Almond Shortbread Bars

It’s a longstanding tradition for the women in my family to gather before the holidays and spend hours baking cookies and squares. Each baker brings one or two recipes and then, once every last cookie is dusted with icing sugar or dipped in chocolate, they divvy up the haul and each take home an assortment of treats to serve throughout the holidays.

When I was younger, we used to have epic Murphy family Christmas parties. My mom or one of my four aunts would host, and Grandpa and Grandma Murphy, all of the aunts, uncles and cousins would celebrate Christmas together under one roof. My aunts would cook a fabulous feast and then put out heaping platters of the famous Murphy Christmas cookies for dessert.

almond shortbread barsIt was almost overwhelming, there were so many options: buckeyes, pecan balls, mint-chocolate cookies, brownies, three kinds of shortbread cookies… the list goes on and on. But one of my favorite treats on those platters were my Aunt Janet’s almond shortbread bars.

The squares are basically shortbread cookies that got gussied up for a black-tie event: you start with a shortbread base and then top it with a layer of caramel-y almond goodness. Yum! The squares remind me of Christmastime, but they’ll please a crowd any time of the year.

1 1/2 cups butter
1 cup icing sugar
2 cups flour
Pinch of salt
1 cup brown sugar
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 1/2 cups sliced almonds
1 teaspoon almond extract

Preheat oven to 350°F
 
In a large bowl cream together 1 cup of the butter and icing sugar. Stir together flour and salt and gradually mix into creamed mixture.

With floured hands, pat the mixture into an ungreased 9″ x 13″ pan. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, until lightly coloured.

Meanwhile, in a small pan, melt the remaining 1/2 cup of butter. Stir in brown sugar, lemon juice and 1 tablespoon water. Bring to a boil stirring constantly. Stir in almonds and almond extract.

Spread almond mixture over the base and bake for 12 to 15 minutes longer, until golden brown. Cut into bars while still warm.

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Lemon Meringue Pie

Lemon meringue pie reminds me of my dad. It was his favorite dessert, and he especially liked Grandma Murphy’s version, with its tart filling and fluffy mountain of meringue. My grandma often came over to our house for Sunday dinner when I was little, and she always brought dessert. My dad was most excited when he discovered a lemon meringue smiling up at him from under her plastic cake carrier.

meringue

I made lemon meringue pie for the first time last summer. As I rolled out the pastry, whipped the egg whites to soft peaks and mixed the lemon filling, all I could think of was my dad. I imagined that he was coming to visit, and that I was making this pie just for him. I took meticulous care with every step. I imagined that once the pie had cooled, I would cut him a slice. A giant wedge with a thick ribbon of lemon filling and heaps of meringue with stiff, golden peaks. Then I would cut myself a slice just like it. And we would sit at my kitchen table, the afternoon sun streaming through the back windows, and shoot the breeze and eat pie, savoring every perfect bite, savoring the moment itself, because isn’t it wonderful to be alive.

lemon meringue pie My dad would be 62 years old today. It’s hard to imagine how he might have changed in the past 16 years. Would his hair and beard be completely gray? Would you be able to count more lines around his eyes when he smiled? Would he still blare his favorite records when no else was home and he had the house all to himself?

It’s funny, I didn’t actually like lemon meringue pie when I was a kid (fruit-based desserts were seriously sub-par to chocolate ones at the time), but I’ve grown to love it, and will continue to make it for special occasions, and just-because ones, in memory of my dad.

lemon meringue pie1 pie crust
1 box Shirriff’s lemon pie filling*
3 egg whites
6 tablespoons sugar

Preheat oven to 425°F

Prepare pie crust and bake according to recipe instructions. Blind bake raw pie shell for 10 to 12 minutes. My grandma often pre-bakes her pie shell the day before filling it, so that it’s completely cooled.

Preheat oven to 350°F

Prepare the Shirriff’s lemon pie filling according to directions on the box and add to cooled crust.

Beat egg whites until frothy. Gradually add the sugar, one tablespoon at a time, until mixture is very firm; standing peaks should form when you remove the beaters. Spread over filling, arranging meringue in attractive peaks. Bake until golden, about 10 to 12 minutes.

I was surprised that my grandma, who makes everything from scratch, uses (gasp!) store-bought filling for this recipe. “There’s no point going to the fuss of making it yourself because Shirriff’s lemon pie filling is so good,” Grandma says. Who can argue with that?!

Morning Muffin Magic

I have a weakness for muffins. Every time I walk into a coffee shop, I instantly forget that I came in to order a latte, and start drooling over the plump muffins staring at me from behind the pastry case. “Pick me! Pick me!” I hear each one pleading. Like adorable little orphan-muffins in a pound.

But as tempting as the muffins in the cake stands at my favourite cafe are, nothing comes close to homemade muffins. Especially Grandma’s homemade muffins.morning muffin magicMy Grandma Murphy is 91 years old, so you won’t be surprised to hear that she doesn’t bake as often as she did when she was a young mother with a husband and five daughters to feed. When she does bake these days, though, muffins are her go-to goodies.

morning muffin magicThere are no special instructions for these muffins. Like all muffins, they’re a great grab-and-go breakfast or cure for those mid-morning stomach rumbles. The one thing I will say about these muffins, which are loaded with chunks of pecans, pineapple and raisins, is that there’s a reason why they have the word “magic” in their name!

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups grated carrot
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup chopped pecans or other nuts
1/2 cup coconut
1/2 cup crushed pineapple, drained, or 1 apple, peeled and grated
3 eggs
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

Preheat oven to 350°F

Combine first 10 ingredients in a large bowl. Stir well to blend.

