Monday, August 30, 2010

Bake Off

My husband is not a big baker, but every once in a while his sweet tooth gets the best of him. The other night he asked me to make something for dessert. It was perfect timing because I was planning on making a cake from a recipe I'd found in Gourmet for Raspberry Buttermilk Cake. I'd been wanting to make it for over a year; somehow it didn't happen last summer, and then when Gourmet ceased the magazine publication last fall, I waited to make the recipes I'd saved, as they would be the last. It's a strange reaction, similar to saving a brand new shirt that you love for the perfect occassion rather than just wearing it and enjoying your purchase.

In any case, I had some apricots that needed to be used, so I thought I would swap those for the raspberries and fianlly bake my pretty cake. When I told him it was his lucky day and he was getting an apricot tea cake of sorts, he was not impressed. "But I wanted chocolate," he said. I swear, men are far more addicted to chocolate than women. At least the men in my life crave it regularly. I could live without it; at least so long as I had fruity cakey desserts.

"Then you should make your own dessert," I told him, expecting him to whine until I gave in and made chocolate chip cookies. But he surprised me, as he occassionally does (I came home late from work a few weeks ago to find that he had made chocolate souffle!) and said he would make brownies.

It probably seems strange that two people that make up the entire household would go to all the trouble of baking two separate desserts to satisfy two different cravings. I'm all for compromise, but in a sense it was nice that we each got what we wanted, and also got to enjoy the other's company while making our desserts. It got a touch competitive, with us each claiming ours would be the best, but it was all in good fun.

Both desserts turned out well. My apricot cake was marvelous: moist and tender with a slightly crunchy sugar coating, and the musky scent of apricots. His brownies, with a Peanut Butter swirl and walnuts, were dense, fudgy and rich, perfect with a tall glass of cold milk.

I'm sure it'll come as no surprise that it was a tie. To be fair, the judges aren't usually the ones competing, but the bottom line is that these are two recipes worth sharing with you. Make one when you want fruit and the other to fulfill a chocolate craving. Or do as we did and indulge in having your very own dessert.

Apricot Cake

This is a lovely little cake, perfect for a snack, breakfast, or dessert. Since it was all mine I made sure to try it for all occassions (purely for blog research, I assure you). This was adapted from Gourmet where it initially called for raspberries, so I will not be offended if you use something else entirely, or even skip the fruit if it is the dead of winter when you get around to this.

1 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 stick unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup plus 1 1/2 Tablespoons sugar, divided
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 large egg
1/2 cup buttermilk, shaken
1 cup sliced apricots (about 2-3 small fruits)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees with rack in the middle. Butter and flour a 9 inch round cake pan.

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

Beat butter and 2/3 cup sugar at medium high speed until pale and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Beat in vanilla. Add the egg and beat well.

At low speed, slowly add the flour mixture in 3 batches, alternating with the buttermilk. Begin and end with flour. Mix just until combined.

Pour batter into the prepared cake pan, smoothing the top with a rubber spatula. Arrange the apricots in a pinwheel if you're so inclined, or simply place them evenly spaced across the top. Sprinkle the remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons of sugar evenly over the top.

Bake for 25-30 minutes, until the cake is Golden Brown Delicious. Cool in the pan for ten minutes, then turn onto a wire rack to finish cooling.

Nutty Brownies

If you're a brownie lover, this really delivers. It's the perfect balance between fudgy and cakey, with a rich chocolate flavor and lots of nuttiness, too. If you don't care for nuts I suppose you could skip the Peanut Butter and the walnuts, but they are half the fun of this recipe.

6 ounces 60% cacao bittersweet chocolate
11 Tablespoons (1 stick plus 3 Tablespoons) unsalted butter, cut into slices
1 1/4 cup sugar
3 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup flour
1 cup walnuts, toasted, coarsely chopped
4 Tablespoons creamy Peanut Butter (we used an all natural variety)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees with rack positioned in center. Line a 9 inch square pan with parchment paper, then spray the foil with nonstick vegetable oil spray.

