July 29, 2010

Summer's Simple Pleasures

Do you have a herb garden?

The thing I like about my herb garden is that even when the cucumber plants have not begun to blossom and all those stupid squash plants are blossoming everyday, but I still only see one squash, and the carrots and beets have all been rooted out by a neighborhood cat, so that there is no hope of a harvest any time soon... my little pots of herbs are growing steadily and I can walk out to the garden and pluck a handful of parsley or a sprig of rosemary and add a wonderful freshness to all sorts of dishes.

Every year I tend to buy at least one 'different' herb, something I haven't used much in the past. This year it was lemongrass.  I bought mine for $4.50 in a pint size container at the farmers market. I repotted it in a 12" pot and trimmed it back to about 5 inches tall.  Since then it has sprouted another stalk (which I've read that I could remove and plant elsewhere) and both stalks just keep growing.  I trim it every so often and use the  green clippings to season fried rice and soup.  Lemongrass has a pleasant lemony flavor without being acidic.  It almost reminds me of Trix cereal. Lemongrass has a very stringy texture so it should be minced and well-cooked before serving.

Lemongrass Simple Syrup
Use to sweeten a tall glass of iced tea or make your own natural soda by mixing with club soda.
Active Prep Time: 5 minutes.  Steep: 1 hour.  Store in refrigerator up to one week.

About a half a cup loosely packed lemongrass
1 cup water
1 cup sugar (I use organic)

Roughly chop lemongrass and crush with a flat-bottomed metal measuring cup.  Combine in small saucepan with water and sugar.  Heat to dissolve sugar.  Let simmer a minute or so.  Turn off heat and cover.  Let sit 1 hour.  Strain out lemongrass pieces and store in the refrigerator.

July 28, 2010

Chiles Rellenos

One of my favorite celebrations of summer produce is a Baked Chile Relleno.  I intended to share it with you last week,  but as I was writing the introduction to the recipe I got distracted with the description of a chile relleno:  A traditional chile relleno is a poblano pepper stuffed with cheese (or meat or beans), covered in an egg batter and deep fried.  Think about for a minute.  Deep fried cheese.  What is not to love?  How can I follow that description with something baked and full of veggies?  Don't get me wrong, my Baked Chile Relleno is a versatile recipe that you don't want to miss, and I will definitely share it soon, but my mouth is watering.  And just is case yours is too, let's do a traditional chile relleno first.

One might hear "deep-fried cheese" and assume that this would be a heavy, greasy dish, but there is only one ounce of cheese per pepper, and when fried at a proper temperature, the exterior is not greasy.  Rather, its crisp lightness contrasts nicely with the almost fruitiness of the pepper and creamy, ooey-gooey delicous-ness of the cheese.  Serve over frijoles, so that the melting cheese mingles with the cooking liquid of the beans and have plenty of warmed corn tortillas to sop up the flavors.

If you are afraid of spicy foods, the poblano might scare you.  If that is the case, remove the seeds before you stuff them.  Also, you can definitely use a milder pepper.  Because we have various heat tolerances in our house, I prepared this dish with 4 poblanos, 2 Anaheims, and 3 pale yellow sweet Gypsy peppers.  The poblanos do have quite a kick to them, but those I purchased fresh from the farmers market also had a wonderful, almost fruity nuance. When seeded and combined with all the other elements of the dish, including a couple mouthfuls of tortilla, the heat was a pleasant part of the sum.

Traditional Chiles Rellenos
Adapted from Rolly's Mexican Kitchen.  If you are looking for some traditional Mexican and Tex-Mex recipes, this is a great website.

8 poblano peppers
8 ounces Mexican melting cheese such as Oaxaca, or Cheddar or Monterey Jack, shredded or diced.
1/4 cup sour cream, optional to help hold the filling together and lend a tartness in the event that you choose a mild cheese.
1 small red onion, minced -about 1/2 cup.
3 eggs, divided
1 cup all-purpose flour
about 1/2 cup to 1 cup canola oil or other frying oil, enough to fill your skillet about a 1/2 inch

frijoles (Mexican-style beans)
Mexican rice
corn or flour tortillas, warmed in a greased skillet
pico de gallo or other salsa

1.  Char the peppers on a grill, over a gas burner or under a broiler, until the skin is partially blackened and blistery. Let cool and peel the skin from the peppers, being careful not to tear them.  I planned ahead and grilled my peppers the night before.  I put them in a plastic bag, so that the steam would collect and help the skins loosen.  Then I absentmindedly put the bag in the freezer.  There was no ill effect.  I simply defrosted them under cold running water as I peeled them.

2.  Prepare the filling:  Shred or dice cheese and combine with sour cream (if using) and onion.  Season with kosher salt and pepper.

3.  Gently cut a slit lengthwise in each pepper.  If desired, carefully scoop out the seeds with a spoon.  (I did.)  Using a spoon or your fingers, gently stuff the filling into the peppers, being careful not to tear them. You don't want to overfill them.  You want the seam to come together.  The original recipe suggests closing the seam with toothpicks.  I found that this tore the peppers, so I would advise against it.

