An Ottawa Cooking Class + Brioche Doughnuts

The space, and sous-chef Isaac

The space, and sous-chef Isaac

If you’re in Ottawa, The Urban Element holds very nice, high-quality cooking classes set in a beautiful converted fire station. There’s pretty much nothing I love more than a cooking class (which you will have noticed here, here and here). I love the spaces, the expert cooking equipment, the chefs, the like-minded nerds. True to form, this bread-baking class was a lovely mix of bearded stay-at-home dads, public servants, and the woman who casually mentioned that she hand made eight dozen croissants over Christmas.


This class was five hours long, so we made a lot: iced lemon loaf, herbed biscuits, gingerbread waffles, challah, raisin bread, grissini (aka breadsticks), lavash, and these dougnuts. It took three whole hours before I could think about carbs again. I was almost sure that my leftover doughnut dough was going to waste away in my freezer, like deep frying was “hard,” but need I remind you that it is January and outdoor temperatures have been hovering around -20. The dough is a little precious, yes, but it mostly just involves waiting and using your stand mixer. And yes, a stand mixer is probably going to be necessary, for reasons you shall see in a second…

The end. Host Daniella and the best swag

The end. Host Daniella and the best swag

Brioche Doughnuts (adapted from Anna March at The Urban Element)

The measurements look a bit loopy because they had been converted back from grams. Just know that if you have to choose between dough that is slightly too dry or slightly too wet, choose to keep it on the wetter side.  Oh, and one of the most interesting discoveries from this class was that flour can be quite different even between Canada and the U.S., especially with pastry flour. So you needn’t bother with any special bread flour here, all-purpose is fine.

It's like a ray of light. And yes, that is an article about Justin Bieber.

It’s like a ray of light. And yes, that is an article about Justin Bieber.

  • 3 1/2 cups + 3 tbsp flour
  • 1 tbsp instant yeast (quick-rise)
  • 1/4 cup + 2 tbsp sugar
  • 1 tbsp salt
  • 3/4 cup + 1 1/2 tbsp milk, warmed to 75°F
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract, or 1 vanilla pod, scraped
  • 2 ounces soft butter, cut into small cubes
  • canola oil, for frying
  • cinnamon sugar/powdered sugar for tossing your doughnuts
  1. Place the flour and yeast in the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. Mix for about 15 seconds to distribute the yeast. Add all remaining ingredients except for the butter and mix for about four minutes.
  2. Increase the speed a bit and slowly start adding the cubes of butter one piece of a time, waiting until one piece is incorporated into the dough before adding another. Mix for another 15-20 minutes (see?) until the dough is smooth and soft.
  3. Scrape the dough onto a very lightly floured surface, shape it into a rectangle and fold it in like a letter.
  4. Grease a glass or plastic bowl and put your dough into it, seam side down. Spread with a bit more oil, cover with plastic wrap and let it rise for an hour at cool room temperature (ideally 20-22°C).
  5. Using a spatula, release the dough from the bowl and again pat it into a rectangle and fold it like an envelope.
  6. Now you want to proof the dough by putting it back into the bowl, covering it and letting it rest in the fridge overnight.
  7. The next day take it out and roll the dough out into an 11-inch round, which should be a couple centimetres thick.
  8. If it’s hard to work with, put it in the freezer for 10 minutes. I had no problems, though, so I just went on to slicing. With a round cutter, stamp out as many doughnuts as you can. If you’re going to fill them after (with jam, custard, lemon curd, you name it), leave as is. If you want your doughnuts to have little holes, then you can find a smaller cutter or do as I did and just use a sharp knife.


