Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Seasonal Sensations - Hot Cross Buns

Seasonal treats of springtime include the wonderful, soft, spicy, fruity hot cross buns. They are fairly quick and easy to make and delicious to eat. I remember eating buns like these when I was a child. Easter was a special time for children when I was growning up. We often had something new to wear to church and the church would have pots of Easter lilies at the altar. After breakfast we were anxious to check out our Easter baskets, all lined up in a row in the living room, filled with jelly beans and marshmallow eggs, yellow and pink marshmallow chicks, and chocolate bunnies. The eggs we had colored the day before became the stars of Easter egg hunts,

and my dad would take home movies of us finding the eggs on automobile bumpers and in clumps of grass, holding up the bright egg to the camera with a smile. It's no wonder that I still enjoy making colored eggs and special treats like these buns.

The recipe called for candied orange peel, but I had some fresh orange marmalade left over from the Orange Tians so I substituted that and added additional flour to offset the extra moisture from the marmalade. I like the strong dose of orange in these buns, but you could substitute lemon zest and candied lemon peel or citron if you prefer. Some recipes also call for mixed fruit like you use for fruitcake. I like the relative simplicity of currants and golden raisins.

Sweetie likes his buns without the icing cross...but I think you need the cross to make 'em hot cross buns.

This is my entry to Tangerine's Kitchen for Bread Baking Day #28 - Bread Buns, plus I'm sending it over to Susan of Wild Yeast's Yeastspotting weekly event. Many thanks go to Susan for this weekly compilation of wonderful yeast based recipes!

Hot Cross Buns
Makes 16 buns

3/4 cup warm (100° to 110°) whole milk
4 1/2 teaspoons (2 packages) active dry yeast
1 large egg
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup butter, melted and cooled
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, preferably freshly grated
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cloves
Finely shredded zest of 1 large orange or 1 large lemon
About 31/2 cups flour - I used 2 cups bread flour, 1 cup whole wheat flour, and 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup chopped candied orange peel(or candied lemon peel or candied citron) or 1/2 cup orange marmalade*
1/4 cup dried currants
1/4 cup rum
1/4 cup golden raisins
2 teaspoons fresh orange juice
2 teaspoons fresh Meyer lemon juice
1 cup powdered sugar

1. In a bowl of a stand mixer, combine milk and yeast; let stand until yeast softens, 5 to 10 minutes. In another bowl, whisk together the whole egg, brown sugar, cooled melted butter, salt, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, and orange or lemon zest. Add to the milk/yeast mixture and beat on medium speed with dough hook until blended.

2. Whisk the flours together in a bowl or large measuring cup if using more than one kind. Blend most of the cup flour into the batter. Beat on medium speed until dough is smooth and stretchy, 10 to 12 minutes, using dough hook. Add just enough additional flour, a tablespoon at a time, (about 1/4 cup) so dough is only slightly tacky.

3. Soak currants in the rum for 10 minutes, then drain off the rum and use for another purpose or discard. Add orange peel and currants to the dough, pick up dough, and mix with your hands to distribute fruit.(I turned the dough out onto a lightly floured board and kneaded the dough in...that way I was sure that I had the dough well kneaded before adding the fruit and that the fruit was well distributed.)
Return dough to bowl, cover, and let rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1 1/4 hours.

4. Punch down dough. With floured hands, shape into 16 smooth rounds. Evenly space rounds in two buttered 8- or 9-in. square pans.

5. Cover loosely and let rise in a warm place until doubled and puffy, about 40 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 400°. Brush buns with beaten egg. Bake until deep golden, 13 to 15 minutes. Let cool in pans at least 30 minutes.

6. In a small bowl, stir together juices and powdered sugar until smooth. Spoon into a small, heavy-gauge plastic bag, snip a hole in a corner, and squeeze icing onto buns to form large Xs.

* If you use marmalade, you should plan to use about another cup of flour

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Daring Bakers Orange Dessert Delight

Once upon a time in the Land of St. Honore' March came in like a lion, with rain and cold. It was a good time to gather in the living room as a family, basking in the glow of the television set. Maman put a frilly apron on over her sleek black outfit, then put the coffee pot on. As she set the dessert delight she had made onto pretty little plates and added the caramel orange sauce she thought back to the fun she had had creating these light and citrus-rich morsels.

Although she had cooked and baked for years she had never segmented oranges as this recipe required. As the juice dripped off her hands into the bowl, she cradled the peeled orange in one hand and sliced next to each membrane to release the segments. The remaining membranes reminded her of a fan somehow.

Oranges add such a bright look and flavor, so welcome in winter!
She has also never made fresh marmalade, even though she loved it on toast. It was pretty easy to do and the taste so much fresher and lovely than the store bought kind. It was interesting that the whole orange was used and that the blanching removed a lot of the bitterness usually found when the pith is included in recipes. Here's the slices being blanched:

Soon she was layering the caramel covered orange segments,

a lovely whipped cream based band of white, and fresh marmalade on a sweet, crisp cookie.

Once chilled and put on the plate it looked like a dessert you would see at a fine restaurant. The sauce added just the right touch of extra elegance.

As her family gathered to watch the Academy Awards ceremony and to see if they had guessed correctly on Best Picture, she served them the Orange Tians and freshly brewed coffee. The perfect dessert for a festive evening!

