A Tribute To Lidia

Last year was Julia Child’s 100th birthday.  A friend and I joined thousands of others in paying tribute to her by cooking her food.  It was such fun that we have been talking about it ever since.  That, combined with the gift of a cookbook by Lidia Bastianich for by birthday, led us to this year’s tribute dinner, this time to Lidia.

IMG_6553

We cooked in my kitchen together.  It took the better part of a late afternoon and evening, not because it was so complicated, but because we had to stop for several hours in the middle to feed, tub and bed the children.  Which worked out perfectly since my husband and her fiancée (they were engaged this year, inspiring the “love chicken” post) couldn’t join us until later in the evening as well.

And there were a few mishaps.  What would cooking a big meal be without some bumps?  Luckily, we were able to engage backup plans and to improvise which led to a delicious and hardy meal.  Believe me when I say, we were all so stuffed by the end and yet, all of us wanted to keep eating.

IMG_6644C. made the ravioli from scratch, dough and all.  She hand-rolled them and made the filling.  So delicious.  I’ll let her come post about that at some point- we have some great photos. IMG_6642

She also made a delicious puttanesca sauce and has a handy tip for pitting the olives.

IMG_6624And that mishap?  Well, we ended up with more filling than ravioli so C. made a delicious baked shell dish based on the filling and a bit of improvisation.  Also yum.

IMG_6641I made bread and a tomato mozzarella salad.  I also made stuffed mushrooms and cappuccino cake, both from Lidia’s recipes.  Both proved to be just right for the meal.  The mushrooms were filling and savory without being too rich and the cake was just the right mix of bitter coffee and sweet cream.

Stuffed Mushrooms (Funghi Ripieni) from Lidia’s Italian-American Table

Ingredients:

24 white or cremini mushrooms, with caps, about 1.5 inches in diameter

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1/2 cup finely chopped scallion

1/2 cup finely chopped red bell pepper

1/2 cup coarse, dry breadcrumbs

1/2 cup grated parmiegiano-reggiano cheese

1/4 cup finely chopped italian parsley

salt & pepper to taste

1/2 cup chicken stock

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/4 dry white wine

Directions

Preheat your oven to 425 F.  Remove the stems from your mushrooms and set them aside- do not get rid of them.  Also, wash your mushrooms first.

IMG_6582Chop the scallions, pepper, mushroom stems and parsley.  I was lazy and used my little chopper thingy.

IMG_6590Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a skillet.  Add the scallion and cook until it is wilted, about 1 minute. Add the red pepper and chopped mushroom stems.  Cook, stirring, until tender, about 3 minutes.

IMG_6591Set aside and let it cool.

IMG_6592In a medium bowl, toss the bread crumbs, cheese, 2 tablespoons of the parsley and the cooled mixture from the skillet until thoroughly blended.

IMG_6593IMG_6594

IMG_6595Add salt and pepper to taste.  Using the back of a spoon (and truthfully, your fingers), stuff the mushroom caps until the stuffing is level with the cap.

IMG_6597IMG_6598IMG_6600Place the stuffed mushrooms in a baking pan that has been greased with butter.  Place about a 1/4 teaspoon of butter on top of each mushroom.  I didn’t measure this part, honestly, just put a little bit of butter on top of each.

IMG_6602Mix the wine, chicken stock and the rest of the parsley.  Pour it around the mushrooms.  Bake for about 20 minutes, or until the filling is nicely browned.  Remove from the oven and place on a warmed platter.  Pour the liquid out into a small saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat for a minute or two, allowing it to thicken slightly.  Pour over the mushrooms and serve immediately.

IMG_6639These were so good- salty and full of flavor.  The mushrooms were soft and the filling was crunchy and cheesy.  I probably ate at least four of them.  I could have eaten them all but I was trying to be a good hostess.

Stay tuned for the cake recipe.

BBQ University, day one – you can use garden tools on your grill

Many thanks to my dear friend Stella Carolyn for letting me blog on her site about my recent trip to BBQ University.  My postings normally revolve around vegetables and our challenges with gardening, so it’s a nice change of pace to talk about cooking!

In January my beloved husband, Old McDonald, turned 40 and I struggled with what to get him for a special birthday gift.  He’s a big fan of Barbecue University on PBS, featuring Steve Raichlen, and last year while looking up a recipe we had seen on the show, I discovered that Steve teaches 2 sessions of BBQ U in person at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs.  I called, and was able to secure us two spots in the class for this year’s second session, June 9-12.  I hadn’t seen too much on this program on the web – just one message board post dating back to 2010 from a guy in Chicago who had taken the class – so our expectations were pretty vague.  But hey, it was a vacation in Colorado involving live fire cooking, so how bad could it be?

