Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Daring Bakers: Let's Hear it for the Opera Cake

Amidst all the moving and school-finishing hubbub, I did indeed manage to complete this month's Daring Bakers Challenge: the famous Opera Cake. Don't know what an opera cake is? Well, neither did I until about a month ago. The opera cake is a traditional French pastry composed of several layers of an almond meal-based cake sandwiched between layers of rich buttercream and ganache/mousse, and topped off with a thin, sugary glaze.

Needless to say, this isn't the project to take on if you want a quick dessert. It involves several hours of cooling, chilling, and setting, not to mention actually making the components of the cake. This is why I like the Daring Bakers though; it gives me an excuse to make fancy-schmancy desserts that require hours in the kitchen. Without the Daring Bakers, I'd probably just make banana-barley snack cakes all the time. Not that there's anything wrong with banana-barley snack cakes.

This won't be the most detailed post, owing mostly to the fact that Jonathan and I have just moved (!!!) and we are both busy unpacking and readjusting to life with an electric stove. Also, given that most of my cooking things are packed in boxes and smooshed between layers of sweaters, the regular posts might be a little slow, too. But stay with me here; once I've organized our new kitchen, I plan on breaking into my newly-arrived order of Penzey's spices. That should be exciting.

But back to the cake. The rules for this challenge were that we could flavor our cake, buttercream, ganache/mousse, etc. with any flavor of our choosing, except for any dark flavors (namely coffee and chocolate). So that pretty much eliminated any flavor I was interested in making...or so I thought. We also were allowed to replace the buttercream given in the recipe with another buttercream. I've mentioned my aversion to buttercream before, so it's no surprise that I chose just to make a mousse and a glaze, using the mousse to separate the cake layers and the glaze to top it all off.

When it came to choosing the flavor for the cake, I wanted to bring out the almondy-ness of the original recipe, because I love anything almond-flavored. The recipe also calls for a syrup to soak the cake layers, and amaretto seemed like a good addition to that particular element. Instead of doing straight amaretto cake, though, I took the theme and ran with it, inspired by my favorite "girly" drink: amaretto sour. I didn't change the actual cake at all, but made my mousse lime-flavored, starting with homemade lime curd (my fingers are still sore from juicing), and adding whipped cream to make it nice and firm. The thin glaze over the top of the cake also contained a healthy dose of amaretto.

Instead of making a large cake, I cut the (set, chilled, layered, firm) cake into small squares and served it as petit fours. They were perfectly bite-sized and, if I do say so myself, quite adorable. A simple sprinkling of grated lime zest over the tops of the cakes was all the garnish they needed. So what can I say? Another yummy and fun Daring Bakers Challenge down, and I'm looking forward to the next one (and hoping my kitchen will be in order by then). To see the complete recipe for the opera cake, and to see pictures of the incredible versions created by other Daring Bakers, check out the Daring Bakers blogroll.

A note about lime/lemon/citrus curds: they are awesome, and incredibly easy to make. I used a really easy recipe that contained only eggs, sugar, and lime juice. Seriously, that's it! Just cook until thickened, and you have a delicious pudding-like dessert or topping for all sorts of other things (cakes, cookies, pancakes, toast). It isn't exactly "light," but it is lovely and refreshing - perfect for summer.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Muesli vs. Granola: Battle of the Breakfasts

Faithful Red Ramekin readers might remember my post a few months ago on granola. Homemade granola, to be exact. For some reason, I was on a granola-making kick, and was in search of a recipe that was both tasty and not loaded with fat and sugar (it is a breakfast food, after all). I experimented with blueberry granola, peanut butter-banana granola, even pumpkin pie granola. They were pretty good, but the texture wasn't quite right, and the flavor was sometimes a Probably because there wasn't enough fat or sugar.

I thought about revisiting my granola-making days and trying to perfect my recipes, but frankly, I don't really eat granola all that often, and usually prefer unsweetened breakfast foods, like plain old oatmeal or that brick-like, German-style rye bread, toasted and with a slick of almond butter. Mmmm, brick bread.....