4.  Preheat oil in skillet over medium-high heat.

5.  Prepare the egg batter:  In a medium bowl with electric beaters, beat egg whites until fluffy and stiff.  Whisk in egg yolks and season with a pinch of salt.  Spread flour in a shallow bowl.

6.  One at a time, dredge stuffed peppers in flour, dip in egg batter, then carefully set into hot oil. I neglected to take the oil's temperature, but a good test to see if your oil is hot enough is to put in a piece of tortilla.  If the oil sizzles a little and the tortilla has browned slightly and is looking like a tortilla chip after about 20-30 seconds your oil is ready. (If the oil pops, it is too hot.  The simplest way to decrease the temperature is to add more oil. If the oil does nothing, it is not hot enough.  Wait a few more minutes for it to heat up.  I set my peppers into the oil seam-side down so that the hot oil would seal them and it seemed to work.  I did not suffer any significant loss of filling. Depending on the size of your skillet you may be able to fry 2-4 chiles at a time.  As with any frying, do not overcrowd.  After about 2-3 minutes, when the bottom side is golden, gently turn the peppers to fry the other side.  (Poblanos tend to have three sides, while two of my sweet yellow peppers had four sides.) Some of the egg batter will inevitably fall off and that it okay. When all sides are browned to your liking, remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.

7.  Serve over frijoles with plenty of tortillas to sop up the flavors of the cheese and beans.

July 27, 2010

I tried to make brownies....

The only problem with making a fabulous chocolate cake, one where the lightness or creaminess of the frosting perfectly balances the richness of the cake, is that if I only get a taste--ok, if I only get a couple slices-- I want more a few days later.

And a three-layer cake is a bit too much effort if the goal is 'something sweet to snack on.'   In such cases, a batch of  brownies should fit the bill.  Homemade brownies are only slightly more complicated than opening a box of brownie mix and adding eggs, oil and water, so if one can find a 'go-to' brownie recipe, brownies would be an accessible weeknight dessert, wouldn't they?

Any time I want to make cookies I refer to Rosie's Bakery Chocolate-Packed Jam-Filled Butter-Rich No-Holds-Barred Cookie Book by Judy Rosenberg. She has recipes for every kind of cookie imaginable in there.  I think Rosie's Oatmeal Cookies are the only oatmeal cookies worth making, chewy with butter and brown sugar.  I skip the golden raisins that the recipe recommends and add walnuts, and I call these cookies a hearty snack.  Katz Tongues are similar to a Pepperidge Farm Milano, but oh so much better because they are fresh and homemade. If one were make homemade ice cream, this would be a good recipe to use up leftover egg whites and a wonderful accompaniment to said ice cream. Chocolate Chip Meringues are a fun shift from an ordinary chocolate chip cookie, though she has a quite a few bang-up recipes for those as well.

And her Chocolate Souffle Brownie is decadent:  a dense brownie layer topped with a mousse-y souffle layer, with so much chocolate that it has kept me a awake at night a few times.  But that wasn't what I was in the mood for.  I wanted a run-of-the-mill brownie that would be pleasing to my husband and kids who like something a little less rich and a little cakier.  I also wanted something that I might be able to remember, as I am reluctant (read: too lazy) to open a cookbook on busy weeknights.

Now, if you're not a baker you might think memorizing a brownie recipe would be difficult or silly.  Silly, it probably is.  Difficult, no, not really.  Once I have completed the method a few times, I can remember that: Melt chocolate and butter in double broiler. Allow to cool.  In mixing bowl, pour chocolate/butter mixture over sugar. Beat to combine. Beat in eggs one at a time.  Add vanilla.  Beat in flour (and whole wheat flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder or salt, if applicable) on low speed.  Spread batter in oil-sprayed, parchment-lined pan.  Bake.... It is just the quantities of ingredients and times and temperatures that I have trouble with.

Once I have a go-to recipe, I can dress it up however I want. Maybe swirling in a mixture of peanut butter, cream cheese and sugar for a peanut butter brownie?

I tried Rosie's New Brownie, and it just didn't fit the bill. The ingredient list was simple: 6 ounces unsweetened chocolate, 1 cup of unsalted butter, 2 cups of sugar, 4 eggs, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract and 1 cup of all-purpose flour, if memory serves me correctly. Follow the method above, then bake in a 9" square pan at 350(?) for something like 50 minutes.  I know, guessing oven temperatures has gotten me into trouble before.  You'd think I'd learn my lesson and just walk over the bookshelf, but...

Well, the brownies were okay, but next time I'll try something different. They were a bit too dense for my husband and kids, and just not chocolate-y enough for me.  I could have remedied that by adding a few extra ounces of chocolate, or by trying a different brand.  And wouldn't they have been cakier if I would have added some cocoa powder and leavening?...

My pursuit of a go-to brownie recipe has begun.

July 25, 2010

How to Make a Perfect Grilled Cheese Sandwich

Ok, I know I am really putting myself out there as a food snob by insinuating that there might be a right way and a wrong way to make a grilled cheese sandwich; but I'm willing to take that risk, because there might be some one out there who has written off Grilled Cheese as kid-food, who needs to give it another chance.