Awesome, as it turned out.  First, the resort – the Broadmoor is a AAA, five-diamond resort.  We are very much the rustic-cabin-in-the-woods type of vacationers, so this is by far the nicest place we’ve ever stayed:

The Broadmoor

The Broadmoor

image imageThe event kicked off with a cocktail reception featuring food from a selection of the nine (!!) restaurants located on the Broadmoor properties, and a brief speech from our instructor, Steve Raichlen.  We met most of our classmates (57 in total, 9 of whom were women), and left the event just as the sun was setting over Cheyenne mountain, totally stuffed from all the good food.  While we were out, bags had been delivered to our room with our binders for “study” – the recipes that would be prepared each day.  Classes ran for three mornings, Monday – Wednesday from 9-12, at the Broadmoor’s Cheyenne Mountain Lodge:

The Lodge

The Lodge

Our classroom. If only college classes were held in places like this, I'd still be an undergrad.

Our classroom. If only college classes were held in places like this, I’d still be an undergrad.

Monday morning’s class kicked off with Steve talking about the history of live fire cooking and how it led to the evolution of man before moving on to man’s favorite food: meat.  He gave us some brief demonstrations on preparations (my favorite was “spatchcocking,” where you take a whole round chicken or duck and flatten it by removing the spine, cutting slits in the body cavity and tucking the leg bones into them, and tucking in the wings) before calling for volunteers to make each recipe.  Most of the teams ended up being between 2-4 people, who worked together to prep the food to be cooked and then took it out to be grilled:image image image image There were about 20 grills and smokers available for use, and depending on what you were cooking you would be assigned a smoker, a charcoal grill or a gas grill.  I should also mention that preparing the recipe – adding seasoning or creating a marinade – was supremely easy because just like a cooking show, all your ingredients were premeasured and sorted into prep bowls, then handed to you on a tray.  And clean up?  Just wipe off the table, stack the used dishes/knives/whisks in a black dish bucket by the kitchen door, and they all disappeared.  I want that at my house.  Every day.

Day one, the menu:

  • Buffa-que shrimp
  • Grilled meatballs with lemon dill sauce

  • Peppered tuna London broil with wasabi cream

  • Thai grilled game hens with mango slaw

  • Port T-bones on a shovel

  • The ultimate cheese “steak”

  • Tuscan grilled polenta and vegetable platter with balsamic soy glaze

  • Smoked crème brulees

Everything on the grill, from appetizers to dessert.  My favorite was the pork steak cooked on…..wait for it…..a shovel.  Really, see: image That to me is a showstopper.  Steve talked about making sure your shovel was properly sterilized, which makes sense if you’re us, and your steel shovels are usually used to shovel compost. And other organic matter that encourages plant and vegetable growth.  Ahem.

We opted not to participate in the cooking on day one, preferring to get a better look at what everyone else was doing.  This turned out to be great because not only were we able to listen to all of Steve’s instructions, suggestions & cooking ideas, we could follow him around as he checked on all the recipes on the grill.

Grilled poblano peppers

Grilled poblano peppers

Peppered tuna London broil

Peppered tuna London broil & the “ultimate” cheese steak

Thai grilled game hens

Thai grilled game hens

Grilled meatballs. Anything is possible with the right equipment!

Grilled meatballs. Anything is possible with the right equipment!

Steve is very big into presentation of the food you prepare, so we were encouraged to artistically arrange our finished recipes using the serving dishes provided.  It was also a good reminder for me, because I tend to plate whatever I’ve prepared and not think too much about making it look pretty, because I’m usually hungry or pretty tired by the time I’ve finished some interesting recipes.

The first day’s results set the standard for the next two days:

Tuscan grilled polenta & vegetable platter

Tuscan grilled polenta & vegetable platter

Pork T-bones, post-shovel

Pork T-bones, post-shovel

Thai-grilled game hens, now with mango slaw

Thai-grilled game hens, now with mango slaw

Meatballs

Meatballs

The final spread

The final spread

And how did it taste?  Well, it was fabulous.  Since each team was preparing recipes that would serve only 4-6 people and there were more than 60 people who needed to eat, the Broadmoor chefs cooked the same recipes on several additional grills around the corner from where we were all working.  The giant kettle grill featured above, as a matter of fact.  So good.  And once again, all the dishes just disappeared, as if by magic.  That alone is worth the price of tuition, in my opinion.

