Monday, May 30, 2016

Backyard Barbecue

Since leaving Texas a decade ago, I still miss some of the great local foods I'd enjoyed during my thirty years living in the Lone Star State. One of those things is good Texas barbecue. We have found barbecue in other places we've lived, but its not nearly as good. I decided a few years ago that the only way to get exactly what I wanted was to do it myself.
In North Carolina, they love that pulled pork. In Memphis, it’s all about the ribs bathed in a sticky, sweet sauce. Make no mistake - if you have not eaten slow smoked ribs, brisket or sausage in Texas, you have not eaten Texas barbecue. In Texas, beef  brisket is the cut of choice, it better be smoked for 12 hours and don't insult that meat by drowning it in sauce. In fact, at most respectable old-school barbecue spots in Texas, there is no sauce.
I've smoked fish, pork shoulder, chicken and ribs with very good results. But brisket is the most challenging because it requires such a long cook time. There are a number of variables that need to be controlled for the best slow smoked brisket. This cut is blanketed with a thick cap of fat that renders during its 10-12 hour cook, keeping the meat moist and flavorful. The fat is essential to insure that your brisket doesn't end up as beef jerky. Its not easy to find a whole brisket or even a piece with the fat cap intact. In other parts of the country, brisket is traditionally braised with root vegetables and most of the fat is mindfully trimmed off. However, a reputable butcher can usually procure the necessary fat covered brisket if you make friends. Step 1-if you want to make Texas barbecue, make friends with a local butcher.
Texas barbecue starts with a dry rub and while you can find lots of dry rub recipes, the only things you really need are salt and pepper. For pork ribs and pork shoulder, I find a little brown sugar aids in both flavor and color and a little cayenne pepper gives the meat just enough heat to make your lips tingle. I use the same rub on my beef, but you can fix it however you like. I had a party one summer and cooked barbecue for about 30 people. I cooked a 4 1/2 pound brisket and two slabs of pork spare ribs and I used about 1 1/2 cups of dry rub for everything.
Dry Rub
3/4 cup of kosher salt
1/4 cup of finely ground black pepper
1/4 cup of light brown sugar
2 tsp of cayenne pepper, or more if you want
The meat really needs to spend some time with the dry rub and get acquainted before it goes on the smoker. It's best to put your dry rub on the night before cooking and let the meat sit in the fridge overnight. Also, dry rub is best applied to a dry surface, so dry off the meat before application. Coat the meat liberally with the dry rub, give it all a nice massage and put it in the fridge for a night of culinary romance.
The  wood you use also makes a big difference. Hickory is great for pulled pork. Fish really needs a milder wood, like apple or cherry. The strong, distinctive aroma of mesquite is one of the unique features that sets Texas barbecue apart, but it also has a very assertive flavor that can be overpowering. For brisket, I like to add a little bit of mesquite to a bag of oak wood chunks. The oak is milder than mesquite, but imparts a good flavor. for the party, I started my coals at 6:00 am, put my wood chips on to soak and by 6:30 I was ready to put meat on the smoker. I have since invested in a smoke box for my grill, but this can be done in a large grill with strategic placement of the coals. I arranged the coals on one side of the grill. Since the long, slow method of barbecue requires a relatively low heat of about 225 degrees, I closed the dampers on my grill to allow very little airflow, keeping the temperature under control. When the grill was at about 200 degrees, I set the meat as far away from the fire as possible, dumped a big handful of wood chunks on the fire and closed the lid.
In addition to the locals we'd invited to the party, we were expecting my husband's childhood friend Jed and his wife Erica, who were visiting from California.  With lots of party prep to do, I got cracking. Every 30 minutes or so, I'd look out the window to see if there was still smoke rising from the grill. If there was no smoke rising, I'd put another big handful of wood on the coals. I had to refresh the charcoal a few times during the day, but all in all, I was able to keep the grill at the perfect 225 degrees. Throughout the day, I watched the meat slowly take on that mahogany color and the longer it was exposed to the wood smoke, the darker it got. After about 4 hours, I took the ribs off and let them rest. Normally a brisket would not be sitting as close to the heat source, so mine cooked more quickly than I'd anticipated. After 10 hours, I took the brisket off and let it rest. The meat was pretty much black on the outside but not burned. It looked right. I felt right. As my guests started to arrive, I sliced ribs and brisket. When I cut into the brisket, a beautiful slow trickle of juice glistened down the slice of meat and it had that telltale pink smoke ring under the surface. When I cut the ribs apart, the same pink smoke ring was present. 
My neighbors were all at this party. Lets be honest, they'd spent the whole day smelling the wood smoke and they would have all shown up even if I hadn't invited them. They all loved the barbecue and some said they'd never tasted anything like it. But the true test was my husband's friend Jed. They all grew up in Texas and had spent many years sampling the best Texas barbecue in the state. Many a time, Jason has regaled me with tales of he and Jed eating bar-b-que at the legendary Kreutz's Market in Lockhart, Texas. If Jed liked my brisket, I knew I'd hit gold. He did. In fact, he said it was the best barbecue he'd had outside of Texas. If you are so inclined to make your own barbecue, its worth the time and effort.  


