Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The little things.

When I found out last week that our little community was directly in the path of hurricane Irene, one of my first thoughts was, "But the morning glories have just started to come into their own! How could I ever protect their delicate vines from this storm?" A Google search revealed, of course, that there really is no way to protect a garden from a hurricane. You just put away anything not nailed down and hope for the best. So I took some pictures just before we left and hoped that I could enjoy a few more blossoms this year, however tattered they may be.

Obviously, we were relieved to hear that the storm had weakened and that our home would likely survive just fine while we were away. We finally returned and no one was happier to be home than Pepper. However, I was thrilled to discover that, although we had a few lost branches and some damage to our fence, my morning glories looked better than ever.

You wouldn't know it from their reputation, but these little plants are really vigorous. As I said before, they survived our wedding/honeymoon absence during a heatwave but they have really grown beyond my expectations. The seed packet said 4-5 feet, so I was hoping the moonflower's 7-9 foot vines would reach the top of the shed to keep it from looking sparse. However, these morning glories grow straight up the shed and if the roof had more nooks and crannies I think they would grow right up and over the other side.

Whenever I feel like my to-do list is a mile long and I can't possibly accomplish everything I need to, I remember my little morning glories and count how many buds will burst open with big, beautiful flowers to greet me tomorrow. It's just one little thing to look forward to every day and I'm so thankful they survived the storm. No sign of moonflower blooms just yet, but I will patiently wait.

What little things bring you joy each day?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Lemon-scented blueberry cornmeal bliss.

It's no secret that my husband loves cornbread. So when I found myself with all of the ingredients to make my favorite blueberry pancakes for breakfast one Saturday I decided to switch things up and make cornmeal blueberry pancakes.

I have apparently lived a very sheltered life, having mostly eaten buttermilk pancakes and a few multi-grain pancakes in my life but not recalling any cornmeal pancakes. The cornmeal adds a nice, subtle crunch and a mild sweetness. These pancakes also have a touch of lemon zest which leaves them smelling (and tasting) positively divine. I couldn't resist adding syrup to mine, but Jared ate several plain and they really are good enough to eat by themselves as they are anything but your garden variety one-note pancakes.

If you really wanted to be fancy, you could use wild blueberries (not something I see in VA Beach... ever) or have a little bacon on the side. That would be an amazing Saturday morning.

Lemon-Scented Blueberry Cornmeal Pancakes
Adapted from Cook's Illustrated

Note: I used my griddle here because, frankly, using the griddle for pancakes is much more pleasant than using a big skillet on my tiny burners. However, you can just as easily use a skillet on medium heat. Also, although I normally cut recipes in half, pancakes freeze beautifully so whether you're cooking for 1 or a family, go ahead and make the whole batch. Then just freeze any leftovers in a single layer on a baking sheet covered in parchment. Once they're solid (about 2 hours) store them in a zip lock bag. Reheat in the toaster, an oven set to 350, or even the microwave.

Serves 4

1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups yellow cornmeal
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon table salt
2 cups buttermilk
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest
1 large egg
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
Vegetable oil
1 cup fresh or frozen blueberries (if using frozen, rinse and dry the berries to keep their color from bleeding into your pancakes)

1. Preheat a griddle to 325 degrees and the oven to 200 degrees. Whisk together the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl. In a small bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, zest, egg, and melted butter until combined.

2. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients in the bowl. Pour the buttermilk mixture into the well and mix gently until combined. You want to make sure you don't have any large pockets of the flour mixture, but don't mix out all of the lumps as over mixing will result in tough pancakes.

3. Brush the griddle with a thin but even layer of vegetable oil. Using a 1/4 cup, pour the batter onto the griddle in 4 places (or as many will comfortably fit on your griddle). Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of berries onto each pancake and allow the pancakes to cook until large bubbles appear on the center of the pancakes and have set (i.e. are not actively boiling). Mine took 3-4 minutes. Flip and cook the other side until golden brown, about 2 minutes more. Repeat, placing cooked pancakes on a baking sheet in a single layer to stay warm until ready to serve. Monitor the pancakes carefully and don't be afraid to adjust the griddle temperature if they seem to be browning too quickly or too slowly.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A perfect pre-dinner nibble.

