Monday, December 15, 2008

Christmas Confessions of a Cookie-Baking Jew

For today's post, some thoughts on Christmas, and cookies (and coming soon: an original Red Ramekin Christmas cookie recipe!).


As one of the few non-Christian kids in my hometown, I always considered Christmas cookies to be the ultimate appeasement during the month of December, when my friends and classmates were all buzzing with anticipation for their favorite holiday.


I never really bought into the whole Santa Claus thing, and, although my incremental presents trickled in steadily during the hallowed week of Hannukah, I never got to experience the Christmas morning elation of waking up to a living room’s worth of new toys, games, and clothing. Although I never knew for sure, it seemed that Christmas was about as good as it could get. And what I did know firsthand was that Hannukah Night 4: The socks edition left something to be desired.


[espresso-chocolate and cranberry-pistachio shortbread]


Luckily for me, with vicarious Christmastime cheer also came the cookies. Lots of cookies, with lots of frosting, in lots of different varieties. Unlike caroling or spending time with family – seemingly both products of nostalgia rather than intrinsic gratification – cookies are a universally appreciated element of Christmas that touch everyone, Jewish kids included. Everyone loves a good royal-frosted sugar cookie, and the spiritual experience of eating gingerbread men, pecan sandies, and chocolate peppermint drops knows no religious bounds.


My primary cookie complaint was that I was never actually part of the December-time army of cookie-makers. While my friends were gorging themselves on dozens of fresh-from-the-oven odds and ends, my family was divvying up the small tin of treats that the occasional neighbor or two had left on our doorstep. But still – what joy resided in that little tin! The four of us, disenchanted by so many misdirected “Merry Christmases,” would spin the dreidel a few times for posterity’s sake, and then descend upon our edible, goyische gifts, each taking a bite here and there, ensuring that everyone had an opportunity to taste each sugary creation.


[pfeffernussen]


But making Christmas cookies need not be a Christians-only affair. From my outsider’s perspective, making and distributing cookies is one of the modern Christmas phenomena that I fully understand and appreciate. The act of baking has a magical way of joining friends and families, the act of giving builds character, and the art of personalizing recipes is a gift unto itself. All of this probably explains why I have come to adopt the tradition of making my own cookies during the holiday season. Over the years I have outgrown the December envy of my Christian friends, and have even been known to gloat in the relative stress-lessness of my post-Thanksgiving routine, but I’ll jump at any opportunity to make dozens of cookies. Baking has a way of putting me into some kind of good spirit, even if it’s not the explicitly “Christmas” kind.


One of the perks of being a dedicated Jewish Christmas cookie-baker is the freedom afforded by my lack of passed-down family cookie recipes. While most cookie connoisseurs have a few varieties that define their Christmas experience, I am unattached. I’ll admit that I find it difficult to resist the classic Christmas cookie, with hints of spice or lemon perfuming the dough and crackly shards of royal icing topping it all off, but the world of cookies is too vast for me to stick to the basics.



This has become both a good and a bad thing; come mid-December, I’ll often find myself absorbed in the annals of the vast online cookie-recipe repository, unthinkingly forming lists of to-makes that would make even the most church-going of housewives cringe. Worse still is when I set aside some dedicated cookie-baking time, and then spend most of it feeding my indecision, scouring hundreds of recipes in search of the one that is worthy of my Christmas cookie lineup.


My secret, of course, is that I actually enjoy spending my time this way, and Christmas provides the perfect excuse to do so. I love that I can bake maniacally for a solid weekend, no questions asked, even though I don’t care a wink about the other Christmas hubbub and, frankly, am under no obligation to make cookies or give gifts at all. It is for this, and this alone, that I find myself thanking Jesus.


So of course, I love giving away my Christmas cookies, but am also aware that for me, cookie-making is a slightly more self-serving process than it is for most. No matter though. Tonight I have plans to make another batch, whip up some frosting, and finally get around to buying some glassine bags with shiny ribbon. And so what if my “Christmas” cookies are more cookie than Christmas? They still taste good to me.


[the whole cookie tin]


Sunday, December 7, 2008

Turnip's Turn


I suppose I should start off with a little Thanksgiving recap even though it seems that everyone is so Christmas-crazy that they've forgotten that turkey day even happened. But I never gave it its due, and it is the biggest food holiday of the year, so...

I hardly ever take pictures of my food when I'm serving it to guests, and Thanksgiving is no exception. So no photos of the food we ate, although it was all tasty and blog-worthy. Here is the menu we prepared:
Turkey (my mom was in charge)
Whole-grain stuffing with roasted leeks and apples
Roasted turnip and shallot puree
Roasted buttercup squash
Curried chard with apples
Cabbage salad with toasted pecans
Herb-roasted potatoes
Wine-spiked cranberry sauce
Pumpkin-mascarpone pie (my sister made this one)
Poached quince and apple tart
Caramel cake (courtesy of the Daring Bakers)
Our dirty little secret was that this menu was only for five (5!) people. In fact, I also made a celery-root soup, but there was so much food on the table that nobody remembered to bring it in from the garage (which becomes our overflow fridge when the weather cooperates). So yes, there it is, a Thanksgiving menu in all its glory. The food was good, the company was better, and the leftovers were abundant and well-received.

But before we leave that all behind in favor of bourbon balls and potato latkes, I thought I'd at least share one recipe from Thanksgiving, even if it is the most dull-sounding one on the menu. Can you guess? Yep - it's the turnips. So unassuming, so unfortunately lumpy-looking, and so downright tasty.

