Monday, January 30, 2012

Killer good chocolate cake

I believe the comments went like this:  "Oh.  My.  God."

That's the general response to this recipe every time I make it.  The recipe is for a chocolate cake--an easy one--and it's a great way to end a meal (or to start the day if you're a sugar hound).  For those who don't like chocolate, I have a question for you: Why?

This cake is good after a steak dinner, a spaghetti dinner, a gumbo dinner.  It's good for a picnic or a church supper.  It's just plain good--all by itself.  It's tender, moist and has substance without being too heavy.  And it will prove to you once and for all that you don't have to ever again make a box cake.  Ever.

Easy Chocolate Cake with Crunchy Coconut-Pecan Topping

This cake is made with mayonnaise, and the original recipe came about during an era when butter, eggs and sugar were rationed.  This recipe is bolster with extra eggs for richness and lift.  Don't balk--just try it and enjoy it.

2 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. baking powder
1 2/3 cups sugar
3 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup mayonnaise
4 oz. unsweetened baking chocolate, melted (or substitute 3 Tbs. cocoa powder and 1 Tbs. oil or butter for each oz. of baking chocolate)
1 1/3 cups water

1.  Grease and flour a 9 x 13 x 2" baking pan.
2.  Preheat oven to 345 degrees.
3.  Mix together flour, baking soda and baking powder in a bowl; set aside.
4.  In a large mixing bowl with mixer at high speed, beat together sugar, eggs and vanilla for 3 minutes or until fluffy.
5.  Reduce speed to low and blend in mayonnaise and chocolate.
6.  With mixer still at low speed, blend in flour mixture in 4 additions, alternately with water, beating until just blended after each addition.  Do not overmix.
7.  Pour batter into prepared pan and bake for 45 minutes or until tester comes out clean.
8.  Cool completely in pan.
9.  Top with Crunchy Coconut-Pecan Topping (recipe follows).  Serves 15.

Crunchy Coconut-Pecan Topping

In a saucepan over medium heat, bring 3/4 cup packed dark brown sugar and 1/4 cup butter to boil, stirring constantly.  Boil for 2 minutes, then add 3 Tbs. milk or cream and stir well.  Add 1 1/3 cups flaked coconut and 1/2 cup chopped pecans.  Boil for 1 minute, stirring constantly.  Spread evenly on top of cooled cake.  Broil 6" from heat for 3 minutes, or until golden brown.  Cool well before serving.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

You don't always need fairy dust

Last night, I arrived home feeling rather uninspired.  It had been a long and frustrating day and I wanted nothing more than to sink into the couch with a glass of good (even mediocre) wine and get lost in a mindlessly entertaining (even boringly predictable) movie about human folly and Edwardian sensibility.  What I also really wanted was for dinner to magically materialize all on its own.  And I wanted great dinner service with a charming (even handsome) staff to pamper me, quietly clean up the kitchen, then go away.

I assure you that none of my fantasies, harmless though they were, came to be realities.  And I'm sure that's because I'm fresh out of fairy dust, which tells me is still on back-order.  It seems everyone has had a need for assistance with fantasy-materialization lately.

Even though it was I that had to make dinner magically materialize (my husband is out of fairy dust too, but his fairy dust has been known to produce things like chocolate bars, take-out pizza and fast food hamburgers), the outcome of my efforts enervated me, even surprised me.  Where the energy all came from, I don't know.  But cooking intuitively has always transported me.

I really want you to try this recipe for chicken breasts.  The sauce is incredibly silky and piquant with just a hint of richness from the butter and the bacon fat.  There is depth from the brandy. There is tart fruit from the red wine and the orange peel and then there is the counterpoint of sweet shallots.  The last little surprise is the crunch from the bacon cracklings.  I would imagine it would also be a stupendous choice for pork cutlets.

I served the chicken alongside sauteed spinach (been there, done that) and a wild rice pilaf with orange peel, garlic and shallots (been there, done some variation of that).  The sides were good friends that I often call in to meet a new main dish and we enjoyed them.  But what we really enjoyed was the tender, caramelized chicken breast with its gorgeous, satiny sauce redolent of brandy, red wine and oranges.  The house still smells wonderful this morning.

Here's the recipe...

Chicken Breasts with Sauce Sevilla

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste (I used Penzey's shallot salt seasoning)
2 Tbs. EVOO
2-4 Tbs. pieces bacon fat
1 Tbs. butter
1/3 cup finely chopped shallots
1/4 cup brandy (preferably Spanish)
1 cup dry red wine (I used a rioja)
2 Tbs. butter
1/4 cup orange marmalade (preferably made with Seville oranges)
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
chopped fresh parsley for garnish

