Thursday, April 29, 2010

Split pea soup

Well, sports food fans, this is turning out to be quite the green week without any sort of planning at all.  I mean, I've noticed that during shopping trips, I sometimes tend to gravitate toward certain colors (perhaps because I'm wearing that very color) or I'm just in a mood for purple that day.  Maybe it's the onset of spring and the idea that produce is going to become much more inexpensive for the next few months (hooray!).  Maybe it's that I love to eat with my eyes first, and pretty colors excite me.  Or maybe, it's just because I had a hankerin' for vegetables after some sugar overload weekends.  Whatever the case may be, I haven't been disappointed or gotten bored.  I've just been saving some recipes to post at a later date and this, being a week late, seems to fit in perfectly after all.  Ramble ramble ramble.  Bring on the green, I say!  Bring on the food, you say!

[soup on my favorite little green tray]

There are so many perks to this recipe and since it's a little late and I'm not quite in the mood for well-transitioned paragraphs, I declare that it's time for a list.  And I loooooooove lists.

1. The colors in this soup absolutely make me want to shout from the rooftops, "Ye who are hungry, come feast with me on this most beautiful and delicious soup!"  Orange!  Green!  Pink!  White!
2. For a mostly (or all, if you'd prefer) vegetable soup, it is unbelievably hearty and satisfying and chock-full of flavor.  Proof: a certain meat and potatoes guy was "stuffed" after a bowl of this splendor.
3. It's so easy to prepare, partly because split peas are one of the most fool-proof ingredients ever.  No no, don't think that these require the same attention that dried beans do with the rinsing, soaking, cooking, soaking, and on and on.  Just pour the peas into the hot liquid and they cook on their own in about 40 minutes.
4. It is jaw-droppingly inexpensive.  A one pound bag of split peas will run you about $1.  Carrots... maybe $2.  Three little potatoes... oh gosh, I don't know.  $1.29/lb ish?  Garlic and the rest of the seasonings are basic pantry items, so I'll skip those.  One onion... again, cheap.  And though I used chicken stock for about $2/32-ounce container, I've used water previously and gotten the same great taste.  A slice of ham is optional.  And for how much this makes, it is so worth it!
5. Have I mentioned the flavor?  Oh my goodness.  Just trust me.  DEE-LIH-SHUSS! 

Parker's Split Pea Soup
(from The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook)
-yields roughly 10-11 cups

1 cup chopped yellow onion (one medium onion)
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 cups medium-diced carrots (3-4 large carrots or 1 bag of baby cut carrots)
1 cup medium-diced red boiling potatoes, unpeeled (3 small)
1 pound dried split green peas
8 cups low sodium chicken stock (so you can control the salt in the soup)
2 cups chopped ham steak, optional

In a large stock pot over medium heat, saute the onions and garlic with the olive oil, oregano, salt, and pepper until the onions are translucent, 10 to 15 minutes.  Add the carrots, potatoes, 1/2 pound of the split peas, and all of the chicken stock.  Bring to a boil, then simmer uncovered for 40 minutes.  Skim off the foam while cooking.  Add the remaining split peas, and  ham (if using) and continue to simmer for another 40 minutes, or until all the peas are soft.  Stir frequently to keep the solids from burning on the bottom of the pot.  Remove from heat, and taste for salt and pepper, season as needed.  Serve hot with some super crusty bread.

Store in sealed container in refrigerator for up to a week, or portion out cooled 1 cup servings in sandwich bags and freeze for later reheating.  I find that after the first night of storing in the fridge, the contents tend to absorb even more of the liquid, making for a rather stiff soup.  I add 1-2 more cups of water and stir gently with a spoon until the right soup consistency is reached.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Lemon zucchini saute with thyme and parmesan

As much fun as it is to cook a fancy and elaborate entree, sometimes I feel bad for the side dishes -- they are such an afterthought most of the time.  A side salad.  Steamed rice or a plain vegetable.  Heck, I've eaten sides that don't even get the benefit of a little basic salt and pepper.  What gives, people?!  Why can't the shining star of a meal be a side dish or two?  After all, most vegetables are much prettier than the colors of typical main dishes (think beef, chicken, fish... brown, ivory and white).  So, I dedicate this post to you, the side dish, the middle child of the food world.  No longer will you be eaten just for filler or ignored because there is a luxurious dessert waiting in the wings.

I present to you one of the easiest and freshest side dishes on the planet -- lemony zucchini with parmesan.  Again, another dish born of the "Oh, there is pretty zucchini at the grocery store!" and then later realizing, "What am I going to do with said zucchini before it goes to waste in my refrigerator?"  And, the always classic, "What do I have in my pantry to work with?"  I've noticed a pattern in my impulsive grocery shopping: zucchini is usually the first thing in my cart that wasn't on my original list.  Better than Oreos, I suppose.  With all of this zucchini, I've got a bit crazy.  Zucchini pizzaZucchini chips.  Time for a new zucchini dish -- a side!  The lemon and thyme really wakes up (read: tastes like something from a nice restaurant, as they all use lemon juice as a secret ingredient) the zucchini and the nutty parmesan really makes everything better.

