Sunday, July 27, 2014

Tips For Making Fresh Fruit Salads

I love making fresh fruit salads to enjoy as part of my meal, a dessert or a snack! There are endless combinations! You can create a rainbow of colours, various shapes, an array of textures and mouth watering flavours all in one bowl!

It always amazes me when I see recipes for fruit salads. Do we really need them? Well, maybe some people do, but I like to just look at what is available in fresh fruits at the store or a farmers market and go from there.

There doesn't have to be a set way of making any fruit salads BUT there are a few things to keep in mind as you mix and match your ingredients.

Maybe I'm a bit of a purist when it comes to a fruit salad, but I don't think that they should contain anything other than fruit. Preferably fresh fruits! The only exception to the fresh fruit rule for me is to add canned unsweetened pineapple tidbits and perhaps mandarin orange segments for additional colour or texture.

Personally, I've never liked trying to cut a fresh pineapple. If you can do it and you find a good one on sale - go for it! I'll use my canned pineapple any day! I also use a bit of the juice to keep fruits such as apples from turning brown once cut. You only need a couple tablespoons of the juice and the remaining juice can be used for a beverage, sauces, made into ice cubes or just frozen for later use. Whatever you do - DON'T throw out the juice from the pineapple or the canned oranges if using them!

So, what else shouldn't be added to a fruit salad? Well, in my salads, you will never find marshmallows, nuts, dried fruits or dairy products.

Why? Well, I'm not a fan of marshmallows, but they tend to go rather mushy and ooze into the rest of the salad if not eaten immediately. It makes any leftovers look very unappetizing. Nuts will also go soft and lose their crunch. Dried fruit is just plain unneeded when there are so many fresh options throughout the year. There are any number of dried fruit (cold) soup style recipes on the web if that is what you are looking to make. Dairy products look good for the first hour but then they start to go runny and will even go sour with the juices from the fruits. Dairy is better left as a per serving add-in.

If you think these things are a necessity, then create a condiment bar beside the fruit salad bowl so people can add their own "extras".

There are also some fresh fruits that should only be added at the last minute or for what you KNOW will be eaten that day. Fruits that are soft and can go mushy fairly quickly once cut, such as strawberries, raspberries and bananas.

A very firm strawberry may look and taste okay on the second day of a fruit salad but the riper ones will be mush. I'm not a fan of raspberries which will also go mushy after a day (can't stand the seeds and flavour is a bit too strong for my liking so never add them anyways). Bananas tend to go mushy very quickly and the flavour can permeate the whole salad very fast - leaving the whole thing tasting like bananas! Like marshmallows and dairy, bananas also tend to ooze and looks unappealingly murky after awhile.

By now, you may be asking what DO I put in my fruit salads? At least three of any of the following:
- grapes (red, green or black - halved and seeded)
- mango, (peeled pit removed) cut into bite sized pieces
- cherries, halved and pit removed
- honeydew or other melons cut in bite sized pieces
- peaches or nectarines, peeled pit removed and cut in bite sized pieces
- kiwi (just ripe), peeled and cut
- pears, peeled cored and cut (YA or Asian pears give a great crunch to a salad!)
- apples, unpeeled cored and cut into bite size pieces (I personally prefer Fuji, Gala or Red Delicious for pretty much any apple use)
- pineapple tidbits, with a bit of the juice for the dressing and to prevent other fruits from browning
- mandarin orange segments
- berries as a last minute addition and only enough for that days salad.

The cut fruits are loaded with liquids that will create a bit of its own dressing so I never "make" a dressing. Other than adding a little of the pineapple juice or perhaps a bit of orange juice or even five alive (both high in citric acid) to prevent the browning, I just stir them all together and let the flavours blend on their own. Granted, I have occasionally skipped the pineapple juice in favour of a more adult salad and added a very light splash of Amaretto or Frangelico.