Combine chocolate and butter in a microwave safe bowl. In 30 second increments, heat the chocolate, stirring well between each time. Once the butter is melted stir thoroughly to help melt the chocolate. It will be finished when the chocolate is smooth and shiny (how long it will take depends on your microwave; if you're nervous or if it seems to be cooking too fast, just do 15 second increments).

Whisk sugar, eggs, salt and vanilla in a bowl to combine. Whisk in chocolate mixture. Stirn in flour mixture and stir just until combined, then stir in the walnuts. Pour batter in prepared pan, spreading it evenly with a spatula. Drop four tablespoons of peanut butter evenly spaced in quadrants of the pan, then swirl them in with a butter knife, using the same motion as you would to fold egg whites. It does not have to be perfect; you'll get a nice surprise bite of peanut butter every once in a while.

Bake for 25-28 minutes, until a toothpick comes out with a few moist crumbs attached. It may seem a bit underdone, but it will continue to cook and set once out of the oven. Cool completely on a rack.

Remove the brownies by lifting up on the parchment paper. Slice and serve, ideally with a cold glass of milk (or a scoop of vanilla ice cream).

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Dinner for One

I was feeling a bit melancholy tonight. Last night, I had plans with some friends for a girls' night. I was looking forward to this; I hadn't had much time for chatting with women over wine since we moved. It was perfect timing, too; my husband was supposed to work late. Only he ended up getting off early, so I left him on the couch with ESPN for my dinner with the ladies. It was a wonderful evening, and I looked forward to seeing him for dinner the next day.

I spent the afternoon prepping for one of our favorite Sunday dinners: Roasted Chicken. I would serve it with individual Tomato Tarts, roasted potatoes with lots of fresh herbs and green onions, and a green salad. I had finished everything and was waiting for him to let me know when he would be home so I could put the chicken in the oven, when his text arrived: "eat without me." It wasn't a huge surprise, nor hugely disappointing. Such is the life of a chef, and I am long since accustomed to it.

Still, I was a bit melancholy. The tomato tartlets were in the oven already since they take a while and don't need to be served hot. I wrapped the chicken back up in its butcher paper and put it in the fridge, along with the potatoes, and reveled in the fact that Monday night's dinner was made. However, this meant I could go to yoga and still turn out a lovely dinner; the two are too often mutually exclusive.

My dinner for tonight was reinvented as tomato tartlet with green salad. A perfect and ladylike dinner, the kind I used to eat all the time when I was single, but that are too dainty for a man and so make rare appearances. My mood had lightened: no longer melancholy, I tried to enjoy the peace and quiet that descends on me and the dog as I sip my wine before dinner. It's my favorite time of evening, the last rays of sun dappling my yard, a gorgeous pink tint to the light. I'll enjoy this night for what it is, and appreciate even more my Monday night Roast Chicken with the best possible company.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

What I love about you, Austin

One of my favorite things about Austin, Texas is the seriously good Mexican food. After living here for a few months, I am in no way an expert, but we have found some delicious Mex and Tex-Mex. In fact, it's safe to say that my husband pretty much wants one or the other every time we go out to eat.

For good reason. I used to think that corn tortillas were dry and flavorless. But our fist taco experience here in Austin, at Maria's Taco Xpress completely converted me. Their house made tortillas are the best I've ever had. They are smoky and are fresh, moist and pliable, with a hint of sweetness. They taste like corn! In fact, they are so good that I find my favorite fillings are the simplest: vegetarian black bean with a little bit of pico de gallo is perfect in my mind. My husband, however, disagrees, and says that the al pastor are the best. He does have a point about the tender pork with a bit of crust from the carmelized sugars from the pineapple. Rich and meaty, these are excellent with extra salsa. But I would be just as happy eating plain, warm, fresh corn tortillas.

