Sidekicks

What would Batman be without Robin? Or Lucy without Ethel? If Fred had no Barney there’d be no one to ditch the quarry with for the ballgame, thereby erasing the particular glee a “Fred and Barney Day” brings to thousands of the ersatz sick sitting in afternoon bleacher seats. Yogi without BooBoo makes that pic-a-nic basket unappealing. And I can’t even think about Richie Cunningham without at least Potsie in the picture, or Laverne working the Shotz line Shirley-less. OK, so maybe I did watch a lot of TV as a kid, but you get where I’m going with this, right? The sidekick may get second billing, but a star would be paler without a second banana polishing his shine.

I was recently encouraged to put more of me in my blog. This is me. Me, getting ready to eat, which is pretty much all the time.

I was recently encouraged to put more of me in my blog. This is me,  getting ready to eat, which is pretty much all the time.

Same goes for food. Can you really think of a hamburger without ketchup, a reuben without russian, or a frank without the mustard? (FYI, I’m ignoring the hamburger-mustard crowd on purpose. That stuff’s just wrong. And if you are past the second grade and still putting ketchup on a dog, shame on you. My blog, my rules.) Condiments are the sidekicks of the culinary world. Without them, things just seem unfinished. Sure your sausage may be stellar, that steak sublime, but adding just the right condiment elevates that bite to “F$#K YEAH!!!” You know if food makes you swear it’s gotta be good.

The other day while excavating the archeology of my freezer, I found some boneless chicken breasts and a ribeye tucked away in the back. Yipee! Meat!! (I’m on a tight budget.) Both needed to be eaten before the ice age took its toll, but I was bored with my usual steak sidekick (caramelized onions), and after one too many tequila lime or lemon garlic chicken marinades, needed something to make that chicken interesting. My recipe for Balsamic Onion Jam was amazing with the steak, and this Simple Barbecue Sauce  found in the New York Times was perfect on the chicken (and pretty freakin’ awesome on last night’s burger too!)

Andrew Scrivani for The New York Times

Andrew Scrivani for The New York Times

Simple Barbecue Sauce (John Willoughby, NYT,)

Makes about 1 1/2 cups

If you haven’t already discovered cooking.nytimes.com, I encourage you to take a peek. Lots of great recipes both new and from the considerable archives of the NYT Dining section (think Craig Clairborne and Pierre Franey.) I get daily emails from the site, which is how I discovered John Willoughby’s awesome and fast bbq sauce.

File Jul 22, 5 22 46 PM File Jul 22, 5 22 26 PMThe only ingredient that may not already be in your fridge or pantry is the pimentón (smoked Spanish paprika).  This stuff is really worth seeking out. I have the picante (hot) version and it’s one of my favorite things to add in a bit of smoke and heat to recipes. And since a little goes a long way, a can lasts for a while.

  • ⅔ cup ketchup
  • ½ cup cider vinegar
  • ¼ cup brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons pimentón (smoked Spanish paprika)
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper

Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan, bring to a simmer over medium heat and cook for 5 minutes. Keeps in an airtight jar in the fridge for several weeks.

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Balsamic Onion Jam

Balsamic Onion Jam

Makes about 1 1/2 cups

  • 2 large Walla Walla or other sweet onions (about 4″ in diameter)
  • 1 large red onion (about 4″ in diameter
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 3/4 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1/4 cup ruby port
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 sprig rosemary
  • 2 sprigs thyme
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic glaze (available in most supermarkets, and a pretty wonderful condiment all by itself)

2015-07-18 11.56.58Cut the onions into quarters, then into 1/4″ slices. This doesn’t have to be precise. You’re going to be running the finished jam through the food processor for a few pulses when it’s finished cooking.

Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a pan large enough to fit everything. Add in the onions, sugar, salt and pepper and toss so everything is mixed well. Add in the balsamic and port and stir to coat the onions. Nestle in the herbs, turn heat to medium/high and bring to a boil. Once you are at a boil, turn down to medium/low and partially cover so there is about an inch of open pot on one side, and maintain a slow boil. Cook for 45 minutes, stirring every once in a while, until the onions are very soft.

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After 45 minutes, remove the cover and fish out the herbs. Add in the tablespoon of balsamic glaze and continue to cook over low heat (maintaining slow boil) until the liquid in pan thickens to where you leave a clean trail when running a spatula along bottom of pan, (about 15 minutes). Remove pan from the heat and let cool about 15 minutes before adding to food processor. Pulse 3 to 4 times — you want to chop just enough to break up any long pieces of onion but not puree. Taste jam for seasoning and add more pepper or salt to taste.

You can use this as a condiment for most meats, and it’s pretty terrific on a cheese board too. The jam keeps for several weeks in an airtight jar in the fridge, but I doubt you’ll have to worry about keeping it that long. :-)

If you like what you read here, please help me spread the word. Meantime, I’d love you to join me on Facebook (please click the ‘like’ button), and check out what else is going on in my kitchen at cookinginmyheels.com. Thanks!  

Who Names These Things?


cropped-img_2452.jpgA Grunt. Someone actually thought that would be an appetizing name for a sweet fruit and cakey morsel. Grunt.

Why? Is it the sound made when eating? The response from some otherwise occupied recipient when baker calls across the house ” hon, I’m making dessert, what are you in the mood for?” “Grunt!” Wait, it gets better. If this exchange took place in Vermont, Maine or Rhode Island, grunt becomes slump. Seriously, a slump. Apparently dessert has bad posture in parts of New England, as opposed to just poor language skills.

How do I know this? Gleaned the other day perusing the history of cobblers (and yes, I need to get a life.) Whilst reading The History and Legends of Cobbler, Crisps, Crumbles, Brown Betty, Buckles, Grunts and Slumps  (stop judging me…it’s bad enough I’m admitting to this stuff), I stumbled upon the evolution of what is basically stewed seasonal fruit topped with an amalgam of flour, sugar and butter. Apparently it all started as pudding. As in the English folk’s use of the word “pudding”, or dessert. Which isn’t actually pudding, though pudding can be “pudding”. Anyway…

Cobbler, crisp, crumble, brown betty, buckle, grunt, and slump are all wonderfully tasting and pitifully named desserts that feature glorious and abundant seasonal fruit, wrapped in or tucked under baked goodness with the sole purpose of sopping up sweet juices. I won’t bore you with the history of these things (I’m assuming you DO have a life), but I will tell you that most if not all  cobbler-esque fare was born of modest means. These are not the lofty, precious, elaborately crafted desserts likely to populate bakery cases. These are the homey things you make when you really want something sweet and wonderful but don’t have much in the house other than fridge and pantry staples.

Think of these simple and simply lovely confections as pie for the piecrust-intimidated. I know many bakers out there who wouldn’t attempt to roll their own, but will happily dive in up to their wrists in cobbler craft. And why not? It really is one of the easiest and most beloved desserts you can whip up yourself. Baking, with training wheels. So since it’s that time of year, a pint of berries is finally cheap and the “ugly” peaches even cheaper, go ahead and cobbler to your heart’s content. I promise any grunts you hear will be soaked in pure joy. :-)

File Jul 16, 9 55 11 AMNames and geography aside, that list I rattled off above are really just versions of cobbler, and the versions and preferences of such vary as much as ridiculous names and personal tastes. Some recipes call for melting the butter in pan, topping with sugar and fruit, and pouring a cakey batter on top, which settles between all the delicious fruit crannies and nooks as it bakes. Others call for drop or cut biscuits as a topping. Still others  offer a crumble of sugar, butter, flour. All are swell, but my personal preferences run with the drop biscuit top. I also skip the cornstarch or flour thickener in with the fruit. There’s nothing that ruins my cobbler experience more than gluey fruit on the bottom. Let the juices flow I say. It gives those biscuits on top something to sop, and extra juices drizzled over ice cream is sublime.

