Nonna Maria’s Apple Cake

People often ask me who my biggest baking influences are. Of course, Julia Child and Martha Stewart figure pretty prominently on the list. But I think the person who inspired my love of baking the most was my nonna Maria. I grew up hearing stories from my mother, aunts and cousins about what a fabulous cook and baker my grandmother was.  How she would make pizza every Sunday and homemade cavatelli or gnocchi. I never really got to taste any of my nonna’s food; my grandmother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease when she was relatively young, so by the time I came along she was too sick to cook. I wish I could have asked her the secret to her perfect pizza dough, or to share her many simple Italian recipes with me.  I think it is her absence that has inspired me to write down my recipes so that they may be shared.

This apple cake is my nonna Maria’s recipe. She would often make it as a dessert following Sunday lunch. My mom tells me that during apple picking season, my grandmother would buy big crates of apples and store them in the cantina. The apples were cheap and would last for months in the cold room. One day, she decided to toss some leftover apples into a simple cake recipe she had on hand. Like many women of that generation, my nonna never wrote down her recipes.  But, thankfully, my grandmother’s sister, Zia Lucia, did write this one down. The handwritten, yellowed recipe card she gave me consisted of a list of ingredients, few measurements and no method. Armed with that, and the memories I have of my mother making this cake for us growing up, I have recreated a cake that, I hope, comes close to the one my nonna Maria would make on Sunday afternoons.

Ingredients:

  • 1 apple, sliced
  • 5 large apples, chopped
  • 3 tbsp brown sugar
  • juice and rind from one lemon
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 2 tsp vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • powdered sugar (optional)

Method:

  1. Preheat oven to 375F and grease a nine inch tube pan with non-stick spray.
  2. Sprinkle the brown sugar on the bottom of the prepared pan and arrange the apple slices on top of the sugar.
  3. In a bowl, combine the chopped apples with the lemon juice and cinnamon.  Stir until the apples are completely coated. Set aside.
  4. Using an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix together the eggs, sugar and oil until light and fluffy.
  5. Add the vanilla and grated lemon rind.
  6. Reduce mixer speed to low and add in the flour, baking powder and salt.
  7. Using a wooden spoon, fold in the chopped apple mixture. Stir until combined.
  8. Pour batter into the prepared pan and bake for 35-40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in centre of cake comes out clean.
  9. Cool completely before removing from pan. Dust cooled cake with powdered sugar, if desired.
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Nonna Maria making cavatelli on Sunday morning, c.1970.

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Banana Muffins

I don’t know about you guys, but the struggle for me to get my kids to eat anything but toast with Nutella or sugary cereals for breakfast is very real. I’ve tried to be that perfect mom who makes stacks of pancakes and scrambled eggs, but the challenge to figure out what to put in their lunch boxes five days a week usually trumps breakfast. These banana muffins are a cross between a moist banana bread and coffee cake. They’re loaded with ripe bananas and chocolate chips and sprinkled with a delicious, crunchy streusel topping. My kids never complain when banana muffins are for breakfast! Plus, these muffins freeze extremely well and will keep for up to three months in the freezer.

Ingredients:

  • 2 eggs
  • 6 ripe bananas, mashed
  • 1/2 cup butter, melted
  • 1 cup Greek yoghurt or sour cream
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 3 cups all-purpose or whole-wheat flour
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 cup chocolate chips

For the topping:

  • 1/4 cup butter, melted
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 2/3 cups oats
  • 2 tbsp all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup chocolate chips

Method:

  1. Preheat oven to 400F and line a muffin tin with paper baking cups.
  2. In a bowl, whisk together the eggs, bananas, butter, yoghurt and vanilla. Set aside.
  3. In a separate bowl, stir together all the dry ingredients.
  4. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and mix until just combined.
  5. Stir in the chocolate chips.
  6. Spoon the batter into the paper-lined muffin tin.
  7. For the topping: In a small bowl, stir together all the topping ingredients. Sprinkle the topping over the muffins.
  8. Bake for 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the centre of a muffin comes out clean.

