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The past few months, my cooking has changed.  It’s not that I’m cooking any less often, it’s just that my cooking is much more opportunistic (last week’s post is a perfect example) and limited in scope.  Fettuccine Alfredo.  Spaghetti Carbonara.  Grilled flatbread topped with whatever’s getting old in the refrigerator.

I gaze longingly at my long-neglected recipes for homemade gnocchi, brioche, and other favorites that require patient, loving, or sustained attention.  I check out Bon Appetit’s Fast, Easy, Fresh cookbook from the library, and even these recipes seem overly time consuming.  I miss long, leisurely days moving about the kitchen, but cooking just doesn’t rank very high on my priority list at the moment.

Thank goodness for no-knead bread.  The only drawback is the flip side of its greatest strength.  The recipe is so simple, it’s easy to forget to make it.   More often than not, I’ll climb into bed, read a little bit, and it hits me.  Ugh.  I forgot to make bread.  It happens so frequently, I’ll just heave a sigh and say, “Shoot.”  And my husband will say, “Oh.  Yeah.  We forgot to make a bread.”  He’ll put on his robe, go downstairs into the kitchen, and mix the dough.  It takes under five minutes, but still . . . what a guy, huh?

If you haven’t tried Jim Lahey’s no-knead bread, what are you waiting for?  It’s the best, crusty, old-world bread you’ll ever make at home without 1) perfecting old-world techniques and 2) owning specialized equipment.  We make a loaf at least once every week or two, and if you buy Lahey’s book, you’ll find endless variations on the original loaf.

It takes just a few minutes to make the dough, then it rests overnight.  The next day, you shape it, let it rise a bit, then bake in a very hot oven.  It couldn’t be easier — just remember to make the dough before you go upstairs to bed.  Or marry a really good guy.  🙂

No-Knead Bread
Adapted from Jim Lahey, My Bread: The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method

3 cups all-purpose or bread flour, more for dusting
¼ teaspoon instant yeast
1¼ teaspoons salt
Cornmeal or wheat bran as needed.

1. In a large bowl combine flour, yeast and salt. Add 1 5/8 cups water, and stir until blended; dough will be shaggy and sticky. Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let dough rest at least 12 hours, preferably about 18, at warm room temperature, about 70 degrees.

2. Dough is ready when its surface is dotted with bubbles. Lightly flour a work surface and place dough on it; sprinkle it with a little more flour and fold it over on itself once or twice. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest about 15 minutes.

3. Using just enough flour to keep dough from sticking to work surface or to your fingers, gently and quickly shape dough into a ball. Generously coat a cotton towel (not terry cloth) with flour, wheat bran or cornmeal; put dough seam side down on towel and dust with more flour, bran or cornmeal. Cover with another cotton towel and let rise for about 2 hours. When it is ready, dough will be more than double in size and will not readily spring back when poked with a finger.

4. At least a half-hour before dough is ready, heat oven to 450 degrees. Put a 6- to 8-quart heavy covered pot (cast iron, enamel, Pyrex or ceramic) in oven as it heats. When dough is ready, carefully remove pot from oven. Slide your hand under towel and turn dough over into pot, seam side up; it may look like a mess, but that is O.K. Shake pan once or twice if dough is unevenly distributed; it will straighten out as it bakes. Cover with lid and bake 30 minutes, then remove lid and bake another 15 to 30 minutes, until loaf is beautifully browned. Cool on a rack.

Yield: One 1½-pound loaf.

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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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It wouldn’t be thanksgiving in my family without at least two or more post-thanksgiving dinners of hot turkey sandwiches.  I look forward to these almost as much as the main event.  My mom always makes a ton of gravy, so we’re set for several nights. Even so, there comes a point when you’re scraping the bottom of the gravy pan, and it’s time to move on.  But what about the leftover turkey?

Last year I discovered a recipe for delicious after-thanksgiving turkey enchiladas.  They’re a perfect way to reinvent leftover turkey so that it feels like a completely different meal.  All of a sudden, the turkey is smothered in tomatoes and smoky chipotle peppers, served with a side of guacamole, and a cold glass of beer.

This year, I went in a different direction and made turkey pot pie with herb biscuits.  I’ve been wanting to try this recipe for quite some time, but I rarely have leftover chicken or turkey around the house.  The carrots, peas, and mushrooms band together to make a creamy base, then it’s topped with light, flaky herb biscuits and a sprinkling of parmesan cheese.  The original recipe uses chicken, and I’ll leave the directions just as they were written, so you can make this dish any time of year.  It’s comfort food at its finest.

Turkey pot pie with herb biscuits
Adapted from the Foster’s Market cookbook

Ingredients

1 (4- 4 1/2 pound) chicken
12 Fosters Herb Biscuits, uncooked (see below for recipe)
6 Tablespoons butter
4 carrots, peeled and chopped
4 celery ribs, chopped [I substituted an onion for the celery]
8 ounces fresh button mushrooms, thinly sliced
1/4 cup all -purpose flour
1 box (10 ounces) frozen green peas
1 Tablespoon fresh sage, chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
1 Egg
2 Tablespoons milk

1. Place chicken in a large pot and add enough water to cover by 1 inch. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer until meat is fully cooked, about 45 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare biscuits and set aside.

