Friday, December 27, 2013

Pioneer Woman's Caramel Apple Sweet Rolls

We held our annual holiday brunch last Sunday.  This has been a tradition dating back to 2004, and it’s our household’s biggest celebration.  This year 14 people were able to make it, and we enjoyed a mix of sweet and savory foods along with gifts and company. 

Unfortunately, we forgot to take pictures of our spread—too busy cooking and welcoming!—so you’ll have to take our word for what was on our kitchen counter buffet.  Applewood-smoked salmon and condiments; Baked Brie en Croute; Broccoli Cheddar Cakes; Pan Roasted Mini Sweet Peppers; Spicy Mango Jalapeno and also Caramelized Onion Chicken Meatballs; Berries and Persimmons and Greek Yogurt and honey.  For our baked goods, we offered Will’s Poppyseed Tea Ring; Caramelized Apple Gateau; Gingerbread mini-muffins with Dark Chocolate; Thomas Keller Cinnamon Scones.  Whew!  We sent back food with the guests as they left, so we didn’t have too much left over. 

In fact, by Christmas Eve breakfast, we were finished with all the rest of the baked goods.  Luckily, we planned it that way so that we could try out a new recipe for our Christmas morning breakfast.  We saw a recipe for Pioneer Woman’s Caramel Apple Sweet Rolls. We figured that if they were good, then we’d offer them possibly for our next holiday brunch.  (Click here for the original recipe that we found first through the December 2013 issue of Costco Connection.)

Having now made and consumed the rolls, we have some mixed reactions.  They are tasty, to be sure, but tasty in a way that most recipes are tasty when they include—in the filling and icing for 3 round cake pans’ worth of rolls—2 sticks of butter, 1 cup of heavy cream, 2 cups packed brown sugar, and 2 cups powered sugar.  When we read the ingredients list, we wondered whether the Pioneer Woman is in competition with Paula Deen to see who could pack more fat and sugar into a recipe!

But it wasn’t really the fat and sugar that most concerned us.  We had two major problems:

1) The dough was too wet.

Will is no stranger to making sweet rolls, so he was in charge of that part.  He thought the ingredients for ½ batch of “basic dough” seemed a little too liquid-y, requiring 2 cups milk and ½ cup canola oil for 4 ½ cups flour.  (The picture above shows the risen dough under plastic wrap.)  He hoped that some magical transformation would make the dough workable despite his fears…

2) The Apple Caramel filling wouldn’t solidify.

Partly, the fault was ours since she called for Granny Smith apples and we used Galas, the apples we had on hand.  But that aside, the directions called for the apples to be sautéed for 3-4 minutes, and we did so for over 6 minutes (to make up for the extra juiciness we saw in the Galas).  The caramel sauce itself was fine and nicely thickened, but once we put the apples back in the sauce, the mixture became instantly runny.  Instead of the “another 1 to 2 minutes” on low heat we were supposed to use to thicken the sauce after the addition of the apples, I let it cook down for 10 more minutes on medium high heat in an attempt to cook off some of the moisture.  When I finally took the mixture off the heat to cool, the sauce appeared spreadable (pictured above).

Alas, the combination of the too-wet dough and the too-wet filling made for a soggy mess when Will rolled the mixture.  The “roll” was more like a flattening mound of oatmeal.  It took all Will’s expertise to be able to somehow cut slices which he quickly transferred to pans before they could dissolve, as you can see above.  (And, not to be too picky, but it’s not clear to us how 3 pans of “7 to 8 rolls” “makes about 30 rolls” instead of 21-24.)  The recipe also made too much “Caramel Icing” but that was easily taken care of by not using all of it. 

Fortunately, the rolls still rose and baked well, and they were tasty (albeit somewhat translucent in the dough saturated with butter from the caramel filling).  However, we will be more skeptical of the Pioneer Woman’s recipes from now on.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Hot Chocolate, the Really Old Fashioned Way

We are fans of hot chocolate—especially when it’s snowing outside and it’s warm and cozy inside.  I’ve already written about the traditional hot chocolate made with real chocolate and real milk.  (Read that post here.)  But there’s an even more traditional way to make hot chocolate that doesn’t involve milk.  No, it doesn’t involve packets labeled Swiss Miss or Nestle either!

