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Sweetness and Light (January 18, 2010)

Eat dessert first. Why not? The bank is calling, the car is sounding like a crowded hamster cage, the accountant has fled to the Caymans, reject notices are pouring in, and it has been a dark and cold winter. What we need is some sweetness and light!

Well, we've got it for you right here: a splendid collection of sweets, some easy, some more complicated, but all guaranteed to get you through until the daffodils appear.

Speaking of which, spring is coming, love is in the air and that doesn't help if your wallet is running on empty. So give your true love a homemade sweet; trust us, it works, and they'll put aside the hope for a Cartier Tank. For the moment anyway. Read on...

We love National Public Radio in America, and listen every chance we get; one of the best and most fun programs going is All Things Considered. It's full of news, reviews and some of the brightest and most fun people on radio anywhere!

If we're lucky with timing, we catch Melissa Gray, the unstoppable personality also knows as the NPR's Cake Lady who at last has given the world All Cakes Considered. A delicious read and crammed full of her favourite desserts, it's a year's worth of weekly recipes tested, tasted and approved by the staff of NPR's All Things Considered, and subtitled, "How to keep your co-workers happy, friendly, and fatter than you!"

A lot of the recipes are glorious cakes of Melissa's Southern family, and she's added recipes from renowned chefs and bakers such as Dorie Greenspan, Paula Deen and Stephen Pyles. You want Martha Washington's Great Cake, or the best fried fruit pies to melt in yo' mouth? What about my hands-down favourite, coconut cake... and yes, even a Graham Cracker Cake, with somewhat odd ingredients but oh, how it works!  The book is a great, gossipy read, with recipes that you'll do again and again. And again!

Then Tony Aspler introduced us to his good friend Janine MacLachlan and her delightful website, MacLachlan is a food writer, public relations consultant and owner of the Rustic Kitchen cooking school in Chicago and now also in Fennville, Michigan. She brings a zestful and catching enthusiasm to her search for well-raised ingredients from small farms to make eating more interesting and delicious.

MacLachlan says, "Welcome to my kitchen. It's where I explore the seasons, and keep my taste buds tantalized with cooking fresh from the farm stand. I split my time between a Michigan farmhouse and a Chicago loft – to me it's the best way to enjoy fresh-picked foods and discover how great chefs bring it to hungry patrons."

And more, "Please check out my blog where I regularly post recipes, tips and food & farm adventures – and by all means subscribe to get it all first." ... We did, and it's almost as good as living next door to Janine!

Stonewall Kitchen Winter Celebrations is one of these gems that you keep on the first shelf in the kitchen! It's from nationally acclaimed Stonewall Kitchen, today producers of famous specialty food products distributed around the world, who had humble beginnings at a farmers' market in 1991. Located in York, Maine, they also run a restaurant and cooking school, plus 9 retail store along the East Coast. With all that, you'd think there'd be no time for a cookbook, but food writer and National Public Radio personality Kathy Gunst has done just that for Stonewall Kitchen founders Jonathan King and Jim Stott. Good thinkg, too, for the fellows continue to raise their own vegetable, enjoy canning and experiment with new products! Check out, and if you can't get to Maine any time soon, make sure you get you copy of Stonewall Kitchen Winter Celebrations.

And now for something different. In came Nirmala's Edible Diary: A Hungry Traveler's Cookbook with Recipes from 14 Countries, by Nirmala Narine. This travel/recipe collection is a delicious adventure by the "Indiana Jones of Spices", as she scours the South American countryside in search of the perfect spices for her thriving business, Nirmala's Kitchen. We've seen a lot of South America; it's to us the most fascinating of places as every country is wildly different both culturally and geographically. It follows that the food will vary as well, and be both exotic and flavourful. Narine grew up in a tiny village in Guyana with no running water or electricity and was born on the kitchen floor on top of an empty wheat-flour bag, lovingly washed repeatedly to make a soft bed sheet. Her first meal... was not her mother's breast milk, but mashed-up rice pudding spiced with cloves and Indian long pepper prepared by her grandmother as an offering to the Hindu gods. Of course she grew up fascinated by flavours and food combinations!