I was introduced to this recipe through Smitten Kitchen, a very favorite blog of mine. This flatbread is a wonderful combination of flavors: fresh thyme, nutty cheese, coarse sea salt, and sweet honey on a warm, crispy cracker. Better still, it's ridiculously simple to make.

Deb jokingly suggested to have this flatbread with your evening cheese course. But I realized that Jared and I often both return from a long day at campus ravenous and enjoy a little something before dinner. Like while waiting for the grill to heat up.

So you can cook grilled chicken paillards with sour orange sauce.

Standing in your yard, with cool August grass under your sandals.

While your dog gives you this weird look when you try to take her picture.

Sure, you'll have bit too much for two, but you can heat up the leftovers the next day in a hot oven. But just give them a couple of minutes or they get a bit too toasty. Not that I know from experience.

Honey, Thyme, and Sea Salt Flatbreads
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

Note: I used Fleur de Sel sea salt, but any coarse salt will do. Also, Deb suggests a myriad of cheese suggestions and I went with Parmigiano Reggiano because that's the hard cheese I always have but you can certainly experiment here. However, the cheese is a really important flavor, so don't use that stuff in the green can. Not that I need to tell you that.

Makes 4 big flatbreads that can be broken down however you wish.

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon table salt
1/2 cup water
1/3 cup olive oil
3/4 cup finely grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
1/2 honey
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
Coarse salt (sea salt such as Maldon or Fleur de Sel preferred)

1. Place you pizza stone (or a baking sheet) on the middle oven rack and preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

2. Whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl. Make a well in the center and pour in the water and the oil gradually, mixing with a spoon or a spatula until the dough comes together. It will look like a shaggy mess, but it will be fine. Knead the dough gently for a minute or two; it should feel quite oily.

3. With a pastry blade, divide the dough into 4 pieces. Roll out each piece on a sheet of parchment paper into an oblong shape about 12"x6". It should be pretty thin after you've rolled it out. The dough is a bit sticky but work through it. Your patience will be rewarded.

4. Slide both the dough and parchment paper onto the preheated baking sheet or stone, and bake about 6 minutes, until just golden. I could fit 2 at a time in my oven, which makes it go a bit quicker, but one at a time is just fine. Quickly sprinkle 1/4 of the cheese onto each piece. Bake an additional 3 to 4 minutes, until the edges and thin spots are just browned. Remove the flatbreads from the oven and drizzle each with honey, sprinkle with sea salt and garnish with thyme leaves. This is really a taste issue for how much of each you may like but my own advice is to not skimp on the honey and the salt. Cut each flatbread into 4 sections (or more, if you like...) width-wise with a sharp knife. Repeat with remaining dough. Serve warm.

Monday, August 22, 2011

A bread that needs no introduction.

Banana bread is a classic. We have all had it and, except for those banana haters out there (hi, Mom!), we love its sweet aroma and moist crumb. I should probably leave it at that and just give you the recipe, but I won't because, as my friends and family know, I'm a bit verbose.

I have been yearning for something banana for some time. However, every time I went to the store, bananas completely slipped my mind and I found myself daydreaming of bananas again mid-week. So, when Jared bought bananas I watched and waited, hoping they would become too ripe for him to eat. Unfortunately for him but luckily for me, they ripened quite quickly and I ended up with 3 very ripe bananas.

With bananas in hand (or in the fridge, as it were) I set about making banana bread. Since my family doesn't have a tried-and-true recipe for banana bread, I often use a different one every time. This particular bread comes from Beard on Bread by James Beard that I purchased some time ago. A few things intrigued me about it:

1. For the book's previous owner, this was clearly a beloved recipe with notes in the margin about swapping in whole wheat flour and the flavor of the cake.

2. James Beard suggests almonds instead of the classic walnuts. I obliged and it's new and great. Also, Jared is not a walnut fan, so anyone else who does not love their bitterness might give this a go.

3. Mr. Beard suggests using this bread for sandwiches, calling it "extraordinarily good" for this purpose. I must try this while there's still some bread left, although I wish he had suggested a suitable sandwich.

Banana Nut Bread
Adapted from Beard on Bread by James Beard

Note: I sprinkled raw sugar on top because I cannot help myself, but it would be delicious without. Also, you can swap the almonds for any other nut. Finally, the recommended pan is 12 x 4 1/2 x 2 1/2 but I don't have a pan of that size so I used a standard loaf pan.

