27 April 2009

Chocolate Treat

Sometimes the world needs a little chocolate.

I wasn't much of a chocolate person until I sat next to a self-proclaimed chocolate addict back when I was a newspaper reporter. Colleagues knew she loved chocolate so much they'd bring her little candies and chocolate treats. She had the kind of self-discipline, however, that allowed her to indulge. She'd hit the gym on her lunch break, and she'd set aside the little candies on her desk waiting for the late-afternoon energy dip.

I, on the other hand, could not let any piece of food -- be it chocolate or cheese -- sit there teasing me for hours before I chose to indulge. Perhaps I have other admirable qualities, but willpower is not one of them.

Slowly, she converted me, even if I couldn't save a piece for later to save my life.

So now that I consider myself a "chocolate person," I thought it best that I have a good brownie recipe in my stash.

I'm not sure any brownie will compare to the ones we made at ATT that were about four-inches square and contained copious amounts of dark chocolate. But I think this recipes makes a brownie fit for a good Sundae. The results are a dense chocolate bar that holds its structure fairly well -- the one thing the boxed variety doesn't seem to have.

Next time you make brownies, take a tip from the pros and line your pan with parchment paper (you may need to grease the pan anyways). Then, when the brownies are baked and completely cooled, invert the pan and slide the entire thing right out and place it upright on the counter. Then, cut away the outer half-inch or so and cut your squares from that. This will leave you with uniform brownies, which look much more beautiful on a white plate than the dingy pan anyways. (And don't throw away those trimmings. They are usually a little crisp, so crumble them up and use them to top ice cream!)

This recipe called for hazelnuts, which I left out because I wasn't sure if my crowd was of the nut-eating variety. And instead of chunks of chocolate, I simply used dark chocolate chips, which seemed to work just fine. If you're not familiar with creme de cacao, it's a chocolate-flavored liqueur. Before Godiva and Starbucks got into the liqueur-making business, creme de cacao was the staple for cocktails. And, thank goodness, it's much cheaper that the name-brand varieties.

Whether you turn your brownie into a sundae or just eat the thing alone, it's hard not to savor just a quick moment of bliss. Chocolate can do wonders. One other thing about that old co-worker who savored her chocolate treats: She was always happy.

Triple-Sin Brownies
From Lari Robling's Endangered Recipes: Too Good to be Forgotten
1 1/3 cups flour

1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 sticks (1/2 pound) butter

1 1/3 cups sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla

1 tablespoon creme de cacao
1/2 cup toasted hazelnuts, chopped

1 ounce semisweet chocolate, cut into chunks

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray and 8-inch square baking pan with nonstick cooking spray.
In a medium bowl, sift or blend together flour, cocoa, and salt. Set aside. In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add flour mixture to butter mixture and beat well. Add vanilla and creme de cacao. Mix well. Blend in nuts and chocolate. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 45 to 50 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Makes 9 brownies.

20 April 2009

Simple French

After last week's post, I got to thinking once again about the woman whose husband volunteered her to make deviled eggs. I wondered what she did with all of her pitted eggs. Then I thought I should mention that in case any of you ever end up with eggs you feel are unfit for deviling, please, please, please turn them into egg salad. Eggs, mayonnaise, salt, pepper and bit of dried dill make a heavenly combination. And one more thing, Seth deserves credit for this beautiful photo and last week's. He wanted to prove to me that I do not need a new camera. Point taken.

OK, now on with this week. The weather around here is fantastic, and frankly, I can't come up with a reason to be on the computer too long. Or for that matter, even be in the kitchen too long. It's days like this when you need simplicity in the kitchen, not because you have a million things to do. Just because. You want to soak up the sun, play in the yard or take a nice walk.

So, I thought I'd offer up quite possibly one of the simplest dishes I could think of: Buttered radishes with sea salt. It's crisp and creamy, spicy and sweet and salty. If this sounds a bit odd, just try it. Does it help if I say it's French? It is, really. You could tell that to your friends when you offer them up as a light snack or appetizer. But I think once they take a bite, they won't care. They'll even praise your culinary skills, leaving you thinking, "I sliced a radish and slathered butter and sea salt on it. How Julia Child am I?"

