Monday, February 28, 2011

Just Call Me Senorita Suiza

Rachael Ray's got a show on the Cooking Channel called "A Week in a Day" where she prepares five make-ahead meals in one afternoon. The idea is that spending a little time on the weekend will easily give you five fresh meals for the week. I'm not necessarily a fan of that type of forethought because I tend to cook on a whim ... but I certainly understand how it can be handy for busy families who have trouble getting dinner on the table.(Although, unless you love to cook so much that you're willing to give up an entire Sunday afternoon to do it, I don't know how realistic this approach really is!)

Anyway, I caught this show for the first time on Saturday and she made one recipe that intrigued me: roasted chicken enchiladas suizas casserole. It used a few ingredients (poblanos, tomatillos) and methods (roasting peppers) that were new to me, so I thought I would give it a try.

I had heard of enchiladas suizas, but couldn't have told you what they were. Thank goodness Rachael enlightened me. Apparently Swiss immigrants to Mexico blended to two cuisines, resulting in dishes like this. Oddly enough, Rachael failed to mention what I later learned from Wikipedia: the dish typically has a bechamel-type white sauce. Her recipe does not, but I'll give her a pass because it was still delicious.

Don't be intimidated by the long list of ingredients here. The recipe really is quick and easy (it's from Rachael Ray, after all!).

Enchilada Suizas Stacked Casserole
4 poblano peppers
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 jalapeno pepper, chopped
2 onions, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
12 tomatillos, peeled, rinsed and quartered
2 small handfuls cilantro leaves
1 teaspoon cumin
2 teaspoons honey
1 quart chicken stock
Salt and pepper
1 lime, juiced
2 lbs. cooked chicken, meat shredded
16 corn tortillas, softened
1 cup Mexican crema (or sour cream)
1 1/2 cups shredded Swiss cheese
1 1/2 cups shredded Monterey Jack cheese

Heat broiler to high. Arrange poblanos on a sheet pan, put them under the hot broiler and char them on all sides, about 10 to 12 minutes. Alternatively, you can char them over an open flame on a gas stove (which is what I did). Place charred peppers in a bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Allow to sit until cool enough to handle. Peel and seed the peppers. (I learned that the plastic wrap allows to peppers to steam a bit after you char them, making them easier to peel later. So definitely don't skip that step!)

Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add jalapeno, onion and garlic. Cook until onion softens, about 5 minutes. Put the tomatillos and cilantro in a food processor. Coarsely chop the poblanos and add them to the processor. Process until an almost smooth sauce forms, about 1 minute. Pour the sauce into the skillet and stir to combine. Add cumin, honey and stock. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Reduce heat and simmer about 20 minutes. Add lime juice and turn off the heat.

Pour a thin layer of sauce in the bottom of a medium casserole dish. Place 3 or 4 tortillas in the bottom of the dish, top with chicken, sauce, crema (or sour cream, which is what I used) and a handful of both cheeses (I only used Jack because Bill doesn't like Swiss). Repeat layer twice more.

Bake in a 375 degree oven about 40 to 50 minutes, or until heated through and bubbly on top.

BTW, I took a shortcut and used a store-bought rotisserie chicken. An alternative to that is my trusty poaching method: just boil a few chicken breasts and shred the meat with two forks. Roasting the poblanos was a cinch (I'm sure the broiler technique is just as easy - or even easier ... and probably safer - than using an open flame), and I learned that I really like tomatillos. In fact, I think I should make some salsa verde!

Also, I halved the recipe because Bill and I would never be able to eat the giant casserole this makes. It ended up being the perfect portion for dinner and we had just enough leftovers. Plus, it was super tasty and is even better the next day (I had it again for lunch this afternoon!). You can call me a regular Senorita Suiza! (For those of you who are Spanish-challenged, that's Swiss Miss.)

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Kahlua Cupcakes = Fail

When I found out today was National Kahlua Day, I assumed it was my (not exactly patriotic) duty to bake Kahlua cupcakes. A Google search returned approximately 89,034,299 different recipes for Kahlua cupcakes. And out of those 89,034,299, I happened to pick the worst one.

I don't know exactly what went wrong, but perhaps someone can help me troubleshoot. This has never happened to me before, but my cupcakes stuck to the cupcake papers. WTF, dude? The cupcakes are not supposed to stick to the papers. I also failed at the frosting, but that was my own stupid fault. More on that below.

Kahlua Cupcakes
1 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
Pinch salt
1/3 cup Kahlua
2 teaspoons instant coffee granules (or instant espresso)
3/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup butter
2 egg whites
1/3 cup milk
Coffee buttercream frosting (recipe follows)

Preheat oven to 350 and line cupcake pan with paper liners.

In a small bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Set aside.

In another bowl, whisk together Kahlua and instant coffee. Set aside.

In a bowl, using an electric mixer, beat together sugar and butter. Alternately beat in flour mixture, milk and Kahlua mixture. Beat until smooth.

Fill cupcake liners about 3/4 full. Bake for 20 minutes. Allow to cool in pan 10 minutes, then cool completely on a wire rack.

