Sunday, December 23, 2007

Rye Bread

There is no better toast on the earth than that made with rye bread, and preferably topped with unsalted butter (though my family makes a strong case for cream cheese).

I know of no better rye bread than Zingerman's Jewish Rye. As with other breads from that amazing culinary establishment, the loaf is wonderfully chewy while the crust is nice and thick. It may seem pricey to buy bread online and have it shipped (the bread itself is only $6, which is a fair price for a good loaf). To that complaint, I only have one thing to say: buy several loaves at a time and freeze them. Besides, you'll be glad you have them when you get down to that last little bit.

In case you're wondering, we just finished off a loaf, but we have another in the freezer (thanks to Seth).

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Dip

So a couple of weeks ago I mentioned I helped cater a dinner, and I wanted to follow up with some of the recipes. Little did I realize how consumed I would be by Christmas preparations, leaving me no time to blog! Today I was mourning the lack of time I've had for blogging (and other non-essential things, like folding the laundry), and I decided I could spare five minutes to post a little message about dips.

I made two dips, really, for the dinner, but the first I already told you about...the green onion mayonnaise for the crab cakes, which would be fantastic with potato chips (as my sister recommended) or anything else under the sun.

The other dip, which I served with the vegetables, was also very nice, and I could have eaten the entire container myself had I not made it for someone else. It was fairly quick to make, other than the roasting part, and it's a really good dish to get out of the way early in the day or even the day or two before. In any case, enjoy your holidays if I don't get another post up before Christmas!

Roasted Red Pepper Dip

1 red bell pepper
1 8-oz. pkg. cream cheese, room temperature
1 8-oz. pkg. light cream cheese, room temperature (you could just do 2 light packages; I wasn't sure at the time if the dip could handle that but it is plenty firm to allow for the looser light cream cheese)
2 sprigs thyme
1 small shallot, minced
Kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper, a generous amount

Roast the red bell pepper. The method I used (since I don't have a gas stove right now) is as follows: set the bell pepper on a rack a few inches from the broiler. Broil, turning a few times, until the skin is blackened most of the way around. Remove from the oven and place in a bowl, then cover with a towel. Let rest for 15 minutes, then remove all of the outer skin. Cut up the pepper to remove the inner membranes and stem, and rinse to remove all the seeds. Chill.

In a food processor, combine all ingredients, including salt and pepper to taste. Blend thoroughly and remove to a dish. Chill and serve.

Just a note: when I first made this, the shallot tasted fairly strong, but after resting and chilling in the refrigerator, it mellowed out and blended well with the other ingredients.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Maple Pecan Ice Cream

Mark and I were watching Iron Chef America a few days ago and the secret ingredient was...hmmm. I think it was the Thanksgiving episode, where there wasn't one secret ingredient. One of the chefs made maple pecan ice cream as part of his dessert, and we were inspired.

Ice cream is quite easy to make at home, and I think trying out new flavors is a lot of fun. In the past, I've made lemon verbena sorbet, cantaloupe ice cream (mmmmm), vanilla bean, peach, strawberry, dark chocolate, and probably a few others. We didn't do much this summer as we were dieting, but who cares about dieting when the weather turns cold? (Just kidding.)

Anyhow, the ice cream was delicious, as was the caramel ice cream we made to go with apple crisp Monday night. (Maybe I'll get to that soon, too.)

I thought I'd share this little gem with you, though, in case you want a break from all the starch that's arriving at your door. It won't give you a break from the sugar, but it isn't overly sweet. In fact, the pecans taste positively savory. If you have an ice cream maker, don't wait to try it. If you don't, you should add one to your Christmas wish list. I like mine.

Maple Pecan Ice Cream

3 c. half and half
2 egg yolks
1/2 c. - 2/3 c. maple syrup (we did 1/2 c., and it's very mildly sweet, which I would do again)
1 c. chopped, toasted pecans

Heat the half-and-half in a saucepan over medium heat until nearly simmering.

In a medium bowl, whisk the egg yolks with the maple syrup. Slowly, while whisking, drizzle in half of the half-and-half, then quickly add the rest, whisk together, and return it to the saucepan. Cook, stirring, until it begins to thicken just a bit. It shouldn't really boil, but it might come very close, and look like it's starting to simmer a bit. If you cook it much longer than that, the eggs will curdle. Yuck. Pour into the newly-cleaned medium bowl.

Make a water bath (if you're impatient with cooling, like me) in a large bowl with lots of ice and some water. Set the medium bowl in the large bowl and stir until cooled to refrigerator temperature. Or, if you have all the time in the world and are not extremely anxious to eat this in frozen form, allow the custard to cool in your refrigerator until it's completely chilled.

Pour into your ice cream maker and freeze according to your machine's instructions. Remove from the machine, place in a container, and freeze in the freezer for another half hour to four hours. Enjoy.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Oh, Potatoes!

I have a new favorite recipe for potatoes. Forget the roasted baby reds, leave the mashed pots on your plate, and say goodbye to homemade fries. This one takes the cake. This one is so good it practically is cake. And it's extraordinarily simple. Wonderfully simple. You won't even need to write it down, as long as you can just remember the liquid to pound-of-potato ratio. And then you can resize it any way you want. But the reason this is my favorite potato recipe has nothing to do with its simplicity: it's because it tastes so good.

What makes a potato dish (yes, I said "dish", because this is sort of after the order of a casserole) exceptional? It needs to be rich without knocking you over. It shouldn't feel greasy. The potatoes need to be cooked properly. It needs to be salted perfectly. And it should have some slight - very slight, since potatoes are easily overpowered - flourish in the ingredients that adds a touch of complexity to the flavor. Check, check, check, check, check. I'm not a potato person, but I'll back these potatoes up. And, since they're casserole-style, they're great for the holidays, guests, or anytime you're hoping for some leftovers. While they are delicious, since they're also quite rich, I would count on about half a pound of potatoes for each hungry adult.

One last note: this is a great recipe if you have a food processor or a mandolin, but I probably wouldn't do it without those options, unless you're just going for a pound or so of potatoes, as it could turn out to be a lot of work.

Potato Gratin

4 lbs. Yukon Gold potatoes (Russets should also be fine if Yukons are unavailable)
2 c. milk
2 c. cream
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1/2 lb. Gruyère, grated
Kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper

Butter a 9" x 13" baking dish and set aside.

Peel the potatoes, then slice them as thin as possible. I think my food processor's thinnest disc had a 1/8" slicer, and that worked out very nicely for me. If you're doing this by hand, go for 1/4".

Preheat the oven to 350°F. (This is versatile, so if you've got something else going at 400°, that's fine, too.)

In a large saucepan or pot, set the milk, cream, garlic, and potatoes over medium heat for about 5 minutes, watching it very closely, stirring often, and being sure to get all of the potato slices separated. After the liquid is starting to warm, turn the heat to medium-low, put a lid on it, and return to it to stir it about every 30 seconds. The milk, cream, and potatoes are all very anxious to burn and I promise you they will not miss their opportunity to ruin your evening if you are not extremely cautious. Also, add a few turns of pepper and a teaspoon or so of salt (to taste).

After the mixture is actually simmering, cook the potatoes, still stirring very frequently, until they mostly done but still a bit undercooked. This will take (after it begins to simmer) anywhere from 10 to 25 minutes, depending on how low you have your burner set (I erred on the side of caution tonight, just to be sure, and I was very happy with the results). Test again for salt.

Turn the potatoes out into the baking dish and spread the cheese evenly over the potatoes. Bake until bubbly and nicely browned, about 30 minutes. Let them set 10-15 minutes before serving.


