Olive Oil Ricotta Cake with Italian Prune Plums and Whipped Mascarpone Cream

Olive oil ricotta cake

At long last, a recipe!  I am particularly excited to share this cake with you as it is everything I love in a dessert. It is dead simple to make, uses some lovely seasonal fruit (in the form of Italian prune plums) and some unusual ingredients (in the form of ricotta and olive oil) that people don’t usually associate with dessert. It is rustically beautiful to the eye. It feels perfect for these final days of summer, early days of fall.

Our plum tree in the garden has just a few deep purple, jewel-like plums left on its gnarled old branches. Most of the plums were picked by family and friends although a good number were pilfered by the local Italian gentlemen who pass by the tree on their way to play bocci in the park, just down the street. When caught in the act (one guy had a cardboard box that he was busily filling up) they smile sweetly and murmur something about being friends with the owner or that they (or their brother or their uncle) planted this very tree, so many years ago. In my neighbourhood the plums and figs, grapes and tomatoes growing in the private gardens are always seen as public property. As I am generally open to sharing I tend to think of this as a somewhat charming yet quirky aspect to living just off of Commercial Drive.

We have a big bowl of plums on the counter in the kitchen and while I love to eat them out of hand, make plum preserves or a plum tart my very, very favourite way to enjoy them is to make this olive oil and ricotta cake. Be sure to use a good quality, extra virgin olive oil and, if you are feeling up for it, you can even make your very own ricotta.  This year’s plums from our tree have been a bit on the tart side and I think that is what makes them such the perfect compliment to the rich and moist cake, but feel free to toss them with a drizzle of honey if you like things a bit sweeter. Served with a dollop of whipped mascarpone cream, this is one of the best desserts ever.

The prune plums should be around for at least another couple of weeks, depending on your neighbourhood. Make this cake before they are gone for another year!




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A Trip to Italy with Messors

Masseria La Selva

Hello again at long last!

I can’t believe how much time has passed since my last post and honestly I had no intention of staying away from here for so long.

After a wonderful trip to Paris where we hosted our 2nd annual culinary tour, I set off for Italy to volunteer for three weeks at an art restoration workshop at a masseria (farmhouse) near the town of Altamura in Puglia. I have now been back in Vancouver for over a month but somehow it’s taken a while to sort through my photos and talk about this amazing experience. I wasn’t sure how to do it justice through clumsy words and iphone photographs. And maybe I wanted to hang on to this place in my heart and my mind without sharing it for just a little while longer.

Earlier this year, through a series of happy coincidences, I was invited to go to Italy by Tonio Creanza, the founder and director of Messors, an organization that runs art restoration and culinary/shepharding workshops in southern Italy. I have been using the Creanza family olive oil for the past four years and have been avidly following the development of their annual workshops. To be offered the opportunity to go as a volunteer was truly a dream come true.

My last trip to Italy was with my sister, some 15 years ago. It was a package deal through Alitalia for seven days in Rome priced at something like $599 for air, hotel and transfers. I remember our plane was delayed and we lost one precious day. I remember the Spanish Steps, Villa Borghese and that my sister wore her backpack under her jacket for fear of being mugged. I cannot remember a single thing I ate.

I was unprepared for what Italy had in store for me this time.

My room at La Selva Wheat harvest at the Creanza farm picnic lunch
Canvas restoration Flowering artichokes Masseria bedroom
Altamura kids on bikes Our daily bread  DOP bread
Our group! Tonio Creanza First supper
At the Fornello project The cheese maker Fresco

Not to sound overly dramatic but my three weeks at the Masseria La Selva were life changing.

I fell deeply in love.

In love with the people, the art, culture, traditions and the true reverence that the Italians have for family and for gathering people around the table. The stunning physical landscape with groves of olive trees, fields of wheat, and crumbling trulli. Seeing the Masseria La Selva for the first time with its imposing stone farmhouse and the crooked-trunked trees lining the driveway, all bathed in golden light, literally took my breath away.

