Potatoes on Pizza: Straight-up Unusual, or Unusually Tasty?

As regular readers will know, while I’m often tempted to share the same things with you guys week after week — starch-based anything, mostly — my better judgment (and my mom) makes me switch things up. So you can imagine when, a few weeks back, I made two tasty Italian-inspired pizzas to share with you guys, it was a struggle to hold off sending them both your way in one go. So I waited a week, then two, and that’s all I could handle. I’m caving; this pizza is too tasty to keep under wraps any longer. My apologies in advance for the lack of diversity, and the heavy dose of carbs. Friends, meet potato pizza.

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I know it sounds unappealing, throwing starch on starch and topping it all off with a mild cheese. It seems so boring, so bland, so beige. But trust the Italians to know that simple ingredients, when treated well, can seriously deliver. 

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As always, the base is key — a simple no-knead crust is elevated to ultra-tasty levels by brushing the edges with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkling with your best sea salt. Next, add on a big handful of cubed potatoes, steamed in well-salted water until their texture is exceptionally tender, almost falling apart. Add to that a good sprinkling of fresh thyme and black pepper and top with a few handfuls of grated mozzarella. 

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Unexceptional as the results may look, each bite is all texture and flavour: crisp and chewy crust, creamy potatoes, gooey cheese, with the thyme and pepper keeping the otherwise rich flavours fresh. Word on the street is that it’s even tastier the next day, cold. Which, maybe, isn’t the most Italian thing in the world, but I’m sure they could be convinced.
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Potato Pizza
Makes 1 large pizza (enough for two hungry people)

Ingredients
1/2 batch of no-knead pizza dough, prepared to the point where it’s ready to be shaped and baked*
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp sea salt
1.5 cups of potatoes, peeled, cut into 2cm cubes and boiled in well-salted water until super-tender (5-10 minutes)
1.5 tsp fresh thyme
1/2 tsp fresh black pepper
1.5-2 cups grated mozzarella cheese

Directions

1. Measure a piece of parchment paper to fit a 9x13 inch baking pan. Place baking pan, without parchment, in your oven and preheat the oven to 445ºF.

2. On the parchment paper, shape your prepared dough into a rectangle that nearly fills the parchment.

3. Brush the eges of the dough with the 2 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil, making a border that measures ~1 inch thick, and sprinkle the oiled area fairly generously with salt (~1/2 tsp).

4. Distribute the potatoes evenly inside the bordered area. Sprinkle evenly with thyme, pepper and cheese.

5. Carefully remove the hot baking sheet from the oven and transfer the pizza, on the parchment paper, onto the baking sheet. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until the cheese melts and the crust is just beginning to brown. Remove from the oven, cut and serve!

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Three Essential Cooking Lessons You Can Learn from Julia Child

Recently, I’ve been reading a few pages of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking before bed each night. 

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And each night, I extract more information about cooking from this jovial heroine of French cuisine, whose cookbook introduced French food to Americans in the 1960s, than you’d ever think possible from a few minutes of reading. 

Here are some of the indispensable lessons I’ve picked up thus far:

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When people say they don’t know how to cook, my guess is that they mean they don’t know how to cook without a recipe. But good home cooks, and even trained professionals, like Julia Child, don’t sit down and memorize every recipe that crosses their path. Through purposeful practice, they come to know by heart techniques: the methods for making (and varying) classic sauces, frying perfect eggs, clarifying butter, and so on. These are the building blocks that allow cooks to put together great meals without having to refer to recipes, and without having to worry that, say, their broad dice is more of a fine chop (right??). 

Whatever your preferred cuisine, invest time in learning and practicing the basic techniques. Get the basics down, and you’ll gain the confidence and extra time in the kitchen necessary to try new techniques and experiment with old. “Eventually,” Julia says, “you will rarely need recipes at all”! 

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When I was a kid, I was a slave to the ingredient list. If I was missing something, I’d skip the recipe altogether — substituting or omitting the ingredient didn’t cross my mind. And no wonder, because recipes are so often written as though they’re prescriptive, with no flexibility in sight. 