1.  Clean and trim the chicken breasts; pound thin with a mallet between two pieces of plastic wrap or parchment paper.
2.  Season generously on both sides with salt and pepper, or with the shallot salt seasoning.
3.  Heat EVOO and bacon fat in a large skillet, cooking bacon fat on medium-high heat until crispy.
4.  Remove pan from heat, remove cracklings, drain well on paper towels and chop.  Set aside for garnish.
5.  Return pan to heat and bring back to medium-high temperature.
6.  Sear chicken breasts in hot fat until browned and caramelized on both sides.
7.  Remove chicken breasts to a plate or tray and place in oven at 225 degrees to stay warm.
8.  Pour off all but 1 Tbs. fat from skillet and reduce heat to medium.
9.  Melt butter in skillet; add chopped shallots.
10.  Saute shallots until slightly transparent and caramelized, about 2 to 3 minutes, stirring frequently.
11.  Add brandy and reduce liquid until syrupy.
12.  Increase heat to medium-high and add red wine.
13.  Bring to a boil and reduce liquid by about one-half its volume.
14.  Stir in 2 Tbs. butter and incorporate well.
15.  Stir in orange marmalade and incorporate well.
16.  Remove sauce from heat, taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper as needed.
17.  Serve chicken breasts with sauce ladled over, garnishing with chopped fresh parsley and chopped cracklings.  Serves 2.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

What makes a good gumbo?

Everyone claims that they, or someone they know (who is usually related to them), makes the best gumbo.  There are as many gumbos as there are stories about gumbo.  And like wine, gumbo is a highly personal thing, tuned to an individual's palate and preferences, as unique as the person who made it.  A gumbo could be spicy or not, it could be thick or thin, it could start with a roux or not, it could contain file or not, okra or not.  Should you use a chaurice or an andouille?  A true gumbo maker (or eater) will tell you exactly what is in a good gumbo and will be as opinionated about it as a true wine lover.  Maybe even more so.

First, you make a roux...All of the gumbos that I personally like have started with a roux.  Roux is very versatile and it is virtually indispensable in Cajun cuisine.  Roux is identified by its color and terms such as blonde, peanut butter, mahogany, dark, and black are some of the descriptors.  For my palate, the taste of browned flour and oil brings a depth and nuttiness to your gumbo that you cannot obtain any other way.  Making a good roux takes experience and patience.  And if you're very, very skilled, you can make a black roux over high heat in about 12 minutes, according to New Orleans chef Billy Gruber.  Mr. Gruber refers to his black roux as "Cajun Napalm," and I can only imagine why, having burned myself making roux on at least one occasion.  Having had a gumbo made with black roux in Kinder, LA at a little establishment called Fausto's, I can tell you that the depth and the flavor is outstanding.   Fausto's doesn't have a website, but they have great food and I've never been disappointed anytime I've eaten there.

This is a gumbo that has been made with a dark roux:

Taking a roux all the way to a proper burnt umber stage (scroll down to the last frame on this link) or even a mahogany-hued roux takes patience and courage, something I had very little of the first time I attempted to make my now-favorite family gumbo recipe.

So now we're at the point where I can tell you my gumbo story:  I had finally wrested the prized family recipe for gumbo from my Cajun uncle's sister-in-law and I was tackling it for the first time.  After I made it through all the chopping and dicing (and there is a considerable amount), I set aside the vegetables and began to make the roux.  I heated my oil, I added my flour.  I stirred and stirred.  I stirred some more.  Several minutes went by and I was still stirring and the roux was still the same color.  I decided that I must be done making the roux.

So I called my Auntie for a consultation since she had made this gumbo recipe many times herself for all the gumbo-eaters she feeds.  She asked, "What color is your roux?"  "Oh, it's a tan color," I said.  She put her hand over the receiver and I heard her muffled voice say to my uncle, "Honey, she made chicken broth." 

After a pep talk and a little coaching from a much more experienced gumbo maker, I hung up the phone and made a second batch of roux.  This time it was a peanut butter color and I stopped right there, thinking that I shouldn't tempt fate.  But now when I make that gumbo, I push the roux as far as I can.  I like it deep and rich.  I've never gone darker than the mahogany stage, however, although plan to make a black roux in the near future.  Wish me luck.  I have a penchant for coming into contact frequently with hot oil.

So without further ado, here is the recipe for my favorite gumbo.  I think the balance of pepper, herbs and seasonings is just right.  You can add whatever you'd like to this recipe: okra, tomatoes, crawfish, shrimp, crab, oysters, chunks of cooked chicken thigh meat, diced cooked pork, ham, tasso, or sausage of almost every variety.  You can adorn it with additional green onion and parsley.  You can baptize it in Lousiana hot sauce or Tobasco.  You can serve it with rice or without and accompany it with warm, crusty French bread and a wonderful salad.  You can do whatever you'd like.  It's your gumbo.  And once you make it, you'll have your very own gumbo story.


The original recipe was given to me without the addition of file powder.  I like the flavor it imparts, and it's also a thickener, so I use it whenever I make this recipe.  Count on adding up to 2 teaspoons per gallon of gumbo.  Also, you can use less chicken stock for more concentrated flavor and when you reheat (like a lot of things, this gumbo tastes better when made the day before), either serve the gumbo thick or thinned down with warmed chicken stock, depending on the consistency you prefer.

