Monday, April 30, 2007

The Fastest Way To A Man's Heart Is...

The internet says that the fastest way to a man's heart is Chuck Norris' fist. I'm a traditionalist. I say the fastest way is through cheesecake.


When I was dating my future husband in college I knew he had a huge love for cheesecake. So one time when I flew home on break I made him a cheesecake. Not just any cheesecake, this was chocolate marbled cheesecake. I was so excited because this was a new culinary achievement for me and it turned out beautifully. I proudly carried this beauty onto the airplane, carefully stowed it beneath my seat, and then almost forgot it when deplaning. I had to run back into the plane to retrieve it from under my seat. Can you imagine that scene in today's security climate? Not a happy thought, there.

Anyway, when I presented my sweetie with the cheesecake he was thrilled. He promptly served himself up a generous piece and pronounced it wonderful. I think he ate a third of it the first day. The next day he ate it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Then a small piece the next day. A smaller piece the next day. I think he quietly threw away the rest of it and was unable to face a cheesecake for quite a while after that. So the morals from the story are that 1) most men really appreciate a good cheesecake, and 2) sharing is a good thing.

When faithful reader and kitchen princess, Gabe, requested a recipe for a Turtle Cheesecake for her sweetie I scrambled to find one. I didn't have a specific recipe that fit the bill, but put together several recipes that combine beautifully. The crust is from a magazine, the topping is from my faithful Baking by Dorie Greenspan and the cheesecake is from a new library find, The Best Recipe

The Best Recipe is a very cool cookbook from the editors of Cook's Illustrated Magazine. They exhaustively test all possible variations of a recipe to find the one, best way to make a dish. It's an engineer's dream cookbook. They discuss the way that all the variables affect the outcome and then tinker with them until they achieve the optimal result. So I turned to this source with confidence that their recipe would insure a wonderful product. And mostly that was correct.

I ran into only two problems. One was that I forgot the second layer of aluminum foil on the pan. This allowed the water from the water bath to seep into my crust so my crust was not crusty, it was more like mud. Tasty mud, but not pretty. The other was I underbaked it by about 5 minutes so the center is quite creamy. But still darn good. So good that I'm going to have to practice quite a bit of sharing so I don't get sick of cheesecake. Because I'll definitely need to make this again so I can get it right!

Turtle Cheesecake

1-1/2 cups chocolate wafer crumbs
2 Tbsp sugar
1/4 cup melted butter

2 lbs cream cheese
1-1/4 cups sugar
4 large eggs, room temperature
1 tsp zest from small lemon, minced
2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup sour cream

2 cups sugar
1/2 cup water
1-1/2 Tbsp light corn syrup
2/3 cup heavy cream
2 Tbsp unsalted butter, at room temp
1 cup salted peanuts

1- Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees.

2- Combine chocolate wafer crumbs, sugar, and melted butter. Line bottom of 9-inch spring-form pan with foil, tuck foil underneath pan bottom, assemble pan, then pull foil up the side of the pan. Brush bottom and sides with butter. Press wafer crumb mixture into the bottom of the pan and about 1-1/2 inches up the side of the pan. Bake the crust for 10 minutes, remove to cool and reduce oven heat to 325. Once pan is cooled, cover underneath and along sides with a wide sheet of heavy-duty foil and set in large roasting pan. Bring kettle of water to boil for water bath.

3- While the water is heating, beat cream cheese in bowl of electric mixer until smooth. Gradually add sugar and beat on medium speed until sugar dissolves, about 3 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, beating until just incorporated and scraping down after each addition. Add zest and vanilla and beat until just incorporated. Remove bowl from mixer; stir in cream and sour cream.

4- Pour batter into prepared pan. Set roasting pan on oven rack and pour in enough boiling water to come about halfway up side of springform pan. Be careful not to have water level over the rim of the foil. Bake until perimeter of cake is set but center jiggles like Jell-O when pan is tapped, 55 to 60 minutes. (I turned my oven off at 55 and in hindsight should have left it another 5 minutes. My cheesecake was quite jiggly in the center. I think a ring of "set" with jiggling just in the center is what to look for. The majority of mine was jiggly.)

5 - Turn off heat and leave oven door ajar, propping it open if necessary, for 1 hour longer. Remove springform pan from water bath and set on wire rack; cool to room temperature. Cover and refrigerate until chilled, at least 4 hours. It can be refrigerated up to 4 days.

6- After the cheesecake has chilled, make the caramel nut topping. You might want to save this step until just before serving for a warm, gooey presentation, but it can be done ahead of time. You'll just have a chewier topping.

7- Put the sugar, water and corn syrup in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan, stir just to combine the ingredients and then put the pan over medium-high heat. Heat, without stirring, until the caramel turns deep amber, 5 to 10 minutes, wiping down any splatters on the sides of the pan with a pastry brush dipped in cold water. To test the color of the caramel, drop a bit on a white plate. If it's too pale, it won't have much taste.

8-Lower the heat a bit and, standing back from the saucepan because it will splatter, add the cream and butter. When the splatters are less vehement, stir to calm down the caramel and dissolve any lumps. Stir in the peanuts, and pour the caramel and peanuts into a 1-quart Pyrex measuring cup or a heat-proof bowl.

Spoon the peanuts out of the hot caramel and onto the cake. After that pour or spoon on enough caramel to cover all the nuts. You'll have a layer about 1/4 inch high. You'll probably have caramel left over - save it covered in the refrigerator for making caramel sauce.

Allow the topping to set at room temp. about 20 minutes before serving. Run a knife around the edge between the cake and the pan and carefully remove the outer pan before serving. If you choose to make the topping ahead of the serving time, top the cheesecake and once the topping has cooled, refrigerate it. Then for serving, take the cheesecake out of the refrigerator 20 minutes ahead of time and allow it to come to room temperature. If the caramel is still a little too stiff, a quick wave of a creme brulee torch will soften it up.

My family rates it two thumbs up!

Friday, April 27, 2007

Buried Treasure cupcakes

As a child I had a super sweet tooth. I loved candy, especially chocolate, and all my allowance went to the corner grocery store for candy. I'd stop on my way home from school and get a 3 Musketeers bar to nibble while I read. Hence, my favorite books from childhood all bear chocolate smudges on the page corners. Two of my favorite things together, books and chocolate - bliss!

My father, on the other hand, had a salty tooth. Potato chips were his idea of a treat. My mother loved sweets, too, but was on a perpetual diet, usually something nasty involving grapfruit and soft-boiled eggs. Urp. So it was pretty much in self-defense that I started baking. If no one was going to bring treats into the house, by gosh, I'd make them!

I loved making cakes because cakes involved frosting, a seperate and important food group. I still love cakes - for celebrations, a layer cake, for picnics a 9 x 13 pan cake, but for pure kid fun, nothing beats cupcakes.

