Resolutionary Baking

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Individually wrapped

As you all know, I try to keep my Sunday baking for the coworkers healthier in January to avoid sabotaging any start-of-the-year health goals.  This usually means whole wheat flour in cookies and cakes, using alternatives to butter and eggs as much as possible, and trying to be liberal in my interpretation of “treat” to include non-sweet alternatives like crackers.

Most of this month’s baking has been from Heidi Swanson’s book and blog, which do at least half the work for me by emphasizing whole grains, less-refined sweeteners, and creative uses of health-minded foods.  These cereal bars are a great example: chewy and tangy from the fruit, crunchy from the rice cereal and nuts, and incredibly handy for grabbing on your way to work or school.  The pops of green from the pepitas and red from the cranberries make them as appealing visually as they are tasty.  They’re also vegan, and they’re gluten-free if you use all oats as originally written instead of the multigrain cereal (which includes wheat, rye and barley).

Pressing down

Multigrain Cereal Bars with Pepitas, Cranberries and Ginger
(Adapted from Do-It-Yourself Power Bars in Heidi Swanson, Super Natural Cooking, 2007)
Makes 3 dozen bars

2 tablespoons coconut oil
2 ½ cups pepitas
3 cups crispy brown rice cereal
2 ½ cups multigrain hot cereal (uncooked)
½ cup oat bran
½ cup finely shredded unsweetened coconut
2 cups dried cranberries, chopped
6 tablespoons candied ginger, finely chopped
2 cups brown rice syrup
½ cup unrefined cane sugar
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 teaspoon ground ginger
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Grease a 9 x 13 inch baking pan with the coconut oil.

Toast the pepitas in a dry skillet over medium-low heat, tossing frequently to prevent burning, until they’re fragrant, just starting to brown and making the occasional popping noise.  Chop them coarsely and set aside to cool slightly.

In a very large bowl, toss together the multigrain cereal, rice cereal, oat bran, coconut and dried fruit. Once the pepitas are no longer hot, add them to the mix.

Combine the rice syrup, sugar, salt and ginger in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally.  Simmer for a few minutes, until it thickens a bit.  Off the heat, stir in the vanilla, then pour over the cereal and fruit mixture and stir with a spatula until everything is well coated.

Pour the mixture into the greased pan and press it down well. (The flat greased bottom of a 1-cup measure is especially effective at helping you achieve a firm, even block.)  Cool to room temperature, then turn out onto a sheet of parchment paper and cut into 1×3 inch bars.

The bars keep well in sealed containers for about a week, and should keep even longer tightly wrapped in plastic and kept in a zip-top bag in the freezer.

Notes:

Brown rice syrup is unbelievably sticky stuff, so it helps to coat the measuring cup with coconut oil before pouring it in.  Similarly, if you rub the blade of your knife with a thin layer of oil, it will make chopping the cranberries and ginger much easier, and likewise slicing the finished bars.

If you don’t care for the stronger flavors of rye and barley in the multigrain cereal, you can substitute the same amount of old-fashioned rolled oats. You can also switch out the dried fruit and nuts to your liking, e.g. cherries and slivered almonds would be lovely too, although in that case I would probably leave out the candied ginger and use cinnamon in the syrup instead.

I found it useful to individually wrap the bars in wax paper for transport purposes, to stop them from sticking to each other or anything else. It also made them neater to eat.

Sometimes It Don’t Come Easy

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New Year's Lentils

This year’s lentil recipe was a bit of a struggle to come up with.  Inspiration just wasn’t striking and I really didn’t want to repeat any of the old standbys, so I went trolling through my ungodly quantity of cookbooks, sure I’d find at least something new and interesting. As I discovered, the sad fact is that lentils are a mile wide and an inch deep in the vegetarian cookbook universe.  Everyone has the requisite take on lentil soup and mujaddarah, most have a burger or a loaf, and a few have a pate of some kind, and that’s about the extent of the creativity.

The closest I got to something holiday-appropriate that I wanted to try was the lentil galettes in Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty, which really fancies things up with a puff pastry circle under a spicy yogurt-dressed salad of Puy lentils and fresh spinach, but that seemed more like a summer dish, and my head wasn’t really in that end of the Mediterranean anyway after briefly contemplating a Spanish-leaning version of the ubiquitous lentil stew.  While the stew was too rustic (read: brown and dull-looking) for a holiday meal, smoked paprika did sound like a great accompaniment for lentils, and it also reminded me of a tomato “confit” featuring smoked paprika that I used to serve on bruschetta at parties. A puff pastry base, an olive- and rosemary-spiked mound of shiny Puy lentils, and a deeply smoky-sweet topping of concentrated tomatoes had definite possibilities.

The resulting galettes were quite successful, the crisp decadence of the puff pastry balancing the softer, earthier textures and flavors of the lentils and tomatoes.  They’re clearly on the fussy party food end of things, and in fact if you cut the puff pastry into very small squares, it would make a fantastic hors d’oeuvre to serve with cava. Since you could really make all the components ahead of time and just warm them back up before assembly, though, it would be an equally good candidate for a brunch a little later in the year, after all the holiday fatigue has worn off and you feel like entertaining again.