Possibly the richest hot chocolate we tasted was in Edinburgh, Scotland.  Thankfully it was a smaller portion than American hot chocolate and served in a demi-tasse cup.  Honestly, we cannot imagine drinking more of it since it was so thick and rick and, well, chocolate-y.  Our mistake was in ordering a chocolate cake along with it.  (Well, it was a shop that specialized in chocolate desserts!)  The combination was almost too much to handle, even for these two die-hard chocolate fiends.

We keep meaning to try out a place in Paris that is supposed to serve a similarly rich hot chocolate.  Guidebooks and fellow tourists all talked about Angelina’s, but somehow we haven’t made it there.  This summer when we were staying in Paris, we found ourselves half a block away from the fabulous chocolatier Jacques Genin, so we ended up going there for very exclusive and expensive (but oh so delicious) chocolates and surprisingly delectable fruit jellies (passion fruit and guava, I think, were amazing).

On one visit, we waited a long time to get a table to try out Jacques Genin’s hot chocolate and café crème as well.  They were good, but not as special as their chocolates were.  I think it’s because we don’t hand-make our own dark truffle with basil or milk chocolate with grapefruit.  We do, however, make darn good hot chocolates and coffees on our own.  In any case, given the slight (and overpriced) disappointment of the Jacques Genin hot chocolate pretty much next door to us in north Marais, we didn’t feel like standing in line to wait for a more expensive hot chocolate two metro rides away from us (near the Louvre).  

So we still haven’t made it over to Angelina's Tearoom, but I’m not sure we will try very hard either.  It looks great (here’s their page about the famed hot chocolate), but I think I can make it myself too.  I’ve gotten some hints from reading yelp reviews, and someone relayed the key information that Angelina’s makes their hot chocolate without milk.  At first I was astonished.  Without milk?  How can it be rich and creamy then?   I add not only milk but also either half and half or cream in my hot chocolate.  But then I tried making it with water instead—as suggested—and I could see that this method could work.  It’s definitely a different drink, and it is richer in the sense that the chocolate flavor is much more intense as it is not mellowed by the milk. 

If you want to try it, here is my recipe for 2 very very rich cups of hot chocolate:

1.  Slowly melt ½ cup chocolate callets (for easier melting) or chips in a small pan over medium heat.  Have on hand about cup of water.

Note: Try not to use overly sweet chips.  We use Belgian dark chocolate callets. 

Another Note: Yes, you can use a double-boiler so that you don't actually cook the chocolate directly over the stove-top.  I just choose to use no higher than medium heat to make sure it doesn't get a burnt taste.

2.  Once chocolate is almost all melted, slowly pour in about cup water and blend gently with a flat wire whisk to make a smooth and thick sauce.  Then add about half of the remaining water and again bring to a smooth sauce.  You’ll discover that the mixture initially gets thinner but will thicken again with another couple of minutes further cooking.  Then, if you wish, add the remaining water and repeat the above process.  The drink will get thicker (and get more pudding-like) the longer you have it on the heat, so do make sure that you are careful to remove from heat when you have reached the consistency you like.

Note: You should use no less than ½ cup water for ½ cup chips, but you can use up to 1 full cup water if you so desire.  By my experience, we like it best at about or ¾ cup water maximum for this drink.

3.  This is entirely optional, but I sprinkle in a tiny pinch of ground cayenne and a slightly larger pinch of ground cinnamon into the hot chocolate.  In a small pitcher, pour in about ½ cup whipping cream and microwave for about 30 seconds to warm.  Pour the hot chocolate into cups slightly larger than you think you'll need since you’ll want room to add cream.

