Monday, February 28, 2011

A Different Green for St. Patty's Day

Wait! That's not a shamrock!
St. Patrick's Day is just around the corner - just about time to start thinking about the traditional corned beef and cabbage, green beer, and cupcakes with mysterious green frosting.

But what if you don't like corned beef?

Instead of traditional food, why not just serve the traditional color? I'm not talking about a bowl of lettuce, but how about a bowl of pasta? Instead of the traditional red sauce, serve your pasta with pesto instead.

Pesto is traditionally made with basil and pine nuts, but lately pesto had evolved into all sorts of variations, including arugula pesto and spinach pesto and pesto with almonds or pistachios instead of pine nuts. The thing about pesto is that it's easy to make, and once you know the basics you can adapt and modify and change things to your heart's desire.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Technique: High Altitude Bread

The kneading method you use and the ingredients you buy are personal choices, and you can change those choices if you don’t like the results. But if you move to a different altitude, you’ve got to adapt.

It seems that most people have problems when they move from lower altitudes to higher ones, but recently someone complained to me that her favorite buns weren’t as light and fluffy at 5000 feet as they were when she lived at over 7000 feet. So adaptation is required whether you’re moving up or down.

A few hundred feet isn’t going to make a lot of difference, but when you’re looking at thousands of feet, things start to change significantly. As you climb to higher altitudes, the boiling point of water is lower, the air is thinner, and generally the air is also dryer. Two of those three things affect bread the most. It’s not the boiling water.

Thin Air

Thin air is tough on humans because there’s less oxygen in the air we inhale. For risen doughs, though, the issue is air pressure. The bubbles inside a loaf don’t have to work as hard to grow because there’s not as much air pressure working against them. Because of that, breads and cakes and cookies rise higher and faster.

There are two problems with a faster rise. First, a long, slow rise is part of what develops the flavor in yeast-risen breads. A fast rise gets your bread made faster, but it’s not going to taste quite as good. Second, if you’re relying on the time stated in a recipe, there’s a good chance your dough will over-rise and possibly collapse if you’re at high altitude.

There are several ways to adapt. First, you can opt to use less yeast at higher altitudes. While this is the most common recommendation, it’s not my preferred method. I want all those happy yeasts in my bread and I want the same number of bubbles. I just want the process to slow down so flavor can develop.

Keep it Chilly

The best way to slow down the bread’s activity is to keep it cooler. Many bread recipes advise finding a warm spot in the kitchen to let the bread rise. Some recommend placing the bread on the top of the refrigerator or inside the oven with the light on. My oven even has two proofing settings for a fast proof and a slow one. That’s fine at sea level, but at high altitude, ignore the search for the warm spot, and find a cooler spot instead.

If you want to bake your bread the same day, the refrigerator might be just a bit too cold, but particularly in winter, you’ve probably got a cooler corner somewhere that your dough will appreciate.

Another trick is to add colder ingredients when you make your dough. Yes, your yeast needs warm temperatures to become active, but it’s perfectly fine to proof your yeast in a small portion of the water to activate it, then add the rest of the water at a lower temperature. In fact, if I’m using liquids besides water – like milk or whey or yogurt – I add them straight from the refrigerator.

Over Rising

A dough that over-rises on its first rise isn’t a tragedy. You simply punch it down, knead it, and continue. It might not be exactly the same as if you hadn’t let it over-rise, but it will still be fine. If your formed dough over-rises to the point of collapse just before you put it in the oven, that’s an entirely different problem. And of course, dough can collapse in the oven if it expands too much before it sets.

To thwart collapsed bread, you need to make sure your gluten structure is well developed and strong enough to hold those pesky bubbles. Make sure your finished dough passes the windowpane test. For extra insurance, you can add ingredients that strengthen gluten, like ascorbic acid or vinegar. A teaspoon in a loaf of bread will be unnoticeable in terms of taste.

Even if you’ve got a colder dough and good gluten development, check the dough earlier than the recipe suggests. Yeast is a quirky beast, and sometimes it simply doesn’t want to slow down.

Dry Air

The second problem, dry air, affects the flour rather than the dough. At high altitude, flour tends to hold less moisture, and that causes a few issues. First, it affects measurements – and weights – because you’re weighing more flour and less moisture when the flour is very dry. And of course volume measures are inaccurate, no matter what.

Not only are you likely to be starting with a little more flour, by weight, it’s also thirstier flour. It wants to absorb more water. As a result, doughs at high altitude tend to be drier than those at lower altitudes, even if the weights are consistent.

Whether your flour at high altitude is dry enough to throw off a recipe significantly depends on a number of factors. For example, if that flour came to your grocery store yesterday from a distributor at sea level and a normal level of humidity, that flour isn’t going to dry out immediately. Storing it in a sealed container will help prevent moisture loss as well. On the other hand, if the flour was milled and stored locally, it’s already dry.

