Saturday, May 28, 2011

Amsterdam Meals

I'm not going to be posting about any of my own kitchen trials for the next while, but I still hope to be posting some choice "musings" about yummy food consumption! We are travelling in Europe, and one of our tasks is to eat well. I'm excited to start sharing with you readers what we have experienced so far. We've been in Amsterdam a few days now, and have really enjoyed everything we've tried so far.

Food is such a window into culture and people, so we always try to get "authentic" cuisine when we go to a new locale. The Netherlands isn't especially known for it's particular food specialties, but of course there are always popular regional dishes, and locally sourced ingredients also contribute to what a culture traditaionlly consumed. So for our first night, we looked for a restaurant serving "Dutch food." We were very pleased with a little pub called Bistro Bij ons in the Jordaan neighborhood. We tried the "Granny's Casserole" which is a stewed beef with mashed potatoes and red cabbage. Our waiter explained that the way the Dutch eat this - the "secret" - is to mix the three dishes together and eat it as one. The rich flavorful broth and the sweetness of the cabbage (perhaps cooked with apples or beets?) complemented each other heartily and definitely cut through the cool sea wind we'd been walking around in all afternoon. We also ordered the fried mussels, confirming that it was in fact local shellfish. They were small, tender, and delicious, and really were more sauteed then fried to really allow the flavor to shine.

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"Granny's Casserole" - stewed beef and onions with Dutch herbs, mashed potatoes, and red cabbage.

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Sauteed mussels and onions, served with frites and green salad.

Our next great experience came at the most unexpected time, which is partly what made it so good, and also what could have made it be terrible. After a long morning of museuming, we were exhausted and starving. We were also cold, and hadn't planned for lunch in the neighborhood where we were, so we didn't really know where to look, or have any recommendations on our list. We were in the upscale Oud-Zuid (SouthWest) neighborhood, so all the places looked acceptable, but at that point of hunger where you can't make a decision because you don't know what you want and are just simply too tired, we didn't really know what to choose. So we decided on Cafe Gruter (another establishment with a pub atmosphere (we're always in the mood for some good brews on tap!) and a very affordable sandwiches menu. But these were no ordinary sandwiches! Classy and elegant, they were sophisticated, delicious, attractive, and an excellent value at about 6E each. Will ordered an Italian loaf stuffed with mushrooms, melted brie, arugula, and a balsamic drizzle. I was so chilled, I opted for the homemade asparagus soup, which offered a delightful surprise of shavings of smoked salmon, wax beans, and fresh chives. But we were sitting near the bar so we saw every order that came out of the kitchen and I would have loved to stay all afternoon and sample each of the sandwiches that came by on fresh French and Italian breads with Spanish sausages, curried chicken, and loads of luscious fresh vegetables and cheeses.

Italian loaf, scored on top and stuffed with sauteed mushrooms, melted brie, arugula,
and red onions. I love this "stuffed sandwich" idea, instead of stacked. The balsamic drizzle
really complemented the flavors and added an extra touch of sophistication.

Blissfully close to our apartment, but discovered because of the good reviews on, we made a dinner reservation at Balthazar's Keuken.

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I didn't know until I dipped my slice of bread into this lucious asparagus soup garnished
with chives and green onions that it was also filled with slices of smoked salmon
 and wax beans. The salty salmon is the perfect accompaniment for fresh spring asparagus.

Blissfully close to our apartment, but discovered only because of the good reviews on, we made a dinner reservation at Balthazar's Keuken. This charming little place only seats 24 people total, at two dinner seatings - 6:15 and 9:15 (though you can come later than the start time for the seating.) The space is TINY, practically communal tables, though very comfortable, and not noisy. There is no menu to order from, just a weekly update by the chef of the 3-course prix fixe offering. The only choice you make is between a meat and fish entree, and what to drink (a specialty cocktail, and various wines and mixed drinks.) One choice you want to avoid is not coming here! It was a magnificent meal, made all the better by the surprises from the kitchen of dishes we would probably never order on our own, but not only enjoyed as adventurous eaters, but truly relished for the freshness of the ingredients and creativity and quality of preparation.

We started with the specialty cocktail, which I have to assume was also mixed to pair with the meal... it was a prosecco with marsala, brandy, and a ripe cherry.

