Saturday, January 31, 2009

January m.o.m. - Clementine Oat Muffins

One of the things I gave my mother for Christmas was "muffin of the month" (m.o.m.) - a dozen muffins delivered to her each month. December's muffin flavor was gingerbread. In January, clementine recipes jumped out at me from every side, and with one of those boxes of clementines languishing in my fridge, I knew clementine muffins would be just the thing. Dan Lepard has a recipe for Clementine Oat Muffins that sounded perfect.

n.o.e. notes:

- The recipe calls for caster sugar, which is a superfine sugar. I had no superfine sugar and was low on caster sugar, so I used approximately 1/3 each of the following: caster sugar, golden bakers sugar (a superfine golden sugar that was in my baking drawer) and made up the difference with regular granulated sugar whirled in mini food processor.

- I baked 1 1/2 recipe, which yielded 12 large-ish muffins in my silicone muffin tins.

- When measuring the AP flour, I added a generous spoonful of oat flour. The recipe also calls for oats.

- I ended up with plenty of juice from the clementines, and added some additional clementine pulp.

- When measuring out the oil, I first put about 1/3 nonfat Greek yogurt in bottom of the measuring cup, then filled the rest with canola oil (I didn't have sunflower oil).

- These muffins straddle the muffin/cupcake line. Dan's muffins have a luscious-sounding clementine glaze on top. I wanted mine more muffin-y so I skipped the glaze.

the verdict

Warm from the oven, the muffins tasted tender and sweet and very much contain the essence of clementine. They have a solid citrus scent but true to the sweet nature of clementines, the taste did not have the tang of other citrus baked goods. The muffins dried just a bit with time, though, so I'd recommend keeping an eye on them and covering them right after they are cool.

These muffins are a great choice for using clementines, especially where you might want a refined, rather than rustic, muffin. With the glaze they'd be a special tea-time treat. I'd definitely make these again.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Tyler's Slow Cooked Collard Greens

I've got a confession to make: I was an extremely picky eater as a child. On many evenings you could find me sitting at the dinner table long after everyone else had left, staring at a plate. A few cold, forlorn vegetables looked right back up at me. Eventually I'd choke down a couple of bites and be excused. Mostly this drama played out with green beans, but spinach also took its turn on the dinner plate. Luckily my mother never served brussels sprouts, or I might still be sitting there!

Well, children are resilient, thank goodness, and I've grown up to be an average eater. And my erstwhile arch-nemesis, green beans, are now among my favorite vegetables. I grew to like spinach in salads, then quiches and more. But I've been content to let the wider waters of "greens" remain pretty much unexplored, with only a little toe dip now and then.

On a trip to London in 2006 I discovered how much I (and apparently most of Great Britain's restaurants) love arugula ("rocket" over there). I had it in salads and on pasta and couldn't get enough of its peppery bite. It's become my favorite salad green. As far as cooked greens, I made a tasty crock pot chard lasagna last winter that I found delicious.

However, when it came to that most Southern of leafy greens, collards, this picky-eater Northerner remained totally unswayed. I could never bring myself to even try those olive green, slimy (looking) limp leaves that inevitably were seen in a cafeteria line, or at a meat+3 restaurant, swimming in a pool of 'pot likker.' So when my Southern-born husband wanted a taste of collards he has had to order them at a restaurant or heat up a can.

But I must say that food blogging has really opened me up to experimenting with tastes and new recipe sources. As I began to get more serious about cooking this past year, I signed up for a membership in Moore's Farm, which grows and/or sources regional produce, takes orders, and delivers the food to several locations in the Atlanta area, including a church in my neighborhood.

I ordered and prepared komatsuna, mustardy salad greens, and kale. And loved them. And my resistance weakened. I decided to order collards and cook them for my husband. Which brings me - finally - to the subject of this post!

The fresh collards on one of their three soaks in the sink

When the vegetable order came in I wondered if Tyler Florence had a good recipe for collards, because if he did I might, just might, even taste some. Sure enough, a quick search brought up Tyler's Slow Cooked Collard Greens, complete with nearly unanimous favorable reviews. Done!

n.o.e.'s notes:

- I made half a recipe, using 1 lb collards, 1 quart chicken stock, etc.

- Instead of a ham hock I used 1 1/2 slices of Benton bacon (cut into lardons, of course!). The first thing I did was to cook up the lardons. Then I added the onion and bay leaf to the bacon and continued to cook per the recipe instructions (I did not add any olive oil).

the verdict:

These were the first collard greens I've ever brought myself to taste, and they were quite tasty. And they were not slimy at all! They were tender but still a little crunchy. And the hint of smoky bacon - yum.

My husband was in heaven - he loved the greens. For his first serving, he ate them with only salt and pepper for additional seasoning. On the second plateful, he broke out the hot pepper sauce. For some reason, we haven't been able to find Bruce's at the grocery stores, so he made do with Texas Pete's (which comes from, guess where? Winston-Salem, North Carolina!) He actually preferred the greens without the pepper sauce, which has to be an all time first!

In honor of the occasion, my husband requested to post the following guest verdict:

Reflections upon first taste of Tyler Florence “Slow Cooked Collard Greens” - by Jim E.

"I am transfixed into thankfulness; Deepest appreciation to the following:
-Ben Franklin for electricity
-Robert Noyce for the microprocessor
-Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs for the Mac
-Vint Cerf for internet protocol
-Sir Tim Berners-Lee, CERN, Al Gore for the WWW
-Marc Andreesen for the browser
-J.D.E. for food blog awareness / enlightenment
-Tyler Florence for his genius
-Bentons for their Lardons
-Nancy for her culinary talent – anybody from the North who can do collards like these is truly omnipotent (but we knew that already)."

I'm submitting this to Tyler Florence Fridays. If you haven't checked out all the good food that the TFF bloggers cook up from Tyler's recipes, hop on over to the roundup each Friday and see!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

{Simple Soup Supper} Union Square Black Bean Soup, two ways

Black bean soup is one of the signature dishes at the Union Square Cafe in New York. When I ate there a year ago, I ordered this soup. It was extraordinarily good. Imagine my joy when I discovered an online recipe for the soup! [edit to add the link for the soup recipe] And even greater joy when I was given a copy of the Union Square Cafe Cookbook.

