Monthly Archives: April 2008

Say it with Scones

Every once in a while, someone will do something thoughtful for me or be understanding when I’m down.  Or maybe I’ll notice that they’ve just been a constant positive presence in my life, which is especially noteworthy, if subtle.  Though I do say it, “thank you” doesn’t always seem enough.  At times like this, I have to supplement language with baking to get my point across.

These scones are how I’m saying it this time.  They have flax and oats to make them extra heart-healthy, and chocolate just because.  Making scones is easy and it feels like an old-fashioned wholesome endeavor.  I savor the progression of smells coming from the oven: first cinnamon, then chocolate, then toasty wheat and oat.  Once they’re out of the oven and cool enough to touch, I might split one and spread it with raspberry jam or peanut butter, and eat with an afternoon cup of tea.  Then I’ll pack up the rest and deliver them to my generous friends.  Oh no, thank you.

Chocolate Chip Cinnamon Scones (makes 16)

Dry ingredients:

  • 3-1/2 oz cold butter (7 Tbs)
  • 1-3/4c flour
  • 1c rolled oats
  • 2 Tbs flaxseed, ground
  • 5 Tbs sugar
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1-1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt

Add-ins:

  • 1c chocolate chips

Liquid ingredients:

  • 1 large egg
  • 3/4 c milk
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract

Topping:

  • 2 Tbs sugar
  • 1/3 tsp cinnamon
  • (2 Tbs milk, to brush on top)

Preheat oven to 375.  Cut the butter into tiny cubes, put in the freezer while you get the other ingredients ready.  Mix together sugar and cinnamon for topping, set aside.

Whisk eggs in a measuring cup until foamy, whisk in milk and vanilla.

In a food processor, stand mixer or plain old bowl, combine all the dry ingredients.  (If using a food processor, leave out the oats.)  Add the butter and pulse gently with the machines or break up with a fork or pastry blender until the butter pieces are about the size of oats. (Food processor users: now transfer your dry ingredients to another bowl and stir in the oats.) Stir in the chocolate chips.  Mix in about half of the liquid with your hands.  Mix in the rest of the liquid a little at a time, making sure to check the bottom of the bowl for dry patches.  You may not need all the liquid, or you might need to add a little more milk a tablespoon at a time.  Don’t knead the dough, just gently get all the dry stuff wet.  Think light fluffy thoughts as you mix.

As soon as the scone dough comes together in a slightly sticky mass, turn it onto a floured surface and divide it into two blobs.  Flatten each blob into a 6-inch round and cut into eighths.  Place scones on parchment-lined (or just plain ungreased) baking sheet, brush with milk or remaining liquid mix.  Sprinkle generously with cinnamon sugar and bake 15 – 20 minutes.  The sides will be a little soft and the bottoms light brown.  Do not overbake or the scones will dry out.  Let cool 10 minutes before removing from sheet with a flat spatula, then cool on a wire rack.  Serve warm if possible.

Scones travel and keep well for a few days, but they’re always best the day they’re baked.  If you can’t use all of these at once, freeze some formed, unbaked scones on a baking sheet, then wrap them in plastic and foil and store in the freezer until needed.  To bake frozen scones, do not thaw, but bake a little longer, maybe 20-25 minutes.

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Filed under Breakfast, Recipe, Sweets

Butterscotch Accomplished

Butterscotch pudding is elusive.  Not the pudding itself, of course, but the right creamy caramelized flavor.  I’ve made plenty of butterscotch pudding, using recipes from pretty much any cookbook or clipping I can get my hands on.  It’s always sweet and smooth, but the flavor isn’t as bold and round as I want it to be; it’s somehow just not brown enough.  I think the platonic ideal butterscotch pudding would have all the brown-sugar-and-butter taste of a good toffee, but with a silky pudding texture.  Certainly there have been rousing successes in the pudding field, but usually with the help of cream and eggs.  Was it possible to make a dreamy dessert ever-so-slightly lighter?  I knew it could be done, and I was the one to do it.  Armed with a cup of coffee, I set out this morning to conquer butterscotch pudding.

