Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Candy Cane Cookies

My mother has a Betty Crocker cookbook that has been falling apart for years. The binding has completely disintegrated and the pages are brittle from years of spills and splashes. It really isn't a very inventive cookbook. It was the type that was around in the 1960s and 70s when that generation was only interested in cooking "the basics." But every year, I think nostalgically of that particular cooking tome. It has three of my all-time favorite recipes in it. I've already shared the recipe for one of them: Crescents. This is another of those favorite recipes (with one minor tweak). They are somewhat labor-intensive in their original iteration, but kids love them (as do the adults who grew up loving them). This recipe doubles very well.

Candy Cane Cookies
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup finely crushed candy cane
1 cup butter or margarine, softened
½ cup milk
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp peppermint extract
1 egg
3 ½ cups flour
1 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
½ tsp red food coloring
2 tbsp finely crushed candy cane
2 tbsp sugar

1. Stir together sugar, 1/4 cup crushed candy cane, butter, milk, vanilla, peppermint extract and egg in large bowl. Stir in flour, baking powder and salt. Divide dough in half. Stir food color into one half. Cover and refrigerate at least 4 hours.
2. Heat oven to 375.
4. For each candy cane, shape 1 rounded teaspoon dough from each half into 4-inch rope by rolling back and forth on floured surface. Place 1 red and white rope side by side; press together lightly and twist. Place on ungreased cookie sheet; curve top of cookie down to form handle of cane.
5. Bake 9 to 12 minutes or until set and very light brown. While the cookies bake, combine 2 tbsp crushed candy cane and 2 tbsp sugar. Immediately sprinkle candy mixture over cookies when you remove them from the oven. Remove from cookie sheet to wire rack before the candy cane mixture melts to the pan. Cool completely, about 30 minutes.

Substitution Suggestions: I would NOT use anything other than peppermint-flavored candy canes for this recipe. You can add a very small splash of almond extract for extra flavor.

Lessons Learned: I am sometimes a lazy baker. If I'm running short on time, I forgo creating the candy cane shape and just create 1-inch balls out of each dough color and then alternate them on my cookie platter for the semi-twisted effect. (You won't run the risk of breaking the canes as you pull them off the pan.) You can also take bits of each dough and gently roll them together to create one ball with both colors.
The original recipe calls for 1 cup of sugar and does not require 1/4 cup crushed candy cane. My mother didn't stock peppermint extract in her pantry, so she substituted by using crushed peppermint in lieu of the extract. I do both for that extra minty flavor, but if you don't have the extract, just use crushed candy canes. In all, you'll need one cup total of the sugar-peppermint blend. Use more sugar than candy cane.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Mexican Wedding Cakes/Russian Tea Cakes/Crescents

Growing up, my mother made a trio of Christmas cookies every year (and yes, they are Christmas cookies, not holiday cookies, not winter solstice cookies --Christmas cookies!). She'd carefully pack them into homemade felt stockings for me and my brothers to give to our teachers. (That was back in the day when you didn't fell obligated to spend $20 on a teacher present.) I loved the aroma of those cookies, but more importantly, I loved being around when she wasn't looking and I could snitch one from the cookie tin on the counter. This is one of those favorite recipes. It goes by many different names. We call them crescents, but I'm now too lazy to shape them into crescents. So, I guess we could call them powdered snowballs.

Crescents

1 lb. butter
4 cups flour
1 cup powdered sugar
1 cup finely chopped nuts
1 tsp. vanilla
Powdered sugar

1. Mix ingredients together.
2. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes or until lightly browned on the bottom.
3. Shake warm cookies in a bag of powdered sugar.
4. When cool shake again in powdered sugar or use a shaker to sprinkle heavily.

Substitution Suggestions: We always used walnuts, but I've also used chopped almonds and pecans. I think I like the pecans best. You can also add in a little almond extract. Whatever you do, don't leave the nuts out. They really add nice texture to this crumbly cookie.

Lessons learned: These cookies freeze well  after they are baked. The powdered sugar will get a little gummy if you shake them immediately as they come out of the oven. So, let them cool about five minutes or so before shaking them in the powdered sugar.

Sherried Lamb Chops

I am pretty traditional when it comes to proteins -- chicken, turkey, pork, beef, fish. I don't like rabbit and I'm not a huge fan of duck. But, a center-cut lamb shank was calling out to me at the grocery store, so I picked it up and figured I could do something with it. If the experiment failed, oh well. It turns out the make-it-up-as-you-go recipe was absolutely delicious. I accepted a little ingredient help from Alton Brown, but the measurements and cooking prep are entirely my own.

Sherried Lamb Chops

2 bone-in lamb chops
olive oil
2 tsp ground coriander
2 tsp ground thyme
2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup cooking sherry
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
1 tsp rosemary, crushed

1. In small bowl, combine coriander, thyme, salt, pepper and garlic. Set aside.
2. Blot lamb chops to remove excess moisture. Cover liberally with olive oil on both sides. Coat both sides of chops with spice-garlic mixture.
3. Place seasoned chops in hot skillet. (If the chops don't sizzle when they hit the pan, the pan is not hot enough.) Sear for 2-3 minutes, then turn over for another 2-3 minutes. Before garlic burns, deglaze pan with sherry. Add mustard and rosemary and stir into the pan drippings. Turn the chops over a few times to infuse the sauce. Cover and cook on low heat until desired doneness is achieved, about five minutes.

Substitution Suggestions: I suppose you could experiment with the alcohol used to deglaze the pan, but I like the sweetness of sherry. Fresh is better, obviously, but if you don't have it on hand, dried spices will work just fine.

Lessons Learned: I learned that I should experiment with new meats more often. This recipe was absolutely delicious. I used one large chop (the size of a large hand span), but it's written here for two small chops (the size of two small hands). If you don't think you have enough spice garlic mixture, add to it before you smear it on the chops. I turned the meat over several times to really get the flavor into the meat, then served it with couscous. This is comfort food at its finest.

Not Too Tart Cranberry Sauce

Cranberry sauce from a can may be OK for crock pot recipes, but it is definitely not OK for Thanksgiving or Christmas. Last year's recipe was really random (with balsamic vinegar and jalapenos) and my brother requested straight, plain Jane sauce this year. I can't just do plain Jane, so I went on the hunt for something better than just berries and sugar. I found this recipe and it gets five stars from me. It's not too sweet, not too tart and has lots of extra texture that makes it more interesting than straight mushy berries. It comes courtesy of Wayne Deen, son of Paula Deen, with some tweaking and substitutions by yours truly, which I've written into the version below.

Not Too Tart Cranberry Sauce

1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1 (16-ounce) bag fresh cranberries
1 cup chopped apple
1 cup chopped pecans
1/2 cup raisins
1 tbsp orange extract
1/2 orange, juiced
1/2 lemon, juiced
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg, freshly grated


1. Combine sugar and water in large saucepan and bring to a boil. Add the cranberries and return to a boil, then lower the heat so that the liquid simmers.
2. Add the apples, pecans, raisins, extract, orange and lemon juices, cinnamon and nutmeg. Cook for 10 to 15 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and let the sauce cool.


Substitution Suggestions: The original recipe called for walnuts. We like pecans. It also called for 1/4 cup Grand Marnier, but since I don't drink, I don't have it in the house. So, I substituted 1 tbsp orange extract for the orange liqueur. Orange juice concentrate would also work. I omitted the raisins, but only because I didn't have any handy.

Lessons Learned: It's a really easy recipe and unless you're serving a big crowd, you will have plenty of leftovers. If you don't include the nuts, you could easily use the leftovers for cranberried pork or cranberried chicken, which is also posted on this blog.
Use sweet apples, not Granny Smith. The cranberries are tart enough that you don't need extra pucker power from Granny Smith apples.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Perfectly Flaky Pie Crust

There are certain foods that every cook never quite masters. It's different for each person: perfectly smooth creme brulee, non-lumpy gravy, a moist turkey, cookies that stay soft for days. For me, it has been the ever-elusive, perfectly flaky pie crust. Try as I might (and believe me, I've tried), it's always too tough, too soggy, too dry, too bland, too salty, too brown, too pale, too something. Every time. Until now. Thanks to allrecipes.com, I have finally created the perfect pie crust. Perfectly flaky, perfectly browned, perfectly salted, perfectly crispy -- "practically perfect in every way." And now I'm going to share it with you. You can thank me later.

Perfectly Flaky Pie Crust

2 cups flour
1 cup butter-flavored shortening
1 tsp. salt
1/2 cup ice-cold water

1. Combine flour and salt in a bowl and stir until combined. Chill for at least 15 minutes. Chill the shortening for at least the same amount of time.
2. Cut shortening into the flour mixture with a fork or pastry cutter until clumps form no larger than the size of your baby fingernail. Do not over mix and do not put your hands in the mix.
3. Add ice-cold water one tablespoon at a time and gently toss until combined. The dough will begin to ball on its own.
4. Separate dough into two balls and wrap each in plastic wrap. Chill in fridge for at least 30 minutes. (At this stage, the dough can be frozen for later use.)
5. Liberally flour large wooden cutting board. Flour rolling pin. Remove one dough ball, unwrap and press down gently onto floured board. Roll into 10-inch circle, turning the dough often to make sure it doesn't stick.
6. Fold in half, then into quarters. Set it into 9-inch pie plate and unfold. Prick bottom and sides. Fill pie.
7. Repeat rolling steps with other dough ball and place on top of pie. Trim edges to about 1/2 inch overhang. Press down to seal top and bottom layers, then fold top crust under bottom crust and crimp. Cut four steam vents in crust.
8. Bake according to pie directions.

Substitution Suggestions: You can use 1/2 cup butter to replace half of the shortening. Just make sure it is very cold.

