Monday, September 28, 2009

English Muffins!

This is yet another recipe that falls into the "I didn't know I could make that at home!" section, which is turning out to be my new favorite challenge.

I just got Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice. In typical fashion, I read it from cover to cover, got really excited about foccacia, cinnamon rolls, ciabatta, and baguettes, but then got really turned off by the amount of time it takes to make bread!! Most of the recipes require a 2-day period (so much time to proof) and who has that kind of time, really?

One recipe really caught my eye: english muffins. And the preparation time was slightly more reasonable: 3 hours. Not so bad, and I could make the dough and then go do other things in the meantime (like lose a soccer game...sad!).

Did you know that english muffins are not baked like most breads? They are actually made on a griddle or a skillet! That's how they get such nice flat, brown sides. Making bread on a griddle was much cooler than making pancakes, and just might be a new go-to weekend breakfast... that is if I can wake up on a baker's schedule and prepare these 3 hours before anyone wakes up... yeah, wishful thinking.

I'll be honest - until I tasted the muffins, I thought I had definitely screwed up the recipe. Nothing seemed to go right throughout the whole process! Mostly due to my impatience (another common theme for my cooking style), I added too much liquid and after several additions of flour, the dough was still sticky. But I decided to go with it and just let it rise, and it was fine.

Then, Peter assured that as I cook the muffins, "they will brown quickly but will not burn for awhile, so resist the urge to turn them prematurely." I took this a little to much to heart (or I had the temperature up too high...because my muffins definitely burned. Oh well, it adds flavor?)

But even with these little fiascos, they tasted oh-so-good! And the trick to getting the signature nooks and crannies: split the muffins with a fork, not a knife! Stab all around the edge of the muffin with a fork, then gently pull apart.

English Muffins
Makes 6 English Muffins
  • 2 1/4 c. unbleached bread flour (I couldn't find bread flour at my nearby Safeway because it is severely lacking in the baking department, but I used unbleached all-purpose flour and added 2 tbsp of high gluten flour).
  • 1/2 tbsp sugar
  • 3/4 tsp salt
  • 1 1/4 tsp instant yeast (again - lacking in the baking dept - so I used active dry with water and sugar which probably contributed to the dough being extra sticky)
  • 1 tbsp shortening at room temperature
  • 3/4 c. to 1 c. buttermilk at room temperature (I used 1 c. which, again, contributed to the dough being sticky)
  • cornmeal for sprinkling
  1. Mix all of the dry ingredients in a bowl.
  2. Stir in the shortening and 3/4 c. buttermilk until the ingredients come together in a ball. If necessary(!!!): pour in the some of the remaining 1/4 c. buttermilk - the dough should be soft and pliable.
  3. Sprinkle flour on th counter, and knead the dough for 10 minutes. (If you are lucky enough to have a stand mixer, you can use it with the dough hook and knead for about 8 minutes). Sprinkle more flour if necessary to make a tacky (not sticky!!) dough.
  4. Lightly oil a large bowl, put in the dough and cover the bowl with plastic wrap.
  5. Let bread proof (rise) for 60-90 minutes, or until it doubles in size.
  6. Wipe the counter with a damp cloth and place the dough on the counter. Divide dough into 6 equal pieces and roll into small balls.
  7. Line a sheet pan with parchment, spray with oil, and dust with cornmeal. Place the balls evenly spaced on the sheet pan, then mist with oil and sprinkle cornmeal on top.
  8. Cover the pan loosely with plastic wrap and let proof for another 60-90 minutes, or until the balls double in size, poofing both up and out.

  1. Heat a skillet or griddle to medium (~350 deg F), also preheat the oven to 350 deg.
  2. Spray the pan lightly with oil and transfer the muffins to the pan, a couple at a time (they should be at least 1 inch apart). Keep the other muffins on the sheet pan covered with plastic wrap in the meantime.
  3. Cook them for 5-8 minutes "or until the bottom of the dough cannot cook any longer without burning" (Ok interjection...HOW CAN YOU KNOW THIS?! I think that you need to be really vigilant looking for steam coming up from the bottom of the muffins. Otherwise, you don't want to disturb the muffins, but you also don't want to burn them...tricky...) Peter claims that they won't burn for awhile. Perhaps I should try a lower temperature next time.
  4. Carefully flip the muffins with a spatula and cook on the other side for another 5-8 minutes, again taking care not to burn them.
  5. Immediately transfer the muffins to another sheet pan (don't wait until the whole batch is done, do this as soon as they come off the griddle) and put in the oven for 5 minutes to make sure that the center is baked.
  6. In the meantime, cook the rest of the muffins in this same cycle: griddle, oven.
  7. Put the baked muffins on a cooling rack and let sit for at least 30 minutes before slicing or serving. (30 minutes was a challenge for me...they smelled and looked so good! But waiting is definitely worth it)

Look! You made homemade english muffins!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

welcome fall, i forgot you were coming

It's nice to be getting back to normal after weeks of craziness. Somehow during that time, fall started. We've been having such a bout of Indian summer here in Seattle that I hardly noticed, but after a few visits to Pike Place, it was impossible not to get excited about the new crop of beautiful little brussels sprouts, the pink blushing apples and shyly seductive squash. Now I just need some cold weather so I can cozy up to a nice warming soup.

