Thursday, March 31, 2011

Don't Bother Me, I'm on Vacation: April Fools!

Ice Cream Sand Castle by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Oh, girls, guess where we’re going for spring break? The sandy beaches of Florida, where you can dip your toesies in the warm Gulf waters and frolic in the sand. You can build sand castles all day long, instead of staying at home in Georgia, watching the cherry blossoms fall.

April Fools!

Instead of digging our feet into the sand, we'll dig our spoons into a sand castle cake made of ice cream. This cake is fairly simple to make, just molded ice cream coated with sugar. The time-consuming part is two stages in the freezer. If you're making this for a party, be sure to start a day or two ahead of serving time.

Sand Castle Ice Cream Cake

1 gallon light-colored ice cream, such as vanilla

3 cups natural cane sugar (you could also use sifted light brown sugar)

Clean sand pail and castle molds

1. Soften ice cream either at room temperature for about 15 minutes or in the microwave for 30 seconds. Scoop or spoon soft ice cream into sand castle mold. Cover with plastic wrap and freeze until solid, about 3 hours, or overnight.

2. Remove molds from freezer. Fill sink with several inches of hot-as-you-can-stand-it water. Dip mold into water until it releases the ice cream.

3. This is the part where you do as I say rather than as I did: Coat the molded ice cream with sugar, cover with plastic wrap and return to the freezer until ready to serve.

4. At serving time, take ice cream out of the freezer, unwrap and turn out onto sugar bed. Arrange molds attractively. Cover sand castles with additional sugar, if needed, then decorate with small paper flags and candy.

The recipe is adapted from ideas in "The Family Baker" by Susan Purdy and Family Fun magazine. By the way, I have a lot of respect for food stylists - this was a bear to photograph - it looked more like a sand castle before I took the picture on a hot afternoon! Decidedly unprofessional, but certainly delicious according to the kid-tasters!

Text and images copyright Lucy Mercer, 2010.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Hot, cross bunnies: The s'moral of the story



Just in case you haven't been out lately, I'll prepare you for what you'll see in the grocery stores: lots and lots of Peeps, sugar-coated marshmallow chicks and bunnies in colors from a pink worthy of a Mary Kay rep's Cadillac to intense neon yellows, reds and oranges. I love Peeps in all their forms and look forward each spring to sacrificing a few peeps for the ultimate s'more.

Peeps S'mores

1. Layer graham crackers, chocolate bar (I used Green & Black's Organic Milk Chocolate Toffee Bar), peep. Place on paper plate or microwave-safe plate.

2. Microwave for 12 seconds, no need to cover. YMMV (your microwave may vary)

3. Top with second cracker, squish and enjoy.

The s'moral of the story: Mmmmmmmmmm!

Peeps have a fun website - and, of course, a Facebook page.
 What's your favorite Peep? Do you cook with Peeps?

Monday, March 21, 2011

In praise of braising: Early spring menu + giveaway!

Asparagus Spears by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

  With a glimpse of pale purple gray on the empty corner lot by my daughter's school, I know that spring is here - wisteria's annual show, gnarly and regal, is the harbinger. The glories of vernal produce will soon be known at the farmer's market - the local strawberries and tender greens, tiny new potatoes and baby Vidalia onions. To my mind, the official sign of spring is cheap and plentiful asparagus, grown, if not in Georgia, at least the Western hemisphere.

It's difficult for me to just jump right into the warm season - I carry a sweater with me when I leave the house, because you just never know when the weather will turn. And I still employ my Dutch oven for hearty oven-braised dishes like chicken legs cooked for hours with bacon, mushrooms and carrots. Do you braise? It's not a word to fear - it just means meat and/or vegetables nestled in a dish, covered with liquid such as broth or wine, and cooked until the meat falls apart and the vegetables are tender. I make this chicken dish frequently through the fall, winter and spring because it's simple and filling and just lingers in the oven, ready for the family to gather around the table. I filled out the plate with my go-to brown rice pilaf, mashed potatoes would be a good substitute, ready to soak up the plentiful juices from the braising dish. And asparagus, who can forget asparagus, skillet-roasted with butter and toasty shallots.

This is one of those dishes that works well for a carpool mom with a slow cooker. I use a Dutch oven and the convection feature on my oven to simulate the slow cooker, but if you have a crockpot, just assemble the ingredients ahead of time, place in the stoneware and cook for about 4 hours. If you haven't invested in a Dutch oven like Le Creuset, check them out. An enameled cast iron pot like Le Creuset will give you a lifetime of lovely braises and stews.This is my cooking timetable: after lunch, I brown the chicken, chop the vegetables and get the sauce prepared and place all in a Dutch oven. The dish will braise in the oven for a few hours, yielding fall-off-the-bone chicken and rich broth.