So the week before last, with temperatures dipping into the single digits (yes, here in Georgia), I decided it was the perfect time to make this soup.

n.o.e. notes

- I was very tempted to brown the veggies and bacon for a bit, but the recipe says to throw it all in a pot with water and the black beans, then pop it in the oven for, oh, 4 hours or so. That's what I did.

- The recipe calls for a 3-quart pot. After reading the recipe, I was dubious about the size, but figured surely the cookbook knows how much it makes. I used my 3-quart le Creuset-wanna-be Lodge pot and sure enough there was no way 2 quarts of water were going to fit in that baby with all the other ingredients. 6 cups were the limit. I ended up adding a little bit more as the soup cooked down. Luckily, the soup didn't seem to need the full 8 cups.

- I used Benton's bacon (of course!) While the soup cooked, the smoky aroma of the bacon just filled the house.

- I loved the technique of baking this soup. It totally eliminates any question of soup sticking to the bottom of the pot. Just pop it in the oven and forget about it. I imagine this recipe could be made in a slow cooker.

- After the soup comes out of the oven the directive is to "puree the beans with their cooking liquid." What about the veggies? and the bacon??? do they get to come along for for a whirl in the blender? Pureeing boiled bacon sounded kind of weird to me. I shot off a quick email to the restaurant asking them about that pureeing step. And whether I should have sauteed the veggies and bacon in the beginning. And the restaurant actually emailed me back!!! How cool is that??? And here's the scoop: the recipe does mean for us to just throw everything into the pot in an uncooked condition, but in the actual restaurant the chefs "show a little love" by sauteeing everything first (well, not the black beans.) And yes, according to the chef, we are supposed to blend everything together at the end.

- I used my new immersion blender that Santa brought me for Christmas. Boy is that thing effective! As it turns out, after 4 hours in the oven, the bacon is so softened that it blends just as well as everything else.

- My husband Jim was there (with a spoon) when I took the pot out of the oven and he fell out over* the taste. He didn't want me to puree it, and suggested that we leave some unblended and compare it to the blended. A taste test! I'm all in.

the verdict:

This is a very nice black bean soup. The smokiness of the Benton's comes through as well as the flavors of all the veggies, complemented by the shot of sherry that gets added to the bowl at serving time. I served this with a salad and the Mesa Grill corn muffins. Ha, recipes from two NYC restaurants!

We both tasted the soup both ways - pureed and un-pureed. My husband preferred his un-pureed, saying, "the mastication process infuses the taste into my olfactory facilities," which in turn made it taste better. I kinda agree with him about the taste thing, but if I'm going to have black bean soup I just want it pureed. Easy as that.

* "fell out over" in common parlance means to disagree about something. My very Southern mother-in-law, however, always uses the phrase to mean "liked something very much."

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

{TWD} Chocolate Gingerbread, and a Gingerbread Taste Test

Adventures of a gingerbread purist, part 2

Being the gingerbread snob that I am, I was dubious about the concept of chocolate + gingerbread. I'm not one of those people who think that a handful of chocolate chips or a drizzle of chocolate improves everything. And I really don't want anyone messing with my gingerbread (or pumpkin pie, either. Remember that Thanksgiving Twofer Pie? That was just wrong.)

But this week's TWD selection was Fresh Ginger and Chocolate Gingerbread, so I put on my best game face and set out to bake it. I figured I'd serve it to my book group and get rid of it get some opinions that were a bit more objective than mine (although I must say the book group is pretty fond of my usual gingerbread.) I made this back at the beginning of January.

n.o.e notes:

- I made a full recipe, so everyone will be relieved to know that no math is involved this week! Although I must say that I wish I'd made half a recipe.

- used 8 T butter + 3 T nonfat Greek yogurt

- For flour, I combined white flour with a white/wheat flour blend

- I used dark brown sugar

- I forgot to look for/buy stem ginger so I just left it out

- I added pinch of salt and would have added pinch of black pepper but in the end I forgot.

- I liked the technique of mixing the fresh ginger with sugar, which produced a lovely ginger-y syrup.

- Since I was using a dark silicone pan set on a dark cookie sheet, I reduced oven temp to 330. The inside was still very jiggly at 38 minutes, so I increased the oven temp to 340. It baked for around 10 min more.

- For the frosting, I didn't want to brew any coffee, so I used 1/4 tsp instant espresso + 1 T water

The cake took a lot longer to make than I anticipated, so I had to rush at the end. I brought it straight to book club (We were late) just after spreading the frosting. We served it before the frosting had fully set up, and it was harder to cut (neatly). By the next day, the frosting had hardened and the cake itself cut much smoother and neater (top picture).

the verdict:

The cake was beautiful, dense and moist. It held up beautifully on the counter, covered, for days.

But I found it totally disappointing in the flavor department. I love chocolate and I love gingerbread. I. do. not. love. chocolate gingerbread. at. all. But we sort of guessed that would happen, right? Let's move on to my testers, the wonderful members of the book club (and some children of the host couple).

A couple of people loved it completely

A couple people loved the cake part but thought the frosting detracted

A couple people thought "eh, not worth seconds"


1 person thought it was really intense and thought the ingredients conflicted with each other. He
suggested using semisweet instead of bittersweet chocolate - something less assertive that might complement the ginger rather than fight with it.

I gave away most of the cake to those who liked it, but kept a bit of it to photograph (let's ignore how skewed that sounds - keeping cake I don't like because I had to take pictures of it - shall we?) Over the next few days I'd periodically cut a bite for myself, thinking, "it looks so good and smells pretty yummy, maybe I'll like it this time." Although it kept promising, it never delivered. Great texture, fabulously moist, quite aromatic. At first it seems that these flavors will pop out, but then it ends up strangely bland. Like they've had a battle and canceled each other out. What was left was a moist chocolate cake with a bit of spice. (I did love the frosting however)

And although I could detect the ginger under all the chocolate, good gingerbread is all about the perfect balance of spices and not just the ginger.

Speaking of balance and canceling each other out, here's the opinion of the family that I left most of the cake with: they really loved it the second day, after it spent the night in their fridge. They said that the cold toned down the chocolate and let the gingerbread flavors come through. However, one of their sons did say, "I like gingerbread better without the chocolate." I'm with him!!

taste test:

I actually brought gingerbread blondies to book club in addition to the chocolate gingerbread. So the next day I poured myself a cup of Earl Gray and ran a personal taste test of gingerbread-y goodies. The contestants and my impressions:

A) Dorie's chocolate gingerbread: no matter how hard I try, I just can't find the gingerbread flavor under the chocolate

B) Martha's gingerbread blondies, which I made without white chocolate and with extra ginger: these were soft and chewy with a mild flavor. They are fairly sturdy and easy to transport.

