Monday, December 6, 2010

Like Magic

As people have been so kind to point out, Christmas is 19 days away. That just snuck out of nowhere didn't it? If you are anything like me, you have completely neglected all Christmas baking and instead have been leaving all studying and essay writing for the last minute possible. This procrastination is not typical of me and is a terrible habit to get into, in case you were wondering. Last week, after an intensive 4-day essay writing stint in the basement, my brain turned entirely to mush and I completely forgot basic sentence structure and how to compose an essay. It was horrifying and resulted in me breaking down in tears and babbling on about how I had finally gone on and broke myself. Another thing you should know if you do decide to leave your work for the last minute: Breaks are mandatory. For your sanity's sake.

You know what is a great way to set your mind at ease and use your break time productively? Turn on Vince Guaraldi Trio's A Charlie Brown Christmas and crank some holiday cookies out of your oven. See, I wish someone had told me this last week.
This time of year is pretty magical and I am so excited because I have some really beautiful, sweet, and wonderful treats to share with you. There will be lots of butter and sugar involved, but you aren't allowed to complain about that because it's December, for goodness sake! I promise, come January, I'll go to the opposite extreme and we'll get all healthy again, at least for a while. But for now... lets just enjoy the magic of now.

Chocolate Hazelnut Crinkle Cookies
Adapted from Gourmet, December 2006

More chocolate? What is going on here? I make no apologies for this trend. I first tried this recipe a year ago and fell in love. They are quickly becoming a Christmas tradition around here. Rich and chewy, these cookies are seriously addictive. Good luck eating just one.
Please note, these do need a couple hours to hang out in the fridge! So, for all you busy bee's out there: take a break!! make the dough and put it in the fridge! then get back to work! then take a break! and bake these up!!

2/3 cup hazelnuts
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
6 ounces fine-quality bittersweet chocolate (no more than 60% cacao if marked), finely chopped
2 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick (½ cup) unsalted butter, softened
1 ½ cups packed light brown sugar
2 large eggs
¼ cup whole milk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
¾ cup confectioners sugar

Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350°F.

Toast hazelnuts in a shallow baking pan in oven until skins split and nuts are pale golden brown, about 10 minutes. Remove from oven (turn oven off), then wrap hazelnuts in a kitchen towel and rub to remove any loose skins. Cool nuts completely. Pulse nuts with granulated sugar in a food processor until finely chopped.

Melt chocolate in a metal bowl set over a saucepan of barely simmering water or in top of a double boiler, stirring until smooth. Remove bowl from heat and set aside.

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

Beat together butter and brown sugar in another bowl with an electric mixer at medium-high speed until creamy, about 3 minutes. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition, then beat in melted chocolate until just combined. Add milk and vanilla, beating to incorporate. Reduce speed to low and add flour mixture, mixing until just combined. Stir in nut mixture. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and chill dough until firm, 2 to 3 hours.

Put oven racks in upper and lower thirds of oven and preheat oven to 350°F. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper.

Sift confectioners sugar into a bowl. Halve dough and chill 1 half, wrapped in plastic wrap. Roll remaining half into 1-inch balls, placing them on a sheet of waxed paper as rolled. Roll balls, 3 or 4 at a time, in confectioners sugar to coat generously and arrange 2 inches apart on lined baking sheets.

Bake, switching position halfway through baking, until cookies are puffed and cracked and edges feel dry (but centers are still slightly soft), 12 to 18 minutes total. Transfer cookies (still on parchment) to racks to cool completely.

While first batch is baking, roll remaining dough into balls. Line cooled cookie sheets with fresh parchment, then coat balls with confectioners sugar and bake in same manner.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Nostalgic, In Regards to Cookies and Other Things

Sometimes I live more in the past than I do in the present. I can't help it, really. I'm sappy and I'm nostalgic.
What's a girl to do?

Although I'm only 21, I find myself slowly starting to forget certain memories about my childhood. I forget what our apartment in Edmonton looks like. I know I was only four when we lived there, and I know the layout of a cheap apartment isn't actually that important an image to remember forever. But what if that means other, more important memories are going to follow suit, slipping right out of my mind, and like helium balloons float right on up to the top of the sky until they disappear entirely. And I'm sure someone once said our memories and traditions what make us who we are. Oh dear.

Luckily, there are other memories about that place and time that remain as vivid as though they just happened yesterday. For example, although I can't for the life of me remember what our apartment looked like, I do remember Linda's. Remember Linda? She was our neighbour in Edmonton who changed my families lives forever upon the gift of her famous homemade gingerbread men. Anyway, not only was Linda a hip artist with an incredibly kind heart, she was also a gracious host who let my brother and I spend hours playing with action figures on her kitchen floor. I don't know exactly when it was that Linda decided to switch it up and hand me a Monster Cookie instead of a Gingerbread Man, but every now and then she did that kind of thing. Linda's Monster Cookies captured my 5-year-old heart, and I recall loving them almost as much as I loved her gingerbread. I loved how moist and hearty they were, and I was especially smitten with the Smarties that were scattered through the dough. Every bite was something different and new, and I loved that.

When I made these cookies last week, I was transported back 17 years ago, back to another city, another time, another place. It struck me that food is a funny thing that way... able to awaken even the most faded and distant memories, of a time long forgotten.

So,
I know I've got a sentimental heart. But there is nothing wrong with walking down memory lane from time to time. Especially when it involves fresh baked cookies, still warm from the oven.
Monster Cookies
Adapted from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking

Somewhere between the oatmeal cookie, peanut butter cookie, and chocolate chip cookie lies the Monster Cookie. It's chewy, sweet, and completely comforting. The folks at Baked urge you not to forget the corn syrup, as it is an integral part of the cookie. Don't ask questions. Just do.

1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking soda
Pinch of salt
5 3/4 cups rolled oats
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) cold, unsalted butter, cut into cubes
1 1/4 cups firmly packed light brown sugar
1/1/4 cups granulated sugar
5 large eggs
1/4 teaspoon light corn syrup
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 cups creamy peanut butter (or other nut butter substitute)
1 cup (6 ounces) semisweet chocolate chips
1 cup (6 ounces) M&M's

In a large bowl, whisk flour, baking soda, and salt together. Add the oats and stir until the ingredients are evenly combined.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter until smooth and pale in colour. Add the sugars and mix on low speed until just incorporated. Do not overmix.

Scrape down the bowl and add the eggs, one at a time, beating until smooth (about 20 seconds) and scraping down the bowl after each addition. Add the corn syrup and vanilla and beat until just incorporated.