The five plates of the appetizer course.

The appetizer course consisted of 5 separate tastes (though "taste" is unfairly limiting as there was more than enough food to get a robust appreciation for each dish.) As pictured above (clockwise from upper left): fish mousse... I'm pretty sure it was primarily salmon, because there were delicious pieces of pale pink flakes in the otherwise creamy white spread; octopus with eggplant and mint; goat sausage with lentils and basil; baby artichokes with a parmesan-yogurt raita; sweet ricotta with hazelnuts.

I would have thought I would especially enjoy any of these, but the only thing I didn't care for was the goat sausage; it was incredibly mild, but the texture was pretty coarse. The octopus was an unexpected delight; it was so tender, but firm and smooth. The texture is hard to describe because I would have thought it would be kind of chewy like squid or clams; instead it was almost like a silken tofu, but not so spongy... much more luxurious. The mint was a startling perk-up to the otherwise mild (but not bland) flavor. Fish and mousse are just not two items that I expect to see together, but I spread it on fresh, crusty bread, and I can see how "salmon cream cheese" derived as the low-class version of the same general idea. The artichokes were a treat just because they are so spring-time seasonal; the raita I thought might have been just a little too dull in comparison with the artichokes which also do not have a strong flavor. Finally, the ricotta was practically a dessert, though not because it was sweet, just because it was creamy and crunchy and nutty all together and a fun interplay of textures and mouthfeel.

There were two selections for the entree, so the benefits of being a couple are apparent, as we were able to order one of each and share.  Will ordered the veal which came atop a basic risotto but alongside were an excellent saute of fresh mushrooms, peas, and parsley. I love the idea of a deconstructed risotto, with the components I might normally serve mixed in being separated and served alongside or atop. The earthy mushrooms and the freshness of spring peas were just the right match for each other.
Veal with risotto, peas, and mushrooms.

I went with the fish, a monkfish filet served with two razor clams in a brothy sauce of roasted tomato, roasted grape, and roasted pearl onions alongside some baby potatoes. The sauce was rich and sweet and the fish was firm and fleshy and together they transported me to the Mediterreanean coast (where I will be in person in a few more weeks!) The razor clams are really pretty - the shells have lovely brown and golden striping in a wood-like pattern. The taste is probably even less strong than a regular clam, but otherwise pretty similar and I don't know that they have much in particular going for them culinarily other than the attractive and unusual presentation they bring to the plate.

Monkfish with razor clams with roasted tomato, pearl onion, and grape, along with baby potatoes.

Dessert, ever my favorite, did not disappoint. It was a simple white chocolate mousse but had almost a pudding consistency. It was totally creamy without being too rich, and without the airyness a mousse can sometimes have. Spooned over the top were fresh blueberries which had been stewed or steeped or sauced-up with pink peppercorns. The whole peppercorns were soft enough you could bite right into them like one of  the berries, and they added just a hint of peppery spiciness to counter the sweet berries, and a teensy bit of toothsomeness against the ultra-smooth custard.

White chocolate mousse with blueberries and pink peppercorns.
I think I have to say that the only problem with this restaurant is that after I've spent all this time recreating the wonderful meal we had there, you have to accept that you will never be able to recreate it, because it's based on the chef's intepretation of what is fresh and seasonal and available during any given week in the year. But know that if you are ever in Amsterdam, you can count on Balthazar's for an intimate, romantic, classy, and incredibly fresh and delicious dinner (all for 30E/person!)

Monday, May 23, 2011

Greek Feast

One night over drinks at a bar, I was lamenting ot a good friend the demise of the "dinner party." Case in point, we were out at a bar having drinks, instead of at someone's house enjoying a lovely meal. I explained how I am always up for hosting a dinner party, but often can't find anyone who will come over! She agreed that we could host a party together, and since her family is Greek, we decided on a Greek-themed meal using family recipes from her grandmother.

I ended up getting the very sweet end of this dinner party deal, with my only responsibilities being cake (my favorite!) and ouzo. She purchased most of the appetizers, but then made all of the rest of the meal herself. A third friend offered up her kitchen and dining room for the festivities, kindly dispersing the clean-up duties, and we all enjoyed a massive Aegean indulgence.

