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We Wintervaled

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Last weekend my nieces came down from North Tipperary to join in Winterval festivities, which are happening all over Waterford City. As Maeve is much too small to really get what’s happening, having our 7 and 10 year-old girls over was a lot of fun and really got us into the Christmas spirit! I mentioned in my last post how wonderful Ireland is at this time of year. There may not be any snow on the ground, but the way the towns, villages and cities are decorated and the shops are set up leave you feeling all warm and fuzzy. I feel so blessed to have such a large family of in-laws here – it really takes away the sting of being away from Cape Breton and my parents/brothers/nieces/sisters-in-law/aunties/uncles and cousins (I have a pretty big family too!).

Aside from the monumental task of baking I always set for myself, I have been taking the time to enjoy our first Christmas in Ireland as a little family. Maeve may only be four months old, but she seems to sense something special is going on. She met Santa with her cousins (not a tear was shed!) and has put up with the ridiculous outfits I’ve been shoving her arms and legs into. For being such awesome parents, we are rewarded daily with beaming, gummy smiles, little baby chuckles (as she dreams of nice things) and ferocious playfulness (she cries hard and she plays hard).

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So last Sunday we bundled her into her sling and set of to explore what Winterval had to offer, nieces and sister-in-law in tow.

We started at Greyfriars’ Municipal Art Gallery and had a look at some of the paintings and photographs on display. There were some fluffy floor pillows strewn around and the girls had fun playing in them while we looked at the art. I loved the different paintings and photos of Waterford through the years – there is so much history in this small city and I’m constantly learning new things about my adopted home.

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We went to Reginald’s Tower next, hoping to catch some of the storytelling that was going on, but we were a bit too early. No problem; we were able to enjoy the tower free of admission that day. We climbed to the top, stopping on each floor to see the many artifacts on display and watched a film about the history of Waterford and the tower, which is well over a thousand years old.

After the tower, we stopped at The Reg, where the girls had a hot chocolate while watching a Christmas movie and we adults sipped hot, mulled wine and had a quiet chat. I think The Reg has the right idea – keeping the kids occupied for a little while so the adults can rest their feet and have a nice drink. I fed Maeve and then we were on our way to the horse drawn sleigh, which I had booked a few days prior.

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The sleigh was running a bit behind schedule due to traffic, so we went across the street to the museum and Bishop’s Palace. The Singing Christmas Tree was located behind the palace, so we listened to some lovely Gaelic songs and carols from the male singing group Cor Fear na nDeise. We made our way back to the horse drawn sleigh and this time they were ready for us. We had a fun, bumpy, entertaining ride through the city.

Finally, we made our way to the city center where the Christmas Carousel is set up. Patrick and I took the baby to No. 9 Café for a cup of tea while the girls had a ride on the carousel.

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We had a full, busy day but there is so much more to see, do and take advantage of. After Christmas, we’ll be making our way to the skating rink for an evening of ice skating.

The kids had so much fun, but maybe just as importantly, so did the adults. I’m so proud to reside in such a proactively festive city. Well done to all involved!

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Meringue Christmas Trees

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Christmas is a special time of year; I’m sure you’ve heard it all before. I love Christmas at home in Cape Breton – the perfect, white snow on the ground, lots of visitors coming around for tea and cookies, church on Christmas Eve (more of a social event than a religious gathering), and the Christmas cheer that never seems to stop flowing. Christmas in Ireland is a different kind of wonderful. Instead of snow we have lush, green fields. At dinner we have both ham and turkey (all at once; can you believe it?!). After mass on Christmas Eve, the congregation largely moves onto the pub for a quick pint or two before going home to family and gifts. Different, but still lovely.

The best Christmas I can remember was when I was six years old. I got nearly everything I asked Santa for – a crayola craft kit, a barbie you can take into the bath and dress in foam and, the best gift of all, a kitten I called Belle (I also got Beauty and the Beast that Christmas). Belle would live for nearly 22 years, making her my longest-running and most-loved Christmas gift. She was a wonderful pet.

