31 March 2008

Perfect Party Cake

My first Daring Bakers Challenge- completed! I signed up with the Daring Bakers because it seemed like a great way to get back into baking with a challenge every month. This month we had the Perfect Party Cake recipe by Dorrie Greenspan. It's not the kind of cake that I would usually make (its baked in two pans and then split into layers)* as I generally think it's too much work but the cake was suprisingly simple and really delicious. The cake was a lemon sponge (flavored with the zest of two lemons, as I didn't have lemon extract and only realized it half way through the cake making process). The entire cake had only 1 stick of butter so it was relatively light, both in taste and fat content. I filled it with mixed berry jam and whipped cream and topped it with more whipped cream and coconut- the result was a happy mix of fruit and cream flavors and went over really well with everyone who tried it. So- Kudos to our hostess Morven who picked out this recipe for us (and who has the recipe up on her blog). I'll leave you with a few tips for when you try this one (not to be too cliche- but it really is a great party cake).

1) If you don't have cake flour, use AP flour but for each cup of flour take out 2T flour and add 2T cornstarch.
2) Your baking soda should be relatively new- if you remember celebrating the turn of the millenium with your can, it's time to get a new one.
3) The cake doesn't rise all that much. This is ok- you'll still be able to carefully slice it into layers.
4) Experiment with the flavors- you don't have to add the lemon, you can change up the jam flavors or add lemon curd, use buttercream of any flavor in place of the whipped cream, and add toasted nuts in place of the coconut.
5) If you're topping the cake with whipped cream- 1 pint heavy cream is more than enough for the entire cake, 1 C if you're only making half the cake.

*You may be asking- why does the picture show a two layer cake instead of the 4 layers you said you made? Well- I wanted to bring the cake to a friend's dinner party for dessert. I brought a bag with everything to put the cake together but forgot my camera. I really wanted to have a picture for my first Daring Bakers Challenge so I only made half the cake that night, and the second half that you see about the night after. It actually worked out really well- each half is enough for about 8 people.

29 March 2008

Cherry Blossoms

I went to see the cherry blossoms today and they're just so pretty I couldn't resist posting a picture. Also- the recipe for focaccia is up- just click the link for the post below.

27 March 2008


Confession- I have a bread machine. I love my bread machine. Sometimes it's just really convenient to put all the ingredients into the silver bucket and hit start and have a fresh bread a few hours later. This past weekend I had a bit of extra time (no classes on Monday so no reading to do) and decided to make bread by hand. Some people seem scared of making bread- like it is a cursed activity that can only lead to ruination. I haven't ever really felt like that, which may have something to do with 7th grade home ec. class. My group made a bread that turned out so beautifully our teacher took a picture of it so we could show our parents. I remember we were so proud of that little loaf, with its golden brown crust. It's sort of a triumphant feeling, having a bread turn out, definitely something I don't get making cookies or even using the BreadmanPlus.

This weekend I decided to make Alton Brown's foccacia recipe from I'm Just Here for More Food, his baking book. Alton (after so many years of watching 'Good Eats' calling him by his last name just seems too formal) gives clear, concise instructions that make this bread a great one for first time bread bakers, but the result is so delicious that even baking pros will come back to it. The foccacia has a light, slightly chewy texture and is the perfect size to split in half for sandwich making, or to just cut up and put out with a dish of olive oil. I should be able to post the recipe for it tonight so you can give it a try...

Okay- here's the recipe, re-written by me to try to make things super clear (and avoid any copyright violations)

Adapted from Alton Brown's I'm Just Here for More Food

Cornmeal Base
1 c. water
1/2 c. cornmeal (coarse of fine ground)
2 1/3 c. water
1/4 c. olive oil 

Dry Ingredients
879g/1 lb, 15oz/6.5 c. all purpose flour (can substitute bread flour if you have it)
1.5 T. instant yeast
1 T plus 1 t. salt

Olive oil and salt for topping.

- Make the cornmeal base by bring 1 c. water to a boil, wisk in cornmeal and cook until thickened (for fine ground probably a minute, for coarse ground 4 or 5 minutes).  Add additional water and oil to pan and heat to 110F.  You can check with a thermometer but it you don't have one, carefully check the temperature with your finger- it should be quite warm but not hot.

