April 30, 2010

Easy Bake cOven - Traditional French Desserts

This month's recipes were chosen by Rebecca, who I'm sure would pack up at any moment and move to France if she thought it at all possible. That said, French desserts are at the top of her list (especially since she has an abnormal disorder... not liking cake) and she chose two to try this month. 

The first, a Clafoutis, which is kind of similar to a dense sponge cake with a layer of berries on the bottom. I made it for a group of friends we were having dinner with this week. I had not planned on making both of the desserts but I had everything on hand to make this the night before our dinner. 

The Clafoutis is very simple to throw together. Thanks to the food processor (or blender) all you really have to do is some measuring and press a button. I'm pretty sure this dessert might be great for all of those people who say repeatedly, "I can't bake..." so if this sounds like you, give it a try. Your friends will enjoy it. We enjoyed it topped with a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream. yum. 

I'm not sure how, but this week ended up being incredibly busy. Except for Monday and Friday, we had something planned. I wanted to make the Fruit Tart for Rebecca's birthday (since she hates cake remember) and I had a time crisis. I sat on the couch Monday night feeling like I might not have time for the tart after our dinner Tuesday night. Something about baking for purpose - for someone - must send me into overdrive because I was able to make a bunch of little Tartlettes for her happy hour celebration. Yes, it would have been much easier for me to make one large tart, but bringing a tart to a bar and slicing it up... and serving it on flimsy paper plates did not sound appealing. Two bite morsels were more appropriate for the situation. 

They turned out incredibly cute (the tiny tarts with two blueberries and one strawberry looked a lot like duck faces) and increased my biceps. So much whisking... my arm... and wrist... almost fell off. It may have been better if they had. All wimpy-ness aside, the pastry cream turned out like it should. Much better than my first attempt at lemon pastry cream about a year ago that killed my food processor. These tartlettes are perfect for a party, and if you have the time you can make everything in advance and assemble just before serving. 

Thanks for choosing a few great recipes Rebecca. Looking forward to next months recipes. Check out the cOven monthly post for the recipes and other posts this month. 

April 26, 2010

The Lovely Lady Baker Cooks Mussels

Since I haven't had a lot of time to bake, I thought I'd share a quick and simple dinner with you. I mentioned in my last post that I wanted to be more active in preparing dinner - mostly by planning a meal based on a recipe; not planning a meal based on what ingredients we found in the fridge/freezer. I'm not saying there is anything wrong with making a meal from the fridge (M and I do this all of the time), I just need more structure. 

Baking is methodical, and when you follow the list of ingredients and mix them in the proper order, you usually achieve good results. This is what boggles my mind about cooking. It seems more intuitive, especially for M, to throw some things together and end up with a pretty decent meal. I have a hard time tossing a little of this and that in the pan and end up relying on prayers that it will taste more than ok. I want to make dinner that is good or even fantastic, and to achieve this level I need recipes. If you are one of those cooks who can toss 5 ingredients into a pot and it resembles something from the French Laundry afterwards, please come over anytime you want and experiment away in my kitchen. 

I picked Mussels for a few reasons: they are fairly cheap at Whole Foods, you get an extra handful after they weight them (in case they die in transit), they are easy to cook, and M really likes them (especially the Mussels from Garçon restaurant). I did a little reading and found the best method for cooking them, and found a recipe (or 6) on the interweb that I based my own recipe on. Inspired by a chef from the Food Network tv show, The Best Thing I Ever Ate, I wanted to try Mussels with White Wine and Saffron Sauce. I knew we had all of the necessary ingredients on hand and all I bought was a french baguette and a bottle of cheap white wine (granted our "cheap" wine here is actually decent). 

The method is simple: saute some onion in butter, add garlic, add wine and saffron, add mussels and steam, remove mussels, add cooked and drained pasta, serve garnished with parsley. I forgot to add the parsley when we ate it for dinner. oops. All together it takes less than 15 minutes to make. It would be really easy to make this for one person or a group - no one says you have to buy a significant amount of mussels at the grocery store, so go ahead and buy six or seven or ten. A quarter pound is a very decent portion of Mussels for one person, and at 6$ per pound it doesn't break the bank. Make sure your mussels are alive. I felt a little bad when I tossed them in the pan to steam since they really are living when you cook them. (The way you can tell is if you give a sharp tap on the shell - they should close - if not they are dead and probably not the best to eat.) At least they don't hiss or squeal when you cook them.

Mussels are in the middle of the list when it comes to seafood (ranking at the top are scallops and crab). Cooking them well is key. Don't overdo it. No one likes a chewy Mussel. 

