Thursday, December 24, 2009

Happy Holidays

Hi Everyone,

Best wishes for a wonderful holiday, hopefully with family, friends and good food!  I will be away for a couple of days so see you in the New Year!

Happy, Merry y'all!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Plan B

Pick up any cookbook about entertaining and it will always tell you NEVER try out a new recipe on company.  Although I never follow it, sometimes this is good advice.  I, however, have always boldly gone where no cookbook will ever tell you to go - and that means I have never thought twice about making something I haven't made before ... even if company is coming.

Which brings me to the ten-thousand layer "chocolate little layer cake" that I so enthusiastically mentioned in the last two posts.

On the spur of the moment ( like last Wednesday, when I read about it in The Times), I decided to make it for my friend Jon's birthday.  A group of us were going out to dinner on Saturday, then coming back to our house to celebrate the end of Hannukah (even though it had ended the night before).  Since Jon's birthday was in the mix, it only made sense to have a birthday cake for him as well.

So I spent the entire day on Friday in cake hell.  It started off well enough.  I greased and papered all 10 of my 9-inch cake pans.  I mixed the dough in my Kitchenaid, wondering if it could handle the capacity.  It did.  But the dough (shouldn't it have been cake batter?) came out really heavy, like something you would use to grout the tile in your bathroom.  Undaunted (although I should have gotten a clue from that), I forged ahead.  I baked all of those 14 layers and they slid out of the pans beautifully.  I set them out to cool and began working on the frosting.

OMG.  Believe everything they said in the article about boiled frosting.  Cake goddess Nancy McDermott (whom I met a couple of years ago) said it is the most temperamental frosting EVER.  I blew her comment off when I read it, but I now come crawling back in humble agreement.  I ended up making the stuff twice.

The real issue is that you have only a VERY short window of time when it is spreadable.  Other than that brief five minutes or so, it is either thin and runny or so thick that you can hardly get a spoon into it.  I managed to spread it between all of those (seemed like hundreds) cake layers, then had to reheat it and let it cool again before I could spread it over the top and sides of the cake.  But, I managed to get it done.

And it looked like a winner.  And if you compare this with the picture of the cake in the Times article, mine looks pretty damn close.

That's the good news.  Remember, I have said all along that I will share the good, the bad and the ugly.  Okay, so no ugly here, but the bad news is twofold.  First of all, the layers were DRY.  Like totally.  I baked them for 8 minutes and they tasted like cardboard rounds.  One bite and you felt like you were out on the desert, begging for water.  Second?  When the frosting solidified, it became grainy and sugary.  It was almost caramelized and you could barely discern the chocolate.

When I went back and looked at the photo of the cake in The Times, I could see that in the frosting.  Duh, how come I missed that before I started this silly process?

By Friday night, I came to the tragic realization that I could not serve this combination of sheet rock and grainy paste to my guests on Saturday, no matter how stunning it looked.  So yet once again, I gave up my favorite step class on Saturday morning and stayed home to make another birthday cake.  This time I used a recipe from my food maven Ina Garten and it turned out beautifully....

Just to hedge my bets though, I launched Plan B.  I decided that we should have DOUGHNUTS for the "sort of" last night of Hannukah.  Better yet, I decided that we should all make them together.  (This of course, would be after we had all had copious amounts of alcohol and wine at dinner).  I set up prep stations in my (crappy) kitchen, provided everyone with aprons and let them have at it (with some guidance from me, of course).  It was a huge success.  We all had a great time and the doughnuts were AWESOME!  By the time everyone was flushed with their accomplishments, no one cared about the failed cake anyway!

And did I learn a lessson?  Well, no.  I had never made the doughnut recipe before, either.....

GINGER DOUGHNUTS  (from Gourmet Today)

4 cups all-purpose, unbleached flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup crystallized ginger, chopped
3/4 cup buttermilk
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 eggs
3 quarts vegetable oil, for frying

In a large bowl, whisk together four, baking powder, baking soda, salt and 1 teaspoon of the ginger.  Set aside.

In another bowl, whisk together 1 cup of the sugar and remaining teaspoon of ginger to use for coating doughnuts after they are fried.

Pulse crystallized ginger in food processor.  Transfer to a bowl and whisk in buttermilk, melted butter and eggs until smooth.  Add this to flour mixture and stir until a dough forms.

