Archive for December, 2009

When I was young and my parents took me and my brother out to eat, I always ordered the french onion soup.  I loved the thick layer of cheese melted all over the top and flowing over the edge of the bowl.  The scalding hot broth beneath that blanket of bread and cheese always, always burned my mouth, but I loved it.

This version definitely wasn’t created with kids in mind.  The base calls for 1/2 cup each of port, white wine, and brandy.  But the deeply caramelized onions, rich broth, crusty croutons, and melted cheese make for an utterly delicious meal.

French Onion Soup

Adapted from Staff Meals from Chanterelle

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 tablespoon canola or other vegetable oil

5 large onions, peeled and sliced lengthwise (about 5 cups)

1/2 cup port

1/2 cup dry white wine

1/2 cup brandy

1/2 teaspoon sugar

8 cups beef or chicken broth

Coarse (kosher) salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Crisp croutons (directions below)

Freshly grated Gruyere or Parmesan cheese

1.  Combine the butter and oil in a medium-large stockpot and heat over low heat.  Add the onions and cook, uncovered, until brown but not crisp, about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Increase the heat to medium-high and cook the onions, uncovered, stirring often, to further brown and caramelize them, 5 to 10 minutes more.

2.  Stir in the port, white wine, and brandy and bring to a boil over high heat.  Cook, uncovered, until reduced by half, about 5 minutes.  Add the sugar and stock [I also added a dollop of Dijon mustard and some dried thyme] and bring to a boil , then lower the heat to a simmer.  Cook the soup for 1 hour to allow the flavors to blend.  Taste and season with salt and pepper.  Serve, making sure each portion has a healthy amount of luscious onions.  Top with the croutons and grated Parmesan.

Making crisp croutons

To make croutons, trim the crust from day-old bread.   I use a good sturdy peasant-style bread, but any kind you have on hand will do.  Dice the bread into 1/2-inch cubes and toss with enough melted butter or olive oil (or, best of all, garlic oil) to coat, but not drench, the croutons.  Sprinkle lightly with salt, spread out the croutons on a rimmed baking sheet or a jelly-roll pan, and bake in a preheated 350 degree oven until just golden brown, about 15 minutes.  Halfway through the baking, give the pan a shake to ensure that the croutons are toasting evenly.  The secret of good croutons is to make sure they’ve dried out all the way through without becoming too browned.  If they’re browning too quickly, lower the oven temperature to 300 degrees.  When they’re done, remove the pan from the oven.

Cool the croutons completely and store in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.

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When it comes to baking, I spurn shortcuts.  Box mixes, frozen pie dough, rolls that pop from a cylinder — they don’t work for me.  This was proven, yet again, on my daughter’s 3rd birthday.

Around the time of her birthday, my house, in effect, turned into a cupcake factory.  The girl had three different birthday parties: one celebration with family (trip to the zoo, coconut cupcakes with cream cheese frosting); one at preschool (vanilla cupcakes with sprinkles); and one with her weekly playgroup friends (bouncy house in the backyard… and more cupcakes).  By the time we reached the third and final party of her ‘birthday week,’ I was homemade-cupcake-ed out.

So I went to the grocery store and bought a yellow Duncan Hines cake mix.  It pained me to do so, but it was time to be practical.  I pulled out the mixer and sighed with relief at the directions.  Add vegetable oil and eggs.

I should mention that, at this particular moment in history, I was also on a kick with homemade, deep-fried fish and chips.  So much so that I occasionally saved some of the frying oil to re-use.  (Waste not, want not, eh?)  I should also mention that the used fried fish oil was stuffed way back in a shadowy corner of the pantry and not well-labeled.  Sooooooooo….

I’m spooning the quick and easy, box-mix batter into the cupcake tin, and my husband wanders in.

“Do these smell funny to you?” I asked.  “This batter smells funny.”

My husband inhaled the batter and stared into the bowl.  “Yeah, that smells very funny.”  He glanced at the used measuring cups and ingredients scattered around the kitchen island.  “Um.  Which oil did you use?”

“Vegetable oil, just like it says on the package.”

“This vegetable oil?” he inquired.  He held up the container still sitting on the counter, and I noticed for the first time that it didn’t have a label on it.

“Yeah,” I said, weakly.  “That one.  Why?”

My husband, the minimalist.  Who needs glaring black permanent marker labels that say “Warning!  Stop!  Oil for fried fish only!”  Isn’t life already too crowded with fear-mongering and obtrusive marketing?  A real Henry David Thoreau, he is.  And so, he decided that the used fish oil container would be the one without a label.  Simple, restrained, elegant.

I dumped the fried fish cupcakes into the garbage, pulled out my favorite vanilla cupcake with cream cheese frosting recipe, and made my daughter’s third (well, fourth) and final batch of birthday cupcakes from scratch.

See?  Shortcuts just don’t work for me.  And yet, I took a shortcut on this pecan pie, and I’m not happy about it.  To save time, I bought a refrigerated pie crust.  My pre-packaged crust drooped around the edges, like a wilted flower.  And it didn’t taste particularly good, either.  The semi-homemade route just isn’t my thing.