Coffee Buttercream Frosting
1 stick butter
2 cups confectioners' sugar
1 tablespoon hot coffee
1 teaspoon Kahlua

Note: This frosting recipe also called for a pinch of salt, a bit of vanilla extract and more instant coffee granules. I left those ingredients out because I thought the vanilla and additional coffee would result in a frosting that was way too overpowering. (And I left the salt out because I've never put salt in my frosting. That's just weird.)

Using an electric mixer, beat butter and sugar in a bowl.

Combine coffee and Kahlua. (Here's a great big heads up ... you know by now that I have a tendency to pay more attention to the ingredients than the directions in a recipe. So when this recipe called for hot coffee, I failed to notice that you were supposed to let the coffee cool completely before adding it to your frosting. And the reason it was supposed to be hot in the first place was to dissolve the instant coffee granules that I didn't use. So I stupidly added the hot coffee to my frosting, which caused it to melt a bit. I was able to stiffen it up by adding more confectioners' sugar, but it started to run again while I was frosting the cupcakes.)

So it wasn't until I tried to taste test a cupcake dripping with frosting (I still needed to know whether they tasted good) that I realized they had stuck to the papers. I still have absolutely no idea what went wrong there, so help me out if you can. Despite the disaster they became, they still tasted good. Had I not screwed them up, they would have been a perfect way to celebrate National Kahlua Day!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Shortcut Cinnamon Rolls

Cleaning out the pantry, freezer or fridge can be a great source of recipe inspiration. And when I found a loaf of frozen bread dough (from who knows when) in the freezer this afternoon, I knew immediately what to make: cinnamon rolls!

I fully intend to make cinnamon rolls from scratch someday (they've been added to my recipe bucket list), but this shortcut is perfect when you've got to have one quick. It's super fast and super easy.

Technically, when you find a frozen loaf of bread dough in the freezer you're supposed to allow it to thaw in the refrigerator overnight. But I set mine out on the kitchen counter for a few hours and it thawed just fine. If you can wait until the next day for your cinnamon rolls, thaw your dough the traditional way. If you're impatient, thaw it my way.

Shortcut Cinnamon Rolls
1 loaf frozen bread dough, thawed
1/4 cup butter, melted
1/3 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons cinnamon
3/4 cup confectioners' sugar
2 tablespoons milk

Heat oven to 200 degrees and prepare a cast iron skillet by spraying it liberally with cooking spray.

Sprinkle some flour on a clean surface and roll out your dough. I can't give you the exact dimensions, but you should end up with a rectangle about the size of a standard cookie sheet.

Brush almost all of the melted butter over the dough; reserve about a tablespoon. Combine sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl. Sprinkle over butter. Roll the dough jellyroll-style, then slice into about a dozen buns. Set them in your skillet, cover loosely with a towel, and allow them to rise on your warm oven for about 1 hour.

During the last few minutes of rising, turn the oven up to 400 degrees. Pour reserved melted butter over rolls. Place the rolls in the oven and cook for 18 minutes.

Remove rolls from oven and allow to cool for a few minutes. In a small bowl, make the icing by combining confectioners' sugar and milk. Drizzle icing over warm rolls.

I dare you to resist these cinnamon rolls long enough for them to cool! I'm suffering from a bit of a burnt tongue right now because I couldn't keep my hands off of them. I swear they taste just like Cinnabon cinnamon rolls (though I'm sure they have a fraction of the fat and calories). We'll have to see how my from-scratch version stacks up against this shortcut soon :)

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Worst. Recipe. Ever.

Have you ever come across a recipe that just kind of made you go "Huh?" You've probably all experienced this when it comes to the degree of difficulty involved in certain dishes. (Like, oh, I don't know ... bear claws?? Don't even get me started on that folding and rolling technique.) But when it's because the recipe appears to be missing steps (or even worse, ingredients), that's a whole other story.

I had a craving for soup the other night (big surprise there, right?) and potato soup sounded SO good. When I was flipping through my favorite soup book, I came across a photocopied recipe for baked potato soup that I had tucked into the pages. Score!

As usual, I did a quick scan of the ingredients and since I had everything I needed, I set to work ... without reading the directions. It's important to note that I often start cooking without reading the directions in a recipe, which is probably a mistake. But since I feel like I have a pretty good handle on this cooking thing, I usually don 't feel the need to study the steps before I get started. In this case, I should have.

I'm just going to reprint the recipe here, verbatim, and see if you can find the problem.

Baked Potato Soup
6 slices bacon, slivered
1 cup chopped onion
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
6 cups chicken broth
4 cups diced baked potato
2 cups milk
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
2 teaspoons dried basil, crushed
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon minced fresh garlic
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
1/2 cup sliced green onion
Bottled hot pepper sauce
Crisp-cooked bacon (optional)
Shredded cheddar cheese (optional)
Sour cream (optional)
Italian parsley (optional)

In a 4- to 6-quart Dutch oven or soup pot over medium-high heat cook bacon and onion until bacon is crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon; set aside. Reserve 2 tablespoons of the drippings in the Dutch oven. Use a whisk to stir flour into reserved drippings. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, whisking constantly. Gradually add chicken broth, whisking to prevent lumps. Cook and whisk until mixture thickens. Add potato, milk, parsley, basil, salt, garlic, and black pepper to Dutch oven. Simmer for 5 minutes, stirring often.

