Monday, February 27, 2012

Fat Birthday

Will's birthday is February 24, generally right around Mardi Gras season, and this year just days afterwards. So in planning a birthday party for him with some of our friends, a Louisiana-style feast seemed appropriate. We wanted to go wine tasting in nearby Woodinville, which is flush with Washington wineries. So I needed a meal that I could make in advance and would still taste great when heated up after our afternoon tastings. I decided a jambalaya was just the thing - easy one-dish meal that is hearty, filling, and festive.

Although it's chock-full of onions, bell peppers, and tomatoes, not to mention prawns, chicken, and sausage, I didn't want it alone on the plate, so I also sauteed up a version of maque choux. The only thing that I consistently found in recipes for maque choux is corn and peppers... some recipes called for tomatoes, others for celery, some for butter and cream, others for oil and bacon. Whether what I made is traditional or not, it was definitely enjoyable and worked great with the jambalaya.

I used this recipe for Louisiana Jambalaya, with the following changes:
1 yellow onion instead of 2 red onions
1/2 green bell pepper and 1/2 red bell pepper instead of 1 green
1 pound of chicken thighs (bones and skin removed) instead of ham
plus 3/4 pound of prawns

This Emeril recipe was my starting point for the maque choux, although I also relied heavily on this cajun recipe with okra for inspiration. What I ultimately did though was to follow Emeril's version using 16 ounces frozen corn kernals, 16 ounces frozen sliced okra, 1 minced carrot, and replace the cream with about 1/4 cup of broth. I made it at 1:00 p.m. and put the whole pan in the fridge, and then just heated up covered over medium low for about 10 minutes before serving.  It was delicious. It really was. Some people even had seconds. And it was really pretty.

For Fat Tuesday itself, I had baked semlor (or semla) which is a traditional Swedish pastry made for the event. It is a cardamom yeast roll filled with an almond cream, and made for a delicious breakfast treat. In any event, I felt I'd checked the box for Mardi Gras baking and reached into the recipe file for a chocolate stout cake. Almost two years ago (maybe even in preparation for Will's birthday!) I'd purchased some stout for use in baking but it had rested in the cellar unused. More than any particular flavor or theme, I decided it was time to consume this brew. Neither Will nor any of our guests seemed to mind that we transitioned the meal from French creole to Irish between courses...

For the cake, I used this excellent Chocolate Stout Cake recipe. It is most, rich, and flavorful without being boozy, with a perfect cakey texture that isn't heavy or dense. I knew as I was adding the ingredients that the proportions were substantial, but I followed them anyway until it was time for batter to hit pan, and I realized I would end up with four 8-inch layers instead of 3. That was just fine with me, because with the chocolate ganache glaze, and coffee mousse filling I was planning, two layers would be plenty to mark Will's birthday as the celebration it deserves (and my present would be two extra ready-made layers in the freezer for another occasion!) In any case, I recommend halving the recipe as it's printed for two 8- (or 9-) inch layers.

I halved the printed recipe for the glaze as well, but made my own recipe for a mousse filling.

Coffee Bavarian Cream
from Joy of Cooking 
1 1/2 tablespoons cold milk
1 1/8 teaspoons (1/2 an envelope) unflavored gelatin
Sprinkle gelatin over milk and allow to dissolve.

1/4 cup milk
1/2 cup cream
1/2 tablespoon brewed espresso (or instant coffee powder)
2 tablespoons sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt

Bring milk and cream to a simmer in a small saucepan, then stir in coffee, sugar, and salt until dissolved. Stir in gelatin mixture until dissolved, then cool until just beginning to thicken (the consistency of egg whites).

1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup cream
Beat vanilla and cream until stiff peaks form, then fold in gelatin mixture to whipped cream and chill until ready to use.

Trim the tops of each layer so they are flat. Spread coffee filling on top of one layer, then top with second layer. Trim sides to even if necessary. If the mousse isn't completely set, wrap a girdle of foil tightly around the circumferences of the cake so that the mousse won't smoosh out from the weight of the top layer, and refridgerate until completely chilled and firm before glazing, otherwise the layers could slip, or the glaze won't cover evenly and the mousse could ooze out the sides (but it will taste just as good!)

