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!