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After a savory Challenge last month, I was ready for a diabetic coma-inducing sweet dessert and this month’s challenge delivered. This challenge was hosted by Dolores of Culinary Curiousity, Alex of Blondie and Brownie, and Jenny of Foray into Food, and the amazing cake recipe was created by Shauna Fish Lydon of Eggbeater.  I was forewarned that the cake and frosting may be overly sweet for some, so I decreased the amount of sugar and increased the fluer de sel accordingly.  The end result was a rich, moist cake with a sweet, creamy frosting.  I used the optional caramel (see recipe below) to decorate the cake with floral accents.   I then drizzled some of the leftover caramel syrup over the cake slices, which some might consider overkill, but my children sure didn’t. 

CARAMEL CAKE WITH CARAMELIZED BUTTER FROSTING

10 Tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature
1 1/4 Cups granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 Cup Caramel Syrup (see recipe below)
2 each eggs, at room temperature
splash vanilla extract
2 Cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup milk, at room temperature

Preheat oven to 350F

Butter one tall (2 – 2.5 inch deep) 9-inch cake pan.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream butter until smooth. Add sugar and salt & cream until light and fluffy.

Slowly pour room temperature caramel syrup into bowl. Scrape down bowl and increase speed. Add eggs/vanilla extract a little at a time, mixing well after each addition. Scrape down bowl again, beat mixture until light and uniform.

Sift flour and baking powder.

Turn mixer to lowest speed, and add one third of the dry ingredients. When incorporated, add half of the milk, a little at a time. Add another third of the dry ingredients, then the other half of the milk and finish with the dry ingredients.

Take off mixer and by hand, use a spatula to do a few last folds, making sure batter is uniform. Turn batter into prepared cake pan.

Place cake pan on cookie sheet or 1/2 sheet pan. Set first timer for 30 minutes, rotate pan and set timer for another 15-20 minutes. Your own oven will set the pace. Bake until sides pull away from the pan and skewer inserted in middle comes out clean. Cool cake completely before icing it.

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CARAMEL SYRUP

2 cups sugar
1/2 cup water
1 cup water (for “stopping” the caramelization process)
In a small stainless steel saucepan, with tall sides, mix water and sugar until mixture feels like wet sand. Brush down any stray sugar crystals with wet pastry brush. Turn on heat to highest flame. Cook until smoking slightly: dark amber.

When color is achieved, very carefully pour in one cup of water. Caramel will jump and sputter about! It is very dangerous, so have long sleeves on and be prepared to step back.

Whisk over medium heat until it has reduced slightly and feels sticky between two fingers.

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CARAMELIZED BUTTER FROSTING

12 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 pound confectioner’s sugar, sifted
4-6 tablespoons heavy cream
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2-4 tablespoons caramel syrup
Kosher or sea salt to taste

Cook butter until brown. Pour through a fine meshed sieve into a heatproof bowl, set aside to cool.

Pour cooled brown butter into mixer bowl.

In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle or whisk attachment, add confectioner’s sugar a little at a time. When mixture looks too chunky to take any more, add a bit of cream and or caramel syrup. Repeat until mixture looks smooth and all confectioner’s sugar has been incorporated. Add salt to taste.

GOLDEN VANILLA BEAN CARAMELS (from Pure Dessert by Alice Medrich, Artisan Press, 2007)

1 cup golden syrup
2 cups sugar
3/8 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 cups heavy cream
1 1/2 teaspoons pure ground vanilla beans, purchased or ground in a coffee or spice grinders, or 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into chunks, softened

Line the bottom and sides of the baking pan with aluminum foil and grease the foil. Combine the golden syrup, sugar, and salt in a heavy 3-quart saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring with a silicone spatula or wooden spoon, until the mixture begins to simmer around the edges. Wash the sugar and syrup from the sides of the pan with a pastry brush dipped in water. Cover and cook for about 3 minutes. (Meanwhile, rinse the spatula or spoon before using it again later.) Uncover the pan and wash down the sides once more. Attach the candy thermometer to the pan, without letting it touch the bottom of the pan, and cook, uncovered (without stirring) until the mixture reaches 305°F. Meanwhile, combine the cream and ground vanilla beans (not the extract) in a small saucepan and heat until tiny bubbles form around the edges of the pan. Turn off the heat and cover the pan to keep the cream hot.