Scrape down the bowl and add the peanut butter. Mix on low speed until just combined. Add the oat mixture in three additions, mixing on low speed until just incorporated.

Use a spatula or wooden spoon to fold in the chocolate chips and M&Ms. Cover the bowl tightly and refrigerate for 5 hours.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Use an ice cream scoop with a release mechanism to scoop out the dough in 2-tablespoon-size balls onto the prepared baking sheets, 2 inches apart. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through the baking time, until the cookies just begin to brown. Let cool on the pans for 8 to 10 minutes before transferring the cookie to a wire rack to cool completely. Cookies can be stored in an airtight container for up to 3 days.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Oh Chocolate

I live in a house filled with chocolate addicts, however I am not one of them. Ever noticed how I don't often write about chocolate on here? Well, that would be why. Chocolate and I have a funny relationship: I don't want it or need it 96% of the time, but every once in a while, somewhere within that remaining 4% I love it so much I fear I can't live without it. Right now, I'm having one of those rare moments where the idea of chocolate is so appealing, I might just have to eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
I think I'll start with a tray of insanely chocolatey brownies. Oh yes!
A couple weeks ago, I picked up the amazing Baked: New Frontiers in Baking cookbook. I went on a bit of a baking binge, making four decadent recipes in just under a week. In retrospect, that may have been kind of excessive but then again, not a single crumb went to waste. These brownies were especially tasty, even for those who can take-or-leave chocolate. I made a huge pan full for five people to eat, and you can bet that by the end of the night, we had polished off the entire thing. I don't recommend you do that, however, I do recommend you make these as soon as possible.

The Baked Brownie
Adapted from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking

These brownies are the real deal. They are so intensely chocolatey, they are sure to curb your chocolate cravings for good. Also, if I have not succeeded in telling you how good these are, you may be swayed by the fact that they were featured in O Magazine as one of Oprah's favourite things, and they were awarded "best brownie" by America's Test Kitchen and the Today show.

1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons dark unsweetened cocoa powder
11 ounces dark chocolate (60-72% cocoa), coarsely chopped
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 teaspoon instant espresso powder
1 ½ cups granulated sugar
½ cup firmly packed light brown sugar
5 large eggs, at room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter the sides and bottom of a 9-by-13-inch glass or light-coloured metal baking pan.

In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, salt, and cocoa powder together.

Put the chocolate, butter, and instant espresso powder in a large bowl and set it over a saucepan of simmering water, stirring occasionally, until the chocolate and butter are completely melted and smooth. Turn off heat, but keep the bowl over the water and add the sugars. Whisk until completely combined, then remove bowl from the pan. The mixture should be room temperature.

Add 3 eggs to the chocolate mixture and whisk until combined. Add the remaining eggs and whisk until combined. Add the vanilla and stir until completely combined. Do not overbeat the batter at this stage or your brownies will be cakey.

Sprinkle the flour mixture over the chocolate mixture. Using a spatula (not a whisk), fold the flour mixture into the chocolate until just a bit of the flour mixture is visible.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake in the centre of the oven for 30 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through the baking time, until a toothpick inserted into the centre of the brownies comes out with a few moist crumbs sticking to it. Let the brownies cool completely, then cut them into squares and serve.

Tightly covered with plastic wrap, the brownies keep at room temperature for up to 3 days.

Note: According to the folks at Baked, a great brownie is easy to make, however, here are a few pointers: (1) Use a dark unsweetened cocoa powder like Valrhona. A pale, light-coloured cocoa does not have enough depth. (2) Make sure your eggs are at room temperature, and do not overbeat the batter. (3) Check your brownies often as they bake. An even slightly overbaked brownie is not a "Baked Brownie."

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

This is a Test

Sometimes I can be judgmental. But only when the situation calls for it.
Chances are, I won't think condescending thoughts about you if you have toilet paper stuck to your shoe when you leave the washroom, if like to die your hair crazy colours, or if act like a jerk when you are drunk.
However, I WILL judge your bakery based on how good your macaroons are.
I'm sorry, but that's just the way it goes.

The first thing I ever look to order when visiting a new bakery is a coconut macaroon. It's a test. If you put care and effort into your macaroons, everything else will follow. Probably, this is not how things really work in the world of baking, but this how it works in my head. I am practically exuberant when I bite into a delicious macaroon. There is nothing not to love about it's simplicity. Take for example, the macaroon in the picture below:

This macaroon is from Tartine, in San Francisco. It was a few months ago already, but I remember delighting in this little guy as much (if not more) than my mother did in her massive frangipane croissant. Delicious.

If you love these guys the way I love them, I'm willing to hand off my recipe to you. They are simple, sweet, and slightly gooey in the center. Also, they are practically guilt free (woo!). That is, until I drizzle them with dark chocolate ganache (but chocolate is good for you, right?)...

Coconut Macaroons

As per usual, I like to reduce the amount of sugar in my macaroons. I end up using just over half a cup, in the end. I've found anywhere from ½ cup to ¾ cup of sugar will do the trick!

For the Macaroons:
3 cups (lightly packed) sweetened shredded coconut
½ - ¾ cup granulated sugar
¾ cup egg whites (about 5 or 6 large)
1 ½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract

For the Ganache:
8 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
¾ cup heavy cream

Place the first three ingredients in a large, heavy saucepan, and stir to combine well. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring regularly, about 10-12 minutes, until the mixture is pasty looking but not dry. (The uncooked mixture will look sort of granular at first, then creamy as it heats, ad then it will slowly get drier and drier. You want to stop cooking when it no longer looks creamy but is still quite gluey and sticky, not dry.) Remove from heat. Mix in vanilla and almond extracts. Spread out the coconut mixture on a large baking sheet. Refrigerate until cold, about 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees F. Line another baking sheet with parchment paper or a Silpat baking mat. Using a 1/4-cup measuring scoop, scoop and pack the coconut mixture into domes, and place them on the baking sheet. You should wind up with about a dozen. Bake the macaroons until golden, about 30 minutes. Transfer to a rack and cool.

Set macaroons on rack over a rimmed baking sheet. Place the chopped chocolate in a medium bowl. Heat the heavy cream in a small saucepan until it is very hot and steamy but not boiling. Remove from the heat, and pour it over the chocolate. Whisk until the mixture is smooth and the chocolate is thoroughly melted. Spoon the glaze over the macaroons, covering them almost completely and allowing the chocolate to drip down the sides. Refrigerate the macaroons until the glaze sets, at least 2 hours. Transfer macaroons to an airtight container, and refrigerate or freeze.

