Category Archives: bird watching

No Bake Herbed Nut & Cheese Snowballs Recipe

It is official: the fall themes are over, the wreaths are being changed to Christmas and the Black Friday specials just zoomed themselves in. Christmas prep has just stepped into our house with these cute little coconut herb cheese balls appetizer to greet our friends in a jiffy and finally celebrate the end of the Black Friday expenses. I really needed some purifying after a long day of unnecessary shopping, so combining Boursin cheese 50/50 with minced parsley (great anti-inflammatory and tonic)) and adding some minced garlic sounded like a good idea. If you can’t find Boursin, a mix of cottage and cream cheese (in a traditional Georgian way, with addition of garlic, parsley and walnuts); or any other soft cheese of your choice (goat, sheep, etc.) make great alternatives. Tasty, light and totally unwinding, these little balls are easy, fast and delectable treat for any party (specifically, tapas party, yay!).

This appetizer was inspired by the flurry of birds swooping in unison we’ve spotted today while going shopping.  We were driving by the Richelieu river, doomed to freeze within hours, when suddenly flocks of white birds (I believe they were seagulls, although they looked like white ducks) were appearing ‘en masse’ simultaneously from East and West directions. Naturally, our aerial avian obsession pushed us to find the parking right away.

The birds landed on the rocks in the middle of the river in a peaceful and undetermined magic action and were loudly discussing what to do next. How come they were so late to leave South? Were they disrupted by the I-phones and other human electronics interfering with natural birds’ migration?

Few minutes after the clouds of ducks were arriving in queues peppering the sky over the same spot, all trying to scour some mini spots left in the water to take a break.  The scenery felt like both, a great blessing and a Hitchcock thriller at the same time – certainly powerful… Ready to go into the darkness of the sky an hour later all birds, were chatting loudly about their next survival step… How do they do that? I don’t know, but for sure it’s a very inspiring act of courage…

And here we are sharing more pictures of our great spotting…

Back home we fixed these little cheese balls within 5 minutes (plus 15 minutes in a freezer to cool), and shared the stories of birds and (mostly unnecessary shopping experiences).

All you need is to add a big bunch of minced parsley, a minced clove of garlic (optional), and then roll it in any chopped nuts or seeds of your choice.

Our choice was obviously coconut flakes, although we also tried black and white sesame as well as poppy seeds. All of them tasted heavenly. Definitely, this recipe is a keeper for the holidays…

Specifically wonderful with oatmeal crackers or bagel thins, but you can have them with anything else imaginable.  
Happy Holidays Countdown to You All!
*** 
*** 
CHEESE COCONUT HERB BALLS APPETIZER
Ingredients:
1 5 oz package of Boursin cheese (or cream cheese, or cottage cheese mixed with sour cream)
1 bunch of parsley, minced
1 garlic clove, minced (optional)
1 pinch of ground white pepper
1 handful of walnuts, chopped (optional)
pinch of sea or Hymalayan salt
1 cup flaked coconut (or any other crushed nut or seed of your choice), for rolling
Instructions:
Combine the cheese, parsley, garlic, white pepper and walnuts with fork in a bowl. Refrigerate for one+ hour. Roll the cheese mixture into small balls and then roll the balls into the shredded coconut or nuts or seeds of your choice (poppy, sesame, etc.). Serve on the tooth pics with the side of crackers or bagel thins.  

Eccles Cakes: Three Fillings


As other places in the world are springing forward, Montreal is actually wintering back with snowstorms and minus 25 C in the air (I can’t believe that two years ago people were already sitting on terraces with a beer, sleeveless, in the same city). As usually, snow is calling for some nurturing foods. Here is something to rave about on a cold March night: Eccles cakes with three different fillings – one is English authentic, one Canadian berry twist, and one which is called ‘place the order’.
The famous North of England sweet delicacy is made of puff pastry filled with mix of dried currants mixed with candied peel, butter, sugar and mixed spice.  Sometimes the currants are replaced by raisin, otherwise we are out of luck for variety. Well, I decided to extend the fillings selection…
The ancestor of Eccles dessert though was quite different from today’s or mine versions of cakes offering a lurid tale of Mrs. Elizabeth Raffald’s recipe that called for a boiled calf foot as a major filling ingredient…and was called ‘sweet patties’…   
Not that I was looking for such an exotic extreme, but I only had dried black currants enough for the first batch of filling, so I decided to make a second filling with dried Saskatoon berries (which were sitting in my pantry for a while screaming to be used), crushed walnuts and candied citrus peel, turning them into a Canadian berry twist on Eccles cakes. 
And when my daughter popped in asking for her favorite raspberries, I couldn’t but make a third filling with frozen raspberries mixed with raspberry jam and candied citrus peel. All of them made a huge hit! If you have some other berries in mind (blueberries, cranberries, etc.) you can totally piece them together with the same filling base (see candied citrus peel + butter syrup mix in the recipe) and I almost guarantee a satisfactory result.
Puff pastry is used to wrap the Eccles cakes filling in and I suggest you use a frozen ready-made one unless you are a pastry chef or are skillful enough to whirl your own in a wink (which I doubt). I used  three packs of pastry (one pack per each filling), which delivered around 56 cakes. As for the fillings, make sure they sit in the fridge for a few hours or overnight to let the juices mellow.

