Friday, May 29, 2009

How to Frost a Cake

(Above) Glossy ganache frosting. Check.

(Above) Clean hands and cake. Check.

(Above) 1st layer. Check. 2nd layer. Check.

(Above) Sprinkles. Double Check.

(Above) Not exactly worthy of Martha Stewart, or even Martha Washington, but it tasted great! (And I cleaned up the platter before serving it to the birthday boy.)
Daddy requested a yellow cake with chocolate frosting for his birthday. I used the Golden Cake with Chocolate-Sour Cream Frosting from the Gourmet Cookbook, the recipe is also at The cake was pretty good, but the frosting was spectacular. It used a pound and a quarter of milk chocolate and three-quarters of a pound of semisweet chocolate, melted and smoothed out with three cups of sour cream and a shot of vanilla. The resulting frosting was glossy, rich and probably the most beautiful bowl of chocolate I've ever seen in my life. It made the cake.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Box Full of Spring

(Above) Watermelon Radishes

(above) Sugar Snap Peas

(Above) Strawberries surrounded by mint,
lettuce and collard greens.

Opening today's CSA box was like a snapshot of spring: butter lettuce, watermelon radishes, sugar snap peas, and strawberries. Sweet potatoes and collard greens rounded out the bounty.
This is my plan of action:
1. Strawberries. Gobble gobble. I'm not a big fan of cooked strawberries. The color goes to mud and the texture is indescribably unappealing. Fresh berries need so little care to make them edible. I hull and slice them, wash and dry them, then place the berries in a container in the fridge awaiting snackers. Nice to offer the girls fresh strawberries with their morning toast or maybe a few bites to stall them while I cook supper.
2. Collard Greens. Collards are one of my favorite foods. They are certainly this green-loving girl's favorite green. As much as I love Southern-style greens cooked with pork, I'll probably stir-saute these in olive oil with a bit o' garlic. Serve with ham and homemade mac and cheese.
3. Mint tips. The fragrant, pointy tips of the mint plant. A nice change from the chocolate mint which is taking over my front flower bed. I'm a little stumped on how to use this. It's a little late for Derby Day and mint juleps. (Don't even get me started on the Sterling julep cups that by all rights should be mine.) My trusty Gourmet Cookbook offers three suggestions: roasted lamb with new potatoes and English mint sauce, summer fruit salad with mint sugar, and minted peas and onions. The mint sugar for the fruit salad looks to be a winner - perhaps the strawberries will last long enough for a shower of mint sugar.
4. Lettuce. A pretty, fluttery rose-like flower of butter lettuce. Salad on the hoof, in a manner of speaking.
5. Sugar Snap Peas. Maybe I should use the mint with Sugar Snap Peas? I'm inclined to go with shallot sauteed in butter and then a few minutes with the peas. Like strawberries, they are so perfect, they require very little work.
6. Radishes, watermelon variety, with greens. These are fun to slice, rather like pastel version of the showy Chioggia radishes. Really peppery bite, but radishes are not meant to be candy. Roasting is an option. Gourmet Cookbook braises the radishes and serves them with raspberry vinegar. Some will be sliced thin and used on salads. The greens are peppery also, and will be stir-fried with some chard.
7. Sweet Potatoes. An All-South meal is coming together here - ham, mac and cheese, and collard greens, to be finished off with Sweet Potato Pie (that song will be running through my head for days). The pate brisee is already in the fridge and the sweet potatoes are roasted. I'll make Ma Ma's Sweet Potato Custard Pie from "Beans, Greens and Sweet Georgia Peaches" by Damon Lee Fowler, one of my favorite Southern cookbooks. He's a man who knows pies.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Chicken Salad with Celery, Bacon and Pecans in a Packet

(above) Use rolling pin to seal perforations.

(Below) Place 1/4 cup filling on each rectangle.

(Below) Fold over and seal.

(Below) Employ child labor to "paint" packets.

These chicken salad packets were so yummy that even though I carefully documented the creation process (fold, wipe, snap picture, fold, wipe, snap picture, clean kid's hands, snap picture), they were eaten before I could take a shot of the finished product. I guess that means that I need to make them again very soon!

I first made these in high school, based on a recipe in the 1981 classic: "Homemade is Better from Tupperware Home Parties." The recipe was called Chicken Bundles and used a homemade yeast dough to enclose chicken salad made with one of my favorite convenience products, sour cream dip with onion. I took the recipe to college where a roommate suggested that I use Pillsbury crescent rolls for the dough, which worked quite well. You can still substitute yeast dough for the packets; it works great.

