Saturday, May 30, 2009

In between

Sometimes you just need to have a baking day with a girlfriend. My friend Chevon came over this afternoon with her Big Book of All Things Chocolate. After poring through the pages and drooling over the many delectable recipes, we finally settled on making brownies.

I know, right? Of all the things we could have attempted in its gourmet catalog, we chose perhaps the most humble of all chocolate recipes. But can you blame us? What a pure and simple way to showcase chocolate! Besides, we both hadn't had brownies in far too long. Then the real debate began: should we make cakey or fudgy brownies? With or without walnuts? We are both chocolate purists, so without walnuts was an easy decision. Cakey vs. fudgy, on the other hand, was a bit more difficult to decide; the book had one recipe for each. The cakey recipe seemed a little too cakey, while the picture of the fudgy recipe just looked like fudge. Is it too much to ask for something in between? We ended up chickening out of using the book's recipes and turned once again to my trusty old for inspiration. As luck would have it, there was a brownie recipe that claimed it could be cakey or fudgy, depending on how long you cooked it. Well, thought we, it looks like we can get the best of both worlds after all! We'll only baked them 5 minutes longer than the minimum time to achieve brownie nirvana. And off we went...

Sadly, brownie nirvana will have to wait for another day. The brownies, while completely delicious, perfectly rich (but not gaggingly so), and chocalatey, were quite cakey. They got a bit fudgier after fully cooling down (but who wants to wait for that, honestly?), but the end product was still a very cakey brownie. It was with much sorrow that we all gobbled up the brownies with several glasses of milk and had seconds and thirds. I think I've uncovered a new mission in life: The Quest for the Ultimate Brownie, or, if you prefer, Brownie Nirvana.

Cakey Brownies
adapted from "Gourmet" magazine, Oct. 2003
Don't let my sad tale of woe deter you - these brownies are still quite amazing. Bake them the minimun amount of time (or slightly underbake them) if you want to try for fudgier results, and let me know how it goes.

2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter
8 ounces fine-quality bittersweet chocolate (not unsweetened), coarsely chopped
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 2/3 cups sugar
4 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla

Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a 9-inch square baking pan (2 inches deep) and line bottom and sides with parchment paper, then butter paper.

Melt butter and chocolate in a medium heatproof bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water, stirring occasionally, until smooth.

Whisk together flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt in a small bowl.

Whisk together sugar, eggs, and vanilla in a large bowl, then pour in chocolate mixture, whisking until combined well. Whisk in flour mixture, then stir in walnuts and transfer batter to baking pan.

Bake until top is shiny and set and sides have begun to pull away slightly (a wooden pick or skewer will not come out clean), about 35 minutes, for fudgy brownies; or until wooden pick or skewer comes out clean, 50 minutes to 1 hour total, for cakey brownies.

Cool brownies completely in pan on a rack. Invert onto a cutting board, remove paper, and cut into squares.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Lazy baking

Sometimes you want something dessert-y without all the hassle of making a dessert. Sometimes you just want a snack that won't fill you with self-loathing for slipping on the diet yet again. Sometimes you don't have a whole box of butter or a whole bar of chocolate or anything terribly fancy, for that matter. Here's your answer: Lemon and Honey Cake.

lemon cake

It's moist, it's substantial but not dense, it's perfectly zingy, and it's perfectly (read: not too) sweet. What's not to love? The best part is: it's completely easy to substitute most of the ingredients for whatever you have on hand. Oh, and it's moderately virtuous. Praise indeed!

lemon cake slice

Lemon and Honey Cake
adapted from Orangette

1/2 cup plain yogurt (or fruity yogurt, preferably lemon flavored, or even sour cream)
1/3 cup honey
1/2 cup sugar (a little less if you used sweetened yogurt)
3 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 2/3 cup flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
zest from 1 large lemon
1/2 cup oil

juice from 1 large lemon (or use 2 if you really like your lemon flavor)
1/3 cup powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Farenheit. Butter a 9" round cake pan, then line bottom with parchment paper and butter the parchment.

In a large bowl, whisk together yogurt, honey, sugar, eggs, and vanilla until well blended. Sift in the flour and baking powder, then add lemon zest, and mix with a spatula or wooden spoon until just combined. Add oil and mix until incorporated. Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until wooden toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. It will be a little dark because of the honey - that's okay. Remove to a rack and allow to cool completely in pan.

While cake is cooling, whisk together the lemon juice and powdered sugar. When cake is fully cooled, remove from pan and drizzle glaze over top. It will be very thin and will soak into the cake. Enjoy!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

It's the Great Pumpkin [soup], Charlie Brown!