Note: You may instead opt to whip some cream and serve on the side as Angelina’s does, but I find that I like having the warm cream to add in.  In either case, some sort of cream addition (warmed or whipped) is a must, in my view, to cut the richness of this drink.  I know, it’s odd to think about using cream to cut the richness of something…

Final Note: Will cannot decide which he likes better.  I think I like our traditional way with milk better as a drink, but this richer hot chocolate is something that becomes a dessert on its own.  You know, for those days when you want chocolate . . . but you want it hot.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Asian Salmon-and-Rice Porridge for Your Cold

Last year, Will and I both felt a bit under-the-weather after Thanksgiving.  That’s when I improvised a Chicken Spaetzle soup.  This year, Will’s post-Thanksgiving cold has outlasted last week’s Kimchi Chigae (previous post) as well as the Smoked Turkey Spaetzle soup (pictured below)—modified from last year’s recipe.  His almost-gone cold reasserted itself with a vengeance after last week’s business trip, and his voice was barely recognizable when I was talking to him during another trip this week.

So, on Wednesday, I was on a mission to find another soothing soup.  “Asian Salmon-and-Rice Soup” from Food & Wine Quick from Scratch Soups & Salads Cookbook was my choice since I had most of the ingredients.  I did stop by the store and get a small filet of salmon, but I had everything else ready and even was able to use leftover rice.  There were a few things I did slightly differently from the printed recipe, so I will walk us through my version.  (For 3 normal, for 2 over-sized servings that Will and I finished in one dinner.)


1.  Cut up about ¾ lb of skinless salmon into large chunks, put the salmon pieces in a bowl, and then drizzle 1 T soy sauce and 1 T sesame oil over the salmon.  Turn to coat all sides, and leave to marinate while you are cooking everything else.

2.  Bring 4 cups of water to a boil, and dissolve about 1 heaping tablespoon of Glacé de Poulet Gold Classic Roasted Chicken Stock (which is a handy concentrated chicken broth-in-a-tub from a company called More Than Gourmet).  Or, you can use 2 cups chicken broth and 2 cups water.

3.  Once the broth is boiling, add 2 cups cooked rice, ¼ cup chopped cilantro stems, 1 T minced ginger, and ½ t salt.  Bring back to a boil and then partly cover and let flavors meld together for about 10 minutes. 

4.  Add salmon and the soy-sesame juices from the bowl into the soup.  Let the mixture come back to a boil and then reduce the heat to low and let salmon poach for just 5 minutes.  At this point, you may wish to add more salt or soy sauce to taste and then garnish with 2 T chopped scallions and 2 T chopped cilantro leaves.

I used leftover steamed rice which yields more starch and thus produces a thicker soup.  If you want a clearer broth, you might want to boil—not steam—your rice separately and then throw away the starchy water that you cooked the rice in. 

I actually prefer the thicker soup because it reminds me of a comforting rice porridge—similar to chicken congee—that my mother used to make when someone in the family was recovering from an illness.  She would cook down rice with a prodigious amount of water such that it became very soft and the liquid very thick.  Then the porridge was flavored with a bit of soy sauce seasoned with sesame oil and scallions. 

The salmon in this soup made it a respectable meal I could serve at dinner, but I was perfectly content with the last soup ladle of the salmon-less thickened porridge that reminded me of that childhood comfort food.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Kimchi Chigae: A Spicy Break from Thanksgiving

It’s funny how Thanksgiving makes you run toward ethnic foods.  After several successive meals of Thanksgiving leftovers (with more turkey in the freezer) and post-Thanksgiving improvisations (smoked turkey spaetzle soup) we were ready to leave behind this most American of meals for a while.  Especially with Will recovering from a nasty cold with clogged sinuses, something wickedly spicy and brothy and hearty—and, most of all, ethnic—appealed to us. 

We thought about getting some Thai Tom Yum soup—that will clear up a lot of congestion!—but we also didn’t want to leave home once we cocooned ourselves back in our condo.  That’s when I remembered that we had a jar of extra-fermented kimchi.  I offered Will either kimchi guk (more brothy) or kimchi chigae (more stew-y).  Since I had some good pork belly, I decided to go with the stew version of the Korean classic.

I’m not an expert cook of Korean foods, but the internet has made it very easy to find ways to make just about anything these days—even those foods which I didn’t realize had recipes.  My mother would never have put down in exact measurements how to prepare some traditional dishes like kimchi chigae, but the web yielded pages of sites with recipes in fraction of a second.  Of course they all varied slightly, and I used a slightly different version from the one I had used previously.  But, really, we are talking about Korean food which is not an exact science.