Lessons Learned: Oh, the lessons I've learned trying to make pie crust. I think the biggest thing is that it really does require that much fat to get the light, crispy, flaky crust. So your arteries might clog thinking about that much cholestrerol, but as long as you keep the portion size down, it's a happy mouth-feel indulgence.
I wouldn't bother with a food processor. This really took no time at all to mix up with a pastry cutter. It helped that the shortening was chilled (15 minutes in the freezer was the perfect timing for me).
I floated a few ice cubes in my water to keep it cold and measured out 8 tablespoons (which equal a half cup) one at a time, tossing it into the flour-shortening mixture.
It is very sticky, and by very, I mean that if you don't use a lot of flour, it will stick to your board, to your rolling pin, to your fingers and anything else it touches. I actually rolled it out between two heavily floured sheets of waxed paper. It stuck a little, but I was able to gently pull it off. I may add an extra quarter cup of flour into the mix next time to see if it reduces the stickiness. Since I can't roll a perfect circle yet, I was able to piece together the areas that needed a little patching.
Just before it goes in the oven, consider brushing it with an egg wash (equal parts water and egg). It'll give the nicely browned crust coveted by bakers. Don't brush the edge, though, because that tends to brown quickly without any extra help.
I baked my filled pie (chicken pot pie) at 425 degrees for about 35 minutes and rotated it at the 20-minute mark since the back of my oven runs a little hot. I could tell as soon as I pulled it out of the oven that I had finally achieved pie crust perfection.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Cauliflower Apple Soup with Apple Cider Reduction

Every year when I turn the calendar to October, I get an insatiable desire to cook. I think I equate fall with cooking. And, since fall is my favorite season of the year and cooking is my favorite hobby, it only makes sense that I spend more of my waking hours in the kitchen than in other seasons.
I clipped this recipe more than a year ago. When I was given the opportunity to make a dish with apples in it for a church function, I knew a variation of this recipe would fit the bill nicely. I followed most of the steps of the original recipe, but found the flavor lacking. A few tweaks here and there and it was perfect. Below is my adaptation. Don't let the number of ingredients intimidate you. Enjoy!

Cauliflower Apple Soup with Apple Cider Reduction
2 cups apple cider
2 tbsp olive oil, divided
2 cups sweet onion, chopped
2 tsp Madras curry powder
1 tsp garlic, chopped
6-7 cups cauliflower florets (about 2 pounds)
5 cups low-sodium chicken broth
2 Gala or golden delicious apples, peeled, cored and chopped
1/2 cup half-and-half
2 tsp lemon juice
1 tsp kosher salt, divided
1/4 tsp black pepper, freshly ground
1/2 tsp cinnamon
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Boil apple cider in a small saucepan. Cook (reduce) until the liquid has reduced to approximately 3/4 cup (about 15 minutes). Set aside and cool completely.

2. In large bowl, toss cauliflower and onion with 1 1/2 tbsp olive oil, salt and pepper. Spread on cookie sheet and roast in 400-degree oven until cauliflower begins to brown, approximately 20-25 minutes. Stir partway through cooking and add apples during second half of cooking.
3. In large Dutch oven, heat 1/2 tbsp olive oil over medium-high heat. Add curry powder and garlic and saute for one minute, stirring constantly (to avoid burning garlic). Add cauliflower, onion, apple and broth, then bring to a gentle boil. Cover and reduce heat; simmer 15 minutes or until apples are soft enough to mash and the cauliflower is very tender.
4. Remove pan from heat and let cool for 5 minutes. Puree batches of the cauliflower mixture in a blender (or emulsion blender) until smooth and place in separate bowl. Once the soup is entirely blended, return soup to Dutch oven and add half-and-half. Cook over medium heat for five minutes or until soup is heated (do not boil).
5. Remove from heat. Stir in lemon juice, cinnamon and salt and pepper to taste.
6. To serve, divide soup into eight 1-cup portions. Drizzle 2-3 tsp of cider reduction over each serving.

Substitution Suggestions: Any cooking apple will work here. I prefer something sweeter than the tart Granny Smith. Golden delicious (which are related to red delicious in name only) are sweeter and currently in season, so that's what I used.
If you prefer a vegetarian version, swap out the chicken broth for vegetable or mushroom broth.
If you don't have half-and-half, evaporated or whole milk would also work. I just don't think fat-free milk has the body necessary for this soup, though it is incredibly creamy even without any milk.

Lessons Learned: I used a hot curry and skimped on the measurement a little. It gave the soup just a hint of non-thermal heat without overpowering the dish. The dish felt a little flat until I added the healthy dash of cinnamon. That made all the difference in the world.
Don't let the tiny serving size on the cider reduction fool you. You really need it! Forgoing it would be a big mistake since it packs a lot of flavor in those few teaspoons.
If you are in a hurry, you can ditch the roasting step. Just saute the onions in 1/2 tbsp olive oil before adding the curry and garlic, then proceed as if you had roasted the bulky ingredients.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Artichoke and Mushroom Risotto

There are a few edible things in life that I have never particularly liked: rice, pork chops, stewed tomatoes and cooked bell peppers top that list. I can now remove rice from that list after creating this recipe. The concoction below is my first foray into risotto -- that elusive, creamy rice dish that transforms a boring carb into a decadent experience. If that weren't enough, adding white truffle oil at the end adds another layer of out-of-this-world savor that transforms a weeknight dinner into something several steps above ordinary.

Artichoke and Mushroom Risotto
3-4 cups chicken stock
3 tbsp butter
1 tbsp olive oil
1/4 cup red onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 mushrooms, finely chopped
3 canned artichoke hearts, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 cup arborio rice
1/4 cup sherry
1/2 cup Parmesan Reggiano cheese, grated
White truffle oil
Salt and pepper to taste

1. In small saucepan, heat chicken stock (from scratch or canned) until it reaches a gentle simmer. Set aside.
2. Heat olive oil and 2 tbsp butter in heavy-bottomed saute pan. Add red onion and cook for 4 minutes stirring occasionally until the onion is golden. Add garlic and mushrooms and continue stirring until garlic starts to caramelize, approximately 1 minute.
3. Add arborio rice and stir until it is coated with the oil-butter mixture. Add cubed artichoke hearts. Add sherry and cook, stirring gently, until it has completely evaporated and been absorbed into the rice, about 1 minute.
4. Slowly add enough heated chicken stock to cover the rice. Stir until the stock has been absorbed and evaporated. Continue adding, stirring and evaporating stock for approximately 20 minutes. (A 1/3 to a 1/2 cup at a time is sufficient.) The risotto is done when the rice is soft on the outside and al dente on the inside.
5. Remove from heat. Stir in 1 tbsp butter and the Parmesan Reggiano until both have melted. Add salt and pepper to taste.
6. Serve immediately with extra cheese and white truffle oil on the side.

Substitution Suggestion: My inspiration recipe, of which I largely ignored except for cooking instructions, called for carrots and zucchini to be sauteed after the onion. It also called for asparagus tips at the end of the cooking process. Any squash could probably work. Sun-dried tomatoes and green onions would work, too. The key is to think about how it will complement the protein that you'll undoubtedly serve next to it.
I don't drink, but when cooking with alcohol, I prefer sherry over white wine, so that's why it's included here. White wine will work just fine.

Lessons Learned: I've steered clear of risotto for two reasons: 1) I don't like rice, and 2) everyone says it's hard to make. With this recipe, I can now confidently declare that I like rice and if I can make this risotto on the first try without it going gummy, anyone can do this! Considering it was my first attempt, I'm pretty proud of myself. I think the tip is to add hot liquid and to continue stirring. Sure, it's labor intensive, but it is SO worth it. What a treat to feel each individual grain of rice enveloped in the creaminess that's created by the starch, stock and butter.
That said, you really need good ingredients. Chicken stock powder won't cut it here. You need real stock. I admit that I used the low-sodium canned stuff, but I'll use homemade next time. And, don't use the Parmesan in the green can that you find on the top shelf of the pasta aisle. The freshly grated stuff really isn't that much more expensive than the tasteless version with the five-year shelf life. If you use artichoke hearts, do not, I repeat do NOT use marinated hearts. All that brine will absolutely ruin the flavor you have painstakingly built with all that stirring. I found hearts that didn't have any of the leaves left on them. By putting them in early in the process, they'll absorb a lot of the flavor of the onion and garlic. The truffle oil was definitely a splurge (at $18 for the tiny bottle), but I loved the extra nuance it added to the dish.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Apple, Pear and Cranberry Crisp

Sometimes a recipe comes along that requires zero improvement. That is the case with this one, which I found on the Food Network website. It is an Ina Garten original. Though I don't enjoy watching her show, The Barefoot Contessa, I did enjoy this recipe in all of its beautiful simplicity. The tartness of the apples, the sweetness of the pears, the little sour red nuggets of unexpected cranberry -- it melds on the fork and in the mouth for the perfect embodiment of an autumnal evening.
The recipe is a cinch to put together if you have an apple corer-peeler-slicer gadget. I can't imagine creating this recipe without one. Enjoy!

Apple, Pear and Cranberry Crisp
2 pounds ripe Bosc pears (4 pears)
2 pounds firm Macoun apples (6 apples)
3/4 cup dried cranberries
1 tsp grated orange zest
1 tsp grated lemon zest
2 tbsp freshly squeezed orange juice
2 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

For the topping:
1 tsp cinnamon
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup light brown sugar, lightly packed1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup old-fashioned oatmeal
1/2 pound (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, diced

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. Peel, core and cut the pears and apples into large chunks and place in a large bowl. Add dried cranberries.
3. In a separate small bowl, combine the zests, juices, sugar, flour, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Pour over fruit and toss until coated. Pour into a 9-by-12-by 2-inch baking dish.
4. For the topping, combine the flour, sugars, cinnamon, salt, oatmeal and butter in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on low speed for 1 minute, until the mixture is in large crumbles. Sprinkle evenly over the fruit, covering the fruit completely.
5.  Place the baking dish on a sheet pan and bake for 50 minutes to 1 hour, until the top is brown and the fruit
is bubbly. Serve warm.

Substitution Suggestions: I couldn't find Macoun apples (pronounced MacCowan), but Granny Smiths will work just fine. The tartness nicely juxtaposes the sweetness of the pears.