For the cooked chicken, I purchased a large package of bone-in, skin-on breasts on sale, rinsed and dried the meat, coated it with vegetable oil, salt and pepper, and put it in the oven for a half hour at 375. I pulled them out, let them cool, and diced the meat. The extra chicken went into the freezer for future meals (quesadillas, calzones, salads, soup) on the fly.

Chicken Salad Packets

2 1/2 cups chopped, cooked chicken
6 slices bacon, cooked and crumbled
1 (8 oz.) carton sour cream dip with onion
3/4 cup finely chopped celery
1/2 cups pecans, toasted and chopped
1/4 cup mayonnaise (I use reduced fat)

3 packages reduced fat crescent rolls
bit of cream, half-n-half or milk for brushing

1. Combine all filling ingredients in a medium mixing bowl. Preheat oven to 375. Have two jelly roll pans at the ready, lined with parchment paper or Silpats.
2. Open crescent roll packages individually. It's best to work with one tube at a time and keep the remainder in the fridge. There are eight rolls to a package, but only divide the dough into four rectangles. Use a rolling pin (Pampered Chef makes a handy mini rolling pin that works great for this task) to smooth out the perforations in each rectangle.
3. Place 1/4 cup of chicken salad on one side of each rectangle. Gently fold the dough over the salad and press the edges to seal. Place on pan and proceed with next tube-o-dough.
4. When all packets are assembled, brush with desired milk product. This is a good job for kids - they like to "paint" whatever is about to go in the oven. Bake at 375 for about 20 minutes, or until nicely brown, with no raw dough spots.
5. Remove from oven and let cool on wire rack for a bit before you serve them, especially to kids (ooooh, mouth burn, par-boiled tongue!). The extras can be refrigerated and served the next day. Would also be nice packed on ice and sent in a lunchbox.

Yield: 12 sandwiches

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Why I Have a Crush on Ruhlman

Finally got the right combination of discounts to pick up "Ratio: Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking" by Michael Ruhlman. With a cover price of $27 for a barely-200 page book and only a handful of (quite lovely) black and white photographs, I made myself wait until I could get it for under $20, although I know I will treasure this book for a lifetime.

Ruhlman is a solid writer with a journalistic sense tuned to contemporary artisanal pursuits, in particular, the world of chefs and the Culinary Institute of America. His "Elements of Cooking" will never be placed on a shelf in my house -- I keep it on the bedside table or the kitchen counter for frequent reference. My sense from the first 61 pages of "Ratio" is that this book will not gather dust, either.

And why do I love Ruhlman (his books, anyway)? Because, alongside very specific, technical information about the differences between crepes, pancakes and popovers, you get a paragraph like this. As my Journalism 101 professor would say, it sings.

"And I think that people who are gifted pastry chefs have simple seen the crepe-cake continuum more clearly for longer, rather than seeing crepe equaling one set of instructions, cake another, and so have been able to improvise; they understand how small adjustments in fat, flour, egg and sugar can result in satisfying nuances of lightness and delicacy or richness in flavor and texture. It's all one thing.

"Which is why I love cooking. It's all one thing. Which is the ultimate comfort in a life fraught with uncertainty and questions. Which is why I don't fear dying. Which is what I'd put on my headstone if I thought being buried in ground mattered: "It's all one thing." Which is why I love batters."

Friday, May 22, 2009

Why I Can't Wait for Summer

Memorial Day is really the first day of summer. And I want to spend this sunscreen-soaked summer with my girls, beginning with the beach, followed quickly by Vacation Bible School, the Fourth of July, my older daughter's birthday and lots of fun up until school starts back August 6th (!).

And in just one month, near the end of June, the local blueberries will appear in the farmer's market and the CSA bags. I lived for blueberries last summer. We ate bags and boxes of them, maybe freezing a pint or two, which didn't last through October. We were like giddy subprime mortgage lenders, wallowing in the bounty, ignoring the future, the still small voice whispering the blueberries won't go on forever. Heedless of the maxim all good things must come to an end.

