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Sunday, December 29, 2013

Authentic Homemade Pasta (for rolling)

So delicious it doesn't need anything but a
pat of butter and light sprinkling of parm cheese!

If there was ever anything on the internet with tons of confusing information, it's homemade pasta.

What's the difference between pasta and macaroni and noodles? Oil or no oil? Egg or no egg? Why did my pasta taste like rubber bands? How do I keep it from sticking together? Why is this Kitchen Aid attachment such a life ruiner?!??

.... and more importantly, how do I make it taste like the authentic delicious pasta that I had in Italy?

For today's blog post, I made a video all about homemade pasta. It covers everything you need to know from making the dough to cooking and serving, including how to fix the issues you might have had with your pasta recipe.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Essential Kitchen Gadgets for your Home

I don't know what this is, but I need it!

Whether you're just getting into cooking or registering for your wedding shower, trying to decide what you need for your kitchen can be overwhelming.

A friend suggested I do a special blog post about what is needed for a basic kitchen (other than of the obvious stuff), so I went through my kitchen and made a list of kitchen gadgets that I think are essential for anyone who wants to cook.

If you're registering for a shower, this is your one chance to create a kitchen on someone else's dime. (Holla!!!) Even if you're not, this list might come in handy for ideas if you're trolling through discount stores as I regularly do.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

How to Make Tender and Juicy Shredded Chicken

Shredded chicken tossed with herbs de provence and mayo,
topped with homemade cranberry relish
Continuing in a theme of healthy eating, one of the tricks to diet success is keeping an ample supply of high protein food that's healthy and delicious on hand. I'm a Bizzy Gal and it has to be ready at a moment's notice or I'm reaching for the potato chips. The most powerful weapon in my arsenal is poached chicken. It's flavorful enough to grab a bit as a snack and since it's already cooked it's easy to whip into a quick meal. The opportunities are endless.

But have you ever noticed how when you make it at home it can be kind of tough and stringy? How do you make it tender and flavorful like in a restaurant?

Quick "Ham" Cups - cute, vegetarian and healthy

Ready to eat on the go!
So it's getting close to that time again when we all start trying to eat healthy. There are all kinds of healthy options and recipes out there so I'm collecting, testing and documenting some of the ones I like for the blog.

Normally I avoid food trends because they taste awful. For example, mixing up cocoa and some random crap then microwaving into a chocolate-paste? WHO EATS THAT CRAP??? For the record, I stopped eating paste by at least... 7th, 8th grade. Hahah. :) Seriously though - nasty!

But recently I caught wind of a new(?) trend with making little ham cups with eggs in them. I was intrigued because you could easily make these as a cute breakfast food and you could make them healthy and leave them in the fridge ready to pop in your mouth on the way out the door for the morning commute.

I've gotta say, I was really impressed with the results of this. I tried many different iterations, even a vegetarian version. Basically, all you have to do is lay a piece of lunch meat in a non-stick muffin tin, crack an egg into it, then bake. You don't even have to grease the tins. If you like boiled eggs, this takes it up a notch and without all the hassle of peeling.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Cranberry Sauce with Red Wine

Smells of Christmas Holidays!
There are as many styles of cranberry relish as there are types of coffee. And to be honest, I love them all, even the solid gel kind that just slides right out of the can. But this year, I had very very important family members who were dear to me visiting for Thanksgiving and I wanted something a little more special.

I ran across a recipe adapted from Epicurious.com by David Lebovitz who's a terrific food blogger currently living in Paris. The extra sauce was great for a couple of weeks following Thanksgiving on sandwiches and as a sweet/tangy side. I even loved putting a spoonful of it in to my turkey'n'dumplings soup. It had just the right amount of tartness to it and the texture of the figs really set it off for me. (Texture is one of those cooking elements that is too often overlooked in dishes.) This recipe uses candied orange peel and the citrus brings it all together without overpowering the dish.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Salted-Caramel Brown Butter Chewy Bars

Salted-caramel browned-butter chewy bars
These are similar to a brownies but taste like salted-caramel. The top has just a tiny hint of crispness and when you bite into it the texture is chewy and soft.

This is my "go-to" guilty pleasure recipe. As a baker, I always have these ingredients on hand and in 30 minutes I can be enjoying them. What's really great about these is they're chewy and decadent.

It only requires one pot. Easy to make, easy to clean-up!

Buttermilk Pie - easy and delicious!

Buttermilk pie - the house-pie of the South!
 
My grandmother made this pie when I was growing up. It's very sweet and tangy, and about as Southern as you can get in the dessert world. What really makes this particular version special is the light crust that forms on top. This is coveted in the buttermilk pie world, and if you google it you'll find a million posts of people (unsuccessfully) trying to get that crust on top. :)

The best part about this recipe is how simple it is to make with things you already have in your kitchen.

This time of year is tough because people have so many pot lucks and holiday parties to attend.What do you do? Swing by the grocery store to grab some cookies? Nah... you need a simple dish, one that takes about 5 minutes to put together but still packs a punch. There are rarely any leftovers, but it's just as easy to double the recipe and make two.

I make this in an easy flaky pie crust or simple shortbread crust, but this recipe is so delicious people won't notice if you put it in a store-bought crust.

Friday, December 20, 2013

3 Ingredient Shortbread Crust - an easy pie crust alternative

 
Baked to golden brown
So let's say you've had bad pie crust experiences. Or perhaps you don't have a rolling pin or a pastry cutter and you're just making a pie as a one time thing for a holiday party. Or maybe you're just plain scared of making pastries. Don't panic! There's still no need resort to drastic measures (like store bought pie crust).

Just whip out this super simple shortbread crust recipe instead. It uses things you've already got in your kitchen anyway.

It works really well with a glass pie plate (or any hard material), but looks even fancier if you bake it in a tart pan (sometimes called a quiche pan). These are really easy to find at any major retailer (including Target). You can also use this recipe to make smaller crusts in a muffin tin if you're trying to create some sort of fancy tiny desserts for a party. It's very sweet and a bit crunchy so I generally wouldn't recommend it for savory fillings.