The 2010 March Daring Baker’s challenge was hosted by Jennifer of Chocolate Shavings. She chose Orange Tian as the challenge for this month, a dessert based on a recipe from Alain Ducasse’s Cooking School in Paris.

Thanks to Jennifer for choosing such a delightful, delectable dessert! It was fun to make and even more fun to eat!

You can find the recipe here at Jennifer's blog. Do check out other Daring Baker's versions of this treat by using the Blogroll.

Thanks for joining me for the March 2010 Daring Baker's Challenge. Sweetie says orange you glad you did?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Seasonal Sensations - Eggs Benedict

Eggs benedict isn't just for fancy restaurants. You can make them at home. This classic dish is perfect for spring. Farm fresh eggs can be found at farmers markets and roadside stands.

Asparagus are sweet and green and bursting with flavor. Egg yolks and asparagus are a great pairing. This is a truly decadent dish, especially since it has Hollandaise sauce…all those egg yolks and that melted butter makes a heavenly, rich sauce! If you can find Meyer lemons, they work beautifully in this sauce. If not, use a fresh lemon in any variety available to you. Don’t use bottled or frozen juice…the fresh juice helps the egg yolks accept the butter in the sauce and adds a sprightly flavor, too. This would be impressive for a springtime brunch with a select, small guest list.

I think I’ve only had Eggs Benedict about 5 times in my life, and never with asparagus. I’ve wanted to try making it for a long time but was put off by all of the parts seeming so complicated and not sure that I could pull it off. Well, dear readers, I did it! I'm going to make this my first entry in the High Five Un-group hosted by the lovely Lynn at Cookie Baker Lynn blog. If you want to participate, check it out here.

I made this for Sweetie for breakfast on a morning when we were not in a hurry. He enjoyed his coffee while I put together the various parts. I had made the English muffins ahead and had them ready to toast. This recipe did create quite a few dishes to wash up, and it does take some concentration to get all of the parts ready at the same time, but none of it is difficult.

The sauce is ready in minutes – I read the classic way to do it and blessed the invention of the food processor and blender...so much faster and fairly foolproof unlike the old way. The eggs take less than one minute to put into cups and four minutes to poach. The asparagus only take three or four minutes total. I suspect that toasting the muffins takes the longest.

TIMING is Everything
Plan the order in which you will do the different parts and everything will turn out fine. Read through the various recipes. You may want to make your own list. This is the order I used:
Split the muffins and set by toaster.

Fill the pot to 2 ½ inches and bring to boil, add the vinegar, then set to simmer
Prepare the asparagus for steaming
Juice the Meyer lemon and strain the juice
Separate the egg yolks for the hollandaise and put into the food processor
Crack an egg into four custard cups
Set out the plates, the pitcher for the sauce, and two bowls for hot water
Melt the butter for the hollandaise
Toast the first English muffin
While muffin is toasting, begin the hollandaise, through adding the hot melted butter…leave it running
Slip the eggs into the simmering water. Set timer
Pour the finished sauce into pitcher and fill bowl with enough hot water to come half way up pitcher
Put second English muffin in toaster
Steam the asparagus
Put hot water into second bowl
When timer goes off, use slotted spoon to remove poached eggs to bowl of hot water
Remove asparagus from microwave
Plate toasted muffins, add asparagus
Use slotted spoon to removed rinsed eggs from hot water, let drip, put over asparagus and muffins
Pour on hollandaise

Grind on pepper
(Take photos if you are a blogger) and prepare other plate the same way

If you like you can do the following the day before:

- Juice the lemon, strain the juice, store in a small container in fridge. Let come to room temperature.
- Split the muffins. Store in airtight container
- Prepare the asparagus but don’ t steam. Store in fridge. If still cold when steamed, you may have to steam a little longer
- Separate the eggs for the sauce. Reserve the whites for another use. Store, covered, in the fridge. Bring to room temperature to use for the sauce
- Crack an egg into individual cups or containers. Store, covered, in the fridge. Bring to room temperature before poaching

Here are the parts of the recipe:

Eggs Benedicts with Asparagus and Meyer Lemon Hollandaise Sauce

The Asparagus
For each serving: 3 – 4 spears of very fresh asparagus, ends snapped off. Steam your favorite way, and keep warm until ready to assemble.( I put mine on a microwave safe plate, added a teaspoon of water, covered and microwaved two minutes on high power. I did this after the eggs had started poaching, while the second English muffin was toasting, and after the hollandaise sauce was done and keeping warm.)

The English Muffins
Prepare English muffins using your favorite recipe, or purchase some.

Split with a fork to keep the craggy interior to trap the egg yolks and hollandaise. Toast while the hollandaise is being prepared and eggs are poaching. Keep warm until ready to assemble the dish. (I covered mine with a folded dishtowel.) Plan on an English muffin per person, plus a few extras for swabbing up the copious egg yolk.

The Blender Hollandaise (I used a food processor and it worked fine)
from All Recipes:http://allrecipes.com/Recipe/Blender-Hollandaise-Sauce/Detail.aspx
Ingredients – enough for 3-4 people

3 egg yolks
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 cup butter

In the container of a blender (or food processor), combine the egg yolks, and lemon juice. Cover, and blend for about 5 seconds.