My daughter needed a treat to take to her group of high school girls she leads so I had a great excuse to pull my 4 year old baking buddy into the kitchen. If you're a baking purist, this will make you ill, but he loves baking a boxed cake mix. We had fun with him breaking the eggs and helping hold the mixer. Then I wanted to dress up the cupcakes a little, turn up the fun meter a notch. I had some mini Reese's peanut butter cups sitting in a drawer, so together we unwrapped them and placed one in each cupcake. Actually, I placed and he submerged, but they all worked out the same. You bite into it and encounter a sunken Reese's in the middle. Then, to echo the Reese's theme I hid a layer of peanut butter under the chocolate frosting. Delicious!

If you are anti-boxed mix, certainly you can make this with your favorite chocolate cake recipe and it would be even better!

Buried Treasure Cupcakes

1 chocolate boxed cake mix
Creamy peanut butter
24 Reese's mini peanut butter cups
6 oz. bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 cups powdered sugar
3 Tbsp light corn syrup
1 tsp vanilla extract
pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line muffin tin with 24 cupcake papers. Make cake batter according to directions.

Fill each cupacake paper about halfway full, place a mini peanut butter cup on each cupcake. Then gently cover with the remaining batter. Place in the oven and bake 18 to 22 minutes. Remove from oven and place on a cooling rack to cool.

When the cupcakes are cool, place a thin coating of peanut butter on each cupcake, stopping short of the edges. Then frost generously with the chocolate frosting all the way to the edges.

To Make the Frosting:

Place the chocolate in a microwaveable dish. Heat on high power in 30 second bursts, stirring between intervals. Stop microwaving when chocolate looks glossy and begins to loose it's shape. Stir till smooth. Let cool slightly.

In a large bowl, using either a hand or stand mixer, beat together the butter and sugar till fluffy. Beat in the corn syrup, vanilla, and salt. Continue beating wile gradually adding the chocolate. Beat until smooth.

I let my chocolate cool a little too long and ended up with flecks of chocolate throughout the frosting. I like it that way, though. It's pretty and makes it more interesting.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Faith Baking

One of my favorite cooking jokes goes something like this:

A woman is planning a very fancy dinner party. Wanting to really impress her guests with her culinary abilities she searches her cookbooks for a main dish that will truly wow them. She finds an incredibly elaborate recipe that involves a drawn out process of mincing ham, combining lots of ingredients, glazing with aspic and moulding and she gets started. Confident that this is going to be a killer dinner she lays out an elegant table, has her hair done, and puts on her expensive dress purchased just for the evening. One half hour before the guests are due she gets out a silver serving platter for the final step of the recipe - unmoulding. As her creation slips onto the platter and sits, quivering, she wails out in horror to her husband, "Oh, no! Harold, I've made Spam!"

This sums up my fear of making something new from a cookbook with no pictures. In a perfect cookbook every entry would have a picture, so you know what you're making. If it looks gross, don't bother making it. I figure, if a professional food stylist can't make it look appealing, why should I waste my time trying? Also, then you have the pictures that call you back again and again, like a siren song, luring your diet to destruction.

If you've read my blog before you know I think Dorie Greenspan's Baking is pretty close to perfect. But, it does have a picture shortage. The recipes pictured are gorgeous, but not every recipe has a picture to go with it. So it was going out on a limb, spiritually holding Drrie's hand, to make a new recipe for something I'd never tried before with no picture to illuminate the way.

I had just made homemade ricotta cheese and was cruising through my cookbooks looking for a way to use it when I chanced on the Fluted Polenta and Ricotta Cake recipe. I had on hand all the ingredients except figs, always a good sign, so I gave it a try with mostly positive results.

My ricotta and water mixture never got smooth. Perhaps because it was homemade ricotta, the mixture stubbornly retained small lumps. I shrugged and moved on. About 20 minutes after the cake was in the oven I checked and it was overflowing the pan! Thank goodness Dorrie told me to put it on a baking sheet or my oven would have been a mess. Then, it was not nearly close to done at 35 minutes and I cooked it at least 10 minutes longer. At this point I was checking and rechecking the recipe and having quite a mental conversation with Dorie.

Once I took it out and trimmed off the excess that burbled over the sides, it was lovely. The texture was coarse but incredibly moist and it's bursting with honey flavor and sweetness. My husband was impressed that I tried something new that didn't even involve chocolate and really likes it, although he said he'd prefer to have the dates cut into small pieces and scattered more evenly throughout the cake.

Polenta and Ricotta Fig Cake

About 16 moist, plump dried Mission or Kadota figs, stemmed
1 cup medium-grain polenta or yellow cornmeal
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup ricotta
1/3 cup tepid water
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup honey
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1 stick unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 Tbsp unsalted butter, cut into bits and chilled
2 large eggs

Center a rack in the oven and preheat to 325 degrees. Butter a 10-1/2-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom and put it on a baking sheet lined with parchment or a silicone mat. (Don't skip this step!)

If your figs are the least bit hard, put them in a small pan of boiling water and steep for a minute, then drain and pat dry. If the figs are larger than a bite-size, snip them in half.

Whisk the polenta, flour, baking powder and salt together.

Working with a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the ricotta and water together on low speed until very smooth. With the mixer at medium speed, add the sugar, honey and lemon zest and beat until light. Beat in the melted butter, then add the eggs one at a time, beating until the mixture is smooth. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the dry ingredients, mixing only until they are fully incorporated. You'll have a sleek, smooth, pourable batter.

Pour about one third of the batter into the pan and scatter over the figs. Pour in the rest of the batter, smooth the top with a rubber spatula, if necessary, and dot the batter evenly with the chilled bits of butter.

Bake for 35-40 minutes, or until a thin knife inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. The cake should be honey brown and pulling away just a little from the sides of the pan. Transfer the cake to a rack and remove the sides of the pan after about 5 minutes. Cool to warm, or cool completely.

Monday, April 23, 2007

The Sweet Smell of Strawberries

Costco did it to me again. I was carefully shopping from my list when, without warning, a large clamshell of strawberries leapt into my cart. I couldn't resist. It's been so long since there have been strawberries available. I'm not talking about the nasty faux strawberries that you get in the grocery store in March. You buy them because you're so desperate to be done with winter you snatch up anything that says summer's on the way. As soon as you get them home, you regret it. They look like strawberries...kind of. They are strawberry shaped and almost red. But they don't smell like strawberries. And when you bite into one you realize it's not an actual strawberry. God made apples to crunch, not strawberries. These are genetically manipulated to have the consistency of packing peanuts - with all of the flavor, too.

But spring is well and truly here because real strawberries are here. The luscious beauties passed the look, sniff, and taste tests, and I had the happpy dilemma of how to use up all of these strawberries. My children would have cheerfully eaten the whole container without any work on my part, besides washing, but I did want to get something baked to celebrate the return of the strawberry.

