Saturday, January 28, 2012

Cheesecake and Mental Health

The first time I ate her piña colada cheesecake was to mark a very special occassion. I had just found out I was pregnant with my first baby. And my dear friend baked the celebratory cake.

I retrieved that recipe today, with a heavy heart after learning that my friend recently passed. She had just turned 43.

Ever since our university days, my friend struggled with depression. Waves of unconsolable despair often came crashing down. When the waves hit, I figured she just needed time to get out her funk. I didn't know anything about mental health. I didn't know that she needed much more than a sympathetic ear. How my ignorance failed her.

I have worked with highly functioning professionals who are living with schizophrenia, depression, anxiety disorders and other mental illnesses. They are journalists, lawyers, executives, athletes, television personalities, health care professionals, going about their day-to-day routines with an invisible disability. Fortunately for them, they have the help and treatment to allow them to live full and fulfilling lives.

Experts tell us that one in five Canadians will experience a mental illness in his or her lifetime. If that statistic bears out, someone in my family -- myself, my spouse, or one of our three children -- will need help. I need to make sure that I know the warning signs and know where to find help.

Mental health is a cornerstone of well-being and happiness. And we all deserve to be happy. I hope my friend has found her happiness.

Piña Colada Cheesecake
Serves 10 - 12
1 cup graham wafer crumbs
1 cup flakes, unsweetened coconut
1/4 cup melted butter

1 can (14 oz) crushed pineapple 
1/4 cup rum (optional)
1 envelope unflavoured gelatin
3 eggs, separated
1 cup sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup coconut milk
1 package cream cheese, at room temperature

Combine the crust ingredients.
Press half into a springform pan. Reserve the remainder for topping.

Drain pineapple, reserving 1/2 cup of juice.
In a small saucepan over low heat, combine pineapple juice with rum.
Sprinkle gelatin and whisk until dissolved.
Remove from heat and set aside.

In another large saucepan, whisk together egg yolks, 3/4 cup of sugar, salt and coconut milk.
Cook over low heat until slightly thickened. Do NOT boil.
Stir in gelatin mixture. Beat in cream cheese. Add reserve pineapple.
Chill until thickened, stirring once or twice.

Beat egg whites until soft peaks form.
Gradually beat in 1/4 cup sugar until stiff peaks form.
Fold into cream cheese mixture and pour into pan.
Sprinkle reserved crumbs on top.
Chill for 4 hours.
Garnish with pineapple chunks.  


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Accidental Ketchup

Last week, I was craving BBQ ribs. I dug up an old recipe, hand-copied by a friend from his Grandma's collection.

I've made the O'Connor family BBQ ribs in the past, with consitently great results. This time, though, I lacked one key ingredient - ketchup. I haven't had ketchup in my pantry for over a year, ever since we switched to salsa to cut down our sugar intake.

So I improvised.

I opened a can of roma tomatoes and started adding my favourite flavours: cloves, ginger, smoked paprika, ground mustard seed. I mixed the concoction with a hand blender and let it simmer until it thickened slightly.

Wow! My accidental ketchup was surprisingly good. The tomatoes were naturally sweet, so I didn't need to add extra sugar. The sauce made a delicious marinade and dipping sauce for the ribs.

I had a jar of leftover sauce for the week. I used it on sandwiches, grilled vegetables, chicken and meatballs.

Sometimes the best recipes are the accidental ones.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Spanish Beavertails

What could be more Ottawa than skating along the Rideau Canal with a fresh BeaverTail resting in your wool mitten? Skating is a little risky for me now. But a BeaverTail? Always a welcome treat.

This weekend, I tinkered with my newest kitchen gadget and made a "Spanish BeaverTail." No, not with chorizo and manchego cheese. Although, I could be on to something.

I enlisted the help of a mini-army for my churros marathon. My 11-year-old was in charge of loading the churros maker. His nine-year-old sister sprinkled the cinnamon sugar and struggled hard to keep her fingers out of her mouth. My five year-old looked on, waiting for scraps. Our 18-year-old Filippo piped the dough into the oil. 

My aim was to make a gluten free version that doesn't need to be deep fried. I can hear them now, my Spanish and Latin American friends wagging their fingers in disapproval, "Impostor! Qué sacrilegio."

Churros need to eaten immediately. Ever try a cold churro?  It's a limp grease stick. My baked version can be enjoyed fresh out of the oven, or saved for later and reheated in the toaster oven. And they're still delicious. Just ask the official testers.

The kids said, "These taste kinda like BeaverTails." Best of all, we didn't need to brave the frigid cold (-27 degrees) to get them.
The Dough
The basic churro ingredients are hot water, oil, flour, sugar, salt and an egg. For a gluten free version, I use a combination of rice and sorghum flours.

The Device
A churros maker is a metal piping bag. A regular piping bag or a milk bag with the corner snipped off does the job too. A star-shaped tip creates ridges which help the cinnamon sugar and chocolate stick.

The Technique
If you use the deep-fry method, you'll need lots of oil and a deep skillet. Make sure your oil is very hot. I use my tried and true chop stick test. Place a wooden chop stick or tooth pick into the oil to touch the bottom of the pan. If tiny bubbles appear, the oil is hot enough. It's best to pipe out three or four strips  at a time.

Fried Churros dusted with cinnamon sugar. Nutella on the side.

If you prefer the baked method, pipe the dough onto a baking sheet and brush the churros with vegetable oil. Bake in a hot oven (around 425 degrees) for 10 - 15 minutes each side.

