Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Help me with a dessert!

I'm going to a party this weekend and, as it's traditional with this group of friends, I'm making a dessert.

If I were just making a short drive to a friend's house, I would have any number of ideas for recipes. The problem is I have to come up with something spectacular that can survive for a long time.

Here is my schedule for Saturday: I leave the house around 11AM and I have to drive an hour and a half to get to the barn to ride my horses; I spend a good four hours or so at the barn riding and caring for them; I clean myself up and head for the party which is likely to be a good 45-60 minutes from the barn. (My friend bought a new house, so I don't know exactly how far away it is yet). I will make the dessert on Friday night or early Saturday morning. That means the dessert is likely to sit at home for a while and then sit in the car for many hours. I need to make something that won't spoil.

My requirements are as follows:

1. As I said, it must travel and keep well. It can't contain ingredients that spoil or made up primarily of things that will melt.
2. Chocolate is preferred. People tend to expect me to do chocolate because I'm so crazy about it. If it's not chocolate, it can't be any sort of spice or carrot cake. I hate those.
3. It should be a little special. Sure I could just make brownies or Toll House cookies or something, but I like to go beyond the ordinary. I want my dessert to be as spectacular as an easy-travel dessert can be. (I suppose I could pull a Phoebe and make Neslay Tullowse cookies).
4. Please don't tell me to make a Bundt cake. :-D

Anyone have a suggestion. I'm sure there are bar cookies and snack cakes out there that fit the bill, but I'm feeling too lazy to search the universe for the perfect recipe. If someone can recommend a favorite to me, it would save me a few headaches.

Thanks and I hope everyone reading this has some fun plans for the weekend!

Thursday, August 23, 2007

@#%$! Bundt Cakes!

I hate Bundt cakes.

I admit that's a sweeping generalization. There is nothing wrong with Bundt cakes. They're just cakes - ordinary tasty butter cakes - baked in a fluted tube pan. I'm sure readers are scratching their heads wondering just what it is I have against Bundt cakes.

I don't hate eating Bundt cakes. I simply hate making them. Why can't I ever find a recipe and a Bundt pan that work together?

I lived at home for way too long. While living and baking at home, I availed myself of Mom's cookware and bakeware. Her pans were always a bit weird. She didn't have 9" or 8" round cake pans for example. She had 8.5" round pans. Her pie plates were also 9.5" instead of standard 9" or 10". Her Bundt pan was shallow and wide.

Even after moving out on my own I didn't have a full set of bakeware. Mom doesn't bake much anymore, so I often borrowed her baking pans. Even after I married I didn't have all of the pans I wanted. I had no springform or Bundt pan for a few years.

Last year I wanted to make a lemon pound cake for a dinner party and serve it with ice cream flavored with essence of rosewater and pistaschio chunks. I had heard great things about Maida Heatter's lemon cake and decided to make it as I had one of her cookbooks. I borrowed Mom's Bundt pan. Mom's extra-wide Bundt pan did not do justice to the amount of cake batter the recipe yielded even though the pans seemed to measure volume wise. I ended up with a lemon pancake. I scrapped the recipe and found a pound cake recipe that could be baked in a loaf pan instead.

For my birthday this summer I ended up receiving two large roasting pans as a gift from both my husband and my mother. Mom got hers at Macy's, so I got the receipt and went to returned it for some other new cookware. They had Bundt pans. They had Martha Stewart Bundt pans. I realized it was time to get a Bundt pan of my own. I vowed I would not get another too-large pan. I bought the smaller of the two sizes available.

This week's baking venture was Laura Brody's mocha pound cake with a Kahlua glaze. I was really looking forward to a tall, thick, hearty pound cake. I followed the recipe to the letter and prepared my new Bundt pan.

Lo and behold, the batter didn't fill half that pan despite being a correct measurement. Does a Bundt pan exist anywhere that actually fits a pound cake recipe? Is there a pound cake recipe out there that actually fits in a Bundt pan the way it's supposed to? I baked the thing anyway. My pound cake came out decently, but it was rather small. I guess it was meant to be that size because the baking time provided didn't overbake it. The outer crust was a little burned tasting, but the inside of the cake was moist and tender. They're eating it with abandon here in the office anyway.

