Friday, August 30, 2013


The peaches have been just great this year in Ontario and the northern US too.I wanted to get a head-start on recipes, and with fruit such a hugely important part of the Georgian larder, and in so many delicious ways, I wanted to start with two Georgian fruit preserves.

I made sour cherry moraba, delicious, but not quite as thick-syruped as those I had in Georgia. I am still working out why that is.

And I made peach kompot. It was entirely successful, thanks to my friend Tamar Babuadze in Tbilisi, who consulted several friends and their mothers too and passed on their instructions and advice. The peach kompot I had tasted in Georgia, made in Kutaisi by Elena’s ninety-one year old grandmother from peaches from her garden, was my standard. That came in a large wide-mouthed jar, and consisted of whole peaches floating in a pale pink very light and unbelievably delicious syrup. But the jars I had, one-litre jars, had mouths that were too small to take the large ripe organic Niagara peaches I had bought at the farmers’ market.

No problem said Tamar, of course you can cut them.

And so I did. She also told me that peeling them was optional. I peeled some, and left some unpeeled (just well washed); I prefer the look of the unpeeled ones, I’ve decided.

I posted on FB and was asked to supply the recipe. So here are the instructions in a slightly rough and ready format.

Be sure to get all your equipment ready first, and to follow the canning instructions, or substitute instructions from a reliable canning cookbook or handbook. The acidity of peaches is nice and high, so they don’t need a very long boil in the canner, unlike lower-acidity foods.

Get ready the following: 
- 1 quart/1 litre glass canning jars or substitute 650 ml (20 ounce) jars; for each 6 quart basket of peaches allow 3 large jars. Or you can use smaller 2-cup jars.
- Two-part lids for each jar, new ones, with no rust or nicks out of them
- A canner, or substitute a very large tall* pot with a lid, and also a rack in the bottom that the jars can stand on. (*How tall? You need to be able to boil the jars in the pot, with an inch or more of water covering them.) Check to see how many of your jars fit at one time on the rack in the canner.
- Tongs for lifting the jars out of the boiling water
- A large heavy tray or baking sheet and a rack that fits on it (to place the jars on to cool once they have been processed)

Ripe peaches, preferably organic, at least one 6-quart basket 
Sugar: 1 cup of sugar per litre/quart jar; 2/3 cup sugar per 20 ounce/650 ml jar; ½ cup sugar for every 2 cup/500 ml jar.
Kettle of boiling water

Wash the jars and lids in very hot soapy water, and rinse well, or wash them in a dishwasher, then fill them partway with hot water and place them on a tray by your stovetop.

Place a rack in the canner or tall pot, fill the canner or pot with hot water, and place on the stove.

Wash the peaches well in hot water. Cut out any bruised patches and trim off any stems. If you wish, peel them (I think it’s prettier to leave the peel on). If the peaches are too large to fit through the mouths of the jars, cut off chunks leaving pieces as large as possible; I leave in the pits too.

Working with one jar at a time, empty out the hot water, then fill the jar with peaches, not forcing or bruising the fruit. When the jar is half full, add half the sugar needed for that size of jar (see above). Then add more peaches to fill the jar, and then other half of the sugar.

Pour in boiling water from the kettle, pausing to allow bubbles to rise to the surface, until the water is up to the jar neck. Place on a flat lid and screw on the other piece of lid, until just tight, not extremely so. Repeat with the other jars until you have filled as many as will fit in the canner.

Place jars in the canner, being sure that they are upright and not on a tilt. The water should be covering the jars by a generous 1 inch or more. Add water if needed. Put on the canner/pot lid and bring the water in the canner to a rolling boil. Once it is boiling, you can lower the heat a little, just so long as a boil is maintained. Boil for ten minutes.

Place a rack on your counter or on a baking sheet, then lift the jars out carefully, keeping them vertical, and place on the rack to cool.

(If you have a second batch to do, repeat the jar-filling and boiling process.)

After ten minutes or so you should hear each jar lid go “pop” or “click” as it seals. Once that happens, take off the rims and wipe off the glass, then put them back on and tighten a little. Let the jars cool completely, then label them and store in a cool dark place.

