August 13, 2008
Alice Medrich’s best cocoa brownies
I recently had one of my fundamental beliefs shaken to its core. The sun rises in the east, puppies are cute, and home-made is better than a mix. After attending yet another Dove Chocolate at Home party, I ordered and baked a brownie mix. Planets tilted and crashed, up was down, bad was good. I had just eaten the best brownies ever – out of a box. Chewy, dense (but not overly so), rich with a wonderful crust – how can this be?
My son had been asking for brownies ever since I made some on our vacation a couple of weeks ago. (Yes, it was from a red box purchased at the over-priced beach town grocery store. I am probably the only person who actually even attempted to use the oven while renting a house at the beach. Needless to say, I did not attempt to bake from scratch while on vacation. My Martha Stewartness has its limits.) Fortuitously, my friend delivered my Dove at Home brownie mix the day I returned.
I was now on a mission: to recreate these delicious brownies on my own. I made this recipe I found on Epicurious, with just a few modifications. I actually made them twice since the brownies would not pour into the pan and was certain I was making it wrong. I’m not sure what I did, but the mixture was just too thick to pour – I had to pat it into the pan, thereby precluding that smooth, shiny light crust that you see in picture-perfect brownies.
The verdict? These brownies are rich, chewy and has a wonderful crispy crust (just no gleaming smooth top). They are still not the same as the Dove brownies – those rose higher and dare I say, tasted slightly better. I’ll keep trying.
In case you’re wondering why I just don’t buy more of the mix, it cost $18. Yeah.
Cocoa Brownies (adapted from Alice Medrich)
1 1/4 sticks unsalted butter
1 C. sugar
3/4 C. plus 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder (natural or Dutch-process)
1/4 tsp. salt
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs at room temperature
2/3 C. all-purpose flour
1/2 C. chocolate chips (optional)
Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 325°F. Butter 13″ square pan. Combine the butter in a medium heatproof bowl and set the bowl in a wide skillet of barely simmering water. Stir from time to time until the butter is melted, then add the sugar, cocoa, and salt and mix until smooth and hot enough that you want to remove your finger fairly quickly after dipping it in to test. Remove the bowl from the skillet and set aside briefly until the mixture is only warm, not hot.
August 3, 2008
I am still savoring our week-long vacation at the beach, which sadly ended yesterday. The cool ocean breeze, the warm sand between your toes, the sound of crashing waves and crying sea gulls, the jangling bells of the ice cream truck are all hallmarks of our annual trip to the Jersey shore. A house by the beach also means a constant flow of friends and family, and we are always delighted to play host. While eating out is one of the expected benefits of a vacation, cooking and eating locally caught crabs on the patio is one family tradition we look forward to every summer.
Atlantic Blue crab is a deliciously frustrating type of food since such a small percentage if its weight is meat. The large amount of work to amass the smallest amount of succulent crab meat is enough to give anyone pause. Add the drippy mess of shells, cartilage, and crab juice and you have pretty much assured that the vast majority of the population sadly will never try eating whole crabs.
Blue crabs is something I only eat in the privacy of my own home with family, outdoors with a big table covered in newspaper, wearing old clothes with my rings and watch safely tucked away in my jewelry box (trust me, you don’t want your watch smelling like crabs). Loosen your pants and turn on the patio light – you’re going to be still digging for crab meat well after the sun sets. Add some cole slaw, corn, potatoes, cold beer and large box of wet wipes and you’ve got the makings for a great crab night.
There are two ways to cook crabs, boiling or steaming. I like to steam – I think it keeps the meat more tender and delicate than boiling. Some refrigerate the crabs before cooking to sedate them. I never do since I want to see lively crabs (to ensure they are still alive) before they go into the pot.
How to Cook Blue Crabs:
Live blue crabs (4-6 crabs/person)
Old Bay Seasoning
Fill a very large steamer pot with 2 inches of water. Add about 1/2 – 1 C. vinegar to the water. Place live crabs on top of the steamer insert, sprinkling each layer with Old Bay seasoning. Cover, bring to a boil and cook until the shell is bright red (about 10 minutes).
To eat: Take off the large outer shell by pulling the arrow-shaped “pulltab” on the belly and removing the top shell. Tear off the fern-like gills and crack the inner body in half. The sweetest meat is in the body – some eat the cartilage, I do not. Use a nut-cracker or crab hammer to open the claws – chopsticks are very handy for getting the meat out.
