Sunday, March 28, 2010

A Little Scone Experimentation

Baking sans oven thermometer is a scary thought, since my oven is manic.  Seriously.  It runs about 75-200 degrees hot, depending on its mood.  Maybe there's a better way to describe it other than "mood," but since I'm no engineer, I just call the darn thing moody.  All my baking went to hell right after I moved to the cottage--I kept overcooking and/or burning everything!  And then one day I had this stroke of genius: I should buy an oven thermometer!  And so I did, and (for the most part), I've been able to set the oven to a somewhat arbitrary number and achieve my desired results.  But then last week the thermometer BROKE!  I don't know what happened; one day it worked, then the next, it didn't.  At first it wouldn't register any temperature, and now apparently my cottage is hovering around 500 degrees.  Fortunately the thing is still under warranty, and yes, I did keep the packaging, so I can send it in, but I've been lazy (read: I haven't done it yet).  Which is why the oven hasn't been used too much lately.  But I was kind of going into baking withdrawal, so I'm winging it.  It's scary, I'm sitting here wondering what is going to happen.  It's usually a safe bet to set the oven about 75 degrees cooler when you're going for 350, but when you want to get temps over 400 it becomes more unpredictable. 

Oh, I should mention, I'm making scones.  Specifically whole wheat scones with dried apricot pieces.  They bake at 425°F, so right now the oven is set at 325°F and hopefully it's going okay.  I mean, the cottage smells delicious, so that's a good sign.  These scones were discovered on Orangette, source of all things delicious and wholesome.   My family is coming for Easter weekend, which I thought would be a nice thing until I got hit with 2 pet sitting gigs, and I realized I couldn't stay with the fam; they will be staying at the lower maintenance 3 cat house, and I will be staying at the higher maintenance 1 dog/2 cat house.  (Mom, I'm not uninviting you--but we will have our hands full!)  They will be on their own for breakfast while I give the border collie her morning walk, I figured I should provision them for breakfast, which is why these scones are getting a trial run.  Immediately out of the oven I would say they pass--hearty but not heavy, nice light crust, and the apricot pieces make sweet and moist pockets in the scones, which I love--plain ones just don't do it for me.  Too monotonous.  I also sprinkled these with turbinado sugar (Sugar in the Raw), to give the crust a little bit of sweetness.  Although I didn't try them with anything, a bit of butter and a complementary jam would also be great.  As you may have gathered from other recipes featured in the blog, I love things that incorporate whole wheat flour, and I love dried fruit, so they're pretty much perfect.  These will certainly be making another appearance this weekend (no chance this initial batch will last that long!), and I suspect they will be equally delicious with other dried fruits--perhaps the Craisins I have kicking around the pantry will be incorporated next time!

Whole Wheat Scones With Dried Apricot Pieces (Adapted from Orangette)
Makes 8 scones

* 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
* 1 cup whole wheat pastry flour (I used regular whole wheat, since I have never seen whole wheat pastry flour for sale anywhere on island)
* 2 teaspoons baking powder
* ½ teaspoon salt
* 4 tablespoons (½ stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes
* ¼ cup sugar
* ½ cup diced dried apricots (or other dried fruit of your choice)
* ½ cup half-and-half, plus more for glazing
* 1 large egg
* A few tablespoons of turbinado sugar or sanding sugar (optional)

1. Preheat the oven to 425°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.

2. In a large bowl, whisk together the flours, baking powder, and salt.  Add the butter and pinch it between your fingertips to incorporate it into the flour, until there are no butter lumps bigger than a large pea. Add the sugar and dried apricots, and whisk to incorporate.

3. After measuring the half-and-half, add the egg and mix the two together with a fork. Pour the wet ingredients into the flour mixture, and combine with the fork just until the flour is mostly wet--don't worry about a little bit of unincorporated flour.  Using your hands, gently press and shape the dough, so that it holds together in a messy clump. 

4. Turn the dough and any excess flour onto the counter top, and gently work the dough together, but don't overwork it!  About a dozen kneads should do it.  As soon as the dough holds together, pat it into a rough circle about 1 ½ inches thick and cut into 8 wedges.

4. Transfer the wedges on the prepared baking sheet. Pour a splash of half-and-half into a small bowl and glaze the tops of the scones with a thin coat of half-and-half using a pastry brush.  Sprinkle with turbinado sugar, if desired.  Bake for about 15 minutes, or until pale golden. Transfer to a wire rack to cool slightly. Serve warm, additional butter and jam optional. 

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Homemade "Bottled" Dressing

Making your own salad dressings is a great way to avoid buying icky bottled dressings full of weird ingredients and preservatives, and making them in bulk is a great way to encourage yourself to eat more salads, because who hasn't been in a situation when they know they should eat a salad, but they don't because they don't have any dressing?  I have definitely done that...

My family never bought salad dressing growing up--the whole concept was totally foreign to me until college, when of course the cafeteria salad bars would feature scary pink "raspberry vinaigrette" and thick, gelatinous white "ranch."  We were definitely not a ranch dressing kind of family!  Once I started living on my own I did buy a few bottled dressings, because I thought, hey, this is cheap and convenient!  But I am forced to admit, most of those bottles are still sitting in my fridge, barely used, and I didn't graduate all that recently, despite what I tell myself.  (What, I'm not 22 anymore?  Are you sure?)  Instead, I prefer to mix up my own dressings, something else I learned from my family.  I run glass peanut butter or jelly jars through the dishwasher when they're empty and mix up my dressings in those jars, which hold enough dressing for many salads.  I usually have 2 or 3 different dressings mixed at once.  To keep them straight and to remember what I put in them when it's time to make a new batch, I write the ingredients in permanent marker on the glass or lids. (Permanent marker wipes off instantly with a little bit of nail polish remover on a cotton ball if you want to reassign your jars, too).

