Thursday, September 6, 2012

Seared Duck Breast with Highbush Cranberry Sauce, Double Cream Brie, Candied Walnuts, Arugula, Thyme Honey, and Raisin and Apple Bread

Ingredients (see recipe where applicable)

Duck Breasts
Double Cream Brie
Candied Walnuts
Thyme Honey (any other type is acceptable)
Raisin and Apple Bread (recipe possibly forthcoming)


Begin by patting your duck breasts dry, and cross hatching the layer of fat. To do this lay the knife flat against the surface of the fat and slightly push down while dragging the blade across. Continue every ¼ inch or so and then proceed to do the same thing on an angle perpendicular to the incisions you just made. You should end up with little ¼ inch diamonds over the surface of the skin. Do not cut all the way through the skin to the meat. The purpose of this is while cooking to let the excess fat render off and escape leaving you with beautiful crispy skin.

To cook the duck start with a cool pan (nonstick actually works rather well here, and this will probably be the only time I recommend nonstick, and a cold pan). The duck contains enough fat to cook itself in, so you will not need to add a cooking fat. Place the duck skin side down, and gently raise the temperature. As the pan heats the duck will render out the fat and you can increase the heat. When the skin is crispy (much like bacon), flip the breast over for a quick sear on the other side, remove, and slice.

For the candied walnuts, put 1/2 cup of sugar in a pan with just enough water to immerse the sugar in water (if you put in more it will just take longer). Bring to a simmer. While this is going on butter the sides of a large bowl, and save a few nubs. When the sugar has reached a brown color toss in a few nubs of butter, the walnuts and quickly toss them in the caramel. Transfer to the bowl and toss vigorously until the walnuts have cooled, you may have to use your fingers to break up some of the more stubborn ones. 

For the other ingredients simply arrange them as you would for any other salad.


You will have leftover duck fat, either save it in the fridge or take left over bread and fry it in the duck fat. When it is crispy top with brie and put in the oven till the brie melts, drizzle with honey and prepare for either a culinary orgasm, a food coma, and/or a heart attack.

Highbush Cranberry Sauce

1 lb Highbush Cranberry
2 ¼ cup Sugar
¾ cup Water
¼ packet Pectin

Whilst on one of my forays into the bush I stumbled on these beauties among a few other treats I have yet to write about. Highbush Cranberry (Viburnum trilobum) is actually not a cranberry at all, or even in the same family. The name comes from the fact that is looks, and tastes very similar to cranberries. It is not without its differences however. The highbush cranberry has a certain muskiness about it that, in fact when you are stemming, sorting, and boiling them down they smell a lot like a high school boys locker room -but dont let this stop you from giving it a shot. This plant was used extensively by Native Americans, is extremely high in vitamin C, and with a little sweetness can be quite tasty.

Start by stemming your berries, followed by a good wash!

Next, take the berries and put them into a pot with the water and bring to boil. While waiting for them to come to the boil grab your trusty potato masher and start squishing the berries. They will not squish like most berries and more or less pop and/or explode -be prepared for the ensuing cranberry atomic bomb going off on your stove.

After 10 minutes or so of simmering, put your highbush cranberries into a jelly bag or cheese cloth and let drain for a quite a few hours. If you are not overly concerned about the clarity of the sauce feel free to give it a squeeze to help it along.

Bring your highbush cranberry liquid back onto the stove, add pectin and sugar, bring to the boil.

Either let cool in a container and refrigerate until it “sets,” or follow the typical procedure for hot bath preservation.

*you may have to use more or less pectin to get desired consistency,  or use an immersion blender to break it up. It would also be acceptable to use gelatin or agar agar.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing - Ruhlman

Charcuterie is the old art of curing pork, and making preserves. It has recently gone back into vogue, and not only are restaurants serving charcuterie platter -they are making it themselves. There are now entire restaurants devoted to this type of food, my favourite being The Black Hoof in Toronto.

This is not a new book by any means, but I have used it over and over again, and spurred me on in what can only be described as obsession. Needless to say with Ruhlman and Polcyn's upcoming release of Salumi this review is long over due.

The downfall of many charcuterie, and meat curing related books is that often it falls into the realm of food science. Our society as a whole is almost deemed unworthy to understand the principals behind processed food. There are many decent books done by the Marianskis, which will give you better comprehension of the science behind these things; however, it will scare off most first time dabblers. Realising this gap Ruhlman and Polcyn teamed together to create the first modern day, everyday man's book on everything porky, cured, smoked, salted, and stuffed.

One might ask themselves why we need the knowledge of food preservation? We have freezers, and refrigerators -it is no longer needed. Perhaps not, but its delicious. I for one am not willing to go my life without bacon.

