Tuesday, October 30, 2007

My Guy: a Fun Guy, Another Guy and Fungi

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

I am blessed to be married to a man who is my co-conspirator in all manners of food experimentation for the sole purpose of gastronomic bliss.
It has it's down side however, because there are no boundaries. We eat everything.

I'm not sure I would have survived our almost-twenty year marriage, had I been married to a hater. You know, the kind of picky eater who will only eat meals that the likes of Banquet and Tyson might clone.
It always surprises me when I encounter someone who loathes one of the foods I consider essential to the human experience.

My husband dislikes stinky cheese--I get that. One could live a happy existence without ever falling prey to the pleasures of stinky cheese.
Stinky cheese is not essential.

Mushrooms however, are essential.
In my opinion, a life is not complete without mushrooms.
Their culinary possibilities are limitless. They are edible, blank canvases awaiting colorful interpretation. Their delightful names (think Chanterelle, Portabello, Shiitake, Hen of the Woods...) make even the most pedestrian fare sound like something spectacular.

I am a mushroom lover. If not only for their delightful flavor, then for their mysterious presence as well. On a sunny Monday there may be nary a mushroom in site, but under Tuesday's cloudy sky, they peek from every nook and cranny of our mossy, wooded path.
Like good neighbors, they will show up unannounced, on the darkest of days. They ask for nothing, but they are ready for anything.
Admittedly, I've spent many a moment daydreaming about mushrooms.

And on one not-so-dark day, in my long-ago past, there was that mushroom nightmare.

Two kids and fourteen hairstyles ago, while in the early stages of my culinary madness, we invited some friends over for dinner. I proudly served my rendition of Chicken Marsala and it proved to be a crowd pleaser for all, except one.
For the purpose of this story (and because it's his real name), we will call him "Bill."

Bill's plate resembled what I would only discover years later to be the end result of a mealtime activity, known around these parts as "hide the vegetables." After a short but aggressive interrogation, Bill confessed. He hated mushrooms.
Hated mushrooms? How could anyone hate mushrooms?
He offered no explanation, he just hated them.

Mind you, Bill wasn't just anyone. He was as close to family as a non-family member could get. Childhood friend. Best Man at our wedding. Godfather to my child. Hater of mushrooms.

It is a cruel world, indeed.
I learned a lot about forgiveness that day.

Since that infamous gathering, Bill has enjoyed many meals at our home (sans mushrooms). While he may find simple satisfaction in Superbowl fare (think Baked Spaghetti and Homemade Pretzels), he has sampled and appreciated unfamiliar foods from far away places. He is a great fan of my culinary endeavors and more importantly, he is a great friend. While I will always believe that he misunderstands and unfairly judges my beloved mushroom, I hold no grudge.

And I rest easy knowing that somehow, somewhere, a mushroom will hide, undetected, in one of his meals. And he will enjoy it.

Until Next Time,

Make Life Delicious

Share Your Food


P.S. For those of you who appreciate that gem of the forest, the mushroom, I am posting a soup recipe from the New England Soup Factory Cookbook by Marjorie Druker and Clara Silverstein. The book is as pretty as the recipes are delicious. This soup begs for a cold, rainy day, and a hunk of crusty bread.

Happy Halloween.

Creamy Wild Mushroom Bisque

1 TBS Salted Butter

3 Whole Cloves Garlic

1 Large Spanish Onion, peeled and diced

1 Cup Diced Celery

1 LB. Shiitake Mushrooms**

2 Large Portobello Mushrooms**

1/4 Lb. Chanterelle Mushrooms**

2 to 3 Lge. Yukon Gold Potatoes, peeled and quartered

6 Cups Chicken Stock (homemade or store bought)

2 tsp Fresh Thyme Leaves

1 Cup Light Cream

Kosher Salt and Freshly Ground Pepper to taste

2 TBS Dry Sherry

2 tsp Worcestershire Sauce

1 TBS Olive Oil

Melt the butter in a stock pot over medium high heat. Add the garlic, onion, and celery. Saute for 8 minutes. Slice the Shiitake, Portobello and Chanterelle mushrooms, setting aside a total of 1/2 cup mixed mushrooms for the garnish. Add the remaining mushrooms and the potatoes to the stockpot. Saute for 5 minutes. Add the stock and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to medium and simmer until the potatoes are tender--about 30 to 35 minutes. Remove from the heat. Add the thyme and puree in the pot, using a hand blender or working in batches, in a regular blender until smooth. Add the cream, salt, pepper, sherry and Worcestershire sauce, stir well.

Heat the olive oil in a small pan over medium high heat. Add the reserved 1/2 cup mushrooms and saute until soft--about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add the mushrooms into the soup and stir to incorporate.

Serve hot with crusty bread for dunking. And thank Mother Earth for giving us the mushroom.


**If you are unable to find the variety of mushrooms as listed above, you may substitute any combination of wild mushrooms from the market. Even standard Button mushrooms work well, but will result in a milder flavor.

Your Favorite Jeans VS. Your Sunday Best, Who Cut the Cheese?, and the Cadillac of Scone Recipes

Sometimes we create our own anxiety. Once in a while, it becomes the force that drives us to do great things.

Note to self: Don't discuss a recipe until you've actually tried it, with successful results.

I had the I.O.U. of one Almond Scone experiment hanging over my head. I could hear the stomach rumblings from co-workers, friends and a few loyal bloggers. By the time I had a few hours to myself, I was already riddled with the fear that my plan would fail.
The plan was simple really. Take one simplified scone recipe, add the almond trifecta and create a scone worthy of donning your favorite little black dress.
If cookies are like good friends, with whom we let our hair down and share our secrets, then scones might be compared to our relationship with our favorite boss or teacher; not quite a friendship, but a complicated relationship that demands both boundaries and respect.