The final stages:

  1. Put your formed doughnuts onto baking trays greased with canola oil and set aside to proof for 60-90 minutes. They should be roughly doubled in size. Now, you can cheat with the first proof, but not this. They will puff up quite a bit in the oil, but you do want to make sure they’re looking risen and fluffy at this stage.
  2. Now heat your oil to around 300°C. Conventional wisdom is to go to around 350-375, but that was making my doughnuts burn, so 300 seemed to work better. Keep in mind that frying in oil on the stove is never going to be as fool-proof as with a deep-fryer; on the stove the temperature regulation just isn’t there.
  3. Keep a wire cooling rack and your powdered sugar nearby and start frying! You’re looking at about 30 seconds each side, depending on how big your doughnuts are. When they’re browned, take them out and put onto your cooling rack. You want to roll the doughnuts in the sugar while they’re still hot. As you may have gathered, these are best eaten soon after frying.



Homemade Croissants

There are some foods which seem hard, like sourdough bread, but which really just require a lot of patience. Yet others, like soufflés, are quick but require some dexterity. Unfortunately, croissants kind of need both patience and precision. I found that it can be helpful to remember the following tidbits:

  • Use awesome-quality ingredients. No joke, this is going to take a lot of time, so you might as well make your croissants the best they can be. That means high-gluten bread flour and European-style butter (like Lurpak), which has less water than American-style butter.
  • You literally have to bang out the cold butter to form it into a rectangle. Kind of fun, but not actually easy! Next time I might grate the frozen butter as they suggest here.
  • You can ensure that your beautiful layers stay intact by making sure that the dough and butter are as close to the same thickness as you can get them.
  • Keep your timing in mind–you need to make all your “turns,” put your unbaked croissants into the fridge to rise overnight, and THEN you get to shape them. Oh, and then they need to rise again. So beginning at something like 4 PM on a Saturday for a Sunday brunch would work well.

Making one’s own croissants may seem beyond abstruse when you can buy a couple for under $2. But if you’re curious, you should try making them–it’s fun and satisfying and, um, you can eat your efforts! After two days you will have the most beautiful croissants in the world, and some very serious bragging rights. As you will see, even a very human, mistake-making, not-all-that-fussed sort of cook (moi) can make these.

As a kind of aside, Montreal’s own Adam Gopnik wrote a lovely piece in the New Yorker the other day about baking bread with his mum. It was very sweet, and I recommend you search it out, even if it appears to be subscription-only.

Croissants (adapted from Paul Hollywood’s How to Bake, with a lot of help from Cook’s Illustrated and Top with Cinnamon)

  • 500g bread flour
  • 10g salt, plus a bit more for your egg wash
  • 80g caster sugar
  • 10g instant yeast
  • 300ml cool water
  • 300g chilled, unsalted butter
  • 1 medium egg for your glaze

Normally I wouldn’t bother, but this requires numbered instructions:

1) In a large bowl or your stand mixer, put salt and sugar in one side of the bowl and the yeast on the other. Add the water and mix on slow for two minutes, then on medium for another six minutes. It should be a pretty stiff dough. You can do this without a stand mixer…I guess. But having one makes your life so much easier!

2) Tip the dough onto a lightly floured surface and shape it into a ball. Dust it with flour, put it in a clean plastic bag, and let it sit in the fridge for an hour.

3) OK, now it gets a little tricky: Roll out your dough into a rectangle about 60 x 20 cm and about 1 cm thick.

4) Flatten your butter to a rectangle about 40 x 19 cm by banging it all to hell with a rolling pin. You could also, as I suggest above, grate your frozen butter and form it into a rectangle. Now put the butter on your dough so it neatly covers the bottom two-thirds of your dough.

5) Now fold the extra dough over one-third of butter. Cut off the exposed bit of butter and put it on the dough you just folded over. Still with me? Fold the bottom half of the dough up until you have, like, a dough sandwich: two butter layers, three dough layers. Pinch the dough together on all sides and put it all back into the bag. Let it chill in the freezer for half an hour.

6) Take the dough out of the freezer (and out of the bag) and put it on the lightly floured work surface with the short end towards you. Roll it into a rectangle about 60 x 20 cm, as before. So now, fold up a third of the dough and fold the top third, so you again have a little square. Congratulations, you have made a single turn! Put the dough back into the plastic bag, back into the freezer, and let it chill for another hour. Repeat this stage twice more, putting the dough back into the freezer for another 30 minutes between turns. After turn two this is going to get really hard on your biceps, so try to coax a willing friend/family member into helping you.