While Messors offers amazing culinary and shepharding workshops, I was in Puglia to volunteer at their art restoration workshop. This, in fact, was a real blessing. I was able to stay at the Masseria for three weeks and really got a sense as to how the workshops are organized and run. I spent time living with ten lovely participants from around the world while working alongside the beloved masseria crew who cook, clean, drive, organize, and help facilitate all of the behind-the-scenes stuff with so much care. Tonio loves his homeland and is passionate about art and culture preservation and I learned an astonishing amount about the region and fresco and canvas restoration. There were fieldtrips to nearby towns of Altamura, Gravina and Matera all rich in history and art and culture. There were walks through archeological sites gathering and identifying shards of pottery from the 3rd and 4th century and an epic trip to visit the ruins in Pompeii. We toured museums, attended live musical performances, enjoyed dinners at the beach complete with a full moon, swimming and a bonfire. Something magical, something unexpected, happened every single day.

Magical dinner
It might not have been a culinary tour but this being Italy there was a deep and serious focus on food and wine.

Knowing my keen interest in cooking, Tonio was also incredibly kind and generous to include many, many food-centric moments over the 21 days.

There were impromptu foraging adventures for wild arugula, thyme, green chickpeas, figs and almonds, while visiting archeological sites. A detour on our way to visit some frescos to meet and chat with the local cheese maker, see his aging cave and pick up the Pecorino for our lunch at the masseria. We took trips to the vegetable market in Altamura to fill crates with the eggplants, chicory, onions, tomatoes, fennel bulbs, potatoes, watermelon, peaches that were part of our daily meals. We sampled fresh, raw baby octopus and prawns at the fishmonger and bought our daily bread from the local Forno Antico which was founded in 1724. Tonio’s mother came to teach us how to make orecchiette pasta by hand. We picked apricots and yellow plums from the trees at the Creanza family farm where we also picnicked in the groves where the olive oil we used in copious amounts originates. The same olive oil that I use in my Vancouver kitchen, half a world away.

While I was lucky and grateful to be invited to attend all of the activities and outings with the group, I was aware that I was supposed to be there to work.

Thankfully at Messors, the role of the volunteer is not rigidly defined and so I rather quickly determined that the best place for me to help (and to learn) was in the Masseria La Selva kitchen. The kitchen is run by Tonio’s boisterous sister-in-law, Rosanna, and just thinking about this woman brings a huge smile to my face. Always talking, singing and laughing, Rosanna made the masseria kitchen the most wonderful place to be. She cooked with a quiet confidence and ease, managing to produce some seriously delicious food for the 20 to 30 people she needed to feed each day at both lunch and dinner. She was a patient teacher and it would be no exaggeration to say that I learned as much from Rosanna during my time in the masseria kitchen as I did during my time at cooking school. I speak no Italian and Rosanna speaks very little English but somehow we managed to talk about food and life while she gifted me with the most incredible crash course in the regional dishes of Puglia. On our final day together, she shyly presented me with a beautiful apron covered with delicate white and green flowers with potholders and a dishtowel to match. It was such a sweet and thoughtful gesture, it made me cry.

Dinner on the patio Gravina Me and Rosanna
Fresh almonds Weekly vegetable pickup Chicory
Lunch en masse at the Masseria Ancient ruins Magical night at the beach
Pasta made by hand with love Masseria La Selva Laundry on the line
Staircase at dusk Masseria kitchen - last breakfast Bell tower - Masseria La Selva

Coming home was wonderful, yet a bit hard. I was so glad to see my family, and the last days of summer in Vancouver have a magic all their own. Still, Italy managed to capture my heart in a way that I was completely unprepared for. I still miss the beauty of the landscape, the people and the anticipation of learning and discovering something new every day.

As always, it is my time in the kitchen that has made the transition somewhat easier. I am cooking all of the dishes that I learned from Rosanna at the masseria and sharing them with my family and friends here. It helps to bridge the gap. I am cooking with love and care and a slowness these days. I have never, ever felt so inspired in the kitchen. I have many recipes that I can’t wait to share here.