Narine's culinary education was shaped and nurtured by her grandfather, an Ayurvedic scholar and Hindu priest, and various schoolteachers who wee descendents of African slaves and native Arawak Indians, numerous Chinese, and assorted Javanese and Portuguese cousins, dotting the South American landscape! No wonder Nirmala's Edible Diary is such a yummy read! She knows and understands this vast continent, and gives us the culinary treasures and cooking techniques that are all but unknown to the rest of us.

Déjà vu all over again? Why yes, as we love Lou Seibert Pappas's terrific collection, Crème Brûlée. Who knew that crème brûlée came in so many versions? Pappas, author of Ice Creams & SorbetsPancakes & Waffles and several other books in the same sweet vein, has given us the definitive collection of this decadent dessert. We'll be giving you her versions in columns to come, as the selections come from everything from Classic and Creative, Fruity and Fabulous, Chocolate and Nutty, to Savory. Keep that blowtorch handy!

And then there's 101 Things To Do With Stephanie Ashcraft, who has produced more than a baker's dozen cookbooks in this popular genre! She has 101 (and sometimes 101 more) things to do with a cake mix, a slow cooker, a potato, a tortilla, a casserole, a salad, a BBQ, canned soup, chicken, grits, ground beef, mac & cheese, tofu, yogurt... Talk about a franchise! Ashcraft is a wife and mom living in the American west whose recipe testing has made her the most favoured neighbor in her community! Of course we had to include a recipe by Ashcraft, and report that it was a treat to find just one out of the hundreds she's perfected!

Austin Clarke is amazing and talented, and he loves food! He's won Canada's most important literary award, the prestigious Giller Prize, plus the 2003 Commonwealth Writers Prize, and was shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. He now gives us Love and Sweet Food: A Culinary Memoir, which had us running out to the nearest Caribbean market! Clarke's descriptions, colourful memories of a childhood spent shelling peas while watching his mother make mutton soup and smoked ham hocks, bring alive the colours, textures and flavours of the West Indies, with a side dish of history and politics! Clarke tells us, "Food to her, as to me, as I was educated by her to believe, is something very special, almost supernatural." This is a book of love; love of food, family and roots, all with a few wondrous recipes.

On today's menu:

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Peach Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

What says love any more than a fresh warm cake, and what says "Southern" more than peaches? And when they're in the same package, nothing says "Can't get better than this!" Sure enough, in Melissa Gray's All Cakes Considered we found an ultimate recipe that charmingly enough comes from a small-town community cookbook. Grey says "And this peach cake recipe is the big-time winner of all the cake recipes, as far as I'm concerned. I've done it with both canned and fresh peaches, and I have to say I preferred the results with the canned peaches. The key is to rinse the syrup off before you add the peaches to the mixing bowl."

She goes on to say that this cake should be served in thick slices, so plan on feeding 16 to 20! And we say "Add some whipped cream to make it more than perfect!"

You'll need: A 10-inch tube pan

    For the cake:
  • 3 large eggs, beaten
  • 1¾ cup sugar
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 2 cups sliced peaches, preferably canned
  • 1/2 cup chopped nuts (optional)
    For the frosting:
  • 3 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 4 Tbsp unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 cups confectioners' sugar
  • 1/2 tsp ground ginger

To make the cake:

Center a rack and preheat the oven to 375°F. Prepare the cake pan.

In the bowl of a mixer, combine the eggs, sugar and oil. Mix on medium speed until just blended.

In a separate bowl, dry whisk the flour, salt, baking soda and cinnamon together. Add to the egg mixture and beat until just combined. The batter will be sticky.

With a spatula and/or wooden spoon, fold in the peaches and nuts.

Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan and bake for 50 minutes or until the cake tests done.

Let the cake cool for 10 minutes in the pan, then unmold onto a cake rack. Allow to cool completely.

