Friday, December 23, 2011

Two-berry Pie and Adventures in Frying

Just before Thanksgiving, I read an article on Huffington Post called "Five reasons not to fry a turkey." As you might imagine, the reasons were all safety related (no one ever says skip the fryer because it doesn't taste as good). I relayed the warnings to my husband who was waffling between frying a turkey and making a turducken (which is not to say I was pushing for the turducken, I just felt VERY nervous about frying a turkey). Travis was undeterred. He had decided to fry a turkey and didn't have a shred of concern that our house, dog, lawn, etc. might go up in flames. I suppose for the same reason that I am unfailingly confident in my ability to put together any piece of Ikea furniture, no matter the size or complexity, with only the help of that little 2D marshmallow man making hand signals. Sometimes people just feel invincible.

This year we decided to host Thanksgiving at our house with a few friends - our first official T-day as hosts. In addition the fried turkey de résistence, we had honey ham & poblano macaroni and cheese, homemade mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, cranberry salsa, roasted sweet potatoes with peppers and onions, salad with candied walnuts, blue cheese and cranberries, and green beans with french fried onions (Thanksgiving is not complete without french fried onions). We had just five adults for dinner, but I think we made enough food to feed our entire block, including pets and loiterers. Though I can't think of a single dish that I could have done without.  
For dessert, we joined forces with a bunch of friends who were hosting their own Thanksgivings for visiting families. For me, Thanksgiving dessert is about pie. Pie at least three ways. Since others were bringing pumpkin pie and apple desserts, I decided on a berry pie. My Aunt Mary Ellen makes this wickedly delicious grape pie, but I think it's pretty complicated and I already had a lot going on in the kitchen. (I know, grape pie, it sounds weird, right? But it's made with concord grapes and is perfectly sweet and tart and rich all at the same time. Someday, I'll make you a believer.) Berry pie is the opposite of complicated. It's like "hi, I'm the easiest pie since ever." Especially when you cheat and use a crust mix.

When I first started blogging, I felt like I had to make everything from scratch (in fact, my very first blog recipe was an apple pie that included a scratch crust). But I got over that quickly. And wouldn't you know, my most popular post is the mint oreo cupcakes that came from a box (I recently learned that a woman made them for her wedding!! To that woman: I am so flattered and hope they were a hit.). So to my fellow bakers who appreciate a shortcut, enter boxed pie crust. You just add water and roll out. And I swear on my mother, it's as good as any pie crust you can make from scratch.
With the time I saved making pie crust, I made a beautiful lattice top. In terms of wow factor, you get a lot more bang for your buck with a lattice top than a scratch crust. The rolling pastry cutter pictured above was super quick and easy to use, but certainly not necessary (one option available here). If you don't have a pastry cutter, just use a pizza cutter.

And now to recap our Thanksgiving festivities (even though we're two days shy of Christmas at this point) . . . 

Inside, the fire was going and the table was set.
Outside, we were putting on a minor spectacle in our yard. How often do you walk by an industrial-sized fryer bubbling away in your neighbor's yard, while they lounge around watching it like a television set? Oh, never? Weird.
The removal of the bird from 35 lbs. of 350 degree oil was definitely most exciting part. I'm happy to report that no limbs were lost and no skin grafts were required as a result. Though there may have been some casualties in the way of shrubs.
He's like a surgeon.
Back in the mines, we finished up our sides. In case you were wondering, it in fact takes three educated adults to transfer sweet potatoes from one ceramic dish to another, plus one to photo-document.
The anticipation! You can't see it, but Jenny is actually tearing up.
And finally, closing the holiday with the expanded team.

Two-berry Pie

1 pie crust recipe for a 2-crust pie (this recipe or this shortcut)
4 cups raspberries and/or blackberries (4 of the smallest plastic containers or 2 pint-sized containers)
2/3 cup sugar plus sugar for sprinkling

1/8 tsp. salt
1/4 cup cornstarch
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tbsp. butter, cut into chunks
2 tbsp. milk or cream

Prepare pie crust and divide into two sections (one slightly larger chunk of pie dough for the bottom crust and a smaller section for the top crust; 60%/40%). Wrap the smaller section tightly in plastic wrap and set in the refrigerator. Roll out larger section into a circle and place in your pie pan. Cover loosely with a damp paper towel to keep from drying out.