The task ahead of me required more than just the familiar mix, scoop and bake. Scones are, in my opinion, one of the complicated creatures of the baking world. Preparation of the dough is a tricky dance which requires the perfect balance of cold ingredients, a light hand and timely execution of the recipe. This commitment required my mixing bowls and my brain. Was I up for the challenge?

My initial plan was to use the recipe with which I already had success--that recipe for Apricot Cream Cheese Scones (which appears in a previous post). I would omit the apricots, replace the vanilla extract with almond extract, add ground almonds, and for the crowning glory, I would fold in bits of almond paste. Simple, right? Read on.

I had a few errands to run before I could set my plan into action. I checked the fridge to make sure I had enough eggs and cream cheese. I saw the last, silver brick of Philly on the shelf behind the flax seed (which, these days, is merely interior- fridge- decor) and I was well stocked with all things dairy (heavy cream, milk, half and half) should the need arise. So, off I went.

Upon my return, I closed the kitchen to outsiders (never an easy task with husband and son lurking). I completed my thorough, ritual counter cleaning, a long standing tradition, born as a result of a holiday cookie-dough rolling disaster which involved the likes of (but not limited to) metal staples and Kosher salt.
I set to work, measuring and whisking dry ingredients. I lined my pans with parchment. I preheated the oven. I toasted almonds. I chopped almonds. I cracked eggs. I headed to the fridge for the ingredients which needed to remain cold. I knew I had to work quickly.
I opened that timeless, familiar, rectangular, silver-box, to observe that my eight ounces of cream cheese had been reduced to four! Someone had in fact, literally, cut the cheese--right in half! After a moment of hysteria and the difficult admission that it was likely yours truly who reduced this brick of creamy goodness to a mere four ounces (likely for the sake of another recipe), I realized that my cream cheese scones would not be cream cheese scones after all.

So, I headed to the bookshelf.
It was there that I found my good friend Dorie Greenspan. I lugged my almost new copy of Baking From My Home to Yours to the other (not so clean) counter. I found her original recipe for Toasted Almond Scones, made a few simple adjustments and the rest, as they say, is history.
Before I get to the recipe, let me say this: Think of the recipe for Apricot Cream Cheese Scones as you would your favorite worn jeans--a comfortable, easy recipe in its own right, and great for casual weekends or even a weekday breakfast when you have some extra time. That being said, my recipe for Cadillac Scones--the Almond Trifecta would serve as appropriate fare for company or special occasions, as it is a bit more labor intensive. This is your little black dress of recipes. One worth squeezing into with a little more attention to detail.
As is true with any scone recipe, these are best served the day they are made. They freeze well if wrapped individually and then placed in freezer-safe ziploc bags.
As for Dorie Greenspan's book, it is one worth checking out. She is a baking guru who, for a time, worked alongside that legend Julia Child. Surprisingly though, her cookbook is not at all intimidating. It reads like a letter from a good friend. She offers great tips for preparation and storing of each recipe and the entire book is dotted with lighthearted, personal anecdotes. My recipe below is an adaption of her Toasted Almond Scones recipe. Hers does not include almond paste and you may recall, it was the almond paste, haunting me from my cupboard, that was the very inspiration for this entire experiment. On this eve of Halloween when hauntings abound, I am fortunate to have a basket full of delicious scones. The trick will be hiding this treat from greedy little hands.

Happy Halloween!
And until next time,

Make Life Delicious
Share Your Food


Cadillac Scones--The Almond Trifecta
2 Cups Blanched Almonds (whole, slivered or sliced, toasted)
4+ TBS sugar
2 Large Eggs
2/3 Cup Cold Heavy Cream
1/4 cup milk
1/4 cup Half & Half
1/4 tsp. Pure Almond Extract
3 1/2 Cups All Purpose Unbleached Flour
2 TBS Baking Powder
1/2 tsp Kosher Salt
2 Sticks Cold, Unsalted Butter cut into pieces
5 oz. Almond Paste **I used half of a 10 oz. can of my preferred brand Love 'n Bake
Turbinado Sugar for sprinkling
1/4 Cup sliced almonds for topping (optional)
Center a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 400 degrees.
Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
Divide the toasted almonds in half. Finely grind one cup in a food processor or blender with the sugar, taking care not to overgrind the nuts--you do not want paste.
Finely chop the remaining cup of almonds.
Stir the egg, cream, half and half, mild and extract together.
Whisk the flour, ground almonds with sugar, baking powder and salt together in a large bowl. Drop in the butter pieces and using a pastry blender (or clean hands), cut and rub the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture is pebbly--the size of small peas.
Pour the liquid ingredients over the dry and stir with a fork, just until mixture is incorporated. Stir in the chopped almonds.
Still in the bowl, gently knead mixture by hand until combined. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Shape dough into a long rectangle about 3/4 inch thick. Break up almond paste into nickel-sized pieces and scatter half of almond paste across dough. Imagine that the dough is a business letter, as you would fold a letter, fold dough into thirds. Gently roll into a rectangle again and repeat this step using the remainder of the almond paste. **IT IS IMPORTANT TO BE GENTLE WHEN WORKING THE ALMOND PASTE INTO THE DOUGH. YOU ARE NOT MIXING THE DOUGH, BUT RATHER INCORPORATING THE ALMOND PASTE SO IT BECOMES PART OF THE DOUGH. An overworked dough will result in tough, dense scones.
Flatten dough to 3/4 inch thickness. Using a round pastry cutter, cut scones into rounds. Place scones on parchment about 2 inches apart. You will bake one sheet at a time, so place second sheet in fridge until first sheet is done baking.
Dorie says: "At this point, the scones can be frozen on a baking sheet, the wrapped airtight. Don't defrost before baking--just add about two minutes to the baking time."
Before placing scones in oven, gently brush tops of scones with a bit of half & half, and sprinkle generously with Turbinado sugar. If you are using the sliced almonds as garnish, gently secure a few almonds to the tops of scones by depressing with your fingers.
Bake for about 15- 20 minutes until scones are golden and puffed. Remove to rack and cool on pan for 10 minutes. Place scones on wire cooling rack and serve when just warm.
This recipe makes approximately 18 scones.
***My Notes: please read before baking
It may be my oven, but I could smell that the scones were in danger of burning. With no science behind my decision, I dropped the oven temp to 375 degrees for the last five minutes of baking. In the spirit of the Apricot Cream Cheese Scones recipe, you could turn the oven off for the remaining 8 minutes but I caution you--this scone dough is a bit more dense and might not bake completely using this method. I urge you to stay close by while the scones are baking. Once they are puffed, golden and the tops feel firm, they are done. Follow your nose and your gut on this one. The results will be well worth it.
The next time around (and there will be a next time--even if I can't fit into my little black dress), I might add a bit more sugar. Admittedly, we like a sweet scone. The almond paste definitely lends more sweetness to this recipe but I would likely add a tablespoon more sugar.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Recapturing Youth, One Ginger at a Time

