Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Thank you

The ornaments are back in their box, the absence of snowmen and garland has the house looking normal yet sparse and it is not without melancholy that Christmas carols no longer fill the air of the Pierce household.  Christmas has come and gone, and though handing someone a wrapped present at this date is less than ideal, I do have a few deliveries to make to the friends we celebrated with this year.

I started baking Christmas gifts 4 years ago after the birth of my child left a staggering mark on my discretionary income.  Over the years, as I improved at budgeting I also improved with baking and therefore kept the tradition alive.  Whether is a scone with jam, or a simple sweet bread this gift always seems to say exactly what I need it to: thank you for celebrating with us, I appreciate our time together.

I came across this recipe in the December issue of Food & Wine.  Thus far, I have baked 6 separate loaves and still plant to whip up another 3.  With it's sweet glaze and citrus-tasting cake, this is a perfect thank you gift, a hostess gift for New Year's Eve, or just an indulgent breakfast before New Years resolutions take hold.

Lemon-Glazed Citrus-Yogurt
Pound Cake
Recipe By: Food & Wine Magazine, December 2011
I doubled the glaze as it made it just that much more indulgent.

2 cups cake flour
1 tsp. baking powder
3/4 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 cup grapefruit juice
1/2 cup full-fat plain yogurt (I used greek)
1 stick unsalted butter
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp finely grated lemon zest

3 TB fresh lemon juice
3 TB granulated sugar
1/2 cup confectioners' sugar
2 TB unsalted butter, softened

  1. Preheat the oven to 350.  Butter and flour a 9 1/2-by-5 inch glass loaf pan.  In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.  In a small bowl, whisk the grapefruit juice and yogurt.  In a medium bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the butter with the sugar on a medium-high speed until fluffy.  Beat in the eggs and lemon zest.  Beat in the dry and wet ingredients in 3 alternating additions; scrape down the bowl as necessary.  
  2. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 50 minutes, until the top is golden and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out with moist crumbs attached.  Tent the cake with foil halfway through the baking to slow the browning.  Transfer to a rack to cool for 20 minutes, then unmold and let cool.
  3. Meanwhile, make the glaze.  In a small microwave-safe bowl, microwave the lemon juice and granulated sugar at high power for 20 seconds, until the sugar is dissolved. Transfer 2 TB of the lemon syrup to a bowl and whisk in the confectioners sugar and butter.  Using a pastry brush, brush the lemon syrup all over the cake.  Let stand for 10 minutes to allow the syrup to seep in.  Spread the sugar glaze over the cake and let stand until completely dry, 30 minutes.
This was a popular gift among family and friends.  Hope you enjoy the remaining days of 2011..... any resolutions worth mentioning? 

Monday, December 19, 2011

Lighten up, it's just Christmas

While driving in traffic this week, I took the opportunity to change radio stations and mistakenly let a car length fill between me and the car in front.  As I moved my foot from the brake, I heard a honk from behind and glanced backwards only to receive a creative hand wave.  A bit later that afternoon, the husband pulled into the street only to be gestured and hollered at from what would have been a very sweet looking old lady. Add to this the scenes at the shopping mall and the facebook venting, it's clear that it's Christmas time in the city.

What does this have to do with food? Browsing the aisles of Whole Foods, I came across a beautiful bag of chestnuts and remembered a soup I made nearly two years ago when the dinner party marathon was in its earlier chapters.  Inspired, I picked up a bag and the remaining ingredients.  As I reminisced on the recipe, I recalled a labor intensive chestnut peel... imagining it was no worse than rolling out a pie crust I moved forward.  Without stress or procrastination I dove into this progress early Sunday afternoon and immediately remembered a whole different experience.  You have two choices when peeling chestnuts: straight from the steamer, you peel back the skin and dig out the scalding nut pieces, or once cooled you saw through the tightened skin to dig out nut pieces. Needless to say, it is clear that time filed down the memories of this prep, and while we enjoyed a good bowl of soup yesterday, we will not enjoy it again for another year.  

Christmas is a few days away.  Dubbed the most wonderful time of the year, it is also the suicide hotlines busiest evening.  I can only hope that all of us let time file down the memories enough to move lightly into the new celebrations.  If not, well... there are always pre-peeled chestnuts.

