Victoria Sandwich

Victoria Sandwich is a lovely old-fashioned cake.  It's a light sponge cake with fresh cream and jam or fruit.

Victoria Sandwich is a lovely old-fashioned cake. It’s a light sponge cake with fresh cream and jam or fruit.

My dad’s birthday is June 18 and Father’s Day usually falls close by, if not on his actual birthday.  He loves cakes and sweets and misses Irish cakes.  This year, for his birthday/Father’s Day I decided to make him a Victoria Sandwich —  an old fashioned cake that I don’t think I’ve made since I was 13 or 14. It’s a very light sponge with a filling of fresh cream and jam (my school recipe calls for a chocolate buttercream filling which I remember being good.)  It used to be the classic afternoon tea cake.  Since I made it as a young teen, you know it’s not a complicated recipe.

Although I wrote down the ingredients,  I did not write down the steps involved in actually making the cake and for some mind-boggling reason we were instructed to use margarine —  this was in Ireland, a country awash in possibly the best butter in the world. I definitely wanted a recipe that used butter and needed to confirm that I remembered how to make the cake. And, since June is strawberry season, I also wanted to include fresh berries with the jam.

I found this recipe for Victoria Sponge using butter and fresh strawberries on Irish chef Kevin Dundon’s website.  He included it in his “Back to Basics” cooking series that airs on PBS.  As I’ve noted before, organic cream makes a big difference in the flavor of cream cakes. It’s even a different color than standard whipping cream — more yellow.  Yes, it is more expensive, but how often do you eat cream cakes?   They are meant to be a treat. This is how it turned out.  As my neighbor commented “not shabby” for a cake I haven’t made since I was a young teenager.  I won’t wait that long to make it again, maybe with raspberries next month.  Happy birthday dad!

This is the recipe for Victoria Sandwich I wrote in the back of my secondary school cookery book when I was 13.

This is the recipe for Victoria Sandwich I wrote in the back of my secondary school cookery book when I was 13.

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Hidden Treasures at Printer’s Row Lit Fest

 

Used cookbooks I found at the Printer's Row Litfest.

Used cookbooks I found at the Printer’s Row Litfest.

If you go to the annual Printer’s Row Lit Fest  in Chicago this weekend I recommend spending some time at the many used book stalls.   They’re a treasure trove for lovers of vintage cookbooks.  Several years ago I found “A Taste of Ireland in Food and in Pictures” by the esteemed  Irish food writer Theodora FitzGibbon, ( Food writing was the least of her accomplishments. Read her biography “A Taste for Love.”) published by Pan in 1970.   Three years ago — on my birthday — I did one last search through a stack of used books before leaving the festival.  I nearly fell over when among the dog-eared and stained volumes I discovered  the 1959 paperback edition of the James Beard Cookbook and saw that it had been autographed by the great man himself.

James Beard autograph

James Beard autograph

I felt like the universe had given me a birthday gift.  Both of these vintage cookbooks have become indispensable in my  growing collection.  I can’t wait to see what I find this year.

Earth Day Cupcakes

Happy Earth Day cupcakes

Happy Earth Day cupcakes

 

Although I love cooking and blogging, my day job is helping to protect the environment.  I decided to bring my food and environmental worlds together and make special Earth Day cupcakes for my coworkers using organic carrots, eggs and pecans from Chicago’s Green City Market .   I used Martha Stewart’s recipe for carrot cake cupcakes http://www.marthastewart.com/351273/carrot-cake-cupcakes-cream-cheese-frosting  because I trust that she knows what she is doing. She didn’t let me down. The cupcakes were not too sweet and stayed moist for days.

I wanted to decorate the cupcakes to look like the earth from space, but still wanted to use cream cheese frosting because it’s not a proper carrot cake without it. It was a challenge.  Butter cream is definitely much easier to work with. They kind of looked like an Impressionist’s view of the earth from space — but everyone still understood what I was going for and, most importantly, they tasted good.   (Note: Cream cheese frosting usually includes vanilla, but I left it out because I read  that vanilla extract and food coloring don’t play well together.)

