Friday, February 19, 2010

Irresistible cookie goodness

When Markus and I first moved in together, his European heritage clashed heartily with my American appreciation of peanut butter. Europeans eat Nutella; they do not eat (or understand) peanut butter. It took documentation in an article read in The Economist of all places for me to convince him of the benefits of peanut butter. Gradually, I noticed him spreading it on bread for snacking...but even this was a rare concession. What really won him over (with five star enthusiasm!) are peanut butter cookies. In his book, those alone justify the need for peanut butter's existence. Peanut butter cookies happen to be my personal favorite, and they must be paired with chocolate (and a glass of milk, but that's a whole different story).

My recipe is adapted from one found on the Jif website (an American peanut butter brand that was always my favorite). Now, we use all-natural peanut butter and real butter instead of shortening (yuck). I increase the flour slightly to compensate for the extra oil in the peanut butter (FYI: if you are new to the all-natural stuff, you will notice a considerable taste difference in these cookies, namely they are far less sweet, making you wonder about what all is in the commercial stuff). Of course, I have to toss in some chocolate chips too. It creates that salty-sweet mix that really seals the deal. Ask Markus. I just made these two days ago, and he finished them off while I was at knitting this morning. When I demanded to know why he couldn't just leave me one or two, he said this would motivate me to make more. Today. So here we go...

Irresistible peanut butter cookies with chocolate chips
Makes around 3 dozen, depending on the size of your cookies

3/4 cup all-natural peanut butter
1/2 cup butter
1 1/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
3 Tablespoons milk
1 Tablespoon vanilla
1 egg
2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
as many good-quality chocolate chips as you deem appropriate (I don't measure, but you'll need at least 1/2 cup; mine probably contain 1 cup or more)

Preheat oven to 375F/180C.
Combine peanut butter, butter, light brown sugar, milk and vanilla in large bowl. Beat at medium speed until well-blended.
Add egg. Beat until just blended.
Combine flour, salt, and baking soda.
Add to creamed mixture at low speed. Mix until just blended.
Drop by heaping teaspoonfuls onto ungreased baking sheet.
Bake at 375F/180C for 7-8 minutes or until set and just beginning to brown. Don't let them set or brown too much or they'll become rock-hard when they cool. Of course, this can be remedied by using them to make ice cream sandwiches...but we won't go there.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Caramel ice cream with chocolate chips

3 words: homemade caramel sauce.
What a revelation! Sooooo delicious, so simple, and so worth the effort!
I found a great recipe on a trusted foodie site, and I haven't looked back!
It's funny what you bring to new cultures. When I mentioned to a girlfriend here that I'd made caramel sauce again, she asked, "And what do you do with that?" WHAT?! Well, you know she had to have some! The next time I had cream in the house, I made fresh caramel sauce and took it to her house while it was still warm. I bet money there's still a full jar in her fridge. Secretly, I think she's afraid to try it. I have no idea why, since they eat a lot of plain ice cream over there (and fruit, too). They are missing out! So then I mentioned this to another girlfriend, as in, "Can you believe she'd never heard of caramel sauce?" And this friend said, "What is caramel sauce?" Oh my. People of Australia, wake up and smell the yumminess! This second friend had to have her own jar, of course, which means I made a big batch this weekend. In case you are wondering what we like to do with ours, it disappears with great speed into HOMEMADE CARAMEL ICE CREAM!

We bought an ice cream maker in The Netherlands, where we were mortified to find no good ice cream available beyond the summer months. I love homemade ice cream, and I may never go back to store-bought. But the egg issue bothered me. Most ice creams are custard-based, meaning they contain quite a few uncooked egg whites. I'm careful with my egg source, but there was still an ick factor for me. Plus, I found the result overly rich for my taste. I did a lot of research and trial and error with substitutions until I found what we find to be the perfect basic ice cream recipe: one can of sweetened condensed milk with two can-fuls of 2% milk (it makes about 4 cups liquid, which is the volume my machine can handle). To this, simply add vanilla for vanilla ice cream, chopped Oreos for cookies and cream ice get the idea. No, my recipe doesn't actually contain cream. I know this will appall many readers, but we kinda like the thinner, icy quality of the milk. I was feeling extremely proud and full of my fantastic cooking abilities after working out this formula, only to be knocked down to size by a long-time homemade ice cream aficionado who informed me that ice cream can be EITHER custard-based (egg) or condensed milk based. Well, phooey. So, I reinvented the wheel. But it's a darned good wheel! I present it to you. Take it and run free!