However, making oatmeal and toasting bread are wholly un-interesting, and especially now, when the weather is a bit warmer, I like cold cereal with milk. And then, last week, while I was roaming Whole Foods in search of culinary inspiration (as I often do), it dawned on me: Swiss-style muesli. Actually, there is a bulk bin at Whole Foods full of "Swiss-style muesli," and the ingredients - rolled oats, wheat flakes, oat bran, raisins, dates, sunflower seeds, hazelnuts, wheat germ - are right up my aisle. I treated myself to a whole dollar or so worth of the stuff, and it wasn't too bad. It has no added fats or sweeteners, relying on the chewy goodness of the dried fruit and the pleasing wholesomeness of the nuts and seeds for flavor.

Because I'm never satisfied with just filling up a bag of something for breakfast, though, I embarked on my own muesli-making adventure. All that making one's own muesli entails is mixing a bunch of healthy things together, and it allows for a personalized combination of said healthy things. I added almonds in addition to hazelnuts, stuck with the dates and raisins but added some chopped dried pears ($3.69 per bag at Trader Joe's, and my new favorite dried fruit), and substituted the sunflower seeds for some roasted pepitas. For the grain base, I used rolled oats, rolled barley, oat bran, and wheat germ.

I found that the only secret to making delicious muesli is toasting the ingredients before mixing them all together. First, I toasted the nuts and the pumpkin seeds until lightly browned and fragrant. Then, I toasted my grains for just a few minutes, to enhance their flavor and texture. Whole Foods clearly skips this step, because my muesli was much more flavorful than theirs. Ha. My other trick was dumping the oats and barley in the food processor and giving them a few good pulses before roasting. Having some tiny bits of grain mixed with the larger flakes is better for milk-absorption. Chopping the nuts and fruit into smaller pieces also helps create a more even and integrated flavor in the cereal, although leaving a few larger chunks is good for textural and visual appeal.

Making your own muesli takes a bit more effort than filling up a bag at the bulk bins, but really not much more effort than making oatmeal in the morning. You can make a big batch and store it indefinitely in an airtight container or zip-top plastic bag. The proportions listed here are approximate and reflect my preferences, but mix it up according to your tastes. When serving, let it sit for a bit in some milk or yogurt, so the grains can soften and plump up. Final verdict: better, easier, and healthier than granola (although the Whole Foods ginger granola makes quite a tasty mid-shopping snack).

DIY Muesli

1 1/2 c. rolled oats
1 c. rolled barley
1/3 c. oat bran
1/3 c. wheat germ
1/4 c. almonds
1/4 c. hazelnuts
1/4 c. pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
1/4 c. raisins
1/4 c. chopped dates
1/4 c. chopped dried pears

Toast nuts and pepitas in the oven (at 325F or so) until lightly browned and toasty-smelling, about 6-10 minutes. Meanwhile, process the oats and barley: place in the bowl of a food processor and pulse several times until some of the grains are almost powdery, but many whole flakes still remain. Once processed, dump the grains onto a lined baking sheet with the oat bran and wheat germ, and toast in the oven for just a few minutes. The grains should smell slightly toasted, but shouldn't be brown. If using whole dried dates, chop into small bits, separate the pieces, and coat in some of the grains to reduce stickiness. Chop pears into small pieces. Once the nuts are slightly cooled, chop them roughly. Mix grains, nuts, and fruit, and mix thoroughly. Allow to cool completely, and store in an airtight container.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Another Favorite Salad

As I've mentioned before, the term "favorite" is not really an absolute concept in my book, but more accurately, a rough description of whatever it is I happen to be eating or creating at the moment. While that luscious spinach tahini salad of a few months ago was a nice favorite for winter, my new favorite salad is appropriately light, fresh, and spring-y.

I'm still waiting for the weather to catch up with my salad preferences, but I'm optimistic. Really, I am. I'll try not to consider the possibility that, in true New England fashion, spring has come and gone in the time it took me to write that last sentence.

The salad in the spotlight today is a Vietnamese dish, inspired by a magnificently fresh and crunchy number I had at the Slanted Door restaurant, perhaps the best (and certainly most well-known) Vietnamese restaurant in the country. It's located (surprise!) in San Francisco, in my beloved Ferry Building, and Jonathan and I stopped there for lunch after a morning of romping in piles of fresh citrus and mounds of vanilla bean quark. Ah, San Francisco...