Braised chicken legs with carrots, bacon and mushrooms by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Braised Chicken Legs with Carrots,
Mushrooms and Bacon

4 slices bacon, sliced into narrow strips

6 skin-on chicken legs (thighs may be substituted)

1 onion, peeled, halved and sliced into wedges

1 (4-ounce) package sliced cremini mushrooms

4 carrots, peeled, sliced lengthwise and into 1-inch pieces

1/2 cup white wine or vermouth

Salt and pepper to taste

Sprig of fresh thyme, 1/2 teaspoon of dried if you're not a gardener

2 cups chicken broth, or more if needed

1. In a skillet set over medium heat, brown bacon until crispy and cooked through. Remove bacon and drain on paper towels. Pour off the bacon fat into a metal bowl and return two tablespoons fat to the pan. Brown the chicken pieces, making sure to season as you go, turning once each side is sufficiently brown (remember that more brown = more flavor). This takes about a half hour to do properly.

2. Heat the oven to 300. Have a Dutch oven (or slow cooker) on standby. As the chicken pieces are thoroughly browned, place them in the main cooking vessel with the chopped carrots and cover with lid. When all chicken is removed, saute the onion and season with salt and pepper. Add the mushrooms and continue the saute until the shrooms are brown and toasty. Deglaze the pan with the white wine, stirring and scraping thoroughly. Add chicken broth and bring to a simmer. Pour the broth over the chicken and carrots, add the thyme and cooked bacon pieces. The goal is for the chicken pieces to sit in a bathtub of broth, so if the sauce doesn't come up to nearly the top of the chicken and vegetables, add more broth, if you have it, or water.

Braised chicken sealed with parchment by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

3. Tear a piece of parchment paper just large than the circumference of pan. Crumple it and place on the top of the liquid. Put the lid on the Dutch oven and place in real oven, or slow cooker in its cooking unit and let simmer for at least two hours, preferably up to four. I cook on convection at 300 for about three hours, any longer and I reduce the temp to 250. Check every 45 minutes to an hour to make sure the liquid level is sufficient; make adjustments if necessary.

Brown rice and shallots by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

The chicken and vegetables are a fine supper all alone, but I like to add a starch, like brown rice pilaf, and a green vegetable, because I'm the mom.

Brown Rice Pilaf

In a nonstick skillet with a lid, melt one tablespoon butter and add one tablespoon olive oil, cook over medium heat. Saute one chopped onion and one chopped celery stalk until translucent (for the onion, until soft for the celery). Add two cups brown rice and stir. Add four cups chicken broth, or a combination of chicken broth and water, and stir. Season with salt and pepper, place lid on pan and let cook for about a half hour. Check on the liquid level every five minutes or so.

Asparagus spears by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Sauteed Asparagus with Shallot

In a skillet over medium heat, add a couple tablespoons of olive oil. Add one shallot, chopped, and cook until soft. Take a bunch of asparagus, or if feeding just a few, a handful of asparagi, and cut off the woody ends. Slice remainders into 3-inch pieces. Add to skillet and toss in oil and shallot until bright green and crisp. Serve immediately. Save the asparagus scraps to make creamy asparagus soup.

Braised chicken leg with carrots, mushrooms and bacon; brown rice pilaf and sauteed asparagus.
Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Text and images copyright 2011, Lucy Mercer.

And now for a giveaway!

CSN, which sells Le Creuset Dutch ovens at, will give a $50 gift code to a member of the A Cook and Her Books family. Before I tell you how to win, I need to remind you that only entries with valid email addresses will be eligible to win. There are four ways to get an entry in the giveaway. Each person may accumulate four chances to win by doing the following:

1. Leave a comment on this entry.

2. Subscribe by email or RSS to A Cook and Her Books (see the boxes on the right). Leave another comment on this post telling me that you subscribed.

3. Become a fan of A Cook and Her Books on Facebook. If you're already a fan, thank you! Just leave another comment telling me that you're a fan.

4. Follow me on Twitter, @acookandherbook (no "s"). If you already follow, thank you! Just leave another comment telling me that you're following.

