Friday, December 31, 2010

Roast Duckling Montmorency

I've been wanting to make a duck for months, but never got around to it. It seemed too extravagant for just me. So, I invited Papa Smurf over for Christmas dinner. Yes, I'm Jewish, but he isn't and I had the day off. Might as well make a fancy meal.

Ducks are great for small gatherings. They look impressive, yet they're about the same size as a chicken. Once all the fat renders off, you actually get less meat from them than you would a chicken. 99 Ranch has them for less than the average chain market.

I'm basing this on the Bible's recipe, with a few changes because I didn't actually read the whole recipe before going grocery shopping. Bad Smurf. A lot of the time, I take entire cookbooks or recipe cards with me when I go, but the Bible's too heavy to tote through the aisles. I'm also simplifying some of the steps. This was the same day I was making the plantain latkes and apple tarts.

I always prefer to use fresh cherries when they're available, even though you have to pit them. This time, I ended up with frozen. The original recipe calls for canned, dark sweet cherries.

The original recipe also used a quartered duck. I decided that a whole one looked more impressive and left it intact. You do get more meat off of it quartered, since each person gets one big piece on their plate to work on. It's all dark meat, so it doesn't matter who gets the breast or leg. Plus, the darned thing was really difficult to carve. If you don't know how to quarter poultry, pre-order it and the butcher will do it for you. Depending on the market, they might not even charge extra.

Techie Smurf is a huge fan of saving duck fat for making confit later. There certainly is plenty of it. The fat can have other culinary uses, especially if you're not a fan of lard. You can use it for sautéing vegetables in any poultry dish, instead of using butter. I'm sure there are entire sites on the subject.

1 whole duckling, defrosted
3/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1 lb cherries, either fresh, frozen, or canned - pitted!
1/2 C claret or sherry
2 Tb currant jelly (or any neutral flavor like apricot, lemon, or apple)
1 tsp cornstarch
1/4 C water

1. Place duck, breast side up, on rack in stovetop-safe roasting pan. Prick skin all over with a fork so the fat has somewhere to go. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast at 325º for about 2 hours, until fork-tender and 165º in the deepest part of the thigh.

2. In small bowl, stir cherries with sherry and let macerate. Shortly before the duck is done, combine the water and cornstarch and set aside.

3. Remove duck to warm platter to rest, and start the sauce. Remove rack from roasting pan and pour off fat, leaving the drippings. Drain sherry from cherries. Place pan over medium heat and use sherry to deglaze drippings. Scrape all bits off bottom and pour the whole thing into a small saucepan. Place roasting pan in sink and start soaking it, or it's going to take a week to clean.

4. Place saucepan on the medium heat and add the jelly. Add the cornstarch slurry and stir until smooth. Cook until slightly thickened. Add cherries. Heat, stirring, until cherries are hot and all ingredients are well blended. Serve duckling with hot cherry sauce.

Difficulty rating :-0

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Plantain Latkes

I thought I was being so original with this idea until I googled it. After reading various opinions and recipes, I decided that I could just use my own latke recipe, but substitute plantain in equal weight.

Plantains are those things in the market that look like large, under-ripe, rotting bananas. They are often referred to as "cooking bananas", and the ones we eat as fruit are "dessert bananas". They have a taste and texture closer to potatoes, especially when they're green or yellow. If you let them ripen to the pink/black stage, they're much sweeter and almost taste like green bananas. The one I used was probably more ripe than I should have. It was difficult to grate. But, the finished product was slightly sweet, which melded fantastically with the onions.

If you've ever made latkes, none of this recipe should be a surprise. And, as usual, I recommend turning on the vent and opening the kitchen window when you fry them.

1 lb ripened plantains (not quite to all-black stage, but more than just a few black spots)
1/2 medium onion, minced
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1 Tb flour or matzah cake meal
1 egg, slightly beaten
oil for frying

1. Peel plantain and soak for 5 minutes in cold water. Drain, pat dry, then grate using large holes in grater.

2. Combine all ingredients in medium bowl and let sit in fridge for 10-15 minutes. Heat 1/4" oil to 350º in frying pan.

3. Spoon 2 Tb latke mix (a coffee scoop) into oil for each pancake. Fry for 3 minutes on each side, until well browned. Remove to paper towel-lined plate to drain and keep warm. If needed, add more oil between batches and wait a few minutes for it to heat.

4. Serve by themselves, or with sour cream and preserves. Since they're a tropical fruit, I recommend something like crushed pineapple or a mango chutney.

Difficulty rating  :-0

Biscuits & Gravy

I always like to make a big breakfast for New Year's. This year, I'm working in the morning, so I had my fancy breakfast a few days early. Maybe I'll make waffles for lunch on New Year's.

This recipe is kind of cheating, since I've already posted most of the components. It's just a new way to put them together.

It is, however, a bit lower in fat than you would get in a restaurant, and you can control the salt.

a double-recipe of White Sauce Base
Salt to taste
1 tsp pepper
1 package lean, pre-cooked turkey sausage links, cut into pieces

1. Prepare scones and set aside on rack to cool.

2. Prepare white sauce base. Add pepper (you may want to use more) and salt to taste. Stir in sausage pieces and cook until heated and thick.

3. Place one or two scones on each plate. They can be split open or served whole. Spoon a generous amount of country gravy on each and serve immediately.

Serves 6-8

Difficulty rating :)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Coconut-Banana Cream Pie

My guest at dinner the other night brought me a big bunch of bananas as a hostess gift. While I adore bananas, I also like them green. There was no way I could finish all of them before they were too ripe. Again, my weird cooking logic decided that extra bananas= pie.

There's no picture because this was the worst-looking crust I have ever made in my life. But, I'm taking it to work, and they don't care about anything except the "free food" part. Suffice it to say, do not use leftover pastry crust dough to make a pie crust.

I took the Bible's banana-cream pie recipe and added the coconut. In the process, I reduced the sugar in the custard from 1/2 C to 1/3 C. Not a big difference, but you do notice the extra sugar in the coconut if you don't reduce it elsewhere. The rest of the recipe is easy and involves about 15 minutes of work time. There's 2+ hours of chilling, then pour it in the crust. Done.

1 pre-baked pie crust or graham cracker crust
1/3 C sugar
1/3 C flour
1/4 tsp salt
2-1/4 C milk
4 egg yolks
2 tsp vanilla
*1/2 C coconut flakes
3 bananas

1. In a medium saucepan, combine flour, sugar, and salt. Add milk and stir until smooth.

2. Over medium heat, bring milk to a low boil, stirring constantly to avoid scorching. It takes about 10 minutes. The milk will thicken to coat the spoon. Remove from heat.

3. Pour about 1/2 C of hot milk into egg yolks and beat together to temper them. Pour mixture back in saucepan and stir to combine. Return to heat and warm until mixture is very thick and mounds when dropped from a spoon. Do not boil. Stir in vanilla and coconut. Cover surface of custard with a sheet of plastic wrap, so it is not exposed to air. Chill in fridge at least 2 hours.

4. Slice bananas thinly and arrange to cover bottom of pie crust. Take any remaining slices and dip them in watered-down lemon juice to preserve color, then set aside for garnish. Pour custard into crust, then garnish with reserved banana slices and more coconut flakes, if desired. Whipped cream also makes a fantastic garnish. Keep chilled until ready to serve.

Serves 8 to 10

Difficulty rating  :-0

Monday, December 27, 2010

Apple Tart

I asked Papa Smurf if he wanted to bring a guest to Christmas dinner. Since I hadn't heard from him, I planned on using a two-serving rum cake I had in the pantry. He didn't invite someone until two days before, and I was not about to go grocery shopping on Christmas Eve. So, it was time to scrounge around for ideas.

Being me, I have a lot of apples on hand, so I decided to make mini apple tarts. The recipe I'm posting is for the full 11" tart, but I'm guessing the same amount of dough and filling would make about 8 single-serving tarts. My tart tins were 10cm (about 4").

You'll notice there are no spices in this recipe, just enough sugar to make it a dessert. Tarts exist to show off the fruit. You don't want to overdo the seasonings.

1 batch of Pastry Crust
2 lbs of apples (Golden Delicious, Roma, or Gala are probably best)
1 Tb lemon juice
1/4 C sugar
1/4 C brown sugar
2 Tb flour
1/2 C apricot jelly (or other clear, neutral jelly like lemon or apple)

1. Fill large bowl with cold water and add lemon juice. Peel apples if desired. Core apples, halve them, and slice into 1/8" thick slices. Appearance matters in this case. The slices need to be pretty. Place slices in water so they don't brown. Preheat oven to 400º.