But go ahead and be polite. Thank them for the compliment. Then, if someone asks for the recipe, it's OK to be snarky and think, "I sliced a radish and slathered butter and sea salt on it. Julia Child you are not."

13 April 2009

Deviled Eggs

I remember reading a newspaper story a few years ago about a woman whose husband volunteered to bring deviled eggs to an office potluck. And while the woman put her best whisk forward, she simply couldn't manage to peel the hard-boiled eggs without mangling them. In the end, she called the local deli and placed an order. Thinking of the story still makes me smile. I'm sure she wasn't the first home cook to try to pass off deli cooking for her own. I think any home cook who's had a kitchen disaster on deadline knows when to draw the line.

Making a deviled egg really is a simple task once you get beyond peeling the eggs. Some commercial kitchens even buy peeled, hard-boiled eggs because the task of peeling can be so labor intensive. The trouble is that often it's hard to get the thin membrane that sits just beneath the shell to peel away without taking a chunk of the white with it. Sometimes it's a breeze and the entire shell will practically slide away like a dab of butter on a hot skillet. But other times it seems the shell just won't wield to even the strongest of thumbnails.

There are a few things that can improve your egg-peeling odds. First, start with eggs that aren't fresh. You don't often hear those words come from a food blog, but seriously, the fresher your eggs, the less likely you are to be able to pry the shell off of them. If you've ever tried to peel a hard-boiled egg that you plucked from a chicken coop, you know what I'm talking about. Both the shell and its inner membrane are much tougher on a fresh egg. Over time, they begin to deteriorate. The thinner they are, the easier they slip off.

So how do you know if your eggs are fresh? Well, one sign is to look at the yolk of a cracked egg. If it has a little white tail coming off of one end, the egg is still fairly fresh. That little tail will also deteriorate and disappear with time. If you're buying eggs at the grocery store, you can simply look at the date on the side of the carton. If you happen to be lucky enough to have a neighbor with chickens, your eggs are likely way fresher than any you'd ever find at the grocery store. Typically, you're on the lookout for expiration dates as far from the current date as possible. If you're picking up eggs you plan on hard boiling, look for a carton with the date closest to the current day. Or simply pick up your eggs several days in advance.

To help improve your odds even more, put the hard-cooked eggs, unpeeled, in a pot and clang it around. The eggs will crash into each other and the sides of the pot, cracking the shells in a much better way than you could do on your own.

Whatever the case, please don't let a little torn egg white stop you from making these deviled eggs. Once you slice them and pipe the filling in, the outside of the egg becomes the backside of your deviled egg. So no one will ever know how well you peeled them. And even if they cared, they'd forget as soon as they popped one into their mouth.

This recipe comes from Ruth Reichl's Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table. Reichl, who stumbled into the food journalism business through the back door and now is the editor of Gourmet, describes in the book when she met Marion Cunningham of the Fannie Farmer cookbooks at cocktail party honoring James Beard. Reichl was new to the business and knew few of the foodies of the moment. She asked Cunningham if she was someone famous. Cunningham laughed and replied that she was one of the last home cooks.

Marion's Deviled Eggs
From Ruth Reichl's Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table

4 hard-boiled eggs
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1 teaspoon cider vinegar
1 teaspoon ballpark mustard
Salt and pepper

Shell eggs. Carefully cut in half lengthwise, and place yolks in a bowl. Mash yolks with a fork until smooth. Add remaining ingredients and mix well. The mixture should be thick and creamy.
Fill each egg white half with yolk mixture. Grate a bit of pepper on top. Refrigerate until needed.

06 April 2009

Loaves of Comfort

It's been a crazy few days around our house with a very sick baby. So, needless to say, I haven't exactly been the best cook on the block. In fact we had take out two nights in a row (otherwise known as "Seth's cooking" around here), which is something we haven't done since our parent-free days.

So while I'm not making much comfort food, I wanted to write about it. Usually when I think of comfort foods, I think of cheesy casseroles and hearty soups, but really, for me at least, it's any food that evokes some kind of emotion. It's a food that makes you smile at the mere thought or perhaps even conjures up a memory you'd never forgotten but seldom spend much time thinking of.