In summary, you have four chances to win a  $50 gift code from CSN stores. The deadline for entries is midnight on March 31. I will draw a winner using on Friday, April 1. This contest is for U.S. and Canada residents only. Disclaimer: CSN is offering the gift code and I'm not compensated in any way. My opinions are my own. Thanks for being a part of this exciting giveaway!

This giveaway is now closed. Thanks to everyone for participating and I look forward to more great giveaways in the future!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Morning at Lost Mountain Nursery

Bird feeders by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

I spent a lovely morning last week with my Mom. We drove to our favorite plant place, Lost Mountain Nursery in Dallas, Georgia. I like Lost Mountain because they carry lots of perennials, native plants and shrubs, and shade-loving plants. They also carry beautiful ceramic pots and charming gardening knick-knacks. These are just a few things that caught my eye (and a few more that came home with me).

I love blue by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

"What happens on the porch...stays on the porch." by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Yellow begonia by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Red Begonia by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Beware of Dog by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Two bunnies by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Camellia by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Camellia by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
Ferns and fiddleheads. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books.

Fiddlehead. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Camellia blossoms on ground by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

I picked up a few herbs and violas to take home:

Violas, mint and curly stuff by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

This is the patch of veronica by my driveway - I bought more of this fabulously hardy and colorful groundcover at Lost Mountain. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

My porch table with potted veronica in center, violas and herbs and chartreuse stuff on left and right.
 Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books.

Violas, veronica and herbs on front porch table by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books.
I'll be back soon to purchase herbs and tomato seedlings. What are your favorite plant nurseries? Any recommendations for the Atlanta area?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Irish for a day

Savoy Cabbage by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Oh, what with shaking imaginary shillelaghs and adding o's to everyone's surname, it's impossible to avoid the silliness of St. Patrick's Day for very long. Lucky for me, real Irish food is worth putting on the table. Beyond the ubiquitous Irish Soda Bread, which will be featured here in a few days, there is colcannon, cabbage cooked in milk and stirred into mashed potatoes. It is fortifying and filling on a rainy day, making me long for the land of my ancestors, the O'Mercer's.

Potatoes by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

The colcannon recipe I use is adapted from the Gourmet Cookbook, and it's about as easy as it gets: two pots on the stove: in the first, boil peeled potatoes just like you would for the weeknight mash. In the second, simmer a half head of chopped green cabbage in milk and butter. Drain the potatoes, mash, add the cabbage mixture, season and prepare for a

Colcannon by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

If you add leeks or green onions to this dish, it's called champ. I like the oniony way, myself, but my kids went crazy for the allium-less version. They call this "Irish mashed potatoes."

2 pounds (about 7 medium) Russet or all-purpose potatoes
1 cup milk (I used whole milk)
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter
1/2 large head of Savoy cabbage, coarsely chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper (I go easy on this because of the kiddos)

1. Peel potatoes and cut into 2-inch dice. Place in a saucepan or Dutch oven and cover with cold water. Over medium heat, bring to a simmer and let potatoes cook until tender (as tested with a sharp knife). This takes about 20 minutes.

2. In another saucepan, combine milk, butter, chopped cabbage, salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer and let cook until tender, about 15 minutes. (If you're making champ, here's where you add a washed and chopped leek or a handful of chopped green onions.)

3. Drain potatoes, then mash. I like a rustic mash, with just a few chunks. Gradually add the cooked cabbage to the mixture, stirring until the potatoes and cabbage are united in flavor and texture. The ribbons of celadon cabbage will shimmer in the buttery, creamy potatoes.Serve. Dance a jig. Watch "Riverdance."

Monday, March 14, 2011

The constant is pie

Apple Cheddar Pie by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

 Today, March 14, is Pi Day, a day to celebrate the mathematical constant, the one snippet of higher math that geeks and non-geeks can talk about together. Pi is 3.14, and today is 3/14, March 14th, get it? Teachers have adopted this day, using pies in the classroom to help students grasp the concept of pi.

Pi R Squared is still bouncing around the recesses of my brain, but there's another mathematical property that I truly understand, that of Pie Lab:

Pie + Conversation = Ideas

Ideas + Design = Positive Change

Pie Lab is a restaurant and bakery located in Greensboro, Alabama, and it’s the embodiment of what happens when youth, idealism and good food come together. Cate Powell, Pie Lab’s Director of Regional and National Sales, spoke with me last week about Pie Lab’s history, its location in Hale County, Alabama, and its place in the world.

