Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Big Storm Coming? Stock Up on Flour and Yeast! Bake Rosemary Asiago Bread!

Today's Winter Storm Warning:

"ANOTHER ROUND OF WINTER WEATHER IS EXPECTED TO IMPACT THE MIDWEST BEGINNING LATE THURSDAY AND CONTINUING INTO FRIDAY MORNING. THIS STORM SYSTEM WILL BRING AN EXTENDED PERIOD OF SNOW... FREEZING RAIN AND SLEET..."

How to prepare? I stock up on flour and yeast! I'm "on vacation" until January 6 (I'm self-employed so I asked myself if I could take a Christmas break and the answer was "yes"). What do I do when I'm snowbound? I bake! There's no better time to bake bread than during a winter blast - I'm ready!

My favorite bread flour is King Arthur brand. Its high (12.8%) protein level assures a strong rise every time, which is essential as I most often combine it with rye or whole grains. This dependable flour, which is milled from hard red spring wheat grown in the Dakotas, is the best I've ever used. The King Arthur folks offer this tip when using their bread flour: "High-protein flour absorbs more liquid then medium-protein flour. When baking with bread flour, add about 2 teaspoons extra liquid for each cup of flour (or more, in order to produce dough that's the consistency the recipe calls for)."

My favorite yeast? SAF Instant Red - and for high sugar doughs, I use SAF Gold. Both are reliable, reliable, reliable. You don't need to proof these yeasts - just add them along with the dry ingredients. Stored in the freezer, SAF yeast will stay vigorous for up to a year.

King Arthur Bread Flour is widely available here in the Chicago area, along with King Arthur whole wheat, white whole wheat, and all-purpose flours. I buy SAF Red at GFS retail outlets (Gordon Food Service) and have also spotted it at Costco. SAF Red and Gold can also be ordered from the Baker's Catalogue at King Arthur Flour. Both products will produce excellent results even in the hands of beginning bakers. Now get out there and bake! Here's a recipe to get you started:

ROSEMARY ASIAGO BREAD

2 packages active dry yeast or 2 teaspoons SAF Instant Yeast
1 cup warm water (105º to 115º)
6 cups bread flour (King Arthur preferred)
1 tablespoon dried rosemary, crumbled or other single or mixed dried or fresh herbs
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon sea salt
2 cups (16 oz. container) low-fat small-curd cottage cheese, at room temperature
1 large egg, at room temperature, plus 1 extra egg for brushing the loaves if desired
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil or butter, plus extra for greasing the rising bowl
1 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated
1 cup grated/shredded Asiago, plus additional Asiago for the top of the loaves
2 red bell peppers, roasted, peeled and diced (jarred in water is fine - drain well) (optional)

In a medium bowl, dissolve the yeast in the warm water for 5 minutes, or until the mixture is foamy. Add 1 tablespoon of the sugar and 1 cup of the bread flour, stir, and set the sponge aside for ten minutes (it should rise substantially). In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine 4 cups of the bread flour, rosemary, remaining sugar, and salt. Add the cottage cheese along with the yeast sponge, egg, olive oil, additional cheeses, and bell pepper. Mix on low speed, using the paddle attachment, until the dough comes together, adding the additional 1 cup flour if needed. Switch to the dough hook attachment and knead for about five minutes at medium speed. Drop the dough (it will look shaggy) onto a lightly floured surface and knead for an additional 2-3 minutes by hand, or until the dough is smooth and elastic. Transfer to a large oiled/buttered bowl and turn it over to coat with the oil. Cover with a tea towel and place in a warm place free of drafts until doubled in volume (about 1 to 1-1/2 hours).

Punch the dough down, cover, and let rest for 10 minutes (this gives the gluten a chance to relax). Divide the dough in half and shape into 2 free form rounds, pinching together the seams at the bottom. Place on a greased sheet (or use Reynolds Release foil or parchment paper). Lightly coat the tops with olive oil or very soft butter*, cover, and let rise until doubled in volume, about 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 400º F for at least 20 minutes (you may use a baker's/pizza stone).

Score the loaves with two deep slashes or a crosshatch pattern using a very sharp knife or baker's lame, and lightly press about 1/4 cup grated or shredded Asiago onto the top of each of the loaves. *Alternatively, for a crisp crust, brush each loaf with an egg wash made with one beaten egg and 2 teaspoons water. Sprinkle each loaf with about 1 teaspoon dried or fresh rosemary. Place in the oven and immediately turn the oven down to 350º. Bake 40 minutes or until the loaves sound hollow when tapped on the bottom or a thermometer inserted in the center of the loaf reads 190º to 200º F. Remove loaves immediately and cool completely on a rack before cutting or storing.

Feel free to experiment with different cheeses (the cottage cheese is a fixed ingredient, however). Sharp Cheddar is very good. I also like this bread with dill weed replacing the rosemary.

Note: Shaping the loaves takes a little practice. Fashion the dough into a ball and flatten slightly. Turn the ball clockwise while simultaneously stretching and smoothing the dough under with your other hand. Turn the dough over, pinch the bottom seam, and press it with your fingers. Eventually you will get the hang of it. The seam is on the bottom, so it’s not important if it’s not perfect. The bread can also be shaped into conventional loaves or dinner rolls.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Swedish Cardamom Bread

One of the first fragrances that I can recall was my mother's Swedish Cardamom Bread fresh out of the oven. It's a scent that takes me back to the Christmases of my childhood and they are fond memories indeed. Swedes use cardamom extensively in baking - in breads, coffee cakes, cookies, pastries, and Swedish pancakes. Cardamom also marries well with fruit and is used in Swedish Fruit Soup, a poached dried fruit mélange that is equally delicious hot or cold for breakfast or dessert.

A member of the ginger family, cardamom's flavor is difficult to describe (but it doesn't taste like ginger). It's strong, spicy-sweet and has a distinct lemon profile with a faint nuance of pine. Like other spices, it carries a degree of warmth. Indian restaurants often offer cardamom pods after dinner to cleanse the breath and palate. If you haven't consumed Indian or Scandinavian cuisine, you may not have experienced the exotic pull of this wonderful spice. Trust me, it's worth a try.

I buy my ground cardamom from Penzey's and replace it often - once you open the jar the flavor begins to diminish. Keeping cardamom in the fridge helps keep it fresh. You may, of course, grind your own cardamom from the pods. The seeds from inside the pod may be ground or you can grind the entire pod. I like the convenience of pre-ground cardamom - I just remember to replace it often. Penzey's sells ground cardamom in both 1.2 ounce and 2.4 ounce jars.

This bread is very rich - more like a coffee cake - and makes three braided loaves. It's delicious the day it's made but is even better on the second and third days when the flavors have had the chance to develop. It's wonderful toasted and makes an excellent - and different - French toast! The loaves freeze beautifully for a month if wrapped in a double layer of heavy-duty foil.
Although my Cardamom Bread is equal to my mom's in taste and texture, I've never mastered the braiding. I fashion the loaves into three braids. Feel free to shape yours into a four or five-braid. It helps to start in the middle. Don't worry if your braids aren't perfect!

SWEDISH CARDAMOM BREAD

6-1/2 to 7 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (King Arthur preferred)
2 1/4 ounce packages Fleishmann's "Rapid Rise" yeast, or 2 teaspoons SAF Instant or SAF Gold yeast
1 cup regular or superfine sugar
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 rounded tablespoon ground cardamom
Zest (colored part only) of 1 large orange
2 teaspoons pure orange extract
2 cups whole or lowfat milk
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature plus extra for greasing the rising bowl
3 eggs (2 for the dough, 1 for brushing the loaves)
1-1/2 cups dried cranberries (such as "Craisins")
1 cup sliced blanched almonds
Granulated sugar

In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine 2-1/2 cups of the flour, yeast, sugar, salt, cardamom, and the orange peel. Heat milk and butter in a medium saucepan until warm (120-130F) (the butter does not have to be completely melted). Add to flour mixture all at once. Add 2 of the eggs and the orange extract and beat on medium speed for 2 minutes. Scrape down the bowl and beat for another minute. Add the dried cranberries (light or dark raisins may be used in place of the cranberries. If the fruit is a bit too dry, it can be plumped by letting it steep in boiling water for two minutes (drain well) or by letting it macerate in Grand Mariner or Cointreau for a day or two.) Gradually add the rest of the flour by hand to make a soft dough. Turn dough on to a floured surface and knead with floured hands for about 7-8 minutes (form dough into a ball, fold edges of dough toward center and push dough down and away with heels of hands. Give dough a quarter turn and repeat until dough is smooth and elastic, adding flour as needed. Feel free to knead by machine - mixer or food processor - but knead by hand for 2-3 minutes afterward.) Liberally grease another large bowl with unsalted soft butter. Place dough in the bowl, turning to grease it on all sides. Cover with a tea towel and let rise in a warm place free of drafts until doubled in size - about 1 hour.

