Saturday, January 29, 2011

Starting peppers from seed

Ok, this one is not about cooking. Sometimes, though, you can't buy cool stuff that you would like to cook with. So, you either have to a) give up, b) substitute (sometimes ok), or c) get on with it and grow the damn stuff yourself! This is a post related to c).

In this post, I’ll detail my pepper starting secrets (ooooooh!). It will be a “living document” -- lame work tecno-babble I know, but I couldn't think of anything better. I plan to update it as one stage of pepper growing moves to the next – that way you can get going now. I think this is better than having me wait until all is said and done and posting it all in July when it will be totally useless. So stay tuned for updates!

I’ll be going through a couple of basic stages: 1) seed germination, 2) planting, 3) growing the seedlings, 4) potting on, and 5) getting them outside. This, at least, is the plan, so we’ll see how it evolves…. And don't despair if you think it's too late -- it's not. I start pretty early, but things will still work out if you get moving before the end of February -- that gives you time to order seeds, get them in the mail, and start your odessey into the awesome and cheerful world of chiles! :D They make me smile. Great seed sources include Seeds of Change, Seed Savers Exchange, Seeds of Diversity (but you have to be a member -- like me!), J.L. Hudson -- you should check this cat out anyway, The Pepper Gal, and your local Seedy Saturday!

If you already have seeds, you need to check-out your well organised seed stash and decide what you want to grow. As you can see, my seeds are as well organised as the rest of my life.

There are 5 commonly (ok, 1 is common, and 4 are less-common) grown species of pepper, all of which belong to the genus Capsicum. The species are: 1) annuum: the standard bell peppers, jalapenos, serranos, numex types, poblanos (a.k.a. ancho when dried), etc... 2) chinense: habaneros, scotch bonnets, and their cousins -- once thought to be from China (hence chinense), but actually from South/Central America, 3) baccatum: my favourites -- native of Peru and Bolivia, and often referred to by their aboriginal name: Aji, 4) frutescens: the best known is the tobasco pepper, but a couple of peppers commonly used in China are also of this species, and 5) pubescens: the black-seeded Rocoto chiles of Bolivia that, to me, are the hottest freaking things you can imagine -- to me they are hotter than habaneros, and that's saying something.

If you want to learn more about chiles, I heartily recommend The Pepper Garden by Dave DeWitt and Paul Bosland. Dave is the founder of Chile Pepper magazine (still in circulation!) and Paul is a prof at New Mexico State University and does research and breeding projects on chiles (Paul created the Twilight variety which is, to me, the no-contest most beautiful plant out there). Both Dave and Paul are as enthusiastic about chiles as they are knowledgable. You could also try and find a copy of Jean Andrews's Peppers if you're absolutely consumed by your quest for knowledge about the Capsicums -- or you can just borrow my copy (if you promise to sit and read it in my living room while I watch you to make sure you don't get Doritos prints on my pages).

ANYWAY, lets get the seeds started. This is a pretty simple process. The MAIN thing you need to know is that pepper seeds need heat to germinate (remember this now). Most do best at around 85 degrees. This is next to impossible to achieve in a pot filled with dirt (and even more impossible if you live in Canada), so my big trick is to get the seeds to germinate BEFORE they go into any dirt -- once they sprout, they will keep growing, but the trick is to get them to sprout before you plant them.

To do this, you'll need some Ziploc bags and some paper towel. Put two sheets (the regular sized sheets -- three of those weird skinny ones they've been making lately) of folded paper towel in each baggie and add about 1-2 tablespoons of water (not too much -- just enough to keep the paper moist but not soaking -- I guess it depends on if you use Bounty or not). In the simplest version of this project, you just label your bags (four types of chile fit easily in each one), sprinkle some seeds in there, put them somwhere warm, and wait.