Next time – day 2 – the Big Green Egg and we cook Tandoori lamb ribs with three herb chutney with two guys who totally know what they’re doing.

Copy Constant

One of my favorite people in the world writes one of my favorite food blogs in the world, The Hungry Hippo.  Her resolution for 2013 is to make more of the recipes from the cookbooks she owns.  These are cookbooks I love and I will sit for hours and browse them when I visit her (I can do this because she’s the one playing with my kids while I do).  She posted this recipe a few weeks ago (from a Parisian cookbook, no less!) and I could not wait to try it.

Broccoli and Cauliflower Gratin

Ingredients:
2 cups of broccoli
2 cups of cauliflower
2 Tablespoons butter
2 Tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons of flour
1 1/3 cups milk (I used whole)
2 egg yolks
2/3 cup cheese (according to the Hippo, the recipe called for gruyere, she used 1/3 C cheddar, 1/3 C parm and I used what I had in my fridge.  I think it was jack and cheddar, maybe?) plus some extra for sprinkling
about 1/4 cup bread crumbs (I used panko)
salt and pepper
sprinkle of nutmeg (I skipped this)

Directions

Wash and chop your veggies into same size florets.

IMG_4732 Put some water on to boil and once it has come to a rolling boil, add the florets.  Cook them for 1-2 minutes.  Take them out immediately- you don’t want them to get mushy, just slightly less crisp.  IMG_4734Set them aside and work on the sauce.  Melt the butter in a saucepan.  When it has melted, add the flour and whisk together, letting it cook for a minute to get the raw flour taste out.  Slowly whisk in the milk and let it thicken. Take your pan off the heat and add the egg yolks one at a time, whisking while you do.  Try to avoid making scrambled eggs in your sauce.  Add the cheese, again, whisking while you do so that it will melt evenly.  Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg (if using).

IMG_4736I used ham in mine, even though the Hippo did not.  I cubed a ham steak.

IMG_4733Then I added it to a hot frying pan to brown and crisp it over medium high heat.

IMG_4735Butter a casserole dish and add your veggies.

IMG_4737Sprinkle the ham around to fill in the spaces.

IMG_4738Pour your sauce over this.

IMG_4739Mix your breadcrumbs with some of the cheese and sprinkle on top.

IMG_4740Bake at 400 until the top is golden brown and it’s heated through and bubbly, about 30 minutes.

IMG_4741This could be a side dish but with the added meat, it can also be a lovely main dish.  The egg yolks add a silkiness to the sauce that isn’t there in a basic white sauce.

IMG_4742It was good for a cold night.

IMG_4743

Fresh Fish Fast

As I’ve stated before, my grandmother often made fish.  Surprisingly, I don’t think she ever made it the way I’m about to explain.  I’m not sure why- this was possibly the fastest recipe I’ve ever used and it was totally delicious!  Also, quite healthy.  It’s a technique I’ve read about and I think it can be used with chicken as well.  I got this one from the Legal’s Seafood Cookbook but it does seem like a flexible recipe.  Give it a try and let me know how it goes.

Oven-Steamed Cod with Vegetables

Based on a recipe from the New Legal Sea foods Cookbook

Ingredients

1 1/2- 2 lbs cod fillets (but will work with just about any mild white fish)

6 ounces broccoli

4 ounces mushrooms

1/4 cup chopped onion

1 tablespoon minced sweet marjoram, basil or parsley

salt

pepper

1 tablespoon butter

aluminum foil

Directions

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.  Tear off a large sheet of aluminum foil, large enough to hold the fish and veggies in a packet.

Place the fish in the middle of the foil.  Season with salt and pepper.  Chop up your veggies and cover the fish with them.  Really pile them on.  I started with the broccoli.

I added a few halved cherry tomatoes as well as some garlic. I really just threw them all on top, sort of willy-nilly.

Season this with salt and pepper as well as the spices you’re using.  I’ll be honest, I forgot the marjoram and it was still good!  Fold the foil over to start creating a packet for the fish. Fold the left side over and then the right.

Continue by folding the bottom up and over the two sides. I did it sort of like wrapping a gift.

Pull it up and sort of seal it.

Repeat with the top so that you end up with a fully wrapped package of fish and vegetables.

