Saturday, August 30, 2008

Blue Velvet. Except, You Know, Red.

My Dad is not a dessert person. It's been a running joke in my family ever since we went to a restaurant specifically known for their ice cream and he ordered the sugar-free, fat-free sorbet. He doesn't order anything after dinner except for black coffee. There is one exception to the rule, though. Anything that involves cream cheese frosting. Carrot cake, pumpkin cake, and especially red velvet cake. Thus my birthday present to him: cake.
This was actually my second attempt at red velvet cake. The first time, I tried Paula Deen's recipe. I mean, I figured it's supposed to be kind of a Southern thing, and who better to learn from than someone who couldn't stop saying "y'all" if you offered her a...whatever Paula Deen doesn't already have. But I have to say, I was disappointed. It was fine, I guess. The cake turned out drier than I expected. It crumbled and just didn't live up to the rather high expectations that I had for it. In fact, the cake sat in my fridge for over a week, certainly a rarity in my house.

And so, the second time, I turned to someone else. Emeril. No, I can't stand him, and yes, his recipes often have too many ingredients, but dear lord was this cake good. Moist and flavorful, with a sheen to the inside of the cake that I love. It was just the way red velvet cake should be. And, as I'm my father's daughter, there was cream cheese frosting. Lots of cream cheese frosting.
While my pictures fail to capture the beauty and brightness of this cake, I can assure you that the taste is unaffected. More photography would have followed if someone who will remain nameless hadn't fed the rest of it to her friends when I wasn't there to supervise.

Red Velvet Cake
Adapted (very slightly) from Emeril Lagasse

For the cake:

2 1/2 cups sifted cake flour
2 teaspoons cocoapowder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter softened
2 large eggs
1 cup buttermilk

2 ounces red food coloring

1 teaspoon distilled white vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the frosting:

1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese softened
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter softened
1 pound box confectioners' sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon kosher salt

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Grease the bottom of two 9-inch round baking pans. Line the bottoms with parchment paper, then grease and flour the paper. In a medium bowl or on a piece of waxed paper, sift together flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, and salt; set aside. In a large bowl, cream together sugar and butter. Beat in eggs, 1 at a time. Alternately add flour mixture and buttermilk. Beat in food coloring and vinegar, then add vanilla. Spread the batter evenly in the pans.

Bake for 20 to 30 minutes or until a wooden toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Turn out onto a rack to cool and remove parchment paper.

In a large bowl, combine the cream cheese and butter. Beat in confectioners' sugar until fluffy. Beat in vanilla and salt. Use frosting to fill and ice cake.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Worth Burning Your Tongue

There's something I should admit to right now: I never ate tom kha gai when I was actually in Thailand two years ago, but I should have. My first experience with the smooth, light coconut-lemongrass soup was at a restaurant in London last year, and I was sold.

Not that I didn't eat well in Thailand. There was curry, which was heavy and hot and completely without the bell peppers that they put in fake Thai curry here. There was the Chinese-inspired soup they sold in all the markets that was a broth with noodles and bean sprouts that came with a little condiment rack of chili oil, chili flakes and other dark sauces that I would load into my soup until it was so spicy that my eyes watered and my nose ran. And--the thing I miss the most--there were tiny fried coconut milk and corn cakes, shaped like little UFOs, that would come straight off the griddle and were worth burning your tongue on.

But back to tom kha gai. You might have seen it on Top Chef as one of Lisa's dishes in the finale a couple of months ago. (Her entire menu looked amazing. In fact, as much as I loved the soup when I ate it in London, it was seeing it on the show that gave me the undeniable urge to make it right now.) It's a soup that's meant to be served with a meal. The thick coconut milk cools the mouth between spicier dishes, and the lemongrass helps to cleanse the palate. The truth is, though, that I eat it as a meal.

The most important part of making this is having the real Thai ingredients. They're not obscure ones--you can find these at any Asian grocery store. I know fish sauce weirds some people out, but trust me on this: it's what makes the soup. I use canned vetetables (I know, I know,) but you could easily use fresh ones.