When the sugar mixture reaches 305°F, turn off the heat and stir in the butter chunks. Gradually stir in the hot cream; it will bubble up and steam dramatically, so be careful. Turn the burner back on and adjust it so that the mixture boils energetically but not violently. Stir until any thickened syrup at the bottom of the pan is dissolved and the mixture is smooth. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, to about 245°F. Then cook, stirring constantly, to 260°f for soft, chewy caramels or 265°F; for firmer chewy caramels.

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Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the vanilla extract, if using it. Pour the caramel into the lined pan. Let set for 4 to 5 hours, or overnight until firm.

Lift the pan liner from the pan and invert the sheet of caramel onto a sheet of parchment paper. Peel off the liner. Cut the caramels with an oiled knife.  Wrap each caramel individually in wax paper or cellophane.

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I used two small floral cookie cutters to cut the caramel to decorate my cake.  And to mask the lumpy icing job.

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I grew up eating that red gelatinous cylinder that came out of a jar every Thanksgiving, and as they say, ignorance is bliss.  I looked forward to eating turkey with a slice of jellied cranberry sauce, never thinking that there was something very wrong if you have to slice your cranberry sauce.  I was in my early twenties when I tasted cranberry sauce made from fresh cranberries for the first time and I have never eaten the jarred stuff since.

And neither should you.  It is the easiest thing to make on the Thanksgiving menu and has the biggest yum factor for the amount of work put into it.  It couldn’t be easier – a 12 oz. bag of fresh cranberries, 1 C. of sugar, and 1 C. of water.  Bring the sugar and water to a boil and add cranberries.  Boil until cranberries “pop” and start to thicken – about 5-7 minutes or so.  Cool and refrigerate.  Can (and should) be make days ahead.

I am making a variation to the basic cranberry sauce this year and it is simply yummy.  The candied kumquats add another tart element to the sweetly tart cranberries, and the plump golden raisins add a slight pop to the texture. 

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Cranberry Kumquat Sauce from Epicurious

2 1/2 cups sugar
2 cups water
6 ounces fresh kumquats, quartered lengthwise (about 1 generous cup), seeds removed
20 ounces fresh or frozen cranberries (about 5 1/2 cups)
1/2 cup golden raisins

Combine sugar, 2 cups water, and kumquats in large saucepan. Bring to boil, stirring until sugar dissolves. Reduce heat to medium and simmer until kumquats are almost translucent, about 8 minutes. Using slotted spoon, transfer kumquats to small bowl.

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Add cranberries to sugar syrup in pan; bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium and simmer until berries burst, about 7 minutes. Add raisins; simmer until soft, about 4 minutes longer. Transfer cranberry sauce to medium bowl. DO AHEAD Kumquats and cranberry sauce can be made 5 days ahead. Cover separately and refrigerate. Bring to room temperature before continuing.

Just before serving, add kumquats to cranberry sauce.

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Don’t worry – the sauce will thicken up in the fridge.

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This meal is perfect for the week of Thanksgiving since many have these ingredients on the Thanksgiving shopping list.  The recipe calls for sage, something I always buy the last week of November, and butternut squash, an autumnal must.  This quick and easy meal is perfect on that busy week leading up to Thanksgiving as you squeeze in dinner between pie baking and trips to the market.

Penne with Butternut Squash, Italian Sausage and Sage
(serves 6-8)

3 Tbs. olive oil
1 1/2 lb. butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cubed
1 1/4 lb. sweet Italian sausage, crumbled
3 cloves of garlic, minced
pinch of crushed red pepper
1/4 C. dry white wine
1 C. chicken stock
3 Tbs. finely chopped sage
1 lb. penne
Paremsan cheese for sprinkling

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Heat large skillet over medium-high heat.  Add olive oil and when hot, add squash.  Cook for about 3-4 minutes until browned, stirring occasionally.  Transfer to bowl.  Return pan to medium-high and add sausage.  Cook until brown and drain fat.  Stir in garlic and red pepper and cook for a minute.  Add white wine and simmer for a minute, scraping pan to loosen any brown bits. 

