24 December 2014

Family Traditions - Cranberry Eggnog Salad


Taking Sides

Last year I read a piece in Southern Living magazine that had me laughing out loud. “Taking Sides” by Allison Glock described a formidable family tradition in the form of The Cranberry Salad, a side dish that nobody liked but was made and served each Thanksgiving day as a matter of family tradition.

I could relate. I was already acquainted with The Cranberry Salad tradition, though in my family the salad was made with an eggnog layer and was served at Christmas dinner rather than Thanksgiving. Ours had not yet spawned any of its own “baby traditions” but Aunt Hen's Cranberry Eggnog Salad was a signature recipe. Festive and interesting, it was associated with Aunt Hen's table. Not only was it known as her recipe in our small community, Aunt Hen submitted the recipe to Southern Living magazine where it was published in the November 1986 issue.

While this detail added a certain gravitas to Aunt Hen’s recipe among her contemporaries, it did nothing to make it any more palatable from my point of view. I never liked bits of anything, sweet or savory, embedded in my jell-o. What’s more, well past childhood I had serious doubts about eating cranberries or nuts and eggnog is something I have never cared for.

While tasting Aunt Hen’s Cranberry Eggnog Salad didn't appeal to my young palate, I admired it's composition all the same. The salad added a touch of drama to Aunt Hen's holiday table and the bright contrasting red and white layers were undeniably pretty. From time to time I would ask her to tell me about the salad, what was in it and why she made it but, as far as I can remember, I never actually tried it. Though my dad would say, “you just don’t know what’s good!" with a mischievous grin as he took another bite himself, Aunt Hen knew my preferences and never held it against me.


A Traditional Christmas Dinner

Aunt Hen was always the hostess of my family’s Christmas Dinner. On Christmas morning, after waking early and opening gifts at home, we would run to Aunt Hen’s house, just two doors away, past the old tin-roofed farm house where my father grew up, to see what Santa might have left for us there. Because he knew our family like he did, the jolly old fellow was kind enough to fill stockings for us there just as he did at our own house, while he tucked a few more gifts with our names on them under her tree.

Aunt Hen would already be up and in the kitchen no matter how early we arrived. She usually had a ham in the oven and was working on a variety of side dishes by the time we got there. After greetings we gathered around her Christmas tree to open gifts. That done the adults would reconvene in the kitchen to finish dinner preparations. Daddy sliced the ham while Aunt Hen and Aunt Betty put the finishing touches on the rest of the meal: scalloped potatoes, an oyster casserole, Southern Style Green Beans and, of course, the Cranberry Eggnog Salad.


While there may have been older family traditions that inspired Aunt Hen to serve a ham or an oyster casserole, the cranberry eggnog salad was her own personal contribution to our menu of holiday traditions. In a homespun church cookbook from 1980, a version of Aunt Hen’s Egg Nog Salad is given a page. The forward to the recipes collected declares, “This booklet is about remembrances of good times and good food…” Several other pages include sparsely detailed recipes accompanied by charming memories of holidays past and paragraphs about the traditions of families in our community. Aunt Hen’s page, on the other hand, details the recipe with clarity and precision while her words about the significance of the recipe state simply, “There is no special memory or tradition about this recipe. It is just one I always use at Christmas.” Reading that, I have to smile. In it’s own way, that page portrays a perfect likeness of my aunt.


The Family Cookbook

As I grew older I became more and more interested in our old family recipes. When I made my Family Heirloom Cookbook I included the recipe for Aunt Hen's Cranberry Eggnog Salad among other favorites like Brownie Pie, Peanut Butter Fudge, and Cherry Cheese Pie in Aunt Hen’s section of the book. I still hadn't tried the recipe myself. I added it on her authority, as well as that of Southern Living. After all, everyone knows you can trust a recipe published in Southern Living.

Finally, one Christmas season, the stars aligned. I found my jell-o mold, a thing I had never used but had set aside years earlier for this very purpose, and I remembered the recipe. Over the years my tastes had evolved and I even considered it within the realm of possibility that I could enjoy a salad of eggnog and cranberries. What's more, I had a number of the necessary ingredients on hand. I had a carton of eggnog in the refrigerator and some chunky cranberry sauce left over from a test recipe. I had gelatin and crushed pineapple in the pantry. At last it was time to try Aunt Hen’s special recipe.

It was a busy Saturday during the holiday season. Distracted by the events of the day I missed the target consistency of the cranberry layer. It was mostly set by the time I finished the eggnog mixture. Undeterred I poured the eggnog layer on top and let it set without much worry. When it was ready to be released from the mold all seemed well. I took a few photos then let it rest in the refrigerator until dinner time.


Tasting the Recipe

Aunt Hen's Cranberry Eggnog Salad made a nice presentation at the table. Served on a crystal platter with my mother’s silver tomato server (which had long been repurposed in our family traditions as a canned cranberry relish server.)

Grace was said and plates were filled. Still no one had touched the Cranberry Eggnog Salad. I urged them on but met with resistance. Finally I took it upon myself to dig in. I gently pressed the serving spoon against the salad to cut a slice. Just as I thought it was about to yield the entire wreath shaped upper cranberry layer slid away from the eggnog layer beneath it and onto the white linen tablecloth!

Surprised and slightly horrified I heard a collective gasp. A moment later everyone at the table burst into laughter. Vindicated in their resistance my children helped me gather the cranberry layer back onto the eggnog salad. They even tasted the ravaged remains briefly before getting back to the Southern Style Green Beans, Cornflake Casserole and Pumpkin Bread of their own cherished holiday traditions.

