Archive | January, 2009

Sunday Superbowl Suppers: Saturday Edition

31 Jan
Eat all this, and you'll be in a coma.

Eat all this, and you'll be in a coma.

Anyone who knows me is aware of what an avid sports fan I am.  I will wait for you all to stop laughing.  Ahem.  Let me rephrase.  Anyone who knows me is aware that a)I take “heads up” literally, and I get hit in the face with the ball and my glasses break, b)The extent of my football knowledge is that LeVander is pronouned Lee-VAN-der, not LA-ven-der.  Thank you, Wildcats, and c)The only sports that I enjoy take place in Kitchen Stadium.

I used to be a little embarrassed by my lack of sports savvy.  I did venture into soccer fandom in college, where I cheered lustily for the team. (Go Cobras!  Hissssss!) But that, dear readers, was an anomaly.  I must now admit that I just liked shaking a red card high in the air and chanting, “Blood!  Blood!  Blood makes the grass grow!” I had no idea what was going on out there on the field of battle.  I did mean well, however.

I have a confession to make that will serve to underscore just how little school or team spirit I have ever been able to muster:  Spirit Day.  Carmel Junior High School, 1978.  Pep rally at which we were all to wear our school’s colors, the Magnificent Orange and Brown.  Go Cougars.  I wore gray and burgundy.  I think that pretty much sums it up for you.

By now, you probably have figured out that I will not be watching the Big Game.  I can’t even watch for the commercials because I’ve seen them all already.  Thanks stupid media.  I have, however, made some concessions because I know that most of America will be watching.  Concession One:  I have kindly moved the Sunday Suppers post to Saturday, so you will not have to experience the psychic tension that would result from having to choose between reading PMAT or watching the game.  You’re welcome.  Concession Two:  I come bearing snacks.  Don’t mention it.

Because the teams on the field in Tampa (see, I know that much)  tomorrow will be the only ones getting any exercise, I offer relatively healthy but tasty snacks, snacks that you won’t have to feel (too) guilty about eating.  Here, there are no heaping plate of nachos, no melty-gooey spinach artichoke dips, no sticky wings, no football-shaped Spam.   If cheesy, fatty goodness is what you desire on Superbowl Sunday, go forth out into the Hinternet and find it, for it IS there for the taking.  Today, I offer unto you some lighter but satisfying fare so you Steelers fans can wave your Terrible Towels (thank you Celeste, for teaching me this) or you Cardinals fans can, I don’t know, chirp for your team in good form right up until the last three-pointer is thrown.  Dammit!  I’m such a sports moron.

Jenni’s Superbowl Spanakopita

Little creamy, spinachy Greek-ish footballs of joy

Little creamy, spinachy Greek-ish footballs of joy

I’m not Greek, so my apologies to anyone’s Greek grandmother who thinks these aren’t authentic.   They are tasty, though.

  • 2 boxes of frozen, chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed as dry as you can get it
  • 1 medium sweet onion, chopped (maybe a 2 1/2″ onion?)
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • olive oil or butter for sauteing
  • kosher salt and black pepper, to taste
  • 2 pasteurized eggs, beaten
  • 1 pound of feta cheese (or feta with herbs), crumbled
  • 1/2 cup minced oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes (optional, but good)
  • 1/2 cup toasted pine nuts (optional, but good)
  • several grates of fresh nutmeg
  • 1/3-1/2 cup creme fraiche or sour cream
  • About 3 TBSP chopped dill
  • 1 box phyllo dough, defrosted (this lives near the puff pastry and pie crust in the freezer section at the grocery store.  It is a phonetic spelling of a Greek word, so you’ll also see it as Fillo, Filo and any number of other spellings)
  • melted butter or olive oil, for brushing the phyllo dough

Heat a skillet or saute pan.  Add the oil and/or butter (maybe 2 TBSP, total) to the pan.  Add the onions and the garlic with a pinch of kosher salt and pepper.  Saute over medium-high-ish heat until golden.  You’re done with the skillet, now.

Mix the onions and garlic with the spinach and all the rest of the ingredients really well.  Don’t worry–no gluten here, so mix away.  If you’re not too grossed out by tasting the filling, even with pasteurized eggs, taste and add more salt and/or pepper, if needed.

Lay your stack of phyllo out flat.  Cover it with a damp–not wet–towel.  Dried out phyllo is a pain to use, so keep it covered.   When you’re ready, take out one sheet of phyllo dough and set it in front of you in portrait, not landscape.  Keep the rest covered.  Brush the dough evenly with melted butter.  Fold the dough in thirds, longwise.  Now, you’ll have a strip of dough that’s about 3″ wide and 14″ long (or so).  Put one heaping spoonful of filling in the center at the top of the strip.  Don’t get crazy with this; you do want to be able to fold it over.  Fold one corner of the dough over the filling into a triangle, and continue folding until you get to the bottom. For you visual folks out there, here is a pictorial tutorial I found.  This is like folding a flag or making one of those paper footballs that we used to make in elementary school. Come to think of it, I was pretty good at table-top football.  Yay, me.

Keep making little phyllo footballs until all of your filling is gone.  Brush the little guys with a little more melted butter or oil, put them on baking sheets–they can be pretty close together, but not touching–and bake them at 350 degrees, F, until they are golden brown and lovely.  Serve warm or at room temperature.

The Best Hummus Ever

My favorite dipping snack, ever.

My favorite dipping snack, ever.

It really is.  I’m not kidding.  I am only allowed to make this every once in awhile.  If it’s in the house, I will sit in front of the television and shove it in my face with any convenient dipping device:  chips, pita, vegetables, fingers.  Whatever is handy.

