Friday, April 28, 2006

Baking Is Hazardous To Your Muffins

Last night, I made muffins for the first time in a very long time. I don't do much baking, really, but the other night I was flipping through one of my cookbooks featuring recipes for muffins, cakes, quickbreads, etc. and I found a recipe for Coffee Cake Muffins that looked pretty easy. Best of all, I already had most of the ingredients on hand. On the way home from work yesterday I picked up some milk (the only thing I was missing), and I was away to the races. Sort of.
The first batch I made did not exactly come out as planned. There are no pictures, as it was just too horrible. I put the muffin pan into the oven picturing fluffy, golden coffee cake, but what I got was cinnamon-flavoured charcoal. Harrumph.

So. I decided to modify my approach somewhat. The directions say to bake the muffins for between 20 and 25 minutes. Just a tip - 25 minutes is TOO LONG. For my oven, anyway. Plus, the batter seemed really gloopy and sticky. I had a hard time getting the stuff from the supposedly non-stick silicon spatula into the muffin cups. In addition to that, the directions say to 'lightly grease' the muffin pan. Well, OK, I admit it, I have a crappy muffin pan. But, I faithfully 'lightly' greased the cups, and then needed a cold chisel to get the little suckers out.

My second attempt was this morning. Armed with the knowledge gained from the miserable failure of the previous evening, I set out to make some edible muffin-like cakey things. Now, they weren't what I would call perfect, but as I generally prefer NON-crunchy coffee cake, I declared them a success.

First of all, I smeared those muffin cups with a generous amount of butter. Not an outlandish amount, but they knew they'd been smeared. Then, I decided to add a bit more milk than the recipe calls for in an effort to make the batter a little less gloopy and thus easier to work with. This did work, but the muffins didn't end up rising quite as much as the first batch. I'm still tinkering with the formula. This will require additional experimentation, but I'm sure my co-workers (on whom I've been recently foisting my baked goods) will not mind.

The additional lubrication on the muffin cups worked a charm. And, I suppose, only baking the muffins for exactly 20 minutes helped as well. They came out golden instead of black, and were easily extracted from the pan. Now I just have to get them to rise a bit more.

Oh yeah, you guys probably want to know the recipe, don't you? OK, OK, keep it down, here it is.

Coffee Cake Muffins
from Company's Coming - Muffins & More by Jean Paré
Makes 12 Muffins

Muffin Batter
1½ C All-purpose Flour
2 tsp Baking Powder
½ tsp Salt
¼ C Butter, softened
½ C Granulated Sugar
1 egg
¾ C Milk (2nd attempt I used 1 C milk)
½ tsp Vanilla

Preheat oven to 400ºF. (200ºC)

Combine flour, baking powder and salt in a large bowl. Stir. Make a well in the center. In another bowl combine butter, sugar and egg. Beat well. Mix in milk and vanilla. Pour into the well in the flour mixture, and stir just to moisten. Spoon part of batter into lightly (heh) greased muffin cups 1/3 full. Sprinkle Spice Mix over top. Spoon rest of batter over top filling to 2/3 full. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes.

Spice Mix
½ C Brown Sugar, packed
2 tbsp All-Purpose Flour
1 tsp Cinnamon

In small bowl combine all ingredients. Stir well. Sprinkle over batter as directed above.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Food From The Ether Part 1: Orange You Glad I Didn't Say Banana?

I recently participated in a weekly blog event hosted by Anne of Cooking With Anne called "Ready, Set, Cook!" Every Tuesday morning Anne provides a list of three special ingredients, and the idea is to create a recipe off the top of your head using those three ingredients. You can use anything else you want, but you must use those three ingredients.
The three ingredients for last week's event were: farfalle (bowtie pasta), chicken and mandarin oranges. Now, it's not a requirement of this event that you actually cook your creation. However, the recipe I came up with sounded pretty tasty, so I thought that I would attempt it.

When it came to actually preparing the recipe I did end up changing a few things because reality, unfortunately, does tend to intrude into the creative process. My original recipe can be found here, with the other submissions. The recipe I prepared last night is below.