-  Pour the cornmeal mixture into your work bowl and add half of the flour and the yeast.  Mix well and let the dough rest for 10 minutes.

-  At this point the dough should be bubbly and have a greater volume than when you started out.  If it does not that means you yeast has kicked the bucket.  Do not pass go here- you need to start out again.  The two possibilities are that 1) your yeast is dead 2) you killed the yeast with water than was too hot.  If you think it's option 2, just try again with cooler water.

-  Now work in the remaining flour and salt.  You may need an assistant to help you with this one as it does get hard to mix.  You want the dough to form a ball that pulls away from the side of the bowl quite cleanly, but is still a bit tacky to the touch (think the feeling of that blue goo you use to put up posters in college dorm rooms).  You may not need to add all the flour, or you may need to add more than the recipe calls for. 

-  Kneed the bread for about 10 minutes.  At the end, it should be pretty elastic and not easily ripped.

-  Roll the dough into a ball and then put it in a greased bowl and top with a clean kitchen towel, let rise for 1 hour.

-  Spread the dough out on a half sheet pan (you'll need to squish and pull it to make one even layer).  Top with the clean towel again and let rise for about 1.5 hours.

-  20 minutes before the rise is done, preheat your oven to 450F, making sure you have a rack in the bottom third of the oven.

-  10 minutes before the rise is done, use your fingers to make little dimples all over the bread (tip- have someone without very long finger nails to this).  They can be fairly deep but shouldn't go all the way to the bottom of the dough.

-  Drizzle the top with olive oil (a few tablespoons) and sprinkle with kosher salt (around a tablespoon).

-  Bake the bread for 20 to 25 minutes or until the top gets a nice golden brown color.

-  Carefully turn the bread out onto a cutting board and serve warm.  It also hold up great for about a day on the counter without getting to stale and freezes really well.  Just cut into individual portions and wrap in foil or saran wrap, then put in a freezer bag.

23 March 2008

Tortilla Española

Yesterday, after a rather futile attempt at the gym, I came home starving. It was 10am so I thought 'omlette', only we had nothing but cheese to fill it will. Then my eye landed on the leftover baked potato and 'omlette' shifted to tortilla española, otherwise known as Spanish omlette.

Spanish omlette is an egg and potato dish, usually layered high in a deep sided pan, but as I only had one potato and 5 eggs, mine turned out rather more trim. I sauteed some onion and added some smoked and hot paprika for flavor before added the potatoes. When they were warmed through, I poured in the beaten eggs and turned the flame down to low. To finish it off, the pan went under the broiler for a minute or two, to firm up the top of the eggs and I sprinkled on a garnish of parsley for a little color. Truthfully, it turned out a little dry, which may have been due to the potato's extended stay in the fridge. Also- when I conferred with a friend who used to live in Spain, she said that the Spanish usually use quite a bit of oil in their tortillas, which I definitely did not. This needs a bit of fine tuning before my next attempt, which will hopefully turn out well enough to post the recipe of.

Bravo Thomas

For the past few months I have had a strange obsession with English muffins. Something about them, maybe their perfect size for a snack, the fact that you can put jam on one half and butter on another, and/or their slightly chewy texture and nobbly appearance just call to me. I have been buying packages somewhat guiltily for while Thomas doesn't put transfats in their muffins, they do use high fructose corn syrup,* or so I thought.

At the grocery store last week I saw that siren song sign 'buy one get one free' under the English muffins. I couldn't resist and promptly pulled two plain packages (the sign expressly said 'plain variety only' or else cinnamon raisin and honey oat would have been my choices) off the shelf. I was shocked- but in a really good way- to see "now with no high fructose corn syrup" proclaimed in bold letters next to the Thomas logo! Now I can finally eat English muffins guilt free. It also gives me hope that if a huge company like Thomas can get rid of the high fructose, other companies might follow.

On a sidenote- does anyway have an English muffin recipe? I'm always wanted to try making them myself.

*High fructose corn syrup is a sugar syrup made from corn that has undergone processing to increase its fructose to glucose ratio and has a variety of industrial food uses including in soft drinks, candy and baked goods. It is much more prevalent in the US and Canada than other countries because of sugar prices supports and quotas on the ammount of sugar allowed into these two markets. This results in an increase in the price of cane sugar and as a result many manufacturers have turned to corn syrup because it is cheaper than cane sugar/syrup (because of the sugar quotas and agricultural subsides given to corn farmers in the US-- can you tell I'm taking an econ class this semester?).

