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Busy-Day Cake

May 26, 2009

Busy day cake 2-pola

As I become more comfortable in the kitchen, I find myself increasingly enchanted by Southern cookery. Although I was fed well growing up (thanks mother), our meals were something one might consider “new-Southern”, a.k.a “casserole cooking.” Canned cream of mushroom was never a pantry’s reach away, alongside the infamous blue box, jarred tomato sauce and Stouffer’s lasagna. Our weekly dinner menu was usually a rotation of meatloaf, spaghetti, shepherd’s pie and beef stroganoff; all delicious things that will always remain in my repertoire. But not by any means Southern. 

I am however, deeply influenced by both my grandmothers’ cooking. Nanna Dozier was often found whipping up chicken and dumplings from scratch, while Nanna Hagler always had a pot of  spicy gumbo waiting patiently on the stovetop for hungry grandchildren to come gobble it down. It is these memories that nudge me to not only revive these recipes from the past, but to pass them along to future generations.

As I have begun to study Southern cuisine more diligently,  I have discovered the wonderful works of Edna Lewis, better known as the Grande Dame of Southern cooking. Her writings have been essential to the preservation of an almost lost art. And although I am not the first person to discover her beautifully written recipes, I know later is better than never. 

When I first read the words “Busy-Day Cake” in A Taste of Country Cooking, I was immediately spell-bound. How incredible is the idea of always having a freshly baked cake waiting in the kitchen on-the-ready, luring in unsuspecting passerby’s with the lingering aroma of spicy-sweet nutmeg. It is a tradition I will now strive for in my own house, hopefully not an impossibility but rather an attainable goal.

This cake honors its name — not too sweet and yielding a thick, almost cornbread-like crumb. Use the freshest ingredients available to you, as Edna would have. And put away the stand mixer for once and get that wooden spoon moving. The cake will taste better that way, as things made with love have tendency to do. 

Busy day cake pola 3

BUSY-DAY CAKE

Source: Adapted from A Taste of Country Cooking

  • 8 tablespoons butter (1 stick), at room temperature
  • 1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1/2 cup whole milk

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Butter and flour a 10-inch square and 2-inch deep cake pan or 9-inch springform pan, set aside. (I used an 8-inch round cake pan).

With a large wooden spoon, beat the butter and sugar in the bowl until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating to incorporate after each addition.

In a large bowl, blend the butter and sugar by hand until it is light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one by one, beating the batter with a wooden spoon after each addition. Stir in the vanilla.

In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, salt and nutmeg. Alternate adding the flour mixture and the milk, starting with 1/2 cup of flour and 1/3 of the milk, and ending with the remaining flour. Stir well after each addition.

Spoon the batter into the cake pan, and smooth the top with a spatula. Bake about 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the cake comes out clean. No need to ice, just serve warm with a glass of cold milk or freshly whipped cream.

Tacos con Carnitas

May 24, 2009

Carnita 1

I live in the land of tacos.  From Twittering taco trucks to family owned taquerias tucked into every seedy strip-mall from Venice to East L.A., SoCal is THE place to be if you want authentic Mexican food (well, besides Mexico). Growing up in Alabama, I wouldn’t have known authentic Mexican if it hit me with a stick. I thought Mexican food was either tacos, burritos or fajitas. Oh, and white queso dip. Thank God I have seen the light. These days I have a tough time choosing from tamales, sopitos, chilaquiles and enchiladas. Don’t even get me started on the number of salsas, moles and hot sauces to pick from. It’s enough to drive this girl to drinking. Margaritas that is. But one thing is for sure, when it comes to choosing tacos, Carnitas always win. What’s not to love about slow-roasted, melt-in-your-mouth pieces of pulled pork?

Despite my access to all these delicious authentic Mexican food options, sometimes this girl just likes to do things herself.  I had Friday off (4 day weekend, whoot), so I decided to spend my day in the kitchen making my very own authentic Carnitas.  They are actually quite simple to make, they just require a little bit of patience. Feel free to drink a 6 pack of Dos Equis while you wait. I found this makes the time pass much more quickly.

