Chocolate Islands in Crème Anglaise

Dinner and a Movie

Here it is the end of February, the month I most closely associate with chocolate, and I haven’t posted about chocolate even once. I’ve thought about it. I’ve compared it, I’ve sampled it, I’ve even cooked with it, but for some reason I haven’t written about it.

But then I found something that caught my eye, Dinner and a Movie at No Recipes and Sticky, Gooey, Creamy, Chewy. I have a passion for movies and food movies in particular so I wanted to participate. And what could be a more perfect movie for a February round-up than “Chocolat”?

For this event we are free from major rules and asked to create something, anything, inspired by the movie. I suppose it could have been a healing bowl of chicken soup, an herbal remedy, healthy dog biscuits or Kangaroo Stew, but really, it seems that all I can think about when I watch the movie is chocolate and chile peppers, two things I am very fond of.


I did watch the movie again, looking for inspiration. I noticed how the movie is set in the season of Lent. In the movie Comte de Reynauld insists that the community should give up chocolate, among other indulgences, for Lent. He makes it a matter of public morality. Unfortunately as a by-product he also encourages them to give up good manners, hospitality, and an opportunity for healing as they make a show of their abstinance. He encourages them to be closed to relationships instead of reaching out in love.

Normally giving up something for Lent seems like a personal matter. It is a small reminder to focus on God as we deny ourselves some indulgence in this world. It is a personal reminder to look to what the narrator suggests, the larger lessons that need to be taught. At least that's how I think I see Lent.

It seems to me that giving something up for Lent is not an end in itself but a way to make room for something else. In fact, it seems to me that as we let go of one thing, we often find that God is waiting to fill us up with something better if we will only let him. As Père Henri says in his Easter sermon, goodness or virtue is not only about what we deny ourselves, or resist, but is also about what we are willing to embrace and create.

Artisanal Chocolate

Thinking of creativity and chocolate takes me back to a great series by Stef at Food Interviews as she talked with Art from Amano Chocolate. Art makes small batch artisanal chocolate from single origin cacoa beans. Art is passionate about chocolate and is involved in the process from "bean to bar." The series of interviews was fascinating! I eagerly read each segment and even won some of Art's wonderful chocolate.

Since I received my chocolate, I must confess, I've been hoarding it. I've kept it in my own secret stash, waiting for just the right time to use it. Finally this felt like the right time to let it go. Still, this chocolate is special and since it is specifically made without added flavorings, so that the cocoa beans can “really speak for themselves,” I wanted to use it in a recipe that was fairly pure. After some thought, I decided to make truffles.

The Recipe

I’ve made truffles before. I made some wonderful truffles last year. This time, inspired by another recipe in "Table for Two: French Recipes for Romantic Dining," I decided to try something both a little more rustic and a little more complex.

As I let go of my stash and made truffles from a ganache of only Amano’s wonderful Ocumare Handcrafted Dark Chocolate and cream, I also tried something new. After I loosely shaped the ganache and rolled it in cocoa powder, I set it adrift like gypsies in a sea of Crème Anglaise, something I had never made before. Then, for a lift, I added a pinch of chile pepper for color and to add a hint of fiery adventure to the presentation. Then I garnished it with white chocolate curls and tiny chocolate candies.

All of this was composed in two sizes. A single rounded teaspoon sized truffle on a small sauce tray for just a hint of dessert at the end of a meal. With coffee or liqueur this size offers a nice restrained finish to a memorable meal, without a hint of overindulgence, and offers a taste of this fabulous chocolate to a larger number of guests. I also made it in a larger full sized dessert for a more traditional ending to a dinner party or other occasion.

Chocolate Islands in Crème Anglaise

Basic Truffle

½ cup heavy cream
6 ozs chocolate, chopped

Set the chopped chocolate in a bowl.

Heat the cream over medium low heat, stirring occasionally, until bubbles form around the edge of the pan.

Pour the cream over the chocolate and let sit for a minute or two. Stir the chocolate and cream together.

Place in the refrigerator to set for several hours.

When the mixture is fairly firm scoop out rounded teaspoon sized balls with a cookie scooper and roll each in cocoa powder, or use a larger 2 tablespoon sized scoop for larger truffles that you might make into a flattened egg shape. Roll in cocoa powder.