8 cups chopped onion
8 cups chopped celery
1 cup chopped bell pepper
2 1/2 cups oil
3 1/3 cups flour
1 1/2 to 2 gallons chicken stock
2 Tbs. and 2 tsp. salt
1 Tbs. ground black pepper
1 tsp. ground cayenne pepper
1 tsp. ground white pepper
2 tsp. dried thyme
2 tsp. dried oregano
5 Tbs. dried parsley
2 to 4 tsp. file powder (optional)
2 1/2 cups chopped green onion
1 Tbs. Tobasco sauce
2 to 3 lbs. andouille or chaurice sausage, cut into 1/4" slices (optional)
6 lbs. raw shrimp, shelled and deveined (or any combination of seafood) or 6 lbs. cooked chicken thigh meat, ham, or tasso (or any combination)
chopped flat leaf parsley, for garnish
chopped green onions, for garnish

1.  Heat oil over high heat until very hot; add flour.
2.  Whisk flour and oil rapidly to brown; reduce heat to medium and continue to stir constantly until roux is the desired color.  Bear in mind that if you want a darker roux, you'll either need more patience, or higher heat and a quick response once the flour starts to darken.
3.  Add chopped onion, celery and bell pepper and continue to cook until vegetables are softened, about 10 to 15  minutes, stirring frequently, maintaining heat on medium.
4.  Meanwhile, bring chicken stock to a boil, then add roux and vegetable mixture to stock, stirring well to incorporate.
5.  Bring to a boil and cook for 30 to 45 minutes.
6.  Remove gumbo from heat and add salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper, white pepper, thyme, oregano, dried parsley, file powder (if using), green onion and Tobasco sauce.
7.  Add sausage (if using), stir well and store in refrigerator overnight.
8.  When ready to serve, bring gumbo to a boil, add shrimp and cook 13 minutes.  If using precooked seafood, or other kinds of raw seafood, adjust cooking time accordingly.  Add other ingredients as wish.
9.  Serve hot, over hot rice (if desired), with crusty bread (if desired) and garnish with chopped parsley and green onion.  Serves 16 people.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Livin' la vida carnivore

It was a ridiculous amount of meat.

Over an inch thick and at least 7 inches wide, the T-bone steak was a splurge.  How much of a splurge?  Let's just say that Andrew Jackson had to get George Washington, plus a few other dead presidents, to talk this steak into coming home with me. 

But it was enough meat to share--generously--and I had been craving a tender, juicy, well-seasoned steak for several days.  And not being a regular consumer of red meat, I wanted this steak to be a bucket-list experience.

Now I can die peacefully.

Who doesn't get weak in the knees at the smell of beef fat searing?  That aroma is primordial and it wafts its way via my reptilian brain straight to my inner caveman--the one the used to eat a lot of meat.  The sound of the sizzle and pop when a well-marbled steak is near the flame means that everything is right in the world and that I will soon be eating something that speaks to my primal instincts but yet appeals to my need for beautiful, visually-pleasing food as well.  The gorgeous sheen of a well-caramelized piece of meat, studded with garlic, cracked black pepper, kosher salt and drizzled with a little EVOO--or better yet, adorned with a huge pat of good butter--makes me drool.  It's a classic, consistently good dinner.

So, after sectioning this bad boy into into a strip steak for me and a strip-steakless T-bone for my husband (because the poor man still likes his steaks cooked within an inch of their lives and I'm a slap-it-on-the-rump-and-send-it-out kind of girl), I seasoned both sides liberally with minced garlic, cracked black pepper and kosher salt.

A perfectly cooked steak is easy if you control the cooking temperature and are near enough to watch it closely.  This is especially important since, like me, you're probably also multi-tasking in the kitchen and want to reduce the risk of failure (and I'm the first to admit that I fail frequently).  But one more thing: I also wanted the taste of a perfectly cooked steak without the smokiness a grill imparts, and didn't think I could get a good enough sear on my flat-top electric range, so I chose to broil what was becoming a fairly significant culinary investment. 

I had also been dreaming of caramelized onions finished with a little port--what I have taken to calling "Portly Onions."  I had made some a few days ago and they were so delicious, sweet and so succulent that I wanted more with my steak.  I think they are so good, in fact, that I could eat them all by themselves.  For breakfast.  Well, maybe on some dense, hearty, heavily-buttered toast.  And possibly with some creamy scrambled eggs.

So then it became necessary to think about what I wanted to accompany my steak and Portly Onions.  And I didn't want a baked potato thing, or a mashed potato thing, or any kind of a starchy thing, but I knew my husband would.

This is where deception is bred and nurtured.  Right in my very own kitchen.  Right under my husband's nose.  I set about to deceive and seduce.  Yes, I did.

I have discovered that if I don't announce to my husband ahead of time, or even during his meal, what I have cooked or what ingredients have gone into what he is about to eat, that we both have an easier time of it.  Furthermore, he then eats his food with great relish and will likely say, "I don't know what was.  But I don't think I want to know."  Poor, poor, squeamish husband.

So I got a little sneaky.  I told a little bit of a white lie.  Literally.