How to Measure Flour (and why you need to know)

It seems like something that would be kind of obvious, yet since Home Ec. has disappeared from the school curriculum all over the country, this crucial bit of cooking info has been lost.

Why is this important? Because flour compacts very easily. The amount you're actually scooping out can vary wildly. Think of flour as the cement of the baked goods world. It's a foundation. It swells, absorbs moisture and bonds together. What would happen if you changed the amount of cement in concrete? Not enough and it wouldn't set. Too much and it would be dry and crumbly.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Easy Flaky Pie Crust



There's always room for improvement! This pie crust version takes about 10 minutes, produces a flakier crust and doesn't require a food processor so the clean up is a snap.

Giving someone a pie in a store bought pie crust is like giving someone a gift in a gift bag. It says... I kind of like you, but not enough to spend 10 minutes wrapping your gift.

(That said, if this is your first time making a pie crust and you're nervous about making it for a large group of people, I've posted a super easy buttered shortbread pie crust alternative that can be used in place of any dessert pie crust. It doesn't require anything but a fork and a bowl to make, but if you buy a $10 tart pan at Target, it can even look fancy enough for royalty!)

What's wrong with storebought pie crusts? Well... other than the awful taste and chemicals we can't pronounce, they're not flaky or buttery. They're flat... like some sort of nasty government issued cracker that manages to be both stale and soggy at the same time. When someone eats pie in a store bought crust, they usually eat the filling and leave the crust behind. That's a shame... because a pie crust should be buttery and flaky like an authentic croissant. Could you imagine passing up a fresh baked croissant? Yeah, me either!


A pie crust should have layers like a croissant

You'll never see these layers in a storebought pie crust and you definitely won't get them if you try to make it using oil. These layers give you a flaky croissant like texture and taste.

I've made my own pie crusts since I was 15 and am always looking for ways to improve them. I even tried the "vodka method" which sounds good on paper. The theory is that by replacing part of the water with vodka the flour doesn't form as much gluten during mixing. The problem is that it's bogus. Vodka still causes gluten creation and even though it evaporates the gluten doesn't.

I used to make pie crusts in the food processor, but the problem is one or two pulses too many and your pie crust suddenly gets an extra shot of gluten, making it tougher than desired. I've found that using a pastry cutter (also called a "pastry blender") is far more accurate and way less of a hassle to clean up since you just have one thing to throw in the dishwasher. As an added bonus, they only cost around $10, requires little storage space and you can use it to make scones too. Just make sure to get the kind that looks like it has little blades on it - avoid the wire ones like this because they don't work worth diddly.

Wine-Braised Beef Short Ribs (or Pot Roast)

 
I can't even!

Tickle my ribs, this fancy-pants dinner was far too easy!

There's nothing complex about beef. You sear it, cook it and remember why you're not a vegetarian. The secret is knowing which types of cooking methods work for which type of beef. As a general rule, tougher cuts of beef do really well cooking low-and-slow while tender cuts of beef do better when cooked quickly. (Contrary to popular belief, if you slow cook a tender cut of beef, it actually comes out with a mealy texture.)

While pot roast is my favorite go-to for delicious home cooked simplicity, I've shamelessly adapted this amazing recipe from Twice-Cooked.com, my new favorite food blog right next to BenStarr.com. The flavor of this recipe reminds me of Julia Child's boef bourguignon but with a hint of spice and none of the fuss.

This is a great way to use up leftover red wine (I know, I know! What's that???) But seriously, I'm the king of opening a bottle of wine and not finishing it. While it's a little flat for drinking after being opened for 24 hours, you can actually put red wine in the fridge and will still taste great in cooking for up to a month. I always put my red wine in the fridge right after opening if I know I'm only going to have a glass or two.

Bones impart a lot of flavor and the collagen from them makes the sauce taste really rich, not to mention how beneficial it is for your hair and skin. That said, ribs can be a crap shoot for tenderness and sometimes they're a bit fatty. Also, if you have a household that hates meat on the bone, your picky eaters won't be able to get past the bone no matter how delicious it is. If you want a sure bet, use a 4 lb beef chuck roast instead.

As mentioned in the beer braised pot roast recipe, the most decadent flavor for beef comes from searing it. The same goes for the onions, but there's an additional reason for searing the onions. Have you ever made a pot roast and then noticed it had a slightly metallic flavor? That's because the gas from onions reacts with the liquid to create sulfenic acid. MMmmmmm! Sulfenic acid braised pot roast anyone? I think not. Searing the onions releases most of the gas so you get a caramelized onion taste instead.

And if you're going to dirty up a pot searing both beef and onions, why not just toss the pot into the oven instead of creating extra clean-up by putting it in a crock pot? That's far too much work for a lazy person like me. :)

Almond Spekulatius (German Almond Spice Cookie)

Smaller than a bread box, better than a shortbread cookie

These were made with the German cookie mould, but you could use a cookie cutter or just cut them into squares with a knife

I've been collecting cookie cutters for years. One might say it's gotten out of hand. All shapes and sizes, I just love them. I'll never forget my first cookie cutters found in a darling antique shop in Maine. They were really cool post WWII cookie cutters: Rosie the Riveter, a B-52 plane and soldier helmet.


This is only a very small portion of the cookie cutters I've collected

When I finally got around to making rolled cookies... they were horrible. They tasted like a dry tasteless thing with gobs of icing smeared haphazardly on top. I could've pressed wet saw dust together and it would've been more pleasing.

You can cover a dry turkey with gravy and cranberry sauce, but there is no amount of icing that can be slathered across a tasteless cookie to save it from being a communion waifer. The best recipe I'd been able to find was Alton Brown's sugar cookie recipe and even that tasted identical to the Pillsbury pre-made sugar cookie dough, but with a lot more work. (Even with my love for making things completely from scratch, there are some things that just taste better from a box - like brownies for example.)

Since rolled cookies must stand up to being cut and holding their shape while baking, they're made with shortbread dough and cut very thick. It's a very dense floury texture. You can't fix this by adding extra butter or oil because then it's too soft to hold the shape and will spread when baking.