Now, unfortunately, I ate all of my soup before I could take a picture of it. All I have is the empty bowl and the beautiful spoon, given to me by a friend. I hope you forgive me.
Tom Kha Gai (Lemongrass Coconut Soup with Chicken)
Makes 2-3 servings

2 8 oz. cans coconut milk (not coconut cream)
1 8 oz. can chicken stock
3 one-inch chunks of galangal (Thai ginger)
2 stalks of lemongrass, bruised or cut into a tassel at the white end
1 can straw mushrooms
1 can baby corn
1 can bamboo shoots
2 chicken breasts, sliced
5-6 kaffir lime leaves, torn in half lengthwise
5-6 bruised Thai chilis (more if you like it spicy)
Fish sauce (I use Golden Boy brand)
Palm sugar

Combine the coconut milk, chicken stock, galangal and lemongrass in a large pot over medium-high heat until it becomes fragrant. Season with the fish sauce, (which is used in Thai cooking in place of salt,) and palm sugar to taste. Add the bamboo shoots, which take the longest to cook. Simmer for 7-8 minutes and add the baby corn, mushrooms, and chicken. Simmer for an additional 4-5 minutes, then add the lime leaves and chilis and serve.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Some Kind of Wonderful

I was walking down the street by my house the other day, in my new neighborhood that I love, and the weather was perfect, a rarity here. And I thought, "I'm really happy right now." So what does this call for?

Pomegranate champagne sorbet.
I had this a couple of years ago at a restaurant, and have been thinking about it ever since. Now that it's warm outside, and I'm in a celebrating mood, it seemed like the time to break it out. I'd never actually made a sorbet before, or any kind of ice cream, so the first attempt was, how shall we say, slushee-like? Not that there's anything wrong with pomegranate champagne slushees, but it wasn't what I was hoping for.

So I tried it again the next night, with a little tweaking. As much as I love pomegranate, pure pomegranate juice can be a little overwhelming. Luckily, in my fridge, I happened to have some blood orange juice. Perfect. I mixed it all up, let it churn in the ice cream machine for much longer than the instructions said it would take, (more on that later,) and out came a beautiful, pinky-orange sorbet, the color of a just-ripening watermelon, with tiny little bubbles throughout. It's light and sour, and I think my friend with whom I shared it was right in saying that the champagne taste was more noticeable once it had solidified in the freezer overnight, as opposed to its mostly-frozen state straight out of the machine.

This sorbet is for the summer. (Really, what sorbet isn't?) But more importantly, this is celebratory sorbet. So find something worth a little pat on the back, and make this recipe.

Pomegranate Mimosa Sorbet
Makes 6 servings

4 cups pomegranate juice
1 cup blood orange juice
1/4 cup light corn syrup
1 1/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup champagne or sparkling wine

Heat the first four ingredients in a saucepan over medium heat, until all the sugar has dissolved. Remove from heat, and refrigerate for at least one hour. This was my mistake in the first batch--if the mixture is too warm when it goes into the ice cream maker, it will take significantly longer to freeze, and you might run out of ice, (as I did,) long before your sorbet is no longer a slushee, (as mine was.)

After this, you just add the champagne and put the whole mixture into your ice cream maker and follow the directions. Since everyone's is different, I can't guarantee how yours works, but I'll give you a few tips that I learned from mine:

*Add salt to the ice water surrounding the cylinder containing the juice mixture. It lowers the temperature considerably and makes it freeze faster.
*If you don't let the juice mixture cool beforehand, your sorbet will likely take over an hour to freeze.
*Don't overfill the ice bucket--it will prevent the sorbet from churning.
*It's done when it starts to look as if the machine is having difficulty churning it any longer. Don't keep mixing it! You'll damage your ice cream maker.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Holy Trinity: Salt, Cream Cheese, and Butter. Okay, and Brown Sugar.

