Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Best Thing I Ever Ate

Sounds like a good title for a show. Guess the folks at the Food Network knew what they were doing when they came up with this one. I hold that opinion because I just happened to catch a random episode of it recently (while I was doing all of that endless Thanksgiving prep) and saw the segment where the “Sweet and Salty Brownie” from Baked was featured.

Sweet and Salty Brownie? Woohoo, right up my alley! I immediately jumped online to find the source of this. I had to get my hands on that recipe.

The geniuses of this creation are Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito who own the renowned Baked in Brooklyn (Red Hook) and another one in my beloved Charleston S.C. I couldn’t wait for Amazon to deliver their two cookbooks to me, so I ran out to my local (sadly, big box) bookstore and bought them right then and there. Sometimes it’s all about immediate gratification, yes?

As you know, I have a pretty extensive cookbook collection and have sworn off buying any new ones. Well, until these two came along: “Baked – New Frontiers in Baking” and “Baked Explorations.” So much for my resolve. I picked up the latter (because it had the brownie recipe in it) and began reading. I will tell you right now that I haven’t been so inspired by a cookbook in a very long time. It made me want to start baking on the spot. You can be sure I will be baking my way through this thing and screw the calories!

Of course, I started with those brownies. Oh. My. God. They are (as advertised) sweet and salty but also intensely chocolate-y, smooth, unctuous, crunchy with salt and altogether orgasmic. Yep. They are that good.  Seriously.


For the caramel filling:
1 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
½ cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon fleur de sel
¼ cup sour cream

In a medium saucepan, combine sugar and corn syrup with ¼ cup water, stirring them together carefully so you don’t splash the sides of the pan. Cook over high heat until an instant-read thermometer reads 350-degrees or mixture is dark amber in color. Keep a close eye as it can burn in an instant. Remove from heat and slowly add the cream. Be careful as it will bubble up then add fleur de sel. Whisk in the sour cream and set aside to cool.

For the brownie:
1 ¼ cups all purpose, unbleached flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons dark unsweetened cocoa (preferably Valrhona)
11 oz. bittersweet chocolate (60 – 72%), coarsely chopped
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 ½ cups granulated sugar
½ cup firmly packed light brown sugar
5 large eggs, room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350-degrees. Line a 13 x 9 x 2-inch pan with heavy duty foil to overhang sides. Grease or butter well.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, salt and cocoa.

In a large pan over very low heat, add chocolate and butter and stir until melted and combined. Add both sugars and whisk until combined. Remove heat and let cool then whisk in eggs, one by one. Add vanilla and stir until just combined. Do not overbeat or your brownies will be cakey.

Sprinkle the flour mixture over chocolate. Use a spatula to fold the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients. Do not overmix.

For the assembly:
1 ½ teaspoons fleur de sel
1 teaspoon coarse sugar (I used Turbinado)

Pour half of the batter into the prepared pan and smooth top with an offset spatula. Drizzle the cooled caramel sauce over and use an offset spatula to smooth it over the batter, taking care that it doesn’t come into contact with the edges of the pan or it will burn. Scoop the remaining batter over the caramel layer and smooth gently to cover caramel.

Bake for 30 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through baking. Do not overbake. You can test by sticking a toothpick into the center of the pan. If it comes out with a few moist crumbs, it is done.

Remove brownies from the oven and sprinkle with the fleur de sel and coarse sugar.

Cool completely (I would recommend refrigerating overnight) then remove from pan and cut into squares.

Store in refrigerator. These will keep for up to a week, which is not a good thing if you are trying to count your calories. They will be calling your name every time you open that refrigerator door. Trust me, I know about that.

This brings up an interesting question, though.  What is the best thing you ever ate?  Could you limit it to just one thing?  For me, I'm thinking it might be the first risotto I ever had while sitting outside at a lovely cafe in Venice a million years ago.  Oh, but what about the "Coffee and Doughnuts" at the French Laundry?  Or the fois gras, right out of the wood-burning oven at my friend's farm up in North Georgia?  Or the crudo tasting at Esca in NYC?  Or even the bread pudding in my own kitchen ... or these brownies?

