Homemade Vanilla Extract

Christmas is almost here! In my house, baking starts today. Sugar, flour, eggs, ginger, sprinkles and vanilla are about to explode all over my kitchen. Vanilla is the cornerstone of any great baked good, a hint of flavour or a booster for other flavours. In June, inspired by Jacqui, co-founder of the Cross Country Baking Club, I started my own batch of vanilla extract. It is extraordinarily simple to make your own vanilla extract and a great gift for the bakers in your life.
June 2010 – Vodka & Vanilla Beans

December 2010 – Vanilla Extract! 

Vanilla Extract

5 vanilla beans
1 cup vodka, brandy, rum

1. Cut vanilla beans lengthwise to reveal seeds. Cut into 1.5 inch pieces. 
2. Place vanilla beans in sterilized jar. 
3. Top with alcohol of your choice. 
4. Tighten lid and wait 6-8 weeks, until alcohol has changed colour and vanilla has steeped.

Yield: One cup vanilla extract.

Hadley’s – A Welcome Addition to Toronto’s BBQ Landscape

A surge of southern BBQ restaurants has taken the city by hickory smoke storm. Lex Taman, a self-professed “recovering baker”, and Eric Hadley, a chef of high and lowbrow cooking, opened Hadley’s in September, quietly. There was no media blitz; instead, locals generated their own buzz, intrigued by Hadley’s fantastically simple black-and-white illuminated sign. Curious neighbours must have thought, “Another BBQ restaurant just blocks from Toronto standby Phil’s Original BBQ? Let’s see if they can compete.” They can.  

        If your olfactory senses hope to be hit by a wall of smoke upon entering Hadley’s, they will be disappointed. The air is startlingly refreshing, albeit, freezing. We seat ourselves in a burgundy vinyl booth and peruse the sturdy menu easily; the lighting at Hadley’s is operating-room bright. Pots and pans clutter the messy open kitchen. Yellow walls are bare but for one Toronto streetcar photo. We learn that first impressions should not always be trusted. 

       Service is prompt and camaraderie begins with the drink orders. Choices vary from house-made lemonade and iced tea to local beer, martinis and cocktails. A veritable goblet of lemony iced tea ($3.75) arrives as we order from the menu of typical BBQ fare with a twist.  Green Goddess salad ($6 – $9), a California classic of crunchy romaine, topped with creamy herb avocado dressing, is refreshing and welcome in Toronto anytime. Hush Puppies ($6), the often-forgettable deep fried Southern cornmeal fritters, are outstanding with pakora-like seasoning, a crunchy outer coating, and moist cornmeal centre.

       Ribs and pulled pork fill out the requisite BBQ niche on the menu while smoked chicken lasagna and smoked duck risotto pique curiosity. Sides are standard fare: coleslaw, macaroni and cheese, baked beans, potato salad, fries and salad. Succulent, lightly sauced and caramelized, pork back ribs ($17 – $24) are a hickory-smoked testament to how delicious a pig can be.  Rotini-shaped, three-cheese macaroni and cheese is a playful variation on the norm and a well thought-out antidote to spicy ribs. Tangy, sweet, pulled pork ($9) comes on a fresh Portuguese bun topped with a variation of shredded coleslaw that lacks flavour but provides a satisfying crunch. Slow-cooked cumin-spiced baked beans heat me up surprisingly well, perhaps this is their cure for a drafty restaurant?

      House-made desserts change daily.  Standouts include a pucker-inducing lemon tart and a comfortingly gooey pumpkin bread pudding. 

      Bustling with neighbourhood folks eating-in and picking up take-out, the only bland thing about the atmosphere at Hadley’s is the decor. In a city of gorgeous restaurants with mediocre food, Hadley’s is a breath of (smoke-free) air. 

940 College Street, Toronto, Ontario
(416) 588-3113 http://hadleys.ca
Tuesday – Thursday – 11:30 am – 10:00 pm
Friday – Saturday – 11:30 am – 11:00 pm
Sunday – 11:30 am – 3:00 pm

5 Steps to Warding off Backyard Bloodsuckers

Vampires are so last year; zombies are king now, consequently I might be a year behind in my attempt to ward off the bloodsuckers of west Toronto.  I am an Ontario garlic fiend; I buy a heap of it in the late summer and fall to stockpile for the winter.  Ontario garlic is expensive, from $1.50 – 2.50 per bulb, so I thought – maybe it’s time to grow my own. Garlic is best planted in the fall, before the first frost. 

The 5 Steps to Planting Garlic, and thus, 
warding off backyard bloodsuckers.

Step One
Purchase fresh, organic, hardneck garlic from a friendly farmer. Ask for planting advice and gush about your love of local garlic. 

Step Two

Inhale the intoxicating aroma as you pull the cloves carefully from the bulbs, leaving skins on. Take artsy photos of your precious garlic. Choose the fattest cloves for planting.

Step Three
Using your trusty trowel, dig 2-inch deep holes in a sunny area of your garden, try to space the holes five inches apart. I measured, but no need to be so neurotic. 

Step Four
Place your gorgeous garlic cloves pointy side up and cover with soil. Water generously and cover with a mulchy layer of dry fallen leaves. 

Step Five
Wait until spring when the precursor to garlic, a magical green scape will surface. Until then, sleep well knowing that vampires (but not zombies) will be kept at bay for another season.

Pickled Garlic Scapes

Horse for Dinner – Yea or Neigh?