Caramel ice cream is just my basic formula, plus a couple of handfuls of high-quality chocolate chips and a good bit of caramel sauce drizzled into the machine just before it's finished. It's got that amazing salty-sweet combo that we love. I hope you will too!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Tart and Tangy Baked Beans with Cornbread

Beans and cornbread. No dinner could be much simpler...or more tasty! Again, from the wonderful New Moosewood Cookbook. So far, nearly all of the recipes we've tried from this cookbook have been smash-hits! The only exception was the samosas, which, though good, took AGES to prepare and were kinda boring in the end (not worth the trouble! opt for Indian take-out instead!). Anyway, I'm supposed to be writing about beans, the musical fruit! Only, did you know they don't have to be so "musical"? According to Mark Bitman's How to Cook Everything, beans contain carbohydrates called ogliosaccharides that are not readily digested, thus the infamous gas. Eating beans more often increases tolerance and reduces gas. For those of us not quite willing to suffer during the interim, hot soaking does seem to help. Most recipes that start with dry beans tell you to soak the beans overnight, a daunting prospect and not entirely necessary. There are cooking methods to get around the lengthy pre-soak, but a hot soaking will help reduce gas. The hot soaking method is as follows:
  • Rinse and pick over the beans.
  • Put beans in the pot and cover with lots of water (they'll absorb and expand, and they'll always need to be submerged).
  • Bring water to a boil, boil 2 minutes and then remove from heat.
  • Let pot stand (beans and water) for 1-24 hours.
  • Drain, rinse beans, and cook in fresh water according to recipe.
I used this soaking method for prepping the baked beans, and I have to say that we noticed no musical quality, if you get my drift.

This dish made TONS and would be a great option for feeding the masses (dinner guests). Come to think of it, I'm not sure if I used the right proportions. The recipe calls for 3 cups of dry pinto beans, soaked. I used that, but now I'm wondering if the 3 cups was before or after the soaking. I used what was 3 cups dry (a heckuva lot more soaked). Anyway, it was way yummy and I'd make it the same way next time. I even tried to trick the girls into eating it by pureeing the finished beans and serving it as bean dip. Ellie wasn't buying it, but the rest of us agreed that the bean dip tasted delicious!

I started typing out the recipe, but then I wiped it. I'm still vague on copyright when it comes to sharing recipes online. If I adapt or find something fairly author-less, I am happy to share, but things direct from a book...I dunno. I will have to build my confidence in that department. For now, I'll point you towards adding Moosewood to your cookbook collection. It's fantastic for meat-free goodness!

I will share my cornbread recipe, which ironically also comes from Moosewood. I say ironically because I just said I wouldn't share cookbook recipes and here I go doing it. The difference is I have been making this recipe for years, printed out from a friend. Only after I bought the cookbook did I realize the recipe source. Secretly, I still consider it mine, so I will share (and still point you to buy the cookbook).

Yummy Cornbread

butter for the pan
1 cup cornmeal (polenta for non-US cooks)
1 cup flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda (bicarb)
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup buttermilk or yogurt (I prefer buttermilk)
1 egg
3 Tbs sugar or honey (I prefer honey)
3 Tbs melted butter

Preheat oven to 350F/160C.
Butter 8-inch square pan or a slightly larger cast iron skillet (in my view, cornbread is meant to come from a cast iron dish).
Combine dry ingredients in a bowl.
Combine wet ingredients separately.
Stir wet into dry until just combined.
Spread into buttered pan.
Bake for 20 minutes or until center is firm to touch.
Serve hot, warm or at room temperature. LOVE IT!

Variations: Stir in a cup of corn and half a cup of grated cheese for more savory, or a couple of handfuls of blueberries with a bit more sugar or honey for more sweet.

Menu planning

I started this new cooking blog because I was feeling so empowered (and well-fed) thanks to a brilliant menu planning effort. I picked five of my cookbooks and devoted two hours one Sunday night to menu planning for an entire month! For the first two weeks, we were in food heaven! Menu planning had paid off beautifully! I knew what would be for dinner every night. I knew what I needed to buy at the store. We were trying lots of new recipes for what felt like minimal effort, and we were eating great food! I was singing praises of menu planning from the rooftops...until week 3 when I suddenly and seriously burned out on the whole enterprise. I didn't want to look at my menu plan. I didn't want to cook from the menu plan. I felt bossed around by the menu plan, and we had take-out two nights in a row. Thus, the lapse in posting.

In retrospect, I think I just need to scale back my expectations. Menu planning for an entire month might be useful, but it wasn't right for me. I'm going to try two week spurts and see how that goes. It breaks up the chore of planning better than doing it once per week, and it still gives me lots of freedom. Additionally, I learned two important lessons:

1) Plan at least one night each week for leftovers or take-out. Those nights are breaks and are necessary. We do ours on Fridays. The girls always want pizza then. Sometimes we don't, thus the leftovers option.

2) Prepare Monday's meal in advance to make it as simple as possible. I really don't like pre-cooked meals, but I really do like totally prepared and ready to cook/serve in the oven meals. Our favorite new discovery are the main course spring rolls from The New Moosewood Cookbook. Sooooo delicious and so fantastically easy! If the prep work is done the day before, all you do is unwrap, pop into the oven for around 20 minutes and enjoy!

Friday, January 29, 2010

Braised BBQ Beef

We aren't beef eaters. When I met my friend gail ten summers ago (really? jeepers!), she was a vegetarian, and I remember telling her I couldn't imagine giving up steak. She didn't try to persuade me, but magically I haven't eaten steak since that summer (possibly one or two exceptions). Eating less and less meat over the years has meant we find it harder to digest, so I don't really cook meat much anymore at all. So, why I am making beef? I do not know. All I do know is that I read this recipe three days ago and would have happily chucked my well-planned menu out the window if I'd had the ability to get to the butchers' that day. Go figure. It is about 30 minutes into the 3 hour cooking time, and so far, it is smelling fantastic! I haven't had good BBQ in ages, so I've got high hopes!

