30 April 2009

Bourbon Pecan Salmon



There are times when I really struggle with living in the Pacific Northwest. There are times when everywhere I turn I am reminded of another place, another stage of life, and I want to be there. Especially, as Derby Day rolls around and Mother's Day approaches, I think of the beautiful bluegrass country I grew up in and I get homesick all over again.

At this time last year we went to Kentucky to try and fill the void. It was everything we could have hoped it might be. We had a great week, perfect weather, got reacquainted with our past selves and with a feeling of fullness and accomplishment we flew home. Soon I felt worse than ever.

Shades of Gray

Late winter really dragged on in the Pacific Northwest last year, right into June, and I felt mired in its lightless wake. I tried writing poetry about the beauty of gray. I came up with a long list of pretty words to describe the shades of gray I could find in the sky: steel, coin, silver, gunmetal, obsidian, flint, shale. I pictured smooth gray streaks in the nacre that coats the inside of an oyster's shell where a pearl might be found. Still I struggled.

In June, just as the weather broke out with a burst of glorious summer we took a road trip that stopped off at a few of the Pacific Northwest's most notable destinations. We drove under blue skies in one perfectly clear shade that is like no other. We enjoyed the landscape of the Pacific Northwest, the Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, the rustic history and natural pristine beauty of Crater Lake under the stars and the sunrise and even a full blown thunder storm. In a flood of gratitude I remembered that it is incredibly gorgeous here and I am blessed to have the opportunity to call the Pacific Northwest my home. Yet still I am homesick for another home, far away, that really doesn’t exist anymore.

So I write. And I remember and I try to bring it all together into a meaningful whole. Sometimes the kitchen is just the place to do that. Rifling through my kitchen files I found a recipe I had torn from a magazine several years ago that made my mouth water remembering the distinctive flavors of those places I am from.

This is a recipe for Bourbon Pecan Salmon. Being a Kentucky girl, and enchanted with the unique Kentucky-ness of bourbon, I am one to cut out every unusual bourbon recipe I come across. This one, however, sounded strange. I just couldn’t get my mind around a salmon/sugar/bourbon flavor meld. Add to that a big handful of Texas pecans and the whole thing hardly makes any sense.

Kitchen Chemistry

All the same, homesick and bored, I tried it and, unexpectedly, it was wonderfully delicious! The boubon adds a smoky depth and the apple cider and brown sugar a little balancing sweetness and the salmon flavor just mellows into this inspired infusion and yields, giving way to the nutty texture of the pecans.

It was quite a satifying realization that these distinctly regional ingredient, representing more than a decade each and telling the story of my life, could settle down together, each remaining true to it’s heritage and distinct in its flavor, and yet blend to complement each other so well. It gave me hope.

"Cooking is more than a skill or even an art. Cooking is about nurturing the future with roots that dig deeply into the past. Cooking is a channel for transmitting love, faith, understanding, pleasure, history, geography, culture, chemistry, art and adventure. The kitchen arts encompass metaphors for, and lessons that apply to, every aspect of life."
It’s true! The lessons learned keep evolving and take time to become a part of who I am but the journey is so worthwhile.

This recipe is one I am sure to repeat often as I keep reaching out to share the unique qualities of my life’s journey with the world I find myself a part of now.



Bourbon Pecan Salmon
from the December 21, 2004 issue of Family Circle Magazine

1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup Kentucky bourbon
1/2 cup apple cider
1 teaspoon black pepper
2 1/2 pounds salmon
1 cup chopped pecans
1 Tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
1/2 teaspoon salt, divided

Combine the brown sugar, bourbon, apple cider and black pepper in a large Ziplock bag. Place the salmon fillet in the mixture and seal the bag, distributing the bourbon mixture to cover the salmon. Refrigerate for 2 to 3 hours turning the bag every hour or so to redistribute the marinade.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spread the pecans on a baking sheet and toast in the oven for approximately 5 minutes, or until they start to brown. Remove from oven and toss the pecans with the melted butter and 1/4 teaspoon of the salt.

Coat the top of a broiler pan with nonstick cooking spray. Gently remove the salmon from the Ziplock bag reserving the marinade. P lace the salmon on the broiler pan, skin-side down, and sprinkle with the remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt. Gently press the pecan mixture over the top of the salmon.

Bake at 400 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes or until the fish flakes easily with a fork.

Meanwhile, bring the reserved marinade to a boil in a small saucepan. Continue to boil for 3 minutes. Spoon over salmon as desired.

Serves 8.