Thursday, December 06, 2007

Crab cakes

A week ago a friend called and said she was having a small party this weekend but would be out of town until today and wanted to know if I could help her out. I, of course, said yes, because cooking is much more exciting (to me) than shopping for Christmas presents. So I pulled together several menu ideas and we decided on one, and then she headed out of town while I started working on recipes. Here's the menu, which she wants served buffet style:

Vegetables with dip
blanched green beans, baby carrots, blanched broccoli, cucumber spears, radishes, and grape tomatoes; roasted red bell pepper and cream cheese dip

Crabcakes with sauce
(more on this in a moment)

Pear, pecan, and bleu cheese salad with cranberry vinaigrette
recipe here

Chicken with bacon mustard vinaigrette
(more on this another day)

Potato gratin
Yukon Golds with butter, cream, and Gruyère

Roasted zucchini

Vanilla lime crème brûlée
with candied lime zest

I've been so excited since she called, since it means I get to develop and test recipes. I started with the crab cakes and the chicken. The chicken I got right instantly, and we will probably end up using that as a semi-frequent meal around here, at least as frequently as we make any meal using bacon fat.

As for the crab, I liked my first attempt okay, but I altered it here and there a bit, and now I'm really happy with it. I've always wanted to be able to make crab cakes myself and never really taken the risk to learn, since it seemed rather an expensive risk. It's really not that bad cost-wise, especially for special occasions. I like a little zip to my cake...enough flavor that it's exciting but not so much you drown out good crab. And while taking apart the Dungeness crab isn't the most glamorous work, once you've done one, it's no big deal. Just make sure they're as fresh* as you can get them, or they stink and taste horrible. Crazy how something can taste so incredible one day and within just 2 or 3 days it's unbearable. It's important to note that a Dungeness crab will yield about 25% of its weight in crabmeat, so for this recipe, you'll want to buy about 2 1/2 pounds of crab, which is one quite large crawler.

So here's my recipe for crab cakes. Maybe you'll find a use for it, since it is the season for entertaining, and crab cakes are great entertaining-type food. I'm including my recipe for the accompanying sauce/dip/spread. It's mellow and a nicely paired contrast to the bright flavors in the crab cakes. I hope you get a chance to eat some good crab cakes soon!

Crab Cakes

10 oz. (about 2 c.) Dungeness crab, patted dry
1/2 c. + 1 T. Saltine cracker crumbs (very fine)
2 T. mayonnaise
2 T. sour cream (light works great)
1 1/2 T. chopped cilantro
1/2 serrano chile, minced**
1 1/2 t. lime juice
1 egg, lightly beaten
pinch Kosher salt, unless your crab tasted really salty
2 T. olive oil
2 T. unsalted butter

In a medium bowl, mix the crab and cracker crumbs together.

Separately, combine all other ingredients up to and including the salt. Taste for spice and add more chile if you like. Add to the crab and mix together well with a fork or your clean hands...both work great.

Set a nonstick skillet over medium to medium-low heat (I use 4 on my scale of 10). You may be tempted to turn up the heat over the next few minutes, but resist. (Well, maybe you're not like me. I'm always terribly impatient and tempted to turn up the heat.) Once the skillet is preheated, add the olive oil and butter.

Once these fats have heated and are evenly combined, drop round Tablespoon-size balls of the crab cake mix in. I like my little scooper for this task. Once you've set the lump in, lightly press it down to turn it into a disc shape. Repeat until the pan is filled. Cook the crab cakes until lightly golden, then flip and repeat (about 2-3 minutes per side). Remove to a plate, let cool, and enjoy.

This recipe should make 25 - 30 appetizer-size crab cakes, and it will probably take 2 full skillets to prepare. You may have to add a bit more oil and butter for the second batch, but don't load it up. We're not deep frying here, you know.

Green Onion Side Sauce

4 green onions, trimmed to about 5" in length
1/4 c. mayonnaise
4 turns of the pepper mill
small squeeze of fresh lime

Sauté the green onions with a touch of salt in the leftover olive oil and butter from your crab cakes, or in their own if you're preparing this ahead of time. (They don't need much.) Cook, stirring, until they brown a bit. Remove to a plate and cool to room temperature.

In a food processor, combine the green onions with the remaining ingredients and purée until smooth. (This will probably work just as well in a blender.) Chill until ready to serve. Enjoy with crab cakes or anything else that suits your fancy.

*By fresh, I mean how recently it was thawed. Crab doesn't travel well raw, so it's cooked right when it's caught and frozen immediately, then shipped out to the rest of the world frozen. The supermarket wraps it up and it thaws in their refrigerated case. Unless you live on the coast and catch your own, in which case you probably cook it right up and never freeze it and you're very lucky.

**You could substitute about 1/3 of a jalapeño chile if you can't find serranos. This will give the crab cakes just a little bit of heat. If you want really spicy crab, you'll need to increase the amount to your taste. Be careful. Just know I warned you. Also, if you have remotely fair skin, like me, wear gloves when working with the chile. It's such a pain to wear the gloves, since it's much more difficult to use a knife, but it's also nice to not have your hands burning for the next 3 days after touching the pepper.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Belgian Waffles

Today's post is courtesy of Mark, who in our house has kitchen duties as short order cook, occasionally reluctant sous chef, enthusiastic recipe sampler, and anything that involves cooking over an open fire.

For Christmas a couple of years ago, the kids got me a waffle baker. I had wanted one ever since the one we received as a wedding gift gave up the ghost a few years ago. I tried purchasing a very inexpensive one at Target but was not at all happy with the results. When choosing a waffle iron, there are a couple of things to consider. First and foremost, you need one that gets hot enough to quickly cook a waffle. This is important not only to maximize your throughput (sorry for the jargon--that's what happens when you put an operations manager in the kitchen), but also to produce the right crisp on the outside, moist on the inside waffle. If it takes more than three minutes to cook a waffle, your iron isn't hot enough. If you need the volume provided by a large waffle baker that cooks four at a time, just make sure that it cooks those four waffles quickly, otherwise you may get the same throughput with a single, hotter iron. Second, you need one that provides the type of waffle that you like. I like deep pockets in my waffles and so am biased towards that variety of iron--incidentally often referred to as Belgian wafflers, whether the waffles cooked in them are Belgian or not.

No matter how good your waffle baker, your waffles are only going to be as good as the batter they're made from. At first I experimented a bit, mostly using the options from Joy of Cooking and the in-box materials from my waffle baker, until I found one that I quite liked and used as my "go to" recipe on Saturday mornings. But through all my experimenting, I never tried the "real" Belgian waffle recipe in Joy, mainly because it requires about 90 minutes of prep time and is therefore neither "short order" nor suitable for breakfast if you like to eat your breakfast before lunch time. Ignoring that recipe was a big mistake.

A few weeks ago while Rachel was gone for several days, the kids and I decided to have waffles for dinner. And since it was dinner time, and I could start my preparations well in advance of mealtime, I decided to try the Belgian waffle recipe from Joy. Here's what they say about it:

Nowadays, any waffle with very deep pockets is often called a Belgian waffle, but when Belgian waffles were introduced to Americans at the 1964 World's Fair in New York City, they were yeast-raised and served with sweetened whipped cream. This recipe is in the spirit of the original Belgian waffle.

Ordinarily, I don't find blog posts that just republish someone else's recipe to be all that compelling. In fact, a few months ago, I balked at posting about the banana bread I had made because I had simply followed the instructions from The Best Recipe. And even here, I feel like I am cheating a bit. But if you have never eaten a yeast-raised waffle, and this post convinces you to try one, then cheating or not, this post was worthwhile.

Yeast-raised waffles have a flavor and texture that their muffin method cousins simply do not. The texture is chewy without being heavy. The flavor is deep and complex. They have a nice crumb and complement whatever you top them with rather than just soaking it up; they taste good plain, but they also make your toppings taste better than they would on their own. I would even go so far as to describe the difference between quick and yeast waffles to be as significant as the difference between Wonder bread and a good artisinal loaf (such as Zingerman's Jewish Rye, my favorite bread in the whole wide world).

