Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Oysters With Spicy Garlic Butter

I’m trying to remember how I chose this oyster dish to start our Christmas Eve meal last week. There’s an entire chapter devoted to oysters in John Besh’s My New Orleans, and I wanted to make every single recipe. I believe I decided to try this one first just because it’s so incredibly easy and it wouldn’t keep me in the kitchen for long. The oyster gratin could also have been served as an hors d’oeuvre with the breadcrumb topping applied to each half shell, and it wouldn’t have taken much longer. The oyster and artichoke soup could have mostly been prepared in advance and would have been delicious. The crispy fried oyster salad was another option, but I’d love to get some Louisiana caviar to present that dish properly. And, that’s just some of the oyster chapter. The book is divided seasonally starting with crawfish and Mardi Gras dishes, moving on to feast days and shrimp season, then fish followed by summer vegetables and crab season. There’s a chapter for gumbos and one for Thanksgiving, one for pork since Chef Besh raises his own hogs, and a final chapter for Reveillon or the feast served on Christmas Eve. It’s a beautiful book, and I’m enjoying cooking from it.

For these oysters, the intention was to grill them to impart some smokiness, but I was too lazy for that. I broiled them instead. A compound butter was made with garlic, crushed red pepper flakes, chopped chives, thyme leaves, and lemon juice. Slices of that butter were placed on top of each shucked oyster in its half shell, and then the oysters were broiled for a few minutes until they started to curl. They went from broiler to plate to our mouths in minutes.

These were simply fresh, spicy, and garlicy, and I should have made a dozen or so more than I did. I can’t wait to taste them off the grill when I make this again. I’ve tried a couple of other things from the book including the fall greens salad with blue cheese and pumpkin seed brittle. The vinaigrette with sherry vinegar and walnut oil was nutty and lovely with the blue cheese and cayenne-spiced pepita brittle. Also, the green tomato and pepper jam was sweet, tart, spicy, and just what some goat cheese on crostini needed. I’m already looking forward to Mardi Gras and strawberry season and all the other reasons to use this book throughout the coming year.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Rum Raisin Shortbread

I have one more cookie to show you before Christmas gets here. This is number three from the cookie swap I started talking about last week, and this is one I had wanted to try for a while. Last year for Christmas, I made a rum raisin pie, and the thought of those flavors in a cookie sounded like a great idea to me. The recipe is found in the Martha Stewart's Cookies book. I've said before that I'll eventually try every recipe in that book, and this gets me one cookie closer. As the name suggests, rum is involved in this recipe. However, there are no raisins as currants are used instead. For added interest, there's some orange zest and unsweetened coconut, and it all combines to make some very tasty cookies.

Although this is an easy recipe, you need to soak the currants in rum overnight before starting. Then, the dough was a simple shortbread to which the drained, rum-soaked currants, unsweetened coconut, orange zest, and some reserved soaking rum and vanilla were added. It was divided in half, and each portion was placed on parchment paper and rolled into a cylinder. At this point, the dough needed to be refrigerated for at least a couple of hours but could have been chilled for a couple of days or frozen for a couple of months. I left it for a few hours and then pre-heated the oven while slicing the cylinders into cookies. There’s something fun about slice and bake dough.

For such a simple cookie, there was a lot going on with its flavors. The rum and coconut were subtly delicious, while the orange zest grabbed more attention. Their small size made it easy to lose count of how many I’d eaten in one sitting, but who’s counting when it comes to cookies at this time of year?

Monday, December 21, 2009

Chive, Mascarpone, and Pine Nut Dip

In the middle of a cookie baking frenzy, I needed to think of something in the appetizer category to take to a holiday party. I had some mascarpone in the refrigerator that I bought for another purpose and ended up not using, so my search started with that ingredient. I found this dip on Epicurious and was won over by the swirl of chive oil in it. I had high hopes that the bright green oil would make a festive-looking dip, and it sounded delicious. The chive oil was actually folded into what was a rather thick dip instead of simply being drizzled and swirled as I imagine. The marbled look I had in my mind's eye didn't really come to fruition, but I got over that as soon as I tasted the dip.

First, chopped chives were pureed in olive oil with a pinch of salt. That puree was left to sit in the refrigerator for an hour before it was poured through a sieve to remove the chive solids. Then, pine nuts were toasted in the oven while crostini crisped. The pine nuts were chopped once cool. Mascarpone and cream cheese were to be whisked together, but given the thickness of that mixture, I opted to use a hand mixer instead of a whisk. I changed the recipe by adding a minced shallot to boost the onion flavor, and that was incorporated into the mascarpone mixture. Next, the chopped pine nuts were added. Last the chive oil was poured over top and not too thoroughly folded into the dip so that splotches of green were visible.