Add the 1 cup cheese and the green onion to Dutch oven, stirring until cheese melts and soup is heated through. Season to taste with hot pepper sauce.

If desired, top each serving with additional bacon, cheese, sour cream, and/or Italian parsley.

If you're a professional communicator like me, resist the urge to break out your red pen and edit for inconsistencies in punctuation and phrasing, redundancy, and just plain poor writing.

And if you're a cook, resist the urge to point out the seemingly miscalculated ingredients (2 cups of flour?) and poor technique (cooking the bacon with the onion tends to steam it rather than crisp it!).

While all of those things made me twitch, they weren't the real problems with this recipe.

In case you haven't caught it, the most glaring problem is this: they never ask you to return the bacon and onion to the pot! What was the point of frying the bacon and onion if you're not adding it to the soup? I swear I read this recipe a dozen times thinking I was missing something before I was convinced it wasn't me. It was just the worst recipe ever.

As a side note, since I had started cooking before I caught this problem, I simply made adjustments to the recipe to improve it. And I'm happy to report that I was able to save it. It wasn't the best baked potato soup I've ever had, but I have some definite ideas about what can turn it from bad to fab. So stay tuned for my fix soon!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

How I Do BBQ

I have to admit that when it comes to barbecue, that's typically Bill's territory. In fact, I'm pretty sure he makes some of the best ribs on Earth. But I can do barbecue, too. It just happens to be slightly more sophisticated than finger-lickin' good!

Barbecue Pork Chops with Sauteed Apples
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup ketchup
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon dried thyme
2 pork chops (bone in or boneless)
1 large Fuji apple, peeled and sliced thin
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

In a small bowl, combine first 3 ingredients. Stir until smooth. Pour half of sauce in a small dish (like a pinch bowl!) and set aside.

Prepare grill pan (or grill!). Combine red pepper flakes, garlic powder and thyme. Sprinkle over both sides of pork chops. Place chops on greased grill over medium heat. Grill 6 minutes on each side, basting with sauce. (Keep in mind that the internal temperature should reach 170 degrees.)

Melt butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Add apples and sautee until soft, about 5 minutes. Add brown sugar and cinnamon. Stir until sugar melts. Serve alongside pork chops with reserved sauce.

Insanely easy, huh? This is one of the simplest, sort of fancy dinners in the book (the Cooking Light annual cookbook, to be exact!). I can recall having major difficulties with pork when I first started cooking because it seems to dry out so easy, which makes it leather-like. But with a little patience, and just one turn on the grill, you'll end up with tender, juicy chops. And while it might not be traditional barbecue, it's awfully tasty.

Oh, and these apples are so good I could eat them for breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert. It's basically like eating pie filling on your dinner plate!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Tea and Scones, Anyone?

Much like coffee, I used to believe that scones were an acquired taste, most likely stemming from my memory of the scones my mom and grandma used to eat ... I recall them as dry, crumbly and tasteless. (I also recall the coffee they used to drink as Folger's, so clearly they didn't have very sophisticated palates!) Luckily, I eventually gave both coffee and scones another chance. And it's a good thing, because now they're two of my favorites (especially together!).

Members of the biscuit family, scones are of Scottish origin, which I find somehow regal. I don't know why, but I always feel hoity-toity when I'm eating a scone. They make me think of tea and crumpets. (Which I've never actually had, but apparently crumpets are much like English muffins ... which means they must also be delicious. I'll find a recipe and let you know.)

Hoity-toity or not, I love a good scone, but rarely make them myself. I mostly leave the scone-baking to Stephanie because she's become a pro. But this weekend I had a hankering for scones and a pint of blueberries, so I went in search of the perfect recipe. And came pretty close!

Blueberry Streusel Scones
2 cups flour
1/3 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons butter, chilled and cut into pieces
1 cup fresh blueberries
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup milk

Streusel Topping Ingredients:
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons butter, chilled and cut into pieces

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In a large bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Cut in butter using a pastry cutter. The mixture should resemble coarse crumbs. Gently fold in blueberries.

In a small bowl, combine egg, vanilla and milk. Add to flour mixture and stir just until the dough comes together.

Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface and knead gently 4 or 5 times. Pat into a 7-inch circle about 1 1/2 inches thick. Cut the circle in half, then in half again so you're left with 4 pie-shaped wedges. (Or, if you have a scone pan like mine to the right, pat into a rectangle and cut into 16 triangles. This recipe called for giant scones, I made mini scones.) Brush the tops of the scones with milk.

For the streusel topping, combine brown sugar, flour and cinnamon in a small bowl. Cut in butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Sprinkle over scones.

Bake 18 to 22 minutes (if you're making mini scones it's more like 14) or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.