By the time the first bunch of Eccles cakes was piping hot and the tea was steeping, the blizzard increased and the temperature was dropping down fast. Suddenly, a family of gorgeous blue jays flew over to the bird-feeder right outside my window (perhaps to wow me on the cakes)… I was happy I had camera in my hands as I managed to take few of these cool blue jay shots:   

Whatever the weather, once you are close to a plate of these babies still warm from the oven three feelings will be revealed: JOY, HAPPINESS, LOVE. Try them to make them in summer with some fresh berries from your garden: complete awesomeness!

Enjoy your baking!

***


***

ECCLES CAKES: THREE FILLINGS

Ingredients for classic Eccles Cakes with Currants:
Yields: 16 to 20 cakes
2 tbsp unsalted butter
1 ½ cups (375 ml) fresh, frozen or dried currants
1/3 (75 ml) cup soft brown sugar
1/3 (75 ml) cup chopped candied citrus peel 
1 tsp (5ml) ground nutmeg
1 tsp (5 ml) ground allspice
1 tsp (5 ml) ground ginger
Juice of ½ lemon, freshly squeezed
14 oz (397 g) package frozen puff pastry
1 small egg, beaten to moisten edges and brush tops
2-3 tbsp Demerara sugar for dusting
Instructions:
Preheat the oven to 425F.
Melt the butter in a sauce pan, add sugar, currants, mixed peel, nutmeg, all spice, ginger and lemon juice. Stir to combine and remove from heat. Let cool and keep refrigerated until ready to use.
Roll out the pastry on a lightly floured surface to about 1/8 inch (3mm) thickness. Cut circles 3 to 4 inches (8 to 10 cm) in diameter using a cookie cutter or drinking glass. Place a teaspoon of filling in the middle of the half of the circles you made. Lightly brush the edges with beaten egg. Place the remaining circles on top, crimping the edges to seal. Brush tops with beaten egg white; dust with Demerara sugar. Cut several small slits on top of each cake. Place about 2 inches apart on the greased baking sheet.
Bake for about 15 minutes or until puffed and golden.
***
Ingredients for Eccles Cakes with Canadian Saskatoons & Walnuts:
Yields: 16 to 20 cakes
2 tbsp unsalted butter
1 cup (225 ml) dried saskatoons (prarie berries)
½ cup (50g) walnuts, chopped
2 tbsp (15 ml) soft brown sugar
1/3 (75 ml) cup chopped candied citrus peel 
1 tsp (5ml) ground nutmeg
1 tsp (5 ml) ground allspice
1 tsp (5 ml) ground ginger
Juice of ½ lemon, freshly squeezed
14 oz (397 g) package frozen puff pastry
1 small egg, beaten to moisten edges and brush tops
2-3 tbsp Demerara sugar for dusting
Instructions:
Preheat the oven to 425F.
Melt the butter in a sauce pan. Add sugar, saskatoons, walnuts, mixed peel, nutmeg, all spice, ginger and lemon juice. Stir to combine and remove from heat. Let cool and keep refrigerated until ready to use.
Roll out the pastry on a lightly floured surface to about 1/8 inch (3mm) thickness. Cut circles 3 to 4 inches (8 to 10 cm) in diameter using a cookie cutter or drinking glass. Place a teaspoon of filling in the middle of the half of the circles you made. Lightly brush the edges with beaten egg. Place the remaining circles on top, crimping the edges to seal. Brush tops with beaten egg white; dust with Demerara sugar. Cut several small slits on top of each cake. Place about 2 inches apart on the greased baking sheet.
Bake for about 15 minutes or until puffed and golden.
***
Ingredients for Eccles Cakes with Raspberry & Pecan Nuts:
Yields: 16 to 20 cakes
2 tbsp unsalted butter
1 cup (225 ml) frozen raspberries, crushed
½ cup (50g) pecan nuts, chopped
2 tbsp (15 ml) soft brown sugar
1 tbsp raspberry jam
1/3 (75 ml) cup chopped candied citrus peel 
1 tsp (5ml) ground nutmeg
1 tsp (5 ml) cinnamon
1 tsp (5 ml) ground ginger
Juice of ½ lemon, freshly squeezed
14 oz (397 g) package frozen puff pastry
1 small egg, beaten to moisten edges and brush tops
2-3 tbsp Demerara sugar for dusting
Instructions:
Preheat the oven to 425F.
Melt the butter in a sauce pan. Add sugar, jam, raspberries, pecan nuts, mixed peel, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger and lemon juice. Stir to combine and remove from heat. Let cool and keep refrigerated until ready to use.
Roll out the pastry on a lightly floured surface to about 1/8 inch (3mm) thickness. Cut circles 3 to 4 inches (8 to 10 cm) in diameter using a cookie cutter or drinking glass. Place a teaspoon of filling in the middle of the half of the circles you made. Lightly brush the edges with beaten egg. Place the remaining circles on top, crimping the edges to seal. Brush tops with beaten egg white; dust with Demerara sugar. Cut several small slits on top of each cake. Place about 2 inches apart on the greased baking sheet.
Bake for about 15 minutes or until puffed and golden.