Chestnut and Celery Root Soup 
with Sage Croutons and Bacon
Recipe By: Williams-Sonoma New Flavors for Soup
Budget Note: I consistently freeze the ends of bread loaves giving me great options for bread crumbs, stuffing on in this case, croutons. Enjoying a more rustic feel, I don't cut the crusts off of my croutons.  

1/2 loaf good quality french or italian bread
2 TB unsalted butter
2 TB olive oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed
4 tsp. fresh sage, chopped
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
6 slices bacon
1 yellow onion, chopped
3 stalks celery, chopped
1/4 tsp celery seed
6 cups chicken broth
1 celery root, peeled and chopped
1 15-ounce jar steamed chestnuts
1/2 cup half and half

  1. Cut off and discard crusts from the bread (optional). Cut bread into 1/2-inch cubes; you should have about 4 cups bread cubes.
  2. In a large frying pan, melt 1 TB of the butter with the olive oil over medium low heat.  Add the garlic and half of the sage and cook gently until the garlic is light golden brown, about 5 minutes.  Remove and discard the garlic.  Raise the heat to medium, add 1/4 tsp salt and the bread cubes, and stir to coat the cubes with the flavored oil. Cook, stirring and tossing often, until the croutons are crisp and toasted 10-12 minutes. 
  3. In a large Dutch oven, cook the bacon over medium heat until crisp, about 8 minutes.  Transfer to a paper towel-lined.  
  4. Pour off all but 2 TB of the bacon grease, and return to medium heat.  Add the remaining 1 TB of butter, the onion and the celery and saute until soft, about 7 minutes.  Add the celery seed and cook stirring until fragrant, about 1 minute.  Add the stock, raise the heat to medium high and bring to a boil. 
  5. Add the celery root and chestnuts and return to a boil, then reduce the heat to low, cover partially and simmer until the celery root is tender when pierced with the tip of a knife, about 25 minutes.  Meanwhile, crumble the bacon and set aside. 
  6. Working in batches, transfer the mixture to a blender and process until a smooth puree.  (You can also use an immersion blender.)  Pour the puree into a clean pot and add the half and half, 1 1/2 tsp salt, and pepper to taste.  Place over medium-low heat and cook gently until heated through, about 10 minutes.  
  7. Ladle into warm bowls, garnish with bacon, croutons and the remaining sage.  Serve right away. 
For all of its drama, this is an amazing soup.  Creamy without being heavy, this is a wonderful holiday lunch.  It's all about the right nut, as it always seems to be this time of year. 

Friday, December 16, 2011

Christmas Kick-off!

An english muffin smothered with butter and jam.... that was my daily breakfast until the college years whisked me away from that magic refrigerator; the one that was constantly stocked with a package of wolfermans and a jar of smuckers.  Now an adult with my own magic refrigerator, I'm forced into the more sensible breakfast choices.  That is, until the holiday season goes into full swing.  A part-time-work-from-home mom, I look forward to the two week Christmas break every bit as much as the kids.  This is a time for family visits, holiday parties and above all, the enjoyment of decadent recipes that are easily excused 'because it's the holidays.'

A holiday visit with mom and dad is not complete without the Milchovich champagne breakfast: a spread of French Toast, bacon, eggs, ham and of course, mimosas. So, before the break-bound kids run through the door at 3:00, I thought best to enjoy a quiet morning with the husband and a nod to family tradition.  This is your basic French Toast recipe; nothing new nor innovative.  However,  I can offer some handy tips: use day old artisanal bread, half and half over milk and above all, do not rush the cook time.  Cooking French Toast over a medium low heat will ensure a fluffy and fully cooked center.  There is nothing worse than gummy French Toast destroying your morning buzz.

French Toast
Recipe By: Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker and
Ethan Becker Joy of Cooking

2/3 cup half and half or milk
4 eggs
2 TB sugar or maple syrup
1 tsp. vanilla
1/4 tsp salt
8 slices bread
bread as needed

  1. Warm a griddle or non stick pan over medium low heat.  In a shallow bowl, whisk together the half and half, eggs, sugar, vanilla and salt. 
  2. One at a time, soak the bread in the egg mixture.  Brown one at a time on the prepared pan or griddle. Enjoy!

