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Archive for October, 2009

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I’ve made so many brownie recipes in my lifetime, there should really be a separate 3-ring binder to keep track of them all.  Ideally, my notebook would include all the recipes, ranked from best to worst, with detailed notes on why they succeeded or failed.  Otherwise, I’m at risk for making the same so-so brownies more than once, and that would be a darn shame.  Life’s too short for mediocre brownies.

At the moment, I have two reigning champions.  In the deep, dark, rich, fudgy, perfect chocolate brownie category, there’s the Baked brownie.  In the buttery, nutty, gooey, perfect blondies category, we have Bobby Flay’s blondies (which, unforgivably, I haven’t photographed or written about yet).

These cherry-fudge brownies with a sweetened whipped cream topping are dark, dense, and fudgy, studded with dried sour cherries.  The recipe calls for a hefty shot of black pepper — utterly unexpected and totally delicious.  I’ve been drawn into the sea salt frenzy this past year, whipping up batches of sea salt caramels, salted caramel ice cream, and even sprinkling a little extra salt on chocolate chip cookies before they go into the oven.  It was nice to give the old sidekick, black pepper, a chance to shine.

These brownies offered a nice change of pace, but they will not unseat my beloved Baked brownies.  And that’s a disappointment and a relief, both.  I find comfort in returning to a well-loved family recipe, the one written out by hand on an index card, spattered and stained, annotated, amended.  The Baked brownie may well become such a treasure.  And yet, I equally love the discovery of a new recipe that surpasses all other versions.

Cooking is a quest, for those of us who love it, with endless opportunities to improvise, experiment, rise and fall, succeed or fail.  It can provide immense pleasure as a solitary pursuit in the pre-dawn hour or as a bustling enterprise where one generation stands alongside another to learn the special touch or secret ingredient or, simply, to experience the pleasure of chopping, stirring, and mixing, elbow to elbow.  And when we all sit down together at the table, Virginia Woolf describes it best:

“Now all the candles were lit up, and the faces on both sides of the table were brought nearer by the candlelight, and composed, as they had not been in the twilight, into a party round a table, for the night was now shut off by panes of glass, which far from giving any accurate view of the outside world, rippled it so strangely that here, inside the room, seemed to be order and dry land; there, outside, a reflection in which things wavered and vanished, waterily.  Some change at once went through them all, as if this had really happened, and they were all conscious of making a party together in a hollow, on an island; had their common cause against that fluidity out there . . . Of such moments, the thing is made that endures” (To the Lighthouse, 97, 116).

Thanks to April of Short + Rose for selecting this cherry-fudge brownie torte and giving me a reason to pull out my dusty, but cherished, copy of To the Lighthouse.  You can find the brownie torte recipe on her site or on pp. 284-285 of Baking: From My Home to Yours.

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When my husband and I met in graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, we ultimately managed to create a more perfect union; but we came at it from entirely different points of view.  He came from Florida, and announced to all of his friends and family that he was going “up north” for a Ph.D.  I was born and raised in the Northeast and a little hesitant about going “down south” for graduate school.

I distinctly remember hanging out in the graduate student lounge one afternoon, musing aloud about the sticky, humid nights that never cooled off properly, the ominous kudzu twining around trees, and the strange ritual of undergraduates dressing up for football games (who wears a tie to a football game?), when a native North Carolinian and fellow student cut me off with an abrupt, “Well, then, go home, Yankee.”  Yikes.

I’ve since settled in Chapel Hill, and over the years I’ve grown rather fond of the temperate year-round climate (as long as I can spend the summer in Maine…), the relaxed pace, and, of course, southern food.

This recipe for sweet potato biscuits reflects two southern staples rolled into one.  It gave me a chance to use some local sweet potatoes, which are plentiful at my local farmer’s market, and the low-protein flour so widely available in the south.  And I had biscuits!  Hot from the oven, this is one of my favorite southern treats: cream biscuits with homemade jam; herb biscuits with bacon, egg, and cheese; buttermilk biscuits slathered with butter.

Dorie suggested that we use canned sweet potatoes in syrup, but I couldn’t bring myself to do that.  So I baked the sweet potatoes and mashed them with a fork.  They gave the biscuits a pretty orange hue without making them heavy.

