It’s Friday, I’m in love

Cooking with Lana Del Rey

Cooking with Lana Del Rey

Now that we’re starting to defrost in DC, I feel like I can finally crawl out from under my pile of blankets, shed a couple of pairs of socks, and maybe get a few things done.  I’m hoping to do some baking and take advantage of a little sunshine on Sunday to bike down to the farmer’s market.

Here are a few photos from the week.  Have a great weekend!

Just when I thought I'd never feel warm again, someone whipped up homemade ramen

Just when I thought I’d never feel warm again, someone whipped up homemade ramen

So. Many. Layers.

So. Many. Layers.

Morning light and a layer of ice inside the windows

Morning light and a layer of ice inside the windows

Icy bike ride through Rock Creek Park

Icy bike ride through Rock Creek Park

Peppermint star sugar cookies

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Sunday was quiet and snowy, perfect weather for staying warm inside, drinking lots of tea, and wearing pajamas for most of the day.  It was also a perfect day for baking holiday cookies.

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I’ve been working on my cookie-making skills this year, and have been looking for a perfect sugar cookie recipe.  For these star-shaped cookies I used a simple Martha Stewart sugar cookie recipe, dividing it in half to make a slightly smaller batch.

I wanted to try something a little different for the frosting and thought it would be fun to drizzle them with lines of red icing.  The red frosting made me think of candy canes so I added a tsp of peppermint extract to the icing. This turned out to be a great idea, and everyone exclaimed that the icing was both pretty and tasty.

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My approach to icing making was a little less than scientific. I dumped about 1.5 cups of powdered sugar in a bowl, flavored it with 1 tsp of peppermint extract, then whisked in a tsp of water at a time until the icing had reached my desired level of drizzliness.  It took about 15 drops of red food coloring to get the right color of red, and once I’d whisked it in well, I used a long tea spoon to drizzle thin streams of icing over the cookies.

Overall these cookies came out fine, neither crumbly or rock hard; subtly sweet but a little on the crunchy side.  This pleased my colleagues, who got to eat most of them, but personally I’d like to find a recipe for a slightly chewier cookie.  Do you have a go-to sugar cookie recipe for the holidays?

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Caramel cider apple pie

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It’s taken a couple of tries, but I finally got got the caramel apple pie to come out perfectly and just in time for Thanksgiving.  As I mentioned in my previous post, I first saw this recipe on Cup of Jo over the summer and set it aside for apple season.

I found the recipe to be very inspiring, but a tiny bit sloppy.  There were details missing that I found frustrating, particularly with the cider caramel, so I took the liberty of making a few changes, which I’ve outlined below.

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A few tips and what I changed:

Given that the original recipe’s crust is from Martha Stewart, it’s probably perfect good to use.  I however, have a lot of faith and experience with Mark Bittman’s flaky pie crust and made two of those for this pie.  Bittman’s recipe is easy, always flaky, and has never gotten soggy on me.

Getting the caramel right took a few tries.  What ended up working for me was to keep the cider at a steady medium boil, and actually measure the liquid to see how far it reduced.  Once it was down to about a cup, it was noticeably thicker, but not as thick as I expect caramel to be.  If I cooked it much longer it burned, so at the one cup mark, I put it in a mason jar and stuck it in the fridge.  That finally did the trick.

I like the apple pie filling to be perfectly soft and have no sort of undercooked bite to the apple texture.  Once I’d cut up the apples, I sauteed them in skillet until they softened.  The additional benefit of pre-cooking your apples is that it removes some of the juice and the pie will be less likely to be watery (the pie in the original recipe photos looks very liquidy.) This takes about 10 minutes in my Le Creuset, and about 20 in a regular kitchen skillet.  I let them cool in the skillet for about 10 minutes, then mix the other filling ingredients directly into the apples in the skillet.  Mix well, then transfer to your prepared pie crust.

Lately I’ve been wanting to improve my pie crust making skills, so I’ve been toying with these dough circles I saw on Food 52.  I found that it was important to keep the dough thin and cold, so I rolled the extra crust out on a piece of parchment paper, then transferred the paper and dough onto a sheet pan and refrigerated them for about 15 minutes.  When I was ready to assemble the top crust, I pulled the sheet pan out of the fridge and cut the dough circles with a shot glass. I got the best result by arranging the dough cut-outs in concentric circles over the apple pie filling, then arranging another set of circles along the edge of the crust.

Given that I used dough circles instead of a regular top crust, I found the browning on the pie crust to be more even if I brushed it with a little milk, rather than egg.  Don’t forget to sprinkle the crust with cinnamon and sugar before popping the pie in the oven.

Lastly, as with most pies, it is very important to let the pie cool completely before serving.  This will help the filling set and not ooze out of your cut pie, as well as help prevent your bottom crust from getting soggy.

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Practice makes perfect pie crusts

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What I love the most about baking is the precision of the process.  How important it is to measure, to have the right ingredients, to know the temperature of the food or the oven, to understand what happens when you emulsify certain combinations of ingredients.  I always feel a little like a scientist in a lab when I’m baking.  Every new recipe is like an experiment, and it fun to try again if something fails, because I know, with practice, I can likely fix it.