Place on a cookie sheet and bake in the oven for about 15 minutes.  I had a bit more fish than the recipe called for so it took longer for mine to cook.  The veggies will be crisp-tender and the fish will be succulent and, well, just plain yummy.

Be careful when you unwrap your fishy present, the steam will be very hot (duh) and will come rushing out.  I served mine over rice but it would be equally good over couscous or maybe small pasta.

Verdicts

So, thanks for voting!  We ended up eating squash soup, homemade challah and a yummy pear-feta-balsamic salad that K. brought with her.  We also had this pumpkin spice cake.  More about that in a moment.  As our after-lunch activity, we took G. to the park.  G. was delighted with K’s funny faces and driving of her car/stroller thing.

I also made everything I was supposed to this week, according to my plan, and have some thoughts.  It’ll be a mix of quick recipes, links and opinions today….  My grandmother would write her notes on the recipes in her cookbooks.  Think of this as my way of doing that, just using technology.    But, starting from most recent, let’s talk about lunch yesterday.

The soup was good, as always.  As was the challah, which I’d heated up on Friday night since I’d forgotten to defrost it the day before.  It was good.  Must make more today as I am now out of loaves in the freezer.

The salad was delicious.  It’s K’s recipe and this particular day’s salad came with an amusing story which involved a second trip to the grocery store, an abundance of feta and an analysis of the cleanliness of her kitchen floor (result?  Far, far cleaner than mine!).  But I’ll let her tell that either on one of her blogs or in the comments.  Anyway, it’s lettuce, a sliced pear, feta cheese and balsamic dressing.  A combination I’d never put together on my own, but when she did, the results were wonderful.  The crunch and sweetness of the pear, along with the sweetness of the balsamic were offset nicely by the tang and creaminess of the feta.  Mmmm.

The pumpkin spice cake was also good.  I did realize, as I made it, while talking on the phone with the hippo, that I probably should have just made my pumpkin bread recipe and baked it in a cake pan, since I left out the pineapple, currants, and coconuts that the recipe wanted.  I just  couldn’t get behind fruit in my pumpkin cake.  All the reviews of the cake admitted that most felt it was an odd addition to the cake but that it worked.  I don’t trust these people and I don’t like coconut.  At any rate, my cake was yummy.

As for last week?  Well, if you recall, I had planned lettuce wraps and fried rice, a ricotta frittata, avgolemono, broccoli and cheddar soup, and crockpot pasta and beef.  The verdicts?   The lettuce wraps were great, as expected.  The ricotta frittata was also a big hit- the ricotta added a nice tang and depth to the eggs.  The avgolemono was not as well received.  I’m not sure if I made it wrong or if it’s just tastes that I don’t like together.  I’d try it again, but probably only in a restaurant or made by someone’s Greek grandmother.  That way I can see if it was me or the recipe.  The broccoli soup was good but I now have a ton left.  I may freeze some and see if I can turn the rest into a pasta/chicken casserole.  Stay tuned for that experiment.

The pasta-beef recipe made everyone but my daughter happy.  My husband and in-laws loved it, I thought it was tolerable and G…..refused it  Vehemently.  I may be raising a bit of a semi-vegetarian, which is fine with me but makes my husband nervous (he’s a steak and more steak guy).    It wasn’t bad- if I make it again, I’ll likely make it with chicken or turkey.  To me it was a cross between a chili and a pasta sauce.  It was good with cheddar cheese on it.

So, consider my cookbook notes updated.  Up this week?  Recipes from Crockery Cookbook, Legal Sea Foods Cookbook and America’s Test Kitchen….  I’ll keep you posted.

 

Cooking For Baby

When G. and I were visiting my cousin in NY, I noticed a cookbook open on her counter.  As I flipped through it, I thought, “Gee, these all sound so yummy!  I need this cookbook!”  Indeed the dishes did sound good: Filet of Fish Mornay with Vegetables, Rosti Salmon Cakes, Zucchini Fritters….  I flipped it to the cover and saw that it was, in fact, a cookbook for children’s food.  I have one of those- Cooking For Baby– but it’s not nearly as inspiring.  This one, well, this one was different.  I asked my cousin to email me the title and then promptly forgot.  About a week after G. and I returned home, this showed up on my doorstep via Amazon:

You know, ’cause that’s how we roll in my family- why send the title when you can send a copy of the actual book?

So, my next few posts will be food from this book.  We’ll start with Cheesy Pasta Stars.  Now, even if you’re not cooking for a baby, stick with me- some of this food is really good, no matter what your age!