Unless you have scientific equipment in your kitchen to test the flour’s water content and to test the hydration of your dough, the best you can do at high altitude is assume that the flour is slightly drier, and be ready to adjust for that if necessary.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Banana Caramel Yogurt Parfait

I've launched a little food-related project in conjunction with the folks at Fooducopia, a site where small food producers sell their products. My part in this is that I'll be creating recipes specifically for products sold on the Fooducopia site. This is one of those recipes. The  product this time was Harvest Caramel Sauce from Sweet & Saucy.

I was an adult before I realized bananas could be cooked. And even longer before I realized that banana bread wasn't the only way they could be cooked. But of course, the first cooked bananas I encountered were a little too fancy for everyday serving. Bananas Foster is a tasty dish, but not everyone wants to deal with flaming alcohol.

One of my favorite fruit combinations is bananas and Greek-style yogurt. The yogurt is thick and creamy, and it seems so decadent. But in reality, if you're buying a plain, unsweetened version, even the full-fat version isn't as calorie-laden as you might think. That combination makes a fine breakfast or snack, but as a dessert it cries out for just a tiny bit more indulgence.

Cooking bananas brings out their sweetness and adding caramel sauce put this over the top, to make this seem like a fabulously indulgent and ridiculously fancy dessert. But looks are deceiving This simple dessert can be made in a few minutes with few ingredients. It's light and sweet, with the warm bananas contrasting with the cool yogurt. It would make a nice family dessert, but it's different enough to serve to company.

Sweet & Saucy makes quite a few different sauces including different caramels and fudges. I chose the Harvest Caramel for this dish, but any of the caramels would be fine. Bananas might not be the first thing you think of when you hear "harvest" but the flavors matched perfectly.

For an even more decadent dessert, substitute ice cream for the yogurt. For added crunch, sprinkle some chopped nuts on top.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Shallow-Braised Lamb Steaks with Red Wine Reduction

My mother used to cook pork shoulder steaks with a method similar to this. It results in a tender, juicy cut of meat with a small amount of rich sauce. It also needs a bit of babysitting to make sure the liquid doesn't cook out, depending on the cooking vessel you use.

If you've got a tagine, it's perfect for cooking this way, since you're just about forced to use very low heat and very little liquid, but mom did quite well with a beat-up frying pan.

With a tagine, you often end up with more liquid when you're done cooking than what you started with, which seems impossible. A dutch oven or any heavy-bottomed pot with a tight lid works just as well for this recipe, though. It's not the equipment, but the cooking method that's important. The key is very, very very low heat. A bare simmer, and no more. It takes a long time to cook, but I think the results are well worth it.

Instead of pork shoulder steaks that were mom's signature dish, I used lamb steaks. These go by different names from different purveyors, and they can look a little different as well, but what you're looking for are the tougher/fattier cuts of lamb rather that the rib or t-bone chops that are meant to be cooked to that perfect medium rare. Lamb shanks, neck bones, or other stew-worthy cuts of lamb would work just as well.

The wine in the recipe is used both for braising the the lamb and for making a sauce to drizzle over the top. The cherries add a nice tartness to the braise, while the tepin peppers add a bit of heat to the sweeter wine reduction. It balances nicely.

The amount of tepin pepper added here doesn't result in a hot and spicy sauce. Instead, it's a fleeting heat that adds interest but lets you taste everything else in the dish.

Besides drizzling on the lamb, the wine reduction has a variety of other uses. It can be added to other sauces or braises, added to a salad dressing for a little sweet heat, or drizzled over fresh fruit - or even ice cream. I used a Merlot for this recipe, but use any red wine you like.

Shallow-Braised Lamb Steaks with Red Wine Reduction

4 lamb steaks
3/4 cup red wine
1/2 cup dried tart cherries
1/2 medium onion, in 1/4-inch slices
Salt and pepper to taste
Oil, for searing

For the wine reduction:
1/2 bottle (375 ml) red wine
1/2 cup sugar
12 tepin peppers

Season the lamb steaks with salt and pepper on both sides. Heat about a tablespoon of oil in a heavy-bottomed pot with a tight lid. A tagine in perfect for cooking this way, but a Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed frying pan will work as well. Brown the steaks on both sides, then add the wine and scrape up the browned bits on the bottom of the pot. Add the cherries and onions.

Cover the pot, turn the heat to very low. You want the liquid to be at a bare simmer for a very long, very slow braise. Cook for 3-4 hours, until the meat is fork-tender, checking it occasionally to make sure you aren't cooking the liquid out. With a tagine, you'll end up with more liquid than you started with, but with other cooking vessels, it's possible you might need to add water before the cooking time is up.