A classic and a family favorite is Strawberry Shortcake. I tried a new recipe from my Williams-Sonoma Desserts cookbook. Usually I just whip up some scones using the food processor, but I wanted to try some genuine shortcakes. These aren't difficult and would easily be done in the food processor as well, but I'll include the directions as I made them.

The shortcakes were light, fluffy, with a tender crumb, but up to the task of holding the delicious, juicy strawberries piled with whipped cream. And they were all quickly and appreciatively consumed. (Oh, someday I'll have to diet, but not today!)

Strawberry Shortcakes

1-2/3 cups all-purpose flour
2 Tbsp sugar
1 Tbsp baking powder
1 tsp finely grated lemon zest
3/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) cold, unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
3/4 cup buttermilk
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
4 cups strawberries, hulled and cut into slices 1/4 inch thick
3/4 cup heavy cream, well chilled
2 Tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

The only changes I made to the recipe were adding a bit more flour (I used probably 1-3/4 cup), because with the original amount the dough was quite sticky, and I didn't have buttermilk, so I put 3/4 Tbsp vinegar in a liquid measure and then added whole milk to the 3/4 line.

1- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

2- In a bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, zest and salt until well blended. Using a pastry blender, cut in the butter until the pieces are no larger than peas. Add the buttermilk and vanilla and gently toss with a fork or rubber spatula until the flour is just moistened and the ingredients are blended.

3-Turn the shaggy dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Gently press the dough into a thick rectangle about 6 by 4 inches. Trim the edges even with a large sharp knife, then cut the dough into 6 equal squares.

4- Place the squares on the baking sheet, spacing them well apart. Bake until they are puffed and golden, 15-18 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool slightly or completely.

5- Meanwhile, in a bowl, toss together the strawberries and the sugar with a fork, lightly crushing some of the berries. Cover the berries and refrigerate until well chilled or until serving time.

6- In a deep bowl, combine the cream, sugar, and vanilla. Using an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat until soft peaks form and the cream is billowy, about 2 minutes. Cover the bowl and refrigerate until serving or for up to 2 hours.

7- To serve, split the warm or cooled shortcakes in half horizontally and place the bottom halves, cut side up, on serving plates. Spoon some of the strawberries, including the juices, over each half and top with a dollop (or enormous blop for me, please) of the whipped cream. Top with the remaining shortcake halves, cut side down. Serve immediately.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Ugly Duckling Soup

Hey, you say, this is a food blog. Where are the mouthwatering pictures that make me run to my kitchen, throw on an apron, and start baking up a storm? What's with the cute puppies and nature shots?

Well, I have been busy in the kitchen, but what I made was, sadly, ugly. Not just unattractive, like you'd look at it and say, "Hmm, I wonder why anyone would bother to cook that? I'll check back tomorrow and see if she's got something better." No, I'm talking seriously ugly. If I'd put up a picture you would have reared back from your computer in horror, as if something from a Stephen King novel came to life on your screen. So ugly that my photographer refused to take a picture of it. Seriously. That ugly.

But one thing I've raised my children to know is that things that look good don't always taste good (see post about deceitful brownies) and things that taste good don't always look good. So it is with this soup. We all agreed it was tasty, possibly the best bean soup I'd ever made.

I've heard it said that the measure of a chef is not the fancy desserts he/she can create but rather the soups he/she can make. By that measure I'd fail miserably as a chef. My childhood memories are either watery broth with anemic vegetables floating in it or the "good stuff" from a can. After marriage I got the canned soup pretty well down and mastered the vegetables in broth and that was the extent of my soup repetoire. I got excited when I made Split Pea Soup, until it got shot down by the pea-haters in my family. (A person in my family, who will go unnamed, calls peas "little green dirt balls.")

So it is that I've had the cookbook, Splendid Soups by James Patterson, sitting on my shelf for years and I've never made a thing from it. My sister, an excellent cook, cooks from it copiously and raves about it, but still my copy has sat unused, gathering dust for probably a decade.

Recently I've been working on culling the older items from my freezer and trying to fit them into the menu. A ham bone had to go and the only thing a ham bone fits into, in my knowlegde, is a soup. So I bravely cracked the spine on my Splendid Soups and found a recipe for Black Bean Soup.

As I was making it I was thinking, "this is not my mother's soup." Bacon? Yum. Jalapenos? Wow. Sherry? In soup?? It's bursting with exciting flavors, has nice contrast textures, and is ugly as sin. So, I'd reccomend trying the soup. Turn the lights off and have romantic candlelight. That might help.

Black Bean Soup

Start early, as the beans need plenty of time to soak and cook.

2 cups dried black turtle beans, soaked (I used plain black beans as that's what the grocery store had.) To soak, put the beans in a 4-quart pot and cover with cold water. Let them soak for about 2 hours.
1 quart chicken or beef broth or water
1 boquet garni*
1 ham bone or 2 ham hocks
1 Tbsp salt
1/2 pound bacon, preferably slab
1 large onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
4 jalepeno chilies, seeded and finely chopped
1 cup dry sherry
2 Tbsp unsalted butter (optional - I didn't use it)
salt and pepper
Tabasco sauce
sour cream

Do not discard the soaking water. Into the pot with the beans and the soaking water add the broth, the bouquet garni, and the ham bone. Cover the pot and simmer very slowly for 30 minutes. Add the salt, then simmer for 1-1/2 to 3-1/2 hours more, until the beans are soft. If the water starts to run dry, add just enough water during the cooking to keep them covered.

While the beans are cooking, slice the bacon into 1/4-inch-thick slices - remove the rind if you're using slab bacon - and slice each of these into 1 by 1/4-inch trips. Cook the bacon strips in a 4-quart or larger pot over medium heat until they just start to turn crisp. Remove them with a slotted spoon and reserve.

Add the onion, garlic, and jalapenos to the bacon fat and cook until the vegetables soften and smell fragrant, about 10 minutes.

When the beans are finished cooking, take out the ham bone or hocks, trim and discard any rind, pull the meat away from the bones, and cut it into 1/2-inch cubes. Remove and discard the bouquet garni.

Add the cooked beans and their cooking liquid, the ham, and the sherry to the vegetables in the pot.

Bring the soup to a slow simmer and simmer for about 5 minute to cook the alchohol out of the sherry. Whisk in the cilantro and butter, if desired, just before serving. Season the soup with salt and pepper. Sprinkle the cooked bacon strips over each bowl of soup before serving. Leave a bottle of Tabasco on the table to accomodate guests who like their black bean soup hot and spicy and pass a bowl of sour cream.

Suggestions: If the soup comes out thin, beat it for a minute or two with a whisk to break up some of the beans, which will thicken the soup. Or you may want to puree part of the beans in a blender or food processor and then add them to the rest of the soup, or you can puree all and convert this soup into a smooth puree.

This is excellent served with corn bread.