Keeping in mind the toffee ideal, I thought I should just make caramel and thin it out with milk, then thicken it with cornstarch.  So I did that – I first made caramel, then melted in brown sugar and butter, whisked in milk, thickened it all with cornstarch – and the flavor was pretty good, but still not brown enough.  I stood at the stove sipping my coffee and wondering what would make this pudding perfect.  Maybe I should have used more brown sugar?  It was too late to add more sugar now, but what if I added some molasses?  I did, and it helped, but the pudding still didn’t have the warm, rich, roasty aroma I’d imagined.  I looked down at the mug of coffee in my hand – could that be the answer?  Wait, not a cup of coffee, but a bit of instant espresso powder!  I stirred in one teaspoon, then another, and there it was: the rich dark flavor and silky texture I’d imagined.  Not exactly a traditional butterscotch pudding, but exactly what I wanted.  I consider it a win.  For game two, I’m saving half of this batch to run through the ice cream machine.

Butterscotch Pudding

  • 1c sugar
  • 1c dark brown sugar
  • 2 oz unsalted butter
  • 4c milk
  • 3 Tbs cornstarch dissolved in 1/4c water
  • 1 tsp sea salt
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 Tbs molasses
  • 2 tsp instant espresso powder ( I used Megdalia d’Oro)

In a large saucepan, melt the white sugar over medium heat, shaking occasionally to bring the still-granulated sugar towards the edges.  You can also stir gently with a silicon spatula.  When the sugar is melted, it will caramelize quickly, so watch for the dark amber color and immediately turn the heat to low and stir in the brown sugar and butter.  The caramel will sputter and foam, but calm down with a little stirring.  Then on low heat, slowly whisk in the milk.  Pour about a tablespoon of milk at a time and whisk thoroughly before adding the next.  If the milk curdles, that’s fine.  Just remove the pot from the heat, place it on a hot pad, pour in all the milk at once, and pulse with a hand blender.  The pudding will come right back together.  (I did this, and since I had the blender out, I used it to mix in the cornstarch, too.  Otherwise, I would have whisked it in while the custard was on the stove.)

Over medium heat whisk the pudding continuously just until it bubbles and thickens.  Your whisk should leave a trail when you lift it out of the pudding, and if you dip a spoon in and run your finger across the back, the pudding will not run into the little clean trail.  Remove from heat and whisk in the salt, vanilla, molasses, and instant espresso.  Pour into serving cups and refrigerate 2 hours, or as long as you can stand to wait.

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Save our Snack!

Trader Joe’s Traditional Thai Lime and Chili Peanuts: where are they now?  Not in stock!

Everyone’s favorite snack nut has gone missing. I’ve been enamored of these nuts well before Trader Joe’s came to New York. I even bookmarked this Times article describing their production and conception for a little light bedtime reading. A few weeks ago I tried to replenish my chili-lime peanut stock, and not only were there none in the store, their little shelf tag was gone, too.  So I asked one of the floral-shirted crew members about it, and she said that they had been discontinued because of lack of availability. That’s all she knew, and I left the store a little confused. Is there a peanut shortage? A problem getting lime leaves? I went to Trader Joe’s colorful but uninformative website and filled out a contact form. Here’s what I wrote:

I went to TJ’s in Manhattan last week and was told that the thai chili lime peanuts were discontinued because of ingredient availability. What does that mean, exactly? Are the nuts in short supply? Is there a problem with the importation of spices? I’m curious because I think most food brands would look to a substitute product to keep the masses snacking. Is that what the chili lime cashews are about? (They’re not as good – the powdery coating doesn’t have as much chili or lemongrass flavor, and the cashews are too buttery and mild to hold up even the lower level of spice.) I appreciate TJ’s innovative products, and these chili lime peanuts were my favorite. Most of all I need to know, are they ever coming back?