Tart Tatin at Its Best


Somewhere between apple picking, bird watching, making cider and classic apple pies, I managed to make a delicious Tarte Tatin.  It turned out to be perfect this time (well, almost perfect), so here I am with my little tips in the midst of our continued fall adventures. 
The French dessert classic is an appealing combination of a crust and caramelized apples that is equally spectacular and comforting, which explains why this tart has been undimmed by time and is constantly in renaissance. Dozens of interesting tarts have hatched from this ancestor, including fruit upside-down tarts (pears, apricots, pineapples, peaches, figs, plums, etc.), veggies (tomatoes, onion, zucchinis, eggplants) and savory versions (seafood, fish, poultry, mushrooms and game) of Tatin.  The original Tatin, however, was made only with apples.
Created by accident more than a century ago, when the innkeeper sisters Tatin from the Loire region forgot to line the baking pan with dough and decided to place it over the apples, this tart is inherently forgiving. Which is why, the French whimsical culinary invention is also prone to cooking abuse: too little or too much apples, sugar or butter; wrong pastry/baking pan; messy inverting process.  Sooner or later you get it, and here I am posting my little tips on ‘’how to make your tart Tatin a success’’.
The following are my own discoveries on how to turn your tart Tatin from moderately successful to the best possible:
Apples: Royal Gala or Granny Smith make two best choices of apples for Tatin – they hold their shape during cooking and do not melt into apple sauce.  The second choice would be green Golden Delicious or Jonathan.  All other kinds failed (turned into apple sauce) during my numerous experiments.
Dough: Although puff pastry is a popular version, which can also save you a lot of time and effort, I find pâte brisée brings the best out of caramelized apples and delivers unmatched results in taste. Use the food processor to make it foolproof. Rolling the dough over parchment paper (I use my hands rather than roller ’cause the pastry is sticky) and chilling it before placing on the hot apples makes this step easier.
Pans & Caramelized Apples:  A 12-inch non-stick skillet works best for me. I am using a stove top method in which apples are slowly caramelized in a skillet on top of the butter and sugar before baking. This method is not used in many Tatin recipes, but delivers much better and more controllable results, to my opinion.  Once I tried cast-iron frying pan and oven method, I made a complete botch of my attempt at caramelizing apples, with too much butter and sugar – they quickly turned into a burnt apple sauce emanating lots of smoke and disappointment. I did not try the oven method for apple caramel again. Finally, I significantly cut the amount of butter and sugar in the apple caramel compared to most of the recipes to allow the apple ingredient to really shine and make the caramel leaner since pâte brisée crust is sweet and buttery enough for me. But if you are a real sweet tooth, feel free to add more sugar and butter before caramelizing your apples.
***
TART TATIN
Tart filling ingredients:
3 lbs (1.5 kg) about 7 medium Royal Gala or Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and halved
Juice of ½ a lemon
¼ cup (75 ml) unsalted butter
¾ cup (175 ml) granulated sugar
1 pâte brisée pastry crust (see below recipe)
Instructions:
In a large bowl, toss apples with lemon juice. Preheat oven to 400 F (200 C).
Melt the butter in a 12-inch cast-iron or heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Remove from the heat and sprinkle in the sugar.  Stir until the butter is evenly mixed in.  Working clockwise, tightly pack the apple halves into the skillet, laying them on their flat sides. The apples will shrink as they cook, so don’t be afraid to pack them tight. Cook the apples over medium heat until the butter and sugar caramelize for about 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and carefully turn the apples over to the other side using 2 forks. Make sure that the apples are browned before you turn them over. Pack the apples tightly on their sides. If you see a loose area, rearrange the apples a bit to fill in the gap. Return to high heat and cook for another 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the apples cool in the skillet while you remove the dough.  Wrap the skillet handle with aluminum paper (if using the same pan for baking), or, transfer and arrange apples carefully with their flat sides up in another baking pan (i.e. stainless steel with oven proof handle, like I did last time).
Carefully slide chilled dough on top of the apples in skillet. Place skillet on cookie sheet to catch drips. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes, or until pastry is golden brown. Remove from the oven; let stand 10 minutes.  Run a knife or wooden spatula along the edge of the pan to loosen the tart. With your mittens on, place large plate (preferably with lip around edge) over skillet; carefully invert. Replace any apple pieces that have stuck to the skillet. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream, or cold with crème fraîche. 
Pastry: pâte brisée ingredients (for one tart):
1 cup (250 ml) all-purpose flour
½ tsp (2 ml) salt
1 tsp (5 ml) granulated sugar
½ cup (1 stick or 125 ml) cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
¼ cup ice-cold water
Instructions:
Combine flour, salt, sugar and butter in a bowl of a food processor. Process pulsing about 6 times, until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Transfer to bowl, add water and stir with fork until combined. Shape dough into ball with hands. Cover in plastic wrap and chill for 1 hour or until needed.
About 1 hour before baking, roll the dough on parchment paper into circle about 12 inches (28 cm) in diameter (or whichever size your baking pan will be), pierce with fork and chill in the freezer until ready to put over the caramelized apples.