The recipe below is based on the one in Matt and Ted Lee’s cookbook, The Lee Bros. Simple Fresh Southern. I liked it because it featured cornmeal in the topping, and well, Southerners know their peach cobbler, so why mess with that. I’ve given you their recipe pretty much as written, with  my comments in italics (because kibitzing is best when italicized.)

CORNMEAL DROP-BISCUIT PEACH COBBLER RECIPE  (Adapted from The Lee Bros. Simple Fresh Southern – Clarkson Potter, 2009)

Serves 4 to 6

For the peach filling

  • 2 pounds (6 to 7) ripe freestone peaches, unpeeled, pitted, and cut into slices – about 6 cups.(Works with other fruit too, and I especially like to toss in some blueberries, raspberries or blackberries if I have them. You can peel the peaches if you like, I don’t bother, and I don’t really care if they are freestone or not – freestone is easier, but the other is often less expensive so use whatever you have access to.)
  • 1/2 to 3/4 cup packed dark brown sugar, depending on your peaches and your sweet tooth. (Taste your fruit, then decide how much sugar – I alway err on the side of less sugar, tarter fruit, especially if this is accompanies by vanilla ice cream, as it should be.)
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest (optional)
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoons butter, cut in small pieces (my addition, you’ll see why later)

For the biscuit dough

  • 3/4 cup (3 ounces) sifted all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup fine stone-ground cornmeal (yellow or white)
  • 3 tablespoons dark brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon table salt or fine sea salt
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold, cut into pieces, plus more for the baking dish
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk (whole or low-fat), cold
  • 1 teaspoon orange zest (optional)
  • A teaspoon or two of sugar to sprinkle over the biscuit dough
2015-07-15 15.19.58

See those spoons? Those are older than me, and I’m told were my favorite rattle/teether. Might be where this whole thing started…

Make the Filling:

Preheat the oven to 425°F. Butter a 2-quart ovenproof dish. Add the peaches, brown sugar, lemon juice, water (if using), cinnamon, and salt and toss until the peaches are evenly coated. Dot the top of the fruit with that extra tablespoon butter. (My mom always does this with pies and strudel, and there can’t be anything wrong with a little extra buttah.) Forget about it for 10 minutes or so while you prep the drop-biscuit dough.

Make the drop-biscuit dough

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Note the amount of dough ingredients to fruit. This isn’t about the biscuit, it’s about all that gorgeous fruit. Plus then you can load up on ice cream, because as my Oma used to say “it’s just fruit.”

Sift together the flour, cornmeal, brown sugar, baking powder, and salt. Add the butter and cut it into the flour by pinching small amounts of the mixture together between your fingertips.

Like that

Like that

Do this until the mixture resembles coarse meal with pea-size pieces of butter mixed throughout. Add the buttermilk and stir with a rubber spatula just until a tacky, wet dough comes together. This should take no more than a few seconds.

 

Gently plop spoonfuls of the biscuit dough on top of the peach filling or, if the dough is too sticky to plop, simply spread it unevenly. The dough should be patchy and should not cover the entire surface of the filling. Sprinkle over a teaspoon or two of sugar over the dough – gives it a nice crunchy texture.

Note the gentle ploppage.

Note the gentle ploppage.

Bake until the syrup is bubbly and the biscuit top is alluringly browned, 20 to 25 minutes. (I LOVE that description! I’m using that from now on…”alluringly browned.”)

Let cool slightly before you scoop the warm cobbler into small dessert bowls, ramekins, even cocktail glasses. Top with some vanilla ice cream, and grunt to your heart’s content! Calories: approximately 275, without the ice cream.

File Jul 15, 9 13 34 PM

Scoop, apply vanilla ice cream, repeat.

If you like what you read here, please help me spread the word. Meantime, I’d love you to join me on Facebook (please click the ‘like’ button), and check out what else is going on in my kitchen at cookinginmyheels.com. Thanks!  

Real Girl Power

No, this is not one of those positive affirmation filled posts dripping with feministic references to what women (girls, whatever) can accomplish. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, and coming on the heels of the US Women’s World Cup win last weekend the temptation is certainly there. But this isn’t going to be one of those things. This is about something even better. This is about a group of gals that have been around since before “girl power” existed, or rather, since it was given a name. These gals have had power all along, despite being told they didn’t. And I had the privilege to be invited into their sassy sisterhood a few weeks ago for a peek into what has come to be known as The View.

First let me clarify. I’m not referring to same-named broadcast broadfest, though the name of this group is a tongue-in-check reference to it. This View is a weekly convergence of some of the coolest septua and octogenarian babes I’ve ever encountered. They live in an “adult” community out on eastern Long Island, and trust me, if the fun these ladies have is what it means to be an adult, I want to go to there! I was able to get limited access and secret handshake for this awesome society by having exited the womb of one of its members. They don’t invite just anyone you know. Well, actually, they probably would.

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Labels like married, divorced, widowed, single, etc. don’t matter here. Call them feminists or not, they don’t seem to care nor feel the need to make the distinction. But these sassy gals are trailblazers none the less. My generation and all that followed wouldn’t be what we are today, or have what we do without these bold beautiful broads. They did what they had to, lived within the confines of whatever the times and society threw at them, and moved forward through challenges we can’t even imagine. And from what from I can tell, most if not all did whatever the hell they wanted when no one was looking (and probably  when someone was looking, too.)

Weekly View topics range from “the exalted to the raunchy” (thank you, Astheta), and membership in this “Ol Girl’s Club” isn’t difficult. No dues other than what their lives have already paid. After that all that matters is a willingness to share, to listen, and to laugh till you piddle. And, gentle readers, the wisdom we could glean from this wonderful group? That’s REAL girl power. <3

2015-06-18 13.23.59Strudel just screams of wise wonderful Omas, doesn’t it? Beautiful well-aged hands gently coaxing simple dough to the size of tabletops and transparency of wedding night chemise. Yeah, I’m not doing that. What’s more, I have not an ounce of guilt about it. Probably helps that my Oma never made strudel, because she wasn’t doing that either. But my mom does, and that’s where this strudel got its start.

My mother is an amazing cook and baker. She is not, however, a patient woman when it comes to these things. Which is great because it means her recipes both yield something delicious, and won’t send you screaming from the room or launching  bakeware across kitchens in fits of frustration. This strudel recipe is a perfect example of her wonderful lack of patience. Easy and incredibly adaptable to what’s in season, it’s the height of simplicity and flakey fruity sweet awesomeness.

Easy Fruit Strudel

Makes one strudel that serves 6-8

  • 1 sheet of purchased puff pastry (since this is sold frozen, you’ll want to defrost the pastry in the fridge overnight.)
  • 1 1/2-2 cups pitted cherries, berries, sliced peaches or whatever fruit you have (apple, naturally work swell here too.)
  • 1/4 cup sugar or more, depending on sweetness of fruit and your taste
  • 1 tsp lemon zest
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1-2 tablespoons cookie crumbs, bread crumbs, cake crumbs (this is to sop up fruit juice)
  • 1-2 tablespoons chopped nuts (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons chilled butter, cut into small pieces (about 1/4″ size)

Preheat oven to 375ºF and cut a piece of parchment paper to fit a sided baking sheet. Toss together in a bowl the fruit, sugar, cinnamon and salt. Set aside for 15-30 minutes.

