Monday, December 23, 2013

Merry Christmas Cranberry Salad

I have never been much of a cranberry fan. Or a Jello fan either. I must harbor strange childhood memories:

  • A family holiday tradition was making a cranberry relish that had only three ingredients -- freshly ground whole cranberries and whole oranges, sweetened by as much sugar as you wanted (or not.) The grinding was fun, but I really didn't like the texture of the relish. My adult senses are wiser.
  • I distrusted any food that you could see through. Or that jiggled. I didn't think it was fun food;  it just reminds me of bad school cafeteria fare. Although cafeteria food has much improved, I do believe Jello is still a staple. I would eat it only to strengthen my nails.
This salad was different. It has been the regular contribution of a family to our annual church Christmas dinner. Last year I was so bold as to ask the man (who I didn't know too well) for the recipe. He immediately began rattling off the precise measurements.

"Wait a minute, wait a minute, Dave," I said. "Let me get a pen!" I was really surprised that the recipe had Jello in it; although I wondered as I was writing things down, if plain gelatin and fruit juice would be a good way to make this. But first, try it as written. I did . . . and I still liked it.

After I thanked him and started walking away, Dave, the retired accountant, said, "You know, it's not a cheap salad to make." and then he began itemizing the cost of each ingredient. Even the math-challenged me recognized that it wasn't a bargain. But it is Christmas, after all, and generosity prevails.

When I asked what his family called it, he just shrugged and said, "We always just called it Christmas salad."

So that's what we'll call it here.

Christmas Cranberry Salad
3 cups whole cranberries
1 1/2 cup sugar
1 large package raspberry Jello (any red flavor will do)
1 cup grapes, seeded and halved
1 cup chopped walnuts
1 cup crushed pineapple, undrained

Cook the cranberries over medium heat  until they have popped. Add the sugar and Jello and stir until dissolved. Remove from stove-top and cool until the mixture starts to thicken; then add the grapes, walnuts and pineapple. Chill  until ready to serve.

Merry Christmas to you and yours . .  and best wishes for a happy new year!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Pickled Brussels Sprouts and Pantry Envy

If I was upset that the blight spoiled  the garden's tomato crop this year, the Brussels sprouts more than compensated for it by nearly over-achieving. We had a small forest of mini-palm trees growing well into October, though they might have lasted through a couple frosts, if we hadn't been so eager to get "winter-ready."

I've grown to love Brussels sprouts, even though as a kid the mushy, smelly little cabbage heads had no appeal for me. (Little sister Rita, however, has always loved them; I happily gave her my share.)

I thought it was just the fact that my taste had matured that changed my outlook on Brussels sprouts. But I learned that there's a scientific reason that Brussels sprouts have become more fashionable: Breeding research conducted in the Netherlands about 30 years ago resulted in less bitterness and improved health benefits. This led to increased cultivation and a surge in the vegetable's popularity.

If you'd like to read more about Brussels sprouts, try a nice article about Brussels sprouts that called them "The Unexpected Culinary Swan."

Discovering different ways of preparing Brussels sprouts has to account for its increased popularity, too. It used to be that boiling or steaming them was the only way we knew to prepare them. Now, since they are less bitter, sauteing and roasting, even raw in salads, have become increasingly popular, and infinitely tastier, ways of cooking Brussels sprouts. My favorite way to cook sprouts is roasting, although this recipe is darn good.)

Although I love the sprouts fresh, I'm not too fond of them frozen. I did freeze a few quarts  this year, but despite the fact I blanched them briefly, put them in an ice water bath, and drained them well before vacuum sealing them they're just not as good as fresh.

Since I had this bumper crop then, I had to come up with another way to preserve some of this bounty. The answer: Pickling!

My neighbor Dude (Yes, it's the real name of my 70 something neighbor; has been since he was 8 years old!) cans quite a lot. Fresh vegetables, pickled vegetables, soups, stews, just lots of stuff.  I knew he did because we swap garden stories all spring and summer.

But it wasn't until he took me to visit his pantry that I realized just how much he did can. Just take a look at this . . . .

And this . . . .

I always get a sweet sense of satisfaction when I go to my basement and see my little jars of garden treasures, glistening like jewels under the light. But my little store pales by comparison to Dude's mother lode! See why I have a twinge of pantry envy?

Do I dare take a jar of my pickled Brussels sprouts to Dude? Will he laugh?

Pickled Brussels Sprouts
from Edible Wisconsin
makes 3 pints
This is a small batch but worth it. These sprouts have a tang with a hit of hot. A nice addition to a relish tray . . . or maybe a Bloody Mary! they're best used whole, but you can halve large ones.

! 1/2 pounds Brussels, sprouts (about 6 cups)
1 1/2 cups cider vinegar
1 1/2 cups water
4 teaspoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon cardamom seeds
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon whole peppercorns
3 garlic cloves, sliced

Sterilize 3 pint-sized canning jars and lids

Bring a large pot of water to boil and blanch Brussels sprouts for about 2 minutes. Immediately drain and submerge in ice water to cool.

Meanwhile, combine vinegar, water, salt and suagr in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil.

Turn down heat and boil for about 3 minutes, stirring until salt and saugar are dissolved. Turn off heat.

Drain Brussels sprouts and pack evenly among the three jars. EVenly distibute the spices andgarlic among the jars, too.

Carefully pour the brine in the jars to 1/2 inch below the top of the jars. Screw on lids.

For refrigerator pickles, let cool to room temeprature then put in fridge. Wait a few days before opening (if you can.) Should keep about one month in the fridge.

For canned pickles, process the jars in a boiling hot water bath for 10 minutes. Remove and let cool. Wait a few days before opening. Will keep indefinitely.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Pumpkin Spice Crunch Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Filling -- A Mouthful of a Story!

Some of us are bakers and some of us are cooks. Few of us are really good at both. (Although I know quite a few who are!) And then there are some -- like me -- who refuse to admit that it doesn't make any sense that a good cook can't be a good baker -- so I continue to bake, mistake after mistake, failure after failure.

And once in a blue moon a mistake blooms into a roaring success! Case in point: these cupcakes.

It's a long story; I'll (try to) keep it short.  Since cheesecake is one dessert I can bake successfully time after time, I planned to make one for my sister-in-law's birthday party. A maple walnut cheesecake, to be precise. (It was scrumptious.)

But even cutting it into 16 pieces wouldn't be enough for the expected crowd, so I planned to make cupcakes, too. Not ordinary cupcakes, mind you. The "creative" baker in me was going to experiment. In cooking, that's not something I'm unaccustomed to doing. Baking? Another story.

