Monday, September 19, 2011

What Truth I Have

Here are my truths tonight:

*I chose the Trebuchet font just because its name sounds French.

* My dinner fell apart tonight--literally.  I should have read my own salmon patty recipe.  Or added an egg when I found less mayonnaise in the jar than I remembered.  Also, the corn salad with feta and walnuts that I planned to photograph and rave to you about seemed dry somehow.  And my pie crust was tough.  How did that happen?

*I'm as tired tonight as I usually am on Thursday.  And it's only Monday.  And I rested well all weekend.  Where is the logic? 

*A catering bid was rejected.  Back to the drawing board, less than two weeks from service. Now I have to meet and redraft plans tomorrow instead of puttering about peacefully at home, keeping dirt and disorder at bay.  Keeping dirt and disorder at bay is very important to me.

*My neck crinkles when I turn my head.  What does that mean?

*It's time to get ready for bed, and my son hasn't made it in yet.  No mother relaxes under that circumstance.  Oh, and I haven't seen him for two weeks. I kept looking out the window while I was washing the (seemingly endless--I almost shoved them into the dishwasher until I remembered how many can't go in there anyway) dishes. Long expectancy is tiring.

Apparently it's one of the days to bag it, ditch it, give it up, turn in.  Just go to bed and start over tomorrow.

Here's another truth:  It all gets better eventually.  Always.  That's enough to rest on.

Bonne nuit.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Hi! I Made Laminated Dough Today. What Did You Do?

My fancy baking fit was brought on by the professional need to practice.  My students (still feels strange to say that) will be doing them in a little over a week, and I am not an expert on them.  While I've baked thousands of pies, loaves of bread, and cookies--plus a goodly number of cakes--Danish and croissants and puff pastry never quite made their way into circulation with me.  The only exposure I've had to them was in school, where they turned out well enough for someone new to them, meaning that they were pleasantly edible.  A fine start, I thought.

Still, I'm the (double ahem) teacher.  I need to be able to answer their how and why questions. I need more than a start now. Thus the practice.

After putting in my training time, it is official:  I am an absolute baking geek.  Now that my class is in the kitchen, I find myself truly excited to see how their efforts turn out.  Today, pounding butter and rolling it into the dough and folding and turning and chilling----I loved all that, too.  Creating happy dough just feels good, and the effects achieved with a little flour and butter are amazing.  My effects today weren't as amazing as I hope they will be someday (there could be more layers showing), but oh were they edible!

When I lifted the lid off the cake plate where my chocolate (of course) filled Danish coffee cake resides to nab a slice for a photo sitting, I could instantly smell the butter, even before the much loved chocolate.  Simple, rich, and beautiful.  The stuff of the good life.  The kind of food that makes me and my husband look at each other while we eat it with what I think is the same thought:  We have it so good.  Home made Danish.  Gyaw!

I think I never contemplated making laminated dough products before because I thought they were fancy and hard.  Fancy they are in a way.  All those showy layers, such a flaunt of chemical miracle.  But hard?  Not really.  There is a level of technique to master, but even that comes down to basics like keeping the dough and butter cold.  If you do that, everything else is manageable. Really.  

Even the ingredients are basic: flour, sugar, yeast, salt, milk, eggs, butter.  They could be purchased at even the most woefully untrendy grocery store anywhere in America, maybe even in a food desert.  What makes the fanciness is how the baker combines them.  I associated them with professional bakers in big cities or precious cafes in faraway France, but by ingredient list, they could rightfully be at home on the farm, too.  Or anywhere one wants to make an everyday amazement. 

I just realized in the middle of the above paragraph that I suffered the same delusion about laminated doughs as I did for years about bread.  (See rant here.)  Somehow I became convinced that both were something that I could not do for myself, so I should just resign myself to buying them. Well, it's just not true. So what else isn't beyond me?  Cheese making?  Bacon curing?  Underwater basket weaving?

I have this teaching job to thank for my DIY thrill.  Apparently it's true that we really do learn a lot by teaching. I also had never considered measuring solid fats by making use of the water displacement rule I learned in geometry so you don't have to scrape out the messy measuring cup. I may not take up the technique, but the ingenuity impresses me.  Go, Holly and mother!

The other person I have to thank for my fancy dough breakthrough is Joe Pastry.  He writes a thorough and wide ranging blog about baking that was very useful today.  His recipe and methods were, I'm sorry to say, easier than those in the textbook assigned to my class.  I really should put a few bucks in his tip jar for services rendered.

I still have half the dough left.  I'm itching to bake up some lovelies with it and share with friends who don't yet know that they could do it, too.  We all should get to know that miracles are often made of the simplest stuff.

Monday, August 29, 2011

We Licked Our Plates

Unfortunately, when I sit down here I don't come alone.  My shadows come, too.  The devil on my left shoulder, the resistance in my belly, the ghost of potential failure--they show up sneering.
I'm not the only one with this problem.  Molly of Orangette fame, who in addition to her blog can count Bon Appetit articles and both a published book and a book in the works among her accomplishments, recently wrote a post about the difficulty in just doing the writing, despite her passion for her subjects and her undeniable complusion toward the craft.  She compared getting ready to write to sitting outside a dark cave, afraid to go in.  So many commenters shared her feelings, including me.  Welcome to my cave.  

It's not all dark and scary in here.  The food is quite good these days.  Occasionally something is so good that I know I must brave the dark inside to nail it down.  Like this beauty being kissed by the setting sun's warm rays.

How silly that I used to protest limitations. They are such fodder for creativity now, a Cinderella story waiting to be told. Sunday night I had two egg whites left from a sabayon whimsy and nearly a pound of dark, sweet cherries that wouldn't be resting quietly in the fridge much longer. I recalled David Liebovitz's recipe for cherries in red wine syrup before I remembered the waning egg whites, then realized with delight that they could be quite the match, a beautiful and frugal pair with a swan song worth hearing, or eating as the case turned out to be.

To the puny devil that tries to tie down my fingers and my heart, I say take that!  He used to show up in the kitchen, too.  My mental gears used to grind to a halt while he smirked in self-prophesied satisfaction when I tried audaciously to work with who I am and what I had.  But I didn't let him win.  I went to culinary school anyway, even though I wasn't sure how I'd pay for it, or if I'd ever use all that education professionally, and even though I sometimes felt like quite the imposter in those kitchens.  I brushed right past the cobwebs enough times that I got what I personally wanted in my own kitchen--his absence and purring gears.

We'll also eat three meals this week that are my own creations for good or ill.  So I win.  Air out the cave. I'm coming in with a dessert as deeply red as a blood sacrifice but way less painful.  Pure pleasure in fact.  Gently fracturing meringue, winey (but not too winey) sweet cherry flesh, and a soft cap of whipped cream.  My husband loves me more now.  Again.  And we licked our plates just to spite all demons of despair everywhere.  