Taking a bite for myself I had to admit I still found the tastes of the salad unappealing. Maybe it was the type of cranberry relish I chose to use. Perhaps it was the problem with the setting consistency of the eggnog layer. Or maybe it was that I just don’t like eggnog or textured bits of anything in my jell-o. I know I didn't like the celery in the eggnog layer. Whatever the reason this is one family tradition I will probably leave in retirement, at least until I can think of a good way to make it more palatable to current family tastes. Still I’m glad that I gave it a try. And who knows? Just because I didn't like it doesn't mean that you won't. After all, I don't even like mayonnaise!


Aunt Hen's Cranberry Eggnog Salad

Cranberry Layer

2 (3-oz) packages raspberry flavored gelatin
3 cups boiling water
1 package (10-14-oz)cranberry-orange relish (frozen, jar or homemade)

Eggnog Layer

1 (20-oz) can unsweetened crushed pineapple, undrained
2 envelopes unflavored gelatin
3 Tablespoons lime juice
1 1/2 cups commercial dairy eggnog
3/4 cup diced celery (optional)
Lettuce leaves (optional)

In a mixing bowl, pour boiling water over gelatin; stir until dissolved. Add cranberry-orange relish, stirring until thawed (if frozen) and well combined. Pour mixture into a lightly oiled (or spray with cooking spray) 8-12 cup mold. Chill until partially set.

Drain pineapple, reserving the liquid. Set pineapple aside. Soften unflavored gelatin in pineapple juice, and let stand 5 minutes. Cook gelatin mixture over low heat until the gelatin dissolves; add lime juice and eggnog.

Chill until partially set (until the eggnog mixture is roughly the consistency of unbeaten egg white.) Fold in pineapple and celery (if desired). Pour over cranberry layer. Chill until thoroughly set. Unmold onto lettuce leaves (if desired). Yield: 14 servings.

Merry Christmas!

21 December 2014

Gingerbread Streusel Coffee Cake


Relocating

This holiday season I am, once again, learning my way around a new kitchen. This one is a little farther east than the last one, and a little farther south. The windows over the countertop invite the morning sunlight as they look out across my front porch on to a pretty little park filled with large pecan and small oak trees.

The kitchen is efficient and well appointed. There are nice stretches of counter space to work on, one facing the park and another facing the family room. A large professional style gas range with iron skillets resting on the back burner challenges me and warms the décor.

Still I am a cautious creature. It is hard for me to just dive in. Things are, again, different here and take some getting used to, especially during the holidays.


Bringing It Home

Maybe that’s why I am so enjoying the scents of the season this year. Ginger, nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon are familiar scents that suggest fond memories and bring a sense of the familiar into present circumstances.

Here, my basic recipe for Sunday Special Coffee Cake is at work again. This time I have adapted an adaptation I settled on when I made a Pecan Graham Coffee Cake several years ago. Instead of using the graham crackers I substituted crushed ginger cookies (you can use homemade or store bought) to add texture to the streusel crumbs. I also added a robust blend of holiday spices and a touch of molasses to the batter.

This cake turns out dark and fragrant with a sweet layer of crunchy streusel glazing the top. Warm from the oven it makes a nice addition to a weekend or holiday breakfast. It tastes great with a warm cup of coffee or spiced apple cider. A little later in the day, if there is any left over, it can do a repeat performance as a snack or a simple dessert.


Gingerbread Streusel Coffee Cake

Ginger Streusel Topping

1 cup crushed ginger cookies
¼ cup brown sugar
2 Tablespoons flour
½ teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
a pinch of ground cloves
¼ cup butter
½ cup toasted chopped pecans

Place ginger cookies in a quart sized Ziploc freezer bag. Squeeze out the air and seal the top. Crush gingersnaps using a rolling pin.

In a small bowl, combine ¾ cup of the crushed cookie crumbs, sugar, flour, ginger, cinnamon and cloves. Add the butter in several slices and mix to a crumbly streusel with your fingertips or with a fork, if you prefer. Stir in the toasted pecan bits and the remaining ¼ cup cookie crumbs. Set aside.

Gingerbread Cake Batter

2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1½ teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
2 eggs
½ cup butter, melted
¼ cup brown sugar
½ cup molasses
½ cup milk

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

In a small bowl, combine the flour and next six ingredients using a wire whisk.

In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs until frothy. Add the brown sugar, molasses and melted butter blending until smooth.

Add the milk, whisking until well combined.

With a wooden spoon, stir in the flour mixture until smooth and well combined.

Pour batter into a prepared 9-inch baking pan.

Scatter the streusel topping crumbs on top of the batter.

Bake in a preheated oven at 375 degree for 25-30 minutes, or until the cake tests done.

Cool on a wire rack.

Enjoy!

16 December 2014

Roasted Brussels Sprouts and Cranberries with Pecans


Discoveries on the Produce Aisle

Last week I found stalks of Brussels sprouts for sale in the produce section of Sprouts market. A generous quantity of individual sprouts adorned each stout central stalk budding out from the base where each leaf had grown. It caught me by surprise. I don’t often see Brussels sprouts for sale like that so I put a stalk in my cart based on the novelty alone.

Farther down the aisle I saw bags of fresh cranberries. Not yet sure how I might use them I remembered years when they were hard to find. They make a great garnish or decoration, if nothing else, and can always be frozen for later use so I put a bag of those in my cart as well.

While I wondered how I might use my impulse purchases I gathered a few more items and pushed my cart to the front of the store. In the process I forgot the orange juice, one of the main reasons I had come to the market in the first place. That’s just how my shopping rolls sometimes.