I had some canned pumpkin pie filling lurking in the pantry. (A mistake purchase; meant to grab plain ol' pumpkin. Got the "filling" instead in a blind reach.) Found a cake recipe that called for using pumpkin pie filling. So far, so good. But to make it special, to put my imprint on it, I decided to fill the cupcakes with cream cheese, a method I'd used several times making these pumpkin cream cheese muffins.

I made a couple other additions, subtractions, deletions to the original recipe, and popped these babies in the oven.

Testing for doneness was a little tricky for me, because of the creamy filling and the crunchy topping. So I trusted my own experience with my oven and took them out two minutes early. I let them cool just a bit. Still warm,  I tore one apart to test. "Hmmm," I say to self, "still too gooey. Either they're not done, or just still warm."

Although panic had not yet set in -- the gathering was still a few  hours away -- I was stymied for Plan B. Just then, the phone rang. It was my friend Susie suggesting that she bake something extra for the birthday. Was she psychic? Had she eavesdropped on my near-panic? What a godsend! Hallelujahs all over the place! Bless you, Susie! I did not tell her my tale of baking woe and simply said, "Great idea!"

Later that evening, everyone was delighted with both my cheesecake and Susie's spice cake. The next day, my daughter was visiting and casually asked about the cupcakes she spied.

"Oh, those, " I said, "I'm afraid they 're a mistake. I tried to get creative and it they didn't turn out so swell. Wanna try one?"

Amy pronounced them delicious and I had to try myself then. They were delicious! They just needed a little cooling, time to set up.

So a basic cooking lesson I learned long ago was reinforced. Never make something brand new for a special occasion. If you do, have a good friend as a back-up.

Pumpkin Spice Crunch Cupcakes 
with Cream Cheese Filling
adapted from
makes 24 cupcakes

8 ounces cream cheese, softened
2 tablespoons confectioner's sugar
1 package spice cake mix, divided
2 large eggs
1 2/3 cup pumpkin pie filling
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/3 cup flaked coconut
1/4 cup chopped walnuts
4 tablespoons butter, softened

About two hours before baking, mix the cream cheese and sugar well. waxed paper, form a log about 12 inches long. Using the waxed paper to help, roll the log into a tube. Wrap again with foil, and pop in the freezer for at least two hours until firm.

When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Prepare muffin pans by lining with paper cups, or using non-stick spray.

Combine 3 cups only of the cake mix (saving the rest for the topping), eggs pumpkin pie mix and the spices in a large mixing bowl. Mix on low speed until moistened. t\Then beat on medium speed for 2 about one tablespoon of batter into prepared muffin pans. Take the chilled cream cheese log from the freezer and cut into 24 slices. Place one slice in each cup. Then pour the rest of the batter evenly among the muffin

Combine the reserved cake mix, coconut and nuts in small bowl. Cut in the butter with a pastry blender and sprinkle over batter.  Bake 15 to 20 minutes. Let cool completely on wire rack.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Blueberry Crumb Bars, Blueberry Crumb Bars | Well Worth Repeating

I've been holding out on you -- I've been making these Blueberry Crumb Bars all summer, ever since our first blueberries ripened in late June. Every. Single. Week. Mr. Rosemary likes them that much. (So do I.) And I have enough in the freezer to make, oh, I'd say enough for a weekly batch through January!

And I took a pan of these to the family's annual Labor Day get together, an appropriate official end to summer. And everyone loved them there, too. Even my brother (who boned up on reading my blog before our get together said I should put these up on the blog: "You haven't been posting there much lately," he said.)

And when my eight year old cooking student took them to a friend's home for dinner he got a thank you note and a request for the recipe!

I have found this recipe in a lot of places, so whoever first created it gets no credit! I first found these via the Brown Eyed Baker. She attributed them to Smitten Kitchen, who wrote that she first got the recipe from all  I liked Smitten Kitchen's the best, because it used all butter as the shortening and included a good touch of lemon, both in the blueberry mixture and the crust. So that's the one I used. (And used and used and used.)

Maybe you'll become a blueberry crumb bar junkie, too, after you try these. They're pretty simple, oh-so-good, and can be a great dessert, a nice snack, or a complement to a breakfast spread.

But Mr. Rosemary will suggest that you warm these up a little and add a dollop of Cool Whip.  And I might add, Cool Whip might do in a pinch but real whipped cream is so much better!

Blueberry Crumb Bars
Yield: I cut these into 36 smallish rectangles
1 cup white sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup cold unsalted butter (2 sticks)
1 egg
1/4 teaspoon salt
Zest and juice of one lemon
4 cups fresh blueberries
1/2 cup white sugar
4 teaspoons cornstarch

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.  Grease a 9×13 inch pan.
2. In a medium bowl, stir together 1 cup sugar, 3 cups flour, and baking powder. Mix in salt and lemon zest. Use a fork or pastry cutter to blend in the butter and egg. Dough will be crumbly. Pat half of dough into the prepared pan.
3. In another bowl, stir together the sugar, cornstarch and lemon juice. Gently mix in the blueberries. Sprinkle the blueberry mixture evenly over the crust. Crumble remaining dough over the berry layer.
4. Bake in preheated oven for 45 minutes, or until top is slightly brown. (This took an extra 10 to 15 minutes in my oven.) Cool completely before cutting into squares.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Love Knots | Soft Hot Buttered Pretzels

If you had to choose between an Alton Brown recipe and a King Arthur Flour recipe for soft pretzels, what would you do?

Tough choice.After all, Alton Brown is almost as exhaustive as Christopher Kimball when it comes to figuring out the very best way to make something.

On the other hand, when you're baking, what better authority than the royalty of  King Arthur Flour?

Although nearly a toss-up, in the end I chose the King Arthur Flour recipe because it seemed just a tad simpler and, since this was to be a  lesson with my little 8 year old cooking student, simpler was the way to go.

With school out for the summer, Wyatt and I had plans to make "bread" things since we had more time than during the school year.

We started with a quick bread.  Then moved on to sweet rolls. But to make things interesting (and educational) we conducted our own little experiment.

We made a "quick sweet roll," a recipe that used just baking powder instead of yeast. His job was to take both versions homes and test them out. I was surprised that the "quick" sweet roll -- an America's Test Kitchen recipe --  beat out the traditional yeast rolls. (And I forgot to get pictures before Wyatt took them all home!)

So we moved on to these pretzels -- if I knew that they were this easy -- and fun -- to make, I would have made them a long time ago.

With this success under our belt, we may move on to regular, real bread!