When Cate tells the story of Pie Lab, she starts with how she got there. First of all, Cate is an Atlanta girl, with a masters degree in international affairs from Georgia Tech, a well-traveled young woman who decided to use her business skills to improve communities. When she found out about Pie Lab, she and her parents drove the five hours to Greensboro, sat down at the restaurant, and six slices of pie later, in a “pie coma,” decided she needed to be a part of Pie Lab.

This is the short history of Pie Lab: a group of designers called Project M held a conference in 2008 and examined ways to use their skills to benefit American communities. They sat in a restaurant and contemplated the problems of small towns - access to jobs, education, resources. They all ordered pie, Powell said. And they said to themselves “you know, any problem can be solved with pie.”

The first incarnations of Pie Lab were free pie days, in which the designers gave away pie slices and asked folks what their communities needed. Greensboro became Pie Lab's home because a local nonprofit, HERO (Hale Empowerment and Revitalization Organization), chose to partner with the design group. The original idea for Greensboro was a pop-up shop, which evolved to a full-time bakery and restaurant on Main Street that now counts six employees.

Pie Lab, Greensboro, Alabama/Facebook
 In Powell's words, Hale County is a “pretty rural place.” The 2000 census puts the population at just under 18,000 and a median income hovering around $25,000. PieLab's mission to create jobs and that means shipping Pie Lab merchandise such as mugs and t-shirts all over the country. And don't forget those pies - popular flavors such as lemon chess and ginger apple can be shipped across the country, too. Today, Pie Lab represesents “the best of Southern culture," Powell said. "We use fresh, local ingredients, like pecans and peaches in our pies and jellies.” This summer, they will market pickled okra.

I asked Powell what she thought was at the heart of Pie Lab's appeal – the store has had considerable and favorable national press – the New York Times and Southern Living, for example, and was nominated for a James Beard award in restaurant design. “I think it’s the food factor. People are getting closer to slow food, being in the kitchen, making food at home. Using fresh ingredients is the new gourmet. Using real butter, having few ingredients," she said. But what it really comes down to is the magic of a circle of pastry with a sweet or savory filling – “We’re celebrating real American pie.”

Pie Lab's best-selling pies are Lemon Chess, Ginger Apple and Chocolate Walnut Brownie, all of which sound incredible. Cate graciously shared Pie Lab’s Apple Cheddar Pie recipe, and I’ve got to say, it’s a winner. The crust includes vinegar, yielding a tender, flaky crust. This is a hearty pie, and with a hot cup of coffee, just about the best breakfast I can name. I'm planning a field trip real soon to see Pie Lab for myself.

Apple Cheddar Pie by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Apple Cheddar Pie from Pie Lab

3 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup unsalted butter, chilled

1/2 pound shredded sharp Cheddar cheese

1/4 cup ice water

1/4 cup white vinegar

7 large Granny Smith apples - peeled, cored and sliced

3 tablespoons lemon juice

1 1/2 cups sugar

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, cubed

1 egg, beaten

1 tablespoon white sugar

1. In a large bowl, combine flour and salt. Cut in butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Stir in cheese. Combine water and vinegar, and gradually stir in until mixture forms a ball. Divide dough in half and shape into balls. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 4 hours or overnight.

2. Preheat oven to 450 degrees F (230 degrees C.) Roll one ball out to fit a 9 inch pie plate. Place bottom crust in pie plate. Roll out top crust and set aside.

3. In a large bowl, toss apples in lemon juice to prevent discoloration. Drain and discard any excess juice. Stir in sugar and cinnamon. Arrange rows of overlapping apple slices, working from outer rim in. Dot with butter. Cover with top pie crust. Seal and crimp edges with fork, then trim excess dough. Cut a few slashes in top crust to allow steam to escape.

4. Bake on cookie sheet in preheated oven for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C), and continue baking for about 30 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove from oven, brush lightly with beaten egg, and sprinkle liberally with sugar. Bake 5 to 10 minutes more until sugar forms a crisp glaze. Remove pie from oven and let cool on a wire rack.

Apple Cheddar Pie by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Friday, March 11, 2011

Chef Richard Blais on waiting for "Modernist Cuisine"

Chef Richard Blais/Our Labor of Love

Modernist Cuisine, the biggest cookbook of the decade, and I do mean big, started shipping this week. Judging from the early reviews like Michael Ruhlman's in the New York Times, Modernist Cuisine is an amazing cookbook, or more accurately, culinary encyclopedia.