On a floured board, roll out the sheet of puff pastry to a 12″ x 16″ rectangle. This is why rulers are a baker’s friend. Do measure and trim to that size. It takes a few seconds but makes a prettier strudel. Lay the pastry onto that piece of parchment you cut, with the long side facing you.

2015-06-18 12.40.46Once the fruit has sat long enough that some juices have formed, sprinkle the crumbs down the middle third of the pastry dough the long way, leaving about an inch on either end. Distribute the fruit over the crumbs. Try to resist overfilling the strudel, which only helps it burst and leaves a mess of fruit on your pan. Start with a cup, add from there. Dot the fruit with the pieces of butter.

Using the parchment to help you, fold the inch borders you left over the fruit on the ends. Wet your finger with water or milk and run a 1/2 inch line along the top edge of the dough. This will help it stick together. Now using the parchment to help you, fold the bottom third of dough over the fruit. Do the same with the top, pressing a little where you wet it to help it seal.

2015-06-18 12.42.10Again, use the parchment to help flip the strudel over so the seam is on the bottom. Now lift the parchment and strudel and place on your pan. You may have to curve the strudel a little to fit your pan. With a serrated knife, make a few slices through the top of the dough for steam holes.

Bake 25-30 minutes, until the crust is puffed and golden brown. Remove entire parchment and strudel to rack and cool 15 minutes. Dust with powdered sugar and serve.

2015-06-18 13.14.39

If you like what you read here, please help me spread the word. Meantime, I’d love you to join me on Facebook (please click the ‘like’ button), and check out what else is going on in my kitchen at cookinginmyheels.com. Thanks!  

Itinerant Pieing

DSC07624Hi there. I’m back. Well, I’ve been back for over a week now, but a nasty souvenir head cold clogged the synapses with gunk, and any thought of cognitive thought was snotty at best. A souvenir you say? You went someplace? Yup, two weeks ago I made a trip two years in the making. I went back home.

I need to rephrase that. My home is wherever I am, which at the present time happens to be in the left-hand corner of the map. I went back, after a two-year absence, to the places I called home for a very long time.

Choice and circumstance kept me away for those two years. Circumstance, because to be blunt, I wasn’t making enough to afford the trip. Choice, well that’s a bit more complicated.  After doing something big and scary like picking up and going someplace you’ve never been, to do something you’ve never done, (and aren’t even quite sure you can do), it takes time to adjust. Going “back home” too soon, especially when you are knee-deep in doubt, is like waving a giant bag of jelly beans in front of a diabetic. “Screw this insanity, hell YES I’ll move back” is just too tempting. Luckily I had the occasional clarity of thought to know that. Clarity, and a crap-load of cardboard in my basement reminding me of just how much stuff I removed from the east and transported to the west. Resolution of thought and the dread of packing are powerful things.

What does all of this have to do with pie? It seems EVERYTHING I do has something to do with pie. I sell pie. I keep posting pictures of adorable little pies on the internet. Facebook, Instagram, and other assorted inter web spots are papered (screened?) in my pies. I’ve brought this upon myself, I know. I’m trying to build a business on a shoestring, butter and flour. And hate it or love it, this social media stuff is mostly free advertising. I’m all about the mostly free. Now imagine all of the folks back home following my on-line tartscapades, hitting “like”, making yummy and drooly comments, etc. Fast forward to the pie-er actually showing up in front of some of those droolers. Guess what they ask. Go ahead. “Where’s MY PIE?!” Ok, perhaps it was a little subtler than that, but picture a puppy as you are walking out the door after you’ve just said “ok now, be good, I’ll be back soon.” You know that “ok, but where’s my cookie” look? Exactly.

2015-06-08 14.56.13I truly don’t mind. I mean, I’m with the people who know me best and still love me. I love making them pie. They get a little slice of me, and a little slice of just what the hell I’ve been doing way out here. If butter, flour, fruit and sugar is the currency for the hospitality of my family and friends, so be it. Truth be told, I offer it up as much as it’s requested. It’s pretty cool to be known for something as magical as pie. Plus there isn’t much better than catching up after a long time away from the girls over a slice of flakey goodness. It answers the “so what have you been doing the past two years” question quite effectively. Call it the sisterhood of the traveling tarts if you like (on second thought, please don’t). If itinerant pieing is what I need to do when I come back for a visit, then bake on I say. Can’t think of a better way to share the love with my peeps.

And as far as sticking around here in the upper left corner? Yes I am, at least for now. I just renewed my kitchen license, the lease where that kitchen lives, and am in the process of planning new pie exploits for the CIMH Kitchen. Yet as any true itinerant pie-er knows, plans can change in a heartbeat, but you’re always welcome to set up camp wherever you go. Just remember to bring pie. ;-)

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There really isn’t much to making a pie, especially a one-crust pie. You don’t even need a pie tin. A cookie sheet and piece of parchment is about all the equipment it takes. Heck, you don’t even need to make pie dough, although I think I’ve shown you over the many many times pie has shown up here that’s not too tough either. Making crust too daunting? Buy one, or a box of puff pastry if you prefer.   This is pretty much technique, not recipe.  Pie crust + fruit + sugar + some crumbs under the fruit to sop up juices + hot oven (400F hot) = PIE. However, since this is technically a recipe blog (kinda, sorta) here are some tips for tasty tarting  you might find helpful.

  • Terminology: Pie, crostata, tart, galette. All ways of saying pie to me. Therefore, I use them interchangeably. You want to get technical? Crostata (Italian) and galette (French) are usually freeform, without a pie tin. Tarts tend to be baked in a pan, though not always. This is way too complicated. Call it pie. Pie is good.
  • See that fancy looking crust? Not too tough either. It’s just a question of starting in one spot, and keep folding over a little bit of edge til you reach where you started. Like this:  (*NOTE: this video was made a year ago for a smaller individual pie, not the larger one I have pictures of in this post – no worries, just make smaller folds. The technique, and optional Ed Sullivan plate spinning music singing are the same.)
  • Your fruit not perfect? Sprinkle it with sugar, let it sit about 30 minutes.
  • Want a crunchy sweet crust? Sprinkle it with sugar before it goes in the oven. And don’t forget to sprinkle a teaspoon or few over the fruit before it goes in the oven too, even if you’ve let the fruit sit sugared a little.
  • How do you know when it’s done? Bubbly is a good indicator, brown crust is better. Don’t be timid. Beige is not pie crust’s friend, golden brown is. If you think it’s done, give it another 3-5 minutes (and DON’T walk away.) Trust me on this, you won’t regret it.
  • Leftovers (yeah, right…): Don’t refrigerate. Don’t wrap airtight unless you are planning to freeze. Leave on counter, lightly covered with a piece of wax paper or parchment. Airtight means soggy crust.
  • Freezing: Yes, both pre and post baking. You can bake an unbaked tart directly from freezer, just give it a bit more time in the oven. Want to bake off a bunch of small crostata and reheat as needed?Go right ahead. Make sure they have cooled completely, then put in freezer bag and stow.
  • Reheating: 350F oven, for about 15 minutes from freezer should crisp up that crust nicely. It won’t be as good as it is right out of the oven fresh, but it’s pretty damn good regardless.

If you like what you read here, please help me spread the word. Meantime, I’d love you to join me on Facebook (please click the ‘like’ button), and check out what else is going on in my kitchen at cookinginmyheels.com. Thanks!  