A Pretty Combination

Unloading my groceries I was impressed by how festive my produce looked. The deep red of the cranberries sparkled beside the fresh green of the Brussels sprouts. Both were pretty in their own way and together they looked like Christmas.

But both can be tricky too. The flavor of Brussels sprouts quickly develops from bright crisp-tender freshness to mushy gray bitterness if even slightly overcooked. And cranberries, if undercooked, have a pithy texture, are sharply tart and lean toward bitterness too. In the end I put them both in one dish, letting them balance each other in combination.

I have learned that roasting Brussels sprouts can bring out the finer qualities of this nutrition-packed vegetable, so I cut each sprout in half and roasted them cut side down on a baking sheet. Halfway through roasting, once the cut edges began to brown, I added the cranberries along with a little maple syrup to soften the tartness and a splash of balsamic vinegar to mellow any bitterness. I also scattered a handful of pecans on top to round out the flavors and add a hint of crunch. The result was flavorful and elegant, perfect for Christmas dinner but easy enough to serve at any meal.


Roasted Brussels Sprouts and Cranberries with Pecans

1 pound Brussels sprouts, washed, trimmed and halved
1 Tablespoon olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 cup fresh cranberries, washed and sorted
2 Tablespoons maple syrup
1 Tablespoon balsamic vinegar
¼ cup pecan pieces

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Place Brussels sprouts in a 1 gallon Ziploc bag. Add olive oil along with salt and pepper. I use about ¼ teaspoon of salt and a few grinds of fresh black pepper. Zip the bag shut. Shake until the Brussels sprouts are evenly coated. (Or simply toss ingredients in a bowl if you don’t have a Ziploc bag handy.)

Spread Brussels sprouts on a rimmed baking pan, cut side down. Place baking pan in the center of the oven and roast for 10-15 minutes (depending on size of the Brussels sprouts).

Meanwhile, whisk together the maple syrup and balsamic vinegar. Stir in the fresh cranberries until coated.


After 10-15 minutes, when the cut surfaces of the sprouts just begin to brown, remove the Brussels sprouts from the oven. Pour the cranberry mixture over top, stirring the Brussels sprouts and cranberries together. Sprinkle the pecan pieces over all.

Return the pan to the oven and continue roasting 10-15 minutes, until sprouts are fork tender and cranberries have softened.

Serve and enjoy!

07 December 2014

Gingerbread Scones


What Anticipation Tastes Like

I think my favorite flavor of the holiday season is ginger. Christmas wouldn’t taste or smell like Christmas without spicy notes of ginger and cinnamon wafting through the house and lingering in the kitchen.

A pinch of ginger is the perfect way to dress up favorite family recipes, both sweet and savory, for the holidays. The scent of ginger transports me, reminding me of Christmases past while promising something delicious in the present tense. Ginger introduces a subtle tension: warm spice nestled against cool freshness, bitter balanced by sweet. Ginger is what anticipation should taste like, the touchstone of the season.


Seasonal Adaptation

With a nod to seasonal anticipation I adapted the recipe for a family favorite, Buttermilk Scones, by adding a ginger-heavy blend of aromatic spices and a sweet touch of molasses. The recipe is a good one. The execution, however, was slightly, well, wanting. As often happens all did not go exactly as expected. As you can see in some of the photos my fragrant Gingerbread Scones turned out a little dark (read black) on the bottom.

That’s how it goes sometimes. You can let it get you down or you can accept it and move forward. This batch didn’t turn out as picture perfect as I may have liked but that doesn’t mean they weren’t beautiful in their own right and it doesn’t mean they weren’t delicious. These fragrant scones are something to look forward to on a cold winter morning or as a teatime or after dinner treat. Next time I will just remember not to bake them on a dark pan and to check them a few minutes earlier.


Gingerbread Scones

2½ cups flour
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 ½ teaspoons ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon cloves
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup butter, cut into cubes
1/3 cup buttermilk
1/3 cup molasses
1 egg, slightly beaten

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Grease baking sheet. Mix flour, brown sugar, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, baking soda and salt, in a large bowl.

Cut in butter until the mixture resembles course meal. Stir in the buttermilk, molasses and most of the egg (reserving just a little to brush onto the top of the scones). Turn dough out onto a floured surface and knead until smooth. Dough will be moist.

Pat dough out into a circle 1½ inches thick. Transfer to a prepared baking sheet. Cut into wedges. Brush top with reserved egg; sprinkle with coarse sugar, if desired.

Bake until Golden Brown, about 15 minutes.

Serve immediately with butter or whipped cream and a steaming cup of coffee or Earl Grey tea.


Enjoy!

21 November 2014

Plain Old Mashed Potatoes


I have resisted writing a recipe for Mashed Potatoes for years. After all, I have never used one. Growing up, when my family made Mashed Potatoes we just boiled potatoes and then did something to them. No measuring was ever involved. There were no questions about what to add. It was the same as with most things; throw in some butter along with salt and pepper. Add milk and stir until the consistency is right. End of story.

Come to think of it, I probably asked for a recipe when I first set up housekeeping on my own. I probably got an answer much like the one above. Now that my children are asking those questions of me, I thought it was time to record the process with a bit more precision. The last few times I have mashed potatoes I’ve taken notes.

This recipe is for the kind of Mashed Potatoes we tend to prefer in my family; fairly thick and with the occasional rustic lump of unmashed potato or bit of potato skin. It is meant as a guideline so don’t get too caught up in following it to a tee. The exact quantites of milk, broth and/or butter will depend on the consistency and type of the potatoes boiled as well as whether or not your intention is to create a light side dish or an indulgence. If you are short of an ingredient (aside from the potatoes), don’t worry. There are many possible substitutions. Just take a look at Pinterest or, better yet, use your imagination.


