Sunday, January 31, 2010

Roasted Chicken and Carrots with Olives and Lemon

I pick up a lot of different magazines while I’m waiting in check-out lines. One day last November, it was Real Simple that I tossed into my cart. I’ve never subscribed, but I have read issues of it before here and there. The food section always grabs my attention. The photos make the food look irresistible, and the recipes actually are 'real simple.' I cut a couple of pages from that November issue and just recently got around to trying two different dishes. Since I had a bounty of fresh, local carrots last week, the timing was right for the roasted chicken and carrots recipe. This meal couldn’t have been easier as everything roasted together on one baking sheet and required no work while it cooked.

I was thrilled to have bay leaves and a lemon from my own trees to use in this dish, and they were combined with the carrots, seasoned chicken, and olives on a baking sheet. Whenever I’m planning to have chicken for dinner
, I now always follow Judy Rodgers' advice regarding seasoning it early. I cut the whole chicken into pieces and seasoned them with salt and pepper early in the day. The pieces were covered and left in the refrigerator for several hours. Once everything was on the baking sheet and tossed with olive oil, some paprika was sprinkled on the chicken for additional seasoning. Then, it baked for about an hour. I did turn the carrots and the smaller pieces of chicken at the half-way point just to be sure nothing got too brown on one side. A sauce from the lemons and olive oil formed on the baking sheet while everything roasted, and it mingled its way around flavoring the chicken and carrots nicely. The olives added a salty, savory bite to this low-maintenance meal.

For a previous meal, I tried the broccoli and gruyere gratin which was also in the November issue. I changed it up just a little by using a mix of broccoli and cauliflower, but otherwise, I stuck to the recipe as it was. A simple bechamel was made, and grated gruyere was melted into it. The sauce was tossed with steamed broccoli and cauliflower, the mixture went into a baking dish, it was topped with more cheese, and it baked until bubbly and browned. It was another winner. Both these recipes resulted in simple and delicious dishes, and now I’ll be flipping to the recipes section a little faster with future issues.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Spiced Rock Fish with Carrot Puree and Gingered Beets

Last week, I stopped by our Wednesday farmers’ market to see what looked good and what might become inspiration for our weekend meals. It was the carrots and sweet potatoes that caught my eye. Fresh, bright orange carrots, just pulled out of the ground have a crunch and sweetness that makes their distant, plastic-bagged cousins seem completely unrelated. The carrots I bought last week came from Johnson’s Backyard Garden, and it was an enormous and gorgeous bunch of carrots. I remembered reading about a carrot puree and eventually found it in Sunday Suppers at Lucques. That puree was part of a meal including harissa-spiced fish and gingered beets, and Suzanne Goin wrote that it was all inspired by carrots. She once had an abundance of fresh and delicious carrots and came up with this meal to highlight them. That sounded pretty perfect since I was in a similar carrot situation.

In the book, the dish is prepared with snapper fillets, but as I stood before the fish counter last weekend, the rock fish had a shinier and happier look about it. I went with the rock fish, and regarding sustainability issues, rock fish and snapper rate about the same. However, I’m kicking myself now that I realize I could have purchased snapper from a local source at the Saturday farmers’ market. Next time. The first step in preparing this meal was making harissa. Dried ancho chiles were rehydrated, cumin seeds were toasted and crushed, and canned tomatoes were cooked until reduced. All of those items were added to a food processor along with garlic, hot smoked paprika, cayenne, vinegar, and salt and pepper. Once pureed, it was harissa. Remember those sweet potatoes I mentioned? For another meal, they were made into oven fries and served with some of this harissa, and that was an excellent pairing. For this meal, the harissa was coated onto the fish which was left to marinate in the refrigerator for a few hours. Meanwhile, the beets were roasted, and the carrots were chopped. With such fresh carrots, I don’t actually peel them. I wash them and pull off any root fibers, but leave as much of each carrot intact as possible. The carrots were steamed with some cilantro stems while chopped onion was sauteed. The steamed carrots were added to the onion and allowed to caramelize a bit before that mixture was pureed with olive oil. The roasted beets were skinned and then tossed with a vinaigrette of shallot, jalapeno, garlic, ginger, mint, cilantro, lime juice, and olive oil. The fish was to have been grilled, but I pan-sauteed it instead.