There is quite a bit of dispute as to the best way to make Carnitas, but I found this recipe from Farmstead, Inc. to be exemplary. After I pulled them from the oven, I spread the pork out over a baking sheet and broiled it for about 10 minutes. This gave the meat an amazing crunch to counter-balance the tenderness. Next time I might add a little liquid smoke to give it that fresh-off-the-grill flavor (I’m from Alabama … I can’t resist.) Oh yeah, this was even more incredible the next day, so I recommend making it ahead if you are serving it at a party.

Carnita 2

TACOS CON CARNITAS

Adapted from: Farmstead, Inc. via The Boston Globe

  • 1 small Spanish onion (skin intact), quartered
  • 2 cloves garlic, halved
  • 2 Roma tomatos, halved
  • 1 jalapeno pepper, halved (seeds intact)
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1/3 cup lemon or lime juice
  • 5 sprigs fresh cilantro, leaves removed
  • 1 tablespoon chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and black pepper, to taste
  • 2 ½ pounds pork butt
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar

Set the oven at 400 degrees.

In large bowl, combine the onion, garlic, tomato, jalapeno, and vegetable oil. Toss well and spread evenly on a rimmed baking sheet. Roast the mixture for 15 minutes or until the onions and jalapenos are softened. Set aside to cool.

In a blender, combine the vegetables, lemon or lime juice, cilantro leaves, chili powder, and cumin. Puree the mixture. With the motor running, slowly drizzle in the olive oil. Add salt and pepper.

Thoroughly massage the pork butt with the vegetable sauce. Place it in gallon-sized zipper-lock bag. Pour remaining sauce over the pork. Refrigerate 8 hours or overnight, turning the bag twice. I marinated it for about 1 hour and it tasted great to me. I can only imagine how good it is if you marinate it overnight.

Set the oven at 300 degrees.

In a flameproof casserole, combine the pork and marinade. Add stock and bring to a boil. Cover and transfer to the oven. Cook the pork for 4 hours or until it shreds easily with fork. Remove meat from the pan and set aside until cool enough to handle. Strain the sauce through a fine-mesh strainer into a bowl.

Using 2 forks or your hands, finely shred the pork. Transfer it to a bowl. Slowly add enough of the sauce to the pork to make a thick stew-like consistency. Stir in the brown sugar. Taste for seasoning and add more salt and black pepper, if you like. I also added a good glug of hot sauce here.  I won’t judge if you do it, too.

Spread pork over cookie sheet. Broil for approximately 10 minutes or until golden brown and crispy.

 To serve: steam tortillas in microwave or wrap in foil and heat under the broiler. Serve with sides of diced tomatoes, crumbled queso fresco, minced shallots and fresh sprigs of cilantro. Drizzle with lime juice and enjoy! YIELDS 8 servings

Cookie Cake 3Walter’s big 2-7 came and went with plenty of to-do. I’m a HUGE fan of birthdays — both other people’s and my own — and a firm believer in a multi-day celebration (I’ve been known to celebrate a little thing called Nealey-gras…and it’s awwwsome).

Thus the festivities began last Tuesday with an early surprise of Lakers vs. Rockets playoff tickets at Staples Center. Yes, I know I am the most amazing girlfriend ever. We braved 5:00 traffic on the I-10 in order to hit up the famous Philippe’s beforehand for some award-winning French Dips. We ate three. Not each, but trust me on this, three is a lot, even for us. Probably too much, but you only live once, right? If the night had ended there my life would have been complete. But lucky for us it didn’t (the night, not my life). The game was amazing despite our nose bleed seats, and the Lakers won by 40 points. Maybe Walt and I are their lucky charms? Doubt it.

Cookie Cake 2

On Saturday, our friend Garrett and I planned a “Walter hates his birthday” surprise party, since Walter well, hates his birthday. The only requirement was to come ready to pester him with high-fives and fist-pumps, and we’d supply the rest. The rest being a fully stocked liquor bar and tasty snacks made by yours truly. I spent the day trying my hardest not to spill the secret (this was tough, so very tough) and then mysteriously disappeared about an hour before “call time” to pull all of the details together at Garrett’s.  In just one hour I pulled together Dixie Caviar, Pesto Pasta Salad, Magic Bars, and Jack’s to-die-for Coca Cola burgers, while Garrett decorated with cheesy birthday decor (you know, balloons, hats, streamers…the works). We lured him to Garrett’s with some sort of fib about watching the new fall “pilots” and grilling a Tenderloin. At the time it seemed to work, but in the end I’m not sure if Walt was actually surprised. At least he did a good job of making us feel like we had him fooled. Good boy.