24 April 2009

Mint Julep Brownies


It's almost May, the time of year when I always wish I were in Kentucky. I miss the rolling hills, the bluegrass, the tranquil horse farms and the beautiful and abundant dogwood blossoms as well as the excitement and festivities that can be found all over the state at this time of year.

I also miss the food. For the very best dessert to serve at any Derby celebration I highly recommend my Aunt Hen’s Brownie Pie. I can’t help it, I always loved that pie. I do realize however that some people like variety and I admit that there are other perfectly good desserts that are completely appropriate for this season. One very nice alternative is Mint Julep Brownies.

Last year around the end of April we happened to be in Paducah, Kentucky at the time of the American Quilter’s Society Annual Quilt Show. It is a huge annual event featuring some of the world’s finest quilts. Just take a look at this quilt that won last year's show.


To celebrate this annual event, and to feed some of the many hungry guests that come to town for the show, Grace Episcopal Church holds an annual Quilt Luncheon. Since we have connections we were able to get tickets to this event. (Without connections I think you can just buy them at the door.)

The food was prepared by parishioners and was really good. An unusual and festive chicken and rice salad was the entrée, served with a roasted fruit salad and a Mint Julep Brownie for dessert. I had never had exactly the same sort of brownie before and I wanted to try making it myself. Luckily recipes were available for a donation of $1 each.

After a few adjustments here is what I came up with:


Mint Julep Brownies
from the 2008 Quilters' Luncheon

1 cup (two sticks) butter, cut into tablespoon size pieces
4 oz. dark chocolate, broken into bits
4 eggs
2 cups granualted sugar
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon peppermint extract
2 Tablespoons bourbon

whipped cream
mint sprigs
Candied Pecans (recipe below)
bourbon

In a heavy saucepan melt the butter and chocolate over low heat. Stir until smooth. Set aside to cool slightly.

Place the eggs in a large mixing bowl and beat at medium speed for two minutes. Add the cooled chocolate mixture, sugar, flour, salt, peppermint extract and bourbon. Stir just until combined.

Pour batter into a greased 9 x 13 inch pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 - 30 minutes. Place pan on a wire rack until completely cool.

Cut into squares. Serve garnished with whipped cream, a sprinkling of Candied Pecans and a sprig of mint.

Note: For the adults at your gathering I suggest splashing the plate with a teaspoon or so of good Kentucky bourbon before plating and garnishing the brownies. It adds a more authentic Mint Julep flavor, just an undercurrent of spirited bite to play against the sweetness of the brownie and the candied pecans. Of course this is completely optional.


Candied Pecans

1 Tablespoon butter
2 Tablespoons brown sugar
1/3 cup pecan halves

Melt butter in a small skillet over low heat.

Add sugar stirring until combined.

Add pecans. Cook and stir over low heat until the mixture begins to darken. (This will only take a few minutes.)

Remove skillet from heat and let sit for 10 minutes until pecans cool and sugar hardens. Break the sugar and pecans into coarse bits for garnish.

Enjoy!

22 April 2009

In-N-Out Burger: California Road Trip Part 2


Reasons

We all have our reasons for wanting to get out of town. This spring I was eager to enjoy a climate rich in sunshine and warmth. My husband wanted a break from his routine and a chance to get reacquainted with the coast. My son, a true adventurer, wanted to do what he had never done before, something he would be proud to share tales of with his friends, he wanted to eat a 4 x 4 at In-N-Out Burger.

With these goals in mind we set out for California. Though the weather looked grim as we began driving the forecast at our destination was good. We were looking forward to the scenic drive down US Highway 101 as we headed west toward the ocean. We were also curious about In-N-Out Burger. We had never even heard of it until last year when my son's youth group planned a bus trip to eat at this regional legend. As there are no locations in the Pacific Northwest it was quite a long bus ride but it was described to us as a right of passage from Jr. to Sr. High youth group. Unfortunately my son had conflicting summer obligations and couldn't go. So this would be his chance. And why not? It seemed a simple enough request.

We had a great time on the road with my son and his friend. We wound down the coastal highway and explored the redwood forest. We saw some family and hung out on the beach, but we never saw an In-N-Out Burger until we asked about it when we got to San Jose. There, on the last day before driving home, we zeroed in on one and stopped by for lunch.


Secrets

Personally I am no great fan of fast food burgers. Actually I hardly eat hamburgers at all and am very picky about the way they are dressed. Growing up in White Castle country I understand the regional appeal of some chains but I had heard nothing about In-N-Out Burger that sounded special to me.

Let's just say I was pleasantly surprised!


