Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Raspberry Pavlovas

The Setting: Melting snow, vanishing clouds, messy apartment.

The Soundtrack: Gilmore Girls, Season 4

Steaming up the Oven: Meringue Pavlovas

The Scenario: Working on some Valentine's Day ideas....

If you haven't noticed, I have a bit of a thing for meringues (Peppermint Bark Meringues, Meringue Ghosts).

For Valentine's Day I thought I'd up the romantic ante and turn my classic meringues into Raspberry Pavlovas, or individual meringue wells filled with Chantilly cream and topped with fresh raspberries.

Easy on the eyes and almost as easy to throw together, this impressive looking dessert is perfect for a Valentine's Day dinner party or an intimate dinner for two.

Raspberry Pavlovas
2 egg whites
1/8 tsp cream of tartar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup sugar
Chantilly cream, recipe follows
2 cups fresh raspberries (Do not rinse the raspberries, as they will become waterlogged. Instead, gently pat them with a damp paper towel.)

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. If you desire, you can use a 3-inch biscuit cutter or coffee cup to trace circles on the back side of the parchment paper to give yourself a guide for piping. I like to wing it.

Beat the egg whites, cream of tartar, and vanilla with an electric mixer just until stiff peaks start to form. With mixer on, beat in sugar 1 T at a time, allowing each addition to become incorporated.

Gently transfer the mixture to a piping bag and pipe five 3-inch circles of meringue on the parchment. Fill in the circles, and make two more unfilled circles on top of each to create wells.

Bake at 300 degrees F for 25 minutes or until cream-colored, crispy on the edges, and just set in the centers. Since meringues are very delicate and oven temperatures vary, peek at these after 15 minutes. If they appear to be taking on too much color, reduce the oven temp slightly.

Cool to room temperature before very gently removing from the parchment paper. Handle with care.

To serve, fill each well with Chantilly cream and fresh raspberries.

Chantilly Cream
Chantilly cream is a fancy name for sweetened whipped cream flavored with vanilla. This one is sweetened very lightly because the meringues are so sweet already.

1 cup heavy whipping cream
2 T powdered sugar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract

Combine all ingredients in an electric mixer on med-low speed. Beat for 2 minutes. Gradually increase speed to med-high and beat just till the cream holds stiff peaks. Store leftover Chantilly Cream in an airtight container in the fridge for up to one week.

Extra meringues can be carefully placed in a flat, single layer in a zip-top plastic bag and stored at room temperature for up to 3 days. 

The perfect bite will have a bit of everything: chewy, marshmallowy meringue, light and fluffy Chantilly Cream, and the sweet-tart burst of raspberry, flecked with crunchy bits of meringue crust. In the mood yet? 

Thanks for reading! Here's to Being the Secret Ingredient in your life!

Friday, January 27, 2012

Bacon and Eggs Pizza

The Setting: There are streaks of blue vying for space amidst the clouds and birds merrily chirping outside my window. Did I wake up in a Disney movie...or better yet...Spring?

The Soundtrack: The lovely avian Disney extras.

Steaming up the (microwave) Oven: Water for hot tea, Country Peach Passion to be precise.

The Scenario: There are two things I learned in college that are more useful to me now than my bachelor degree.

1) Breakfast makes a great dinner.

2) Pizza makes a great breakfast.

This pizza is proof of both.

A simple homemade pizza dough (though you could easily substitute store-bought) is slathered with a creamy green-chili-pepper sauce and then crowned with scrambled eggs, cheddar cheese, and bacon.

You don't need a degree to know that's gonna be good.

Morgan's Pizza Dough
10 oz bread flour
1 tsp active dry yeast
1 T olive oil, plus more for coating bowl
1 T honey
6 oz warm water
1 tsp kosher salt

Using the paddle attachment of an electric mixer, combine flour and yeast.

Add oil, honey, and warm water, mixing just until dough comes together.