Of course, most houses in Canada have few spots anywhere near 85 degrees in mid-January -- this is the main problem with this whole project. So, you need to find a place for germination. Likely candidates are:

1) anywhere your cat sleeps,

2) on your furnace ducts,

3) on the fluorescent lights you use for keeping your rosemary alive through the winter, 

[sorry, no picture of my belly]

4) I dunno -- use your imagination! On top of the fridge near the back? Somewhere near the woodstove (don't melt the bags!)? Strapped to your belly? The possibilities are limitless!  Just keep them warm.

Now, for the advanced pepper growers out there, you can consider bleach treatments, potassium nitrate soaks, using tri-sodium phosphate to kill viruses, giberellins to break dormancy, etc.... But all this stuff enters pain-in-the-ass territory, so avoid it all if you can! Keep it fun! (But e-mail me if you need help.)

So, here we are. Your seeds are in a warm, moist environment and are getting ready to germinate. This will take a couple of days, but check your Ziplocs every day to look for little roots, and get ready for step 2: Planting...! I think you deserve a great beer now! (And for the purists out there who might point out that I used the wrong glass [*cough-Richard-this-means-you*] all I can say is pffffffffft.)

Next installment: planting.

Sorry... need to do a pre-planting post! You have to get your dirt ready. This is an outside project, since you don't want the dusty gunk that flows out of the pots to go down any of your drains. Small pots are best for the first planting. Those little styrofoam flats that you can buy flowers in are great too -- I just couldn't find mine (I think they're under the snow in the back yard somewhere). Pick a nice, loose potting mix. I'm using an organic one that Miracle Grow has come out with (how could I resist?! Organic AND Miracle Grow!). Just scoop some potting mix into each pot or flat and water it in. Make sure to get the pots back into the house before they freeze onto wherever you watered them. Now you're ready for the seeds when they sprout -- this is preferable to finding that they have already sprouted and being without soil, pots, or both. Next post -- planting!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Coconut bread

Gourmet magazine folded with the November 2009 issue after 68 years in circulation (I have an extra November 2009 issue that I'll sell you for only one million dollars - à la Dr. Evil). I bought Gourmet now and then, but it was an unstable relationship since it was more about being rich and travelling than it was about cooking, so only a few complete issues remain on my bookshelf -- I did tear out lots of pages though. I think the magazine was probably aimed at people who could flip thorough it, dog-ear a couple of pages, and hand it to the help. This may be why it vanished, but I am still astonished when I pass a magazine rack and see stuff devoted to scrap booking, toy soldiers, and quilting -- how these keep going is beyond me (no offence if you happen to be interested in that stuff). You might wonder why I ever bought it at this point, but I got sucked in by the pictures -- especially the awesome table settings.

Anyway, the good editors of Gourmet would throw a bone to us plebes now and then with features like "cooking with five ingredients," or "gourmet on a shoestring" (a Prada shoestring, mind you, but still a shoestring). This recipe comes from the five ingredients feature in the May 2003 issue (one of my torn-out pages). I've been looking for a nice quick-bread to make on weekends so that I can take slices to work through the week. I've had my eye on this recipe for a while (7 years! holy embarassing getting-around-to-itness). The idea is that those slices will keep me from drifting down to the cafeteria and buying the -- I was going to type crud, but that's unfair, how about -- uninspiring offerings they have down there.

By the way, this is a good time for a beer!

This recipe calls for 4 cups of flaked coconut (10 ounces -- I used 14 by accident), 2 cups of self-rising flour, 1 stick of softened butter, 1/2 cup of sugar, and 2 large eggs. See how they cheated there? Self-rising flour?! Who buys that?! All so they can avoid having two more ingredients (namely baking powder and salt). Thankfully, The Joy of Cooking tells us that 1 cup of self-rising flour has 1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon of salt in it. (Write this down, or buy the cookbook -- it's useful!) So, 2 cups of flour means you need to add 3 teaspoons of baking powder and 1 teaspoon of salt too. :D Genius!!

This is a Carribean themed recipe, so I figured a couple of other ingredients wouldn't hurt -- namely rum ... and some currents to soak it up. So, I put a hand full of currants is a bowl with a splash or so of rum to help them plump up. Genius again!

