About Me

I'm happiest when the food I make becomes a backdrop to a lively conversation. When I'm not cooking, I'm traveling or dreaming about travel. Come sit with me, and enjoy! Read more here.

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Sunday
May112008

rugelach: a buttery favorite I can't live without

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I recently asked my mother-in-law, Judy, to loan me her 1977 copy of “Craig Claiborne’s Favorites from The New York Times” Volume 3. It’s a tightly-written volume with no pictures but a lot of great stories and recipes. I’ve been reading it on the metro every morning on the way to work. When I spotted Rose Ehrlich’s recipe for Rugelach on page 148, I read every word and then closed the book in satisfaction. I had found the recipe I was going to make this weekend.

Rose, from Roselle, New Jersey, wrote to Craig in response to a recipe for a thin, crisp cookie called “rugelah." She and a host of other readers wanted to set the record straight that whatever that cookie was, it was not to be confused with the buttery, nutty, raisiny pastry called “rugelach.”

She sent along her recipe to Craig, which he reprinted. I have adapted it to reflect more accurate proportions (if you follow the recipe Craig published, you'll wind up with too much filling).

Rugelach

Makes 40

For the cream cheese pastry

½ pound butter
½ pound cream cheese
2 eggs
½ teaspoon salt
3 cups flour

For the rugelach

Cream cheese pastry
¼ pound raisins
4 ounces walnuts
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ cup melted butter

Prepare the dough and let it chill overnight or for at least two hours.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Chop the raisins and the walnuts and combine in a mixing bowl. Add the sugar and cinnamon and blend well. Set aside.

Divide the dough into 6 equal parts. Roll out one portion at a time into a circle.

Brush each circle as it is rolled with a little butter and sprinkle with part of the walnut mixture. Cut the circles into 8 or more pie-shaped wedges and roll (start rolling from the large side of each wedge toward the tip to enclose the filling).

Arrange them on a buttered baking sheet. Brush the tops with melted butter.

Bake for 22 minutes or until golden brown.

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Saturday
Apr192008

five eggs in a warm pan: where chemistry meets chance

“Scrambled eggs have been made and massacred for as long as people knew about pots and pans, no doubt.” – MFK Fisher.


Scrambled eggs

Whenever I want a simple but satisfying breakfast, I ask Paul to make scrambled eggs. Paul, who on other occasions is happy to play sous chef and wash dishes after a meal, takes over the kitchen like a Troisgros-trained three-star chef and produces – every time – the perfect scrambled eggs: moist, fluffy, and eggy.

He has been testing various methods for scrambling eggs since we were married five years ago. He doesn’t talk much about it and I don’t prod. But the other morning, when he made the single best plate of scrambled eggs I had ever eaten, I knew I had to get to the bottom of it.

So, after breakfast, I finally asked: What inspired his obsession with this dish?

Like a cooking instructor at the front of the class (he can expound on just about anything), he launched into a description of the various egg scrambling methods of Julia Child and MFK Fisher. Some of it I had heard before: Fisher’s recipe takes a half hour and produces wet, dense eggs; Julia’s recipe takes five minutes and produces wet and fluffy eggs.

What I didn't know was that he found a happy medium somewhere in between by accident one morning when he forgot to pre-heat the pan sufficiently so it was only medium-warm instead of sizzling hot. This produced eggs that were still fluffy but also eggy.

As a math major, jazz pianist, and business consultant, Paul has always been obsessed with puzzles and magic. Scrambling eggs, I believe, has an element of each. It blends chemistry with skill and chance to produce -- or not -- the perfect combination of elements.

Paul's Scrambled Eggs

Serves 2

Five eggs
1 tablespoon of butter
2 tablespoons whole milk or cream
Salt
Pepper

Separate the yolks in one large bowl and the whites are in another, smaller bowl. Add the milk to the yolk bowl.

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Whisk the whites vigorously for 30 – 45 seconds.

Whisk the yolks with the milk. Pour the yolks into the fluffed up whites. Season the mixture with salt and pepper.

scrambling eggs

Add a tablespoon of butter to the pan and gently heat the pan for 30 seconds on low heat.

