Sunday, March 30, 2008

Fresh Berry Party Cake - Daring Bakers

This month's Daring Bakers challenge was a convenient one for me, because it was a dessert I could serve on Easter. It was a party cake by Dorie Greenspan that had lots of room for creativity. I decided on a lemony cake and frosting, with strawberry jam in the middle and strawberries in the middle and on top.

The directions called for the cake to be four layers, but I didn't find the layers to be thick enough to cut in half, so I made a two-layer cake. The other change I made was to use all-purpose flour instead of cake flour, using two fewer Tablespoons per cup of flour, and adding two Tablespoons of cornstarch.

The recipes for the cake and frosting were well written and easy to follow. It all came together without incident, and I think the cake ended up looking pretty nice.

I'd like to say that the cake tasted as good as it looked, but it didn't. The cake was a bit dry and not as lemony as I would have liked. That may have been because of a typo in the recipe provided to us -- a measly 1/4 cup difference but who knows -- or maybe that was because of the flour substitution?

The frosting was unlike anyone I've ever made, both in technique and in taste. The frosting started with egg whites and sugar. They were cooked until the mixture was white and shiny, then beaten in a mixer until it cooled. It looked like marshmallow fluff. Three sticks of butter was added, followed by some lemon juice and vanilla. The end result was shiny, fluffy, and easy to work with. I know people who find many frostings to be too sweet, so this would appeal to that kind of person. But I'm not one of them. I would have liked it to be a bit sweeter and a bit more lemony.

I'm not sure I'd make the recipe again, but here's the recipe as I made it.

Here's my adaptation of
PERFECT PARTY CAKE
From Baking from My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan

For the Cake
2 1/4 cups cake flour (I used 2 1/2 cups, which was a typo in the recipe provided to us. Instead of cake flour, I used all-purpose flour. I used 2 Tablespoons less flour per cup and added 2 Tablespoons cornstarch)
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 ¼ cups buttermilk
4 large egg whites
1 ½ cups sugar
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
1 stick (8 tablespoons or 4 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
½ teaspoon pure lemon extract

For the Buttercream
1 cup sugar
4 large egg whites
3 sticks (12 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
¼ cup fresh lemon juice (from 2 large lemons)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

For Finishing: strawberry preserves and strawberries (about one pound).

Getting Ready
Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter two 9 x 2 inch round cake pans and line the bottom of each pan with a round of buttered parchment. (I did not put the pans on a baking sheet as directed -- I don't have the right size baking sheet.)

To Make the Cake
Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. Whisk together the milk and egg whites in a medium bowl.

Put the sugar and lemon zest in a mixer bowl or another large bowl and rub them together with your fingers until the sugar is moist and fragrant. Add the butter and working with the paddle or whisk attachment, or with a hand mixer, beat at medium speed for a full 3 minutes, until the butter and sugar are very light. Beat in the extract, then add one third of the flour mixture, still beating on medium speed. Beat in half of the milk-egg mixture, then beat in half of the remaining dry ingredients until incorporated.

Add the rest of the milk and eggs beating until the batter is homogeneous, then add the last of the dry ingredients. Finally, give the batter a good 2- minute beating to ensure that it is thoroughly mixed and well aerated.

Divide the batter between the two pans and smooth the tops with a rubber spatula. Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until the cakes are well risen and springy to the touch – a thin knife inserted into the centers should come out clean. Transfer the cakes to cooling racks and cool for about 5 minutes, then run a knife around the sides of the cakes, unfold them and peel off the paper liners.

Invert and cool to room temperature, right side up. (I made a few days ahead and froze.)


To Make the Buttercream

Put the sugar and egg whites in a mixer bowl or another large heatproof bowl, fit the bowl over a plan of simmering water and whisk constantly, keeping the mixture over the heat, until it feels hot to the touch, about 3 minutes. The sugar should be dissolved, and the mixture will look like shiny marshmallow cream. Remove the bowl from the heat. Working with the whisk attachment or with a hand mixer, beat the meringue on medium speed until it is cool, about 5 minutes.

Switch to the paddle attachment, and add the butter a stick at a time, beating until smooth. Once all the butter is in, beat in the buttercream on medium-high speed until it is thick and very smooth, 6-10 minutes. During this time the buttercream may curdle or separate – just keep beating and it will come together again. On medium speed, gradually beat in the lemon juice, waiting until each addition is absorbed before adding more, and then the vanilla. You should have a shiny smooth, velvety, pristine white buttercream. Press a piece of plastic against the surface of the buttercream and set aside briefly.

To Assemble the Cake
Put one layer, domed side up, on the cake stand (use a dollop of icing beneath the first layer to keep in tin place). Spread it with strawberry preserves. Cover the jam evenly with the buttercream. Top with sliced strawberries. Spread top layer with a small amount with the frosting, then place, frosting side down, against the strawberries.