The book is smartly divided into seven sections (not including the introduction): salt-cured, smoked, sausages, dry-cured, pates and terrines, confits, and accompaniments. Each section contains very informative instruction on techniques that are relevant, followed by some killer recipes, and usually additional related information. The salt-cured section begins with the history behind salted food, followed by the science behind it. Ruhlman follows this up with not only the economy and weight of buying whole hogs, but how these cuts differ in uses. Next up to bat is the dry cure recipe, and within a few seconds you know how to make your own bacon. After a veritable laundry list of culinary delights such as pancetta, guanciale, duck proscuitto, etc. We are inaugurated into the art of brining and everything from the perfectly brined chicken, to fermented sauerkraut, to lemon confit. At the end of the chapter you may not be getting a PhD in food chemistry, but you will have a great deal of understanding over the "what, where, why, how, and when," of everything salt cured.

The rest of the book follows suit.Whether you are an aspiring French chef trying to master duck confit, and pork rilletes, or an inspired barbeque pit master attempting to perfect a barbeque sauce you will get something out of this book. Cant find grandma's dill pickle recipe? This one is likely better. Definately a must have!
Saturday, April 28, 2012

Understanding Leaveners - Yeast, Baking Soda, and Egg Whites

To the home baker, this is often a conundrum “Shit, I ran out of baking soda what else can I use?” We have all been there, and this is all a matter of understanding what is actually going on inside your recipe. Some of this believe it or not is grade school science, and I am here simply to reiterate something that seems elaborate but is not. Leaveners are the things that make our baked goods rise, in short.

Fundamentally, all of these things achieve one thing: they produce (usually carbon dioxide, or incorporate gas.) This is can be achieved three different ways: microbial, chemical, or mechanical.


Microbial leavening is achieved through yeasts. The same things that produce two of our favourite things: alcohol, and bread. This is fermentation. Yeast leavening can be complicated by going down a baking aisle, and seeing fast acting yeast, cake yeast, brewers yeast, sourdough etc. I will delve into that more complicated bit after. What is important is to understand that yeasts eat sugars. These can be sugars from starches (carbohydrates), table sugar, honey, etc. Some of these sugars are more digestible then others, but for our purposes, that is not important. When a yeast eats a sugar it farts, vomits, and procreates (much like a frat house). It farts carbon dioxide, vomits alcohol, and produces more yeast.

If left in a liquid with a sugar, it will produce alcohol and the carbon dioxide will escape. This is how we get beer. Bread is much like beer, and bread dough is even mildly alcoholic. The different is that when we knead a dough together we create gluten, and this gluten traps the carbon dioxide which causes the bread to “rise,” much like blowing up a balloon. When the bread is baked, the alcohol is burned off.

This brings us to the next topic -types of yeast. There are different strains of yeast, some are better are producing alcohol, some better at producing carbon dioxide. There are also wild yeasts (yes they watch you while you are sleeping). For baking purposes we are interested in the ones that produce carbon dioxide. Now we have a selection to choose from, and without getting into all of them it fundamentally comes down to how fast they wake up and do their thing. Think normal yeast as sleepy factory workers, and thing of super active yeast as the Incredible Hulk. Our Hulk is the same as our Average Joe yeast, except he is packed with beneficial nutrients that wake him up and get him going faster. If we gave our factory yeasts Red Bull (ie yeast nutrients) the same thing would happen.

Having a Hulk yeast is not always a beneficial thing. This is an important principle in bread making. Time equals Taste. The longer your bread ferments, the more flavour it will have. This is the reason store bought white bread tastes so different than a sourdough (which we will get into soon).

So hypothetically, we want a flavourful bread but all we have is the Hulk. How can we achieve this?

A big factor in microbial action, and fermentation is temperature. The higher the temperature (that they can survive happily,) the faster they will work. The reverse is also true. If we put our dough the fridge, it will take longer to rise, and produce more flavour. If we need it to rise faster we put it in a warmer spot in the house. Simple non?

So what then is sourdough, and why is it so tasty. Sourdough is the homeless yeast, the teenager, or the Iggy Pop, it is wild and fairly untamed. It is produced by creating a substance that will attract the ambient yeasts living in your house, and cause them to colonize it. This is usually accomplished by a mixture of flour and water, left out in the open for several days until it either molds (in which case it was colonised by other microbials,) or begins to bubble and ferment. When it begins to do this you basically have another pet. You have to feed it, nourish it, and give it a place to sleep. I will not go too in depth to the art of sourdough. Because this yeast really does not “want” to work, the dough takes a long time to ferment, and produces a very fermented flavour. This flavour is unique because more then likely this yeast is unique to your specific area. This is why San Francisco sourdoughs are so popular, they produce a different strain of yeast! Not to say “Your House” sourdoughs cant be better.