Turn dough out onto floured board.  Knead briefly until it forms a ball and is no longer sticky.  Flatten and roll into a 1/2-inch oval.  Cut into three-inch rounds, then use a 1/2-inch cutter to cut out centers.  Re-roll dough once again, cutting as above.

Heat oil in a deep pan to 375-degrees.  Fry doughnuts and doughnut holes in batches, turning with a slotted spoon once, until golden brown, about 1 1/2 minutes per batch.  Drain on paper towels and roll in reserved sugar/ginger mixture.

If I could remember how many this served, I would tell you.  Oh well!

And so, of course, I had both CAKE and DOUGHNUTS this weekend.  How's the diet going, Liz?

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Here's What I Did Yesterday

It was a marathon.  Four pans of toffee with fleur de sel, 2 dozen peanut butter chocolate kiss cookies and (drum roll, please)..................
THE CAKE!!!!!!!!!!!!

Oh, I have so much to tell you about making it!  But, I am in the weeds right now with all of my holiday baking so I will post the whole story later this weekend.  That's a promise!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Here Comes the Next Trainwreck

Take a look at this article by Kim Severson which ran in this morning's NY Times.  It is a beautiful article about the ladies of Hartford, Alabama and the wonderful southern cakes they make for the holidays. 

I am so inspired by this.  Coincidentally, I have to make a birthday cake for a friend this weekend. 

Uh-oh.  You know where I am going with this...

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


Toffee is all packaged up and ready to go to the VA with me tomorrow.  I doubled the recipe and ended up with enough candy to fill nine 6-inch round tins (if we had eaten a litle less, I probably could have cobbled together one more but hey, you try making it and not eating any). 

Just wanted to give you the count so you know what to expect if you make it.

And isn't it amazing how you can transform something with just a little gold and white iridescent ribbon?  I probably could have put chocolate covered dog food in there and no one would notice......

Happy Holiday baking, y'all!

P. S.  Oh no!  Henry just showed up with the CSA bounty for the week and guess what's in it?  Another dinosaur egg.  Damn!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Christmas Trees and Hannukah Candles

I am a Jew by choice.  I converted a number of years ago and have never looked back.  We all have our reasons for doing what we do and I do not feel the need to explain my actions.  I did what I wanted to do for me and that's that.

However, if you've been reading my blog for awhile, then you know my maiden name is "Cromwell."  Clearly, not the stuff Jews are made of.  Which means I spent most of my life celebrating Christmas.  Indeed, when our kids were growing up, we celebrated both holidays - Christmas and Hannukah.  But, let's call it like it is (or was).  Hannukah?  Not so much.  Christmas was the holiday that ruled and of course it had to do with the excitement of leaving cookies out for Santa and the plethora of presents on Christmas morning.  I'll leave it at that.

And then they grew up.  And left our house.  By that time, I was officially Jewish anyway, so no more Christmas holidays here.

 I will confess I have silently breathed a sigh of relief that I haven't had to do the frenzied shopping thing for years now.  Folks will ask me if I have finished my Christmas shopping and I will just smile, knowing that I am immune.

Oh, but wait.  Holy crap.  I forgot about the mailman, the hairdresser, the dry cleaning guy, the yard crew, the folks at the VA where I volunteer, my mother and a host of others whom I care about and who are deserving of some kind of gift from me.  Oy veh.  I always think that I'm exempt and don't have to deal with any of it until the reality comes crashing down on me - hard - usually a week or so away from December 25th.  As you can probably guess, that's where I found myself today.

First, though, let me digress (I'm good at that, right?).  As I was walking up to the entrance of Whole Paycheck Foods the other day, I was all but accosted by a slew of little, tiny Christmas trees.  I'm talking about the size you can place on a desk or a table.  I wavered.  We haven't had a Christmas tree in years.  I caved.  It's kind of like eating a broken cookie - it doesn't count.  Same with a miniscule tree, yes?

So I bought it.  And then had to head to Target for little, tiny ornaments (the heirloom ones ensconced in my attic are way too big).  But WTF????  They were totally sold out of little white lights.  WTF????

Turns out that's not uncommon.  My friend Olive explained to me today that she buys her lights 6 months in advance because they always are sold out.  Who knew?

In any event, I managed to find some (crappy) ones at the local Kroger.  I got the tree decorated.  And then I came home today and made some really good English Toffee with Fleur de Sel to package up as gifts for everyone.  Here's the recipe.  And it doesn't discriminate between Christmas or Hannukah, either.