2. Combine sugars and flour. Into prepared, unbaked pastry crust, sprinkle half of sugar mixture. Drain apple slices and arrange in overlapping swirl pattern in the crust. It should mound up slightly above the level of the pan, but not as high as for an apple pie. Sprinkle with remaining sugar. Bake 45 minutes (30 for minis), until apples are cooked and crust is browned. Remove to a rack to cool, but leave in the tart pan.

3. Melt jelly and brush top of tart. Let cool. Remove pan sides and serve.

Serves 8 to 10

Difficulty rating :-0

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Pastry Crust

Pastry crust isn't exactly the same thing as pie crust. The addition of an egg makes it sturdier, so you can remove the tart from its pan and serve it free-standing. It also means you can make this in the food processor or stand mixer and not worry about over-mixing.

This recipe makes enough for one 11" tart shell. Whenever you place pastry dough in a tart pan, make it a little taller than the actual pan, and make sure it is well-pressed into all the fluted crevices. It will shrink. I recommend rolling it out, letting the dough sit on the board for a couple of minutes, and then transferring it to the pan. (See Pie Crust for transfer methods.)

1/2 C chilled butter, cut into 1 Tb pieces
1/4 C shortening
1 egg
2 Tb ice water
dash of salt
1-3/4 C flour, plus more for rolling

1. Place butter, shortening, egg, water, and salt in food processor or stand mixer with paddle attachment. Process/beat until chopped but not smooth.

2. Add flour and process/beat until crumbly and pebbly but not until it gathers into a ball.

3. Turn out onto surface and knead gently until mixture forms a disc. It's OK if it is still a little dry and crumbly. Wrap in waxed paper and chill for at least one hour, to let the moisture take effect. You can also freeze it at this point for up to a month.

4. Let dough come up close to room temperature, about 10 minutes. Roll out on floured surface into a circle about 1/8" thick. Transfer to tart pan (the fluted ones with removable bottoms). Once molded into pan, chill in fridge for about 1 hour.

5. If baking unfilled, preheat oven to 400º. Cover bottom of shell with foil or parchment paper and spread beans or a similar, ovenproof, light weight across bottom. Bake for about 12 minutes, until bottom is set and you no longer risk it puffing. Remove beans and foil and bake until lightly browned, another 12 minutes.

6. If baking filled, follow tart recipe. (Some tart recipes ask you to use a pre-baked crust, then bake it again.)

Difficulty rating  :)

Thursday, December 23, 2010


And it's back to Morocco. Versions of this can be found in all different nationalities of Middle Eastern and North African cuisines. I've nicknamed it Lamburger, but it does not taste remotely like something you get on a bun. I made it for a barbecue once. Papa Smurf does not like cilantro, and automatically puts ketchup on anything with the word "ground" in it, but I got him to eat it plain, and he decided it had enough flavor for him. Triumph!

The secret to a flavorful kefta is to go heavy on the herbs. Salt will enhance the other flavors you put into the mix, but the real flavor comes from the cilantro and onions.

You're supposed to do this on skewers, and I thought I had some, but I must have used them all. The oblong shape is how they would be done; just imagine a metal or bamboo skewer through the middle. And if you use bamboo, soak them for an hour first so they don't catch on fire.

I served this with green beans and brown rice that had been seasoned with salt, pepper, and turmeric.

1 lb ground lamb
1 C finely chopped cilantro (or 1/2 cilantro & 1/2 parsley)
1/2 C finely chopped green onions
1 tsp salt
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp black pepper

1. Measure all ingredients into a bowl. Knead together until evenly dispersed. Chill for at least 1 hour for flavors to meld. If using bamboo skewers, now is a good time to start soaking them.

2. Preheat barbecue grill or oven broiler. Divide mixture into 8 pieces. Mold each around a skewer and slightly flatten so it can be turned easily. Place skewers on grill or broiler and cook until medium, about 5 minutes per side. Serve hot.

Difficulty rating  π

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


I first heard about Stollen in baking class. The last time I went through the recipe box, I found Grandma's version. Hers was heavy with glacéed fruits, nuts, and brandy. It also was a big enough recipe to feed a town, and used 5 eggs. There should be a baking law against using a prime number of eggs in a recipe. So, I'm using the Bible's, which makes about half as much with 3 eggs.

Stollen uses similar flavorings to fruitcake, but people actually like eating it because it is light, sweet bread. It also makes awesome French toast. If you don't want to use glacé fruits, you can substitute any dried fruit. Briefly soak them in brandy, rum, or warm apple cider to soften them.

This bread is traditionally made for Christmas, and I make 8oz loaves to give as gifts. Or, you can make three larger loaves to have for breakfast, snack, or even dessert.

1/2 C sugar
1-1/4 C milk
2/3 C butter
5 tsp (2 packages) yeast
5-6 C flour
1-1/2 tsp salt
3 eggs
1 C sliced or slivered almonds
1 C cut-up candied (glacé) fruits
1/2 C raisins
powdered sugar for dusting

1. Warm butter, milk, and sugar to 100º. Butter does not need to melt. Stir in yeast, and let sit until slightly foamy, 5 minutes.

2. In mixing bowl, stir together salt and 2 C flour. Beat in milk mixture until smooth. Add eggs and beat again until smooth. Beat in 1 C flour, then another cup of flour, to create a light dough.

3. Turn dough out onto floured surface and knead until smooth, 5-10 minutes. Because of the eggs, the dough will never stop being sticky. It is done when the seams magically disappear. Place into greased bowl and let rise in warm place until doubled, 1 hour.

4. Punch down dough and let rest 10 minutes. Knead almonds and fruit into dough until evenly distributed. Divide into 8oz loaves (about 7) or three equal pieces for larger loaves.

5. With a rolling pin, roll each piece of dough into an oval. Fold in half lengthwise and place on ungreased cookie sheets. Do not pinch them shut. It's normal for the "halves" to come out slightly uneven. Place in warm place and let rise about 1 hr.

6. Bake at 350º for 20 minutes for smaller loaves, 25-30 minutes for larger. They are done when well browned and not squishy. Place on cooling racks immediately and dust with powdered sugar.

makes 3 - 8 loaves, depending on size and how much flour you use.

Difficulty rating :-0

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Fried Calamari

I went to The Olive Garden once with a friend and ordered the fried calamari. She had never had it before, but loved it and started munching with vigor. At some point, she asked what it was and I told her it was squid. That was the last bite of it she took. More for me.

Like my friend, I'm a hypocrite of a carnivore. I like my meat and fish properly butchered so it no longer resembles the original animal. You can't really do that with calamari unless you buy frozen, pre-made rings. I did manage to find pre-cleaned ones (99 Ranch). I do know how to clean a squid, but I'd rather not do it.

Squid, octopus, abalone, and most mollusks are best cooked one of two ways: quickly with high heat, or stewed for a long time. Otherwise, they get tough.

And, yes, I did serve this with macaroni. Half-gallon mason jar full of it...I'm getting desperate for ideas.

4 medium squid (about 1-1/2 lbs), cleaned
1/2 C flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp pepper
oil for frying

1. Rinse squids thoroughly and make sure they are fully cleaned. Check for plastic-like spine and any stray guts.

2. Slice bodies crosswise to form rings, and tentacle head in half (uniform size with rings, so it cooks in the same amount of time).

3. In saucepan or deep frying pan, heat 1" of vegetable oil until water drops dance, about 350º. You might want to turn on the fan and open a window.

4. Stir together flour and spices. Dredge moistened rings in flour until thoroughly coated. In batches, drop rings into oil and take a couple of steps back. Fry for about 1 minute, until crispy and slightly golden, then scoop out with a slotted spoon and place on paper towels to drain. Allow oil to reheat for a minute or two between batches.

5. Serve hot, accompanied by lemon wedges and/or marinara sauce.

Difficulty rating  π

Friday, December 17, 2010

Apple Pie

Everyone has their own opinion about which apples make the best pies. Tart or sweet, dense or mealy, skin on or off (ok, I'm the only person in the world who prefers to make it with the skins on). It annoys the clerks at the grocery store, but I put at least three kinds into the pie, to create a difference in texture and so the best qualities of each blend in. The traditional Granny Smith is represented for structure. Galas and Fujis aren't as tart, but still hold up well if you want to use them as your base. Golden Delicious and Pippin are also on the tart side. Stay away from Red Delicious. Those are eating apples that don't cook well. Basically, any kind that isn't entirely one smooth red color will work.