Cookie Cake 4

On Monday (the day before the big day), I set out to find a perfect cake recipe, since Walt had requested a Chocolate Chip Cookie Cake for the big day. Back South we grew up with cookie cakes from The Great American Cookie Co., but these days only homemade would do.  I was a little timid in the kitchen due to the fact that I have been having a tough time with Chocolate Chip Cookies lately, but I brushed my nerves aside and set on my way. The dough was delicious (isn’t it always?)…but the cake? Well…it was even MORE delicious. It was chewy and sweet and moist and just as it should be. I topped it with Duncan Hines Classic Chocolate Frosting, since it is most like the Cookie Co. icing. I was in such a hurry to give Walt his cake that I raced through the letters — which is probably why they look so wild. Walt said he wouldn’t have it any other way. Next year I’ll try to slow down.

Cookie Cake 5

Yesterday was Walt’s actual birthday (FINALLY), and we celebrated by going to see The Allman Brothers at the Greek Theater. We gobbled down leftover cookie cake on the way there, chased down with Budlight in the can. Perfection. The show was amazing, but by the end of the night I was ready for sweet, sweet sleep. Turns out, birthday weeks are exhausting. But that doesn’t mean I’m not counting down until next year. Only 364 days to go. 

CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIE CAKE

Source: Recipezaar

  • 1 cup butter
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2/3 cup brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 cups flour plus 4 tablespoons flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Beat butter and sugars together. Add eggs and vanilla.

Mix flour, salt, baking soda, and cream of tartar in a separate bowl. Slowly add dry ingredients to the batter and mix until well blended. Stir in chocolate chips.

Spread dough into a 15 1/2 inch round pan (I used a 9 x 13 cake pan which worked perfectly). Bake for approx. 25 minutes. Frost, if desired. YIELDS 15 servings. 

On Top of Spaghetti…

May 15, 2009

san-marzano

My love affair with the famous Rao’s Italian restaurant in New York began with a bottle of salad dressing. Balsamic Vinaigrette to be exact. I have a strange obsession with the stuff  but had yet to find a grocery store brand even come to close to acceptable in my mind –  until Rao’s, that is. After starting somewhat of a trend among my friends with this dressing, I decided to research this “Rao” person further. Alas, I quickly discovered that Rao’s was a famous restaurant in East Harlem (yep – that East Harlem). I also learned that their meatballs are some of the best this side of the Atlantic. Hmmm…I’m liking the sound of this place. 

spaghetti-and-meatballs

With only 8 tables and a laundry list of celebrity clientele, Rao’s is one of the most desirable Italian restaurants in NYC (and that’s saying something). Good luck ever getting a seat, though. You practically have to be the President to get in the door, and even that isn’t a guarantee. Good thing they published a cookbook so the “little people” could share in the fun.

I immediately had to try the meatballs, since this is their biggest claim to fame. This recipe didn’t disappoint, and I am proud to say that I have officially made my own homemade marina. Now if only I could make my own noodles… Soon, very soon.

Oh and by the way, the sauce is even more delicious the next day … We piled it into sourdough baguettes layered with fresh mozzarella slices for the most tasty of meatball subs.

RAO’S FAMOUS MEATBALLS, a.k.a Frankie’s Meatballs

Source: Rao’s Cookbook by Frank Pellegrino

  • 1 pound ground lean beef
  • ½ pound ground veal
  • ½ pound ground pork
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese
  • 1 ½ tablespoons chopped Italian parsley
  • ½ small garlic clove, peeled and minced, optional
  • 2 cups bread crumbs (use the best quality Italian bread you can get your hands on)
  • 2 cups lukewarm water
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 1 cup fine-quality olive oil
  • Cooked Pasta, (optional)
  • Rao’s Marina (recipe below)

In a large bowl, combine beef and pork using your hands. Mince 1/2 clove garlic and add to meat mixture along with the eggs, cheese, and parsley; season generously with salt and pepper. Continue mixing with your hand until well combined. Add bread crumbs and mix well. Add water, 1 cup at a time, and continue mixing until mixture is quite moist.