Glaze with 8 ounces of semi-sweet chocolate melted into 1/2 cup cream. Pour directly into the center of the cake and then use an offset spatula to smooth the glaze out to the edge of the top of the cake and down over the sides. Smooth the first layer of glaze to coat thinly but evenly over the entire surface of the cake sides, don't worry too much about making it completely smooth, just get it coated. Then refrigerate until set. Warm the remaining glaze until it is of a pourable consistency, and pour over the first layer of glaze. You have to work pretty quickly because the chocolate glaze will cool and you won't be able to work it without leaving marks.

I decorated the top of the cake with a simple dusting of gold powder, and lined gold-painted almonds and chocolate-covered espresso beans around the perimeter.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Caramel Coffee Cake

When Seattle is hit with a snow-storm, the entire city shuts down. It is a rare enough occurance that we don't have a ready supply of plows, and the hilly terrain crossed with the marine location generally result in even the whitest and fluffiest of romantic blizzards quickly turning to a hair-raising and treacherous slip-and-skid fest. What a white-out usually means in my house is a chance to turn-up the oven, pull out the flour, and start stocking up on the baked goods.

I wanted to try a couple of different recipes from the United Cakes of America book, so I decided to halve this recipe and just bake a single layer in an 8-inch round pan. It's called Caramel Cake, and the book presents it with a caramel glaze. However, I was out of cream, and no way to to get to the store due to the snowed-in roads, so I modified it by giving it a streusel topping.

The cake itself really did seem to have a carmelly flavor that I loved. But, it was a little hard to discern if it was just the cake itself, or if the topping had something to do with it. Because I put a brown-sugar flavored mixture on top of the batter, which sunk in to make a bit of a ribbon during baking, some of that taste could definitely have permeated the cake itself. Either way, it was moist and delicious with a lot more going on than just a standard yellow cake, and with a bit of crunchy pecan topping, it was a perfect stand-in for a breakfast cake or for dessert. Plus, I found that it stayed fresh for a number of days.

Caramel Cake
adapted from Warren Brown's United Cakes of America

3/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons potato starch
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 teaspoons bourbon

1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg

Streusel topping:2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons chopped pecans
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon butter

Preheat oven to 350. Grease and flour an 8" round pan. Combine first five ingredients in a bowl. In a separate bowl combine next three ingredients. In a third bowl, cream together butter and sugar, then beat in egg. Add wet and dry ingredients alternately in 2-3 additions. Pour batter into pan.

Mix together stresel ingredients, cutting in the butter into small lumps form. Sprinkle evenly over batter, then bake about 25 minutes until edges of cake start to pull away from pan.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Happy Valentine's Day

Will is the romantic in our household, and while I'm well-known for trotting out a sheet of heart stickers to pass around the office on Valentine's Day, I don't get into the holiday much more than to see it as yet another opportunity to buy half-price candy at the drug store the day after. Even still, you'd think a day with such a focus on sweets and chocolates would give me inspiration to bake, and I have to admit I am a bit of a let-down this year. Nevertheless, I did make a delicious and special dinner that was redolent of intensity, warmth, and richness, and isn't that what a good Valentine's Day should be?

Will started us off with an aperitif of Oola Distillery vodka muddled with fresh bartlett pear and topped off with (thematically-appropriate!) Hot Lips pear soda. YUM!

The day before, I had started my duck ragu, which really gave the flavors time to develop, and also meant I had time to just sip my cocktail and eat my pear while it reheated on the stove, instead of running around madly chopping onions. I made a half recipe using two hind quarters in a 12-inch skillet (and we had plenty of leftovers, so it easily serves 4.)

As you will see if you look at the photo in the ragu recipe compared to mine below, I forgot an important step (I blame Oola...) I neglected to shred the meat into the sauce and instead served it on top. This might have been more of a mis-step if the dish hadn't been prepared the day before, but as it was, the sauce was thoroughly imbued with the rich duck flavor.

Not sure that brussels sprouts get much of a top-billing for Valentine's, but they were just the right thing with this dish. Thinly sliced, and sauteed on the stove next to the reheating ragu with a generous pour of olive oil and some of the smoky, salty bacon jam that is a trademark of Skillet Diner (conveniently for all you Seattleites, Skillet and Oola are right across the street from each other), these brussels had the right amount of flavor, texture, and color.

Quite certain that fresh pappardelle is a must, I used Cucina Fresca, and we really thought we could have been eating in Italy. Don't forget a good red wine of course - pick something good to go in the ragu (it only needs 1/4 cup!) and drink the rest. I used a dry Sangiovese from Tuscany.