To make the frosting:

With the mixer on medium speed, beat the cream cheese, butter.

Gradually add the confectioners' sugar and ginger. Beat until smooth.

Apply the frosting to the cooled cake.

Tony's wine recommendation:
Moscato d'Asti


Janine MacLachlan's Cranberry Brownie Fingers

Janine told us, "I love riffing on my classic brownie recipe. Sometimes I bake them in a round dish and cut them into wedges like cake. Here I toss in fresh cranberries left over from Thanksgiving and slice them into finger-sized cookies." The tangy cranberries cut through the rich chocolate…to our mind this is one of the great ways to recycle leftovers!

  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/2 cup cocoa powder
  • 1/2 cup all purpose flour
  • 1 cup fresh cranberries

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-inch square baking dish.

In large mixing bowl, beat sugars with butter in a large mixing bowl. Add eggs and vanilla and beat to combine, then add cocoa powder and stir until well blended. Stir in flour just until combined. Do not over-mix. Stir in cranberries and pour batter into baking dish and smooth with an offset spatula or knife.

Bake until brownies pull away from the edge of the dish and a skewer inserted into the center comes out with fluffy crumbs, about 20–25 minutes. Cool and cut into 3x1-inch pieces.

Tony's wine recommendation:
10-Year-Old Tawny Port


Andrea's Chocolate-Dipped Buttercrunch

 This is so easy it's sinful, and so "more-ish" it's obscene. From Stonewall Kitchen Winter Celebrations, it only requires 4 ingredients and goes together in minutes. Important thought: this sweetie makes a great hostess gift, and will keep you on the "guest A-list" forever. If any gets out of your kitchen, that is!

Serves 6 to 8

  • 2 sticks unsalted butter
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 Tbsp light corn syrup
  • 2 large (7- or 8-ounce) chocolate bars (see Notes)
  • About 1 cup (3½ ounces) very finely chopped walnuts (see Notes)
  1. Line a cookie sheet with sides with a piece of well-greased aluminum foil.
  2. In a medium saucepan, heat the butter, sugar, corn syrup, and 2 Tbsp of water over low heat, stirring frequently. The mixture will caramelize and is ready when it hits 290°F on a candy thermometer. Watch it carefully, particularly toward the end of the cooking process. It will take at least 15 to 20 minutes to reach 290°F on low heat. The mixture can burn easily; reduce the heat to very low and stir constantly if it seems to be cooking too quickly or turning darker than pale golden brown.
  3. When the candy hits 290°F, remove from the heat and carefully spread it out in an even layer on the sheet of greased foil. Spread quickly with a spatula to make a fairly thin layer. Let cool and harden. (If you are really impatient you can place the cookie sheet outside in the cold in a protected place so it will harden more quickly.)
  4. While the butter crunch is hardening, melt the chocolate in a double boiler (or in a metal bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water), stirring constantly until smooth. If you choose to let the butter crunch harden outside or in a very cold spot, you must bring it back to room temperature before spreading with the chocolate. If the butter crunch is too cold or hot, the chocolate won't adhere properly.
  5. When the butter crunch is hard to the touch (you shouldn't feel any soft spots), use a soft spatula and spread a thin layer of chocolate over the entire thing. Sprinkle with half the nuts, pressing down lightly so they adhere. Again, if you are the impatient type, you can let the chocolate harden in a cold spot. The chocolate should be fully dry – no wet spots to the touch.
  6. Use a second cookie sheet, and place it on top of the chocolate. Gently flip the butter crunch over and carefully peel away the foil from the candy. Spread the remaining chocolate on top of the other side of the buttercrunch. Sprinkle with the remaining nuts, pressing down lightly. Let the chocolate harden and set in a cool spot.
  7. When the buttercrunch is dry and hard, break it into small pieces. You can keep it in a cool, dry tin or tightly sealed plastic bag for about 2 weeks.