*Yield: 18 large muffins.


Fig, Walnut & Dark Chocolate Oatmeal Cookies

This is a classed-up version of my  Big and Chewy Oatmeal Cookies. The chopped up figs practically melt into these cookies as they bake, creating a sticky sweetness that pairs beautifully with the smoky molasses. The addition of dark chocolate adds even more sophistication to an otherwise humble cookie, while the walnuts add texture and crunch.

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 2 tsp cornstarch
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 3/4 cup butter, softened
  • 1 1/4 cups brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1/4 cup molasses
  • 2 1/2 cups oats
  • 1 cup dried figs, chopped
  • 3/4 cup walnuts, chopped
  • 1 cup dark chocolate chunks or chips

Method:

  1. Preheat oven to 350F and spray baking sheets with non-stick spray.
  2. In a bowl, stir together the flour, baking soda, corn starch and salt.
  3. Using an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter and sugar.
  4. Add the eggs, vanilla and molasses. Mix until combined.
  5. Turn the mixer to low and slowly add the flour mixture. Beat until fully incorporated.
  6. Add the oats, figs, walnuts and chocolate.
  7. Roll generous 1/4 cup measures of dough into balls (you can use a medium- sized ice cream scoop for this.) Place two inches apart on prepared baking sheets. You can press a few chocolate chunks into the tops of the cookies before baking — it makes them look prettier.
  8. Bake for 18-20 minutes.

*Yield: Approximately 18 large cookies

 


Triple Berry Coffee Cake

I always wondered why coffee cake was called coffee cake when there isn’t any actual coffee in it. After some research (i.e. I googled it), I learned that it’s because coffee cake is meant to be eaten with coffee. Makes sense. This coffee cake is made with a luscious berry filling and topped with a cinnamon-almond streusel. Perfect with your afternoon coffee…or you can eat it without coffee.  Then it would just be a really delicious cake.

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup butter, softened
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 cup sour cream or plain Greek yoghurt

Berry filling:

  • 2 cups mixed berries (I used strawberries, raspberries and wild blueberries)
  • 3 tbsp sugar
  • 1 tsp cinnamon

Streusel topping:

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup slivered almonds

Glaze:

  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • 2-4 tbsp milk

Method:

  1. Preheat oven to 350F and grease a 9 inch tube pan with non-stick spray.
  2. Make the filling: in a bowl, stir together the berries, sugar and cinnamon. Set aside.
  3. In another bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.  Set aside.
  4. Make the streusel: In a small bowl, mix together the flour, brown sugar, salt, cinnamon and almonds.  Using a pastry cutter — or your fingertips — cut in the butter into the mix until it resembles large, coarse crumbs.  Set aside.
  5. Using an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and both sugars until light and fluffy.
  6. Add the eggs and vanilla and beat until fully incorporated.
  7. Next, add the flour mixture in three parts, alternating with the sour cream.  Mix until just combined.
  8. Spoon half the batter into the prepared pan.
  9. Spoon the berry mixture evenly on top of the batter.
  10. Spoon the remaining batter on top of the berries in an even layer, making sure the berries are entirely covered.
  11. Sprinkle the streusel over the top of the batter.
  12. Bake for 45-55 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in centre of cake comes out clean. Cool cake completely.
  13. To make glaze, in a small bowl whisk together the powdered sugar and milk.  Drizzle over cooled cake.

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Tomato, Basil & Goat Cheese Strata

It’s tomato season, and when you’ve had your fill of tomato salad, this recipe is a great way to use cherry tomatoes. I love casseroles like this one because they can be made in advance, they’re easy to prepare and they can be eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner. This is a summer version of my Spinach and Ham Strata. I like to use goat cheese in this recipe, but it’s also very tasty with feta cheese or mozzarella.