So let's just dive right in.  Oh, and by the way, you might want to consider sharing this post with your friends.  Because if you don't, a year from now when a friend serves you a crumbly, burnt-bottomed, lackluster grilled cheese sandwich, you'll remember this post and you'll have this whole internal back-and-forth dialogue: Shall I email her that post when I get home?...  No that would be kinda awkward, but what if she tries to serve me this crap next time I come over?  Shall I email her that post when I get home?....  Do your part to save the friendship now.  Click the share button...

This is one of those go-to recipes.  It's simple, easy and super-variable.  When you and the kids are starving after swimming lessons, it can save you a trip to MickeyD's.   Get the basics down and then you can dress it up with different types of cheese, pesto, mustard, caramelized onions and what-have-you to make a Grown-Up Grilled Cheese.  Soon you'll be making all kinds of panini.  Then we'll all be food snobs, won't we?

Basic Grilled Cheese Sandwiches

Lots of notes, but a simple process.

For each sandwich:

2 slices good Italian style bread, such as a sliced Tuscan, or sheepherders bread.  I love whole grains, but I don't think their rightful place is in a grilled cheese.  Just sayin'.
2-3 oz sliced cheddar cheese,  --We are Tillamook Medium Cheddar fans; I hesitate to put an amount here, because it will depend on the size of your bread.

Equipment-  frying pan or griddle, butter spreader,  a spatula, a plate about 2 or 3 inches in diameter smaller than the frying pan, and a 28 oz can of tomatoes, unopened 

1.  Set a skillet or grill pan over MEDIUM heat.  Do not, under any circumstances, bump the heat up above medium.  A perfect grilled cheese sandwich has a melty interior and a crispy golden exterior.  Raising the heat will cause the exterior to char before the cheese melts.

2. Butter one side of the bread and put one slice in the pan (buttered side down).  It is easier to spread refrigerated butter on bread that is frozen than on room-temperature bread.  But if your bread is at room temp and your butter is hard from being refrigerated, you may wish to melt 3 tablespoons of butter in the pan and then set the unbuttered bread in.  This method doesn't result in the sandwich browning as evenly, but, given the situation, it is a better than tearing your bread or dirtying another dish by softening butter in the microwave.

3.  Layer sliced cheese over the bread in the pan and top with the second slice of bread (with the buttered side facing up).  I like to have some of the corners of the cheese sticking out of the sandwich, because when it melts onto the skillet, it becomes deliciously crispy.

4. By now the butter on the underside of the sandwich should be just melted.  Use your spatula to turn the sandwich over.  Note that the cheese hasn't melted yet, so the sandwich may want to come apart on you, but the top of the sandwich isn't hot yet, so you can use your free hand to help it stay together as you flip it.   If you are grilling more than one sandwich at a time, try to keep them at least a half inch apart to avoid the cheese adhering them together.

5.  Top your sandwiches with the plate.  Press down firmly, then set the can of tomatoes on top of the plate to weight it.

6.  Cook on medium heat approximately 3-4 minutes.  Carefully remove plate; it may be quite hot. Check for doneness.  The underside should be golden brown and not stick to the pan.  Turn sandwiches over.  If your skillet is a bit overcrowded so that the outer edges of the sandwiches aren't cooking as quickly as the inner edges, make sure to rotate so that the less-cooked edge is closer to the center of the pan. This will ensure even cheese-melting in the absence of even browning.

7.  Top sandwiches with plate, press and weight with tomato can and cook on medium neat approximately 3-4 minutes, until bread is golden brown and cheese is thoroughly melted. If cheese isn't melting as quickly as the outside is browning, reduce the heat.  Do not increase it.

Keeping and Plating :  Sandwiches can be kept warm in a 200º oven while cooking a second batch, but do not hold sandwiches longer than 20 minutes.  Cut sandwiches on the diagonal to show off as much ooey-gooey cheese as possible. For real food snobs only:  garnish with a sprig of parsley.

Variations:  While making a totally kid-friendly grilled cheese, you can throw in a couple extras to make a more adult "panini."  Just remember that the cheese is the glue that holds the sandwich together, so if you add something non-sticky such as a slice of ham, you need to be sure that there is a thin layer of cheese on both sides to hold it together.  Wet ingredients, such as fresh tomatoes, are best added after grilling, as their moisture can prevent proper browning and crisping.

Classic Ham & Swiss:  spread bread with your favorite mustard.  Swap swiss for the cheddar and add an ounce or two of sliced ham.

Rueben:  Use rye bread.  Spread with Thousand Island Dressing.  Layer swiss cheese, thinly sliced corned beef and sauerkraut.  (Be careful to drain sauerkraut thoroughly to avoid a soggy sandwich.)

Italian:  Spread generously with sun-dried tomato pesto.  Layer mozzarella or fontina cheese, a thin slice of ham and sautéed mushrooms.

Tomato Soup's Best Friend:  Add 1/4 to 1/2 cup caramelized onions.  Use a sharp cheddar.

What's your favorite Grown-up Grilled Cheese?

July 23, 2010

Strawberry Frozen Yogurt

Have you ever made ice cream at home?  Homemade ice cream used to be made with rock salt and lots of ice surrounding a metal shaft which held the ice cream mixture.  You cranked the ice cream maker by hand, hopefully rotating the chore between a few people, and right about the time you thought your arm was going to fall off, the ice cream was done. Then you stored the contraption in the upper reaches of the garage until the next 4th of July.