Lemony Zucchini with Thyme and Parmesan
-makes 4 servings

3 medium (1 1/2 pounds) zucchini
4 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
Ground black pepper
1 Tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
Parmesan cheese

Cut zucchini into large pieces (3/4-inch thick slices, which are then cut into fourths).  In a large skillet, heat oil over medium high.  Add the zucchini and toss to coat with oil.  Season with salt and pepper and cook until golden brown in spots, roughly 4 minutes.  Transfer zucchini to serving bowl.  Add lemon juice and fresh thyme, toss to coat.  Taste for seasonings and add salt and pepper as desired.  Grate cheese (as much as you want) over zucchini and serve hot.

Monday, April 26, 2010

White birthday cake with strawberry meringue buttercream

[happy birthday, miss natalie!]

While I will certainly cause at least a bit of emotional scarring in my future kids with various themed nights and excessive picture taking, there is one thing I will promise to always do for as long as I'm able -- make their birthday cakes from scratch.  Don't get me wrong, not everyone has the time or even desire to do this, but to me, baking is something I truly enjoy and what better way to celebrate loved ones birthdays than to present them with a cake of their choice!

Anyway, I digress.  When a friend or relative's birthday approaches, I send out feelers in the form of a voicemail or email with a listing of options for cake and icing flavors.  This particular pal said she had been craving white cake and strawberry frosting.  I happily accepted the order since it was something other than the classic yellow cake and vanilla buttercream (though they are delicious, I love me some variety).  Oh and you know, I love her dearly and wanted to present her with a cheerful and scrumptious birthday confection :)

This cake stays white by using bleached cake flour and omitting egg yolks.  The cake flour gives the finished product a super light and fluffy texture but still has the great vanilla flavor that most white cakes seem to lack, so it stands up to many varieties of toppings -- in this case, strawberry meringue buttercream.

Note: I halved this recipe and made only one 9-inch cake and cut it in half to make a two layer cake that would be more appropriate for a gathering of 10 people.  If you're having 15 or more, a full two layer 9-inch cake would be perfectly fine.

White Cake
-makes two 9-inch layer cakes or 24 cupcakes

3 cups cake flour (not self-rising)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
3 sticks (1 1/2 cups) unsalted butter, room temperature
2 1/4 cups granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup milk
8 large egg whites
Strawberry Meringue Icing (recipe to follow)

Preheat oven to 350F.  For cakes, butter two 9-inch round cake pans, line bottoms with parchment paper.  Butter parchment, dust with flour and tap out excess and set aside.  (For cupcakes, line 2 12-cup muffin pans with paper liners and set aside.)  In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt, and set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and 2 cups granulated sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes, scraping down sides of the bowl as needed.  Beat in the vanilla.  With mixer on low speed, add 1/3 of the flour mixture, 1/2 of the milk, second third of the flour mixture, remaining milk, and last third of the flour mixture, beating until combined after each addition.  Scrape down sides of the bowl as needed.  Transfer mixture to a large bowl and set aside.

Clean bowl of the electric mixer now and dry immediately.

In the clean bowl of the electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites on low speed until foamy.  With mixer running, gradually added the remaining 1/4 cup of granulated sugar.  Beat on high speed until stiff, glossy peaks form, about 4 minutes.  Do not overbeat!  VERY gently, fold a third of the egg white mixture into the butter flour mixture until just combined.  Gently fold in the remaining egg whites.

Divide batter evenly among cake pans (or muffin cups) and smooth tops with an offset spatula.  Bake, rotating pans halfway through, until the cakes are golden brown and a cake tested inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes.  Transfer pans to a wire rack to cool for 20 minutes.  Invert cakes onto the rack, peel off the parchment paper, and reinvert cakes to allow to cool completely, tops sides up.

Trim tops of cake layers with a serrated knife to level.  Spread 1 cup buttercream on first layer, place second layer on top, cut side down.  Spread the entire cake with the remaining frosting and garnish finished cake with whole strawberries.

Strawberry Meringue Buttercream
-makes 5 cups

4 large egg whites
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
3 sticks (1 1/2 cups) unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into tablespoons
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups (12 ounces) strawberry jam (seedless is important!), pureed in a mini food processor

In a glass bowl over a saucepan of simmering water, combine egg whites and sugar.   Cook, whisking constantly, until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture is warm to the touch (about 160F).