Use the remaining buttercream to frost the sides and top of the cake. Decoratively garnish with strawberries.

Serving (directions from Dorie, no changes)
The cake is ready to serve as soon as it is assembled, but I think it’s best to let it sit and set for a couple of hours in a cool room – not the refrigerator. Whether you wait or slice and enjoy it immediately, the cake should be served at room temperature; it loses all its subtlety when it’s cold. Depending on your audience you can serve the cake with just about anything from milk to sweet or bubbly wine.

Storing
The cake is best the day it is made, but you can refrigerate it, well covered, for up to two days. Bring it to room temperature before serving. If you want to freeze the cake, slide it into the freezer to set, then wrap it really well – it will keep for up to 2 months in the freezer; defrost it, still wrapped overnight in the refrigerator.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Top Chef Chicago, episode 3 (beware, spoilers)

My random thoughts (I should take notes):

- Rick Bayless sure is slim for a chef, isn't he? And Mexican food isn't known for being terribly slimming. I like the idea of creative tacos, and would have loved to have tried some of those creations, but I don't understand the idea of a "fine dining" taco. A bunch of stuff folded in a tortilla (or, heaven forbid, a lettuce leaf) is going to be messy, which I don't think lends itself to fine dining.

- Shopping at the neighbors' houses was kind of contrived -- those people were all too willing to give up huge bags full of groceries. And how about the long close-ups on the products the chefs just happened to find in the cupboard? The product placements on the show are getting to be a bit much.

- I knew the mac and cheese would be a mess, because Velveeta always turns back into a brick at room temp. I'm not sure how that would make for a positive product placement for Velveeta.

- The only picnic dish I really wanted to taste was the pork and pineapple skewers. And maybe Richard's "paella." Sliders and soggy corn dogs, eh. If you had to do hot dogs, instead of doing corn dogs, why not a gourmet take-off on the Chicago-style hot dog?

- Fewer close-ups of Padma eating ... but did anyone else think the s'more was headed right down her cleavage? I was sure we were in for a close-up of a messy marshmallow nestled between her boobs.

- The judges are nitpicky, I think, when it comes to what dishes are "supposed to be." I think the chefs would be better off taking a page from the world of cooking contests -- instead of giving the dish a specific name like "paella," they should give it a less specific name, like "Spanish Inspired Rice with Sausage and Seafood." Then they couldn't have nailed Richard on the lack of crusty stuff on the bottom of the pot.

- No "turd award" this week.

- Less swearing, although Andrew has regained the "annoying" title. I hope he leaves soon.

- Hooray for Stephanie! I'm pulling for her.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Yesterday's TV interview

I'm swamped today so I thought I'd post the link to my TV interview yesterday.

I almost never watch myself on TV. I obsess about how I look and the sound of my voice. Even that photo ... I find myself comparing the size of my head to the size of Vanda's ... and thinking I look like Gazoo, from the Flintstones.

And there's always a moment where I think, "why did I say (or do) THAT???!!!"

So I haven't watched this one either.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Happy Dyngus Day!

My husband grew up in Buffalo, which is about an hour west of here.

Every Easter, when my in-laws leave our house to return to Buffalo, they wish us a Happy Dyngus Day. I've asked my husband about Dyngus Day, and he gives me vague explanations of people hitting each other with pussy willows.

I figured I'd do a bit of research on the day as an excuse for a very short post. Here's the scoop.

The annual celebration is held in Buffalo the Monday after Easter. On Dyngus Day, men and boys flirtatiously swat women and girls with pussy willows and squirt them with squirt guns. And there's lots of partying.

So guys, celebrate Dyngus Day by finding a pussy willow and swatting some girls with it. And do report back and let me know how that goes for you.

For more information on Dyngus Day, here's a link.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Media appearance Monday ... and last chance to vote!

I'm busy getting ready for Easter, but wanted to let friends and family know that I'll be making an appearance on CW-WHAM (cable channel 16) on Monday morning. I believe I'll be on sometime between 8 and 8:30 a.m. It's for the Pillsbury Bake-off, in which I'll be competing on April 14.

Speaking of which ... this is the last week for voting for America's Favorite Recipe! Of course I'd appreciate your vote for my Jalapeno Popper Cups, because the winner wins $5,000. But you want to pick a recipe you really like, because it could put you in the running to win $1 million! One voter will be randomly drawn, and if that voter picked the recipe that received the Grand Prize at the Bake-Off® Contest finals, that voter will also win $1 million!

Happy Easter!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Top Chef Chicago, episode 2

I should be doing Easter preparations but couldn't resist firing off some random thoughts about my favorite show. (If you haven't watched it yet, there are spoilers ahead.)

- The Andrew dude that was such a jerk last week was a lot less annoying this week. And the profanity level (thankfully) seems to have decreased a bit.

