Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Giving Away My Secrets

Okay, I hate to admit this, but there's a part of me that is very much like my ancestors. Senior relatives, to be more precise.

A photo posted by Naomi (@woobiesmum) on

Normally, I love to share my recipes because I know what it's like to taste something so divine and then never be able to have it again because the creator/chef/baker has shuffled off to the great kitchen  in the sky. There are so many things my late husband used to make that I wish I had learned to do, or at least made him write or type out while he was still here.

However, there  is a part of me that knows when I do something really good. And I don't really want to share because I want to be the special person who makes that one special thing. I know that is childish and selfish, but hey, if my eightysomething aunts can be like that, as was my late grandmother, then I can't help it if my genetics creep in every once in a while.

This is one of those recipes. Everyone has a go-to recipe for a tough crowd. Mine is Key Lime Pie. I actually don't like pie. I know, I know...but I don't. I know I make a damn good pie. But as I've said here, time and time again, I love to cook for others. That gives me more pleasure than eating what I've made. Hell, if I've made it, I can make it for myself any time I like.

Whenever I'm feeling like crap, instead of posting a Selfie to get compliments, I just make a Key Lime Pie.

So here is my not-so secret recipe. Because I can't take it with me. And, in spite of all the compliments and ego-boosts I receive when I make it, I'm still single.


Makes 1 – 9” pie
Heat oven to 350F.

1 prepared graham crust

1 cup graham cracker crumbs
¼ cup unsalted butter, melted
1 Tbsp. granulated sugar (optional)

Combine all ingredients in a bowl and blend together with a pastry blender or fork until all crumbs are moist. Pour into a 9” Pyrex or tin foil pie plate and press the crumbs to the pan, making sure that your crust is at least 1/8” thick all over.  When the crumbs have been pressed and formed, bake the empty shell (no weights required) for at least 7 min in the oven until the crumbs are golden brown but not too dark. Take the shell out to cool while you make the filling.

12 key limes OR 4-5 regular limes to give you 2 tsp. of lime zest and ½ cup freshly-squeezed lime juice.
4 egg yolks
1 – 300 mL tin of condensed milk

If you are using actual key limes, this will be more labour-intensive since it’s harder to zest them, but the flavour is so worth it. To bring more juice out of larger limes, microwave each lime for no more than 10 seconds before cutting and juicing them. Beware of seeds!
Keep your lime zest separate from your juice. Once you have your mise-en-place (zest in one thing, juice in another, opened your tin, and separated the eggs (keep the whites out for the end)), take a large bowl (not gigantic but bigger than medium) and beat your egg yolks to the ribbon stage, when they are light and creamy in colour, and have thickened to the point when you lift the whisk, the egg yolks cascade from the tip like a beautiful yellow ribbon.

(If you are using a machine, use hand beaters. Don’t use a food processor or a stand mixer. You will overbeat the eggs and you’ll curse how difficult it is to clean up this thing. I mix everything by hand because I get a workout.)
Once your egg yolks have reached the ribbon stage, add the entire tin of condensed milk and half of the lime juice (so ¼ cup). Beat ingredients until well-combined. This is not as easy as it looks, but the lime juice helps to cut the condensed milk into the yolks.  Once this mixture is well-blended, add the lime zest and the rest of the juice and mix until just combined. Do NOT overbeat!

Scrape and pour and pour and scrape the mix into the pie shell. Don’t worry if it’s lopsided or has a funny top. The top will smooth out in the baking.
Bake for about 8 minutes and check by wobbling the pan. If the pie wobbles, leave it for no more than four (4) minutes. Do not overbake – it should not take longer than 12 min at 350F to set. Once the centre is no longer wobbling, the pie is done. A teeny bit of wetness is okay but not full on jello-style wobbling like it was when you put it in.  Allow to cool.

There are several ways you can eat your key lime pie.
One is plain, i.e. the way it looks right now.

One is topped with whipped cream (Chantilly icing). If you’re going to do that, then whip the cream in the stand mixer or by hand. Freshly-whipped cream is easier to spread on top of a pie than the stuff you squirt.
The third is meringue. Those egg whites you had from above – make sure they are room temperature, which they should be by the time you finish making and baking your pie. First, throw your oven on at 400, or take out a blow torch. Throw the whites in the stand mixer with 1 Tbsp warm water and ¼ tsp of cream of tartar. Throw the switch to high and let it go until the whites are at the soft peak stage (take the mixer out and the peaks fall into themselves) Then add 1/4 to 1/2 cup of sugar, sprinkling it over the egg whites. Continue to whip until egg whites are stiff – when you take the beaters out, the mix should stand like Mt. Everest.  Spread or pipe the egg whites on top of the key lime pie. You can totally torch the pie if you want to freak people out, but first, you may want to bake it in the oven for about 10 minutes or so. Then, when the whites have sort of set, pull it out and blowtorch it, or turn your broiler on and leave the pie under it until the edges of the whites start to turn golden brown.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