I'm sure it didn't hurt that it was a perfectly beautiful spring day. The California sun shone brightly on the cheery red, white and yellow exterior of the little fast food restaurant. A soft breeze was blowing as we walked inside where business was brisk and the lines were long but moving at a fair pace. There were lots of spirited teens from a local high school coming and going.


As we approached the counter my son pointed out that he had been counseled by his youth group leader to order a 4 x 4, but he didn't see it on the menu board. When he ordered it anyway, he found that he was unwittingly in on one of the secrets of In-N-Out Burger's unofficial culture, the Not-So-Secret Menu. In-N- Out Burger officially posts a very simple menu of Burgers, Hand-Cut French Fries and Shakes. Still they have a couple of popular custom combinations that can be ordered in In-N-Out Burger shorthand. You can order these custom burgers Animal Style (loaded with extras), Protein Style (without a bun), or as my son did, 4 x 4. Hopefully you will know better than we did what you are getting.

The 4 x 4

The 4 x 4 came, four hamburger patties high separated by 4 slices of American cheese on a single bun, with a side of hand cut fries. Massive would be a fair description! My son looked pleased and went with his friend to sit at an outdoor table where he could enjoy his food while he checked out the local high school traffic.


I ordered a simple cheeseburger, no sauce, but with lettuce, tomato and grilled onions, an order of hand cut fries and unsweetened tea. My brother in law pointed out that you can watch them hand cut the fries behind the counter as your order is prepared. When my number was called the order showed up freshly cooked and precisely as ordered. It was a good burger, just as fresh and tasty as promised. The fries were also hot and fresh and surprisingly delicious.


As we were starting to clean up and get ready to go my son came in to tell us he planned to order another round. Well what can I say? It was his vacation too, so we sat in the grass outside while he ordered another 4 x 4 with fries...and consumed it! Quite pleased with his accomplishment we started back to pack for the drive home.


I'm still no huge fan of fast food burgers but I really did enjoy my meal at In-N-Out Burger and would be glad to go again. It was fun and proved interesting. Now not only have we heard of In-N-Out burger and been there, but last week I also heard that a book about In-N-Out Burger has just been released. If you would like to learn more about this private chain of hamburger restaurants this book promises lots of juicy details.

Or maybe you would rather see In-N-Out Burger for yourself? At the In-N-Out Burger website you can get point-to-point directions to their nearest location to get your own "freshness fix." And why not? There must be worse reasons to go on a road trip.

20 April 2009

Java Monkey Muffins



One day last month I saw a post at Little Red Bike Café that began with a photo and the following description:

Vegan Monkey Muffins
banana bread muffin with oats, chocolate chips, coconut, and espresso glaze

It was followed by a number of other items on their Saturday menu but it was those muffins I couldn’t stop thinking about. Funny, because I’m not that crazy about banana bread and there used to be nothing about coconut that appealed to me.

Ever since I was a girl I have avoided sweetened flaked coconut. Something about it just bothered me. Maybe it was the artificial tasting sweetness. Maybe it was the stringy texture. Whatever it was, though I couldn’t actually tell you what coconut tasted like, I felt safe in the knowledge that I didn’t like it.

But then I discovered that there can be something wonderfully adventurous about eating the creamy flesh of a coconut and enjoying the flavor of its milk. It has come to have some interesting associations for my family.

This year I also discovered unsweetened shredded coconut. It has a finer texture than the sweetened flaked coconut I grew up avoiding in cookies, on cakes and on southern fruit salads. Best of all the flavor is fantastic! I could just eat it by the handful. Tropical, exotic and nutty, it actually tastes like fresh coconut.

While I still don’t like the sweet stringiness of sweetened flaked coconut I have discovered that I do like the flavor, and even the texture, of almost every other natural coconut product I have tried. So when I read the description of Vegan Monkey Muffins my mind began to play with the flavor combination in a scrumptious way. I began to envision one of my favorite muffin recipes, made with coconut milk instead of buttermilk, augmented with nutritious tropical fruit and fragrant ginger then punctuated with a jolt of chocolate and espresso. I liked the idea of creamy coconut and soft banana contrasting the texture of old fashioned oats, nuggets of bittersweet chocolate and nutty bits of shredded coconut. The recipe I ended up with is a study in happy contrasts that will brighten the start of any day!


Java Monkey Muffins

1 cup old fashioned oats, uncooked
1 cup lite coconut milk
2 egg whites, lightly beaten
2 Tablespoons butter, melted
2 very ripe bananas, smashed
1 teaspoon ground ginger (or 1 – 2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup flour
3 Tablespoons sugar (use vanilla sugar if you have it)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
½ cup unsweetened shredded coconut (I use Bob’s Red Mill brand)
½ cup chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly spray 12 muffin cups with cooking spray.