Pour the contents of the bowl into the bowl of an electric mixer (or keep in same bowl if not using a stand mixer) and attach the bowl to the mixer fitted with the whisk attachment.  Beat the egg-white mixture on high speed until it holds stiff (but not dry) peaks.  Continue beating until the mixture is fluffy and cooled, about 6 minutes.

Switch to the paddle attachment.  With the mixer on medium-low speed, add the butter several tablespoons at a time, beating well after each addition.  (If the frosting seems to separate after all the butter has been added, beat on medium-high until smooth again, 3 to 5 minutes more.)  Beat in vanilla.  Beat on lowest speed to eliminated any air bubbles, about 2 minutes.  Stir in strawberry jam with a rubber spatula until frosting is smooth.  If a more pronounced pink color is desired, add two drops of red food coloring at a time, stirring thoroughly until exact shade is achieved.

Frost cake or cupcakes and enjoy!!  Candles are, as always, recommended, whether there is a birthday or not.  You can find something to celebrate, surely.  Monday, perhaps?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Scones with white chocolate & dried cherries

(Thanks for being patient with me this morning, you know, if you are an early reader.  The office move went well and these scones were devoured rather quickly -- even in the midst of a box of Dunkin' Donuts, quite the opposition.  I am very proud of this victory, regardless of the fact that I, too, enjoyed a doughnut.  What can I say?  I'm an equal opportunity pastry lover.)

[changing the world, one scone at a time]

Oh, scones.  Unfortunately you've earned a bit a bit of a bad reputation in the world of pastries and are usually passed up for your neighbors, muffins and danishes.  It's true that, at times, you may be a little too dense and floury, bland, and even too crumbly for on-the-go eating.  It's not you, scone, it's the baker.  You just haven't been given the attention and makeover you deserve.  This is your moment -- embrace it!  For now, the world will know of your greatness, one miniature at a time.

These scones are light and delicious.  So refreshingly delicious.  The sweetness of the white chocolate is perfectly complimented by the sour of the cherries.  And the pastry is so fluffy, not dry or heavy.  I could eat ten of them, but I managed to restrain myself a little... probably because I was half asleep still.  Everyone who had them took a bite, said how good they were.  Another bite immediately followed and then they all looked at me and said, rather incredulously, "These are so light!"  As if I were trying to trick them into eating some cement-like scone.  [shakes head]  You should know better by now, colleagues.  Oh, and these scones are a cinch to throw together.  For proof, here is a picture and my morning timeline:

6:00 - Wake up to the classical radio station, wishing I'd had more sleep
6:05 - Preheat oven, shower, continue to wake up
6:20 - Make bed, dress... YES, jeans today!  Oooh, jeans because it's moving day.  Right.
6:31 - Prep ingredients and tools, begin baking
6:45 - Scones into oven.
7:00 - Remove scones from oven (no joke -- almost forgot the oven mitt)
7:05 - Eat a piece of spinach quiche, banana and warm scone for breakfast
7:20 - Hear on ESPN that Washington and Boston both won, and Ben Roethlisberger is a giant ...
7:45 - Wrap up scones, brush my teeth and head out the door to work

I really planned on taking a picture of the fluffy colorful (and flavorful) interior of these scones.  I broke one in half and, well, after that, it's all a blur.  I must've eaten devoured it.  This is all that was left.  And I didn't want to "sacrifice" another one since I was taking these to work.  So, well, it's the thought that counts, right?

Cream Scones with Cherries and White Chocolate
(adapted from a recipe in America's Test Kitchen Cookbook)
-makes 15 mini (2 1/2-inch) scones or 8 regular size scones

Note: Feel free to replace the dried cherries and white chocolate chips with something more up your alley.  Fresh blueberries, diced up apple, another dried fruit, cinnamon chips... you name it.  Or maybe something savory -- cheddar, dill, etc.

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons chilled, unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch cubes
1/2 cup dried cherries, cut into smaller pieces
1/2 cup white chocolate chips or chunks
1 cup heavy cream

With rack in the middle of the oven, preheat to 425F.  In a large bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt.  With a pastry blender (or fork, if you don't have one), quickly cut butter into flour mixture until it resembles big crumbs with a few larger butter clumps (the size of peas).  Stir in chopped cherries and white chocolate.

Stir in heavy cream with a rubber spatula until dough begins to come together, about 30 seconds.  Transfer dough (even the dry pieces) to a lightly floured surface.  Knead dough by hand just until it comes together to form a sticky ball, five to ten seconds.  [Note: If you don't have or want to use a biscuit cutter, pat dough into square or circle and cut scones into even squares or triangle shapes.]  Form scones by patting the dough into a 3/4-inch thick circle, cutting scones with a floured 2 1/2-inch biscuit cutter and pressing remaining scraps back into another piece.  Repeat until dough has been used up.