Cheesy Pasta Stars

Ingredients

1 cup carrots, peeled and sliced

1 cup boiling water

2 Tablespoons butter

1 cup tomatoes, skinned, deseeded, and chopped

1/3 cup grated cheddar cheese

2 Tablespoons soup pasta stars (stelline)

Directions

Peel and chop your carrots.  I used rounds and sliced mine pretty thin.  It took about three medium size carrots to make one cup.

Place the carrots in a pan with the cup of boiling water (if not cooking for adults, add a pinch of salt).  Cook until tender about 15-20 minutes.  This will depend on both how thinly you cut your carrots and what you consider tender.  It  only took about 10 minutes for me.

Peel, seed and chop your tomatoes.  I did not do this.  I used two tomatoes from our backyard (thanks to a good friend and her husband who are “borrowing” a corner of our yard to grow tomatoes- we get the benefits of extras), which I cored and then just chopped- I don’t mind seeds and skin.  I also threw in the rest of the small yellow cherry tomatoes I had leftover to make it to a cup.  I chopped them a bit as well. 

Melt the butter in a separate pan, add the tomatoes and saute until mushy.

Grate your cheese.  I am too lazy for grating so I just chopped mine pretty thin.

A pile of yummy cheese. Can you hear my daughter frantically saying, "ch-ees? ch-ees?" in the background?

Remove from the heat and stir in the cheese until melted. 

In the meantime, bring a pan of water to a boil and add the pasta.  Cook until tender, about 5 minutes, then drain.

Mix together the cooked carrots, along with the cooking liquid, with the cheese and tomato mixture.  It will look….funny.

Now, the recipe says to blend it to a puree.  I debated this.  I decided to do it, so that I could see what the intention was.  I’m glad I did because I ended up with a thick, yummy, fresh-tasting sauce that was tomato-y and sweet from the carrots.  If you wanted to, you could probably skip the puree step but I’m not sure you’d get the same effect.

Add the sauce to the drained pasta stars and serve.

Best when served on a dinosaur plate. FYI.

If you’re cooking for adults, I’d say use larger pasta, like ziti or rotini.  The stars got lost in my sauce.  Ironically, my husband and I both liked this but G, for whom it was made, turned her nose up at it, preferring instead her nectarine and plain old cheese.  Go figure.

Homemade Sunshine

It is gloomy here.  Gloomy and gray and rainy and COLD.  It’s as though it’s March rather than May.  I mean, cold is all relative.  It’s New England so obviously we’re all in shorts and flip flops because it’s no longer negative ten.  But it’s cold for May.  And so cloudy.  For weeks now.  I mean, this is what it looks like on my morning jog:

I mean, pretty trees, pretty water, nice and green but….gray.  Gloomy.  Dark.  Dreary.  Yuck!

So, how to create sunshine?  Cookies, of course!  But easy cookies.  Nothing fussy.  Something you can just throw together and then enjoy.  A note:  it is important before you start to make sure that any small monsters that might be hanging around have something to do, other than hang on to your legs.

I find that a small tupperware filled with popcorn kernels works really well as a distraction.  It makes a good noise.  Yellow triangles work too.

Once you have your small monster under control, make these chocolate chip oatmeal cookies (based on a recipe from Cook’s Illustrated).  Then you should bring them to all the people in your life who are lacking sunshine.  It will brighten their day. Plus, research suggests that helping others gives us a boost of our own.  See?  win-win!

Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies

Some people prefer raisins.  I do not.  Why use fruit when chocolate is available?

Ingredients

1 1/2 cups white flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 cups rolled oats (not the instant oatmeal, not the steel cut/Irish oatmeal)

2 sticks (16 tablespoons) butter, soft but not mushy

2 eggs

1 cup brown sugar (packed)

1 cup white sugar

1 package chocolate chips (I used milk chocolate)

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Line baking sheets with parchment or silpat.  (Why don’t I own silpat?)

In your mixer (don’t do it by hand, why expend the energy on this gray, gloomy day?), beat the butter until it’s soft and sort of fluffy.  Then add the sugars.

Cream the butter and sugar.  No, this does not involve cream.  It involves mixing until everything is all incorporated.  Like so:

Then add the eggs.  CI says to add them one at a time and to mix in between but CI and I disagree.  Throw them all in together and mix until it looks slightly curdled:

Next, add all the dry ingredients except the oatmeal.  Again, CI and I do not see eye to eye here- they want you to measure and mix the dry ingredients prior to adding them to the mixing bowl.  I say, bah, throw it all in and mix.  Then add the chocolate chips.