Note: You will have leftover ganache, which can be refrigerated or frozen.

Friday, September 3, 2010

One Last Hurrah

I start school in like, three days, or something insane. It's September, and I'm kind of feeling like "Where the heck did August go, because I don't quite remember it even being here." I am desperately clinging to these last days of summer, these last hours and minutes, trying to make them last somehow.
I should know better by now, that no matter how hard I wish against it, September brings about a fairly major shift in what I've come to regard as normal, everyday life. Old routines, be kind to me. I've never been a big fan of change.
I am feeling pretty stubborn about letting summer go also because this summer was pretty wonderful- as in total best ever status. I swam in the sea, drank Sangria in Napa, ate fresh berry pies at the kitchen table, said hello to new friends, said goodbye to old friends, walked for miles along the Oregon coast with my favorite person in the world, got lost, got found, made raspberry yogurt popsicles, and picked up my polaroid camera for the first time in ages. Oh Summer, you did really good this year. Please don't go away, not yet, not ever.

And yet,
I know there is no use trying so hard to make a season last. Autumn is eager and waiting, ready to strike at any moment. I can feel it happening already. But maybe, today the sun will stay out for just a bit longer, long enough for one last barbecue, one last glass of wine, one last hurrah before the sky fades to dusk and Autumn creeps in.


Quinoa with Grilled Zucchini, Garbonzo Beans, and Cumin
Adapted from Bon Appetit, August 2008

This Quinoa salad is definitely last-bbq-of-summer worthy. It's super savory and hearty, so you could eat it on its own as a vegetarian main course or this would be great along side some barbecued chicken. It is wonderful left over and taken for lunch in the days to come, and it makes a great (and healthy!) midnight snack.

1 15-ounce can garbanzo beans (chickpeas), drained
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
2 garlic cloves, peeled
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
1 teaspoon tumeric, divided
1 teaspoon smoked paprika, divided
2 cups water
1 cup quinoa (about 6 ounces), rinsed well, drained
1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
1 ½ pounds medium zucchini (about 5), trimmed, quartered lengthwise
1 ½ teaspoons ground cumin
4 green onions, thinly sliced
1/4 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley

Combine garbanzo beans and lemon juice in large bowl. Add 3 tablespoons oil; press in garlic and stir to combine. Let marinate at least 15 minutes and up to 2 hours.

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add cumin seeds, ½ teaspoon tumeric and ½ teaspoon paprika; stir until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add 2 cups water, quinoa, and coarse salt; bring to simmer, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to medium-low. Cover and simmer until all water is absorbed, about 16 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare barbecue (medium high heat). Place zucchini on rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle with 1 tablespoon oil. Sprinkle with ground cumin, ½ teaspoon tumeric, and ½ teaspoon paprika. Toss to coat evenly.

Place zucchini on grill; sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Grill until tender and browned on all sides, 10 to 12 minutes. Transfer to work surface. Cut crosswise into ½-inch pieces. Add zucchini, green onions, and parsley, then garbanzo bean mixture to quinoa. Toss to blend. Season with salt and pepper.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Elvis

Call me crazy, but all I want to do this summer is turn on my oven and bake. Yeah, I know it's 100 degrees outside, but does that matter? Will it matter, when, after a couple of hours I am hot, and sweaty and flop onto the grass in the backyard with a piece of blackberry cobbler while you, you are hot, and sweaty, and hungry? No. It's all worth it. Take advantage of those summertime berries, I say. They are only here for a while. Plus chances are, you will be hot and sweaty no matter what you decide to do.
Turn on your oven.
Do it.

A few weeks ago I got the most intense craving for pound cake. Why, of all things was I craving a slice of dense, intense pound cake, I have no idea. But when the craving strikes, it's hard to shake. Not even extreme heat could deter me from my mission. I've got to be honest though, I'm not really a pound cake expert. I mean, there is something about its simplicity that I have loved for years. I love the texture. I love its understated flavor and the way it goes well with a cup of tea. But I have never, ever tried making it myself. It was as good a day as any to try something new though, and so I went at it. Oh, yes, it was so worth it.

I did a bit of recipe searching before I settled on "the one." And to be honest, in the end, I totally chose this recipe because of the name. I mean, if it was good enough for Elvis, surely it would be good enough for me. And so, one sweltering summer evening, I set to work baking Elvis Presley's Favorite Pound Cake. I'm certain this cake would have been great all on it's own, but I was desperate to use some of the fresh blueberries that I had sitting on the counter. I threw a few handfuls into the bundt pan with the batter, as well as some grated lemon rind. Then I popped it in the oven, crossed my fingers, and waited.
Something kind of wonderful happened during the hour this guy was in the oven. The batter puffed up, became golden, and made the house smell sinfully sweet. I get really excited when I try a recipe for the first time and it completely blows my expectations. Even before I took it out of the oven, I knew I had crafted a masterpiece. My expectations were blown. May I suggest waiting about an hour before slicing yourself a piece of steaming pound cake dotted with molten berries. It is a serious test of willpower, but it might save you some trouble. I kind of burnt my entire mouth after taking a massive "test bite." Burnt tongues aside, this cake was insanely delicious. The texture was unlike anything I had ever eaten before. It was as light as a cloud, and yet deep and dense at the same time. It was moist and soft and comforting. And I couldn't get enough. Half the cake was consumed before I even remembered to take a picture (I feel the need to report that I did not single-handedly eat half the cake myself. I could have, but I didn't! I swear.). A mere 24 hours later, my giant cake was gone.

If you live where I live, you know this sunshine isn't going to last for long. Enjoy it while it lasts, and for goodness sake, don't neglect your oven.

Elvis Presley's Favorite Pound Cake
Adapted from Gourmet, September 2005

This pound cake was absolute heaven, especially after the addition of fresh-picked blueberries and grated lemon zest. I highly suggest taking advantage of some local berries (I used blueberries but raspberries or blackberries would be lovely as well) by sprinkling them into this cake. I should also mention that I cut back on the sugar a bit. I ended up using about 2 2/3 cups of sugar, which was perfect for my taste.

2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, softened, plus additional for buttering pan
3 cups sifted cake flour (not self-rising; sift before measuring) plus additional for dusting
¾ teaspoon salt
3 cups sugar
7 large eggs, at room temperature 30 minutes
2 teaspoons vanilla
Grated zest of one lemon (optional)
1 cup heavy cream
1 ½ cups fresh berries (optional)

Special equipment: a 10-inch tube pan (4 ½ inchs deep; not with a removable bottom) or a 10-inch bundt pan (3 ¼ inches deep; 3-qt capacity)

Put oven rack in middle position, but do not preheat oven.