Place scone shapes on an ungreased baking sheet and sprinkle with little granulated sugar, if desired.  Bake until the tops of the scones are light brown, 12 to 15 minutes.  Cool on a wire rack for at least 10 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.  These are best the day they're baked, but can be kept in an airtight container, if necessary, for a day.  As always, butter is a welcome addition, but even I skipped the butter.  Yep, they were that good.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Beef & red bean chili

[there is no such thing as a photogenic chili, so we'll say that I'm in love with its personality]

My love for chili seems to go against my very nature.  You see, my brain is hard-wired for science, math, things of an exact nature, which is probably why I've always preferred (read: been better at) baking to cooking.  Baking is to science as cooking is to art, and I am in no way artistic.  Baking requires exact proportions of leavening to flour to fat, etc etc.  Cooking once scared me because phrases like "eyeball it" and "a dash of this" and the ever-popular "season to taste" are everywhere, seemingly reminding me that I have no actual culinary training and if I'm making said recipe for the first time, how should I know what it's supposed to taste like?  Huh, Mr. Snooty Chef, huh?

Well, chili is probably one of the most flexible recipes out there, so I've learned that my phobia was very unwarranted at best and basically downright unreasonable.  I'd put it right up there in difficulty with quiche, and we all know that my love for this easy crusty eggy make-it-your-own dish knows no bounds.  I've read that you really can't mess up chili -- and I'm here to say that statement is true!  (Note: I mean, don't expect any sympathy from me if you play devil's advocate and make this with ridiculous ingredients like Swedish fish and Cherry 7-Up.  Wow, I like that those are the first two random foods that come to mind.)  If it's too dry, add more liquid.  If it's too bland, add more seasoning.  And since it's all a stove-top process and everything is already cooked and merely warming and melding, adjustments seemed easy.  After all, there are a few staples of standard chili: ground meat (even that can be omitted for vegetarians), beans, liquid of some sort, vegetables, and seasonings.  In fact, I swear that until this go-round, I'd never even used a recipe nor measured ingredients [gasp], thus making each batch of chili I've made different from its predecessor.

I have previously favored ground turkey in my chili, but a wise man in my life alerted me to my recent beef cravings and suggested I go along with it. (Good call, wise man.)  I like my chili on the sweet side, but feel free to cut back on the amount of brown sugar or add hot sauce if you like it with a spicy kick.  As for the liquid, I had tomato juice on hand and I like the flavor, but I've seen beef broth, a can of beer, or even water used as the liquid in chili.  For the beans and veggies, substitute your favorite bean for one or both cans of kidney beans if you're in a daring mood.  In a previous batch, I added a cup of sweet corn off the cob and it was delightful.  Experiment!  And when it comes to seasonings, I promise I tried to be good for your sake and measure everything out, but let me tell you a little secret -- it doesn't matter!  When you get to the end, let a little spoonful of the chili cool slightly and test it.  Add more of whatever you want to reach desired taste.  That's very anti-recipe of me, but hey, it's YOUR chili!  Make sure you like it!

Oh and finally, one little secret yet oddball ingredient whose presence may have raised an eyebrow or ten -- unsweetened cocoa powder.  I've seen it in a few recipes over the years and thought I'd give it a whirl.  You will not taste chocolate in your chili, unless you dump a cup of it in the pot.  But it gives another level of flavor to the chili and holy cow [no pun intended, but well-played, Katy], you'll never make chili without it again.

Beef Red Bean Chili
-makes 9 cups

2 pounds ground beef (I used 95% lean, but use whatever you like)
1 cup diced yellow onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup tomato juice or beef broth... or beer... or water
1 Tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
1 Tablespoon chili powder
1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes
2 15-ounce cans of light red kidney beans, drained
1 Tablespoon balsamic vinegar (optional)
1/3 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper

In a large pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat, add meat and cook until evenly browned, about 5 minutes.  Add onion and cook until onion is translucent, about 3 minutes.  Add garlic and cook an additional minute, stirring occasionally.  Add tomato juice, cocoa powder, chili powder, reduce heat to medium and cover for 10 minutes.  Add the beans, brown sugar, salt, and pepper, stirring until well distributed.  Taste and season until you're happy!

Serve hot and garnish with sour cream, some grated cheddar cheese, or even minced jalapeno... you know, if you're of the crazy persuasion. Enjoy with fresh corn bread.  (And yes, that's a mix but it's the easiest/quickest muffin ever and after "slaving" over a hot stove, why not use a shortcut or two so you can enjoy your hard work sooner?)

