June 30, 2005

Spinach & Chicken Curry

Fortnightly update!

The main Always in the Kitchen website has a new recipe:

Spinach & Chicken Curry - a variation on Saag Paneer. Vegetarians can simply leave out the chicken (increase the paneer, if you want it as a main dish).

and a new essay:

Ecumenical Eating

"...My classmates thought that, because they were eating, they were getting away with not studying, even though a highly specific vocabulary lesson was being delivered. Me, I was happy to have bread, cheese, and crisp green pears, and speculate about what it would be like, to live in Paris – where, no doubt, I would be popular, and stylish, and understood."


June 27, 2005

Apricot Nectar Cake: Progress Report

I was pleased with my initial efforts at a citrus-y, lower-fat snack cake that would be good for work lunches, but there were a few problems with the first version. The lemon-juice glaze was delicious, but in an already moist cake it created a sticky, fall-apart texture after one day on the counter or any amount of time in the freezer. I scribbled some notes on the recipe I had developed, and set it aside for the future.

Well, the future is now. I tinkered with the leavening (upping the baking powder and lowering the baking soda), I used actual apricot nectar instead of a Sun-Rype multi-juice, and I switched over to a bundt pan instead of the rectangular pyrex dish I used before.

So far, the changes are a raging success! The cake is tender, light and moist without being sticky or fragile, and the appealing bundt shape makes for attractive slices. It's still under 25 % of the calories from fat - well within the acceptable range for snacking.

Apricot Nectar Cake

2 cups unbleached all purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon white sugar
zest of one lemon
225 mls apricot nectar
1/2 cup apple sauce
1/4 cup canola oil
2 eggs, beaten
2 egg whites, beaten
1 teaspoon orange extract

Preheat oven to 325 F. Spray a 9" bundt pan with cooking spray or grease lightly.

In a medium mixing bowl, blend the flour, salt, baking soda, baking powder and sugar. Mix well with a wire whisk, to aerate. Add the lemon zest and whisk again.

In a separate bowl, mix the apple sauce, canola oil, eggs and egg whites, and orange extract. Measure out the apricot nectar in a measuring cup (just a little less than one cup). Add one third of the dry ingredients to the applesauce/egg mixture, beating on low with an electric mixer until just combined. Add half of the nectar, and beat again. Repeat, and finally add the last of the dry ingredients. Mix until just combined.

Pour into your prepared pan, and bake for 40 minutes, or until a cake-tester (or toothpick) comes out clean when inserted into the centre of the cake. Remove cake to a rack and allow to cool before slicing.

If you're not planning to freeze the slices, you might want a little decorative icing, made by mixing a little lemon juice into some icing sugar, and drizzled over the cake as it cools.

A little addition of spices to the dry ingredients would probably be very good - nutmeg, cinnamon, or clove would be my picks. It really is quite tasty just by itself.

June 26, 2005

What does Canada taste like?

The possibilities are darn near endless, especially given the diverse regions in such a geographically large country. I was honoured to be invited to participate (thanks, Ana and Jennifer!) in the Taste Canada event started by Jennifer of Domestic Goddess, and immediately set about trying to figure out this very question. What does Canada taste like, to me?

Salmon is one of the biggies in my region, south western British Columbia, as is Chinese food - thanks to a large and thriving living Chinatown district. While these items do speak to me of the particular collision of resource and culture that colours my city, I wanted to reach beyond the most obvious conclusions.

People in Vancouver seem particularly enthused by the "grow local" movement that is occuring all up and down the west coast, but we also embrace a fierce sort of pride in our artisanal products: small bakeries, cheeseworks, and other family-run food businesses. I decided to make that my focus.

Saltspring Island has been famous for its lamb for some time now, and is gaining an increasing reputation for producing fine cheese, as well. With this as my starting point, I chose a dinner of lamb shanks braised in BC red wine, accompanied by wild mushroom and goat cheese risotto and a spinach, pear and blue cheese salad.