Food for thought...

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving, Y'all

If you are like me (and you probably are, if you are reading this blog), then you are cooking and prepping like crazy for turkey day tomorrow.  Have at it, and know I am doing the same.  By the end of this weekend, I will be "cooked" myself, my house will be a mess (lots of kids around, to my great pleasure) and I will look forward to starting that diet yet once again.  For now, though, it's all about family and gratitude for the richness and goodness in our lives.

Of course, if we are going to talk about richness and goodness, then I cannot let Thanksgiving pass without sharing my pumpkin cheesecake with you.  Remember that "Only Cheesecake You Will Ever Need" recipe I posted recently?  Well, here's the pumpkin adaptation.

It's too late for you to make it for your Thanksgiving feast tomorrow.  Sorry about that.  However, you would be well-advised to file it away in your memory bank for next year.  I'm just sayin'.....

Here's the post with the basic recipe:

To turn this into a pumpkin cheesecake, omit the chocolate chips, espresso, almond extract and sour cream. Add 2 cups of pumpkin puree, along with 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon, 2 teaspoons freshly grated nutmeg and 2 teaspoons ground ginger. This is  good served with freshly whipped cream and I once topped it with spun sugar.  For today's version, I drizzled it with some leftover caramel sauce I had in the fridge.

What I REALLY wanted to use for a  garnish was candy corn or (even better), candy pumpkins.  I actually braved the grocery store today in the midst of Thanksgiving chaos to try and find either, but no luck.  Oh well, guess caramel will just have to do!

On a more serious note, I heard a story today about a 13-year old boy who is fighting cancer which he is not likely to survive.  I'm on the downward spiral here in terms of age.  Where's the fairness in that?  It gave me pause to stop and think about life

So I will just say, take joy in the ones you love, take the time to say "thank you" for the many blessings bestowed upon you and remember that Thanksgivng is so much more than either the turkey or the food. 

Happy Thanksgiving. 

Thanksgiving, Part 1

Is it Passover right now?

I ask because my kitchen is rich with the aroma of chicken stock on the stove as I write this.  Oh wait, it’s Thanksgiving.

In truth, there isn’t much difference between the two holidays now is there? They are both about giving thanks and being grateful.

Of course, if you really want to be grateful, then thank me for the recipe I’m about to detail for you. It’s the Caramel Apple Cake that I used to make at Watershed and it would make a great addition to your Thanksgiving table. If you haven’t already done your shopping, go out immediately with the ingredients for this at the top of your grocery list. You still have time to make it!

CARAMEL APPLE CAKE (adapted from Scott Peacock and Edna Lewis’ The Gift of Southern Cooking”)

For the cake:
1 ½ cups light brown sugar
1 ½ cups granulated sugar
2 cups peanut or vegetable oil
4 eggs, extra-large
3 tablespoons pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon salt
3 ½ cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
1 nutmeg, grated
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
7 apples, peeled, cored and chopped (I use Granny Smiths)
2 cups pecans, chopped

Butter and flour a 9 x 13-inch baking pan. Preheat oven to 325-degrees.

Place sugars in a large bowl. Add oil and whisk to blend. Add eggs, one at a time and whisk to blend as well. Add vanilla and incorporate.

Place salt, flour, cinnamon, nutmeg and baking soda over egg mixture. Use a wooden spoon to incorporate ingredients. Stir in apples and pecans.

Turn mixture into prepared baking pan. Bake for 1 ¼ hours or until top of cake is puffed and golden and a cake tester comes out clean.

Remove to a cooking rack and run a spatula around sides. Let cool for 15 minutes, then turn out on a baking sheet. Invert again onto a serving platter or cardboard rectangle. Spoon glaze over and let it set before cutting and serving.

For the glaze:
½ cup dark brown sugar
½ cup light brown sugar
¼ lb. unsalted butter
1 cup heavy cream
Pinch of salt

Place all ingredients in a medium saucepan. Stir lightly to combine sugars. Place over medium heat for 4 minutes. Stir, then cook for another 3 to 4 minutes until large bubbles appear on the surface. Cool for 15 minutes, then stir and spoon over cake, letting it drip down the sides.