A new friend moved to town, so last week I showed him where to shop in China town (I got to Hau Hau on 12th and Jackson). While we were there, I picked up some rice noodles, and ever since have been wanting to make phad thai. Since Erika and I were to have dinner before hitting up the (fabulous!) sea wolf concert Wednesday, it was the perfect opportunity.

I went to Pike Place after work on Wednesday to get some things I needed: green onions, bean sprouts, shrimp. I looked around the market and finally asked one of the produce sellers if they had bean sprouts. He looked me like I was an idiot. No, he said, we have those in the spring. Sprouts? Spring? he repeated to me slowly. Oh, I said. This made sense. Suddenly phad thai didn't feel like the right dish to be making at all, but I had already promised Erika and furthermore, asked her to bring peanuts. I decided to improvise. I looked around for something that could emulate the crunchy sweetness of the sprouts, and finally I decided on some pretty pink radishes.

Alright, here's the down-low on this dish. I've made it once before, to only moderate success. I love getting phad thai at the numerous thai restaurants around seattle, but the recipe I use comes from a site call Thai Table, which offers this disturbing quote:

"Great Pad Thai is dry and light bodied, with a fresh, complex, balanced flavor. I've never actually seen the red, oily pad thai in Thailand that is common in many western Thai restaurants."

It's true that I've seen recipes that call for ketchup, I assume to produce the red coloring, but I decided to go with authenticity. I don't have tamarind readily available, so I use a combination of lime juice and vinegar instead. I also used sesame oil for peanut, and added a touch of siracha for spiciness.

The technique to this dish is relatively simple, and once I get it down pat, it will be a nice go-to to have in my repertoire, as it's quite fast. I would rate the success of this specific iteration on the low side, simply because I didn't soak the rice noodles long enough and they turned out a bit tough. But I've learned my lesson! So aside from user error, the recipe is a good one.

Homestyle Shrimp Phad Thai

Adapted from Thai Table
Serves two with left overs

10 oz. dry rice noodles (I bought a package that was 16 oz, and a little more than half)
1 egg
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 onion, cut into strips
1 1/2 cups shitake mushrooms, sliced
1 lime
4 teaspoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon vinegar
green onions, cut into 1 inch pieces
1/2 pound shrimp
bean sprouts (or radishes, cut into strips)
vegetable oil
sesame oil
1. Soak the rice noodles in warm water for (really) 10-15 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, prepare everything you will need, because once the wok starts, everything will go pretty fast. Chop the onions, garlice and vegetables and set aside. In a small bowl, mix sugar, fish sauce, vinegar, and the juice of 1/2 a lime. Prep and peel shrimp, set aside.
3. In a wok (or a large pot/pan with raised edges), heat 1 tablespoon of sesame oil and 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil over high heat. When hot, add garlic, onions and mushrooms. Stir fry until onions begin to soften, about 5 minutes.
4. Add softened rice noodles to wok, and stir vigorously to prevent sticking. When the noodles have heated through and softened some more, about 3 minutes, add the fish sauce mixture and continue stirring, about five minutes. Add radishes and green onions, two minutes more, then add shrimp, and continue stirring until all shrimp have cooked through and turned pink. The noodles will be very tangled and messy (yummy) looking.
5. Serve immediately with a sprinkle of chopped peanutes, fresh green onions, and lime wedge.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Signature Lasagna Rolls

Everyone has that-one-dish. The dish that elicits reactions like: "Oh my gosh, she's making X for dinner! Yay!" and the dish that makes people take just one more helping. This, my friends, is my signature dish.

Well, to be technical, it's my mom's dish - she gave me the recipe after testing it a few times. Or Giada De Laurentiis' dish - she may have invented this... But with a recipe so handled and stained in olive oil drops from years of heavy use, the lines get kind of blurry...

I even made this dish for a "Heritage Food Night" where everyone was supposed to bring something from our cultural background, or that we grew up eating. Lasagna is it works, right? Humor me, but try this dish. It will make you want it to be part of your heritage, too.

This is a spin on traditional lasagna. Lasagna rolls take the messiness out of serving dinner, making cute little packaged lasagna servings. And it's actually kind of fun to make! You just roll up each individual noodle, then bake it all together. A little more work, but really quite cute!

Lasagna Rolls
From Giada De Laurentiis, via my mom :)

Bechamel Sauce:
  • 2 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 4 tsp flour
  • 1 1/4 c. whole milk
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/8 tsp ground black pepper
  • pinch ground nutmeg
Melt the butter in a heavy medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the flour and whisk until bubbly, about 2 minutes. Whisk in the milk and increase the heat to medium-high. Whisk the sauce until it comes to a simmer and thickens, about 3 minutes. Whisk the salt, pepper and nutmeg into the sauce. Pour it into a 9x13 glass baking dish and set aside.

  • 1 15 oz container of whole milk ricotta cheese (or homemade!)
  • 1 10 oz package of frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
  • 1 cup (plus extra for topping) grated parmesan cheese
  • 3 oz thinly sliced prosciutto, chopped (I substituted turkey bacon this time, and it was delicious!)
  • 1 large egg, beaten to blend
  • 3/4 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 12-15 uncooked lasagna noodles
  • 2-3 cups marinara sauce
  • 1 cup shredded mozzarella
Preheat the oven to 450 deg.