Purchased spanakopita, olives, meatballs, and pita bread
accompanied homemade tzatziki for the first course.

 I don't know the secret recipe for the leg of lamb, but it was moist and tender, and had some delectable surprise garlic cloves tucked deep into the roast at unexpected places!

The complete spread, from back to front, includes roast leg of lamb, roast
chicken thighs with oregano, orzo baked with tomato sauce and topped
with fresh feta, Greek salad (horiatiki), and green beans sauteed with tomatoes
and garlic. Not pictured are roasted potatoes in lamb drippings.
For dessert, I was considering making bakalava, but honestly I've never used phyllo and it's a little intimidating. Besides, what you can buy is so good and so easy, and cakes are really more my specialty. When I came across this recipe for samali, "one of the great sweets of Thessaloniki" I knew I had my contribution. The Semolina and Ground Almond Cake recipe appears on Epicurious from Diane Kochilas's The Glorious Foods of Greece cookbook, so I assume that she knows something about traditional recipes. However, I believe this to be an interpretation of a more classical recipe, because I'm not sure how widely brandy would be used as a flavoring syrup, and some commenters on the recipe spoke of often having this cake flavored with rose water. Though many people dislike the strongly floral aroma of rose water in baked goods, I would have liked to try it, or at least know what the traditional recipe calls for before I made modifications. Nevertheless, this cake has an excellent texture, crumbly from the almond meal, but still moist and succulent from the soaking syrup.

We ate the cake with chilled ouzo, a Greek anise-flavored liquer.
Even if you think you don't like licorice flavor, ouzo has a unique
and delicious flavor that is definitely worth experiencing. It's also a
 built-in parlor trick, because while it's crystal clear in the bottle, when it's
chilled or served over ice, it turns a milky white. How does it do that??
I followed the recipe exactly as directed, except that I don't own a 12x18" pan so I baked it in a 9x13" pan. I think that was better anyway, because another reviewer mentioned that it was very shallow, and wished it had been a little higher. My finished cake was a standard 2", and surprisingly baked in the same amount of time - 35 minutes. I take away points on presentation for any cake that must be served in the baking dish. While incredibly delicious, it's perhaps a little more "homey" than my usual style to have to bring the cake to the table in the same pan in which it baked without being able to transfer it to a serving platter. Similarly, squares of cake are not as attractive to me as a sliced, layered wedge. When in Thessaloniki, I can certainly do as the Thessalonikians do, but next time I make it (and there will be a next time!) I will probably bake in a couple of round pans, and perhaps fill with a light lemon custard. I would also like to try a modification with the syrup... the recipe says to cook it until viscous, but I've never seen that happen with a soaking syrup, and I'm not sure it's necessary. I cooked mine the specified 10 minutes just to boil it down about 1/3. Use caution when pouring it over the cake, because I poured mine on too quickly and it washed off part of the pretty golden top crust. I both scored (as recommended) and poked holes all through the cake before pouring over the syrup, and baked an additional 8 minutes. But the change I'd like to try is to replace the syrup flavorings with whole anise seed and ouzo liqueur instead of the lemon, cloves, cinnamon and brandy.

If any of you dear readers have an opportunity to make this before I get around to it again, try the adjustments I've incorporated below to Ms. Kochilas's recipe.

Semolina and Ground Almond Cake
1 cup (2 sticks) plus 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened
1 cup confectioners' sugar
4 large eggs, separated
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups coarse semolina
2 scant teaspoons baking powder
1 cup almond meal (available at Trader Joe's)
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

With stand mixer, whip butter until soft. Add the confectioners' sugar a little at a time and whip until fluffy. Add the egg yolks, one at a time, beating after each addition. Add the vanilla and continue whipping for about 5 minutes.

Combine the semolina, baking powder, almonds, and lemon zest in a small bowl. Slowly add the semolina mixture to the butter and sugar, beating to combine thoroughly.

