Monday, May 28, 2012

Amaranth Cookies

I can not recall the first time I heard about amaranth, but it was sometime pretty recently - the last couple of years for sure. It is an "ancient grain" - recently experiencing a renaissance because of its super-health properties. When I saw it in the bulk foods section of the grocery, I scooped out a baggie full of the teensy cous cous shaped pellets, and figured I'd decide what to do with them later. I assumed they could be cooked like rice or bulgur or quinoa, but when I finally got around to searching for recipes, I mostly found options for amaranth flour.

These cookies use a mix of amaranth and wheat flour, but then call for rolling the dough in the grain before baking, sort of like rolling in chopped nuts or powdered sugar. I decided I could get pretty close to making my own flour by pulsing the grain in a coffee grinder, and it was still a little rough - sort of like corn meal (similar to another of my favorite butter cookie recipes!), but it worked really well. 

Ultimately, I opted to make a couple of changes, but I was thrilled to get the majority of inspiration from Maria Speck's recipe. I decided not to roll the cookies in more of the grain, and felt that the intended flavor and texture came through nicely just by using the home-ground "flour." I also didn't have walnuts, so I substituted pecans, and topped with a dollop of boysenberry jam rather than a whole nut.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

My Favorite Bread

This recipe rocks. There's just no way around that fact. Since my "perfect bread" search has focused on finding a sliceable sandwich bread, I haven't really even bothered much to try recipes for the breads which are actually the ones I prefer to eat: rustic, chewy, textured loaves. When I stumbled across this recipe from King Arthur Flour, the write-up on their website with it's proclamations of ease and rapidity was almost a dare to challenge on a weekday before work. So that is what I did.

Blending together the miniscule ingredients list and then popping the mixture into the fridge with nary a rise nor a knead took me less time in my morning routine than curling my hair. And the results are arguably much better! To keep dinner on schedule when I got home from work, the only advance step was to take out a hunk and form it in a loaf to rise (it only take 45-60 minutes) gave me a chance to change my clothes and even get in a short workout. Then, the oven can preheat and the loaf bakes while I made the rest of the meal and we sit down to dinner with the most amazing fresh bread.

I  made just a half-recipe, and substituted one cup of whole-wheat flour for all-purpose. One loaf I baked that night, the other I baked a week later. Both have impeccable texture for sopping up sauce or broth or olive oil and yet the bread is soft and flavorful enough to eat completely plain. The chewy crust with spongy interior is so much like the best breads we gnoshed on straight out of the bakery bags in France, and to know how easy it is to recreate that at home is delightful. Kudos to King Arthur for their excellent instructions as well... the blog posting about this loaf is very helpful for your first time.

King Arthur Flour's No-Knead Crusty Bread

1 1/2 cups water, 105-115 degrees
1 cup whole wheat bread flour
2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (16 total ounces of flour - whatever ratio of whole wheat you like)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast

In bowl of stand mixer, add yeast and water until dissolved. Stir in flour and salt and mix with dough hook until combined. Cover with plastic and allow to rise two hours, or put in the fridge for 8 hours or up to one week. (Yes, up to a week!! You can even put it in the freezer after 24 hours in the fridge... when ready to bake the bread, allow to defrost 24 hours in the fridge, or 6-8 hours on the counter, then follow steps for loaf below.)

Using floured hands, divide dough in half and shape into desired loaf shape: baguette-esque or round or oblong. Allow to rise 45-60 minutes on a sheet of parchment paper. Place a jelly roll pan or other shallow baking pan on lower rack of oven and baking stone or cookie sheet on middle rack and preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Using a sharp knife, slash top of loaves with three diagonal lines or an X to allow steam to escape during baking. Prepare one cup of hot or boiling water in a measuring cup with spout. Transfer loaves on parchment to baking stone in oven. Pour water into baking pan and quickly close oven, careful of the steam which will be very hot. Bake for 25 or until deep golden. Cool on rack.

This bread keeps well in plastic for about 3 days, but is most delicious when it's fresh and warm.

Here's a batch where I mixed in 2 teaspoons of chopped fresh rosemary to one loaf.


Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Pecan Pie and How I Taught My Dad to Bake

Green Valley, Arizona is home to the largest pecan grove in the United States. It's also home to one of my dad's closest friends and golfing buddies, so when visiting for a recent guys golf weekend, my dad picked up a couple of pounds of Arizona pecans to bring home to Seattle.

But they weren't just a gift; he had a plan in mind. With Mother's Day just a couple weeks ahead, he wanted to make his mom her favorite pecan pie, and one of her "specialties." She's always loved pecan pie and it was one of the recipes she knew by heart and would make several times a year. She can't see any more so cooking and baking are too hard, and my dad thought it would be fun to make her a pie.