Shape mixture into 2 1/2-to-3-inch balls. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Smash remaining clove of garlic with the back of a knife and add to skillet. Cook until lightly browned and fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes; remove with a slotted spoon and discard. Working in batches, add meatballs to skillet. Cook until browned and cooked through, turning, about 10 minutes. Drain on paper towels and serve immediately.

Meanwhile, bring marinara sauce to a boil in a large nonreactive saucepan. Reduce heat to a simmer and add meatball. Let meatballs cook in sauce about 20 minutes; serve immediately with pasta, if desired. YIELDS 14 to 18 meatballs.

 

RAO’S MARINARA

  • 2 (28 ounce) cans imported Italian plum tomatoes with basil (preferably those labeled San Marzano)
  • 1/4 cup fine-quality olive oil
  • 2 ounces fatback or salt pork, optional (I actually fried up some bacon and used the grease, which worked just fine for me)
  • 3 tablespoons minced onion
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
  • Salt and pepper (to taste)
  • 6 leaves fresh basil, torn, optional
  • Pinch dried oregano

Remove tomatoes from the can, reserving the juice in which they are packed. Using your hands, crush the tomatoes, gently remove and discard the hard core from the stem end, and remove and discard any skin and tough membrane. Set aside.

Put oil in a large, nonreactive saucepan over medium-low heat. If using fatback, cut it into small pieces and add to the pan. Sauté for about 5 minutes or until all fat has been rendered. Remove and discard fatback.

Then add onion. Sauté for 3 minutes or until translucent and just beginning to brown. Stir in garlic and sauté for 30 seconds or until just softened. Stir in tomatoes, reserved juice, and salt. Raise heat, and bring to a boil. Immediately reduce heat to a very low simmer and cook for about 1 hour or until flavors have combined and sauce is slightly thickened. (If you prefer a thicker sauce, cook for an additional 15 minutes). I used an immersion blender to make the sauce smoother – to the liking of my bf. Yum.

Stir in basil, oregano, and pepper, and cook for an additional minute. Remove from heat and serve. YIELDS 7 cups 

 

 

peacemeals-cover

I have a cookbook addiction. No, make that an Amazon addiction. I order multiple (cook)books per week, and I love finding used copies for dangerously low prices. Some may call this a problem. I call it an education. My latest cookbook to arrive is a true beauty. Peace Meals from the Junior League of Houston is an exemplary work – miles and miles ahead of its junior league predecessors. The pictures are stunning, the recipes mouthwatering, and the message timeless. I finished it in one sitting and cannot wait to read it again, needless to say devour every recipe that fills its pages.

spinach-and-mushrooms-1

I couldn’t wait to try something from it, so when Walt happened to head to Long Beach for the Grand Prix last weekend, I figured I should spend my alone time making something that he usually wouldn’t eat (a.k.a. any type of meatless entree – a cardinal sin for a Southern boy). The recipe for Spinach and Mushroom Enchiladas with Cilantro Cream Sauce immediately caught my eye. I love anything with spinach and mushrooms, and I’ve never met a cream sauce I didn’t like. I spent the afternoon galavanting around the kitchen, making these at my leisure. You know, my kind of cooking. Sometimes a little quiet time is exactly what this girl needs.

These enchiladas weren’t exactly quick or clean for that matter, but they were definitely tasty (especially the Cilantro Cream Sauce – which would be incredible piled on all sorts of things such as poached eggs, roasted chicken or grilled fish), but it was a shame not to have anyone to share them with. Half the fun of cooking is to sit down and enjoy food with the people you love. Good thing Walt arrived home hungry from a day at the races. I re-heated a few in the oven, and you know what – he ate every bite and then some. And he helped me do the dishes!

spinach-and-mushroom-2

SPINACH AND MUSHROOM ENCHILADAS WITH CILANTRO CREAM SAUCE

Source: Peace Meals, by the Junior League of Houston

For the Cilantro Cream Sauce

  • 3 cups heavy cream
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt
  • 3 cups chopped cilantro leaves
  • 5 teaspoons cornstarch dissolved in 5 teaspoons cold water