What the problem with high fructose corn syrup? Well, according to which source you read maybe none, but it may make your blood sugar rise faster after consumption than sugar and could increase obesity. The research on these potential negative effects has been limited. My feeling- high fructose corn syrup is a heavily modified sweetener. I try to consume things in as close to their natural form as possible so I avoid it. No matter what your feeling on the matter, I think it's important to know the facts about what you're eating. A good place to start if you're more interested in this topic is (and I can't believe I'm citing this- Zach may actually drop dead- but it is actually a decently written article with citations and sourcing that seem legitimate) Wikipedia's article on the subject.

19 March 2008

Creamy Spinach

I spent pretty much the entire day working on my econ take home midterm this Sunday. The afternoon went something like this: Study, Coffee, Study, Pizza, Study, Chocolate, Study, Bacardi. By the time I got home at 10 I was beat but craving vegetables and desperate to take my mind off of topics like "the value of Honduran exports to Brazil" so I decided to cook some Spinach.

A few weeks ago I came across a post on a blog that I cannot recall at the moment for creamed spinach, the traditional way, with lots of heavy cream. It looked great but I wondered if there was something I could do to create a creamy spinach dish without so much effort (and so many calories!) and at 10 o'clock on a Sunday night the inspiration (or it might have been desperation) hit.

I washed and and roughly chopped a big bowl of spinach, around half of one of those grocery store packages, then I smashed a garlic clove to get out some econ
aggression and flavor the spinach. I put the garlic and about a teaspoon of olive oil in a non-stick skillet over medium heat and cooked it just until the garlic turned pale gold. I added the spinach to the skillet and let it wilt and then (this is the exciting part) I added grated Parmesan and a bit of cream cheese along with a few grates of nutmeg and gave it all a mix.

The result: deliciousness. The spinach retained a bit of texture as it had only been cooked briefly, the Parmesan added major flavor and the cream cheese provided the hit of creaminess I had been craving. Even Zach thought it was pretty good. An added bonus- it only took about 10 minutes to make. This one will definitely be making a reappearance.

17 March 2008

Mashed Potato Pancakes

I cannot even tell you how excited I am about this post.  You know how sometimes the simplest  things are sometimes the tastiest and most satisfying?  This is definitley one of those times.  Last week Zach and I made mashed potatoes to go with some leftover meatloaf that my dad sent home with me.  We cooked a few too many potatoes and had enough for a lunch for each of us and another container of leftovers for the fridge.  I happened to catch Michael Chiarello on the food network while at work (it's really not as bad as it sounds-- we were stuffing envelopes) and saw him make an Italian potato pancake stuffed with cheese.  I thought, why not just make pancakes out of the leftover mashed potatoes?

I mixed the potatoes with an egg and flour to provide some structure and then divided it into two portions, one for each of us. I dusted my hands with flour then shaped the potato into a ball and stuffed in a piece of Edam cheese, then rolled the potato balls in a bit of flour, to help give them a nice golden crust and flattened them slightly into patties. The got a quick fry over medium high to make them crisp and then got an extra topping of cheese and went into the toaster oven. They emerged, 10 minutes later, puffed and golden, with a fluffy, creamy potato texture and a bit of melty cheese in the center.  We ate them for breakfast but they would be great for a weekend lunch or even for dinner with a bit of salad or wilted spinach.

Mashed Potato Cakes
Enough for one large and one medium cake, can easily be adjusted 

2 c. mashed potatoes, seasoned with salt and pepper
1 egg, slightly beaten
1/3 c. flour plus additional for dusting
1-2 oz. cheese (Edam, gouda, cheddar or whatever you've got that melts)
1/4 c. oil for frying (olive, canola or a mix)

-  Preheat your toaster oven, or if you are making mass quantities of cakes, your real oven to 400F.

-  Mix the potatoes with the egg and flour.  Cut the cheese into domino sized disks, one for each patty, shred the remaining cheese.

-  Scoop up about 1 cup of the potato mixture and form it into a ball (yes- your hands will get covered in it but you can wash them later).  Press one piece of cheese into the center and cover it with the potato.  You want the cheese to be at the center of the potato sphere, sort of like the core of the earth.