Place the butter in a glass measuring cup. Heat butter in the microwave for about 1 minute, or until completely melted and hot. Set the blender on high speed, and pour the butter into the egg yolk mixture in a thin stream. It should thicken almost immediately. (If doing in a food processor, keep it running for another minute or two while you get the eggs into the poaching water. The extra time helps with the thickening process). Keep the sauce warm until serving by placing the blender container in a pan of hot tap water. (If using a food processor, pour the hollandaise into a heat proof small pitcher and put that into a pan or bowl of hot water.)

The Poached Eggs – enough for 2-3 people

You will need:
4 to 6 fresh, cold, eggs
2 quarts boiling water in a saucepan about 8 inches in diameter
(depth of water should be about 2 1/2 inches)
1/3 cup, white vinegar (2 1/2 tablespoons per quart)

Equipment: a perforated spoon; a kitchen timer; a bowl of very warm water (120 degrees).

Preparing the poaching water: Pour the vinegar into the boiling water, and reduce the heat so that the water is just at the simmer – quietly bubbling. Vinegar quickly coagulates the white when the naked egg enters the water, and this in turn helps preserve its oval shape – again, if the egg is reasonably fresh. If you can find fresh eggs from the farm, do use them. You really taste the eggs in this dish.

Getting the eggs into the water: Being a wuss about boiling water, I took the low road and cracked an egg each into four custard cups. Once I was ready, with the English muffins toasting, the asparagus ready to steam, and the hollandaise sauce almost finished in the food processor, I made sure that the water was simmering, then put the lip of the custard cup as close to the top of the water as possible and gently let the egg slide with one movement into the simmering water. Set timer for 4 minutes. Rapidly continued with the 3 other eggs, adding them clockwise around edge of pan. Because I didn’t do the version where you prick the end of the egg and give it a quick bath in the shell in boiling water, bits of the white did trail away from the poaching eggs, but it was fine in the end.

Finishing the eggs: Regulate the heat so that the poaching water remains at hardly a bubble, and when 4 minutes are up, carefully remove first egg with a perforated spoon and slide it into the bowl of very warm water, to wash off the vinegar. Estimating how much time you took for each additional egg - it will be 15 seconds at most when you are used to the movements - remove the other eggs in turn.

Keeping eggs warm after cooking them: The eggs will keep warm as long as the water remains warm, and they cannot overcook if water is not hotter than 120 degrees; if your wait is a bit long, pour a little boiling water into the bowl from time to time. (I also added a bit of boiling water to the bowl holding the hollandaise pitcher, just to make sure it stayed warm.) If you will be serving more than three people, I would have another pan of water to poach additional eggs, but keeping the timing right is tricky for 4-6 eggs and more difficult with more eggs and toasted English muffins to keep warm. You could serve one muffin half, one egg and some asparagus alongside to double the number served, but be prepared for requests for seconds!

Putting It All Together
Have the table set and plates ready. Once the eggs are in the warm water to rinse off the vinegar, put an English muffin, toasted, both top and bottom if you are having two eggs per person, onto each plate. Top each plated muffin set with 3 spears of the steamed asparagus, laid crosswise over the muffin pieces, top each muffin piece with a poached egg (the classic method is to dry the egg in a clean towel…I just used the slotted spoon and let the water drip for a couple of seconds) placing over any part of the asparagus that is on the muffin, and immediately pour on some hollandaise sauce over all. If desired, grind some fresh pepper on top of each egg. Serve at once while everything is hot. Repeat for each plate of Eggs Benedict. Enjoy the compliments of your family and/or guests.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Seasonal Sensations - Eggs

Spring has arrived in Northern California with warm breezes, tulips and plum blossoms, and roadside signs that say 'Fresh Eggs for Sale". The perfect time for another guest blogger. This time my dear friend Hildegard delights with musings on eggs, breakfasts, and family traditions:


December of 2010, when we in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia were hit much harder than those in New England (because we’re that much farther south, apparently), we watched with some amusement as local shoppers tore around the supermarkets in preparation for the first flakes. The 2% milk, white bread, batteries, and flashlights disappeared from the shelves within hours of the forecast. Having grown up in New England, this seemed like overkill. Our house is high above a long, steep driveway with three hairpin curves. We have a very deep well (515 feet) with an electric pump. The three things we get anxious about in situations like this are toilet paper, water (for flushing the toilets), and eggs.

We try to keep about three dozen eggs in the refrigerator (usually six of them hard boiled) even in fair weather. We regularly buy our eggs at a gas station, the egg station we call it. It is run by two permanently bed-headed, extremely personable brothers who also raise the egg-producing chickens on their farm and rent out U-hauls from their gas station, which has the cheapest gas in town. This makes it a busy place, with only four gas pumps (one of which has not been working), and if you come in the afternoon, it’s usually too late for eggs. Their eggs have the most orange yolks you’ve ever seen, and the eggs themselves are often so large that they come with large rubber bands wrapped around the cardboard containers; otherwise they wouldn’t stay closed.

J fixes eggs for our breakfast every other day, and we eat them sitting at a low, collapsible table in front of a west-facing window in our library that looks out for miles across hills and cow-covered fields to peaks of Allegheny Mountains in the distance. The weather always comes from the west, and the light changes constantly the way it does over the sea. The eggs keep changing as well, a condition that J promised when—as we agreed to begin living together—I voiced some concern about the possibility of growing bored over time. I meant with one another of course, but he heard it as a thoroughgoing concern. Hence the enormous variety in the ingredients of our alternate-day eggs.