Since my dad is not a baker, when he got home from Arizona, he gave me a call and asked, "Can we bake pies together?" I wasn't really sure if he really meant "together" or if he actually meant "will you bake pies for me." He insisted that he wanted us to do it together, which I thought was even sweeter than all the brown sugar in our pie, but I had no idea how to accomodate such a request because I'm not good at sharing and my "helping" someone tends to mean "bossing around." Nevertheless, we set a date for the Saturday morning before Mother's Day and he arrived at my house with 2 pounds of pecans.

The pecans had a pie recipe printed on the bag, and he thought it would be clever to do a "taste-test" by making a side-by-side comparison of his mom's classic recipe with another version. But after comparing the ingredients line-by-line, and cross-referencing against The Joy of Cooking and Nick Malgieri's How to Bake, the discrepencies came down to using white sugar + dark corn syrup or brown sugar + light corn syrup, and how many eggs (I saw 2, 3, and 4.) I don't keep dark corn syrup on hand, so that was part of a deciding factor (I think the ratios are pretty equivalent anyway, maybe add a bit of molasses for some of the light corn syrup to get an earthier taste). And 4 eggs seemed like way too many to get a rich, gooey filling that we typically associate with pecan pie. So we went with grandma's standard of 3 eggs, light corn syrup, and white sugar. 

After Dad read through the entire recipe, we got started on the crust. For this part, I was able to have him measure and assemble the ingredients in the food processor, demonstrating how to scoop flour, and reminding him that the butter wrapper conveniently measures in tablespoons. Watching over his shoulder, I helped him determine the right amount of pulsing to mix the dough, then since we were making two pies, I wrapped half the pastry in plastic and he wrapped the other.

The crust is really the hardest part of most pies, and while grandmother long ago converted to Pillsbury crust, dad followed my recommendation to go with a home-made 50% butter/50% shortening unsweetened dough. It was the perfect consistency, really easy to roll and shape, held it's form delightfully, and tasted both buttery and flakey and crispy.

My pecan pie bars which I have perfected over many years are actually my preference over pecan pie... I like the chopped, toasted pecans better than the whole raw pecans as a ratio to the filling, and the bars have a thinner layer on the crust which is less custardy and more caramelly due to the addition of cream. One pie recipe we saw called for evaporated milk, and while we decided against that route, I did take one cue from my bars recipe to use bourbon as a flavoring.

So, Dad mixed up a batch of filling following his mom's recipe. (He told her he was borrowing a recipe, but that which one was a surprise. She thought he was coping down the recipe for "veal birds!" I'm glad he asked me to help him make pie...) When it went into the oven, I copied the same recipe but exchanged 1 teaspoon of vanilla for 2 tablespoons of bourbon.

Both pies took almost an hour to bake, and I tented with foil after 45 minutes so the nuts wouldn't burn. The bourbon flavoring is my preference, but 2 tablespoons was probably too much, as the filling was definitely softer (more liquidy) than the other version. His mom was so proud that Dad had baked for her, and it was a delicious ending to Mother's Day.

Basic Pie or Pastry Dough
from The Joy of Cooking
makes 2 crusts
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup chilled shortening
7 tablespoons cold unsalted butter
about 6 tablespoons ice water

Blend flour and salt. Add to food processor and pulse with small cubes of butter and shortening (or use pastry blender) until pea-sized lumps form. Sprinkle with 4 tablespoons water, and pulse. Add up to 3 tablespoons more water, 1/2-1 tablespoon at a time, depending on humidity, until consitency is just holding together. Pat into round and wrap tightly in plastic wrap. Refridgerate at least 1 hour, or up to a week (or freeze).

Roll out dough and pat into 9-inch pan, crimping edge decoratively. Freeze at least 15 minutes before filling and baking.

Pecan Pie
1 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup light corn syrup
3 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups whole (raw) pecans

Preheat oven to 350.
Mix together flour, sugar, and salt. Blend with corn syrup, then blend in eggs and vanilla until combined. Stir in pecans and pour into one 9-inch unbaked, chilled pie shell. Bake 45-55 minutes, until crust is golden, and center is set but still jiggly (like jello). Cool on rack and serve at room temperature with whipped cream.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Beef Picadillo Soft Tacos with Avocado-Cilantro Slaw

Do you ever get something in your head that you want to make and you know exactly how it should go, but even still you want to follow a recipe just to be sure, but you search and search and can't find the recipe you want? If your answer is "yes," that is probably why you end up slogging through a no-budget low-readership blog like mine. But, just as the princess did finally find the pea under her layers and layers and layers of matresses, sometimes persistent searching will ultimately lead you to just what your tastebuds crave.

