Sunday, February 21, 2010

Funky Fillings for a Breakfast Favorite

Growing up, Sunday breakfasts sometimes meant dad cooking pancakes or our favorite waffles (we have four different waffle makers, but the belgian Barnyard waffle maker got the most use - go figure) on Sunday mornings, mom's fruit salad, and yummy bacon or chicken apple sausages.

Now that we're all older, currently living all over the place, and with different breakfast preferences, those family breakfasts are few and far between (Christmas and Easter mornings, however, it's nearly almost always my coffee cake and mom's scrambled eggs, with dad's bacon and my sisters' fruit salad). After eating bacon and french toast last weekend, however, I was left with oh-I-want-some-more cravings.

Back in college, I skiied in the Stowe Derby one winter. The morning of the race, my dad, his best buddy Billy, Billy's son Willy, and I all met at a favorite family breakfast spot in Stowe: The Gables Inn. I knew I needed some serious carbs that would last the morning. I ordered a french toast dish there -- where the pieces of cinnamon raisin bread were stuffed with a cinnamon raisin cream cheese before being dipped in egg. Oh, it was so good -- but then again, I haven't met a cinnamon raisin anything that I haven't not liked yet!

After a rough night last night, I woke up famished this morning, and in serious need of a proper Sunday breakfast. With last weekend's french toast in mind, and both goat and cream cheese in the fridge, I decided to experiment a bit.

Bread: of course, my favorite Wave Hill Pain de Campagne
Filling #1: Goat cheese with cinnamon, maple syrup, chopped dried plums (I didn't have raisins!). 
Filling #2: Cream cheese with salted caramel (I still have tons of this on hand) and chopped calimyrna figs

These fillings are super easy to make. I mixed the ingredients, after warming up the cheeses for 15 seconds in the microwave, easily in little ramekins. I sliced the bread about 1.5" thick, and cut a slit partway through the center in each to stuff the slices. One was filled with filling #1, the other with filling #2. I pressed each slice together well to ensure they would stick shut.

I then dipped each slice into my french toast batter (below). I let each slice soak up the egg (especially the crusts) while I heated my griddle. When the griddle was ready, I added a bit of butter so that the slices wouldn't stick, and then cooked the eggy slices. While the first side was cooking, I poured a little excess batter over the other uncooked side, in case it wanted to soak up more egg (you can also make scrambled eggs with the leftover batter -- actually kind of good -- just pour the egg on the griddle, and be careful it doesn't burn!).

When each side was golden brown and the egg cooked, I served these with a bit of warm maple syrup and a dusting of confectioner's sugar. Which filling came out ahead? I did like the cinnamon goat cheese, but there was something just so creamy and salty-sweet perfect about the caramel fig cream cheese. It was the winner in my mind. 

French Toast Batter:
2 eggs
1/4 c whole milk
1/4 c heavy cream
pinch salt
large pinch superfine sugar
cinnamon and/or nutmeg to taste
optional: vanilla or almond extract

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Brussels Epiphany

I used to really not like brussels sprouts growing up. I'm not really sure why, to be honest. They were always kind of dry, bland, and...ew. A couple of years ago, I was eating dinner at Cafe Cluny with my family in the city and had a delicious dish of roasted brussels sprouts with apple butter. It was my first memory of a positive brussels experience. Oh so yum.

In recent years, I've started to explore various brussels preparations: braising and/or steaming in chicken broth; roasting, sauteing with a bit of maple syrup, steam roasting... My favorite preparation in a restaurant right now is at The Dressing Room, where they roast the brussels with juicy dried cranberries. Oh, it's really really good.

This past weekend, I was craving salt and sweet (go figure). I spotted some brussels sprouts in the market (alas, not as small as I have been buying recently -- but they were so so fresh). Add to my cart a pack of Niman Ranch maple-applewood bacon, and some grade B VT maple syrup, and I've got a kick-ass veggie side dish.

This dish takes mere minutes to put together: chop bacon slices into 1/4-1/3" pieces. Heat some oil in a pan (oil helps render the fat in bacon...yeah, I know. Counterintuitive). Toss in bacon and gently render til golden. Add in quartered brussels sprouts (I used about 3 slices of bacon for 2 handfuls of brussels -- enough for 2 people). Season with salt and pepper. Saute until the sprouts are just beginning to caramelize, and are nearly cooked. Drizzle over some maple syrup and toss to coat. Finish cooking and serve immediately.