There's also debate on how thin to slice the apples. When I use my spiral slicer, the slices come out so thin that they tend to dry out in the pie. The thicker slices you get from a wedger/corer (or cutting by hand) work better. If you cut each wedge in half crosswise, you get nice chunks that are bite-sized and easy to slice out of the finished pie.

That old image of pies cooling on the window sill isn't just something made up to sound quaint. Let any fruit pie cool to under 100º before serving. Fresh out of the oven, all the juices are still boiling and making a syrup that will gel and hold together the filling. If you serve it too soon, all that syrup will just ooze around and the pie won't look as nice. It doesn't have to go on the window sill, just any place that isn't the oven.

This is based on the Bible's apple pie

2 lbs apples
1 Tb lemon juice
2 Tb flour
1 Tb butter
2/3 C sugar (more or less depending on tartness of apples)
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1 Tb milk

1. Prepare bottom crust, leaving a slight overhang for crimping later, and place in pie pan. Set aside.

2. Fill medium bowl with cold water. Add lemon juice. Peel, core, and slice apples to desired size and place in bowl. Set aside.

3. In small bowl, cut together flour and butter until mealy. Cut in sugar and spices.

4. Preheat oven to 425º. Drain apples. Place half of the apples in the pie pan. Sprinkle with half of the sugar mixture. Pile on rest of apples, then rest of sugar. The mound will be considerably higher than the rim of the pie plate.

5. Roll out top crust and place on filling. Cut some kind of vent, either simple slits with a knife or something fancy with cookie cutters. Crimp edges to seal crust and clean up rim. Brush crust lightly with milk, avoiding the rim. Place on a cookie sheet (to catch any drippings) and bake for 40 to 50 minutes, until crust is golden. Cool before serving.

serves 6 to 8

note: Once raw pie is sealed, it can be kept in the fridge for up to 24 hours. Remove, preheat oven, brush with milk, and bake. It doesn't have to reach room temperature before going in the oven.

Difficulty rating  :)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Pie Crust

I make no secret of the fact that I usually buy my pie crusts. The ones from the freezer section come out consistently right. The graham and cookie ones near the flour aisle mean no mess on the kitchen counter, and usually come with a plastic lid. Both kinds are made in disposable pie dishes, so you don't have to get a pie plate back when you take them somewhere.

But, sometimes you make a 2-crust pie or just run out. (I don't like the rolled refrigerator crusts. They're usually too thick.) I've tried using a store-bought for the bottom crust and making only the top, but then they don't match. I do have that really cool pastry board with built-in guides for how big to roll a pie crust for any size pie plate, but simply putting the plate over the rolled crust and adding an inch all around works just as well. Anyone who bakes even once a month usually has the ingredients for a pie crust sitting around.

I've found that the best kind of fat to use in pie crusts is a combination. An all-fat source, like lard or shortening, will give you flaky layers, but it doesn't taste very good. Butter and margarine taste better, but have lower melting points and more moisture, which brown better but can create a tougher crust. By using some of each, you get a crisp, flaky crust that browns well and actually tastes decent.

I don't own a pastry cutter. I use very well-washed hands instead. Make sure you're cleaning under the fingernails, too. It's easier to feel for larger pieces of shortening/butter, and rather therapeutic. To avoid toughness, add as little water as possible and make sure it's cold. This will reduce the gluten development and keep the layers flaky. This is why I don't like to make my crust in the food processor. It's too easy to overwork the dough.

This is a variation on the Bible's 2-crust recipe.

2 C flour
1 tsp salt
1/4 C butter or margarine
1/2 C shortening or lard
5 or 6 Tb cold water

1. In medium bowl, stir together flour and salt. With pastry cutter, cut in butter and shortening until mixture resembles coarse crumbs.

2. Sprinkle in cold water, 2 tablespoons at a time, mixing lightly with a fork after each addition. Add until pastry holds together, but is not wet.

3. Shape pastry into a ball. Chill in fridge for 30 minutes, if needed. Can also be frozen at this point for up to a month.

4. For a 2-crust pie, divide into two pieces. On a floured board, roll out the first slightly larger than the pie pan. Set crust in pie plate* and fill. Roll out other half and set on top, then bake according to pie recipe's directions.

5. For a pre-baked crust, set half in pie plate. Prick all over with fork to avoid bubbles, and trim edges. Bake at 425º for 15 minutes, or until golden.

*crust transfer methods
1. Fold in quarters, set point in center of pie plate, unfold.
2. Roll crust loosely onto rolling pin. Move pin over pie plate and unroll.
3. Set pie plate under edge of board. Slide crust off board and into plate.

For all methods, do not push crust into plate. Let gravity do most of the work and just press lightly to line things up. Bottom crusts are more forgiving. You can use extra dough to patch holes, or pinch things back together. Save the stress for the top crust, which is the one people can see.

Difficulty rating :-0

Saturday, December 11, 2010


The flavor that separates this Moroccan soup from any other vegetable-beef-lentil is the cilantro. It turns what looks like mostly American ingredients into something from north Africa.

I prefer to purée the soup slightly before serving. You can use a food processor, blender, or immersion blender. The last is definitely the option which involves the least amount of cleaning. It's also perfectly OK to serve it chunky. If you do, try to chop all the ingredients about the same size.

For chopping fresh herbs, I use the ulu knife my parents brought me from Alaska. Yes, they do exist in real life, not simply as the answer to a crossword clue. I find the rolling motion and sharp blade more efficient, since herbs tend to roll out from under a straight blade.

The lamb in this recipe is as much an accent flavor as the carrot, and not the main ingredient. If you put in more than the recipe directs, it alters the balance of the flavors. Stew beef may be substituted if lamb is unavailable.

6 C beef broth
1/2 lb boneless lamb, diced
1 large carrot, cut up
1 15-oz can diced tomatoes (I recommend "no salt added")
1 C lentils
1/2 tsp saffron (optional)
2 onions, chopped
1 C chopped cilantro
salt & pepper to taste
2 Tb lemon juice

1. Combine broth, lamb, and carrot in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 1 hour.

2. Pour canned tomatoes into pot, including any juice. Add lentils, saffron, and onions. Continue to simmer until lentils are cooked, about 45 minutes.

3. Taste broth and add salt & pepper as needed. Add cilantro and lemon juice. Simmer until cilantro has cooked, about 5 minutes. Purée, if desired, and reheat before serving.

makes 6 to 8 servings

Difficulty rating  :)

Thursday, December 9, 2010


This Moroccan-style bread is just a single-rise water bread baked free-standing. It has very little taste of its own other than fresh-baked bready goodness. The idea is to use it instead of your fingers to scoop up dips, salads, and those last bits of soup in the bowl.

Because there is no sugar in the dough, it will not get toasty brown. It is very easy to overbake the bread while you're waiting for it to look done. The best way to judge is to touch it. The loaves should be soft, without too thick a crust, but not squishy and doughy.

If the yeast does not activate in the warm water, you can cheat a bit and add 1/4 tsp of sugar to the mix. It's a small enough amount that it won't affect the taste. And a few words about salt: it kills yeast. The original recipe from Mideast & Mediterranean Cuisines had you adding salt to the water with the yeast. Sure way to end up with matzah. Always add the salt with or after the flour.

To use a package of yeast, double this recipe

1 C warm (100º) water
1 tsp yeast
2-3 C flour
1 tsp salt

1. Dissolve yeast in water and let sit until slightly foamy, about 5 minutes. Turn on oven for about 2 minutes, then turn back off.

2. In a bowl, combine water and 1 C flour to make a batter. Add another 1 C of flour and the salt to make a soft dough. Turn out onto a floured board and knead until smooth, adding as little flour as you can in the process, about 5-10 minutes.

3. Divide dough in half and shape each piece into a ball. Flatten balls slightly into discs 1" high. Place on ungreased cookie sheets several inches apart. Place in warmed oven to rise until doubled, about 1 hour.

4. Remove bread from oven and preheat to 350º. Bake for 15 minutes, or until done.

Makes 2 8-oz loaves

Difficulty rating  :)

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Butternut Squash Gnocchi

I've never had gnocchi, but I have made pasta before and this sounded good. There ended up being a lot of dishes to wash and it probably took longer than it had to. I wasn't paying attention to Bon Appetit's suggestion that it would take 4 hours, and should be made early in the day and reheated. I also didn't make the sauce they offered as an accompaniment, opting instead for a sun-dried tomato alfredo.

