travelogue | champagne, france (march 2016)

Champagne France TravelogueNew to the travelogue series on Some Infinite Thing? See past travels!

From the moment I turned 29, Austin was plotting how we would welcome my 30th. I’m his elder by a year and a month, so he sets the tone for how we celebrate new decades.

One evening, he shot up in bed as we were reading and exclaimed to me: “It’s obvious!” He continued, “where else would you celebrate turning 30 than by drinking Champagne in Champagne?!” I could toast to that.

Austin set about planning a 30th birthday celebration that would start in the Champagne region of France, eventually working up to Belgium and the Netherlands over the course of 10 days in March 2016.

He snagged some cheap mid-week tickets (YYZ to CDG), which added a couple bonus days to our initial plans for a week-long trip. We boarded a Wednesday night flight and slept/movie binged through the flight, landing mid-morning.25949434130_ba3096f4ba_bKnowing our intent was to circumvent Paris (nothing against Paris — it’s one of our favourite cities — but that wasn’t the point of this trip) we caught a TGV to Reims from Charles de Gaulle. The ride took about an hour and led us into the quaint downtown station.

We checked into our Airbnb rental, a simple, well-designed little apartment right near the Reims city centre. We set out to find a late lunch, opting for tartine and moules frites along the main stretch, given the off-hours dining time. As we often do when we arrive timezones east, we headed home to rest and acclimate to the difference.

26129871452_d6799b78f9_b 25949421770_dbffd82cda_b reims france airbnbReims (pronounced “rahnse”) is the big city of the Champagne-Ardenne region of northern France, and along with neighbouring town Epernay, forms the commercial hub of the region. The region has five administrative areas for grape-growing purposes, as has been drilled into my brain from these last few years of wine school: Aube, Côte des Blancs, Côte de Sézanne, Montagne de Reims and Vallée de la Marne. (This Wine Folly post offers a great primer on the Champagne region.)

For our first full day in Champagne, Austin booked a private tour of some of the smaller houses that required special arrangements to visit, through a company called La Vigne du Roy. For those of us used to the North American model of wine tasting (show up and taste) the by-appointment-only system in many of France’s wine regions may come as a surprise. It’s why we opted for the services of a reputable guide to help plan our itinerary.

Our guide, Katya, a St. Petersburg native who had lived in Champagne for almost two decades, met us at our apartment just after breakfast to start the day. Through the day, she switched effortlessly between perfect French, Russian, English and Italian — I’m always impressed to see a fellow polyglot in action, but especially one with a flawless command of so many languages. 26156008251_4f9b060813_b reims ponson champagne 26222304285_5a5808b814_b

We started our day by visiting a small producer, Champagne Pascal Ponson et Fils in Coulommes la Montagne, about 45 minutes from Reims. The drive through the narrow cobblestoned streets and misty vineyards on the Montagne de Reims was incredible — stripped of their vines for the winter, you could really see the age of the old and spindly plants braced into the slope.

We walked into Ponson’s bottling facility in full swing, bottles being filled and capped for second fermentation. Descending into the small cellar, we encountered two riddlers at work — hand riddling bottles on old-style pupitres (riddling desks). This was something I’d only ever read about in textbooks! Even amongst quality producers, few modern ones undertake all their riddling by hand, due to both the expense of manual labour and expertise required.

We moved up to a small tasting room where Katya poured glasses of each house variety — Prestige (Pinot Meunier dominant) with a floral, fragrant nose; Grand Reserve (1/3 of each varietal in the classic style) with a golden hue and honeyed nose; Rose Gentes Dames (Pinot Meunier dominant rose) with a long red fruit nose; and the Cuvee de Domaine (or house blend, Chardonnay dominant) with a fine bubble and structured, toasty nose.

Another difference between wine tasting in Europe and North America — they don’t spit! I’m used to having a spit cup by my side during extended tastings, but Katya was horrified at the thought. Bottoms up!

We continued to our next stop, another small producer based out of the village Ecueil called Champagne Nicolas Maillart. Though the facilities were closed to the public, Katya had full range of the cellars, production facilities and tasting room, ensuring we took our time to explore every nook.

After touring the labyrinthine cellars beneath the property, we sat down in the tasting room for a truly extraordinary tasting of all eight wines on offeras well as some special vintages on hand that she opened for us to taste comparatively. It’s not every day one gets to comparatively taste 10+ styles of a house’s Champagnes! Blissful.maillart champagne france 26129867032_e65365ae90_b 26196387856_dee8f75205_b

By this time, we needed food, so Katya dropped us at a bistro back in Reims for a lunch she had arranged. Coq au vin for Austin and dorade in beurre blanc for me — with more Champagne, of course — and petits fours for dessert.