What is it about a giant cookie that brings us right back to childhood?

Some of us were lucky enough to grow up living near a great bakery. I wasn't so fortunate.
I knew from a very young age that looks could be deceiving (think diner desserts under glass). However, what those baked goods lacked in flavor they made up for in presentation and thus, that bakery still survives today.
Despite their bland taste and crumbly texture, those giant sprinkle cookies of my youth were more than just an occasional confection. If I woke to find one on the kitchen table, it served as a daily briefing of the events of the day. It meant that it was Sunday. It meant that we would gather, as a family, to attend mass at 12:15 and return home to find the large sauce pot still bubbling away on the stove (don't try this at home). The house would fill up with the aromas of fried meatballs, tomato sauce and whatever late-breakfast request tickled our fancy (I come from a long line of kitchen pleasers--ask nicely and you shall receive). The coffee table was scattered with the Daily News and the New York Times, and the only plan for the day was to plan nothing.
There were times in my adolescence when I resented those Sundays. While friends were planning shopping trips and attending sporting events, I was bound by the formality of weekly mass and the literal translation of resting on the Sabbath day.
Ironically, these are the days of my youth that I miss the most. I miss the dinner-table debates, the stolen sips of wine-spiked soda from my grandmother's glass and most significantly, the food.
I have learned over the years that it is foolish for me to try to recreate the Sunday fare of my youth. It is not simply the combination of flavors and aromas necessary to bring me back, but instead the whole sensory experience-- right down to my left-handed sister's elbow bumping mine at the table. I would have to leave this re-creation to a higher power.

So instead, I try to recreate that youthful, big cookie feeling with a few necessary adjustments.
While the sprinkle cookies of my youth might have satisfied some of the most discerning eight year olds back in the day, my audience is tougher today. In my ongoing quest for the perfect, flavorful, chewy, jumbo cookie, I have happened upon many favorites.
The one I am about to share with you however, is the penultimate in cookie-deliciousness.
I happen to be a big fan of both ginger snaps and molasses cookies. After many experiments, I arrived at a cookie that will please both young and old. It is not too spicy or too sweet and its soft, chewy texture might just bring you back to your Easy-Bake-Oven days.
I will admit that presentation is one of my hang-ups. An odd shaped cookie might taste as good as a perfectly round one, but why settle for mediocrity? I want my cookies to look great and taste even better, so I take the time to carefully measure and scoop.
But however you fashion these Ginger Molasses Softies (recipe follows), be sure to share them with loved ones. You'll likely make a few memories of your own.

And while we're on the subjects of cookies and youth, I should mention that the Ginger Molasses Softies were the cookies my college-freshman daughter requested I bring to Family Weekend. She must have known that her self-pitying, almost-empty nesting mom was feeling a bit un-needed. Truth be told, her first request was for Pecan Pie (and on that matter, to whom we owe credit for the expression "easy as pie" is a person to whom I have a few four letter words to direct--but that's another post) but clearly, PIE wasn't going to happen (at least not in twenty-four hours). So, she asked that I make enough cookies for her to share with friends. Friends I was eager to meet, but with a bit of trepidation.
Lately, her emails and phone calls had been very matter-of-fact and increasingly less frequent. She was expressing her need for independence and I was pretending not to notice.
On the morning we were set to leave for her campus, the skies opened. It poured buckets. We had enough time to wait out the storm and the cookies were packed and ready to go. I decided to pass the time by checking email and AIM (secretly hoping she would be on line). What happened next was monumental proof that alas, somewhere in that beautiful, independent stature of a young woman, was my little girl.
Although the details are fuzzy, I remember a fury of frantic instant messages, a fourteen-digit secret code, and her ALL CAPS request for use of my credit card "immediately!"
Through a series of desperate instant messages, she convinced me to purchase premium tickets for the one-night-only return of the Spice Girls to New York. And, in what seemed like a split second, transmission was complete.
ROW- H belonged to my daughter and four of her friends. She was thrilled, and for a moment, I was her cool mom again (and all this for only $500 bucks). It jogged a memory.

I recalled one day, several years ago, when she struggled to decide whether to dress up as Ginger Spice or Baby Spice for a costume party. She chose the latter and proudly wore her favorite go-go boots, hoop earrings and Spice Girls vinyl watch. Sadly, it was only a short time later that the very mention of the Spice Girls would cause her to cringe, roll her eyes and pretend it was all a bad dream.
I'm told the Spice Girls planned to return only for one show. The response from their New York fans was so swift, the show sold out in just minutes. They returned the love and added a few more shows to please their adoring fans. They were back.