For Thanksgiving next week, I’m in charge of the apple pie.  I’ve been working with this recipe I spotted on Cup of Jo over the summer, making just a few adjustments to suit my taste.  I nailed the bottom crust, the filling, even the apple cider caramel reduction.  A beautiful top crust, however, eludes me.  This one worked, but I couldn’t help but immediately start calculating how to improve it.  I want a thicker ruffled edge and thinner disks that cut more evenly and didn’t shrink away from the edge.

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The taste was amazing and we’ve enjoyed it for breakfast over the last few days–I like pie for breakfast more than dessert–but I really want to nail down a beautiful crust.  We have a friendsgiving to attend this weekend, so I have another opportunity to practice before the real deal, next week.  I’ll probably revisit this topic in a few days after I’ve had another go at it, and to talk a bit more about how I changed the crust recipe and the filling.  Until then, here’s to practice makes perfect.

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Chocolate Chaud

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I haven’t been feeling great lately and with the gloomy weather, I was in need of a little pick me up.  What could be more comforting than a little mug of hot chocolate?

Rather than a packet of cocoa and hot water, I was in the mood for something more indulgent.  I like the French approach to hot chocolate: very rich and thick with chocolate.  In general, I prefer desserts that are subtly sweet, so for this drink I used bittersweet chocolate and unsweetened coconut milk, which made for a rich and comforting mug of hot chocolate that wasn’t too sugary.  This recipe made enough for two small mugs–perfect serving sizes for such a decadent drink.  As with many desserts, a tiny pinch of sea salt is a little trick to making the chocolate really flavorful.

Chocolate Chaud

  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1 cup unsweetened condensed coconut milk
  • 3 oz dark chocolate
  • pinch sea salt
  • marshmallows

In a small saucepan, heat the regular milk and coconut milk over medium-low heat until steaming but not boiling.

I had used a double boiler earlier to melt my chocolate for a different cooking project–but you can melt it in the microwave or chop it up and add it straight into the hot milk.  Whisk constantly to incorporate.  This will take 1-2 minutes if you previously melted your chocolate, and 3-5 if you did not.  When chocolate is fully melted into the milk and no more lumps remain, remove from heat and whisk in the pinch of sea salt.  Pour into two mugs, add as many marshmellows as you desire.

Dark chocolate, milk, marshmellows, coconut milk, sea salt

Dark chocolate, milk, marshmellows, coconut milk, sea salt

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Chocolate dipped coconut macaroons

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I remember the first coconut macaroon I ever had.  During a grad school break, I was visiting a friend who was interning in Washington, D.C.  While my friend was working, I was exploring the Capitol Hill neighborhood and popped in to Eastern Market for a snack.  At the time, the Market was housed in a temporary location across the street from its historic building, which was being restored after a fire the summer before.  At one of the bakery counters I bought a macaroon and a piece rugulach, neither of which I’d ever tried.  The rugulach wasn’t memorable, but the coconut was a revelation.  It was everything I’d ever wanted in a cookie.  Crispy outside, dense and chewy inside.  Mildly sweet and made from coconut, one of my favorite flavors.

Sea salt, vanilla, honey, dark chocolate, eggs, sugar, flour, shredded unsweetened coconut

Sea salt, vanilla, honey, dark chocolate, eggs, sugar, flour, shredded unsweetened coconut

Ready for Dessert by David Lebovitz

Ready for Dessert by David Lebovitz

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Since I’m working on my cookie-making skills and we had a party to attend, I thought this would be a good weekend to learn to make macaroons.  We own several David Lebovitz books, including Ready for Dessert, which contains a great macaroon recipe (a halved version of the recipe can be found on his website).  These baked like a dream, were a hit at the party, and are my favorite new cookies.  Since the batter can be made ahead and refrigerated, I’m thinking of making another batch next weekend and baking them to take to Thanksgiving with the Mister’s family.

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A few tips:

Be sure to add and mix all your ingredients in the pan or dutch oven BEFORE heating it.  If you were to heat the pan first, you’d risk cooking the egg whites prematurely.

When you are cooking the coconut mixture, you are trying to get to a consistency that is neither runny nor dry, but rather sticky and clumpy.  Right as mine started to look right, I noticed the scorching on the bottom of the pan and pulled them off the heat.

The mixture is much easier to shape into balls or pyramids once it has thoroughly cooled.  Let it sit until cool to the touch or pop the mixture into the fridge for half an hour.

Since I wanted pyramids, I found the best process was to roll tablespoons of the coconut mixture between my palms to form little balls and then set these on a parchment-lined baking sheet.  Once I’d rolled out all the balls, I went back and used my fingers to shape them into pyramids.  The cleaner your hands are, the less the coconut will stick to them.  I found my fingers got too tacky after shaping about 7-8 pyramids, so I’d just give them a quick rinse and dry, then start on the next 7-8.

You can make these without the chocolate dip at the end, but it really really adds a little something special to these cookies.

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As cookie season draws near

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This year we aren’t straying too far from home for the holidays.  We’ll probably make a quick trip to see family for Thanksgiving and will be in town for Christmas and New Years.  Last year was the first time we had Christmas at home and the Mister’s parents came down to spend it with us.  It was fun to have a first go at creating our own traditions and decide how we wanted to decorate, eat, and celebrate.

When baking, I usually gravitate towards everyday cakes, but this year I’d like to work on my cookie-making skills, both in baking and decorating.  To get in the swing of things, I baked up a batch of Deb’s delicious toasted coconut shortbread cookies and used them to practice tempering chocolate.