I like these waffles straight up with maple syrup (even though the "original" Belgian is topped with sweetened whipped cream). Rachel prefers hers drizzled with a bit of honey and then smeared with unsweetened yogurt. The tangy acidity of the yogurt is a subtle complement to the sour yeast flavor. My preference for maple syrup is not an assertion that they are better that way; it's simply a manifestation of my near-Canadian-like passion for real maple syrup. Either way, it's one of the few breakfast foods that is satisfying enough to take the place of dinner and dessert. Especially with a side of bacon.

So here's the recipe, courtesy of Joy of Cooking:

Whisk together:
  • 1 envelope (2 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast
  • 1/4 cup warm (105 to 115 degree F) milk (30 seconds in the microwave is about right to get 1/4 cup milk straight from the fridge to temperature)
Let stand until the yeast is dissolved, about five minutes.

Whisk together in a LARGE (this is a large recipe that rises a lot!) bowl:
  • 3 large egg yolks
  • 1/4 cup lukewarm milk
  • 12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled to lukewarm (I find that cutting the butter into ~1 1/2 T pats before microwaving allows it to melt completely at a slightly lower temperature, expediting the cooling to lukewarm step. Whisking it a bit once melted but before adding to the eggs and milk also speeds things along.)
Whisk in the yeast mixture along with:
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
Add, in three parts:
  • 4 cups all-purpose flour
Alternating, in 2 parts, with:
  • 2 1/2 cups warm (105 to 115 degree F) milk
Beat until soft peaks form then fold into the batter:
  • 3 large egg whites
(I use the Kitchenaid stand mixer here--Rachel may try to whip these by hand, but I am entirely too lazy for that. I tried it that way once and gave up after about three minutes and egg whites that looked essentially the same as they did three minutes previously before my wrist was aching.)

Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place (for consistent results, try Rachel's trick of heating your oven to 170 degrees, turning it off, and sticking your dough in the oven to rise), until doubled in volume, about 1 hour.

Stir to deflate the batter.

Preheat your waffle iron (Set to the hottest setting, unless you have a really hot iron capable of burning your waffles. I actually do this step about five minutes before taking the batter out of the oven because I am impatient, among other things that Rachel is too nice to mention).

At this point, the recipe says to spoon 1/2 cup batter, or the amount recommended by your waffle iron's manufacturer. My waffle baker, a 7" round by 1 1/8" deep variety, actually requires 1 cup of batter per waffle. Mileage may vary, so start small and increase if you want to avoid cleaning spillover from the counter top.

Spread the batter evenly across the iron, to within 1/4" of the edge of the grids, using the back of a metal spatula, wooden spoon or ladle (I use the measuring cup that I use to scoop the batter). Close the lid and bake until the waffle is golden brown. Serve immediately or keep warm in a single layer on a rack in a 200 degree F oven while you finish cooking the rest.

* * *

In our house, nobody would hear of waiting for all the waffles to be cooked before digging in, so the youngest gets the first one and we work our way up from there, only reversing order with Rachel and me, since she is older than me by a few months, and I want everyone to have one so I can enjoy mine rather than jumping up to prep another one between bites.

This recipe is fairly substantial and should make enough waffles for all but the largest families or those with teenage boys who have nearly insatiable appetites. Our typical yield is eight 7" waffles, but results will vary significantly based on the volume of your waffle iron. Since our young family doesn't consume all eight waffles in one sitting, we let the leftovers cool on a cooling rack, and then stick them in the freezer. If you've got a nice wide toaster, you can reheat them there. Otherwise on a low rack under the broiler with one turn or same method in a toaster oven works well. Out of the freezer they are much better than an Eggo, and it saves you from getting up at 5:00 a.m. to have them prepped before work and school.

Buen provecho!

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Guittard Chocolate

I placed a huge order with the Guittard chocolate company just a couple of weeks ago. For those of you who aren't terribly familiar with them, Guittard makes amazing chocolate. We've tried several good quality brands of chocolate (all in the interest of science, of course) and Guittard is our favorite. El Rey is also nice.

Anyhow, I'm going to just cut-and-paste from Wikipedia to tell you more about the history of Guittard, because it's very interesting and I couldn't say it better than someone else already did. Forgive me.

"The Guittard Chocolate Company is an American-based chocolate maker which produces high-quality couverture chocolate using original formulas and traditional French methods. The chocolate is produced in syrups, blocks, large chips, and powders for pastry chefs, home cooks, and wholesale customers like See's Candies, Kellogg's and Baskin-Robbins, as well as chocolatiers like Recchiuti Confections and Garrison Confections. The company has been family-owned for more than four generations. Gary Guittard took over as company president and CEO in 1989.

"The company was started by Étienne Guittard, who emigrated from Lyon, France, during the California Gold Rush. In 1868, ten years after the gold rush had ended, Guittard founded the company on Sansome Street on the San Francisco waterfront. Horace C. Guittard, Étienne's grandson, was in charge when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed the city, but the factory survived. In the aftermath of the quake, a new plant was built on Commercial Street, and later Main Street. In 1955, the Embarcadero freeway led the company to relocate to a 75,000-square-foot facility at the corner of Guittard and Rollins road in Burlingame, California, where it remains to this day."

So while they're in Burlingame, California, they have warehouses in a very few select cities across the U.S., including Salt Lake City, which we visited over the Thanksgiving holiday. We extended our stay until Monday so that we could pick up our order at the warehouse and avoid shipping. I highly recommend doing the same thing if you have the opportunity, but the minimum order is 500 lbs. Yes, I said 500 lbs. No, we didn't keep 500 lbs. of chocolate (but it would be nice). I gathered as many chocolate lovers as I could to pull together enough orders to reach the minimum, and then Mark picked it up and helped me divide it up. Some of it - 135 lbs. - stayed in Utah, and the rest we brought back in the back of Mark's pickup, which we drove down specifically for this reason. Below is a picture of the chocolate that returned to Idaho.

Why did we go to all this trouble? Guittard chocolate is amazing. (I already said that, I know.) Oh, and you get a screaming deal if you order chocolate this way. Ridiculous, really.

It's difficult to say how this chocolate is different than others, including Ghirardelli, which we generally like.* While there are clearly differences in cacao levels amongst the chocolate varieties, one thing is clear: their chocolate sources, roasting process, and creative methods are highly successful. Let me briefly discuss three of the chocolates I sampled and tell you what is so lovely about them.

First, the Oro Bittersweet Ribbon, which has a cacao content of 67%. (Cacao content is just a measurement that indicates what percentage of the chocolate is made up of chocolate liquor** and cocoa butter, though it can be in any makeup they wish, like 40% chocolate liquor and 27% cocoa butter, or 30% chocolate liquor and 37% cocoa butter. I really have no idea, I'm just making numbers up, but you get the point.) We've actually had the Oro Bittersweet before, when a friend of a friend placed an order and we got in on it about 4 years ago, so we knew just what we were getting. Typically, this dark of a chocolate does not have a lot of flavor nuance and is mainly used for baking, but we enjoy it for snacking as well. It has a slightly mellow, sweet flavor that is followed by a deeper, intense chocolate flavor, but without a harsh bitterness that some bittersweets have. It's fantastic in baking, of course, because it can be diluted in a ganache or used with excellent results nearly at full strength due to these qualities. It comes in ribbon form, which means it is in small rectangular chunks that don't need to be chopped for melting and are just small enough to be used as large chunks in cookies or brownies.

The Gourmet Bittersweet (pictured at top), 63% cacao. We hadn't had this variety before, so this was a bit of a gamble (though they're probably all safe bets), but the catalog indicated it has a low viscosity (it's quite thin when melted), which makes it great for dipping chocolates, something I like to do around Christmastime if I have good chocolate around. I absolutely love this chocolate. Slightly milder than the Oro, it fills your mouth at first with warm honey tones, then the deep chocolate flavor sets in, and the two flavors really linger and blend. Mark and I have decided it is our favorite chocolate ever. Ever. (Although we still really like the El Rey bittersweet.) This only comes in 10-lb. blocks, 5 to a box. We split the box. I would have kept it all had I known how good it is, but I honestly can't use all this chocolate over the next year or year and a half, and I can place another order down the road.

