Egg-cellent Egg Salad

Even though we’re all well past egg-hunting stage in my family, I still enjoy dying eggs for the occasion. The un-hunted egg is a prime candidate for egg salad sandwiches in the days after the holiday.

First, a tip for easy-peel eggs.

After the eggs have boiled (10 minutes is generally sufficient for a solid, yet tender, yolk) and you’ve drained off the boiling water, shake the eggs around in the pan enough to cause small cracks to appear. Then, as you cover the eggs with cold water to speed the cooling, water will seep in between the shells and the whites, making it easier to peel, later on.

I’ve also read that older eggs peel more easily than fresher ones.

Find my recent egg salad recipe over at Nibbles ‘n Bites.

the Secret to a Great Cheesecake

Anyone can make a cheesecake if they just follow a recipe. Why, then, do some come out different (better) than others? Is it a super-secret recipe that makes the difference, or is it more?

Todd requested a cheesecake for his birthday this past Friday and I was surprised that I hadn’t shared my secrets for perfect cheesecake on the blog, yet. You might think it’s the recipe, but there’s nothing secret about it.

Basic Cheesecake

2 lb cream cheese
.5 c heavy cream
1.5 c sugar
4 eggs, lightly beaten
1 Tbsp vanilla

See? Pretty simple stuff.

So, if it’s not the recipe, what is it?

The 3 Commandments of Cheesecake

It all comes down to HOW you make the cheesecake. The rest is just details.

Thou shalt whip the cream cheese smooth before adding any other ingredients.

A stand mixer makes this easy because you can crank it up and let it run without tiring your arms. If you’re short of time or in a very cold kitchen, microwaving the cream cheese for 30 seconds at a time until it becomes more pliable will not harm the finished cake. Just make sure it doesn’t start to dry out.

Thou shalt never turn the mixer past low when adding other ingredients.

When the cream cheese is smooth, your beating days are through. Notice that every other ingredient is smooth in it’s own way? All you have to do is gently incorporate them, not beat them into submission.

Thou shalt never scrape the bowl.

Once that first ingredient is added there is absolutely no way to beat any future lumps out of the mixture. If you were to scrape down the sides of the bowl mid-recipe you’d be adding clumps, ruining the texture of your cheesecake. The mixture that touches the sides cools off, congeals, clumps. You do not want this in your cheesecake.

Even when you go to pour the batter into the prepared pan, do not scrape the sides of the bowl. Just let what is loose flow in and leave the rest. Don’t worry, it won’t go to waste. Grab a spoon and nosh on the batter on the sides. After all, it’s gonna be the next day before you get to eat the cheesecake, might as well get something out of it now!

The Water Bath

There’s ongoing debate on whether a water bath is truly necessary for a good cheesecake. I’ve done it both with and without and it depends more on your oven than anything else. If you know you have an uneven oven (it happens to the best of us), use a water bath and make sure to keep an eye on the water level. The cheesecake takes about 2 hours to bake (at 325F) and the water level will drop over that time. Theoretically a water bath will prevent the top crust from cracking, but it’s not 100% fool-proof and it’s not something I worry about as much as I worry about the right texture overall.

Finishing Touches

Remember when I said the rest was just details? Well, they can be pretty yummy details.

I seldom use a graham cracker crust. Instead, I prefer crushed cookies that better compliment the flavor of the cake. Our favorite variety uses crushed Oreos as a base, whole cookies ringing the sides (takes about 13 to circle my springform pan, which makes serving size easy to figure) and a few more crumbled ones stirred into the batter. I’ve used lemon cookies to go with blueberry cheesecakes and chocolate wafer cookies as the crust for my dark chocolate cherry varieties. I’ve even made a baklava cheesecake with the nut-and-phyllo layered base and a honey-syrup added to the batter.

Cheesecake is a treat. The basic ingredients are simple, the wait while it bakes and cools is considerable (including the overnight chill), the results should be absolutely sinful. Don’t let any lumps come between you and your indulgence!00

Creating Recipes

You know how it is: you’re in the kitchen trying to come up with something for dinner so you just start tossing things together. Or, maybe, you’re doing a little improv on an otherwise basic recipe. Either way, dinner turns out very yummy and you’re left wondering: now, how did I do that?

