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Chocolate and Nuts, in a New Way

Chocolate and peanut butter. Some people aren’t crazy about the combination, but most North Americans love it. It could be argued that this is the best example of a truly original American taste.

Did you know that Mr. H.B. Reese invented the chocolate covered peanut butter cup? Yes, there really was a Mr. Reese. And guess what? He worked for Hershey’s before he left to create his own candy company in the 1920’s. Apparently the one condition Hershey’s had for him when he left was that he buy all his chocolate from them. How about that!

Even today, almost one hundred years after this unique confection was created, it is still the best selling candy in America. Hershey’s bought the company in the 1960’s but the Reese name still sticks. Even the increase in people allergic to peanuts has not slowed their popularity.

I am a big fan of chocolate and peanut butter together. Peanut butter cookies with chocolate chips are more than a bit better, they are close to nirvana. Chocolate peanut butter ice cream, if well made, should probably be illegal. But I had never made an actual candy with chocolate and nut butter.

To be fair, the recipe I used was for cashew butter with chocolate. It’s good, but next time I’m going to use peanut butter. My brain tasted the finished product and I could hear it saying inside my head, “it’s fine, but it would be just that much better if it was the real thing.”

I’ll let you decide. Perhaps you are allergic to peanuts. Since cashews are a tree nut, they might be a good alternative. You can easily leave out the pomegranate seeds in this recipe, too – add dried cranberries instead if you like, or nothing. Power Bark is good even if you make it with just the chocolate and the nut butter. Just sayin’.

 

One a Penny, Two a Penny…

Did you have hot cross buns for breakfast today? I did. Do you know why we have them at Easter? I remember the rhyme from childhood, but I must admit that not having a religious upbringing I didn’t know the history of this seasonal sweet bun. As I sat munching and sipping my tea this morning I did some research, and I figured I can’t be the only one who didn’t know all the tidbits I found. So, here you go – new knowledge for your brain.

Let’s start at the beginning: Easter Sunday is the celebration at the end of Lent, commemorating the resurrection of Jesus. Lent is the period before Easter, starting on or about Ash Wednesday  (depending on your religion),  and ending just before Easter. It signifies the 40 days that Jesus wandered in the desert, and those observing Lent solemnly honour his sacrifice by many activities that seek to bring them closer to God. Fasting as Jesus did, or giving up luxuries in life is usual for the faithful during Lent; prayer, penance and repentance are also common. Hence the common expression, “giving up (something) for Lent”.

The Lenten fast of ancient times was much more broad and strict than it is today, in some places allowing only bread in one’s diet, but for most removing all animal products and allowing no meals until later in the day or the evening. Nowadays, a fast usually involves a full meal and up to two “collations” – sustenance to keep one going, but not so much as to count for a full meal. Some people do not fast but do remove meat from their diets, either for all of Lent or at least on Ash Wednesday and on all Fridays and Saturdays in Lent. Lent ends either on Good Friday, or at midday on Easter Saturday, depending on your faith.

Since no animal products were allowed during Lent, sweet breads (containing milk, eggs and/or butter) would not be on the menu. Therefore, hot cross buns would be eaten at the end of Lent. They are not just a random treat, either – the cross on the top signifies the crucifixion of Jesus, and the spices represent those used to embalm him for his funeral. The first hot cross bun was apparently baked by a monk in medieval times.

The solemn nature of hot cross buns is not to be taken lightly – in 1592, Queen Elizabeth I actually forbid their sale on any day but holy days (Good Friday, Christmas, or for funerals). The punishment for selling them was to have all your product donated to the poor. James I of England did the same thing in the 1600’s; for many years you could not find a hot cross bun recipe, as the buns were only made in secret by home bakers. The first modern record of them is a written account of street sellers hawking them in the 1700’s, the source of the nursery rhyme I remember:

Hot cross buns!
Hot cross buns!
One a penny, two a penny.
Hot cross buns!

If you have no daughters,
Give them to your sons!
One a penny, two a penny.
Hot cross buns!

Of course, as with most things that carry such significance there are many bits of folklore attached to hot cross buns. Did you know…

  • hot cross buns are said to have healing powers? If you give one to someone who is sick, it can help make them better (perhaps this comes from sharing them with those less fortunate?)
  • hot cross buns don’t go bad? If you hang one in your kitchen on Good Friday, it will bode for good breads all year long, and keep your house safe from fire and bad spirits. (the preserved fruit would help keep the bun fresher, but I’m not sure I would keep it up for a full year.)
  • hot cross buns are full of luck? Taking one on a sea voyage will prevent a shipwreck, and it is said that friends sharing a bun will have a strong bond of friendship in the coming year. (Any hope against shipwreck was probably worth trying; as for friendships, well who wouldn’t want a pal that shared their treat?)