Of course there are more elaborate breakfasts you could make this Christmas morning, but why not enjoy the basics?  Add some spoon fruit and a mimosa and you have the high class brunch under your own Christmas tree.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Let your heart Golightly

Each year, there seems to be one holiday that's a bit more challenging than the others.  For me, 2011's emotional ties wrapped themselves around Thanksgiving.  In a myriad of melancholy, determination and a genuine love for Thanksgiving food, I found myself desperately negotiating my way through the holiday.  I deconstructed the meal, considered leaving town, suggested dinner at a Chinese restaurant....finally, I admitted that the holiday tradition had changed.  I needed to change with it. Thankfully, there are times when a pair of big sunglasses and a little black dress are all that's needed to regain your hope.

I was about seventeen years old when my mother rented Breakfast at Tiffany's; I watched Holly Golightly mingle about with her pointe shoes safely stored in the refrigerator and immediately fell in love with her disheveled elegance.  Fast forward many years, I could not help but think of my more refined muse enjoying her pastries in front of a Tiffany Window as I stood in front of the stove with a glass of wine in hand, my kitchen filled with people on none other than Thanksgiving Day.  My previous Thanksgiving failures: the salty gravy, dry turkey, runny casseroles and the inevitable emotional breakdowns became my cigarette in a woman's cocktail hat; the imperfections that make this my kitchen.

So with Thanksgiving long gone and Christmas on the horizon, I thought best to share my most imperfectly perfect dish: a souffle. Dug up from a dusty Williams -Sonoma cookbook, this sweet potato and gruyere cheese dish is a wonderful precursor to any holiday dinner, or a fantastic lunch paired with a salad.

Sweet Potato Souffle
Recipe By: Williams Sonoma Complete Seasons Cookbook
Serves: 6
2 lb sweet potatoes
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
3 TB unsalted butter
1 white onion, minced
1 1/2 cup milk
3 TB all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground allspice
1/4 ground ginger
6 eggs separated 1 cup shredded gruyere cheese
salt and freshly ground pepper

  1. Preheat oven to 375
  2. Pierce potatoes two or three times with a fork and place on a baking sheet.  Bake until easily pierced with a knife, 30-40 minutes.  Remove from the oven and let cool.  Cut in half and scrape out the pulp into a bowl.  Using a potato masher, mash to form a smooth puree; you should have 2 1/2 cups.  Leave the oven set at 375.
  3. Butter a 2 quart souffle dish and dust the bottom and sides with 1/4 cup parmesan cheese.  
  4. In a large saucepan oven medium heat melt the butter.  Add the onion and saute, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 10 minutes.  Meanwhile, in a small sauce pan over medium heat, warm the milk until small bubbles appear along the edges of the pan; remove from the heat.  Add the flour to the onion and cook, stirring constantly, for 3 minutes.  (Do not brown.) Whisk in the milk all at once and summer, continuing to whisk, until thickened, 2-3 minutes.  Remove from the heat and stir in the nutmeg, allspice and ginger.  Add the egg yolks one at a time, beating well after each addition.  Add the sweet potato puree and the gruyere cheese and stir until well blended.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  
  5. In a bowl, using an electric mixer set on high speed, beat the egg whites until they just hold stiff peaks.  Using a rubber spatula, fold one-fourth of the egg whites into the sweet potato mixture to lighten it.  Then gently fold in the remaining white just until no white streaks remain.  Pour into the prepared souffle dish.  Sprinkle with the remaining 1/4 cup parmesan cheese. 
  6. Bake until golden, 45-50 minutes. 
My souffle could have used another 5 minutes for perfection, but like our holiday it was imperfectly fabulous.  It's no wonder that when my daughter asked who it was in the iconic Breakfast at Tiffany photo that hangs in our hallway, I shamelessly answered "that's mommy."