Of course, in my case, I’m working on the cookbook so I have to be able to tell others the recipe. But whether you’re situation finds you wanting to write down a family recipe that’s made by memory or follow your own ad libbing, the following tips will help you get to the same destination: a recipe that can be made more than once with the same results! It all comes down to two main parts: Measurements and Records.

Measurements

A pinch of this, a dash of that, but is it your pinch or my pinch? A finger and a thumb or a full-fisted affair? While some vagaries of cooking (the inevitable ’til it’s done’ comes to mind) really are variable due to a number of conditions, if we just pause long enough to measure each thing before adding it to the pot it makes the written account so much easier to follow.

How to do it? First, keep a couple sets of measuring cups and spoons out as you create. One set of each for wet and dry ingredients and a flour sack towel or the like for wiping spoons out from one spice to the next. If you have them out, you’re more likely to use them. Then scoop or pour everything into one of these tools, first, rather than directly into your cooking vessel of choice.

For bigger items (meats, large quantities of flour, etc.) having a digital scale on the counter is a real time saver. Choose one that does both grams as well as pounds and ounces then just keep a stack of wax paper on hand to put between the food and the scale and you’re in business. You can also weigh as you go if you’ve got a tare-function on your scale (place an empty bowl or dish on the scale and then press the required button–it’ll zero-out the weight so that all you’re measuring is the contents and not the vessel); just note the weight change after each addition and you’ll be able to replicate your results even when the original was done completely by eye.

Records

Measuring is one thing, but unless you have some way to retrieve that information, it’s not going to do you much good. As a friend used to say: the weakest ink is better than the faintest memory. The obvious solution is to keep pen and paper at hand and stop between each step to write everything down.

As simple as this is, it can also wreck that creative flow you get into while playing culinary scientist on the way to a new discovery. Instead, recruit a friend or family member into taking dictation. This is a great position for kids who want to help in the kitchen but may not be quite ready to man (or woman) the range on their own. Finally, if you fly solo at the stove, try a digital voice recorder to take notes hands-free that you can transcribe after the dishes are washed. This is also good for catching any kitchen epiphanies you might have along the way.

So, go forth, create and then replicate your success again and again. Or, if it’s not so much in the success department, at least you’ll know exactly what you did and you can figure out where you went astray.

Fabulous Fennel

Fennel is one of those tastes that most people either love or hate. If you don’t like black licorice or other anise-flavored foods, straight-up fennel might not be for you, but there’s more than one way to eat this bulb.

Recently we spied some in our local grocery store and decided we’d work it in to the week’s menu at some point. Almost anything you can do with celery works well with anise so I thought wrapping it in bacon and braising it (as I recalled from a surprisingly delish dish during the classical French module at school) might be a nice way to go.

Braised Fennel
(serves 4)

2 medium fennel bulbs
8 strips bacon
Salt and pepper to taste
Olive oil
Vegetable stock

Trim away the very bottom of the fennel bulb, the green, ferny leaves and cut each bulb in half. Wash each bulb thoroughly but being careful not to dislodge any of the layers. Salt and pepper the fennel and wrap each half in 2 strips of bacon, covering as much of the vegetable as possible.

Pour a bit of olive oil in the bottom of a small clay roaster or casserole dish and arrange the bacon-wrapped fennel inside. Pour in enough vegetable stock to make about a half-inch pool of broth around the bulbs and place in a 375-degree oven, covered, for 30 minutes.

Remove the cover and allow the fennel to continue to cook until a knife easily pierces up and the bacon has crisped.

We had a package of turkey bacon in the fridge, so used it instead of pork bacon, and if you also opt for this substitution, sprinkle a little olive oil on top of the wrapped fennel as well to keep the turkey bacon from drying out. The combination of bacon and fennel reminded Todd, who couldn’t recall ever having it before, of sausage and that makes sense: fennel seeds can often be found in bulk Italian sausage, especially the kinds used on meaty pizzas.