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Line two 8" (or 9") round baking pans (NOT with removeable bottoms, or the syrup will leak out) with parchment, and butter parchment and sides of pans. In a medium metal bowl, place the egg whites, salt, and lemon juice and whip with an electric mixer until stiff peaks form. Fold the meringue into the semolina mixture, incorporating well, but gently to not deflate the egg whites. Spread the batter into the prepared pans and bake until set, about 20-25 minutes (watch carefully, because I am guessing on the timing at this point and you don't want it to burn or dry out).

While the cake is baking, prepare the syrup:

2 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 3/4 cups water
1 teaspoon whole anise seeds
1/4 cup ouzo (Greek anise-flavored liquer)

Combine the granulated sugar and water in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. As soon as the sugar dissolves, add the anise seeds. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer 10 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the ouzo.
When the cake is done, pull it out of the oven and reduce the oven temperature to 300°F. Poke holes through cakes with fork or skewer and slowly and gently pour over the hot syrup. Return to oven and bake until the syrup is absorbed, another 5 to 7 minutes. Let cool completely.

Lemon Cloud Filling
from Rose Levy Beranbaum's The Cake Bible, page 266.

3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup water
4 large egg whites
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/4 cup lemon curd

Have ready near stove a 1-cup heatproof glass measure.

In small heavy saucepan, stir together 3/4 cup sugar and 1/4 cup water. Heat, stirring constantly, until the sugar dissolves and the syrup is bubbling. Stop stirring and turn down the heat to the lowest setting.

In a mixing bowl, beat 4 eggs whites until foamy, add 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar, and beat until  soft peaks form. Gradually beat in the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar until stiff peaks form.
Increase the heat and boil the syrup until a thermometer registers 248 - 250 degrees F. Immediately pour into the glass measure to stop the cooking.

If using a stand mixer, pour a small amount of syrup over the whites with the mixer off and then immediately beat at high spped for 5 seconds and repeat until all syrup is incorporated.(This is to prevent the beater from flinging the syrup onto the sides of the bowl.) If using a hand mixer, pour the syrup into the whites in a steady strem, avoiding the beaters to keep syrup from spinning onto sides of bowl. Use a rubber scraper to remove the syrup from the measure, and beat at medium speed until cool, then fold in the lemon curd.

Layer the filling between the two cake layers, allowing some to drip down the sides if desired. Sprinkle top layer with a light dusting of powdered sugar (use a mesh sifter to get a fine, even dusting) and serve.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Elegant Italian Enteraining... on a Wednesday!

Mid-week dinner guests are always a particular challenge of their own, between having (generally) less preparation time, as well not wanting to keep anyone up or out too late. But I always get a special rush from making a really stunning meal that is all the more appreciated because it came after a hard day of work, or breaks up the doldrums of the weekly schedule. And what guest doesn't love showing up straight from the office to find dinner just coming steaming and bubbling out of the oven?! Long, luxurious, multi-course meals with cocktails and bottles of great wine can be terrific fun, but sometimes it's your closest friends you just can't wait for the weekend to see, and all it takes is a couple of hours on a Wednesday to check in and catch up. With just the tiniest bit of advance planning, the tastebuds of your weeknight guests will tell them it's definitely a Saturday evening!

FineCooking.Com has a fantastic feature which I stumbled across and used for the first time this week... it's called "Make it Tonight" and it's linked right from their homepage featuring a recipe that's easy enough to pull together for dinner even if you just discover the recipe at your lunchtime internet break. Even more fun once you click through are recipes lined up for every day of the week.

This time, I chose the Lemon Chicken with Capers because I already had all the ingredients at home without needing to make a special trip to the store. Except for using chicken "tenders" (instead of full breasts) - which were unexpectedly still large enough to pound out and stuff, then fold in half - I followed the recipe exactly. The ingredients list is totally accessible, the steps are all straightforward, and the results are exceptional. The only drawback in my mind is that it created a lot of dirty dishes between mixing the stuffing, assembling the chicken pieces, searing them, then the tented platter while making the finishing sauce, etc.  It is absolutely elegant and delicious enough to make for a more traditional dinner party, and if it weren't for having to mix up the butter sauce after the chicken has already roasted, this would also be a good make-ahead dish. If I think of a modification so the sauce can be prepared in advance, then this is a superb candidate for a larger-scale dinner party.