This was well-liked at the party, even Kurt let me know that it was really good, but sadly, I only had a small taste of it. That's why I'm already planning on making it again just for us to enjoy at home. The flavor of the chive oil is lovely, but I was glad I added the shallot as well. I'll definitely repeat that addition when I whip up another bowl of it.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Butterscotch-Glazed Coffee Shortbread

I mentioned a cookie swap and three types of cookies I finally chose to take to the event, and this is the second of the three. This particular recipe is from last December’s Food and Wine issue which included an article about Christmas cookies from baking’s biggest talents. I usually read the December issues too late to actually make use of the recipes for the same year’s festivities, so I file all those great-looking recipes away and wait until the season arrives again. These little shortbread cookies from Flo Braker remained stuck in my head for the last year, and I knew they’d be part of this year’s cookie baking spree. The shortbread itself has finely ground espresso in it, the butterscotch glaze is made with brewed espresso, and the cookies are decorated with a chocolate-covered espresso bean.

The shortbread dough was made with butter, sugar, vanilla, salt, flour, and ground espresso. It was placed in a parchment-lined nine inch by thirteen inch baking pan, covered with plastic wrap, and pressed flat with the bottom of a glass. The plastic was removed, and the shortbread baked for about 50 minutes. The pan was removed from the oven and allowed to cool for about ten minutes before the bars were cut. It’s important to cut the bars before the shortbread finishes cooling to avoid complete crumbliness. Then, the butterscotch glaze was made from butter, brown sugar, brewed espresso, light corn syrup, and a pinch of salt. That mixture boiled for just a couple of minutes to thicken slightly, and then it was spread on the cooled shortbread. The glaze was scored with the tip of a knife along the cuts in the shorbread. Last, but before the glaze cooled, a chocolate-covered espresso bean was added to each cookie.

By baking this in a nine by thirteen pan, it made a thin shortbread which Braker intended for a flaky and light result. However, I couldn’t help wondering about trying this again in a smaller pan for thicker cookies. Not that I’m complaining about the texture of the cookies as they were. They were flaky and lovely, but I was just curious about making them a little studier. Now, there was absolutely nothing I wanted to change about the butterscotch espresso glaze except that next time I’ll double the quantity and pour some over ice cream or pound cake or my breakfast cereal. And, the glaze does set up nicely, and it really did hold the chocolate espresso beans in place. The cookies with the glaze were buttery and sweet, and that sweetness was well-balanced by the espresso flavor. I’m very glad I remembered this recipe from last year, and I’ll be making these cookies for years to come.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Savory Madeleines

You know how food people are. We could talk about ideas for cooking and baking all day. An exchange on Twitter with Nurit from 1 Family Friendly Food led to an email conversation which ended up being about baking madeleines. Neither of us had ever baked them, and we wished we could have spent an afternoon baking together, but since we live many miles apart, we did a virtual bake-along. I had an idea about trying a savory madeleine, and Nurit wanted to try a sweet variety. See her blog for delicious orange madeleines. My quest for savory madeleines led me to Martha where I found her recipe that could be made into three different flavors. I opted to bake just two of those flavors and ended up with sage madeleines and sun-dried tomato madeleines.

I don't know why I was so worried about baking these. For some reason, I thought there was something tricky about getting the cakey cookies to be shaped properly, or to get them to come out of the pan. I know that for some, the hump on the top of the madeleine is a requirement, but these only formed a small hump which deflated a little as they cooled. I might just blame that on them being made with cornmeal and having chopped herbs or tomatoes in them. Other than there being not much of a hump, the shape came out fine. I buttered the pans well before spooning in the batter even though the pans I used are non-stick, and there was no problem removing them. In fact, they slid right out easier than anything I've ever baked. This really was a simple recipe all around. Flour, cornmeal, baking soda, salt, and a little sugar were whisked together in a medium bowl. Milk, eggs, and slightly browned, melted butter were incorporated. Then, the batter was divided into two parts in separate bowls although the original recipe suggests three parts. To one part, finely chopped sage was added, and to the other, finely chopped sun-dried tomatoes were added. Then, it's suggested that the madeleine cups be filled only three-fourths full. I was a bit heavy handed, and filled mine pretty much completely. Happily, there was no overflowing, and they turned out fine.