My Slanted salad was an enticing mound of carrot, jicama, cabbage, grapefruit, sprouts, and candied pecans, and today's salad is similar. I skipped the candied pecans in favor of simple roasted and chopped ones, and left out the grapefruit (I wanted to save those for breakfast). I also garnished the dish with some fresh mint, and to make it more substantial fare, served it over a bed of brown rice stick noodles.

I will warn you that it is possible to eat virtually infinite amounts of this salad; the dressing is a very light combination of lime juice, fish sauce, vinegar, and sugar, and cabbage and jicama aren't exactly the most filling of foodstuffs. I see this more as a bonus, though: more tasty deliciousness, less yucky fullness. On a warm evening or a sunny day, this salad, perhaps with a few grilled shrimp, is just right.

Without a mandoline or other vegetable slicer, this dish is a bit labor-intensive, but if you are like me and love the detailed precision involved in chopping vegetables into matchstick-sized pieces, the salad will be a breeze to prepare. Besides, rice stick noodles couldn't be easier to make: just soak in hot water for a few minutes, and they are ready to go. I like to make a big batch of this salad, because a) it's yummy and b) it gets better as it sits in the fridge. In fact, I would let it sit for at least an hour or so before serving. Like all cabbage salads and slaws, it takes a bit of time for the dressing to soak and soften the raw vegetables.

A couple of notes: the toasted pecans are what truly make this salad; the combination of sweet, tart, crunchy, and briny is perfectly offset by their subtle, nutty richness. I like to chop them into small pieces, so that they cling to the veggies and find their way into each and every bite. The dressing for the salad is a classic Vietnamese combination, and makes use of Vietnamese or Thai fish sauce, which is available in most supermarkets. Use fresh limes for the juice. Trust me. If they are stubborn, stick them in the microwave for a few seconds and roll them on the counter before slicing and juicing. And whatever you do, don't skip the jicama. If you've never used it before, you should. It looks like a big bulb, and you have to peel the rough skin before slicing. It is slightly sweet and very crunchy, almost like a mild, root-y apple. Besides, it's so pretty!

If you are enticed by the idea of Vietnamese food, by all means, fly to San Francisco and make a reservation at the Slanted Door. If that isn't an immediate option, though, definitely try my new favorite salad.

Vietnamese Cabbage and Jicama Salad

1/2 head of purple cabbage
1/2 bulb of jicama
2 carrots
3 green onions
1/4 c. toasted pecans, chopped
Fresh torn mint leaves
1 package prepared brown rice sticks, for serving

Freshly-squeezed juice of 2 limes
2 tbs. rice vinegar (not seasoned)
2 tbs. fish sauce
1 tsp. brown sugar
2 tbs. water
1/2 tsp. red chili paste or chili sauce
1/2 tsp. honey, or to taste
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Core the cabbage and slice as thinly as you can. Peel and julienne (cut into matchsticks) the carrots and the jicama. Chop the green onions. Mix the vegetables and the pecans together in a large bowl. Prepare the dressing: mix all ingredients in a small bowl, and whisk until combined and sugar is dissolved. Taste and add chili paste, honey, salt, or pepper as you see fit. The dressing should be light, tart, and slightly briny from the fish sauce and vinegar, but not overpowering. Pour all of dressing over vegetables, and toss to combine. Let the salad sit for an hour or so, or refrigerate overnight before serving. Serve over brown rice stick noodles or alongside grilled meat or fish. Garnish with mint leaves and additional green onions or pecans, if desired.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Barley Baking

Although the banana cake I'm about to share with you is quite delicious, it worries me. Or rather, the amount of kitchen cabinet space that I have been dedicating to alternative flours is worrying me. At this point, what was once the appropriately-sized home of a tub of all-purpose flour and a sack of whole wheat has become the dangerously small hideaway for white whole wheat, whole wheat pastry, barley, cornmeal, vital wheat gluten, get the idea.