Another nice feature of FineCooking is the "Make it a Meal" where suggestions for other recipes to accompany the dish are posted. A recommended side dish for the Lemon Chicken was Spinach and Herb Risotto. As far as the flavor profile, these were delightful accompaniments. I was slightly disappointed in the visually presentation, because both dishes ended up looking essentially white, with significant green garnishes. A little more color contrast on the plate would have made for a more attractive presentation. If you want to make this for your sweetie and spend the meal gazing into each other's eyes instead of examining the aesthetics of plating, I guarantee you will not be disappointed.

Lemon Chicken Breasts with Capers
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (6 oz. each) I actually used 12 chicken "tenders"
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1/4 cup fine, dry breadcrumbs
4 Tbs. capers, rinsed, drained, patted dry, and chopped
1 lemon, zest finely grated, and juiced
2 Tbs. chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley I doubled the parsley
Kosher salt and freshly ground
black pepper
3 Tbs. unsalted butter I only used 2 T
1 Tbs. olive oil
2 medium cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1/2 cup lower-salt chicken broth or I used white wine!!

Preheat the oven to 425°F. Make a lengthwise horizontal slice almost all the way through each chicken breast and open each up like a book. Flatten the chicken with a meat mallet until it is 1/4 inch thick. Put the Parmigiano, breadcrumbs, 3 Tbs. capers, lemon zest, and 1 Tbs. parsley in a mini chopper or food processor and pulse a few times to combine. Sprinkle the mixture on top of the chicken breasts. Fold each breast closed and secure with toothpicks. Season with salt and pepper.

Heat 1 Tbs. butter and the oil in a large (12-inch), heavy-duty, oven-proof skillet over medium-high heat until the butter melts and starts to foam, about 2 minutes. Add the chicken and cook, without touching, until it browns and easily releases from the pan, about 2 minutes. Turn the chicken and cook the other side until browned, about 2 more minutes.

Add the garlic and the remaining 1 Tbs. capers to the skillet, transfer the pan to the oven, and roast uncovered until the chicken cooks through (an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part should register 165°F), about 8 minutes. Transfer the chicken to a serving platter and tent with foil.

Set the skillet over medium-high heat; add the chicken broth, and cook, scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to loosen any browned bits, until it reduces by about half, about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and whisk in 2 Tbs. of the lemon juice and the remaining 2 Tbs. butter. Taste and add more lemon juice, salt, and pepper if needed. Serve the chicken drizzled with the butter sauce and sprinkled with the remaining 1 Tbs. parsley.
As seen on, from Book Big Buy Cooking, pp. 30, April 4, 2011, by Tony Rosenfeld.

Spinach, Artichoke, and Pesto Risotto
If you don't know how to make risotto, you should read up on it. It's very easy (many myths call it excrutiatingly time consuming, with arm-numbing constant pot-stirring, but that's not been my experience.) And once you have the classic base recipe down, it's incredibly versatile with countless add-ons and mix-ins to tailor it to any type of menu you are planning. I've made it enough now that I don't measure my ingredients or set a timer, and I just toss in whatever sounds good that night. The recipe below was inspired by Fine Cooking 26, pp. 40-45, April 1, 1998, and recipe author Alan Tardi, but it is my own.

1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 cup arborio rice
1/2 cup white wine (usually I use vermouth, but if you`'re serving wine with the dinner, it can be nice to have the flavor profile in synch by using a bit of the same wine in the meal)
2-3 cups chicken or vegetable broth, heated to hot or boiling
3/4 cup finely chopped spinach
1 large artichoke heart (and stem, if available) steamed until tender (40-50 minutes) and diced into bite-sized pieces
1/3-1/2 cup prepared pesto
2 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese
squeeze of fresh lemon

Heat the oil over medium heat until shimmering. Stir in onion and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in the rice until evenly coated and starting to crackle, but not toast (about one minute.) Add the wine and stir continuously until absorbed and evaporated. Reduce heat to medium-low, and stir in the hot broth about 1/2 cup at a time, stirring until each addition is incorporated before adding additional broth. The total cooking time for the rice will end up being about 25 minutes, but the trick is to add the broth slowly and to cook over low heat; this allows the rice to develop it's soft, creamy texture. After the last addition of broth, stir in the spinach for the final round of stirring. Taste the rice to ensure the grains are fully cooked, but still firm and not mushy. Stir in the artichoke and pesto. My pesto already has cheese it in, so if you aren't going to serve the risotto right away, wait to stir in the pesto until just before serving. Otherwise, the cheese will melt and get sticky and gummy. Squeeze a wedge of fresh lemon over, just to brighten the flavors, and garnish each serving with a sprinkling of freshly grated cheese. Delizioso!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Never too Late for Cinco de Mayo