Not so any more.  Automatic Ice Cream Makers are a popular wedding gift.  Making homemade ice cream in one of those burns significantly fewer calories than in the old days.  Nowadays, you make the ice cream base--which might be as simple as heavy cream, sugar and fruit for what is known as a Philadelphia-style ice cream--chill it, turn on the machine, pour in the ice cream base and walk away.  Generally, it is a soft-serve consistency after 20 or 30 minutes of churning, so I transfer mine into a 1 quart container and store it in the freezer for about 2 hours to get it a little more scoop-able.

While ice cream in the grocery store--the kinds sold in 1.75 quart containers--averages about 8 grams of fat per serving (5 of them saturated), the homemade stuff--lacking the stabilizers in the commercial varieties--is closer in fat content to premium brands (the stuff sold in pint containers).  It's delicious stuff, don't get me wrong, but it's a little too rich to be a frequent player in my menus.

Also, to get a creamier consistency and a fuller flavor than Philadelphia-style ice cream, you must make a custard base.  Making a custard is really not a hard thing, but it does require some constant stirring, some extra chill time and it means washing a few more dishes.

Frozen yogurt, on the other hand, doesn't always require cooking to thicken the base, so the chill time is much less than that for ice cream.

Some people might chime in that yogurt is full of probiotics and is lower in fat and make all sorts of other health claims here, but I'm not into that.  If you use a full-fat strained (aka Greek-style) yogurt or one made with 2% milk, you won't end up with a low-fat product.  And you're going to need to add sugar, more sugar than you would if serving the yogurt chilled, so I don't think Frozen Yogurt really qualifies as a health food.  Still it's nice to make it yourself, because you have control over the quality of the ingredients and the flavor and texture of the final product.

Frozen Yogurt Tips
  • Use the sweetener you prefer.  I use organic cane sugar.  But if you want to sub in honey or another sweetener that's fine.  Know that a liquid sweetener may result in a less thick/less scoop-able-after-frozen result.  And remember that some sweeteners (such as honey and blue agave and any artificial sweetener) are sweeter than standard sugar.
  • Want your yogurt sweet?  Add more sugar (or other sweetener).  
  • Want your yogurt more tart?  Add less sugar.
  • Want it super creamy?  Use strained whole milk yogurt.
  • Want it lower in fat?  Use a low-fat (non-strained) yogurt.  But understand that with a lower fat content it will freeze up harder when stored in the freezer.
  • Want bright-fruit flavor?  Increase the quantity of fruit and scale back the quantity of yogurt (so as not to overflow your machine).  Use up to 2 1/2 cups fruit to 3/4 cup yogurt.  Scale back the sugar a bit too, to avoid overpowering the fruit's natural sweetness.  With a lower fat content, this will freeze up harder.
  • Want the fruit to be more of a flavor in the background behind the yogurt?  Don't add more than 1 cup of fruit to 2 1/2 cups yogurt.
  • Want it smooth and creamy?  Eat it immediately after churning.
  • Want it scoop-able? Freeze for a few hours before serving.  
  • To maintain scoop-ability for longer freezes, add a little alcohol to the yogurt before churning, about 2 tablespoons per quart.  Use whatever you have on hand that might augment the flavor of the fruit.  I usually choose rum.
Strawberry Frozen Yogurt 
This is a go-to recipe: equal parts fruit and yogurt plus just slightly less than half a part sweetener, so that it is easy to remember. Try it, then use the tips above to customize your homemade yogurt experience.  Makes enough to fill a quart container and leave a little sample for the cook.

1 1/2 cups fresh strawberries, cleaned with tops removed
a splash of lemon juice
2/3 to 3/4 of a cup sugar
1 1/2 cups strained or whole milk yogurt
2 tablespoons rum or other liquor, optional

In medium bowl or large glass measuring cup mix together strawberries, lemon juice and sugar.  Taste for sweetness.  Mixture should be fairly sweet, because the sweetness in it has to compensate for the tartness in the yogurt that you will add later.  Also, be aware that when the mixture is frozen the sweetness is diminished slightly.  Let sit at room temperature (or if you are in a hurry in the fridge) for about a half an hour or up to 2 hours.

Add yogurt.  If you prefer a chunky yogurt, stir with a whisk.  If you want the mixture smoother, blend about 30 seconds in blender.  Add rum or other alcohol, if using, and stir or pulse to combine.  (Understand that chunks of fruit will freeze very solidly, so if you plan on storing your yogurt longer than a few hours, expend the extra effort and use a blender.)

Freeze according to ice cream maker manufacturer's directions.

 Related Links:

Peach Frozen Yogurt on Upstate California Kitchen Adventures.

David Lebovitz, author of The Sweet Life in Paris and The Perfect Scoop (yes, a cookbook all about frozen desserts), has some wonderful recipes and tips for homemade ice cream.  I've included a link to The Perfect Scoop on Amazon below.  Be warned:  If you click on it to preview the book, it is highly likely that you will find yourself driving to the nearest bookstore to buy it today!  Mouthwatering photography and superb recipes.