In a medium bowl, mix the ricotta, spinach, parmesan, prosciutto (or turkey bacon), egg, salt and pepper.

Boil a large pot of water with 2 tbsp olive oil. Boil the noodles until just tender, but still firm to bite. Drain and arrange on a baking sheet in a single layer.

Spread about 3 tbsp of the ricotta mixture evenly over each noodle. Starting at one end, roll the noodle like a jelly roll. Lay the roll seam-side down in the bechamel sauce in the baking dish. Repeat with all of the noodles, or until the baking dish is full. Spoon 2 cups of marinara sauce over the rolls, then sprinkle with the mozzarella and 2 tbsp (or so) of parmesan cheese. Cover tightly with foil and bake until heated through and the sauce bubbles, about 20 minutes. Uncover and bake until the cheeses on top become golden, about 15 minutes longer. Let stand for 10 minutes and then serve with additional heated marinara sauce, if desired.

Careful, this might become "your dish" too!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Homemade Ricotta

Whenever it is a slow day at the office, one of my coworkers, Andy, likes to pose questions to our team to break up the afternoon lull. One of his questions a while back was: "If you could read only one magazine for the rest of your life, what would it be?" Without a doubt, mine is Cook's Illustrated. The very magazine that gave us grilled stuffed flank steak, did it again with a seemingly impossible food: homemade ricotta.

Yes, you read that IS possible for the home chef to make your own cheese! I couldn't believe it either. The recipe was almost unnoticeable; it took only a tiny corner of a page in the magazine, and was accompanied by the claim that really sold me: "superior to store-bought." Really?! I could make ricotta? And it will be better than something made by people who actually know how to make cheese? I had to try it.

I couldn't believe how impossibly simple the recipe was. There are only 3 ingredients:
  1. One gallon of whole milk
  2. One tsp. salt
  3. 1/3 c. lemon juice
Really. That's it. With three ingredients, you can make about 3.5 cups of ricotta (I didn't measure in the end, but I think it was about the same amount that you get from a 15 oz. container from the store).

Do-It-Yourself Ricotta
From Cook's Illustrated, Sept/Oct 2009
  1. Heat the milk and salt over medium-high heat in a dutch oven or other really big pot (we're talking a whole gallon of milk here, people).
  2. When the temperature of the milk reaches 185 deg F, remove from heat and stir in the lemon juice. (I improvised and used a meat thermometer to check the temperature, but it looked like it was just before boiling, if you don't have a thermometer on hand)
  3. Allow the liquid to stand undisturbed (seriously, don't touch it!) for about 5-10 minutes. The milk will separate into solid white curds and translucent white whey during this time, though it may be hard to tell from the surface.
  4. After the wait, dip a spoon in to see if there are curds. If the milk hasn't separated, stir (gently!!) another tablespoon or so of lemon juice and let sit again.
  5. Spoon the curds into a colander lined with cheesecloth and drain, without pressing, overnight in the fridge.

And that's it! Then you have ricotta! Amazing!
The homemade version is great for lasagna (hint to come), manicotti, cheesecake, etc...

Homemade ricotta may not be photogenic, but it is seriously good.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

"in a hot air balloon with a rusty nail" (quickest curry concert chicken)

(This photo is courtesy of Hitesh! I didn't bring a camera.)

Erin's got beef! And it looks delish. I was also in a big hurry last night, so today I present to you the quickest baked curry chicken possible. It was a dish inspired by hunger, time constraints and the excitement of a fabulous little gem called Fanfarlo. So let me digress. I know this blog is about food, but I'm going to write some about music. I assure you that, as I am qualified to write about neither, there will be little gain/loss in this breach of genre.

Last night, Fanfarlo played their first show of their first ever US tour at Chop Suey in Capital Hill, Seattle. I've had their debut album for about two months, and they've become an indispensable layer of this time in my new apartment. But per the usual, I didn't get into learning about the band or anything, so much was new to me when I saw them live.

This little UK band is five guys and one girl, and they all seem to play at least three instruments. The sound was amazing at Chop Suey. The sextet seemed seamless, jumping from one instrument to another mid-song (violin to saw, for example) and criss-crossing each other on the small stage. Despite the overall talent, instrumental dexterity, and inherent sexiness of the band as a whole (these were some good looking band kids), I have to say that the lead, Simon Balthazar, stole the show. I met him after and he was quite a smallish guy, but his presence on stage made him seem both older and taller. His buttoned-up-to-the-collar shirt and wide open eyes gave the whimsical melodies a touch of seriousness. He banged drumsticks on his mic stand, sang, jumped and played the mandolin, fist pumped his clarinet, and stole my heart.

Oh, Simon. Could I woo you with some cupcakes, organic chemistry, poetry or financial modeling?

Enough fawning, back to the food. I've really been getting into shopping at the farmer's market, one of the many, many good influences Penny has had on my life. When she was here for labor day, we spent a whole morning shopping at Pike Place, going to the butcher, the creamery, and lots of produce stands. Yesterday, on my lunch break, I bought a whole chicken breast and a bunch of fluffy, deep green spinach (which cost me $1!). I needed something quick for the chicken, and most recipes I read included a day of marination. So improv happened.