As we ate, though, we brainstormed some other ways to use fennel. Here’s our top 3 ideas, what other ones can you think of or have tried?

  • Pureed with leeks and potatoes, for a different type of mashed side-dish.
  • Roasted until nicely caramelized along with parsnips, rutabagas, onions and turnips.
  • Skewered with chunks of lamb as a kebab, brushed with a sweet and spicy sauce and grilled.

Comfort Food

Comfort foods can come in many forms: favorite recipes from childhood, treats remembered for special occasions or just starch-, fat- or sugar-laden dishes that offer a chemical reaction we associate with happiness as well as satiety. Usually considered a guilty pleasure or indulgence, I have a hard time seeing all comfort food as all bad and, I think, as long as it’s not an everyday occurrence or in massive quantities, a little comfort can go a long way.

One of the reasons this came to mind (aside from the impending holidays and increasingly cooler weather, both of which set my taste buds craving those sorts of foods) is the birthday meal I prepared for a friend last winter and is mentioned in this week’s comics. It’s pretty simple to prepare and not particularly unhealthy, so I thought I’d share.

Gnocchi Casserole with Pesto, Sausage and Broccoli

1 lb Gnocchi
Salted water
1 lb Turkey sausage, sliced
Olive oil
1 lb Broccoli, steamed
1/2 c Prepared pesto
Non-stick spray
1/2 c Parmesan cheese, shredded

Boil gnocchi in enough salted water to cover until tender. Simultaneously, saute sliced sausage in a bit of olive oil until the edges crisp. Drain pasta and combine with sausage and broccoli. Whisk together the pesto and enough olive oil to thin it out enough to lightly coat all of the other ingredients.

Prepare a 9×12 baking dish with non-stick spray (I prefer the olive oil variety, but any will do). Toss the thinned pesto with the gnocchi, sausage and broccoli and pour all into the prepared dish. Top with cheese and place in a 350-degree for 15-20 minutes.

Now, of course, this can be done up til the baking and put in the fridge until later. Just up the baking time to 30 minutes or more, or as long as it takes to bring everything up to a nice and toasty 165 degrees. Cover with foil if it seems to be drying out or browning a little too much. You can also make your own gnocchi if you’re so moved, but I remember getting the gnocchi and pesto at World Market (CostPlus in some areas) and both being very high quality.

How much you thin the pesto is up to personal preference–I tend to think a little goes a long way–and how thick the pesto is to begin with. Chances are you’ll have pesto left over. To preserve the rest of the pesto until the next use, add a layer of olive oil to the jar and store in the fridge. This will prevent the pesto from drying out while in cold storage.

Apple Dumplings

I’ve been thinking a lot about apples, lately, and with the weather cooling off, the cinnamon brooms showing up in the supermarkets and the idea that the holidays are right around the corner, I think of Mom making Apple Dumplings. This is her recipe, updated a little by me. They are especially good on cool Fall and Winter nights and actually travel fairly well for pot-lucks.

Apple Dumplings
serves 4*

1 sheet Puff Pastry Dough, thawed
4 medium apples, peeled and cored*
Cinnamon
Brown Sugar
4 Tbsp unsalted butter
Dried fruit (raisins, cherries, cranberries or blueberries all would go well)
1 beaten egg
White sugar

Roll out the puff pastry dough just a little bit to curb some of it’s puff tendencies (we want the flaky flavor, not necessarily the poofiness) and cut into quarters. [* If you are using very small apples you can actually get 6 dumplings out of one sheet.] Place an apple in the center of each sheet and sprinkle with cinnamon. Spoon some of the brown sugar (how much you use it up to you) into the hollows of the apples, top with a piece of butter and then the dried fruit.

Bring the corners of the puff pastry square up and around the top of the apple, pinching the corners together. Don’t worry too much about sealing up all the edges, it’s actually quite pretty to leave the little openings that the folded sides create. Place in a buttered baking dish and brush with the beaten egg mixed with a little water. Sprinkle with the white sugar and bake for 30 minutes at 375 degrees Fahrenheit or until the apples are tender, covering with foil if the pastry begins to brown too fast.