- So far the show seems to be getting away from goofy quick fire challenges like making something out of the junk in the vending machines ... but there's a long way to go in the season. It's more fair for the chefs to compete with five ingredients from the farmer's market, but it was also fun to see what chefs did with some of the wilder challenges in previous seasons. Hung's crazy cereal creation from last year comes to mind.

- It was disconcerting that in a city that was historically known for great beef and sausage, none of the chefs seemed pleased with the meat that was available to them. Maybe it was just that particular farmer's market? (After I wrote this, I found that Ted Allen addressed this very topic on his blog.)

- I was sure the curly haired guy would be screwed when he left his lettuce behind. I admired that he had the wherewithal to come up with a different idea and win the challenge.

- I liked the theme of the elimination challenge. The penguin team's iceberg idea was cool and creative, although I'm not sure I would want to eat it. I'm surprised there wasn't more of that kind of creativity with other teams.

- This week's turd comment is about ... drumroll please ... the mushrooms! And even if they didn't have that appearance, I'm not sure about the combination of mushrooms and blueberries. And Pecorino cheese?

- The gorilla team should have been knocked for not keeping it vegetarian. The reason for a "gorilla" station could have been to accommodate guests who were vegetarian.

- I don't recall having ever eaten a blini.

- Stephanie's Banana Bread with Salted Caramel Sauce & Meringue sounded divine. A banana bread with a caramel sauce, plus a caramel meringue browned with a torch -- that is calling my name. I am making that as soon as I can. Even though Stephanie was in the bottom four last night, she is one of my early favorites.

- How many shots of Padma shoving food into her face did we need to see? Are they trying to let us know that the skinny gal really does eat? Or do guys find something sexy about a gorgeous woman eating? We saw Tom and Wylie eating, but not like the way they shot her, with closeups of her taking a messy mouthful of awkward foods, like lettuce wraps. (And while we're on the topic, can we get over lettuce wraps as finger food? It's a clever concept, but it's impossible to eat them without stuff dripping all over the place.)

- Rick Bayless is on next week! Hooray!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Ultra-Butterscotch Brownies (with and without nuts)

I traditionally host Easter each year, and part of the tradition seems to be a household disaster during Holy Week. This week has been no exception. My dishwasher hasn't been draining for days. After some valiant repair attempts by my handy husband, a repair guy came today. Even though my Easter guests are low-key, and would be fine if I served cold cuts, I'm behind on my preparations. As a result, I don't have time for much blogging this week.

I thought I'd share an easy dessert recipe I made for a recent dinner with friends and their children. Since so many people (particularly kids) don't eat nuts, I usually provide alternatives with and without nuts. In this case I put nuts on top of half of the bars instead of stirring them into the dough (not a good alternative if you're serving people with nut allergies).

The bars were delicious -- chewy and butterscotch-y. I much preferred the bars that had the pecans. My mistake was adding adding extra butterscotch chips to compensate for using fewer nuts. The butterscotch chips are just too sweet and artificial tasting, so the bars would have been better if I had stuck with the amount called for in the recipe.

Ultra-Butterscotch Brownies
Adapted from the King Arthur Flour Bakers Companion

8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter
2 cups brown sugar (I used one cup dark and one cup light)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon butter-rum flavor, or 2 teaspoons vanilla extract (I used 1/8 teaspoon rum flavor and 1 teaspoon vanilla)
1 1/2 cups (6 1/4 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
3 large eggs
1 1/2 cups (9 ounces) butterscotch chips
1 1/2 cups (6 ounces) diced pecans or walnuts (I used less)

Preheat the oven to 350.

Melt the butter in a medium-sized mixing bowl in the microwave, and mix in the sugar, salt, baking powder, and flavorings. Stir in the flour, then the eggs, one at a time. Stir in one cup of the chips and one cup of the nuts (I didn't stir in the nuts). Scoop the batter into a lightly greased 9 by 13-inch pan. Sprinkle the remaining chips and nuts over the top of the batter.

Bake the brownies for 30 to 35 minutes, until the top is shiny but the middle is still gooey (though not liquid). Do not overbake - underbake a bit for a chewy texture. Remove them from the oven and cool completely before slicing.

Makes 2 dozen 2x2-inch brownies.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Dinosaur Bar-B-Que's Mac and Cheese

A few weeks ago The Democrat and Chronicle ran the recipe for macaroni and cheese from a local restaurant, the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que. I took one look at it and said "no way." It had loads and loads and cheese -- four kinds of them in all. It looked like a heart attack waiting to happen.



But the recipe kept calling my name. First, it had been featured on Good Morning America as Sam Champion's favorite macaroni and cheese. And it came from the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, which is a very popular restaurant here (there are also locations in Syracuse and New York City). I've only been there once or twice, but I remember the food being excellent and the atmosphere fun (it often has live music, mostly blues). I've also had some of their catered food and it's been heads and shoulders above most catered food I've had.

