Wednesday, November 10, 2010

At long last, I'm back!

After a difficult summer, filled with challenges and heartbreak, I'm finally ready to resume my posts. As you know, it all began with my carpal tunnel surgery, which put me out of operation for a while. Shortly thereafter, my younger brother was admitted to the hospital with severe back pain. It was a grueling couple of months filled with hope and prayers for a miracle, but by the end of summer, he lost his battle and cancer won. Our family has been devestated by the loss and still struggle today.  During the weeks of uncertainty, we turned to things of comfort--mutual support, the familiar. Not that we felt much like eating, but when we did, it was the "old favorites" that got us through.  While spending as much time as I could with my brother, we would talk about one of our favorite pasttimes--cooking. My brother was a great cook and we could talk for hours about the nuances of a particular recipe or ingredient. One afternoon was spent discussing the many uses of avocado. Growing up in Southern California, avocados were always around, but their use was limited.  I had recently discovered avocado fries and was describing them to him and he wanted so much to try them. Unfortunately, it was something he couldn't eat without great difficulty, so imagination had to suffice.  So, in honor of my brother, I'm going to share this wonderful, easy, decadent treat with you. I hope you take the time to make it and share it with someone you love...

Avocado Fries

1 or 2 large avocados, just ripe
1 beaten egg
Panko
Salt
Vegetable oil, for frying

Heat 2 to 3 inches of oil in a heavy duty pan to 350 degrees.

While the oil is heating, slice avocado in half, remove pit, and slice into long strips. Dip each strip into the beaten egg and then roll into the panko.

Fry a few at a time, being careful not to over-crowd the pan, until just golden. Do not over-cook. You do not want them to turn a dark brown.  Once they have reached the desired color, remove to a plate to drain on a paper towel. Sprinkle with a little salt. Serve hot.

For extra goodness, serve with a sprinkling of fresh lemon juice and Salsa Ranch dressing for dipping. The outside should be crisp and the inside a little like butter!

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Just between us...

First, I want to appologize for so few entries of late.  I've been dealing with moderately severe carpal tunnel syndrome for a long time now, and after being on the computer all day at work, getting on the computer at home was just painful and would result in a night of no sleep.  The good news is, I had surgery to correct it about a week and a half ago. While typing with a banaged hand is not ideal, I can mange for short amounts of time. Worse, I've had to resort to a lot of pre-prepped meals! Cooking with your dominant hand out of commission is challenging, at best. One handed baking is next to impossible!

With that said, I would like you to know that I am on the road to recovery and should be able to share some fantastic summer recipes very soon.  The stitches come out next week and it's all downhill from there.  Until then, have a great holiday weekend and unofficial kickoff to summer!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Chocolate Protiferoles

  When asked to bring a dessert for a small dinner party, I toiled over what to make. So many choices! The girls wanted chocolate and suggested brownies. Cake seemed too formal. We were going on a hike in the afternoon and were finishing the evening with some wine and a healthy dinner (our hostess made a wonderful Spanish Salmon with Rice, Asparagus, and Salad!), so I opted for something light, chocolate, and not-too-sweet: Chocolate Protiferoles. They are so easy to make, I wonder why I make them so infrequently!


They are done in two stages: the eggy puffed pastry shell and the light and creamy filling. As I was putting them together, I was reminded of a comment from years ago: “These are better than sex!” (I told my friend she must be doing it wrong if that were the case, but that’s a different tale completely!).




One batch of the Pate Choux will make approximately 48 protiferoles or 18-24 full sized cream puffs. This same recipe can be used for éclairs (the filling will differ, however) or savory cheese puffs (not of the orange-glow variety!). Once added to your repertoire, you will certainly return to this over and over again.

Pate a Choux
Preheat oven to 425*

1 c all purpose flour
1 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 c water
1/2 c whole milk
6 TBSP (3/4 stick) unsalted butter
4-5 eggs

For egg wash: 1 large egg plus 1 egg yolk

Bring water, milk and butter to a boil in a large saucepan over medium heat. At the boil, remove from heat and add flour, salt, and sugar all at once. Using a sturdy spoon, stir vigorously to combine.

Return to medium heat and stir constantly in figure eights. Cook for at least 4 minutes or until the mixture has a smooth, mashed potato-like appearance.  This helps to break down the starch and devolop the gluten. Remove it from the heat.