Happy 2014 and all that jazz…

Puff Pastry Bases

Spanish Lentil Galettes
Serves 8

For tomato confit:
1 small onion, finely chopped
3 tablespoons olive oil (not extra-virgin)
1 28- to 32-oz can whole tomatoes in juice
1/2 teaspoon Spanish smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, preferably Spanish

For lentils:
1 cup French lentils
2 sprigs fresh rosemary, minced
1 small clove garlic
½ cup black olives, finely chopped
3-4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, preferably Spanish
Splash of sherry vinegar
Salt to taste

For assembly:
1 lb puff pastry
1 egg, beaten with a teaspoon of water
1/3 cup of crumbled ricotta salata
Additional rosemary sprigs for garnish

Cook the onion in 3 tablespoons oil in a 10-inch heavy skillet over low and cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is golden and soft, 8 to 10 minutes.

Drain, seed, and very finely dice the tomatoes.  Add the tomatoes, paprika, sugar, and salt to the softened onion and cook, uncovered, over low heat, stirring occasionally, until very thick, 25 to 30 minutes. Stir in the remaining tablespoon of olive oil, correct for salt as necessary, and cool to room temperature.

Boil lentils with half of the minced fresh rosemary and the garlic clove until tender but not mushy. Drain the lentils and discard the garlic clove, then immediately dress with the olives, olive oil, salt, remaining rosemary and a shot of the sherry vinegar. Taste and add more salt and/or vinegar as needed.

Cut the puff pastry into 4- or 5-inch squares, and if desired, further pretty it up by creating a twisted rim as demonstrated here. Place the squares several inches apart on two parchment-lined baking sheets and refrigerate for 30 minutes to firm the pastry up again.  Preheat the oven to 400F, thoroughly dock the pastry with a fork to contain the puffing, and brush all exposed surfaces with the egg wash. Bake until risen, crisp and uniformly golden, around 10-15 minutes. Cool the pastry bases slightly before compiling the galettes.

When ready to assemble, generously mound each puff pastry square with lentils, top with a spoonful of the confit, and garnish with a sprinkling of ricotta salata and a rosemary sprig.  Serve immediately, with a lightly dressed salad of arugula or other peppery greens.

Tradition!

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On display

We have been having buche de noel as our Christmas dessert since I was a wee thing, originally having picked up the habit during our brief sojourn in Montreal before we moved on to California.  Although there are a lot of versions of buche de noel kicking around, ours has been the exact same nearly all my life: chocolate genoise rolled around lightly sweetened whipped cream, covered in a cocoa frosting raked with a fork to simulate bark.

It’s delightful, it’s tradition, the leftovers make an amazing Boxing Day breakfast, and for most of my life, I never even considered messing with it.  Last year, though, I was feeling a little sacrilegious, and decided to see what a Black Forest variation would be like. I added a jar of sour cherries to the filling, and I brushed the cake with a syrup made from the cherries’ liquid fortified with sour cherry jam and kirsch. I loved the results, so this year I went even further over the top, finally getting around to making the meringue mushrooms that normally decorate the cake, but which we’d never bothered with.

On their sides

This cake is, I freely admit, a pretty massive production, which is why it’s a holiday activity. It involves at least a full day of work, and more likely two: the meringues the day before and the cake the day of serving.  I know you’re not going to do this more than once a year, and you probably won’t do it at all, but if you do, believe me when I say it’s worth it.  It’s fantastically delicious, and there’s nothing like the gloat factor from pulling off something that looks this impressive.

If you do decide to make this Yule log over one of the remaining ten days of Christmas, one note about the meringues: they’re a mashup of a Jacques Torres and an Alice Medrich version, which is why that part  of the recipe below is by weight in grams instead of volume. I may revise this post later to give measurements instead, but as long as you have a kitchen scale, the current version should work well for you.  You can also scale the meringues down more easily with weights in grams, which you may want to do since you don’t really need anywhere near that many. I only made that big a batch because I had 5 whites left over from a batch of hollandaise, and I plan to take the many leftover mushrooms to work on January 2nd as a lighter offering for those coworkers who will insist on making New Year’s resolutions (bah, humbug!).