Coconut Pink Cherry Yogurt was the first frozen yogurt I ever made.  It's a David Lebovitz recipe, but I found it at Smitten Kitchen.  I made it for a group of 3- to 6- year olds.  I was a bit worried that they would find it too tart, because real frozen yogurt is much tarter than the stuff in the frozen yogurt shoppes of the 1990s, but it didn't seem to be a problem.  All four of them licked their bowls clean and the three-year-old proudly reported to her mom that it was, "PINK!!"

Don't have an ice cream maker in your garage?  I've been very happy with my Cuisinart.

July 22, 2010

Favorite Summer Breakfast

A year and a half ago I read Barbara Kingsolver's "Animal Vegetable Miracle," and decided to go locavore.  I've always been a big farmers market shopper, but for about a year we bought 90% of our meat, vegetables and fruits at the market, and some of our grain there too.  That's one of the things we take for granted living in Upstate California- awesome, well-stocked farmers markets year round.

Though we've chosen to buy meat from other sources right now, we do buy 90% of our fruits, vegetables and eggs at out farmers market.  That means deliciously fresh food year-round from trustworthy farmers and our food dollars going back into our local economy.

It also means no nectarines in January.

One of my favorite food moments of the year is when the first nectarines become available in late June.  Whether white or yellow, they are so sweet and flavorful, I don't know why one would feel a need to cook them.  I like to eat them out of hand or on top of toast with cream cheese, which has become my favorite summer breakfast.

Favorite Summer Breakfast

Hardly complex enough to be called a recipe, this showcases perfect summer fruit and leaves you with enough time to make coffee and sit down with the newspaper.
Serves 1.  Prep time: 5 minutes.

2 slices good-quality whole grain bread
a spoonful of honey
approx. 2 tablespoons whipped cream cheese
1 ripe nectarine or peach
       or 2-3 ripe apricots, plums or pluots

Toast bread on dark setting.   While bread is in the toaster, wash and thinly slice stone fruit, removing the pit. Spread toast with honey.  (Don't omit the honey.  This adds sweetness and keeps the toast from being too dry.)  Spread toast with cream cheese.  Arrange sliced fruit on top of cream cheese. Enjoy!

July 21, 2010

Rich Chocolate Cake II

Rich Chocolate Cake
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen 

This is truly a chocolate cake.  It falls neatly in the middle of the scale that runs from a Double Chocolate Obsession Flourless Torte to those Chocolate-in-Color-Only Cakes whose recipes call for "2 oz bakers chocolate."  Makes one 3 layer cake.  Fill and frost with Easy Ultimate Peanut Butter Frosting.

3 ounces good-quality semisweet chocolate, chopped or broken into small pieces (An acceptable grocery store brand is Ghirardelli, but feel free to step it up a notch if you have something better on hand. I do like Scharfenn Berger.
1 1/2 cups hot brewed coffee  (Use good-quality coffee.)
3 cups sugar
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups unsweetened good-quality cocoa powder (not Dutch process; again I used Ghirardelli)
2 teaspoons baking soda
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
3 large eggs (or 4 medium eggs)
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1 1/2 cups buttermilk or plain yogurt
3/4 teaspoon vanilla

1.  Spray 3 9" round cake pans with cooking spray and line with circles of parchment paper.  Spray the paper.  Set aside.  Preheat oven to 300º.  (No that's not a typo. 300º F.)

2.  Chop chocolate--my kitchen was hot, so I got away with just breaking the half-ounce squares in half-- and combine with hot coffee.  Stir to melt the chocolate and let sit to cool a bit. 

3.Place your sifter over a large bowl and sift together the dry ingredients: sugar, flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. 

4.  In another large bowl with an electric mixer beat eggs until thickened slightly (about 3 minutes with a standing mixer or 5 minutes with a hand-held mixer). Slowly add oil, buttermilk, vanilla, and melted chocolate-coffee mixture to eggs, beating until combined well. Add dry ingredients and beat on medium speed until just combined well.

5.  Divide batter between pans.  I use a measuring cup to scoop out one scoop at a time to get the amount of batter in each pan fairly equal.  You could also use a kitchen scale to do this.  Tap the cake pans lightly on the counter top to release any excess air.  Bake in middle of oven until a tester inserted in center comes out clean, about 55 minutes to an hour. Because there are three pans, one may need to go to the bottom rack.  Because this cake is cooked at a low temperature, I wouldn't rotate the pans and risk the cake 'falling' Just be a aware that the pan on the bottom may finish baking slightly before or after the other two. 

6. Cool layers almost completely in pans on racks. Depending on the temperature of your kitchen this may take an hour or more.  Run a thin knife around edges of pans and invert layers onto racks. Carefully peel off parchment paper and cool layers completely. 

Smitten Kitchen advises that cake layers may be made 1 day ahead and kept, wrapped well in plastic wrap, at room temperature, but I prefer to let them cool completely, then wrap each one in a triple layer of plastic wrap and freeze for up to one week.  (I know that's a lot of plastic wrap, but after ten-plus dollars worth of chocolate and two hours of your time, you don't want to risk freezer burn, do you?)  When placing cakes in the freezer be absolutely certain that they are on a flat surface.  Once layers are frozen they can be stacked in the freezer on top of each other or removed to be frosted.  