It won't be too long before I share this with guests. (The little punk demon used to say that I couldn't do that either.  Shows what he knows.)  It's perfect for company after all.  The cherries and meringues can be made up to days ahead.  Just whip the cream, assemble, and wait for the groans.  They'll want to lick their plates, but they'll be too polite.  Poor guests.

I feel much better now.  Almost as good as I did about the time my plate looked like this.

And aren't those colors wonderful together?

Cherries in Red Wine Syrup
from David Liebovitz, bless him, with minor tweaking

1 pound fresh cherries, stemmed and pitted
1/2 cup 2 tablespoons sugar
1 1/4 cups red wine
2 teaspoons corn starch
1/4 teaspoon almond extract

Put the cherries and sugar in a large, wide saucepan.

Mix one tablespoon of the red wine with the corn starch in a small bowl until it's dissolved and set aside.  

Add the rest of the wine to the saucepan.  Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat to a low boil and cook, stirring frequently, for about 12 minutes, until the cherries are completely wilted and softened through.

During the last moments of cooking, stir in the corn starch slurry and let the mixture boil an additional minute or two, to thicken the juices.

Remove from the heat and stir in the almond extract.  Cool to room temperature.

Storage:  The cherries will keep up to one week in the refrigerator or can be frozen for up to six months.

Meringue Nests
Makes 6

2 egg whites
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup granulated sugar

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Put the egg whites, cream of tartar, and vanilla in the bowl of an electric mixer.  Mix on high speed until soft peaks form.  Gradually add the sugar, beating until stiff peaks form.  Form into six nests on parchment lined baking sheets.  Place in oven and turn off the heat.  Leave in the turned-off oven overnight. 

Sweetened Whipped Cream

1/3 cup whipping cream
2 tablespoons powdered sugar

Place whipping cream and powdered sugar in chilled bowl.  Whip by hand or with an electric mixer until soft peaks form. 

Saturday, August 20, 2011

A New Job and a Good Idea

For days and days I've wanted to record my above mentioned good idea, but the also above mentioned new job got in the way.  As of yesterday, I'm now teaching Basic Baking at a nearby community college's culinary school.  Boy, have I learned that teachers have a lot of work to do before they ever even see a student in the classroom.  I've had to do all sorts of new things--create syllabi, prepare for lecture, find teacher resources, and navigate the administrative requirements of being new to the institution.  All of that thas been challenging, wonderful--and preoccupying.  I haven't had a spare focused moment to tell you about this. 

And you need to know about this.  A good old fashioned hamburger upgraded with smoked cheddar and caramelized onions.  So simple and so good.  You don't even need a recipe, just the idea.

Well, you might need to know how to caramelize onions if you haven't before.  That's not hard. Slice some onions (I prefer purple/red/whatever you call them, half of one per person), toss them in a skillet with a little oil over lowish heat, and let them cook until they're deeply browned, thoroughly relaxed, and transformedly sweet.  Stir them occasionally for eveness.  Add a smidge of water if they seem stickish.  That's about all the maintenance they'll need for their 20 to 30 minutes or so of cooking time. I started mine and let them turn marvelous while I prepared the rest of the meal. 

And marvelous they are.  I cannot now believe that I didn't fall in love at first taste with caramelized onions. All that slow cooking and browning (here we go with the powers of browning again) vanquishes the biting, sulfurous side of the onion and reveals the hidden sugars in all their mellow glory.  I'm still working on 100 percent unadulterated endorsement of the texture of cooked onions, but the taste helps me ratchet up to at least 90 percent.

Those tasty, slippery sweet onions are mightily complemented by the smoke and tang of the cheddar.  And don't just go for smoke here.  Get a sharp cheddar for the duo.  Our second helping of this combo wore a milder one, and we missed what my mama would call the wang.

According to my research, some wild people even add a dollop of barbecue sauce as well.  That could happen here at the barn.  But what really leaped to mind while devouring this burger was a pizza with smoked cheddar, caramelized onions, arugula, and bacon.  One good thing leads to another, you know. Eventually. When I'm not inventing professional wheels.  Until then, this goes in the repertoire.  Consider it for yours.

Now, back to playing teacher!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

White Beans and Cabbage and the Sin of Envy

Here's another easy dinner that's full of nutritional goodness and graced by a tiny fillip that makes it special.  Beans, veggies, a touch of carbohydrates, and a smidge of thyme.  Dinner out of Granny's cast iron skillet but not grandma style.  Because it's Heidi's idea.

Heidi Swanson, that is.  She's definitely no grandma.  She's currently a darling of the foodie world, with a popular blog (101 cookbooks) and now two cookbooks of her own.  Jaden Hair at Steamy Kitchen (among many others) posted this recipe from Heidi's latest book, where I found it in an ingredient based search, quite by accident.  It was a good enough dinner that it got repeated.  Always notable around here.

I'm thinking that one of the secrets of the dish is browning.   Apparently Heidi understands the power of caramelization, or the Maillard reaction, whichever the case may be.  (Unless you're an Alton Brown wannabe, just go with browning.)  First, diced potatoes are pan-fried. And let's face the truth here: any meal that starts with fried potatoes shows promise, whether fancy or down home.  No one is immune to their appeal.  Then the beans and onions are added to the skillet and, yes, browned.  More fond appears, the fancy French word for the flavorful bits left on the bottom after browning, sauteeing, etc. 

Here comes another trick.  The cabbage goes in only briefly.  Nothing sulfurous has time to happen.  The wholesome vegetable ends up barely and pleasantly cooked, with no gas warfare. 

The final fillip mentioned earlier is a bit of thyme.  Now, to be frank, thyme (or to be more specific, dried thyme) makes me wary.  Everyone has their sensitivities; thyme is one of mine.  If used too liberally, it seems to elbow every other flavor out of the way.  It gets....well....pushy on my palate.  Maybe that's a personal problem. Maybe I'd like it much better fresh, if I ever get some planted.  Either way, I adjusted the amount to suit my fear level. That said, I was pleasantly surprised that the thyme seemed just right.  It was the grace note that completed the elevation of this skillet supper beyond uninspired to interesting.

Oh that Heidi and her tricks.  She inspires me to envy, but that's really my problem.  Truth be told, she takes beautiful photographs and shares/creates healthy, usually quick and simple food.  So I certainly get what all the fuss is about.  I don't know that I'll ever be able to afford even half the things on her occasional favorites lists (I don't even know what some of them are.  They're probably only available in big cities, where I am determinedly not.), but I do understand and crave beauty.  That, she knows.  And a few good dinners besides.

My only quibble with this particular nurturing concoction is the alleged quantity. The recipe states that it will feed four. We only get about three servings out of it, and I am a bird eater not known for dishing out honking servings. Just ask my husband. To prevent a bed time snack the second time around--and to help use up an open tin--I added anchovy toast to our menu.