Some of my favorite salad dressings are:

EVOO + balsamic vinegar + grainy Dijon + S & P to taste.

EVOO + lemon juice + regular Dijon + S & P + a drop of agave nectar (or sugar) to taste

EVOO + lemon juice + oregano + S & P to taste

EVOO + honey mustard + water to dilute + S & P

EVOO+ apple cider vinegar + Dijon + maple syrup + S & P to taste

For any dressing that involves mustard, it's best to mix your mustard and acid together (either vinegar or lemon juice), and then slowly drizzle in the EVOO while whisking constantly.  If you whisk enough, you will get a thick, creamy dressing that you may even have to dilute with a tiny bit of water.  Then add your salt and pepper.  Sometimes a little bit of sweetness can take the edge off of a strong dijon and lemon dressing--I have used both white sugar and agave nectar with success.  Dressing with a fruity vinegar and just a touch of maple syrup pairs very nicely with salads with fruits, nuts, and cheese, such as a spinach salad with granny smith apples, walnuts, and cranberries.

The key to making yummy homemade dressing that tastes SO MUCH better than anything you'll buy in a store is to get quality ingredients.  There whole point of salad dressing is to make your veggies taste yummier, and are only a few ingredients in dressing, so why make something that could taste really good taste just so-so because you buy low quality stuff?  I used to buy store brand mustard, but I realized that it's just not as good, (with the exception of the Trader Joe's brand stuff).  However, if I haven't been to TJ's in a while, I will go for Grey Poupon or Maille, both widely available, over Stop n' Shop brand, because they do taste better (to me).  For a simple honey mustard dressing, great over romaine and grilled chicken for a fast meal, I love Inglehoffer honey mustard, which is sweet but not cloying.  Another yummy twist is dijon with tarragon, which I first tried from a gourmet store, but TJ's also has their own store brand.  The tarragon adds a nice herbiness to the dressing, or you can just enhance your own regular dijon based dressings with dried or fresh tarragon.  And I've said it before, but I'll say it again: find a GOOD (affordable) EVOO, because you really taste it in dressing.  There are plenty of decent oils that don't cost too much (again, I always turn to Trader Joe's).  But, just like any ingredient, olive oil can get funky if it's been kicking around for too long (think 18-24 months, opened).  You won't necessarily see a difference in color, but it will just smell and taste off, and the last thing you want to do is coat your delicious greens and veggies with funny tasting oil.  I never let my EVOO go rancid because I just go through the stuff too darn fast, but I have encountered some funky oils in my day.  To prolong the life of any oil, buy the biggest bottle that you think you will use up in a year (obviously bigger bottles = better value, but anything that you have to chuck is an instant bad value, since you're just throwing money away), and store in a cool cupboard or pantry.

As for storing your homemade dressings, I prefer the fridge, although my dad, from whom I learned making dressings in bulk trick, leaves his out on the counter all the time.  He eats so much salad that he goes through dressing very quickly, and he's completely indifferent to proper food storage techniques to boot, so that method works for him.  For me, the fridge is best, and I simply set them out while I'm making dinner to help them come to room temperature, or I nuke them for about 10 seconds (lids removed--they're metal!) to loosen up any congealed oil, stir it up again, and I'm ready to pour.

Whew!  I had no idea I had so much to stay about salad dressing!  And I just realized I didn't address the issue of quantities--and that's because I never measure.  If I had to guess, and if I'm starting with a large jelly jar, I will add two heaping tablespoons of mustard, and then slightly more vinegar than mustard, mix those, then add two or three times more oil that vinegar.  If I'm using a sweetener, I start with just a tiny bit because I don't want the whole thing to taste sugary--it's just supposed to take the edge off.  The key to making something you will love and use is to taste as you go; once a dressing has emulsified it's fairly easy to add in more oil or vinegar or mustard, just stir well and keep tasting until you make your perfect dressing.  While none of the above dressing suggestions are groundbreakingly original, making homemade salad dressings is an easy way to enhance your salads with pure, tasty ingredients without all the extra preservatives and lower quality ingredients that show up in bottled dressings.  If you have a favorite dressing, please share it with me, because I love to try new flavor combos!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Chocolate Espresso Semifreddo

