Friday, September 19, 2014

Honey Ice Cream--Recreating a Vacation Treat at Home

I have been on an ice cream making (and eating) binge. Not because the weather is hot--it's not. Not because I'm working on an ice cream article or book--I'm not.

It's because I got hooked on a honey ice cream while on vacation in the Orkney islands this summer. I'd been told by a colleague, Stephanie Ridgway (who travels to the Highland Park Distillery on business there often), that I had to try the award-winning Orkney Creamery brand. This advice was excellent! The bucolic Orkney Island chain (off the northeast Scottish coast) has fertile farmland, and, apparently, the cows raised there produce particularly outstanding milk.

We didn't have any trouble finding Orkney ice cream. Perhaps because the company's products have won several awards for the best artisan ice cream in the UK, the brand is sold in a lot of Orkney shops, markets, and restaurants. When we were feeling a bit 4 oclockish after a hard day of sightseeing, we could usually find the individual Dixie-size containers for sale and polish off a cup. (Tip: Note that a handy mini-spoon is tucked right under the paper on the lid of the cups! I didn't realize this until I asked for a spoon; a clerk clued me in!)

 Besides the more typical flavors, the Orkney Creamery makes some unusual ones, like Toffee Swirl, Apple Crumble, and Orkney Fudge. This last contains a local fudge (also well worth sampling)
with a deep brown sugar-caramel, not a chocolate taste. They are all good, but the honey flavor was addictive--a not-too-sweet base, with lovely little swirls of honey mixed in. I loved it so much I had create my own recipe.  After four testings I came up with this version. I wanted it to not only be good, but easy--and it is.

Honey Ice Cream  

You might be tempted to use a fancy, intensely flavored honey, but I suggest sticking with clover honey instead. It has gentle, middle of the road taste that enhances and mingles with the other ingredents rather than overpowering them.  

Drizzling just a little honey over the servings to create honey sundaes is not only visually appealing, but delicious. Don't overdo it though, or the results will be too sweet.

2 2/3 cups whole milk, divided,
2 large egg yolks
2 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 1/4 cups heavy (whipping) cream
1/2 cup clover honey or other mild honey, plus more to taste
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

In a large non-reactive saucepan combine 2/3 cup milk, egg yolks and cornstarch and whisk until completely blended and smooth. Slowly stir in the remaining milk, then the cream and 1/2 cup honey. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium high heat, whisking constantly. Continue whisking and boil gently until thickens a bit, about 3 minutes. Set aside to cool slightly, then stir in the vanilla. Taste and, if desired, thoroughly stir in a tablespoon or two more honey for a little more sweetness. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours to chill thoroughly and up to 24 hours, if preferred. 

Pour the mixture through a fine sieve set over a large bowl. Transfer the strained ice cream base into an ice cream maker and proceed according to the manufacturer’s directions. Turn out the frozen mixture into a well chilled 1-quart or larger freezer-safe storage container, drizzling in an additional  tablespoon or two of honey here and there; don’t stir it in well. Immediately freeze, airtight, for up to 2 weeks. If desired, drizzle a little more honey over the ice cream when you serve it.
Makes a generous 1 quart.

For another recipe inspired by my visit to the Orkney islands, check out my petticoat tails shortbread recipe here. 

To learn more about Orkney and see some pics of the beautiful scenery, go here.

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Saturday, September 6, 2014

Scottish Shortbread with Rose Water Icing, + a Little History of This Classic Sweet

I just spent a month in United Kingdom (a post about it is here) and overindulged by eating shortbread nearly every day. It's the fault of the B&Bs and hotels we stayed at--they routinely put out packages of these biscuits on our tea and coffee tray every day. We couldn't be rude and not to eat our complimentary goodies, right?  

All the commercial shortbreads we scarfed down were tasty--IMO even so-so versions of this fine old sweet treat are hard to resist! But the winner of the trip was a simple homemade version served with our afternoon tea at the noted Creel Restaurant right in the harbor at St. Margaret's Hope on the Orkney islands. As you can see from the photo below, the shortbreads looked plain, but they were fragrant, crisp-tender and, yes, decidedly buttery. And the perfect accompaniment to a cup of tea on what was a chilly, windy, overcast day on the Orcadian coast.