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Meanwhile cook pasta according to pasta directions.  Return squash to pan, chicken broth and sage.  Bring to a boil and reduce heat.  Cover and simmer for about 5 minutes.  Gently combine pasta and squash mixture.  Season with freshly ground pepper and serve with Parmesan cheese.

Planning Thanksgiving Dinner

November 23, 2008

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I’ve hosted Thanksgiving dinner most of my married life, and after almost a decade, I’ve fallen into a bit of a pattern (dare I say rut?).  And the pattern is to load up the table with as much food as is physically possible (inevitably with some menu item forgotten in the oven, pantry or refrigerator).  Thanksgiving takes some planning, and I have saved most menus and weekly schedules of Thanksgivings past in my cookbook cabinet.  It’s helpful to see what I made, when I made it, what went well and what needs to be scrapped.

I spent most of this morning planning the menu and the shopping and cooking schedule for the week.  And despite taking away the mystery of the menu for my guests, I’ll share here.

Menu

crudite with homemade ranch dip
meslun mix with gorgonzola, pear and walnuts
roast turkey with giblet gravy
chestnut stuffing
cranberry kumquat sauce
haricots verts, roasted fennel and shallots
Nigella Lawson’s sticky garlic potatoes
mashed sweet potatoes with brown sugar and pecans
old fashioned double crust apple pie
pumpkin pie
key lime pie
vanilla ice cream
freshly whipped cream

And my do ahead list:

Sunday:  make cranberry sauce
Monday:  make pie crusts, ranch dressing
Tuesday:  bake pumpkin pie
Wednesday:  make apple and key lime pies, cube stale bread for stuffing, roast fennel and shallots, set table

Schedule for Thanksgiving Day

8:00  take out turkey from the refrigerator, make stock from neck, heart and gizzards
8:30  make stuffing
9:15  preheat oven, prepare stuffed turkey
9:30  place turkey and stuffing in oven, chill wine
11:00  whip cream, cut up crudité, cook beans
12:00  boil new potatoes, peel, cut up and boil sweet potatoes 
1:00  put out crudité and dip, bake sweet potatoes
2:00  make coffee, make salad, roast new potatoes
2:30  take out turkey, make gravy
2:45  saute beans with roasted fennel and shallots
3:00  dinner is served

 

 

Girl Scout cookies year round

November 19, 2008

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Even before my daughter became a Brownie, I would stalk local grocery stores and malls for girls sporting bemedaled green sashes sitting behind a table piled high with those familiar colorful boxes.  I loved them all – Shortbread, Thin Mints, Tagalongs and of course, my particular favorite, Samoas (which is also known as Caramel De-lites).  Alas, these cookies are only available during late winter and early spring in my area, so by November,  my stockpile of frozen cookies has long been depleted. 

Samoas consist of a cookie base, caramel, toasted coconut and chocolate stripes on top.  I had some extra homemade caramel and decided to make my own stash of Samoas.  I bought sugar free shortbread cookies, mainly because I liked the shape and size, not because it was sugar free.  The caramel is very sweet, so I thought all the better.  You might want to avoid any cookies with a hole since the caramel will drip through, unless you coat the bottom of the cookie in chocolate (like the original).

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Samoas

one container round shortbread or butter cookies (or make your own if you feel ambitious)
one recipe of homemade caramel
8 oz. sweetened coconut
8 oz. semisweet chocolate

Set oven on low broil.  Toast coconut on a baking sheet on the lowest rack for 3 minutes or so.  Mix coconut to toast evenly and broil for 3 minutes more, being careful to not burn.

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Cut out 1/2″ tall nickle-size circles of caramel and flatten on top of the cookie.  Top with toasted cococut.