Instead of throwing a full dinner for Erik's birthday, as I have done in years past, I decided to just do a dessert party this year.  Reason being I often get in over my head, and try to clean the entire house, cook for an undetermined number of people, sew a new tablecloth, make several desserts, paint my nails, make myself look presentable, etc.  While the most I ever accomplish is cleaning the house and getting a meal on the table, I decided to take it easy on myself this year and just stick to dessert.  But if you're only going to do one thing, you have to do it right, right?  Initially I had been leaning towards Julia Child's Reine de Saba (made famous--or infamous?--by the scene in Julie and Julia (the movie) when Julie and her hubby dive into it in some sort of chocolate craze).  However, upon seeing a recipe for semifreddo, a frozen Italian dessert, I changed my mind at once.  Erik and I had semifreddo once before at Babbo, Mario Batali's first NYC restaurant.  I am usually a fast eater (bad habit, I know), but this dessert (actually, the whole meal there) was SO GOOD that I needed to slow down and savor every morsel.  That was nearly two years ago, and it never occurred to me to make semifreddo, until I saw this recipe just a few weeks ago.  Although it's quite different than Batali's take on the dessert, almost akin to a frozen cheesecake, it is pretty darn tasty. 
The recipe is somewhat epic, at least my my standards.  Although the ingredients are fairly straight-forward (lots of pantry staples), you have to prepare 4 separate parts that come together right at the end.  A cookie crumb crust is baked briefly, then cools while you separate eggs, making a chocolaty custard with the yolks, whip the whites, and beat cream and cream cheese together.  Those three components are then gently folded together, piled atop the crust, and frozen. 

But, what a lovely dessert it makes.  Decorated with chocolate drizzles and whipped cream, it was a cake to behold!  It's also convenient because you make it ahead of time, freeze it, and then just plate it up and decorate it, if you want, at the last minute.  I made my own whipped cream because I had some kicking around in the fridge, but the kind in the aerosol can would make decorating a cinch.  I contemplated how nice chocolate covered espresso beans would look atop evenly spaced blobs of whipped cream, but alas the storming weather here kept me inside this weekend (confession: I haven't left the house since Friday night...eek).  Alternatively, fresh raspberries would add a punch of color, especially if paired with a raspberry sauce, as suggested by Brown Eyed Baker.  While I was deterred by the hefty price tag on raspberries this time of year, I did make a raspberry sauce, which was nice, but actually I didn't think it added much to the cake.  What can I say, it's just that good on its own.  So without further ado, the recipe:

Chocolate Espresso Semifreddo (Adapted from Brown Eyed Baker and Use Real Butter)
Serves 12 or so

* 1 3/4 cups chocolate cookie crumbs (Nabisco's Famous Chocolate Wafers are perfect--you'll use about 2/3 of the box to get enough crumbs)
* 3 Tablespoons of unsalted butter, melted
* 4 large eggs, separated
* 2 Tablespoons of sugar
* 1/3 cup of sugar
* 3 oz of espresso (I made mine using espresso powder)
* 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract
* 1 Tablespoon of Kahlua, coffee or chocolate liquor, or rum
* 4 oz semi-sweet chocolate, finely chopped (this is about 3/4 cup of chocolate chips, if you're using chips)
* 2 oz of heavy or whipping cream
* 16 oz of cream cheese (or Mascarpone, if you can find it.  I can't.)

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

2.  Combine the cookie crumbs and the melted butter.  Pour mixture into a parchment lined 9-inch springform pan.  Spread crumbs evenly over the bottom and use your hands or the bottom of a glass to press them down.  Bake for 10 minutes, then set aside to cool.  Turn off the oven.

3.  Combine egg yolks and 2 tablespoons of sugar over a double boiler.  Whisk the yolks vigorously (I used my electric whisk) until the yolks are thick and light in color.  Add espresso, vanilla, and liquor, and set over simmering water.  Continue whisking until the mixture is thick and foamy, and will coat the back of a spoon.

4.  Remove the yolk mixture from the heat and add chopped chocolate.  Whisk until the chocolate has melted and the mixture has cooled.

5.  In another bowl, combine the cream cheese and cream until combined and smooth.  When chocolate mix is cool, fold the chocolate into the cream cheese mixture, and mix until just combined.

6.  Combine the egg whites and the 1/3 cup sugar in a bowl over a double boiler.  Whisk occasionally until the mixture reaches 145 degrees F (this takes a while--about 10 minutes perhaps?).  VERY IMPORTANT: If you are using the same whisk for both the yolks and the whites, be sure to wash it very carefully so there is no trace of the yolk on the whisk--the egg whites will not whip up if they're contaminated with any yolk!

7. When the whites reach 145 degrees, pull them from the heat and beat them until they form stiff, shiny peaks.  Then, continue beating them on lower speed until the bowl is cool to the touch.  

8. Fold 1/4 of the egg whites into the chocolate/cream cheese mixture.  Then, even more gently, fold in the remainder, mixing in 1/4 at a time.  Fold very gently, because the air in the whites gives the final product volume, and you don't want to end up with a flat cake!

9. Line the sides of the springform pan with strips of parchment paper and pour in filling.  Shake gently to smooth the top.  

10. Cover with a sheet of plastic wrap, and freeze for at least 4 hours. 

11.  Remove from freezer 10 minutes before serving.  Release the sides of the pan and lift it up carefully.  Transfer to your serving platter, and slide off the base of the pan and the bottom layer of parchment.  Peel the parchment paper away from the sides.  Decorate as desired with melted chocolate, whipped cream, raspberries, and/or expresso beans.  Slice with a warm dry knife and enjoy!

Raspberry Sauce (Adapted from In the Kennedy Kitchen)

* 12 oz bag of frozen raspberries, thawed. (Organic, if you can find them.  I think they have more flavor)
* 1/2 cup of sugar
* 1/2 cup of white wine

1. Combine sugar and wine in a small saucepan.  Simmer until sugar dissolves, then remove from heat.

2. Puree thawed berries in a blender or mini cuisinart.  Pour the puree into a seive over a bowl, and using the back of a spoon, or a rubber spatula, press the puree through the seive, straining out the seeds.  I have found that you really need to mush the puree around to press the liquid through, and periodically take your spatula and wipe off all the puree that sticks to the underside of the sieve.  If you feel like a lot of the puree is still sticking to the seeds, add a few tablespoons of water to the puree, mix it around, and this should help. 

