Wednesday, March 24, 2010


When you have children--any children, not necessarily a particular number of children--it can be very challenging to execute a reicpe.

It goes something like this:

Me: "Let's see...a quarter of a cup of flour..."

Child 1: "Mama, can I have a cereal bar?"

Me: "Wait, a cup of flour...and two teaspoons of baking powder..."

Child 2: "Mommy, where's my DS?"

Me: "No, two of soda, only one of powder..."

Child 3: "Mama, can I have some juice?"

Me : "And three quarters of a cup of..."

Child 4: "Mama, is it my turn to choose [what gets watched on TV]?"

Me: "Three quarters..."

Child 1: "Mommy, no! It's my turn!"

Me: "Three..."

Child 3: "Mama, are we going to the pool?"

Me: "Where's the white wine??"

And that was at 10 a.m.

So you can see that a recipe that contains a minimum number of ingredients, and spends most of it's time in a "hands off" state is practically a necessity. If what it delivers is also fun and tasty, well, bonus.

The recipe for "flapjack" in the March Bon Appetit magazine is just such a recipe. Flapjack, it would seem, is a British specialty, a sort of chewy oat bar. I checked my British cookbooks (of which I have three) and found no mention of it. No matter, I made it anyway. Five ingredients, a few minutes on the stove, into a pan in the oven, and 20 minutes later, a lovely little snack. I made it the first time and it was so quick and easy I was able to make it again a couple of nights later to take as a treat for my friends on the ferry. We often have these little morning nibbles, usually when it's someone's birthday. I figured we'd celebrate Tuesday with flapjack.

I made a couple of small changes and presented them to overwhelming approval. And so, because I also have a job, and need to get back to said job, I offer without further ado, my adapted recipe for flapjack.

This was the last bit of it left--I had to snap a picture quickly before it disappeared. Which it did about 12 seconds later.

adapted from Bon Appetit magazine
makes 16 triangles

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces

1/2 cup (packed) golden brown sugar

1/4 cup Lyle's golden syrup (available at specialty stores and some grocery stores--it's with the maple syrup in mine)

2 cups quick-cooking oats (not instant or old-fashioned--they say "Cooks in 1 Minute!" on the label)

1/3 cup hazelnut meal (finely ground hazelnuts--I use Bob's Red Mill brand; you could also use almond meal)

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

¼ teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 350 and spray an 8" square pan with cooking spray. Combine first three ingredients in a pan over medium heat. Heat stirring until butter is melted, sugar dissolves, and mixture is smooth. Remove from heat and add oats and hazelnut meal, cinnamon and salt. Stir until well combined. Pat oat mixture into the prepared pan.

Bake at 350 for 20-25 minutes, until outside edges are golden and crisp. Remove from oven and use a knife to loosen the mixture from the sides of the pan, and carefully cut it into four squares, and cut each square into four triangles. Do NOT attempt to remove the flapjack from the pan. It needs to cool completely in the pan. Once cool, it goes perfectly with tea.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Here, There, and Everywhere

Have you ever noticed that when you become aware of a thing, you suddenly see it everywhere? This happens to me a lot with magazine text. I’ll be minding my own business, and all of a sudden it will occur to me that I’ve seen a particular word or phrase recently, and here it is again, and suddenly here it is everywhere.

The two that spring immediately to mind because they are current are “go-to” and “spot on.” Suddenly every food magazine I get is offering me a “go-to” recipe for this or that, and they’re all “spot on” in terms of flavor and deliciousness.

This happens to me primarily with magazines because I am what could be not so nicely called a magazine whore. I have even been known to stoop to the Family Circle/Ladies Home Journal variety of magazine when all other sources fail me. And I have a good friend who is similarly whorish, and she and I take great pleasure in pointing out these repeated words and phrases to one another (via email, which is our primary…well, actually our only means of communication, since I now live 3,000 miles away from her). We even have a shorthand abbreviation for when one of us points out something to the other. The other person responds “TNIWBE,” which stands for “Thanks Now It Will Be Everywhere.” And sure enough, it’s inevitable.

I remember it started with “bling.” I’d never heard the term before, but she remarked that it was ALL OVER and boy was it getting tiresome. I shrugged, but before my shoulders could drop back to their original position, I’d seen it four times (OK, I exaggerate, but almost). Since then we’ve pointed out such gems to one another as “spuds” (food magazines often substitute this word for potato in articles), “tresses” (you know, hair) and “kicks” (sneakers—my friend reads more health and exercise magazines than I do; I pretty much confine myself to food magazines, so I see the non-food ones from time to time, but the food ones are under my nose all the time).