My favorite of the two was the sage. As soon as I tasted one, I thought how great these would be with a hearty, winter soup. They would also make nice items for an appetizer spread or cheese course. Now that I know how quick and simple this recipe is, I'm already thinking about different herbs or nuts or vegetables to try mixing into them next time.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Hawaiian Snowballs

Snowballs, meltaways, and wedding cookies are very similar in style and deliciousness. My grandma used to make a pecan snowball kind of cookie which I loved, but then I discovered the Hawaiian snowball and that changed everything. Last weekend was our Austin food bloggers’ cookie swap, and there were more varieties of cookies than should be legal in one house. We each brought six dozen cookies and then chose from the whole collection which ones we wanted to take home. Deciding what kind of cookie to take to the event was difficult. I had to try a couple of new recipes and one old favorite and ended up making three kinds of cookies for the swap. I’ll show the other two soon, but these Hawaiian snowballs were my first choice. The idea came from the December 2003 issue of Living magazine, and I’ve made them several times since that issue appeared. For the sugar cookie dough itself, I used my favorite recipe of all time which happens to make the best sugar cookies ever.

That best ever sugar cookie dough, Ethel’s sugar cookies from the 1960 Betty Crocker cookbook, was mixed and then left to chill in the refrigerator overnight. The next day, I let the dough come to room temperature and turned it out onto a floured surface. The dough should be flattened somewhat into an oblong shape. Chopped macadamia nuts and chopped, dried pineapple were layered on top of the dough, and then the dough was folded and kneaded until the nuts and fruit were incorporated. Then, you just pull off pieces of dough, roll them into one inch balls, and place them on lined baking sheets. I baked them for about 13 minutes at 400 degrees F, but they should be checked after 10 minutes and then watched. After they cooled, they were dusted with confectioner’s sugar, and I put the sugar in a sieve and shake it over the cookies so no lumps land on the cookies.

The result is a tender, little cookie with a snowy top. The roasted, salted macadamias are a nice contrast to the chewy, sweet pineapple, and I already explained that this sugar cookie dough is the best there is. It really is. And, what can I say, I like Bing Crosby’s “Mele Kalikimaka,” and these cookies go perfectly with that song.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Wine Poached Fruit

This is a dish that I've seen Ina prepare a few times. What I mean by that is that I've seen the episode in which she prepares this a few times, and yes, I always watch Ina, even when I've seen the episode more than once. So, I just saw this episode again the other day, and it seemed like a perfect dessert for this time of year. It looked so simple, and the plumped dried fruit looked like it would add great flavor and texture. The other inspiration for this poached fruit dish was a bottle of Essensia dessert wine which I received as a sample from Quady Winery. Ina suggested vin santo or sauternes, but any sweet, dessert wine would work well. The Essensia smelled like fruit and honey and the flavor was sweet, without being too much so, and there were hints of citrus. This is not a syrupy dessert wine, and the sweetness is well-balanced. The alcohol content is 15 percent which is in the range of vin santo in which the alcohol is usually between 14 and 17 percent. This would be a lovely wine to sip with some goat cheese and honey, and it was delicious as a poaching liquid for pears.

The perfect poached fruit recipe is from the Barefoot Contessa Parties! book and it's also on the Food Network site. The pears were peeled and then seeded from the bottom. As suggested, I used a melon baller to cut into the base of each pear and remove the seeds. Then, the poaching liquid was made from the wine, sugar, cinnamon sticks, one split vanilla bean, a few whole cloves, and julienned strips of orange and lemon zest. That mixture was brought to a boil so as to dissolve the sugar, and then it simmered for 10 minutes. The pears were added and left to poach in the simmering, fragrant elixir for 20 minutes or until tender, and they were turned once during that time. Last, dried figs, apricots, and prunes were added and allowed to simmer until plumped.

This was a comforting dish with the warmth of the spices, brightness of the citrus, and freshness of the pears. The combination of fruits and spices in the wine sauce tasted like pie without the crust. I was struck by the richness of it given that it was just fruit, wine, sugar and spices and had to stop and think about the fact that it was a fat-free dessert. It wasn't calorie-free, but it was fat-free. This can be made in advance and chilled, and since leftovers continue to absorb the flavor from the poaching liquid, it gets even better by the next day.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Chocolate Espresso Macarons

I am a food geek to the extent that I have cooking and baking goals. There are things I want to try, and I plot and plan for that some day when I'll have the time or the patience or the inclination to tackle them. French macarons were one of those things for many years. When the Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook was published back in 2005, one of the recipes she demonstrated from the book was French macarons. I already had to have the book, but when I saw that demo, I couldn't wait to have a look at that recipe. Then, over four years went by, and I never got around to attempting these little cookies. I've seen lots of other blog posts showing gorgeous examples of macarons, and I eavesdropped, so to speak, on Twitter conversations about baking macarons. Jamie from Lifes a Feast and Deeba from Passionate About Baking have created the MacTweets site that's all about macarons, and they encouraged anyone who hadn't attempted them before to go for it. I finally did it, and what you see here is my first ever effort.