I wish I had a picture to accompany this post -- to bad they were so so good and we were so so hungry. The brussels disappeared all too fast!!!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Blizzard of 2010

I'm not sure about the rest of you, but I still remember the Blizzard of '98 quite well. I was a freshman in high school, well technically I was - I was at a K-9 school. My parents were away skiing, and my sisters and I were home with an apprentice from the school babysitting us. That storm was a real blizzard. Most of the doors to the house were snowed shut. I remember taking our yellow lab outside to "shovel." Ha. The snow nearly engulfed her -- all 3 feet or so. We live on a state road in CT, so the responsibility for plowing the road falls into the state's hands -- not our town's. The first day of the storm, you couldn't see where the road was. I remember watching a Land Cruiser driving down the snowcovered road (it was packed out a bit) with three snow tubes full of kids trailing behind. Now THAT is what I call sledding!

So, now to today's "blizzard." I know the snow started around 2am. Yup. I was up, listening to the plows roaring down the pretty dry road, metal plow to pavement. They were using their new fancy "ice detecting" detection system, I guess. I just wish they had silencers. By the time I actually got out of bed at 9:30, three beautiful inches had blanketed the ground. And the next couple of hours, it was snowing like gangbusters. I couldn't see the field and rolling hills behind us. Looking out the window, you saw snow flying by horizontally. Not to mention the howling wind (my family lives in a converted barn and is at the crest of a hill, so the wind from Long Island Sound will whip across inland CT and slap the house. I ventured out midday (the cat needed food!) and was surprised at how neglected our state road was. I went across the state line to NY state, and their roads, albeit snowy, were nicely sanded and very manageable. Go figure.

Now it's late afternoon -- and I'm sitting here wondering why this was called a blizzard. It's still snowing, yes, and still windy. But it's tapering off to a very fine snow...not the sheer volume of larger flakes I saw this morning. It's clearer, too, as you can see all the way to the next ridge over. Ha. Not for long (before, top. 10 minutes later, bottom. Literally as I'm writing this!)

I could venture out and re-shovel the sidewalk again, but I'm feeling a little lazy. Plus, it's still snowing. It can wait. Instead, I'm thinking of making that batch of granola I've been meaning to make for the last two weeks. Multigrain granola (not just oats) with an array of nuts (brazil, walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, cashews), some coconut, and a couple of handfuls of dried blueberries, whole dried cranberries, and dried cherries. Then, maybe some hot chocolate -- with a little bit of that salted caramel I have on hand from my New Year's feast (cocoa recipe tk). And a fire in the fireplace. I better go get some wood now. Mmm.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Roasting Veggies, 101

This past November, The New York Times published an article by Julia Moskin on roasting vegetables. I don't know about most of the US population (though I have a sinking suspicion most revert to steaming vegetables...blah...), but roasted veggies have always caught my eye (and stomach...). The tender veggies, with a concentration of flavor and caramelization on the edges. Delicious.

I know a good roasted vegetable when I encounter one (Eli Zabar's Vinegar Factory salad bar; The Dressing Room's Brussels Sprouts side dish, Market Table's Roasted Broccoli), but between you and me, I didn't really know how to make a roasted vegetable side dish at home til now. Usually, when I throw some broccoli or brussels sprouts in the oven to roast, they brown so quickly on the edges without the insides getting tender enough. I usually don't have problems roasting squash, due to its high moisture content, but potatoes sometimes give me trouble, too.

Julia's solution? A little steam moisture to keep the veg from drying out, thanks to a tip from Ilene Rosen of City Bakery, who sells the most deliciously tender, yet intensely flavored and caramelized, roasted vegetables at the New York City cafe. She says:

“I never go above 375 degrees in a home oven,” counseled chef Ilene Rosen of City Bakery, in the Flatiron district, where the roasted vegetables are consistently golden and tender. She said high temperatures dry out and brown the food too fast. “Vegetables only release that secret buttery sweetness when they turn golden and then brown,” she said. A dish of hot water placed in the bottom of the oven when you turn it on produces the steamy heat that keeps the vegetables succulent. Using her method and the convection function on my oven, I achieved roasted vegetable Nirvana over and over again."

So, this weekend, I was presented with two bags of brussels sprouts in the fridge. They had to be cooked, but what to do with them? What do you think I did? Roasted them!

Though Julia suggests roasting the veggies at 375 in a convection oven, I wanted to go the traditional route to see if I could achieve similar results without a convection oven. I first preheated the oven to 425. Meanwhile, I sliced my brussels sprouts in quarters (if large) or half (if 6/8" in diameter). I tossed the chopped sprouts with olive oil, salt and pepper prior to roasting (the salt will help draw out some of the moisture). I then popped the pan of veggies in the oven and another pan on the lower shelf, and poured hot water into that one. The hot water is the trick here -- the heat of the oven will cook the veggies, while the steam of the water will help thoroughly cook the vegetables through and keep them moist.

