Saturday, November 07, 2009

Chocolate Eclairs in Real Time

We have a quarterly supper club that meets tonight. Our theme for this meal is "air." All the components have to have some relation to air. That relationship can be as vague or as specific as desired (and if someone says, "I'm serving rack of lamb, because lambs breathe air," I won't be the least bit upset). The hostess provides the entree, and the other three couples provide an appetizer, sides, and dessert. We rotate who does what, and tonight I'm to provide dessert.

I cast aside the obvious "air" references in dessert--meringue because it looks like the clouds, souffles because they're airy. Instead I chose chocolate eclairs--the heated air is what causes the choux pastry to puff. Choux pasty is so easy to make, it's a shame people don't make it more often.

I decided to do this recipe in stages. That way, if any one step failed, I could chuck the whole thing in the garbage and go buy a pavlova or some Miss Meringe cookies at the grocery store. So I thought I'd share this as I made it.

Step one is the pastry cream, because it needs to cool for at least an hour, and it was the most intimidating piece to me. I've made choux pastry many times, but I can't recall ever having made pastry cream. Anything where I'm heating up raw eggs or yolks to the point where they could potentially scramble makes me a little uneasy.

And truth be told, I think I did scramble it a little, but at the end of the recipe the pastry cream gets folded into whipped cream, so I think the stirring I'll be giving it prior to the folding will take care of any little lumps.

But here's the result of my efforts:

Not bad. This spoonful went right in my mouth, of course, and I can report that it has a nice vanilla flavor. It looks like vanilla pudding, and I guess that's pretty much what it tastes like (indeed, pretty much what it is). But I'm pleased that it turned out and I don't, at this point, at least, have to make a grocery run.

Vanilla Pastry Cream
Enough for 12 – 13 éclairs
From Fine Cooking magazine

1 cup whole milk (I was out of whole—I used ½ and ½)
3 large egg yolks
¼ cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/8 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Warm the milk in a medium saucepan over medium heat until tiny bubbles appear around the edges. In a medium bowl, combine egg yolks, sugar, and salt. Whisk to combine. Add the cornstarch and salt and whisk. Pour half of the hot milk into the egg yolk mixture and whisk well. Add remaining hot milk and whisk again. Return the milk mixture to the saucepan and cook over medium heat, whisking constantly. Continue cooking until mixture thickens to the consistency of vanilla pudding. This will happen all of a sudden. One minute you’ll be whisking milk, the next minute you’ll look up to see how hard it’s raining and when you look down, you’ll have pudding. It may look lumpy as it starts to thicken, but it will smooth out.

Remove from the heat, and scrape into a clean bowl. Whisk in the vanilla, and cover with a sheet of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the pastry cream. Refrigerate until chilled, at least an hour.

Next up: the dough and the ganache, but not until this afternoon.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Where Have I Gone?

Nowhere. I'm still here, and I still cook. Lately, however, I've been too exhausted to actually photograph what I've cooked.

Let me 'splain.

For reasons that I can no longer recall (probably because of the aforementioned exhaustion), I decided it would be a good idea--no, a great idea--to run a half marathon. Of course! Because since high school, the only running I've done has been out of patience, out of time, out of money, and out of energy. And of course picking up one foot and then the other didn't play much of a role in any of that. So why on earth would I not run a half marathon? I can see no way in which this carefully constructed plan could possibly fail.

I picked the Seattle half marathon, which is held the Sunday after Thanksgiving each year. The choice was based more on convenience than on any characteristic of the race, or out of consideration for how spectacular the weather will be (because if there is anything the weather in Seattle will be on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, it is not spectacular). I started training. By about last Sunday (six weeks out from the race), I realized I was hopelessly undertrained. I had only been training for five weeks prior to that. So I reconsidered. I had seen an ad in a running magazine for a half marathon at Walt Disney World in the spring, A quick internet search revealed the Disney Princess Half Marathon on March 7th.

I posted a Facebook status asking if anyone wanted to do it with me. One friend, a dedicated half marathoner, said she would. And so, dear reader, I am comitted to training between now and March 7th for a half marathon. This means I get up at 4:30 a.m. many mornings (I sleep in until 5 on the weekends) and run on a treadmill in my basement. As a result, I am exhausted. I manage to get through work and evenings with my kids, but I spiral down quickly from the time I turn out their lights. I am a lot of fun to be around.

As a second circumstance in all of this--and another major contributor to my lack of posts--is that I am doing more of my own recipe development. I still read all the wonderful food magazines I get, but I'm spending a lot of time using those as inspiration, rather than as instructions. It takes a lot longer, I'm discovering, to perfect something you dreamed up, instead of making something from a recipe that someone else has spent hours conceiving and perfecting. And it goes without saying (although here I am saying it anyway) that it takes even longer still when you have a full time job in an industry unrelated to food, four kids, a husband, and a house (no dog--come on, I'm not crazy, you know). I have a couple of things in the works, but to tide you over until then, here's the Chicken Pot Pie I made for dinner last night (and was too dead tired to photograph). Because I make this for my kids an average of twice a month, I've got the recipe down.

Chicken Pot Pie
makes enough for two adults and four hyper-picky kids with leftovers for the adults' lunches. It would probably serve 4-6 normal people, depending on how ravenous they were.

3 boneless skinless chicken breasts
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
2 cups chicken broth
1 cup heavy cream, ½ and ½, or milk
About 1 c frozen peas (no need to thaw)
About 1 c frozen pearl onions (no need to thaw)
2 large carrots, peeled and cut into ¼” dice
Salt and pepper

Poach chicken breasts until cooked through and set aside to cool. When cool enough to handle, shred meat and set aside.

Preheat oven to 350. In a large saucepan melt butter over medium heat, and add flour. Whisk over medium heat, about three minutes. Add chicken broth and whisk until slightly thickened. Add cream (heavy cream tastes best, of course, but if you can’t bear the thought of the fat, use half and half or milk; it will still be good, just not as rich). Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add shredded chicken and vegetables. Continue cooking until thickened, about 10 minutes (the ice on the frozen vegetables will thin the sauce down, but it doesn’t take long to thicken back up). Taste and correct seasoning. Pour chicken mixture into a 2 quart casserole coated with cooking spray. Top with biscuits. Bake about 15 minutes, or until biscuits are golden.


2 cups all purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons cold butter, cut in small pieces
1 cup buttermilk

In a food processor, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Pulse two or three times to combine. Add butter and pulse until mixture resembles coarse meal (maybe 12 or 14 times). With the motor running, pour the buttermilk into the feed tube slowly, watching the consistency of the dough. Once it pulls together, stop pouring and turn off the machine. Check dough by giving it a pinch—if it sticks together, it has enough liquid in it. Odds are you will not need all of the buttermilk.

Turn dough out on a floured surface and pat out to about ¾” thick. Using a biscuit or cookie cutter, cut out as many biscuits as you can. (I have used cat shaped cutters, hearts, stars and plain circles—be warned, the more complex the shape, the less likely it is to “work” as a biscuit. Kids think the shapes are cute, though.) You’ll probably have about 16 biscuits. Place these on top of the pot pie filling and bake as directed above.

Quantity Note: you can make more of this casserole, and cook it in a 9”x13” pan. To do so, you’ll need an extra tablespoon each of butter and flour, an extra cup of broth, and about an additional half cup of cream or milk. You’ll also want to up your vegetables and poach another chicken breast. I don’t make it in that big a pan because my kids eat like anorexic sparrows doing a Ghandi imitation, and I used to wind up with three tons of leftovers. While I like this chicken pot pie, I prefer not to eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner for a whole week. I'm just fickle that way.

Monday, October 05, 2009

No! Not Gourmet!

I am shocked! I get that ad revenue is down, I get that they need to cut costs, but to close down Gourmet! Get rid of Lucky, get rid of one of your golf titles, cut Architectural Digest down to six months a year, but please don't get rid of Gourmet!

I have to be completely honest--when Ruth Reichl took over, like so many others, I declared the magazine to be ruined, and let my subscription lapse. I felt a little like I did in high school. You know, you're friends with someone early on, then they join some club or team and you feel like their new friends change them. The new person they've become just isn't someone you want to be friends with at that point in your life. You both move on. Then, one day several months or years later, you find yourself interacting with this person--maybe you're both on the yearbook committee now, or you're both in the spring musical production--and you realize that you've both changed more, and now you can be friends again.

Well that's how it was with me and Gourmet. Gourmet's new friend Ruth changed it, and not for the better in my opinion at the time. Then, one day, maybe two years ago now, I picked up a copy on the newsstand. I don't know what prompted me--maybe it had a pretty cover. Maybe I had read something on a food blog about a recipe that sounded good (let's be honest--that was probably it). Whatever the motivating factor was, I picked it up and kept picking it up. And then I subscribed. And now I make probably two recipes a month out of it, and flag even more for future use. I love what Gourmet has become--it's much more in synch with how I cook today. Lots of weeknight recipes, with a nice mix of fancier stuff for weekends and holidays when I have more time for cooking.

In fact, so completely have I about-faced on Gourmet that when a friend told me she had old issues from 1999 - 2004 or so that she would let me I have, I jumped at the chance. That span represents the almost entire time that Gourmet and I were estranged. I got a second chance! The stash even included the September 1999 issue that was the first one on which Ruth Reichl worked, and which created such an outcry (both for and against), as well as the November 1999 issue in which said outcry was recorded. I also have the August 1999 issue, which was the one just prior to Reichl's taking over, and which followed the older format. It's fascinating to read the two together.

