Thursday, October 22, 2009

Apple Cobbler (sort of)

A few months ago, I made my first attempt at homemade pie crust, something that I'd shied away from because, well, I've had a lot of bad homemade pie crusts and seen a lot of recipes and tips for "fool-proof" pie crust. These two indicators led me to believe making pie crust is tricky, and since Pillsbury helpfully markets a delicious ready-made refrigerated crust, I'd never seen the point in tackling it myself.

Nowadays, though, I'm more curious about whether homemade versions of everything are better, and approach new experiences with a "How hard can it be, really?" sort of attitude. What finally led me to try making my own crust was wanting to make a lemon meringue pie at 9:30 on a Friday night and not feeling like going to the store for the aforementioned Pillsbury crust. I seized the moment, and the crust actually turned out really well. It's not that hard. The secret, as I'd read many times, is very cold butter and ice water. I still have some trouble with the whole rolling out dough process, but I'm getting better.

Anyway, the recipe made two 9-inch crusts, so one went in the bottom of the lemon meringue pie pan and one went in the freezer, to be pulled out months later for tonight's dessert.

I had planned to make an apple galette -- or my version of one, anyway, in which I put a pie crust on a baking sheet, fill it with sugared fruit, and fold up the edges. It's a simple, rustic-looking dessert and seemed like the perfect finished for tonight's inelegant pasta dinner.

I peeled, cored, and sliced four Macintosh apples of dubious quality. The flesh was surprisingly white and very juicy. Almost too juicy - the texture was firm, but still sort of spongy.  I'd read that Macintosh apples were very good for baking, so I picked these up at the local grocery store, which was sheer laziness -- I probably should have waited until I could get some local ones at the greenmarket. These were billed as "Produce of USA" at the Hispanic grocery store down the street, though, so that should have been fine, right? Toss them with brown sugar , cinnamon, and a squeeze of lemon juice and they should work, I figured.

I got the apples all ready and then turned my attention to the thawing crust. I started unrolling it, and found that it was still pretty stiff, but I needed to get that thing in the oven, so I tried to coax it flat. Mistake! You can't rush pastry dough. It cracked into a bunch of pieces.

The best idea I could come up with to avoid wasting the crust was a cobbler of sorts. I put the apples in a shallow baking dish (so much for that lovely rustic galette), dotted them with a couple tablespoons of unsalted butter, and arranged the pastry strips on top, finishing them with an egg wash. I used the whole egg, which I read about in some recipe online, but I think just using the yolk would have yielded a better finish.

After about an hour in a 325-degree oven, the dish was smelling divine. While it cooled, I whipped some cream, remembering to pop the stainless steel mixing bowl and whisk (okay, the beater for the electric hand mixer) into the freezer for a few minutes first, which makes the cream thicken so much faster. That's a truly handy kitchen tip, folks.

The cobbler, while completely edible, was a little disappointing. The crust didn't get quite as  golden brown as I'd have liked. The apples had gone mushy, and I like the pieces to retain their shape and crunch somewhat. I think fresher apples, or maybe another variety, might have helped. The flavor was okay -- a little too sweet, maybe, although the apples had a slight tartness to them that balanced that out. I think I needed some other spices -- maybe a pinch of ginger, or some nutmeg. Some toasted walnuts might have made a nice addition, too.

Despite being less-than-spectacular, this dish was totally adequate as a quick weeknight dessert. And who am I trying to kid? I'd rather have a so-so dessert than no dessert at all.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Sausage and Kale Pasta

Much like American Express, CSA membership has its privileges. Throughout the summer, Zac and I brought home bulging bags of tender lettuces, fresh herbs, and crunchy carrots. We also brought home more radishes and beets than I ever wanted to eat, and several bunches of epazote, a powerfully flavored Mexican herb used in bean dishes. 

We received several bundles of kale, too. I’d never used it before but quickly developed a liking for its earthy flavor. Plus, it seems like a very virtuous thing to eat -- probably full of folic acid and other healthy stuff. With one bunch, Zac made some excellent kale and black bean tacos with bacon, and we used another bunch in a hearty soup with leftover roast pork.

One morning last week I pulled some garlic-and-gruyere sausages from the freezer and took a quick inventory of what else we had on hand for that night’s dinner. We still had broccoli and kale from our last CSA share, and I used all three in this recipe, adapted from Southern Living.