Store in refrigerator until ready to use.

Crème Anglaise
From Joy of Baking

Set out a medium bowl with a wire mesh strainer.

Stir together egg yolks and sugar with a wire whisk. Set aside. (Don’t let the eggs sit too long.)

In a small to medium saucepan, scald the half and half with the vanilla bean placed in it over medium low heat. (I use a three quart saucepan with high sides.)

When the half and half is just below the boiling point and bubbles form around the edge of the saucepan remove it from the heat.

Pour a small amount of the scalded half and half into the egg yolk mixture as you whisk.

When combined slowly pour yolk mixture into the scalded half and half, whisking constantly.

Place the saucepan over low heat and place a candy thermometer in the mixture. Cook over low heat, whisking constantly, just until the mixture thickens and reaches a temperature of 170 – 175 degrees. Do not allow the mixture to boil.

Immediately remove it from the heat and pour through the wire mesh to remove any clots and the vanilla bean.

When the vanilla bean is cool enough to handle, split it lengthwise and scrape the seeds into the Crème Anglaise. Whisk until the seeds are evenly distributed.

Store the Crème Anglaise in the refrigerator for several days if desired. Store it with the vanilla bean in it for maximum flavor. Remove the vanilla bean pod before serving.


Assemble dessert by scooping out a pool of crème anglaise onto a saucer or into a small dish. Drop one chocolate truffle into the pool. Sprinkle a pinch of ancho chili powder (or cinnamon if you prefer) over the truffle and into the cream. Garnish with white chocolate curls and/or other chocolate bits.

Serve and enjoy!

Note: These recipes are versatile. Other flavors might be added to the truffle mixture or the Crème Anglaise, if desired. Experiment.

For a denser, less creamy but more substantive, truffle I also tried the recipe from "Table for Two..." It takes a few more ingredients but is very delicious. I can’t really say which is my favorite. I enjoyed them both. Floating in a sea of Crème Anglaise it would be hard to leave behind either island.

Chocolate Truffles
Changed slightly from a recipe in "Table for Two: French Recipes for Romantic Dining"

5 oz dark chocolate
1 teaspoon milk
2 Tablespoons butter
1 egg yolk
1 Tablespoon heavy cream
4 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
1 teaspoon liqueur (kahlua)
1 Tablespoon cocoa

Break chocolate into pieces and melt with 1 teaspoon milk in the top of a double boiler. When smooth, remove from heat.

Stir in butter gradually until thoroughly mixed and glossy.

Add egg yolk and cream as you continue stirring. Beat in the sugar and liqueur.

Refrigerate mixture until firm, approximately 2 hours.

When chilled, scoop the chocolate mixture into flattened ovals (or ice-cream shaped scoops or other shape of your choice) of approximately 2 Tablespoons each. Roll in cocoa powder.

Chill until serving time.

Pancake Dinners

If you read this blog regularly you may know that pancakes make me smile. There is something so basic and elemental about them. They are a real comfort food. Often a family's pancake recipe is cherished and has either been handed down through generations or chosen because it reminds them of the pancakes they grew up with. If the recipe isn't special there is often something about the way they are cooked or served that has a history to it and kindles happy memories. Pancakes communicate many stories and can offer great life lessons.

Everyone knows that pancakes can be a great way to start the day or to mellow into a weekend afternoon. And yet, as anyone who has ever attended a Shrove Tuesday pancake dinner can tell you, pancakes are not just for breakfast or brunch but can make a fun and economical dinner as well.

For many years now we have enjoyed attending a Shrove Tuesday pancake dinner at our church. On the evening before Ash Wednesday the Senior Men prepare pancakes, sausages and orange juice in the Parish Hall. It is nice to get together and share a meal as we prepare for the Lenten season ahead. And while the pancakes represent the rich fare of eggs, milk and syrup that were traditionally given up during Lent, in our modern society it can also help us to set our minds on simpler meals to share with family and friends in the coming weeks as we look forward to spring and the celebration of Easter.