We continued our afternoon in Reims proper — where many of the big houses are located — opting to visit Taittinger. Katya noted she preferred to visit small producers because “once you’ve had a tour with one big house, you’ve seen them all” but acknowledged it was important to visit at least one commercial-scale producer, to get a sense of the sheer volume of production. (We’d visit Mumm on our own the next day, and further understand her perspective!)

26222298415_ea575361e3_oWe lucked out at Taittinger with a fabulous guide — an expat Brit who lived and breathed Champagne and ate up our dozens of questions with aplomb. The chalk caves beneath the property were like nothing else I’ve experienced — endless, soaring and stacked dozens deep with every last vintage, many under lock and key. It delighted me to no end to place my hand on the consistently damp and chilled chalk walls of the caves, nature’s perfect temperature regulator for these special wines.26156000721_b145ce4b1a_oAfter exploring the caves, we returned to the tasting room to sample Taittinger’s Chardonnay-dominant house style. I’ve always enjoyed their house style on previous occasions, so it was fun to experience a familiar wine in place.

We returned to our apartment sated from a day of bubbles (“When again will we drink so much Champagne in one day?!” I gushed to Austin… “Tomorrow?” he replied. Touche…) for an afternoon nap.

With evening’s arrival, we dressed for dinner at a restaurant just down the street, L’Alambic, whose dining room is housed in an old Champagne cave once part of Reims’ vast networks. It was a simple little seasonal menu executed with care, which we paired with what else but more Champagne — a zero dosage style bracing with salinity.

The next morning, we again set out with a guide to explore two small Premier Cru producers based in the town of Hautvillers, where Dom Perignon is entombed. We started at a truly mom-and-pop operation, Champagne Fernand Lemaire — so small they lack a website — to tour their tiny cave and taste their wines. These were of exceptional value and perfectly suited as a food wine.25949415400_72a3e2267a_o.jpg25619644583_3928eb14e6_oFrom there, we took time to explore Hautvillers on our own by foot, notably the abbey where Dom Perignon first “tasted the stars”, as in the infamous (if fictitious) tale. Perignon is entombed at the abbey’s altar (above photo), which was something incredible to behold after reading so much about his important position in Champagne’s history and lore.25619643833_95c9e2402e_o.jpgFan-girl moment passed, we continued to JM Gobillard et Fils, which was both Austin and my favourite winery over the two days. We sat at their beautiful barrel table, sampling everything on offer. We both were blown away by a 20 euro (!) Blanc de Noirs wine that drank well beyond its price point. We still regret not shipping home several cases to have on hand for anytime-celebrations…

We retuned to Reims for an afternoon us two, starting with a big lunch at Bouillon des Halles, a brasserie recommended to us a couple times during our stay. We opted for their market menu, which was impeccably fresh and well priced — with fish, fresh pasta, house-made terrine and simple salads. There’s nothing fancy about northern French fare — it’s just thoughtful and simple — which I so adore.

Post-lunch, we digested with a long walk to the part of town where all the big houses are congregated, opting to visit Mumm as a comparison to the previous day’s Taittinger experience. It very much followed the same formula — a detailed account of the house’s history, tour of the caves and finish with a few iconic offerings in its tasting room.25619642593_d3f0efeaf9_o.jpg26129857372_f818b305ed_o.jpgWe realized at Mumm that we lucked out with our previous day’s guide, who seemed much more knowledgeable and excited by his wines. By this point, we understood Katya’s earlier point that one or two big houses is plenty. For any visitor to the region, I would suggest picking a favourite big house, then devoting the rest of your time (and money) to the endless options amongst tiny Cru and Villages producers.25949418140_69d9120f35_o.jpgThat afternoon, we ambled through the city centre, along our way gathering provisions for a picnic dinner at home — the best cheeses, meats, bread and produce we could find — coupled with a bottle of that wonderful Blanc de Noirs from Gobillard.

During our walk, we stopped off at the iconic Notre Dame de Reims with its famed stained glass windows, including Chagall’s blue glass. After watching the sun set into the cathedral’s warm facade, we retreated to our apartment for a final night in Reims before heading north to Brussels the next morning.26155995081_3826a1ba09_o.jpg25949416500_5c25281ef0_o.jpgAustin and I discussed at length on our train ride — was 2.5 days and six houses of varying size and complexity enough to experience Champagne? Yes and no.

Yes, in the sense that you eventually fatigue, in two ways.

First, information fatigue. Most tours/guides assume very minimal prior knowledge of Champagne on the part of visitors, which is completely understandable. But if you’ve already studied the region, its history, production, varietals and such, it becomes tedious to hear the same entry-level information presented over and again.

Second, palate fatigue. Your tongue can only take so much bracing, acidic liquid before it stops tasting anything at all, and Champagne is as bracing and acidic as wine gets! By the second full day, I was spitting about 50% of what we consumed and even then, I was at the precipice of what I could intelligently enjoy.