Combining features of other recipes—and memories of my mother’s cooking—here is what I ended up making, and how, in step-by-step photos:

You start with some chopped kimchi (surprise!) and its juices, add some sliced onion, and sprinkle a little sugar, red pepper flakes (it’s neither ground nor crushed—easily found in Asian grocery stores), and hot chili paste (another item from a store like H-Mart).  Then you pour enough water to dilute the mixture a bit and so that you can have some broth.  As you can see, it all looks fairly bright.

Will likes this part a lot.  You can add—if you are not a vegetarian, of course—some sliced pork belly.  We happened to have some lightly smoked pressed cooked bacon, and it was perfect.  It wasn’t so smoky that the overall flavor was impacted (nor is it really easy to alter the unsubtle flavor of stewed kimchi), and the bacon tasted great!  In any case, you bring the mixture to a boil and then turn the heat down to medium low for about 20-30 minutes until the kimchi is much softer and the color is more like a dull orange (below) as opposed to the bright color it was at the beginning.

At this point, you can slice some medium firm tofu (silky is too soft, and I usually reserve firm tofu for pan-frying) and let it warm up for another 5 minutes or so.   Some recipes don’t call for this, but I never miss a chance to add sesame oil, and it’s a nice addition to both the kimchi chigae and kimchi guk (the soup).

Will went through the dish in no time, inhaling the spiciness and the heat!  He said it was exactly what his body needed.  I have to agree with him.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Mostly Home Cooked Thanksgiving in Another Home

It’s a long story about how it happened, but Will and I packed up almost our entire kitchen and our dog Katie and went down state to cook Thanksgiving dinner in someone else’s home.  It was a well-stocked kitchen—and amazingly organized and clutter-free too!—so the experience was a fairly smooth one.  We couldn’t find only a few items, and it turned out that we could have left at home some spices and other ingredients. 

But, cooking Thanksgiving dinner in someone else’s kitchen 6 hours away from your favorite grocery stores is a bit chancy, so we decided to make the process more streamlined by purchasing some foods.  That way, we would minimize the stress of wondering whether their oven or the grill cooks at higher or a lower temperature than our own for the main meat course.  It also saved us having to gather together scraps of paper to follow obscure recipes since we were cooking mostly items we knew by experience. 

I’ll admit right off that I’ve never been a successful roaster of turkeys.  Partly I blame it on the fact that I actually do not like turkey that much.  I enjoy the occasional turkey breast sandwich and I adore roast chicken, but not so much a whole turkey.  Well, Greenberg’s smoked turkey (an Oprah favorite, no less!) changed my mind about turkeys.  We ordered an 8-10 lb turkey which arrived in plenty of time for Thanksgiving.  We froze it and brought it down.  It was fabulous—tasted exactly like you’d expect campfire to taste, and it smelled of the best smoked bacon.  Yum.  We’ll try that again when we want to serve a whole turkey for Thanksgiving.

The other item we decided to forego cooking ourselves was the soup course.  I found an organic soup brand called Imagine, and we brought down both a Butternut Squash and an Acorn Squash with Mango soups.  After a careful taste test, we decided to go with the Acorn Squash with Mango.  Emily (our hostess-cum-helper) called it more “festive.”  Feeling guilty that I did not actually make the soup, I garnished the soup with some toasted hazelnuts and chiffonaded sage to make it a little extra special.

Will’s buttermilk rolls, whipped sweet potatoes, mushroom risotto, pan-roasted mini sweet peppers with sea salt flakes, and a warm and creamy Brussels sprouts slaw were our sides.  The last two items were particular hits.   

The peppers were so simple and so deliciously tender and roasted—and people even asked about the sea salt flakes (Maldon).  The warm Brussels sprouts are julienned and then sautéed in a bit of butter along with a tiny bit of minced garlic and chopped onion.  Then the magic ingredients step in: cream and grated parmesan cheese.  This is one of my favorite ways of having Brussels sprouts!

Then we finished off with our favorite apple pie with some maple whipped cream.  The next day, we baked a pumpkin pie as well since my favorite recipe was easily accessed through this blog!