I've never really had much to do with turnips in the past, but those huge Macomber turnips at Whole Foods looked intriguing, so I thought I'd lug them home with me. In the end it was just right - I roasted and ran them through the food processor, and they served as a sort of stand-in for the traditional mashed vegetable: potatoes.

We stopped doing mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving last year, when we realized that we just didn't need to serve a heavy, not all that interesting dish in the name of tradition. The thing about mashed potatoes is that they just don't taste good unless they are loaded with butter, cream, or something else decidedly un-potatoey.

So we started doing herb-roasted potatoes, which need only some herbs, salt, pepper, and olive oil, and nobody has complained yet. Still though, I wanted to try something with my turnips, and they seemed perfect for a puree. The result was a smooth and flavorful dish that is far more interesting than regular old potatoes. It's also much lighter, and would make a wonderful addition to any number of meals.

I repeated the process again for tonight's dinner, this time using a roasted head of garlic instead of the shallots I used a few weeks ago, and served it with some deliciously moist roasted chicken breasts (Jonathan's handiwork, I might add!). The turnip and roasted garlic combination is complex and slightly sweet; the turnips have a sassy bite to them, similar to radish or mild horseradish, and the roasty, subtle sweetness of the garlic was a lovely complement. Unfortunately, it's not the most photogenic of dishes, but it's a great and creative way to serve a vegetable that so often is forgotten.

A note about turnips, my new favorite forgotten vegetable: They can take a while to roast, but their browned edges and creamy flesh add lots of depth to the flavor of the puree. In my freakishly fast oven, it takes about half an hour for them to become tender, but in my parents' oven, I had to roast them for a little more than an hour. Make sure the roasted turnip flesh is very tender, not crunchy at all. As for the garlic: I love roasting whole heads of garlic, and the flavor of the garlic changes dramatically once roasted. I used a little less than the whole head for this puree, saving a few cloves worth of soft garlic to spread on some bread. Delicious. Other than that, this recipe (if I can call it that) is a breeze. Use a food processor for the best and smoothest results.

Turnip and Roasted Garlic Puree

1 very large or a few smaller Macomber (white) turnips, diced to 1/2 inch cubes
1-2 tbs. olive oil
salt and pepper, to taste
1 head garlic
a few tablespoons water or stock

Directions:

Roast turnips: Place diced turnip on a foil-line baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, stir to coat, and roast at 400 degrees until tender and beginning to brown, 30min. - 1hr., depending on your oven. Meanwhile, roast garlic: slice the top off of one head of garlic. Drizzle with oil and sprinkle with salt, then wrap completely in foil and place in the oven along with the turnips until cloves are soft and mushy. To make puree, place roasted turnips in the bowl of a food processor. Squeeze the head of garlic to extract the soft flesh, and add to the turnips. Puree until smooth, drizzling some stock or water into the whirling puree to achieve the proper consistency. Season to taste and serve, preferably underneath a perfectly roasted piece of chicken or turkey.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

November Daring Bakers: Would You Like Some Sugar With Your Sugar?




After dabbling with some savory stuff last month, the Daring Bakers returned to their sweet roots in November, the evidence of which is manifest in the hundreds of caramel cakes currently sweetening the blogosphere.

I'll admit I was pleased to be making something sweet; while I love all kinds of baking, the Daring Bakers is always a good excuse to make some outrageously rich and decadent treat. This month's challenge was Shuna Fish Lydon's recipe for caramel cake with a browned butter caramel frosting. Fittingly, the recipe is not from a book, but from a blog, and can be found here. Thanks to this month's hosts: Dolores, Alex, and Jenny for choosing the recipe!

So, the cake. Well I'll go right ahead and say it: no photos. OK, I have some photos, but they are unappetizingly terrible. As I'm sure many other Daring Bakers did, I served this cake for dessert on turkey day, and between the poor lighting, the sun setting at about 2pm, and the fact that I was more concerned with getting other things on the table than on taking a stellar picture, the resulting images really don't do the cake justice. It was tasty, but you'll have to take my word for it.

Caramel being the star player in this recipe, it goes without saying that this challenge was all about the sugar. Sweet cake, ridiculously sweet frosting, and to top it all off, a good soak of caramel syrup. Although the recipe only called for the cake and the frosting, I couldn't imagine serving it without something to balance out the sweetness, so I covered the whole thing with a thick layer of bittersweet ganache and laced it with a good dose of brandy. More specifically, I cut the cake into two layers, brushed each layer with brandy-caramel syrup, filled them with the frosting, frosted the outside with frosting, and glazed it all with ganache. Brushing cut cake layers with soaking syrup - be it caramel, liqueur, or both, is the best way I know of to make a deliciously moist and flavorful cake.

Everybody raved about the cake - Jonathan even declared it the Best Daring Bakers Cake Yet - but as far as challenges go, it wasn't my favorite. The caramel flavor of the cake comes from a homemade caramel syrup, which is also used to flavor the frosting. As with any caramel, the key is taking it off the heat at just the right time. Too early, and you end up with simple syrup, but too late, and you end up with acrid, burnt sugar.

I tried to take my caramel off the heat just as it was turning amber and beginning to smell a bit burnt. Still, it was hard to detect a true caramel flavor in the cake. The same goes for the frosting. Had I not added a splash of brandy, I think it would have been overwhelmingly sweet, even with the caramel and browned butter.