The liquid will gradually get infused with peach flavour. This nectar is a real treat in the wintertime. So are the peaches.

Thursday, August 29, 2013


Once more I’ve left a long-ish gap between posts. It’s strange the rhythm of writing and communication of ideas in general. Sometimes I feel rich with all that I want to explore in writing. Other times my concentration gets scattered by other projects. That’s what has happened this week, in part. I have been assigned one small entry in what will be a large comprehensive volume from the Oxford University Press in the US called The Oxford Companion to Sweets. Like everyone else who is involved in writing one or more entries, as I imagine it, I’m finding it slow-going, and frustrating too, for my word limit is under 1000 words, and in that I am supposed to talk about Southeast Asian sweets.

I’m not here to rant about that, just trying to let you know what I have been cluttered with. I’ve now got a good draft written. It is always interesting to be forced into taking a fresh perspective on a region or a cuisine. In writing this I’ve had to characterise the general approach to sweets and also to their evolution. Influences include of course trade, colonisation, conquest, immigration, etc. But all I can do is skim over it all, while tryig to give specifics about sweets in each of the countries. It’s a bit of a grind. And of course not paid, I mean, the pay is under $50…

So why do it? Well, I like a challenge, and I am of course learning as I think through it all and do research.

But I’ll be glad when it’s done. My deadline, the one I’m setting for myself, is the end of this week, so that the Labour Day weekend can be clear of deadlines and I can start look forward to the longhouse event put on by Molly O’Neill on September 6 to 8 in Renselaarville, and after that the kneadingconferencewest in the Skagit Valley in northern Washington state (September 12-14). It’s time to think about packing and cooler weather, and planning out the baking schedule for the Kneading Conference.

In the meantime I have been waiting to hear about my visa for a trip to Iran in October. I heard from the agency ten days ago that they expected to get word on my application by the middle of last week. And then finally two days ago I heard it was approved. Yes!! The deal is that with the visa application is approved in principle, I fly to Istanbul, hand my passport in to the Iranian consulate, and pick it up three working days later. And from there I can fly directly to Iran, a short-ish hop.

I have now booked flights to Istanbul on Turkish Airlines and have five days booked at a centrally located air bnb in Istanbul. So pleasing to have a few things sorted out.

I really hope this Iran trip can work, and not get derailed. The massive sabre-rattling that is going on in the west about Syria can only be terrifying to ordinary people trying to live their lives in Iraqi Kurdistan, Syria, Iran, and southern Turkey. They become statistics, or numbers, in the headlines, rather than individuals with culture, education, humanity. And of course Iran has now become a kind of unnuanced idea of threat to the US and I am sad to say to Canada too.

In the meantime, I have found advice on how to deal with clothing requirements in Iran. I need one or two manteau, a coat-length long-sleeved garment. And I need some headscarves and long pants and comfortable shoes. It all seems very manageable.

And so like any other trip or project, this one breaks down into the practical details and preparation, and vast imaginings and endless reading…  

Saturday, August 17, 2013


It’s Saturday night, "date night", and here I am at the computer. It’s not as bleak as it might sound: I’ve had a great day of market, lovely bicycle ride, and then supper with friends here in my kitchen and garden. Time to sip a little rose d'Anjou and feel grateful.

But before I do, I need to talk abut the skillet cake. I have had a number of requests for the skillet cake recipe, and it’s time to put it out again.

This cake started when I was doing recipe development for HomeBaking, a book that came out in 2003 co-authored by my ex-partner Jeffrey Alford. I am very proud of the book: the artisan breads, etc especially, but also the effort in the book to demystify pastry and baking generally.

When I began work on it I tended to be intimidated by the idea of pastry and cakes. And so I felt I needed to analyse where those feelings of inadequacy came from and address them. One way I did that was to make up a cake recipe, just out of my head, using proportions that were easy to remember, so I could make it without reading a recipe, and without special equipment. 

That is the origin of the skillet cake. The recipe in HomeBaking calls for only 2 eggs and either all-purpose flour or a blend of all-purpose and pastry flour (for a more tender crumb). Since that time the recipe, or I should say, the cake I make, has evolved. Rather than using one large skillet, I make two cakes, each slightly smaller than the original. I have increased the eggs to four, from two.