In Doris Janzen Longacre’s “More-with-Less Cookbook” the author suggests entertaining guests in our homes by sharing simple meals together. She states that “eating with joy is eating together.” Gathering friends for a meal need not be a complicated ordeal. "More-With-Less" encourages us to gather with an emphasis on warmth, relaxation and enjoyment of each other’s company. To do this she suggest building a meal around a theme, “one nutritious, cheap, but interesting dish” served with a “few simple foods to complement it.” One of her suggested themes is a “Waffle or Pancake Meal.”

The advantage of a pancake dinner is that the batter can be made ahead. As the pancakes cook each person can build their own stack and add their own favorite toppings. I topped mine with a variety of things I found in the refrigerator and pantry: Hickory Syrup, peanut butter, Nutella, jam, pumpkin butter and a marionberry fruit syrup were among my finds. Honey, yogurt or powdered sugar would also be good choices. Berries, toasted nuts or chocolate chips might be added. Applesauce, fruit slices or sausages could be served as side dishes if desired. Or just serve lots of pancakes. I have never heard anyone complain about a dinner of such a fun favorite.

Almost any type of pancakes would make a great dinner. Use a family favorite, or try my favorite Overnight Pancakes. For something different, my friend Alanna has a great recipe for Brown Rice Pancakes at A Veggie Venture. For international flair you could make Swedish Pancakes. Or try this recipe from the "More-With-Less" cookbook. It uses wheat germ to boost the protein content and spices to complement the nutty flavor. Over dinner, share stories about your favorite pancake memories.


Wheat Germ Griddle Cakes
from "More-With-Less Cookbook " by Doris Janzen Longacre

Makes 14 pancakes

1 1/2 cups wheat germ
1 1/4 cup white flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 Tablespoon sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ginger
1/8 teaspoon allspice (the original recipe calls for mace)
2 1/2 cups milk
3 eggs
6 Tablespoons salad oil

Mix ingredients in a large bowl with an electric mixer for 1 minute.

Pour batter by 1/3 cupfuls onto a hot, lightly greased skillet or griddle. Cook over medium low heat until the edges are dry and the bottom has browned. Flip pancake and brown on the other side.

Serve hot with butter, syrup, peanut butter, jam or any topping you choose.


Note: If you like the idea of a pancake dinner here are some other simple meal themes you might want to try during Lent, or anytime:

  • A bread and cheese dinner with olives and wine.
  • Rice dinners. Brown rice cooked in broth served with a simple meat, bean or vegetable topping if desired.
  • Baked Potato topped with cheese or leftovers.

Idea: If you save money by eating simply during Lent, why not set aside the difference between what you spent on a simple meal at home and what you might have spent on an average family dinner or a dinner at a fast food restaurant, or set aside the ingredients you didn’t use, and put the difference into a special box or jar on the family table. At Easter, count the money and/or gather the ingredients and donate it to a local food bank to help feed others who are in need.

Be blessed to be a blessing!

Mushroom Coconut Soup

Ever know two people you never thought of as having anything in common and yet find that they really hit it off and make a great couple or turn out to be the best of friends? That’s sort of the way I would have thought about mushrooms and coconut.

Truth is, I love mushrooms. Coconut, on the other hand, has been more of an acquired taste. As a child I avoided the stringy little bits of shredded coconut that were found in Christmas cookies and on Ambrosia Salads or German Chocolate Cakes. But over the years I have learned there are other forms of coconut and that the flavor itself is quite appealing. Still I tend to think of coconut as a sweet flavor, not the kind of thing I would instinctively pair with mushrooms. Neither did I expect to find mushrooms and coconut coupled in a soup featured in a book about romantic French cuisine.

Even so, as I was thumbing through cookbooks from my cookbook shelf recently, I found just such a recipe. I was searching for inspiration for a post to enter in the Vegetable Love roundup at FatFree Vegan Kitchen, as well as some ideas for a romantic Valentine’s Day dinner with friends, when I found myself lost in “Table for Two: French Recipes for Romantic Dining." This book is loaded with gorgeous photos featuring the most beautiful food and many of the recipes are surprisingly simple to prepare. As I turned the pages, admiring recipe after recipe, a soup of sliced mushrooms in a coconut broth caught my eye. I couldn't help but smile at that unique pairing.