Of course, the magazine has come even further now, with bigger changes that are nice to see and note. In the period BR (Before Ruth), Gourmet's opinion was clearly that there were no restaurants worth troubling with anywhere but New York and LA. Ruth expanded the restaurant reviews to the whole country. Gourmet used to be full of huge beautiful pictures of Italy, Francy, Germany, Laos...big glossy shots of places far away, along with travel tips for when you got to go (ha!). They still cover some travel, but it's not the main focus any more. The main focus is clearly food. Food that you could cook on Thursday night, as well as things you could make for your guests on Saturday night, or for Thanksgiving dinner. I feel it's more well-adjusted in the past couple of years. The Quick Cook or Gourmet Every Day columns from so long ago often had things like oatmeal cookies and cranberry sorbet. Perfect! Just what I serve for dinner every night! No, now you get things like steak, pork chops, and shrimp, as well as vegetarian choices. Much more useful.

I'm just hoping Conde Nast gives Gourmet a second chance. I looked at the Conde Nast website, bu there was no "contact us" button, so I guess I'll send an email directly to Gourmet. They can't do this! I already subscribe to Bon Appetit, Food + Wine, Martha Stewart Everyday Food, Cooking Light, Fine Cooking, and Donna Hay Magazine. On the newsstand I often buy The Food Network Magazine, La Cucina Italiana, and Delicious. I refuse to buy Paula Deen, Rachel Ray, anything Taste of Home, and anything Cook's Illustrated publishes. There will be a sad hole left in my cooking life.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Little Grown Up Food

I type that title as I sit here eating a "bus cookie" (it's a cookie in the shape of a school bus--what else?), but I've been starting to feel the need in my life for a little adult food. Something a kid wouldn't eat in a billion years, and frankly, I wouldn't expect them to. For the last month I've been reciting the mantra, "You will eat what we eat" (OK, not that heavy-handed, but that's the been the gist of it, I assure you) and serving my kids dinners that are sort of a middle ground between the more elaborate meals we used to eat at 9:30 at night, and the microwaved chicken nuggets and canned corn that the kids used to get at 6:30.

So we're eating Chicken Enchilada Casserole (yes, I know that's not what it's called, but that's what we call it), and simple sauteed chicken breasts and the like. And it's going pretty well. I think the kids have finally realized this is one of Mommy's crazy ideas that's not going away any time soon (like that pesky tooth brushing thing, and that annoying thing where she makes us put our trash in the trash can...if you can imagine).

But yesterday I sort of had a craving for something I knew they wouldn't like. You see, as much as I'm ashamed to admit it, and as much as I try not to do it, I do find myself getting huffy and offended when they won't eat the food I cook for them. My rational brain knows full well that they're not rejecting me, but food is such an extension of me, and I feel so personal about it, that I have to fight my irrational brain over this one. So if I made something that started out with things they didn't like in the first place, and then combined them in a way that I knew they wouldn't like much in the second place, I wouldn't get all snitty when they gave me that lip-curl when I told them what it was.

Result: Cream of Mushroom Soup. What kid likes mushrooms? I'm sure there's one somewhere, but none of them are mine, so mushrooms were an easy starting point. When it comes to soup they eat it's Campbell's Tomato made with 2/3 of a can of milk only. Period. Nope, not even chicken noodle. Isn't that strange? Maybe we'll try chicken noodle again this winter, but last winter it was roundly rejected.

Anyway, yesterday was a perfect soup day because it really was the first day of fall here in Seattle. We've been having this incredible Indian summer thing where the temperatures were in the 70s and the sun was shining and no rain. Well that all ended this morning. As I trudged to the bus stop, I found myself thinking, I'm cold. And my feet are cold. These are stupid shoes to be wearing. And this jacket isn't heavy enough. And I need a scarf. And maybe some gloves. And to top it all off, it's raining. Well, sprinkling, but drops are hitting me on the head and on my inadequate-weight jacket and dampening the toes of my stupid shoes, so I classify that as rain.

And did I mention that sunrise is now around 7:05? Somehow a 7 p.m. sunset doesn't bother me, but when the sun comes up at 7 a.m. and I should really have a flashlight out at the bus stop (so the bus sees me, and stops, you see), well, that's winter to me, baby.

So really I didn't intend for this to be a long-winded whine about summer being over and gone. I love fall, really I do. I like Halloween and all the fall festivals and apple picking and making things with apples and using winter squash in stuff and Brussles sprouts (oh, how I love Brussels sprouts!) and I don't mind the weather being colder, but I also don't like being caught unprepared. Tomorrow I know not to wear stupid shoes, to dig out my warm pea coat and scarf, and to bring the big bulky sweater I bought in Ireland ten years ago in to the office so I can be warm all day.

And tomorrow, like today, I can have Cream of Mushroom soup for breakfast again (yes).

Cream of Mushroom Soup with Sage

1lb mushrooms cleaned and sliced (I used Cremini)
2 slices thick bacon, cut in 1/2" dice
2T chopped fresh sage
3T butter
3T flour
2c chicken broth
2 cans 2% evaporated milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
Salt & pepper to taste

In a large saucepan over medium heat, saute bacon until crisp. Remove from pan and set aside, reserving drippings in the pan.

Over medium heat, saute mushrooms in reserved drippings until all water evaporates. Add chopped sage for the last minute of cooking time. Remove mushrooms from pan and set aside.

In the saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Add flour and whisk to form a roux. Cook 1-2 minutes. Add chicken broth and cook until thick. Add evaporated milk and return 1/2 of mushrooms to pan. Thicken slightly, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Remove pan from heat and using an immersion blender (or blender or food processor), puree (be careful when blending hot liquids).

Return pan to heat and add remaining mushrooms to soup. Cook until thickened slightly 5-10 minutes. Add heavy cream and stir to combine. Taste and correct seasoning. Serve sprinkled with reserved bacon bits.

(Alternatively, all mushrooms can be returned to the pan at once prior to blending.)

Monday, September 21, 2009

A Glimpse

I'm dipping in here to assure that I haven't been run over by a cement mixer, or fallen off a ferry or any such thing. I've been somewhat lacking in imagination and motivation lately. I notice this across the food blogging nets--oh sure, some people are devoted and regular publishers (Cate, for instance, and also Deb--and if a woman who gave birth and could post about it two days later can post, what kind of a worm am I??), but a great many of the blogs I read on an ongoing basis are showing a sort of end-of-season lagging.

Oh sure, I've cooked--we have to eat, after all. But nothing has been very inspired, and even the things I've made for fun, as opposed to those things I've made out of the utilitarian need to provide sustenance for my family, seem to let me down. I made a Nutella swirl pound cake just this weekend that disappointed me horribly. It was my own fault, I'll allow that--I didn't realize one of my ovens had such a ghastly hot spot in it--but the fact remains that I was let down.

Is this the change of season? I always think of Ma in "The Long Winter" saying, "Well, it's to be expected; it's the equinoctial storm," or words to that effect when the autumn rains started early before that long winter began. Maybe this is, for me, an equinoctial storm of sorts, in which I hit a lull or down period before the weather officially changes and the seasonal foods change over. I want very much to make Brussels sprouts, or beef stew, but it's not time yet.

I did spend several hours this weekend making tomato sauce out of my San Marzzano tomatoes. I still need to put it through the food mill, but the tomatoes are cooked down. And may I say right now how much I love my food mill? A blender or a food processor, while they do an admirable job of pureeing things, doesn't strain out the icky bits. The seeds, the skins, any woody or fibrous bits, get left behind with the food mill, where they remain with the blender or the food processor (oh sure, you can strain, but that's an extra step; the food mill does both at once).

On another up note, a friend gave me several years' worth of old Gourmets and Bon Appetits she found while she was cleaning out. I mean like two boxes full. And old--early 90s. But food never goes out of style (even if the plates it's served on do, and let me tell you, the prop styling completely dates these things, to the point of hilarity). We're even having two dinners this week that are from a 1996 Gourmet. That's the year I got married.

So I'll be back shortly!

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

A Minor Miracle

While I have no pictures to accompany this, I had to post about it, because it’s just such a thrill to me. I had to share.

First I must start with a basic, albeit rather embarrassing fact: my children do not eat What Mom and Dad Are Eating. Or rather, they didn’t (but I’m getting to that).

When my oldest was a baby, I made a conscious decision. Alex and I both worked 45 minutes from our home (or more, depending on the traffic). Although we left work at 5 each day, we didn’t get home until around 6, which meant I had to choose: feed the baby “our” dinner, which might take as much as an hour to cook, or feed him something “fast” (read: frozen and microwaved) and get him into bed at a reasonable hour. It’s to be noted that we had (and still have) an early-to-bed-early-to-rise kinda kid. By 7 p.m. he was spent and ready for sleep. I felt that forcing him to eat then would be Just Plain Wrong.

Thus it was that my child (and his subsequent siblings) embarked on a diet of chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese, and frozen pizza. What they lost on the nutrition front they made up for on the well-rested front. Parenting is about making choices.

Flash forward six years. Add to the image three more children, a commute that now involves a ferry ride (making for a very reliably-timed arrival home), and two parents who are tired of eating at 9 p.m. or later. Also, consider that over the past couple of weeks the two middle children have been coming downstairs for one reason or another after they’ve been tucked in and putting away the remains of what Mommy and Daddy ate very happily, including a chicken breast with anchovies and capers. Bells and alarms went off in my head quite loudly. This. Would. Change.

Yesterday was what I was calling the Dawn of a New Era in our household. My pediatrician told me awhile ago that by school age, children should be able to eat with the family and eat what the family eats (meaning, there’s no need to fret about undiscovered food allergies, or be excessively concerned about things like choking hazards). I have a good friend who is driven batty by my descriptions of what we had for dinner, and my comment that, Lord no the children did eat that; are you kidding me? The combination of the doctor, my friend, the willing consumption of seemingly non-kid food by half my children, and my own impatience with the situation all contrived to push me into this New Era.

