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Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Week 15: Molten Dulce de Leche Cakes



Sunday dinner with the family always involves some good wine, food, and conversation. We always end the night with dessert, which is a perfect time to test out new recipes. My family doesn’t mind being guinea pigs and I get more feedback than during the week when Mr. B is the only one around. Bless his heart, he rarely complains about anything I cook, probably as much out of fear that I will stop feeding him as the fact that he really likes everything. I mean, the guy ate brains and eggs, raw lamb kibbe, baby goat, and a myriad of other things as a kid that I wasn’t introduced to until adulthood.

This week for dessert I tested out a recipe from Bon Appetit. It was originally from Florencia Courreges, the pastry chef at La Huella restaurant in Uruguay. It is her south-of-the-border take on the traditional chocolate lava cake. The simplicity of it boggles the mind, as it only takes 3 ingredients, 3 simple steps, and 20 minutes from start to finish. And you don’t even start it until after dinner is over! (That’s one way to get everyone else to do the dishes…)

The basis for the cake is dulce de leche, a sweet thick caramel that is nothing more than sweetened
condensed milk cooked slowly. There are ways to make your own in a crock pot or even from scratch if you are so inclined. I use the Nestle brand, which makes a 13.4 ounce can (which turns out to be the right amount for this recipe). These can be found in the Hispanic food aisle or with sweetened condensed milk in your baking aisle

The result is a sweet, light cake with a warm molten center, served right out of the oven. The directions recommend that you unmold the cake before serving. This will, of course, give you a more dramatic first bite, with the caramel-colored goodness oozing out onto the plate, but I think it would be perfectly fine served within its ramekin. I should warn you that due to the one-dimensional note of the dessert, I found it wise to serve with a small scoop of ice cream. I recommend vanilla, Florencia recommends banana as well. (I tried whipped cream, but it melted too soon and didn’t cut the sweetness properly like the vanilla bean ice cream did.)

I should also note that the original recipe said it made 6 servings, but the cakes were a bit small, and cook so quickly that unless you check them every 30 seconds once you hit about 9 minutes, they overcook. Making a second batch (and doubling it for the whole family) made 8 good-sized cakes and took about 12 minutes. The center should be jiggly – and when I say center, it should measure the size of a quarter or more, because while you get them out, move them off the pan and unmold them, they have continued to cook a bit and the centers start to firm up. You definitely should serve them right away, although Mr. B did have a second one the next day, chilled, and said it was delicious. (Good man!)

Recipe after the jump....
 

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Week 14: Baked Gnocchi with Squash and Kale


What drew me to this recipe in the San Francisco Chronicle was the list of ingredients in the title. I love gnocchi, butternut squash and kale and imagined they would be a killer combo. Tasty and healthy at the same time. It was a fairly easy recipe that took little preparation, as I was able to use pre-made gnocchi, pre-cut squash and pre-cut kale.

Unfortunately I was wrong on several counts and actually chock this up as a bit of a failure. It is healthy and it was easy, but it wasn’t terribly tasty. The gnocchi gets quite gummy and sticks together, the squash doesn’t get that nice brown crisp that adds to its flavor when roasted, and the pre-cut kale had some thick ribs that made for a more than few nasty mouthfuls. And even with the addition of salt and parmesan cheese, it lacked any oomph or real flavor. It was a bit soggy and the liquid was not thickened at all. Overall, I cannot recommend this dish, but in fairness to my goal at the beginning of the year, I wanted to post my failures as well as my successes, so if you are brave, you can try and recreate this and judge for yourself, or modify it in a way that would make it tastier (more cheese? herbs? pancetta or bacon? Sausage?)

Recipe after the jump
 

Monday, March 31, 2014

Week 13: Going Old School with Grasshopper Pie


Okay, this is not strictly adhering to my goal of trying a new recipe every week. In fact, this recipe is one that I have been making since I was a teen. Grasshopper Pie was one of only three desserts my mother made (the other two being a Sherry Pound Cake and a Harvey Wallbanger Cake). March 25th would have been her 75th birthday, so to celebrate that we had a Grandma Diane dinner. That meant a London Broil, baked potato with sour cream, salad and…Grasshopper Pie.

Grasshopper Pie is one of those things that I secretly love. (Deep-fried Twinkies are also one of those culinary delights I generally keep hidden.)  It not only evokes memories of my mother and childhood, but it is a perfect after-dinner dessert. Minty, with a soft, cloud-like texture and a crunchy hit of chocolate from the crust. It’s like having a postprandial Andes mint. Only cold. And fluffy.

This is also one of those typical 1970s recipes. It’s what I call a shortcut dessert. Shortcuts were a working woman’s saving grace back then. Working full-time but still expected to put dinner on the table every night like their own mothers, many women got very creative. Crockpots became a big hit. Fill it, set it, forget it, serve it. Packaged mixes like Lawry’s Spaghetti Sauce Mix or Hamburger Helper could take a pound of ground meat and turn it into a meal in 30 minutes. Casseroles became popular, combining a type of meat, pasta or rice, and Campbell’s soup that you mixed up to throw into the oven. And who had time for baking layer cakes, even with a box mix? Nope, you did slice and bake cookies (or just bought packaged cookies like my mother did) or made shortcut desserts like Grasshopper Pie or the aforementioned alcohol-laced pound cakes (which required a box mix, one pan and no icing).