Before the butter is entirely melted, pour the egg mixture in. Very gently push the eggs around with a spatula so the egg does not set. Keep stirring the eggs constantly. After a minute or so, the egg touching the pan should be cooked while the egg on the surface should be wet. Immediately serve with warm buttered toast.

scrambled eggs

Sunday
Apr062008

sunday night chicken: the evolution of a family tradition


My family ate dinner at an antique, Baroque-style dinner table in the dining room. It was a beautiful but well-worn tabled with two chairs on each side and one on each end. Over the years, we must have set and cleared that table thousands of times. And the five of us, despite our differences, ate almost every dinner there. Though the meals were often chaotic, with each of us talking over the other, I enjoyed them and the ritual of eating together.

Chicken on Sunday night was a family tradition. Dad would put rosemary and garlic under the skin and roast it whole. Serving it with steamed broccoli and a baguette, he would brag, "This whole dinner cost $5!" Then he would pour us big glasses of red wine (we were old enough) and smile triumphantly at the pleasure he could give with such simple means.

I still enjoy eating big dinners together and cooking chicken on Sunday night. This Catalan recipe, adapted from Diana Henry’s “Crazy Water and Pickled Lemons,” is one of my favorite Sunday night chicken dinners. The sauce is thickened with a paste called picada. Picada is a centuries-old thickener made with almonds, fried bread, white wine, and garlic. It’s blended together to form a paste used to thicken the sauce.

Sunday Night Catalan Chicken with Picada

Serves four

8 chicken thighs
salt and pepper
olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
15-ounce can chopped tomatoes (I prefer Muir Glen)
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1-1/4 cups chicken stock
a few sprigs of thyme
1 ounce pine nuts, toasted
1/4 cup raisins, soaked in warm, dry oloroso sherry until plump
a few sprigs of flat leaf parsley, chopped for garnish

For the picada
1 graham cracker
1 ounce country bread, fried in olive oil
1 ounce blanched almonds
5 tablespoons white wine
3 tables spoons olive oil

Season the chicken with salt and pepper. Heat a Dutch oven with 2 tablespoons olive oil. Brown the chicken about five minutes per side.

Remove the chicken and set it aside. Add the onion to the pan and cook until translucent. Add the tomato and garlic and cook for another 2 minutes. Turn the heat down and gently cook the tomato mixture for another 15 minutes until it’s a thick puree. Add the stock and bring to a boil. Put the chicken back in the pan and any of the accumulated juices and add the thyme, pine nuts, and raisins. Turn the heat down and simmer for 25 minutes.


Make the picada by combining the bread, the cookie, the almonds, the white wine, and the olive oil in a blender until it forms a smooth paste.

Tip the picada into the chicken pan and stir everything together. Cook for another five minutes while the picada thickens the juices. Serve with chopped parsley and country bread.

Saturday
Apr052008

east-west cranberry duck breasts

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There’s nothing in the world like the rich, earthy flavor of duck fat and duck meat. I especially like it combined with a sweet or tart sauce. And the variations on this theme are endless.

I thought up this recipe one afternoon when I was trying to figure out how to use a big bottle of cranberry juice I had left over in the fridge. I didn’t end up using much cranberry juice, but the results were heavenly.

I got the idea of combining soy sauce and balsamic vinegar from Ming Tsai, a master of east-west cooking. The thyme in this dish also gives a Western flavor balance to the brown sugar and soy.

East-West Cranberry Duck Breasts

Serves two

2 duck breasts (about six ounces each)
2 tablespoons balsamic
2 tablespoons soy
2 tablespoons cranberry juice
2 tablespoons orange juice
1/4 teaspoon orange zest
4 sprigs of thyme
1 shallot, minced
4 tablespoons dried sweetened cranberries
1/4 cup dry oloroso sherry
1-1/2 teaspoons brown sugar
salt
pepper

Soak the dried cranberries in the sherry, warmed to about 110 degrees in the microwave or in a bain marie. Let sit for a half hour.

Mix all the ingredients, except the shallot, duck, salt and pepper, in a bowl. When the cranberries are finished soaking, add them along with half the soaking liquid to the bowl.

Remove any excess fat from the duck breasts and score the skin. Salt and pepper lightly.

Heat an ungreased frying pan. Cook the duck breasts for 5 minutes, skin side down, over medium-high heat.