As of last night, my children will eat what we eat. Sure, sure, I may modify it for them—the broccoli we’re having tonight will be steamed plain for them, while the plan is to snazz it up for us with things like soy sauce—but the general rule is: one meal for all. The oldest begins first grade tomorrow, so the time is right.

And last night was pretty successful. I sautéed chicken breasts in oil and a little butter, then made a pan sauce with some chicken broth, Dijon mustard, and a splash of heavy cream. I roasted potatoes in the oven, and glazed carrots for the grownups. The kids got raw carrots to dip in the dip of their choice, with the participants being evenly divided into the ketchup camp and the blue cheese dressing camp. Everyone tried what was new and weird, ate carrots and apples, and made pretty good inroads into the weird stuff.

Good times.

I am now planning meals with my kids in mind, which means nothing that requires two hours to cook on a weeknight, and looking for things that can be modified if necessary. Tonight we’re having roasted pork tenderloin with Asian flavors (said flavors have yet to be identified, but I predict hoisin sauce will play a significant role in the preparation), the aforementioned broccoli, and rice. Only the pork will be labeled as “weird” by my kids. Rice and broccoli are big favorites. We shall see how this goes.

And so, because I can’t leave you with no recipe at all, here’s the carrot recipe I used. Sorry there’s no picture.

Glazed Carrots
from Ten Dollar Dinners by Melissa d’Arabian

½ cup water
½ cup chicken broth
1 Tablespoon butter
1 Tablespoon brown sugar
½ teaspoon ground cumin
¾ lb carrots, peeled and cut on the bias into rounds
Salt & freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Chopped parsley to garnish

Combine first 5 ingredients in a medium skillet (water through cumin). Stir, and allow to come to a boil. Add in carrots, stir to coat, and cover pan. Allow carrots to steam, about 5 minutes or until tender. The original recipe says to reduce the sauce to a glaze with the carrots in it, but I thought they might get overdone, so I removed them to a bowl with a slotted spoon, cooked down the glaze, and returned them to the pan, stirring to coat. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Remove from the heat, add lemon juice and stir. Garnish with chopped parsley.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Tomato Dilemma

Tomatoes. When I say the word, you immediately picture a big juicy beefsteak, or possibly a humorously misshapen San Marzano, so perfect for sauce. Probably what does not spring to mind is a sweet little cherry tomato. Cherry tomatoes are often mere accessories to a salad, tossed on at the last minute, exploited for the color they add to plain greens, but without getting much in the way of respect or appreciation.

This was driven home for me this summer when I decided to grow tomatoes. We have a 40+ foot long porch on the front of our house. Because we spent most of our budget on kitchen appliances, we had nothing left over for landscaping, so our “lawn” strategy was, “Let a bunch of weeds grow and keep them cut short and guess what? They look like grass.” So this year we invested some money in raised beds and topsoil. Rather than put in a bunch of ornamental plants, I went with the more practical (and certainly more delicious) vegetables: four kinds of tomatoes, zucchini, swiss chard, carrots, lettuce and peas (and note to self, next year MORE PEAS! The kids will eat them out of the pod off the vine; we want to encourage this behavior). The front of the house is a southern exposure, so we were pretty much guaranteed success.

This has been a particularly sunny and uncharacteristically hot summer in the Pacific Northwest (in fact, so much like where I grew up has it been this year that I’ve begun referring to it as the Pacific Northeast. Ha, I’m such a card). Day after day the sun blazed down on my garden, and the carrots came up and the chard flourished. The tomatoes got enormously tall and set fruit, and then they refused to ripen. There were these huge green tomatoes all over my plants, but they simply wouldn’t turn red. I came within an ace of turning them all into one of my favorite side dishes, fried green tomatoes, and calling the tomato season a bust. I was counseled to have patience. My time would come, I was assured.

But then! One tomato ripened. One…yellow cherry tomato. A yellow cherry tomato? Well, beggars can’t be choosers, and shortly I had lots of ripe cherry tomatoes, mostly yellow, but a few red. What was I going to do with these? Oh sure, I could put them in a salad, but as I said, I think that’s so dull. It’s that whole exploitation thing I was just on about. I had to be true to myself and actually do something with them. But what?

And just as I was about to cave to the defeatist voice in my head, the one that kept saying, “You have to do something with them, you can’t just let them rot in that bowl. Go on, just make a salad and put them in there. You really have no other choice,” (this, incidentally, is the same voice that almost had me rip all the green tomatoes off the plants and fry them up—a persistent but so often wrong voice that should really just shut up, but I think I’m stuck with it), along came the August issue of Gourmet magazine, with a solution for my dilemma. Take your cherry tomatoes, blanch and peel them, then sauté them. Their suggestion was vodka, my rebuttal was white wine and anchovies.

Normally blanching anything seems too fiddly and time consuming for me, but cherry tomatoes slip from their skins so easily it’s no trouble. The little hussies seem anxious to disrobe for you. It’s almost obscene. And then you’re left with these slightly mushy little characters that (in my case) get rolled around in some olive oil over medium heat until they’re warm through, then they’re jolted with a shot of white wine and get some anchovies mashed around with them, and the whole thing cooked down to a syrupy consistency. You should taste before salting, but a grind or two of pepper is nice. I scattered these with chopped flat leaf parsley because I have so much of it in front of my house that people walking past can be heard referring to it as, “that house with the parsley shrub in front of it.” You could use chives or sage or oregano, depending on which herb is taking over your herb garden this year.

This would be a different summery side dish, something you don’t see every day, and lovely with roast chicken. A friend to whom I described this said it sounded to her like it would make an excellent topping for a bruschetta, which I think it would. You’d want to smash the tomatoes and cook off some of the juice that’s released, but then they’d be perfect on a toasted or grilled slice of Italian bread, rubbed with a clove of garlic if you’re feeling particularly devilish. If you’re serving them as a side dish, take care not to heat them until they pop. If they do, well, when life hands you overcooked cherry tomatoes, make bruschetta.

White Wine-Anchovy Glazed Cherry Tomatoes

adapted from Gourmet magazine

24-36 medium cherry tomatoes (a mix of yellow and red, or all one color; the round ones are easier to work with than the grape tomatoes)
1 tablespoon olive oil
¾ cup dry white wine
6 anchovy filets, patted dry
Freshly ground black pepper
Kosher salt (optional)
Chopped fresh parsley (or herb of choice)

Using a sharp paring knife, cut a small X in the bottom of each tomato. Drop in a pot of boiling water for 10 – 15 seconds. Scoop out and plunge immediately into a bowl of ice water. Remove skins from tomatoes.

In a large skillet, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add cherry tomatoes and cook for about 5 minutes, or until tomatoes are heated, but not bursting. Add anchovies and wine to pan, and mash anchovies with a fork to encourage their disintegration. Taste for seasoning, and add pepper (you probably won’t need salt, but you can add it if you think it needs it). Reduce over medium heat, another 3 to 5 minutes, or until sauce has a syrupy consistency, but tomatoes are still whole.

Remove from heat and scatter with fresh chopped herbs. Serve immediately.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Fear Itself

Often, when I am trying to muster the courage to try or learn something new, I remind myself that people have been doing such-and-such a thing for thousands of years, and that if they can, I can too. This is how I encouraged myself to learn to cook, knit and sew. Obviously this technique doesn’t always work—if I were trying to teach myself molecular gastronomy, the argument doesn’t hold up, but since I am not inclined to learn molecular gastronomy, I think I’m OK.

Where it did come in handy recently was in pasta making. I have wanted to make my own pasta for a very long time, but have always been a bit shy of it. It seemed so…daunting, somehow. But why? Recipes aren’t accompanied by the dire warnings that are sometimes delivered with yeast breads and things like hollandaise sauce. They’re generally fairly breezy and simple, just a couple of ingredients and some technique. Maybe it was that pasta machine piece. It looks to me rather like the receiving end of the guillotine with a crank in it to automate the process of removing anything left over after the business at hand is concluded.

After dithering for months, I finally made up my mind. It was time to conquer pasta. I borrowed a pasta maker from a friend and wasted no time.

And I found it to be ridiculously simple. People often imply that they reserve making pasta for special occasions, dinner parties and the like. If I were making ravioli, I can see doing that. Making the filling and stuffing them would take some time, I can understand. But for your basic strands, heck, you can make that up in 45 minutes (15 minutes of hands-on time).

I did a little research and found a sort of generally accepted recipe: 1 egg to 1 cup flour, plus a little salt and olive oil. Not too intimidating. And mixing it up was a snap.

I did hit a bit of a snag when it came to the machine. I had to actually throw the first batch out because I cranked it through so many times that it came out looking not unlike something the Founding Fathers would have used to write up a document listing their further grievances against King George III and declaring that all Americans have the unalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of a decent meal that didn’t involve brown gravy, boiled potatoes, or sticky bland bread sauce (which I was served once by the British mother of a former boyfriend and found to be so nasty that I couldn’t eat more than a bite, in spite of the fact that it was considered a tremendous treat by the whole family much, I suppose, as our own stuffing is at Thanksgiving and everyone thinks their mom’s was the best and gets very snippy when anyone suggests that actually, dried fruit is really gross in stuffing, or whatever. But I digress).

But Deborah Madison came to my rescue. As a brief aside (yes, another one), I find it interesting that when I’m not looking for a recipe for a certain kind of thing, I stub my toe on dozens of versions. But when I am looking for a certain kind of recipe, I either can’t think where to look, or the sources I choose are all completely devoid of that which I seek. I must have checked four cookbooks for basic pasta making recipes, and they were all sources I was positive would have some kind of guidelines, but to no avail. Finally, drawing on the assumption that vegetarians would eat pasta and therefore a vegetarian cookbook could reasonably be expected to have a recipe for homemade pasta in it, I checked “Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.” Bingo.

