Friday, October 28, 2011

Nearly November already???

I’ve quite gotten out of the habit of reserving Friday nights for sitting and writing, so it feels good to head straight for the computer tonight.

Before I start in on the food, I want to give a shout out to my friends who are participating on NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. For those of you not familiar, the goal is to write a novel, or at least 50,000 words of one, in 30 days. That is an average of 1,667 words a day.

I have participated once, writing just under 30,000 words that year, and I will again someday. I’m shooting for next year, ladies. Just so you know. :o)

So here's to you!! Knock ‘em dead!! And have a donut for me when you go to Portland on Tuesday! :o)

And now, the food. Because that’s what I assume you are really here for!

With the advent of autumn, we have gotten back into the crock pot big time. After all, we have a whole cookbook of recipes to try out.

Yes, I am referring to what I think might be the crock pot bible, Slow Cooker Revolution from America’s Test Kitchen. We have now tried four recipes and they have all been fantastic.

Two weeks ago we made a white bean chicken chili. Hopefully since I am crediting them, I won’t get slapped for sharing the recipe here.

White Chicken Chili – from Slow Cooker Revolution by America’s Test Kitchen

3 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 15-oz can white or yellow hominy, drained & rinsed
2 tbsp vegetable oil
2 onions, minced
4 jalapeno chiles, stemmed, seeded and minced
6 garlic cloves, minced
4 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp ground coriander
3 cans (15 oz) cannellini beans, drained & rinsed
3 lbs bone-in chicken thighs, skin removed, trimmed of fat
salt & pepper
2 tbsp minced jarred pickled jalapeno chiles
¼ c minced fresh cilantro
2 avocados, pitted and diced

Puree 2 cups broth with the hominy in a blender until smooth, about 1 minute. Transfer to slow cooker.
Heat oil in 12 inch skillet over medium high heat until shimmering. Add onions, jalapenos, garlic, cumin and coriander and cook until vegetables are softened and lightly browned, 8-10 minutes. Stir in remaining 1 cup broth, scraping up any browned bits. Transfer to slow cooker.
Stir beans into slow cooker. Season chicken with salt and pepper and nestle on top of vegetables. Cover and cook until chicken is tender, 4 to 6 hours on low.
Transfer chicken to cutting board, let cool slightly. Shred into bite sized pieces, discarding bones. Let chili set for about 5 minutes, then skim fat from the top.
Stir in shredded chicken and pickled jalapenos and let sit until heated through, about 5 minutes. Stir in cilantro, season with salt & pepper to taste, and serve with avocado.

* * *

Okay, I know what you’re thinking. FOUR jalapenos? Really?? I have to admit, I agreed. I was a wimp and decided to only include 3 because they were rather large. Turns out adding the fourth would have been fine. In the slow cooker, the chiles cook until they are very mellow. And since you don’t put in the seeds, really there’s nothing to worry about.

Where you control the heat of the dish is at the end, adding the pickled jalapenos. Those mothers still have the seeds in them. They’re very tart and hot and you can add extra to your own bowl of you want to. I was a little surprised at finding them in the recipe, but the add the acid you need to help brighten up the slow cooked stew, along with the cilantro (which, if you use it sparingly, does not taste like soap. Really.)

The addition of the avocado gave it creaminess and freshness without adding cheese. Avocados are such a luxurious food…creamy and decadent and really good for you. How can you argue with that??

If you wanted to add cheese? I’d say get some queso fresco or some cotija. Something light and white. But this really didn’t need it.

The only downside of making this is that I have been craving a margarita ever since.

Since we’re running a little long tonight, I’ll give you the quick low down on the Swiss steaks we made last week. Again from the Slow Cooker Revolution book, they were a little labor intensive, but totally worth the work.

It required a pound and a half of mushrooms until they were dry and browned…close to 15 minutes. Then cooking thinly sliced onions with thyme and paprika until the onions were very soft and starting to brown. Add a little flour and cook just long enough to get the floury taste out, then add broth and dry sherry to deglaze the pan.

I did all of that one evening after dinner. By bedtime, the house smelled glorious. But we had to wait two days before I was able to actually cook the dish.