To add to the confusion, often you will see the word starter, biga, poolish, or sponge. These are all basically the same thing, they are “pre-ferments”, it is a middle of the road for flavour. How this is achieved it by starting a “dough” ahead of time, letting the yeasts age and establish themselves and then using this “dough” to ferment your actual dough. If we wanted to make a pre-ferment we would take a small portion of yeasts, and water out of our recipe, put our yeasts in that, and let it do its thing overnight on the counter or in the fridge. Where all these strange names differ is in what ratio of flour to water that is in the pre-ferment. Some bakers prefer it more liquid, some prefer it more dough-like in consistency. Another way to achieve this is to make your initial dough, and save a tiny piece for the next batch of dough; they downside however is the reliability.

The things we can take away from this is: Yeasts produce carbon dioxide, that carbon dioxide gets trapped in our dough and causes it to rise, the longer it takes to rise the more flavour it will have.


Chemical leavening is usually achieved by using either baking soda or baking powder. I find the easiest way to explain this is to go back to a grade school science fair where without a doubt, someone made a “volcano.” If you remember the reaction was created by taking baking soda, and vinegar putting them together and watching the mess ensue. This is what happens when you mix an acid (vinegar), and a base (sodium bicarbonate) This is exactly what happens when you use them in baking. If a recipe calls for baking soda, it will always have an acid accompanying it. This is usually lemon juice, buttermilk or cream of tartar (which is actually tartaric acid). What happens is our volcano reaction happens in our mixture creating carbon dioxide which is trapped and baked. This can be accomplished using baking soda and any acid you can think of (well as long as it is food friendly). The chemical responsible for this is sodium bicarbonate.

The difference between baking soda, and baking powder is that baking powder contains both sodium bicarbonate, and tartaric acid (cream of tartar). It often uses an inert starch as a drying agent as well.

So we have a recipe that calls for baking powder, but all we have is baking soda. How can we create our own baking powder?

1 part baking soda
1 part cornstarch
2 part cream of tartar

Ok, but I am out of cream of tartar, and cornstarch. What else can I use? If we require one teaspoon of baking powder we can use these substitutions:

1/2 tsp baking soda +1/2 cup buttermilk, yogurt, or soured milk (1/2 cup milk + 1 1/2 tsp vinegar/lemon juice)
1/2 tsp baking soda +1 1/2 tsp lemon juice, or vinegar
1/2 tsp baking soda + 1/3 tsp citric acid

More often then not you will use 1 tsp of baking powder per 1 cup of flour. When we substitute using liquid you must also adjust your recipe by taking out other liquids. The problem with substitutions is although some can be straightforward others can change the texture/flavour of the recipe. Technically it is an exact science, realistically not so much.

There are also single acting, and double acting baking powders. Single acting only activates when applied with heat (ie being baked), whereas double acting will react at room temperature AND when applied with heat. Also note that self rising flour is normal flour with the addition of baking powder. To make your own take normal flour and add 1 1/4 tsp of baking powder, and a 1/4 tsp of salt.

What we can take away from chemical leavening is this: Baking soda is a base, when this base is combined with acid it will produce carbon dioxide and cause our recipe to rise (with the application of heat), baking powder is baking soda combined with acid already. Now that you understand the “why” it should be much easier to understand what is going on in your recipes, and how to substitute the various ingredients.


Mechanically leavening something is probably the simplest of all processes. We use mechanical movement to introduce air, and then gently heat it to cement it together. Mainly what we are talking about are egg whites. Whipped egg whites are responsible for many delicacies such as souffles, macarons, meringues, sponge cake, etc. Cream is not generally baked while whipped, however ice cream is an example where air is whipped into the ice cream mixture which increases its volume and then frozen. We will concentrate on egg whites.

Without going too scientific (if you wish to, buy On Food and Cooking by Harold Mcgee) when egg whites are whipped two chemicals in the egg whites are attracted to each other and form the framework through molecular bonds. If baked right away (usually very low gentle heat,) this framework is solidified, and leaves us with a light airy product. Although it is not exactly that simple, the same forces that create this network can also become too tightly bonded and cause the whites to collapse. To further complicate things whites have water, and if contaminated by yolk, fat. Both of these things will have a negative effect on the end product, and work against your desired results.

Commonly it is advised both most French pastry chefs that in order to get the best egg whites, the eggs must be older, room temperature and aged. Harold McGee notes that your eggs should be in a chilled bowl, and if needed a tiny bit of acid added to them -1/2 tsp cream of tar tar. This is kind of contradictory and unfortunately I do not have an answer. As eggs age, they actually become less acidic, and warm eggs have a harder time bonding together. Take what you will from that, I am not going to argue with neither a Pastry chef, nor the Godfather of food science.