Sausage and Kale Pasta

Small bundle kale, washed well
2 cups broccoli, chopped
1 package whole wheat pasta (farfalle or similar)
3 sausages (Polish, Italian, fancypants specialty ones – it’s your preference)
1  medium onion, chopped
1 cup sliced cremini mushrooms
2  garlic cloves, minced
1/4  cup  balsamic vinegar
2 c. chicken broth
8  fresh basil leaves, thinly sliced
1  tablespoon  chopped fresh or 1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon red pepper flakes
1/2  teaspoon  pepper
1/4  teaspoon  salt
3  tablespoons  pine nuts, toasted
½ cup grated gruyere or parm or other hard cheese

Put on big pot of salted water to boil.

While waiting for the water to boil, remove kale’s thick stems, and cut or tear leaves into strips; set aside.

If starting with uncooked sausage, slice and fry them in a Dutch oven over medium heat until browned. If you’re using a loose sausage, like Italian, you can remove the skins and crumble the meat instead of slicing it. (I used smoked sausage, so I just sliced them and added them towards the end to heat them through.) Remove sausage to a bowl. 

When the water starts boiling, stir in the pasta, put a metal colander or steamer basket over the pot, and place kale and/or broccoli inside. (If your colander or steamer is big enough you can steam all the vegetables at once; mine’s not so I did the kale first and then the broccoli.) Cover tightly and let steam for about 3-5 minutes, or until kale softens and broccoli turns bright green.

Cook pasta according to package directions; drain and set aside.

Meanwhile, add onion and mushrooms to sausage grease in Dutch oven, and sauté 5 minutes. Add garlic, and sauté 1 minute. Add vinegar, and cook 3 minutes. Add chicken broth and kale; cook 5 minutes. Stir in broccoli, basil, and next 4 ingredients; cook 1 minute. Stir in pasta and sausage; cook until thoroughly heated (about 5 minutes).

Spoon portions into bowls and sprinkle with pine nuts and grated cheese.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Ginger-Coconut Muffins

I created this recipe a few months ago to use up some ingredients I had lying around. Sour cream creates a wonderfully thick and rich batter, and the edges and top of the muffins crunch pleasantly when you bite into them. They're terrific by themselves, but I think a little tangy Greek yogurt or cream cheese would be tasty on these.

Ginger-Coconut Muffins
Makes 1 dozen.

1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 egg
1/2 cup sour cream
1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 cup flaked coconut
1/4 cup crystallized ginger chips, minced (I use The Ginger People's Baker's Cut)
Turbinado (aka raw) sugar

Preheat oven to 375. In a large bowl, mix flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt.

In another bowl, whisk together egg, sour cream, butter, and vanilla. Stir in the ginger chips.

Add the liquid mixture to the dry ingredients, stirring until just combined. Fold in the coconut.

Fill muffin cups 2/3 full and sprinkle tops with turbinado sugar. For extra crunch, top with 1/4 cup finely chopped almonds.

Bake 18-20 minutes, or until toothpick inserted into center comes out clean.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Vegan Brownies

 No, I'm not a vegan.

What I am is a very lazy girl with a voracious sweet tooth that wasn't going to let the fact that I'd run out of eggs and didn't feel like going to the store keep me from baking it brownies.

Which is how I came to Google "vegan brownies." I had all the ingredients for this recipe, so I headed for the kitchen.

Except it turned out I didn't have all the ingredients. In addition to eggs, I was out of white sugar. It seemed like brown sugar would work, though, so that's what I used.

I was on the phone with my little sister as I threw this together one-handed, so I was even more distracted than I usually am when I'm cooking. But even so, I kept exclaiming over the proportions of the ingredients.

"Two cups of sugar? Doesn't that seem like a lot?"

"A whole cup of vegetable oil? That can't be right, can it? A cup? I'm out of regular vegetable oil -- I can use corn oil, right?"

The batter was thick, but extremely oily. I poured it in the pan and chucked it in the oven. About 15 minutes into the 25-minute cook time, I realized I had pecans in the freezer, so I yanked the pan out of the oven and tried to press the nuts into the top of the brownies. They'd already firmed up, though, and it wasn't really working, so I only covered about a quarter of the pan and put them back in to finish baking.

