Chili Spiced Chocolate Cake

chocolate ancho cake resizedI love celebrating my birthday. The gathering of friends and family around a big dinner table to enjoy the meal of my choice and a delicious dessert of birthday cake with candles and singing. Oh it’s so much fun!

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My birthday cake of choice is an angel food cake with berries and whipped cream. I’ve picked it every year since I was a kid. But this year, I decided to change it up. I was craving a rich decadent chocolate cake. This cake in particular is made without flour to create a dense fudgy cake that fulfills any chocolate craving. It also pairs bitter chocolate harmoniously with the sweet fruity notes in spicy ancho chili pepper to create a perfectly deep chocolatey treat. Garnished with a dollop of citrusy lime whipped cream, this Chili Spiced Chocolate Cake is the perfect dessert to impress guests or a special birthday person.

Indulge and enjoy!

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Chili Spiced Chocolate Cake
Makes an 8 inch cake

4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped                                                                      1/2 cup unsalted butter, cut into cubes                                                                            3/4 cup granulated sugar                                                                                                   3 large eggs                                                                                                                    1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder                                                                                  1-1/2 Tbsp ancho chili powder – no need to be nervous about the amount of ancho chili powder added, the rich chocolate will mellow out its spicy flavour

Preheat oven to 375ºF. Butter an 8 inch round cake pan. Line the bottom of the buttered pan with parchment paper and grease with butter.

In a double boiler or heatproof bowl set over simmering water, melt chocolate with butter until smooth. Whisk in sugar. Add eggs and whisk well.

Sift cocoa powder over chocolate mixture and sprinkle with ancho chili powder. Whisk until just combined. Pour into prepared cake pan.

Bake for 25 minutes or until the top of the cake has formed a crust.

Transfer to a cooling rack and cool for 5-10 minutes. Invert cake onto a serving plate and let cool completely. Sprinkle with cocoa powder. Serve each slice of decadent cake with a dollop or two of lime whipped cream.

Lime Whipped Cream

1 cup whipping cream                                                                                                   Zest from 1 lime                                                                                                                   1 Tbsp icing sugar

Using an electric mixer with the whisk attachment, whisk together the whipping cream, lime zest and icing sugar until light and fluffy.

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The Fresh Sheet…Grapefruit

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For many of us, January is NOT the time when we think of anything being fresh and in season. But after the holiday festivities, fresh is exactly what I am craving. Luckily, while many parts of Canada and the US are under a few feet of snow, it’s citrus season under sunnier skies.

Luscious red grapefruit are a much sweeter, friendlier variety than their paler cousins and they just what the New Year ordered. Ruby hued grapefruit is full of the skin-loving phytochemical lycopene, along with a dose of vitamin C to help fend off cold and flu season.

When choosing grapefruit, look for fruit that are quite heavy for their size which means that they will be juicy and delicious! They will do fine on the counter but I love my grapefruit chilled.

Grapefruit are lovely on their own as a snack, broiled with a bit of brown sugar and chili flakes or in a smoothie but they also make a lovely addition to salads. No matter how cold it is outside, I am a salad girl. In the colder months, I tend to gravitate towards chewier leaves like parsley and kale. Stick-to-your-ribs kind of greens…if you can call greens stick-to-your-ribs.

If you are on the healthier path this month and looking for a dense, hearty salad to begin the year with a clean slate, we have just the thing. This salad will actually fill you up with plenty of heart-healthy fats and even has a bit of ginger to help settle an over-indulged tummy. Did I mention the scent of grapefruit helps to quell appetite?

Eat well. Heather and I wish you all the best for the year ahead!

