Sunday, June 24, 2012

You Need To Try This

I do not love cleaning my house, but I love having a clean house. I love relaxing, and am actually able to fully unwind, with a sparkling clean house devoid of clutter. My Sunday morning thanks my Saturday morning for that. Because today, I sat in my sun room with a cup of coffee and my iPad newspaper, and there wasn’t anything that distracted me and got me up to straighten and putter. It was lovely.

When we ran to the store on Saturday for a few odds and ends for dinner, Peter had the foresight to grab a small loaf of brioche to make French toast for breakfast. I was in no hurry, and we lazily sat and sipped our coffee.

But eventually, we got hungry, and were looking forward to the French toast. In my refreshed and caffeinated state, I had a stroke of brilliance. Brown sugar cinnamon butter.

I cannot take credit for this delicious creation. That goes to Austin Java, a local coffee chain that also has a solid breakfast and lunch menu. Though honestly, I’m mostly just familiar with the French toast. Theirs is two thick slices of bread, served with an compound butter. At first, I didn’t realize what I had in store. In a small, white paper cup was a bit of brownish butter. Not one to be shy about slathering my breakfast in butter, I smeared some on. I’m not a big fan of syrup, so I left it at that and took a bite. The toast was good, but OH-MY-GOODNESS, that butter!

After several trips back for French toast, Peter and I took to calling it “crack butter” for its addictive nature. It seems utterly impossible to not use every last bit that is served to you. It makes you want to lick your plate. It is seriously good.

So as I started to slice the bread for French toast this morning, I was thinking that while I love cinnamon French toast, when you just put cinnamon in the custard it never really incorporates and there really isn’t a pronounced cinnamon flavor. That’s when I remembered the crack butter, and I thought, “how hard can it be?” Turns out, not that hard.

I immediately took out a stick of butter to soften. I whisked some eggs with cream and vanilla and sliced the brioche. Then I started whipping the butter with brown sugar and cinnamon. At first it didn’t pack enough of a punch, so I added more.

After soaking the bread and cooking the French toast, we spread on the butter. Peter did so with gusto, I was a little more conservative. But after two bites, I was back for more. For something so easy, it sure was delicious. I ate mine with just the butter, though Peter used just a bit of maple syrup.

The best part? We have leftover butter in the fridge, just waiting for another lazy Sunday French toast day.

Brioche French Toast with Brown Sugar Cinnamon Butter
Serves 2-3 people, depending on the size of your loaf of bread. The butter will serve 8.
Challah is an excellent substitute if you cannot find brioche, but any good quality bread will work. The French toast recipe is very flexible, so use your best judgment based on how much bread you have and how many people you are serving.

Brown Sugar Cinnamon Butter

1 stick butter, softened
2 Tablespoons packed brown sugar
2 teaspoons Cinnamon

Beat the butter with the brown sugar and cinnamon, until fully incorporated. Will keep in the refrigerator for several weeks, if you can resist eating it for that long.

Brioche French Toast

1 small loaf Brioche, sliced about ¾ inch thick
3-4 large eggs
¼ cup, or less, heavy cream, half-and-half or whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
Butter, for cooking

Heat a skillet or griddle to medium heat. Soak each piece of bread on both sides in egg custard for a few minutes, or until softened. Butter the griddle generously. It is okay if the butter browns a little bit, since this helps you get a beautiful golden crust. But do not let it burn. Cook each piece of bread for 2 minutes or so on each side, or until nicely browned and cooked through.

Serve while hot with the brown sugar cinnamon butter, and do not be shy to use it liberally. Licking your plate clean afterwards is not only acceptable, but a huge help to the cook (an extra bonus if that is YOU!).

Monday, June 18, 2012

In the Kitchen with Gran Marge

This past May I had the pleasure of going to Chicago to visit my grandparents (and aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, and siblings!) not once, but twice. Both were weekend trips, one quick and one long, and each reminded me just how wonderful it is to be around family. I felt blessed being surrounded by all the love.