The first thing you need to do is toast the coconut. I couldn't find large flaked coconut that wasn't sweetened, so went for the medium version. The recipe calls for you to toast three cups of it and save 1 cup for later. Heat your oven to 350, spread the three cups on a baking sheet, and pop it in the oven for 25 minutes.

I gave the coconut a stir when there were 11 and 5 minutes left on the timer. I just heaped it all up in the middle and then spread it out flat again for the next go-round in the oven.

While that's happening, you might as well get a batch of zuppa di fagioli on the go. Just sayin'.

When the coconut is toasted, let it cool on a rack for 15 minutes. Drop the oven to 325 too.

Spend that time getting the rest of the batter ready. Put the flour (and baking powder and salt) in a bowl.

Then cream the butter with the sugar in your bad-boy mixer (man, I really think this thing looks cool). For the record, the mixer should be on speed 4 for creaming butter and sugar -- resist the urge to crank it up, or you'll just melt the butter and make a greasy goo. After a few minutes (with the occasional stop to scrape the sides and the paddle) start adding the eggs one by one. Let that slosh around (stopping to scrape again) for a few minutes until it looks nicely blended.

Now you have to grind the coconut up in a food processor. You basically make toasted coconut flour, mmmmm.... The recipe says to process for 40 seconds -- I bailed out after 25 because it looked like I was about to make coconut butter. Good luck getting the coconut in the food processor without making a colossal mess. I am not certain this step is absolutely necessary with medium coconut, but I did it anyway.

Next, you need to mix the coconut (toasted and not toasted) with the flour. Then add 1 cup of water (HA!! A sixth ingredient!!). The recipe says to whisk it in, but only a maniac would stick a whisk in something that thick. In fact, I think it was too thick. Part of the problem may have been that I should have measured the coconut meal before putting it in the bowl -- the recipe calls for 1 1/4 cups after the processing, which may be what large flakes will grind down into, but it is definitely less than the medium ones came out with (I did use a whole 400g bag -- which is more like 14oz than 10oz -- but that's just the kind of guy I am). Luckily, I had a bunch of rum in a bowl that I could dump in, and I added an extra 1/2 cup of water too. This may sound pretty airy-fairy in the directions department, but don't worry -- it's a quick bread! (And if you actually follow the instructions, it probably works.)

Once you have something that seems reasonable (good instructions, eh?) add the eggs, butter and sugar to the batter and stir that around (they still say to whisk it -- crazy).

Get a loaf pan ready by buttering and flouring it.

Then pour (dump) the batter in there and smooth it out a little. My pan was too full, so I scooped out two wooden spoons worth of batter to keep it from overflowing too much. I could have made muffins from the extra, but at this point, and with the zuppa di fagioli on the go (just sayin'), I wasn't interested in getting another pan involved in all this mess.

Slide the loaf pan into a 325 oven for about an hour. The recipe calls for an hour to an hour and 10 minutes, but I think my batter was a little drier than it should be so I started checking at around 50 minutes (i.e. once I had all those freaking dishes cleaned up). In the end it was done at the one hour mark -- check with a toothpick (that comes all the way from China, if you have one -- man, I love that joke).

Take your creation out of the oven and let it cool in the pan on a wire rack for about 15 minutes. Then get it out of the pan and let it cool for another TWO HOURS (good luck waiting that long -- I didn't). Play Legend while you wait ... and stir your zuppa di fagioli (just sayin').

Then get ready for a happy week at work. (It's REALLY good, by the way.)

Peace, brothers and sisters.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Chicken à l'Armagnac

I bought myself a new pot over Christmas, and have been waiting for an oppotunity to properly christen it. Stand back! Here it is!

This recipe comes from Around my french table by Dorie Greenspan and it's as simple as it is delicious. The cookbook is wonderful, by the way (as you can probably guess from all the sticky notes attached to it); it has great photos, inspiring recipes, and nice stories and commentary throughout. My one quibble is the spine of the dust jacket. It has this picture of the author on it, and while I have no doubt that she's a charming person, in the photo it looks like she's peeking out from around a corner. This shouldn't be a big deal, but the cookbook shelf in my kitchen happens to be around a corner, and whenever I walk by I get startled by what looks like a little elf standing there and staring at me.