A Christmas tradition I will always treasure are my mom’s amazing Christmas cookies. She would keep the frosted beauties in the fridge – they were amazing eaten cold – and would use almond extract in her buttercream, which I loved. Now that I’m the mom, I think about the Christmas traditions I want to start with my kids and baking cookies is obviously very high on the list.

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These sweet meringue treats are the perfect snack for Santa to have with his glass of milk on Christmas Eve. Like a real Christmas tree, no two meringue trees are alike – some are even Dr. Seuss-esque! This is such a fun recipe to do with your kids over the weekend. All you need is a large piping bag and a large (4B or 6B is good) star piping tip. I got mine at the cook shop in Ballymaloe – that shop has amazing professional cookware! *On that note, if anyone knows of a place in Waterford to find great cooking supplies, please let me know.

It’s important not to over-mix your meringue when making these little guys. You don’t want all kinds of air bubbles in the meringue; you’re looking for a velvety, smooth mixture that can hold its shape. It’s also important not to open the oven door once they’re in – like, don’t open it even for a second. You want them to bake evenly and then dry out, which is why both the baking and the cooling process take place in the oven.

Enjoy!

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Meringue Christmas Trees

Ingredients:

4 egg whites, at room temperature

3/4 cup confectioner’s sugar, sifted

1/4 tsp cream of tartar

1 tsp vanilla, almond or mint extract

Christmas sprinkles (I found these ball shapes at Lidl)

Dark green food colouring

Directions:

  • Preheat your oven to 200 degrees (90 degrees Celsius, no fan). Line a cookie sheet with parchment and set aside. Fit your large piping bag with the large star tip and set aside.
  • Using a hand mixer or stand mixer fitted with a whisk, whisk the egg whites and cream of tartar on medium until frothy. Then, slowly start adding the sifted confectioner’s sugar by the tablespoonful until the 3/4 cup is in the egg white mixture.
  • When the meringue mixture has reached the desired consistency (holds its own shape, is velvety and smooth with no lumps or big air bubbles), turn off the stand mixer. Using the whisk, incorporate the flavouring and green food colouring by hand until everything is mixed together well.
  • Fill the piping bag with the green meringue. Twist the top of the piping bag, closing it up.
  • Holding the piping bag where you twisted it, gently pipe 3 stars on top of each other, each one slightly smaller than the last, until you’ve made something that looks like a tree. You can make them bigger, but this will make a nice 1-2 bite meringue. Repeat this process until you’ve filled the baking sheet.
  • Sprinkle the trees with the holiday sprinkles until they’re evenly covered. Place the cookie sheet on the oven’s center rack, close the door and set a timer for two hours.
  • After two hours, turn off the oven without opening the door. Leave the meringues in the oven to cool and harden for an additional two hours. Store in an airtight container until you’re ready to serve!

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Orange & Dark Chocolate Shortbread

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Does Christmas even exist without shortbread cookies?

Even though there isn’t any snow on the ground, even though I won’t be slurping down my Dad’s famous seafood chowder this Christmas Eve and even though I won’t be sipping brandy-spiked eggnog with my Mom, I can still make these delicious, tender shortbread cookies and instantly transport to Christmas-land.

I grew up on Scottish-style shortbread, made in one large tin, pricked with a fork, sprinkled with sugar and cut into wedges. While tasty, I was never enamored by the texture which was thick, heavy and (depending on the baker) sandy. When I started culinary school, we made shortbread cookies in my pastry class that we sandwiched between some lemon curd and dusted with powdered sugar. They melted in my mouth and changed my life forever.