Service

Black Forest Buche de Noel
(Meringue mushrooms adapted from Jacques Torres, Dessert Circus at Home, 1999 and Alice Medrich, Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy, 2010)
Serves, at a minimum, 12 drummers drumming

For the meringue mushrooms

5 large egg whites, at room temperature
168 grams granulated sugar
168 grams sifted confectioner’s sugar
Cocoa powder for dusting
115 grams good-quality dark chocolate, finely chopped

For the cake

The cherry syrup
1 24-ounce jar Morello or other sour cherries in light syrup
¼ cup sour cherry jam
1-2 stiff shots of kirsch, to taste

The chocolate genoise
5 large eggs, separated and at room temperature
2/3 cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons unsweetened natural cocoa
2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour

The filling
1 cup heavy cream for whipping
1 tablespoon powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

The frosting
1½ cups confectioner’s sugar
6 tablespoons unsweetened natural cocoa
Pinch of salt
3-4 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

1. Make the meringue mushrooms

Preheat the oven to 250F and line 4 baking sheets with parchment.  Beat the 5 egg whites at medium speed in a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment until foamy, then start adding in the granulated sugar a tablespoon at a time. Increase the speed to medium high and beat until stiff and glossy peaks form, about 5 minutes. Lower the speed to low and whip 2 more minutes, stopping if the meringue starts to look dry.  Gently fold in the confectioner’s sugar with a rubber spatula, and spoon the meringue into a pastry bag or gallon-sized zip-top bag fitted with a ½ inch round decorating tip.

To make the mushroom caps, hold the piping bag just above the surface of the paper and squeeze the bag until the meringue forms a mound the size you want. Stop piping and skim the tip along the surface before lifting to prevent a peak from forming.  Repeat with more caps, set an inch apart, until you have filled two of the sheets.  To make the stems, hold the bag perpendicular to the sheet and squeeze a quarter-sized amount of meringue, then pull up to create a cone. (Don’t worry if the tips bend over, since they’ll be sliced off later anyway.)  Make significantly more stems than caps, since you’ll need extras as insurance against breakage, etc.  Lightly dust the caps with the cocoa and blow off the excess while holding the sheet over the sink.  Bake the meringues at 250 F for an hour until firm and dry, lowering to 200 if you see signs of browning. Turn off the oven and leave to cool for another hour.

When ready to assemble the mushrooms, melt the chopped chocolate in a liquid measuring cup in the microwave at low power in 30-second increments, stirring between zaps, until only a scattering of larger unmelted pieces remain. Use an immersion blender to finish the melting process and temper the chocolate, and set the measuring cup in a bowl of warm water to keep it liquid as you work.

Spread a thin layer of chocolate on the bottom of a meringue cap, carefully saw the pointy tip off a corresponding stem with a sharp knife to create a flat surface, and stick the cut end into the chocolate, setting it back upside down onto the baking sheet until the chocolate has hardened and the halves of the mushroom are firmly stuck together. Repeat with remaining meringues, and store in airtight containers until ready to serve the cake.

2. Make the cake 

To make the soaking syrup for the cake, drain the cherries very well in a strainer set over a measuring cup, then set them aside for the assembly stage. In a small saucepan, combine their syrup with the cherry jam, and simmer vigorously until reduced by half. (My jar yielded about 1½ cups of syrup, which boiled down to ¾ cup).  Cool briefly before adding the kirsch to taste, then leave to cool completely while preparing the cake.

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Grease a standard rimmed baking sheet, line the bottom with parchment, and lightly grease and flour the paper.

Beat the egg yolks at high speed in a standing mixer until light and fluffy. Gradually add the granulated sugar and continue beating until thick and pale and at the “ribbon” stage, in which the drips from the beaters briefly form a ribbon on the surface of the mixture.  Combine the cocoa and flour, sift over the yolks, and mix in at low speed. In a clean bowl with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites until soft but not dry peaks form.  Use the whisk attachment to stir a third of the whites into the yolk mixture to lighten it, then gently fold in the remaining whites with a spatula until the batter is mostly uniform. (A few streaks of unincorporated whites is preferable to over-mixing and losing volume, but you don’t want any large lumps of egg whites floating around.)

Spread the batter evenly in the prepared sheet pan, rapping it once firmly against the counter to pop any too-large air bubbles. Bake until the cake begins to just pull away from the sides and the top springs lightly back when pressed gently with a fingertip, approximately 15 minutes. Cover the surface with another piece of parchment paper and cool completely on a wire rack.

3. Fill the cake

Sprinkle a piece of parchment paper lightly with powdered sugar and invert the cake onto the sugared paper.  Gently peel off the parchment the cake was baked in, tearing it off in smaller pieces if necessary to prevent the cake ripping.  Lightly brush the surface of the cake with the syrup until moist but not soaked.  Beat the cream with the sugar and vanilla until stiff and spread evenly over the surface of the cake, then dot the cream with the drained cherries.

Using the parchment the cake is siting on to help you, roll the cake over the filling along the long edge, ending with the seam side down.  With your knife at a diagonal, cut a piece several inches long off each end of the roll, to form the branches of the log. Carefully transfer the largest piece onto a serving platter, then set the end pieces on opposite sides of the “trunk”, cut sides facing out and staggered slightly to avoid unnatural symmetry.  Cover the cake with plastic and refrigerate until it firms up, at least as long as it takes to prepare the frosting, but not more than a few hours.

4. Frost the cake

In a mixer fitted with the paddle, combine the sugar, cocoa and salt.  Add the milk and vanilla and blend until smooth, then beat in the butter until a fluffy spreading consistency is reached, adding a little more milk if necessary.