Friday, November 22, 2013

De-Cluttering with My New Spice Jar Drawer

I’ll get to the picture above in a minute, but first I need to explain what brought that on.  You see, every New Year I make a long list of resolutions which are becoming so predictable that it’s becoming comical: exercise more, procrastinate less, donate more, waste less, blah blah blah.  All good intentions, and many of them not followed through.

In recent years, I’ve started blaming the cluttered nature of my home for my inability to be a better follower of my own resolutions.  We are a two-professional household with increasingly busy workday schedules.  (Thank goodness we only have a dog we are taking care of and no kids because I’m not sure how we could possibly be keeping up with all the demands made by our workaholic society.  I truly feel for my friends and relatives who juggle work and kids!)  Meanwhile, our home is becoming more and more of a wreck each weekday such that the weekend rolls around to have us wading in piles of clothing and junk mail and charitable solicitations and dirty dishes sitting on counters because the dishwasher has been full since Tuesday.  I’ve been increasingly getting worried about the implications of all this clutter since there are plenty of expert opinions giving voice to the notion that a cluttered home is a sign of a cluttered subconscious.  Yikes!

I decided we need to do a better job of de-cluttering so that we can maintain a semblance of order and cleanliness.  So, this year, I’m trying something new.  Instead of waiting until the New Year to make my same old resolution to de-clutter, I’m going to start preparing myself for the new year by tackling a small de-cluttering job each weekend.  One weekend, Will and I both went through a task we set ourselves: Will cleared the den closet and I put the pantry in some order.  This past week, we put clothing and “small household items” in six bags so that Amvets could make their pick-up of our donations, something we do 4-6 times a year.


On a past weekend, I attacked the spice cabinet.  We cook a lot, and it turns out we have even more spices than I thought we had.  Some are in jars, some in bags, some in tubs, and most are residing in hidden recesses of our kitchen.  As you can see from the picture above, I had them in a small “lazy Susan” that would turn so that I can see what spices are on the other side.  Of course, it should have occurred to me when first coming up with this brilliant plan that the turning doesn’t really help me figure out what spices are inside, in the inner circles of the lazy Susan.  I’ve had many a frustrated attempt to find a little-used spice (I don’t really do that much with tarragon, for instance, or that garam masala which it turned out I had two jars of—no doubt because I could not find the first jar and purchased a second jar for ½ teaspoon in a recipe).

I decided on the clear-topped spice containers you see at the top of this post.  They are actually magnetized and designed to be placed on sides of refrigerators or on a separate metallic rack, but I sense that would not contribute to an organized-looking kitchen to display dozens of spice containers out in the open.  So I opted to put them inside one of the top drawers of the kitchen such that I can see all my spices at once.  Will suggested putting labels on top, but I didn’t want to spoil the look of the clear tops, so I put little labels on the sides.  It might mean that I have to pull out both the allspice and the ground clove or both the ground cumin and the ground coriander, but that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make for the neat appearance.


So far, I’m liking this method quite a bit.  I’ve found it’s easier to open the top to use a measuring spoon to scoop out, and the side holes make sprinkling (like cinnamon or ground cayenne) quite handy.  I should confess though that I’m hedging my bets.  I purchased 16 containers for my more frequently-used spices and left the others in their original jars.  If all works well I might invest in more containers, but for now I’m happy enough to pull out other spices as needed from the inner recesses of my cluttered subconscious—oops, I meant, my cluttered kitchen drawer!

Friday, November 15, 2013

Creating A Little Tarte Tatin Magic

When we were in Brussels, I almost gasped in surprise that the holiday festival food included—along with spiced warm wine—gaufrettes!  I had to remind myself not to keep asking for “Belgian Waffles” because we were already in Belgium, and locals would laugh at my gauche behavior.  But, of course, it turns out that their own gaufrettes were thicker and more substantial—less airy inside—and they usually had pearl sugar crystals.  In other words, not really like the kinds you get at brunch places in the United States when you order “Belgian Waffle.”