I'm wondering if I'll ever be able to tell if a recipe will yield a two-inch high measly cake or a tall, glorious, calorie-laden wonder of a Bundt cake. Until I know, I'm staying away from the Bundt!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Thank You Mansi!

My husband and I are a modern day Jack Spratt and his wife. I don't eat seafood. He doesn't eat red meat and is lactose intolerant (although one will notice he's more lactose intolerant around things like lasagna, quesadillas or fresh mozzarella and far less lactose intolerant when presented with ice cream, pudding, or string cheese). We eat a heck of a lot of pasta and chicken in our household. I was getting tired of chicken and I don't want to keep loading us up on simple carbohydrates all of the time (I'm Italian and consider wholewheat pasta to be a pox on humanity). "Try something meatless" the little voice inside my head said.

Expressly vegetarian meals can be hard to do well if you're not someone accustomed to finding alternative protein sources. As I said above, I don't want us to just fill up on pasta. I can't serve things that are filled with cheese as a substitute for meat since my husband can't have too much of that. (As an aside, I don't think regularly subsituting cheese for meat is a great idea anyway since the stuff is filled with saturated fat and you have to kill a calf to make cheese, so you're not doing the animals any favors.) Most TVP-based meat substitutions taste gross. While not all of them do, I find taking soy and processing the heck out of it and flavoring it seven ways to Sunday to make it taste like something else to be a rather suspicious enterprise. In other words, making a meatless meal that contains adequate protein, is made from fresh and natural ingredients, and still tastes good (ask me about the lentil loaf or the miso and soba noodles I have made in the past if you want to know how important making things taste good to me is) to be quite a task.

Indian cuisine is wonderfully unique in that it offers meatless options that are packed with flavor and use fresh ingredients. It goes way beyond the standard rice and beans and tofu salads. Indian food has chickpea stews that aren't overly starchy and daal and saag paneer and aloo gobi (sp on all?). The flavors are rich and intense and the food is very satisfying.

This is where my gratitude comes in for having discovering the world of food blogs. Here in the bloshpere, professional chefs and ordinary schmoes like me can share secrets and recipes. There is so much potential for wonderful discoveries. You'll find recipes you never even thought of.

In recent weeks I have discovered Fun and Food. This blog contains a wealth of vegetarian Indian recipes that aren't overly complex or full of hard-to-find ingredients. As I was growing desperate for new dinner ideas, this was where I headed. Last week I found the perfect recipe, Egg Curry. Eggs have great protein content and my husband loves them. Thanks to my mother recently subscribing to a CSA program, I have been innundated with an excess of eggs. (She gets a dozen of them almost weekly in her box and she lives alone and can't eat them all herself, so she often hands off a dozen to me or my brother.) I had never thought of making eggs like this and I was very eager to try it out. I was not disappointed.

I had to make a few adjustments to the recipe, which are as follows:

I forgot to buy onions. I happened to have 3 shallots in my fridge. My husband has issues with onions (Readers must be thinking I have the pickiest husband in the world, but if you think he's bad, let me tell you about his brother sometime), so it worked out just fine. Had I used onions, I would have had to cut them in big chunks so he could easly pick them out.

I didn't have whole cumin. I have had some Rachael Ray moments when shopping and have bought multiple jars of the stuff because I always think I don't have any. Thanks to people like Alton Brown and Tyler Florence, I'm learning the benefits of buying whole spices and toasting them in the pan and grinding them after they're toasted. (Hint for readers: A great place to buy whole spices is Penzeys.) However, for now I will use up my ground cumin since I have a ton of it.

I didn't have any prepared ginger-garlic paste. I just took some ginger and some garlic cloves and smashed them together with a little salt.

I used light coconut milk. The regular stuff has mega calories.

I served the dish with brown rice. I would have loved to have served it with paratha. I have a recipe for it in my Cordon Bleu cookbook, but I really didn't have the time. I suppose if I hadn't been so obsessed with my online Maj Jong game, I might have had the time. It doesn't seem difficult to do. It just involves a few steps.

The curry sauce is utterly delicious. It was great over the eggs and rice, but I think it would have multiple uses. I might even cook chicken in it someday. :-D

Food bloggers are a wonderful inspiration!