Although I don’t observe any traditional religion, I do certainly believe that sharing oneself with loved ones and in the community is important. I also believe that to be a good person requires thoughtfulness and focus. As such, I can understand the importance of Easter and appreciate its solemn history.

So, in honour of Easter, may you enjoy every moment. Whether you celebrate a feast day that is at the centre of your faith, or your family, or both, I wish you well this Easter weekend.

Peace be with you.

Food for Foolish Times

April Fool’s Day is coming up this week, and so I thought I would use that as inspiration to be a bit goofy. It could be cabin fever – the delayed arrival of spring has made me a bit stir-crazy. I don’t know about you, but I just feel that a little bit of whimsy is the best way to weather the storm.

Hopefully you will forgive the lack of nutritional value in this week’s recipes and take pleasure in knowing this topic give you water cooler fodder for the week to come!

Did you know that a real seasonal spring food is Peeps? They are a traditional sweet made by a company called Just Born, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; they come most commonly in the form of baby chicks. If you have never seen or heard of Peeps, check the Easter section of the larger grocery stores. If you’d like to see how Peeps are made, you can check out this factory video:

Peeps have a very loyal following, with some people taking their appreciation to quite imaginative heights! There are even such Peep pastimes as Peep Jousts (arm your Peep with a toothpick under his wing for a lance, then put him in the microwave with another combatant and after placing your wagers on the winner, push the ON button. The winner is the one that expands enough to engulf his unwitting enemy.) I could have posted a video on this, but I prefer that you imagine the fun…

There is Peep art – patterns of the charming little fellows glued on canvas that sell for hundreds of dollars. (Peeps do come in an array of colours, allowing for numerous permutations in design, so it’s not as silly as you might think.)

 

Simple indulgence in Peeps is ample goofiness, and you needn’t feel guilty eating them. They are only 32 calories each, and there are 350 million of them made each year, so they are certainly not endangered.

I suppose if you prefer natural foods, you could just stick to regular marshmallows. Did you know they have been around for 200 years and that originally the root of the marshmallow plant was what made them sticky and gooey? This plant was also used to soothe sore throats. I don’t know if you could attest to a marshmallow doing that but it arguably does make you feel better when you eat one.

Whether you like them pre-stuck to Rice Krispies in a square or roasted over an open flame will not diminish the smile that seems to get stuck on your face after eating them.

I have a few final notes for you if you choose to let whimsy strike and indulge in the spongy confection…

  1. Beware anyone brandishing a roasted marshmallow – flaming and sticky is not a very safe combination in the air.
  2. If you do get melted (or manhandled) marshmallow stuck somewhere it shouldn’t be, remember to remove it as soon as possible or it will become like Super Glue.
  3. The best remedy for unsticking marshmallow bits seems to be licking them off, so try to aim for something or someone you like. (If you use peanut butter, be sure to ask about nut allergies first.)

If you like your marshmallow inside something else, here’s a recipe that includes the other seasonal sweet – chocolate.

Chocolate-Marshmallow Brownies

3/4 cup Callebaut chocolate
1 cup unsalted butter
2 1/4 cups white sugar
5 large eggs

Zest of 1 full orange, grated on a “microplane” (fine grater)
1 tsp vanilla extract

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 cups small Callebaut chocolate chunks (or chocolate chips)
2 cups miniature marshmallows

Preheat oven to 350F. Grease a 9 x 13 inch baking pan.

Heat chocolate and butter in a pan slowly while stirring, until melted. Stir in sugar until melted and well blended. Cool the mixture 10 to 15 minutes.

Add eggs, orange zest and vanilla and stir until blended. Add flour, salt, and mix again. Add chocolate chunks and marshmallows, and pour into your pan.

Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until brownies spring back when touched in the centre of the pan. Let cool on a wire rack. Cut and serve at room temperature, dusted with icing sugar if you want to dress them up.

Happy April Fools’ Day 🙂 And if you’re saving yourself, Happy Easter!

Simple Pasta – or is it?

Pasta is one of the great simple dinners. I’m not saying it can’t be a great meal but the part I love about pasta dishes is that their true beauty is sublime. Often the most spectacular plates are made from only a few ingredients.

Living with a chef in the house I often have sauces leftover, and pasta makes a great vehicle to carry sauce in a new way. Our latest favourite is to use a mixture of goat cheese with herbs that is made for filling mushroom caps. Stirred in at the last minute with sautéed veggies, it makes a tangy and filling dinner that is reasonably healthy and is done in less than 20 minutes. What’s not to like about that?