I had a head of cauliflower.  Normally, I would cut it into florets, season it with cumin, garlic, salt, pepper and EVOO and roast it until it was crispy on the outside and meltingly tender on the inside.  Or saute it Indian-style with green chilies, black mustard and cumin.  Or cover it in my friend TXMama's curried cream sauce and bake it au gratin with parmesan and buttered bread crumbs.  But my husband is a meat-and-potatoes guy and I needed to pull a meat-and-potatoes caper.

It seems that mock mashed potatoes are all the rage now that Paleo, low-carb/no-carb and gluten-free diets have become very popular.  Steamed, mashed and seasoned like real mashed potatoes, cauliflower appears to be a reasonable facsimile of mashed potatoes:

My finished product, however, was a bit short of the mark: I got impatient and didn't dry the cauliflower after cooking as much as I could, so the texture was a little looser than I would have liked.  But the flavor was outstanding, and although my husband could tell he wasn't eating real mashed potatoes, he did eat.  All of it.  And guessed it was cauliflower.  And said he would eat it again.

The gig is up.

What's more: the steak(s) looked extremely beautimous all piled up on top of the mashed cauliflower.  Which was exactly my goal.  You'll have to trust me that the plates were licked clean.  That is, if you can still trust me.

But I think the white lie was overlooked because my husband told me that his was the best steak he ever had--and perfectly cooked.  That is a compliment I don't often receive where cooking his steaks are concerned.

To accompany a meal with a lot of beef fat and butter fat, you need a red wine that is fairly acidic and fruity.  For my money, that means a Spanish rioja.  In particular, I was sampling Beso de Vino 2009 (Spain), an innocuous little wine that is inexpensive (less than $10) and a bit gimmicky.  However, it scored 90 points in a review in The Wine Advocate, so I thought I'd bring a bottle home.  It's a blend of syrah and garnacha and aged in oak for 3 months.  I thought it failed to produce the knit-together experience that I am looking for when drinking a wine all on its own, but the fruit--mostly cherry--the pleasant finish and especially the acid and tannin levels complemented the dinner very well.

After dinner, I sampled a glass of Block 612 Knights Valley Meritage 2009 (California), a lovely Bordeaux style wine with class and silkiness that made me think of cashmere and a nice, long ride home in a limosine.  This wine is well-balanced and well-priced (about $21) for its quality.  It has notes of plum and cassis in the mouth, chocolate and tobacco aromas and is very soft on the palate.  Excellent with Lindt chili-infused dark chocolate for dessert.

Here are the recipes:

Fat Daddy Steak with Portly Onions

Buy the best steak you can afford and enjoy it.  Tenderness and full flavor usually come at a higher price.  If you want to cook it "Philadelphia Blue" then start with a partially frozen steak.

1 large T-bone steak (about 2 lbs.)
kosher salt
cracked black pepper
minced garlic (I used Penzey's minced garlic because it is dried and it toasts as the steak cooks)

1.  Season steak generously with kosher salt, cracked pepper and minced garlic.  It should look like it has a crust of garlic on it.
2.  Let steak come to room temperature while you preheat the broiler and line a jellyroll pan with foil.
4.  Mist or spray steak with EVOO before broiling (make sure you put EVOO on the other side as well after turning).
3.  Broil 3" from heat; 3 minutes per side for rarish medium rare and 6 minutes per side for medium well.
4.  Serve immediately.  Serves one very hungry person or two hungry people, with leftovers.

Portly Onions

Slice one large sweet onion into slices about 1/4" thick.  Heat a little EVOO in a skillet over medium-high heat until rippling and add onion slices.  Saute until onions begin to caramelize.  Add kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.  When onions are browned and a bit limp, pour in at least 1/2 cup port.  Reduce liquid until onions are glossy and gorgeous.  Serve with steaks, hamburgers, in a grilled cheese sandwich, or just about anything that goes well with onions.

Imposter "Mashed Potatoes" with Brenta Stagionato Cheese and Garlic

Brenta Stagionato is a buttery, firm and nutty cheese that melts beautifully and harmonizes well with the cauliflower and garlic.  You can also roast the garlic, add fresh chopped rosemary or toasted shallots, stir in cooked crumbled bacon, or try different cheeses (such as Gruyere) to make endless variations.

1 medium head cauliflower
3 Tbs. butter, softened
2 Tbs. creme fraiche or cream cheese, softened
1/4 cup shredded Brenta Stagionato (or substitute Parmesan)
1 tsp. minced garlic
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp. chopped fresh or dry chives
1 Tbs. chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

1.  Bring a pot of salted water to boil over high heat.
2.  Meanwhile, clean and cut cauliflower into small florets.
3.  Cook cauliflower in boiling water for about 6 minutes, or until well done.
4.  Drain well and set low heat to dry as thoroughly as possible.
5.  If necessary, pat cooked cauliflower very dry in a clean kitchen towel.
6.  Using either a handheld electric mixer, an immersion blender or a food processor, puree the hot cauliflower with the butter, creme fraiche, shredded cheese, salt and pepper until almost smooth.
7.  Stir in chives and parsley by hand and serve immediately.  Serves 2 generously.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The dilemma of leftover caviar

A dilemma presented itself.