Not so with Julia Child. Flip through her recipes and you’ll find ingredient lists that call for this OR that. Which isn’t to say that she thought, for example, that onions tasted exactly the same as leeks and shallots, or that the three were always interchangeable. But, as someone who was aiming to introduce French techniques to the States way back in the day, she did recognize that we’re sometimes limited by our preferences and our grocery stores.  

So don’t feel like you have to fall in line with tyrannical ingredient lists. Actively consider your ingredient choices — your personal preferences, the quality of the ingredients you have available, and the impact of a substitution on the final dish — and you’ll get a better feel for how food comes together (and likely a better dish too!). 

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It can be about learning. So if you struggle to chop veggies with speed, do as Julia would do, chopping simply for the sake of getting better, and not because you specifically need a mile-high pile of veggies. When learning is the goal, let the meal plan follow the technique. Even if the resulting dish isn’t perfect, as long as you’re trying to improve your skills your time in the kitchen won’t have been wasted. 

The more you approach cooking with an emphasis on learning, the quicker those building blocks and that intuitive understanding of ingredients will come, and the better (and happier) cook you’ll be!

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Magic Dessert (AKA Chocolatey Medjool Date Squares)

Last week, I got this email from my sister:

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     holy catfish do you know how tasty medjool dates are????

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Now, this may seem unremarkable to you. But in all our years of life together, I can recall my sister only once before showing any enthusiasm for dried fruit, and that one time doesn’t really count (who wouldn’t accept dried strawberries if they were accessorized with equal parts cheese, I ask). So what that silly email should signal to you is that you, dried fruit hater or not, should get yourself some medjools, and fast. Because guys, life is short, and anyway, she and I are probably going to buy up all of the medjool dates in the city if you don’t do it first.  

date-trio.jpgMedjools are no ordinary dates; in fact, they’re unlike anything else I’ve tried. Sure, they are dried fruit, and have the shrivelled look to prove it, but the texture of their flesh falls in a magical zone between fresh and dried. So they’ve got the intense sweetness that you’d expect from dried fruit, but retain a soft, buttery texture that my sister aptly described in a subsequent email (our exchange about medjools went on for a while) as “luscious”. These things are dessert in their own right.

text-trio.jpgBut trust my sister — creative mind behind speedy, healthful FoodHappy favourites like egg on rice — to track down a recipe to turn medjool dates into a dessert-worthy creation that requires virtually no added refined sugars or fats. The idea is simple: chopped nuts and dried fruit get smushed, either with a potato masher or a sturdy food processor, with medjool dates, cocoa powder and a splash of vanilla. You then pat the squishy mixture into a thin square, let it chill and cut it into poppable little squares that are rich and fudgy, with a distinct chocolatey flavour and little bits of crunchy almond and sweet fruit.  

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We made two varieties this past weekend, throwing dried strawberries (no cheese this time) into one batch, and shredded coconut and chopped dark chocolate into the other. I would happily make either again, but you can experiment as you see fit, adding in different nuts, fruits and flavourings. Perfect for busting out as an after-dinner treat with a cup of tea, or for toting along when you’re away from home and in need of an emergency burst of energy. Or, you know, when you’re writing a blog post. In my sister’s words: “stupid easy and silly tasty”. 
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Chocolatey Medjool Date Squares
Adapted from Pardon Me for Living
Makes lots (an 8x8-inch pan’s worth, cut into little squares)

Note: I’ve given you the potato masher instructions below, but if you want to make these guys in a food processor, simply throw the almonds (unchopped) into a food processor and whiz for a minute until roughly chopped. Add all of the remaining ingredients (again, unchopped) and whiz for another 2-3 minutes or until everything’s combined but bits of the almond and fruit are clearly visible. Proceed with Step 3-5 as instructed.