To frost the cupcakes, I used a half cup of the plain frosting mixed with six drops of blue food coloring.  I used a 9 inch angled spatula to spread the blue frosting on the cakes.  To make the continents, I mixed an eighth of a cup of plain frosting with two drops of green food coloring and “painted” them on top of the blue base with a small decorating brush I bought at a craft store.    I also used a decorating brush to paint white frosting “clouds”  over the blue and green.  A couple of tips for easier decorating, the frosting should be at room temperature and make sure the cupcakes have completely cooled before starting to frost them.

 

carrot cake cupcakes 003

Cream Cheese Frosting

8 oz. cream cheese at room temperature

4 oz. unsalted butter at room temperature

1 cup confectioner’s (icing) sugar

Place cream cheese in the bowl of a stand mixer.  Using a spatula, break it up.

Add butter.  Mix at low speed to cream cheese and butter together.

Slowly add the confectioner’s sugar and mix at medium  speed until sugar, butter and cream cheese are blended.

Irish Wine – Who’d Have Drunk It?

Concannon Vineyards

Concannon Vineyards

Last week, my friends Dolores and Dan invited me to their house for a St. Patrick’s Day dinner of beef and Guinness stew.  When I told Dolores that I had brought an “Irish” wine for the dinner, she looked at me as if I had two heads.  Even to my Irish friends, the idea of Irish wine seems like a joke.  Not many of them know that one of the first families of California wine making is descended from an Irish immigrant.  I had just read about pioneering winemaker James Concannon on the Daily Sip blog.   What a great story. He was born in the Aran Islands on St. Patrick’s Day, 1847, and, like many young Irishmen, left Ireland at 18 in search of adventure and better opportunities.  He made his way to Mexico and California and was engaged in all kinds of business endeavors.  In 1883, he purchased a property in the Livermore Valley, California, initially to make communion wine for the Catholic Church. Four generations later, the Concannon family is still producing wine at that same vineyard and is very proud of its Irish heritage.  In 2012, John Concannon produced an Irish whiskey aged in Concannon Petite Sirah casks as a tribute to his great grandfather.

When President Ronald Reagan — a former Governor of California — visited the birthplace of his parents in 1984, he presented a Methuselah (6 liter bottle) of Concannon Reserve Petite Sirah 1979 vintage to Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald as an official gift from the United States.  I doubt that James Concannon could ever have imagined that one day his family’s wine would be presented to the Prime Minister of an independent Ireland by an Irish American President of the United States.

I love this story so much and since Concannon is close enough to my own surname, I think Concannon Vineyards is going to be my new “house” wine.

For more information about the history of Concannon family, their wines and family recipes go to the Concannon Vineyard web site.

(For a fascinating history of Irish winemakers around the world, read “A Kingdom of Wine” by Ted Murphy published by the Ireland Fund Winegeese Society.)

Irish Fish Chowder

This is the perfect warming bowl after you get home cold and hungry from the St. Patrick’s Day parade.   The genius thing is it only takes about 20 minutes to make and is filling enough for dinner.

I recently saw Irish chef Kevin Dundon of Dunbrody House in Wexford on TV making the fish chowder they serve in the hotel.  It looked so easy and delicious that I couldn’t wait to make my own version. In Chicago, we don’t have the same selection of fish that they have in Ireland, so I improvised using the wild fish my local supermarket had available.  I even threw in half a can of wild Alaskan salmon that I was leftover from lunch.  What makes this chowder Irish is the smoked salmon, but  other than that, feel free to use any other fish and seafood available to you.  I have converted everything into American measurements.

Nil geal an gaire ach san ait a mbionn an biadh — laughter is brightest were the food is best.  Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

If you like this recipe, please share it.  If you make it, please come back and comment and let me know how you made it your own.