Honestly, I am not sure how long I had the pan in there - from 30 to 45 minutes. But, when I took the veggies out of the oven, I was incredibly surprised. They were tender all the way through, but with a hint of golden crustiness on the edges. I finished with another pinch of salt, tossed them, and immediately devoured a ramekin-full. Mmm... Now, for the next test, broccoli in the oven at 375...stay tuned!

A Better Beet

There is this restaurant in upstate New York, complete with its own spacious farm (from apples to beets to carrots, ducks and watermelons, herbs, yellow squash, and so much more). The ever talented Dan Barber is the chef...Blue Hill at Stone Barns is its name. And EVERY time I go, I am in culinary heaven.

From the incredible space (think lofty, meticulously restored barns, proper yet subtle lighting, captivating floral arrangements, yet simple layout and clean design), to the impeccable service (there are MANY waitstaff around, and most are supremely attentive, yet they are never in your way), and the absolutely divine food (farm fresh that day, the menu is...well, it's not really a menu. It's whatever preparation the chef is thinking and feeling that day, influenced by what is freshly picked and likely what the day presents).

I've been to Blue Hill at Stone Barns a couple of times now, and though they have pushed aside their turkey tail rolls (never was a big bread eater when dining out until Stone Barns...thank you for converting me, Dan...but my waist thanks you for taking these off the "menu"...), their "mini Beet Burgers" have been presented as an amuse every single time I can remember. That is DEFINITELY a good thing, as these little morsels are the perfect combination of flavors, colors, and as far as I'm concerned, food groups!

The beet burger, to my understanding (Dan, if you or another Blue Hill staffer is out there reading this and I'm incorrect, please let me know), begins with a not-too-sweet almond financier type of "bun." It's definitely almond-y, and there is a hint of sweetness, but not like a cookie. This bun is sliced in half, like a proper burger bun, and on the bottom half lies a dollop on beet puree. Literally, cooked beets finely chopped in your food processor. Add to that another dollop of fresh goat cheese, and a sprig of mache -- or as I prefer, a de-stemmed piece of baby arugula. Cap it off with the top of the financier/burger bun and voila!

I've been thinking about these little morsels often recently, partly because next week I have to create a canape to serve at L'Ecole. They are so elementally simple, but the flavors, when put together, truly sing I think. So, when my pastry chef was presented with a rather large bucket of almond financier batter Friday afternoon (ironically, I had already told her I wanted to learn to make a not-too-sweet financier batter that morning), I immediately had visions of beet burgers as my weekend project. 

Fast forward to Saturday afternoon, quart container of almond financier batter in hand. Add a little creativity, and some artistic license. And here, I present to you my version of Blue Hill's Beet Burger Sliders.

Almond financier batter (Try this one from
Beets (I had three rather large ones)
Plain goat cheese (I like Laura Chenel's, but any soft and fresh goat cheese will suffice)
Baby arugula or mache
Salt to taste

Financiers: I preheated my convection oven to 325 degrees F and lightly buttered a kind of non-stick mini muffin tin (if I had a real nonstick I would NOT have greased it as the batter has lots of butter/fat in it). I baked them about 15-20 minutes, until they puffed nicely and a tester came out clean. I then cooled them in the tin.

Beets: After taking off the greens, I placed the beets submerged in cold water and brought it to a boil in a covered pot over high heat. I then lowered the heat to a simmer and cooked the beets about 45 minutes until easily pierceable with a knife. Cool them in an ice bath and then peel. Place the beets in a food processor and process until nearly a paste. Put aside.

Goat cheese: I took some cheese out of the package and warmed it up a bit so that it was easily spreadable.

Greens: I used arugula and took the stems off some larger leaves -- I like the peppery bite this green offers in contrast to the creamy cheese and sweet beet.

Assembly: Slice a financier bun in half (or really 2/3 up from the bottom, as the top is larger than the base). Place a dollop of beet paste on the bottom, then a dollop of goat cheese. Lay an arugula leaf on top, and cap with the top of the financier. Then, stand back to marvel at your morsel of delicious-ness...and then eat it!!


A Carrot for Your Sweetheart?

So, Valentine's Day is a week away. What are you getting your sweetheart this year?

Roses are predictable, but a bouquet of unexpected fragrant blossoms of all kinds is special (especially if someone reads into each blooms "hidden meaning"). In a perfect world, a roaring fire and fragrant flowers, candlelight, cheese fondue and cubes of a fresh, crusty loaf of bread (mmm Wave Hill Pain de Campagne...or Bouchon's baguette), and a nice bottle of Napa Cabernet or a Bordeaux would make me a blissfully happy person.