Ingredients

15 medjool dates, pitted and chopped
1 cup of raw almonds, finely chopped
1/2 cup of dried fruit or other tasty additions, finely chopped
2 tbsp cocoa powder
2 tsp vanilla extract

Directions

1. In a large bowl, combine all ingredients.

2. Use a potato masher to smush everything together, until the dates have broken down and are no longer in visible chunks and all of the other ingredients are evenly distributed through the date-y paste (don’t be afraid to use your hands to knead everything together).

3. Line a 8x8 inch dish with parchment paper and press the date mixture evenly over the parchment using moist hands, just until the mixture meets the sides of the dish.* Cover the dish and refrigerate until the squares have firmed up a bit, 30 minutes or so.

4. Place the mixture, parchment paper included, on a cutting board and trim the edges with a sharp knife.

5. Cut date mixture into 1x1 inch squares. Keep squares in an airtight container in the fridge. 

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*If you’re having trouble getting the dough to spread evenly, cover it with a piece of parchment or wax paper and use a rolling pin to flatten it, pinching pieces off and relocating them as necessary to form a nice square.  

From Italy: Pizza with Fresh Tomato, Mozzarella and Arugula

A few days ago, I had this memory of sitting alone in the stairwell of a Saskatchewan hotel in the wee hours of the morning. Which I realize, in its own right, isn’t worthy of recollection, let alone initial note. But it was in that stairwell, nearly a year ago today, that I received a phone call telling me that I’d be spending my summer in a slightly more exotic locale. And, looking back on the year that had passed since I took that call that would take me to Italy, I realized that I’ve done a pretty paltry job of sharing recipes I picked up while I was away.

Before a full year has passed since I left for one of the world’s culinary hot spots, I figure I’d better get on with passing along those recipes. So this weekend, I headed over to my sister’s place to make pizza and, as you can see, to hang out with her cat (photo credit for the silly shot goes to my brother-in-law, Rob).

scooter-spoons.jpgThis particular creation combines some of my favourite things about Italian pizza (and, as you’d expect of anyone who spends some time in the place, I ate my fair share). First up, the dough: While the thin, crispy crust traditional to Roman pizzas is tasty, my favourite pizzas used Neapolitan-style dough, which boasts a crisper, chewier crust that seems like more of an ingredient in its own right, standing up to (and holding up) the ingredients that top it off. In the recipe I’ve shared with you guys, I’ve used my standard no-knead crust, which reminds me a whole lot of the flavourful, bubbly dough from my favourite pizza place. To take it up a level, I’ve followed their lead by brushing the exposed edges with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkling them with a liberal dose of sea salt. The result: a crust with enough crispness, chew and flavour that (at long last!) you’ll look forward to eating it.

pizza-group.jpgThe combination of toppings, in contrast, comes from my favourite Roman-style pizza place, which topped its dough with buffalo mozzarella and teeny fresh tomatoes, adding on a big handful of fresh arugula just before serving. Using good ingredients and a bit of careful preparation — salting the tomatoes before baking, adding the ingredients to the pizza in stages, and dressing the arugula with peppery extra virgin olive oil — those few toppings make for an impressively flavourful and balanced pizza (think rich and creamy, acidic and juicy, and fresh and peppery all in one go). Together, it’s pretty magical, and pretty pretty, as far as pizzas go. I used a good block of regular mozzarella in place of the buffalo (none to be seen at the store, alas), but if you can track down buffalo mozzarella, your pizza will reach a whole new level of deliciousness.

zucchini-pair.jpgThe standard no-knead recipe makes enough dough for two sizeable pizzas, so for our second creation we revisited an old favourite, spreading roasted garlic on the dough, topping it off with thinly-sliced fresh zucchini, hot red chili and grated parmesan, and giving the exposed dough the same extra virgin olive oil and salt treatment as the tomato and arugula pizza before baking. Happiness. But really, guys, once you’ve got a good base and a handful of good ingredients on hand, you’re ready to make all sorts of awesome pizzas, Italian-inspired or not. Good luck, and happy baking!
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Fresh Tomato, Mozzarella and Arugula Pizza
Makes 1 large pizza (enough for two hungry people)

Ingredients
1/2 batch of no-knead pizza dough, prepared to the point where it’s ready to be shaped and baked*
1 250 gram ball of fresh buffalo mozzarella sliced into 1/4 inch slices, or 1 packed cup of grated mozzarella
1.5 cups fresh cherry tomatoes, halved and sprinkled with 1/4 tsp of salt
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
Salt
1-2 handfuls of fresh arugula

Directions

1. Measure a piece of parchment paper to fit a 9x13 inch baking pan. Place baking pan, without parchment, in your oven and preheat the oven to 445ºF.

