Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The 12 Days of Macarons

“On the first day of macaron making, the baking gods gave to me a tray of burnt meringues and two trays of super sweet cookies…” I wanted to try my hand at French Macarons (the sandwich cookies made with almond flour, not to be confused with their coconut cousins, the macaroons), over Thanksgiving vacation. I had even purchased sliced almonds and a set of pastry tips. But for some reason, it never happened. So on December 14th, a Sunday, my last Sunday in New York City before the holidays, I dragged everything out and made the first attempt. I knew the cards were stacked against me. I am hardly what you would call a baker, and everyone and their brother says macarons are all about technique. Plus, my equipment sucked. Lacking a large food processor (to both pulverize the almonds and then combine with the powered sugar), I had to use my one cup Black & Decker mini chopper -- which, wonder of wonders, did not really turn the almonds into almond flour after all. Despite sifting out the larger chunks, I basically resorted to using ground almonds in the batter. Undaunted, I combined the dry ingredients with my whipped egg whites (with no counter space for a KitchenAid stand mixer, I used a KitchenAid hand mixer to make the meringue). And not owning any Silpat mats, piped the batter onto parchment. I put the first batch in my gas oven at 375 degrees. Despite the troubles I had with the batter, the cookies looked damn good. They even developed a small foot, a mark all macaron makers strive for. But about halfway in, I smelled burning. So while the view from the top was perfect, the bottoms were black, the cookies were totally dried out and tasted more like meringues than macarons. Pulling from one of the tips I had read, I put the next batch on top of two stacked cookie sheets. Again, a small foot developed. The tops looked a little worse given I had tried to smooth them over after piping the batter (note to self: do not pipe in a spiral). The third batch was virtually the same as the second, although I baked them on top of a silicone liner instead of parchment. While these two trays did not look great, they were a bit softer, but with one cup of powdered sugar and 5 tablespoons of granulated sugar, were so sweet, I had to toss them out. “On the second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth days of macaron making, the baking gods gave to me too many blogs with tips and tricks to read…” I take comfort in the fact that many are infected with the desire to make macarons and that we’re all an obsessed bunch. After the first failed attempt, I read, a lot, about how to improve my technique. From Syrup & Tang to David Lebovitz (whose chocolate macaron recipe I tried the first time), about aging egg whites and what the consistency of the egg whites should look like when whipped (although I am still not sure what exactly egg white “magma” looks like). I bought almond meal, a coffee bean grinder and more parchment. And was ready for the second attempt. On December 20, I tried again, using the same recipe with three [disastrous] modifications: 1. I cut the granulated sugar to 2 T. in hopes of cutting some of the sweetness 2. I upped the amount of unsweetened cocoa powder by 1 T. in hopes of the same 3. I used my parents’ crappy electric stove, which has minimal ventilation to let steam escape Despite using the coffee bean grinder, and a large food processor, and sifting the dry ingredients twice, the end result were dense, fudgy cookies, much like those used in moon pies. Tasty, but with no feet, or lightness. “On the eighth day of macaron making, the baking gods gave to me three egg whites which I left out on the counter and aged 48 hours…” I was a woman obsessed. It was baking season but I did not attempt any other kind of cookie that week. I was focused on making a perfect (or at least passable) macaron. I studied the merits of the Italian meringue technique and even ran out to buy a candy thermometer. I compared the number of people who age egg whites in the fridge vs. the counter top. And then I tried again. “On the 11th day of macaron making, the baking gods gave to me two trays of flimsy white cookies…” For the third attempt, I consulted a recipe from Tartelette, converted grams to ounces and used my aged-on-the-counter-for-48-hours egg whites. Things were looking good, until I slipped the pans into the oven. The batter spread into thin disks and did not pouf at all. While the cookies from the second attempt had at least been eatable, the third time was definitely not a charm. I had lost the battle, but not the war. “On the 12th day of macaron making, the baking gods gave to me a chance to redeem myself and use up seven egg yolks...” I’ve temporarily admitted defeat and have retired from macaron making, but not cooking or baking in general. In fact, I used up my leftover egg yolks in two dishes: Ina Garten’s jam thumb prints (turned out divine!) and a creamy batch of cinnamon ice cream. Make your New Year be filled with better dishes!
Cinnamon Ice Cream Based on a recipe from David Lebovitz (thanks to Cynthia and Matt for getting me my own copy of The Perfect Scoop for Christmas) Ingredients 1 cup skim milk Pinch of salt 1/2 cup sugar 5 egg yolks 2 cups whipping cream, divided 2-3 T. of Penzey’s Vietnamese Cinnamon, depending on taste Method Wisk together milk, salt, sugar, cinnamon and half of the cream in a small pot and warm through. In the meantime, beat egg yolks in a small bowl; add a small amount of the warmed dairy mixture, whisking gently. Add the egg mixture to the pot and heat until custard thickens. Strain mixture into covered container and chill completely. Add custard to your ice cream maker and freeze according to the manufacture’s directions. Enjoy as is, over some
Panettone bread pudding or drizzled with chocolate sauce.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Yea for the fingerling