Both of my parents are from Chicago, and since I grew up in Denver, we went back once or twice a year to visit family. These vacations were the highlights of my summer. I remember looking forward to them for months, asking if we were staying at Papa and Gran Marge’s, if we were going to the lake in Wisconsin, if we’d get to play with cousins, and if Gran Marge’s raspberries would be ripe. With the exception of the last one, the answer was always yes. And usually, there were some ripe raspberries for me to pick and put one on each finger, then pluck them off one by one.

I loved these trips as a child, and my love for them has only grown as I’ve become an adult. It always felt like time slowed down just a little bit at my grandparents’ house. Gran Marge was always busy making something, and I usually tried to balance visiting with Papa and all the other relatives with helping her, and learning from her. Cooking with my grandmother was a joy, and I always wished for more of it.

Gran Marge has always been a wonderful cook and an excellent baker. I do not say this lightly. When she visited us in Colorado she would make ├ęclairs or Julia Child’s brownies from memory. If my dad, and who am I kidding, myself, were lucky, we’d get a pie.

The first time my husband came along for a trip to Chicago, there were scones for us to have as a snack when we arrived. He thought he’d found nirvana, and I couldn’t disagree. To this day, Peter still talks about Gran Marge’s scones. I’ve made countless batches of scones for him before and after, but none have quite lived up to Gran Marge’s.

So this visit I was bound and determined to make scones with her and divine her secrets. But time always got away from us, and we never got around to making them. Over Memorial Weekend we finally did. It took three days before it actually happened, but planning and talking about it did the trick.

While my Papa napped and everyone else was out and busy preparing for a big family reunion later that afternoon, Gran Marge and I were alone to do our baking. It was peaceful and quiet; two words that are used so often and yet there are no others to describe slowly and methodically getting out our supplies, measuring and mixing. I asked questions to make sure I knew the exact way to do it: is the butter mixed in enough? Should I knead this more? Gran Marge would answer and always slip in to show me just how to do it.

When the scones were finally in the oven and I stood over the sink drying the last dish, we finally had time to talk. We spoke of births and deaths and loss, and spoke of them as if they were the most natural things in the world. Which, of course, they are. It was easy to tell my grandmother my troubles. She has decades more life experience than I do and has lived through her fair share of sorrow, too. It turns out that the best advice and guidance I got that day wasn’t about how to make the perfect scone, but how to incorporate the bad into the good and still lead a full, blessed life.

I realize how lucky I am for all of my happy childhood memories, but it is the deeper, more meaningful conversations with my grandparents as an adult that make me feel truly blessed. I’m already looking forward to the next visit, and the next recipe Gran Marge can help me with. I know there will be plenty of life lessons to soak up while in the kitchen.

Gran Marge’s Scones

Though this recipe calls for currants, we used a mix of fresh strawberries and currants since that was what we had. I later made them with all strawberries, and both were equally good. You may substitute blueberries, raspberries or another dried fruit if you prefer.

6 Tablespoons sugar
3 ½ cups flour
4 ½ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup butter
2 eggs
1 cup currants
½ to ¾ cups half and half
3 tablespoons (or the rest of the stick) of butter
3 tablespoons sugar, for topping
½ teaspoon fresh ground nutmeg, for topping

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.

Mix the dry ingredients together in a large bowl (omitting the 3 tablespoons sugar and nutmeg). Cut in the butter with a pastry blender or two knives until the mixture resembles cornmeal. Stir in the currants or other fruit, then stir in the lightly beaten eggs. Add the half and half 1 tablespoon at a time until the dough leaves the side of the bowl.

Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead gently until it holds together well, about 6-8 turns. Pat the ball into a 10 inch diameter circle that is 1 inch thick. Cut into 12 wedges and put on the baking sheet.

Melt the 3 tablespoons of butter. Mix the 3 tablespoons sugar and nutmeg in a small bowl. Brush the melted butter over the scones, and sprinkle with the sugar mixture.

Cook the scones for 20 minutes, or until nicely golden brown.