3. Combine the sugar/wine syrup and the puree, and refrigerate in a covered container until ready to serve.

 Straining raspberry puree on the ellusive "other side of the kitchen."  
Equally small, as you can see.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Kinda Healthy Cookies

We're celebrating Erik's birthday tonight with a dessert party--I decided to take it easy on myself!  Nantucket (along with the rest of the northeast!) has been experiencing some pretty wild weather this weekend (driving rain and 50 mph winds, anyone?), and about half our (potential) guests were off-island this weekend, so I can't tell whether it's going to be a small crowd or a big(ger) one.  Which of course makes planning a nightmare.  If all invited guest do arrive...well, maybe the cake just won't be big enough (no, I'm sure it will, I just like to worry).  If, on the other hand, the 6 people who were off-island are stuck there, then, well, plenty of dessert to go around.  All this fake worrying is just an excuse to make more cookies though.  Let's be honest.  

Since the main event tonight (Chocolate-Espresso Semifreddo Cake, recipe forthcoming) isn't exactly what one would call...what's that word...?  Oh, right, healthy.  Since it's not healthy, I thought I might cater to the more health conscious folk and make a batch of cookies that were featured in an old issue of Self magazine that I found sitting on my bedroom floor: Flourless Chocolate Walnut Cookies.  Quick and easy and entirely pantry staples, at least for me.  The "healthy" part is that they just use egg whites as a binder, so the only fat comes from the nuts, which are heart-healthy.  And if you've ever read the nutrition facts on unsweetened cocoa, you'll know that it's virtually fat free, contains fiber, as well as those dark chocolate antioxidants.  Of course, the sugar ensures that they're still yummy enough to be considered a cookie, and I wouldn't say eating one of these cookies is comparable to eating, say, and apple, but as far as cookies go, they're tasty without being too sinful, and best enjoyed with some cold milk.

Flourless Chocolate Walnut Cookies (Adapted from Self Magazine, December 2008)
Makes about 15 big cookies, or 30 Self-sized cookies

* 1 1/4 cups raw walnut halves (i.e., not toasted or salted)
* 1 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar
* 1/4 cup plus 1 1/2 Tablesppons unsweetened cocoa powder
* Pinch of salt
* 2 egg whites (or 1 egg, if you don't mind the egg yolk)
* 1/2 Tablespoon vanilla extract

1.  Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F

2. Cover a cookie sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.  Roughly chop the walnuts, spread them out on the cookie sheet, and toast  for 9 minutes, then cool.

3.  In a mixing bowl, sift together confectioners' sugar, cocoa powder, and salt .

4.  When walnuts have cooled, chop them finely, then add to dry ingredients.

5.  Add egg whites and vanilla, and mix until the ingredients are just combined.  Initially it may seem like there isn't enough liquid, but the sugar and cocoa will dissolve into the egg whites soon enough.  

6. Using a cookie scoop or spoons, dollop the batter onto parchment paper or a silicone mat--I used a medium OXO cookie scoop (probably between 1-2 tablespoons of dough), Self recommends "rounded teaspoons."  Let your own cookie conscious be your guide!  

  I got to use my new cookie scoop!

7.  Bake for 12-15 minutes, tops should be shiny and cracked.  Definitely err on the side of underbaking though, so they remain chewy in the center.  Allow to cool on the sheets.  Store in an airtight container for up to a week.  Enjoy!

Cleaning Out The Fridge Quiche

See a theme here?  Cleaning out the fridge?  I've been on a kick lately.  Sometimes I get so overwhelmed by the odds and ends in my fridge that I'm just desperate to get rid of it all.  This week I haven't shopped once, it's been all about using up the stuff I already have.  

The dish du soir is quiche, one of my all time faves.  Eggy cheesy goodness in a pastry shell--sort of like souffle but richer, and practically worry-free.  This isn't the first time I've used quiche to clean out the fridge--some of my favorite combos have been born out of this very routine, such as my "southwestern" quiche: onion and bell pepper remnants diced and sauteed quickly and tossed with some of Emeril's Southwestern Essence or just a pinch of cayenne pepper and pepper jack cheese.  Or the dregs of a box of frozen spinach, thawed, squeezed dry, and paired with just about any cheese and a couple of dashes of nutmeg.  The list really could go on. 

Tonight's "Cleaning Out The Fridge" quiche was extra-special because I actually had pie dough that I needed to "get rid of."  If you recall, I had been planning on making mini-quiches last weekend for the Oscars, and after making the dough decided to scrap the project due to egg/cheese overload.  Usually I use frozen pie crusts for quiche (insert gasp here), but since I was going to make the mini quiches in muffin tins, I needed my own pastry dough.  The particular dough that I made, Martha Stewart's classic pate brisee, is supposed to keep well frozen for a month, but I knew if I didn't use it up soon many months would pass before I remembered I had it.  So I started thawing it in the fridge this morning, and by 6:30 it was ready to roll.  In addition to the pate brisee, I still had quite a bit of that ham left (remember, it showed up in potato gratin a few nights ago).  I also had some cheddar leftover from mac and cheese that we made about a month ago.  And, to pretend this dish had some nutritional benefit, I threw in one small onion, because I always keep onions on hand.

