Thursday, November 29, 2007

Une Affaire de L'estomac

My sister and I used to do a lot of jigsaw puzzles together. Since we had a limited number of puzzles we did the same ones over and over again and got pretty good at them. We learned that in the bird puzzle the one piece that was dark green and looked like feathers was actually a piece of a pine branch that the goldfinch was sitting on. And the one really red piece didn't go with the cardinal, it was the ruby-throated hummingbird's throat. We could throw together a 750 piece puzzle in an afternoon. Unless there was a missing piece. A missing piece messed everything up.

This happens to me in cooking a lot. Whether I knew I had nutmeg (but didn't) or have no idea what an ingredient is, let alone how to pronounce it to ask for it at the store, missing an ingredient is frustrating.

Recently, I saw a beautiful soup on Nook and Pantry that called, nay, sang to me. I like mushroom soup, but this one was promising a torrid love affair. It had chantarelles. Ooh la la, an affair with a French mushroom soup? Yes, the possibility stayed with me.

And then, just as I thought I'd overcome that temptation, it happened. Right there in Costco, in the chilly produce section. I didn't care that other people were watching. I went weak in the knees and succumbed to the package of fresh chantarelles. Throwing caution (and budget) to the wind, I picked up the chantarelles and the crimini's* next to it. I was making soup!

But then, when I got home and printed out the recipe, I hit a snag. A major snag. According to the recipe, her delicious soup owed it's flavor to dried porcini mushrooms. Argh! They didn't have those at Costco. Or Safeway. Or Trader Joe's. Or Whole Foods. I knew when I couldn't get it at Whole Foods, I was out of luck. I was even willing to pay Whole Paycheck prices, but they were out.

But I was determined now to have my soup. Those lovely mushrooms would not rot in my fridge for lack of porcinis. I turned to my trusted Splendid Soups and it did not fail me. The soup was breathtakingly beautiful and and slid over the tongue like a gossamer curtain of creamy mushroom flavor. My whole family inhaled it and made happy, contented noises. Aaaaaahhhhh. It was as satisfying as finding the missing puzzle piece and putting it in place to complete the picture.

Wild Mushroom Soup
adapted from Splendid Soups by James Peterson

1 medium-size onion, finely chopped
4 Tbsp unsalted butter
3 Tbsp all-purpose flour
1/2 cup dry sherry
1 quart chicken, vegetable or dried porcini broth
8 oz. fresh crimini mushrooms, rinsed and dried
8 oz. fresh chantarelles, carefully rinsed and dried
1 cup heavy cream
Good salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup heavy cream, lightly whipped

Prepare a velouté base by cooking the onion in butter in a 4-quart pot over medium heat, stirring almost continuously to prevent browning. When the onion turns translucent, after about 10 minutes, add the flour and stir over medium heat for 5 minutes more to cook out the starchy taste.

Add the sherry and broth, whisking the soup to get rid of any lumps, and bring it to a simmer. Simmer for 5 minutes.

Put the mushrooms in a blender and add 1 cup of the hot soup base. Blend the mushrooms on high speed for about 2 minutes, adding a little more soup base if necessary to get them moving, and blend till smooth.

Put a strainer over the pot and pour the contents of the blender through it into the pot with the rest of the base. Add the cream. If you want the soup perfectly smooth, strain it through a medium- or fine-mesh strainer. Bring the soup back to a simmer and season it with salt and pepper. Ladle it into hot bowls and put a dollop of whipped cream on each serving.

Serves 8

* Criminis are actually baby Portabello mushrooms. It's just size and marketing that separate them. Interesting, no?

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Living Rubies

I'm a sucker for children's books. I love picture books, story books and kids' adventure books. When my to-be-husband met me in college he was mystified by my collection of children's books. It wasn't like I had any kids. I told him they were for my some-day kids, but the truth is, they were for me.

One of my all time favorite series is the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. If I were forced at knifepoint to pick a favorite out of that series, it would probably be The Silver Chair. It has plucky children, a comic foil, giants, a quest, near misses, a serpent, and a prince held under enchantment. Toward the end of the book, when the prince is released from the spell and is trying to escape from the underground cavern in which he's been held, a chasm opens up leading to the deep land of Bism. One of the creatures from that land tempts the prince into joining him there saying that the jewels there are alive. You can bite into them and they're juicy, unlike the cold, hard, dead jewels we scratch out of the surface of the earth.