These are definitely cakey brownies, so if fudgy is your thing, just forget it. They'd be pretty good topped with some ice cream and caramel sauce or with a light frosting, but on their own, they're pretty one note. I know a lot of brownies are like that, but with some recipes, you get a more nuanced flavor with butter and vanilla in additon to the chocolate.

What I liked:
  • One bowl recipe!
  • Brownies on demand -- very easy
  • Consistent, small crumb -- would be excellent for frosting and serving on a platter because the brownies hold together well
  • No problem at all getting the brownies out of the pan (probably thanks to that full cup of oil!)

What I didn't:
  • Chocolate flavor was kind of underwhelming - could have been becuase I wasn't using a high-quality cocoa, just basic Hershey's
  • Texture like a firm sponge

Spaghetti with Tomatoes, Ricotta, and Basil

Often when I try to improvise a dish, the results are less than satisfying -- unevenly seasoned, weirdly textured, or just not tasty. Last night, though, I made a simple meal that was exactly what I wanted, so I thought I might as well share my minor triumph.

Poking around in the (quite bare) fridge looking for something I could eat for dinner, I spotted about half a cup of leftover chunky marinara sauce that we made to top pizza last weekend. There was also a carton of whole milk ricotta, a fantastically versatile ingredient that I've decided needs to be one of our staples.

I boiled some spaghetti and scooped it out into a bowl, which I prefer to draining it in a colander -- why dirty another piece of equipment if you don't have to, right?  I topped the pasta with some large dollops of ricotta, splashes of olive oil, and a generous sprinkling of Maldon sea salt. I dumped out the hot pasta water and warmed the marinara in the pot, then spooned it on top of the cheese and pasta. I finished the dish with a scattering of fresh basil leaves from our kitchen herb garden and some fresh ground black pepper.

It was a happy accident that I got the proportions just right -- normally I'd have too much oil or cheese. But the tomato and basil were bright and fresh, the oil and cheese creamy and rich, and the sea salt aggressive enough to perk up the vegetables and cut the fat.

Back in May, Zac and I went to dinner at Scarpetta, an Italian restaurant renowned for its spaghetti with tomato and basil, a very simple, light, yet infinitely comforting meal. The flavors of the dish I made last night reminded me of Scarpetta's spaghetti, and that was a truly pleasant surprise. Of course, I'll never be able to duplicate it, but that's okay.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Bourbon Pumpkin Cheesecake

It's Labor Day, which means another summer is finally on its way out the door, and not a moment too soon. After a couple weeks of 90 degree and higher temps, my boyfriend Zac and I started trying to will the cooler weather to descend upon New York by acting like it was fall. We purchased sweaters and boots. We roasted chickens and baked root vegetable gratins. And then, I made Bourbon Pumpkin Cheesecake.

The recipe has been around awhile: Gourmet magazine originally published it in 1990, then again in 2003, and I read it on one of the cooking blogs I like, Smitten Kitchen. It seemed like just the thing for our last "Let's pretend it's autumn!" weekend of the summer.

My fatal flaw as a cook is failing to read the complete recipe before I start. So it was 4:30 Sunday afternoon when I started on the cheesecake... and realized that not only would I have to chill the unfilled crumb crust for an hour, but also cool the baked cake in its pan for two to three hours AND chill it in the fridge for another FOUR hours! So it seemed this would not, in fact, be a dessert for Sunday dinner.

I went ahead with it anyway, doubling the crust recipe as suggested on Smitten Kitchen and popping it in the freezer to speed the chilling time.

I was supposed to whisk together the pumpkin, eggs, brown sugar, cream, vanilla, and bourbon; stir together the granulated sugar, cornstarch, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and salt; then add the cream cheese to the dry sugar/cornstarch mixture before adding those combined ingredients to the pumpkin/egg mixture. But my secondary flaw as a cook is that I don't read recipes carefully enough, so I combined the cream cheese with the pumpkin/egg mixture from the start, so I think the cream cheese didn't get fluffed as much as it should have.  Luckily, this wasn't a situation where it really mattered.

The cake came out of the oven with a beautiful, smooth top, and we managed to let it cool for an hour and a half, then chill for about two hours before we gave up pretending we weren't going to eat it that night.