July 22, 2008
photo by lilxerica on Flickr
Summers seemed to last so much longer when I was a child. There were books to read, bikes to ride, creeks to explore, and pools to swim in. I didn’t watch television (yes silly, television was invented when I was a child); in fact, I rarely was ever home during the day in the summertime (I am sure the lack of central air conditioning was a contributing factor). I was on my bike playing bike tag on carless streets, at the playground sliding down scorching hot metal slides or at the pool.
The pool was a unusually large community pool, or it just seems large in my memory. Nothing can take me back to age ten faster than a whiff of coconut suntan oil and the vision of leathery septuagenarians (or at least appeared to be septuagenarians) smoking cigarettes on woven plastic chaises sunning themselves well before the term sunscreen was even part of the lexicon. It was always a happy day when my mother would give my sister and I each a quarter to buy an ice cream or, oh the joy!, a dollar bill to buy french fries and a fountain drink.
Since I spent so much time there as a child, there are certain foods and candies I will always associate with the pool. Airheads, Fun Dip (formerly known as Lik-M-Aid), Swedish Fish – they might as well be time machines. And eating fries in that red checked paper bucket drizzled with ketchup from the red plastic squeeze bottle? Pull up a pair of striped athletic socks and play Foreigner’s “Hot Blooded” on a crackly transistor radio – it’s 1979 all over again.
What is it about sitting in a wet swim suit that makes the fries tastier and the hot dogs juicier? Is it the chlorine that sharpens your palette? Or is it simply the increased physical activity that whets the appetite to appreciate any sustenance? Or perhaps it’s the freedom of going to the snack bar with money clutched in your hand and ordering food like a grown up? Maybe it’s a combination of all of those things, but I do know that the smell of cooking oil and chlorine makes my stomach growl no matter what age I am.
We decided to celebrate my son’s fifth birthday at our swim club and naturally, the menu selection was of great importance to me. If you have not been a member of the 5 year old birthday party circuit, it consists of three things- pizza, pizza and more pizza (and a little cake thrown in). Now we love pizza every now and again, but frankly, the pool and pizza … it just doesn’t go together like a burger and fries do. At any rate, we settled on burgers, dogs and fries as the main fare catered by the pool snack bar. And yes, the little red and white gingham paper baskets are included.
June 6, 2008
Homemade pizza margherita
Both my husband and our children are huge fans of Amy’s frozen pesto pizza and we always have a couple in the freezer at any given time. My recent foray into yeast has opened up all sorts of culinary doors to me, and homemade pizza the most recent threshold I’ve finally crossed.
Tonight I decided to make my own version of Amy’s with my own pesto recipe, some cherry tomatoes (I would have used regular tomatoes, but I happen to have three pints of cherry tomatoes in the house), and shredded mozzarella.
Since the recipe makes dough for two pizzas, I also made margherita pizza, using leftover marinara sauce and fresh basil from the garden. I did not stretch out the pizza as thinly as I should have and didn’t have fresh mozzarella. But all in all, it was still a success.
One thing you need to buy if you plan to make your own pizza is a pizza stone (which is also needed if you want to bake bread in the oven). Sorry – there really is no substitute.
Pizza Dough (from Maggie Glezer’s Artisan Baking)
serves 4 (2 medium pizzas)
3 1/3 C. unbleached bread flour
1/4 tsp. instant yeast
2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 C. lukewarm water
Mix flour, yeast and salt together in a large mixing bowl. Add the water and mix until until blended. Cover and let it rest for 10 – 15 minutes to allow yeast to hydrate. Knead dough for 5 – 10 minutes until fairly smooth. Cut into 2 pieces and shape each piece of dough into a tight ball. Place each ball onto a floured tray. Cover with plastic wrap and let dough rise about 5-6 hours.
You might want to spray cooking spray on the underside of the plastic wrap – it will stick!
Place pizza stone in 2nd highest rack and preheat oven to its highest setting (mine is 550° F). Flour the work surface and flatten out your fully risen dough ball with your hand and press into a disk.
Pull out the sides (or you can try to get fancy like the pizzerias and use your raised fist to stretch out the dough).
Place pizza on parchment paper (or pizza peel if you have one). After placing toppings on the dough, slide pizza still on the paper on to the hot stone. Bake for about 6-8 minutes, being careful to not overbake.
