Posts Tagged cook the books

If ginger is the spice of life…*

The Brits invented ginger cake, it seems to me, so when a buddy told me about a ginger cake cook-off in The Guardian, we had no option but to test things out. We’re both rabid ginger fans, so the concept of adding large amounts of fresh, crystallized and powdered ginger to a common-or-garden cake seemed like a recipe for perfection.

It was, producing a fiery golden cake with a lingering hint of Tate and Lyle golden syrup that left me swimming in nostalgia. (To digress, I remember drizzling golden syrup over oatmeal (porridge), and watching it melt into the warmth for the ultimate winter breakfast.) I didn’t like ginger back then, though. I’m so glad tastes change.


The Guardian’s “Perfect Ginger Cake”

100g butter
100g dark muscovado sugar (we used the darkest brown sugar we could find)
175g self-raising flour (That’s another Brit-thingy. You can buy it in Canukistan, or you can mix your own.)
4 tsp ground ginger (don’t skimp on this)
175g golden syrup
1 tbsp ginger wine (this is something else I remember seeing in my Brit days. I suspect you could substitute rum, or even orange juice)
2 eggs
Walnut-sized piece of fresh ginger, peeled and finely grated (Our walnuts were more the size of ping-pong balls. We chopped them finely in the food processor.)
150g candied ginger, finely chopped (we chopped to chunks, for extra oomph)

  • Cream the butter and sugar with a pinch of salt until fluffy.
  • Add the golden syrup and ginger wine, and then the eggs, one at a time. 
  • Sift together the flour and ground ginger, and then add them to the cake. 
  • Stir in the fresh and candied ginger and spoon into a greased 9 inch (23 cm) loaf tin.
  • Bake at 160C/325F for about 50–60 minutes until a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean. (Ours took something over an hour, but the skewer went from soggy to clean very quickly indeed.)

The recipe recommends a glaze of glazing powdered sugar and another 2 tbsp of ginger wine, and then more crystallized ginger. Neither of us are great glaze fans, so we gave that one a miss.

From there we moved on to my third (and definitely final) experiment with the November Cook the Books challenge from online friends over in Seattle. My first experiment here was underwhelming at best (the olive oil cake was too sweet, and still gelatinous in the center). But the ginger molasses cookies seemed worth a try.


We increased the ginger a little, with heaping teaspoons of chopped, fresh ginger rather than regular ones, and we added a half teaspoon of dried ginger.

The results? They are vaguely chewy, which is good, and decently molassessy, which is also good. But where’s the ginger?

Blogger Wannacomewithme posted the recipe, so I don’t need to bother. But then I might not bother with the recipe again either. If you do, may I recommend adding large quantities of ground ginger, and probably a cup or so of chopped-up crystallized ginger too.

Sorry, Cook the Books challenge. I’ll give this book a miss.

But the ginger cake? Twelve out of 10 at least. Maybe more.

*Apologies to William Shakespeare for the misquote

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Sugar, sugar, sugar

IMG_0599I spent a few months earlier this year playing along with the Cook the Books lassies over on the West Coast, grumbling as they wheeled out a vegetable cookbook before so much as a stalk of rhubarb had made it to the Toronto markets. Each month they throw out a recipe book, which you beg, steal, buy or borrow, and then you cook and blog about something that takes your fancy.

But while I had fun with a French recipe book at the start of the year, and made awesome cinnamon buns from the Mile End Cook Book, I abandoned ship mid year when the challenge moved to ice cream, which would have involved investing in an ice cream maker. Now it’s November, and it’s a bakery book, The Dahlia Bakery Cookbook. I’m in.

Sadly, this is not my book. The instructions are dogmatic and repetitive, and the recipes irritatingly badly converted, throwing out 99g measurements when any sane person would round things up to 100g. Their signature recipe is for coconut cream pie, which is not my type of cake, so I opted for the intriguing sounding Rustic Olive Oil Cake instead.

Serious, serious, epic fail. Even after baking this one for almost 50 percent longer than the recipe said I should, and then chucking it back in the oven (it stuck to the pan the second time), this reminds me of a sweet Asian pudding rather than a cake. The edges are nicely crumbly, but the only thing I can taste is sweet, and the center of the cake has the texture of boiled glue. What a waste of perfectly good olive oil, freshly squeezed orange juice, eggs and Grand Marnier. Their suggestion is to serve this with honey syrup (another 127 grams of sugar and 196 grams of honey), and sweetened whipped cream. Spare me, please.