Mashed Potatoes

3.5 pounds potatoes
½ cup milk or broth
¼ cup butter
½ teaspoon salt
pepper

Peel the potatoes. Rinse and cut into 2-inch chunks. Place potatoes in a 4-quart saucepan. Cover with water. Add salt.

Bring potatoes to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until tender, about 15 - 20 minutes.

Turn burner off and let sit.

In a small saucepan combine:

½ cup milk or broth ¼ cup butter

Heat gently, to a simmer. Remove from heat.

Drain potatoes in a colander. Return potatoes to cooking pan. Smash potatoes with a potato masher or large fork.

Add the warm milk/butter mixture, a little at a time, and mash it into the mixture until the potatoes are fairly smooth and have the consistency you desire. Amounts will vary somewhat according to the texture of the potatoes used.

Add salt and pepper to taste.

Garnish with snipped chives, crumbled bacon a dash of paprika and/or a drizzle of butter or gravy.

Enjoy!

02 May 2014

Party Pineapple: Two Ways


I’ve been gone too long. It has been so long that I have begun to lose track of time. Early this week it dawned on me…..April was nearly over! Of course as soon as that happens May is here and not one but two notable occasions are at hand – Derby Day and Cinco de Mayo.

While I am, admittedly, late to the game, I feel like celebrating! I’d like to bring something to the party, both parties, and the easiest thing I can think of on short notice is seasonal fresh fruit. It is already beautiful and delicious. All it needs is a pretty presentation and a touch of something special to make it party ready.

It’s been years now since I first tried this recipe. It’s a good one and I don’t know why I have waited so long to post it. Maybe it is just too simple…hardly a recipe at all but more like a hint or an inspiration. It starts with a halved fresh pineapple and a page from one of my favorite cookbooks, “Table for Two” by Marianne Paquin. First, for Cinco de Mayo, it is drizzled with lime juice. I then substituted a south-of-the-border style chili pepper for the suggested Szechuan pepper in the original before topping it with shredded mint leaves.

For Derby Day I took it in a different direction. This time I substituted a splash of good Kentucky bourbon for the lime juice and, instead of chili powder, I dusted the pineapple slices with Mint Julep Finishing Sugar from Louisville based Bourbon Barrel Foods. Topped with the shredded mint leaves it adds all of the flavor notes of a classic Mint Julep bringing the same pretty presentation home to the Bluegrass Region.


Chili Lime Pineapple Slices

1 fresh pineapple
1 Tablespoon fresh lime juice
a pinch of ancho (or other) ground chili pepper
10 mint leaves thinly sliced

Wash the pineapple and cut it in half lengthwise. Slice away two narrow wedges, one from each side of the stem ( so that the inside of the pineapple is more fully exposed.) Using a serrated knife, cut the flesh of the pineapple away from the skin, being careful not to separate the leaves from the outer shell. Remove the hard center core as needed.

Cut the flesh of the pineapple into ¼-½ inch slices. Push the slices back and forth, staggering them in the pineapple shell so that they are easy to serve. Drizzle with lime juice, sprinkle lightly with a pinch of ground chili powder and top with the sliced mint leaves. Garnish with a sprig of mint if desired.


Mint Julep Pineapple Slices

1 fresh pineapple
1 Tablespoon good Kentucky bourbon
½ -1 teaspoon Mint Julep finishing sugar (or turbinado sugar)
10 mint leaves thinly sliced

Prepare the pineapple as directed above, splitting it in half lengthwise, then separating and slicing the flesh to be arranged in the pineapple shell.

Drizzle the prepared pineapple with the bourbon. Just before serving, sprinkle the pineapple slices with the Mint Julep finishing sugar. (If you don’t have access to this special sugar you can use turbinado sugar for a similar look and texture.) Sprinkle the sliced mint leaves over the fruit. Garnish with a sprig of mint if desired.

Serve and enjoy!

14 February 2014

Meringue Torte


I love February. I like the way it sounds, beginning with a frisky fricative followed suddenly by the pairing of two unlikely mid-word consonants in a mismatch that invites us to think before speaking. I like the way it begins with that famous rodent checking the shadows for promises of spring and meanders through the lesser holidays of presidential birthdays to either an abrupt or unlikely ending, depending on a four year cycle. Most of all I like it’s invitation to forget the cold darkness of winter and dwell on warmer sentiments as we study the art of love at mid-month for the occasion of Valentine’s Day.

In the kitchen, February always seems to spark my imagination. I get lost in big thoughts about what might be, imagine new ways of expressing myself in the varied media of kitchen staples. I am inspired by love stories, and love letters. I want to make beautiful gifts for my loved ones, craft candies, shape cookies, temper chocolate, expand on what I have done before, on what I know. What that means, while I am generally upbeat about it, is that I traditionally make a mess at Valentine’s Day.


This year is no exception. This Valentine's Day recipe for a Meringue Torte was conceived as part delicate meringue and part creamy mousse filling. In theory it called for the collaboration of several thin crunchy layers of meringue with an amaretto spiked chocolate cream. I hoped it would be crowned with another layer of meringue piped into a delicate filigree. Like many creative endeavors, its execution was part love affair and part cautionary tale.

I adore meringue, especially the kind that is firm and crunchy on the outside but puffed and just a little bit chewy on the inside. It is a part of my roots. It is just that type of meringue that is made by one of only two recipes I have which were surely my mother’s: Chocolate Chip Meringue Cookies and Snow Cream. Both recipes are simple, sweet, weather dependent and in the moment. Both are pure; combining sugar, eggs, vanilla and then introducing something elemental: snow or air. Both shimmer. Neither keeps for long.