The suggested recipe on the MacTweets site is from Helen at Tartelette, and it is very similar to the recipe in the Martha Stewart Baking Handbook. I followed Helen's recipe exactly with Jaimie's suggestion for adding a little cocoa powder and espresso powder. I also heard from Jaimie that she uses pre-ground almonds rather than grinding them in a food processor, and I did that as well. So, the almond meal was whisked with confectioner's sugar, and then cocoa powder and finely ground espresso were added. Egg whites were whipped with granulated sugar, and then the almond meal mixture was folded into the meringue. I saw a useful tip in the Martha recipe for marking circles on a baking sheet by repeatedly dipping a one and half inch round cutter into flour and then pressing it on the silpat. Then, when piping the meringue, you have a guide for making the cookies all the same size. I was sure I owned some large, plain, piping tips, but when I went searching for them I found I only have star tips. I should take an inventory of my kitchen supplies. So, I went the cut a hole in a disposable piping bag route. The first hole I cut was, of course, too big, and the cookies spread a bit after being piped and I had to start over. The second time around, I made them very petite, inside the marked circles, and sprinkled a few bits of sanding sugar on top of each. I baked them at 280 degrees F, as instructed, and couldn't believe it when I saw that pretty, ruffled feet had formed.

I followed Helen's instructions for making a vanilla buttercream, and can I pause for a moment to dwell on the silky deliciousness that was that buttercream? One more moment. After letting the macarons cool, and then ever so gently peeling the silpat from the backs of them, and seeing a few of them crack and shatter, I filled the rest with that buttercream. For a touch of holiday spirit, I rolled the edges of exposed filling in crushed candy cane pieces. These cookies are a fun challenge in the kitchen, and the possible flavor combinations are endless. I don't think they'll ever become my favorite cookie to eat, whether I've made them or purchased them. They are light with a barely there crunch on the surface and a hint of chewiness, and the filling was extremely good, but they're also a little on the sweet side even for a cookie. I am thrilled, though, to have finally made French macarons and the experience has only increased my respect for those bakers who make them look so colorful, delicious, and effortless.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Potato Gratins with White Truffle Cream

To say that I am a fan of truffles and anything with the flavor of truffles would be an understatement. Kurt suggested I would probably like dog food if it had some shaved truffles on top or truffle oil drizzled over it or truffle cream stirred into it. Of course, he’s ridiculous, but I admit to swooning at the mere aroma of truffle products. Therefore, I jumped at the chance to sample a truffle cream product from la Boutique de la truffe. They sent me a jar of La Tartufata white truffle cream which contains white truffles and porcini mushrooms made into a smooth, spreadable cream with olive oil and wine vinegar. My first instinct was to sit down with the jar and a spoon, but that seemed a little simplistic. Using it with pasta with mushrooms would have been a delicious way to go, but then I thought about how well earthy potatoes combine with the flavor of truffles.

This was a straightforward kind of dish because I really just wanted to taste the truffle cream with a background of potatoes. I buttered some small ramekins and placed one layer of thinly sliced potatoes in the bottom of each and seasoned that layer. Then, I spread some truffle cream on top and repeated the layers. I poured a little cream into each ramekin until it came about half way up the side of each and topped each with a bit of butter and salt and pepper. They baked on a baking sheet at 425 degrees F for about 20 minutes.

The flavor was just outstanding. I could have eaten these potatoes forever. The silky texture of the truffle cream layered between the tender, thin potato slices enriched with the cream and butter was beyond all expectations for a simple Sunday night dinner. Everything else on the plate, from the roasted baby beets to the rosemary chicken, was delicious too, but it all faded away once I tasted this potato gratin. I haven’t tried any other products found on the la Boutique de la truffe web site, but I can highly recommend La Tartufata.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Gingerbread Cookies

If I had to choose one favorite Christmas cookie, well, I couldn’t do it. But, if I could have a top ten, this gingerbread cookie would definitely be in it. The cookies and bars and treats that I call Christmas cookies are certainly just as delicious for any other occasion, but when the weather is cooler and the holidays are fast approaching, gingerbread somehow becomes a little bit even more delicious. How does it do that? The flavor just seems right at this time of year. This recipe comes from the Martha Stewart Cookbook, and the ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and molasses combine in a wonderful way. In the book, the recipe is called gingerbread cupids, and there’s a similar recipe available on the Martha web site called gingerbread snowflakes. The recipe online includes ground pepper, but it’s not part of the recipe in the book and I’ve never added it.