I figured I couldn't go wrong with searing the meat and then popping it in the oven to finish. I've got quite a few snazzy tricks up my sleeve, but this is one of my favorites, and it's never done me wrong. If you have a fear of cooking meat, this is a simple thing to learn, and it works for chicken, pork chops, new york strip steak, etc. While the chicken was in the oven, I wilted my spinach, added garlic and spices, and voila, dinner in 20 minutes flat. I bit into the chicken with fingers crossed, but fortunately it turned out flavorful and juicy, despite the simple prep. This is a keeper.

quickest curry concert chicken and garlic wilted spinach

2 chicken breasts
1 tsp curry powder
1 tsp ground cardamom
1 tsp cumin seed
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1/2 tsp salt
olive oil
lemon juice, optional
1 bunch spinach, washed and cut into 2 inch lengths

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. Mix the curry, cardamom, cumin, 2/3 of the minced garlic and salt in a small bowl. Rub the spice mixture over both sides of chicken.
3. Heat 2-3 three tablespoons of oil in a non-stick pan over high heat. Add chicken, top side down, and cover for four minutes. Don't disturb it! That gives is a nice, browned appearance when you're done.
4. Flip chicken, cook for 3 minutes more, then remove to a baking pan and pop into oven for ten minutes.
5. Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon oil in pan over medium heat. Add minced garlic, cook until browned, 2-3 minutes. Add spinach, cook until wilted about 8-10 minutes.

Serve with bread or rice.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Julia - on the fly

I felt ambitious when selecting a recipe for FHE. I broke out Mastering the Art of French Cooking, inspired by all of the hype around Julie and Julia (which I still haven't seen) and thought, boeuf bourguignon! Of course!

*reads recipe...

3 hours?!?!!!

Who has time for that on a work night?! It was already 6:30 and I still needed to go to the grocery for ingredients for whatever I decided to make. So...thank you Julia, but that will have to wait...

But I think she realized that 3 hours is a ridiculous amount of time for an amateur chef like me. Only 10 pages later, I see the stripped-down version: Sauté de Boeuf à la Bourguignonne. And I read the words that sealed the deal: "The following recipe can be prepared in 30 minutes or less..." Sold!

This is boeuf bourguignon for the everyday chef...or at least for the last-minute chef, because who has time to plan ahead nowadays? I want to be able to read a recipe, salivate, then be eating in an hour. Or at least I thought that's what would happen.

I cooked my way through the recipe, and let me tell did not take a mere 30 minutes. I know that Julia is an incredible chef, but she must bend time to get this completed in 30 minutes. Budget at least 45 minutes (if you're really fast) and at least an hour if you are cooking at a moderate pace while talking to roommates, doing dishes, taking photos, etc :)

Sauté de Boeuf à la Bourguignonne
From Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking

  • 2.5 lbs filet, cut into small pieces
  • 3 oz. bacon
  • 1.5 c. red wine (I used Merlot)
  • 2 c. beef stock
  • 1 clove mashed garlic
  • 1 tbsp tomato paste
  • 1/4 tsp thyme
  • 1 tbsp flour mashed to a paste with 1 tbsp butter
  • 15-18 small pearl onions (about 1" diameter, peeled)
  • 1/2 lb sliced mushrooms sautéed in butter
  • plenty of butter
  • parsley for garnish
I'll do my best to give the steps that I took, but you should probably confirm with Julia...she is the master.
  1. Put the peeled onions, into a saucepan with 1/2 cup beef stock and 2 tbsp butter. Cover and simmer slowly for 30 minutes, turning the onions so they don't burn (oh my did these onions smell so good! Within 5 minutes, the scent filled the whole kitchen and got my roommates really excited about dinner!)
  2. Blanch the bacon by putting it in a pot of cold water and bringing it to a boil. Then cut into 1" strips
  3. Sauté the beef and set it aside into a big pot.
  4. Brown the bacon in the sauté skillet, then drain and put into the pot with the beef.
  5. Into the pot, add the red wine, beef stock, mashed garlic, tomato paste and thyme. Bring to a boil, and boil until half the liquid is gone. ( can this ALL be done in 30 minutes?!)
  6. Remove from heat and beat in the flour-butter paste.
  7. Add onions and sautéed mushrooms and simmer for 2 minutes.
  8. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  9. Pour into a casserole dish to serve, garnishing with parsley.
  10. Serve with steamed rice and the wine you used to cook the beef! Yum!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Obsessions: the homemade version

I think there comes a time in any amateur chef/baker's life where they eat something delicious and then think: I wonder if I can make this myself? This has happens to me a lot, but I rarely ever think about actually doing it. Until an obsession happens.

Working in downtown SF, I am surrounded by Specialtys Bakery. My office frequently calls on Specialtys to cater meetings and events. While they have delicious salads and sandwiches, the real draw of Specialtys is their cookies. And not just any cookies: wheat germ chocolate chip cookies. Sounds weird right? But should sound delicious.

These cookies are no small obsession. They are crumbly, chocolatey, and loaded with butter (in true Specialtys style) to offset any potential health benefits from the oats. There is always a race among my coworkers to get this cookie out of the assortment. We often end up splitting it many ways, so everyone can have a bit. And every time, I think - wow this is so good...can I make a cookie like it?

Challenge accepted.

I found a "reverse-engineered" recipe online and so it began. It was my intention to make a test batch this weekend for a pre-football game picnic, but the test turned out so well, that I just had to share it with you!