Thursday, August 16, 2007

God Bless the Sweet Potato Queens

A couple of years ago one of Kevin's friends gave me The Sweet Potato Queens Big-Ass Cookbook and Financial Planner. I had never heard of the Sweet Potato Queens prior to receiving that book. I wanted to find out more about them, because the book is a hoot. However, they don't disclose much about their organization. Their attitude is, "If you want to know more, buy all of our books." Their excuse for the greed is that they're middle-aged women who need lots of plastic surgery, so we need to spend money on their products to help fund it all. Still, what they do is pretty self-explantory. It's women's empowerment and charitable work combined with silly costumes in the annual St. Patrick's Day Parade.

The only way I can describe the receipes in the book is "Paula Deen moved into the trailer park and is now on a limited budget." There is butter. There is bacon. There is cheese. There is booze. Recipes range from a slow-cooked Italian tomato sauce with meatballs to something called "Pecan Pudding", which involves taking a store-bought pecan pie, mashing it up with your hands, and mixing it up with a tub of Cool Whip. There is a recipe called "Pig Candy", which involves coating bacon in brown sugar and baking till crisp. This is my kind of cookbook! (Although thanks to Kevin's sensitivity to pork products and cheese, I can't make half the recipes in there).

Last night I made a cake I've been dying to try forver. It's called "The Gooiest Cake in the World." It's simple and the results are a sugary, artery-clogging, and incredibly delicious trip to the cardiologists office.

You start with a yellow cake mix and mix it with 3 eggs, a teaspoon of baking soda, a quarter cup of water, and a 20oz. can of crushed pineapple. Pour it into a greased 9x13 pan and bake according to package directions.

Then you make the "frosting". You take a cup of evaporated milk, 2 sticks of melted butter, and a cup and a half of sugar. Mix that with 7 oz. of cocounut. You are supposed to use canned coconut, but I couldn't find any, so I took the risk and used bagged. Poke holes in the cake and pour this mixture over the top.

Although the cake is supposed to be served warm (actually, the directions were, "Wait until cools the tiniest bit and then stick your face in it"), I let it cool so the filling solidified a bit they way I would do with a tres leches cake. I wonder if there would have been less liquid if I had found canned coconut.

I brought it into work today and changed the name a bit. Gooiest Cake in the World doesn't really describe the contents. I called it Super-Duper Gooey Pineapple-Coconut cake.

It's not the classiest fare in the world, but the Sweet Potato Queens can make a very delicious cake!

On a completely different note, I'm making fried chicken for dinner tonight. This is only the second time I have attempted to make fried chicken. I've made fried strips and wings a few times. Frying whole chicken pieces is a big production, so I rarely bother. I do dearly love fried chicken and it's hard to find good fried chicken in this part of the world, so I have to do it now and then and hopefully prefect my skill at it. The last time I tried it, I felt the chicken was a little overbrowned.

I have my chicken pieces marinating in hot sauce and buttermilk right now. I plan to follow Alton Brown's technique for the coating and frying.

Friday, August 10, 2007

I Hate Turkey

Well, okay. I don't really hate turkey. I'm just learning that turkey has its place and there are places where it definitely doesn't belong.

Let me explain. Kevin does not eat any red meat or pork at all. He does love spaghetti and meatballs though. In the past few years I have always made my meatballs with turkey.

Lately I have become fascinated with Italian meatball recipes. I drool over them. I don't want to make meatballs. I want to make polpette. I don't want to make balls of meat and bread that are nothing more than a side attraction to the spaghetti. I want to make meatballs that are the star of the show and the pasta is just a side dish to soak up some of the extra sauce.

I have experimented with several meatball recipes, but none of them were ever to my satisfaction. Every meatball recipe I used had one thing in common. I had to substitute the meat in the recipe with turkey. Polpette aren't made with turkey. They are made with beef or pork or veal. Ground turkey - even the dark meat variety - tends to be dry and tasteless when rolled into a meatball and left to cook in tomato sauce. I now realize that there is no way to get those hearty robust flavors unless I'm willing to nix the turkey.

Last night I wised up. This month's Food & Wine magazine had a tasty-looking recipe for Sicilian meatballs that contained pine nuts and currants. I was going to make it my way and I was determined to improve on it rather than worsen it by using turkey. I went to the meat counter and purchased ground turkey, ground beef, and even some ground pork (I stopped eating veal 20 years ago for ethical reasons). I made the meatballs with beef and pork for me and made a seperate batch for the turkey ones.