Punch dough down. Cover again with the tea towel and let rest 10 minutes. Divide dough into thirds. Divide each third into 3 equal size pieces. Roll each piece into a 16" rope on the floured work surface. Braid the ropes and pinch and tuck the ends to seal. Place on a greased cookie sheet. Repeat twice with remaining dough. Cover with tea towels and let rise in a warm place until almost doubled - about 30 minutes. Heat oven to 350F. Brush loaves with beaten egg and press about a 1/3 cup of the almonds onto each loaf. Sprinkle liberally with granulated sugar. Bake until golden brown - about 30 minutes. Let cool on pan 5 minutes and transfer to racks to finish cooling.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Swedish Limpa (Rye Bread with Orange, Molasses, and Anise)

Do you know where Santa's reindeer are raised and trained? Sweden! The guy in the middle is Blitzen, who is charged with training the other two, Erik and Axel. They've been going through several exercises in preparation for the big event on Christmas Eve. Word has it that Santa now has an on-board satellite navigation system. That plus his Blackberry should keep him on track (he probably subscribes to Wired magazine). Erik and Axel will be filling in for Dancer and Prancer, who will be taking a much needed vacation after 20years of service.

Word has it too that Santa loves Limpa and takes a loaf along in his sleigh. He gets mighty hungry during the long winter night of delivering gifts! I don't have a photograph of my Limpa because I haven't made it as yet this year. I might not get to it until after Christmas as my cookie baking will be taking much of my time in the kitchen. Nevertheless, I keep getting requests for the recipe. So ... here it is, sans photo.

Limpa is a bit sweeter than New York /Jewish Rye, Russian Rye or Pumpernickel. I love eating and baking rye bread - all kinds. In his book "The New Complete Book of Breads", Bernard Clayton says, "rye is the glamour flour of the dark grains". I agree. If you haven't worked with rye flour before, this is a good recipe with which to begin as it doesn't require a starter or sponge and comes togther rather quickly (yet is full of flavor!). Carefully read through the recipe and you'll be fine. Questions? Just send me an e-mail or contact The Baker's Hotline at King Arthur Flour (802.649.3717).

SWEDISH RYE BREAD (LIMPA)

• 3 to 3-1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour or bread flour (King Arthur brand preferred)
• 3 cups medium or dark rye flour (Bob's Red Mill Dark Rye Flour is excellent and widely available)
• 2 envelopes Fleishmann's "Rapid-Rise", Red Star "Quick-Rise", or 2 teaspoons SAF Instant Yeast (preferred)
• 2 teaspoons vital wheat gluten* (optional but helpful)
• 2 cups milk (nonfat is fine)
• 1/2 cup light molasses (such as "Grandma's Original")
• 1/4 cup orange marmalade mixed with a one tablespoon orange juice.
• 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter - plus extra soft butter for greasing the rising bowl
• 1 teaspoon fine sea salt (do not use iodized salt)
• 1 tablespoon anise seed (or 1-1/2 teaspoons ground anise)
• 1 tablespoon fennel seed (or 1-1/2 teaspoons ground fennel)
• 1 tablespoon caraway seed (or 2 teaspoons ground caraway)
• 1 teaspoon ground coriander seed
• Zest of 1 large orange (colored part only)
• 1 egg yolk lightly beaten with 1 tablespoon of water
• Cornmeal (if using a baking/pizza stone)

In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine 2-1/2 cups of the unbleached flour, yeast, vital wheat gluten, salt, spices, and the orange peel and blend well. Heat milk, butter, molasses, and marmalade in a medium saucepan until warm (120º) (the butter does not have to be completely melted). Add to flour mixture all at once and blend at low speed, using paddle attachment, until moistened. Beat at medium speed for 3 minutes. Scrape down the bowl and beat for another minute. With mixer running on low speed, add rye flour and additional all-purpose flour 1/2 cup at a time and knead until dough pulls cleanly away from sides of bowl and forms a ball - about 2 minutes. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let dough rest for 20 minutes. This autolyse period gives the flour a change to hydrate.

Turn dough onto a floured surface and knead for about 5-8 minutes (form dough into a ball, fold edges of dough toward center and push dough down and away with heels of hands. Give dough a quarter turn and repeat until dough is smooth and elastic. Feel free to knead 3-4 minutes with the electric mixer using the dough hook but knead by hand for 2-3 minutes afterward.) Rye flour is inherently sticky and recalcitrant. Use a metal dough scraper to gather up the dough. Resist the urge to add additional flour - the dough will become less difficult as you work with it.

Liberally grease another large bowl with unsalted soft butter. Place dough in the bowl, turning to grease it on all sides. Cover with a tea towel and let rise in a warm place free of drafts (the oven is a good place - turned on for one minute at 300º and then turned off) until almost doubled in size, about 1 hour.

Gently deflate dough. Let rest 10 minutes, covered. Divide into two equal parts. Shape into round loaves, seam side down (this takes a little practice - just keep rotating the dough in a circular motion on the work surface between your hands, while keeping it taught. It doesn’t have to be perfect). Place on a baking sheet covered with Reynolds Release foil or parchment paper or directly on a baking/pizza stone sprinkled with cornmeal (you don't need to preheat the stone). Cover with a tea towel and let rise in a warm place, about 30 minutes. You can also shape into traditional loaves. Scoring of the crust before baking is not necessary but as Bernard Clayton advises, prick the top of each loaf with a toothpick, 1" or more deep in a dozen places so that steam can escape.

Preheat oven to 375º for at least 20 minutes. Combine water and egg yolk and brush on loaves. Reduce the oven temperature to 350º and bake for 45 minutes or until loaves sound hollow when lightly tapped and/or an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of the loaves read between 190º and 210º (most reliable method). Ovens vary so your loaves make take more time. Cool on wire racks. When completely cool, store in plastic bags, leaving the bags partially open (round loaves fit perfectly into gallon size Ziploc bags). For a softer crust, omit the egg wash and brush the loaves with very soft butter immediately after baking.

Notes: Limpa is delicious the day it is made but is even better on the second and third days when the flavors have had the chance to develop. It's wonderful toasted and great with cheese and/or a well-crafted beer, ale or stout. *Hodgson Mill Vital Wheat Gluten with Vitamin C and Bob's Red Mill Organic Dark Rye Flour are widely available in the baking isle of most supermarkets. Similar brands can also be had from The Baker's Catalogue at King Arthur Flour. Rye flour has very little gluten. The Vital Wheat Gluten helps to ensure a higher rise (as does the higher protein bread flour) and the Vitamin C extends freshness. Yeast dies at 138º. Liquid should feel comfortably warm on the wrist, as with a baby's bottle. For accuracy, use a thermometer. For seedless rye, ground anise, fennel and caraway may be used. All are available from Penzey's.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Have Yourself a Vegetarian Christmas - Pumpkin Lasagna with Rosemary and Four Cheeses

This Pumpkin Lasagna is a gorgeous vegetarian main dish - fragrant and full of flavor. For those of you who might think to turn your nose up to pumpkin in lasagna - think squash - not pie!

Serve with green beans ( I buy the frozen haricot vert from Trader Joe's) dressed with butter, hazelnut oil, toasted hazelnuts, and shallots; homemade cranberry sauce; and a green salad with pears and cider vinagrette. The colors on the plate are festive indeed! Serve something chocolate for dessert.

Please use high quality cheeses. Inferior cheeses will render this dish ordinary.

PUMPKIN LASAGNA WITH ROSEMARY AND FOUR CHEESES

Pasta

One pound dried lasagna noodles, preferably De Cecco brand (do not use “no-boil” lasagna)

Filling

1 large can (29 ounces) pure pumpkin puree (do not use pumpkin pie filling)
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
2-3 fresh sage leaves
1 teaspoon dried crushed rosemary
2 teaspoons Mrs. Dash Original Blend
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/3 cup seasoned breadcrumbs
1/2 cup mascarpone
3/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1/2 cup freshly grated Asiago
1/2 cup freshly grated Gruyère
1/4 cup creamy goat cheese
1 tablespoon light brown sugar
1 teaspoon sea salt
Freshly ground pepper

Béchamel Sauce

1/4 cup (½ stick) unsalted butter
1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
3 cups whole milk
2 tablespoons fresh creamy goat cheese
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg

Topping

1/2 cup seasoned bread crumbs mixed with ½ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
3 fresh rosemary sprigs

Heat a large stockpot of lightly salted water to a boil; fill a large mixing bowl with ice and water. Boil the noodles until al dente, about 8 minutes; drain. Transfer to the ice water. Drain the noodles well in a large colander and toss with a teaspoon of oil to keep pasta from sticking. Set aside.