Between the holidays, my social calendar and long hours at work, most of my recent dishes (and farmers market buys) have been old standards rather than new experiments. Perhaps the most versatile veg I've been consuming is the fingerling potato. I've seen them at the market for years, but only started buying them a few months ago. It's the lazy woman's potato -- thin skinned so no need for peeling, perfectly sized when cooking a frittata for one, equally good diced and boiled in soup, sliced and roasted as pseudo french fries or just eaten with cheese, as I did over Thanksgiving week upstate. Fingerlings can be stored for months, but they say the taste does change slightly. These had been stored under my parents' sink (I know, I know) for over two months, which may explain why the potatoes seemed a little dried out. But let's be real -- in this dish, the fingerling is the mere supporting actor and the star is the raclette cheese. So why this may not have been as tasty as my first taste of raclette in Switzerland, or the version available from Neal's Yard Dairy in Borough Market, London, to use the words of Ina Garten, potatoes and cheese,"how bad could that be?"
Easy Raclette


Fingerling potatoes, halved

Raclette cheese

Assorted condiments such as pearl or sliced onion, cornichons, etc. Method (for those without a Raclette grill)

Boil or roast fingerlings until fork tender, liberally salt and pepper

Place in in shallow baking dish, cut side up

Slice cheese an place over each potato, melt under broiler and serve

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Someone Else's Cooking: Ithaca Farmers Market

Sometimes, visiting the farmers market is less about the food you buy to cook and consume later and more about the food you buy to consume then and there -- as I quickly accepted when I visited the Ithaca Farmers Market.
I went to school in Ithaca, but for some reason, never once in my four years there did I ventured off the hill down to the market at Steamboat Landing. In fact, I don't really remember cooking a lot at all during college, so I am sure I would have not appreciated it.
But I think I would have appreciated the other offerings at Ithaca, including vendors featuring mini wooden clock towers, handmade cards and jewelry, baked goods and prepared food.
Oh, the prepared food at Ithaca is like no place else -- people wait in lines 10 deep for corn fritters or peanut noodles or platters at Macro Mamas (the only macrobiotic food I have tried and actually liked), which is right next to the Cambodian stand, which is down from the burrito people.
On my last visit, I noticed a new baked goods vendor with a genius business model -- a portable wood burning oven for made-to-order $7 flat bread pizzas. On a cold and blustery day, after slogging through the muddy parking lot just to get inside the market, $7 was a small price to pay.
Apparently, many other people thought so too, as this was the last margarita "pie" they were able to make as they ran out of tomato sauce. Very thin and piping hot, we devoured it while enjoying the water view. If I went back, I might try one other versions, including a white flat bread and Mexican style flat bread (burrito people, take note).
And if you're curious, yes, I did buy some veg at the market, including some very pretty delicata squash, but it really was a day to enjoy the market ambiance and, for once, let someone else to do the cooking.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Quinoa Calling