Note: the cute puppies pics are from my dear friend who breeds miniature dachsunds and corgis. If you're interested in a puppy, let me know and I'll get you her contact information.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Bran, It's Not Just For Seniors Anymore

My all-time favorite muffin is definitely blueberry, but a close second is bran muffins. I've been making the bran muffin recipe off the box of All Bran cereal since I was in high school, maybe even jr. high. It's never been a fiber issue for me, I just like the taste of the muffins.

Interestingly, they recently took the recipe off the box and replaced it with pictures of smiling, "regular" seniors. That ticked me off. I had to go to the website and print out the recipe. Then I discovered they'd tinkered with the recipe, cutting down on the fat. I tried it and it's just fine, still a moist tender muffin, but it got me to thinking about how else the recipe could be tweaked. An extra banana lying on the counter got me started and this is what I came up with. A plump, moist, lower fat muffin that has harmonious fruit and spice flavors added. Mmm, just what the doctor ordered.

Banana Bran and Raisin Muffins

2 cups Kellogg's All-Bran cereal
1-1/4 cups milk (fat free is fine, or whatever you have on hand)
1-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 Tbsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1 egg
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 banana, cut into small chunks
1/2 cup raisins

1- Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spray muffin tin with cooking spray, or line with cupcake papers.

2- In a large mixing bowl, combine bran cereal and milk. Let stand for about 2 minutes to soften the cereal.

3- Stir together flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and cinnamon in a small bowl. Set aside.

4- Into the softened bran mix stir the egg and oil. Beat well. Stir in the banana and raisins. Add the flour mixture, stirring only until combined. Divide the batter evenly into 12 muffin cups.

5 - Bake about 20 minutes or until golden brown. Best served warm. And if you're not into the whole low-fat thing, slather on some butter. Yumm.

Saturday, April 14, 2007


My husband wears a sweatshirt that boldly proclaims "WYSIWYG." I like it, not only because he looks so handsome in it, but because I like the meaning -" What You See Is What You Get." The shirt refers to some computer term (ask him, he's the tech savvy one, not me) but it also has real life applications.

I despise deceit. For a person or a product to pass themselves off as something other than what they are is horrible. And the most egregious offender in my experience (besides politicians) is grocery store brownies.

As a child the grocery store item that called to me most was the bakery display of frosted brownies. They looked so delicious. I loved brownies; I loved frosting; how could these be anything but wonderful? Once my mother caved to my pleading and bought me a brownie. It was so disappointing - the brownie was stale and dry and the frosting was bland and greasy. Gross. I don't think I could even finish it (which of course produced a nervous tic in my mother who couldn't understand how I could whine for something for so long and then not even eat it!).

To this day, I still pass by the bakery displays and hiss under my breath, "Deceitful food!"

These brownies, however, will not disappoint. I took my favorite brownie recipe that makes wonderfully moist, dense brownies, studded with chocolate and nuts, added buttercream frosting, and a glazing of ganache. Each element is individually tasty, and put together, just fabulous! Trust me, what you see is what you get.

Triple-Layer Trustworthy Brownies

Brownie layer:

3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp baking soda
3/4 granulated sugar
1/3 cup butter
2 Tbsp water
2 cups semisweet chocolate chips, divided
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1/2 cup chopped pecans

1- In a small saucepan, combine sugar, butter, and water. Bring to a boil over medium heat; remove immediately from heat.

2- Stir in 1 cup of chocolate chips and vanilla extract until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth. Transfer mixture to a medium bowl and cool completely.

3- Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease a 9-inch square pan.

4- In a small bowl, mix together flour and baking soda.

5- Stir in eggs to the cooled chocolate mixture, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Gradually stir in flour mixture until smooth.

6- Stir remaining chocolate morsels and nuts into batter. Pour batter into prepared pan.

7- Bake until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes. Don't overbake, though, as that will give you dried out brownies. Better to underbake and have fudgy brownies than overbake and have something grocery store worthy.

8- Transfer pan to a wire rack to cool completely.

Buttercream Frosting Layer:

1-1/2 Tbsp really softened butter
3/4 cups powdered sugar
3/4 tsp vanilla extract
1-1/2 tsp milk

In a medium bowl with a hand mixer beat butter and sugar together; add vanilla and milk. Beat until the frosting is smooth and creamy.

* To frost a 2-layer cake, multiply these amounts by 4. And now that you know how to make delicious frosting, just say no to canned frosting!

Ganache Layer:

4 oz. bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
6 Tbsp heavy cream

Place the chopped chocolate in a small bowl. Heat the heavy cream in a small saucepan until it is very hot and steamy but not boiling. Remove the cream from the heat and pour it slowly over the chocolate. Stir the cream into the chocolate. As you stir, the chocolate will melt and become incorporated into the cream, resembling a pudding consistency. Cool to room temperature.

After the brownies are thoroughly cooled, frost with the buttercream frosting. After that, gently spread on the ganache layer. Then put the whole pan into the refrigerator to set. When you're ready to serve the brownies, allow them to warm up a little so the ganache won't crack when you cut the pieces.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Thank Goodness It's Gingerbread

Friday is the gateway to the weekend. You're still mired in the work or school week, but you're looking ahead to 2 whole days without schedules and responsibilities (unless you're a mother with small children). Although you want to celebrate the temporary reprieve from the load, you're probably exhausted.

What you need is dessert. Well, that's always my prescription for fatigue, depression, insomnia, anxiety, hangnails, split ends, and restless leg syndrome. OK, it's pretty much my cure-all for everything. But who, at the end of an intense week, has the energy to whip up a Caramel Mocha Gateau with Spun Sugar topping? Not me, and by the way, you needed to start making it three days ago to serve it tonight.

OK, what you need is an easy dessert that you can throw together in 20 minutes or less, toss into the oven, and then garner ooohs and aaaahs from your family and friends when you serve it. Who knew that such a recipe could be found in a Martha Stewart cookbook?

I tend to stay away from Martha Stewart because she intimidates me. Her recipes and instructions always seem to call for exotic ingredients or tools that I don't have on hand, and if I try to substitute it will fail. My ice cream will curdle because I don't have the black-currant puree that she keeps in her freezer and I won't be able to make those adorable cookies because I don't own the Italian cookie molds that Martha uses.

However, I wanted to try a new recipe for gingerbread for today's post and I was thrilled with the results. This recipe from Holidays yielded a larger cake than any of my other recipes (bonus if company's coming) and it has a daintier, fluffier appearance that makes it more cake-like and a fancier dessert. Especially when topped with a fat blob of whipped cream and a piece of homemade crystallized ginger.

Weekend Gingerbread

1 cup boiling water
2 tsp baking soda
2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp ground ginger
1-1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cloves
2 tsp baking powder
8 Tbsp (1 stick) unsalted butter
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
1 cup unsulfured molasses
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
Whipped cream for garnish
Crystallized Ginger

1- Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9 x 13-inch pan and set aside. Combine boiling water with baking soda and set aside. In a large bowl, sift together flour, spices and baking powder. Set aside.