Anchovies are something else that I've found scary in the past.  I tried them on pizza once and did not like their exposively salty, briny, fishy flavor. I have since matured and learned that balance is required in all things.  I minced up a couple of fillets with chopped cilantro, grated Parmigiano, extra virgin olive oil, and a little ground mustard.  Spread on toasted rustic bread and topped with more Parmigiano, the combo was quite good--salty, yes, but grounded by the fats in the oil and cheese to a pleasant level.  Plus it added a little protein to balance out the extra carbohydrates in the bread, in case you need to worry about such things.  And I do.  

I'm also tempted, especially during the winter, to add a bit of sausage or bacon to Heidi's dish.  I can't help myself.  I'm cured-pork dependent!

By the way, my favorite part of the (non-Heidi-quality) photo is the color of the rose wine against the deep blue of the ticking stripe table runner.  That's a beauty bonus for me.  Dinner with a side of pretty rather than envy!  May it ever be so.

White Beans and Cabbage
from Super Natural Every Day via Steamy Kitchen

Serves: 3-4

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 ounces potato, scrubbed and cut into 1/4-inch dice
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme or 3-4 springs fresh thyme
1/2 onion, minced
One 15-ounce can white beans, drained and rinsed
3 cups very thinly sliced or shredeed green cabbage
Salt and pepper to taste

Warm the olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the potatoes and spread them out evenly in the pan.  Cook the potatoes for five minutes or until cooked through, scraping and tossing them to make sure they brown on all sides.  

Add the thyme, onion, and white beans and spread around the bottom of the skillet.  Let cook undistrubed for 2 minutes or so to brown just a bit, then scrape and toss again.  Cook until the beans are nicely browned on both sides.  (Unless they start to fall apart, which my cannellini beans did.  Still tastes good though.)

Stir in the cabbage and cook for another minute. Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Remove from heat when cabbage is just wilted and serve. 

Anchovy Toast

Covers 2 slices rustic bread.  

2 anchovy filets
1 clove garlic 
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro or parsley
Pinch or two ground mustard
1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Extra virgin olive oil
2 slices rustic bread, toasted

Mince up the anchovy filets and garlic and place in a small bowl.  Add the chopped cilantro, ground mustard, and half the grated Parmigiano. Drizzle in enough olive oil to make spreadable.  Spread on toasted bread and top with remaining cheese.  Place under broiler or in microwave oven briefly to soften the Parmigiano if desired.

Friday, July 29, 2011

A Craving is a Craving

I have an absolute fixation on Saturday breakfast.  Even though I happily eat the same breakfast the other six days of the week (4 ounces of whole-milk Greek yogurt with homemade granola and fresh or dried fruit), on that glorious weekend morning, I must have something different, something cooked, something indulgent even.  Like sausage gravy and biscuits when my father-in-law's spicy sausage is in house; waffles of one kind or another with bacon; or French toast with sour cream or yogurt and jam, a fabulous idea I picked up over at Poor Girl Gourmet.  The two toppings on that last one aggrandize quickie egg-dipped loaf-bread slices in a surprisingly good way. We've come back to that treat a few times over now.  

Recently, however, I got the hankering to try French toast in a new easy and good way--the overnight way.   I had tried the idea many years ago from a recipe that I guiltily tore out of a doctor's exam room magazine. (Isn't that like stealing? I don't normally do such things!)  I probably absconded with it because the recipe had a French name, trou pain perdu, which literally means lost bread found, referring to the transformation of day old bread into a fresh new meal.  It apparently wasn't a hit with me way back when, but tastes change. (They really do. I eat condiments on my burgers now and love vegetables!) It was worth another try.

I'm glad I made that decision.  After soaking up a lightly sweetened egg and milk mixture all night, thick slices of rustic bread become almost pastry like in flavor, with a center texture like pudding cake and edges that are browned and crusty. It's creme anglaise rich without being overly sweet. In a word, dee-lish.  And the only work required in the morning is sticking the pan in the oven!

This method is also a great way to have all the French toast ready at the same time--no holding in the oven, no tending of multiple skillets--so it would be great for a crowd.

It might also be better for cooler times than the last week (Or is it two?), when turning the oven on seems like a crazy idea, even with central cooling running.  But a craving is a craving. If it's good enough to defy the heat, it must be a keeper.

For all its charms, this recipe is a basic one. I'm already aware of fancier versions out there--stuffed with jam, lidded with caramel, brightened by citrus, etc.  Someday they may call to me.  But for now, I'm happy to add this one to my personal repertoire.

Overnight French Toast
Adapted from Epicurious

Serves: 4    (I cut it in half for just the two of us.)

1 1/2 tablespoons butter, melted
4 3/4-inch-thick slices rustic bread
2 eggs
1/2 cup milk
4 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon maple syrup
Dash vanilla extract
Pinch salt

Spread butter over bottom of a large heavy baking pan with at least one inch sides.  Arrange bread slices in pan.  Beat eggs, milk, sugar, maple syrup, vanilla, and salt to blend in a large bowl.  Pour mixture over bread.  Turn bread slices to coat.  Cover and refrigerate overnight.

In the morning, preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Bake bread 15 minutes.  Turn bread over and bake 10 minutes longer or until golden brown.  Serve sprinkled with powdered sugar just because it's so pretty!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Sweet in the End

In the past, I have thought that my life has been remarkably untouched by death.  I have been at times possessed by the fear of it, but have been brushed by it very seldom.  During my childhood, I only remember attending one funeral, for a neighbor woman who was the mother of our down-the-alley playmates.  I still recall the bright red dress I wore. The sorrowfulness of the event was apparently lost on me.

My presence was not required at a funeral again until I was twenty seven, when my great-grandmother, who functioned more as an actual grandmother and who helped raise me, died after 97 long years of life.  I wore appropiately sober colors but was late to her memorial service because my new born son was excessively fussy during the three-and-a-half hour drive to my hometown.  The needs of the new life in my care interfered with my duties to the departed and insulated me somewhat from the loss.  Besides, it seemed appropriate and acceptable that she should leave a life that had become what she had explicitly never wanted--an existence in a nursing home fed by a tube.  I felt no tearful resistance.  It was her time. 

In the ensuing years, I attended a few other funerals for acquaintances from work or church, still insulated from grief by the space between their hearts and mine.  Each time I would marvel a bit that no one really close to me had died yet.  I knew my time must surely come.

Then I got one of those phone calls.  My mother, crying (she doesn't cry often) and saying that Jerry was dead.  In my shock, the dumb question I could form was whether she meant my father or my brother, for they share the same name.  She answered that it was my brother. There followed information about the circumstances, arrangements.  I remember none of it.  But I will always remember her voice saying "Jerry is dead."  Forever, echoing in memory.  It's been years now.  I'm pretty sure it's here to stay.