  • 2 large cans garbanzo beans (I like Goya)
  • 3-5 cloves garlic, peeled (depending on how garlicky you like things to be)
  • about 1/3 cup reserved chickpea liquid
  • juice of 3 lemons
  • 1/2 cup tahini (It’s usually in the kosher food section.  At my grocery store, it’s with the peanut butter)
  • kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • mild curry powder, to taste–about 1/2-1 tsp.
  • cumin, to taste–about 1/2-1 tsp.
  • extra virgin olive oil

Mince the garlic in the food processor.  Then, add in everything except the olive oil.  Process until you have a nice smooth-ish paste.  With the processor still running, drizzle in extra virgin olive oil until you like the consistency.  I usually use a lot.  I tell myself that it is very good for my heart.  Taste, and add more salt, pepper or seasonings.  You can eat it immediately, but it is better chilled for a few hours.  The garlic has a chance to settle down a bit.  To serve, drizzle on some olive oil, sprinkle on some paprika if you want and top with some fresh parsley.  Or not.  Serve with anything.

Friends, I hope you enjoy your Superbowl, and I hope you enjoy your snacks.  If anyone gets hit in the face with the ball, spare me a thought.  I will probably be reading.

Pineapple Upside Down Cake for Grownups

30 Jan
This is not your mama's pineapple upside down cake!

This is not your mama's pineapple upside down cake!

Dear Pineapple Upside Down Cake That My Mom Used To Make,

As a kid, I loved eating you.  I loved that my mom made your batter with pineapple juice, so you were very sweet.  I loved the maraschino cherries in the centers of your pineapple rings.  I loved your caramel-y goodness.  In short, I was a huge fan.

As an adult, I sort of fell out of love with you. I am sorry, P.U.D.in’, but it’s true.  What tasted “sweet” to my kid’s palate just tasted “cloying” to my adult palate.  I saw a documentary about how they make maraschino cherries, and, frankly, it was kind of a turn-off.  Your light caramel turned bland and two-dimensional; it no longer held me in thrall. I guess I just wasn’t that into you anymore.

And while I found other lovers, I never fell out of love with the idea of you.  The nostalgic romantic in me always wanted to somehow rekindle that spark of childhood adoration.  Even though I thought I had moved on, shutting the door forever on our relationship, I wanted to find my way back to you.  That is how much I loved you.  I loved individual aspects of you, still–pineapple, cake, caramel–I just needed to find a way for the grown up me to love you again.

And then it came to me. You, my own sweet P.U.D.in’, would have to grow up, too.  As a child, I played with childish things, but as an adult, it was time for me to put away my childish things and rediscover you as an adult.  I knew that somehow I could find my way to a mature version of that childhood love.  And, beloved Pineapple Upside Down Cake, I have.  Welcome back.  Welcome back.

Love,
Jenni

Friends, if you, too, have fallen out of love with your childhood friend, if you think that pineapple upside down cake is fit only for school cafeteria lines and Fourth of July picnics, let me reintroduce you to the new and improved, all grown up, sexy Pineapple Financier.

Sexy Batter (makes kind of a lot.  If this is more than you need, it will keep in the refrigerator for two or three days with no problem)

  • 375 g. powdered sugar
  • 135 g. toasted macadamia nuts, finely ground
  • 135 g. all purpose flour
  • 4 g. baking powder
  • 3 g. salt
  • 375 g. egg whites
  • 200 g. browned butter
  • 35 g. corn syrup

In the bowl of a stand mixer, mix all dry ingredients thoroughly.  With the mixer on low, slowly blend in the egg whites.  Scrape the bowl as needed.  Drizzle in the browned butter and the corn syrup.  Mix until uniformly blended.

Sexy Rum Caramel

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2/3 cup heavy cream
  • 1/4 cup dark rum
  • heavy pinch of salt
  • wee splash of vanilla

Bring sugar to a boil with a little water.  Put a lid on and let boil for 2-3 minutes to wash sugar crystals off the sides of the pan.  Remove lid and bring the sugar to a dark amber caramel.  Turn off the heat and add the cream.  It will splutter and complain and foam up.  Stir the caramel over medium heat until it is smooth.  Add the alcohol and the salt.  Simmer until slightly reduced.  Remove from the heat and cool down for a few minutes.  Stir in the wee splash of vanilla.

Grown-Up Pineapple Upside Down Cake

  1. Grease a 9-10″ cast iron skillet or a 9-10″ round baking pan.
  2. Spread a very thin layer of caramel in the bottom of the pan.
  3. Arrange slices or rings of fresh pineapple in some sort of pleasing (or not) pattern on top of the caramel.  Add some toasted crushed macadamia nuts or even some toasted coconut, if you want.
  4. Spread another layer of caramel on top of the pineapple.  You might not use all of the caramel.  Oh, well.  Use it on ice cream or mix it into some coffee or hot chocolate.
  5. Pour and spread the financier batter on top of the caramel.  Fill the skillet/pan about 1/2-2/3 full.
  6. Bake at 350 degrees until the cake is risen, is a beautiful, caramelized golden brown and is pretty firm to the touch, about 35 minutes–but keep an eye on it.  If the cake starts to get a little too brown before it is completely set, turn the oven down by 25 degrees, F, and cover it with a piece of foil.
  7. Remove from oven and let sit until warm but not hot.
  8. Run a knife around the outside of the cake to loosen it, if necessary.  Put a serving platter on top of the skillet/pan and carefully turn the whole thing over.  Give the pan a good whack, and lift it off.  Rearrange any recalcitrant pieces of pineapple that might have decided to stay in the pan.
  9. Serve with vanilla ice cream, coconut sorbet or maybe some of that delightful Haagen Dazs toasted coconut-sesame brittle ice cream.  And maybe some of the extra rum caramel, if you didn’t put it all in your coffee.  Mmmmmmmmmm.

Hello! Hey, guys:  you can make the financier batter with whatever nuts you want and then use a complementary fruit.  How about walnuts or pecans and pears and/or apples?  I am sure you can come up with a ton of variations.  Plus, you can make little individual cake-lets, too.  They’ll only need to bake for maybe 15-20 minutes or so.