There was caviar--and lots of it--leftover from the New Year's Day party.  Blessedly, caviar is one of those luxuries of which a little will go a long way.  I'd already done a second run of potato chip-creme fraiche-caviar appetizers for a friend a few days ago, and frankly, as easy and as good as they are, I am at my limit for Hotsy Totsy Potato Chips.  Not feeling particularly inventive, but wanting a starting point for a small dinner party I was having last weekend, I decided to rely on an old standby:  Deviled Eggs with Caviar.

These eggs are very special, not just for the caviar, but because the filling is whipped with Duke's mayonnaise and half-and-half until fluffy and the flavors are heightened with horseradish, garlic, onion, dill and the tiniest amount of that Famous Yellow Mustard, then piped decoratively into the hollows of the whites.  The caviar just puts everything over the top.

In true bon vivant fashion, I served a total of four appetizers, since I wanted to try a lot of new recipes I'd been collecting, and especially since I have collected a small group of very willing guinea pigs on which to experiment.

My wine guy at Spec's suggested a prosecco that was light, dry, and full of apples to start our evening.  Carra-Coviello Brut (Italy), about $16, is absolutely delicious with seafood.  And because of the predominant apple notes, my wine guy suggested I serve something with apples.  I had mentioned to him that I was serving oysters, which always go with something bubbly.

But oysters and apples together?

Yes, and how!  The sweetness of the oysters is beautifully harmonious with apples.  Oysters with Apple Mignonette is beautiful when served in small, stemmed glasses.  The poached oyster sits on the bottom of the glass and a lovely, jewel-like, slightly piquant relish of tart apple, red bell pepper, shallot and parsley adorns the top.  You can steam the oysters in their shells and serve them on the half-shell, as called for in the recipe, or you can use shucked oysters and poach them in their liquor with apple cider, serving them in a beautiful glass as I did.

I also used both yellow and orange bell pepper since I didn't have red on hand.  This appetizer is very refreshing, and very beautiful to look at.  Find another version here to serve with caviar.

 We also enjoyed shrimp skewers with kalamata olives stuffed with toasted garlic, marinated in Metaxa (a Greek brandy), garlic, oregano and EVOO.  The warm grilled skewers are served on a bed of parsley salad, which is beautiful and delicious with a simple lemon juice/EVOO dressing, although one of my guests suggested substituting watercress for its softer texture.


And the final appetizer was Oysters with Creme Fraiche, Lemon, and Tarragon.  This recipe is intended to be prepared with oysters in the their shells, but because I had shucked oysters, I prepared them on scallop shells.  I also drizzled melted butter and added flake salt and a small thin slice of lemon to each oyster before broiling. 

To finish to this oyster appetizer: a spoonful of cold creme fraiche on top, flavored with lemon zest, tarragon and orange juice concentrate.  Creamy, decadent and full of bright flavor, it gave the warm oysters a silky, flavorful jacket.  Entirely lovely with the prosecco.

And then there was dinner.  Because we were having a lot of seafood--and a lot of rich food--my friends chose a verdejo-viura blend called Esperanza 2010 (Spain).  Floral, fruity and beautifully silky--and entirely gulpable--this crisp white wine (about $15) was perfect with our meal of salmon, artichoke pilaf and sauteed spinach.

We loved this Robert Irvine salmon recipe and its gorgeous minty/watercress sour cream sauce.  I coated both sides of the fish with the panko/coriander/mustard seed crust instead of just one as suggested, and it was beautiful on the plate nestled in its bed of watercress.

For the pilaf, I simply roasted about 2 cups quartered artichoke hearts (you can use canned but I like the frozen ones better) with some EVOO, salt, pepper and garlic, then sauteed about 2 cups sliced mushrooms and 1 cup roasted red pepper in the leftover garlic oil from the shrimp appetizer.  Then I made brown rice according to the package directions and stirred in the roasted and sauteed veggies, along with generous pinches of marjoram, basil, thyme, salt and pepper.  Forty-five minutes later, we had a beautiful and delicious pilaf.

The sauteed spinach was done with frizzled shallots, something I've written about before.  This time, I used EVOO instead of coconut oil, added a good amount of minced garlic, and omitted the chopped tomatoes.  Still delicious and beautiful.

Dessert was an old favorite.  Easy and stunning in a tall stemmed goblet with fresh blackberries and mint on top, lemon panna cotta is always a great way to end a seafood splurge.  Coffee and cordials, along with a very long, very funny, very drawn-out story about human behavior (my husband's specialty) ended the evening delightfully.

Thanks again for your support--and for trying these recipes.  May your tastebuds dance!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Sweet spot

In the final installment of recipes from the recent New Year's Day party, I'm offering the desserts I served.  For a buffet-style party, I always like to offer a selection of desserts.  This time, guests enjoyed three:  My Mother's Raisin Bars, a simple, pleasing sheet-cake style cookie bar rich with spices, butter, plump raisins and a vanilla icing.  The second dessert was Pumpkin Squares with Chocolate Chips and Crystallized Ginger, little moist cakes adorned with dark chocolate buttons and a generous amount chopped crystallized ginger.  And the most spectacular of desserts?  Brownie Tower, made of deep, rich brownie squares stacked in a pyramid, covered in strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries, drizzled with both white and dark chocolate and constructed while guests watched.