Mmmm.  I love raw cookie dough, salmonella be damned.  At this point, if you baked these, they’d be very thin and crispy and not quite a cookie.  So, this is when you add the oatmeal.  CI says to stir it in by hand.  I’m sure you can guess what I say to that.

These cookies are supposed to be big.  I used a cookie scoop to portion them out onto the paper.  CI says it will make about 18 large cookies.  I baked off 12 (6 on each sheet) and put the rest into the freezer for another time.

Bake for about 15-20 minutes.  Mine ended up slightly overbaked and so were more crunchy/crispy than chewy.  Let them cool for a few minutes before removing them from the cookie sheet.  Try not to eat all of them immediately.

I brought a whole bunch to my friend J, at her office.  It was a nice way to brighten an otherwise gloomy day.  Plus, the baby got to play with her.  And got a short nap on the way which made her a much more pleasant child at dinner.

Birthday Cake

Today we had a birthday party for baby G.  She’ll be one on Wednesday but we celebrated today.  The celebration involved a lot of cake.  I made cupcakes, cake and more cake.  Why so much cake?  I needed a backup cake in case the REAL cake I was making didn’t work.  Also, my husband has often said he doesn’t like yellow cake.  So, before I give you the recipe and the story that goes with it, I give you what a first birthday should look like:

Mmmmmm....Caaaaake.

What cake do you associate with birthdays?  The Hippo talks about hers here. I always want store- or bakery- bought cake.  Perhaps because I bake, I want someone else to do it for me.  I’ve been thinking about G’s first birthday cake for – no lie- a year (I started thinking about it while I was still pregnant.  What can I say?  I’ll frame it as I’m a planner rather than I’m obsessed with food).  I decided early on that I wanted to make her the Chocolate Initiation Cake from Lora Brody’s Growing Up On The Chocolate Diet.  Lora Brody was a friend of my grandmother’s and I adore this cookbook.  It’s a lot like this blog, actually- recipes along with many, many stories from her life.  I can’t recommend it highly enough- buy it, you won’t regret it.

My copy is a bit battered- it has traveled to Israel and back with me.

This is the birthday cake that she made for her first son.  It is now the birthday cake I have made for my first daughter. I feel it is a nice tradition that I will attempt to continue.  It is, however,  a rather complicated cake.  I was afraid it wouldn’t come out well so I made a boxed chocolate cake.  And some cupcakes.

But back to Lora Brody.  I have read and re-read this cookbook several times.  A few years ago, I emailed Ms. Brody to tell her how much I enjoyed it and to let her know that I was living in my grandmother’s house, cooking in her kitchen.  I told her this because she knew my grandmother and because the inscription on the copy of her cookbook that I own (which was my grandmother’s) reads, “To my wonderful friend, G., with much love and tremendous admiration”.  I thought she might want to know how much I loved it.  She responded and told me how pleased she was that I was in the house and that she drives by often and thinks of my grandmother when she does.

So it somehow seemed fitting for G’s first cake to be the chocolate initiation cake.  And since my daughter is named for my grandmother, it may be time to email Ms. Brody again to let her know how the traditions are being passed down.  I’ll let you know if she responds.  Meanwhile, make this cake.  It’s complicated but so worth it. *I have mixed feelings about including this recipe since it’s from a published book and I didn’t really tweak it at all.  But I googled it and it came up as having been printed in the Chicago Tribune so I feel like it’s already out there.  Regardless, buy the book.  It’s fantastic.*

Chocolate Initiation Cake

For the layers:

2 1/4 cups flour

2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 sticks (6 oz.) sweet, unsalted butter

1 1/3 cups sugar

4 extra-large eggs, separated

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 1/2 cups sour cream

1 cup milk

12 ounces milk chocolate chips, mini if possible

For the filling/frosting:

2 cups heavy cream

12 ounces (2 cups) milk chocolate, chopped (you can use chips)

2 tablespoons sweet unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Grease and parchment paper three 9 inch round cake pans.  This means cutting out a circle of parchment paper that fits into the bottom of the cake pan (put the pan on top of the paper and trace it, then cut it out).  Grease the pan, put the parchment into the pan and grease the parchment.  You can go the extra mile and flour the pan but I didn’t.  Set aside.