For the Enchiladas

  • 1 teaspoon butter
  • 1/2 large onion, diced
  • 8 ounces fresh button mushrooms, stemmed and quartered
  • 20 ounces frozen chopped spinach, cooked
  • 1/2 cup stale bread crumbs
  • 1 teaspoon white pepper
  • 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon chile powder
  • 1 egg
  • Coarse salt
  • 2 cups shredded Mexican cheese blend, divided
  • 10 flour tortillas

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Mix together the cream, cayenne, salt, cilantro and the dissolved cornstarch in a 2-quart saucepan over medium heat. Cook and stir until thickened, about 10 to 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, melt the butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and mushrooms, and sauté until the onions are transparent. Remove from heat and set aside. Squeeze the excess water out of the cooked spinach. Place the spinach, bread crumbs, white pepper, nutmeg, chile powder and egg in a food processor and pulse until blended thoroughly; season with salt. Transfer the spinach mixture to a large mixing bowl and stir in the reserved onion-mushroom mixture and 1 cup of the cheese.
Spoon about 1/4 cup of the filling onto each flour tortilla roll up and place seam side down in a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Pour the cilantro cream sauce evenly over the enchiladas and sprinkle with the remaining cheese. Bake for 30 minutes, or until brown and bubbly. SERVES 4 to 6.

Give me a kiss…

April 21, 2009

chocolate-hazelnut-gelato

I had the luxury of spending a summer studying abroad in Florence, Italy while in college. Along with about 50,000 other American girls, my best friend Jennifer and I packed up our travelers checks and Teva’s and headed for la dolce vita. My good intentions were to bide my time mastering both the beautiful Italian language as well as the stunning art and architecture. Well, my language skills may still be lacking, and I don’t really remember much about Brunelleschi, but there is one thing I did master — the cuisine.

While my fellow classmates were out spending their parents’ hard-earned money on Dolce & Gabbana, I was spending mine on food. A fette biscottate and caffe e latte started each day; a pizzetta piled high with the freshest mozzarella, tomatoes and tuna drizzled in rich olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt made a perfect lunch on the go; and loads and loads of homemade tagliatelle, paparadelle and gnocchi swimming in bright tomato sauce closed out our evenings. But the food I remember most is Italy’s famous gelato.

Summertime in Florence reaches sweltering temperatures, not only from the bright Tuscan sun but because the thick stone walls of the buildings were designed to trap heat during the harsh winters. Since it is a walking city, Jennifer and I often found ourselves on the verge of heat stroke after trolling from museum to museum. Looking for somewhere to quench our thirst, we quickly discovered a little gelato stand near our flat. The owner was the most adorable elderly gentleman, and his eyes would light up when we first approached, and he was always generous with samples. I will never forget the moment when he handed me a spoon dripping in chocolate-hazelnut gelato. “Here, a kiss for you,” he said sweetly. I blushed; those Italians really do know how to turn on the charm. It turns out that chocolate-hazelnut gelato is called bacio, which means kiss in Italian. What a perfect name for a perfect dessert.

Here is a FANTASTIC replication of bacio… now all that’s missing is the Arno.

CHOCOLATE-HAZELNUT GELATO

Source: Giada De Laurentiis

  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup sugar, plus 1/4 cup
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup chocolate-hazelnut spread (recommended: Nutella)
  • 1/2 cup toasted hazelnuts, crushed, for garnish

In a saucepan combine the milk, cream, and 1/2 cup sugar over medium heat. Cook until the sugar dissolves, about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a medium bowl whip the egg yolks with the remaining sugar using an electric mixer until the eggs have become thick and pale yellow, about 4 minutes. Pour 1/2 cup of the warm milk and cream mixture into the egg mixture and stir. Add this mixture back into the saucepan. Cook over very low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture becomes thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon, about 7 to 10 minutes.

Place a strainer over a medium bowl and pour the warm custard mixture through the strainer. Stir in the vanilla and hazelnut spread until it dissolves. Chill mixture completely before pouring into an ice cream maker and follow manufacturer’s instructions to freeze. To serve, scoop gelato into serving bowls and top with hazelnuts. (YIELDS 4 CUPS – next time I would double the recipe. It is just sooo good!)



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