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  :)

Saturday, October 23, 2010

New England Clam Chowder

I bought too much milk, and have some celery that is going to go bad if I don't use it soon. By my logic, that equals clam chowder.

I almost never buy soups anymore because they have way too much salt in them. (see notes on preserving food in Things That Don't Expire.) The average can of clam chowder, usually two servings, contains almost a full day's allowance of salt. Canned soups are usually also higher in fat than what you make at home, because fat is a source of flavor. Plus, I like to leave the skin on my potatoes, and I don't overcook the celery so it stays a little crisp.

To me, there is only one kind of clam chowder. When you drown the clams in tomato Manhattan sauce, it's hard to taste them. The cream enhances the flavor. This soup is also one of the few reasons I would pick up a loaf of sourdough bread. They sell small ones at the market that you can hollow out into bread bowls.

This recipe was developed by messing with the Bible's, which relies too much on seasonings and is too pasty for me. I cook the potatoes separately. It conserves time and boils out some of the potato starch so the soup doesn't get too thick. When adding the salt, start off conservatively, since butter/margarine, the clams, and celery are all good sources of it. I ended up adding less than half a teaspoon for four large servings.

1-1/2 lb Russet potatoes (2 medium)
1/2 medium yellow onion, diced (about 1/2 C)
1/2 C diced celery (about 2 ribs)
2 Tb butter
1/4 C flour
3 C milk
5 oz canned clams (whole or chopped), liquid reserved
salt and pepper to taste

1. Dice the potatoes into 1/2" cubes. Place in saucepan with lightly salted water to cover. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until potatoes are cooked, about 10 min.

2. While potatoes are simmering, melt butter in soup pot. Add diced onion and celery and sauté until the onions are tender. Add flour and cook until it forms a paste. Slowly add milk, letting soup thicken before each 1 C addition.

3. Drain potatoes and add to soup pot. Stir in clams and juice. Add salt and pepper as needed. Cook until heated through and thickened to desired consistency.

Difficulty rating  π

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Sweet & Sour Sauce

My dad doesn't like Chinese food, but he does like sweet & sour meatballs. His favorite sauce is Contadina's, but that is so hard to find you practically have to order it from the manufacturer.

When he wanted to serve sweet & sour meatballs at a gathering, I went on the hunt for a good sauce recipe. Found one in the recipe box, care of his mother's need to save every recipe she had ever liked. Titled "Meat Balls Oriental", so you know it's vintage, the meatball part was nothing special. You can do almost as well with frozen unseasoned meatballs. The sauce didn't need much tinkering with to be at least as good as any out of a can. Plus, it's super easy and you probably have all the ingredients hanging around.

1 yellow onion, cut into small chunks
1 green bell pepper, cut into small chunks
1 Tb oil
1/4 tsp salt
1 C catsup
1/4 C white vinegar
1 13 oz can pineapple chunks
1-1/2 Tb cornstarch

1. Drain pineapple, reserving liquid. Combine liquid and cornstarch and set aside.

2. Sauté onion and green pepper in oil until onion starts to soften but is not completely cooked.

3. Add catsup, vinegar, and salt. Bring almost to a boil. Stir in pineapple chunks.

4. Add pineapple juice to sauce and cook 3 to 5 minutes, until the sauce is thickened and clear.

Makes about 3 cups

Difficulty rating  π

Monday, October 18, 2010

Corn Pudding

Webster's New World Dictionary of Culinary Arts defines pudding as "A soft, creamy cooked dessert made with eggs, milk, sugar and flavorings and thickened with flour or another starch." Aside from the dessert part, this describes the corn pudding recipe in The Williamsburg Cookbook. They have it as the first recipe in their vegetables chapter.

I've been thinking of making this ever since I found a can of corn in the pantry. It works equally well with frozen corn, but cook the corn and let it cool slightly before adding to the mix.

I am going through a lot of eggs lately. This pudding is really rich for a side dish. It's more like corn soufflé, and can easily be a vegetarian main course. Think of it as a crustless quiche.

3 eggs
*2 C whole kernel corn, well drained
1-1/2 Tb sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 C dry bread crumbs
2 Tb butter, melted
2 C milk
1/2 C light cream

1. Preheat oven to 350º and grease (or butter) a 1-1/2 quart casserole.

2. Beat the eggs until they are light and fluffy.

3. Stir in the corn, sugar, salt, bread crumbs, and butter.

4. Add the milk and cream and mix well.

5. Pour into the prepared casserole and place the dish in a pan of boiling water (like you would for a custard dessert).

6. Bake for 50 to 60 minutes, or until the custard is set.

Serves 6

Difficulty rating  :)

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Belgian Waffles

In case you haven't figured it out yet, breakfast is my favorite meal of the day. I don't mind getting up a little early to make something special.