Technically, these are easy desserts.  You should have no trouble replicating them at home.  Plan to make a Brownie Tower next time you are having an important dinner or party.  It never fails to impress.  I love to watch the faces of my guests as I present a large platter of chocolate and fruit.  It's truly beautiful and jaw-dropping.

My Mother's Raisin Bars

Find this recipe in a previous post, here.

Pumpkin Squares with Chocolate Chips and Crystallized Ginger

You can also make this into loaves (enough for two 9 x 5 or four 6 x 31/2) or 24 muffins.  Larger loaves will take about 45-55 minutes to bake, smaller loaves about 35 minutes, muffins about 18 minutes.  Delicious in any form.

2 cups sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
3 eggs
1 16 oz. can pumpkin
3 cups sifted flour
1 tsp. baking soda
3/4 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1 tsp. salt
2 cups chocolate chips or chunks (use semi-sweet or look for "65% cocoa" or higher on the label)
1 cup finely chopped crystallized ginger

1.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2.  Combine sugar and oil in a large bowl and blend well with electric mixer.
3.  Add eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition.  Beat until light.
4.  Beat in pumpkin, blending well.
5.  Sift flour together with baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and salt, then add to pumpkin mixture.
6.  Mix batter well at low speed until blended.
7.  Pour batter into a greased sheet cake pan or sided cookie sheet (or into loaf pans or muffin cups).
8.  Sprinkle evenly with chocolate chips, then with crystallized ginger.
9.  Bake for approximately 20 to 22 minutes, or until toothpick comes out clean.
10.  Mark into small square while chocolate is still soft, then cut squares when cakes is completely cool.  Makes 2 to 3 dozen cake squares.

Brownie Tower

1 1/2 recipes of My Gal Pal's Brownies, cut into 1" squares
2 cups whole strawberries, washed and dried well
1 cup each blueberries, blackberries and raspberries, washed and dried well
2 Tbs. shortening, divided
8 oz. white chocolate
8 oz. dark chocolate

1.  Stack brownie squares in a pyramid on a serving platter.
2.  Arrange strawberries on top of and around the brownies, securing with toothpicks if necessary,
3.  Scatter remaining berries on top of and around the brownies.
4.  Melt white chocolate with 1 Tbs. shortening for about 30 seconds in microwave until liquified.
5.  Drizzle white chocolate over brownies and berries.
6.  Melt dark chocolate with 1 Tbs. shortening for about 30 seconds in microwave until liquified.
7.  Drizzle dark chocolate over brownies and berries.
8.  Serve your awe-struck guests.  Serves about 24 people generously.

Friday, January 6, 2012

More nibbles, more fun

Small bites are, I think, the best way to do a party.  I like to offer lots of little tastes and lots of great-looking food in stages.  Appetizers and nibbles placed in various spots throughout the house encourage guests to move around and mingle with other guests.  Surround your guests with food, make them turn and look around to find the treasures you've prepared.  It's a happy hunt.

Here are four more small bites recipes from the New Year's Day party.  A lot of the prep work can be done a day ahead, so you can relax during your party and enjoy your guests when they come into the kitchen to talk to you.  In fact, you can even leave the kitchen to talk to them!

Sherried Mushroom Caps Stuffed with Crabmeat

Make these and you'll fall in love with their creamy, silky filling and the rich sherry undertones.  Find the recipe in this previous post from last spring.

Toasted Shrimp Crostini

These crusty and delicious open-face sandwiches are a hit every time I make them.  

1/2 lb. small to medium-size raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 Tbs. EVOO
4 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup chopped red onion
1/2 cup chopped green onion (tops only)
3 Tbs. sliced black olives
2 Tbs. chopped roasted red pepper or pimiento
2 tsp. dry mustard

1 tsp. salt
1/4 cup lemon juice
2 tsp. red wine vinegar
1 dash cayenne pepper
1 loaf soft French bread, sliced into 1" slices and toasted gently

2 cups (or more) shredded Monterey Jack cheese
chopped flat leaf parsley, for garnish.

1. Combine shrimp, EVOO, garlic, red onion, green onion tops, black olives, roasted red pepper, dry mustard, salt, lemon juice, red wine vinegar and cayenne pepper in a medium-sized bowl.  Cover and chill for up to 3 hours.

2.  Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
3.  Lay toasted bread slices out on a large baking sheet.
4.  Using a slotted spoon to drain off as much liquid as possible, place about 2 Tbs. marinated shrimp mixture on each slice of bread.
5.  Scatter shredded cheese on top of each crostini.
6.  Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, or until cheese is bubbly.
7.  Garnish with chopped parsley and serve.  Makes about 18 crostini.