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So what did I take away from this class? A few tips:

  • Like a pie dough, you don’t want to work the gluten in the flour too much, nor do you want an under-mixed, sandy-textured mess of a dough. Somewhere in between those two extremes is ideal.
  • Some recipes call for just sugar, flour and butter while others call for sugar, flour, butter and cornstarch. A solution that works for well for both recipes? Use confectioner’s sugar instead of granulated. It contains cornstarch and will result in a light and tender cookie.
  • Roll out the dough between two sheets of waxed paper. If you don’t have any, roll out the dough on a surface lightly sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar instead of flour. This ensures your cookies won’t dry out and crack.

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This recipe uses orange rind for flavour. Then, when all are baked and cooled, each cookie is dipped halfway into a bowl of melted dark chocolate. You don’t want to skimp on the quality of the chocolate here – at least 70% cocoa is recommended! The result is a delicious, tender, melt-in-your-mouth Christmas cookie that isn’t too sweet and will be a great accompaniment to that glass of eggnog on Christmas Eve (don’t forget the brandy).

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Orange & Dark Chocolate Shortbread Cookies

Ingredients:

1 cup salted butter, softened

3/4 cup confectioner’s sugar, sifted

2 cups AP flour, sifted

Rind of one orange

Pinch of sea salt

2 bars (about 300 grams) good quality dark chocolate

Directions:

  • Preheat your oven to 325 degrees (160 degrees Celsius, no fan). Line a baking tray with parchment.
  • With a hand mixer cream together the butter, sifted confectioner’s sugar, salt and orange rind. You want this mixture to be light, pale and fluffy.
  • Sift the flour over the creamed ingredients. At this point I trade in the hand mixer for my hands. I mix the flour in gently while working the dough until it’s at a consistency where I can shape it into a ball.
  • Chill the dough for 30 minutes.
  • On a surface gently sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar (or using the waxed paper), roll out the dough to 1/4 inch thickness.
  • Cut out cookies (use whatever kind of cutter you want – I went for a good ol’ circle because I gave away my cookie cutters before we moved to Ireland). You can prick the cookies with a fork to avoid air pockets or let them and the air pockets be – your preference.
  • Bake for 15-18 minutes. You don’t want them to be golden brown or anything – the paler the better when it comes to shortbread.
  • When the cookies are baked and cooled, melt the dark chocolate in a glass bowl placed over a pot of simmering water. You don’t want the chocolate to be super hot – when you dab some on your lip you want it to be slightly warmer than body temperature. Add in some unmelted chocolate to help it cool, if necessary.
  • Set up some parchment or waxed paper on a flat surface. Dip the cookies in the tempered chocolate, removing any excess, and place on the parchment to cool and harden.
  • Store the cookies in an airtight container for up to a week, or freeze them before dipping in chocolate for as long as you want.

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Buttermilk Pancakes

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I’m typing this post in our sitting room, where the fire is blazing and our tree is sparkling with their white fairy lights. It’s been a great weekend so far, we’ve just been sticking around the house, getting things prepared and organized for the holiday season. Next weekend, the nieces will make the trek down and we’ll spend the day doing Winterval activities, which are happening in downtown Waterford for nearly the whole month. Santa needs to be visited and maybe we’ll be able to squeeze in a sleigh ride or two.

Today, though, I’m just enjoying having the day to catch up on baking (chocolate meringues, brioche rolls and loaves, two types of cookie dough and some homemade eggnog) while Patrick keeps track of our increasingly mobile child. Four months is an interesting age (putting it lightly). Cognitive growth spurt+physical growth spurt+teething. It’s a crazy, emotional time for all of us, but mostly for Maeve. Poor pet.

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On Sundays we like to skip breakfast and have a big brunch at around 11. Earlier, Patrick went to the gym while the bebe and I hung out and nursed on the couch. When Patrick came home, he had two bottles of maple syrup, a newspaper and some maple smoked rashers with him – it was his subtle way of asking if I’d make pancakes for brunch. And of course, I did. I’ve yet to turn down a gift of maple syrup.

These pancakes are my tried, tested (time and time again) and true recipe. They’re just the way I like them – fluffy, soft. with a very slight sweetness and chew to them. They’re perfect with smokey bacon, pure, sweet maple syrup or – if you have them – blueberries. I didn’t have any berries today, but Patrick didn’t mind.