I’m going to give them a week to get back to me before I start hunting down TJ executives’ phone numbers and turn wistful longing into investigative reporting. In the meantime, I’m working on a recipe for homemade lime and chili peanuts.

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Asparagus, Ramps and Bacon Mini-Frittatas

frittata for dinner

The city is quiet and grey with rain today. As much as I miss the sun we had last week, I’m also excited to put on rubber boots and take a walk through the first good spring rain. After my walk, I’ll slog into the kitchen tired and happy, ready for a simple dinner made with some of the first good spring produce. These warm and fluffy mini-frittatas need only 5 minutes of actual work, which is that much nicer for being done next to a preheating oven.

A frittata is an Italian baked omelet, and it’s very much like a crustless quiche. It can be filled with any variety of vegetable, meat, and cheese, and baked in a pie plate, cake pan, or cast iron skillet. Muffin cups frittatas have the advantage of baking quicker than their big brothers. This version uses fresh green vegetables to keep the taste light and seasonal, and bacon and smoked paprika for depth and warmth.

If nothing else, these little frittatas are a good excuse to use the oven on a rainy spring day. Serve with a green salad and a good book.

Asparagus, Ramps, and Bacon Mini-Frittatas

  • 6 spears asparagus
  • 2 slices bacon (I used Niman Ranch dry-cured bacon)
  • 6 ramps
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • Salt
  • 1/4 tsp smoked paprika, also called pimentón de la vera (I used the agridulce, or bittersweet, variety)

First, preheat the oven to 350. If your bacon is raw, place it on a foil-lined baking sheet and bake until crisp, about 20 minutes. If your bacon is left over from Sunday brunch like mine, re-crisp it for about 5 minutes. Let bacon cool, then chop into 1/4-inch bits. (If you’re short on time, you can cook the bacon at the same time as the asparagus, on the same baking sheet if you don’t mind bacon-flavored asparagus. Just keep an eye on your bacon so it doesn’t burn, and flip it over after 10 minutes. It will need less cooking time at this temperature.)

To prepare the asparagus: Turn the oven up to 425. Using a vegetable peeler, remove the skin from the bottom 4 inches of each stalk, starting just above where the skin turns purple. You’ll need to pull the strands of skin off your peeler a few times. This gets rid of the stringy skin that interferes with asparagus enjoyment. Once peeled, you can see the woody white parts at the bottom. Snap these off. You can also remove the still-green ends of other stalks if they look tough. Asparagus bottoms break easily at the joint between the edible and inedible parts, so there’s no guesswork. Place the asparagus on an unlined baking sheet and toss with salt and pepper and 1tbs olive oil. Roast 20 minutes, remove and turn the oven down to 325. (I roasted a bundle of asparagus and reserved what I didn’t need for this recipe.) Cut the asparagus into 1-inch pieces.

Trim the roots from the ramps, rinse under cold water, and slip off the slimy skin covering the stems and bulbs. Mince the stems and bulbs, and make a chiffonade of the leaves (stack all the leaves together, and slice into 1/8-inch ribbons).

Make the custard: Whisk the eggs in a large liquid measuring cup (or a bowl) until foamy and uniform – don’t leave any yolk streaks or blobs of white. Slowly pour in the milk while whisking.

Assemble the frittatas: Lightly oil 6 1/4-cup muffin cups. Divide the asparagus, ramps, and bacon evenly amongst cups, and sprinkle each with a tiny bit of smoked paprika and a few grains of salt. Pour the custard into the cups, leaving 1/4-inch space at the top (a measuring cup with a spout makes this easier).