I'm Back - With Cheese

I’m back on the blog! I’ve neglected this one for too long. And it’s a shame really, because people have asked me for more recipes since I stopped posting than they did before. So I’m going to start posting again, because recipes are in and of themselves creators of stories.
Why this recipe to (re)start with? A lot of people have asked about this risotto. Really, it’s not that difficult. If you can stir a pot, and you know the difference between wet and dry, you can pretty well make risotto. It does require you to stand at a stove for at least 20 – 30 minutes, though. But you’ve probably spent more than that in line for some free item, concert tickets, or to be patted down by security at the ACC. At least you won’t feel nearly as violated.
Making risotto is a sensual experience. You will use your ears, your eyes, your nose (of course), your sense of touch and taste. It’s one of those dishes you must pay attention to, and if you do have ADHD, there’s enough sensory stuff going on to keep you from being distracted. (That’s no joke; my son has ADHD and he could make sense of the risotto AND sing at the same time.)
What makes this slightly different is that I didn’t use parmigiana reggiano. I didn’t even use parmesan. I used…cheddar. Yes. Stop fainting. It’s possible to use cheddar, a good cheddar, in risotto, and not mess it up. It goes with the nuttiness of the shiitakes the way it would on a cheese board with walnuts.
So, without further ado, here you go.

Shiitake Risotto with Aged Cheddar
110g (4 oz) shiitake mushrooms, stems removed, sliced or chopped
2 sprigs green onion, chopped
4 Tbsp. butter, unsalted, at room temperature
2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 ½ cups arborio or carnaroli  or calrose (short-grain) rice
1L stock, preferably unsalted, heated and kept at a simmer (you can use vegetable or chicken stock, but nothing with a heavy flavour like beef stock or asparagus stock)
¼ cup finely grated aged white cheddar (not the big holes in the box grater, and not the fine holes for hard cheese, but the tiny holes that look like minis of the big holes. Or just use a wood plainer or nutmeg grater)
Salt, to taste (optional)
Freshly-ground pepper
Chopped flat-leaf Italian parsley (to taste)
Equipment: large skillet, wooden spoon (for the love of all things holy PLEASE use a wooden spoon), ladle with 1/3 – 1/2 cup bowl, cheese grater, and large eyes (optional)*
* I don’t really measure accurately for this recipe. I eye up the size, and so when I say “large eyes”, I mean an overestimate of the size, not so much that a teaspoon is now six tablespoons, but that one tablespoon is about 1 ½ or maybe even 2 by volume. If you’re scared to use your eye, you can use measuring tools and things will still turn out fine.

First things first: are you using a no-stick skillet or a pro-stick skillet? If you are using non-stick, then you will have to be extra vigilant with your risotto, as you won’t be able to hear the sizzle of the stock for as long a time as you do a pro-stick pan. I used a non-stick pan for this because my largest skillet happens to be non-stick. I find I prefer to use a pro-stick skillet for risotto to keep me on my toes, but it’s up to you.
1.       Make sure your pot with the stock is on a burner near the burner where you will be placing the skillet. Keep the stock at a simmer or scald (steaming with the slightest bubble) once heated. Never use cold stock for a risotto. (Try it, and you’ll see what I mean.)

2.       Heat skillet on medium heat on stove, adding 2Tbsp olive oil and 2Tbsp butter to the pan. When the butter has melted and started to clarify (the milk solids sink to the bottom of the oil) add green onions and stir with wooden spoon to coat. Add chopped mushrooms and sauté until the mushrooms have absorbed the oil and butter and onions are translucent (about 2 – 4 min).

3.       When oil and butter have been absorbed, add 1Tbsp butter back into the pan. As soon as that butter melts, add all of the rice, and stir to coat the rice in the butter and mix the mushrooms and onions in. When the rice becomes translucent, all of it (this will take about 4 – 5 min of continual stirring), and all of the butter has been absorbed, take a look at your rice. This is what “dry” will look like – no liquid in the bottom of the pan, rice making a slight sizzling sound.

4.       Using your ladle, add 1 ladleful (but no more than ½ cup) of stock to the rice and stir it in. It should sound like liquid hitting a hot pan, sizzle sizzle sizzle, until you start stirring. Make sure your rice absorbs all of the stock. It should appear almost dry again, and you will hear whispers, if anything, from your rice. If there is a little liquid left, keep stirring it in. Do figure 8 stirring. Whatever you have to do, but do not…DO NOT…add more liquid until the liquid you’ve added has been absorbed. That’s the key to risotto.

5.       Once your rice is dry, add another ladle of stock and stir. Add one ladle at a time. Don’t get cocky and add more than I’m telling you to add. You’ll lose control and end up with something that is inedible. Trust me.

6.       So after about the 5th ladleful, just after the liquid has been absorbed – it should take a little longer each time, which means the rice is actually absorbing the liquid, and the pan gets whisper quiet – take a couple grains of rice from the pot with a teeny spoon or fork and bite down. If it’s completely hard, then add another ladleful and keep going. If it’s starting to give, then add a little less than a ladleful of stock. You want the risotto rice to be al dente – not RAW inside, but with a bit of give. At this point, the rice grains should be softish on the outside but a teeny bit crunchy on the inside.