I realized afterwards that I forgot the broccoli.
My daughter said it looked perfect – like it came from the grocery store. Awww.
This is a great way to use leftover sauce.
Garnish with fresh basil leaves and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil.
May 11, 2008
We’ve been watching a robin family in one of our bushes for the past few weeks gathering twigs for a nest in preparation for their soon-to-be hatchlings. The children love getting a peak at the nest and the lovely blue eggs.
Mama robin keeps her eggs warm. She looks like she’s smiling, no?
The newest addition to the flora and fauna of our yard, hatched just yesterday.
Is that mama I hear?
Happy mother’s day to all mothers, great and small.
May 10, 2008
Drool-worthy: not my kitchen.
I recently picked my daughter up at a birthday party and I was taken aback to see she was crying. My attempts to get to the bottom of it was met with complete resistance. Her entire vocabulary seemed to have been whittled down to “I don’t know” and “I can’t explain.” But as it often happens, bedtime hugs and snuggles were the pick to the lock of the secrets of the day.
“I was … *sniff* … jealous, “ she wailed. Not of the fact that it was someone else’s birthday (she’s a veteran of at least 50 birthday parties with nary a glisten in her eye), but of its fabulousness. The party was held at her home, you know, one of those typical suburban McMansions (the irony that people who use the term McMansion are those who cannot afford to live in a McMansion is not lost on the writer), with 34 of her closest friends. I couldn’t physically have 35 seven year olds in my house (well, I suppose I could, but only with the aid of a Xanax). And the party favors - well, let’s just say the hostess spent more of the favor than I did on the gift.
It was such a raw, open statement, breath-taking in its simplicity and honesty. It was the kind of statement that most people spend the rest of their lives diligently avoiding saying unless lying on a couch and paying someone to listen to them. I kissed her for her bravery and told her it’s natural to feel jealous, but you can’t burst into tears every time someone has something better than you (otherwise I’d have mascara running down my face every time I walked past Williams-Sonoma or Neiman Marcus). We talked about how blessed we are and how there will always be people who have better, faster, more expensive things than us. And of the many, many more who have much less than us.
In that funny way the stars can align, I read this article after I put my daughter to bed (still slightly weepy – she is nothing if not dramatic). But we all need to acknowledge the seven-year-old in all of us whenever the green-eyed monster bubbles up. For me, it’s when I walk into the take-out queens’ gourmet kitchens the size of the entire first floor of my house. I just say hello to it and then beat it down with my Le Creuset Dutch oven. That sucker’s heavy.
May 8, 2008
Baking bread: you’re giving the gift of time
I am sure you know someone like my father-in-law – absolutely impossible to buy for. You get that gnawing feeling in the pit of your stomach as Christmas, Father’s (or Mother’s) Day and birthdays draw near. It’s not that he’s ungrateful for anything you give him – quite the opposite. But after profuse thanks, you mentally note never to get him clothes/tools/cologne/ties/books again. It’s just never really “him.” He is a fan of my cooking, but as we live almost three hours away, we don’t always see each other on those special days. We usually mail him his present and food wouldn’t be very practical. Or would it? After brainstorming about foods that would travel well, I came to the conclusion that a hard crusty bread would fit the bill. (My father-in-law’s bread of choice is Arthur Avenue Italian bread from the Bronx, so I know he’d like such a loaf.)
The problem is I have never made bread before, bread that required yeast, that is. I know, I know – it’s one of those things I’ve been meaning to do and have never gotten around to doing. I had purchased Maggie Glezer’s Artisan Baking and decided to finally take the plunge. Why be frightened away by a whole new lexicon with strange words like “autolyse,” “levain,” and “poolish” when the end product is so sublime?
I decided to make Tom Cat’s Semolina Filone, no couch-jumping or You Tube crazed laughter required. It’s marked “intermediate” level, but I decided to make it since I already had durum flour. The recipe is over two pages long and quite complicated (for a novice at least), requiring me to flip back and forth to the technique section, so I’m not going to include the recipe here. I would highly recommend buying the book if you love the crunch of freshly baked bread and gorgeous photography.