Before rolling the dough I assembled the custard part of the filling, which is more or less equal parts egg and sour cream (I use reduced fat), and about 1 cup of cheese, plus whatever meat/veg.  Can't you see how precise this recipe is?  Ha!  Clearly, I totally eyeball the whole thing.  So I mixed my egg, sour cream, and cheese, and on Erik's suggestion added some fresh dill and thyme that we had kicking around.  Then I diced the onion and sauteed it in a bit of EVOO until it had softened a bit, about 8 minutes probably.  Then I diced some ham in 1/4 inch dice or so.  When I was ready I sprinkled my silicone mat with flour, and rolled out the dough so it was about 18-1/4 inch thick.  After carefully transferring it to the pan and adjusting it so that I didn't have to stretch it to make it fit (apparently if you do this the pastry will shrink as it bakes), I rolled the overhanging edges and pinched around the edge to make a rim.  I kind of winged it, because actually, this is the first pie crust I've made from scratch.  But I'm happy to say, it was pretty easy!  Then I layered in the custard mix and the fillings....and realized I had waaaay too little.  I had made enough for a frozen pie crust, but my deep dish glass pan is nearly twice as big!  So then I mixed up some more custard mix, finished filling it, baked it for about 45-50 minutes, until it was set.  Erik put together a nice salad with mesculan, cuke, red bell pepper and chopped scallions dressed with a simple dijon-lemon juice-EVOO-S&P dressing (an easy classic), and dinner was served! 

I'm not going to lie, the quiche was delicious.  Although, I've never really met a quiche that wasn't.  While I will probably continue using frozen pie crust 90% of the time, the homemade crust was noticeably yummier, I thought (or perhaps I was just thinking about all that work making it...)  But whether you opt to duplicate tonight's recipe, or discover your own combination, think about quiche when you're thinking about cleaning out the fridge...or not.  It is so delicious that you should think about it next time you're having people over for brunch, or lunch, or dinner, or just whenever you want a delicious, easy dinner. 

Cleaning Out the Fridge Quiche

I had to nearly double the amounts of egg, sour cream, and cheese to make this fill my deep dish pie plate.  However, the amounts listed below are for your average sized frozen pie crust, which is what I use most of the time.

My half-filled quiche.  Oops.  If that were a frozen pie crust, it would have been perfect.

* 4 or 5 eggs
* About 1/2 a pint, aka 1 cup, of sour cream (reduced fat works fine)
* About 1 cup of grated cheese, plus and additional 1/4 cup or so to sprinkle on top. Semi-firm varieties, such as Cheddar, Swiss, Monterey Jack, and Gruyere work well
* Freshly ground pepper

At this point, that's all you need for a yummy plain quiche.  However, meat and veggie additions make it even yummier.  Tonight I used:

* 1 small onion, diced and sauteed in EVOO until softened
* About 1/2 cup diced ham (organic, nitrate-free, if you can find it)
* Fresh thyme, leaves stripped from the stems
* Fresh dill, chopped

1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F.  Remove your frozen pie crust from the freezer and allow to thaw while you prep filling.

2. Whisk together the egg, sour cream, pepper, herbs, and 1 cup of grated cheese in a bowl. 

3.  In a small skillet, saute onions in some EVOO over medium heat until they are softened, about 8 minutes.

4.  Dice ham to a 1/4 inch dice.

5.  Place pie crust on a cookie sheet (if you're using a frozen crust in a flimsy pan).  Pour about 1/3 of the custard filling into the pie crust (it doesn't matter if the crust hasn't thawed completely).  Sprinkle on about half the ham and onions, and then repeat with another 1/3 of the custard, the remaining ham and onions, and then the remainder of the custard.  This step doesn't have to be too precise, but I do it this way instead of mixing everything together to help ensure an even distribution of the chunky stuff.  Sprinkle the top of the quiche with the 1/4 cup of grated cheese. 

 Filled to perfection.  You don't want to go all the way to the top, because the egg will bake up a bit

6.  Bake quiche, on cookie sheet, for about 35-40 minutes, or until top is golden brown and the center of the quiche doesn't jiggle if you shake it gently.  If the crust is browning too quickly, cover it with a sheet of aluminum foil.

7.  Cool quiche for about 5 minutes before slicing, and serving like a pie.  Enjoy!

If you're feeling really inspired and want to make your own crust, try of Martha Stewart's classic pate brisee, recipe below.  The quantities listed make a single crust for 9 or 10-inch pan.

* 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
* 1/2 teaspoon salt
* 1/2 teaspoon sugar
* 1 stick unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small pieces
* 1/8 to 1/4 cup ice water 

1. In the bowl of a food processor, combine flour, salt, and sugar. Add butter, and process until the mixture resembles coarse meal, 8 to 10 seconds.

2. With machine running, add ice water in a slow, steady stream through feed tube. Pulse until dough holds together without being wet or sticky; be careful not to process more than 30 seconds. To test, squeeze a small amount together: If it is crumbly, add more ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time. 

3. Turn dough out onto a sheet of plastic wrap.  If needed, use your hands to gently press the dough together into a disc.  Wrap tightly in the plastic and refrigerate for at least 1 hour. Dough may be stored, frozen, up to 1 month.