Waffle and pancake batters are not completely interchangeable, but they're fairly close. I like my waffle batter thin, so it makes especially crispy waffles. This makes it a poor choice for pancakes.

The difference between a regular and a Belgian waffle is the height. Belgian waffle makers produce higher waffles. That also tends to make them lighter and crisper. The downside to waffle-making is that you need specialized equipment. Fortunately, waffle irons aren't expensive and come with all sorts of features. The best feature to have is some kind of indicator when the iron has reached top temperature, like a little light that blinks on and off. Everything else is optional.

This is the Bible's waffle recipe, with the "sweet-milk" variation. I don't make buttermilk waffles or pancakes because then I'd just be stuck with leftover buttermilk. If you use it instead of regular milk, make the recipe with 1 tsp baking powder and 1 tsp baking soda.

One reason why they sell frozen waffles at the market is because waffles freeze well. It's getting them warm without becoming soggy that's hard. Defrost for 15 minutes, then warm them up in the toaster oven at 200º for about five minutes.

1-3/4 C flour
1 Tb baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2 C milk
1/3 C oil (plus more for brushing)
2 eggs

1. Grease waffle iron with a small amount of oil on a pastry brush. Preheat waffle iron. In a bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, and salt.

2. Add milk, oil, and eggs to flour and beat until blended. A few small lumps are OK; they'll bake out.

3. Pour batter into the center of the bottom half of the iron until it spreads to about 1" from the edge. If you cover the entire surface of the iron, you used too much batter and it will drip onto your countertop.

4. Lower cover and bake as manufacturer suggests. DO NOT PEEK. My iron usually takes at least five minutes. I like mine extra crispy and let them go until no more steam rises, usually 10 minutes. Carefully remove waffle, re-oil iron, and let it reheat for a minute before pouring the next one.

note: If you are using a synthetic pastry brush, re-oiling the hot iron will melt the bristles. Learned that the hard way. I usually do the first oiling on the cold iron with a brush, to make sure I get all the edges, then do the re-oiling with a paper towel. Keep in mind, I am a baker and don't have many nerve endings left on my fingertips that feel heat. Normal people may singe themselves a little until they figure out how to hold the paper towel properly.

makes 5 waffles

Difficulty rating  π

As long as you're splurging on breakfast calories anyway, it's fun to go all-out. My favorite way of serving my waffle is with a sliced banana, maple syrup, and a dollop of whipped cream. I can always skip lunch.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Oven Apple Pancake

Dinah's Restaurant in Westchester makes a Dutch Oven Apple Pancake. It's so special that the menu warns it will take a little extra time. I'm not sure if this is their recipe, because my name is on my recipe card. I probably adapted it from theirs.

One of the reasons I seem to use apples so much is that I have a really cool gadget that cores, slices and peels apples with a few turns of a handle. I like the skin, so I usually don't use the peeler option. I got mine from Pampered Chef, but there are other sources. I think this is the one I bought for my brother.

The pancake in the photo is a half-recipe done in an 8" skillet. You can cut it down to 1/3 recipe in a 6", and just have more apple (or eat some of it while the pancake is in the oven). Unfortunately, you can't cut down the proportion of the butter, or the pancake won't come out of the pan, even a nonstick one.

2 cooking apples (I like gala), cored and thinly sliced
1/4 C butter
1/4 C brown sugar
6 eggs
1 C milk
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 tsp salt
2 Tb sugar
1 C flour

1. Preheat oven to 400º. In the largest oven-safe skillet you have (10" or 12"), melt butter. Over medium heat, cook apples. Once tender, stir in brown sugar and lower heat to simmer.

2. In a bowl, beat eggs until slightly frothy. Beat in milk, vanilla, salt, and sugar. Slowly beat in flour until no lumps remain.

3. Arrange apples neatly in bottom of skillet. Pour batter over the apples. Place skillet in oven and bake for 20-25 minutes, until golden and fluffy. It's going to start to collapse the instant you take it out, so serve immediately topped with cinnamon sugar.

Serves 4 to 6

Difficulty rating  :)

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Spinach Stuffing

A couple of months into culinary school, we learned how to debone a chicken. I got pretty good at it, and decided to debone the Thanksgiving turkey and stuff it.