I got these adorable little maple leaf and acorn cookie cutters and gave them a try.  Admittedly, they weren’t the best for this kind of cookie, but I’m not quite ready for sugar cookies and royal icing yet.  The tempering seemed to work pretty well, but I think I can do better and neither the Mister, nor my work colleagues seem to mind eating all my test batches.  Hope you have a great weekend!

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Tomato and rosemary focaccia

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So far this year, we’ve had a nice slow transition to fall and I’ve been enjoying the crisp weather.  This past weekend, however, we had a short-lived warm spell, and for about 36 hours we enjoyed sunny 70° temperatures.

Since we were feeling summery, I decided to bake a quick focaccia for brunch topped with a couple of the over-ripe tomatoes from the farmers market.  We bake all our pizzas, flatbreads, and focaccia on a large pizza stone that sits in the bottom of the oven, and use a wooden pizza peel to transfer the dough onto and off of the stone.  The stone is one of our favorite cooking implements and gives the crust great texture, but leaves the crumb perfectly chewy.

I pre-heated the oven to 400°, and rolled out a large hunk of the everyday dough we keep in the fridge at all times.  We sprinkle semolina on the pizza peel to keep the dough from sticking, then transfer the plain, rolled out dough onto the peel.  Give it a little shake to make sure it isn’t sticking.  Brush the dough all over with a little olive oil–we ran out of our usual extra virgin so I broke out this garlic flavored olive oil we’d gotten as a gift.  Sprinkle the dough with about a tbsp of minced fresh rosemary and a healthy pinch of sea salt, then arrange thinly sliced tomatoes over the dough.  Transfer to pizza stone and bake for about 15 minutes.  Remove from oven and cool for 5 minutes, then slice into squares and serve outside on the balcony, to make the most of any unseasonably warm weather.

Rosemary, tomatoes, garlic olive oil, salt (dough not pictured)

Rosemary, tomatoes, garlic olive oil, salt (dough not pictured)

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A few tips:

I kept this focaccia pretty simple, but it wouldn’t hurt to add a little grated parmesan or crumbled goat cheese.

If you are using a pizza stone and find the bottom just the right amount of browned, but the top needs a little more time, transfer the dough from the stone to a baking sheet and set on a rack higher up in the oven for another 5-10 minutes.  Your pizza crust bottom will stay crisp.

Lots of people use corn meal or flour underneath dough to keep it from sticking to the peel, but we find that semolina doesn’t burn as fast in the oven and sticks less to the dough than either cornmeal or flour.

Again, if you are using a stone, put the undressed dough on the peel first, then add your toppings.  This way you won’t have to worry about anything falling off and can go straight from adding toppings to transferring to the stone.  Using a peel does take a little practice but you’ll get the hang of it pretty quickly.

Don’t skip the step of brushing olive oil on the dough to save a few calories.  It adds so much flavor, its really worth it.

Instead, try replacing a 1/3 of your white flour with whole wheat flour.  That’s about as much as I would substitute before I find that the dough quality really starts to take a dive.

As always, use dough that’s been aged for at least 24 hours.  Those sour flavors just can’t be beat.

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Scenes from October

Baked brie and baguettes

Baked brie and baguettes

October was lovely.  After a busy summer of travel, it was nice to enjoy a few low key weeks at home.  We enjoyed the changing seasons, my mother came to visit, we hosted a few dinner parties, snuggled up with alpacas at a friend’s petting zoo party, watched a lot of baseball, and generally cooked up a storm.

Right now I’m sitting next to an open window, enjoying a cold drink, and looking a few of my favorite photographs taken over the last month. Here’s to a great November!

Sweater weather means snuggle time with alpacas

Sweater weather means snuggle time with alpacas

Dinner party with new friends

Dinner party with new friends

Baklava, pears, and raspberry dessert

Baklava, pears, and raspberry dessert

Wine, flowers, and friends

Wine, flowers, and friends

A stunning sunset from our rooftop deck

A stunning sunset from our rooftop deck

Pomegranate seeds and market flowers

Pomegranate seeds and market flowers

Dinner party with old friends and my mother ❤

Dinner party with old friends and my mother ❤

Mama!

Mama!

Who needs flowers on the table when there are bowls of apples?

Who needs flowers on the table when there are bowls of apples?

Detroit corn cakes

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This weekend we had friends over to watch game three of the World Series and eat chili.  It was a pretty exciting game and we were on our feet numerous times, cheering for our team or making our way to the kitchen for seconds.

Making chili is the Mister’s department, but I do have a go-to recipe for fried corn cakes.  A few years ago, when I was living in Michigan, I clipped it out of a copy of the Detroit Free Press, and they’ve been a hit at every chili night I’ve been to since.

Green onions, corn, sea salt, cornmeal, flour, sugar, milk, egg, butter, jalapeno

Green onions, corn, sea salt, cornmeal, flour, sugar, milk, egg, butter, jalapeno

Adapted from a recipe by Chef Shawn Loving, first published in The Detroit Free Press

  • 1 1/4 cup yellow cornmeal
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1/2 cup sugar or less to taste
  • 1 tbsp baking powder
  • 1tsp salt
  • 1 tsp fresh black pepper
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 egg
  • 2 tbsp melted butter
  • 1/8 vegetable oil
  • 1 cup fresh cut corn
  • 1/2 cup green onions, chopped
  • 1 medium jalapeno, seeds removed, minced
  • Oil for frying

In a large bowl, combine corn meal, sugar, flour, baking powder, salt and pepper, stirring with a fork to combine.  In a smaller bowl, lightly beat the egg and milk, then pour into the larger bowl of dry ingredients.  Mix well.  Next, add corn, green onions, chopped jalapeno, butter, and oil.  Stir yet again, until vegetables are well mixed in the batter.