I personally prefer my scones at room temperature, but if you can't resist them when they come out of the oven you can eat them warm! Scones with fresh blueberries have to be one of my favorite baked goods ... they're SO good when those berries burst. I may have had a heavy hand with the blueberries in this recipe, so you can adjust the amount (but I can't imagine why you'd want to!)

These were nothing like the dry, crumbly scones I remember not liking. These were moist, flaky, rich and super duper flavorful! Steph, I'm giving you a run for your money! Shall we have a scone bake-off? :)

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Chicken Soup to Cure You

I've been knocked down for most of the week by a nasty cold once again. And you know I'm really sick when a two things happen: 1) I don't go to work and 2) I don't feel like cooking. In fact, today I know I'm feeling better because I woke up in a cooking mood.

Interestingly enough, right before I got sick this week I had made a big pot of chicken soup which is exactly what I wanted to eat while I was ailing. It's almost like my subconscious was preparing me for the few days of illness that lied ahead! But I'm not a big fan of chicken noodle soup, so I had made a pot of chicken tortilla.

This is a recipe I found in one of my Food Network Kitchens cookbooks and when I first made it a few years ago Bill fell in love with it. He claims it's his favorite soup ever, and I'd have to agree that it's pretty damn good.

It's extremely simple to make, but the biggest problem I've had with it in the past is finding the chipotle chiles in adobo. The first time I made it, I found them in the ethnic foods aisle, no problem. I went back a few weeks later and the shelf was empty. I went back for weeks after that and the shelf was still empty. I even hassled the guys at Pick 'n Save about it. Eventually, a co-worker found them for me at another store and picked up two cans. Since then I haven't really looked for them and the ones I used in this recipe were from the last of those cans my co-worker bought for me. Bill requested this soup again soon, so I hope I won't run into a similar problem finding them now. Maybe it was just an isolated incident of the mysteriously disappearing chiles. Regardless, I see them popping up in recipes ALL THE TIME now, so they shouldn't be so difficult to come by.

Chicken Tortilla Soup
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 chipotle chiles in adobo, chopped
1 tablespoon chili powder
2 teaspoons salt
6 cups chicken broth
1 cup corn kernels (canned corn is fine)
1 ripe tomato, chopped
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
Broken tortilla chips

Place chicken breasts in a pot filled with water. Bring to a boil and poach chicken breasts until cooked through, about 15 minutes. (When poaching chicken, you can't really overcook it, so I err on the side of caution and cook it until all my prep is done ... which may be longer than 15 minutes.) Remove chicken to cutting board and let cool.

Heat the oil in another pot over medium heat. Add onion, garlic, chipotle chile, chili powder and salt, Cook until the onion softens, about 5 minutes. Add the chicken broth, bring to a boil, reduce the heat slightly, and simmer, uncovered, for 10 minutes. Add the corn and cook 5 minutes more.

Meanwhile, chop the cooked chicken into bite-sized pieces. Off the heat, add the chicken, tomato and lime juice to the soup. Place several broken tortilla chips in the bottom of your soup bowls and ladle the soup over the chips. Serve with lime wedges, if desired.

You may or may not be able to tell, but I LOVE SOUP. And this one has definitely risen to the top of the charts and become one of my favorites. My soon-to-be-pharmacist BFF told me that chicken soup has been scientifically proven to help you feel better when you're sick, and while this one may not have been what the researchers had in mind, I'm pretty sure it works, too.

As a side note, I actually skipped the chips when I made this soup this week because I didn't have any on hand. I think I actually prefer it without the chips, to tell you the truth. But if you're into soggy tortilla chips floating in your soup, then by all means, go to town with them.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Cupid's Grand Marnier Souffles

Valentine's Day always calls for a special meal and Bill can tell you I've definitely had some hits and misses. When we haven't gone out on Valentine's Day, I've always tried to make a fancy (or, of late, fancier) dinner.

While dinner needs to be something special, for those of us with a sweet tooth, dessert is arguably more important than the main course. Four or five years ago I topped off our Valentine's dinner with homemade crepes. And while they're not Bill's favorite dessert, they were certainly a home run. I was so impressed with myself then that I haven't attempted a very complicated dessert since!

Tonight's dinner wasn't outrageously special (I'll make the menu a separate post later this week), but I decided to up the ante with dessert again this year. I debated a few options and eventually landed on Grand Marnier souffles because, well ... they just sound romantic. Don't they??

Now, I've never eaten a souffle, much less cooked one, but I was well aware that they're complicated. I've seen many a meal in the movies botched by a fallen souffle, so I had a reasonable expectation of failure. Still, I like a challenge :)

Grand Marnier Souffles
Cooking spray
2 tablespoons sugar
2 egg yolks
1/4 cup sugar, divided
2 1/2 tablespoons Grand Marnier
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
3 egg whites
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
Pinch salt
1 tablespoon confectioners' sugar

Preheat oven to 400 degrees and place a baking sheet in oven.

Spray ramekins with cooking spray and coat with sugar.

In a medium bowl with an electric mixer, beat egg yolks until light in color and thick, about 5 minutes. Add 1/8 cup sugar and beat until thick, about 2 minutes. Beat in Grand Marnier and vanilla.