Friday, May 27, 2016

Make Your Own Bagels

I'm a purist when it comes to bagels. In my opinion, the perfect bagel is chewy with a thick crust and a tight, firm crumb. When the perfect bagel is sliced, there should be no crumbly bits that fall from the center. It should take a little bit of elbow grease to get the knife all the way through it. And please, please, please don't serve me a bagel with fruit in it. If you want blueberries, make muffins. If you want raisins, make cinnamon bread. In my opinion, there can be no debate. Fruit does not belong in a bagel. 
A few years ago, I decided I wanted to try making my own bagels. I was relatively new to baking my own bread and I knew this would be a challenge. I had recently met Bridget Lancaster from America's Test Kitchen and she suggested a website called The Fresh Loaf, which is where I found this recipe.  Making the dough seemed simple enough, but there were some interesting peculiarities to this recipe. First, it called for malt powder or malt syrup. Honey or brown sugar can be substituted, but I wanted to do this the right way. I went to a couple of stores, but could not find malt syrup or malt powder, so I had to settle for raw honey. Also, bagels are traditionally boiled, then baked. I've never done anything remotely close to that before, but what the heck, how hard could that be? Finally, the recipe takes two days to prepare. The recipe recommends making the dough and shaping it the night before, refrigerating it overnight, then boiling and baking the bagels in the morning and serving them for breakfast. I set aside a Saturday evening to make bagel dough that I planned to bake the next morning and serve with cream cheese, lox, sliced tomato, sliced onion and capers.
This recipe makes 12 to 15 bagels, depending on how big you like them.
Sponge:
1 teaspoon instant dry active yeast
4 cups bread flour
2 1/2 cups lukewarm water
Dough:
1/2 teaspoon instant dry active yeast
3 3/4 cups bread flour
2 3/4 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons malt powder
OR
1 tablespoon malt syrup, honey, or brown sugar
Finishing touches:
1 tablespoon baking soda for the water
Cornmeal for dusting the pan
Toppings for the bagels such as seeds, salt, onion, or garlic - NO FRUIT!! 
I got a bit of a late start that evening. I didn't actually head into the kitchen until about 8:15 to start the dough. I made the sponge by dumping the flour and yeast into my plastic bin and mixing them up a bit. Then I poured in the lukewarm water and mixed until all the flour was moistened. I covered the bin with plastic wrap and let it sit for two hours. My kitchen was a little chilly that night, so I put the bin in a somewhat warm place, close to my oven, to give the yeast a welcoming environment. When I came back at about 10:30 pm, the sponge was nicely bubbly and sticky and ready for the addition of more dry ingredients. I added 3 more cups of flour, the additional yeast, the salt and the honey. The recipe recommended that the final 3/4 cup of flour get worked in slowly during the kneading process.

This dough was extremely stiff and difficult to knead. I tried working it with my hands in the bin first to get all the flour incorporated. That didn't work, so I dumped it out onto my work surface and tried to knead the flour in. That also proved to be ineffective. Finally, I broke out the Kitchen Aid and scraped all the crumbly flour into the bowl of the mixer. I managed to get the dough to come together with the Kitchen Aid and got the final bit of flour incorporated before the mixer overheated. I let the dough rest for about 10 minutes so the flour could absorb what little moisture was available and turned it out on the board again and started kneading. I ended up doing most of the kneading by hand, taking breaks periodically to let the dough and my arms rest. It gave me quite a work-out and after about 15 minutes of kneading, the dough was about as cohesive as I could get it and I felt like I'd just spent half an hour on the treadmill. 
According to the recipe, this is when the dough gets divided into 12 to 15 equal pieces. I decided to make a dozen bagels, dividing the dough into two parts, then six parts, then cutting each piece in half to make 12 pieces. They were far from evenly divided - some pieces were a lot larger than others, but I figured it would just have to do. By this time, it was well past 11:00 pm and I was exhausted. I shaped the dough into balls as best I could, given how stiff the dough was, and placed them on the work surface under a damp towel to rest. When I came back half an hour later, the dough was quite a bit more pliable and was starting to look a lot like bagels. At this point, I rounded, caressed and shaped each dough ball and finally poked a hole in the middle and lovingly shaped them into even rounds. This was the most relaxing and Zen-like part of the process for me. The pre-bagels went onto a baking sheet lined with waxed paper sprayed with non-stick cooking spray and got covered with plastic wrap. Then it was another 20 minutes before I could put the bagels into the fridge for the night. At 12:20, I put the bagels in the bottom of my fridge and dragged myself to bed. But sleep didn't come easily, I could not stop thinking about my lovely little belly-buttoned dough balls and how they would taste when I pulled them out of the oven in the morning. 
When the sun came up, I sprang out of bed and danced to the kitchen to put a big pot of water on to boil and get the oven heating up. This recipe requires a huge pot and the bagels get boiled in batches, two or three at a time. A tablespoon of baking soda gets added to the water to give the bagels that classic thick crust. I cranked the oven up to 525 degrees and took my bagels out of the fridge. They looked all plump and happy and I prepped two baking sheets with a generous amount of cornmeal to prevent them from sticking in the oven. I made myself a cup of coffee and sat patiently while my water came to the boil. When the water was ready, I dropped in the first three bagels. It only took a minute or a so on each side to boil these babies up right and I used a slotted spoon to turn them and remove them from the water. As soon as they came out of their Jacuzzi bath, they went onto the cornmeal covered baking sheet. The toppings get sprinkled on while the bagels are still wet. I sprinkled a few with coarse salt and a few with crushed garlic. Some I left plain. When they were all boiled, I put the pan in the oven. They only took ten minutes to bake and I rotated the pan half way through. I watched them cautiously to make sure they didn't burn.
The bagels were absolutely beautiful. It was so difficult to wait for half an hour until they cooled enough to eat. They were still pretty warm when I sliced into one, but not so warm that it melted the cream cheese. We had a traditional deli style feast with lox, fresh tomato, onion, capers, hot coffee and a game of cards. These bagels are worlds beyond any grocery store or frozen. If you have the time and inclination, making your own bagels is fun and delicious.  