But now it's May and soon it will be June. Emily Dickinson wrote that hope is the thing with feathers. Naaah. The Belle of Amherst had it all wrong. Hope is a blueberry. And when I have fresh blueberries at hand, I plan to make blueberry scones and blueberry almond yogurt cake and maybe a blueberry pie and my favorite, blueberry granola parfaits.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Kids Come Running When They Hear the Word "Strawberry"

This is the week's Farmers' Fresh CSA box. The cute kid wasn't included, but lingered for the unpacking when I found strawberries at the top of the box. The amount was just enough for two little girls to devour with a bit of demerara sugar.

More from the box and my plans:

1. 3 yellow squash. One of my favorite childhood smells is that of crookneck squash cooking with onions in a cast iron skillet. I may replicate that dish, or maybe talk the family grillmaster into grilling the sqash - he marinates it in a vinaigrette and grills it lightly.

2. Bright green and white chard. Probably a nice saute, with a little garlic and olive oil.

3. An herb bundle featuring thyme, winter savory and salad burnet. The burnet was mixed into tonight's salad, and the thyme was used in a horseradish herb butter for root vegetables (more on that, below).

4. Lettuce. Pretty, mellow romaine. I used my brand new Oxo Salad Spinner tonight. Or maybe I should say the girls spun the living daylights out of the salad. Very tasty salad with tomatoes, the burnet, radishes, and a homemade vinaigrette (see recipe below).

5. Onions. Nice spring onions. I cleaned them tonight and I'm thinking how tasty they will be in salads and soups.
6. Kohlrabi. Two words: Sput Nik. Destined for slaw.
7. Carrots. The cutest carrots ever, it just seems so glamourous to have tops and tails on your carrots.
All these vegetables need are sauces, hot and cold. The first, for cooked vegetables is a horseradish herb butter that will have you licking your fingers to scoop up the last little bit from the bowl. The second is my basic salad vinaigrette, which incorporated this week's onion and salad burnet. Yum.
Horseradish Thyme Butter for Steamed or Roasted Vegetables
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons prepared horseradish
1 1/2 tablespoons cider vinegar
2 tablespoons minced fresh thyme
1 1/2 teaspoons salted
freshly ground pepper to taste
Melt butter in a small saucepan over moderate heat and stir in horseradish, vinegar, thyme, salt and pepper. Serve with steamed or roasted vegetables. I used carrots, potatoes, cabbage and onions.
Everyday Vinaigrette
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons finely minced green onion or shallot
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup olive oil
Whisk together the first five ingredients, then slowly add oil in a slow stream, whisking until incorporated.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Cherry Cheesecake Swirl Bars

Cherry Cheesecake Swirl Bars by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

I accept cheesecake in every form, except perhaps, intravaneously. It's always perfect for dessert. These Cherry Cheesecake Swirl Bars make a more casual cheesecake, one that would fill out a brunch menu instead of coffeecake, or maybe an afternoon smidge-of-something-sweet to tide you over until a late supper. They are creamy, pretty and impressive. Serve with black coffee.

Cherry Cheesecake Swirl Bars with Walnut Crust


1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
3/4 cups sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup finely chopped nuts, such as pecans or walnuts, optional


2 (8 oz.) packages low-fat cream cheese (neufchatel), softened
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 large eggs
1/4 cup cherry preserves

1. Preheat the oven to 350. Lightly butter either an 11 X 11 or 9 X 13 pan.

2. To make the crust: In a medium-sized mixing bowl, combine the flour, sugar, salt, baking powder and butter. Mix in the nuts, if using. Press the mixture into the bottom of the prepared pan. Bake the crust for 12 to 15 minutes, until set. Remove from the oven and let cool.

3. To make the filling: in a medium-sized bowl, using a whisk, beat the cream cheese and sugar and sugar until smooth. Gently beat in the vanilla and eggs. Spread the filling over the crust.

4. Stir the preserves, warming if necessary to bake it spreadable. Spoon the preserves into a small plastic bag, snip off one corner of the bag, and pipe lines the length of the pan, slightly less than an inch apart. Use a knife to pull the preserves from side to side through the cream cheese mixture at 1-inch intervals.

5. Bake the bars for 20 to 22 minutes, just until the filling is set. The middle will wobble slightly. Remove them from the oven and run a spatula around the edges of the pan to loosen the filling; this will help prevent it from cracking. Cool for 1 hour at room temperature, then refrigerature until completely cool and firm. Yield 24 bars.