There was no breakfast as I was growing up. My mother was manic/depressive (nowadays she’d be bipolar, but without meds that doesn’t improve the conditions for anyone in the family) and, as I look back on it, I feel there must be a causal connection between those two things: her mental health and the absence of breakfast. Neither we nor anyone else I knew discussed mental health in personal terms as I was growing up in the 1950s; my mother simply didn’t have a breakfast function. My father and maternal grandmother constantly reminded us children never to upset her, because “she is so sensitive” and “don’t forget she is a Barnard graduate.”

Indeed her IQ was incredibly high and remained so throughout a very long life, despite frequent psychotic episodes, infrequent hospitalizations and occasional electroshock therapies. Each time she was hospitalized—the last time she was well into her eighties—she would be part of some statistical study about the long-term effects of mental illness upon intelligence, and each time the studiers would be amazed at the fact that her IQ remained so high. Lately it occurs to me that whenever life became stressful, my mother would simply duck out of reality, thereby avoiding wear and tear on her brain.

We did have lunch. Grade school (K-8, no such thing as middle school then) was about two miles away, and there were no school buses at the time where we lived, so we all walked, roller skated, or biked to and from, and we all went home for lunch the same way. Even my father came home for lunch. He taught at the local junior college (they weren’t known as community colleges at the time, but that’s what they really were) and went back and forth via a quiet little motor scooter that he kept stocked with small round stones to ward off the many barking dogs that followed him. Lunch was often bologna sandwiches on sliced white bread and didn’t take long.

So when did we have eggs at all? On Saturdays my father would make a huge production, attired in pajamas, bathrobe either knotted or not, and soft brown leather slippers. It was always piles of bacon and scrambled eggs and might be ready around noon. Again, more like lunch.

From the first I was consistently an “A” student at school. There were hardly any rules at home, but lots of confusion. Rules at school were clear and simple. I never had a course I didn’t love and school was smooth sailing. I quickly added chorus, orchestra, drama, and all the possible activities that kept me at school and away from home most of the time. In high school I took the public bus to a friend’s house (very early, since there was no breakfast and no one was up at my house) where I joined Marcy and her mother for cigarettes & coffee before walking the few remaining blocks to school. I became a thespian, had the lead in all the plays (rehearsing until midnight last weeks before the show) directed by a single woman named Ruth with wild curly graying red hair who walked around with her playbook drinking coffee, coffee, coffee, out of a huge thermos. By that time I began to believe that it was rather chic to forego breakfast (and sometimes lunch as well) in favor of coffee.

By the time of college it had become positively déclassé among my friends to go to breakfast at all: better to study all night, take a quick wink and a shower at dawn and drag yourself to class stretching and yawning.

All was to change dramatically when I married into a large non-religious but culturally consistent Jewish family. My mother-in-law had devoted her life to her children’s health and welfare and was a somewhat begrudging slave to her husband’s schedule. She had no pretenses about enjoying or excelling at cooking but regularly provided ample meals (often from nearby good Jewish delis) three times daily. For the better part of her married life, her husband the doctor had his office in a part of their Sheepshead Bay house, so he was very much “under foot” and at home for the three meals. Whether serving her own family or the extended family (twenty-five or thirty), she would forever admonish all present to eat—more and more—but was rarely persuaded to seat herself at the table where everyone else was eating.

Clearly I needed to fix a daily breakfast, all the more so when our first child was born before our first anniversary. Now we were three people who needed to start the day with a healthy breakfast; and in another seventeen months, four. I had always enjoyed cooking, experimenting with new cuisines and ingredient, but no experience with breakfast. This was also the time of cookbook writers such as Beatrice Moore Lappé, who urged us to eat lower on the food chain, and Ewell Gibbons told us how to eat foods that we foraged. I made oat cakes from scratch, cottage cheese with walnuts and raisins, brown bread, even home-made bagels. My kids were adventurous eaters from the first, and they never ate baby food. My daughter scarfed down caviar at the traditional extended family Thanksgiving feast when she was barely a year old, and they both ate fresh caught and cooked frogs’ legs when they were still toddlers.

As life got busier and more scheduled for all of us, I thought to make my breakfast life easier. I had always been fairly unconscious during my first waking hour. Whether I rose early or late, it was always the same—my brain and body didn’t play out their inherent interconnection well for about an hour. At some point I remembered my father’s eggs, and it turned out everyone loved eggs: eggs fried over lightly, poached (with ketchup for the other three, much to my horror), shirred and scrambled, and even boiled, soft but better hard. All things considered, this turn of events worked well, though my now grown offspring love to remind me of a few mishaps I had with the eggs. Once or twice I apparently cracked a raw egg and instead of dropping it into the frying pan tossed it over my shoulder. And the kids were standing there watching. It was first thing in the morning.

Hard-boiled eggs turned out to be more dangerous. We had all discovered that we liked them cold as well as fresh cooked. We kept half a dozen in the refrigerator, marked “HB” on the blunt end to avoid messy mistakes or assumptions. What was even better from the cook’s point of view was that they could be made in advance and didn’t have to be stirred, added to, or watched. I could do something else simultaneously, like read a book or have a conversation somewhere else in the apartment or on the telephone. Or so I thought. It was usually someone other than myself, someone coming home from school, opening the door who yelled, “What stinks?” Then we would all rush to the kitchen, where we would see the eggs exploding high in the air, bits of white but mostly yolk adhering to the high ceiling. And it wasn’t even early in the day when it happened.