Generously butter pan and dust with four knocking out excess flour.

Sift together sifted flour (3 cups) and salt into a bowl. Repeat sifting into another bowl (flour will have been sifted 3 times total).

Beat together butter (2 sticks) and sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, about 5 minutes in a stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment or 6 to 8 minutes with a handheld mixer. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition, then beat in vanilla and lemon zest. Reduce speed to low and add half of flour, then all of cream, then remaining flour, mixing well after each addition. Scrape down side of bowl, then beat at medium-high speed 5 minutes. Batter will become creamier and satiny.

Spoon 3/4 batter into pan. Sprinkle berries evenly over batter, then add remaining 1/4 of batter. Rap pan against work surface once or twice to eliminate air bubbles. Place pan in (cold) oven and turn oven temperature to 350 F. Bake until golden and a wooden pick or skewer inserted in middle of cake comes out with a few crumbs adhering, 1 to 1 1/4 hours. Cool cake in pan on rack 3o minutes. Run a thin knife around inner and outer edges of cake, then invert rack over pan and invert cake onto rack to cool completely.

Cake keeps, covered well with plastic wrap or in an airtight container, at room temperature 5 days.

Monday, July 5, 2010

An ode to granola, and the places I've been

You know what they say.

Time flies when you're having fun.

I have indeed, been having fun and keeping busy. Really busy. I have photographic evidence to prove it!

While taking a break from testing out tasty treats to write about I:

Grew a garden
Visited San Francisco
Went on a picnic and enjoyed time with friends
Turned 21.

And made a really good batch of granola.
Maybe the best I've ever made before.
I've got to fill you in on this, because it was just so good. When I received the June issue of Bon Appetit in the mail, the first thing that caught my eye was a recipe for granola. It was a good issue, filled with all sorts of summer BBQ ideas, fruity desserts, and refreshing cocktails. And yet. Homemade granola caught my eye.
You've got to understand though. I really like granola.

I'm not generally one to brag, but last year I ate a bowl of granola every single day. And I'm not going to lie, on some days, multiple bowls of granola were consumed. To say I love granola is an understatement. I adore it. The stuff is just so addicting. It's good with milk, yogurt, fruit, or plain, right out of the box. You can imagine that such a relationship with granola can get expensive, so I quickly looked into making my own. You can find recipes for homemade granola absolutely everywhere. There are so many to choose from, but few, I've found, that proved to be worth keeping. I found one recipe in which (to be safe) I halved the baking time, and STILL ended up with burnt granola. It is a pretty sad experience to toss five cups worth of could-be-awesome granola into the garbage. But listen everyone, I found a keeper! It's simple, versatile and works out every single time. I made a batch and it was gone in the matter of a couple days. I may, or may not have, eaten it for breakfast, lunch, and after dinner snack. Whatever...

Now that I am 21, I am working on pacing myself when it comes to granola. This recipe is making it pretty difficult, however, because I constantly have a batch on hand in the house. Ready to eat whenever, however.
Oh well. Such is life.
We live and we learn.

Everyday Granola
Adapted from Bon Appetit, June 2010

I highly recommend going with some good-quality dried fruit in this recipe. Try something out of the ordinary. I used dried blueberries, but dried raspberries and cherries would be equally delicious.

3 cups old-fashioned oats
1 cup coarsely chopped pecans
1/2 cup unsweetened shredded coconut*
3 tablespoons (packed) brown sugar
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon (generous) salt
1/3 cup honey
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup assorted dried fruit

Preheat oven to 300 F. Line rimmed baking sheet with parchment. Mix first 7 ingredients in large bowl. Stir honey and oil in a saucepan over medium-low heat until smooth. Pour honey mixture over oat mixture; toss. Spread on prepared baking sheet. Bake until golden, stirring every 10 minutes, about 40 minutes. Place sheet on rack. Stir granola; cool. Mix in fruit. DO AHEAD: Can be made 1 week ahead. Store airtight.

* Available at speciality food stores and natural food stores.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Little Things

Hey May, you aren't looking so good these days. You are cold, and rainy, and windy. I've tried to rebel by wearing bare legs and floral skirts, but as soon as I step outside my house I am consumed by your frigid air and instantly regret my choice of outfit. You've got me sleeping with my winter quilt, battling a nasty cold, and curling up on the sofa, instead of outside on the patio. But May, if it weren't for your borderline-rude weather, I might not have ever had the chance to make these scones. And eat them hot out of the oven. Curled up on the couch.
So for that, I thank you wholeheartedly.

I find scones to be tricky little things. As with most products, there is so much variation and so many different kinds that I hardly know what is what. My goal with scones has always been to make them as healthy as possible. I always sub all-purpose with whole wheat, and half-and-half milk with skim. Well, I hope to save you some time by saying that using this gung-ho healthy method can be dangerous. More often than necessary, I have ended up with a tray full of flat, dense, brick-like scones that are dry and completely uninviting. This is really disappointing for all parts involved. You feel like a failure, an unsuspecting subject almost chokes to death upon first bite, and the remaining scones are neglected for all eternity.
Anyway, I stumbled upon a scone recipe a few weeks ago that sounded promising. The recipe was for whole wheat scones done right: healthy and light and puffy, with gorgeous golden tops. I took a risk and made them for my mom on Mother's Day. I am happy to report that we did NOT have a disappointing situation on our hands. Not disappointing in the slightest. They were hearty, light, and just sweet enough to be appropriate for an exceptionally early morning.



It's still raining outside, and the weatherman isn't calling for much else this week. How about a mug of tea, a warm scone, and a good book to keep you company until the sunshine shows up?

Orange and Chocolate Whole Wheat Scones
Slightly adapted from, Orangette

The original recipe was for Whole Wheat Apricot Scones, but lately I've had a slight fixation with the chocolate-orange combo. One of the lovely things about these scones is the fact that they are hugely versatile. Let your imagination run wild- make them with any kind of fruit your heart desires!