At the time, Chocolate Tofu Mousse seemed like a great addition to the crisp layers of meringue. A recent addition to my recipe file, I thought it would offer the perfect contrast: something old and something new, rich dark mousse against light airy meringue, creamy filling between crunchy layers, whispers of Asian influence melded with European tradition, a nod to my roots and my branches. Of course there are times when what I start off thinking is a great idea doesn’t turn out as I plan. Thankfully, even when things don’t go as expected there is often that silver lining.

For this year's recipe I began by drawing saucer sized circles on cookie sheet sized pieces of baking parchment. After tracing the circles I used some plastic cake decorating shapes, much like cookie cutters, to help me draw a filigree in one of the circles. I dipped the bottom in cocoa powder, as I might dust cookie cutters with flour between cookies, then tapped the bottom edge on the parchment to mark it. I tried several designs before finding what I thought would work.

Next I made the meringue. I dabbed a tiny bit of meringue on each corner of the cookie sheet and turned the parchment drawn side down, sticking each corner to the dab of meringue. Then I spread the meringue over the circles I could see through the paper and piped it over my tracings. While it baked I made the Chocolate Tofu Mousse, adding Amaretto instead of spices, and put it in the refrigerator to firm up a bit. Then I waited. When it was almost time to serve the Torte I began its assembly.


It began well. Assembly went quickly as I spread the Amaretto Chocolate Mousse between the delicate layers of meringue. In no time the torte was four layers high on the crystal serving plate. It was coming together just as I had pictured it would. Quickly I turned to retrieve the final layer, the filigree top. I reached out and tenderly picked it up. Then, as I turned to crown the torte…I dropped it!

I know that meringue does not fall intact. Still I hoped. Only one side was broken and mostly in relatively large pieces. I tried to piece it back together on top of the mousse. It wasn’t a complete disaster but, then again, it no longer said what I hoped to convey with my Valentine's Day dessert.


Luckily I had scrawled quite a few hearts on the baking parchment with the meringue that was leftover in the piping bag. In a moment I decided to carefully remove the layer I had just pieced together and arrange some of the hearts on top instead.


It was a good move. The hearts looked pretty on top. They looked as good as the delicate filigree had and were much easier to handle. Problem solved, I cut into the torte to serve it.

I sliced into the torte carefully hoping to make the slices clean. I used a serrated knife and carefully cut downward from the center. Using a cake server I drew the first piece out. I was hoping to see the contrasting layers inside the torte as I pulled the slice onto the plate. I didn’t.


With the first press of my fork into my slice the mousse began to slide and the torte began to collapse. It seems that when creamy mousse meets crisp meringue the meringue begins to melt, almost immediately. After just a few moments my torte had sunk forward on my plate. After just a few bites it was thoroughly disheveled.

That is not to say I regret the experiment. I enjoyed my time in the kitchen, blending favorite recipes old and new, drawing filigrees in cocoa powder, baking heart shaped meringues. And, while the match was, perhaps, less than ideal, the crisp almond laced meringue and the amaretto spiked chocolate mousse tasted great. The creamy mousse softened the intense sweetness of the baked meringue and even as the meringue began to melt it added some structure to the silken tofu mousse. And perhaps the differences are something worth honoring: the way meringue crumbles and mousse spreads on a plate.


While I still see potential in this recipe I feel compelled to add this caution: make this confection only with full knowledge that it won't wait for pictures and leftover slices won’t keep for later. Build this only if you plan to eat it while you can, right away, in the moment. Or, if you'd rather, just deconstruct it. Rather than make things as simple as mousse and meringue more complicated than they need to be, simply serve Chocolate Chip Meringue Cookies and Amaretto Chocolate Mousse layered quickly into a pretty parfait rather than stacked on a platter and cut into slices.

In any case, I keep thinking of a Bible verse, Matthew 6:19, where Jesus tells us not to store up treasure on earth. Treasure is perishable, it will rust or spoil and good things often won’t keep. Perhaps the value of a Meringue Torte is in the truth that we shouldn’t insist on saving (or putting off) the good things until later. Use them now. However simple or complicated, love every moment. Look for ways to make the joy grow. Even if the process isn’t perfect, isn’t everything you expect or hope for, it can still be a pleasure and lead to a sweet conclusion.


Meringue Torte

2 egg whites, at room temperature
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/8 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon vanilla
¼ teaspoon almond extract
¾ cup sugar
¼ cup almond meal

¼ cup mini chocolate chips, if desired

Preheat oven to 250F.

Cover two cookie sheets with parchment paper. Using a small plate or other guide, draw three 5-6-inch circles on each piece of parchment paper.

Draw a filigree design in one, if desired. Turn the parchment pieces over (so that the drawn circles are on the underside but can be seen through the top) onto large cookie sheets.


With an electric mixer beat together egg whites and cream of tartar just until soft peaks form. Add salt, vanilla and almond extract. Continue beating at high speed as you add the sugar one Tablespoon at a time, allowing 10 seconds or so between additions. (Very stiff peaks should form). Gently fold in the almond meal with a whisk or rubber spatula.

Drop about ½-cup of meringue in the center of each drawn circle (except the filigree circle, if you made one.) With a rubber spatula or the back of a spoon, gently push the meringue out to the edges of the circle and filling in the drawn area as you go with an even layer of meringue. Sprinkle the top of the layers with mini chocolate chips, if desired.


If you would like to make a filigree circle or meringue hearts, spoon the remaining meringue into a quart sized Ziploc bag. Push meringue to one corner and, squeezing any air out gently, close the bag.