I'm fond of butternut squash, just not of cutting it open. Get out your sharpest knife for this one. Another specialty item mentioned in the recipe is a potato ricer. I don't own one, and found that the back of a fork worked just as well. You want to break up the potato in a way which does not mash it. A pastry cutter would probably do the job, too.

As for shaping the pasta, the pieces got bigger as I went along. I tried to blame it on my complete lack of a sense of size. That's what measuring cups, spoons, and scoops are for. Finally, I settled on the top joint of my thumb as a guide, and they came out much more even. I didn't give up on the part where you run the tines of a fork over each piece to make ridges, but I decided to do it before cutting the individual gnocchi, while they were still in rope form. Some of the ridges stayed better than others.

1 1-lb butternut squash (the smallest one you can find)
1 Tb olive oil
1 12 to 14-oz russet potato, peeled and cut in chunks
1/2 C finely grated Parmesan cheese
1 egg, beaten
1-1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1 tsp salt
1-3/4 C flour, plus dusting

1. Preheat oven to 400º. Cut squash lengthwise in half; discard seeds. Place squash halves, cut side up, on baking sheet and brush with oil. Roast until squash is very tender when pierced, about 1-1/2 hours.

2. Meanwhile, boil potato in lightly salted water until very tender, about 20 minutes. Drain. While potato is warm, press through potato ricer and allow to cool.

3. When squash is cooked, allow to sit until cool enough to handle. Scoop out flesh and run through food processor. If purée is moist, cook out juices in saucepan, about 5 minutes.

4. Measure 1 C packed squash purée, 2 C loosely packed riced potato, Parmesan, egg, nutmeg, and salt into large bowl or stand mixer with paddle attachment. Mix until combined. Gradually add 1-3/4 flour, either by kneading by hand or with the hook attachment. (You could also use the kneading blade on the food processor, but that may not mix it evenly.) The dough is ready when it holds together and is almost smooth.

5. Divide dough into manageable portions. Roll each into a rope 1/2" in diameter. Lightly flour cookie sheets. Cut out 3/4" gnocchi from the ropes. Working with 1 piece at a time, roll gnocchi along back of floured fork tines, making ridges on 1 side. Transfer pieces to baking sheet. Cover loosely with plastic and chill for at least 1 hour, or up to 6 hours.

6. Cook gnocchi in large pot of boiling salted water. Do not crowd the pieces; you may have to work in 2 batches. Cook until very tender, about 15 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer gnocchi back to cookie sheets to cool slightly, or they'll stick together later.

7. Reheat in chosen sauce before serving.

Serves 6

Difficulty rating  $@%!

Thursday, December 2, 2010


While repeatedly checking the Thanksgiving turkey on the porch (more about that later), I realized how many otherwise-educated people don't know anything about temperature control of high-risk foods.

(Advance warning to all non-Americans: I only know how to relate this information in Fahrenheit.)

The current temperature danger zone is 41º - 135ºF. Any foods within those extremes must be given extra attention. Basically, it means to refrigerate at 41º and below, and to hold hot food at 135º and above.

Techie Smurf brined his turkey this year in a big stockpot. The pot didn't fit in the fridge. Fortunately, it was very cold outside in Indiana. We left it on the porch all night, which was considerably colder than the inside of the fridge. The next day did get above 41º, so someone had to check the pot every couple of hours to make sure the ice hadn't melted.

The heating requirement does not mean that you can cook anything to 135º and call it done. There are all sorts of charts about what kinds of meats must be cooked to what temperature. The two biggies, Salmonella and E. coli, are eradicated at 165º. When it doubt, cook to that temperature. But the 185º that most cookbooks tell you to cook a turkey? If you do that, once it stands, it will be more like 200º, and dry as jerky. You can pull poultry and meatloaf at 160º, and they will easily be done after standing a few minutes.

Which brings up ground beef, or ground any meat. The grinding process exposes more surfaces of the meat to potential pathogens, mainly E. coli. Plus, it's a lot harder to sanitize a grinder than a single blade. Cook that as thoroughly as you would poultry, just in case.

Eggs cook around 135º. Before you freak out about Salmonella, be assured that most eggs in the American food supply do not carry it. If you're making something that might have raw or undercooked egg in it, you can buy pasteurized eggs. They taste about right, and knowing that your Hollandaise won't kill your guests makes it taste better.

When cooling something that has been cooked, time is the key. You have a total of four hours that it may be in the danger zone. So, if you had Thanksgiving dinner in an hour, then put away leftovers and they chilled to 41º in another hour, you have already used up two hours. If you make a leftover turkey sandwich for lunch and pack it in a non-insulated lunch bag, I hope you plan to eat fairly soon after making the sandwich.

This is also industry-standard for food handling places. Obviously, four hours and one minute will not make you sick. Five probably won't, either. Mainly, be conscious of any time or temperature abuse that leftovers may have suffered. Reheating them to 165º resets the clock, which is basically the concept behind frozen TV dinners.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Oatmeal Everything Cookies

In college, we had some amazing oatmeal cookies one day. I asked the girl who made them what she had done, and she said that she had just kept throwing in all sorts of cookie fillings. What had made them so special was that every bite was a little different.

I've never been able to recreate the cookie exactly, but I have come up with a formula that is close. You start with a basic oatmeal cookie recipe. Then, pick one flavor to dominate (I usually go for chocolate chips) and three or four accent flavors. It's a total of 2-1/2 or 3 cups of stuff in the dough, instead of the usual 2 cups in your standard batch of cookies. The fun part is mixing it up.

I divide the fillings into three main categories, and try to use no more than two from each one.

Chips: Semi-sweet, milk chocolate, white chocolate, butterscotch, peanut butter
Fruit: Craisins, raisins, candied fruits (like for fruitcake), banana chips (cracked and briefly soaked in rum or brandy)
Nuts: cashews, peanuts, walnuts, almonds, coconut flakes, instant coffee (only use 2 Tb)

Spices do not add to this cookie's complexity because there are so many contrasting flavors. I tried cinnamon once, and it distracted you from the other flavors. A little vanilla is all this really needs.

3/4 C shortening
1 C packed brown sugar
1/2 C granulated sugar
1 egg
1/4 C water
1 tsp vanilla
3 C quick oats, uncooked
1 C flour
1 tsp salt (optional)
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 C primary flavoring
1/2 C each of up to 4 secondary flavorings

1. Preheat oven to 350º. Grease or line cookie sheets.

2. Beat together shortening, sugars, egg, water, and vanilla until creamy.

3. Combine oats, flour, salt, and soda and add to creamed ingredients. Mix well. Stir in flavorings until evenly distributed.

4. Drop by tablespoons onto cookie sheets at least 2" apart. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, until lightly browned (for softer cookies, pull when browning begins). Cool slightly, then remove to racks to cool completely.

Makes about 4 dozen

Ideas for flavor combinations
semisweet chips, coconut, walnuts, craisins, butterscotch chips (my favorite)
white chocolate, candied pineapple, coconut, macadamia nuts (Hawaiian)
Peanuts, butterscotch chips, banana chips, almonds

Difficulty rating  π

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Turkey Divan

Thousands of households in America roast turkeys for Thanksgiving that are too big for their gathering just so there will be leftovers. And half of those families wake up the next morning wondering what to do with them. I divide them into one-pound portions and freeze them in ziplock bags. Always label and date your leftovers. There are pieces of meat at the bottom of Papa Smurf's chest freezer that are so ancient you can't tell what they are.

For those of you who read my first recipe post, this is my real favorite casserole. It's cheesy and gooey, but you get a good crunch out of the broccoli and breadcrumbs.

I actually bought a can of mushrooms. I ate a lot of salty foods this week and decided to make my own cream of mushroom sauce instead of the canned soup. (White Sauce base with salt, pepper, paprika, and a small amount of sautéed onions, then stir in 4 oz canned mushrooms.) Plus, there was some milk on the verge. Use it or lose it. You could also use a can of cheddar & broccoli soup, for extra cheesiness, but I decided to go with a slight contrast instead.

