30 September 2009

Frosting love

This post is for a friend who asked about frosting recently. It's birthday time around here, and I've made two rounds of cake and frosting for my little man. And one more is yet to come.

Frosting is one of those things that can turn an ordinary cake into something special. And what can make it even more special is to whip up a little bit of frosting yourself. It seems we're in a world where that shortening-laden frosting that comes on the Costco cake has become the standard. That makes it hard to recognize a basic butter frosting that comes straight from your mixer. The flavor is different, absolutely rich, and that richer quality comes through with butter rather than shortening. And the texture may seem strange, not quite as fluffy, and the look, well, for most of us, it actually looks like we frosted it. And there is nothing wrong with a little homemade look when it comes to a cake.

So next time you make a cake, pull together a little frosting, too. It's simple and comes from ingredients you probably already have in the house. This is the basic recipe that comes straight from my Better Homes and Gardens cook book. If you like chocolate, add unsweetened coco powder like I did. Make it pink with some food coloring or add an extract for flavor if you like. Substitute orange juice for the milk and add zest for an orange frosting. The possibilities are endless.

Just remember that the best part of making frosting at home is saving a little to lick right off the whisk. That's when you'll know it was worth the effort.

Butter Frosting
1/3 cup unsalted butter
4 1/2 cups sifted powdered sugar
1/4 cup milk
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
Additional milk

In a mixing bowl, beat butter until fluffy (a stand mixer is best). Gradually add 2 cups of the powdered sugar, beating well. Slowly beat in 1/4 cup milk and vanilla. Slowly beat in remaining powdered sugar. Beat in additional milk as needed for desired consistency. This recipes is enough to frost the tops and sides of two 8- or 9-inch layers.

Note: The butter is easiest to work with if it is cut into smaller pieces and allowed to sit at room temperature for a few minutes before beginning. Remember that it may soften more while mixing but will set up again if refrigerated.

Tip: Place sheet of wax or parchment paper underneath the edges of the cake before frosting. Then pull them out once you're done, and you'll have a clean platter instead of one that has frosting smudged all over it!

22 September 2009

The Last Bit of Summer

Since I blew my deadline this week, you might not need to hear how I've been busy lately. You may have just assumed.

Well, I have been busy, and while I'm still cooking three meals a day and snacks around here, I just don't often pause long enough to think someone else might want to know what I'm making. That's why tonight's dinner was such a relief. It was so easy that if I didn't have the dishes to do, I'd of thought I didn't make dinner at all.

It's also funny that I make this dish today, on the first day of fall. The dish is a surprisingly pleasant combination of cantaloupe, coconut milk and pasta. Melons are ripe at the end of summer and they will carry over into the beginning of fall. I still couldn't help but think this dish was a last ditch effort to celebrate what's left of the season. It also doesn't hurt that melon -- watermelon, honeydew, cantaloupe or any other variety -- is one of my son's favorite foods. Combining it with pasta was about as great of an invention as the grilled cheese in his book, I think.

The credit goes to a great cook in my 'hood. He's cooking occasionally for a restaurant down the street when he's not selling fish tacos. When I popped by recently, with no intention of having a meal, I couldn't help but order this pasta dish. I sounded strange and delicious all at once, and it was, delicious, that is.

It's originally an Italian recipe that calls for cream. He decided to swap it for the coconut milk to make it a vegan dish. It's really very simple, and I'm just going to describe the method for the sauce. You can pick the pasta it goes on. I felt inspired by the coconut milk and chose Thai rice noodles. He served it over spaghetti, a nod to the Italian version. I'd say it would also be great over plain white rice, too. And I threw some thawed frozen peas and chopped tomato just to make it interesting.

Cantaloupe & Coconut Milk Sauce

Cube half of a medium, peeled and seeded cantaloupe. Add to a medium hot saute pan with a drizzle of olive oil. Cook for a couple of minutes, just until melon begins to turn tender and fragrant. Add one can of coconut milk and whisk in one tablespoon of tomato paste. Bring to a simmer and season as needed with salt and pepper. Let simmer for about four to five minutes and remove from heat. Toss with cooked pasta and serve. Of course you could absolutely stay true to the Italian version and use cream instead of coconut milk. Either way, I don't think you'll be disappointed.

14 September 2009

Pancake Breakfast

One of the secrets to a great life must be a pancake breakfast.

And I'm not talking about the dinner-plate-size variety you get at the 24-hour breakfast joint. I mean a good pancake made from your own kitchen, plate optional. The kind the kids eat while toddling around waiting on grown-ups. The kind that require warm pajamas and fuzzy slippers. And the kind that, should there be leftovers, hang around on the kitchen counter until someone needs the perfect afternoon snack.