Endangered Species

I’m seriously considering printing t-shirts. SAVE THE ENDANGERED GLUTEN! I have this recurring nightmare that one morning I’ll wake to do my early bake, walk into my kitchen, and a gluten hating zombie horde, (there’s always a zombie horde in apocalyptic nightmares) has replaced all my gluten-filled flours with oat, brown rice, and, (oh my GAWD) millet. THE HORROR!!!!!

Why is it that gluten has suddenly become the bad guy? I’m half expecting to see its face on a poster in the Post Office as culinary public enemy number one, knocking carbohydrates off the top of the list. Menus, magazines, celebrity doc talk shows all preach the gluten-abstinence gospel, and ex-gluties will proudly tell you how they kicked the habit, then describe in detail the awful things gluten does to you as you stand in line waiting for your coffee and killer wheat breakfast. What did poor gluten do to deserve this?

Look, everyone is entitled to feed their body as they see fit. And I’m not saying there aren’t legitimate gluten allergy sufferers out there. I personally know those who’ve had to eschew all flakey doughy bliss for diagnosed health reasons, and my heart goes out to them. To be faced with the fate of no more crispy baguette, chewy soft pretzels, heavenly pasta and, gasp, BAGELS is a sentence I wouldn’t wish on anyone. But I have a sneaking suspicion the genetically glutenless are a lot fewer than would appear based upon all the coverage “gluten-free” is getting. Actually, I know it for a fact.

I’ve been behind the apron when the request came in for gluten-free. And after making an entire separate menu to accommodate these 3 out of a party of 30 guests for 3 days, discovered that no, they weren’t medically mandated. They were on the gluten-free bandwagon and decided they’d give it a try. Yup. Gluten-less posers. These are the folks who give the legitimately gluten-free a bad name. And the irony is if I asked my medically gluten-free friends, not a one would choose to ban gluten if they didn’t have to! The problem as I see it is that we’ve become overrun with food faddists and evangelists. You’ve seen them before. The low carbers, paleo dieters, zoners, juicers, raw fooders, green fooders, raw green fooders! Every year another new way to eat comes along. And every year folks looking for a new fix become evangelized and go forth preaching their diet.

Hey, if it works for you, have at it. As for me, I think I’ll just stick to my old diet of loving food, all of it. Food isn’t evil or scary or “bad”, and providing you haven’t an allergy, food loves those who love it. Now I’d like my coffee and killer bagel please. And can I get a little extra gluten with that, on the side?;-)

2015-05-14 14.19.42So, why would I give you a recipe for something with no gluten in a post dedicated to saving the gluten? Well, two reasons. First, because I love my gluten-free gentle readers too, and second, this is just an awesome dessert and perfect for the holiday weekend. So hush up now and pay attention. Pavlova has been around for almost 100 years, and was first made in Australia or New Zealand (both claim it) in honor of a visit from the famous prima ballerina Anna Pavlova. Basically it’s a big meringue, crunchy on the outside, marshmallowy on the inside and topped with whipped cream and fresh fruit. I recently made it, topped with roasted rhubarb and fresh raspberries for my cooking class at the Hawks Ridge Assisted Living Facility, and not only did they love it, one of the women had actually seen Anna Pavlova perform when she was a little girl! So here’s Pavlova with Roasted Rhubarb. And for the gluten lovers out there, don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten you. Here’s something I’ll be making on the grill this Memorial Day – Feta Stuffed Flatbread.

Pavlova with Roasted Rhubarb – (Adapted from The Kitchn and  Martha Stewart Living)

Makes one Pavlova that will easily serve 10

For the meringue base:2015-05-13 19.14.54

  • 4 egg whites
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 tablespoon cornstarch
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon white vinegar

For the topping:

  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 tablespoon sugar

For the fruit:

  • 1 pound rhubarb, trimmed and sliced on the bias into 2-inch pieces
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 TBSP lemon juice
  • 1 pint raspberries

2015-05-13 19.51.21Move rack to lower third of oven. Preheat oven to 400 °F. Combine rhubarb,water,  3/4cup sugar, tablespoon lemon juice, and a pinch of salt in a 9-by-13-inch glass baking dish. Bake until just tender, 10 to 12 minutes, spooning juices over halfway through. Carefully transfer rhubarb pieces (they will be very soft) to a parchment-lined rimmed baking sheet with a spatula; reserve juices. Let cool completely.

Turn down oven to 275°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment. Trace a 9″ circle on the parchment using a cake pan or dinner plate as a guide. Flip the parchment over. Mix the sugar and cornstarch together in a small bowl. Mix the vanilla and white vinegar together in a separate bowl.

Make sure your mixing bowl and beaters are very clean with no residual fat or grease. Pour the egg whites in to the bowl and begin beating at low speed. Gradually increase the speed to medium. When the egg whites have reached soft peak consistency and the beaters leave trails in the whipped whites, begin adding the sugar a few tablespoons at a time, waiting a few seconds between each addition. While doing this, gradually increase the speed so that you are at maximum speed once all the sugar has been added.

2015-05-13 18.55.37Continue whipping until the meringue holds stiff peaks. Stop the mixer and sprinkle the vanilla and vinegar over the meringue. Beat for another 20 seconds to fully mix. Use a spatula to scrape all the meringue onto the parchment in the center of the circle. Working from the inside out, spread the meringue to fill the circle. Smooth the sides if desired or leave it in billowy lumps.

2015-05-13 18.59.40 Put the meringue in the oven and immediately turn down the heat to 250°F. Make for 60-70 minutes. The pavlovas are done when the outsides are dry to the touch, are very slightly browned, and sound hollow when tapped. It’s 2015-05-13 19.39.31fine if cracks form in the crust.

Turn the oven off, but leave the pavlova inside with the oven door ajar. Let sit until the pavlova is completely cooled, or overnight. At this point, the pavlova can be wrapped in plastic or sealed in an airtight container and kept for several days unless your house gets very humid (in which case, eat your pavlova right away!).

2015-05-14 14.21.52Just before you’re ready to serve, make the whipped cream. Combine the cream, vanilla, and sugar in a mixing bowl and whisk until stiff peaks are formed. Spread the whipped cream over the pavlova, leaving a little bit of an edge. Top with fruit and serve within an hour or two. (Do not refrigerate; the meringue will quickly soften.)

Have a great Memorial Day weekend, and please give a thought of thanks to those this holiday is about.

If you like what you read here, please help me spread the word. Meantime, I’d love you to join me on Facebook (please click the ‘like’ button), and check out what else is going on in my kitchen at cookinginmyheels.com. Thanks!  

Real Gourmet

DSC07902I’m a good, sometimes great cook, and my heart cockles warm when I overhear someone I’ve fed call me that. But please, pretty please, don’t call me a “gourmet cook”. I honestly hate that term. I don’t know if it’s because it brings to mind visions of snooty elites and $100 entrees, or that I just have no idea what a “gourmet cook” is. Either way it’s one of those phrases that just pisses me off.

According to wiki-whatever, the word means “refined, elite, a higher degree of sophistication” and other hoity words you’d suspect. As if a gourmet’s palate has specially adapted taste buds that look down upon the lower, classless buds living on the other side of the tongue. To me, food should be far more democratic than that. I’m a culinary socialist with a palate of the people. Sure I love layered flavors, unique ingredients, creative cooking and top quality tasty things. I just don’t think those things should be elevated over a really good street dog with the works, a perfectly baked potato, or even a late-night plate of stoner nachos. If it tastes great at the time you’re tasting, right on! Who’s to say noshes that would send a self-defined gourmet screaming into the night aren’t gourmet to someone else? After all, one mouth’s trash is another mouth’s treasure, right?