So those are our choices? Sawdust vs greasy and mis-shapen? There has to be a better way. While traveling in the Alsace region of France this year - I found it! Alsace is the area where France and Germany border. As wars came and went, the area was occupied by Germany, then France, then Germany, then France. It's currently French. The result? Amazing French food with a heavy German influence. Lots of delicious butter pastries but with the intense German spices. What a total win! :)


Here are a few of the moulds I brought back from Alsace
 
They have a cookie called "almond spekulatius". They're rolled out like shortbread cookies, then pressed with intricate moilds to make a design on top. It's very similar to a sugar shortbread cookie, but part of the flour is replaced by almond flour and a lot of spices are added. This allows the dough to still be pliable enough to work with, but hold its shape when baked. Since almond flour doesn't have gluten, it also means the dough is more forgiving as it won't get tough after working with it and re-rolling it several times. (This also means it's a low gluten cookie - less than 50% gluten than a regular shortbread cookie.)

You don't need these molds to make the cookies. You can use cookie cutters or even just cut them into square or diamond shapes. To demonstrate, I made several with the moulds I brought back, used a cookie cutter for a couple of them, and then for the others I just cut the dough into rustic looking squares. (The rustic ones usually have a sliced almond placed into each corner of the square but I didn't have any.)

There are all kinds of things you can do to snazz them up. One of them is to stick a slightly wettened cherry on a cookie. (The almond flavor works reall well with cherry, but you way want to omit the spices.) You could also press an almond into the corners of the cookie. You could sprinkle them with sugar and cinammon. They're not too sweet so they also work really well with sugar cookie icing. You could do all of the above. Or you could eat them as is, which is actually how they're normally eaten.

They're great right out of the oven, but they really peak about 3 or 4 days after baking them because the spices really permeate the entire cookie and they develop a soft texture. This means they ship really well and work great in holiday gift packages. Just make sure to keep tightly sealed so they stay fresh.

Get ready - your house is about to wreak of Christmas!



Saturday, December 14, 2013

Macaron Fillings


Thank you to all the terrific people that made it out to the macaron class today. I enjoyed meeting all of you and hope to see you at another class soon! :)

There's so many possible fillings for macarons, it's hard to decide. (The one thing that should never be found in a macaron is buttercream icing. Yuck!!) Here are a few possible filling options. These can be easily adapted to different flavors. For the chocolate ganache, always use a high quality chocolate like Ghiradelli or Callebaut. The less expensive brands have fillters in them that will now allow them to melt smoothly.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Scones


Scones, pantless David Beckham and the like


You do not have to wear pants while eating these
England brought us such wonderful things as our primary language, Dr. Who and most importantly, David Beckham. Or Jelly Babies. Or David Tennant. I can't decide. Wait, I've got it - David Beckham and David Tennant swimming in a pool of Jelly Babies. Yes!!

But have you ever had a fresh baked scone? If not, you're missing one of the most important culinary contributions any country has ever made to the world. Scones are actually the ancestors to what we in the US would call a "biscuit", except scones are slightly sweetened and often have dried fruit in them, most commonly dried black currants. They should be very light and buttery with a hint of crispness on the outside. The inside should be as tender as a cloud. In SW England, they're usually served with cream tea.

For some reason, the scones I've had recently were more akin to a dry, dense crumbly hockey puck one might expect to be served in an orphanage. (Enter Oliver Twist, stage right:  "Please sir, may I have another?") England seems to have lost its way with scones. Or maybe they're stockpiling them for catapult fuel during the impending zombiepocalypse. I'm not sure. But I know a good scone is worth its weight in gold.

One of the things that makes scones so awesome that they're really easy to make. In only fifteen minutes your scones are in the oven. The hardest part is waiting for them to cool but (as with cookies) we both know you're going to burn your mouth eating one right off the tray. :)

There has been much discussion amongst the Hunger Games about the proper shape of scones. In the US, they're triangular. In English countries, they're round.

I prefer to make mine in the triangle shape for two reasons: (1) It's faster! (2) you can use all your dough (re-rolling the scraps to make round ones produces tough scones) (3) I really love the little crispy corners right out of the oven and (4) I can dunk them in my coffee (and by coffee, I mean tea. No, not really. I totally mean coffee. Sorry Britts!) Did I say two reasons? Let's just call it "higher math". :)

You can make the mix in a food processor, but it's so easy to do with a pastry blender it isn't worth the clean up effort.



Thursday, December 12, 2013

How to Make Fluffy Rice


Perfect fluffy basmati rice! (The method is the same for all types of white rice)

With all the crazy French and international dishes that've passed through my kitchen, the one thing I never could get right was rice. It was either burned, mushy or uncooked. How could something so simple be so difficult? Frustrated, I turned to instant rice. And it's ok, but the pieces can be a bit small and it just doesn't feel very "ricey". And what if you don't want plain rice? What if you want Basmati or Jasmine? Or what if you want a delicious rice pilaf like in a restaurant? Tough luck!

After traveling a couple of times to Japan, I fell in love with rice and got a rice cooker. But like all fads, the fascination wanes. And here I was stuck with either having to leave this big appliance on the counter or find somewhere to store it and then drag it out every time I wanted rice. (This is how hoarding begins!)

Somebody call a professional organizer!

This is where my friend Ellie came in like a superhero. And I don't mean with a cape and tights (though she does look like a runway model so if anybody could rock them it would definitely be her!) She's a great cook and would host amazing parties. One time she had rice. Perfect, al dente rice. I was convinced it was an ancient Persian secret, but she shared it with me!

She explained basically that people tend to approach rice as if it's pasta. They try to "boil" it. That's not how rice works. You bring it to a simmer and let it absorb the steam. It takes about 20 minutes on the heat. Then you need to let it sit, tightly covered, for another 20 minutes. It's that last part that's the secret!

That's it? Yes, that's basically it. And ever since she taught me this, my rice has been perfect every single time.



Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Snowflake Holiday Muffins

The sugar looks just like fresh snow!
The holidays are here and there are all kinds of ways to spruce up regular treats and make them festive. Fresh baked muffins are amazing, but what if you don't have enough time? You can quickly spruce up even storebought muffins. One of my favorite ways is to turn them into "snowflake" holiday muffins. All you need is a lemon and some sugar!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Pasta Bolognese


The dish that stopped the Italian-American war that never actually happened


A hot bowl of Italian

A couple of months ago a friend on Facebook named Lyle posted the question, "What is pasta bolognese?" There were a variety of answers, but the only detail people seemed to agree on was that it was a tomato meat sauce with some sort of dairy in it. Even though I'd traveled fairly extensively in Italy, bolognese is the local sauce from Bologna and we overslept the day the day we were supposed to go there. Since we had to get Nicole to the airport, we had to blow right through it. No Bologna for us, so I could offer nothing to the discussion other than what Abe Lincoln had said about it on the interwebz.

In a bizarre twist of fate, a few weeks after his posting I had to take an unexpected trip to Bologna for a client. What!? Yes!!! The first week I was there, much bolognese was consumed. It was served in the cafeteria at my client site and it was on the menu in every restaurant. I ate it at least once, sometimes twice a day. Let's just consider it "research". :) It was delicious! It has a unique flavor profile that I couldn't quite put my finger on and had never had in the bolognese sauces back in the US.

One of the things I love about traveling for work is learning about foreign culture from my colleagues that grew up there and live there. You can't quite get that experience from people working in the tourism industry. In Italy, both men and women tend to live with their families until they get married. They're amazingly warm and loving and will invite you into their home like family. Towards the end of my first week, one of my colleagues said, "Ah! You come home with me today. My grandmother make bolognese so you can learn." S.C.O.R.E.!!! He told me it was about a 3 hour process but Italians don't eat dinner until about 8pm so we finished up our day and headed to to meet "Nonnina" (Italian for "little grandmother"). She was in her upper 80s and spoke very little English but he was all too happy to translate for us. To fully appreciate how generous offer was, you have to understand that Italians (especially in this region) really do not eat pasta with dinner, they eat it with lunch. The entire family was willing to go against the grain to share their culture with me. Did I mention I <3 Italy?

The first part of the sauce takes about 30 minutes, but the rest of it is just waiting for it to simmer for 2 1/2 to 3 hours, during which time it is customary to snack and drink. And drink and snack. And in the end, I don't know how they had room for pasta but Italians never cease to amaze. :)

She asked what I thought bolognese was. I said that I thought it was a tomato meat sauce with cream added. "Bah!", She scoffed. Then she squinted her one good eye at me and gently wagged her index finger, "People today and their bad shortcuts. Hurry, hurry, always in hurry. You cannot put cream on tomatoes and call bolognese! Here, I show you." Then she flashed me her toothless smile and said the correct way to make it (and the only way to get the unique flavor profile) is to cook the meat, then add milk and reduce until it's mostly evaporated. Then add white wine, evaporate. These caramelize as they evaporate. (If you try to add it all at once with the tomatoes, it will just boil and you won't get the flavor from the caramelization, it'll just taste kind of flat and one dimensional.) Then add the tomatoes and simmer on low for 3 hours.

She laughed when I told her I'd be posting the recipe on the internet. Then she lit up a cigarette and in a raspy voice and broken English said there are some rules I need to share with you:
  • The meat proportions can be altered, but the beef should never make up more than half of the mixture as it would be too dry and crumbly in the sauce. (BTW, did you know you can ask the butcher in your grocery store for exact weights/amount of ground meat? Yes, you can! And even better, they grind it fresh for you.)
  • You cannot substitute tomato sauce, crushed tomatoes, stewed tomatoes or diced tomatoes for the whole peeled tomatoes. She said it changes the flavor profile. Canned tomato sauce has already been cooked down so while it may be fine for a quick pasta sauce, this requires cooking and reducing for 3 hours and it will taste like ketchup. The crushed/diced/stewed tomatoes have calcium and preservatives that when cooked for several hours end up tasting metallic. Not good! When I asked about fresh tomatoes, she explained that the tomatoes in grocery stores are picked too soon and didn't develop that ripened tomato flavor. The ones that are canned are canned when ripe. Then she raised one wrinkled gray eyebrow at me, "anyway.... you living in 1920s? Who does this these days?" LOL
  • After the tomato sauce has been simmering for about an hour, it will begin to splatter and also can have a tendency to burn because it gets too hot. To avoid this, when the sauce started spattering an hour into it she rolled up some foil lengthwise, curved it into a circle and put it on top the burner to elevate the pot. It works like a charm! Both times I didn't do this, my sauce burned near the end and was barely edible. See how-to photos in step 6.
  • With a big toothless grin as she was crushing garlic she said, "Garlic like bull, too strong, hide other flavors. We no use, but for you, I put garlic." Then she tossed a handful into the pot. (She's referring to the American misconceptions about garlic and Italian food. Also very kind of her!) :)
  • "Bolognese use butter. No olive oil. Olive oil for everything else, butter for bolognese." I smiled and joked that I thought all Italian food had olive oil. She waved her hand dismissively, "Bah! Americans."
  • In her heavy Italian accent she said, "nobody cook with red wine, too bitter. Always cook with white. Red for drink only." Then she poured me another glass of their homemade family red wine, lit another cigarette and we continued to get sauced.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Southern-Style Chicken and Dumplings

A hot bowl of delicious!
 
What to do with leftover turkey? Well, one of my favorite parts of Thanksgiving dinner is the wonderful turkey stock you can make from the leftover turkey bones. Turkey stock isn't so much something you "make" as it is something you "do". To make the stock, make sure to remove any extra meat and save for use. Then hack down the turkey carcass into pieces that can fit in a large stock pot. Add a tablespoon of salt, a carrot, a stalk of celery, a half an onion and whatever herbs you may have leftover from your dinner. Fill with water and bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer for two or three hours. Once it's done, you can use for a quick and easy soup... or better yet, "chicken and dumplings".

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

"Just put the f*ing turkey in the oven!"