Cherry Cheesecake Swirl Bars by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Snow Peas

I rarely purchase snow peas, fresh or frozen, from my grocery store. (Sadly, it's the same story with sugar snaps.) The frozen ones are flabby and the allegedly fresh ones never look particularly fresh. So, you can imagine the squeal of delight when I opened the CSA box this week and spied real, honest-to-goodness, perfect and unblemished snow peas. I used them in a lovely shrimp stir-fry with a basic fried rice -- using carrots, onions and frozen English peas as the veg. The stir-fry's pink and green combination, suitable for Muffy's favorite Bermuda bag or perhaps a Lilly Pulitzer sundress, was dazzling, exceeded only by the taste -- first-rate.

Shrimp Stir-Fry with Celery and Snow Peas

1 lb. raw shrimp, peeled
a tablespoon or two of vegetable oil
1/2 onion, thinly sliced
1 cup chopped celery
1/2 lb. snow peas, trimmed & de-stringed
1 garlic clove
1 1-inch piece of ginger

1. Prep all ingredients and place a wok or 10-inch skillet over high heat and pour in oil. I use a wok skillet, seasoned to ebony nonstick perfection through years of cooking. Using a microplane or other grater, finely grate the garlic and ginger.

2. When oil is just shy of smoking, pour in onion and celery. Stir until slightly softened, a few minutes. Add snow peas and continue cooking for a few minutes. Add shrimp and cook, stirring all the while, until the shrimp are cute pink curls, reminiscent of the giant snail in "Dr. Doolittle" (Rex Harrison version).

3. When the shrimp are cooked through, make a well in the center and pour in the garlic and ginger mixture. Cook a minute or so more, stirring to integrate the garlic and ginger throughout.

4. Serve immediately with steamed rice or fried rice.

CSA: Celebrating Seasonal Abundance

Beauty Shots
Above: Farmers Fresh CSA New Member Pack &
Below: This Week's Produce

It may be raining outside, but it's a beautiful day inside my house because I picked up my first Farmers Fresh CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) shipment of the year. I waited a bit late to join in this year -- the program started in March, but I'm so glad I signed up. The box is filled, literally filled with lettuces, beets still clinging to bits of soil, and snow peas, snow peas! vibrant green and just-picked crisp, crying out to be stir-fried!
The new member pack was a nice surprise, a Farmers Fresh tote filled with grains, honey, coffee and the makings for herbal tea. This is a picture of the member's package, along with my girls' opening the presents: goat's milk soap samples and lip balms.

And this is what I plan to cook with the CSA bounty:
1. Strawberries. The favored Mercer method of strawberry consumption is to clean the berries, hull and halve them and serve them with a bowl of demerara sugar. I used to mail order demerara, but now you can buy organic demerara at Kroger or Wal-Mart, just look near the granulated sugar. It has the molasses taste of brown sugar, but it's less refined and less moist, so you get non-melty crunch with each luscious bite. If I get ambitious, and if the berries last long enough, I'm tempted to make a simple pavlova, with a slow-baked meringue base and simple sugared berries serve on top.
2. Snow peas. I could go all Martha and make that ridiculously time-consuming, but very tasty, stuffed snow pea appetizer. I think that will have to wait. I think shrimp and snow peas will make an excellent stir-fry for supper. Maybe some fried rice on the side, which will incorporate the beautiful green onion.

3. The beautiful green onion can be used in the fried rice/stir-fry combo mentioned above or perhaps in a comforting potato soup. BTW, I've been waiting all year for the CSA potatoes. I have a collection of leek greens in my freezer, so the onion greens will surely go into my next batch of vegetable stock.

4. This week's herb bundle includes cilantro, admittedly, not a favorite, although I'm not one of those cilantro haters who detect a soapy taste in the green herb. This month's Fine Cooking has a recipe for Kohlrabi and Radish Slaw with Cumin and Cilantro that deserves a try.

5. Loose Leaf and Hydroponic Lettuces. Initial game plan is to use them in salads, but I'll keep in mind a Jacques Pepin recipe that uses a vinaigrette-dressed salad as a base for a simple pan-fried piece of fish.
6. Beets. I love beets, especially pickled beets on a Greek Salad (see last summer's post). A few months back I made roasted vegetables with dill from a Gourmet Cookbook recipe. I think that may merit a second try. Served with a nice piece of steak, or perhaps a roasted chicken breast.