See?! It gives me the willies! (I know -- just remove the dust jacket. But not so fast, smarty pants: it's the same underneath!) Oh well, a small price to pay for easy access to good eats -- and I suppose we could all use a little startling now and again.

This is another chicken in a pot recipe, and is not all that much different (but different enough, of course). I remember reading a review of this cookbook, and someone complained that there were three, count 'em, THREE, roast chicken recipes in it. Imagine! They're all unique, but I suppose there are people out there who just run around looking for things to complain about. (Actually, I don't suppose, I know it.)

To make this, you need a Dutch oven (you need a Dutch oven regardless). Aside from the chicken, you'll also need about 8 small spuds, 3 roughly chopped onions (I used four leeks, unchopped), two carrots (mine were small, so there are three), a bay leaf, a sprig (or three!) of rosemary, a sprig of thyme (Canada being Canada at this time of year, my thyme is frozen solid under a whack of snow, so I used the dried version -- from the same plant, mind you), and some salt and pepper. You'll also need 1/2 cup of Armagnac. Armagnac is basically a brandy made from a specific set of grapes, so you can substitute brandy or Cognac instead if you like. But don't -- the bottle is WAY too cool!

Heat a splash of olive oil in the Dutch oven over medium heat for a few minutes (and get your regular oven started on the way to 450). Chop the vegetables in chunks that will cook in about an hour. I left the leeks as is, chopped the spuds in half (not so much to ensure they cook, but to ensure that they soak up all kinds of chicken fat and booze -- just sayin'), and split each carrot into three chunks or so. Dump all the vegetables in the pot and stir them around for a few minutes. I think the point here is to get them coated in oil and warm the pot rather than to do any cooking. Add the herbs and give them a stir.

Then push the vegetables to the sides and nestle the chicken into all that goodness. Sprinkle the chicken with salt and pepper. (The recipe calls for white pepper, but I'm fine with little black specks, it also says to rub-in the salt and pepper, but I'm not a big fan of rubbing chickens, so I sprinkle.) Then pour the booze in around the edges (I'm thinking bourbon might be fun to try here some day -- also just sayin'). Let the booze warm up for a couple of seconds, then put the lid on the Dutch oven and fire it into the oven for one hour.

Now you can sit around and guzzle some vino. You can cook some rice too if you want. Or maybe prepare some filet beans and get them ready for steaming. Whatever you like. I spent my time typing in all this crap (and guzzling vino, just so you don't feel too sorry for me).

An hour later, your chicken is cooked and it's time to make some sauce! (Be careful when you open the lid -- there will be lots of boozy steam. The danger lies in getting scaled and/or instantly getting hammered by 1/2 cup of Armagnac vapour.) I have heard that hunger makes the best sauce, but to be honest, sauce is even better! All you need to do (and don't tell your friends, because it's embarassingly simple) is get the chicken out of there, add a cup of water, and stir that around for about 5 minutes over medium heat. (The recipe suggests that you skim the fat off before making the sauce, but I never do that. I expect my lifespan will likely be shortend -- and rendered more awesome -- accordingly.)

A bowl is a good place to put the chicken while you are on sauciere duty. You can cover it in foil to keep it warm, or if you're thrifty and enviro conscious, (and ingenous enough to buy the right sized bowls and pots -- just sayin') you can use your pot lid.

The sauce comes out a little thin, so if you want something gravy-like be prepared to add some cornstarch or flour -- personally, I'd be reluctant to upset the flavour balance with the starch, but the soupy factor can be an issue if you don't have rice on the plate to soak it up.