Meanwhile, for the sauce, melt butter in a large saucepan over low heat; sprinkle in the flour, stirring continuously with a wire whisk. Cook, stirring constantly, 5 minutes. Whisk in the milk; whisk in the goat cheese, salt and pinch of nutmeg. Heat to a simmer; cook, whisking often, until thick and creamy, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat, cover with waxed paper to prevent a skin from forming, and set aside.

For the filling, combine pumpkin puree, thyme, sage, rosemary, Mrs. Dash, nutmeg, breadcrumbs, mascarpone, additional cheeses, brown sugar, goat cheese, salt, and pepper in a very large mixing bowl. Taste the filling and adjust seasoning as necessary.

Preheat oven to 375°. To assemble lasagna, spread a third of the pumpkin mixture on the bottom of a lightly greased 13“ x 9” baking pan (Pyrex or Corning Ware are fine). Cover with a layer of lasagna noodles, placed lengthwise side by side, overlapping the edges. Spread another third of the filling over the noodles; top with ¾ cup of the béchamel. Top with another layer of noodles, the remaining filling, and another ¾ cup of béchamel. Cover with a final layer of noodles and the remaining béchamel. Sprinkle with breadcrumb/Parmigiano-Reggiano mixture. Place the rosemary springs diagonally across the top. Cover the lasagna with lightly buttered Reynolds Release foil, folding the edges over the sides of the pan. Bake lasagna until heated through and bubbling, about 50 minutes. Remove the foil and continue to bake until the topping is golden brown, about 7-10 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven; cool 10 minutes. Cut into rectangles or squares.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Easy Chocolate Crinkle Cookies

These cookies are so easy, you should smudge your face with a little flour before you serve them so your friends and family will think you've been working really hard all afternoon. (Remember those old '80s Rice Krispies commercials where the mom tosses flour on her self because her family was too stupid to know that Rice Krispie treats are ridiculously easy to make and she figured manipulation is a good a way as any to have fun and get attention?) These cookies are great for dunking in milk and are also good for breakfast!

Remember: Always use the finest ingredients you can afford. It makes all the difference in the world.

Chocolate Crinkle Cookies
(Adapted from Williams-Sonoma's "Essentials of Baking")


4 oz. unsweetened chocolate chopped
1/4 cup unsalted butter (1/2 stick)
1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup Dutch process cocoa
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 large eggs (room temperature)
2 cups granulated sugar
1 tablespoon Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Extract (splurge on Nielsen-Massey or Penzey's brand ("Double Strength" if you can find it.)
1-1/2 cups (9 oz.) semi-sweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup confectioners sugar

Melt the butter and chocolate on top of a double boiler, over simmering water, and stir often. Remove and set aside to cool.

In a small bowl, sift together the dry ingredients — flour, cocoa, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

In a large bowl, combine eggs, granulated sugar, and vanilla and beat 2 -3 minutes. Mix in the melted chocolate mixture until blended. Gradually fold in the dry ingredients and mix until incorporated. The dough will be very stiff! Mix in the chocolate chips.

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

Place rack in center of oven and preheat to 325F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. (This keeps cookies from sticking to the pan or overbaking on the bottom. It also makes for easy cleanup.) Sift the confectioners’ sugar into a small bowl.

Roll a rounded tablespoon of dough between your palms into a 1 inch ball (don't make them any bigger unless you want GIANT COOKIES), and roll it in the powdered sugar. Place the cookies about 3 inches apart on the cookie sheet.

Bake the cookies, 1 sheet at a time, until the tops are puffed and crinkled and feel firm when lightly touched, about 13-17 mins. Let the cookies cool on the baking sheets for 5 minutes, and then transfer the cookies to wire racks to cool completely.

These cookies will stay fresh for up to three days when kept in a sealed, airtight container and stored in a cool place.

Today's post is courtesy of my daughter Annie, who is in the middle of a baking marathon. I can only hope she is gearing up for St. Lucia's Day (December 13), the beginning of the Christmas season for Swedes. I'm counting on freshly baked Lussekatter.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Cranberries Grand Mariner with Crystallized Ginger

Ahh ... cranberries ... the jewel of the holiday season. I buy at least a dozen bags of fresh cranberries beyond what I use during the winter holidays. Properly stored in heavy duty freezer bags, fresh cranberries keep for up to a year. I can make Cranberry Upside Down Cake (recipe is on this blog); Cranberry Chutney, Cranberry Quick Bread, Cranberry Catsup, Cranberry Apple Pie, and Roast Pork with Cranberries throughout the year. When the freezer gets bare midwinter, those scarlet berries seem as valuable as bags of rubies. I'll be putting more cranberry recipes on this site in the weeks to come - but I'll start with this easy twist on Classic Cranberry Sauce. This is a large recipe - enough for a crowd with plenty for next-day Thanksgiving leftovers.

CRANBERRIES GRAND MARINER WITH CRYSTALLIZED GINGER

2-12 ounce bags fresh cranberries (direct from freezer is fine)
1-1/2 cups water
1-3/4 cups sugar, superfine preferred
1/2 cup Grand Marinier, Cointreau, or Grand Gala liqueur
Zest of one large lemon (colored part only)
Zest of one large orange (colored part only)
4 tablespoons finely chopped crystallized ginger (found in the spice section)
1/4 teaspoon noniodized salt

Give the cranberries a quick rinse with a colander and pick out any stems or shriveled berries. Combine sugar, water, and liqueur in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil and add the cranberries, lemon and orange zest, ginger and salt. Return to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for ten minutes, stirring occasionally. Cover and cool to to room temperature. Divide into two serving bowls and refrigerate until serving time.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Make Room at Your Thanksgiving Table

My mother believed that no one should be alone during the holidays, especially Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day. From the time she and my father were first married, she established a tradition of extending invitations to those who had no where to go on any given holiday. Consequently, we always had a diverse and colorful crowd at the table! Once, when I was a child, there was an unfamiliar woman sitting across from us. My brother asked if I knew who she was. I said, "mom met her at the pharmacy while getting a prescription filled." He said, "do we know her?". I replied, "well, we do now!".

One year, when my mom was in her late sixties, she invited more than 40 people for Thanksgiving dinner. I should mention that she lived in a one-bedroom condo, albeit with a formal dining room. I said, "where in Heaven's name are you going to seat these people?" She said, "you worry too much! We'll borrow chairs and tables and put some people in the living room and foyer and set up a long table in the entrance hall!" "Across from the elevator?" "Sure, that way if they're late they can step off the elevator and go directly into a chair!" "Uh, mom, how are you going to feed all these people?" "Stop worrying! Charlotte and Rose (the neighbors across the hall) have a commercial stove and two wall ovens. We'll have two turkeys. It's all arranged!" She managed 38 at tables and I went over and ate my dinner with the neighbors. My mom sat in a corner adjacent to the dining room table and close to the kitchen. There were only two condo units per floor - so both front doors were propped open and it became a two-condo flowing party. It was great! There was only one mishap. Mom had borrowed an extra bowl from Charlotte. It was a bowl that had reputedly once belonged to the Romanovs - Nicholas II used that bowl! It was worth a small fortune! Somehow, in carrying the mashed potatoes from the kitchen to the dining room, she dropped the bowl and it shattered. Mom felt terrible but Charlotte was a real sport. In Charlotte's mind, the greater sin would have been to be unforgiving or ungracious. "No sense crying over mashed potatoes!"

When I was in college, my mom always encouraged me to bring a friend or two home for Thanksgiving dinner. When her grandchildren when off to college, they were likewise encouraged. The older mom got, the more liberal and tolerant she became. She didn't care about a person's sexual preference, color, or ethnic background. Jew, Bahá'í, Hindu or Atheist - you were always welcome at her table. It didn't matter if you were a bricklayer, physician, or postal worker, if you didn't have a place to go, mom would see to it that you were included.

This year, consider inviting someone new to your table. We often assume that people we know have a place to go on a holiday. I can assure you that this is often not the case. It could be a colleague or co-worker, a neighbor, a lady at church who recently lost her husband, or a college student from a foreign country. We've become an isolationist society, afraid to move out of our comfort zones. We're afraid to share our comforts too, as if we might somehow lose them in the process. Nonsense! Don't worry if you don't have enough chairs or dishes - make it work. Even Martha Stewart says that mixing and matching china is fashionable! Reach out to others - you'll have a wonderful time, it'll be good for the kids, and you'll make new friends.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Tinker, Tailor, Baker, Pie

My father's brother married a woman who could do practically anything. Her skills in the kitchen were equally matched by her green thumb. Her garden boasted more than a hundred rose bushes which produced some of the most exquisite blossoms I have ever seen. Louise could sew - but more than that, she was a tailor who designed and made dresses and suits that rivaled that of the "28 Shop" at Marshall Field's. She could hang wallpaper, fix plumbing, install windows, upholster furniture and once, when I spent the weekend with my aunt and uncle, I observed her changing the oil and replacing the spark plugs in their car. She accomplished all of these things while maintaining a full time job. To say that Uncle Roy was living large is an understatement. Louise was everybody's favorite relative. She was so popular, that one of my nieces is named for her. If there is one thing for which Aunt Louise is remembered, however, it is her Apple Pie. She's been gone for 35 years but at family gatherings, the subject of the pie still surfaces.