2. On the parchment paper, shape your prepared dough into a rectangle that nearly fills the parchment.

3. Brush the eges of the dough with the 2 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil, making a border that measures ~1 inch thick, and sprinkle the oiled area fairly generously with salt (~1/2 tsp).

4. Distribute the mozzarella (sliced or grated) evenly inside the bordered area. Carefully remove the hot baking sheet from the oven and transfer the pizza, on the parchment paper, onto the baking sheet. Bake for 10 minutes or until the cheese melts and the crust is just beginning to brown.

5. Remove the pizza from the oven, distribute the halved cherry tomatoes evenly over the pizza and return to the oven until the crust is golden and the tomatoes are beginning to cook, 5-10 minutes more.

6. Remove the pizza from the oven, top with the arugula, top with a generous drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and salt, and serve!
 steps.jpg*I made my batch of pizza dough using 1 cup of all-purpose flour and 2 cups of whole wheat with tasty results.

A Sweet Freebie: Valentine's Day Cards for Food Lovers!

With Valentine’s Day around the corner, I want to help you spread the love through that great communicator of affection: food. But since shipping a fancy meal to family and friends who live out of dinner party range isn’t particularly practical, I’m skipping the usual recipe and giving you something better: food-themed valentines!

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The valentines are inspired by the perforated, creaseless little cards from our elementary school days. But in place of the Power Rangers and Looney Tunes, you’ll find four cards decorated with quirky, food-themed messages of affection. I’ve left the backs blank to spare you the horrors of double-sided printing and to give you more room to write your message (maybe a favourite recipe?). 

card-pack-mini.jpgThe download — a zip file — will hook you up with a ready-to-print file containing the full set of cards, conveniently sized to fit a standard letter-sized (8.5x11) sheet of paper. Just print, cut and send! I’ve also shared the files for each individual card, in case you want to let all of your friends know that you think they’re spicy. Just open up the jpegs, drop as many as you want onto a page, and you’re ready to print. 

Now get out there and spread the food-love! Download your free valentines!

 

Sweet & Salty Candied Pecans

On my walk home from meeting a friend for an ambitiously early breakfast on Saturday, I made plans to use my morning meal, complete with endless coffee, as a catalyst for a day of ultra-productivity. Instead, it seems — and this part I don’t remember — I crawled into bed and fell into a sleep so deep it could be broken not by conventional means, but only by the sounds of the BBC World Service, paused an hour earlier (apparently), mysteriously coming back to life. Just minutes before waking, I’d received a invitation by text, of which my sleeping self had taken no notice, to tag along for my nephew’s first trip to the farmers’ market. And so I was off, for an afternoon of baby time, busking and the star of today’s post: sweet and salty candied pecans. 

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My sister and brother-in-law picked up a bag of these guys from the market and, over a post-adventure cup of tea (earlier ambitions altogether abandoned), half of them disappeared. And it would be silly to have expected otherwise; these things are like the essence of a sweet ginger cookie, wrapped around a perfectly roasted pecan. With a touch of saltiness to counter the sweet, they’re endlessly eatable. 