I was so intrigued with the Mushroom Soup with Coconut recipe, I vowed to give it a try. I adapted it slightly to make the quantities easier for me to work with and to make the recipe vegan. I made it for my husband and we both agreed it was worth sharing. I took photos for my post and planned a menu for my Valentine’s Day dinner.

Unfortunately I mixed up the dates and missed the deadline for the Vegetable Love round-up. Still I thought I could post the recipe for Valentine’s Day. It makes a great starter for a romantic meal. But then I got busy preparing my Valentine’s Day dinner and missed that target date too. So here I am on a sunny Friday afternoon trying to catch up on my blogging and post this great recipe.

While this soup was perfect for Valentine’s Day it is also a great spring recipe. It is light but creamy with the unexpected flavor twist introduced by the coconut milk. It is pretty and looks nice garnished with chopped cilantro and crushed pink peppercorns or red pepper flakes. It can be served piping hot on a cold day or closer to room temperature for a spring or summer starter. Though delicious when served fresh from the stovetop, it stores well when made ahead and possibly tastes even a bit better when reheated, as the flavors have a chance to interact and develop a rapport. 

Mushroom Coconut Soup
adapted from a recipe in "Table for Two: French Recipes for Romantic Dining"

1 lb. white mushrooms, sliced
1 or 2 shallots, finely chopped
3 tablespoons butter, (or olive oil to make the recipe vegan)
1 cup vegetable (or chicken) broth
1 14 oz. can coconut milk
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
crushed pink peppercorns for garnish, if desired

In a medium saucepan gently saute the shallots in butter over medium low heat until soft, approximately 2 minutes.

Add the mushrooms and saute another 5 minutes.

Add the broth and heat to boiling. Simmer and reduce, stirring constantly, for 5 minutes.

Add the coconut milk and simmer over low heat, 8 - 10 minutes, to allow flavors to blend.

Stir in cilantro, if desired, or sprinkle on top of soup along with crushed peppercorns or red pepper flakes.

Makes 4 small servings.

Washington's Birthday - Cherry Cheese Pie


When I was a girl February meant Cherry Cheese Pie. Every year as mid-February approached, Aunt Hen would make a beautiful Cherry Cheese Pie with a delicious buttery graham cracker crust, a smooth and luscious white cream cheese filling and a glistening red cherry topping.

When Aunt Hen made her annual announcement that it was time to make this pie my reaction was mixed. I always liked to help out in the kitchen when she was making something special. What I didn’t like was cherry topping. It was mushy and sticky and seemed to have a rather strong flavor in my childish opinion. While I knew, from taking a choice taste of my father's piece, that not only the sweet graham cracker crust was delicious but that the white filling beneath the cherries was a special treat too, the cherry topping discouraged me from indulging in this annual delight.

While my aunt often accomodated my picky tastes when she made desserts it was hard to justify a Cherry Cheese Pie without the cherries. After all, the cherries were actually the point. The reason she made this pie every February was to celebrate George Washington’s birthday. As every school child once knew, George Washington's fame for owning up to the fact that he had chopped down a cherry tree his father prized was only eclipsed by his exploits in the Revolutionary War and the fact that he was the first president of the United States. Yet even though she always made the Cherry Cheese Pie with the same canned cherry pie filling glistening on top, my Aunt Hen would often make a small tart sized portion of her pie without the cherries, just for me.

Now George Washington’s Birthday, once celebrated on the day of his birth, February 22 on the Gregorian calendar, and Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, once celebrated on February 12, have been lumped together into what many call President’s Day, celebrated on the 3rd Monday in February. This holiday has become, for the most part, another three day weekend, an opportunity to plan a short getaway or to check out sales at the local department stores. I’m not sure if the lessons once learned by observing Goerge Washington’s character and the sacrifices made for his country, and once studied by every school child across the United States, are still studied or even revered.

In recent years many wonderful stories I learned in school have been scrutinized and dismissed by historians, from Christopher Columbus' discovery of America to Washington saying "Father, I cannot tell a lie." This story about young George and the cherry tree is now claimed to be false, a fabrication woven by biographer M. L. Weems in an effort to make a point about Washington’s character.