Ingredients:

  • 9 eggs
  • 2 1/2 cups milk
  • 1 cup grated pecorino romano cheese
  • salt & pepper to taste
  • 1 1/2 cups cherry tomatoes, quartered
  • fresh basil, finely chopped
  • 1 cup goat cheese, crumbled
  • 8 -10 slices of your favourite crusty bread, cubed (about 8 cups)

Method:

  1. Generously grease an 8×11 inch baking dish with olive oil.
  2. In a bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk and romano cheese. Season with salt and pepper.
  3. Spread 1/3 of the cubed bread into the prepared pan. Layer 1/3 of the tomatoes over the bread. Sprinkle 1/3 of the goat cheese and basil over the tomatoes. Repeat layers two more times.
  4. Pour the egg mixture over the layered ingredients.
  5. Cover the casserole and refrigerate for at least four hours or overnight.
  6. Remove casserole from fridge a half hour before baking. Preheat oven to 350F. Bake  casserole, uncovered, for 45-55 minutes.
  7. Allow to cool for at least 30 minutes before slicing and serving.

 

 


Zucchini & Carrot Muffins

Here’s another delicious way to use up all those zucchini growing in your gardens this summer.  This hearty breakfast muffin is packed with grated zucchini, carrots and lots of chopped pecans for added texture. I like to use olive oil in this recipe because it adds a rich, fruity flavour — but you can easily substitute any other vegetable oil. What I also love about this recipe is that these muffins bake up with a nice, crusty top. This is also a muffin that freezes very well, so perfect for school day breakfasts (which, let’s face it, are just around the corner.) How is the summer slipping by so fast?

Ingredients:

  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp nutmeg
  • 2 1/4 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/3 cup ground flax seeds
  • 2 large carrots, grated (1 packed cup)
  • 2 medium zucchini, grated (1 packed cup)
  • 4 eggs
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup pecans, coarsely chopped

Method:

  1. Preheat oven to 400F.  Grease a muffin tin or line with 12 muffin cups.
  2. In a medium mixing bowl, stir together the flour, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking soda, salt, baking powder, flax seeds and pecans.
  3. In a separate mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs, oil and vanilla.
  4. Add the grated carrots and zucchini to the egg mixture.  Stir to combine.
  5.  Stir the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients, mixing until just combined.The batter will be very thick.
  6. Spoon the batter evenly into the 12 muffin cups.  Bake for 10 minutes.
    Lower oven temperature to 350F and bake for an additional 20 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the centre of a muffin comes out clean.

*Yield: 12 large muffins


Lavender Sugar Cookies

I recently spent an afternoon visiting some beautiful lavender fields in St. Eustache, just north of Montreal. It was spectacular to see the rolling waves of lavender, in varying shades of purple and blue, as far as the eye could see. I felt as though I had stepped into a Claude Monet painting — or something fancy and French like that. It was definitely inspiring. Lavender is often used in baking; it lends a floral flavour to sweets that is actually quite nice. It’s important to use sparingly, however, or you risk having your sweets taste like soap. I bought a bag of dried culinary lavender during my visit, and decided to add some to my favourite sugar cookie recipe. The result is a soft, chewy cookie with a delicate lavender flavour. These taste great with a cup of tea.

Ingredients:

  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 cup butter, softened
  • 1 cup lavender sugar**
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tbsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup sugar, for rolling

Method:

  1. Preheat oven to 350F and grease baking sheets with non-stick spray.
  2. In a bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, soda and salt.
  3. Using an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and lavender sugar until light and fluffy.
  4. Add the eggs and mix until combined. Add vanilla.
  5. Reduce mixer speed to low and slowly add in the dry ingredients. Mix until combined.
  6. Use a medium-sized ice cream scoop to form the cookie dough into balls.
  7. Roll the balls in sugar. For an extra touch of flavour and colour, you can add a teaspoon of dried culinary lavender to the sugar before rolling the cookies into it.
  8. Bake for 15 minutes.

*Yield: Approximately 16 large cookies.

**To make lavender sugar combine 1 cup granulated sugar and 2 tablespoons of dried culinary lavender in a food processor or blender. Pulse until the lavender is evenly dispersed into the sugar. 

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Lavender fields in St. Eustache, Quebec.