The truth is, whether we are celebrities in the spotlight, moms in the kitchen, or students on campus, we ultimately return to where we are loved.
For some, familiar tastes and aromas bring us back to childhood, for others, the roar of a crowd is the very approval they seek.
This gives me great hope.

The go-go boots, hoop earrings and Ginger Cookies are patiently waiting.

Until Next Time,
Make Life Delicious and
Share Your Food


Jumbo Ginger Molasses Softies
This recipe makes 18 to 20 Large Cookies
3 Cups All Purpose Unbleached Flour
1 1/2 Cups Whole Wheat Pastry Flour
4 scant tsp. Baking Soda
1 tsp Kosher salt
2 tsp Ground Cinnamon
2 tsp Ground Ginger
1/2 tsp Ground Cloves
3 Sticks Unsalted Butter at room temp.
2 Cups Packed Light Brown Sugar
2 Large Eggs
scant 1/2 cup molasses
2 TBS Lyles Golden Syrup
3 to 4 TBS Candied Ginger pieces chopped finely
Turbinado Sugar/Sugar in the Raw for topping
Position a rack in the middle of the oven. Preheat to 350 degrees.
Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
Sift the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger and cloves into a medium bowl and set aside. In a large bowl, using an electric mixer on medium speed, beat butter and brown sugar until smoothly blended. Stop mixture to scrape sides of bowl as needed. Add the eggs, molasses and Lyle's Golden Syrup and mix until blended. On low speed, add the flour mixture and mix just long enough to incorporate. Fold in candied ginger.
In a cereal bowl, place enough Turbinado sugar to cover the bottom of the bowl (about 1/2 cup).
Using a large cookie scoop or 1/2 cup measure, scoop dough and gently roll between palms to form a ball (dough will be sticky, so form gently), then roll ball in sugar. Place ball on cookie sheet and using the bottom of a clean glass (I lightly butter the glass bottom and dip into sugar to prevent sticking), gently depress cookie to flatten slightly. Continue making cookies, spacing them at least 2 inches apart. Just prior to baking, sprinkle cookies with a tiny bit of cold water ( I run a clean hand under the faucet and shake it over the cookies--it's important not to saturate the cookies). Bake cookies one sheet at a time, until tops feel firm but are still soft in the center and there are several large cracks on top--this should take about 15 minutes. Cool cookies on baking sheet for 10 minutes and then transfer, using spatual, to wire rack to cool. Store cookies in airtight container between sheets of parchment paper for up to 3 days (if they last that long).
My Notes: If you can't find Lyle's Golden Syrup (once you taste it, you'll know why I like it so much), you can use the same amount of molasses--this will give the cookies a stronger flavor.
If you don't have whole wheat pastry flour, you can use all white flour. I believe the ww pastry flour makes for a slightly healthier, chewier cookie.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Defeat, Death of a Crock Pot and That Scone Recipe

It's not Mable's fault, really, it isn't.

Dinnertime couldn't get more pathetic around my house than it had lately. My miserable attempt at balancing a new job with domestic responsibilities was failing. When faced with the decision of whether to cook or bake, I often chose the latter and quite frankly, my family was growing tired of eating cookies for dinner.

I have a long, uncomfortable history with crock pot cooking but, in the spirit of "If at first you don't succeed..." I decided to give it another go. I dusted off the oval vessel with the mid-70's floral motif, and set to work. I failed once. I failed twice. So, I drove to the bookstore.
It was there that I decided upon Mable Hoffman's Crockery Cookery--the five-million copy bestseller. If five million readers were successful, surely this would be a no-brainer, right?
Besides, truth be told, I always thought I was too cool for crock pot cooking. In my mind, I would be giving in to this pedestrian cooking technique, simply because I didn't have the time to flaunt my seasoned culinary chops.

I collected my thoughts and then collected a week's worth of recipes which included the likes of Sorrento Chicken Roll-ups, Sloppy Joe (not to be confused with Sloppy Jane's appearing on the adjacent page), Black Bean Chili with Pork, Beef Stroganoff (this one claimed to be fool-proof), and my first (and last) crock pot dessert--Grandma's Rice Pudding.

There was spring in my step as I navigated the supermarket for the required ingredients. I suspiciously searched for something called "round steak" for the Beef Stroganoff recipe. Most of the ingredients however, were readily available and familiar to my cupboards (one of the very reasons crock pot cooking is so popular).
I followed each recipe to the letter and the directions were short and simple. Basically, each recipe required only that I chop, drop and roll (chop/dice ingredients, drop them into the crock pot, cover, set time/temp., and head to work). My initial thought: too easy. My final thought: too easy.

I won't burden you with my subjective analysis of the results. I will simply say this: I wasn't fully aware that chicken could have such an uncanny resemblance to cardboard in both appearance and taste (and yes, I've tasted cardboard, haven't you?). The flavor of our Sloppy Joe's was right on the money, eerily reminiscent of middle-school cafeteria fare, which caused a love-hate reaction at first bite. With each experiment, I became more frustrated-- until one evening when I observed my husband pouring heavy cream on a gelatinous mass I tried to pass off as rice pudding. It was then that I knew I was loved. It was then that I knew I had been defeated. Score:
Crock Pot: 5
Michelle: Zilch, Zero, Nada.

I spent a great deal of time on the internet in the weeks that followed. I engaged in numerous chats about crock pot cooking with seasoned professionals--home cooks who included the crock pot, that wonder of electricity, in their culinary repertoire. I read one success story after another. And finally, I decided to hang up the condensed soup and surrender. In my humble opinion, those mysterious cuts of round steak are best left to the brave. Clearly Mable is cooler than I am and so is the crock pot.

I don't want to die with enemies, but that crock pot? Dead to me.
Besides, oatmeal cookies can't be that bad for dinner, can they?

And on a happier, more successful note, I have posted the recipe below for the Apricot Cream Cheese Scones that I discussed a few posts back. I intend to make the Almond Scones soon and I will report back on that experiment.