7.       After your next stock addition and absorption, check again. Is your rice getting a little softer in the middle but still tough? Good. Add ¼ to ½ ladleful of stock and stir.

8.       Once your rice is al dente (which means firm in the middle, not raw, not tough), add the last tablespoon of butter and the grated cheese. Turn off the stove, and stir to melt them in. This is something you would NOT do if you use parmesan or reggiano cheese. You need more heat to mix a harder cheese in. You need less heat for a softer cheese.

9.       Once your butter and cheese has been incorporated, taste your dish one last time and add fresh ground pepper to taste. If you need more salt, add a touch more cheese or the tiniest dash of sea salt.

Serve right away. Risotto does not do well if it sits for too long.
So enjoy and let me know how it comes out! Tag me on Instagram and follow me to see what’s going on in my kitchen.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Last Apple Cinnamon Cheesecake (with Recipe)

(The original of this blog was published at http://thebadwriter.blogspot.ca . This version includes pictures and the recipe for the cheesecake. Enjoy.)

It’s strange cooking for someone who used to eat your food.
It’s not that I haven’t been through death before. I have. Several times. I think I’ve even gone to a funeral for someone who’s eaten something I brought in for a pot luck. I know that my late husband ate my cooking. I’ve been cooking for a while. But I don’t think of myself of having come into my own as far as cooking, baking, and/or preserving goes until after he passed away, and even moreso after the birth of my son, the one who gave me a valid reason to learn to do these things.
This time it's different. My BFF lost her stepmother, Bonnie, this week. Bonnie was a great lady. She was full of life. I know Bonnie used to like cheesecake, and she’s had several of my desserts. So that’s what makes this weird.

The first thing we do as a world culture is make sure the family of the deceased eats. In certain cultures, you don’t even let the grieving family go near the kitchen – you bring food, you send food, you order catering – but they are the survivors, and they have to survive. We need food and water and oxygen to survive.

There’s been a lot of grieving this week in my life, but in the life of my country as well. It’s been hard being a Canadian this week. And when I say that I don’t mean being Canadian – it’s been easier to be Canadian this week than it was during the Winter Olympics earlier this year. It’s just been hard here. We as a collective have been through the gamut. We had our collective hearts broken and torn out by senseless acts of violence. We’ve had our hope restored through people whom we had come to regard as figureheads. And we have come together as a nation – for the most part – to help each other survive this mess and keep going forward.

And in the middle of all of this, before it even began, my BFF lost someone she loved and cared for. In the middle of her family’s private grief, there was this very public loss and grief.

And that’s the day she reached out to ask for help.

So I decided to make something I haven’t made in a while. A cheesecake. I’m not sure why that’s the first thing I thought of, since I have apples and it’s pie season. It’s a helluvalot easier to bake a pie than to make a cheesecake. But I think it was because I hadn’t made one for a while. And it just seemed like the right time to make one.

So Rest In Peace, Bonnie Smith. Thank you for being you, and for being kind to me at a time when I felt like a stranger in my own land. I really wish you were here to have a piece of this apple cinnamon cheesecake I’m making for you. You take care, and rest well until we meet again. Hopefully you will be there to guide me through another place where I’m going to feel like a stranger in a strange land.

Apple Cinnamon Cheesecake

The recipe and method is the same as the Pumpkin Cheesecake I published earlier, except in place of 2 cups of pumpkin, you would use 2 cups of baked Honeycrisp Apple puree. With the change of fruit, you would use 2 heaping tsp of cinnamon, 1/4 heaping tsp. cloves, and 1/2 tsp. nutmeg as spices.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

June 7, 2014 - My Canadian Voice

The Canadian Food Experience Project began June 7 2013. As we (participants) share our collective stories across the vastness of our Canadian landscape through our regional food experiences, we hope to bring global clarity to our Canadian culinary identity through the cadence of our concerted Canadian voice. Please join us.

Exactly one year ago, I was up early one Saturday morning, editing a piece that I was going to read aloud at an open mic night. In spite of all of the Hemingway stereotypes, writers long to be distracted from the page. I found myself drawn to a tweet from Canadian culinary superstar and huge supporter of my late husband, Lucy Waverman, promoting The Canadian Food Experience Project by our dear Valerie Lugonja. Valerie was asking food bloggers (one of whom I had recently become) to participate in a 13-month project to express our love for, and share our experiences about, Canadian food.

When I signed up a year ago, I wasn’t sure if I would fit in. After all, many of the others had been writing and styling their blogs for longer than I had. I hoped my enthusiasm would show through, and people would be interested in reading about my unique perspective as a first-generation Canadian.

So first off, thank you all so much for taking the time to read my blogs for the past year. You have encouraged me to continue past the last day of this project. I hope to write a food blog entry for you at least once a month to be uploaded on or around the 7th.