Every time I open the cabinet, I invite the risk of being overwhelmed by an avalanche of tenuously-positioned flours. I don't even want to think about what the clean-up for that disaster would be like. Unfortunately, though, as long as I continue to find new and exciting ways to use them, the flours are here to stay. Maybe we'll have to figure out a better storage solution.

The flour du jour today is whole barley flour, which is slightly less caloric than whole wheat, contains a decent amount of soluble fiber, and has a slightly sweet, oatmeal-like flavor. It is similar to rye (ooh, another denizen of the flour cabinet!) in that it contains gluten, but not quite as much as wheat. This makes it an appropriate choice for quick breads and other baked goods with a crumbly or cake-like texture, but won't work so well for yeasted breads.

So back to that cake. I've made this quite a few times now, mostly because it is easy and tasty, but also because it provides the perfect opportunity to use up past-their-prime bananas. We had two such specimens on the counter this morning, and the rest is history.

This cake is inspired by a traditional coffee cake, and is made with an oat-y, chocolate-y, walnut-y streusel layer that lends a lovely texture and medley of flavors. Unlike most coffee cakes, though, the cake itself is very light, low in fat, and sweetened primarily by the bananas. That's why I call it a "snack" cake - not exactly a decadent dessert (although it does make a nice dessert), but perfect for breakfast, brunch, or general all-purpose snacking. I challenge you to bake it and make it last for more than a day.

I've made the cake with 100% barley flour, although I like the texture that a bit of wheat imparts. I suppose you could also make the cake with 100% wheat, but barley is so fun, and goes quite well with banana (and not just because of the alliteration). The streusel is also flexible; you can leave out the chocolate or walnuts if you are so inclined (note that I am in no way endorsing this inclination). So go crazy - buy some barley flour, let some bananas languish on your counter, and treat yourself to this tasty snack.

Banana Barley Snack Cake

For Cake:
1 c. barley flour
1/2 c. whole wheat pastry flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
1/4 tsp. cardamom
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 c. brown sugar
1 egg
1/2 c. buttermilk
2 mashed ripe bananas
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 tbs. melted butter

For Topping:
1/4 c. rolled oats
1/4 c. chopped walnuts
1-2 tbs. brown sugar
1 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1 tbs. melted butter
handful chocolate chips

Mix flours, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and spices in a medium bowl and whisk to combine. In a separate bowl, mash the bananas, and then add the melted butter, buttermilk, vanilla, and egg. Mix well. Pour wet ingredients into dry ingredients, and stir until combined. Batter will be thick. Prepare topping: melt butter, and then add remaining ingredients and stir to combine. Pour about 3/4 of the cake batter into a greased 8x8 square pan. Sprinkle topping evenly over the batter. Drop remaining batter by spoonfuls over the oat topping. Bake cake at 375 F for 20-25 minutes, until tester comes out fairly clean (a few bits of topping may stick).

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Adding Some Yeast to the Morning Routine

I'm sure I've said it before, but I'll say it again: breakfast and brunch are my favorite meals, especially when it comes to entertaining. Dinner parties are fun, lunch is cute, but there is something so cozy and friendly about brunch, and I love waking up to bake muffins or whip up a batch of buttermilk pancakes.

This weekend we had some friends over for brunch, and kept it simple with scrambled eggs, toast, and the newest addition to our morning repertoire: fresh-from-the-griddle English muffins. The best thing about the muffins, though, is that they don't just have to be an entertaining-only affair. They are definitely impressive and delicious, and yes, they do require a yeasted batter, but I'd be so bold as to say that they are actually easier to make than a regular batch of pancakes.

I guess that's why I've made them three times in the past two weeks. The only "rise" they need is a quick 45-minute rest, which happens to be the perfect window for checking email (or if you're me, about 1000 food blogs), and whisking a few eggs or making some oatmeal. The best part about these muffins, though, is that they are cooked on a griddle instead of baked. Plus, the batter is wet and malleable enough that you don't need to roll them out - just drop a puff of dough on the griddle and you're good to go. Sure, they come out a little irregularly shaped, but that's never stopped anybody from eating them as far as I can tell.