The recipe also intrigued me from a culinary perspective. It had onions and green pepper in it, which are ordinarily a problem for a couple of my household's eaters. But in this recipe, the onions and green peppers were pureed into the sauce. It's not a technique I've used a lot, and I wondered how it would taste. I was also curious to see how that would fly with my husband and son. Was pureeing an option if I wanted to get some flavors into a dish without having it rejected at a glance?

The answer is yes. We all thought the recipe was divine. It was positively decadent -- super rich and ultra cheesy, without the distractions of bits of veggies floating around or extraneous bread crumbs on top.

I won't make this often because it is a nutritional disaster, but I'll probably make it again, most likely for guests. I made half of the recipe that ran in the newspaper, and it was plenty for the four of us. (Two of us ate it as a main dish, and two of us had it as a side dish). Because it's so rich, I would suggest serving it as a side dish -- there would be plenty for six people. If you wanted it not to be quite so rich, you probably could increase the amount of macaroni in it.



Dinosaur Bar-b-Que's Mac 'n' Cheese
(1/2 of the printed recipe, with a few modifications from me)

2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
3/4 cup onion, diced
1/3 cup green pepper, diced
1/2 teaspoon chopped garlic (1 clove)
2 ounces flour (about a scant 1/2 cup)
1 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 cups half-and-half
7 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
2 1/2 ounces Colby cheese, shredded
5 ounces American cheese, shredded (I cubed slices of American cheese)
2 ounces Pecorino Romano, shredded
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon lemon pepper
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon French's mustard
1 teaspoon white vinegar
3/4 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
3/4 pounds elbow macaroni (you could go up to 1 pound to make it serve more/less rich)

TOPPING:

4 ounces of shredded cheddar cheese
1 tablespoon Pecorino Romano cheese

Heat oil in a large pot. Add onions and peppers; cook until onions are translucent. Add garlic and cook until fragrant. Stir in flour. Add water and half-and-half. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes. Using an immersion blender, puree this mixture until it is smooth (if using a regular blender, work in batches, filling the pitcher only half-full, since the liquid will be hot). Slowly add cheeses to warm pureed mixture, making sure all cheese is melted before adding more. (If the cheese isn't melting, return the pot to low heat and stir constantly.) Once cheese is completely melted, add salt, lemon pepper, sugar, mustard, vinegar and Tabasco. Stir to combine.

Cook dried elbow macaroni in boiling water, according to manufacturer's instructions. Cook until al dente, not completely soft.

Combine hot, cooked pasta and sauce in the large pot; stir well to combine. Pour entire mixture into a greased 11-inch-by-7-inch pan (a 9 by 9 probably would work as well). Top with 8 ounces. of shredded cheddar cheese and 2 tablespoons of Pecorino Romano cheese.

Place under broiler until top is golden brown and bubbling. (Because I was cooking something else at 450 degrees, I cooked it at that temperature, and it was fine.) Serve immediately.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Top Chef Chicago: first reactions

Some random thoughts on the first episode of Top Chef Chicago:

- Why, oh why, did they have to start with the Chicago institution that has been turned into a TGI McFunsters (a Bourdain-ism)? I probably know why -- I'm sure Uno's paid for the placement. I would have preferred Gino's East, although my sister would pick Lou Malnati's. My sister actually has Lou Malnati's delivered to her home in Florida! I had it delivered to me here as a gift, and I have to say that it was better than anything I've had here. (I love just about everything about Rochester, except the pizza. If a reader from Rochester wants to prove me wrong, I'd be thrilled.) But I digress. There are so many ways you could go with Chicago cuisine -- I hope they get less predictable in future episodes.

- The contestants who didn't have a deep dish pizza at the ready were not well prepared. Come on, that couldn't have been more obvious (or fair, as challenges go). The contestants should know how they might tweak a Chicago hot dog. They should be ready to cook with beef and should know their sausages.

- I loved all of the shots of Chicago. Chicago is beautiful, clean and gleaming. Chicago is uplifting and energetic. Chicago is friendly. This show is going to make me seriously homesick.

- The elimination challenge was interesting. They do seem to want their chefs to know the classics. When I heard chicken piccata, the only thing that came to mind were capers, which I've only recently began to tolerate. They look like little turds to me. I know there's an animal that has turds that look just like capers. If we still had "Everyone Poops" in our library I'd look it up, but it wound up in the donation pile awhile back. (More boy influence... sorry if you were eating as you were reading...)

- Cool that Anthony Bourdain was a judge. I'd love to see him be a regular, but I suppose that would interfere with his globetrotting. No more Rocco -- bring on some Chicago chefs! Gale Gand ... Rick Tramonto ... Rick Bayless ... Charlie Trotter ... I hope they all make an appearance.