Heat 3 tablespoons of oil in a large cast iron skillet over medium heat.  Use a large spoon to scoop out batter–about 1/8 cup per scoop–and drop in oil.  Use flat side of spoon to flatten batter into a 4-inch round cake.  A large skillet can accommodate about three corn cakes per batch.  After about 90 seconds, small bubbles will appear in the top of batter.  Flip with a spatula and fry other side for an additional 90 seconds, then remove from heat.  Allow to cool for at least 5 minutes before eating.  Makes about 30 corn cakes.

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A few tips:

I halved the original recipe to work for four people. Double the recipe for a larger party.

The original recipe didn’t include the jalapenos, so they could easily be removed or substituted for a different pepper.  I like just a hint of spice in my corn cakes or corn bread.

Try letting the corn cakes cook for two full minutes on each side or until they get a little crispy.  Delicious.

These are best hot, so if you aren’t serving right away, toss them onto a sheet pan and pop them in the oven for a few minutes to rewarm.

These also go well with pulled pork or other kinds of barbeque.

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Braided apple pastry

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Some weekends are too lazy for recipes.   Coffee, naps, and cuddling are oh so tempting as the days get chillier.  These are the times when its handy to have a few puff pastry sheets tucked away in your freezer.  Its so easy to make puff pastry beautiful, and it can be filled with just about anything, savory or sweet.

Apples, cinnamon, puff pastry, brown sugar, butter, egg

Apples, cinnamon, puff pastry, brown sugar, butter, egg

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This pastry was something I threw together with what I had on hand.  Apart from the instructions for cutting the pastry, for which I’ve included a video link below, I didn’t really follow any recipe.  I think this would work well with pears, and next time, I plan to make a little caramel to drizzle over the apples before braiding up the pastry and sticking it in the oven.  Here’s an approximation of what I threw together:

  • 1 sheet puff pastry
  • 2 large apples, peeled and cut into 1/4 in slices
  • 4 tbsp butter
  • 3 tbsp brown sugar
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 egg white
  • flour for rolling out the puff pastry

Preheat oven to 400°F.  Dividing the apple slices into three batches, sauteing them over medium-low heat in a tablespoon of butter, until soft and golden brown, about 5 minutes.  Stir occasionally and add a little extra butter if needed; don’t let them burn.  When apples are golden brown, sprinkle them with a teaspoon of brown sugar and cook for another minute, stirring frequently so that the sugar coats all apple slices from all sides.  Remove from heat and set aside.

Once your puff pastry has defrosted, follow the instructions in the video posted below to roll out and cut your puff pastry.  Add the cooked apples to the center of the dough, sprinkle with1 tbsp brown sugar, 1 tsp cinnamon, and 1 tbsp butter cut into four small cubes and even distributed over the apples.  Braid pastry, brush with egg white, and bake for 25-30 minutes or until golden.  Allow to cool for 15 minutes before serving.

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Braided.Apple.Tart.6

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Dark chocolate cake

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My mother has been visiting and we decided to have half a dozen friends over for a little dinner party.  It had been raining for days, and the damp and chill gave us the perfect excuse to make the first squash soup of the season.  After so much summer traveling, it felt good to gather our dear ones around the table and warm our bones with baked brie, bowls of hot soup and far too much wine.

To round out the meal, I made my favorite dark chocolate cake.  Its a simple thing that improves with time, the perfect dessert to make-ahead when you are busy putting together dinner for a group.  Easy on the sugar and heavy on the chocolate, the cake is very dense.  It cuts well into small servings for a large group, and is just perfect its own, or can be dressed up with a little powdered sugar and served with fresh fruit as shown here.

Eggs, sugar, flour, sea salt, raspberries, dark chocolate, butter

Eggs, sugar, flour, sea salt, raspberries, dark chocolate, butter

Adapted from David Lebovitz’s Gateau Therese in The Sweet Life in Paris.

  • 9 oz bittersweet chocolate (roughly 2.5 bars) broken into squares
  • 8 tbsp butter (1 stick)
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 4 large eggs, room temp, separate whites and yolks into separate bowls
  • 2 tbsp flour
  • pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 350°. Butter the sides of a 9′ inch spring-form pan. Trace bottom onto a piece of parchment paper and cut out circle. Place circle on bottom of spring-form pan; use a little dab of butter to hold down the corners, if needed.

Use a double boiler to completely melt the chocolate and butter.  I improvise a double boiler by filling a sauce pan with an inch of water, setting a stainless steel steamer basket in the pan.  Bring the water to a light boil.  Put the chocolate and butter in a glass dish and set the dish in the steamer basket.

Remove the chocolate and butter mixture from the heat.  First stir in half the sugar, then the egg yolks, then the flour.

Use a mixer to whip the egg whites with the salt until they form soft, droopy peaks.  Add the other half of the sugar and whisk until the whites form stiff, shiny peaks.

Add 1/3 of the egg white mixture to the melted chocolate/butter mixture and use a spatula to lightly fold them together.  Then add the remaining egg whites and fold gently until there are no more white streaks.  Be careful not to overmix.