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Buttermilk Pancakes

Ingredients:

2 cups AP flour

3 Tbsp sugar

1 Tbsp baking powder

1/2 tsp salt

1 1/2 cups buttermilk

1 tsp vanilla

1 egg

1 Tbsp melted butter

Directions:

  • In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt.
  • In a large measuring cup, whisk the buttermilk, egg and vanilla.
  • Add the wet ingredients to the dry and mix until everything is incorporated. Don’t overdo it or you’ll have rubbery pancakes!
  • Fold in the melted butter.
  • Heat a nonstick pan or electric griddle on medium or medium-low, depending on how hot your stove top gets.
  • Add a bit of butter to the pan and wipe away the excess with a paper towel – you just want a tiny little bit of grease in the pan.
  • Pour pancake batter into the heated pan by the ladle-ful. Cook on one side for 30 seconds to a minute – you’ll know it’s ready to flip when the top of the pancake is covered with little bubbles that are popping. Flip and cook on the other side for another minutes (don’t mess with it too much for best results, just let it sit and cook).
  • Serve with hot tea, maple syrup and crispy bacon, rashers, sausages or fresh fruit and whipped cream.
  • Makes six large pancakes.

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How I Celebrated Rhône Wine Week in Ireland

Last week was the first ever Rhône Wine Week in Ireland, celebrating all things Côtes du Rhône. I couldn’t have been happier; this region in France has long been my favourite wine appellation. I’m no expert by any means, but I like that these wines tend to be delicious whether you’re pairing them with food or drinking them on their own. The grapes used in this region – Syrah (or Shiraz) and Grenache, to name a couple, make flavoursome and full bodied wines.

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When I found out La Bohème in Waterford was planning a Winemaker’s Dinner showcasing one Côtes du Rhône winery in particular, I booked my sister-in-law to babysit and secured a table for me and Patrick. The menu, consisting of five courses (including an accompanying glass of wine), was a steal at €50 per person and sounded delicious.

The star winery that evening was the Domaine de la Citadel located in Luberon. Their winemaker, Cyril Delvalat, was there to present his wines and came to each table during each course to discuss the wine and why it was chosen for the particular dish it accompanied. He was extremely friendly and clearly loves what he does (who wouldn’t love that job?). His wines were gorgeous and have inspired us to plan a trip to France sometime in the not-too-distant future. It should be noted that this was the first time any Domaine de la Citadelle wines were ever showcased in Ireland.

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The dinner started out with French farmhouse cheese gougères which were waiting on the table when we arrived – gooey and warm, as they should be. We were offered artisanal bread and then our salmon course was brought out – a trio of smoked, cured and tartare alongside a carpaccio of Dunmore East scallop.

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The third course was a generous portion of roasted monkfish, du puy lentils, glazed shallot and a buttery herb sauce. You can easily overcook monkfish to the consistency of rubber. Happily, I sliced through my serving as if it were made of butter.

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The fourth course featured local venison prepared two ways – a pithivier with wild mushrooms and roasted loin with crème de cassis sauce. This was my favourite course of the evening. The loin was cooked perfectly and was so very tender (you can see the fork marks in the photo!).

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For dessert, we were brought an entrement of hazelnut and chocolate. A base of chewy nougat was a great offset to the chocolatey mousse and we even got a dollop of mocha ice cream on the side. We took home a goody bag with information and maps of the region and the Domaine de la Citadelle (also: an awesome, bright red apron).

Out of the four wines we tasted my two favourites had to be their Les Artemes white (2011) which was sprightly, citrus-ey and went perfectly with the salmon course and the Le Gouverneur Saint Auban red (2009) that accompanied our venison.

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Rhône Wine Week Ireland also had daily competitions on Twitter – I won a lovely cookbook featuring world cuisine to pair with Rhône wines (go me!). I’m already looking forward to next year.

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