Which brings me to Mormon Funeral Potatoes and a moment of enlightenment. This most tasty and decidedly not (by Wiki standard) gourmet fare falls into the culinary category of hot dish or casserole. You know, one of those wonderful concoctions shared at potlucks and hospitality hours, or brought over to nourish the grieving and guests (hence the name). In its most traditional form, a can of condensed soup, cheese and corn flakes aren’t far from the ingredient list. About a week ago, I tasted a version that can only be described as bar food nirvana.

IMG_2020

The best bar food EVER, courtesy of The Garage on Beck (and Josh).

That Mormon Funeral Potatoes would enter my life had been foretold to me about a month or two earlier. After receiving instructions to “google it”, I had a vision of what might unfold from this potato and cheese prophesy. But it wasn’t until I landed in Salt Lake City a few months later that the full extent of my culinary awakening was clear.

My prophet escorted me into a temple of MFP worship called The Garage on Beck. Our minister Josh handed us prayer menus and we took our place on stools, ready to receive our tater testimony.  Sacramental PBRs were poured, and the reason I was there was placed in front of me. One bite of the revelatory nugget and I knew my life would be forever changed by this bar nosh of trashy greatness. Am I gushing? Perhaps. But if you’d tasted a perfect creamy combination of cheese, bacon and potato wrapped in a perfect deep fry crunch and washed it down with a cold beer, you’d be gushing from steeple-top too. This, my brothers and sisters, this right here, is real gourmet food. AMEN!

IMG_2018 The manager of The Garage on Beck, Josh, is terrific guy. I have a complimentary shot glass to prove it. Unfortunately, Josh was a bit hesitant to ask the cook when when I inquired about the recipe for bar nosh nirvana. I get that. When you’ve perfected something so wonderful, you want to keep it close. Luckily, he was able to give me a  really good visual on what went into the mix, so I figured I could play around a little when I got home. What I found out after some more research is that I wasn’t the first to ask for the recipe. Sunset Magazine had beat me to it, and published it when they featured Fried Mormon Funeral Potatoes as one of their Chefs’ Favorite Restaurant Dishes in March 2013. So that’s the recipe I’ll share with you. Of course, that doesn’t mean I didn’t play around a little with it, since that’s kinda what I do.

At The Garage, MFP are served with a ranch dressing dipping sauce. But my mormon funeral potato missionary and I thought there might be a better way. With the original recipe from Sunset, I’ve included two suggestions for dipping sauces. The first, Wasabi Ranch, and the second Horseradish Honey Mustard both gave a really nice bite of heat and sweet, but if you’d like to stick with ranch I can testify that it was really tasty too. And if you come up with another saucy suggestion, please share in the comments. What good is finding wonderful noshes of trashy goodness if you can’t spread the word! ;-)

Fried Mormon Funeral Potatoes (From Sunset Magazine, February 2013) 

Makes 20

These little nuggets from The Garage restaurant, in Salt Lake City, are based on Mormon funeral potatoes, a crunchy, cheesy, creamy casserole dish that is served at just about any big function in that town. Rolled into balls and deep-fried, they are totally over the top.

  • 8 ounces bacon, chopped, cooked, and drained
  • 4 ounces cream cheese
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 1 or 2 jalapeño chiles, minced
  • 1 green onion, chopped
  • 1/4 cup sour cream
  • 1 1/2 cups defrosted frozen shredded hash browns
  • 1 cup coarsely shredded cheddar cheese
  • 1 tablespoon flour
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 cup finely ground corn flakes, divided
  • Vegetable oil for frying
  • Chopped parsley (optional)

Whirl bacon, cream cheese, onion, jalapeños, green onion, and sour cream in a food processor, about 1 minute. Place in a large mixing bowl. Stir hash browns, cheddar, flour, cornstarch, salt, eggs, and 3 tbsp. ground corn flakes into bacon mixture. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Scoop up a scant 1/4 cup of potato mixture and roll into a ball. Drop ball into a bowl filled with 3/4 cup corn flakes and roll to coat (mixture will firm up once coated). Place on sheet and repeat with remaining mixture. Chill until ready to cook. Heat 2 in. oil in a medium pot until it registers 350° on a deep-fry thermometer. Fry potato balls, a few at a time, until golden, 5 minutes per batch. Drain on paper towels.

Wasabi Ranch Dip/Dressing Makes about 1/2 cup, and can be doubled/tripled easily Whisk together the following ingredients. Chill until ready to use. (This is also pretty awesome on a steak sandwich!)

  • 5 TBSP sour cream
  • 2-3 TBSP buttermilk (depending upon how thin you want dip)
  • 1/2-3/4 tsp prepared wasabi (depending on taste and heat tolerance)
  • 1/2 tsp yellow mustard
  • 1/2 tsp Lowry’s Season Salt
  • A few grinds of black pepper
  • 2 tsp – 1 TBSP mayonnaise
  • Squirt of lemon

Horseradish Honey Mustard Whisk together the following and chill until ready to use.

  • 1/2 cup Dijon mustard
  • 1 TBSP prepared horseradish
  • 2 tsp honey

If you like what you read here, please help me spread the word. Meantime, I’d love you to join me on Facebook (please click the ‘like’ button), and check out what else is going on in my kitchen at cookinginmyheels.com. Thanks!  

Little Balls of Love

DSC03536_2Stop snickering and pay attention (especially you, over there…I know who you are.)  Have you ever noticed that some of the best, most comforting culinary representations of love are round and often filled with something wonderful? I’m talking about dumplings. Dumplings = love. Tasty, comforting love. Call them knödel,  samosas, gyoza, ha gao, pierogi, gnocchi, gnudi, kreplach, matzoh balls, I don’t care. Just call me, because I’ve never met a dumpling I didn’t like. I’ve never researched this, but my guess is the dumpling in its myriad forms evolved from love. Love, and economy. Take flour, maybe some sort of fat and probably leftovers or fruit past its glamour shot prime and you’ve got it.  Or maybe no filling at all, just glorious gravy to sop up. Cheap, usually easy and always delicious. Yup, dumplings are pretty genius, whether as a means to nourish while using up things, make something special out of nothing, or just be a love-filled comfort carrying sponge. So why all the dumpling gushing? I recently had occasion to bake a version I’d never tried before. I do a monthly recipe demo/class at a lovely assisted living facility in my town. I love my Hawk’s Ridge gals, and when I do my planning I usually try to bring them something that’s easy enough to demo in about 30 minutes and uses familiar ingredients, perhaps even something they made themselves for their family. Apple and Pear Dumplings did the trick last week. The fruit was readily available, and since I make pastries weekly for a local cafe, so was extra pie dough. 2015-04-17 21.01.14I discovered apple dumplings back in my heel and suit wearing days, when I had the chance to visit Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market while attending a business convention. Reading Market is an amazing indoor market filled with food, food and more food. I happily ate my way through over the course of the week, sampling treats from practically all over the globe. A highlight was the Amish stand. Fresh made cheeses, sausages, and OH MY the apple dumplings!  I have no idea why I never made them before last week, but MAN am I happy I do now.  Easy, flakey, sweet and giddy comfort, all in the palm of my hand. Come here my little ball of sweet sweet love…. FullSizeRenderApple or Pear Dumplings This is one of those “technique” recipes, rather than precise measured ingredients. Staying true to the “dumpling ethos”, my recipe was originally created because I had pie dough scraps and some small apples and pears I needed to use up. It’s also highly adaptable, though I’d be careful using fruit that is highly juicy, since it gets a pastry wrapping, and soggy is not pie dough’s friend. I’ve adapted the recipe below for one pie crust, which should make about 4 dumplings.