Transfer batter into the spring-form pan, using the spatula to even out the batter and smooth the top.  Bake for 25 minutes.  Cool for at least 15 minutes before serving.

Improvised double-boiler

Improvised double-boiler

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A few tips:

I love this cake because it is very chocolatey without being too sweet.  The chocolate content is high in proportion to the rest of the ingredients, so the better quality chocolate you use, the better the cake.

Before firing up the double boiler, break the chocolate into small squares and cut the stick of butter into half tablespoon chunks.  This will create more surface area and allow them to melt a little more quickly.

The original recipe calls for baking in a loaf pan.  I’ve made that recipe a number of times and it works well.  The only difference is to extend the baking time to 35 minutes.

If you possibly can, cover the cake and leave out overnight.  Its even better on day two.

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Nutella banana bread

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The mister and I have very different views on Nutella.  Unlike me, he doesn’t find a multitude of ways to sneak it into various sandwiches (peanut butter/banana/nutella, anyone?) or desserts and sometimes, when I’m oohing and aahing over some new recipe he will wrinkle his nose and remind me that it isn’t really his taste.  My colleagues, on the other hand, love Nutella, and when one of them recently decided to invite us all to an afternoon birthday party for his wife, I decided it was the perfect occasion to bake banana bread with a little something special.

Sugar, flour, butter, yogurt, eggs, banana, nutella

Sugar, flour, butter, yogurt, eggs, banana, nutella

I liked this version from Recipe Girl.  Instead of just dumping the Nutella into a cavity or slathering it on top (not terrible ideas), she has you temper it with a little of the banana bread batter, then alternate spoonfuls of the regular batter and the Nutella batter into a bread pan.  Give it a little swirl with a knife, pop in the oven for about an hour, and then you have a delicious loaf, each serving perfectly marbled with Nutella goodness.   The loaf was gobbled up pretty quickly and I enjoyed hearing a little girl and another guest politely argue about who was going to eat more of it.

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A few tips:

I followed this recipe pretty closely.  I even checked the loaf at the 45 minute and, lo and behold, the top was browning a little too quickly.  I covered it with tinfoil, just as Recipe Girl suggested, and the finished loaf came out perfectly.

If your first test with a toothpick comes out a little chocolatey, it may be because you stabbed it in a very Nutella-y area rather than that the loaf is underbaked.  Give it a couple of pokes elsewhere to be sure.

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To make this loaf a little more party friendly, I made a little flag out of a mailing label and half of a barbeque skewer and wrote Nutella Banana Bread on it.  Its a nice idea at parties to warn other guests if a dish may have unexpected ingredients like chicken stock, nuts, or mushrooms.  This way vegetarians and people with food allergies and other dietary restrictions can opt out.  Also, I’m very sorry for anyone with hazelnut allergies.  That must be tough.

Its also nice to not have to worry about keeping track of dishes and utensils you may have brought to a party, so in the case of this loaf, I wrapped it up in parchment paper as though it were a sandwich and secured it with a little bit of colorful string.  Easy to carry, festive looking, and no need to take anything back with me.

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Pear tart

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Tart with caramelized pear

Everyone spends all of autumn talking about apples, but right now, pears and I are having a moment.  Earlier this week I made caramelized pears.  Amazing.  With gelato.  More amazing.  I had a few of those caramelized pears left over and thought I might try using them instead of apples in a simple tart.

Puff pastry, pear, sea salt, butter, sugar

Puff pastry, pear, sea salt, butter, sugar

I’ve made Deb’s apple mosaic tart before (with apples), and its lovely, easy and tasty, so I started with that.  I cut the puff pastry, sugar and butter for baking down by about a quarter since I had eaten quite a few of the pears I had made earlier and didn’t think I’d have enough to make a full sheet.

Even still I wound up with a little extra space in the middle of the tart, but this was no problem.  When I first made baked brie, I figured out how to use puff pastry to make leaves and rosettes.  I made a few rosettes from the trimmings of the puff pastry, set them in the extra space, and gave them a brushing of the drippings I got when I caramelized the pears.

If its possible, I think this turned out better than the original recipe.  I often find that raw apples in tarts and pies don’t cook all the way through.  The apples are tougher than the crust and will fall off because they are too solid, or when you take a bite you’ll come a way with most of the filling and leave behind empty crust.  Here, since the pears have already been softened in the oven, the structure comes from the puff pastry.  Every bite is soft and perfect.  This tart tasted the way I always imagine tarts will taste when I look at the beautiful pictures in recipe books.

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Making caramel topping

Making caramel topping

A few tips:

I think it’s a good idea to check on your tart a few times while it’s baking.  Puff pastry can be unforgiving when it burns, and mine started to brown a little sooner than I wanted, at about 20 minutes or so.  The upside of having the pears pre-cooked was that it didn’t harm the tart at all to take it out a few minutes earlier than called for by the original recipe.

To make rosettes, stretch out a thin slice of puff pastry so its about the size of your palm and has a slight arc.  Starting with the lower corner of the arc, pinch one end together, then roll inward, lightly pinching and pressing the inner edge to the bottom of the flower.  Set lightly on the puff pastry and brush with pear drippings or an egg white, so that they won’t burn.  You could also use a butter knife to cut out little almond shapes.  Press lightly down the middle with the knife edge to make the leaf vein, pinch gently along that seam, and voilà, leaves!  Maybe I’ll make baked brie soon and take pictures to give a better example

Cut a long, slightly curved piece of puff pastry

Cut a long, slightly curved piece of puff pastry

Pinch one end together and gently roll inward to create a florette

Pinch one end together and gently roll inward to create a florette

Puff pastry florette

Puff pastry florette

This tart can be made in the afternoon and set aside to be enjoyed after dinner, but honestly, it will never taste quite as magical as it does fresh out of the oven.  Afternoon dessert is underrated.