Get in my belly!!
 
Ok, so that title is a reference to this hilarious video...



While it's hilarious, I can confirm that she is absolutely wrong. Most people dread turkey because they think it's dry, tasteless, bland and either under or overcooked. I'm here to tell you as a cook who's had a dozen fantastic turkeys in as many years (minus 1), there is an easy way to make sure your bird is the hit of the party.

How do you know if your turkey is delicious? Because people will eat it without gravy or cranberry sauce since it is delicious on its own. They're excited about having it as leftovers and are genuinely disappointed when it's all gone. For this reason, I always cook at least a 23 lb turkey because if I don't, there's never enough left over for the next day or to make turkey and dumplings the day after.

There's about a thousand different crazy theories on how to cook a turkey. Stand the turkey on end. Hang it from a noose. Stuff a beer can up its rump. Roast it in a trash bag. Baste it with the blood of the undead. Spritz it with Holy Water and goat urine. Hold a voodoo ritual. According to Abe Lincoln not everything on the internet is true. I'm beginning to believe him. Seriously though, all of them are far too involved and complex to be realistic, especially on Thanksgiving day with everything else you have to prepare.

Here's what you need to get turkey that's not only roasted beautiful brown but is so delicious that people will sneak in the refrigerator to pick at the leftovers... if there are any. :)

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Easy Flaky Pie Crust

Men may come and go, but pie crust is forever... or at least until the holidays
 
 
This pie crust recipe has been simplified, improved and relocated to this other post.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Ethiopian Spiced Butter - Niter Kibbeh

Another backbone of Ethiopian cuisine is a spiced butter called Niter Kibbeh (or qibe). Who knew it was possible to make butter even more delicious?? It's essentially clarified butter (called "ghee" in Indian cuisine) but with spices steeped into it. The extra spices in make dishes magical. You can use it on any meat, especially chicken and fish.
 
Butter consists of three major components: water, fat and milk solids. The general idea for making clarified butter is that you melt it slowly over a low flame until the water boils off and the milk fat separates and floats to the top. Then, you pour it through a cheesecloth lined sieve to strain out the milk solids, leaving you with the pure fat. It can take a lot more heat that regular butter and it's extremely stable unrefrigerated. It can last for about a month sitting on the counter. Forms of clarified butter are extremely common all over the world where refrigeration is not as readily available.

Niter Kibbeh is basically the same as clarified butter, but toasted spices are included during the clarifying process and it is also cooked at a slightly higher temperature to impart a bit of extra flavor from when the milk solids caramelize. The flavor is left behind even though the milk solids are strained out later.

Since it does so well in high heat, it's excellent for sauteing chicken, fish, pork or even beef on the stove and the exotic spices will really take your cooking up a level. People love the spice combination and usually end up unsuccessfully trying to figure out what's in it. If you have any foody friends, this can make an extremely unique homemade gift for them. Pour some into a cool jar after straining and voila!

All these spices can be found at your regular grocery store except for Fenugreek, which is easily found at Indian food stores. There's powder (called "Methi") or seeds available. Either work, but my recipe uses powder. If you get seeds, just grind them in a grinder or with a mortar and pestle.


Berbere: The exotic spice mixture that is the backbone of all Ethiopian Cuisine

Everything you need to make Berbere (you'll only need the rasp if shaving fresh nutmeg)
My grandfather lived in Ethiopia in the late 1960s and my father visited several times, once staying for almost a year. Unfortunately, my grandfather died before I was born but my father introduced us to Ethiopian cuisine at a very young age. The next several blog posts will be about Ethiopian cuisine. It is truly its own delicious and unique experience, but the only thing I could remotely compare it to is Indian food.

Ethiopian cuisine is basically made up of 3 components:
  • Wat - the spiced vegetable casserole-like side dish (usually collard greens, cabbage, beans or potatoes)
  • Tibbs - the most common style of stewed meat (there are others as well)
  • Injera - a flat sourdough type bread with a delicious tang and a spongey texture
Injera is used to line the serving tray. The tibbs and wat are placed in a small pile on it. Additional injera is served like a tortilla so you can tear off very small pieces and use it to pick up the food. The tangyness of the injera brings its own fun to the party. In traditional Ethiopian cuisine, there are no silverware involved.

This particular post is about how to make Berbere, which is a blend of spices that is the backbone of almost all Ethiopian cuisines. Not to be confused with the talentless Canadian entertainer, Berbere has an exotic taste that I can't really compare to any other flavor. When I smell it in its uncooked form the first thing that comes to mind is, "MMmm! This would be delicious as a Doritos corn chip flavor." Does that put it into perspective for you? :)

It can be difficult to find in stores and the versions I've found don't taste quite right. Many of the same spices are needed to make niter kibbeh (or qibe), the spiced butter that is the other backbone, so I just make my own since I'll need them to make the spiced butter anyway.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Easy one pot beer braised pot roast


I couldn't even wait to take a picture before chowing down!

There's pot roast, then there's pot roast everyone wants the recipe for. This is that pot roast. Quick and easy to assemble yet delicious enough to be served at a sophisticated dinner party. I promise you, it'll be the best thing you've put in your mouth this year! Julia Child's boeuf bourguignon recipe is hands down the best beef dish ever invented in the history of the world and this is a close second.

The secret to making a tender pot roast is slow cooking the correct type of beef. The most flavorful tender pot roast is always made with beef chuck. You can use boneless or bone-in, but the bone in adds a tremendous amount of flavor and a silkiness to the sauce because of the gelatin in the bone. When this pot roast is finished cooking, it literally falls apart so you can easy pick up the bone and throw it away. I usually go with bone-in, but really it's whatever is on sale. The important thing is to make sure it's a chuck roast. Any other type of beef roast is generally better for faster cooking and will get a mealy, chalky texture to it when you slow cook it.