When I had my first pomegranate, I figured that this was what C.S. Lewis had in mind when he wrote that. The sparkling seeds are like living rubies, spraying ruby red juice when squeezed. I always feel like a Bism princess when I eat a pomegranate.

Last year my daughter fell in love with pomegranates. Every time we saw one in the store she'd beg for one (hey, it's better than begging for Twinkies) and I'd usually give in. So when I told her she could pick which dish for me to make first from my new Nigella Express cookbook, it was a no-brainer. Pink and perfectly delicious - No-Churn Pomegranate Ice Cream.

This ice cream is so easy that anyone can make it. No ice cream maker required (sighs of relief from everyone who complained over my summer-long ice cream making spree that they had no ice cream maker), only 4 ingredients, and it tastes heavenly! As the first bite slides over your tongue you taste pure, fresh pomegranate flavor and then you feel the silky cream. Beautiful enough to wow company, simple enough to indulge yourself anytime.

No-Churn Pomegranate Ice Cream
adapted from Nigella Express

1 large pomegranate or 2 small ones
1 lime- juiced
1-1/2 cups powdered sugar
2 cups heavy cream

1- Place about 3/4 of the pomegranate seeds into a sieve placed over a bowl. Reserve the rest of the seeds in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. Using a spoon or your hand, crush the seeds down to release their juices. Then pick up handfuls of the seeds and squeeze them to get every last drop of juice. You'll have a pile of sad, used seeds to throw away and approximately 3/4 cup of pomegranate juice.

2- Add the lime juice to the bowl through the sieve.

3- Add the powdered sugar and whisk to dissolve.

4- Whisk in the cream and keep whisking until soft peaks form in the dainty pink cream.

5- Spoon and smooth the ice cream into a rigid plastic container with a tight-fitting lid, about 32 oz. size. Freeze for at least 4 hours or overnight. Scatter the reserved pomegranate seeds over the top when you serve it.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Change Is Good

I am all for traditions. Traditions comfort us. They anchor us. They are a structure around which to build our lives. But sometimes the structure can be a little claustrophobic. And then it's time to break out, shake things up, and try something new.

If you've been keeping track, you might have noticed that I missed posting a pie for Pie Day last week. I did make a pie, but I held off posting it on purpose. This pie hasgot such lovely flavors that say fall and Thanksgiving to me that I wanted to share it with you in case you needed to take a break from pumpkin, apple, or whatever your standard Thanksgiving pie is. And if it's not Thanksgiving time for you, feel free to indulge just because it's a fabulous pie!

Mix together a pecan pie, a cheesecake, and caramel and what have you got? A diet busting, too good to pass up, amazing pie. I made it, fully intending to take pictures and then give the rest away. Of course, the photo shoot piece had to be eaten. And then since the pie was there, it turned into dessert for the family. Half of it was gone. Still determined not to have it hanging around I called a neighbor to ask if she wanted some. By the time she got back to me the next day, my family had whittled it down to a nub in the pie pan. So much for watching calories. We watch them. Then we eat them. But it was worth the splurge!

Caramel-Pecan Cheesecake Pie

1 (8-oz) pkg cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup sugar
4 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 unbaked pie shell (9 inches)
1-1/4 cups coarsely chopped pecans
1 cup caramel ice cream topping*

Preheat oven to 375 deg. F.

In a small bowl, beat the cream cheese, sugar, 1 egg, and vanilla until smooth. Spread this into the pastry shell and sprinkle with the pecans.

In a small bowl whisk remaining eggs; gradually whisk in the caramel topping until blended. Pour over pecans.

Bake in preheated oven for 35 to 40 minutes or until lightly browned. Place foil on top after 20 minutes if pie is browning too quickly.

Cool on a wire rack for 1 hour. Refrigerate for 4 hours or overnight before slicing. Refrigerate leftovers.

* I didn't have any caramel ice cream topping, but I did have leftover wrapped caramels from making caramel apples. I put about 16 in a glass measure with 1/4 milk and microwaved on low heat, stirring frequently until the caramel was all dissolved.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

I Met Nigellla!

It's said that some people are motivated by money, some by love, and some by recognition. I love prizes. It doesn't even really matter what the prize is; I just love winning something.