Lessons Learned: Instead of cooking this in a casserole dish, I packed the apple mixture into foil muffin cup liners (paper liners will not work because of the juices) and topped each individual serving with the crumb topping. Aside from requiring a little extra care to get the cups out of the muffin pans, it was the perfect small serving at a dessert potluck. I wanted individual, stand-alone foil cups, but was out of luck after searching three grocery stores, Bed, Bath & Beyond, Sur La Table and Williams Sonoma. If you cook this in individual servings, whether with liners or in ramekins, it only requires 30 minutes of cooking as opposed to the casserole's 50 minutes.
There is one very small addition to Ina's original recipe. I added some cinnamon to the crumb topping. It just seemed wrong to leave it out.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Cran-Apple Crocked Chicken

When my husband and I got married, we received a wonderful recipe album set created by some of the scrapbook industry's most talented artists. (I was an editor at Creating Keepsakes.) Approximately 20 women created at least 40 6x6 scrapbook pages of their favorite recipes. The pages were combined into three small albums. The gift rendered me speechless and teary-eyed, which is quite the feat. It was one of the most thoughful gifts I have ever received.
I have turned to that album again and again. My husband loves Allison's chicken logs in cheese sauce. I fell in love with Beth's cranberry-sauced pork tenderloin, which I've made at least a dozen times. I wanted to take the idea of that recipe and create my own version. That brings me to this recipe, which was an absolute success, according to my husband. Enjoy!

Cran-Apple Crocked Chicken

4 chicken breasts, trimmed
1 can cranberry sauce
1/2 cup apple sauce
1 small apple, peeled and diced (about 3/4 cup)
1/3 cup onion, diced
1 tbsp cider vinegar
1/2 tbsp garlic, minced
1 tbsp sherry
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp chipotle powder

1. Combine all ingredients except the chicken in the crock pot. Add chicken and stir to coat. Cover and cook on low for 6-8 hours or high for 3-4 hours or until chicken is cooked and begins to fall apart in the sauce.
2. Just before serving, spoon about 2 cups of the sauce into a saucepan. Place over medium-high heat and simmer until sauce begins to reduce and thicken, about 10 minutes, stirring frequently to avoid burning. Serve sauce on the side or over potatoes.

Substitution Suggestions: This recipe will work equally well with a pork tenderloin. If you don't have chipotle powder, ground black pepper will work equally well. I just prefer chipotle.

Lessons Learned: This recipe really is as straight-forward as it sounds. If I had an emulsion blender (which I'm hoping to get for Christmas!), I would puree the sauce before I reduced it. Leave it chunky if you prefer a more rustic "gravy." If you don't have an emulsion blender, you can use a regular blender.
The canned cranberry sauce can be whole berry or smooth depending on your personal preference. And, you can leave the skin on the apple if you're not in the mood to peel it.
The recipe from which I drew my inspiration did not have apple sauce, sherry or garlic, but did include dried apricots, ginger, shallots and orange juice. If you didn't want to use apples, you could use a peach puree and dried peaches. Pears might also work.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Apple, Gorgonzola and Bacon-Stuffed Pork Chops

Cooking has always been an adventure. If science project experiments would have been compared to cooking experiments, I think I would liked science class a lot more than I did as a kid. There's just something exciting about combining flavors and textures to create something truly tasty.
This recipe is one of those experiments gone delightfully right! I found a version of it on a website when I had apples and pork chops that needed to be used. I have since altered it sufficiently to truly call it my own. It is one of my favorite fall/winter dishes. It is because of this recipe that I always have bacon bits on hand.

Apple, Gorgonzola and Bacon-Stuffed Pork Chops
4 boneless pork loin chops, butterflied
1 medium apple, diced (about 1 cup)
1/3 cup pecans, chopped
4 ounces Gorgonzola, crumbled
3 slices cooked bacon, crumbled
2 tbsp green onion, finely chopped
Garlic powder
Salt
Black pepper, ground
Olive oil

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease a shallow baking dish.
2. In a small bowl, mix together the apple, Gorgonzola, bacon, pecans and green onion. Season to taste with garlic powder and pepper.
3. Cut a pocket in each pork chop, making sure not to cut all the way through the chop. Pat chops dry with paper towel, sprinkle with salt and pepper, then flash sear over high heat in an olive oil-coated pan until the outside has a seared exterior. Do not cook completely through.
4. Stuff each pocket with as much apple mixture as will comfortably fit. Close and secure with toothpicks and place in greased baking dish. Spoon remaining apple mixture over chops.
3. Bake for 20 minutes in the preheated oven. Check for doneness. (Thicker chops will take longer.)

Substitute Suggestions: This recipe also works really well with chicken, but you need to adjust the cooking time since raw poultry is wrong on so many levels. You can also swap out the Gorgonzola for blue cheese. No apples? Try fresh pears. Don't feel like frying bacon? I use bacon bits all the time!

Lessons Learned: If you don't want to mess with the pocket, sear your protein, place it in the baking dish, and then pour the mixture on top of it and bake until the protein is cooked through and the gorgonzola has melted. I typically use a one-inch thick boneless pork chop (Omaha Steak pork chops are the best!). If you opt for chicken, you could pound the chicken into paillards (1/8 to 1/4-inch thick), then roll the mixture into it, securing with toothpicks. That would probably cut down your cooking time.
I tried the recipe with a Parmesan crust instead of the flash sear. It was fabulous! Instead of searing the meat, follow these steps:
1. Create the pocket.
2. Pat the meat dry.
3. Stuff with mixture.
4. Press both sides of the stuffed chops into a mixture of 1/2 cup Parmesan, 2 tbsp flour, 1/2 tsp savory, 1 tbsp garlic powder and a pinch of salt.
5. Secure pocket opening with toothpicks and place in greased dish.
6. Spray top with baking spray (Pam) and bake at 425 for 15-20 minutes, depending on chop thickness.
7. Approximately 7 minutes before the chops are done, add the rest of the apple mixture to the pan and continue baking until chops are done and Gorgonzola has melted. (Adding it sooner will only burn it.)

Monday, August 10, 2009

Peach Rum Granita

My husband and I are hooked on watching the Next Food Network Star show. The winner was announced a week ago and her first show aired this Sunday. It was admittedly a little uncomfortable to watch. Melissa was pretty frazzled and nervous ... and it showed. But, she'll get better as she settles into her new role. In honor of her victory (which I rooted for from almost the beginning), I decided to try my first granita. She made hers with unsweetened applesauce and a little lemon juice. I went a little fancier and was pleased with the result. It was the perfect cool ending to a scorcher of a day. This recipe easily serves four.

Peach Rum Granita
3 cups peach puree
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1 tbsp lemon or lime juice
3/4 tsp rum extract
1/4 tsp salt
6 mint leaves

1. Combine sugar, water and mint leaves (can substitute mint basil) in small saucepan. Bring to boil, then simmer over medium heat for five minutes. Discard mint leaves. Remove pan from heat and cool slightly. This creates a simple syrup.
2. In blender, combine peach puree, lemon juice, rum extract, salt and 1/2 cup simple syrup. Blend and taste. Add more syrup or lemon juice according to sweetness preference.
3. Pour mixture into shallow, freezer-safe container and freeze for four hours, scraping and fluffing the mixture with a fork every 30 minutes or until mixture is completely frozen.

Lessons Learned: This really is a simple, refreshing (and fat free!) dessert for a hot summer night. The mint adds an additional hinted layer of flavor. I debated whether to use almond or rum extract. After smelling and tasting the peach puree, I went with the rum. If you're not a teetotaler like me, you can use the real thing, but you'll obviously need to adjust your liquid content of the simple syrup.
The peach puree is left from when I picked peaches a few weeks ago. To make a puree, skin the peaches, then blend the peaches with a little lemon or lime juice (this helps prevent browning and adds a little acidity to cut the sweetness). I suppose you could use canned peaches, but why? Fresh is so much better.
The amount of simple syrup does not need to be exact. It is to adjust the sweetness and help create a fluffier granita. I started with 1/2 cup of syrup, but ultimately used about 2/3 of a cup.
The recipe could also work with other fruits: watermelon, berries, melons, apricots, pineapple, etc. My son asked if we could do it with grapes. I don't know how well that would work, but I don't see why it wouldn't work with grape juice ... or any other juice for that matter.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Lime, Garlic and Pepper Chicken

A lime and pepper chicken recipe has been calling out to me ever since I clipped it from an issue of Sunset magazine. And every time I think about it, I'm running short on time or it's raining. Rain or shine, I was determined to try it today. (Turns out I had rain.) It is probably one of the easiest recipes I've ever tried and it had lots of subtle flavor. Of course, I had to adapt it to create the subtlety I wanted. The original version called for 2 tablespoons of ground pepper. I cut it drastically and added garlic. My version is presented below.

Lime, Garlic and Pepper Chicken
1/2 cup lime juice
1/4 cup water
3 tbsp sugar
1/2 tbsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp garlic powder
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp salt
4 boneless chicken breasts, halved

1. Combine lime juice, water, sugar, pepper, oil, salt and garlic in a large bowl or resealable plastic bag. Stir to dissolve sugar and salt. Set aside.

2. On a flat surface, lay 1 chicken breast half between 2 large pieces of plastic wrap. Using a mallet, pound chicken to an even 1/4- to 1/3-in. thickness. Put chicken in bowl or plastic bag with marinade. Repeat with remaining breasts. Cover or seal; chill 30 minutes.

3. Preheat a grill to medium-hot (you can hold your hand 1 to 2 in. above cooking-grate level only 3 to 4 seconds). Remove chicken from marinade and grill 4 minutes (cover if using gas). Turn chicken over, and grill until cooked through (chicken should feel firm when poked), 3 to 4 minutes. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Lessons Learned: I actually took two large chicken breasts, cut them in half and then filleted them. It was more than enough meat for the marinade. If I were to do four chicken breasts, I'd increase the marinade quantity.
I didn't feel like grilling in the rain, so I stuck it under the broiler for about 10 minutes, flipping it halfway through the cook time. The flavors lacked the smokiness I had hoped to get from grilling and the chicken looked a little pale (no grill marks), but it still had a really nice flavor. Next time, I'll use chopped garlic and throw it on the grill.
ETA: OK, we grilled it and it was FABULOUS! It works great hot or cold in a pita with some cheese, lettuce, tomato and a little low-fat mayo.