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Scapes

On a trip to a local farmers market a few years ago, my husband Jason saw something interesting sitting on a table.  There was a local garlic farmer who specialized in all kinds of garlic infused delicacies - garlic jam, garlic oil, pesto and such. She was selling zip lock bags of curly green scallion-like items called "scapes" and they were sitting next to a bowl of pesto that she'd made with them. The pesto was strong, yet not as assertive as most pesto I've tasted. It had more of an herbaceous quality, a grassy flavor that I really liked. We bought a bag of scapes and the garlic lady gave us the recipe for the pesto. My mind was filling with questions and ideas for what to do with those funky little garlic flavored curly-cues.
Garlic scapes, also known as garlic spears, stems or tops, are the shoots that grow out of underground developing garlic bulbs. They shoot up from the young leaves of the plant and curl into lovely tendrils with what looks like flower bulbs on the ends, very much like chives. The flower bulb is actually a seed pod that will eventually produce little seeds that can be planted to grow more garlic. If the scape is left on the plant, the underground garlic bulb will not plump up properly as all the energy of the plant will go into growing the scape. For the farmer, cutting the scape off not only allows the garlic bulb to grow correctly, but yields another delicious food product. It's a win-win for everyone.
When we got home, I cut a piece off one of the scapes and tasted it. It was a little woody and difficult to chew, but the flavor was amazing. It was most certainly garlic, but that nostril-burning garlic smell was replaced by a vegetal aroma. If you crushed a bunch of garlic, put it in a bucket of water and watered your lawn with it, the mowed grass might smell something like this garlic scape.
I wasn't sure what to do with this thing. I tried using it in a marinade for chicken breasts with some lemon and herbs, but the flavor didn't show up at all. I cut some into a brine for smoked fish, but once again the garlic flavor never emerged. I figured the best way to enjoy the garlic scape was in its most raw state. So I a pulverized a couple of scapes and used it in place of garlic in a batch of tzatziki sauce, which is the greek yogurt and cucumber sauce most commonly served on a gyro sandwich. EUREKA! The garlic flavor was powerful yet gentle and the crunchy little bits of green scape delivered a surprising punch. I'd hit the jackpot. I chopped another scape into a batch of tabouli salad and the the grassy garlic flavor was a perfect compliment. The parsley, cucumber and lemon in the salad played supporting roles to this culinary rising star. It is always a thrill to discover some interesting food item you've never used before. But the real thrill is helping it find it's true voice in your kitchen. 


Monday, May 23, 2016

Rhubarb

Its rhubarb season and I'm starting to see it appear at farm stands and grocery stores.  In New England, we had rhubarb growing in our backyard like a weed.  It's a hearty perennial plant grows near a body of water and can be transplanted easily. It will even grow well in a large pot. This stuff is everywhere and upon further research, I discovered that rhubarb has a long and illustrious history. Dating back to 2700 BC in China, rhubarb root was cultivated for medicinal purposes and was used to treat everything from constipation to the plague. When European merchants started trading with China, they carried rhubarb back to the west. Marco Polo's accounts of his travels to China mention rhubarb prominently. It was first planted in Italy in 1608 and over the next few decades, it spread all across Europe grown exclusively for medicinal purposes. In the mid 1700's, it started showing up in recipes for pie and tart fillings and in the early 1800's a Maine gardener introduced it to New England.  Now you can find rhubarb all over the country.  
Rhubarb is a green, leafy plant with red stalks that resemble thick celery. The leaves look a bit like kale and are toxic to human and animals, but the red stalks are a very interesting food item. Typically, its chopped up into small pieces and cooked with sugar. When it cooks down, it becomes thick and slightly stringy and has a lovely pink color. Rhubarb is seriously tart, but with enough sugar, it takes on kind of a floral perfume-like flavor. When it's added to other fruit, like strawberries or peaches, its flavor blossoms into something truly remarkable. It's also full of pectin, so adding it to jams and preserves not only gives them great flavor, but helps them set up nicely. It is frequently added to fruit pie filling, in which it melts into the other fruit and adds a distinctive yet mysterious richness. 
Several years ago, my mother-in-law put together a family cookbook of recipes she collected from many different relatives. Rhubarb plays a pretty substantial role in this cookbook and my husband speaks with fond nostalgia about a rhubarb sauce that his grandmother made and served over vanilla ice cream. I found that recipe in the family cookbook and made it with some of the rhubarb I'd found at the farmers market. It's just rhubarb, sugar and a little bit of water, cooked until the rhubarb falls apart, which takes about five minutes. I served it warm spooned over vanilla ice cream and I thought it was delicious. But there was a lot of it left over in the fridge and how much rhubarb sauce can two people eat? 
A week later, I went strawberry picking and came home with 6 pounds of ripe, juicy berries. We were planning a party for July 4th weekend and we talked about serving the strawberries at the party. I suggested strawberry shortcake, but my husband took the idea a step further and suggested a strawberry rhubarb trifle. A trifle is an easy, delicious and beautiful dessert featuring fluffy cake, chunky sauce, fruit and whipped cream or custard layered into a glass bowl. I've made trifles before and people are always impressed with the stunning visual and I figured it would be a perfect way to use up that rhubarb sauce.
STRAWBERRY RHUBARB TRIFLE
2 cups of cooled rhubarb sauce (4 cups of chopped rhubarb, 1 cup of sugar and a 1/2 cup of water, cooked over medium heat until the rhubarb breaks down)
4 cups of strawberries, cut into pieces and sprinkled with sugar
1 vanilla cake, angel food cake or sponge cake
2 cups of whipped cream or custard
A deep, glass bowl for presentation
This recipe does require a little preparation the day before you assemble and serve it. If you make this dessert too far in advance, it starts to break down too much and the cake will become mushy. I advise making it just a few hours before you plan to serve it. I bought a vanilla cake at the store, but you can bake your own if you like. Lady fingers, angel food cake, sponge cake or just a plain yellow cake will work just fine. You want something spongy so it soaks up the sauce. I cut up the strawberries the night before the party and sprinkled them with just a touch of sugar so they'd break down a bit and become slightly soupy. A few hours before the party, I whipped the cream with a little vanilla and sugar until it was stiff, assembled the trifle and popped it in the fridge. 
I started with a couple spoonfuls of the rhubarb sauce in the bottom of the bowl. Then I broke the cake up into medium sized chunks, about 2 inches, and laid them on top of the rhubarb sauce, pressing down slightly to get a tight fit in the bowl. Then I spooned a layer of strawberries on top of the cake, making sure they were up against the sides of the bowl, and gently pressed down again to compact everything. I spooned some of the rhubarb sauce on top of the berries, then added about half of the whipped cream, again making sure it was flush against the sides of the bowl. A second layer followed, starting with cake, followed by strawberries, then rhubarb sauce. You've got to keep adding a little gentle pressure with each layer to make sure it's all compacted in the bowl, but don't press too hard, just enough to keep the layers close together. Keep an eye on the sides of the bowl to make sure your trifle is beautiful. I topped the bowl with a final layer of whipped cream and added some chopped berries on top for decoration.
I put the trifle out half way through the party and nobody wanted dig into it and destroy its beauty. Finally, I took the first spoonful and everyone else followed. It was gone within about 30 minutes and I swear I thought I saw someone licking the bowl. 