So, hey!  Um, guys? I hope I have helped to reacquaint you with a long-lost childhood love.  Oh, okay, I will leave you two alone now.  I’ll just quietly close the door behind me…

That Sugar Cost How Much?!

29 Jan
Expensive Ingredients don't make you a better cook.  They make you poor.

Expensive Ingredients don't make you a better cook. They make you poor.

Do you guys see those little puzzle pieces?  Cool, huh?  They’re pressed from either refined white, demerara or light brown sugar.  The product is called Puzzles de Sucre.  It is French and is produced by Can a Suc, whose tag line is “Le charme de l’instant cafe.”  Roughly translated, “the charm of instant coffee.”  Hmmm.  I’m sure they really don’t want us to put their little puzzle pieces into a cup o’Nescafe, but what do I know?  And by the way, the box weighs 8.8 oz, including the ton of packaging to keep the sugar pieces from even minute shifts that could result in Puzzle Damage (dam-AHHJZ).  The price, you ask?  Ahem, THIRTY US DOLLARS! Friends, I can buy a 50 pound sack of sugar for less than that and have sucre en mon café pour le reste de ma vie!

Fancy French Sugar

Fancy French Sugar

And why, then, oh Jen, do you own this product?  It was a housewarming gift from my friend Jennifer.  She presented it to me saying, “First of all, this costs THIRTY DOLLARS full price.  Can you believe that?!  I got it on big fat sale, because there’s no effing way I would ever spend thirty dollars on sugar.  I just thought you’d appreciate it.”  She is a true friend, indeed.  We put our puzzle pieces into our tea, which incidentally costs about 1/10 of what the sugar cost, and laughed and chatted and had a delightful visit.

Aside from the cool-ness factor, there is no need to ever, ever, ever spend $30 on sugar cubes.  While my gift, purchased on big old sale makes me happy, there are plenty of similar items out there produced, not because these ingredients or gadgets will make your food any better or make you a better cook, but because the manufacturers are interested in separating you from your money.  Please don’t let this happen to you.  I admit, a splurge every once in awhile is good for the soul, but, people.  Most of the time, just say no.

I have, for your amusement and edification, compiled a list of Extremely Overpriced Kitchen Items.  Do enjoy.  Don’t buy.  I am linking to the page where you can find each one, just so you can read the marketing hype with your own little discerning eyes.  But, I repeat, do NOT buy.  And no, I wouldn’t get a cut, even if you did!

1.  From our friends at Williams Sonoma, I give you  Acetaia Malpighi Tradizionale Vinegar 3.38 oz for $175.  At least the sugar puzzle pieces were cheaper than that!  Don’t get me wrong, I love balsamic vinegar, but this stuff is so rarefied that I would never be able to justify its use.  It would just sit on a shelf, not fulfilling its purpose of being vinegar.  It would just be a decoration in the house.   For a reasonably priced treat, caramelize 1 cup of sugar and add 1 cup of regular old balsamic.  Reduce to a syrup.  Fantastic!

2. From Sur La Table:  Rosemary Standard Topiary for the low, low price of $49.95.  People, it’s a plant.  Buy it at Lowe’s.  I think mine cost $10, and it’s indestructable.

3.  Again, from Sur La Table:  Damman Freres Loose Tea Coffret 1825 Sampler at cough-wheeze-gasp $150.  I’m sorry, maybe I’m a cretin, but did I mention that my box of tea cost $3?!

4. Thank you, King Arthur Flour Company, for the Hearts and Flowers Shortbread Mold and for only charging us $34.95 plus shipping and handling.  While this might make pretty shortbread, you’d have to make quite a bit of it before you’ve broken even.  I say “pat into a circle, roll with a rolling pin, prick with a fork, done.”

5.  This one made me laugh out loud.  Sur La Table wants us to purchase Simple Syrup Drink Mix at $5.95 for a 12 oz. bottle!  Ha!  Hello, simple syrup:  1 part sugar, 1 part water, bring to a boil, done.  I must quote you a part:  “It’s so much better and easier than making simple syrup on your own.”  Oh, and it’s sold under the “Beverage Mixers & Elixers” category.  Please, we’re not trying to grow our hair out, we just want a mojito!

6.  I’m so happy that this is my topic today.  Oh, the wonders to be had out on the Hinternets.  The good folks at FinerKitchens dot commmmm don’t think that you can peel an apple.  In fact, they would like you to purchase their handy Kali Apple Peeler for $399.95.  Yes, you read that correctly.  If you’re opening a pie shop, go for it.  If you just want to bake a pie, please just skip this.  Please.

I can’t take anymore of this, I don’t think.  My sides hurt.  Shop thoughtfully: buy what you need and what you will use on a regular basis.  And above all, understand that to a large extent, the caliber of your cooking depends on the quality of your ingredients and on your skill as a cook, not on the size of your wallet.

The Coolest Cookbook Ever.

28 Jan

Scott’s mother passed away a couple of years ago, and because he is a dear and wonderful friend, he brought me a couple of her cookbooks after he and his siblings cleared out her house.  When my own grandfather died, all I got was some old bath towels, so imagine my delight at this completely unexpected and very thoughtful windfall.  Thank you, Scott.  Sincerely.

Pre-Ethan meddling.  Sweet.

Pre-Ethan meddling. Sweet.

First, there is a 1962 copy of Joy of Cooking, back before old Ethan started messing around with the recipes.  There’s a hand-written note in the corner of the frontispiece directing me to page 320 for the recipe for butter sauce.  Nice!

Next up is a crazy-thick binder designed to hold her collection of recipe magazines from 1949-1950.  It is pretty awesome, especially if you’re interested in making Liver Souffle or Ginger Marshmallow Sauce.

It's almost a cube, it's so thick!

It's almost a cube, it's so thick!