Fresh sliced pears are also a great idea, and now I’m wondering how apples would do with the caramelization process that went into these pears.  If anyone tries, let me know.

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Caramelized pears with vanilla and lemon

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Last Sunday we had friends over for dinner and they showed up on our doorstep with baklava and a few ripe Chinese pears.  After dinner we served the baklava with a ice cream, raspberries, and slices of pear.  They’ve been on my mind ever since.

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This weekend was unseasonably warm and, when sorting through recipes, poaching pears with red wine seemed better suited for colder weather.  Caramelizing them in the oven, on the other hand, would go well with ice cream, which was more appealing given the balmy temperatures outside.  Smitten Kitchen’s take on them, with lemon and vanilla, seemed like just the thing so I picked up four of the Barlett pears that have just started to appear at the market.

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Deb’s recipe calls for basting the pears a few times as they cook, and every time I opened the oven door to attend to them the sweet smell of pears and vanilla grew a little richer and the pear drippings in the bottom of the pan looked a little more golden.  They were ready just as the sun was going down, and the warm pear tasted about as golden as the light streaming in through our apartment windows.

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A few tips:

I love a little coconut here and there, so the only modification I made to this recipe was to add about an tablespoon of finely chopped shredded coconut to the sugar and vanilla bean mixture.

To get as much juice as possible when using a fresh lemon, squeeze the lemon well (watch out for pips), then press the back of a spoon against the inside flesh.  Deb doesn’t mention it in the recipe, but her photos show that she tossed the spent lemon rind in the pan with the pears.  I did, too, and though I’m not sure if it helped, it sure didn’t hurt, so go ahead.

Use the same spoon to core the pears if you don’t have a corer or a melon baller.

There are dozens of ways you can use the finished pears, but fresh out of the oven, I drizzled them with the golden pan juices and served with a scoop gelato.  To not overpower the flavor of the pears, I chose a simple roasted almond gelato and thought it worked very well.

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Rosemary olive oil cake

Garnished with a little powdered sugar and chopped pistachios

Garnished with a little powdered sugar and chopped pistachios

A few years ago I lived in a large, beautiful group house with several wonderful housemates.  We had an incredible kitchen in which we spent all our time, laughing and cooking and sharing food.  There were a number of cookbooks left in the kitchen by the landlords, journalists who traveled most of the time, and one of the roommates became obsessed with a recipe she found for rosemary remembrance cake.  She spent months thinking and talking about that recipe, and though she was an excellent cook, put off making it until just before she moved away to the other coast.

Flour, pistachios, lemon, eggs, rosemary, yogurt, olive oil

Flour, pistachios, lemon, eggs, rosemary, yogurt, olive oil

When she finally decided to make the cake, for her going away dinner if I remember correctly, we realized we didn’t have any rosemary.  Our house was next to a co-op with an amazing garden.  They had a the largest rosemary bush I have ever seen and the neighbors had told us to help ourselves if we ever needed any.  My roommate relieved the giant bush of one long branch of rosemary and this was baked right down the center of the cake.  It was so beautiful we even did a little photo shoot with it on our front porch.

It’s been about five years since she made that cake, and though I can’t recall the name of the cookbook in our old house, I’d done a little research online to try to find something similar.  The original cake was baked in a loaf pan, but I wanted to bake a round cake, and ended up choosing this recipe from Cayuga St. Kitchen.

In general, I’m more of a savory person who enjoys sweets in small quantities, so this warm, aromatic cake is right up my alley, and was the perfect accompaniment to morning coffees and afternoon tea.

Rosemary branches baked on to the cake top

Rosemary branches baked on to the cake top

A few tips:

While I did follow the recipe in adding two tablespoons of fresh minced rosemary to the cake, I saw a number of other recipes with branches of rosemary baked into the top, so I felt safe amending this one.  I selected three 5-in branches of new growth from my rosemary plant, choosing the new growth so that the branches would be flexible enough for me to shape them a bit and arrange the rosemary in a circle around the cake.  Fresh rosemary should have lots of natural oils that will be released while baking, so the leaves will dry out, rather than burn, as it bakes.

I felt that the cake might have benefited from a little more lemon zest.  Next time I make it, I might try zesting another half or whole lemon.

The powdered sugar and chopped nuts topping suggested in the recipe were a nice addition to the cake I remember.  Raspberries or fresh sliced pears would also pair nicely when serving.

The original rosemary cake

The original rosemary cake

Making Herb Salt

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Living in a crowded city, we feel very lucky to have an apartment with a sizable balcony and we take advantage of the outdoor space by making it as lush and green as possible in the warmer months.  Over the last few years, we’ve learned that while tomato plants don’t love our space, herbs thrive and we cram in as many varieties as possible.  These fresh herbs are wonderful for cooking, but as the temperatures begin to drop I know I’ll need to make a final harvest and wonder what I should do with the bounty.  Usually in the past, I’ve stored them in freezer bags or hung them up to dry, but this year I wanted to try making herb salt.