Until then,
Make Life Delicious and
Share Your Food


This is how I received the recipe; note that the baking process is interesting as it requires you to turn the oven off and leave the scones in for a period of time. I'm not sure why this is necessary, but who am I to mess with a good recipe?

Apricot Cream Cheese Scones

4 1/4 Cups Pastry Flour or AP flour (not self rising pastry flour)
1/2 cup sugar ( honestly, I use a generous half cup)
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 (8 ounce) pkg of Cream Cheese
8 TBS (1 stick) chilled butter (unsalted)
1 Cup Diced or Slivered Dried Apricots
1 Large Egg
1/4 Cup Milk- plus more for brushing
2 tsp. pure vanilla extract (or 1/2 tsp. Flora di Sicilia--I have never used this)
Sparkling white or pearl sugar for topping (I use Sugar In The Raw--which I believe is Turbinado sugar, for topping)

Preaheat oven to 425 degrees. In medium bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Cut in the cream cheese and butter, using your fingers, a pastry blender or a fork, until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Stir in the dried apricots. In a small bowl, whisk together the egg, 1/4 cup of milk and the vanilla. Combine the liquid and dry ingredients and stir JUST UNTIL THE DOUGH BECOMES COHESIVE--BEING CAREFUL NOT TO OVERMIX. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Pat dough into a 3/4 inch thick rectangle. Cut out scones with a round plain or round fluted cookie or biscuit cutter. Place scones about two inches apart on parchment lined baking sheet. You may gather scraps and re-roll dough for additional scones, however, doing this more than once may result in tough scones. Try to use as much of the dough from the first roll as possible. Brush the tops of the scones lightly with milk and sprinkle generously with sugar.Bake scones for 8 minutes (on middle rack). Turn off oven and leave oven door closed and allow to bake for 8 minutes more until light golden brown. Remove from oven and allow to cool on rack (or serve slightly warm).

My notes: I discovered after making these a couple of times that I had to use my largest baking sheet and place the entire batch on one sheet if possible--this is to avoid having to re-light the oven for the second sheet. I suppose one could bake both sheets for 8 minutes separately, then turn oven off and place both racks in oven on top and middle shelf and allow to bake for remaining 8 minutes, but I have never done this. If my memory serves me correctly, this recipe makes approximately 15 decent size scones.Alternatively, you could pat the dough into a 3/4- inch thick circle and score scones traditionally into triangles and bake as such. Once baking is complete, cut through scored lines into triangles.

***For my Cherry Vanilla variation on these scones, I omitted the dried apricots and added
1 1/4 cup of dried cherries (I like Target's Archway Farms brand). Before adding the sugar, I scraped the seeds from one whole vanilla bean and worked it into the sugar with clean hands (surprisingly, this does make a difference). I increased the vanilla extract to 1 1/2 TBS. Follow the remaining recipe as posted above.

***For more information on this scone recipe, see post: "On the Topic of Scones and Job Security."

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Why the Wraps Won't Roll

Sometimes it really does take a meteor crashing into my home for me to recognize the obvious.

In my almost-twenty years of marriage, I have thrown a few parties. I usually start planning by making many lists. On paper, I appear to be very organized. I am not. On paper, it appears that the parties would be great fun. They are not.
Or at least they weren't until I decided to make a few changes; the first of which would be to actually spend time communicating with my guests. That being said, it is no small feat getting the hostess out of the kitchen when said hostess is unnaturally obsessed with matters of food preparation and presentation. It makes no difference whether I'm hosting a gathering of four or forty, I will still make enough food to feed a small village. Painfully aware of my weaknesses, I decided to put a new party plan into action.
Last June, we were planning a high school graduation party for my daughter and the guest list was growing at a rapid clip. I needed to develop a menu that would please both young and old, and one that would survive the heat of summer. More importantly, I needed to consult with the guest of honor for approval. Thankfully, I am blessed with a daughter who loves food almost as much as I do. Desserts were a no-brainer because she is a cookie-lover who doesn't fall far from the cookie-loving tree. Our greatest challenge was main-course fare. When she recommended wraps, I was both intrigued and terrified. My short stint working at a bagel shop taught me that wrap-rolling was best left to the same professionals who gracefully handled the meat slicer. As is my custom when the culinary-going-gets-tough, I headed for the bookstore. It was there that I found Wrap It Up by Amy Cotler. This unassuming paperback contains "100 Fresh, bold and bright sandwiches with a twist." I set out to represent the basics; chicken, turkey, beef and veggie. After much consideration, we settled on a chicken pesto wrap with sun-dried tomatoes, a turkey cobb wrap (my absolute favorite), a roast beef wrap with the addition of red onion and a creamy horseradish dressing, and a roasted veggie wrap with fresh mozzarella and a sweet/tangy balsamic glaze. We adapted some of these recipes to suit our own tastes by adding or omitting ingredients and we sought out interesting flat breads beyond the basic white or wheat.
It all seemed so lovely until it came time to actually roll the wraps. My daughter and I set up a conga-line of ingredients and enough deli paper to wrap a school bus. We allowed ourselves only one hour to prepare a total of 60 wraps and I can assure you, neither of us was capable of preparing a complete wrap in under a minute. After many failed attempts (some would not stay closed, others would tear from being overstuffed, allowing their filling to be exposed, and some would resemble cannoli as their ends would unfold), I decided to consult the book. Admittedly, I wasn't aware that heating the wrap is the most critical step in successful wrap production. After making a few small, yet significant changes, we were on our way to rapid-wrap-rolling (sorry, I couldn't resist). For those of you who haven't made wraps, allow me to demystify the process. I find that the following method is practically fool-proof:
* Purchase wraps and flatbreads that are not near expiration. Old wraps will be dry and crumbly.
* Have your wrap ingredients at the ready and set up assembly-line style. Keep in mind that ingredients should be cut to uniform size and large chunks are more difficult to wrap.
* Heat a large, non-stick skillet over medium-low heat.
*Wipe skillet with a paper towel lightly coated with canola oil or cooking spray.
*Using tongs, place wrap in skillet and allow it to warm until pliable (some wraps will puff up--this indicates it is warm enough to flip). Turn wrap with tongs and heat the other side until warmed through.
* Working quickly, place warm wrap on counter or large cutting board and assemble ingredients on lower-third of wrap in center. If you are adding dressing to wraps, place a scant tablespoon of dressing on wrap before placing ingredients on lower third. It is important to leave room on left and right side of wrap ingredients, as you will need to tuck in sides when completing wrap. An easy way to remember placement is: imagine your circular wrap is a smiley face. Your ingredients will be placed where the smile would go---leaving the area for eyes and nose empty.
* Your filling ingredients for a standard size wrap ( approximately the size of 8" to 10" tortilla), should not measure more than one cup. Allow additional room for bulky ingredients like lettuce, cabbage, veggies..etc.
*Once you have placed filling ingredients, add 1 scant tablespoon of dressing--if using--and spread across filling. Place a very small amount of dressing (honestly, I usually dip a clean finger in the dressing to apply) at the top part of your wrap (using the smiley face analogy--you would be placing a small dab of dressing on the forehead of the smiley face)--this will act as glue for the wrap--much like you would seal an envelope.
* Starting from the bottom and working away from you, fold the bottom portion of the wrap over the ingredients. Fold in each side and holding the sides in, firmly roll up wrap towards the top. Don't be afraid to squeeze and tuck as you roll, to keep the filling compact. Roll until you reach the top portion of the wrap. At this point, the small bit of dressing at the top of the wrap should allow the wrap to adhere to itself.
*Place the completed wrap on a large sheet of deli paper ( I purchase the pre-cut deli sheets in a box from BJ's Wholesale Club). Wrap the completed wrap in deli paper--basically creating a wrap around a wrap--you will be repeating the same basic wrap technique. Using a large, serrated knife, slice the wrap right through the paper on the diagonal. Secure each wrap-half with a large, frilly toothpick (also purchased at BJ's Wholesale Club).
** We cut our wraps just before serving so the filling doesn't dry out.

