Monday, May 30, 2011

my birthday cake

Can we talk about the fact that this deliciousness was my birthday cake?

It's called a Pistachio Petit-Four Cake, and it's from Smitten Kitchen. I love that it solves my biggest problem with petit-fours (their incredibly small size). I love that it was light and fluffy, the perfect end to a big meal. I love that it was coated in chocolate ganache (and came with a travel container of extra chocolate ganache for me to eat later). And I love that Thomas hand crafted and hand painted the gorgeous marzipan flours that topped the cake. 

I also love that both Thomas and I made birthday cakes for each other from the same cookbook (Sky High: Irresistible Triple-Layer Cakes). I'm pretty sure this was just as a fantastic coincidence. 

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Dabo Kolo (Ethiopian snacks)

I love bread. I love sliced, fresh bagels at breakfast. I love chocolate croissants as an afternoon snack. I love a toasted baguette with dinner. So when I found these little Ethiopian bread sticks, I just couldn't resist. They're easy to make, and they've got just a hint of Ethiopian spice blended in them.

In Ethiopian, dabo means "bread" and kolo means "roasted barley." These dabo kolo sticks make a great appetizer because you can make them in advance, and then dip them in butter or oil as you chat.

I made the initial sticks far too wide and cooked them for far too long. They were almost inedible. After rolling the second batch much thinner, they cooked up quickly. They're a nice, simple start to an Ethiopian dinner party.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Lentil Sambusas

For my Ethiopian birthday feast, I knew I wanted to start with appetizers. However, in all the food blogs and restaurant menus I scoured, I had a hard time finding Ethiopian appetizers that weren't just toasted injera with spices. Then, I stumbled across these lentil sambusas on the menu of an Ethiopian restaurant in New Jersey.

These are the lentil sambusas with puff pastry dough. The lentil sambusas with phyllo dough were cooked and eaten before I remembered to take out my camera. 
I hadn't cooked much with phyllo dough, so I did some research to find out how to best work with phyllo dough and how to fold those perfect little triangles. Here are the highlights from what I learned:

Defrosting the phyllo dough: Once you buy phyllo dough, place it in the fridge for two days to defrost it. This allows it to defrost slowly and completely. The dough can stay in the fridge defrosted for up to a month. Avoid refreezing the dough.

Butter, Butter, Butter: Have plenty of melted butter and a pastry brush or paper towel on hand. Each sheet benefits from a generous application of butter. Butter helps the phyllo dough stick together, and it adds a little flavor to the finished project.

Folding perfect phyllo triangles: Sydney's Kitchen TV had a great guide to folding the triangles that I found helpful.

Freezing the unbacked triangles: Lay the unbacked triangles out on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Place in the freezer for about an hour. Once triangles are frozen, place into ziplock bags to store. I stored them for a few days this way, but you could certainly store them frozen for longer.

Somehow, despite all this research about phyllo dough, I ended up buying puff pastry. Big disappointment in terms of quantity. I was only able to make about 12 little triangles out of the puff pastry. I bought phyllo dough the next day, let it defrost for the requisite time, and was delighted with the results. Both batches tasted delicious, though, so it would definitely be up to you which you wanted to use.

The make-ahead nature of these sambusas made them the perfect start to a complicated dinner.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Nit'ir Qibe (Ethiopian Spiced Clarified Butter)

In addition to berbere, another backbone of Ethiopian cooking is ni'tir qibe, a spiced clarified butter. Clarifying the butter accomplishes a few goals. It raises the burning temperature of the butter, so you can cook foods at higher temperatures without the butter burning. It also keeps the butter from spoiling as quickly.

This butter will blow your mind. The flavors are deep and complex. The moment it lands in a hot pan, it releases rich aromas from the herbs it cooked so long in.

It is well worth the time it takes to make nit'ir qibe from scratch, and it allows you to develop deeper flavors than you get from store-bought ghee.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Berbere (Ethiopian Chile and Spice Paste)

(This is the first in a series of several posts about my Ethiopian birthday feast.)