But what really made it outstanding was that the machine making instructions included the tip that the first four or five passes through the machine should be on the widest setting, and each time you should fold the resulting rectangle (or rectangleish shape, because of course it’s not a perfect rectangle) into thirds, squish a bit here and there to thin out any significantly thick bits, and put it back through the machine with the “rough” edge first. That is, fold it, rotate it 90 degrees, then pick it up and put it back through the machine. Eureka!

In no time at all I was cranking out pasta like Sophia Loren. Or someone. Anyway, it was a breeze and I loved it. I made skinny strands and wide strands, rolled it out paper thin and made strands of that, and stopped one or two positions short of the thinnest setting, and made slightly thicker strands. So far I’ve only dressed it with butter and fresh herbs from my garden, and it is truly phenomenal. My husband keeps teasing me because I almost never made the dried pasta we have by the carload in the pantry, but I made fresh pasta for three meals in a row over the weekend. Well, it tastes different, that’s all.

Tonight I’m making an actual recipe (Fettuccini with Crispy Capers) so we’ll see how that comes out, but I can’t believe it will be bad. And if you’ve been timid about making pasta up to now, I can assure you that if I can do it, you can do it.

Homemade Egg Pasta
Adapted from nowhere in particular, technique mostly from “Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone” by Deborah Madison

1 cup all purpose flour
1 large egg
1 teaspoon olive oil
¼ teaspoon salt

Pour out flour on a counter top or cutting board, making a well in the center. Break the egg into the well, and pour in the bit of olive oil and sprinkle in the salt. Work the flour into the egg until it forms a dough. You may find you need to scatter it with a little water here and there. I kept a measuring cup of water on the counter and dipped my fingers in and moistened the ball a couple of times. The dough should be smooth and not sticky. If it’s sticky, you’ll have a hard time working it through the machine, so don’t add too much water. It should just be malleable. Knead for about 10 minutes total.

Let rest for half an hour in a ziplock bag.

To roll out the dough, set up the machine and open it to the widest point. Press the dough out into a thick rectangle and pass through the machine once. Fold the resulting rectangle in thirds, press to thin out any excessively thick places, and put back through the machine again with the “rough” edge first. Do this a total of four or five times.

Begin moving the knob on the machine to make the pasta thinner. Pass it through on the next thinnest setting, and continue making the dough thinner until you reach the desired thickness. The thinnest setting makes a very delicate finished product. Depending on your sauce, you may want to stop at the second to last setting and make your shapes from there.

Pass dough through “shaping” attachment (alternatively you can cut it to ribbons by hand at this point, although most machines come with some sort of attachment to create even strands of one shape or another). Hang over a wooden spoon suspended between two large pots or cans or canisters to let dry a little (I used my flour and rice canister, which are about 12-14” tall, with a couple of wooden spoons balanced between them; if you have a dish rack, you could also use that).

The pasta will keep for a couple of days in the fridge, or can be frozen for a month or so. Fresh pasta, as you’ve no doubt heard, cooks in just a couple of minutes in boiling water.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Just WOW

So for three days now I’ve been trying to think of a way to tell you about these brownies. I’ve gone from detailed explanations about how much chocolate there is in them, how incredibly awesome they are, and exactly how I found the recipe, all the way to just typing “zOMG hurry and go make these!” over and over, like some kind of insane cut-and-paste baking mantra.

Homemade brownies always seem to let me down. I buy brownies in bakeries and they’re thick and chewy and dense. The ones I make at home always seem to be thin and sticky, like chocolate paste thickened with some flour. For a long time I thought this was just me, and then I decided it was my recipes—because clearly these brownies can be made—and I started searching for something better.

I started collecting brownie recipes like some kind of sugar-crazed magpie. I would read over them and compare them to what I had made in the past. It was pretty obvious to me that I wanted something with a slightly higher ratio of flour to sugar and butter. The high sugar/butter recipes yield a very candy-like product. Also, I have a weird, inexplicable prejudice against recipes that only make an 8 or 9” square pan. I want 117 glorious square inches of chocolaty loveableness. (Did I do that math right? Is a 9” x 13” pan 117 square inches? I confess I was never much good at area, unless we were talking about circles, and then I knew there was something about the diameter or the circumference and pi played a role but I was always much more interested in two-crust versions than in irrational, transcendental numbers. And I might not even be right about circles. Geometry was a long time ago. )

Where were we? Oh, right, brownie recipes. So I wanted a big pan, and I wanted a pretty thick brownie.

I thought I had found it when a friend of mine brought some brownies into the office. They were just what I’d been wanting: quite thick, still moist, somewhat cakey. Since she has a pastry degree (and just what a woman with a degree in pastry is doing working as a product manager is a question worth asking, but when I did she pointed out that pastry doesn’t pay much. Touché.) I figured she was an excellent source. When I begged her for the recipe, she confessed that they were a mix (she’d made them on a weeknight and was tight for time), and she had put peppermint patties between the layers, which accounted for their height.

When I stumbled on a recipe that was the foundation for a brownie sundae, I was pretty sure I’d hit pay dirt. After all, for it to hold up a couple of scoops of ice cream, a brownie has to have some serious muscle. You’re not going to get some wimpy, effete, milquetoast brownie there. This is not some Ashley Wilkes you’re going to be piling the toppings on to. You’ve got to have Rhett (in brownie form, of course, although let’s be honest, if you had the opportunity to scoop ice cream and whipped cream and whatnot onto Clark Gable, wouldn’t you do it? I mean, the way he was in Gone with the Wind when he was all young and hunky, not the way he is today—which of course is dead).

SO. These brownies. Melty chocolate, a ton of butter, five (yes, five) eggs. They are the brownies of my dreams. The recipe makes a 9” x 13” pan, and they’re a good three-quarters of an inch thick. They have a thick, fudgy texture, but they’re not grainy and sticky. This recipe is now my one and only. I can stop looking. This is brownie nirvana. Transcending any previous brownie experience. The Rhett Butler of brownies. The Crown Jewels of brownies. The Empire State Building of brownies. The Grand Canyon of brownies. These brownies put the “wow” in “brownie” (OK, OK, so there is no “wow” in “brownie”—there should be). These are brownies with a capital B. zOMG hurry and go make these.

Fudge Brownies

from the LA Times' Culinary SOS feature; this is the brownie from the Brownie Hot Fudge Sundae at a restaurant called BLD
1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) butter
2 cups plus 2 tablespoons (13 ounces) chocolate chips
1/4 cup cocoa powder
5 eggs, room temperature
3 cups light brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons ground espresso
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups flour

1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

2. In a large bowl set over a pot of simmering water, melt together the butter, chocolate and cocoa powder, stirring until completely combined.

3. In a medium bowl, combine the eggs and sugar. Whisk in the espresso, vanilla and salt. Whisk in the melted chocolate mixture, then the flour until thoroughly combined. Pour the brownie mix into a greased 13-inch-by-9-inch baking dish.

4. Bake the brownies on the center rack until set on top and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out mostly clean (it should have moist crumbs stuck to it, but the filling should not be doughy), 45 minutes to an hour and ten minutes (start checking around 35 minutes; the original recipe said they'd be done in 45 minutes, but at 45 minutes mine were still pretty liquid in the center. They were in there for a good hour). Remove the brownies and cool the pan on a rack to room temperature. Cut into squares to serve.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Bad Mood

I didn’t mean to write this post in quite this mood, but I’m cranky. I’m sorry, but I am. This was going to be a post about choosing dinner recipes, but it’s taken on a life of its own. I don’t know why, I don’t know how, but I am just in a bad, bad mood. And everything in the last few hours has conspired to make me more crabby.

Of course kids can always get under your skin, and mine have been going through a potty word regression that’s really bugging me. I tried to stay even tempered over that (with only moderate success, which didn’t make things any better), so of course I overreacted to everything else.

Even my thoughts were ticking me off. I have an insane neighbor. Totally deranged. She appears normal and lucid, but inside she’s a seething volcano of crazy. It’s like living next door to Mount Whackatoa. You never know when she’s going to erupt. Summer is her active season, because her kids are home and she finds ways to compare mine to hers (and of course mine come off second best) and then she takes it on herself to instruct my nanny on how to control them (because she won’t expose her crazy to me directly). At least once every summer I have to point out to her the inappropriateness of this behavior. Today I was thinking about some of the things she’s been doing lately, and of course, that didn’t make me particularly chipper.

Then I ran out of white wine after only three quarters of a glass. Need I say more?

Michael Jackson died today, which doesn’t make me particularly sad (we weren’t close), but I have 27,000 Facebook posts saying “RIP MJ” and variations from people I know didn’t care a whip about him when he was alive. Yes, I’m sure his family is devastated, and he recorded some good songs (although I never wore a single glittery glove, obscenely tight black chinos. and tried to moonwalk with zombies). Under normal circumstances, the tributes to Michael Jackson via social networking probably wouldn’t bother me in the least, but today is another story.

Naturally the radio in the car wasn’t functioning. Alex replaced the motor that operates the driver's side window last weekend, and the car is new enough (although not that new) that it has one of those radios that when you disconnect the power supply (as in stealing it), you can’t use it again until you enter some secret code. Naturally we haven’t the first idea where said secret code is. It’s on some scrap of paper somewhere that’s been moved around four times each time we've moved, and each time whoever puts it away says to themselves, “I’m going to put it HERE and I’m going to REMEMBER that it’s here.” Then we promptly forget where “here” is. So no radio.

I went to the grocery store (three quarters of a glass of white wine just doesn’t cut it), and was put out to find that there were no new cooking magazines. A new cooking magazine might have turned everything around, but it was not to be. Could this get any worse?