Thank you Hildegard for a wonderful foray into your memorable times with (and without) eggs!

Dear readers, do share egg related stories, if you will, in the comments. XOXO Elle

Sunday, March 21, 2010

How Sweet It Is

March is just full of sweet opportunities. A number of my scholarship sisters have March birthdays, so does Sweetie, and so do other family members and friends.

For Sweetie's birthday we had a deluxe dinner at home...just the two of us...and I made a variation of the March Daring Baker challenge...so I'll tell you about it when I post about the challenge later in the month. I can tell you that the birthday version included shamrock cookies since it was St. Patrick's day. I can show you a photo of those cookies.

Then the Darling Mother had her birthday...and DM asked for a vanilla cake with chocolate icing. My Mom (who is darling in her own way, but not DM) teased me about having to make a boring, same old same old cake.

Now I could have made a yellow cake from a mix and swirled on some chocolate icing from a can. But, really, can you imagine that I would? Much more fun to delve into some cookbooks and old files and come up with something just a little different and way more sophisticated.

For starters I took the Perfect Party cake that the Daring Bakers baked last year and made it a vanilla instead of lemon cake. I think I over baked it because it was drier than I would have liked,but had great flavor.

For the filling I made a chocolate custard from a recipe in a great cookbook called Butter Sugar Flour Eggs by Gale Gand that was like a very deep, dark chocolate cornstarch pudding.

I used some Bensdorp Dutch-process cocoa from King Arthur...very delicious stuff...and it made the filling very intensely chocolate.

When I filled the layers it slipped a bit so the cake was a bit lopsided. I was worried that the filling wouldn't set up enough and that when it was cut that it would fall apart. Fortunately the cake was dry...I guess it soaked up some of the custard's extra moisture.

The top and sides were slathered with semi-sweet chocolate ganache. I love the stuff, but it sure is messy to work with.

There was some left after the top and sides were finished so I chilled it a little bit and then whipped it to use to decorate the bottom edge with tiny stars and to make some swirls on the top to hold candles.

It was a hit with the birthday girl and sure did look pretty.

Now I want to try making the full recipe that the filling came from. It's called Brooklyn Blackout Cake and is a cocoa chocolate cake with the cocoa filling and crumbled cake on the top and sides. Sounds wicked good! Might have to make it for one of those later in the month birthdays.

Jazzy Vanilla and Chocolate Party Cake

Vanilla Party Cake
based on Perfect Party Cake in Baking: from my home to yours by Dorie Greenspan

2 ¼ cups cake flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 ¼ cups whole milk or buttermilk (I prefer buttermilk)
4 large egg whites
1 ½ cups sugar
1 stick (8 tablespoons or 4 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract (if you want a really white cake, use clear vanilla extract)

Centre a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter two 9 x 2 inch round cake pans and line the bottom of each pan with a round of buttered parchment or wax paper. Put the pans on a baking sheet.

Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt.

Whisk together the milk and egg whites in a medium bowl.

In a large bowl or a stand mixer bowl, cream the sugar and the butter, working with the paddle or whisk attachment, or with a hand mixer, and beat at medium speed for a full 3 minutes, until the butter and sugar are very light.

Beat in the extract, then add one third of the flour mixture, still beating on medium speed.
Beat in half of the milk-egg mixture, then beat in half of the remaining dry ingredients until incorporated.

Add the rest of the milk and eggs beating until the batter is homogeneous, then add the last of the dry ingredients.

Finally, give the batter a good 2- minute beating to ensure that it is thoroughly mixed and well aerated.

Divide the batter between the two pans and smooth the tops with a rubber spatula.

Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until the cakes are well risen and springy to the touch – a thin knife inserted into the centers should come out clean.

Transfer the cakes to cooling racks and cool for about 5 minutes, then run a knife around the sides of the cakes, unfold them and peel off the paper liners.

Invert and cool to room temperature, right side up (the cooled cake layers can be wrapped airtight and stored at room temperature overnight or frozen for up to two months).

Chocolate Custard Filling
from Butter, Sugar, Flour, Eggs by Gale Gand

3 cups water
2 ½ cups sugar
1 tablespoon corn syrup
1 ½ cups cocoa powder, preferably Dutch-process
Scant 2/3 cup cornstarch
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Pour 2 ½ cups of the water, the sugar, corn syrup, and cocoa powder into a large saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, whisking occasionally. Dissolve the cornstarch in ½ cup of water. Whisk into the cocoa mixture in the saucepan and return the mixture to a boil, whisking constantly. Cook, whisking constantly, until very thick, 4 to 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the butter and vanilla. Pour into a bowl. Cover with plastic wrap, lightly pressing the plastic against the surface to prevent a skin from forming. Chill until firm, about 45 minutes.
Fills a three or four layer 9 inch cake.

Ganache Frosting
8 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, finely chopped (use your favorite…you will really taste the chocolate)
8 ounces heavy cream (I use whipping cream)

Set the chopped chocolate in a mixing bowl.

Pour on the cream and mix well.