These are soft, with a light and tender crumb, and they’re a nice combination of savory and sweet.  My husband and I had ours with cheddar corn chowder and that was great, but really, who needs to pair biscuits with anything at all.  Just eat them straight from the oven with some good butter.  Come to think of it, these would be great for a fall football tailgating party.  Just remember to wear your high heels….

Thanks to Erin of Prudence Pennywise for selecting sweet potato biscuits.  You can find the recipe on her site or on page 26 of Baking: From My Home to Yours.

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Sometimes you wake up and it’s a cinnamon roll morning.  And when you’re in that frame of mind, the yeasted dough, with it’s achingly long rise, is not an option.  No, you have to have cinnamon rolls in the next 30 minutes.  This is the recipe for you, and it is not courtesy of the Pillsbury dough boy.  These cinnamon rolls are delicious and they come together as quickly as you can make a batch of biscuits.  I was afraid they would be vastly inferior than their rich, brioche-based cousins — too craggy, crumbly, or dry.  Not at all.  These are sweet, tender, gooey, and fast.  The recipe is loosely based on a quick biscuit recipe from Moosewood Restaurant New Classics and an amazing cinnamon sugar filling and creamy glaze from The 150 Best American Recipes. For me, it’s the perfect quick cinnamon roll recipe.  Ready, set, bake!

Quick Cinnamon Buns from Heaven

Yield: 9 cinnamon rolls

Cinnamon-Brown Sugar Filling

* 3 tablespoons butter, melted
* 1/4 cup brown sugar
* 2 teaspoons cinnamon
* 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
* 1/2 cup golden raisins or currants (optional)

Biscuit Dough

* 2 1/2 cups unbleached white flour (use low-protein flour, like White Lily or Red Band)
* 2 tablespoons brown sugar, packed
* 2 teaspoons baking powder
* 1/2 teaspoon salt
* 1/2 cup buttermilk
* 1 cup plus 1 tablespoon heavy cream

Creamy glaze

* 3 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled
* 1 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar
* 3/4 teaspoon vanilla
* 2-4 tablespoons hot water

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

2. For the filling: In a small bowl, combine the brown sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg. Set aside.  In another small bowl, melt butter.  Set aside.

3. For the dough: In a large bowl, stir together the flour, brown sugar, baking powder and salt. Add 1 cup cream and 1/2 cup buttermilk, and stir until the dough forms a ball, about 1 minute. With your hands, fold the dough over a few times in the bowl, until the dough is smooth.

4. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Lightly flour your hands, and pat the dough into a 1/2-inch-thick rectangle, about 9 X 13 inches. Brush the surface of the dough with the 3 tablespoons of melted butter. Sprinkle evenly with the cinnamon sugar topping.  top the cinnamon sugar with the raisins, if you’re using them.

5. Starting from the long side, roll the dough into a cylinder. Slice into 9 equal rounds. Place the rounds, cut side down, into an ungreased 8-inch square baking dish or a pie plate. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until the biscuits are lightly browned.

6. To make the glaze:  In a medium bowl, combine the melted butter, confectioners’ sugar, and vanilla.  Add the water 1 tablespoon at a time until you have a spreadable glaze.  (This makes a lot of glaze, so cut back if  you like it less sweet.)  Spread the glaze over the buns and serve warm.

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My good friend’s husband recently calculated how many meals he has left before, well… before it’s too late.  He came up with a number, in part, as a way of importuning his wife to amp up the home-cooked meals, to make ’em count.  I sympathize with the guy, and I’ve had a version of this same thought myself.  Mine wasn’t focused on the number of meals I have left.  But I occasionally lament the wonderful food (or wine) I might never get to try in my lifetime either because I haven’t heard of it or, worse, never got around to it.

It occurred to me again, recently, when I first tasted Vietnamese coffee.  I just couldn’t believe that 1) I’d never had it before and 2) I almost turned it down that afternoon, again.  I adored it.  I went out and bought myself a Vietnamese coffee maker.  I checked Vietnamese cookbooks out from the library. I made Vietnamese coffee ice cream.  It was a revelation.  But it was a near miss.

In a way, the same can be said for ingredients that I use, but never really attend to in any meaningful way.  Take allspice.  I’ve used it in plenty of pies, muffins, and quick breads.  It’s the wallflower of spices: a quiet, unassuming little companion to cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves.  The other spices all have distinct individual identities (in my experience).  I grew up eating buttered toast with cinnamon and sugar.  I’m unusually sensitive to nutmeg and instinctively cut back on the amount recommended in baked goods and creamy pasta dishes.  I can’t think of Christmas at my parents’ house without remembering the smell of oranges studded with cloves.  But allspice?  It’s just along for the ride.