I love pumpkin! I really do. And I love coconut milk. And cilantro. And ginger. There's this amazing Thai pumpkin soup (Keg Bouad Mak Fak Kham) in Hot Sour Salty Sweet by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. It has pretty much everything I love together at last in one happy pot. As written, the recipe was delicious - silky smooth with small chunks of pumpkin for texture. Then I decided to get crazy with the immersion blender and puree the whole thing. That took it to 11. Oh yes, I went there - and so did the soup. After sitting for a few hours to let the flavors blend, everything seemed more intense. The rich, sweet pumpkin and coconut milk, the spicy ginger, the salty fish sauce, and the refreshing cilantro all made for a multi-layered tasting experience. Mostly, though, it was just plain yummy.

"Wait a minute - fish sauce??" you must be wondering. Oh yes, my friends. Fish sauce. Straight from the bottle, its smell is pungent enough to knock your socks off. The flavor is equally strong. I grew up with this as a common condiment with all the Vietnamese food we ate, but it's not for everyone. That said, you should definitely NOT omit it. If you're unsure, just add it one tablespoon at a time and work your way up to taste. You won't regret it.

Silky-Coconut Pumpkin Soup (Keg Bouad Mak Fak Kham)
adapted from Hot Sour Salty Sweet, by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid

3 to 4 shallots, chopped
1 1/2 pounds pumpkin or butternut squash (untrimmed), or 1 1/4 pounds peeled and trimmed
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, minced
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 can (14.5 oz) of coconut milk
2 cups mild chicken or vegetable broth
1 cup loosely packed cilantro (coriander) leaves
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons fish sauce, or to taste
Generous grindings of black pepper
1/4 cup minced scallion greens (optional)

Peel and trim the pumpkin and clean off any seeds. Cut into small 1/2-inch cubes. You should have 4 1/2 to 5 cups cubed pumpkin.

In a large pot over medium heat, melt the butter and saute the shallots, pumpkin, and ginger until shallots are tender, about 5-8 minutes.

Add the coconut milk, broth, and cilantro leaves to pot and bring to a boil. Add the salt and simmer over medium heat until the pumpkin is tender, about 10 minutes. Stir in the fish sauce and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes. Taste for salt and add a little more fish sauce if desired. Serve as is for authentic Thai version. For bastardized Maxine version, puree the soup in a blender (working in batches) until smooth. This soup is best when allowed to sit for at least one hour. I like to make mine the night before.

When ready to serve: reheat soup over medium-low, ladle into individual bowls, and garnish with generous grindings of black pepper and minced scallions, if desired. I never bother, but I know it tastes good and looks pretty.
pumpkin soup

Sunday, May 10, 2009


There are not many things that I don't enjoy eating. I love trying new and crazy foods, always with the full expectation of enjoying them. Then there are those few items which I desire with all my little heart to love. Things that embody the terms gourmet and refinement. Things that I have tried time and again to like. Tried, and failed. Olives are one of them. As an ingredient in a dish, it's fine, but by itself, blegh. I've tried nearly every olive I've come across, always with the hope that this will be the magic olive that reverses my natural impulse to gag when the squishy, briny mass hits the back of my tongue. I've always pictured myself lounging on a deck with friends dining on olives and cheese as the warm summer day comes to twilight. Sadly, that image will have to defer to another snacky item for the time being.

Here's another one: Eggplant. I always think of that old Looney Tunes cartoon where Elmer Fudd fights an invasion from eggplant-shaped aliens (not that that's at all a negative association). They're purple, they're shiny, and they feel really nice to touch. I want to like them, but the flavor and the texture have always been more than I can handle. It just never felt right on my tongue.
Ratatouille prep

And so it was on a cold, rainy afternoon that I finally decided to conquer my aversion to eggplant. I scoured recipe books for inspiration on what to make with the peculiar vegetable. It had to highlight the flavor and texture of the eggplant with enough going on in the background to soothe my anxious palate. The answer was perfection in its simplicity: ratatouille!
Ratatouille in pot

For those who don't know, ratatouille (pronounced "rat-a-TOO-weeh") is a traditional French vegetable stew composed of onion, eggplant, zucchini, red bell pepper, and tomato, along with herbs like thyme, fennel, and oregano. As noted in the eponymous movie, "it is a peasant's dish," which means it's simple for the cook and comforting for the eater. It highlighted each vegetable's flavor and texture without any one competing for your attention more than the other. And I'm happy to report that I've been converted to eggplant. I didn't have the red bell pepper on hand this one time, so I subbed mushrooms to add some more substance and texture, and you know what? I liked it! I'm sure die-hard authentic French cuisine fanatics are rolling their eyes and gagging at me right now, but if you're looking for truly authentic ratatouille, simply omit the mushrooms and get yourself a French grandmother.

adapted from Gourmet, June 1991
I like my stew on the chunky side, so I cut the vegetables larger and cook it for less time. If you like yours more mushy and melded, just cut everything a bit smaller and/or cook about 10 minutes longer at the end. Serves 4-6.