My usual source for Saltspring Island lamb was fresh out of shanks - my fault for trying to source them right before an enormous Greek festival in my neighbourhood. I eventually tracked some down, but since the butcher was not my usual one I found myself doing a fair amount more trimming than usual. The wine I chose was the first acceptable Pinot Noir that I've had from BC, and is surprisingly affordable: the vaguely named Okanagan Vineyards Pinot Noir. This was also the wine that we drank alongside dinner.

Lamb Shanks in Red Wine

4 lamb shanks
2 large onions, peeled and diced medium (divided)
2 bay leaves
2 cups of red wine - preferably a Pinot Noir, if you can find an affordable, tolerable one, or other light red wine with good acids (a chianti might do it, don't use Merlot or Shiraz)
1 cup strong chicken stock
salt & pepper

Carefully trim 4 lamb shanks of excess skin, membrane and fat. Tie with butchers twine to keep the meat on the bone during and after the braising process. Season lightly with salt and pepper. In a heavy, cast iron frying pan, sear the shanks to a dark, golden brown colour on all sides.

Place half of the chopped onions in a lidded braising dish or small roaster. Lay the seared shanks on top of the onions.

Add a little olive oil to the frying pan that you used for searing, and add the rest of the onions. Cook until translucent, sprinkling with a little salt and black pepper.

Add 1 cup of the wine and scrape the pan to free up the good flavours in the fond left from the searing process, and then pour the onions and wine over the shanks.

Add the rest of the wine, the stock and the bayleaves. Place braising pan on the burner and bring up to a simmer. Place in a 300 F oven for two hours, which gives you lots of time to have a drink and mess around with the rest of the meal.

When ready to serve, remove the shanks to a serving platter, and strain the wine and juices. You can use the reserved onion bits, pink with wine, to act as a bed for the lamb shanks, if you like.

Pour the braising liquid into a shallow pan and reduce over a high heat while you finish preparing the rest of the meal and pour wine for drinking. Spoon the reduced sauce gently over the shanks and serve.

The mushroom and goat cheese risotto featured BC wild mushrooms - specifically shiitake and chanterelles. The goat cheese, stirred in right at the end, was the Saltspring Island Cheese company's Chevre with basil - tangy and assertive. I used my usual wild mushroom risotto recipe, but without the dried mushrooms, and instead of stirring in butter at the end, that is where I added the Chevre. The flavours were brighter and slightly less earthy than the usual recipe, but just as silky. The mushrooms were purchased at Choices, a chain that focuses on organically grown, local products as much as possible.

The salad was baby spinach leaves with red onion, tossed with a miniscule amount of walnut oil vinaigrette and topped with slices of pear (representing the fruit orchards in the Okanagan) and another BC artisanal cheese - this one a Tiger Blue cheese from Poplar Grove in Penticton. Poplar Grove is a unique company, in that they make wine as well as cheese.

To round things out, I picked up a loaf of Black Olive Bread from Terra Breads, our local and somewhat internationally renowned bakery specializing in rustic, chewy crusts. This proved to be the perfect vehicle for the marrow for the lamb shanks.

The lamb turned out just exactly as I wanted - tender, full of flavour, and with an almost unctuous lip-smacking texture. The use of the same wine that we were drinking by the glass meant that the flavours flowed quite harmoniously from one to the other. We had a lovely dinner with the friend whose camera I used to take these photos - yet another example of my thriving "will exchange food for goods or services" scheme!

At the end of the night - was this Canada to me? Yes - in part. The sheer number of amazing foods and cultural traditions that have taken root in Canada are impossible to cram into one dinner, but this meal reflected some of the cultural sensibilities of my city, the Greek influence of my neighbourhood, and the Canadian willingness to mix up the flavours of our various heritages (European, in my case) into a new and delicious way.

June 22, 2005

Portugese Table Wine

Most familiar for production of its fortified darlings, Port and Madeira, and for its unutterably pedestrian Mateus Rosé, Portugal also produces a huge amount of red and wine table wines. In fact, the fortified wines only make up around 15% of Portugal's total wine production, but account for over 70% of the exports.