But this month’s entry is entitled “My Canadian Voice”. So what makes my perspective more interesting and distinct from others? My parents came here during the great influx of the 60s, during the conception of multiculturalism in Canada. Canadian cities are distinct from other major world cities for that very reason alone.  We were doing fusion cuisine in Canada long before the rest of the world caught on - my mother would take ingredients that were uniquely Canadian and adapt her recipes from home to suit what could be found locally. “Authentic” dishes made with the correct ingredients from her country no longer taste right to me, because my versions are Canadianized.

And given my background and upbringing, who would have thought that I would even be interested in making an almost-perfect schmoo cake, looking for the perfect butter tart (without raisins, ugh) and extolling the virtues of red fife flour.

I love this country, and everything it stands for, no matter who happens to be in parliament at any governmental level. Food brings us together, and Canadians staunchly defend our dishes of national pride, such as poutine and peameal bacon. Our problem is that, unfortunately, we’re really not aware of a lot of our regional dishes. For instance, Valerie had never heard of a schmoo cake. And before I had gone to Winnipeg and had it on a special trip, I didn’t know either. Through this project we have learned a lot more about each other and our regional treasures, and in so doing, have developed our Canadian culinary pride.

So for my final recipe for the Canadian Food Experience Project, I have to talk about something that separates the foodies from the hipsters – fiddleheads. You either salivated or shirked at the mention of the word, if you know your mettle. Fiddleheads are also grown in the northern US, but then again, they also attempt to make maple syrup in Vermont. Any good Canadian knows the best fiddleheads are from the East Coast, growing wild in the forests. We have fiddlehead farms in Ontario, and yes, they are adequate, but nothing is as pungent or as robustly green as East Coast fiddleheads.

Where my parents are from, they have many bitter green vegetables, and I suppose my love of fiddleheads comes from those roots. And as usual with something Canadian, there are crazy rules that go along with the preparation of fiddleheads. The Canada Food Guide suggests you cook fiddleheads for at least 10 minutes before you actually cook them, to avoid being poisoned. The Canada Food Guide also recommends that all burgers be cooked beyond recognition before serving them. And we food people understand why they have to say these things. The last thing you want is some person becoming sick, or worse, because they wanted to try something new.

So, in keeping with the guidelines, I will recommend that you please boil your fiddleheads for 10 minutes before you cook them in your recipe. But I won’t come to your kitchen and enforce the rules.

One thing you do have to make sure is that they are washed properly. No brown leaves, no leaf rot. Fill a big bowl with water, throw the fiddleheads in, and wash each individual fiddlehead until all the brown leaves are gone. Then dump the water, refill the bowl, and do it again. And then, dump the water, fill the bowl, and wash the fiddleheads for a third time. After the third draining they are ready to be used.

Fiddleheads are as diverse as asparagus or broccoli or any other green veggie. Lucy Waverman herself recommends coating them in olive oil, salt, and pepper, and roasting them on a parchment-covered cookie sheet at 400F until they are crispy and you can eat them like fries. But here, I made a kid-friendly fiddlehead creamy pasta. It’s fairly easy, and it’s pretty, tasty, and you can get your kid who runs from green vegetables to finish his fiddleheads!

Fiddlehead Primavera
(serves 4 – 6)
1 – 1 ½ lbs of fresh fiddleheads (I have never used frozen, but since the season is over, you might have to look for those), washed well.
½ lb fresh mushrooms (I used creminis), sliced
1 medium onion, diced
2 – 3 large cloves of garlic, diced
1 cup frozen peas (optional)
1/4 cup butter
1 Tbsp olive oil (can be regular, it doesn’t need to be EVOO)
1/3 cup milk and 2/3 cup whipping cream (or, if you are worried about fat, then have 1 Tbsp flour or tapioca at the ready with an additional 1 Tbsp butter)
Thyme, rosemary, oregano
Salt and pepper
500g of pasta made from durum semolina (spaghettini is the favourite in our household)
Grated parmesan cheese (you could use parmigiano-reggiano, but parmesan is made in Canada)

Once the fiddleheads have been washed according to the directions above, steam them for about 7 minutes until their colour just starts to turn. In the interim, melt about 2 Tbsp butter and the olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Once the butter stops foaming, add the mushrooms and coat them well in the butter and oil. Lower the stove to medium. The pan should dry out and your mushrooms may appear to be scorching. Just keep stirring them or making them jump and in about 2 – 3 minutes, the mushrooms will start to soften and release liquid. Once the mushrooms are done to your liking, set them aside. The fiddleheads should be finished by now; remove the steamer from overtop of the water but do not immerse the fiddleheads to halt the cooking.

In a large pan, melt the rest of the butter, and, once again, after it has stopped foaming, add the onion and saute until tender. Add the garlic at this point; toss with the onions just until the garlic releases its fragrance. Add the mushrooms, then add the fiddleheads. Toss until everything is well-coated. Add the peas at this point, but if you are using frozen peas, rinse them under tepid water and drain before adding them. Once all the veggies are heated and coated well, (if you are making a roux, add the flour and butter into the pan, and coat everything well) add the milks and stir until your sauce is at its desired thickness.