Mix together sugar, salt and cornstarch. Toss berries gently in sugar/cornstarch mix. Add lemon juice. Spread berry mix into pie crust. Place butter chunks evenly over berry mix.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Remove reserved pie crust and roll into a circle. Place second crust over berries and roll the edges inwards, sealing the top and bottom crusts together. (Or try your hand at the lattice.) If using a full top crust, make 4-8 slits in the crust to allow steam to escape. Brush milk or cream over the top crust and sprinkle generously with sugar.

Bake at 425 for 15 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 375 and bake for another 25 minutes. Check pie with 10-15 minutes remaining to see if crust is fully browned. If so, place a piece of aluminum foil over top of the pie for the remainder of baking time.

Note: My pie came out with some extra liquid bubbling up. One nice feature of a lattice crust is that you can pour the extra liquid out once the pie cools.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Whole Wheat Pumpkin Bread w/ Maple Cinnamon Glaze

Sigh. This past weekend was about as good as they come. It was three days long, the weather was UH-mazing, and my usual haunts were crawling with pumpkins. I freaking love pumpkins. I want to buy a thousand of them and cover my yard with the orange beauties so that everyone walking by can taste the fall in the air and feel flashes of subconscious nostalgia for trick-or-treating as a kid. Halloween is my favorite holiday (as evidenced here), despite the painful memories of the year that I had a short haircut and my parents dressed me as a skeleton and all of our neighbors thought I was boy. I was 7; it left scars.

But back to the present. I spent Saturday gloriously baking and cleaning and walking my pup. She and I took a stroll over to Eastern Market to pick up some home-grown yellow tomatoes and basil (which later came together in a super-fresh pasta dish with a little olive oil and cherry peppers). I can't say it enough, but the weather was so good. I'll say it a million times to show the weather gods how much I appreciated it. Hot weather that runs into October is what gets me through those garbage months later on (I should probably just move to Arizona and be done with it). So I was strolling along, loving the heat and loving my dog and just loving life. Then I see what I can only describe as a heartstoppingly beautiful pumpkin. Charlie Brown would have died. So I bagged it up and lugged it home (seriously lugged - between the tomatoes and pumpkins and dog, getting home took all my energy and coordination).
I had the perfect pumpkin centerpiece. Then it was on to the perfect pumpkin dessert. I looked at gobs of recipes for pumpkin bread before crafting my own. The most popular recipe floating around the internet calls for 1-1/2 cups of sugar per loaf. Now, I clearly am not one who shies away from using sugar. I bake sweet treats like it's my j-o-b. But, as I've said before, there's no point in putting boatloads of sugar in a baked good where you don't need it. I would wager that if you pitted my recipe (3/4 cups of sugar and 3/4 cups unsweetened applesauce) against a recipe with 1-1/2 cups of sugar, mine would win. And even if it didn't win (though this is doubtful), it wouldn't be because of the missing sugar. Save your sugs for when they really count.
This recipe produces a moist, dense quick bread. Not something airy or crusty or crumbly. "Quick bread" is a catch-all term for breads that don't use yeast to rise (and hence are more like your typical baked good than actual bread). E.g., banana bread, corn bread, zucchini bread, soda bread, biscuits. I wanted something so moist that it's almost mushy on the inside - just like the banana bread that my mom used to make when I was a kid. 

The whole wheat was an experiment. I used half whole wheat and half all-purpose, but you wouldn't even know it was part whole wheat. Next time, I'll go whole hog on the whole wheat and see what happens. In the meantime, don't hesitate to try this recipe - which is tasty-central - or to experiment with your own ideal pumpkin bread recipe!

Whole Wheat Pumpkin Bread w/Maple Cinnamon Glaze 

Makes one loaf

Pumpkin Bread
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 tsp. salt
1-1/4 cups canned pumpkin
2 eggs
3/4 cups packed brown sugar
3/4 cups unsweetened applesauce
3/4 cups vegetable oil 

2 tbsp. low-fat cream cheese (same as neufchâtel), room temperature
2 tbsp. pure maple syrup
pinch cinnamon

This recipe is easy peasy. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Mix your dry ingredients - the first 8 ingredients, not including the brown sugar (brown sugar is sticky and won't distribute evenly when put directly in dry ingredients). Mix together wet ingredients plus brown sugar. Add dry to wet, mixing just enough to incorporate. Pour batter into a greased loaf pan (or a pan lined with parchment paper that hangs over the edge on two sides for easy removal). Bake at 350 for 50-55 minutes. Top should be just starting brown at the crevice (there's always a crevice in quick breads) and a toothpick should come out clean. I baked for exactly 55 minutes.