So, I expected that our misconceptions of French cuisine would be equally skewed.  (And, really, most frites—“French fries”—are not like McDonald’s specialty.)  On our very first trip to Paris together, on the first night we had a nice dinner out at a bistro, the dessert on offer was “Tarte Tatin.”   And, of course, Tarte Tatin is one of those desserts that Americans so closely associate with the French that you almost doubt its authenticity.  Surely, the French cannot really eat tarte tatin—not the ones Americans imagine at any rate—we reasoned.  We decided to risk it.  Well, it was like American Tarte Tatin, though perhaps a bit less tasty than the one Will bakes at home.

The fact is, Will has perfected the Tarte Tatin over the several years he has been baking, and he now has mastered the art by combining his favorite elements of different recipes.  He uses the recipe for “Tarte Tatin of Winter Pears” from Williams-Sonoma’s Cooking from the Farmer’s Market, swapping out the pears for apples when we make the traditional version of the tarte.  He likes the crystalized ginger and the spices of the recipe. 

For a while though, he was using Hay Day Country Market Cookbook for the flaky pie curst after we decided that the Williams-Sonoma recipe’s crust was too doughy and tough.  It turned out that the miscalculation was on our part.  The recipe called for a 12-inch baking pan, so the crust would have been rolled out thinner than what we were making for a 9-inch pan.  So, back we went to the drawing board and re-proportioned everything.

Click here for the original recipe, but read on for our modifications for a 9-inch traditional Apple Tarte Tatin.

For the Crust, use:

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
¼ t salt
½ cup cold butter
4-5 T ice water

3 T cold butter
¼ c sugar
5-6 small apples (easier to fit in if they are small)
2 T candied ginger chopped
1 T lemon juice
½ ground cinnamon
¼ allspice
¼ ground cloves

We use these modifications for the recipe, and enjoy this very traditional French dessert all through fall, until our apple supply finally disappears…

Friday, November 8, 2013

Discovering a New Taste: TASTE Week in Review

As you might imagine, we have our fair share of cookbooks.  Sure, there are a few which are unique favorites like the Hay Day Country Market Cookbook and some we rely on for quick recipes like Food & Wine Quick From Scratch One-Dish Meals.  And then there are those which we got because they are so beautiful but which we don’t imagine actually recreating dishes from, like anything by Thomas Keller.

Recently, my eyes caught sight of The Best of Taste, almost a folio-sized cookbook based off of pictures and recipes from Williams-Sonoma’s Taste culinary magazine.  It was a cookbook I purchased a dozen years ago because of the gorgeous pictures.  I never intended to cook anything from it—and hadn’t—and it essentially served as a nice coffee table book.

But a couple of weekends ago, I got curious about it and opened the book after letting it sit ignominiously for twelve years without once looking through it.  Perhaps I was in a different mood, but suddenly the recipes looked so much more interesting and manageable—in fact, easy!—than they seemed before.  Previously, I must have equated the beautiful pictures with impossible preparations (surely!) and didn’t even bother to look closely at the fact that the ingredient lists of most recipes were relatively short, and the numbered steps were strangely few.  Many recipes only had 2-3 steps in the process.  Why didn’t I think about cooking from this book before?

Since then, I’ve gotten busy and have tried to make up much lost time by looking to the cookbook when I want a little inspiration.  Sunday before last, for our end-of-the-weekend home-cooked feast, I tried Braised Chicken with Shallots, Dates and Apricots.  I was overcome with excitement because this recipe miraculously included all sorts of items I’d been meaning to go through.  Yes, not only did we have frozen chicken thighs, but we also had Medjool dates and a bag of shallots.  Ok, we did have to get dried apricots, but we would have needed them soon for homemade granola anyway.  My one qualm about the dish (above) was that it ended up looking nothing like the picture in the book.  And, if truth be told, I’m not sure it could look as dry as the dish in the book since these ingredients were supposed to stew in liquid for a substantial length of time.  In any case, it was sweet and sticky and savory and rib-sticking on a chilly autumn evening.