7) Let it rest in the fridge (in its plastic bag) for 8 hours or overnight. I left mine about 12 hours with no problems.

8) When you are ready to shape (!!) line a couple of baking trays with your Silpat or parchment paper.

9) Put your dough onto a floured surface and roll it out to a rectangle a little more than 42 cm long and 30 cm wide. It should be about 7mm thick. Trim the edges to make them as neat as possible.

10) Cut the rectangle into two long rectangles, then cut triangles along the length of each strip. They should be about 15 cm high (from top to bottom) and 12 cm (at their widest point). You should have twelve triangles total.

11) Gently pull on the triangles to lengthen them, then cut a little slit in the base. This will help them become extra-crescenty. Now roll them up, base to end, and turn the ends towards each other slightly.

12) Put your croissants onto the baking trays, allowing space for them to expand. Put them inside a clean plastic bag (like a garbage bag) and let them sit in a cool room temperature spot for around 2 hours. My bread almost never “doubles in size,” but just leave them for two hours and you’ll be fine.

13) Preheat your oven to 200°C/390°F. Lightly whisk the egg with the pinch of salt. Brush it over the prepared croissants and bake for around 20 minutes until they’re golden. Don’t be alarmed if they come out of the oven swimming in a pile of melted butter. Just remove them to some cooling racks, and you’ll be A-OK.

And now that you know the drill, you can turn these into chocolate croissants, almond croissants, jam-filled croissants! Just put your filling of choice in before you shape. And enjoy.

Into the oven you go!

Into the oven you go!

Olive Oil Granola

DSCN2881Early fall is such a nice time of year; the air feels crisp and clean, and everything has a touch of the “back-to-school fresh” to it. It’s at this time of year that I want to spend more time puttering about next to a warm oven, trying to find the coziest, most comforting recipes. But I’ll also be starting work on Monday, and I won’t have a ton of time. For that reason it’s good to have some easy-to-make foods that will also keep well. Enter: granola.

Granola is expensive to buy, cheap to make. And it’s dead easy, too–the only skills  required are measuring, mixing and pouring. After some refining, this recipe is a really nice one: it has a delicious salty-sweet mix and lots of granola clusters, which are obviously the best bits.

Olive Oil Granola (adapted from The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook and The New York Times)

Granola-making is not an exact science. If you don’t have walnuts, use coarsely chopped almonds or hazelnuts instead. The same goes for the maple syrup; if, heaven forbid, you don’t have any on hand, use honey. The secret to getting the granola clusters is the egg white, so don’t skip it.

  • 240g (3 cups) rolled oats
  • 100g (1 cup) walnuts
  • 50g (1 cup) unsweetened coconut flakes
  • 25g (1/4 cup) ground flax seed
  • 120mL (1/2 cup) maple syrup
  • 120mL (1/4 cup) olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp nutmeg
  • 1 egg white
  • 200g (1 1/2 cups ) dried fruit. I used apricots and raisins.

Preheat your oven to 300°F (150°C). Mix all the ingredients except the dried fruit and egg white together in a large bowl. Then whisk the egg white a bit and add it to the granola. Mix until everything is coated, then spread the mixture onto a greased/parchment papered baking tray. Stick it in the oven for about 45 minutes, rotating the pan about 20 minutes in. I tried to stir it a bit too, but that broke up the clumps. Don’t do it!

When it looks golden, take the pan out of the oven and let it cool–completely. Then break it up into whatever size chunks you like, and stir in the fruit. Keep it in an airtight container, or freeze it for later.

All gone.

All gone.