Yield: 12 – 16 servings

As usual, I have a few things to say:

  •  As I was peeling the apples, I was reminded of "Sleepless in Seattle" when Meg Ryan peeled that   apple  in one long strip.  Haha, I can do that!  Does that mean I get to hook up with Tom Hanks?

  •  Speaking of apples, don't be daunted by peeling and coring 7 of them.  Here's the restaurant trick:  cut off the stem and core ends.  Remove skins with a vegetable peeler.  Use a sharp knife to cut down and around the core in four quick cuts.  Cut the remaining flesh into cubes.  That's it, you're done!

  •  Take the time to grate the nutmeg.  It will be worth it.

  • When you combine the apples with the cake batter, you will think that the proportions are wrong.  It will look like there are too many apples for the batter.  Get over it.  The apples will shrink as they bake and it will all even out at the end.  Trust me.

  • Oh, and you won't need to visit the gym on the day that you make this cake.  Your pecs will get worked out enough by stirring all of this together.  Trust me on that one, too.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Kitchen Heaven

For those of us who love to cook, it's h-e-e-e-r-e!

Okay, Thanksgiving, bring it on! It will be great fun to spend all week in the kitchen without any regard for the normal humdrum of everyday dinners (i.e. slopping the hogs) or getting to bed at a decent hour. All bets are off as I work on my prep list, crossing off completed items day by day, with a lovely sense of satisfaction.

Um, but "kitchen heaven?" Well, no. In truth, I should have termed it “kitchen hell.” That's because I work out of a crappy kitchen. As I've mentioned before, the people who built this house had no interest in cooking, so the kitchen was the room where they obviously decided to cut corners. Just my luck.

In case you think I am kidding, here is a picture of how much counter space I (don’t) have:

But, at the end of the day, I can’t complain (well, the diva-bitch part of me does but we’ll ignore her). I’ve figured out how to make this space work and in these economic times, I’m happy to have a roof over my head. I love this house (despite the kitchen), I still like my husband, my kids are in good places and my dogs are okay. We’re even at peace with most of our family members. Like most of you (I hope), we have a lot to say grace over.

So I will be spending the week in my kitchen and I will have lots to share with you. Stuff like Pumpkin Cheesecake, Red Velvet Whoopie Pies, Bourbon-Pecan Pie (made in a springform pan, can’t wait to try it!), Barbecued Ribs, Mac and Cheese and Sweet and Salty Brownies.

For now, though, don’t forget about Hummingbird Cake. I made one yesterday for a photo shoot and I remind you about it again because it’s one of the best desserts I can think of (pictured above) to grace your Thanksgiving table.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Rye Not?

We folks here in the south LOVE our biscuits. Sweet, savory, dripping with butter, loaded with honey or covered in red-eye or sausage gravy, it really doesn't matter. Biscuits come to our tables laden with history, evoking fond memories of the person who taught us how to make them. We would never think of serving fried chicken without them and they grace our tables whenever we want to feed and nurture the ones we love most. There is nothing better than breaking open a hot, flaky biscuit and slathering it with butter, then savoring it while that melting butter trickles slowly down our chins.

Of course, no one can agree on the perfect way to make them. White Lily flour or unbleached all-purpose? Lard, butter or shortening? Yeast? Cream? Added ingredients, such as cheese or benne seeds? The debate is not unlike the same one that rages around the best way to fry chicken. Covered? Uncovered? Soaked in buttermilk? Brined?  Ask any Southerner and you will get a completely different opinion.  It's just the way we roll.

We had houseguests recently and I wasn’t sure if they were going to be here for dinner on the second night of their visit. No problem if they had other plans, but I wanted to have something on hand just in case. I decided to make a big pot of tomato-basil soup.

In the meantime, though, I was in the process of researching barbecue sauces (more about that in another post). I pulled out another one of those retro books of mine, “As American As Apple Pie” by Phillip Stephen Schulz.

Published in 1990, this book is a treasure trove of American recipes. Mr. Schulz devotes entire chapters to classic American foods, such as apple pies, barbecue sauces, bread puddings, brownies, chocolate chip cookies and meat loaves. And biscuits.