Mix oats and coconut milk in a medium bowl. Let stand 10 minutes.

Add egg whites, butter, bananas, ginger and vanilla, mixing until well blended.

Combine flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a large bowl and mix well.

Stir dry ingredients into the banana mixture, just until moistened.

Gently fold in chocolate chips and coconut.

Fill muffin cups nearly full.

Sprinkle a bit of coconut over the tops.

Bake 20-25 minutes or until golden brown.

Cool muffins in tins on a wire rack. After 5 minutes remove muffins from pan.

When cool, drizzle with Espresso Glaze.

Serve and Enjoy!

Yield: 12 muffins



Espresso Glaze

1 teaspoon espresso powder
1 ½ Tablespoons hot water
¼ teaspoon vanilla
1 cup confectioners’ sugar

Dissolve the espresso powder in the hot water. Add ¼ teaspoon vanilla and mix gently.

In a small bowl, mix 1 Tablespoon of the espresso mixture into the confectioners’ sugar. Add more of the espresso mixture, one teaspoon at a time, until it is a nice consistency for a glaze.

When thoroughly mixed drizzle from a spoon over cooled muffins, or put the glaze in a quart sized ziplock bag, seal the bag, snip of ¼ inch of a lower corner, and squeeze the glaze in a random pattern over the muffins.

Serve and enjoy!

15 April 2009

Roasted Pears with Rosemary and Thyme


Northwest Pears

As with so many types of fruit, the Pacific Northwest is blessed with an abundance of pears, growing 84% of the fresh pears sold in the US. As many as eight different varieties are grown in this region and they are readily available in the market from late summer into spring. Bored with much of what winter has to offer in terms of produce, I have tried cooking with several different varieties of pears lately. My favorite produce market frequently has a big variety to choose from: Bosc, Red Anjou, Green Anjou, StarKrimsom, Asian and Comice.

I know that pears have been in season for months now. I guess I am a little late to the game, but aside from an occasional glance at a pear tart I have never thought much about cooking with pears. Suddenly inspired, I searched the Internet and came across some great pear tips. I also found several sources that suggested Bosc pears were the best for cooking. Ever an eager student, I set out to find some Bosc pears to experiment with. Unfortunately the Bosc pears were hard while some of the other varieties had a little give and promised more flavor. In the end I picked up a few pears of several different varieties to try.

The Character of Pears

Pears ripen best off the tree. I try to choose pears at the market that have a very slight give when gently pushed with my thumb. Then I bring them home to adorn the corner of my kitchen counter for several days. At this stage their shape and texture are ideal for a study in still life. They are quite pretty as they ripen but are sometimes tempermental. They should be carefully attended to since they grow impatient as that stage is reached. When ripe, a pear should be eaten at once or stored in the refrigerator for up to a few days.

For poaching, baking or roasting, pears should be used before they are perfectly ripe. In my experience, the variety of pear you cook with is less important than its degree of ripeness. Comice, Anjou and StarKrimson all tasted good cooked, provided they were nearly ripe when used. Too ripe, and they fell apart. While I wouldn’t say their perfect sweetness was wasted, I would have preferred to eat the perfectly ripened pears raw. Yet if the pear is too hard, cooking it might soften it but it won’t impart the delicate pear flavor that waiting another day or two while it ripens on the counter will.

Something Different

While I was browsing for information on varieties of pears I stumbled across some recipes that sounded wonderful. This one for Roasted Pears sounded so exotic and yet easy to prepare. I have to say, it turned out to be everything I hoped for: simple, savory and delicious. These pears would be great on a salad or served as a side dish with pork or chicken. I think they would also be interesting with ice cream or vanilla sugar cookies. I love the surprising variety of flavors in the first bite!


Roasted Pears with Rosemary and Thyme

4 firm ripe pears, cored and quartered
2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons of olive oil
1 teaspoon of Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon of minced fresh thyme
1/2 teaspoon of minced fresh rosemary
1/4 teaspoon of salt
1/4 teaspoon of ground pepper
Pinch of ground dried sage

Toasted hazelnuts, chopped

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

In a small bowl, whisk together the balsamic vinegar, olive oil, Dijon mustard, minced thyme, minced rosemary, salt, pepper and sage until thoroughly combined.

Brush the pears with the mixture.