Often when I cook dinner, I forget that there are spices other than salt, pepper and garlic. Pouring over the ingredients lists for the Ethiopian dishes I planned to make certainly woke me up to the critical role spices can play in food. This berbere paste is no exception. It's a rich, thick spice paste that contains just the right amount of heat.

I had few of the ingredients for this ambitious spice mix in my pantry, and I ended up visiting four grocery stores to pick up all the ingredients I needed. The recipe calls for such small quantities of the most uncommon ingredients that I'll be able to prepare several more batches of berbere using what I have leftover.

This recipe requires you to prepare ingredients several different ways: mincing, boiling, sauteing, toasting, grinding, and pureeing. But the steps went quickly, and I found it easy to work on the different steps simultaneously. The complete spice mix came together in less than 30 minutes, and I stored it away in an antique canning jar for good measure.

Berbere is a key player in many of the Ethiopian dishes I'm creating, but I could also see it working great as a rub for grilled meats.

Look for this spice mix to debut in some Robert Linxe chocolate truffles any day now!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Birthday and Cookbooks

My friends and family know me well. This year for my birthday, I got four gorgeous cookbooks.

How to Cook Everything Vegetarian: Simple Meatless Recipes for Great FoodOne was Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian: Simple Meatless Recipes for Great Food. There's a recipe for Chick-pea Ricotta Gnocchi that's supposed to bring a little health and protein to gnocchi. There are guides to making toast and eggs with a Chinese twist. There's a savory Poblano Custard for breakfast. There's even a section titled "Grain Griddlecakes." This will definitely become a new go-to cookbook and hopefully teach me how to bring a little more health into my vegetarian diet.

The Bread Baker's Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary BreadAnother was The Bread Baker's Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread by Peter Reinhart. This is where my favorite recipe for bagels comes from. The images in the book are just gorgeous, and they take you through how to proof, knead and twist extraordinary breads. Following the complex recipes promises to yield you "some of the best breads under the sun." It will teach me how to make breads I never knew existed. Apparently, bread isn't worth anything if the process doesn't take at least two days.

Baked Explorations: Classic American Desserts ReinventedI also got two beautiful copies of Baked Explorations: Classic American Desserts Reinvented by Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito. This is a cookbook I've been coveting for some time. Baked is a delightful bakery in Red Hook, Brooklyn, that carries these absolutely perfect chocolate peanut butter crispy bars. I don't know what to make first from here, but I'm pretty sure it has to happen within the next week. Perhaps the Double-Chocolate Loaf with Peanut Butter Cream Cheese Spread (the ultimate gift) or the Mississippi Mud Pie (A), aka Coffee Ice Cream Tart. Yum.

Baked: New Frontiers in BakingI'll be returning one and getting Baked: New Frontiers in Baking, also by Matt and Renato. It's got a brown-sugar caramel sauce I'm just dying to put over ice cream. There's a minty grasshopper cake that seems fresh and springy. Both books are filled with photographs that just make the food look more delicious.

After I recover from last night's Ethiopian dinner party (many, many recipes to come), I can't wait to get started baking from these.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Oatmeal Pecan Chocolate Chip Cookies

Baking relaxes me.

I stumbled upon this oatmeal pecan chocolate chip cookie recipe a few days ago on Joy the Baker. She posted the recipe in response to reader queries about what to make for boys they are just crazy about. Joy said these were the perfect cookies to package up and send (in a heart-shaped box, of course) to that far-away boy. I thought it was the perfect cookie recipe for me to eat. I was excited to realize that I had just enough ingredients for a half batch waiting for me in the fridge.

I made these cookies while waiting for the bialys to rise. They were easy, easy, easy to make. If you can make chocolate chip cookies, you can easily make this slightly dressed-up version.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Strawberry Shortcakes: The Perfect Serving Vessel

As my roasted rhubarb vanilla ice cream churned away in my ice cream machine, I knew I had to figure out the perfect way to serve it. I also knew that I had leftover half-and-half from making the ice cream that I needed to use up.