So it was a pleasure to make muffins that feature allspice as the main ingredient.  It has its own sweet, spicy bitterness that combines the best of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves, and it deserves a shot at star billing.

My allspice received particularly close attention, because I only had dried allspice berries in the house, so I had to grate each one on my microplane.  I promise you’ll never forget the taste of allspice again after spending a good portion of the morning grating these tiny berries, with your nose inches from the grater, fingers micro-centimeters from being shredded.  If you’re looking to achieve zen-like mindfulness in the kitchen — or perhaps its opposite, depending on your temperament — this is a good hobby.

These muffins were subtle, delicate, and lightly sweet.  I tend to like muffins very moist, so a bit of sour cream in the batter would have been a welcome addition.  And I forgot, as usual, to lightly press the streusel into the batter, so it didn’t stick particularly well.  But these muffins are the perfect vehicle for most any spice and it has me thinking it would be fun to make them again with cardamom, mace, star anise.  So many spices, so little time.

Thanks to Kayte of Grandma’s Kitchen Table for selecting allspice crumb muffins.  You can find the recipe at her site or on pp. 16-17 of Baking: From My Home to Yours.

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Hands down the best fruit dessert I’ve made all year: sweet, lightly-spiced plums topped with a chewy, crunchy, cookie-like crumble.  The topping is crustier than a cobbler, chewier than a crisp, and as soon as we finished the first one, I wanted to make a second. So I did!  With apples.

Served warm and topped with lightly-sweetened whipped cream or vanilla ice cream, this is a lovely dessert.  I didn’t have any candied ginger for the filling, so my husband made ginger ice cream to serve on the side.  Smart guy.  Good husband.

I liked the plum crumble best.  My husband liked the apple crumble best.  It looks like we’ll just have to rotate between the two… on a weekly basis.  Or maybe we’ll just keep experimenting until we find the perfect fruit for this crumble.  Next up, I’m thinking pears and dried cherries.  Maybe a little caramel sauce drizzled on top….

Plum Crumble
Serves 6 to 8

12 purple Italian or prune plums, cut in half and pitted (or 6 large plums, quartered)
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons plus 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon plus 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
2 heaping tablespoons finely chopped candied ginger (optional)
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 egg, well beaten
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
Vanilla ice cream, ginger ice cream, or whipped cream

1. Place plums in medium bowl. Heat oven to 375 degrees, with rack in center.

2. In a small bowl, thoroughly mix brown sugar, 1 1/2 tablespoons flour, 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon, ground ginger and the (optional) candied ginger. Add to plums and mix well. Arrange plums skin side up in an ungreased, deep 9-inch pie plate.

3. In a small bowl, combine granulated sugar, baking powder, remaining flour and cinnamon and the salt. Mix well. Stir in egg. Using hands, mix thoroughly to produce little particles. Sprinkle over plums.

4. Drizzle butter evenly over crumb mixture and bake 30 to 35 minutes. Crumble is done when top is browned and plums yield easily when pricked with cake tester. Remove from oven and cool.

5. Serve crumble warm or refrigerate for up to two days or freeze, well covered. If reheating, bring to room temperature, then warm at 300 degrees.  Serve with ice cream.

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Ah, yes, pride goeth before the fall.  I’ll admit it.  For the last year or so, I’ve been walking around (swaggering is more like it) under the impression that I had mastered pudding.  My days of broken, curdled, or overly-thickened pudding were over.  I’d forged a straight line from apprentice, to journeywoman, to master.

Now I’m beginning to wonder if the concept of mastery applies in the kitchen.  Does Dorie Greenspan still make puddings that break or curdle or refuse to set up in the fridge?  I mean, if she’s standing there watching it, being careful, can that still happen?  Eh, probably not.  But it happens to me.

I suppose, in a way, that’s what keeps us coming back for more.  Sure, we can open up a box of powdered pudding mix, add cold milk, and get creamy results every time.  But where’s the fun in that?

I’ll take the occasional broken-down pudding or dried-out cake or soupy pie filling — much as I hate it when that happens — because that’s part of the deal when you cook from scratch.  Baking is elemental, old-fashioned, mysterious, and it can’t be rushed or faked.