Sweet Cheese Pancakes (Sirniki)

I’ve been trying to get this recipe right for a while. It’s my favourite Russian breakfast, and actually really easy to make once you know the technique. But my batter was often too wet, and my sirniki (literally, “little cheese bites.” Russian is so cute.) fell apart in the pan. Sometimes they weren’t sweet enough, or were too floury and dry. I had been getting my fix at Кофе Хаус instead, putting off another attempt. But this time, success!  As my clever Russian friend suggested, one of the most important things is choosing your tvorog (or farmer’s/curd cheese for those not in Russia).  It’s really important to get the high-fat, low-water kind that’s in the solid, flat packs. I like the Blagoda (Благода) traditional 18% variety. Essentially, sirniki are low-maintenance pancakes. You can mash away with a fork to your heart’s content, as fluffiness is not important here. Just heat up the remainders later on, and you’ll have another fabulous breakfast.

Sirniki (Adapted from here. There’s a really good video, too)

  • 400g tvorog (or farmer’s cheese. I bet goat cheese would be nice as well.)
  • 1 egg or two yolks (I used the whole egg)
  • 1 tsp vanilla sugar (or 1/2 tsp vanilla extract)
  • 4 tbsp sugar
  • pinch of salt
  • 50g plain flour, plus extra for rolling your sirniki
  • vegetable oil or butter, for frying (I used butter)

Throw your tvorog into a large bowl and mash it down with a fork. With the same fork, stir in your egg, vanilla sugar, sugar and salt until it’s uniform. Sift the flour if you like (I definitely did not) and put about half of it into the bowl with your wet ingredients. Stir well. Sift in the other half of the flour.

Preheat your frying pan on medium-low. On a large plate, dust a fair amount of flour. Take around a quarter-cup of batter and shape it into a ball. As you stick it in the flour, pat it down until it resembles a thick, round pancake. (Seriously, watch the video!) Then put it on a plate and repeat with the rest of the batter. When all the batter is used up, get frying; put a small pat of butter or 1 tbsp oil on the hot frying pan, and place your sirniki in gently. Cover with a lid and let them cook for around 2 minutes. Flip the sirniki and cook for another minute. Repeat with the remaining pancakes, and you’re done.

The classic way is to eat these with sour cream (or sour cream AND condensed milk), but I like them with butter and honey. I have a brand new pot of honey straight from the Moscow honey fair that I’m putting on everything. “Czarski” honey, in fact. And what a treat it is.

For the Love of Scones: Strawberry Cream & Nectarine

I’m still not entirely sure what the difference is between a scone and a biscuit. Maybe it’s that a biscuit is not really sweet (just buttery) and served with savoury food, southern style. Or is it just the American version of a scone, carried over on the Mayflower, adapted through generations of American innovation? Generally speaking, though, both traditionally involve flakiness-producing butter and a similar technique; you just cut the butter in as you would for a pie dough.  I’m not too much for chicken and biscuits, but given my obvious penchant for all things sweet, I love a good scone. I waxed rhapsodic last September over the afternoon tea I had for my birthday, and scones always seem perfect for a special occasion. I don’t add the jam and clotted cream every time (obvs. 1 teaspoon of clotted cream has close to 90 calories) but it is a nice treat. For a summertime “light” version (if the 200g of butter in the nectarine recipe–for 8 scones–can be considered light) fresh fruit scones are the way to go.

Sweet, melting fruit adds just that bit of acidity and tang to something that might be a bit heavy. We can get back to currant, raisin, candied scones in the fall; for now let’s enjoy the fresh fruit and beautiful sunshine. Try to buy the best fruit you can, as this is its chance to shine. Below are my two most recent scone experiments–a creamy strawberry scone that I made in London, and a nectarine fold-over scone I made just days ago here in Moscow. Both are super-simple to make, and either would be good with a bit of warm butter, seasonal jam or, well, some clotted cream.

Strawberry Cream Scones (adapted from a recipe by Deb at Smitten Kitchen, where they are actually referred to as biscuits)

  • 280g plain flour
  • 1 tbsp baking powder
  • 50g granulated sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 85g cold, unsalted butter, cubed
  • 130g chopped really ripe strawberries
  • 1 cup single (heavy) cream

Preheat the oven to 225 degrees Celsius and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt. Add the butter and work it in with a pastry blender or your fingertips until it resembles coarse crumbs. Mix in the strawberries with a light hand, then add the cream. Stir gently until everything is mixed. Don’t, however, overmix; you want these lovelies to be light!