IMG_0601I admit to somewhat more success with the banana bread, which is satisfyingly moist, perhaps thanks to the sour cream addition, with a nice banana taste. But it’s also dense and very sweet, and I am forced to conclude that I just don’t like chocolate in my banana bread. I might make it again, if I can be bothered to photocopy the recipe before I throw the book back at the library, but I will double the walnuts, cut the sugar drastically and abandon the chocolate chunks.


Edit: The olive oil cake mellowed slightly over time (or I mellowed slightly), and I now admit it was quite a pleasant taste. But it was still sweet, the center was still uncooked, and a honey syrup would only had added to the problems. But I admit my initial comments were perhaps a little harsh.

The good thing about the weekend baking?

I made two more wing-it loaves of bread, adding a teaspoon of ground coriander for flavor, walnuts for crunch and protein and oat flakes for bulk, along with two cups each of red fife flour, wholewheat flour and white bread flour, two teaspoons of yeast, some honey and olive oil and three cups of liquid.

It’s awesome.

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Cooking the Latin books

I admit I nearly walked straight out the library door when looked on the hold shelf for my on-loan copy of Gran Cocina Latina, the latest challenge cookbook from my virtual friends over at Cook the Books.

I mean this thing is massive, not just in terms of its 902 pages, but for sheer heft. It weights in at just shy of 2.2 kilos, or 4 lb 13 oz.  And it’s dense, with a lot of history and back story, recipes flipping over a page (a big no-no for me and my grubby fingers) and a lot of cross-referencing to previous instructions which are often (irritatingly) cross-referenced to the wrong page. It’s sloppy editing that got me annoyed before I even thought about what I might want to cook.

I pushed my way through that one, but a long weekend work day stymied plans to head out for ingredients to Kensington Market Latino heaven to pick up some of the mildly obscure ingredients.  I improvised, with a scallop cebiche

fried plantains

and an avocado salad.

I will admit first off that I didn’t follow the recipes properly for any of these. The scallop cebiche in the book used juice that wasn’t available in local stores, so I used the clam dressing for scallops, and the red pepper was an (inspired) addition to the onion avocado salad, where I also cut the garlic to one clove from an astonishing three. The avocado salad (dressing of onions, garlic, olive oil and lime juice) was very, very good, and the fried plantains made me wonder why I’ve never cooked them before. The cebiche was ok by Day Two, but pretty tasteless on Day One, and the spouse, who only now tells me he doesn’t really like sushi either, raced off and cooked his portion. That’s not a good sign.

But will I use the recipe book again? Or would I actually go out and buy it?

I think not. It would take up 2-1/2 inches of valuable bookshelf space, and needs too many ingredients that I don’t normally cook with to make it worth while. And while there were recipes I liked the look of, they all had specific ingredients I didn’t have to hand, and the faulty cross-referencing irritated me madly. The first cebiche recipe I looked at had frozen tumbo juice (with passionfruit juice as a substitute), and mirasol pepper, which was supposed to be explained on page 54. Page 54 talked about recado and sazon, whatever they may be.

Let’s face it. Maybe I’m just not a recipe book person. Feel free to take any cook book reviews with a pinch of the proverbial salt.

But there again I seem to remember it’s an ice cream book next month. I’ve never made ice cream. Should I give that one a swirl?

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Read your vegetables

I’m not sure I need to cook anything from this month’s Cook the Books recipe book. I’m just going to buy the book and work my way through it, one glorious recipe after another.

You see Nigel Slater’s Tender is my sort of book, heavy on the veggies (well duh, it’s a vegetable cook book), easy on the other ingredients and totally flexible in the way it goes about things. And it’s a good read to boot, with tips about growing the veggies as well as cooking and eating them. It didn’t seem to matter where I opened the book, there was something I wanted to make, whether the grilled eggplant, the broad bean hummus or the moist chocolate cake with mashed up beets. I mean it sounds so weird it has to be worth a try.