When I was told that I had won the recipe contest I was thrilled that I had won. After all, a free cookbook is a free cookbook. That I got to get it personally signed was not a big deal to me.

The day of the book signing my husband, two little kids and I arrived about 20 minutes early and I was puzzled to see that the lower floor of the bookstore where the signing was to take place was filled with people. What was the crowd for? Surely they weren't all there to buy a cookbook and get it signed.

The source of my mystification? I'd never really heard of Nigella Lawson. I might have looked at one of her cookbooks in the library and seen some of her recipes blogged, but to me she was someone who wrote cookbooks. Sound strange? Here's the explanation. We are possibly the last family in the country to not have cable television. Don't need it, don't want it. But this means that I'm woefully out of touch with the celebrechef culture. No Food Network. No "Bam!" No Italian cleavage. And no Nigella.

But once Nigella was introduced and began to speak, I got it. I understood the crowd who adored her. First of all, she's gorgeous. She looks like a 1950's movie star. And she's got a beautiful speaking voice. And she's articulate and funny. Oh, and she does some cooking, too.

I loved how she championed the home cook, saying that chefs were making it an intimidating thing to put dinner on the table. She did a Q & A and told her favorite books (David Copperfield and Persuasion), related some anecdotes from her show, and talked about her writing schedule. I thought something her late husband told her was profound - that the ritual of putting off writing is part of the writing process. It allows thoughts to percolate so that when you sit down to write everything flows.

After she spoke the bookstore had the three contest winners come up and we all got swag. Not just a whisk or something, but seriously good swag! Check out the pictures below to see what treats I got to bring home. My son was so excited that I got a prize with a bow; he wanted to open it right away.

The winners then got to be at the head of the line to get our books signed. Nigella was very gracious and kind as she signed, asking which recipe was mine and commenting on it. I can see why people love her.

My daughter and I pored over the cookbook together. I let her pick what I'm going to make first from it (I'm not telling, except to say that it's pink). It's starting to bristle with bookmarks, just like all my favorite cookbooks.

This is my first Nigella cookbook, but I doubt it will be my last!

Friday, November 16, 2007

Olive a Good Loaf

I may have conquered my fear of yeast, but I definitely have miles to go into the realm of breadmaking. Man cannot live by white bread alone; not when there are artisan breads, sourdough breads, and regional specialities to try.

It was a treat for me this summer to get together with Peabody and Tanna for lunch. What fun it was to sit and talk food and blogging with two such awesome ladies! Peabody, besides being cute, smart, and funny, is an awesome baker. If you've ever been to her site, you know you need to bring a drool bucket along to read her blog.

Tanna is wonderful, as well. She's travelled around the globe, making friends, baking, and sharing life. Plus she is a bread guru. After meeting her I began e-mailing her questions about sourdough. I've had sketchy success with sourdough starter. She kindly answered my questions and sent information. I checked out a stack of breadmaking cookbooks from the library and was confounded that each and every one of them had a different recipe for starter. Tanna shared her words of wisdom with me - find one that works. Then she sent me pictures of her starter. Holy smokes! It had blown it's top and was trying to climb out of the jar. Mine sat sluggishly on the counter like a teenager lounging on the couch in front of the TV.

I was so impressed with her starter that I sent her a recipe I'd been trying. She promptly whipped up a lovely loaf and sent me the pictures, saying we should both post our loaves. I made a loaf and, oh baby, was it sad and ugly. My daughter took one look at the pathetic, squashed ring and said, "It looks like road kill!"

I think my starter needs something. A pep talk. A swift kick in the patootie. Or just to start over again. The recipe says to let the dough rise for 3 hours, or till doubled. I put mine in the lightly warmed oven. Three hours later it had just lay there, so relaxed it was a puddle. I closed the oven and then forgot about it till I went to preheat the oven for dinner two hours later. Good thing I checked first! The dough had risen enough that I called it doubled.

After I popped dinner in the oven I put together the olive loaf. The dough was all limp and floppy, as if I'd kneaded Valium into it instead of flour. I formed the ring, put it on the baking sheet and left it to rise inside it's plastic bag tent overnight.

When I got up in the morning I was faced with a puddle of "dough" with olives poking out. Not at all promising. Not at all like the pictures in the cookbook. Where they optimistically said to slash the dough, I dragged a knife back and forth across the goo. But I popped it into the steamy oven, hoping, if not for the best, at least for something edible.