1 lb leftover turkey or chicken (no heavy seasoning), cut into bite-sized pieces or shredded
2 C broccoli cuts, cooked
1 can cream of mushroom condensed soup
1 C shredded cheddar cheese
1/2 C plain breadcrumbs or 1 slice of bread torn into small pieces

1. Preheat oven to 350º. Into an 8" x 8" square pan, layer meat, then broccoli. Pour condensed soup on top and allow to settle for 5 min.

2. Sprinkle cheese on top of soup, then breadcrumbs on top of cheese. Bake until cheese is melted and casserole is heated through, about 15 min.

Difficulty rating  π

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Peanut Butter Cream Pie

I was highly skeptical the first time I saw this recipe, but thought I'd give it a try anyway. Oh. My. God. it's good! If you like peanut butter at all, you are going to love it. A specialty of The Brewhouse in Santa Barbara, I wish I had known about this place when I lived up there. I would have been there every weekend. It's like peanut-butter fluff resting on a chocolate cookie.

I'm including the crust recipe, but I've always used a store-bought Oreo crust. The flavor of the filling is not intensely peanut-buttery, and having strong peanut butter in the crust may upset the balance. Plus, then I'd end up eating all the white stuff, since you don't put that in the crust.

As for measuring the peanut butter, I suggest one of those push-up adjustable measuring cups that Alton Brown is so fond of using. Those are good for measuring any sticky ingredient, and make clean-up easy. And you know that the amount you measured has actually made it into the product.

This is also an excellent last-minute dessert. If you buy a crust and use a 16 oz container of Cool Whip instead of whipped cream (decrease sugar to 1-1/4 C), it literally takes five minutes to make. You could put it in the crust as the first guest arrives, and it will be set by dessert time.

1-1/2 C Oreo cookie crumbs
1/4 C creamy peanut butter

1. Preheat oven to 350º. Combine cookie crumbs and peanut butter and mix well.

2. Press mixture into a 9" pie pan. Bake until set, 7 minutes. Cool completely.


8 oz cream cheese, softened
*1/2 C peanut butter
1-3/4 C powdered sugar
2 C whipping cream

1. Beat together the cream cheese, peanut butter, and powdered sugar until smooth. I recommend the paddle of a stand mixer, to make cleaning easier.

2. In a separate bowl, whip the cream to stiff peaks. Fold it into the peanut butter mixture until smooth. Pour into pie crust. Chill about 3 hours before serving. Garnish with whipped cream and chocolate syrup.

Serves 8

Difficulty rating  π

Monday, November 22, 2010

Cherry Trifle

Whoever named this dessert was being sarcastic. If you go the whole from-scratch route, this is going to take a couple of days. At the very least, you're looking at six hours. Fortunately, a bunch of cheats exist that can cut it down to about two hours, most of that waiting for the layers to set.

This is also the best reason to own a trifle bowl. The second-best reason is for displaying fruit salads. They can be found for very reasonable prices anywhere that sells cooking supplies. Here's Sur La Table's selections. Note the individual bowls. They are seriously cute, and allow you to serve it without smushing the layers. From a big bowl, you just have to scoop it out with a large serving spoon, which quickly creates a mess. Another serving option is to build it in wine goblets for individual servings. You could do it in a clear round bowl, but the straight sides of a trifle bowl really show the layers to advantage. You can see from the photo that I probably should have made a double recipe to fill the bowl. This recipe does not make a huge amount. The average dinner party of 8 to 10 people does not require a huge trifle bowl.

The recipes I have found call for macaroons for the cookie layer, and I get that the nuttiness adds contrast, but I prefer Nilla wafers. Graham crackers will get too soggy. As for the alcohol, yes it is added uncooked. This is an adult dessert. There isn't enough in one serving to get anybody tipsy, but it is definitely part of the flavoring. If this bothers you, cut the amount in half. You'll get the flavor without it being overpowering.

I'm going to post two versions of the method, one for from-scratch types, and one for people who have twenty other things to do before their holiday guests arrive. The proper recipe is from the Williamsburg Cookbook.

2 C Vanilla Cream Custard or one 4-serving box vanilla pudding, prepared
2 dozen ladyfingers or one 9" layer of spongecake cut into fingers (homemade or store-bought)
1 C cherry jam and 1 qt fresh cherries, pitted, or 1 can cherry pie filling, liquid drained and reserved
rind of 1 lemon, grated
1/2 C dry sherry
3 Tb brandy
1 dz macaroons, Nilla wafers, or other crunchy cookie, slightly crushed
1 C whipping cream and maraschino cherries for garnish

The Long Version

1. Prepare ladyfingers or spongecake. Store uncovered overnight to let them get a little stale. Prepare vanilla cream and store in fridge. Make jam and pit cherries.

2. Coat 1/2 of the ladyfingers/cake with 1/2 C of cherry jam; arrange evenly in bottom of trifle bowl and sprinkle with 1/2 of the lemon rind. Sprinkle with 1/4 C sherry and 1/2 of the brandy.

3. Cover with a layer of 1/2 of the cherries and 1/2 of the cookies. Allow to stand in fridge for 1 hour.

4. Pour 1/2 of the vanilla cream over the top, then repeat layers of ladyfingers with jam, lemon rind, sherry, brandy, cherries, and cookies. Chill for 1 hour, then top with rest of vanilla cream. Chill finished trifle for at least an hour.

5. To serve: decorate with whipped cream and maraschino cherries.

Short Version

1. If using cake, cut into bite-sized pieces. Prepare vanilla pudding and let set (instant pudding is ok). Once cherry "goo" has drained from the pie filling, stir sherry and brandy into the cherries.

2. Coat half of ladyfingers/cake with cherry goo and arrange in bottom of trifle bowl. Sprinkle with half of lemon rind. Cover with half of the cherries and half of the cookies, and allow to chill 1/2 hour.

3. Spread half of the pudding on top, then repeat the layers of coated ladyfingers, lemon rind, cherries, and cookies. Chill 1/2 hour. Coat with rest of pudding and chill at least 1 hr.

4. Before serving, decorate with whipped cream and maraschino cherries.

Serves 8-10

Difficulty rating  π or $@%!, your choice

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Vanilla Cream Custard

Another all-purpose baking component is vanilla cream. Once set, it can be used for pie filling, pudding, or filling things like cream puffs and donuts. The ingredients are similar as for creme anglaise (ice cream base), but the addition of cornstarch makes it set up thick.

This variation is from the Williamsburg Cookbook, but I only use 4 egg yolks instead of their 5. Holiday season or not, I had to draw the line somewhere.

4 egg yolks
1/2 C sugar
2 Tb cornstarch
2 C milk
1 tsp vanilla

1. Beat together egg yolks and sugar. Set aside.

2. Dissolve cornstarch in 1/2 C milk. Combine that and remainder of milk in a saucepan. Add vanilla and slowly bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly to avoid scorching. It will start to thicken as it approaches the boil.

3. Temper the egg yolks with about 1/4 of the hot milk. Whisk thoroughly and add to milk in saucepan. Stir and return to a boil. Cook for about 1 minute, stirring to avoid curdling the eggs. Do not boil too long, or the cornstarch will start to lose its thickening power.

4. Strain, if needed, and chill until ready to use.

Makes about 2 cups

For creme mousseline: Once custard is cool, beat 1 C whipping cream to soft peaks and fold into custard.

Difficulty rating π

Saturday, November 20, 2010


I don't find a simple spongecake all that interesting, but I'm not really a cake person. Mainly, these fine-grained cakes are a blank slate on which to build other desserts. They are ideal for petit-fours, jelly rolls, and desserts requiring cut-up or leftover cake bits.

One cool part about this cake is that it is leavened entirely by eggs. I highly recommend a stand mixer, but electric beaters will work just as well. You will have to hold the electric beaters a long time. Still much easier than trying to do it by hand. This recipe is from the Williamsburg Cookbook, and I can't imagine trying to make this in a time before even hand-crank egg beaters.

I prepare cake pans differently than this recipe suggests. Gently grease the pan with butter or shortening, then cut a piece of waxed paper to fit the bottom and a tiny bit up the sides. When you press it in, it will stick to the shortening. Grease it again, and flour if necessary. When you turn out the cake, the waxed paper comes with it, and you gently peel it off. Just make sure the cake is still a little warm when you turn it out, or the wax will harden and the trick won't help you at all.

3 eggs, separated
1/2 C sugar
1 tsp vanilla
pinch of cream of tartar
2/3 C cake flour, measured after sifting
4 Tb butter, melted and cooled slightly

1. Grease well and lightly flour the bottom and sides of a 9" round cake pan or jelly-roll pan. Preheat oven to 350º.

2. Beat the egg yolks for 1 minute, then gradually add the sugar and beat for 4 minutes, until pale and fluffy. Beat in the vanilla.