The absolute, hands-down best cookbook, though, is A Treasury of Great Recipes, by Mary and Vincent Price.  Yes, that Vincent Price.  Apparently, Mary and Vincent were foodies well before the term was coined.  These folks loved to travel, loved to eat, loved to cook and loved to entertain.  This book has it all–from amazing recipes to menus from some of the great restaurants around the world to a helpful section on how to fold a napkin to a section where you can write down all your favorite recipes.  It is beautiful, it is pretty rare, and it is mine!  Mwah-ha-ha!

A Treasury of Great Recipes.  It truly is a treasure.

A Treasury of Great Recipes. It truly is a treasure.

Oh, and this book is beautifully written.  Let me share with you a little of his cultured and sensitive style.  This comes from his vivid description of a hotel and restaurant in Venice:

The view from the Royal Danieli Roof Terrace at dusk rivals the greatest paintings of Venice.  It seems almost a sacrilege to think of food in a setting of such beauty, but the Danieli’s chef is an artist himself, and you find yourself dining sumptuously here, accepting the total magnificence as though you were a Renaissance prince to the palazzo born.  p. 99

Or this gem about a Mexican restaurant (as in a restaurant in Mexico), Rivoli:

But the real feast was the food.  Knowing of my long love affair with the Mayan ruins of Yucatan, Dario served us a main course called Chicken Chichen Itza, complete with the red and black spices that you can get only in Yucatan.  The result was unusual and delicious, but in all honesty I must confess that eating Chicken Chichen Itza wasn’t a patch on the experience of seeing the real Chichen Itza in the moonlight many years ago.

Nevertheless it’s one of our favorite recipes, maybe because we had such fun working out a seasoning that tasted like the Yucatan specialty but was available everywhere.  We have each portion brought to the table, wrapped in the leaf it was cooked in.  Each guest unfolds his leaf, and immediately the spicy smell of Mexico wafts through the room.  It’s the cheapest, quickest way I know to get back there, at least with your senses.  p. 209

And, because this is, first and foremost a pastry blog, I give you this, his adoration of the Chocolate Roll at The Whitehall Club in Chicago (where, incidentally, you could get a Sanka for 40 cents):

We have never had this dessert brought to the table without it eliciting a chorus of rapturous sighs–followed by a chorus of calorie-conscious groans.  Once in a while everybody should splurge on a good, rich dessert, even if it means doing penance in the gymnasium the next day.  I can’t think of anything more worth the pounds and the penance than this velvety brown Chocolate Roll.  If you make it at Christmas time, you can put the chocolate topping on to simulate a tree trunk.  Then you will have the classic Buche de Noel, or yule log cake with which the French traditionally celebrate their Christmas season.  p. 343

By the way, did I mention that Mary and Vincent wrote this book in 1965?!  Julia had only been on television for a couple of years, and most American cooks were still making meatloaf.  I’m not knocking a good meatloaf, mind you.  I’m just saying that most American cooks made what was familiar and what their mothers and grandmothers had taught them to make.  There was not a lot of inspired cooking or eating going on in most American households in the mid 1960s.  Granted, the Prices were able to travel quite a bit, due both to his career as an actor and, later, as an avid art collector.  Even so, the Prices seem ahead of their time.  I feel very lucky to own this cookbook, and it is truly a treasured possession.

A Treasury of Great Recipes is a time capsule–preserving the great restaurants and recipes of the past, but it is also a gateway through which we can reacquaint ourselves with dishes that are just waiting to come around on the guitar again (thank you, Arlo Guthrie).  Check these out:  Endive and Beet Salad; a lovely interplay of earthy sweetness against crisp bitterness.  Or there’s Asparagus Dutch Style, with a sort of Hollandaise-ish sauce made of hard boiled egg, salt, nutmeg and butter.  Or Nusstorte, a Hazelnut torte consisting of a genoise (“the beating of the eggs is the secret of the success of this cake, the famous Genoise”) which he tells us must be folded together with the hands.  1965, people!  Amazing!

And now to you, dear readers.  I’m sure you have one or two very cool, very old, very odd or otherwise very interesting-for-some-reason cookbooks.  I’d love to know what makes them special to you.

Stout Toffee Sauce

28 Jan
Look at the color of that sauce!

Look at the color of that sauce!

Here is a little treat I used to whip up at one of the restaurants I worked at.  We were always trying to find ways to add beer to our dishes, partly because the restaurant was a gastropub and partly because it was fun to go to the bar and walk away with a pitcher of craft-brewed stout or porter.  You know, to use in cooking.  Originally, we used this sauce on our sticky toffee pudding, but then it became our signature sundae sauce.  We served it spooned over some vanilla malt ice cream along with candied pecans and a booze-soaked cherry.  Good stuff, folks.

At any rate, this sauce was the result of one of my happy experiments (although I had many unhappy experiments, too).  It really is the best.  It has a bitter edge from the reduced beer, but it is the perfect grown-up foil to sweet, creamy ice cream.

Stout Toffee Sauce

  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 cup good stout
  • 1/3-1/2 c. heavy cream (depending on your tolerance for bitterness)
  • heavy pinch of salt
  • 1 oz. butter
  • splash of vanilla

In a large sauce pan, heat the sugar with just enough water so that it’s wet.  Slowly bring this to a boil, stirring.  When it comes to a boil, slap on a lid and let it boil for 2-3 minutes.  This should wash any sugar crystals off the sides of the pan.  Remove the lid and continue cooking until the caramel is a very deep amber color and little wisps of smoke are just starting to come off of it.  I always knew it was ready when it started to sting my eyes.  It was very exciting.

Turn down the heat, and add the stout.  Stand back.  This stuff will splutter and foam up and act like Vesuvius, so be prepared.  Some of the caramel may have seized up if the stout was really cold, so stir over medium heat until the sauce is smooth and all the caramel is melted.  Add the cream and a pinch of salt and cook and reduce for a few minutes, until it’s syrupy.

Remove from the heat.  You’ll want to taste it at this point.  Drop a little bit onto a plate, let it cool off and then taste it.   Stir in a splash of vanilla and a little more salt if you think it needs it.