 

Irish Fish Chowder

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 10 minutes

Total Time: 20 minutes

Yield: 4 serving

Serving Size: one bowl

Irish Fish Chowder

Ingredients

  • 2 tbsp. butter
  • 1 small leek, cleaned and chopped
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1 small carrot, diced
  • 2 medium red potatoes peeled and cubed
  • 2 oz. smoked salmon, cut into strips
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine
  • 2 cups fish or seafood stock (I used Swanson's seafood stock in a box)
  • 1/4 lb. sockeye salmon, cut into bite size pieces and skin removed.
  • 1/4 pound cod, cut into bite size pieces and skin removed
  • 1/4 pound haddock, cut into bite size pieces and skin removed
  • 6 Key West shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • 1 tbsp. chopped, fresh tarragon
  • 1/2 cup cream
  • salt and pepper

Instructions

  1. Melt the butter in a large, heavy saucepan over medium heat.
  2. Add leek, onion, carrot, potato and smoked salmon. Saute for a few minutes until the vegetables soften
  3. Pour in the wine and allow the liquid to reduce by half.
  4. Add the fish or seafood stock. Bring the liquid to a simmer, then add the fresh fish and shellfish.
  5. Bring the pot back to a simmer. Add the tarragon, cream, salt and pepper.
  6. Cover and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes.
  7. Serve in bowls with fresh bread and butter
http://40shadesofflavor.com/irish-fish-chowder/

Black Velvet, the original Irish cocktail

Black velvet 004

 

This St. Patrick’s Day, if, like me, you have long outgrown crowded, rowdy bars serving Juvenile plastic cups of watery green beer, raise a glass to your Irish heritage with the original Irish cocktail.   I’m talking about Black Velvet, an elegant combination of Guinness or other stout beer with champagne, that was created in the late nineteenth century.  Like the little black dress, its sophistication lies in its simplicity.  It says that you know who you are and having nothing to prove.

The first time I drank Black Velvet was in rooms at midnight at Trinity Ball, the social event of the year at Trinity College Dublin.  I was also served the cocktail as an after dinner drink in Chicago at a party celebrating the birthday of Irish playwright Oscar Wilde.  To quote the great man “After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relations.”  I’ll drink to that. Slainte!

To make a Black Velvet, pour Guinness or other stout halfway up a champagne flute – tilt the glass toward you to preserve the creamy head of the beer – then fill the rest of the glass with chilled champagne.

Cashel Blue and Fig Shortbread

I find a well-appointed cheese board hard to resist.  By that I mean, not just a selection of different kinds of cheese, but nuts, jams, fruit and interesting bread or crackers. Even though I bake, I am always more tempted by salty, savory treats than sweets.  Last Saturday, I attended the annual Ireland Network Chicago Ball at the elegant Drake Hotel and was very happy that the Irish Dairy Board/Kerrygold provided a selection of wonderful Irish cheeses after dinner. I know this might seem freakish to  some of you chocoholics, but I actually passed on the chocolate mousse dessert in favor of a plate of cheese.    It reminded me that I recently experimented using Kerrygold’s Cashel Blue in a savory shortbread recipe.

I was recently intrigued by a recipe for Stilton sables (a fancy French word for thin shortbread biscuits) by Beca Lyne-Pirkis, one of the contestants in BBC’s “Great British Bake Off.”   To make it my own, I started with her basic recipe for the shortbread but substituted something Irish — Cashel Blue cheese — and something American – California black mission figs — for the British ingredients.   The dried figs benefit from being rehydrated for a few minutes before adding them to the dough.

I haven’t come across savory shortbread much in the States, but these tasty biscuits are a nice addition to a cheese board and are definitely worth trying.  They are also lovely served on their own as simple canapes when friends come round for drinks.  A bonus is the dough can be made ahead and frozen so you always have something on hand for unexpected guests.