The New Basics Cookbook didn't let me down. When I opened it up, I found their new basic (sweet) biscuit recipe, which not only sounded delicious but would allow me to use up the remainder of my half-and-half. A win-win situation indeed.

The biscuits came together in a flash (less than five minutes from starting the process to putting them in the oven), and I whipped up a quick strawberry topping with chopped strawberries and a sprinkling of sugar.

A sweet biscuit, topped with a scoop of roasted rhubarb vanilla ice cream and chopped strawberries. Perfection.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Roasted Rhubarb Vanilla Ice Cream

I came home from the farmers' market on Saturday with a beautiful bunch of fresh red rhubarb stalks and no strawberries. It's still so early in the strawberry season, and they were selling at the market this week for eight dollars a pint, so I resisted. In hindsight, that decision ended up being a hidden gift, because it forced me to move beyond strawberry-rhubarb pies, galettes, and crumbles to come up with a more creative recipe using rhubarb.

Roasted rhubarb puree
A quick phone call home to chat with my dad yielded this recipe for Savory Rhubarb Lentil Dal from Mark Bittman. Interesting idea, but the idea of the first rhubarb of the season just disintegrating into a dish just seemed disappointing. I wanted this rhubarb to pop!

That's when I stumbled across this delightful blog by Tom from Tall Clover Farm, where he posts about the fruit he grows and the pies he makes. He'll also give you advice about how to set up your own compost bin and he'll tell you where to find the cute new raincoats his dogs are sporting.

Most importantly, he taught me how to make my first cooked custard ice cream. I've been eyeing cooked custard ice cream recipes since I got The Perfect Scoop: Ice Creams, Sorbets, Granitas, and Sweet  and Accompaniments and an ice cream maker for my birthday from my New Jersey relatives! I've made several of his Philadelphia ice cream recipes, which are uncooked, to great success, but I haven't attempted his multi-step custards.

Tom's recipe made it seem so easy, and it was! His step-by-step directions and gorgeous pictures drew me right in. What could be better than a vanilla custard ice cream with roasted rhubarb puree mixed in?

To determine whether the custard is fully cooked, run your finger down the spatula. If your finger leaves a path that is not quickly filled in by custard, it's ready!
This ice cream is full of flavor and so tasty. It was hard to balance scooping it into freezer containers and tasting! Now to figure out what to serve it with..... a post on that to come later!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

bialys (or the incredibly relaxing day that took a sudden turn when I exploded a glass pan in my oven)

I didn't wake up this morning intending to bake bialys.

I planned on making bagels. But when I pulled out my computer to check how much flour I needed for smittenkitchen's homemade bagels, the bialys just caught my eye. A lighter version of the bagel, chewy and soft, topped with carmelized onions. YUM.

The bagels would have been the practical choice. The recipe yields 16 bagels, which keeps me fed for breakfast for a few weeks. The bialys, on the other hand, yield six, and I knew going in one would disappear the moment they were removed from the oven.

But, I had only ever had bialys once in my life, and they somehow seemed more fitting, more exciting, for a Saturday. Also, the bagels required an overnight stay in the fridge, and ours is just overflowing with fresh produce. Not that we're complaining.

Bialys are not particularly quick to make. You're looking at about 5 hours, when you include rising time. However, the process will take longer if you decide to bake a batch of oatmeal pecan chocolate chip cookies in the middle.

The process will take even longer if, upon placing the bialys onto the baking stone, you go to add ice cubes to the glass baking pan you placed on the floor of the oven (to release steam which would simulate a real bread oven), and the moment you add those ice cubes, the glass pan explodes. Suddenly, my relaxing Saturday vanished.

Imagine the scene. There I was, oven door hanging open, degrees of heat escaping each second, staring at the exploded glass all around me. My major concern: could I still cook my bialys with all the glass in the oven? After consulting with my roommate, I shut the oven door, glass grating as I closed it, and proceeded to bake the bialys.

They were deliciously and miraculously glass free.

My oven is cooling and covered with glass I need to clean up.