Having tried a recipe that produced similar results not too long ago, and with a hefty bag of pecans in need of use, I took a shot at recreating the farmers’ market variety. And while the results were a bit sweeter and a little less gingery than the two pecans I had saved from the day before, a good number have since disappeared, even though I’m the only one around to eat them. And guys, though the evidence is starting to suggest otherwise, I usually have an iron will when it comes to snacking.

pecan-pair.jpgWith that in mind, I’ve yet to decide whether the significantly reduced price tag associated with making these at home — a 1/3 pound bag at the market sets you back $10 — is a good thing, given the addiction factor. I guess, given that the technique outlined in the recipe below is pretty flexible (you can switch up the nuts and spices, and cut back on the sugar), it’s probably worthwhile from a cooking know-how perspective to try them out yourself. And if you don’t leave them sitting out on the counter all day, you’ll be left with a versatile treat — think: salads, cheese plates, ice cream, snacks — that’ll last you a good long while. Or maybe it’s better just to share. You know, get rid of them, before they get rid of you.  

And so, with great trepidation and without further ado, here it is: the recipe. Good luck!
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Sweet & Salty Candied Pecans
Inspired by treats from the Strathcona Farmers’ Market, with recipe guidance from smittenkitchen.com
Makes 4+ cups

Ingredients
⅔ cup white sugar
⅓ cup brown sugar, lightly packed
2 tsp powdered ginger
1 tsp salt
½ tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp grated nutmeg
1 egg white
1 tbsp water
4 cups of whole pecans

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 300 ºF and line two baking sheets with parchment paper. In a medium-sized bowl, stir together sugars, ginger, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg.

2. In a large bowl, combine egg white and water and whisk until foamy (this’ll take one to two minutes).

3. Add your pecans to the bowl with the egg white and stir until the pecans are evenly coated with the egg white foam.

4. Pour the spiced sugar overtop the pecans and stir until the pecans are evenly coated with sugar.

5. Spread the pecans in a single layer overtop the two baking sheets and bake for 25 minutes, stirring halfway through, until the coating has dried out and the pecans are toasty. Cool and eat!

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Bircher Muesli: Instant Breakfast, Overnight

A few months back, I was reading this book. And in this book, one of the protagonists takes a moment to drip scorn on her father’s daily ritual of waking early to read the papers in peaceful solitude. Now, coming from an eleven-year-old genius with a penchant for philosophizing, I expect that there was some great insight I was supposed to take away from her disdain. Whatever it was, it was lost on me. Because in my then-sleep deprived state, I was totally transfixed. What luxury! To spend the morning in anything but a frenzied state. I saw what my life could be: like this fictitious, French, penthouse-dwelling older gentleman, I too could wake up early, disapproval of my fake children be damned. I set my alarm for 6 AM and prepared for my life to be transformed.

sunset-text-2.jpgSince then, I’ve been up by 6 AM once. Apparently the allure of extra sleep is not something that I, at least, can overcome through sheer willpower alone. So, over the past few months, I’ve been doing more to achieve an hour’s wakeful relaxation in the morning: an earlier bed time, a less indulgent approach to the snooze button, and bircher muesli.

Bircher muesli is the invention of a health-minded Swiss physician, who combined oats, fruit and dairy and let them sit overnight to make for a soft, naturally sweet sort of porridge, cooking not required. What’s more, it’s a reminder of the power of time as an ingredient and of waiting as a technique.  

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If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself cooking with near-instant gratification as the end goal, with no pause between preparation and completion. But so many things are made better with time — cheeses ripen, the tasty morsels in a marinade transform, and a curry is almost always better the next day. Add to the list Bircher muesli: the overnight action will leave you with a wholesome instant breakfast that affords you more time to read the paper than a comparable bowl of fresh-cooked oatmeal. 

Though the original recipe is still kicking around, the tendency these days is to follow the general method but adapt the ingredients and proportions as you see fit. The basic idea is to combine a big handful of rolled oats with fresh fruit (grated apple is traditional), just-cover them with liquid — milk, yogurt, juice or some combination of the three — and let the mixture meld and soften in the fridge overnight, before being topped with fresh fruit, nuts and anything else you’d drop overtop oatmeal.

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The variations are endless: rolled oats can be replaced with instant for a smoother finish, or steel-cut for more chew; I’ve seen the apple replaced with mashed banana (grated pear would work too); the oat-and-fruit mixture is often augmented with nuts, dried fruit, honey, spices, bran, flax and so on; and I’ve once eaten at a hotel brunch a decadent, berry-topped version that I’m pretty certain was made with heavy cream. 