Makes 1 loaf

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup honey
2 large eggs
3 very ripe bananas, mashed
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1/2 cup sliced almonds

1.Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and butter a standard loaf pan. Cream the butter with a hand mixer until light. Add the sugar and honey and beat the mixture until creamy and light. One at a time, add the eggs beating incorporating each thoroughly. Mix in the bananas until fully incorporated. Sift together the flour, baking soda, and salt. Add the dry mixture to the banana mixture, beating just until combined. Fold in the nuts.

2. Pour the batter into the butter loaf pan. If you like, sprinkle the top with a few tablespoons of turbinado sugar. Bake the loaf for 1 hour to 1 hour and 15 minutes, checking for doneness near the end. When a cake tester comes out clean, it's finished. Cool in the pan for 10 minutes before turning out on a rack to cool completely.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Leftovers for breakfast?(!)

Anyone who knows me well knows that when it comes to breakfast I'm a bit, well, picky. I don't eat pizza for breakfast and I certainly don't eat cold pizza (ever, actually). I only eat "breakfast" for breakfast, if that makes sense. I never go without breakfast, but if I wake up on vacation past normal breakfast time, so help me we will find a place serving breakfast. It's crazy and I totally acknowledge that. Luckily, I married a man who is willing to drive long distances to find me breakfast.

As a result of my breakfast needs, I never eat leftovers (that aren't a baked good) for breakfast. Wait, scratch that. Almost never. Polenta and an egg, I will eat. I love polenta. It's hot, creamy, inexpensive, easy to prepare, and endlessly versatile. However, my favorite thing might be frying up polenta left over from last night's dinner with an egg.

If you've never fried polenta, you must try it. I will tell you that I had many polenta frying accidents (sticking to the pan, soggy instead of crispy, etc.) until I learned that you need to lightly dredge it in flour and then fry it in really hot oil without turning until you see a golden crust. Follow these rules and you cannot go wrong. Of course, you could serve this with dinner but have it for breakfast and it is quick enough for a weekday but it will feel special like a weekend.

Fried Polenta

Note: Use whatever oil you like (vegetable, olive, etc.) and you can even do some oil with some butter. However, because butter has a low smoke point, you shouldn't use all butter as it will burn before the polenta crisps.

Firm polenta (see recipe below)
1/3 cup all purpose flour
3-5 tablespoons of oil

1. Cut the polenta into shapes (triangles, sticks, etc.). More surface area means more crispy deliciousness, so just avoid big blocks. Put the flour on a shallow plate and lightly dredge each polenta piece in flour, shaking off excess.

2. In a large frying pan (preferably nonstick or cast-iron) heat the oil over medium-high heat. The amount of oil varies, depending on your pan, so just pour enough in to cover the bottom of the pan. When the oil is hot (you can test by dropping in a small piece of polenta or some flour... if it sizzles, it's ready) place a few pieces of the polenta in the pan. Be sure to not crowd the pan; if you're making breakfast for more than 2 people, work in batches. Don't flip the polenta until it's browned; you'll see it get golden on the edges when it's time. Really be patient as this can take 3-5 minutes. Repeat until all sides are golden and crisp. Drain on a paper towel, and serve hot with a fried egg.


Note: I make this polenta with chicken broth, but you can certainly use water or milk, if you prefer. Also, you can add a little finely grated Parmesan at the end or herbs. Polenta is like a blank canvas that you can color however you wish.

Serves 2 with enough left over for breakfast, or 4 to serve as a side

3/4 cup yellow cornmeal (I like Bob's Red Mill, but just make sure it isn't cornmeal for cornbread, with leaveners and the like added)
2 cups low sodium chicken stock
3/4 teaspoon salt
Pinch freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1. In a large saucepan, combine 2 cups of water, the stock, salt and pepper. Bring it to a boil over high heat. Slowly add the cornmeal in a steady stream, whisking constantly to ensure a smooth polenta with no lumps.

2. Simmer the mixture on medium low, whisking frequently until thickened. It should look a bit like hot cereal, which takes about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and whisk in the butter. Serve immediately, reserving half for fried polenta.