Monday, November 14, 2011

Y'all Be Faithful

Two things are critical to a Thanksgiving meal: turkey and faith.  The turkey of course being the iconic centerpiece and the faith being what pushes you to spend an entire afternoon roasting that turkey to perfection.  As I meander through this Thanksgiving meal, I'm learning just how much faith I lost over the years.  Last year I attempted a jalapeno and smoked paprika turkey.  My result was a dry bird with an incredible salty gravy..... not a great combination.  So, in an effort to return faith to the table, I dug out a basic recipe and decided to make the largest midweek dinner this family has seen.

In reality, a turkey is no more difficult than chicken or any other roasted meal. However, you really want to focus on the gravy; this is what saves your ass should you botch the turkey and have a dry bird on your hands.  For this reason, I add 1 1/2 cup dry white wine to the bottom of the pan before roasting as the drippings are much more flavorful and lead to a better gravy. This particular recipe doesn't call for gravy, so my suggestion to find your own recipe, remove the veggies with a slotted spoon and prepare as desired.

Perfect Roast Turkey
Recipe By: Ina Garten, Barefoot Contessa Parties!
I used a frozen turkey which I brined the evening before in Sur La Table's turkey brine.  If roasting a larger turkey, be more liberal with the amount of butter and increase the cooking time as needed. 

1 fresh turkey (12 pounds)*
Kosher Salt
Freshly ground pepper
1 large bunch fresh thyme
1 lemon halved
3 Spanish onions
1 head garlic halved crosswise
4 TB butter at room temperature*
1/2 cup good olive oil
8 carrots peeled and cut into 2 inch chunks
10 red new potatoes halved
3 heads fennel, fronds removed and cut into wedges

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees
  2. Take the giblets out of the turkey and wash the turkey inside and out. Remove any excess fat and leftover pinfeathers and pat the outside dry. Place the turkey in a large roasting pan.  
  3. Liberally salt with pepper in inside of the turkey cavity.  Stuff the turkey cavity with the thyme, lemon, one of the onions (quartered) and the garlic. Rub the outside of the turkey with the butter and sprinkle with salt and pepper.  (If using, add wine to the roasting pan) 
  4. Tie legs together with string and tuck the wing tips under the body of the turkey.  Peel and slice the remaining onions, toss them with 1/4 cup olive oil and scatter them around the turkey.  
  5. Roast turkey for 1 hour.  Toss carrots, potatoes, and fennel with 1/4 cup olive oil and add to the orasting pan.  Continue to roast for about 1 1/2 hours or until the juices run clear when you cut between the leg and the thigh.  
  6. Remove the turkey to a cutting board and cover with aluminum foil; let rest for 20 minutes.  Stir the vegetables and return the pan tot he oven.  Continue to cook the veggies while teh turkey rests.  Slice the turkey and serve on a platter with the roasted vegetables. 
This was an amazing turkey with a fantastic gravy.  Also, I think I caught my mistake from last year; not sure if it's the wine, the seasonings or the vegetables but my drippings were already quite salty; so much so that I did not need to add any salt to the gravy.  Remember to taste before you go nuts on the salt and pepper; recipes are mere suggestions, not contracts.  Where is the beautiful photo of this turkey?  I forgot to snap one.... without proof of success, you just need to grab a turkey and have some faith.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Brokedown Holiday

As we near the holiday season, it is only natural to reminisce on those past: family recipes and grand dinners at the table.  I cannot help but notice the plethora of magazines featuring beautiful pictures of turkeys or roasts displayed on perfectly set tables and I wonder how the **** do they do that?

A devoted home cook, I'm notorious for disastrous holiday dinners.  The husband insists it's due to over commitment.  I have decided to test the theory and make my entire Thanksgiving dinner not in one day, but over the next few weeks.  By the end of the month the family will have enjoyed the entire meal with something they have never had before; a calm mother.  I figured dessert was as good a start as any and this week I made the apple pie.

With a dear friend coming over for dinner, I thought an apple pie was a wonderful way to add the fall spirit to our menu.  I followed the basic recipe from Food Network magazine.  The crust came together quite easily in the food processor and after chilling it for about an hour, I had my first disaster.  As I rolled out the dough, it simply would not stay together.  In panic mode, I picked up the pieces of dough and pressed them together in the pie dish.  I prayed for a more cooperative top, however no such luck.  With the luxury of knowing it isn't Thanksgiving, I merely pieced together the top and placed a beastly looking apple pie in the oven.  An hour later I removed a much better looking pie, one that could even pass for charming in a rustic way.   The taste was wonderful, however next time I think I'll double the crust recipe as this one was a bit thin.  How will I deal with the breakage issue?  Williams Sonoma has adorable leaf shaped pie crust cutters, perfect for making my ineptitude decorative.