2. Remove chicken from pot and reserve 5 cups cooking liquid. When chicken is cool enough to handle, pull off meat in large chunks. Set aside.

3. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Melt butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat and add carrots, celery, and mushrooms. Sauté, stirring frequently, about 10 minutes. Add flour and cook, while stirring, until flour is light brown, 3 to 4 minutes. Slowly whisk in reserved cooking liquid and bring to a low boil while whisking. Add peas and sage. Season with salt and pepper, reduce heat, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until thick, 10 to 15 minutes.

4. Add chicken meat, remove from heat, and transfer mixture into a 9- by 13-inch baking dish. Top with biscuits. Beat egg and milk together and lightly brush over biscuits.  Sprinkle parmesan cheese over the biscuits.  Bake potpie until biscuits are golden brown and chicken mixture is bubbling around edges, 25 to 30 minutes. Serve immediately.

Herb Cheddar Biscuits
Adapted from the Foster’s Market cookbook

Makes 1 dozen 2 1/2-inch Biscuits

3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 pound (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
1 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese [I omitted the cheddar cheese and just sprinkled parmesan on top]
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley [I also added 2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon and 2 tablespoons chopped chives]
1 1/4 to 1 1/2 cups buttermilk
Egg wash: 1 large egg beaten with 2 tablespoons milk

1. Preheat the oven to 425°. Lightly grease a baking sheet and set aside.

2. Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a large bowl.

3. Cut the butter into the flour mixture using a pastry blender or two knives, until mixture is coarse and crumbly and resembles coarse meal. Stir in the cheese and parsley.

4. Make a well in center of flour mixture, pour in milk, and stir with a fork just until dough comes together. Do not overmix. Turn onto a lightly floured surface, and form the dough into a flat round disk.

5. Pat or roll the dough into a circle about ½ inch thick. Cut out biscuits using a floured 2 1/2 -inch-round cutter. Do not twist cutter. Transfer biscuits to the prepared baking sheet and brush with the egg wash. Place in the oven and bake until brown, 12 to 15 minutes. Serve hot.

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We had days and days of cold and rain here in North Carolina this past week.  So much rain that my kids’ weekly playgroup was cancelled.  The ever-intrepid dad in the group suggested an outing.  But one mom said she was making homemade applesauce with her son.  Another said she and her son were too cozy at home to face the wind and rain.  Uncertain whether to brave the elements or embrace the warmth of home, I settled on the latter.  We turned on the gas fireplace, pulled out some old home movies, and made a batch of sugar-topped molasses spice cookies.

The cookies were just meant to provide an afternoon activity, really.  My son runs the KitchenAid mixer like a pro (though he’s overly fond of the higher settings and tends to “take a mile,” as they say).  My daughter has a lighter touch and specializes in sifting, cracking eggs, and rolling dough.  But with the winds whipping the trees so their silvery undersides were showing and the rain pelting against the windowpane, I began to wonder if this might become one of those days my kids will remember for a long time.  The warm fire, home movies, and the sweet spice of freshly-baked cookies perfuming the entire house.  That’s my idea of home.

As it happens, the cookies were wonderful.  When baking with my children, I keep the expectations low so they can play around.  Otherwise, I’d be hovering over them on each step, carping about spills, slowing down the mixer (again), and generally extracting all the joy out of baking.  So, in this case, my son most definitely overbeat the dough and my daughter spilled a bunch of the dry ingredients in her overzealous sifting, but these cookies weren’t bothered in the least.

They were soft, chewy, with an intense flavor of spice and musky sweetness from the molasses.  Well, mine were soft and chewy.  The recipe suggests that you flatten the balls of dough before placing them in the oven — to create a flat, crisp cookie — but I skipped this step.  I’m a sucker for soft and chewy.  Again, I have to give a plug to David Lebovitz for creating the perfect accompaniment to these cookies: cinnamon ice cream.  I’d post the recipe, but you must own The Perfect Scoop by now, right?

Chock full of ginger, cinnamon, allspice, and a few grinds of black pepper, I wondered if my kids would find these cookies too intense.  No worries on that count.  We all sat together on the couch, noshing on molasses spice cookies and marveling at how time flies, and it was a perfect afternoon.  Just before bedtime, of course, my kids tore off all the couch pillows and staged a series of acrobatic moves to rival any high-flying act of Cirque du Soleil.  Inevitably, they bonked heads, dissolved into tears, and my husband and I slowly carried them upstairs to bed.  Just one rainy, blustery day… but maybe they’ll remember.

Thanks to Pamela of Cookies with Boys for choosing these sugar-topped molasses spice cookies.  You can find the recipe on her site or on pp. 76-77 of Baking: From My Home to Yours.

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I’ve never been entirely clear on the many varieties of fruit desserts, though I love their silly names.  Grunt, slump, crumble, crisp.  To be honest, I’d rather have pie.  Or, better yet, this chocolate cake.  Only recently have I begun baking my way through the wide world of fruit desserts with crumbly toppings.  It started this summer when my friend (and fabulous baker) Michaela brought over the ingredients for a peach and blueberry cobbler.  We worked on the cobbler together in the kitchen while our husbands played with the kids outside.  With a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream on the side, it was the best dessert of the summer (and I learned all about the wonders of powdered buttermilk).