Sift the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt into a bowl.  Set aside.  In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter and 1 cup of the sugar.  Add the egg yolks one by one, making sure to fully incorporate in between.  Add the vanilla, milk and sour cream.  It will be a sort of curdled looking liquid.  This is ok.  Keep going.  Add the flour mixture and mix just until it’s all mixed in- no more or the cake will be rough. Add the chocolate chips.

In a clean bowl with clean beaters, whip the egg whites and the rest of the sugar (1/3 cup).  Beat until stiff but not dry.  This means the peaks will hold but they’re still shiny and loose-ish.  Fold the egg whites into the batter.

Ready to go into the pans

Divide the batter evenly into the three pans.  Bake for 30-40 minutes, switching pans halfway through (front to back or rack to rack, depending on your oven).  The cakes are done when they are golden brown and start to pull away from the sides. 

Let them cool for a few minutes before removing them from the pans.

Bottom of cake as it came out of the pan.

Make the frosting/filling.

I warn you that mine did not come out correctly so it was more of a glaze than a filling or frosting.  I therefore do not have photos.  However, you’re basically making a ganache with a little bit of butter.  Heat the cream over low heat.  Don’t let it boil over but bring it to a simmer and let it reduce by half.  Add the chocolate and stir until it’s melted and smooth.  Add the butter off of the heat and stir until all is incorporated.  Put it in the fridge and let it cool.  If you’ve done it correctly, you’ll have a very thick but not solid sauce.  Whip it with beaters until it is fluffy.  Or, if you end up with more of a sauce, as I did, whip it and then feel very frustrated.

To put the cake together, place one layer on a platter.  Spread some of the filling (not too much!) over the cake.  Add the next layer and repeat.  Put on the final layer and frost the top, bottom and sides.  Try to restrain yourself from eating the entire cake with just a fork. 

Full disclosure:  here’s my cake from the side.  Note the pool of not-quite- correctly made frosting along the sides.  Yummy but very messy.

So I served the rest of the not-quite-frosting on the side and called it fudge sauce.  Problem solved!

Oh and P.S., the husband decided that he likes THIS yellow cake.

Holiday Season

Growing up Jewish, I never really “got” Christmas. I always liked the tree- so pretty!  smells so good!- but never really noticed the gifts underneath.  I like stockings- small gifts and candy are totally up my ally.  It wasn’t until I met my husband that I learned about what an extravaganza Christmas can be.  The first year we were together he bought me something like 15 gifts….really over the top and overwhelming!  Over the years, he’s remained pretty generous around Christmas and sort of uses it as a get-out-of-jail-free card for other occasions.  We’ve been working on balancing that out a bit- I mean, I don’t know about you but I’d rather be spoiled all year long than just one day.

The last three years or so, we’ve made a bigger shift.  We have much less money now due to the economy and our career choices.  We’re thinking more about how we want our daughter to grow up and how we want her to view holidays and other gift-giving occasions.  While we want her to have everything her little heart desires, we also want her to learn about giving to others and the importance of the thought, not the thing. As a result, we now do a lot more homemade or “experience” gifts (activities or events like tickets to the ballet or dinner out).

Last year we made a cookbook of recipes collected from our friends and family.  My husband wanted to be sure that he was a part of it so he helped me make two of the recipes so he could say he helped.  While he’s not a huge fan of cooking, he will pitch in and help me if I ask and if I give him very clear, concrete directions.  If I let him use some of the cool kitchen gadgets (like the food processor or actual tools (like a hammer), he actually gets pretty into it.

Chocolate Bark (from Ina Garten)

Ingredients:
9 ½ ounces good semi-sweet chocolate, finely chopped
8 ounces good bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 c. whole roasted, salted cashews
1 c. chopped dried apricots
½ c. dried cranberries (“Crasins”)

Directions:
Melt the two chocolates in a double-boiler over low heat.

Line a sheet pan with parchment paper.  Using a ruler and a pencil, mark out a 9 x 10 inch rectangle on the paper.  Turn the paper over so that the pencil marks are on the face down side.

Pour the melted chocolate over the paper and spread to form the rectangle using the outline. 

Sprinkle the nuts and fruit over the chocolate. 

Allow to sit for 2 hours or until firm.  Break into pieces and serve at room temperature.

 

Peppermint Bark

Ingredients:
12 ounces good white chocolate, chopped
24 hard peppermint candies (I used candy canes)

Special tools: a hammer or heavy rolling pin

Directions:
Melt the chocolate in a double-boiler over medium heat.  Stir until smooth, be careful not to burn.