Notes: Buttercrunch can be made successfully with regular grocery-store milk chocolate or chocolate chips, but you can also splurge and use fabulous bittersweet or semisweet 60% cacao chocolate. The choice is yours. You can use walnuts, almonds, pecans, pistachios, or any type of nut, but they must be finely chopped to adhere to the chocolate.

Tony's wine recommendation:
No wine – see your dentist.


Avocado & Coconut Milk Ice Cream

From Nirmala's Edible Diary comes this unusual and rich combination. Nirmala tells us that avocado ice cream is quite common in South American countries where the creamy green fruit is grown. South Americans tend to make ice cream with seasonal fresh fruits, and avocados are enlisted for their sweet side. This recipe incorporates some powdered vitamin C, as it keeps the color green as vibrant as if you had just sliced open an avocado.

Serves 6

  • 1½ cups canned unsweetened coconut milk
  • 2 ripe California avocados, (about 1¼ lb), halved, pitted, and flesh scooped from skin
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • One 500 mg Vitamin C tablet or Emergen-C pack (available at any drugstore)
  • 1/2 cup sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 tsp freshly squeezed lime juice
  • 1 tsp grated lime zest
  1. In a blender, combine the coconut milk, avocados, sugar, and vitamin C tablet and blend until smooth and there are no visible lumps. Add the condensed milk, vanilla and lime juice.
  2. Pour the mixture into a large air-tight container and fold in the lime zest.
  3. If using an ice-cream maker, pour the mixture into a container and freeze until set, about 8 ours or overnight. Remove the ice cream from the container and cut into 3-inch pieces. Place in a food processor and process until smooth. Return to the airtight container and freeze again. Repeat the freezing and chopping process 2 or 3 times until a smooth consistency is reached.

Make-ahead tip: The ice cream can be made up to 1 week ahead and frozen in an airtight container.

Tony's wine recommendation:
Sparkling Vidal Icewine


No-Bake Zesty Lime Crème Brûlée

Oh, is this wonderful or what? No egg yolks in this recipe, as the cream is thickened with lime juice, producing a rich but still wonderfully refreshing dessert. We love serving it in hollowed-out limes, but small bowls will do fine. It's cute, it's easy and a perfect finish to an otherwise rich meal.

From Crème Brûlée by Lou Siebert Pappas.

Serves 6

  • 2¼ cups heavy (whipping) cream
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 Tbsp grated lime zest
  • 1/3 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
  • 6 Tbsp oven-dried brown sugar (see note below) or confectioners' sugar for topping

In a medium saucepan, combine the cream and granulated sugar. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the sugar dissolves and the mixture comes to a gentle simmer. Cook for 2 minutes more. Remove from the heat and stir in the lime zest. Gradually stir in the lime juice.

Place six standard-size flan dishes in a baking pan. Divide the custard mixture among the dishes. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours or up to 2 days.

When ready to serve, place, the dishes on a baking sheet and evenly sprinkle 1 Tbsp brown or confectioners' sugar over each custard. (If using confectioners' sugar, use a small sieve to sprinkle the sugar.) Using a hand-held blowtorch (see note below), caramelize the sugar.


Oven-dried brown sugar: Due to the moisture content of brown sugar, it is recommended to dry it before caramelizing. Spread light or dark brown sugar out on a baking sheet in a 1/2-inch layer and bake in a preheated 275°F oven for 8 to 10 minutes, or until browned a shade darker. Let cool, place in a small resealable plastic bag, and crush it thoroughly with a rolling pin or flat metal mallet to make fine crystals. Brown sugar treated in this manner has an excellent flavor when caramelized.

Using a blowtorch: READ THE INSTRUCTIONS! Searing one dish at a time, hold the blowtorch about 4 inches from the top of the dish, moving the torch constantly so that the sugar browns evenly. Be especially careful if the custard contains alcohol, as it can cause the sugar to sputter.