And most importantly, I now prefer to use Red Fife flour for the cake, a whole wheat single varietal flour. It has wonderful taste and baking properties.

So here is the recepe set out anecdotally, my "Everyday Skillet Cake", to be interpreted as you wish:

You need one larger heavy ovenproof skillet (11 or 12 inch diameter) or two medium to small ones (I now use a 9-inch and a smaller 7 or 8 inch one too), cast-iron really is best; you could also make it in a rectangular cake tin I guess. I have done that in other people's kitchens.

Preheat the oven to 400 F; rack in the middle.
Find your skillet(s) or baking pan. Grease lightly with olive oil (or butter but I find oil works better).

Best if butter and eggs are at room temp. (See *** below for preparing the fruit topping now if you need to wait for the butter to soften a little.)

In one bowl cream together a generous 1/4 pound butter with 1 cup sugar (I tend to use a demerara, but whatever), then set aside.
In another bowl go 2 cups flour: use 1 cup each whole wheat pastry flour and all-purpose if you want, or – my preference - use all Red Fife (available at many farmers' markets). Don't worry.

And onto the flour go 1 teaspoon baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon baking soda, plus 1/2 teaspoon salt (or so) a generous amount of cinnamon if you like, some powdered cloves and powdered ginger if you like and just stir to mix. Set aside.

Back to the butter and sugar: Add a generous 1 cup (so in fact about 1 1/4 cups) plain full fat or 2 % yogurt and stir well. Add 4 large eggs and beat to make a kind of heavy foaming mixture. You can add a small splash of real vanilla extract if you want.

Pour the egg mixture into the flour etc and stir just enough to wet everything. It will be thick and wet. If you are including wild blueberries, as I like to do in summer (or you might have frozen ones, just fine), add them now and fold over a couple of times.

Pour it into the oiled skillets and put into the oven. 
Lower heat to 380 F after ten minutes.

Meantime (****or you could do this while you're waiting for the butter to soften, if you forgot to take it out of the frig early enough), heat a little butter in a skillet and add chopped apples or peaches or mango or pear (yum) , a little sugar or maple syrup (not with the pears; I'd add some lemon juice instead), some cinnamon and/or cloves, and cook briefly just to barely soften and bring out flavour. (You can skip the butter if you are using peaches or pears or apricots and just add sugar and a splash of white or red wine for extra flavour and liquid as they cook.)  You can use chopped rhubarb, but then you'll need to cook it with a tiny amount of water and add generous sugar and maple syrup. Taste to check that you like it. 

You can also make a mixture, say of peaches and blueberries or whatever, as it pleases you. You want about 2 cups cooked fruit plus some liquid, but really amounts don’t matter.

When the cake or cakes have been in the oven about 25 minutes the top will have set a little. Lift out the skillet(s). Distribute the fruit and juices on top and put back in. 

The whole thing takes about 45 minutes usually to cook through. Use a skewer into the centre or near it, to test for done. You can sprinkle on a little extra sugar about ten minutes before you take them out: a crystallised light brown sugar is attractive.

Once they come out of the oven, let stand for ten minutes, then turn out onto a plate and then onto another plate so it is fruit side up. Or serve from the skillet.

There you have it...

Leftovers are great for breakfast, because they’re real food, not just intense sweetness.

We had anther skillet cake this evening, sitting outside in the warm summer air, a group of friends and I. We’d begun with some fresh Berkshire pork, raised in Grey County out in a field, and slaughtered this week. I’d been up at the pig’s home farm last Sunday with Dawn the Baker (Marvellous Edibles), and so I hurried to Wychwood Market this morning because I knew there’d be fresh (not frozen) pork. It was so delicious, remarkable…a roast cut into steaks, grilled, then sliced. We had lemon wedges so people could squeeze on a little juice, but really nothing was needed.

I was so happy to have the skillet cake, made of wheat grown in Ontario, an old variety developed here, called Red Fife (with a lovely natural sweetness to it), and topped with Ontario peaches and blueberries, as a part of the meal, a wonderful complement to the pig.

So lucky to have local food, grown with care, to work with. As a friend of mine says, a huge part of the secret of good cooking is good shopping.