At half power in the microwave, heat the mixture for a minute. Stir well. Repeat until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth. Let the ganache stand and come to room temperature before using.

If it thickens too much to frost with and get a nice shiny glaze, reheat at half power for 30 seconds and stir. If it is too thin, let cool some more to thicken a bit.

To Assemble the Cake
Using a sharp serrated knife and a gentle sawing motion, slice each layer horizontally in half.
Put one layer cut side up on a cardboard cake round or a cake plate protected by strips of wax or parchment paper. (I was sooo glad I used wax paper strips because the ganache was sooo messy...or else it was because I was sooo tired that I was messy...either way, use the strips)

Spread it with one cup of the chocolate custard.

Top with another layer, spread with one cup chocolate custard and then do the same with a third layer (you’ll have used about half the custard - reserve the rest for another use).

Place the last layer cut side down on top of the cake.

Pour the ganache frosting over the top and use a thin spatula to spread evenly. Use the spatula to frost the sides with more ganache. If it seems too liquid, let cool a bit until firmer before frosting the sides. Let remaining ganache, if any, cool some more until firm, then use to pipe a shell or other decorative border where the cake meets the serving plate.

Chill until frosting is firm, about 15 minutes, then remove the wax or parchment paper strips (if using) and discard them.

The cake is ready to serve as soon as it is chilled, but you can let it sit and set for a couple of hours in the refrigerator. Whether you wait or slice and enjoy it immediately, the cake should be served at room temperature; the ganache is too firm when served cold.

The cake is best the day it is made, but you can refrigerate it, well covered, for up to two days. Bring it to room temperature before serving. If you want to freeze the cake, slide it into the freezer to set, then wrap it really well – it will keep for up to 2 months in the freezer; defrost it, still wrapped overnight in the refrigerator.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Seafood Chowder for Chilly Weather

This St. Patrick's Day passed with no corned beef and cabbage, nor Irish soda bread. We had a nice green salad with cucumbers and oranges and walnuts, some potatoes roasted with rosemary and garlic (there's the bit of Irish for 'ya), and a steak cooked on the grill. The rain has stopped long enough to uncover the grill and put it to use.

Since none of those seem worthy of a post, I'm going to tell you about the seafood chowder I made when it was still cold and rainy and wintry. It will probably get cold and rainy again, so I'll be prepared...and so will you if spring is still playing hard to get.

Trader Joe's makes a really nice frozen mixed seafood concoction. It has some squid, some baby scallops, and some small shrimp. Along with a can of chopped clams in their juices those mixed seafood goodies were the basis for the chowder.

A true chowder, in my opinion, needs both onions and potatoes. I also like to add some celery, carrot and, if I have it on hand, some red pepper cut into a fine dice. A little butter, a good quantity of milk, and some flour and water to thicken things up all add to the finished product.

Seasonings are pretty personal. I added some garlic, some minced Italian (broad leaf) parsley, and a bit of thyme. Lots of people also add a dash (or more) of hot pepper sauce. I added a dash of cayenne pepper instead. A good grind or two of black pepper finished it off.

The taste of the sea is in every warm, creamy, delicious bite.

I didn't use a recipe book for this, just sort of threw it together one night.

Mixed Seafood Chowder
Serves 4-6

1 medium onion, finely diced
1/2 cup celery, diced
1/4 cup carrot, diced
1 clove of garlic, minced
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 medium russet potatoes
1 cup water
2 cups milk
1 package frozen mixed seafood ( about 1/2 pound each squid, small scallops and small shrimp)
2 cans chopped clams in their juices
1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley - Italian flat leaf if best for flavor
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
dash cayenne pepper (or more if you like it with more spice)
2 tablespoons butter, softened
2 tablespoons flour
salt and pepper to taste

In a large pot, saute the onions, celery, carrots and garlic in the olive oil until soft, about 3-5 minutes. Add the russet potatoes and the water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer, cover pot and simmer until potatoes are tender. Add the milk, seafood mixture, clams, parsley, thyme, cayenne pepper and stir to combine. Cover the pot and simmer for 5 minutes.

In a small bowl mix together the butter and flour. Add to the chowder and stir to combine with the chowder. Turn heat up to medium-high and cook, stirring constantly, until the chowder is thickened. Adjust seasonings with salt and pepper. Serve at once.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Asparagus Dish Bears Repeating

Springtime brings fresh asparagus at reasonable prices around here. Although I love them steamed with a little garlic, roasted with a little olive oil and some pepper, and blanched, cut in bite sized pieces, chilled and added to salads, my favorite dish that includes asparagus is a pasta dish that includes long, thin pasta, ricotta cheese, Parmesan cheese, asparagus, garlic and some spices. It is simple but delicious. It turns out that I blogged about it last spring, but a recipe this good bears repeating.

Lately I've been turning to familiar recipes that I know work and are not too time consuming. Work has been eating up a lot of time lately, but we should soon be back to normal, whatever that is. I've also been doing some graphics at work, this week in relation to an FDA application, so that's been fun. On the home front we are still trying to find the leak by the window on the south wall and it looks like the window itself needs to be replaced. Planning has also begun on a bathroom remodel. Since the bathroom is over 25 years old it is probably mature enough for a face lift...and maybe a new shower enclosure. I'm the kind of girl who loves hardware stores almost as much as kitchen ware stores, so this is exciting.