Tony's wine recommendation:
Muscat Beaumes-de-Venise


Caramel Surprise Cupcakes

Who doesn't love cupcakes! These popular dessert darlings are all the rage and such fun to make and eat... so why not make it easy? From 101 More Things to do With a Cake Mix by Stephanie Ashcraft. This version has a creamy caramel interior and, thanks to a good cake mix, can be yours in less than an hour.

Makes 24 cupcakes

  • 1 yellow or white cake mix (ingredients listed on back of box)
  • 1 cup butterscotch or chocolate chips
  • 24 caramels, unwrapped (see note)
  • 1 can chocolate or white frosting

Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly grease cups of muffin pan and set aside. Make cake batter as directed on back of box. Stir in butterscotch or chocolate chips. Fill muffin cups 1/3 full and set unused batter aside. Bake 5 minutes. Place caramel in center of each cupcake. Top caramel with remaining cake batter to fill muffin cups 2/3 full. Bake an additional 10–14 minutes or until done. Remove from pan and allow to cool completely.

Top cupcakes with frosting.

Note: Unwrapped miniature chocolate peanut butter cups or individual Rollos candies can be substituted in place of caramels.

Tony's wine recommendation:
No wine


Austin Clarke's Bakes

At some point in their lives, everyone in Barbados has had this simple yet wondrous mix of sugar, water and flour. Bakes are affectionately known as "survival food," and rightfully so because when cupboards are bare, you can almost always find these three ingredients somewhere. Not to mention they also taste great – for these reasons, good old fashion bakes are a prominent and proud member of this list of the top ten Bajan delicacies.

So serve your sweetheart some bakes first thing in the morning, or later in the day with a cup of tea, or perhaps, in the evening with a glass of your favourite aperitif! And then a kiss, and a copy of Love and Sweet Food: A Culinary Memoir!

  • 1/2 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup cornmeal
  • Cloves (a pinch)
  • Vanilla (a couple of drops)
  • Salt (a pinch)
  • 2 eggs
  • Grated nutmeg (a pinch)
  • Oil
  • 1 Tbsp white granulated sugar
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 cup butter

In a mixing bowl, put the flour, salt, eggs, cloves, nutmeg, vanilla and water. Stir until the mixture becomes smooth.

Add the baking powder, sugar and butter. Stir again until the mixture is even; it should not be pap, and should have a little body.

Heat a half-inch of oil in a frying pan. Once the oil is hot, turn down the heat. Drop one tablespoon of batter into the frying pan; flip it as soon as the bottom is brown, and remove it when both sides are brown.

Tony's wine recommendation:
Late Harvest Riesling


For permission to publish material and photographs, we wish to thank:

Raincoast Books, Vancouver, and Chronicle Books, San Francisco, for All Cakes Considered: A Year's Worth of Weekly Recipes Tested, Tasted, and Approved by the Staff of NPR's All Things Considered by Melissa Gray. Text © 2008 Melissa Gray. Photographs © Annabelle Breakey and Stephen Voss. Want more? Check out


Raincoast Books, Vancouver, and Chronicle Books, San Francisco, for Nirmala's Edible Diary: A Hungry Traveler's Cookbook with Recipes from 14 Countries, by Nirmala Narine. Food photographs by Diana DeLucia. Copyright © 2009 by Nirmala Narine.


Raincoast Books, Vancouver, and Gibbs Smith, Publisher, Salt Lake City, for 101 More Things to do With a Cake Mix by Stephanie Ashcraft. Text © 2004 Stephanie Ashcraft.


Raincoast Books, Vancouver, and Chronicle Books, San Francisco, for Crème Brûlée by Lou Seibert Pappas. Text © 2005 Lou Seibert Pappas. Photographs © Alison Miksch.


Janine MacLachlan – Recipe and photograph used with permission from Janine MacLachlan, The Rustic Kitchen, www. All rights reserved.


Thomas Allen Publishers for Love and Sweet Food: A Culinary Memoir, by Austin Clarke. © 2004 Austin Clarke.

Happily enjoyed by Helen Hatton and Ron Morris.

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