The main secret to flavor is browning the meat before slow cooking it. When the surface of beef is browned, it's called the Maillard Reaction and produces a tremendous amount of beefy flavor that you just can't get anywhere else. I believe in simple one pot cooking, but you can't brown meat in a crock pot so crock pot meals taste very flat and one dimensional. You could brown a roast before putting it in the crock pot, but then you've got two pans to clean. Instead, I brown everything in a pot then move the pot to a 195F oven for the same amount of time. Also, keeping meat between 190F and 200F for an extended time is the golden zone where the collagen and tissues break down producing a tender flavorful roast. Crock pots work based on wattage (not temperature) so the results can be unpredictable.

Sometimes, beef pot roast can taste quite bland - like boiled meat. This recipe is designed to add a lot of strong flavors that really punch up the beef flavor. You can change things up a bit, but the ratios of the liquid ingredients shouldn't be altered. The vinegar/brown sugar gives it an amazing mild sweet & sour kapow and the beef stock reduces keeps it at just the right amount of mildness. The recipe works great with different types of beer and mushrooms, but I find that Portobella are easy to clean because they're so large. Also, they stand up to cooking overnight really well and are still firm enough to throw back in at the end. Button mushrooms are a little soft and squishy by that point.

One of the reasons I love this dish is it's best when you throw it in the oven the night before. Before heading to work in the morning, you strain it and toss it into the fridge before heading to work. When you come home, all the fat will have floated to the top and solidified so you can easily toss it, making this a low fat meal.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Simple and sinful: Mimi's Fruit Cobbler



Mimi's Fruit Cobbler

If there is one thing a US Southerner loves from an early age, it's fruit cobbler! It's our favorite dessert for almost any occasion and is especially great for a grill out or barbeque. During my lifetime, I've probably eaten at least quadruple my weight in cobbler. This is a southern style fruit cobbler where the breading part is actually on  bottom and bakes up through the fruit.

The problem is that neither of my grandmothers ever made homemade cobbler because it was so readily available at every restaurant. As a result, I never learned to make a good cobbler. I tried all kinds of crazy recipes and not a one of them was just right.
Any kind of fruit works great for this, but you may need to adjust the amount of sugar added directly to the fruit based on the type. Fruits that are naturally sweet (or very ripe) may need less sugar than fruits that are tart or aren't quite ripe yet. Also, she used Publix grocery store brand of self-rising flour and poured it from the bag into a measuring cup. How you measure can have a big impact.

She was kind enough to grant permission for sharing this recipe with you as long as we credit her grandmother for the amazingness you're about to taste. Without further ado, I give you Mimi's Fruit Cobbler.

Pasta Nicole - easy and delicious! (The pasta, not Nicole!)

Pasta Nicole

A few years ago, my friend Nicole and I traveled around Italy. She was an American living in Sicily at the time. Our other friend said that getting us through the streets without veering into every shop was like trying to herd cats. It was kind of true. :)

The food was amazing, but totally not what I expected it to be. In the US, we're familiar with the big heavy garlic-laden sauces that cook on the stove for hours until they have an almost ketchup-like quality to them.

To truly understand Italian food, you have to understand the country. Until 1861, it was a collection of much smaller countries with different cultures and styles of food. Sicily is the island at the tip of the boot. Due to its geographical separation, the cultural difference between Sicily and the rest of Italy are quite large. (They'll be the first to tell you that they're Sicilian, not Italian. And if you disagree, get ready for a fight!) Sicily was, and still is, the poorest part of Italy. It's also hands-down the most beautiful part. It's absolutely breathtaking. Most of the Italians that immigrated to other countries are from there and brought the heavy cooked sauces with them.

In the rest of Italy, food is very different. My second trip there was during the winter and I'll never forget asking for lots of basil with my dish. The restaurant owner looked confused. I thought perhaps it was a language barrier and tried to ask again, pointing to a picture of basil on the wall. He said, "I understand you. I just don't understand why you're asking for something that isn't in season." And it clicked for me.

Nicole later taught me that Italians are really into simple dishes with extremely fresh seasonal ingredients that pack a lot of taste. In the winter, they eat cream sauces (mushrooms with truffle oil = divine!) because dairy and mushrooms are still available. During the summer and spring, they eat the lighter vegetable and tomato dishes. She introduced me to her favorite which was simply made with pasta, chopped tomatoes, fresh basil, and buffalo mozzarella. Not even any olive oil. It was HEAVEN! Who knew something so simple could be so ridiculously delicious?? (I'm no food historian, but I'm pretty certain the Italian flag was designed to mimic the colors in this amazing dish!)

Everyone's grandmother has a recipe with involves opening a can of tomatoes, throwing in a bunch of deyhyrdrated herbs and cooking for hours until it turns to ketchup. I still love my grandmother's sauce, but sometimes I want something that tastes "brighter" and can be whipped up in 15 minutes. I wouldn't dare suggest anyone deviate from their "secret" family recipe for Italian ketchup, but I'd like to introduce you to my favorite dish that better represents the rest of Italy.

The key to this recipe is getting quality ingredients. When you smell the tomatoes in the store, they should have a strong tomato smell. Mosquitos should fear the basil. Contrary to what many think, garlic is like a "bull in the China cabinet" to Italians. It's added for subtle flavor, not to keep away vampires. A large number of the dishes don't include garlic at all. This dish, in particular, is much better without garlic as it eclipses the complexity of the salted tomatoes and fresh basil.

This recipe is to give you a general guideline of proportions. Add more or less to suit your tastes. This dish is something delicious that authentic Italians just eat... I don't believe it has an actual name, so, I'm calling it Pasta Nicole since she introduced me to it. :)


Saturday, July 20, 2013

4 Ingredient Cake from Scratch

This is one of my favorite "go to" recipes when I need to whip up a cake quickly. There's only 4 simple ingredients and it comes out perfectly every single time. It's a great cake to make because the structure depends more upon the eggs and it actually has very little flour. This means not only is it very stable, but you can add any type of homemade flavored simple syrup to it to make it extremely moist and have it any flavor you want!

This light, airy cake also works well for layering tall cakes or is delicious with something simple like berries and whip cream. It's almost like a moist and tender angel food cake but with more "cake-like" flavor.