Frost the cake with a gentle hand to prevent any tearing the sponge, also avoiding the cut ends so that the cream filling doesn’t streak the frosting white. Using a fork or a cake comb, run along the frosting to create a bark-like effect.  Cover again with plastic and refrigerate until ready to serve.

5. Decorate and serve

Just before serving, decorate the cake and its platter with clusters of the meringue mushrooms.  Have extra mushrooms on the side to add to each plate as you serve slices to your guests.

Notes:

For a really helpful visual with tips on how to pipe and assemble the mushrooms, see this video featuring Alice Medrich.

You will have plenty of cherry soaking syrup left over, which is a great addition to holiday cocktails or mixed with plain soda.  If you would like it to be non-alcoholic, you could leave out the kirsch, since there will be plenty of cherry flavor even without it.

Don’t be tempted to decorate the cake with the mushrooms too far ahead. They should be added just before serving so they don’t absorb too much moisture from the cake and go soggy.  Any meringue mushrooms not used to decorate the cake or added to each plate when serving should be kept in airtight containers, where they will stay crisp for quite a long time.

Risotto al Pomodoro

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With frond garnish

While I adore tomatoes in general, I have to say I’m not the biggest fan of the yellow varieties.  They look beautiful, and they fit their Italian name (literally “golden apples”) better, but in my opinion they also tend to be mealy and weaker-flavored than their red garden-mates, lacking the acid to balance their sweetness properly.  The cherry and grape varieties are better than the full-sized ones, tending to be less watery too. Still, apart from my best-beloved Green Zebras, I will always prefer red tomatoes.

Nonetheless, I had a bunch of yellow ones on my hands this week because they were in my basket of mixed heirlooms, so I decided to just embrace the yellow by using them in a saffron-tinted risotto which also used the lovely fennel and shallots from the same market run.  Though these particular fennel were young and fragrant, I find that cooking fennel really dulls the anise flavor, so I also added a good spoonful of fennel seeds to really get the point across, and also provide an occasional contrasting crunch to the creamy rice.  In order to avoid similarly dulling the tomato flavor into nonexistence, I pureed the insides and used the tomato puree as the last addition of liquid to the rice, and only added the diced flesh off the heat, when you also stir in the cheese.

Risotto ingredients

This risotto is a very nice vegetarian summer main course, and would also work well as a side dish with grilled meat or fish for your Labor Day barbecue.

Golden Tomato and Fennel Risotto
(Very loosely adapted from Basic Risotto in Mark Bittman, How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, 2007)
Serves 4 as a main dish, 6 as a side

5-6 cups vegetable stock
1 small fennel bulb, stalks and fronds still on
1 – 2 shallots
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
2 pinches saffron threads
1 ½ cups Arborio rice
½ cup white wine
6 small or 2-3 medium golden tomatoes
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
Salt to taste

Add the top stalks and fronds of the fresh fennel to the stock in a medium saucepan and bring to a simmer.  Keep it simmering while preparing the rest of the ingredients.

Dice the bulb of the fennel and the shallots finely.  Heat the butter and olive oil in a large nonstick sauté pan over medium heat until the butter has melted. Sauté the diced fennel, shallots and fennel seeds until the vegetables are softened and turning translucent, then add the rice and stir well to coat each grain with the fat.  Continue toasting the rice until it also begins to go a bit translucent, 3-4 minutes more, sprinkling in the saffron in the last minute or so. Pour in the wine and stir until it has absorbed, then begin adding a ladleful of the simmering stock at a time (leaving the fennel tops behind), waiting until the last addition has mostly been absorbed before adding the next.  Stir occasionally to prevent sticking on the bottom, but constant stirring isn’t necessary.

While the risotto is underway, slice the tomatoes in half and scoop the seeds and their surrounding flesh into a liquid measuring cup.   Using an immersion blender, puree the tomato guts until uniformly liquid.  Dice the hollowed-out tomatoes, and set aside.

When the rice is creamy and only barely still chewy, stir in the tomato puree and continue cooking until any excess liquid has evaporated.  Off the heat, mix in the diced tomatoes and cheese, correcting for salt as needed.

Serve immediately, preferably in warmed bowls.

Notes:

Arborio, carnaroli or another Italian risotto rice will give you the creamiest texture and absorb all the yellow color best, but you really could use any short- or medium-grain rice, or even another relatively quick-cooking and chewy grain, like barley.  Grains that take a very long time to cook, e.g. wheat berries, are probably not ideal, but if you have the patience, you’re welcome to try and let me know how it goes!

This could easily be made vegan by using only olive oil at the beginning and leaving out the cheese at the end.

Leftover risotto can just be reheated, but it would also be great as cakes, or if you’re feeling really intrepid, rolled around a core of cheese, coated in breadcrumbs, and fried as arancini

A Salad For Grandma

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Caipirinha Fruit Salad

I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandmother recently, since having a really wonderful dinner at a Seattle restaurant which focuses on the region her beloved father emigrated from, and made the kind of food she used to make.  That’s why, when I had a meh cantaloupe and some sub-par peaches on my hands and was pondering how to perk them up, my thoughts went immediately to the dessert she made most often.