In another bowl, beat egg whites until foamy, about one minute. Add cream of tartar and salt. Beat until stiff peaks form. Add remaining 1/8 cup sugar, one tablespoon at a time, and beat until stiff peaks form again.

Stir 1/4 of the egg white mixture into the egg yolk mixture. Fold remaining egg whites into egg yolks. Pour into prepared ramekins.

Place ramekins on baking sheet in oven and bake 10 minutes, until tall and golden brown. Souffles should rise 1 1/2 to 2 inches above rims of ramekins.

Remove from oven and dust with confectioners' sugar. Serve immediately.

Dishes that are supposed to rise always make me nervous, for obvious reasons. But coming out of the oven my souffles looked beautiful! They were tall and golden and light ... and promptly fell. I'm sure that either my egg whites weren't stiff enough or I wasn't gentle enough in folding them in to the yolks. You have to have such a light, careful hand and be scientifically exact with things like this. Nonetheless, they tasted great and made a Valentine's dessert to remember!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Ooh La La French Onion Soup

I don't think it's any secret that I LOVE French onion soup. I order it at almost any chance I get, and it never gets old. In fact, in the past week alone I've had it three times: once on Thursday night at the Capital Grille, once on Saturday afternoon at Hooligan's and once tonight ... when I finally made it myself! That's right, as much as I love it, I've never actually made my own French onion soup.

Aside from all the tears shed during onion slicing, it's not difficult, so I'm not sure what was holding me up. I came across an Alton Brown recipe this afternoon and decided now was as good a time as any to give it a try. However, I put a bit of a different spin on in than Alton did. His called for apple cider which I wasn't sure about, so I replaced it with beef broth for a deeper, beefier flavor. I also added Worchestershire sauce, which I thought would be a bold move ... and it was, but maybe not bold in the way I intended. It actually ended up being a bit overpowering, so I'd recommend either omitting it or reducing it. Oh, and of course you're supposed to top the soup with gruyere, but the dumpy Pick 'n Save I went to this afternoon didn't have gruyere, so I was stuck with gouda. Still good, but would be made better with the right cheese.

The rest of the recipe was awesome. And the best part is that it gave me another chance to use the food torch. Yay!

Jen's Ooh La La French Onion Soup
3 tablespoons butter
4 sweet onions, sliced into thin half moons
2 cups white wine
1 can (10 oz.) beef consomme
2 cups beef broth
1/2 cup chicken broth
1 tablespoon Worchestershire sauce
4 sprigs fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
2 slices French bread
2 tablespoons butter
2 slices gouda

Melt butter in a heavy saucepan. Add layer of onions, sprinkle with salt. Repeat layers, using all onions. Allow onions to sweat over medium-high heat for 15 minutes. Do not stir. (This was the best tip Alton had ... it really seems to speed up the caramelizing process if you let the onions sweat it out and soften first.)

Cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are completely caramelized. (Alton says this should take 45 minutes to an hour and the onions should be a mahagony color. I cooked them until they were deep brown for about 20 or 25 minutes, but probably could have gone a few minutes longer ... a couple of my onions still had a little bite.)

Add enough wine to cover onions, turn heat to high and cook until wine is reduced and syrupy in consistency. Transfer to stock pot and add consomme, beef and chicken broths, Worchestershire, thyme and bay leaves. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer 15 minutes.

While soup is simmering, brush both sides of bread with butter. Bake in 400 degree oven, 15 to 20 minutes, flipping halfway through cooking.

Ladle soup into two bowls (and try your best to fish out the thyme sprigs and bay leaves). Top each bowl with a slice of bread and a slice of cheese. Use torch to melt cheese until bubbly.

So how did my French onion compare to the others I've had recently? I'd say better than Hooligan's, but not as good as the Capital Grille. However, with a few tweaks I'm sure I could get it there :)

Friday, February 11, 2011

Bear Claws: A Pawful Lot of Work!

Sometimes I get kind of crazy ideas. Like when I come home from work on a Friday night and decide I want to make pastries. Seriously. Who does that?

I'm not even a big pastry fan. Give me a muffin or doughnut over a pastry any day. But when the dough is done just right, it really is delicious. To me, pastry dough should be light, buttery and soft. Flakiness is definitely in order, but it can't be too dry. And there's a very fine line between not enough filling and too much filling!

Call me crazy, but I broke out the trusty Taste of Home Baking Book and landed on bear claws. I generally don't even like bear claws, but I had all of the necessary ingredients. So bear claws it was! I modified this recipe a bit because it originally called for almond filling, but I had hazelnuts on hand.

Hazelnut Bear Claws
1/2 cup warm milk (110-115 degrees)
1 packet active dry yeast
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 1/2 cups sugar, plus 2 tablespoons

Butter Mixture
2 tablespoons butter, divided
3/4 cups butter

1/4 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup hazelnuts, ground
1/4 cup confectioners' sugar

1 egg, lightly beaten
Optional vanilla glaze

Place milk and yeast in a large bowl. Set aside for 5 minutes.

