Tuesday, April 28, 2009

PB&J Cupcakes

Just returned from a 10-day road trip to Palm Springs, San Diego and LA. Lots of eating, not so much cooking, I’m afraid. But I did have the chance to make something new last Saturday. I was visiting my brother, another avid foodie that loves to eat and cook. I always enjoy visiting him (and his family), especially since they had their kitchen remodeled and expanded. It is a joy to work in.

We had a dinner to go to at some friends. In fact, it was their “big reveal” of their new kitchen. A mixture of adults and kids would be present and my brother and I could not agree on what to make. In fact, we kinda fought about it. We thought about having a challenge, both making what we wanted and seeing how the crowd reacts, but my sister-in-law had a sneaking suspicion that he might lobby for his treat behind my back. He’s very competitive, that brother of mine. So I said he could make the adult dessert and I would handle the ones for the munchkins.

I wanted to do cupcakes and decided to base them on the old-fashioned pb&j sandwich. My brother scrunched up his nose, my sister-in-law arched an eyebrow, but both my niece (14) and my nephew (11 today!) were enthusiastic about the idea, so I ran with it.

Much like my yen for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, which inspired this cupcake, I wanted to think outside the box a bit and make them delicious but kid friendly. I pulled an old trick out of my hat, cooking the cupcakes in ice cream cones. No messy papers to deal with, plus there is the added bonus of eating the crunchy cone. I used a basic white cake mix, nothing fancy and filled them to their shoulder (photo 1).

But as you can see from photo 2, that’s a bit much. There was an overflow on each cone, making a bit of a mess. It was easy to cut off and didn’t really detract from the looks or taste, but was a waste of batter, nonetheless.

Once the cupcakes were cooked and cooled, I lined them up like little soldiers and filled their bellies with grape jelly. I just put some jam in a Ziploc with a metal tip and poked it into the cupcake and squirted. You could take an apple corer or veggie peeler and core out a small space and dot it with jelly from a teaspoon if you don’t have a pastry tip to work.

Then I whipped up the same peanut butter frosting from my chocolate/peanut butter cupcakes and piped it on with a Ziploc and no tip. I tried scooping the frosting on with an ice cream scoop, but it didn’t look very good. I think if I had let the frosting chill in the refrigerator it might have set up enough to do this, which would really look like an ice cream cone. Maybe next time…..

I have to say that the cupcakes were a big hit. Connor B (our hosts’ son) ate three, making him my official hero and validating my decision to make the cupcakes. My brother’s dessert? Crème fraiche cupcakes with a chocolate truffle frosting. No one ate three – but they were almost all gone by the time we left the party.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Filling in the Gaps

When I test a recipe, if I don’t write about it immediately, you can be assured it just doesn’t get done. So I have lots of photos with no words to go with them and my blog has lots of gaps between posts. Always seems such a shame, to waste the photos,, so I thought I would show you some pictures of what I’ve been up to in the kitchen, without much prose to accompany them.

First are some French macarons that I made in February. They came out disappointingly flat, but they were tasty.

Last weekend Butcher Son asked me to make an ice cream cake. Now this is strange. He rarely asks me to make anything in the dessert category, and secondly, he is allergic to milk. While he is able to now tolerate small amounts of dairy on occasion, it is the last thing I thought he would ever ask for. When I queried him about the type of cake, he said chocolate with vanilla ice cream. Rather boring, I thought. So Brilliant Daughter made the chocolate layers (cake mix or brownie mix works fine), and I assembled the cake. (Cake layer, ice cream, mini chocolate chips, Hersheys syrup, cake layer, two layers of Hersheys syrup, and almond crunch.) As you can see, I did sneak in some mini chocolate chips in the ice cream and sprinkled the top with leftover almond crunch that I had made for some biscotti. It was actually quite good and significantly cheaper than anything you would buy at a specialty store. (My cost - about $5-6.)

I had a yen for mushrooms in March, and decided on a mushroom lasagne. I bought 4 different kinds of mushrooms at the greengrocer (including those two huge ones below), along with fresh whole milk ricotta, fresh mozzarella perlini and yes, fresh lasagne noodles. I chopped up the mushrooms and roasted them with some of my homemade herb salt, pepper mix, fresh herbs and olive oil. Once they were done, I layered the pasta and mushrooms with the perlini and the ricotta (to which I had added some fresh herbs, shredded parmesan cheese, 1 egg, salt and pepper). Baked it for 30 minutes and thoroughly enjoyed it…for days.