- The winning dish was impressive. I was glad to see my hometown girl win!

- With all these reality shows, they seem to show the person who gets eliminated the most, don't they? First her dish was under salted, then over salted. Seems like Cooking 101 to me.

Now I will ... not ... waste lots of time going to check out the blogs on the Top Chef site. Will ... not ...

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Finally, some good TV!

My favorite food show starts tonight! Even better, it takes place in my favorite city, Chicago! I will probably weep from homesickness over the food, the places, and the restaurants.

If you want to waste some time, here's a quiz that tells you which judge you're most like. Apparently I am most like Gail, who is bubbly and fun but also decisive. She doesn't seem to project bubbly and fun all that often, but I'll take their word for it. I'd rather be like Ted Allen, who seems to be the nicest.

While we're on the topic of Food TV, Anthony Bourdain had one of his best episodes of "No Reservations" this week. He returned to his old stomping grounds, Les Halles in New York City, to see how he'd fare working the line. The episode was pure Bourdain -- funny, informative and fast paced. Plus, Chef Eric Ripert decided to join in the fun.

I went to Bourdain's blog to see if he had written any more about the episode, and I couldn't read the darn thing. The type on his site is minuscule! This was ironic because part of Bourdain's problem on the line was that he couldn't read the tickets that came in. I left a ranting comment about the type, and a kind anonymous stranger quickly wrote back that pressing control + will get bigger type on the screen. Who knew? I thought I'd share the tip with all of you.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Breakfast with a guest blogger: my 13-year-old!

These days, "home economics" has morphed into "home and careers," and both boys and girls take the class. My son had a recent home and careers assignment to prepare a family breakfast and then write a report about the experience. Here's his report ... and some comments from me at the end.

MENU:

Banana Pancakes


Fruit Smoothies


Bacon


Shopping

I learned that there are many different brands you can choose from, and some brands are cheaper. This is not necessarily true for all recipes but for some it is. Some challenges were finding where the food is. If I hadn’t had a parent with me, shopping would’ve taken hours. My shopping trip was fun overall.

Bacon - 2.69
Vanilla Yogurt - 2.40
Sugar - .50
Strawberries - 3.00
Blueberries - 2.50
Butter - .50
Flour - .20
Baking Powder - .05
Salt - .01
Bananas - .25
Milk - .25
Eggs - .30
Vanilla extract - .10
Maple syrup - 1.00
Chocolate Chips - .50
Overall - 14.25

A restaurant probably would have cost about $59. When I heard this I was stunned. This shows that the taste is the same but restaurants charge four times more.


Table Setting

The table setting I did in the morning before I started cooking. I included the plate, napkin, fork, knife, and spoon. The centerpiece was two stuffed animals holding the syrup.

Grade Yourself

I have learned that making breakfast is not as easy as it seems. My biggest challenge was flipping the pancakes. As you can see I didn’t do so well on my first try. Below is a picture of me struggling.


I think I did really well on the smoothies. Everybody enjoyed those. For some it was a little too much. Overall it was a delicious breakfast. Everyone agreed on that.

I could improve on how quickly it went though. It was 10:00 when I finally finished. Everybody called it a brunch because it was so late. Of course it wasn’t the most nutritional but it was most delicious breakfast I have had in a long time. Another thing I could improve on is organization. Once I wasn’t organized because I didn’t put the butter in the right place and it spilled.

Recipes


Banana Pancakes
(From the Williams-Sonoma Kids Cookbook)

6 Tablespoons (¾ stick) butter
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
2 Tablespoons sugar
2 ½ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
1 small, very ripe banana, peeled
1 cup milk
2 eggs
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

maple syrup and sliced bananas, for serving (mom also used pecans)

Cut the butter into 3 equal pieces. Put 2 of the butter pieces in the small saucepan and set the remaining piece aside. Set the pan over medium heat and stir with the wooden spoon until melted, 1 to 2 minutes. Using the pot holder, remove the pan from the heat and set it aside to cool.

In a medium mixing bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Mix with the fork until well blended.

Put the banana in a small mixing bowl. Mash with the fork until almost smooth. Add the milk, eggs, and vanilla and stir with the fork until well blended. Pour the banana mixture and the melted butter into the flour mixture. Mix gently with the rubber spatula until the batter is just blended. The batter should still be a little lumpy.

Put the griddle over medium heat until hot. To test if the griddle is hot enough, flick a drop of water onto it. It is ready if the drop dances quickly and evaporates. Put half of the remaining butter onto the griddle and spread it with the metal spatula. Drop the batter by ¼ cupfuls onto the griddle, spacing them about 3 inches about.

