Saturday, November 29, 2008

Bay Area Bites: Caramel Cake with Caramelized Butter Frosting

I think making homemade caramel syrup may be one of the most dangerous things you can do in your home kitchen.  Even I approach the boiling syrup with oven mitts on both hands, an apron, and my head turned away from the splash zone.  It's that scary to get burned by the molten sugar lava.  But the result is so deliciously seductive, you want to do it again.  Risk anything for the thrill!

The caramel syrup turned out amazingly, and now I'm wishing I had some other things to drizzle it on. French toast? Ice cream? Apple tart?  I included some salt in my icing, and I think it really changed the flavor profile from something overly sweet and kind-of meh, to something exciting and interesting. It definitely perked up the cake. And since there wasn't enough syrup in the cake and icing, I drizzled more on the top.  I'm all about gilding the lily.

Caramel Cake with Caramelized Butter Frosting
Adapted from Bay Area Bites blog

½ cup (1 stick) plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1¼ cups granulated sugar
½ teaspoon kosher salt
⅓ cup Caramel Syrup
2 large eggs, at room temperature
Splash of vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 cup whole milk, at room temperature
Caramelized Butter Frosting

Preheat oven to 350°F.  Butter one tall 9-inch round cake pan.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream butter until smooth.  Add sugar and salt and cream until light and fluffy.  Slowly pour room temperature caramel syrup into bowl.  Scrape down bowl and increase speed. Add eggs and vanilla extract a little at a time, mixing well after each addition. Scrape down bowl again, beat mixture until light and uniform.

Sift the flour and baking powder together.  Turn the mixer to the lowest speed, and add one third of the dry ingredients. When incorporated, add half of the milk, a little at a time.  Add another third of the dry ingredients, then the other half of the milk and finish with the remaining dry ingredients. Take off mixer and by hand, use a spatula to do a few last folds. making sure batter is uniform.

Place cake pan on cookie sheet or ½ sheet pan. Set first timer for 30 minutes, rotate pan and set timer for another 15 to 20 minutes. Your own oven will set the pace. Bake until sides pull away from the pan and skewer inserted in middle comes out clean. Cool cake completely before icing it. Cake will keep for three days unrefrigerated.

Caramel Syrup
2 cups granulated sugar
1½ cup water

In a small stainless steel saucepan, with tall sides, mix 1/2 cup water and sugar until mixture feels like wet sand.  Brush down any stray sugar crystals with wet pastry brush.  Turn on heat to highest flame.  Cook until smoking slightly: dark amber.  When color is achieved, very carefully pour in remaining water. Caramel will jump and sputter about! It is very dangerous, so have long sleeves on and prepared to step back.  Whisk over medium heat until it has reduced slightly and feels sticky between two fingers.

For safety reasons, have ready a bowl of ice water to plunge your hands into if any caramel should land on your skin.

Caramelized Butter Frosting
¾ cup (1½ sticks) unsalted butter
1 (1-pound) box confectioner's sugar (about 3½ cups), sifted
4 to 6 tablespoons heavy cream
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 to 4 tablespoons Caramel Syrup
Kosher or sea salt to taste

Cook butter until brown.  Pour through a fine meshed sieve into a heatproof bowl, set aside to cool.  Pour cooled brown butter into mixer bowl.  In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle or whisk attachment, add confectioner’s sugar a little at a time. When mixture looks too chunky to take any more, add a bit of cream and or caramel syrup. Repeat until mixture looks smooth and all confectioner’s sugar has been incorporated. Add salt to taste.  Caramelized butter frosting will keep in fridge for up to a month.  To smooth out from cold, microwave a bit, then mix with paddle attachment until smooth and light.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

PET Milk: Pecan Glazed Pumpkin Pie

What's better than pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving?  Pumpkin pie topped with pecan streusel!  It was a happy day when my mom snipped this recipe from the newspaper.  I don't think I've eaten a regular pumpkin pie since.  And why should I?  This is pumpkin pie, perfected.

Pecan Glazed Pumpkin Pie
Adapted from PET Milk and Libby's Pumpkin

2 large eggs
1 (15-ounce) can solid pack pumpkin
1 (12-ounce) can evaporated milk
¾ cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon salt
1 (9-inch) deep dish pie crust, frozen
¼ cup brown sugar
1 cup pecan pieces
¼ cup unsalted butter, melted

Preheat oven and baking sheet to 375°F.