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
2 tsp. baking powder
½ teaspoon table salt
Grated zest of one orange
4 Tbsp. (½ stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
¼ cup sugar
¾ cup good quality dark chocolate chunks (such as Callebaut)
½ cup milk (I used skim), plus more for glazing
1 large egg

Preheat the oven to 425°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flours, baking powder, salt and orange zest. Using your hands, rub the butter into the flour mixture, squeezing and pinching with your fingertips until there are no butter lumps bigger than a large pea. Add the sugar and chocolate chunks, and whisk to incorporate.
Pour the milk into a small bowl, and add the egg. Beat with a fork to mix well. Pour the wet ingredients into the four mixture, and stir (with the fork; it works fine) just to combine. The dough will look shaggy and rough, and there may be some unincorporated flour at the bottom of the bowl. Don't worry about that. Using your hands, gently press and shape the dough, so that it holds together in a messy clump. 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. Ideally, do not knead more than 12 times. As soon as the dough holds together, pat it into a rough circle about 1 ½ inches thick. Cut the circle into 8 wedges.
Put the wedges on the prepared baking sheet. Pour a splash of milk into a small bowl. Using a pastry brush, brush the tops of the scones with a thin coat to glaze. Bake for about 15 minutes, or until pale golden. Transfer to a wire rack to cool slightly. Serve warm- with butter, if that's your style.

Note: If you plan to eat them within a day or two, store the scones in an airtight container at room temperature. For longer storage, seal them in a heavy plastic bag or container, and freeze them. Before serving, bring them to room temperature. Either way, reheat them briefly in a 300°F oven. They are best served warm.

Yield: 8 small scones

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Much Needed

I'm just going to cut straight to the chase. You need to make this cake, immediately. Got it?
I'm not going to ramble on about how tuckered out I felt after my exams, or how I can hardly believe we're half way through the month of May. I know, for goodness sake, that time is flying by. I can hardly keep track of what day it is. I am desperately clinging to these daydream-like spring days, trying to slow them down, trying to hold on to them before they disappear forever.

Spring afternoons are oh-s0-wonderful: warm and new and full of life. For whatever reason, these lush spring days can cause me to feel a bit restless, which is why last week for no good reason, I set to work baking a miraculous multi-tiered, 9-inch cake. Did I mention there were only 3 of us at home? Did I also mention that not only did I make an absolutely massive cake, I made a dozen cupcakes as well? Upon first inspecting the fragrant, freshly iced cakes I stared at my masterpieces and questioned my sanity. There was no way it was all going to be eaten. No way at all.
Apparently though, for a truly good piece of cake, people will do crazy things.
24 hours later, every last crumb had been consumed.

Yeah, it was that good.
It was Saturday. My parents were out of town for the weekend, and takeout had lost its appeal. My sister and I promptly decided that the only logical thing to do with the day was to bake the biggest cake possible. So we set to work, grating, stirring, measuring, spilling and tasting our way through the first ever carrot cake we have ever attempted to make. We never really considered the fact that carrot cake, generally speaking, is kind of average and slightly less than mind-blowing, but anything at this point would have been better than frozen pizza. We had no expectations, but you know what, it was a truly lovely way to spend an afternoon.
A few hours later, the house was filled with an intoxicating cinnamon-y sweetness that made our mouths water. We called my brother downstairs and gathered around the table for the ceremonious cutting of the cake. Than we got down to business, shoveling the cake into our mouths. My brother, a total chocoholic, proclaimed our carrot cake to be one of the best cakes he had ever eaten in his life. My sister and I high-fived and contemplated going into business. Phone calls were made, people arrived, and all together we indulged on a perfect May afternoon in a cake that may have been sent straight from heaven.
Not only was the cake a hit with my siblings and friends, but also with my toughest critic. Possibly the biggest validation came from my boyfriend, Kyran. Over the years, Kyran has been a good sport, trying each and every one of my concoctions. In between nibbles he faithfully gives me a thumbs up (or sometimes thumbs sideways) or a wink, or, if I'm lucky a blissful "MMM.." He remains the only person to give me completely honest reviews, and for that I am thankful. Kyran is an expert on the tasting of baking. You see, his mom is also an avid baker. If my baking episodes were battles on Iron Chef or Food Network Challenge, she'd be my biggest competition. Generally speaking, Kyran is not as blown away by my kitchen attempts as he is with his mom's. I don't blame him, really. She's a fantastic baker, to say the least. She's fantastic in a kind of everything-she-touches-turns-to-gold kind of way. And yes, she's a bit of a tough act to follow.

I think though, I may have put up a pretty good battle with this cake. He had seconds, and then he called later that night and asked for thirds. He happily, willingly, asked for more, which is a very, very good sign. I got a thumbs up, and an "MMMM" and I could have sworn there was a wink in there too.


So HUGE LONG STORY short...
After the whirlwind that was April, this cake was much needed.
The coconut cream cheese icing was billowy, silky-smooth, and tangy, with just a hint of coconut. The cake was moist, perfectly spiced, and comforting. It embodied everything I ever wished carrot cake to be: perfect texture, perfect flavor, and an even cake to icing ratio.
If you're being faced with a lazy May day, I suggest you get on this right away.
It will, someway, somehow, get eaten.


Tropical Carrot Cake with Coconut Cream Cheese Frosting
Adapted from Bon Appetit, April 2003

Sweet goodness. This cake was absolutely DELICIOUS. As per usual, we made a few adjustments to the original recipe... maybe a few more then usual. Bare with us...
1. We used 1 1/3 cup of all purpose flour, and 1 cup of whole wheat flour.
2. We omitted the crystallized ginger all together. My sister is not a fan. I've got to say, the ginger was not missed. Also, we used walnuts instead of macadamia nuts, just because it's what we had.
3. For the frosting we used 3/4 cup of unsweetened coconut milk, instead of sweetened cream of coconut. Because of this, we added about 1/3 cup more of powdered sugar, but add yours to taste. We prefer our icing not to be so cloyingly sweet.
4. The original recipe makes one three-tiered cake, however one of our cake pans went missing. Instead, we made one 2-tiered 9-inch cake and a dozen cupcakes! If you want to do this as well, simply line a standard cupcake tin with cupcake wrappers and divide the last third of the cake batter among them (you should get about 12). They bake for about 12-15 minutes!

Cake

2 1/3 cups sifted all purpose flour (sifted, then measured)
1 cup sweetened flaked coconut
1 cup dry-roasted macadamia nuts
3/4 cup chopped crystallized ginger
3 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda

2 cups sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
4 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups finely grated peeled carrots
2 8-ounce cans crushed pineapple in its own juice, well drained

Frosting

3 8-ounce packages Philadelphia-brand cream cheese, room temperature
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
2 cups powdered sugar
3/4 cup canned sweetened cream of coconut (such as Coco Lopez)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon (scant) coconut extract

14 who dry-roasted macadamia nuts
1/4 cup chopped crystallized ginger


For Cake:
Preheat oven to 350° F. Butter three 9-inch-diameter cake pans with 1 1/2-inch-high sides. Line bottom of pans with parchment paper. Combine 1/3 cup flour and next 3 ingredients in processor. Process until nuts are finely chopped. Whisk remaining 2 cups flour, cinnamon, baking powder, salt, and baking soda in medium bowl to blend.