Snip ¼-inch from a bottom corner of the bag and pipe the meringue over the outline of the drawn filigree. If any meringue is left over pipe heart outlines or swirls onto blank spaces of the parchment.

Place baking sheets on racks in the upper half of the oven. Bake at 250 degrees for about 30 – 35 minutes or until meringue is set and dry to the touch but still pale. Turn the oven off, prop open the oven door and allow the meringues to stand in the oven another 30 minutes. Remove pans from oven and allow cookies to cool on the pan.

When the meringue circles are cool, carefully peel the parchment from the back of the meringue and set aside in a safe place until ready to assemble.

Prepare the Amaretto Chocolate Mousse, or other filling of your choice (Ice cream comes to mind, as does Balsamic Whipped Cream and a fruit sauce, Whipped Chocolate Ganache, or a soft Chocolate Cream Cheese Spread or Lemon Meringue Pie Filling.)

Just before serving, place a dab of the filling mixture in the middle of a serving platter. Carefully place the first meringue layer on top ( the dab of filling should secure the meringue to the serving plate so it won’t slide around as easily. Place ½-cup or so of the filling (depending on how much of it you have and how easily it spreads) on top of the meringue layer. Gently spread it to the edges of the meringue circle. Top with the next meringue layer and repeat with the next three layers, ending with a layer of the filling.

If you have made a filigree layer carefully position this piece on top of the final layer of filling. If you are using meringue hearts, carefully arrange some combination of the hearts you have made over the filling or, simply use a final meringue circle for the top.

Breathe deeply, take a single moment to admire the pretty torte you have made and then… Serve it immediately!

Enjoy!!

11 February 2014

Secret Ingredients - Amaretto Chocolate (tofu) Mousse


A Champagne Dinner for Two

I recently lingered over one of my favorite pages in my oldest recipe binder. There, taped to a yellowed piece of notebook paper is an article from an old issue of Southern Living. On the page is a photo of a pretty table setting and a menu for a Champagne Dinner for two. The carefully plated meal featured includes a salad, a vegetable medley, a wild rice pilaf and Chicken Breasts in Champagne Sauce. The dessert is a simple, but elegant, Amaretto Chocolate Mousse. Beside of the picture is a handwritten note that reads – Valentine’s Day 1987.

I can still remember preparing that meal for the first time. As a young wife and mother on a budget I remember thinking it was a perfect menu. Nothing on it was too heavy, too complicated or too expensive.

That Valentine’s Day dinner was a success right down to the Amaretto Chocolate Mousse. The salad was crisp and flavorful. The vegetable medley added a delicious splash of color and the rice pilaf offered a pleasing nutty contrast to the chicken breasts tenderly cradled in the silken champagne sauce. It was the first time I had ever made a mousse and I was surprised at how well it came together, how good it tasted, and how perfectly it completed the meal.


Secret Ingredients

I have used those recipes again and again. Over the years some variations have crept in and won my heart. A greater variety of salad greens are available these days and I now use a blend of tender baby greens for the salad. I might also vary the pilaf and use black rice or a wild rice and quinoa blend. For the Chicken Breasts in Champagne Sauce, I often substitute Greek yogurt for the original sour cream and I carefully brown a whole pan of mushrooms for the sauce.

I have adapted the mousse even more. Rather than worry over more recent concerns about the consumption of raw eggs or fuss with a number of steps involved in separating, beating and controlling their temperature, these days I make my Amaretto Mousse using Silken Tofu. It is easy, delicious and possibly more wholesome…plus few would ever guess the secret ingredient of this creamy chocolate mousse unless you told them.

Despite the updates and adaptations, that menu from 1987 remains a great blueprint for a celebration dinner. It is sure to please on Valentine’s Day or any time you want to prepare a simple, but elegant, dinner for two!


Amaretto Chocolate Tofu Mousse

1 package firm silken tofu
¼ cup brown sugar
¼ cup boiling water
¼ cup amaretto
½ teaspoon almond extract
6 ounces chocolate, melted

With a stick blender or food processor, blend the firm silken tofu until it is smooth.

Stir the brown sugar into the boiling water until dissolved. Stir in the amaretto and almond extract.

Blend the brown sugar mixture into the tofu.

Add the melted chocolate and blend until smooth.

Spoon into pretty individual serving dishes.

Refrigerate until ready to serve.


Enjoy!

05 February 2014

Old-Fashioned Spaghetti Sauce


Homemade Spaghetti Sauce

A good tomato pasta sauce is at the heart of many wonderful meals. A rich tomato sauce seasoned with garlic, onion and herbs is a classic. My family just called it Spaghetti Sauce while using it to pull together a variety of recipes. It is delicious on its own over a bed of pasta but also serves as a base in which to simmer flavorful bits of meat or a few stout meatballs for more substantial fare. It can also be layered into a Lasagna, served over Eggplant Parmesan or used on a Pizza to name just a few more possibilities.

If you can make a decent Spaghetti Sauce you have the means to entertain. You can cook for two or ten… or more in even a small kitchen. Serve it over pasta, complement it with a salad and breadsticks or garlic bread and you have the core of a meal that satisfies most any appetite.


Entertaining on a Budget

To give your spaghetti dinner a romantic twist let Andrea Bocelli set the mood with some background music. Decorate the table with candles and fresh flowers. Share some cheese and olives as an appetizer and finish the meal with Chocolate Decadence (or one of these simple ideas from Ina Garten) for dessert.

If you aren’t in the mood for an intimate dinner, throw a red checked tablecloth over a long table instead. Put on Dean Martin, or other mid-century crooners, buy a tub of Spumoni ice cream to serve with cookies for dessert and entertain friends with a family-style Italian dinner.