Cook until a few holes form on top of each pancake and the underside is golden brown, about 2 minutes. Carefully slide the metal spatula under each pancake and turn it over. Cook until the bottom is golden brown and the top is puffed, 1 to 2 minutes longer. Using the spatula, transfer the pancakes to a serving plate.

Repeat with remaining butter. Serve the pancakes while still hot with maple syrup and sliced bananas.

Makes 12 4-inch pancakes


Strawberry or Blueberry Smoothies

1 container (6 oz) vanilla yogurt
2 teaspoons sugar
6 strawberries, stems cut off, or 1 cup blueberries
ice cubes (optional)

Put the yogurt and sugar in the container of the electric blender. Add the choice of fruit (and ice, if desired).

Put the lid securely on the blender. Make sure it's on tight! Hold down the lid with your hand (so it isn't forced off by the spinning liquid) and turn the blender on to high speed. Blend until thick and smooth.

Baked Bacon

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line jelly roll pans with foil. Place the bacon on the pan without the pieces overlapping. Bake until brown and crispy, about 15 minutes. Remove to a paper towel-lined plate. When the bacon grease on the foil-lined pan is cool, just crumple it all up and throw it away.

Mom's note: The directions of this assignment were to make breakfast without help. I didn't actually pitch in but I did do a fair amount of coaching.

The first two recipes were from The Kids Cookbook from Williams-Sonoma. Watching my son (who knows his way around the kitchen) trying to follow the recipe made me realize how much the cookbook is not written for kids to follow. This is a complaint I have about every kids cookbook we own -- and we own plenty. My kids want to be able to make things by themselves, and none of the cookbooks are written or designed in such a way that kids can do so.

As an example, this book put the directions for techniques at the beginning at the book. This is not effective at all, because kids don't read a cookbook from front to back! If they were going to do this, they could have at least referenced what page the technique instructions are on. I never have felt a burning need to write a cookbook, because there are so many wonderful ones out there, but I'd love to write a cookbook that kids could actually use on their own.

By the way, these were the best banana pancakes made in my house! Delicious!

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Mini brownie trifles (aka blah brownies in disguise)

I'm going to fill you in on one of my dirty little secrets. If you're ever at my house and I serve you a trifle, it's because a baking project has gone wrong. In this case, it was brownies that had a case of the blahs.

The brownies were yet another example of my not using my judgment in the kitchen. The recipe came from a Southern Living cookbook called Our Readers Top-Rated Recipes. I chose a recipe called Basic Brownies from it, even though my favorite brownie recipes have both cocoa powder and melted unsweetened chocolate in them, and this one had only melted unsweetened chocolate. I thought surely if those vaunted Southern cooks had rated them highly, they'd be good. They weren't, at least to my taste. These had a muted chocolate flavor, even with the addition to a cup of semisweet chocolate chips stirred into the batter. I suppose if you didn't like a strong chocolate flavor (which I can't even imagine), these might be considered good, because the texture was reasonably chewy. I decided to use my cute mini trifle dishes to perk them up.

Many trifles call for you to crumble the cake layer, but I wanted chunks of chewy brownies, so I cubed them. For the rest of the layers, I used up odds and ends in the cupboard and freezer, including a box of chocolate pudding mix, a jar of marshmallow creme and a tub of Cool Whip. I know there are foodies who detest Cool Whip and all that other stuff. So sue me. Even Barbra Streisand (one of my idols) loves Cool Whip. And seriously, are you really going to whip heavy cream to add to pudding mix and marshmallow creme? I think not. Hookayyy ... I think I'm getting a little too defensive here.

My guests devoured the trifles and one male guest said I should sell them to restaurants. Heh heh heh. Come on admit it, even though you know what's in them, you'd like them too.

(Psst ... these are on Tastespotting! I have no idea how they pick what to run, but the site is very popular. It's a great spot to drool over.)

Odds, Ends and Blah Brownie Trifles (that taste great!)
Makes 10 individual trifles
The ingredient list reflects what I had on hand. Use your imagination and inventory as your guide to change sauces, pudding flavors and so on.

1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, softened
1 (7-ounce) jar marshmallow cream
1 (8-ounce) container frozen whipped topping
1/2 of a 13" by 9" pan of brownies, cubed
1 small package of chocolate fudge pudding (plus milk indicated on package), prepared as directed
1/2 jar caramel sauce (I used Wegmans brand)
3 Skor toffee bars

Beat cream cheese at medium speed with an electric mixer until creamy; beat in marshmallow cream. Stir in 1 container of whipped topping; set mixture aside.