Shrtbread at the Creel Restaurant
Ever since returning from the Orkney islands (located off the northeast Scottish coast), I'm been experiencing serious shortbread withdrawal. So, I've been making petticoat tails to keep the hubs and me supplied. Please note that petticoat tails refers to any shortbread baked in a large round and cut into pizza-like segments, regardless of its flavor or texture; the photo below shows a whole round cut into wedges. Two other shapes are also traditional--individual cutout or molded biscuits called shortbread rounds; or a dough rectangle cut into longish bars called "fingers."

Some historians believe that the odd petticoat tails moniker comes from the fact that the shapes look like the ruffled petticoats and skirts of medieval court ladies. It's a charming notion, and I was tempted to go with that! But then I came upon this comment about petticoat tails by Theodora FitzGibbon, author of The Taste of Scotland: "The edges are traditionally notched by pinching with the finger and thumb, and this is thought to symbolize the sun's rays, from the early days of sun-worship." She also mentioned a custom on Orkney of a decorated shortbread being held or broken over the heads of brides on their wedding day. I suppose that's comparable to tossing rice at the happy couple here in America!

 I also got interested in researching how long this favorite tea-time treat has been around in Scotland. According to lore--which is almost always more fiction than fact--Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587), invented shortbread. In truth, if she deserves any credit, it's for sampling and popularizing the goodies and possibly for encouraging her team of French chefs to refine some of the quite diverse shortbread recipes that were in circulation in that time.

Petticoat Tails Shortbread
While some receipts were similar to what we now consider classic (those with only butter, flour, and
sugar), many other typical versions included spices and herbs, dried fruit, nuts, and more exotic ingredients. The first recipe below is reminiscent of modern ones, but second includes yeast (yes, a leavening!), rose water, and caraway "comfits." Comfits were  sugar-coated seeds and nuts, and were apparently the rage with 16th and 17th century cooks. They routinely tossed sugared caraway seeds into baked goods, not a taste in great favor today. They liked rose water a lot too; that charming addition inspired my fancy, fragrant rose-water icing topped shortbread recipe here.

Going back and really examining actual receipts of a period is always the best way to sort the "true" culinary facts from the myths, and the two 17th century recipes here reveal a lot of interesting details. First, notice that while the word short was already being used, these sweets were still being called cakes, not breads or even biscuits. Short and shortening are both old terms relating to the use of fat in baking; a short dough is one made tender, rich, and crumbly with a high proportion of fat, or shortening, usually butter. Gradually, most small, cookie-like treats or "little cakes" in Britain came to be called biscuits (cookies is a strictly American word), so it's curious that the name "bread" took hold.

Some historians think it's because these treats eventually replaced leftover toasted breads or rusks that were provided on the tea table. Which could be, but I'm waiting for some proof. I think it's more likely that the name bread was used to clearly distinguish these cakes from other kinds of tea biscuits. Doughs containing eggs were called biscuits; those that did not were called shortbreads. This distinction still holds true today.

Notice also that one recipe calls for rubbing the butter into the flour, the other for stirring flour into pre-melted butter. Occasionally, modern experts insist that only this or that method is authentic, but, clearly, early bakers mixed together their shortbread dough in a variety of ways. What the early British short "cakes" receipts do have in common is always calling for pure, sweet butter and never calling for eggs. If a short cake or short bread dough needed moistening to hold together, it was wetted with wine, rose water, or other liquid.

By the way, I looked through some 17th century English dictionaries to see what a "drudger" and a "squef" might be, but had no luck. Still, it's entirely possible to imagine how the recipes were prepared, though I haven't tried either one. If you are interested, thanks to Project Gutenberg, the whole manuscript of The Queen-like Closet by Hannah Wolley is available on-line.

Short Cakes Made at ye Bathe
Take a pound of flower & rube into it a half pound of flouwer butter very fine; then put in half a pound of flo sugar & wet it with white wine to a paste; the rowle it very thick & cut it round with ye top of ye Drudger, & knotch it round with a squef [sic]& bake them upon a tin."