That funeral had me.  I was no longer in the outer circles of loss and grief.  I was the family member in black standing in line by the casket, greeting the visitors, recognizing faces from childhood, crying, laughing, remembering, touched by the loveliness of those who came to say goodbye and comfort us.

My brother was only 37 when he was found dead on his bathroom floor.  We waited for six months to find out why from the autopsy report, which turned out to be weakly conclusive at best.  I will never know why he had to die the way and when he did, just as I never really knew the heart of him.  It turns out we can grieve what we don't know as well as what we know intimately.  We can grieve what wasn't as deeply as what was.

Since my brother's funeral service--my initiation into grief--I've been more tender toward loss.  I know how quickly it can come.  I know how important it is to pay those respects.  I find it a privilege to sit with the mourning, to conduct what rituals we have to mark the ending of life.  Which was a good thing these last two weeks.  There have been two funerals, both oddly enough for men named Gary that I barely knew but was honored to help memorialize.  I've sung and baked gladly because these are the little things that we can do for each other while we are here.  They are sometimes bigger than we think.

When my brother died so unexpectedly, I reached for meaning and sense among the wrongness of it all.  I tried to let the pain pass through me and accept what undeniably was, but I wondered how we could peacefully memorialize a life that didn't seem to us to be done.   He hadn't had time to do great things, to win the victories that by all rights should have been his.  He was just, like most of us, a good, hard working person trying to defeat the pain this world can sometimes deal out--not rich, not overtly "successful."  What was there to report of this abruptly ended life?

I got my answer when my brother's neighbor stood up to tell the story of how Jerry came over and fixed his heating unit when it went out one winter and the repairman wasn't going to be available for days.  He was helpful enough that this casual aquaintance chose to speak at the funeral and mowed his lawn for the years that the house had to sit empty while the estate was settled.  My brother wasn't rich or famous or powerful, but he was good to someone while he was here.  As far as I know, he never really hurt anyone except himself.  Not many of us can say that.

Hearing that story at Jerry's funeral led me to make a new habit.  Every night since then, when I say my prayers, I think of my brother and ask that God help us to be better people so that we may be better to each other while we're here. The little things we do matter:  Lending a hand to a neighbor.  Showing up to express sympathy.  Sending a card or note.  Saying that positive thought out loud. You never know what it might mean to the recipient.

That's why I feel privileged to attend funerals, bake lunch for the free medical clinic, pray for those requesting it, hug those I love.  If there is nothing else brave and grand we can do in this life, we can all leave love behind.  It's the best legacy.

Baking doesn't hurt either.  The cake I baked for the second grieving family that it was my privilege to feed is not my gourmet fantasy, but it did make use of part of a two-liter bottle of Coca Cola that my son's friends left in my refrigerator.  I don't drink sodas, so I turned it into a sweet gift of love.  Like dealing with death, it's good to make the best of what we get, even if it isn't what we wanted.  It just might turn out sweet in the end.

Coca Cola Cake
from MyRecipes

Yield: 12 servings

1 cup Coca Cola
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 cup butter, softened
1 3/4 cups sugar
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cocoa
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 cups miniature marshmallows

Combine Coca Cola and butter milk; set aside.

Beat butter at low speed of an electric mixer until creamy. Add sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Add eggs and vanilla; beat at low speed until blended.

Combine flour, cocoa, and soda. Add to butter mixture alternately with cola mixture, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Beat at low speed just until blended.

Stir in marshmallows.  Pour batter into greased and floured 9- X 13-inch pan.  Bake at 350 degrees for 30-35 minutes.  Remove from oven; cool 10 minutes.  While cake cools, make Coca Cola frosting.  Pour frosting over warm cake.

Note: Do not make the frosting ahead. It needs go on the warm cake while still warm itself.

Coca Cola Frosting

1/2 cup butter
1/3 cup Coca Cola
3 tablespoons cocoa powder
1 lb powdered sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Bring first three ingredients to a boil in a large saucepan over medium heat, stirring until butter melts.  Remove from heat; whisk in sugar and vanilla.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Real Strawberry Cake That Made Me Want to Blog Again

During my quiet months, I felt no real desire to share anything.  Much of that time I was depressed. (I'm not really that happy a person, in case no one noticed. Thank God for dinner.) Then I was just out of the habit and feeling sheepish.  The closest I came to wanting to sing the praises of anything was when I first made that cake up there. The second time (no need to wait for a third) was the charm.  This is too good not to be shared with my little corner of the world.

Here's the story.  We had a supper club night with some new friends (more about them later, in a sad way) for which I was to provide dessert.  I had my mind set on a strawberry chiffon pie until I found that I had missed a chilling step that I no longer had time for when I finally got myself lurching into gear.  A search for other strawberry options, which ate up a little more time, turned up that revivifying cake. One-step-and-done nicely fit the now restrained time available.

I was also curious to find a strawberry cake recipe that actually tasted mightily of the berries. It is an unfortunate fact that the very berries whose aroma during baking prepares you for an ecstacy of flavor tend to almost disappear from the flavor profile once the baking is done if they're in the batter. (I had that disappointment with muffins once.) The solution with which I'm familiar, but which I cannot endorse, is a version made with a white cake mix and strawberry flavored gelatin. Not something I can do with philsophical grace. I knew there must be some way to have a cake that tasted wonderfully of the berries and looked like it contained them, too, without involving pink dye. This seemed the day and the recipe to find out.

Martha Stewart gets credit for the recipe version I used (even Marcus Samuelson gives her the nod on the post sharing his whole wheat version, a must-try someday), but it's really classic American butter cake.  You know the drill: whip the butter and sugar till transformed into pale, fluffy wonderment; add eggs, milk, and leavened flour; and voila--cake.  Really good cake that didn't tax you too much to produce, no extra box of mix required.  With the top covered with halved strawberries and a sprinkle of sugar, it doesn't even need to be iced.

That top dressing with the delicate berries mean that they are magnified, not lost at all, during the oven time.  As Deb at Smitten Kitchen pointed out, a delicious jamminess forms around each one, while the sugar forms a crystalline crust on the batter fluffing up around them.  Don't those just sound like two good things?  Let me assure you that they are.

Yet the cake isn't intensely sweet.  It's delightfully berried, but mellow enough to serve as breakfast, especially with whole wheat flour in it (I snuck some in--don't tell), or as a snack, especially with a cup of tea, which I've now happily experienced.

You see, I made the cake that we and our new friends so enjoyed at supper club for the second time because one of those friends, who was quite ill and, we hope, benefited from our visits, left his very interesting life this week.  When I decided to take food to his wife, I knew that I would make this cake, for the memories as well as the sustenance.  I also made her a blackberry version to use the berries from her yard that are a bit neglected right now. She wanted to try it right away with tea.  (I think she'll make a pot of tea at the drop of a hat, as they say, and she often drops the hat.) It was equally good.  And surely other berries would work, too.  So now we have versatility as well.  A true winner.