Just by the numbers, it is significant: six years of work by a team of 20 chefs, writers, photographers and designers led by the former Chief Technology Officer of Microsoft Nathan Myrhvold; six volumes (5 subject books plus a kitchen manual); 2,438 pages; 49 pounds of cooking knowledge. And did I mention the $625 list price? To add to the mystique, there is but a single press run of just 6,000 copies, with the possibility of a second run.

Additional press runs or not, Modernist Cuisine’s impact will be felt throughout the contemporary cooking community. One of the best-known practitioners of the art of modernist cuisine is Atlanta’s Richard Blais, of Top Chef All-Stars and concept chef of Flip Burger Boutique. He tweeted in February that he pre-ordered a copy through Amazon, which is offering the book at $461.62, 26% off the cover price of $625. I contacted Blais through his publicist and here’s what he had to say while he waits by the mailbox.

You tweeted that you pre-ordered the book, Modernist Cuisine. Have you seen a copy or received your copy yet or do you expect to receive it soon?

Blais: I am on the pre-order wait list like everyone else…

Why do you want to own the book?

Blais: I think it has a chance to be a real revelation and a game changer in our industry. Knowing what I know about his [Myrhvold’s] work and what he has done globally, I think it is a fascinating undertaking.

Do you know Nathan Myrhvold (or the co-authors)? Have you followed the production of the books?

Blais: Yet to meet him, I just know of his stories through features and walking chats with other chefs.

What are you most interested in out of the six volumes?

Blais: I think I will find it all very interesting and I've heard the food photography is spectacular!

How do you plan to use the book?

Blais: I plan to read it and be inspired by it.

Is there anyone you would lend the book to?

Blais: Oh sure, anytime I have a book it belongs to all my chefs. We all learn from each other; it's what being a chef is about. It's very fraternal.

And he adds:

I can’t wait to get it! I am checking the mailbox every day.

Text copyright 2011, Lucy Mercer. Photo of Richard Blais provided by The Reynolds Group. 
Modernist Cuisine photo from

A version of this story appears on

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Chef Linton Hopkins talks shrimp & grits

Chef Linton Hopkins of Restaurant Eugene in Atlanta.

Make no mistake about it, Chef Linton Hopkins is a natural and unflappable teacher. Put him in a room of culinary students and fellow chefs, and Chef will talk continually and calmly throughout a detailed demonstration, keeping his cool through equipment failures and missing ingredients, and remaining for three quarters of an hour after the seminar to encourage the students and talk shop with the pros.

The chef/owner of Atlanta’s Restaurant Eugene and Holeman and Finch Public House brought his unique approach to Southern cuisine to the American Culinary Federation’s Southeastern conference at the Hilton Atlanta last month. This unique approach involved a Dewar of liquid nitrogen and a classic Southeastern coast favorite: shrimp and grits. “You know, I resisted using the liquid nitrogen for many years, until I discovered ways that it improves the flavor of the food,” Hopkins told the audience. Hopkins, by the way, is a James Beard nominee for Best Chef in the Southeast. The winner will be announced in May.

Hopkins encouraged the chefs to remain open to new ideas, with the goal of improving the final dish. “I’m not a big proponent of any one kind of cooking,” he said, hoisting the Dewar flask and pouring liquid nitrogen over dried hominy in the Vitaprep. “Rustic, one-pot, or molecular gastronomy, it’s all cooking.” Regarding the liquid nitrogen, he had a few pointers for newbies to the favored device of Boys with Toys cuisine: be sure to use food grade liquid nitrogen, choose a well-ventilated area, and don’t worry about burns. The veteran of New Orleans’ Mr. B's Bistro assured the students that “a roux burn is worse.”

Hopkins' take on shrimp and grits involved dried hominy, made from heirloom corn grown in North Georgia, pulverized with liquid nitrogen to create a fresh corn flour, cooked with water and finished with cream and a swirl of shrimp butter (inspired by an Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock recipe from "Gift of Southern Cooking"). The liquid nitrogen was also employed to puree frozen Benton's bacon, creating a "bacon salt" garnish. The shrimp and grits were served with a Sea Island Red Pea fritter. Using liquid nitrogen "allows me to stay true to the ingredients that define Southern cooking, but at the same time lets me play with the textures,” Hopkins said.

Hopkins told the audience that a significant amount of his time is devoted to sourcing ingredients to serve at his restaurants. Quoting famed chef Joel Robuchon, Hopkins said that timing is more than getting perfectly prepared food to the customer, it's also getting the freshest taste from the field to the customer. "Using fresh, local ingredients is about making sure this money is staying in Georgia and supporting people I know. It’s about the memory of sitting with your family on the seashore and eating shrimp."