Receipt Book of Mrs. Ann Blencowe, facsimile of 1694 edition

To make Short Cakes
Take a Pint of Ale Yest, and a Pound and half of fresh Butter, melt your Butter, and let it cool a little, then take as much fine Flour as you think will serve, mingle it with the Butter and Yest, and as much Rosewater and Sugar as you think fit, and if you please, some Caraway Comfits, so bake it in little Cakes; they will last good half a year. 
 The Queen-like Closet Or Rich Cabinet, Hannah Wolley, London, Printed for Richard Lowndes, 1672.

Since shortbread and tea are such a fabulous match, I've always imagined that these sweets were invented to serve at teatime, but that's not the case. Tea didn't officially arrive in Britain until 1662, when the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza wed King Charles II and brought chests of tea in her dowry. Shortbreads in various early forms had already been on Scottish menus for at least several hundred years. Still, tea and shortbread are certainly de rigueur nowadays, so feel free to go put the kettle on.

Petticoat Tails with Rose Water Icing
Petticoat Tails Shortbread--great with tea.

A batch of these makes an impressive gift or a highly memorable addition to a tea table. Of course, another alternative--which I highly recommend--is just keeping them around to nibble on whenever you have a cup of tea or coffee.

Tip: The rose water flavor is delicate. If you have your heart set on a more noticeable rose character, you can add a  few drops of rose extract to the dough and a drop to the icing. But use a light hand--it's potent!
Tip: It's important to use a tart pan or pie plate with the specified diameter of 9 to 10 inches. In a larger pan, the dough will spread out too much and the wedges will be too thin and fragile (and prone to breaking). In a smaller pan, they will be a little to chunky and hard to bake through in the middle, though lowering the heat to 275 degrees F and baking them 5 to 10 minutes extra will likely solve that problem.

1 cup (2 sticks) cool and barely firm unsalted butter, cut into chunks
1/3 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons rose water, plus more if needed
Generous 1/4 teaspoon fine table salt
1 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose white flour
Icing and Garnish
1/2 cup powdered sugar, sifted after measuring if lumpy
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 to 2 teaspoons rose water, as needed
Very tiny dot of food color (preferably botanical), optional
Coarse crystal sugar for garnish, optional

Place a rack in the middle of the oven; preheat to 300 degrees F. Set out a 9- to 10-inch fluted tart pan or 10-inch pie plate. (If using a pie plate, line it with foil that overhangs 2 inches on opposing sides.) Set out a large (ungreased)baking sheet.

Combine the butter, granulated sugar,  rose water and salt in a large bowl. With a mixer on medium speed, beat about 2 minutes or until well blended and lightened in color, scraping down the bowl as needed. On low speed, beat in the flour until evenly incorporated. If the mixer motor labors, work in the last of the flour with your hands, but for tenderest shortbread keep the mixing to a minimum. If the dough is dry and crumbly work in a small amount of rose water.

Press the dough evenly into the tart pan or pie plate: If using the tart pan finish the dough edges by pushing it into the fluted indentations; be sure the dough edge is evenly thick all around. If using a foil-lined pie plate, press the dough evenly into the bottom and out to the edges until it is evenly thick at the perimeter. If necessary smooth the dough surface by laying a sheet of wax paper over top, then smoothing out and pressing down with your fingertips. With a table knife, carefully cut the dough into quarters, then cut each quarter into 4 or 5 wedges. Set pan on larger baking sheet.

Bake for 45 to 50 minutes, or until the shortbread is fragrant, lightly colored all over and not quite firm when pressed in the center top. Let the pan cool for about 10 minutes on a wire rack.

Meanwhile ready the rose water icing: In a small deep bowl, thoroughly stir together the powdered sugar, lemon juice, and enough rose water to yield a thin, smooth, fairly runny icing; add more rose water or more powdered sugar as needed. Add in a tiny dot of food color if desired. Using a pastry brush (or substitute a damp paper towel) dip into the icing and lightly and quickly spread it out evenly over the shortbread top; the layer will be thin. Immediately sprinkle crystal sugar over the top, if desired. Carefully retrace the cuts, then let the shortbread stand until completely cooled before lifting out and serving wedges with a long-bladed spatula. Store the wedges reassembled into a round in a large flat box or in regular storage container if preferred. Keep airtight at room temperature for up to 2 weeks. Freeze airtight for up to 2 months.