Verdict: DELICIOUS! Ocean Springs people, it's SHED GOOD! This recipe is definitely going in my bag of tricks for easy entertaining. As Elise wrote on her page, it can easily be doubled (tripled, quadrupled...) for larger numbers, and it's so simple! It requires a lot of time but hardly any work, and the results are fabulous! Assuming you eat beef...

Thursday, January 28, 2010

(The BEST EVER) Almond Cake

Almost every birthday for the past 10 years, Markus has requested almond cake . He enjoys cake more than he cares to admit, but he also finds most cakes too sweet and sugary. This almond cake recipe is the perfect texture and sweetness without being over the top. My problem as a cook abroad is I often cannot find particular ingredients. The almond paste required for this recipe is nowhere to be found here in Perth. I have looked high and low, and I have argued (gently) with specialty food shop owners about the difference between almond paste and marzipan (marzipan is sweeter, not what we want in this cake). One year when I couldn't find almond paste in The Hague, I tried making my own from a recipe I found online, and it was awful, horrible, never-try-this-again-it's-not-worth-it terrible. And it took a long time to make to boot. Markus had different birthday cakes for a few years, but this year he again requested this one, willing to accept the substituted marzipan if necessary. He had to have it!

Before buying the marzipan, I decided to try my hand at homemade almond paste one more time. In my experience, it's all about finding the right recipe. Theoretically, homemade should always taste better than store-bought, and I was determined. Most almond paste recipes I found called for copious amounts of sugar (3 cups powdered sugar, on average!) and egg whites as a binder (I'm always wary of this). Then, I found this one. It looked different from the others and the peeling of the almonds to reduce bitterness made it seem more professional somehow. It requires a food processor, which is known in our house as "The Precious" (and will be until it is one day upstaged by the purchase of a KitchenAid mixer, but I digress... What I meant to say is, "Don't try this in a blender." You will have a big mess instead of good paste.) Anyhoo, I gave it a go, whipped up the cake and crossed my fingers I'd have a happy birthday boy that evening. Verdict: He took one bite, melted into a puddle and pronounced it "the best birthday cake EVER!" Before I forget how to achieve this heaven, I'd better write it down:

Almond Paste in the food processor
Makes approximately 1 pound/2 cups

2 cups whole almonds (recipe stated "preferably Mission" but I just bought the unidentified ones at the bulk store)
1 cup sugar (I used caster sugar)
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
a few drops of almond extract

Cover the almonds with boiling water and let them stand for at least a minute. Slip off the skins with your fingers. If they are very stubborn, cover them again with boiling water or let them soak and remove them just a few at a time to work on. Note: Although this is not difficult, it does take quite a long time (40 minutes for me with two monkeys running mad all the while). In the future, I'd make the almond paste at a more convenient time (not the same day I needed the cake), since it keeps in the fridge for up to 6 months.

Combine the sugar, water, and corn syrup in a pan and cook, without stirring, until the temperature is 235 degrees F. Then stir in the almond extract.

While the syrup is heating, preheat the oven to 250 degrees F. Put the peeled almonds on a cookie sheet and leave them just long enough to dry out and warm up, about 8 to 10 minutes. Then, while they're still warm, grind them in a food processor until the texture is fine and smooth. If necessary, add 1 or 2 tablespoons of water to loosen the mixture and make it easier to process.

With the food processor going, gradually pour in the syrup in a slow, steady stream. Process until the paste is uniform. Remove it from the work bowl, wrap it well in plastic wrap, and refrigerate it until needed. To make it soft and easy to work with, put it in a warm place, such as on top of the stove while the oven is on, or heat it in a double boiler or a steamer set over simmering water.

Almond Cake from the "Longaberger Fresh from the Pantry: Recipes for Everyday" cookbook

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
8 oz almond paste**
3 eggs
1 Tablespoon Triple Sec (can substitute 1/4 teaspoon orange extract and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract for this)
1 teaspoon almond extract
1/4 cup flour
1/3 teaspoon baking powder

Preheat oven to 350F (160C in a convection oven). Line 9-inch round cake pan with waxed paper. Butter and flour the waxed paper. (I use a springform pan and just put wax paper on the bottom). Cream the butter, sugar and almond paste in a mixing bowl until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, liqueur and almond extract and mix well. Add the flour and baking powder and mix until blended. Pour into the prepared pan. Bake for 40-45 (or 30-35) minutes or until a wooden pick inserted into center comes out clean. Cool in pan.

**the recipe calls for 8oz, but I didn't have a kitchen scale. I looked online and found that 8oz of almond paste is roughly 1 3/4 cups, so that's what I used (almost all of what I made). Of course, the almond paste recipe says it makes roughly one pound, which means I might have only needed half. Oh well. It worked quite well!