Saturday, May 21, 2016

Kentucky Butter Cake

It all started when Cooks Catalog went out of business last fall.  My friend Barb and I had gone to a Cooks Catalog warehouse sale in Dallas many years ago and we share a love of cooking and good food.  So when the catalog announced its going out of business sale, Barb sent me lovely box of spices, which included a jar of culinary lavendar. Without realizing it, Barb had presented me with a culinary challenge. Many years ago she's made a batch of butter cookies using lavendar and they were stunning. I've cooked with lavendar before, but it was so long ago that I can't remember what recipe I used it in. The gauntlet had been thrown.

I started rummaging through my cookbooks to see if any recipes caught my attention. I considered ice cream, shortbread, even a plain pound cake, but was still searching for the perfect lavendar vehicle when my social media struck gold. I saw an add for a Kentucky butter cake recipe that sounded perfect. Its a moist, dense and buttery cake made in a bundt pan with a butter sauce poured over the cake when its still hot. The sauce sets up as a crust on the surface of the cake, which becomes the bottom of the cake when its turned out of the pan. It also seeps into the cake and makes it very moist. Now that's a great starting point for lavendar. I got to work.

KENTUCKY BUTTER CAKE:

3 cups all purpose flour
2 cups sugar
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup butter
4 eggs
1 tbsp vanilla
2 tbsp culinary lavendar

BUTTER SAUCE:
3/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup butter
3 tbs water
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 tsp lemon zest and 1 tbsp lemon juice (optional)

This is a pretty easy recipe with great results, but there are a few tips that will make all the difference. You absolutely need a bundt pan for this recipe and I suggest nothing smaller than a 10 inch pan. Even if you have a nonstick bundt pan, grease the hell out of it and dust it with flour. This cake needs to stay in the pan until its completely cooled and it will stick if you don't take every precaution. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

I always like to sift my dry ingredients together before I get started. Put the flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda through a sieve and set it aside. Beat the butter and sugar together, add the eggs, buttermilk, vanilla and lavendar and mix it well. I went a little overboard and scraped the seeds out of half a vanilla bean, which went directly into the batter. I love vanilla, what can I say! Once your mixture is blended, add the dry ingredients slowly with the mixer on low just until everything is incorporated.

Pour the batter into your greased and floured bundt pan and bake it for about an hour or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. While the cake is baking, make your butter sauce. Put the sugar, butter, water and vanilla in a small saucepan over medium heat. Of cource, I couldn't just leave this alone either, I added a little lemon zest and lemon juice for a touch of brightness. Don't let this butter sauce boil, keep an eye on it and take it off the heat when it just starts to bubble slightly. While the cake is still hot, use a skewer to poke holes all over the surface and pour that butter sauce all over it, letting is seep into the pan and into the holes you made. A lot of the sauce will sit on top, which is fine. When the cake cools, it adds a pleasant crunch to the whole experience. Let that cake cool completely before you turn it out of the pan. When you turn it out, the sugar crust will be on the bottom. Dust the top with powdered sugar for a professional looking finish.

I served this cake with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and it was an excellent compliment. The cake was moist and springy and lavendar came through nicely and didn't taste too floral. The lemon zest in the topping gave a counterpoint to the lavendar and vanilla. And of course, my coworkers benefited because I brought half the cake to work the next day. This is a good basic recipe to let your imagination run wild. Have fun with it.





Friday, May 20, 2016

Homemade Challah

My first few attempts at baking bread were based on simple recipes that didn’t require a starter or sponge. I started with bread that has a tight and fluffy crumb, a thin and soft crust and can be made in about three hours. These early experiments gave me a feel for the science and rhythm of bread-making. In time I took on more advanced recipes and baked my own baguettes, bagels and sourdough breads. But my favorite soft bread recipe is the one I turn to first when I want fresh bread. It’s eggy, buttery and light and as my father-in-law likes to say “it looks like bread but eats like cake”. It’s challah and this recipe actually comes from "Baking With Julia", the companion book to the PBS series written by Dorie Greenspan
I also consider this braided beauty a touch point to my heritage as a third generation American Jew; it is closely associated with Jewish holidays like Rosh Hashanah. The Sabbath and other holiday meals start with two loaves of bread, a gesture that commemorates the manna from heaven sent by God to sustain the Jewish people in the dessert after their exodus from Egypt.  According to scripture, manna didn't fall on holy days.  But the day before Sabbath or a holiday, a double ration would fall, thus the tradition of the "double loaf" at the holiday table. After my father retired, he took up bread baking as a hobby and became expert at challah. His perfect braided loaves were always the star at the Thanksgiving table and I feel honored to be carrying on that tradition.   

CHALLAH:
1 ½ tbsp. active dry yeast
½ cup warm water (90-110 degrees)
1 cup whole milk
1 stick unsalted butter
1/3 cup sugar
1 tbsp. honey
2 ½ tsp salt
4 large eggs
6 cups bread flour

