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It’s one of those philosophical questions that all bakers and cooks must face at some point:  when is a cake worth saving?   You’ve baked an amazing dessert for a function, the house smells amazing, you turn over the bunt pan and … half the cake remains stuck in the pan.  The good news is the kids can now have a piece of that delicious chocolate cake they’ve been smelling for the past couple of hours.  The bad news is your cake is ruined.

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Or is it?  Well, there’s the obvious solution of a glaze on top.  Tried it.  Still looks like the second hole on the golf course with all the missing divots. 

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I needed something to cover the glaze and the flattened top.  Sugared fruit is a wonderful and seasonally appropriate way to decorate a cake and cover a multitude of flaws.  All you need is fruit (hard skinned fruit works best), egg whites (I use meringue powder) and super-fine sugar (pulse regular sugar in a food processor if you don’t want to make an extra trip to the market).

Simply brush the fruit with the egg whites,  cover with sugar, and let dry.  Simple as that!

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Doesn’t it look like I always meant to put those gorgeous sugared fruit atop my chocolate cake?  It’ll be our secret.

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(I use this recipe for my go-to chocolate cake.  Try it – I know you’ll thank me.)

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I am in the midst of preparing for our annual Christmas party, so forgive me if the entries are sparse this week.  We have been throwing this adults-only cocktail party for about 8 years, taking the occasional year off because of burn out.  Last year was our most recent bye year, but our party is back, better than ever (hopefully).   As with any annual meal/party, I always keep a few favorites and introduce a few new recipes.  I recently stumbled on this savory biscotti recipe on Epicurious, and wow – it’s a keeper.  It is perfect with a glass of red wine (or white for that matter) as it is a dry cookie, as biscotti should be.  The bite of the cracked black pepper elevates what would have been simply a good cheese cracker to fabulous savory biscuit. 

PARMESAN BLACK-PEPPER BISCOTTI

1 1/2 tablespoons whole black peppercorns
4 cups all-purpose flour plus additional for dusting
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons salt
4 1/2 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano, finely grated (2 1/4 cups)
1 1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
4 large eggs
1 cup whole milk
Put oven racks in upper and lower thirds of oven and preheat oven to 350°F.

Pulse peppercorns in grinder until coarsely ground.

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Whisk together flour, baking powder, salt, 2 cups cheese, and 1 tablespoon ground black pepper in a large bowl. Blend in butter with a pastry blender or your fingertips until mixture resembles coarse meal. Whisk 3 eggs with milk and add to flour mixture, stirring with a fork until a soft dough forms.

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Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and quarter dough. Using well-floured hands, form each piece into a slightly flattened 12-inch-long log (about 2 inches wide and 3/4 inch high). Transfer logs to 2 ungreased large baking sheets, arranging logs about 3 inches apart.

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Whisk remaining egg and brush some over logs, then sprinkle tops of logs evenly with remaining 1/4 cup cheese and 1/2 tablespoon ground pepper. Bake, rotating sheets 180 degrees and switching position of sheets halfway through baking, until logs are pale golden and firm, about 30 minutes total. Cool logs to warm on sheets on a rack, about 10 minutes.

Reduce oven temperature to 300°F.

Carefully transfer 1 warm log to a cutting board and cut diagonally into 1/2-inch-thick slices with a serrated knife. Arrange slices, cut sides down, in 1 layer on a baking sheet. Repeat with remaining logs, transferring slices to sheets. Bake, turning over once, until golden and crisp, 35 to 45 minutes total. Cool biscotti on baking sheets on racks, about 15 minutes.

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Hitting the Spot: Pot Roast

December 3, 2008

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Who doesn’t love a pot roast on a cold, dark December night?  I’ve tinkered with my pot roast recipe over the years, but I’ve pretty much settled on this variation since everyone in the family loves it as is.  A few pot roast tips:  always buy chuck roast (sometimes labeled “pot roast”), use leftover marinara sauce, skip the crock pot and use a heavy dutch oven.

Pot Roast
serves 6

2.5-3 lb. chuck roast
3 Tbs. olive oil
3-4 cloves of garlic, sliced
2 Tbs. flour
1/2 C. dry red wine
1 C. beef stock
1/2 C. crushed tomatoes (or marinara sauce)
3-4 whole allspice berries
2 bay leaves
salt and pepper to taste
4 potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 inch chunks
2 large carrots, peeled and sliced
1 large onion, peeled and quartered
16 oz. broad egg noodles
2 Tbs. chopped parsley for garnish

Preheat oven to 350º.  Heat olive oil in large Dutch oven on medium high heat.  Dredge chuck roast in flour and sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Sautee garlic until golden – take garlic out of the pot and put aside.   Brown pot roast on both sides – about 4 minutes per side. 

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Take out chuck roast and set aside.  Pour red wine in and scrape up brown bits with a wooden spoon.  Cook for a few minutes until liquid is reduced by half. 

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Add beef stock, crushed tomatoes, cooked garlic, chuck roast, allspice berries and bay leaves to pot.  Cover and place in oven for one hour.

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Remove pot from oven.  Turn chuck roast over and place potatoes, carrots and onions in pot.  Recover and place in oven for 45 minutes more.  Ten minutes before pot roast is to be removed, cook noodles according to directions.  Remove pot from the oven and slice meat against the grain.  Serve over noodles with parsley.

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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