Switch to the dough hook, add salt, and knead on medium-to-med-high speed (6 on a KitchenAid) for six minutes or till stretchy, smooth, and pliable.

Transfer dough to large bowl coated with olive oil, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise at room temperature for 90 minutes or till doubled in size.

Lift up the edges of the dough all the way around and tuck back under, gently releasing some of the gas that has built up. Cover and allow to rest for another 90 minutes.

Using a rolling pin, roll to desired shape and thickness (I like to do this on a Silpat or parchment paper). Transfer to a baking sheet or pizza pan dusted with coarse cornmeal.

Creamy Green-Chili-Pepper Sauce
7 oz plain Greek yogurt (I use Fage 2%)
1 whole (everything but the stem) fresh spicy banana pepper (or green chili pepper of your preference)
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp freshly cracked black pepper

Place all sauce ingredients in a blender and process till smooth.

Spread evenly over pizza dough in pan.

Bacon and Eggs
3 slices raw bacon, diced
3 large eggs
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp freshly cracked black pepper
1/4 tsp granulated garlic
3/4 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.

Fry bacon in a small nonstick skillet till fat has rendered out and bacon is fully cooked but not overly crispy. Carefully transfer bacon to a small cup or bowl and set aside, retaining as much of the fat in the skillet as possible.

Add the eggs, salt, pepper, and garlic to the skillet and cook gently over med-low heat, immediately stirring to break up the yolks and scramble the eggs. Continuing to stir, cook until the eggs are mostly opaque but still very wet, 2-3 minutes. Let sit off the heat for 1 minute.

Drop small clumps of egg evenly over the green chili sauce. Sprinkle cheese evenly over the top and follow with the bacon.

Bake at 425 degrees F for 20 minutes or till crust and cheese are golden and bubbly.

Thanks for reading! Here's to Being the Secret Ingredient in your life!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Orange Cream Pavers

The Setting: A quiet apartment, becoming ever-so-slightly more organized daily.

The Soundtrack: Just the rock and click of Oia's swing--she's sleeping!

Steaming up the Oven: Turkey, Kale, and Potato Soup

The Scenario: Another "oops" leads to "somebody take these away from me before I become a human sugar cube."

Over the holidays I had a list of things I wanted to cook, bake, or whip up, but you know how it goes...there's only so much time.

One of the things that got pushed off the list was an intriguing recipe for Homemade Peppermint Patties I had seen circulating around the web (I believe the recipe is originally from Savory Sweet Life; I stumbled upon it at Krissys-Creations).

You mix together sweetened condensed milk and powdered sugar, flavor the fluff with peppermint extract, shape into little disks, and coat in chocolate. Zip. Bam. Boom.

Having missed the holidays, but approaching Valentine's Day, I conceived a cherry version: light pink on the inside, hold the peppermint.

Since I try to avoid using artificial flavorings and colorings, I imagined this treat would glean its flavor and hue from tart cherry juice, an idea that seemed, even at the time, unlikely to be fruitful.

I mixed 1/4 cup Pom cherry pomegranate juice (the only option available at my local grocer) into the sweetened condensed milk and admired the dark pink swirls. Not a bad start.

But as I added cupfuls of confectioner's sugar, the pink became more purple, then more gray, then just gross. I swiped my finger through the mixture and brought it to my tongue.

Hmm...sweet...not very cherry...kind of musty tasting...not...good.

I added 1/4 tsp pure almond extract, hoping to enhance the cherry flavor. Still a no-go.

Should I just scrap it? Knitting my brows and digging in my heals, I resolved not to wash four cups of powdered sugar and all my good intentions down the drain.

Then I remembered the bag of oranges sitting in the fridge. Perfect!

I added the zest of one orange, half a teaspoon each of vanilla and spiced rum, the rest of the powdered sugar, and a prayer.

The gross gray color faded to white, and the taste, though still overly sweet on its own, would stand up well to dark chocolate.

The down side?

I can't stop eating these things!

Find the original recipe for Peppermint Patties at Savory Sweet Life, and try them (or my Orange Cream Pavers) for yourself.