Seared Peaches with Balsamic Glaze

I went peach picking yesterday and now have a counter filled with ripe and almost ripe peaches. The original goal was to grill some with dinner, but Mother Nature rained out my plans. So, I had to go with Plan B. When I read that Cooking Light billed this recipe as one that would taste straight out of an upscale restaurant, I figured it was worth a shot. Too bad I was missing half the ingredients and didn't feel like a run to the store in the rain. Never fear. I'm getting good at substitutes, so that's what I did here. Below is the original recipe in case your pantry and fridge are better stocked than mine. In Lessons Learned, I detail how I altered it to make it my own.

Seared Peaches and Figs with Balsamic Glaze

1 teaspoon black peppercorns
2 teaspoons butter, divided
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme, divided
4 firm ripe white peaches (about 1 3/4 pounds), halved and pitted
8 firm ripe Black Mission figs, halved lengthwise (about 1 pound)
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
1/3 cup crème fraîche
1/8 teaspoon salt

1. Cook peppercorns in a small skillet over medium heat 6 minutes or until fragrant and toasted. Cool. Place peppercorns in a heavy-duty zip-top plastic bag; seal. Crush peppercorns with a meat mallet or rolling pin; set aside.

2. Melt 1 teaspoon butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat; stir in 1 teaspoon thyme. Add peaches, cut sides down, to pan. Cook 2 minutes or until browned. Remove from pan. Place 1 peach half, cut sides up, on each of 8 plates. Melt remaining 1 teaspoon butter in pan; stir in remaining 1 teaspoon thyme. Add figs, cut sides down, to pan; cook 2 minutes or until browned. Place two fig halves on each plate.

3. Add vinegar to pan; cook over medium-low heat until reduced to 3 tablespoons (about 3 minutes). Cool slightly. Spoon about 2 teaspoons crème fraîche into the center of each peach half; drizzle about 1 teaspoon vinegar mixture over each serving. Sprinkle each serving with about 1/8 teaspoon pepper. Sprinkle evenly with salt.

Serves 8

Lessons Learned: I didn't have figs or creme fraiche and I didn't feel like roasting pepper corns. So, here's what I did: After mentally halving the recipe, I cut the peaches into quarters. I had semi-cling peaches, so separating them into pretty halves just wasn't an option. They were firm enough, however, that I could separate them into quarters. I tossed them into a saute pan with 1 teaspoon of butter. (I forgot to add the thyme.) They didn't quite reach the carmelization that I wanted, so I tossed them into a cake pan, added a dash of salt over them and stuck them under the broiler for a few minutes. Perfect results -- nice carmelization and color with just the right amount of natural sweetness.
As stated, I didn't have creme fraiche, but sour cream will work as a quick substitute. I mixed in about a tablespoon of sugar to a half cup of sour cream and let it sit until the sugar dissolved. I didn't feel like reducing balsamic vinegar, but I have an absolutely decadent and concentrated balsamic glaze from Williams Sonoma. I served up the peaches with a few drops of that glaze on each peach, then topped them with the sour cream mixture (no pepper). Simply divine and ready to go in less than 10 minutes! This will definitely be a go-to recipe in case I need a quick dessert for unannounced guests.
One final note, don't ever bother buying the $2 bottle of balsamic vinegar. It's cheap and completely lacking in balsamic flavor. You'll use three times as much of it as you will a more concentrated version and you still won't like the results. I won't buy anything other than the Olivier brand at Williams Sonoma. It is thick, fruity and not very vinegary, unlike that cheap stuff you find on the top shelf of the salad dressing aisle at the grocery store. Sure, it's $24/bottle, but one taste and you'll never want to use anything else again.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Lemon Custard Pie

Something about summer just screams lemon meringue to me. I'm not typically a huge lemon fan, but I really enjoy lemon meringue when the weather is hot. Light, airy and cool -- it's an ideal combination. While I love the burst of citrus, I'm not so fond of the giggly, translucent Jell-O-like substance that is typical of lemon pies at most diner-type establishments. So, I went in search of something better.
I found this recipe, which is more custard than gelatinous. It was heavenly! There was just enough lemon to give me that burst of citrus that I love, but the sugar and milk really toned down the acidity to yield a delightful dish that I loved serving to friends last night. Like usual, I didn't follow the directions exactly as I found them. (Who wants to bother with a double-boiler anyhow?) And with that, I give you ...

Lemon Custard Pie
1 9-inch baked pie shell
1 cup sugar
6 tbsp cornstarch
1/4 tsp salt
2 cups milk
3 egg yolks, slightly beaten
3 tbsp butter
1/3 cup lemon juice
1 tbsp lemon zest

1. Bake pie crust according to directions and cool.
2. Combine sugar, cornstarch and salt in heavy saucepan. Turn heat to medium-low and slowly add milk, stirring constantly. Increase heat to medium-high and continue stirring until mixture thickens, about 15 minutes. (Turn heat down if mixture boils more than an occasional bubble.)
3. Cover, lower heat to low and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
4. Gradually add 1/2 cup of mixture to 3 egg yolks, stirring constantly so the eggs don't scramble. Slowly pour the egg mixture into the pot and stir until blended. Cook for another 5-6 minutes, stirring constantly.
5. Remove from heat and add butter, lemon juice and zest. Stir until fully incorporated.
6. Pour into separate container and lightly press plastic wrap on the top of the custard so a film doesn't form. Stir every 10 minutes until cool.
7. Pour into prepared pie crust when cool. Refrigerate until serving. Top with whipped cream and serve.

Lessons Learned: I served it with whipped cream instead of meringue because A) it was easier, B) I didn't feel like making a meringue, C) I didn't want to turn the oven on, and D) who doesn't love having an excuse to buy a can of whipped cream, which can eventually be shot straight into the mouth when no one is looking! The meringue would have been pretty, but the whipped cream was just as good.
The cook who posted this recipe on a Cooking Light message board (no, I don't think it's a light recipe) said it was very time consuming. I didn't think so. I was done with it in less than an hour.
If you want to make it lighter, go with fat-free milk. I did half fat-free and half whole since I don't like the thin, wimpy flavor of fatless milk. I also didn't use the full amount of butter.
The end result was a soft yellow and definitely opaque custard that spooned beautifully into my pie crust (which was store bought since I can't figure out how to make a decent crust to save my life!). I would never dream of adding food coloring to this custard. I have another pie crust in the freezer. I think I'll have to make it again in the near future since I obviously forgot to take a picture before we ate this one.
Last thought, you really should stir constantly, scraping the bottom of the pan as you go, so you don't get lumps.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Honey Chipotle Sauce

I'm not sure when it happened but sometime in the past four years, I discovered the beauty of chipotle chiles. Maybe it was Bobby Flay. Maybe it wasn't, but so many dishes have become so much more interesting with a little sprinkling of chipotle powder. A few years ago, I came across this reader-submitted recipe in Sunset Magazine. All I can say is WOW! If you try this on grilled corn on the cob, you will never go back to boring old butter.

Honey Chipotle Sauce
2 canned chipotle chiles in adobo sauce
1/2 cup butter, melted
1/3 cup mild-flavored honey, such as clover
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 ears corn on the cob

1. Heat a charcoal or gas grill to medium-hot (you can hold your hand 1 to 2 in. above cooking grate only 3 to 4 seconds). Combine chiles, butter, honey, garlic, and salt in a blender and whirl until smooth.

2. Put unhusked corn on grill and cook, turning occasionally, 15 minutes. Husks will blacken. Transfer to a work surface, remove husks, brush ears generously with butter mixture, and return ears to grill. Grill until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Serve warm, with remaining butter.

Lessons learned: If you can't find canned chipotles in adobo sauce, you can substitute chipotle powder. McCormick makes a pretty good one (look for the glass jar). I wouldn't recommend substituting cayenne or other chile powders. It really needs the smokiness of the chipotle. I typically start off with a 1/2 teaspoon of chipotle powder and gradually add more to taste. If you use canned chiles, start with one chile. Two chiles will send you through the roof if you're not used to spicy dishes!
I love this on corn. I typically grill the corn without the husks and brush the sauce on in the last five minutes of grilling. That's just long enough for the honey to start to caramelize on the corn. I tried it on mushrooms the other day and was delighted with the results. I have also buttered bread with this sauce and basted chicken with it. Each time, it has been a hit.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Recipe Request

I am in need of a good carne asada recipe. If you have one, please share it in the comment section and tell me why it is so good. Thanks!

Better-than-Sex Cake

I belong to an organization that meets twice a month to discuss the ins and outs of parenting. We take turns bringing food to share and I have been asked to bring my Better-than-Sex cake to the next meeting. I didn't name the cake; nor will I comment on my opinion of its name. Just understand that the cake is incredibly easy ... and incredibly good. After eating it, you will need to find a way to burn the calories (eh hem!) :)

Better-than-Sex Cake
1 box chocolate cake mix
1 jar caramel ice cream topping
1 tub Cool Whip or other whipped topping
1/2 to 3/4 cup crushed Heath bar or toffee bits

1. Bake chocolate cake according to box directions. Cool.
2. With the end of a wooden spoon, poke holes in the cake every inch to two inches. Pour caramel topping over top of the cake and allow to soak in.
3. Top with Cool Whip.
4. Sprinkle with crushed Heath bar. Cover and chill until ready to serve.

Lessons learned: This recipe really is as easy as it sounds. I've also heard this called Better-than-Anything cake, but I prefer the other title (as long as children aren't around). Any chocolate cake mix will do: chocolate, devil's food, German chocolate, etc.
If you don't have caramel ice cream topping (I prefer Smuckers in the jar), you can use a small can of condensed milk for the same effect. One version of the recipe calls for BOTH the condensed milk AND the caramel topping. That's too much sweetness for me. Contrary to the belief of some, you can have too much of a good thing -- cake and other things.
You can buy Heath bar precrushed. It's next to the chocolate chips in the baking aisle. If you can't find a toffee bar or candy, just use crushed chocolate chips. The result won't be as good, but it'll be close.
This is a great throw-it-together dish for a dessert potluck if you're more interested in getting it done than impressing everyone with your culinary abilities. Regardless, people will ask for the recipe.