Simple, right? Well... that's how I roll.
How about you?

So, my fear of wraps has been conquered, for which I am proud. However, I think what I am most proud of is the fact that I was able to spend quality time with my guests and really enjoy the party. Our simple fare of wraps and finger foods seemed to satisfy even the most discerning tastebuds. And more importantly, it was easy.
To date, I still get requests for the Chicken Pesto Wrap with Sun-dried Tomatoes (recipe to follow).

I know this holiday season many of you will out-do last years' menu. You will work tirelessly and attend to every detail. Remember however, that your guests will enjoy whatever you make-- and I hope you'll make time to enjoy your guests.

Until Next Time,
Make Life Delicious and
Share Your Food


Pesto Chicken Wrap with Sun-Dried Tomatoes
from Wrap It Up by Amy Cotler

1/4 tsp. salt or more to taste (I use at least 1/2 tsp. kosher salt)
1 cup plain couscous
1 garlic clove peeled
2 cups fresh basil leaves
3 TBS olive oil
1/8 tsp. freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese ( I used a generous 1/2 cup of Parmigano Reggiano)
1/3 cup coarsely chopped toasted walnuts
4 large wraps or burrito-size flour tortillas (I used tomato-basil flavored wraps)
12 oz. shredded cooked chicken (3 to 4 cups) ** we often use deli-made rotisserie chicken
16 sun-dried tomato halves packed in oil, drained and coarsely chopped
1 small yellow bell-pepper,cored, seeded and diced
I added the following:
8 oz. Mozzarella cut into small dice (because nothing in life can't be improved with a little Mozzarella)
** I used fresh mozzarella which I blotted with paper towels to absorb some of the mositure
** Coarsely chopped, pitted Kalamata olives.

Pour 1 1/2 cups boiling water mixed with salt over the couscous in a small bowl. Cover and set aside.
To make the pesto, combine the garlic, basil, olive oil, a pinch of salt and pepper in a blender or mini food processor. Blend well and stir in the cheese.
Heat the wraps, one at a time in a skillet, turning frequently until hot and pliable, about 5 to 15 seconds each. Distribute 2 tsp. of pesto, a scant 1/2 cup of couscous, 3/4 cup of chicken, and a quarter of the walnuts, sun-dried tomatoes and diced pepper evenly over wrap. Sprinkle with a handful of diced Mozzarella and chopped olives, leaving a one inch border. Add a dab of pesto to top third of wrap. Follow rolling/wrapping instructions above. Continue and repeat with remaining wraps. Makes 4 wraps. **Sealed in wax paper, plastic wrap or foil and refrigerated, the wraps will keep for up to a day. Reheat just until warmed through, sealed in foil in a preheated oven at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes. Serve warm.


***Please note: the party fare that we served were adaptions of recipes from Amy Cotler's Book. We tend to follow the more-is-better philosophy around here. So, it's likely that our wraps had more pesto, and absolutely had more mozzarella. I believe we added a bit of reduced balsamic vinegar to the shredded chicken and as always, we probably added a bit more salt.
Follow your gut on this one; taste the filling before you wrap and roll.

Friday, October 26, 2007

A Sordid Past, Giving Birth and Really Bad Peanut Butter Muffins...