If you want to make fried polenta, while the polenta is still warm pour it into a square or rectangular container (such as a loaf pan or a baking pan). Cover and refrigerate until firm, which takes about 2 hours but you can keep in in the fridge for several days.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Perfect breakfast potatoes.

Jared and I absolutely love home fries and hash browns. However, ordering them out can be very hit and miss. When they are right, they're crispy on the outside, creamy on the inside and perfectly seasoned. But all too often we find ourselves with a plate full of undercooked, soggy potatoes with no seasoning whatsoever (is a little salt too much to ask?).

Why do we order them, time and time again? Clearly, we are tuber masochists. Every time I make them myself I think, "I should do this more often! These are the potatoes I seek every time I go out for brunch!" The trouble is, I generally just make these when I have leftover potatoes. Do as I say, not as I do, and buy some potatoes for this purpose. You will not regret it.

You might even invite over a small, furry dining companion who loves potatoes and chicken sausage. Or, you know, friends who are people that will eat with utensils and not steal your food off of the table.

Breakfast Potatoes
Adapted from Barefoot Contessa Family Style by Ina Garten

Notes: As I said before, I usually make this with leftover potatoes when we get a 2 lb bag of those baby red skinned or Yukon Gold for roasted potatoes with dinner. However, you can definitely use full sized boiling potatoes, like Ina Calls for in this recipe. I never peel the potatoes but you can if you like. Also, although I had parsley and scallions on hand, you can definitely makes these potatoes without and they will still be delicious. Finally, I cut in in half-ish, but feel free to scale it up. Just be sure to use a pan large enough that the potatoes will brown, not steam.

Serves 2

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 lb boiling potatoes, 1/2 inch diced
1 chopped yellow onion
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon minced scallions

1. Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add the potatoes, onions, salt, and pepper and cook for about 20 minutes, turning every 5 minutes. The real key here is you want to potatoes to brown and the onions to caramelize, so it you start turning at 5 minutes and they aren't browned, just wait. Your patience will be rewarded.

2. Once the potatoes are browned and cooked through (you can test with the tip of the knife, it should slide in and out easily), turn off the heat. Add parsley and scallions and stir. Serve the potatoes hot with sausage or a fried egg.

If you have leftovers, which is unlikely, these potatoes are fantastic in an omelet or frittata.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

A decidedly grown-up slush.

Last week, watermelons were buy 1 get 1 free, a wonderful side effect of the height of the season. But as much as I love watermelons, I wanted to try something new since I was staring at a stockpile of pink, juicy sweetness. I went recipe searching and this one really appealed to me with its simple ingredients and incredibly easy technique. It makes me feel really lazy but in the dredges of August, easy techniques really appeal to me.

Anyway, this granita does not disappoint. If you haven't had granita before, it's like a refined slushie but still rustic and no straw is required. All you need is watermelon, sugar, and a little lime juice. Although Jared didn't care for the lime, I felt its sour note actually made the melon taste more like itself.

This recipe is so easy, I thought it might be fun to show you through pictures in the hope that if you find yourself with a pile of watermelon on your hands you won't hesitate to make a batch!

Watermelon Granita
Adapted from Bon Appetit, June 2011
6 servings

4 cups cubed seedless watermelon
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice

1. Puree all of the ingredients in a blender until smooth.

2. Pour the mixture into a metal 9x9 pan and freeze for 60 minutes. The metal makes it freeze faster, but you could certainly use any container and just increase the time. Be careful, however: if you wait too long you'll end up with a giant ice cube which you will need to thaw and re-freeze.

3. Stir the mixture, breaking up any larger frozen pieces with the back of a fork.

4. Freeze until firm, about 2 hours, then flake with a fork. You can cover and store the granita in the freezer for a few days, but it will slowly become less and less flaky. Serve with a small wedge of fresh watermelon and escape the heat (if only for a moment)!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

A new spin on the caprese.

I love everything about the caprese: the cheese, the fresh tomatoes, the basil... in summer this salad is definitely a favorite of mine. However, even I like a change of pace every once in a while. Sometimes you can't get really fresh mozzarella or you need a side that packs a little more punch. This tomato salad fits the bill perfectly.

Switching the mozzarella out for goat cheese (which I always have on hand) and the basil leaves for a basil vinaigrette keeps it interesting without straying too far from those familiar flavors. The vinaigrette is really strong but when you drizzle it on the tomatoes it mellows beautifully. Even better, it's a great use for that basil growing like crazy in the garden and it will keep in the fridge for a week to dress salads, fish, or grilled chicken.