The fact of those 10-inch mile-high beauties was not lost on my mother, who never ever baked an Apple Pie. Frankly, she couldn't stand the competition. In terms of the sheer number of baked goods, my mother had Louise beat by a mile. My mother was an extraordinary baker - the stuff of legends - and she baked scores of fabulous pies. During the summer months we ate Blueberry Pie until our collective teeth were stained. In the spring, we ate Rhubarb Pie and lofty meringued Lemon Pie so tart it would make your eyes water, because that's the way the family liked it. Come Thanksgiving, there would be Mincemeat Pies with Brandied Hard Sauce and Pumpkin Chiffon Pies adorned with Orange Glaze. There was a Sour Cream Raisin too, that probably contributed to my father's demise. But Apple? No, that wasn't going to happen.

When we visited Aunt Louise and Uncle Roy's, Louise always made an Apple Pie for my father. It was accompanied by a generous slice of extra-sharp Cheddar Cheese from someplace in Vermont. It was so sharp that it made the roof of your mouth sting with delight. Louise served it to my father with a cup of coffee - percolated coffee - for which Louise would grind the beans herself. Hoo-boy! Now the entertainment would start - this was more fun than a barrel of monkeys. My mother made coffee the "Swedish way", in an enamel pot on the back of the stove - a gas stove. My mom prepared coffee that way until the day she died, eschewing percolators, drip machines, French press, or any other method of brewing. Dad would eat the Apple Pie with gusto and when asked if he would like another slice ( and a refill of the coffee), he would saddle up to Louise and say, "Oh yes 'Weezie' that would be wonderful" - and my mother would be quietly seething in the corner: "I don't know how Louise does it in that electric oven. You just can't control those electric ranges! Everything comes out dry! Any cook who has any sense uses gas, for God's sake! Percolators ruin coffee! All that bubbling over and over just kills the flavor!" (My father was as kind a person as could be found, but somehow he seemed to be enjoying the scenery). Then there was the matter of the dishwashing liquid. My aunt used a different brand than my mother, who claimed that "dishpan hands" would eventually claim Louise and render her forever useless.

Louise made a three-layer German Chocolate Cake, too and it was to die for - suffice to say that there were no such cakes to be had at home. My favorite "Aunt Louise dessert" was an Angel Food Cake baked in an extra-long loaf pan. She split it horizontally, filled it with vanilla pastry cream, and iced it with billows of light caramel frosting. I'm happy to say that is one cake I have since mastered.

My mom baked hundreds of fantastic cookies at Christmastime (all packed up in Marshall Field's boxes which she saved throughout the year), regularly crafted homemade bread, and in her lifetime produced probably a thousand Lady Baltimore cakes, three-layer Chocolate Cakes with Apricot Filling, and Coconut Cakes filled with lemon curd. There were Profiteroles, Eclairs filled with Coffee Cream, Napoleans, Palmiers, Tortes, giant Cinnamon Rolls, Coffeecakes, and Jelly Rolls, but no Apple Pies. My mother was relegated to cooking with an electric range the last 25 years of her life because that was the hook-up in her condo. She complained about it but everthing that came out her kitchen was sublime.

In 1972, when my uncle was dying of cancer, we went to see him at home. Louise served slices of Apple Pie. Sadly, it was a frozen pie. Uncle Roy's illness had eclipsed the crafting of homemade desserts. There was very little time for such things and not much inclination. Louise succumbed to cancer eleven months after her husband and that, I'm afraid was the end of the Apple Pies. My mother lived another 20 years and although the pie making continued, there was no mention of Apple Pie. Some things are sacred.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Computer Diet

At some point you have undoubtedly been where I was last week - in the middle of a computer nightmare. If not, rest assured you will be. Like death and taxes, computer crashes will happen - it's only a matter of time. I'll spare my readers the gory details except to say that I was on the phone with tech support for more than 47 hours over a six-day period. During this time I spoke with not less than a dozen international technical support "specialists" at various levels of expertise. Not possible you say? I should know - I was there. I consider myself a sophisticated computer user as I've been working with PCs in a business environment since 1984. If this were not the case, I most certainly would have been committed to Shady Pines by now - if for no other reason than being forced to type long strings of seemingly unrelated letters and numbers repeatedly in the search bar.

I was told I had a corrupted hard drive (I didn't), a seriously infected system (despite two leading edge programs to prevent such an occurrence), and a "known registry issue" with my operating system. No one really knows for sure what happened or why. It all started when my computer wouldn't load my user profile. I couldn't get past the password portal. It was like going to someone's home and looking for the front door. It wasn't as if someone inside couldn't hear the doorbell - it was if if there were no door at all. An impenetrable brick fort that could not be scaled. About a quarter of the way into the entire episode, the technicians began to take over my computer by remote (with my permission), each person escalating the problem exponentially. Sometimes when you give up control, you only make matters worse. I should have trusted my instincts.

Futurists tell us that the next revolution in computing will lie in the development of quantum computation - an advance known as "The Feynman Processor". These computers (at least according to the futurists) will provide lighting fast capabilities with unbreakable codes (which is probably why government and military agencies most likely support its research). Theoretical physics professor Gerard Milburn, in his book "The Feynman Processor" said ", ... classical computers are not protected from the arrow of time. Errors creep in along the way as the computer manipulates bits of information. Parts of the world external to the computer get mixed into the computation and, in effect, rewrite bits. Errors reverse information and are thus due to physically irreversible processes." Believe me, as soon as you take your new computer out of the box, the little ghosties and beasties are trying to corrupt and manipulate your system. Until the "Feynman Processor" becomes a reality, all you can hope for is to stay one step ahead while trying to maintain your investment, your composure and your precious data.

Of course quantum computation appears to have a few problems of its own. It seems that in order for a quantum computer to run properly - that is in a reversible way - it cannot have any contact with the outside world during computation (how do you prevent THAT?). Apparently, this would cause it to "decohere". Quantum computers would also employ the principle of "quantum entanglement", a phenomenon which Einstein called "spooky action at a distance." Uh ... somehow, none of this seems quite stable... but then physicists who study the strange world of quantum mechanics deal with concepts such as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and Chaos Theory.

What does all of this have to do with food? Everything - as any microwave snack eating teenager can tell you. In a computer crisis, there are only two ways to go - the junk food diet (remember Wayne Knight's computer programmer character "Dennis Nedry" in the film "Jurassic Park"?) and the no food diet. I found myself in the midst of the latter. As the problem escalated, my appetite waned - and frankly, there wasn't much time to eat. When I shut down for the evening, I just sort of fell into bed in a stupor watching old episodes of "Murder, She Wrote". By the sixth day, I was blabbering incoherently. At one point, however, I made a deliberate trip to the all night gas station for a chocolate candy bar. I also vaguely recall eating some unbuttered toast and a banana. The rest is a blur.

My computer appears (the operative word being "appears") to be working at ninety percent capacity. I have a telephone appointment with a "senior level" technician tomorrow to perform what I hope will be the final exorcism, after which I will no doubt regain those pesky five pounds I lost last week.

Gerard J. Milburn obtained a PhD in theoretical physics in 1982 and has since become a world expert in quantum information theory, currently working at the University of Queensland, Australia.

Feed the Hungry

Here I am, writing about food, when so many have so little. Inspired by my friend Heidi's commitment to providing nutritional lunches to disadvantaged children, I feel compelled to do something positive toward alleviating hunger. The cost of wheat, rice and milk are going through the roof. Gas prices are forcing food distributors and manufacturers to increase their prices dramatically across the board. Traveling back and forth to work is costing more than ever. Combined with a job loss, the effects of the current economic downturn and the cost of fuel on a family can be truly devastating. Add the high cost of health care and you have a nightmare. Hunger is also a serious concern for many elderly people with fixed incomes and limited mobility. What can be done?

My parish has an ongoing food drive 12 months of the year. They understand that hunger knows no season. We tend to help during the winter holidays, forgetting that people are hungry during the rest of the year. We're encouraged to bring canned and jarred goods, as well as rice, pasta, cereal and other essential non-perishables on a regular basis. If every parishioner brought a canned good or a jar of peanut butter every week, it would go a long way in helping those in need. If your church, temple or employer does not have a food drive, perhaps you can set things in motion. Not sure how or where to begin?