4.  To roll the dough, lightly flour a rolling surface and your rolling pin.  Starting rolling from the center, and rotate the dough often to create an even circle (or circular like shape)  Roll to about 1/4 to 1/8 inch thick, and until it reaches the correct size.  Place your pie pan (ungreased--plenty of butter in there already!) right next to the dough, and gently lift it into the pan and center.

5. Trim any overhang that's too long, and transfer the dough to a part that doesn't have much of a lip, if necessary.  Fold the overhaning dough over towards the center of the dish, and pinch the edge all the way around to create a lip.

 Behold!  My first pie crust!  The unsightly overlap will be covered with egg, so don't sweat it.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Easy Potato Gratin with Ham

Gratin is what happens when you try to thinly slice potatoes for homemade potato chips, fail, and have a potato and a half of misshapen potato slices.  And a hunk of ham that was supposed to become end up in quiche that later gets scrapped.  And leftover Gruyere cheese from French Onion Soup.  Really, if you ask me, the leftovers in the fridge were telling me that gratin was meant to be! 

Working with what I had, I modified a Cooking Light recipe slightly (basically omitting the healthy part).  This particular recipe has you simmer the potato slices, along with thinly sliced garlic, in milk before baking them to increase the creaminess of the dish without using any actual cream or butter.  The milk starts to tenderize the potatoes and infuses them with the garlic flavor.  The softened slices are layered in a pan with chunks of ham and grated Gruyere cheese (and parboiled green beans, if you follow the recipe verbatim).  Finally, a cup of the milk is mixed with a bit of grated nutmeg and poured over the top, bake for 40 minutes and voila! 

Overall I was happy with the recipe--it gives you the cheesy, indulgent gratin experience without the excesses of cream and butter that so many use.  Don't get me wrong--those are delicious--but this is more appropriate for an everyday kind of meal.  My only notes on the recipe are that the garlic flavor that was so strong after the potato slices simmered in the milk became much more subtle--almost too subtle--after baking.  When I use this recipe again I will increase the garlic from two to three or even four cloves to help retain the garlicy-ness post-bake.  I will also double the amount of nutmeg, because that also became too muted upon baking.  These technicalities aside, I like this recipe for its *slightly* healthier approach to potato gratin and its adaptability.  While it's certainly special enough for a holiday meal, served alongside a big mesculan, spinach, and chopped veggie salad (keep cleaning out that fridge!), it makes a perfect weeknight meal as well. 

Potato and Ham Gratin (Cooking Light, April 2002)
Serves 8 according to Cooking Light--but 8 very virtuous side-dish servings.  If you are making a meal of this, as I did, only plan on 4 or 6.

* 3 cups of 2% or 1% milk
* 2 pounds potatoes, thinly sliced--they say red, I used baking, but I'm sure anything will work!
* 2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced (I'd use even more!)
* 2 bay leaves
* 4 ounces green beans, trimmed
* Cooking spray
* 1/2 cup deli ham, diced (look for nitrate-free, if you can)
* 1 cup (4 ounces) shredded Gruyère cheese
* 1/2 teaspoon salt
* 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
* 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg (or more!)

1. Preheat oven to 400°F.

2. Combine the milk, potatoes, garlic and bay leaves in a large saucepan over medium heat; bring to a boil, stirring so the potatoes don't stick and the milk doesn't scorch on the bottom.  Reduce heat and simmer 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from heat, and allow to cool for 10 minutes. Drain potatoes in a colander over a bowl, reserving 1 cup milk mixture. Discard the bay leaves, but leave the garlic.

3. (If using), cook green beans in boiling water for 2 minutes or until crisp-tender. Rinse in cold water; drain.

4. Arrange half of potatoes in bottom of a 13 x 9-inch baking dish coated with cooking spray. Arrange haricots verts and ham over potatoes. Sprinkle with half of cheese, salt, and pepper. Top with remaining potatoes. Sprinkle with remaining cheese, salt, and pepper. Stir nutmeg into reserved milk mixture; pour over potatoes.

5. Cover the baking dish with foil and cut 3 (1-inch) slits in the foil. Bake at 400° for 20 minutes, then uncover and bake an additional 20 minutes or until cheese begins to brown. Let stand 10 minutes before serving.

Oscar Party Recap

I went a little bit hog wild this weekend.  Reason: The Oscars.  I love throwing a good party, and the Oscars gave me a great reason to cook up some tasty food for my friends.  I put together a pretty ambitious menu, mostly comprised of foods I'd never tried before, a party planning no-no that I always (unwisely) ignore.  I was trying to go for a theme of yellow food and foods that I could shape into stars, if possible.  My biggest struggle with party planning and cooking lots of different things is working out the timing.  If I could crank out dish after dish and not worry if a) they'll fit in the fridge, and b) whether they will need to be warm or hot or cold in 5 hours, then I'm sure it would be a (relative) cinch.  But of course, that is never the case, and to further complicate things, I was doing the cooking at the house where I was dog sitting (constant vigilace is required to make sure border collie hairs do not end up in the food!), but the party was at another friend's house, so there was the problem of transferring things: what goes in tupperware?  What can I plate now? Will everything get ruined when I bounce down the awful dirt road which I don't think has been graded once since I started dog sitting here 3 years ago?  Whew!  It was a lot to think about!