In a large bowl, using a wire whisk, whisk together the eggs, pumpkin, evaporated milk, sugar, and spices. Place frozen pie crust on preheated baking sheet.  Pour filling into crust.  Bake for 40 minutes.

In a small bowl, combine brown sugar, pecans, and melted butter.  Crumble over top of partially baked pie.  Bake an additional 30 minutes or until knife inserted in center comes out clean.

Makes 8 servings

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Food 2.0: Spinach Latkes

Every year around this time I start hearing buzz in the food world about potato pancakes. Potato pancakes in every incarnation, with sweet potatoes, rutabagas, and every other starchy thing under the sun. This year I decided to participate, but took a different route with spinach. The recipe for the latkes comes from the book Food 2.0, written by the former chef at Google. The pancakes were scrumptious, and defying tradition, I decided to skip the applesauce and indulge in a beautiful fried egg as an accompaniment. All is right with the world.

Spinach Latkes

3 potatoes (preferably russet), about 1 pound in total, peeled
1 cup chopped fresh wilted spinach (or thawed frozen spinach)
1 small onion, grated
3 tbsp matzo meal or unbleached all-purpose flour
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 eggs, beaten
Vegetable oil or grapeseed oil

Grate the potatoes into a bowl.  Squeeze the potatoes to drain off excess moisture.  Squeeze out the moisture from the spinach.  Drain the onion.  Mix all the vegetables together and stir in the matzo meal or flour, some seasoning, and the eggs.

Pour enough oil into a skillet to coat the bottom and heat over medium heat.  Put three spoonfuls of the mixture in the pan, spaced well apart, and press out to make cakes about 4-in diameter.  Cook until golden brown, about 3-4 minutes on each side.  Keep the latkes warm in a low oven while cooking the remainder.

Serve with a fresh herb salad dressed with vinaigrette.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Emeril Lagasse and Alton Brown: Butternut Squash Soup

Two years ago I made an amazing butternut squash soup for Thanksgiving. I never got a picture since my family slurped it all down as soon as it hit the bowls. Well, I just happened to have some leftover butternut squash recently, so the soup made another appearance. And this time I got the shot I wanted.

Butternut Squash Soup
Adapted from recipes by Emeril Lagasse and Alton Brown

1 butternut squash, about 2½ to 3 pounds
Salt and ground white pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup carrot, thinly sliced
4 cups chicken stock
1 teaspoon honey
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
⅛ teaspoon ground white pepper
½ cup heavy cream

Preheat the oven to 400°F.  Cut the squash in half and scoop out the seeds.  Place the squash halves on a baking sheet and brush with olive oil.  Sprinkle with salt and white pepper.  Roast for 45 to 60 minutes, or until the flesh is tender.  Scoop the flesh from the squash and set aside.

In a large pot, heat the oil over medium heat.  Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring often, until they begin to brown, about 5 minutes.  Add the carrot and cook for 1 minute.  Add the squash flesh and chicken stock.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender.

Remove from the heat and puree the soup using an immersion blender, or transfer to a blender or food processor.  Puree until smooth.  Return to the heat and add the honey, nutmeg, cinnamon, white pepper, and cream.  Adjust seasonings as necessary.

Makes 6 servings

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Carmine's Family-Style Cookbook: Melanzane alla Parmigiana (Eggplant Parmesan)

My mother was really instrumental in giving me a love of food.  And she really tried to make things interesting when I was a kid.  I remember one time she pulled a recipe for eggplant parmigiana from a magazine and made it for dinner.  Now, with common child skepticism, I eyeballed that weird purple thing and decided it probably was not edible.  When it came to the table, it was soggy and bland.  Lesson: don't pull Italian recipes from US women's family magazines.

I honestly did not try eggplant again until I had dinner at Carmine's in New York City one night.  It was a work event, so the entire menu was pre-planned.  Which of course means that parades of food started making their way from the kitchen to our table.  And of course that means the eggplant gets put right in front of me.