Place pears on a baking sheet or broiler pan. Bake at 425 degrees for 15 minutes, a little less if the pears are very ripe, a little more if they are under-ripe. For best flavor, brush with the herb mixture several times while baking.

When the pears are tender when pierced with a fork, remove from the oven.

Arrange on a serving dish and top with toasted hazelnut pieces.

Enjoy!

Note: Candied Hazelnuts can be substituted for the toasted hazelnut pieces. To add this sweet touch simply melt one Tablespoon of butter in a small skillet, over medium-low heat. Add one Tablespoon of brown sugar and mix well. Add hazelnut pieces and stir slowly but constantly until the nuts begin to brown. Remove from the heat and let rest until cool enough to handle. Then break up the pieces and scatter the candied hazelnuts over the pears.

12 April 2009

Cardamon Citrus Easter Braid


For years now it has been the tradition at our house to bake an Easter Braid to serve for Easter breakfast. It isn’t one of those traditions that I remember from my childhood as it was passed down through the generations. Instead it is one that I read about, adapted, then adopted as my own.

This must have happened during one of my bread baking phases. When I was first married I was still in college and baking bread was my own brand of inexpensive and productive therapy. After midterms or finals I would retreat to the kitchen and immerse myself in the process of making bread. The simple creativity of mixing basic ingredients to make something nourishing, fresh and delicious helped me to refocus my mind. The physicality of punching down the dough and kneading it was primal and satisfying. The bread that resulted was a blessing!

As I searched for bread recipes and experimented I clipped articles about the special Easter breads baked in different cultures. There were soft doughs with citrus flavors baked into rings, round loaves with eggs on top and even bread shaped like a dove and studded with almonds. Over time I adapted a bit from here, another thought from there, and arrived at a braided bread loaf made from a soft dough flavored with cardamon and citrus, drizzled with sweet icing and decorated with dyed eggs.

I think it still changes a bit from year to year. Sometimes it is shaped in a circle, sometimes a log. Sometimes it has a sweet filling and sometimes not, but a homemade bread braid decorated with icing and colorful eggs is now essential, a family tradition born of my own personal kitchen therapy before my children were born.


Cardamon Citrus Easter Braid

Bread

1 package yeast
3 1/3 cups flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons cardamon
1 teaspoon grated orange rind
1 teaspoon grated lemon rind
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup milk, scalded
1/3 cup warm water
1/3 cup butter, melted
2 eggs, beaten

Icing

1 cup powdered sugar
1 Tablespoon + 2 or 3 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

colored sugar sprinkles (optional)
6 - 10 eggs, hard boiled and dyed

Add all of the bread ingredients to a bread machine. Set the machine to 'manual' so that you can take the dough, when ready, and shape the loaves yourself.

(Or if you don't have a bread machine:
Mix the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Heat the milk, water and butter over low heat until warm, 115 to 120 degrees. Add mixture to the dry ingredients, along with the eggs, and stir until a dough forms. Turn the dough onto a well floured surface and knead for approximately 10 minutes, until the dough is smooth and elastic. Place the dough in a greased bowl, turn once. Cover with a towel and let it rise in a warm place until double, approximately 1 - 1 1/2 hours. Continue as follows.)

When the dough is ready, punch down and divide it into 6 equal portions. Cover and let the dough rest for 10 minutes.

Roll each portion into a rope 15 inches long. Place ropes side by side on a greased baking sheet, one inch apart.

Shape into two braids using 3 ropes for each, beginning in the middle and working out to the ends of the loaves. Pinch ends and tuck under.

Cover loaves and let them rise until nearly double (approximately 1 hour).

Bake in 375 degree oven 15 to 20 minutes, or until golden.

While the bread is still warm take a hard-cooked egg and push it into the loaf at intervals, between the twists, to make a place for the colored eggs you will add. Cool on a wire rack.

When the loaves are cool. Prepare the icing. Stir together the confectioners' sugar and lemon juice until smooth and drizzle it over the loaves in a random pattern. Quickly sprinkle with colored sugar, if desired.

When the icing has set, place dyed hard cooked eggs in the indentations you made.

Makes two braids.

Happy Easter!

09 April 2009

Some Favorite Artisan Chocolates


The Pacific Northwest is home to many amazing food products some of which I have highlighted over the past year or so here at My Own Sweet Thyme. I have tasted barbecue sauce with such a spicy hit you’d feel sure it was made south of the border. I have explored local honey products, hazelnuts, nut butters, sake, wine and cheese.