 

Cashel Blue Cheese, Fig and Walnut Shortbread

Prep Time: 40 minutes

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour

Yield: 25 shortbread biscuits

Cashel Blue Cheese, Fig and Walnut Shortbread

Ingredients

  • 4 oz. all purpose flour
  • 3 oz.cold, unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
  • 4 oz.cold Cashel Blue cheese, chilled and cut into small pieces
  • 3 oz. dried Black Mission Figs, cut into small pieces
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 4 oz. walnuts, ground in a food processor

Instructions

  1. Soak the chopped figs for 10 minutes in just enough cold water to just cover them. Drain.
  2. Heat oven to 375 degrees.
  3. Put the flour, butter, cheese and salt into the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until the mixture looks like large breadcrumbs, but be careful not to over mix.
  4. Add the chopped figs and egg yolk and pulse until the dough forms a ball.
  5. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead lightly. Press it out to form a disk, cover in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 20 minutes. If not baking right away, at this stage the dough can be placed in a plastic freezer bag and frozen for future use.
  6. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
  7. Grind walnuts in a food processor, then spread out on a large plate.
  8. Remove the chilled dough from the refrigerator. Place between two sheets of parchment paper and roll out to 1/4 inch thickness. Using a 2 inch round biscuit cutter, cut into rounds. Coat the rounds in the ground walnuts and place on the lined baking sheets.
  9. Bake for 16 to 20 minutes until golden brown. Remove from oven and let cool slightly on the baking sheet before removing them to a wire rack to cool completely.
http://40shadesofflavor.com/cashel-blue-and-fig-shortbread/
The

 

Love at first bite — chocolate krispie hearts

Chocolate krispie treats were a staple of school bake sales when I was young — not surprising since they are easy enough for a middle schooler to make his or herself and don’t involve baking.  I’m surprised that I don’t often see the chocolate version in the states.

No exaggeration, these treats came together in less than five minutes. They do take another 30 minutes to cool and set up. Stirring the mixture will be easier if you first grease a rubber spatula with butter or spray it with a canola oil baking spray.  I used milk chocolate chips because I already had a bag in my pantry, but you could certainly use dark or bittersweet chocolate.  Since it is Valentine’s Day, when the treats were cool, I made heart-shaped treats by cutting them out with a buttered a heart shaped cookie cutter.    This recipe makes about six hearts, depending on the size of your cutter, and you will have a extra krispie treats around the borders.  You can also just cut them into the more typical bars.  You will have more treats that way.

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Love at first bite — chocolate krispie hearts

Cook Time: 5 minutes

Total Time: 35 minutes

Yield: 6 chocolate krispie hearts, more if you just cut them into bars.

Love at first bite — chocolate krispie hearts

Ingredients

  • 6 oz. butter
  • 10 1/2 oz. (one bag) mini marshmallows
  • 10 oz. milk chocolate chips or grated dark chocolate
  • pinch of salt
  • 2 oz. puffed rice cereal such as Rice Krispies

Instructions

  1. Butter an 8 by 8 dish.
  2. Melt butter in a large saucepan.
  3. Add the marshmallows,chocolate and salt. Stir with a greased rubber spatula until all the ingredients are melted.
  4. Stir in the puffed rice cereal until all the grains are coated with the marshmallow/chocolate mixture.
  5. Turn out into the buttered dish, spread out evenly and pat down the surface until it's even.
  6. Let cool for 30 minutes.
  7. Butter the inside of a heart-shaped cookie cutter. When the chocolate krispie treats are cool, cut out heart shaped treats. You can skip the cookie cutter and just cut them into bars.
http://40shadesofflavor.com/love-first-bite-chocolate-krispie-hearts/

Top Chef Home Edition

This winter, in the 21st century equivalent of “hey kids, let’s put on a show”,  my friend Pete and his friends and neighbors in “Halsted Flats” — a very stylish apartment building on Chicago’s north side — have been holding their own “Top Chef” cooking contests prior to watching the latest episodes of “Top Chef Season 12.”  They recorded the weekly cook-offs on smart phones and posted short videos of “Top Chef Halsted Flats” on Tumblr: topchefhf.tumblr.com

I was surprised and honored to be invited to judge the final contest to decide the winner of “Top Chef Halsted Flats.”  What a fun night of great and inventive food and, of course, wine.  The Girl Power team of Julia and Jojo and the boys’ team of Peter and David engaged in a saucepan to saucepan battle for the title of “Top Chef.”