I’ve given you a basic, health-minded recipe as a starting point, but feel free to simplify or complicate it as much as you want. If your pre-work morning is measured in minutes, as mine still sometimes is, consider keeping a big batch of pre-mixed dry ingredients on hand, and preparing your morning’s portion in a half-litre mason jar for extra portability — anything for a few more minutes of sleep. 
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Bircher Muesli, FoodHappy-style
Makes 1 serving, and scales up easily

Ingredients

1/2 cup rolled oats (the kind that take 10 minutes on the stove)
1 tbsp wheat bran
1 tbsp oat bran
1 tbsp dried fruit, cut in pieces if not already bite-sized
1/2 an apple, peeled and finely grated
3/4 cup milk (for extra richness, I often swap out 1/4 cup of milk for 1/4 cup of plain yogurt)
1 tsp honey (optional)
Toppings (fruit, yogurt, nuts, etc.)

Directions

1. In a small bowl, stir together oats, wheat and oat bran, and dried fruit. 
2. Mix into the oat mixture your grated apple, until the apple is evenly distributed through oat mixture.
3. Pour milk (and yogurt, if using) and honey overtop the oat-apple mixture, stirring to combine. 
4. Cover muesli and let sit in the fridge until the oats are soft, typically overnight but you can go for as little as an hour if you’re using rolled or quick oats.
5. After the muesli’s done sitting, give it a stir, top it with whatever toppings you’re using (I went for bananas, pecans and honey) and serve!   

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Old Potatoes, New Year: Leftovers Made Tasty

I started harbouring suspicions recently that Canadians are abandoning potatoes. See, over the past few months, I’ve found myself in conversation about potatoes over and over, and I’m never the one bringing them up. In these conversations, no matter who I’m talking to — little kids, seniors, friends and politicians (yes, really) — people are down on potatoes. 

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Now, if your childhood was anything like mine, you spent pretty much every night eating potatoes in various guises: boiled and topped with margarine on weeknights, mashed on holidays, and on rare instances either baked or pan fried. And, miraculously, you didn’t get tired of the things. But nevertheless, come the day when you moved out and started cooking for yourself, you dropped potatoes for pasta, rice, bread — any starch but a potato. 

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Last night, I started sifting through international potato consumption data (a usual weekend pastime) and confirmed my suspicions: Canada’s going off of potatoes. Meanwhile, other parts of the world are becoming so enthused about these tubers that they’re doing crazy things like petitioning the United Nations to declare an International Year of the Potato. Successfully. We’re missing out, guys.

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Potatoes are virtuous things, full of history, versatility and, when you leave their tasty skins on, nutrients. So today, I’ve got a simple recipe that’ll help you get back into the world of potatoes without relying on decadent standbys like butter and cream. The idea, shared with me by a friend, is simple: leftover boiled or baked potatoes are squashed flat and topped with your favourite oil, a few pinches of salt and pepper, and any tasty herbs or spices you’re inclined to add. From there, the potatoes are baked until crisp and golden on the outside and fluffy in the centre — like an infinitely healthier version of a french fry that’s no less addictive. I stopped myself at three.
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Smashed Potatoes
Adapted from www.chefmichaelsmith.com
Serves 1, and scales up with exceptional ease

Ingredients
1 large potato (or several small potatoes) with the skin on, cooked and cooled*
1 tbsp oil (canola, olive, etc.)
Salt & pepper
Herbs & spices of your choosing  

Directions

1. Preheat your oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Place cooked potatoes on a lightly oiled baking sheet. 

2. Gently press down on each potato with any sort of flat, sturdy kitchen tool — a measuring cup or a saucer will work just fine — until the potato has been squashed to about half of its original height.

3. Drizzle each potato with 1 tbsp oil (1/2 tbsp if the potato is small), and a good sprinkling of salt, pepper and whatever herbs and spices you’re using.