This sauce will keep in the fridge for quite some time.  It will get pretty hard, and it might separate.  That’s okay.  Just put the container of sauce into a larger pan of hot water and let it melt and heat up.  Whisk it well to bring it back together.

I am telling you, friends–this stuff is G. U. D. good.  This is a real, grown up, sweet-bitter-malty toffee sauce, and once you spoon some hot stout toffee sauce over some cold malt ice cream, you will be able to die happy.  You may thank me from Beyond.

Right now, you’re probably wondering how to make malt ice cream.  Fear not; I won’t leave you hanging.  Take a good vanilla ice cream base and add malted milk powder to it, to taste.  (Yeah, kind of anticlimactic, I know)  For reference, I think we added about 1/3 cup per every quart of base, but I don’t remember exactly.  Just do it to your taste.  If you try to add the powder while the ice cream base is still warm, it will tend to clump up, but it’s nothing an immersion blender can’t handle.  If you add it once the base is cold, you should be able to whisk it in with no problem.

The Muffin Method

27 Jan
Now, that's a muffin!

Now, that's a muffin!

Here’s another one of those basic mixing methods that can really mess us up.  Sure, it sounds like a day at the beach:  Dry in one bowl.  Wet in another.  Wet on dry.  Stir, stir, stir.  Bake and hope for the best.  But then, you pull out some sad old flat-topped muffins that look like moles have been burrowing their way through them.  And then, your day at the beach turns into I-left-my-sunscreen-at-home-I-lost-my-sunglasses-in-the-surf-and-there-is-sand-in-places-it-shouldn’t-be nightmare.  How hard can it be to make a muffin, anyway?  Slather on some cooling aloe and let me see if I can help.

You’ve got two basic options when it comes to making muffins:  you can use The Creaming Method, or you can use The Muffin Method.  As far as I’m concerned, the creaming method is for cakes.  What you end up with when you use the creaming method to make a muffin is a cupcake.  Tasty and all, but just not the same thing.  So, let’s forget the creaming method for muffins and focus on the eponymous Muffin Method.

Here’s how it works.  This is a method you do not want to use the mixer for.  Trust me, as much as you love your stand mixer, your muffins will be better if you mix them gently by hand.  More on this in a bit.

1. Whisk the dry ingredients–low-protein flour (White Lily is a nice one if you’re in the southern US, or use cake flour) together with salt, sugar, leavenings and any spices–together in a large bowl.

Whisk your dry ingredients together very well.  You are looking for even dispersal of the salt and leaveners.  Sifting doesn’t necessarily do a great job of this, so whisk all the dry together thoroughly, for at least 20 seconds.  More would be good.

2. In another bowl or a large liquid measure, combine all the wet ingredients–dairy (milk, cream, 1/2 and 1/2, sour cream, creme fraiche), eggs, liquid fat, liquid flavorings.

Notice I said “liquid fat.”  This is one of the points where the muffin method differs from the creaming method.  When you add the fat to the liquid, you want to make sure that all of the liquid ingredients are at room temperature.  You want the fat to be evenly dispersed throughout the batter.  For this to happen, you’re going to have to have the rest of the wet ingredients warm enough that the butter won’t turn hard on you the moment you pour it in the measuring cup.

3. Pour the wet on top of the dry and fold them gently together.

Let’s take a moment to really look at what’s going on here.  You’re trying to mix a lot of water-type ingredients together with flour that hasn’t been coated with fat.  Remember, in the two-stage mixing method, we coated our flour with a good amount of fat to inhibit gluten formation.  Here, we don’t have that luxury.  In the muffin method, we are pouring a ton of wet ingredients on poor, defenseless flour.  How do we keep from having dense, chewy muffins, then?  First, we’re using a low protein flour, so that’s a good thing–low protein equals less gluten formation.  Second, and maybe more vital is the way that you mix these ingredients together.  When mixing wet into naked flour with the intention of producing a tender muffin, easy does it.  You really just want to fold the ingredients together, making sure that you limit agitation as much as possible.   Old AB says to stir for a count of ten, but your ten and my ten might be different.  I say, fold the ingredients together until all the flour is off the bottom of the bowl and you don’t have any big pockets of flour floating around in your batter.  The batter will be somewhat lumpy, and it will be much thinner than a batter made with the creaming method, but you’ll just have to trust that it’ll be okay.

4. Scoop your batter into well greased (or paper-lined) muffin tins.  Fill the cavities about 3/4 full.

At this point, if you are leavening with baking powder, you can let the batter sit for 15-20 minutes.  This gives the flour time to properly hydrate.  It will sort of magically finish mixing itself.  Double acting baking powder gives some rise when it gets wet and then some more when it gets hot, so your muffins will still rise in the oven, even after sitting out for a bit.  If the recipe only calls for baking soda, skip this step, as the bubbles are all given up when the soda gets wet.  With recipes that only call for baking soda, you want to get those little guys in the oven as quickly as possible before the chemical reaction stops.

5. Bake at a relatively high temperature–400 or even 425 degrees, F.

So, why this high temperature?  To me, and to lots of folks, muffins are defined by their crowns–their majestic peaks.  In order to get this to happen, you have to bake at a high enough temperature that the edges of the muffin set pretty quickly.  The batter will set in concentric circles, from the outside, in, and as each “band” of batter sets up, the remaining batter will continue to rise.  The last to set is the very peak.  If you bake at a lower temperature, you will end up with a domed, rather than peaked, muffin.  If you like them domed, go for it, and bake at a lower temperature.  Just wanted you to know the “why” behind the peak.

6. Remove from oven.  Cool in pans for about ten minutes, and then turn out to cool completely–or not.  You could just go ahead and eat one.

