Saturday, November 29, 2008

Giving Thanks

I realize this post title (with some variation, of course) is quite common around this time of year--in fact, I'm slightly late posting on this topic as my friends' blogs indicate--but I am so thankful for the best week I can remember. I just woke up from my recovery nap and I am smiling for reasons quite apparent. Dan and I prepared our first Thanksgiving dinner for all of our parents at our house in Oxford. It was a resounding success. The food all turned out well, but even better, everyone got along brilliantly. I am so grateful for this--that I could happily tell others that my in-laws were coming for Thanksgiving. I love them all dearly and this was the best holiday I could have imagined.

It was made even better by the fact that this year my birthday fell on Thanksgiving. I was born on Thanksgiving and always love celebrating my birthday on a holiday of thanks. This year, my husband, knowing that I would be cooking a full holiday feast on the actual day, gave me a birthday week. I am so thankful to have married someone who not only loves to cook but loves to challenge himself in the kitchen. Now that he has turned in his dissertation, he has decided to teach himself the art of French cooking. Not having a butcher in town has been difficult, but he began Monday with Steak au Poivre and my birthday favorite, Brussels Sprouts with Shallots and Bacon. I must be the only person I know who looks more forward to brussels sprouts than cake on her birthday. But when Dan makes them, they are magnificent and incredibly luxurious.

Tuesday night he took me out for my other favorite meal: Mexican food and a pitcher of beer. Ever since my college days in Texas, there is nothing more comforting or festive than enchiladas smothered in red sauce, cheese, lettuce, and sour cream, a basket of hot chips, and a dish of queso with traces of salsa running through it. And of course, a cold mug of Dos Equis XX. Thank you, Dan, for knowing that this meal out would make me happier than any expensive dinner--though that was to come.

Thank you to our mothers for volunteering for dish duty, especially since the first few years of wedding china means nothing can go in the dishwasher (no matter what the back of the plate says). Thank you to Dad for bringing the hit of the party--a two-and-a-half pound bag of peanuts. Football and peanut shells can always bring a family together. Thank you to Deak for football tickets for "guy time" and to Donna and Mom for a wonderful girls shopping day, even on Black Friday. Thank you to everyone for understanding that the noise at 208 on the evening of the Egg Bowl was worth it when you tasted the Shrimp and Crabmeat Wontons, the wedge salads, and the Lobster Mac and Cheese. And thanks to Dan for making me try new things, getting me out of my familiar ruts, and as a result, I am even thankful for my new favorite wine, the Goats Do Roam Pinotage. And for the extra dessert from our harried but lovely waiter.

Thank you all for a wonderful holiday, for making it the best it could be (and the best it could taste). From Dan's grilled turkey to Donna's smoky gravy to Mom's bread dressing, it was such a success; thank you for the stories I'll be able to tell for years.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Pain au Chocolat

With the promise of a long, lazy Sunday afternoon ahead of me, I decided that today would be the day. Today, I would make my own croissant dough. Today I would make Pain au Chocolat. I pulled out Rose Levy Beranbaum's Pie and Pastry Bible that Dan had given me for Christmas last year and found not only her recipe for croissant dough but a beautiful photograph of her Pains au Chocolat--deep golden brown and flaky, you could see all of the layers of pastry and the chocolate peeking out from the ends. If I could even get close to that, I thought, I would count the day a success.

As we often must do with an undertaking such as this, I told a friend what I was planning to do and offered her some if the pastry turned out well--this committed me to actually going through with it. I learned very quickly that this dough is not at all difficult; it gets its reputation, as so many baked goods do, from the amount of time and patience required, not from any needed degree of skill. It saddens me that as a society we've chosen the phrase "it's too hard" to denote anything time-consuming, anything from which we cannot obtain instant gratification but must instead take pleasure in the process. I'm not saying that I will make my own croissants every weekend--it did take about 10-12 hours, start to finish, but that first bite was heaven. Crusty, flaky, tender, warm, sweet and salty--imagine a French bakery and a crowd of tourists smiling to the strains of Edith Piaf's sultry "La Vie en Rose" and you've got the feeling just about right. Comforting and familiar, if not entirely authentic.

I'm not going to type out the recipe, as I did not use only one and I think talking through the process, as Beranbaum does in her books, is the most approachable way to begin. In case you're wondering, I also used The King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking Book, as it contained diagrams of the rolling and folding process and I am somewhat spacially deficient.