Mussels in White Wine Saffron Sauce
serves 2

1/2 lb Mussels rinsed
3/4 inch round grab of fettucini 
2 T butter
1/2 C chopped onion
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper
1/4 C white wine (plus more later)
pinch of saffron threads
salt and pepper
2 cloves garlic
1 T chopped fresh parsley

Cook pasta to al dente. Heat butter in a medium skillet. Add onion and saute over medium heat until tender, about 2 minutes. Add red pepper and garlic and continue to cook for another couple minutes. Meanwhile, add wine to a small dish and heat in the microwave. Add the saffron threads to this and let sit. Add about 1/3 C wine to the onion and garlic and bring to a simmer. Add the mussels all at once and cover. Steam for 3 minutes. Add the saffron and wine and cover. Shake the pan around and continue cooking for a total of 7-8 minutes. Remove the mussels with a slotted spoon. By this time your pasta should be done, drain and add to the wine/butter/onion sauce. Stir to coat. Season with salt and pepper. Serve in wide mouth bowls topped with the mussels and garnish with parsley. You could also add some lemon zest or parmigiano reggiano cheese, but I enjoyed the simplicity of this meal without lemon or cheese.  

April 19, 2010

My Favorite Cookbooks

It has been a long time since my last post. I'm sad to say I haven't had much time in the past week to bake. Work took over my free time this past week (deadline this morning) and thankfully I'm done. I need baking therapy.

As I was reading some cookbooks Sunday night, I decided it would be fun to share with you some of my favorites. I know we all have cookbooks that we go to over and over again; I probably have more than your average home cook. Maybe you will be inspired to buy one of these highly prized possessions. If you are inspired, and you feel compelled to buy it, you should use the links I have published below (I'm trying out a new blog feature called Amazon Associates).

Baking Cookbooks

Birthday Cakes: Recipes and Memories from Celebrated Bakers 
Kathryn Kleinman
Birthday Cakes: Recipes and Memories from Celebrated Bakers

This is one of my favorite cookbooks for Cake. I have made quite a few recipes and quite a few have made their way into my repeat collection. The book offers a variety of cakes and techniques, all from celebrated pastry chefs around the world. If I could only find those perfect french candles pictured above I'd be a truly happy baker. I know Sur La Table has them, but they only sell them for now in mixed colors, I need separates. It could ruin a whole cake if there were not matching candles. (I am a designer, and sometimes matching candles are necessary ok.)

The Secrets of Baking: Simple Techniques for Celebrated Desserts
Sherrl Yardd
The Secrets of Baking: Simple Techniques for Sophisticated Desserts
This book was a gift from my lovely, M. He did a lot of research and bought me two gigantic cookbooks for my birthday last year. This book is a great tool because the desserts are categorized and begin with a base recipe. Once you have mastered the base recipe, there are multiple variations to try. There are also masterful combinations linking cakes with ganaches and ice creams that I intend to try as well. Of the few things I have made since my birthday, all have been fantastic. The recipes are a little more advanced, but the instructions are simple. 

Rose's Heavenly Cakes
Rose Levy Beranbaum
Rose's Heavenly Cakes
Yum! I was sold by that amazing cover photo. If I could make my ganache as beautiful as that photo, I could charge a few more dollars per cake. haha (the secret to shiny gloss is steaming the ganache after it is set - have not tried it but might have to soon). This was also a gift. I guess I exude an air of "please buy me great cookbooks so I can try new desserts". What an incredible talent I have. I got this for Christmas and have made a couple of cakes so far.... I have bookmarked a lot more to try. I just need more reasons to make desserts (so if you need one let me know). 

Baking From My Home to Yours
Dorie Greenspan
Baking: From My Home to Yours
I first bought this book because I wanted to join the online baking club, Tuesdays with Dorie. Once I acquired the book, I realized there was a wait list for the club and joined another instead, Daring Bakers. They are no longer accepting new member, and since I am a part of two other clubs, DB and my own, The Easy Bake cOven. I don't mind though, the book is a great recipe source no matter the reason for baking. I have picked my way through the "breakfast" section more than the rest... what can I say, I enjoy a good quick-bread. The desserts are great too. One of her recipes is featured this month on the cOven blog.  

Not quite Pastry, Not Quite Cooking

Beard On Bread
James Beard
Beard On Bread
This man has his own Foundation; I want my own foundation someday. James Beard knows bread. This cookbook has a recipe for almost every bread imaginable. It includes delectable donuts and quick breads, and a few of my favorite loaves. There are tons left to try and some that seem intense (yes even for me). If you are a beginner, there are great instructions for perfection yeast breads, and if you are a seasoned pro, there are always interesting recipes to test your skill. 