After you’ve baked your muffins, you can test yourself to see if you’ve done an Excellent Job with the muffin method.  Cut or break a muffin in half, right down the middle, from peak to bottom.  Look at the crumb.  It should be fairly coarse but moist.  It should also be very uniform.  If you have little tunnels running up through the muffins, you know that you were a little too exuberant in your mixing.  The tunnels show the path of air bubbles as they passed through the batter and were caught by sheets of gluten.  The gluten then sets in that bubble-path shape, a silent reminder of your enthusiastic mixing.

So, to recap:

  • Whisk dry ingredients together thoroughly.
  • Have all wet ingredients at room temp.  Not the creaming method’s magical 68 degrees, F, because you’re not worried about the butter’s remaining plastic–it’s already melted.  By room temperature, I’m talking probably 70-72 degrees, F.
  • Fold gently.  Stop before you think you’re finished.
  • Let the batter sit (baking powder only).
  • Bake at a relatively high temperature.

Here’s a basic recipe to practice with.  By basic, I mean:  add any fruit, nuts, spices, zests that you want.  Add chocolate chips.  Change up the fat–use oil.  Experiment with changing up the dairy. Top with streusel if you want.  Make it your own.

  • 8 oz. low-protein flour
  • 3.5 oz. sugar
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 egg
  • 6 oz. whole milk
  • 2 1/2 oz. melted butter

Now, go make some tender muffins.  No tunnels.  Oh, and I found your sunglasses for you…

For an in-depth look at other mixing methods, check out The Two-Stage Mixing Method, The Creaming Method, The Egg Foam Method and The Biscuit Method.  And for some great pictures of all the steps in the mixing method, go check out Joe Pastry’s Muffin Method Post.  It is awesome.

Sunday Suppers: Intuitive Chili

26 Jan
Chili and cornbread.  A perfect pairing.

Chili and cornbread. A perfect pairing.

My chili never turns out the same way twice.  And I don’t really want it to, either.  I just find some cool meat at the store, buy a ton of fresh peppers, blend up some dried peppers in some beef stock, cook it all up and put it in my face.

So, this time, I put some Cinnamon Agasweet flavored agave nectar in it, okay, and posted on Twitter that cinnamon is great in chili (because who does NOT want to know that, right?).  A guy tweeted back with “Nooooo!  Cinnamon doesn’t belong in chili!”  So, again, there’s a person who has decided that a certain dish should never, ever have a particular ingredient in it.  Sigh.

Now, chili is a dish that was made to use up the leftovers found in a Tex-Mex kitchen.  I’m pretty sure that they would have spiced it with a hint of cinnamon, but hey, because it’s a brand new day, I decided not to argue the point; I will continue to put cinnamon in my chili.  (Because I couldn’t completely let it go, I did direct him to my treatise on chili, Intuitive Chili.  If you haven’t seen it already, go check it out; I’ll be here when you get back).

As per usual, I can’t give you hard and fast amounts of anything that I used.  Rather, I hope to inspire you to poke around at the grocery store and find some likely looking ingredients to throw in your own version of chili.

Oh, about the name of this chili.  I served it when my best friend and her daughter came to stay.  Shellie is an Irish Dancer–you know, like those Riverdance folks?  Anyway, she is Very Good at it, and she and her mom, my best friend Julie, were in town for a feis (pronounced fesh).  A feis is when a bunch of Irish Dance type folks get together and see who’s the best in about a bajillion categories.  There is a lot of curly hair, a lot of glitter, a lot of leaping about with arms at your sides, and a very lot of accordion music.  Shellie came in first in her traditional set!  Go, Shell!

I made this chili in honor of their visit.  There’s nothing Irish about it except the name, and about 1/16 of me.

Irish Dancing Chili

  • 2 lbs pretty steak, cut into 1/3″ dice
  • 1 lb TJ’s chicken and jalapeno sausage, casings removed, cut into 1/3″ dice
  • 1 lb TJ’s pork carnitas (this came pre-cooked and shredded–ready to go)
  • 1 big-ass onion
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper
  • cumin
  • chili powder, lots
  • dried Mexican oregano (regular old oregano is fine, too)
  • 2 bell peppers, seeded and chopped
  • 3 Anaheim peppers, seeded and chopped
  • 3 poblano peppers, seeded and chopped
  • 3 jalapeno peppers, seeded and chopped
  • 1 1/2 quarts beef stock (I had homemade lying around in the freezer)
  • 1 dark beer (we used Black Toad from TJ’s)
  • mixture of dried peppers, seeded and torn up in pieces (I used 3 each of Guajill0 and California, and 5 Japones)
  • a little cocoa powder (about 2 teaspoons, maybe)
  • 1 TBSP cinnamon Agasweet
  • about 1/4 c. fine corn meal

Here’s how it goes together:

  1. Heat pan.  Put oil in pan.  Heat oil.
  2. Brown off steak and sausage with some salt and pepper.  Set aside.
  3. Cook onions and garlic with some salt and pepper until translucent.
  4. Add the peppers in batches so they all get a little color on them.
  5. Add cumin and chili powder and a little more oil so you get a spice paste mixed in with the vegetables.  Let that cook for a minute or two to toast the spices.
  6. Deglaze with the beer.
  7. Pour about 2 cups boiling beef broth over the dried pepper pieces and let hydrate for a few minutes.
  8. Blend this mixture to a smooth sauce/paste with an immersion blender and pour into the pot.
  9. Add the rest of the beef stock, the oregano, the cocoa powder and the Agasweet (or you could just use a pinch or two of cinnamon.  Or you could leave the cinnamon out.  It’s your chili, after all)
  10. Add the reserved meat, including the carnitas, to the pan along with any collected juices.
  11. Keep at a low simmer for an hour or so.  Taste and adjust the seasonings.  Add the corn meal, a little at a time, for thickening and to give it amazing flavor.
  12. Continue simmering for another hour or two, until you Love It.  You can fiddle with the seasonings a bit more here, too.
  13. I usually cool it at this point and reheat to serve the next day, or even the following.  If you are starving and have nothing else to eat, go ahead and eat the chili.  It will not suck.