Serve warm with ice cream, freshly whipped cream or just plain heavy cream drizzled over them.

Blueberry Dumplings

It’s (technically) Fall now, and that means various group pot-lucks or company get-togethers will be starting, soon. Maybe it’s school fundraisers or church socials, but at some point you’re going to be asked or expected to bring something yummy to share somewhere. Even if it’s not expected, this is a quickly put-together dish that will delight your office, your civic group or just your family one nip-in-the-air morning.

Blueberry Dumplings
serves 16 (or less–depends on how hungry they are!)

1 c boiling water
1 c brown sugar
2 sticks (8 oz) unsalted butter, divided
2 cans crescent roll dough (the uncut sheets)
1/2 c granulated sugar
nutmeg
1 can blueberry pie filling
1 pint fresh blueberries (or 1 pkg frozen if not in season)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Melt one of the sticks of butter and then combine it with the boiling water and brown sugar in the bottom of a 9×13-inch baking dish.

Carefully spread out the crescent roll dough on a baking mat or lightly floured surface and sprinkle with the sugar and nutmeg. Spread half a can of pie filling and half the fresh or frozen blueberries onto each can of crescent dough, leaving about an inch clear on both of the long sides. Dot the top of the filling with bits of butter and then roll up the dough, jellyroll-style, sealing the roll with the inch of filling-free dough.

Slice the rolls into 1-inch sections and place each slice, cut side up, in the pan with the water-butter-sugar mixture.

Bake for 45 minutes to an hour, or until the tops of the dumplings are golden brown.

The sugar mixture in the bottom of the pan makes a delicious sauce for the rolled dumplings. While these are perfectly fine served at room temperature or even cold, they are best when piping hot, served with hot coffee or ice-cold milk.

I made these for a friend’s party, recently (it was a morning get-together) and they were a big hit with everyone who tried them.

Magazine Mash-Up

Okay, everyone, show of hands: how many subscribe to cooking magazines? Bonus round: how many times have you actually used a recipe from said magazines?

Uh huh, exactly what I thought. (Don’t worry, I’m just as guilty as the rest of you.)

It doesn’t seem to matter what I’m interested in, a “collector” streak always seems to run right through it. In my heyday of culinary collection, I probably subscribed to half a dozen food-related magazines (at least!) and, while I did read them, and store them, and flip through them occasionally, I probably only used half a dozen recipes total (mostly from my favorite: Cooking Light).

Since that time I’ve moved house more than once and in one of the pre-move purges I forced myself to toss the years of back issues that took up so much space. Then I went several years without buying or subscribing to a single cooking magazine–I know, however did I manage?–until last Fall, when Food Network announced they were coming out with their own magazine. Then I found Imbibe… here we go again!

So now I’m back to subscribing, but still trying to keep things under control. Also, I’d like to actually _use_ the magazines’ content more than I have in the past. It doesn’t help that I also use a menu service (Saving Dinner’s Menu Mailer) which includes dinner recipes, suggested side dishes and an itemized, categorized shopping list for all of it each week–I seldom actually plan a meal these days. Which is why I was so proud of myself a week or so ago when corn on the cob was the suggested side dish one night. I remembered seeing a mention of “Charm City Corn” in the last Food Network Magazine, dug out the issue that was hiding on the bedside table, and was able to dress up the side dish a little bit.

Instead of relying just on my own memory, I’m trying to come up with ways to making using the information in those pages easier. Here are what I’ve come up with so far:

  • A tear-file of possible favorites, kept in an accordion file or binder, organized by primary ingredient.
  • Recipe cards kept in a file, maybe hand-copying the recipes will make their existence stick in my memory better.
  • Scanning interesting recipes into my computer with a spreadsheet to cross reference ingredients (that might be a lot of work, though).
  • Sticky flags (color-coordinated?) in the magazine itself.
  • Planning a magazine-based dinner once a week in addition to the planned menus I get from Saving Dinner.

Okay, those last two seem the easiest to implement. The others… might be better for long-term storage and make me wish for one of those counter-top recipe gadgets.