Meanwhile, prepare your pasta according to the package directions and your preference. My son prefers things a little more than al dente. Once the pasta has been drained, and your sauce is at the desired thickness, add the pasta into the pan, along with the fresh herbs you want to use, and toss it with the sauce. While you let the sauce thicken again, since it will become loose, add a handful of grated parmesan to speed up the thickening process. Add pepper and taste to see if you still need to add salt (the cheese can be pretty salty). Season to taste.

Yes, this is a very simple recipe. But that’s what has been great about this whole experience. We are all simple Canadians, brought together through our love for our unique food. Hope you continue with your Canadian culinary adventures as much as I do with mine!

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

May 7, 2014 - My Canadian Garden

The Canadian Food Experience Project began June 7 2013. As we (participants) share our collective stories across the vastness of our Canadian landscape through our regional food experiences, we hope to bring global clarity to our Canadian culinary identity through the cadence of our concerted Canadian voice. Please join us

It’s May. At this time of year in the Southern Ontario Green Belt, everything is supposed to be in bloom. The daffodils and tulips are supposed to be colouring the landscape with shades of yellow, pink, and red. The air should be filled with the scent of lilacs, the first fragrant bloom to herald the arrival of Spring. The fruit blossoms begin to emerge, the bees have done their dance of cross-pollination,  and the pick-your-own farms are readying themselves for the busy season that starts after the Ides of May.
Well that’s what would normally happen. But not in 2014. The year after the Winter That Was (and, in Northern Ontario, continues to happen). Most people who have been following the Canadian Food Experience Project are indeed Canadian. I don’t have to tell you about the coldest winter our entire nation has encountered since the 1960s. I don’t have to tell you that, up until two weeks ago, every major Canadian city (except for Vancouver) still had snow on the ground, or that, up until last week, said ground remained too frozen to do anything else except except rake the surface.

So I would have liked to have written about the garden that we usually start in April with the turning of the soil, the fertilizing, the resting for a week, and then the planting of seeds and seedlings to see what we get in a given year. This year, I was hoping to plant some garlic, pumpkins, peas, zucchini, and tomatoes. My roommate is insisting on growing at least two successful stalks of corn before he shuffles off this mortal coil (and given his flu, that could be any day now).

However, this is the paltry state of our garden. 

It made me wonder what everyone else is doing – have they replaced fruits and vegetables with flowers? Are they like us, and haven't bothered to start the garden? Or did they just break some shovels and try to plant root vegetables, knowing those hearty things could last yet through another May frost and/or snowfall? (The good news on that – today was the first day that I could smell the spring in the soil. You know, that musty smell between rot and renewal that comes out when the sun finally warms up the ground.)

If you just judged me by that picture above, you would never know that I love to garden. I love tending to the plants in the beds, watching them bloom, marvelling at the bees who show up, and seeing the blossoms transform into something I can bring in the house and eat raw, or cook, bake or preserve. Because I nurtured them from seed. I kept guard watching over them day and night and in-between.  I weed the beds carefully, water them religiously, spread human hair around the edges in a (functioning) voodoo ritual to keep the rabbits  and raccoons out. Squirrels are a whole other pest unto themselves. Especially if you try to grow corn...

So what will I do this year? Everything’s a month behind. I just hope that this means that I'll get fresh strawberries from my garden during the Tour de France in July, or fresh peas until the dog days of summer. And wouldn’t it be a wonderful dream to have fresh, ripe, red tomatoes, unharmed by cold, in November?

I'll show you what the garden turns into once we've tackled it and planted some seeds and seedlings.  In the meantime, here’s a picture of days gone by, and my first major harvest last year. Wish us amateur gardeners in Southern Ontario luck. And a plethora of new shoves and rakes!

Monday, April 7, 2014

April 7, 2014 - A Canadian Farmer - Backyard Bee Works

The Canadian Food Experience Project began June 7 2013. As we (participants) share our collective stories across the vastness of our Canadian landscape through our regional food experiences, we hope to bring global clarity to our Canadian culinary identity through the cadence of our concerted Canadian voice. Please join us.

When I was in high school, back in the (cough cough) 80s, I was in the group that didn't belong with anyone else.  We didn't listen to the top 40 of the day, we didn't go see Footloose or Dirty Dancing. We didn't even wear our collars outside of our pullovers. We dressed how we wanted, listened to what was really alternative  - like having to go downtown to fringe record shops to buy stuff we had never heard from groups we had only read about and discovered real music – and we all became real friends for life. None of us stayed in our hometown to marry our high school sweethearts. We lived our lives the way we wanted.

We all stayed in touch peripherally. Someone always knew what one of the others was doing. I had known that my friend Mark McAlpine had moved to Guelph, Ontario and became a tattoo and piercing artist because he was living near other mutual friends.

And then Facebook came along. Being the technologically savvy bunch we were, we all friended each other back in the days when Facebook friends were actual friends.