The instructions said to cook 8-15 minutes. At 8 minutes I checked and the edges were already burned. Wow, what a winner of a loaf this was! Flat, dark, and lumpy, but....once cooled and served with dipping oil and balsamic vinegar, strangely moreish. Once we got over the fact that this was never going to be a runway model for King Arthur's fall collection, we gobbled the whole thing in under a day.

So, take heart, wary bread bakers, even with wimpy starter and pathetic dough, you can still get an edible loaf.

Olive and Thyme Bread
(aka Roadkill Loaf)
adapted from Bread from sourdough to rye by Linda Collister

1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3 Tbsp fine whole-wheat flour
1 tsp sea salt
2/3 cup sourdough starter
about 2/3 cup tepid water
scant 1 cup good quality black olives, such as kalamata or nicoise, pitted
2 tsp fresh thyme leaves, stripped from the stalks

1- Put the flours and salt in a large bowl and mix. (I added 1/4 tsp yeast at this point.)

2- Make a well in the center and add the starter and water.

3- Work the starter and water together with your hands to make a soupy mixture, then gradually work in the flour to make a slightly soft dough. Depending on the consistency of the starter, you may need to work in a little extra white flour or water.

4- Turn out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead for 10 minutes until very pliable and smooth.

5- Return the dough to the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm spot until doubled in size, about 3 hours depending on the vigor of the starter.

6- Punch down the risen dough a couple of times to deflate, or turn it out onto a lightly floured work surface before punching down.

7- Using your knuckles, gently pat the dough into a narrow rectangle about 16 inches long.

8- Sprinkle the olives and thyme down the middle of the dough.

9- Fold over the sides to enclose the filling.

10- Pinch the seam to seal in the filling, then gently roll the dough with your hands to make a sausage about 2 feet long.

11- Carefully lift the dough onto a greased baking sheet and shape it into a ring, joining the ends. Slip the sheet into a large plastic bag, slightly inflate, close securely (clip), then let rise in a warm spot until doubled in size, about 2 hours.

Meanwhile preheat the oven to its maximum setting, and put a roasting pan of water in the bottom to create a steamy atmosphere.

12- Uncover the ring and slash lightly with a sharp knife or razor blade. Put into the hot oven and, if possible, spray with water to increase the steam.

Bake until the loaf is a very good brown, very crisp, and sounds hollow when tapped underneath, 8-15 minutes depending on your oven. Cool on a wire rack. Eat warm within 24 hours.

This is excellent for dipping in olive oil and balsamic vinegar!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Pumpkin Paradise

I've never been a big fan of squash. In my childhood my mother fought an uphill battle to try to get me to eat healthy foods. Cooked carrots, broccoli, and cauliflower were all pushed around the plate but never actually consumed. With acorn squash she tried the classic strategy - cut in half, scoop out seeds, fill the hollow with butter and brown sugar, and bake. I loved that. At least the butter and brown sugar part. When I got to the squash that wasn't saturated with the gooey topping, I lost interest.

Once she even served spaghetti squash, telling us that it was just like spaghetti. Lie! Squash and pasta are nothing like each other. And putting spaghetti sauce on squash doesn't make it spaghetti any more than putting on lipstick and a blond wig makes me Marilyn Monroe.

I considered pumpkins as something to be carved for Halloween or made into pie for Thanksgiving. Anything else was just too...squashy tasting. My sister adores anything pumpkin flavored and I always thought this odd. I'd pass on any recipe to her that had pumpkin - pumpkin cheesecake, pumpkin ice cream, pumpkin soup, pumpkin kabobs (wait, sorry, just having a Forrest Gump moment there)- and she'd be thrilled.

I'm not sure what changed it for me, but I have a sneaking suspicion it was looking at all the food blogs parading out pumpkin delicacies, each more enticing than the last. I gave in to the urge for pumpkin and made a pumpkin spice cake for my daughter's birthday. Well, that meant that I had leftover pumpkin. What a happy dilemma - what to choose, what to bake?

I succumbed on the same day to two different recipes. One was Peabody's beautiful Pumpkin Brioche. I saw it first on her blog, then I saw it pop up on Melinda's Online Diary, and I knew I had to have it. I made 2 large loaves and two baby loaves, fully intending to share a lot of it. Only one baby loaf made it out the door. We gobbled up one loaf and the next morning made divine French toast with the cinnamon swirl loaf. Yumm.