Some tips on frosting:
As you can see from the photos, I don't do decorative frosting.  My cakes are home-style.  If you have frosting tips for me, please post them in the comments. 
A frozen cake is much easier to frost than one that is soft.  Take out and unwrap one layer at a time.  Using a large spreader, scoop out a large glob of frosting.  Spread frosting spinning cake as you go.  If your cake is frozen, you can be a little rough with it and not worry about accidentally peeling off a layer of cake, or getting your frosting messy with crumbs. Attempt to go over each section of cake only once. Once the frosting under your spatula has been spread, get more, don't try to tidy up what you've just done until you have (fairly) even layer of frosting around the whole cake.  Carefully dollop and spread the last of the frosting on any place that looks a little bare. 

July 20, 2010

Kitchen Adventures: How We Roll

I've eluded to this before.  I'll be very clear:  I have difficulty following recipes.

I love recipes. I even read them in my free time.  I scribble them on scratch paper (and then I misplace them). I contemplate them when I probably have better things to do.  But when I get down to the nitty-gritty of a weeknight meal, I don't want to use a cookbook; instead, I want a method etched in my memory file, so that when I'm digging through my refrigerator, it comes together for me: "Green onions, carrots... some leftover rice, eggs... oh, add frozen peas, a protein and soy sauce.  We'll have fried rice!"

Even in baking, I make all kinds of modifications in my quest to make it a little better than last time.  I am the kind of baker who likes to substitute other flours for some of the all-purpose flour in baking.  At one point I counted eleven different kinds of flours and grains in my freezer.  And I don't tend to have whole milk on hand, so I frequently use 1% or 2%... or cream or yogurt depending on the desired result and what I have available.

Feeling flexible and learning how different ingredients work makes cooking easier, but it makes sharing recipes a little difficult.  I hope you will bear with me and feel a similar freedom to pursue your own kitchen adventures.

(I know you were expecting "Rich Chocolate Cake II" yesterday and it's coming, I promise.  And yes, it was a hit at my friend's baby shower this weekend.  I'm just having some technical difficulties in getting my photos of the cake to the blog.  Thank you for your patience.)

July 17, 2010

Easy Ultimate Peanut Butter Frosting

We are going on a camping trip this weekend with two other families.  Meals have been delegated to each family.  I was assigned Saturday dinner.  I purchased a marinated trip-tip from Chico Meat Locker.  I'm accompanying it with potatoes, stuffed peppers and a green salad.  Since this is our first camping trip and I don't want to have to be preoccupied with vegetable-chopping when I might need to be watching the kids, and since I am not yet brave enough to bust out the ol' campstove, I did most of the prep work this evening and planned it so all the cooking can be done on a BBQ.

All week long I've tossed around the idea of buying a ready-made potato salad instead of wrapping potatoes in foil for the BBQ.  I've never been one to purchase potato salad before, but recently I tasted Costco's premade potato salad, and I was simply embarrassed at all the time I've been spending in the kitchen making boiling eggs and potatoes to make salad, when Costco's is quite good and totally affordable. The only problem is that I don't have a Costco membership, so rather than the crap-shoot of a grocery store potato salad, I think I'll just scrub some nice Yukon Golds, coat them with oil, add kosher salt, pepper and some rosemary and cook them in foil over the coals.

But of course, that's not a very colorful dish.  So I found myself at 11:30 at night chopping parsley and packing it in a little plastic container, so that I can garnish those potatoes.

As I tucked my individually wrapped parsley and rosemary in the fridge next to the homemade granola I portioned out for Sunday breakfast, it hit me:  When did I become, as one friend said, the Naturalist Mom?  Or more accurately, the Home-made Mom?

Oh well, maybe this frosting can bring me back into balance.

I figure there are two kinds of people in the world: those who like frosting and those who like cake.  I am firmly the latter, but this frosting is one that has me licking the plate and the spatula.

Peanut Butter Frosting
Slightly adapted from King Arthur Flour's Whole Grain Baking

Makes about 6 cups frosting, enough for a 9" or 10" 3-layer cake, with a little extra to spare.  Trust me, you won't mind having a little extra.

1 14 oz jar (1 1/2 cups) smooth peanut butter -don't use the natural stuff, this is a time for good ol' hydrogenated Skippy or Jif
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
7 cups confectioners' sugar
1 cup (maybe a 1/4 cup more) evaporated milk  -If evaporated milk is not available, any milk will do; I just think the thickness of the evaporated milk benefits this frosting.

Combine peanut butter and vanilla in large mixing bowl. Add about 1/3 of the confectioners' sugar followed by 1/3 of the milk, stirring well with a whisk or electric mixer after each addition. Continue alternating confectioners' sugar and milk until mixture is thoroughly combined. Frosting should be glossy, fluffy and spreadable.  If it seems to thick, add milk a tablespoon at a time until it reaches desired consistency. 

July 15, 2010

Rich Chocolate Cake I

A few months ago it was a good friend's birthday. Let me clarify, a good friend who likes peanut butter's birthday. So I made a birthday cake: Chocolate with Peanut Butter Frosting. I wasn't able to attend his party, but I was told that it was fantastic.