Soft Hot Buttered Pretzels
2 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
2 1/4 teaspoons instant yeast
7/8 to 1 cup warm water*
1 cup boiling water
2 tablespoons baking soda
coarse, kosher or pretzel salt, optional
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
*Note from KAF Bakers: Use the greater amount in the winter, the lesser amount in the summer, and somewhere in between in the spring and fall. Your goal is a soft dough.

  • To make dough by hand, or with a mixer: Place all of the dough ingredients into a bowl, and beat until well-combined. Knead the dough, by hand or machine, for about 5 minutes, until it's soft, smooth, and quite slack. Flour the dough and place it in a bag, and allow it to rest for 30 minutes.
  • While the dough is resting, prepare the topping: Combine the boiling water and baking soda, stirring until the soda is totally (or almost totally) dissolved. Set the mixture aside to cool to lukewarm (or cooler).
  • Preheat your oven to 475°F. Prepare a baking sheet by spraying it with vegetable oil spray, or lining it with parchment paper.
  • Transfer the dough to a lightly greased work surface, and divide it into eight equal pieces (about 70g, or 2 1/2 ounces, each).
  • Allow the pieces to rest, uncovered, for 5 minutes. Pour the baking soda/water into a inch square pan.
  • 8) Roll each piece of dough into a long, thin rope (about 28" to 30" long), and twist each rope into a pretzel. Working with 4 pretzels at a time, place them in the pan with the baking soda/water, spooning the water over their tops; leave them in the water for 2 minutes before placing them on the baking sheet. This baking soda "bath" will give the pretzels a nice, golden-brown color.
  • Transfer the pretzels to the prepared baking sheet. Sprinkle them lightly with coarse, kosher, or pretzel salt, if desired. Allow them to rest, uncovered, for 10 minutes. (We sprinkled half of our pretzels with cinnamon sugar, half with salt. Sugar for Wyatt, salt for me.)
  • Bake the pretzels for 8 to 9 minutes, or until they're golden brown.
  • Remove the pretzels from the oven, and brush them thoroughly with the melted butter. Keep brushing the butter on until you've used it all up; it may seem like a lot, but that's what gives these pretzels their ethereal taste. Eat the pretzels warm, or reheat them in an oven or microwave.
Makes 8 large pretzels.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Bake Sale Lemon Bars

I was on the docket to make cookies for the social hour after church last Sunday. I'd signed up weeks before and carefully picked the date, considering what I knew we had going on. We'd be back from our fishing trip, hay making should be over, no company visiting, no parties to attend. Perfect. No stress timing.

Trouble was, we were right smack dab in the middle of making hay. We had lots of volunteer helpers who needed food and drink. And granddaughter Emma wanted to come visit and help with hay. So, I got up extra early Saturday morning and started baking these lemon bars.

I chose the lemon bars because a new magazine, Taste of Home, had just come, and these just grabbed me. I love lemony things; Mr. Rosemary doesn't. He's a chocolate, peanut butter and nuts fan. I like those, too, but I also crave something lighter and tangy once in a while. The church social is a great excuse to get to make something I want to sample.

But something about the date kept nagging at me.   Maybe it was next Sunday, I worried, not tomorrow!  I checked the calendar on my iPhone. (I'm really surprised at how much I really use the phone for more than phone calls and games!) 

Yep. Said it was next Sunday all right. But still I don't trust myself. Maybe I entered it wrong. So I called a woman from church who assured me it was indeed the following Sunday.

So I had lots of extra cookies to share. My volunteer farmhands were happy. And I think I'm going to be making these again. On the right Sunday.

Bake Sale Lemon Bars
from Taste of Home, June-July 2013
contributed by Mildred Keller, Rockford IL 1996

3/4 cup butter, softened
2/3 cup confectioners' sugar
1 1/3 cup plus 3 tablespoon all-purpose flour, divided
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1 1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup lemon juice
Additional confectioner's sugar for dusting

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. In a large bowl, beat butter and confectioners' sugar until blended. Gradually beat in 1 1/2 cup flour. Press into bottom of greased 13 X 9 baking pan. Bake 18- 20 minutes or until golden brown.
Meanwhile,, in a small bowl, whisk eggs, sugar, lemon juice and remaining flour until frothy. Pour over hot crust and Bake 20-25 minutes or until topping is set and lightly browned.
Cool completely on a wire rack. Dust with additional confectioners' sugar. Cut into bars. Refrigerate leftovers.
Makes 4 dozen (if you cut them that small!)

Monday, June 17, 2013

Better than Average Broccoli Salad -- and a Blog-cation

Broccoli salads have become pretty standard fare at summer picnics and parties, sharing the classic rung with the likewise ubiquitous macaroni, pasta and potato salads. And there's nothing wrong with the classics . . . but every once in a while, I itch for just a little twist that makes people go, "Hmmmm . . . . what's in here?"

I was inspired to break out of my broccoli-salad-comfort-zone by "The Meaning of Pie," one of my favorite food blogs. Kelly Yandell has a knack for making ordinary things special . . . and photographs everything so well. Please pay a visit.

Often, you'll find broccoli salads swimming in a creamy mayonnaise dressing and laden with cheese and bacon. (Who doesn't love bacon?)  This version has bacon but a more spare coating of dressing,.a tang from fruit juice, crunch from nuts and onion, and a touch of sweet from cranberries.

The salad that inspired Kelly, she shares, came from her Aunt Jane, who used yogurt in the dressing, but Kelly opted for sour cream because that's what she had on hand. I love a recipe, and the cook, that is flexible enough to take advantage of what's in the refrigerator and pantry.

Better-than-Average Broccoli Salad
only slightly adapted from The Meaning of Pie

4 cups fresh broccoli florets, stems copped and florets cut into tiny pieces
6 slices of bacon, cooked crisp and chopped
1/2 cup slivered almonds, toasted
2 stalks of green onion, chopped fine
1 cup dried cranberries

For the dressing:
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup plain Greek-style yogurt
3 tablespoons apple juice
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 teaspoons sugar

Cut the broccoli into small pieces, using both the florets and the the stems.

Combine the broccoli, almonds, cranberries and onion in a large bowl. In a small bowl, combine the dressing ingredients, combining well. Pour over the salad and mix. Keep refrigerated .

Makes about 6 servings. (Easily doubled!)

* * * * * * * * * * *
Now -- about the blog-cation. I didn't plan to be absent, just happened. We've been busy remodeling. (See the barn wood in my pictures? It's from our old barn and is now siding our fireplace wall. And my kitchen is now painted a beautiful red, outfitted with new appliances. Lots going on; and not quite done.) And then there was the 10-day fishing trip to Canada. And then there was . . . well, you get the idea. Plus, I was feeling I had nothing interesting to write about and, in the midst of remodeling, couldn't find my stuff! Anyhow, I'm calmer now and back in the saddle. Thanks for visiting. Come back again soon!