With everyone staring at you, and knowing this is a work event, you eat the darn eggplant, even if it means you visit the restroom not long after.  Imagine my surprise when I actually liked it.  The eggplant was cut very thinly, baked in infinite layers, and topped with more sauce and melty mozzarella cheese.  Now THIS is Italian food.  THIS is eggplant.

Melanzane alla Parmigiana (Eggplant Parmesan)
From Carmine's Family-Style Cookbook by Michael Ronis and Mary Goodbody

1 to 2 eggplants (about 1½ pounds total)
2 to 3 cups all-purpose flour
2 to 3 cups vegetable oil
6 large eggs
1¾ cups grated Romano cheese
1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
½ teaspoon salt
4 cups Carmine's Marinara Sauce
2½ cups grated mozzarella cheese

Cut the ends off the eggplant and discard them.  Cut each eggplant into ¼-inch round slices.

Spread the flour out on a large plate.  Coat each slice of eggplant with flour and shake off any excess.  Stack the eggplant slices on top of each other.

Meanwhile, in a deep heavy saucepan or high-sided skillet, heat about 2 cups of the vegetable oil over medium-high heat until a deep-frying thermometer registers 350°F.

In a shallow bowl, whisk the eggs together with ½ cup of the grated Romano cheese, the parsley, and the salt.  Dip the eggplant, a slice at a time, in the egg mixture and let any excess drip off.  Deep fry the eggplant slices, 2 to 4 at a time, for about 3 minutes or until they are golden brown and tender.  Remove them with a slotted spoon and place them on paper towels to drain and cool.

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Spread 1 cup of marinara sauce over the bottom of an 8x4-inch nonstick loaf pan.  Arrange a layer of eggplant slices over the sauce.  They can slightly overlap each other, if necessary.  Spread 3 to 4 tablespoons of marinara sauce over the eggplant.  Sprinkle ½ cup of the mozzarella and 1 tablespoon of the Romano cheese over the sauce.  Repeat layering the eggplant, marinara sauce, mozzarella, and Romano cheese to the top of the pan or ½ inch below the rim.  End with a layer of eggplant and about ¼ cup of marinara sauce spread over the top of it.  Sprinkle 1 heaping tablespoon of the Romano cheese on top of the sauce.  Cover the top tightly with aluminum foil and place the pan on a baking sheet.

Bake the eggplant for about 1 hour or until it is hot and the sauce is bubbling.  Let the pan sit at room temperature for about 1 hour or until the eggplant is cool enough to serve.

Put a platter on top of the loaf pan and, holding the platter and pan securely, invert the pan to release the eggplant.  Cut it into slices and serve it with warm marinara sauce and grated Romano cheese on the side.

Makes 4 to 5 servings

Carmine's Marinara Sauce
3 (26- to 28-ounce) cans Italian plum tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
¼ cup olive oil
¼ cup coarsely chopped garlic (about 12 cloves)
12 fresh basil leaves, sliced
2 teaspoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Drain the tomatoes in a colander set in a large bowl for 5 minutes.  Reserve the tomato liquid.

In a large pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat.  When the oil is hot, add the garlic and cook it, stirring, for about 5 minutes or until it is golden brown.  If the garlic starts to cook too quickly, reduce the heat.

Add the basil, parsley, salt, and pepper to taste.  Cook the mixture for 30 seconds.  Add the tomatoes, increase the heat to high, and cook them for about 5 minutes, using a wooden spoon or long-handled fork to break them up, or until the tomatoes boil.  Reduce the heat and simmer the sauce for about 10 minutes or until the tomatoes break down.

Add the reserved tomato liquid.  Increase the heat to high and bring the sauce to a boil.  Boil it for about 12 minutes or until it starts to thicken.  Stir it occasionally and scrape the bottom of the pan to prevent the sauce from burning.

Transfer the sauce to a bowl and set it aside for about 1 hour or until it cools to room temperature.  Transfer it to a tightly covered storage container and refrigerate it for up to 1 week or freeze it for up to 1 month.

Makes about 5 cups

Friday, November 14, 2008

Gourmet: Rice Pudding

I love rice pudding. Which is strange, because I don't really remember having it when I was a child. In fact, I think I remember my mom making it one time, and I didn't want to try it. What a waste.  This rice pudding was so incredibly easy, it's almost shocking. No standing at the stove for an hour. Just mix, bake, and eat. The vanilla flavor in particular is subtle and seductive, just how I like it.