I'm not going to give you the recipe or directions as they're all on Peabody's site. She gives really clear, step-by-step directions so that even a novice brioche maker like me, can have a beautiful result. Thanks, Peabody!

Peabody recently bought a new house and is having a virtual open house. All invited! (It's a good thing she's got a huge virtual living room.) I am bringing these beautiful Pumpkin Streusel rolls. They are so delicious - light, flaky, not too sweet, with just overtones of pumpkin. I have had this recipe bookmarked for a long time in my Cooking Light cookbook, and this is the perfect occasion to showcase them.

Pumpkin-Cinnamon Streusel Buns
adapted from The Best of Cooking Light

1 package dry yeast (about 2-1/4 tsp)
1/4 cup warm water (100 to 110 deg. F)
3-3/4 cups all-purpose flour, divided
1/2 cup canned pumpkin
1/2 cup 1% milk
1/4 cup butter, melted
1 Tbsp granulated sugar
1-1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
3 Tbsp granulated sugar
3 Tbsp brown sugar
2 Tbsp all-purpose flour
1-1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
2 Tbsp chilled butter, cut into small pieces

3/4 cup sifted powdered sugar
1 Tbsp hot water
1/4 tsp vanilla extract

1- Dissolve yeast in warm water in a large bowl, and let stand for 5 minutes. Lightly spoon 3-1/4 cups flour into dry measuring cups, and level with a knife. Add 3 cups flour, canned pumpkin, and next 5 ingredients to yeast mixture, and beat with a mixer at medium speed until smooth. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface. Knead the dough until smooth and elastic (about 10 minutes) and add enough of the remaining flour, 1 Tbsp at a time to prevent the dough from sticking to hands. The dough will feel sticky.

2- Place dough in a large bowl coated with cooking spray turning to coat top. Cover and let rise in a warm place (85 deg. F), free from drafts, 45 minutes or until dough is doubled in size. (To test readiness, press two fingers into the dough. If the indentation remains, the dough has risen enough.)

3- Combine 3 Tbsp granulated sugar, brown sugar, 2 Tbsp flour, and ground cinnamon in a small bowl. Cut in chilled butter pieces with a pastry blender or 2 knives until mixture resembles coarse meal.

4- Punch dough down, cover and let rest 5 minutes. On a floured surface roll the dough into a 12 x 10-inch rectangle. Sprinkle with brown sugar mixture. Roll up rectangle tightly starting with a long edge, pressing firmly to eliminate air pockets. Pinch seam and ends to seal. Cut roll into 12 (1-inch) slices. Place the slices in a 11x7 or 9x13-inch pan coated with cooking spray. Cover and let rise for 25 minutes or until doubled in size.

5- Preheat oven to 375 deg. F.

6- Bake for 20 minutes or until golden. Cool 15 minutes in pan on a wire rack.

7- Combine powdered sugar, 1 Tbsp water and vanilla in a small bowl, stirring with a whisk until smooth. Drizzle glaze over buns. Serve warm. If, for some reason, not all the buns are consumed while warm, about 10 seconds in the microwave will make a bun warm and soft.

Yield: 12 buns

Monday, November 12, 2007

Don't Fear the Yeast

The first time I ever attempted yeast bread was in 9th grade home economics. We were given a demonstration and then sent home with the recipe and instructed to make the bread entirely by ourselves and come back to the next class with our loaves for grading. I was a good student who always did her homework so I started my bread as soon as I got home from school.

My mother gave me permission to use the kitchen, except her loaf pans were already in use. But she did have mini loaf pans available. That was fine. I was already learning to be flexible, an invaluable survival trait for baking.

Then I remembered that I was scheduled to babysit that evening. The mother for whom I sat regularly had no problem with me bringing homework along. In fact, I think she would have been OK with just about anything so long as she got out of the house. When I asked if I could bring along my baby bread loaves and bake them in her oven, she happily said yes.

So, I set my little loaves out to finish rising. In between bathing the little girl and getting her into bed, I stuck the loaves into the oven and set the timer. Do you see where this is going? Unfamiliar oven, transported loaves, and not knowing that you should alter the baking time for mini loaves. Yes, I had 6 charred bricks.