Just this week I got a request to make it again. The only problem is that I've always believed that everyone should be able to find a perfect chocolate cake recipe and it should be their 'go-to' recipe from that point on. Maybe it comes from years of Granny's Duncan Hines birthday cakes when the choice was Chocolate or Yellow. Of course there was also White, but Granny saved that option for super-special occasions. Wouldn't want to waste three egg yolks on a birthday cake, now would we? So I've just had this lifelong sense that one should find the recipe for a chocolate cake and the recipe for a yellow cake and be done with it.

Don't you suppose that type of perfection in the kitchen is always a bit elusive? There is always that quest for something just a little better. And so, I think the only chocolate cake I've ever made more than once is Betty Crocker's Best Devil's Food with White Mountain Frosting. I made that one twice in 1989 and I revisited it in 2009.

So, I have no idea what recipe I used for that friend's birthday cake. ( Of course, if I had already found my 'go to' chocolate cake I wouldn't have this problem, would I?) In retrospect, maybe it was Betty Crocker's Best, but I vaguely recall taking a basic Yellow Birthday Cake recipe, adding melted chocolate and adjusting the sugar. Oh and probably substituting some white whole wheat flour for a portion of the all-purpose flour. Or did I use whole wheat pastry flour? And was the white flour I remember in the original recipe really cake flour? See what I mean? I couldn't reconstruct that cake. And since I couldn't reconstruct it, I had better improve it.

Since this dear friend expected a wonderful cake for a baby shower that was coming up quickly, I had to find a reliable recipe. I knew just where to go: Smitten Kitchen. Deb, the magic behind Smitten Kitchen, does a fabulous job with cakes, as she does with everything she makes. And there was one recipe I'd been eyeing for a long time: Homemade Devil Dog Cake. The funny thing is that this particular cake recipe includes a marshmellow-y filling and a ganache frosting, and I had made the filling and the ganache before, but substituted a different chocolate cake recipe in for the cake. Why? Maybe I didn't have all the ingredients on hand. Or maybe I just have a hard time thinking that some recipe might be perfect exactly how it is written. I am really more of a method-based cook, and thankfully Deb seems to understand that. But after making this cake, this rich, deep chocolate-y chocolate cake, I feel foolish to question her pairings... I'm also feeling a little freer to admit that there might not be just one go-to Chocolate Cake recipe for each cook. I made a cake for my daughter's birthday that both my husband and daughter really enjoyed, but to me it wasn't chocolate-y enough. It was a great kid's party cake, though. But this one is in the running for my go-to chocolate cake.

This is a truly chocolate cake, not a yellow cake with chocolate thrown in as an afterthought or a coloring. It's rich and dark. It uses two kinds of chocolate: good quality semi-sweet, as well as good cocoa. Then coffee and buttermilk enhance the chocolatey-ness and give it a real depth. Another thing about this cake is that bakes up with a level top, so it can be frosted and filled without trimming a big hump off of the top, or filling gaps in the side with copious amounts of frosting. Wait, did I say it was a good thing...

Try this cake! Try it with Deb's 7-Minute Frosting and Chocolate Ganache to make a Ring Ding or Devil Dog Cake. Or, here I go messing with her pairings again, try it with my Easy Ultimate Peanut Butter frosting. But, seriously, try it!

July 14, 2010

Yogurt 101

As with so many kitchen adventures, I file Yogurt Making under "Why didn't I try this years ago?"

Well, of course, the reason is that I'd heard about the process and I was just stuck on the concept of leaving milk out all night. Won't it go bad? Isn't that just asking for food poisoning?!

But I picked up a book at the library about growing your own food a few months ago, which happened to have a chapter about making your own yogurt, Fresh Food from Small Spaces: The Square-Inch Gardener's Guide to Year-Round Growing, Fermenting, and Sprouting. Ruppenthal's chapter on yogurt-making and fermenting foods made me less sqeamish about the idea and I finally tried it.

But why do it, you ask?

I'm a sucker for a hands-on kitchen project that might be cheaper than purchasing a similar product at a grocery store. When I make my own, I know what is in it: Organic milk with just a little high quality commercial yogurt. I can sweeten it with just enough honey and top it with perfectly ripe fruit, which I think results in a far superior product than the high-fructose corn syrup- and gelatin-laden single serve products available in your grocer's refrigerated case.

I eat yogurt for breakfast with homemade granola. (We'll get to that Kitchen Adventure in due time, I promise.)

Making yogurt is a simple process and there are instructions all over the internet for it. Here are the basics:
  • heat fresh milk
  • cool it
  • add yogurt culture (and optional powdered milk for a thicker product)
  • keep warm for a few hours or overnight so the cultures can grow
Recipe: Basic Yogurt

Serve with granola and fruit for a wholesome, filling breakfast or use as the base for a fabulous frozen yogurt. Makes approximately 1 quart.

