joltbars. They may not contain steroids like real Joltbars, but they’re packed with healthy energy-boosting foods like mashed banana, oatmeal, whole wheat flour, yogurt, and ground flax seed.

Click below for the recipe.

Monday, November 7, 2011

French Apple Tart

You know it’s fall when it’s no longer light out until 8PM. You know it’s fall when all the giggly girls at school retire their shorts and skirts to the back of their closets and opt for skinny jeans instead. You know it’s fall when you take one look outside and see wet, gray clouds and decide that your warm bed is where you want to be.

You know its autumn when you recite a poem in eleventh-grade French class and wonder why the mural of the French countryside you helped paint with your partner (okay, so truthfully, you can’t draw beyond stick figures; your partner did most of the work...) doesn’t feature any fall colours.

Le prés est vénéneux, mais joli en automne…

[The meadow is poisonous, but pretty in the autumn…]
Oh, it’s definitely fall. With fall comes all the autumn fruits and vegetables that line our grocery store shelves to the brim. Pumpkins, butternut squashes, apples; all of them my favourites. This is the time of year when my mom buys pumpkin upon pumpkin so that I can roast them, puree them, and freeze them so that I have fresh, homemade pumpkin puree all year long. This is the time of year that I long for nothing more than to curl up with a great book and a bowl of steaming butternut squash soup. This is the time of year I make apple pies like we don’t already have one in the fridge and the freezer.

Last weekend, I decided to try making a French Apple Tart, instead of my usual repertoire of apple pie. I immediately fell in love with the neat diagonal rows of thinly sliced apple and the liberality in sugar and butter. Out with starches to thicken the cooking apple juices into a sauce; out with the unnecessary cups and cups of sugar; and in with neat squares of apple/pie crust heaven.

It’s definitely fall if apples have anything to do with it...

Click below for the recipe.

Friday, November 4, 2011

A Biology Field Trip and Brownies

Last week, I went on an overnight field trip to an outdoor education center (OEC) for biology class. My elementary school used to do overnight trips at least once a year, so the thought of an overnight trip wasn’t new, but the experience certainly was. It’s amazing how much more fun overnight camp is when you are just that little bit older.

Unfortunately, I forgot to bring my camera, but luckily my awesome roommate Angela brought hers.

What I Learned At Camp:

Chivalry is dead and calling dibs on a particular side of the cabin doesn’t stop the guys that we’re sharing the cabin with from claiming it as their own.

That I love my roommates: Mel, Angela, and Jen. I had so much fun with you girls.  

Some guys pee without closing the washroom door. (It’s a good thing that the washroom is off to the side.) Maybe that’s why everyone is supposed to stay in their cabins and their cabins only.

Everyone, except that skinny girl who bakes, brings food and leaves it in their cabins, even though there are bear posters everywhere. 

Wolves have a sense of smell that is a hundred times better than that of humans.

Guys aren’t, by stereotype, the messiest of them all. Even though we used our fifth bunk, which was empty because we only had four people in our cabin, as luggage space, our room was still messier than theirs. 

Sometimes, when someone knocks on your cabin door at ten PM, it’s not the teachers telling you to turn the lights off, but two of the guys from the other side of the cabin sitting on a chair they stole from the lounge in front of your door.

Swamps are unbelievably gorgeous and so quiet that you can actually hear your own breathing.

Walls have ears. The wall dividing our cabin from the one the guys were in was so thin that we could hear pretty much everything they were saying. Guys say really stupid things when they think no one is listening. They also gossip so much that they are the sole reason you don’t fall asleep until two in the morning and then wake up at six.

Mayflies have three tails and stoneflies have two.

Walking through the woods from the dining hall to your cabin in complete darkness leaves you with that invincible kind of feeling.

It takes mad ninja skills to clamber down the top bunk, step over everyone’s clothes/shoes/bags, find your own shoes in the dark, and escape outside without waking your roommates up.

Eating four tacos before a long bus ride contributes to motion sickness.

Sleeping only four to six hours a night for an entire week will cause you to crash on the bus. And at home. And the next day.

When I came home, my younger brother Kyle made me brownies. “I had so much homework while you were gone!” he exclaimed. Despite the fact that he had missed me mostly because I wasn’t there to help him with his homework and make food for him to eat, I grinned. My brother had never made brownies before so the act in itself was incredibly touching. Not to mention, but the brownies themselves were pretty darn good. I guess all those years of being the brother of that skinny girl who bakes was rubbing off on him.

Click below for the recipe. 

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