There are times when a vegetable puree can be reminiscent of baby food, but this wasn’t one of them. The sauteed onion and caramelization added depth, and the hint of cilantro and olive oil prevented the puree from being too sweet. The earthy beets in vinaigrette were a bright and tangy contrasting flavor to that of the puree. And, the main attraction, the fish, was the star of the meal. The harissa had flavored the fish well, but since most of it was scraped away before cooking, what remained was subtle, smoky savoriness. This was one of those meals that I couldn’t believe I had whipped up in my own kitchen and that it was so easy. I love going out for great restaurant meals, but I’m always delighted when a meal seems that good at home.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Braised Root Vegetables with du Puy Lentils and Red Wine Sauce

"This dish is for when you want to fuss a bit" is how Deborah Madison begins her intro to the recipe. True. It’s also for when you want incredible, lingering aromas in your kitchen and a richly flavored sauce. I would also say this is a mind-changing meal for anyone who thinks vegetables are boring. I read Local Flavors last summer and made use of some local bounty with a few recipes from the book. I also tucked this recipe into the back of my mind for when winter arrived. The stew is made with parsnips, carrots, mushrooms, and herbs, and it’s served with lentils and potato puree. I just happened to have some du Puy lentils sent to me by my favorite Parisian cowgirl and a little package of dried porcini from our nearby Italian market, and the time had come for a slow-braised meal. So, yes, there was some fussing and use of several pots and pans and lots of chopping, but it was all very simple and very worth it.

You begin with the sauce which contained a lot of the same ingredients as the braised vegetables. You can use the trimmings from the mushrooms and parsnips which will be braised in the next step. Those trimmings were combined with onion, carrot, celery, garlic, thyme, a bay leaf, and some rosemary and were cooked in a large pot until the vegetables browned. Meanwhile, dried porcini were rehydrated in warm water. After the vegetables browned, tomato paste, flour, red wine, and the porcini and the soaking liquid were added. That was left to simmer for 45 minutes, it was then strained and further simmered to reduce a bit, some soy sauce was added, and butter was whisked into the sauce. See, that was easy, but just a little fussy, right? When you smell the sauce simmering, though, and I have to pause on that memory for a moment, you won’t mind. Next, it was on to the braised vegetables. Carrots, shallots, and parsnips were browned in a wide skillet. Mushrooms, a bay leaf, thyme, and minced rosemary were added. Some of the sauce was poured over the vegetables, and they were simmered for 25 minutes. At the same time, the lentils were cooked in water and drained, and then butter and some sauce were added. One more step would have been preparing potato or rutabaga and potato puree, but I got lucky here. I had some leftover mashed potatoes in the freezer which made quick work of that part of the dish. Certainly, this could be prepared over the course of a couple of days. You could prep all the vegetables and start with the sauce one day, and then wait to braise the stew vegetables and cook the lentils the next day.

The potato puree was mounded in a wide, shallow bowl. Some lentils were placed next to it, and the vegetables nestled all around in the red wine sauce. I would argue this dish was the boeuf bourguignon of the vegetarian world. The sauce’s flavors were layered and complex. The braised vegetables and lentils were steeped in those flavors, and the potato puree rounded out this ideal, winter comfort food. Next time I decide I want to 'fuss a bit,'
I’ll at least double the quantity of sauce so I can stock my freezer for a lazy day.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Whiskey Fizz and a True Gin Sour

I like making cocktails at home, but it usually involves a lot of tasting or tinkering for me to get them right. The Cocktail Primer takes out the guesswork and offers an interesting way to categorize drink types. I received a review copy of this book and was happy to expand my cocktail knowledge while trying a few drinks along the way. Eben Klemm, master mixologist and head bartender of B.R. Guest Restaurants, organized this book by grouping descendants from master drinks. He offers six master drink classes, which are defined by style and technique, and the cocktails that belong to each group. For instance, from the martini comes the vesper and negroni. These drinks are not sweet or acidic, and they have a high alcohol content. They each have a primary and a secondary spirit but no fruit or sweet liqueurs. There is also a wealth of cocktail history sprinkled throughout the book. I learned that martinis weren’t always such strong drinks. Originally, they contained a more equal ratio of gin or vodka to vermouth and bitters. As the quality of gin and vodka has improved over the years, there became less need to mask the taste of the liquor, and the modern martini is now much more alcoholic. And, should you shake or stir? Klemm explains that as well. You should shake to aerate and slightly dilute a drink and stir for a more elegant, still result.