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Split Pea Soup for a Rainy Spring Day

Spring is incurably fickle. She teases us into believing she's really arrived, with a few days of sunshine, a pop or two of daffodils and tulips,  then, WHAM!  A blast of cold air, a cloudburst, and gloomy, gray skies.


But my silver lining in a rainy spring day is that it begs for soup to be made. I never need an excuse for soup, though.  Any day of the year, any season, I'm soup ready. I (humbly) pride myself on being quite good at reprising just about any leftover into a great soup. (Maybe a frittata.)

So when fickle spring handed out yet another dose of wet and windy, I turned on the stove to make split pea soup.  Split pea soup happens to be one soup that is not really made from leftovers, though, except for a ham bone saved from Easter, perhaps. But it's rich and hearty and oh-so-warming.

Not a very pretty soup, though, which is probably why this Martha Stewart version includes homemade croutons as an accessory. I declined to accessorize this soup. It's a classic that only needs a spoon.

But if my lilacs are spoiled by another cry for soup, I'll be having a few words with Mother Nature.

Split Pea Soup

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 chopped medium onion
4 carrots, thinly sliced
3 celery stalks, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon dried thyme leaves
Coarse salt and ground pepper
1 can (14.5 ounces) chicken broth
1 bag (16 ounces) green split peas, picked over and rinsed
Ham bone plus 2 cups reserved ham cut into 1/2-inch cubes

In a Dutch oven or 5-quart heavy pot with a lid, heat oil over medium. Add onion, carrots, celery, and thyme; season with salt and pepper. Cook until vegetables begin to soften, 5 to 8 minutes.
Add broth, split peas, ham bone, and 5 cups water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low, and partially cover; simmer until peas are soft, 30 to 45 minutes.
Remove and discard bone from soup.
Use an immersion blender to partially puree the soup. leave some chunks. (Or, working in batches, puree only 1/2 the soup in a blender and return to pot.) 
Add ham cubes, and simmer until heated through. If necessary, thin with water. Add salt and pepper to taste. (But you won't need much salt!)

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Hooray for Challah!

Yep, I did it. I said I was going to and I did. And making challah wasn't as difficult as I imagined. I read and re-read the recipe. I never hardly left the kitchen.  After I got the three ropes ready (I was just going for the basic three rope braid. We can save the six rope braid for another, bolder day.) and made my braid, it looked so pretty.

I have to admit that, all in all, it was just the satisfying experience I thought it would be. I wasn't disappointed at all. (although it did feel kind of heavy.)

The only thing I wonder now  is whether I should feel guilty for letting my mixer do all the kneading work. Is that cheating? Is it like using Miracle-Gro and not telling anyone you really don't have a green thumb?
Just wondering.

I think I'll get off my bread kick now.  Every once in a while, we're supposed to get out of our comfort zone and try something new, right? I did and I feel good about it.

Time for a nice savory stew. Since it's April 2 and it's still snowing.

I made my bread from a recipe I found on Food52, a site I love to visit now and again. After I used this recipe, I remembered that I have a copy of the Bread Bible, so I really didn't have to go to the internet at all. I had my own library as a resource. Getting lazy . . . . and now that I've "re-found" my book, maybe this bread phase isn't over yet. When spring finally comes, then I'll stop.


Thursday, March 28, 2013

A Virgin Voyage with Focaccia

There has to be a first time for everything and I just made my first focaccia. Buoyed by my conquest of pizza dough, I was even more determined to overcome my fear of yeast and move on to bread. If there was a Scoville scale for bread, I'm thinking focaccia would be on the next rung up.

When I pulled my first focaccia out of the oven, it looked like the surface of Mars. Oh, but the aroma! The piney fragrance of the rosemary, the richness of the olive oil. The smell of bread baking -- any kind of bread -- is just heart-warming. No wonder it's so highly recommended for home sellers.

I was so proud. I had to boast to Mr. Rosemary.

"Smells good," says he. "What's so special about it?"

Nothing, really. Except for the fact that I made it.

His innocent question made me want to research it a little more. And I found a lot of information, although I found it curious that many of the sources I read wove their way back to Wikipedia. (What did we do before Wikipedia? It took hours to do what we can now do in mere minutes, that's what.)

Here's what I learned:

  • Focaccia is a flat oven-baked Italian bread that may be topped with other ingredients.
  • It is similar is style and texture to pizza dough, consisting of flour, water, salt, oil and yeast.
  • It is typically rolled or pressed by hand into a thick layer of dough and then baked in a stone-bottom or hearth oven . . . or on a pizza stone.
  • The first focaccia is thought to have been made prior to the Roman Empire by the Etruscans in North Central Italy, or by the ancient Greeks.
  • It takes its names from the Roman phrase "panis foacacius" meaning a flat loaf of bread cooked under the ashes of a fire or upon a hearth.

And there are just as many recipes for focaccia as there are for, well  . . . .  bread. The recipe I chose was probably the most complicated, but only because it called for three rises. It was worth it, although I think I'll go for a simpler one next time. I don't think that's the way the Etruscans made it. 

But this recipe from Simply Recipes was perfect, although lengthy! The bread was great for sandwiches or snacking. I confess it was my breakfast for several mornings. And it does freeze well.  

So, now  I have pizza dough and focaccia under my belt.  Can challah be far behind?

This recipe makes enough for 2 good-sized loaves. You can make it all in free-form loaves that look like puffy pizzas, or shape them into casseroles or cake pans – there are no absolutes on the shape of this bread. The bread takes on the flavor of the olive oil so be sure to use a good quality one. 

Focaccia Bread with Rosemary
1 package dry yeast
1/3 cup warm water, about 100 degrees
2 1/4 cups tepid water
2 Tbsp good quality olive oil, plus more for the pan and to paint on top of the bread
3 cups bread flour
4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp salt, plus coarse salt (fleur de sel if you have it, otherwise Kosher salt) for sprinkling over the top
2-3 Tbsp finely chopped fresh rosemary 

Stir the yeast into the 1/3 cup of slightly warm-to-the-touch water and let it rest for 10 minutes.
In a large bowl, pour in 2 1/4 cups of tepid water and 2 tablespoons olive oil. After the yeast has rested for 10 minutes and has begun to froth, pour it into the water-oil mixture.