On my next visit to Restaurant Eugene, I'll order the super-dee-duper shrimp and grits. When I want to fulfill that craving at home, I make my version, breakfast-style. This is just like coastal shrimpers would make it, with the little guys caught the day before, served over creamy grits. I used a new technique for creamy grits, which is to cook the grits in water and stock, then stir in butter and cream before serving (a tip from Chef Hopkins). The taste is rich and the texture is velvet.

Shrimp and grits by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Shrimp and Grits, Breakfast Style

Serves 4


2 cups chicken broth

2 cups water

1 cup stone-ground or quick (not instant) grits
2 tablespoons butter

1/4 cup cream

¼ cup Parmesan cheese, shredded

Salt and pepper to taste


1/2 stick butter

1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined (save the peels for future shrimp broths)

Juice of one lemon (you won’t use it all)

Salt and pepper to taste

1. In a nonstick saucepan, pour in chicken broth and water and heat over a medium flame until bubbles appear at perimeter. Add grits in a slow, steady stream, stirring with a whisk all the while. Stone-ground grits take about 30 minutes of patient and frequent stirring, quick grits take between 5 and 10 minutes of steady whisking action. When grits are just shy of done (depends on your personal taste - loose or leaden), stir in Parmesan and butter and cream and season to taste.

2. For the shrimp, pull out your favorite skillet and melt the butter over medium heat. When butter is foamy, add the shrimp and let cook until pink, just a couple of minutes. Stir to ensure even pinkiness. Freshen with lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste.

3. Serve bowls of creamy grits garnished with shrimp.

Creamy grits by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Text and images copyright 2011, Lucy Mercer, with the exception of the photo of Linton Hopkins from the Restaurant Eugene website.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Ah, Grasshopper...Cake (not pie)

Grasshopper Cake by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Spring is all about green - the pine trees get lost in the woods among the leafed-out hardwoods. The daffodils send their chlorophyll-plumped stems to the sky, the grass awakens and replaces its brown blanket with a verdant one. The markets start to show off green as well - forget the coarse, bitter greens of winter, welcome the tender spinach and lettuces of spring. Woody herbs fade and the tender ones appear, in the market and the garden.

I guess you could say I have a garden; it's really just a glorified flower bed, home to daffodils, crocus, lamb's ear, a few ornamental grasses and a selection of herbs. The rosemary, lavender and oregano are steady friends, surviving the winters and bouncing back every summer. I plant basil when the ground warms; it has no chance of surviving the winter here. The mint, however, like cockroaches and Keith Richards, could survive a nuclear holocaust and still thrive. I used to keep mint in pots, a sane proposition to contain its trailer trash ways. Last year, in a temporary lapse of judgment, I let my daughter transfer the mint to the flower bed. The plant promptly became viral, spreading faster than an ultra-conservative anti-presidential diatribe on Facebook. In the cool days of fall, I pulled up runners four feet long, snaking through the bulbs and shrubs in the bed. Even the roots smelled like Doublemint gum.

The freshness inherent in mint makes it a cool choice for a spring dessert. Enter the Grasshopper pie, a dessert based on a cocktail consisting of crème de cacao and crème de menthe. As tempting as that boozy concoction sounds, I remade it to serve children. In church cookbooks, (and maybe this is a Southern thing, but I suspect it’s more of a rural America thing) you’ll find recipes created without alcohol with the qualifier “Baptist.“ As in “Baptist Harvey Wallbanger Cake” and “Baptist Grasshopper Pie.“ Well, this is a Baptist Grasshopper Cake. Dark chocolate layers, a fluffy minty filling, covered with a glossy chocolate ganache glaze. It’s like an Andes Candies cake, cool and refreshing, with a brilliant  green ribbon through the middle.

Grasshopper Cake by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

I put this cake together using recipes from the "King Arthur Flour’s Baker’s Companion," a reliable cookbook for family baking. Like Shirley Corriher’s "Bakewise" and Rose Levy Beranbaum’s "Cake Bible," it's the kind of cookbook that helps aspiring bakers turn ideas into reasonably attractive culinary creations. This cake is similar to a devil’s food cake, with layers baked in an 8 ½-inch pan. The filling is enhanced with marshmallow crème and I added 1 tablespoon peppermint extract and a sizable dab of green food paste. I doubled the recommended recipe for the simple glossy dark chocolate glaze - using 1 cup cream simmered with four tablespoons corn syrup, a smidge of salt. Stir in 12 ounces bittersweet chocolate and whisk until smooth. Let cool before pouring on cake.