Before you begin, take the eggs out of the fridge so they come up to room temperature. This bread starts like any other bread recipe by proofing the yeast in the warm water with a pinch of sugar or dollop of honey. I do this directly in the bowl of my stand mixer. Yeast is a live culture, a living organism that needs to be treated with a little care.  You don’t want to get it too hot or too cool and it needs a little sugar to eat as it comes to life. I use my meat thermometer to make sure the water is just the right temperature, between 90 and 110 degrees. It won’t take more than about five minutes for the yeast to bloom. You’ll see it get foamy and rise to the surface of the water. While the yeast is proofing, get your wet ingredients ready. Put the milk and butter into a small saucepan over low heat until the butter melts. Then stir in the sugar, honey and salt and mix until they dissolve. Let the milk mixture cool to about 90 degrees so you don’t kill the yeast, then add it to the yeast along with four large eggs and start mixing. Once the milk and eggs have come together, you can start adding the flour a cup at a time until it is all incorporated.  Usually I will stop the mixer and get my hands in there to make sure all the flour is getting absorbed properly.  When the dough comes together, it’s ready for some vigorous kneading.
Sure, you can knead the dough in your stand mixer.  However, if your mixer doesn’t have enough power, it can overheat if your dough is too stiff.  This dough is relatively soft, but I still enjoy kneading by hand and it’s a great workout! This dough needs about 15 minutes of kneading.  A good kneading technique is to fold the dough onto itself, turn it slightly and using the heel of your hand press down and stretch the dough out in front of you.  If it starts to stick to your work surface, sprinkle a little flour on it and keep going. As you knead the dough, you’ll feel the texture change from somewhat stiff and lumpy to soft and smooth. It will be done when it has a perfectly smooth and light texture and when you stick your finger into the dough and the hole doesn’t close up right away.
This recipe makes enough dough for two large loaves and will need a large container for the nest step – the rise. I suggest a kitchen tub or a huge glass bowl.  Oil the inside of your container lightly, just to make sure your dough doesn’t stick, drop the dough in and roll it around a little to get it covered with a thin sheen of oil. You may want to put a little extra oil over the surface of the dough. Now cover the container with plastic wrap, drape a towel over the top and find a warm spot for your dough to rise.  Give it about ninety minutes to rise, allowing it to double in volume, then reach into the container and just move the dough around a bit to deflate it. Cover it again and let is rise for another 45 minutes and it will double in size again. The multiple rise technique allows the yeast to create lots of air bubbles in the dough, resulting in the classic fluffy, airy texture that is the hallmark of great challah. After the second rise, turn the dough out onto your floured work surface and shape the dough.  
Cut the dough in half with a bench scraper.  Each piece will be divided into thirds and each of those thirds will be stretched into long strands and braided together. Braiding dough is a lot of fun, but is a little challenging to master.  Each piece of dough needs to be as close to the same size as possible so you get an even braid. You can to use a ruler to measure the dough and cut equal pieces. You can use a scale to get each piece the same. I just eyeball it and it do my best. Pat the dough out into an even rectangle and cut each rectangle into thirds. Using your hands, roll each piece of dough against the work surface, stretching from the middle outward toward the ends as you roll. Each strand should be about 16 inches long. Line the three strands on the board in a W shaped pattern and press them all together at one end.  A braid is made by laying each side of the W over the middle. Take the right strand of dough and lay it over the middle strand. Now take the strand on the left and lay it over the middle.  Keep moving in this fashion until you get to the end. Press the ends together and tuck them under.  Move your braided loaves to a baking sheet and set them fairly far apart so they won’t touch while baking. Cover them with a towel and give them their final rise of about 30 minutes and set your oven to 375.

After the final rise, the loaves are puffy and full and ready to be baked. Make an egg wash with one beaten egg and a little bit of water and generously paint the surface of the loaves with the egg wash. This will give the challah its characteristic golden, shiny exterior. At this point, I like to sprinkle the loaves with seeds or coarse salt. Sesame seeds, poppy seeds, even fennel or caraway seeds are lovely or you can just sprinkle some plain kosher salt on there and it’ll be delicious.  After 20 minutes in the oven you’ll see that exposed surfaces of the dough that don’t have egg wash on them.  Give the challah another coat of egg wash and let them bake for another 15 minutes.  To check for doneness, tap the loaf on the bottom with the back of a spoon. If the bread is done, you’ll hear a hollow thump. The crust should be dark brown and shiny. I dare you to let it cool completely before you cut into it, I guarantee you won’t be able to wait that long. I usually let it cool for about 20 minutes and slice a couple pieces off while it’s still warm.  I’ll tell you, a slice of warm challah with a smear of butter is like heaven on earth.  This bread disappears quickly. It’s very difficult to keep it around more than a couple days, so you have to make French toast out of it the following morning before it gets devoured.  Not a fan of French toast? I strongly suggest you change your mind because French toast is one of the best things you can do with challah…..but that’s a recipe for another post. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Handpicked Blueberries