My friends have an annual Cinco de Mayo party, and I have always volunteered to bring a dessert. I try to stay thematic, and previous submissions have been a chocolate-kahlua cake, tres leches cake, and lime cheesecake. This year I reverted to a Margarita Chiffon cake which I've made previously but is well worth repeating, and threw in a small batch of Mexican chocolate brownies too. Although we're already more than a week past the official Cinco celebrations, it's never too late to enjoy a delicious, homemade Mexican food feast with good friends and plenty of cerveza!

Mexican Brownies
Chocolate and cinnamon are a classic Mexican flavor combination, and this recipe seemed like the perfect melding of the two. But they came out of the oven as a complete disappointment. They baked very unevenly (even though I had them in at the same time as my cake which baked perfectly, so I know it wasn't my oven's fault.) After the specified baking time, the center was still completely raw, so I gave them another 5 minutes to set-up, which seemed to work (even though parts around the edges had bubbled and puffed to a much higher height than the center portion). However, after unmolding them when I went to cut them, the entire outer edge of the pan was literally a brick.

I had already decided not to make the icing from the recipe. Since I was taking these to a party, I didn't want anything excessively sticky or runny, and though this brown sugar topping sounded yummy, it seemed like it would be a big mess when mixed with half-drunk guests stumbling around napkinless and plateless. I also try not to take things with nuts to parties where I don't know if some guests might have allergies. However, the was no way these brownies could go to the party undressed. They certainly stiff enough to "stand alone" but I was embarrased to have my name associated with them.

Will tasted a couple bites from the center of the pan, and with chocolate-lover assurances that "the flavor is really good" (the balance of chocolate and cinnamon) he gave me hope to try to somehow salvage the batch. I decided a frosting of some sort was my best bet, and I had a little leftover "Quick Brown Sugar Frosting" from Joy of Cooking in the freezer. I thinned it a bit with some kahlua and then stirred in a couple dashes of cayenne pepper. I spread on a layer and then dusted the tops with freshly grated cinnamon, and these little guys became quite the hit of the party!

I have long been a fan of chiffon cake because it is so moist and light. It works especially well with bright citrus flavors, and this margarita-themed cake is a particular favorite. The glaze makes it especially fun for an adult-only party, and the liquor in the cake keeps it incredibly melt-in-the-mouth and refreshingly moist.

The only changes I make to the recipe are that I don't bother with cake flour; I actually prefer the texture of all-purpose flour, though I do sift it before I measure it. I also don't bother with the strawberry compote; I've never made it, and I'm sure it's delicious and would probably be a good recipe on it's own, but this cake really needs no other adornment - except perhaps a sombrero and an Mexican sunset!

I always love having the opportunity to pull out this fantastic sombrero serving
dish which was made by my grandmother. The top of the hat is intended for
salsa or dip, but is usually too small to hold the amount needed for the capacity
of chips or veggies that can be held in the rim of the plate. So it made a fun
decoaration to fill the center with this decorative candle.

Most people have very specific qualities in mind when they consider a "perfect brownie" - I happen to like mine fudgey and crackly on top. These were dense, and cake-like in a way, but in a dry way that is unpreferable in my opinion. However, adding the frosting made their heavy structure a benefit, because they could then stand-up to a sweet topping. I don't think I'll make these again, because there are so many types of brownies out there to try, I don't want to waste my time with ones that are less than favorites. But I'm proud of how I was able to save these, and received plenty of compliments from the party guests, so if they sound good to you, it might be worth giving them a try. I suggest using a glass pan (I used metal) which might be slightly more insulated and help them bake more evenly. I also would probably have preferred them a little thinner, so recommend using a 9" pan (instead of 8") but then watch the time carefully as they will bake more quickly in a shallower pan.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Lemon Loaf Cake

This was my contribution to Mother's Day. My parents were planning a summery barbeque of beer can chicken, asparagus, and roasted potatoes for their moms, so the only thing left was for me to bring dessert. I saved this recipe from Dorie Greenspan's Baking: from my Home to Yours and it seemed like just the right thing to finish a springtime meal. Plus, I liked that the smaller size made it just right for a dinner party of six guests, with a couple of slices leftover.