Transfer to a standing mixer bowl fitted with paddle attachment.  Mix on low speed for 1-2 minutes or until the dough cools to 180*.  Add 4 or the eggs, one at a time. be sure to let the batter absorb each egg and scrape down the bowl after each egg.  Before adding the last egg, test for consistency.  Pinch off about 1 tsp of dough, hold between your thumb and index finger, pull finger apart, dough should stretch rather than break.  If it breaks, add the last egg.  Mix on low until thoroughly incorporated.  Dough should be be shiny and smooth.  it is now ready to pipe.  To store, cover the surface with plastic wrap and refigerate for up to 2 days.

Place dough in a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2" tip.  Pipe 1-1/2" puffs onto a parchment lined baking sheet. Pat down peaks with your finger dipped in water to smooth out. Cover lightly with egg wash.

Bake at 425* for 10-12 minutes or until the puffs begin to rise, then turn oven down to 350* and rotate the baking sheet.  Cool completely before filling.  Can be frozen for up to 2 weeks.


Chocolate Filling
 adapted from the King Arther Flour 200th Anniversary Cookbook

1/4 c butter, unsalted
2/3 c sugar
2 eggs
2 cups milk
1/3 c flour
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp coffee flavoring
2-3 squares unsweetened or semi-sweet chocolate
Whipped Cream

In a saucepan over very low heat, mix the butter and sugar and cook for 3 minutes. Beat the eggs into 1 3/4 cups milk and slowly add to the butter/sugar mixture, stirring all the time.

Blend the flour with 1/4 cup of milk, add to the hot mixture and cook until thick. Add the chocolate and stir until melted and well blended.  Let cool, and add the salt, vanilla, and coffee. When cold, fold into stiff whipped cream. Pipe into cream puffs.




After all the cream puff shells have been filled, drizzle the tops with melted dark or semi-sweet chocolate. Serve immediately. Refrigerate any leftovers in an airtight container. Often, the chocolate will develop a glossy sheen after refrigerating.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Forbidden Fruit



Growing up, spring was always announced with the pungent aroma of thousands of sweet smelling orange blossoms. Their fragrance would fill the air with such intensity that I felt like I was walking through a perfumery. Everything would smell of neroli—clothes, shoes, hair, skin. It was an exciting time of the year as we, my whole family, knew the arrival of summer and the grand, thick-skinned, juicy navel oranges were coming soon. Walking home from school, their cool dark green leaves would beckon refuge from the unrelenting sun. Hidden within was the prize. Gleaming like gold coins in a pirate’s chest, I was drawn to their glistening flesh. Giving in, I would steal my bounty, hoping not to be betrayed by the rousing of the branches that were sure to give me away. They would almost yell in protest to my actions, but they would soon quiet and I would be far away. Ah, those hot summer days were tempered when that first bit of sweet skin was broken, the encapsulated life force spraying a mist over everything, enticing me with the temptation of what was hidden inside. As I cut open the skin and peeled it away, discarding the fragments haphazardly wherever they may fall, I tried unsuccessfully to withdraw from the mist that both delighted and irritated me. The challenge that made the reward so much sweeter was to peel away the exterior without becoming blinded for life by the escaping oil, all the while being pulled in further by their intoxicating aroma. Hurriedly, I would break apart the golden globe, revealing the treasure. That first taste exploded into an orgasm of the senses. Cool, sweet juices overpowered my tongue, rested on my lips, and ran down my chin. I didn’t care. I only wanted more. With abandon, I would eagerly devour each wonderful segment until the only thing left was fulfillment. I would resolve to licking my lips in search of those last few drops. Satisfied, I would run off to my next adventure until once again I was drawn by the familiar wafting perfume on the gentle evening breeze tempting me to sin once more.

Cookbooks and Coffee Cake

My dear friend, Sarah, has fed my insatiable appetite for cookbooks by loaning me two amazing tomes. The first, The Zuni Caf√© Cookbook, looks amazing though I haven’t taken the steps to try the recipes. I have a list that I’ll have to attack one weekend when I’m able to devote the time to such an endeavor as the recipes are somewhat time intensive. The other book is by Mary and Vincent Price, A Treasury of Great Recipes. Yes, the legendary actor known for his portrayals of all beings dark and mysterious. I was entranced by the culinary variety in this book. Who knew that he and his wife were such gastronomes? Detailing their travels through Europe and the US during the late 1950’s and 60’s, they offer recipes from restaurants around the world as well as recreations of their favorite dishes. Each recipe is accompanied by a memory; each chapter by story. Menus document the origins of many recipes. I spent three days reading the book as if it were a best-selling novel, marking the pages I had to return to. I began to wonder if I had enough Post-Its!