No, in in terms of depth and breadth.

First, any oenophile could spend days with these small producers and still not touch the surface of Champagne’s complexity. I could see returning with a sommelier or buyer in order to visit producer after producer for tastings.

Second, we didn’t experience the breadth of the region, no doubt. With more time, I also would have visited Epernay to experience either of Moet & Chandon or Veuve Clicquot’s famous houses. There are a handful of excellent restaurants in and around Epernay that we would have tried, time permitting. Further, it would have been great to venture deeper into the distinct regions to understand their equally distinct handling of grape varietals.

All said, I return to Austin’s adage to “save something for next time.” Champagne is a special place, and one I see us returning to at all times of the year to witness the cycle of production.

Stay

We loved our reasonably-priced Airbnb rental in the heart of town

Eat

L’Alambic for simple French cooking in a beautiful setting

Bouillon des Halles for impeccable market fare (also visit the market next door!)

See/Do

Consider Katya at La Vigne du Roy for an informed, personalized tour of the region’s small Cru producers

Use a guide like Cris Event to build a tour around Hautvillers, the home of Dom Perignon

Visit a big house or two in Reims (TaittingerMumm, Ruinart) or Epernay (Moet & ChandonVeuve Clicquot), and ensure you make reservations in advance

See the historic Notre Dame de Reims, the seat of coronation of France’s kings

Other Resources

Step-by-step guide to building a travel itinerary

How to pack a capsule suitcase

Some tested tips for a successful Airbnb booking

Snaps from our travels on Instagram

 

vege-table

32368682265_20ba898853_o.jpgOur household is a meat-eating one.

I spent over a decade of my life as an anemic vegetarian (who by benefit of science and persistent testing finally learned my body does not readily absorb non-heme iron). In other words, I reject plant-based iron sources, like dark greens and legumes. I was saved, literally, by animal protein. I still have my blood tested regularly and don’t ever receive my “perfectly average” iron levels without a silent thanks and cheer to the doctor who figured out my omnivorous destiny.

Animal protein always will be an important part of my diet to stave off anemia, and I consume at least a little bit each day.

But sometimes our former vegetarians surface (my husband, too, was a vegetarian for a sizeable part of his 20s) and we enjoy meals built around plant-based protein. We’ve had two vegetarian dishes recently that were so excellent I’m compelled to share: a cassoulet and citrus-radicchio farro salad that were fortifying weekday meals for mid-winter’s chill.

31683641494_e66d42d0a7_o.jpgVegetarian Cassoulet

This fresher take on heady cassoulet (one of my favourite southern French dishes), inspired by this recipe, is a perfect winter meal, replete with sturdy vegetables, dark greens, mushrooms and navy beans. We served it topped with crisp fingerling potatoes in place of the traditional breadcrumb topping. We go the extra mile to soak and cook beans from scratch, because while canned is great in a pinch, you can’t beat the texture of a fresh bean when it’s the star of the show!

Feeds two for dinner, with leftovers for lunch

Ingredients

  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 2 medium onions, diced
  • 2 celery ribs, diced
  • 3 medium carrots, peeled and diced
  • 3 large garlic cloves, minced
  • 8 ounces assorted mushrooms, quartered (we like cremini and shitake)
  • 1 head curly or lacinato kale, shredded
  • 1/2 c dry red wine (something mid-body like pinot noir or gamay)
  • 3 c navy (or other white) beans
  • 1.5 c vegetable broth
  • 1 large sprig rosemary, or several sprigs thyme
  • sea salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1/2c toasted walnuts (optional, to serve)

Method

In a large, shallow dutch oven, heat oil over medium. Add onion, celery, carrot and rosemary/thyme and cook about 10 minutes until vegetables are soft and translucent. Taste and season. 

Add the garlic and mushrooms and cover about five minutes until mushrooms have shrunk and released their moisture. Taste and season.

Place kale over mixture and cover again for about five minutes to wilt the greens. Taste and season.

To the mixture, add wine, beans and broth. Cook uncovered for about 10 minutes, until the beans are creamy and liquid has started to absorb.

Using a potato masher, mash a quarter of the beans to thicken the sauce, if desired.

Serve sprinkled with toasted walnuts, if desired.  We topped ours with roasted fingerling potatoes for more heft.

32368682265_20ba898853_oCitrus-Radicchio Farro Salad

Farro (spelt) is one of my favourite grains. I love its toothsome quality, deep nuttiness and ability to make a vegetarian meal feel substantial. Paired up with two winter stars: beloved blood oranges and the bitter foil of radicchio, this salad keeps getting better as it sits in Tupperware waiting for weekday lunches.