There are no two ways around it--my mother taught me to bake. I never realized until recently how ingrained the things that she taught me were; then I started saying things like, "You mean you don't have a springform pan?" and, "What do you mean, what's a waterbath?" My house was the one growing up where everyone wanted to eat, and my lunches were always envied because my cookies didn't have a nautically-themed, store-bought name. I was spoiled, in fact. There are many things that I just can't eat now because I had them too often when I was young. Yes, I know, poor me, having eaten so many brownies and peanut-butter bars that I can't face them any longer. My life has been so hard.

But these cinnamon rolls...I don't think I'll ever be on such bad terms with them. I think I could eat them every day, every meal, until I weigh so much that they have to lift me out of the house with a crane. And that would be fine, just as long as I could bring the pan with me.

To begin with, they have cream cheese frosting. Nothing bad ever came from a recipe with cream cheese frosting. And under the frosting, they're dripping with caramelized brown sugar. It clings to every swirl of the dough, and coats the bottom of the pan so that you can't take a single bite without the very real threat of rotting out every tooth in your head. Like I said, though, it would be worth it.

And, as it always is with baking, the devil's in the details. I will do my best to tell you every little trick that my mother taught me so that these turn out. Because if they do, I guarantee you, you'll never look back. They're so good that my dog wanted to help me bake this last batch, and ended up with a nose full of flour to show for it. They will convert you to the faith of gooey, dripping frosting and brown sugar. As I have said, so it shall be.

Perfect Cinnamon Rolls
Adapted from Alton Brown

4 large egg yolks, room temp
1 large whole egg, room temp
2 ounces sugar, approx. 1/4 cup
3 ounces unsalted melted butter, approx. 6 tbs
6 ounces buttermilk, room temperature (If you don't have buttermilk, you can use 1 cup of milk to 2 1/2 tbs of lime juice)
20 ounces all-purpose flour, approx. 6 cups, and extra for dusting
1 package instant dry yeast, approx. 2 1/4 tsp
1 1/4 tsp kosher salt
Vegetable oil or cooking spray

16 ounces light brown sugar, approx. 2 cup packed
2 tbs cinnamon
Pinch of salt
A large chunk of softened butter, approx. 3 tbs

4 ounces cream cheese, approx. 1/3 cup
3 ounces unsalted butter, approx. 6 tbs
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
6 ounces powdered sugar

For the dough: Whisk together the egg yolks, whole egg, sugar, butter, and buttermilk. Add approximately 2 cups of the flour, the yeast and the salt; whisk until moistened and combined. In an electric mixer, use a dough hook to mix together the egg, sugar and buttermilk mixture and all but 3/4 cup of the remaining flour and knead on low speed for 5 minutes. The dough should feel soft and moist but not sticky; add more flour if necessary. Knead on low for an additional 5 minutes or until the dough clears the sides of the bowl. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead by hand for an additional 30 seconds. Lightly oil the sides of a large bowl and transfer the dough into it. Lightly oil the top of the dough, cover and let it double in volume, 2 to 2 1/2 hours.

Combine the brown sugar, cinnamon and salt in a medium bowl. Mix until well incorporated. Set aside.

Butter a 9x13 inch glass baking dish. Line the bottom of the dish with parchment paper, and then butter the top of the paper. Punch down the risen dough and turn it out onto a lightly floured work surface. Shape the dough into a rectangle with the long side nearest you by hand. Using the rolling pin, roll the dough into an 18x12 inch rectangle. Using your hands, (or a knife if you must,) spread the butter evenly on the dough, leaving a 3/4 inch border along the top edge. Do the same with half of the filling. Beginning with the edge nearest you, tightly roll the dough into a cylinder. Pinch the unbuttered seam closed to seal the roll. Gently squeeze the cylinder to create an even thickness. Cut the rolls using a serrated knife into 1 1/2-inch rolls, creating 12 rolls.

Spread the other half of the filling in the pan with the parchment paper. Evenly space the rolls in the baking dish, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and allow the rolls to rise in the fridge overnight.

The next morning...