So, Sunday morning, I set out to make one of the many mouth-watering entries that captured my attention. I decided on Coffee Cake.
The recipe is deceptively simple and produces enough coffee cake to satisfy the hunger of an early morning breakfast crowd. One batch will make four 8” cakes (so, at a 2” square per person, that’s 64 pieces!!). There are four varieties with the one recipe: Streusel, Cinnamon, Apple, and Cranberry. I didn’t have cranberries and my daughter was begging for something blueberry, so I took some liberties and changed the one version. I’ll post the original along with my substitutions.


The cakes turn out moist and fairly dense. Somewhat of a cross between a sponge and a pound cake, the texture is substantial enough to be filling but light enough to encourage a second helping. The flavorful variations provide the variety needed for a beautiful display of delights.

Although this is not my usual format, I’m going to write the recipe as it is found in the book.


Breakfast Breads
Makes four 8” square breads

Flour
Baking powder
Salt
Sugar
Shortening or butter
Milk
Eggs

1. In mixing bowl combine: 8 cups sifted all-purpose flour, 4 tablespoons double-acting baking powder, 1 tablespoon salt, and 2 cups sugar.

2. Beat: 3 cups milk and 4 eggs.

3. Stir liquid into flour mixture to make a lumpy batter.

4. Stir in: 2 cups melted shortening or butter.

5. Divide batter into 4 greased 8” square baking pans and bake in a preheated 375*F oven for 25-30 minutes, or until breads test done. Remove from pans to cool on racks. When cool, wrap and freeze. Reheat in moderate 350* oven for 10-15 minutes. Serve warm.



Cinnamon Nut Bread: Sprinkle the batter in one of the pans with: ½ cup brown sugar mixed with ½ cup chopped nut meats and 1 teaspoon cinnamon.



Streusel Bread: Sprinkle the batter in one of the pans with: ½ cup brown sugar mixed with 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 2 tablespoons flour, 2 tablespoons butter, and ½ cup chopped nut meats.



Cranberry Bread: Bring to a boil: 2 cups whole cranberries, 2/3 cups sugar, 1 pinch of salt, 2 tablespoons grated orange rind, and 2 tablespoons orange juice. Simmer for 5 minutes. Turn mixture into bottom of greased 8” square cake pan. Pour one-quarter of the breakfast bread batter over the cranberries and bake. Turn out, cranberry side up, to cool.

Note: This is where I substituted blueberries for the cranberries. I replaced the orange with lemon and followed everything else to the letter. It was DIVINE.


Apple Bread: Generously butter a 9” square cake pan. Sprinkle bottom with: ½ cup sugar and ¼ teaspoon nutmeg. Cover with: 2 cups sliced apples. Pour one-quarter of the breakfast bread batter over the apples and bake. Turn out, apple side up, to cool.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Mushroom Turnovers

 Too long ago, I had a mushroom tart at a local Tapas restaurant, FireFly, and fell in love with it. Since then, I've been on a quest to recreate it and make it my own. I can't say that it's an exact duplicate, but this recipe comes pretty close. Made with flakey puff pastry and a rich and creamy filling, it is delightful. It's light but filling. Normally, I like to make as many things from "scratch" as I can. This recipe "cheats" in that department, but the results are worth it.

Mushroom Turnovers

1 package cremini mushrooms, stems removed, washed and cut small
1 jar mushroom alfredo sauce
1/2 white onion, diced
Butter
Olive Oil
Fresh ground nutmeg
Fresh Pepper

Frozen Puff Pastry

Preheat Oven: 400*

Combine the mushrooms, onions and a few tablespoons of both olive oil and butter in a large skillet. Cook until the mushrooms and onion are tender. Add the alfredo sauce and season with pepper and nutmeg. Remove from heat and set aside.

Cut pastry into squares. Wet the edges and fill 1/2 with a generous tablespoon of mushroom filling. Fold over into triangles and seal the edges, use a fork if necessary to make sure it is a tight seal. Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment or silpat. Coat with a light egg wash, milk, or cooking spray to enhance color.