While bread cools (for 15-20 minutes), whisk together cream cheese, maple syrup and a few good shakes of cinnamon. Make sure cream cheese is at room temperature, otherwise it won't incorporate with the syrup very well. While bread is still warm, pour the glaze down the center of the bread and spread to edges gently with a spatula. 

Garnish with your favorite decorative pumpkins.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Caramelized Onion and Eggplant on Toasts

Home cookin' is great. But so is restaurant food (I'm sure I don't need to tell you that, America). There's a reason your mouth waters when you walk down streets crowded with restaurants. And it's no coincidence that the restaurant industry is raking it in (taking in an estimated $604billion in 2011).

Yes, one reason is because lots (but not all) of restaurants use all sorts of extra fats and sugars and flavor additives that you would never dream of stocking in your kitchen. But another reason, the part I prefer to think about, is because restaurants have professionally trained chefs who know how to use ingredients. They know the go-to ingredients that always taste good in any dish and they know what flavors have synergy (please forgive me for just using the word synergy). I, as a home cook with zero training, happen to think that onions are one of those ingredients that taste good in any dish. Caramelized onions are sweet and savory at the same time and go well with meats, sandwiches, eggs, cheeses, pasta - you name it!

This onion & eggplant dish tastes like it came from a restaurant. Or maybe a fancy caterer. It's hard to explain exactly what that means, but I promise it means delicious. It comes together with a sophisticated flavor straight away, and doesn't require any fancy-pants cooking knowledge. In fact, you don't even have to get top-notch ingredients. I mean, who ever says, "look at these onions - they're so fresh!" As long as your onion doesn't have weirdo spots or discoloration, it's fine. And to be quite honest, my eggplant was a little dried out. But that was no problem! You can't screw this dish up. And your dinner guests will be falling all over themselves to scoop up the last bits.
Over the summer, my high school BFF got married at a great little inn in upstate NY. One of the hors d'oeuvres was an eggplant spread that, at least according to my memory, tasted just like this one (I'm calling it a spread for lack of a better descriptor, but as you can see, it's chunkalicious). I may or may not have gone overboard tasting the eggplant spread . . . strictly for research purposes, of course. And as luck would have it, one of my recent CSA boxes had a very nice looking, albeit small (and as I would come to find, dried out), eggplant. Obviously, the-powers-that-be wanted me to re-create the wedding eggplant dish. Well, TPTB, challenge accepted.
Eggplant has a high water content, so some eggplant recipes recommend that you salt the eggplant in advance of cooking to sweat out some of the moisture (for example, you might want to do this if you have a very fresh eggplant that you're using in an eggplant parmesan to avoid getting a soup-sauce). But since a) my eggplant was dry anyway, and b) a little extra moisture is fine for this dish, I didn't do any pre-salting. You don't have to either (because even if you did end up with a lot of extra liquid in your eggplant spread, you could just use a slotted spoon to scoop it into your serving dish).

I tested the spread with both goat cheese and feta cheese and thought the feta was perfect (goat was good, but the feta was great). And if you'd rather serve this as a main course, it would make an insane panini. For a little more substance, add prosciutto and serve on a ciabatta roll. Damn, that sounds so good. Just thinking out loud here.

Caramelized Onion & Eggplant on Toasts

Serves 4-6 as an appetizer 

1 medium eggplant
1 medium onion
4 cloves of garlic, minced or crushed
4-6 tbs olive oil
1 baguette
plain feta cheese crumbles

Peel and dice eggplant. Peel and dice onion. In two separate skillets, heat up 2 tablespoons of oil over medium-low heat (2 tbs. in each pan). Add eggplant to one pan and onion to the other (use a larger pan for the onion). Eggplant will cook for 15-20 minutes, onions will cook for 20-25 minutes. Both should cook down until very limp and easily cut with your spatula.

After 20 minutes, turn off heat under eggplant. Add minced garlic to onions and continue to cook for another 5 minutes. Add eggplant to the onions. Add salt and pepper to taste. Leave over heat for another few minutes.

Preheat oven to 350. Slice baguette and place slices on a cookie sheet. Since it's being toasted, the bread does not need to be super-fresh. This is a perfect recipe for using up day-old (or several-day-old) baguette remnants. Toast baguette slices in the preheated oven until lightly browned (3 to 4 minutes).

Serve eggplant & onion mix on toasted baguette slices with plain feta cheese crumbles on top.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Greeking Out: Greek Yogurt Cheesecake with Honey Caramel Drizzle

Once upon a time, I thought I didn't like cheesecake. Apparently, I just didn't like bad cheesecake, which, unfortunately is all too common. I will eat less-than-stellar pizza (because, really, no pizza is that bad) and I'll eat sub-par chocolate chip cookies (I'm only human after all), but when it comes to something like cheesecake, I only want to eat it if it's really, really good. 