So first you make a dough using about 10 ounces of flour--you can use entirely all-purpose flour, a mix of all-purpose and bread flour, all-purpose and whole wheat flour, or all-purpose and whole-wheat pastry flour. Warm up 3/4 cup of milk, place a couple tablespoons with a packet of active dry yeast and a 1/2 tsp. of sugar in a small bowl and allow it to sit for 20 minutes to get bubbly and foamy. Meanwhile, in a standing mixer with the whisk attachment, fluff up the flour, 1 tsp. salt, and 1 1/2 tablespoons of sugar. Switch to the dough hook and add the yeast mixture and slowly pour in the rest of the milk. Let them mix for about 4-5 minutes--the dough should be smooth and silky and should not stick to the bowl. It may look like there won't be enough liquid to soak up all the flour--there will be. Resist the urge to add more milk. In the time it took me to go the fridge and pour more milk in my measuring cup, the dough hook had worked all of the flour into the mixture and I ended up pouring the milk right back into the carton. Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, turn it to coat, and let it rise in a warm place for 30 minutes. Using a spatula, fold it over on itself, recover, and place in the fridge for at least 2 hours and at most overnight.

Meanwhile, knead 2 sticks of butter--cold but softened--with 1 tablespoon of flour (it's easiest to do this with the butter and flour in a ziplock bag) and form it into a 5-inch square. Chill for 30 minutes. Roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface into an 8 or 9-inch square and place the butter square diagonally in the center. Fold the flaps of dough to cover and moisten the edges with water if they need help sticking. Chill for 30 minutes.
Next, roll the dough into a long rectangle, three times as long as wide (20 x 7, 18 x 6), the shortest part facing you. Fold it like a business letter--bottom third up, top third down. Make sure the edges are even--moisten to seal if necessary. This is one turn. Cover in plastic wrap and chill for 20 minutes. 
Complete three more turns, rolling, folding, and chilling. After the last turn, chill the dough for a couple of hours. After letting it rest at room temperature for a few minutes, roll it into a long rectangle as before, but a little longer and wider. Cut it in half lengthwise so you have two very long strips. Cut each of those in half, and then each of those halves into thirds. You should have 12 rectangles. Place 1/2 ounce of good chocolate at the end of each rectangle and roll it so the chocolate is covered and the edges of dough overlap--moisten to seal. Place the roll seam-side down on a parchment-lined baking sheet, leaving a few inches between each. Cover in plastic wrap sprayed with cooking spray and let rise for 2 hours. Before baking, brush the tops with an egg wash. You can refrigerate the rolls at this point and bake in the morning, or for up to two days. You can also freeze them, unbaked, for a few months, but be sure to use more yeast in the beginning as freezing tends to kill some of the yeast.

To bake, preheat the oven to 400 F. Five minutes before baking, place a glass dish filled with an inch of hot water in the oven. Bake the pains for 20-22 minutes or until golden brown on top. Remove and allow to cool for at least ten minutes before eating. You can reheat them later for 5 minutes in a 300 F oven, or you can freeze them and reheat for 8 minutes.

I find they fit best if you place them diagonally on the baking sheets.

How pretty is that?
I baked one batch immediately and refrigerated one to bake in the morning. I think the batch that got a night's rest in the fridge actually tasted better. While they did not rise as much, the layers separated better and they were more tender. This may have been my imagination, as a cup of coffee and a lazy morning make everything better, but don't be afraid to put off baking these. They work anytime. And as I said, they're not hard--lots of repetition and my palms are a but sore from rolling the dough, but it's an accomplished sort of pain. The kind that builds callouses and character.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Cranberry-Apple Crumble

Because it is early in the season, I was allowed to make dessert to eat during the Carolina game. Yes, "allowed." The language certainly sounds patriarchal, and my use of it perhaps suggests that I am not as liberated a woman as I may claim to be. Believe me when I say that this is absolutely not the case. In this context, the person doing the "allowing" is me. Despite my love of baking and Friday night desserts, I would happily give that up for a Carolina win. And eating on the couch during a conference game is akin to streaking across the Dean Dome every time Hansbrough prepares to shoot a free throw: Distracting and potentially disastrous for the outcome of the game. Which is why it is wonderful that tonight is not a conference game.