4. Bake potatoes in the oven for 30-40 minutes until they’re crisp on the outside and fluffy in the middle. 
 
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*I used a combination of cooked russet, red and nugget potatoes, and found the first two varieties to produce softer, fluffier (and thus tastier, in my opinion) insides than the nuggets. If you like a thick, crispy exterior, choose the russets. If you prefer a thinner shell, go for the red. 

Top 12 Posts of 2012

A 4:30 alarm yesterday morning marked the end of my holidays, signalling that it was time to take my mom and my boyfriend to the airport to catch their respective flights home, and time for me to get back to work after two weeks dedicated to visiting, catching up on sleep, and eating. And with an exciting year ahead of me, I can’t wait to start sharing new recipes, tips and adventures with you guys. But before I get into what 2013 holds, I want to take a moment to look back at the last year. So today, I’ve got for you the top 12 posts of 2012: four each of the year’s most popular recipes and tips, and four containing some of my favourite photos and stories from my food-related adventures in Italy and a bit closer to home.

recipes-text.jpg1. Fast Food, FoodHappy-style 
My two fast food-esque recipes of the year — a veggie-packed eggwich, and a simple but strangely addictive fried egg rice bowl — manage to provide the rich, salty, savoury and speedy qualities we covet in fast food, but can still be considered reasonably healthy. Next time you’re thinking of heading for the drive-thru, try one of these guys instead.

2. Speedy Chana Masala
If the number of times a recipe is “pinned” is any indication of its tastiness, then this speedy curry is the best thing I made last year (runner up: a pizza that makes brussel sprouts taste good). This post offers up a bit of everything: a recipe, a language lesson, some nutritional information, loads of photos, a few tips (including one on how to diversify your spice collection without going to the store) and a good dose of silliness. 

3. Gram’s Coffee Cake 
In all the years since my grandmother first showed me how to make this cake — a simple but delicious single layer, apple-studded, cinnamon-swirled coffee cake — I’ve never seen another recipe like it. It’s a keeper!

4. Bruschetta: 5 Quick and Tasty Toppings
Essentially five fast recipes in one, in this post from my summer in Rome, I share with you guys five quick topping ideas that’ll help you turn a simple slice of bread into an amazing piece of bruschetta. As I learned in Italy, don’t underestimate the power of bread as a base for a good meal! 

tips-text.jpg1. Yogurt: 5 Reasons Why You Should Pick Plain
If you read one post, make sure it’s this one! Here, I fill you in on why plain yogurt is best — for your health, your wallet, your cooking, and more — and share with you two tasty recipes that’ll help you easily transform plain yogurt into fresh fruit-based varieties. Trust me, you want to convert to plain!

2. Quinoa: A Quick Guide
Everything you need to know about quinoa — what it is, how to cook (and pronounce) it, what to do with it, and more — in one easy to read post. 

3. Back Away from the Pricey Cookbook: 4 Reasons to Head to the Library Instead
Find out why an inexpensive library card should be your next kitchen investment!

4. 5 Quick & Tasty Ways to Use Canned Pumpkin
With the holidays over, you may find yourself with extra canned pumpkin kicking around. From pancakes to dumplings, this handy post will help you make the most of this delicious and healthy squash!

photos-text.jpg1. Update from Rome, with Nutella
Major Roman monuments, tiny historic dictators, and some of the best coffee I’ve ever consumed, all together in this post documenting my early adventures from my summer in Italy.

2. Two Tuscan Adventures, with Recipes to Come
Landscapes, fresh tomatoes, and loads of cheese. Sounds like a good five minute photo-escape to me!

3. A Million Little Gelati
A summary of my Italian summer in 21 teeny photos of gelato, snapped in seven different cities around the country. Best viewed with ice cream on hand!

4. From the South: Sweet Tea
With piles of snow on the ground, this sun-filled post from my travels in North Carolina will help you put winter behind you for a few minutes (the summery, southern iced-tea recipe won’t hurt either!)
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And there we have it, friends — some of the most popular, helpful and photogenic posts of the past year. I hope you enjoyed reading along, today and through 2012, as much as I enjoyed sharing with you. See you next week, when I’ll pass along a new recipe, for a new year!