Finally, for dessert, I did something that I am snobby enough to admit shames me: I made a cake-mix cake. This does not reflect the depth of my love for my husband, rather it speaks to how safe and secure I feel with him that I don't need to continually prove myself. Nevertheless, I did modify the mix with some creative inspiration and some homemmade frosting. I used a yellow cake mix which called for 1 1/2 cups water, 3 eggs, and 1/3 cup oil. I replaced 1/2 cup of the water with 1/2 cup of apricot brandy, and also stirred in a teaspoon of finely chopped sushi ginger (I liked how the pink ginger brought out the apricot theme). Then I frosted the baked and cooled cake with Apricot Buttercream. It has a fabulous sweet-tart flavor, but the consistency is a bit lumpy from the pureed apricots, so it doesn't make a perfectly smooth surface. I was amazed at how fragrant the apricot brandy turned the standard cake mix cake. The snap of ginger gave just an extra layer of depth to the flavor, without adding a noticeable zing, and with a delicious frosting, this cake was very satisfying.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Farro Pilaf with Kale and Cranberries

This recipe comes to me through a friend (thanks, Anna!) who learned it in a cooking class she took. I apologize I can't provide better attribution. This is a fantastic vegetarian one-dish meal for a bundle-up winter's evening, or a great side dish with a roasted meat. Farro has a lot of protein for a grain, so the ingredients in this dish make for an incredibly healthy and well-balanced meal.


Farro, Kale and Cranberry Pilaf
serves 8

2 cups farro
2 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided
1 large yellow onion
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1 bunch kale
1 small garlic clove, crushed to a paste
1/2 cup toasted chopped pecans
1 teaspoon sherry vinegar, or to taste


Place farro and 2 teaspoons salt in a large stock pot or Dutch oven with 10 cups of water.  Bring to boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, partially covered, until farro is tender, about 45 - 50 minutes.  You might need to add a little extra water towards the end of the cook time to keep the farro from drying out.  Set aside.

While the farro is cooking, prepare the onion: Heat the olive oil in a 12-inch heavy-bottomed saute pan over moderately high heat until hot, but not smoking.  Then saute onion with pepper and remaing 1/2 teaspoon salt, stirring, 1 minute.  Reduce heat to low and cook, covered, stirring occasionally, until onion is soft and golden (stir more frequently toward the end of the cooking), about 20 - 30 minutes.  Remove lid and increase heat to moderate, then cook, stirring frequently, until onion is golden brown, 5 to 10 minutes more.

While onion cooks, discard stems and center ribs from kale. (Note - chef showed us a cool trick to easily, quickly de-stem kale: Make an "O" with your thumb and forefinger with one hand, and run the kale through the "o" with the other hand. Tighten your fingers around the kale, so you pull the stem out on one side, and the kale greenery stays on the other.)  Chop kale and add to the pot of farro for the last 5-6 minutes of cooking. Stir in the cranberries, then transfer drained farro/kale/cranberries into the carmelized onion mixture and stir in the garlic. Saute the mixture about 3 minutes, then add vinegar. Serve garnished with pecans (or pine nuts).

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Coca Cola Cake

I first cottoned on to this cake soon after moving home to Seattle after college in the South. I was glad to be back in the Northwest, but had developed a certain affinity for the South that I was most comfortable holding on to and connecting with through food. I tried to align myself with recipes that reminded me of college. Obviously, Coke is a quintessentially American brand that doesn't necessarily have specifically Southern connotations. But in the South, particularly in Atlanta (where a large ratio of my university peers hailed from), Coca Cola is a historical, cultural, and economic icon. It is heartily revered, and the Coke versus Pepsi debate is not just a comical Mac vs. PC face-off, but rather a taking of sides more akin to the Civil War ('scuse me, Ma'am, but don't ya'll mean 'The War of Northern Agression'?)

Lingering over back-issues of Southern Living magazine, I came across an article about Coca Cola Cake, and how the company has all sorts of recipes using it's product. The cake is a favorite though, yielding a moist chocolate batter and with an addictive carmelized crust. I made the recipe a couple of times and marvelled over the texture which was rich and chocolatey without being dense or dry, or bitter like many chocolate cakes. And the crust is truly unique... its delicate and tender yet still somehow chewy, with a caramel cola flavor.