Store in sealed container in refrigerator for up to a week or freeze in 1 cup portions in Ziploc bags; thaw in refrigerator for a day and reheat.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Almond-crusted tilapia

Contrary to popular belief among my family and friends that I'm baking AND whipping up a mouth-watering dinner every night, the reality is that the baking happens much more often than the dinner thing.  In fact, there are nights when a glass of chocolate milk after I get home from the gym and whatever batter/fresh-out-of-the-oven treat are my only dinner items.  No, it's not balanced in the slightest.  It's not that I do this intentionally, really!  It's just that after sitting at a desk all day, save for a lunchtime walk, I want to stand in the kitchen and toil with flour and sugars galore!

And then, all of a sudden, I glance at the time, it's nine o'clock.  And I don't want to start dinner an hour before bedtime.  So I just wait for that maple yogurt loaf, or whatever that night's adventure was, to cool, get ready for bed, and vow that my breakfast will be very healthy and balanced indeed.  And on nights when there is no baking at all? 


Well, I am proud to declare that last night was not one of those nights!  No, ma'am.  In fact, I only did one quick pass through a baking book just to bookmark a recipe for a later engagement.  The reason I was able to resist was that, around three o'clock that afternoon, I started thinking about a dish I had a while back at my beloved -- macademia  Mahi-Mahi.  The crunch and flavor of the nuts combined with the tender white fish... it was to die for.  

How to recreate that at home...  Before I give details, I want to let you in on a little secret that I told a friend the other day who called with some kitchen questions.  Experiment with ingredients that you like!  Don't think that you must use some spice or item that you can't stand but so-and-so who is a chef told you so.  Ingredients aren't going to magically transform to another thing entirely during the cooking process.  You wouldn't pick out an ugly shirt and pair it with your favorite jeans and suddenly, right before your eyes, you'd fall in love with the shirt... right?  Same goes for food.  Worst case scenario is that you don't make the recipe again or for guests, but I'm betting you'll eat it, right?  Right.  

Getting back to the basic nut-crusted fish idea (see clever awful pun of a title), any nut would work, so why not almonds?  I had those.  And some bread crumbs as filler and a little flavor.  Rather than the traditional flour and egg wash, I decided to try something I saw on Food Network -- using Dijon mustard to brush on the chicken or fish before dipping in desired breading.  And something to add a kick to the sweet almonds and mustard... Old Bay, heck yes.  I hadn't really used much since my bout with the sweet potatoes.

Almond-Crusted Tilapia
-enough for 2 6-ounce tilapia fillets

1/4 cup raw almonds
2 Tablespoons bread crumbs (plain or seasoned, doesn't matter)
1 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
Dash of ground black pepper
1 Tablespoon Dijon mustard (I used honey because it's what was available)
Nonstick cooking spray

In the bowl of a blender or food processor, blend first four ingredients until finely ground.  Transfer crumb mixture to a shallow dish.

Over medium heat, coat a skillet with nonstick cooking spray.  Brush mustard over each side of fish fillets and dredge in crumb mixture.  Add fish to pan and cook roughly 3 minutes on each side or until fish flakes to your desire.

Serve with your choice of green vegetable or salad -- I opted for green beans and a small baby spinach salad.

Have a wonderful weekend!  And, if you're in the Pittsburgh area, head over to CMU for its annual carnival celebration.  I'll be there, downing funnel cakes most likely :)

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

My favorite from scratch "box" brownies!

I hope the title caught your attention, and I suppose it did if you're reading this right now.  Wise decision, friend.  In all my years of baking, there is one item that I have never quite been able to conquer, and it's left a gaping hole in my heart stomach.  The homemade version just can't compete with the box variety.  (I bet you're nodding your head right now in agreement.  In fact, I have never heard anyone say he or she preferred a homemade version to a box version.)  So, what is this mythical treat that seems to befuddle even the most experienced of cooks?


Yes, brownies.  The go-to classic dessert that kids and adults alike can never turn down.  According to Wikipedia, "The brownie's first public appearance was during the 1893 Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago, Illinois. A chef at the city's Palmer House Hotel created the confection after Bertha Palmer requested a dessert for ladies attending the fair; it should be, she said, smaller than a piece of cake and easily eaten from boxed lunches."  Oh Bertha, what a wise woman you were.  You deserve your own holiday.

I've tried at least ten brownie recipes since I first started experimenting with from the homemade variety.  Many of my trusted sources have let me down.  Brownie tarts, cakey brownies, fudgey brownies, s'more brownies, "healthier" brownies (it was as bad as it sounds)... even testing a recipe that I calculated out that should've worked like science (note: it didn't).  Each recipe called for specific kinds of chocolate, baking vessels, methods, cooking times, but none really impressed me.  Some were waaaaay too undercooked (I like chewy, but not running), and others had a quarter inch-thick crust on top after following instructions carefully.  One recipe was too bitter and chocolatey, if that's possible, and tasted almost like coffee.  Gross.  I was so disappointed with another recipe that I threw it out entirely, ran to the store to buy a box brownie mix, and took the finished product to a party to pass off as my own.  For this, I hang my head in shame... but only a little.  Those puppies disappeared faster than it takes Ben Roethlisberger to reach his lawyer (who, by now, is probably on speed dial).