I’ve already talked about her other dessert specialty, but that was her winter favorite.  What she made for the weekly barbecues when she visited in summer was mixed-fruit salads moistened and kept from browning with fresh-squeezed orange juice, preferably served in a glass instead of a bowl, and accompanied by whipped cream or ice cream.  She also liked to add a slug of alcohol to the grown-ups’ portion, normally brandy.

So one thought led to another, and what resulted was very much inspired by her, even though she never made fruit salad this particular way, with a lime macerating syrup and a shot of Cachaça at the end. Grandma regularly vacationed on the beach in Brazil with her friends, though, and caipirinhas, which I love, would have been right up her alley.  I even had it in a glass in her honor.

To my dismay, Jamie Oliver has had a similar idea, but his is procedurally different and certainly wasn’t inspired by my grandmother, so I’m going to pretend it doesn’t exist.

Lime Macerating Syrup

Caipirinha Fruit Salad
Serves 6-8

For the macerating syrup:
1 ½ cups granulated sugar
1 cup water
Half a vanilla bean, split
2 large limes
1 small pinch Maldon or other sea salt

For the fruit:
1 cantaloupe
1 quart plums (about a half dozen little ones)
1 quart peaches (about 4-5)

To serve:
2-3 ripe bananas
½ a shot Cachaça per person (optional)
Whipped cream or vanilla ice cream (optional)

Combine the sugar, water, and vanilla bean in a small saucepan and bring to a boil, making sure all the sugar has dissolved.  Remove from the heat, pour out ¾ cup into a liquid measuring cup, and refrigerate the rest for sweetening lattes, lemonade, or iced tea. Zest the limes and add the zest to the measuring cup.

Peel the melon, seed it, and dice into cubes.  Pit but don’t peel the peaches and plums, and dice them slightly smaller.  Combine the diced fruit in a large bowl.

Juice the limes and add the juice to the zested syrup with the pinch of salt, stirring to combine.  Pour the syrup over the fruit, mix gently to evenly distribute it, and cover the bowl.  Refrigerate the salad for at least half an hour to let the fruit macerate.

When ready to serve, peel and slice the bananas and add to the salad, spooning the fruit and a good quantity of the syrup into highball glasses.  Pour half a shot of Cachaça into each glass, and top with slightly sweetened whipped cream or vanilla ice cream, if desired.

Notes:

You can use any fruit you like in this.  Pineapple, mango and other tropical fruits would obviously work really well, but apples, pears and grapes in the fall would be just as good.  The bananas are pretty essential, in my opinion, but they should be added just before serving to prevent them going brown and mushy.

If you can’t find Cachaça, you can substitute vodka or white rum according to your preference.

I like to have leftover fruit salad for breakfast, and to His Lordship’s disgust, I’ve also been known to sprinkle in corn flakes for texture.  (Gauche, I know, but we all have our food shames.)  If you want to include this in a brunch, you could be more elegant about it and offer fancy granola and Greek yogurt, or you could put the leftovers in a pitcher with a bottle of wine and call it sangria.

Inner Child-Hood Favorites

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Pimento Cheese Collage

Pimento cheese is one of those foods I feel should have been in my life all along, but I’ve only been eating it for about a year, since hearing a paean to it on an NPR show – I can’t recall which, but most likely it was The Splendid Table.  I think it was actually His Lordship who made the first batch inspired by that show, but I’m the one who ran with the concept and kept it a regular part of our repertoire.

In theory it might sound somewhat gauche and maybe even a bit dodgy (mayonnaise smooshed into cheese?).  In practice, though, it’s a brilliant customizable spread that keeps well in your fridge the whole week, and can be schmeared on a bagel as you dash out of the house on Monday morning, form the base for fancy mac and cheese mid-week, and provide a ritzy burger topping at your Saturday barbecue.  As long as you use really good ingredients, I say pimento cheese is perfectly respectable and even gourmet, the American cousin of fromage fort. They serve it at snooty golf venues, after all.

We originally started with this recipe and made it straight the first time, but every batch since has drifted further away through various modifications.  My latest iteration added complexity with smoked gouda and horseradish, and increased the amount of pimentos and mayonnaise just a wee bit to make it even more spreadable.  I left out the dill pickles, because I only like them in very specific contexts and this isn’t one of them, and the garlic, which I normally love in almost anything but didn’t want getting in the way of the horseradish.

On a baked potato.

Smoky Pimento Cheese
(Adapted from Wright Bryan, Pimento Cheese: It’s a Southern Thing)
Makes around three cups

1 pound sharp cheddar
¼ pound Monterey Jack
¼ pound smoked Gouda
Half of a 12-ounce jar of roasted red peppers, drained and patted dry
¼ cup mayonnaise
1 ½ tablespoons horseradish
Salt to taste

Dice the cheese into approximately one-inch cubes and place in a food processor.  Pulse just until the cheese is completely broken up into small pieces but not pureed.