Our wine club has overlooked Portugal as a wine-producing country until now - excepting a Port tasting from a while back - so, since Portugal actually ranks 6th in world wine production, it was definitely time to check out the serious table wines.

Portugal is unusual in that most wine is made from indigenous grape varietals, with few of the noble varieties, such as Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon being grown. This makes the resultant wines somewhat harder to market in North America, which is very name-recognition driven. One of the more recognisible wine types produced is Vinho Verde - "Green Wine." While some of them do in fact have a slightly greenish cast, the verde (green) refers to the youth of the wine rather than its colour. Vinho Verde has something in common with Beaujolais Nouveau, in that it is drunk very young and embraces the characteristics of young, mild wines. What I didn't know until researching this tasting, is that Vinho Verde is made in both white and red styles, but that only the white is exported.

We tried two Vinho Verdes - the oh-so-present Gazela (2004), which was very watery in appearance, had a green apple nose and a cidery, apple and lemon flavour with a creamy hint of dairy in the background. At 9% alcohol - typical for a Verde - it was light and refreshing and pronounced suitable for hot days and patio lazing. The second Verde, Casal Garcia Vinho Verde Branco (2004), there was an overall golden tone to the wine that showed in the appearance, on the nose, and on the palate. The scent of dried pears and freshly ground white pepper gave way to a smooth, golden-apple and olive oil palate, again with a sort of cidery feel to it. There was something slightly tropical about it that made everyone speculate about an appetizer of melons wrapped in prosciutto. While everyone enjoyed both wines, it was roundly decided that this slightly smoother wine had the edge over the two.

The one white wine that we tried was the Vallado Vinho Branco (2002), from the Douro region. In my prep notes, the final comment on Douro was that it is not known for its whites. I now know why, if this was anything to go by. Its yellowish color yielded warm tropical fruit on the nose, but it was a closed and relatively difficult scent to extract. The flavours were a catalogue of unpleasant chardonnay-like characteristics: bland, watery, oily and with little fruit. This was the thumbs-down wine of the night.

The reds were a mixed bag. The José Maria de Fonseca, José de Sousa (2000) had an interesting nose of rocks - pyrite, to be more specific, and damp lichen. Its earthy smell could somewhat be attributed to the clay-pot fermentation that is still used in the Alentejo region, but its thin flavours of red plums and cherry pits led us to suspect that the grapes were squeezed for extra yield, to its detriment. It wasn't awful, but it wasn't interesting past the unique fermentation method.

Somewhat better, the Montes Seis Reis Boa Memoria (2003) had an interesting floral quality about it, although it was closed enough that I had to work at the nose. There was a dusty quality and a hint of leather that usually bodes well. The palate was less well developed, with an underripe quality to the fruit flavours, and massive acidity. The flavours were nice, but it was universally agreed that it needed some food to bring out its charms. Going back, at the end of the tasting, I thought that the wine had opened up more, which brought out a nice, dried fig roundness to the taste. At the end of the tasting, this was one of two contenders for Best Wine.

I was quite looking forward to the Quinta de Chocapalha (2002), the only wine we had from the Estremadura region. I had read a favourable review of a previous year, and was curious how it would fare. It showed beautiful colour, garnet, and big, fat legs. The nose brought something I've never encountered in a wine before: bacon. There was a smoky note, which is not uncommon but usually a good sign (in my experience), but the overwhelming scent was that of raw bacon, specifically the fat. I moved on to the palate with literally no expectations, being unsure what that sort of nose could possibly translate to, and was pleased to find a very balanced wine with mixed red fruits and herbs - fresh thyme was mentioned - and a very drinkable easiness to it. This became the other contender for Best Wine.

The final wine of the evening was the Ramos Pinto Duas Quintas Vinho Tinto (2000), from the Douro region. It had a nice dark colour to it, but the nose was oddly metallic. While the José de Sousa had a hint of pyrite in its rocky nose, this wine smelled like freshly scraped copper wiring. The palate was weak on flavour, with a sour tinny quality that was quite off-putting. I would say that this was the least popular of the reds.