Whisk in 2 cups of flour (either the bread flour or the all purpose; at this stage it doesn't matter which) and the tablespoon of salt. Add the rosemary. Then, cup by cup, whisk in the rest of the flour (both the bread flour and all purpose). As the mixture goes from a batter to a thick dough, you'll want to switch from a whisk to a wooden spoon. By the time you get to the last cup of flour, you will be able to work the dough with your hands. Begin to knead it in the bowl – try to incorporate all the flour stuck to the sides and bottom of the bowl as you begin kneading.

Once the bowl is pretty clean, turn the dough out onto a board and knead it well for 8 minutes. You might need some extra flour if the dough is sticky.

I used my stand mixer for the mixing and kneading of the bread dough. After adding all the flour, cup by cup, I switched to the dough hook and let the machine knead the bread for 8 minutes.

In a large clean bowl, pour in about a tablespoon of oil and put the dough on top of it. Spread the oil all over the dough. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set aside to rise for an hour and a half. It should just about double in size.

Spread a little olive oil in your baking pan or baking sheet (will make it easier to remove the bread). Place the dough in your baking pans or form it into free-form rounds on a baking sheet. This recipe will do two nice-sized loaves or one big one and a little one. Cover the breads and set aside for another 30 minutes.

Dimple the breads with your thumb. Push in to about the end of your thumbnail, roughly 1/2-inch. Cover again and leave it to rise for its final rise, about 2 hours.

With 30 minutes to go before the rise finishes, preheat your oven to 400°F. If you have a pizza stone put it in.

Once the dough has done its final rise, gently paint the top with olive oil – as much as you want. Then sprinkle the coarse salt on top from about a foot over the bread; this lets the salt spread out better on its way down and helps reduce clumps of salt.

Put the bread in the oven. If you are doing free-form breads, put it right on the pizza stone. Bake for a total of 20-25 minutes. If you have a water spritzer bottle, spritz a little water in the oven right before you put the bread in to create steam, and then a couple of times while the bread is baking.

When the bread comes out of the oven, turn it out onto a rack within 3-5 minutes; this way you'll keep the bottom of the bread crispy. Let cool on a rack for 10 minutes before eating.

Makes a large loaf and a small loaf of 1 1/2 to 2 inches thick.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Greek Pizza Reprisal | What's in a Name?

I read a blog a few weeks ago about naming foods and it really struck a chord with me. The writer (forgive me, please, that I really can't remember whose blog it was) went on a minor rant about how we -- that would be bloggers and anyone else who writes about food, creates recipes, writes menus, etc., etc. -- have a tendency to assign a dish a nationality just because of one ingredient, maybe two.

For instance, if it has basil and tomatoes, it's Italian.  Feta and olives? Greek. Cilantro and cumin? Mexican. You get the idea.

Guilty. When I was planning to make a white pizza for a girls night in, I told them my friends we were having a Greek pizza, because (here, I *blush*) I was using feta and olives with tomatoes and spinach. Oh, and oregano.

But what else would I call it?  I know that one ingredient does not a dish make. Soy sauce doesn't make it Chinese  Tarragon doesn't immediately mean French.

I know all this, and, still, I didn't know how else to identify what kind of pizza I was making that other people would readily understand. It's a whole lot simpler  to say "Greek pizza" than to spell out "a pizza with no tomato sauce, no mozzarella or provolone, but spinach, tomatoes, olives and feta." And I knew that's what my guests would understand.

Maybe that's why we cavalierly assign names that really aren't authentic  It's like using cliches; they're handy shortcuts, universally understood.

So we had a Greek pizza.  And the next night, Mr. Rosemary and I had the pasta dish pictured at the top. It wasn't "Greek" because it didn't have feta. But I did have extra spinach and olives from the pizza, so I tossed those in with the warm pasta, fresh tomatoes, and added Parmesan. What would you call that dish? Besides quick, easy and good?

Back to the pizza . . . . I was sure that I'd made a big step towards overcoming my fear of yeast since I  now successfully make my own dough often, even weekly.

But my sister introduced me to a new yeast that Fleischmann's makes called Pizza Crust Yeast and I have to admit, it was very easy, very quick and very good. That's a trio of adjectives I like, no matter how much I like to spend time in the kitchen.

The beauty of this yeast is that it requires no rising. So you can mix up the dough and make the pizza right away. No waiting for anything.  It still needs to be kneaded (don't we all) but there's no waiting.

Problem is I only had one packet of the yeast. Now I need to find more. It's not readily available everywhere yet, so I'll have to keep my eye open for it and buy buckets of it when I do.

I'll still make regular pizza dough, but it's nice to know I have a handy alternative.

There's only one teeny, tiny little problem with the yeast: It makes only 1 12-inch pizza, which Mr. Rosemary could handily eat by himself.

No Rise Pizza Dough
from Fleischmann's
1 3/4 - 2 1/4 cup flour
1 envelope pizza yeast
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup very warm water (120 - 130 degrees F.)
3 tablespoons oil

Combine 1 cup flour, undissolved yeast, sugar and salt in a large bowl. Add water and oil.
Mix together until well-blended, about 1 minute
Add 1/2 cup flour gradually until dough forms a ball. Add additional flour if needed, to handle
Spoon dough out of bowl and onto floured surface.  Dough will be slightly sticky.
Knead on floured surface until dough is smooth and elastic, about 4 minutes.
Press out dough to fill a greased pizza pan. Or, if you're like me, and need a rolling pin, roll dough to a 12 inch circle and transfer to a greased pan.
Top as you want with sauce, cheese and toppings.
Bake on bottom oven rack at 425 F or 12 to 15 minutes until cheese on top is bubbly and crust is brown.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Going "Publix" with a Vegetarian Feast | Quinoa Salad with Citrus Vinaigrette

If you've never taken a cooking class, you really should. I'm not talking about the department store demo.  I mean the put-on-your-apron, get-your-knife-chopping cooking class.  Just a lot of fun. And even if you're a veteran in the kitchen, you're bound to learn something.

I recently visited my daughter who lives in Tampa. It had been months since I'd seen her and it was a very sunny break from a gray winter for this Pennsylvania born and bred soul. (I think that the groundhog lied.)

One of the things we planned to do was to go to a cooking class. Our original plan was to cash in on a Groupon Amy had found for a sushi class. But our timing was bad for that so we looked elsewhere and found that the Publix supermarket offered cooking classes at one of its stores.
Grilled vegetables (eggplant, portobella mushroom, zucchini) and provolone
 got stacked between two slices of ciabbatta bread and grilled.
 (The balsamic glace kinda looks like a treble clef!)

Before I go any further, I have to tell you that my daughter did not catch any kind of cooking bug from me. When she was little she did like to make play dough with me and mix inedible things with flour and water, but she outgrew any visions of mastering anything culinary. Where did I go wrong!

