Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Tough Cookie

It seems to me there are two kinds of food blogs - the ones like mine which are, to put it kindly, homemade, and the ones where the blog owner has done her/his homework to produce professional quality photographs and scintillating text.

To defend mine a bit, I started the blog with the dual goals of keeping up my writing skills after retirement and of assembling all my favorite recipes online where I could access them from anywhere. My photos take about five seconds to plate, compose, and shoot - and I'm afraid that, with few exceptions, that's how they look. I like my dinner to stay hot.

The professional ones, however, are truly a pleasure to encounter. From the edgy vibe of "Thug Kitchen" to the stylish look of "Orangette" to the gorgeous, deliberate photography of "La Tartine Gourmande," they all have their appeal. I tend to stick with the ones where the writing is the best, but I can be seduced by food porn, too.

I have a new favorite, "The Tough Cookie."  The author, Nila, makes mainly desserts that are so beautiful that I rush right out to purchase the makings. Sadly, mine don't always end up as pretty as hers, but I have a fine time trying. When I made the brown butter cake from the last post, it was such a big hit with us that I shopped again the very next week for the makings and, this time, added the raspberries that Nila recommended in the first place.
Nila was correct - always make it with the raspberries. It's a whole different animal and much, much better. It was so good, it disappeared before I had time to photograph it!

That time, I made extra brown butter, as I had also read on her blog about a sort of cinnamon-brown butter spread for toast that is reminiscent of the cinnamon sugar your Mom probably put on your toast, only taken to a whole different level. Nila added a big pinch of salt to the combination of cinnamon, sugar, and brown butter, so you get that whole sweet-salt thing going in your mouth. Big wow!

For pure nostalgia and laziness, I still love good old cinnamon sugar on my toast - brings back memories of my Mom showing me how to mix them thoroughly before sprinkling - but if you are looking to ramp up your breakfast offerings (or it would be great with toast and tea at teatime), you really should try this stuff. The recipe makes enough for several days' worth of sweet-savory mornings. And check out The Tough Cookie while you're there. It brings food blogging up a notch, too.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

A Cake Walk

I've been good. I've been very good. Ever since we lost Cora, I have resolved to keep walking in her memory, as she was the one who got me into the habit of walking once or twice daily. She always looked so forward to her forays out of the house, but she was never willing to go it alone. Even on the days when I felt I couldn't face another walk around the neighborhood, she would patiently wait and her very patience was what guilted me out the door. So, when she went to heaven, I decided that I needed to keep going - literally as well as figuratively.

I have several different routes to take, some more challenging and hilly, some easier and flatter, but I get out each day, no matter what. I find that I actually like walking by myself, too. After the first several poignant days when I missed my furry companion greatly, I realized that when I walk without a dog, I can pick up the pace and swing along, rather than stopping every few yards to let her sniff a bush or leave her own pee-mail. My lungs expand and my stride lengthens and my heart pumps - it feels very good!

And, when I get home, I feel that I have earned a treat. Let them eat cake!  Not rich cake with icing, but rather this lovely cake that I actually learned about while listening to a podcast of Spilled Milk as I walked!  How's that for elegant?

The particular episode I was laughing along to was about brown butter - how to make it and possible uses for it. Molly and Matthew referenced their website, which mentioned a blog called The Tough Cookie  where there was posted this recipe for Brown Butter Nectarine and Raspberry cake, which was adapted from yet another source. Do we live in an amazingly connected world, or what?

Anyway, the idea of making a cake with brown butter just sounded so good that I walked on home and began the prep. The trickiest part is making the brown butter as the window between brown and burned is brief and a little fraught, but I managed it with the instructions from the Tough Cookie, and so can you. The rest is, as they say, a piece of cake.

I didn't have raspberries and a visit to both of our little markets in town yielded no raspberries - not even frozen ones! - so I just subbed in more nectarines. I think it would be even better, and a lot more colorful, with the sweet-tart and rich red berries, but it was lovely even as is. The cake part is light and airy and mildly sweet with just a little depth of extra richness from the brown butter. People, it crisps just a tad on the buttery edges; those swoonworthy edges! 