These English muffins are worlds better than anything that you can buy in a store. Fresh off the griddle, they are warm and steamy, with a soft, chewy interior. Forget nooks and crannies - these muffins have supple peaks of yeasty dough tucked between lightly crisped edges, browned and golden from the heat of the griddle. They can, theoretically, be split and toasted or slathered with jam, but Jonathan insists on eating them plain. The flavor imparted by a generous amount of yeast, a touch of whole wheatiness, and a bit of sugar is surprisingly robust.

In the spirit of giving credit where credit is due, the recipe I use is adapted from a recipe I found on the excellent baking blog, Baking Bites. It is one of the only recipes I found that doesn't require several rises, the use of elusive English muffin rings, or other wildly inconvenient processes that would make these prohibitively involved for an everyday breakfast item. My only modification is to substitute a cup of whole wheat flour for one cup of regular white flour. I've made them both ways, but whole wheat flour lends a heartier taste, in addition to a few grams of my favorite nutrient: fiber.

The only mildly challenging part of this recipe is the cooking. If the heat under the griddle is too high, you'll end up with a burnt exterior and a slightly underdone interior. I use relatively low heat, allowing the griddle to heat up just until some water sprinkled on it sizzles and evaporates. Once you drop the dough on the griddle, don't move it for a few minutes, flipping it once the underside is golden brown and the sides of the muffin are starting to dry out. The muffin is done when both sides are golden brown and the sides are dry to the touch, about 5-8 minutes total.

I love this recipe for many reasons, but here are the ones that will convince you to try it: 1) it only has 5 ingredients that don't come from the faucet 2) it yields a yeasty, bready flavor with only a 45-minute rise 3) it is in no way similar to anything store-bought 4) the muffins are delicious and healthy without the use of any dubious "substitutions." Enjoy!

Shockingly Easy English Muffins (adapted from Baking Bites)

2 c. flour (white, half whole-wheat, or 100% whole wheat)
3/4 tsp. salt
2 1/4 tsp. instant yeast
1 tbs. sugar
1/3 c. water
1 c. skim milk
cooking spray

Whisk together flour, yeast, salt, and sugar in a large bowl. Warm the water and milk together in the microwave until warm, about 45 seconds. Mix the liquids into the flour, stirring with a wooden spoon to combine thoroughly. Beat until well-mixed, about 30 seconds or so. Dough will be wet (much wetter than most bread doughs). Cover bowl with plastic wrap and a tea towel, and set aside to rest for about 45 minutes, until puffed and bubbly. To cook the muffins: heat a griddle or skillet over medium heat until water sprinkled on its surface sizzles and evaporates immediately. Lightly grease with cooking spray, and then drop big spoonfuls of the dough onto the griddle using either a greased spoon or a greased measuring cup (I use a 1/3 c. measure). Cook until golden brown, and then flip and cook until sides of muffin are dry. They are best eaten fresh, but keep very well in a zip-top plastic bag for a day or two.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Clean the Pantry Salad

First things first: I have a wee bit of virtual housekeeping to take care of. If you look to the right of this post, you'll see a whole bunch of fun stuff, some of which could use a little explaining. As you might notice, Red Ramekin is now a featured publisher on Foodbuzz. Honestly, I have no idea a) how we became a "featured publisher," or b) what a "featured publisher" actually is. But it seems cool, and Foodbuzz itself is a pretty cool website. Think Facebook, but yummier. The site connects a whole bunch of foodies from around the world, and bloggers can submit recipes, photos, restaurant reviews, and blog posts to the site. You can "vote" for your favorite items to give them more "buzz" ... or something like that. If you want to "vote" for me, click the button!

Next, of course, is the Daring Bakers stuff, which I've already explained. If you want to see other Daring Bakers, though, click on the Daring Bakers Blogroll. Then comes the newest addition to the extraneous stuff: Food Blog Search. Food Blog Search is actually a really great search engine that runs through Google. You can search over 2000 blogs (Red Ramekin is one of them!) for recipes, ideas, or whatever. And to thought Epicurious was nifty! So last year.

Way down below is the Foodie Blogroll, which is being continually updated with new food blogs. Tasty!