Basic Apple Pie:
Recipe By: Food Network Magazine November 2011
2 1/4 cups AP flour
1/4 tsp baking powder
1 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
4 TB cold vegetable shortening, cut into pieces
10 TB cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces

3 pounds mixed apples (I used gala, honey crisp and golden delicious)
2/3 granulated sugar
2 TB fresh lemon juice
6 TB unsalted butter
1 TB AP flour
3/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp salt
1 large egg. beated
coarse sugar for sprinkling

  1. For the crust, pulse the flour baking powder, sugar and salt in the food processor.  Add the shortening and one-third of the butter; pulse until the mixture looks like a coarse meal.  Add the remaining butter and pulse until it is the size of peas.  Add 1/4 cup ice water and pulse a few more times.  Is the dough doesn't hold together when squeezed, add more ice water, 1 TB at a time, pulsing.  Divide between 2 sheets of plastic wrap.  Pat into disks; wrap and chill at least 1 hour.  
  2. Peel and core the apples; slice 1/4 inch thick.  Toss with the granulated sugar and lemon juice.  Heat 4 TB butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the apples and cook, stirring, until tender, about 10 minutes.  Stir in the flour, cinnamon and salt; cook until thickened, 1 more minute.  Let cool.
  3. Roll out 1 disk of dough into a 12 inch round on a floured surface; ease into a 9- inch pie plate.  Add the apples, mounding them slightly in the center, and dot with the remaining 2 TB butter.  Roll out the remaining dough into a 12-inch round.  Lay it over the filling; press the edges of the crust together, then fold the overhang under itself and crimp to seal.  Brush with the beaten egg and sprinkle with coarse sugar.  Cut a few slits in the top crust.  Chill 1 hour.  
  4. Place a baking sheet on the lowest oven rack and preheat to 425 degrees for 30 minutes.  Place the pie on the hot baking sheet; lower the temperature to 375 degrees.  Bake until golden, 1 hour to 1 hour 10 minutes.  Cover the edges with foil if they brown too quickly.  Cool on a rack. 

From my mistakes I can offer a few tips if you plan to bake your own pie this holiday: 1) chill: the dough needs to be cold in order to have a flakey texture.  I often set the prepared pie plate in the freezer for a few minutes.  2) know your lemons: taste the filling as I have followed a few recipes only to douse the apples in too much lemon juice for a sour outcome.  3) mix up your apples: I like to use a mixture of hybrid apples as the outcome is not too sweet.  The husband, he prefers dark red.  All in all, I would only tackle dessert this holiday if you are not responsible for the dinner. Otherwise, outsource!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Wednesday Celebrations

Antone's sandwiches, sushi to go and whole foods chicken nuggets.... That is what the family lives on when I'm not at full power.  They don't complain; at times I think they enjoy the change.  However with both feet healed, and still glowing from last week's successful pumpkin dish, I turned to French Fridays with Dorie for a new challenge; I ended up with an elegant midweek meal that turned our usual Wednesday into a celebration: seared duck breast with salad, fresh bread and a bottle of champagne.

Dorie described how un-french we all were for not envisioning duck as a midweek meal.  As grease from these duck breasts flew from the deep enamel pot I learned that not only am I not French, I am not my mother.  Who knew the mess from an elegant French meal rivals that of Southern fried Sunday dinner?  This is a meal I can't wait to share with mom, however it will have to be done at my house where among other things, the standards on frying are quite a bit lower.

The meal came together beautifully, and the family enjoyed coming back round the dinner table for a cheer and check-in on the week's progress.  True to suggestion, the leftovers made a wonderful lunch with fresh greens, tomatoes and cucumbers.  I participated in the early rounds of FFwD, and sadly fell off for several months.  Back at it the past few weeks, this cookbook is slowly becoming a favorite.  I look forward to a good bowl of soup this week!