After a great deal of soul-searching and the need to embrace an identity (hey, I just turned 40, allow me some drama), I discovered that while some can lay claim to a sordid past, mine is more of a sort-of past. As I look back upon my years at both work and play, I can proudly own the fact that I have been many things... well, sort of. The complete list would be far too long to post but for the sake of interest, here are a few:

At one time or another, I was a quilter, a primitive-rug-hooker (not to be confused with latch-hooking---if you incorrectly assume a connection between the two, it may involve jail-time if you're in the company of New Englanders), a manufacturer of novelty Christmas stockings (this is a long, ridiculous story which found redemption only in the fact that somewhere in the world there might be a few homeless and poverty-stricken souls whose feet will likely find warmth in the colorful, yet mismatched donations depicting the likes of Groovy Trolls, the Pittsburgh Steelers, Siamese Cats, Harley Davidson Motorcycles and sushi), a fabric retailer (as a direct result of an over-saturated stash of quilting fabrics--this faux pas may also be applied to the novelty stocking disaster), the owner of an online gift-basket business (which folded ten minutes after it started because I hated the whole process), a banker, a baker, a bagel shop employee, a receptionist, a ski-wear salesperson, a proofreader for a title company, a preschool teacher, a scrapbooker, a rubber-stamper, a teddy bear maker (mohair only, of course) and oh, the list goes on...

You may notice a pattern here (or lack thereof). I suppose
I don't have the gene for stick-to-it-iveness.
When I spend time pondering the whys and what fors, I am reminded that one of the few passions in my life that is a constant, is my love for and curiosity about food.

It is for this reason I have always been a sad dieter. When I say "sad," I don't mean that I am not good at dieting. I am, in fact, a very successful dieter (just ask me how many times in the past twenty five years I have lost ten pounds). What I mean is that I am truly sad when I follow a restrictive, exclusionary meal plan. I mourn the loss of good food as one might mourn the loss of a dear friend. Which is why the weight doesn't stay off for long. It took me twenty years to realize that I would have to make peace with not being thin and I would have to find a healthy method to balance my physical and nutritional needs with my love of great food (hence, walking five miles before baking a batch of cookies).

Enter the low-fat experiment and the worlds worst Peanut Butter Muffins. I'll keep this one short, and not so sweet; sometimes the proof isn't in the pudding, but is in the recipe itself. Little or no fat often results in little or no flavor. I brought said muffins in to work and my kindhearted coworkers ,who were both diplomatic and PC in their review (and let's face it, they know better than to insult the only baker in the building), devoured them in record time. But redemption would be mine. I could not leave the taste of dry, crumbly muffins on their palates for long. I promptly baked a batch of Maple Oatmeal Cranberry Jumbos (recipe follows) and thus, the planets realigned and peace was restored to the kingdom. Another valuable lesson learned (If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck, it's probably a duck, right? Well, if it looks like a low fat muffin and the recipe reads like a low fat recipe, it will likely taste like a low fat muffin). Which brings me to the countless lessons I've learned throughout the years:

I recall reading about fine artists in history and how they had their color "periods." I believe Monet had his "blue period" (among others) and I vaguely recollect some artist spending quite a bit of time experimenting with red.
So, if I'm allowed to say that food is my art, then I'd have to include the many periods (or more appropriately, periods of culinary insanity) through which I have passed.

After reading Bread Alone by Dan Leader and The Village Baker by Joe Ortiz (two of the bread-gods in the culinary world), I entered what I like to call my "Bread Period." I vowed that I would never again shell out $5 for a sub-par loaf of designer bread when I could likely make my own for less. I focused on the most basic recipes for "artisinal" loaves and I followed the advice of the bread gods to the letter. I did actually line the bottom of my oven with unglazed ceramic tiles, I did purchase five pounds of grapes for the sole purpose of letting them sit out on my counter to provide my baking environment with natural yeast. I did purchase the most expensive thermometer to correctly measure the temperature of my rising loaves and I searched endlessly on line for the correct bannetton in which I would allow my dough to rise (these were the days before Sur La Table imported every gadget known to foodies across the globe). And what was the end result, you ask? Well, I turned out a countless number of sub-par loaves of bread I could happily call my own. Quite an expensive lesson.

To date, I depend only on on one tried and true recipe for Buttermilk Bread that came from a farmers cookbook purchased at a yard sale. It needs only a few ingredients, a standard loaf pan, and a basic oven (sans tiles). These days, I willingly purchase loaf after loaf of Ecce Panis bread at my local supermarket and the homemade Wild Mushroom Soup into which I dunk it, is none the wiser.

And there have been so many other periods of culinary madness (and the bills to prove it). From canning to dehydrating, pizza making to fondant rolling, and many in between. If I had to choose a favorite, I would have to say that my "Truffle Period" was by far, the most fun, the most delicious, and the most expensive. If you don't believe me, just research the going price for Chocolate Tempering Machines and search for the current price per pound for Callebaut block chocolate. Needless to say, I had A LOT of friends during that period.

So by now, you are probably wondering what any of this has to do with the price of tea in China (an expression I've always wanted to use). Well, the fact is, I have always believed that human beings fall into one of two categories; There are the Doers and there are the Dreamers. Until recently, I have always believed that I was a doer. I believed that someday I would be rich and famous, I would blaze trails and leave my mark on the world. And I support this with the following:
(1) I am the worlds most paranoid, white-knuckled, anxious driver--clearly God wanted me to have a chauffeur. And...
(2) Although I have no formal training, I somehow have known since birth, how to shop with reckless abandon.

Once I realized that fame and fortune were not within my reach, I decided that I would find my bliss in owning a bakery. The problem is, I haven't yet found anyone willing to donate a bakery on my behalf.
And so, the truth is, I am a dreamer.

Which brings me to labor and delivery, or actually the birthing of this blog. I have given this whole blog-thing some serious thought. I almost allowed my fear of the unknown to stifle my ambition, but then I was reminded (by my dear friend, Oprah), that we will likely regret that which we didn't do, more than we will regret what we actually did. So, in that spirit, I decided to forge ahead.