Bake at 325 about 15 minutes, until set. I recommend using an oven thermometer to determine the temperature. My oven, the loveable trickster, always gets 50° hotter than it says it is, and the left side is even hotter than the right. If they’re cooked too long, the frittatas will be rubbery, but you can prevent that even with the most tempermental oven simply by checking them every 5 minutes and turning if, say, the frittatas in the back are cooking faster than the ones in the front. Let cool 5 minutes, then run a dull knife around the edge of each frittata and turn them out of their cups onto a cutting board. Serves 2 as a main dish. Leftovers make a great breakfast, either on their own or as the filling in an english muffin sandwich. Frittatas can be rewarmed by heating 3 minutes per side in a nonstick skillet on the stove or in a toaster oven. Microwaves will make them rubbery, but if you’re hungry enough, you might not mind.

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Filed under Main Dish, Meat & Fish, Recipe, Vegetables

Greek Rose Ice Cream

Greek rose ice cream

I love the taste of flowers. Sometimes people balk at the idea of a spicy nasturtium salad, or a violet crème brulée, but the way I see it, flowers are just another part of a plant. There’s nothing inherently scary about an apple (once a blossom) or broccoli (a cluster of unopened buds), and we often find floral notes in an almond or a glass of chardonnay. Vanilla, the world’s most popular flavor, is the pod of an orchid. And let’s not forget honey. One pound is bee-brewed from 2.6 million flowers’ nectar.

This rose ice cream is a variation on one of my favorites, rose-hibiscus ice cream. I didn’t have any hibiscus on hand, but I did have a lovely jar of Greek rose petal jam. Last summer I bought it on a trip to Brighton Beach and it’s been holding court in my Astoria kitchen ever since. (The irony of buying a Greek treat in a Russian neighborhood and bringing it back to the capital of Greek-America is not lost.)

spoon test

The jam itself is very mild, with little preserved petals suspended throughout. The flavor and texture are very much like honey, which I suppose comes from cooking the roses. The petals have been cooked to transparency, and rather than being mushy as I expected, have a pleasant bite like the bits of peel in marmalade.

Keeping the sweetness of the jam in mind, I made my ice cream a little lighter than usual, and sweetened it with vanilla sugar and rose water. I used non-homogenized organic milk, which has a full grassy taste that couples well with rose. The rose petal jam brings a surprising depth to the dish, picking up the blossom scent and ending with rich honey. Rosy as this dessert is, no flower-fearing palate can fault it. The rose water ice cream is very subtle, and the petals in the jam cling to each spoonful. Lovely.

Thanks to Kalyn for starting Weekend Herb Blogging, and Margot of Coffee and Vanilla for hosting it this week. Ladies, I’m sending you some roses.

jam drops

Greek Rose Ice Cream

makes 1 quart

  • 1/2 c vanilla sugar (Plain sugar would be fine, too.)
  • 3 c organic whole milk
  • 1 1/2 tsp rose water (The flavor and strength varies by brand, so try a few to find your favorite. I used Chtoura Garden, a Lebanese brand, and found it has a more perfume-y taste than others I’ve picked up in little Middle Eastern and Greek shops in Astoria. It’s not my favorite, but it’s fine.)

Whisk the sugar into the milk until dissolved, then whisk in rose water. Pour into your ice cream maker and freeze according to manufacturer’s instructions (I have always wanted to type those words).

Store the completed soft ice cream in a plastic container in the freezer at least an hour before scooping. If it’s too hard when you try to scoop it, let it sit on the counter for five or so minutes. Serve in your prettiest cup with a swirl of rose petal jam.

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Ramps

ramps

It’s a little odd for me to pay for something that in childhood I used to pull out of my mother’s garden and lay on the sidewalk to dry. Ramps were not welcome in the house because of their sharp, swampy odor, though I thought their pink stems and silky green leaves pretty enough to wrap around dolls. My mother hated the smell of ramps even more than the star-topped stalks of field garlic, another pretty weed I like to pick. I remember a knowledgeable neighbor telling me that they were edible, but with the implication they were not a delicacy but a last resort. Like, if you were lost in the woods and starving you might consider eating ramps, but not before then.

Fortunately, ramps are as fashionable in the food world now as they were on my dolls back then. That means they’re sold at greenmarkets so that city folk everywhere can delight in the bittersweet wild leek experience.