Feeding America, the largest domestic hunger-relief organization in the United States, feeds over 25 million Americans each year. Approximately 80 percent of all food banks in the U.S. are part of the Feeding America Member Network. They need donations of funds and food, as well as volunteers. They can direct you in how to hold a food drive in your neighborhood, place of worship, organization, or with your employer. They also have a list of food banks and emergency food providers in your area. Visit them online at www.feedingamerica.org.

One of the organizations within Second Harvest's network is the Greater Chicago Food Depository. They distribute more than 41,000,000 pounds of food annually through qualified agencies to feed hungry people in Chicago. They also need funds, food, and volunteers and can help you organize a local food drive. Those in the Chicago area can go to http://www.chicagosfoodbank.org/.

Chefs for Humanity is an alliance of culinary professionals and educators working in partnership with U.S. and global organizations, providing nutrition education, hunger relief, and emergency and humanitarian aid to reduce hunger across the world. Founded by renowned chef Cat Cora, Chefs for Humanity directly manages programs and partners with world organizations to care for people who have been affected by natural disasters, war and drought. They can be found online at http://www.chefsforhumanity.com/

Share our Strength ® is a national organization that works to make sure no child in America grows up hungry. They partner with the culinary industry to create fund-raising programs such as Share Our Strength’s Taste of the Nation® and Share Our Strength’s Great American Bake Sale®. Award-winning chef-restaurateur, cookbook author, and television personality Rick Bayless is one the organization's most ardent supporters.

According to share our Strength , "More than 12.6 million (one in six!) children in America are at risk of hunger. These children will endure lifelong consequences as a result of having limited access to nutritious foods. In fact, they’re more likely to suffer poorer health, fatigue, hospitalizations, behavioral difficulties and impaired performance at school. Despite the good efforts of governments, private-sector institutions and everyday Americans, millions of our children still don’t have daily access to the nutritious meals they need to live active, healthy lives." To help further Share our Strength's mission to end childhood hunger in America, go to http://www.shareourstrength.org/.

Finally, a person or family without groceries may be closer than you imagine - it could be a neighbor, a fellow church member, a relative, or a co-worker. According to America's Second Harvest, 36% of the 25 million people they serve live in a household where someone works. Some families have to make difficult choices whether to pay the rent, make a car payment, buy prescription medicine, or buy groceries. In fact, more and more families are facing hunger for the first time. If you know of someone who has lost a job or been devastated by a health care or other crisis, lend a hand. An anonymous note with a $25 gift card toward a purchase at a local supermarket will bring relief for someone in need, and you will sleep better - I promise.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Early Days of Television - The Antoinette and François Pope Cooking Show

A decade before Julia Child gave us "The French Chef" and more than 40 years before the launch of "The Food Network", there was a program hosted by Antoinette and François Pope. It was my first cooking show. I was about five years old when I began to watch the broadcast on our Magnavox television set (and had to miss it when I went to morning kindergarten). Although it wasn't the the first cooking show in the history of American television (that distinction belongs to James Beard's "I Love to Eat" which appeared on NBC-TV from 1946-1947 - well before my time) it was most certainly one of the earliest and most popular. Along with "Ask Mr. Wizard", the Antoinette and François Pope endeavor was, at least for me, a must see in the early days of "educational" programming. The show was Chicago-based and came on, I believe, at 10:00 a.m. on Channel 7. The Popes ran a cooking school, "The Antoinette Pope School of Fancy Cookery" and they published a cookbook appropriately titled "The Antoinette Pope School Cookbook". It was one of the cookbooks in my mother's library along with "The Joy of Cooking" and "Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book", all of which I perused on a regular basis. It's how I learned to read! I honestly don't remember a time when I wasn't interested in food and cooking. My mother told me that my first "toys" as a toddler were pots and pans which I banged with a wooden spoon while sitting on the kitchen floor. So by the time the Popes cooking show was being televised, I was already a student of the culinary arts.

Back in the late 50s, my mother joined a book club. Mom wasn't too enthusiastic when it came to women's groups but since books were the focus, she signed on at the encouragement of a neighbor. There were about 16 active members and they met monthly for lunch and discussion. It was agreed that the ladies would take turns hosting to spread the workload. Once the members sampled mom's cuisine however, it seemed that she hosted about every three months! One of her most requested luncheons consisted of a chicken and wild rice casserole and hot curried fruit. She baked her famous potato rolls and always provided two spectacular desserts, one of which was a three-layer cake of one kind or another. I believe the casserole and curried fruit recipes came from the Pope cookbook. I'll know for certain once I manage to snag a copy - perhaps from Bonnie Slotnick or eBay - and then I'll be happy to share my findings.

In the meantime, if you're a parent or grandparent with small childen in your care, let them watch lots of cooking shows. You'll help them to develop an appreciation for all things culinary while keeping them out of trouble. Let them assist in the kitchen, too. In his book "Cooking in America", Pierre Franey said, "Cooking is one of those adult-and-child activities that really works ... Kids need to get the feel of real food early on. They need to get their hands into the raw ingredients and then witness what happens when those ingredients are combined and transformed into wonderful foods. This is an important way to teach kids - without belaboring the pedagogical intent - that the preparation of food is a creative process with great rewards beyond the mere elimination of hunger. How else are they going to learn that those paper-wrapped hamburgers hurled over the fast-food counters of America aren't the real thing?"

ADDENDUM: Alas, neither the chicken casserole or curried fruit appears in the Pope cookbook. Perhaps mom found the recipes in another book, magazine, or the Chicago Tribune's food section. Maybe a friend shared the recipes - or most likely, she simply developed them on her own. If I may add a lesson - before your grandmother, mother or favorite aunt go to that great kitchen in the hereafter, ask them for their recipes! Better still, get them on tape during a cooking or baking session. You'll be glad you did!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Book Review - "Great Cookies" by Carole Walter

In the last two years I've acquired another half dozen books devoted to cookies (my collection of baking books is now at 65 volumes). There's not a dud among the cookie books, but I do have three favorites: The King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion; the All-American Cookie Book by Nancy Baggett; and Great Cookies by Carole Walter. I bought Walter's book on a cold rainy day last fall and proceeded to read it - cover to cover.

Walter is a pro - in the same league as Maida Heatter, Rose Levy Beranbaum, Dorie Greenspan, Nick Malgieri, and Abigail Johnson Dodge. Aside from the recipes, which are nearly flawless, the 44-page "Teacher's Secrets for Sensational Cookies" is marvelous. This section includes such features as a two-page spread on the characteristics of various brands of chocolate chips; decorating and garnishing; guidelines for storing, wrapping and mailing cookies; an encyclopedic explanation of "Nuts and Seeds"; and a page entitled "Troubleshooting" to help decipher what can go wrong and how to avoid those pitfalls.

A helpful list of sources for equipment and ingredients is also included, along with a substantial bibliography. The section on Chocolate Chip Cookies has a bulleted list of helpful hints on producing the best of the best. The "Soft and Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies" on page 32 are a personal favorite. There are also lists of secrets for making giant cookies, Biscotti, and Rugalah, among others. This is really a professional textbook on how to make superlative cookies - and it's the tips and techniques that set this volume apart.

There are many recipes for ethnic favorites, too, such as Hamantaschen, Baklava, Springerle, and Jan Hagels (a personal favorite). Whether you're searching for holiday cookies, after-school treats, comfy bar cookies, or a cookie worthy of a dinner party (the Black and Whites are very chic!), you'll find them among the more than 200 recipes provided. The dozen recipes for fillings and glazes are a plus and the "Caramel Mascarpone Cream" is heavenly.

The book's layout is approachable and navigable, the fonts easy on the eyes, and the photographs both beautiful and helpful. The book is a bit heavy for it's size but not unwieldy. The Index would have been better with a larger typeface and darker ink, but that is my only complaint.

If you buy the book, just be sure to stock up on milk.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

French Toast Revisited - A Breakfast Classic with Fresh Orange Syrup and Summer Berries

Exotic ingredients and outlandish recipes get an awful lot of attention these days. Cookbooks, television programs and food magazines are full of what Julia Child referred to as "food fads". There seems to be so much fierce competition among professional chefs (and so much ego), that they go to ridiculous lengths to outdo each other. Do we really want Lobster Ice Cream, Buffalo Tongue, and Candied Anchovies? Maybe I don't want my Bolognese deconstructed. Maybe I prefer my butterflied leg of lamb seasoned with rosemary as opposed to having a rosemary tisane scenting the air nearby. Listen Mr. Chef Impressed-with-Yourself, I occasionally need something familiar, especially for breakfast.

Remember French Toast? Not the frozen kind - the real deal. French Toast is easier to prepare than pancakes (I always seem deep-six the first batch out of the skillet) and I don't have to haul the waffle maker out of the top cabinet. French Toast also makes great use of stale bread - and you can use almost any kind of bread - French bread, cinnamon raisin, challah, sourdough, even crossiants. It's fun to try specialty breads as well, such as pumpkin walnut or Asiago cheese.