That's where Erik's bread comes in. Erik is a guy's guy. His nickname is Hoops. He's from a small town on the Oregon Coast, loves to chat about sports and would likely be hard-pressed to find someone he couldn't get along with. What I didn't know was that he could bake. Now I don't think he's spending all of his free moments standing at the mixer with flour-dusted jeans, but there's one recipe he really gets into. And lucky for friends like me, he likes to share.

At the holidays, or most recently, on my birthday, Erik pops by to drop off a loaf of Pulla, a braided Finnish bread similar to challah. It's a gorgeous bread that is dense, slightly sweet and tastes of a hint of cardamom. It's shiny crust is thin, golden and soft, and I've yet to find a way I don't like it. I'll eat a slice plain, toasted with butter, make French toast with it or use day-old cubes for a bread pudding.

Erik says he had the bread as a kid and made a point of having his grandmother show him how to make it. It was a recipe she brought with her from Finland. Erik still uses the 3-by-5 note card she scrawled the recipe on for him. I'm happy for family recipes, and especially happy for friends who share them.

Here is the recipe, straight from Erik, which he says is a combination of his grandmother's instructions and his own notes. And I'm guessing that since this great recipes makes four loaves, you won't mind sharing at least one of them with a friend of your own.

* I chunk 1 stick of butter into a really large mixing pot. (My Grandma wrote Fleischmann's margarine, but we actually use whatever butter we have on hand.)
* 2 cups of milk, warmed on the stove until lukewarm. I usually look for bubbles to form around the edges before pouring it in. (The idea is to use the warm milk to help melt the butter. I've yet to remember to pull a stick of butter out of the fridge a few hours early to allow it to warm, but maybe I'll remember to do that next weekend.)
* 1 packet of yeast softened in half a cup of warm water. We use a fast-rise yeast that Erin keeps in the fridge. What I do is put a packet's worth (2 1/4 teaspoons, I think) in a little ceramic cup, then moisten it with lukewarm water from the tap. (I've gotten a little neurotic about not killing the yeast, so I first warm the cup with warm water from the tap.)
* 1 cup of sugar.
* Half a teaspoon of cardamon seed powdered. You can, of course, buy powdered cardamon seed, but I follow my Grandma's method of putting the granuals into a cloth, then pounding into powder myself with a hammer. Again, I see how this can seem a little weird but I figure I better follow Grandma's methods.)
* Half a teaspoon of salt.
* Four or more egg yolks and 1 white. (I crack the first three eggs and drizzle the whites into a glass that I use later as egg wash before baking.) Obviously, you whip the eggs then pour into the mixing pot with all the rest.

By this time, the milk is usually warm enough to pour in. I swish it all together, dissolving everything into a liquid before adding 8 cups of flour. Incidentally, I usually measure out the flour and put it into a separate bowl, which I then put in the oven to warm slightly. (Still panicky about killing the yeast.)
Next step is to start mixing in the flour with a mixer. When it becomes too thick for that, I start adding flour and kneading by hand. Ultimately, I like the ball of dough to have enough flour that it won't stick to the pot.
The next step is to let it rise for 1 hour in warm conditions. (After various experiments, I've turned up our furnace to 70 and set it on a chair in front of a vent next to the dining room table. My mom thought this was whack and said normal people put it atop the fridge, which is generally warm. All I know is, this has worked for me in this particular house, so I don't mess with success. In the past, I've had trouble getting the dough to rise. My Grandma theorized that my old apartment wasn't warm enough. Of course, she usually kept her place sweltering at roughly the temperature a Finnish sauna ... but I digress.)
Punch it down after an hour and let it rise another hour.
Braid it in loaves and let those rise for about 45 minutes. (I warm the oven slightly and let them rise in there).
When you're ready to bake, pull the egg wash out of the fridge and paint it atop the loaves. Sprinkle with a fancy granular sugar and put it in the oven.
Bake for 350 for 10 minutes, then turn it down to 325 and bake for 20 to 25 more minutes. (I usually swap the pans at this point, so the ones on top aren't too well-done.)