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.


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.

Khachapuri, Cheese Bread of My Dreams

And thus I begin my series of food to hibernate with. The weather hasn’t let up in weeks, so when I’m not teaching I tend to hole up in my apartment, watch movies (Chasing Amy and Hannah and her Sisters have been on the recent rotation), and cook. (I’m glad to be working again because it means that I can pass the extra baked goods on to my colleagues, saving me from inevitable sugar rushes.) In my time off I’ve also tried to take in as much of Moscow as possible, seeing museums (Winzavod and Garazh are next), planning parties, shopping and having adventures in even the simplest of exchanges. The cultural differences sometimes run so deep that I don’t even know when I’ve committed a faux-pas. For instance, the other day I broke the zipper on my boot and took it to the shop to get it repaired, while at the same time asking the shop-keeper if he could clean my boots up; it wasn’t until I told my colleague about the exchange that she mentioned it was a definite no-go to ask employees to clean your boots. It’s a bit of an insult here–shoe-shining is done in train stations, not in shops. Ruh-roh! Every day is a lesson here, linguistically or otherwise. In any case, there are two words we can all agree on: cheese bread.

Khachapuri is a Georgian pastry I came into contact with a year and a half ago on my last trip to Moscow. I forget which restaurant I first got it from, but I definitely came to love it, and took that love with me to Estonia. Georgian food was unlike anything I’d ever eaten, with unique spices, plentiful use of walnuts, and green herbs. I was hooked and wanted more–roasted eggplants, plates of fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, mint tea, turkish coffee and this bread, which is lovely and different every place you go. In the end, khachapuri is basically a cheese-filled pie–the Pizza Hut stuffed crust that never was. It’s perfect winter food, ideal for cutting into big slices and sharing with friends. I sliced it up too quickly to photograph it whole, which gives me all the more reason to make it again.

Khachapuri (adapted from Nami-Nami). Serves four generously


  • 250g sour cream
  • 150g unsalted butter
  • 1 beaten egg
  • Around 300g flour
  • A pinch of salt
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp sugar


  • 200g Suluguni cheese (mozzarella will do in a pinch), grated
  • 1 beaten egg (alternatively, beat just one egg and use it in the filling and the dough)
  • 2 tbsp sour cream
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced finally (this is optional; I didn’t have any and my khachapuri turned out just fine)

Preheat the oven to 200°C (390°F)

Melt the butter on the stove and then slowly whisk in the sour cream. Whisk in the salt, baking soda and sugar, then slowly mix in the flour. I didn’t measure this but just added it slowly until the dough became uniform and only a little sticky. Knead the dough for a minute or so to bring it all together, then divide it in two and roll each piece out flat into two circles.

Mix together the grated cheese, egg, sour cream and garlic (if using).

Place one dough circle on a parchment-covered baking sheet, then spread with the cheese mixture, leaving a couple of centimetres on the sides bare. Cover with the other dough circle and press the edges together firmly. Brush the top with beaten egg yolk or leftover sour cream and poke the top with the prongs of a fork. Put it in the oven and bake for around 30 minutes, until the top is golden brown. Let it sit around 5 minutes, then slice.

Enjoy (and keep warm)!

Cornbread & Comfort Cooking

I love the whole culinary tradition of the American South: comfort food, soul food, Cajun cooking, creamed spinach, mint juleps, peach cobblers, porchside sweet iced tea, and hot buttered biscuits. It’s almost too much. Eating food like these little cornbread cakes makes me feel like I’m in a Tennessee Williams play, all gauzy dresses and steamy streets. We had the steaminess here alright, because up until yesterday the weather was so warm that I did nothing but sit on my balcony and look at the trees, drinks beers outside, eat macaroni and cheese and imagine the Spanish moss of Savannah. It’s like the summer London never had–July temperatures in early October.

This cornbread is so simple and nourishing, worthy of a fall picnic or a Paula Deen special. Their pale golden color reminds me of the beautiful sunshine we’re having. This recipe, which comes from a Texan-turned-New Yorker, is lovely; it turned out alright even after I’d forgotten a whole stick of butter and had to work it in post-buttermilk. My mum took some of these with her to a potluck, and I ate the rest for breakfast with honey. Butter, sugar and crunchy cornmeal make for a very satisfying breakfast indeed.

Sweet Cornbread (adapted from Homesick Texan)

  • 3 cups cake and pastry flour
  • 1 1/4 cups cornmeal
  • 1 1/4 cups sugar
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons salt
  • 2 sticks (226 grams) cold, cubed butter
  • 1 cup buttermilk

Mix together the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder and soda, and salt. Cut the butter into the flour mixture using a pastry blender or two knives until the crumbs are the size of peas. Add the buttermilk and stir until it all comes together. Chill the dough for an hour. While the dough is chilling, preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C).

Roll out to a thickness of 3/4-inch and cut into whatever shapes you like. (My dough was incredibly sticky, so I ended up rolling them into little balls and flattening them.) Brush your cornbread cakes with milk for a nice golden finish and put them in the oven for 15 minutes.

Makes around 20 cornbread cakes, depending on the size of your cookie cutters