Add sugar, salt and eggs to yeast mixture. Stir to combine. Add all of the flour at once, stirring until dough pulls away from sides of bowl and forms a ball. Set aside.

Sprinkle clean surface with 1 tablespoon flour. Cut butter into tablespoon size pieces and place on top of flour. Sprinkle top of butter with 1 teaspoon flour. Use a rolling pin to press down on and roll out butter, working until it's smooth, scraping butter off pin as necessary. Add remaining tablespoon flour and knead into butter. (I actually got frustrated with this process and ended up using a dough scraper to cut the butter and flour until the mixture was smooth.)

Tear off a sheet of plastic wrap and lay it on a flat surface. Place butter on top and shape into a large rectangle. Top with another sheet of plastic wrap. Roll up and set aside.

Dust clean surface with flour and roll dough into a large, thin rectangle, about 8" by 16". Unwrap butter from plastic and place on long end of dough, about 1 inch from edge. Fold dough in half and pinch edges together to seal.

Lightly roll dough, then fold into thirds (as if you were folding a business letter). Turn dough a quarter turn, roll and fold again. Repeat twice more for a total of four turns rolling. Loosely wrap dough in plastic and place in refrigerator for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare filling by combining all ingredients in a small bowl and stirring until smooth. (Note: Since I created this hazelnut concoction myself, the measurements need some tweeking. It was not quite a spreadable consistency ... it was too thin. Maybe lose the extra egg.) Set aside.

Remove dough from refrigerator and roll into 12" by 12" square. Cut into 4-inch wide strips. Spread filling down length of each strip, fold in half and pinch edges to seal. Cut each strip in 3 pieces, then make 3 or 4 shallow slits across each piece to form claws and expose part of filling.

Place on greased baking sheets and allow to rise in a warm place (like the top of the oven on a low temperature) for 1 hour, until almost doubled in size.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Brush claws with egg. Bake 10 to 14 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove from oven and cool on wire racks.

Optionally, spread bear claws with vanilla glaze. (I didn't provide the glaze recipe because I didn't use it ... they were that good without it!)

All I can say is O. M. G. I wasn't entirely confident in this recipe (or at least not in my ability to pull it off), but they turned out to be amazing. The pastry was soft, light, flaky and buttery and the filling was just sweet enough, just nutty enough.

I'm not gonna lie ... this was outrageously time consuming and not something I'd make often. But I was so impressed with the results that what I thought would be a one-time deal may come into semi-regular rotation :)

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Go Pack Go! Green and Gold Cupcakes

Hosting a Super Bowl party is so exhausting that I had to take a break from blogging for a few days just to recuperate. After my three-day football cake ball-making marathon, I started preparations on a menu that you'd think was feeding the Packers themselves. I made an almost double batch of Badger Bits (a.k.a Bucee's Beaver Nuggets!), labored through pizza dough, supervised Bill's tomato sauce-making for the pizzas, and concocted what could have been the most delicious (but sort of complicated) cupcakes ever.

I'll give you our entire Super Bowl party menu at the bottom of this post (yeah, there's more), but first you need to hear about these cupcakes.

Go Pack Go Green and Gold Cupcakes
24 of your favorite vanilla cupcakes, made from scratch or a box mix
2 cups lime curd (recipe follows)
4 cups green-tinted cream cheese frosting (recipe follows)
Yellow sprinkles

Those of you who know me shouldn't have any doubt in your minds that I made my cupcakes from scratch. And you might be wondering why I'm not printing the recipe here. It's because I wasn't totally satisfied with my vanilla cupcake recipe, as they weren't as moist as I'd hoped they be. I'm still trying to figure out what exactly went wrong (it's one of those cases where you can make the same recipe twice but end up with two very different results). Therefore, I recommend you use a standby recipe you love, or just submit to a box mix. I won't judge.

Lime Curd
3 eggs
3 egg yolks
1 stick butter, cubed
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup fresh lime juice

Combine all ingredients in a large glass bowl. Set over simmering water and cook, whisking constantly for 7 to 10 minutes, until mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. (Note: The recipe I used wasn't completely accurate when it comes to cooking time. It took me 14 minutes of constant whisking to reach the right consistency. My arm got quite a workout.)

Remove bowl from pan and immediately transfer mixture to another bowl. (For extra smooth curd, pour it through a strainer.) Allow to come to room temperature, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Cream Cheese Frosting
8 oz. (1 block) cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla
16 oz. confectioners' sugar
Green gel food coloring

In a large bowl, use an electric mixer to beat cream cheese and butter until creamy. Beat in vanilla. Add confectioners' sugar, a cup or so at a time, until thick and spreadable (not too stiff). Squeeze in food coloring, using enough to reach your desired shade of green). Stir until coloring is completely incorporated.

To assemble cupcakes:
Remove a 1-inch hole from center of each cupcake. (I'll let you choose whether to discard or eat those cupcake centers!) Either pipe or spoon curd into center of cupcakes. Top each cupcake with a generous amount of frosting and carefully spread to edges. Top each cupcake with yellow sprinkles.