In the final analysis, four of the seven wines were rated well - the two Vinho Verdes, in a class of their own, but both enjoyable, and the Boa Memoria and Quinta de Chocapalha were both well regarded. None of the wines cost more than $20, which suggests that Portugal may be the last bastion (next to Sicily) of affordable, tasty wines in Europe.

Previous Tastings:
Pinot Noir
South African Red Wines
Spanish Wines

June 18, 2005

Fun with Photography

I'm trying my hand at digital photography, the better to update you all, my dears. These are the more tolerable of the photos of the ginger snaps that I made for my Dad (which he will get tomorrow).

I hope to be able to update all of the recipes on my site with photos, eventually.

I've added some pictures of the Oatmeal Spice Anythings to the June 16th post below, but I was still getting used to the camera settings, and it shows. Now I'm too tired and too busy to set them up for retakes. Maybe next time I make them, I'll get some spiffier pics.

Posted by Hello

June 17, 2005

Persian cuisine

I’ve been thinking about Persian food, lately. A few weeks ago, we went to Zagros, a small restaurant on Davie street. The quality of the food was exceptional – the dishes that we tried were delicious.

We started with a plate of pickles (torshi), which our server (whom I suspect is the owner) cautioned us were “quite sour.” They were perfectly sour, in my opinion, and sprinkled with a variety of herbs, including dill and sumac. They came with a dish of flat, flexible bread that looked cracker-like in appearance, and a thick, minty yoghurt dip (mastokhiar).

Palle tried the chicken breast kabob with barberries, and found the chicken to be succulent and not at all dry, as chicken breast can sometimes be. Barberries (zereshk) are always a delight, little sweet-and-sour speckles of fruit, glistening like jewels in the rice pilaf. My dish was a subtle combination of boneless lamb chunks with yellow split peas (Ghaimai/Ghaimeh) in a rich, highly scented gravy with a fantastic, lip-smacking unctuousness and a lovely slightly sharp hit of lime juice. I need to learn how to make this, seriously.

The rice pilafs that accompanied our meals were made from basmati rice, but each grain was plump and tender and not at all dry, as sometimes Indian pilafs can be.

We are both eyeing other menu items and are determined to go back soon. There were a number of vegetarian and vegan items that looked intriguing, as well as a range of seafood dishes.

June 16, 2005

Chicken & Veggie One Pan Supper

Here’s another “non-recipe” method-driven supper that I make fairly often in the winter, and from time to time – such as on rainy days – during the rest of the year. It involves a few minutes of chopping and arranging, and then a good solid 45 minutes of ignoring. Then, it’s time to eat! Pour yourself a glass of wine while you lounge around and supper cooks itself. If you're feeling ambitious, you could make a salad during this time.

Chicken & Veggie One Pan Supper

Preheat the oven to 400 F.

Two serving-sized pieces of bone-in, skin-on chicken. Breasts are fine, but I like to use the moister leg-with-thigh-attached. You could also use a package of four or six thighs.
Two cups of hardy vegetables, cut into chunks. Or more, if you can fit them in.

Get a large, oven-proof pan or casserole dish. Spritz lightly with canola oil. Place your chicken pieces, spaced evenly, in the dish. Tumble the chopped veggies in around the pieces of chicken, making sure they are in a single layer. Spritz the whole dish, including the tops of the chicken pieces, very lightly with canola oil. Sprinkle with salt, and add whatever other herbs you might like. I currently fancy ground cumin, smoked paprika, and a little oregano. The herbs will stick to the lightly oiled surface of the chicken and veggies.

Put the pan in the oven, uncovered, and allow to cook for 45 minutes. Dish up and enjoy!

The vegetables will shrink a little as they cook, so you want to make sure you start with lots.