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the rolls on the center rack and bake until golden brown, about 25 minutes. Remove the rolls from the oven and invert the pan onto a large serving platter so that all the melted sugar on the bottom spreads over the top. While the rolls cool slightly, whisk the cream cheese in an electric mixer until creamy. Add the butter and vanilla and whisk until combined, then add the salt and powdered sugar a bit at a time. Whisk until smooth. Spread over the rolls and serve immediately.

Baking tips from my mother, to me, to you:
*Oiling the bowl helps the bread to rise better, because it isn't clinging to the sides.
*Parchment paper, parchment paper, parchment paper. If you're planning to turn something out of a pan, (not just these rolls, but cakes or anything else,) parchment paper is going to make your life much easier. Just be sure to butter the pan and the paper.
*A little salt in the cream cheese frosting helps to cut the sweetness of the sugar. People underestimate the importance of salt in dessert. Even though it looks like a small amount, don't skip the salt.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Brie for Breakfast

I love breakfast food. Love, love, love. And don't give me any of that egg-white omelette, non-fat yogurt stuff. I want big thick slices of bread, rich yellow egg yolks and crisp red bacon streaked with tan. So when my mom made this for Easter brunch a few months ago, I didn't stop thinking about it until last night when I decided to make it myself.

I don't think this recipe was originally intended to be a breakfast food, but it's just so perfect. She served it with baked french toast spread with vanilla-bean butter and maple baked bacon, and it was a wonderful savory counterpoint to the french toast and the orange juice. The top was crusty and golden, and inside was moist and melted with cheese and artichoke hearts. The moment I tasted it, though, I knew what it was missing: something to give it another texture, something to stand up to the artichokes. It was missing mushrooms.

So I made it for myself and added the mushrooms. It was perfect. Everything that I loved about it was still there, and now there were mushrooms. Plump, tender mushrooms. And when I say it was perfect, I mean except for one itty bitty thing. I think it could use another addition: bacon. Not a ton of it, but just enough to give it a little crunch. So if anyone ever makes this and takes that into consideration, let me know. I have enough leftovers here to last me a while, so I don't think I'll be making it again any time soon.

This recipe makes a ton of food, so I wouldn't judge you if you cut it in half.

Spinach, Artichoke and Mushroom Stuffing
Adapted from Emeril Lagasse

Something important about this recipe: chop everything beforehand. It is undoubtedly the most time-consuming part of the whole process. Emeril says that this only takes fifteen minutes of prep time. He is either lying, or has six sets of hands.

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 pounds spinach
1 pound mushrooms (I just sliced up one large container from the store)
2 cups chopped yellow onion (slightly less than one large onion)
1 tbs chopped garlic
3 (8.5 oz) cans quartered artichoke hearts
2 large eggs
1 loaf cubed (1 inch) day-old French bread (You can use fresh bread if you have to, but it won't soak up the liquid as well)
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
2 cups chicken stock
2 tbs lemon juice
1 cup grated Parmesan
1 pound Brie, rind removed and cut into cubes
Salt, pepper, basil, oregano and parsley flakes to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease a 9x13 baking pan with olive oil

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add the spinach. Cook until wilted, about 30 seconds. Drain and rinse with cold water. Squeeze as much water as possible from the spinach and chop roughly. Set it aside.

Heat a tablespoon of olive oil over medium-high heat in the biggest skillet you can find. (Trust me--there's going to be a lot of stuff in it.) Add the chopped onions and cook until they're just beginning to brown. Add the garlic, and spices to taste. Cook for about thirty seconds, and add the artichoke hearts and the mushrooms. Stir and cook for another 3-4 minutes and remove from heat.

Combine eggs, cream, chicken stock and lemon juice, along with more spices to taste, in a large bowl and whisk. Add the bread, spinach, artichoke and mushroom mixture, Brie, and 1/2 cup of your Parmesan. If the bread doesn't soak up the liquid right away, let it sit for 15-20 minutes.

Pour the mixture into your baking dish and brush the top with the remaining olive oil. Sprinkle the remaining Parmesan on top. (You can always add more...just a thought.) Bake in the oven for about an hour, until the top is golden brown and the center is firm.