You dump the veg into the slow cooker, add the steaks on top (6 6-8 oz blade steaks) and cook 9-11 hours on low. When they’re done, you remove the meat, skim the fat from the gravy, then stir in ¼ of heavy cream and some fresh parsley. Serve the steaks with the gravy.

I would highly recommend some mashed potatoes to go with this stuff.

Oddly, I realized as I was eating this that it was basically my old standby crock pot dish. Beef with cream of mushroom soup and onion soup mix. Sort of. It did bear a passing resemblance to that dish from cans and envelopes. But it was so much better.

Don’t get me wrong. If I am pressed for time, I will go back to the easy way. But if I have the time to invest, I will do this again. It was deep with flavor, the sherry gave it a nuttiness and the cream…well, I used sour cream because it’s what we had and man, did it make that dish.

You may be wondering, has something changed? These are not her perfect, no-fuss recipes here.

I have to say I’ve enjoyed taking the time to build these meals and cook them carefully. I get into a zone and just enjoy chopping and slicing and sautéing. I’ve even been reminded of the joys of cleaning as I go, so that when I’m done there’s no mess.

Perhaps it is the nip of Fall in the air. The cooler weather and more frequent rain always make me want to cook and bake. I even roasted pumpkins for the first time in my life. I’ll be making some pumpkin bread this weekend with the fresh pumpkin.

I guess that’s it. I just love this time of year. It’s Fall. Root vegetable season. :o)
Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I need some cocoa.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Magic of Chocolate

N asked tonight what I was going to write about this week. The first thing that came to mind was the cake I made this week. But then I remember, I made a kickin’ chicken chili, too.

Surely both deserve mention, but this week, it’s just going to be the cake.

There was a bake sale coming up at work. I knew I would make something…I always do. I love baking and homemade things make people happy. Normally I would consider trying something new, especially when we’re in the middle of a season of Top Chef: Just Desserts.

This time, however, I had a request to fulfill.

I’ve been making this Guinness chocolate cake for several years. It all started at my friend Sheila’s wedding. She asked me to make her cake and she told me about this cake she had at a local restaurant. So I found this recipe, and the rest, as they say, it history.

It is, hands down, the most requested cake I have ever made. I’ve made it for four weddings, several birthdays and other special occasions. The first few times I made it, I frosted it with white icing because it was for weddings.

The recipe, however, comes with it’s own icing. A chocolate ganache. And that’s what has become famous among my friends.

The cake is dense and rich and moist. And when you top it with a bittersweet ganache, it becomes mouthful after mouthful of rich, chocolately goodness. It’s not to sweet, exceedingly decadent.

The recipe makes a gigantic cake. Three deep layers of fudgy cake is a lot. So I usually serve only two layers when I take it somewhere. Especially when someone else is going to serve. It’s hard to cut and serve a cake that is probably eight or nine inches tall and three layers.

So, I did a two layer cake with the ganache on top for the bake sale at work and split the single layer (with my fantastic 14” cake splitter knife) and iced it with a simple buttercream for the birthday girl.

The birthday cake was a total hit. The Bunny loves cake and it was wonderful to be able to make her a cake for her birthday.

The bake sale cake…well, I’ve auctioned that cake off at work before, so it’s sort of legendary there. Which is why it was requested. :o) And now a whole new group of people have been introduced to it’s magic.

You may think I’m tooting my own horn quite a bit, but I’m really not. It’s such a great recipe and it’s not fussy at all. Not the cake, anyway. The only thing you really have to be careful of is making sure your cocoa, butter and beer mixture is cool enough before you add it to the eggs and sour cream. If it’s too hot, you could cook your eggs and that would be very bad.

The really nervewracking part of this cake is the ganache. Ganache is relatively simple on paper. You heat cream, pour it over chopped chocolate, stir until the chocolate melts, let it cool until it’s the consistency you need it for your recipe.

Do it right and you get a beautifully textured mixture that goes onto a cake so easily, then it solidifies to a point where you can make the corners and edges of your cake sharp as a knife’s edge.

No problem, right?


If you overheat the cream, it breaks down the fats in the chocolate and you get a lumpy, gross-looking mess that you can’t do anything with. It still tastes good, so you could eat it with a spoon. But you can’t serve it. Broken ganaches make the angels cry. Okay, maybe not the angels, but it makes me cry. It’s made me cry several times before. And say lots of bad words. Lots.