Dorie says this recipe is completely fool-proof, and I have to believe that it is. It was so easy to make, that I ended up making a second one as soon as the first went into the oven, and played with some of the flavors and proportions such that loaf #2 was more of an orange bread than a lemon cake. (That one I sent with Will for my mother-in-law.) I didn't actually get to try that one, but Will tasted both on the same day and told me each is worth repeating. For dessert though, definitely stick to the recipe as written for a moist, sweet, and flavorful cake.

French Yogurt Cake with Marmelade Glaze
by Dorie Greenspan, from "Baking: From My Home to Yours" (page 224-5)
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup ground almonds
2 teaspoons baking powder
pinch of salt
1 cup sugar
grated zest of one lemon (I used a large one)
1/2 cup plain yogurt
3 large eggs
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup flavorless oil

1/2 cup lemon marmelade, strained
1 teaspoon water

Preheat oven to 350. Generously butter a 8.5" x 4.5" loaf pan and place on a baking sheet.
Whisk together flour, almonds, baking powder, and salt.
Put sugar and zest in a medium bowl and blend together with fingertips until sugar is moist and aromatic. Add yogurt, eggs, and vanilla and whisk vigorously until well blended. Add dry ingredients, then fold in oil with a rubber spatula. Scrape into the pan.
Bake 50-55 minutes, until cake begins to pull away from edges of pan, and tester comes out clean.
Cool on rack for 5 minutes, then invert and cool completely.
Mix together strained marmelade and water and brush over cooled cake.

Trader Joe's sells ground almonds in the baking section as "almond meal" and it makes it so easy for recipes like this one - no food processor needed! Lemons come in so many sizes, and I was at a bit of a loss for how much "zest from one lemon" should be, but I was pleased with the amount of punch from using one large lemon. As for the oil, I decided to go with olive oil; not "flavorless" by any stretch, but often found as a delightful combination with lemon cake. I did not notice the flavor in the finished cake at all, so I was glad I chose this mildly more heart-healthy type of fat.

I was certain I would be able to find lemon marmelade at my trusted Central Market, but surprisingly, they had ultra-high end lime and "3 citrus" marmelades, but no lemon. So I decided to go for the known quality of Bonne Maman orange marmelade, and instead of thinning with water, I used freshly squeezed lemon juice (about 1/2 the lemon, so it was probably thinner than the glaze called for by the recipe.) Just a dusting of powdered sugar made this cake charming to serve and delicious to eat. Simple, but so moist, with a lemony tang and a rich texture from the nut batter.

As I mixed in the oil in the final stage, the batter seemed incredibly greasy, and the oil barely incorporated. I felt it was surely a mistake. I was wrong; the finished cake was moist but not at all greasy. Nevertheless, seeing the oily batter is actually what inspired me to make a second loaf, so I could see what happens to the recipe by cutting back a bit on some of  the fat. I mostly followed the recipe again, but substituted tangerine zest for the lemon. Because I figured that would be sweeter than the tart lemon, I also cut back the sugar to 3/4 cup, replaced the vanilla with orange liqueur, and reduced the oil (olive oil) to 1/3 cup. This loaf turned out probably  much more like a quick bread, but deserves on its own merits to stay in the recipe arsenal.

Update: August, 2012 I made the loaf with low-fat vanilla yogurt and 1/2 cup of fresh blueberries.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Garam Masala Oatmeal Cookies

Garam Masala wasn't the first spice blend I'd think to add to a cookie to jazz it up, but a review of it's ingredients actually reflects an excellent palate for baked goods, and these oatmeal-raisin cookies are a definite winner. They actually make a lot more sense than the curry powder cookies I made back in November (also delicious, but even less intuitive!) Garam Masala has a lot of the traditional spices like cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and cardamom that are delicious in sweets and savories both, so I was excited to mix up this batch of hearty and tasty oatmeal raisin cookies.