Now it’s starting to happen to me with recipes. I’ll see a recipe and think, “Oooo, that sounds good” and I’ll make it, and the next thing I know, every magazine I read has a recipe for that same thing. Or an article about food trends in the New York Times mentions it. Or I read some of my favorite bloggers, and they’re making the same thing. In fact, this happened with the recipe I have for you today. I saw it in one place, thought it looked interesting, and since I made it myself I’ve now seen it at least three other times, most recently in (surprise) an article in the New York Times.

These are called Cat Head Biscuits. And they’re from that persnickety source that the chicken pie came from, so I will Not Mention Their Name, but as usual, I had to mess with their recipe. I also saw them in a cookbook I was perusing, and in an article about a Southern cook in the New York Times Magazine. They call them Cat Head because they’re as big as a cat’s head (in theory—I have cats and they’re really more the size of a kitten’s head, but we can overlook this).

Anyhoo, the thing I like about them is that they’re a biscuit, but you don’t roll them out and cut them. You blop the dough into a cake tin or cast iron skillet and bake. I love biscuits, but I get tired of digging out my pastry board, flouring it, rolling them out, and cutting them. Plus you waste dough that way, because you can really only reroll the scraps once before you start to develop the gluten when you’re kneading it into a cohesive mass, and they start to get tough. These call for no rolling, hallelujah! Even if you think you’re one of those people who just can’t make biscuits, you can make these (I am one of those people who just can’t hard cook an egg, but that’s a story for another time).

There’s also no fretting about keeping the butter super cold. In fact, it’s supposed to be slightly soft. However, I’ve also made them with butter that was effectively right out of the fridge, and they were fine. That’s another nice thing about this recipe—it’s flexible and forgiving.

Alex and I disagreed on the amount of sugar needed in these. The recipe I saw called for none, but I really thought they needed some. The amount I added was too much for Alex, who declared them sweet enough to be a shortcake base. I said they’d need quite a bit more sugar to be suitable for that. So I’m offering you a range of sugar amount, in case you don’t like your biscuits on the sweet side and/or you want to use them for strawberry shortcake.

So here are easy, tasty biscuits that could double as dessert component. You can use them as your go-to recipe, and they are spot on.

Cat Head Biscuits
Makes 6 biscuits

1 ½ cups all purpose flour
1 ½ cups cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons salt (I use kosher salt; if you’re using table salt, err on the side of 1 teaspoon)
1-3 Tablespoons granulated sugar (I’d add up to a quarter cup if you want to use them for shortcake, but taste before you take that leap)
8 Tablespoons (1 stick) butter cut into ½” cubes, slightly softened (or not)
4 Tablespoons solid vegetable shortening, cut into ½” cubes
1 – 1 ¼ cup buttermilk

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Spray a 9” cake pan or cast iron skillet with cooking spray (the cast iron skillet would make a nice presentation if you were serving them directly from the pan). In a large bowl, combine flours, baking powder, baking soda, sugar, and salt. Using your hands or a pastry blender, cut butter and shortening into the flour mixture until it resembles coarse crumbs. Add buttermilk and stir to combine. Begin with 1 cup, adding remaining quarter cup if the mixture is too dry. The consistency will be very pasty and thick, which is what you want. It will actually hold a mounded shape when you plunk it into the pan. If you use too much buttermilk, you’ll get more of a batter than a dough, and they won’t work the way they’re intended to.

Using a half cup measure, or an ice cream scoop, or just a large spoon, create five distinct mounds around the perimeter of the pan. Place one mound in the center.

Bake until golden, 20-25 minutes. Cool for 10 minutes in the pan, then transfer to a wire rack. While the biscuits are cooling in the pan, use a knife to score between them (this will make them easier to remove from the pan once they’re cool). Serve warm.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Bye Bye, Chicken Pie

Sometimes (my husband would say, often) I become obsessed with a recipe that doesn’t work, and I have to make it work, even if that means making the same thing four times and driving my family crazy discussing changes and additions. “NO,” he’ll say, calmly, “I REALLY DON’T THINK IT’S GOING TO MAKE THAT MUCH DIFFERENCE IF YOU USE SEEDLESS RASPBERRY JAM INSTEAD OF THE KIND WITH SEEDS. NOW CAN WE PLEASE CHANGE THE SUBJECT?!?”

So is it a coincidence that my kids started saying, “Bye bye, chicken pie,” just about the same time I started my relationship with this recipe? Maybe.