Flour your counter really well and transfer the dough onto it. Press out (or roll) the dough until it is about 2cm thick. Cut into small circles (mine were about 5cm in diameter) with a cutter or a drinking glass, and transfer the scones to your baking sheet, leaving a few inches between each.

Bake the scones for 12-15 minutes until they are lightly golden on top. Let them stand for a minute on the baking tray, then transfer to wire cooling racks. Eat warm and enjoy!

Makes around 8 scones

Nectarine Fold-over Scones (adapted from a recipe by Joy at Joy the Baker)

  • 350g flour
  • 50g coarse cane sugar
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp fine salt
  • 200g butter, cold and cut into cubes
  • 175mL (3/4 cup) milk
  • 1 room-temperature egg, beaten
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract (or 1 tsp vanilla sugar)
  • 1 nectarine, thinly sliced
  • 2 tbsp milk, for brushing over the surface
  • 2 tbsp coarse cane sugar, for sprinkling

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius and line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, mix together the dry ingredients (flour, sugar, baking soda, salt, and vanilla sugar, if using). Cut in the butter with a pastry cutter or your fingers until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. In a small bowl, whisk together the milk, egg and vanilla extract, if using. Add the milk mixture to the dry ingredients, and stir gently until a dough forms.

Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead lightly, about 10 times. If the butter hasn’t become a sticky mess by now, roll it out into a disk until it is a couple of centimetres thick. Brush half of the disk with milk and place the sliced nectarines onto it like so:

Sprinkle 1 tbsp of the coarse sugar on top of the nectarines. Seal up your pastry by folding the clean side over the nectarines. Press down on all sides to seal, and try to form it into some semblance of a rectangle. Cut the dough into 8 even pieces, place them on your baking pans and stick them in the fridge for around 20 minutes. When your 20 minutes are up and the scones are a bit firm, remove them from the fridge and brush with the milk. Sprinkle over the remaining sugar.

Bake the scones for 15-18 minutes or until golden brown. (If they’re a little doughy at first, as mine were, they’ll firm up a bit when they cool.) Let them sit on the hot pan for a couple of minutes, then remove and let cool on a wire rack for around 15 minutes. Eat them warm or at room temperature later on. Either way, they’ll hit the spot.

Makes 8 scones.

Buckwheat Coffee Cake

This isn’t the prettiest of cakes. It’s brown–the most unloved of colours–and has a very different flavour from traditional cinnamon-/chocolate-/fruit-based coffee cakes. But this cake, befitting its sophisticated Italian roots, is subtly elegant, with a bit of cinnamon and a hint of lemon zest. This was originally supposed to be baked in a springform tin, cake-style, cut into wedges, but my lack of such a tin meant that this became moist cubes of buckwheaty goodness. Somehow cubes makes this seem more like breakfast, less like a giant slab of cake. And really, even though there’s a lot of butter and sugar, this wheat-free beauty isn’t too bad for you.

Buckwheat, гречка, is a hearty winter favourite here, especially in its whole-grain form. Really, as a relative of rhubarb, buckwheat is not a grain, but it can be eaten like one with mushrooms, especially at this великий пост (Lent) time, where many Russians aren’t eating animal-derived ingredients like dairy and eggs. This is no good for lent (because of its milk and well-beaten eggs) but the moisture from the ground almonds means that it will stay soft for many happy days, and you could eat it later. I’m rather surprised I haven’t seen too many buckwheat-based cakes here; this one is a goodie.

Buckwheat Coffee Cake (adapted from The Traveler’s Lunchbox)

  • 175g whole almonds (blanched if you want; I used almonds that were roasted with the skin left on)
  • 200g buckwheat flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • zest of 1 large lemon
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 175g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 300g sugar, divided
  • 180 ml milk
  • 4 room-temperature eggs, separated

Preheat your oven to 175°C. If your almonds aren’t roasted, put them on a baking sheet and roast in the oven for 10-12 minutes. Cool completely. Grease a 9-inch springform pan or similar-sized baking dish. In a blender, food processor or clean coffee grinder, grind the almonds together with 50g of sugar. In a medium bowl, stir together the ground almonds with the buckwheat flour, salt, cinnamon, lemon zest and baking powder.