This recipe is pretty easy to put together and you can even buy a premade chocolate cookie crust to further cut down on the preparation time. Not everyone keeps crème de menthe and crème de cacao in the house, but you can try and search out airplane-sized bottles at your local BevMo, borrow some from a friend, or just bite the bullet and buy them. (Crème de menthe is delicious served over vanilla ice cream or you can whip up an adult hot chocolate with a bit of both of these liqueurs…topped with whipped cream, of course.)

Grasshopper Pie
Crust:
1 1/4 cups crushed chocolate wafers
1/3 cup melted butter

Filling:
2/3 cup scalded milk
24 large marshmallows
2 ounces green crème de menthe
1 ounce white crème de cacao
1/2 pint whip cream, whipped

For crust, mix wafers with butter and pat into 9-inch pie pan. Chill.

Add marshmallows to scalded milk in double boiler, stirring often until blended into smooth mixture. Cool to room temperature and add liqueurs. Fold in whipped cream and stir gently until completely mixed. Pour into chilled crust. Freeze for at least 2 hours. If frozen overnight, thaw before serving. Shave chocolate onto the top for decoration.

Serves 8

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Week 12: Mini Lamb Meatballs with Pilaf

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I know how hard it is to come up with a quick meal that can be fixed in 30 minutes or less. Having had 3 children with various school, work, and activity schedules on top of my own work schedule made it difficult for us all to sit down together every night, but I made it work utilizing two methods. One, I shopped every Sunday morning then settled into the kitchen for 2-3 hours cooking meals for the week. Soups, stews, roasted chicken, meatloaf, whatever I could make that could be cooked or reheated quickly once we were all at home. Two, finding recipes that were easy to make and quick to cook for weekday meals.

One of those quick recipes is a lamb pilaf. I wrote a post about it back in 2006, which caused me to be somewhat nostalgic when I read it. The gist of the post was that I felt it necessary that my children be able to cook once they lived on their own. Brilliant Daughter is an excellent cook, trying new recipes, modifying old ones, devising new ones, while Electrician Son relies primarily on a few standards and lots of grilling. At the time of the post, Butcher Son, my youngest, was just embarking on his career as a butcher and was only adept at breakfast foods. The post was an attempt to teach him how to cook something new and easy, so he wouldn’t have to rely on eggs and toast.

Eight years later, he has far surpassed my expectations. In fact, he has gotten together with friends every Monday night for the past two or three years to prepare feasts to share. One person decides the menu and they all pitch in on the cooking end of things. And we are not talking burgers and fries here; they make meals centered around Steak Diane, horseradish-crusted beef tenderloin, and stuffed chicken breasts, among other things. Ahhh, but I digress.

That original lamb pilaf recipe, which takes about 30 minutes start to finish, pays homage to my husband’s family, half of which are Lebanese. Lamb and rice were a part of his childhood and became part of our repertoire. But cooking lamb takes hours, and even shish kebab requires marinating to impart flavors into the meat. So the lamb pilaf recipe was a way to get the flavor we loved without the long preparation or cooking time. And while we still cook the pilaf at least once a month, I thought it needed an update, a new twist. So I took the basic ingredients and changed them up a bit. What I came up with is mini lamb meatballs served on top of the pilaf with a lemon-mint yogurt sauce. The preparation time is still around the half-hour mark, easy enough for anyone to do (in fact, you can get the kids involved in rolling the meatballs), and it’s just as tasty as the original version.

Oh, and for the record, I am very proud of my children, not just for their culinary prowess but also for the very special people they have become. I am one lucky mama!

Recipe after the jump....



Thursday, March 13, 2014

Week 11: Easy Grilled Thai Chicken


My family loves Thai food and while you might not think that it is appropriate for children, let me tell you that my own offspring have been enjoying Thai food for the last 19 years. That’s when I finished work on my first Travelers’ Tales book, an anthology on Thailand. Working amongst well-traveled writers at that time was intimidating, as I had not seen much of the world, but because I have always had a curiosity about cooking, I began a ritual whereby I learned to cook the cuisine of the country we were working on. As soon as a book was sent off to the printer, we would celebrate with a meal appropriate to that destination.

This was back in 1993 when the internet was still in its infancy for most people, and I actually did research for articles on an old-fashioned microfiche at the library! But those same libraries provided me with cookbooks on international cuisine that allowed me to produce some truly memorable meals. Ten years later, in 2003, when we prepared Travelers’ Tales Thailand for an update, I actually jetted off to Southeast Asia and went to two cooking schools: a three-day affair at the famed Hotel Oriental Cooking School in Bangkok and a weekend course at Mom Tri’s Boathouse in Phuket. It is my most memorable travel experience by far, and Thai food has become one of my favorites, with bold flavors, fresh ingredients and a simplicity that normally requires nothing more than a fork to enjoy.