They are coming. I promise. Soon.

xo J

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A Magical Visit to The Cook’s Atelier in Beaune, Burgundy

AP Wine The Cooks Atelier The Cook's Atelier
The Cook's Atelier The Cook's Atelier The Cook's Atelier
The Cook's Atelier Cook's Atelier Tomatoes for roasting
Radishes and salted butter Charentais melon with prosciutto Duck breast with spring vegetables
Cheese course Apricot tart Fini!

It is almost time to say goodbye to France for another year but before I do I just had to put up a post about the most extraordinary culinary experience of our trip.

Sarolta and I love hosting our annual culinary tour in Paris because, well, we love the city and the amazing food and drink and markets and boulangeries and patisseries and fromageries etc. etc. We love cooking together with our guests and showing them around Paris and after all these years visiting we feel pretty good about finding our way around the culinary hotspots. But then again France is an amazing country!  Sarolta and I started brainstorming about the possibility of offering a culinary tour that perhaps could offer the best of big, vibrant Paris as well as the small, bucolic countryside with it’s vineyards and pretty vistas of some other region of France. A place where the regional culinary scene is exciting yet steeped in tradition and the wine is amazing.

After last year’s tour my husband and I went on a little cycling holiday in Burgundy. Our first two nights were spent in Beaune and it was love at first sight. Beaune is a picturesque walled city with an amazing Saturday market and many great, family owned food shops. It is surrounded by some of the very best vineyards in the world and the art of eating well is taken very seriously here.

After this year’s Paris tour concluded  Sarolta and I were able to take some time to do research for next year’s trip and so we decided this was the perfect opportunity to go and re-visit this beautiful part of the country. We hoped to see if somehow we could add on a few days next year and provide a taste of Burgundy that would complement the Paris portion of our current tour.

With my sweet Mum in tow we booked an apartment, packed our bags, took an easy 2 1/2 hour train ride and arrived in beautiful Beaune in the mid afternoon. It was everything I remembered it to be. Lovely light, amazing wine and a good number of foods shops and restaurants that looked inviting. It was then I remembered that I had seen an article in Food and Wine about a place called The Cook’s Atelier run by a mother and daughter duo who host culinary tours and cooking classes in a beautiful light-filled store and kitchen space right in the centre of the city.

Marjorie Taylor and Kendall Smith Franchini own The Cook’s Atelier and love good food, good wine and Beaune, Burgundy. We checked on their website and realized that we were right in between the days when they offer scheduled classes but Sarolta emailed Marjorie, who couldn’t have been more accommodating, and a private shopping tour/cooking class was soon booked for the following day.

It may sound strange for people who teach cooking classes to be taking cooking classes, but here is the thing: cooking is all about learning. Anyone who genuinely loves to cooks understands that they will never know everything there is to know about ingredients and techniques, that there is always something new to learn and taste. This is what inspires me everyday. Also, if we were to bring a group to Burgundy we would need to find someone who really knows the local markets and shops and wine scene. From looking at The Cook’s Atelier’s beautiful website I knew Marjorie and Kendall were not only living the dream in Beaune but they were also sharing, in a thoughtful way, all of their knowledge of a place they obviously love.

The day we spent with Marjorie and Kendall was beyond magical. We shopped at some of their favourite places and made our way back to their atelier which is filled with an interesting selection of small production wines from France, Italy and Germany, linens and carefully curated cooking tools. Antique (refurbished) mezzalunas, French rolling pins, vintage marble mortars with wooden pestles and gleaming copper pots. From the main floor retail area you climb a flight of stairs to the kitchen and on the very top floor is a welcoming dining room complete with a long, zinc-topped table that can comfortably accommodate 10 guests. Flea market silver, vintage white linens, cream coloured ceramic plates and bowls, small vases filled with flowers and plenty of flickering candles. The entire place in everything I love in a kitchen/dining space.