Grapefruit and Avocado Salad with Ginger Lemon Dressing

Serves 4-6

1 large bunch of your favourite kale, de-stemmed, leaves torn into bite sized pieces (about 8 packed cups of leaves)
1 large red grapefruit, peel and pith removed and sliced into bite sized pieces
1 ripe avocado, chopped
1/2 cup raw almonds, whole or slivered

2 tbsp avocado oil or other lightly flavoured oil like almond or grapeseed
1 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tsp freshly grated ginger
1 tsp honey
pinch of salt

Wash and spin kale leaves so they are nice and dry and place in a large salad bowl. Save the stems and mince them for use when making a soup or stir fry. Don’t waste good food!

Mix dressing ingredients together and then pour over kale. Using fingers, massage dressing into kale leaves until they wilt and shrink by about 50% in volume. Magic!

To make the grapefruit seem juicier, use a knife to slice off a 1 cm (1/2 in) piece from top and bottom. Then use a knife to cut off all of the peel and pith so you are left with just juicy fruit. Cut the fruit into pieces, placing your cuts so you don’t get any of the skin on the outside of the slices to reign in all that juicy goodness.

Toss grapefruit, avocado and almond with kale and serve.

Tip: to make this a complete meal, serve with shredded leftover chicken or some pan-fried tofu, cut into “croutons”

The Fresh Sheet…Eggplant

 

 

Eggplants.Desiree Nielsen RD

Eggplants are one of those vegetables that feel like summer to me but I am often at a loss for preparation ideas because my husband has an utter disdain for them! Serving gorgeous slabs of grilled eggplant won’t do unless I am willing to eat them all myself. A staple in mediterranean cuisine, eggplants have yet to really seduce us here in North America. But it’s worth giving eggplant another shot for its versatility and nutrition. With fall right around the corner, bringing these jewel-like beauties home will help extend the feeling of those long sun-drenched days (even if the only sunshine around is the artificial kind).

Eggplant.Peppers.DesireeNielsenRD

Preparation is key to enjoying eggplant’s charms – salting and resting the flesh will help to remove any bitterness that some might find unpleasant. It is also best to enjoy eggplant while they are fresh and in season…which is right now! Eggplant doesn’t just look pretty, it comes with plenty of nutrition to spare: eggplant is a source of soluble fibre to help stabilize blood sugars, lower cholesterol and soothe the digestive tract. It is also rich in manganese, an energizing mineral; potassium and magnesium protect the heart and potent antioxidant pigments give its skin that glossy dark purple colour.

When these little gems hit the farmers’ market, I too often give them a pass. So I was determined to find a recipe that would convince even an eggplant hater and I think we might have found it. This caponata pairs eggplants with their cousins, bell peppers and tomatoes for a savoury match made in heaven.

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Eggplant Caponata
Makes about one litre

Caponata is an Italian antipasti that is sweet, savoury and delicious – it takes time to make but will last through the week in the refrigerator to perk up any meal. It has a myriad of uses: try it as a sandwich spread, a pasta sauce, a topping for Bruschetta, layered in a casserole or as a sauce for proteins. We have paired it with grilled tofu in the photo but it would also be delicious with chicken or white fish.

3 cups cubed eggplant (about 2-3 small)
1 cup chopped yellow onion
1 1/2 cups chopped bell peppers
1 tbsp minced garlic (about 4 cloves)
1- 28 oz can of plum tomatoes
3/4 tsp oregano
3/4 tsp basil
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
1/2 cup chopped Kalamata olives
1 tbsp Red wine vinegar
1/4 – 1/2 cup Italian (flat leaf) parsley leaves

Place cubed eggplant in a bowl and generously salt, tossing to coat the eggplant. Let sit for 30 minutes and then rinse and pat dry.

In a large saute pan, heat 1/4 cup olive oil over medium heat, then add onion and bell peppers; sauté until glossy and soft, about 10 minutes. Add eggplant and sauté for 10 more minutes, stirring occasionally, until it is soft and golden brown.

Deglaze the pan with 1/4 cup of the juice from the plum tomatoes and then crush the plum tomatoes into the pan by hand, reserving the juice for adjusting the moisture of the dish later. Add the herbs, 1 tsp freshly ground pepper and garlic, stir and reduce to simmer for about 40 minutes. Stir occasionally and if the mixture sticks or gets too dry, deglaze with a bit of the reserved tomato juice. Stir in the red wine vinegar, olives and parsley before serving.