PSA: The Not-So-Infallible Pyrex Dish

Pyrex is a great invention. It has contained more potluck casseroles than any other container invented. I recently learned that Pyrex can break when heated to high temperatures. And when it does, be prepared ... it shatters into a million little pieces. This is what the roasted tomato-balsamic soup looks like when violently blended with a splintered Pyrex dish:
Keep in mind that this was at 500 degrees for 40 minutes. There were no sudden temperature changes. It simply exploded. So, if your Pyrex (or Pyrex knock-off) has been compromised with ANY small nicks or scratches, do not use it (especially at high temperatures). From now on, I think I'll stick to ceramic. If it shatters, it won't splinter like this did.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Berry Chocolate Mascarpone Tart

There's a grocery store in the East that is my haven from the ho hum supermarkets that normally claim my hard-earned dollars. If you have never been to Wegmans, you must visit. I take all of my out-of-town guests there because it really is that good. Really! Anyhow, my local Wegmans, which opened up just before Thanksgiving 2008, has a fabulous cheese counter. Thanks to their generous sampling policies, I am now hooked on Comte (a French cow's milk cheese with a smooth finish) and Midnight Moon (a domestic goat cheese with caramel undertones). Every time I go, I try a new cheese. I bought mascarpone for the first time a few weeks ago. And then it sat in my fridge ... and sat ... and sat until the "Use By" date came. So, I was "forced" to use it or lose it last night. The following is an adaptation I found in one of my many magazines. Since it's enough different from the original recipe, I think I can call it my own. Enjoy!

Berry Chocolate Mascarpone Tart
1/2 cup unsalted almonds
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups all purpose flour
4 oz (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch chunks
1 teaspoon almond extract
ice cold water as needed
1 tsp. almond extract
1/8 tsp. salt
9 tbsp. cocoa
4 tbsp. butter
1 1/2 cup powdered sugar, divided
1/4 cup milk or half-and-half
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
1 tsp vanilla
8 oz. mascarpone cheese

1. In food processor, process almonds and sugar until finely ground. (Do not turn into a butter!) Add butter, almond extract, salt and flour. Pulse until the mixture turns crumbly. Add enough water and pulse in processor until mixture forms a ball. Place in tart pan. (If using a pan that does not have a removable bottom, grease the pan for easier release. Or, use parchment paper.) Bake at 350 for 15 minutes or until edges begin to brown. Cool.
2. In small pan over very low heat, combine cocoa and butter. Stir until butter melts, then add 3/4 cup powdered sugar and dash of salt. Continue stirring. Add milk or half-and-half until the chocolate reaches a thick syrup consistency. Pour over almond crust and spread to within 1/2 in of the edge of the crust. Cool.
3. In medium bowl, whip heavy cream until stiff peaks form. Add 3/4 cup powdered sugar, vanilla and mascarpone. Whip until fully incorporated and the marscarpone lumps are gone. Spread on top of chocolate.
4. Top with fresh berries and serve immediately or cover and refrigerate overnight.

Lessons learned: This isn't the exact recipe that I made. I had to fudge some things (as usual). I was out of chocolate chips, so I pulled out the cocoa and did it the hard way. Otherwise, I would have used semi-sweet chips with a little butter and milk to create the chocolate ganache. That would have been much easier, but the result here was just as good; perhaps better. If you go this route, don't add all the sugar at once. Taste it as you go until you reach the desired sweetness. Because everything else is so sweet, this does need a little bitterness so you don't get a sugar rush.
The original recipe called for whipping cream, which is what I've stated here. I didn't have any on hand so I used a packet of Dream Whip and a 1/2 cup of whole milk. I omitted the sugar (Dream Whip has plenty in it already) and reduced the amount of vanilla. It worked like a charm! If you want a really white cream, use clear vanilla instead of the brown stuff.
I topped the dessert with thawed raspberries. Fresh would have been much better, but I liked the syrup run-off of the frozen ones.
It keeps well for a day, but probably not more than that. It shouldn't be a problem, though, because this is so good, I doubt you'll have leftovers.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Sun-dried Tomato and Sausage Strata

This is an adaptation of a recipe that came from one of my many magazines, probably Sunset. I played with it to add some more healthy girth to the dish. The results were very colorful and a happy melding of flavors. It is definitely an improvement on the traditional egg and sausage casserole that inevitably shows up for brunch potlucks (which was the purpose of this dish).

Sun-dried Tomato and Sausage Strata
1 1/2 pound pork sausage
6 eggs
3 1/2 cups milk
1 1/2 cups part-skim ricotta
1/3 cup cilantro, chopped
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground pepper
1 1/2 cup frozen corn
1 cup sun-dried tomatoes, drained and julienned
1 cup green onion, diced
1 cup mushrooms, chopped
1 tsp coriander
2 cups smoked mozzarella, shredded
1 loaf day-old Italian style bread, cubed

1. Brown sausage, crumble and drain.
2. In bowl, combine eggs, milk, ricotta, cilantro, cumin, salt and pepper and whisk until blended.
3. In separate bowl, combine tomatoes, green onion, mushrooms and coriander.
4. In greased 9x13 casserole dish, spread layer of bread cubes. Spread half of corn-tomato mixture, half of sausage and 1 cup mozzarella over bread. Pour half of egg mixture over the layers. Repeat the process with the second layer.
5. Cover and refrigerate for eight hours or overnight.
6. Remove from fridge for 1/2 hour before baking.
7. Bake at 350 for 50 minutes or until the egg is set.

Lessons learned: I couldn't find seasoned sausage that wasn't in a casing, so I seasoned ground pork with brown sugar, salt, pepper, sage, nutmeg, thyme and crushed red pepper. It worked just fine even though it was supposed to marinade for eight hours first.
I like that this dish has a lot of non-egg substance to it. The original recipe called for plum tomatoes, but I thought that would add too much water to the dish, so I used sun-dried tomatoes. I liked the results. Next time, I'll add in some garlic and a little more salt to the egg mixture. I also think it needs to bake a little longer than 50 minutes. The middle wasn't runny, but it didn't set as well as I would have liked. If you extend the cooking time, cover it for the last 10 to 20 minutes, so the sausage doesn't dry out.
I suppose you could substitute regular mozzarella or another cheese, but the hint of smokiness from the smoked mozzarella really is nice. And, it melts really well. It's worth the extra dollar or two to add it, I think.
The original also called for bacon instead of sausage. I am a firm believer that the only way to eat bacon is if it is crispy. This would have made it soggy, so I omitted it. It would be fine as a topping, though. Personally, I like the meatiness of the sausage. Turkey sausage would also work. Or, go more vegetarian and omit the sausage altogether. I think well-chopped broccoli would be a nice substitute.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Dump (Fruit Pan Dowdy)

I know the name doesn't sound appetizing and last night's example was definitely not worth a photo, but since several people asked for the recipe, it must have turned out OK from a flavor perspective. In short, it's a fruit cobbler without all the work of a cobbler. So, here is one of my favorite last-minute recipes for a tasty and sweet dessert.

Dump (Fruit Pan Dowdy)
2 large cans canned fruit (peaches, apples or cherries)
3 tbsp cornstarch
1 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp almond extract
1 box white or yellow cake mix
1/2 cup butter or margarine (1 cube)
1 cup chopped pecans or walnuts (optional)

1. Pour contents of fruit cans (including syrup) into pan. Measure cornstarch into a small bown and add a little water until cornstarch dissolves. Add to fruit and stir over medium heat.
2. Stir in cinnamon, vanilla and almond extract. Continue to stir until mixture starts to boil and thickens. Stir until desired thickness is reached (no more than another minute or two).
3. Dump mixture into large glass dish (Pyrex works well).
4. Dump dry cake mix over the top and spread across the mixture.
5. Slice one cube butter into thin pats and spread it generously over the top of the cake mix.
6. If desired, sprinkle chopped pecans or walnuts over the top.
7. Bake at 350 for about an hour or until the top has browned.

Lessons Learned: I've called this Dump for years because you literally dump everything in. It's painfully easy to make and requires little thought. I've made it with apples, peaches and cherries, though peaches are my favorite. There's no reason why you couldn't mix fruits (say, peaches and apricots or pears and apples). Be creative.
You can use pie filling and omit the cornstarch and flavoring process, but canned fruit is so much cheaper and works just as well with a little extra effort. Depending on the brand of fruit, you may want to remove some, but not all, of the syrup. Too much syrup makes the dish mushy, which is fine from a flavor perspective, but definitely not from a mouth feel standpoint.
If your baking pan is pretty full, put it on a cookie sheet before sliding it into the oven. It'll be easier to pull out and you won't have caramelized syrup drippings at the bottom of your oven. If you're in a hurry, increase the temperature to 375 and start watching it for doneness after about 30 minutes. (The more butter you add, the more golden your crust will become and the better your cobbler will taste.)
It's best served very warm and a la mode. Whipped cream also works.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Dessert Free For All -- Open Forum

I am obligated to prepare a dessert tomorrow evening for a function and I'm undecided on what to take. I'm tempted to take chocolate-pecan-praline dipped bacon, but that might be a little too random. And, the ho ho cake has already made the rounds, so I need something fresh. If you have a great recipe, please share it in the comment section. Thanks!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Tom Kha Gai (Thai Chicken Coconut Soup)

A little restaurant in Torrance, Calif., serves some wonderful Tom kha gai (Thai chicken coconut soup). I've tried it elsewhere, but Tiffany's does it best. I've been meaning to try it on my own, but never got around to it until yesterday. A recipe out of the December 2008 issue of Sunset magazine proved just the inspiration I needed yesterday afternoon when the opened can of coconut milk either needed to be used or tossed. Like usual, I didn't have everything I needed, so I improvised a little. It was a complete hit with my husband, who loves Thai food. And, the fact that the entire thing went together in less than 10 minutes was just another perk of this dish. I'll give you the original dish, then tell you how I altered it.

