Sunday, January 30, 2011

I want candy (bacon)

Candied bacon by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
Breakfast during the week is usually a filling bowl of oatmeal, or maybe vanilla yogurt with my homemade granola, some mornings a whole wheat bagel with a shmear. On the weekends, though, I'll put together a bigger breakfast, and have it ready for my sleepyheads when they wander downstairs. Crispy, yeast-raised waffles, or buttermilk pancakes, sometimes with ham, sometimes with this decadent bacon, baked in the oven with brown sugar. This is the sinful salt, sugar and bacon fat matrix - you can't stop at just one piece, so save it for a sometimes treat for your family.

I gave up frying bacon on the stovetop a long time ago. I bake it in the oven now and I have a system that guarantees easy clean-up and crispy bacon.

Candied Bacon
1 pound thick-cut bacon (I use Oscar Mayer hearty thick cut, but other brands will work)

2 tablespoons brown sugar (light or dark will work, I favor dark)

Cayenne pepper, optional

1. Preheat the oven to 350. Take a half-sheet pan or rimmed baking sheet and cover it with foil, making sure to push the edges of the foil against the sides of the pan. Place a nonstick baking grid on top of the foil (if you don't have one, it's ok, but the baking grid will keep the bacon out of the grease).

2. Place the strips of bacon on the baking grid. Sprinkle the strips with brown sugar and a bit of cayenne, if using. Bake at 350 for 25 to 30 minutes, or until desired level of crispiness is reached. Remove from oven and drain on paper towels.

Text and images copyright 2011, Lucy Mercer.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Consider the kumquat

Kumquats from Florida. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Funny story: yesterday, my daughter's preschool teacher shared another "Lindsey story" that made her laugh. It was "L" week and Miss Katie gathered the class and gave them each a dab of lavender lotion to rub on their hands. Ooh, doesn't it smell good? Oooh, it's so soft! My little Lindsey said, "it smells just like my Mom's kumquat pie!"

I grinned at the story and confessed that we do indeed eat kumquat pie at my house. I'm not so sure that it smells like lavender, but if you're crazy for citrus like we are here, you'll get lightheaded at the sight and smell of intensely citrus-y and creamy kumquat pie.

Before I made the pie, I made Candied Kumquats, inspired by a recipe in David Tanis' "Heart of the Artichoke" (Artisan Books, 2010). He tops lemon bars with candied kumquats and the picture in the book sold me - shortbread crust topped with lemon curd then glorious, glistening sunshine-orange kumquats. The candied kumquats are a cinch to make - in a saucepan, heat 1/2 cup water and pour in 3/4 cup sugar, stir until sugar is dissolved. Halve kumquats and flick the seed out with a knife. Place halved kumquats in sugar syrup and let bubble away for about 15 minutes or so. Keep an eye on them so they don't burn or bubble over. Remove from heat and let cool. Store in an airtight container such as a glass jar in the fridge. Candied kumquats are a lovely garnish for the following pie or can be eaten on their own, straight up.

In the heart of winter, Atlanta supermarket produce aisles are stocked with the best of Florida's citrus - grapefruits, oranges and tangerines, but you have to look carefully for the fruit that you can eat peel and all - the kumquat. The golden yellow gems are sold in cartons, sometimes in the refrigerator case. Tart and sweet kumquats can be eaten raw, but absolutely shine in sweet desserts such as this creamy and refreshing Kumquat Pie. This recipe uses low and non-fat ingredients to keep the fat count down and New Year's resolutions intact.

Kumquat Pie. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Kumquat Pie

Purchase a ready-made graham cracker crust or make this homemade version. Some supermarket crusts are small, you may need to purchase two.

Graham Cracker Crust

9 graham crackers

1/4 cup brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

6 tablespoons butter, melted

1. Preheat oven to 350. In a food processor, blitz the graham crackers into fine crumbs. Add sugar, salt and melted butter. Press mixture into a 9-inch glass pie pan. Bake for 10 minutes; crust will be dry and firm when done.


1 pint kumquats

1 (14 oz.) can non-fat sweetened condensed milk

1 (8 oz.) container whipped topping such as Cool Whip, thawed

½ cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice

1. Pick over the kumquats and remove any that are mushy or bruised. With each fruit, remove the stem, then slice in half pole to pole and with a knife, flick out the seeds. Place the kumquats in the bowl of a food processor and pulverize to bits.
2. In a bowl, fold the sweetened condensed milk into the Cool Whip. Stir in the lemon juice and the kumquats. Pour into the prepared crust. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for several hours before serving.