In a large bowl, beat together the butter and 200g of the sugar. Beat in the egg yolks one by one. Beat in the dry mixture alternately with the milk until everything is well combined.

In a clean mixing bowl, with clean beaters, beat the egg whites with the remaining 50g of the sugar until you have stiff, glossy peaks. (I got tired shortly before the end point, but I’d suggest making sure they’re nice and puffy.) Stir one quarter of the whites into the cake batter to lighten it, then fold in the rest. Pour the batter into the tin/pan and smooth the top.

Bake the cake for around 40 minutes, covering it with foil if it becomes too dark (this wasn’t necessary for me). When a toothpick comes out clean, take the cake out and put it on a cooling rack for around 10 minutes. Before serving, sprinkle with some powdered sugar, if you like.

Field of buckwheat dreams...

Photo courtesy of Echoing Footsteps

Perfect Pancakes, Best Blini

Blini with Condensed Milk. Photo by Ilya Jones.

I can’t believe that this blog has been around for over half a year without a pancake recipe. Pancakes must be my second favourite food (after toast, of course) because they’re so versatile–they can be sweet or savoury, thick or thin, and made with any flour at all, from buckwheat to amaranth. This is the perfect time to share my love of pancakes, because it’s just past Maslenitsa here in Moscow. Maslenitsa is a week-long festival derived from pagan times, where people dance, sing, drink hot medovukho and celebrate before the more austere time of Lent.


Blini are the traditional way to get into the spirit, so we went to Kolomenskoe, a former Tsarist estate, to eat and indulge. As you see above, we got three small pancakes topped with everything from salmon to condensed milk (not at the same time, of course). But the traditional blini are really the ones you see below, wide crepe-style pancakes filled with honey, cheese, cherries or apples. Blini are supposed to be big, round and golden like the sun. They’re a harbinger of spring.

Apple Blini at Coffee Mania

I love these types of pancakes, but I also have to be loyal to my own creations. I think my favourite pancakes are the ones with  some bite to them, some texture. These pancakes are sweet, but not overly so; more importantly, they can hold their own without the need for syrup. (Though a drizzle of honey or smear of nutella would not be unwelcome.) And they’re pretty good for you, in fact, with all that oatmeal and whole wheat flour, bananas and coconut milk. I hope you enjoy them!

Banana-Oatmeal Pancakes (Adapted, a lot, from Smitten Kitchen). These pancakes are very forgiving; I’ve made them in so many different ways, with so many different ingredients. The following is a vegan recipe, but if you find yourself without oil or coconut milk, feel free to substitute butter or dairy milk.

  • 1 cup oat flour (which you can make yourself by grinding rolled oats in the blender. Alternatively, just leave the oats whole, as I did, and let the batter sit another moment.)
  • 1 cup whole wheat or all-purpose flour
  • 2tsp baking powder
  • 3/4tsp salt
  • 3tbsp vegetable oil or melted butter
  • 1 1/2 cups coconut milk
  • 1 cup cooked oatmeal
  • 1tbsp honey
  • 2 small very ripe bananas, mashed

Whisk the oat and wheat flours, baking powder and salt together in a large bowl. In a smaller bowl, mix together the oil, coconut milk, cooked oatmeal, honey and bananas. Then gently fold the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients. Remember to keep your mixing minimal, as you want tender pancakes.

While your batter is sitting a bit, heat up a frying pan on medium-high, then lower it to medium-low. With pancakes this thick, you want to make sure that the insides are cooked thoroughly before the outsides crisp up. Add a bit of oil to the frying pan, and then cook the batter in 1/4 cup batches. Wait till bubbles begin to form on the top of the pancakes, then flip them over. Repeat with the remaining batter. If you’re serving these to a group, keep the finished pancakes in a low oven so that they stay warm.

Makes about 10 small pancakes.