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Melt chocolate in a metal bowl over a saucepan of simmering water, stirring occassionally until smooth.  (or use a super fancy chocolate tempering machine like me).  Holding the coconut-topped cookie carefully, drizzle chocolate on top of the coconut.   Place cookies on wax or parchment paper to set.

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My husband and I had a wonderful dinner at Xochitl on the Day of the Dead after a hard day of getting out the vote two weeks ago.  We ordered from the special Day of the Dead menu, but had to try the guacamole they prepare at the table.  We settled on guacamole with blue cheese and pomegranate, and after the first bite, I knew I had a new party favorite. 

The blue cheese added a rich saltiness to the creamy avocados and the juicy sweet burst of pomegrante seeds finished the experience perfectly.  The color is an added plus:  the red jewel-like seeds atop the green guacamole – I don’t think you can get any more festive than that for Christmas.  I hope you try this at your next party – your guests will thank you.

Guacamole with Blue Cheese and Pomegranate
(serves 6-8)

 3 ripe avocados, halved, pitted and taken out of skin
4 oz. soft blue cheese (gorgonzola or blue cheese) at room temperature
1-2 finely diced jalepeño chiles (to taste)
1/4 medium red onion, finely diced
3 Tbs. chopped cilantro
salt and pepper to taste
¼ C. pomegranate seeds

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Mash avocados mortar and pestle (if you are so lucky to own one, use your stone molcajete since those avocados are slippery little buggers). 

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Add the blue cheese and mash into avocados.

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 Add onions, jalepeño chiles, cilantro and incorporate well.   Salt and pepper to taste.

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Place in serving bowl and sprinkle pomegranate seeds on top.  Serve with tortilla chips and watch them disappear.

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It was been raining steadily all day and I’ve been in the mood for risotto.  Done properly, risotto can be stick-to-your-ribs good and perfect for a dreary day like today.  I came across this recipe in the RSVP restaurant recipe section of the November 2008 Bon Appétit (one of my favorite features in the magazine).  The recipe calls for fairly basic ingredients, all of which make for a classic risotto.  I liked the idea of pairing it with fish since fish always seems like a good idea to me. 

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I used oyster and shiitake mushrooms for this recipe.

Striped Bass with Mushroom Risotto (adapted from San Diego’s Quarter Kitchen’s recipe in Bon Appétit)
yields 4

Mushroom Risotto
6 C. low salt chicken broth
1/2 C. (1 stick) butter, divided in half
3 + 3 Tbs. shallots
1 clove garlic, minced
12 oz. assorted wild mushrooms (chanterelle, crimini, or shiitake)
1 3/4 C. arborio rice
1 C. dry white wine
1/3 C. chopped Italian parsley
1/3 C. Parmesan cheese (plus more to taste)

Fish
3 Tbs. olive oil
4 5 oz. striped bass fillets

Simmer broth in medium saucepan and keep warm.  Melt 1/4 C. (1/2 stick) of butter in large skillet over medium-high heat.  Add 3 Tbs. shallots, garlic, and the mushrooms.  Sauté until mushrooms are soft (about 10 minutes).  Season with salt and pepper.

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Melt 1/4 C. (1/2 stick) in another heavy large saucepan over medium-high heat.  Add 3 Tbs. shallots, sauté until soft, about 2 minutes.  Add rice and stir for 1 minute. 

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Add wine and stir until almost dry, about 4 minutes.  Add 1 C. warm broth and simmer for 2 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Add 2 C. broth and simmer 4 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Add 2 C. broth, mushroom mixture, parsley, and 1/3 C. cheese.  Simmer until creamy and rice is tender, but still firm to bite, about 8 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper.

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Meanwhile, set oven on broil.  Add oil to ovenproof skillet on high heat.  Sprinkle fish with salt and pepper and cook, skin side down until skin is crisp (about 4 mintues). 

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Transfer skillet to oven and broil about 6 inches from heat for about 4-6 minutes until fish is cooked through.

Serve risotto with more parmesan cheese to taste and top with fish.  I drizzled with risotto with a truffle olive oil – mmmm.