For the wine reduction:
Put all ingredients into a wide, shallow pan, and heat to a simmer. Stir to dissolve the sugar and simmer on low until reduced to 1/3 the original volume, about 20 minutes. Strain out peppers, if desired. This can be served warm or at room temperature. You can cook this in a saucepan, but the high narrow sides will increase the cooking time to get the same amount of reduction.

To serve:
I served the lamb steaks over home made egg noodles that I rolled thinner and cut wider than the previous recipe. Like the photo here. Store-bought noodles would be fine. Or choose your own favorite starch.

The braising liquid (along with its cherries and onions) was served over the noodles with the lamb on top. The wine reduction was drizzled over the lamb. Extra wine reduction was passed at the table, and very simple green beans completed the plate.

This recipe was created for the Marx Foods Ridiculous Delicious Challenge, a complicated little contest with a whole lot of fun steps. I wrote about the Challenge here, and because of that post, I was chosen to compete. I received a box of 8 sample ingredients with the instruction to use two of those ingredients to create a recipe. I chose to use the Tart Dried Cherries and the Tepin Peppers for this recipe.

When public voting is open, I'll have link here. If that link is live, please go vote for me, hmmm?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Two-Ingredient Cookies

When I saw this recipe online, it seemed like something that couldn't work. I mean, how can you possibly make cookies with two ingredients?

Okay, one of them is sort of a prepared ingredient. But it's not quite like making cookies with cookie dough and calling it a recipe. This is weirdly creative. And simple. And it uses Reese's peanut butter cups. Can't be bad, right?

The original recipe called for 24 "snack size" cups, but I had the larger ones, so it involved a little math. The snack size are .55 ounces, but the ones I had were .75 ounces, so I needed about 17 1/2. I didn't have quite that many, so used some other holiday-related Reese's items. Put them on the scale and got up to the 13(ish) ounces I needed.

Okay, so you know ingredient #1. Ingredient #2 is ... no, not flour. It's one egg. Yep. One little egg.

Here's how it works:

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Egg Noodles By Hand

Noodles - of all kinds - are so cheap. Stores are well-stocked with shapes and sizes and colors. So why make your own noodles, and why make them by hand?

The only good reason I can think of is that there's nothing quite like a hand-made noodle. The texture is completely different. They have a rough, craggy surface that grabs on to flavor and won't let go. They have a chew to them that makes you understand that you're eating something significant.

Whether they're floating in a chicken broth, or glistening with butter and sprinkled with cheese, or flecked with sauce, home made noodles have a presence about them that demands attention. They aren't just noodles, they are VIPs - Very Important Pastas.

While it takes a little work to make noodles, it's not all that complicated, and the list of ingredients is mind-bogglingly short. On the other hand, the list of optional things you could add to home made pasta is endless. You could make home made noodles every day this year and never have the same noodle twice. And we're just talking about ingredients. You can also cut them into a different shapes and sizes. The possibilities are infinite.

If you can get Italian semolina flour intended for pasta-making, that's a good choice, but bread flour works very well. You can also use all purpose flour, if that's all you have.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Indiana Cheese Buns

Okay, before the entire Hoosier state questions my sanity, I'll admit that these buns have absolutely nothing at all to do with the state of Indiana. Nothing. Nada. It's a all about a pun.

Yes, I can hear you groaning already, but I like puns. These buns are stuffed with ham and cheese, and when I hear "ham and cheese" I tend to pun it into Hammond Cheese. Like Hammond, Indiana. Get it? Ham and ...

Oh, never mind.

These buns are meant to be hot sandwich, and are parbaked until the dough is done but not browned. Then they're cooled and stored so you can heat-and-eat later.

I've only tried reheating these in a regular oven, but they'd probably be just fine in a toaster oven, too. Bake until they're brown and the inside should be warm and gooey at the same time.

I used two cheeses here - colby and pepperjack - because it's what I had on hand. But any cheese you like should be just fine. No ham? These would be a great way to use up whatever leftover deli meat or roast you have on hand. Freeze them after par-baking, and you'll have an easy meal later on.

I've found that baking anything filled can be a challenge. The cavern inside always grows much larger than the filling, so sometimes it feels like you've been cheated out of as much filling as could have been there. I find that's especially true with the wet or melty component next to the dough, since it can make the dough around it a little more dense and doughy. With meat as the top and bottom layers of the filling, there's still empty space, but the dough isn't affected as much, making for a much nicer sandwich.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Steak Salad with Garlic Dressing

When I was a kid, I absolutely loved garlic salad dressing. Weird, right? But on occasions when we went to restaurants, that's what I ordered, without fail.

At home, we had vinegar-and-oil based dressings, and from the time I was a little kid, making the salad and dressing was my job. Vinaigrette was a snap, but I had no idea how creamy salad dressing were made.