So there you have it.  A perfect chili dish to serve on a chilly night.  Or even a cold night.  Or maybe a hot night, along with an icy-cold adult beverage.  This particular chili was darkly mysterious, what with the cocoa/cinnamon undertones, and it was really Very Very Tasty.  Spicy, but not overly so.  You could certainly up the ante by using more jalapenos, substituting or adding serranos or even throwing in some of your favorite hot sauce.  I served it with some homemade cornbread, but you can serve it however you like.

Pastry Smackdown: Pie v Tart

24 Jan
An orange chocolate tart.  Lovely!

An orange chocolate tart. Lovely!

In this corner, wearing the short, sandy trunks: CHOOOOOC-O-lit TAAArrrt!  And in this corner, wearing the long, flaky trunks:  AAAApul PIIIIEEEEEE!

Pie versus tart; tart versus pie.  What is the deal, exactly?  I read a blog post the other day about a pie pan.  My first thought was, rather rudely, “big deal,” as I listened to (read) the blogger’s waxing rhapsodic about this pie pan, but then I read further.  Seems she is in England.  Special, deep dish fruit pie pie pans aren’t as common there as in the US.  Now I was ashamed of myself for being so flippant.  She had to special order from over the deep blue sea!  No wonder she was excited; I would’ve been, too–genuine imported baking stuff!  Hooray!

Because I am a helper, I went to Amazon.com and searched “pie” in Home & Garden.  There were just shy of 4000 results.  The same search in Kitchen & Home at Amazon.co.uk yielded just over 700.  Just for fun, I went to Amazon.fr and searched “pie” in Cuisine & Maison.  42 results, most of which were little key chains with pictures of pieces of pie on them.  Interesante, non?

Americans definitely seem to be pie-obsessed.  So, what exactly is the difference between a pie and a tart?  This was one of a handful of burning questions that I took with me on my first day of culinary school.  On pie v tart lecture day, I craned eagerly forward, waiting for the answer to this pastry mystery.  Gotta tell you, folks–I was in for a bit of a let-down.  Turns out, the explanation was….murky.  Here’s how it went down:  “Tarts have short, thick-ish, straight sides.  Pies have deeper, thinner, slightly sloped sides.  Tart pans look different than pie pans.”  This is where I began some serious internal muttering.  “Pies have flaky crusts, but not all the time.  Tarts have sandy, crumbly crusts.  Usually.  Tarts don’t have a top crust.  Pies either do, or they don’t.”  Seriously?!  “Tart crust tastes better than pie crust because it’s an integral part of the dish.  The pie crust is just there to hold the filling.  Since tarts don’t have a top crust, the fillings are beautifully arranged.  Sometimes pies are pretty.” Are you kidding me?!  “Since tarts have a higher crust to filling ratio, tart fillings are often richer than pie fillings.  But not necessarily.  And there are always exceptions to any rule.  And, why is your face so red, Ms. Field?”

The good news is:  I neither lunged over the table at her nor cursed exceptionally loudly.  The bad news is: I needed more structure than that!  I still didn’t know the difference between a pie and a tart after a whole class about it!! Deep breaths….deeeep breaths……..And now, after YEARS of therapy, I have settled down quite a bit.

Since there are no hard and fast rules, other than height, my therapist helped me to I see the difference between the two as more of a qualitative one.  I also approach it from an American point of view.  You know, cuz that’s where I’m from and all.  To me, tarts feel a little more elegant than pies.  Most pies are homey and comforting, but often good old American pies are all about excess.  How many bananas can I cram into that pie?  How high can I swirl that meringue? Peanut butter and chocolate and marshmallow cream and toffee pieces?  Awesome!  American big-ass fruit and cream pies are the Hummers of the pastry world.  Bigger and richer than they have any right to be, and unapologetic about it.  Regular American non-steroidal pies are sedans:  ample, but not showy; sensible.  Tarts are European sports cars: the perfect marriage of form and function delivered in a relatively small, precision package.

Tart dough is rich, sandy and flavorful, and the fillings are generally made to complement or contrast with the crust nicely.  With a tart, it’s about balance.  Pie dough can be tasty, but it’s really more about texture than flavor with a pie crust.  You either want it to not get soggy, or you want it to be flaky.  Flavor?  Meh; whatever.

If I were going to make a fruit dessert, I’d probably opt for the pie.  If I were in the mood for a chocolate dessert, I might go for the tart.  It just depends on how I feel.  And the Smackdown Results?  Sort of an anticlimactic draw, I’m afraid.

Speaking of smackdowns, I wanted to touch on competence versus creativity again for just a minute.  There were some really insightful comments about that post.  A couple of people said that they were creative but that they couldn’t draw.  I knew it!  Another comment said that, and I’m paraphrasing, creativity stems from complete competence.  You have to have a deep and complete understanding of the basics before you are confident enough to get creative with your cooking.  I like that a lot.  For most people who aren’t savants, competence in the kitchen is a way station along the path to creativity in the kitchen.  There’s nothing wrong with the way station.  In fact, the food there is really tasty.  Some folks decide to stay.  But one cook’s destination is another cook’s stopover.  And that cook, with a secure hold on competence, follows his creative impulses to points beyond.

Really, guys–thanks for all the food for thought.  I’m enjoying the dialog.

Okay, so Chris settled on an apple tart.  I’ll be wandering over there to Beyond Ramen to see what it looks like when it’s posted.  (I just went over there–not yet).  Will it have any resemblance to an apple pie?  I guess we’ll find out.

I Am Officially Fabulous!

23 Jan
It's Official!  I'm fabulous!

It's Official! I'm fabulous!

It’s official!  I have received my first blog award from my Irish potato-lovin’ friend over at The Daily Spud!  Yay!  I didn’t have anything prepared for my acceptance speech, so I will just say:  1)thank you very much.  2)Hi, Mom.  3)I’m goin’ to Disneyland. 4) Thank you for noticing my fabulousness.