Makes 16 or 20 iced petticoat tails (wedges).

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Friday, August 15, 2014

Exploring the United Kingdom's Orkney Islands, plus a Favorite Shortbread Recipe

I am on vacation in the UK now, traveling about the islands in the Orkney chain off the north coast of Scotland. These islands are remarkable both for their breathtaking natural beauty and wealth of major archaeological sites.
View from Hackness Battery, island of Hoy
 The air and water are clean and clear and landscapes serene and bucolic. Since I am on the road visiting a new island nearly every day, I'm going to keep this post short, and mostly let the images tell the story of our trip.

Cattle grazing on the Orkney Mainland island

Sheep grazing on the island of  Sanday
As the two photos just above suggest, farming is the major industry; we've seen cattle and sheep grazing on all twelve islands we visited. Archeological evidence indicates that the inhabitants have raised cattle here for more than 5,000 years--their bones have been found in Neolithic settlement sites, including the amazing Skara Brae pictured below; a whole community lived in this stone village dating back to about 3,000 BC!
Skara Brae Neolithic Village, Mainland, Orkney

Interior of  a Skara Brae family "home."

Mid Howe Neolithic Stalled Burial Cairn, Rousay island.
Even more common that Neolithic villages are burial cairns, such as the "stalled" Mid Howe structure pictured above. It is massive compared to most though, with 12 stalls running along a central passage and a tomb that stretches a length of 77 feet.

View from Aynhallow Sound of Rousay harbor.
Many Orkney vistas feature water--from the ample scattering of bright blue lochs inland to harbors and the miles of rocky coastline that meet the north Atlantic and North Sea. Due to the coastal waters, plus salmon farms, most islands are also home to some fishermen.

Stromness harbor, Mainland, Orkney

Creel pots, Tingwall Pier, Mainland, Orkney
Their creels (crab and lobster pots) and weathered wooden fish boxes can been seen stacked up on piers from Pierowall in Rousay, to Tingwall on the Mainland, to Kettletoft on the island of Sanday. We've enjoyed pristinely fresh scallops, mussels, prawns, salmon, haddock, and several dishes that featured the crabs below.

Brown crabs on Pierowall Pier, Westray, Orkney
Called brown crabs (no surprise!) they don't look or taste quite like the Chesapeake bay blue crabs we're so familiar with, but are quite good. The shot was taken just as the Westray island crabbers were transferring them from their boats to tubs headed for the processing plant right across the road from the Pierowall pier.

Simple Shortbread Fingers (or Petticoat Tails)

I've been eating a lot of shortbread on my trip, mostly from little commercial packages, but in several cases homemade that was served at afternoon tea at B&Bs. Typically it's  crisp and buttery, mild and barely sweet. It looks plain and homey, yet is always impossible to resist.

I know I'll want more shortbread after I get home, so have been looking up recipes from my files. Here's one that is adapted from a shortbread in my Simply Sensational Cookies cookbook. When shaped into wedges like those shown, shortbread is traditionally called petticoat tails

How shortbread baked in a round and cut into wedges came to be named petticoat tails is a mystery. Some say it references the hoop skirts of early English court ladies; others think it’s a corruption of the French “petite galettes,” or little cakes. Choice one is more fanciful, so I'm leaning in that direction.

13 tablespoons (scant 1 2/3 sticks) cool and firm unsalted butter, cut into chunks
1/2 cup granulated sugar, plus 1 tablespoon for optional garnish
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Scant 1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups unbleached all-purpose white flour

Position a rack in the middle of the oven; preheat to 300 degrees F.
Let the butter warm up until just slightly soft but not warm. In a large bowl, with a mixer on medium speed, beat the butter, sugar, vanilla, and salt just until evenly blended, scraping down the bowl as needed. On low speed, beat in the most of the flour just until the mixture begins to form a mass. (If the mixer motor labors, stop and stir in the flour with a large spoon. Sprinkle over the remaining flour, then working in the bowl knead it in with your hands until evenly incorporated. 

