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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.