That wave carried me into fall where I made plum crumble with ginger ice cream, and that became my favorite dessert of the year.  Cobbler for summer, crumble for autumn, and now Tuesdays with Dorie brings a crisp.  Despite my newfound love affair with fruit desserts, I still had my doubts.  I’ve had crisps before, and I know crisps.  In general, I’m not a fan.  Even straight from the oven, they have a stale quality, like eating a week-old oatmeal cookie, that leaves me wanting something else.

So I entered this week’s Tuesdays with Dorie challenge with low expectations, and I did what I could to keep it interesting.  Instead of using apples and cranberries, I substituted fresh pears, apricots, dried cherries, and golden raisins.  And the topping called for a good bit of coconut, which I adore, so this recipe had serious potential.

Not so.  The crisp came out of the oven, I let it cool, added a dollop of whipped cream, and tasted.  Week-old oatmeal cookie.  Big time.  I ate a few more bites, then pushed it across the table for my husband to finish.

“You don’t like it?” he asked.

“Eh,” I said.  “Not really.”  He happily finished my crisp.

Fast forward 24 hours.  My husband suggests that we make vanilla ice cream.  I pull out The Perfect Scoop and note a few flavors I’ve wanted to try, including toasted coconut.  He leaps at the chance, in part because he’s on a mission to prove that he doesn’t hate coconut (god love him).  For 17 years, I’ve had a low- to no-coconut rule in effect, because he doesn’t like the texture.  He’s ok with coconut milk or coconut flavor in the abstract, but he’s horrified by the little chewy flakes.  I, on the other hand, never had a birthday as a child without a coconut cake covered in those divinely chewy flakes.

I hasten to add that this toasted coconut ice cream is steeped in coconut, but the coconut flakes are strained out.  So my husband toasted a lot of coconut (and even put a flake or two between his teeth, all the while grimacing like a man gnashing through penicillin), steeped to his heart’s content, then strained every last molecule of solid coconut from that custard.  You’ve never seen such a perfectly smooth custard in your life.  Let’s just say my husband would have done very well for himself during the gold rush.

At any rate, that evening we pulled out the crisps, again, this time with a generous scoop of toasted coconut ice cream on top (and, in my case, a few extra toasted coconut flakes sprinkled on the ice cream).  I’m telling you, it was a revelation.  The dessert was amazing.  And it dawned on me that all of my new favorite fruity friends — the cobbler, the crumble, and now the crisp — were topped with delicious homemade ice cream.  That just may be the secret.  Unlocked.  Fruit desserts with whipped cream.  Eh. Fruit desserts with ginger ice cream, toasted coconut ice cream, or the granddaddy of them all, salted caramel ice creamTranscendent.

So.  A note to all fruit-neutral kindred spirits out there.  Before you bake that grunt or slump or crumble or crisp, make sure the freezer is stocked with some interesting ice cream.  And marry a man who’s willing to pretend he doesn’t hate coconut, just for you.

Toasted coconut ice cream

Adapted from The Perfect Scoop

1 cup dried shredded coconut, preferably unsweetened
1 cup whole milk
2 cups heavy cream
3/4 cup sugar
Big pinch of salt
1 vanilla bean, split in half lengthwise
5 large egg yolks [I used 4 egg yolks and it was great]
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract, or 1 teaspoon rum

Method
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C). Spread the coconut on a baking sheet and bake for 5 to 8 minutes, stirring it frequently so it toasts evenly. Remove it from the oven when it’s nice and fragrant and golden brown.

2. In a medium saucepan, warm the milk, 1 cup of the heavy cream, sugar, and salt and add the toasted coconut. Use a paring knife and scrape all the vanilla seeds into the warm milk, then add the pod as well. Cover, remove from the heat, and let steep at room temperature for 1 hour.

3. Rewarm the coconut-infused mixture. Set a mesh strainer over another medium saucepan and strain the coconut-infused liquid through the strainer into the saucepan. Press down on the coconut very firmly with a flexible rubber spatula to extract as much of the flavor from it as possible. Remove the vanilla bean halves (rinse and reserve them for another use), and discard the coconut.

4. Pour the remaining 1 cup heavy cream into a large bowl and set the mesh strainer on top. In a separate medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks. Slowly pour the warm coconut-infused mixture into the egg yolks, whisking constantly, then scrape the warmed egg yolks back into the saucepan.

5. Stir the mixture constantly over medium heat with a heatproof spatula, scraping the bottom as you stir, until the mixture thickens and coats the spatula. Pour the custard through the strainer and stir it into the cream. Mix in the vanilla or rum and stir over an ice bath until cool.

6. Chill the mixture thoroughly in the refrigerator, then freeze it in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

***

Thanks to Em of The Repressed Pastry Chef for selecting this apple-cranberry crisp that transformed into a pear-cherry crisp with toasted coconut ice cream.  You can find the recipe on her site or on page 422 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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