I found myself drawn to the chapter about simple sours. These drinks all include one type of liquor, some form of citrus for acidity, and a small amount of sweetness for balance. The fizz was particularly interesting because of the egg white foam that results on top. A fizz should be shaken to aerate the egg white and blend it with the liquor of choice, fresh lemon juice, simple syrup, and bitters. These can be made with gin, whiskey, or rum, and they are finished with a splash of both club soda and red wine. First, I tried a gin fizz, and Kurt and I were both unsure about the flavor and texture combination. Next, I made the same drink with whiskey instead, and we both preferred that version by far. The fizz is shown in the photo at the bottom of this post. Since the gin didn’t work for us in the first cocktail, I tried it again in a true sour. This time, rather than using plain simple syrup, I took Klemm’s advice about trying flavored syrups and made one infused with rosemary. The gin, lemon juice, and rosemary syrup were shaken with ice, and the mixture was strained over fresh ice in a glass. A dash of bitters was added along with a splash of soda, and it was garnished with a maraschino cherry. The true sour is shown in the photo above. It was fresh-tasting, and the lemon and rosemary combined well with gin.

This book does a great job of simplifying the world of cocktails and helping you understand them from the inside out. Once you master the basics and learn about variations on some general themes, you can start getting creative. In the final chapter, there are a few examples of complex sours that make use of more ingredients than the other cocktails in the book. I’m looking forward to trying the paradiso with white peach-white pepper foam that’s made with limoncello. Then, I might be ready to invent a signature cocktail or two of my own.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Ancho Pine Nut Brownies with Cinnamon Ice Cream

A couple of weeks ago, we had some of the coldest weather this part of Texas has experienced in many years. We get a little uneasy around here with near-freezing temperatures, and when it dipped into the 20s (F) we were confused and concerned. So, what was I doing to prepare for this weekend of serious winter weather we were about to have? I was making ice cream. The ice cream was going to be served on warm brownies, but still, it was 20 degrees in Austin and I pulled out the ice cream maker. Maybe I should start by telling you about the brownies because that might make more sense. I wanted to mix up a southwest, chile powder-infused kind of brownie, and I found the perfect recipe in Nuevo Tex-Mex. The recipe was created by Rebecca Rather, and it includes ancho chile powder with semisweet chocolate, chocolate chips, and pine nuts. I thought big squares of those brownies warm from the oven would be great topped with a generous scoop of cinnamon ice cream. The cinnamon ice cream is from The Perfect Scoop.

The brownie recipe makes a large batch, so I cut the quantities in half and baked it in an eight inch square pan rather than a nine by thirteen inch pan. Still, the halved quantities included a half pound of semisweet chocolate, half a pound of butter, four eggs, and a cup and a half of sugar along with flour, ancho chile powder, chocolate chips, and pine nuts. These were kind of serious brownies. The batter was very easy to stir together without a mixer, and they went into 325 F oven for about 35-40 minutes. The recipe suggests a baking time of 20-25 minutes, but my brownies were nowhere near done at that point. The cinnamon ice cream was started by steeping broken cinnamon sticks in warm milk with sugar and a pinch of salt. Then, a custard was made with egg yolks and the warmed milk, it was strained, and cream was added. The custard was churned after being chilled.