In some ways this book, cover-less, torn at the edges and clearly well used by many library borrowers before me, reminds me of another well worn offering in my own cookbook collection, Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book. Grigson writes her way from artichoke to watercress and Slater starts with asparagus and ends with tomato, but the idea is the same. Two well-written books that work for me.


Yes, okay, I’ll probably cook something before the month is out, but that will have to be another blog entry.

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Cook the books: spoiled for choice

So after a hiccup in the last couple of months, I bonded with the Mile End Cookbook after a marathon session with canning supremo over at Eat locally, Blog globally. We’ve both been playing with the Cook The Books challenge this year, so we thought we might as well play this round together. We were going to make the challah, perhaps with a side order of cinnamon buns (my last two attempts at those were good but not perfection), but we just kept going.

We ended up with two beautiful challah, a slightly sweet, plaited egg bread with poppyseed coating, and perhaps the best cinammon buns in the world (could that be the 2 sticks of butter that went into the filling?), as well as a raft of pickles that might take months to get through.

The list went like this:

Challah: Light, chewy, slightly sweet, but perfect with a sharp goat cheese or even the pickles (see below). I wish they were a little darker, but maybe my oven doesn’t heat as hot as it ought to heat. So you get a before shot not an after one.

Cinnamon buns: The real deal. Sticky, sweet, slightly nutty, with two sorts of sugar, pecans, maple syrup as well as all that butter in the filling. Eat locally took half the batch, and the rest was gone before lunchtime the next day.

Beets: Cooked in the brine rather cooked and then brined. A little much allspice/clove, but I think they will mellow down nicely.

Red onions: Crunchy, sweet, acid, salty and almost not tasting of onions at all, in a very, very good way. Amazingly pretty pink half rings

Mushrooms: Similar recipe to last time, but I used all olive oil for the post brining oil bath. I suspect they will last even less time than the last batch, which was gone within a week, stirred into salads and enjoyed.

And then I made two batches of horseradish, one with beets and one without. Both already seem good at clearing the sinuses, and the taste is far better than the store bought stuff.

Anyone got recipes that use lots of horseradish, or stuff to eat it with?

As for the book, I liked the stuff we did, with clear, easy to follow instructions. But there’s a lot of stuff (smoked meat, brisket, pickled tongues, sauerkraut) that just take a lot of time, so I won’t prioritize those. But hey, it was fun.

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Mushrooms: salty, slippery, spicy, and really nice

Marinaded mushrooms were one of the few things in the market in winter when I lived in Moscow a few million years ago. They were salty, slippery and very acidic, but I enjoyed them, even if I never did figure out how to make them. So when this month’s Cook the Books challenge focused on Jewish comfort food, it seemed sensible to give the pickled mushrooms recipe a try.

But then Grow and Resist complained bitterly about the over-salty the pickles she made from the Mile End Cookbook, so I got a little frightened and cut the salt from a third of a cup to a quarter, as well as throwing in the spices I had rather than the ones I was supposed to add. The result? They are actually rather nice, with that salty, acid taste I remember from Moscow. Mushrooms do tend to be bland. Adding spices for taste can’t be a bad thing.

I used cider vinegar rather than white vinegar, and juniper rather than thyme and rosemary. Nice taste, and very, very easy, especially after I remembered to add a ziploc of water on top to stop the ‘shrooms floating to the surface.

I also bought chicken livers with the aim of making the chopped liver recipe, but ended up frying them with onion, Savoy cabbage and lots of garlic instead. It was surprisingly, yummily good.

But while I would like to try the lox (if I can find the patience to spend five days brining a fish), the jury’s still out on whether really like this book. I’m not a huge meat eater, so the idea of creating the perfect corned beef doesn’t really appeal, although I was tempted to try the tongue, just because I’m one of about three people I know who actually eat tongue.

Maybe you need to know the New York deli to love the book.

But hey, if I lived within reach of the deli, I wouldn’t need the book. I’d just go straight in and eat the food.

I have another recipe-following session planned before month end with fellow blogger Eat locally, blog globally, so watch this space for an update.

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Fishing around

I really wanted to like “Good Fish” the book of the month in the cookbook challenge from OhBriggsy and Grow and Resist. I love fish, and it’s usually my meal of choice when I eat out. And this one is for sustainable fish — the stuff we ought to be eating rather than the stuff we’re overfishing to extinction all around the world.