Note: I don't mix my chocolate with shortening, as called for in the original recipe, which is why my patties, or Pavers, lack the flawless sheen of the originals. If, like me, you try to avoid using hydrogenated fats, or you just don't have any shortening on hand, you can omit it--just expect a thicker and more rugged chocolate exterior like what you see here.

Thanks for reading! Here's to Being the Secret Ingredient in your life!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Morgan's Country Cornbread: Coloring Outside the Lines

The Setting: It's twenty-nine degrees Fahrenheit and overcast outside, but my apartment smells like Thanksgiving, and the place is cleaner than it was when I woke up, so it's a good day.

The Soundtrack: A very full washing machine.

On The Stove-top: Turkey Stock.

The Scenario: Sometimes different is good.

When Hoosband and I decided to roast our post-Thanksgiving, discount turkey yesterday afternoon, I naturally got to work on some cornbread so we could make a little dressing to go with the bird.

But as the sweet and savory aromas of cornmeal, butter, honey, and a kiss of bacon grease filled the air, I questioned my resolve to transform those ingredients any further.

Pulling the steaming pan of golden goodness out of the oven, I thought, "Now this is alchemy."

Unable to resist taking a bite before dinner, I realized this recipe was simply too good not to share.

But I had some reservations:

While the results are medal-worthy, this recipe has all the finesse of a figure-skating hippopotamus.

The methods are not streamlined or logical or familiar.

The ingredients are contentious.

But I've tried to make my cornbread conform many times before, and, darn it, my way's better.

So read the recipe, ask me questions if you'd like, and try it if you dare.

Morgan's Country Cornbread
Southerners will argue for days over cornbread, as it is one of THE Southern staples. Many folks say the true Southern stuff is strictly savory, calling sweeter versions Yankee, but I find my lightly honey-sweetened cornbread somehow sings of The South even more than the solitarily savory, cast-iron-skillet cornbread I grew up on. Sweet or savory, it's the crispy, bacon-kissed crust and moist, buttery crumb of this perfectly balanced cornbread that makes it a Southern country classic worth trying wherever you live.

3 T melted rendered bacon fat, plus any little browned bits, the fresher the better
1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup yellow stone-ground cornmeal (I use Bob's Red Mill)
1 tsp kosher salt
2 tsp baking powder
1 cup skim milk
1/4 cup honey
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter
1 large egg

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Place the bacon fat in a 7"x11" pan, and gently shake to coat evenly.

In a medium-large bowl, whisk together the flour, cornmeal, salt, and baking powder. Set aside.

Place the whole stick of butter in a microwave-safe glass and microwave for 30 seconds (butter should be half-melted).

In a smaller bowl or 2-cup Pyrex measuring cup, whisk together milk, honey, and all of the butter. This is where things get weird.

The butter should start to separate and get clumped up in the whisk. Gently tap off any excess liquid on the side of the bowl, and then transfer the butter clumps to the cornmeal mixture, knocking the whisk on the side of the cornmeal bowl to help release them. Repeat to retrieve any large remaining butter clumps if necessary. Set the milk mixture aside.

Use the whisk to cut the butter clumps into the dry ingredients, knocking large clumps out against the side of the bowl as necessary, until the mixture is the consistency of coarse sand and the largest pieces are roughly pea-sized. Make a well in the center of the bowl.

Whisk the egg into the milk mixture.

Pour the milk mixture into the cornmeal mixture, using a wooden spoon or rubber spoonula to combine. Mixture should be a little lumpy but there should be no visible dry patches--do not over mix.

Transfer mixture to the greased pan and bake at 425 degrees F for 18-20 minutes or until the top is gently domed and light golden, the edges are deep golden, and the center is set. You will be tempted to cut into it immediately, but it will be even better if you let it cool completely.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Snow Showers and Cranberry Bliss

The Setting: I can just make out the spindly, black, two-dimensional backdrop of the tree line across the parking lot from my window. Everything else is WHITE.