The ancho chile powder in the brownies accented the chocolate in the same way espresso would. There was clearly something more than chocolate happening, but the chile flavor was just a supporting role and not obvious at all. The texture of these brownies was delightfully lighter than I expected and definitely not dense. The crackly top gave way to an almost cakey but near-fudgy interior. They were somehow the best of both worlds, and the pine nuts were a nice addition too. While I don’t think cinnamon ice cream would be a bad choice to set atop any brownie, I was especially happy with it on top of these. I’m also convinced this dessert was a good distraction from our freakishly cold weather at least for a little while. And just for the record, it's 75 degrees (F) today, and that's my favorite kind of January weather.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Baby Lima Soup with Chipotle Broth

For a combination of six ingredients, eight if you count water and salt, this soup has amazing flavor. I wanted a hearty, wintery, bean soup, and I was willing to expend the energy to soak the beans, chop vegetables, and stir for hours while it simmered. Then, I found this recipe, and almost none of that was required. Did you know you don’t even have to soak baby lima beans before cooking them? I didn’t. They’re big enough, even though they’re babies, that I would have assumed they should be soaked overnight like other dried beans. In less than an hour of simmering, they were cooked through and tender. As they cooked in plain water, a head of garlic bobbed along with them and added flavor. Sauteed onion and chipotles were added once the beans were cooked, and other than squeezing in some lime juice, that was all the effort that was needed. This soup is found in Super Natural Cooking, and it was part of a nice, light meal with a citrus and celery salad.

As I mentioned, the baby limas were not soaked. They were simply washed and then placed in a pot with water. The top was cut off a bulb of garlic and it was added to the water. This was left to simmer for 40 minutes. Meanwhile, I finely chopped an onion and a few chipotles from a can, and those were sauteed in clarified butter. The beans really don’t demand any special attention while they cook, but you should check them for doneness just before 40 minutes have elapsed to be sure they don’t get to a point of mushiness. When they were just cooked through, the sauteed onion and chipotles, some adobo sauce from the can of chipotles, and salt were added. After a few more minutes of simmering, the soup was ready.

The soup was so easy to prepare that I actually went ahead and made the suggested garnish as well. Crunchy topopos were made from a multi-grain tortilla which was thinly sliced, the strips were tossed with some vegetable oil, and they were baked for a few minutes. They were a nice textural contrast on top of the spicy, brothy soup. The butter sauteed onions added richness while the chipotles’ smokiness and spice worked some kind of magic. This tasted far more complex than it actually was, and I might not have believed how simple the recipe was had I not prepared it myself.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Clemenquat Salad with Walnuts and Parmesan Shavings

Fresh, crisp, light, and brightly-flavored aren’t terms that are used to describe winter food very often. But, this is a winter salad, and it’s all of those things. Those cute boxes of clementines in all the grocery stores had been calling out to me for weeks, and I finally brought one home. I haven’t yet decided how to use the remaining 50 or so clementines other than for snacking, but seven of them were delicious in this salad. There are also kumquats, hence the name, celery slices, and crunchy walnuts. I found the recipe in Super Natural Cooking by Heidi Swanson.

The clementines were peeled, and the segments were pulled apart. Celery stalks were thinly sliced on a diagonal. I really like celery leaves, and I tend to use the interior stalks with leaves intact for salads. So, the slices and chopped leaves joined the clementine segments in a large bowl. Then, ten kumquats were thinly sliced, seeds were scooted aside, and those slices joined the salad followed by toasted walnuts. A quick vinaigrette was made from lemon juice, olive oil, and salt and pepper. The vinaigrette was carefully mixed into the salad by hand so as to prevent the citrus pieces from breaking. Last, the plated salad was topped with parmesan shaved from a block of cheese.

There’s nothing wrong with typical, slow-roasted and braised winter dishes, in fact there’s one I’m planning to mention soon, but this salad was a nice bit of freshness in the midst of this season. It was sweet, tart, nutty, and fruity all at the same time. As I served it, I thought it might also be nice on a bed of baby arugula leaves to add a peppery note, or fennel slices might be a lovely addition to it. I don’t mean to overcomplicate it though because the simplicity of its mix of flavors was great just as it was.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Cream Cheese Cinnamon Rolls

Out with the old and in with the new. That’s what made me finally try a different recipe for cinnamon rolls. I had been making the same cinnamon rolls for years. I’ve changed the recipe to include pumpkin puree at times, but other than that, my homemade rolls have always been made the same way. Many moons ago, my cookbook library consisted of one book and that was The New Basics. The New Basics does not have a recipe for cinnamon rolls, and that’s why my collection grew to two books. Note: that book does have a recipe for sticky buns, but I wasn’t smart enough to think of checking for that at the time. I was at a bookstore, flipping through a few different general cooking types of books, and bought the tenth edition of the Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook because it did have a recipe for cinnamon rolls. It served me well for years until I decided it was time to try the Saveur cream cheese cinnamon rolls that Joy the Baker made. The key ingredient, cream cheese, is in the dough not the frosting.