Hotsy Totsy Potato Chips

These are as easy as it gets and gorgeous to look at.  Use thick cut potato chips (such as Kettle Brand) and lay out chips on a large platter.  Place a small dollop of sour cream or creme fraiche on each chip.  This is easiest to do with a squeeze bottle.  You can also flavor the sour cream or creme fraiche with herbs or aromatics (like chives, garlic, shallots, parsley, etc.).  Then, using a demitasse spoon or butter knife, place a small amount of the best caviar you can afford on each dollop of sour cream/creme fraiche.  I like to use two different, contrasting caviars (like wild bowfin roe, which is black and tiny, and salmon roe, which is orange and a little larger).  Then garnish with snipped chives and serve.  That's it! 

Rosemary and Orange-Scented Roasted Olives with Warm Goat Cheese

This is a lovely dish to serve.  The scent of the orange peel and the herbs, the glistening olives, the creamy goat cheese--they all conspire to make you want to dive in.  Bonus: it's easy and the olives can be marinated up to two days prior to serving.

2 cups assorted pitted olives (I used jumbo black olives, jumbo queen olives, garlic stuffed olives and kalamatas)
1/2 to 1 cup torn pieces of roasted red pepper
4 cloves garlic, peeled and left whole
4 strips fresh orange peel 
1 tsp. fresh or dried rosemary
1/2 cup EVOO
Freshly ground pepper
8 oz. chevre or other soft goat cheese
crackers or baguette for serving

1.  Combine olives with garlic cloves, orange peel, rosemary, EVOO and pepper.  If you want a little more oil, feel free to add more since it's delicious drizzled on almost everything. 
2.  Let olives sit in a cool place for at least 12 hours.
3.  Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
4.  Arrange goat cheese in the center of a oven proof dish, such as a deep dish pie plate or flan pan.
5.  Arrange marinated olive mixture around the goat cheese.
6.  Bake for about 15 to 20 minutes, or until goat cheese is soft and melted.
7.  Serve with crackers or crusty slices of baguette.  Serves 12 people.

May your tastebuds dance in the new year!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The old one-two

Vindaloo is legendary, in her small circle of the world, at least, for making party punches that pack a wallop.  By the time you get the ice in the punch bowl, you certainly don't want a feeble, watery version of an electrolyte beverage.  Vindaloo's way of avoiding this mishap is to a.) use a lot of alcohol, and b.) make ice cubes out of the punch base (or at least out of the juices that are in the punch).

This New Year's Day, a large, beautiful decanter of punch was presented.  Several guests commented on it as being the kind of drink that sneaks up on you.

Yes, indeed.

This is a red punch, a tutty-fruity punch and a stout punch.  It's refreshing and very drinkable.  It also appears to be deceptively innocent, so children (and adults) with recent experiences involving Hawaiian Punch should probably drink straight ginger ale.  It's the kind of punch that can derail all the best intentions to be a better person during the next year.  What would one call such a punch?

Resolution Ruin Punch

1/3 cup sugar
1 quart cranberry juice
2 cups pineapple juice
3 Tbs. almond extract
1 1/2 cups bourbon
1/2 cup vanilla vodka
1 2-liter bottle ginger ale

1.  In a large pitcher or container, mix together the sugar, cranberry juice, pineapple juice, almond extract, bourbon and vodka.  Chill for one day.
2.  Pour punch into decanter or punch bowl and add ginger ale slowly to retain carbonation.  Garnish with fresh cranberries and mint leaves.  Serves 24.

Here are a few more small bites to go with the punch...

Asparagus and Proscuitto Swizzle Sticks
A good friend turned me on to these.  They are very easy--and very good. 

24 asparagus spears of moderate diameter (or 48 pencil-sized spears)
8 slices proscuitto, each slice cut lengthwise into 3 strips
Parmesan cheese curls

1.  Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
2.  Wash, dry and trim asparagus spears.  
3.  Twist a strip of proscuitto (barbershop-pole style) around each spear (if using pencil-sized spears, use two spears to each strip of proscuitto)
4.  Place on a baking tray and spray or brush with EVOO.
5.  Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, depending on thickness of spears.  Asparagus can be enjoyed bright green and crispy or more toasted and tender, depending on your personal preference.
6.  Place on a serving platter and garnish with Parmesan cheese curls.  Serves 8 to 10.

Peppadew Poppers

Bright red and glossy on the serving plate, these will disappear fast!

1 jar Peppadew pickled peppers
4 oz. chevre, at room temperature
1 to 2 Tbs. cream or half and half
garlic, assorted herbs and freshly ground pepper

1.  Drain Peppadews well.
2.  Meanwhile, mash chevre with cream and your choice of herbs.  I like black pepper, garlic and chive for color.
3.  Using a pastry bag with a star tip, pipe cheese filling into each Peppadew
4.  Chill until ready to serve.  Makes about 16 to 20.

Tortellini Caprese Skewers

These appetizers are lovely on a long, elegant serving platter that is either black or white to show off their beautiful varied hue.  Find the recipe here and the basil vinaigrette recipe here.

Mama V's Muffaletta on a Stick

These are gorgeous on the platter and a lot of fun to eat.  Or serve each skewer in a tall, elegant glass, like a slim parfait glass, for a knock-out presentation.  I followed the recipe here, but with the following variations: use an additional 10 slices each mortadella and smoked ham and stack and roll with Genoa salami and provolone as instructed.  Use a good quality Italian dressing, such as Newman's Own Family Recipe Italian and add an extra generous pinch of Italian seasoning (I used Penzey's) to the bottled dressing.