Place the peppermints in a zip-loc bag and using a hammer, rolling pin or other heavy utensil, break the candies into varying sizes, from dust to small chunks.  Stir about ¾ of the pieces into the melted chocolate.  Line a baking sheet with waxed paper and pour the melted chocolate/peppermint mixture onto the paper.  Use a rubber spatula to smooth it to a thickness of about ¼ inch. Press the large peppermint pieces on the top and place in the refrigerator to cool.  When firm, break into varying sized pieces.  If storing for more than an hour or so, keep in refrigerator.

 

Full disclosure, this is a photo from a google search. But mine did look a lot like this.

 

 

Holiday Baking

This time of year I do a lot of baking.  My grandmother was a great cook but not a wonderful baker- except for those magical cookies.  She always had sweet things around- pies from the farmer’s market, cakes from the Jewish bakery- but it wasn’t very often that she baked things herself.  I, on the other hand, went so far as to work as a professional baker for about nine months after I returned from my year in Israel.  So, I bake a lot.  And people will tell you that baking is more chemistry than cooking- you must be precise and careful.  I’ve not found this to be true and often play around with baking recipes.  Sometimes this backfires- I’ll be posting about the bread I made and the snafu I made with the measurements (hey, half of 7 is definitely not 5!)- but most of the time, it works out just fine.  This week was no exception.

One of my very best friends (I posted about her here) recently gave me a subscription to Cooks Illustrated which has quickly become my favorite magazine, followed by In Touch Weekly, a subscription bought for me by another wonderful friend.  One meets my need for celebrity gossip, the other meets my need for food knowledge.  Even better?  As a result of the CI magazine, I now have an amazing cookbook- they sent it to me at a “discount.”  (I think, in the end, it wasn’t that big a discount but whatever, I’m a sucker for a good cookbook!)

That thing is amazing.  A billion recipes, lots of detailed explanations, good illustrations, informative step-by-step instructions….simply wonderful.  I find myself flipping through it several times a day, fascinated by all the food information given.  It’s overwhelming but in a really good way.

I have a few team meetings this week and for once, no testing reports due so I thought I’d bring some treats.  I mean, it’s almost Christmas and if you can’t eat sweets now, when can you?

Aren’t the boxes pretty?  I assure you, what’s inside is also pretty….pretty tasty!  (go ahead, groan!)

I made some chocolate cookies (from the CI cookbook) and then made a peppermint buttercream based on the CI vanilla buttercream recipe.  The thing about really good buttercream?  It’s really buttery.  I had to play with it a bit just because I wasn’t feeling the butter-to-sweet flavor but it turned out well.  I feel a bit funny about printing the recipes here since they really aren’t mine so I won’t.  But I will tell you to check out the both the magazine and the cookbook.  Well worth it.  (I’ll link you over to them up there on the chocolate cookie link but it won’t show you the recipe.  Instead it will give you a little note about why they won’t just give away the recipe.  Kind of annoying but I can see their point.)

I knew I wanted to pair the buttercream with the cookies but I struggled with what would look good and taste better.  I couldn’t decide how to put them together.  Frost them?  Make pretty florets on them?  Make simple sandwiches? 

I decided on smaller cookies, with a bit of buttercream in between.  I think they’re really cute and tasty.  For whatever reason, the larger cookies were just too much.

To make them, I baked the cookies and let them cool.  I mixed up the buttercream and crushed up some candy canes.  Once the cookies were cool, I paired them up according to size (I used a small cookie/ice cream scoop to portion out the dough so they were all roughly the same size.)- and my husband, who had no idea what I was doing, asked me if I was having an OCD moment- and then piped on the buttercream.

I squished them together and then rolled the sides in the crushed candy canes.  (As an aside?  When I was at the grocery store I found Gobstopper candy canes, Lifesaver candy canes, Hershey’s chocolate mint candy canes but no regular candy canes.  WTF?  I went with the chocolate mint but they aren’t the right colors!)

I threw them in the fridge for a bit and then packed ’em up.  I also made these peanut butter cookies which are gluten-free since there’s a team member who’s a no gluten girl.

That’s all for the team meeting that’s tomorrow at 12:30pm.  For the meeting on Thursday that’s at 9am, I made a loaf of pumpkin bread and will bring some of the chocolate peppermint cookies, in case anyone wants a cookie for breakfast.  Because cookies?  Breakfast of champions.