FRENCH TOAST WITH ORANGE SYRUP AND SUMMER BERRIES

Orange Syrup

1 cup sugar, preferably superfine
1/2 cup fresh orange juice
1 generous tablespoon no-pulp frozen orange juice concentrate
1 cup water
1 teaspoon pure orange extract
1 tablespoon orange liqueur (optional)

In a small saucepan, combine the sugar, orange juice, orange juice concentrate, extract and water. Bring to a boil over low heat, stirring constantly. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for one minute. Remove from the heat and add the liqueur. Serve warm. Syrup can be made ahead of time and stored in a tightly covered glass jar in the refrigerator. Briefly reheat syrup before serving.

French Toast

6 large eggs
1 cup whole milk or half-and-half
1/2 cup orange juice
3 tablespoons sugar
grated zest of one medium orange
1 tablespoon orange liqueur (optional)
1 teaspoon pure orange extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
6-8 slices day-old challah or sturdy white bread, 1/2 inch thick
2 tablespoons unsalted butter or canola oil
2 cups fresh berries (blueberries, strawberries, raspberries)

In a medium shallow bowl, combine the eggs, milk, orange juice, sugar, orange zest, liqueur, extract and salt. Dip each slice of bread into the mixture, allowing it to soak up the liquid. Heat a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the butter or oil and fry the egg-soaked bread for 2-3 minutes per side until golden brown, turning only once. Serve immediately with the syrup and berries. Wonderful with pure maple syrup, too! Serves 3-4. Recipe may be doubled.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Chocolate Sheet Cake for a Crowd

It's 78° here in Chicago making it a near perfect day. This is summer at its best, without too much heat and humidity. I still feel like baking and there seem to be many opportunities to do so - with backyard cookouts, neighborhood picnics, and 4th of July celebrations around the corner. These events usually drum up a crowd and feeding a hungry horde can be a bit of a challenge. What to bring? This isn't the time for fancy layer cakes and if I bake cupcakes, I have to show up with at least 24 and most of my recipes are for a dozen. I could bake a couple of cherry pies but they're a bit labor intensive and I'll still wind up with only 12 servings (have you ever seen anyone eat slivers of pie?). For casual gatherings of 20-30 people, my Chocolate Sheet Cake fits the bill.

Variations of this very simple recipe have circulated for years. Also known as Chocolate Buttermilk Sheet Cake and Texas Sheet Cake, it comes together in just a few minutes and only requires a hand mixer. Melted butter is used in both the cake and frosting, so you don't have to remember to take the butter out of the refrigerator or freezer ahead of time. It's likely you'll have all the ingredients needed on hand, too (if you don't have buttermilk, just add 1 tablespoon white vinegar or lemon juice to a cup of milk and let it stand for 5 minutes). You'll need a 15"x 10" or 16" x 11" sheet pan, also known as a jelly roll pan. This is a very moist cake because it contains both butter and oil. This delicious dessert will remind you of a frosted cakey brownie - only better! You can serve the cake directly from the pan but feel free to use one of those 3-tiered cake plates for a nicer presentation.

CHOCOLATE SHEET CAKE

Cake:

1-2 tablespoons butter or shortening for greasing the pan
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup oil (I use canola)
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 cup water
4 tablespoons natural cocoa (do not use "Dutched")
1 teaspoon instant coffee or espresso powder
2 large eggs
1/3 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla

Preheat the oven to 350°. Grease and flour the pan. In a large mixing bowl, stir together the flour, sugar, baking soda and salt. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine the oil, butter and water and heat until the butter melts. Remove from heat and add the cocoa and instant coffee. Add to the dry ingredients in the mixing bowl. Using an electric hand mixer, blend for about 15 seconds. Add the eggs, buttermilk and vanilla and beat until blended, about 30 seconds, stopping to scrape the bowl after 15 seconds.

Pour the batter into the pan and bake for 20-22 minutes or until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean.

Frosting:

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 lb. confectioner's sugar
1/3 cup buttermilk
3 tablespoons natural cocoa
1 teaspoon pure vanilla

While the cake is baking, melt the butter in a medium saucepan over low heat. Add the rest of the ingredients and keep warm. Pour frosting over hot cake and spread quickly. Cool on a wire rack. Yields about 32 generous pieces.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Book Review: "Great Coffee Cakes, Sticky Buns, Muffins & More" by Carole Walter

This is my fourth book by Carole Walter - the preceding three being single-subject volumes covering Cakes, Cookies, and Pies & Tarts. Like the others, this book doesn't disappoint. If you're a fan of Dorie Greenspan, Maida Heatter, or Abigail Johnson Dodge, this will be a welcome addition to your library. It will be your "go to" cookbook when the baking bug hits you on a cold winter's day or when you're searching for the perfect "take-along" sweet for a family gathering.

Walter is a pro - and it shows - but she's also friendly and approachable. As you read through a recipe, you'll feel as though a much loved grandmother is guiding you through the process. Even the more difficult recipes, such as strudel and croissants seem doable. Most of the recipes are easy, however, and the levels of difficulty are indicated for each.

The first chapter opens with "Perfect Pound Cakes" and there are 16 from which to choose, including "Sour Cream Pound Cake"; "Lemon Cream Cheese Pound Cake"; and "Butter Pecan Pound Cake". All are remarkably simple to prepare and are baked in Bundt, angel food or loaf pans - equipment already in your cabinet. It's likely you'll have the ingredients on hand, too. The second chapter, "Home-Style Coffee Cakes" boasts 19 enticing options such as "Sour Cream Marble Cake"; "Butter Crumb Coffee-Cake"; "Irish Whiskey Cake"; "Banana Chocolate Chip Cake" and "Pineapple Squares with Coconut Streusel".

Additional chapters cover "Muffins & Quick Breads"; "Biscuits and Scones"; "Yeasted Coffee Cakes"; "Brioche, Croissants & Danish"; "Strudel"; and "Coffee Break Bites". The final chapter incorporates "Streusels, Glazes, Frostings & Spreads", all of which can be used for recipes outside of this book.

"Great Coffee Cakes" is full of helpful tips and techniques. A page is dedicated to "Marbling", making the whole process much less intimidating. Other handy tips include turning muffin recipes into quick breads; effectively dealing with cutting bar cookies; and working with yeast. Helpful drawings make the more challenging recipes less so. There are five pages dedicated to "Equipment" and there's a 24-page section dealing with "Ingredients and Techniques". Walter also provides eight sources for ingredients and equipment, complete with websites and phone numbers.

The book is peppered throughout with endearing quotes from the likes of Oscar Wilde, Julia Child, and Graham Greene. Each recipe begins with a memoir, a story, or a technique and ends with recommendations for storage (some cakes are actually better the next day - but I doubt you'll be able to resist that long!). The book is a nice size and the typeface is readible, if not ideal. There are 31 pages of beautiful photographs - which for a book of 200 recipes is quite generous. For old-fashioned comfort treats, this book is nearly perfect.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Cold Cherry Soup

When I was in college, I had the good fortune to meet a fellow classmate whose parents were from Lithuania. Kristina, and Marcy, her roommate of four years, were nearly inseparable. Both majored in Biology and spent many hours in the science building. The three of us became fast friends (we called ourselves "The Three Musketeers") and through them, I got to know their Chemistry professor very well. Although I was a solid Political Science major, the Chemistry professor became my faculty advisor during my junior year - and in that role, she was superb. The best part of the deal was that the prof invited us to her home for dinner on many occasions! Home cooking for three hungry students!

Kristina was from St. Paul, Minnesota, where her parents and younger sisters lived in a beautiful house in a gorgeous wooded setting. I was a guest in their home and at their table on several occasions. Kristina's mother, a stunning woman with great class and style, was also a marvelous cook. Much of what we ate was Lithuanian and it was delicious.

One warm summer evening, we were treated to a first course of Cold Cherry Soup. It was the height of the cherry season and it was a particularly lush crop. The soup was cool and refreshing - a blissful gift of the season. Chilled fruit soups are very popular in Eastern and Northern Europe, as well as Russia. Swedes eat a fruit soup made with dried fruit, tapioca and warm spices. It's often part of a Smörgåsbord and may be served hot or cold. It's one of my favorite Swedish comfort foods. Russians and Hungarians make their Cold Cherry Soup with fresh sour cherries (most often Morellos) and they're similar to the soup that was so elegantly prepared by Kristina's mother. Although I left Minnesota without the recipe, I was eventually able to closely replicate it at home. You may use Bing cherries or whatever cherries are in season.