They say that Marco Polo was the one that brought pasta to Italy from his travels in Asia, but history shows that various places in Italy already had pasta as a common food in the 13th century when Marco Polo was travelling. (Whoever “they” are, they’re wrong.) Many other countries have similar foods that offer a hearty meal from a sort of boiled dough; spaetzle and orzo,as well as various dumplings like perogies use the same ingredients – flour and water, sometimes with eggs. This is a food of the people, a staple for the working class.

Maybe that’s why so many people love pasta – it’s not intimidating. You can drill down to the details and cook it just right, add just-picked herbs and quality oils, grate masterfully aged Parmigiano Reggiano. But you can also open the box and stir in that glow-in-the-dark powder and still have dinner.

Nello, in New York City, serves white truffle pasta in season. It’s not on the menu, so be prepared to pay the going price.

I wasn’t surprised when I saw an article today on a restaurant in New York serving the most expensive pasta in the U.S. Americans do love superlatives, and there are expensive and rare ingredients that work wonderfully well on a simple canvas like pasta. White truffles, which are in season at the moment, sell for hundreds of dollars an ounce, so when you shave one over pasta sautéed in butter, it can cost a lot. (The current price is apparently $275. If you visit the restaurant in the fall when black truffles are in season, it’s a bargain at about half the price.)

Any way you want to serve it up, pasta is a great way to start the week. I feel better having had some. It could be one of the world’s oldest comfort foods.

Here’s to a great rest of the week.

Beware the Ides of March

Yesterday was a lighthearted day in the world of food – it was Pi Day (3-14, as in the mathematical value giving the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. ) In my humble opinion it was a construct created by some bored mathematicians trying to justify a bit of dessert, but hey, whatever floats your boat. I suppose one could say we make up for it with today’s significance, in the infamy of the quote from ancient Roman times that forbode the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C. A psychic had told the Emperor he would not live past March 15th, and sure enough he was killed on his way to a Senate meeting. His death triggered a civil war.

ITALY – SEPTEMBER 09: The death of Caesar, March 15, 44 BC, by Vincenzo Camuccini (1771-1844), 1798, oil on canvas, 400×707 cm. Detail. Republican, Italy, 1st century BC. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Now I don’t intend to rain on anyone’s parade today – it’s Hump Day too, and I try not to add to the stress of everyday life but rather lighten it. So, hang on till the end and you will be rewarded, I promise. I just thought you might find it interesting that the 15th of March is a day prone to unfortunate events, to say the least. (All the more reason for rejoicing when we make it through, right?)

Did you know that March 15 was the day in 1917 that the Czar Nicholas II abdicated the throne, ending a royal dynasty in Russia that had lasted over 300 years? To make matters worse, he and his family did not get to live out their lives happily in exile; they were taken captive and executed a year later. The same day in 1939 is when Germany invaded Czechoslovakia. Things certainly went downhill after that.

Weather phenomena of nasty proportions have taken their toll on the Ides of March as well. In 1889, a cyclone sank six warships off the coast of Samoa. Over 200 sailors died. In 1941, a blizzard blew through the American Midwest; at least 60 deaths were related to the storm. The world record for rainfall on a single day happened on March 15, and NASA announced the alarmingly fast decrease in the ozone layer in 1988.

With all of this historic data – and more – I deemed it necessary to invoke another ancient quote:

carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero

You have likely heard the first part of this quote from the Roman poet, Horace. It usually translates as “Seize the day, trust not in tomorrow”. I agree that Horace’s intent was not to scare people into thinking about death, but rather to take action and make the most of one’s life.

With that in mind, I’ll remind you that it’s #WineWednesday (yes, that really is a thing). If you’re not a wine drinker, you can still toast your good health with your beverage of choice – craft beer, artisan cocktail, home-pressed juice, even a glass of Coke – or filtered water – will do the trick. It’s the action that counts. If you can, support a local business and try something fun. We are very fortunate in the Okanagan to have many wineries and breweries as well as distilleries with wonderful libations, and there are more in other parts of British Columbia. If you’re interested, here are a few references:

And, in the interest of being a responsible drinker and also enjoying life to the fullest, I suggest you add some food to your celebrations. Cheese is lovely with wine, or beer. The folks at Bright Cellars have a wonderful website with a Cheese Quiz that might help you choose (and if you live in the U.S. you can join their cheese club!) Or perhaps some veggies and dip? if I do say so myself, my Hummus recipe is pretty darn good. Even if you’d rather skip ahead to dessert, make the most of it – Chocolate Soufflé fits the decadent side of life, but if you need something more practical, Chocolate Wacky Cake can be whipped up in a jiffy.

However your day is going (or went, depending on when you read this), it’s always worth taking a moment to breathe in and rejoice. I myself feel extra fortunate, since food and drink are most often shared. That gives me one more reason to celebrate; being around a table with others is sustenance on another level.

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