Five Days of Festive Treats - Day 5: Candy Cane Meringues!

Earlier today, I was mentally patting myself on the back for showing restraint in the face of a house full of holiday baking meant for family and friends – the recipes for which (the cookies, not the friends) I’ve been sharing with you over the past week.

And then I ate four of these. In succession, in about a minute. And, guys, I don’t usually have much time for meringues, but these are ridiculous. For one, they look impossibly festive, like miniature Whoville mountains exploding with holiday cheer. But, more importantly when it comes to eating, they’re delectable. Light, with impressively crisp exteriors, they’re built for popping and crunching (giant bags of the things are a very good idea). But on the first bite, that crispness melts away into smooth peppermint and vanilla. 

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And, amazingly, they’re incredibly simple and gratifying to make, as you watch such basic ingredients – egg whites, sugar, salt, flavourings – be so utterly and easily transformed into scores of little snow-peak meringues. My sister and I got around to making them at the end of our marathon day of baking, piping them onto the trays at 10PM, when the short-lived winter sunlight I rely on for photos was well and truly gone (the results were snapped the next morning). But, knowing my family’s love for these little guys (and mine too, apparently), there’s a good chance I’ll be making them again soon, at which point I’ll take a few instructional photos to help those of you who are new to meringues get a sense of what they should look like as you whip them up. In the mean time, follow the tips I’ve written into the recipe and you’ll do great. But if you’re not convinced, no worries – skim through last weeks’ four festive recipes and I’m sure you’ll find something that fits the bill.

And with that, I’m all out of recipes (and synonyms for festive), so I’m calling it a wrap. Happy baking, and happy holidays, friends!
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Candy Cane Meringues
Adapted from allrecipes.com
Supposedly makes 48, but I’m pretty sure I made about 100 

Note: While you wait for me to get a few instructional photos together, you can check out this handy post, which has photos showing the difference between soft, firm and stiff meringue peaks. 

Ingredients
2 egg whites (save the yolks for other tasty uses)
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/8 tsp salt
1/8 tsp cream of tartar
1/2 cup white sugar
1-2 peppermint candy canes, finely crushed 

Directions
1. Preheat oven to 225 degrees Fahrenheit. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper (do not grease!).

2. In a large glass or metal bowl, using an electric mixer, beat together egg whites, vanilla, salt and cream of tartar, until the mixture is pillowy and white, and holds soft peaks*.

3. With the beater going, slowly add the sugar and beat until the meringue is thick and glossy, and holds stiff peaks*.

4. Using a piping bag fitted with a snazzy tip, a sandwich bag with a small notch cut out of one corner (1cm or so), or a spoon, carefully form pyramid-shaped meringues that are about 2.5 cms at the base.*** 

5. Once you’ve got your meringues piped, gently sprinkle them with crushed candy cane (the candy cane gets sticky the longer it stays in your hands, so only take a bit at a time if you’re using your fingers). Bake for 1.5 hours, until meringues are completely dry inside, but not at all brown. Turn off oven, open door, and let sit in the oven until they’re completely cool, about an hour or so. And that’s it!
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*To check whether your mixture holds soft peaks, turn the beater off, then turn it upside down – if the meringue on the beater forms little peaks that melt back into themselves easily, you’re good to go! Note that before you reach this stage, the mixture will look foamy and unappealing – don’t fear; it’s only temporary!

**To check, turn the beater off again, and turn it upside down – if the meringue no longer melts back into itself, but holds its shape, with the very tip of the meringue pretty much staying in place, you’re good to go. Personally, I like the look of a slightly curled top (a firm peak), but if you want a perfectly straight tip (a stiff peak), just whip a bit longer, until the meringue cooperates.  

***If you’re using the sandwich bag technique, I find that gently squeezing the meringue straight down, gently pulling up as you go, makes for a more aesthetically pleasing meringue than one that’s been swirled on top of itself, ice-cream cone style.