Turn them over and cook for 2 minutes. Remove the duck breasts to a plate.

Drain all but a teaspoon of fat from the pan and add the shallots. Cook for about 1 minute.

Pour in the sauce mixture. Bring to a boil.

Add the duck breasts, reduce to a simmer, and cook for 2 - 3 minutes more, spooning the sauce over the duck breasts as they cook.

Plate the duck and pour cranberry sauce on top. Serve with mashed potatoes and glazed carrots or grilled asparagus.

There are a lot of different sources for duck breasts. I buy Bell & Evans duck breasts because that's what my local store offers. However, I also like the fact that the company supports local farm families. Located in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country in Fredericksburg, it's the processing plant for 90 family farms within a 100-mile radius. The ducks are free roaming and raised naturally with no antibiotics or growth hormones.

Friday
Mar282008

steak au poivre, a sumptuous send-off


The night before Paul left for a business trip to Shanghai, our condo looked like a battleground of laundry, shoes, shirts and matching ties, stacks of books and papers, and one big blue suitcase.

Amid the chaos, I was in the kitchen, pressing crushed peppercorns into two filet mignons.

Erich Fromm, in the “Art of Loving,” says that separation is the root of all anxiety. That’s certainly true for us. Whenever Paul leaves, I’m giddy for a total of about three seconds, and then panicky, and finally just dazed until he comes home.

To ease our mutual anxiety, I cook for him before he leaves and when he returns. Usually, I surprise him, but this time, he put in a request: “How about that steak au poivre you made me on Valentine’s Day?”

Ah, yes, the Valentine’s Day steak au poivre. That was something.

Valentine’s fell on a Thursday this year and I had no intention of spending hours in the kitchen after a long workday. I wanted something romantic and special but quick. I looked up “steak au poivre” on the Internet and found a Gourmet magazine recipe originally published in 1955. The ingredients for the sauce were simple: butter, cognac, cream, and shallots.

Sometimes the most simple recipes are the best. My husband, a self-proclaimed Francophile, said it was the best steak au poivre he’d ever had. Of course, he tells me just about every dish is the best he's ever had. But this time, I saw the face of a man who had just been jettisoned to his favorite country and was soaking up the romanticism he felt for it all over again. Though he bought me a card and a beautiful pair of earrings that night, that single expression of joy and pleasure was the best gift I could have gotten.

So this week, in between loads of laundry, I recreated the dish and served it with creamy whipped mashed potatoes and a 2005 Bordeaux. As he sliced through the medium-rare filet mignon and took the first bite, he closed his eyes for a brief moment then smiled, giving me the gift of his joy all over again.

Here is the recipe, adapted from Gourmet:

Steak Au Poivre

2 (3/4- to 1-inch-thick) boneless beef top-loin (strip) steaks or filet mignon (8 to 10 oz each)
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 1/2 tablespoons whole black peppercorns
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/3 cup finely chopped shallots
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
1/2 cup Cognac or other brandy
3/4 cup heavy cream

Preheat oven to 200°F.

Pat steaks dry and season both sides with kosher salt.

Coarsely crush peppercorns in a sealed plastic bag with a meat pounder or bottom of a heavy skillet, then press pepper evenly onto both sides of steaks.

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Heat a 12-inch heavy skillet (preferably cast-iron) over moderately high heat until hot, about 3 minutes, then add oil, swirling skillet, and sauté steaks in 2 batches, turning over once, about 6 minutes per batch for medium-rare.

Transfer steaks as cooked to a heatproof platter and keep warm in oven while making sauce.

Pour off fat from skillet, then add shallots and half of butter (2 tablespoons) to skillet and cook over moderately low heat, stirring and scraping up brown bits, until shallots are well-browned all over, 3 to 5 minutes.

Add Cognac (use caution; it may ignite) and boil, stirring, until liquid is reduced to a glaze, 2 to 3 minutes. Add cream and any meat juices accumulated on platter and boil sauce, stirring occasionally, until reduced by half, 3 to 5 minutes. Add remaining 2 tablespoons butter and cook over low heat, swirling skillet, until butter is incorporated. Serve sauce with steaks.

*Note: The sauce is enough for four steaks if you want to cook this for guests. I like having a little extra to pour over mashed potatoes.