This extra good cake reminded me, when I wasn't sure why I ever started this thing if isn't going to catapult me to success and fame, that recording the food winners is one of the reasons to blog. It's my record of the repertoire I've longed to create for myself, handily corraled in one ephemeral place.  I may not be the next Heidi Swanson, but I can have my virtual cookbook today, for me.  I'll know what I did, how to do it again, and maybe share with others, too.  Those rewards, like this cake, are simple and deeply satisfying. 

Real Strawberry Cake
adapted slightly from Martha's 

Makes one 9- or 10-inch cake

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened, plus more for the pan 
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt

1 large egg
1/2 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 pound strawberries, hulled and halved

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 10-inch pie plate, a 9- or 10-inch springform pan, or a 9-inch cake pan. (Do not use a 9-inch pie plate.  According to Deb of Smitten Kitchen, the results are overflowing.) The butter wrapper works quite well for this step.

Place butter and the 1 cup sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, about three minutes.  Meanwhile, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt, and set aside.  When the butter-sugar mixture is transformed, reduce speed to medium-low and mix in egg, milk, and vanilla.

Reduce speed to low and add flour mixture.  Transfer batter to prepared pan.  Arrange strawberries on top of batter, cut sides down and as close together as possible. Sprinkle remaining two tablespoons sugar over berries.

Bake cake for ten minutes.  Reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees.  Bake until cake is golden brown and firm to the touch, about one hour. Let cool in pan on a wire rack.  Cake can be stored at room temperature, loosely covered, for two days. 

Monday, July 11, 2011

Wading Back In

I've done it.  I've clicked the New Post button for the first time in about two and a half months.  I've been feeling it percolating on the back burner of my mind for a while.  With my husband happily drawing in his studio, posting his art again, I'm practically shamed into....

Into what?  Being creative?  Being true to the voice that wants to speak even when the owner doesn't know what it will say?  Trying, rather than reading till bedtime while pretending that normal life is all I need?

Earlier tonight I was reading other peoples' encouraging words when something caught my eye to my left.  Beautiful evening light glowing through the lace curtain.  As if under a spell, I grabbed the camera and photographed it.  I acted without my usual fruitless thinking.  That's when I knew I'd write something again soon.

In the quiet months, I've eaten some delightful dishes that I wish I'd recorded, if only for myself, so that the good stuff would be handily in one place:  strawberry cake, zucchini salad with mint, roast beef with tomato gravy, black eyed peas with leeks and tarragon, madeleines.   I've traveled--to see family, with all the attendant love and lessons--and experienced new places, one of them thrilling in a deep and instructive way.  While for some it would be enough to do, I never feel complete unless I say or write something about the good, the bad, and the otherwise moving.  That's who I am, when I remember and can be her.

My mother told me once that I learned to talk at ten months and never shut up.  I believe it.  I in no way feel that I deserve to be heard more that anyone else or that I'm all that with a bag of chips and pickle, but I am one of the expressers.  I humbly wait my turn, but I also have to take it.  Tag, I'm it.  Again.

I'm a dreamer, a questioner, a food lover, a functional chocoholic, an encourager, a writer, and an aesthete, all held back by a glass ceiling of restraint.  My toes are in the water; I wade out, but I never dive.  Well, almost never. 

But I'm still here, vacillating among dinner, despair, and desire.  Wonder what tomorow will be?

Friday, April 15, 2011

Getting My Waffle Groove Back

After the thrill of pretty darn decent club soda waffles erased years of home made waffle disappoinment, I actually got out my waffles maker's instruction booklet and checked the quantity of batter recommended for each pour.  As I suspected, I had gone horribly wrong somewhere years back.  I had been making crunchy waffles because I was being too skimpy with the batter per waffle square.

I'm a holder-backer from way back, as my friend Lana would say.

With my mental error corrected, of course I had to make waffles again.  This time I chose a gingerbread waffle recipe from my Breakfast file. (Yes, they're categorized and alphabetized.  How else would you do it?)  I had made them years ago with good results, but this time I would get the right batter quantity onto the waffle iron and also not put the listed yogurt meant to be a topping into the waffle batter, even though the mistake worked out edibly.  I thought I'd do them right this time in two ways.

They were perfect for a cool early spring morning, darkly spiced and blessed with interior fluffiness, thanks to proper batter generosity.  All that spice got along swimmingly with real maple syrup and bacon, although the suggested vanilla yogurt and citrus fruit would be well-mated, too.  I'll have to try the latter on my own.  The Mr. is a super traditionalist when it comes to waffles.  Syrup only.  No alternative funny business allowed.

One fabulous bonus of this recipe, aside from whole-wheat flour for better blood sugar regulation, is that it makes quite the quantity.  I got 16 rectangular, 4-at-a-time waffles--enough for four breakfasts for two.  We consumed four that day and froze the rest for later, reheating them briefly and effectively in the toaster.  What a deal: make waffles once, eat them multiple times!  And no crazy chemicals or high prices as with commercial frozen ones.  Another winner, my friends.

I may not be done with waffles, now that I'm good at them.  I just spied a whole wheat version that sounded promising. There are yeasted waffles to try, too.  Wait.  Don't I have a lemon waffle recipe in my file?  And then there were those zucchini waffles with pimento cheese sauce from a few years back.....

Gingerbread Waffles

Makes: 16 4-inch rectangular waffles

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup whole-wheat flour
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
1 3/4 cups buttermilk
1/3 cup canola oil
1/3 cup molasses

In a large bowl, whisk together the all-purpose flour, whole-wheat flour, cocoa powder, ginger, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, buttermilk, and oil until well blended.

Add egg mixture and molasses to flour mixture. Stir just until ingredients are combined and dry ingredients are moistened.

Cook according to your waffle makers instructions (!).  Keep warm stacked on a baking sheet in a 200 degree oven.

Serve with your favorite toppings.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Never Buy It Again: Alfredo Sauce

As I recall, when I discovered how easy homemade ranch dressing was to make, I threatened to do a series of posts on foods that one should never buy again.  Well, the game is on because I've found my second inspiration.

Actually, I haven't so much discovered this DIY fave, as finally photographed it. (I'm so lazy sometimes.  Raahlly, I am.)  The point is that I made my own Alfredo sauce again--just to take it's pretty picture--because it's so easy.  Though I've never been tempted to pay real American dollars for a jar of gloppy pseudo-Alfredo sauce, I'm hoping to convince you to avoid it now.   

Truth be told, Alfredo sauce is so simple that it doesn't really require a recipe, just a basic understanding of what goes into it.  In essence it's cream, butter, and grated Parmigiano.  I add garlic because the scent of it in combination with cream makes me a little swoony, even left over.