Food Books

From the Earth to the Table: John Ash's WIne Country Cuisine
John Ash
From the Earth to the Table: John Ash's Wine Country Cuisine
This book is an excellent source when you need to know what food pairs best with what wine. It also contains some of the most rich and delicious foods I have ever made. M and I don't cook from it often enough. In the past we have selected a recipe to make once a week and had a cooking date. A fantastic dinner date we should do again. We have become too good at making food with what is on hand, rather than making food that is methodical and prepared for (Unlike my baking which I definitely plan in advance for). As soon as M gets back from work travel, I'm going to insist we start this again - at least once per week. We have about two dozen nice bottles of wine in need of drinking, and pairing them with great food is the best way. 

The San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market Cookbook: A Comprehensive Guide to Impeccable Produce Plus Seasonal Recipes
Peggy Knickerbocker, Christopher Hirsheimer, Alice Waters
The San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market Cookbook: A Comprehensive Guide to Impeccable Produce Plus Seasonal Recipes
This book comes in handy when we get something unfamiliar in our CSA box. It may be slightly more attuned to foods we grow here in Northern California but covers almost every fruit or vegetable imaginable. Categorized by season, it's perfect for vegetable sides because the recipes are very simple. When I had no idea what do with all of the kale we kept getting last winter, the chefs noted in the cookbook came to my rescue. (my favorite was spicy sauteed kale with cannellini beans). Food at its best. Food cooked to perfection. Simple. Tasty. 

Mexican Fiesta
Favorite Brand Name Mexican Fiesta!
This cookbook looks a little crazy right? I agree. I've had it since college. It was a gift from my mom, and it is my favorite Mexican cookbook ever. It contains tons of recipes centered around brand name ingredients, but if you put all of that aside, the book provides great inspiration for tasty Mexican meals. This book provided the groundwork for my famous Guacamole. Ok, it hasn't received a blue ribbon in a guacamole contest, but M loves it, and my friends like it and that is all that matters. That and a stack of corn tortillas baked in the oven, sandwiching layers of beans and cheese and fresh veggies. I think I know what is for dinner tomorrow night. You can't go wrong with the perfect margarita also (another gift from my mom... the love for margaritas). 

The SIlver Spoon
Phaidon Press
The Silver Spoon
The Bible of Italian food. It has a recipe for everything you can dream up, 2000+ recipes to be exact. Even the yucky stuff like pate and weird game animal meats. It has its quarks - some of the translations are a little funky, but for the most part easy enough to decipher. the most recent item I cooked was boiled artichokes. They were really good, and the technique yielded soft flavorful leaves. I have bookmarked a few desserts to try, but the heft of the 2000 recipes lies in rustic italian cooking and homemade sauces. A great addition to any cookbook library. Is it weird I know where all of these cookbooks came from? I mean all of them... I have a mental register of who bought them for me or M, or where or when I bought them for myself. I must be a little weird, eh? 

Favorite Online Resources

All Recipes - be careful to read the reviews, I like to search and sort by rating

The Food Network - I have a tendency to search for anything Alton Brown first and steer clear of Emeril Lagasse (too many ingredients). Good menu guides and lists of food by holiday. 

The Pioneer Woman - Ree Drummond cooks up gorgeous homestyle food fit for the farm. She has a unique charm that leaves you satisfied after reading her food blog posts, they are filled with humor and love. She also posts step by step preparation images for those of you terrified to cook new things. Beware of the high calorie recipes though... this food can only be consumed daily on a working farm (or if you exercise daily - and you might need a lot of exercise for these recipes). 

Those are my top three searches, sometimes I find myself searching through the blogs I follow - you can see them on the right side of the page. 

I hope you find these cookbooks inspiring. If you have a favorite you couldn't cook without, please share it with me! I'm not sure how many more I can pile onto the shelf, but I'm willing to try. 