Tom Kha Gai
1 can (14 oz.) coconut milk.
1 can (14 oz.) reduced-sodium chicken broth
6 quarter-sized slices of fresh ginger
1 stalk lemongrass, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 lb. boneless chicken breast, sliced thinly
1 cup sliced mushrooms
1 tbsp lime juice
1 tbsp Thai or Vietnamese fish sauce
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp Thai chili paste
4 tbsp basil
4 tbsp cilantro

1. Combine coconut milk, broth, ginger and lemongrass in pan. Bring to boil.
2. Add chicken, mushrooms, lime juice, fish sauce, sugar and chili paste. Reduce heat and simmer until chicken is firm and opaque, 5 to 10 minutes.
3. Garnish each serving with 1 tbsp each basil and cilantro. Discard lemongrass.
Serves 4

Lessons learned: My adaptation of this recipe is a lesson in using what you've got. A while back, I bought several herbs packaged in tubes. They're made by Gourmet Garden and in a pinch, they'll serve as adequate substitutes for the real thing. I have lemongrass, basil and cilantro. (You can see where this is going, right?) The ginger also came from a jar. I used canned chicken (I can my own, which is much better than the stuff you get at Costco). I didn't have the requisite chili paste, but I did have a Sezchuan chili paste, which worked just as well. I went a little heavy on the paste and the sugar since I like the blend of spicy and sweet flavors. In true Thai form, the fish sauce added the saltiness and the lime (also bottled) added the tang.
Using pre-cooked chicken and pre-chopped herbs really cut down on the cooking time. I could literally dump everything into the pot at once and serve it once it was heated. Gotta love that!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Roasted Pears with Herbed Goat Cheese and Bacon

I'm signed up to receive Food Network's weekly e-mail. The photo on the right was the lead photo in today's e-mail. Though I haven't made it yet, I have every intention of doing so. Doesn't it look absolutely divine? Of course, anything with bacon in it has to be good, in my opinion. If you try it before me, please leave me a message on what you thought. Thank you, Tyler Florence, for such a recipe that really embraces the happiness of bacon.

Roasted Pears with Herbed Goat Cheese and Bacon

1/2 pound goat cheese
1/4 cup chopped mixed herbs such as parsley, thyme, and chives
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
12 baby pears
12 slices bacon, about 1/2 pound, cut in 1/2
2 tbsp honey
Arugula or dandelion greens, for garnish

1. Heat the oven to 375.
2. In a small bowl, mix the goat cheese, herbs, and 2 tablespoons olive oil; season with salt and pepper. Halve the pears and scoop out the seeds and cores. Stuff each pear half with about a tablespoon of the cheese. Wrap each stuffed pear with a slice of bacon and place it on a baking sheet. Drizzle some olive oil over the pears and season with salt and pepper.
3. Bake until the pears are tender and the bacon is crisp, about 25 to 30 minutes.
4. Place the pears onto a platter, drizzle with the honey, and garnish with the arugula.

Lessons Learned: Coming. I will post, for now, that the best way to core a pear is with a melon baller. Why it took me nearly 35 years to figure that out, I don't know, but it works wonders!

Baked White Bean Artichoke Dip

I've loved artichokes since I was a kid. There's something novel about scraping the butter-dipped meat of the choke leaves off with your teeth for a light summertime snack. (OK, maybe not so light, but definitely delicious.) It wasn't until I became an adult that the world of artichoke dip was opened up to me. But if you're like me, you feel more than a little guilty dipping into the artery-clogging dip with your equally calorie-laden chip. I came across a recipe substitute that cuts out the bad-for-you mayonnaise without cutting out the creaminess -- pureed cannellini beans. Who knew?!

Bakes White Bean Artichoke Dip
1 can white cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
1 14 oz. can non-marinated artichoke hearts, drained and coarsely chopped
1/3 cup light mayonnaise (do not use fat free)
1 cup grated Swiss or Monterey Jack cheese
2 tsp minced garlic
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp lemon juice
1 tsp salt
1/4 cup crumbed bacon bits

1. Puree rinsed and drained white beans in food processor until smooth.
2. Stir in remaining ingredients except bacon bits. Mix (do NOT puree) until fully incorporated.
3. Spray baking dish with cooking spray, then pour dip into dish. Sprinkle top with bacon bits.
4. Bake at 350 for 25 minutes or until bubbly.
5. Serve warm with chips, crackers or pita.

Lessons learned: I originally made the recipe without adding salt. I think it really needs some. The recipe I used also called for chopped green onions. I omitted them, but if I have some on hand, I'll probably include them next time. Or, I'll throw in some onion powder and call it good.
I'm not sure why fat-free mayo won't work. It probably affects the taste in an adverse way.

Tuscan Pork Tenderloin

Do you get into a cooking rut? I know I do. I make the same few things over and over again. While they are admittedly tasty, there are only so many times you can eat crescent chicken pillows before you want to huck one of the offending pillows out a window. Pork loin is another one. We love a crocked and cranberry-sauced pork tenderloin recipe that came compliments of my friend Beth O. But, whenever I pull a loin out of the freezer, that's my one go-to recipe. It's absolutely delicious and I promise to post the recipe, but not today. Last night, I was looking for something a little different. The thawing loin sat on the counter and I came across a Cooking Light recipe that was worthy of a try. I adapted it (slightly) to suit the ingredients I had on hand. Here is that adaptation.

Tuscan Pork Tenderloin
1 tsp olive oil
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper, coarsely ground
1 1/2 tsp dried rosemary, crushed
1 tsp lime juice
1 tsp fennel seeds, crushed
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 (1.5-pound) pork tenderloin

1. Preheat oven to 500.
2. Combine oil, salt, pepper, rosemary, lime, fennel and garlic in a small bowl. Rub rosemary mixture onto pork. Set pork on baking rack that has been sprayed with cooking spray.
3. Bake at 500° for 17 minutes or until a thermometer registers 155°. Let pork stand 10 minutes. Cut pork crosswise into 12 slices.

Lessons Learned: I used a Smithfield brand marinated pork tenderloin. I don't know if the moistness of the meat can be attributed to the pre-packaged pepper and garlic marinade, but this loin was perfectly moist and had a very nice crust on top. I had to bake it about 20 minutes to get it up to temperature. In my version, I omitted the pepper since the marinade already had plenty. Since I love garlic, I saw no need to cut back on that. It's really important to let the loin rest for 10 minutes. Like with steak, that 10-minute resting period allows all the juices that have flowed to the edges of the meat to settle back into the middle, creating the decadent moistness that made this dish so good.
Don't question the oven temperature. It's that high heat that helps create the crust. Anything lower and you'll end up with a lackluster outer coating.
One more thing, if you're wondering about portion sizes, the original recipe said three slices constituted a serving. The original also had a balsamic-glazed bed of endives and shallots for the loin to rest on as it bakes. Since I didn't have either, I just used a roasting rack. It worked for me.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Cake Balls

I'm usually a decent cook (hence this blog), but sometimes, I botch a recipe so royally that there's no redemption. Tonight was one of those occasions.
If you Google "cake balls," you'll find various recipes and articles about these little, um, "confections." I use the term lightly because to me, they taste like mushy gobs of old cake crumbs and sugary shortening. But when you think about it, that's what they are: mushed up cake with store-bought frosting and a chocolate coating. In this case, not even the chocolate could redeem these balls from their rightful place in the garbage. Should you be inclined to try them, take my word for it -- don't! And, to recognize the recipe when you see it, here's the general gist:

Cake Balls
1 box cake mix (chocolate or vanilla works best)
1 container frosting
Almond bark or dipping chocolate

1. Make the box cake mix and bake according to package directions. Cool, then crumble into very small pieces. (I used a food processor.)
2. Mix in a container of frosting, then chill until the mixture hardens (you can add jimmies if you want).
3. Form into 1-inch balls, then dip in melted chocolate and refrigerate until hard. Once chilled, throw the entire thing in the trash and grab a container of Hagen Daaz and a spoon.

Lessons Learned: I wanted to try these because they sounded similar to a cookie I tried at Christmastime that had me oohing and aahing in chocolate ecstasy. Only, those cookie balls were made with crushed Oreos. If you have THAT recipe, please post it in the comments. The only redeeming value of this recipe is that the cake made the house smell good while it was baking. But, I can buy an air freshener for that.

Lemon Chicken with Olives

As a writer, I admire good writing when I see it. That's one of the reasons I love Real Simple magazine. Another reason is because, well, the information is helpful, practical and timely. And, the recipes really embody the goal of the magazine: they're simple, real (as opposed to processed) and full of flavor and value. The following recipe is one of RS's reader favorites. I gave it a whirl. Though I have recipes higher up on my list of favorites, my husband raved about this one, especially the moistness of the chicken. I loved that I could substitute many of the ingredients and still have a successful dish. If you start some rice pilaf before you do this, both dishes will be ready to serve at the same time.

Lemon Chicken with Olives
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp lemon zest, plus 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Kosher salt and pepper
1 1/2 pounds chicken cutlets, thawed
2 tbsp olive oil
2 shallots, thinly sliced
1 cup pitted green olives
1/2 cup flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped
1/2 cup dry white wine

1. Mix the flour, cumin, zest, 1/2 tsp salt, and 1/2 tsp pepper on a flat plate. Pat the chicken dry with paper towels and dredge in the flour mixture.
2. Heat 1 tbsp oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Cook the chicken in two batches until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate.
3. Wipe out the skillet and return to medium heat. Heat the remaining oil. Add the shallots and cook until soft, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in the olives, parsley, lemon juice, and wine and bring to a boil. Return the chicken to the pan, nestling it in the olives and shallots. Reduce heat to low and cook, covered, until the chicken is cooked through, about 5 minutes.
4. Divide among individual plates, spooning the olives, shallots, and any sauce over the top.

Lessons Learned: I didn't feel like messing with a lemon, so I just used a bottle of lemon juice and omitted the zest. No harm, no foul, no zest, no problem. Instead of working with whole cutlets, I cut the chicken breasts into smaller pieces for faster cooking. They came out incredibly moist and flavorful. No grainy dryness anywhere. Also, I did not wipe out the skillet before adding the second round of oil and onions (I didn't have shallots, so I substituted onions). Since the recipe calls for so little oil, there wasn't much to wipe out anyhow. And, I used crushed dried parsley instead of fresh. I also used a mixture of green and kalamata olives (rinsing off the brine before they went in the pan). They absorbed the flavors really well. Since my husband does not like olives, it just meant more for me. The whole thing went really well with the pilaf and I foresee doing this again in the near future. I might add sliced mushrooms next time and increasing the sauce ingredients to drizzle over some fettucine.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Chocolate Crinkle Cookies

When I think about my dad, two things come to mind: chocolate and his tickle gun. In my formative years, we always had chocolate chip or chocolate crinkle cookies around. And if we were out of those, we definitely had brownies. My parents came to visit us last weekend in DC and the weekend was not complete without chocolate crinkle cookies. Though I made them, the recipe comes from the recipe he's been using for years.