Serve however you please. You can do the slicing and dicing in the kitchen, or arrange the bird and vegetables on a platter and plunk it all down on the table and serve from there. All that matters is that you enjoy the meal, have fun, and feel thankful that we get to do such things. It's recipes like this that keep me from being vegan ... recipes like this, and bacon.

If you have any leftovers, you're set for sandwiches the next day. And be sure to save the bones for chicken stock. Thanks for joining me on the maiden voyage of my blue pot, and bon appetit!!

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go and watch Starman. Then I'm going to spend the better part of next week saying stuff like "I look like Scott," and "Jenny Hayden," and "What is gas?" and "It's teriffic!", and "Ari-zona." You have been warned.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Winter gardening

Well, it's mid-January, and a young man's thoughts turn to gardening. This may seem a little cheeky, since Mother Nature has barely gotten started on her annual winter ass-kicking. Doubly cheeky since I'm referring to myself, and I'm no spring chicken. It may seem too early to most people to engage in such vernal flights of fancy, but I have some kinds of chile that need to get started soon if I want any peppers out of them, and it's also seed catalogue season, so planning and seed ordering go together like, well, planning and ordering.

My dad was big on gardening and was famous in the neighbourhood for growing these MASSIVE hubbard squashes which my brother and I thoroughly despised since we had to eat them all winter. We were also pretty bummed out at missing Saturday morning cartoons for the sake of pulling and washing carrots, digging up spuds, and the annual moving of 5 yards of manure from the driveway to the backyard. (Although I did earn my first swig of Molson Export via this toil, so there were clearly some benefits.) So, as you can imagine, I stayed far away from soil and seeds until fate landed me a job, and I got paid to do it. This job was at Bellevue House National Historic Site, and I worked there as a "period gardener" in the summers of 1991 and 1994 (during the intervening years I was off in Africa letting snails devour my bean plants -- but that's another story).

At Bellevue House, I worked with a charming fellow named Colin, who was the head gardener (he's in the first picture on the link above). The first day at work, he told me how much Spanish onions made him fart, and we got along famously from then on. The job consisted of planting and tending the historically representative garden and apple orchard, taking people on tours, and spending hours and hours scything the grass (funnily enough I just discovered that I'm cutting the grass in the second picture in that link -- I'm the one in the blue shirt in the back doing it right). That job was Paradise.

Needless to say, I learned a whole bunch about gardening and about heirloom varieties of herbs and vegetables, got a good tan, and gained some interesting perspectives from tourists from all over the world. (Colin's famous way of dealing with the occasional very opinionated visitor was to listen attentively, nod, and say "You may be right!" A tool I still find to be very effective, and which I have passed on to my girls.)

ANYWAY, all that to say I like gardening now, and I have a particular fondness for old varieties of plants that have a bit of a tale to tell. My gardening philosophy is to grow stuff that:

a) I can't buy (epazote, chervil, tarragon, Mexican oregano, cavalo nero kale)
b) that I can buy, but sucks if it comes from a store (bay laurel, most herbs, lettuce, arugula)
c) is rare and/or neato (crimson flowered fava beans, trout beans, Egyptian onions, Aji chiles)
d) I have been keeping going since I worked at Bellevue House (costmary, lovage, sweet cicely)
e) is just plain fun or cool (ginkgo trees, horseradish, spuds, garlic, Painted Lady runner beans)
f) is nice to be able to just go out and grab for cooking or eating out of hand (thyme, tomatoes, radishes)
g) will keep me from dying, ever (sage)

To be honest, I didn't realise I had such a detailed philosophy. Note that this is different from my daily philosophy that comes from "'Cause I'm a blonde" and which goes like this: I know lots of people are smarter than me, but I have this philosophy, "So what?". I also now realise why I can never manage to fit everything into my two eight foot by eight foot garden beds.

