Jan 29, 2010

Tomato, Goat Cheese and Caramelized Onion Tarts

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Oh, people. I just had the most glorious weekend down in LA with my best girlfriend, while my husband dutifully (and might I add very successfully) took care of our offspring back home in San Francisco. And let me tell you—it was really something. 48 hours of food, drink, laughter, and lots of Southern California sunshine that makes dining al fresco the order of the day. As soon as I stepped off the plane, Sara and I got to work. We don’t believe in the sort of ladylike lunching that involves a few lettuce leaves and a single prawn on an antique plate. No, our thing is more of a salad-plus-truffled pizza-plus-cupcakes-and-lots-of-wine-in-lieu-of-water sort of situation.

So now that I’m back to reality, I’ve been thinking about some of my favorite lunching with girlfriends dishes, which is to say the kinds of foods that only need a little pile of lightly dressed mixed greens and lots of well-chilled white wine on the side, and still leave room for some slightly tipsy, giggly cupcake sampling afterwards. These tomato, goat cheese and caramelized onion tarts fit the bill perfectly.

This recipe comes from the always awesome, rarely mark-missing Ina Garten. Oh, Ina. Why do your recipes and your delightful East Hampton estate (with an entire adjacent house dedicated solely to cooking and entertaining) have to be so flippin’ perfect? As my friend Lauren (a fellow Ina fan and trained chef in her own right) likes to say, “Okay, Ina, we get it. You have lots of special dishes. Golf clap.”

These tarts are another winner from Ina’s Back to Basics cookbook, also known as the thing I’ve keeping under my pillow for the past couple months. With a base of flaky store-bought puff pastry, there’s no other way to describe this recipe than having lovely layers of complex, fantastic flavors.

Edgy parmesan gives dimension to a pile of sweet, deeply caramelized onions scented with fresh thyme, creamy goat cheese is balanced with slabs of fresh tomato that become juicy and intense during baking, and ribbons of basil give the whole thing a bright finish. If you can think of a more heavenly combination, save for bittersweet chocolate and salted caramel, then please report to me.

If you’re not having girlfriends over for lunch anytime soon, these tarts would also make for an excellent light supper (call them fancy pizzas instead of tarts and they become more like dude food) or a perfect first course for a dinner party. However you serve them, just remember the bit about lots of white wine on the side—in all cases, it’s the right thing to do.

Tomato, Goat Cheese and Caramelized Onion Tarts
Adapted from Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics

Use whatever tomatoes look good in the market–I used a fun smaller variety from a local farm and put a few slices on each tart, but if you can only find big Beefsteak-type tomatoes, just put one thick slice on each tart.

Serves 4

3 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for brushing
4 cups thinly sliced yellow onions, about 2 large
3 large garlic cloves, cut into thin slivers
Kosher salt & freshly ground pepper
3 tablespoons dry white wine
2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme leaves
1 package (17.3 ounces) puff pastry sheets, thawed but still cold
1/2 cup coarsely grated Parmesan cheese
4 ounces goat cheese, plain or herbed
1 large tomato, cut into 4 (1/4-inch-thick) slices
3 tablespoons julienned fresh basil leaves

Position an oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 425°F. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper.

Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat and add the onions and garlic. Sauté for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring frequently, until the onions are limp and the skillet is nearly dry. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, the wine and thyme and continue to cook for another 10 minutes, until the onions are lightly browned.

Unfold each sheet of puff pastry on a lightly floured surface and roll it lightly to an 11-by-11-inch square. Using a six-inch-wide saucer as a guide, cut 2 circles from each sheet of puff pastry, discarding the scraps. Repeat with the second sheet of pastry.

Using the tip of a sharp paring knife, score a circle 1/2 inch inside the edge of each pastry–be careful not to cut all the way through. Prick the pastries all over with the tines of a fork and place them on the sheet pan. Sprinkle a tablespoon of the grated Parmesan on each round, staying inside the scored border.