C) my favorite gingerbread (I had a bit left from Christmas baking): this really is the gold standard. Even 10 days old it beat the ginger off either of the others. It's not as deep and dark as Trader Joe's, nor as ginger-y as Dorie's, but it hits the right combination of spices. The streusel topping takes it to the next level.

D) Trader Joe's gingerbread mix (wasn't actually part of the taste test because I made it a few days later): it was dark and dense but was missing a strong gingerbread-y presence. But it's very easy to bake, since it's a mix and all. I'd take it over the chocolate gingerbread, and probably over the blondies.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A Gingerbread Snob Branches Out: Martha's Gingerbread Blondies and Trader Joe's Gingerbread Mix

Above: Trader Joe's Gingerbread mix baked in a pig-shaped pan!
Or: Adventures of a gingerbread purist, part 1

I've become spoiled by very good gingerbread. You could call me narrow-minded, but I prefer to think of myself as a purist. To me the best gingerbread is moist, highly spiced, and rich with molasses flavor. My usual recipe is as close to ideal as I'm ever likely to come. And this matters to me because I really, really love gingerbread.

Every now and then, however, given the plethora of recipes out there (and those assigned to me!) I'm led to try another gingerbread. This winter has brought a bounty crop of gingerbread-y recipes to my attention. While not trying a new recipe for a classic gingerbread, I did succumbed to the siren call of Martha Stewart's White Chocolate Gingerbread Blondies. I also baked up a box of Trader Joe's Gingerbread mix, which came highly recommended.

Martha's White Chocolate Double Ginger Blondies

Martha's Gingerbread Blondies in a low light photo.
n.o.e. notes:

- I stayed pretty true to Martha's recipe with one major exception. The white chocolate. I just don't like the stuff, and I suspected it would make the blondies too sweet for me (blondies really border on excessive sweetness to begin with, imo. So I omitted the white chocolate and substituted a handful of chopped crystallized ginger instead.

- The recipe is supposed to be made on a huge baking pan. I wanted to bake just enough to check out the flavor and to bring to my book group to taste test alongside Dorie's chocolate gingerbread (which will be posted on Tuesday). I made 1/3 recipe, which fit perfectly in a toaster oven tray (an 8x8 baking dish is also 1/3 of the 11x17 rimmed baking sheet Martha specifies.)

- I thought that the recipe called for relatively little ginger

- I combined white flour with a white/wheat flour blend

- I used dark brown sugar + light brown - more dark than light

- I'm pretty sure I substituted some plain nonfat Greek yogurt for some of the butter, but I can't find that in my notes.

the verdict:

The blondies turned out soft and chewy and not overly sweet - I'm really glad I didn't use the white chocolate. The chopped crystallized ginger added texture and a stronger ginger flavor, but even with the ginger boost, the blondies didn't taste very gingerbread-ish to me. However they were a hit with all of my tasters; young and old.

Trader Joe's Deep Dark Gingerbread

n.o.e notes:

This mix is easy, easy, easy.

I baked the gingerbread in a "good luck pig" silicone cake pan that I bought in a German Christmas market and in a silicone ice cube tray. I thought it would be cool to have little rectangular cake-bites. As it turned out, the ice cube tray baked as a whole cake not as individual ones - no doubt because there wasn't any air between the compartments as there is in a muffin tin. So the middle squares rose higher and took longer to bake.

The cakes took awhile to bake - close to 30 minutes, I'd guess. I just kept adding 3 minutes to the timer and checking until it was done.

the verdict:

This gingerbread is very dense and dark. And moist. It tasted more of molasses than of gingerbread spices. There was a bit of a spicy note there, however. With a streusel topping or with whipped cream (or both?), this mix is a solid option; a nice payoff for a little bit of work. I'll have to say that it doesn't come close to the perfection of my usual recipe, but it will be great to have around in a baking pinch.

My husband, who is allergic to chocolate, really liked this gingerbread, finding it very reminiscent of a chocolate cake.

little bites o' gingerbread baked in an ice cube tray

Friday, January 23, 2009

Bobby Flay Rebounds for Corn Muffin Throwdown!

After losing in my kitchen's red chili throwdown, Bobby Flay just begged for a rematch. "Really?" you say. "Well," I reply, "we didn't actually speak about it. But out of the kindness of my heart I decided to give him another chance."

Right after baking Dorie Greenspan's spicy corn muffins, I came across the Mesa Grill Blue Corn muffin recipe, and just had to bake them immediately! (Edit: I saw these muffins mentioned on Katrina's TWD post - thank you for the tip!)

Since I baked Bobby Flay's muffins right after Dorie's, and the recipes are so similar, I think conditions are ideal for another throwdown post!

(As a little bloggy aside, I'm posting this from out of town, and don't have access to all my photos, so if you come back in a couple of days, I'll have added some more pix)

Dorie Greenspan's Savory Corn and Pepper Muffins

First up was Dorie Greenspan's muffin recipe. You can read my recent post about these muffins, and see the recipe here. To summarize my experience with Dorie's muffins: I made some changes in the interest of health (reduced the fat, upped the whole grain quotient) and stepped up the spice and heat a bit.

the verdict on Dorie Greenspan's muffins:

Recapping: We liked the muffins a lot, finding them very moist and tasty. They had lots of flavor, but were not really hot per se. A great recipe and one that I'd gladly make again (I have a zipper bag of the dry ingredients all pre-measured out for another batch).

Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill Blue Corn Muffins

You've probably already noticed that Mesa Grill muffins, pictured up top, are not blue. I love the thought of using blue cornmeal in muffins - I love blue corn chips - but I didn't locate any in the ordinary course of grocery shopping. My choice was: (1) to wait until I located blue cornmeal (if I even could locate any), or (2) bake the muffins with yellow cornmeal - the same cornmeal that I used for Dorie's, in fact. I had all the other ingredients, and there was a pot of black bean soup on the stove, so I went ahead and baked the muffins.

n.o.e.'s notes:

- Trader Joe's Desert Mesquite Honey was perfect for these muffins. [edit: I saw two very similar versions of the Mesa Grill recipe online. I linked to one, above, but actually baked from the other, whose link I didn't save. It had 1T honey instead of granulated sugar. Other differences: 2 cloves garlic instead of 1, 1/4 cup diced onion in place of 3T. ]

- My jalapeno was very large - and very hot - so I used most but not all of it.