Tomato and goat cheese salad with basil vinaigrette
Adapted from Everyday Food, July/August 2008

Serves 2, with basil vinaigrette to spare

1/2 cup packed fresh basil leaves
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 ounces goat cheese
2 medium tomatoes, cored and cut into 1/4 thick slices

1. Place basil, oil, vinegar, and 1 tablespoon of water into a blender. Blend until smooth, 2-3 minutes. Season with coarse salt and pepper, to taste.

2. Slice goat cheese using dental floss. This is a genius tip from EDF that makes beautiful, even slices instead of crumbles. On two plates, alternate tomato slices and goat cheese, dividing evenly. Season the salad with coarse salt and pepper, drizzle with vinaigrette, and serve.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A trio of homemade sodas.

I'm not the biggest soda drinker. I don't have a diet coke with me at all times (coffee is another story) and I usually order water with lemon when I'm out. However, I love fresh fruit flavor and I enjoy fizzy refreshment on a hot day, which is why an article about DIY sodas in the May 2011 issue of Bon Appetit piqued my interest.

When you make soda yourself you get to choose everything: should it be light and sparkling? herbal but sweet? fruity and tart? The possibilities are endless and you certainly don't have to settle for the ubiquitous syrupy drinks full of empty calories. I've been working on my own concoctions for the last week and I wanted to share three winners with you. Hopefully you'll be inspired to try your hand at homemade soda and pass it along!

Strawberry, Lemon, and Basil
Adapted from Bon Appetit, May 2011

Note: I like to leave the fruit chunks in my soda because I think it's pretty, but in the original recipe they're strained out. Also, I found the basil to be a bit strong so I scaled it back but you can always adjust it to your tastes.

Makes 1 soda

2 tablespoons fresh squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon raw sugar
4 fresh basil leaves
3 large strawberries, hull removed and quartered.
1 pinch coarse salt
3/4 cup club soda

Place lemon juice, sugar, strawberries, basil and salt in a pint glass and muddle with the handle of a wooden spoon (or a muddler, if you have one) until the sugar dissolves. Add a few ice cubes and the club soda and stir until chilled.

Cherry Lime Soda
Makes 1

Juice of 1/2 a lime
1 tablespoon raw sugar
8 cherries, pitted and halved
1 pinch coarse salt
3/4 cup club soda

Place lime juice, sugar, cherries, and salt in a pint glass. With the handle of a wooden spoon, muddle until sugar dissolves. The mixture should look a little syrupy. Add club soda and ice. Stir to chill and strain if you like or serve with the fruit in the glass.

Makes 1

Juice of 1/2 a lime
1/2 tablespoon sugar
1 cup watermelon chunks
Pinch coarse salt
3/4 cup club soda
Frozen watermelon cubes (optional)

Juice the watermelon either by pureeing it in a blender or mashing it with a spoon. Strain the juice through a sieve, pressing on the solid to extract as much liquid as possible. Place watermelon juice, lime juice, sugar, and salt in a pint glass. Mix until sugar dissolves.
Add club soda and frozen watermelon cubes or ice. Stir to chill and serve.

Note: to make the watermelon cubes, cut seedless watermelon into cubes and place on a tray. Put them in the freezer until solid, at least 2 hours.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A blackberry-orange morning.

I'm not the kind of girl who drinks a lot of smoothies. You won't find me at the juice bar every morning and if you suggest a smoothie place for lunch I'll probably order a sandwich. However, warm summer mornings when it seems like there hasn't been a temperature below 80 in a month, I love a simple smoothie for breakfast.

Simple is the key here. I started making smoothies during high school over summer break and back then my smoothies were just frozen fruit, milk, and a little sweetener. I think the beauty of a smoothie is the fresh flavor and how quickly they come together so adding ingredients by the dozen doesn't do it for me.

That all being said, I hadn't made a smoothie in years because... I didn't own a blender. You heard me right: I didn't own a blender. It's not that I didn't want a blender. I did. But between my tiny grad student salary and life expenses (like conference travel) I couldn't justify the money so when I saw something that requires a blender (ultra creamy soups, milkshakes, smoothies) I turned away. Needless to say, when we unwrapped the blender we got as a wedding gift, I nearly jumped for joy!