One litre of caponata will make a large volume of appetizers or will comfortably serve 8 people as a pasta sauce or side dish for proteins.

The Fresh Sheet…Peaches

Summer is ridiculously abundant. The fruit literally falls off the trees – juicy, sweet and a bit messy. Kind of like how life should be. Just a few weeks ago, as I was diving into my first peach of the summer, I couldn’t help but remark at what a pure, unadulterated pleasure summer eating is. All of this produce from practically just down the road; so ripe, flavourful and perfect on its own. So perfect, in fact, you wish that feeling could last all year. We can help with that!

peaches in brown basket2 - resizedAnd peaches aren’t just a tasty treat; they are actually incredibly delicious medicine. Peaches are rich in vitamins A and C for healthy skin (good protection when the sun is shining!) and strengthening the immune system, they provide fibre to help keep everything moving smoothly and phyto-chemicals such as phenols that help fight inflammation. So much for thinking that healthy food doesn’t taste good. In fact, it’s crazy delicious.

Since peaches are but a blip in the annual harvest, it is a good idea to preserve some as soon as you get your greedy little fingers all over them. The local peaches won’t last much longer, so buy large! This recipe will make quick work of 5 pounds of deliciousness, which means you could buy 5 pounds for eating now and 5 for eating later. Moderation doesn’t apply to precious in season and highly perishable fruit. And peaches are so easy to preserve that even a newbie can do it. The bourbon was my idea; Heather isn’t much for boozy fruit. I am up for eating just-about-anything boozy. In moderation, of course! Here, moderation applies…

Bourbon and Vanilla Soaked Peaches
Fills 12, 250mL jars
If you have never canned before, read twice before canning once. It is far easier than you might expect but a few key tips will keep you on the safe side. This is a helpful guide to help get you started.

5 pounds ripe peaches, washed (should be fragrant and luscious but not mushy)
4 cups water
2 cups sugar
1 whole vanilla bean, cut in half lengthwise, seeds scraped and pod cut into 12 pieces
Optional: 1tbsp bourbon per jar

Prepare canning jars and lids as directed by canning manufacturer and keep them simmering hot in the canning pot until ready to fill. You will need a jar lifter or slip proof tongs to handle the hot jars.

In a large pasta pot, boil water for blanching peaches. Prepare a very large bowl or another pasta pot with cold water and add the juice of a lemon for holding the peaches.

In a medium pot, bring water to a boil and add sugar. Stir and simmer gently until sugar is totally dissolved. Add vanilla bean scrapings, stir and turn heat to low to keep warm.

Score the bottom of each peach with a knife and carefully lower into boiling water. Blanch for 30 seconds to 2 minutes, just enough to loosen skin. Place into lemon water with a slotted spoon until cool enough to handle. Repeat with all peaches – you can do them in batches.

Peel peaches and slice into hot canning jars. Add one piece of vanilla bean pod to each jar and add 1 tbsp bourbon if desired. Pour hot syrup over peaches, leaving 1/4-1/2 inch of headroom in jars. Use a wooden skewer or chopstick to remove any air bubbles from the jars. Tighten lids on jars (not too tight!) and place back in canner. Process, as per manufacturer’s directions, for 30 minutes. Remove to the counter and let rest undisturbed for 1 day. Seriously. Don’t touch them!

You will know they canned properly if the lid doesn’t give way; if it didn’t work, give peaches to all of your friends as they are totally safe to eat within a week or so (keep them in the fridge).

The Fresh Sheet…Birch Syrup

birch syrup with spoon

The celebration of a cold Canadian winter is never complete without tire d’érable, aka maple taffy on the snow at the Cabane à Sucre festival. Sweet maple syrup is boiled down into maple taffy and a steaming strip is poured over a bed of snow and then rolled up onto a stick for sweet licking. I like to call this delicious treat the true Canadian lollipop. I have fond memories of celebrating this tradition with our French Canadian friends in Kamloops.