So here's my plan for this year. I grew out my funky favas and stupendous spuds last year, so will give some space over to the sqash family (in particular some red kuri squash that I sought-out after reading a recipe that called for it -- this may in fact be the longest recipe I have ever made: "Step one: eight months before you make this soup, go order some red kuri squash seeds.") Herbs cover the edges of the garden beds, but some may need a little taming (if you need some tarragon, horseradish, Egyptian onions, or costmary let me know!). I am also planning to avoid the tragedy of slugs I suffered last summer by getting more plants started indoors so they have enough of a head start to get ahead of the little slimy bastards (bless their souls). We'll see! And I plan to divulge my pepper seed starting secrets very soon, so stay tuned!

So that's the plan. I won't stick too it, mind you, and the garden will be in total chaos before you can say "There were a bunch of plants on sale at Home Depot!" but it's fun to imagine it in the depths of winter anyway. If you're interested in some cool places to look for plants or seeds, I can recommend Richters for herbs, and for vegetables the Seed Saver's Exchange and Seeds of Change. And if you're super keen, be sure to check out Seeds of Diversity for a Seedy Saturday near you!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Winter Salad

It can be tough to "eat your greens" this time of year, especially if you happen to have locavore tendencies and live in Canada. Not that I have anything against meat, mind you, I just get that verge-of-scurvy feeling every now and then and need to come up with some kind of fresh veggie dish fast.

This one comes from Olives & oranges (the irony is thick following the locavore comment above, I know) by Sara Jenkins and Mindy Fox. How could I resist a cookbook by someone named Mindy? I also like how the subtitle is "Recipes & flavor secrets from Italy, Spain, Cyprus & beyond" -- very Buzz Lightyear. It happens to be very nice, with great photos and some inspiring recipies like this one, which was called winter root salad with English farmhouse cheddar. Don't worry if you're low on English farmhouse cheddar (or roots for that matter) -- you can make do like me.

The recipe calls for half a small red cabbage (which I had), a celery root and some radishes (which I didn't), two carrots (which I did), an apple (ditto), and some parsley (you know me and parsley -- I skipped it). You'll also need some salt, pepper if you like, and some fine vinegar and olive oil. If you want a little garnish, some toasted pepitas or pecans would be a nice addition.

I hauled out my trusty mandoline for this job, since the cabbage needs fine slicing and the other vegetables need to be julienned (you can grate them if you don't have a trusty mandoline). Slice the cabbage first. This one has been rolling around in the bottom of my fridge since October which, if you ask me, is totally awe inspiring.

My mandoline comes with these little combs that can be put in for making julienned vegetables. I went with the 4mm comb, and sliced up the carrots next. (This is a good way to get rid of the big fat carrot they usually stick in the bag somewhere.)

Put the carrots and cabbage in a bowl and add about 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt and mix it all around with your hands. Let that sit for around 5 minutes while you do the other stuff. If you use celery root and radishes they should be put in the bowl at the same time as the cabbage and carrot. The salt will season them, and wilt them a little so they aren't so raw and crunchy.

Next in should be your cheese. The recipe says to crumble in about 5 oz of old cheddar. I didn't have any, so I grated up some pecorino romano instead (oops, locavore goes out the window!).

Finally, put your julienned apple in there (pick a tart one if you can like a Mac or russet or Granny Smith) and add 4 tablespoons of olive oil and 2 tablespoons of wine (or, if you're like me, sherry) vinegar. Mix it all up with your hands, but not too much or the cabbage will make everything all purple, and...

...serve! Those are good eats, and it shore is purty! Scurvy has been kept at bay for another day!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Spice bread

This recipe comes from a cookbook called Crave by Ludo Lefebvre. There were several irresistable things about this cookbook: the name, the author's name, the photos, and the fact that it was supposed to cost $65 but was on for 10 bucks in a remainders bin. Choice! It's a pretty frou-frou cookbook, but has some great recipes if you want to impress people with something off the charts (my only sea urchin recipe is in here, for example). This means of course, that it's a little thin on day-to-day fare. However, I did spy this cool spice bread on the first flip through it (pain d'epices in the book, but I never like the idea of a recipe that starts with "pain"). What prompted me to finally cook it was my neighbour. He stopped by yesterday to wish me a happy New Year, and gave me a piece of Carribean fruit cake. It was SO good that I had to make more of it today. I'll hit them up for their recipe at the next opportunity, but for now, this one will fill the gap (and it rocks, too!).