Place 1/4 of the onion mixture on each circle, again staying within the scored edges. Crumble 1 ounce of goat cheese on top of the onions. Place a slice of tomato in the center of each tart (or several if using smaller tomatoes, see note). Brush the tomato lightly with olive oil and sprinkle with basil ribbons, salt, and pepper. Scatter the remaining grated Parmesan over each tart. If the pastry has warmed up significantly during assembly, chill the tarts for 15 minutes in the refrigerator before baking. At this point, you can also wrap the sheet pan in plastic wrap and chill the tarts until you’re ready to bake.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the pastry is golden brown. Serve warm.

Jan 25, 2010

Blueberry Boy Bait

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I am at a bit of a parenting crossroads with Little C. We’ve reached that point where she is clearly no longer a baby, but she’s not yet a full-fledged little girl (wasn’t there a Britney song about this?). She is so tuned in to everything I do, wanting to get in on all the action and has started mimicking me in the most unexpected ways. Basically this means that I have got to stop dropping F-bombs. Also, she has started “helping me” when I bake. And recently I pulled up a chair to boost her sweet little face up to counter level while I put together some Blueberry Boy Bait, a recipe so simple, you can pull it together with a tiny person clinging to your sleeve.

This buttery, tender cake, studded with teeny blueberries and covered with a shattery cinnamon-sugar crust, is my kind of thing. Technically, it is a cake, but since it’s like the most awesome blueberry muffin you’ve ever had in slab form, it’s more quick bread in feeling. And this means you can brunch it, snack it, or dessert it, and in all cases you’ll love it.

Now before you get all up in my grill about making a blueberry recipe in January, let me tell you that this recipe actually calls for frozen berries. Hooray! I love frozen berries of all sorts. This is not to say that anything can replace the experience of a flat of strawberries in July–let’s not be crazy. But frozen berries are fabulous because they’re picked and frozen at their peak, and are awesomely consistent in quality. Plus, you can’t beat the price. Not that I know a dang thing about economy. But I do know that I am in pink-puffy-heart LOVE with Wyman’s of Maine frozen wild blueberries. They explode in your mouth like sweet, bitty berry caviar and I covet them. And apparently I am not the only one, as per my sous chef.

And because I am a food history geek and love tidbits of culinary trivia, Blueberry Boy Bait first made an appearance in the junior division of a Pillsbury baking contest in 1954. The girl who invented it was only 15! Can you imagine being that young and fabulous and being able to BAKE? Girlfriend probably didn’t need to come up with a specific cake to lure the boys in, I’m sure. Like I plan on telling Little C, she just has to be her fantastic, talented self and the boys will all be beating down our door to date her. Too bad her father won’t be answering said door until she is 25.

Blueberry Boy Bait
Adapted from America’s Test Kitchen

Be sure to look for wild blueberries, the tiny ones, not the bigger regular ones–you’ll get better results with wild. I halved this recipe in an 8-inch square pan and it worked out perfectly. As you’re sprinkling on the cinnamon and sugar you may think to yourself, “Dang! This is way too much cinnamon and sugar!”, but press on and sprinkle on the whole lot of it. You will be rewarded with a crackly, shattering sheet of cinnamon-sugar topping in the end.

Makes 1 9×13-inch cake

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup granulated sugar, divided
3/4 cup light brown sugar
3 large eggs
1 cup whole milk
1 cup frozen wild blueberries
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Position a rack to the center of the oven and preheat it to 350 degrees. Spray a 9×13-inch baking pan with cooking spray and line it with a sheet of parchment paper with a few inches of overhang on two sides. Spray the parchment, too.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter, 1/2 cup of the granulated sugar and all the brown sugar on medium speed until lightened in color and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Scrape downt he bottom and sides of the bowl. Beat in the eggs one at a time, letting each one incorporate fully before adding the next.

Reduce the mixer speed to low and add half the flour, mixing just until the flour begins to disappear. Add the milk, mixing to incorporate. Add the rest of the flour and mix until there are a few streaks of flour left in the batter. Fold in the rest by hand with a large rubber spatula until the batter is smooth.

Remove the blueberries from the freezer and divide in half. Place half the berries in a small bowl and toss with 1/ 2 teaspoon flour. Mix the floured berries into the batter and spread the batter into the prepared pan. Sprinkle the rest of the berries on top of the batter. Combine the remaining 1/4 cup granulated sugar with the cinnamon and sprinkle evenly over the batter. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Cool in the pan on a wire rack. Remove the cake from the pan using the parchment sleeve and cut into squares. Store any leftovers in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days.