And last, but not least, Brilliant Daughter’s lemon meringue pie. She made this for Mr. B’s 50th birthday, on request.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Biscotti Frenzy

I just don’t seem to know how to do anything small (except knitting baby hats and dog sweaters). When I latch on to something I do it big, or do it multiple times, or go way overboard in the quantity department. When it comes to food, this rarely gets any complaints from my family, friends, and the butchers where my son works. Everyone benefits. (Except my hips, of course.)

This weekend was no exception. I’m heading down to La Quinta/Palm Springs soon for my godmother’s 70th birthday celebration. She is not allowing gifts, but I have a few non-gift surprises up my sleeve, one of which is an assortment of cookies. For three days, family and friends will be passing through the house, for cocktails, dinner, breakfast, lunch. So I thought I would make cookies for the masses. Something to nosh on after that round of golf or stroll through the street fair. She has a cupboard full of beautiful trays and platters, and with a bowl of fruit, will make a good treat either morning, noon, or late night.

I started off with biscotti, as my godmother is half Italian. But I didn’t want to do the run-of-the-mill types like I usually do: the standard almond, chocolate almond, or lemon pistachio. So I dug out an old cookbook I have, aptly titled Biscotti, by Lou Seibert Pappas, and flipped through until I found what I wanted.

My first choice was Almond Crunch Biscotti. The description mentions caramelized almonds, meaning I would keep the traditional almond in the cookie, but add a bit of crunchy sweetness, which many biscotti lack. It only took a few minutes to caramelize the almonds, and it was all I could not to eat the brittle as I chopped it up. (HINT: Double the batch of caramelized almonds, so you have some to snack on as you bake for hours.)

The dough is simple and straightforward, with the only change being I made four small loaves, rather than two larger loaves. I wanted the cookies to be smaller, closer to 3 bites than a full-sized finger of crunch. These turned out to be Brilliant Daughter’s favorite. She ate them as they came out of the first bake, and the second bake, and kept on eating them all they way home (she got her own bag of cookies). They are good, and paired well with the Peet’s Anniversary Blend I was sipping, both as accompaniment and dunking medium.

NOTE: I did have some concerns about how the caramelizing was done. Melting the butter and sugar together results in a bubbly concoction, not a smooth syrup. It did its job, after I patiently waited, but I did try an alternative version for the second batch I made (well, Brilliant Daughter did loooooove them). I caramelized the sugar first, then added in a bit less butter (as the finished product sat on quite a bit of oily residue). Then I added in the almonds. The result—tastewise—is pretty much the same, so either method will work.

Almond Crunch Biscotti

Caramelized Almond Slices
2 T butter
3 T sugar
3/4 c. sliced blanched almonds

1/2 c butter
3/4 c sugar
2 eggs
1 t vanilla extract
2 c flour
1 t baking powder
1/4 t baking soda
1/4 t salt

To make the caramelized almonds, melt butter and sugar in a skillet. When it bubbles and starts to turn golden, add the almonds and continue cooking, stirring frequently to prevent burning, until the nuts are golden and caramelized. Turn out on to a baking sheet in thin layer and let cool. Break or cut into smaller pieces.

To make dough, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add in the eggs and vanilla. In separate bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, soda and salt. Add to the butter mixture, mixing just until blended. Stir in the almonds.

Divide dough in half, on a greased and floured baking sheet, pat out two logs about 1/2 inch high, 1 1/2 inches wide and 14 inches long. Make sure they are spaced at least 2 inches apart. Bake in the middle of 325 oven for 25 minutes, or until lightly browned. Transfer to baking sheet to cool for 5 minutes. Place on cutting board, and with serrated knife slice diagonally into 3/8-inch thick slices. Lay slices on the sheet standing up, and bake for 10 minutes.

Next, I made the Espresso Biscotti. I love coffee, so this was a natural fit for my tastes. They are also a great companion to a latte or cappuccino, should you so indulge. The coffee flavor is evident but not overwhelming, and in addition to the toasted almonds already in the recipe, I added mini chocolate chips, just for the extra dimension and sweetness. I tasted the raw dough, which was the wrong thing to do. I wanted to take a spoon and eat it all that way. But I soldiered on, and sent the batch to the oven for the first bake. But this is where I departed a bit from the traditional baking technique. Biscotti is twice-baked. That is what gives it the crunch and dryness, making it the perfect dipper in coffee or tea. But I took half the first bake and sliced it and they were so good, I chose not to do the second bake. So I have half soft and half crispy. Both are delicious. If you don’t like the crispier, harder biscotti, this is the recipe for you—single baked are great.