Finely dice the pimentos and place in a large bowl with the mayonnaise, horseradish and a few pinches of salt.  Using a wooden spoon (because the cheese will laugh in the face of any spatula you try to use on it), mix until a homogeneous spread is achieved.  Taste and add more salt and/or horseradish as needed.

Keep the pimento cheese in a covered container in the refrigerator, but it will spread best if you leave it out at room temperature for a short time before using.

Notes:

You can vary the cheese (except not Velveeta or anything with “food product” in the name, for the love of all things dairy) and the seasonings as desired.  If you want a different kind of heat, for example, leave out the horseradish and use jalapeno or chipotle Jack instead of Monterey.

You could do this without a food processor by finely grating all the cheese on a box grater, which will get you a more textural but still spreadable pimento cheese.

My loss, your gain

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IMG_6471

I’ve been dithering for years about entering the Scharffen Berger annual chocolate adventure contest, never quite pulling the trigger until finally, this winter, I got myself together enough to do some testing and submit something.  I have to admit I didn’t love this year’s theme of sandwich cookies, but I went for it anyway, never really expecting I had a chance.  And, of course, I didn’t, because I didn’t even get an honorable mention.

But my loss, as the title says, is your gain, because I already have the pictures taken and the recipe written up, and since Scharffen Berger has no further claim on it, you all can have it instead.  The point of the contest, besides using their chocolate, is to incorporate at least one “adventure ingredient”, which this year included coconut milk or coconut cream, sweet potato, tapioca or tapioca flour, tequila, banana, chili pepper, pine nuts, corn meal, Sumatra coffee, fresh ginger, yerba mate tea, and cacao nibs.

I ended up using coffee and coconut milk in a sandwich of coffee-flavored shortbread rounds, rolled in coconut and pressed around a coconut milk and milk chocolate ganache spiked with coconut rum.  They’re good, but apparently not good enough. Oh, well. Maybe next year.

Coconut Mocha Buttons
Makes approximately 3 dozen cookies

For coffee shortbread:

2 tablespoons coffee liqueur
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons finely ground Sumatra coffee
1 tablespoon instant coffee
8 ounces (16 tablespoons) cold, unsalted European-style butter, cut into tablespoon-sized cubes
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
6 tablespoons cornstarch
Unsweetened, finely shredded coconut for rolling

For coconut milk chocolate ganache:

8 ounces Scharffen Berger Extra Rich Milk Chocolate, finely chopped
4 ounces (1/2 cup) coconut milk (not low-fat)
1 tablespoon unsalted European-style butter
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons coconut rum

Combine the coffee liqueur, vanilla extract, Sumatra coffee and instant coffee in a small bowl.  Allow to sit for 5 minutes.

In a food processor, blend the butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar and salt until a fluffy paste forms.  Scrape down the bowl and add the coffee mixture, processing again until fully incorporated.  Whisk the flour and cornstarch together in a medium bowl and add to the creamed butter, pulsing just until a ball of dough begins to form around the blade.

Divide the dough in half and shape the first half into a roll 1 1/2 to 2 inches in diameter on a sheet of parchment paper.  Sprinkle several tablespoons of coconut along the edge of the cookie dough and roll it through the coconut until fully coated.  Tightly wrap the roll in the parchment paper, repeat the process with the second half of the dough, and chill the wrapped rolls until very firm, 2 hours to overnight.  (The dough can also be further wrapped in plastic or a zip-top freezer bag and frozen up to a month.)

While the dough is resting, prepare and chill the ganache filling.  Place the chopped chocolate in a medium mixing bowl.  Combine the coconut milk, butter and salt in a liquid measuring cup and microwave just until simmering.  Pour the hot coconut milk over the chocolate and whisk until the chocolate is fully melted and the ganache is glossy, then whisk in the coconut rum.  Allow to cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate until ready to assemble the cookies.

Preheat oven to 325 F and line several baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats.  Remove one roll from the refrigerator and, using a sharp knife, slice off rounds 1/8 inch thick, rotating the roll a quarter turn between slices to preserve its round shape.  Place cookies 2 inches apart on the baking sheets and bake until the coconut is golden and the bottoms of the cookies are just beginning to darken, 12-15 minutes.  Remove cookies to a wire rack to cool completely, and repeat with the second roll.

When the cookies have cooled and the ganache has firmed up, place 2 teaspoons of ganache on the bottom of one cookie and place a second cookie right-side up over the filling, gently pressing down just until the filling reaches the edges.  Repeat with remaining cookies.  If not serving immediately, store cookies in refrigerator for up to a week.  Leftover unfilled shortbread keeps very well in an airtight container at room temperature for several weeks.

From California, With Love

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Pasta with Fresh Walnut Sauce
This is not New Year’s resolution food, at least not unless your goals for 2013 involve incorporating more carbohydrates and fat into your diet. But it’s February, so even setting aside my antagonism toward the whole concept of resolutions, you’ve all had over a month to compensate with whole grains, dark leafy greens, etc., in which case one rich pasta dish isn’t going to utterly corrupt you, or you’ve already fallen off the wagon and this bit of indulgence isn’t going to do any additional damage.