Friday
Mar212008

canneles: quest to recreate a bordeaux treat


When Philippe, a meticulous and efficient Frenchman, purchased the quirky neighborhood cafe in our hometown of Takoma Park, Maryland, he had the good sense not to change the popular, mostly vegetarian lunch fare. Instead, his signature was small: he introduced fresh-baked cannele.

Philippe spoke with a distinct French accent and wore perfectly pressed shirts buttoned to the top. His miniature desserts echoed his style: unadorned and executed with perfection.

Each day, he placed a tray of petite pastries next to the giant blueberry muffins and glazed donuts. To help customers understand what they were, he added a sign: “Cannele, from Bordeaux, pronounced (KHAN-lay).”

One day, curious about this new dessert, I ordered one to split with Paul. I cut sideways into the cake, exposing the custardy center, and took a bite. The subtle vanilla scent gave way to a sweet and eggy flavor like a crème brulee but the texture was chewy, like cake. I had never tasted anything like it.

It took awhile to break through Philippe’s somewhat cool exterior and the automatic cordial distance he placed between himself and all customers, but we eventually became friends. He would stop by our table to discuss recipes, France, politics, or to reflect, amused, about how American his teenage kids were.

Philippe eventually gave up the café but his canneles left a mark on us. That first bite of the custardy, sweet pastry launched a long, often failed, journey to replicate the dessert at home. I’m not a baker, and the number of variables astounded me: the type of molds (and how you greased them), the cooking time, the oven temperature, the type of oven, and the type of flour all made a huge difference in how the canneles turned out.

Now, one trip to Paris, four years, two sets of molds, and twelve batches later, I have a recipe I'm happy with thanks in part to Philippe, who gave us a few small tips along the way.

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The biggest barrier for me was the type of mold. The classic recipes call for metal molds (steel or copper) that need to be greased with beeswax. When I tried to do this, I used the only kind of beeswax my health food store offered: straight from the honeycomb. It was a disaster. The beeswax was a mess, and the cakes were still impossible to get out of the molds.

Philippe said that he used silicone molds and didn’t bother with beeswax. None of my local kitchen stores carried silicon cannele molds. Luckily, on a trip to Paris a couple of years ago, my husband and I found them and immediately snatched them up.

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The silicone molds don't offer the same rigid shape of the metal molds, but they eliminate the need for messy beeswax. You just need to butter them, then wipe out any excess butter with a paper towel (if butter gathers at the bottom, it may burn the delicate batter).

The other suprising variable was convection versus regular heat. Every time I baked the canneles using the regular “bake” setting on my oven, the little cakes would fall midway through cooking. They were tasty but short!

When I tried the same recipe using convection heat, they kept their height and shape better.

Here’s the version that works for me:

Canneles

Makes about 16

3 cups milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons butter
1 cup sugar
2/3 cup pastry flour
1 extra large egg yolk
2 extra large eggs
3 tablespoons premium rum

In a saucepan, combine the milk and vanilla. Bring the milk to the scalding point over medium heat. Remove from the heat and add three tablespoons butter. Set aside until it’s lukewarm.

In a large bowl, whisk together the sugar and pastry flour. In a small bowl, whisk together the egg yolk, eggs, and rum. Stir the egg mixture into the sugar and flour mixture and then mix in the lukewarm milk. Strain into a third bowl or container with a chinoise. Cover and refrigerate overnight (about 12 hours).

Take the mixture out of the refrigerator one hour before baking. Using the convection setting on your oven, preheat to 425F. Butter the molds with melted butter, and then wipe out any excess butter with a paper towel (the molds should be VERY lightly coated). Place the molds on a cookie sheet and fill them three-quarters full.

Bake for an hour and 15 minutes. Let cool for about 15 minutes, then flip the molds upside down and pat the bottom of the molds until the cakes pop out.

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The Bordeaux brotherhood of caneles dropped the second 'n' in the spelling of this dessert in 1985 to distinguish the Bordeaux version against those made elsewhere. The official Bordeaux recipe has been written down and locked in the vault of Daniel Antoine, who operates "Patisserie Antoine" in Bordeaux. The photo, above, is taken at a bakery in Saint Emilion.

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A street vendor sells caneles in the city center in Bordeaux. Check out more photos of Bordeaux here.