Evidently, yes. I was on my way home (admittedly, I was probably going a little too fast) and listening to what I thought might be a good grump-reduction song on my iPod (clarification: iPhone--I was using the "speaker" function; not listening to music via earbuds jammed in my ears, thus blocking out all other road sounds, I promise) because the song itself was pretty grouchy and negative (my life would seem fine by contrast? I don’t know, I guess that was my strategy. Otherwise why else would I have been listening to The Kinks’ “Father Christmas”?) when the car in front of me started getting bigger and bigger (and its brake lights brighter and brighter) for no good reason I could discern. Praying that whatever mammoth vehicle behind me wasn’t also the bad combination of cranky-speeding-inattentive, I too hit my brakes, only to see a deer prancing across the road in front of the Volvo ahead of me. Seriously? Not that I wanted the Volvo to hit the deer. Actually, I just wanted the deer not to be there at all. Frankly, the Volvo too.

So what are you going to do about all of this?, you might reasonably ask. When are you going to stop inflicting your personal brand of snarly on us?

The answer is, I made dinner. Yes, I chopped garlic, and mixed up fish sauce and brown sugar (it’s better than it sounds, I promise) and did various other cookly things and now I feel quite a bit better. I also watched an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and that helped a lot.

Like so many things in my life, The Mary Tyler Moore show is tied to both my emotional and my culinary memory. My parents used to let me stay up late to watch it on Saturday nights on our grainy black and white portable TV set. This would have been after our dinner of Chick’n Bucket pizza. I can’t say if that was really the best pizza I ever had, but it seems like it. First I ate off the toppings (pepperoni and sausage; I never ate the pizza my mother ordered—pepperoni and onion. Ew.), then I ate off the cheese, then licked off the tomato sauce, and lastly I ate the crust. I remember that the crust had concentric circles stamped into it, just as though…well as though it had been stamped out by a giant crust-making machine (which, let’s face it, it probably had been).

Anyway, at some point later in the evening, I was permitted to stay up late to watch that old CBS classic line up—M*A*S*H*, All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and The Bob Newhart Show. I loved Mary. I wanted to be Mary. So anyway, tonight I watched the episode where she invites the Congresswoman over and serves her Veal Price Orloff (what a 1970s dinner party—I love it!). And I made dinner.

Our dinner was a lovely spicy-sweet stir fry of chicken thighs with a brown sugar-based sauce on it. I added a chopped Napa cabbage to the mix, because there were really no vegetables in the meal otherwise. Doing so had a nice added side benefit—as my boys were getting ready for bed (the four year old twins), they begged to taste the cabbage and one declared he wanted it for breakfast tomorrow morning. We’ll see if that holds, but it certainly helped tremendously to relieve my crankiness.

Caramelized Black Pepper Chicken
adapted from Food + Wine Magazine

½ cup dark brown sugar (I only had light brown sugar; I used it, and it turned out fine, but yes, that didn’t help my snippy mood)
3 Tablespoons fish sauce
¼ cup water
1 teaspoon minced garlic (I used three cloves, actually; love garlic)
1 teaspoon finely grated fresh ginger
1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
2 fresh Thai chilis, halved (I left these out; I don’t like things too spicy. If you like spice, by all means, add them)
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 shallot, thinly sliced
1 pound boneless skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1” pieces
1 medium head Napa cabbage, cut into 1” pieces

Combine the first 8 ingredients in a small bowl (brown sugar through chilis [if using; otherwise, through pepper]).

Heat oil in a large deep skillet over high heat. Reduce heat to medium, add shallot and cook until softened, about 4 minutes. Add brown sugar mixture and chicken, and simmer over high heat until chicken is almost cooked through, about 8 minutes. Add cabbage and stir to incorporate. Let cook until cabbage is softened, but not wilted, about 2 minutes. Sauce will be somewhat watery. I have good luck turning the heat up high and reducing the sauce for about 2 minutes. It doesn’t get as saucy and thick as it might, but the cabbage stays more crisp.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


What is it about a recipe title that screams, “MAKE ME”? In a list of choices like Rainbow Chard and Comte Quiche, Cheese Quesadilla with Squash Blossoms and Poblanos, and Butter Lettuce and Arugula Salad with Sovrano, what did I lunge for? Popeye’s Wannabe Biscuits. Did I go for the highbrow-sounding seasonal delicacies? No, I went for what I anticipated to be the fatty carbohydrate that would be just this side of “The White Trash Cookbook” (which, I am not ashamed to say, I own although as more of a novelty item than as a cookbook from which I cook on a regular—or really even an infrequent—basis, but if I am ever invited to a potluck the theme of which is “My Grandfather Was a Shifflett*, How About Yours?” I am all set).

As I waited for the page to render, I was filled with a degree of hesitation, and was preparing myself to be disappointed. Was I in the process of opening a recipe for spinach muffins? Just which Popeye was referenced here? The sailor with the weirdly misshapen arms (seriously, what was up with that guy’s elbows? Even as a kid, and even understanding that it was a cartoon, I thought those little gumdrop-shaped growths between his forearms and his biceps were freakish and unsettling as, for that matter, were his forearms and biceps) or the home of the world’s second most awesome biscuits—Chick-fil-A will always be #1—and the fried chicken that caused an ex-boyfriend of mine to lie puking in a gutter (to be fair, not the fault of the chicken, but the fault of the eight-24oz Hurricanes he drank prior to consuming the skin off of roughly a dozen pieces of said chicken at a Mardi Gras parade approximately twenty years ago) and from which gutter I (a foot shorter and eighty pounds lighter than he) was forced by the New Orleans Police Department to drag him prior to the start of the parade? Which Popeye was in question here??

To my joy, it was the latter (although of course it did bring to mind the ex-boyfriend reference, which I then inflicted on you and my apologies if you were snacking or anything when you read the preceding paragraph). And to my further joy, it appeared to be the simplest of recipes. Four ingredients, two of them shamelessly low rent, and what appeared to be a 30 minute process. Fast and cheap—what more could I ask?

Clearly, I could ask that they be awesome. And so, to verify their awesomeness, I was forced to make them immediately. The plan that formed was that I would make them that very night. Alex was leaving town for a golf trip (I should say, another golf trip), but he was on a red eye, so I knew I’d have a little time between my arrival home and our departure for the ferry and the airport. Since it appeared to be such a speedy recipe (even the source labeled it as “Features: Fast”), I decided to go for it. We don’t keep non-diet soda of any kind in the house, and neither of us drinks Sprite anyway, so a grocery stop would be in order.

I almost got derailed when I arrived home and started searching for my muffin tins. "Where are they?" I asked. My husband directed me to the dining room, where 18 individual muffin tins were filled with approximately 43 million microscopic Legos. My oldest son had been permitted to purchase a Star Wars Imperial Death Cruiser Battle Station Fighter Kill Maim Destroy Something Or Other this past weekend. In an effort to speed the construction process, my husband had divided all the parts into their individual "steps." I heaved a sigh and put all of the pieces into their own Ziplock bags, whereupon I was chastised for not numbering them. Whatever.

When I was finally able to get all the muffins in the oven, the smell that emanated was heavenly. They looked amazing too. When I broke one apart, it was tender and light. Much more muffin than biscuit, although with a lovely crunchy biscuity top. I'd be tempted to make these as a drop biscuit on a pan, just to see how that experiment worked. I was informed that they smelled more buttery than they tasted, although the flavor was outstanding. I confess I basted 15 muffins with only two tablespoons of butter (only!), so I think being a bit more lavish and unrestrained with the butter might improve them (go ahead, melt the rest of that stick and baste the bejesus out of them).

I could go all Rachel Ray on you and insist that these be called buffins, or misquits, or muffits or bisquins, but I shall not because I would not be able to live with myself if I did (but it’s out there, isn’t it? Yes it is). Call them what you will, but they are indeed well worth the grand total of 30 minutes that they take to make.

Popeye’s Wannabe Muffins
from the Washington Post Food Section, June 17, 2009

4 cups Bisquick baking mix
1 cup chilled Sprite
1 cup chilled sour cream
4 tablespoons butter, melted, plus additional for gilding the lily (brushing the tops)

Preheat oven to 375. In a large bowl, combine all ingredients except the extra butter for brushing. Mix until just combined. Batter will be sticky.

Grease 15 standard size muffin cups. Fill each cup to the top, and brush tops of batter with melted butter.

Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until tops rise and are starting to brown.

Transfer muffins to a wire rack and allow to cool slightly before serving. Muffins can be stored in a tin at room temperature for up to 2 days. To freeze, wrap each muffin in plastic wrap, then in aluminum foil, and freeze for up to 1 month.

Nutritional Information: HA HA HA HA HA HA HA! Actually they’re not that bad—200 calories and 13g of fat (although of course they have no fiber at all) per muffin. Or buffin. Or misquit. Or muffit. Or bisquin. See what I did? I did it again, didn’t I? Yes I did.

*Just as an aside, out of sheer curiosity and because this is how my somewhat twisted mind works, I Googled the name Shifflett and found a website that was offering to sell me a Shifflett coat of arms for the bargain price of $18.93. On closer inspection, the primary feature of the Shifflett coat of arms is the profile of what appears to be a crow with what appears to be a saltine cracker in its mouth. I think that’s astonishingly fitting.

Monday, June 08, 2009


I've neglected this blog sorely the last two months. What do you mean it's June?!? I just got back from a vacation, so I should be ready to cook with vigor now, right? Right? It wasn't a cooking kind of vacation--we stayed in a hotel, so no cooking facilities--but I'm back now and have a huge list of things to cook, so I'll get back on the ball! Also, we're starting a supper club with some friends, so surely that will offer some opportunities to share recipes. More to come!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Success or Failure

I love it when something starts out appearing to be a colossal failure, and then ends up a shining, glowing, magnificent success. It redeems my faith in the chemical reactions that are cooking. The most recent example I have of this is Caramel Slice.