-  Roll the ball in flour to cover, than lightly toss it between your hands to remove the excess flour.  Press the ball slightly so it assumes patty form.  Repeat these two steps till you are done with the potato mixture.

-  Heat the oil in a heavy skillet over medium high heat.  When the oil just starts to shimmer, carefully place in the potato pancakes.  Cook 2-3 minutes or until golden brown, flip and repeat.

-  Remove the pancakes to you baking tray and top with the remaining cheese.  Bake for about 10 minutes.  You can tell they're done when they have puffed up and the cheese is melted.  Serve immediately.

Breakfast Redux

Last week I posted our weekday breakfast of steel cut oats so I thought I might put up a weekend breakfast as well. A few years ago I was visiting a friend in Cologne and on Sunday morning she and her mother made a lovely breakfast tray of coffee, bread, cheese, cured meats, jam and Nutella and we all sat outside on the balcony and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast. It's not quite warm enough to sit outside yet here (and even if it was, it's not like we have a balcony or patio) but sometimes it is nice to sit over breakfast.

We were sadly lacking in the cheese department and only had 3 slices of bacon left from another recipe so I decided to try making individual baked eggs in the silicon cupcake forms my dad gave me. I put a little cream cheese at the bottom of each mold, carefully poured in an egg (that I first broke into a custard cup- much easier to fish out fragments of shell that way) then topped it off with a few dried tomatoes and some smoked paprika. I baked the eggs in a bain marie (fancy way to say pan with water half-way up the sides of the molds) for about 20 minutes at 350F and out they came.

Tasty, and a very pretty presentation, although next time I will definitley give the molds a light coating of olive oil first as the egg didn't quite slide out of the molds, as I had hoped.

13 March 2008


I thought it might be interesting to to talk about some of my favorite kitchen tools- the things that make life in the kitchen so much more pleasant, like this juicer. For the longest time I didn't have any kind of juicing implement in the kitchen and I would either just squeeze the lemon (it usually ends up being a lemon, doesn't it?) with my hands and hope that I didn't have any hidden papercuts, or in a strange technique taught to me by C--, cut a lemon in half and then bite down on the peel to juice it. I thought the latter method was a bit weird and personally don't like ending up with a mouth full of lemon zest, but a lot of my friends seem to think it's fun.

I can't quite remember when this juicer came into my life, I just remember finding it in a box one day and thinking- 'thank goodness'. It had been my grandma's and was probably made sometime between 1950-1970. It's quite small and can sit on top of a glass or small bowl courtesy of the little lip opposite the handle. The built in strainer takes care of the seeds and the juice pours right into whatever it is you're making. Definitely a bit more refined than my previous options...

11 March 2008

French Onion Soup

I made French onion soup for Zach once before, a few years ago, using cheap, canned beef broth, and it hadn't turned out very well at all. I remember it being a sort of watery mess (that Zach very valiantly ate) so when I saw a recipe in Cuisine at Home, I thought it might be time to give it a try again. This time, I bought Kitchen Basics Brand stock (which I sort of remember as getting very good marks from America's Test Kitchen) which I hoped would give the soup more depth of flavor. The recipe also called for 3 different colors of onion- I'd like to think this would add more flavor too, but I couldn't really say. It also called for Gruyeres for the topping, but we weren't at the good cheese store and I didn't want to buy half a pound of overpriced Gruyeres of dubious quality so we decided on Edam instead.

The soup was really easy to make, although it took a bit of time. All of the onions and 3 cloves of garlic went into the dutch oven and sweated for 10 minutes before caramelizing for 20 or so more (I added some dried herbs here since I forgot to get the fresh ones that the recipe called for). Then I ended up adding quite a bit more broth than the recipe called for, to get the right onion/broth ratio. The soup cooked for another half an hour or so, then I topped each bowl (or ramekin as the case actually was) with a piece of toast and some Edam cheese and broiled them in the toaster.

I was actually really surprised at how well the soup turned out. The broth was slightly sweet from the onions but still had a deep beef flavor and the nutty, creamy taste of the cheese went perfectly with it. I may be a convert.