I arrived in Bilegno, Italy – a hamlet of 70 people in the picturesque Appenine mountain range – for my first day as a stage at the well-known Italian restaurant, La Palta. A welcome lunch was prepared using local ingredients, and, trying out my elementary Italian, I inquired about the filling of the stuffed pasta, asino (donkey) and the meat of the tartare, cavallo (horse). With every bite, the chef and her family watched, assessing my appetite and thus, my character.  The horse tartare was deep red, glistening with extra virgin olive oil; it tasted sweet and tender, reminiscent of venison. While I worked at La Palta, one of the most popular dishes was seared tenderloin of horse, with grilled endive, lime zest and a sweet pomegranate reduction.

Historical record suggests horse has been eaten in Italy since 5th century Verona when a savage battle between King Odoric and his usurper Theodoric resulted in a mass of dead horses. Where some may have seen a mess, Theodoric saw a meal and the tradition of fresh and cured horsemeat began. In modern day Italy you are likely to see cavallo baby food at the grocery store.  Many parents give their children horse because it is lean, high in unsaturated fatty acids and is a good source of iron.

I ate horse frequently while in Italy. On my return to Canada, many of my friends were horrified and disgusted to hear my tales of eating horse tenderloin. What is commonplace in Italy is controversial in Canada. Apart from Quebec, we do not have a strong traditional relationship with horsemeat; it is taboo, repeatedly compared to eating a pet. In Toronto, horse is often on the menu at the stylish Black Hoof, and mainstays like La Palette and Beerbistro. The rise of charcuterie restaurants, like Black Hoof, serving offal and alternative meats illustrates that Torontonians are adventurous eaters, but many still have a philosophical aversion to horse.

Bill C-544 has been raised in the House of Commons to ban horse slaughter for human consumption. Last month, animal rights protestors rallied at horse abattoirs, butcher shops and restaurants that serve horsemeat. Protestors cite inhumane treatment, and that horses are not bred for consumption, given medicine humans should not be inadvertently ingesting. Horrific videos of horses being slaughtered on YouTube are surfacing to bolster the claims.

Consumers of meat are increasingly mindful about origin, medicinal inputs and ethical treatment.  Animal welfare standards are essential, but it remains to be seen if governments are competent to decide the gastronomic choices of society? 

Cavallo at La Palta
Cavallo baby food

Day of the Dead

Stefana, our kitchen Nonna, kneads the glossy dough with her strong hands. In broken Italian, I ask what she is making. Pane dei morti, she responds in thick dialect. Morti translates as dead in Italian. Why would she be making bread of the dead? Thinking that my basic Italian skills must be failing me, I ask her to repeat. She does, explaining that the bread is for a festa, a holiday, the Feast of All Souls. Miscommunication is common between us, and she laughs heartily, relating that her sister was so superstitious she wouldn’t eat the bread because she believed it to be bad luck. We laugh and I eye the bread suspiciously. 

Italian culture oozes tradition. My time as an apprentice in an Emilia-Romagnian kitchen allowed me to participate in culinary and cultural traditions on daily basis, from the shaping of tortelli to the braiding of Piacenza harvested garlic. On the second of November, the Feast of All Souls (also known as Day of the Dead) is celebrated to remember and honour the departed. Church bells ring out all over the villages and towns of Italy while families visit graveyards, bringing offerings of flowers, candles and baked goods and stories are shared with children of their ancestors. The children of the village I lived were not afraid, but happy that throughout the night, their deceased ancestors filled their shoes with candy and toys. 

Offerings of food demonstrate love to the living and to the dead. Nonna Stefana took great care in making enough pane dei morti for the whole family, kneading and allowing the almond dough to rise for two days before expertly forming it. Special meals are prepared for this holiday and in some households an extra place is set at the table for familial spirits because some believe the dead can be present among the living on All Souls Day. To commemorate the occasion, bakeries create spooky desserts such as Bones of the Dead, bone-shaped cinnamon spice cookies, and Beans of the Dead, fava bean–shaped almond cookies.

As an outsider, I was fortunate to experience the Day of the Dead in a tiny Italian village. I was not with my own family on this occasion, but shared in the communal sense of joy and tradition of All Souls Day. Did I dare eat Nonna Stefana’s pane dei morti? Certainly, and I lived to tell the tale.


This is the fruit of my Summer labour (of love). Over 125 jars put-up for the off-season. Although, there really isn’t an off season for preserving. I plan on making winter meyer lemon preserves, seville orange marmalade and winter squash pickles. I am addicted to the Ping! That wonderful noise that confirms your bounty will be air tight and sealed until eaten. The ping is victory! I wait in the kitchen expectantly for the ping. When I don’t get a chance to hear it,  I tap the lids gently the next day to hear the telltale tinny hollow noise that confirms the seal. I had only one jar this Summer that didn’t seal properly, a jar of tomatillo salsa that is being eaten quickly from the safety of my refrigerator. My adventures is farmers market sourcing and preserving this Summer have been beyond rewarding. Why buy ketchup or relish when I could make it myself? 

I went on a day-trip to the St. Jacobs Farmers Market. The rain was treacherous, but I was willing to tough it out in order to buy beautiful turban squash, ontario garlic, leeks, grassfed beef, farm fresh eggs, unpasteurized apple cider, blueberry honey and my first brussel sprouts of the season. Compared to the markets in the city, the vendors at this market had a lot of bulk bushels of just about everything available. The canner in me was ecstatic. I saw a roma tomatoes and had to have them. I bought just about 70 lbs of roma tomatoes to can. The great tomato canning of 2010 was about to begin. The lengthy process of blanching, peeling, hot water packing and 45 minute water bath made me hope and pray to hear the Ping! at the end. They pinged and I rejoiced.