One day, a neighbor made her own garlic dressing while we were visiting, and I was astounded. It involved a blender and mayonnaise, but when I tried to replicate what she did, it was too harsh. So I was back to vinegar and oil pretty quickly.

When I saw that one of the Kitchen Play recipes for this month was a steak salad, I figured it was time to whip out a garlic dressing. The original Kitchen Play recipe had a blue cheese dressing, but I'm not a big fan of blue cheese - sorry, just not my thing. But the contest is all about beef. Canadian Beef, to be exact. And I had just enough steak to top a salad, so the blue cheese didn't matter.

While I tend to like creamy garlic dressing, I decided to go a completely different route and make a vinaigrette first, then add enough mayonnaise to make it a little creamy. And for garlic flavor, a total cheat - garlic oil. I mean, why not?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Technique: Converting Bread Recipes to Hand Kneading

What’s with all these crazy recipes that require crazy stuff like electricity? Doesn’t anyone knead by hand anymore?

If you’ve found an intriguing recipe that requires a food processor or stand mixer, you can convert that recipe to hand kneading without too much trouble. Well, it will take more time and effort, but the converting isn’t too difficult.

The first thing that changes is the amount of time it will take to knead the dough enough to properly develop the gluten. If you’re converting a recipe from a stand mixer, it will be slightly longer – depending, of course, on how efficient you are at kneading. If you’re converting from a food processor recipe, it will take quite a bit longer.

The good thing about hand kneading is that you’ll feel the dough change as you work with it. For me, that’s one of the best things about kneading dough – feeling it change from that lumpy, sticky giant dumpling to something that is smooth and bouncy. While you have to stop the food processor or stand mixer to test your dough, you’ll feel it as it happens when you’re hand kneading.

If you’re not efficient at hand kneading, or your hands and wrists don’t appreciate the workout, you can shorten your time and effort by letting the dough do some of the work. After you’ve mixed the ingredients, knead long enough for the dough to become a cohesive mass, then cover it and walk away for 20 minutes. Then continue kneading. After that rest, the dough will have developed gluten on its own, and you won’t need to do as much work to get it done.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Slow-Roasted Lamb Ribs

You might never see lamb ribs at the grocery store. But if you did see them, how would you cook them? To be clear, I'm not talking about racks of lamb or any meaty hunks with ribs attached. I'm talking about just the ribs, like pork spare ribs.

I ended up with lamb ribs because I buy a whole lamb every year, and that means I get all the interesting parts that don't make it onto supermarket shelves.

You can find leg of lamb and lamb chops most of the time. You might find lamb shoulder or lamb steaks. But the odd parts go somewhere else. Maybe into stew or gyros meat. But when you buy a whole lamb, you get ribs and neckbones and some odd looking chops.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Apple Swirl French Toast

It's funny when multiple paths lead to a single destination.

First, I had this really nice Apple Butter Swirl Bread that needed to be used up. Not that I wanted it gone, necessarily, but I was itching to bake something else, and I didn't want bread to start piling up like I was hoarding it.

Second, the weekend Cook and Tell on Serious Eats was about using leftover bread. Well, lookie that, I have leftover bread!

Third, lunch time was rolling around, and I wanted something warm. There were bits and pieces of odd dinner leftovers at hand that I could have heated up, but there was that bread. And I didn't want toast.

Fourth, there were 13 eggs in the refrigerator, and that one lone egg in a big carton was bugging me. That egg had to go.

Fifth, there's a side contest at Kitchen Play sponsored by the American Egg Board about breakfast recipes using eggs.

So, let's see, leftover bread, warm food, eggs, breakfast... French Toast!

And meanwhile, I had a quart of kefir I need to use up. Kefir, if you're not familiar with it, is sort of like effervescent buttermilk. A slight fizziness, a nice tang ... and I figured that would offset some the sweetness of the bread, which would allow me to use even more maple syrup. Perfect.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Pepper-Pear Chicken

I've launched a little food-related project in conjunction with the folks at Fooducopia, a site where small food producers sell their products. My part in this is that I'll be creating recipes specifically for products sold on the Fooducopia site. This recipe features Roasted Pepper Pear Vinaigrette from A Perfect Pear.

The vinaigrette wasn't quite what I expected - in a good way. I expected it to be salad-dressing thin, but instead it was as thick as tomato sauce - maybe thicker. Thicker than what I'd put on a salad, but that makes it even more useful. I could see adding this to a vinegar and oil salad dressing to add flavor and body, or adding it to a creamy salad dressing to add flavor and a really interesting color.

But when I tasted it, I knew it had potential to be much more than an accompaniment to lettuce. Sure, you could use it to dress some greens, but why not dress up some chicken instead?