For Easter I though I would look into locally produced chocolates. One of my personal favorites is Alma Chocolate off Burnside in Portland. Owner Sarah Hart makes gorgeous chocolates, molded in the shape of religious icons and burnished with edible gold leaf. They are made from solid single origin dark chocolate and they are beautiful, so beautiful in fact it was hard to convince myself to eat the gilded sacred heart I was given for Valentine’s Day several years ago.

When I visited her shop I realized she makes a number of outstanding bon bons, caramels and bars too, many of which are also brushed with a metallic gleam. My absolute favorite are the Habanero Caramel Crowns. A crown shaped shell of dark chocolate holds a deceptively soft caramel center that packs a spicy punch. The punch comes from habanero peppers and in my view it is perfectly balanced by the sweet ooze of the caramel.


Alma Chocolate also carries seasonal specialties. For spring there are bunnies, frogs and Hazelnut Hedgehogs with a praline filling. Like all of treats sold here they are soulful and unique. Alma's brilliant chocolates make a thoughtful, tasty and gorgeous addition to any Easter basket or other special celebration!


Another intriguing chocolate maker in the Pacific Northwest is Lillie Belle Farms. This small company in southern Oregon produces handmade artisan chocolates from organic couvertures in an enticing array of flavors. Several flavor combinations are award winning, most notably their Smokey Blue Truffles made with Smoked Oregon Blue Cheese produced by their neighbor, Rogue Creamery. When I researched locally crafted blue cheese to substitute for imported blue cheese in some recipes I found a link to these ingenious truffles.



I was thrilled when, finally, I had a chance to sample an assortment of Lillie Belle Farms' bonbons, caramels and ganaches. The custom assortment I created on-line included a Maker's Mark Cup, a dreamy bourbon-laced pecan butter ganache in a dark chocolate shell topped with a splendid candied pecan, and a Black Pepper Ganache, infused with just the right amount of earthy heat.


There was also a wholesome dark chocolate Marionberry Bon Bon, filled with Lillie Belle Farms' own organic Marionberry preserves.


And I was able to taste a Jamaican Spiced Caramel richly laced with island spices. All were wonderful and yet, of all the daring flavor combinations, that Smokey Blue Truffle remained the center of interest.

I have to say that the Smoky Blue Truffle was truly, and somewhat unexpectedly, amazing! Beneath the blue foil wrapper, it was encrusted in a shell of toasted almonds which beautifully harmonized with the subtle smokiness said to be imparted to the cheese by the smoke of hazelnut shells. Inside, the creamy sharp tang of the blue cheese combined with the dreamy sweetness of organic milk chocolate to produce a wonderfully balanced flavor sensation. The taste was both surprising and delightful.


This unique truffle seems to have successfully married the earthy flavor of aged cheese to the smoothly elegant taste of milk chocolate without compromising the unique strengths of either flavor. It’s like one of those marriages you thought would never work, when he is older and from New York, trained in the sciences but is always on the jazz and talks a mile a minute, while she is a shy young woman from the rural lanes of lush bluegrass country…..

Wait, that’s my marriage!

But you get what I mean. You wonder how that could possibly work but, with just the right blend, the strong supports the weak and the weak tempers the strong, and the rough edges of both mellow as they transform each other with an alchemy that makes them more than the sum of their parts. That is this truffle. Exotic, yes! Edgy? Sure! But it works beautifully and is fun to experience.


Lillie Belle Farms' Easter treats are also edgy. Not only do they offer sweet organic dark and white chocolate egg truffles filled with vanilla bean or blood orange ganache, but they also have solid chocolate bunnies and, for the stout hearted, a collection of very unusual voodoo bunnies!

08 April 2009

Carrot Cake and Seasonal Movie Magic


Inspirational Rabbits

As Easter approaches rabbits can be seen everywhere. This one, along with a variety of other concrete rabbits, sits in my back yard. There are also a great many rabbits to be found on store shelves. The seasonal aisle of the grocery store is practically bursting with bunnies. Soft little stuffed bunnies, huge blow-up lawn bunnies, baskets with bunnies and lots of milk and dark chocolate bunnies, hollow, solid or filled with marshmallow or peanut butter.


Though all of these rabbits are quite evidently on display and easy enough to see they remind me of the invisible rabbit in the movie "Harvey" and make me smile.



This movie, released in 1950, remains a wonderfully charming classic. It stars Jimmy Stewart as Elwood, an eccentric and sweet-natured character who has an invisible six foot three and half inch rabbit as a friend. This rabbit is not just your typical run-of-the-mill imaginary friend. He is a pooka, a legendary, and rather mischievous, spirit who takes on animal form to those who can perceive him. He is Elwood's companion and Elwood speaks to him and treats him with great courtesy, to the utter dismay and embarrassment of his family. At wit's end, they decide to have Elwood committed.


