Friday, March 29

Cardamom Spiced Orange-Poppy Seed Cake


Growing wild in India, and the world's third most expensive spice, cardamom is one of the oldest spices know to man.  It's renown for its healing qualities, especially when it comes to the digestive system.  It's also known for its unique ability to cool the body when hot, and to heat the body when cool.  A feast for all the senses, it's a powerful aphrodisiac.  For that reason, it's said that Cleopatra bathed in water steeped with cardamom pods.

So, in this season of fertility and rebirth, I knew I wanted to highlight the sensuous, earthy flavour of cardamom in my Easter menu.   Since cardamom pairs so very well with oranges, and I happened to have a few oranges left in the fruit bowl on my counter, I decided to combine the two in a rich but fluffy coffee cake, perfect for Easter brunch or any springtime celebration.

The method I use to prepare this coffee cake is a little different from that of other cakes in that the butter is "cut" into the flour with a pastry blender.  This results in a light, pillow-y texture similar to that of biscuits.  A salty, streusel topping melts into the cake as it bakes, and the poppy seeds are neatly suspended throughout, providing a tantalizing crunch and a hint of spicy bitterness in every bite.

Joyous Easter! Happy Spring!

Monday, March 18

When life hands you lemons . . .

"Life handed him a lemon,
As Life sometimes will do.
His friends looked on in pity,
Assuming he was through.
They came upon him later,
Reclining in the shade
In calm contentment, drinking
A glass of lemonade."
-Clarence Edwin Flynn, 1940

Lemonade is great, but let's face it, there are days when you need something just a little stronger.  While I'm not an advocate for drowning your cares in a bottle, I am a big fan of lemons so when life hands me one, well, I turn it into limoncello.

At this time of year the market shelves are dripping with lemons, sunny and bright.  It's time to make limoncello again.  I look forward to it every year in wet and windy March.  Outside the snow is still swirling in misty clouds around the mountain peaks, and here in the foothills the wet wind blows down the mountain side in ferocious gales that rip the tree branches apart and tear down fences.  A stormy afternoon is the perfect time to make limoncello.  Like a ritual I preform once a year, I put the kettle on for green tea as I clean the lemons.  Then I settle myself in front of the window with a very sharp knife and begin peeling them.  All ten of them.  It's a bit of a process, and you need to be fairly meticulous about removing every last bit of white pith from the peels, but it's worth it. 

When the clouds finally part, resplendent light dances across the peels on my cutting board illuminating them like brilliant flecks of sunshine. The steam from my tea still rises, and the smell of lemon permeates the whole house - fresh and clean, like spring.  Then, just as quickly, the sun disappears and the wind howls once again.   Still, the lemon peels are radiant.   Now do you see why I save limoncello for March?

Limoncello is an Italian liqueur that's traditionally served as a digestivo after a large meal.  Serve it well-chilled in two ounce portions, and store it in the freezer.  I've made this version every March for years.  It's from Giada de Laurentiis's book Giada's Family Dinners, and it's so good why change it?

Now, what do you do with the ten peeled lemons that you're left with?  Make lemonade, of course.

Monday, March 11

Forbidden Fruit and The Devil's Chocolate Cake

Sometimes I just need a piece of chocolate cake.  Just one small piece.   I don't want a large, supermarket cake - full of artificial everything and sweetened beyond the human limits of taste.  I don't want it seducing me to eat just one more dry slice.  I don't need it tempting me, a devious serpent coiled among the apples in my refrigerator.  I don't want to hear it slyly hissing, Eat me, eat me, from across the kitchen as I pour my morning coffee.  No, I want to eat just one sinfully decadent piece and be done with it.  But if I am only going to have just one piece, it had better come from one gloriously rich and indulgently moist cake.  Complete, intense satisfaction in just a few bites.

Monday, March 4

Winter seems never ending

It's March, and signs of an early spring seem to be flourishing on Pinterest and on blogs across the Internet.  Yet here in the frosty mountains of Colorado I'm reminded of a quote from one of my favourite movies: 

Do you still care to know what is happening here?  Cattle prices continue to fall, and winter seems never ending.  Why don't you write?  Are you never coming back and afraid to tell me . . .

Winter certainly seems never ending here.  The trees are still bare, without sign of bud or bloom, and deep beneath a thick blanket of snow, the front garden still sleeps.  Will it ever wake?  Even the birds seem restless for spring.  They flit and fly erratically through the grey sky in search, it seems, of something just out of reach.  The Canadian geese still lie huddled together on the frozen pond down the road, the warmth of their bodies creating a myriad of small holes in the ice through which they dangle their webbed toes in the frigid water. As much as I love their presence as they arch across the leaden sky, I wish they would go home, and signal the start of spring.

If winter is good for nothing else, it's good movies and very good for baking.  So as long as it sticks around, I will continue to bake.

When I first started dreaming of these maple-date bars, I imagined something with a rich, luxurious maple flavour that stretched though and through - from crust to filling, and even to the thick cream on top.  Sadly, all the recipes I came across skimped on the maple syrup, using it only in the filling and relying on granulated or brown sugar to sweeten the crust.  That's not what I was after, so I came up with these: a hearty dessert bar full of the earthy sweetness of dates and maple syrup.  A perfect combination, if you ask me.  And topped with a rich dollop of maple sweetened cream, whipped just a bit to add body and a luscious texture.  The date filling is enhanced with the essence of orange, which lightens it just a bit.  The whole thing conjures up images of a dense and snow covered sugar maple forest.  The trees tapped and waiting in silent anticipation for a spring thaw that seems as distant as a faraway dream.  A scene not unlike the one outside my window as I write this.

PS . . .  Bonus points to the person who can name the movie from which I quoted.  Any Brad Pitt fans?