Did George Washington really chop down a cherry tree? Maybe. Maybe not. In any case, I still like to remember the story. It is as good a reason as any to make a Cherry Cheese Pie and remember my aunt’s affection each February. I want to hand down the tradition, though in the transmission I am also prone to changing a detail or two.

The truth is, my aunt's recipe in her own handwriting, reads like this:

Though I remember this recipe making a wonderful pie, I elected not to use Dream Whip. I preferred to make the pie using real whipped cream. What's more, I chose to add brown sugar instead of powdered sugar and to use a lot less of it. I also made my own cherry topping after finding an appealing jar of Morello Cherries at Trader Joe’s. The pretty oval jar alone convinced me to give them a try. What's more they have a wonderful flavor. In fact I tried two different toppings using these cherries, one made with the light syrup from the jar and another one, one my aunt would have never tried but sounded tempting to me, using tawny port. The pie was delicious with either topping.

I do love tradition but I also enjoy adapting traditions so that they remain relevant to our lives today and the resources we now have at our disposal. Whatever your preference, the traditional recipe my aunt copied and shared with me or an updated version using whipping cream and a great new product from Trader Joe's, why not make a Cherry Cheese Pie of your own this February? I think you and your family will be glad you did.
Cherry Cheese Pie


1¼ cups graham cracker crumbs (1 inner packet), crushed
3 Tablespoons sugar
1/3 cup butter, melted


1 (8 ounce) package cream cheese, softened
¼ cup firmly packed brown sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup whipping cream, whipped


(adapted from Cooking Light and Geocities)
1 Jar (24.7 oz) Trader Joe's Dark Morello Cherries in Light Syrup
1 cup cherry syrup from jar or ¾ cup tawny port
1/3 cup sugar
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
2 Tablespoons lemon juice
1 Tablespoons water
1/2 vanilla bean

To make the crust:

Mix together the graham cracker crumbs, sugar and melted butter. Firmly press the mixture into the bottom and up the sides of a lightly greased 9 inch pie plate.

Bake at 325 degrees for 10 minutes. Cool completely.

To make the filling:

Beat cream cheese with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add brown sugar and vanilla, mixing until well combined.

Fold the whipped cream into the cream cheese mixture until well combined.

Spoon filling into the prepared crust. Refrigerate for at least 8 hours.

To make the topping:

Mix together the cornstarch, lemon juice and water. Set aside.

Mix the cherry liquid or tawny port with the sugar in a small saucepan. Drop in the vanilla bean. Heat over medium heat until sugar dissolves and mixture starts to boil.

Slowly stir in the cornstarch mixture and add the cherries. Continue to boil, stirring constantly, until mixture thickens, about 1 minute.

Remove from heat to cool.

When mixture is cool enough to handle remove the vanilla bean. Split the pod lengthwise and scrape seeds into the mixture. Discard the hull.

When mixture is cool, spread it on top of the chilled pie filling.

Return pie to the refrigerator until ready to serve.


Caffé Piccolo Paradiso

Yesterday I read an article in the Wall Street Journal that talked about Starbucks' new campaign to reposition itself in the market as a "Common Joe." They want people to know that most of their coffee drinks are not over $4. Okay, but while Starbucks is one of my common haunts, all I can think is, “What a boring ad campaign!” and yet in another sense, “How true!” It is how very common Starbucks has become that is both their strength and their weakness.

Starbucks is convenient but far from unique or edgy these days. There are at least three outlets within a couple of miles of my home so they are on the way to everywhere. I do stop in often, probably more often than I should, for what is actually a rather common cup of coffee or tea. When I want something special I go elsewhere.

One of my favorite stops for something special is Caffé Piccolo Paradiso in downtown Camas. The atmosphere in the café is anything but common. It is more like a trip to the romantic Italian countryside. Italian music plays in the background and warm conversation seems to fill the air. The sunny décor brightens up even a typically gray winter’s day in the Pacific Northwest and a cup of their flavorful Caffé Umbria coffee sipped at one of the inviting tables warms the soul. Here one is invited to linger and dream. A map of Italy is hung over a long table above a collection of Italian games. A selection of Italian wines is arranged on a tray nearby.