After trying these twice, I didn’t completely sweep out the old. I realized there were a couple of details from my stand-by method that I couldn’t abandon. The dough ingredients were much like those for my old rolls other than the use of cream cheese, but there was a difference with the butter. For the new rolls, the butter was to be softened to room temperature and then kneaded into the dough with a dough hook on a mixer. It didn’t work itself into the dough very well, and the first time I ended up kneading a bit by hand to be sure the butter was incorporated. The second time, I warmed the butter to almost but not quite melting as I always did in the old version and then didn’t have to knead by hand. Then, after the dough had doubled in size, it was rolled into a ten inch square, and this is where the cream cheese was added. Softened cream cheese was spread on the square of dough, and the dough was folded almost like folding butter into homemade puff pastry which I still haven’t attempted. So, the dough was folded into thirds like a letter and then turned and folded again. Then, it was rolled out into a large rectangle to be topped with fillings. This new recipe suggests brushing the dough with melted butter, but again I reverted to my old ways with the butter. The first time around, the melted butter seemed to run out of the rolls and the bottoms browned too quickly as they baked. So, the second time, I spread very soft but not melted butter on the dough just like old times. A topping mixture of brown sugar, cinnamon, cloves, maple syrup and granulated sugar was spread on the buttered dough, and I included pecans and raisins one time but not the other just to mix it up. Then, the dough was rolled and cut and the rolls were placed in a buttered baking dish. You can either let the rolls rise for two hours and bake them, or you can place them in the refrigerator overnight. If refrigerated, they should come to room temperature before being baked.

Old recipe or new, it’s hard to beat the aroma of homemade cinnamon rolls in the oven. When they were baked and cooled, they were topped with a simple confectioner’s sugar frosting with some maple syrup in it. This is a richer version of a cinnamon roll than my old recipe, and the dough was tender and incredibly good. In the end, I don’t think the old will be thrown out since it almost seems like a light recipe now, but I’m definitely keeping the new.

I’m submitting this to Yeastspotting where you’ll find some seriously well-made bread.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Spaghetti with Spicy Clam Sauce

I have a new book to mention today, and I’ll probably be referencing it frequently. I had seen Stir: Mixing it Up in the Italian Tradition included on several best of 2009 lists, and I snapped it up as an impulse buy. I’m glad I did. The chef/author Barbara Lynch operates multiple eateries, a catering company, and a full service butcher shop in Boston which gives me more reasons to visit that city again one of these days. As the title implies, the dishes in the book are Italian-inspired, but here and there, you will find some French influence as well. For instance, it won’t be long before I try her brioche pizza, brioche!, with fried pistachios and honey or the one with black olive paste and fresh ricotta. She includes a recipe for fresh ricotta as well. Several of the salads are tempting me right now like the harvest salad with a variety of root vegetables and the fennel, cucumber, and green bean salad with roasted potatoes and creamy yogurt, but I had to try the bibb lettuce with creamy parmesan dressing and cheese crisps first. There are also chapters devoted to soups, seafood, fowl, meats, side dishes, and sweet treats, but the chapter I zeroed in on immediately was pasta. It won’t be long before I post about the orecchiette with cauliflower or the roasted corn and tomato lasagnettes, but for today, we have the spaghetti with spicy clam sauce.

For several of the pasta dishes in this book, Lynch recommends freshly made pasta, and this was one of them. Her fresh pasta dough recipe is a rich one with two whole eggs and four egg yolks, but the dough was a thing of beauty that was easily worked. My hand-cranked pasta machine only has cutters for fettuccine or spaghetti widths, so although linguine width was suggested here, I went with spaghetti. The sauce was started by steaming littleneck clams in white wine, and then removing them from the pot to let them cool a bit. The clams were removed from the shell, they were chopped, and the steaming liquid was strained. I kept a few clams in their shells as garnish. Olive oil was heated in a skillet, and the chopped clams and some minced garlic were added and cooked for a few minutes. Red pepper flakes were added to taste, and for me that meant a lot of red pepper flakes. The fresh pasta was boiled, drained, and transferred to the skillet with the clam sauce. For serving, the tossed pasta with sauce was drizzled with olive oil and a little lemon juice, and caution was thrown to the wind as grated parmigiano reggiano was suggested as a topping. Kurt, as usual, allowed no cheese near his shellfish, but I gladly sprinkled it over my plate.