I have friends in Edom, Texas who run Blueberry Hill Farms and they offer people the opportunity to pick their own blueberries and blackberries. I just noticed that they open for picking at the end of May. Nothing tastes quite as perfect as fresh fruit that you pick yourself.  It’s good to get up close and personal to the source of your food and understand how it is grown and harvested. Blueberries are typically in season throughout June, depending on where you live.  Strawberries follow in July. I lived in New England for a number of years and I loved to pick my own strawberries, blueberries and apples. For a fraction of what you’d pay at the grocery store, you can pick as much as you can carry and make pies, jam, apple butter and freeze your berries for future recipes when they’re out of season. The first summer we lived in New Hampshire, we went blueberry picking and I put several large bags of berries in the freezer. In the dead of winter when the snow was so deep we couldn't even open the backdoor, I was making blueberry pancakes that tasted like the middle of summer. It was a glorious thing.
High bush blueberries
After a wonderful summer morning of picking seven pounds of plump, sweet blueberries at a local New Hampshire farm, I ran through recipes in my head like Bubba Blue in Forest Gump. "There's blueberry pie, blueberry buckle, blueberry jam, blueberry muffins, blueberry ice cream......." until my husband Jason gave me a choice between knocking it off or walking home.  If you pick enough berries, you can prepare them in a variety of ways. For long-term storage in the freezer, rinse your berries well and spread them out on sheet pans in a single layer. Put the sheet pans in the freezer for about an hour, then transfer the frozen berries to freezer bags and their juicy ripeness is captured in time. They’ll keep for about 6 months in the freezer.
You can also make fabulous berry jam. This is kind of a production and you’ll need to procure the right supplies, such as jars, lids, a wide mouth funnel and plastic or rubber tongs. You’ll also need a truckload of sugar and pectin, which you can typically find in the spice aisle of the grocery store. I wish I could say that making jam was a challenging task, but all the advice I got when I started doing it myself was the same - follow the directions in the package of pectin and it will come out perfect.  So that's what I do and by god, it’s great! If you decide to make your own jam, here are some of the tips I found helpful.
You absolutely MUST get a wide mouth funnel. I have no idea how anyone makes jam without one. It is an essential kitchen tool for this task as it allows you to drop large amounts of scalding hot, chunky jam into the jars without slopping it everywhere. Seriously, get a wide mouth funnel and you won’t regret the decision. Also, rather than boiling the jars, lids and funnel first, I fill my sink with boiling hot water and submerge everything before I start cooking the jam. Then I can pull out what I need as I go along.  This makes the whole process so much easier.  
Don’t be afraid of the ridiculous amount of sugar called for in the recipe. For six cups of crushed berries, the recipe calls for four cups of sugar. It seems like a vulgar amount of sugar, but the sugar acts as an extra preservative and the jam tastes way too tart if the amount of sugar is cut. A little bit of lemon juice is nice to balance the sweetness and I also add lemon or orange zest for excellent flavor and perfume in the final product. I have also added a very small amount of finely chopped rosemary to the jam, but be very careful when adding any kind of savory herb. A little goes a long way. 
Air is the enemy of canned and jarred foods. The jars need to be sealed tightly when the jam is hot and they need to be submerged in boiling water to finalize the canning process. I seal my jars of jam in the same sink of boiling water where I sterilized the jars. I put a kitchen towel on the bottom of the sink, carefully place the jars of jam in there and pour boiling water over the top until it comes about two inches over the top of the jars. The jars must be submerged in the water for them to seal properly. Every 10 minutes or so, I’ll add more boiling water, just to make sure the water stays hot enough to seal the jars. They need to sit in the water for at least 20 minutes to make sure they are sealed properly. Sometimes you will hear the lids pop and you'll know the seal is air tight. You can also boil the jars of jam the old fashioned way, but make sure they never touch the bottom of the pot. The jam needs to set up for 24 hours and I like to cool mine upside down, just to make sure no air can get in under the lid. If can you push down on the lid and it still has some flexibility, your jam is not sealed. It'll keep in the fridge, but not in the pantry. Best to chill that jam and eat is as soon as possible. 
I also love a good blueberry pie and when it’s made with berries you pick yourself, it tastes all the better. The trick to a nice, firm blueberry pie is to make sure you've added enough thickener to the berries. Flour is the most reliable ingredient, but tapioca or corn starch are good alternatives. For 4 cups of blueberries, I use a heaping half cup of sugar and a quarter cup of flour. As the pie bakes, the flour mixes with the juice of the berries and thickens, creating a pie that sets up firmly and doesn't ooze when you cut into it. Serve this pie with fresh whipped cream or a scoop of vanilla ice cream and you won’t be disappointed.  

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Homegrown Tomatoes

Today is a sad day in the music world – one of my all-time favorite Texas songwriters Guy Clark passed away today at the age of 74. In honor of Guy’s song “Homegrown Tomatoes”, I offer this discussion of the humble love apple. In fact, the tomato is one of the most important food items in American history. Its origins have been traced to South America, specifically to the highlands of Peru and it migrated northward into the rest of the Americas. The word "tomato" comes from an Aztec word "tomatl" which means the swelling fruit. Spanish explorers carried the tomato during their colonization and took it back to Europe in the 1500's. From there is spread like juicy, delicious wildfire throughout the continent as well as the Philippines, Caribbean and across Southeast Asia.
Cherokee Purple, Green Zebra and grape tomatoes
There are about 7500 different varieties of tomatoes, although we only see a small fraction of them in our grocery stores. Many of the most common varieties are hybrids, cross pollinated to create fruit that is disease resistant, hearty, easy to grow, abundant and pleasing to the eye of the consumer. Varieties like beefsteak or plum tomatoes were created specifically for these purposes. But the tomatoes that these hybrids originated from are now some of the most popular varieties available. These heirlooms varieties are not as disease resistant and are bumpy and weird looking, but they are some of the most succulent, luscious tomatoes that will ever pass your lips.
For the last couple of decades, home gardeners and small farmers have breathed new life into heirloom tomatoes with great success. While most commercially raised tomatoes are red, smooth and round, heirlooms present a rainbow of exciting colors, shapes and rich flavors. I have been growing a number of different heirloom varieties and am always surprised by their vast differences in taste and appearance.  
Green Zebras on the vine
Last year I grew these varieties:
Cherokee Purple - As its name suggests, this tomato is reddish purple and its flesh is strikingly dark and rich. Its flavor is sweet and meaty and its perfect cut into wedges and served with flaky salt.
Green Zebra - This small, greenish yellow striped tomato might make you think it isn't ripe, but it is...and it's got fantastic flavor.  It’s sweet and tart and really juicy. This tomato is visually striking and when sliced and presented on a platter will dazzle your guests.
San MarzanoThis is the most famous plum tomato to come out of Italy. They are traditionally grown in the rich volcanic soil at the base of Mount Vesuvius, which gives them a sweet flavor and low acidity and they are coveted for their firm pulp, deep red color, easy to remove skin and low seed count. I used mine for sauce.
This year I am growing:
Mr. Stripey – This beefsteak variety has mostly yellow flesh with red and yellow stripes and is very sweet.  I can’t wait to slice these up for sandwiches.
Pink Brandywine - This dark pink, soft and juicy tomato is one of the most popular heirloom varieties and its rich flavor is just spectacular. You can do anything with it and it's completely delicious.
Golden Jubilee – This one has a golden orange color and is known for a low seed count, making for a very meaty and juicy tomato.
A few important tips: don't EVER put your tomatoes in the refrigerator. This is the cardinal rule of tomatoes. The cold temperature completely kills the flavor. You should always leave your tomatoes sitting in a bowl or vegetable rack on your kitchen counter for optimum flavor. And if your tomatoes are not quite ripe, put them in a paper bag for a day or two and the gasses they release will help them ripen.
Unripe tomatoes ready for pickling
Last year I had seven tomato plants and was picking my own tomatoes well into September. The San Marzano tomatoes got blanched, peeled and frozen in plastic containers, which came out during the winter months for pasta sauce. We ate as many as we could and gave a lot away. Starting in July, I had several bowls of homegrown tomatoes sitting on the counter and we ate tomatoes for breakfast, lunch, dinner and late night snacks. I had so many green ones left at the end of the season that I pickled them and ended up with more than a dozen jars of pickled green tomatoes. This year I have five tomato plants in the ground and I can’t wait to see what they yield. 
In Guy Clark’s song “Homegrown Tomatoes”, he sings “When I die don’t bury me, in a box in a cemetery, out in the garden would be much better, and I could be pushin’ up homegrown tomatoes”. I think this song is a blessing for a good tomato year and I’ll be playing Guy Clark songs in my garden this summer with the hope they inspire my best crop yet.  