And if you're still reading this post, perhaps what you've been hungry for is some crunchy, tangy, sweet-and-sour cilantro salsa topping a steaming heap of spicy shredded beef and a tender, fresh tortilla? Tyler Florence has an excellent and popular recipe for shredded beef. I followed it pretty closely, except I only made a half-recipe, and I used stew beef instead of shoulder. I'm certain mine was more tough, but given how flavorful the seasonings are, it hardly matters, and it still had a delectable shredded texture. I considered preparing it in my crock pot, but given as so much of the flavor comes from browning the meat, I decided to spare myself washing an extra pot and just cooked it all on the stove.

Also, one reviewer points out that a step from Tyler's show is not included in the online recipe; once the meat is cooked (I gave 1 pound of stew beef about 1 1/2) remove the meat to a separate plate/bowl and turn the sauce to high to boil down while you shred the meat. Let the sauce simmer for 15-20 minutes before stirring the shredded beef back in to the mixture. I made mine 24 hours before we ate it.

This coleslaw is amazing and would be delicious completely on it's own, with other types of Mexican or spicy foods, or at a picnic with corn on the cob and grilled fish. Plus, it's so light and flavorful and healthy, and adds lots of color.

The avocado pieces - if it was ripe enough - will break apart to make a rich dressing that requires no additional oil, and the lime juice should keep the colors bright and fresh. If you're serving it over the spicy meat, it doesn't need any additional seasoning, but to make it on it's own, you might want to add a minced jalepeno or chile, and maybe some ground cumin. Fresh corn kernals would be another tasty addition.

Avocado-Cilantro Slaw
serves 4-6
About 1/3 of a small head of green cabbage
1/2 green bell pepper
1/2 red bell pepper
1/2 yellow bell pepper, or 1 large carrot
1/2 cup cilantro leaves (tough stems removed, but tender stems are fine)
1-2 ripe avocados
juice from 1/2 lime
salt to taste

Shred the cabbage. If you want to use a food processor, I recommend using the chopping blade, because I find the shred wheel or the grating wheel make pieces that are too large for how I like my slaw. Depending on how much you're making, it can be just as easy to cut with a knife. Cut the bell pepper into thin strips, then finely dice crosswise. Mince the cilantro. I usually prepare my avocado like it's a mango (steps #2 and #3 at this link illustrate well). Add the cabbage, peppers, cilantro, and avocado to a medium-sized mixing bowl (use one that allows you ample room to toss the ingredients.) Squeeze the lime juice over the top and sprinkle with salt to taste, then toss well.

Central Market in Shoreline is a local, family-owned grocery well-known for it's extensive fresh produce and seafood sections, as well as Asian ingredients for any recipe. But it is also the only grocery store I've ever been to where they have a tortilla-processing plant in the middle of the store! An employee perpetually feeds dough into this really cool machine which pats out evenly shaped rounds, sends them along a conveyor-belt toaster, then shoots them down a cooling rack. It is SO fun to watch. Part of the fun is also that whatever "mishaps" occur (ie: any square-shaped, triangle, or torn tortilla specimans) become samples for shoppers to taste. Your tacos will taste best if you can get some of these awesomely fresh tortillas that are soft. Then pile on your meat filling and your slaw toppings and do not try to eat with your hands. Warning: forks required.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Coffee Brandy Ice Cream

This is just really really good coffee ice cream.

1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup strong brewed coffee or espresso

1 cup skim milk
3 cups cream
1 tablespoon brandy

Dissolve sugars in coffee. Stir together with milk and cream. Stir in brandy. Allow to rest overnight in refrigerator, stirring periodically.
Freeze in ice cream maker.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Creole Rockfish

You can see from my hurried photograph that this was a quick weeknight meal. I almost feel better about posting it just for that reason. It doesn't have to be glamourous or elegant, but if it easy and delicious, you will be proud to serve it to your family, and just as proud to share it with your friends and the blogosphere.

Whatever boring, inexpensive white fish is available (choose based on sustainability recommendations of the Monterery Bay Aquarium) makes a great base for this recipe.

Creole Rockfish
Preheat oven to 425. Cut the filets into chunks or strips if that makes them more fun or more appealing (I made wedges). Dip them in a mixture of 1 egg white to 1/4 cup skim milk, then dip into panko crumbs to coat. Lay in a baking dish (do not grease). Sprinkle with Creole seasoning, or until the pieces have an attractive color.  Bake in preheated oven 10-15 minutes, depending on how thick the pieces are.

I served with roasted potatos and spinach salad. The fish will be ready in the same amount of time it takes you to make a salad, so if you have a fresh loaf of sourdough bread (instead of roasting potatoees), this meal can be ready in less than 20 minutes!