Rice Pudding
From Gourmet magazine, December 2007

2 cups whole milk
8 teaspoons granulated sugar
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
⅓ cup Arborio rice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 tablespoons heavy cream
Ground cinnamon, to taste

Preheat oven to 325°F.

In a small bowl, combine milk, sugar, and nutmeg. Pour into a casserole dish. Sprinkle rice even over the milk. Carefully slide casserole dish into the oven. Bake for approximately an hour, or until very little liquid is left in the dish, and the skin that has formed over the top is golden brown. Cool casserole dish on a rack.

When cooled, peel the skin off the top of the pudding. Add vanilla and cream, and stir in. Spoon into individual dishes, and serve cool or chilled, sprinkled with cinnamon. Makes 4 small servings or 2 large ones.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Breakfast Tacos

I've really been hurting lately for some Tex-Mex goodness. My last trip home was this summer, so it's been a months-long dry spell. I decided the easiest and most delicious option was to make some tasty breakfast tacos with guacamole on the side.

I wish I could say I used some chorizo or Jimmy Dean, but I didn't. Here in New Italy, your sausage comes three ways: hot, sweet, or luganiga. I picked sweet since I have to use the rest of the sausage in something else, but yes, it was weird. Luckily the onions, tomatoes, and jalapeño I added to the mix were just perfect. The eggs cooked up fluffy and bright, probably due to the fact that I splurged on some cage-free super eggs. The tacos were perfect with a topping of Cheddar cheese and the salsa I dragged all the way from Texas when I moved (all hail Joe T. Garcia's!).

Breakfast Tacos

 chub Jimmy Dean breakfast sausage
½ medium tomato, diced
½ small onion, diced
½ jalapeño, diced
3 eggs
1 tbsp heavy cream
½ tsp ground cumin
Cheddar cheese
Tortillas, warmed (corn tastes better, but flour holds up better)

Cook sausage in large skillet, breaking up into small pieces as it cooks. When it is no longer pink, add tomato, onion, and jalapeño. Cook for 3-5 minutes, or until onion softens slightly.

Beat eggs, cream, and cumin in a small bowl. Pour egg mixture over sausage and vegetables, and stir occasionally until eggs are scrambled and cooked. There should be enough grease left from cooking the sausage to keep the eggs from sticking to the pan. Stuff tortillas with egg mixture, and top with cheese, salsa, and any other topping you love. Suggestions include sour cream, guacamole, jalapeño slices, and cilantro. You can also add cubed cooked potatoes to the mix, but add some ground red pepper and salt to season the potatoes.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

True Thai: Kaeng Phet Gai (Thai Red Curry Chicken)

What is more warming on a dark, cold night than a bowl of Thai curry?  Nothing, that's what.  This is like the perfect winter dish when you're living at the North Pole.  I'm not sure how a country with such a lovely climate managed to come up with something so satisfying when you're freezing, but God bless them for doing it.

I wanted to make a traditional curry, which of course meant scouring Asian grocery stores for ingredients.  I must admit I've cheated a bit since I have my own beautiful potted Kaffir lime tree, but the pert little limes aren't ready yet.  So I just scavenged the leaves off the poor thing.  Hey, its purpose in life is to give me materials for yummy little Thai goodies.

Kaeng Phet Gai (Thai Red Curry Chicken)
Adapted from True Thai by Victor Sodsook

For the curry paste:
6 dried Thai long red chilis or japones chilis
1 tablespoon whole coriander seed
½ tablespoon whole cumin seed
1½ tablespoons shrimp paste, wrapped neatly in a layer of thick aluminum foil
¾ cup shallots, roughly chopped
½ cup peeled whole garlic cloves
½ tablespoon grated Kaffir or Persian lime peel
2 large stalks lemongrass, tough outer leaves discarded, lower stalks trimmed, and finely sliced
⅓ cup finely chopped peeled fresh galangal
½ teaspoon ground white pepper