Happy summer everyone...

Saturday, August 10, 2013


An online friend tells me I have been negligent in not giving any glimpses or news from the Oxford Symposium on Food of early July. There’s a reason I haven’t written about it I think. It’s a place where people come and meet and give talks and discuss food issues both large and small, famous and obscure. The being-there is the point. And I am not a reporter. So I end up stumped and stopped, unable to find the ease and juice to write interestingly about it.

But that online prompting in turn is making me think about the nature of the communicating that goes on on FB and Twitter. I post a link to an interesting story, thinking others might also find it interesting. That’s a kind of curating or giving access to others. And I also post notes about things I’m thinking about or situations I’ve just been in or even something interesting that I made myself for breakfast. Why do that? It’s hard to say. Is this taking the place of quick phone chats with friends? Is it an unloading of thoughts that would otherwise just run through my head? What purpose is served? 

On the other hand, this networking can be so useful for linking people and their needs. The other day I was at the Farmers’ Market that takes place every Tuesday (8 am to 2 pm) in front of Sick Children’s Hospital a few blocks from my house. The dazed parents and others who find themselves visting a sick child in the hospital can at least get refreshed by stopping by. It’s a reminder of a better happier world than the hospital. And a reminder that there is good food in the world; hospital food is still so disgracefully bad around here.

But the farmers who come in to the various farmers’ markets in Toronto pay a real price. They have the cost of gas and the time it all takes to drive in, or else the cost of paying someone else to drive in and to sell for them. I was talking to the woman who manages the market about whether farmers could share transport chores, take turns doing the drive in, whatever. But they come in from all directions, not from a single community or area. Still, if there were a good on-line bulletin board, so growers/producers could communicate their where and when and what kind of transport they needed, perhaps it could lighten their market burden. So, said the manager, find me someone to design the app who can give us a good price…

We clamour for local food, but many aren’t willing to pay the cost of it, and the farmers are caught in a squeeze. Perhaps modern methods can give this “old-fashioned” market idea new life and increased resilience.

With the peaches and blueberries I bought on Tuesday I made a couple of cakes: my skillet cake standard. I say "standard" but of course each time the cake is different, as I use a variety of flours (this time all Red Fife) and flavourings and toppings. I included a few wild blueberries in the cake batter, and I also cooked peaches briefly in white wine with more blueberries, then spooned them onto the cakes when they were half-cooked. Delicious. I like the unpredictability, the fresh discovery each time I make the skillet cakes, as I vary ingredients and proportions. It’s such a forgiving recipe, the best kind. I leave fine patisserie and over-precision to those who love it. Give me Home baking and a casual approach any day.

And on the subject of fruit, I had a large basket of blueberries to work with, not wild ones, this week. We’ve been eating handfuls of them as a snack at all times of day. But even so there were still a lot left yesterday and I was worried that they would start going off. So I tossed them into a pot with a very little bit of water and some sugar and cooked them a little. The intensification of flavour was fabulous. There definitely is a good argument for cooking some fruit – not raspberries or sweet cherries, but rhubarb, blueberries, sometimes peaches…

And more fruit talk: I have some sour cherries frozen, from a few weeks ago. I want to figure out a moraba (preserved fruit) recipe for them, to try to come close to the fabulous carnelian cherry moraba I tasted in Georgia.

Of course I am kind of rolling a rock uphill here. First, sour cherries and not the same as carnelian cherries, which, in fact, are not “cherries” at all, though they look like brighter red, slightly elongated cherries. (Their Latin name is Cornus mas and they are in the dogwood family; here’s a link
I’ve seen them growing at the agricultural research station in Mount Vernon, in Washington State (where the Kneading Conference West is held each year – this year it’s September 12 to 14, and will be great), and wonder if any of you have worked with them.

Despite the rock-uphill aspect, I think it’s worth a try, this recipe testing/development with sour cherries, for morabas can be eaten as preserved fruits, but also, my favorite thing, their sweetened intensely fruit-tasting syrup can be used as a concentrate to make a delicious drink, essence of summer in the winter. Or you can drizzle the syrup over ice cream or use it to glaze a cake or…!