Or choose one of the quality used books for sale on a shelf in the back and lose yourself in a good story as you sip a cup of tea. The book selection includes a variety of classics and recent best sellers. Then again you can always just sit at a small table in the front window and watch the traffic come and go as you contemplate the collection of interesting photos and objects scattered around the café.

Coffee drinks are beautifully presented at Piccolo Paradiso. I've had lattes with hearts and hurricanes floating in the foam. And even though they are far from common a 16 oz. Caffé Latte is priced at only $3.10. This morning, however, I ordered a Shot in the Dark, a cup of hot coffee with a shot of espresso poured over top, served in a Caffé Umbria cup with cream from an Italian ceramic cream pitcher. With it I sampled a collection of little Italian cookies and looked over the local events posted at the front.

Piccolo Paradiso also offers a small selection of pastries including croissants and scones, frosted biscotti and pizzelles. They carry some sandwiches, desserts and Italian products too. Besides coffee drinks they offer Italian sodas and wine by the glass.

All in all Caffé Piccolo Paradiso is a delightful place to stop for a good cup of coffee. It's also a nice place to take a friend for a glass of wine and some good conversation. It is comfortable and welcoming and a step beyond the common din of the ordinary.

On the way out I noticed hearts playfully strung across the front door spelling "L-O-V-E" and this quote from Robert Louis Stevenson inscribed on the front window.

I had to smile! Not only does the coffee at Caffé Piccolo Paradiso give me a lift but just stopping by for a short break can change my outlook on the day. It adds a little poetry to the prose of daily life.

Granola Improvisation

At some point, I don’t know when and I don’t know how, I started running late. This phenomenon took me somewhat by surprise. Even with small children in tow I used to be predictably punctual. My internal rhythm kept me calibrated and I tended to show up where I was expected to be, on time.

Over the years though, my beat has started to slip a little. My personal drummer seems to have given up on the marches and taken on a gig with a jazz band. These days I am late to my morning Bible study, late to my son’s basketball games, late to doctor’s appointments even late to meet friends for coffee.

Mid January, when I got around to making my New Year’s resolutions, it occurred to me that a resolution to be more punctual might be in order. I also enrolled in a morning art class, which seemed like the perfect opportunity to exercise my new resolve to be on time. It seemed possible and yet I still found ways to procrastinate and fall behind schedule, like driving my son to school because he didn’t want to take the bus and taking photos of a fabulous sunrise. Late, as usual, I ran out to the car and left for class without eating breakfast or packing a snack.

But fortune smiled on me. It didn’t take as long to get there as I had thought and so I had time to grab a cup of coffee before class. Then at break time my friend Christi shared her homemade granola with me. I hadn’t thought of granola in a long time but suddenly it seemed like the perfect food. Rich in nuts and grains and dried fruit, it is very nutritious. It is also compact and conveniently carried, doesn’t spoil easily and tastes great.

After a few bites I knew I wanted to make some for myself so I started asking questions. Christi gave me lots of great hints like adding unsweetened shredded coconut and even finely chopped fresh ginger. She encouraged me to experiment.

While I collected ingredients and experimented with recipes I found lots of other posts about granola. It seemed that everyone was thinking about granola in January, in fact January was officially National Oatmeal Month. Who knew? (apparently lots of in-the-know bloggers.)

Now it is February and it seems I am late again. But no matter. I do dance to the beat of my own drummer and I am finding that jazz is a genre that suits me. Where else would I discover that letting a note lag adds just the right amount of tension to keep a tune fresh and interesting?

I would still like to be more punctual, but maybe it’s okay to fall a step behind now and then. Maybe it adds a needed hint of syncopation to the composition of my life. Perhaps it is no great tragedy to be a few minutes late because I stopped to admire the sunrise.

On the other hand there are times to remember that being punctual at the expense of being totally prepared might allow me to be blessed by the generosity of a friend. In either case the important thing is to lay down a solid beat when it is my turn to carry the tune.

So now its February and its my turn. I have three different granola recipes. Each improvises on a basic theme of oats, seeds and nuts roasted with a sweetener and spices and then combined with dried fruit. Each has a distinctive flavor, varying in complexity, depth and sweetness.