Recipe adapted slightly for the chef without a stand mixer from smittenkitchen and The Bread Bible

This recipe yields six bialys. They store on the counter for about a day, but they also freeze well. I wrapped most of mine up in plastic wrap and put them in a container in the fridge. I'll defrost them one by one when I need them, thawing them right in the plastic wrap. If you have a stand mixer, make sure to read the smittenkitchen version of the recipe, which will save you a little time and a lot of energy.

2 cups bread flour (I like King Arthur's)
1/2 teaspoon instant yeast
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons water, at room temperature

Onion-Poppy Seed Filling
2 1/4 teaspoons olive oil
6 tablespoons onion, chopped
3/4 teaspoon poppy seeds
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
Black pepper to taste

Mix the dough. Whisk the flour and yeast together in a bowl, and then whisk in the salt (Deb's note was that yeast is killed when it comes in direct contact with salt, so it's crucial for the salt to be whisked in second). Add water, and stir until just combined. Turn the mixture out onto a lightly floured counter, and kneed constantly for at least 10 minutes, until the dough is soft and easy to work with. Add a little flour or water if necessary.

Place the dough into a lightly oiled bowl. Press the dough down and lightly spray or oil the top. Cover the container with plastic wrap. Mark the side of the container with a rubber band at approximately where double the height of the dough would be. Place the dough in a warm spot, ideally between 75 to 80 degrees, for 1 1/2 to 2 hours or until it is doubled.

Press down on the dough firmly to deflate it, and transfer it to a floured counter. Cut the dough into 6 equal pieces. Cover 5 of the pieces with a moist towel. Round each piece by pulling the dough ends together to form a pouch (trying to keep as much air as possible inside the dough), and then pinch the edges together. Put them on a floured baking sheet, pinched side down. Flour the tops and cover with plastic wrap.

Let the bialys rise for 2 hours at 75 to 80 degrees until almost doubled. When pressed lightly in the center, they should keep the impression. If you don't think the dough has risen enough, you can cut a make a small hole in the center before adding the filling.

While the bialys are rising, making the onion-poppy seed filling. Heat the oil in a small saute pan. Add the onions. I sauteed mine over low heat for about 45 minutes to caramelize them, but you could also do a quick five minute cook over medium heat until translucent. Remove the onions from the heat, and add the poppy seeds, salt and pepper to taste. Let the mixture cool.

Preheat the oven to 475 degrees about 30 minutes before baking. Place a baking stone or baking sheet on an oven shelf at the lowest level. Place a sheet pan on the floor of the oven before preheating it (use a metal pan, use a metal pan, use a metal pan. DO NOT use a glass pan).

Holding each piece of dough with both hands, with your thumbs in the middle and almost touching, pinch the center of the dough tightly between your thumbs and first two fingers and stretch the dough to 4 1/2 to 5 inches in diameter, creating a crater in the center. Place it on a lined baking sheet (I put mine on a sheet of parchment paper on the baking sheet so I could slide it right off onto my baking stone), and spoon 1 teaspoon of onion-poppy seed filling into the center.

Use a peel or cookie sheet to slide the parchment with the bialys on it onto the baking stone or sheet that has been pre-heating in the oven. Toss a handful of ice cubes in the sheet pan on the oven floor (I tried this, for the first time even, which is supposed to help make your oven closer to a professional bread oven by releasing steam which helps form a crust. Immediately shut the door.

Bake for 6 to 10 minutes, or until pale golden and mottled with brown spots.

Remove the parchment from the oven and, with a pancake turner, transfer the bialys to a wire rack to cool until just warm.


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Big Berry Birthday Cake and New Beginnings

My life as a food blogger is officially beginning. I'm excited.

Last night was my good friend Jason's birthday, and we surprised him at a neighborhood bar with a loud welcome and this delicious Big Berry Birthday Cake.

I'm a chocolate lover at heart, and almost without exception, the desserts I bake are laden with chocolate. Dark chocolate. Semi-sweet chocolate. Bittersweet chocolate. I love it all. So making this cake and only adding layers of delicious fresh berries took a lot of self restraint. I debated adding bittersweet chocolate chips in the cake batter and again when frosting the cake. For Jason's birthday, I managed to leave the chocolate out.