The nectarines cooked down into the batter a bit, and grew soft and syrupy with just a little resistance from the skin to keep it real. The recipe said to serve with vanilla ice cream (didn't have) so we settled for a puddle of creme fraiche to dip our forks into, and the slight tartness of the creme was the perfect foil for the lightly sweet cake. 

It made a lovely dessert served warm out of the oven and, the next morning after our walk, it was a lovely mid-morning snack.  

Before we put on our walking shoes, My Beloved set up the coffee while I put our slices and coffee mugs into the warming drawer; the cake was just warm when we returned. He touched off the button on the coffee maker and in minutes we were sitting down to hot, creamy coffee and light, fresh cake. Have I mentioned that I love, love, love the warming drawer?

You can find the recipe by following the link above to The Tough Cookie and using the recipe roster to find the cake. The only thing I would add to it is that it took fully 30 minutes longer to bake than the recipe said. If you make it, check at the time stated in the recipe but don't be surprised if it takes longer for your cake tester to come out clean.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Briny Brother

When my Hawaii brother was here to celebrate My Beloved's birthday last fall, we rode the ferry over to the Ferry Building in San Francisco where we purchased a couple of killer brined pork chops. They were simply amazing, moist and flavorful and wonderfully porky, but with undertones of salt and sweet and herb.

Apparently, that bro has been thinking about them ever since because, last week, he sent me his recipe for brine to try. I followed his recipe to the letter; after two days of brining, I seared the chops in a pan and finished them in a 350 degree F oven.

Maybe it's because this brother lives in Hawaii, but both My Beloved and I thought the chops had a sort of mild teriyaki vibe, not as sticky and sweet, nor as gingery and garlicky, but just suggesting palm trees and soft, warm breezes with every bite. Ono!

I'd happily make these again, and next time I'd add an herbal note adding to the brine a bay leaf, or perhaps some thyme. They were delicious as is, but I'm a tinkerer by nature.

So, while the clouds hang heavy over the bay, brine up some chops and send a mental "Aloha!" to my briny brother as you dream of sandy beaches.

Whiting's Brined Pork Chops

6 boneless loin pork chops (I used bone-in, as I think they have even better flavor)
2 cups water
1 cup apple cider or apple juice
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/8 cup rock salt (I used kosher)

About 2 teaspoons butter

Mix water, cider, syrup, and salt in an airtight container or plastic bag, making sure the salt has dissolved. Add the pork chops and brine in the fridge for 2 days, turning them occasionally to redistribute the brine.

When ready to cook, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Melt butter in a hot pan and sear the chops on one side until nicely browned. Flip them and put the pan directly into the preheated oven for about 10 minutes, until they are done but still  lightly pink inside. Serve with pan juices poured over the chops.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Spur-Of-The-Moment Scones

One of the best things about scones, aside from their adaptability to a wide variety of ingredients, is that you can think of scones one minute and be eating them less than twenty minutes later, hot and fresh from the oven. 

That's exactly what happened to me the other morning. We awoke to a blue sky - yes, people! Blue! - and that set the mood for the whole day. We tumbled out of bed and into the kitchen to make coffee, to sit and admire the blue sky and even bluer bay water out the windows. 

And I thought, "This would be perfect with scones."

So, while My Beloved made the coffee and put mugs and plates into the warming drawer, I pulled out Molly Wizenberg's wonderful book,"A Homemade Life," and turned to page 174 in the hardcover edition for her scone recipe. I had some sadly flavorless nectarines that needed eating, so I decided to use them in place of the ginger, and to enhance their lacklusterocity with some allspice and brown sugar.

I made the scones by Molly's recipe, but before adding the chunks of nectarine, I tossed them in a combination of brown sugar mixed with allspice so the sugar and spice coated the fruit. The tactic was a success - my sadly flat fruit was jazzed up and, in the oven, it made little pockets of juicy, sweet, spiced goodness.

Molly's recipe makes medium-sized scones, just right for a mid-morning snack, rather than the huge, heavy ones you get in most coffee shops. Next time you awake to a blue, blue sky, consider making some spur-of-the-moment scones.

Nectarine and Allspice Scones, thanks to Molly Wizenberg

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F and line a baking tray with parchment paper.