I decided I wanted to make my own cheesecake - something I've never done - in the middle of my Greek yogurt/granola snack a few weeks ago. Good Greek yogurt is so creamy (even the nonfat kind), and so tangy it will make your toes curl. I don't know what weirdo thought fermented dairy sounded like a winner, but god bless his deviant soul. On the heels of sampling some of the tastiest cheesecake in town at Estadio (manchego cheesecake w/quince preserves and pistachio granola), I felt inspired to make a great cheesecake with Greek yogurt. So when I attempted it over Labor Day weekend and it was only so-so, I was bummed. Not only was it not up to my eating standards, but I didn't want to blog about it. I wanted to try again and I wanted it to be better. Better, damnit.

So I did. And it was. Way, way better.
The first time around, I used too much yogurt. The cake didn't have enough substance and it just kind fell apart when I sliced it. I also decided to beat the egg whites before adding them (some cheesecake recipes call for beaten whites and I thought this would make for a fluffier cake). But it was too fluffy, resulting in more of a souffle than a cheesecake. Plus I had the genius (read: opposite of genius) idea to use some of the caramel sauce as the binder for the graham cracker crust. That was straight stupid. It made the crust hard and chewy - not a good counterpart to something soft and creamy like cheesecake. But I make these mistakes so you don't have to. You're welcome.

The second time around, I switched up the proportions and simplified the recipe. I should have known that simpler is (almost) always better. I got a much sturdier cake that cut like a dream. And the flavor was exactly as I'd hoped - the cake was tang-central, properly sweetened with the honey caramel sauce.

And that sauce? It's truly obscene. Like, prepare-to-lock-your-fridge-and-throw-away-the-key obscene, unless you want to drink it all before the cheesecake hits the table. I wanted a honey topping because Greek yogurt and honey go together like Larry and Balki. When I was first making it, I was actually prepared to be disappointed. The quantity was overwhelming (fixed for you below) and as I was pouring in the condensed milk, I just didn't think it was going to taste like honey or caramel. And honestly, the honey flavor isn't that strong. But shoot, the flavor of awesome comes through in full effect. I guess that's what sugar, sugar, sugar and butter will result in.

Finally, I read a lot of articles about whether to use the oft-questioned water bath. Some folks are convinced that cooking a cheesecake in a water bath results in a moister, more evenly cooked cheesecake. Others insist that it makes no difference. I concluded that the extra work + risk of leakage into my springform pan = not worth it. I'm pretty sure, for this cheesecake recipe at least, there was nothing to be gained from a water bath, so save yourself the trouble.

Greek Yogurt Cheesecake w/Honey Caramel Drizzle

*Note: The recipe below is for a standard 9" or 10" cheesecake. Pictured above is a 6" cheesecake, which I made by halving the ingredients (except for the crust, as noted in the instructions). I would stick with the same amount of caramel drizzle regardless of the size of the cheesecake (the original caramel drizzle recipe is double what I have listed below and it results in so much caramel, it was coming out my ears). 

Graham Cracker Crust
15 graham crackers (15 of the big rectangles)
5 tbs. melted butter
 (for a 6" pan, use 6 graham crackers and 2 tbs. butter)

Grease a 9" or 10" springform pan with butter. Break down crackers into crumbs using a food processor or blender. Add melted butter to graham crumbs and stir. The mix will still be crumbly, but moist. Press crumbs evenly into the greased pan, spreading slightly up the sides of the pan. Place pan in the refrigerator while you make the filling.

16 oz. lowfat cream cheese or neufchâtel (2 packages), room temperature
1 cup sugar
1-1/2 cups plain, nonfat Greek yogurt
2 egg, plus 4 egg whites

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Using an electric mixer, blend room temperature cream cheese with sugar. (It is imperative for this recipe that the cream cheese be room temperature, otherwise you will have cream cheese chunks. If you are absolutely out of time, microwave the cream cheese in 5 second increments until soft.)

Mix in yogurt, eggs and egg whites. Continue to mix with electric mixer until smooth. The batter will be runny, like a cake batter. Pour batter into chilled pan over the graham crust.

Bake at 325 degrees for 45-55 minutes (time will depend on the size of the pan; larger pan will cook faster). Cook until cake is mostly set, but the center is still jiggly. The cake will rise a little and you might see browning around the edges, but you won't see any browning on the top. 