COLD CHERRY SOUP

2 lbs ripe red cherries, rinsed and pitted (reserve 12 for garnishing the soup)
1 cup water
1 cup Riesling, Rosé, Gewürztraminer, or other medium-dry wine
1/2 cup superfine sugar, or more to taste
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Grated zest of one lemon
2 tablespoons kirsch (clear black cherry brandy)
2 cups sour cream or plain yogurt, divided (lowfat is OK but do not use fat-free)

In a large saucepan combine the cherries, water, wine, sugar, lemon juice, and lemon zest. Over medium-high heat, bring to a boil while stirring constantly. Reduce the heat to low and simmer gently, covered, until the cherries are soft, about 15-20 minutes. Let the mixture cool to room temperature and puree in two batches in a food processor fitted with a metal blade or a blender until smooth. Transfer to a large mixing bowl and stir in 1-1/2 cups of the sour cream and kirsch. Taste and add an additional tablespoon of sugar if needed. Chill for at least 3 hours. Ladle into bowls and garnish with a dollop of sour cream and the reserved cherries. Serves 4-6 as an appetizer, first course or dessert.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Hot Days - Cool Melon with Fresh Basil and Lime Juice

It's officially summer - at least "meteorologic summer"- the first day of June, and hot days are ahead. For my part, nothing is more refreshing on a sweltering day than cold Watermelon. I love Honeydew, Cantaloupe, Canary, Casaba, Sharlyn, Cranshaw, Santa Claus, and Galia melons, too. Growing up, we had seasonal melon almost every day. I can still eat melon regularly during the summer months and not get tired of it. In fact, melon with a little cottage cheese is one of my favorite summertime suppers.

I'm enjoying the plethora of fresh herbs now, too. Basil is the classic summer herb - its bright green flavor capturing the essence of the season. It's one herb that completely loses its flavor when dried, so enjoy it fresh when it's available. The combination of melon and basil with a splash of fresh lime juice is delightful. Use a variety of melons for this fruit salad - Watermelon, Cantaloupe, and Honeydew are the perfect combination of color and flavor.

MELON WITH FRESH BASIL AND LIME JUICE

4 cups melon, cubes or balls
1 bunch fresh basil (about a dozen leaves), cut into strips or torn
Juice of 1 lime
2 tablespoons mild honey
pinch non-iodized salt

Put the melon in a bowl, add the lime juice, honey and salt. Toss. Add the basil. Toss again. Chill for an hour or two if you wish. That's it. If you have some fresh mint, you can add that, too. Strange as it may sound, you may also add a 1/3 cup of crumbled feta cheese and a grind or two of freshly cracked pepper (omit the salt). After all, fruit and cheese are a natural combination!

Note: Watermelon is in a different botanical family than the other melons mentioned here. It is, in fact, related to the cucumber. I'm told that gardeners are advised to plant cucumbers and watermelons far apart or they cross-pollinate, resulting in an odd hybrid.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Strawberry-Rhubarb Ice Cream

The idea of Strawberry-Rhubarb Ice Cream occured to me this spring while I was pondering the various uses for rhubarb. For pies, I like just rhubarb - no strawberries. Perhaps it's because rhubarb is less available much of the year, so it's a rare treat. Perhaps it's because I'm a purist who loves the taste of rhubarb. But strawberries and rhubarb are a wonderful match and if the strawberries are a little short on flavor, the rhubarb seems to give them a boost.

The thought of cream cheese, with its slightly tangy flavor and buttery texture playing off strawberries and rhubarb just seemed perfect. One night a few years ago, I experimented with cream cheese ice cream and it worked! I wasn't sure it would freeze properly but it was fantastic. I had some frozen bluberries and threw them in the mixture and Wow - I was on to something!

This ice cream is very easy to make but you do have to cook and chill the rhubarb in advance. Since many ice cream machines require that you store the canister in the freezer for at least 8 hours, you can do that at the same time. The recipe calls for fresh strawberries, but you can certainly use frozen.

STRAWBERRY-RHUBARB ICE CREAM

1/2 pound rhubarb, sliced into 1" pieces (fresh or frozen)
2-1/4 cups superfine sugar, divided
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
2-1/2 cups half-and-half
1 cup whole milk
1 pint fresh strawberries, washed, hulled and mashed*
Pinch non-iodized salt

Put the rhubarb in a medium saucepan with 1-1/4 cups of the sugar and pour in just enough water to cover the rhubarb a little more than halfway. Bring to a boil and simmer over low heat until the fruit is tender, about 5 minutes. Stir to break up the chunks and cool to room temperature. Chill in a covered bowl in the refrigerator until very cold.

In a large bowl, beat the cream cheese until smooth. Add the half-and-half and milk and beat until smooth. Measure out 1-1/2 cups of the chilled rhubarb and add it to the milk-cream cheese mixture along with the strawberries and the salt and stir well. Chill the mixture until very cold - at least 2 hours. Pour into an ice cream machine and process according to the manufacturers instructions. Makes a generous quart (you may not be able to get all of the mixture into the canister). Store in a covered container in the freezer no more than 3 days.

Note: You can puree the rhubarb mixture in a food processor before combining it with the other ingredients. This is especially desirable if the rhubarb is stringy. I prefer the texture slightly chunky, however. Leftover rhubarb can be served over the ice cream, spooned into yogurt, or eaten as is. It's also good with roast or grilled pork. Coarsely mash the strawberries with a potato masher, pastry cutter, or fork and include their juice.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Why I Don't Grill and a Recipe for Take-Along Five Bean Salad

I don't grill. That is, I don't grill outside on a charcoal or gas grill. I grill inside with a grill pan or under the broiler. When warm weather comes around, outdoor grilled food is something I crave, so I renew my relationships with my master griller friends and hope they're kind enough to invite me to dinner on the patio. Hey - I'll bring the Tanqueray, the dessert, and my Five Bean Salad (or Tabbouleh if lamb is on the menu). I'll even throw in the tonic water and the limes, but I leave the grilling to the experts. By the way, I make the best damn Tabbouleh on the planet - better than a Lebanese grandmother!

There's a spot on my little deck for a grill and acquiring one is easy enough - that's not the point. My track record with grilling isn't stellar. It started out pleasantly enough but culminated with setting the Peony bush on fire. I should mention that I really wasn't all that unhappy to lose the bush. The flowers, of course, were gorgeous but the ants loved their sticky nectar. The bush was right outside my daughter's bedroom window, where the ants would congregate on the sill and make their way inside. Of course we couldn't bring the blossoms in the house because of the ants, so we had to enjoy the pink blooms while sitting in the yard.

Right before Memorial Day in '89, we bought a charcoal grill. It was a red "kettle" and it cost $69. We bought a well-known national brand of charcoal and lighter fluid and went about completing the picture of the quintessential suburban family (we already had the dog and the station wagon). The grill sat in front of the Peony bush. We grilled all summer - burgers, fish, chicken, pork chops, New York strips, bratwurst, you name it - we grilled it. I made up foil packets of summer veggies and grilled fresh pineapple before it was fashionable. I marinated, planked, skewered and basted. Having planted nasturtiums that spring, we had the flowers in our salad. We drank quite a bit of Molson Golden that year, too. It all seemed pretty good.

Then one day toward the end of the summer, my former husband came home with a cheap brand of charcoal and lighter fluid (he had a very hard time resisting a "bargain"). We fired up the grill and threw on the burgers. We tried to eat the ones that hadn't morphed into hockey pucks but they tasted like kerosene. Then suddenly, the grill and the Peony bush were consumed in flames. Houston, we have a problem. The back yard smelled like the tarmac at O'Hare International on a hot day. The southbound neighbors started yelling over their tall fence (they had recently installed a pool). The northbound neighbors - an elderly couple - came running out if the house in a panic with a kitchen-sized extinguisher. The dog barked incessantly: "Get the Sheriff! Get the Sheriff!" My spouse donned a mitt and from a relatively safe distance, threw the cover over the kettle (that was quite a toss), while our neighbor shot foam at the Peony bush. The launch-pad temperature blaze, deprived of oxygen, died. The paint on the grill had peeled and fallen off in big chunks and the kettle itself was twisted nearly beyond recognition. It was over. Hands on her hips, my daughter said, "Well, I think I've had enough of this!", and stomped into the house where she proceeded to eat three bowls of cereal for dinner. Too embarrassed to put the grill out for the garbage collectors, we stored it in the basement - a grim reminder of the "incident". It was very, very sad.

Yes, I know - I should get over it and invest in a little gas grill - but I'm afraid of propane. I'm considering, however, attending space camp at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Alabama where I can learn to become a "Mission Specialist" in only eight days. T-minus 10, 9, 8, 7...