Under heat the cream and your chocolate doesn’t get melted all the way. Then you have to baby it either on the stove or in the microwave to get the chocolate just warm enough to melt without breaking. It’s very stressful.

But when everything goes right, when the cream is just hot enough to melt the chocolate, when you catch the chilling ganache at just the perfect moment when it is easy to spread and doesn’t immediately solidify on the cake, it is a wonder to behold.

You can make a pretty impressive, professional-looking cake with a minimum of fussing.

That precision fascinates me. I don’t consider myself a terribly precise person. I don’t weigh my baking ingredients. I tend to measure everything on the generous side. I don’t use cake flour even when a recipe specifically calls for it.

But riding that fine line, looking for that perfect moment when it’s time to move to the next step, watching the transformation of a liquid and a solid into this wonderous amalgam that allows you only minutes to work with it when it’s at that just right place. That is what really gets me jazzed about making this recipe.

Well, that, and the delighted faces of people eating what I’ve baked. Because ultimately it’s feeding people good food that makes me happy.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Birthday Celebrations, Part Deux

This week, we celebrated N’s birthday, which, of course, required cake.

Her favorite is yellow cake with chocolate frosting. Given our busy lives, she very kindly said, “If you want to use a mix, it’s okay with me.”

Let me give you a little background on that. I have probably used one cake mix in the last twenty years. It’s not that I think they’re bad. I grew up on cake mix cakes. My mom made wedding cakes with mixes and guests swore they were from scratch.

It’s just that I tend to not have a cake mix in the house when I want to bake a cake. But I usually have all the component ingredients. If you think about it, most people do. Flour, sugar, eggs, butter, vanilla, salt baking powder and milk.

When it came to baking night, I still had not gotten a cake mix, but I certainly had all those items in my kitchen. So scratch it was.

Since I don’t have a favorite yellow cake recipe, I went searching. I was very interested in the recipes that called for buttermilk, but I didn’t have that. Nor did I have sour cream. But I’ll be trying those cakes at a later date.

What I landed on was this.

Yes, Martha Stewart.

Say what you want…the woman knows her stuff.

The cake is simple. Butter and sugar creamed together. Eggs and vanilla beaten in. Flour, baking powder and salt added alternatively with milk. Thick batter poured into two 8” rounds and baked for 35 minutes.

So simple. So easy to screw up. :o)

I didn’t really totally screw it up. But because I’m currently in the middle of a season of Top Chef: Just Desserts, I’m a bit more critical of my baking right now.

The cake was a little bit dry. But it was totally my fault. It needed a couple of minutes less in the oven and it would have been perfect. But it did have that wonderful butter flavor, delicate and rich. I will definitely be using this one again.

Now, I do have a favorite chocolate frosting recipe. It’s in the old McCall’s cookbook that my mom had. The flavor of this chocolate frosting is really unparalled. But it is complicated. You have to melt the chocolate, let it cool, cream the butter and sugar, add the chocolate, add the egg (yes, I said egg), beat it over a bowl of ice water to get it to the right consistency. If you are in a hurry or not meticulous, you can fuck this mother up. This is not something the middle-aged mother of a toddler should attempt, especially on a school night .

So I went hunting again. And I found this from a food blog called Savory Sweet Life. You have to scroll to the bottom of the page to get to the recipe.

What intrigued me about this recipe was the salt. It’s a pretty basic chocolate frosting recipe, but then it had salt. I knew this would bring out the flavor of the cocoa, so I decided try it.

It is now my favorite chocolate frosting. It’s easy to make, it tastes wonderful. How can anyone argue with that combination?

There is an option to use either vanilla or almond extract. I used vanilla. I’m not all that fond of almond flavoring in things. It is so easy to over do. And it wasn’t the right application here. But I think I will try it at some point. This frosting was tasty enough that I think it would be fun to play around with. Some cinnamon and cayenne, maybe?

In the final analysis, however, what matters is not whether I used cake flour or all purpose, whether I used almond or vanilla extract. What matters is how it tastes.

Well, the birthday girl rated it “awesome”. And that’s what’s important to me. :o)