Makes 4 generous lunch portions

Ingredients

For the dressing:

  • juice of 1 medium blood orange
  • 1 Tbsp red wine vinegar
  • 1 Tbsp dijon mustard
  • 1 Tbsp maple syrup
  • generous salt and pepper, to taste
  • 5 Tbsp olive oil

For the salad:

  • 1 medium blood orange, peeled and segmented
  • 2 medium tangerines, peeled and sliced thinly crosswise
  • 1 small head radicchio, shaved
  • 2 c cooked farro
  • 1/4 c dates, pitted and chopped
  • 1/2 c parsley, finely chopped
  • 1/4 c sliced almonds, toasted

Method

To make the dressing, whisk together all ingredients except oil. Slowly add oil in a stream to emulsify.

To make the salad, toss in a large bowl all ingredients with dressing, reserving some orange slices and almonds for garnish. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed.

Related

an ode to shortbread

world's best shortbread cookiesWhen I was a girl, shortbread were standard issue in my mom’s Christmas cookie offering. Hers were tiny snowballs, studded with toasty, resinous walnuts and rolled in powdered sugar—the unassuming but delicious backbone of the cookie tin.

Perhaps because of this, I always imagined shortbread as the elegant adult of the Christmas cookie party—unfussy, subtly sweet, full of really good butter, and delicately cooked to blonde. 

My favourite shortbread is the roll-and-cut variety. There’s something smart but playful about choosing a shape—a star, Christmas tree, snowflake, diamond—and making dozens of identical snappy cookies to stack high and dust with powdered sugar, like snow.

I also favour a lightly-sugared shortbread that straddles the line between sweet and savoury. My preferred recipe uses a scant 1/2 cup sugar for four-dozen cookies, and can be coaxed further into the sweet realm with the aforementioned dusting of snow.

My preferred flavour combination is a holy trinity of orange zest, crushed hazelnut and pink peppercorn, which is just savoury enough and gives a moment of pause as you tease out the different notes. The peppercorn infuses the dough gently, providing a nice background warmpth, while the citrus pops and the hazelnut lends heft.

That said, the nut + spice + fruit formula is endlessly adaptable. Other combinations to try:

  • pistachio + green cardamom + orange
  • coconut + saffron + lime
  • walnut + lavender + lemon
  • pine nut + rosemary + Meyer lemon
  • almond + dried cherry + candied ginger
  • pecan + thyme + dried cranberry

Shortbreads always find a way into my cookie tins. I hope this sweet-savoury take on the tradition inspires your own.

world's best shortbread cookies

Orange Hazelnut Pink Peppercorn Shortbread

Makes about 4-dozen small cutout cookies

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup whole hazelnuts (or other nut)
  • zest of 1 large orange, about 1 Tbsp (or other zest)
  • 1 tsp crushed pink peppercorn (or other spice)
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2.5 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp fine sea salt
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) cold butter, cut into 1-tablespoon pieces
  • powdered sugar, for dusting (optional)

Method

Preheat oven to 325°F.

In a food processor, combine hazelnuts, sugar, orange zest, peppercorn and vanilla extract. Pulse until hazelnuts are finely chopped. Add flour and pulse further to combine.

Add butter to processor a few pieces at a time, pulsing to combine. The resulting mixture will be mealy and likely will not stick together, depending on your ambient humidity.

Transfer dough to a large bowl and knead until smooth and held together. If the dough will not come together, add water in 1 teaspoon increments until combined, but this is likely unnecessary. 

Divide dough in half. If storing for later, wrap in cling film and allow to come up to temperature for about 30 minutes before rolling.

On a floured surface, roll dough portions to 1/4-inch thickness. Cut out with desired shapes.

Place cookies 1-inch apart on a parchment-lined cookie sheet. Chill sheets in freezer for 5 minutes before baking.

Bake for about 12 minutes until bottoms are barely sandy in colour. Transfer to wire rack to cool.

If desired, dust the cooled cookies with powdered sugar.

alternate method to cut shortbread

Tips for Successful Shortbread

  1. Don’t fret if the dough feels a bit dry and crumbly, just knead a bit more. This is preferable to adding water for a tender-crumbed cookie.
  2. Minimize re-rolling by maximizing the cuts you make in the dough. I try not to re-roll dough more than once, as the extra flour lends tough cookies. Instead, I suggest slicing your final pass into a diamond or square shape (instead of an odd-shaped cookie cutter) to minimize wasted dough (see photo above).
  3. For even baking and minimal spread, pop your cookie sheet (with raw cookies on it) in the freezer for five minutes before baking.
  4. Light evenly-coloured shortbread are preferred. If yours are darkening too quickly, reduce oven temperature to 3oo°F.