The first is a little different than others I’ve seen thanks to Christi's suggestion to add ginger. I scattered ginger among the nuts, seeds and grain as they toasted and then stirred in bits of candied ginger with the apricots at the end. The result is a sultry blend of spice and citrus lightly sweetened with agave nectar.

Since my granola came to the oatmeal party late I decided to make another batch and dress it for Valentine’s Day. This one was drenched in honey and included romantic marcona almonds, dried sweet cherries, cranberries and even freeze dried strawberries from Trader Joe's. It is bright and pretty with a hint of sweet honey. Still, this variation could have used a little more tasteful phrasing. The strawberries, fabulously crisp and tart from the bag, got ever so slightly squishy when mixed into the granola. And the marcona almonds, though individually luscious, were too salty for the mix. The recipe might work better with slivered almonds.

To end on an uplifting note, I made a third batch. This one was laced with earthy peanuts, deep tones of brown sugar and a hint of black pepper. It included orange juice and was sweetened with Shagbark Hickory Syrup from Hickoryworks I received in a gift basket from Newburgh Country Store. I think maple syrup or honey would work just as well but if you have access to hickory syrup try it, it added a great smokey note to the flavor.

Cashew Ginger Granola

3 cups old fashioned rolled oats
1/2 cup sesame seeds ( I used half black and half white)
1/2 cup unsweetened shredded coconut ( I used Bob's Red Mill brand)
1 cup raw pepitas
1 cup pistachios
1 cup cashews
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh ginger
1 Tablespoon fresh lemon juice
3 Tablespoons canola oil
1/3 cup agave nectar
1/3 cup water
1 cup dried apricots, coarsely chopped
1 cup uncrystallized Candied Ginger (Trader Joe's Sweet and Smooth variety), chopped

In a large bowl mix together the oats, sesame seeds, coconut, pepitas, pistachios,cashews and fresh ginger.

In a small bowl mix together the lemon juice, oil, agave nectar and water.

Pour the liquid mixture over the oat mixture and stir until well combined. Spread on a large baking sheet or roasting pan.

Bake at 350 degrees for 20 to 30 minutes, stirring every 8 to 10 minutes, until oats are golden brown.

Remove from oven and allow to cool.

Mix in the apricots and candied ginger.

When completely cool store in an airtight container.

Valentine Granola

3 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1/2 cup sesame seeds
1/2 cup golden flaxseed
1/2 cup sunflower seeds
1/2 cup unsweetened flaked coconut
2 cups almonds (slivered or whole)
1/2 cup honey
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 1/2 cups dried cranberries
1 1/2 cups dried cherries ( I used dried bing cherries from Trader Joe's)
1 cup freeze dried strawberries (also from Trader Joe's), if desired

In a large bowl, combine oats, sesame seeds, flaxseed, sunflower seeds, coconut and almonds.

Stir the vanilla and cinnamon into the honey. Pour over the oat mixture and thoroughly combine.

Spread mixture on a large baking sheet or roasting pan and bake at 350 degrees for 20 to 30 minutes, stirring well every 8 to 10 minutes, until the oats are golden brown.

Remove from oven and allow mixture to cool. Stir in cranberries, cherries and strawberries if desired.

When completely cool store in an airtight container.

Hickory and Nuts Granola

3 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1/2 cup golden flaxseed
1/2 cup wheat germ
1/2 cup sunflower seeds
1/2 cup peanuts
1 cup pecan pieces
1 cup walnut pieces
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup orange juice
1/4 cup hickory syrup (pure maple syrup or honey could be substituted)
1 Tablespoon vanilla
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 cup dried apricots, coarsely chopped
1 to 2 cups dried cranberries or cherries

In a large bowl mix together the oats, flaxseed, wheat germ, sunflower seeds, peanuts, pecans, walnuts and brown sugar.

In a small bowl or measuring cup mix together the orange juice, hickory syrup, vanilla, cinnamon and pepper.

Pour the orange juice mixture over the oat mixture and stir until thoroughly combined.

Spread mixture on a large baking sheet or roasting pan and bake at 350 degrees for 20 to 30 minutes, stirring well every 8 to 10 minutes, until the oats are golden brown.