Belmont milk chocolate. I don't have the cacao level for this, but according to the Guittard catalog, it's their darkest milk chocolate with "a full milk and full strength chocolate flavor, yet with a mellow finish." Well put. After tasting the dark chocolates, it tastes amazingly milky, but in the best of ways. It has a strong caramel taste to it, and the chocolate flavor is full and rich and so delicious. If I hadn't turned to dark chocolate 8 years ago, this would have been my favorite. Among milks, this may be the finest I've tasted. It also comes in 10-lb. blocks, 5 to a box. We have 15 lbs. of this chocolate. (I don't have a picture of the block...maybe later.)

In addition to these chocolates, I have 20 lbs. of baking cocoa (comes in a 50-lb. bag, which we divided), 10 lbs. of sweet ground chocolate which makes the best cup of hot chocolate I've ever in my whole entire life had from a mix, and 12.5 lbs. of chocolate liquor which I've tasted plain and actually enjoyed in very tiny bites. See, not that much. Just kidding.

It's a lot of chocolate, I know. You have to love chocolate to place an order like this, but that's not really an issue for me. And the possibilities are endless. I have all the chocolate I need to make anything chocolatey I want over the next year at least. Ninety-seven and a half pounds of chocolate should last me a while. What better Christmas present could I have than that?

*I say generally because ever since my last pregnancy, I can no longer stand the Ghirardelli 60% cacao squares.

**Again, from Wikipedia: "Chocolate liquor, also known as cocoa liquor and cocoa mass, is a smooth liquid form of chocolate. It contains both cocoa solids and cocoa butter in roughly equal proportion. It is produced by taking cocoa beans that have been fermented, dried, roasted, and separated from their shells and grinding their center, the cotyledon. The chocolate liquor can then be cooled and molded into blocks known as unsweetened baking chocolate. The liquor and blocks contain roughly 53 percent cocoa butter. Chocolate liquor contains no alcohol."

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


Last night I was going to make bacon and eggs for dinner (because it's something all of my picky little eaters will eat), and Mark suggested quiche. Mark is a real man. Also, he is a man who very rarely suggests something for dinner, though I pester him continually for ideas, so I wanted to make sure I took his suggestion in hopes of encouraging a habit.

When was the last time you had a quiche? I don't count the little pre-packaged 1 1/2" individual bites of quiche at parties. Better yet, when was the last time you made quiche? Because while it takes a significant amount of time more than bacon and eggs, it's so worth it. Who doesn't like a pie crust added to their dinner (or breakfast, or lunch, or midnight snack)?

First, we have to talk about this crust. You should know by now that I'm crazy about pie crust, and I also go a little nuts if my crust isn't perfect. Well, I have something to admit: I've never been good about blind baking pie crusts, which is important for a quiche. (Blind baking is also known as prebaking.) In the past, my crusts have shrunk considerably. I consulted Cooks' Illustrated on the matter. Actually, I consulted The Best Recipe, a book by the authors of the incredible magazine Cooks' Illustrated. I'd read what they said before, and I reread it, and lucky me! My crust barely, barely shrank. In fact, that's why I put this not-so-pretty picture up of a two-thirds eaten quiche...I'm so excited about the crust. Do other people have this problem?

Also, I didn't want to fiddle with the crust so much. I was trying to make dinner. So I altered my method a touch, and the result was ever so flaky and delicious as always.

As for the filling, I was going for the bacon and eggs mix, remember? But I decided to add some caramelized onions as well. My bacon stock was fairly low (4 pieces), and the caramelized onions would add a lot of the same rich flavor. Plus I like onions, and I thought I could trick my kids into eating them this way. (I was right.) Other than that, there was a really good supply of sharp Cheddar cheese and the milk and cream to complete the custard.

Maybe I should mention one thing: quiche doesn't have tons of eggs in it, as you're really making a custard. It does have cream, though, and that should make you happy.

So, here's the recipe. If you follow it pretty closely, you will also have a happy evening with your family.


Crust ingredients:
1 1/4 c. flour
1 T. sugar
1/2 t. salt
8 T. (1 stick) unsalted butter, refrigerated
1/4 c. ice water (I keep a glass of water with ice handy and measure the water out just before adding)
1/4 t. vinegar

Filling ingredients:
4 strips bacon, chopped
1 T. butter
1 medium onion, chopped
1 T. flour
3 eggs
2 egg yolks
2 c. milk
1 c. cream
1/2 t. salt
freshly ground black pepper
pinch freshly grated nutmeg
5 - 6 oz. grated sharp Cheddar cheese

For the crust, whisk together the dry ingredients in a bowl. Slice the butter into about 1" wide pieces and add to the flour, then mash them into the flour a bit using a fork. After about 30 seconds of this, use the heel of your hand to smash the dough flat, making sure to keep your hand floured. Smash, then turn, smash then turn, making sure all of the butter pieces are flat. Do this quickly, and in only about 4-6 turns, so as not to warm the dough. Combine the vinegar and water; add to the dough, and stir together with the fork, until fairly evenly wet, then place in the freezer for five minutes.

Remove the dough from the freezer and quickly pull it together into one ball, then flatten into a disc. Flour a working surface and both sides of the dough, then gently roll out. Carefully transfer it to your pie dish and form the edges. Place in the refrigerator. Refrigerate for 30-40 minutes, whatever you have time for. This resting period in the refrigerator helps the elasticity in the dough to relax in the shape you've molded, rather than waiting to spring back to the ball of nothing it was when you started.

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Lightly prick the pie dough. Line the pie with extra wide, heavy duty foil, or two sheets of regular foil crossing in the center. Fill the foil with a pound of dry beans or pie weights and bake for 20 minutes, until the dough has mostly dried out. Remove the weights and foil and bake another 9 minutes (this is for partially baking, add another 8-10 for fully-baked dough if you're making something besides quiche).

In the meantime, set a pan over medium heat and cook the bacon until browned and a little crispy, about 10 minutes. Drain on paper towels. Remove all but just a lining of bacon grease. Add 1 T. butter, increase heat to medium high, and add the onions and a couple of pinches of salt. Cook, stirring, about 10 minutes, until lightly caramelized, reducing the heat to medium if they're cooking too fast. Taste to be sure they're properly salted. Stir in the 1 T. flour and set aside to cool to room temperature.

In a bowl, combine the eggs, yolks, milk, cream, salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Whisk to be sure the eggs have mixed in evenly, then stir in the bacon and onions.

Once the pie dough has been removed from the oven, fill the bottom evenly with the cheese, then pour the filling on top. (I had enough left over to bake some extra in a small dish.) Place in the oven and bake for 35-40 minutes, until the center is just set, like gelatin. Remove and cool 5-10 minutes, then serve.

Mmmm, mmmm, mmmm.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Green Bean Casserole

It's Thanksgiving week. Yahoo! This year, we're traveling to my in-laws in Utah, where Mark's mom will fix us a fantastic feast and I get to just bring the pies, which is my favorite thing to make at Thanksgiving, anyhow. Like most Americans, we love to eat, and Thanksgiving is no time to hold back. It's especially fun to eat at a very social occasion, such as this Thursday, when we crowd into a couple of rooms and enjoy a delicious meal.

Last year Mark and I decided on a variation of the traditional green bean casserole, which I only half explained in the blog, so I decided to post the recipe here today, in case anyone's looking for a great green bean casserole for Thanksgiving. Plus, my mother-in-law asked for the recipe, so I need to write a more detailed version and thought it was a good excuse to share it. Unfortunately, I don't have a picture. Sorry. (I really dislike not having a picture.)

Let me tell you what is SO fantastic about this green bean casserole. Even if you are a bit fond of the can o' cream o' mushroom, there are better avenues out there to enjoying creamed mushrooms, and it doesn't take much effort, other than chopping onions and mushrooms. Secondly, and more importantly (italicized because I had to think about it for a minute), there is nothing quite so delicious as deep fried shallots. We discovered this last year. It was very difficult to make enough so that we had plenty to snack on and plenty left for the casserole, but we managed. And fresh green beans compared to canned...well, you shouldn't have to ask.