However, my main gripe wasn't the product (as I mentioned before, the cake really was delicious), but rather the recipe itself. The recipe was very vague at times, and could have benefited from more specific directions. There was no time suggested for cooking the caramel sugar, for example, and the directions for preparing the frosting were rather terse. Although I'm a blogger through and through, I have to admit that I've never seen a recipe that brief or ambiguous in a good cookbook. I love cooking and baking by the seat of my pants, but there were lots of unanswered questions that came up during the making of this cake.

That said, I could see myself making this cake again, particularly for a crowd. It's a classy, elegant cake that has simple enough flavors that everyone can enjoy it. For my next Daring Bakers challenge, though, I'm hoping for something a little more exciting than cake with frosting. Now that we've done this cake, the opera cake, and the gateau, I'm hoping I'm not the only one who thinks it might be time to take a break from buttercream and see what else is out there in the wide world of sweet, baked treats.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A Nibble Before the Feast

You would never know by the frequency with which I've been blogging that I have been cooking up a storm. Really, I have been. I've been doing a few test runs for turkey day, I've been brushing up on my bread-baking skills, and I've been doing a fair bit of entertaining-worthy cooking and baking, too. But I've been neglecting my dear little Red Ramekin, and I feel very badly about it.

So, in an effort to appease, I have a shockingly easy and tasty treat for you all. No, it's not a gasp-inducing Thanksgiving stunner, but rather a tasty little bite to complement imminent face-stuffing.

Make them as pre- or post-dinner snacks for the big day, or tuck this recipe away for the next time you have a dinner party or are otherwise in the market for something sexy to go with your brie. These cookie-like crackers toe the line between sweet and savory, and have an intriguing combination of flavors that make them right for just about any occasion.

I modelled these crackers after similar ones that I purchased at Whole Foods several months ago. They are advertised as red wine biscuits that go perfectly with cheese, but I had to show some restraint in order not to gobble them all up solo. They had an assertive winey flavor with the subtle, back-of-the-throat heat that only black pepper can induce.

So why bother attempting them at home? Well, a petite little bag of the crackers set me back about six dollars. They were good, but they weren't stuffed with truffles or anything. I had been meaning to replicate them for a while, but finally got around to it a few weeks ago, and served them, along with some other treats, for dessert.

I make these crackers like refrigerator cookies: roll the dough into a log, chill, slice, and bake. It's a wildly convenient method that allows me to bake a few now and a few later, and the dough logs also freeze pretty well. The dough itself is rich with zesty red wine, olive oil, and plenty of freshly-ground black pepper, and I throw in just a pinch of grated lemon zest for a little extra zip.

The first time I made these, I added about 1/4 c. of sugar, and they were pleasantly sweet and perfect to end a meal. The second time, I reduced the sugar to just a tablespoon, and they seemed better suited for pre-dinner snacking. Next time I make them, I might add two tablespoons of sugar, just to even things out. Sweeten according to your tastes, but do include at least one tablespoon of sugar, as the wine and pepper need just a hint of sweetness to really come out boldly here.

I really love the idea of these crackers, and will now use just about any excuse to make them. The only bad thing about them is their photographing potential: these aren't particularly pretty cookies, and although the colors of red wine, lemon zest, and olive oil really pop in their pure forms, mix them all together and a sort of brownish thing results. No matter, they taste too good for anyone to gripe about their appearance. Just cover them up with some good goat cheese or brie, and nobody will be the wiser.


Red (Wine) and Black (Pepper) Biscuits

1 3/4 c. whole wheat pastry flour
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp. baking soda
2 tbs. sugar
1/4 tsp. finely grated lemon zest
1/4 c. olive oil
1/2 c. red wine

Directions:

Mix flour, salt, pepper, sugar, baking soda, and lemon zest in a medium mixing bowl. Add oil and red wine, and stir to incorporate, kneading with your fingers a bit if necessary. Form dough into two logs, each with a diameter of about an inch or so. Wrap logs in plastic wrap and chill in the freezer for at least 30min., or freeze for later. Once chilled, unwrap the logs and slice into 1/4 in. thick slices. Place on a parchment- or foiled-lined baking sheet, and bake at 350 degrees until just barely beginning to turn golden around the edges, about 20min. Serve plain or with a soft cheese.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A Bit of Sunshine

It's officially been two weeks since we turned back the clocks for daylight savings time, and I'm still not used to looking up from my desk at 4:00pm to see that the sun has already begun its descent into nighttime. Although I'm glad that my walk to work in the morning is no longer something that occurs in the dark, I can't shake the feeling that I'm sitting down to dinner at 10pm, even though it's only 8 o'clock.

And since the coldness of winter hasn't quite set in yet (yet being the operative word here), I think I'll kick off my winter complaining with some darkness gripes. How, exactly, are we supposed to survive with just a few chilly hours of sunlight per day for the next several months? I know I've done it like 22 times before, but I'm telling you, I still am not "used" to winter. I love Boston, but it seems to be a colder and darker place every year. Ah well, winter will be over soon, I guess. Just six more months or so.


If I can't have real sunshine, though, the next best thing might just be this citrus-y cake, made with the sunny goodness of one of my favorite winter-time fruits: mandarins (or clementines, if you prefer). They started popping up in sacks and crates at our local grocery stores in the past week or so, and so far they've helped to compensate for the lack of actual sunshine that we've been suffering through.

I usually eat mandarins unadorned and in significant quantity - we're talking thousands of percents of Vitamin C here - but I felt like baking something new today, and I sometimes find it difficult to eat the whole bag of fruit before the ones on the bottom start getting moldy.