Jan 21, 2010

Meyer Lemon Pot de Crème

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So I figured as long as we’re on the citrus train, why stop at cake? Why not share a recipe with you that not only celebrates the totally fabulous Meyer lemon, but pairs it with cream, an ingredient that just makes the whole thing so right that you may just shed a tear? I give you Meyer Lemon Pot de Crème. And a dollop of fresh raspberry sauce to boot.

Now, guys, I make a lot of desserts. Some might say an alarming amount, but that is neither here nor there. It’s quite a feat for something to be declared a real winner. For my main taste tester (that would be my darling husband) to have more than just a few cookies from a batch or one slice of a cake is a Big Deal these days. The results of my baking abilities were much more exciting when they were newly revealed in the beginning of our marriage. But before this unintentionally goes into a downward spiral of a metaphor gone horribly wrong, let me get to my point–boyfriend had two helpings of this pot de crème the day it was made. It was that good.

So Meyer lemons are basically the definition of ubiquitous these days, aren’t they? But man, they totally live up to their reputation. With zest so fragrant and juice so sweet (for lemon juice, anyway), they are worth stealing if you happen to have a neighbor with a Meyer lemon tree. In this case, though, I did not actually steal these particular lemons.

I bought them from this charming old lady parked out in front of our corner market. She’d set up a little stand with mounds of bright Meyer lemons and enormous grapefruits and a handwritten cardboard sign that was curling at the edges and advertising a price so low it was practically criminal. And when we got to talking about how her son drives the fruit all the way from Stockton into the city, and how they don’t really make a profit anyway, but that day he’d gotten a speeding ticket on the way down and so now they were really in the hole, well, guess who ended up guilt-purchasing an armload of Meyer lemons? Anyway.

Since I’ve already told you about my favorite lemon bars, and it hasn’t exactly been sorbet or lemon meringue pie weather around here, I went for a pot de crème recipe I’d bookmarked in recent months that paired the vibrant fruit with a swirl of cream and the Rhoda to its Mary–a perfectly simple, fresh raspberry sauce.

All the flavors here–the zing of lemon, the counterpoint of lush cream and the sweet, lusty raspberries offering a perfect finish–work in a way that reminds you that some things were just meant to be together. Sort of like the way all those Meyer lemons found me that day.

And you know what they say–when life guilt-trips you into buying an insane quantity of lemons, make pot de crème.

Meyer Lemon Pot de Crème with Raspberry Sauce
Adapted from Food in the City

Can you use regular lemons? Yes, yes you can. But seek out organic ones so you don’t end up zesting a bunch of pesticides into the dish. Also, sometimes I bring the flavor of regular lemon juice a little closer to that of a Meyer lemon by holding back a few tablespoons of lemon juice and replacing them with orange juice. There’s also no reason not to use frozen raspberries for the sauce if you’d prefer.

Serves 4

For the crème:

1 1/4 cups heavy cream
2 teaspoons Meyer lemon zest
3 large eggs
1 large egg yolk
3/4 cup superfine sugar
1/2 cup freshly squeezed and strained Meyer lemon juice

For the raspberry sauce:

1/3 cup raspberries, fresh or frozen (thawed and drained)
2 teaspoons superfine sugar
1/2 teaspoon Meyer lemon juice

In a small saucepan over medium heat, heat the cream with the lemon zest just until small bubbles appear around the edge–do not boil. Remove the pan from the heat and let steep for 20 minutes.

Position a rack to the center of the oven and preheat it to 325 degrees. Place four 6-ounce custard cups, ramekins or coffee cups in a small roasting pan.

Return the pan of cream to the stove, and bring it to a simmer over medium heat. In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, egg yolk and superfine sugar and pour into the simmering cream, whisking constantly until the sugar dissolves. Whisk in the lemon juice. Remove the pan from the heat and pour the custard through a sieve and into a large measuring cup for easy pouring. Bring a large kettle or pot of water to boiling.

Divide the custard evenly among the four custard cups. Open the oven door, pull out the oven rack, and place the roasting pan on the rack. Slowly pour boiling water into the roasting pan until it reaches about halfway up the sides of the custard cups. Carefully slide the rack back into the oven, being careful not to splash water into the cups. Bake until just set, about 35-40 minutes.