A few years back Mark and his wife Shelley announced they had started to keep bees, and they had produced a small batch of honey which they were willing to sell to friends. Being someone who has always been supportive of local farmers, good food, and my friends, I bought a 1kg jar from Mark to try it out.

That jar held some of the best honey I had ever tasted in my life.

I was used to going to the farmer’s markets and farm markets in my local area and buying craft honey there. I was used to the difference between store-bought honey and fresh from the hive honey. But when I tasted Mark and Shelley’s honey, I could taste the warmth of the sun in every drop. This was honey that had curative powers for sore throats, flu bugs, and honey that brought out the best in every recipe I used it for.

Mark and Shelley branded their business as Backyard Bee Works, and have been selling honey in the Guelph area ever since. They have a network of hives in St. Patrick’s Ward, or The Ward, in Guelph from which the honey is harvested and packaged.  I recently did an interview with them for the May issue of Eatins Canada, and asked them to talk about what led them to starting their own backyard hives, the expansion of the network, and  the state of the honey business and honey bees in Canada, especially given the winter we just went through in Southern Ontario. 

Since we are talking about local farmers that produce something uniquely Canadian, I thought I'd share some excerpts from the interview for this month's entry. Who better to talk about their beehives than Mark and Shelley in their own words:

What made you and Shelley interested in honey making and beekeeping in the first place? When did you get your first hive and how did your first season go?

Mark: I had a good friend who worked at the University of Guelph's Honeybee labs and I'd ask him questions about bees. In 2007, with his encouragement, I took a weekend beginner's beekeeping course at the University, and purchased our first bees from a local beekeeper early that same summer. I set up two hives in our backyard. I don't know that Shelley was too happy about the idea of several thousand bees in our backyard, but it was soon apparent that the hives and bees weren't going to interfere with our normal use of the yard. Its not like all the bees are just hanging out in your backyard, they’re flying off all over the city gathering nectar, so unless you stood right by the hives you’d hardly notice them. 

Shelley: I was absolutely terrified to have bees in our backyard. No joke!  I didn't have a lot of knowledge and assumed they would be like the Seinfeld Movie "Bee Movie".  I wasn't interested to have thousands of angry insects who thought we were stealing their honey.  I overcame my ignorance by taking a bee keeping course at the university of Guelph.  Taking the beekeeping course was a great way to get comfortable with the idea of having bees in our yard.

Why the decision to expand to multiple hives? Not just in your yard but in yards across St. Patrick's Ward? At that point were you interested in selling the honey or were you trying to experiment with nectar flavours, bee output, etc.?

Mark: Healthy hives with a good Queen will eventually hit a point where quite naturally the hive is ready to swarm.  Basically what happens is that within the hive, all the signals indicate that the hive is doing well, food is plentiful and the current hive is close to being full up with bees, honey and pollen, so it’s time to split the colony and spread. The queen will lay a successor, and then leave the hive taking roughly half the bees and honey stores with her. They establish a new colony and the newly hatched queen takes over the existing hive. 

As a beekeeper and a good neigbour, we don’t want the bees to swarm and become a nuisance to those living around us,  so there are ways to split a healthy hive into two colonies that fulfills the swarm instinct of the bees and allows you to expand the number of hives you have. With healthy colonies this can happen quite often, so very quickly you can go from two hives to four to 8 to how ever many you can handle. We also had friends in the area who were interested in supporting bee populations but were not wanting to keep their own hives.  We were able to put new hives in yards around our neighbourhood, St Patricks Ward (or simply The Ward if you live in Guelph,) which has a direct benefit on local gardens, fruit trees, wild flowers, and vegetable patches, and allowed us to expand our hives without overwhelming our own backyard.  As far as the honey goes, even with only a couple of hives we soon had more honey then we’d ever be able to make personal use of, so we started selling to friends and family. We have some extremely loyal customers, and each year we quickly sell out.

One of the most obvious differences between your honey and the mass-produced honeys people find in supermarkets is that your product is made in small batches and is unpasteurized. Many of our readers may have seen craft honey available at farmer's markets or roadside produce shops as well.  Can you describe the differences in process and flavour between your honey with its wildflower origins versus a single-flower honey that is found at places like the farmer's markets?

Mark: Every beekeeper has a different set up from the next, but in a general sense when you’re dealing with a local beekeeper — the folks set up at the farmer’s market, a small family run beekeeping business, or like Shelley and I, hobby beekeepers — you’ll likely find that hives stay in one place and the bees are free to gather nectar from whatever happens to be in bloom. The taste is local, it varies from year to year and there’s no way to duplicate the flavour or make it homogenous. So much depends on the weather, what grows in your area, what’s in bloom, etc. The interesting thing is that each hive’s honey can taste completely different from a neighbouring hive, depending on where they go to gather pollen. You can’t control what flowers they go to — commercial beekeepers can place a hive somewhere in the middle of kilometers of say, clover, to get a particular flavour, but our bees go to whatever happens to be in bloom, and gather a multitude of nectar and pollen, so every year the flavour is different and surprising.