Top Chef Halsted Flats finalists, David, Pete, Julia and Jojo.

Top Chef Halsted Flats finalists, David, Pete, Julia and Jojo.

Pete and Julia.

Pete and Julia.

 

Julia and Jojo’s three course menu was inspired by the Spice Girls who also provided the soundtrack to the Girl Power kitchen.  Here’s the Girl Power menu:

Top Chef Boystown 047

In case you can’t read it, the first course was “scary” scallops with bacon and cream, “sporty” salmon with a soy and Dijon mustard glaze over “posh” squid ink pasta with truffle and champagne sauce with “Baby Ginger” chocolate and ginger spice cake pops with chocolate frosting paired with ginger beer.

Baby and Ginger Spice cake pops with ginger beer.

Baby and Ginger Spice cake pops with ginger beer.

Pete and David chose an Asian theme — pork pot stickers in a miso broth with ginger and lemongrass, Asian style stir fried pork in napa cabbage cups and an almond cookie with green tea-lychee ice cream, lychee and raspberry syrup.

Asian style pork cups

Asian style pork cups

More than the kitchens became heated.  The three judges engaged in lively discussions about the merits of each dish and the overall menus before awarding the title to Pete and Dave’s team.  Ultimately, the Girl Power team lost points for failing to take full advantage of the theme  they had chosen by not opting to include spices in each course.

Top Chef Halsted Flats winning team David and Peter in Peter's kitchen.

Top Chef Halsted Flats winning team David and Peter in Peter’s kitchen.

In addition to bragging rights, the winning team won the chef’s aprons and a copy of Chicago’s very own Top Chef Stephanie Izard’s cookbook “Girl in the Kitchen.”

For those confident enough in their culinary skills to compete for the real title, Bravo is holding an open casting call in Chicago on Tuesday, Feb. 11 for contestants for “Top Chef, Season 13.  Apply here: http://www.topchefcasting.com/

Belfast’s Vibrant Restaurant Scene

In a recent regular Travel Section feature “36 Hours”, the New York Times called a visit to Belfast “an eye opening experience in the best possible way” and praised its vibrant restaurant scene.  The writers gave shout outs to the Taste of Ulster sharing boards at Robinson and Cleaver, the Crown Liquour Saloon and Ox.  Click on the link to read the article and watch the video.

 

Hot toddy with ginger and lemon

I woke up on Sunday morning to this.

Snowy morning Feb. 1, 2015

Snowy morning Feb. 1, 2015

It got worse, the storm eventually dropped more than 19 inches of snow on Chicago.  It was “Superbowl Sunday”, but who really wants an ice cold beer during a blizzard or the next day spent digging out from the snowpocalypse? This is hot toddy weather.   To boost the drink’s heat index, I like to add a piece of crystallized ginger to the whiskey, water, sugar and lemon.  Hot whiskey is sometimes called  “Irish chicken soup” because it’s a folk cure for a cold or sore throat.  I’m not sure whether this hot toddy will cure a cold, but I guarantee that you will feel better after drinking it.

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Hot toddy with ginger and lemon

Hot toddy with ginger and lemon

Ingredients

  • 1 oz. Irish whiskey
  • 1 cube demerara sugar or tsp. brown sugar or honey
  • 1 piece of crystallised ginger
  • 1 tsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • Slice of lemon for garnish
  • 1 cup very hot water

Instructions

  1. Boil water.
  2. Add whiskey, sugar, ginger and lemon juice to a glass.
  3. Place a metal teaspoon in the glass to conduct the heat from the hot water away from the glass to prevent it from breaking.
  4. Add hot water to the whiskey. Garnish with slice of lemon.
http://40shadesofflavor.com/hot-toddy-ginger-lemon/