I picked up my first bunch of the season today in Union Square, and they’re waiting for me to decide how to cook them. The decision feels momentous since ramp season is so short. I want to make sure they’re the star of the dish, not overwhelmed by too many fussy ingredients, but I also want that dish to be fairly special.

Sautéed with some olive oil and spring mushrooms? Ramp ravioli? Potato-ramp soup? Ramp-fried rice? Ramp pesto? Ramp omelet? Slivered over a salad?

Maybe I’ll have to forage for some in Central Park so I can make every ramp-filled recipe my heart desires. I just won’t bring any home to mom.

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Practice for Breakfast

sun on egg

I think of daily utility cooking — making food because I need to eat — as practice. Not that I’m consciously testing a recipe idea, nor am I trying to make my food good enough to serve to other people. I’m cooking to keep limber, to maintain my familiarity with food, my kitchen, my hands. Familiarity leads to facility, so once I’m comfortable with a technique or ingredient, I can see more of its possibilities and that makes me want to experiment.

green grits gritcakes, greens, and egg

Last week at the greenmarket, I bought some eggs, cheese, and arugula. Since then, I’ve been making variations on the same dish using my fresh produce and some grits from the pantry. I like seeing how each subtle change stretches the limits of the ingredients and my own limits as a cook. And more importantly, I like a good breakfast. After five or so mornings of experimentation (involving different cheeses, greens, herbs, and grits-cooking methods), I’ve worked out what I like best and the easiest way to make it. This grits and greens breakfast has evolved into something of a whole; a dish, though still flexible, with a point of view. The gritcakes have crisp edges and a creamy interior, and their heat melts the cheese and wilts the greens, the layers blending with each swipe of a fork. It’s the kind of breakfast that gives me energy for the rest of the day but doesn’t make me need a nap. It’s so easy and good that it encourages me to wake up the next morning and make it again, maybe with a few changes.

gritcakes and greens

Gritcakes and Greens

  • Grits, prepared, chilled, and sliced 1/2-inch thick, 2 or 3 slices per person. (I used 1/2c quick grits, cooked according to package directions. Once cooled a bit, but still fluid, I poured them into an ungreased rectangular container and refrigerated them overnight. As the grits cool, they pull away from the sides of the container, making it easy to turn the resulting brick out onto a cutting board with a light tap. This makes 8 slices.)
  • Two handfuls of greens, washed, torn, and in a bowl. (I used arugula, but any spicy salad green with a bit of body would work.)
  • About 1 oz cheese, thinly sliced, laid on top of the greens. (I like a nice sharp cheddar. How to determine an ounce of cheese? Imagine [but do not use] a pre-wrapped Kraft single. That’s an ounce.)
  • 1 egg, optional. (There’s a complex logarithm at work here. If I’m cooking 3 gritcakes, I might not want an egg. If I’m cooking 2 gritcakes, I might want an egg. If I’m particularly hungry, I’ll cook 3 gritcakes and an egg. If I think of it before, I’ll hard-boil an egg to slice and add to the mix. If not, I fry the egg once the gritcakes are out of the pan. If I want to coat the greens and gritcakes with yolk, I’ll cook the egg over-easy, or if I’m feeling squeamish, I’ll break the yolk and flip the egg. If I wanted to go on, I could.)
  • Salt and pepper, as always, to taste

grit slices arugula and cheddar flip eggs

Heat a small non-stick pan on high, preferably near an open window, but not if you have a bird. Add the grits slices, and cook on high until crisp and lightly brown, 4 minutes each side. Slide the hot gritcakes into the bowl of greens and cheese. Frying an egg? Put the pan back on the burner, over medium heat, crack the egg into the pan and cook to your liking. Or have a hard-boiled egg sliced and ready to go. Slide the egg onto the gritcakes and season with salt and pepper.

That’s breakfast. Also works for lunch.

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