Comedy and chaos ensue, throughout which Elwood remains persistently calm and cheerful. He looks at the world with wonder and keeps a smile on his face throughout misunderstandings and betrayal. Asked by Doctor Chumley, "Good Heavens, man! Haven't you any righteous indignation?"


Elwood calmly replies, " Years ago my mother used to say to me, she'd say, "In this world, Elwood, you must be" - she always called me Elwood - "In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant." Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me."


In the end Elwood earns the confidence and acceptance of those around him. That accomplished, Elwood invites Harvey to travel on with another needy soul.


It is a charming movie and a great piece of light, yet meaningful, entertainment. There are many more wonderful quotes from the movie and a good bit of wisdom in the script by Mary Chase and Oscar Brodney. I recommend watching it this season.



A Cake to Celebrate

And while we are on the subject of rabbits, why not make a carrot cake to entice all of your carrot lovers to show themselves openly. This cake is simple to make in a 9 x 13 inch pan. What's more, it is a real treat and with four cups of carrots it might even be considered a vegetable dish. At the very least, it makes a great spring dessert.


This particular recipe made its way into my kitchen file several years ago when I searched for a carrot cake recipe to use in my 25th anniversary cake. Remembering that I wasn't crazy about my original wedding cake I decided to celebrate my anniversary by making a cake I would have been happy to serve at my wedding. I made a cake three tiers tall. One was made from a traditional Italian Wedding Cake recipe, one was made from a wonderful Decadent Fudge Cake recipe and the third was made from this Carrot Cake recipe. I was quite happy with the way it turned out!


I found the Carrot Cake recipe I used at Epicurious.com. I like the simplicity of the recipe. It relies on carrots, walnuts and spices for flavor, leaving out the sticky sweetness of pineapple and raisins that many carrot cakes include. It has changed ever so slightly somewhere over the past five years as I adapted it from a layered cake with a creamy filling to a rectangular 13 x 9 inch cake to serve for potlucks and family dinners.


The next time I make it I think I will top the cake with the whimsical Marzipan Carrots The Recipe Girl posted about recently. They look so real, down to a brush of cocoa powder "dirt" to give them that "fresh-picked" look.



Carrot Cake
adapted from Epicurious

2 cups sugar
1 cup canola oil
4 large eggs
2 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger (or try 1 Tablespoon grated fresh ginger)
1 teaspoon salt
4 cups finely grated peeled carrots
1 cup walnuts, toasted and chopped


Grease and flour a 13x9x2 inch baking pan, or two 9-in round baking pans. In the bowl of an electric mixer, thoroughly combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger and salt. Add carrots, oil and eggs. Mix at low speed until moistened, then beat at medium speed for 2 minutes. Fold in the walnuts.

Pour batter into prepared pan.

Bake at 325 degrees for 50 to 60 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Cool thoroughly on wire rack.

Frost with Maple Cream Cheese Frosting.


Maple Cream Cheese Frosting

1 8-ounce packages cream cheese, room temperature
¼ cup (½ stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1½ cups powdered sugar
¼ cup pure maple syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

In a medium bowl, beat the cream cheese and butter until fluffy. Add powdered sugar, maple syrup, and vanilla. Continue beating until well blended.

Refrigerate until the frosting reaches a consistency desirable for spreading, approximately 30 minutes.

Spread frosting on top of the cooled carrot cake. Decorate with marzipan carrots if desired.

Serve and Enjoy!

05 April 2009

Easter Teacakes


My husband has always loved Russian Teacakes. When we were first married it was one of the few recipes he specifically asked me to make for him. It was a cookie he remembered from his childhood.

I wasn’t familiar with them. It was not a cookie that was part of my family’s traditions but, eager to please, I tried the recipe in my brand new Betty Crocker’s Cookbook and found that I liked them almost as much as he did. It became my go-to cookie when we wanted a sweet treat.


On our first Easter together I thought about how we should celebrate. I had always had some kind of an Easter basket filled with treats on Easter morning, but we were on a tight budget and I thought perhaps we were too old for such things and needed to be more mature. On the one hand Easter baskets seemed like an extravagance. But, on the other hand, Easter without any special treats seemed a little austere.

In time I arrived at a compromise. I bought two coffee mugs with rabblits on them, something we would use since we both enjoyed coffee and owned only a few old hand-me-down mugs. I used them as small Easter baskets. I filled each of them with a Reese's Peanut Butter Egg (another favorite), a few jelly beans and a homemade batch of Russian Teacakes.