So signing us up for a cooking class together was generous on her part, just to please her mother.  (Amy would have preferred the Taco Tuesday class the previous night --  booked! -- to the vegetarian class we attended. "Mom," she said, "I like meat!")

But we were very impressed with the vegetarian feast our co-chef teachers coached us through. We made a tabouleh-like quinoa salad, a grilled vegetable panini, vegetable lo mein with tofu, and for the finale, orange creme brulee, the only dish I didn't get a picture of!

The vegetable lo mein featured colorful, crisp veggies and tofu,
wonderfully fragranced with fresh ginger,
 all topped with toasted sesame seeds.

And then we sat down and ate our little feast, accompanied by our choice of wine. My carnivore daughter was impressed that the meal was hearty without meat. I liked it all, but the creme brulee was the most fun to make. And I didn't get a picture! Too bad I was too busy running my little torch to perfect my burnt sugar crust!  ("You don't have one of those, do you, Mom?" says my daughter. I know what my next present will be!)

My favorite dish was the quinoa salad. Colorful, full of texture and fresh citrus flavor. Just a lot of chopping! Great do ahead salad.  It was while making this that I learned my favorite new tip about juicing a lemon:  use your tongs! Just nestle a lemon (or lime) half between the arms of the tongs and squeeze. You don't get lemon juice on your hands and, you don't have to dirty another tool! Clever!

I wish I could take more classes there . . .  until next Florida visit! Now, without further ado . . . the salad:

Incan Quinoa Salad with Citrus Thyme Vinaigrette
Serves 4
Courtesy of Publix 
1 cup raw Incan quinoa
2 cups vegetable stock
3 limes, zested
4 tablespoons Italian parsley, chopped
1 red bell pepper, finely diced
1 yellow pepper, finely diced
3 celery stalks, finely diced
1 bunch scallions,thinly sliced
2 large ripe tomatoes, seeds removed, finely diced
1/4 red onion, finely diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
For the dressing:
1/4 cup lemon juice
2 tablespoons lime juice
1 tablespoon orange juice
1 garlic clove, minced
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, chopped fine
2 ounces grapeseed oil
salt and freshly cracked pepper, to taste

Place quinoa and vegetable stock in a 3-quart saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, cover and cook until all liquid is absorbed, about 10-15 minutes. When done, the grain will appear soft and translucent and the germ ring will be visible along the outside of the grain. Chill immediately  Meanwhile, chop the vegetables, prepare the juice and zest.

Prepare the dressing: In a small bowl, combine the citrus juices, garlic and thyme and then slowly drizzle in the oil while constantly whisking. Taste for seasoning.

Toss the vinaigrette with the quinoa mixture to coat evenly. Allow at least 10 to 15 minutes for the flavors to blend.

Friday, February 8, 2013

A Secret -- and Cannelloni

I've been keeping a secret for a few months . . . . not a really big secret  (Like my book is coming out next month! --  I wish!)

It's just a little secret . . . . I've been teaching a neighbor boy how to cook.  He just turned 8, but he was 7 when we started last summer. Every two weeks, he comes to my house after school and we cook together for a couple hours in my little kitchen.  And we have a ball.

At first, we were both a little tentative, but before long we were acting every bit the grandmother and grandkid we looked like together. We joke some, I nod approvingly when he measures correctly, he teases. We cook good stuff and we have good fun.

Wyatt  loves to bake. And although baking's not my strongest suit in the kitchen, I can definitely handle the basics. (We won't be making puff pastry anytime soon.) The biggest plus about baking with a child, for me anyhow,  is that, for the most part, knives aren't involved  Soon enough for that. For now, if we need to chop something -- like onions for meatballs -- we use my mini-chopper.

We have made a variety of great food -- cupcakes, cookies, meatballs, breaded chicken, pizza, Oreo truffles. Our goal is usually to make something he can take home for dinner that he made as well as a dessert or a treat he can share with friends at school the next day. And something that's manageable in under two hours.

The breaded chicken was different to me.  I learned his mother was gluten-free and we tried something she steered me to: using crushed rice Chex cereal as the coating. It was great!

We've had a couple minor accidents: He dropped an egg on the floor;  I dropped a tray of just baked cookies. Once, while cleaning up, he pretty much sprayed my window above the sink as much as the dishes.

I wasn't looking for a cooking student. It was his mother's idea. She knew I had been a teacher, that I wrote a food column for the local paper, and that I had this blog. And I was nearby.

And her son likes to cook.  She reasoned that her older son was taking music lessons and golf lessons. Why not find a teacher for what her middle son liked to do? Makes perfect sense. Although she herself likes to cook, she has a job, two other kids and this little arrangement provides her son something that's just for him. I'm impressed by her original thinking.

One of the main dishes we made was stuffed shells.  We stuffed the shells with a sausage and cheese fiilling using a recipe from Sticky, Gooey, Creamy.

There was plenty of filling for two dozen stuffed shells. And we didn't scrimp on stuffing them either. So I was left with filling and no shells. So the next day, I made crepes and we had cannelloni instead.  Same filling, different container.

Sausage and Cheese Cannelloni
adapted from Sticky, Gooey, Creamy

1 dozen crepes* (click here for my recipe)
1 pound sweet or hot Italian sausage, casings removed
2 tablespoons olive oil
16-ounces whole milk ricotta
2 cups shredded mozzarella, divided
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese, divided
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons minced, fresh, flat-leaf parsley
Salt and ground black pepper to taste
4 cups prepared marinara sauce, homemade or jarred

Preheat oven to 375 F.  
Heat olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat.  Crumble the sausage into the skillet and fry until lightly browned.  Using a wooden spoon, break the meat into small bits as it cooks.  
Combine cooked sausage, ricotta, 1 cup mozzarella, 1/2 cup Parmesan, eggs, parsley, salt and pepper together in a large bowl and mix well.
Pour enough marinara sauce in a 9×13 baking dish to cover the bottom of the dish, about 1 1/2 cups.  Place about 2 tablespoons of filling down the middle of each crepe. Fold the side over and place, seam side down, on top of the sauce.  Ladle the rest of the marinara on top.  Sprinkle with the rest of the mozzarella and Parmesan, cover with foil and bake until bubbly, about 30-35 minutes.  Remove the foil and continue to bake for another 10-15 minutes, until the cheese is gooey and melted and begins to brown.  Remove and let stand about 10 minutes before serving.