More recipes from the New Year's Day party to follow... 

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

How to celebrate New Year's Day

First, don't drink a lot the night before.  That ruins everything about the new year.  I find it much nicer to go to bed at a normal hour on New Year's Eve after a light supper and wake up feeling rested so you can have a relaxed day with some friends and enjoy sunshine, being outside, a fire inside, good wine, and good conversation.

Oh, but I haven't mentioned the food.

New Year's Day at Vindaloo's house (at least this year) was a constant stream of small bites, brunch casseroles and desserts for six hours.  Did exhaustion follow?  Why, yes, but it was well worth it.  All of us seemed like we were enjoying ourselves.  And the food certainly disappeared.  So I am going to share some recipes with you.

Here's the brunch recipes.  Beverage and small bites recipes to follow in a separate post.

Mighty Migas Casserole

Yes, it's true.  Velveeta is just one molecule away from plastic.  But boy, does it taste good in this brunch casserole. This recipe is adapted from GG's Gourmet Tex Mex Migas from the Roddy Tree Ranch Vacation Rentals website.
1/2 cup onion, chopped 
1 cup (combined) green, red, and yellow bell pepper chopped  (I included some diced poblano)
1/4 cup EVOO
1 cup Velveeta processed cheese, chopped 
12 eggs beaten with 2 Tablespoons buttermilk, half and half or cream
Salt and pepper to taste
6 corn tortillas 
Salt and pepper to taste 
1 can Rotel chopped tomatoes with chopped green chilies 
2 cups shredded mild cheddar cheese or Monterrey Jack cheese
Fresh cilantro, chopped, optional, for garnish
Mild canned jalapeno peppers, sliced, optional, for garnish
2 Key limes, halved, optional, for garnish
Picante sauce (I used Hatch New Mexico green chile salsa)
1.)  Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
2.)  Saute onions and peppers in EVOO until soft.  
3.)  Spread vegetables evenly over the bottom of a greased 9 x 13 baking dish.  
4.)  Distribute Velveeta cheese evenly over vegetables.  Set aside.
5.)  Whip up eggs and buttermilk or cream; salt and pepper to taste. 
6.)  Tear corn tortillas into strips and let soak in egg mixture briefly. 
7.)  Add Rotel tomatoes (including liquid) and stir well.
8.)  Pour egg mixture into baking dish.

9.)  Bake for about 30 to 35 minutes, or until casserole is puffed and golden.
10.)  Sprinkle shredded cheese over top of casserole, turn off oven and let casserole remain in hot oven with door closed for about 5 to 10 more minutes to melt the cheese.  
11.)  Serve warm or at room temperature.  Garnish with cilantro, jalapeno peppers and limes if you wish.  Pass salsa or picante sauce on the side.  Serves 6 to 8.

Bauchant French Toast Casserole

Make no mistake, Paula Deen can throw down!  This French toast casserole is basically her recipe, but I substituted 1/2 cup Bauchant (orange liqueur) for part of the milk.  Don't skimp on the praline topping and real maple syrup--it's the bomb!

Buena Suerte New Year's Day Posole with Lime and Red Chile Sauce

This New Mexican pork and hominy stew couldn't get any easier.  You get a lot of flavor for very little investment of your time.  Make it the day before serving for best flavor.  And do make the red chile sauce--you can go mild or hot--it enhances the stew tremendously.

2 16-oz. cans hominy, rinsed and drained (about 3 cups)
1 1/2 lbs. lean boneless pork, cut into 1/2" cubes
2 dried New Mexico red chiles, stemmed, seeded and torn into small pieces (wear latex gloves!)
2 cups finely chopped onion
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp. minced fresh oregano or 1 tsp. dried
1 tsp. cumin seed, crushed
6 cups chicken broth (more or less depending on how thick you like your stew)
salt to taste
lime wedges, for garnish
Red Chile Sauce (recipe follows)

1.  In a large pot, combine all ingredients except salt, lime and red chile sauce.
2.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for 2 to 3 hours until pork is tender.  Add more chicken broth as necessary if the stew is getting too thick; add salt to taste.
3.  To serve, ladle in bowls, pass red chile sauce and lime wedges and enjoy.  Serves 6 to 8.

Red Chile Sauce:  Soak 10 New Mexico red chiles, stemmed and seeded, in hot water until softened, about 30 minutes.  Drain and put chiles in blender with 2 cups water or chicken broth.  Blend until smooth, about 5 minutes.  You can also take a shortcut here and purchase Bueno Red Chile in your grocer's freezer section.  Thaw and proceed as follows:  In a saucepan, saute 1 cup finely chopped onion and 2 cloves minced garlic in 2 Tbs. oil.  Add red chile sauce, some salt to taste, and about 1 tsp. dried oregano.  Bring to low boil and simmer, uncovered, to blend flavors, about 30 minutes.  Sauce should be the consistency of gravy.  Makes about 2 cups.

Happy New Year!