This dough is a little sticky even though I always chill it overnight before rolling, and I use a generous amount of flour on the board and rolling pin. On the bright side, once baked, the cookies retain their flavor and texture for several days if they last that long. I’ve also baked them in advance, frozen them, and then let them thaw before decorating. The cookies are fairly sturdy if stored carefully, but the sturdiness really depends on the shapes of the cookies. I made some reindeer, and I’m worried those slender legs could snap off easily.

I made a big batch this time, and I enjoy making the dough, rolling it out, deciding which shapes to make the cookies, and smelling the gingerbread as the cookies bake. Then, my energy seems to dwindle when it comes time to decorate them. When I was little, my favorite thing about cookies was decorating them. These days, I may have lost my cookie decorating creativity, but that’s where my nieces enter the picture. I’m going to send them a box of these cookies to decorate and see what cute ideas they come up with for all the different shapes.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Black Bean Tortilla Casserole

I found this recipe in my files, and apparently, I put it there back in 2006. It’s from Living magazine, and it’s similar to other tortilla and bean layered casseroles I’ve made. It’s a versatile dish in that you can easily substitute ingredients here and there, but it is important to keep the moisture content as intended so the casserole doesn’t become soggy and so the cut pieces will hold their shape. I wasn’t able to find this exact recipe on the web site, so I’ll list it below, but there is a similar dish in the Everyday Food cookbook. In that book, it’s called tortilla and black bean pie, and it's a little different from this one. For this version from the magazine, you make a salsa verde which is layered with roasted poblanos, toasted tortillas, black beans, spinach, and cheese. You could save some time by purchasing pre-made salsa, but I had some green tomatoes and chiles to use from my CSA. The suggested method in the recipe involves sauteing onion, garlic, and tomatillos before adding chiles, but I prefer to place all those things with green tomatoes on a baking sheet and brown them under the broiler. Once browned on all sides, everything is pureed in a food processor with lime juice and cilantro.

For the casserole, corn tortillas were cut in half, brushed with oil, and toasted in the oven. They’re removed before they become crunchy, but they do become sturdier. Spinach leaves were cooked and drained, onion was sauteed with chopped roasted poblanos, and the black beans were cooked with garlic. I used a spring-form pan, and the first layer was 12 halves of tortillas which were overlapped in the bottom of the pan. Next, the poblano and onion mixture was added followed by half of the black bean mixture. That was topped with sour cream, since I forgot to buy Mexican crema, and then some salsa was added. Shredded monterey jack cheese was added, and then the layering was repeated with spinach instead of poblanos. Last, the casserole was topped with the remaining tortilla halves, salsa, and cheese.

I was surprised at how easily the spring-form ring was removed, and how easily the casserole was cut. It’s a dry enough mixture that there’s no danger of the layers sliding apart as each piece is plated. Now that I’ve looked at the other casserole in the Everyday Food book, I see it includes corn and green onions. Not that the version I made seemed lacking at all, but those will be great additions when I make this again.

Tortilla Casserole
Living Magazine March 2006
4 fresh poblano chiles, roasted, peeled, seeded and chopped
18 six inch corn tortillas, halved
Vegetable oil
10 ounces baby spinach leaves
1 small white onion, minced
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 15 ounce cans black beans, rinsed and drained
1 c sour cream or Mexican crema
2 1/4 c salsa verde
1 1/2 c shredded monterey jack cheese
Salt and pepper to taste

-Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Brush cut tortillas on both sides with vegetable oil and place on two large baking sheets overlapping as needed. Bake for six minutes and rotate pans after three minutes. Set aside.
-Wash spinach and drain. Heat a large skillet over medium heat and cook spinach briefly just until wilted. Season with salt and pepper and transfer to a colander to drain. Heat two tablespoons oil in skillet, add onion and saute until translucent. Add chopped poblanos, cook until heated through, and transfer to a bowl. Heat another two tablespoons oil in skillet and add garlic. Cook for 30 seconds and add black beans. Season to taste with salt and pepper and cook until heated through.
-Line bottom of a 10-inch spring-form pan with 12 overlapping tortilla halves. Add poblano mixture, top with half the bean mixture, add one half cup of sour cream, and pour 3/4 c salsa on top. Spread 1/2 c shredded cheese on salsa. Repeat layers a second time using spinach instead of poblanos. Top casserole with remaining tortilla halves, salsa, and shredded cheese.
-Place spring-form pan on a baking sheet and bake until heated through, about 45 minutes to one hour. Let stand for 15 minutes before removing spring-form ring and serving. Serve with additional salsa.

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