I did it again – spent almost $50 at the green market. I went with the best intentions of only spending what was in my pocket ($23) but was seduced by produce and actually hit up the ATM mid-shopping spree. Can you tell the one thing I was not able to buy? If you guessed Persian cucumbers, you’re right! The season is almost over and what the vendor had, they were saving for an unnamed restaurant. Hmph. But since I could barely carry what I had, perhaps it was for the best. Four days later and I’ve actually used up a good chunk of my purchases – in cauliflower leek potage and baked eggplant mozzarella and several servings of an autumn salad based off of one I had from Marks & Spencer’s Simply Food last January. Marks & Spencer’s Simply Food has the best concept – a majority of the space is dedicated to high quality prepared foods for people on the go. If they would only open across the pond, as I have only seen them in Europe. When I was in London last winter, the exchange rate was even worse that it is now, so I picnicked from M&S SF several times. The best dish was a Moroccan Chicken Salad prepared with grains, roasted sweet potato, pine nuts, pomegranate seeds and two kinds of dressing (chermoula and a lemon mint yogurt) served over greens. I actually preserved the label from the container so I could recreate it at home, and when I saw that pomegranates were reappearing in the markets, dug out the scrap. The ingredient list is pretty daunting: quinoa and bulgur, rocket (arugula) and baby spinach, mint and coriander (cilantro), preserved lemon, sunflower oil and more – oy! So I simplified a bit. I still made a tabouli-style mixture of bulgur and quinoa with chopped mint, cilantro and scallions, but I subbed olive oil for the sunflower oil and lemon juice and zest for the preserved lemon. To me, adding butternut squash was somehow more appealing than adding sweet potato, although the sweet potato may have the nutritional edge. And I didn’t bother making a separate chermoula and a lemon mint yogurt dressing. Served over arugula with a sprinkle of rice wine vinegar, and it was almost like I was back in London…without the £9 M&S price tag.
Mock M&S Salad I noticed that the October issue of Bon Appétit has a similar recipe. I actually think the addition of grains makes for a heartier main dish salad, which is the intent of this recipe. Ingredients About 2 c. of butternut squash, peeled and diced into .5 inch cubes 2 T. olive oil, separated 1/3 c. uncooked quinoa 1/3 c. uncooked bulgur 1 c. water or broth, divided 2 T. cilantro, finely diced (more to taste) 2 T. fresh mint, finely diced (more to taste) 3 scallions, diced ¼ c. pomegranate seeds ¼ c. pine nuts, toasted 1 lemon, zested and juiced Paprika Salt Pepper Salad greens (optional) Method Preheat oven to 400 Place squash cubes and 1 T. of olive oil in baking or roasting pan; season liberally with salt, pepper and paprika Roast squash in oven for 20-minutes until edges start to crisp Boil ½ c. of water or broth, combined boiling water and bulgur in a large mixing bowl, cover Boil remaining ½ c. of water or broth, add quinoa and cook until water is absorbed[i] Add quinoa to bulgur bowl, along with herbs, pomegranate seeds, pine nuts, lemon zest, lemon juice and remaining olive oil; toss well Add roasted squash cubes and stir to combine Serve over greens or eat as is [i] I like to add the plumped bulgur to the cooked quinoa during the final minutes of cooking so bulgur can absorb any excess water from quinoa

