27 April 2010

Greta done good

Is it rude or boastful to say the dessert you brought to a dinner party was delicious? Sue me. It was.

When I was in middle school and high school I spent a lot of time with one of my best friends, Lisa. Her neighbor Marianne was a sweet woman who, at the time, didn't have a family of her own, so she adopted Lisa's. They had dinners, holidays and birthdays together. So, naturally, I saw a lot of her, too. She was a good cook and seemed to enjoy hosting dinners, and she was never shy about saying she enjoyed her own food. She just was a bit more lady-like about it.

"Greta done good," she'd say, and we'd all laugh, knowing she was talking about herself. I don't know where the name Greta came from or how the ritual got started, but it was genius. It made it OK for her to be the first one to say her casserole was superb.

Over the years, I adopted her saying for myself. Not that I'm shy about my cooking in front of my family, but I love the memory of sitting around Marianne's dining table and hearing her laugh after she'd praise Greta's work.

Go make this cake. It's simple but a little labor intensive separating 10 egg whites, but once you taste it, you'll take no shame in telling everyone how great your cake is. And should you feel the slightest twinge of guilt, just say, "Greta done good."

This is what the cake batter looks like after folding in the flour.

This cake recipe was published in the April issue of Bon Appetit as a Lime Angel Food Cake with Lime Glaze and Pistachios. I wanted to bring strawberries into my dessert, so I swapped lime zest for lemon, skipped the glaze and topped mine with whipped cream and macerated strawberries. Whether you go for lime and nuts or lemon and berries, this recipe is a winner.

Lemon Angel Food Cake

1 cup cake flour
(I used Softasilk)
1 1/2 cups superfine sugar, divided

1/4 teaspoon salt

10 large egg whites, room temperature
2 teaspoons lemon zest

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon cream of tartar

Equipment: 10-inch diameter angel food cake pan with 4 inch sides.**

  • Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350°F. Sift flour, 1/2 cup superfine sugar, and salt into medium bowl; repeat sifting 3 times. Using electric mixer, beat egg whites, lemon peel, and vanilla on medium speed in large bowl until frothy (mixture may turn neon green but color will change when remaining ingredients are added). Add cream of tartar; increase speed to high and beat until soft peaks form. Gradually add remaining 1 cup sugar, 2 tablespoons at a time, beating until stiff peaks form. Sprinkle 1/3 of flour mixture over whites and gently fold in until incorporated. Fold in remaining flour mixture in 2 more additions just until incorporated. Transfer to ungreased 10-inch angel food cake pan with 4-inch-high sides and removable bottom (do not use nonstick pan); smooth top.
  • Bake cake until pale golden and tester inserted near center comes out clean, about 38 minutes. Immediately invert cake onto work surface if pan has feet, or invert center tube of pan onto neck of bottle or metal funnel and cool cake completely.
  • Using long thin knife, cut around cake sides and center tube to loosen. Lift out center tube with cake still attached; run knife between cake and bottom of pan to loosen. Invert cake onto rack, then turn cake over, rounded side up. Set rack with cake atop rimmed baking sheet.
  • Slice one pound strawberries vertically and gently toss with about three to four tablespoons of sugar. Let stand at room temperature for at least 30 minutes before serving. Refrigerate for longer holding.
  • Pour 1/2 cup whipping cream into the chilled bowl of a stand mixer. Add one teaspoon of vanilla and one tablespoon of superfine sugar. Mix on high until soft peaks form. Taste and more sugar if needed for desired sweetness.

* When separating egg whites, do yourself a favor and set up a station like this: one bowl or container for the yolks. One custard or measuring cup for whites. The mixing bowl and another bowl for egg shells. Crack one egg at a time, pouring it directly into your hand. Let the whites run off into the custard cup. Toss the yolk into the yolk bowl. Pour the egg white into the large mixing bowl. Repeat until complete. By cracking the eggs into a small cup instead of the large bowl, you won't ruin the entire batch if you break a yolk!

** It's important NOT to use a non-stick pan. You won't be able to cool it upside down otherwise. I found my inexpensive aluminum pan at Goodwill for $2.99.

19 April 2010

Nice rice

We've been eating a lot of rice around our house lately. We eat it as a side dish, stir fry it with veggies and call it a main dish, top it with a friend egg for breakfast or sprinkle it with sugar for a sweet treat.

That's why I was so happy when I made a lemon rice dish last week that I could have eaten in one setting. This wouldn't be so bad except I'd made a huge portion to take to a pot luck. I got the idea after reading a recipe in Bon Appetit. There was nothing wrong with their recipe, but I just didn't have all of the ingredients around. So, I made do with what I had, and that was more than enough.

The next day, I went to another pot luck party, with a surprisingly similar guest list, and one of my neighbors commented on the rice I'd brought the night before. He said he loved the vibrant green color the avocados gave it. I tend to agree. It was tasty, but it was pretty beautiful, too.

Lemon Avocado Rice
(this makes a pretty large portion, but it could easily be halved)

2 1/2 cups long-grain white rice, rinsed
4 1/2 cups water for cooking rice
2 large lemons
4 avocados
1 1/2 cup fresh or thawed frozen corn
Olive oil
Salt & Pepper
1 bunch cilantro

Bring salted water to a boil and add rice. Cover and reduce heat. Cook until just tender, about 15 minutes. Spread rice out onto a baking sheet for quick cooling. While rice is cooling, zest and juice the lemons. Using about 3/4 of the lemon juice, make a dressing with the juice, oil, salt, pepper and zest. The ratio should be about one and half parts oil to one part juice. Set aside. Dice avocados and toss in the remaining lemon juice. Roughly chop a handful or two of cilantro. Add dressing to room temperature rice and stir to coat evening. Add avocados, corn and cilantro and toss, being sure not to smash the tender avocados. Season to taste. Serve immediately or cover and refrigerate.