Of course, I found many versions out there on the interweb when I was seeking comparison to what I'd already done.  The purists do not do garlic.  Some people substitute other, more melty cheeses for part of the Parmigiano.  White pepper or black may be used.  In short and as usual, have a grand old time adapting it to your desires.  With a little protein and vegetable added (turkey and spinach in my photographed version), it's a quick, rich one bowl meal.

Whatever you do to it, the sauce is still easy enough that it should be added to your repertoire and never bought againI mean, cream is almost a stand-alone ingredient.  It's hard to go wrong here. 

Also...Yes, I know that cream is FULL OF FAT, and therefore calories.  So, no, I am not recommeding that you make this often.  I'm just bossily opining that, if the old calorie budget has a cream sized niche in it, there is no need to buy a jar of unreal (and I mean that literally) chemicals trying to approximate cream, when a pint of cream is cheaper and more authentic, and the sauce itself is...Well, I would say a piece of cake, but cake isn't nearly as easy as Alfredo sauce.  Maybe we should say "Easy as Alfredo" instead.  

If you try it, "Easy as Alfredo" may become your new catch phrase.  But I want credit if it goes viral.

Alfredo Sauce

Serves: 4

1-2 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons butter
1 cup cream
Freshly ground black pepper or ground white pepper to taste
1/2 cup (or more, to your taste) Parmigiano, grated

In a small saucepan over medium heat, cook the garlic in the butter for about a minute, until fragrant.  Add the cream and allow to simmer and reduce for 10-20 minutes. (Let's say, while your pasta water comes to a boil and the pasta cooks.  Beautiful plan, isn't it!)  Stir in the pepper and cheese, reserving some cheese for garnish.  Toss with hot, cooked and drained pasta, and serve.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

My Old Pal Curry

Today was a slow cooker dinner kind of day, since I had a meeting in another town during the usual cooking hour. While prepping my chosen recipe this morning, I realized that I had not yet included it in my blog collection, an omission that surprised me once it had come to my attention, as I've made it many times, and I'm not one for repeating dinners. (My husband has been known to opine that we never have the same dinner twice.) I may love to explore the seemingly endless possibilities, but occasionally it's time for a stand-by pal like Chickpea and Vegetable Curry.

I do love this vivid stew. Back in our days on the farm with Dave's plain-eating parents, it was the first dinner that came to mind when they went out of town, and I could cook whatever meat-free, vegetable-heavy, exotically spiced dinner I wanted.  We reveled in it then, and still love it now.  And we're not the only ones.  I've shared it with a goodly number of people who have also enjoyed it.  Some have asked for the recipe as well.  Again, I am mystified that I am only now getting around to recording such a winner. 

I found the recipe in Cooking Light a few years back, shortly after I decided that the slow cooker needed to become my new favorite kitchen tool and sanity saver.  The ingredient list is long, but that's the only daunting part.  The chopping and sauteeing can be done the night before if necessary, which it was in my formerly busy life.  After that modicum of work, the prepped mixture can be stored in the refrigerator in your slow cooker's removable crock. (If yours isn't removable, it would be a worthwhile investment to purchase one so made.) In the morning, pop the crock into its base, turn on the heat, and go about your business.

In the evening, come home to the saturating fragrance of curry and a bowl of flavorful, colorful, nutritious goodness that only requires the stirring in of some spinach and coconut milk to be ready for belly filling.  If you're feeling fancy, cook up some couscous or rice over which to ladle it.  (OK, you could also eat it with saltine crackers, as my husband did in my absence, but I'm not recommending that approach.) 

In case you have picky eaters who may experience anxiety over curry, rest assured that the printed version minus serrano chile, which is my forced version since they aren't available in my local grocery store, is mild.  If you want to pump up the spice volume, use the serrano, or increase the curry powder and/or ground red pepper.  I'm sure the vegetable content could be adapted to what is on hand, too, although I have somehow not tried that yet. 

After taste and nutrition, the plus is quantity--six servings worth. If you don't have a big family, that's enough to eat for days or to take for lunch, which will probably make co-workers ask enviously "So, what are you having?" 

Chickpea and Vegetable Curry
from Cooking Light

Serves: 6

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 1/2 cups chopped onion
1 cup (1/4-inch-thick) slices carrot
1 tablespoon curry powder
1 teaspoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon grated peeled fresh ginger
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 serrano chile, seeded and minced
3 cups cooked chickpeas (2 cans)
1 1/2 cups cubed peeled baking potato
1 cups coarsely chopped green bell pepper
1 cup (1-inch) cut green beans
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground red pepper
1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes, undrained
1 (14-ounce) can vegetable or chicken broth
3 cups fresh baby spinach
1 cup light coconut milk
Lemon wedges

Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat; add onion and carrot; cover and cook 5 minutes or until tender.  Add curry powder and next 4 ingredients; cook 1 minute, stirring constantly.

Place onion mixture in a 5-quart electric slow cooker.  Stir in chickpeas and next 8 ingredients.  If you're prepping ahead, store in refrigerator at this point.  If not, or when ready, cover and cook on high-heat setting for 6 hours or on low-heat setting for 8-9 hours.  Adds spinach and coconut milk; stir until spinach wilts.  Serve with lemon wedges.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Lull With Mysteries

There hasn't been much written about food around here lately because I've hit one of those lulls that come, whether we want them or not.  There have been flops, so-so's, and emergency pizzas that support the local business man.  Now the time has come to sit at baseball games paying attention mostly, I confess, when my son is in action.  When I planned this week's cooking yesterday (a heavenly day, truly), there were only three days on which we would be home for a cooked dinner. This is real life.

Despite the lull, there have been two mysteries--one lingering, one solved.

First, how is that a promising recipe can be such a failure?  How can I like every ingredient in a dish and yet dislike the result so much that I can't bear to eat it again, throwing away over a pound of chicken, ounces of cheese, and a heap of vegetables?  I don't know, but it happens sometimes.  Last week's bake of chicken breasts with lemon, feta, and zucchini was just such a disappointment.

Perhaps my first mistake was succumbing to the lure of cheap chicken after weeks of grocery sticker shock when I know by now that quantity over quality is a concept that doesn't usually work for me.  Other than that error in judgment, I can't account for the phenomenon.  I simply proffer the mysterious results.  The feta's normally vibrant flavor seemed to have disappeared, the bitterness of the lemon pith out-thugged the fruit's usual zest, the zucchini was watery, and the texture of the ill-chosen chicken was oddly brittle.  For whatever reason, this assemblage of favored friends didn't party well together at all that night. But one moves on. 