Chocolate Mint Leaves by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

My unique spin on this dessert is the chocolate mint leaves. It’s been a few years (ok, a decade, or maybe two), since I’ve turned these out, but they are fun to make with children and really dress up a cake. Take fresh, clean mint leaves and press them between two layers of paper towels and weight with a book. You want flat, unfurled leaves. You may have good results with a paint brush alone (make sure it’s impeccably clean), but my best results were with a combination of a baby feeding spoon and a stiff child’s paintbrush (the kind that comes with children's craft kits). Melt two ounces of white chocolate or semi-sweet chocolate in microwave and stir until smooth. Place parchment paper on baking sheet. Take a flattened leaf, and working on the underside of the leaf, place a teaspoon of chocolate on the leaf. Use the brush to spread the chocolate to the edges of the leaf. Do this fairly thickly and evenly. Place finished leaves on tray and place in refrigerator cool. When set, carefully peel off the leaf, beginning at stem end. Arrange finished leaves on cake or individual plates.

Baptist Grasshopper Cake (Chocolate Mint Cake )

1 ¾ cups sugar

2 ¼ cup unbleached all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons cornstarch

¾ cups Dutch-process cocoa

¾ cup buttermilk (preferably whole-fat buttermilk)

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

2 large eggs

½ cup canola oil

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 cup hot water

1. Preheat oven to 350. Lightly grease and flour two 9-inch round cake pans.

2. In a large bowl, stir together the sugar, flour, cornstarch, cocoa, buttermilk, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Add the eggs, buttermilk, oil and vanilla; beat on medium speed for 2 minutes. Stir in the hot water (the batter will be thin) and pour batter into pans.

3. Bake the cakes for 30 to 35 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool for 10 minutes in the pans, then turn them out to cool on a wire rack.

Grasshopper Mint Filling

¼ cup vegetable shortening

¼ cup (½ stick) unsalted butter

Pinch of salt

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 tablespoon peppermint extract

1 cup powdered sugar

¼ cup corn syrup

1 cup marshmallow creme

Green food paste

1. Beat together the shortening, butter, salt, vanilla extract, peppermint extract, and powdered sugar, until fluffy.

2. Gradually beat in the corn syrup, until well blended. Add the marshmallow creme and beat until fluffy. Add the green food paste a dab at a time until the frosting reaches the desired level of greenness.

Dark Chocolate Glaze

1 cup heavy cream

4 tablespoons light corn syrup

Pinch of salt

12 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped

1. Place the cream, corn syrup and salt in a small saucepan and warm over low heat. Add chocolate and stir. Continue heating until the chocolate has melted and the mixture is smooth.

2. Cool, stirring occasionally, for 10 to 15 minutes, so that the glaze thickens slightly, but is still pourable.

To assemble cake: spread mint filling between layers and cover cake with chocolate glaze. Decorate cake with mint chocolate leaves.

Text & images copyright 2011, Lucy Mercer.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Party on Mardi with this Seafood Creole

Seafood creole with rice by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
Devotees of party schedules know that Tuesday is Mardi Gras, the big blow-out before the six weeks of Lent leading up to Easter Sunday. We can't all be in New Orleans or any of the Gulf coast towns that celebrate Mardi Gras, but we can bring a little of Louisiana creole into our kitchens. For about 20 years, I've made seafood creole, a great quantity of crowd-pleasing goodness meant to warm body and soul.

The keys to good creole are quality Gulf Coast seafood and the roux, the butter and flour mixture that flavors and thickens the stew. Taking your time to cook the roux to a deep, dark brown is crucial, and it's really not that much time. The butter and flour are chocolate brown in under 20 minutes.

Give this recipe a try the next time you need to serve a crowd. With a salad and bread on the side, it's Southern comfort in a bowl.

Seafood Creole

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

4 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 large onion, diced

3 cloves garlic, minced

3 ribs celery, diced

1 red bell pepper, diced

½ cup white wine

2 cans (1 lb. each) whole tomatoes

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon black pepper

½ teaspoon paprika

1 bay leaf

½ teaspoon dried thyme or 1 teaspoon fresh chopped thyme

½ teaspoon hot sauce (optional, season to taste)

¼ teaspoon Creole seasoning (Tony Chachere)

2 pounds of a combination of mild fish such as flounder; peeled, deveined shrimp; and bay scallops

Hot, steamed rice for serving

1. In a large pot or Dutch oven, melt butter until foaming. Stir in flour and cook over medium heat until dark brown, about 20 minutes. The smell will be like nearly burnt buttered popcorn and the color will be like Hershey’s milk chocolate.