Monday, May 16, 2016

Fresh Fruit Tart

I've been doing quite a lot of baking lately and have been fixated on cake. It started with the carrot cake the day I bought my new Kitchen Aid but that was just the tip of the frosted iceberg. The most decadent chocolate cake came next, followed closely by coconut cake with lime curd filling. I've been bringing all these cakes to work with me and my coworkers are delighted, but I'd be lying if I said my husband and I weren't eating them too. Its enough already with the cake! I don't want to stop baking, but I need something light and refreshing for a change of pace. While wandering through the grocery store, I spotted mangoes on sale and was inspired to make a fruit tart. 

I've never made a tart before. I've eaten plenty of them, seen them being made on my favorite cooking shows and I even have a tart pan in my kitchen. This seemed like as good a time as any to whip one of these bad boys up. I did a little research and settled on a fresh fruit tart with pastry cream filling on which to rest an assortment of sliced mangoes, apricots and strawberries. I started with the pastry cream and as usual, I put my own twist on this classic preparation by adding orange zest.

PASTRY CREAM:
1 cup whole milk 
2 tbsp sugar
3 large egg yolks
2 tbsp corn starch
1 vanilla bean
1 tbsp orange zest

In a small saucepan over low heat, I gently heated the milk with the split vanilla bean and orange zest. Make sure when you split the vanilla bean you scrape out all the delicious little black vanilla seeds and add them to the milk. This is where all that delicious vanilla flavor comes from. In a medium bowl, I whisked the egg yolks, sugar and corn starch together to form a thick paste. When the milk was just beginning to bubble, I took it off the heat and added a half cup to the yolk mixture while whisking. This tempers the eggs so they don't curdle when you cook the custard. I poured the yolk mixture into the pot with the rest of the milk and put it back over medium heat. I whisked it vigorously as it came to the boil and thickened. The pastry cream is done when it becomes very thick and you can see the bottom of the pot when you run your spoon through it. This pastry cream looked particularly beautiful with the little black specks of vanilla bean and orange zest....and it tasted divine! I put it through a strainer, just to make sure it was perfectly smooth, covered the surface with plastic wrap, put it in the fridge to chill and licked every last bit off the spatula.

Next came the tart shell. I found a number of different recipes for tart and pie dough, but I wanted something that would add a nice crunch to the finished tart. The recipe I went with was so simple and called for sugar, butter, flour and a pinch of salt, but of course I had to put my own twist on it by adding chopped walnuts. 

TART SHELL:
3 tbsp sugar
1/4 cup finely chopped walnuts
1 stick melted butter
1 1/4 cup flour
pinch of salt

I put the sugar, salt and chopped walnuts in a bowl and mixed them together, then mixed in the melted butter. Finally, I added the flour and mixed this all together, Its a very wet and sticky dough, but is easy to work with. I pressed the dough into my tart shell and put it in the fridge to chill for 30 minutes. After it was chilled, I put it into a 350 oven and baked it until it was golden brown, which took about 25 minutes. The tart shell needs to cool completely before it can be removed from the tart ring and filled. It was a chilly day, so I set my tart shell outside for about an hour to cool. 

You can use any fruit you like for this recipe, as long as it’s ripe and sweet. I had the aforementioned mangoes, fresh apricots, strawberries and a few stray blueberries in the fridge. I put the pastry cream in the shell and spread it out to an even layer, then layered the slices of fruit on top in a pretty pattern. I put the finished tart in the fridge for a couple hours to set up. And how did it taste? WOW!! The tart shell was super crunchy and the nuts gave it wonderful texture. The vanilla orange pastry cream was a little loose and next time I will add a touch more corn starch, but it complimented the fruit flavors nicely. But the star of this show is definitely the fruit. The mangoes and apricots were ripe and juicy and this was the perfect canvas to showcase their beauty. I highly recommend this recipe for a refreshing summer dessert. 




Friday, May 13, 2016

Fresh Salsa

Spring is upon us and I'm starting to see locally grown hothouse tomatoes show up in the grocery stores. When the temperatures rise, my taste buds begin to yearn for cold, crisp flavors and one of my favorite summer snacks is an ice cold bowl of fresh salsa. To me, fresh salsa and frozen margaritas exemplify the taste of summer. Sure, you can just pop open a jar of Pace picante sauce and it'll taste fine, but when fresh tomatoes are abundant and inexpensive, why not make it yourself?  

There is no shortage of salsa recipes out there and I've tried many variations. I've tried roasting, par-boiling and grilling the veggies, mixing some raw with the cooked ones and adding fruit like peaches or pineapple. I've tried all kinds of combinations of tomatoes, tomatillos, peppers, onions, fruits and spices. But I keep coming back to a recipe that my best friend Jenny first turned me on to decades ago. This is a fresh salsa, nothing is roasted or cooked in any way and I love that bright, fresh, summery flavor.

The three main ingredients are tomatoes, onion and peppers. Most of the tricks that make this salsa great I picked up from Jenny. According to her, this salsa is best when the tomatoes are firm and slightly less ripe than if you were using them for a salad or sandwich. Save the perfect, ripe tomatoes for BLT's and use the less perfect or inexpensive ones for salsa. The other important tip she passed along is to strain everything of its excess water before combining the ingredients. This makes for a much less diluted and much more flavorful salsa.