The ingredient list is for 1 9" layer, but you can change the yield to update the ingredient quantities for the number of layers you want. The pictures below are from making this TARDIS cake which was a total of 7 layers. I'd already made 3 layers the night before so there are only 4 layers in the photos.

Even if making a square cake, I find that a round cake pan cooks a lot more evenly and produces a better quality cake. If you need to, you can cut off the edges and carefully piece them together to make an extra layer or two in the cake. I like to use the leftover cake parts to make cake balls with. Holla!



Tardis cake: It's Bigger on the Inside!

Here's the 7 layer key lime TARDIS cake I made for a friend's birthday. The outside was made of melted white chocolate that was kneaded into a moulding clay.

Special thanks to CakesByChoppA who did this terrific YouTube video on how to make a TARDIS cake. Another special thanks to MyCupcakeaddiction who did the instructional video an how to turn white chocolate into a moulding clay so it could be used like fondant for the cake. You guys are awesome!

You don't know what the TARDIS is? Well, it's the space ship that Dr Who uses to travel through time and space. It's disguised on the outside as a blue British police telephone box.

The key to making a tall verticle layer cake is having a really good spongecake recipe. It has to be tender, but also strong and light enough to withstand so many layers without extra support.

This is my first time working with melted chocolate as a "moulding clay" and it was surprisingly easy to work with. It took two days to make the chocolate exterior because you have to knead it, then leave it to sit overnight, then repeat. I'm not by any stretch an artist, so the cake looks a little bit juvenile.

At the last minute, I panicked because there were holes cut out for the windows and I'd forgotten to leave out a bit of white chocolate before working the food coloring into it. A quick 2AM Google later, and the liquid "sugar glass" was being poured into the window holes with much worry that the white chocolate frame would melt. It didn't. Score!

The real TARDIS travels through time and space and looks a bit dingy so I rubbed on black food coloring (especially into the cracks) to make it look a little bit more dimensional (ha!)

I realized this morning that I'd forgotten to put little window panes on the glass or add the little lock on the door, but you can't win them all.

I ordered a small self contained LED light to stick on top, but it was delayed in shipment so improvisation was necessary.

All in all, my specialty lies in deliciousness not beauty so I'm pleased with it for something so far outside of my comfort zone.



Everyone should have a TARDIS!
 
 
It's bigger on the inside! And it goes great with homemade strawberry cheesecake ice cream

 
 
 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Top 10 Macaron Tips

There's a lot of information on the interwebz about macarons that's a bit dodgy. After learning to make them in a class, I couldn't wait to get home and re-create them. The horrid frustration that followed was staggering. It seems many people had the same experience, and by the time someone is able to produce something even remotely resembling a macaron, it seems they call it a success and post the steps. The problem is, they're not. A macaron isn't just a meringue-like cookie with filling. It's has a unique heavenly texture that is like no other.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Royal Blueberry Muffins



We've got a dry, crumbly muffin epidemic on our hands. The casualties number in the thousands. Every day, people are choking down tasteless, dry muffins. (Queue the music from Les Mis.) From delis to bakeries nationwide, this simple yet delicious confection has become an abomination. I'm here to put an end to this madness!

A good muffin should be light, fluffy and have just the right amount of moisture. Accompanying it with coffee or a cold glass of milk should be an enhancement, not a requirement to choke down the crumbs. When you cut open the muffin, the air holes should be small and uniform. The top of the muffin should be slightly crip and have some cracks in it for extra structure.

I love blueberries, but they can sometimes taste a bit one dimensional. The secret to kicking them up to that next step is to reduce the sugar in the batter then add the sugar back to the top as a flavored glaze. The flavor adds another dimension and the glaze adds a bit of "crisp" texture to the top that really elevates blueberries to a level fit for royalty. (Note that the sugar in this recipe was reduced to keep the flavor balanced because of the glaze on top. If you skip the glaze, the muffins won't taste sweet enough.)

You can use fresh or frozen blueberries. I'm kind of a fan of frozen because they're usually smaller, but it's currently blueberry season and the produce stand has a grip on my little black soul. This blueberry consumption is going to turn me into Violet Beauregarde!

Cake and Muffin 101

My grandmother has to be one of the most giving people in the entire world. She spent most of her time doing things for other people and when I was 9 years old and her birthday rolled around, I decided she needed a cake. Not just any old nasty boxed cake mix, but a real, homemade cake straight from the heart. Strawberries were her favorite, and dang it, she was going to have a strawberry cake so she knew how special she was to us.

The look on her face was worth it all! Unfortunately, at the ripe old age of 9 I was struggling to comprehend the concept of baking, much less understanding the difference between baking soda and baking powder. The cake didn't rise... at all. It was about an inch thick but my grandmother was a trooper. She just kept sawing, determined to cut that brick-like cake and pretend nothing was wrong. I was the first to burst into laughter and it was a domino effect. That night is one of my favorite childhood memories, and it's also the night a baker was born.

Nearly 3 decades and many cakes later, I'm sharing the tips I've accumulated to make a perfect, fluffy tender cake.

The first thing to determine is if you're making cake or bread. "What? That's a silly question," you say? It's sort of a trick question. Banana bread, zucchini bread, and Irish soda bread are all cakes, not breads. They're mislabeled as "breads" due to their loaf shape. What's the difference between a cake and bread? Yeast? Nope! The difference is gluten.

Once you wet the flour and start mixing it, the flour proteins stretch and gluten is created. Gluten is chewy and tough and is what holds bread together. But you don't want cake to be chewy and tough, you want it to be light, delicate and airy. (For reference, a glazed donut is made with yeast but it isn't kneaded so there's almost no gluten. It's actually a fried cake.) Over-mixing the flour is the number two cause of mediocre cakes!

I prefer King Arthur brand flour because it has a lower protein content resulting in better cakes. If you're interested in additional information about the difference between all purpose flour, cake flour, bread flour and the others, it's primarily the protein content resulting in different levels and structures of gluten. More info can be found here on the King Arthur website.