Using electric mixer, beat sugar and oil in large bowl to blend. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in vanilla. Beat in flour-spice mixture. Stir in coconut-macadamia mixture, then carrots and crushed pineapple.

Divide batter among pans. Bake until tester inserted into center of cakes comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Cool in pans on racks 1 hour. Run knife around edge of pans to loosen cakes. Turn cakes out onto racks; cool completely.

For frosting:
Beat cream cheese and butter in large bowl until smooth. Beat in powdered sugar, then cream of coconut and both extracts. Chill until firm enough to spread, about 30 minutes.

Place 1 cake layer, flat side up, on platter. Spread 3/4 cup frosting over top of cake. Top with second cake layer, flat side up. Spread 3/4 cup frosting over. Top with third cake layer, rounded side up, pressing slightly to adhere. Spread thin layer of frosting over top and sides of cake. Chill cake and remaining frosting 30 minutes. Spread remaining frosting over top and sides of cake. Arrange whole nuts and ginger around top edge of cake. Chill 1 hour. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover with cake dome and chill. Let stand at room temperature 1 hour before serving.)

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Pretty, Pretty, Pretty Good

Spring is officially here, and although I used to hardly bat an eyelash at its coming, this year I am pretty excited.

I'm not sure how it is possible for someone not to like springtime, but I do have some plausible theories, the first of which is due to the fact that I live on the west coast. The line between winter and spring has always been kind of fuzzy. It is mild and rainy in winter, and mild and rainy in spring. Another theory for my past non-excitement: although spring brings soft, gentle cherry blossoms, it also brings final exams and job searching simultaneously. I mean seriously, that is reason enough to make anyone in their right mind lose interest in the coming of another season. My final reason for my dislike of spring: no good holidays (which for me, is often indicative of how I feel about a season). Yes, there is Easter, but Good Friday has always seemed kind of depressing and I kind of loathe chocolate (no big deal...). Anyway, all this goes to say that I used to not like spring all that much, but my-oh-my how times have changed.

I can't exactly pin point when I allowed my love of the season to finally blossom, but I imagine it was somewhere between kicking my worrying habit in the butt and my discovery of Cadbury Mini Eggs. Not to mention, I'm about ready to start planting seeds in the vegetable garden, which has me daydreaming of fresh vegetables all day long. And speaking of vegetables, I am beyond excited about the arrival of springtime food. The way I see things, we have officially transitioned out of the heavy/hearty/complex autumn and winter foods and are now entering into edibles that are are lighter, fresher, and simpler. This is the time of year where an array of simple salads present themselves as possibilities for light lunches and dinners.
I'm taking it upon myself share one such a salad with you today.

So how about an avocado and grapefruit salad to jump start your spring?
Uh-huh, that's what I thought.

Last week we found ourselves in mother nature's good graces when a handful of 17 degree, sunshiny days presented themselves to us folk in the Fraser Valley. When my dad set to work in the kitchen on his practically famous thin-crust pizza one evening, I felt that a special salad was in order- one that would show spring the fine welcome it deserves. We had some grapefruit and ripe avocados kicking around on the counter and I found the perfect recipe within the pages of Bon Appetit. And so I set to work, slicing, segmenting, and arranging bits of avocado, slices of grapefruit, and crisp leaves of butter lettuce. The finished product was a thing of beauty, and I am proud to report that every little bit was eaten, despite the allure of another slice of homemade pizza. It looked and tasted exactly as I imagine spring would: bright, fresh, light, and awfully pretty.

I plan on enjoying spring from now on, no matter what it brings with it. The world is waking up again, and after a long, cold winter, that most definitely is worth celebrating.

Avocado and Grapefruit Salad
Adapted from Bon Appetit, July 2009

This salad is super beautiful and deceptively fancy, considering how simple it really is.
I used the white grape juice/apple cider vinegar method, opposed to tracking down and using the verjus.

2 tablespoons verjus* or 3 1/2 teaspoons white grape juice and 2 1/2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons minced shallot
1/4 cup walnut oil
1/4 cup olive oil
Fine sea salt
8 large butter lettuce leaves
3 ripe avocados, halved, pitted, thinly sliced, rinsed under cold water
3 large Ruby Red grapefruits all peel and white pith cut away, segments cut from between membranes

*Milder than vinegar, verjus is a tart juice made from unripe grapes, available at specialty food stores.

To Prepare

Whisk first 3 ingredients in small bowl to blend. Gradually whisk in both oils. Season dressing to taste with salt and pepper.
Arrange lettuce on platter. Top with avocado and grapefruit, then dressing.

Yield: Serves 8, as a side.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The One

The last few weeks of a semester are always tough. It's that time when, almost magically, everything is due at once: 3000 word research papers, presentations, short stories, final exams, blah, blah, blah. And to think that through this all I am supposed to be searching for a summer job / trying to understand how I am going to save up another five grand for tuition? No thank you! and Oh. My. Sweet. Goodness. I'm kind of freaking out.

But here, have a cookie.
Cookies cure just about anything.
I think everyone needs a solid chocolate chip recipe in their repertoire so today I am introducing you to mine. Don't you just feel better already?

Chocolate chip cookies are classic but I've come to find that they scatter along an invisible scale, ranging from just so-so to incredible. Some are bland, some are too sweet, some have an odd crunchy-chewy texture, and some are hard as pucks. I had to wonder: was I being too picky in my pursuit for the perfect chocolate chip cookie? Turns out I wasn't, and a few years ago I found it: the one I had been waiting for all my life. Turns out a little decadence in a cookie isn't too much to ask for after all. I made a batch, ate 2 or 3 of the massive golden mounds, and promptly declared them the best cookies on the earth. Unfortunately no one believes me anymore when I declare something the best thing ever, because I say that about nearly everything. (I'm an enthused person, what can I say?) I'm not kidding around about this one though. I take cookies very seriously and I think you will agree with me once you try a batch yourself. The sea salt is oh-so-good against the melty chocolate chips and the texture is perfect: crisp around the edges but soft, moist, and chewy in the middle. I have no doubt that you will find them to be yummy in an OH. MY. SWEET. GOODNESS, I'm kind of freaking out! kind of way.
And although these cookies won't write your papers or somehow land you five thousand dollars in you pocket, they will most likely be the best chocolate chip cookies ever to enter your mouth. They might even serve as a cure for your life stresses, if only for a while. That's gotta count for something.