However you decide to serve it, a good go-to tomato-rich pasta sauce is a recipe you want to be able to put your hands on in an instant. Once you have one it will serve you well.


Basic Italian Tomato Sauce

2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 cup chopped yellow onion
2-3 cloves garlic, crushed or minced
1 28-oz can diced tomatoes
1 6-oz can tomato paste
¼ cup fresh Italian herbs (basil, oregano & parsley), chopped
½-1 teaspoon salt (according to your taste)
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
2 teaspoons sugar
½ teaspoon fennel seed

Place a large skillet (or saucepan) over medium heat. When hot, add 2 Tablespoons olive oil. When the oil shimmers add the onion and garlic. Saute until soft and translucent.

Add remaining ingredients and simmer, partially covered, for 20 minutes.

Leftover sauce can be frozen for later use.

Variations:

Dried herbs can be substituted for the fresh ones, in a pinch. Use about 1 teaspoon of basil, oregano and parsley or 1 Tablespoon of a dried Italian herb mix.

To make a hearty meat sauce, begin by browning about 1½ pounds of a combination of ground beef and Italian sausage (I use about half and half. You can use either spicy or sweet Italian sausage, according to your taste preferences.) Drain the browned meat. Add the onion and garlic to the meat mixture and continue as directed above, omitting the olive oil, if desired.

For layering in lasagna or other casseroles make a thicker sauce by adding a second 6-oz can of tomato paste along with the other ingredients.

For Spaghetti and Meatballs - prepare the sauce as directed. After it has simmered for 20 minutes add the meatballs and continue to simmer for another 30-45 minutes.

Enjoy!

30 January 2014

Cinnamon Toast Biscotti


An Ardent Collaboration

Cinnamon Toast has a special place in my heart. There is something wonderfully appealing about the way a hot oven melds the sweet warmth of cinnamon and a dusting of sugar on a pallet of buttered bread. The resulting crisp veneer of spicy caramelized sugar has long been a powerful charm for chasing the cold from my winter mornings. It is such a potent memory that I can almost taste the sweetness, feel the warm scent in my nose as it invites a smile to linger on my lips.

Of course the ardent collaboration of cinnamon and sugar has the power to warm more than just a slice of toast on a cold morning. The beauty of this alliance is easily transferred to other delightful applications. Cinnamon is perfect for enlivening a sweet streusel topping, adding mystery to a cup of hot chocolate, or a vivid accent to a fruit medley.


Sweet and Simple

Cinnamon and sugar also makes a fantastic topping for biscotti, that crisp twice-baked cookie often served with coffee or tea. This recipe for biscotti is unique in its initial plainness. It is made from a basic recipe without the common additions of fruit or nuts. It is first baked without adornment, as two mildly sweet loaves on a single baking sheet.

What makes Cinnamon Toast Biscotti special is what’s added as it is baked the second time. After cutting the loaves into thick slices and toasting one side, the biscotti is brushed with a bit of butter and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, like a slice of Cinnamon Toast. When it goes back in the oven the cinnamon topping is sealed to the cookie as it fully develops that wonderful crunch, lending a sweet touch of cinnamon warmth to every bite.


Cinnamon Toast Biscotti


2 cups flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ cup butter
½ cup brown sugar
½ cup white sugar
2 eggs
1½ teaspoons vanilla

1-2 Tablespoons butter, melted
2 Tablespoons white sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350F. Lightly grease a large baking sheet and set aside.

In a medium bowl whisk together flour, baking powder and salt.

In a large bowl, beat ¼ cup butter until smooth. Add brown and white sugar and continue to beat until very smooth, several minutes.

Add eggs, one at a time, and continue beating. Add vanilla and beat until smooth and well combined.

Stir in dry ingredients, just until combined.

Divide the dough in half and turn onto the prepared baking sheet. Shape each half into a log approximately 2 inches wide, 12 inches long, and 1 inch high. Make sure the logs are at least 2 inches apart on the baking sheet.

Bake at 350F for about 20-25 minutes or until lightly golden. Remove from oven and place on a wire rack. After a few minutes remove loaves from the pan and allow to cool on the wire rack for 30 minutes.

After 30 minutes cut each loaf into ¾ inch thick slices. Place each slice face down on the baking sheet. Return to oven and bake at 350F for 10 minutes. Remove pan to a wire rack.

Combine the 2 Tablespoons sugar and the 2 teaspoons cinnamon.

Flip each cookie over. Brush the side turned up with just a little of the melted butter and sprinkle with the cinnamon sugar mixture.

Return to oven and bake 10 minutes. Remove pan from oven and allow cookies to cool.

Enjoy!

22 January 2014

Aunt Hen's Cinnamon Toast


Morning Memories

This is not exactly a recipe. It’s more like a memory. Or maybe a mindset, intent on those old-fashioned basics, pared down and well executed.

And it’s not exactly news. It’s been written about by food bloggers everywhere, some who have some great thoughts on the matter, some who get right to heart of things, and some who don’t.

For me, it’s about waking up early, hushed and groggy, in the still darkness. It’s about stretching young limbs toward the ceiling with eyes pushed tightly shut then reaching bare feet down to the cool wood floor beside the bed. Its about walking slowly, noiselessly, through the shadows in the dark hallway toward the light at it’s end. It’s about the sounds of morning at the end of that hallway, as the light gathers budding on the horizon beyond the ruffled window curtains; the slight hum of the kettle, water rustling over the hot electric coil, the deliberate footfall of someone competently moving from side to side of their small kitchen, the creak of an oven door opening and the muffled thud when it closes. It is the sensation of morning in an ordinary home of modest means. It is the comfort of being greeted by the smell of something delicious reaching through the fog of receding dreams and calling you out to the dawn of a new day.