For all of you Thanksgivingers out there, tell me what side dishes you like to make or eat on Thanksgiving, and what you're having this year. I love to collect ideas!

Green Bean Casserole

5 T. butter
1 medium onion, diced
1 lb. (or so) crimini mushrooms, quartered
1 1/2 lbs. green beans, cut into 2" pieces
3/4 c. (or so) flour
2 c. milk
pinch cayenne pepper
pinch grated nutmeg
1 c. freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 c. (or so) canola oil
4 - 6 (or so) large shallots
Kosher salt
freshly ground pepper

Heat a large skillet over medium high heat. Melt 2 T. of the butter, then add the onions. Cook, stirring, for 2-3 minutes, then add the mushrooms and a pinch of salt. Continue to stir and cook until all the moisture from the mushrooms has evaporated, another 5 or 10 minutes. Taste for seasoning and salt and pepper as needed. Melt 3 T. butter into the mixture, then add 1/4 c. of flour and stir in well, until you can't see any white bits anymore. Pour in the milk and cook, stirring, until the mixture thickens. Stir in the cayenne, nutmeg, and additional salt or pepper as needed to taste. Cool a bit. (Note: You can prepare the sauce and refrigerate it, then reheat it the next day and continue on from here.)

Set the remaining flour in a medium-sized bowl. Slice the shallots into 1/4" rings. Drop them into the bowl of flour, toss around to separate and coat, then remove them. Make sure they're separated, shake them off a bit, then drop them into the flour again and repeat. Heat the canola oil in a medium saucepan over medium to medium high heat. Fry the shallots in small batches in the oil, stirring, until golden brown. Remove to drain on paper towels and sprinkle lightly with salt. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 375°. (Of course, if you're making this for Thanksgiving dinner, the oven will be on some other temperature already; that's okay, just watch the beans and vary the cooking time a bit.) Butter or spray a 9" x 13" baking dish.

Bring a saucepan of water to a boil, then add the green beans. Cook for 6-8 minutes, until tender. (Usually fork tender is great for green beans, but you don't want them too firm for the casserole. Use your own judgment.) Strain in a colander and rinse with cold water to stop them from further cooking.

Stir the beans into the warmish mushroom sauce until thoroughly mixed, then pour into the baking dish. Top with an even layer of the Parmesan cheese and the shallots, then bake until heated through and the cheese is golden brown, about 30 minutes. Serve and enjoy!

Happy Thanksgiving, y'all!

Thursday, November 15, 2007


My husband and I are crash dieting this week. This is my diet: smoothie for breakfast (a full 16 oz.) and nothing but Pacific Natural Foods tomato soup (mmmm, mmmm) or some nicely cooked black beans the rest of the day. It's a very, very low-calorie diet that has led to a lack of fuel for my brain, so I don't have much to say that's interesting until this is over...probably on Monday. Nevertheless, that won't stop me from going on.

First, I want to plug the soup. This is my fourth day on the diet and I still love this soup. It's delicious. If you can get it, get it. It doesn't have any amazing flavor that pops out at you in it, but it's a terrific tomato soup: smooth, creamy (but not high in fat), and slightly sweet. And it's ready to go, so I just pour out what I want and zing it in the microwave. If, perchance, I'm hungry enough that I can't stop eating, I can finish the whole container and still only consume 400 calories. And I love the black beans. Black beans simmered at home are four times better than those in a can. At least. I do cheat a bit and add a touch of low-fat sour cream to my beans, as well as a squeeze of lime and some Sriracha hot sauce if I'm feeling spicy.

Obviously, the point of this diet is to consume as few calories as possible. Sometimes you just get in a lull or plateau and you need something to boost you a bit, and that's where I was, so that's why I'm doing this insane feat this week. I know, I know...if you starve yourself, you typically gain that weight back, but it's not going to happen! Besides, if I don't take care of this right now, I'm absolutely doomed for the next month and a half, what with Thanksgiving, our Christmas party, Christmas, and New Year's (Eve and Day). Four or five feast days in a month and a half...crazy.

So, whatever you're eating today, think of how delicious it is and enjoy it for me. Just keep the calories for yourself, please.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Pecan Pie

I love pecan pie.

This is interesting, because I couldn't stand pecan pie when I was little. It wasn't until I married Mark that I learned pecan pie is supposed to be soft, rich, and caramely rather than dry, overbaked, and flavorless. It's actually Mark's favorite pie, and if it hadn't been, I probably wouldn't have taken so much time to perfect it. He chose it as his birthday dessert, because as much as he loves a really good chocolate cake, he loves good pecan pie more.

Sunday, I worked on refining the recipe. In 4-oz. ramekins, I made 6 variations of pecan pie fillings, varying the type and quality of sugar, the amount of butter, and the eggs. We tasted each of them and to our great surprise preferred more butter over less and more expensive, unrefined sugar to ye olde C&H golden brown. Okay, not to our great surprise.

I'll tell you what I know about good pecan pie. Toasted pecans are better than raw pecans. Overbaked pie is dry and certainly not worth the calories (because, in case you're wondering, it does have at least a few calories). You need to prick your crust before adding the filling. It should be served cold, though for most pies I prefer room temperature since the crust is more flavorful that way. It should be served in small slices since it's very rich. It's best with whipped cream, but also good by itself. I should not be left alone for a whole day with the leftovers and be expected to save a piece for someone else. And, of course, you need to start with a fabulous crust, which I already have.

So, what is the perfect pecan pie recipe? Well, I don't exactly know yet, but I'm very close. I would say very, very close. So close I can taste it.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

To Sous-Vide and Beyond!

I'm sure you feared I'd dropped off the face of the earth, but I didn't. I did attend a wedding, my husband had knee surgery, and we took our son to the ER for a nasty-looking black eye - on Halloween, no less (the picture is from 2 days later). And throughout the last couple of weeks, we've had some really good food that I haven't had a chance to write about. Now it all seems so overwhelming, so I'm just going to start with pictures and tell you about them as I go along.

These first few pictures were from my laughable attempt at sous-vide. I only say "laughable" because I didn't have a vacuum sealer or a thermal immersion circulator; other than that, I would actually call it a success. It's kind of like the boil-in-a-bag method, except I kept the water temperatures just below where I poach, which means it was more like a poaching-in-butter method, but without using a pound of butter.

First, I combined some softened butter with fresh thyme and Kosher salt. I took each of the chicken breasts (I had four) and placed them in their own Ziploc plastic bag (I used the freezer variety, since they're thicker, which may not make any difference whatsoever). Then I divided the seasoned butter between the four bags, pressed the air out, and zipped them shut. After massaging them in the butter, I dropped them into my water bath, which I kept between 165°F and 173°F, for about an hour. Once I'd removed them from the water, I let them set for 10 or 15 minutes before opening them up. And when I did open them up, I was very happy. They were not just tender the way poached chicken usually is, but very moist and flavorful.

So, I will definitely be using this method in the future, and I also highly recommend it. It has several advantages: obviously, the chicken is delicate and delicious; cleanup is very easy; and the chicken doesn't need to be completely thawed before adding it to the water bath. I'll likely double up the chicken breasts in the future, but aside from that and playing with different seasonings, it's a pretty good system the way it stands.

Alongside the chicken I served gnocchi and tomato cream sauce, which were both as lovely as I expected them to be. It was a delicious meal all-in-all, and now that it's been two weeks, I'm wondering how soon until I make it again. Of course, I'd have to use grocery store tomatoes, since we've had a few good frosts here, and it wouldn't be the same.

In addition to this meal, I'm anxious to tell you about my Mexican sopes and also my pork chops and polenta. But maybe I'll have to make the pork chops again first, since I don't have a picture of those or the polenta. Not that you need a picture, unless you're just like me and love food.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

What's for Dinner?