We headed to the kitchen, tied on our aprons and made the Burgundian classic gougeres. We snacked on radishes with demi-sel butter, thin slices of cured meats and enjoyed well-chilled glasses of Crement. We had the most delicious salad composed of perfectly ripe chanterais melon and San Daniele prosciutto with purple basil and glasses of Chablis. The main course was a seared duck breast with spring vegetables that Kendall paired with a local Pinot Noir followed by the most amazing cheese course featuring the classic cheese of Burgundy, Epoisses. Dessert was an apricot tart, served with a good strong espresso. Just for good measure there was a plate piled high with freshly baked madeleines. We were presented with small jars of homemade apricot preserves when it (sadly) came time to leave.

I loved it all. The conversation and the introduction to some great shops in Beaune. The instruction and hands-on cooking together. The tips and techniques that we picked up along the way. The amazing food we enjoyed and the perfect simplicity in the way it was plated. The thoughtfulness of the wine pairings. Seeing the real ease, but very strong work ethic, of a mother and a daughter working together to make their dreams come true.

We spoke with Marjorie and Kendall about our plans to bring a group to visit next June. They are enthusiastic to show us around the city, cook together and even arrange for a wine tour by car or bike.

We can’t wait to go back and hope that some of you will be able to join us. Paris/Beaune Culinary tour 2015. That has got a pretty nice ring to it!

xo J


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Day 9 and 10 of the 2nd Annual Paris Culinary Tour

Designer Eggs! Salt
Marriage Frere photo copy 6 photo copy 4
St. Ouen Silver Aux Puces
Abbesses metro Abbesses
Last supper Friseé salad Dinner party

That’s a wrap! I can’t believe our second culinary tour is over! It has been a whirlwind ten days with our amazing group and both Sarolta and I are so grateful to everyone who helped make this year’s tour such a success. Thank you Lori, Amy, Marlene, Joanne, Harry, Martine, Jeannot, Mary-Yvonne, Glen, Ross and Max from the bottom of our hearts. We feel so lucky to be able to spend this time in Paris and share our love of the city with others. Bisous à tous!

Our final two days flew by. On Saturday we headed down to Saint-Germain-des-Prés to explore the amazing, newly renovated La Grand Epicerie at the Bon Marché. This place is truly the mecca for food lovers and our group enjoyed perusing the aisles in search of culinary treats.  The forecast had called for thundershowers but instead we had sunny/cloudy/breezy weather so we took advantage of our luck and strolled along the Boulevard St. Germain, stopping in at the beautiful church before making our way over to the Mariage Frères tea shop and museum to pick up some take-home gifts. We stopped in for drinks (thanks Lori!) on rue de Buci before making our way back up the hill to have a group dinner at a favourite local bistro in Montmartre.

On Sunday, our final day together, we set off in search of treasures at the Saint-Ouen flea market.  Our guests bartered their way to some great deals and even I managed to score some antique silver forks as well as a vintage ceramic bowl which I have no idea how I will get home to Vancouver in one piece!

We spent our final evening together cooking, talking, eating, and drinking in our lovely, light-filled apartment. We enjoyed some Champagne and hors d’oeuvres, a frisée salad with soft boiled eggs, bacon and garlic croutons and seared salmon with lentils topped with some mâche. Dessert was a pear tart with salted butter caramel ice cream. Coffee and orange biscuits rounded out our dinner. A delicious meal made all the sweeter by the company of new friends gathered around the table.

Time to start planning the 3rd Annual Paris Culinary Tour!

xo J

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Day 8 of the 2nd Annual Paris Culinary Tour

Brunch prep Amy's French omelette Group brunch
St. Lazare Old books A magical place
Bike About photo copy 11 Ice cream

Didn’t get around to posting yesterday as we had a busy day cooking, eating, walking, biking, walking and eating some more. Here are the visual highlights.

xo J

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Day 7 of the 2nd Annual Culinary Tour in Paris

Medici Fountain at the Luxembourg Gardens

Today’s highlight was a picnic lunch in the Luxembourg Gardens.

We started out this morning exploring the Marché des Enfants Rouges where we picked up some mini quiches, grapes, apricots, walnuts and cherry tomatoes. We found some sliced French ham, Mimolette cheese and bought some walnut Poîlane bread to sample and then made our way over to rue Mouffetard to gather a few more items for our al fresco lunch.