1 onion, thinly sliced
3 garlic cloves, minced
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 eggplants, about 1 1/2 pounds (750 g), cut into 1" cubes
4-5 medium zucchini, cut in half lengthwise, then cut into 1/2" pieces
1 red bell pepper, core and seeds removed, and chopped
1 punnet mushrooms (250 g), cleaned and quartered
1 1/2 pounds ripe tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon herbes de provence, or
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
Salt, to taste
Fresh basil leaves

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-low. Add onion and garlic and saute until tender, about 3 to 5 minutes. Turn heat up to medium-high and add remaining 2 tablespoons oil. When oil is hot but not smoking, add the eggplant and cook, stirring, until softened, about 6 minutes. Add zucchini, bell pepper, and mushrooms, and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 10 minutes. Add tomatoes and herbs and cook, stirring occasionally for 5 to 7 minutes. Season with salt to taste and add fresh basil leaves. Serve immediately with some crusty bread.
Ratatouille bowl

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Junk mail junkie

My sister-in-law and her family left today. It was a fantastic visit with all sorts of hijinx and hilarity involved. We even toured the South Island together, where I got to take a little break from food photography and shoot some of the stunning vistas that surrounded us in paradise. Heaven. But, it's back to the real world now, and back to the kitchen for a send-off meal worthy of their 13-hour return flight.
Lake Tekapo

We didn't have all too much food left, but there were plenty of leftovers from previous bacon-and-egg breakfasts, a hunk of really old and molding feta from a friend's failed pizza experiment, a red bell pepper purchased earlier ("just in case"), and my ever-present giant block of Edam. I decided that quiche was the way to go here. Of all places to find a recipe, I saw this delicious looking one in a promotional mailer for eggs. So there's my secret guilty pleasure: I like to read through junk mail. I'm not typically enticed by advertisement recipes, but we just seemed to have all the ingredients for this one. So I set to work.

Roasted capsicum and feta quiche

I made the pâte brisée the night before. No fancy equipment involved, just the simple ingredients and my fingers. It came together very quickly, then spent the night in the fridge while I spent the night in an equally frigid bedroom. The rest of the quiche was simple enough to make the following day, if a little more time-consuming. We were all starving by the time the quiche went into the oven and had resorted to snacking on ice cream and breakfast cereal before it was halfway done. Poor us. However, as our game of Settlers of Catan wound down and the timer signaled lunchtime for us, our appetites renewed themselves with gusto at the smell of the quiche coming out of the oven. The general consensus was that this was hands down the best quiche anyone in the company had ever tasted - and we've eaten our fair share of them. The sour cream and feta created a smooth, creamy texture and tangy zip that you just don't find in most quiches, while the bacon added the perfect amount of smokey saltiness for balance. The roasted bell peppers were wonderful for sweetness and color. Seriously, this was good.

Roasted capsicum and feta quiche

Roasted Pepper and Feta Quiche
adapted from egg promotional mailer

Pâte Brisée
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
6 tablespoons (75 g) cold unsalted butter, cut into bits
2 tablespoons (25 g) cold vegetable shortening
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup very cold water

6 eggs
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 cup milk
1 large onion, chopped
1 teaspoon oil
6 strips of bacon (more or less), chopped
2 ounces (50 g) feta cheese, crumbled
3/4 cup grated Edam cheese
1 red bell pepper
salt and pepper
chopped parsley, optional

Make the crust
Combine flour and salt in a bowl, then add in butter and shortening. Working quickly, rub mixture with your fingers until it resembles coarse meal (with pea-sized bits of butter). Add the water, a little at a time, until mixture holds together when squeezed. If it's still too dry and crumbly, continue adding more water by the teaspoon until it sticks. Dough should be relatively dry. Dump dough onto a countertop and knead about 3 times to get everything to stick together, then form into a disk and wrap tightly in plastic. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to one week.

Make the quiche
Rub the bell pepper skin lightly with oil, then grill until skin is blackened and blistered all over. If you don't have a grill, simply stick a fork in each end and roast it spit-like over a gas stove's flame, making sure to turn evenly. That method takes about 10 minutes. When the skin is sufficiently charred, remove pepper from heat and wrap tightly in foil to cool (without the forks, of course).

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Roll out pie dough into a 12-inch circle and place inside a 9- or 10-inch pie dish or quiche tin with removable base. Trim off excess and make the edges pretty if you want. Prick bottom all over with a fork, then place a piece of parchment paper (or foil) over it and fill with dried beans or rice to weight it down. Bake 15 minutes.

Heat oil in a small pan set over medium heat and cook onion and bacon until softened. Set aside. Whisk together eggs, sour cream, milk, and salt and pepper to taste. When the bell pepper is cool enough to handle, remove the skin (it should come right off) and core, then slice thinly.

Scatter onions and bacon into pastry shell, pour in the egg mixture, sprinkle the crumbled feta evenly, and scatter on the bell pepper strips. Add a sprinkle of parsley over top and bake until quiche is golden and set, about 30-40 minutes. Allow to cool slightly before serving.