Today I'm doing things a bit backwards, so I'm going to tell you what I'll be making and post pictures later on. This works well because 1. Anticipation is half the excitement, 2. I have part of dinner started and have to wait to move on some of it, and 3. Kate is asleep.

A while ago, I made gnocchi with tomato cream sauce, and I'm making it again tonight. I haven't made it since July, and I still have some tomatoes left in the garden. It was so good, and my husband will be crushed when he sees what we're eating without him (he'll be out with his cycling friends tonight for an end-of-the-season ride and meal that won't include anything this delicious). Also, I stated in my previous entry that it's difficult to have an appetizing picture of pink or cream colored food, but I want to try again. I'll let you know if I succeed.

To go with it, I'm having some seasoned chicken breasts. I've seen the sous-vide method talked about nonstop on Top Chef and The Next Iron Chef, so I'm anxious to see if I can pseudo-recreate it in my kitchen. On a very cave-man like level, of course, since my gadgets are limited to the standard food lover's kitchen. Basically, you place vacuum-packed ingredients in a low-temperature water bath with circulating water and cook it for a long time. You can read more about it on the Wikipedia site. I'll be circulating my water by hand, on occasion, and keeping the temperature right around 165° - 170°, much higher than sous-vide methods, really, but since I'm not an expert I'm erring on the side of safety. And we'll see how long we let it cook. My guess is my cross-over method will end up closer to a poached chicken than anything else amazing. But maybe a perfectly poached chicken.

Also, I'm trying a new recipe from Epicurious. It's called brussel sprout hash or something, and I'm making that because my husband isn't here tonight and doesn't like the sprouts, but I do, and I am so excited about this dish I'm jumping out of my skin. I can't wait to tell you how it all turns out. Check back....

Thursday, October 18, 2007


Last night I was looking for a quick but interesting dinner. It was a bit blustery outside, and I settled on carrot soup and panini. I haven't really made panini before, but our sandwiches were full of flavor and very filling, and I remembered at almost the last moment that I should take a quick picture. Thus the blurry bite to the left.

Carrot soup, if you haven't made it, is very smooth and rich, even though I don't add any cream, and I didn't want too much food to serve with it, but just bread didn't sound quite filling enough, especially since I questioned who would finish their soup. It turns out Mark, Kate, and I finished our soup. Actually, Kate ate all but two bites of Emily's (the first two), and David didn't even try it. Oh, well.

The panini was splendid, and very easy, as all sandwiches are. All the work was in going to the grocery store. This is how I layered them:

slice of rosemary olive oil bread (or something equally nice)
slice prosciutto
slice rosemary sundried tomato ham (or just a really good ham, but nothing sweet)
Comté (any Gruyère will do)
thinly sliced tomatoes
salt, pepper
baby arugula leaves
slice of bread

Just lightly butter the outsides of the bread and grill it one of three ways: panini press (I don't have one of these), on a griddle covered with foil and two baking tiles or stones (my first method), or a George Foreman grill (our second method, which also works very well, though it doesn't really press the sandwich if you're looking for that kind of a result).

So, I'm curious. Have any of you made panini, and what do you put on it? How do you cook it?

Also, I'm headed out of town for a few days. Just me and little Kate (for a wedding), so unless I can convince Mark to write a post, you won't hear anything from me until the middle of next week.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Morning Smoothie

I've considered writing this post for a long time - perhaps months - but thought the idea was so ridiculously simple that it wouldn't do. Today I changed my mind because, like every other morning, I realized I just couldn't live without my smoothie for breakfast. My husband favors steel-cut oats or homemade granola, my daughter would give up all other options for eggs, and my 3-year old son strongly prefers any breakfast cereal in a bag. But they will all have a bit of my smoothie if they're home when I make it.

I don't know how I reached this point, but my blueberry smoothie is now a necessity. I won't eat anything else. In the morning, my stomach is empty and fussy and doesn't like any heavy foods (though I can manage a waffle mid-morning) or too much milk. I'm also allergic to eggs (just straight-up...I know, what a pity!) and prefer cereal as a snack. Not to mention I'm a fruit nut.

Mark and I used to make different smoothies once in a while, but a couple of years ago I settled in on one irresistible recipe and almost never vary from it. It's fruity and creamy and absolutely delicious. It's perfect for the morning, nutritious, and it keeps me going until lunch. Also, I have never lost weight on any diet when I have strayed from my smoothie. And now you, too, can have this breakfast every morning. But keep in mind, it's more addictive than any cup o' joe.

Blueberry Smoothie

1 c. frozen blueberries (fresh work, too, but you may need a touch of ice)
1/3 c. vanilla or plain low-fat yogurt (plain if you're dieting)
1/2 - 1 banana, if you have it around (this is totally optional)
about 2/3 c. orange juice
about 2/3 c. vanilla soy milk

Throw all ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. If it's too thick to blend, add about 1/4 c. more orange juice or soy milk or both. Serves 1 if it's your entire breakfast or 2 if it's not.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Spare Ribs

When I was young I lived on a farm. Because we were self-sufficient (at least in the food category), we ate a lot of meat. A lot of beef, a lot of pork, and a lot of chicken. We always enjoyed the spare ribs, but for some reason I haven't really had them in my adult life. Back ribs seem to be much more popular in the grocery aisle and at restaurants, so I was skeptical about trying to make them at home, wondering how they could be really good if everyone has turned to back ribs.

I started by learning the difference between the two: spare ribs have more meat on them, but the bone is larger, and back ribs are easier to cut apart. That doesn't sound like any big deal, of course, so I'm not sure what the big deal is. Maybe in the South spare ribs are still more popular.

In the past, I've used Alton Brown's recipe for making baby back ribs and really liked the method, but I wasn't crazy about the flavors, so Mark and I decided to shake it up a bit. (Of course it was a collaboration, since it involved a big piece of meat.) I really like the flavor of my brother Dan's dry spice rub (or my loose interpretation of it, based on what I had around the house), and I have some of that on hand still. But, since the weather is cooling, I couldn't really plan on grilling for several hours. The charcoal wouldn't have held its heat, and I didn't have that kind of time to devote to one thing. So I decided to combine a few ideas.

We rubbed the meat, let that soak in for an hour, then braised it in the oven, using Alton Brown's suggestions. Then we used the braising liquid as a base for a sauce to baste the ribs with while finishing them off on the grill. The rub had all the spice we used in the recipe and the sauce was a sweet and acidic balance to the spice, making the overall spice fairly mild (just tolerable for Emily). Additionally, the meat was really tender and easy to pull from the bone, while the flavor was nice and bold. I really liked doing it this way, though if it were just for adults, I'd throw more rub on in the beginning to make it spicier. Of course, this is all assuming you don't have a smoker.

We served it with potato salad and the corn salad recipe from the other day, sans the bleu cheese, which it didn't really need, since I wanted to make that one last time before fresh, local corn was gone for the summer. My potato salad is pretty simple: boil red potatoes, slice them, add cider vinegar, chill them, and add diced sweet onions, lots and lots of chopped pickles, a touch of pickle juice, chopped boiled eggs, mayonnaise, salt, and pepper. It was a good potato salad. A good standard potato salad. Sometimes I like a more inventive one (with tarragon or Dijon or bacon or something), but sometimes the standard is good, too.

In case you might get to it, here is the recipe for the spare ribs. And if it's too cold to grill, you can finish them under the broiler, but watch them carefully and don't put them too close to the heating element.

Dan's Spice Rub
adapted from Dan Metcalf, or you can use his original recipe

3 T. brown sugar
1 1/2 T. Kosher salt
1 1/2 T. cumin
1 1/2 T. black peppercorns
1 T. dried, ground chili of choice (I used ancho or guajillo), or chili powder
1 dried guajillo chili, destemmed, torn (or 2 Anchos would be good here, too)

Throw all the ingredients in a blender and blend to a fine powder. Set aside.