Beautifully silky, creamy and elegant, with the warmth of lightly toasted walnuts and the brightness of good extra-virgin olive oil, this walnut sauce is neither complicated nor time-consuming to prepare. However, there is one catch, and it’s critically important to heed it: you really do need to make this with the freshest, highest-quality walnuts, because it will make the difference between a sauce that’s luscious nutty perfection and one that’s flat and dull or, even worse, bitter or rancid.

My walnuts were backyard-grown, very recently harvested, and lovingly shipped to me from northern California by His Lordship’s cousin. The first time I made this, I did it on-site during a holiday visit with walnuts from the same source. If you’re not lucky enough to have a West Coast connection, either wait until locally-grown walnuts in season are available in your farmers market, or seek out the best vendor you can find, preferably get them still in the shell, and make sure to taste the nuts before trying this recipe. If they don’t taste fresh and mild and sweet, use them for a more forgiving sauce, like pesto.

Slight post-facto edit: A rousing discussion with my Facebook friends made me think of a possible alternative if you can’t get really good walnuts.  Pistachios still in the shell are readily available year-round just about everywhere, and would definitely work as an alternative.  It will taste and look quite different, of course, but it should still give you the nutty, creamy unctuousness that’s the heart of this sauce.  As a bonus, if you have children, it will be entertainingly green and you can tell them it will make them strong like The Hulk.
Walnut Sauce
Pasta with Fresh Walnut Sauce
(Mash-up of two recipes, one from Nigella Lawson’s Christmas Special, and one from Mark Bittman, How to Cook Everything Vegetarian)
Serves 4 as a main course, 6-8 as a side dish

1 slice bread, crusts removed
½ cup cream or whole milk
1 cup walnuts, as fresh as possible and preferably hand-shelled
2 cloves garlic, peeled
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and freshly grated black pepper
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup Italian parsley, chopped
1 pound dried spaghetti rigate, fettucini, or other substantial ribbon pasta

Roughly tear up the bread and place it in a shallow bowl, pouring over the cream or milk. While it soaks, very carefully toast the walnuts in a dry pan over medium-low heat, tossing frequently to avoid burning, just until the nuts have barely started to turn golden and release a faint toasty aroma. Allow to cool briefly.

Place the nuts, garlic and cheese in a food processor and pulse a few times, until the nuts are broken up. Add the soaked bread and the liquid, with a hefty few pinches of salt and several grinds of pepper, and run the processor again until a paste forms. With the processor running, pour the olive oil down the feed tube and process just until you have a homogenous sauce that looks like a slightly grainy mayonnaise. Taste and correct the salt and pepper as necessary.

Boil the pasta in very well-salted water until al dente according to the package instructions. When you drain the pasta, reserve a good cup of the pasta water and set it aside. Toss the pasta with the sauce and the parsley, adding as much pasta water as needed to thin the sauce to a creamy consistency that evenly coats the pasta and allows the strands to caress each other instead of clumping. Serve immediately in warmed bowls.

Notes:

All resolution-bashing aside, there are some things you can do to lighten this up just a teeny bit, although it’s never going to be exactly what your doctor ordered. You can use low-fat milk instead of cream, whole wheat pasta and multigrain bread (provided it’s not too dense and chewy), and cut back a bit on the cheese, or you could serve smaller portions as a side dish beside a suitably healthy protein and a very large salad.

This would also work just fine as a vegan dish with non-dairy milk and omitting the cheese entirely, although in that case you’ll need to salt a little more aggressively, and you might want to toast the walnuts a tiny bit darker for added flavor. I’d also be tempted to add a very light grating of nutmeg for complexity.

Champagne and Caviar

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New Year's Lentils 2013

2013’s New Year’s lentil recipe has the dual advantages of being vegan and also using up any leftover champagne you might have lying around after the New Year’s Eve festivities. It’s also a wee bit clever, given that they’re beluga lentils. (Incidentally, this is the only kind of caviar I could tolerate even before becoming vegetarian, since I was never able to share my mother’s wild passion for genuine beluga.)

This is a perfect mid-week pasta dish for the rest of the year, since it comes together in about half an hour if you time it right, and you can substitute any white wine or even a dry hard cider, French or even plain old brown lentils, and essentially any sort of green vegetable. I was originally going to add broccolini, but it was missing from the crisper when I went to cook, probably because I added it to soup mid-holiday week and forgot. No matter, since the leeks worked fine, as would any leafy green or brassica.

The only thing I’d recommend not messing with if at all possible is the fresh shiitakes, because they go so satisfyingly crackly at the edges when seared, and add so much meaty savoriness to the dish. Regular button mushrooms would not be quite the same.