12 April 2010

Brownie Therapy

I've been on a bit of a brownie binge around here, making three recipes in two weeks in hopes of settling on the perfect homemade brownie.

While my family didn't argue with the ongoing brownie train, more than once I thought to myself that the box version isn't really that bad. I made brownies that were too rich and some that weren't rich enough. I settled on recipe I adapted from "Endangered Recipes."

But after all of this fuss, I remembered my friend Brian's famed brownies that show up at parties full of drinking journalists and end-of-summer barbecues.

I asked him to tell me about his brownies, and I was a little surprised to find that our recipes were very similar.

He told me his mother wasn't much of a cook, and a lot of the chores got passed on to the kids. He was the youngest and desserts were his duty. His brownie recipe started with the basics, and he just kept tinkering until he got it right. Perhaps without some lofty expectations, like an expert baker for a mother, Brian felt free to flub a few times before he got it right.

What Brian feels when he makes his brownies, is what we should feel when we cook and bake. He calls it therapeutic. Cooking and baking feeds more than your family. It is as vital as breathing but as beautiful, technical and creative as a fine work of art.

"That part of the recipe where you stir the sugar into the butter and chocolate, I just keep stirring and stirring and stirring," Brian says. "It looks so beautiful, all silky, that rich color, and whether it's true or not, I have come to believe that the lengthy stirring at that point is one of the keys to good brownies."

I agree. Making the brownies did a little something for my soul. Plus, a little taste of brownie batter, and your entire day starts looking up. Brian insists on mixing his batter by hand, while I went for the mixer. And my recipe had only two eggs, but his three produce a richer brownie. Be sure to read his note about allowing them to set up. If you like a little less goo, try the two-egg method. My recipe also called for just one cup of sugar, but I did add a few sweetened chocolate chips in along with my chocolate squares. I think either method produces the right amount of sweetness.

Because the recipes were so similar, I'll give you Brian's. It's a homage to everyone who had a mother who didn't teach them to cook. Sometimes, something even better surfaces when we're forced to make it up ourselves.

Brian's Brownies

4 squares unsweetened chocolate
1 1/2 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon of vanilla (Or rum or brandy or any other flavor you want.)
3 eggs
1 cup of all-purpose flour
Half a bag of chocolate chips (Mini, regular, bittersweet, whatever angle you want to go.)

Melt the butter and chocolate together over low heat, careful not to burn the chocolate. Add in the sugar and stir until the mixture is really smooth. Remove from heat. Add the vanilla and stir. Transfer the mixture to another bowl and slowly mix in one egg at a time by hand. Add the flour and blend by hand. Add the chocolate chips. Pour into a greased 9-by-13 glass dish. Bake at 350 degrees for 32 minutes. If your oven runs at all hot, reduce it to 335 degrees or so.

The brownies come out mushy. You can't eat them right away. Let them set, either at room temp or in the fridge. I usually wait at least half a day before serving them.

05 April 2010

A fresh potato salad

I can wait until June for blueberries. And July for fresh melon. Even August for fresh corn. But having to wait until summer for potato salad just seems a little crazy.

I was in the mood for potato salad the other day, but I had more than a few restrictions. First, I was feeling a bit lazy, so it couldn't be too difficult, and second, I wasn't ready for a mayo hangover, so I needed something a bit lighter.

Without really thinking about it, I grabbed a few things from the fridge and cranked the oven. I decided to roast the potatoes instead of boiling them. It was easier; I didn't have to babysit something on the stove. Then I married a thinly sliced onion, the juice of a lemon and a splash of vinegar. By the time the potatoes were done, my onions were perfectly limp. Mix them with some chopped parsley and yogurt and ta-da -- a light, fresh dressing that isn't as heavy as mayo but doesn't fall short on flavor.

I threw in some carrots for color. I served this for dinner as sort of a salad medley, this salad along with a couple of others. I must have eaten a heavy lunch because the light meal hit the spot.

This potato salad reminded me of this spectacular salad I made last summer. I think both of them deserve a regular rotation alongside Grandma Sarah's more traditional potato salad.

Some of you may not think this could be a meal, but I would disagree. Top it with a sliced, hard boiled egg, and it sounds like a perfect lunch to me. Maybe that's what I'll do if I ever have leftovers. One can hope.

Lemon Yogurt Potato Salad

4 to 5 medium yellow potatoes, cut into equal-sized cubes

3 carrots, peeled and thinly sliced on the bias
1 small onion, thinly sliced

Juice of one large lemon

Roughly 1/2 cup plain yogurt

1 tablespoon white wine vinegar

Handful of parsley, chopped

S&P to taste

Olive Oil

In separate bowls, toss potatoes and carrots with olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast in a 400 oven on separate cookie sheets until cooked through. About 10 minutes for the carrots and 20 minutes for the potatoes. Combine onion, lemon juice and vinegar and set aside. Once potatoes and carrots have cooled enough to handle, toss them in a large bowl together. Combine onion mixture with yogurt. Add parsley and salt and pepper. Pour dressing over potatoes and carrots and gently toss to combine. Serve room temperature or cover and refrigerate for later service.