The mystery solved was an easy delight.  For some time I had wondered in a latent way what cooked radishes would be like.  Years ago, I had run across the idea of sauteeing them, a radical enough idea.  Then my online search turned up--of course, why didn't I think of that, almost any vegetable is better that way--roasted radishes. In an Asian style, with chicken alongside.  Being dinner on a sheet pan, I was in.

The surprising result was that we instantly liked them.  Considering that I had never consumed radishes in any other form than raw, I expected an adjustment, a bite or two of getting aquainted with the difference in texture and flavor.  Instead, we absentmindedly dug in like we'd eaten roasted radishes all our lives and found that we felt right at home with them.  It seemed quite natural, in fact.  Nothing watery or unpalatable this time.  And so rosy!

Oh, yes, and the chicken was good, too.  But that wasn't news.

These two dishes are proof that we never really know much except through experience.  A seeming sure thing can be a disappointment.  A what-the-heck-just-try-it effort can be delicious.  The only way to know is by doing.  So, if you're contemplating something that sounds safe, and you've never tried cooked radishes before, consider it.  You might hate them.  Then again you may love them.  There's only one way to find out.

If you get really wild, try roasting the greens as instructed (mine were, um, dead, or I would have) and learn even more. 

Sesame Ginger Chicken with Roasted Radishes and Radish Greens
from An Hour In The Kitchen

Serves 2-4

4-6 pieces of chicken, skin on
2 tablespoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
3 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger root
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup sake, optional
1/4 cup sesame seeds
1 tablespoon lime juice
1/4 cup rice vinegar
1/4 cup water
2 bunches of radishes with greens
Oil for greasing the pan

Rinse chicken pieces and pat dry, if you feel you must. 

Mix soy sauce, toasted sesame oil, honey, ginger, garlic, sake (if using), sesame seeds, lime juice, rice vinegar, and water. Set aside a 1/4 cup and pour the rest over the chicken pieces. Marinate for at least 20 minutes, longer if you have the time. I had only the twenty minutes before hunger would begin threatening critical mass, and it worked just fine.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Wash radishes and greens well.  Remove greens and set aside. Cut radish globes into quarters and toss in the reserved 1/4 cup of marinade until coated.

Brush the bottom of a roasting pan or rimmed baking sheet with oil. Arrange chicken pieces skin side up on pan.  Pour marinade over chicken. Add radishes around the chicken.

Cook for 30 minutes at 400 degrees.  Then reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees and roast for 15-20 minutes more or until the internal temperature of the chicken reaches 170 degrees. Remove chicken and radishes from the pan and keep warm, leaving the liquid in the pan. Toss the washed radish greens into the pan.  Return the pan to the oven for 3-4 more minutes until the greens are wilted.

To serve, place the greens on a plate.  Top with the chicken and radishes.  Drizzle the pan juices over all.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Spring--On The Plate Anyway

Today, while winter makes another pass on its way out, my thoughts drift back to last Sunday when spring was in town for its annual get-aquainted visit.  Seventy-eight degrees and sunny...Birds, leaf buds, flowers...Caressing breezes.  Ah, the day that was. 

All days are precious when you think about it, but those tender early spring ones are especially easy to love.  I hauled my beloved rocking chair up from basement storage to the  deck on the shady side of the house because it was so warm.  I rocked contentedly and read Elizabeth Bard's Lunch in Paris, a delightful escape and inspiration for a Francophilic foodie.  It's a story of love and France with recipes. I couldn't ask for much more except pictures, but I'm not greedy like that. Some of the recipes and menus may even appear on the ole blog in the future, they sound so enticing.

Despite my fond memories of a warmer day, I'm not sorry that it's cold again.  Spring does this. She dances back and forth for a while. I patiently let the seasons do their thing.  Soon enough it will be hot, and no one but this lizard will even want to be out in it.  Besides, at our dinner table it was determinedly spring today anyway:  salmon cakes with dill sauce, lemon-parsley rice, and buttered asparagus.  (Take that Old Man Winter!  Time to go bye-bye soon.)

I'm not sure how exciting salmon cakes are to you, but every once in a great while, I just suddenly want them for dinner.  I never follow a recipe, and still they end up rich and satisfying with very few ingredients and at a very low cost: I picked up my can of salmon on sale for $1.99 when I felt the urge coming on.  All I add is enough mayonnnaise to bind, a few bread crumbs, and a dash of salt.  That's it.  Talk about economical.  And since the asparagus was also (seasonally!) on sale for $1.88 per pound, the whole plate couldn't have rung up at more than $3.00.  I'm too lazy to do the detail math, but surely that about covers it.  The cost is as big a refresher as that fondly remembered spring day, after weeks of higher than usual grocery store expenditures. 

But back to salmon cakes.  One could be fancier with them, adding capers, onion, etc, but sometimes it's nice to do the simple, easy thing. 

Oh, wait.  I usually find that nice, don't I?  And don't you, too?  I mean, I know you're busy and all.  So, the next time you see cans of salmon on sale, grab one or two and throw these together like an old pro.  If you need a little fanciness, stir up the quickie sauce and gloat.  Add rice dolled up with a little grated lemon rind, chopped parsley, and salt, and blanched asparagus rolled in a dab of butter, and spring's on the plate.  Now there's an escape that doesn't require the weather's cooperation at all.

Super Simple Salmon Cakes

Serves: 2

1 14.75-ounce can of salmon
Fine dry bread crumbs

Remove any undesirable bones from the salmon and place in a medium bowl.  Add a couple of spoonfuls of mayonnaise, a sprinkle of salt, and a palmful of bread crumbs to the salmon.  Stir gently together.  If it looks dry, add a little more mayonnaise.  Form salmon mixture into 4 cakes and roll in additional bread crumbs to coat.  Place cakes in the refrigerator for about 15 minutes to firm up.

After the cakes have rested, coat a skillet with oil and warm over medium heat.  Fry the cakes a few minutes on each side, until golden brown.  Drain on paper towels.

Dill Sauce

Lemon juice
Dried dill

In a small bowl, whisk together a couple of big spoonfuls of mayonnaise with just enough buttermilk to thin it to a thick sauce consistency.  Add a pinch of salt, a squeeze of lemon juice, and about a 1/2 teaspoon of the dill.  Whisk, taste, and adjust the seasoning to your liking.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Jalapeno Finale

It seems I've had a request (other than my husband's) for the chocolate cake recipe I mentioned in my previous jalapeno-happy post.  I didn't include it then because I wasn't sure enough about it to wax enthusiastic to you lovely people.  Now that it's cooled (we ate that baby warm, mmmm), glazed, and aged, I'm more confident of its qualities and ready to share.  Besides, I can't say no to such nice folks.  So here you go.