To make this yummy asparagus dish this time I used angel hair pasta because that is what was in the pantry and it turned out to work very well with this sauce. Once you mix it with the sauce you pile it up on a platter. Since the asparagus is scattered on top of the pasta, then sprinkled with grated Parmesan, you don't have to worry about mixing it into the pasta. Although I didn't do it this time, sometimes I garnish this with pine nuts that I've toasted in a small cast iron skillet. A great dish becomes even better that way.

The quality of your ingredients shine with a dish this simple. Use the best asparagus you can find, fresh ricotta, good garlic, and grate the nutmeg right into the sauce if you have nutmegs and a grater. Freshly ground black pepper is a big plus, too.

The photos of the finished dish on this post are terrible. My only excuse is that it was late, I had worked all day and it smelled so good I didn't take many photos. Also this dish is best served right away...how's that for rationalization?

Pasta with Ricotta and Asparagus
from the Mediterranean Diet Cookbook

3/4 lb tender young asparagus
1 garlic clove, crushed
3 tablespoons olive oil
(optional - 2 tablespoons fresh mint, minced)
1 pound long pasta - fettuccine, linguine, spaghetti, angel hair are all good
6 quarts water
1/2 pound fresh creamy ricotta (or mild goat cheese)
dash nutmeg
freshly ground black pepper to taste (I like a lot)
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Trim tough ends off asparagus. Cut tender parts into 1 inch lengths. In a saute pan, gently stew the garlic and asparagus in the oil until the vegetables are tender, but not brown (about 15 minutes). Stir in mint if using. Set aside.

Meanwhile, cook pasta in lightly salted water. While pasta cooks, extract 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid and mix it in a small saucepan with the ricotta. Set saucepan over low heat and gently cream the ricotta and cooking water. When the ricotta is warm, taste and add salt and pepper to taste. Add nutmeg and1 tablespoon grated cheese. Stir to combine.

Drain the pasta and combine immediately with the cheese sauce, tossing to mix well. Arrange on a warm platter and pour asparagus and oil mixture over the top. Sprinkle with the grated cheese and serve at once.

Serves 6

Sunday, March 07, 2010

A Very Merry Un-Group To Us

While it is fun to belong to groups like the Daring Bakers or Daily Tiffin or Bread Baking Babes (and Buddies) or The Cake Slice, to name a few, sometimes it is nice to think about being part of an un-group.
What's that? you say.

Well, it has no rules to speak of, no chosen recipe, not deadlines for posting and, most importantly, it does require that you stretch yourself culinarily and challenge yourself. If you do, you get a high five (the badge) and the approbation of the other un-groupies.

If you challenge yourself ten times this year you'll get the satisfaction of doing so and maybe conquering some cooking and/or baking fears, add to your skills in the kitchen, and be part of the round up at the end.

Sound like fun? Want to push yourself a bit? Go on over to Cookie Baker Lynn's and get the skinny on this endeavor...and pick up the badge you'll award yourself while you are at it. She came up with this great idea! As you can see, this is a very low maintenance un-group...saving lots of energy for the main thing...the challenge you give yourself.

Have not figured out my first challenge to myself yet, but look for the badge in the next week or so on one of my posts. That's how you'll know I Did It!

Friday, March 05, 2010

Sourdough Pizza

Sweetie had a fire board meeting on Wednesday evening and I was the dinner cook. To challenge myself I decided to see if I could make pizza from scratch in under two hours so that he would be on time for his meeting.

Fortunately I had used the 'toss off' when I fed my starter on Monday and mixed it (1 cup sourdough starter) with a slurry of a cup of all purpose flour mixed with a cup of water. That mixture had been in the 'fridge' for a couple of days and was ready to bake with.

After putting the mixture in the stand mixer bowl, I added some sugar, olive oil and salt and stirred it around with a spatula. A little over two cups of all-purpose flour was easily absorbed as I used the dough hook to incorporate the flour and knead the dough. I sprinkled about another 1/4 cup flour on the board I used for final kneading, then the dough went into the rising bucket to rise until doubled in bulk. Since I put it in the warmer part of the living room near but not next to the stove, it took about an hour to double.

While the little yeasties were doing their thing, I made a tomato based pizza sauce. based on my favorite spaghetti sauce. I also added about a 1/4 cup of very finely diced mushrooms. The sauce simmered for almost an hour, with lots of stirring to keep it from scorching. I wanted it to be thick and not to have much loose liquid which coudl ruin the crisp crust.

While the sauce was simmering, I cooked some Italian turkey sausages from Willie Bird's in a pan with a little water over medium-low heat. I took a couple of them, once cooked, and sliced them to put on as pizza toppings. This was also a good time to find the shredded mozzarella cheese and to finely grate some Parmesan cheese, and to preheat the oven to 500 degrees with the pizza stone in the oven.

Once the pizza dough had doubled, I cut it into 4 pieces. Since the dough was still a bit sticky, I was liberal with the flour on the board I used to make the dough circles for the pizza. It's a good idea to keep the rim a bit thicker than the base of dough.

The final shaping was done on a piece of baking parchment, then the toppings went on: some sauce, applied in a thin layer, the sausage slices, the mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses. Using a pizza peel which I slid under the baking parchment, I slid the parchment and pizza onto the preheated baking stone. About 5 minutes later I used a corner of the paper to turn the pizza on the stone 180 degrees for more even baking.