Have you ever tried kumquats? Do you eat them raw or cooked?

Text and images copyright 2011, Lucy Mercer.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A sign at the Times

Mark Bittman, New York Times columnist/

One of my favorite food writers, Mark Bittman, is moving from the food pages to the opinion desk at the New York Times. (Some of you may know that once upon a time, I wrote for a newspaper and still read many newspapers daily. With newspapers online these days, the New York Times has become my paper of record. They even covered the biggest story in my little town in the past century – the 500-year flood  – better than my “local” papers. ) Bittman’s Minimalist column started as a way to help home cooks improve their game, nourishing themselves and their families, and it grew to reflect changing times and attitudes toward food. Bittman sums up the 700 stories in 13 years here.

What I think is interesting about the move is what Bittman will be writing about next: food policy and ethics on the Times op-ed page. That’s right, next to the daily musings on the state of politics and policy, Bittman will write about what Americans eat and what that means. The conversation is changing from how to prepare what we eat to the provenance of what’s on the plate. The issues go beyond carbon footprints, teenage obesity and when to eat an heirloom tomato, encompassing the ethics of food, the rights of workers, the ominous -sounding term “food justice.” I’m an unabashed Bittman fan and I have no problem saying that I’m looking forward to this next bold step in food journalism.

In Bittman’s history of the Minimalist, he talks about the most popular recipe he never wrote, Jim Lahey's No Knead Bread. If you’ve ever baked a loaf of bread, this revolutionary technique will rock your world. The recipe requires very little yeast, no kneading (although I’ve found a few turns around a floured counter really help to pretty up the loaf), and it’s baked in a scorching hot covered Dutch oven. The joy and genius of this bread is that you make it in stages, mixing up the dough one day, letting it rise, shaping and baking the following day. Hands-on time is minimal, the resulting rustic hearth-worthy loaf will amaze your friends and family. I live in a bread-poor area of town, at least in terms of “artisan” loaves. Having a loaf of No-Knead Bread on my counter assures me that a hearty sandwich or even the after products - homemade croutons and quality bread crumbs, are within my reach.

Here’s the link for the recipe – let’s give the NYT some love. My only variations are in the pot that I use and the fact that I knead the dough for a minute or two before the first rise. The pot that I use is a Lodge cast-iron chicken fryer with a lid. It’s not quite as deep as a Dutch oven, but it gets screaming hot in the oven and produces a chewy, rustic loaf.

A rustic loaf of No-Knead Bread by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
What about you? Are you a Bittman fan? What will you miss about the Minimalist? Do you think food writing belongs on the opinion page?

Text and bread image copyright 2011, Lucy Mercer.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Hello My Name Is...

Welcome to A Cook and Her Books! I'm making new friends this weekend at FoodBlog South and want to show off my blog a little bit. Kind of how I straighten up my house when company comes - the mixer and the food processor get pulled off the counter and put in the pantry. The shoes get lined up neatly by the door and coats pulled off the backs of chairs and put away in the closet. (A warning: if you visit my real house, whatever you do, don't open the door to the laundry room.)

Now to my little blog, which is three years old now (first post: Jan. 18, 2008, not that you really need to read it). For the past year, I've written for the Salon Kitchen Challenge, a weekly contest with no actual prize other than being singled out and placed on the food pages of (with 5.8 million unique monthly visitors!). I completed every challenge in 2010, and because I have trouble letting go, I've posted two more this year, on tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches.

In the past year, I turned out more than 50 stories for the Salon Kitchen Challenge, posting whenever there was a contest, even while on on vacation. My favorite stories from the challenge are about breakfast with my four-year old, a chocolate and mint cake for "green food" week, mango mojitos with Marcus Samuelsson, peach ice cream "Baked Aleutians" cupcakes, homegrown tomatoes, eggplant, apple dumplings and rutabagas. I also wrote about the Laughing Girl from an old family photograph, above, going on a picnic. Along the way, I entered the Georgia State Fair and won a blue ribbon for my Morning Glory Muffins. Take a few minutes, put up your feet and and read through my stories. You may even sit on the rocking chair on my front porch. I'll bring cookies and iced tea out in a jiffy.