The Soundtrack: Oia's babbles, grunts, and sighs--she's trying to learn to crawl.

Steaming up the (microwave) Oven: Leftover sweet potato curry with barley.

The Scenario: When your favorite boots, sweaters, and lovely knitted scarves have been stowed away for years because until recently you lived in the land of perpetual sunbathing, winter sounds like a winning concept for fashion purposes alone.

Cozy Currier and Ives images sled through your dreams, filling your fantasies with sleigh rides, snowmen and white Christmases...which is great...till the clock strikes twelve on New Year's Day.

Once the ball drops, sweaters go on clearance, bikinis take the floor, and images of Gidget or Frankie and Annette are the new ideal.

Too bad, since for most of us (latitude 35 and above) that's when Jack Frost is just coming out to play.

The worst part is, just to make sure you know that the fun times are over and serious winter has set in, the coffee shops take away the festive spiced lattes and the cheery holiday desserts you've been downing all December.

You can no longer linger over a comforting cranberry bar while your frostbitten fingers are counting the days till May....

Or can you?

Coffee Shop Christmas Cranberry Bars
Yes, I am a major Starbucks addict. Though I've tamed the raging latte-a-day habit I held for years, when the red cups come out, I have to have a Cranberry Bliss Bar. I admit I get a little depressed when they hibernate after the holidays, but now I can have one whenever I'd like, and so can you! Slightly chewier and richer in flavor than the real deals, these might just be my new favorite.

2 sticks butter
1 cup light brown sugar
1 1/2 T very finely minced crystalized ginger
1 T freshly grated orange zest
1 large egg
1 tsp spiced rum (optional)
1 1/2 cups bread flour
1 tsp kosher salt (or 1/2 tsp fine-grain salt)
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 cups white chocolate chunks or chips, divided
2 cups sweetened dried cranberries, coarsely chopped, divided

For the Icing:
8 oz Neufchatel or reduced fat cream cheese
2/3 cup powdered sugar, sifted
1 tsp orange juice
1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract

Butter a 9"x13" cake pan and preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Cream the butter, brown sugar, crystalized ginger, and orange zest together with an electric mixer till light and fluffy. Add egg and rum (if using), beating till well mixed.

In a separate bowl whisk together the flour, salt, soda and powder. Add to butter mixture, beating on low speed to incorporate. Gently blend in 1 3/4 cups chopped cranberries and 1 1/4 cups white chocolate chips or chunks (reserving the remainders for garnish).

Spread dough into prepared pan and bake for 15-20 minutes or until golden brown on top and just set in the center--do not overbake. Allow to cool completely in pan before frosting.

While the sheet is cooling, beat all icing ingredients together in a clean bowl with the electric mixer till smooth.

When the pan is cool to the touch, spread the icing evenly over the top and sprinkle with reserved cranberries.

Place reserved white chocolate in a microwave-safe cup or mug and microwave for 30 seconds. Stir vigorously with a fork. If necessary, continue microwaving for 15-second intervals, stirring vigorously after each until the white chocolate can be stirred completely smooth. Drizzle the white chocolate over the top of the sheet using the fork. Allow white chocolate to harden (at least 15 minutes) before cutting into bars.

Monday, January 16, 2012

And the Winner is....

The Setting: Our humble apartment, brimming with bags to be unpacked from our month-long Holiday.

The Soundtrack: Oia's gentle snoring.

Steaming up the oven: Cinnamon Toast.

The Scenario: Back from break, some announcements to make.

Christmas break was exceptional.

We got to spend three weeks in Nashville with family and friends and one week in Destin, just the three of us.

It was wonderful to spend our first family vacation and Oia's first time at the beach in the same spot I visited when I was her size. So many memories.

Oia's first swim
It's hard to believe I've splashed around in this very pool for almost 30 years now.

While we were in Destin we heard that someone had made an offer on my family's condo (which was not for sale).