Related

gingerbread for days

cranberry gingerbread recipeIn our house, holiday season hits when all things gingerbread emerge from the oven. I blame my childhood and a mom with a tooth for finely-aged fruitcakes and all desserts molasses-based and warmly-spiced. The headiness of gingerbread is the harbinger of Christmastime.

Through the years, I’ve amassed a steady repertoire of gingerbread recipes. This Melissa Clark recipe from the New York Times was a longtime standby, but last year I realized it uses too much sugar (for my preferences), which in turn masks the cranberry that should pop against a sweetly spiced cake.

I began the quest for my ultimate gingerbread.

This ultimate gingerbread is moist, tender-crumbed, soaringly high and springy, a bit sticky, and rich with molasses and spice. In my efforts to build a perfect recipe, I went through several and compared many traditional versions, eventually landing a hybridized recipe that resembles most closely this excellent Joy the Baker gingerbread. My version nixes the frosting in favour of a sticky cranberry layer, further refines the sweeteners and spices used and modifies the baking approach.

Having made it a couple times now, I will proclaim this gingerbread a Christmastime keeper. It meets all above criteria and keeps improving as it ages. Make it now for dessert tonight or breakfast tomorrow or a dinner party this weekend.

Orange-Scented Upside-Down Sticky Cranberry Gingerbread

Makes one towering (about 2.5-inches high) 9-inch round cake

Ingredients

For the cranberry caramel layer

  • 1 12-oz (3 cup) bag fresh or frozen cranberries
  • 2 Tbsp unsalted butter
  • 4 Tbsp medium brown sugar
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • pinch fine sea salt

For the cake

  • 2.25 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2.5 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp ground cloves
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp fine sea salt
  • 3/4 cup + 2 Tbsp vegetable or other neutral oil
  • 3/4 cup granulated white sugar
  • zest of one large orange
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup blackstrap molasses (learn about the different types of molasses)
  • 1/4 cup agave syrup, golden syrup or other neutral liquid sweetener
  • 3/4 c hot (not boiling) water

Method

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Prepare a 9-inch round springform pan, by buttering it and lining bottom with parchment paper.

Prepare the sugar*: in a large bowl, combine granulated sugar and orange zest, pressing the zest into the sugar to fragrance it and release the oils.

Prepare the cranberry layer: in a small saucepan, bring butter and brown sugar to a rolling boil. Remove from heat, add salt and cinnamon and spread into bottom of prepared pan. Arrange cranberries over caramel in one layer.

Prepare the dry ingredients: in a medium bowl, whisk together flour, spices, baking soda and salt.

Prepare the wet ingredients: to your sugar/zest bowl, add oil and eggs and whisk until thick and pale. Stir in the molasses and agave syrup.

Add dry ingredients to wet, stirring well to combine.

Gently add the hot water** to the batter until fully incorporated and silky smooth. Your batter will seem quite loose, but worry not!

Gently pour batter over the cranberry layer, taking care not to disturb the berries.

Bake cake on centre oven rack and check after 45 minutes or so. The top should be springy and a toothpick inserted at several places should come out clean. My cakes typically took about 50 minutes total to bake.

Allow cake to cool completely. Run a knife around the outside and remove the springform. Invert onto a serving platter cranberry-side up, remove the parchment layer and serve.

This cake is excellent on day one, but only continues to develop in flavour and texture. I love it most on day three. It will keep, tightly wrapped in a cool space, for about a week. Pieces freeze well, wrapped in clingfilm and foil, and can be defrosted for later enjoyment.

Notes

*I picked up this technique for citrus zest years ago. In short, whenever you’re using zest in a recipe that calls for sugar, take the time to work the zest into the sugar. It releases the essential oils and maximizes the aroma.

**From my research, adding hot water to a cake right before baking is an unusual technique central to many traditional gingerbread recipes. While I was unable to locate where this started or why, from my trials, it seems to help activate the baking soda and produce a springy, tender-crumbed, high-profile cake.

Related

squash, sweet & savoury

Processed with VSCO with a6 presetIt’s that time of year when our household comes into more apples and squashes than we can immediately enjoy (see above photo, week after week…), so we get to work incorporating them into preparations we will enjoy through the fall and winter.

Both of these recipes (one sweet, one savoury) use up a good amount of apples and firm, meaty squash (think: pie pumpkins, acorn squash, butternut squash). They also are perfect to freeze for later enjoyment.

Processed with VSCO with a5 presetSweet: Apple-Cranberry-Pumpkin Breakfast Muffins

Makes 12 large muffins

These little muffins are deep, dense and kept moist with pockets of apple and cranberry. The pumpkin seeds and raw sugar add great textural contrast. They’re hearty and chockfull of wholesome ingredients for a weekday breakfast — this isn’t cake (not that cake for breakfast is ever wrong…!).

The muffins keep well covered at room temperature or in the fridge. Or, wrap them tightly in clingfilm to freeze for later enjoyment.