Spare Ribs

extra-long heavy duty aluminum foil
Dan's Spice Rub
1 rack (4-5 lb.) spare ribs
Kosher salt
3/4 c. white wine
1 1/2 T. white wine vinegar
2 T. Worcestershire sauce
1/4 c. honey
4 cloves garlic, smashed
2 t. yellow mustard
1 T. molasses
2 T. white wine vinegar
1/2 c. apple cider
brown sugar
dash or two of Worcestershire sauce

Lay out a long sheet of aluminum foil on a baking sheet. If it will not be wide enough to wrap around the ribs and roll together, place to sheets side-by-side and roll the ends together to make it fairly airtight. Set the rack of ribs on top of the foil.

Sprinkle both sides of the ribs with the spice rub and with a light, even dusting of Kosher salt, then rub it into the meat. Use a thin layer for mild to medium ribs, more as desired. Bring the foil together on top of the rack and fold together (as you do the top of a brown paper bag), leaving extra air above the meat for steaming, then roll up the ends. Let the meat set for an hour to absorb the rub.

Preheat the oven to 250°F.

In a bowl, combine the wine, 1 1/2 T. white wine vinegar, 1/4 c. honey, 2 T. Worcestershire, and garlic cloves. Microwave for one minute, then stir to blend well. Open up one end of the foil, pour the liquid in, and close the foil back up. Shake it gently to slosh it around inside, just to spread it a bit. Place the baking sheet with the ribs on it in the oven and bake for 2 1/2 hours.

Open up the foil end again and pour off the braising liquid into a small saucepan (it will have multiplied, since it has pork stock in it as well now). Return the ribs to the oven and let them continue to cook for about 20 minutes as you make the sauce. As you start on the sauce, light up the charcoal for your grill to get it ready (unless you're using gas).

Set the saucepan over medium to medium high heat and whisk in the mustard, molasses, vinegar, cider, Worcestershire, and about 1/2 c. of brown sugar and 1/4 c. honey to start. Cook, stirring occasionally, until it has reduced to about 1 or 1 1/2 cups. Taste for flavor and adjust as necessary. It should be rich, sweet, slightly acidic, and little mustardy to balance out the spice in the rub.

After your grill is very hot, baste the ribs with the sauce and grill, turning a couple of times, applying a couple of layers of the sauce until it's all used up. Grill until the sauce has glazed well and the ribs have a nice sear on them, then cut and serve.

Now, isn't that inspiring?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


On occasion throughout the last 10 years, I've tried to make biscuits. I say "tried" because that's typically as far as I got. I didn't use Bisquick, and I didn't have self-rising flour (since I don't live in the that why they say the South will rise again?). I'm also not Southern, which my husband pointed out each time my biscuits came out nearly flat. But that wasn't a good enough excuse for me, especially since I lived in southern Indiana as a child, which almost counts.

One of the frustrating sections of biscuit instructions is always the part about mixing things together with your hands. No one ever really tells you how, and this is where it usually all goes wrong. At least for me. So when I made peach pie last time, in a vacation condo, and I had to use utensils and my fingers but still ended up with a lovely, flaky crust, I knew it was time to tackle the biscuits again.

Which I did. And I succeeded.

This time, my biscuits were tender, fluffy, and delicious. The trick was definitely mixing in the butter properly. I took what I've learned from pastry and applied it to this recipe: keep the butter chilled, don't work the flour into the fat (i.e., keep your layers separate), and don't worry about getting the crumbly appearance very uniform or small. Larger pieces of butter are fine, as long as they have been flattened between your fingers to a thin layer.

If you haven't done a lot of baking, or if you haven't made biscuits but like to eat them (for example, if your dad is making sausage and gravy), you should give these a go. They take no more than 10 minutes to throw together (about as long as your oven takes to preheat) and another 15 to bake. So simple, once you get the little technique down, the one that apparently all Southerners already know.

to view a printable version of this recipe, click here

Baking Powder Biscuits
makes about 8 three-inch biscuits

2 c. all-purpose flour
2 1/2 t. baking powder
1 t. salt
1 t. sugar
8 T. cold unsalted butter, cut into chunks
3/4 c. milk

Preheat the oven to 450°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat, or just spray it with non-stick spray.

In a bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar. Add the butter and stir once or twice to coat, then mix the butter in. Begin by using a fork to cut most of the chunks up into smaller pieces, then, working quickly, use your fingers to smash and pinch the pieces of butter, working them just until they're all fairly flat. Stir in the milk with a fork or with your hands, until the dough is just consistent and manageable.

Dump the dough out onto a floured work surface. Flatten into a disc, then dust the top with flour. Using a rolling pin, roll the dough out until it is a generous 1/2" thick. Cut into round biscuits, using the size or shape you desire (I just use the top of a glass).

Place on the baking sheet and bake for 12-15 minutes, until golden brown. Remove from oven, cool slightly, and remove to a cooling rack. Serve.

You thought I was done, because what else can you say about biscuits, right? How about sweet potato biscuits? They're a scrumptious use of leftover sweet potatoes, which we often bake for dinner in the fall and winter.

Sweet potato biscuits are good right out of the oven but they're best once they've cooled to room temperature, when you will find them irresistibly addictive. I'm not kidding. Bake them not when you think you have an amazing amount of self-control, but when you don't care, like you've just run 10 miles or you haven't eaten in 14 days, or when you have a lot of people around you to eat them all quickly. And I have to warn you - if you're at all like me - you're going to taste them right when they come out of the oven because you'll be so popping proud, and then you'll think, "These are pretty good. Maybe they could be a little sweeter. They're okay." Then you'll walk away. An hour later, you'll return, take a piece off of one, realize how incredible they are, and suddenly eat the rest of them. Well, hopefully not. Just be warned.

Sweet Potato Biscuits
makes about 12 three-inch biscuits

2 c. flour
2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. baking soda
1 t. salt
1 T. brown sugar
12 T. cold unsalted butter
1 1/4 c. mashed roasted sweet potatoes
1/2 c. crushed, roasted pecans (roast at 350° for 10 min., cool, then crush with bottom of a glass)
1/4 c. milk

Preheat the oven to 450°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat, or just spray it with non-stick spray.

In a bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and sugar. Add the butter and stir once or twice to coat, then mix the butter in. Begin by using a fork to cut most of the chunks up into smaller pieces, then, working quickly, use your fingers to smash and pinch the pieces of butter, working them just until they're all fairly flat. Using the fork, stir in the sweet potatoes and pecans until mixed fairly well, then quickly stir in the milk. You may need to use your hands a little. (Wash them when you're done, please.)

Dump the dough out onto a lightly-floured surface, then dust the top with a little flour. Gently press and shape the dough until it's a generous 1/2" thick. Cut into round biscuits, using the size or shape you desire (I just use the top of a glass).

Place on the baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes, until golden brown. Remove to a cool ing rack and bring to room temperature. Serve.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007


I was planning on telling you all about the most wonderful, magnificent, incredible brownie in the world quite some time ago, but I was afraid you wouldn't believe me. It's my one real cheat, I guess. They're from a box. This box:

The amazing thing about them is that while they're dense and moist, they have an unmatched depth of chocolate flavor. I've tried to replicate it. I can't. The texture is just incredible, since they're very thick but not at all cakey. (I don't like cakey brownies.) And when I make them, it takes less than a day for the pan to look like this:

I've always purchased them at Costco, and on this last trip I noticed, to my horror, that they'd been replaced.

When I say, "to my horror," I'm not exaggerating. My heart sunk. Instead of the beloved Hershey's box, I saw a Betty Crocker box with mini-kisses and some other chocolate.

Mark and I had just been talking recently about how we should stock up on these, so we could always have them around. You know, in case of a brownie emergency. (By the way, they're also amazing with vanilla ice cream and hot fudge sauce.) Unfortunately, we hadn't done that yet.