Years ago, I was quite fond of a chicken recipe that used yogurt as a coating for skinless chicken. The yogurt was mixed with a variety of spices, and the mixture was slathered on the chicken before it was baked. The yogurt was thick enough that it clung to the chicken and kept it from drying out while the spices added flavor. That recipe inspired this dish. But instead of a lot of different spices, I used the vinaigrette to provide all the flavor. It didn't need anything else, and the color was glorious.

This dish doesn't take a lot of time to prep, and the cooking is all hands-off - perfect for a day when you don't want to spend a lot of time in the kitchen. It would work just as well with any cut of chicken with or without skin or bones - you'd just need to adjust the cooking time. I used chicken breast halves including bone and skin.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Stacked Steak Bites

Another entry for the monthly contest on Kitchen Play. Ah, I love contests, and this one is fun because the original recipe only has to be an inspiration, so it's perfectly acceptable to wander into new territory. I like that. I do tend to wander, don't I?

This time, I didn't stray quite as far from the original recipe as I have with other entries. There's still steak, potato, and something in the onion family. And it's all nicely stacked. That's pretty close considering what I've done with other entries.

For this one, mine are a teeny bit larger than the original amuse bouche size and the shallots became onions in a cream and horseradish sauce. And the beef in question was a beef tenderloin. Left over, actually. Nothing wrong with that, if you ask me.

Oh, and before I forget, the contest is sponsored by Canadian Beef. Moo.

The tenderloin was from the small end - I had bought a whole tenderloin a while back and this was the piece I didn't use at the time. I cooked it yesterday for dinner, so I started with a fully cooked steak - it just needed the chill taken off before serving. That was easy to do. I just heated up a bit of oil in a cast iron pan, let it cook just a little bit on each side and then let it rest before slicing. It didn't cook any more except maybe the extra browning on the outside, but the inside was still nicely pink.

The tenderloin pieces I had were almost exactly the same diameter as the potato slices, so it made a nice stack. If your steak is a different shape or size, you'll have to adjust your slices to fit.

Obviously, I enter contests because I want to win (hey, there's $100 at stake here) but in this case, I'm glad I entered this because I probably wouldn't have brainstormed this combination on a normal day. My husband even commented that he couldn't figure out what I was cooking, but every time he came into the kitchen, something smelled really good. Onions always smell good, but the horseradish added a nice little kick, and the sour cream mellowed it out. And how can you argue with crispy potatoes and a bit of tenderloin.

Yeah, I'm glad I made this. I'm just sorry we ate it all. Sigh. I'll have to find another excuse to cook some of those onions again soon.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Apple Butter Swirl Bread

Last fall, I got a little carried away with buying apples from the farmer's market. I used some right away, froze more, and then made applesauce. There were still apples left, and storage space was getting eaten up faster than the apples, so I decided to make apple butter. Despite the name, there's no fat involved, It's just apples cooked down much further than applesauce.

You don't need to start with a home made apple butter - you'll probably find some at the grocery store. Some commercial apple butters include cinnamon and other spices, so choose one that suits your taste. If all you can find are plain sauces, you can add spices to taste. This time, I left it plain to let the apples shine through.

Most swirled bread recipes call for the dough to be rolled flat with a rolling pin before covering the dough with the swirl filling, but lately I haven't been happy with the texture of breads made that way. Sure, it works and it looks all precise and flat and square, but why mash it so violently when this dough stretches so willingly?

The resulting bread had a nice soft crumb, even between the closest swirls, with none of the typical smashed flat sections. I'm pretty pleased with this method. This is a great breakfast bread and makes an interesting grilled cheese sandwich, as well.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Clam Pasta

After using half of a 28-ounce can of baby clams for some clam chowder, I decided the rest of it should work its way into a pasta dish. I thought about hunting down a traditional recipe for linguine with clam sauce, but that urge didn't last long. Instead, I made my own version of ... something.

And since I didn't have any linguine-like pasta on hand, I made my own noodles, too. Check here for that recipe.

The sun-dried tomatoes I used in this recipe are the ones you'll find near the dried fruits or in the produce section. They're pliable and chewy, like tomato prunes. You could substitute the tomatoes packed in oil, if you prefer; I wouldn't recommend the ones that are completely hard and dry.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Technique: Converting Bread Recipes to the Stand Mixer

What if you just found the perfect recipe for an interesting bread dough, but the recipe isn’t written for your beloved stand mixer?

Converting from one kneading style to another isn't difficult. The two things that might change are the amount of time you knead, and the order you add ingredients.

When it comes to timing, it's best to judge by how the dough looks and feels, but it's useful to know when to stop and check the dough. If you’re converting a hand-kneaded recipe to the stand mixer, the kneading time is just a little bit shorter. If you’re converting from a food processor recipe, the kneading time will be considerably longer, but not much more work.