- Lucy

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Snow Day Part Duh

Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

When I last wrote, I was in the first day of what became known as either Snowpocalypse or Snowmageddon, catchy words the Atlanta weather gurus came up with to describe the week. The snow fell for just a day, but the subsequent low temps ensured that the ice remains. The sheets of black ice are what kept schools closed and families snowbound this week. No school, no mail delivery, treacherous roads, empty grocery store shelves. We were thankful for uninterrupted electricity, plenty of firewood, a full pantry and no particular need to leave the house.

Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

I began this week with a simple tomato soup and I'm ending the week with its equally simple accompaniment: grilled cheese. I could go all fancy-pants here and employ air finger quotes for a "take" on grilled cheese. Maybe 87-grain bread made from my own 87-grain home-milled flour, and cheese made from the milk of my herd of goats. Or not.

The only grilled cheese that matters is the one that Mama makes. My girls will someday have children of their own and when they call me up and ask Mom, how do you make grilled cheese? I will tell them this: Pepperidge Farm thin sliced bread (white or wheat), Kraft white American cheese and butter. The Pepperidge Farm thin sliced yields a crispy exterior; the white American, I swear it tastes different than the orange regular American; and for the butter, we use the Land O'Lakes light butter with canola oil because it doesn't tear the bread. Don't turn up your nose at the Kraft slices, each encased in its thin plastic Snuggi. Chef Linton Hopkins of Atlanta's Holeman and Finch Public House uses only American cheese on his famous 10 o'clock cheeseburgers.

Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Writing a recipe for grilled cheese seems a little like telling someone how to wear flip-flops. It's just one of those things that you DO, but here are a few tips to make the process easier. A griddle is a useful thing, mine is able to hold up to six pieces of griddling bread.

Have ready enough bread and cheese for the number of sandwiches you intend to make. Have butter handy. Heat griddle. Butter one side of each slice of bread and place butter side down on griddle. Unwrap cheese slices and place on toasting bread. The secret to successful grilled sandwich making is flipping the sandwich often enough to prevent scorching the exterior but allowing the interior to come to full melting perfection. When it's time to serve, we're a triangle family, but exceptions will be made for those who insist on rectangles or even squares. Occasionally, biscuit cutters are employed to create circles, with the trimmings becoming the cook's treat.

For dessert on this snowbound week - Bellwether Vance's Kumquat Pie. Creamy, tart and refreshing. I have a family of kumquat fans now - thanks, Bell!

Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

What is your favorite grilled cheese sandwich? What do you eat at home when you're snowed in or the weather's too bad to venture out?  Let me know in the comments below.

Text and images copyright 2011, Lucy Mercer.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Bake a chocolate pound cake for the ones you love

Chocolate pound cake by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

A homemade cake is a nice thing to have around the house during a long weekend, or perhaps you want to bake a gift for a friend. This chocolate pound cake fills the bill. It's not a death-by-chocolate type cake, just a pleasing cocoa taste and tender texture. With a bit of chocolate glaze, it  makes a kid-pleasing birthday cake.

Chocolate Pound Cake

1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1/2 cup vegetable shortening

3 cups sugar

5 eggs

3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 cup cocoa

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Preheat oven to 325. Grease a Bundt or tube pan with nonstick spray. In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream together butter, shortening and sugar. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. 

2. In a separate bowl, stir together dry ingredients. Add to butter mixture alternately with the milk, beginning and ending with dry ingredients. Add vanilla.

3. Pour batter into a Bundt or tube pan and place in a 325 degree oven. Bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes to 1 hour and 30 minutes. Cake is done when toothpick inserted in center is clean. Remove cake from oven and let cool on wire rack.

Look for more ideas for gifts from the kitchen like Orange Pecan Coconut Balls , Roasted Almonds and my never-the-same-way-twice Ranch Snack Mix on A Cook and Her Books. Looking for cookies? Try Scottish Shortbread and Macadamia Tassies.

Text and images copyright 2011, Lucy Mercer.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The weatherman was right

The weatherman was right: the predicted snowy apocalypse arrived overnight and I woke up in a winter wonderland. Our little corner of the woods is pristine when covered in snow.

I've lived in the South all my life and have never seen as much snow as in the past year - I think this is the fifth time that school has been canceled because the roads are impassable. The morning news is filled with warnings to stay off the roads and stay home. My Facebook friends are agonizing over how to entertain the kids and telling tales of power failures. I toss another log on the fire and decide to make soup.