This cake is incredibly simple to make, and it's surprisingly healthy, too. The flecks of mandarin zest, coupled with the yellow of the cornmeal in the batter, are pleasingly sunshine-y, and the yogurt and olive oil give the cake a light and slightly crumbly texture. The flavor of the mandarins is present, but not overpowering, and I could see this cake dressed up with some ice cream or whipped cream for dessert, or dressed down for breakfast with a slick of almond butter or a dollop of yogurt. In any case, it's sure to brighten your day, especially the snack-time (or breakfast, or dessert) part of it.

A note on the preparation: I have a small, 7-inch round cake pan that is perfect for little snack cakes like this one. You could probably make this recipe in an 8-inch pan, but it would be a little on the short side. Try using the smallest round or square pan that you have, or try a muffin tin for individual servings of sunshine. Craving sunshine? Give this cake a go!


Sunshine Cake

1 c. whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 c. whole yellow
cornmeal
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
2 tbs. turbinado sugar
1/2 c. plain, non-fat or low-fat yogurt
1 egg
2 tbs. olive oil
1 tbs. agave nectar or honey
1/2 tsp. vanilla
extract
zest and juice of 3 mandarins or clementines

Directions:

Wash and dry the mandarins. Using a microplane zester or fine grater,zest the mandarins, being careful to use the orange part of the peel only (no white pith!). using a reamer or juicer, extract as much juice as possible (some pulp is OK) from the mandarins, about 1/2 c. In a mixing bowl, mix together flour, cornmeal, salt, baking soda, baking powder, sugar, and mandarin zest. In a separate bowl, mix the yogurt, egg, oil, agave, vanilla, and mandarin juice. Pour wet ingredients into dry, and stir just until combined. Pour batter into a greased cake pan and bake at 350 degrees for about 20-25 minutes, until top is golden and tester inserted into center of cake comes out clean.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Simple Pumpkin Soup

I know I won't be winning any awards for originality with today's post, but I still think this pumpkin soup is worth talking about. And at the very least, it's worthwhile to post the recipe (even though it is as simple as could be).

On Sunday, after an exceedingly long stint away from home due to some work-related travel, there was nothing I wanted more than to make a big pot of soup - perfect for slurping right from the wooden spoon and for storing for future meals. I may have gone a bit overboard - I made not one, but two gigantic pots of soup (putting our new large dutch oven to good use, I might add).
Both were delicious, warming, and hearty without being in any way heavy. No meat (except for the light chicken stock), and no cream. When it comes to soup, I like them vegetable-y, and they often replace the salads that I eat when fresh green vegetables are at their prime.

So yes, the wholly unoriginal, but undoubtedly delicious, soup of the day is pumpkin. I've made plenty of squash soups before, but I realized Sunday that I can't remember ever having actually roasted a whole pumpkin. I've made pumpkin bread, pumpkin cake, pumpkin pie, pumpkin cookies, pumpkin cinnamon rolls, pumpkin biscotti, pumpkin bread pudding...the list goes on...but I've always resorted to the canned stuff. Now I'm not saying that I don't like canned pumpkin - I still love it - but for a savory soup like this one, where pumpkin is the star, it's definitely worth the extra effort to find a little sugar pumpkin and roast it yourself.

I roasted mine using a method I learned last week on Martha Stewart Living, and it involves cutting the pumpkin in half, scooping out the seeds, adding a tablespoon of water to each half, covering with parchment and foil, and then roasting until soft - about an hour. Once the pumpkin is done, the rest of the soup comes together in about 10 minutes: saute the onion and garlic with an apple, add the pumpkin and some stock, and puree until smooth and delicious.

I love the simplicity of this soup and the clarity of the flavors. The deeper sweetness of the pumpkin is just right with the sweet-tartness of the apples, and the onion and garlic deepen all of the flavors in a subtle, savory way. Perfect for kicking off a fall dinner party (which is what I'm planning to do with the soup tonight), but also, I'd imagine, perfect for a low-key comfort dinner served with some hearty bread and leftovers (tomorrow's dinner, if everything goes according to plan).

I've seen and enjoyed a variety of highly-spiced pumpkin soups, laced with curry or chili powder, but this one is very simple, with a hint of cinnamon and nutmeg and just the right amount of salt and pepper to tie things together. And although I love spice, this version really hits the spot. Enjoy!



Simple Pumpkin Soup

1 small (3-4lbs.) sugar pumpkin
2 small-medium yellow onions
1 sweet-tart apple (mac, cortland, empire...), peeled and chopped
4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
~3 c. chicken or vegetable stock
splash of olive oil
salt and pepper, to taste
cinnamon and nutmeg, to taste (optional)

Directions:

Roast pumpkin: Cut pumpkin in half and scrape out all of the seeds and gunk. Place on a baking sheet, cut side up, and add a tablespoon of water to each half. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, place a sheet of parchment on top, and then cover the whole pan tightly with foil. Roast at 375F for about an hour, or until the flesh is soft and scoopable. Meanwhile, heat a bit of oil in a soup pot, then add the onions and the apple. Saute for about 5 minutes, then add the garlic, salt and pepper, and saute for a few minutes more, being careful not to let the onions and garlic brown. Scoop all of the flesh from the pumpkin and it, along with 2 c. of stock, to the pot. Bring mixture just to a boil, then simmer for a minute or so. Using an immersion blender (or a regular blender, if need be), blend the soup until completely smooth. Add additional stock as necessary to reach desired consistency. Adjust the seasonings, adding a bit of nutmeg or cinnamon, if desired. Serve warm with a thick slice of crusty bread.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Big Launch...