So I'm terribly concerned, but there is one little ray of hope. The Hershey's brownies are made by Betty Crocker, so Mark suggested maybe they're just changing the branding of the box. I'm a bit concerned because the previous brownies were deleted by Costco and these now placed on permanent order (I asked). I think I'll call Betty Crocker or Hershey's tomorrow and see if I can sort it out. Unless any of you already know.

Just in case, I better work on my own brownie recipe.

Oh, and by the way (in case you happen to have one of these boxes, which I'd buy off of you), they should be made with softened butter, not oil. I'm sure it's just a misprint on the box when it calls for oil, because they work wonderfully with softened butter and the taste difference is very noticeable.

Update on Oct.10: I called Betty Crocker (well, General Mills) and they told me the old brownies haven't been discontinued, and they may just be on a rotation at Costco. More importantly, they're also called Betty Crocker Supreme brownies Triple Chocolate Chunk and available at most grocery stores. I have to say, though, as I've been thinking about it, I wonder how they'd be at sea level. They're so dense and fudgy here at 2500 feet and in Utah at 4000 feet, and I don't know if they're the same in Indiana or Florida or wherever else. Let me know. But make them with butter, or it won't be a fair comparison.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Chicken Pot Pie

Let me extol the virtues of chicken pot pie. First, the crust. How ingenious is it to use pie crust in savory dishes, so you don't even have to wait for dessert. Of course, that's assuming you've had good pie crust and know what you're constantly missing out on everyday there's not a pie waiting for dessert.

Second, who doesn't like stew in cold fall temperatures? That starchy, mellow goodness that warms your whole body and satisfies every bit of your hunger. It just feels like you're home when you're eating a stew.

And third, it's a one-dish meal. Kind of. It actually takes a few dishes to prepare it, but you only need to put one serving dish on the table when you're sitting down to eat. Everyone gets some protein, everyone gets a few vegetables, and everyone gets a little incentive to eat the dish, since it's topped with a delicious homemade crust.

Okay, now I'll tell you what I really think, usually, of pot pie. All the ingredients taste pretty good, but then you stick them all together and there are no clean flavors left. The result is that harmony of nothingness. Creamy, stewy, whatever. I like making chicken pot pie, but by the time I serve it, I don't want another bite. I'm over-stewed. Except this time.

One of the problems is that nothing has any distinct flavors in a stew. This is really okay, but to make it interesting, you can't just add all your average components and expect to have an above-average flavor in the end. You also can't add exciting flavors and expect them to stand out above everything else; well, if you add a whole lot of them, they will, but the pie will be best when you have achieved a good balance of complementary flavors.

I like mushrooms in my pot pie, and I like the way that Sherry tastes with mushrooms. I prefer crimini to white mushrooms because they have an earthier flavor. That was a good starting point for me. I considered the rest of the basics: shallots over onions and/or garlic, red potatoes (definitely) boiled or fried, how much chicken, roasted or poached, and seasoning.

I thought shallots would make a difference here, since I didn't want onions or garlic taking over the flavor of the dish. Boiled potatoes, a very watery starch, would only dilute the other tastes and textures, but frying the potatoes in an oil-free non-stick skillet would not only give the potatoes texture, but also enrich the flavor of the rest of the dish. However, I thought the more delicate texture and flavor of poached would make a better meal. I'm not crazy about overdoing the chicken flavor in chicken pot pie, which I guess sounds really ironic.

As far as other flavors go, I decided to start with bacon to give it a little smokiness, which really mellowed out by the end, but I'm happy with the amount I had. You could opt for more if you want that flavor to stand out, but as I've said, it's not about anything standing out, but coming together. I also added an apple and a touch of Dijon for just a bit of acidity to balance everything else out. Now, you might think, "Oh, yum, this recipe sounds really good, but I think I'll leave out the Dijon. I'm not crazy about that part." At least, if you're like me, you'll be thinking of how to alter the recipe before you start. Don't leave out the Dijon. There's just a teensy weensy bit in there, and it's so perfectly a part of it. Don't leave it out. I'm not kidding. Just leave it in. Please. You'll be so happy you did when you taste it, except you won't really taste much of it at all, and it will be just right, and you'll realize how absolutely brilliant I am. And that I'm always right.

Of course, the crust is extraordinarily important, so make your crust. It doesn't take long, and you can just quickly use your fingers to smash the mixture to pieces if you don't have a stand mixer, but an all-butter crust will make the dish, since butter goes so well with stew, but shortening does not. Oh, and also (which is a phrase I think my daughter uses), I only make a top crust, since otherwise it's not so much about making a dinner as it is about eating crust.

This was so good that I thoroughly enjoyed my dinner, even after tasting everything so much along the way. In fact, I wanted to eat a lot more, but, well, it's not the healthiest meal out there. But it is delicious. (Do I sound torn? I was very torn.)

By the way, this does fit in with my diet. It's all about portion control, after all. And exercising 60 minutes today. And having nothing else but V8 the rest of the day (I'm drinking one right now and it's delicious). See, I can make it work.

Chicken Pot Pie
makes 2 pies (one for you, one for me)

1/2 lb. bacon, chopped (I prefer thick, maple-cured bacon)
1 lb. shallots, sliced
2/3 lb. crimini mushrooms, chopped
1 lg. apple, diced (I used Honey Crisp, but any would be fine)
2 1/2 lbs. red potatoes, 1/2" dice
2 large chicken breasts (about 1 1/4 lbs.)
2 T. butter
1/3 c. flour
1/4 c. sherry
3 c. chicken broth
3 T. cream (because I had it around, milk would be fine)
1 t. Dijon mustard
1 c. peas
Kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
One recipe pie dough, divided into two equal portions, rolled out (you can roll them out, wrap them in plastic wrap, and set them in the fridge while you do all this)

First, poach the chicken. In a small or medium saucepan, add water to about 3 inches, the core from the apple you diced, a few baby carrots, and 1/2 t. salt. Add the two chicken breasts, set over medium heat, and bring nearly to a simmer. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for 15 - 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and let the chicken sit in the poaching liquid for another 15 minutes or so, cooling, until you're ready to cut it up.

In a large non-stick skillet, set the bacon over medium heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until done. Remove to drain on paper towel, then pour off all but 4 T. of the bacon grease. You can eyeball this. If you're concerned about saturated fat, keep the bacon but substitute olive oil for the bacon grease.

Turn the heat up to medium-high, then add the shallots with a few pinches of salt. Cook, stirring, until they're nice and soft, then add the mushrooms.

(Just a note here, in case you haven't heard this already: it's important to salt food as you make it, in the layers that you're putting it together, to bring out the flavor of each layer. Also, sometimes it's important to draw out the liquids in each food to help them cook faster, as with onions, mushrooms, and potatoes.)

Cook the shallots and mushrooms until the mushrooms are starting to brown a bit and have given off a lot of their liquid. Add the bacon and apple, stir a few times, and remove to a bowl for later.

Preheat the oven to 400°.

To your skillet, add the potatoes and about a teaspoon of salt. Cook, stirring, covering with the lid for a minute or two here and there to help them along (this will steam them a bit, then they'll dry out after the lid is removed, which helps them to cook without browning too much), adding a bit more salt here and there as needed for taste and to draw out more liquid. If they seem to be browning quickly, turn the heat down to medium and keep stirring. This takes about 20 minutes. Remove the potatoes to a large bowl.

Dice the chicken into 1/2" cubes.

Add the mushroom mixture back to the skillet along with the 2 T. butter. After that has melted, stir in the flour completely, then stir in the sherry. After cooking for a few seconds, add the broth, cream, peas, and chicken. Bring to a simmer, where it should thicken up a bit. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Stir in the Dijon. Add the whole mixture to the bowl of potatoes and stir.

Divide the stew between two pie pans and top each with the pie dough. Cut a couple of slits in the top. Bake for 20-30 minutes, until the crust is just done. Cool 10 minutes and serve.

Now, doesn't that sound easy?