I found a promising technique on Food52 and decided to give it a whirl.  I’m not very comfortable leaving the oven on overnight or when I’m not at home, so I waited until I had a day off to tackle this project.

Basil, Rosemary, Lemon Balm

Basil, Rosemary, Lemon Balm

Sweet Mustard, Lemon Basil, Thyme

Sweet Mustard, Lemon Basil, Thyme

Using some kitchen shears, I snipped off big bunches of the herbs I wanted to use and gave them a good washing, then set them on a tea towel in front of a fan so that they would dry thoroughly–that herb scented air filled the whole apartment and smelled amazing!

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When the herbs had dried I spread them out in a number of metal baking sheets and pans, and covered them generously with regular kosher salt.  I turned the oven dial until I heard the pilot light click on (I’m guessing it hit just a little over a 100 degrees but I didn’t have the oven thermometer on), put the trays of herbs in, and set my timer for 8 hours.

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Later that evening, I pulled the trays out of the oven, checked to make sure they seemed thoroughly dry and got out the food processor.  In a few short minutes, I had my finished herb salts all nicely poured into a few unused mason jars. I’m so excited to use these all winter, especially the rosemary salt, which funnily enough, I plan to use on popcorn!

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A few tips:

Before you start, think about which herbs you would like to combine or keep separate.  I made one mixed herb salt that used a little of everything I had in my garden, but also made batches of single-herb salt for those with flavors that I use very specifically in certain dishes.

Be sure to have plenty of salt on hand.  I used nearly half a box of Morton Kosher Salt, which is about 1.5 lbs of salt.

If your herbs have stalks that become woody (most of mine do, especially at this point in the year) consider removing the leaves from the stalk prior to drying.  I only removed the leaves from the rosemary, and after drying the other stalks become brittle and it was harder to remove the leaves without them breaking into the mixture.

Once dried, some of the smaller leaves were harder to break up in the food processor.  They kept “floating” to the top uncut.  You might want to give them a little crush before processing.

Since this is intended to be more of a finishing salt, you may want to use something nicer that kosher salt.  Next year, I may try fleur de sel or Himalayan rock salt.

If you have lots of herbs, go ahead and make a large batch.  These would be great gifts to give to friends and family around the holidays.

After I popped these in the oven, I started doing further research on methods and next year I may try this one from Food Wishes.  I think this slightly different technique might address some of the problems I ran into.

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Pizza with figs, Roquefort, and caramelized onions

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All week long I’ve had figs on my mind.  I spent hours pouring over new recipes to try, and daydreaming ideas to improve old favorites.  Figs come twice a year, but are at their best in the later summer and early fall.  To me they are the perfect kind of sweet, not too sugary, not too tart, the way I imagined nectar tasted to bees when I was child.  Like a with a good cheese, your first taste of a ripe fig should be held on the tongue for a moment, taking time to appreciate its subtle flavors before it melts away in your mouth.

Figs, flour (for dough), sweet onion, Roquefort blue cheese

Figs, flour (for dough), sweet onion, Roquefort blue cheese

I like to get to the market early on Saturdays.  There is always something delicate that comes in small quantities and is gone if you sleep in, even just a little.  For me its worth it to give up a little sleep to have a chance to grab green garlic, the first pears, or a handful of mushrooms.  This week we were running a tiny bit late and when we arrived I headed straight to the back to look for figs.  To my delight, there was one carton of half a dozen figs left.  As soon as I’d set them in my basket, a well-dressed man came rushing up, asking if they were the last ones, and I was sorry to tell him I thought they were.

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Years ago, I had an internship in the mountains in eastern South Africa, and next door to our lodge was a tiny little gift shop called Nina’s, that also sold the most amazing light lunches.  They had a fig and Roquefort pizza that was a hit with my fellow interns.  I’ve never forgotten those amazing flavors and decided to try to make something similar.

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Caramelizing onions

Caramelizing onions

On the pizza stone

On the pizza stone

The result was better than I remembered.  I used far less Roquefort than I would mozzarella on a typical pizza (about an tablespoon and a half vs 1/2 a cup).  The Roquefort melts and spreads out thinly over the other ingredients, it’s sharp salty flavor mellowed by the sweetness of the figs and caramelized onions.  The mister is not a fan of non-traditional pizza (he loves a good red sauce), but even he wolfed down a few slices and tried to describe how the flavors interacted.

Outside it was sunny with a cool breeze, and I took the entire pizza board outside with a glass of sparkling vinho verde; the perfect lunch for an early autumn day.

A few tips:

Consider a pizza stone.  We keep one in the bottom of our oven at all times.  Pizza stones help your oven retain heat that is usually lost when opening the oven door.  This use of high, even heat combined with the kind of wet, aged dough we use, results in a crust that is crunchy on the outside and chewy within.  I’ve mentioned that we use the dough from this book, but here is a similar recipe from Food Wishes.

Aged dough already has really amazing flavor, but I think that brushing a little olive oil over your dough before adding any ingredients really adds another level of amazing flavor.  A tablespoon should be enough for the whole pizza.

Caramelizing onions takes a while.  I usually start well before I’m ready to make the pizza, and they are easy to keep in the refrigerator if you want to make them ahead of time or even the day before.  Just be sure to set the container out when you begin working on dinner; they’ll be easier to spread over the dough if they’ve had a chance to warm up. I caramelized two medium onions for this pizza.