Then, bolstered by my success with the chicken dish, on the following Wednesday evening—the only day of the workweek during which I have time to cook something remotely interesting and new—I tried their Spanish Garlic Soup.  When Will and I were walking the Camino de Santiago this past summer, we had several bowls of the Garlic Soup, sometimes thickened with bread and other times having chunks of bread floating in it.  The Taste soup (above) was very nostalgic, though perhaps a bit more refined in flavor than the ones we had in the countryside...  As an added bonus, this time the finished product looked exactly like the picture in the cookbook.

Will then got jealous that I had a new favorite cookbook and started sneaking peeks into Taste.  Taking his cue from my earlier use of recipes which required almost no ingredient not already in our kitchen, on Saturday he set out to find a simple recipe which made use of items we had.  When I plumbed the depths of the freezer to bring out a bag of frozen almond meal flour, he decided on Hazelnut Cake from Verona.  Very reminiscent of all those torta della nonnas—generically “grandmother’s cake,” it could run the gamut from a custard pie cake to chocolate torte—this one used hazelnut and rum to create a moist and dense cake.  We had to do some improvising with the measurements since the original recipe used whole hazelnuts that you ground yourself, but the results seem to suggest that our 2-year-old hazelnut flour did its job fine.

Given that the above resulted from just one week of exploring Taste, I’m going to go through this cookbook and try more dishes!

Friday, November 1, 2013

Easy Weeknight Dessert: Any-Fruit Shortcake

After dinner one night, I had a hankering for a dessert but knew that we had none.  It was my own fault.  Note to self: This is what happens when you decide to limit your baking fiend of a husband to one butter-and-sugar laden product per week. 

Then I remembered that I had a flash of brilliance some few weeks previously.  When Will asked what I wanted for a “simple dessert,” I had requested shortcake.  My reasoning was that they freeze nicely and can go with nearly any fruit we have around at any given time.  Anxiously I approached the freezer.  Did we have any frozen shortcakes still left over?  Of course, we did!

We get our shortcake recipe from Williams-Sonoma Essentials of Baking.  You can use another recipe that you particularly enjoy, or you can click here for an "easy" online version of the Williams-Sonoma recipe.  Note though that the online recipe cuts in half almost all the ingredients and makes just 4 shortcake rounds, while the recipe from the cookbook makes 8. 

The major difference is that the cookbook recipe used 1 large egg—not easily halved for a recipe for 4—and did not halve the amount of cream used, so that cookbook recipe will have the addition of a little extra cake-like texture from the egg versus the more scone-like texture of the online version.  We like both versions, but since we like to make 8 and freeze the rest for convenient defrosting, we tend to go with the cookbook recipe (page 92):

1.     Preheat oven to 425 degrees, and line a large cookie sheet with parchment paper.

2.     Combine 1¾ cup all-purpose flour, ¼ cup sugar, 1 T baking powder and ½ t salt in a food processor and pulse a few times to mix.  Add ½ cup (1 stick) butter cut into small pieces, and pulse again.

3.     Blend together 1 egg and 1/3 cup cream (plus 1-2 T of extra cream, to taste and to the texture you prefer), and then pour the mixture into the food processor bowl and pulse again to moisten.

4.     (If you prefer, you can decide to use just 1/3 cup cream and then roll out the dough and cut with a biscuit cutter, but we actually like the rustic simplicity of free-formed dropped shortcakes.  Ok, and we’re lazy.) 

5.     Using a large spoon, drop moist spoonfuls of dough onto the parchment paper about 1 inch apart to make 8 cakes, and then bake for 12-15 minutes until golden.

Once the cakes have cooled, place in ziploc bags ones you will not eat that day.  The high butter content ensures that you will have moist (and crumbly) shortcakes another day.   Once you are ready for more, simply remove a few from the freezer and preheat the oven to 325 degrees.  By the time the oven is ready, the shortcakes should have defrosted a bit.  Pop them in the oven for about 5-10 minutes—depending on how frozen they are still—and enjoy with the fruit topping.

For the fruit topping:

Wash the fruit of your choice.  Strawberries are a perennial favorite, but we also had raspberries (pictured at the top of post) one day and peaches (below) on another occasion.  If you are using peaches, peel and slice into wedges.  Sprinkle a little lemon juice and a teaspoon of fine sugar over your peaches or your berries, and lightly mix so as not to crush the delicate fruit.