Chocolate Chip Cookies
Adapted from
The New York Times, David Leite, and Jacques Torres

I should mention that in typical Jacqueline style, I changed the recipe around slightly. First of all, I did not use the two kinds of flour suggested in the original recipe. I used all purpose flour, which as far as I'm concerned didn't make a huge difference. Also, I used a sprinkle of grey sea salt on top, instead of just regular. Between you and me, I did this to be fancy and because that's the way it's done at Delancey, but really, regular sea salt will do you just fine! And last but not least: USE A KITCHEN SCALE! Trust me on this one.

2 cups minus 2 Tbsp. (8 ½ oz.) cake flour
1 2/3 cups (8 ½ oz.) bread flour
1 ¼ tsp. baking soda
1 ½ tsp. baking powder
1 ½ tsp. coarse salt, such as kosher
2 ½ sticks (1 ¼ cups; 10 oz.) unsalted butter, softened
1 ¼ cups (10 oz.) light brown sugar
1 cup plus 2 Tbsp. (8 oz.) granulated sugar
2 large eggs
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 ¼ pounds bittersweet chocolate chips or chunks, preferably about 60% cacao content, such as
Ghirardelli
Sea salt, such as Maldon

Combine flours, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in a bowl. Whisk well; then set aside.

Using a mixer fitted with paddle attachment, cream butter and sugars until very light and fluffy, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Mix in the vanilla. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed. Reduce the mixer speed to low; then add dry ingredients, and mix until just combined. (Unless you have a plastic guard that sits around the rim of the bowl, this will make a big mess at first, with flour flying everywhere. I found that carefully holding a dish towel around the top of the bowl helped a lot.) Add the chocolate chips, and mix briefly to incorporate. Press plastic wrap against the dough, and refrigerate for 24 to 36 hours. The dough may be used in batches, and can be refrigerated for up to 72 hours.

When you’re ready to bake, preheat oven to 350°F. Remove the bowl of dough from the refrigerator, and allow it to soften slightly. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a nonstick baking mat.

Using a standard-size ice cream scoop – mine holds about 3 fluid ounces, or about 1/3 cup – scoop six mounds of dough onto the baking sheet, making sure to space them evenly. Sprinkle lightly with sea salt, and bake until golden brown but still soft, 15 to 20 minutes. Transfer the baking sheet to a wire rack for 10 minutes, then transfer the cookies onto the rack to cool a bit more.

Repeat with remaining dough.


Yield: About 24 (5-inch) cookies.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Improvisation

I wish I could say that I am one of those people who randomly pulls ingredients out of the fridge, gracefully throwing them together to create a masterpiece. I'm not really, and I'll tell you why: I think I may be one of the most easily distracted people on the planet.

Yesterday for example, I was making one of my favorite salads, one that requires the boiling of lentils and bulgar, which normally isn't a problem for me. But yesterday, something caught my eye and I left the lentils to boil madly away on the POWER BURNER for way, way too long. I had nearly forgotten about them entirely until I smelt something incredibly unpleasant, and apparently on fire. My lentils were toast, and so was my dad's favorite pot (sorry dad!). So lesson of the day: the power burner is not for the faint of heart.

I should really give myself the benefit of the doubt, though. I know what flavors taste good together, and I can create some wicked things off the top of my head, but more often then I'd like to admit things go awry, especially as of late. Without the guidance of a cookbook, I daydream, I sit down and do homework, and I wander off into another room while my grilled cheese sandwich dies a horrible death on the stove. My head, MY HEAD people, is in warp speed 24 hours a day, trying to plan and organize how I am going to get done what needs to get done. During the school year I am always one step ahead in my mind... I have to be. Whist reading chapters from my Psychology textbook, I am thinking up thesis statements for English essays. And while boiling lentils for my salad, I am watching What Not to Wear on TLC.

This goes to say that even though these days my head if often up in the clouds, sometimes I am able to focus. And when that happens, I am able to create. And sometimes, if I'm lucky, I end up with a masterpiece.


Speaking of masterpieces, my dad, for those of you who don't know him personally, is clinical counsellor by day and a gourmet chef by night. Anything and everything I know about food, I learnt from him. I am a shameless"food snob" because he made me that way. He is one of those people who you could set loose in a cookbook-less kitchen blindfolded and you would, without a doubt, be in for one of the most incredible meals of your life. He is the first person I share my kitchen tales with and the only person I know who gets more excited about food then I do.

In my house, my dad is the one that does the cooking every night. He rarely ever cracks open a cookbook, which in my opinion is an incredibly enviable skill. Every single night, without fail, we are served an incredible meal. His food is elegant, beautiful and simple. "Less is more," he always says. He believes in eating local, something more of us should strive for, and last year for the first time ever we started our very own vegetable garden in our backyard. It was our pride and joy, with many a meal being focused on the fruits, or vegetables in this case, of our labor. He is never without an idea, or a plan. He knows what he is doing and he is never, ever distracted.

A few days ago he suggested I make myself fried polenta with a slow-cooked tomato sauce for dinner. I've never made polenta in my life, and to say I am slightly afraid of the stuff is an understatement. I feel polenta has the tendency to be tasteless, starchy, and gluey in texture, making it the perfect candidate for my loathing. But my dad assured me it would be good, and I mostly always consider his word as the gospel truth as far as the kitchen is concerned. He gave me a fool proof ratio: 4 cups water, 1 cup cornmeal, and don't stop stirring, even if your arm feels like it is about to fall off. He told me to add a healthy dose of parmesan and black pepper for flavor. Then for a sauce, he told me to slowly heat diced Roma tomatoes, adding basil and garlic until it was thick and flavorful. It would be simple, but simple is often best. And so I improvised (improvised!) the whole thing, with major props of course, to my brilliant father.

What followed was bliss, sheer bliss. After a quick fry in hot pan, the polenta turned golden brown and had a thin crisp outer layer. It held up wonderfully against the ridiculously tasty tomato sauce that was spooned generously, messily over it's top. It was charming and homey- the perfect meal for a late winter's night.

It's amazing what comes about when we take the time to focus. No burnt lentils, wrecked pans, or fleeting thoughts. Just simple little masterpieces.
Black Pepper Parmesan Polenta with Tomato Sauce

For this recipe, I didn't really use any measurements, especially for the sauce. What I have given below are approximations. I don't think you can really go wrong with a pan filled with roma tomatoes, olive oil and garlic, so fear not. Improvisation isn't all that scary...