These brownies are quick to throw together (I had them in the oven within 10 minutes) and incredibly rewarding when you decide to sneak a bite around 10:30 on a weeknight.  They are chocolatey and sweet, chewy and light, and... AND!  The thin little crackly crust that forms on top will make you think you'd really just whipped up a batch of your favorite box brownie mix.  Oh and the chocolate chip pockets you'll find within the brownies?  Be still my heart!

Note: I halved this recipe and used an 8x8-inch square pan and increased the baking time to 40 minutes with great results.  I also omitted 1 teaspoon of instant espresso powder because it was optional.  To this day, I have never been able to find it in the grocery store, and I'm not a fan of buying something that I'll rarely use.  If you have it, by all means, add it for a deeper chocolate flavor.

Chewy Brownies
(from Cook's Illustrated)
-makes 24 brownies

1/3 cup cocoa powder
1/2 cup + 2 Tablespoons boiling water
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate (2 1-ounce squares), finely chopped
4 Tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup + 2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
2 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
6 ounces (1 cup) semi-sweet chocolate chips or chunks

Position oven rack to lowest position and preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.  Line a 9 x 13-inch metal baking pan with parchment paper, leaving about a one inch overhang on all sides.  Spray parchment with nonstick cooking spray and set aside.

Whisk cocoa and boiling water together in a large bowl until smooth.  Add unsweetened chocolate and whisk until chocolate is melted.  Whisk in melted butter and oil.  (Mixture may look curdled, don't worry.)  Add eggs, egg yolks, and vanilla and continue to whisk until smooth.  Whisk in sugar until fully incorporated.  Add flour and salt and mix together with a rubber spatula until just combined.  Fold in chocolate chips/chunks.

Scrape batter into the baking pan and bake until toothpick inserted halfway between edge and center comes out with just a few moist crumbs attached, 30-35 minutes.  Transfer pan to wire rack and cool NO LESS THAN 1 1/2 hours.  (Sorry for yelling, but this part is essential.)

Using parchment overhang, lift brownies from pan.  Return brownies to wire rack and let cool completely, about 1 hour.  Cut into 2-inch squares (or larger) and serve.  Brownies can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 4 days.

Go ahead and let people think you made these from a box until they've tasted them.  Then, proudly proclaim that these chewy chocolately gems are homemade and watch eyes widen and jaws drop.  Told you so :)

Monday, April 12, 2010

Maple yogurt cake

Beware, scents of French toast will fill your kitchen and have you daydreaming of a lazy day in sweatpants.  In other words, I would never ever recommend making this on a Monday morning... unless your boss is totally kosher with the idea of you skipping work to nibble on breakfast and catch up on your DVR's contents for the whole day.  When I originally spotted this recipe over at Not Derby Pie over a month ago, I knew it would be a perfect breakfast and munch-on-the-rest-of-the-day snack.  I did not, however, realize that categorizing this treat would prove to be much more difficult than the entire baking process.

While the recipe refers to this as a pound cake, I'd have to politely disagree.  It's neither as sweet as a cake (don't you hate breakfast breads or muffins that try to be cakes and cupcakes?), nor does it contain any butter at all, a key ingredient in any pound cake.  And calling it a bread doesn't do it any justice either -- it's so much more moist than any bread I can think of and has a fluffier and lighter texture.  I settled on calling it a loaf, as the vague nature of that word lets the descriptors "maple" and "yogurt" do the explaining that is sure to induce drooling.  And boy, do the maple and the yogurt talk up a storm in this loaf.  Whilst in the oven, my kitchen smelled as if there were a French toast fairy cooking up a late-night breakfast just for me.  It took every ounce of willpower I had not to slice into this right away.  I mean, it was intended for a gift and though it's the thought that counts, I can't imagine a half-eaten loaf of maple goodness would have the same effect as an untarnished one.  It also helped that I had just taken a batch of oh-so-chewy chocolate chip cookies out of the oven, so I was able to focus my sweet tooth on those.

A few notes: I omitted the lemon zest after reading a few comments that said the lemon flavor clashed with the maple flavor.  I also used vanilla yogurt since it was already in my fridge, but I'm sure plain would suffice.  And this cake is so moist that it's on the verge of fork-worthy.  Words of caution: Don't try to put a slice of this in a traditional upright toaster -- it will fall apart.  (I may or may not have learned this the hard way and had to mourn the loss of half of a slice first thing in the morning.)  But a broiler or toaster oven may do the trick.  Let me know if you have any success with either.