Here's a quick product review: Last time I was at Bed, Bath and Beyond I was excited to find this little gadget they called a "cupcake plunger." In theory, you're supposed to push the plunger into the middle of the cupcake and remove the center, leaving a perfect hole in which to pipe your filling. You're also supposed to be able to fill the plunger with filling and eject it into the cupcake. Unfortunately, that plunger doesn't grab anything (cake or filling), making it impossible to remove the centers or eject any filling. Luckily it was only a waste of $3.99.

Despite the disappointing crumbly consistency of my cupcakes, these things were amazing and well worth the 14-minute curd workout. The curd seriously makes the cupcake. It's just the right amount of tart and sweet, and it's a super creamy consistency (even without straining it). The cream cheese frosting was also a genius idea, if I do say so myself. The flavor combination created a cross between cheesecake and key lime pie ... it's like having the best of both worlds in a little handheld cake!

If you have a better, more moist vanilla cupcake recipe, send it my way. I totally want to make these again (maybe with berry curd and red frosting for Valentine's Day?).

So here's the rest of our Super Bowl Sunday menu. And to provide some context, there were only four of us at the party. (Stephanie and Tiff contributed to the menu and their initials are in parentheses after their dishes. Thanks for the delicious food, guys!!)

  • Badger Bits
  • Chips and Homemade Salsa (S)
  • Hot Crab Dip (S)
  • Pretzel Crisps and Homemade Hummus (S)
  • Baked Chicken Wings with Teriyaki Glaze (T)
  • Fruit Salad (T)
  • Sicilian Style Pizza (one cheese and one with green and yellow peppers)
  • Go Pack Go Green and Gold Cupcakes
  • Italian Love Cake (T)
  • Poppy Seed Cookies (S)

Oh, and margaritas. Lots and lots of margaritas :)

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Are You Ready for Some FOOTBALL ... Cake Balls?

Those of you who know me know I'm not a football fan ... but I am a cake ball fan! If you're baffled by cake balls, the concept is really simple (and delicious). They're balls of cake dipped in chocolate. I discovered this recipe a few years ago when someone I used to work with forwarded it to me, and I thought it was genius. Who wouldn't love yummy little chocolate-dipped chunks of deliciousness?

Sue and I immediately added them to our Christmas treat repertoire and people went nuts. But never have I seen a more drastic reaction than this past Christmas when I introduced them to my new co-workers. You would have thought I'd struck gold and shared it with everyone. With the Super Bowl fast approaching, I thought I'd give the cheeseheads a real treat.

Football Cake Balls
1 box cake mix, flavor of your choice (plus the ingredients listed on the box)
1 can frosting, flavor of your choice
2 bags semisweet chocolate chips
1/2 bag white chips
5 teaspoons shortening
1 teaspoon shaved parafin

Bake cake according to directions on box. When completely cool, break cake into large pieces and place in a large bowl. Use a wooden spoon to break the cake into crumbs.

Stir in entire can of frosting. (This will take a little muscle. Be sure it's very well-incorporated. Your mixture will almost be the consistency of cookie dough.) Working by the teaspoonful, roll cake into balls and form into oblong football shapes. Place on parchment-covered baking sheets. Refrigerate until set, 2-3 hours or overnight.

Create a double boiler by simmering an inch or so of water in a saucepan and placing a glass bowl over it. Place chocolate chips, 4 tablespoons shortening and 1 1/2 teaspoons parafin in bowl to melt. As chips melt, stir until smooth.

Remove cake balls from fridge and dip in chocolate. (The easiest way to do this is to break the two middle prongs off of a plastic fork and use it to grab the balls, drop them in and pick them back up, scraping the excess chocolate on the edge of the bowl as you lift them out. That's a trick I learned at the Taste of Home Cooking School!)

Return cake balls to parchment paper as you remove them from chocolate. Return to fridge and let set 15-30 minutes. Meanwhile, place white chips, remaining tablespoon shortening and remaining parafin in a microwave-safe bowl. Microwave 30 seconds, stir, then microwave another 30 seconds. Stir vigorously until mixture is smooth. Spoon into a ziplock bag. Snip a VERY small piece from one corner of the bag and pipe mixture onto cake balls (one vertical line and 2-4 horizontal lines to create laces).

Return cake calls to refrigerator to set. Then impress all your friends!

With a steadier hand I would have made more impressive laces, but I'm pretty happy with how they turned out. And, I might add, I'm pretty impressed with my creativity :)

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Roast Post

Well, it's Groundhog Day and Punxsutawney Phil must have had a hard time looking for his shadow in the Snowpocalypse of 2011. Being snowed in seemed like a good opportunity to make a big, hearty dinner, so I picked up the pot roast recipe I'd put aside this weekend. When you're stranded on a cold winter day, does anything sound better than a roast and mashed potatoes? It's classic comfort food!

Naturally, my pot roast took a slightly Italian twist. Definitely not a bad idea, but I'd also like to master a more traditional recipe.