Espresso Biscotti
2/3 cup blanched slivered almonds
2/3 cup mini chocolate chips (optional)
3 tablespoons coffee beans (or 2 T finely ground coffee)
2 tablespoons Kahlua or double-strength coffee
1/2 cup butter
3/4 cup sugar
2 eggs
2 cups plus 2 tablespoons flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt

Place nuts in a shallow pan and bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 7-8 minutes, stirring once or twice, until golden brown. Let cool.

Grind coffee bans into a fine powder and place in a small bowl with Kahlua. Heat in 350 degree oven or microwave for 15 seconds, to steep. Set aside.

In mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar and light and fluffy. Beat in eggs and ground coffee/liqueur mixture. In separate bowl combine the flour, baking powder and salt. Add to the creamed mixture, mixing until just blended. Fold in the nuts and mini chocolate chips.

Divide dough in half, on a greased and floured baking sheet, pat out two logs about 1/2 inch high, 1 1/2 inches wide and 14 inches long. Make sure they are spaced at least 2 inches apart. Bake in the middle of 325 oven for 25 minutes, or until lightly browned. Transfer to baking sheet to cool for 5 minutes. Place on cutting board, and with serrated knife slice diagonally into 3/8-inch thick slices. Lay slices on the sheet standing up, and bake for 10 minutes.

Both recipes make about 3 to 4 dozen cookies, depending on size and thickness. Needless to say that means about 12 dozen cookies to share between the party, my house, my daughter’s stomach and the butchers…. But wait…there’s more. I also made chocolate-chip pecan cookies and cardamom palmiers. Again, a bit overboard but they will not go to waste.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

An All-American Meal

Our household experienced a culinary first recently. Pretty hard to do given I try to cook most everything I can get my hands on, but it’s true.

I pride myself on the fact that while my children were growing up, I never, not once, cooked frozen fish sticks. You know the kind, frozen rectangles of pollock or cod, flaked, pressed, formed, breaded and fried, then flash frozen and packaged. My children were not particularly fond of fish when they were younger, part of the reason that fish fingers have stayed off the menu, but now that their palates are more amendable to seafood, I thought it time.

Lest you forget the original idea behind this blog was to bring you food outside the suburban norm, I did not serve the ubiquitous Gorton’s or Van de Kamps—nothing remotely from the frozen aisle. Yep, I made my own fish and chips, fresh, tasty, easy, and the meal got resounding yeahs from all corners, children and husband alike.

Butcher Son brought home 2 pounds of fresh halibut (enough to feed 6) to make my fresh fish sticks. I modified a recipe I found in Bon Appetit, adding in some of Paul Prudhomme’s Seafood Magic to the panko crumb mixture, spicing it up a notch. (The full recipes for this and the rest of the meal appear this Sunday on my Healthy Eating column on HealthNews.)

To add to the fish sticks, I made “chips”—something my British ancestors and Brilliant Daughter (who studied in London) would appreciate. Only the “chips” were baked Yukon Gold wedges. Tastier that frozen fries, and less calories, they took a few minutes to prep and pop in the oven, and came out perfect 45 minutes later without having to touch them at all! The wedges got crispy on the outside, but remained creamy on the inside, a perfect accompaniment to the fish.

And to top it all off, I made a two-crust apple pie. I’m not a fan of most fruit pies. They are one of my least favorite desserts, but I am the minority in my household when it comes to this issue. Having gotten a bargain bag of Fuji apples, I made a quick version, utilizing premade crusts. Having a handy-dandy apple peeler/corer/slicer helped as well, making short work of the 10 apples I used. (Five minutes to peel, core and slice all the apples.) To add a little kick to the pie, I pulled out the Poudre Douce spice blend that I got from World Spice Merchants at Pike’s Market in Seattle. I’m not sure exactly what is in it, but there is cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and cardamom, among other things. I have to run it through a spice blender to get a powder, but it is oh-so-worth-it. Topped off with a little whipped cream and we were all in heaven.

I will happily make these fish sticks again, maybe served with various aoilis and some sweet potato fries next time.