We started our meal with the bibb lettuce salad with creamy parmesan dressing, and loved the thick, rich dressing over crisp, fresh leaves. The parmesan frico crisps brought nice texture and extra flavor to the salad too. Then, we moved on to the pasta, and fresh pasta is always kind of special and noticeably tasty, so of course it was delicious. However, remember those four egg yolks in addition to the two whole eggs in the pasta dough? They made this is a very enjoyable pasta, and the clams were fresh and feisty with the crushed red pepper. Whether you opt for the grated parmigiano topping or not, you’ll have a very good meal with this. Now, I have to flip through the book again and decide what I’ll be making next.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Chocolate Caramel Bars

UPDATE: New photos were added on 12/13/2011, and the recipe now includes a link to a printable version.

Did you have a favorite candy bar when you were a kid? I had a few that I preferred, but the best ever to my mind was a Twix. That’s why I was determined to get these cookie bars right even though it took a couple of tries. This all started when I read the recipe for millionaire’s shortbread in the Baked book, and it sounded straightforward enough. The concept is exactly what you see here which is a layered bar of shortbread, caramel, and chocolate otherwise known as a homemade Twix candy bar. I had a caramel disaster in that the sweetened condensed milk which cooked in a double-boiler (for more than twice the suggested time) never became caramelly or thick enough. Plan B was using store-bought dulce de leche, but that didn’t work either because even chilled it isn’t firm enough. But, then I remembered the chocolate caramel squares recipe I had mentioned from The Golden Book of Baking, and its caramel layer is built in a slightly different way. After comparing the two recipes, I ended up mixing and matching and adding my own touch by keeping the chocolate glaze from Baked and using the caramel from The Golden Book of Baking and sprinkling the chocolate with French sea salt. To clear up all this confusion, I’ll include the final, complete recipe below.

The shortbread cookie base was made first, and the two books differ in that the Baked version is richer with a little more butter and an added egg yolk. For my final version, I went with the more basic shortbread with no egg from Golden Book of Baking. While the shortbread cooled, the caramel was made. In the successful version, butter, sugar, light corn syrup, and sweetened condensed milk were combined in a saucepan over medium heat. It was stirred while the butter melted, then brought to a boil, reduced to a simmer, and stirred while simmering for about 20-25 minutes. The recipe suggests five minutes, but at that point it wasn’t caramel yet. I was not willing to accept failure number two, so I continued cooking until it looked right. From time to time during the 25 or so minutes, I would drop a little caramel onto a white plate to see the color clearly and how it set up at that point. When it looked like the filling in a Twix bar, the caramel was poured over the shortbread and was left to cool. Then, the chocolate glaze was made with melted chocolate, corn syrup, and butter. Once melted together and smooth, that combination was poured over the cooled caramel. Last, I sprinkled sea salt on the chocolate before it set because I’m addicted to doing that with anything involving chocolate and/or caramel.

So, finally, after testing, failing, tinkering, and persevering, I did produce what could be called a homemade Twix bar kind of cookie. The three steps can easily be spaced out over two days, and the steps are simple now that I know what works. I did store the cut bars in an airtight container in the refrigerator to keep them firm, but they are solid enough to remain at room temperature and would travel well. Now that I’m happy with this version of a Twix, I may have to move on to trying Michel Richard’s adaptation of a Kit Kat.