Maple Yogurt Cake
(seen here)

1/2 cup maple syrup (the real stuff, I had Grade A on hand)
3/4 cup yogurt (I used low fat vanilla)
1/4 cup granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup oil (I used canola, but vegetable will do)

Position rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350F.  Grease an 8 1/2-inch by 4 1/2-inch metal loaf pan and set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together syrup, yogurt, eggs, sugar, and vanilla.  In a separate bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt.  Gradually stir dry ingredients into wet ingredients (it will be clumpy, don't worry).  Add oil to mixture and gently stir until oil is uniformly mixed into the batter.

Pour batter into greased loaf pan and place in the center of a baking sheet.  Bake until cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean, about 50 minutes, rotating halfway through baking.  Cool cake in pan on rack for 5 minutes.  Run a paring knife around the edges of the pan to loosen cake.  Carefully turn cake out onto rack and cool right side up completely.  Store at room temperature wrapped in plastic for up to 5 days.

Want to make that slice of breadcake in the morning even more delectable?  Slather with butter... mmmm, butter.  If it's an after dinner palate cleanser you're looking for, try topping with berries, a scoop of ice cream, or hey, how about maple syrup!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Tomato gratin

All of this Easter candy and ice cream has had me riding a bit of a nonstop sugar rush for the past few days.  Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't trade the two final pieces of cheesecake left in my fridge for the world, but I need a bit of a detox.  Last night's dinner was a simple burger, spruced up with some balsamic vinegar mixed in with the ground meat, and the quickest side dish you'll ever make. And, by quick, I mean really quick. Quick like your un-air-conditioned apartment is hotter than it should be for mid April and you can't imagine spending a second longer in front of a hot stove.

The tomatoes are juicy and tender while the parmesan bread crumbs add a flavorful crunch to the whole thing.  It's almost unfair how easy this is, especially since it's so bright and colorful:

Note: If you don't have an ovenproof skillet (i.e. one without any plastic), use your regular one for the stove-top step and just pour tomatoes onto a foil-lined baking sheet and top with bread crumb mixture for the broiler step.

Tomato gratin
(inspired by Food Network magazine)
-serves 4

2 pints grape tomatoes
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup + 2 Tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons fresh thyme
1/2 cup bread crumbs
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese

Toss tomatoes, garlic, 1/4 cup of the olive oil and thyme into an ovenproof skillet.  Cook over medium-high heat until the tomatoes are soft, 6-8 minutes.  In a small bowl, mix 2 T of live oil, bread crumbs and parmesan cheese together.  Sprinkle over the tomatoes and put under the broiler until golden on top, 2-3 minutes.  Watch carefully!  And then enjoy not-so-carefully because, after all, this is a pretty rustic side dish.  No room for dainty here.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Classic cheesecake + cheesecake 101

This past weekend was Easter, so you know my parents were planning a delicious Sunday meal after church.  I started compiling recipe ideas for dessert roughly a month before that dinner.  Ricotta cake, mousse rolls, carrot ginger cupcakes, the list kept growing... until I talked to my mom (happy birthday today, Mom!).  She reminded me that there are a few ridiculously slightly picky eaters in my family, so I should try to keep it simple.  Keep it simple!?  Come on, Mom!  This is my moment to shine, impress, have people bow down at the splendor of the most satisfying after dinner treat this world has ever seen!  Hmph, fine, I'll comply.

A friend calmed me down and convinced me to go with cheesecake, since that excluded only my brother-in-law, who openly admits he doesn't really care for dessert.  I've made cheesecake plenty of times in the past, but it's always been gussied up somehow -- vanilla bean cheesecake, Oreo cheesecake, pumpkin cheesecake bars, just to name a few.  The thought of making a classic cheesecake without any mix-ins to add flavor or topping to disguise cracks and flaws... frankly, it terrified me.  One of the biggest challenges of making a cheesecake is cooking it through without having the top crack (read: dry out) or brown excessively.  And just to make it even more interesting, I planned to bake the cake in my mom's kitchen rather than my familiar apartment kitchen.  Oh, and the pressure of being the sole dessert provider for a holiday meal?  No time to panic... yet.

Anyone who has researched cheesecake recipes knows that there are as many variations as grains of sand on a beach.  I've seen amounts of cream cheese range from one to three pounds, with or without sour cream, heavy cream, different flavoring agents, and enough cooking times/methods to make even the most accomplished cook shudder.  Since I've already found my go-to recipes for yellow cake, oatmeal raisin cookies, and even macaroni and cheese, it was time to do some experimenting of my own, scary as it may be, in order to find the quintessential cheesecake recipe.  Game on.