3. Beat the egg whites until foamy, add the pinch of cream of tartar, and beat on high speed until they form very stiff peaks.

4. Lightly and delicately fold the whites and flour into the yolk mixture, alternating and adding in 3 parts. Add the butter, folding just enough to mix well. Pour into prepared pan. Do not tap out bubbles; that will deflate the egg whites.

5. Bake at 350º for 20 minutes if using the round, 12-15 for a jelly roll. Cake is done when it is light brown and springs back to the touch. Cool in the pan 10 minutes, then turn out onto a rack. When cool, frost or use in recipes.

Makes one 9" layer

Difficulty rating :)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


As long as I was opening a package of phyllo, I decided to make some spanakopitas. I used to make these so often that I had the recipe memorized, but it's easier to buy frozen ones nowadays. The phyllo package has a picture of them on it, which is probably where I got the idea.

Since I actually had to open the cookbook this time, I found that the Bible's recipe uses parmesan cheese. I'm fairly certain I used to sub in feta, which is much more authentic. Remember, this cookbook is from the early 1980's, when feta was not readily available. I was buying parmesan for something else, so I went ahead and used it this time. It tastes good, but not as cheesy as a 4 oz block of feta. Let's call them interchangeable.

2 Tb olive oil
1 small onion, diced
1 10 oz package frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
1 egg
1/3 C grated parmesan cheese
1/8 tsp pepper
about 1/3 lb phyllo
1/2 C butter or margarine, melted

1. In saucepan, cook onion in oil over medium heat until tender. Remove from heat and stir in spinach, egg, cheese, and pepper.

2. With a sharp knife, cut phyllo lengthwise into 2"-wide strips. Place strips on waxed paper and cover with a slightly damp towel until needed.

3. Brush top of one strip of phyllo with melted butter. Place 1 tsp of filling at short end of strip. Fold one corner over filling to make a right triangle. Continue folding at right angles until you reach the other end of the strip to make a triangular package. Repeat with remaining strips and filling.

4. Preheat oven to 425º. Place packages, seam side down, on cookie sheets. Brush tops with melted butter. Bake triangles 15 minutes, until golden brown. Serve hot.

Makes about 40

Note: You can make them bigger to serve as side dishes. To make a pie, spread 4 sheets of phyllo in an oven-proof skillet with rounded sides, brushing each layer with butter. Fill with all of the spinach, then fold overhanging phyllo to seal top. If the ends don't meet, use another sheet of phyllo to cover it. Brush with butter and bake 25 minutes. Invert onto serving platter.

Difficulty rating :-0

Monday, November 15, 2010


My first experience with Moroccan food was at my friend (and follower) Laura's 16th birthday dinner. I fell in love with the cuisine immediately. It's hard not to, when one of the first things they bring you is bastella, a pastry filled with cinnamon chicken and almonds.

I am not a fan of working with phyllo, and really shouldn't have tried when the humidity was under 30%, but it didn't disintegrate completely. It's also a shame that you have to use the whole package immediately, or throw out the rest. Puff pastry just doesn't give you the same crunchy layers.

This recipe from Mideast & Mediterranean Cuisines makes enough for 6 to 8 as a main dish. I'm posting my four-serving version, which also works for parties up to 8 as an appetizer. You're supposed to eat it with your fingers, but it's very crumbly and eating it hot results in burned fingertips. I have no problem with handing out forks.

1 lb boneless chicken breast, skin optional
salt & pepper to taste
1 Tb olive oil, optional
1/2 onion, chopped
1 C chicken broth or water
pinch of saffron, optional
1 cinnamon stick
1/2 C fresh parsley, finely chopped
2 eggs, beaten
1 C ground almonds
2 Tb sugar
1/4 tsp cinnamon, plus more for dusting
4 phyllo sheets
2 Tb butter, melted
powdered sugar for dusting
whole almonds for garnish

1. Place chicken, onion, salt, pepper, oil, saffron, cinnamon stick, and broth in a saucepan. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and let simmer until very tender, at least 1 hr. Let chicken cool slightly. Remove from juices, remove skin and any stray bones or gristle, and chop chicken finely. Set aside. Reserve 1/2 C of cooking liquid and discard the rest.

2. Combine almonds, sugar, and cinnamon. Add chicken to nut mixture.

3. Bring remaining broth to a low boil. Add parsley and cook 5 minutes, until herbs are wilted. Add egg and cook until egg is scrambled and liquid is absorbed. Toss into chicken mixture.

4. Preheat oven to 350º. Butter an oven-proof 6" skillet with rounded sides. Layer on 4 phyllo sheets, brushing each with melted butter as you go, and covering the ones not in use with a damp towel or plastic wrap. Add filling to skillet, then carefully fold overhanging edges of phyllo on top of mixture, to make a sealed pie. Brush top with melted butter.

5. Bake 20 to 25 minutes, until golden brown. Invert onto serving platter. You can't really move the pie once it is out of the pan, so try to center it. Dust with powdered sugar and cinnamon and decorate with almonds. Serve hot.

Difficulty rating $@%!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Chocolate Coconut Hedgies

This is another entry in the L.A. Times contest, by a woman named Nika. Her picture was gorgeous, and the cookies sounded great, so I gave them a try.

They are very good, but I think I baked them too long. They came out of the oven soft. When they cooled, they turned biscotti-level hard. I can suggest two ways to remedy this. 1: bake them for a shorter period of time. 2: eat with a hot cup of coffee in the other hand. I'm going to guess that 15 minutes is the correct bake time (the original was 25). If I figure it out, I'll come back and fix it here. It's just really hard to tell when a chocolate cookie is done. There's no subtle browning to tell you what's going on.

Oh, and the hedgie part is because she thinks that the coconut prickling out looks like a hedgehog.

1-1/4 C flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 C butter (one stick)
1/2 C brown sugar
1/2 C granulated sugar
1/4 C cocoa powder
1 egg
1/2 tsp vanilla
*1-1/3 C shredded coconut
powdered sugar for coating

1. Mix flour, soda, and salt. Set aside.

2. Cream together butter and sugars until fluffy. Add egg, vanilla, and cocoa and mix well. Add flour slowly. Knead in coconut (or, if using a stand mixer, use the paddle). Wrap in waxed paper and chill in fridge.

3. Preheat oven to 325º. Make golf-ball sized dough balls and place on parchment-lined sheet. They may be dredged in coconut or powdered sugar before baking. Bake for 15 minutes.

4. When cool, dust with powdered sugar and drizzle on chocolate sauce:

1/4 C cocoa powder
1 drop vanilla
1/2 cap Kahlua liqueur
2 Tb sugar
boiling water for thinning.

Stir together cocoa, vanilla, kahlua, and sugar. Slowly add boiling water to thin to desired consistency.

Makes 2 dozen

December 2, 2010

I made another batch yesterday. Definitely bake them 15 minutes. I also tried substituting 1/2 C cake flour for 1/2 C of regular flour. They came out soft and how I expected, but the cake flour made the dough too soft to mold into balls. It was more like drop-cookie texture. You couldn't roll them in powdered sugar or coconut before baking, so they didn't develop the crackly texture, but the taste was not affected.

Difficulty level  π

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Growing up, we would have fondue every few months. My dad's big threat was that, if we didn't finish the beef, we would have stew the next day. It never came to pass, and I don't remember my mother ever serving us stew.

I came across this recipe in the L.A. Times as a Passover dish. (Served without rice or couscous on the side.) It's similar to tzimmes, with a distinctly north-African influence. Halfway through making it the first time, I realized it was a lamb stew. Once I tasted it, I decided it wasn't just stew, it was stoo. The real name is Lamb Tajine with Apricots, Saffron, and Ginger.

Saffron is the world's most expensive spice, on a par with many illegal drugs. Since you only use a pinch, there isn't much taste imparted. You can substitute a pinch of turmeric for the same color.

The sauce is fairly thin if you're serving it all at once, but it gets thicker for leftovers. You can also skim off the fat the next day. Like a brisket, leftovers are often better than the day it was made.

I'm listing the ingredients as they appeared, but the method is how I make it. This saves almost an hour of cooking time and cuts down on the number of dishes you have to wash.