- [As with Dorie's muffins, I chopped the corn kernels roughly]

- I baked the muffins in the same silicone muffin pan as Dorie's. They cooked with a lovely golden brown bottom and edges but an incredible moist yet sturdy but not tough crumb.

- The kitchen was filled with the most amazing smell while these muffins were in the oven.

the verdict: Mesa Grill Corn Muffins

With the fresh and cooked ingredients, these muffins had lots of crunch and flavors. I love the complex flavor that the sauteed onion and garlic gave to the muffins. The slight hint of an outer crust was my favorite part. Well, and the taste! They were just about perfect, although I might experiment with adding a tiny bit of chili powder the next time.

As for the ever-pressing question of sweetness, these were not "sweet" corn muffins by Northern standards. There was a sweetness to them, however, and we thought 1 T was plenty of honey. I could see cutting it next time by a third or so. With all those savory ingredients stirred in, I personally wouldn't want them any sweeter.

Despite the quantity - and the undeniable heat - of the jalapeno I put in the batter, the muffins were not hot or spicy, just flavorful. My husband, who recently read an interesting article about hot peppers, reminded me that dairy products bind the capsaicin in the pepper, and so does bread. I guess that by stirring the jalapenos into the muffins (along with milk) they lose most of their heat, but transmit their pepper flavor.

Winner of the Throwdown

Although I previously described Dorie's savory corn muffins as "perfect", Bobby Flay was the indisputable winner of the throwdown! His muffins had great texture and flavor, and I will make them again in a heartbeat. Now I'm ready to track down some blue cornmeal to see if it improved the taste.

To be perfectly fair to the contesting muffins, I need to admit right up front that I made changes to both recipes, mostly to reduce the fat content of the muffins. I believe the fat content ended up roughly equivalent, as I cut some butter in Dorie's and used skim milk and egg substitute in Bobby's. I meant to use part whole-wheat flour in Bobby's muffins as I had done in Dorie's, but I forgot when the time came. I don't think that would have changed out vote, however, and I intend to make the Mesa Grill muffins with part whole wheat flour next time.

I'm glad that Bobby redeemed himself on the rematch!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

{Adventures in Yeast} #2 - Dan Lepard's Stollen

One of the most enduring fixtures of the Christmas season in Germany is the traditional Christmas cake, stollen. This is a sweet yeast bread that is filled with dried fruits and is flavored with Christmas spices. The outside is coated with a thick layer of powdered sugar, which is said to be a representation of the Christ Child in His swaddling clothes. By tradition, the stollen weighs 4 pounds and is often filled with a marzipan center.

I've tasted stollen over the years, and have always enjoyed it. Sometimes stollen can be a bit dry, but it always has great flavor. Legend has it that stollen originated in Dresden in the 1400's. Dresden even has a special Stollen Festival each year.

Although I did not make it to Dresden on my most recent trip to German in December (I've been there previously) I saw lots of stollen at the bakeries and Christmas markets. My hotel in Berlin even had a special little shop set up in the lobby to sell Dresden stollen.

My suitcase was too full to bring any stollen back from Germany with me, and I didn't give any thought to the possibility of baking my own until I saw this recipe for Dan Lepard's Extra Moist Stollen (recipe here, forum discussion here). It seemed like the thing to bake on a quiet winter's day in the week between Christmas and New Year's. Although my yeast-baking experience consisted entirely of (1) Kugelhopf for TWD and (2) the King Arthur English Muffin Bread, I jumped right into the deep end and tried this recipe.

noe notes:

- For the mixed-in fruit, I used golden raisins, unsulfured currants, and citron. (I didn't have mixed peel but have lots of citron) I macerated the raisins and currants in warmed dark rum, and used water where the recipe called for rum.

- I grated lime zest because I was out of lemons.

- At the Christmas market in Berlin I bought some orange flavored marzipan, which was perfect for this recipe. I filled one end of the stollen with the marzipan and left the other end plain.

- The recipe gives a choice of rye or wholewheat flour to add to the dough; I chose rye flour.

- I used instant yeast.

- I baked it at 350 degrees on a cookie sheet lined with a silicone mat. After baking for the prescribed 35 minutes the stollen was still raw on the bottom, and the internal temperature was somewhere under 150F.

- At that point I turned the oven to 'convect' and took the stollen off the cookie sheet, baking it directly on a cooling rack set on the oven rack so the heat would reach the bottom. I baked it until it registered 185F on an instant read thermometer (I lost track of the time but maybe between 15 and 30 additional minutes?) I declared it "done" and took it out of the oven.

- After letting it cool, I gingerly sliced into the loaf. As a whole it was very dense, yet moist. The very center was still a bit undercooked.

the verdict:

My word, this stollen was amazing. My husband and I LOVED the flavor and rationed it out over several days' time. He preferred the end without the marzipan, and I have to say that I agree. Daughter A.L.E. was home at the time I baked it and there was some flavor in it that really bothered her. We've sort of narrowed it down to the cardamom, so if you aren't a fan of that spice, leave it out.

Every time I looked at it I had this sense of unreality: Did this creation really come from my kitchen? I can see how yeast baking can be totally addictive!

By far the best part of making this stollen (aside from how GOOD it was) is the level of support that I personally received from Dan Lepard, on his baking forum. I posted a couple of questions, and he answered them quickly and completely. I asked him about the way my stollen baked up and learned that I should have used a smaller baking pan or a baking stone (and I think a higher oven temperature). Thanks, Dan!

I plan to bake this again - Christmas season or not - and will make the adjustments Dan suggested. I'll wait a little while before diving in that deep again, though! In the meantime, I'll take a giant step back and take baby steps in further yeast adventures.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

{TWD} Surprise: It's Not-So-Hidden Berry Trifle!

From the moment on December 23, when I saw this cake was chosen, I had a bad attitude. Absolutely no offense meant to Mary Ann, of Meet Me in the Kitchen (one of my favorite bloggers and one of my favorite blogs!), who chose the recipe. It's a cool-sounding recipe and we're going to bake it anyway at some point, since we're baking the entire book! But I was cranky about this cake.