You have to understand, my husband is a devoted UNC basketball fan. His rules for games used to fascinate me, then they frustrated me, and now, well, they frighten me because they are beginning to make sense. I learned that you must drink the same drink for the entire game--a new beer is fine, but you cannot switch from Sam Adams to Coors, for example, and I've seen the resulting changes in the players' performances. I realized that taking a bite of a Zapp's Cajun Crawdaddy chip ensured a hit free throw; if I slacked in my snacking, the team suffered. Dan's still convinced that Carolina won a 2005 playoff game because he retrieved a Hershey's kiss wrapper I'd thrown away mid-game from the trash and placed it, dirty and crumpled, back on the coffee table where it had been for the entire first half. And then they won the National Championship. So yes, I was allowed to make dessert last night because it was early in the season and it was not a conference game. But do not expect many more Friday Night Dessert posts until April.

I chose to make a Cranberry-Apple Crumble. I'd made it before using sweetened dried cranberries, but as I still had a few bags of fresh cranberries I'd frozen left over from last season, I decided to see if fresh could be used in this recipe.  I learned that not only can you use them, but I would absolutely recommend it--it was wonderful, festive, tart, and the feeling of those bright red cranberries popping in your mouth is incomparable. The dried version has nothing on this one. What I especially love about this recipe is that it can be made ahead--even the apples. Just squeeze some lemon juice over them and place them in the fridge and it will hold for hours, giving the cranberries time to thaw and the sugar time to macerate the mixture. And the crumble topping can be made even weeks in advance and frozen, and can even be baked from frozen. What a great thing to have on hand--just make a batch or two and you're always ready for a baked apple or pear or a crumble like this one. In other words, this recipe can serve one to eight, depending on your needs. I can't think of a better idea at the end of a long day than cutting up an apple, tossing it with cranberries, sugar, and lemon juice in an oven-safe bowl, tossing a handful of the crumble on top, and baking for 30 minutes. Your very own bowl of bubbly sweet-tart goodness--what a luxury. Try this, even if you're on your own. I doubt there's anything a bowl of warm dessert and a few hours of Colin Firth (just a suggestion) can't fix.

Cranberry-Apple Crumble
(adapted from Cooking Light, November 2007)

1/4 cup (or a couple of handfuls) of fresh or frozen cranberries (dried cranberries are also good)
1 T fresh lemon juice
4 apples, peeled and chopped into chunks (at least two should be sweet--Braeburns or Galas--to offset the tartness of the cranberries; I like 3 Braeburns and 1 Granny Smith)
1/8 cup sugar

1/4 cup all-purpose flour (oat flour is also lovely if you want to make this even healthier)
6 T brown sugar
6 T old-fashioned rolled oats
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. ground nutmeg (freshly ground is best)
3 T chilled butter, cut into small pieces

Serve with light vanilla ice cream (I like Hagen-Daaz light vanilla bean ice cream).

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. The prepare the filling, toss all ingredients into a large bowl. Cover and place in fridge if not baking right away. Or coat an 11 x 7 baking dish with cooking spray and place mixture in dish.
3. To prepare topping, combine flour, sugar, oats, cinnamon, salt, and nutmeg in a bowl with a whisk. Cut in butter with a pastry cutter or two knives until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Sprinkle butter mixture over apple mixture and bake at 350 F for 35 minutes or until crust is browned and filling is bubbly. 
4. Serve with vanilla ice cream. The great part about using fresh cranberries is that they begin to burst and create a thick sauce at the bottom of the crumble. Use a spoon and drizzle some of this over the ice cream--don't let it go to waste!--and your dish will really look fancy. 

This should serve 8, but if you want to indulge in more, go right ahead. Enjoy the holidays!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Fighting the Spice Cake

The title says it all. I have, for several weeks now, been fighting with a new spice cake recipe. On the surface, everything seems fine: no instructions are left out, as was the case with the Spanish Omelette we made for dinner last night (if what makes it Spanish, according the the recipe blurb, are the potatoes and onions, why leave the potatoes in the ingredient list but out of the directions? Nigella, I love you, but oops). All of the ingredients appear to be in correct proportion. The method suggested for mixing the batter--beating rather than folding--seems appropriate for a cake, even a loaf cake. So why, after several attempts, does my cake continue to fall to a depth of at least an inch right down the center of the loaf??? The sides and bottom are certainly done after 50 minutes at 350 F, and would burn if I left it in longer. I'm afraid to raise the oven temperature to 375 F in hopes that the middle would rise faster for fear that the other parts of the cake really would burn. I've adjusted ingredients, consulted a Science of Baking book, all to no avail. The  middle will not rise.

