Spiced pecans have become my signature holiday party food gift. Crunchy, salty and sweet with a touch of heat, they are an irresistible cocktail snack. They also add personality to a cheese plate or a simple green salad.
A homemade food gift is more personal and saves money, and who doesn’t want to save money at this time of the year? I buy the pecans at a warehouse club and package them in repurposed mason or jam jars decorated with a bit of Christmas ribbon or a sprig of fresh holly or rosemary from the garden.
Irish cooking maven Darina Allen will speak at iBAM Chicago 2015.
It’s rare to meet one of your heroes. I can’t believe that I will be lucky enough to meet one of mine twice in less than five months and have the honor of introducing her.The great Irish chef and cookbook author Darina Allen, founder of the Ballymaloe Cookery School in Shanagarry, Co. Cork, will be speaking this weekend at the Irish Books, Art and Music Festival at Chicago’s Irish American Heritage Center, 4626 N. Knox. She will receive the festival’s first award for culinary arts at a gala dinner on Friday, Oct. 9. The festival is free, tickets for the gala are $150, $125 for IAHC members. Check the iBAM schedule for details about the festival and gala. This is a rare opportunity to hear her speak in Chicago, so get to iBAM on Saturday or Sunday afternoon. And please share this post.
When I was in Ireland last May, I went to the Kerrygold Ballymaloe Food and Literary Festival. Although only three years old, LitFest has become a must-attend event for chefs and food writers worldwide. Although Darina Allen is the head of the whole thing, amazingly she was one of the first people I met at LitFest following Chef April Bloomfield’s cooking demo. Not only did I talk to her about a mutual friend in Cork, she handed me a plate of April’s outstanding food.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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
Soak the chopped figs for 10 minutes in just enough cold water to just cover them. Drain.
Heat oven to 375 degrees.
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.
Add the chopped figs and egg yolk and pulse until the dough forms a ball.
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.
Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
Grind walnuts in a food processor, then spread out on a large plate.
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.
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.
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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