2- In the large bowl of a mixer, cream butter. Add sugar and beat until fluffy. Beat in molasses and baking-soda mixture. Beat in flour mixture. Add eggs and beat well.

3- Pour batter into pan and bake for 35 minutes (a toothpick inserted into center should come out clean). Cool on wire rack. To serve top with whipped cream and a slice or two of Crystallized Ginger.

*Random Neuron Firing - Why is the term "gingerbread" used to describe both construction-quality dough used for semi-edibile cottages and a fluffy cake? And neither of them is a bread? Why not ginger cake and ginger plywood?

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Ultimate Ginger

When a product is marketed as "New and Improved" my skeptical reaction is, "Oh, so you're admitting the old version was nasty and you think you've fixed that?" It rarely makes me want to try the new version.

But what if the original was truly terrific? Is it possible to improve on something with no obvious flaws?

Of all the cookies that I've made, my husband's very favorite is Ginger Cookies. He adores them. He brightens like the sun coming through the clouds when I make them for him. And it's comical to watch his internal struggle play out on his face when I suggest sharing them with friends. It's hard for him to watch them go out the door. Even if I make a double batch. He wants to be generous,...but, but,....they're Ginger Cookies!

So it was something of a gamble to try a new recipe. When I read in Ina Garten's Barefoot Contessa At Home that she'd found the perfect ginger cookie, I thought, "Hey, I've got ginger cookies down. How do you improve upon perfection?" Well, to begin with, you add more spices and pump up the ginger flavor with chunks of crystallized ginger. The result? A moist cookie that shouts in your mouth. You can't gobble these cookies because each bite demands your attention. Not necessarily a bad thing.

My taste test panel, in between bites, said they loved them and, if you'd excuse me, I've got to go get a glass of milk to dunk them in. My dear friend fed her toddler bites which he happily munched and then would say with a cherubic smile on his face, "Num num, num num" That's my kind of food critic.

My husband likes them, but decided his favorite is still the old standard. Sometimes, when there's sentiment involved, it's hard to let go of an old favorite. You decide for yourself whether these cookies deserve the title of

The Ultimate Ginger Cookie

2-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
2 tsps ground cinnamon
1-1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp kosher salt
1 cup dark brown sugar, lightly packed
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup unsulfured molasses
1 extra-large egg, at room temperature
1-1/4 cups chopped crystallized ginger (6 oz)
Granulated sugar for rolling the cookies

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. (I never used to use parchment paper, now I'm addicted. It keeps the food intact and makes clean-up a snap.)

In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, and salt and then stir the mixture to blend. In the bowl of an electric mixer beat the brown sugar, oil, and molasses on medium speed for 5 minutes. Turn the mixer to low speed, add the egg, and beat for 1 minute. Scrape the bowl with a rubber spatula and beat for 1 more minute. With the mixer still on low, slowly add the dry ingredients to the bowl and mix on medium speed for 2 minutes. Add the crystallized ginger and mix until combined.

With a small ice cream scoop roll the dough into a 1-3/4 inch ball and then flatten them lightly with your fingers. Press both sides of each cookie in granulated sugar and place them on the cookie sheets.

Bake for exactly 13 minutes. The cookies will be crackled on the top and soft inside. Let the cookies cool on the sheets for a minute or two, then transfer to wire racks to cool completely.

It's Crystal Clear

If you dropped everything on reading Monday's post and ran out and bought a sack full of ginger root to bake along this week, good! We'll use a bunch of it today.

Today's project is another aha! moment. When I asked my sweet husband how he thought crystallized ginger was made he pondered and postulated that perhaps gelatin and ginger flavoring was involved. I found some easier than pie directions on the web and will now reveal the truth. Crystallized ginger involves ginger and sugar. And lots of it.

It's easy to make and you have the satisfaction of having your own, hand-made candied ginger. It's so pretty I love just looking at it, but it also packs a huge ginger wallop. Take a munch on one of these babies and your sinuses are cleared and you are definitely awake! Plus, as a bonus, you end up with ginger syrup which you can pour on pancakes, spoon over ice cream, stir into your tea or use in recipes in place of corn syrup for an extra hit of ginger flavor.

Homemade Crystallized Ginger

Ginger Root
3 cups sugar
3 cups water
Extra sugar for coating

Peel the ginger root and slice into 1/8th inch thin slices. Make enough to fill a 1 cup measure.

Combine sugar and water in a large saucepan over medium heat. Stir until the sugar is dissolved. Add the ginger slices. When the mixture begins to boil start timing 45 minutes. Stir occasionally to make sure the slices don't stick to each other. As the syrup boils the ginger slices will start to curl up like little potato chips.

Remove the pan from the heat. Spoon out the ginger chips onto a cooling rack set over a cookie sheet. Pour the syrup from the pan into a jar and save for another use.

Let the ginger cool for 30 minutes. In a small bowl pour about 1/2 cup of sugar. Working with a few pieces at a time, put the ginger slices in the sugar and spoon sugar over them to coat. Remove to a piece of wax paper to dry.

Store in an airtight container.

There - fun and easy! And if you're wondering what to do with your pretty candied ginger, tune in tomorrow...

Monday, April 9, 2007

Fun With Bubbles

When my kids were wee ones, we put in many hours watching Neighbor Rogers together. Maybe you knew him better as Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. My kids loved him. My daughter would even kiss the TV screen when it was time to say "so long." One of the highlights of the show for us was when Picture Picture would show a tour of a factory or workshop and we learned how something was created. I loved seeing how crayons were made and how the toothpaste got into the tube. I'm still that way today. I get excited when I learn how something is made and super-excited when I learn how to do it myself.

While I was doing internet searches for ginger information I came upon a site telling how to make gingerale. I couldn't wait to get to try it! This is so fun and easy you need to do it, too. Really, in just a day you can be sipping your own homemade gingerale!

I tried it several different ways. The original recipe on the web was a little bland so I tried again, adding more ginger and some lemon zest. Then I made it with honey replacing the sugar. They were both outstanding. Neither was a clone of grocery store soda, but that's OK with me. The sugar recipe yielded a clearer, stronger ginger taste. The honey recipe gave a rich, complex flavor with the honey balancing the ginger. I liked them both.

Have It Your Way Gingerale

Clean 2-liter plastic soda bottle with cap
1 cup sugar or 3/4 cup honey
1/4 tsp baking yeast
2 Tbsp finely grated ginger root
Zest of one lemon, finely chopped
Juice of a whole lemon
Cool, clean, filtered water

Using a funnel, pour the sugar and yeast into the bottle. If you're using honey, don't add the yeast yet. Shake to mix the sugar and yeast.Place the grated ginger, lemon zest, and lemon juice in a glass measuring cup and mix well. Add the yeast to this mixture if you're making the honey version.

Pour this slurry through the funnel into the bottle. Rinse the measuring cup with clean water and pour the rinse water into the bottle. Cap and shake to mix well.