A couple of years ago, we learned that some folks up in Quesnel were tapping birch trees and boiling the sap down into birch syrup. Not quite as sweet as maple syrup but the birch trees still dripped a scrumptious sap that is worth the hard work to boil it down into a sugary treat. Hiking in the forest behind our cabin we discovered a peaceful grove of birch trees. It sparked our interest to try making our own birch syrup. So, we packed up a backpack full of empty containers, a drill and some taps and headed out on our adventure.

As you can imagine, we didn’t really strike syrupy gold the first time we tapped the trees. It took a few tries and some learnings before we got a tasty batch we were proud to showoff. We quickly learned that you need to extract a lot of sap to make a small jar of birch syrup. You need about 80 to 100 litres of birch sap to make just 1 litre of birch syrup (maple syrup is about a forty to one ratio). Even so, it made for a fun adventure hiking up to the birch grove each day over a long weekend to empty our buckets and revel in how much sap dripped out of the trees.

birch sap

Straight from the tree, birch sap looks just like water. I enjoyed taking a couple of gulps right from the tree spout. It was refreshing like water with a hint of sweetness. We couldn’t wait to boil it down into sweet syrup. Three days of harvesting the sap and a few more boiling it down in our backyard to a gorgeous amber colour, birch syrup has a unique caramel-like flavour. We’ve enjoyed a quick sip of birch syrup when we crave a sweet treat or a few more spoonfuls drizzled on ice cream. We do look forward to cooking a few of our favourite recipes with our homemade birch syrup.

birch syrup in jars

You can find Sweet Tree Ventures Birch Syrup at Edible Canada on Granville Island or from the Sweet Tree Ventures website.

The Fresh Sheet…Plums

This September couldn’t possibly get any better: the sun is shining, morning greets with an energizing crispness and the afternoons are still blazing hot. You almost forget that the rainy season is just around the corner as you laze around the park enjoying all that delicious late summer fruit. Of course, should the weather turn less than hospitable, you now have plenty of reason to bake. On one such day, I ventured over to my friend Melissa’s house to bake clafoutis.

There is an abundance of plums in early September and for most, this turn of events goes uncelebrated. Few wax lyrical about plums in the way you might about lush summer peaches or raspberries. They are not prescribed to keep the doctor away, as the apple. And because they arrive with so much bounty in our midst, it could be easy to give them a pass but I urge you to indulge when the time comes. Plums are subtle, their charms best coaxed out with a bit of attention. Even if it is just a bit of manchego and a drizzle of honey.

My friend Melissa has a beautiful food blog and so we thought it might be fun to spend a little time in the kitchen together (and then share the spoils with you!). I am not much of a baker, so I suggested we try our hand at clafoutis. It sounds quite fancy but clafoutis is actually a simple, rustic and cozy dessert (or breakfast. Who am I kidding?). With the texture of baked custard crossed with bread pudding, it is perfect for a rainy day, warm and fragrant out of the oven.

Plum Clafoutis

Melissa and I adapted the clafoutis recipe from the lovely Gluten Free Girl, who was in turn inspired by Julia Child’s original recipe. This is baking for the improvisateur: switch up the fruit, the flours…it will all work. Our first go-round was quinoa and almond flour but the quinoa is a bit earthy in flavour. For those well-accustomed to “earthy” flavours, it is a great gluten-free option. Oat flour was lovely and will definitely be a crowd pleaser if you are looking to avoid wheat. We also experimented with 3 large pears, poached in sugar, cinnamon and cardamom. Perfect for when late summer turns to autumn.

Serves 6

3 cups plums, pitted and chopped into bite-size pieces
2 tbsp honey
1 1/4 cups whole milk
2/3 cup natural cane sugar
3 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla (no artificial extracts, please!)
pinch of salt
1/2 cup almond flour
1/2 cup oat flour

Preheat the oven to 350F.