There is certainly something about homemade cookies. Like Linda wrote, the perfect homemade cookie is a challenge that we bakers all face. Warm, crunchy, delicious, and dare I even say...healthy?

This cookie just might be it. With a mere 1/2 cup of butter (SO unlike a Specialtys cookie), 2/3 cup of sugar, and we'll ignore the delicious chocolate chips, these puppies are smack full of good-for-you things. Things I would have never thought to put in a cookie!! Things like: whole oats, ground flax seed, and wheat germ. Are those even allowed in a cookie? Cookies are supposed to come with some remorse, right? But this is a cookie that you might just feel good about eating: guilt-free.

Homemade Specialtys Wheat Germ Chocolate Chip Cookies
Recipe adapted from Dick Koz

  • 3/4 c. old fashioned whole rolled oats
  • 1 c. whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 c. ground flax seeds (I used Bob's Red Mill Organic flaxseed meal, which can be found at most grocery stores)
  • 1/2 c. raw wheat germ (again, Bob's Red Mill wheat germ)
  • 1/2 c. sweetened coconut flakes
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 c. butter, softened
  • 1/3 c. granulated sugar
  • 1/3 c. brown sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 c. mini chocolate chips (you can use regular chocolate chips, but to be true to Specialtys, I used the mini version!)
  • 1/2 c. chopped walnuts
  1. Mix oats and flour in a medium bowl. Add baking soda and salt and whisk until mixed in. Whisk in wheat germ, flax and coconut. (I actually forgot to add the coconut at this step, and mixed it in at the end with the chocolate chips...but they still turned out well)
  2. Beat butter in a large bowl with an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment until fluffy. Add granulated sugar, brown sugar, egg and vanilla; beat until smooth and creamy.
  3. With the mixer running, add the dry ingredients, beating on low speed until just combined. Stir in chocolate chips and walnut pieces using a wooden spoon or spatula.
  4. Chill the dough in a refrigerator for at least 1 hour. (Or as long as you can stand... if you haven't noticed already, I am an impatient baker, and I let the cookie dough chill for about 30 minutes...)
  5. In the meantime, preheat oven to 400 degrees and prepare a baking sheet (I highly recommend using a Silpat for cookies)
  6. Shape the dough into balls about 2-3 tablespoonfuls per cookie. Place at least 1 inch apart onto the prepared baking sheets.
  7. Bake cookies, until firm around the edges and golden on top, about 12 minutes. Remove baking sheets from the oven immediately and cool the cookies for 2 minutes, then transfer to wire racks with a spatula to cool.

Friday, September 11, 2009

catch up cookies

Oh, it has been quiet here for the past week, but behind the curtains, the stage hands have been manic. Life crises have been had, big important questions asked (if not answered) and yes, cookies baked. I actually cooked a lot over long weekend, but the work week came on with the vengeance of a needy child, needing specifically about 15 hours a day. I am exhausted.

It seems like forever ago that I made these - last Wednesday for a friend's going away dinner. I wanted to make something simple that I could easily carry. Sometimes I find myself riding the bus carrying a baking pan full of cupcakes carefully covered in foil so as not to muss the frosting...and fending off stares like 'What, you don't do this?' Cookies fit the easy carry/conceal bill much better.

Cookies also fall into another theme of this blog. My half of this blog could be called 'Linda faces her fears, one culinary challenge at a time.' Chocolate chip cookies are so simple, but I've never been successful making them, and somewhere along the way, I stopped trying. Valiant, I know. I've done the Tollhouse recipe, an Ina Garten recipe, a Betty Crocker recipe...and none have turned out the right taste or texture (the Ina was especially a let down). I started to think a perfect, home-made cookie was a myth. But, since July of 2008, a much heralded New York Times recipe has been making its way around foodies and food blogs, and hype has been raised. There are now so many iterations of these cookies, and the results seem to be generally good (if not allegedly phenomenal.) So more than a full year after the fact, I flagged down the band wagon, and humbly climbed on.

The 'big idea' : David Leite, the author, researched the origins, variations and secrets of this institutional cookie and the people who made/make it. He finds the perfect cookie should be crunchy around the outer edge, chewy in the center, and have a noticeable ring of transition between the two. To achieve this, the cookies must be large (5 inches!). He also recommends fancy dark chocolate, because it stands to reason that good chocolate will make a good chocolate chip cookie. There is also the juxtaposition of salty and sweet, and David's recipe calls for a sprinkle of salt over the cookies before baking. And lastly, and most interestingly, he recommends that the cookie dough should be allowed to rest for 36 hours before baking. I should know more about this since I majored in chemistry, but apparently it has something to do with letting all the flavors come together, something about the egg....

Here's my take on these guys. I didn't think I could bring myself to bake a five inch cookie. I chickened out. I didn't have fancy chocolate, but I did have many bags of organic semi-sweet chips, so I used those. I used plenty of salt in the dough, but I straight up forgot to sprinkle sea salt before baking. Whoops. BUT, I did manage to leave the dough alone for first 24 hours, then 36. And, for the first time, I produced a cookie worth writing home about.