Shelley: As city bees they have free reign to harvest whatever various types of pollen they need to feed their babies (the cutest thing ever is watching a baby bee nibble free from her cell!) or gather a particular type of nectar to help the health of a hive.  They aren't thinking about taste, they are concerned about the hive's well being.  Urban honey bees, like all bees, travel about several kilometers from their hive to gather nectar and pollen.  If the only thing around is clover, that is the honey you will get. It is about personal preference!  By all means, please, please support your local bee keeper!  They are gathering great honey.  Be wary of large multinational corporations who purchase honey from all over the world.  In a nut shell, buy local honey!

What is the average life span for a worker bee? How far will the average bee travel from and to the hive to gather nectar?

Mark: On average, a worker bee will live around 40 days. She’ll go through a number of jobs as she gets older, from nurse to guard to pollen and nectar gatherer before she eventually dies.  Over winter these same workers will live for several months until the spring weather hits. A Queen bee can live for many years. We've had one of our Queens live for nearly 5 years before the hive replaced her.  As far as distance goes, it’s been well documented that bees can travel 6km or more in search of pollen or nectar, and 3km is a common average given.   That means our bees have likely visited every corner of the City of Guelph, and even well beyond they city limits.  According to the Canadian Honey Council,  honey bees need to visit around two million flowers and fly 80,000 km just to make one pound of honey.

With fruits and vegetables, harvests vary from year to year. What are some of the annual perils that the hive can encounter that affects honey production? 

Shelley:  I personally get heart broken when there are warm days in the midst of winter.  Our bees, like all honey bees in North America, originated from bees from Asia and Europe.  Bees don’t hibernate over winter, they’re in the hive, active, creating enough heat to make the inside of the hive room temperature even on the coldest winter day. When you get a sudden warm day in the middle of January, a number of bees actually leave the hive, like they’re expecting a beautiful spring morning.  Bees never poop in the hive, so they also take the time to relieve themselves after holding it in all winter.  Sometimes they’ll land on the frozen snow or ground, and it’s sad to see frozen bees during the winter.  I have gathered many of them, and the warmth of my hand has revived them- but not enough to be healthy members of the hive again.

Mark: There’s so many things that can affect the health of a hive, or how much honey is gathered over a season. Long, hot and dry summers can mean there’s no nectar to gather, early spring frost can kill blooming plants and mean that there’s no food for bees after a long winter. Or, like this current winter with cold weather that goes on and on, the bees can often use up their winter food supply and end up starving before the spring arrives. We’ve lost  way more hives this year because of this exact problem, compared to other years. It’s a terrible thing to open a hive in the spring and see that the bees have run out of food and died, despite everything you did to prepare the hive for winter. That’s without even getting into the number of pests and diseases that target honey bees and their hives. Bees are in a precarious situation, and vulnerable to so much. In North America, wild honeybees colonies basically no longer exist — there are lots of other wild native bees out there still, but specifically honeybees in the wild have pretty much died out from the various diseases that kill a hive when left untreated.  If you see a honeybee on a flower in a field, it’s overwhelmingly likely that bee came from a beekeeper’s yard. Even bees that swarm from a “kept” hive and end up making their home in a tree or log in nature don’t tend to live long. Without beekeepers, we wouldn't have bees pollinating our vegetable, flowers, fruit trees at all. 

I was really drawn to the community sense of your business, in that you are willing to share your knowledge to help others become beekeepers and learn your trade. What is the most important thing about crafting honey that you have learned since you and Shelly have started to keep bees?

Shelley: The beekeeping community is an important one, and we make sure to reach out to other bee keepers as well as to continue to rely on professionals like the amazing Ontario Beekeeping Association’s Tech Transfer Team here in Guelph, to acess information and resources that help keep our honey bees healthy.  Ontario, and Guelph in particular has a dedicated group of professionals and academics who have dedicated there lives to keep bees happy and healthy, so we’re extremely fortunate to be able to access that.

Mark: I got involved in beekeeping because of that exact sense of community you mentioned. I had a couple of friends who were extremely generous with their time, especially when we first started out and were terrified of making any wrong move with our hives. They’d come by, help with inspections, reassure us that we were on the right track — they were just so helpful beyond the call of duty, and it’s the example they set for us that we try and follow. As others around us take an interest in having hives or learning more about how to help honeybees, we've tried to be the folks who will come by and lend a hand, check out the hives with them, help them extract honey at the end of season — all the stuff we benefited from when we first started out. I think that’s what makes our situation so special — it’s slow, small scale, and community oriented. Some friends have been inspired to have hives of their own, and others go out of their way to buy our honey as a way of supporting our efforts.

In addition to honey, what other bee-related products do you make? 

Shelley:  Mark has made some awesome tattoo balm and this year we are getting into lip balm, I'm an addict, so I better start making my own.  Every coat pocket I own has a least one tube!