Combine the prepared plums with the honey in a large bowl and let them marinate as you get the batter going.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the milk, sugar, eggs, vanilla, and salt. Place the flours in a separate bowl. Slowly whisk the egg/milk mixture into the flours until you have a smooth batter; it will resemble a thin pancake batter.

Grease a 7-8 cup (roughly 8 x 12 inch) baking dish or 9 inch pie plate with butter. The deeper and smaller the dish, the creamier the clafoutis. Scatter the honey-coated plums over the bottom of the dish. Carefully pour the batter over the fruit. Bake for 45 minutes to an hour or until the top is golden and crisped.

Enjoy warm or at room temperature.

The Fresh Sheet…Apricots

When you think of summer fruit, a handful of more popular treats usually come to mind – strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, peaches…not many people tend to dwell on apricots. But I can’t get enough of them. I like them when they are just a touch tart. Sure, the perfume is nowhere near as heady; however, tart, firm apricots suit my too-impatient-to-ripen mindset. I fell in love with apricots long before I starting thinking about local food.

Now, when I go to the farmer’s markets (or my favourite local grocer), I don’t have to wait. They are succulent and perfectly ripe as I pluck them from my shopping bag on the walk home. Apricots are in season right now – don’t miss them! Of course, I still like a tart apricot every now and then. Amazingly, I have discovered a way to have the best of both worlds: ripe apricots roasted to sweet-tart perfection with a bit of lime juice. Apricots aren’t just delicious…they are also wonderfully nutritious. High in beta-carotene and vitamin C, apricots will help to support healthy skin, eyes and a strong immune system. They are even a source of sleep-inducing tryptophan. So if you are feeling drowsy on a lazy summer day, it might be the sun…or it could be the apricots. Sounds like exactly the kind of debate to have over an apricot bellini…

Summer calls for light, produce-forward foods but it doesn’t mean dinner need be light on flavour. This rather loose interpretation of the taco (well, it is in a tortilla!) is the perfect way to celebrate Food Day Canada. Full of local flavours, accented by a few friendly imports, this is the perfect light meal for patio sitting with friends.

Cumin Tofu Tacos with Apricot Lime Salsa

Serves 4

8 apricots, cut in half, stones removed (or roast up a huge batch because these are transcendent with vanilla ice cream)
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice, divided, plus wedges for serving
Almond oil, or another neutral high heat oil, for drizzling

1 350g package organic extra firm tofu
2 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp salt
1/8 tsp – 1/4 hot paprika, to taste
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1/2 red onion, finely diced
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
1/2 ripe avocado, sliced
1 handful pea shoots

8 small white corn tortillas

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place apricots, cut side up, in a small baking dish and drizzle with a bit of almond oil and lime juice. Place in oven and roast for 20 minutes for still-firm apricots or 30 minutes for molten, gooey ones. You aren’t trying to get a full caramelization, just to intensify the flavours. Set aside.

Meanwhile, mix cumin, cinnamon, salt, paprika and olive oil with 1 tsp of the lime juice. Slice tofu block in half to produce 2 squares and then slice squares in half through the centre, horizontally, to produce 4 thinner squares. Rub with spice mixture and set aside.

Make Ahead: Roast the apricots and marinade the tofu the morning or night before!

When the apricots are finished, increase oven temperature to 375. Bake tofu for 15 minutes a side, until tofu is starting to crisp up slightly on edges.

Make the apricot salsa: place apricots in a bowl with onions, cilantro, a drizzle of almond oil and a tablespoon of lime juice. Mix through gently to combine or a little more vigorously to create more of a sauce consistency.

When the tofu is cooked, slice each square to make 6 strips. Assemble the tacos: place a small bunch of pea shoots on each tortilla, followed by a scoop of the apricot salsa, a slice of avocado and 3 tofu strips. Serve with a wedge of lime for squeezing.

Happy Food Day, Canada!