Baked Churros

A-K's Churros Dough
Makes about 8 sticks

1 cup fennel tea 
1/3 cup vegetable oil
3/4 cup rice flour
1/4 cup sorghum flour
pinch salt
1 tablespoon coconut sugar
1 egg

Fennel Tea: 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds in 2 cups hot water. Let steep for five minutes. Discard the seeds. You will have an extra cup for drinking.

In a small bowl, combine dry ingredients and set aside.
In a small sauce pan, add fennel tea and oil. Bring to a gentle boil then turn off heat.

Add dry ingredients to the hot water, stirring constantly.
Keep stirring until ingredients form a ball. Let cool for a minute.
Add egg and combine well.
Let batter rest for 10 minutes.
Transfer batter into a piping bag.
Fry or bake as desired.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Gifts from Spain

I was reluctantly taking down the Christmas decorations last week when the doorbell rang.  A FedEx guy had a special delivery for me. Seemed Christmas wanted to linger a little longer in AK's Kitchen.

The package was a gift from my friend Marga to mark the Fiesta de los Tres Reyes Mages. My five-year-old eagerly tore off the packing tape and pulled out the treats. Designer shirts, bakugan toys, assorted goodies for the whole family.

Turrón: honey, almond nougat
Knowing my family's insatiable sweet tooth, Marga sent not one but two boxes of Turrón, or torrone - whole almonds, glued together with honey and sandwiched between paper-thin wafers. This stuff is addictive. Maybe that's why Marga snuck a pedometre into our gift box.

My favourite present is definitely this device which resembles a caulking gun.

It's not a caulking gun. It's a churros maker.
The churros maker came with recipes for cookies, pasta, as well as churros. The cylinder contains the dough and the long handle is used to squeeze out a tube of dough.

I plan on spending the weekend getting better acquainted with my new kitchen toy and testing gluten free recipes. If I have any success, on Sunday afternoon, my gang of soccer fanatics will be cheering for Barcelona while dunking fresh churros into warm chocolate.

Wish me luck.

And to my Galecian friends, Marga and Pepe: Gracias moi meus queridos amigos e amantes da gastronomía. 

Monday, January 9, 2012

Oh To Be 18 Again, Or Not

My Italian "son," Filippo marked his 18th birthday today. For his birthday dinner, we had Thai from the neighbourhood Siam Bistro.

Filippo has never tasted Thai food before, so I thought this would be the perfect occassion to introduce his Mediterranean palate to galangal and Thai curry. He enthusiastically cleared his plate, then had two more helpings. (I'm certain we are genetically related.)

Pad Thai, Kao Pad Khing, Kao Pad Pak, Kao Gang Garee Gai
Remember when we were 18? We could imbibe and consume anything until our insides were bursting. No guilt. No food hangovers.

During my18th summer, my sister Tina and I spent summer evenings on the lakeshore in the West Island of Montreal. We sat in the front of Dad's Oldsmobile with the radio playing Cyndi Lauper. In the glove box, along with the compass and tire gauge, were our vital implements: two metal spoons. One was for the pint of Baskin Robbins World Class Chocolate ice cream. The other was for the Sara Lee chocolate cake. The sugar orgy gave us enough fuel for a night of bar-hopping on Crescent Street.

I've since graduated from Sara Lee and packaged desserts. I can't recall the last time I was in a dance bar. I can't stay awake that late.

But I still enjoy my sweets. I am, once again, trying to cut down my sugar intake. Today, though, I made an exception for Filippo's birthday cake.

Tenerina is his favourite dessert which his mother makes for special occassions. I think an 18th birthday definitely counts as a special occassion.

I love the simplicity of this recipe. There are only five ingredients: eggs, cocoa, butter, sugar, potato flour.

I had to ad lib the original recipe beause I didn't have enough coconut oil or butter. I used vegetable oil instead. The torte came out beautifully. I divided the batter between two loaf pans for a double layer cake. In between the layers and on top, I poured warm peach-mango jam. It reminded me of a sachertorte on a diet.  

Filippo's Birthday Cake  
Serves 8
3 eggs, separated
1 cup cocoa powder
1 cup vegetable oil
1 cup sugar
2 Tablespoons potato flour

Combine yolks and the four remaining ingredients.
In a separate bowl, beat the eggs white until soft peaks form.
Fold in the chocolate mixture.  
Pour into parchment-lined loaf pans.
Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.
Decorate as desired and enjoy!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

A New Year's Resolution: Finding Joy

Welcome to my first post of 2012. I hope the first week of the New Year has been kind and gentle. The Chinese Year of the Dragon promises excitement and intensity.

The perennial buzzwords of the season seem to be cleanse, purge and gym membership. A few friends are starting cleanses. Others are trying to kick sugar. My aunt in California is starting an exercise  program to shed the extra holiday pounds.

My source of holiday bulge. 
I intend to abandon the mindless nibbling and social eating I've been doing everyday for the last two weeks. But how do I make the change stick throughout the year, beyond the first few weeks after the  holidays?

Solution: Find the joy. Get happy!

That's the advice from my friend Brenda.

She reminded me that when we find joy in whatever we do, that whatever is no longer work. It becomes   a source of happiness. And we can all use a healthy dose of happiness.

So the question becomes: how does dragging my ass into the gym at 6:30 A.M. bring me joy? How does quitting sugar bring me joy? For me, the answer is in the inverse: what does NOT bring me joy? Feeling bloated, overindulgent and unwell does not bring me joy.

I arrive at this conclusion: I am joyful when my body feels right and balanced. Ergo, clean eating brings me joy.

I must confess, I had a sugary dessert tonight. It was the last of five panettones from the holidays. The gluten and sugar are working their madness on my system.

I will get back to more mindful eating. Tomorrow.  I need to keep finding the joy!