When I was in Wolfville, N.S. for Devour, the food-film festival I had lunch every day at the Slow Dough Bakery, which serves excellent homey sandwiches and the most mouth-wateringly perfect home baking. The owner, Elizabeth Charlton, a former opera singer with the Canadian Opera Company, moved to the charming, food-focused town outside Halifax several years ago. She worked as a pastry chef in restaurants before selling her goods at local markets, which she says “is just another form of performing.” Charlton finds other similarities between the two professions. “Both require lots of discipline,” she says. “It takes a very concentrated effort in order for the product to be good.” Charlton later opened her dream bakery, where her breads rise slowly over 24 hours (hence the name). Her Christmas dessert, a variation of a butter tart, incorporates both fresh and dried cranberries as well as chopped nuts. The easy pastry recipe, which is well worth making, is a traditional pâte sucrée, the French sweet tart pastry. You can drizzle the finished tart with melted white chocolate, but it’s also wonderful without it.
I was surprised to learn that it was home-baking icon Betty Crocker who printed the first known recipe for lemon bars, the prototype of today’s citrusy sweets, in 1963. Betty Crocker, of course, never existed, except in the imagination of General Mills. Nonetheless, “she” became a culinary icon to many women. This version of lemon squares – developed by my recipe tester, Sandra Osojnik, for today’s home cook – are nothing like Crocker’s. These have a sophisticated twist: They aren’t too sweet and the lemony punch really works after a heavy meal. Adding cornstarch to the pastry makes it slightly softer and freezing the dough for 20 minutes improves its baked texture. Homemade marshmallows are trendy right now and so simple to make. Just remember to watch them carefully while they cook under the broiler so they don’t burn. If you have a kitchen blowtorch, it will be even easier for you to caramelize them. If you don’t have a piping bag, cut the corner of a resealable sandwich bag and use it instead.
If you cannot find the small blue or prune plums, then use apples. I have been disappointed in the prune plums this year, which are large and very sour. The small ones have been much better. If using apples, use 3 lbs (1.5 kg) mixed varieties. Olive oil pastry means you can serve this after a meat dish and it is healthier than vegetable shortening (unless you can find the organic kind). Good olive oil pastry is flaky and tasty but remember not to use a strongly flavoured oil.
You won’t be able to stop nibbling on this cake. It’s the one-bowl-beat-everything-together-and-then-bake method. I used cardamom when I tested it first, but did not love the flavour. I switched to vanilla, but experiment yourselves. Vary the fruit using chopped peaches, blueberries or apricots and add some grated lime rind for a little lift. Serve a slice with ice cream and extra fruit for dessert. To pit the sour cherries, I smashed them with a knife and the pits popped out.