I shaped each cookie as a 1/4 cup. They came out about 3 inches across, and I could discern the three textures mentioned in the article. They were best the day they were baked, as the centers were incredibly chewy. I also underbaked them a lot more than I thought necessary, and they came out perfect. I randomly had some caramel left over in my fridge, so for one batch, I filled the centers of the cookies with a chunk of caramel, which melted into a thin layer while baking (you can see a little leaking out in the one above). That was pretty yummy.
I'm really not sure how integral the resting period was as opposed to this simply being a great recipe, but I'm sold. It might seem fussy, but actually, it makes the process a little easier. I made the dough one night, and that didn't take very long. Then the next night, I baked them, ten minutes a batch. I feel pretty good about myself, one more thing under my belt. Will surely be making these again.

New York Times Chocolate Chip Cookies

2 cups minus 2 tablespoons (8 1/2 ounces) cake flour (I used all purpose)
1 2/3 cups (8 1/2 ounces) bread flour (I randomly had bread flour, so I did use it here)
1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt
2 1/2 sticks (1 1/4 cups) unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups (10 ounces) light brown sugar (I used 1 1/2 cups brown, slightly less than one cup white)
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (8 ounces) granulated sugar
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons natural vanilla extract
1 1/4 pounds bittersweet chocolate disks or fèves, at least 60 percent cacao content (I used regular chips. Shrug.)
Sea salt. (Whoops.)
1. Sift flours, baking soda, baking powder and salt into a bowl. Set aside.

2. Using a mixer fitted with paddle attachment, cream butter and sugars together until very light, about 5 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Stir in the vanilla. Reduce speed to low, add dry ingredients and mix until just combined, 5 to 10 seconds. Drop chocolate pieces in and incorporate them without breaking them. Press plastic wrap against dough and refrigerate for 24 to 36 hours. Dough may be used in batches, and can be refrigerated for up to 72 hours.

3. When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a nonstick baking mat. Set aside.

4. Scoop 6 3 1/2-ounce mounds of dough (the size of generous golf balls) onto baking sheet, making sure to turn horizontally any chocolate pieces that are poking up; it will make for a more attractive cookie. Sprinkle lightly with sea salt and bake until golden brown but still soft, 18 to 20 minutes. Transfer sheet to a wire rack for 10 minutes, then slip cookies onto another rack to cool a bit more. Repeat with remaining dough, or reserve dough, refrigerated, for baking remaining batches the next day. Eat warm, with a big napkin.
My notes on step 4: I make 1/4 cup mounds, made three inch cookies, baked for about 11 minutes per batch, and cooled minimally on the pan before transferring to the rack. I found that the bottoms continued to brown on the pan after being removed from the oven, so transferring earlier will just make for a chewier cookie. All a matter of opinion.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

oh, baby.... (peach hand pies)

Two things happened last weekend. One, I dug out my food processor. Two, I was unceremoniously called a 'baby.' For being scared. In a scary movie. (The Descent) This seemed a little uncalled for. You don't call someone hysterical for laughing in a comedy.

I don't think I've been called a 'baby' since elementary school, when my cousin Sam and I would taunt each other back and forth with the hated moniker. We were 15 days apart, so the name carried much consequence. I remember back then, nothing seemed worse than being called a 'baby.' Surprisingly, 15 years later, it still carries a hefty punch.

I've been thinking about fear a lot lately anyway. Most fears I hold onto are irrational...and I've found it helps to ask 'of what consequence are the actual consequences I'm afraid of?' Like...the monster from the Descent is not actually going to come get me. So, it's really of no consequence. It probably didn't warrant screaming at the top of my lungs while other people slept.

Another example, I have a huge mental blockage around making pie crust. But, why? Yes, it's difficult, but the worst that could happen is I could fail, and the consequence is that I've wasted some flour and butter. Not a big deal. This makes the fear fizzle away some.

Deciding to do this blog with Erin has been great for this too. That girl is fearless! My baking is meticulous...reading and re-reading recipes, comparing, measuring. She just goes for it! And she's been an amazing encouragement to me in trying new exciting things, and old scary things. It goes like:

Linda: Oh, I really want to try XYZ! But I'm scared! It looks hard!
Erin: Why? It's awesome! Just do it! It's not that hard!
Linda: Oh...ok!

This is a dramatization because we don't always speak in exclamations points. But I guess sometimes that's all it takes. (See, cooking is like this big, overstated metaphor for life.)

This is all to say, this week Erin and I are making peach hand pies. QFC had a great deal on organic peaches, so I trekked to Capitol Hill on my lunch break and bought a whole bagful. Erin found the idea for hand pies on smittenkitchen, and they looked delectable. So I had to calm my pate brisee fearing heart.

I started baking about a year ago from a copy of Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook. She taught me layer cakes, cupcakes and pie crust in a food processor. At the time, I didn't have a fancy pants food processor, so I went through the painful process of cutting the butter into the flour by hand. With a knife. Oh, what trials I have endured for fresh pie.

Then after I did get my food processor, fancypants included, I never made pie crust with it. I was excited to finally try it this week, but then I read smittenkitchen's post on Pie Crust 102. She recommended a hand held dough cutter instead of the food processor, and promised it made a flakier crust.

Now, I am against one-wonder gadgets. I grew up in a household where you made do with the basics. I'm still amazed at the silly things American people sell (and buy!). An apple corer!!?!? I have one too! It's called a knife. (Or more efficiently, my teeth.) An egg holder?? Why not set your egg down on the plate, sir? Anyway, back when I was making my ghetto piecrusts a year ago, I didn't even have a rolling pin! I used a cold can of Pepsi. Yup. Pretty. Awe. Some.