  • 1 pie crust, rolled out to a little larger than 12″ x 12″ square. If you have a pre-rolled crust, you’ll want to roll it out a little more so you can get four squares or circles that measure about 5 1/2 inches each.
  • 4 small (about 2 1/2″ diameter) apples, or pears, or two of each
  • 1-2 tablespoons butter
  • 3-4 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1 tsp lemon zest
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped almonds, walnuts, or hazelnuts
  • sugar for sprinkling

You don’t have to peel the fruit but could if you like. I don’t and just wash and dry it well. Cut the apple in half horizontally, then take a melon baller and scoop out the core and seeds, leaving a little fruit on the bottom so you have a hole you can fill. If you are using pears, cut them the same way, core the bottom half, (and snack on the top.) In a small bowl, combine the brown sugar, zest, salt, butter and cinnamon. Using a fork, mix well so you wind up with something similar to streusel. Roll out the dough, then cut into four 5 1/2 inch squares (or circles), saving a little dough to make 4 small leaves. Sprinkle the center of each dough square with a quarter of the chopped nuts. Place the fruit on top of the nuts, then fill the hole you made with a fourth of the sugar/butter mix. Wet a finger with water, and paint a border around the edges of the dough square (this will help it stick together.) Take opposite corners of the dough and bring up over the fruit making a triangle. Pinch the dough together. If it doesn’t quite reach, carefully pat out the dough a little larger. Do the same with the opposite corners. You should now have something that looks a little like a 4 point star. Wet the tip of each point with a little water, then wrap each point clockwise around the dumpling and press to the dough to stick. 2015-04-26 11.42.06If you cut out circles instead of squares, gather up around the fruit and pinch together like a pouch so everything is sealed. Cut 4 leaf shapes (or whatever shape you like) out of the little bit of dough you reserved, wet the back, and stick on top of each dumpling, pressing to seal.  Sprinkle a little white sugar on top. Bake at 375ºF for 20-30 minutes, until the dough is golden and puffed a little. Let sit 10 minutes before taking a bite! These can be formed ahead and kept in the fridge up to a day before baking too. Preheat oven, then bake them right from the fridge, adding about 5 minutes time if needed.

If you like what you read here, please help me spread the word. Meantime, I’d love you to join me on Facebook (please click the ‘like’ button), and check out what else is going on in my kitchen at cookinginmyheels.com. Thanks!  

Efficiency

I like to think of it as being efficient. I’m the gal with a bag slung over shoulder, laptop case dangling on wrist, gripping three grocery bags in one hand while the other hand is balancing a full cup of lava-hot coffee and simultaneously turning key in lock, shoving my knee into the ajar door, flinging it open (one-legged), and bolting inside before it slams shut. Efficient, right? Lazy would be another description. Too lazy to be bothered with making two trips from the car, thus avoiding the high probability of flipping cup and contents and the resulting 2nd degree scorching as I watch my airborne laptop hit the pavement. Today however, my early morning episode of “Beat the Clock” was successful.

Efficiency, as defined in the dictionary in my brain doesn’t necessarily mean the best, most effective, or even fastest way to do something well. It’s more like how many layers I can cram into one action and still end up with the result I was aiming for. Well, close to aiming for, kinda… If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, this should not surprise you. Why do I bring this up? The other day I baked what I think is the culinary equivalent of efficiency. Or maybe it was just the most efficient delivery system of ‘HOLY CRAP THAT’S GOOD’ food, ever. A teeny bit overstatement perhaps, but MAN this package of tasty wrapped in pastry was good, quite effectively delivered a remarkable number of favorite food groups in one slice, feeds an army and keeps belly full and happy for a very long time. Surely food efficiency defined.

I discovered Torta Pasqualina about 20 years ago when I was working as a temp for a family of HVAC contractors. The job was just a job, something to pay the bills while trying to find the next step in my somewhat winding career path. But the people, and more importantly, the people watching was probably the most fun I’ve ever had in an office setting. Everyone was related, I mean everyone. If you weren’t in some degree born into the family you were married into it. Which made for pretty interesting overheard conversation, especially if you were the only unrelated one in the office. The good news was despite my lack of genetic or marital affiliation, I was still treated like family. Even better, I was fed like family too. This clan was old-school Italian with a fully equipped kitchen in the back of the building, and a fully equipped mama cooking in it daily. Since I was (between the hours of 9-5) family, I had a hot lunch every day. And if I remembered to bring some empty containers with me, I went home with dinner too, a bona-fide member on the family meal plan!  Which brings me back to the torta.

While I only worked there for a few months, those months fell over Easter, one of the BEST holidays to be Italian. As the holiday grew closer I started to hear about this thing called ‘Torta Pasqualina’. I asked what that meant and was told it was Easter pie. Pie? I LOVE pie! I still had no idea what was in it, but knew based upon all the hubbub surrounding its arrival, I wanted it badly. A few days later I got my chance. A “test torta” was brought in for lunch and I was invited to sample. The “pie” was made in a springform so taller than I had imagined, filled with layers of good stuff inside, and weighing what seemed about 10 pounds. I’m not kidding, I was asked to carry it in from the car. The crust was made up of layers of olive-oil based pastry dough and inside was a base of sautéed chard and buttery onions, followed by a layer of ricotta mixed with ample parmesan and a few beaten eggs. Then, imbedded in the layer of cheese,  perfectly hard-cooked golden egg yolks, followed by a bit more parmesan and topped by another few layers of pastry. A fully encased meal in one efficient package. My ample slice kept me full for lunch and dinner, and the leftovers became breakfast the next day. In other words, Torta Pasqualina was good hot, warm, or even cold!

2015-04-04 19.26.58I considered making one myself that year, but when I looked at the recipe mama gave me, it seemed WAY too complicated. So it became just another fond food memory. That is, until I saw a recipe a few weeks ago. Now a bit older (ok, more than a bit), and definitely culinarily wiser, I figured why not! If every family that ever made one had their own variation, I  could too, and still cram in every ounce of the goodness of the original. So here is it – my version of Torta Pasqualina. Based upon the reaction of the eager mouths I served, it was efficient, and delicious!

Torta Pasqualina (adapted from many Nonna and non-Nonna sources, including Food52 and Epicurious)

Makes One 10 or 12″ springform-sized torta, which can feed a small army or large family (and a friend)

Recipe Notes:  When I started to research this recipe, I discovered that some of the more traditional versions called for using 31 layers of pastry, one for each year of Jesus’ life. I also found many that stated this interesting fact, and then said, “but I only make 4 layers”. See…efficiency.  I took it a step further. I decided since I was already making pie dough for my weekly bake for clients, I may as well make some more and use that. And it worked out very well. You could also use bought all-butter puff pastry, or phyllo. It’s a great recipe to make any time of the year, and the perfect bring-along for picnics since it feeds a ton and can be eaten hot, room temperature, or even cold.