As some of you may already know, I've gone and started a new blog. Don't worry, it won't be replacing Red Ramekin, but rather will serve as a nice complement to it.

The blog is called The Natural Consumer, and you can find it at http://www.thenaturalconsumer.com/. I'm really excited about it, and think that it will be a great way to provide a forum for people, like me, who are consumers of natural, healthy, and organic food products.

The Natural Consumer is dedicated exclusively to product reviews. The basic idea is this: I find/buy/receive an organic, natural, and/or healthy product, give it a whirl, take a photo or two, and then write about it on the blog.

Although I'm generally a homemade-only kind of girl, this blog does feature packaged foods that I would feel good about incorporating into my diet - especially now that I'm working full time and can't really spend my days waiting for bread to rise and cracker dough to rest.

Want to know more? Check it out. The site has plenty of information on my food philosophy and on the nature of the blog itself. I encourage you to read it and let me know what you think. And of course, if you have any suggestions regarding products for me to try (or if you are someone who can provide me with the products themselves), don't hesitate to let me know! The blog is not an advertising service - it's an honest look at what's on the market for ingredient-conscious, food-loving, natural consumers. Hopefully the new blog will be especially tasty mixed with the recipes here on Red Ramekin.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

October Daring Bakers: My New Favorite Pizza Dough


Another month of the Daring Bakers, another savory recipe - no frills, no 2-day decorating marathons, no butter. That's right - a Daring Bakers challenge with no butter.

Now, I've made pizza dough before. In fact, I've made it many times before, and pizza is one of those things that never ceases to be an exciting kitchen activity. So many toppings, so much flour all over the kitchen, so likely that I'll set off the smoke alarm because the oven is so hot....it may be high-stress, but I love making pizza.

To be honest, though, I don't usually put too much thought into my pizza dough. I generally make whole-wheat crusts with the usual suspects: flour, water, salt, yeast, sugar, and a splash of olive oil or two. And even though my homemade crust is generally not as good as the specimens found at good pizza joints (think New Haven) or trendy Italian restaurants, I have always chalked that up to equipment deficiencies (I'm just not crazy enough to clip the self-cleaning lock on my oven to get it up to 800 degrees). I've read in a variety of places, too, that homemade crust, especially without the use of special pizza dough starters, just will never be as good as the stuff that the pizza masters use.

And then there was this Daring Bakers dough. Now, I'm not saying that this recipe will yield Pepe's-quality pizza, but it gave me new faith in the art of homemade pizza. The dough requires an overnight rest in the refrigerator before the 2-hour, room-temperature proof, and seriously, it makes a big difference. By the time I shaped this dough, it was supple, soft, and completely pliable, making for a deliciously thin-crusted pizza the likes of which I've never been able to achieve before.

[whole wheat crust]

Obviously, I wanted to make a whole wheat version of this dough, but I was also curious as to how the regular old white version would turn out. So, I made a batch using mostly bread flour (and some white whole wheat because I ran out of bread flour!) and a half-batch using 100% white whole wheat, with about 2 tablespoons of gluten thrown in for extra body and stretch.

[white and whole wheat doughs]
I expected the mostly-white dough to be pliable and soft, which it was, but I was pleasantly surprised to find the whole wheat dough to be almost as pliable. Both doughs made for lovely, thin crusts that crisped up nicely on my pizza stone. The crust itself had those big, gaping holes that you see in pizzeria crust or ciabatta, which I loved.

Since I made so much dough, I stuck most of it in the freezer for a rainy day, and made two pizzas the day after mixing the dough: one plain cheese and sauce variety, and another one with paper-thin slices of potatoes, garlic, olive oil, and a hefty sprinkling of rosemary.

Both came out beautifully, although I've decided I'm not the biggest fan of carb-on-carb pizzas, and will probably come up with something more vegetable-y the next time around (caramelized onions with goat cheese, perhaps? lemony broccoli with cheddar? something with apples?). I'm definitely filing this recipe away, though, and look forward to more crazy and exciting pizza nights in the future.

For now, check out the other Daring Bakers to see the marvelous pizza creations they've come up with, and check the blog of this month's wonderful host, Rosa, for the complete recipe. I'm not sure I'd consider this recipe particularly challenging (it even uses instant yeast!) but it sure is a winner.

[ready for the oven]

Thursday, October 23, 2008

An Apple (Cake) a Day...



Oh gee, well I guess I've got sweets on the brain. And yes, well, I suppose I've got apples on the brain, too. Yet another sweet treat, this one just as apple-y and delicious as an apple crisp, and as undeniably brunch-able as those pumpkin sticky buns.

But let's cut to the chase: cake. Yes, sometimes a good, old-fashioned cake is really the only way to go when it comes to satisfying a sweet tooth. I was tasked with doing dessert for a small dinner gathering the other night, and a few less-than-perfect apples were simply screaming for inclusion in something baked.


I'm a very enthusiastic fan of anything with warm spices, so I decided to make an apple cake based loosely on the premise of pain d'epice, a French spice loaf. I added some molasses to get a deep brown hue, and wasn't shy with the cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and ground ginger. Good and spicy, just the way I like it. Oh, and the bourbon. Seems I can't make anything sweet without a little bourbon to give it that kick of flavor.


Even though I only put a few tablespoons of the stuff in my cake batter, the flavor came through beautifully. Not too strong, but definitely there, permeating the cake with a faintly caramel-y, deep, warm sweetness. It works really well with the chunks of apple that are laced throughout the batter (yes, I prefer abundant chunks to dainty slices of apple in my cakes).