I took the least blackened loaf, tried to scrape off the especially burnt bits and handed it in for a very bad grade. Oh, woe is me! My teacher was sympathetic to my plight, but sympathy won't leaven a dense, black, loaf that's more weapon than foodstuff.

This bad start to breadmaking put me off further attempts until after I was married. Many years and much baking later I have now conquered my fear of yeast and have many a fine loaf of bread under my belt. (No, no, don't look - that's not polite!). But I am still searching for the perfect loaf. One that doesn't require 3 days to make. One that is reliable. And one that is delicious.

In my quest for the perfect loaf I'll try new recipes, use them for a while, and then tire of them. I'm still looking for the perfect recipe, but in the meantime, this one is pretty darn good. Tall, snowy loaves, easy to make, and a consistency that's good for toast, sandwiches, and just happy eating. And I love that it makes two loaves as my family will inhale a loaf of bread fresh from the oven and then say in an unhappy, bewildered voice, "Where's the bread? I can't make a sandwich without bread."

One of the most important aspects to yeast breadmaking is to treat your yeast with TLC (tender loving care). Be sure your yeast is not too old (check the date on the package, if that's how you buy your yeast. I buy mine in bulk because I go through a lot of yeast and I store it airtight in the refrigerator), as this will also adversely affect the happiness of the yeast. Old yeast gets tired and doesn't do the job. Yeast is fussy about three things: temperature, moisture, and it's food. To wake it up from it's slumber, you need to give it a warm bath (not too hot, not too cold) and then a snack. When it's tub is bubbly, you're good to go!

Honey White Bread
adapted from Barefoot Contessa at Home

1/2 cup warm water (110 degrees F.- use a thermometer to check until you're familiar with what this feels like)
2 packages dry yeast
1 tsp sugar
1-1/2 cups warm whole milk (110 degrees F.)
6 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1-1/2 Tbsp honey
2 extra-large egg yolks
5 to 6 cups all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp kosher salt
1 egg white, lightly beaten

Place the water in the bowl of an electric mixer with the paddle attachment in place. If the bowl is cold, be sure the water temperature doesn't drop below 110 degrees. Add the yeast and sugar; stir and allow to dissolve for 5 minutes. You should see bubbles forming on the surface at this point.

Add the milk, butter, and honey. Mix on medium speed until blended. Add the egg yolks, 3 cups of the flour, and the salt. Mix on low speed for about 5 minutes. With the mixer still on low speed, add 2 more cups of flour. Raise the speed to medium and slowly add just enough of the remaining flour so the dough doesn't stick to the bowl. When the dough forms a ball that comes away from the bowl, switch to the dough hook attachment. Knead on medium speed for about 8 minutes, adding flour slowly as necessary.

Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead by hand for a minute, until the dough is smooth and elastic. Grease a bowl with butter, put the dough in the bowl, then turn it over so the top is lightly buttered. Cover the bowl with a damp towel and allow it to rise for 1 hour, until doubled in volume.

Grease two 9 x 5-inch loaf pans with butter. Divide the dough in half, roll each half into a rectangle as wide as your loaf pan and twice as long. Roll it up into a log the width of your bread pan, and pulling just a bit so that you don't get big air bubbles inside. Pinch together the ends and edges. Place each seam side down, in a prepared pan. Cover again with the damp towel and allow to rise again for an hour, until doubled in volume.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. When the dough is ready, brush the tops with the egg white and bake the breads for 40 to 45 minutes, until they sound hollow when tapped. Turn them out of the pans and cool completely on a wire rack before slicing. You may need a sharp bread knife to keep hungry family at bay while it cools. Or just give in and have raggedy pieces of bread, dripping with butter. That's not such a bad thing, either.

Friday, November 9, 2007


Did you hear that? Listen closely. Clickety-clack, tippity-tap. That's the sound of me tap-dancing for joy.

Why, you ask? Because I won, I won! I say that twice, because I won twice. And I'm so excited I can hardly sit still long enough to type this up.

Today I checked out one of my favorite blogs, Steamy Kitchen, and she listed the winner's of her vanilla bean give-away. I scrolled through the list to see if anyone I knew had one and, wow, that's my name there! I won! Thank you, thank you, Jaden. I will make many delicious vanilla treats and send vanilla scented blessings your way each time I bake.