Ingredients

  • 2 recipes pate brisee, or two all-butter pie crusts (**you could also use puff pastry or phyllo dough. If you use phyllo, use about 4 sheets on bottom and top, brushing each layer with olive oil before placing the next on top.)
  • 500 grams or a pound of baby spinach/kale/chard mix (3-4 bags – you can get these in the salad section of the market, or just use spinach or chard.)
  • A generous 1/2 cup caramelized onions (about a cup to cup and a half raw chopped onions, cooked in olive oil over medium low heat until they are golden.)
  • 1/3 cup golden raisins
  • 2-3 TBSP toasted pine nuts
  • 8 eggs
  • 1 cup grated parmesan
  • 1 1/2 cups whole milk ricotta
  • Salt & pepper
  • A pinch of nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp dried marjoram

Preheat oven to 350ºF.

Prepare the greens layer:

Steam the greens with a tablespoon or two of water, good pinch of salt, a few grinds black pepper and the marjoram in a covered pan until tender – about 5 minutes. Drain off the water, let cool slightly, then put the greens on several layers of paper towels, roll up and squeeze to remove as much water as possible (too much liquid will create a soggy base). Finely chop the greens, add to a bowl with the 1/2 cup caramelized onions. Mix well, taste and adjust salt and pepper. Add in the raisins, pine nuts, and a third of the parmesan and set aside to cool completely.

 Prepare the ricotta layer:

In a separate bowl, combine the ricotta, 2 beaten eggs, a third of the Parmesan, pinch nutmeg, and season with salt and pepper. Beat until combined. Set aside in the fridge until needed.

2015-04-04 17.45.27To assemble the torta:

Spray or brush the inside of the springform with olive oil. Roll out one sheet of dough so it is large enough to line the springform bottom and sides with a little more than an inch overhang.

Fill the pie base with the greens mixture, smoothing over the top with the back of a spoon. Next, layer over the ricotta 2015-04-04 17.47.03mixture and smooth into an even layer. Using the back of a spoon, make 6 round indents over the surface of the ricotta that are big enough to fit an egg yolk in each. Crack an egg over a bowl to separate the white, leaving yolk. Carefully place the yolk in one of the indents in the ricotta. Repeat until all of the divots are filled. Whisk the whites together with a fork and pour just enough of the whites to make an even layer that just covers the ricotta. Sprinkle over the rest of the Parmesan.

Roll out the top crust  so it is about an inch larger than the top of the pan. Gently lay it over the top of the pie. Trim any overhanging bottom dough so it is about the size of the top, then roll the bottom and top dough together so you have a 1/2″ rolled crust around the inside of the pan. Using your left thumb (or right thumb if you are left-handed), tuck it between the edge of pan and rolled crust. Using your other hand, gently pinch the rolled crust around your thumb to make a scalloped edge and seal the crust around the pie. If you have leftover trimmings, roll out and make leaves, branches, whatever makes you happy. Think of it as edible playdough. Use a little of the leftover egg white to paste the decorations to the top of the crust.2015-04-04 18.04.24

Brush the top with olive oil and sprinkle with a tiny bit of salt (I like to use flake salt like Maldon for this), and place the pan on a parchment-lined backing sheet. This will make it easier to move in and out of oven and catch anything if torta bottom seeps a little (it might, mine did, but I just kept baking.)

Bake for about an hour to 1 1/2 hours or until the top is a nice golden brown.  Remove the pie from the oven and let stand for 15 to 20 minutes before removing the tin and cutting into it. If once you remove the sides of the pan the sides bow out a little don’t worry – they will firm up as it cools. I made this the evening before I served it, so it was room temperature when cut into and all the flavors had a chance to get to know each other a bit. Delizioso! :-)

If you like what you read here, please help me spread the word. Meantime, I’d love you to join me on Facebook (please click the ‘like’ button), and check out what else is going on in my kitchen at cookinginmyheels.com. Thanks!  

Tasty Science

DSC03536_2I used to be a scientist. Didn’t know that one, did you? Yup, racks of test tubes, bubbling beakers hovering over bunsen burners, teeny critters swimming around microscope slides, white lab coat. Well actually, no. More like hip-waders, knee-deep in icy low-tide water, turning over rocks to see the squishy things underneath, and dreams of a red knitted cap on my head. Or, more often, scooping belly up freshwater guppies out of tanks in an effort to acclimate them to saltwater  — which apparently, they didn’t. Regardless of the setting, a scientist I was. At least one in training. And after I was handed my sheepskin and sent out into the world filled with my Cousteau-esque aspirations, those lab-coated days pretty much ended. That is, until a few years ago.

Right before I threw everything I owned in boxes and headed west, I was approached by a friend who asked if I was interested in becoming a recipe developer. Naturally, I said yes. Then I figured I’d better find out what exactly a recipe developer was. What I discovered is a profession, wherein someone was wiling to pay me to be a mad scientist in my own kitchen. Ok, so there’s a little bit more to it than that, but since I was already writing recipes for free several times a month, I figured how hard could it be?

Turns out, it’s not as easy as it seems. But then again, no mad scientist has an easy go of it.  Look at Dr. Frankenstein. Cobbling together his creature, then his creature’s bride was no walk in the park. First he had to find the brain, then those dead body parts, stitch it all together, and wait for a lightning-filled dark stormy night. Not to mention he had to do it all in black & white in a drafty damp castle. Luckily I have it better than Dr. F. My lab is my sunny, technicolor kitchen, Pandora mixes blasting out of the computer, apron and flip-flops instead of lab coat. It’s a pretty sweet setup, though I wouldn’t mind having Igor around to do the washing up. And maybe that steel contraption with the lightning and sparks. That thing is pretty cool.

FullSizeRenderAnyway, back to that recipe developer thing. Know what I get to create in my laboratory? COCKTAILS!! No, seriously — I get paid to develop and taste cocktails. Hey, someone has to do it. Actually, I develop cocktail mixers for one of my clients, a swanky caterer in NYC. The mixers are based upon the signature cocktails he serves at his events. Sure it’s a lot of fun, but it can also be pretty challenging, especially when I’m trying to figure out how to make something that can live in a bottle on a shelf, based upon something made fresh on the spot. However, I’ve discovered a trick in my laboratory that makes the challenge a little easier to overcome.

FullSizeRender - Version 2If the goal is to to get the essence of fresh ingredients into a mix, try creating an infused syrup. There’s really nothing new about this -Cocktail Scientists (bartenders) have known about it for years. Just about any flavor can be added to a simple syrup if you let it hot steep for a while. So at your next party, BBQ or homebound happy hour, make up a few of these and add to your bar. Who knows what tasty creations you’ll bring to life!

FullSizeRenderWhen it comes to cocktails, herbs and spices are particularly well suited to infused syrups. I like to use them when making up mixers because I don’t have to worry about powdered spices dissolving, or herbs looking like bits of lawn in the bottom of the glass. I’ve just given you a few ideas here, but there are countless more out there so I encourage you to experiment, and if you discover a great one, please share!

Equipment needed:

  • Fine mesh strainer
  • Cheese cloth
  • Mason jars

Most of the recipes below make a cup or so of flavored syrup, and can be easily doubled/tripled for a party. I buy a bunch of 8 oz ball jars to have around for my work, and they work great for storing syrups in the fridge too. Syrups keep 1 month refrigerated, if not longer. By the way, most of these are great for flavoring lemonade or ice tea too!

The technique is pretty much the same for all — Mince/Heat/Steep/Strain.

Basic Technique:

  • Mince, grate, crush flavoring.
  • Heat sugar and water until boiling, stir to dissolve sugar.
  • Pour over flavoring ingredient and steep until room temperature.
  • Strain through cheesecloth-lined strainer – when most of the liquid has drained, you can give the cheesecloth a squeeze too.
  • Keep in jar in refrigerator until using.