In the end I scrapped a few of my planned foods, because I realized after grating about a pound of cheese and going through about 2 dozen eggs, that a lot of my foods were cheese and egg heavy (they are golden, which made them natural choices when I was planning).  Homemade potato chips and mini star topped quiches, based on these Star Topped Mince Pies both got the axe at the last minute, the chips because they were a disaster, and the quiches because of the aforementioned cheese/egg overload issue.  I still think they would have been fantastic, but they seemed redundant at that moment.  

Puff Pastry Stars:

One dish that did make the cut was puff pastry stars that I cut out of pre-made puff pastry, baked, then topped with a dollop of creamy goat cheese, a slow roasted cherry tomato half, and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar reduction.  (Because I was using cherry tomatoes they only took about 1 1/2 hours to roast to perfection, and I was able to do them in a toaster oven, so didn't waste quite as much energy and heating your entire oven for that long).  These were good, although I scrimped a little and used store-brand puff pastry.  Next time, if it's available, I would use something like DuFour brand, which is hands-down the tastiest puff pastry dough I've ever tried, although it's a mite more expensive than Stop n' Shop brand.  The tomatoes obviously need to be cooked ahead of time, and the cheese and puff pastry need to be brought to room temperature, but the baking should occur at the last minute, according to package directions, and will take less than 15 minutes, at which point they come together very quickly. 

Polenta "Pizza":

Among my favorite dishes was a polenta "pizza."  I have been doing a little bit of experiementing with polenta lately, a polenta "lasagna" being one of my favorite creations.  This Brown Eyed Baker recipe tops a sheet of polenta with cheese and sauteed veggies.  It was delicious, and can be modified a hundred different ways, although I liked the suggested spinach, mushroom and tomato topping.  There is this misconception that polenta is a tricky and time consuming thing to make.  Let me say this: it's not!  There is also the fear that finding "polenta" or "instant polenta" in the grocery store is tricky.  You don't need it!  There are recipes out there that tell you to boil, then simmer, cover, then uncover, stir vigorously for 30 seconds, rest for 2 minutes, then repeat 20 times.  I've even tried one, and I have to say, they're not worth it.  I swear by a polenta recipe that I found in a thrift store cookbook several years ago.  Basically you need cornmeal, plain old cornmeal, and liquid in a 1: 4 ratio, i.e, 1 cup corn meal, 4 cups liquid.  You can use all water, but I prefer a 50/50 mix of water and milk for a little more creaminess.  You bring the liquid to a simmer over medium heat.  When you reach a simmer, sprinkle the cornmeal in and whisk while doing so until all the cornmeal is incorporated.  Continue whisking over low heat for 3-4 minutes, until the polenta reaches a thick consistency.  Season with salt, pepper, cheese, butter, or whatever.  Polenta in 10 minutes, guaranteed.  The only time this recipe has ever failed me was when I spaced out and dumped all the cornmeal into the simmering milk without whisking, then I had lumpy polenta.  But add it gradually and whisk while doing so, and you'll be golden!  I'll definitely be making this one again, and it was also great because I was able to make the polenta sheet the night before, refrigerate it, then bake closer to the last minute.  

PS. If any of you readers also follow the blog Orangette, I had to laugh when I read the most recent post, which incidentally is also about polenta.  I didn't see it until after I wrote my bit on polenta, but I'd say we're on the same page!  See, even a seasoned, respected food blogger agrees with me!  Polenta is not hard, and fear of polenta can easily be overcome!  In this recipe or just plain, try it!

Chicken Satay with Peanut Dipping Sauce:

Another favorite of the night was chicken satay with peanut dipping sauce.  Erik trimmed chicken breasts of excess fat and cut them into skewer-able strips.  We marinated the strips for a few hours in a mix of 1 cup of greek yogurt, and about a tablespoon each of minced or grated ginger and garlic, and a big tablespoon of curry powder, to get a nice yellowy color.  Before skewering the chicken, we soaked the wooden skewers in water for 30 minutes to help to keep them from charring, then Erik grilled them, I'm guessing about 4-5 minutes per side, until they were cooked through.  The yogurt marinade made the chicken very tender and almost creamy, much like the yogurt itself.  They were quite different than chicken satay that you might order at a Thai restaurant, but still delicious, especially when they were warm from the grill.  The peanut dipping sauce that I served along side the satay was from an Emeril Lagasse recipe that I've made several times before.  I don't make any adjustments to the quantities or ingredients, but I will point out that if you have a mini Cuisinart you can use it to mince the garlic and ginger, then just mix the rest of the ingredients and pulse until it's a blended, creamy sauce.  I made this an afternoon ahead except and refrigerated it until showtime, at which point I topped it with chopped peanuts and cilantro.  Delicious!