I may have, in my haste, fallen upon the first recipe that met my limitations of the day, but it turned out to be a good one.  The cake is still tender and even more moist today than last night, so it's aging well so far.  There is also a bit more jalapeno flavor on day two, but we still wish it had more heat.  If I made it again (and I wouldn't put it past me if there are jalapenos lying about again--any excuse to eat chocolate), I would add a dash of cayenne for a truer south of the border accent.  I would also be tempted to add cinnamon for an even more Aztec aura, although David thinks that would muddy the flavors. 

The glaze that I added after it cooled was Dave's idea.  He likes the crackly texture contrast and the extra bit of sweetness that it adds.  With or without the glaze, the cake is a very mild chocolate experience that still manages to be adequately satisfying. It scratches the chocoholic itch without feeling heavy and decadent or causing the afterburn of over indulgence. It's the kind of cake that might have been called "snacking cake" in a more innocent time when a piece of something sweet and a glass of milk was considered to be healthy. Although I can knock back shots of the deep dark stuff, the hard liquor of chocolate, the kind that makes me roll my eyes and moan with sensual delight, I really enjoyed the simple, homey satisfaction of this lightweight version. 

But the very best thing about the recipe is its utter ease.  There's no fussy creaming step that must be gotten right or else disaster, which makes it perfect for those who are scratch-cake avoiders.  If you can measure and stir, you can make this simple cake.  It can be vegan if you substitute soy milk for the buttermilk I used, which was all I had and usually a good thing for baking anyway.  Add-in's other than jalapenos could create variety: orange zest, nuts, chocolate chips, dried fruits, toffee chips, coconut, etc.  It could be topped with powdered sugar, plain glaze, citrus glaze, chocolate glaze, caramel...Well, obviously I could go on and on, but you get the idea.  See how exciting this part of food is?  So many stimulating ideas!

But back to the ease factor.  If I wanted a simple, easy chocolate cake fix, this one could be whipped up almost any time--even an hour before dinner it turns out.  It's definitely the simplest cake I've ever made.  There's a time and place for fancy and rich, but this one works famously for, say, a dreary Monday when you want to be amused and comforted. Or, I suspect, a few other occasions, too.  Or no occasion at all.  When cake is this easy, you don't need one, now do you.

Jalapeno Chocolate Cake

Serves: 8

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1-2 jalapenos, seeded, deveined, and finely diced
1/2 cup orange juice or water
1/2 cup buttermilk, regular milk, or soy milk
1/2 cup oil
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 teaspoons vinegar (or 1 tablespoon if you use regular milk or soy milk)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease and flour an 8 or 9-inch round cake pan and set aside.

In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, and jalapenos.  In a small bowl, whisk together the orange juice and/or water (I used a combo), buttermilk, oil, and vanilla.  Add the orange juice mixture to the flour mixture and stir to combine.  Add the vinegar just before pouring the batter into the pan.  It can't sit around once you add it.  It's a bit reactive, shall we say.  You'll see.

Bake for 25-35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. 

Allow to cool in the pan on a wire rack for a few minutes.  Turn out onto the rack to cool completely.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Jalapeno Happiness

Today was not a happy day. I moved mechanically through the tasks that needed to be done during the morning. On my walk in the afternoon, I saw the forsythia beginning to bloom, the daffodils bouncing in the wind, and a new fern turning stalky.  I felt none of the joy of it. I kept going forward, which is the only way to go, waiting for the break in the clouds that always comes, often quite unexpectedly.

As commonly happens, that break came with dinner, the best part of the day for me.

Here's what happened. (I miss Monk just a little.)  When the time came to begin preparation, I suddenly remembered a madcap idea that I'd hatched last night and felt a spark of interest.  I needed madcap.  I needed something to be excited about.  And so, just because it made me smile and feel energetic, we had an all jalapeno dinner, combining the two jalapenos in the crisper, jalapeno-cheddar corn muffins in the freezer, and a self-imposed mandate to use what was on hand only, without running to the store the day before the weekly shopping trip. 

My Sunday research, along with the no-shop rule, had suggested jalapeno black eyed peas as the main dish.  Normally I would think of rice as a partner, but pure silliness won out.  Jalapeno-cheddar corn muffins from the freezer it was.  And for dessert?  Jalapeno chocolate cake. The fact that there were no eggs or milk in the house did not dissuade me.  For such situations, we have our vegan friends. They've already invented that wheel.  I quickly searched up a recipe for a simple one-layer cake that could be mixed in a trice and tossed in to bake while I threw together the quickie legume main course and thawed the muffins. 

Yes, I know.  It was really unnecessary to turn dinner into such a larky production.  But what fun!  And I needed fun.  I tied on my perky, it's-officially-spring bunny apron with a geniune smile. All jalapeno dinner here we come! 

I'm so glad that I rode the jalapeno happiness train. The black eyed peas were quite satisfying.  Way to turn three cans and a jalapeno into dinner, if I do say so myself!  There's nothing like a bowl of health to make me feel flush with it, especially when it's ready to go in twenty minutes or less. The jalapeno-cheddar corn muffins were quite harmonious with the stew, not repetitive at all.  The jalapeno in the cake wasn't actually noticeable, except faintly IF you were tasting for it.  But it was tender, nicely crumbed, and lightly chocolatey--not the Death By variety, which is just fine for a week day when there isn't usually cake anyway.  My day went from flat to chirpy in a meal!

Even if you're not genetically cursed with the blues and/or carried away with the frivolous idea for an ingredient based dinner, consider adding the jalapeno black eyed peas and cornmeal muffins to your repertoire.  The pair are plenty nourishing and could be pulled off on a week night in about 30 minutes. A few more meals like that in the idea file would help any cook's mood, any day. 

Jalapeno Black Eyed Peas

Serves: 4

1 tablespoon oil
1/2 medium yellow onion, chopped
1-2 jalapeno peppers, seeded, deveined, and diced
1 fat clove garlic, minced
2 cans black eyed peas, 1 drained, 1 undrained OR drain both and add stock
1 can petite diced tomatoes
1 teaspoon tamari
1 small bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
3 tablespoons chopped cilantro
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Shredded monterey jack cheese

In a medium saucepan, warm the oil over medium heat.  Add the onion, jalapeno, and garlic, and cook until the onion and pepper are tender.  Add the black eyed peas, tomatoes, tamari, bay leaf, and smoked paprika.  Cover and simmer for 10-15 minutes.  Add 2 tablespoons of the cilantro.  Spoon into bowls and garnish with shredded cheese and remaining cilantro.

Cornmeal Muffins

Makes: 12

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup corn meal
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
1/3 cup oil
1 egg

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Grease cups of a muffin pan and set aside.

In a medium bowl, mix flour, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.  In a small bowl, combine the buttermilk, oil, and egg.  Add buttermilk mixture to flour mixture and stir just until moist.  Do not over mix.

Divide batter among muffin cups.  Bake for 15 minutes or until golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center of a muffin comes out clean.  Remove from cups and cool on a wire rack.  Or, even better, eat them warm!