Funny story about this cake, though. The first time I made it, it was a smashing success but I was focused more on getting it to the table than on taking photographs. This, of course, was the perfect excuse for making it again. This cake is really quite simple, and I mixed up all the ingredients, popped it in the oven, and, just as I finished setting the timer, I realized I had forgotten an ingredient. We're not talking nutmeg or vanilla extract, here - I had forgotten the sugar. And cakes without sugar, in addition to not rising properly or maintaining a soft crumb, tend to disappoint in the taste department.


I didn't have much of a choice but to bake the non-cake, though, and I figured that since this recipe calls for a touch of honey and molasses, perhaps not all was lost. Although I wasn't about to serve the sugar-less version for dessert, it wasn't half bad as a not-to-sweet snack. Definitely not a cake, but not trash either.

Of course, I wanted to really get it right for blogging purposes, so I whipped up the batter a THIRD time (in one week, I might add), this time in muffin form. Perfection. Full of apples, full of spicy flavor, and kissed with the brass of bourbon, this apple cake can do anything from dinner party dessert (I served mine with bourbon-caramel sauce and some ice cream), to weekend brunch, to afternoon tea. Just don't forget the sugar!


Spiced Apple Bourbon Cake

1 1/2 c. whole wheat pastry flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
1/4 tsp. each nutmeg and ground cloves
1/2 c. dark brown sugar, packed
2 eggs
1/2 c. unsweetened apple sauce
1/4 c. vegetable oil
1 tbs. molasses
2 tbs. honey
2 tbs. bourbon
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 small-medium apples, peeled and diced
handful chopped, toasted pecans (optional)

Directions:

In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and spices. Mix in the brown sugar, stirring to distribute evenly. In a separate bowl, mix eggs, apple sauce, oil, honey, molasses, vanilla, and bourbon. Add wet ingredients to dry, and mix just until combined. Add diced apples and pecans, and mix to incorporate. Pour batter into a greased 8-inch round cake pan or into 12 greased muffin cups, and bake at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes (muffins) or 30 minutes (cake).

Monday, October 20, 2008

Happy Blogday to Me!

Ok, so I'm a little late in the posting department again, and this time it's serious: Saturday was my official blogday (blog birthday, blogoversary, or what have you)! I guess time flies when you're making sourdough starter, chilling puff pastry, and rolling stuffed grape leaves, because I can hardly believe that Red Ramekin is already a year old.

I know I should have posted something special on the big day - a birthday cake or something of the sort, but I ran out of time. However, I certainly didn't forget about the big day, and took full advantage of the momentous occasion to whip up a truly delicious, only-my-blogday-can-justify-this kind of treat.

Last week I was contemplating a good blogday dessert, but inspiration didn't strike until Saturday morning, when I sprang awake with the burning desire to make pumpkin cinnamon sticky buns. Oh yeah. That's what I'm talking about. I'm vaguely familiar with the cinnamon roll process through my pesto pinwheels, which are, essentially, a cinnamon roll's sophisticated older cousin. Blogdays require sweet treats, though (just take my word for it on this one), and autumn, of course, requires that everything I bake contain pumpkin. So pumpkin sticky buns it was.

I started with a pumpkiny yeasted dough (enriched and whole wheat), and finished with a melty, gooey, mixture of butter, honey, brown sugar, maple syrup, and pecans (calm down, I didn't say to make these every day!). Some of the buns I left goo-free (plain old cinnamon buns), but the gooey ones - oh baby. Even though I had intended them to be part of a decadent brunch, they served me well for dessert on Saturday night (and for a guilty Sunday morning snack).

I'm already looking forward to the next time I happen to be entertaining for brunch. These sticky buns would be a real show-stopper (and frankly, I'm not going to wait until my next blogday to make them again). I'd like to share the recipe, but it was really just a mish-mash of other recipes that I found in various places around the internet. First I came up with a recipe for yeasted pumpkin rolls (not too sweet, not too buttery), and then I followed some basic sticky-bun procedure to make filling and the gooey topping. Really, you can't mess up when the main ingredients are butter, sugar, and honey. Trust me.

So, when you get tired of the standard Sunday muffins or coffee cake, or want a new and delicious sweet treat, or happen to find yourself hungry on your own blogday, give these a try. Yum!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A Mutsu for You



I swear I had every intention of blogging this weekend (twice, even!) but then it was gloriously sunny, and we took a field trip to Walden Pond, and stopped at Wilson Farms on the way back, and I needed a little yoga to perk up my new working life...and you get the idea.

But don't think I haven't been cooking, or that I haven't been gobbling up the wealth of autumn produce that's making the farmers market just about the coolest place to be, ever. You probably know that I love apples. I mean LOVE apples. Yes, the humble apple is my favorite fruit, and this is the time of year where I stock them by the dozen. My favorite apple is the Macoun, with its white, crisp flesh and apple-y tartness. But, unlike with fresh berries or stone fruits, I love baking with apples, in addition to just eating them straight from farmers market tote. Ah, the apple - so tasty, so versatile, so cheap. Cheap enough that I don't feel bad about using a few pounds of them to make an apple cake or crisp.


Speaking of which, on about Thursday of last week, I had a real craving to make an apple crisp. I was thinking about using my precious Macouns, but really, I just can't bear it - they are so good plain. I asked around in search of a good baking apple, perhaps one I hadn't tried before, and was strongly advised to consider the Mutsu.