I just couldn't get my head around a plan for this cake. My holiday baking commitments were filled by other recipes. The finished product pretty much needs to be eaten the day it is assembled, and it can't be frozen. I couldn't find an occasion to serve the thing.

My springform pans were not the right size. This recipe calls for an 8" pan that's 3" deep. I didn't want to buy a new pan for a recipe that I knew - given its hefty quantities of cream, eggs, and cream cheese - that I would probably not make very often, if ever again.

And I didn't want to make a mini, because if I were going to bake this recipe, darn it, I wanted the full effect. But I couldn't see the two of us eating the whole cake. And, nope, there still wasn't an occasion on the horizon for this cake.

Plus, this recipe wasn't the easiest thing ever. It has four different elements that are made separately. Then the cake is carved up, hollowed out, brushed, coated, filled, covered and topped. And, there's no picture of this creation in the book.

Why, yes, I'd love some cheese with all that whine!

This cake was going to take awhile to make, and then it needed to be eaten right away. This was not something I could make and also prepare a dinner for guests. Not if I wanted to keep my sanity. Nope, I needed to bring it somewhere, as my sole contribution to an event.

Then I remembered the invite I'd received to our bi-monthly neighborhood supper club. A perfect occasion. But when I called the hostess of the event, she told me that there were already three desserts coming, and could I bring a side dish instead?

Rats! Back to whining.

I've never missed a recipe since I joined TWD in July, and this wasn't going to be my first. By now I was up to last week. Ultimately I decided to bake this for a friend who needed to be cheered. I had just a few hours to pull the cake together, and it needed to be gluten free for her. From the ingredient list it seemed like a decent plan at the time. This cake seemed to be all about the eggs, with just a bit of flour, so I thought I'd try it, using Bob's Red Mill gluten free flour mix.

Using some volume calculations (yes, more math) I found that my large silicone loaf pan was the approximate size as the pan the recipe specifies - and it was more than 3" deep. I thought that would be a cute shape to hide a surprise filling, the silicone pan would release the cake so I wouldn't need a springform, and the cake would make great slices. (Visualize success)

And it was then that I read the cake's actual directions. And saw that Dorie refers to the eggs as "divas". But I forged ahead.

Making the actual cake part was fascinating. I've never made a genoise (this type of spongy cake) or used this technique before. So I stirred the eggs and sugar in a bowl that sat in a skillet of simmering water. Sugar dissolved, eggs warmed, no problem.

Beating the egg mixture was also pretty cool; I found I needed to use speed #6 on my KA mixer. The volume increased, but I'm not sure I ever really got the exact kind of "ribbons". Overall, so far so good. The divas seemed to be cooperating.

All light and fluffy. Now to sift in the flour and pour in melted butter while coddling the diva eggs. The flour seemed to sink, but I tried to gently coax the divas to play nice. The batter tasted grainy - which is the problem I noticed Bob's gf flour the only other time I used it . But it had a good flavor, so I determined to remain optimistic.

While the cake baked, I whipped up the filling (ha ha, that's a pun!), and prepared my berries. I used a combination of blackberries and strawberries.

But although the cake did rise at bit, it fell and sank as it baked. Given its rectangular shape, it was truly a brick. No, it was more like a paving stone - the tallest part probably wasn't even an inch. There was no way I could make the Berry Surprise with such a flat cake.

This was made in a loaf pan, not a sheet pan!

So on to Plan B:

In the book Dorie waxes eloquent about the cake's whipped cream filling, and how you could just eat it with a spoon. So I'd make a spoon dessert from this recipe. It looked like I could salvage a bit of the cake and use it as a layer for trifle.

When I cut into the cake I could see huge pockets of dry flour that had never gotten incorporated. The center was so compressed it looked like it had been stepped on. I was actually too disheartened by the sight to document it photographically.

But I was able to salvage enough edge bits of cake to layer the bottom of a 7" glass bowl. These were tough and rubbery, but they were at least spongy. Then I spooned on a layer of the filling, spread a layer of berries, then another generous layer of filling. I never even made two elements of the recipe (the syrup and the topping)

the verdict:

Amazingly, this turned out to be pretty good. My celiac friend was ecstatic to have a delicious dessert that she could eat. I went back for seconds myself, and then left her with the remainder.

The filling was nowhere near sweet enough. 1T of sugar didn't make much of a dent sweetening 6 0z of cream cheese and a ton of cream. I'd add more sugar and some vanilla next time. I don't think this was the right cake to experiment with gluten free substitutions. Those diva eggs needed just the right support from their flour, I guess.

Although I'd like to master this technique - eventually - it will be a looooong time before I'm ready to tackle this cake again. But until then I know how to make a lovely trifle!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Basler Brunsli: flourless chocolate spice cookies

In light of the frigid weather that has gripped so much of the country, including here in Georgia where we had a low of 12 degrees the other night, I thought I'd sneak another winter cookie post in here.

Gourmet Magazine has assembled a fantastic compilation of favorite cookies from 1941-2008, the one best cookie recipe from each year of Gourmet's history. You might be a little burned out on cookies (!) but when you're ready to think about cookies again, check out the site! There are lots of cool cookies there, but I was especially intrigued by one recipe, for a spiced flour-less chocolate roll cookie. A.L.E. and I baked these over Christmas, and we had a lot of fun with "winter sky" cookie cutters - snowflakes and star shapes that I'd purchased at the German Christmas markets. The recipe shows these as heart-shaped cookies, and had we cut any that way I would have saved this for a Valentine's post!

I especially like that shooting star shape, which I see everywhere on Christmas decorations in Germany, but not really here in the US.

Cooks' notes:

- We added a pinch each of salt and black pepper

- We used half Trader Joe's almond meal (very finely ground) and half almonds ground in our food processor (not as finely ground).

- We did not add any water. When the mixing got tough, we worked the rest of the dough by hand.

- Scoring the dough with a fork (before cutting the cookies out) was remarkably easy and we thought it looked really cool on the cut cookies.

the verdict:

These had a sandy texture from the almonds, and just a hint of spice notes behind the chocolate flavor. A.L.E. and I liked them. J.D.E. didn't care for them very much, and my husband is allergic to chocolate. We didn't serve these to many people (I saved some for my gluten-free friend) because it took me awhile to photograph them. Luckily, thanks to TWD baking and my freezer, I had plenty of Christmas cookies around.

