Monday, May 31, 2010

Strawberries Sing Of Summer

I always have grand plans for making fabulous things with quantities of fresh plump juicy strawberries, but we usually just end up eating them over the sink. Well, that's what we do at first anyway. After the initial berry-binge, we want to put them in everything we make. Here are some ideas that look awfully good...

Thursday, May 27, 2010


This tart was almost too tart, but then again... if you love lemon, it was just right. A fantastic dessert that seems light and rich at the same time. I'll have to make another one though, as we ate it all before I had a chance to photograph it! Mine was nowhere near as smooth and gorgeous as the one in the Gourmet photo, but I'm pretty sure it tasted just as good!
My Notes: Made this tart with... Meyer lemons (of course). The recipe called for a "fruity olive oil (preferably French)". I used a Clementine Olive Oil from Sonoma County instead (pretty sure that's not what they meant by "fruity", but I think it worked out really well). The crust dough was very unusual, unlike any I've used before: really soft as you spread it in the pan, but light and almost sandy once baked. It was a perfect foil for the rich lemony curd. All in all, it was quite quick and easy. Be sure to chill it for at least 4 hours before serving.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Meyer Van Marmalade

Meyer Lemon Marmalade
Marmalade. Just say it slowly a few times: mar-ma-lade. Slightly exotic sounding, it's name reveals a somewhat more complex nature than its sisters, Jam and Jelly. They're both sweet girls of course, everybody likes them, but marmalade has seen a little of the world, lived life, and has come home to tell you about it.* Both the dark and the light of it; the bitter with the sweet.

Traditional orange marmalade was essentially born from someone making the most out of what they had: in this case, a boatload of inedible bitter oranges. In a country that is not exactly known for its sunshine and citrus, they were probably happy to get whatever of those exotic fruits that they could.

My favorite store-bought marmalade was from Scotland and came packaged in white glass jars. It was an occasional special treat when our budget allowed. I would keep the jar in the fridge and only use it on weekends, when I wasn't in a hurry and could appreciate it more. It has virtually nothing in common with the domestic brands available, and is a world away from the little plastic single-serving packets found in diners and chain eateries in this country. Good orange marmalade is like dark sunshine in a jar. And it is at its best when smeared thickly on top of crispy hot sourdough toast that's been slicked with butter... and accompanied by a big mug of strong hot tea.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

When Life Hands You Fallen Cupcakes...

I am... not a very good cupcake baker.
I have... two cupcake cookbooks filled with photos of unattainable cupcake perfection.
I can... never seem to fill the cupcake pan neatly or evenly.
I have... had nothing but disastrous results when making cupcakes.
I will... be glad if some day perfectly baked cupcakes were ever to come out of my oven.
I do... so hate cleaning the cupcake pan afterward.
I am... supremely happy that there is, a mile or so from my house, a cupcake bakery. So if my planned dessert doesn't work out, the Hubs can always run over and pick up a few high-priced but gorgeous and tasty professionally made cupcakes.

I'm practicing making positive affirmation-type statements... how am I doing? Like the cupcakes I just made, these statements start out o.k. enough, but then something goes wrong. And don't even get me started on frosting! Ugh. Same story. As with most things, I probably just need more practice. Clearly there is some sort of mental-block to overcome.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

What To Make When You're Out Of Dough

Friends and family (thinking I've gone 'round the bend): "You're making what?!"
Me (not having noticed whether I'd rounded any bends lately or not): "Um, hamburger buns."
Friends and family (certain that I've gone 'round the bend): "...from scratch?!"

Admittedly I get kind of a kick out of hearing that response, especially when I know that it's not exactly rocket science that I'm engaging in. Anyone can make these. Just why are we incredulous? Is there a great shroud of mystery around the creation of hamburger buns that only the commercial bread manufacturers know the secrets behind?

I probably used to think that. Or rather, I probably never thought to even think that they could be made at home. Not until the Hubs came home the other day with a package of ground beef, but no buns... and wanting hamburgers for dinner. He thought we could save money* and use our sourdough bread instead of buying buns. I couldn't do that though. I've just never liked hamburgers on bread.