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Guilty Pleasures

Green market items don't necessarily equal healthy items. Oh sure, you can get your salad greens and bean sprouts and wheat grass juice, but you can also get ice cream and cookies and scones -- lovely, sugar encrusted scones -- at my local farmer's market.My guilty pleasure at Union Square are scones from Our Daily Bread (their chocolate chip cookies, Sunflower Millet Bread and Whole Wheat Sourdough Baguettes are pretty darn good too). And on Saturday's ODB sometimes sells bags of day-old scones for 3 for $2.50. Magically, the presence of flaked coconut and chocolate chunks really make a day-old scone taste, well, maybe half a day old. And a short spin in the microwave takes even more age off. Alas, not every Saturday is a scone Saturday, so recently I tried to recreate the flavors in an untraditional way – using my ice cream maker.I was late to the ice cream maker craze. Really late. In fact, I only bought one on September 6 of this year (yes, after summer). I actually inherited an ice cream maker and it sat on top of my cabinet for two years until a steamy July day when I pulled it down, inspired to make frozen yogurt based on David Lebovitz recipe. Unfortunately, it wasn't until I had the yogurt mixture in the freezer canister that I realized the top would not go on. Yep, the canister was warped (it was my first foray as an ice cream chef. How was I supposed to know the bottom of the canister should be flat?). Williams-Sonoma to the rescue. Within days I had churned out a blackberry frozen yogurt, a mango strawberry frozen yogurt and honey ice cream. But I soon realized that it’s pretty much impossible to make low cal ice cream at home that tastes as good as Edy’s Slow Churned. Eggs, cream, fruit: all expensive for the wallet, and waistline. But then I saw a recipe calling for coconut milk and evaporated skim milk on Chocolate & Zucchini. By subbing light coconut milk, and adding some chopped bittersweet chocolate chunks at the end, I had a creamy, low fat scone in ice cream form.
Calorie and Cost Conscious Coconut Chocolate Ice Cream (adapted from Chocolate & Zucchini’s Glace Coco du Placard) Ingredients 1/2 cup sweetened flaked coconut, toasted 14.5 oz. can of light coconut milk 14.5 oz. can of evaporated skim milk 1 T. rum 2 t. of almond extract (you could also use vanilla) 1/2 cup sugar 6 oz. of bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped Method Toast the coconut by placing in dry pan over medium heat until fragrant and light brown, cool completely. Wisk together remaining ingredients and chill well. Add liquid mixture to your ice cream maker and freeze according to manufacturer’s directions. Add cooled toasted coconut flakes approximately 10 minutes before freezing cycle is complete. Add chocolate pieces approximately 5 minutes before cycle is complete. Note: The end product will be very soft and will require “ripening” in the freezer.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Surplus "Squash"

I was at Union Square this weekend juggling an armload of red pepper, squash and cucumbers when a lady stopped me and said "that's a lot of zucchini." But look close, that's only three zucchini. The other six? Persian cucumbers.
As a child, I was always a pickle eater but hated cucumbers and related fruits, like tomatoes, for the longest time because of their watery, slimy seeds. It wasn't until I was in high school that I learned how to scoop the seeds out of your standard cuke. For some reason, I don't remember the English or seedless variety being available back then. But once I started life in my own kitchen, and using Fresh Direct, I discovered the Persian cucumber. Crunchy, sweet and compact -- easy to use up all in one sitting so none is left moldering in the crisper.
My Fresh Direct days are long over (because of the increasing price of Fresca, but that's a story for another day), but thanks to Oak Grove's green house growing, I have at least a few more Persian cucumber days...
Savory Cucumber Yogurt Salad
While most of my Persian cukes end up in salads, I do like this savory yogurt dish alongside Indian curries or a Trader Joe's Vegetable Masala burger.
1 Persian cucumber, peeled and shredded
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 c. red onion, finely diced
1/2 c. Greek-style yogurt (I use Trader Joe's brand 2% Greek Yogurt)
1 t. cilantro (optional)
Other spices (I like a dash of Penzey's Turkish spice blend)
Pile shredded cucumber in a kitchen towel or small strainer, squeeze out all the liquid you can. Combine shredded cucumber, minced garlic, red onion and yogurt. Season liberally with salt and pepper and an other spices desired. Chill for at least 30 minutes to let flavors combine. Use as is or use as a sandwich spread, dip or topping for spicy food.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Soup's On