Mark: We've collected a tonne of pure beeswax over the last number of years and I've had friends buy blocks of it to use in art projects, and as Shelley mentioned I've developed our own line of tattoo aftercare balm that’s been very popular in town. On a personal level, I use our honey when making mustards, and have been toying with the idea of making a variety of honey mustards to sell as well,  but the honey is what most folks know us for, which is fine by me!

All pictures by Mark and Shelley McAlpine.

Backyard Bee Works is located in St. Patrick’s Ward, in Guelph, Ontario. For more information about buying their honey or honey-related beeswax products, visit their website at www.backyardbeeworks.com .

Friday, March 7, 2014

March 7 - A(nother) Great Canadian Regional Food

The Canadian Food Experience Project began June 7 2013. As we (participants) share our collective stories across the vastness of our Canadian landscape through our regional food experiences, we hope to bring global clarity to our Canadian culinary identity through the cadence of our concerted Canadian voice. Please join us.

It’s March! It’s almost springtime! Time for the sun to start shining its warmth upon the frozen ground and start to warm up the trees for the maple sap to flow. Hooray! It’s a great time of year to be Canadian!

That’s what I would normally be saying at this time of year. The sap usually starts to run just in time for March Break, when you’re looking for something to do with the kids to get them outside finally.

Except this year.

This year, the ground in southern Ontario is still frozen solid. Metres of snow piles sit on people’s lawns and line the highways. The afternoon temperatures are still in the minus teens, before wind chill. We are lamenting that this is the winter that will never end. Well I hope that’s not true. I would rather have a late maple syrup run than be wearing winter coats in July.
So about three years ago, when Spring came at a normal time of year, around March Break, our family went to the maple syrup festival at Bruce’s Mill Conservation Area in Whitchurch-Stouffville. While my then four-year-old son had a blast, especially on the hay wagon ride, what was important to this story is that he got hungry and wanted one of the giant cookies that he had seen at a table for sale. The thing was, it wasn’t a maple-based cookie but just a very ordinary chocolate chip flax seed cookie.  So because having pancakes and syrup and syrup tasting and fudge wasn’t enough sugar for the day, we got him a cookie but only if he promised to split them with us. And since his dad can’t eat chocolate, he had to split the cookie with me.

In spite of the long trip the cookie made and being wrapped in cellophane for the whole trip, it was one of the best chocolate chip cookies I had ever eaten. The gentleman assured me it was because of the type of flour. He represented a small mill called Tyrone Mills, very local to Durham Region, and closer to my house than Bruce’s Mill.

Tyrone Mills is a working mill that continues to grind grain into batches of flour. You can get almost every flour imaginable at the mill. And when I noted that the address wasn’t too far from my house, I figured one day we would see what it was all about.
There are no wheat farms close to the mill but they do grind large batches and small batches of grain. We found the ultimate Canadian flour, red fife flour, at the mill, along with the world’s finest durum semolina flour – grown right here in Canada.

So we took a batch home and I had no idea what to do with it. I heard about the nutty flavour, the earthy aroma, but I couldn’t believe how incredible this flour actually smelled when I opened the bag. I had never really thought about the scent of flour until I found one that had such a robust scent. I had to do something with it right away before the scent faded.
I stared in my cupboard and the first thing I saw were chocolate chips. So I thought, why not? I searched for Red Fife Chocolate Chip cookies. Most recipes had people half and halfing the flour with unbleached all-purpose. But I wanted that scent to waft through my kitchen to the top floor and the bottom floor.

So I made one up. To preserve the nutty flavour, I cut back on the amount of regular granulated sugar you’d use and sweetened the batch using some tangerines that were sitting on the counter. I suppose I should have used maple syrup, but the cookies wouldn’t turn out nearly as crispy chewy.

Red Fife Chocolate Chip Cookies

1 ¼ cups red fife flour
½ cup rolled oats
¾ tsp sea salt
¾ tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
½ cup unsalted butter (4 oz or 1 stick), room temperature
½ cup brown sugar, packed
½ cup granulated white sugar
1 egg
1 – 2 Tbsp juice from ½ a fresh squeezed orange/tangerine
4 oz chocolate chips
1 tsp orange/tangerine zest

Preheat oven to 350F.

Mix all dry ingredients together. Do not sift them.

Cream butter and sugars together until just mixed. Add egg and mix in. then add juice.

Add the dry ingredients until barely combined. If using a stand mixer, mix on the lowest setting for less than 30 seconds. Scrape the sides and combine the ingredients.

Fold in chocolate chips and the lemon zest. The batter should be clumpy and look barely mixed.

Drop batter by rounded tablespoonful  onto parchment-covered cookie sheets, about 2 inches apart.  Pat cookies with fingertips or butter knife to flatten slightly.

Bake for about 15 minutes, rotating pans at around the 7 minute mark. Remove cookies as soon as they are golden brown, and allow them to cool on racks for at least 5 minutes or for as long as 10 minutes, before removing to cooling racks.

Make sure you make this recipe when nobody is home so you don’t have to share the cookies with anyone. But if you do find people won’t leave the house, tell them they are healthy cookies so that you can have more for yourself!