The good news is that since kneading progresses at a fairly slow pace, you can see the gluten developing and monitor its progress as it changes from a shaggy mass to a smooth, silky dough. And you can stop the mixer and reach in and feel the development as well, just as you would if you were hand kneading.

A good recipe will give you visual cues to look for that will indicate whether the dough has been kneaded enough. If not, you can still use the recipe's formula, but rely on your own cues to determine whether it has been kneaded enough. A dough that is fully kneaded (for a recipe that won’t have an overnight rest in the refrigerator) will be smooth and elastic. If you’re not sure, you can also use the windowpane test to determine whether the gluten has properly been developed.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Pasta! Pasta!

Home made pasta is very, very easy, if you've got the tools.

Rustic hand-rolled pasta offers a unique texture, but kneading pasta by hand isn't for everyone. Compared to bread dough, pasta dough can be pretty solid stuff.

While kneading bread dough with a stand mixer is easy, it doesn't do such a great job with pasta dough.

Ah, but a food processor! Now there's a device that can blast through dense pasta dough.

For the rolling, I used the pasta roller attachment for my KitchenAid stand mixer. Because a food processor can't do that, can it? And I used the pasta cutter attachment for the stand mixer to do the cutting.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Ma's Sugar Cookies

When I was growing up, my mother never baked. Ever. She was renowned for burning bake 'n serve dinner rolls. When I got old enough to follow the directions on the back of the box of cake mix, I became the cake baker in the family.

Imagine my surprise when I showed up one day and mom offered me a sugar cookie. And after I tried it, she proudly announced that she had baked it. At over 60 years of age, she made her first from-scratch cookies, and she was happy as heck that they turned out.

I wanted to scoff at her sudden baking, but I had to admit that they were pretty good.

I have no idea where she got the recipe. Apparently it was something her bingo-hall buddies were all making, and she was more than happy to share the recipe with me.

This cookie is fairly plain. It's a sugar cookie, after all. But that just means you can fancy it up with whatever you please. Plain sugar is normal, but why not use colored sugar to match the holiday or your mood. Or instead of vanilla extract, pick another flavor. These would be nice with lemon, orange, almond - or just about anything else that you like.

Ma's Sugar Cookies

1 cup butter
1 cup vegetable oil
1 cup sugar
1 cup powdered sugar
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1 /2 teaspoons kosher salt
Sugar (colored or plan)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees and line your baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a medium bowl, cream together the butter, oil, and sugars. Add the eggs and vanilla extract and beat until combined.

In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, and salt. Still well to distribute the salt and baking powder, then add this mixture to the wet ingredients, Stir well to combine.

You can bake immediately, or chill the dough first, your choice.

Using a small scoop, place tablespoon-sized scoops onto the prepared baking sheets, leaving plenty of space between the cookies for them to spread. You can also use a spoon to do the scooping. Or, after the dough has chilled thoroughly, you can scoop out portions and roll them into balls with your hands.

Sprinkle sugar on top of the cookies, then flatten them with the bottom of a drinking glass, a flat measuring cup, or a spatula. Sprinkle on more sugar, if desired.

Bake at 375 degrees for 10-12 minutes until the cookies are just barely browned on the edges. Remove them to a rack to cool. The cookies will be very soft when they're warm, but they will harden as they cool.

This recipe can be halved for a smaller batch of cookies.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Corn Flour Dumplings (with cheese!)

I've been on a dumpling kick lately. First, I put them in my soup. Then I decided to put dumplings on top of my chili. Yes, chili. But this time around, they were cornier and denser. More like floating islands of cornbread, really.

One thing I learned, though, is that dumplings are hard to photograph. Bread, I can move and slice and take my time with. Dumpling need to be eaten hot, so there's just so much time for photos before it's time to serve.

And even the best dumplings are sort of blobby looking. There's not a lot of texture that makes the photos interesting. And while they look immensely appetizing while they're floating in the soup or stew, the photos I took didn't have the same appeal.

So, yeah forgive the photo quality on this one.It's the best I could do. And now we're out of chili, so I won't be making them again for a while.

Keep in mind that these dumplings aren't light and fluffy like normal dumplings - they're a lot more like cornbread, which is great for something hearty like chili. Also keep in mind that whatever you're cooking them on needs to simmer for a while, so if you've got something thick and prone to sticking to the bottom of the pan, maybe you want to add a little extra water so it won't burn on the bottom.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

From an Old Notebook: Cream Cheese Kolacky

A week or so ago, I got an email from one of the ladies who runs the used book sale at the local grange. For locals, I'm referring to the Left Hand Grange in Niwot. She'd been sorting through books for sale and found a little notebook filled with handwritten recipes. She asked if I wanted it.