Seared Shiitakes

Pappardelle with Beluga Lentils, Seared Shiitake Mushrooms and Leftover Champagne
Serves 4

½ cup black (beluga) lentils
5-6 tablespoons olive oil
8 ounces fresh shiitake mushrooms, stems removed, roughly sliced
2 medium leeks, white and pale green parts only, thoroughly cleaned and thinly sliced
1 cup leftover champagne or white wine
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper
8 ounces dried egg pappardelle

Cook the lentils in a small saucepan with sufficient water to generously cover until just tender, around 20 minutes.

While preparing the sauce, set a large pot of water to boil for the pasta, salting it well once it has reached the boil. Add the pasta and cook to al dente according to the package instructions.

In a large, non-nonstick sauté pan, heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil over medium-high heat until shimmering, then add the shiitakes. Sear the mushrooms until deep golden and crisping around the thin edges, adding a bit more oil if the pan gets too dry. Remove the mushrooms but don’t worry about any brown bits that cling to the pan.

Add the remaining oil to the pan, lower the heat to medium, and add the leeks. Sautee until they begin to brown a bit, then deglaze the pan with the champagne, add a generous amount of salt and pepper, and simmer until the champagne has mostly reduced away. Add the lentils and taste, correcting seasonings as necessary.

Drain the pasta, reserving about a cup of the pasta water. Add the pappardelle to the pan and toss with the lentils, loosening it with the reserved pasta water as necessary. Serve in warmed bowls with a quarter of the seared mushrooms mounded on top.

Notes:

If using fresh pasta instead of dried, you’ll want to double the quantity by weight. Also, if you don’t use leeks, I’d throw in a couple of cloves of minced garlic along with your green vegetable of choice.

It’s important not to use a nonstick pan because you want to be able to use high enough heat to sear the mushrooms properly, and you also want to be able to scrape up all the yummy browned bits when you deglaze with the champagne.

Resolved

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Plain Digestives

Don’t worry, lentil fans. This year’s recipe will be along shortly, but in the meantime I wanted to put up this recipe, since I had it ready to go.

In keeping with my custom of not sabotaging my coworker’s New Year’s resolutions no matter how fervently I personally reject the practice, my Sunday baking in January always focuses on whole grains, less sugar, and lower fat than the other 10 months of the year. (I repeat the process in May in case of pre-summer beach dieting.). These digestive biscuits are my first such offering for 2013, but they’re also one of my favorites year-round, thanks to their lovely crunchy-crumbly texture and not-too-sweet full-bodied wheatiness, to say nothing of how hard they ping my lifelong Anglophilia.

Digestive Biscuit Dough

In addition to being perfect both for healthier eating plans and Doctor Who marathons, these are wonderfully low-effort, since the dough comes together beautifully in the food processor and is so easy to work with that the rolling and cutting process is quick and painless. If you want to be a bit more indulgent, you have the option of spreading them with a very thin coating of melted chocolate, but they’re pretty addictive plain with a cup of tea. Since they’re technically a cookie but really fall somewhere between a cookie and a whole wheat cracker, they also work quite well on a cheese plate, if you want to be a bit more sophisticated.

Chocolate Digestives

Digestive Biscuits
(Adapted from King Arthur Flour, The Baking Sheet Newsletter, Dec 1991)
Makes 4-5 dozen cookies

½ cup old fashioned rolled oats
1 cup white whole wheat flour
½ cup whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
¾ teaspoon sea salt
¾ cup confectioner’s sugar
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature but not soft, in half-tablespoon-sized pieces
¼ cup low-fat milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

4-6 ounces milk or semi-sweet chocolate, chopped and melted (optional)

In a food processor, grind the oats until fine but not completely powdered, leaving some small bits of oat. Add the flours, baking powder, salt and sugar, and pulse a few times to combine. Scatter the butter pieces over the dry ingredients and pulse again until the mixture resembles rough cornmeal, with no large bits of butter visible. Mix the milk and vanilla together and pour through the processor’s feed tube while pulsing again, continuing to process until a homogenous dough forms and starts clumping around the blade.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured silicone mat or piece of parchment and roll to a thickness of approximately 1/8 inch, but no less (thinner cookies will burn too easily). Chill the dough for about 10 minutes to firm it back up before cutting.

Preheat oven to 350F and line 2-3 baking sheets with parchment paper.

Cut the rolled dough with 1 ½ to 2 inch round cookie cutters, transferring the rounds to the lined sheets. Re-roll as many times as necessary to use up the dough, chilling the dough again between rollings if the cookies become too soft to pick up easily.

Prick the cookies well with a fork and bake until pale gold all over but not too dark around the edges, 15-20 minutes. Cool completely on racks. If desired, the bottom of the cooled cookies can be spread with a thin layer of melted chocolate and marked decoratively, then left until the chocolate sets back up.

Unfrosted biscuits keep very well in airtight containers for a couple of weeks, while chocolate-covered cookies should be eaten within a few days, before the chocolate blooms.

Notes:

There’s no reason you couldn’t make these vegan with the use of vegan margarine or vegetarian shortening and a non-dairy milk, although in that case you’ll probably need to chill longer and more often, since the dough will be quicker to soften too much.

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