Bake for 15-20 minutes or until pastry is puffed and golden. Serve hot.
You can use any of the leftover mushroom filling over the hot pastries.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Cardamom Bread Pudding

So I posted the recipe for Cardamom Bread. Rarely do I ever have an extra loaf sitting around getting stale; however, this is one of those rare occassions.  I couldn't bring myself to the point of tossing a loaf, so I set out to do something creative with it. I have an amazing recipe for bread pudding that is sweet and custardy, and I thought it would be the perfect use for my lonely loaf. I was not wrong! The pudding turned out as expected...a thick layer of custard with a chewy topping of bread. A dollup of whipped cream just put it over the edge.  It has become my new favorite.  Of course, after this version, any dried-out bread pudding is just unacceptable. Be prepared to be completely spoiled for life!


Cardamom Bread Pudding

16 oz Half and Half
8 oz Heavy Cream
8 Eggs
1 C Sugar
1/2 tsp Vanilla
1 Loaf Cardamom Bread, slightly stale & cut into 1/2" thick slices
1 TBSP Raisins
1/2 TBSP Cinnamom
1/4 tsp Nutmeg

Combine half & half, cream, eggs, sugar and vanilla and mix well. Arrange bread on the bottom of a 10" x 10" x 2" pan. Pour liquid mixture over the bread. Sprinkle the raisins over all then the cinnamon and nutmeg with a little sugar. Cover the pan with foil and place in a second baking pan with water to almost the top of the pudding pan. Bake at 400* for 75-90 minutes. Remove when custard is set. Serve warm or cold with whipped cream.

 Look at that thick layer of custard...Yummm!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Gnocchi

For Christmas, I was given a fabulous cookbook, Culinaria European Specialties. The book is beautifully illustrated, rich with regional history, and fantastic recipes. I was so excited to to dive into this book and try something, it was difficult to narrow down the choices. Finally, after reading it twice--like a great novel--one recipe kept jumping out at me...Gnocchi, little dumplings. I've heard of it. I've been told about it. Friends have gushed over the sublime texture and subtle flavor. I've also heard that it's difficult to make. I've never had it...until now. I couldn't wait to jump right in and tackle this elusive pasta. Now, typically, pasta ranks about 4th on my list of starches. Potatoes and bread vie for first place followed by rice and then pasta. So, pasta made of potatoes--I was all over it.

Not knowing how the finished product was supposed to turn out, I relied heavily on the descriptive narratives of my friends: light, "fluffy", won't stick to your mouth. Okay...where do I go with THAT? Only one answer...onward. I served mine with a sage butter and parmesian cheese, but that seemed a little light for the pasta. Next time, a tomato based sauce.




Gnocchi di Patate

3 lbs mealy potatoes (I used Russets)
2 eggs
Salt
2 1/2 cups flour

Boil the potatoes in their skins until soft. Drain, leave until cool enough to handle, then peel and mash (I used a food mill with a medium sized disc). Mix in the eggs and salt and then add the flour and knead int a dough.

Divide the potato mixture into 10 equally-sized portions and roll each portio into long strings as wide as your thumb. Cut up the dough string into pieces of about 1" in length and dust with flour. Using the back of a fork, pattern the pieces with the typical ribbed gnocchi design.

Cook the gnocchi in moderately sized portions in boiling salted water.  They are done when they rise to the surface. Remove from the water with a slotted spoon and drain well.  Serve with sage butter or a tomato or meat sauce.

Tip: The amount of flour needed depends on the kind of potato used. New potatoes are unsuitable for gnocchi, as they absorb far more flour than older varieties.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Cardamom Bread/Braid

Every year, for as long as I have a memory, Christmas just wasn't Christmas without Cardamom Braid. My mom, grandmother, and aunts all made it. It was part of Christmas morning breakfast--with hot chocolate when I was young and coffee as I got older--and always sliced thick and spread with butter. Anything left, and it wasn't usually much, was eaten quickly the same day or shortly after.  The story was always told of how my great-great grandmother would crack open the white cardamom pods and then crush the seeds with the brass mortar and pestle that I still use today. Although I don't buy the full pods, I get the decorted cardamom, I often crush the seeds until the aroma is released and they are small enough as to not overpower a bite.  If I really want a release of flavor, though, I'll use a coffee grinder and get a finer powder to flavor my bread. Any leftover cardamom is then used in a fresh pot of coffee...placed in with the coffee grounds for a truly decadent treat.