English Toffee with Fleur de Sel
2 cups (4 sticks) unsalted butter
2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
12 oz. semi-sweet chocolate chips
Fleur de Sel

Heat butter, sugar and salt in a saucepan over medium high heat.  Cook and stir until mixture reaches 310-degrees (hard-crack stage).  Divide between 2 sheet pans which have been greased (or preferably lined with Sil-Pats).  Use a small offset spatula to spread caramel evenly.

As soon as caramel is cool to the touch (this will only take a couple of minutes), flip it over to prevent sticking. If you wait too long, it will harden and you won't be able to flip it without cracking.  It needs to be cool, but still pliable.

In the meantime, melt the chocolate. 

After caramel is cool, blot off excess butter with paper towels.  Pour half of chocolate over each pan and spread out with a spatula.  Sprinkle Fleur de Sel evenly over.

Place pans in refrigerator to cool and harden, about 30 minutes.  Break into shards and uneven pieces.  Try to refrain from eating most of it as you do this.

Yield:  a whole bunch.  Enough for lots of gifts if you don't decide to keep it all for yourself.


Does anyone out there make bread at home anymore?  I do.  Well, not often but certainly around the holidays.  Or when I am having a dinner party (which doesn't seem to be often any more - I must be getting lazy).  And sure, you can make a pan or two of homemade rolls but why go to the trouble of shaping and forming them when all you have to do is whip up a quick dough in your electric mixer, let it rise, throw it in a pan, pat it out, top it with whatever and stick it in the oven.  Voila!  You have just made flatbread which is both a showstopper and a cinch.

What I am giving you here is a basic flatbread recipe.  It's the one we used at Watershed when I worked there and it is easy and delicious.  Don't be afraid of it because if you follow the recipe, it will turn out beautifully every time. 

Flatbread (adapted from Watershed Restaurant, Decatur, GA)

1/3 cup warm water (105-115 degrees.  Use a thermometer.  Don't guess)
1 packet yeast (not rapid-rising)
2 lbs. unbleached, all-purpose flour
2 1/3 cups water, room temperature
1/4 cup extra-virgin oil, plus more for rising
1 tablespoon sea salt

Place the 1/3 cup of water in the bowl of electric mixer.  Add yeast and mix briefly to blend then let sit for 5 minutes.  Add flour, remaining water, olive oil and salt.  Turn on mixer just to combine then turn mixer off and let sit for 10 minutes.  Then mix on low speed for 8 minutes.

Oil a large container or bowl.  Place dough inside and cover.  Place in a warm place (not in the oven, however) and let rise until doubled, about 90 minutes.

Here's what it looks like before and after rising

Generously grease a baking sheet (I use a half sheet pan) with olive oil.  Place dough in pan and press out as much as possible.  Let rest for 10 minutes.  Keep repeating until dough covers the entire pan, about 30-40 minutes.  Dimple well with your fingertips and sprinkle with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.  Spread topping over.  Bread is ready to bake when it has risen to the edge of the pan.

Place in oven preheated to 375-degrees.  Bake for 45-50 minutes, turning pan once until browned, golden and done in the middle.

Cool slightly, then use run a large spatula around sides and underneath flatbread until it comes loose.  Turn out onto a cutting board and cut with a serrated knife as desired.

Serves 12-16.

Oh, but now for the fun part!  You can top this with just about anything you like and you can serve this in several different ways:

1)  Cut it into small squares or rectangles and you have a terrific appetizer. 
2)  Take it a step further, cut those squares in half, spread with goat cheese or whatever you can think of and now you have gorgeous little mini-sandwiches. 
3)  Slice the entire thing lengthwise, then cut crosswise into 1/2-inch strips.  Lay strips flat on a baking sheet, brush with olive oil or butter, bake at 350-degrees for 8-10 minutes and you have crunchy and crispy flatbread sticks.  Serve as an appetizer or alongside a steaming bowl of soup or pasta. 
4)  Add a sweet topping (like the roasted grape idea below) and serve warm squares of it with a soft, runny cheese for dessert, along with a yummy dessert wine.

Here are two ideas to get you started:

Fresh Herb Topping

1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 shallots, thinly sliced
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Lots of kosher salt

Mix well and spread over unbaked flatbread dough.

Roasted Grape Topping

1 bunch (about 4 cups) red seedless grapes
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
Kosher salt
1 cup coarsely chopped pecans
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
2 tablespoons lemon or orange zest
1/2 cup turbinado (raw) sugar
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Place grapes in a bowl.  Toss with olive oil, chopped thyme and kosher salt to taste.  Spread out on a baking sheet and roast in oven preheated to 350-degrees for 15-20 minutes, shaking pan once.  Remove from oven and let cool. 