But I’m sad to say that “Good Fish” and I never bonded despite a number of read-it-through attempts. Some recipes had a vague appeal. But when I looked more closely, most of them were a notch too finicky, with ingredients I would have to go out of my way to find, or different layers to make the meal  look pretty on the plate. I am, it must be said, a lazy cook. Most of the stuff I make tastes good most of the time, but plating food to look pretty just isn’t what I do.

But having wimped out on the February Cook the Books dumpling challenge, I wanted to try something (anything) this time around. The recipes for mussels looked the best of the bunch, but I made mussels for my last cookbook challenge. I needed something new.

Cue squid, which  I’ve ordered at restaurants, but have always been a little afraid of cooking. Well-cooked squid is tender (although often bland).  Overcooked squid is almost as bad as eating whale.

I chose a recipe near the back of the book called quick squid with red chili sauce and herbs, where you marinade the squid for a few minutes in a mix of fish sauce, lime juice and spring onions, stir fry it for another few minutes and serve it in a lettuce wrap with herbs and (bought) sweet chili sauce.

I admit it was quick to make, but at the end of the day I bonded with the squid just like I bonded with the book, which is barely at all. It was tender not rubbery, but without the chili sauce it was beyond bland, despite all that fish sauce, lime juice and seasonings. I broke the serve-in-lettuce  rules and added brown rice and french beans with garlic, but even that barely added pep.

Anyone out there with a squid recipe that is worth trying?

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Cooking the books

You’re never alone in the blogging world, so when two separate real-life blogging friends drew my attention to a cookbook challenge called “Cook the Books” over at Grow and Resist and Oh Briggsy I decided to give the idea a try, for January at least. They order up a new cookbook each month, you pick a recipe (or two), and then blog about your creation. I don’t want to go out and buy 12 new cookbooks in a year, but that’s what libraries are for, right? I can save money on a book, and spend on the stuff I buy to make.

First up is a book for what I can only describe as French cooking for this generation:  “Around my French table: more than 300 recipes from my home to yours.” The library has half a dozen copies, and it proved surprisingly easy to one in time for the January cookoff.

I spent an evening drooling over the pictures and the recipes, before enlisting the spouse to make the final decision. “Mussels,” he said firmly, which threw me completely, given that I have never cooked mussels because I always assumed they would be complicated, finnicky and not worth the effort.

How totally wrong can you be? Dorie’s moules marinieres took maybe 12 minutes from start to finish, most of which involved chopping an onion and a couple of shallots and scrubbing the (already clean-looking) mussels. Cooking time is about six minutes, with another couple of minutes at the end to make sure the shellfish open up properly. They were runaway tender, and the broth mindbogglingly delicious. And more to the point, I used the blue onion-pattern china my mother used to use for her own dinner parties for the first time. I liberated the china five years ago at least. Now I can say I’ve used four plates.

Moules marinieres (slightly adapted to serve two)

2.2 pounds mussels
1 finely chopped onion
2 finely chopped shallots
2 minced cloves of garlic
olive oil
3/4 cup dry white wine
strip of lemon zest

Fry the onions and shallots very, very gently until translucent, add the garlic and fry another minute or two. Then add the wine, herbs and lemon and simmer for 3-4 minutes. Add the mussels, and bring to a boil. Cover and cook for 3 minutes. Switch the heat off, and keep the lid on for another minute or so until all the mussels open up.

Serve immediately in big, deep bowls, with some bread to mop up the juices.

We ate this one with Dorie’s cheese and olive bread, which I admit to finding a tad disappointing. It uses Comte cheese, which I love for its dense texture and nutty flavor, as well as both chopped olives and tapenade. Either I didn’t chop the olives fine enough, or I didn’t need them in the first place, because this (quickbread style) bread is salty, and you don’t taste the Comte. But there again the recipe suggests chopping and changing, experimenting with sun-dried tomatoes instead of olives, or using different sorts of cheese.

Now that’s a recipe book after my own heart. One that encourages you to play. Any other recipe book suggestions out there that deal with guidelines rather than rigid rules?

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