(Now I have this super gangsta' rolling pin. Thanks to a special someone! See, how fancy my pants do grow.)

All this ranting aside, I really really wanted to make some flaky, melt in your mouth crust. And since this was my big 'conquer your fears' moment, I needed some extra cards stacked in my favor. So on a quest for basil through Pike Place Market, I found myself at Sur la Table, the proud new owner of a dough blender. And let me tell you, it was worth every penny of the eight dollars and Washington state sales tax I forked over for it.
I blended my butter as minimally as possible. Smittenkitchen recommended stopping around pea sized butter pieces.....I stopped at fat, happy nickels. I was on a mission! It took some work to make the dough come together, but the puffy, flaky, incredibly buttery end result was amazing.

When I pulled those babies (ahem) out of the oven, I gave myself a secret handshake of joy. You could see each individual layer of awesomeness around the edge of the pies. And you know what this made me want to do? Make my own puff pastry. Because I'm like Jet. Li. Fearless. But alas...another weekend.

I chalk these pies up under the whopping big success category. I'm sure I'll do greater things with pie crust, but firsts always have their place in a heart. I was afraid of many things...that the crust would be hard, that the whole thing would crack open and burst, but these little pies were docile as peachy, endearing sheep.

I only used half the dough so far, which I baked in two batches of four pies. For the second batch I added mango to the filling, which made an interesting tropical taste. I still have half the dough in my freezer, people! What adventures will I dream up next!? Salmon pie? (Ahem, Derek.)

Peach (Mango) Hand Pies
adapted from smitten kitchen

This recipe may seem a little daunting, but coming out the other side it's really not so bad. You make the dough, chill, roll and cut, chill, fill, chill, bake. The filling is so easy it's negligible. There's downtime for chilling so bring a friend or a book. Plus, for my second batch, I had the dough and filling ready, I woke up one morning, filled four pies, chilled it, baked it and voila! Fresh peach pie!

Basic Martha Stewart Pate Brisee (pie crust dough)
(I used half this to make eight pies. Mathematics tells us that you could use this to make 16 pies or halve it and make eight like me.)
2 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
2 sticks butter
ice water

(This filled eight pies. Normal laws of math apply.)
1 large peach, chopped (about 3/4 cup, chopped)
1/8 cup chopped mango
1/8 cup flour
1/8 sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp vanilla

1 egg plus 2 tablespoons water for egg wash
sanding sugar

1. Cut butter into pieces, return to fridge to cool.
2. Sift flour, salt and sugar into bowl. If you are OCD, you can chill this bowl too.
3. Add cold butter to flour bowl (which should be a big, big bowl.) Use your dough blender (!) to cut butter into flour until pea (or nickel) sized pieces of butter are still visible.
4. Slowly add ice water (by tablespoons) to flour and continue until clumps of dough form. Begin working with hands to bring dough together.
(If you feel like the dough is not coming together, add more water. If you try a few times and it starts getting warm, take a breather and return the bowl to the fridge. Do not warm up that butter.)
5. After dough forms into a ball, split into two pieces and wrap in plastic wrap, form into discs and return to fridge to cool for at least 30 minutes.
6. Remove one disc, and on a heavily floured counter, roll out to 1/8 inch thickness. If you want to be successful here, just add tons of dry flour to the top and bottom of your disc. It doesn't hurt your dough.
7. Use something with a four inch diameter to cut rounds out of your dough. I used a little cereal bowl. Or, you can cut squares and fold along the diagonal like turnovers. Transfer your rounds to prepared parchment lined cookie sheet and quickly return to fridge to chill 30 minutes.
8. Meanwhile, make filling by mixing fruit, flour, sugar and spices.
9. Fill rounds with peach filling, wet half of the edge with water and fold to seal. Indent edges with fork if you're into cute stuff like that. Chill.
10. Brush pies with egg wash. Cut a slit in each so they can breathe when baking. Dust with sanding sugar, if you have it.
11. Bake 20 minutes at 375 degrees.
12. Bask in awesomeness. (Actually, remove to wire rack and cool.)

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

FHE Flank Steak

Monday nights in my house are known as Family Home Evening* (FHE). The 'rule' is that everyone has to be home on Monday night to cook dinner together and have some kind of together time - whether it's watching a trashy TV show like the Bachelor, or playing board games (this Monday we played DVD Family Feud!). But the goal is to take time out of our busy schedules for a weekly roommate bonding night, filled with delicious food, of course!

Over the past year, we've tried to cook a meal from a different region of the world each week. We've done Thai, Indian, Italian, German, French, Spanish, Jamaican, and so many more. In fact, each week it's harder to think of a new country! Our newest roommate, Suzie, is Polish, so there is certianly Polish food in our future. But when we can't pick a country, we usually try out recipes we've been eyeing, and this week we attempted a Grilled Stuffed Flank Steak...commence mouth watering.

[An aside: Cook's Illustrated is my absolute favorite magazine. I love that they test each recipe in a zillion combinations to find the very best results. Every recipe I've ever made from it has been amazing (except for an unfortunate substitution of spaghetti squash for butternut squash...NOT the same...). So when I saw these flank steak pinwheels in the July/August issue, I had to make them. Plus, with my roommates, anything stuffed with cheese is an immediate winner!]