Hamburgers and hot dogs require buns for a reason. Juicy burgers and condiments soak right through regular bread and it falls apart before you're halfway done eating. It's a mess. Sliced bread is for sandwiches and toast and even toasted sandwiches. But not burgers and dogs. We were almost out of bread anyway, and frankly, it would be irritating to use up the last of my nice whole wheat sourdough that way.**

So much for my motivation. The results were... surprisingly good! Somewhat smaller than store-bought buns but bigger than sliders, they had a nice dense crumb that would hold up against the juiciest burger out there. It's getting close to backyard BBQ season, and you can bet I'll be making these more than once this summer. Now I just need to find a whole-wheat version...

Hamburger Buns
adapted from: page 34, BH&G Homemade Bread Cook Book, 1973

8 cups all-purpose flour
2 packages active dry yeast
2 cups warm water (110°)
3/4 cup cooking oil
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon salt
3 eggs

In large mixer bowl whisk together 4 cups of the flour and the yeast. In a separate bowl, combine the warm water, oil, sugar, and salt. Add to flour/yeast mixture, then add in the eggs. Beat at low speed just until combined. Scrape the bowl and beat for 3 minutes at high speed (med-high if using a stand mixer).

By hand, stir in the remaining 4 cups all-purpose flour to make a soft dough. Turn out on floured surface; knead till smooth and elastic. If using a stand mixer, replace beater with dough hook and add remaining flour one cup at a time on low setting. Continue until dough is smooth and elastic.

Place dough in greased bowl, turning once. Cover and let rise in warm place till double (about 1 hour). Punch down, then divide dough into 3 portions. Cover again and let rest 5 minutes. Divide each portion into 8 balls of dough.

Shape into buns by folding edges under to make even circle. Press flat between hands. Place on greased baking sheets (or use Silpats), pressing to 3-1/2 circles. Let rise till double (about 30 minutes). Bake at 350° about 20 minutes, rotating pan half way through. Let buns cool completely before slicing and serving. Makes 24 (smallish) hamburger buns.

My Notes: Recipe makes 24 which was way more than we needed for just the two of us, so I planned on halving the recipe. Note the use of the word "planned". Yep, I forgot. I guess we'll find out how well they freeze. I overworked the dough by using the dough hook to mix the last four cups of flour in and then hand-kneaded it afterwards. Do one or the other, but not both! 

The original recipe said to bake for 10 minutes at 375°, but they were way too pale after 10, so I ended up keeping them in for closer to 15 minutes. By the last batch, I lowered the oven temp to 350° and baked them for 20 minutes. That seemed to do the trick, and while they were too soft and doughy to use right away, by the next day they were perfect. Yes, I used the P-word. Buns were somewhat small. Next time, I'll try making 18 larger ones instead of 24 and adjust temp and time accordingly.

*Hmm...kind of funny how the words dough, bread, and scratch have all been used at one time or other as slang for "money".
**Go ahead and say it... sounds like I'm a bit of a bread snob. Really it's more a matter of wanting to use "the right bread for the right job". It's about form following function ...even when it comes to food.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Look Ma! No Flour! (Peanut Butter Cookies)

Flourless Peanut Butter Cookies from Joy The Baker
My Notes: With only 4 ingredients (5 counting the chocolate), these cookies went together fast and easy (especially with a stand mixer). The recipe said to roll the dough into balls, so I used my small cookie scoop to portion them out and finished them with my hands, not so much rolling as pressing. They looked like they were just going to crumble apart when I pressed the fork tines into the tops of them, but they turned out fine. In fact they turned out great! 

I melted a handful of chocolate chips and piped the melted chocolate into the fork pattern using a piece of parchment rolled into a cone. Pop the piped cookies into the fridge for 30 minutes or so to harden the chocolate back up. I didn't have time to do that part so the chocolate was still a little gooey when it came time to serve them. Not that it was a problem in any way, mind you! 

These easy little cookies are going to be made again and again at my house, I just know it!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Money Can't Buy You Love

My mom loves dark chocolate infused with chili pepper... I must admit to finding it pretty darn good also. The flavor kind of creeps up on you and then builds with each successive bite. It's subtle and intense at the same time. Hard to explain. It's the kind of chocolate that is best in small amounts; to eat too much of it is to ruin the pleasure of it. Besides, it's easy to restrain yourself when your mouth is on fire! Purely by chance, I recently ran into the perfect thing to satisfy our chili/chocolate needs without breaking the calorie-bank at the same time: Spicy-Hot Chocolate Biscotti. One bite and I knew I had to share these with her.