I've eaten Mutsus before: they are green and taste like what I think you would get if you crossed a granny smith with a golden delicious with a MacIntosh. Oh, and they're huge. They are the king of apples, and dwarf any other apple that dares to sit itself close by. It didn't take much convincing to use them for my crisp; in addition to coming highly recommended, I reasoned that the surface area to volume ratio of these bad boys would significantly decrease the amount of peeling required, and would thus expedite the whole eating process.


It took 3 big Mutsus (and a rogue Empire that I had lying around) to make an ample crisp. And it was tasty, especially with a guilty dollop of ice cream (guilty for being storebought, not for being ice cream). Indeed, an apple crisp might be the perfect ending to a fall meal, and our fall meal on Sunday night, when I finally got around to making the crisp, was a squash- and yam-laden take on chili. And did I mention breakfast? Leftover crisp makes a pretty good breakfast, too.

So I guess this is the part of the post where I post pictures and a recipe of my creation, but alas, sometimes you just want to eat the darn thing, and really, who measures when making an apple crisp, anyway?


Here's a rough idea, but honestly, I didn't even take out the measuring cups for this one (you really can't go wrong with apples, cinnamon, and brown sugar, can you?)

Can't-Go-Wrong Apple Crisp

Peel and slice enough apples to fill your baking dish (I like glass for this). Place apples in a large bowl and sprinkle with a good shake or three of cinnamon, about a tablespoon of flour, and a bit of sugar. Squeeze the juice of a lemon over the apples, and then stir everything gently to combine. Pour apples into baking dish, adding just enough water or apple cider to cover the bottom of the dish. In the same big bowl, mix a couple handfuls of oats, about half that volume of flour, a bit of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves, and handful of brown sugar, and a pinch of salt. Add some wheat germ, if you have it. To the dry ingredients, add a splash of apple cider and a couple tablespoons of melted butter. Mix until crumbly, and then pat on top of apples. Bake for about 30-40 minutes, checking after 20 minutes and covering with foil if top is browning too quickly. Apples should be very tender, but should still hold their shape.



Monday, October 6, 2008

Savoring Sundays


I feel that I owe you all an apology. Posting has been pretty slow around here lately, mostly because I'm still adjusting to this whole "working" thing. I've still been cooking, but it's been a lot of dishes that I can make in quantity and that will work well in little lunch-ready tupperwares. Oh, and also, I was in charge of the dessert for my dad's 50th birthday bash, which took place this past weekend and which monopolized most of my kitchen time for the past two weeks. Brownies, pumpkin cheesecake bars, two jam crostatas, a grand birthday cake, and some cookies...and for dinner? Let's just say dinner took the back seat last week.

Last night, though, Jonathan and I were both in the mood for a homey, season-appropriate Sunday dinner, perhaps because of the chill in the air, or maybe just because we were both pretty tired from the weekend's festivities and wanted to eat something that didn't involve chocolate, cheesecake, or meat on sticks.

Oddly enough, though, I was craving something non-vegetarian, and suggested what I think has officially become part of our weekly dinner lineup: herb-roasted turkey breast. We bought a de-boned breast, the preparation of which required only a splash of olive oil and a hefty sprinkling of dried herbs. In addition to the turkey, I also threw some vegetables into the dish. Carrots, potatoes, onions, and a few garlic cloves, all flavored with a splash of apple cider, made for a deliciously caramelized accompaniment to the meat.


That part of the meal doesn't really deserve a real recipe, even though I highly recommend that you try it for yourself. The recipe-worthy part of the meal was my makeshift stuffing, which was both a lighter alternative to traditional, bready stuffing and a perfectly flavored foil for the meat and vegetables.

Instead of bread, I used quinoa for my stuffing, although I tried to preserve the other elements of my favorite classic stuffing: carrots, celery, sage, and mushrooms. And even though I considered making the stuffing in the oven, in the end I made it as I would any other quinoa pilaf - on the stove, and with minimal effort.

The quinoa was hearty and flavorful enough to be a main course, but I think I'll try to pair it with turkey as often as I can. This may have been the quintessential Sunday night meal, but honestly, aside from the time required for the turkey to do its thing in the oven, this meal is simple and quick enough even for a post-work weeknight.

This recipe hardly needs explanation, but I do have a few notes: I used water to cook the quinoa, although I would most certainly have used chicken stock if I'd had any on hand. I also would have added some dried cranberries or even some diced apple, if a certain dinner companion happened to like fruit in savory dishes as much as I do. Oh, and the herb measurements here are pretty loose (ok, well, non-existent). Just add whatever and however much you like.


Autumn Quinoa Stuffing

1 tbs. olive oil
1 c. dry quinoa
2 carrots, diced
1/2 onion, diced
1 celery stalk, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
~10 cremini mushrooms, sliced
splash red wine
1 3/4 c. water or stock
salt, pepper, and assorted dried herbs, to taste

Directions:

Heat oil in a saucepan or dutch oven. Add carrots, onion, celery, and garlic, and cook until slightly softened, about 5 minutes. Season with salt, pepper, and herbs. Add mushrooms and a splash of red wine, and cook until wilted, a few minutes more. Add dry quinoa, and stir to combine. Add water or stock, bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover, and simmer until quinoa is cooked, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let sit for a few minutes, then fluff and serve, preferably with herb-roasted turkey breast.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

September Daring Bakers: A Quickie


Well, I survived my first week of work, and even managed to eat all of my dinners at home - something that I've heard most people my age consider to be fairly outrageous. Although working "normal" office hours is certainly a change of pace for me, I'll admit that the feeling that comes with the approach of the weekend is kind of fun.