Took me two hours. Structurally, a turkey is just a really big chicken. However, when you go to debone anything, make sure it's completely defrosted. Plus, it was a Butterball. The reason they're called that is because they inject something resembling butter between all the muscles. I had to get a bowl, because every time I pulled out my hand, there was a hunk of half-frozen butter in it.

Finally, the monster was boneless. Time to insert stuffing. I made the spinach stuffing out of the Bible and refilled all the empty spaces. After trussing it up, the bird looked like it had been on a diet, but it still looked like a turkey.

The really cool part comes after it comes out of the oven. You slice it like a loaf of bread. You can still serve the wings and drumsticks separately, because they are also stuffed. It's the most amazing thing to put on the holiday table, and I am never doing it again unless there is a lot of money involved.

Since then, I've made the stuffing several times. It is an excellent side for any poultry or fish. I've also bought boned turkey breast, butterflied it, stuffed it, and made a turkey roll. That takes about 20 minutes.

I have made several alterations to the original recipe. Most of it is in the spices, because I didn't like the original mix. I did cut down a lot on the bread crumbs. I know it's stuffing, but I don't like using bread crumbs if I can help it. Most of the time, I substitute matzah meal, but not everyone keeps that around.

Whether you decide to stuff something with this or bake it like a casserole, make sure the center bakes to 165º. There's an egg in it. You'll notice from the picture that I skipped the mushrooms today. I've had more than enough of those to last me several months. I served it with pesto chicken and fusili, creating a plate with almost no contrast. Bad Smurf. You always want to compose a meal with various colors, to keep the eye moving and so it won't look boring. Flavor-wise, it worked.

1 10-oz package frozen, chopped spinach
2 Tb butter or margarine
1/4 lb mushrooms, sliced (or a 4 oz can of sliced mushrooms)
1 C diced celery
1/2 C chopped onion
1 C bread crumbs (unseasoned) or coarse matzah meal
1 C ricotta or cottage cheese
1 egg
1 Tb dried parsley flakes
1 tsp minced garlic
1/4 tsp pepper

1. Cook spinach and let drain thoroughly.

2. In saucepan over medium heat, melt butter and cook mushrooms, celery, and onions until tender, about 5 minutes. Stir occasionally to avoid burning the onions. Remove from heat.

3. Add remaining ingredients and spinach. Combine well.

4. May be stuffed into poultry cavity or baked as a casserole. For the latter: 350º for 20 minutes, or until center registers 165º.

Makes about 5 cups

Difficulty rating  π

Monday, October 4, 2010

Tomato-Leek Quiche

Quiche is related to stew, chop suey, and most soups in that it was invented as a way to use up leftovers and ingredients that were going to go bad. It has since evolved into an art form all its own.

Quiche is actually very easy to make. You don't even have to cook anything if you don't want to. Just cut up the veggies and/or pre-cooked meat, beat the eggs, and you're ready to go.

1 pie crust, unbaked
1 medium leek
4 small Roma tomatoes
1 Tb butter
3 eggs
1 C milk
1/4 lb Havarti, finely shredded
salt and pepper to taste

1. Preheat oven to 350º. Slice white and light green parts of leek and sauté in the butter until soft, about 5 minutes. Arrange in bottom of pie crust.

2. Slice the tomatoes. Arrange evenly over the leeks.

3. Beat eggs until slightly frothy. Beat in milk. Stir in shredded cheese. Add salt and pepper, keeping in mind that the cheese is salty.

4. Set the pie tin on a baking sheet, in case some of the egg mix escapes during baking. Pour mixture into crust. Bake for one hour, until custard is set and crust is browned. Let cool for at least 10 minutes, and it will be easier to slice.

Quiches freeze very well. Let it defrost in the fridge for at least half a day (or overnight, if you're having it for brunch). Warm in 300º oven until heated through, 10 to 20 minutes, depending on how frozen the middle still is.

Serves 6

Difficulty rating  :)

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Part II: Baking Season

The pantry is finally under control. There will still be some asterisks, but most of what's left is things I actually use.

I have always loved to cook, and especially to bake. I remember the cookie weekend every fall at Grandma Sophie's. Hours of baking. My brother and I would diligently decorate all the sugar cookies before they went in the oven. I made Saturday pancakes from scratch starting around age 10. In culinary school, I quickly realized that I preferred bread baking to pastries, what the French refer to as a boulangere, as opposed to a patissiere. However, once in a while, the spirit does move me to create something unfortunately decadent. I'm just really bad at cake decorating.

I'm still going to post meal-related recipes, but all sorts of fattening goodies are going to make it in here before it's time to bake those holiday treats.