Herb Syrups:

Use fresh herbs, not dried, and the more finely minced the herb, the stronger the flavor it imparts. These work best for the more tender herbs, like basil, parsley, cilantro, and sorrel, and fresh lavender flowers.

Basic Herb Syrup for Basil, Parsley, Cilantro, Sorrel, Lavender

  • 1 cups sugar
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped herbs

Prepare using basic technique.

Suggested Cocktails:  Basil or cilantro syrup are great in margaritas, lemonade, Tom Collins, or added to ice tea. Lavender is lovely in lemonade (spiked or not) or ice tea. Sorrel has a wonderful lemony flavor, great with vodka and soda, gin or vodka tonic.

Cucumber Syrup

I recently discovered this one, and am just itching to put it with lime and tequila or vodka on the next hot day!

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 cup grated english cucumber (unpeeled – give a beautiful color)

Add the grated cucumber to a bowl — you want the flesh and any juice so I just grate it in a big bowl.  Bring sugar and water to a boil, stirring to dissolve sugar. Pour over grated cucumber, pushing the cucumber down so it is completely covered. Steep until room temperature. Strain through cheesecloth-lined strainer. Keep refrigerated.

Spice Syrups

When making spice-infused syrups, use crushed whole spices instead of powdered.

Green Cardamom, Cinnamon, Clove, Coriander, Fennel or Allspice Syrup

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 5 oz crushed pods, berries, sticks, seeds, etc.

Prepare using basic technique.

Turmeric or Ginger Syrup

Turmeric syrup is a GORGEOUS saffron color, and with everyone all into turmeric these days, finding the fresh root in the market is getting pretty easy. This is more for color than flavor, but the syrup does have a subtle earthy flavor that is nice in citrus-based cocktails. Ginger syrup has spice and heat, and is wonderful in margaritas or other citrus-based cocktails, and is wonderful in tea or lemonade too.

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 5 oz grated peeled root (remove the peels or you will have bitterness)

Prepare using basic technique.

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The Expert?

2015-03-19 14.53.33I was recently invited to be a panelist at a local food conference. My fellow dias food wonks included successful specialty food company CEOs, a food scientist (yup, they exist), service providers and the like. What was I doing there? Well, according to the convener of this tasty gathering, I was the “recipe development expert”. I’ve been to my share of conferences over the years, many of which I produced during a former life in trade association management. I was most often the introducer, occasionally the moderator but very rarely the ‘expert’.

Let’s face it, ‘expert’ is a title best bestowed by others, especially if you want it reasonably believable. Self-inflicted expertise, at least in my view, seems a little narcissistic and always a bit suspect. The minute someone tells me they are an “expert”, I can’t get the vision of George Castanza standing there uttering ” the sea was very angry that day, my friends” out of my head. Being called an expert myself made me a bit uncomfortable.

Yet there I was on the dias, and as it became my time in the spotlight I could sense the audience’s anticipation of the finely honed pearls of wisdom this ‘expert’ was going to spew. Was there revelatory commentary? Earth-shattering insights inspiring frenzied note taking? Burning bush proclamations? Nope. I simply told folks what I had learned by doing the thing I was supposedly expert at. Most important, I relayed the discoveries I made through missteps and mistakes. After all, isn’t that what expertise is anyway? Something you’ve learned by getting your hands dirty, trying it, failing, and trying it again until you get it right.

I suggest the next time someone tells you they’re an expert, you ask them about their biggest mistake. If they really are expert, they’ll probably tell you, and I bet it’s the best thing they say.

2015-03-18 20.55.54This week, gentle readers,  you get two dishes for the price of one!  The first, Guinness Chocolate Cake with Whisky Glaze was the intended confection. The cake is adapted from Nigella Lawson’s Guinness Chocolate Cake, and the glaze a miracle of butter, brown sugar, cream and whisky. Put the two together, and OH HELL YES!!

The second recipe is the result of a mistake that has likely happened to every baker out there. See that lovely cake in the pan at the top of the picture?  Pretty, isn’t it? It was, until it decided to fall apart when released from its pan. However, having been around this block before, and knowing full well there was no way I was going to toss an incredibly moist and wonderful pile of chocolate goodness, the Whisky Cake Trifle was born. The best things are discovered by mistake!

2015-03-18 21.32.27-1

Guinness Chocolate Cake with Whisky Glaze

(Inspired by Nigella Lawson, and a bottle of whisky)

Makes one 9-inch cake, or four 4-inch mini cakes.

FOR THE CAKE:

  •  Butter for pan
  • 1 cup Guinness stout
  • 10 TBSP (1 stick plus 2 TBSP) unsalted butter
  • ¾ cup unsweetened cocoa
  • 2 cups sugar
  • ¾ cup sour cream
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 TBSP vanilla extract
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 ½ tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp instant espresso powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt

Preheat oven to 350ºF. Prepare the pan: Butter a 9-inch springform pan, or four mini-springform pans. Since someone, somewhere decided new springforms need a waffled bottom, I always cut a piece of parchment the size of the bottom, butter it, and line the pans. Saves trying to pick cake out of all those waffled nooks and crannies. I also wrap the pans with foil just in case, having learned that one from watching batter flow out of too many springform pan bottoms.

In a large saucepan over medium-low heat, melt the butter and  Guinness together. Whisk the cocoa, sugar, and espresso powder together in a medium bowl. Once the butter melts, remove from heat, add cocoa mixture and whisk to blend.

In a small bowl, combine sour cream, eggs and vanilla; mix well. Add to Guinness mixture. Add flour and baking soda and salt and whisk again until smooth. Pour into buttered pan, bake until risen and firm, 45 minutes to an hour depending on your oven. Cool cakes completely before removing pans (trust me on this and learn from MY mistake.) While you are waiting for the cakes to cool, make the glaze.

2015-03-18 20.40.13FOR THE GLAZE(Great on the cake, great on ice cream, great on a spoon!)

  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 4 TBSP butter
  • 1 1/2 tsp instant espresso power
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream
  • 1 cups powdered sugar
  • 2 TBSP bourbon or your favorite whisky
  • 1/2 tsp salt

In a saucepan over medium heat, melt butter, espresso powder, and brown sugar together. Add cream and simmer 1 minute. Remove from heat, and whisk in sugar and salt until smooth. Stir in the whisky and let cool.

When the cake(s) are cool, remove pans and pour glaze over the top so it covers and drips down sides. If the glaze is too thick, pop in the microwave for a few seconds to heat and thin a little. Let cakes sit on a rack until the glaze has firmed up again. You can serve immediately or make these ahead – they last a few days, if you’re let them! ;-)

2015-03-19 14.55.26Whisky Cake Trifle

(Happily created from the outcome of a mistake!) Serves 8 – 10

  • 1 recipe crumbled Guinness Chocolate Cake
  • 1 recipe Whisky Glaze
  • 1 recipe Tangy Bourbon Cream (see below) 

Tangy Bourbon Cream: Beat together the following until thick (this won’t get as stiff as regular whipped cream): 1/4 cup sour cream, 3/4 cup heavy cream, 1 1/2 tsp sugar, 1 TBSP Bourbon. Fill 8 stemmed dessert dishes or wine glasses 2/3 full with crumbled cake. Spoon some cream over the cake, and a few tablespoons of whisky glaze over the cream. Add spoon, and ENJOY!

If you like what you read here, please help me spread the word. Meantime, I’d love you to join me on Facebook (please click the ‘like’ button), and check out what else is going on in my kitchen at cookinginmyheels.com. Thanks!   :-)