(One note-- French Onion Soup doesn't have to be full of fat and therefore supposedly bad for you. This recipe only has 1 T. of added oil and beef stock is generally fat free. As long as you don't go too crazy with the cheese on top, the soup is relatively low-cal and fat)

French Onion Soup
Serves 4-5 as a main course
Adapted from Cuisine at Home

1 large yellow, white and red onion, sliced into thin half moon shaped disks

3 cloves garlic, chopped
1T. olive oil
1 t. each, dried oregano and thyme
3 c. beef broth
2 c. chicken broth
10 or so slices of french bread, cut 1/4-1/2 in. thick and toasted
3-4 oz. Edam cheese, shredded

- Heat a dutch oven or large, heavy bottomed soup pot over medium heat with the olive oil.

- Add the onions and garlic, cover and sweat for 10 minutes.

- Remove the cover and raise heat to medium high, add spices and cook onions for a further 20-25 minutes, stirring frequently, until they have reduced in size and a caramelized (golden brown in color and sweet in flavor).

- Add stocks, bring to a boil and simmer for 30 minutes (this is a good time to get the bread and cheese ready).

- Portion out the soup into oven safe bowls, top with bread and a bit of cheese and broil till the cheese is melty. Serve immediately.

07 March 2008


I don't usually make sandwiches for lunch. I ate one every day for the first year I was working after college and then one day I woke up and was so totally and completely tired of them, I'm not sure that I've packed one since. I can't say that I'm really ready to embrace the sandwich as my lunch food of choice, but given the leftovers we had this week, it seemed like something I couldn't pass up. I took the day old French bread and split it in half, then put a bit of olive oil and Dijon mustard on both sides (Zach's sandwich got butter-- it's a Midwestern thing that I have never really understood). Then I added spinach and left over roasted lemon chicken, sprinkled on a bit of salt and pepper and topped with some sliced apples (that I had rubbed on my morning grapefruit, so they wouldn't get discolored). Some cheddar or Havarti cheese wouldn't have been out of place, but it was early and I really couldn't think that much. When I unwrapped the sandwich at lunch I found that it had travelled very well and was rather tasty- the apple gave it a nice crunch as some unexpected sweetness. I don't think it has converted me back to sandwichdom but it was a nice change.

P.S. This shot makes my kitchen look rather messy- I wish I could just say that it's the angle or something but I don't think that would exactly be the truth...

*It means 'lunch box' or 'lunch pack' in Danish and is pronounced 'mel-pak-uh', I just think it's a nice word.

05 March 2008

Moroccan Couscous Salad

To go with the roast chicken dinner this weekend I decided to keep with the Mediterranean theme and make a couscous salad. The current issue of Cuisine at Home had a recipe for Moroccan Couscous Salad that looked great- it was gorgeous, full of vegetables and the best part- I could make it before anyone arrived and serve it at room temperature. It seemed like a winning combination to me. I made a few modifications to the recipe along the way, to accommodate the Israeli style couscous I had on had (and that I knew one of my friends prefers) and to reduce the fat and up the flavor content a bit.  I used minimal oil to roast the vegetables and toasted the spices to refresh their flavor (mine have been in the cabinet for a while- if you have very fresh spices you may want to use a bit less).  The salad was a hit- the cumin and coriander gave it a deep flavor and a bit of cayenne pepper added some heat. The roasted veggies had a sweet flavor that balanced out the spice. The best part- there was even enough leftover for me to have for lunch the next day.

Moroccan Couscous Salad

Serves 8 as a side, 4-5 as a main course

For the veggies
1 lb. baby carrots, cut into 1 in. chunks (not the bullet shaped ones in the plastic bags but thin, young carrots, if you can find them)
1 large red onion, cut into large cubes
3-4 small yellow squash, cut into 1 in. cubes (about 4 cups) 

olive oil, salt and pepper

For the couscous
8 oz. Israeli style couscous
2 t. olive oil
1.5 t. cumin
1.5 t. coriander
pinch of cayenne pepper, according to taste
juice and zest of one lemon
1/4 c. honey
2  c. vegetable or chicken broth

1/2 c. chopped parseley
2/3 c. raisins

- Preheat oven to 450F. Put a large baking sheet into the cold oven to heat up. Meanwhile, toss the carrots with just enough olive oil to coat them, salt and pepper. When the oven comes to temp, carefully spread the carrots out on the baking dish. Bake for 5 minutes.