This recipe was clipped back in 2009 from Issue 86 of Fine Cooking. It is quite simple to prepare, quick to cook, and has an amazing amount of flavor. I should note that the recipe calls for you to marinate the chicken for 2-24 hours, but I only had an hour to throw this together and it was absolutely delicious. I can only image how much more flavorful the chicken would have been given longer to marinade in these wonderful Thai flavors. So if you can remember, just throw it together the night before in a Ziploc bag and you’ll only need 15-20 minutes to cook them up when you are ready for dinner.

While the recipe serves 12 people (great for a party!), it can easily be cut in half for a family dinner. I did make one addition to the recipe—fish sauce— a quintessential Thai ingredient that I felt belonged in the marinade. Don’t be put off by the exotic ingredients, I had no trouble finding the fish sauce and lemongrass at my local Safeway and the I keep dried Thai bird chilis in my pantry (although jalapenos or serranos will also add the requisite heat).  And while it might not quite be time to break out the grill in many parts of the country, feel free to cook this on the stove with a grill pan. The smokiness won’t be present, but the multilayered flavors of the marinade will still shine through.

And apologies for the lack of pictures, we just couldn’t wait to chow down!

Grilled Thai Chicken
1-1/4 cups chopped fresh cilantro (leaves and tender stems)
1 can coconut milk
1/4 cup finely chopped lemongrass (from about 2 stalks)*
12 fresh basil leaves
3 Thai bird chiles, 2 jalapeños, or 2 medium serranos, stemmed, seeded, and finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 tablespoons salt
2 teaspoons packed brown sugar
4 tablespoons fish sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
3/4 teaspoon ground coriander
12 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves, trimmed
Fresh chopped cilantro for serving
2 limes, cut into wedges for serving

Combine the cilantro with the coconut milk, lemongrass, basil, chiles, garlic, salt, brown sugar, fish sauce, pepper, and coriander in a food processor or blender and purée until smooth. Arrange the chicken breasts in a nonreactive baking dish or other vessel large enough to accommodate them in a snug single layer or place them in a large Ziploc bag. Pour the marinade over the breasts and turn to coat them well. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to 1 day.

Heat a gas grill to medium high or prepare a medium-hot charcoal fire. Grill the chicken (covered on a gas grill) until it has good grill marks on the first side, 4 to 5 minutes. Flip the chicken (cover a gas grill) and continue to cook until firm to the touch and completely cooked through (check by making a slice into one of the thicker breasts), 5 to 6 more minutes. Transfer to a platter and let rest for 5 minutes. Sprinkle with the fresh cilantro and serve with lime wedges.

*Before chopping the lemongrass, be sure to cut off the spiky green top and enough of the bottom to eliminate the woody core. Peel off a few of the outer layers until you’re left with just the tender heart of the stalk.

Yield: 12 servings

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Week 10: Lemondoodles



Snickerdoodles were one of my children’s favorite cookies growing up. The soft eggy cookie dusted in cinnamon sugar was a real treat for the mouth and a nice departure from the standard chocolate chip that often filled our cookie jar. Eight years ago Brilliant Daughter and I came up with our own riff on the classic snickerdoodle, developing a chaidoodle that incorporated typical chai spices. Looking back I realized that chaidoodles were one of the early posts in the first year I began this blog (2006).  Eight years later, combing through my mountains of saved recipes, I came across this recipe for lemondoodles, which I believe came from Melissa and No. 2 Pencil blog.  And because we are notorious lemon lovers and I still have Meyer lemons on the tree, it made perfect sense to test it out.

Start to finish, these cookies took about an hour, with ingredients that are found in a typical pantry and refrigerator. The only tricky part is browning the butter, but as long as you stand over the stove and watch and stir carefully, it only takes a few minutes. That means you can’t answer the phone, change a diaper, or run outside to turn off the sprinklers. It is wise to be patient and appreciate that solid butter turning into a golden nutty liquid. Other than that, it is a simple recipe that mixes up easily in either a stand mixer or your everyday handheld mixer.

I’ve made a few adjustments to the recipe. First, in the topping, I chose to use a microplane instead of a zester. A microplane allows for small, delicate curls of lemon peel, which I felt would integrate better with the sugar, infuse more flavor into the topping, and would react better when baking. A zester would create long strands  that would either require straining before using or would not attach well to the cookie and possibly burn or turn bitter in the baking process. And because I was using Meyer lemons, which have considerably more flavor in the peel than your standard Eureka lemon, I only needed to use the zest from 2 lemons, rather than 3.

I also tried to different baking times and temperatures. The original recipe called for 7 minutes at 425 degrees, but my other “doodle” recipes call for 10 minutes at 400 degrees. I found that there is not a huge difference, but the 7 minute/425 degrees version was a bit lighter in color and softer on the outside. The insides of both were similar. So make your life easier and go with the 7 minute version.

I should point out that these are large cookies and spread out, so do not crowd on your baking pan. I cooked only 8 to a pan, which was perfect. It takes a bit longer, but with 2 pans in the oven at a time, you only need to do the process twice.

Pair these with a nice cup of oolong, English Breakfast, or Earl Gray and enjoy yourself!