Okay, back to the smoothie. This frosty cup of berry deliciousness won't leave you starving by 10 o'clock and is highly adaptable to whatever you have in the kitchen. If you're missing any ingredient you can probably find a suitable substitute in you kitchen, such as milk instead of yogurt or any fruit juice for the OJ. I want to stress that making a smoothie should be as easy as drinking it so feel free to swap whatever suits you or your pantry. You don't even have to measure if you don't to, although that can lead to gigantic smoothies (not that I know from experience...).

Blackberry Orange Smoothie
Adapted from Mad Hungry by Lucinda Scala Quinn

Makes 2 small servings or a generous serving for 1

6 ounces of plain yogurt
3/4 cup frozen blackberries
1/2 cup orange juice
1 tablespoon honey
3/4 cup ice

Put all of the ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Dirty thirty cheesecake.

Jared celebrated the big 3-0 this weekend with a big slice of cheesecake. Last year, I told of Jared's love of key lime birthday pie so this year both me and his mother were surprised when he requested a cheesecake. I knew the cheesecake was coming months ago when I opened a wedding gift containing the springform pan I had been wanting for years (thanks, Curt and Laura!) and the first thing Jared said was, "Does this mean we can have cheesecake?"

Of course, my answer was yes. This is actually the first cheesecake I have ever made and I chose the recipe because 1.) Ina Garten said it never cracks in the middle 2.) it doesn't require a hot water bath.

I'd love to tell you I have lots of beauty shots of making the cake and the finished cake but the truth is I made it late one night and then we had friends over the next day so the majority was consumed very quickly. It is quite good. One friend, who does not like cheesecake, declared that it won her over because it's lighter than more traditional cheesecake and the addition of lemon gives it a rounder flavor (i.e. less like eating a brick of cream cheese).

That being said, you might call this more of a "crowd pleaser" cheesecake as those of you who love that super dense, cream-cheesey cheesecake might feel like you're missing the usual heaviness. However, you can definitely eat a slice of this after a meal and not feel really weighed down, which is a plus in my book. Serve it with strawberries and/or chocolate ganache and you'll send you dinner guests home happy!

Adapted from Ina Garten's Barefoot Contessa Family Style

Note: Ina made a raspberry sauce for this cheesecake but Jared isn't a big raspberry fan so we had strawberries and ganache (see recipe below). Feel free to eat it plain or garnish it with whatever suits your fancy!

Serves 8-10

1 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs (approximately 10 crackers)
1 tablespoon sugar
6 tablespoons (3/4 cup) unsalted butter, melted

2 1/2 pounds cream cheese, room temperature
1 1/2 cups sugar
5 extra-large eggs, room temperature
2 extra-large egg yolks, room temperature
1/4 cup sour cream
1 tablespoon lemon zest (from 2 lemons)
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Combine the graham crackers, sugar and melted butter thoroughly. Place the mixture into a 9-inch springform pan and press them in, forming the bottom crust and going about 1 inch up the sides. I like to use a measuring cup with a flat bottom to make it really even. Bake the crust for 8 minutes then cool to room temperature.

2. Raise the oven temperature to 450 degrees. Cream the cream cheese and sugar with an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment on medium-high until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Reduce the speed to medium and add the eggs and egg yolks two at a time, mixing well after each addition. Scrape the bowl as needed. Reduce the speed to low and add the sour cream, zest, and vanilla, mixing thoroughly. Pour the cream cheese mixture into the cooled crust.

3. Bake for 15 minutes, then turn down the oven to 225 degrees and bake for an additional 1 hour and 15 minutes. Turn off the oven and open the door wide. Allow the cake to sit in the open over for 30 minutes. It won't look finished baking when you first open the door, but it will set up as it cools. Remove the cake from the oven and place it on a wire rack to cool completely, about 2-3 hours. Store the cake in the refrigerator overnight. To remove the cake from the pan, run a hot knife around the outside to loosen the sides and remove. Simply serve the cake from the bottom of the springform pan.