Along with this award come rules.  The rules state that I must pass this award on to five other fabulous blogs and that I must speak to you of my addictions.  I’m not sure I’m ready to admit that I have any addictions, so I might not be ready for Bloggers Anonymous, but we’ll see how I feel after I flutter about and pass this along.  First, though–thanks to The Daily Spud.  I can’t hand this award back, because that’s not how it works, but I really think it’s pretty fabulous over there.  OK, let me commence to fluttering:

  • To Joe at Joe Pastry who writes about the minutiae of pastry in a really entertaining way.  His posts are informative and detailed and wonderful.  And, he’s a stickler for correct pronunciation.  I appreciate that in a person.
  • To Albert over at Pizza Therapy.  Wonderful pizza-y goodness awaits.  Information, vidoes, and yes, a blog.  All things pizza.  Plus pizza puns at no extra charge.
  • To Chris at Beyond Ramen for a)finding a shortcut name meaning college-student-who-wants-to-eat-way-better-than-what-my-station-implies and for b) taking amazing pictures of amazing food.  He’s in Singapore right now–go see. (edit:  he’s home, now.  Go see, anyway).
  • To Rosie and Jude at FiftyFourFoodMiles.  One is in Brighton, one is in London.  Fifty-four miles apart.  Get it?  It’s like Thelma and Louise.  Without guns.  And with good food.
  • To Life’s Too Short for Mediocre Chocolate, because, well…it is.  Blogging about cooking and baking with real food.  Pretty sure they take a dim view of Cool Whip there, too.

And now, on to the bare-my-soul, True Confessions portion of the show.  The addictions.

Hello.  My name is Jenni, and I am addicted to (NOT in order of seriousness of addiction):

  1. reading–I used to read on the back of my friend’s bicycle as she “drove” us home from elementary school.
  2. cheese–I have never met a cheese I didn’t like.
  3. email, facebook and other computer-related time sinks
  4. the reality show marathon–It doesn’t matter what the show is, if it’s a marathon, I cannot look away.
  5. tea–It is essential.  Right now, it’s cranberry green tea.

And there you have it.  I have been awarded a Fabulous Award by a Fabulous person.  I have now passed it on to five Fabulous People and have bared my soul.  Whew.

The beloved and I will be entertaining house guests for the next couple of days.  I will try to get in and write, partly because it is #6 on my addiction list, and partly because I’ve had some pretty compelling comments to my last couple of posts and want to address them.  Plus, Chris wants to know what kind of fruit he should put in his tarts.

Creativity in the Kitchen

22 Jan
Sure, she can cook.  But can she draw?

Sure, she can cook. But can she draw?

Here’s kind of a funny thing.  A couple of weeks ago, someone emailed me and told me that they were interested in becoming a pastry chef, but that someone told them they would have to be creative in order to succeed.  They wanted to know if that meant they needed to be able to draw, because they couldn’t.  Then, earlier today, I received another email from a different person who asked almost the same question.

So, there are at least two people out there in the world who found me, out of all the baking and pastry folks out there on the Hinternet, to ask this question.  I can only imagine that there are a lot of other folks out there who haven’t found me yet (gasp!) or just don’t know where to go for answers.  If you are a)someone who is wondering how creative/artistic you need to be to become a pastry chef or b) know someone who has this issue, or c) is so addicted to this blog that you just can’t look away, I’m talking to you.

Here’s the deal:  creativity and the ability to draw are two different things.  Well, maybe the ability to draw is a subset of creativity, but the inability to draw does not define ones’ creativity.

I’m not sure that it takes a lot of creativity to make a pot of rice, but it certainly takes some creativity to turn that pot of rice into something special.  This kind of goes along with yesterday’s post:  you have got to learn the basics and become confident enough in your techniques and abilities in the kitchen to let your creativity shine through.  It might seem creative to toss a bunch of different ingredients into said rice, but to ensure that the outcome will taste good, you have to understand flavor profiles and how flavors work together–or against each other.

Everything comes back to the basics.  Without them, you don’t have a firm foundation from which to launch creative experiments.

Let’s assume for a moment that we have all got a really good handle on the basics of cooking and baking.  We know our ingredients, we understand and can perform all of the techniques and methods necessary for cooking.  Right, then.  Let’s talk about creativity.

Way back up at the beginning of this post, I said that the original questioner was told that they would need to be creative in order to succeed.  Yes, I think you must be creative in order to succeed as a professional.  Do I think that you need to be creative to follow a recipe?  No, and that’s what I’ve been saying:  a recipe is just one way of doing something that someone just happened to write down.  Following a recipe to the letter is just borrowing someone else’s creativity.

Here’s what I think.  Competence will buy you good, solid, edible results.  Add creativity to competence, and you’re onto something really special.  Competence will assure that you’ve got the right proportion of ingredients mixed in the right way to make an edible end-product.  Adding creativity to that will allow you to add that little extra something to elevate the dish from good to great.  It might be that you use a different mixing method; it might be that you added an unexpected but tasty ingredient or two; it could even be that you present the dish in a whole new way, giving it your own spin, or perhaps deconstructing it on the plate.  Whatever spark that your creativity brought to the dish will make it stand out from the ordinary.

Can you learn to be creative?  I don’t think so.  I think you can learn to be competent, but creativity is inherent.  It can be nurtured and expanded upon, but the original seed of creativity must be there.  That’s why, when you go for an interview at a high-end restaurant, you are given a mystery basket and told to make something using all the ingredients in the basket.  I think I can say with complete confidence that the chef will never, ever meet you at the door with an easel and some charcoal and ask you to draw them a picture of your favorite dish.

Whoa, two philosophical posts in a row.  Weigh in with your thoughts on creativity and cooking, or beg me to “just stop it and write about chocolate!”  Either way, I appreciate the comments.

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