April 11, 2010

The Lovely Lady Baker Cooks Swiss Chard & Leek Tart

Photo courtesy Smitten Kitchen
I like Quiche. When we went to Tahoe this year to ski with friends, I made a quiche for breakfast since it is so easy. One of my friends asked if I made quiche often, and after I thought about it, I don't really make them at home. M doesn't like them that much - something about pie crust mixed with eggs... so making a whole 9 inch quiche for myself might be a little indulgent. I did decide to indulge one night when M had to stay late at work. I had everything I needed to make a Swiss Chard and Leek quiche, so I turned to a recipe from Smitten Kitchen that I had bookmarked to try.
Quiche is an easy meal, and not terrible for you as long as you don't use heavy cream to whip with the eggs. It is also a "fridge cleaner" since you can put an assortment of vegetables in it and it will taste good. I think it would be easy for people with kids too as long as they eat eggs. They are fast to make - I know this from experience because I made 16 quiche one morning for a women's event at my church. They are a breeze to mix up, and it gives you ample time to prep some sides like fresh fruit or mixed greens.
Quiche is also the perfect dish to try going vegetarian one meal per week. M and I have reduced our meat consumption drastically over the past two years, treating meat as more of a side dish than a main dish. This is a Michael Pollan eating concept we decided to try after reading The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food: An Eaters Manifesto. Both are great reads and will make you think twice about eating meat.
Swiss Chard & Leek Tart
adapted from Smitten Kitchen
1 frozen organic pie crust
1 T butter
1 giant Leek (or just under one pound of leeks, dark green parts removed)
1 T fresh chopped thyme
1/2 bunch swiss chard (I had red chard) ribs removed and leaves chopped into 1 inch size pieces
1 1/4 C 2% milk (I used 1/4 C heavy cream and 1 C skim milk)
4 eggs
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
pinch nutmeg
Preheat the oven to 425˚F and place the rack in the lower third. Bake shell 15 minutes and remove from oven. Reduce heat to 350˚F.
In a medium saute pan, melt the butter over medium heat and add the leeks. Add the thyme and season with salt and pepper. Cover and sweat for 5-10 minutes. Add the chard leaves and cook another 2 minutes, or until wilted and tender.
Meanwhile, whisk the eggs, salt, pepper, nutmeg, and milk in a bowl. Remove the leeks and chard from the pan, and whisk in 1/3 of the mix quickly. Whisk in the rest of the leeks and chard and pour into the partially baked crust. Spread out the vegetables evenly within the shell and bake for 30-35 minutes at 350˚F. It may take a little less time, but mine needed the extra 5 minutes. Let it sit for 5 minutes before cutting. The top should be nice and golden brown. Serve with fruit and mixed greens.

April 5, 2010

Caramel Popcorn

Why have I never made my own popcorn before? I have no good answer, but I know I will be making it more often because: It is good; It is cheap; It is better than buying it in a little bag; It is healthier than greasy movie popcorn; it is more versatile; it is fun!
I have had this beautiful jar of popcorn for a while now. I got it as a gift from M's grandma for Christmas, and it has been living on my shelf among other jarred items like rice and pasta. I finally had a good reason to make some. The Frankenart Mart (where I began this crazy baking adventure) was having a movie themed art show, and how can a movie theater operate without snacks like popcorn? Usually I just blurt these ideas out to Leslie, and she gets really excited and holds me to them. She gave me a specific weekend (I believe they were showing a documentary about Grandmas and something else I can't remember) and I promised some caramel popcorn. Regular popcorn seemed too easy - and I get really excited about gourmet things. Does it qualify as gourmet if you can get it in a giant 5 gallon bucket (or tin - but really people it is a fancy bucket chock full of crunchy flavored popcorn) from the store in the mall during the holidays? Lets hope so.
It was really satisfying to hear the little 'tings' as the popcorn hit the lid of the pan. I imagine M thought I was a little crazy smiling and hovering over the stove. I probably do this enough that is doesn't seem abnormal to him anymore. The popping instructions below provide excellent results. Nothing was burned and everything popped. Can you say that about microwave popcorn? I don't think so.
The popcorn was delicious by itself. I could have eaten it without salt (and I like salt). I recommend the grocery bag as your mixing device if you are going to add caramel. If not, a big bowl that you can stick between you and your lovely on the couch for movie night will do. I hope you make this, just think of all the possibilities!
How to Make Popcorn on the Stovetop:
adapted from Simply Recipes
3 T canola oil
1/3 C popcorn kernels
large covered stockpot
(butter and salt if you are not covering it in caramel)
heat the oil over medium high heat. Toss in 4 kernels and put the lid on (while it is heating). As soon as all 4 kernels pop, add the 1/3 cup kernels and remove the pan from heat. Cover with the lid and shake the pan back and forth to coat the kernels. Count to 30, then put the pan back over the heat and continue heating until all the corn pops.
(If you are not covering with Caramel do this: Transfer to a large bowl and sprinkle with salt. Melt butter in the pan - about 2 T and add melted butter over the top. Stir to combine)
If you are coating with caramel, follow these steps: Add the popcorn to a large paper bag. Repeat the popping process so you have nearly 5 quarts of popcorn. Add this to the bag as well.
To make the Caramel:
1/2 C butter
1 3/4 C brown sugar
1/2 C honey
1 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp baking soda
Preheat the oven to 250˚F. In a 3 c saucepan over medium heat, melt butter. Whisk in brown sugar and honey. Increase the heat to med-high. Bring to a boil and continue for about 4 minutes. Add salt and vanilla. Stir with a heat safe spatula. Remove from heat and quickly whisk in baking soda. Careful! This mix will foam up (like making peanut brittle) and may try to escape the pan. Quickly pour over the popcorn in the paper bag. Fold the top of the bag over and shake for 2 minutes until the popcorn is evenly covered.
Spray a large rimmed pan and pour the caramel popcorn into the pan. Stir with a spatula to make sure they are coated evenly. Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour stirring every 20 minutes or so. Remove from the oven and spread across a sheet of waxed paper to dry overnight (or consume immediately). You can package them and give as gifts or serve at a party.