Why all the fuss you might ask? Why not just abandon the recipe for one of the thousands of other spice cake recipes in the world? It's the best damn spice cake ever . . . flavor-wise. It has just the right proportion of ginger to allspice, cinnamon, and nutmeg, it has a dark, dusky flavor from the addition of a few tablespoons of cocoa powder, and the crumb is light--not too dry or moist--and relatively consistent (except, of course, for the fallen cake ceiling). It is an amazing cake, both for a light dessert or toasted with cream cheese for breakfast. I am determined, this holiday season, to perfect the spice cake. Whatever it takes--a change in the pan, ingredients, even the addition of a few pounds to my friends' waistlines (yes, I will ask this sacrifice of you)--I will prevail.

Tomorrow . . . the bundt version. Stay tuned.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Cinnamon Apple Scones

This picture does not do these scones justice. Look at them in relation to the large blue coffee mug. They are huge. I mean it--they are bigger-than-my-hand bites of buttery goodness. And butter they have--three sticks to be exact. If you're still reading, you understand butter the same way I do: as something to be revered, not to be avoided. Butter is also a privilege not to be abused. So many old recipes, especially old Southern recipes, use obscene amounts of butter to saute vegetables and enrich sauces, to make icings (frostings?) and various other baked goods. It's not always necessary. Sometimes, as we've been learning as a nation in the last few decades, a good olive oil is best for both the vegetables and our hearts. Sometimes a lemon-and-powdered sugar glaze is just as good as a frosting, and less-saturated-fat vegetable oil can produce fluffy cakes and muffins. Sometimes we can improve upon past generations' butter intake. And it makes it all the better when it's front and center in pie crusts, pastries, and yes, these scones. Use good butter and you will bask in simple luxury.

Dan's friends were visiting us a few weekends ago for a 30th birthday reunion. His friend's wife had arranged the entire trip as a surprise for her husband, and we did our best to introduce them to Oxford, Mississippi. We took them to Taylor Grocery, the Grove, and the Auburn game (we won!). We'd planned on a Halloween outing to the Square, but, as we were all close to entering a new decade in our lives, we fell asleep. (I just hope that my Sarah Palin costume will not be as relevant next year.) Which leads me to my next point. He's a lawyer; she's a doctor. He works days at a firm in North Carolina; she works nights as an ER resident. It seemed like we all needed a little home-baked comfort food, and she had brought me The Foster's Market Cookbook as a hostess gift. Enter these scones. I had all of the ingredients in my pantry and they turned out to be the perfect grab-and-go food that still filled the house with that nostalgic aroma of warm baked apples, spicy cinnamon, and, of course, creamy, luscious butter.

The recipe uses a pastry/biscuit method, cutting cold butter into flour and moistening with milk or water. It's remarkably easy to do by hand, with knives, or with a pastry cutter that you can pick up at the supermarket for under ten dollars. Leave the butter in irregularly-sized chunks--this is one thing a food processor does not do well. In the oven, the cold butter bursts and melts, leaving air pockets that make the dough, like a pie crust, nice and flaky and moist. The buttermilk tenderizes the scones, keeping them so soft. And you can really taste the butter, which is why I suggest using a good one. Check out the cheese counter at your grocery store--they often keep some specialty butters like Plugra and Kerrygold (which would be excellent in this recipe) there. 

These only take a little over an hour to make, but if you want to prepare them ahead of time, freeze the wedges before baking. Then you can bake from frozen. Or you can refrigerate the unbaked scones up to 2 hours, covered with plastic wrap. Any longer and they get tough and do not rise properly. 

This is a great hands-on activity. It's a soft dough and because you have to work quickly to keep the ingredients cold, you don't feel like you are rushing without purpose.

I would actually put six wedges on each baking sheet, rather than the nine I have here. Give them room to spread out a bit. The soft, warm, buttery inside with the crunch from the sugar on top is pure heaven.