Also, before I left for my trip in September I entered a contest in our local newspaper. I e-mailed in my entry, not expecting much, but just doing it for the fun of participating. I was blown away to receive an e-mail informing me that I was one of three winners! I won a copy of Nigella Lawson's new book, Nigella Express, a ticket to glide to the front of the line for a book signing, a bag of goodies, plus my recipe in the newspaper. Woo hoo!

Do I tell you all this to toot my own horn? Well....yes. But also to say how great it is to be involved in food blogging. Good things come to those who blog. So, if you've been lacking motivation, wondering why you started a blog, and why you should continue (yes, you know who you are), take heart and count all the blessings there are in the food blogging world. Great people, help with your menu planning, opportunities to stretch yourself and improve your skills, stories that make you smile, and every once in a while, prizes!

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Unbirthday Surprise

One of the definite advantages of having a birthday during the non-summer months is that your friends are around to help you celebrate. Whether it's cupcakes in pre-school or the whole class singing the happy birthday song to you, there's a lot of attention to make you feel special on your special day.

In my jr. high (yes, that makes me an old timer - they're now called middle schools), there was a fun tradition for birthdays. Even though the administration lectured strictly about never giving out your locker combination, of course you shared it with your best friends. How else could they get in to borrow a hairbrush, lip gloss, feminine products, or, weirdly enough, a textbook?

Armed with the locker combination it was the job of the close circle of friends to decorate the birthday girl's locker on her day. They'd come to school early and stuff her locker to the brim with balloons, candy, and a banner, so when she opened her locker, it would all spill out and her everyone around her would yell, "Happy Birthday!"

I was always envious of these lucky birthday celebrities because, having a summer birthday, I knew that would never be my lot in life. Sunny birthdays - yes; birthday lockers- no.

Recently I saw a post about fabulous apple pie on Melinda's Online Diary. She used a recipe from Dorie Greenspan's Baking (so I knew it had to be good!), but added quince cheese, something I'd never heard of. I left a comment asking if substituting tart apples would be OK. When she wrote back and asked for my address I had a sneaking suspicion that she was going to send me some quince cheese. Imagine someone so nice they'd send me some quince cheese just so I could make apple pie!

About a week later a box arrived. Not just quince cheese but a whole cornucopia of treats! I felt like I'd opened my birthday locker as all the wonderful gifts tumbled out onto my lap! I was surprised and overwhelmed at Melinda's generosity and thoughtfulness. Thank you, sweetie!

So, for this week's Pie Day, I had, of course, to take a shot at Melinda and Dorie's Apple and Quince Pie. It is delicious. If you want pie heaven, have a slice of this pie. Seriously.

Dorie's crust is tender and flaky and, if you follow her instructions for chill, chill, chill, it's easy to work with. I figured out why my old piecrust recipe always had me cursing and pulling my hair out. It didn't make enough. I'd have to roll it wafer thin to get it large enough to fill the pie plate and it would invariably tear, making me shriek out curses on the foul dough. Dorie's recipe yields a generous amount so you have enough to work with, plus extras if you want to get fancy and put cut-outs on your pie (I was not that fancy). Right now I have a small ball of dough in the refrigerator that I promised my daughter she could have for making her own tiny pie.

I've never had quince, so I didn't have a clue what quince cheese would be like. My daughter says it smells like apricots. It isn't a dairy cheese, but rather quince, lemon and sugar, adding a delightful, piquant zip to the pie mixture.

Because I'm lazy, I'll let you find the crust recipe on your own (Just buy the book. It's awesome and you need it. Trust me.) but I'll give you the recipe for the filling, with Melinda's adaptation.

Melinda and Dorie's Apple and Quince Pie

1 recipe Pie dough for double crust, chilled
4 lbs (about 6 very large) apples - I used 7
3/4 cup sugar
Grated zest of 1 lemon
2 Tbsp quick-cooking tapioca
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/8-1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 round quince cheese (optional)
2 Tbsp graham cracker crumbs (or dry bread crumbs)
2 Tbsp cold unsalted butter, cut into bits

For the glaze (optional):

Milk or heavy cream
Decorating or granulated sugar

1- Peel, core, and thinly slice the apples. I use this tool to streamline the job and the kids love to help.

2- In a large bowl toss together the apple slices with the sugar, lemon zest, tapioca, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt.