Chocolate Ganache

8 oz good-quality semisweet chocolate
1 cup heavy cream

1. Finely chop the chocolate and place in a medium, heat-proof bowl.

2. Heat the cream over medium heat until it's steaming but not boiling. Pour the hot cream over the chocolate and allow it to stand for 5 minutes. This allows the cream to melt the chocolate. Mix the cream and chocolate mixture with a spatula until the mixture is dark and glossy. Pour over cheesecake, ice cream, etc. Store covered, in the refrigerator and reheat over low heat until fluid or scoop into balls and roll in cocoa powder to make truffles.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Summer stone fruit tart.

This tart is one of my very favorite things to make in the late summer and early fall when the market is full of peaches, plums, and nectarines. It's so versatile because you can use whatever fruit looks, and more importantly, smells best and you can add whatever berries you have or skip them altogether if berries are past their prime. In this one I mixed peaches and nectarines because I happened to have both on hand and blueberries because I had some leftover from those blueberry corn muffins.

I really want to stress that you should let the market be your guide here as your tart will be best if you use the ripest, most fragrant stone fruit. That's not to say you want mushy fruit; it should be firm with a slight give. But it should smell amazing. Go ahead, sniff each piece of fruit. If the peaches don't smell like peaches, don't buy them. Same goes for nectarines, plums, and all other variations. You might feel silly smelling the fruit at first, but you'll be happy you did when you make the tart and it really taste like fruit.

The crust is easy to make and uses a simple technique that makes it really, really flaky. I use the same technique almost every time I bake a pie to give the crust a little more flakiness. The technique is called fraisage; unsurprisingly, the French perfected a technique to make really flaky pastry with a very simple technique. You make the dough as you would any pie crust (I use a food processor to cut the butter into the flour). However, before it's really cohesive, you take it crumbly mass and make it into a 12x4 mound. Then, using the heel of your hand you smear the dough onto the counter one sixth at a time. Gather it up with a bench scraper and repeat.

If, like me, you've always heard to handle a pie crust as little as possible, leave big chunks of butter in the dough, keep it ice cold, etc. this process will feel very wrong. I thought I ruined it the first time. However, when you cut into the baked tart and see the crust with its big flaky shards of pastry you'll know the magic of fraisage.

The other reason this tart is perfect for summer is it's relatively low-fuss. You don't need to make a lattice, blind-bake a crust, or cook the filling before baking. You can make the crust the night before (or even days before), roll it out, pile on the fruit, fold up the sides, and bake which leaves plenty of time to pack a picnic or make dinner.

Freeform Summer Fruit Tart
Adapted from Cook's Illustrated, July & August 2004
Serves 6

Note: You can put the crust together days ahead of time (or even a month, if you freeze it). Just wrap it in plastic and when you're ready to use it, let it sit at room temperature about 10 or 15 minutes before rolling it out. If frozen, thaw in the fridge first, then set it out as directed above.

For the dough:
1 1/2 cups (7 1/2 oz) all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
3-6 tablespoons ice water

For the fruit filling:
1 pound of peaches, nectarines, apricots, plums, pluots, or plumcots (4-5 pieces of fruit)
1 cup berries (blueberries, raspberries, or black berries; strawberries become mushy)
3-5 tablespoons sugar
Sanding or turbinado sugar, for sprinkling

1. Pulse the flour, and salt in a food processor, to combine. Scatter butter pieces over the flour and pulse until pea-sized butter pieces remain, about 10-12 1-second pulses. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of ice water over the mixture and pulse for 1 second. Repeat until the dough forms small curds and holds together when pinched between your fingers. Empty the dough onto the work surface. It should be crumbly, but if you have big dry patches, sprinkle them with a couple of teaspoons of water and gently incorporate it with your fingers. With a bench scraper, mound the dough into a 12"x4" lump, perpendicular to your counter. Beginning at the far end, use the heel of your hand to smear one-sixth of the dough onto the surface away from you. Repeat until you've smeared all of the dough. Gather the dough into a 12x4 inch mound and repeat. The dough should now be cohesive. Form the dough into a 4" disk and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate until firm but malleable, approximately 1 hour.

2. During the last 30 minutes of chilling, halve and pit the stone fruit. Cut into 1/2" wedges and combine with the berries in a medium bowl. Heat the oven to 400 degrees and place an oven rack in the lower-middle position.