This cheesecake is so darn creamy it'll knock your socks (or sandals, hello summer weather in April) off.  By baking the cake in a water bath, the cheesecake stays moist, with the water to insulate the edge of the pan to ensure even cooking.  The crust is crunchy and flavorful but still takes a backseat to the cream cheese filling.  The tiniest hint of lemon is only noticeable if you're looking for it, but enough to freshen up the whole dish.  And the sour cream adds a subtle tang to the rich sweetness of the cheese and sugar.  Oh, friends, if you don't realize how much I love you after this recipe, I don't know what I can do to convince you otherwise.  And the picky eaters in the family?  They asked for seconds :)

A hopefully not-so-controversial note: Some of you may raise your eyebrows at the omission of graham cracker crumbs in the crust, and that's understandable since practically every cheesecake recipe I've ever read calls for such.  I just felt that the graham cracker thing has been beaten into the ground -- there had to be a better alternative!  Nilla Wafers have a simple flavor and slightly more crunch than graham crackers. 

Keys to a successful cheesecake
1. Have all ingredients at room temperature before you begin.  I put the cream cheese out on the counter about 6 hours prior to baking.  As for the eggs and sour cream, these can be taken out of the refrigerator roughly 1 hour before you begin.  Listen, neither will "go bad" and you'll be fine.  Having ingredients at different temperatures means that, when mixing, your batter will have lumps and bumps.  By bringing everything to room temperature, you will have a velvety smooth and uniform batter.

2. Do not overmix!  As much as I love my stand mixer, I steer clear of it when making a cheesecake so I resist the urge to crank up the speed on the beater.  I use a hand mixer on low speed and whip the cheese just until it's no longer in block form.  When adding eggs, mix just until there are no streaks of yellow.  If you go mix crazy, you'll incorporate too much air into the batter and those air bubbles will burst and cause the cheesecake to crack and fall while baking.  Keep a rubber spatula on hand to do any extra mixing by hand if you must.

3. Be patient!  Patience is not at the top of (or even somewhere in the middle) on a list of my strengths.  I'm of the belief that whatever I bake can be sampled in some way within an hour of taking it out of the oven.  Not this puppy.  A complete cooling is necessary and then a minimum of 4 hours in the refrigerator (but ideally, overnight) before consumption.  Whew.  But it's so worth it.  Sooooo worth it.

Finally, I was trying to think of the exact quote I heard somewhere about how doing something simple well is often the most difficult, which perfectly describes my experience with this cheesecake.  This comes pretty close.  Leonardi Da Vinci once said, "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication."

Classic Cheesecake
(adapted loosely from a smattering of recipes)
-yields 12 modest pieces

5 Tablespoons of unsalted butter, melted
2 cups of Nilla Wafer cookie crumbs (graham crackers will also work)
2 Tablespoons granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt

5 8-ounce packages (2.5 pounds total) bar cream cheese, room temperature
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 Tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
4 large eggs, room temperature
1 cup sour cream, room temperature

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Make crust by mixing cookie crumbs, sugar and salt together in a medium bowl.  Add melted butter and mix with a fork until all crumbs are moistened.  Press crumb mixture into the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan, pressing crumbs flat and about 1 inch up the side of the pan.  Bake crust until set and beginning to turn golden, 12-15 minutes.  Let cool on a wire rack.  Reduce oven heat to 325F degrees.  (Give your oven some time to cool down.)

Set a pot of water to boil on the stovetop while making the filling.  In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat cream cheese on medium until fluffy, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.  Gradually add sugar, beating just until combined.  Add lemon juice and salt.  Beat in eggs, one at a time, until no yellow streaks remain.  Scrape down sides of bowl as needed.  Beat in sour cream.

Check to make sure that the crust and pan have cooled enough to touch.  Wrap bottom half of the pan in foil.  Pour in filling and place pan in the center of a large roasting pan (hey, now you use it twice a year!).  Carefully pour in boiling water until level reaches halfway up the side of the springform pan.  After 30 minutes, check internal oven thermometer to make sure that it has gone down to 325F; if not, lower temperature setting slightly.  Bake until just set in the center, about 1 hour and 30 minutes.  Turn off oven, prop open oven door slightly, and leave in oven 15 minutes.

Carefully remove roasting pan from oven and springform pan from water and let cool for 20 minutes.  Run a small knife around the edge of the cheesecake.  Let cool completely, until bottom of pan is no longer warm to the touch.  (Really really let it cool.  If you rush this step, you'll end up with condensation all over your cheesecake.)  Cover with foil (plastic wrap will cling to the top of the cheesecake, trust me) and chill overnight before serving.

Loosen ring of springform pan carefully and remove when ready to serve.  For smooth cuts, run a large sharp knife under hot water and wipe dry with a towel before cutting.  Wipe knife between cuts for clean slices.  Serve and, save for the incoherant "mmm" and "oh my goodness" noises, be prepared for an eerily quiet dinner table.  Don't worry, that's a good sign.