Ok, so now that the virtual housekeeping is out of the way, how about some real housekeeping? And by housekeeping, I of course mean pantry cleaning. Jonathan and I are moving in a few weeks, which has inspired me to go on a pantry-emptying rampage. I don't mean tossing things in the trash, either. We're talking about ways to make dinner out of that handful of lentils in the back of the cabinet, or how to bake a cake using a half-cup of blue cornmeal, a forgotten bag of dried apricots, and a baggie-full of anise seeds (all things that happen to be in the cabinet at this very moment).

I hate throwing away food, but I'm not psyched about transporting all of those dried grains and other foodstuffs to the new apartment, even if it is only a few miles away from 20 Ellery. As a result, we have officially entered the pantry cleaning days, during which I plan to use up as much stuff and purchase as little stuff as is humanly possible. This may be as close as I get to Top Chef, so I plan to enjoy the challenge.

In fact, I enjoyed the challenge very much the other night, when I came up with a surprisingly tasty kamut salad. Before I go into the joys of pronouncing the word "kamut," I will say that the nature of this challenge is such that it becomes harder with time. This salad benefited from a rather healthy variety of pantry-stuffs, including a jar of artichoke hearts, some rogue pine nuts, a chunk of feta, and a gaggle of capers. I'm not sure I want to think about what my options will be come May 20, but for now they aren't so bad.

But back to the kamut - pronounced kuh-MOOT. Kamut is an heirloom variety of wheat, characterized by having significantly larger grains (berries) and being higher in protein than traditional hard or soft wheat. We can discuss my bulk bin addiction at some other time, but for now suffice it say that we have lots of baggies with lots of nearly indistinguishable whole grains to keep us occupied for a while. One of these was full of whole kamut grains, so I decided to give them a soak and make something with them.

I'm pretty proud of myself for having used up so many ingredients, and for making something that was so tasty, to boot. The pine nuts in this salad were an unenthusiastic add-in, but were actually the perfect savory touch to this slightly acid-heavy salad. The roasted tomatoes and artichoke hearts added some great color, texture, and vegetable-ness to the mix, and the feta tied it all together. To top it all off, there was a suspicious-looking half onion hanging out in the fridge, so I diced that up, roasted it with the tomatoes, and tossed it in for some flavor. And what else? The capers were...capers. No complaints on that front. A little vinegar, olive oil, and seasoning, and this clean-the-pantry salad was born.

I'll include a (loose) recipe for the salad here, but the spirit of the dish is really using things that are taking up space in the cupboard. To follow this recipe, then, you may actually have to not follow it's pretty meta.

A note about kamut, and other non-polished whole grains: these are not the things of 30-minute meals. They require a leisurely soak (I soaked the kamut for about 24 hours), and then a leisurely simmer (1 1/2 - 2 hours). I cooked the kamut in an excess of liquid so that I could let it simmer all afternoon without my having to worry about my liquid evaporating. Even after all of that cooking though, the grains still had a nice bite to them. I'm pretty sure you could cook them forever and they'd still be "al dente." But just think of all of the fiber you'll be eating! So here's my loose recipe. Use it for ideas or inspiration, or, if you aren't planning a move in the next month, use it to make this tasty salad.

Clean the Pantry Kamut Salad

1 c. kamut grains, soaked for a day
about 1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
half a medium onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, smashed with the back of a knife
handful of capers
1 small jar of artichoke hearts (drained and rinsed if they are "marinated")
large handful of toasted pine nuts
small chunk of feta cheese, crumbled
about 2 tbs. olive oil
splash of balsamic vinegar
generous salt, pepper, and seasonings
additional olive oil, salt, and pepper for roasting onion and tomatoes

Soak kamut for a long, long time. Once soaked, cook kamut for a long, long time, in about 6 c. of salted water or broth. After about 1 1/2 - 2 hours, kamut should be toothsome, but not hard. Drain kamut and remove to a large bowl. Meanwhile, roast the tomatoes, onion, and garlic. Drizzle with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and roast or broil until tomatoes and garlic are just starting to blister, about 10 minutes under the broiler. Add vegetables to the kamut, and then add the artichokes, capers, pine nuts, and feta. Stir to combine, and then season with oil, vinegar, salt, pepper, and spices to taste.