The recipes says it takes at least 13 hours, but it took me almost 16 from start to finish. I soon realized that this is a wonderful gift – a gift of our ever dwindling time. The ingredients couldn’t be more humble: flour, water, yeast and a bit of salt. But when you add time, you have something truly special. Why don’t you make a loaf of bread to give as a gift along with some infused dipping oil or gourmet jams the next time you’re stumped as to what to give that hard to shop for person on your list? Just make sure to tuck in a copy of the 4 page recipe so s/he can appreciate the hard work you put in.
My very first interaction with yeast.
I had no idea bread dough was so demanding.
The hardest part is elongating the loaf without popping bubbles.
Time to coat with sesame seeds.
I hope he likes it.
May 5, 2008
My father was someone who ate to live. He was appreciative of any food, from the humblest meal to a gourmet feast. This gratitude, I am sure, was formed from experiencing a devastating war, loss of family, and near-starvation. When I was a little girl, he once plucked a broad-leaf plantain, a common weed, from our lawn and informed me he survived on plants like that for three months while evading the Communists. Naturally, he had little patience for picky eaters – we all learned to eat whatever was placed before us.
My mother, on the other hand, did not view food in such black and white terms. Yes, food is sustenance, which she learned in the same way my father did. As a young teenager during the Korean War, she and her sister decided to sell strawberries to augment their modest and inconsistent income. Unfortunately, their entrepreneurial skills could not withstand their grumbling tummies and their goods quickly disappeared, thus ending their very short-lived career as fruit sellers. I wish I could have seen my mother and my aunt, sitting in a gray crumbling city as they sat giggling and licking their sticky red-stained fingers. The strawberries’ sweetness, while lingering on their tongues for a fleeting moment, meant more to them at that moment than making a few won to buy a necessary staple like rice.
Eventually, my mother become a very good cook, learning as many do not by reading cookbooks or using measuring spoons. She was taught in that universal old world method – using a knuckle, a pinch, a fistful, all while tasting frequently until it’s just right. I remember the first time my mother taught me how to cook rice, eschewing measuring cups for an imaginary line on the back of my hand when placed flat in the water on the uncooked rice. And in a couple of years, I will teach my children the same way my antecedents have been making rice for time eternal.
The most important thing she taught me, however, was not methods or recipes. It was never spoken, but it was seared into my person more permanently than if it had been. It was something I gathered from years of observing my mother getting up at dawn meal to prepare a meal for a special guest. I learned it from watching her take over the kitchen with bowls larger than some small cars to make kim chi. I understood it from the countless hours she spent chopping, grinding, mixing, frying, boiling, and grilling.
It was that food mattered. Food was more than something that just powered you to get through the day or a thankless chore than simply needed to get done. More specifically, it was that you mattered and that you were worth the time and effort to make something delicious and worthwhile. Cooking is giving a piece of yourself, making yourself vulnerable, hoping that others will recognize that tiny particle of you in that meal. And hopefully, they’ll love you for it.
This photo was taken soon after my mother immigrated from South Korea to the United States. She sent this picture to her sisters back in Korea to show how richly she was living. Apparently, bananas were exorbitantly expensive in South Korea in the early 70s. I guess no one told her bananas brown in the fridge.
May 1, 2008
Chicken and cavatappi with pesto
When my son was very young, still small enough to be sitting in a high chair, we went out to dinner at an Italian restaurant. It was a “real” restaurant with no kids’ menu, so we ordered buttered penne with parmesan for him. Once our meals came and he saw what we were eating, he would have nothing to do with his plain pasta. My husband had ordered a pesto dish that was quite heavy on the garlic, a dish of which he had very little as my son took quite a liking to it.
So two years later, pasta with pesto is still my son’s favorite meal, and the more garlic, the better. It’s one of my favorites to make as it is an almost no-cook meal, like my daughter’s favorite meal, California rolls. This is a great go-to meal on nights we have soccer practice or ballet.
(enough to coat one pound of pasta)
3-4 C. basil leaves
2-3 cloves of garlic (keep the breath mints handy)
1/4 C. toasted pine nuts
1/4 C. grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 C. extra virgin olive oil
Place first four ingredients in a food processor and pulse while slowly pouring in the olive oil. (Purists feel free to break out the mortal and pestle and bruise away). Season and mix into cooked pasta. I reserve a few tablespoons to top the grilled chicken breasts.
While this meal may be the kid’s choice, the wine is all mommy’s (Misterio Malbec 2006 - a great pairing).