What kind of vegetables work for this?
Sweet Potatoes
Cherry tomatoes (pierce them, but leave them whole)
Mushrooms (cut in half)
Fennel bulb, sliced or chunked
Garlic cloves, whole and peeled
Brussels Sprouts (really! Cut them in half, though)
Pearl onions

I confess that I love the whole roasted garlic cloves so much that I usually go crazy and put a lot of them in. No complaints, so far.

How big should the chunks be? About the size of a cherry tomato, give or take. Garlic is necessarily smaller, but don’t sweat it. Do try for a certain amount of uniformity of size with the root vegetables, though, so everything cooks at the same rate.

Oatmeal Spice Anythings

The "anything" in these cookies can be chocolate chips, raisins, currants, dried cranberries, chopped walnuts, or anything you think a cookie needs. If you don't want to add anything like these, you can make simple Oatmeal Spice Cookies, which are very tasty, too. They aren't as rich as most oatmeal cookie recipes, although if you choose chocolate chips, that will of course add a little fat.

Makes about 3 dozen, depending on size

Oatmeal Spice Anything Cookies

Total prep and cooking time: 45 minutes

1/2 cup butter, softened
3/4 cup granulated white sugar
1/2 cup lightly packed brown sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups rolled oats
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
pinch of salt
1/2 teaspoon each of cinnamon, nutmeg, & allspice
1/4 teaspoon clove

"Anything" options:
as the total is about 1 cup

miniature chocolate chips
chopped walnuts
chopped almonds
dried cranberries
dried blueberries

Preheat your oven to 350 F.

Lightly spray two large cookie sheets with canola oil.

In a medium mixing bowl, cream together the butter and sugars until thoroughly combined. Add the egg and vanilla extract, and cream again. You can do this by hand or with an electric mixer. Pour the oats over the wet mixture. Without stirring, sift the flour, baking powder and baking soda directly over the oats. Sprinkle the salt and the spices over the flour mixture. With a wooden spoon, or on the lowest setting of your mixer, carefully begin to blend everything together. When it is starting to come together, add the one cup of optional extras. Finish combining the ingredients until the optional extras are all even distributed through the cookie dough.

Drop by spoonfuls onto the prepared cookie sheets, leaving room for each cookie to expand a little. Dip your fingers in a little flour, and flatten the cookies slightly. Bake at 350 F for 12-15 minutes, or until light golden. Remove to racks to cool - they will be soft and flexible - downright bendy! - at first, but will firm up as they cool.

June 13, 2005

Procrastination & Egg Whites

I'd never bought a carton of egg whites before. I'd always just separated out a few whole eggs, and put a bowl of leftover yolks in the fridge to make mayonnaise or custard or a pastry-wash. A leftover yolk can be a thickener for soup, an enricher for scrambled eggs, or fulfill many other possible destinies. However, when you're staring down recipe after recipe that calls for egg whites only, it makes sense to try those pristine little carton-packs in the fridge section of the supermarket.

I originally wanted to make a Darjeeling Chocolate Cake from one of Cooking Light's annuals. I still haven't made it. Upon closer inspection, the recipe looks like a pain in the rump, and as I have suffered a few culinary flops lately, I don't feel like going to all that trouble and be disappointed. Now is the time for the tried and true, and the easy and unfussy. Since the egg whites I bought came in a two-pack, each package containing a cup of liquid whites and an expiry date, I was suddenly faced with the need to use up a number of egg whites in a hurry.

Meringue is the easy answer to start with. A batch of chocolate-chip studded meringue cookies now lives in the tupperware by the coffee maker. I'd considered pavlova, too, but that requires something along the lines of timing where both of us would be home to eat it, since it really doesn't keep terribly well. I've been adding egg whites to everything. Subbing out eggs for egg whites in coffee cake, and taking an ill-advised stab at a chocolate banana souffle - ill advised in that I did not have the requisite hardware, and what do you know? Not everything can be rescued with sambal oelek, it turns out. I used egg whites to bind lamb meatloaf, veal patties, and to glaze bread loaves. I've still got about half a cup left.