April 2, 2010

Strawberry Filled Cupcakes

Cupcakes are pretty, and topping them with beautiful, red strawberries and lemon buttercream makes them quite glamorous. I have been making cakes for our office birthdays this year which I really enjoy. My office is so thrilled to have something better than you can get at Safeway (which was our default two block walk for cake). This time they were expecting cake and I brought them cupcakes instead. Whew, what a surprise. Mostly to change things up a bit and simplify the cake cutting awkward waiting period that happens while everyone sits around the conference room table. (Our office might rival "The Office" in awkward moments -I'm not joking).

We lit a candle and sang for Joey. It was a special birthday year (I made her two cakes!) and I made her favorite cake combo - White Cake with Strawberries. I added some flare by filling the cakes with strawberry filling (aka good quality jam - seeds removed) and topping them with delicate buttercream. The edges got a little crispy in the pan (my oven decided to overheat in the middle of baking) but everyone seemed to like the texture contrast. Thankfully they didn't taste burnt. Perfectionism is a good and bad quality. I almost remade the whole batch....

The white cake recipe I have is delicate and makes a good cupcake. Moist, not crumbly. I used buttermilk this time and think it is a good change. I was asked if the cupcake could be called the "Joey Cupcake" but I was thinking something that rolled off the tongue like "Favaloro's Favorite." I think I can do that.

White Cake with Strawberry Filling
adapted from Baking From My Home to Yours, Dorie Greenspan

For the Cupcakes
1 1/4 C cake flour
1 C all purpose flour
1 T baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/4 C buttermilk
4 egg whites (this is what makes the cake white not yellow)
1 1/2 C sugar
zest of one lemon
1/2 C butter
1/2 tsp vanilla extract (or lemon extract)
Fresh strawberries for decorating (at least 1 pint)

Line two tins with 18 muffin cups. Preheat the oven to 350˚F. Sift the dry ingredients excluding the sugar. Whisk together the buttermilk and eggs.
In the bowl of a mixer, rub the zest into the sugar until it is fragrant. Attach the paddle and fix the bowl to your stand mixer. Cream the sugar with the butter until light and fluffy. Add vanilla. Scrape the sides of the bowl and mix again for another minute. Add half of the milk/egg. Mix 1/3 of the flour mixture. As soon as it is almost incorporated, mix in half the milk/egg mix, and repeat ending with the flour. Mix for another minute or two to make sure everything is fully incorporated. Fill the muffin cups 2/3 full, you should yield at least 18. Bake for 20 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean.

For the filling
Heat 1/3 C seedless raspberry jam in the microwave (or stovetop) until it is thin enough to pour.
Once the cupcakes are cool, use a pairing knife and cut a cone shape out of the top of the cupcake. Don't worry if it isn't perfect - the frosting will cover it. Spoon about 1/2 Tablespoon into the opening and place the cone back on top. Frost, decorate, and chill to set the buttercream.

For the buttercream
1 C sugar
4 egg whites
3 sticks butter at room temperature
2 T lemon juice
1 tsp vanilla

Whisk sugar and egg whites in a stainless steel bowl and set over a saucepan with simmering water. Make sure the bowl doesn't touch the water. Whisk until the mix feels hot to the touch. It will be very shiny. Add it to the stand mixer with the whisk attachment. Whisk on medium speed for about 5 minutes until the bowl comes to room temperature. Switch back to the paddle attachment. Cut the butter in half. Add one piece at a time. Wait to add more until the previous butter is mostly incorporated. Once all the butter is in, increase the speed to medium-high and beat for about 10 minutes. The buttercream will probably start to curdle but do not fret, it will become smooth again. After it is smooth, add the juice and vanilla a little bit at a time and voila, a perfect buttercream. Place a piece of plastic wrap on the surface and chill in the fridge a few minutes but not too long! Pipe onto the cupcakes (be sure to cover the cut portion).

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