If I have an abundance of fresh fruit, then I sometimes make a large batch of salad such as the one pictured here. It contained about 1 pound each of cherries and green grapes, 4 nectarines, 3 mangoes, 2 apples, pineapple tidbits and mandarin segments. 
Once mixed, I transfer to Rubbermaid or Tupperware containers and keep it in the fridge for several days. 
The colours of the fruits will darken a bit and will even take on shades of the redder fruits such as the cherries but the flavours and textures will still be distinguishable for up to a week as long as you haven't added any of the "extras" or softer fruits listed above. This particular one lasted me eight days - delicious flavours and textures to the end!

What do you serve a fruit salad with? They don't have to be served with anything as they are a refreshing snack or dessert all on their own. But, many people want to have a little "something" with their fruit salad.

Like the yummy fruit salads themselves, the "side" possibilities are endless! How about:
- with a spoonful of whipped topping or a scoop of your favourite ice cream, sorbet,sherbets or ices
- spooned over a serving of pudding (lemon or chocolate are my faves!)
- alongside a slightly warmed muffin, a slice of loaf or homemade cookies. (lots of recipe links for these on my recipe page!)
- alongside a scone - maybe even a chocolate scone!
- over fresh pancakes or waffles
- with a good old fashioned Peanut Butter sandwich or PB on toast

It's all about mixing and matching! Be creative. Savour the mouth-watering flavours of fresh fruit!



Sunday, July 13, 2014

Baking For The Fair

When it came time for the summer fair in my home town, much attention was paid to what could be entered in that year's fair.

There were many divisions and hundreds of categories. Something for everyone. There were numerous divisions for livestock and horticultural. Divisions for sewing, knitting, crocheting and needlework. There were crafting, woodworking, carving, pottery, photography, painting and much more! There were all kinds of categories for school kids to enter.

I never really ventured into any of those things. They weren't my forte!

My heart and youthful skills were in the kitchen!

The areas of baking that could be entered were vast! There were age divisions for 12 and under, 13 to 18, adult and those over 70. The adult, which also included canning, was pretty much open to anybody regardless of age but competition was STIFF so you really had to have a great entry to even attempt any of the dozens of categories there! The seniors division could also have some amazing entries as those people had decades of experience to hone their kitchen skills!

That being said, even those under 18 had some really good competitors! You'd see many of the same names every year!

I was about 11 or 12 when I first started entering a few categories in my age group. I won small cash prizes for a few things and entered a bit more the next year. It didn't take long till I was entering every baking item in my age group. Occasionally I even entered something (and sometimes won a prize) in the adult division if my attempt turned out exceptionally well!!

There were about 15-20 items in the teen division. Some of these included: baking powder biscuits; buns; angel food cake; white cake, iced; brownies; bran muffins; banana loaf; rolled cookies; drop cookies; rolled oatmeal cookies, filled; shortbread; baked pie shell; fruit pie with top pastry crust; baked dainties; unbaked dainties (2 kinds); candy (2 kinds); cup cakes, iced.

I was very confident in my ability to make baking powder biscuits. In fact I still use the same recipe and now make several versions from that recipe! I was also pretty good with the cookies, loaf, brownies and dainties.

The buns were either a hit or a miss. Since this was back in the 1970's, it was well before instant yeast came into general use. Having to proof the yeast before starting to mix the dough always concerned me for some reason. Even if the dough felt good while mixing and kneading by hand, it didn't always guarantee good buns. Then there was trying to shape uniform buns so that your entry looked suitable for presentation. The good part of making a batch of buns was that you'd have at least 3 dozen buns to choose from for the half dozen you entered - assuming that the dough rose and you didn't burn any!

The cakes from scratch could be a challenge. There were times I had to make more than one angel food cake or layer cake before I got one that looked good enough to enter!