I like to serve this as a light meal, all on it's own with a nice mixed greens salad on the side. My family sauteed up some Halibut with lemon juice, salt, and pepper last week and ate polenta on the side, which was also lovely.

For Polenta

4 cups water
1 cup polenta
1/2 teaspoon salt
a hefty dose of black pepper
1/4 cup fresh parmesan cheese
1/4 cup butter

Boil water in a medium sized pot and add cornmeal. Stirring constantly, cook cornmeal for 15 minutes, or until fully cooked. Remove from heat and add salt, pepper, parmesan, and butter, stirring well to incorporate. Working quickly (polenta will begin to firm up) pour polenta into a greased 9 inch square baking dish. Allow to cool. Polenta will become very firm.

For Tomato Sauce

8-10 Roma tomatoes, diced
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
A generous splash of balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 cup basil, chopped
salt and pepper to taste

Heat olive oil in a large saucepan over medium high heat. Add the tomatoes and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally for about 15 minutes. Add balsamic and sugar, stirring to incorporate. Cook for another 5-10 minutes. The sauce should start to thicken. You want the flavors to have time to mix and mingle and the tomatoes to become soft. Add the basil, salt, and pepper and remove from heat.

To Serve

Heat a large sauce pan with a splash of olive oil over medium heat. Slice cooled polenta into squares (depending on how big a pan you used to let the polenta set, you should get 8 or so small pieces), remove from dish, and place in heated pan. You want the polenta to become golden and slightly crisp on the outside. Cook for 2-3 minutes and flip, allowing polenta to cook for another 2-3 minutes. Remove from heat and serve. Top with generous spoonfuls of tomato sauce and enjoy.

Yeild: Serves 3-4 as a main dish, and 5-6 as a side



Monday, February 8, 2010

Some Days

Some days everything goes right. My hair looks good, I get an A on the paper I stayed up all night writing, spring shows up at the beginning of February, and there is no 5 o'clock traffic jam. Goodness gracious I love those days.
I've got to say though that anytime I create something that decides to turns out exceptionally well, I am pretty well over the moon. I don't care if we get hit by an unexpected snowstorm or my sister points out the Mt. Everest sized zit on my chin- I am unfazed. I am sitting on cloud 9... whatever that means, that's where you'll find me on days when my kitchen experiments really, truly move me.
Such an experience happen to me last week, although my fascination with Ratatouille began much, much before. This past summer when I finally got my hands on a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking I was really excited, mostly, I think because Amy Adams made it look so damn fun in Julie and Julia. I immediately started dreaming about hosting French dinner parties for all my friends, serving them stuffed duck and braised cucumbers. However, reality quickly set in and I realized that there was not a hope in the world that I, a vegetarian of 2 years, would be de-boning a duck anytime soon. In case you don't know, Mrs. Child's fine book is filled with whole chapters on "Sweetbreads and Brains" and "Poultry." This, along with the chapter entitled "Aspics" caused me to realize that I wasn't going to be hosting a full on French dinner party anytime soon.
There was, of course, one recipe that caught my eye straight from the beginning: Ratatouille. I found it in the vegetable section, so I rationed that it had to be safe. The name itself had me interested. I had no idea what it was or if it would be any good. From what I could gather it seemed that hours of slicing, chopping, and cooking would land you with a pot full of stewed vegetables. B-O-R-I-N-G. And so I slipped Mastering the Art of French Cooking back on my shelf and forgot about Ratatouille entirely.
That is until one fine day last week.
I'm not sure I believe in fate but last week while rereading A Homemade Life I found a recipe for Ratatouille nestled on page 124. I was feeling ultra adventurous. The sun was shining, I had the day off, and I felt a strong inclination to make Ratatouille. Lucky for me, we had all the ingredients on hand and so the chopping, baking, frying, and stirring began. Within the next couple of hours, something magical happened and I don't even know how to explain it. All those vegetables became meltingly tender, creating a kind of complex, savory broth at the bottom of the pot. The flavors fused together and became something altogether wonderful. The smell was intoxicating, and upon the first of many taste tests before dinner, I decided that vegetables had never before tasted so good. I served it to my family for dinner, and even as a side dish it pretty well stole the show. I think we were all somewhat surprised that a pot full of vegetables could create something so extraordinary.

If that isn't an episode of fate, I don't know what is.


Roasted Eggplant Ratatouille
Adapted from A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg

"Ratatouille," Molly writes, "is a good accompaniment for any kind of meat, but I like to serve it on its own, as a light meal, with a poached or fried egg on top." I'm not really into meat, so I did the fried egg thing, because, you know, eggs taste good on just about everything. Especially, I've found, on Ratatouille.

1 pound eggplant, sliced crosswise into 1-inch thick rounds
Olive oil
1 pound zucchini, trimmed, halved lengthwise, and sliced into ½-inch thick half-moons
1 medium yellow onion, thinly slice
1 large red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and chopped
4 large cloves garlic, thinly sliced
5 Roma tomatoes, seeded and chopped
¾ teaspoon salt
3 sprigs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
¼ cup finely chopped basil

Position a rack in the middle of the oven, and preheat the oven to 400°F.

Arrange the eggplant rounds in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Pour 2 tablespoons olive oil in a small bowl, and brush onto the eggplant. Flip the slices and brush the second sides as well, taking care that each had a thin coating of oil. Bake for 30 minutes, flipping the slices halfway through, until soft and lightly browned on each side. Remove from the oven and cool. Cut into rough 1-inch pieces. Set aside. (You can do this a day or two ahead, refrigerating the eggplant until you're ready to use it. It'll make the final dish a little quicker to prepare.)

Warm 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat in a dutch oven or large, deep skillet. Add the zucchini and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden and just tender, 10 to 12 minutes. Remove it from the pan, taking care to leave behind any excess oil, and set it aside.

If there is no oil left in the pan, add about 1 tablespoon; if there i still some remaining, proceed to the next step. Reduce the head to medium, and add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until slightly softened, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the bell pepper and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally until just tender but not browned, about 6 minutes. Add the tomatoes, salt, thyme, and bay leaf and stir to combine. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook for 5 minutes. Add the eggplant and zucchini, stir to incorporate, and cook until everything is very tender, 15 to 20 minutes more. Taste, and adjust the seasonings as necessary. Discard the bay leaf and stir in the basil.

Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature, with additional salt for sprinkling.

NOTE: Ratatouille is even better on the second day or the third. If you can, plan to make it ahead of time, so that the flavors have time to meld and ripen.

Yield: 4 servings