* Crepes are time consuming and are a definite "do-ahead" in my book. You can make them the day before, keep them separated by squares of waxed paper, and place in the fridge. Or you can stack them and store them (again, separated by waxed paper) in the freezer for up to 3 months. Just thaw some before using.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Discovering the Versatile Fennel | Roasted Fennel with Parmesan

I go through food phases once in a while. Or maybe they're kicks. I don't know. I just know that every once in a while, I latch onto one particular food and cook the death out of it. There was the bean phase -- cannelini, black, pintos, garbanzos. And  then peppers: jalapenos, poblanos, serranos, up and down the Scoville scale. And we can't forget the squash phase.

Now it's fennel's turn in the hopper. I've cooked with fennel a lot, the seeds at least. They are a standard when I cook with sausage (which is often, since Mr. Rosemary thinks it's a food group unto its own.) And I add it to stews and soups. But the whole thing? Nope. Never.

The reason is that it's usually not readily available around here. Until lately. Now, I seem to find it every time I shop. It's partly the season; partly due to the speed of commercial transit in this country.

It all started at Christmas time. I was planning on serving simple roasted vegetables -- broccoli and cauliflower -- to go along with the fussier pork Wellington. (A post for another day.)  I happened upon a couple bulbs of fennel and spontaneously decided that roasted fennel would go on the menu, too, as I was expecting other enthusiastic taste tasters for dinner.

"What's that?," asked granddaughter Emma.

"You've had that before," answered Uncle Dan. "It's fennel."

"Hmm, . . . . looks different," she said.

It was probably because I'd sliced it vertically instead of chopped. But if I was serving a different vegetable, I was looking for some "Ta-da" drama!

It was a surprising success at dinner. I delighted in it, everyone at least sampled it along with all our other goodies, and Emma had seconds.

Since then, I've purchased fennel a number of times and have added it to stews, soups and casseroles  chopped it into salads, and roasted it some more.

Fennel has a unique taste. Some say it tastes like licorice, but I think it's more of a cross between celery and onion, with a slightly sweet cast. I read an article on Culinate that described fennel as "a wispy, aristocratic" vegetable. Pretty poetic. The fronds of the fennel bulb resemble dill and can be used chopped finely like dill in just about anything you use dill in.

It is remarkably versatile and I found another article in which the cook/author outlines "Twelve Ways to Cook Fennel, " a very helpful resource. And just today I found a blog post on Stacey Snacks with a recipe for a fennel gratin, the next thing on my fennel crusade.

If you haven't tried it yet, you'll be surprised, especially roasted.

Roasted Fennel with Parmesan
only slightly adapted from  Giada Di Laurentis
(I sliced it vertically; her recipe said to slice it horizontally!)

4 tablespoons olive oil
4 fennel bulbs, cut horizontally into 1/3-inch thick slices, fronds reserved
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup freshly shredded Parmesan

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
Lightly oil the bottom of a 13 by 9 by 2-inch glass baking dish. (I lightly sprayed foil with olive oil.) Arrange the fennel in the dish. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, then with the Parmesan. Drizzle with the oil. Bake until the fennel is fork-tender and the top is golden brown, about 45 minutes. Chop enough fennel fronds to equal 2 teaspoons, then sprinkle over the roasted fennel.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Adult Treats: Chocolate Covered Peanut Butter Cheesecake Pops

I'd say these pops were kid pleasers, but -- frankly -- I don't know many kids who are cheesecake lovers. In fact, I've learned that there really are -- I shudder to think! -- people in the world who don't like cheesecake! And I've met quite a few people who don't like peanut butter.

I have, however,  met very few people who don't like love chocolate. Milk, dark, Dutch, semi-sweet, double, white -- doesn't matter. It's one of the reasons we can pack on the pounds around the holidays, why we love to be treated at Valentine's Day (did someone say aphrodisiac?), why we cram Easter baskets with chocolate everything.

But I've never, ever, ever met anyone who didn't think eating something on a stick was just plain fun. Instant party!

So when I was wandering around looking for something new to do with peanut butter and chocolate  these pops immediately caught my attention. When I read through the recipe and saw that they were square pops, not round, I thought my clumsy self just might be able to dip those babies in chocolate without flubbing them up too badly.

(Why I was looking for something new to do with peanut butter and chocolate in the first place, I don't know. Not when I already have this recipe, and this. And probably tons more in my cookbook collections. Must be a disease.)

I was right . . . . a success on all fronts. Great combination of peanut butter and chocolate, cream cheese, portion control.

Couple cautions: As I read the recipe, I also read some reviews. Because of them, I used a larger pan than the 8 x 8 originally called for. That made smaller pieces; this is very rich. I will make them again, and next time I will roll the pops in nuts. A minor decadent touch.

Chocolate Covered Peanut Butter Cheesecake Pops
from Food Network Kitchens

1 1/2 cups dark brown sugar
1 1/2 pounds cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 large egg yolks
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups creamy peanut butter
5 tablespoons vegetable shortening
12 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate chips
Special Equipment:
Wooden pop sticks

For the cheesecake: Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 325 degrees F. Line a 13 x 9 pan with parchment paper letting long flaps overlap on each side. Spritz with nonstick spray.
Break up the brown sugar to remove all lumps. In a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese and sugar on medium speed until very smooth. Add the cream and beat slowly; then add the yolks and vanilla mixing until just combined. Gently stir in peanut butter. 
Pour and evenly spread the batter in the prepared pan. Bake for 15 minutes. Open the oven to release some heat, then lower the temperature to 200 degrees F. Continue to bake the cheesecake until the outside is set but the center is still loose, for about 45 minutes. Turn off the oven, and cool cheesecake in the oven for 45 more minutes. Cover and refrigerate at least 8 hours or overnight.
Lift cheesecake from the pan by lifting up thepaper. Transfer to a cutting board. Cut into squares, about 1-1/2 inches. Stick a wooden pop stick halfway into each bar and freeze for one hour.
Meanwhile, put the shortening and chocolate in a medium heatproof bowl. Bring a saucepan filled with an inch or so of warm water to a very slow simmer; set the bowl over, but not toughing, the water. Stir the chocolate occasionally until melted and smooth
Remove from the heat and let cool slightly. (Or put the chocolate and shortening in a microwave safe bowl and melt at 50 percent power in the microwave until soft, about one minute. Stir, and continue to heat until completely melted, about 1 minute more.
Dip the pops in the chocolate mixture and stand on waxed paper to set, about 5 minutes. Chill before serving.

If you really want to be decadent, you could, as The Food Network Kitchens suggest, coat the pops in nuts or candies, too. Peanuts would be great, I think, but I was already feeling way decadent.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Too Many Bananas? Banana Nut Pound Cake

Over Christmas, my sister, who never seems to visit without bearing gifts, whatever the time of year,  brought me some great little -- literally little -- bananas. Two bunches. One regular yellow colored;  the other bunch, red. They were about half the size of a normal banana and just the right size for me. It's all about portion control.