Here are some of my reasons for wanting to start my own blog:
(1) I wanted to move my game piece from dreamer to doer, if just for a moment. My hope is that the journey will be enjoyable and the goal reachable. It seemed like a no-brainer from its inception.
(2) I have spent countless hours reading cookbooks. Some find it hard to believe that I actually find enjoyment in this. I have to believe that I am not alone (while there might only be a handful of us out there, I know I am not alone). Who better to share my culinary thoughts with, than those who are like- minded and who find joy in the simplicity of everyday life and the meals that sustain us? And...
(3) It has to be cheaper than therapy.

So, I invite you to join me on this adventure. I welcome your input and I encourage you to post.
And when you have some time, ponder the question; Are you a doer or a dreamer ?

Until then,
Make Life Delicious
Share Your Food


(This recipe is adapted from Elinor Klivans book Big Fat Cookies)

1 3/4 cups unbleached all purpose flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt **I increased salt to a generous 1/2 tsp.
2 tsp. ground cinnamon ** mine were generous teaspoons
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter at room temp.
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/3 cup granulated sugar **I used a scant bit less than 1/3 cup because I knew I wanted to add 2 TBS of LYLES GOLDEN SYRUP--my reason being that I read that the addition of corn syrup makes for a very chewy cookie. I love the flavor of Lyle's so, I decided to take a chance and add 2 TBS--I'm not sure if it had anything to do with the great flavor--but it didn't hurt!!!
2 large eggs
1/2 cup PURE maple syrup*** I also added 1/2 tsp. of Lor-Ann Maple Flavoring
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups oatmeal ***I used Bob's Red Mill large cut oats. I am not a fan of very "oaty" cookies so, I put 3/4 cup of the oats into my mini food processor and ground it into oat flour. I left the remaining one cup of oats as whole oats (for a total of 1 3/4 cups). I added the oat flour along with the dry ingredients and then followed the recipe accordingly.
1 1/2 cups dried cranberries
Turbinado Sugar (Sugar in the Raw, or coarse sugar)

Position a rack in the middle of the oven. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment.Sift the flour, baking soda, salt and cinnamon into a medium bowl and set aside. In a large bowl, using an electric mixer on medium speed, beat the butter, brown sugar and granulated sugar until smoothly blended--about one minute. Stop the mixer and scrape the sides of the bowl as needed. On low speed, add the eggs, maple syrup, Lyles Golden Syrup, vanilla extract and maple flavoring (if using) and mix until blended. Mix in the flour mixture to incorporate, add ground oats and mix. Mix in oatmeal and fold in cranberries until combined.Using an ice cream scoop or 1/4 cup measure, scoop onto parchment lined baking sheet, spacing at least 2 inches apart (these will spread). Sprinkle Turbinado sugar on top of each cookie and using the bottom of a glass coated with sugar (I lightly butter the glass bottom and then dip into sugar), gently depress each cookie so it flattens just a bit. Bake the cookies ONE SHEET AT A TIME until the tops feel firm and the bottoms are lightly browned, about 18 minutes (*** mine took only 16 minutes to bake and they were generously sized). Cool the cookies on baking sheet for about 10 minutes then transfer to wire rack until completely cooled.


On the Topic of Scones and Job Security...

Well, it's another dreary day here in New York and I'm convinced that I must make the time to whip up a batch of hearty soup. You know, the kind that just begs for a hunk of crusty bread for dipping.
First things first, though. On the topic of job security (and yes, I am employed outside my home -the paycheck is necessary to support more than just my baking habit): I look forward to the few days each week when I bring baked goods to work. On a basic level, it brings joy to hungry co-workers. But on a more intimate level, sharing ones baked goods is so much more. For those of you out there who bake and share, you know what I mean. My co-workers joke that I bake for job security. Perhaps that is the small return on the initial investment. But, sharing ones food provides a security that extends far beyond the limits of employment.
We all seek approval and in my humble opinion, there is no greater satisfaction than knowing I had a small role in improving someones day (and filling their bellies).

After a few weeks of cookie madness, I decided to deviate from my most recent cookbook acquisition (Big Fat Cookies by Elinor Klivans) and reinvent the scone. I probably know what you're thinking ("Scones? Aren't those the dry, crumbly things they eat in England?") but, before you pass judgement, read on.
A few years ago, while I was employed as a preschool teacher, I was presented with a lovely, heartfelt gift from one of the moms. It was a small batch of home-baked scones. The tag read:
"Apricot-Cream Cheese Scones." I can already hear the disgruntled sighs from those of you who are purists, probably thinking "Cream cheese? Real scones don't have cream cheese!"
Well, be still my scone-hating heart, if those weren't the best scones I had ever tasted (sans beverage--in my opinion, the true test of a scone--can you eat it dry, without choking?), then I don't know what was. They were moist, yet scone-like and the addition of sweet/tart apricots with a slightly crunchy sugar-topping made me hanker for seconds. For weeks I begged this lovely mom for the recipe. She kindly supplied me with the recipe and another batch of scones to hold me over until I had time to bake. It was the humble spirit of this scone that inspired me to play around with that recipe.
My efforts must have been successful because I brought my first batch of Cherry-Vanilla Cream Cheese Scones to work on a Tuesday and I'm told they didn't make it to Wednesday. I have been craving those scones since the tupperware left my hands. But I am inspired to deviate, simply because two (expensive) cans of almond paste that sit idly in my cupboard are haunting me. My intent is to create an over-the-top almond scone that uses almonds, almond extract, almond paste and perhaps some ground almonds as a substitute for some of the flour (this would qualify it as a "healthy snack," right? :).
So, stop by again won't you? I'll post the original recipe for Apricot Cream Cheese Scones and I'll report back on my experiment with Almond Scones.
And in the meantime,
Make Life Delicious.
Share Your Food.