3- If using the quince cheese, nuke it for about 45 seconds in the microwave to soften it then add it into the apple mixture. Cover and let the mixture sit. Depending on your schedule you can let this sit as little as 5 minutes, or overnight. The quince seems to keep the apples from browning.

4- Pour off the accumulated juices into a small saucepan. Boil for about 3-5 minutes to thicken, then let cool completely.

5- Butter a 9-inch deep dish pie plate. Preheat the oven to 425 deg. F.

6- Roll out half of the pie dough and lift it into the pie pan. Cover this with plastic wrap and set in the refrigerator while you roll out the other half of the dough.

7- Place the pie pan on a baking sheet. Sprinkle the graham cracker crumbs on the bottom of the crust and put the sliced apple mixture into the crust. Pat them into an even mound. Dot the apples with the bits of cold butter. Pour the cooled apple juices from the saucepan over the apple mound.

8- Lightly moisten the rim of the bottom crust with water and then place the top crust over the apples. Seal the edges by pinching or by pressing with a fork, trimming off the excess crust.

9- Using a sharp knife, cut 6 slits in the top crust. You can add cut-outs from the excess pie dough to fancy it up.

10- If desired, brush the top crust with a little milk or cream and sprinkle it with sugar. I used turbinado sugar and my pie came out looking freckled.

11- Bake pie for 15 minutes then lower the oven temperature to 375 deg. F. and bake the pie for another 50 to 60 minutes, or until the crust is gorgeously browned and the juices bubble up through the top crust. After about 40 minutes, if the crust looks like it's browning too quickly, cover the pie loosely with a foil tent.

12- Transfer the pie to a rack and let it rest until it is only just warm or until it reaches room temperature.

The most difficult part of making this pie is keeping hungry people from cutting into it while it's hot. It smells divine, but if you cut it fresh from the oven, you'll have a soupy mess. Let it cool and you'll be able to cut beautiful pie slices.

(If you'd like to make your own quince cheese, try this link.)

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Another Birthday

My daughter just had a birthday. We all feel sorry for her. She can't help it that her birthday's wrong. Really, birthdays are supposed to be in the summer so you can have pool parties. Despite being born in the wrong (non-summer) season, she is a trooper and manages to have a good attitude about it.

This year we took her to the zoo for her birthday. As we walked across the parking lot, bundled up in coats, scarves, and gloves, she pointed out that as members in the non-summer, we got to park for free. Score! A savings of $4 right there just for having her birthday in November.

Another bonus of having a November birthday is this cake. When considering the options for her birthday cake there was the usual chocolate versus white debate. Then I happened upon a this wonderful cake on Peabody's site. Pumpkin spice cake? Oh yes!

And then I saw these beautiful cupcakes on Nook and Pantry. Maple cream cheese frosting? Oh, drool!

Combine the two fabulous fall flavor sensations and we had the perfect November birthday cake. I doubled the recipe that Peabody used so I had two 9-inch layers. I slathered the butterscotch walnut filling between them (yum, yum). For the frosting I wanted to be sure I had enough for a large cake so I cobbled together a recipe from various cookbooks.

Next time I make the frosting I think I'll leave out the butter. It didn't need it for taste, quantity, or consistency. I wanted a full maple flavor to the frosting and as I added the maple syrup (real maple syrup, so it was rather runny), it got softer and softer. I stopped adding maple syrup and dumped in some maple flavoring. If you wanted to play with amounts, you could probably make it wonderfully without the maple flavoring. I'll give you the recipe as I made it.

Maple Cream Cheese Frosting

1- 8 oz brick of cream cheese at room temperature
1/4 lb (1 stick) of unsalted butter at room temp.
16 oz (about 4 cups) of confectioners' sugar
2 Tbsp maple syrup
1/4 tsp maple flavoring

With an electric mixer cream together the cream cheese and butter. Add the sugar and carefully beat it in so you don't get a cloud of powdered sugar. I like to start this with a wooden spoon and once the sugar is mostly incorporated, use the mixer to cream it together. Add maple syrup and / or flavoring to taste. To achieve desired consistency, you may need to add a bit more powdered sugar. The frosting will firm up when it's chilled.

To assemble the cake, spread filling over the bottom layer, place the other layer on top, then frost the top and sides. I finished it with fall sprinkles and piped an edge around the top. The frosting was quite soft, though, so I had to hastily pop it into the fridge to chill before the piping slid off the edge.