I probably have enough to make that Darjeeling cake after all, but I think I'm going to wait. There's got to be a reason that I just can't summon the will to get the thing done, and I think I'm going to respect that. I do wish I'd come to this conclusion before buying the egg whites, but at least I've had some fun with them anyway. Who knows what I will end up making with the last of them? Maybe I'll give the famous Hollywood Egg White & Chive omelette a try. Or, then again, maybe not.

June 12, 2005

Search & Rescue

I'm coming to the conclusion that you can rescue almost anything with sambal oelek - as long as you like things spicy.

On the day that I wanted to make a noodle salad recipe I've been eyeing, there was nary an Asian eggplant to be seen. My favourite markets... even some less-than-favourite markets... were barren of anything other than big, glossy Italian globe eggplants, which are just the wrong texture for what I wanted. I searched, and searched, and gave up, crankily wondering about the sudden dearth. Yesterday, after a long and barely fruitful quest, I spied some somewhat limp-looking Japanese eggplants and decided that they were firm enough to use. I finally got down to brass-tacks and mixed up the dressing, boiled up the noodles and roasted the eggplant.

The dressing seemed a little rich, to me, so I scaled back the amount of toasted sesame oil by almost half, subbing out the missing liquid with a little rice wine vinegar. Sadly for me, the end result was still a little oily feeling, and not in the good, lip-smacking way. I concluded reluctantly that I had made some other error along the way, since the recipe's source was impeccable, but I really wasn't sure if I was going to be able to rescue the leftovers. The whole dish was a little under-developed flavour-wise, it seemed, although I could taste the strong sesame oil flavour and remain convinced that I did the right thing to reduce the amount.

We struggled through dinner, a little, with me being fairly unhappy with the salad, and depressed at how large the quantity was of something that I didn't particularly enjoy. It wasn't bad, it was just not quite want I wanted it to be.

Today, faced with an enormous bowl of leftovers in the fridge, I decided to see if I could pep it up a little. Sambal Oelek to the rescue! Well, I did add a little extra soy sauce, too - just to loosen the whole thing and let it act as a carrier to transport the thicker sambal throughout the noodles. I cautiously spooned up some spicier noodles, along with their accompanying vegetables, and tried it. Much improved!

It isn't number one on my hit parade - that still belongs to the spicy somen/soba recipe for fast, easy and delicious - but it certainly will be good for lunches for the next few days. I may julienne some more vegetables to go with - the eggplant is nice, but a few more crisp vegetables would add a pleasing crunch. There's already a small amount of raw carrot and blanched snap-peas, so I may just increase them. I'm thinking that some marinated shiitake mushrooms might be just the ticket, though, and add a small amount of protein to the overall dish.

June 06, 2005

Chicken & Dumplings

There may be few dishes so immediately evocative of homey and soothing comfort than chicken & dumplings. The thing of it is, there are just so very many variations that you cannot necessarily be sure exactly what other people mean when they say those magic words. Magic, because no matter how different one dish is compared to another, they still conjure up the same sort of warm-and-fuzzy feeling of being looked after. Even if you make it yourself.

Recipes range from fatty extraveganzas to more modern, lighter cuisine, from dumplings that resemble short, fat noodles to puffy, fluffy steamed buns that rest on the top of a stew, to perfectly round matzohs. Chicken can be on-the-bone or off, cut into serving-sizes or bite-sized chunks. Liquid can be a broth, a sauce, thick or thin, scant or plentiful. With vegetables, or without. There's really just no way to know.

I made chicken & dumplings for dinner last night. My version, for the record, is a creamy chicken stew (made with a milk-enriched veloute and no actual cream) with boneless, skinless chicken thighs cut into bite-sized pieces, lots of vegetables (mushrooms, carrots, whole garlic cloves, celery, corn, and peas, this time) and big, fluffy, herbed dumplings that are dropped by the spoonful onto the bubbling stew and steamed, tightly covered, for 15 minutes. It is a one-pot meal.