I’ve been reading about slices for over ten years now, ever since the beginning of my (possibly unhealthy, certainly expensive) obsession with Australian cookbooks and cooking magazines began. Donna Hay, Bill Grainger, and Delicious. magazine all have recipes for various “slices.” In America we’d just call these a bar cookie and leave it at that. But slices seem usually to be more than just a simple bar; they’re layered affairs with crisp crusts and gooey toppings, that seem to conjure memories of school days, packed lunches, and school festivals. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a school festival—we might have had something similar when I was in school, but nothing like what I picture a proper Australian school festival to be. I imagine something along the lines of what we might call a “fun fair” in this country. Little booths with simple games like “pick up the floating duck with a star on its underside and win a small trinket” or the “throw darts to pop the balloons stuck to the board” or perhaps a bean bag toss. And of course, along side these are the bake sale-type booths, at which one would purchase a slice.

The series of events that culminated in my finally attempting a slice began with my utter despair over What to Cook. As you can tell by my posting dates, I’ve either been quite busy, largely uninspired, or at the bottom of a well. Possibly all three. The truth is actually more of numbers one and two, with only the slightest suggestion of number three.

In an effort to combat this culinary ennui, I started going through cookbooks I’ve had for years, meant to cook from, and just never gotten around to. I wrote down lists of recipe titles so that I could one day flip through the condensed version, happen on a book + a recipe that looked appealing, and voila! Instant inspiration.

Then for some reason, on Easter Sunday (perhaps there’s some symbolism here—resurrection and all that), I was struck. Slice! I should make a slice! Initially my intention was to take it along to the Easter dinner we were attending at my aunt’s house—we’d been told we didn’t need to contribute anything, and showing up at someone’s house with empty hands makes me nervous—but somehow they weren’t quite ready in time.

Now we come to the failure cum success part of this rather lengthy Tale of Slice. Every step of the way I was convinced that these things were going to be a Dud of the Highest Order. The kind of event that one dates from, like a car accident or the loss of a loved one (“Well, let’s see, that would have been a week or so after I made that Caramel Slice that was such an abysmal failure…” that sort of thing).

It started with the crust. The crust is flour, butter and sugar. That’s it. I made mine in a food processor, and it came out as rather greasy sand. As I stood there peering into the work bowl, my first reaction was that this needed some liquid of some sort. But as with any situation in which one is thinking of adding something the recipe doesn’t call for (or adding more of something than the recipe calls for), I gave pause. If I put water in there, I wasn’t getting it back out, and more flour would likely ruin the whole thing. I thought about the butter melting into all that flour in the oven, and figured I’d stick with the recipe this time out.

The recipe then directed me to pat this into a pan and prick it all over with a fork. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to prick greasy sand with a fork (probably not, come to think of it) but it simply doesn’t work. If you’ve ever done any gardening, say, and idly poked into a fairly damp sandy loam with a gardening fork or trowel, and had it pull a bit of the earth back up on the implement, leaving a sort of divot or pock, then you know what happened to that crust I was trying to prick all over with a fork. Not auspicious.

And the crust never really browned. I was assured it would turn a charming goldeny color associated with the crust of pies made by patient and loving grandmas, Christmas sugar cookies turned out with the utmost holiday cheer, and other items of a similar and somewhat unrealistically nostalgic nature (granted, not quite in those words). No dice, baby. The stuff was as pale as it had been when I put it in the oven, 15 or so minutes earlier. Only now it was sort of solid.

The filling looked to be even more of a disaster. The caramel consists of sweetened condensed milk, Lyle’s golden syrup, and some butter. (I should point out that this recipe has only seven ingredients.) These three things are heated over moderate heat until…well, I wasn’t really sure what was supposed to happen. In point of fact, nothing really did, other than the obvious and expected butter melting. And the instructions warn, don’t let it boil. Somehow I got distracted and it did a bit. Would the Caramel Police soon be on my doorstep? It looked pretty much the same as it had when I started heating it up. Was this good? Bad? The butter had thinned down the milk and syrup mixture until it was really more the consistency of well shaken buttermilk. Was this right?

Figuring I had little to lose (beyond some flour, a stick of butter, and a can of sweetened condensed milk), I dumped this mixture over the crust and popped the whole thing back in the oven.

The problem was that now we were almost late for Easter brunch, so I had to hurry off and shower and dress. I forgot to mention that there was anything in the oven, so Alex didn’t think to check it. When I got back the caramel mixture was now quite caramel colored (maybe too much so; I had no way of knowing) and was quite frighteningly bubbly. I pulled the pan out, tossed it on the back of the stove, and hustled everyone in the car to Easter brunch. When Alex asked what it was, I replied, “Oh nothing—supposed to be a cookie thing; I’ll probably wind up tossing it.”

By the time the bottom part had cooled down enough to top with chocolate, it had settled down and looked much less threatening. In fact, it even looked like it might be vaguely promising. I decided to complete the final step. I loosened the crust and caramel layers from the sides of the pan with a thin spatula, melted the chocolate in the microwave, and spread it neatly over the top.

The result, which seemed to be on the point of failure every step of the way, was declared not only a success, but a new favorite cookie. In fact, I believe I got ONE of them, and the rest of the pan was consumed by the person whose new favorite cookie they are (hint: Alex).

But you know, wow. Here was this thing that, really, I almost chucked in the garbage can, but decided to go ahead and finish, and it’s so great. The chocolate should be one that you would eat “out of hand” (as they say) because it plays a big role, and it shouldn’t be one that’s too refined or high society. You don’t want it to overshadow the caramel. I think you could probably get away quite nicely with melted chocolate morsels (although both times I’ve used some from the higher shelves on the baking aisle, but next time I might just not bother and go with the yellow bag).

The caramel is gooey and sticky, and you could substitute something like Karo syrup if you can’t find Lyle’s. Most grocery stores in larger areas carry this now, I think, but if you live in the northern part of Idaho, off the grid, and your nearest Jiffy Mart is two hours away, to say nothing of your nearest genuine grocery store, and then mostly what the grocery stores carry is beef jerky and canned soup, well, go for Karo syrup.

I’ve had a request to serve these at the little birthday gathering we’re having in a couple of weeks, so that’s always an indicator of a success. Birthdays are usually celebrated with Lemon Squares. I think maybe we have a possible contender here. Might have to have a showdown between the two.

Caramel Slice
adapted from Kitchen by Michele Cranston
makes one 8” square pan; how many servings that is depends on you. Could be 1, could be 16, could be something in between.

This is not a particularly thick cookie, but the combination of the buttery crust, gooey caramel and firm chocolate are wonderful together. I haven’t tried doubling this recipe to make more. I’d probably just make two batches if you’re inclined to, you know, share.

1 cup all purpose flour
1 stick butter, divided
¼ cup sugar
1 14oz can sweetened condensed milk
2 tablespoons golden syrup
5 ½ oz semisweet chocolate

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease an 8” square baking pan.

In a food processor, combine flour, 7 ½ tablespoons butter and sugar. Process until the mixture is quite well combined (you can whir the daylights out of it; you’re not going to make it tough). Pat this mixture in into the prepared pan, pressing it well into the corners and making a little lip all around the edge by pressing your fingers right up against the side of the pan. The caramel is still going to be over top of it when you pour it in, but you make a bit of a hollow for it. Bake for 15-18 minutes until Not Golden (see above). It will appear more solid and cookie-like than it did when you dumped it in there.

In a small pan on the stove, combine 1 ½ tablespoons butter, sweetened condensed milk, and golden syrup. Heat over medium heat until butter is melted. The recipe says let it go for ten minutes; it still won’t look that much different (it will not look like your idea of caramel, trust me) You might have a little of the milk caramelize, resulting in bits of caramely something or other sort of floating about in this rather thin mixture. That’s ok. Remove from the heat and let cool for about ten minutes.

Pour the inauspicious looking alleged caramel over the crust. Return to the oven for 10 minutes or until the caramel is really bubbly and quite golden. Now it will look like your idea of caramel. You can let it go really until it’s in danger of burning (that’s what I did the first time; see above). As long as you check it often, you can let it get quite a deep golden, lovely color. The edges will be starting to brown up.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely and set up. When cool, use a thin knife or spatula to loosen the caramel and crust from the sides of the pan. Melt the chocolate over low heat, or in the microwave, and spread over top of the caramel. Allow to cool. Cut in squares and eat (sharing optional).

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Teeter Totter

We’re having some weird weather here. One day it’s sunny and not too bad. The next morning I wake up and skip blithely out to my car only to find a thin layer of frost that needs to be scraped off. Normally I manage this task with a good jolt of windshield washer fluid and the wipers, but the washer fluid reservoir hasn’t been filled in weeks (Dear), so that’s not an option right now. (And never mind that if it’s cold enough this strategy backfires and I end up with more iciness on my windshield than had been there initially.) Instead I end up scrambling through the car looking for the ice scraper, tossing aside Happy Meal toys, old magazines, and bungee cords, all the time cursing under my breath as the minutes tick away the little bit of buffer I had left myself so that my drive to the ferry wasn’t a 10 minute exercise in muscle-clenching anxiety over missing the boat.

I’m kind of reminded of the winter weather in the Laura Ingalls Wilder book The Long Winter. They kept thinking that sooner or later winter would have to give up, that with March would come Spring. And then March came and there was still more snow, and their food was running low and they contemplated slaughtering their farm animals for food. OK, so maybe we’re not getting three day blizzards, nor are we thinking about eating our livestock (not that we have any livestock, you understand), but I just said I was kind of reminded of that, not that our situations were identical. March is not bringing with it the glorious rebirth that we’re all assured is the very essence of Springtime.