Still, after a week of eating them daily*, I  wasn't fast enough and they were starting to get pretty ripe. While the baby bananas really taste no different than their regular sized cousins, they, sensitive souls that they are, do tend to bruise more easily and their skin is a bit thinner, so they were getting soft faster too. I simply couldn't gorge myself on all that potassium that fast. And Mr. Rosemary wasn't a big help in the banana eating, not when there was peanut butter fudge around.


Everyone knows what to do with ripe bananas, right? Make banana bread, of course. But I wanted to do something different and recalled this cake from the December 2012 issue of Better Homes and Gardens. It was the grand prize winner of reader recipe winners for the year.
Ever wonder why a pound cake is called a pound cake? Because, traditionally, anyhow, the cake used a pound each of flour, sugar, butter and eggs. But, as Wikipedia taught me, as long as the 1:1:1:1 ratio is followed, it's a pound cake. I also read there that in Mexico, the cake is called a panque con nueces, a pound cake with walnuts. Maybe that's what I should have called my adaptation, because I swapped walnuts for pecans, only because I'm cheap frugal.

This isn't an authentic pound cake. It doesn't use a whole pound of anything. But it does have that nice rich, dense texture of a pound cake.  The banana flavor is subtle, not overpowering at all. Maybe it's the bourbon that does it!

Banana Nut Pound Cake
slightly adapted from Better Homes and Gardens, December 2012
3 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 8-ounce package cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup butter, softened
3 cups granulated sugar
4 eggs
2 medium bananas, mashed (about 1 cup) -- or about 5 baby bananas!
1/4 cup bourbon, or low-fat milk -- I used bourbon!
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 cup chopped pecans, toasted -- I used toasted walnuts
Powdered sugar for topping the cake after baking -- I drizzled with a simple glaze of confectioner's sugar thinned with milk and maple syrup

Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit
Grease and flour a 10 inch fluted baking pan and set aside.  Combine the first three dry ingredients and set aside.
In a stand mixer, mix the cream cheese and butter until combined. slowly add the sugar  beating about 7 minutes or until light.  Add eggs, one at a time, beating 1 minute after each egg.  In a bowl, combine the bananas, bourbon and vanilla. Alternatively, add a little flour mixture to the cream cheese and butter, then a little banana mixture until; beat on low to medium speed, after each addition until combined. Stir in nuts by hand. Spread batter evenly in pan and bake for about 80 minutes or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean.
Cool cake on a rack for 10 minutes. Remove from pan. Sprinkle with powdered sugar (or glaze). Serves 12, at least!

*One of my favorite things to do with bananas is to spread a slightly warmed tortilla, a white one, with peanut butter, then lay a banana over it and roll it up for a great breakfast. Protein, fruit, carb --  all wrapped in a healthy, handy container.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Lobster Mac 'n Cheese: A Great Marriage

If you had any notion of losing weight as one of your New Year resolutions, maybe you should stop reading.  On the other hand, you probably have great will power and can read on, bookmark the recipe and save it for a later day. (Valentine’s Day dinner, perhaps?)

Lobster Mac ‘n Cheese has to be one of the most decadent comfort foods any chef ever dreamed about.
I have to admit, when I first heard about it, I thought it a ridiculous idea.

After all, what could be more comforting than a creamy, cheesy sauce wrapping itself around pasta, topped with crunchy, buttery bread crumbs?

And lobster has always been viewed as luxury seafood. Dunking hunks of the sweet meat into melted butter is just delectable. Why would anyone want to marry these two? They were meant to live separate lives!

Or so I thought, until I had to satisfy my curiosity and tasted it while on vacation in Maine last September. I was hooked.

I liked it so much I end up “tasting” it three different times on that trip. Then I ate it at a restaurant back home. And then, finally, I had to make it at home.

Despite the fact that lobster prices have been at an all-time low this past year, it’s still pretty pricey, especially for inlanders like me. It is a good way to stretch a luxury meat, though, and make humble macaroni and cheese a company-worthy dish.

I was surprised to learn that lobster wasn’t always viewed as something special. Although lobster was in abundance to early American colonists, they didn’t care for it, preferring venison and game fowl instead, foods they were used to.

As far as macaroni and cheese goes, Thomas Jefferson is generally credited with bringing the idea of cheesy pasta back to America after spending time in France

Chefs and food lovers are always looking for ways to twist classics and put their own imprints on traditional dishes.  Lobster macaroni and cheese became popular in trendy restaurants within the past five years or so.

And now it’s become a new standard on many a restaurant menu. I have to admit that this marriage of seafood and cheese is one that just may have staying power.

Using a fun shaped-pasta makes this dish even more special. (I used a ribbed elbow, called pipe rigate, but any small shell or elbow noodle will be just fine.) 

I also didn’t want the cheese sauce to overpower the lobster, so I used mild cheeses and used clam juice in the sauce to heighten the seafood flavor. 

It’s a marriage made in . . .  well, New England!

Lobster Macaroni and Cheese
Serves 8-10
16 ounces pasta
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1 cup dry seasoned bread crumbs
1⁄4 cup flour
2 cups milk
2 cups clam juice
8 ounces fontina cheese, shredded
4 ounces sharp white cheddar cheese, shredded
8 ounces cream cheese
3 tablespoons Madeira or marsala wine, optional
1⁄4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1⁄4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Meat from 2 lobster tails, cooked, or about 2 cups lobster meat

Preheat oven to 375°. Bring a large pan of water to a boil over high heat. Add pasta and 1 tablespoon salt and cook, stirring occasionally, cutting a couple minutes from the recommended time on the package. Drain pasta and set aside.
Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in microwave or in a pan over low heat and mix in the dry bread crumbs. Set aside.
In a large saucepan or stock pot, melt remaining butter over medium heat.
Add flour and cook, stirring constantly, until flour mixture is smooth and just starting to darken.
Slowly stir in the milk and the clam juice and simmer, stirring frequently, until sauce has thickened, about ten minutes.
Remove pan from heat, and stir in 2-1/2 cups of the shredded cheese, the cream cheese, and the Madeira, if using.
Add cayenne and nutmeg. Stir until cheese is melted and incorporated, and adjust salt and pepper, as needed.
Add the lobster meat.
Add cooked pasta to cheese sauce.
Transfer mixture to a 9 x 13 baking dish.
Sprinkle with buttered breadcrumbs. Bake until golden brown and bubbly, about 30 minutes.