I was feeling it today as I sat down for my morning blog-fest and discovered that today is the posting date for this month's Daring Bakers challenge. Yikes. I hadn't really thought much about it, especially since I had been assuming all week that I'd have until the 30th.

Luckily, this month's challenge was a quick one. The quickest, actually, that I've completed. No multi-layer, multi-day cakes or pastries this time; just a simple batch of Armenian lavash crackers. I've made my fair share of crackers, so I wasn't too worried about this challenge, even though it calls for a yeasted dough. Unlike yeasted bread, yeasted crackers aren't particularly fickle, and the yeast is there for dough structure and flavor more than it is for lift.


What I'm trying to say is this: yes, I completed the challenge, but I don't have much of an interesting story to go along with it. I made the simple dough (flour, water, oil, sugar, yeast, salt), let is rise for a bit, rolled it out, and baked it. Oh, and then I ate lots and lots of crackers.

Although I didn't feel very challenged by this month's recipe, I did enjoy the crackers that I made, and was happy to make something that I would normally eat (no, I don't normally eat gargantuan Danish braids). The only change I made to the recipe was substituting whole wheat flour for the all-purpose that it called for. Crackers are great for whole wheat flours, since they don't need to rise much. The whole wheat makes them a bit darker than white-flour crackers, but they are hearty and delicious and have a wonderful texture. I found that the key to making these crackers was rolling the dough as thin as possible, and then watching them in the oven to make sure that they came out nicely crisp, but not burnt.

We had free range on the cracker toppings, and I chose one sweet and one savory. The first batch was dusted in cinnamon and turbinado sugar, and the second was za'atar themed, with sesame seeds, thyme, and ground sumac. Both were wonderful, although I think the za'atar version would be particularly good with all sorts of spreads and cheeses. Speaking of which...this month's challenge also called for making a spread or dip to go with the crackers. And, well, I kind of....didn't do that. I was thinking about muhammara, which I love, but in the end, I ended up eating the crackers plain, and was quite satisfied. Besides, these challenges are supposed to be about the baking, right?


Thanks to Natalie and Shel, this month's Daring Bakers hosts. Be sure to check out the other Daring Bakers creations, and get excited for next month's challenge...I'm already looking forward to finding out what wild and crazy recipes October will bring!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Real World Muffins


Well friends, the time has come for me to hang up my twenty-something-of-leisure hat and plunge myself into the real world. I'm happy to have had this past summer to do some exciting culinary experimentation (and don't worry, my sourdough starter is still surviving in the fridge!), but, probably for the best, I've officially started my day job.

This doesn't mean that I won't be cooking, but probably does mean that I won't be cooking with as much regularity, and, um, complexity as I have been recently. Like probably no homemade crab ravioli for Tuesday dinners. But on Saturday night, anything goes.

On the bright side, I am hoping to start including some recipes for working girls (and guys), now that I'll be forced to come up with some good ones to keep me sated and happy during the week. Also on the bright side is that I'll now be able to comfortably afford my Whole Foods bill.

[nice and spicy]

To get the ball rolling, I've decided to share a recipe for bran muffins, which is a fantastic recipe that makes for easy and nutritious snacks and breakfasts. I like to make a big batch of muffins, and then freeze them individually. They last basically forever this way, and are easy to defrost. The night before I want to eat them for breakfast, I take a couple out of the freezer and let them sit on the counter until the next morning.

I tend to make chocolate chip bran muffins for Jonathan (not everybody loves raisins as much as I do, I guess), but this pumpkin version, chock full of nuts and dried fruit, is my favorite. You could even add diced apple or pear, or substitute apple sauce or banana for the pumpkin, if you wish. Use this recipe as a base and switch it up according to your tastes.

This recipe is pretty straightforward, but it's a real keeper. I always try to keep a bunch of muffins in the freezer for emergency bran/breakfast situations. So here it is, my bran muffin recipe. And here I am: consultant by day, foodie/chef/baker/blogger by night. We'll see how it goes. But for now, enjoy!


Pumpkin Bran Muffins

1 c. wheat bran
1/2 c. multi-grain hot cereal or oats (unprepared; I use Bob's Red Mill)
1/4 c. uncooked millet
1 3/4 c. boiling water
2/3 c. whole wheat pastry flour
1/3 c. barley flour (or use more whole wheat)
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon each nutmeg and cloves
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tbs. turbinado sugar
1 tbs. honey
1 tbs. molasses
1/2 c. solid-pack pumpkin
1 egg, separated
1/4 c. buttermilk
1 tsp. vanilla extract
handful chopped toasted pecans
handful (or more) raisins


Directions:

Half an hour (or up to a few hours) before baking, combine bran, cereal, and millet with boiling water. Cover and set aside to soften. When ready to bake, combine flours, spices, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and sugar in a mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, combine the egg yolk, buttermilk, vanilla, pumpkin, molasses, and honey, and stir to combine. Add the bran mixture and the pumpkin mixture to the dry ingredients, and stir just until combined. In a small bowl, whisk the egg white until frothy, and then add and incorporate into the batter. Add raisins and pecans and stir just until incorporated. Divide batter between 12 muffin cups, and bake at 375 F for 18-20 minutes, or until firm to the touch. To freeze: allow muffins to cool completely, then wrap each muffin individually in plastic wrap or foil. Store in a sealed zip-top bag in the freezer. To defrost: remove muffins from the freezer and allow to sit at room temperature, still wrapped, for a few hours.