In such moments life isn’t all that complicated. The need for sleep satisfied, the desire for fuel sets in. Too young for coffee, something good to eat was the priority. Nothing brings out the goodness of a little sugar, cinnamon and butter on bread, like just the right amount of heat.


Something Good to Eat

At least one morning a week Aunt Hen made my breakfast. No one in my world made breakfast like she did, or even made toast like she did. At my house we used a toaster. It was convenient. Just pop in a slice and forget about it. The result was often anemic, or burnt. Buttered it was adequate to satisfy hunger. Add cinnamon sugar and you were likely to end up with an insipid mess that wasn’t exactly unpalatable but was not what being-drawn-into-the-light memories are made of.

Aunt Hen's toast was another matter. Whether she made buttered toast or cinnamon toast she made it in the oven, under the broiler. She took untoasted slices of bread and carefully covered the space between the crust edges in butter. After laying each slice on her small dented baking sheet she added sugar and cinnamon to mine and placed them on the highest oven rack.

A minute or so passed before she stood rapt at the oven door peering in. She watched as the toast browned, as the upper grain began to respond to the heating element, the butter began to bubble and the sugar melted and darkened. When the colors took on a pronounced golden hue she reached in and nabbed the pan with a hot pad or the edge of her kitchen towel. There was no letting that perfect moment pass or disaster would follow; golden toasted perfection could become burnt and inedible in an instant.

The toast that came out of Aunt Hen’s oven was amazing. Even as a child I reveled in the complexity that resulted when heat and watchful eyes transformed a few basic kitchen staples. The bottom of the bread maintained my favorite characteristics of white bread, a mild flavor and freshly warmed softness. The top, on the other hand, was all crispness and snapped delicately as I bit through the caramelized sugar. The taste was all buttery cinnamon goodness, my absolute favorite flavor as a child. I loved Aunt Hen's Cinnamon Toast. To this day I am happy to believe that no one else could make it quite like she could.

Of course we can always try.


Aunt Hen's Cinnamon Toast


4 slices of white bread
1-2 Tablespoons butter, at room temperature
1 Tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon


1. Take two or more slices of plain white bread (other bread works too but sacrifices the nostalgia). My favorite white bread is Bunny Soft-Twist.


2. Gently spread one side of each slice with a thin layer of butter. It is important to keep the layer thin so that butter doesn’t pool or soak through the bread. I used about 1 teaspoon of butter for each slice, but that’s just to give you an idea of what I mean by a thin layer. You might want to use a little more. Though I did it this one time, somehow it misses the point to measure.

This step is easiest to accomplish if the butter is at room temperature. If the butter is cold. trying to spread it thinly will tear the bread or cause you to end up with way too much butter on the bread unless you are very patient. If your butter is cold I suggest shaving it off the stick in thin layers that will quickly warm to a spreadable texture or simply laying the paper thin slices across the bread.

Like my Dad’s best tip for Grilled Cheese Sandwiches, “What makes it good is making sure the whole surface of the bread is evenly coated with butter,” though I know that when it came to Dad’s grilled cheese sandwiches that layer of butter was often anything but thin.

And one more thing. Do not use soft margarine spread! Because, well, eeew! Generally speaking, it tastes bad or, at best, it tastes mostly wet. Here I am no doubt making some departure from true nostalgic replication. My memories of this toast are based on my experience in the 1960s and 70s after all, and at that time Aunt Hen’s kitchen staples included stick margarine, Coffee Rich and Cool-Whip instead of more authentic dairy products. But a certain degree of tasteful discernment and revisionist historical assessment have led me to update the original recipe on this one point.


3. Evenly sprinkle the buttered bread with granulated sugar. Again, it isn’t necessary to measure but I did for the sake of clarity and, again, I used a little less than 1 teaspoon of sugar per slice.


4. Tap a small quantity of ground cinnamon evenly over the sugar. Be careful! Cinnamon is delightful but also potent. A little goes a long way. Here I used too little to accurately measure on one slice.

Alternately you can mix the cinnamon and sugar before sprinkling it on the toast. In fact it is nice to have a container of pre-mixed cinnamon-sugar for a variety of uses. In that case I mix about ½ teaspoon of ground cinnamon into 1 Tablespoon of white sugar. You can use more or less cinnamon according to individual preference.

Another way to spread the sugar and spice is to scatter a teaspoon or so roughly onto the buttered bread, then tilt and tap the slice to spread the sugar evenly over the whole buttered plane. Then you can tap any excess onto the next slice, if you like.


5. Preheat broiler with rack positioned roughly 6 inches below the heating element. Have an oven mitt ready and waiting.
Position pan in the center of the rack and watch carefully.
By one minute the sugar and butter should begin to bubble.
By 2 minutes the edges will brown.
In 2 minutes and 15 seconds my toast was ready to take the edge off my morning hunger for a sweet start to the day.


Variations:

If you aren’t looking for a walk down Memory Lane but simply want something fun to eat for breakfast here are a few suggestions that might spark your interest.

For a nice hint of vanilla use vanilla sugar on your toast. Or, for a little more of a sandy crunch, you may want to try using organic turbinado sugar instead of plain white sugar. To add a sort of French I-just-dipped-my morning-baguette-in-my café-au-lait flavor add a little espresso powder or instant coffee to your cinnamon sugar blend. Or add a pinch of ancho chile powder for more of a South-of-the-Border taste.

You could also add a few chocolate chips during the last few seconds under the broiler. Then wait a minute or two after removing the toast from the oven to spread the chips over the surface with a knife...

Enjoy!