Another favorite for interior Mexican is Curra's. On a recent visit, I had the vegetarian tacos which were out of this world. They had nopalitos (cactus), veggie chorizo, and mushrooms. This vegetarian chorizo was incredible; even my husband agreed that it was fantastic: flavorful and with the mushrooms, very meaty tasting. But it was the nopalitos that stole the show, as they should have. They were tender, delicious and refreshing, and I still am dreaming about eating more of them. Sadly, the corn tortillas were a bit lacking, but if I could smuggle in some of Maria's, it would be a perfect dish.

I'm sure we'll have a lot more great Mexican food, but so far these are big favorites. If you're in Austin, or were here for a visit, and have other suggestions, we're always looking for an excuse for Mexican.

Oh, and I'm hoping to try to make some homemade tortillas one of these days, so stay tuned...I may be sharing a recipe soon!

A Tale of Two Sorbets

I love ice cream. I love to cook. Yet somehow, I am not a lover of making my own ice cream. think my problem is that when I want ice cream, I want it now, and frankly, you have to be a bit patient. Plus, there are so many fabulous artisanal versions available that it’s too easy to just go buy it when you have a craving. But I still do a lot of thinking about making ice cream, or gelato, or something.

It was serendipitous that I found two wonderful recipes for sorbet within days of one another. One was a divine sounding Chocolate Cherry Sorbet and the other a Thai Basil Coconut sorbet. I had grand plans for a pairing of contrast: deep, dark chocolate beside creamy white coconut, garnishes of red cherries and verdant basil, and of course, bitter chocolate and fruity cherry against nutty coconut and spicy basil.

Before you get too excited about this pairing, I have to confess that I first made Chocolate Cherry Sorbet and weeks went by before I finally got around to the Basil Coconut. It was pure laziness on my part. I had one good sorbet, and I didn’t need two. Perhaps it was a good thing that my excitement had waned, because the Coconut sorbet ended up being a big disappointment.

But first, the Chocolate sorbet. The picture in Cooking Light of the Chocolate Cherry Sorbet, from which I based this recipe, was gorgeous, and almost sensual with the melting sorbet and the glistening cherry topping. (Disclaimer: I got lazy far before making the coconut sorbet and skipped the topping all together.) On the upside, the sorbet was fabulous on its own. I like to add a little liquor to my ice creams; because alcohol freezes at a much lower temperature than water, it yields a softer and creamier texture. This I learned after several rock hard tubs of ice cream that were basically inedible. A tablespoon or two does the trick. To bring out the flavor of the cherries I used little ruby port. It added complexity and worked wonderfully with the chocolate as well.

We enjoyed this sorbet until the last scoop. Then it was time for the Thai Basil Coconut Sorbet. When I re-read the recipe, I decided that there was no way that the flavor of the Thai Basil would infuse the ice cream just by getting blended in at the last second before straining. Instead, I would infuse the basil in the coconut base for ten minutes. (Cue some dark "Jaws" warning notes) I must say that at this point I did express concern that there would be some off green notes, but this did not stop the steeping.

Ugh. It was not only green tasting, but stemmy, too. It was like eating a plant. Gone were the minty notes on the mid palette and the spicy basil flavors on the finish that were present when I first began the infusion stage. Worse, it had a gummy texture. Could it be the coconut cream? I’m not an expert in this ingredient, but the only version my grocer carried was gritty and thick, and even after dissolving it and straining it, the final product had that weird texture. In fact, after I let it all melt to throw away, it was still thick and gluey, with an unappetizing grey-green color.

I can’t believe I’ve just spent more time discussing what went wrong versus what went right, when I had a perfectly good recipe to share with you. But I think if you want to grow and expand your abilities, you have to take risks and learn from your mistakes.

In the end, I had one good sorbet recipe and was reminded of the importance of both following a recipe, but also occassionally going out on a limb to make something the best you can. I won with the Port, but lost big time with the basil. And that’s okay, since I enjoyed the process, and the pint of gelato I had in the freezer.

Chocolate Cherry Sorbet

Chilling this recipe overnight is key to having a smooth texture. If you pour it into the ice cream maker without it being cold throughout, it will develop ice crystals and freeze unevenly. The port will help it stay a little creamier when frozen, as will keeping it in your freezer door (where it warmest) as opposed to the back of a shelf.