Now, let me think about this ... of course, I want it!

Recipes ranged from simple to extremely complicated. And by complicated, I mean stretched strudel pastry. That's hard core cooking. After my last unfortunate bout with handwritten recipes from an unknown source, I decided to start with something simple, and something that I was pretty familiar with. I went with what the notebook-writer called Cream Cheese Kolacky.

These cookies are similar to what I call kolaczki, but the these are very flaky and pastry-like, while the kolaczki I make are a little more like shortbread. I like both. I'll definitely make these again.

Non-professional recipes like this are interesting. Since the writer was probably writing for herself, she didn't need to include a whole lot of details. Like ... butter? I'm betting she used salted butter. But I used unsalted and added 1/4 teaspoon of salt to the dough.

The instructions also needed a little help. So here's my version.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Sprouted Wheat Bread

This bread is a perfect example of how far you can break the rules and still end up with a really great loaf of bread. Recipes are formulas, but they're also guidelines. Never be afraid to adapt and adjust a recipe to fit your ingredients, your tastes, or you schedule.

In this case, I wanted a fresh loaf of bread for dinner, but I had a chunk of time where I was going to be away from the rising dough - and then I knew I'd need to bake soon after, or the bread wouldn't be done when dinner was served.

Spouted wheat flour was a new ingredient for me. Sprouted grains are touted as having all sorts of health benefits compared to the unsprouted grains. One source explained that it's easier to digest - more like a vegetable than a grain. The sprouted grains are also richer in certain vitamins.

But I was more interested in what it tasted like. And the texture. This bread was a little sweeter than a normal whole wheat loaf - or maybe it was just less bitter. And there was another interesting flavor that I couldn't quite pinpoint. Nutty, maybe. Or vaguely like sesame seeds. The texture wasn't quite like plain white bread, but it also wasn't as rough as a normal whole wheat loaf. Overall, I thought it was pretty darned good.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Dumplings (with corn flour)

Ah, dumplings. There's just something about a pillowy dumpling floating on top of a pot of soup or stew that makes the meal so much more ... homey. I mean, rice and noodles and potatoes are fine. Bread's a good friend of mine. But dumplings... That's a whole different category of food.

When I was growing up, my mother made dumplings to go on top of beef stew or chicken soup once in a while. Her recipe was the one on the Bisquick box. I don't think she ever made anything else from Bisquick - she never made waffles, and the pancakes she made were potato pancakes. No Bisquick there. And I can ever remember her making biscuits, either.

Nope, that box was all about dumplings.

When I moved out on my own, I bought my very own box of Bisquick. It seemed like the right thing to do. Some time after that, I discovered the "impossible" pies, where you mixed a bunch of stuff along with Bisquick, and it made a crust. I recall being very fond of the tamale pie.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Chopped All Stars

I usually don't publish press releases here, but this one amuses the heck out of me. In March, Chopped contestants are going to be some names you might know - including some of the Chopped judges. And some Food Network Regulars, too.

I'll be looking forward to this one.

Here's the what the press release said:

A Chopped event like no other, Chopped All-Stars features unbeatable drama, a $50,000 charitable cash prize and 16 celebrated chefs familiar to Food Network fans. In this fierce five-part competition hosted by Ted Allen, premiering March 6 at 9pm ET/PT, four chefs go head-to-head in each round with an unthinkable array of mystery basket ingredients.

The champion from each round advances to the finale for a chance at taking home the prize and coveted title. From teething biscuits and rabbit kidneys to dried hibiscus flowers and cobia, these chefs must crank up the heat and get creative to avoid the chopping block.

Chicago-Style Italian Beef

When we visited Chicago over the summer, we brought back all sort of food, including some Italian beef for sandwiches. I also stocked up on some peppers that are hard to find here, including the "authentic" hot giardiniera peppers for the sandwiches.

So here it is, on home made bread (of course):



It's pretty simple, just the beef, plenty of juice, hot giardiniera, and sweet bell peppers. That's it.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Technique: Converting Bread Recipes to the Food Processor

Most dough recipes don't give you options for kneading. Usually they're written for one type of machine or they're written for hand kneading, without a machine in sight. What if the recipe sounds wonderful, but you don't have the proper equipment?

I've seen very few dough recipes that would be impossible to convert from one method to another. Well, no-knead would be a little silly in the bowl of your food processor, but otherwise it's just a matter of changing a few things to convert from one style of kneading to the other.

Generally, the things that need to be changed are the amount of time you need to knead and the order you add ingredients.

But here's the thing about timing: in my opinion, any recipe that tells you to knead for a specific amount of time but doesn't give you any visual cues isn't a good recipe. There are too many variables that affect the gluten development, so time is not the best indicator. Sure, you can give a rough estimate so someone knows if they'll be kneading for 30 seconds or 20 minutes, but precise timing is impossible if you're using someone else's recipe.