And of course, no party is complete without sweets (at least, no party that I throw!)  Chocolate dipped strawberries are always elegant, even when they're underripe, big, scary, winter strawberries.  The real tasty treats though were mini chocolate cupcakes topped with the same, incredible mocha frosting that we used on our Buche de Noel last December!  I haven't settled on a favorite, go-to cake batter yet, so this time I tried a fairly easy Paula Deen recipe (without the filling, although it does sound delicious!) I dug up on the Food Network website.  It made a nice, chocolaty cake that was incredibly tender.  I halved the recipe, and even halved it still yielded about 40 mini cupcakes, which was more than enough!   By the time I got around to making the frosting I was feeling a bit rushed and panicked, and managed to ruin the egg whites twice, thus wasting 4 eggs and half a stick of butter, which made me even more annoyed and frantic.  Luckily Erik stepped in and helped me out, and the third time was a charm (turns out, in my rush, I forgot to put sugar in--both times--hence the two failed attempts).  Again we made a 1/3 recipe of Ina Garten's AMAZING frosting, which was still too much for all those cupcakes, but was easier than trying to figure out a 1/4 recipe.  I finally got to use my pastry bag with a fancy tip, so the frosting looked (almost) professional, and it was actually a heck of lot easier and faster than trying to pick up and frost all those cupcakes, and then put them down without smearing the sides.  If you make these ahead of time, refrigerate the cupcakes, because it will help the frosting set up--it will soften up again after sitting out at room temperature for 30 minutes, so no need to worry about hard frosting, but it makes them easier to transport because the frosting isn't sticky.

If you've made it to the end of this lengthy post, congratulations!  There were more dishes, but these were the highlights, perfect for the Oscars or any time you're throwing a casual cocktail party.  And apologies for the lack of photos--I was just too busy to think about it!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Cleaning Out The Fridge Calzones

You may have noticed that my recent cooking photos were not taken in my kitchen--or maybe you haven't, I don't know.  But anyway, they weren't taken in my kitchen, because I am still pet sitting, this time for a border collie and 2 cats, my oldest "clients."  What started out as a favor for one friend is now my winter time "business"--I've been booked solid for the past 2 months, with the exception of February 19th, the only day I've been between jobs.  But anyway, back to my point, which is that I've been cooking elsewhere these days.  The best part about this current gig is that the owner has basically every kitchen gadget under the sun, and then some, so Erik and I always have fun experimenting with the things we find.  (I'm pretty sure the only time their pasta maker has ever been used is when we're staying here!)  The latest gadget that I wanted to try was a little calzone mold, available from Williams Sonoma, if you feel so inclined.  

While this little thing is hardly essential for making calzones, it was fun to try.  It's best attribute is that it helps with portion control--when I'm making calzones free form I get so carried away that each calzone is like an entire pizza, just folded in half.  I liked this tool because it makes a nicely sized calzone that left me full but not sick to my stomach because I just don't know when to stop eating.

But enough about a piece of plastic--let's get to the good stuff: the filling.  Since our time at this particular house is winding down, and we will be out every night until we head back to our own cottage, I was trying to figure out how to use up as many odds and ends as possible.  Surprisingly, and luckily, I had just the right amount of this and that to make the perfect amount of delicious filling--a cup of spicy homemade tomato sauce, about a 1/3 of a box of frozen spinach, the butt of a small onion, half a red bell pepper and some kalamata olives.  Tangy feta cheese and melty grated mozzarella rounded out this Greek-inspired combination, which I have to say was amazingly delicious, despite its ad-hoc nature.  In fact, part of the reason I'm posting about it is so that I remember to make it again, even when I'm not just trying to use up leftovers.

Usually when I make calzones I just toss everything on the dough, as if I were making a pizza, before folding it.  This time, however, I tried mixing all the ingredients together before making the calzones, mostly in the interest of saving counter space so I wouldn't have lots of piles of vegetables and whatnot while I was waiting for Erik to get back from the store with the cheese.  I actually really liked this approach, and will use it again in the future, since it helped all the flavors come together, and made the calzones quicker to fill.

The dough I used for these calzones is the exact same pizza dough featured in the flatbread post.  It made 4 individually sized calzones.  It is quite a soft dough, which made it a bit hard to remove from the calzone shaper gadget, although spraying it with Pam helped.  

Greek-Inspired "Cleaning Out The Fridge" Calzones
Serves 4

* 1 batch of this pizza dough, or the dough of your choice, either homemade or store-bought
* About 1 cup of tomato sauce, either homemade or jarred
* About 1/3 of a box of frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed of excess liquid
* 1/4 of a small onion, diced
* 1/2 red bell pepper, diced
* 2 cloves garlic, minced
* A shake of red pepper flakes, if desired
* About 1/3 cup pitted Kalamata olives, quartered
* Fresh or dried thyme and oregano, a few sprinkles of each
* Feta cheese, crumbled
* Mozzarella cheese, grated
* Cornmeal, for sprinkling, or nonstick spray

1.  Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.  In a bowl, combine the tomato sauce, spinach, onion, pepper, garlic, olives, red pepper flakes, and herbs.
If you filling is this liquidy, just spoon off the excess so the insides of your calzones aren't runny

2.  Divide the dough into 4 portions and roll or stretch out into a circle.  If you are using a calzone gadget, place the dough on the gadget, if not, just leave the rounds on your work surface.  Place a quarter of the filling and a sprinkle of the crumbled feta and the mozzarella on half of each dough round.  Fold the other half over and pinch firmly with your fingers to seal the calzone.

3. Transfer the calzones to a cookie sheet dusted with cornmeal or sprayed with nonstick spray.  If you want an easy cleanup, cover the cookie sheet with aluminum foil first.  Arrange the calzones so they aren't touching, and have a couple of inches of space between them.  

4.  Bake for 25 minutes or until golden brown on top.  Allow to cool for 5 minutes and serve.  A big leafy salad is a great accompaniment for these calzones.  Enjoy!

A bad example of giving the calzones enough space.  Better to use two sheets if one is this crowded.