We all need a good pancake recipe, even if it comes from a box. It's just a must-have in your cooking repertoire.

That's why I was so bummed when I thought pancakes were out for us because of Jasper's egg allergy. But after some searching online, I settled on an egg-free recipe that sounded good. We've made it a lazy, weekend morning standard, and it's good to know some things are just a given: the little guy loves his pancake.

If you crave a little variety, get creative. Most pancake recipes, even boxed varieties, handle a few extra ingredients well. Just make your recipe as direct and fold in ingredients. Try adding smashed banana and chopped walnuts. The one pictured here was made with applesauce, grated apple and cinnamon. You could also try adding a little maple syrup to the batter to sweeten. Or fold in canned pumpkin and cinnamon for a fun fall breakfast. And don't underestimate how a couple of chocolate chips or blueberries can transform this meal.

Here are my two standard pancake recipes, one of them being egg free. Make a weekend breakfast date with your family this weekend. It won't disappoint.

Egg-Free Pancakes

1 cup whole wheat flour
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 cup milk
1/3 cup carbonated water
1 tablespoon melted butter
1 small apple, peeled and grated
1/3 cup applesauce

Combine dry ingredients in a medium bowl and set aside. Combine wet ingredients, save the grated apple and applesauce, in another bowl. Pour wet ingredient mixture into dry. Stir to combine. Fold in applesauce and grated apple. Using a ladle, pour batter onto medium-hot griddle and cook until first side is lightly browned, flip and cook second side. Keep pancakes warm in a low oven until ready to serve.

Better Homes & Gardens' New Cook Book

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 beaten egg
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons cooking oil

In a medium mixing bowl, stir together flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. make a well in the center of the dry mixture; set aside.
In another medium mixing bowl combine the egg, milk and cooking oil. Add egg mixture at once to dry mixture. Stir just till moistened (batter should be lumpy).
For standard-size pancakes, pour about 1/4 cup batter onto a hot, lightly greased griddle or heavy skillet. Cook over medium for about two minutes on each side until pancakes are golden brown, turning to second sides when pancakes have a bubbly surface and edges are slightly dry.

07 September 2009

When the weather turns

It's amazing how the first taste of fall can shift your mood. One day you're picking tomatoes in the garden, excited about simple summer salads, and the next, you're excited about warm soups and stews.

I still have tomatoes ripening on the vine, but cooler nights, some gray days and temperatures in the 70s have me just a little excited for the next culinary season. It's filled with squash, roasted meats and winter greens. And a big bowl of chili stacked with cheddar cheese and Fritos for watching football.

The other night I made an impromptu fall-ish dish of chicken and mushrooms in a creamy sauce. I served mine atop some mashed potatoes, but I'm thinking it would be delicious over some egg noodles, too. Almost like a chicken strogenoff without the sour cream.

I cooked up chicken tenders, which is basically smaller portions of breast meat. That meant quick cooking, which is a bonus these days. You could, however, substitute chicken thighs or even breasts. If you're using a thicker cut of meat it will take longer to cook. I think if I were using a whole breast, I'd brown it in the pan first and then finish it in the oven while you make the sauce.

Another nice bit about this dish is that it could easily be made ahead and either kept warm or reheated. Serve it with some roasted root veggies, and I'd say this dish just might get you excited about fall, too.

Chicken with Creamy Mushroom Sauce

1 pound of raw chicken tenders, patted dry

2 cups mushrooms, sliced

2 cups of whole milk
2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons flour
Salt and pepper to taste

Olive oil

Pour olive oil to coat the bottom of a heavy-bottomed pan* on medium-high heat. Once oil begins to ripple, add chicken in a single layer, making sure all meat has contact with the bottom of the pan. Cook, without turning, until the meat easily releases and the cooked side it golden brown. Turn to cook the second side. Once chicken is cooked, remove from pan and set aside. Add more oil, if needed, and mushrooms. Cook until mushrooms are tender; remove and set aside. Add butter and melt until foam disappears. Whisk in flour and cook on low heat about four minutes, stirring, to remove the raw-flour taste. Whisk in milk and bring to a low boil to allow butter and flour mixture to thicken milk. Once sauce begins to thicken, add mushrooms and chicken back to sauce and season with salt and pepper to taste.
* A pan without a nonstick coating is preferred for this recipe. If using a nonstick pan, the meat may not brown, so simply cook until meat is done in center.