Chicken Farfalle with Spicy Orange Sauce
Yield: 2 entrees, 4 appetizers, or 1 Big Honkin' Bowl

½ lb. boneless chicken breast, cut into chunks
1 can (10 oz) mandarin orange segments, with juice
1 C white wine
pinch of paprika
1 tsp crushed chili pepper flakes
salt & pepper to taste
2 tbsp + 2 tbsp butter

2 tbsp flour
¼ C slivered almonds
small handful of sesame seeds
2 C farfalle (bowtie pasta)

Brown chicken in butter, remove from pan and set aside.
Add some more butter to the pan, and mix in the flour. Add the can of orange segments, the wine, the paprika and the chili flakes and mix to combine. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium low.
Meanwhile, put a large pot of salted water on to boil for the pasta.
Place the chicken back into the pan and simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the sauce reduces by about 25%, about 10-15 minutes.
When the water boils, cook the pasta until just al dente. Place the pasta on a plate or bowl and add the chicken and sauce. Sprinkle with the almonds and the sesame seeds, and toss to combine. Serve immediately.

I really didn't know what to expect with this dish, but it turned out really well and tasted amazing. The wine and the oranges worked really well together and produced a nice light-tasting sauce combined with a spicy hit from the chili flakes and paprika. The almonds and sesame seeds added some more flavour and provided a bit of crunch.

All in all, I was very happy with this and will be adding this to my regular repertoire of dinners.

Monday, April 17, 2006

The Voices In My Head Win Again

Harry: Repeat after me. Pepper.
Sally: Pepper.
Harry: Pepper.
Sally: Pepper.
Harry: Waiter, there is too much pepper on my paprikash.
Sally: Waiter, there is too much pepper on my paprikash.
Harry: But I would be proud to partake of your pecan pie.

I've had this snippet of dialogue from "When Harry Met Sally" rolling around in my head for about a week now (pee-can pieeeee), and it has reminded me how much I like chicken paprikash. (How's that for a segue?) I tried paprikash for the first time about nine years ago at a Hungarian restaurant here in Toronto, and it has remained one of my favourite comfort foods. Don't ask me which restaurant it was, I can't remember. This was during my "Find-a-new-restaurant-featuring-foreign-cuisine-I've-never-tried-before" phase. Hmmm. I guess I could have called it my "Exotic Foreign Cuisine" phase, but that would have been too easy. Come to think of it, I'm still in this phase.

But I digress. In addition to making the paprikash, I had been wanting to try to make gnocchi. Gnocchi tastes best with sauce I'm told, and paprikash goes well with noodles or dumplings, so I thought that the two things would work well together.

I downloaded a recipe for chicken paprikash from Find the recipe here. The recipe I used for the gnocchi is adapted from a recipe scrounged from Rob & Rachel at Hungry In Hogtown. I say adapted, because instead of the russet potatoes called for in their recipe, I used sweet potatoes. Have I mentioned that I really like sweet potatoes? But, aside from scaling back the quantities a bit, that was the only substitution I made.

The paprikash itself went pretty much according to plan. The recipe requires that the chicken be browned in quite a lot of butter (¼ C) . Now, I like butter, but I thought that ¼ C was a bit excessive. So, I cut back a bit and only used about 2 tbsp to cook the chicken, and added a bit more for the onions. While the chicken was simmering, I started on the gnocchi. I had already cooked the sweet potatoes, and pureed them in the food processor. Rob and Rachel mention in their post that they prefer to bake the potatoes rather than boil them, as this reduces the amount of moisture in the potatoes. I decided to boil them anyway, but after I drained them I returned them to the empty pot on the stove over reduced heat to attempt to cook out some of the excess moisture before putting them in the discombobulator. Never having actually tasted gnocchi before, I really don't know whether this made any difference.