For the finished dish:
1 (19-ounce) can unsweetened coconut milk
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut crosswise into ¼-inch thick slices
10 Kaffir lime leaves
1 red bell pepper, sliced into strips
1 (8-ounce) can sliced bamboo shoots
3 tablespoons palm sugar or brown sugar
2 tablespoons Thai fish sauce
1 cup loosely packed Thai basil

To make the red curry paste, first use kitchen shears or a knife to remove the seeds and the tough, dry ribs of the chilis.  Put all the chilis in a bowl and soak in lukewarm water for 30 minutes.  Meanwhile, dry roast the coriander and cumin seed in a small skillet over medium heat for 3 to 5 minutes, until toasty and aromatic, shaking the pan often to prevent burning.  Set aside the toasted seeds.

Set the skillet back over medium heat.  Place the foil-wrapped shrimp paste in the skillet and cook for about 5 minutes, until aromatic, turning the packet once or twice.  Remove the packet from the skillet and set aside to cool.  Combine the shallots and garlic in the skillet and dry roast over medium heat until tender and slightly browned, about 5 minutes, stirring often.  Remove from the pan and set aside to cool.

Put the coriander seed in a large, heavy mortar and smash to a coarse powder.  Transfer the ground seeds to the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade.  Combine the grated lime peel, lemongrass, and galangal in the mortar and pound for a minute or so to break down the fibers.  Transfer the crushed mixture to the food processor.  Transfer the shallots and garlic to the food processor.  Unwrap the shrimp paste and add it to the food processor.  Add the ground white pepper.  Drain the chilis, reserving about ½ cup of the soaking liquid.  Add the chilis to the food processor.  Process the ingredients until a rich, moist paste forms.  Stop occasionally to scrape down the sides of the work bowl.  Add a few tablespoons of the chili soaking liquid now and then, if needed, to ease the grinding.

Skim the thick cream from the top of the canned coconut milk into a soup pot, reserving the thin milk.  Set the pot over medium heat.  Stir in the red curry paste until blended with the coconut cream, and bring to a low boil.  Cook, stirring occasionally, for 2 minutes.  Increase the heat to medium-high and add the chicken.  Cook for 1 minute, stirring occasionally.

Add the reserved coconut milk and cook for 1 minute, stirring often.  Tear each Kaffir lime leaf in half and add to the pot.  Lower the heat to medium.  Add the red bell pepper and the sliced bamboo shoots and cook for 1 minute, stirring occasionally.  Add the palm sugar and fish sauce, stirring until dissolved and blended.  Simmer, covered, for 3 minutes.  Turn the heat off and stir in the Thai basil and cook for a few seconds.  Serve hot with rice.

Makes 4 to 6 servings

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Southern Living: Cream Cheese-Banana-Nut Bread

There's a special banana bread recipe that I absolutely love, and when it starts getting cold outside, I start wanting to make it. Unfortunately, I found a small, but crucial, mistake in the recipe.  It states that you should use two 8x4-inch loaf pans, but if you do that, your bread tries to overflow the edges.  I love finding that messy surprise in the bottom of my oven.  In addition, by the time the center is cooked, the outside is practically burnt. Not exactly appetizing. So of course you have to use THREE 8x4-inch loaf pans, and then it turns out perfectly. I also added a half of a cup of sour cream to ensure the bread is nice and moist.

Cream Cheese-Banana-Nut Bread

¾ cup unsalted butter, softened
1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, softened
2 cups granulated sugar
2 large eggs
½ cup sour cream
3 cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1½ cups mashed bananas (1¼ pounds unpeeled bananas, about 4 medium)
1 cup chopped pecans, toasted
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Beat butter and cream cheese at medium speed with an electric mixer until creamy. Gradually add sugar, beating until light and fluffy. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating just until blended after each addition. Add sour cream and mix in.

Combine flour and next 3 ingredients; gradually add to butter mixture, beating at low speed just until blended. Stir in bananas, pecans, and vanilla. Spoon batter into 3 greased and floured 8x4-inch loafpans.

Bake at 350°F for 1 hour or until a long wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean and sides pull away from pan, shielding with aluminum foil last 15 minutes to prevent browning, if necessary. Cool bread in pans on wire racks 10 minutes. Remove from pans, and cool 30 minutes on wire racks before slicing.