Cinnamon Apple Scones
(adapted from The Foster's Market Cookbook)

4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1 T ground cinnamon
3/4 lb. (3 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
2 cups peeled and chopped Granny Smith apples (1 large)
1 1/4 cups plus 2 T buttermilk (or 1 1/4 cup milk mixed with heaping T of white vinegar--let sit 5 mins.)
Egg wash: 1 large egg beaten with 2 T milk
Cinnamon sugar (1/2 cup sugar with 2 T cinnamon)

1. Preheat the oven to 400 F.
2. Lightly grease 2 baking sheets and set aside (if they are good nonstick sheets, you may not need to grease them). 
3. Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, soda, cinnamon, and salt in a large bowl.
4. Add the butter and cut it in--using a pastry cutter or two knives moving in a crisscross motion--until the mixture resembles course meal. (Or use your fingers if they are cold, or a food processor if you have a large one, but be sure not to get the butter too small. Transfer it to a large bowl to finish the dough.) Add the apples and lightly mix.
5. Add 1 1/4 cups buttermilk and mix until just combined and the dough begins to stick together. Add any remaining buttermilk one tablespoon at a time if the dough is too dry.
6. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface, divide in half, and pat each half into two six-inch rounds about 1 1/2 inches thick. Cut each round in half, then cut each half into 3 wedges. Be sure to work as quickly as possible to keep the ingredients cold; otherwise, the scones will spread too much on the oven and will not hold their shape.
7. Place the wedges on the baking sheets and brush with egg wash. Sprinkle with cinnamon sugar.
8. Bake 30-35 mins., until golden brown and firm to the touch. Remove from the oven and serve immediately. 

If you have leftovers, store in an airtight container up to two days and reheat before eating.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Dark-Chocolate Dipped Anise Biscotti

Today, I saw the first Christmas decorations of the year, in the most unlikely of places: the windows of an open-air sports bar on the Square. No matter. That first Christmas display always means the same thing: time to start holiday baking! I'm trying this year to expand my winter spice repertoire beyond the usual cinnamon and nutmeg to include spices with more complexity and heat, such as mace and cardamom. For these biscotti, I chose anise seed. I didn't even have it in my pantry. (Yes, this is my idea of an adventure--buying a new spice.) It had such a strong scent that I did reconsider these biscotti, but something about this recipe had a hold on me. I faintly remembered that scent from cookies at my parents' parties when I was young. I love the idea of a simple dessert or on-the-go breakfast with coffee, and I wanted to try something unusual yet strangely familiar. I also wanted to try biscotti again. The last time I made them, I didn't bake them long enough and they had an odd texture--tough and chewy in the middle, though with a great flavor due to oats and honey. I wanted a second chance.

Thankfully, they turned out beautifully. Crispy and spicy, with a slight sweetness on the top from the chocolate. The anise is both warming and refreshing, a perfect after-dinner treat. They take a little while to bake--devote an afternoon to the project--but they are minimalist perfection. They'll add sophistication to your palate and your vocabulary--just remember that "biscotti" is plural; if you offer someone one cookie, it is a "biscotto."

Since you don't temper the chocolate, it does turn a bit gray. No one will mind if you don't. If you do, dip them the same day you serve them (you can bake them up to a week ahead). You can even bake and freeze them for up to one month--thaw, then dip in chocolate. This is an excellent option for those more organized than I. These are also light--under 100 calories each, and only about 2 grams of fat. How many Christmas goodies can you say this about?

Dark-Chocolate Dipped Anise Biscotti
(adapted from Cooking Light, November 2007)

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. anise seed
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
3/4 cup sugar
2 T softened butter
2 large eggs
3 oz. premium dark chocolate (chips or coarsely chopped)

1. Preheat over to 350 F.
2. Lightly spoon flour into dry measuring cups; level with a knife. Whisk flour, anise seed, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl. Set aside.
3. Place sugar and softened butter in the bowl of a standing mixer or large bowl. Beat at medium speed until blended, about 2 mins. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Gradually add flour mixture to sugar mixture, beating until just blended. You will need to scrape down the sides of the bowl a few times to incorporate all of the flour.
4. Turn dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead lightly 7-8 times. Shape the dough into a 12-inch long log. Place log on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper or cooking spray, pat into 1-inch thickness. Bake at 350 F for 40 mins. Remove roll from baking sheet and cool on wire rack for 10 mins.
5. Reduce over temperature to 300 F.
6. Cut roll crosswise into 20 (or so) 1/2-inch thick slices. Lay slices flat on baking sheet; bake for 10 mins. Flip slices; bake for another 10 mins. Cool cookies completely on a wire rack. At this point, you can refrigerate or freeze the cookies to dip later.
7. Heat chocolate over a double boiler until melted. Using a small spatula (1-inch across), hold each cookie over the double boiler and spread with chocolate, allowing excess to drip back into bowl. Be generous, but try not to let it drip down the sides of the cookies. Place cookies, chocolate sides up, on a baking sheet to cool. Let stand 1 hour or until set.

Yield: approximately 20 biscotti