After the potatoes were ready, I added the nutmeg, flour and egg and mixed up the dough. I'm not sure how much flour I ended up using, but the dough didn't stick to the sides of the bowl, and after kneading it a bit, it became nice and pliable and easy to work with. I split the dough up into about four pieces, and started to roll out each piece between my hands. Despite having the directions in front of me, I was unsure as to how big to make each nugget o' gnocchi, so I settled on the size of my thumb. Upon talking to some people at work this morning, I found out that I should probably have made them about half that size, but oh well, live and learn.

At this point the water for the gnocchi was boiling, so I dropped in a bunch of the little suckers, swished them around with a big spoon to make sure that they weren't sticking to the bottom of the pot, and shifted my attention to the paprikash.

It had been simmering for about twenty minutes, so that meant only one thing - time to add the flour/water mixture to thicken the sauce, and the sour cream to give it some body. Having done that, I mixed everything around a bit, then covered the pan and removed it from the heat. I had read over several recipes for paprikash before settling on this one, and although this particular recipe didn't specify, I removed the pan from the heat at this point because one of the other recipes had said that if the sour cream is allowed to boil, then it will curdle in the pan. Eeeeuwww. So, off the heat it came. The gnocchi was also finished cooking at this point, so I drained them, put some on the plate and poured the lovely paprikash over the top.

The whole thing turned out very well, and it was certainly tasty, but the jury is still out as to whether or not I actually like gnocchi well enough to make them again. I don't know whether it's because I made them wrong, or whether I simply prefer mashed potatoes, but the meal seemed awfully heavy. I think my next assignment is to find an Italian restaurant and try some real gnocchi. Life is rough.

I'm also planning to make some pee-can pieeee. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Weekend Cookbook Challenge #4: Easter Brunch

This recipe was a colossal pain to make, but as with most recipes like this, the result was worth the effort.

This is Chilled Seafood Lasagna with Herbed Cheese. I found it in a cookbook I've had for a very long time, yet this is the first recipe from it that I have attempted. The cookbook is The Treasury of Creative Cooking, and it features recipes that have won various invitational cooking competitions around the United States. This recipe, apparently, was a prize winner in the "Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board Supermarket Chef Showcase". Whew. Say THAT five times fast.

I've been meaning to submit something to the The Weekend Cookbook Challenge for a while, and this is the culmination of my effort. When I first found this recipe, there was no doubt in my mind that I was going to attempt it, I just needed an excuse because, well, smoked salmon and caviar are not items I normally stock in my kitchen.

First of all, here's the recipe.

Chilled Seafood Lasagna with Herbed Cheese
Makes 24 First Course or 8 Entrée servings

2 C ricotta cheese
1½ C mascarpone cheese
2 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp fresh basil, minced
1 tbsp fresh dill, minced
1 tbsp fresh tarragon, minced
¼ tbsp white pepper
8 lasagna noodles (2 inches wide), cooked and drained
1 lb. smoked salmon
¼ lb. whitefish caviar, gently rinsed

1) Place ricotta cheese, mascarpone cheese, lemon juice, herbs and pepper in a food processor, and process until well combined.
2) Line terrine mold with plastic wrap, allowing wrap to come over the sides.
3) Layer 1 noodle, ½ C of cheese mix, 2 oz. of lox, 2 rounded tsp of caviar, and repeat, ending with a noodle on top.
4) Refrigerate several hours until firm.
5) Carefully remove from mold, and remove plastic wrap.
6) Slice with warm knife.
7) Garnish with strips of lox rolled to look like roses.

Okay, back to my original comment. This was a pain simply because I don't currently own a terrine mold, so I had to freehand the Leaning Tower Of Pasta, as I came to call it.

My first obstacle, however, was cooking the lasagna noodles without breaking them.None of my large pots were quite large enough to handle the noodles, so I used a roasting pan on top of the stove burner. That actually worked pretty well. I then drained them and put them aside.

Next came the cheese mixture. This was pretty staightforward, I just dumped the cheeses and the herbs into the trusty food processor, and blended. Just a side note here - I've haven't had much experience working with fresh herbs before, and it was just incredible to me how much of a difference in aroma there was between the fresh basil and the dried basil I normally use. Also, I really liked the pungent liqourice-like smell from the tarragon.