Thanks to my ADHD, I totally forgot about the barbecue sauce project and turned my attention to the biscuit chapter. Since I had just purchased a jar of caraway seeds, the recipe for Campton Place’s Caraway-Ryes caught my eye. Since I also had a bag of rye flour in my pantry and a pot of simmering soup on the stove, I figured the gods were telling me something.

They were. These biscuits were delicious (with or without the soup) and I would make them again. They are a far cry from a traditional southern biscuit, but who cares?  Guess we now know where I stand on the biscuit-making debate!


1 ½ cups all-purpose, unbleached flour
½ cup rye flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 ½ tablespoons caraway seeds
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, chilled
½ cup buttermilk

Preheat oven to 450-degrees.

Sift the flours, baking powder, baking soda and salt into a large bowl. Toss in the caraway seeds. Cut butter into small cubes and drop them on top of the flour mixture. Use your fingertips or a pastry blender to cut in butter until the mixture has the texture of coarse crumbs.

Stir in the buttermilk with a wooden spoon to form a soft dough. Roll dough out to a ½-inch thickness on a lightly floured board. Cut into circles, using a 2-inch round cookie cutter. It is okay to re-roll scraps once and cut out more rounds.

Place biscuits on an ungreased baking sheet. Bake until golden, about 10 – 12 minutes. For best results, serve immediately with lots of good salted butter for spreading.

Yield: 16 2-inch biscuits

Don’t toss out those leftover scraps of dough!  Just bake them up as well. They won’t look pretty, but they sure will taste good. When I worked at Watershed, Steven Satterfield (now chef/owner at Miller-Union) was in charge of the biscuits on Fried Chicken Night and he always baked up the scraps for us. As I stood there for hours, pan-frying those 90 chickens every Tuesday, those tasty little scraps were manna from heaven!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Where's My Tiara?

Alright, I am going to dispense with the humility and just put it out there. I AM THE CHEESECAKE QUEEN.

I guess I should  preface this by saying that cheesecake isn't trendy anymore. In its heyday, it enjoyed a fair amount of fame and accolades, but no one even thinks about it these days, unless you are in a Jewish deli or in one of those Greek diners in New York. Sigh. And sorry, but in my book, The Cheesecake Factory doesn’t count. Generally speaking, I hate chain restaurants.

And of course, cheesecake isn’t on the hit parade these days because it’s not good for you. Well, what is, if it’s a combination of fat and sugar?

Nonetheless, a good cheesecake is smooth on your tongue, a tiny bit tangy, has that great contrast between the silkiness of the filling and the crunch of the crust and it will make you so very happy while you are eating it. We won’t talk about the aftermath. Just head to the gym or get on the treadmill the next day and deal with it. It’s worth it, but only if you have spent those calories and fat grams on a really good cheesecake.

So here I am to give you THE ONLY CHEESECAKE RECIPE YOU WILL EVER NEED. It’s the foundation for any cheesecake you would ever want to make and it is a flat-out showstopper. Once you master the basic technique, you can adapt it to any possible combination of flavors.

CHOCOLATE ESPRESSO CHEESECAKE (flavors inspired in part by Ina Garten)

For the crust:
2 cups graham cracker crumbs (7 oz.)
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350-degrees. Butter a 10 X 3-inch cake pan (not springform), line bottom with a parchment round and butter again.

Combine all ingredients in a medium bowl. Place in prepared pan and spread evenly over bottom. Use your fingertips to press into an even layer.

Bake for 10 minutes, or until just barely golden. Remove from oven and place on rack to cool. Reduce oven heat to 250-degrees.

For the filling:
8 oz. (1 cup) chocolate chips
1 tablespoon instant espresso
3 lbs. cream cheese, room temperature
2 ½ cups granulated sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
6 eggs, room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
½ cup sour cream

Place chocolate chips and espresso powder in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Stir constantly until mixture is smooth and no lumps remain. Set aside to cool.