What it's really all about
Mom has always considered Mother's Day to be what she calls a "Hallmark holiday", in other words something fabricated for no other reason than to sell people stuff by playing off their guilt and good feelings. I tend to think of Mother's Day (and Father's Day, etc.) as not so much a day for the celebrated person to feel celebrated, but for the rest of us to take time during our self-centered lives to think about, in this case our mothers, and how much they mean to us. Part of me is thinking that I only believe this because I'm currently unemployed and therefore unable to lavish gifts on my mom. Maybe so, for it is precisely that limitation that opened my eyes to the retail guilt-fest all around me.

I just called to say "I love you"...
My mom doesn't want more tchotchkes or dust-catchers*. Goodness knows, she still has all the ones I've bought her before: innumerable scarves, vases and trinket boxes, clogging up her cupboards. She is unable to unload them even though she doesn't need or want them... simply because they were "a gift". They sit there unused and un-thought of. On the other hand, I still remember the day I saw her weep when I accidentally broke the little plaster hand-print that I had made for her back in elementary school. An imprint of little me, a frozen moment in time. A memory. That kind of thing makes a girl stop and think.

Honoring moms should involve more effort than money. When I moved away, I would often forget to send a Mother's Day card in time for her to receive it (I'm lame that way), so I thought "Well, I'll just call her instead". Just! As if that phone call was not as good as getting a mass-produced greeting card in the mail. Don't get me wrong... I LOVE greeting cards: I love getting them in the mail and I love sending them. But I look back and realize that a phone call from a daughter who lived far away was infinitely more desirable to my mom than any greeting card could ever be.

For the mom who has everything 
Spend effort, spend time, spend... you. Make mom a nice brunch to the best of your abilities (even if it's just eggs, toast and coffee) and don't even dare let her clean up! Wrap her up in a big hug. Don't live close by anymore? You can still spend time on your mom even if you can't be with her. Make her a card this year... with your own hands. Call her. When you think about it, time is maybe the single most precious thing we can spend on another person. I spent this morning baking my mom a batch of these biscotti because I think she'll really like them (and probably all the more because I made them myself).**

I need to hurry up and pack these now or there won't be any left to send... I can't seem to stop nibbling at them! Biscotti just happen to be the perfect cookie for shipping: they're sturdy and will keep fresh for up to a month as long as they're wrapped airtight. And since they're not sugary butter-bombs, they can be enjoyed any time of day. They're really great for dunking too... if you're so inclined.

Spicy-Hot Chocolate Biscotti
Inspired by: Chocolate & Spice Biscotti at Design*Sponge.
Adapted from: Chocolate Biscotti on page 144 of Dorie Greenspan's Baking: From My Home To Yours, 2006.

2 cups all-purpose flour
½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder (dutched or natural)
2 tablespoons instant espresso powder
¾ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
½ teaspoon good cinnamon
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs and 1 teaspoon of good vanilla
1 cup almonds (toasted or blanched)
¾ cup chopped chocolate chips
powdered sugar for dusting

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Sift the dry ingredients together (first eight above) and set aside. In a large bowl, or the bowl of a stand mixer, beat together the butter with the sugar on medium speed until pale (no more than 2 minutes). Add the eggs and vanilla and beat for another 2 minutes.

With mixer set to low, add the dry ingredient mixture in 3 additions, mixing only until dough forms. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and mix in the almonds and chocolate. Turn the dough out and knead briefly.

Divide the dough in half and roll each into 12" logs. Flatten them down with your hands to about 1" high and 2" across. Carefully move the flattened logs onto the baking sheet. Just before the first baking, liberally dust the tops of both logs with powdered sugar and a small sieve.

Bake for about 25 minutes. Don't worry if they spread out and crack some. Let the logs cool for about 20 minutes on the pan. Be sure to leave the oven on for the next bit of baking.

With a serrated knife, slice the logs on the diagonal every ½ - ¾ inch. Put the slices back on the baking sheet, standing them up rather than laying them flat. Bake the cookies for 10 minutes, then rotate the pan and bake for another 5-10 minutes more. Move the cookies onto a rack to cool.

My Notes: I tried chopping up regular chocolate chips in the food processor... it was really loud. Use a knife. Slow and steady when slicing the logs if you've also put nuts in there. I left out the nuts for the batch I sent to my mom and MIL. 