But. what if you want to send your sweetheart some sweets? I personally love chocolate, but it's just so...expected (plus, good chocolate can be hard to find when you don't live in a big city). Plus, when you are trying to stay away from sugar 'cause it just makes you so cranky and tired, something a bit less sweet is much preferred. For those who seek some sweetness with their "healthy" meal, why not settle on something in between? At L'Ecole Friday, we challenged ourselves with this exact dilemma. When we already have a Chocolate Souffle, A Trio of Pot de Cremes, a Caramelized Pineapple and Lemon Tart, and a Pumpkin-Chocolate Cake, what is an appealing special addition for our pre-Valentine's diners? Carrot cake!

I am a huge fan of carrot cake. I love its versatility: bake it in muffin tins for a breakfast treat; in a loaf pan for tea time; in cake pans for standard round layer cakes, or spread it super thin on half-sheet pans for mini layer cakes. Plus, the hearty carrot, raisin, coconut, walnut studded batter lends some "substance" to the batter, tempering the roller coaster the sugar, butter/oil, and white flour sends your blood sugar on. Slathered with a cream cheese frosting (you can vary the sweetness or cheesiness of the spread, depending on your liking -- or when you want to eat your treat!), it is a beautiful combination of sweet and tart, creamy and cakey, sweet, fruity and nutty.

For this dessert, I used Dorie Greenspan's recipe from her BAKING: From My Home to Yours cookbook, and was quite delighted with how it came out. The cake before baking is very much loaded with the carrot/raisin/coconut/walnut addition, but as it bakes, the baking soda and powder help the batter rise right above, resulting in a very moist and flavorful and airy cake. I probably added a little more carrot than she did, and baked the batter in two half-sheet pans (supremely thin!) for about 10-15 minutes in a convection oven at 300 degrees. I also subbed out the lemon in the frosting for vanilla extract. Next time, I would tweak a couple of things - add some more raisins, and cut down on the butter (or increase the cream cheese) in the frosting and DEFINITELY cut down on the amount of confectioners sugar, as this frosting was WAY too sweet for my liking.

Bill's Big Carrot Cake

Yields 1 9" layer cake - 10 servings
For the cake:
2 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
¾ teaspoon salt
3 cups grated carrots (about 9 medium carrots - I got away with 7 large - you can grate them in food processor fitted w/ a shredding a blade or use a box grater)
1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts or pecans
1 cup shredded coconut (I used sweetened)
½ cup moist, plump raisins (I like dark!)
2 cups sugar
1 cup canola oil
4 large eggs
For the frosting:
8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1 stick ( 8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 pound or 3 and ¾ cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice or ½ teaspoon pure lemon extract
½ cup shredded coconut (optional)
Finely chopped toasted nuts and/or toasted shredded coconut (optional)
Getting ready:
Position the racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter three 9-x-2-inch round cake pans, or two 18" x 13" half sheet pans, flour the insides, and tap out the excess. 
Whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and salt. In another bowl, stir together the carrots, chopped nuts, coconut, and raisins. Working with a stand mixer, preferably fitted with a paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the sugar and oil together on a medium speed until smooth. Add the eggs one by one and continue to beat until the batter is even smoother. Reduce the speed to low and add the flour mixture, mixing only until the dry ingredients disappear. Gently mix the chunky ingredients. Divide the batter among the baking pans. Bake for 40-50 minutes, rotating the pans from top to bottom and front to back at the midway point, until a thin knife inserted into the centers comes out clean. The cakes will have just started to come away from the sides of the pans. Transfer the cakes to cooling racks and cool for about 5 minutes, then run a knife around the sides of the cakes and unmold them. Invert and cool to room temperature right side up. The cakes can be wrapped airtight and kept at room temperature overnight or frozen for up to 2 months.
Working with a stand mixer, preferably fitted with a paddle attachment or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the cream cheese and butter together until smooth and creamy. Gradually add the sugar and continue to beat until the frosting is velvety smooth. Beat in the vanilla extract. 
Put one layer top side up on a cardboard cake round or a cake plate protected by strips of wax or parchment paper. Frost the first layer generously. Use an offset spatula or a spoon to smooth the frosting all the way to the edges of the layer. Top with the second layer, this time placing the cake stop side down, and frost with the remainder of the coconut frosting or plain frosting. Top with the last layer, right side up, and frost the top- and the sides- of the cake. Finish the top with swirls of frosting. If you want to top the cake with toasted nuts or coconut, sprinkle them on now while the frosting is soft. Refrigerate the cake for 30 minutes, just to set the frosting before serving.
This cake can be served as soon as the frosting is set. It can also wait, at room temperature and covered with a cake keeper overnight. The cake is best served in thick slices at room temperature. It can also be kept at room temperature for 2 to 3 days. It can also be frozen. Freeze it uncovered, then when it’s firm, wrap airtight and freeze for up to 2 months. Defrost, still wrapped, overnight in the refrigerator.