I run just shy of the amount of Garam Masala powder called for by the cookie recipe, but fortunately, I have all the ingredients on hand as specified by the spice blend recipe earlier in the same article, so I tossed in some extra of each. I actually found the flavor in the finished cookies could have stood up to even more spice, which perhaps was simply a factor of my blend being older and less fragrant, so next time I will probably try to grind the full amount fresh instead of using powder from the store that is who knows how old.

I also ran out of golden raisins, typically one of my pantry staples. I thought about substituting them in full for dried cranberries, but instead I decided to add the last quarter cup I had and use cut-up prunes for the remainder - prunes seeming entirely more raisinesque than berries.

An important step in this recipe which I haven't seen for oatmeal cookies before is to press them down slightly before baking, and this is especially easy if you save the wrapper from your stick of butter and use that as the press. This allows the cookies to bake more evenly, and come out of the oven with crisper edges and crunchier insides which I significantly prefer.

All in all, these are sweet, chewy, savory, and delicious, and while still on the trail-mixey side, I will definitely make them again, bumping up the amount of garam masala next time, and using the golden raisins (or maybe dried apricots!!!) as called for.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Polenta Lasagna

Will wanted me to have a dinner party last weekend and I just wasn't up for it. But it was a good idea, so early in the week I started thinking about what I could pull together for a Friday night. This polenta lasagna from Fine Cooking's Make Ahead Holidays 2010 issue was just the thing. I made the polenta and the sauce on Thursday evening, chilled overnight, assembled in the morning, and then only had to put it in the oven and wait for the guests. I served it with a simple green salad and tiramisu. It's loaded with vegetables and protein so it's really a complete meal without a lot of fuss, and all the mess can be cleaned up the day before!

Polenta Lasagna
serves 8

3 cups water
2 cups coarse-ground polenta
3 cups cold milk
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 cup parmigiano
2  tablespoons unsalted butter

Over high heat, bring water to a boil. Combine the polenta, milk, and salt and stir until smooth. Slowly add mixture to boiling water, strring constantly. Cook until polenta begins to thicken, about 5 minutes. REduce heat to medium and continue to cook until the polenta begins to bubble and pop, about 5 minutes more. REduce heat to low, add cheese and butter, and stir until polenta pulls away from the sides of the pan, about 20 minutes. Pour into a 9x13 dish and chill until firm.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 green bell pepper, diced
1 onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 pound mushrooms, diced
1 medium zucchini, diced
1/2 pound bulk sweet Italian sausage (easy to leave out entirely to make vegetarian)
2 28 oz cans crushed and/or diced tomatoes (I used one of each)
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons red wine or balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
1/4 cup chopped fresh pasley
6 ounces shredded mozzarella
1/3 cup grated parmigianoIn large fryin gpan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the pepper, onion, and garlic and cook until beginning to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms and irumble in the sausage, cook until the sausage is no longer pink. Add the zucchini and tomatoes and cook until thick and saucy, about 45 minutes. Deglaze with wine and stir in fresh herbs. Chill overnight.

Assemble lasagne by inverting polenta from baking dish. Cut crosswise into two piece, and then split each layer horizontally. Spread a thin layer of sauce in the bottom of the pan, then top with polenta. Cover with thick layer of sauce and remaining polenta. Top with another thick layer of sauce, and sprinkle with grated cheese. Bake at 350 for about 50-55 minutes, until hot and bubbling. Allow to rest 15 minutes before serving.

This was so good, we kept eating it before remembering to photograph it!
We finally remembered on day three, with one single slice left.

Side salad
I chose arugula for this salad because its spiciness would contract with the rich, sweet flavors of the lasagna, and pine nuts and golden raisins for other color and texture (crunchy and chewy) contrasts to the soft, creamy lasagna.

6 ounces arugula
2 tablespoons golden raisins
2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
1/2 cup cannellini beans
juice from 1/2 large lemon
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon ground mustard
cracked pepper
dash salt (depending on how salty the beans are)

Whisk together lemon, mustard, oil, salt, and pepper. Toss together remaining ingredients and drizzle with dressing.