Ingredients

  • 1.5 c whole wheat flour
  • 0.5 c allpurpose flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp grated nutmeg
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 stick (4 oz) unsalted butter, brought to room temp
  • 1/4 c raw sugar
  • 1/2 c maple syrup
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • 1 c canned or fresh cooked squash flesh (think: pie pumpkins, acorn squash, butternut squash)
  • 1 large apple, peeled and cored, cubed (to the same size as cranberries)
  • 1 c cranberries, fresh or frozen
  • 1/2 c raw pumpkin seeds

Method

Preheat the oven to 450° Fahrenheit. Prepare your muffin tins, either with liners or butter and flour.

In a large bowl, prep dry ingredients: whisk flours, baking powder, baking soda, salt, nutmeg and cinnamon.

In a smaller blow, prep wet ingredients: Cream together butter and raw sugar until fluffy. Add the egg and maple syrup. Fold in pumpkin.

Add wet ingredients to dry (don’t over-mix!). Fold in the apple chunks and cranberries.

Fill prepared muffin tins two-thirds, and liberally sprinkle with pumpkin seeds and raw sugar.

Bake for 10 minutes at 450° Fahrenheit*, turn down the heat to 400° Fahrenheit and bake for a further 7 minutes or so, until golden and a toothpick inserted in several places comes clean.

Cool the muffins in tin for about five minutes, then transfer to a rack.

*I use this method of high temperature coupled with a quick cook time to ensure a fluffy, tall muffin, even with 75% whole wheat flour at its base. Cooked at lower temperatures, whole wheat-flour dominant muffin and loaf recipes tend to fall flat as they cool and look a bit sad.

img_1307Savoury: Roasted Apple, Sweet Onion & Acorn Squash Soup with Apple Relish

Makes six 1.5 cup portions

This soup is a bit more special than your everyday squash soup thanks to the addition of apples and high-heat roasting of all the vegetables before they take a swim in the broth base. The relish is totally optional, but a spoonful adds a bit of crunch and zing to liven up the rich soup.

The soup portions and freezes beautifully for up to six months.

Ingredients

For the soup

  • 2 medium acorn squash, halved and seeded
  • 2 large apples, cored and cubed (skin is okay)
  • 2 large onions, peeled and sliced
  • about 20 sage leaves
  • ~4 Tbsp olive oil (for roasting)
  • 1 litre stock (we use homemade chicken stock, but any ol’ stock works)
  • 1/4 c maple syrup
  • Allspice, nutmeg, pepper and salt, to taste

For the relish

  • 1 medium apple, cored and finely diced
  • 1/2 small red onion, finely diced
  • 1/4c cider vinegar
  • 1 Tbsp maple syrup
  • 6 sage leaves, chiffonaded
  • salt and pepper, to taste

Method

Preheat oven to 4o0° Fahrenheit.

On a lined sheet pan, coat the squash halves with oil, prick with a fork and sprinkle liberally with salt, pepper, allspice and nutmeg.

On a separate lined sheet pan or baking dish, toss the apples, onion and sage with oil and salt, and arrange tightly.

Bake both pans at once until vegetables are golden and meltingly tender, about 40 minutes (watch closely, as ovens vary!)

Meanwhile, gently heat stock in a large saucepan (suitable size for the entire soup recipe).

To the soup stock, add all the roasted vegetables, including the sage and residual juices (peel the acorn squash from its skin first — apple skins are okay).

Let mixture come to a simmer — the vegetables will break down after about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, make relish by combining all ingredients in an acid-safe bowl, testing for salt. Set aside.

Remove soup from heat and let cool slightly before blitzing with an immersion blender to your desired texture — I like a smooth soup, but this is delicious chunky as well.

Taste (and taste again!) for salt levels. It probably will need a good pinch!

Ladle soup into bowls and garnish with spoonfuls of relish.

Related

 

apples & honey

IMG_1256.jpg

For as long as memory persists, I have welcomed the season with a salted honey apple cake.

It most likely started back in 2008, when I stumbled on a gorgeous Smitten Kitchen recipe, Deb’s now-famous Mom’s Apple Cake, which she acknowledges is not her mom’s alone, but the cake of many moms and many kitchens, a simple recipe passed down over time on grease-spotted index cards from mother to daughter.

My tradition took on new meaning when I met my would-be husband. The apple cake is also a frequent part of the Rosh Hashanah table, using oil in place of butter, plus (in my version, honey and) apples, important symbols of the holiday. Austin was raised Jewish, and while we don’t observe religion as a family, it’s been meaningful to incorporate the cultural traditions of his childhood alongside my own growing up in a Greek Orthodox home, to make our own misfit (but nonetheless meaningful) family rituals.