FRESH SALSA:

6 slightly under-ripe medium sized tomatoes
1/2 a medium sized white onion
1 Poblano or Anaheim chili pepper
1-2 jalapenos, depending on your taste
1 large lime
Cumin, cayenne, chili powder, salt and pepper to taste

The strength and heat of this salsa is dependent on how spicy the chilies are. To determine how much to use, cut the top off one of the jalapenos and touch the tip of your tongue to the cut side of the top of the pepper. Most of the heat of the pepper is carried in the white, soft ribs inside. If your eyes water and you begin to choke, you can remove the seeds and ribs from the jalapeno and just use half. Poblano peppers can also be quite hot, so test that one too. I like my salsa to have a kick, but I don't want it to be so hot that my lips go numb after two bites. It's also important to remember that the spice level will be muted once the salsa has chilled. Again, it all depends on your personal taste. 

Cut the onion and chilies into large pieces and put them into the food processor with the metal chopping blade. Blend the onions and chilies in the food processor until they are finely chopped, but not pulverized. Some texture is important and I like to see pieces of onion and pepper in the salsa. Scoop this mixture into a strainer, sprinkle a little salt on it and let it drain over the sink. The salt will help pull moisture out of the onion. Press on the onion and pepper mixture with a spatula to squeeze out the excess juices and when no more juice comes out, put the mixture into a large bowl. Another great trick Jenny showed me is to grate the tomatoes rather than chopping them. This gives the salsa more of a chunky texture. Take the metal blade out of your food processor and use the grating attachment to process the tomatoes. Once they're grated, you'll see how much water is in those tomatoes. Dump the grated tomatoes into the strainer and stir them vigorously to make sure you get most of the water out. The more water you can extract from the tomatoes, the less diluted your salsa will be. When you get them sufficiently drained, add them to the bowl with the onions and peppers.

Now comes the fun part, spicing and flavoring. I like my salsa on the tart side, so I squeeze the entire lime into it. If you like your salsa less tart, use half the lime. Add the cumin, cayenne, chili powder, salt and pepper to taste. Some people really like cilantro in their salsa, but this is another ingredient that will change the flavor over time. The longer it sits, the sweeter the cilantro becomes. I have found that adding cilantro to the salsa at this stage makes for a sweet salsa within 24 hours. Also, my husband doesn't like it and says it tastes like soap to him. I recommend saving the cilantro for garnish. Cover the finished salsa and stick it in the fridge. It gets better with time, but you can enjoy an ice cold bowl of salsa after a few hours in the fridge. Try this recipe with a frozen margarita on a hot summer day and I guarantee you won't be disappointed.  

Thursday, May 12, 2016

DIY Granola

I have confession to make. I have a breakfast issue. This is not a recent development; I never really liked to eat breakfast before school. I think this bothered my mom quite a bit, which is probably why I remember consuming so much Instant Breakfast as a kid. I love to go out for breakfast, I love breakfast foods, I love cooking a big breakfast on a Sunday morning, but my weekday routine does not include a healthy or well-balanced breakfast.  I know, I know, it’s the most important meal of the day and helps jump start your metabolism, blah, blah, blah. When I do get a decent breakfast, I find I'm more productive in the morning and I don't overindulge at lunch. Typically, I eat a piece of toast in the car on the way to work, which is only slightly better than eating a fatty or calorie laden fast food breakfast sandwich. 

I have convinced myself that if I just found something I really love to eat in the morning that does not require me to cook or dirty a bunch of dishes, it might help change my habits. So when I tried adding some granola to a Fage 0% side-cup Greek yogurt, I knew I'd hit the jackpot. The problem is that most commercially made granola is heavily processed, loaded with sugar and expensive as hell.  When I priced the ingredients, I discovered that I could make my own granola for a fraction of the cost, which would also allow me to control the sugar and make it exactly the way I like it. Yes, there is sugar in granola. That's why it tastes good. But this recipe has a much smaller amount per serving than you'd find in store bought granola and you can easily use things like Agave nectar or sugar substitutes if you want. I found a recipe online and adjusted it according to my own taste.  The oats, sweetener and oil are the key ingredients; everything else is up to your personal taste. You can use any kind of nuts, any kind of spices and you can even add things like flax seed or wheat germ. This recipe makes a lot of granola, but it stores brilliantly and lasts a long time.

FRUIT AND NUT GRANOLA
7 cups of rolled oats - thick cut is best and I like Red Mill for this recipe
1/3 cup brown sugar, packed
1/3 cup of honey, maple syrup or Agave nectar or a combination of any or all of them
1/2 cup canola or vegetable oil
1 cup of almonds (slivered, sliced or whole. I like mine whole) 
1 cup of chopped walnuts or pecans
1 tbsp of vanilla
1 tbsp of cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
The zest of one orange, grated (optional)
1 1/2 cups of raisins, dried cranberries or dried cherries, or a combination of any dried fruit you like

This recipe is so easy to make. First, cover two baking sheets with foil and spray them liberally with cooking spray. Dump the oats into a big bowl and pour the oil over them. Toss them just a bit to coat the oats in the oil. Then dump everything else except the dried fruit into the bowl and mix well. Divide the granola between the two baking sheets in even layers and place them in the oven. Your granola will take an hour and a half to toast properly, but you will need to stir it up every 15 minutes or so to make sure its cooking evenly. It might take less time depending on your oven, so keep an eye on it. The finished granola should be brown and crispy, but not burned or black. The nuts are the best indicator. If they look like they're getting too dark or taste burned or bitter, take the granola out and it will be done. While the granola is still warm, sprinkle the dried fruit over the top and gently toss it in. Let the granola cool completely before putting it in airtight containers for storage. It should last for a couple of months. 

You can put anything you like in this granola. You can add shredded coconut before you bake it for a nice toasted coconut flavor. You can add banana chips and dried pineapple in place of raisins for a tropical twist. You can even add a drop or two of almond extract for a nuttier flavor. I keep a container of granola on my desk for a healthy afternoon snack and sometimes I even sprinkle it on a bowl of vanilla ice cream. You can also put some in a decorative jar for a nice hostess or holiday gift. This granola is just a great thing to have around the house. Give it a try.