Divide one-third of the brownie pieces in an even layer in the bottom of 10 individual trifle dishes. Spread most of the cream cheese mixture evenly over brownies, reserving about 1/4 of it for garnish. Spread half of the pudding over that. Top with brownie pieces, reserving 33 pieces for a garnish. Finely chop two Skor toffee bars and divide between the dishes. Drizzle with half of the caramel topping. Top with the remaining pudding. Top each trifle with a dollop of the marshmallow mixture. Arrange three brownie pieces on top of each trifle. Drizzle the remaining caramel topping on top. Cut up the remaining toffee bar into 10 pieces and top each trifle with a piece. Cover and chill until serving.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Messy microwave applesauce

There are lots of events for food bloggers, and I participate in one whenever it fits in with what I happen to be cooking. But there was one I didn't want to miss, and the deadline was today.

A year ago today, the Italian food blogger had a stroke at the age of 30. Thirty! She decided to host a food blog event dedicated to a food that prevents strokes -- apples. Her requirement was that the dish had to also include one of the following ingredients: almonds, black tea, cinnamon, dark chocolate, fish, peperoncino, or tomatoes. I wanted to support her worthy event -- and what person to contribute to such an event than a blogger from the state that's the USA's second largest grower of apples?

My super exciting contribution to the event: plain old applesauce. Boy, I'm on a roll these days -- a post on brown rice a few days ago, a post on applesauce today. But applesauce is a practical way of using up apples that have gotten to be a bit soft and mealy. Plus, it's a good way to get kids (mine at least) to eat fruits at this time of year.

I found a recipe that looked interesting, from the New York Apple Country Web site. It was a recipe for applesauce, cooked in the microwave for 20 minutes. Sounded like a handy dandy recipe to me.

The recipe called for leaving the skins on the apples, but I can't hack skins in my applesauce. Someday I'm going to get a food mill so that I can make applesauce without peeling them first, but since I haven't been able to justify the investment in a good one, I peel my apples. The recipe said to cook the apples in the microwave, covered (I used wax paper), for 15 minutes. So far, so good. Then the recipe said to cook the apples, uncovered, for five minutes.

"Huh," I thought. "I'm surprised that won't make a big mess in the microwave."

Well guess what. It did make a huge frigging mess, all over the inside of the microwave. When will I learn to trust my judgment in the kitchen??? Once I cleaned up the mess, the applesauce had a stringy texture, so a buzz of the stick blender got it to our preferred consistency.

Anyway, all the best to the blogger from Ma Che Ti Sei Mangiato and best wishes for your good health. Here's my unexciting contribution.

New York Microwave Applesauce
Adapted from the New York Apple Growers Web site
(Use this only if you want to scrub your microwave afterward.)

6 medium New York apples (I used 2 each of Empire, Jonagold and Fuji)(Total chopped apples = 6 cups) - I peeled mine
1/4 cup water
2 Tablespoons brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Additional cinnamon and sugar for serving, if desired

Core and chop apples into small chunks of uniform size (1/2 inch). Place apples in large microwave-safe bowl. Add 1/4 cup water to bowl. Cover and microwave on high 15 minutes. Stir apples. Continue to microwave, uncovered, until apples are very tender, about 5 minutes longer.

Using potato masher, coarsely mash apples. (If you left on the skins and they are too chewy, use a food processor to promote desired texture and break up apple skin.) Mix in cinnamon and sugar, if desired.

Makes about 3 1/2 cups

Sunday, March 02, 2008

French Bread Redux

After completing the Daring Bakers challenge to make Julia Child's French Bread, I wasn't 100% pleased with my results, or with Julia Child's recipe. Several Daring Bakers had supplemented their knowledge by watching videos online, but I didn't. I thought a recipe should be able to stand on its own. I decided to try out a different but similar recipe to see how I fared.

I chose the French bread recipe from The Book of Bread by Judith and Evan Jones. Judith Jones is the editor who championed and edited Julia Child's first book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. (This was after she discovered the diary of a girl named Anne Frank in a rejection pile and helped bring it to publication.) Judith's book, The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food, is on my list of books I've been meaning to read.

Since this wasn't a Daring Bakers post, I decided to allow myself a few small changes from the book. And since I just wrote about French Bread, I'm just going to point out how the Jones' recipe (and my modifications) differs from Julia Child's.

- The writing - The Jones' writing style is friendly, reassuring and less fussy, which I liked better than Julia's.

- The ingredients -- The Jones' add a bit of whole wheat for texture and flavor. I can't say I noticed much of a difference.

- The mixing/kneading -- The Jones' add the step of scraping the dough up and slapping it down hard against the counter several times. This freaked out the dog but it completely changed the texture of the dough, and made it soft and smooth.

- Shaping the loaf -- The Jones' directions were simple: Using the palms of your hands, lightly floured, coax the sides of the dough down and under all the way around, at the same time plumping up the loaf. You will feel an invisible elastic cloak of gluten; just stretch it, don't break it. That's pretty much what I did for Julia's recipe, by the way.