You need a whole whack of ingredients to pull this off, several of which I didn't have on hand. But have no fear! Wing it! You'll need several spices (2 teaspoons of ground cinnamon, 2 teaspoons of ground star anise, 1 teaspoon of ground nutmeg, 1/2 teaspoon of ground cloves, and 1/4 teaspoon of ground cumin), there's also some orange and lemon peel in there (the recipe calls for 1 tablespoon of orange zest and 2 teaspoons of lemon zest: I'm fresh out of both -- damn bourbon sours! -- but I did have some dried peel to substitute), about 1 1/3 cups of mixed nuts (I used almonds and pecans), 1/3 cup of raisins (mine were kind of dry so I soaked them in rum -- smart, eh?), and 1/3 cup of candied fruit (I didn't have any, but did have some currants and dried pears that I used instead). You'll also need some rum, honey, flour, and baking soda. Nice list!

I have a coffee grinder that is devoted to spice duty. Grind the orange and lemon peel (if you use dried) with the cloves, star anise, and cumin. I had some ground cinnamon on hand (grinding it fresh is a pain). By the way, the recipe calls for Ceylon cinnamon which I do happen to have, if you only have the regular one I'd drop it down to 1 teaspoon. I also grind my nutmeg separately in a little nutmeg grinder that looks like a pepper mill.

After all that grinding, you should have a nice pile of spices. Add 1/2 teaspoon of salt to the pile. (You could probably avoid most of the above hassle with a tablespoon or two of Chinese five spice powder, but where's the fun in that?!)

Whisk the spices into 1 1/2 cups of flour.

Then start chopping the nuts and fruit. The currants and raisins were ok as is, but the pears needed some chopping. Take your time with this: you want nice small pieces. Play some tunes, pour a beer, and enjoy the chopping time. (I started soaking the raisins in rum at the start of the recipe, then I dumped them -- rum and all -- into the other fruits so they could all get to know each other.)

Now you need to make a syrup. Mix 1 1/4 cups of water with 3/4 cup of honey and half a cup of sugar in a saucepan. Add two tablespoons of rum too (or, if you're inclined to excess like some people I *cough* know, then scoop out a tablespoon of water and add an extra one of rum). Start heating your oven to 325. Bring they syrup to a boil. Ludo says to do this over high heat, but I know that molten syrup is no friend of the inattentive, so I recommend heat 8 max.

Once your syrup starts to bubble, pour it (careful!) into the flour and spices and mix all that up.

Then work in the fruit. Then the nuts. (You may need to start a new beer by now.)

And finally, add 1 tablespoon of baking soda and mix that in too.

Pour the batter into a greased loaf pan. Then discover that your loaf pan is too small (I have been burned by putting too much batter in a loaf pan before -- not this time, sukka!). So, drag out a muffin tin, grease a couple of the forms, and pour the rest of the batter in there. If you do this, fill the other muffin forms with water. I read once that this helps keep the pan from distorting or blowing up or something. The water can't hurt while baking, so why not? (It does make extracting the muffins a bit of an adventure later, but who can't use more adventure?!)

Pop it all in the oven.

Your muffins should be done in 35 minutes (mine were anyway, and since this is the first time anyone ever made pain d'epices muffins, you'll have to trust me -- or you could check at 20 minutes with a toothpick and go from there). Getting the muffins out of a tray full of water is a trick. Here's the trick. Just do a little twist after you grab, and they come out just fine.

The bread is done after 55 minutes total (or after your toothpick comes out clean) -- i.e. 20 minutes after the muffins come out. Give it 5 minutes to cool in the pan, then turn it out on a wire rack to cool completely before you try to slice it. And guess what? It is smokin'! If you like dark fruitcake, or like to go "WOWZA!" when you eat something, then this should be right up your alley. Personally, I'll take this kind of pain any day.