Let cool and then refrigerate for at least 2 hours before serving.

Honey Caramel Drizzle (from My Homemade Life)
1/4 cup honey
4 tbs. (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1/3 cup brown sugar
7 oz. sweetened condensed milk (1/2 can)

Add honey, butter and brown sugar to a small saucepan and bring to a roiling boil. Let boil for two full minutes. Remove from heat and stir in sweetened condensed milk. Serve warm or store in the refrigerator in an airtight container. When ready to use, microwave the sauce in 20 second increments, stirring each time (this sauce will burn easily in the microwave, so don't overdo it). 

Drizzle slices of cheesecake with warm honey caramel sauce.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Food Court Salvation: Spicy Red Lettuce Salad

If you try to maintain any semblance of a healthy lifestyle, you don't get psyched to eat in mall food courts. (Unless of course, you have a weakness for Arby's - not naming any names here - in which case, bring on the Horsey Sauce.) It recently got to the point where I was pushing "business casual" a little too far, so I resignedly hit the mall. Cringe. I used to relish the mall. I could spend hours window shopping and searching for killer deals. But that was back when: a) I could leisurely cruise the mall on a weekday, sans the throngs of weekend shoppers who, literally, could not give a sh*t that they are directly in your way of getting anywhere; and b) I had reason to shop for clothes other than button-down shirts and knee-length skirts.

So picture this: you're tired of shopping and hungry for a salad. You survey your food court choices - bad, bad, worse, barf-worthy, and then . . . a little ray of hope? Salad Creations. It looked pretty unimpressive with its sad neon sign and non-existent line, but nothing was pre-packaged and the ingredients looked pretty fresh. So I ordered the spicy veggie salad, which included cilantro and cayenne pepper, two of my faves. I can safely say that my expectations (granted, they were low) were blown out of the water. The food court grew dim and a shiny gold light emanated from my plastic salad container.* Angel voices poured from the greens.* Shoppers crowded around me for a glimpse of my ethereal meal.*

*Gross exaggerations. But, heck, the salad was good. 
These red beauties came straight from our little veggie garden. And in case anyone's curious, the photo above might be one of my favorite that I've ever taken.
Shortly after my Salad Creations revelation, I decided I needed to recreate it at home. The key players are the cilantro, the cayenne pepper and the avocado. Nothing too crazy about the ingredients individually, but the combo is a flavor bonanza that's hard to find elsewhere in a cold salad. My friend Jenn was coming over for dinner - one of my few friends that I could serve a vegetarian salad to as a main course and not have her question it - so I gathered my fixins and let 'er rip.

My salad didn't taste exactly like the one from Salad Creations (I have to imagine that they use a high dose of salty seasoning that jacks up the flavor), but mine was pretty darn good. I've found that cilantro is a polarizing herb - people either love it or hate it. But when coupled with the spicy cayenne pepper, creamy avocado and crisp red lettuce, I can't imagine anyone not liking this salad. The cilantro and pepper provide a flavorful heat and the avocado is like a soothing palate cleanser. A built-in sorbet if you will. In any event, for those who like to make salads at home, this is a fun, delicious twist on your average veggie salad. And if it's not on your radar, red lettuce is awesome. It's no more expensive than romaine, but in my opinion, the curly red leaves retain their crispness better. Make it happen.

I served the salad with rosemary roasted sweet potato slices, which were a perfect, hearty compliment. Instructions included below.

Spicy Red Lettuce Salad

Serves 4 as an appetizer, 2-3 as a main course

1 large head of red lettuce
2 big carrots, shredded
1 large tomato (or 3-4 little guys), diced
1/2 cucumber, cut into chunks
1 green bell pepper, cut into chunks
3/4 cups black beans, rinsed and drained
1 whole avocado, diced
cilantro, roughly chopped (I used 1 heaping cup of leaves loosely packed, or about 1/2 a bunch)

3 tbs. olive oil
2 tbs. balsamic vinegar
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp. seasoning salt
(makes for a lightly dressed salad)

Add all salad ingredients to a bowl. Mix dressing ingredients in a small bowl with a whisk and pour over salad. Toss the salad to distribute dressing.

Serving suggestion: Roasted Rosemary Sweet Potatoes (serves 4)

Wash and slice two sweet potatoes or yams, unpeeled (I might peel off a few strips if the skin is particularly rough or knotty). Toss potato slices in 3 tbs olive oil and 2 tbs chopped, fresh rosemary. Bake at 400 degrees for 30-40 minutes or until roasted. Flip potatoes halfway through roasting.
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