- Transferring the loaf to a pan - Unlike Julia, the Jones' don't have you flip the loaf over after it has risen, which I think is a particularly tricky endeavor. Instead, the loaves rise on a paddle lined with cornmeal, and are transferred to the baking stone in the oven. I'm not a big fan of the whole cornmeal business. It makes a mess and burns on the bottom of the oven, and you need to use an awful lot to keep the loaf from sticking. I let my loaves rise on pieces of parchment and transferred them to the baking stone. I knew from my experience with pizza that they would stick to the parchment before baking, but release when they were done baking.

- Baking time/temperature - The Jones' have you bake part of the time at 450, then turn down to 375.

I did make one BIG mistake in my process. During the final rising, I got absorbed in American Idol and forgot all about them! I do think they may have over proofed.
Despite my mistake, we preferred these loaves to Julia Child's. The crust wasn't quite as hard, and the flavor wasn't quite as salty. The only disadvantage to this recipe is that the measures are not by weight, which serious bakers prefer to measuring by volume.

In the end, I am glad I tried making French Bread and I did learn from the experience. But I am over it. I don't really think it's worth the effort required. From here on out, I'll be buying my French Bread at Wegmans.

On the other hand, it did remind me that I enjoy making bread at home, and it's not as much of a bother as it seems. I plan to try my hand at some of the easier no-knead recipes that seem to be in vogue now.

But if you want to try your hand at French Bread, I do recommend this recipe (my comments in parentheses):

French Bread (Directions for making two round loaves)
From The Book of Bread by Judith & Evan Jones

Good French bread depends on slow rising to develop its honest flavor and chewy texture, and those skinny loaves need a hot oven and a great whoosh of steam to acquire the deep, golden, crunchy crust. So take your time once you start; the dough can always be left to rise in the refrigerator, or overnight on a cool windowsill, if that works best for you.

Some years ago Paul and Julia Child spent months perfecting a method to create in American home ovens the true characteristics of crusty French loaves, and the recipe we give here is based on their invaluable findings, along with some touches we've worked out in our own kitchen as we've baked this bread almost weekly over the years. The use of just a little roughly ground wheat flour, while perhaps not authentic in this classic white flour loaf, adds a little texture that we like.

1 Tablespoon active dry yeast
2 3/4 cups warm water
2 Tablespoons coarse salt or 4 teaspoons table salt
5-6 tablespoons whole wheat flour
5 1/2 - 6 cups white flour, preferably unbleached
Corn meal (I didn't use)

Put the yeast in a large bowl with 1 cup of the warm water. When dissolved stir in the remaining water, salt, whole wheat flour, and about 5 1/2 cups of the white flour -- enough to make a dough that holds together. Turn out on a floured work surface and let rest while you clean the bowl.

Scrape the dough up -- it will be quite soft and very sticky -- and slap it down hard against the counter. Repeat several times. Start kneading, adding more flour as necessary. Knead for about 10 minutes (I did this in the stand mixer) until the dough is smooth, no longer sticky, and full of bounce. Return the dough to the clean, ungreased bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let stand at no more than 68 degrees for at least 3 hours, until triple in volume (this only took a couple of hours). We've found that it is even better to leave the dough overnight on a cold windowsill, or if the weather is warm to let it rise for about 1 hour at room temperature, then refrigerate overnight; weigh down with a heavy plate.

After the first rising, turn the dough out, punch it thoroughly all over, return it to the bowl, cover again with plastic wrap (spray bottom with cooking spray), and let rise at room temperature until double in volume -- probably 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hours depending on how cold the dough was. (Again, this went faster for me).

Divide the dough in half and form two round loaves. First pat each half into a round cake about 7 inches in diameter. Then, using the palms of your hands, lightly floured, coax the sides of the dough down and under all the way around, at the same time plumping up the loaf. You will feel an invisible elastic cloak of gluten; just stretch it, don't break it. Pick up the round and pinch together the seams on the bottom. Place, seam side down, either on a cornmeal-sprinkled paddle, if you are going to bake the loaves directly on hot tiles or a baking stone, or on a greased baking sheet sprinkled with corn meal. (You may also omit the cornmeal and place them on separate sheets of parchment on the paddle.) Let rise, covered lightly with a kitchen towel, until double in size - about 45 minutes.

Half an hour before baking, set in motion your device for creating steam. (I put a shallow pan on the bottom shelf of my oven as I was turning it on to preheat, then put water in it when I put the bread in the oven.) Preheat the oven to 450. Just before putting the loaves in, slash them with either three long, curved slashes or slashes going both ways in a tic-tac-toe pattern. Brush with water. Slip the loaves onto your hot surface, pulling away the paddle with a firm jerk, or place the baking sheets in the oven.

Bake 15 minutes ate 450 degrees, then lower the heat to 375 and continue baking another 20 minutes or until the loaves are nicely browned, crusty, and hollow-sounding when tapped on the bottom. Cool on racks.
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