My favorite soup book (and really one of my all-time favorite cookbooks) is Crescent Dragonwagon's Dairy Hollow House Soup and Bread. If you're not familiar with Dragonwagon, who was born Ellen Zolotow, check out her blog where she explains her whimsical name. She wrote this book when she owned the Dairy Hollow House bed and breakfast in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. In fact, she was called the "Alice Waters of the Ozarks" during this time. Crescent Dragonwagon is more than a great cook, she's a great writer, and I want to cook just about everything in this book.

Soup is the ticket when a snowstorm hits, and because I'm not a fan of last-minute grocery store runs, I rely on my pantry to feed my family. Instead of pulling out the carnelian can of Campbell's, I reach for a can of tomatoes and make homemade tomato soup to serve with a pan of Crescent's Skillet-Sizzled Buttermilk Cornbread.

Tomato soup by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Snow Day Tomato Soup
adapted from Dairy Hollow House Soup & Bread Cookbook

1/2 medium onion, chopped

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 (28 oz.) can diced tomatoes

1 tablespoon dark brown sugar

1 bay leaf

1 tablespoon dried basil

1 cup whole milk

Salt and pepper to taste

1. In a medium saucepan, heat olive oil and sautee onion until softened, about five minutes. Add diced tomatoes, brown sugar, bay leaf, and dried basil. Let this come to a boil, lower heat to a simmer and let bubble away for about 10 minutes.

2. Remove bay leaf and discard. Puree mixture in either a food processor or with an immersion blender. Return mixture to pot and gradually add milk Season to taste and serve.

Text and images copyright 2011, Lucy Mercer.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Weekend breakfast with my kitchen helper

Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

 I wrote this story almost exactly a year ago. It was my first winning entry in the Salon Kitchen Challenge, and it's still a favorite story and recipe. I just completed a year's worth of challenges - turning around stories on a given food subject in less than a week. An exhausting, but exhilarating year. I'm looking forward to the challenges of 2011!

Our New Year’s breakfast is a week late, because the girls were visiting friends last weekend. I was at home, working and worrying in a too-quiet house. The memory is a bit hazy now, but I think I welcomed the end of the aughts with a whole wheat bagel with a schmear, and my usual two cups of coffee. So, today, we mark a new year with a breakfast menu of yeast-raised waffles, warm fruit salad and brown sugar bacon. I'm a conscientious cook and want to be sure that all food groups are covered: sweet, salty, fruity and porky. Yes, it’s going to be a good year.

The yeast-raised waffles are intensely buttery, but not greasy. The recipe is from the "America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook," an orange ring-bound bible that’s never far from my kitchen counter. The advantage of this recipe is mixing the batter in the evening and letting it ferment in the fridge overnight, bubbling into a smooth vanilla-scented batter. And speaking of vanilla, I triple the amount called for in the recipe - everything is better with vanilla.

Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Brown sugar bacon, aka candied bacon, has been embraced by the masses. At least the masses at my house. As if bacon needs anything to make it taste better or be worse for your health, let’s just coat it in brown sugar and bake it. The result is crispy and sweet, but offset by the bacon's saltiness. If you're feeling bold, and not serving children, shake a little cayenne on strips before they go in the oven.

The warm fruit compote, oh, I mean salad, is my attempt to add some nutrition to this meal. A warning to all food snobs: I am a heathen, I know, because the recipe calls for canned fruit. I suppose I could summon the energy to peel pears and oranges and pineapple this morning, but in the spirit of these lean economic times, I whip out the can opener and go to town.
Despite my hopes that my youngest will sleep in this morning, (my first Saturday off since before Thanksgiving), Lindsey is awake and full of energy. She’s a helper, constantly reminding me that she wants to do and try everything. Especially if it’s electric and has a button. ("Ooooh, the waffle maker! Does it have a button?“) We’ve taken to hiding flashlights from her, because she plays with them, leaving them upside down, turned on. During a recent power failure, we managed to find a dozen flashlights, but not a one worked.

This morning, she stirs the waffle batter, beating out the bubbles to a smooth consistency. Then it’s time for the bacon, a task that I’m not too sad about handing over.

“Let me do it!”

“But do you really want to touch cold, slimy bacon?”