Beat eggs, oil and vanilla in small bowl. Make a well in dry ingredients and pour in egg mixture, stirring just until moistened. Fill greased or paper cup-lined muffin tins 3/4 full. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes.

Special thanks to the beautiful and talented Scarlet O’Neill for helping me style this shoot.

Ultimate Chocolate Chip Cookies

My favorite childhood moments with my Grandma Murphy involve pulling up a chair to the edge of the counter and helping her stir batter or roll out dough. Many of these memories include my brother, Colin, and my cousin Julie. The three of us spent lots of time in the kitchen with our grandma when we were younger, and she always had two rules: 1). Clean as you go and 2). Don’t eat the batter.

chocolate chip cookie As kids, we couldn’t resist Grandma’s delicious chocolate chip cookie dough, and we snuck it by the spoonful when she had her back turned or left the room. She always noticed the missing batter and we, of course, blamed it on the dog.

As an adult, I still follow at least one of Grandma’s rules because, let’s face it, sometimes the best part of making chocolate chip cookies is eating the batter.

Here’s my grandma’s foolproof recipe for chocolate chip cookies.

3/4 cup Crisco
1 1/4 cups firmly packed brown sugar
2 tablespoons milk
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 egg
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 cup pecan pieces

Preheat oven to 375°F

In large bowl, cream together Crisco, brown sugar, milk and vanilla and blend until creamy. Add egg to mixture and blend.

In a separate bowl, combine flour, salt and baking soda. Add to creamed mixture and blend. Stir in chocolate chips and pecan pieces.

Use a tablespoon to drop cookie dough 3 inches apart on ungreased baking sheet. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes for chewy cookies (they will appear light and moist) or 11 to 13 minutes for crisp cookies. Let cool on baking sheet for 2 minutes before removing to cooling rack.

Grandma Murphy’s Pantry: A Cookbook Made With Love

I was sitting at the kitchen table sometime in February, jotting down a grocery list when it hit me: I should make a cookbook of my Grandma Murphy’s baking recipes.

Grandma Murphy & KateMy mom’s mom, Mary Murphy, has fed the hearts and bellies of three generations of Murphys with her fabulous cakes, pies, cookies and squares. She started cooking and baking when she and my grandpa, Jack Murphy, got married in 1943, which means she’s been baking for 70 years. She’s 91 years old now, so she’s not baking as often as she did when she was raising her five daughters, but she still makes muffins and the occasional pie (with homemade pastry, of course) or chiffon layer cake. Which is pretty mind-blowing if you ask me.

So, anyway, I got the idea to write, edit and photograph a collection of her recipes and set about making it happen. I ran the idea by my grandma and the next thing I knew, I was on the train to Windsor to spend the weekend with her, gather the recipes and record her stories about baking, family, life and love.

whiteicing_15_instagramThe recipes in this book are comfort food at its best: delicious, not-too-fussy treats that have been passed on from one generation of our family to the next. We each have our favourites, and we all have memories associated with these baked goods. For me, shortbread cookies conjure the warmth of family gatherings at Christmastime. I can’t look at a mocha torte without imagining my mother, Kathie, blowing out birthday candles. Those flaky tea biscuits will forever remind me of the time Grandma taught my brother, Colin, my cousin Julie and me how to make them, each of us eager for a turn to roll out the dough. And it’s impossible for me to make lemon meringue pie without remembering my dad, Harry, who loved the tangy tart.

I finished the book in September and had the pleasure of delivering the final product, Grandma Murphy’s Pantry, to my grandma in October. The cookbook also includes recipes from my mom and her sisters, who are all whizzes in the kitchen and inherited Grandma’s love of cooking, baking and feeding the people they love. Over the next couple of months I’ll be updating this blog with recipes, photos and stories from the book — because recipes this good are too tasty not to share.

The Quick & Easy Breakfast Food That Changed My Life

Easy granola recipe Mark BittmanGranola is, admittedly, a rather boring subject to blog about.

However, I’ve been making this humble breakfast food from scratch for a few months now and I swear it’s changed my life. It’s so delicious! And easy to make! I confess, I had no idea toasted oats and nuts could be so transformative.

There’s a bit of an overhead cost to making granola from scratch, since you have to buy a combination of nuts (I buy everything in bulk), but one batch makes enough to last us about two weeks. It couldn’t be easier to make and it tastes delicious with yogurt (or milk) and berries and is also a great snack.

Mark Bittman granola recipeI must thank Mark Bittman for this recipe and for giving me such a scrumptious reason to get out of bed in the mornings.

6 cups rolled oats (do not buy quick-cooking or instant)
2 cups mixed nuts and seeds: a combination of sunflower seeds, chopped walnuts, pecans, almonds, cashews, sesame seeds, etc.
1 cup shredded coconut (optional)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, or to taste
Dash salt
1 /2 to 1 cup honey or maple syrup, or to taste
1 cup raisins or chopped dried fruit

Heat the oven to 350°F. In a bowl, combine the oats, nuts and seeds, the coconut if you’re using it, cinnamon, salt, and sweetener. Spread evenly on a rimmed baking sheet and bake for 30 minutes or a little longer, stirring occasionally. The mixture should brown evenly; the browner it gets without burning, the crunchier the granola will be.

Remove the pan from the oven and add the raisins. Cool on a rack, stirring once in a while until the granola reaches room temperature. Transfer to a sealed container and store in the refrigerator; it will keep indefinitely.