Let’s talk about the first time I made this pie. I saw the recipe in a magazine (and never mind which one, because it’s one that tends to be a bit persnickety about its reputation—which I have to suspect is largely self-assigned—for printing Perfected Recipes, and they seem to feel there’s no improving on them, which I have found to be Just Plain Wrong. But I digress.) and it just looked so wonderfully unhealthy I had to try it. This is not, you understand Chicken Pot Pie. There are no peas, no carrots, no onions, no potatoes. This is chicken in a creamy sauce in pie crust. That right there is three of my favorite things: pie crust, chicken, and cream sauce.

I made it with the ingredients listed according to the instructions given. They referred you to a pie crust recipe two pages ahead, which made so much crust that I probably could have made one two-crust pie, and one single crust. It was wasteful. (Although I’m willing to accept some blame as far as the crust is concerned; it’s possible I rolled it too thin the first time.) The proportions they gave for the filling were so generous that I had to use a 10” deep dish pie crust to hold it all, which meant that the cooking time was more like an hour and a half. The thing spent so much time in the oven that the sauce broke. Even if it hadn’t broken, the original recipe called for lemon zest, which gave it a weird puckery flavor that I found off-putting.

I wanted to love this pie, but it needed some adjustments.

I walked through the original recipe.

Chicken: Originally the instruction was to roast over two pounds of bone-in breasts. Not only do I not normally keep bone-in breasts on hand, that was way too much chicken. I cut it back to two breasts, and used boneless skinless, which I always have around.

Aromatics: The one rib of celery and two cloves of garlic in the original recipe didn’t add enough flavor to the sauce. I increased the garlic and tossed in one medium chopped onion. Much better.

Sauce: That lemon zest was the first thing to go. Then to up the creaminess, I added some heavy cream, and at the same time reduced the amount of chicken broth so that the sauce recipe made much less overall.

Cheese: I had intended to reduce the amount of cheese the second time I made it, but actually ended up forgetting it altogether. Frankly, I didn’t miss it. I decided it was totally optional, and in the future I won’t be using it at all.

The result was deemed good but “missing something.” I thought it was fine, but if my tasters wanted a little added layer of flavor, I was happy to oblige (since it meant I got to make the pie yet again and I’d developed a deep affection for this pie reheated for breakfast. I actually don’t recommend this, because pie crust doesn’t take kindly to being microwaved, but if you do have pie leftover and you’re willing to put up with slightly tough crust, it makes a lovely breakfast).

The third time I made it, I simmered ¾ cup of heavy cream with rosemary, sage, and thyme. Bingo.

The result is a crisp flaky crust with a heavenly creamy sauce full of shredded chicken. The cheese doesn’t add much; I barely notice it. In fact, when it cooks during baking, it makes the sauce a little watery. It thickens up as it cools, but the first piece was a little looser than I prefer.

I think this would make an outstanding brunch dish. I myself loathe quiche. It’s always watery and the crust is soggy. This is a fabulous substitute with the same sort of ingredients profile: crust, creamy filling, some protein to get everyone going. And it’s different; not the same old thing.

And so, we bring to a close my chicken pie obsession. I know my family will be grateful (or maybe not, since this means we move on to something else). Bye bye, chicken pie.

Chicken Pie
Makes 1 9” pie

12 ounces flour (about 2 ¼ cup; use weight if at all possible, it’s much more reliable)
8 ounces (one stick) butter
2-4 ounces of ice water
¼ teaspoon salt

In a food processor, combine butter, flour and salt and pulse 10-12 times until butter is in quite small pieces. With the motor running, add the ice water until the dough just comes together. Divide dough between two sheets of plastic wrap and wrap tightly. Refrigerate for 15 minutes or so, up to overnight.

Chicken Filling
2 boneless skinless chicken breasts
8 ounces (1 stick) butter
1 rib celery, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1/3 cup all purpose flour
1 12 ounce can evaporated milk
½ cup chicken broth
¾ cup heavy cream
1 spring rosemary
2-3 sage leaves
2 thyme sprigs
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 bunch scallions, chopped (green parts only)
½ cup shredded cheddar cheese (optional)
1 egg + 2 teaspoons water, beaten

Preheat oven to 375. Season chicken breasts with salt and pepper, and roast for about 25 minutes, or until done. Allow to cool, then shred into 2” pieces (shredded chicken really does taste different from cubed chicken, for some reason; I hate shredding chicken—it gets under my nails and it takes forever—but it’s totally worth the improved taste).