The recipe has you split the baked shortcake to fill, but we find the drop-biscuit shortcakes a bit thin around the edges (something we like because they lend a certain crispy edge to contrast with the moist center), and we prefer to pile the fruit on the side of the shortcake.

This is one dessert where I don’t think whipped cream is “optional.”  Sure, you can use sweetened crème fraiche or mascarpone, but really the sweetened whipped cream is the best for these any-fruit shortcakes!

Friday, October 25, 2013

One of Our Favorite Paris Foods: Couscous!

According to Wikipedia—never fear, we don’t get all our information from this much-used site—couscous is polled as the third most favorite food of the French people.  Well, if our experience in Paris is any example, we believe it!

Perhaps it has something to do with where we were staying.  After all, we tended usually to stay in the Rue Cler area, near the Eiffel Tower (below), in a slightly tonier neighborhood.  Residents and tourists there tended to be a bit older and a bit more affluent, and tourists in the area tended to be a bit more . . . well, touristy.  That is, they flocked to traditional tourist sights, tourist traps, tourist-filled restaurants and cafés.  Don’t get me wrong.  We loved the Rue Cler area and will probably go back when we get the chance.

But this summer, we stayed in the north Marais neighborhood, just south of Republic Metro stop (view from our fifth floor apartment patio is the picture below).  People here were younger, hipper, and amazingly fashionable.  They were also much more ethnic than we remember Paris being.  In retrospect, we realize that Paris must have been like this all the years we’d been traveling here.  We must have just eaten in the usual Rick Steves recommended restaurants and stayed in the same Rick Steves recommended hotels where we were bound to run into other tourists clutching those iconic blue travel guides.  We still think Rick Steves guidebooks are terrific, but we realize now that staying in the north Marais area for two weeks allowed us to get a glimpse of people who actually lived in Paris.

It bears repeating.  North Marais is much more ethnically diverse than other areas we’d stayed at in Paris.  Within just a few blocks of our apartment, we found a Chinese take-out, a market where we could get Japanese and Moroccan food, an Italian deli, excellent Thai.  Two blocks south got us one of the most amazing falafel places in the Jewish Quarter (picture of line of people below). You get the idea.  In addition to the roast chicken, steak frites, and croque monsieur, you had the rest of the world at your disposal. 

We heard great things about the Moroccan stand—with long, snaking, lines—at our local market, Le Marche des Rouges Enfants.  We did try the lamb tagine with plums and almonds as recommended.  It was good, but it seemed the portions were somewhat small for what they charged and ultimately not nearly as tasty as the lines seemed to promise.  (But that could also be because we make a good lamb and date tagine at home…)

We decided to give Marais Moroccan cuisine another try when we heard about Chez Omar, a place apparently famous for its old-style couscous dishes and clientele that included the likes of supermodels and director Sophia Coppola.  Plus, it was only two blocks from where we were!  The important thing was to be completely unfashionable and to get there at an ungodly time of 6:30, a time at which no self-respecting European would be eating dinner.  Never mind.  We’re Americans on vacation.  So off we went, got one of the last tables, and were ensconced between a large young family (French family with an American father—and children who switched back and forth between perfect French and English) and two young women who did indeed look like they might be models.  They were incredibly thin, photogenic, ordered a ton of food and touched practically none of it while gushing about how amazing it was and how full they were.

Like everyone else we ordered the couscous (their specialty).  You get a heap of steamed couscous grains—and they’ll bring more if you actually need more—and a tureen of vegetable stew.  That’s your “couscous” dish.  You spoon some grains on your plate and top with the stew, and then you typically accompany that with the meat or fish of your choice that you order along with it (pictured at top of post).  Our order was for lamb brochettes and merguez sausages.  Perfect.  It’s the kind of food that I crave now that it’s finally turned to a chilly fall weather here in Chicago.

Then, when we were done with as much of this food as we could manage—which we did much more successfully than the two tables next to us—we could not contemplate a larger dessert.  So, we got espresso and a small pastry each from the gigantic mound they bring you to choose from.

We cannot wait to get back to Paris!