But as this cake came together, and as we sliced into it after singing "Happy Birthday," I was glad to have kept the cake pure. The density of the cake combined well with the light frosting and fresh berries. I went home with an empty plate and a full stomach.

Big Berry Birthday Cake
adapted (slightly) from JoytheBaker
originally take from Organic and Chic: Cakes, Cookies, and Other Sweets That Taste as Good as They Look

This recipe makes an eight-inch double layer cake, and it feeds at least 15 with generous slices. The cake is a little denser than I am used to, so I made a double batch of frosting to soften things up.

1 cup unsalted butter (two sticks), softened to room temperature
1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
4 large eggs
1 cup whole milk
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 pint blueberries
Assorted fruits for decorating/filling the cake

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Farenheit. Butter two eight-inch round baking pans. Cut a circle of parchment paper and place it in the bottom of the pan.

With a hand mixer, cream butter and sugar on medium speed for 3 to 5 minutes, stopping to scrape the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula every minute. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating for one minute after each addition.

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. In a separate bowl, combine the milk and vanilla extract.

With the mixer on low, alternate adding the flour and milk mixtures in three batches. When the batter is just combined, shut off the mixture, and finish thoroughly incorporating the batter with a rubber spatula. Gently fold blueberries into the batter (I added the blueberries after the batter was poured into the pan and wished they had been incorporated throughout the cake). Divide the batter between the two pans.

Bake for 25 to 40 minutes, until they are a pale golden color and a skewer inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Let the cakes cool in the pans for 15 minutes, and then invert the cakes onto a wire rack to cool. Remove the parchment from the bottom of the cake. Let the cakes cool completely before frosting (I made mine a few days before and froze them so they would stay fresh!).

Vanilla Whipped Buttercream Frosting 

This was my first attempted at a stovetop buttercream frosting. All throughout the process, my roommates listened to me fret that the frosting wasn't turning out. Stick with it. In the last few minutes, the frosting comes together, the sugar granules disappear and you're left with a delicious concoction that you'll just want to eat. I made a double batch.

1 cup unsalted butter (two sticks), softened to room temperature
1 cup sugar (JoytheBaker recommends organic cane sugar. I used standard granulated sugar to great results!)
1 cup whole milk
1/4 cup all-purpose flour, sifted
1 1/2 tablespoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon rosewater (JoytheBaker added rosewater, but I couldn't find it at grocery stores in my neighborhood. It was delicious without it.)

In a small saucepan, combine 1/4 cup milk with flour and vanilla extract. Whisk the ingredients together until there are no lumps. Over medium heat, slowly add the remaining 3/4 cups milk, whisking constantly until the mixture comes to a low boil. Reduce the heat to low, and continue whisking until the mixture starts to thicken slightly. When the mixture starts to thicken, immediately remove the pan from the heat, and continue whisking. The mixture will continue to cook for a minute or two on its own after you remove it from the heat. If there are any lumps, whisk them out with a little elbow grease.

The flour/milk mixture needs to cool to room temperature. I let it cool on the counter for a few minutes, and then I placed it in the freezer. I whisked it for a few seconds every time I scraped down the sides of my butter/sugar bowl, and I removed it from the freezer when it reached room temperature.

Using a hand mixer, cream the butter on medium speed for about 30 seconds. Add the sugar and beat on high speed until light and fluffy, about five to seven minutes. Stop the mixture every minute to scrape down the sides of the bowl.

With the mixer on low, slowly pour the flour/milk mixture into the butter/sugar mixture. Increase the speed to medium and beat until the frosting is light and fluffy, about three to five minutes.

To assemble the cake: Place one layer on a large serving plate. Add about 2/3 cup of frosting to the first layer, spreading it smooth. Top with pieces of fruit (I used chopped strawberries, blackberries and blueberries). Place the second layer on top, and add a bit of frosting to do a quick crumb coat. Add the remaining frosting. Top with a final layer of fruit just before serving.