¾ cup Cherry Jam
½ cup cocoa
¼ cup sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 cups water
2 Tablespoons Ruby Port

Combine the jam, cocoa, sugar and salt in a heavy saucepan and stir with a whisk until smooth. While whisking, gradually stir in the water. Bring the mixture to a boil, and whisk occasionally to keep it smooth. Cool to room temperature, then chill overnight.

When you remove the mixture from the fridge, stir it with a whisk until it is smooth; it may have settled a bit. Add the port and whisk thoroughly. Pour into the ice cream maker and process according to the instructions. If you want a soft serve style sorbet, eat it right now, but hurry before it melts! Otherwise, transfer it to a freezer safe container (I like the to-go soup containers you find at a hot bar of a grocery store) and freeze for about an hour.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Easy, Elegant, French

Sometimes I wish I were French. French women have an easy sense of style, always looking perfect but not looking like they put any effort into it. French design is equally chic and unfussy all at once. And French food is the same. I think a lot of people associate French food with foo-foo presentations and teensy portions. But I think of elegant items, with seasonal ingredients and bursts of flavor. Think less Paris and more Provence.

Take the clafoutis. It is basically a custard, a preparation upon which a thousand dishes are based. Add a little flour, some lemon zest and cherries, and you’re done. It couldn’t be easier, or prettier. A creamy lemon color studded with bright red fruit, all puffed and golden, dusted with powdered sugar.

Traditionally, this is made with the pits left in the cherries for depth of flavor. Since I don’t relish the idea of spitting out cherry pits (not very ladylike), nor do I want anyone to choke, I pitted the cherries. If you wanted to add that deep cherry flavor, I’m sure a little kirsch or even a splash of port would bring out the flavors magnificently.

What troubles me about the clafoutis is when to eat it. I picture a French lady making it when her friends stop by for coffee. But no one really stops by my house for coffee, so I make it for dessert. My husband recently pointed out that is a lot like a baked pancake and I ought to make it for breakfast next time. Since I am not a Frenchwoman, and since I like to think traditional preparation is the foundation from which to jump, I think this would be grand.

If it is not cherry season, this is also good with raspberries, and I imagine it would taste delicious with just about any fresh fruit you add; raspberries or blackberries would be excellent. If you choose to go with stone fruit, such as nectarines, I would use fruit that is not too juicy as it will separate from the custard and everything will become soggy.

I may not be French, nor have a Frenchwoman’s sense of fashion or design, but I like to think I have her sensibility when it comes to food: find good ingredients at their peak of freshness, and remake the classics using what you have. It’s simple, delicious, and – I think – elegant.

Cherry Clafoutis

This is a versatile recipe that works well for dessert, breakfast, or to serve with coffee or tea in the afternoon. As always, the fresher the cherries and the higher quality the eggs, the better the result. As with any very simple dish with few ingredients, use the best ingredients you can find. A cherry pitter makes quick work of pitting the fruit. I adapted this from a recipe that appeared in Food & Wine.

½ cup flour
¼ cup plus 2 Tablespoons sugar
4 medium eggs, preferably free range
¼ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons butter, melted
¼ cup milk, plus 2 tablespoons
1 ½ cups pitted fresh cherries, halved
1 Tablespoon powdered sugar

Preheat the oven to 350. Butter a 10” quiche pan or gratin dish.

Stir the flour, sugar and salt together in a medium bowl. In a small bowl whisk the eggs. Add the milk, then whisk in the butter. Add the wet ingredients to the dry, and whisk vigorously for a few minutes, until the batter is pale in color and smooth.
Pour the batter into the buttered pan. Place the cherries on top of the batter, evenly dispersing them. They will sink just a little, but that is okay.

Bake for 20 minutes, until the sides have puffed up and it is golden brown. Let cool slightly, then dust with powdered sugar.
Serve warm or at room temperature (or even cold, straight out of the fridge), with a dollop of whipped cream, spiked with kirsch or port, if desired.