*...and please don't remind me about all the bad ties, mustache mugs, and beard-trimming kits that my sweet dad had to fake being excited about on "his" day! Come to think of it, Dads would like these biscotti too.

**In fact, once she tries them, I'm pretty sure she'll be as totally infatuated with these dang cookies as I am! She'll probably also say, "You know you didn't have to do that!". But then, that's the whole point: I didn't have to, I chose to. I wanted to... and here's the big secret: You get more from the giving than from the getting. Get it? Got it? Good!

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Eat More Greens

It was a whim, pure and simple. And green. Very green. There was some fresh basil in the fridge (leftover from the bruschetta we made), and it needed to be used up fast. It wasn't getting any younger, if you know what I mean. Not enough left to make pesto with and too early in the year to start thinking about Caprese salads... why not try making colored pasta with it? So on the most spontaneous of whims, I began mixing up and rolling out beautiful, basil-y green pasta dough. The perfect thing for no longer spring but not yet summer.

Basil is one of those smells and tastes that seem like the very essence of summer. My dream garden would have basil, rosemary, sage and (of course) lavender are planted to form a labyrinth* with the tomatoes growing at the very center. Imagine it: walking and picking herbs in deep profound contemplative thought, then plucking ripe tomatoes and journeying back out, followed by cooking something wonderful and eating outside.

Of course, in the winter it would look like hell. Let's just say that my dream winter garden involves a plane ticket, a hammock and Piña Colada. Oh, but I digress. And yet, that really is the point of it all. Digression: to turn aside, to stray.  I made basil pasta yesterday and my mind digressed for a moment to summer days ahead and Caprese salads on the patio...

Basil Pasta
Makes 4 - 8 servings (depending on whether it will be a side dish or main dish)

1 big handful of washed and dried basil leaves
3 cups flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground pepper
3 eggs, lightly whisked
a good drizzle of olive oil
3 oz. water

Pulse the basil in the food processor until it's chopped up really fine. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and add the flour, salt and pepper, pulsing a few times to mix the dry ingredients together. Add the eggs and olive oil and start up the machine again. After a few seconds, begin adding the water slowly and process until everything is thoroughly combined and dough looks like very course, pebbly sand.

Dump the dough onto a floured board and start kneading. Knead until extremely smooth, at least 10 minutes. Divide dough into quarters, wrap tightly in plastic wrap and let it rest for 30-45 minutes.

Working with one piece of dough out at a time, knead it until it's smooth and pliable. Begin rolling it out, brushing it with flour if it starts sticking. Flip the dough over periodically to work each side and roll out as thin as possible; you should practically be able to see through it. Dust a little flour over it and fold it in half twice, then make 1/4" - 3/8" slices across it with a sharp knife or pizza cutter. Unfold the strips of pasta, toss in flour lightly and pile into "nests". Repeat with the rest of the dough.

Start boiling a big pot of water. As soon as it is at a rip-snorting boil, toss in a tablespoon of salt and gently drop the pasta nests in the pot. If you're cooking all of the pasta, you may want to cook it in two batches depending on the size of your pot. Stir pasta often and check for doneness at 3-4 minutes.**  Drain pasta, toss with a little olive oil and serve immediately with your choice of sauce.

If you won't be cooking it right away, you can freeze it for up to a month. Place the uncooked pasta nests on a baking sheet and freeze for 30 minutes. Place the frozen nests into a freezer bag, removing as much air as possible and put back in freezer. No need to thaw them before cooking either, just drop them straight into the pot of boiling water.

My Notes: We cooked half of it right away, and froze the rest for later. A little of the color came out during cooking but overall it was still plenty green. I think I'd like it even more basil-y though, so next time I'm putting a lot more basil in it. The dough might need more flour and/or liquid with the addition of more basil, I'll update this post with my notes the next time I make it.
  • Read about how to make other colorful pastas in this article from The Kitchn.
*The first time I walked a labyrinth, I was blown away by the "distance" you could walk in such a relatively small space. I mean that both physically, and poetically. I thought them silly before I walked one, but they really are quite calming and focusing.

**The only accurate way to test pasta for doneness is to bite it. Fish a piece out of the water with a fork, let it cool for a second and take a bite. The "flinging it on the wall" technique is by no means accurate but must be done once, in your first apartment, when you're 18 and sharing a giggle-fit with your roommates.