I made soup five times last week – four different varieties in all. Yes, I know. I am crazy. I was up visiting my parents for the weekend and hit up their local farmer's market in the library parking lot. Small yet very popular, the vendors sell everything from homemade granola and baked goods to corn and apples and some more "exotic" offerings like hydroponic lettuce and heirloom peppers. So picked up some softball size red peppers, a luscious head of cauliflower, several long, skinny leeks and a compact bunch of tuscan kale (that cost a buck!). I whipped up a huge batch of Cheddar Chicken Chowder for my parents to enjoy then and freeze leftovers for later. On Tuesday, the cauliflower and leeks went into the first of two batches of Cauliflower Leek Potage. Wednesday’s special was a faux minestrone I like to make to use up the odds and ends in the crisper and on Friday, I took inspiration from a favorite site and whipped up some Kale and Sausage Soup. I like that soup is generally very forgiving – use fingerling potatoes in place of red, chicken sausage in place of chorizo, shallot or red onion in place of white. It may not look exactly like the recipe, but you’ll still end up with something comforting and delicious, and likely leftovers to freeze for later (in my case, "later" being a week of Indian Summer weather that makes me want to avoid the stove!).
Faux Minestrone Some people are more the chicken-noodle type, but tomato-based soups are my comfort food. My grandmother’s brother, Uncle Dom, used to put chunks of pepperoni in his soups, so I took the idea from him., albeit using more healthy (but more processed) turkey pepperoni. This is a very forgiving “recipe” so feel free to use whatever meat, vegetables, beans, greens and pasta you have on hand. In this batch, I used Trader Joes’ Starter Sauce in place of the tomato sauce and baby spinach. Ingredients 1 T. olive oil 1 medium onion, diced 2 cloves of garlic, minced 2 stalks of celery, diced 2-3 carrots, diced 1 zucchini, diced 20 pieces of turkey pepperoni, diced (suggestion substitutions: pancetta, chicken sausage) Italian herbs and spices 4 c. broth or water Rind of hard cheese, like romano or parmesan Approximately 1 c. of tomato sauce, or canned tomatoes (if you’re opening a can, you might as well throw in the whole contents, be it 14 oz. or 32 oz. You can always add water at the end if your soup’s too thick, or some sale bread if it’s too thin) 1 bay leaf 6 oz. frozen spinach 1 c. small uncooked pasta (I like Trader Joesanelletti pasta) 1 14 oz. can of cannellini beans Method Heat olive oil in a medium stockpot or Dutch Oven over medium heat Sweat onions and garlic for a few minutes, add celery, carrots, zucchini and pepperoni, season with spices and sauté for about five minutes Add broth/water, tomato sauce, bay leaf and cheese rind, simmer for about 20 minutes Add frozen spinach, simmer until temperature comes up to just below boiling Add pasta, cook until al dente Add beans, either drained or undrained depending on your preferences and the current consistency of your soup Heat until beans are warmed through, fish out bay leaf and cheese rind and serve

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Turn, turn, turn...

A few weekends ago, I spent $40.05 at the Union Square Greenmarket. I blame it on the season -- summer's ending and fall's beginning. The last of the tomatoes nestled next to the first of the winter squash. So I bought it all. And I actually used almost all (full disclosure:the scallions are currently lingering in the bottom of my crisper). But most of the veggies made their way into salads, the kernels from all six ears of corn are tucked in the freezer (ready to be pulled out on a bleak winter's day), the fingerling's were roasted and also used in soups, and the chocolate chip and coconut scones, well, I may have a piece of one left the freezer (which, after two weeks, shows admirable restraint, I think). The squash and eggplant received special treatment, however. Since the nip of fall in the air made turning on my oven actually tolerable, I made not one, but two batches of ratatouille oven-style. Not a bad way to say "hello autumn."
Roasted Ratatouille I like how roasting the vegetables gives them an almost meaty texture. I actually made this twice with my haul, as zucchini and eggplant have a more shelf life that you might think. Try eating the ratatouille over Israeli style couscous and consider sprinkling with crumbled goat or feta cheese before serving. Ingredients 1 med. zucchini 1 med. yellow squash 1 med. Italian-style eggplant 1 small red onion 2 cloves minced garlic (optional) 2 t. olive oil Italian herbs and spices .5 cup tomato sauce (I like to use Trader Joes’ Starter Sauce) Method Preheat oven to 400 degrees Chop zucchini, squash, eggplant and red onion into uniform pieces Toss with olive oil and minced garlic, if using, and spread into 9x13 baking dish Sprinkle liberally with salt, pepper, dried oregano and dried basil; add a few red pepper flakes if you like a bit of heat Roast for 30-35 minutes, stirring vegetables at the half way mark Turn off oven; add tomato sauce and stir Leave in cooling oven for another 10-15 minutes