Uncap and fill the bottle to the neck with cool, clean, filtered water, leaving about an inch of head space. Securely screw down cap to seal. Shake to dissolve the sugar. Place in a warm spot for 24 to 48 hours, until it feels "hard." If the bottle dents when squeezed, as in the picture, it's not ready. My ginger ale only took 24 hours.

Once the bottle feels hard, place it in the refrigerator. Refrigerate at least overnight to chill thoroughly. Open the lid slowly to release excess pressure. Pour through a strainer into an ice-filled cup. When not in use, keep the bottle capped and refrigerated to maintain the fizz.

Note: Don't leave the bottle at room temperature longer than it takes to feel hard. It can explode! Once thoroughly chilled there's little chance of explosion.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Good For What Ails You

Sometimes stress rolls through your life like a river. Nothing you can do to stop it, divert it, or soak it up. Job troubles, unexpected bills, or just people being nasty to you - they can take their toll on you physically. Headaches, digestive problems, and stiff sore muscles can all be caused by stress.

When I'm stressed my number one way to cope is to bake. Nothing soothes like the familiar ritual of measuring, mixing, scooping, and baking. One of my sister's favorite tales to tell on me is when she dropped by to visit when I was two weeks overdue and as big as a house. It was a scorching August day and I was baking cookies. In the buff. Seriously. It was way too hot to have the oven on, but I was too stressed not to bake.

As I've gotten older another effect of stress has crept upon me. Gastric reflux. Ugh. And combine that with lots of freshly baked cookies sitting around. Double ugh. And once started, it's a cycle that takes a while to subside. Well-meaning friends and family urged me to take drugs, to go to the doctor, to get surgery. But then a kind friend offered me a cup of ginger tea and my life changed.

Ginger has historically been used medicinally to treat digestive disorders, including nausea and gas, and arthritis, among other ailments. Plus it adds a zippy, biting flavor to foods. Bonus! A medicine that tastes good.

I've found so many fun ways to add some ginger to my menu that I'm making this Ginger Week on the blog.

The obvious starting point is Ginger Tea. The tea bags at the grocery store can be tremendously pricey. I looked at the ingredients and thought, "But that's easy!" Plus, fresh is always better.

I store my ginger in the freezer, wrapped in plastic wrap. That way it's always on hand and doesn't get mushy, like it can in the fridge. When I want some tea, I take it out of the plastic and shave off shards of the ginger root, then wrap it up and toss it back in the freezer.

I use Stevia as my sweetener. Stevia is a leaf grown in South America that is naturally sweet. I use the refined powder and it is 200-300 times sweeter than table sugar, with virtually no calories. A tiny bit goes a long, long way. That's a bitsy baby spoon in the picture. Stevia is available at natural food stores.

Soothing Ginger Tea

Ginger Root (fresh, not dried or candied)
Stevia - about 1/16th of a teaspoon, or honey
Boiling water

Pre-warm your teapot with hot water. Fill a tea ball 1/2 full with the ginger scrapings. Discard the water from the teapot. Drop the tea ball in the pot and pour boiling water over the ball. Quickly stir in the Stevia or honey and replace the lid on the teapot. If you have a tea cozy, place it over the tea pot. I am coziless, so I wrap my teapot in a hand towel and let the ginger steep for 10 to 15 minutes.

Pour yourself a cup and sip slowly, enjoying the warmth and soothing powers of ginger.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Lemon Rhapsody Friday

All good things must come to an end, and so it is that I finish up the Week of Lemons. What a week it's been, keeping a hectic pace of baking, photographing, and blogging every day. I must report that I was successful in my mission to use up the entire 4 lbs of lemons. Today's post and yesterday's dinner of Chicken Piccata used up the last of them. Yahoo!

When the cherry trees were in blossom in the last weeks my daughter commented on the snowdrifts of cherry blossoms below the trees. I loved the poetry of that. And so, me being me, I thought about how I could make a cake that would capture that imagery. I envisioned fluffy white frosting, like piles of delicate blossoms. Then when Week of Lemons came along, I knew what kind of cake to make. A delicate white cake with a hint of lemon flavor, sublime lemon curd filling, topped by drifts of marshmallowy frosting. Oh, heaven!

None of the recipes are original. I used my inherited copy of Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book , 1950 edition, putting together 3 of the recipes from that. It's a fun book to own. I love the slice of 1950's Americana it represents where "tortilla" is in the dictionary of foreign terms, pimento garnish is the height of haute cuisine, and apparently shortening was one of the 5 basic food groups. It's not a cookbook that I turn to for my menu planning, but I love how well its cake recipes consistently turn out.

Lemon Rhapsody Cake
Delicious White Cake

1/3 cup shortening
1/3 cup butter
1-3/4 cup sugar
3 cups sifted cake flour
3-1/2 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
2/3 cup milk
2/3 cup water
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp lemon extract
4 egg whites - stiffly beaten

Preheat oven to 350 deg. Line two 9-inch cake pans with parchment paper. Generously grease and flour the pans.

Cream together the shortening, butter, and sugar at medium speed in a mixer. The mixture will be quite granular at first, then come together in a solid clump, and as you continue to beat, become creamy, almost frothy. This stage is important for the cakes consistency. Stop the mixer several times to scrape down the bowl and beater with a rubber spatula so that all the shortening is incorporated.

Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt.

Combine the milk, water, and extracts.

Alternate adding the flour mixture and the milk mixture, in 3 batches, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients.

Gently fold in the beaten egg whites - place the egg whites on top of the batter then draw a spatula down through the middle and up toward yourself. Turn the bowl 1/4 turn and repeat. Do this until the egg whites are completely incorporated into the batter. It must be done gently so as not to deflate them.

Pour the batter into the prepared pans. Bake until a cake tester comes out clean, 30 to 35 min. Cool in pans for 10 minutes on a cooling rack, then invert onto a plate, peel off the parchment paper, and invert onto the cooling rack to finish cooling.

While the cake is baking make:

Rich Lemon Filling

Mix together in a saucepan:
1 cup sugar
3 Tbsp cornstarch
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup water
2 Tbsp grated lemon rind
1/2 cup lemon juice
2 Tbsp butter

Bring to a rolling boil and boil 1 minute, stirring constantly. Beat in:

4 egg yolks, slightly beaten

Return to heat and cook 1 more minute, stirring constantly. Pour into a bowl to cool, then put into the refrigerator to chill until the cake has cooled all the way.

After the cake has cooled, make

Fluffy White Frosting

Mix thoroughly in saucepan:

1 cup sugar
1/3 cup water
1/3 tsp cream of tartar (I used a heaping 1/4 measure)

Put a lid on the saucepan and bring to a boil. Keep the lid on the pan for 3 minutes to wash down the sides of the pan. Boil slowly without stirring until a candy thermometer reads 242 deg.