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This cake uses the simplest of pantry staples—flour, vegetable oil, sugar, salt, eggs… made tender by pounds (and pounds!) of apples—so many apples you’re certain the cake will never bake. But indeed it does, a whole 80 minutes later, and you’re left with a dense, moist, apple-studded cake with so much heft that it feeds dozens for days.

Over the years, I’ve tweaked and fussed with Deb’s recipe and have come to a version of my own, unique enough to be renamed as Salted Honey Apple Cake. Deb doesn’t use honey, whereas I toss the apples in honey instead of sugar, with a good pinch of sea salt (thus the salted); add lots of fresh nutmeg (the Greek in me can never resist—traditions merging!); substitute apple cider for the orange juice; and bake the cake for about 80 minutes in a 9×13-inch pan for easy slicing and eating (the original recipe uses a bundt, but I am most fond of sheet cakes…)

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The cake is fantastic in a number of ways—it’s deeply forgiving, so you don’t have to be precise with measurements or quantities; it uses up all the apples you picked when you were overzealous at the pick-your-own orchard; it’s a hit at the office, as it slices and eats like a dream; and since it makes so much darn cake, you can easily freeze hunks in tinfoil for later snacking (it freezes and defrosts perfectly). A piece (or two) also makes a pretty great breakfast alongside a strong cup of tea.

I can’t imagine Octobers without this cake on our table, sweetly welcoming a new season and a new year.

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Salted Honey Apple Cake

Makes a heavy, dense 9×13-inch cake (about two inches deep). Recipe adapted from Smitten Kitchen’s Mom’s Apple Cake.

Ingredients

For the apples

  • 6 large apples, cored, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes (I like honeycrisp or McIntosh)
  • 1 Tbsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp grated nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp sea salt
  • 5 Tbsp honey

For the cake

  • 2 3/4 cups allpurpose flour
  • 1 Tbsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp fine sea salt
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp grated nutmeg
  • 1 c vegetable oil
  • 2 c granulated sugar
  • 1/4 c apple cider
  • 1 Tbsp vanilla extract
  • 4 large or 5 regular eggs

Method

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Grease and line with parchment a 9×13′ pan.

Toss apple chunks in a large bowl with cinnamon, nutmeg, honey and a pinch of sea salt. Set aside to do their thing.

Mix dry ingredients: in your largest mixing bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg.

Mix wet ingredients: in a smaller bowl, whisk together oil, apple cider, sugar, vanilla and eggs.

Mix the wet ingredients into the dry, scraping and getting to the bottom of the bowl to ensure everything is well incorporated.

Prepare the batter: Spread half of batter into your prepared pan. Arrange half of apples over it, pressing gently into the batter. Spread the remaining batter over the apples and arrange the rest of the apples on top, along with any juices that have pooled off.

Bake the cake for about 80 minutes. The cake will be deeply golden and a toothpick inserted into several places (make sure you test several areas, as raw batter likes to hide in this cake!) should come out clean.

Cool the cake completely before gently lifting from the pan using the parchment and slicing into squares.

Just to point out how foolproof this cake is—the photos above are all from different years, and you can see it bakes up reliably each time! (Though each year, I manage to cram in a few more apples…)

Related

that glut of zucchini

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Here it comes. That glut of zucchini. It’s finally midsummer when the farmshare box tumbles over with the stuff and it arrives in great heaps to the market.

Zucchini overabundance can feel like a challenge — how to eat it all up before it spoils, without resorting to tossing slices on the grill every single night. Over the years, we’ve come to a few reliable and surprising ways to use up excess zucchini that are delicious and offer variety.

I’m sharing three of those recipes here — two savoury and one sweet — in case you’re elbow-deep in summer squashes and debating how you’ll possibly eat another.
stewed zucchini with golden raisins

Stewed zucchini with golden raisins

Serves four as a side, or a generous portion of pasta sauce. 

I’ve been making this sauce for nearly a decade. It’s the perfect summer side: sweet and salty, savoury, creamy and adaptable. It’s also versatile — use it as a pasta sauce with a dusting of cheese, straight from the pan as a side to chicken or pork, or cold and spooned over crostini as an easy appetizer. It’s a great recipe for when you really do have an excess of zucchini as it allows you to use a whole lot in one go.

Ingredients

  • 4 c zucchini, grated
  • 1/3 c golden raisins
  • 3-4 medium cloves garlic, crushed
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • ample salt and pepper, to taste
  • Parmigiano-Regianno, for grating, to taste

Method

Cook the zucchini: Heat olive oil over medium in a heavy-bottomed pan. Add zucchini and garlic and cook about five minutes, until the zucchini starts to break down. Add the raisins and a generous amount of salt and pepper, tasting as you go.

Let it do its thing: Continue cooking about 10 minutes total, until the zucchini is soft, the raisins plump and a lot of the excess liquid evaporated. The mixture should be tender and almost creamy (as in the photo).