Now came the tricky part. The assembly. Everything started out well; I had all the respective parts measured out and prepared. How could everything have gone south so quickly?
I started out by placing a piece of aluminum foil down, and on top of that, a piece of plastic wrap. The trick was to remember not to place anything like spoons or spatulas on the plastic wrap while the assembly was in progress, as they would stick, and thus disturb the increasingly precarious Leaning Tower when I picked them up again. And so it began. The first layer went OK, but it was when I placed the second noodle that I realized what the challenge was going to be.You see, the cheese was holding the lower noodle in place, but all that was touching the upper noodle was smoked salmon and the spoonful of caviar. Not exactly a sturdy arrangement. Of course with a terrine this would be a moot issue, but as the layers increased, I kept having to adjust the stack to keep it from falling over.

Another side note - my local Grocery Palace actually stocks caviar. I was thinking I would have to make a pilgrimage to the St. Lawrence Market to find some, but happily, they stocked both red and black lumpfish caviar. I chose the red stuff. The recipe calls for whitefish caviar, but since that's what they had at the store, that's what I used. Besides, I thought it would go well with the orange of the smoked salmon and the white of the cheese.

When I finally placed the final noodle on the top, I breathed a sigh of relief. But then it struck me. The piece of plastic wrap that the lasagna was sitting on was now not wide enough to wrap around it completely. I panicked for a second, then realized I could just add another piece.I then wrapped the aluminum foil around the package, and gingerly transported it to the fridge on a piece of cardboard cut to fit the lasagna. Then I had a scotch. Wow. Through this whole ordeal, the thought that was running through my mind was, "This had better taste good."

I left it to chill overnight in the fridge. In the morning I took it out, carefully removed the wrapping, heated my chef knife under some hot running water and cut a slice. Very very tasty.In addition, I had some of the smoked salmon and some of the cheese mixture left over, so I made some toast, and had a quite enjoyable breakfast, all things considered.

The next time I make this, and I likely will, I'm not doing it without a terrine mold. That's all there is to it. And despite my bitching and moaning, this was fun to make, and I'm really happy with how it turned out.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Say The Magic Word, And I'll Show You My Noodle

I've always liked the soup made from those bricks of dried noodles that are sold for three or four for a dollar. I think part of it is the cool little 'flavour' packets that are included. It almost seems like a magic trick. You start with cooked noodles in hot water, then sprinkle the magic flavour dust over the top, stir, and voila! - you have soup. Now, I've never really been able to tell the difference between the different flavours, except by the different colours of powder - 'chicken' is yellow, 'beef' is brown, 'oriental' is reddish, etc. etc. Whatever, it's all good. Recently, I have been reacquainting myself with the joys of 'noodle magic', and have been using them as the base for some pretty tasty experiments.

Since I had just made a trip to the Grocery Palace, my fridge was loaded with some fresh veggies so I was good to go. I started out with three packages of the dry noodles, and I decided to go with the classic 'pork, pork, chicken' configuration for the basic flavourings. I put about 6 cups of water on to boil, dumped the flavour packets into a large bowl, then added some fresh ground pepper, some garlic powder, and some crushed chili flakes. I then sliced up some mushrooms, grabbed a handful of bean sprouts, and tossed them both into the bowl with the flavourings and lightly tossed them so that they were nicely coated in the good stuff. When the noodles were ready, I just dumped them into the bowl with the seasoned veggies, stirred, and Voila! - soup. I added some more bean sprouts on top, sprinkled some oregano over everything and let it sit for a few minutes to let the flavours combine, and also to let it cool a bit. There's nothing worse than slurping up some hot soup noodles, and getting the whiplash effect that leaves a burning line up the centre of your face. owie.