My version is a lot leaner than that of my foremothers: I brown the bite-sized chicken pieces in a smidge of canola oil, sautee the "hard" veggies in sherry, and use a slurry of milk and flour without additional fat to thicken the sauce. The dumplings themselves are fairly lean already, although in recent years I've taken to using chicken schmalz (carefully poured from the pans of roasted chickens past, and stored in a mug in the freezer) instead of canola oil, because the flavour is just phenomenal. Add to that a little chopped parsley and some chopped sage leaves culled from the window-box garden, and you've got a tasty, tasty treat. They can go on beef stew, as well, of course (a little rosemary is nice, there, but with chicken we're getting precariously close to Scarborough Fair dumplings - parsley, sage, rosemary & thyme).

I am a firm believer in layers of flavour, so I add bayleaves and mustard seed and ground thyme to the stew mixture, and I've been known to add a shot of Tobasco sauce, too. I tend to under-salt this when I'm using homemade chicken stock in the sauce, so I have to constantly check it at the different stages of cooking to ensure the right amount. The final garnish is a healthy grinding of black pepper.

We eat a fair amount of chicken, actually. We don't eat a lot of chicken and dumplings, though, and I am not sure why. Maybe it's that I like it to be something of a special treat, and that might fade if served too often. Maybe it's that my repertoire is getting quite large, and it's hard to get anything into rotation on even a monthly basis, unless it's monumentally fast and easy, and while chicken and dumplings is relatively easy, it's not particularly fast. Every time we have it, though, I think to myself "Damn, these dumplings are good. Why don't I have these every week?"

June 01, 2005

Cake in progress

The Apricot Nectar Cake, first edition, came out of the oven last night, and was an immediate flavour success despite a miscellany of obstacles - not the least of which was a decided lack of Apricot Nectar.

Huh? That stuff used to be everywhere, but on the day I actually need it specifically, I can't even find a place-marker for it on the shelf at Safeway. I used to drink the stuff cut with ginger ale, to lighten the thick, fuzzy texture, but I guess I haven't bought any in a while.

I ended up having to settle for an all-juice blend of apple, orange, and peach. The apple juice thinned out the sensation of drinking velvet, which made it perhaps a better beverage, but also made it a thinner texture than I had hoped for (not to mention, different flavour!) for the cake.

Still, I was determined to go forward. The combination of the weaker flavoured juice with the lemon extract, lemon zest, and lemon juice glaze made for a thoroughly citrussy flavour, but my refusal to add yellow food colouring, per many of the recipes I was cribbing from, made for a sort of blandly coloured cake. Not snowy, like a white cake, nor adequately orange to suggest the flavours within. Yellowish beige was the interior of the cake (the fact that I got any colour at all is likely attributed to the yolks of the two free-range eggs) and perhaps a little bit to the zest. The top and sides of the cake took on a nice golden glow, though.

I am reluctant to add food colouring where it is unnecessary, so I have been contemplating alternatives. I have a lovely little container of saffron that was just recently given to me, a gift brought back from the Middle East, and that seems like it might be the way to go: citrus, apricot and saffron all go together delightfully, and it would add a slightly exotic depth of flavour to the cake that appeals very much - at least on paper. Other colour options include Turmeric, which would be effective might probably detrimental to the delicate flavour, more lemon zest, which would have limited effect, or the dreaded bottled colouring.

The pan-size could use fiddling, too. Since I was starting with 2 cups of flour, a 9x9" pan seemed a little small, so I went with a 9x13". The cake did rise to about double its batter volume, but was still fairly short. I am contemplating using a bundt pan for the next attempt - slice-friendly and somehow well suited to the snack-cake oeuvre. I could, of course, give the 9x9" a try, although I suspect that the cake would volcano a bit in protest.

The texture was fairly pleasing - light, much as the buttermilk coffee cake is, but very moist thanks in part to the lemon glaze that is applied while it is still warm (another argument in favour of the bundt). The fat content was a measily 21% (as best I could calculate with the tools at hand, that is) but it doesn't taste like health-food at all.

Overall report? Favourable, with subsequent attempts scheduled to rectify minor defects. Now I just need to source some genuine apricot nectar...