Serve: Over pasta, alone, on toasts or as a side. Top generously with grated Parmigiano-Regianno, or another hard cheese.

Tip: If your zucchini has let out a lot of water, making the mixture too liquidy, quickly turn up the burner heat to high and stir constantly to evaporate the excess liquid. This happens with some larger squashes with high water content.

IMG_8656Savoury zucchini fritters

Makes six 3-inch diameter fritters. 

These little fritters (pancakes) have crunchy outsides and a creamy interior. They’re addictive alone or with a big dollop of Greek yogurt.

The biggest error I’ve seen with recipes for vegetable-based fritters or pancakes is not expelling enough water content. Whether you’re making latkes or sweet potato pancakes or these delicate zucchini fritters, it’s important to ensure a significant portion of water is removed through salting and draining. If the batter is too watery, the finished product is loose, comes apart in the pan and doesn’t brown.

This recipe doubles and triples beautifully, if you’re feeding a crowd or want to make extras to reheat for weekday breakfasts.

Ingredients

  • 2 c shredded zucchini
  • 1 garlic clove, grated
  • 1/3 c white onion, finely minced
  • 1 Tbsp herbs, finely chopped (I most often use tarragon and mint)
  • 1/2 tsp chili flakes or cayenne pepper
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • 1/3 c allpurpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • black pepper and salt, to taste
  • vegetable oil, for frying

Method

Heat oven to 350 degrees F.

Prepare the zucchini: Over a colander, shred the zucchini. Mix in 1/2 tsp salt and let stand for about 10 minutes. Over the sink, grab handfuls of zucchini and wring out in paper towels until dry. You will remove about half of the liquid from the zucchini and it will feel dry to the touch. 

Prepare the batter: In a large bowl, combine prepared zucchini, grated garlic, white onion, herbs, chili flakes, egg, flour and baking powder. Season generously with black pepper and salt.

Fry the fritters: In a shallow nonstick pan, heat 1 Tbsp vegetable oil over medium heat until shimmering. Place 3 Tbsp mounds of batter into pan (don’t crowd) and cook three minutes per side until golden. As the fritters fry, rest them in your preheated oven on parchment-lined tray allowing them to cook through — about 10 minutes. Repeat in batches until all fritters are cooked.

Serve the fritters: Serve stacks of fritters solo or garnished with sour cream or Greek yogurt. 

IMG_8682Cocoa espresso zucchini bread

Makes 1 standard-size loaf tin; recipe adapted from Simply Recipes

Zucchini and cocoa are one of those magical pairings. Add a shot of espresso and it takes the combination over the top.

This lightly-sweet quick bread uses a whole two cups of zucchini for one standard loaf, giving it incredible tenderness. I use about half whole wheat flour, as I love the density it provides. Sometimes I add chopped walnuts for textural contrast and resinous nuttiness that offsets the cocoa and grassy zucchini.

Because this bread is so moist, it keeps well wrapped in the fridge to slice off hunks through the week — for breakfast or snacks. I love it cold. Individual slices wrapped tightly in cling film also freeze well for defrosting and eating later on.

Ingredients

  • 3/4 c allpurpose flour
  • 1/2 c whole wheat flour
  • 1/2c unsweetened cocoa
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp kosher salt
  • 1/4 tsp grated nutmeg
  • 3/4 c granulated sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 6 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 shot espresso
  • 2 c zucchini, grated
  • Optional: 1/4 c chopped walnuts

Method

Heat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and line a 9×5′ standard loaf pan with parchment.

Prepare dry ingredients: Whisk together the flour, cocoa, baking soda, nutmeg and salt (and, optionally, the walnuts).

Prepare wet ingredients: In a stand-mixer, beat together the sugar and eggs, until fluffy and pale yellow. Add the melted butter, espresso and vanilla extract. Fold in the shredded zucchini.

Make batter: Add dry ingredients to wet in three additions, stirring to combine after each addition. Don’t over-mix! Turn batter into prepared loaf pan. If desired, top with more chopped walnuts.

Bake: Bake for approx. 50 minutes to one hour until a toothpick inserted into the densest part of the loaf comes out with very little batter residue and the top of the loaf is springy. Remove from the oven and cool in pan for about five minutes. Tug gently at parchment paper to lift out the loaf and cool completely on a wire rack.

Note: Let the bread cool completely before slicing, to maintain its structural integrity. It slices best with a serrated knife.

Related

A guide to uncomplicated meal planning for two

Choosing and using a farmshare (CSA) service

Three plum cakes (and a plum bbq sauce!)

Two perfect summer fruit desserts

My favourite way to use garlic scapes

An archive of meals from the Lovey Kitchen

See what we’re cooking this week