3. On a large sheet of parchment lightly dusted with flour, roll out the dough into a 12-inch circle about 3/16 inch thick. This is easily accomplished by working from the center and rolling out, turning the dough as you go. Dust with flour as needed and make sure the dough does not become stuck to the parchment. Place the parchment onto a baking sheet and refrigerate until firm but still pliable, 15-30 minutes.

4. Sprinkle the fruit with sugar and toss to combine. Remove the baking sheet from the refrigerator and mound the fruit onto the center of the dough, leaving a 2 1/2-inch border. Carefully fold the dough up over the fruit leaving 1/2 inch of dough just inside the fold free of fruit. Repeat around the tart, folding every 2 or 3 inches and overlapping the pleats. To secure each fold, brush lightly with water and pinch the pleat but do not press the dough into the fruit.

5. Brush the dough with water and sprinkle with sanding or turbinado sugar. Bake until the crust is golden brown and the fruit is bubbling, 50-55 minutes. Place the baking sheet on a wire rack to cool for 10 minutes. Using a spatula, slide the tar off of the parchment and onto the rack to finish cooling. Serve warm or at room temperature alone or with softly whipped cream.

Tart keeps for several days in the fridge and is delicious cold but even better reheated in a 350 degree oven.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

A meal at hand.

Having a few dishes you can whip up from your pantry is really important. Even people like me, who plan each meal for the week Saturday morning and keep a ridiculous spreadsheet so no ingredient is forgotten and I never come home thinking, "What was I going to cook today?" need some meals that can be made with pantry staples. Recipes go wrong, produce goes bad more quickly than expected, grocery shopping is delayed and sometimes you come home from vacation with little in the fridge but starving from the trip.

Keep a (reasonably) well-stocked pantry and you will be ready for these little emergencies.

I have a few of these dishes in my repetoir, but I'm just going to tell you about the newest and most favorite today. I will tell you that most of them involve pasta because you can keep a good stock in your cupboards at all times and it doesn't go bad. I like DeCecco and Barilla because I think they cook more predictably which means I run less risk of serving mushy noodles, and I like that. Buy it when it's on sale, assorted shapes and sizes, and you'll always have a meal at hand.

My new favorite pantry dish is cacio e peppe, which means "cheese and pepper" in Italian. The ingredients are really simple:

Pasta (spaghetti, linguini, fettuccine, bucatini, whatever you have), butter, pepper, pecorino romano, and parmigiano reggiano. Okay, the latter two ingredients come from the fridge, not the pantry, but they you can keep them for weeks and I always have them around. This recipe is an Italian classic, but I was inspired to make it after reading the May 2011 issue of Bon Appetit ("The Italy Issue"... need I say more? It's fantastic.). The issue is full of helpful tips and for this recipe they suggest crushing the peppercorns with a heavy skillet instead of the grinder and it really makes all the difference.

I'm not even a huge pepper-lover, I only taught myself to appreciate pepper a few years ago, but this is really special. Spicy, floral, creamy, salty... the ingredients really sing. Throw together a salad and you have dinner on the table in minutes even when you think, "There's nothing in the house!"

Cacio e Pepe
Adapted from Bon Appetit, May 2011
Serves 2

Note: I use a microplane grate for the cheese, which produces beautiful wisps of cheese but you can just use the finest grater you have. Obviously, the stuff in the green can won't cut it here.

6 oz pasta
3 tablespoons of unsalted butter, cubed and divided
1 teaspoon fresh cracked black pepper
3/4 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano
1/3 cup grated Pecorino

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until about 2 minutes short of the cooking time listed on the box. Reserve 3/4 cup of the cooking water and drain the pasta.

2. While the pasta cooks, melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add the pepper and cook, swirling the pan until the pepper smells floral and toasted (approximately 1 minute).

3. Add 1/2 cup of the pasta water to the skillet and bring it to a simmer. Add the pasta and the remaining butter. Turn the heat down to low and add the Parmigiano, tossing with tongs until it has melted. Remove the pan from the heat and add the Pecorino. Again, toss with tongs until the cheese has melted, the sauce coats the pasta, and the pasta is cooked (al dente), adding more pasta water if the pasta seems too dry.

4. To plate the pasta, lift it with the tongs and twirl, then place it in the bowl and give it one more twirl. It sounds odd, but it gives your dish a restaurant look which I prefer. Serve immediately.