I really like that these cookies do not have any flour. The cookies got a bit harder with time, but I continued to like their flavor. I'd recommend using finest ground almonds for smoother texture. Also, use your best quality chocolate because it shines in these cookies, and if, hypothetically speaking, you end up eating them all yourself, you'll be glad you used the good stuff.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

My very own Red Chili Throwdown: Bobby Flay vs America's Test Kitchen

Above: Bobby Flay
Below: America's Test Kitchen

I didn't set out to have a chili throwdown. Really, I didn't. Most accurately, this is an ex post factum match-up of two recipes that were in my draft folder.

I've cooked chili over the years, but I've never had a recipe for a good solid red chili. When we were in the mood for chili, most of the time we'd cracked open a bag of Carroll Shelby's chili mix. Just add 2 lbs of beef, a can of tomato sauce, and some water, and you've got chili in less than half an hour. You can customize your chili by adding as much or as little as you want of the included masa flour (thickening), salt, or cayenne pepper. Or you can get fancy and jazz it up, adding your own extra tomato, or onions, peppers, beans, cheese, etc. We've never had any complaints about good ole' Carroll Shelby's chili.

But I did want a standby chili recipe. As I've browsed the food blogisphere, I've planted various bookmarks, not to mention real paper bookmarks in some of the cookbooks on my shelves.

The one I decided to try was a Red Beef Chili recipe from the "Chili" episode of the Food Network's Throwdown with Bobby Flay. It sounded delicious (and had a bunch of rave reviews), and might be a fantastic special-occasion chili (this is not a contradiction in terms!) I made the chili back in November, but in between my trip to Germany and the holiday crush I never got it posted.

Recently another red chili caught my eye: in my America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook there's a recipe for Weeknight Slow Cooker Chili. It sounded easy (and good) so I cooked it right up to eat alongside the Extra Spicy Corn Muffins that I baked for TWD.

When I realized that I had these two separate draft posts about chili, I decided to combine them. In each recipe I used ground beef and pretty much the same combination of chili powders, so there is actually a decent base of comparison. Throwdown time!

I will describe and give a verdict for each of the chili recipes separately and then at the end of the post, I will give an overall verdict.

Bobby Flay Red Beef Chili
cook's notes:

- This recipe was more complicated than I'm usually willing to cook. It called for 4 kinds of chili powder alone. After running all around town, I had accumulated an assortment of chili powders - none of which really matched what he specified. I decided to add them in, and hope for the same complexity of flavor. (I haven't seen the TV episode with his chili, but I'm guessing I was supposed to grind my own from the different chiles? Or source them at some obscure online chili powder emporium?)

- The ingredient list also includes 5 different chile peppers including prepared ancho chiles (that had to be separately pureed). I had better luck locating the peppers.

Here are the many different peppers, all chopped up and ready for the pot
- I used a 14.5 oz. can of diced tomatoes with mild green chiles, because I had one that I'd opened by mistake. I drained them and pureed them in the blender.

- I substituted ground beef for the cubes of bottom round beef. It was in the freezer. I debated buying new beef, but ultimately decided if I loved the chili's flavor then next time I'd go the extra mile with the beef.

- The chili was pretty thin so I sprinkled 1/8 c. masa flour to thicken the chili slightly

- The chili recipe doesn't call for any beans (Texas style), but we like them so I added some canned pinto beans.

the verdict - Bobby Flay's chili:

This recipe took a ton of time, and featured plenty of hard to find ingredients. We liked it but didn't love it. My husband said, "in the realm of all possible chili recipes this falls in the middle." Not enough of an endorsement for me to make it again!

It could be that I really missed out by not using Bobby's formula of magic special chili powders, but here's my opinion: If, after my best efforts at several specialty stores, and every pan in the kitchen dirty, I only end up with average chili, this is not the recipe for me.

America's Test Kitchen Weeknight Slow Cooker Chili

After Bobby Flay's fancy chili didn't pan out, I was back in the market for a chili recipe, preferably something just a tad easier. It took me a while before I could actually face cooking chili again, but when the savory corn muffins came up as a January TWD pick, I decided the time was right for more chili experimentation.

I figured if anyone was going to have a good, reliable chili recipe it would be the America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook. This 3-ring binder- style volume has got some great basic recipes, all backed by that exhaustive ATK testing.

The biggest draw? The recipe looked good, could be made in a crock pot, and was easy. Very easy. Already this recipe had an advantage over Bobby Flay! (In the Family Cookbook there's actually another slow cooker chili recipe that's an even closer match to Bobby Flay's, but I was in the market for simple this time)

cook's notes:

[edit: I just realized that I didn't give any info about the ATK recipe. Their recipes aren't generally available for free online, but here's a summary of ingredients: 2 T. vegetable oil, 2 chopped onions, 1 chopped red bell pepper, 1/4 c. chili powder, 1 T. cumin, 1/2 tsp cayenne, salt, 6 minced cloves of garlic, 2 lb 85% lean ground beef, 1 28 oz can tomato puree, 1 28 oz can diced tomatoes, 2 15 oz cans red kidney beans, rinsed. Everything gets cooked on the stovetop before being added to the slow cooker.]

- I made 1/2 recipe

- Again I decided to use beef from the freezer. This time I had just 3/4 lb 'chili ground' beef (instead of the 1 lb that I should have had for a half recipe). The recipe specifies no leaner than 85%, because the long cook in the crock pot would toughen a leaner grind of beef. I don't know the fat content of the beef I used, but I could tell from looking at it that it was plenty.

- I didn't have any bell pepper, so used a large jalapeno in place of the half bell pepper.

See the three different chili powders? Each had a distinctive flavor.
- I mixed 3 different kinds of chili powder - pretty much the same ones that I'd used for Bobby Flay's red chili:
Urban Accents Mesa Rosa Chipotle
Urban Accents Rio Grande Chili Blend
Whole Foods 365 Valle del Sol Chili Powder
- My pantry search netted tomato sauce but no puree. The internet informed me the two products are similar in texture and close to interchangeable, so interchange I did. Since I only had 3/4 of the meat, I reduced the tomato sauce a little bit.

- The chili cooked on high for 3 1/2 hrs and low for 1 hr.