Yellow Lab Rescues Blue Jay Chick

Although bird watching is widely considered to be a fascination of ”old fogies”, our admiration of birds began much earlier, with our first bird feeder. Suppose you are in your backyard and suddenly a red cardinal flies in or a blue jay comes to grab a peanut, how can you not forget everything and just freeze for a moment watching these amazing creations of nature? We are fairly new to the bird watching ”buena vista”, but a pair of grandpa’s binoculars helps.
This year a couple of blue jays decided to make a nest in our backyard. They made their nest in the pine tree branches, about 12+ feet above ground. The nest looks like a bulky cup made of twigs, leaves, roots, grass and moss. An interesting courtship-mating fact I dug out about blue jays: in early May generally a group of seven or more are gathered together on top of a pine tree. One female is among this group. When the female flies off, the males follow and land near her, bobbing their heads up and down, until the female eventually selects a mate and the nesting cycle follows. Only one or two broods are raised each season.
The jay couple seemed to be successfully going through their cycle until Sunday night when a piercing squeak woke us up at 2:30 AM. At around 6AM blue jays shrill chorus resumed with a triple force pushing me out of bed to close the windows to finally have some restful sleep (these birds are really called ”the biggest mouth” for a reason).
In the morning our nosy lab-doggie retrieved something under the pine tree and barked us up. A little squeaky jay birdie was sitting in the grass screaming for help. Cute and fluffy winged (although it did have something from a little vulture), it was good enough to jump, but not ready to fly. Its parents-jays were watching it from a pine tree. ”So this is what all that noise was about!”, I figured.
 At least it made it through the night – there are quite a few predators in our neighborhood including savage cats, ravenous crows, stinky skunks, voracious pekans, slimy snakes and even a hungry red fox sometimes coming from the fields.
We had to figure out a rescue plan fast. Despite the urban legend (about touching the baby bird), we agreed that the best was probably to return the baby jay to its nest. The nest was pretty high and required a ladder and some ingenuity. Once placed back in the nest, the baby jay instantly fell asleep. We watched the nest from a distance for a while just to confirm that the parent bird returns. It took a good several hours. Finally, the blue jay parent arrived with the worm in her mouth and went straight into the nest to feed the baby (by that time the baby bird was squeaking again). A blue jay family was happily reunited. This successfully unveils the myth that birds will reject babies handled by humans.
We were happy to help little chick and our doggie became a hero. The parent blue jay came to thank her personally and I think she acknowledged it. We had a good laugh about our panic which filled us with joy and reminded us that: ”The past is history, the future is a mystery, but today is a gift, that’s why it’s called ”the present.”
The end.