To prepare simple shortbread bars: Grease a 9- by 13-inch baking pan or coat with nonstick spray.   Press and pat the dough into the pan until evenly thick all over and smooth on top. To prepare petticoat tails: Grease a 9 to 9 1/2-inch springform pan or fluted tart pan or coat with nonstick spray. Press and pat the dough into the pan until evenly thick all over. If using a springform pan, press decorative indentations into the dough all the way around using a wooden spoon handle. Prick decorative designs into the dough using a fork, if desired. Garnish with sugar if desired. Set the pan on a larger baking sheet.

Bake, (middle rack) for 26 to 30 minutes, or until the shortbread is lightly browned all over, slightly darker at the edges, and just firm when pressed in the center. Turn off the heat and let the shortbread stand in the oven for 5 to 10 minutes to color and bake through a little more. Transfer to a rack and let cool just until firmed up slightly. Then using a table knife cut the rectangle into fifths lengthwise and sixths crosswise to create 30 fingers; or cut the round into 20 petticoat tail wedges.  

Let stand until completely cooled, then lift up with a wide-bladed knife and pack airtight. The shortbreads will keep airtight at room temperature for 2 weeks; or freeze them for up to 2 months.

For more on the history of shortbread, plus a rose-water iced petticoat tails recipe, go here.


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Sunday, July 27, 2014

Pom Pops--Cooling, Tasty, Lo-Cal

In this post I'm sharing a refreshing snack or dessert recipe from my new co-authored Kindle book, The 2 Day a Week Diet Cookbook. Yes, as the title suggests, the regime only requires dieting on two days a week. The diet plan, which is also known as the 5-2 or fast diet in Britain, where it is the rage, does work.  My co-author and I, and our husbands have all lost weight on the plan,

I'm proud to tell you that The 2 Day a Week Diet Cookbook has been getting wonderful reviews on Amazon--in fact, almost every reviewer has given our work a perfect 5 stars! In case you're interested, we are right now in the process of creating a soft-cover edition of the book, which should be available in the fall.

Luscious, Low-Cal Pomegranate Ice Pops

Ruth, my co-author, and I find these pops a tempting sweet treat that not only provides a number of phytonutrients but some very satisfying munching. This makes them a very helpful snack when we feel a little hungry on diet day. One of our objectives was to keep all our recipes simple enough that even those with very busy schedules  could make them evenThey are so easy to make and so convenient when we want a little nosh that we keep them in the freezer all the time. Double the recipe if you like.  By the way, in the book we provide a full nutritional analysis at the end of every recipe.

Tip: Pomegranate juice is quite sweet without the addition of honey, so feel free to omit the honey from the recipe, if desired. In this case, each pop will have only 46 calories.

1 8-oz bottle pure pomegranate juice
2 tsp honey, optional

 1. Thoroughly stir together pomegranate juice and honey in a measuring cup. Pour mixture into 3 3-ounce plastic cups, dividing equally.

2. Cover each cup with a small square of aluminum foil, smoothing it down over top. Cut a tiny slit into foil in center top of each cup. Slide Popsicle sticks into cups, adjusting so they stand upright.

3. Freeze cups, placed upright in freezer, for at least 3 to 4 hours or until frozen solid. 4. To unmold and store pops, run warm water over sides and bottom of a cup for 6 to 8 seconds. Squeeze on cup with one hand while pulling on stick with the other until pop slides out. Place each pop in a small plastic zip-top bag, and return to freezer.

Pops will keep, frozen and well wrapped, for up to 3 weeks.
Makes 3 60-calorie servings, 1 pop each.