- Toss the onion and squash in the same bowl you used for the carrots, adding just enough oil to coat and seasoning with salt and pepper. Add them to the carrots, making one even layer of veggies in the pan. Roast for about 20 more minutes, stirring once or twice, until the carrots are tender and the veggies are starting to brown.

- While the vegetables are roasting, juice the lemon into a large measuring cup (you'll need the zest so you might want to grate it off first), add the honey and then add enough broth to equal two cups.

- Heat a saucepan over medium, add the olive oil and spices. Toast for a minute or two. Add the couscous and stir till the couscous is coated and slightly toasted. Pour in the liquid and bring to a boil; cove and cook for 8 minutes.

- Gently mix the couscous, roasted vegetables, raisins and parsley in your serving bowl. Serve immediately or at room temperature.

04 March 2008

Chicken Dinner

All right, it's not the most flattering photo ever but I think this chicken has every right to be proud. See how golden and puffed the breast is? This is another no fail recipe from Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, which is my go to book for Italian cooking.

I decided, rather at the last minute, to have some friends over for dinner last weekend since it was the beginning of spring break and I could blow off my school work. I wanted to make something light, since it was the beginning of meteorological spring* as well, but that would also involve minimal work in the kitchen once the guests arrived. I thought a roast chicken would do the trick and turned to Marcella for advice.

The first recipe in the poultry section immediately caught my eye. 'Roast Chicken with Lemons' sounded like just the thing, since I love lemons and it had only two ingredients. Really simple, really good. Really- give this a try next time you are going to roast a chicken. It was delicious, with a subtle lemon flavor and according to my friends who eat it, rather tasty skin as well.

This is the basic recipe from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, interpreted by me. It looks long but it's actually really easy.

Roast Chicken with Lemons
Serves 4-6 depending on the size of the chicken and your appetite

3-4 lb. chicken, naturally raised if possible
2 small lemons (really, the smallest you can find)
salt and pepper

- Heat oven to 350F.

- Remove and discard giblets if your chicken has them. Trim the excess fat from the chicken, leaving enough skin at the cavity opening to close the bird up later.

- Sprinkle the chicken both inside and out with a generous amount of salt and pepper. Rub in with your hands.

- Wash and dry the lemons. Roll them on the counter a few times to soften and pierce each lemon at least 20 times with a sharp fork or other sturdy yet sharp kitchen implement. Place the lemons inside the chicken cavity and close up the opening with toothpicks or a trussing needle (I didn't have either so punched holes in the skin with a knife and threaded it with cooking twine- probably more than you wanted to know but--). Marcella warns not to close the cavity too tightly as it could lead to explosion (she actually does warn about this). Tie the legs together loosely at the knuckle ends.

- Place the bird breast side down in the roasting pan or pyrex dish. No oil needed- just put the bird in. Roast for 30 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and carefully turn the bird over, trying not to break the skin. I did this by grabbing it on either side with a wad of paper towels and then jiggling it slightly to release the skin from the pan before rolling it over. When you've got the bird breast side up, put it back in the oven.

- Bake for a further 25-35 minutes and then increase the heat to 400F for a final 20 minutes of baking (it needs 20-25 minutes per pound of total cooking time).

- Show off your chicken to your guests, then bring it back to the kitchen for carving. Spoon some of the pan juices over the carved pieces of chicken to keep them moist and serve. (A note-- the lemons are still very juicy and hot- squeezing them could cause a blast of superheated lemon juice to shoot at either yourself of your guests)

*Meteorological winter, as defined in the DC Metro area is December, January and February, the three coldest months of the year. Factoid of the day courtesy of The Washington Post.

03 March 2008

Goat Cheese and Dried Tomato Sandwich

After a very late breakfast on Saturday morning, I needed a snack before heading out the grocery store to shop for dinner. It had been a week since our last shopping trip, so there wasn't much left in the cupboard so I headed instead to the fridge and freezer. I defrosted a roll, then put a bit of goat cheese on top along with the tomatoes that I dried in the toaster last week. The sweetness of the tomatoes went well with the tangy goat cheese and pumpernickel bread... a good snack but it didn't prevent me from taking advantage of the free samples at the grocery store.