- A full recipe would have filled my 4 quart slow cooker - maybe too full.

the verdict on America's Test Kitchen chili:

We found this to be a great basic red chili, and it will become my chili for everyday and for chili-type entertaining. It doesn't save any dishes, or really any prep time over most other chili recipes, but the slow cooker really does meld the flavors and smooth the textures, while providing an easy way to set up the food in advance and have a fabulous hot meal later.

Winner of the Throwdown:

The crock pot chili soundly whupped Bobby Flay's chili. It was easier, used far fewer dishes, and still benefited from the variety of flavors found in the three chili powders. Someday I'll grind all my own chiles, but until that time, this chili recipe will be a fantastic way to use up all that specialty chili powder that I bought! It's good with or without a corn muffin...

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

{TWD} Extra Spicy Corn Muffins

After lots (and lots) of sweet food - homemade and otherwise - over the Christmas holidays, it was very refreshing to have a savory pick for this week's Tuesdays With Dorie assignment. Thanks so much to Rebecca of Ezra Pound Cake (her corn muffin post here) for choosing Savory Corn and Pepper Muffins!

cook's notes:

We're big fans of spicy food, so I amped up the heat for these muffins. I also made some changes to improve their nutritional profile:

- I used 6 T butter and substituted 2 T fat free Greek yogurt for the rest of the butter. This cut the fat content and provided a great moistness to the muffins.

- My flour was a white/whole wheat blend. I figured the extra heartiness of the whole wheat would match the savory ingredients of these muffins.

- Dorie says to add chili powder to taste - in my case 2 tsp. Of the stash of chili powder in my spice cupboard, the stuff I bought at Fresh Market tasted like it would be the best for adding to muffins - it was the mellowest. Since jarred chili powder is a mixture of spices and chile peppers, its flavor can vary quite substantially.

- There was no bell pepper in my fridge, so I used 1/8 c. canned green chiles and 1/4 c. chopped scallions (the light green parts).

- I used a red finger hot pepper instead of a jalapeno.

[edit: I chopped my frozen corn kernels because I don't like whole corn in my muffins.]

- It was extremely tempting to add some cheese, but I figured I'd better leave well enough alone!

- I tasted the dry ingredients after I whisked them and I could tell the muffins would be too sweet for us. Without getting too mathematical (!) here's what I did: I added another round of all the dry ingredients (except the sugar), divided the mixture in half (thank goodness for digital scales), and baked one recipe’s worth. I found that with half the sugar, they still have a hint of sweetness but it didn’t ruin the muffins for me. I actually like sweet cornbread just fine (and also un-sweet cornbread), but I figured less sweet would fit with all of the savory and hot ingredients I had stirred into the batter.

the verdict:

I served these muffins straight from the oven with some chili (two chili recipes will be posted on Wednesday, I hope). They were moist (I think the yogurt helped), not too sweet, and packed quite a flavor kick with the hot peppers, scallions, and extra chili powder. The whole wheat paired quite well with all of the savory and hot ingredients I'd stirred in. We thought the muffins were perfect!

By the day after I baked these, the chili powder had "bled" at bit. I thought the muffins looked like they had the chicken pox.
I popped the leftover muffins in the freezer and pulled them out a few days later for Sunday brunch, accompanying my version of Huevos Rancheros - essentially eggs scrambled with onions, hot peppers, salsa and cheese (my secret ingredient is Asiago cheese, which gives a great sharp edge to the eggs). I re-warmed the muffins and they were great with the eggs. This recipe is a winner in our book!

I'm excited to have a bag of the dry ingredients all ready to whip up another batch of these yummy muffins.
You can find the recipe for these treasures on page 6 of of Dorie Greenspan's wonderful book Baking From My Home to Yours., or on Rebecca's post for these muffins. To see a bunch more corn muffin posts, check out the blogs of TWD blogroll. We're up to 388 members now (!) and there are sure to be lots of muffins out there.

Monday, January 12, 2009

A few links and some thoughts

A very happy K-dog
I spent most of yesterday wrestling with a 22.5 lb turkey. My wonderful farm box folks had some extra (frozen at this point) organic turkeys available, so I ordered one. I picked it up Wednesday, and by this afternoon it was (mostly) thawed. I roasted it the way I did my Thanksgiving turkey. This was for two of us, mind you! It tasted nearly as good as the first time, I'm happy to report. After dinner I got to finish carving the beast, put up the drippings, boil the neck and innards for the dogs, and try to put my kitchen back together. That was one heavy bird and I ended up all tuckered out. (Not to mention that I'd been trying to clean the attic while it roasted.) Now all I have to do is make the stock. My freezer will be very happy when all is said and done.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that nearly all of my unsalted butter (which is a lot, thanks to all that Tuesdays With Dorie baking) and eggs come from my farm box orders. I love cooking with these fresh ingredients!

The New Year has had me thinking about this blog. My plan is to try posting 4x/week:
early Tuesdays (Tuesdays With Dorie baking post),
late Wednesdays,
early Fridays (often Tyler Florence Fridays), and
Saturday or Sunday
This works out to about once a week less than my hitherto usual posting rate. I've got about 40 partially written posts in draft stage, so even if we eat bread and water for the next 10 weeks I'll still be able to post as if I were busy cooking away! I'm hoping to participate in some more "roundup" type blog cooking events. I've enjoyed Tyler Florence Fridays and also Presto Pasta Nights, and I have my eye on a few others.

That being said, here is a stray Monday post. But it's not for anything I've cooked (unless you count that 22.5 lb bird, that is). I want to share a few links that I've been saving for you all. The first two are courtesy of one of my new favorite food folks, Dan Lephard.

1. Back in November, Dan gathered tips from 30 rather prominent folks in the baking world, and published them on the Guardian website. It makes for a fun read.

2. He followed up with a contest for the best baking tips from his readers. The tips are contained in the comments on this post and Dan announced the winner here.

3. One of the New York Times' most viewed stories for 2008 was called "The 11 Best Foods You Aren't Eating" - imo January is a perfect time to recommit to healthy eating habits and now I know what to put on the grocery list! I've actually heard about the health benefits of most of these foods, and have tried to incorporate them into our diet when possible. But after the holiday rich food marathon, I'm ready for clean living!