Pot Roast with Red Wine, Mushrooms and Tomatoes
2-3 lb. Pot roast
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper
3 carrots, cut into large chunks
1 onion, cut into large slices
1 package sliced mushrooms
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon thyme
1 teaspoon rosemary
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup beef broth
1/2 cup red wine

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

Heat oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Pat roast dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper on all sides. Sear roast on all sides, remove to plate and set aside.

Add carrots, onions and mushrooms to pot. Cook until starting to brown, 6 to 8 minutes. Add garlic, thyme, rosemary and sugar. Cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add chicken broth, beef broth and wine. Stir and scrape up browned bits from bottom of pot.

Bring liquid to a simmer and return roast to pot. If necessary, add water to reach halfway up sides of roast. Cover pot with foil, then put the lid on tightly. Cook in preheated oven 2 1/2 to 3 hours, turning roast over every 30 minutes.

Remove roast to cutting board and tent with foil. Bring liquid to a boil and reduce by about a quarter. Slice roast and top with veggies and gravy.

Parmesan Chive Mashed Potato Casserole
4 large red potatoes, chopped
4 cloves garlic (whole)
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup milk
1/4 cup chicken broth
1 egg
2 tablespoons finely chopped chives
1/4 cup grated parmesan

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Place potatoes and garlic in a pot and add enough water to cover. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat and simmer for about 15 minutes. Meanwhile, combine butter, milk, chicken broth and salt in a small saucepan over low heat. Keep warm.

Drain potatoes and garlic and place in a large bowl. Using an electric mixer, beat potatoes and milk mixture until smooth. Beat in egg until well-incorporated. Fold in chives and parmesan. Spread potatoes in a greased 9x9-inch casserole dish. Bake for 20 minutes or until slightly browned on top.

This would have been an a-ma-zing dinner if it hadn't been for one thing ... everything ended up a little dry. I'm blaiming America's Test Kitchen for two reasons:

1. The article said the key to a good roast is to cook it until it's done and then keep cooking it. Given those instructions, how am I supposed to keep it from drying out? I assumed that's what all of the turning was for, but it didn't seem to help.
2. They need to stop trying to do too much with mashed potatoes! I modified this recipe from one of theirs (by cutting it in half and adding parmesan and chives to the mix). Somehow I thought a nice, crusty top on the potatoes would take them to a whole new level, but then I realized ... why mess with a good thing? Short of adding the egg and putting them in the oven, my potatoes were PERFECT!

If there's one thing I did learn from tonight's meal, it's this: Always, always, always mix your mashed potatoes with an electric mixer. It's a trick my mom used, which reminds me why I loved her potatoes so much. You're never going to get them creamier and more delicious.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Best Ever Chili

I love a good bowl of chili, but Bill is very particular about it (go figure). Along with his many other food aversions, he won't eat beans. So any chili I make has to be true Texas-style chili ... no beans allowed. A while back I came across a recipe from Rachael Ray for what she called Steakhouse Chili. A quick glance at the ingredients showed it would pass muster with Bill, so I gave it a try. And with a few minor substitutions, I'm completely confident in saying it's the best bowl of chili we've ever had.

Rachael's original recipe called for hot sauce, but never having hot sauce on hand I had to skip that step. Although with a name like "Steakhouse Chili," it occurred to me that A-1 sauce would be the perfect addition to this dish! It turned out to be my secret ingredient ... which I suppose isn't so secret any more.

Rachael also uses tomato sauce vs. diced tomatoes and doesn't call for cornstarch as a thickening agent (although I find it's too soupy for my taste without it).

Best Ever Chili (a.k.a. Steakhouse Chili)
4 slices thick-cut bacon, chopped
2 lbs. ground beef
1 onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3 or 4 tablespoons chili powder
Salt and pepper
1/4 cup Worchestershire sauce
1/4 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons A-1 sauce
1 (14.5 oz.) can diced tomatoes
2 cups beef broth
2 tablespoons cornstarch (optional)

In a large pot, cook bacon until fat renders (I actually cook it a little longer, until it's just short of crisp). Add ground beef and cook until no longer pink. Add onion and cook until soft. Add garlic, chili powder, salt and pepper. (I also sometimes sprinkle in a few red pepper flakes because Bill likes it HOT ... but I never make it as hot as he wants it.) Stir to combine.

In a small bowl, whisk together worchestershire, brown sugar and A-1 (my secret ingredient!). Stir into chili. Add diced tomatoes and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer about 10 minutes. If broth isn't as thick as you'd like, ladle a bit into a cup, dissolve the cornstarch in it, and return broth to chili. Bring to a boil for a minute or so, then reduce the heat to thicken.

I told you I was on a soup kick! I think this is my third pot in a week. But with the blizzard kicking in, chili just felt like the right thing to do. Plus, it gives us plenty of leftovers if we get snowed in!

Tomorrow will be a snow day and I'm working from home, so between work on one of my 20+ neverending projects, I'll be cooking. It's the perfect opportunity for the pot roast and mashed potato casserole I wanted to make on Sunday, plus I've already started Phase I of my football cake balls for our office Super Bowl shindig. Look forward to a lot of deliciousness in the days to come!