Scatter roasted grapes over unbaked flatbread then sprinkle over pecans, rosemary, zest and sugar.  Season generously with salt and pepper then bake as directed above.  (Note:  this would also be delicious with crumbled goat cheese sprinkled over as well).

This is what I made last week.  Crap, why did I give it away?  What was I thinking?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Roasted Grapes and Dinosaur Eggs

I don't know about you, but when it's cold, rainy and blustery outside, all I want to do is hunker down inside.  Preferably in the warmest room in the house (unfortunately that would be Henry's bathroom, but you get my point).  That is exactly what I did the other day when the weather looked like this:
Of course I didn't hide in Henry's bathroom all day.  Not even with a book.  Heck no.  I headed to the kitchen.  What else was I supposed to do?  I wasn't about to clean the house (bleh!), I don't watch soaps (or reality shows either unless you count the Food Network and Top Chef - go Kevin, you should have won) and I don't sit around eating bonbons (I wish, but I'm not going to bitch about the diet again).  No, it was the perfect opportunity to create havoc in the kitchen which for me meant figuring out what to do with that g-d dinosaur egg that showed up in our recent CSA delivery.

This is a Jarrahdale squash which is an heirloom variety from Australia.
I photographed it next to a lemon so you could better gauge its size!

I wasn't sure that even my trusty cleaver could beat it into submission,
but it did not fail me.
You should have heard the banging as I kept slamming it down on the counter to try and split it open.  My dogs ran for the hills!  But I did manage to keep all of my fingers intact...

Yup, these are the dogs. 
Saber (the black and white one) is the rescue dog who thinks he is one of the little white "foof" dogs. 
Sweet, but definitely not the alpha!
Can you guess which one is?

I'll tell you the truth.  Before I managed to hack the thing up (not one of the dogs), I thought seriously about saving myself a lot of trouble and just throwing it away. (I know, that's blasphemy, but it's how my mind works sometimes).  I didn't, though.  Even though I had no idea what it tasted like or what to do with it.

I decided to cut it into chunks and roast it along with some olive oil, shallots, salt and pepper.  I figured it would bring out any flavor it might have and leave me with lots of options later.  I still had no idea where I was headed with this.

I roasted it for 30 minutes, stirred it, added parsley, thyme and rosemary
then roasted for another 30 minutes.

As you can see from the photos, there was a LOT of this stuff.  Which meant there was way too much for something like a risotto (one of my favorite things).  Nope, it meant soup was the likely option so I could use it all up at once.  I did NOT want to have to eat it for the next two weeks.

This is my "on the fly" recipe.  I use the word "recipe" lightly, because this really isn't.  It's just a basic guideline that you can use as a base to make any kind of squash soup you like.  It is based on the quantity of squash that I had to work with, but you might want to use a lot less.  I kinda look at squash as a blank canvas.  It doesn't have a lot of definitive taste, but it has a great texture and it soaks up lots of flavors.  Have at it!

"Dinosaur" Squash Soup

10 cups peeled and cubed squash
8 shallots, peeled and quartered
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Fresh herbs of choice:  parsley, thyme, sage, rosemary
10 cups stock (chicken or vegetable)
2 T. orange zest
Ground ginger, sage and poultry seasoning
1 cup half-and-half
4 oz. proscuitto or bacon, diced

Preheat oven to 350-degrees.  Divide squash and shallots between two trays lined with parchment paper.  Drizzle with olive oil and season generously with salt and pepper.  Roast for 30 minutes.

Remove from oven and add fresh herbs of choice.  Stir, then return to oven and roast for another 20-30 minutes until squash is caramelized and tender.  Remove from oven, let cool slightly then transfer into a dutch oven or stockpot.  Add stock to cover, then add orange zest and dried herbs to taste.

Transfer soup in batches to a blender and puree well (alternatively you can use an immersion blender and puree it directly in the pot).  Stir in half-and-half and correct seasonings.  Reheat as needed.

In the meantime, place proscuitto in a dry non-stick pan over medium-low heat.  Cook, stirring often, until fat is rendered and proscuitto is crisp.  Remove to paper towels to drain.

Place soup in serving bowls and garnish with the crispy proscuitto pieces (the more, the better, if you ask me).