Actually, S-dog, it's a little cold for an open door!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Pasta All'Aglio e Olio

I've made this classic Roman dish, many times, from different cooks' recipes (but really, this is a simple pasta, so there's not a whole lot of difference how it's done). This time I thought I'd try Mark Bittman's Linguine with Garlic and Oil, from his book How to Cook Everything (a Christmas gift), and use his Fresh Herb variation. Here's his recipe which includes some of the variations, but not the one I chose, so here's the Fresh Herb variation: (from the book)

[you skip the parsley in the basic recipe, and] "When the garlic is done, toss in a mixture of 1 cup or more fresh herbs, whatever you have on hand.... The mixture will absorb all the oil, so, ... when you toss it with the pasta, be sure to add more oil or some of the pasta-cooking water. Garnish with more chopped herbs."

cook's notes:

- My olive oil of choice for this dish was a nice Spanish (shh!) one.

- I threw in a generous shake of hot pepper flakes. We love our food good and spicy. You can add as much or as little as you'd like.

- I chopped a scant cup of: basil, sage, oregano and thyme. About half was basil, with a tablespoon or so of each of the others. I didn't have time to chop any more herbs or I would have used a bit more, and would have saved some for garnish.

- My pasta was done just a few minutes before my oil+herbs so I stirred in some olive oil and some of the pasta water.

- Just before tossing the pasta into the oil and herbs, I added in some pre-toasted pine nuts (I keep these in my freezer). I contemplated adding some bacon lardons (I also keep these in my freezer) but decided that would be overkill. If you add untoasted pine nuts, put them in the pan and toast them before cooking the garlic.

- This recipe works with any pasta shape. I had some that I was dying to use, and this recipe was a perfect vehicle for it.

the verdict:

This was a really good weeknight dinner for us, combined with an arugula, tomato and parmesan salad. It would have been good with even more herbs, but I ran out of time to strip and chop them. The pine nuts were a great addition and the bacon a good omission.

Since blog cooking roundups seem to work for me, I'm going to try something new, and submit this dish to Presto Pasta Nights. This week's host is Ivy of Kopiaste. I've got to thank the creator of PPN, Ruth of Once Upon a Feast, who makes it all happen! To see some fantastic pasta dishes, hop over to Ivy's blog on Friday and view this week's Roundup.

Friday, January 9, 2009

TFF: Salt and Pepper Salmon

I'm almost embarrassed to post about this recipe for Salt and Pepper Salmon because it is dead easy, and took me 10 minutes start to finish. But I was thrilled to learn the technique, and the results, well, just read on!

cook's notes:

- If you have salmon, you have the ingredients you need for this recipe (salmon, salt, pepper, olive oil, and butter). I did an internet search for "Tyler Florence" and "salmon" and minutes later I was on my way. The most complicated thing was pulling out a few pinbones (well, OK, a lot of them).

- I used some wild-caught previously-frozen sockeye salmon.

- Tyler seems really big on getting the skin nice and crispy. None of us actually ate the skin, but it certainly scored high on the crisp-o-meter.

the verdict:

The three of us loved this fish and finished every morsel; not much left for the poor doggies. The salmon was beautiful in presentation and delicious in flavor. The oil and butter paired nicely and who knew salt and pepper could be the perfect way to season salmon?

This recipe is most definitely a keeper!

I've got to extol the virtues of Tyler Florence Fridays! It is the easiest cooking group ever - members each get to choose a recipe and can participate each week or not. We can even post on any day we choose - the TFF roundup is posted each Friday and if you've posted that week you're included. How cool is that? Very cool, I say, especially since Tyler Florence's recipes are scrumptious!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

{Adventures in yeast} #1 - KA English Muffin Bread

Baking the Kugelhopf with TWD back in November was a milestone for me. I realized that I did not need to be terrified of yeast; indeed yeast is my friend (at least Saf-Yeast red label instant yeast is). I vowed right then and there to bake more with yeast and started bookmarking recipes to try. I even ordered myself a bread book for Christmas.

When I checked my email bright and early the day after Christmas, I found the following missive from King Arthur in my Inbox:

While the SALE sounded intriguing, it was the "favorite toasting bread" that REALLY caught my attention! I followed the links to a Baker's Banter blog post for some wonderful-sounding perfect toasting bread (recipe here). What an ideal opportunity to try the new beater blade for my mixer and to test my new resolve to bake with more yeast! How can I resist a "test kitchen favorite": a one-rise, no-knead, yeast bread?

cook's notes:

- I love making recipes that are featured on Baker's Banter! There are step by step instructions! With pictures of each step! Pretty much foolproof, thankfully.

- My dough was pretty thick and sticky - it didn't look as liquid as the KA pictures. The mixer worked pretty hard at high speed with the beater blade attached. In fact, the friction from the blade tightened the mixer's bowl onto the base - I had a bit of a struggle to get it detached!

- I put it on the stovetop to rise under the halogen lights of the vent hood. It rose to the proper height at about 35 minutes (rather than the 45-60 minutes the recipe noted).

- My daughter A.L.E. suggested I put a pan of water in the oven while it preheated and during the bread baking, to encourage the bread to be as crusty as possible.

- The bread is supposed to bake for 20-22 minutes and 190 degrees internally. At 22 minutes the interior of my loaf registered 186.5 on the instant read. I put it back in oven for 3 more minutes, but then it was nearly 200 degrees :(

- Luckily it was still beautiful :)

- I brushed it with melted butter and popped it right out of the pan.

- It is supposed to cool completely before cutting. Boy, that was a tough wait!

the verdict:

Wow, we have loved this bread! It really is delicious for toasting. And easier to make than most quick breads!

I posted a question on the KA blog and learned that a slower rise might produce a slightly tastier bread. This led me to move my bread-rising spot to a regular kitchen counter, where it is warm enough but not too warm. My interior kitchen stays pretty cozy, apparently, especially in the mild weather we've had here lately.

This recipe is destined to become a regular feature in our kitchen. I've actually made several batches of this bread since Christmas, and have given loaves away to friends and family. I've even branched out just a little bit. Here's a picture of a loaf with a blend of white and whole wheat flours:

Bread with mysterious hole
The only real trick to baking this bread is to make sure you have a 90 minute stretch where you'll be home. It takes very little hands-on time, and not much waiting around either. I've found that it works to make it in the evening - around or just after dinner - and it will be cooled and fresh for breakfast the next morning!