Meanwhile, place cream cheese into an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat on high speed until it starts to smooth out, then add sugar and salt. Continue to beat until mixture is COMPLETELY smooth, scraping down bowl three to four times. (Important note: this is the only chance you will have to beat out all the lumps. Once you add liquid, it will be impossible to get it completely smooth, so have patience and take the time to do it properly during this very important step).

When mixture is completely smooth, add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition, but not so much that you incorporate a lot of air (too much air is a bad thing as it will cause your cheesecake to rise then fall during baking, resulting in a large crack). Stir in vanilla and almond extracts and sour cream. Fold in the cooled chocolate mixture.

Pour batter into prepared crust. Bang pan sharply on counter to break up any air bubbles.

Place the pan on a dishtowel in a larger pan filled with enough water to come ¾’s up on the sides of the cheesecake pan. Place in oven and bake for 2 hours or until barely firm in the center. Resist the temptation to increase heat for a faster baking time. Cool, then refrigerate overnight.

To remove from pan, fill kitchen sink with about 2-inches of very hot water. Place chilled cheesecake in sink and let sit for about 30 seconds. Remove from water and shake pan until cheesecake loosens from sides. You may have to do this up to 3 times. When cheesecake is loose, invert it onto a plate so it is crust side up. Top with a cardboard cake round, if desired. Place serving platter on top and immediately invert again, so that cake is crust side down.

For the garnish:
2 oz. bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1/8 cup heavy cream

Melt chocolate and cream over low heat in a small saucepan.  When completely smooth, remove from heat and cool slightly.  Place into a pastry bag (or use a fork) to drizzle over top of cake.  Refrigerate until ready to serve.

To cut cake, use long pieces of unflavored dental floss. Bring floss down through crust, then pull out from the bottom. Repeat to cut slices.

Serves 12 - 16

Some Important Cheesecake Notes:

• The preceding recipe is the quintessential cheesecake recipe, originally developed by Glenn Powell and Elise Griffin Hughes for the late-lamented Peasant restaurants here in Atlanta. The basic formula (3 lbs. cream cheese, 2 ½ cups sugar and 6 eggs) can be used for any type of cheesecake. Just add whatever flavorings you like.

• Vary the crust by using different types of cookies, such as shortbread, gingersnaps, oreos or whatever else you can think of, like Pepperidge Farms Bordeaux, Walker’s Shortbread, etc. Just grind them up in a food processor or blender. You will need 7-8 oz. 

• Make sure you bang the prepared pan on the counter a number of times (hard!) before you put the cheesecake in the oven. This will prevent air bubbles.

• Again, don’t raise the heat over 250-degrees. If you do, the cheesecake will rise too quickly and subsequently fall, thus resulting in large cracks. When in doubt, underbake, don’t overbake.

• Don’t even think about skipping the water bath. It’s essential for evenly distributing the heat and ensuring that the cheesecake cooks evenly.

• Be creative! For example, for oreo cheesecake, grind oreos with butter and use for crust. Add crushed oreos to the basic cheesecake batter, along with vanilla. Top with a chocolate ganache (bittersweet chocolate melted with heavy cream as detailed in the recipe above), if desired.

• Other ideas: for coconut cheesecake, add a can of Coco Lopez cream of coconut. Use shortbread or coconut cookies in the crust. Maybe even some lime zest.  For eggnog cheesecake, add dark rum, brandy, vanilla extract and nutmeg to the basic cheesecake mixture. Use vanilla cookies or shortbread for the crust. You get the idea….

• For Liz’s vanilla cheesecake, use shortbread for the crust and add ½ tablespoon grated lemon zest and ½ tablespoon grated orange zest. Pepperidge Farms Bordeaux cookies are also good here. To the basic cheesecake batter, add 1/8 cup orange juice, 1/8 cup lemon juice, ½ cup heavy cream, ¼ cup flour and 2 teaspoons vanilla paste.  You could also substitute mascarpone for the heavy cream.

So now you have my treasured cheesecake recipe, right in time for the holidays.  I hope it turns you into a cheesecake rock star.  (I already hold the "Queen" title, so that's  no longer available).   Oh yes, and better this should go on your hips and thighs rather than  mine!