Yield:  about 1/2 gallon

Remember, you can add just about anything to this - apples, parsnips, sweet potatoes, garlic, leeks - whatever you like.

But what is soup without bread?  And what's better than the smell of bread baking in the oven on a miserable day?  I perused the fridge and came up with a bowl of aging red grapes.  Oops, better use them fast or they will end up in the trash and I will have to feel guilty.  If I didn't throw the squash away, then I better not do it with the grapes!  So I made flatbread with roasted grapes and pecans.  Its sweetness played well off the sweetness of the soup.  It was yummy.  Here's a preview. 

And now you know the subject of the next post.  But for now I am headed out to deliver most of that flatbread to some of my Facebook friends down the street because I can't keep it here or I will eat it.  So you'll just have to wait for the recipe.  Consider it your contribution to keeping me on the diet!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Terrified and Electrified

I'll just cut to the chase.  Here is what I posted on Facebook last night:

"OMG.  I have gone and done it.  I am heading to Cambodia in January (sans Henry) on a humanitarian trip to help women and children over there.  We visited Cambodia a few years ago and fell in love with the country and its people.  Now it's time to go beyond and do what I can to improve their quality of life.

I am terrified and electrified."

My friend, Joyce, nailed it.  She said, "talk about testing yourself!"

No kidding.  I am terrified about traveling over there alone.  But, I can do this.  I won't have the security blanket of Henry by my side, but I can do this.  I have been a woman on a mission for the last few days, dealing with all of the details and making this a reality.  I am passionate about this.  I know it is what I am supposed to being doing.  It's just a little scary that it is halfway around the world.  But, I can do this.

My friend Tim left me a voicemail today saying "I know this is just a scam, you're not really going over there to help people.  You're really going to learn about the food and then you will come back and meld Southern cooking with Cambodian cooking."

Fried banana blossoms, anyone?

I think this comes under the heading of "be careful of what you want, you just might get it."

Well, I've got it.  Now I have to run with it.  Wish me luck.

But of course, think about the recipes I will post when I return!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


Yeah, I'm posting two nights in a row.  Don't die from the shock.

But as I have said here before, I can only post when the mood strikes me.  Bring on the wine!

I had the great luxury of getting my hair cut and colored today.  Well, it isn't so much a luxury anymore as it is a necessity.  I am probably totally gray, but trust me, I will never, EVER know for sure.  Thanks to my wonderful friend Charlene, I can keep these long, red locks flowing.  Long, straight and sexy hair -- oh yeah!

As I sat with all of those chemicals on my head, I perused the latest copy of Bon Appetit.  Mind you, while I lamented the demise of Gourmet in an earlier post, I had not renewed my Bon Appetit subscription.  I mean, how many recipes do I need, really?

So I thumbed through the December issue.  My plan was to hit Whole Paycheck Foods afterwards and pick up something to make for dinner.  I came across their recipe for Barley and Mushroom Stew (at least I think that's what they called it - I don't really know).  I had a pad in my purse, so I scribbled down the basics. 

Fast forward to this evening.  While listening to Obama lay out his strategy for Afghanistan, I quietly put the ingredients together.  As always, I will refrain from political comment here but I guess it is safe to say that I still have a lot of mason jar cakes to send to our troops over there.  Again, no further comment.

But the barley and mushroom stew?  Oh yeah!  It was comforting, it was healthy and it was DELICIOUS! I was so happy about it that I had to share the recipe  - immediately!  It gave me great comfort on a night when I needed it.

So here it is:

Barley and Mushroom Stew (Adapted from Bon Appetit)

1 T. olive oil
2 leeks, sliced and washed
2 cups sliced crimini mushrooms
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon rosemary, finely chopped
1 cup pearl barley
6 cups chicken or vegetable stock
4 cups chopped kale
2 tablespoons good red wine vinegar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Red pepper flakes, to taste
Grated Parmigiano Reggiano

Heat olive oil in a saute pan.  Add leeks and cook over medium-low heat until wilted.  Add mushrooms and season well with salt and pepper.  Cook, stirring often until mushrooms are tender.  And garlic and rosemary and cook for 1 minute more.

Add barley and stock.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer.  Cover and cook until barley is tender, about 15 minutes.  Add chopped kale, cover again and simmer until kale is tender, about 10 minutes.  Add vinegar.

Season well again with red pepper flakes, salt and pepper.  Spoon into bowls and top with freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano.

Yield:  6 servings

Take great joy in comfort food these days.
And this is comfort food that is guilt-free!