To make the cookies festive I made them in the shape of little Easter Eggs. These are a little more trouble to prepare than the basic Russian Teacakes I have posted about before. They have to be shaped by hand but to me they’re worth it. If you don’t mind ball shaped egg cookies go ahead and use a cookie scoop, but do try the lemon and colored sugars for a festive touch.


Easter Teacakes

One Recipe for Russian Teacakes
½ teaspoon lemon extract
zest from 1 lemon

liquid food coloring
3 cups powdered sugar (to color)

1 cup powdered sugar (for icing)
1 Tablespoon + 2 – 3 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
colored sugar sprinkles

Prepare Russian Teacake dough as described in the original recipe. You can use any type of nuts you desire.  This time I used hazelnuts.  Add the lemon extract along with the sugar and the lemon zest along with the flour.

While the cookies are baking tint the powdered sugar. This can be done by putting 1 cup of powdered sugar in a blender. Make a dent in the top of the sugar and drop in several drops of liquid food coloring (paste coloring tends to clump and remain in pieces.) Process in the blender until the sugar is evenly colored. If you prefer a brighter color add a little more food coloring and process again. Make as many different colors as you like. 

When the cookies are baked and still warm, roll them in the powdered sugar color of your choice. Let the cookies cool completely, then roll them in the powdered sugar again.

Prepare the lemon icing for drizzling by mixing 1 cup of confectioners sugar with 1 Tablespoon + 1 teaspoon of fresh lemon juice. Add more lemon juice ½ teaspoon at a time until it is smooth and reaches a good consistency for drizzling.


Place the icing in a flat ziplock baggie. Snip ¼ inch from a lower corner of the bag. Pipe the icing in a zigzag pattern across the top of the cookies. (The icing will roll a little on the top of the powdered sugar but will dry firm.) Sprinkle icing immediately with colored sugar sprinkles. Let set until icing is firm.

Enjoy!

02 April 2009

A Seafood Lunch at Bodega Bay


Warm. Sunny. Blue skies and sparkling crystal seas! Looks like I found everything I was hoping for when we left home for California this Spring Break.

Now we have turned inland from the coast and Highway 1. The sun roof is open. The boys are in the back plugged into iPods and cell phones as they compare Spring Break with their friends.


Along our route we drove through Redwood National Park, literally through two redwood trees and watched the sun set soft and colorful as it melted into the surf at Fort Bragg.


We drove along roads so steep and curvy, through the mountains and along the oceanside cliffs on the Coastal Highway, that I had to concentrate to control my stomach and to calm my fear of heights, all to a soundtrack of ‘80’s rock.


I’m not sure this drive compares favorably with a trip to Hawaii by teenage standards, but for my part I am satisfied with the adventure and having a great time!

From a culinary point of view, however, this road trip has been a little less exciting. We have eaten at Wendy’s, stopped at Starbucks, eaten some average pizza and made a late stop at Denny’s. We’ve been running behind our ambitious schedule and we are being careful because we have one passenger who is allergic to nuts. Still, as we wound our way down the coast I was really hoping for at least one really good seafood meal.


We finally found what I was hoping for when we reached Bodega Bay. By little more than chance we pulled off at The Tides Wharf and found we were at a crossroads of cinematic history and culinary fame. This was where Alfred Hitchcock chose to film The Birds and there was a wall lined with pictures signed by Tippi Hedren and other movie memorabilia along the entrance to the restaurant.


We were seated at a table overlooking the water as it gleamed in the sunshine. A few gulls sat on posts along the wharf like extras still waiting to be cast. The restaurant was bright, the decor simple and the service attentive. Comfortable, I remembered how hungry I was.


We ordered Mahi Mahi, Clam Chowder, Linguine with Clam Sauce and Fish Cioppino. All turned out to be good choices. The Mahi Mahi was pan-seared and pretty served with saffron rice and a tropical fruit salsa. The chowder was creamy and rich and came with thick oyster crackers to float on top.


The linguine came not only with a sauce thick with clams but with several pretty clams in their shells which were tasty and added to the presentation.


The wonderful Cioppino was piled high with salmon, whitefish, halibut, scallops and shrimp, not to mention an assortment of mussels and clams in their shells. Every piece of seafood was cooked perfectly, remaining tender, moist and flavorful in a zesty Italian tomato broth accented with just the right amount of herbs and spices.

Full and satisfied we turned in from the coast as we drove on under the brilliant California sun!