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 Tablespoons (2 ounces) cold, unsalted butter, cut into 1/2" cubes
3 Tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup half-and-half, plus more for glazing
1 large egg

2 nectarines, pitted and cut into 1/2" chunks
2 Tablespoons brown sugar (less if your nectarines are sweet)
1 teaspoon allspice

Mix the allspice and brown sugar together in a small bowl with a whisk until well combined. Toss the fruit chunks in the mixture and set aside while you make the scone dough.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Using your hands, rub the butter into the flour mixture, squeezing and pinching with your fingertips until the mixture resembles a coarse meal and there are no butter lumps larger than a pea. Add the sugar and whisk to incorporate. Add the nectarine chunks and toss with your hands to distribute more or less evenly.

Pour 1/2 cup half-and-half into a small bowl or measuring cup and add the egg. Beat with a fork to mix well. Pour the wet ingredients into the flour mixture, and stir gently to just combine. The dough will look dry and shaggy, and there may be some unincorporated flour at the bottom of the bowl. Don't worry about that. Using your hands, squeeze and press the dough into a rough mass. 

Turn the dough, and any excess flour, out onto a board or countertop, and press and gather and knead it until it just comes together. You don't want to overwork the dough; ideally, do not knead more than 12 times. Pat into a rough circle about 1" thick. Cut the circle into 8 wedges and plates them on your parchment-lined baking sheet. 

Using a pastry brush, gently brush the tops of the scones with a thin coat of half-and-half to glaze. Bake for 10-14 minutes, or until pale golden. Transfer to a wire rack to cool slightly, but serve warm, with butter, if you like.

They can be wrapped airtight for a day or two but for longer storage, freeze. Before serving, bring them to room temperature, then reheat briefly in a 300 degree F oven. Best served warm.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Food To Mourn By

My cooking for the past several weeks has gone to pot. I have done quick and easy, not long and careful, ever since we lost Cora. So, there wasn't much to show you or to talk about for a while there. But, it helped to babysit our neighbor's dog, Sandy, for a few days while she took her mother away for a long weekend of girlie fun and, slowly, we are starting to expect a quiet house with no ecstatic greeting when we return home. It's a cliché, but life does go on.

We have been having a series of cool, windy, overcast days when the fog clears only briefly in the early afternoon. I'd normally bitch about that but it suited our mood, so what the heck. It gave me an excuse to dive back into comfort foods when we really needed comfort. One of the best I made was Jacques Pépin's White Bean and Ham Stew. Called "garbure," it's a hearty dish from Southwestern France. The link above will take you to the real recipe - I made some changes since I didn't have all the ingredients nor the energy to go out and get them. I think M. Pépin's original recipe, which I used as an outline for how to proceed, would probably be better than mine, but even my bastardized version is tasty and deeply satisfying.

I started with dried beans and, seeking to dispel some of the inevitable gas, soaked them in two changes of water over two days before composing the stew in my crockpot. I had a ham hock in the freezer, so I thawed that and used only the one in a large pot of stew; happily, it flavored the entire pot with smoky goodness. 

I wouldn't have thought of adding potatoes or root veggies to a bean dish, but we liked all the bland flavors and varying textures. Tasty, but not challenging, it is good food to mourn by.

White Bean and Ham Stew with Cheesy Toasts

1.5 cups small white beans, such as Navy beans, sorted and rinsed, and soaked for two days (If you don't have two days, just cook the beans longer in more water)
1 smoked ham hock
1 large carrot, cut into 1/2" chunks
1 large onion, cut into wedges through the stem end
2 stalks celery, cut into 1/2" chunks
8-10 radishes, large ones halved
6-8 small round potatoes, large ones halved or quartered
Salt, pepper

Rustic bread, toasted
1 clove garlic, cut in half sideways
Swiss or gruyere cheese

After soaking the beans for a day or two, pour off the soaking water and add the beans, the ham hock, and water to barely cover to your crock pot. Cook on high until the beans begin to be tender - mine took four hours - then remove the ham hock to a cutting board, peel off the skin and discard, and chop the meat into small, pieces, discarding bones and gristly bits. Return the meat to the bean pot with the vegetables and continue cooking until the beans and veggies are soft. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Toast slices of a rustic bread such as Pain au Levain, rub with cut side of the garlic, and top with cheese. Place them on a baking sheet and run them briefly under the broiler to melt the cheese. 

Scoop the bean stew into shallow bowls and serve with warm toasts.