“Yes, I want to do it!” Well, if you insist…

And so she does, stretching each piece in the pound to fit on the rack suspended over a foil-covered baking sheet. I pull out the brown sugar. “Let me do it! Give me a spoon!“ And so the brown sugar is liberally poured over the bacon before I slide it into the oven for a half hour’s crisping and baking. Thirty minutes filled with pleas to be the one to pull the hot pan out of the oven. “But Lindsey, the pan is hot. And heavy. Let Mommy.”

“Let me do it!” No, I don’t think so.

I distract her with the next step, opening the cans of fruit for the warm fruit salad. (I know: can opener in the hands of a four year old! Get DFACS on the line.) We’ve been at this game for awhile, and she gives up the job early in the attempt, settling for emptying the fruit into the strainer suspended over a bowl. And she wants to be the first to sample the fruit juice. I catch her later, dipping her cup directly into the bowl of leftover juice. Blind eye, I think, blind eye. Then I hear, “Mommy, mommy, mommy.”

And probably again, “mommy, mommy, mommy.”

“What do you need, sweetpea?”

“Mommy, I love you.”

And I could end this story here, with a halcyon glow of promise and hope. But later, when I pull out the breakfast plates, she says, “I don’t want a plate.”

“But you need to eat on a plate. Waffles with syrup are messy. “

“I don’t want waffles. I want to dip my bacon in the syrup.”

“What about fruit?”

“No fruit. Just juice.”

So, here’s to 2010, a year of promise and hope, and in September, a five year old.

And later,

“Mommy, mommy, mommy.”


"Is Christmas over?"

"Yes, it is, sweetpea."

"Because I love it."

Warm Fruit Salad

This is a dump and do recipe.

29 oz. can peaches20 oz. can pineapple tidbits15.25 oz. can sliced pears8.75 oz. apricot halves
11 oz. can mandarin oranges
one small jar of maraschino cherries

Set up a large bowl and a strainer and grab your can opener. Put a casserole dish alongside. Open each can, drain into the strainer, the place fruit in casserole dish.

In a small saucepan, combine:

½ stick butter½ cup orange juice¾ cup light brown sugar½ teaspoon cinnamon¼ teaspoon cloves

Melt butter in saucepan, heat o.j. in microwave for 30 seconds. Add sugar to butter, followed by warm orange juice. Heat until bubbly then add spices. Pour over fruit in casserole. Place in moderate (350 oven) until ready to serve.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Just one more cookie before we diet

100 Cookies. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Christmas has come and gone, and while I made a handful of chocolates and cookies to give away as gifts to teachers and neighbors, the inevitable time crunch meant that the 100 Cookies had to wait until the week after Christmas. The 100 Cookies are sandy and buttery, with crunch from Rice Krispies and oatmeal and Heath Bar toffee bits. The coconut makes them reminiscent of a Ranger cookie, another oldie-but-goodie. If you're coconut-averse, give them a try - the coconut kind of melts into the cookie - there are no discernible shreds.

I’m not sure why they’re called “100 Cookies,” my guess is that because the recipe yield is close to 100, which puts it on my holiday must-bake list. Assemble the ingredients once, dirty up the kitchen once, and you have lots of cookies to package up and distribute to friends, family and co-workers. This cookie keeps well and would be a nice addition to a lunchbox.

100 cookies

3 ½ cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon cream of tartar

¾ teaspoon salt

1 cup (2 sticks) butter

1 cup granulated sugar

1 cup dark brown sugar, lightly packed

1 cup canola oil

1 cup Rice Krispies cereal

1 cup sweetened flaked coconut

1 cup old-fashioned oats

1 egg

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

8 oz. Heath Bar toffee bits

1. Preheat oven to 350. In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking soda, cream of tartar and salt. Set aside.

2. Cut butter into tablespoon-size chunks. In a large mixing bowl, combine sugars, butter and oil. Blend well, until butter is in small pieces or creamed with sugar. Add Rice Krispies, coconut, oats, egg and vanillla. Gradually add dry ingredients and mix well. Fold in toffee pieces. Dough will be stiff; you may need to use your hands to incorporate the last of the ingredients.

3. Using a cookie scoop or teaspoon, drop by rounded teaspoon onto cookie sheet. Bake for 12 minutes at 350 or until slightly golden around the edges.Let cool on wire rack. Keep at room temperature in an airtight container.

Text and images copyright 2011, Lucy Mercer.