Grilled Stuffed Flank Steak
from Cook's Illustrated, issue 99
  • 1 flank steak (about 2 lbs is a good size)
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 small shallot, minced
  • 2 tbsp minced fresh parsley (I used italian parsley because I like it's flavor)
  • 1 tsp finely minced fresh sage leaves
  • 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 10 strips of bacon (the original recipe calls for 4 oz. prosciutto, but Safeway was fresh out!)
  • 4 oz. thinly sliced provolone
  • 10 wooden skewers, soaked in water for 30 minutes
  • salt and pepper for seasoning
(1) Combine herbs, garlic, shallot and olive oil in a bowl.
(2) Butterfly the flank steak into a rectangle, taking care to cut evenly (I failed at this part and ended up with a few funky roulades...but they still tasted fine!)
(3) Pound the steak flat (we discovered that a small skillet is a good substitute for an actual mallet!)
(4) Place steak open side up, and spread herb mixture evenly over the surface.
(5) Cover the steak with a single layer of bacon (or prosciutto)
(6) Cover the bacon with a single layer of provolone
(7) Starting at the edge closest to you, roll the steak into a tight jelly-roll log, and finish with the seam-side down on the counter.
(8) Skewer the log in evenly-spaced increments so that each pinwheel will be about 1 inch thick. You may want to use string to keep the log together, but we didn't have any on hand, and we made do.
(9) Cut the log into 1 inch pinwheels and then season with salt and pepper
(10) Grill pinwheels until browned, about 3-5 minutes. Flip and repeat for the other side.

The great thing is that the stuffed flank steak can be adapted to include almost anything: sun-dried tomatoes, spinach, pine nuts...let your imagination go!

*Truthfully, I had several close Mormon friends in high school, and I stole the idea of FHE from them.

Steak frites

hummingbird (cup)cakes with cream cheese frosting and caramel dipped pecans

Erin and I agreed to make hummingbird cake this weekend, a three layer banana pecan pineapple filled cylindrical tower of yumminess. That was the plan. Erin had a brunch to cater to, and she is already a veteran of Sky High. I was excited to join in the fun. Then I remembered...Erin lives in a big house with lots of people. I live in a tiny apartment by myself. There is a reason I have an affinity for small batches of cupcakes...

When I plan to bake I do a little scheduling tango like this: I look at my calendar and see if I have any social appointments, and while I do enjoy seeing my friends for their company, I also assess their propensity to eat test sweets. Many food bloggers encounter this problem. A common solution is to bring goods to the workplace. I don't do that so much. Another troubling trend I've noticed amongst food bloggers is balancing the baking with claims of triathlons and marathons. I don't know. I think I have a duty to any fledgling readers out there to be upfront about this - my theory on life is that if I need to arrive at a destination 26 miles distant from my current location, there should really be some motorized vehicle involved.

So the cake was amended to a manageable batch of cupcakes. I also wasn't sure which recipe to use, so this seemed like a better way to play around with the details. Most hummingbird cake recipes I've read include the basics: banana, pineapples and pecans. Most use all purpose flour and vegetable oil instead of butter, except for the Martha version.

I used the oil version to try the technique of sifting the sugar with the dry ingredients instead of creaming first with sugar. I also played around and added raisins, cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice. When these cupcakes came out, the allspice was the first thing I tasted. In fact, it was so strong, I immediately regretted my attempted creativity and wrote these off as ruined. But I forced myself to frost them and then conned some people into eating them, and there was a surprising amount of positive feedback. I think I'll try the recipe again and adjust the spices, but I guess (by my third one in) I enjoyed eating them too. :)

Ok surprise! I went with cream cheese frosting.

I hereby solemnly promise to soon make something sans cream cheese frosting. In my defense, it is the customary pairing for hummingbird cake. To top, I made some caramel, dipped pecans in it, and placed atop frosted cupcakes.

Hummingbird Cupcakes
350 degree oven
makes 18 cupcakes

This is a conglomeration of recipes plus what I decided to throw into the bowl. These cupcakes were packed with stuff, so if you prefer a more cakey version, feel free to reduce.

1 1/2 cups flour
1 cups sugar
1 /2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp allspice
1/4 tsp salt
2 eggs, beaten
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 vanilla
8oz can crushed pineapple, drained
1 cup mashed bananas
1/2 cup coursely chopped pecans
1/4 cup raisins

1. Sift flour, sugar, baking soda, salt and spices into large bowl.
2. Add oil and vanilla to beaten eggs and mix to combine.
3. Add oil mixture to dry ingredients and mix just to combine. (I did this by folding several times with a spatula and scraping down the sides of the bowl, then quickly beating on low with a hand mixer for 15 seconds.)
4. Fold in pineapple, bananas, pecans and raisins, if using.
5. Fill cupcake liners 3/4 full and bake 25-27 minutes. (Yes, that long.)

Cream cheese frosting recipe is the same as the one from red velvet cupcakes. I frosted these half heartedly, so with the same recipe I still had some frosting left after frosting 18 cupcakes. I had the idea to make a caramel drizzle sauce, but I actually messed up and made a chewy caramel. I so adapted and did the dipped pecan thing. Be creative! Top as your fancies (or errors) suit.
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