February 29, 2012

Venice and Food


My sister Claire and her husband Alex were lucky enough to spend this past Christmas in Venice. Every year Alex’s family gets together for the holidays in an exotic locale. Since Claire joined the family they’ve gone to India, Syria and Rome – J and I happily got to tag along on that last trip for Christmas 2010.

They liked Rome so much that it was back to Italy this year. Claire has been to Venice before, but never for so long a stay, and they all had a fantastic time. (The photos of Venice in this post were taken by them.)


I feel that in a small way, I got to visit Venice too, through the pages of the wonderful book they gave J and I as a Christmas gift: Venice and Food.

Part artbook, part cookbook and part history book, Venice and Food is a fascinating and beautiful read. It’s written by an American woman, Sally Spector, who’s lived in Venice since the 1980s, and it was first published in 1998. There is an Italian version as well, and we’re not sure which book is the translation. Claire saw both of them in the store where she bought it and neither had translation credits. Perhaps the author wrote them both.


The book takes you through the history of Venice’s food culture, made up of sections of Venetians’ major food groups: Rice, Grain and Pasta, Polenta, Fish, Vegetables, Spices, and Sugar and Sweets. The book opens with an essay on Cicheti, which are Venetian appetizers or snacks, and another on how Venetians through history have accessed their fresh water. Through her writing on how the food of the Veneto region has been grown, raised, caught, made, and sold throughout history, the author tells the story of how Venice eats now and ate throughout the ages.

There are stories about how the fork came to Italy, how a winged lion became the symbol for Venice, and how the many guilds, or scuoli, for food vendors or producers in Venice were founded and their many regulations.


One thing that makes this book so special is the fact that it’s completely hand-lettered and illustrated by the author. It is rare to see such books these days. The drawings range from full 2-page scenes of Venetian street life, to different types of vegetables and shellfish, to replicas of historical machines and sculptures that have to do with food. The hand-lettering gives the book an intimate feel, as though you’re reading along in someone’s private journal. I think that’s what made me feel like I was really visiting Venice.


There are also nearly 50 recipes for authentic Venetian dishes. I haven’t tried any of them yet, and some are definitely a little too authentic to attempt here in Edmonton – like Cuttlefish Stewed in its Ink or Rice with Castrated Lamb – but several of them have caught my eye. I’d love to try the Pasta e Fasioi (Pasta and Bean Soup) and the Risi e Bisi (Rice and Peas), one of Venice’s most famous dishes.


Venice and Food would make a fantastic gift for anyone interested in food, culture, travel, or Italy, especially those who have visited or are planning to visit Venice. I definitely hope to go there myself one day, all the more after reading this.

February 4, 2012

Gluten-free spice cake


Lately I’m making this great little spice cake a lot around here. It really resembles a quick bread more than a cake. I think of it as a snack rather than a dessert, though it’s sweet enough to round off a winter meal nicely too. Though I haven’t tried this (since we still don’t own a toaster after chucking our gluten-filled one ages ago), a slice of this cake would probably be great lightly toasted with a smear of butter and a drizzle of honey to jazz it up.

I like it plain and simple, packed in my lunch at work or just eaten around the house when I’m craving something small and tasty, but also nutritious. J is a big fan of it too, which always counts for a lot in my book. I don’t really enjoy making things if he doesn’t want to eat them too.


The recipe is very adaptable, and I really like the fact that it includes some fruit or vegetable to make it all the more healthful. It’s very easy to throw together, and I usually have all the ingredients on hand. But the most convincing argument to make this cake is that it’s so tasty. It’s moist with a deep flavour thanks to the spices, and I really like the crunchiness of the nuts throughout. The texture is also beautiful: tender but not too crumbly. It doesn’t fall apart as soon as you slice it, but stays together firmly.  I know this is a cliché, but this is one of those baked goods that no one would ever guess is gluten-free.  


After months of procrastinating, I finally did up our new household budget for the next three months. It’s a bit sobering, but also really nice to know exactly where all of our money is going. I’m definitely on a tighter grocery budget than I was before, which means I’m trying to be really creative with the cheapest, yet most wholesome ingredients possible.

Making rather than buying gluten-free snacks is a big part of this. Not only is it cheaper, but they usually taste better, and you know exactly what’s in them. My goal is to start regularly making bread and crackers so we don’t have to buy them anymore. I’ve starting experimenting with homemade crackers, and I think I’ve figured out the perfect recipe. It might need a few more little tweaks, but I promise to share it here soon.

As for sweet baked treats, they’re something I also like to have on hand as often as I can. For that reason I try not to make them too decadent, so we don’t have to feel guilty eating them. I always bake with whole grains and I often use less sugar than a recipe calls for.

This spice cake is based on a recipe from one of my favourite blogs – 101 cookbooks. It’s always a good place to go if you’re looking for cooking inspiration. I really appreciate that Heidi includes weights in her baking recipes, which makes them much easier to convert to gluten-free. This cake converted beautifully, as most quick breads do.

A few notes about the recipe: I used the gluten-free flours listed below because it’s what I had on hand. Feel free to experiment or use your favourite mix. To get the most consistent results, use a scale to make sure you keep the same total weight of flours I used. I prefer a ratio of about 70 percent whole grain flours to 30 percent starches, but it’s up to you.

If you don’t have any garam masala, don’t let it deter you from trying this. This Indian spice blend is usually a mixture of black pepper, cloves, cumin seeds, and cardamom seeds, so you could try it with a bit of each. Maybe not too heavy on the cumin. I ran out of both cinnamon and garam masala the last time I made this, so along with what I had left of those spices, I added some ginger, allspice and cardamom. Still awesome.

And finally, I’ve baked the cake with bananas and sweet potato with delicious results. I haven’t tried it with squash yet, though that’s what the original recipe calls for so I’m sure it would be great too. Depending on how sweet you want it, you could add a little more sugar if you’re using squash since it’s generally not as sweet as bananas or sweet potato.


Gluten-free Spice Cake
adapted from this recipe

1/4 cup / 35 g brown rice flour
1/2 cup / 60 g sorghum flour
3 Tbsp / 25 g millet flour
1/4 cup / 28 g tapioca starch
2.5 Tbsp / 22 g sweet rice flour 
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon garam masala
1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup  packed + 1 Tbsp. / 115 g brown sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 cup / 130 g ripe mashed bananas, cooked mashed sweet potato, or roasted pureed winter squash
1/4 cup / 60 ml milk or water
1/2 cup / 115 g vegetable oil or melted butter
1/3 cup / 30 g chopped almonds or walnuts

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a loaf pan that’s about 9x5x3 inches. (As you can see in the photos above, I’ve used two sizes of loaf pan and they both work fine.)

Whisk together the dry ingredients in a medium-sized bowl. In a separate bowl, mix together the brown sugar, eggs, banana or sweet potato or squash, milk or water, and oil until blended.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry and fold together until there are no floury patches. Mix in most of the nuts. Pour the batter into the pan and sprinkle the rest of the nuts on top.

Bake the cake for 50 to 60 minutes, until the edges have browned and the centre of the cake is set. You can test for doneness using a skewer or toothpick inserted into the middle – it should come out clean.

This cake keeps well on the counter for a few days, wrapped in plastic wrap or stored in an air-tight container.