Remove from oven and allow mixture to cool. Stir in the apricots and cranberries or cherries.

When completely cool store in an airtight container.

A Healthy Hit from Hemp?

Have you ever considered cooking with hemp? Recently I have seen several articles extolling the dietary virtues of this notorious plant. While my first thought, when cooking with hemp is mentioned, is of the kind of "special brownies" Hyde made for the garage sale episode on "That 70's Show", it seems that hemp has recently turned over a new leaf. The strain of hemp now popularly sold for its nutritional value contains only trace elements of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive ingredient cannabis is known for. Instead these new hemp products are said to pack a healthy hit of quality protein and other desirable nutrients.

While reading Lelo in Nopo this week I learned that Bob’s Red Mill, one of my favorite local sources of all kinds of wonderful ingredients, is now selling Hulled Hemp Seed. On The Mill Room, there is a recipe for Hemp No Meat Loaf and Lelo posted a recipe for Chocolate Deluxe Hemp Nuggets which she promises are chewy and rich and packed with not only protein but Omega fatty acids and iron as well.

Hemp can also be found in a variety of tempting products which have come on the market in the past few years including Dagoba Organic Chocolate's "Seeds" bar, Hemp-milk, a non-dairy beverage similar to soy milk, as well as packaged granola and baked goods. All tout the health benefits of a diet rich in hemp. I have to admit, I'm curious.

First I have to wonder - when exactly was hemp, a common name for cannabis, transformed from that substance warned of in the famously cultic cautionary tale "Reefer Madness" into the latest superfood discovery? When did it lose its association with THC and become known as a nutritional powerhouse featuring complete proteins to rival soy, not to mention significant amounts of Omega fatty acids, gamma-linoleic acid, vitamins and trace minerals? Isn't it interesting how times change?

That reminded me of an interesting discovery I made while in Switzerland this past summer. On the shores of Lake Geneva I spent a whole wonderful week riding the punctual trains in that clockwork country from amazing scenic town to amazing scenic town.

Attracted to vending machines, as ever, I checked out the contents of every one I passed. For the most part I saw vending machines only at train stations and at every train station, along with familiar items one might see in the US, they contained bright orange cartons of C-Ice, sporting a large green cannabis leaf and an ice cube on the front of the packaging. Above the leaf was the C-Ice name and the subtext, “Ice Tea with Swiss Cannabis.”

Of course the first thing that went through my American mind was, “Is this legal?” The second was, “Why have I never heard of this before?” I have been to Switzerland several times and my oldest son lived there for almost a year. While I have heard that the Swiss have a somewhat relaxed view of cannabis, I was pretty sure that consumption was still illegal so it surprised me to see this product marketed in every train station I passed through. It was a puzzle and I was intrigued.

Back in my hotel room I did some research. I found that C-Ice was introduced in 2003 and is now marketed in a number of countries across Europe and Asia. It met with some resistance in Great Britain but is available there none the less. It is marketed as a "healthy, functional" beverage, much like energy or sports drinks but with one difference, a big cannabis leaf in the logo. I also learned that, despite it’s approach to marketing, it actually contains negligible amounts of THC.

Ever curious, I decided to try one. The next day at the train station I found the correct change in Swiss Francs and bought a carton. I liked the taste okay. I would say I prefer it over American style carbonated beverages but I'm not really a fan of sweet drinks. The taste was similar to sweetened iced tea I might buy in a bottle or can at home but without the fruity notes. I would also have to say that it left that same filmy aftertaste. I really prefer an unsweetened iced tea drink like you can find in practically every vending machine in Japan.

Though I didn’t love it I was glad I tried it. The packaging was bright and cheerful and edgy even if the drink itself tasted ordinarily sweet and uninspired. I would have to say that I liked it better than the energy drinks I have sampled in the US and it smelled better than my youngest son’s soft drinks of choice.

Now that hemp is being widely sold as a nutritional product in the US perhaps we will soon see this product introduced as a nutritional drink in this country. The website claims it strengthens the immune system and reduces susceptibility to infectious diseases, not to mention the rich nutritional value it offers. Still I bet the packaging will need some tweaking before it finds wide acceptance in this market.