One thing that sounds like an old wives tale which does have scientific merit, if the belief that a copper bowl should be used when whipping eggs. This is true.

“It turns out that along with a few other metals, copper has the useful tendency to form extremely tight bonds with reactive sulphur groups: so tight that the sulphur is essentially preventing from reacting with anything else. So the presence of copper in foaming eggs whites essentially eliminates the strongest kind of protein bond that can form, and makes it harder for the proteins to embrace each other too tightly.” On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee

In a nut shell, the copper makes it very hard for the whites to collapse. McGee also notes that silver has the same effect as copper (for those of us that can afford silver, let alone copper bowls). I've only briefly touched on this subject because it is either a very simple straightforward topic, or a highly scientific one. My copy of On Food and Cooking, is currently lent out, so perhaps ill post one on the science of it when I get it back.

I hope this answers more questions, then it makes. Hopefully never again will someone ask me about baking soda substitutions, or at least I will have a place to steer them. Cheers.
Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Baked Beans with Home cured Bacon and Maple Syrup

Spring has been tossing us red herrings for the last few weeks, teasing us with promises of warmth followed by days of cold and wet. On one such rainy cold day I needed to stave off the chill with something. Although baked beans are known the world over there is something quintessentially Canadian about baked beans with bacon, and maple syrup. In Ontario maple syrup season has just wrapped up, and I am lucky enough to have Jakeman's Maple Syrup  just down the road from me (meaning quality maple syrup is always to be had!) I also cured and smoked some bacon this week, meaning this match was just meant to happen.


1 lb – Navy, or Great Northern Beans
1 lb – Slab Bacon (sorry didn't document bacon making, perhaps another time.)
1/2-3/4 cup – Maple Syrup
1 can – Whole Tomatoes
1 can - Beer
3 – Medium Onions (chopped)
10 cloves – Garlic (sliced)
1 tbsp – Ginger (grated)
1 bunch – Sage (chopped)

In a spice bag put:

1/2 – Cinnamon Stick
3 – Cloves
1 – Star Anise
2 – Bay leaves

Begin by soaking your beans over night, or use the quick soak method by bringing them to a boil for ten minutes, and then leave in the water for an hour or two (until grow in size). Cut your bacon into 1/4 size pieces, and add to your cooking vessel. Render out the majority of the fat, and drain leaving 2 or more spoonfuls. Add your onions and garlic, and under medium to medium low heat sweat them until just turning translucent. Add ginger. When those are cooked add beer, and increase heat to high. Reduce by half. Add in tomatoes, beans, spice bag, sage, and maple syrup. Season with pepper, but no salt (see note). Add water and/or stock until beans are covered by an inch or so. Bring to boil. Reduce heat, partially cover and let simmer slowly for 6-8 hours, or until beans are soft.

This recipe works great with any cured pork product. It is great for leftover ham, picnic shoulder, or smoked ham hock. If you use a ham or picnic shoulder it is always great to add the bone in to the beans and any ham “jelly” leftover. It really is a versatile recipe. You could also use a slow cooker, or bake in the oven.

One reason I use whole canned tomatoes, is because more often then not your beans will be close to done once the tomato has pretty much disintegrated into the mixture. If you don’t have maple syrup, you could add 1/2 cup of brown sugar. Hope everyone enjoys this as much as I do.

*Note: When cooking beans do not add salt until the end of the cooking process. The salinity blocks the pores of the beans and they will not be able to absorb moisture and get soft.
Saturday, April 21, 2012

Dryad's Saddle - Polyporus squamosus

Spring brings a great many things, and for the mushroom hunter there is nothing greater then the morel. However there is an edible mushroom that appears even before the morel, and that is the dryad's saddle.  Generally considered not a “choice” edible mushroom with a little love and care can be quite delicious.

The Dryad's saddle is a polypore, meaning it has little holes instead of gills. These holes are visible to the naked eye on this species. It usually grows out of dead or dying hardwoods (ie not on the ground). It has a yellow and brown variegated pattern on the cap, and is white underneath. They can grow quite large, but the edible ones are the smaller variety. This is an easy mushroom to identify, is often the first in spring. The tell tale you have the right mushroom is this is the only mushroom that smells like watermelon. That is right it smells like watermelon.

This is a rather tough, tasteless mushroom (aren't most of them tasteless?), so its a good idea to treat it like a tough cut of meat. Cut into smalls pieces, marinate if you chose, and/or chose a long cooking method. Be sure if you have never had this before to try just a small piece at first, as different people can have different reactions to wild mushrooms. Also never consume wild mushrooms with alcohol, some mushrooms are “edible” as is but alcohol can unlock some nasty effects in them.

That is all for now, recipes forthcoming!