Yes, there are exceptions to my "it's a bad recipe" rule. Not many. Kneading early in the process may be all about mixing and less about gluten development, so watching the clock is fine. But instructions to knead for 10 minutes before shaping a loaf is much less useful.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Beef Teriyaki over Bulgur

I just happened to have a hunk 'o beef waiting for me to do something with it, and the Kitchen Play contest this month is all about beef. Well, Canadian Beef, actually. But considering that this piece of meat came out of my freezer, I can't really say what country it come from. But most of the beef at the grocery store lists the country of origin as "USA, Canada, or Mexico," so there's a chance it was Canadian beef.

But what to make? Weather here has been sort of nasty, so it was a little bit about what I had on hand that would fit the contest. When I saw the Thai-Inspired Beef and Vegetable Soup, I thought it looked interesting. I had soup already made, so I didn't want more soup. But then I realized that the ginger and garlic that flavored the soup were also in my home made teriyaki sauce. And I had that in stock.

Oh, and by the way, the hunk 'o beef in question was a strip steak.

I didn't have any rice noodles, though, and the beef teriyaki needed a neutral companion. I had bulgur wheat already cooked and waiting for me. Even better. With the bulgur already cooked and the teriyaki waiting, this was a pretty quick meal to put together.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Broccoli and Zucchini with Pesto

I've launched a little food-related project in conjunction with the folks at Fooducopia, a site where small food producers sell their products. My part in this is that I'll be creating recipes specifically for products sold on the Fooducopia site. This recipe features Bianca's Gourmet Pesto Piccante.

Pesto elevates a simple vegetable dish to something company worthy. The first time I ever had pesto, it was in an Italian restaurant that served broccoli with pesto as one of its many side dishes. I couldn't get enough of it - I thought it was a perfect paring.

Since then, I've had pesto with everything from appetizers to pastas to sandwiches. But somehow I keep pairing it with broccoli, whether that broccoli is on its own, or whether it's part of a pasta dish. Here, the broccoli and pesto are the stars of the dish.

This particular pesto has a bit of heat - a touch of red pepper add a kick and a little bit of color as well. You don't need a lot to add a lot of flavor.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Ridiculously Delicious Challenge - It's ON!

Squeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! 

Ahem. 'Scuse me. I get a little overexcited sometimes.

The Marx Foods Ridiculously Delicious Challenge has been announced, and since I won something in one of the previous contests, I get to play in this one as well.

And part of the squee-ing is about the prizes. Oh my gosh - it's like a treasure chest of foodie fantasy feasting. And it's not like they've picked out something for you, YOU get to pick what you want. Or, rather, I get to pick three from their list, and if I win, I get those three items as prizes. squeeeeeee!!!

You, on the other hand, will have to settle for drooling over your keyboard when I post about the wondrous things I do with my amazingly delicious prizes. Yanno, if I win. Otherwise we're all in the same fantasyland boat, ogling the selections and trying to decide which of these splurges will fit into the budget first.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Home Made Pizza Rolls

I love a challenge. When the folks at Serious Eats suggested that I come up with a recipe for home made pizza rolls for a Superbowl snack, I thought it would be an interesting project. But the first thing I had to do was sample some pizza rolls because apparently they're now made by a company called Totino's. The last time I ate pizza rolls, they were made by a company called Gino's.

Yes it's been that long.

I found the pizza rolls without any problem, but I was a little surprised that there weren't more flavor options, I mean, pizza comes in a multitude of flavors, but the only options I saw were pepperoni with sausage or plain pepperoni. No vegetable option? No mushrooms? Nothing spicy? I guess that's just another reason for making your own.

I bought a box of 'em, and when I started reading the directions, I realized it was the ingredients list. Seriously, the ingredients are like a novel. There aren't that many ingredients in my refrigerator. It seems impossible that anything that small could have that many components.

But how did they taste? "Not as bad as I expected," my husband said. I found them oddly addicting, in a curious sort of way. I kept nibbling at them, trying to figure out what they reminded me of. Pizza? Um, no. Well, maybe, sort of. Vaguely.

I figured I could do better with the filling, for sure. I decided to do a classic sausage and cheese filling, with tomato sauce, of course. Next time I'll get more creative. And I used my "cheater" pizza sauce, which is tomato puree seasoned with Penzey's pizza seasoning. I mean, really, they're pizza rolls. No need to pull out the fancy stuff.

The crust had me puzzled, though. What the heck was that? The pizza rolls are baked, but the crust-like stuff seemed like it was precooked in some way. And maybe a little greasy. Fried? Hmmmm.
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