2-1/2 lbs lamb shoulder chops (bone-in) or 2 lbs lamb stew meat
1-2 Tb olive oil
2 small onions, chopped
dash saffron threads (about 1/8 tsp)
salt to taste
ground pepper to taste
1-1/2 C water
1 lb sweet potatoes, peeled and cut in 3/4" dice
1 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp cinnamon
dash nutmeg
3/4 C dried apricots
1 C pitted prunes
1 Tb honey
1/3 C sliced almonds, toasted

1. Heat oil in large pot. Sautée onions until they begin to soften, 5 minutes. Add lamb and cook until browned, another 5 minutes. Add water, saffron, salt, and pepper. Stir and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 1 hour, until lamb is tender.

2. If using bone-in lamb, remove lamb to a plate. Remove and discard bones and cut meat into stew-sized pieces. Return to pot. Add sweet potatoes, apricots, prunes, ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Continue to simmer for about 15 minutes, until sweet potatoes are cooked.

3. Stir in honey and adjust seasonings. Serve garnished with the toasted almonds.

Serves 6

Difficulty rating :)

Saturday, November 6, 2010


Croissants are quite a project, and by the time I admit to something like that, you know it's complicated. There are only six ingredients, the same six I use in most of my breads. It's the process that makes croissants take at least an hour longer than any other bread. (To be fair, Danish dough takes almost as long.) You certainly come out of the experience with a new appreciation for every croissant you buy at a bakery, and even some respect for the whack-a-can variety.

Up until now, I have used the term "butter" to refer to either butter or margarine. It's just easier to type butter, and most people understand they're interchangeable. For croissants, you should spring for the good stuff for two reasons. First, you're making croissants. And second, the melting point of butter is different, and it hardens up better into the flat sheet you need to make. Margarine never really becomes completely solid.

This is actually my own recipe. I came up with it using techniques I learned from various sources, but it's mostly using the proportions I have devised for every bread I make. Reading the recipe card (I haven't made these in a couple of years), I realized how poorly I wrote the instructions. Well, I knew what I was talking about. I'll try to make this a little more precise.

This is also a half-recipe because, at the time, I hadn't bought my big bread board. A half was all that would fit on my old one. To use a full package of yeast, just double this and hope you have a big enough work space.

1 tsp yeast
1 C milk
1 tsp sugar
2 C flour, plus more for dusting
1/4 tsp salt
4oz unsalted sweet butter (1 stick, 1/2 C)

1. Warm milk and sugar to 100ºF. Dissolve yeast in milk and let sit until foamy, 5-10 minutes.

2. Sift together salt and 1 C flour. Stir milk into flour mix. Beat into a batter for 2 minutes.

3. Add 1 C flour and beat to make a very soft dough. Turn out onto kneading surface and knead until smooth, adding as little flour as possible. Round, place in greased bowl, and let rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1 hour.

4. Let the stick of butter come to room temperature. Roll out butter into a 7"x12" (approx) rectangle between two sheets of plastic wrap. Place on a flat surface and chill in refrigerator, at least half an hour.

5. Punch down dough and let rest 10 minutes. Roll into a rectangle approx 8"x18", or big enough that the sheet of butter will cover 2/3 of it with a little room around the edges. Place butter on the dough:

6. Fold the left side towards the right, like closing a book, but stop halfway across the buttered side. Then fold the right towards the left, until you get an aligned rectangle. Think of a tri-fold takeout menu. Roll the dough out to full size and do it again, which will be the other way. Try to line up the edges, but it's OK if they aren't perfect. Place dough in refrigerator to rest for 20 minutes.

7. Take out dough and roll out again. This will be the second "turn". Fold and place back in the fridge for 20 minutes. If you need a trick to keep count, make a single dent in the dough with a finger the first time you do it, two dents the second time, and yes, there will be a third. What you're doing is building flakey layers, and three turns seems to be the universally accepted number for a croissant.

8. After the third turn, the dough is ready. You can use it right away, or let it develop some character by letting it sit in the fridge at least four hours or overnight.
9. Roll the dough out 1/4" thick, which will be a rectangle approx. 7" x 16". Cut four rectangles 4" x 7", then cut each rectangle in half diagonally. Pull gently at the corners of the wide end, then roll up towards the point. Curve slightly, and place on greased (or silpat) cookie sheet with the point underneath. For filled croissants, cut each rectangle in half across the middle, making two rectangles. Place a tablespoon of filling (chocolate, cream cheese, pie filling) in the middle, then do your book fold again to make a new rectangle. Place seam-side down on cookie sheet.

10. Brush shaped croissants with melted butter or beaten egg. The butter adds flavor, the egg makes them darker. Your choice. Proof in a warm place until doubled, about 1 hour.

11. Bake at 375º for 20 minutes, until golden.

Makes 8

Difficulty rating  $@%!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Lemon Marmalade

I just had to post a photo of one of the lemons from the tree. That's a 6" ruler.

Marmalade is a type of jam which is made from citrus fruits. Unlike most jams, you leave the peel on. The citrus pulp is mostly water, so the only chewy part of the jam is the rind.

Lemon marmalade was something I made because you almost never see it in the market. It is very subtle, making it a great accompaniment for light pastries or scones. It's even good on pancakes. It does use a lot of sugar because it's a lemon. Orange marmalade doesn't use as much.

One normal, grocery store lemon slices to about one cup. Maybe buy a second one if they seem on the small side.

The recipe on the card in the box looks like it's from a newspaper, so it's probably from the L.A. Times, sometime in the 1970s.

1 C thinly sliced, unpeeled lemons
3 C water
2-1/4 C sugar

1. Combine lemon slices and water in a large pan. Cook rapidly until tender, about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

2. Drain fruit and measure liquid. Add enough water to make 3 cups. Add with sugar to lemons, mixing well. Boil rapidly, stirring frequently about 15 to 20 minutes or until mixture jells. Stir and skim a few times during cooking.

Makes about 1 pint

Difficulty rating  π

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Rustic Spinach and Cornmeal Soup

I saw this recipe in the October issue of Bon Appetit. I wasn't too sure at first, but I do have a lot of cornmeal, so it wasn't like I was investing much in trying it.

You'll notice that the first ingredient is low-salt chicken broth. I cannot stress enough how important that is. We're talking 3-5% daily value per serving. Henry's has it for about the same price as regular no-name broth. I thought I could get away with reduced-salt, which runs about 24%. Plus, I followed the recipe's instructions to add salt as it cooked. Way too much. Although I'm copying the recipe more or less as it appeared in the magazine, I suggest you wait until all of the broth is incorporated before adding any salt. The soup will still cook long enough to absorb the flavor.

If you can't find baby spinach leaves, you can make a chiffonade of regular spinach, to cut the toughness.

Serve all of the soup as soon as it is ready. It does not reheat to the same consistency.

6 C (or more) low-salt chicken broth or vegetable broth
*3/4 C coarse cornmeal
3 Tb all-purpose flour
3 Tb butter
2 garlic cloves, peeled, crushed
Kosher salt
8 oz baby spinach leaves

1. Bring 6 C broth to simmer in large saucepan; cover to keep warm.

2. In heavy large pot, whisk together polenta and flour. Add 1 C hot broth and whisk over medium-high heat until smooth.

3. Stir in butter and garlic. Sprinkle lightly with coarse salt. Gradually add 5 C hot broth by cupfuls, whisking until smooth before each addition. Boil gently over medium heat until cornmeal is tender and soup is creamy and thickened, about 12 minutes. Add more broth to thin, if necessary.

4. Stir in spinach by handfuls. Simmer until wilted, stirring often, 5 to 7 minutes longer. Season with more salt and black pepper to taste.

Serves 6

Difficulty rating  π

Update: 1/9/11

I gave it another shot, with low-salt broth and not seasoning until right before adding the spinach. MUCH better. I ended up adding about 1/4 tsp salt, which was just enough to bring it up from "kind of bland" to where it should be. I also garnished it with some grated parmesan. It was a nice accent, without hiding the flavor of the spinach.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Dirty Snowballs

Snowball cookies are also known as Russian Tea Cakes or European Wedding Cakes. Mexican Wedding Cakes usually have some chocolate in the dough. I thought I would be terribly clever and give each one a truffle center. It mostly worked. Every single one developed a small hole and erupted a little chocolate, but the end result tasted how I expected.