In a small saucepan, combine heavy cream and herbs over medium-low heat. Allow to simmer while you make the rest of the sauce.

In a 3 qt saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Add the garlic, onion and celery, and cook until softened but not coloring. Add the flour and cook about 3 minutes. It’s OK if the flour browns slightly, but don’t let it get too dark. Add the evaporated milk, cream (and all the herbs), and chicken broth. Taste for seasoning and correct as needed with salt and pepper. Reduce heat to low and simmer until sauce is quite thick.

Remove sauce from the heat and strain through a fine sieve into a large bowl. Discard solids. Stir in chicken and chopped scallions (I taste for seasoning again here). Allow to cool slightly (about 30 mins).

Roll out pie crust, and fit into a 9” (1” deep) pie pan (spray the pan with cooking spray, and be sure to spray the edge of the pan so the crust doesn’t stick when you crimp it). Pour the filling into the prepared crust, and roll out the top crust. If you’re using the cheese, scatter it over the top of the filling now. Cover with the top crust and crimp the edges with a fork. Brush the crust with the egg and water mixture.

Bake at 375 for 45 minutes to an hour (start checking at 45 minutes—the top crust should be golden, and if using a glass pie plate, you should see little bubbles around the sides of the bottom crust through the dish). Allow to cool for ten minutes. Serve.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Up Next: Chicken Pie

I've been working on a chicken pie that I'll make one last time this weekend and then reveal it to the world. I found the recipe and it just sounded amazing, but like so many things, it fell short. So I set out to retool it and work out the kinks, and if the fact that my husband ate half of the "beta" version this weekend says anything, we're almost there!

This is not a chicken pot pie. This is a chicken pie. And oh my is it a good chicken pie. It's not an everyday dinner--for one thing it takes a little time--but for a special occasion, I think it would be stellar.

OK, that's enough preview--coming soon: Chicken Pie!

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Moving On

OK, I need to get past this. You see, I've been haunted for the, almost three months now, by these eclairs! They just never turned out the way I wanted them too, and I've just been too discouraged to talk about them.

It's not that they were bad, mind. They just weren't what I expected them to be. But I watched some Julia Child a couple of weeks ago and one of the things she said was (to paraphrase), "Never apologize; just because it disappoints you doesn't mean the people you're serving know that it's not the way you intended it to be." In effect, keep your mouth shut and everyone will probably think it's just fine. Well, that surely is what happened with these eclairs. My friends thought they were just dandy. Bless them.

But to bring myself to closure here, let me explain what disappointed me. I made the choux paste, and it was fine. For all the kerfluffle out there about how tricky cream puffs are, they're not. You make the batter (you can even do it in a food processor) and steam does all the work for you (which is why I picked this particular dessert for this supper club--the theme was "air" and I felt that a pastry in which the "air" technically did all the work was right in line).

So, crisp little fingers of puffy buttery dough, the creamy custardy filling. No problem, right? Wrong. The directions for these eclairs call for lightening the filling with whipping cream. Nice idea, but guess what? You can't pipe it. If you look inside a cream puff or gougere, you'll see that the steam has indeed fluffed everything up nicely, but it leaves this sort of spider webby network of dough that you have to force aside to while you're filling them. That light airy cream just didn't have enough muscle for the job.

As a result, I was forced to slit the eclairs down the side and plop the filling in. Worst thing in the world? Of course not. Actually the way the instructions described the filling process? Why, yes. Not in line with my personal expectations? Ah, no, and this is where we come to the crux of the problem, and the aforementioned haunting.

It's not that they turned out badly, or even that they turned out differently than the recipe described, it's that they did not meet my expectations, and because I let myself down, I labeled them a flop. Of course I didn't stop cooking after this, I just stopped talking about it here. I was too mortified by my own perceived failure to come back and discuss it.

So now I am back, and I have discussed it. I didn't mention that the chocolate glaze let me down too, in part because I waited too late to make it and it didn't harden up the way it was supposed to until the next day. Again, my fault. If I'd made the chocolate in the morning, it would probably have been fine by 5 p.m. or so, when I needed to use it.

Well, live and learn. I think I have some pictures of this mortifying experience somewhere.

Right, you see? Fine. They're fine. The picture is a little heavy on glare for my taste, but I didn't edit it at all, just dropped it in here.
Now that we're past that, I'll start working on some other things that won't disappoint. I'm not even going to bother giving you the recipe for the eclairs, I'm so annoyed at how I let them ruin my life for three months. They are dead to me. Let's move on!