In those days, my candy making skills were pretty limited. We didn't have access to many of the things or had even thought of the flavour combos that we have now! The candies that were the most common were fudge, brittle and caramel or sugar candies. I burnt more than my share of peanut brittle! I tried to avoid any of the candies that had to be boiled to specific temps as they were a major challenge for me to see the temp on the candy thermometer and rarely worth my effort.

A couple of years, there was a category that had you use a white cake mix, then divide it into three to create different flavoured varieties of cupcakes. You entered two of each of the three varieties. They had to be iced and you couldn't use paper liners in the muffin tins. The flavours I came up with one year were mocha, cherry mint and an orange coconut. I won first prize!

I recently came across 3 of my old winning recipes. I haven't tried them in years so can't verify if they would still be prize worthy today! BTW, I have no recollection of what the frostings were for the cupcakes!
With the exception of the cupcakes above, everything had to be made from scratch! Everything had to be fresh - no mixes or frozen pastries. So all items had to be made within a few days of the actual submission. That meant marathon baking for about 3 days to enter about 20 categories! It was all about timing. What could be made first that wouldn't go bad or stale. What had to wait till the last minute. And you HAD to allow time to remake at least a few things that didn't turn out to be worthy of entry! 

It didn't matter if the weather was hot or humid. If I wanted to enter all the items in my division or others, then I just had to deal with it! It was a lot of work - and admittedly, more than a few tears were shed and there was a meltdown or two as I strived to do the best that I could! Entries had to be all mine which meant mom could only supervise and answer questions for me. She was a rock though and also kept me in a fresh supply of paper towels, clean dishes and Kleenex. My favourite radio station played through the days as I baked my heart out! I always felt SO bad when a recipe flopped. I felt like I'd failed and more importantly that I'd wasted all those ingredients - and time!

We rarely threw things out though. There were family and friends who were always willing to eat the rejects! Granted, they always wanted to sample the "good stuff" so "DO NOT TOUCH" signs had to be placed on several things and there were times that fingers were slapped!

Entries had to be displayed on disposable trays such as paper plates, foam trays or foil covered cardboard. Pies had to be in foil dishes. Everything had to be covered with saran or clear plastic bags - with the entry label attached. The entries had to be in the display hall for judging fairly early on the day before the fair. Packing all the entries into the car - without damaging any of them was a job in itself! We didn't have the fancy containers that are available now for transport - just a few cardboard boxes to hold all those entries.

The last couple of years that I entered, there were also open judging for a few items. Once submissions were closed, a few categories from various food and hand crafted divisions were picked to be judged in front of anyone who wanted to stay and watch. It was interesting to see. For food categories, they'd look at overall presentation (appearance, colours, uniformity) then cut a slice or open items to see the inside density and texture. Were there air pockets in buns or cakes? Were there doughy parts in loaves? Were any fruit or nuts evenly distributed? Were pies evenly baked? How did it smell? What was the taste? Then they'd narrow it down to a few and choose 1st, 2nd and 3rd. I was thrilled to see my biscuits win 1st at one of those sessions!

On the first day of the fair, we'd go to the display hall to see which of my entries may have won prizes!

The prize money wasn't much - maybe a $1 or $2 for first. It was more the prestige of knowing you'd done well. The baking divisions also awarded a small prize to the person who earned the most points for entries in that division. In 1974 - 40 years ago this summer, I won the Junior division (I was 16). I had entered a few of the adult categories as well and in all won 7 firsts, 5 seconds and 7 thirds! I was thrilled!
My reward was about $20 or so in prize money! (A fair bit for a teen then!) and a really nice pen and pencil set! (I still have this set!)
I didn't enter much after that as I was busy with working at summer camp and other things.
But every summer - about a week or so before the hometown fair, I get to thinking about those summer days of endless baking and how fortunate I was to have learned those kitchen skills from my mom and grandma. Those skills have served me well through all these years and continue to guide me in my recipe creations.

Bravo to all of those who continue to spend those long hours preparing entries for local fairs!

Good luck and happy baking!