Friday, December 16

Herding Chickens

Fern Glen Inn •

Whoever coined the phrase "herding cats" clearly never had chickens. Or at least never had chickens on the run.

I returned from a walk this afternoon to discover that the ladies -- all six of them -- had escaped their pen and were ranging freely. I'm tempted to say they hatched a plan but I don't want to inflict my poultry sense of humour on you (sorry, couldn't resist). Planned or otherwise, they all flew the coop today.

Luckily, they didn't wander too far from their hen house. They had the whole wide world at their disposal but just scratched up the dirt within a 20 foot radius of their home. In fact, I only realized they were out because Saba saw them first.

I knew something had Saba's attention because she stopped suddenly, dropped her head low, cocked her ears forward and took a few slow, measured steps. Just like when she's stalking a squirrel. Or when she's ready to pounce in front of Casey (her buddy, the basset hound) to try to tease him into playing. I don't know if Saba was thinking snack time or playtime, but when I realized her gaze was fixed on one of our own dear hens, I didn't wait to find out.

I escorted Saba safely into the house, grabbed a tub of bird seed and went back to round up the ladies. I also took a moment to wish that Jim, aka the chicken-whisperer, was home to deal with this instead of me.

As I've mentioned, herding chickens is no easy task. For one thing, they're fast. Chickens can run like nobody's business. I've also discovered (during previous jail breaks) that chickens can and will fly if pursued with vigor. If approached slowly, they scatter. There's no catching them, at least not if I'm the catcher, and I'm a little bit afraid of them as I am with all birds. So even if I could get close enough to grab one, I wouldn't. I just couldn't.

So I had to outwit them. First, I propped the door to the hen house wide open then circled way back behind the farthest-ranging chicken. Then I started throwing small handfuls of bird seed toward the open door.

Chickens are remarkably curious and decidedly food-motivated. After half a dozen pings and bounces of seeds against the coop wall and on the hard ground, the chicken closest to the action moved in to see if there was something edible going on. Slowly, one by one, the rest of the ladies came to check out the commotion. I swear chickens have a spidey sense when it comes to food because even the two who were out of sight on the far side of the coop eventually came bobbing around the corner.

As the chickens gathered, I started tossing the bird seed through the doorway into the hen house and the hens just followed the food. As soon as I counted all six little cluckers in the house, I closed the door and that was the end of their adventure for the day. And mine, too.

So perhaps it wasn't such a monumental task after all, but it does leave me wondering one thing: Would it have been easier or more difficult herding cats instead of chickens?

Thursday, December 15

Mocha Porter Chocolate Cake

Fern Glen Inn •

There's a lot of baking going on at this time of year, much of it involving fancy cookies and fiddly concoctions. Don't get me wrong -- I love the jumble of flavours, colours and textures on a platter of christmas cookies (and will happily eat my way through all of them!). But sometimes the only way for a dessert to stand out among all that finery is to pare it down, way down.

Enter the Mocha Porter Chocolate Cake. It's ultra simple, dark, elegant, with an unexpected yet subtle flavour profile. The secret ingredient here is a generous addition of Mocha Porter beer in the batter. The resulting cake is moist, rich, and not too sweet.

On it's own, served with just a dollop of lightly-sweetened whipped cream, it is the perfect foil to the wild array of sweets filling tins and trays everywhere you go. Think of it as a sophisticated black dress among colourful frocks. Both are beautiful, but in different ways.

Similarly, a unique and finely-crafted bottle of specialty beer makes for a welcome change of pace amid the wine, spirits and eggnog abundant at so many holiday parties.

I like to sip a glass of Mocha Porter along with a slice to bring out the complex notes of the beer within the cake. The taste becomes more pronounced on the second day after the flavours have had a chance to meld and develop. If you try this recipe, let me know what you think!

Mocha Porter Chocolate Cake
This cake is wonderfully moist and rich enough to stand on it's own with little embellishment but it will also 'play nice' with other flavours and textures. It has a fine crumb, slices beautifully and is excellent in layer cakes. The Mocha Porter adds a subtle depth of flavour that becomes more intriguing after a day or two.

  • 1 2/3 cups unbleached all purpose flour; plus more for the pan
  • 3/4 cup (lightly packed) unsweetened natural cocoa powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 5 oz. (1/2 cup plus 2 Tbs) soft unsalted butter at room temperature, plus more for the pan
  • 1 2/3 cups granulated sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 1/2 cups Mocha Porter beer*, at room temperature

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Generously butter a 9" round baking pan. Line the bottom with parchment and butter the parchment. Flour the bottom of the pan; tap out any excess flour.

In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and baking powder.

In the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Blend in the eggs one at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl and the paddle as needed. Mix in the vanilla and salt.  With the mixer on low, add the flour mixture alternately with the Mocha Porter beer, starting and ending with the flour mixture. Mix on low speed until the mixture is smooth and mostly free of lumps.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan, spreading it evenly with a rubber spatula. Bake until a skewer inserted in the center comes out with only moist crumbs clinging to it, 40 to 45 minutes. Let the pan cool on a rack for 30 minutes. Carefully run a knife around the inside edge of the pan, invert the cake onto a flat plate. Remove the pan and parchment paper, then invert again onto the rack.

Serving and Storing
You can serve the cake the same day you make it, either slightly warm or room temperature, but you can serve it with pride for up to three days if you want to make it ahead. Cover and store at room temperature during moderate weather, or in the fridge if your kitchen is warm. I love a plain piece of this cake straight from the fridge for an afternoon snack. It also freezes well, double-wrapped in plastic and foil.

Dress it as simple or fancy as you like. 
For a simple yet pretty presentation, lay a paper doily directly on the surface of the cake. Spoon some icing sugar into a small mesh sieve and dust it liberally and evenly over top. Carefully lift off the doily and you'll be left with a lovely, lacy pattern. Serve generous slices with a dollop of lightly sweetened whipped cream or scoop of softened icecream.

If you have the time and inclination to go fancy, knock yourself out; this cake will work beautifully with you. Pour a sleek, glossy chocolate glaze over top. Or slice the completely-cooled cake in half (or even into thirds) then sandwich the layers with ganache, mousse, cherry filling, whipped cream or buttercream frosting. Ice the whole cake or just the top. Garnish with chocolate curls, fresh raspberries, chopped hazelnuts, or chocolate coated espresso beans. The sky's the limit!

*Mocha Porter and alternative ingredients
I love using the Mocha Porter from Lake of Bays Brewing Company in this recipe. It has pronounced coffee notes and just a hint of chocolate, perfectly complementing the cocoa in the cake batter. Another excellent choice would be the Double Chocolate Cranberry Stout from Muskoka Cottage Brewery (then I'd serve it with a cranberry coulis). Both are seasonal, locally-crafted in Muskoka and available in many LCBO and Beer Stores throughout Ontario. 

If you can't find these, search out a porter or stout with notes of coffee, chocolate or vanilla. Alternatively, you can also use strong brewed coffee spiked with a splash of mocha liqueur or brandy.

Serves 10-12