Chocolate Crinkle Cookies
½ cup vegetable oil
6 Tbsp. cocoa**
2 Tbsp. shortening**
2 cups sugar
4 eggs
2 tsp. vanilla
1/2 tsp almond extract
2 cups flour
½ tsp. salt
2 tsp. baking powder
Powdered sugar

1. Combine cocoa and shortening, heat in microwave until shortening is melted.**
2. Combine oil, cocoa mixture and sugar. Add vanilla, then add salt, flour and baking powder.
3. Cover and chill for several hours.
4. Drop teaspoon of dough into powdered sugar, roll around and shape into balls.
5. Place about 2 inches apart on greased baking sheet.
6. Bake 10-12 minutes at 350.

**Can also use 4 sq. unsweetened chocolate (4 oz.) melted in place of melted shortening and cocoa.

Lessons Learned: I never have bars of unsweetened chocolate around, so I always use the cocoa powder/shortening blend. These cookies really do need to chill before you roll them out. Otherwise, you get mush. I think the original recipe comes from Betty Crocker. Since these are my cookies, they have a little almond extract in them. It helps enhance the flavor of the chocolate. You can increase the almond extract if you like. I probably dumped a full teaspoon in by accident, but it didn't ruin the cookies.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Chili Chicken Pasty Puffs

My brother bequeathed a subscription to Tastes of Home to me for Christmas and I'm thoroughly enjoying this new magazine. I flipped through the issue that arrived today and knew that we'd be having some version of chili chicken sandwiches for dinner tonight. With some tweaking, it was a tasty (if somewhat fattening) dinner.

Chili Chicken Pasty Puffs
1 box puff pastry shells
8 oz. cream cheese, softened
2 cups chicken, cooked and shredded
1 cup Mexican-blend cheese, shredded
1 small can chopped green chilis
3 tbsp. green onions, chopped
1 tsp. cumin
1/4 tsp. chipotle powder
2 tbsp. bacon bits
2 tbsp. cilantro

1. Bake puff pastry shells according to package directions. (Pepperidge Farms calls for 20-25 minutes at 400 degrees. The oven MUST be preheated)
2. Mix cream cheese, chicken, cheese, chilis, cumin, chipotle powder and bacon bits in bowl.
3. Hollow out pastry shells.
4. Warm cream cheese mixture until warm but not too hot. Fill pastry shells and top with cilantro.

Lessons Learned: The original recipe called for hard rolls, but since I didn't have any, I went with the shells. If you use rolls, cut them in half, hollow out the middles, fill with mixture, then heat (open-faced) in the oven until warmed throughout. Include some sliced tomatoes and avocados just before serving.
The original recipe also called for crushed red chili flakes and chili powder. I prefer chipotle, so I substituted. The bacon addition was mine; it added the salt content that the dish otherwise needed. When I do it again, I may add a little sauteed onion and olives. The green chilis are a must in this recipe. That's what makes it successful. And, I love the fact that you can literally throw this together in five minutes (sans baking time) if you have a can opener and a spoon -- a package of cream cheese, a can of Costco canned chicken, a small can of olives, a small can of green chilis. None of the measurements need to be exact, which is perfect for my kind of cooking.
I think this mixture would work really well wrapped inside Pillsbury croissant rolls. Simply put little mounds of the mixture in the middle of a croissant triangle, then wrap the dough around it until it forms a ball. Bake rolls according to package directions for plain rolls. (Or, if you're feeling really decadent, form the balls, then roll in butter and seasoned breadcrumbs before baking. Serve with a spicy cheese sauce.)

Monday, February 2, 2009

Crab Rangoon Dip and Chips

I love crab rangoons. I'm not sure if it's because of the cream cheese filling or the fact that the appetizer is deep fried. Either way, I was delighted to find this version of it ... along with directions on how to make it healthier.

Crab Rangoon Dip
8 1/2 ounces crabmeat, drained if using canned meat, and flaked
8 ounces cream cheese
1 tbsp chopped red onion
1-2 green onions, diced
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp soy sauce
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Wonton Chips
24 wonton wrappers
Chinese five-spice powder
Salt

Dip
1. Combine the cream cheese and crab meat mixture. Stir in the remaining ingredients, mixing thoroughly.
2. Place the cream cheese mixture in a small baking dish. Bake at 350 until the cream cheese is heated through and just starting to bubble (18 to 20 minutes). Remove and serve immediately with the wonton chips for dipping. If desired, also serve hot mustard and/or sweet and sour sauce.

Chips
1. Spray 2 baking sheets with non-stick spray.
2. Cut wonton wrappers in half diagonally, and then in half again (also along the diagonal).
3. Spread on baking sheets and lightly dust with Chinese five-spice powder and salt (no more than 1/8 tsp powder for every four chips. Spray tops of wontons with additional cooking spray.
4. Bake until lightly browned (approximately 7-8 minutes), rotating the pan once during baking. Remove and cool.

Lessons Learned: Wonton wrappers dry out quickly, so while you're placing them on the cookie sheet, keep the rest covered with a damp towel. I actually did an entire package of wonton wrappers (60 wrappers, each cut into four triangles). Using two cookie sheets, I had to do four batches to finish them.
I highly recommend using the five-spice powder. It is a blend of the five essential flavors in Chinese cooking: sweet, salty, bitter, savory and sour. Without it, the chips are incredibly bland. McCormick makes a decent version.
My can of crab didn't quite equal the measurement required here (I was two ounces short), but it didn't adversely affect the flavor. I'd add a dash of salt to the dip next time. If you use full sodium soy sauce, don't worry about adding extra salt.

Bacon-Wrapped Chestnuts

Bacon makes everything taste better. I think if my mother had crumbled bacon over the runny scrambled eggs she made when I was little, I would have a better opinion of scrambled eggs. I digress. I made these for the Chinese New Year party. They were pretty tasty, but I give all the credit to the bacon.

Bacon-Wrapped Chestnuts
16 fresh water chestnuts
1/3 cup soy sauce
1/3 cup brown sugar, or as needed
8 slices raw bacon, cut in half
16 toothpicks
1. Peel and rinse the fresh water chestnuts. (If using canned water chestnuts, rinse in warm running water and drain).
2. Soak the water chestnuts in the soy sauce for 2 1/2 hours.
3. Remove the water chestnuts from the soy sauce and roll in the brown sugar. Wrap a piece of cut bacon around the water chestnut and secure with a toothpick.
Place the water chestnuts on a rack in a shallow pan. Bake at 350 for 30 minutes, turning them once. (Alternately, they can be broiled for 5 - 6 minutes). Makes 16 appetizers.

Lessons Learned: I wish I knew a way to make the chestnuts a little softer. They were a little too crunchy for my taste, but I'm still posting the recipe because after all, it has bacon in it! One can contains approximately 16 water chestnuts. I always use low sodium soy sauce, which gave the appetizer just the right amount of salt content. And, the brown sugar countered it nicely.
Next time I make these, I will increase the oven temperature to 375 or 400. At 350, it took longer than 30 minutes to crisp the bacon. And, cooking them on a rack is a must. Otherwise, they'll sit in grease and get soggy. And as much as I love bacon, I won't eat it if it's soggy.
I went to a baby shower a few weeks ago and ate bacon-wrapped dates. Now there is a fun little treat -- sweet and salty at the same time.

Fortune Cookies

I hosted a Chinese New Year party a few days ago and thought it would be fun to make my own fortune cookies. These are surprisingly easy to make. From what I could tell, they were a hit. (If they hadn't been, I would have had a picture to post with this since I forgot to take a picture before the party started.)

Fortune Cookies
2 egg white
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp almond extract
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 cup white sugar
2 tbsp water

1. Preheat oven to 400. Butter a cookie sheet. Write fortunes on strips of paper about 4 inches long and 1/2 inch wide. Generously grease 2 cookie sheets.
2. Mix the egg white and vanilla and almond extracts until foamy but not stiff. Sift the flour, salt, and sugar and blend into the egg white mixture. Add water.
3. Place teaspoonfuls of the batter at least 4 inches apart on a prepared cookie sheets. Tilt the sheet to move the batter into round shapes about 3 inches in diameter. Be careful to make batter as round and even as possible. Do not make too many, because the cookie have to be really hot to form them and once they cool it is too late. Start with 2 or 3 to a sheet and see how many you can do.
4. Bake for 5 minutes or until cookie has turned a golden color 1/2 inch wide around the outer edge of the circle. The center will remain pale. While one sheet is baking, prepare the other.
5. Remove from oven and quickly move cookie with a wide spatula and place upside down on a wooden board. Quickly place the fortune on the cookie, close to the middle and fold the cookie in half. Fold in half again and place it in a muffin tin or egg carton to hold the shape until firm.

Make 20 cookies

Lessons Learned: Since I have no idea how to fold fortune cookies like the prepackaged ones at Chinese take-out places, I simply folded these in half and then in half again. I printed fortunes from a site I found on Google, then cut them into thin strips.
I beat the eggs until they almost formed peaks. Then I folded in the other ingredients. You'll lose a lot of the volume from the whipped eggs, but that doesn't seem to affect the final product. The original recipe did not call for water, but I found that adding it decreased the cake-iness of the cookie. I like my fortune cookies crisp.
You must work fast. The cookies took about six minutes to bake, with me turning the sheet once during baking. You'll know they're done when the edges have turned a medium brown color. Do just four at a time. Otherwise, the cookies will harden before you get the fortunes in them. I folded the cookies and put each one in a metal muffin tin cup to help then hold their shape until they cooled. You'll need to grease the cookie sheet for each batch.
I couldn't get the middles completely hard and the sugar in the cookie can stick to the paper, so it might be best to use something other than printer paper for the fortunes.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Lemon Lover's Cookies

My friend Sabrina shared some melt-in-your-mouth cookies with me at Christmastime and ever since, I've been anxious to get the recipe. What stuck out to me is that the recipe calls for cornstarch.
Fast forward two weeks -- My brother gave me a gift subscription to Taste of Home magazine. The following recipe, a version of the one Sabrina had, was one of the featured recipes. I finally tried it this afternoon and holy lemony goodness -- these are good, or as my husband would say, De-Lish!