Other variations on this theme have involved adding an egg or two into the boiling water with the cooking noodles, and getting kind of an egg-drop soup effect. Also, I tried adding a packet of instant onion soup mix into the boiling water with the noodles. That worked well, and certainly worked better than just dumping the onion soup mix in after the noodles were coooked. Let's just say that the taste was a little intense.

I realize that this is not exactly revolutionary cuisine, but it was fun to make and it tasted good. That's pretty much all I aim for when being creative in the kitchen.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Around The World In A Meme

When I was tagged for this meme last week by Stephanie of The Feast Crusade, I knew I had my work cut out for me.
For while I've been doing this blog thing for a couple of months now, I haven't really taken the time to explore a whole lot of other food blogs. Oh sure, I have my two or three favourites that I check regularly, but beyond that I really haven't checked out many sites.

"So," I thought, "time to go exploring."

I dusted off the trusty pith helmet and set off into the wilds of Foodbloggia. A week of exploring has netted me the following culinary jewels. Off we go.

1-Please list three recipes you have recently bookmarked from food blogs to try
Scrounged Recipe #1
Once again, I found an excellent recipe at Hungry In Hogtown. Seems my friend Rob took a break from from his seemingly endless string of El Bulli molecular gastronomy masterpieces to make this really REALLY tasty looking Vanilla Loaf.

Scrounged Recipe #2
While casting about for some new food blogs to peruse, I found a truly amazing (and simple) dessert at Station Gourmande. The author simply calls the dessert "Banane Surprise". This is an enjoyable site, but a little challenging as it is written completely in French. Here is a transcription of the dessert in English. I'm fairly sure I got this right, but if not, it's still close enough for rock 'n roll.

Banane Surprise
Dark Chocolate
Shredded Fillo Dough (Kataïfi)
Cooking Oil

Slice the banana in half lengthwise, then cut it in four or five pieces.
Place a piece of chocolate between each banana segment.
Loosely wrap each segment with some of the Kataïfi. This looks sort of like fresh angel-hair pasta, but being fillo, is much more fragile.
Heat some oil in a very hot skillet. Place a few of the bundles into the skillet, and brown on both sides.
Remove from skillet onto some absorbent paper towels, then serve immediately.

Ohhhh yeah!!!

Scrounged Recipe #3
Sausages and Sparrows. No, not those kind of sparrows. In this case, that means spätzle. Yeah, baby. I found this recipe at a neat site called A Chicken In Every Granny Cart. Ever a fan of German and Austrian cuisine, I'm definitely trying this one.

2-A food blog in your vicinity
Recently, my friend Sue told me about a site authored by a friend of hers located here in Toronto called Once Upon A Feast. So I checked it out, and was impressed by the variety of recipes, and the posts about her love of kitchen toys and gadgets.

3-A food blog located far from you
When I search the FoodPornWatch site, I look for blog names that catch my eye, and one of those was MonkeyBites, which is located in Seattle, Washington. The subtitle of the blog is "Don't throw poop, eat pâté....a food blog". I was hooked right there. The blog is a good read, and includes interesting recipes, including one post featuring several recipes using dried Hibiscus Flowers.

4-A food blog (or several) you have discovered recently (where did you find it?)
Aside from the blogs mentioned above in the recipe section, I have been bloggening my horizons, so to speak, by scanning the FoodPornWatch website. For those of you unfamiliar with this site, it is a list of registered food blogs that have recently submitted a post. I figured that since I took the trouble to register my site here, I should avail myself of the service as well. Here is what I found:

Stirway To Heaven. This site features some pretty remarkable-looking desserts. Although this site is from The Netherlands, and the author primarily writes in Dutch, an English translation of the recipes is supplied. Nice.

Naughty Curry. The ladies at this site take everyday dishes and spice them up with primarily Indian flavours. Some very funky stuff here. The posts are written in a conversational style that is very engaging, and they totally draw you in to their world. This is a current favourite of mine.

5-Any people or bloggers you want to tag with this meme?
No, I think that about does it. If anyone I've tagged is bugged about it, I apologize, I just really dig your sites, and I want to share them with others.