The resulting pizza was delish! The crust was tangy with sourdough flavor and the bottom crust was crisp and firm enough to hold the toppings without drooping. The sauce and toppings went perfectly together. With a nice salad this made a fine meal...and it was ready in under 2 hours, including baking time.

If you don't have sourdough starter at hand, substitute rapid acting yeast...a full packet should do it...and 1 1/2 cups warm water. You may need to add a little more or less flour with either method due to differences in weather and flour. You want a dough that is still a little sticky but smooth and elastic.

If you don't care for tomato sauce and Italian sausage, substitute your favorite toppings. Bechemel sauce or ricotta cheese make a nice base for non-tomato pizzas and the sky's the limit for what to top them with, including meat, poultry, fish, and veggies, plus herbs and all kinds of cheese.

Simple Sourdough Pizza Dough

1 cup sourdough starter
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup barely warm water
½ teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
2 – 2 ½ cups all-purpose flour

Mix the sourdough starter with the slurry and whisk to combine thoroughly. Let this mixture sit at room temperature for two hours. If you will be making the rest of the dough another day, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate this starter mix.

When you are ready to make the dough and make pizza, put the starter mix into a stand mixer bowl and stir the sugar, olive oil and salt into the starter mix. Using the dough hook, gradually add the flour until a dough forms. Knead with the mixer for 4-5 minutes, adding more flour a tablespoon at a time as needed.

(If not using a stand mixer, put two cups of the flour in a bowl. Make a well in the center and add the mixture of starter, sugar, olive oil and salt that you’ve whisked together in another bowl. Stir to mix the wet mix into the flour until a dough forms. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead in enough flour to make a smooth and elastic dough which can still be a little sticky.)

Once dough is smooth and elastic, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and knead by hand for another minute, adding flour if necessary to fully blend the dough.

Form dough into a ball. Place in a lightly oiled bowl or other container good for dough to rise in. Cover with oiled plastic wrap and a tea towel and let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.

When it is about 45 minutes before you plan to bake the pizza, preheat the oven to 500 degrees F and if you have one place a baking stone in the oven to preheat, too.

On a lightly floured surface place ¼ of the dough. Using floured hands, stretch the dough into a rough circle, keeping a rim of thicker dough around the edges. Some people like to toss the dough to do this, but mine always ends up on the floor if I do, so I just push the dough or hold it by the edge and work my way around. Place the stretched dough (about 9-10 inches in diameter0 on a piece of baking parchment.

Top the dough as desired. I used a tomato based sauce that included canned tomato sauce, canned diced tomatoes, zucchini, mushrooms, onions, basil, oregano and garlic, all cooked together over low heat for an hour until most of the liquid had evaporated. The topping over the sauce was sliced cooked Italian turkey sausages, mozzarella cheese and Parmesan cheese.

To bake, slide the parchment paper holding the pizza onto the preheated baking stone. If no stone is available, turn a jelly roll pan upside down on an oven rack in the preheated oven and immediately slide on the parchment paper holding the pizza.

Bake about 5 minutes, then turn the pizza around 180 degrees for even baking. Bake until golden brown. Remove from oven to cutting board, cut and serve. If you are making more than one pizza (recipe makes 4 crusts) prepare it on another piece of parchment and once you remove one pizza, put the next one in the oven.

You can also make breadsticke: use one of the dough pieces, spread out or roll to about the same diameter as a pizza, but keep the thickness pretty even. Sprinkle with grated Parmesan and cut into strips. Place the strips a small distance apart on the baking parchment and bake like the pizzas!
I'm sending this to Susan at Wild Yeast for her popular Yeastspotting event. Check it out!

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Thank you Jeanne! Spice Bar Cookies

I love fancy cookies like linzer tarts and shortbread dipped in chocolate and crescents coated in powdered sugar, but I also like simpler cookies like classic chocolate chip and oatmeal cookies and gingersnaps.

My friend Jeanne recently gave me a recipe for a homey but delicious bar cookie, so simple, that combines spices like cinnamon and nutmeg with lots of raisins and nuts. The surprise ingredient is brewed coffee. To carry the flavor further, I also added coffee to some half and half which I mixed with confectioners sugar to make the glaze.

These cookies are not very tall but they are soft, moist, not too sweet, have just enough spice to highlight the raisins and nuts and that touch of coffee ties the flavors together. They go really well with a cup of coffee...just perfect for a pick me up.

Frosted Coffee Bars
From Jeanne Nahmens

½ cup butter, softened
1 cup brown sugar
1 egg
½ cup strong coffee, cooled
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon salt
½ cup raisins
¼ cup chopped nuts (I used walnuts)
2 tablespoons half and half
2 tablespoons brewed coffee, cooled
enough confectioners to make a glaze, about 1 cup

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Blend together the butter, brown sugar and egg. Add the coffee and mix to incorporate.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt. Add to butter mixture and blend.

Add the raisins and nuts and stir to combine.

Turn batter into a greased and floured 9” x 13” pan.

Bake in the preheated oven for 15 – 20 minutes or until bars start pulling away from the side and are golden brown.

Let cool and then frost with a glaze made by combining the half and half, coffee, and powdered sugar.

Cut into bars to serve.

Makes 18 long bars or 36 smaller squares