So what to do? I think an Action Item List is in order:

1) Stop whining about weather; it is clearly futile, as weather is not attending to said complaints
2) Resign self to wearing sweaters and/or winter coats for another couple of weeks
3) Allow three extra minutes each morning for possible ice scraper search and/or ice scraping
4) Commence campaign to get washer reservoir refilled (Dear)
5) Make Salted Caramel Cheesecakes with Graham Crackers

Ah, you weren’t expecting number 5? Well it seems as good a choice as any. Cheesecake is without season, no? On the one hand cheesecake can be light and fluffy and airy and cool and bathed with fresh strawberries with juice that are positively natational, just the thing for a warm summer day. On the other hand it can be dense and thick and rich and possibly studded with morsels of chocolate or candy bar or some other decadent add in, perfect for a cold winter night.

Well we’re not having hot summer weather, nor are we experiencing cold winter nights. So I need something in the middle. These are actually more of a cream cheese custard; they’re cooked in a water bath (as are many cheesecakes) but they have no crust. They’re just the filling poured into a ramekin and cooked, then they’re topped with sticky sweet caramel that’s enhanced with sea salt (everyone who’s sick of the combination of salt and caramel being featured in recipes as though it had never been thought of before, please stand up. Now, everyone who loves caramel with salt anyway, regardless of how many times recipes act like they’ve just invented the most perfect combination EVAR, please sit down. Right, that’s what I thought).

So having seen this recipe, and feeling it was perfect for this stupid weather, I also decided that it needed something with it, some cookie or cracker. I made chocolate graham crackers one time with Hershey’s Special Dark Cocoa that I remember as being a smashing success (my husband remembers them as less of a success, since 4 small children + 1 large batch of dark chocolate cookies = lots of chocolate mess everywhere). Since there’s no crust in these, why not serve the crust on the side? I clapped my hands with glee over the cleverness of this idea (work with me here; remember what I’m up against weather-wise and take pity on me).

I found these graham crackers and figured I had me a winner.

Indeed, I did. The cheesecakes turned out the consistency of a dense foam, which doesn’t sound very delectable, but is the perfect consistency for cheesecake. The salted caramel was the perfect zingy foil to the creamy, slightly tangy cheesecake filling, and had a nice subtle crunch from the sea salt scattered over it. The graham crackers were every so faintly touched with honey.

One nice thing I discovered about this recipe. It says you can make the various components up to a day ahead and keep them in the refrigerator. Baloney. Make them up to four or five days ahead. Seriously, I made six ramekins of this stuff, plus the topping and the crackers, and only two of us eat desserts like these in our house (most of the inhabitants lean more to the chocolate chip cookie side of the fence). Thus, we had dessert for three nights, and they kept perfectly nicely for four or five days (since my conscience and my thighs really don’t permit consumption of this sort of thing for three days running).

So make yourself some cheesecake, keep it around, and let it cheer you through the last dreary days of Winter. Or use it to celebrate the first glorious days of Spring. Either way, you deserve a treat.

Salted Caramel Cheesecakes
from Food + Wine magazine
makes 6 ramekins + sauce

For the Cheesecake
1 8oz package cream cheese, at room temperature
½ cup sugar
3 large eggs, at room temperature
½ cup sour cream

For the Caramel
6 tablespoons light corn syrup
½ cup + 2 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup heavy cream
Fleur de sel

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. In the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the cream cheese with the sugar on medium speed until smooth. Beat in the eggs, 1 at a time until well combined, then add sour cream, mixing to combine. Spoon the batter into six 5-ounce ramekins or custard cups.

Set the ramekins in a roasting pan in the center of the preheated oven. Pour around the ramekins enough hot water to come halfway up the sides of the cups. Bake for 10 minutes, until edges are set, but center is still very jiggly. Turn of oven and leave cheesecakes in for 1 hour. Transfer ramekins to a rack and allow to cool completely. Once cool, refrigerate until serving.

To make the caramel, combine the corn syrup and sugar in a heavy medium sauce pan. Cook over moderately high heat without stirring until a deep amber caramel forms (you can swirl the pan a bit to get the two to combine, but be careful not to get it too far up the sides of the pan). Watch closely—it goes from amber to charcoal in the blink of an eye. And there is nothing at all luscious about burnt caramel, I assure you. Off the heat, carefully stir in the butter with a long handled spoon. The mixture may spit, so watch your hands. Stir in the cream in a steady stream. Again, there may be some bubbling. Don’t be alarmed if the mixture doesn’t seem to cohere instantly; just keep stirring and it will all come together. It may seem thinner than caramel should—it will thicken on standing.. Transfer to a heatproof container and allow to cool. Stir in ¾ of a teaspoon of fleur de sel.

To serve: Pour about 1 ½ tablespoons of caramel over each cheesecake. The caramel should be pourable; if necessary, warm in a microwave at 10 second intervals. Sprinkle each with fleur de sel just before serving. Garnish each with a rectangle of graham cracker, if desired.

N.B. The original recipe called for topping the cheesecakes with the caramel, then refrigerating them for at least 3 hours, and serving them with the salt. Since I wasn’t serving them all at once, I chose to keep the caramel and the cheesecake separate until I was ready to serve them. If you’re having them for a dinner party, you could prep them completely up to the salt, then serve. If you’re going to eat them over several days, you might want to hold off on the caramel, as I did.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Taking Care of Business

I've decided that I simply can't let the lack of a photograph deter me from posting. I have plenty of recipes for things that really don't require a picture (or wouldn't be terribly photogenic).

Take, for instance, the polenta I made last week. Inspired by a meal I had on the business trip I took the previous week, I set out to recreate the polenta, which was by far the star of the meal.

My trip was to New York City, and one of the nights I was there we had dinner at my favorite restaurant in all of New York. L'Ecole is the restaurant run by the French Culinary Institute. The students run it--cooking, serving, etc--and the price is just so reasonable. A five course meal is $42. You can't even get a five course meal for $42 where I live, much less anywhere else in New York. And the food is amazing. I had sausage with lentils, scallops, a pork chop with the aforementioned incredible polenta, a salad, and dessert. Needless to say they had to roll me out the door.

When I got home, I decided my poor husband, who had been watching four children for three days (so that's actually twelve man days), deserved something yummy as a reward. I had asked what was in the polenta, and it seemed like the main thing that made it so wonderful was heavy cream. As my grandmother used to say, anyone can cook well with heavy cream. Indeed.

So I made polenta using half heavy cream, half chicken broth (I usually use all chicken broth; water just doesn't cut it in my book). While I was stirring, I cooked off some bacon in the oven to the point just prior to "burnt," so that it would be super-crispy. (As an aside, why do people bother making bacon on the stove in a frying pan? Have they just not thought of putting it in a rimmed baking sheet in the oven? Or are they quite fond of scrubbing at splattered bacon fat? Even when the recipe calls for sauteeing something in the residual bacon fat, I cook it off in the oven and spoon some of the fat into the heated skillet after the bacon is cooked. I can't understand why anyone would do it any other way, unless they derive a deep and lasting pleasure from cleaning the stove, which I suppose is possible.) Once the polenta was done, I scattered it with bits of crisp bacon.

Let me say right now you have never had anything so wonderful, so sublime, so lip-smackingly good, and at the same time so incredibly simple to make, as this polenta. The heavy cream and the bacon do all the work for you, you get all the credit.

Is this something you're going to make for dinner tonight? Well, possibly, if you're throwing a big blow-out to celebrate Poultry Day (March 19th!) and this is your side dish. However, I suggest filing this away for Christmas, or your birthday or anniversary, or maybe just the next time you're feeling too thin and emaciated.

The Best Polenta in the World
based on that made by L'Ecole, New York City
Makes about 6 servings

2 cups heavy cream
2 cups chicken broth
1 cup polenta (not instant)
4 strips of bacon, cooked crisp

Bring the cream and broth to a vigorous simmer (I never have the patience to actually let it come all the way to a boil, so I may as well admit that here in the instructions). Slowly pour the polenta into the liquid, stirring it round to combine. Reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring fairly frequently, until the polenta soaks up the liquid and takes on the incredible sumptuous texture that befits something cooked with two cups of heavy cream. This will take 15 or 20 minutes.

Serve polenta scattered with savory bits of crumbled bacon. If you make it ahead, and the polenta thickens on standing, you can thin it down with a bit of chicken broth prior to serving.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Top Rated

I have to head off on a business trip, but I wanted to leave you with a good recipe. This is, without a doubt, one of the best pan sauces for steak you will ever make. It's a 5.

I should explain what I mean by a "5" in case you weren't around all those years ago when I explained how and why we rate recipes. It's like this.

Once upon a time, when I was a lighthearted young newlywed, I made chicken stock from scratch using a whole chicken (come to think of it, I still make chicken stock from scratch using a whole chicken). I had a magazine spread that provided the recipe for the stock, along with uses for the leftover chicken (before I realized that a chicken that had been poached to Hell and back shouldn't probably be eaten at all, but that's youthful inexperience for you). One of these recipes was for Chicken a la King. I thought it turned out well, and when I asked how it was, I was told, "Fine."

Three weeks later I was out of chicken broth, so I made some more, and another batch of Chicken a la King. When we sat down to dinner that night, there was a distinctly disappointed look on Alex's face. When queried about what the problem was, he responded, "I don't really like Chicken a la King that much."


Which is how it came to pass that I now demand a rating for 1-5 for every meal I cook. Anything less than a three is banished, never to be made again. A three might be spruced up to improve it, but if we can't think of anything, it might get made again, but odds are it won't. A four could be put in the regular rotation (although considering my recipe collection--14 binders of recipes torn from magazines, every back issue of Everyday Food, Cooking Light back three years, 43 issues of Donna Hay magazine and counting, countless other saved cooking magazines, and 300+ cookbooks--I could make a recipe every day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the rest of my natural life and never cook everything, so the odds that there will ever even be a regular rotation are sort of slim). A five is incredible, stupendous, don't change a thing. There have been two recipes rated a five in ten years.