A dark chocolate roux. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

2. Remove pot from heat and add onion, garlic, celery, bell pepper, wine, tomatoes with liquid, salt, black pepper, paprika, bay leaf and thyme. Stir well. Cover and simmer for at least 10 minutes. Remove cover and continue simmering until vegetables have reached the desired degree of tenderness. You may add the seafood now and serve, or keep cooking the base, either on the stovetop, or covered in the oven at 300. (Check frequently to make sure the liquid level doesn’t get too low.)

The holy trinity of creole cooking: pepper, celery, onion. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books.

3. Season to taste with creole seasoning and hot sauce as desired. Remove bay leaf. Add seafood last and simmer three to five minutes or until seafood just appears done. Remember that the seafood will continue to cook from the residual heat of the stew. Serve over a bed of hot steamed rice.

Text and images copyright 2011, Lucy Mercer.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Luscious Lemon Cream Cheese Pound Cake (for National Pound Cake Day)

Lemon cream cheese pound cake. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

I'm not sure how or why there is a National Pound Cake Day, but here it is the 4th day of March, in the holiday lull between St. Valentine's and St. Patrick's Day and I guess somebody needed an excuse to bake. Pound cake is as good an excuse as any, I suppose.

The classic pound cake requires a pound of each ingredient - butter to sugar to flour to eggs. Without leavening, this makes for a large, dense cake. Modern cakes tend to fudge on the ratio. My go-to recipe has a ratio of approximately 1.25 pounds fat (combined cream cheese and butter) : .75 pound sugar : .75 pound flour : .6 pound eggs.

Looking for a new flavor, I dug out a cookbook that has hugged my pantry shelf for at least 15 years - "The Pound Cake Cookbook" by Bibb Jordan (Longstreet Press, 1994). It's a darling little book, cover price $8.95, with nearly 40 recipes from Chocolate Cherry Pound Cake to Savory Cheese Pound Cake. My eyes locked on "Lemon Cream Cheese Pound Cake" - I'm a sucker for anything with lemon - lemon cookies, lemon curd, lemon meringue pie, lemon bars.

This recipe is surprising, first with the self-rising flour. Pound cakes are traditionally leavened only with eggs, which can make for a leaden leaven. I personally like a dense texture, but this lighter cake is a winner, too. Because of the leavening, it bakes faster, in under an hour, and has a lighter, spongier texture. It’s perfect for a spring dessert. With Easter and Mother’s Day falling within two weeks of each other, this would make an excellent cake for the holiday table. The cake is pretty with a dusting of confectioner’s sugar, but I like the puckery tart sweetness of the lemon glaze.

Lemons by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Lemon Cream Cheese Pound Cake with Lemon Glaze

Adapted from The Pound Cake Cookbook by Bibb Jordan (Longstreet Press, 1994)

3 medium lemons, zested and juiced

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

8 ounces 1/3-less-fat (Neufchatel) cream cheese, at room temperature

2 cups sugar

6 large eggs, at room temperature

2 cups self-rising flour

1 teaspoon lemon extract

1. Preheat oven to 325. Prepare a tube or Bundt pan with baking spray or butter and flour.

2. In large mixing bowl, using an electric mixer, cream together the butter and cream cheese. Gradually add sugar. Add eggs two at a time, beating well after each addition.

3. Add flour, lemon zest, lemon extract and two tablespoons of lemon juice (reserve remainder of juice for lemon glaze), beating until flour is incorporated and batter is smooth and free of lumps.

4. Pour into prepared pan. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes at 325. Cake is done when tester comes out clean. Let cool on wire rack. While cake is cooling, prepare the Lemon Glaze.

Lemon Glaze

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 to 1 ½ cups confectioner’s sugar

1. In a medium bowl, combine lemon juice and confectioner’s sugar. Whisk until combined and lump-free. If the glaze is lumpy, whisk vigorously, then let sit for 10 minutes or so, the lumps will be absorbed.

2. Glaze lemon pound cake while still warm.

My little kitchen helper wanted to decorate the cake, and she just happened to have a box of Valentine hearts....

Lemon Pound Cake with Valentines by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
The artist and her creation. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Happy National Pound Cake Day! Don't forget to leave cake for the elves!
Text and images copyright 2011, Lucy Mercer.