Chocolate Caramel Bars
Adapted from Baked and The Golden Book of Baking

print recipe

Shortbread base:
2 c (300 g) all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup (250 g) butter, softened
1/2 cup (100 g) sugar

Caramel layer:
1 c (250 g ) butter, cut into small pieces
1 c (200 g) sugar
4 tablespoons light corn syrup
2 cans (14 oz/400 g) sweetened condensed milk

Chocolate glaze:
8 oz chocolate of your choice (I used milk chocolate with about 40% cacao), chopped if from bars (I used feves)
1 teaspoon light corn syrup
1/2 c (125 g) butter, cut into small pieces
Fleur de sel for sprinkling

Shortbread base:
-Pre-heat oven to 325 degrees F (170 degrees C) and line a 9-inch by 13-inch baking pan with parchment paper.
-Combine flour, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. Beat butter and sugar in a mixer on high speed until light and well-combined. Turn mixer speed to low and slowly add the dry ingredients. Place dough in the prepared pan and press into an even layer. Placing plastic wrap over the top and pressing with a flat-bottomed glass helps to spread and flatten the dough. Bake for 15-18 minutes or until golden. Cool pan completely on a rack.

Caramel layer:
-Place butter, sugar, corn syrup, and sweetened condensed milk in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Allow butter to melt, and stir to combine. Raise heat to medium-high and bring mixture to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low again to maintain a simmer while stirring constantly. After ten minutes or so, you may want to switch to a whisk if the butter seems to be separating. For this step, the time could vary a lot depending on the heat of your burner, so watch carefully. The mixture should become a light amber, caramel color, and it should thicken a bit. You can drop a small amount onto a white plate to check the color and consistency while it's cooking. Mine cooked for about 25 minutes. When it reaches the desired color and thickness, pour mixture over shorbread, spread evenly with a heat-proof spatula, and allow to cool completely.

Chocolate glaze:
-In a large, heat-proof bowl, combine chocolate pieces, corn syurp, and butter pieces and place over a saucepan of simmering water. Cook, stirring constantly, until melted and well-combined. Remove from the saucepan and allow the chocolate glaze to cool for 30 seconds. Then, pour the glaze over the cooled caramel and spread evenly with an off-set spatula. Allow the glaze to sit and cool for a few seconds before sprinkling with coarse sea salt.

-Cut into narrow bars and serve with a little nostalgia on the side.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Double Blue Crostini and Fully Loaded Potato Skins

While my couch and I were re-connecting during that lovely, lazy week before the new year began, one of the books I read was Nigella Christmas. This was my first experience with a Nigella book. So, the references made to her previous books regarding recipes and friends were lost on me. It is, however, full of festive ideas for entertaining during the holiday season, and I was instantly inspired to try a couple of things. She presents ideas that don't require too much preparation time for casual gatherings. For our New Year’s Eve night of fun food, I wanted to try the double blue crostini and the fully loaded potato skins. Nigella explains that she makes simple canapes with tortilla chips rather than toasted pieces of bread because it's a time saver and good, thick tortilla chips 'resist sogginess longer.' The double blue crostini were blue corn tortilla chips with a blue cheese dip, and the fully loaded potato skins involved yet another bacon situation which I’ll explain.

For the blue cheese dip, room temperature cream cheese and sour cream were stirred together, and then blue cheese was mashed into the mixture. Finely chopped, pickled jalapenos were added, and the finished dip was scooped onto blue chips. Celery is always good with blue cheese, even though it went against the double blue concept, so I used some as a chip alternative.

Now, the point of the potato skins was that the filling mixture plus bacon on top made them fully loaded, so I couldn't skip that topping. I could have gone the route of using turkey bacon, but instead I decided to get creative, make a change, and use hot smoked chipotle salmon. I opted for mini yukon gold potatoes, and they were baked, halved, and hollowed. The potato pulp was combined with sour cream, chopped scallions, shredded cheddar cheese, and a bit of Worcestershire sauce. More shredded cheddar was applied on top, and they went back into the oven until melty and warm. Just before serving, I added pieces of smoked salmon to each.

I completely understand if you choose to fully load your potato skins with proper bacon, but the chipotle smoked salmon was a delicious alternative. As for the filling, there’s no denying the lure of potatoes with sour cream and cheddar. Regarding the double blue hors d’oeuvre, this was a simple but genius combination. The pickled jalapenos added addictive acidity and spice. Don’t start eating these while you’re hungry like I did because they’ll be gone far too quickly. This book offers Christmas-specific recipes and some to use all year, but I especially look forward to pulling it off the shelf when the holidays arrive again.

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