My meatballs were definitely richer and tastier than the turkey variety. I ate less spaghetti because my meatballs were more satisfying. I felt I had reached that Italian authenticity I was hoping for, while my husband was still able to have his own preference. It was a success all around.

Now if only I'd had some chianti last night. It would have been perfect.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Am I Nuts?

Have I completely lost it? Who decides she's going to try to bake something on a weekly basis in the dog days of summer?

Yesterday temps were in the 90s and the humidity made the air a steambath. What did I do with my evening last night?

I made this.

I really felt compelled to make this. I have a subscription to Eating Well magazine and I have wanted to make this tart ever since I received the most recent issue. Summer is the time of year for fresh raspberries, so it seemed like a no-brainer.

I had been hoping to get really fresh raspberries. I know a pick-your-own farm or two and if I couldn't do that much, I at least wanted to go get some at a farmer's market. The B&B where I stayed the weekend of my birthday there were abundant raspberry bushes in the back of the house and I picked a ton-and predictably forgot to take them with me when I left (I suppose the maids got a treat). I just never got around to purchasing or otherwise acquiring farm-fresh local raspberries. Now the season is ending and I knew if I was going to make this tart, I would have to make it now.

I bought my raspberries at Wild Oats and paid through the nose for them. I went home, cranked up the AC and went to work on my tart. Once I was in the midst of making the crust, I noticed that I was out of both vanilla and almond extracts. Oops! Well, the tart is filled with butter and sugar and raspberries are the main standout, so I hope the tart isn't too bad without them.

The berries were a little too tart for my taste. I ended up with a tart tart. If I make this again, I may add more sugar unless I can get really sweet berries.

I think what makes me truly nuts is that I'm already stressing about what dessert I'll make next week.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Clay Pot Experiments

A few weeks ago I was watching The Essence of Emeril (far easier to watch for many reasons than Emeril Live) and he did a show about cooking in a clay pot. My terracotta pot has been collecting dust lately, so I was inspired to trot it out and see what I could do with it.

I decided to make some creations based on cuisines where clay pots and ovens are common. Last week I made my attempt at chicken tagine. This particular experiment wasn't worth a detailed post here in the blog. I can't even remember what spices I used. I just seasoned the chicken pieces with anything I thought seemed Middle Eastern and then covered them with a combination of chicken broth, cilantro, honey, and orange juice. I served it over couscous with dried apricots and almonds. As a vegetable I grilled slices of yellow squash and zucchini that I brushed with olive oil and sprinkled with ground coriander. The flavors in my chicken never really came through. For all of the strong herbs and spices I used, the chicken lacked something. It was just not memorable.

Last night I decided to go the Indian route - sort of. A Romertopf is not a tandoori oven anymore than it's a tagine, but it's as close as I can get. The conumdrum came when I realized that the dog days of summer really don't make me feel hungry for heavy Indian spices. I wanted something lighter. That's when I was inspired to create a new recipe: Greek Tandoori Chicken. As with all classic tandoori recipes, I marinated my chicken pieces in yogurt that I mixed with the juice of two lemons, a glug or two of olive oil, 4 smashed cloves of garlic, and a handful of bay leaves. I left the chicken in the marinade all day. Before I baked them I shook off a little of the excess marinade, piled them in the Romertopf, and baked them for about an hour at 450. They needed to bake a little less, but otherwise, the flavor and texture was quite good. I think of Greek food as grilled meats with lemon and herbs and the tzatziki (which is what the marinade really was) on the side. I combined everything in one dish.

With the chicken I served a salad of tomatoes, cucumbers and red onions dressed with red wine vinegar, olive oil, oregano and some salt and pepper. I suppose it would have been more authentic if I had added some olives and feta, but Kevin and I don't like olives and he doesn't eat cheese. I also brushed a couple of rounds of pita bread with olive oil and grilled them until they were nice and warm and slightly crispy. I think this was Kevin's favorite part.

The terracotta oven really does make a nice moist chicken and it does vegetables very well too. I've even seen my father use his for baked ziti. I will definitely remember to use it more often in the future, but I think the key is to limit how much liquid you add to the pot because that can really dilute flavors.