While the syrup is cooking, in a large mixing bowl beat 2 egg whites until stiff enough to hold a point.

Pour the hot syrup very slowly in a thin stream into the stiffly beaten egg whites, beating constantly on high. (How did people do this before KitchenAids?) Add:

1-1/2 tsp vanilla extract.

This is the most exciting part - a huge cloud of steam comes out of the bowl as you add the syrup. I feel like a medieval alchemist, changing ordinary egg whites into a fluffy, sweet confection.

Beat until the frosting holds its shape.

Now you get to assemble the cake. Gently brush loose crumbs off the sides of the cake layers. If your cake domed up during baking, you might want to level that off with a bread knife. I skipped that step and I can see it in the pictures. Cut each layer in 1/2, using a gentle sawing motion with a long bread knife.

Place 1/2 layer on your cake plate. Spread 1/3 of the lemon filling on it. Repeat with two more layers. Add the final layer and check to make sure you don't have filling oozing out the sides - wipe it off if you do.

Frost the top and sides with the Fluffy White Frosting. The frosting begins to set quickly, so if you want decorative swishes in the frosting, do that as you go along.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Thursday's Lemon Poppyseeds

You know how I am about cookbooks. I've admitted it. Some I bake out of until the spine is broken and it's falling apart (Joy of Cooking, old version) and some I might never make a thing from but they're so pretty I like to just look at them and read the recipes and pet the pictures. Then there are the ones that are a wonderful combination of the two.

Several years ago I received Rose's Christmas Cookies as a gift. It's wonderful. Gorgeous photography, scrupulous attention to instructions, including both metric and English measurements, and small descriptive paragraphs about the cookies that are a joy to read. Of course, when thinking of a lemon cookie for Week of Lemons, I reached for this volume. Then it was just a question of narrowing down the choices and not getting side-tracked into making seven other delicious cookies.

I choose the Lemon Poppyseeds because I love the combination of lemon and poppyseeds. In scones, in muffins, in cakes, it always works. These cookies are heavenly with a crumbly, almost shortbread-like texture and a delicate flavor. Perfect for tea time! Because the lemon is only represented by lemon zest, it is a lingering note on the palate rather than a strong first impression. If you prefer a bolder lemon taste, try swapping out a 1/2 tsp of the vanilla for lemon extract.

The original recipe called for 1 cup of almonds. I used only about 1/3 of a cup, so I adjusted the amount. You might find that you use slightly more or less than that. Let me know if you have a recipe that calls for 2/3 cup of ground almonds so I can use what's sitting on my counter.

I'm giving you just the English measure and the food processor directions. If you want metric or electric mixer directions, get the book!

Lemon Poppyseeds

1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
6 Tbsp poppyseeds
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup sugar
2 Tbsp finely grated lemon zest (3 medium lemons, 4 Meyer lemons)
1 cup unsalted butter
2 large egg yolks
2 tsp vanilla extract
1/3 cup blanched sliced almonds

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, poppyseeds, and salt.

In a food processor with the metal blade, process the sugar with the zest until the zest is very fine. Cut the butter into a few pieces and add it with the motor running. Process until it is smooth and creamy. Add the egg yolks and vanilla extract and process until incorporated, scraping the sides of the bowl. Add the flour mixture and pulse in, just until incorporated.

Scrape the dough into a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate it for at least 1 hour. Because of my schedule, I left mine in overnight.

In a food processor with the metal blade, process the almonds until very fine, almost to a powder, but not to "butter." Transfer the chopped nuts to a small bowl.

Place 2 oven racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven. Preheat oven to 350 deg.

Measure level Tablespoons of dough and roll them between the palms of your hands to form balls. Drop each dough ball, as soon as it is formed, into the nuts and shake the bowl to coast the ball with nuts. The heat from your hands will warm the dough up enough to make the nuts adhere. If you flour your hands before rolling the balls, the cookies will be rounder. If you don't, more almonds will adhere to the cookies to the cookies, but the cookies will be flatter, as in my picture.

Place the nut-covered balls on cookie sheets, 2 inches apart. Bake for 15 minutes or until the edges turn slightly golden. For even baking, rotate the cookie sheets from top to bottom and front to back halfway through the baking period.

Let the cookies sit on the sheets for about 2 minutes before removing to a cooling rack to finish cooling.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

When Life Gives You Lemons...

It's an interesting experience to wander through a bridal show. The various vendors vie for your attention with eye-catching displays of flowers, cakes, and photography. Some are original, some are cheesy, some are breath-taking, and all at prices that have a mother-of-the-bride muttering under her breath, "How much?? Are they kidding? That's your college education all over again. I don't think so!"

Recently my daughter and I attended a bridal expo. She was gathering specific information so we moved quickly through the booths picking up business cards and flyers. But as we approached the exit our momentum was abruptly halted. A caterer with a beautiful booth was giving out samples, a smart business tactic that none of the competitors were using. They had darling little herbed biscuits which were fine, but it was the lemonade that stopped us in our tracks. One sip and Sarah said, "Oh, mom, we've so got to have this at the wedding!"

Thus began my search for the perfect Basil Lemonade. An internet search yielded plenty of hits - all for the same recipe. I tried it and it wasn't quite what I'd remembered. Not very sweet and not particularly lemony. So I cobbled together a recipe from a couple of different sources and came up with this keeper. After cautiously tasting, the bride-to-be said, "Oh, yes, this is it!"

You can adjust the amount of sugar depending on how sweet you like your lemonade. My husband prefers a less sweet beverage, particularly on a hot day, so I made it with the less sugar amount. The result is a complex flavor that lets the lemon and basil mingle and dance on your tongue with just enough sweetness to make you say, "Another glass, please?"

Wedding Basil Lemonade

1 to 2 cups sugar
1-1/2 cups cold water (Use filtered water, not nasty tap water. You don't want your lemonade to taste of chlorine.)
1 Tbsp lemon zest in long strips (don't fret if they're not long strips, just don't chop the zest)
1 cup fresh basil leaves, loosely packed into measuring cup
1/2 cup lemon juice (I used 4 Meyer lemons)

Zest your lemons. It's worth investing in a zester if you don't own one. They're inexpensive, fun to use, and don't take up much space. After measuring your tablespoon of zest, save the remainder in a small zip-loc bag in the freezer. It keeps beautifully, and you never know when you'll need lemon zest. Although, as a teaser, if you're cooking along with me in the Week of Lemons, you will need the zest for tomorrow.

In a small saucepan over medium heat combine the sugar, water, and zest and bring to a simmer. Cook without stirring until the sugar dissolves and the syrup thickens slightly (about 5 minutes). Remove from heat and add the basil; let cool to room temperature.

While the syrup cools, juice the lemons. Strain the cooled syrup into a 2-quart pitcher and strain the lemon juice into the same pitcher. Add 7 cups cold, filtered water. Stir, then pour into ice-filled cups. If desired, garnish each cup with a small sprig of basil.