The next thing you need to know is how to properly measure. You must must must weigh your dry ingredients, especially the flour. A scale is only $40 USD. If you're outside the US, you're already doing this. If you're in the US like me, you're not yet using the metric system. Once as an experiment, I used a whisk to fluff up my flour before properly scooping it into a 1 cup measuring cup. I weighed the flour and found that it was 189 grams. What's the problem? The problem is that a cup of flour is 125 grams. That's a 50% increase! Can you imagine what that would do to a cake? Talk about dry. My word! Not even a glass of milk would help choke that thing down. You never know how accurately someone measured the flour in their recipe, so I tend to stick with recipes that have it listed in weight for consistent results. (The first time making a recipe that's measured in cups, I use about 150g per cup of flour, then adjust next time accordingly.) Traditional Oven is a terrific website with weight conversion calculators for different ingredients. Each dry ingredient will have a different weight conversion. Not properly weighing flour is the number one cause of failure for cakes!

Now that all the basics are covered, regardless of the instructions included with the recipe, here's how to make sure your cakes are always perfect.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

French Macarons - the Pierre Hermes method



French Macarons (or just Macarons) are the unicorn of the pastry world. They're the new cupcake, but on steroids. The texture is divine and the unending flavor possibilities are off the hook. Nobody can resist them. I've just started teaching friends how to make them and hopefully soon there'll be private classes in the neighborhood and maybe even at the local college extension.  I do it for love. This deliciousness must be shared with others!

What is a macaron? It's a light airy cookie sandwich. If a marshmallow, a merigue and frangipane had a baby, it would be a macaron. The outside has a thin light crisp and the inside has a moist chewy cake texture. One cookie and you'll be hooked. (It's pronounced with a long "o", like "macaroni" but without the "i". This should not be confused with a "macaroon" which is actually a coconut type cookie that's very popular in America.)

My first encounter with them was at a local Winter Park bakery called Le Macaron and it was love at first bite. Hundreds were consumed during a recent month long trip around Northern France, which ended with a macaron class in Paris.

Immediately upon arriving home, I was ready to begin making them. Batch after batch. I made, remade, tweaked and learned. They're easy to make as long as you follow these steps to the letter. During my journey, I discovered that there's a whole lot of misconceptions and bogus information on the net. I'll write another post debunking and clarifying macaron myths.

This post; however, is all about how to make delicious authentic macarons.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Chewy Chocolate Cherry Oatmeal Protein Bars


My cousin and friends came to visit a few weeks ago to run the Disney 2013 marathon. What a great time! To be properly carbed for the race, my friend Amy baked a delicious oatmeal breakfast casserole. Total score for me, oatmeal is my favorite breakfast food! After they left, I started wondering if I could create something more like a soft, chewy protein bar on-the-go type recipe.
 
I was largely experimenting and there are few things more rewarding than an experiement that turns out great on the first try! Here's the proportions I used and why each ingredient was added.
 

Friday, January 4, 2013

Baked Chinese Buns stuffed with Korean Bulgogi


It seems my entire adult life has been spent searching for the perfect dinner roll recipe. I trolled Epicurious.com, read issue after issue of Cook's Illustrated and tried zillions of bread book and online recipes. I was looking for something extremely buttery, yeasty, slightly sweet and very soft... almost gooey. Failure. Disappointment. It was just like a phone conversation with my mother. My Kitchen Aid and I were about to throw in the towel. Then one day I found it! Alton Brown had come through yet once again. His Parker House dinner roll recipe was the one. It was everything I had hoped for. His recipe was specifically for making the Parker House version which has you put a piece of butter in the middle of each roll (delicious), but the dough works equally well for any shape you want to make. I've been experimenting with various creative ways to use this buttery yeasty deliciousness because I need more of it in my life.

On my flight home from Dallas to Orlando after Christmas break, I met a passenger who loved to bake as well. She shared stories about all kinds of interesting dishes she'd made while home visiting her family. Her family was of German heritage and one of the dishes in particular stood out to me, bierock. I was so excited about this new discovery that I had to look it up on my Smart phone as soon as we landed. It's basically a dinner roll stuffed with ground beef, onion and cabbage but it didn't have much along the way of seasonings. Compared to the other German dishes I was familiar with, it seemed like it might be a little bland so I filed it away to the back of my mind for further philosophical pondering.

Today, I had exactly 1/2 lb of leftover ground beef. That's not really a lot to work with. What to do with it? Then it clicked.... bierock! Except, I didn't have cabbage on hand and was still hoping to find a way to spice it up just a bit. Suddenly, I had another epiphany - bulgogi! (What? TWO epiphanies in the same day? I feel just like Nostradamus!) Bulgogi is a delicious Korean BBQ-esque dish where beef is sliced very thin, seared then cooked with soy sauce and brown sugar, fresh grated ginger then topped with fresh scallions. (Ironically, I had first had this a few years ago when on an extended trip to Japan, not Korea. As much as I love sushi, after eating it 3 times a day I needed a break so I ordered Domino's pizza and it was one of the pizza topping choices. I've been in love with it ever since!)

I wondered how it would taste if I made the ground beef into bulgogi, then used it to stuff the dinner rolls. Alright! So... a plan of action was now set in motion that would change the culinary world forever. Ok, maybe it wouldn't. But, I was pretty excited about it.

Introduction

Hi there! I'm glad you decided to stop by. This is my little place on the web where I can post pictures of things I want to share with other people who have common interests.

My favorite things to do are cook, travel and decorate/craft. I don't claim to be good at any of them... except maybe cooking. Baking is my favorite past time and I think Alton Brown is the bee's knees. I believe cooking is more of a science than an art, which may explain my inclination towards baking, but each dish is a unique adventure. I tend to weigh my dry ingredients for exact measure and make notes on recipes for future improvements. (There's nothing worse than creating something spectacular only to discover that you can never recreate it again!)

I'm a software developer who has to travel to my clients frequently so I take full advantage of the travel perks to see the whole world. There's no place I don't want to see and I'll probably soon be in a town near you.

Comments from readers are welcome as I'm always looking for advice or tips on how something could be done better.

I'm looking forward to reading your blogs as well.

Ciao!

Christopher