For another recipe from the book, a zesty, hearty Mexican Vegetable Soup, go here.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Lavender Fields Forever, + a Lavender-Infused Limoncello

I've been creating fresh and dried lavender recipes lately, and I'm more smitten than ever with the beauty, fragrance, and haunting, spicy-floral taste of this wonderful herb. Yesterday, I decided to revel in it for a whole day, and took a road trip to the Deep Creek Lavender Farm in rural western Maryland. I'll just say the experience was calming and uplifting--if I'd seen pearly gates there, I'd have been certain I was in heaven! The soothing scent of the flower spires swaying in the breeze, the  constant contented humming of the bees, and the cheerful bird songs combined to treat me to a magical, therapeutic day.

Mostly, I'm going to let the photos here tell you the story. The farm is tucked down a  winding little road in the Appalachian range in Garrett County. (You can see the low, gentle mountain slopes out beyond the lavender fields in the photo at the top.) But luckily for the day tripper in the DC-Baltimore metro area, it's only a few miles off scenic Interstate Route 68 and is easy to find.

I was also fortunate to visit near the height of the blooming season. The owner, Anne Davidson, explained that some varieties had already been harvested, but as you can see, there were more than enough lavender plants in full purple display to enchant me as well as the other guests who dropped by.

The farm and gift shop are open on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Anne said she makes a point of carrying as many locally handmade items as possible, including the apple lavender jelly she prepares, and her sister's scent pillows and tote bags (shown in the picture at left above). She has rocking chairs set out on the front porch of the gift barn so you can sit and enjoy the lovely view and sip her lavender-infused lemonade.

I was amazed at the number of kinds of lavenders--different colors from deep purple to soft lilac to even white. And different growing habits too, from short, almost straight-stemmed varieties to tall, graceful ones with spikes that seem to sweep out and reach for the sun. One thing they all had in common--they smelled spicy-sweet and attracted bees.


Lavender-Infused Limoncello

I took some of my lemon-spiked limoncello for Anne to try and, since it seemed the perfect setting, I placed it out in her lavender patch to take a picture. No, the lavender doesn't lend any color to limoncello, but it has a strong affinity for lemon and definitely adds an enticing flavor note. One of my recipe testers, who loves limoncello, says it's the best she's ever tried!
Lavender Limoncello is best made with fresh lavender flower heads. Just tuck some in along with the lemon peels and let them steep in the alcohol for a week. (It's hard to wait, but at least give your brew five or six days.) Once you've readied the sugar syrup and finished making the liqueur, keep it stashed in the coldest part of the refrigerator. Then it will be ready whenever you're in the mood to treat yourself or guests.

This limoncello recipe is adapted from one I brought back from the Amalfi coast of Italy. The original recipe and more details on how the Italians enjoy the liqueur are here.

5 or 6 well-washed, then dried lemons
7 or 8 fresh lavender flower heads
1/2 liter (about 1 pint) unflavored vodka
300-350 grams (about 1 ½ to 1 2/3 cups) granulated sugar
Generous 1/2 liter (2 to 2 1/2 cups) spring water, use smaller amount for a very potent limoncello

Peel the yellow part of the peels from the lemons using a sharp peeler; be careful to remove only the thin layer of yellow and not the white pith underneath (it’s bitter). Combine the strips of peel, lavender, and the vodka in a large jar or other non-reactive container. Be sure the peels and lavender are covered with vodka. Cover and set aside in a cool spot for at least 1 week and longer for an even more pronounced lemon and lavender flavor.

Combine the sugar and water in a medium nonreactive pot or saucepan. Stir until the sugar is just incorporated over medium high heat. Bring to a boil and let the mixture boil gently, covered and without stirring, for 10 minutes. Let cool. Strain the infused vodka mixture through a sieve into the sugar syrup, stirring just to blend the two; discard the lemon peels and lavender. Transfer the limoncello to a large measuring cup or pitcher. Pour it into sturdy storage bottles; stopper with corks. Store in a cool spot or, better yet, the refrigerator.

Chill the limoncello in a very cold refrigerator or freezer until ice cold before serving. It’s traditional to serve it serve straight up in chilled vodka or shot glasses. Makes about 1 liter (1 quart).

Other recipes you may like: Lavender Buttercream Frosting/Filling for cookies and macaroons.   
Or learn more about lavender and make a Lavender Blackberry Syrup for fruit, berries or ice cream.


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