If there's any leftover, it can be stored in the refrigerator for a week. As if!

Lemon Chicken Tuesday

I'm not a big fan of frying food. Don't misunderstand that to mean that I don't like fried food, just that I don't like doing the frying. I hate the mess of grease spatters and the frustration of trying to maintain a constant oil temperature. Maybe I lack a Southern gene. Those fabulous, hospitable cooks in the South seem to have an ability (perhaps compulsion) to fry anything that looks remotely edible. Hence fried okra.

Because of this (the frustration, not the okra) I rarely make this dish, even though it is delicious. But since I'm doing a week of lemons, this seemed an appropriate addition. I love the tangy sauce and, when fried correctly, the outside of the chicken is crisp and the inside is moist and tender. It's wonderful served with rice and a side dish of crisp broccoli for color and texture complement. Oh, and health. Can you tell that vegetables are usually an afterthought at my house?

Lemon Chicken, Hunan Style - serves 6

(The picture doesn't show a how much a full recipe makes. I didn't think it would be photogenic having it all heaped up.)

4- 6 boneless skinless chicken breast halves (depending on the size of the chicken breasts. More for small breasts, fewer for larger breasts)
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup water
1 egg
2 Tbsp cornstarch
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 tsp salt
1 tsp soy sauce
1/4 tsp baking soda
Lemon Sauce (below)
1/2 lemon, thinly sliced

Heat oil (1 to 1-1/2 inches) to 360 degrees in a fry pan. Beat remaining ingredients except Lemon Sauce and lemon slices with hand beater until smooth. Dip chicken pieces one at a time into batter. Fry 2 pieces at a time into batter. Fry 2 pieces at a time until golden brown, turning once, about 7 minutes. Trying to fry too many pieces at once will lower the oil temp and will result in greasy, undercooked chicken. Euww. Drain on paper towels. Repeat with remaining chicken.

Cut chicken crosswise into 1/2 inch slices; arrange in single layer on heated platter. Keep warm. Prepare Lemon Sauce; pour over chicken. Garnish with lemon slices.

Lemon Sauce

1/2 cup water
1/2 tsp grated lemon peel
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup honey
1 Tbsp catsup
1/2 tsp instant chicken bouillon (1/2 a cube)
1/2 tsp salt
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 Tbsp cornstarch
1 Tbsp cold water

Heat 1/2 cup water, the lemon peel, lemon juice, honey, catsup, bouillon, salt and garlic to boiling. Mix cornstarch and 1 Tbsp water; stir into sauce. Cook and stir until thickened, about 30 seconds.

Tip: If you're having company over and don't want to greet them covered with grease, do the frying up to 24 hours ahead. Cover and refrigerate the chicken. To reheat, place the chicken on an ungreased cookie sheet in 400 degree oven until hot, 10 to 12 minutes. Cut crosswise into 1/2 inch slices.

Monday, April 2, 2007

A Week of Lemons

When your eyes are open to it, inspiration is all around you. Even at Costco. I know some people hate shopping at the huge, impersonal warehouse, but I love it. It's like a treasure hunt, never knowing what you'll find. Of course this attitude can lead to heart arrhythmia when it's time to check out, but I think it's important to stay open to the possibilities.

This past weekend I was innocently walking past the produce section and there it was. A 4 lb. clamshell of Meyer lemons. Now, I'd never even heard about Meyer lemons until a week ago when I read a blog extolling the virtues of Meyer lemons. I promptly put them in my cart and headed home, chuckling over my find. When I told my long-distance sister about them she said matter-of-factly, "Oh, yes, Meyer lemons are sweeter and less acidic. They're wonderful." Geeze, you'd think she could have let me in on the secret a few years ago!

Well, lemons in hand I was determined to make the most of the opportunity and not let any of them go to waste, hence the week of lemons. I have a full roster of lemon recipes to try out and blog about, all before the lemons go bad. If you'd like to bake along, head to Costco and grab a pack of Meyer lemons before they're all gone!

First up to bat is a wonderful cake, similar to a pound cake, but much moister. The slices are a perfect accompaniment to morning coffee or a lovely, sweet note on which to end dinner. I've been finding, though, that my family has no compunction about nibbling on it all day long. I adapted a recipe from Barefoot Contessa at Home and it was an easy, tasty way to start off Week of Lemons.

Lemon Yogurt Cake

1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 cup plain non-fat yogurt
1 cup sugar
3 extra-large eggs
2 tsp grated lemon zest (about 4 Meyer lemons)
1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/3 cup sugar

1 cup confectioners' sugar
2 Tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8-1/2 x 4-1/4 - 2-1/2 inch loaf pan. (Don't fret if it's not exactly that size. There's surprising variance between loaf pans, and if it's close to that, it will work.) Line the bottom with parchment paper. (Don't skip this step. It's the difference between a show-stopping dessert and a heap of crumbled cake.) Grease and flour the pan.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt into one small bowl. In a large bowl whisk together the yogurt, 1 cup sugar, the eggs, lemon zest, and vanilla. Slowly whisk the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients. With a rubber spatula, fold the vegetable oil into the batter, making sure it's all incorporated. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for about 50 minutes, or until a cake tester placed in the center of the loaf comes out clean. (Use the cake tester to avoid disappointment - you don't want your beautiful cake to drop in the center like a Florida sinkhole.)

Meanwhile, cook the 1/3 cup lemon juice and 1/3 cup sugar in a small pan until the sugar dissolves and the mixture is clear. Set aside.

When the cake is done, allow it to cool in the pan for 10 minutes. Place the cake in the pan on a cooling rack over a sheet pan and pour the lemon-sugar mixture over the cake and allow it to soak in. Run a knife around the edges of the cake to lift the cake away from the pan and allow the syrup to penetrate the sides. When all of the syrup has soaked in, take the cake out of the pan, remove the parchment paper from the bottom, and cool on the cooling rack. (I didn't use all the syrup. I had about 2 Tbsp left and just used that in the glaze.)

For the glaze, combine the confectioner's sugar and lemon juice and pour over the cake.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

A Quick Brag

Of the many things I'm known for (my full cookie jar, my weird sense of humor, my procrastination), my self-control is not one of them. Thus when I've got something exciting to tell I blurt it out, regardless of the time or situation. So even though this is a food blog, I've got to do a quick brag on my official photographer.

This month the cover of Seattle Sound magazine features a photo taken by none other than the fabulous Sarah Craig of Sarah Craig Photo.

Sarah is gifted in taking pictures of people (weddings, Sr. pics, family portraits, etc) and does the food photography for me as a gift of love. I'm dreading when she gets married and moves out. What will happen to my blog?? Oh sure, she gets a happy life, but you, gentle reader, will get stuck with sub-par food pictures. I guess we'll overcome that obstacle when we get to it. In the meantime, you'll be reading about lots of canapes, appetizers, and treats as we give trial runs to the wedding food.