1/2 to 1 gallon milk, whole, 2% or 1%
1/2 cup good-quality, plain commercial yogurt -I like Mountain High brand.  You want a brand that contains no sweeteners, flavorings, gelatin or other additives, and that specifies "Live and Active Cultures."   Always taste the yogurt that you will be using as your starter before using it, as the cultures in the starter will be imparting their flavor to the milk you are using.  You also want to use the yogurt when it is as fresh as possible.
1/4 cup nonfat dry milk, optional

Special Equipment: large storage vessel with lid, such as a 2 qt plastic yogurt container or a mason jar.
Optional: candy thermometer, strainer, cheesecloth

1. Heat milk over medium to medium-high heat, stirring occasionally until approximately 180º. If you lose track of it and it boils, don't worry. Some recipes say that this will produce a thicker end product. Let cool. I usually pour it into a storage vessel at this point to speed up the process. If milk has burned onto the bottom of the pan, don't scrap the burned portion into the storage vessel. The finished product would still be edible, just not the pure white product that it should be.

2. When milk has cooled to just above room temperature (about 80º to 90º) on a thermometer, stir in yogurt and powdered milk. Stir thoroughly. Cover.  Yogurt cultures are living organisms.  They will die if they are heated to above about 118º, so always make sure your milk has cooled before adding them.

3. Leave jar unattended in warm place for approximately 8 hours. On hot summer nights, the back porch seems to be a perfect spot. I've also cultured yogurt successfully in the pantry of a warm kitchen. Some recipes suggest wrapping your storage vessel or using a crock pot to keep it at a constant temperature. I have not found this to be necessary. It is necessary, however, to leave it undisturbed. Turning the vessel before the milk has cultured properly may disrupt the process and leave you with a very thin, drinkable yogurt. Still edible, but not what I want when I think of yogurt.

4. After about 8 hours--if your storage vessel is kept warmer, it will take less time about 6 hours at 100º, but never let it get above 118º to avoid killing the culture and ruining the product--check for thickness simply by turning the storage vessel slightly. If the yogurt looks thick and pulls away from the edge of the vessel, it's ready.

At this point I transfer the storage vessel to the fridge and chill it thoroughly. You could eat it now. It's yogurt.  I really prefer the thickness and creaminess of a strained (aka Greek-style) yogurt.

5. To strain the yogurt:
 Line a strainer with a few layers of cheesecloth (or a large coffee filter or a double thickness of paper towels or a clean fine-weave dish towel). Pour yogurt into strainer. Set strainer over a bowl and return to the fridge. Strain 4-8 hours, until yogurt reaches the desired thickness. Return yogurt to a clean storage vessel. Store in refrigerator. 

The whey (liquid)  that is strained out can be used as a beverage (it's a little too sour for my taste, but my one-year-old loves it) or as the liquid in bread-making, but I have yet to try this. One Kitchen Adventure at a time.

Yogurt Making FAQs:
  • Why the large range in quantity for the milk in this recipe?  Because the cultures in the starter culture expand and will use up whatever amount of milk you provide.  Whether you want a "small" 2 quart batch, or have most of a gallon of milk leftover after making another recipe, just heat the milk, add the culture and let them do the work.
  • What if my yogurt storage vessel gets jostled during the wait time?  Depending on where the yogurt is in the process of coagulation, jostling the container may stop the process.  If this happens, the thin yogurt can be used as you would buttermilk.
  • How can I make a thicker yogurt?   I've found many suggestions online:  Boil the milk before culturing.  Add powdered milk. Culture at a warmer temperature or for a longer period of time.  (Not above 118º).  Use whole milk.  Once yogurt has finished culturing, strain out some of the whey. 
  • Can I use skim milk to make a nonfat yogurt?  I have not tried this.  I've made yogurt with 1% milk and I like the texture.  It is not as creamy as a fuller-fat would be, but to me it's the right texture after straining to mix into granola or fruit. If you try skim milk, let me know how it goes.
  •  How long does homemade yogurt keep?  I don't know.  I usually make a batch to last about a week.
  • Can I use the yogurt I make as a starter culture for my next batch?  Yes, but understand that with starter culture, fresher is better, so if your culture sat in the fridge more than 2 weeks, you may not be happy with the finished product.  Also, culture looses strength over time, so if you make yogurt weekly with your own culture, you'll want to plan to refresh it by using a commercial yogurt once a month.
  • Can I use soy milk or another dairy alternative?  I've read that it is possible, as long as you add a couple tablespoons of sugar to give the cultures something to feed on, but I have not tried it.
A word about fat content:
The fat content of your homemade yogurt will be similar to that of the milk you used to make it:
1%       2.5 grams per cup
2%       5 grams per cup
Whole: 8 grams per cup

When yogurt is strained, most of the fat stays with the yogurt.  Whey has very little fat content.  If you start with 1/2 gallon (8 cups) of yogurt and strain out 1 quart (4 cups) of whey, the fat content of the strained yogurt is approximately double, so that 1 cup of whole milk strained yogurt would contain approximately 16 grams of fat. 

I find the richer yogurts more satiating, so while I might top 2/3 of a cup of granola with 2/3 of a cup of either 1% stained yogurt (3.5 grams of fat) or un-strained whole milk yogurt (5.5 grams of fat), if I were using a strained whole milk yogurt, I'd use about 1/4 of a cup ( 4 grams of fat).