When I took the cheesecake out to add the sour cream topping, however, I realized that I was supposed to be put it on right after the cake came out of the oven and then bake it for five more minutes. Now that the cake was cool, well, that wasn't really an option anymore. I decided I'd just make some bourbon-spiked whipped cream to top each serving with, so I poured a couple glugs of bourbon into the cream before I stated whipping. It was probably about four times the amount of bourbon that would have gone into the sour cream topping, and was pretty overpowering (my third flaw as a chef is I don't always measure ingredients -- oh, and my fourth flaw is that I tend to be heavy-handed with booze). I think it also kept the cream from really whipping up. It thickened, but that was the best I could do. Overall, the whipped cream wasn't tasty, or necessary.

What I liked:

  • The pecans in the graham cracker crust added flavor and texture
  • Subtle pumpkin flavor kept it from being an ultra-creamy pumpkin pie
  • Cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg weren't overwhelming like they are in some fall-flavored recipes

What I didn't:
  • The cake was more cream than crumb - I like a cakier cheesecake. The center of the cake, in particular, reminded me of a flavored cream cheese for topping bagels with. Maybe baking the extra five minutes with the topping would have helped.
  • The bourbon in the cheesecake was indiscernible. I think it could have used a little more.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Dammit, Mark Bittman!

This weekend, Zac and I are going to Montauk to stay in a cute little cottage and do absolutely nothing. We had out-of-town guests for 5 nights last week (and no matter how much you like someone, 5 nights is about 2 or 3 nights too many for 4 people to stay in our apartment together), and we both had major deadlines at work this week requiring lots of overtime.

So, a vacation couldn’t come at a better time. I’m working on two beach playlists – one for daytime and one for nighttime (suggestions?) – and I’m taking my favorite book, which I haven’t reread in a couple years. I have a vision of us lying on the deck during breaks from walks on the beach and playing Frisbee -- reading, playing Scrabble, singing, drinking cocktails, and eating yummy snacks.

We both really like to cook, but we haven’t had much time to fix anything more complicated than hot dogs for the past couple weeks. The cottage has a grill, so we’re definitely going to, uh, grill hot dogs – but we’re going to fix some more sophisticated stuff, too – likely involving Zac’s beloved heirloom tomatoes, a variety of cheeses, and some tasty meats or fishes.

I’m planning to make some chicken salad and a couple batches of cookies to take with us, and last night I made 2 kinds of muffins to anchor our Continental breakfast.

I used Mark Bittman’s Basic Muffin recipe from How to Cook Everything, a great cookbook that is usually my first reference when I’m headed to the kitchen. Bittman encourages you to buy the best ingredients you can find/afford, but he’ll also tell you when you won’t suffer by using canned beans or whatever. (He also has a recipe for Cinnamon Toast for One, which I think is funny.) He’s usually a really dependable source for basic recipes, so I thought his muffin recipe would be the perfect place to start.

But this time, Mark Bittman, you have steered me wrong!

In fairness, Bittman does warn that he doesn’t like sweet muffins, and that you should punch up the sugar if you do. HOWEVER. I used his spice muffin variation, adding cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and nutmeg (plus, I put in a bunch of walnuts for crunch). But the spice flavor was too subtle and the muffins really aren’t very sweet, even though I used a quarter-cup of dark brown sugar. The texture, while not totally dry, isn’t as light and fluffy as I would have liked. I put some strawberry preserves on one while it was still warm, and that was quite tasty. I’m considering adding some kind of caramel glaze – I think that might do the trick, but I’m afraid it would make them TOO sweet.

Anyway, for the second batch of muffins, I used Bittman’s sour cream/yogurt variation, which is supposed to create a very tender crumb. Well. This isn’t Bittman’s fault, but the muffins are extremely dense and chewy. That’s not how muffins are supposed to be!

In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I accidentally put in an extra cup of flour, so I had to add more milk and yogurt, but didn’t think to put extra baking powder or baking soda. Yeah, that probably accounts for the density. They’re a truly bizarre texture, but I put in a whole jar of delicious tart cherries, so we’re just going to have to learn to love our little bubblegum hockey puck muffins.

The whole adventure reminds me of this time when I was about 8 and I wanted to bake something. I really wanted some cookies but we didn't have all the stuff in the recipe, so I figured I'd improvise. I started throwing stuff in a bowl and just mixed it up -- flour, chocolate syrup, milk.

Surprisingly, my efforts did not yield cookies.

My mom always says that baking is chemistry, and doesn't that just figure? I barely passed chemistry (it's algebra in disguise!). But I love baked goods, so I keep trying.