We discovered a lovely bakery and bought some crusty baguettes and apricot/peach tarts. At a cheese shop nearby, with a fantastic selection of goat and cow’s milk cheeses from around the country, we finally settled on a perfectly ripe Saint Marcellin. Some sparking water and a couple of chilled bottles of Champagne were secured as we made our way up the cobblestoned street.

We walked and talked our way past the Pantheon and entered the garden which was packed with people on this sunny Thursday afternoon. We made our way past the octagonal basin and the many statues and benches to the grassy area that was the perfect place to spread out our picnic blanket, pop the corks on our champagne bottles and set out our lunch.

The weather couldn’t have been more perfect. Sunny and warm but with a lovely breeze. We sat and ate and drank and talked for close to two hours. On our way out of the park we stopped in to view the always beautiful Medici Fountain. I love the calm serenity of this Paris landmark.

Tomorrow morning we will be cooking brunch together before we head off to explore Paris on bicycles in the mid afternoon. I can’t believe we only have three days left!

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Day 6 of the 2nd Annual Paris Culinary Tour

Crispy fishies Fish with roasted tomatoes and eggplant.  Jacques Genin caramels

Today we made our way around the city to visit some the better known chocolate and candy stores in Paris.

We spent a bit of time exploring the amazing food hall at the Galleries Lafayette where we were able to peruse the many confectionary counters offering treats from the best food brands of France. Fauchon, Jean-Paul Hévin, Dalloyau, and one of my personal favourites, Sadaharu Aoki. We checked out the array of demi-sel butters, the beautiful produce and selection of cheese, teas (Mariages Frères, Kusmi, Dammann), Christine Ferber preserves and even got a demonstration from one of the butchers on how to tie the traditional apron with only one strap attached.

From here we made our way down to rue du Faubourg Montmartre to visit the oldest candy shop in Paris. La Mère de Famille was founded in 1761 and still has much of the original shelving and the cashier’s box where we paid for our purchases. Bergamots de Nancy, fruit jellies, mendiants topped with fruit and nuts and caramels all made their way into our shopping bags.

Next stop was lunch at a modern french bistro in the Marais. We enjoyed a prix fixe menu that was fresh, seasonal and delicious. My lunch began with some crispy fishes on top of some greens with a dijon vinaigrette followed by a fillet a white fish with roasted tomatoes, eggplant and pesto. As the weather was warm and our guests were enjoying the cool shade of our table I ran out to nearby Jacques Genin to pick up some of the world famous caramels to sample with our espresso and baked apple dessert.

After lunch we parted ways to explore the Marais and beyond.

Tomorrow we are off to gather ingredients at Le Marché des Enfants Rouge and Rue Mouffetard to enjoy at a picnic at the Luxembourg Gardens. The weather promises to be perfect for our al fresco lunch.


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Day 4 and 5 of the 2nd Annual Culinary Tour in Paris

Marché Raspail Pomegranates  At the market
Fish on rue Martyrs Paris Local market
 French Breakfast rasidh photo copy 17 Homemade madeleines and figs with honey
Cheese and figs and honey  Apricots Radish tartines
 Baguette stop Endive salad  Evening stroll

We are officially midway through our tour and today was a free day for our guests to check out museums, wander the cobblestoned streets, window-shop and people-watch while enjoying a drink on one of the many terrasses of Paris.

Here are a few of the visual highlights of the last couple of days.

We have enjoyed perusing the markets and gathering ingredients and cooked a communal dinner last night at the apartment. Duck breasts with orange sauce, gratin dauphinoise and the most tender haricot vert beans. A salad of red endive with Roquefort cheese and a grainy mustard vinaigrette. Dessert was a chocolate tart that we picked up on Rue Lepic served with some fresh strawberries that we macerated in a red wine caramel sauce. Lots of good conversation and laughter was enjoyed around the table.

Tomorrow we are off to explore the sweet side of Paris. The divine caramels at Jacques Genin and a visit to one of the oldest candy stores in Paris, La Mere de la Famille will be followed by a lunch at one of our favourite bistros in the Marais. Stay tuned…

xo J

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