Roquefort and other blue cheeses aren’t the easiest to crumble, but its easier if they are cold.  Keep the cheese in the fridge until you are ready to use it.

You can quarter the figs if you’d like, but I find thin, even slices make for easier eating.

I think that a light sprinkling of salt over the assembled pizza really helps bring out the flavors.  I take just a pinch of good sea salt and hold my fingers high above the pizza while sprinkling.  This helps get a more even distribution so no one part is too salty.  In the case of this pizza, I salted it just before adding the figs.

A perfect weekend lunch

A perfect weekend lunch

Breakfast radishes

Semolina loaf, radishes, eggs, raspberries

Semolina loaf, radishes, eggs, raspberries

There is a time every year, when I’ve read one too many depressing pretentious books by hot young authors, that I put them all away with a dissatisfied grumble and allow myself to drift off in a series of what I call “French food memoirs.”  Typically penned by Americans or Brits living in France or remembering France, they hit just the right combination of bittersweet memories and mouthwatering recipes, and always, always I want to never reach the last page.

One of the first such books that I loosely grouped into “French food memoirs,” is Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life.  There’s a short chapter about the early stages of love and eating radishes with butter on toast.  At the time, I’d probably never had a radish that wasn’t cut into an underwhelming salad, and I promptly went off to the store to try this supposedly simple, perfect meal.

Leave the greens on to stabilize the radish while slicing

Leave the greens on to stabilize the radish while slicing

No doubt it was good, but as I ate them, I couldn’t help but wonder if it would work to saute the radishes in said butter, then serve on a toasted baguette.  As it turns out, it was good, very good, and has become one of our go to lazy morning meals as well as an interesting treat we make for guests.

Sauteing radishes and toasting bread

Sauteing radishes and toasting bread

A few tips:

Leave the greens on while slicing the radishes; it makes it easier to stabilize them as you slice and will help prevent a slip of the knife as the end tapers off.

Use a large pan or saute in several batches.  If you overcrowd the radish slices, they are more likely to steam instead of brown.

Cook the radish greens for a tasty addition, but beware, they like to hang on to their grit.  To get them really clean, float them in a bowl of cool water once you’ve separated them from the radishes.  Every few minutes give them a little swish with your hand, and the grit will loosen up and sink to the bottom of the bowl.

Fresh baguette is great, though we like to eat them on sliced and toasted semolina bread, with a fried or poached egg and fresh fruit on the side.

My perfect breakfast

My perfect breakfast

Veg, veg and more veg (with brown rice and an egg)

Leek, mushroom, bean sprouts, green onions, snow peas, napa cabbage, carrots, shallots, cilantro

Leek, mushroom, bean sprouts, green onions, snow peas, napa cabbage, carrots, shallots, cilantro

Lots of travel usually means lots of meat and carbs in my diet, and as delightful as that is, when I get home I usually just want to detox on a giant pile of vegetables.  A quick stir fry over brown rice has become our go-to for a filling, veg-centric meal.  We try to keep brown rice in stock in our apartment, so whenever the fancy strikes us, I can make a quick run to the little neighborhood grocer, pick up whatever vegetables look good that day, and get dinner started.  The best thing about this is that you can use as many or few vegetables as you want in any combination.  Experiment.

A few tips:

Brown rice has a bad reputation for being hard to cook.  I love this recipe for perfect brown rice every time.  It’s easy and reliable.  I like to substitute chicken stock or add chicken stock concentrate to enhance the flavor.

Saute the vegetables separately.  It takes a little longer, but I find the flavor of the final dish to be better when the tossed components are cooked separately, rather than muddling the flavors by cooking them together.  It’s also helps keep vegetables crisp and not too soggy if you don’t overload the pan.  After sauteing each vegetable, I load them on a large platter.  We then serve rice in a bowl, and top with veggies.

Shred the carrots on a grater to keep their texture and crunch more consistent with the rest of the meal.

Add a little sriracha to the cabbage when sauteing.  I don’t know why, but these two go so well together.

Garnish with a little fresh chopped cilantro and bean sprouts for crunch.

Topping the dish with a fried or poached egg adds the perfect amount of richness.

Top brown rice with sauteed veggies, fresh cilantro, and a fried or poached egg

Top brown rice with sauteed veggies, fresh cilantro, and a fried or poached egg

Ready for Autumn

Watermelons at the market last week

Watermelons at the market last week

I always get a little sad as the last few weeks of summer produce make their way into the farmer’s market in September.  I find myself thinking, “Blueberries won’t taste this good for another year” or “Will this be the last of the summer melons?”  And yet, the fall produce appears and I get excited about the amazing things I will get to eat again.  Looking through these photos from recipes tried in years past has me excited for crisp temperatures and fall bounty.  These all need to make a reappearance on my table soon, and until then I will be savoring the last days of blackberries and heirloom tomatoes.

I love apple picking season

I love apple picking season

Pumpkin pancetta risotto

Pumpkin pancetta risotto

Donal Skehan’s Pumpkin and Crispy Pancetta Risotto

Tart with figs and blue cheese

Tart with figs and blue cheese

New York Times Recipe Fig Tart With Caramelized Onions, Rosemary and Stilton

Fresh apple cider donuts

Fresh apple cider donuts

Apple cider donuts are above my skill level but I think they taste best piping hot with apple cider after a couple hours spent picking apples.

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