I'm sure the science behind why this cake works so well is really simple... how the acidic pH of the cola works on the cocoa similar to how akalizing would. Or something. But I don't care. It just works and it's delicious.

The recipe I used to make went in a bundt pan, but I had buttered two 9-inch rounds for another recipe, which then only made enough batter for one pan, so I already had pan buttered and ready. I came across another recipe for coke cake in my Warren Brown cookbook, which I found disappointingly uninspiring, but wanted to test out of anyway, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. A side-by-side comparison of his recipe from United Cakes of America and the Southern Living version were surprisingly different, but yielded a cake that was very much what I remembered and love. Again, I don't know why the two recipes both worked the same way, I just know you should try it.

Coca Cola Cake
adpated from Warren Brown's United Cakes of America
2 cups (10 ounces) all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons unsweetend cocoa powder (non-alkalized)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup Coca-Cola
1/4 cup buttermilk
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups sugar
2 eggs

Grease and flour 9-inch baking pan with removeable bottom, or line with parchment. (Finished layer will be just slightly domed, and 1 1/2 inches high.)

Preheat oven to 350.
Cream butter and sugar. Mix flour, salt, and cocoa in separate bowl, and Coke and milk in third bowl. Add dry and wet ingredients alternately to butter mixture until smooth. Pour into pan and smooth top, bake until center is set, 40-45 minutes. Cool in pan then invert.

Frost with chocolate or vanilla frosting. I used a vanilla cooked-milk buttercream from the same book, recipe below. He references it as "the mother recipe for buttercream in the U.S.A." I had never heard of a frosting recipe with flour in it, so I was curious to try it just for that. Brown also says, "after one taste, you'll recognize this" but I didn't. It just tasted really vanilla-y because of my excellent Mexican vanilla extract. And the consistency looked a bit curdled, so I wouldn't want to use it for decorating. But it did taste good, and was a great complement to the cola cake. I wouldn't try to cover the dark cake with the white frosting though, especially this one which would be hard to get smooth. Just plop on a dollop, or smear across the top in loose swirls.

Old Fashioned Milk Buttercream
from Warren Brown's United Cakes of America
1/2 cup milk
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 stick unsalted butter
1/2 cup sugar
pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Whist together 2 tablespoons milk with flour until completely smooth. Whisk in remaining milk and transfer to heavy small saucepan. Bring to simmer over medium heat for about 30 seconds, whisking constantly. Remove from heat and cover with plastic wrap directly on the surface to prevent a skin from forming. Combine butter, sugar, salt, and vanilla with the paddle of a stand mixer until smooth and fluffy. Pour in cooled milk mixture and beat until desired consistency.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Braised Brussels

I don't have a photo of these, because I had no idea how good they would be. I thought I was just making two servings, but I ended up with some leftovers which I ate cold straight from the fridge and they were also delicious! Even Will said he really liked the preparation, and he's not usually a huge fan of sprouts. But not only was this good, it was quick and very forgiving on the timing in that it can stay pretty good over low heat while you finish up the rest of your meal, or make it ahead and reheat it before serving.

I literally tossed things together and it worked just fine, but I've tried to estimate quantities below. It might just be better if you eyeball things as you go, and you can scale it up without any math.

for two servings
10 Brussels sprouts
1 tablespoon light oil (olive or grapeseed) maybe more
1 teaspoon whole coriander seeds
1 clove garlic, minced (I used my Garlic Zoom tool because I wanted it nice and fine)
1/2 cup chicken stock
freshly grated pepper

Trim off the ends of the sprouts if needed, then slice vertically as thinly as you can. It's okay if some leaves fall off whole, you can either leave them as individual leaves, or slice them a bit too. You will end up with mostly shreds, but some whole cross-sections. It's all fine, you just want evenly thick pieces so they cook evenly.

Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium heat with the coriander seeds until it is shimmering. Add the brussels sprouts and toss to coat. Add more oil if they are not evenly coated. I added oil twice more during cooking mine. Stir periodically until leaves start to turn golden, about 3 minutes, then stir in garlic. Toss continuously so garlic doesn't burn, about another 2 minutes. Pour stock in and raise heat to high until liquid starts to boil, then reduce heat and simmer uncovered until liquid is mostly evaporated. Season with pepper and serve.