I don't know if this or any offers will be considered--I will have very little impact on the decision, as my grandparents bought the condo in the late 70s with two other families, and I am a measly one-third-stake grandchild in the situation--but I cannot express how much of a loss I will feel if it sells.

Either way, it was a joy to share it with Oia for the first time and to clink glasses of bubbly, reliving old memories, with Hoosband (we got engaged on the deck of the condo New Year's Day, 2009).

Now that we're back in South Bend, there's an apartment to be organized, new Christmas gifts to make room for, and loads of yummy dishes on my to-bake list.

Santa--and family--blessed us with some gifts that should make life a little easier around here: a bouncer and a highchair for Oia...

...and a new computer for me!

For the last year or two I've been co-opting Hoosband's computer whenever I could, but as my stepfather says, "If you're a writer, you need a computer."

I'll happily agree.

The other thing I need, to appease the cook in me, the one who likes to go through dishes like my daughter goes through diapers, is a dishwasher.

And while Santa may not have had room for one on his sleigh, Hoosband says there's a counter-top model out there somewhere with my name on it!

I am especially glad for all these time- and sanity-savers because I have some big projects in the works, and I have a feeling I will need all the help I can get.

I'm excited (and nervous!) to announce that I am officially (because if it's on the blog, it's official) working on my first cookbook.

I'll keep you posted as the milestones progress, but for now, just know it's been a long time in the brainstorming, and it will likely take even longer in the execution.

There will be a lot more room in our wallets than there will be in our waistlines by the time this thing is done, but that is just the way the recipe is written.

I hope you will be as excited as me to see how it turns out!

And now, finally, the announcement everyone has really been waiting for, the winner of the OXO "Good Cookie" Spatula...

Congratulations, Fraziertoo!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Cold Feet

Barefoot in Miramar Beach, FL

The Setting: A snowy night in Nashville.

The Soundtrack: Winter Wipeout on TV. It's pretty ridiculous.

Steaming up the (Microwave) Oven: Hoosband's Homemade Hot Cocoa.

The Scenario: Winter vacation is almost over, but winter itself is just getting started.

Snow is blanketing the majority of the nation as I type, and I am considering hibernation.

It's 27 degrees here in Nashville, 73 degrees in Ft. Lauderdale (where we were this time last year), and 19 degrees in Notre Dame (where we're heading).

This is the time of the year when it really sinks in: we are so not in South Florida anymore.

We have, however, had a wonderful winter break split between Nashville and North Florida.

While I hate to get my toes out of the ocean and back into woolen socks, I am left with plenty of inspiration, new favorite foods and flavors.

There will be much to reflect on over the coming months while I do my best to keep warm in our frosty apartment.

For now I'll leave you with some of the highlights....

Writing on the porchswing

Nature and dune trails at Grayton Beach State Park

Sweet Potato Pancakes and Corned Beef Hash at The Donut Hole

Hillsboro Village, Nashville, TN

Grabbing ice cream at Hot and Cold

Burgers and malts at Elliston Place Soda Shop

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Hats off to Rebecca Rather

Photo by Sebastien Papin

The Setting: Christmas Day in Brentwood, TN.

The Soundtrack: Miscellaneous Christmas tunes on my mother's iPod.

On the Stove-top and Steaming up the Oven: A Christmas feast for 15.

The Scenario: It really is the world's greatest chocolate cake.

If you read my last post and/or the forth post I ever posted (circa this time two years ago), then you know this cake has been a while in the making.

The towering, mouthwatering, focal point of the most beautiful magazine cover I've ever seen (Fine Cooking Dec '09/Jan '10) captured my attention and trampled on my ambition Christmas 2009.

Christmas 2010 saw me curled up a la fetal position on the loveseat in our Florida apartment, cursing food and praying to keep down the saltines and chocolate ice cream that composed my morning sickness diet.

This year I was back in the action, back in Nashville, back behind the apron.