Having said all that, my pudding this week was perfection.  Smooth, creamy, silky…. Yeah, right.

The top vanilla pudding layer was too loose.  The bottom chocolate ganache layer was too thick.  Each spoonful presented a dark, sludgy bog topped with slippery, sliding clumps of vanilla.  Strangely enough, if you closed your eyes and ignored the screwy texture, it tasted lovely.  I happen to adore the combination of vanilla pastry cream and chocolate ganache (think eclairs, Boston cream pie, Napoleons).  So I highly recommend this dessert to pudding masters everywhere.  As for this apprentice girl, I’ll just have to try, try again.

Thanks to Garrett of Flavor of Vanilla for selecting this split level pudding.  You can find the recipe on his site or on pp. 384-385 of Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: From My Home to Yours.

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I always feel a little sheepish when I order chicken tikka masala at an Indian restaurant.  It feels like such an obvious choice, like ordering sweet and sour chicken at a Chinese restaurant or Pad Thai at a Thai place.  But most of the time I can’t help myself.  It’s so good.

It never occurred to me to make it at home until I came across a Cook’s Illustrated recipe that called for ingredients I already had on hand: cumin, coriander, crushed tomatoes.  The only remotely exotic ingredient is garam masala, and the recipe offers a simple substitute for that spice combination.  Now I can make it at home, and free myself up to order something more exciting when I go out for Indian food.

Oh, and remember to serve this with coconut rice.  Prepare basmati rice as directed on the package, but substitute one cup of coconut milk in place of one cup of water.  It’s heavenly.

Chicken Tikka Masala

Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated

This dish is best when prepared with whole-milk yogurt, but low-fat yogurt can be substituted. For a spicier dish, do not remove the ribs and seeds from the chile. If you prefer, substitute 2 teaspoons ground coriander, 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom, 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon, and 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper for the garam masala. The sauce can be made ahead, refrigerated for up to 4 days in an airtight container, and gently reheated before adding the hot chicken.

INGREDIENTS

Chicken Tikka
1/2  teaspoon  ground cumin
1/2  teaspoon  ground coriander
1/4  teaspoon  cayenne pepper
1  teaspoon  table salt
2  pounds  boneless, skinless chicken breasts , trimmed of fat
1  cup plain whole-milk yogurt (see note above)
2  tablespoons  vegetable oil
2  medium garlic cloves , minced or pressed through a garlic press (about 2 teaspoons)
1  tablespoon  grated fresh ginger

Masala Sauce
3  tablespoons  vegetable oil
1  medium onion , diced fine (about 1 1/4 cups)
2  medium garlic cloves , minced or pressed through a garlic press (about 2 teaspoons)
2  teaspoons  grated fresh ginger
1  fresh serrano chile , ribs and seeds removed, flesh minced (see note above)
1  tablespoon  tomato paste
1  tablespoon  garam masala (see note above)
1  (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
2  teaspoons  sugar
1/2  teaspoon  table salt
2/3  cup  heavy cream
1/4  cup  chopped fresh cilantro leaves

1. FOR THE CHICKEN: Combine cumin, coriander, cayenne, and salt in small bowl. Sprinkle both sides of chicken with spice mixture, pressing gently so mixture adheres. Place chicken on plate, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 30 to 60 minutes. In large bowl, whisk together yogurt, oil, garlic, and ginger; set aside.

2. FOR THE SAUCE: Heat oil in large Dutch oven over medium heat until shimmering. Add onion and cook, stirring frequently, until light golden, 8 to 10 minutes. Add garlic, ginger, chile, tomato paste, and garam masala; cook, stirring frequently, until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Add crushed tomatoes, sugar, and salt; bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in cream and return to simmer. Remove pan from heat and cover to keep warm.

3. While sauce simmers, adjust oven rack to upper-middle position (about 6 inches from heating element) and heat broiler. Using tongs, dip chicken into yogurt mixture (chicken should be coated with thick layer of yogurt) and arrange on wire rack set in foil-lined rimmed baking sheet or broiler pan. Discard excess yogurt mixture. Broil chicken until thickest parts register 160 degrees on instant-read thermometer and exterior is lightly charred in spots, 10 to 18 minutes, flipping chicken halfway through cooking.

4. Let chicken rest 5 minutes, then cut into 1-inch chunks and stir into warm sauce (do not simmer chicken in sauce). Stir in cilantro, adjust seasoning with salt, and serve.

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