Lemon Lover's Cookies
3/4 cup butter, softened
3 tbsp sugar
2 tsp lemon juice
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cornstarch
1 tsp lemon peel, grated

Lemon Frosting
1/4 cup butter, softened
1 cup confectioners' sugar
2 tsp lemon juice
1 tsp lemon peel, grated

1. In small bowl, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
2. Beat in lemon juice.
3. Combine flour, cornstarch and lemon peel; gradually add to creamed mixture and mix well.
4. Shape into 1 1/2 inch roll; wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour or until firm.
5. Unwrap and cut into 1/4 inch slices.
6. Place 2 inches apart on ungreased baking sheets and bake at 350 for 8-10 minutes or until edges are golden brown. Cool completely on pans on wire racks.

Frosting
1. In small bowl beat butter until fluffy.
2. Add confectioners' sugar, lemon juice and peel, and beat until smooth.
3. Spread over cooled cookes; sprinkle with additional lemon peel if desired. Let stand until set. Store in an airtight container.

Lessons Learned: This recipe really is as easy as it sounds, and yes, you really need 1/2 cup of cornstarch. That's what makes them melt in your mouth. Some bakers say that their cookies fall apart. I didn't have too many problems with that. A few were too delicate to handle the move from cookie sheet to plate, so they ended up in my mouth. Darn! These cookies remind me of a spring morning. They would be perfect as part of a brunch or tea party. I'd post a picture, but they disappear pretty fast.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

National Corn Chip Day

Here's another national celebration for you: Corn Chip Day. Who knew? I'm coming up a little short, though. I don't have any recipes that call for corn chips (and no, crushed corn chips atop a flavorless casserole at a church potluck does not count). On second thought, I think I recently read that you can use crushed corn chips as a breading for chicken. If you have a recipe, please post it in the comments section.
Cheers!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Ho-Ho Cake

Today is National Chocolate Cake Day (and my nephew's fifth birthday), so I felt like celebrating. Not content to go with the standard chocolate box cake or even the secret family recipe (that isn't so secret or that phenomenal), I went on the hunt for ways to spruce up a box mix. I narrowed it down to two recipes, one of which is tried and true and other which is an experiment. I presented both options to my husband. "Honey, do you want better-than-sex or ho-ho?" You should have seen the expression on his face. What options! He went with the ho-ho (not sure how to take that!). So, I present to you the Ever So Decadent and Absolutely Sinful Ho-Ho Cake.

Ever So Decadent and Absolutely Sinful Ho-Ho Cake
1 package chocolate cake mix
5 tbsp flour
1 1/4 cups milk
3 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp almond extract
1 tsp butter flavoring
Dash salt
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup margarine, softened
1 cup shortening
1/2 cup margarine, melted
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 egg or 1/4 cup egg substitute
1 1/2 tsp hot water
1 ounce unsweetened chocolate, melted
1 3/4 cups confectioner sugar
Dash of salt

1. Prepare cake mix according to box instruction. Pour into greased jelly roll pan and spread to the edges. Bake at 350 for 15-20 minutes or until firmly set. Cool completely.
2. Combine flour and milk in saucepan. Cook or medium high heat, stirring constantly, until mixture thickens. Remove from heat, add 3 tsp vanilla, almond extract and dash of salt. Cool completely.
3. Cream 1 cup sugar, 1/2 cup softened margarine, shortening and butter extract. Add cooled milk mixture and beat until fully incorporated.
4. Slice cake into four equal parts. Frost bottom section of cake with cream mixture. Layer the second layer and frost. Repeat with the third layer. Top with the final layer of cake and refrigerate.
5. In a small bowl, beat egg. Stir in vanilla, melted chocolate, hot water, confectioner sugar, 1/2 cup melted margarine and dash of salt until blended. Pour over cake and refrigerate.

Lessons learned: This cake is phenomenally good and yet so bad for you. I had originally hoped to roll the cake, but I baked it for 15 minutes, which wasn't quite long enough for it to hold its form, so I layered it instead. I think I liked the result better anyhow.
On the website where I found the original recipe, everyone complained about how bland the creamed mixture was. I solved that problem with some vanilla, almond extract, butter flavoring and a dash of salt (which I've included in this version of the recipe). I didn't do exact measurements on those, so just play with it until you like the taste. I was amazed at how the milk mixture made the frosting so creamy. I had expected a slight grit from the sugar, but it wasn't there.
For the chocolate frosting, if you're skittish about using a raw egg, go with Egg Beaters. I did. The original recipe didn't call for salt, but I recently read that when cooking with chocolate, a dash of salt will help mellow the bitterness and bring out the true flavor of the chocolate.
I didn't bother refrigerating the cake because I didn't want to wait until midnight to eat it. We will definitely be making this cake again.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Soft Pretzels

The other night, the family sat on the floor in front of the idiot box flipping channels. We stopped on Alton Brown's Good Eats on the Food Network and learned a thing or two about popcorn and soft pretzels. (If you've ever watched Alton Brown, you know how zany he is.) Since then, I've been craving soft pretzels. I love the kind you get at the mall, despite the arm-and-a-leg price they charge for that soft, doughy, salty goodness. A little online hunting yielded a recipe that comes pretty dang close to Aunt Annie's. I've tweaked it a little, based on comments from reviewers on the site where I found the recipe. This recipe is labor-intensive, sort-of, but well worth the effort.

Soft Pretzels
1 1/2 cup warm water
1 1/8 tsp active dry yeast (or 1/2 packet of yeast)
2 tbsp brown sugar
3 tbsp melter butter
1 1/8 tsp salt
1 cup bread flour
3 cups all-purpose flour

Soda Bath
2 cups warm water
2 tbsp baking soda

Toppings
Coarse salt to taste
4 tbsp melted butter
Pinch sugar

1. Dissolve yeast in warm water. Stir and let rest for 5 minutes. Add sugar and stir. Add melted butter, salt and flour. Knead dough until smooth and elastic (about 7 minutes in a mixer, longer by hand). Place in greased bowl, turn over to coat dough, cover and let rise for 2 hours or until dough doubles in size.
2. While dough rises, prepare baking soda water bath with 2 cups warm water and 2 tbsp baking soda. Be sure to stir often.
3. Punch down dough. Divide into 12 equal portions. Roll each portion into long ropes (see Lessons Learned for tips), then shape into pretzels. Dip each pretzel into baking soda bath, coating completely, then place on parchment paper on cookie sheet. (It helps to lightly spray the parchment paper with cooking spray.) Let rest for at least 15 minutes.
4. Melt butter in small bowl. Add a pinch or two of sugar, then brush pretzels with butter mixture.
5. Bake at 500 for 8-10 minutes or until golden brown. Brush with more melted butter mixture, top with coarse salt or cinnamon sugar and enjoy.

Lessons learned: I used a dough cutter/wedge to divide the dough in half and then into smaller portions. The first pretzel was difficult to roll out. Don't just make a snake with the dough and then roll it out. It works much easier if you flatten each section of dough into a rectangle and then roll it tightly, as you would a cinnamon roll. From there, use the palms of both hands to gently roll the dough out, forcing your hands farther apart with each pass of the dough. The dough will shrink, but with persistence, it will stretch out. The longer you get it, the closer you'll get to the mall version. Aim for at least two feet per rope.
What's the purpose of the baking soda bath? I'm glad you asked. It is what enables the pretzel to develop that nice brown color on top. Otherwise, the bread isn't in the oven long enough to brown. And who wants to eat an anemic, pasty looking pretzel? (I could go into the ins and outs of acidic and alkaline contents of the bread ingredients, but Alton Brown does a much better job of that, so I'll let you ask him.)If you want an even more uniform brown color, brush the pretzel with an egg yolk water bath just before it goes in the oven. Me? I prefer the taste of butter.
I used my convection oven, which dials down the temperature to 475 with the fan on when I set it to 500. The recipe originally called for 450 for 8-10 minutes, but many reviewers said that wasn't long or hot enough. So, I upped it and was pleased with the results. The pinch of sugar in the melted butter really helps create that mall flavor. The pretzel would be pretty bland without it, I think.
I know this recipe is a keeper because my son's face lit up and he told me that it's as good as the ones in the mall (without me even mentioning my goal to recreate the mall version). And, my husband declared it one of the better bread products I've made.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Egg and Sausage Casserole

I've been doing a lot of reading about casseroles lately, and not necessarily by choice. It seems that all the main cooking mags are on the same page because casseroles are the "it" thing right now. I've never been a big fan, to be honest. I like my foods somewhat compartmentalized. (I'll blame my childhood phobia of stewed tomatoes in green peppers for that one.) But, there are a few casseroles that get two thumbs up from me. This is one of them. I think every woman (OK, almost every woman) has her version of this recipe. (It turns up at every MOPS meeting I've attended in the past five months.) I've tried several versions, but this is by far my favorite. It came from my dad's co-worker Candice, who frequently brought it to Friday morning potlucks when they both worked for Discover.

Egg and Sausage Casserole
1 lb. ground sausage, cooked
6 slices bread cubed
8 eggs, slightly beaten
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. dry mustard
1 can cheddar cheese soup
1 ½ cup milk
1 cup cheddar cheese, grated (perhaps a little extra)

1. Grease 7x11 or 9x11 pan.
2. Place meat and bread cubes in pan.
3. Mix together eggs, salt, mustard, soup and cheese. Pour over meat and bread
4. Toss lightly. Refrigerate minimum 10-12 hours.
5. Bake at 350 for 45 minutes (can take longer) until middle is done and knife comes out clean.

Lessons learned: This recipe is pretty forgiving and a good baseline for lots of experimentation. If you want more zing, add several dashes of chipotle Tabasco. For even more zing, use a can of Campbell's nacho cheese soup instead of the cheddar and serve it with salsa and guacamole. Add onions if you like them ... or sauteed mushrooms. I usually up the sausage content since I like sausage. The original recipe said you could use bacon instead, but I like the substance of the sausage. I want to try it with French bread sometime instead of the pillowy stuff you get for less than a dollar in the bread aisle. Going for the healthier version? Use Egg Beaters and turkey sausage. See? I told you it was a very forgiving recipe.