The pecan pie filling was quite good.  I wanted the classic flavor, and therefore didn’t add the optional cinnamon, espresso, or chocolate.  And perhaps for that reason, the pie was a tiny bit bland.  I might toast the pecans, or add espresso and a splash of Kahlua, or a bit of molasses, or bourbon.  In any event, I will definitely make my own pie crust next time.  And the recycled fish oil program has been terminated.  With extreme prejudice.

Thanks to Beth of Someone’s in the Kitchen with Brina for choosing this pecan pie.  You can find the recipe on her site or on page 327 of Baking: From My Home to Yours.

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I unwittingly discovered the perfect use for Dorie’s cafe volcano cookies this past weekend.  Road food.  As trail mix is to hikers, these cookies are to long-distance drivers.  Each cookie is basically a handful of nuts held together by sugar and espresso powder.  Since my long drives are usually fueled by coffee and Snickers bars, this snack fit the bill.

How did I discover these make perfect road food?  My husband and I planned a weekend trip to visit his family in Florida this past weekend.  His sister had a baby in October and we hadn’t met her yet.  So we packed up the kids and the dog, and headed south on I-95 for the 650-mile trek.  To keep everyone happy, I packed a little container of these cafe volcano cookies.

On the morning of our drive, my 2-year-old son woke up later than usual, which was odd.  As we picked up our coffee and bagels at a local bakery, he sneezed a bit more than usual.  Four hours into the drive, his eyes were watery and his nose was running.  Yup, another cold.  The CDC should really put a monitor on this boy, because I’m certain that all viruses in the Southeast run through his little body at some point in their life cycle.  We called my husband’s family in Florida to break the news and, with enormous regret, they told us to turn around.  The newborn baby has had a number of serious health issues since her birth and she can’t be around anyone who’s ill.

So we turned the car around just north of the Georgia border and I was thankful for two things.  First, they seem to have torn down at least 90 percent of those ridiculous South of the Border sign that littered I-95 all these years.  And second, I had a good stash of these little nuggets of almonds, sugar, and espresso on our epic drive to nowhere.  Every now and then, particularly while passing by the same cotton field or run-down motel we’d seen earlier that day, I’d pop another cookie and be good for at least 100 miles more.

When my husband and I got home, we put the kids to bed, and I asked: “What just happened?”  The whole thing was absurd, surreal.  My husband said, “I had a nice day with you today.”  I stared at him for a full  minute without speaking, and then thought about how we’d spent this Beckett play of a day.  The four of us, plus the dog, were all crowded together in the car, noshing on bagels and cream cheese, listening to great music on the iPod, flipping through Richard Scarry books.  Occasionally, we’d stop to walk the dog or let the kids stretch their legs.  And, of course, we had the cookies for sustenance.  Light, crispy, nutty, crunchy.  Against all reason, my husband was right.  That surreal day in the car turned out to be rather sweet.

Thanks to MacDuff of the Lonely Sidecar for selecting these cafe volcano cookies.  You can find the recipe on his site or on page 153 of Baking: From My Home to Yours.

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This past month I started a new job, my husband and I purchased a new house (with a mid-January move-in date), and, oh yes, the holidays are here.  My to-do list looks a lot like Jack Kerouac’s manuscript for On the Road.  (How he managed to write that entire novel in 20 days and on a single, 120-foot long scroll, I’ll never know.  Well, I do know.  Unwholesome doses of coffee and amphetamines.  Maybe he was on to something there….)

In any event, time is tight.  Happily, these sable cookies have few ingredients and a simple set of directions.  Cream the butter… add sugar, flour, eggs, and salt… chill the dough… bake.  We were attending a potluck dinner this weekend and I needed to bring something, so, as one of my new colleagues likes to say, I decided to “re-purpose” these cookies.

And yet, when they came out of the oven — rich, buttery, and edged with festive sparkly sugar — they somehow didn’t feel like a potluck kind of dessert.  They’re lightly crisp and crumbly, mellow, perfect for an afternoon tea.  But this hungry crowd of six adults and five children would need something more substantial.  I thought about filling each cookie with Nutella or raspberry jam, to give them a little more oomph; but when I tried to pry loose the cookies I baked on a plain tray, without a silpat, they started to break into shards and crumbles.  In my haste to get them all baked at once, instead of one batch at a time (as Dorie specifies), I effectively dashed any hope of bringing them to the potluck.

So I made a batch of my favorite Baked brownies.  My friend’s son, mid-way through his brownie, announced: “These brownies are better than Halloween candy!”  The sables are way better than Halloween candy, too.  And my haste certainly didn’t make waste.  We’ve eaten them happily, both plain and filled with  jam, all weekend long.  Which is a good thing, because we need extra fortification to face that task list.

Thanks to Barbara of Bungalow Barbara for selecting these simple, elegant, snackable sable cookies.  You can find the recipe on her site or on pp. 131-133 of Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: From My Home to Yours.

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