TAKE-ALONG FIVE BEAN SALAD

This salad has a long list of ingredients but comes together quickly. Feel free to add or subtract whatever beans, vegetables or fresh herbs you wish. It's a large salad, so I like to divide it into two portions and put the crumbled feta in one half (not everyone is fond of feta). You can substitute 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro for the basil and add a teaspoon or two of ground chipotle or ancho chili pepper and a teaspoon or two of ground cumin. If you use fresh corn kernels, blanch them in boiling water for one minute and drain. If you don't want the salad too garlicky, just rub an exposed clove around the bowl and discard.

3/4 pound fresh green beans, trimmed and cut diagonally into
1-1/2" pieces
1 15 ounce can black beans, drained and rinsed
1 15 ounce can kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1 15 ounce can garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
1 15 ounce can yellow wax beans, drained
1-1/2 cups corn kernels (fresh, canned, or frozen)
1 large red bell pepper, diced
1/2 medium green bell pepper, diced
1/2 cup green onions, sliced
1 medium red onion, diced
1 small clove garlic, minced
1/2 large cucumber, seeded and diced
2 stalks celery, sliced
1 medium jicama, cut into matchstick pieces (optional)
1/4 cup brown sugar
1-1/2 cups chopped tomato or 1/2 pound cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
1 large bunch (about 16 leaves) roughly chopped fresh basil
1/2 pound feta cheese crumbled (optional)
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil (or vegetable oil)
1/3 cup fresh lime juice or red-wine vinegar
1 tablespoon Mrs. Dash Original Blend
1 tablespoon fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dried thyme
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
4 strips thick bacon, drained and crumbled (optional)

Bring a medium pot of water to a boil and add the green beans. Cook for 3 minutes and drain. Allow to cool.

In a very large bowl, combine the beans, corn, red and green bell pepper, green and red onions, garlic, cucumber, celery, jicama and sugar and toss to mix. Add the basil, tomatoes and optional feta and toss gently. Add the olive oil, lime juice, and seasonings and toss well once more. Taste and adjust the seasonings. Chill at least 3 hours (but not more than 8 hours or the beans get soggy) before serving so the flavors can meld. Add the optional bacon and toss again just before serving. Serves 12.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Mango Madness: Mango Piña Colada, Mango Lassi, Mango Ice Cream; Grilled Mango

Indian Mangoes are in season and Alphonso Mangoes, if you can locate them, are a little piece of heaven. How fortunate that the U.S. trade agreement with India now allows them to be exported! Although sensational eaten out of hand, they lend an exotic flavor to mixed drinks, ice creams and sorbets, and the refreshing Mango Lassi, India's answer to a mango smoothie.

You may, of course, use whatever mangoes are available at the market. The Ataulfo or "Champagne" mango grown in Mexico is less fibrous than other varities and is widely available. Combined with a buttery texture, it makes especially smooth drinks and frozen treats. Kents (from southern Florida) and Keitts (from California) are also very good. As far as I'm concerned, mangoes from Central and South America such as the "Tommy Atkins" look better than they taste (color is not a reliable indicator of quality so it's best to go by scent). Although they tolerate rough handling and transportation without bruising and have a long shelf life, their pallid flavor cannot compare to that of Indian mangoes. In her book "A Feast of Fruits", Elizabeth Riely states that in India "a gift of mangoes is considered a warm gesture of friendship".

For tips on how to cut up a mango and a great recipe for fresh Mango Salsa, go to my fellow blogger Elise's website (Simply Recipes) at:
http://www.elise.com/recipes/archives/002078how_to_cut_a_mango.php

For those of you cooking out this Memorial Day weekend, grilled mangoes and pineapple marry well with chicken, fish, and pork. According to my grilling experts, place 1/2" thick slices of the fruit on a well oiled grill with medium-high heat. Grill until just heated through, about a minute per side. Finish with a very light dusting of cayenne or chili powder and a squirt of fresh lime juice.

MANGO PINA COLADA

2 medium mangoes, cut into 1/4" dice
2/3 cup cream of coconut, such as Coco Lopez, chilled*
6 tablespoons frozen pineapple juice concentrate
1/2 cup light rum, chilled*
1-1/2 cups crushed ice

Combine the first 4 ingredients in a blender and process for 15 seconds. Add the ice and process until smooth and frothy. Makes about 4 servings.

* Cream of coconut, which is usually found in the liquor section, should not be confused with coconut milk, which is unsweetened. Feel free to use a flavored rum such as Coconut, Pineapple, or Mango.

MANGO LASSI

2 cups very cold buttermilk
1 medium mango, cubed
4 tablespoons superfine sugar or mild honey
Pinch of non-iodized salt
1 cup crushed ice
Ground cardamom, to taste
Finely chopped pistachios (optional)

Put the buttermilk, mango, sugar, salt, and ice in a blender and process until smooth. Pour into glasses and sprinkle with the cardamom and pistachios. I like to chill the mixture in the blender container in the freezer for 5-10 minutes and then process again before serving. Serves 2.

EASY MANGO ICE CREAM

This is a "Philadelphia" style ice cream, as no eggs are used.

3 cups diced mango (about 3 medium mangoes)
1-1/2 cups superfine sugar, divided
1 cup chilled mango or peach nectar
2 cups half-and-half
1/4 cup heavy whipping cream
1 teaspoon ground cardamom (optional)*
Pinch non-iodized salt

In a food processor, combine the mango with half the sugar, the salt and the optional cardamom and process until smooth. In a medium bowl, combine the mango nectar, the half-and-half, the cream and the rest of the sugar. Stir until the sugar dissolves and add the mango mixture. Chill in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours. Pour into an ice cream machine and process according to the manufacturers instructions (this usually means storing the ice cream machine's canister in the freezer for at least 8 hours before making the ice cream). Adding the cardamom will remind you of Indian Kulfi, a kind of ice cream. Store in a tightly covered container in the freezer no more than 3 days. Makes about 1 quart.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Perfect Bundt Cake

As a matter of course, I regularly read other food blogs and websites. One of my favorites belongs to uber baker, pastry chef and cookbook author Rose Levy Beranbaum. I own several of Rose's books: "The Cake Bible"; "A Passion for Chocolate"; and "Rose's Christmas Cookies" and I'm anxiously awaiting her forthcoming book, "Rose's Heavenly Cakes."

One of the tips I recently picked up on Rose's blog is how to make the top of a cake baked in a fluted tube pan look as perfect and without air pockets as much as possible. I love the variety of decorative Bundt® pans, such as Nordic Ware's "Cathedral Pan", "Fleur de Lis", and "Bavaria Bundt Pan", but sometimes it's difficult to achieve the intended definition of these beautiful pans. It seems that the more complicated the design of the pan, the more chance there is for the batter to stick in the nooks and crannies.

According to Rose: "Fill the pans about one inch full with batter and then using the back of a spoon with a side to side motion, press the batter into the grooves of the pan before adding the remainder of the batter."

The Nordic Ware company also has a list of helpful tips to ensure fail-safe results for "The Perfect Bundt Cake". Complete instructions are available on their website http://www.nordicware.com/ but here are the highlights:

(1) Spray the pan with a non-stick spray such as Baker's Joy, which contains flour or better still, brush the pan with solid vegetable shortening and dust with flour (Nordic Ware recommends Wondra flour for superior results). Nordic Ware cautions against using a non-stick spray that contains lecithin (a natural and otherwise harmless ingredient derived from soy) as a gummy residue can build up over time, which is difficult to remove. My recently purchased can of Baker's Joy lists lecithin among the ingredients, however. For my part, I'd rather stick to shortening or clarified butter applied with a pastry brush.

(2) Avoid bubbles in the batter by slowing pouring the batter in one corner of the pan and allowing it to slowly flow in and around the Bundt design. When the pan is filled, tap the pan on the counter a few times to release air bubbles;

(3) Fill the pan no more than 3/4 full to avoid overflow. With a spatula, push the batter to the outside of the pan pushing slightly up the walls. This will ensure that the cake will climb up the sides of the pan, giving you greater detail on the outside of the cake.

(4) Black or dark colored pans require a 25° heat reduction.

(5) After the cake is baked, cool the cake for 10 minutes (no more, no less) before inverting on a plate or cooling rack. Using hot pads, pick up the cake and gently shake the pan from side to side. A thumping sound indicates the cake is loose and ready to invert. Apply a glaze or simply dust with powdered sugar.

The photo of the "Bavaria" Bundt® pan and instructions for "The Perfect Bundt Cake" are provided with the permission of Nordic Ware.

Addendum
: I recently came across a cake tester just for Bundt® cakes appropriately named the Bundt® Baking Thermometer. You just insert the thermometer into the center of the cake for 15 seconds. You know the cake is done when the tip turns red. Although I have yet to try it, I imagine it works (although not with the "Tunnel of Fudge" cake which remains soft in the center). The cake tester/thermometer is available from Nordic Ware and at http://www.kitchenkrafts.com/.