The menu featured Spiced Cider, Mini Cranberry-Rosemary-Pecan Corn Muffins, Goat-Cheese-Stuffed Roasted Tomatoes and Baby Portabellas, Sauteed Kale, Garlic-and-Rosemary-Roasted Sweet Potatoes, and ridiculously rich yet teasingly light and fluffy Twice-Baked Gorgonzola Souffles.

It was an exceptional meal.

But the clear headliner of this all-star cast was without a doubt, the comeback king of 2011, the Hot Chocolate Layer Cake.

Photo by Sebastien Papin

This year I made certain I used 3 9-inch cake pans with straight--not sloping--sides.

I buttered, parchment-lined, and floured them.

I used fine Callebaut chocolate in the icing and batter.

I crumb-coated and refrigerated. I periodically dipped my offset spatula in a glass of hot water while applying the final coat to give the icing its (near) flawless sheen.

Most importantly, I gave myself several days from boiling the sugar to cutting the marshmallows and giving them their final dusting of cocoa atop the cake to  asure it all came together this time.

And perhaps it was a Christmas miracle, but it did.

Fudgy, dense, everything you always wish the chocolate cake you waste your calories on would be.

You can find Rebecca Rather's incredible recipe online in the recipe archives of  Fine Cooking.

Photo by Sebastien Papin

Happy holidays!

Monday, January 2, 2012

If at First You don't Succeed...

The Setting: My mom's exquisite kitchen. I'm so jealous.

The Soundtrack: Harry Connick, Jr. When my Heart Finds Christmas.

On the Stove-top: A mixture of corn syrup, water, and sugar, destined to become homemade marshmallows.

The Scenario: It's days before Christmas, and this year the cake will be perfect.

It's my first time making homemade marshmallows. It's been on the to-do list for a while now, but today the stars will align, the sugar will boil, and the gelatin will set. It's going to happen.

I find the right-sized saucepan, fit it with a candy thermometer, and watch closely for the magic moment when the screen reads 234 degrees.

It's taking longer than expected.

I step waveringly over to the sink, where I figure I can be productive with my waiting time, doing dishes while keeping an eye on the thermometer.

It sure is taking a while....

Suddenly, I feel compelled to rush to the stove. As I peer into the saucepan, my face is smacked with smoke, and my eyes meet a molten, black, cavernous wasteland of what used to be sugar, now shellacked to the stainless steel in a way that says my mom will now have one more miscellaneous saucepan lid hanging out in the cupboard.

Is my thermometer broken? Is there a typo in the recipe? The temperature isn't even close to 234!

I pick up my dud of a thermometer, thinking that's what I get for buying the cheaper one, when I see a little C on the screen, sticking out its tongue and making an L over its forehead at me.

That's right, it is set to Celsius.

Good show, old gal.

Now some days this giant, rusty nail in my foot might cause me to sit one out.

But these marshmallows are for my Christmas cake, and not just any Christmas cake, but the second attempt at the near-epic-failure Hot Chocolate Layer Cake of 2009 that inspired one of my very first posts.

That cake, while delicious by the grace of God, was a dilapidated, marshmallow-less, structural nightmare.

And while this year's cake will have every opportunity to cave in and/or crumble, it certainly will have marshmallows.

I take the thermometer and fiddle with the buttons till the C is replaced with an F and attach it to a clean saucepan.

Holding my breath, I place the pan over a med-high flame, glance at its snow-white contents, and recall wistfully the crystallized-tar situation I just had on my hands. Please, Lord, don't let this lovely, innocent sugar meet the same fate.

I watch the mixture closely as ten minutes pass...and...at last! 234!

It looks perfect.

I turn on my mom's electric mixer and slowly stream the glossy syrup into the gelatin that's been blooming and waiting like a woman for her wedding day, and I beat the mixture till it's voluminous, white, and fluffy (like her dress).

I pour the mixture into a parchment-lined and powdered-sugar-dusted sheet pan, dust a little more sugar over the top, cover, and call it day.

It's gonna be a good Christmas.

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