One of these is the recipe I'm about to share with you. We often make this for special occasions when we're eating in. It's fast and easy, and the flavor is so incredible you can't believe it's three ingredients and takes three minutes to make. The original recipe serves the steak with Parmesan Mash, which is wonderful, but it's also wonderful without. The next time you make steak, you must make this.

Pan-Fried Steak with Parmesan Mash and Pan Gravy
from Donna Hay magazine #16
serves 4

4 russet or Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 1/2" cubes
2 ounces butter
8 ounces heavy cream
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
4 - 5 ounce Filets Mignon
oil for brushing
for pan gravy
1/2 cup beef stock
2 teaspoons grain mustard
1 teaspoon brown sugar

Place potatoes in a large pot of cold salted water. Bring to a boil and cook for 15-20 minutes or until just cooked through. Drain, return to pan, add butter, cream, salt and pepper and mash with a potato masher until smooth. Stir in Parmesan cheese and set aside to keep warm while the steaks cook.

Brush the steaks with oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Heat a medium non-stick frying pan over high heat, and cook steaks 4-5 minutes per side (for medium-rare, or longer to desired doneness). Remove steaks, set aside, and keep warm. Make the pan gravy by stirring the stock mustard, and sugar into the pan. Bring to a boil and cook 5 minutes or until thickened. Serve steaks with mash and pan sauce.

Monday, February 16, 2009

On An Impulse

"You think the Time to Make the Donuts guy is sexy."

I woke up with that line in my head (from having watched "The Wedding Singer" the other night). Maybe that was the reason I woke up with an unquenchable urge. I'm not sure why, but from the moment I opened my eyes I had an inexplicable desire to fill my house with the smell of hot oil. And what better way, I thought, than to make donuts? Of course!

My kids are donut fiends. We distinguish weekdays from weekends by identifying those days as "Gillian days" (days on which the nanny comes) and "donut days." On any given evening they'll ask, "Is tomorrow a Gillian day, or a donut day?" Normally their donuts come from Safeway, and are really bad.

This morning I decided that we needed homemade donuts. I've never made them before, so a bonus day off, plus a day when the kids wouldn't normally get a donut, seemed like a perfect excuse to give it a try.

I confess I'm not much of a deep fryer. When I get to that line in the list of ingredients that says, "Oil for deep frying" I usually skip to the next recipe. What a nuisance, I think. I'm not messing around with that.

Well, deep frying is a bit of a monkey business, but besides snapping at my children to stay at least 50 feet back from the stove while the oil was heating and while I was frying (I was a little nervous about that 5 cups of boiling oil; call me overprotective), it really wasn't that bad. I didn't splatter myself or the stove with oil, and there were no grease fires. A smashing success, by all accounts.

But what about the donuts? How did they turn out? They were well received. My husband declared them "pretty damned good." My oldest son (usually the pickiest when it comes to Mom's versions of beloved junk foods) said he really liked them. He wanted to open a stand where we could sell donuts. I declined on the grounds that a) we live in a cul-de-sac that gets almost zero traffic, and b) it's 34 degrees outside.

But they were, if I say so myself, pretty damned good. I made a buttermilk donut, which is the "cake" donut you buy at the store. They take less time than the yeast donuts, requiring you only to mix them up, let the dough rest, then roll, cut, and fry them. I almost had a disaster when I realized after mixing everything together that I had forgotten the baking powder, but dumped it in, mixed some more, and crossed my fingers. I don't have a donut cutter, but the recipe I used suggested using a round cutter + an apple corer. That I have.

Once they were done, we tossed them in a bowl of cinnamon and sugar, and devoured them. It's important to check the temperature of your oil from time to time. I think mine was too hot in one batch, and the result was donuts that were getting pretty done on the outside, but weren't quite cooked through in the middle. Overall, however, they were cakey and moist, and the tiny bit of mace and allspice really does enhance the flavor.

I'm not sure if I'll ever make donuts again. It's a lot of work, although the results were worth it. Maybe on birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas. I would like to play with the flavors a little--add some cinnamon, try them with ground cloves, maybe even find a cider donut recipe, that sort of thing. But on the whole I'm satisfied to have been able to say I made them once, and didn't have any disasters. As cooking experiences go, that's pretty damned good.

Buttermilk Donuts
makes 24 donuts
adapated from Sheila Lukins "U.S.A. Cookbook"

2 large eggs
1 cup sugar
1 cup buttermilk
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground mace
Vegetable oil, for frying
Cinnamon and sugar, for dusting

Beat eggs in a large bowl until pale yellow. Slowly add sugar, beating until the mixture is thick and ribbony. Stir in the buttermilk, vanilla, and the melted butter.

In another bowl sift together flour, baking powder, salt, allspice and mace. Add to the egg mixture and stir to combine. Do not overwork the dough. Let dough rest in the refrigerator for 20 minutes.

Pour 2-3" of oil into a large heavy pot and place over medium-high heat. Heat to 370 degrees F.

While the oil is heating, roll dough on a lightly floured surface to a thickness of 1/4". Using a floured 2 1/2" donut cutter (or a 2 1/2" biscuit cutter and an apple corer to cut out the centers) cut out rounds. Save the dough from the holes.

When oil has heated to 370 degrees, fry the donuts in small batches until golden brown, turning once, about 1 1/2 minutes per side. Remove the donuts to a rack or plate covered with paper towel to drain. You may need to let the oil come back up to temperature between batches. The recipe recommended using a slotted spoon to transfer the donuts in and out of the oil, but I found a pair of tongs to be just as useful.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Turning

OK, show of hands of those who are ready for Winter to be over, and Spring to be here. As I suspected. Thank you, you can put your hands down now.

We keep having these spells of nice weather--bright sun, almost warm--and we look around and think, ahhhh, it's over. And then it snows. I mean, come on, really? Really?

So last week, in a conflicted state of mind that was attributable completely and entirely to the weather, I bought a dozen and a half pink tulips, and a cabbage. The Spring vegetables haven't really hit yet, so we're left with what stores well: cabbage, leeks, potatoes, beets.

I put the tulips in progressively smaller vases until finally their petals just wouldn't stay on and they scattered like so many enormous blushing snowflakes across my counter and floor, and then out they went. The cabbage sat patiently waiting in the refrigerator. As a cabbage does.

Its moment came with a dinner of Cabbage Gratin with Potatoes. The recipe is in the "vegetables" section of the Food + Wine 2007 Recipes cookbook, but it's got enough heft to be a whole meal in itself. Because it has bacon in it, it's not suitable for your non-carnivorous friends. But for those of you who eat meat, and just can't think of another damned thing to do with another damned cabbage, here's a wonderful idea.

The potatoes are quartered, and roasted separately. I use the little Yukon Golds that you can buy in a mesh bag, but any smallish new potato will do. The the bacon is sauteed, shredded cabbage added and wilted, and the potatoes stirred in. The whole deal is topped with cheese and then popped back in the oven. The original recipe calls for it to be broiled until the cheese starts to brown, but I prefer to actually bake it for a little while until the sauce thickens up and the cheese melts.

F+W calls for farmer cheese, and I have used this (it's what's in the picture), but I've also used Gruyere and Comte. If you're using one of these hard cheeses, I would recommend putting the cheese on in the last five minutes of the baking time, rather than at the beginning. If you do use farmer cheese (or something like it), it can go in the oven for the whole time.

What you end up with is a sort of Cabbage Mess, but a delightful one. The cabbage gets all lovely and caramelized as it cooks with the bacon, and the potatoes are soft and roasty tasting, and the cheese is melted over the top. It's an excellent meal for a night when the weather is playing one of those tricks on you, and the only thing you have to remind you that Spring really is coming are the tulips and the potted primrose you bought at the grocery store, along with that cabbage.

Cabbage Gratin with Potatoes
adapted from The Food + Wine Annual Cookbook, 2007
serves 4 (but they're pretty big servings; might even get 6 out of it)

2 pounds small potatoes (red or Yukon gold), quartered (or in 6ths if they're largeish)
2 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon olive oil
Salt + freshly ground pepper
1/2 lb bacon, 1/4" thick slices, cut into 1" pieces
2 lbs green cabbage, cored and thinly slices (as you can see, "thin" is a relative term; I just slice it up and don't worry much about how thick or thin the slices are)
2 cloves garlic, minced
3/4 cup heavy cream
1 - 7 1/2 ounce package farmer cheese OR 1 cup shredded hard cheese (Gruyere is nice)

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Spread the potatoes on 2 large rimmed baking sheets. Pour 1 tablespoon of olive oil over each pan and toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper. Roast for about 25 minutes, or until potatoes are browning on the bottom and tender. Remove from the oven and set aside. Leave the oven on.

In a deep ovenproof skillet with a lid (I use a 12" skillet for this), heat the remaining 1 teaspoon of olive oil. Add the bacon pieces and cook over medium heat until browning slightly, about 4-6 minutes. Add the cabbage and toss gently (I use tongs) to combine cabbage and bacon. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the cabbage is tender and starting to brown a little, about 12-15 minutes.

Stir in the garlic and cook about 2 minutes, then stir in the potatoes. Season with salt and pepper to taste, then add the cream. Simmer 1 minute. Remove from the heat and dollop the farmer cheese over the top of the cabbage. Put the skillet in the oven and bake for 15-20 minutes, or until sauce is thickening, and cheese is melted (if using hard cheese, put the skillet in the oven and bake without the cheese, then scatter it on in the last 5 minutes of cooking to melt it). Serve right away.