I don't know why this is my favorite holiday cookie. It's basically sweetened butter with enough flour and nuts to make it taste more interesting than, well, a pat of butter with powdered sugar on it. Maybe it's because I got to roll them in the powdered sugar when I was little. They're also very easy to make if you skip the truffle steps, but they're not as interesting.

A note on chopped walnuts: I always buy halved walnuts, in case a recipe or garnish needs them, and crush them myself. The procedure is to put the desired amount in a sturdy ziplock and smash the hell out of them with a rolling pin. This gives you control over just how small the pieces are. You can get anything from slightly cracked to a fine paste. Sure, you could use the food processor, but then you'd have to clean it. This way, you just toss the baggie.

*4 oz semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
1/4 C heavy cream
1 C (2 sticks) butter
1/2 C powdered sugar, plus more for dusting
1 tsp vanilla
2-1/4 C flour
1 tsp baking powder
*3/4 C finely chopped walnuts
1/4 tsp salt

1. Heat cream just to boiling and pour over chocolate. Or, microwave both on low power for 1 minute. Stir until the ganache is smooth. Place in refrigerator to firm, at least 1 hr.

2. With a small melon-baller, make 24 balls of ganache and place on a piece of wax paper. Freeze until solid, at least 1 hr.

3. In a medium bowl, cream together butter, sugar, and vanilla.

4. Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt. Beat into creamed butter. Beat in nuts. Form into a disk and chill until firm, about 1 hr.

5. Form dough into 24 balls, approx. 1 Tb each. Flatten each ball and place a ball of ganache in the center. Carefully enclose ganache in cookie dough, sealing it all around, and roll dough back into a ball. If ganache starts to melt, return it to the freezer for a few minutes.

6. Place cookies on greased cookie sheet (or use parchment paper or a silpat). Bake at 350º until pale gold, about 20 minutes. Either roll in powdered sugar or sprinkle it on from a shaker while the cookies are still warm. Cool on wire rack.

Makes 2 dozen.

Difficulty rating :-0

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Sugar Cookies

I also own a lot of cookie cutters.

Most sugar cookie recipes are pretty much identical because they work. This one is the Bible's. The main difference in the result is how thick or thin you roll the dough. They make these great rubber band things that you can place on your rolling pin to denote a specific thickness. I need to get some of those.

Another thing that will affect the quality of the cookie is how many times you roll out the dough. Since you have to flour the board to keep it from sticking, the dough will pick up a little more each time and eventually become tough. I've controlled this problem by buying a really big pastry board. It's something like 18" x 24". I have to place it in the corner of my counter, because it's larger than the actual work space. Cutting out the cookies as close to each other as possible also reduces the number of re-rolls.

I cheated on the icing in order to try out some "quick-setting" stuff that comes in a bag. It tastes great and comes with its own pastry tip, but wasn't the texture I had in mind. I'll make my own next time.

If you don't want to make so many cookies (this recipe is at least 4 dozen), you can cut any cookie recipe down to what I call "the least common egg". In other words, if there are 2 eggs in the recipe, make half, 3 eggs, make a third, etc.

3-1/4 C flour
1-1/2 C sugar
2/3 C shortening
2 eggs
2-1/2 tsp baking powder
2 Tb milk
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp salt
decorations or icing

1. Into large bowl, measure all ingredients except decorations and/or icing. Beat until well mixed and starts to clump together.

2. Shape dough into a ball. Wrap in wax paper and refrigerate at least 1 hr. Preheat oven to 400º and lightly grease cookie sheets.

3. Roll out dough on lightly floured surface. The thinner you roll, the crisper the finished cookie will be. Cut out shapes with floured cookie cutters and place on baking sheets. Re-roll trimmings and cut until all has been used.

4. To decorate before baking: brush tops of cookies lightly with milk or egg white and coat with sugar or sprinkles.

5. Bake for 8 minutes or until very light brown around the edges. Cool on wire racks. If frosting the cookies, wait until completely cooled.

Difficulty rating  π

Thursday, October 28, 2010


My own hoarding issue is cute sprinkles. I almost never decorate cakes, and decorate cookies two or three times a year, yet I seem to accumulate them.

I took a dose of my own medicine and went through the sprinkles jar. Anything my grandma bought went in the trash. I know, sugar doesn't expire, but we're talking over 20 years. I also got rid of most of some leftovers I had brought home from work after the season had passed. Come on, who can pass up peppermint-flavored candy cane sprinkles? However, I will never use two pounds of them.

But I am definitely using the Halloween ones this weekend to decorate some sugar cookies. If I don't, why did I keep them?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Orzo with Vegetables

Sometimes, you get ideas for new dishes and start throwing things together. Sometimes it works and sometimes you go make something else.

This ended up tasting pretty much like what I had envisioned, and was really easy to make. You can substitute any small-cut pasta, and it probably tastes good with a flat pasta like linguine.

*3/4 C orzo
1/2 yellow onion, diced
1/2 C celery, diced
1 Tb olive oil
4 Roma tomatoes, diced
1/4 tsp dried oregano
salt to taste

1. In a saucepan, bring water to a boil and start to cook pasta.

2. In a skillet, sauté onion and celery in oil until onion softens, about 5 minutes. Add tomatoes and seasonings and cook until tomatoes start to soften, but are not mushy, about 3 minutes.

3. Drain and rinse cooked pasta and add to vegetables. Serve immediately.

Difficulty rating  π

Monday, October 25, 2010

Blackened Catfish

I'm not a huge fan of catfish, but this was the best piece of fish they had today at the market. I usually do this to red snapper. I was surprised how soft the finished product was. It's really easy to overcook catfish until it gets tough. This recipe works with any white fish.

Most recipes for blackened any-fish start with telling you to open the windows and turn on the vent over the stove. If a recipe doesn't mention ventilation, that person has never actually made it. You can turn off the stove vent once you're done cooking, but leave the windows open until the dishes are washed. I go so far as to close bedroom doors, so the fumes don't penetrate. It's a yummy smell while you are making the dish, but two days later, you're kind of over it.

The seasoning mix is adjustable. "Blackened" refers to coating the fish with seasoning and then searing it. Pepper is a standard. You can cut down on the salt before pepper. This doesn't mean the dish has to be spicy. The goal is to use herbs and spices to enhance the fish's flavor. You can serve the fish with a side of some kind of relish, but I usually just put on a splash of lemon juice.

The side dish is a thing I threw together to get rid of the last of the orzo. I ended up really liking it and will probably post that next.

1 lb catfish fillet
2 Tb butter
1/2 tsp each salt and black pepper
1/4 tsp each paprika, dried dill weed, lemon pepper, and celery salt

1. Mix together spices and set aside.

2. Preheat a 10" skillet over medium heat.

3. Set fillet on a sheet of wax paper. Melt butter and brush half of it on one side of the fillet. Sprinkle with half of the seasoning mixture. Turn fillet and repeat on other side.

4. Set fillet in hot pan and cook for about 3 minutes on each side. Cut into it slightly to make sure fish is cooked all the way through.

Difficulty rating  π

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Scotch Eggs

I am not having a cholesterol test any time soon.

While these sausage-wrapped eggs are usually served cold in the middle of the day, I like them hot and for breakfast.

The Book of Afternoon Tea has the wonderful idea of making them with quail eggs, which are about a quarter the size of regular chicken eggs.

When you make them this way, the finished product is about the size of a chicken egg, and you feel much less guilty about eating it. I get quail eggs at 99 Ranch, a wonderful Asian supermarket that has every specialty Asian food item you could wish for, plus an outstanding bakery. If you use regular eggs, the recipe makes four.

True Scotch eggs are deep-fried, but I just couldn't bring myself to do it. They cook more evenly in a fryer, and only take about 4 minutes. You can also substitute crushed corn flakes for the bread crumbs.

8 quail eggs
8 oz raw, unseasoned breakfast sausage
1 Tb chopped fresh chives
salt and pepper
2 Tb flour
1 C white bread crumbs

1. Hard-boil the eggs: Place in a pot of cold water to cover by 1". Bring to a full boil, then shut off heat. Cover and let sit for 8 minutes. Drain, then cover with cold water again to stop the cooking. Shell eggs and set aside.

2. In a bowl, combine sausage, chives, and salt and pepper. Divide into eight 1 oz patties.

3. Coat each egg with a thin layer of flour. Mold one sausage patty around the egg and seal all the edges. Roll in bread crumbs.

4. Cook eggs in a skillet over medium heat until the sausage is fully cooked. Turn frequently to avoid burning.

Makes 8

Difficulty rating  :)