If you aren't familiar with cardamom, be warned that it is an expensive spice to become addicted to; a small jar in the grocery store can go for $10 and up. The flavor is distinct--a cross between a pepper and a nutmeg with a hint of sweetness. It is used in many Scandinavian recipes and is an essential ingredient in many curries and other Indian dishes. I find the best price for decorted cardamom from a little shop in Riverside, CA called DragonMarsh. They carry a wide selection of herbs/spices and their quality is great. Order on line at http://www.dragonmarsh.com/.

Now, for the good part...

Cardamom Braid/Bread
2 large loaves or 4 small loaves

1 c milk or cream, scalded
2 pkgs or 1 TBSP dry yeast
1/4 c warm water
1/2 c butter
1/3 c sugar
1 tsp salt
1 egg, beaten
1-2 tsp cardamom
Dash fresh nutmeg
5 c all purpose flour (+/- depending on the weather)

Soften the yeast in the warm water with just a pinch of sugar to proof. Set aside.

Scald the milk with the cardamom and nutmeg.

Combine the butter, sugar, and salt in a large mixing bowl. Pour the milk over all. When lukewarm, add 1 cup of flour and beat til smooth. Add the yeast.

Add 1/2 of the flour and mix until smooth. Add the egg. Continue to add the rest of the flour unti the dough is soft and no longer sticky.

Turn on to a floured surface and let rest for 5-10 minutes. Knead for 3-5 minutes until smooth and elastic. Spray a large bowl with cooking spray or coat lightly with oil. Place the dough in the bowl oil lightly. Cover with plastic wrap and a towel and let rise until double in size. Repeat.

After the second rise, divide dough in half. Divide each half into thirds and roll into long ropes, about the length of your baking sheet. Criss-cross the ropes in the center and braid each side, starting from the middle. Secure the ends by pinching together and tucking them under.

Place the completed braid on a parchment lined baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap and a towel, and let rise a third time.

Preheat oven to 375*. Before baking, brush each loaf with an egg wash and sprinkle generously with raw sugar, colored sugar, or cinnamon-sugar (your preference--they are all good!). Bake for 20-25 minutes. Remove from pan immediately. Try to let the loves cool a bit before devouring!



Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Best Gift of All

The holiday season has passed by once again and I am amazed at how quickly it went. The best part of the season is not the gifts, the shopping, or the craziness. It's the extra time that is spent with family and friends. Even though I try to make time for it throughout the year, the days on the calendar between Halloween and New Year just seem a little more special. When we have the opportunity to spend one of our most valued commodities, time, with those we love, it makes the world a better place. At the center of most of these gatherings is food. Food brings us together and unites us in a way that rivals all others. Be it sweet or savory, large or small, the act of partaking in eating together breaks down barriers, evens the playing field, and allows everyone to be at peace, if only for a little while. This is what drives me. This is what makes me yearn for November 1. This is also what makes me a little sad on January 2. The lights and decorations get put away for another year; the routine of work and life come back into focus; the "holiday spirit" is tucked neatly into a drawer or closet or other safe haven to be forgotten until it is time again to take it out for display.

Perhaps this is why I love to have people over throughout the year. Barbeques, pot lucks, cookie swaps, or girls night--I look forward to all of these celebrations and more with the same anticipation of a child waiting for Santa to visit. I shop and prepare, hoping beyond hope that every recipe--even the tried and true--come out just perfect; waiting for the best gift of all...the happy sounds of joy at every taste. I could go without a single store bought gift if I am surrounded by the people I love and get to hear their murmors of happiness. This for me is the ultimate moment of the holiday season...and how I like to celebrate the holidays all year long.

As part of the celebratory festivities, I was fortutate enought to have the time to make rich dark chocolate fudge, spiced walnuts, light and tender potato gnocchi, beef braised in beer and onions, and cardamom bread in two varieties. While the recipe for the beef can be found in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, I will post the others within the next few days. My heart and home has been filled with those I hold most dear, so my computer has been a distant memory. Like the decorations and the songs, those days must be put away for a spell and life must return to "normal".

I hope you had a wonderful end to 2009, filled with memories of loved ones brought close.