Remove the cups from the pan and let cool completely on a wire rack. Cover with plastic wrap and chill for 2-24 hours before serving.

To make the sauce, puree together the raspberries, sugar and lemon juice. Serve each pot de crème with a dollop of the sauce, plus extra on the side.

Jan 18, 2010

Glazed Clementine Chiffon Cake

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It’s high citrus season, people! I’m in love, I’m in love, and I don’t care who knows it! (Name that movie).

Okay, so maybe not everyone is as enthralled with the abundance of adorable little clementines, fragrant Meyer lemons and vibrant blood oranges as I am, but guys, it’s getting towards the end of January. The winter blues could take any of us down at any time.

Even in San Francisco, where all four seasons just sort of smear into each other without a whole lot of meterological drama, it’s all kinds of dreary in January. So let’s focus on the positive. Citrus galore! And a zippy, big mama Clementine Chiffon Cake is just the thing to bring a little sunshine into your life during this time of year.

I lurve chiffon cakes. They’re the sort of thing that make you feel incredibly accomplished in the kitchen. They emerge from the oven tall and proud and commanding, a great candidate for getting all gussied up with a whole myriad of flavorings, syrups and sauces. Unlike her more elegant, prettier and popular sister the angel food cake (which can be so delicate that you have to tread lightly when trying to jazz her up) the chiffon cake scoffs at her frilly name, and with her richer texture courtesy of added egg yolks and vegetable oil offers a fabulous canvas for all sorts of bells and whistles, like a zingy orange glaze that soaks just enough into the epidermis of the cake to make things interesting.

And this cake couldn’t have come at a better time. I’d just done that thing where I’d bought the huge box of clementines from the market for, like, five bucks or something crazy, with the noble intention of snacking on them in lieu of, say, cake. But really, how many clementines can you snack on before you just need a slice of flippin’ cake?! Oh, the irony. Luckily it took an almost comical number of clementines to yield enough juice for this recipe, which got that pesky healthy snacking monkey off my back right quick.

Some people spaz out about recipes like chiffon cakes and their egg foam cake counterparts, like angel food cakes and sponge cakes. All that egg white whipping and folding just seems too precious and risky. But really, if you have a reliable electric mixer, you’re well on your way to chiffon cake success. And even though you do want to take care to whip the egg whites to the proper stage (firm peaks, but not at all dry) and whisk them in gently as to not knock out all the air, the beauty of a chiffon cake is that it can be roughed up a bit while getting the batter together and all won’t be lost.

And even if your chiffon cake doesn’t rise quite as much as you’d hoped, or falls a bit while cooling or if you louse it up at the eleventh hour by, say, inverting the cake onto a plate that suctions itself to the beautiful golden crust, stripping off whole sections of it when you turn it back onto the cake stand, well, don’t worry about it for a second. Because the so-lovely-its-practically-drinkable clementine glaze that douses this cake has such fabulous flavor and adds so much moisture that none of that will matter in the end. This cake perserveres. Just like winter-weary folks.

Glazed Clementine Chiffon Cake
Adapted from The All-American Dessert Book

If you don’t have clementines, fret not. Any kind of sweet, orange-y citrus will do: navel oranges, tangerines, satsumas, tangelos, what have you. Whenever a recipe calls for zest, like this one, I like to seek out organic fruit just so I don’t have to worry about scraping a whole lot of pesticides into the mix.

Serves 12

For the cake:

1 1/2 cups unsifted cake flour
1 cup granulated sugar, divided
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 large eggs, at room temperature
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 tablespoon finely grated clementine zest
2 1/2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest
1/2 cup freshly squeezed and strained clementine juice
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

For the glaze:

1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
2/3 cup freshly squeezed and strained clementine juice
1/4 cup freshly squeezed and strained lemon juice
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat it to 350 degrees. Have ready a 10-inch tube pan with a removable bottom.

In a large bowl, sift together the cake flour, 2/3 cup of the sugar, the baking powder, baking soda and salt. Separate the eggs, placing the whites in one large bowl and 5 of the yolks in another (use the remaining yolk for another purpose). Whisk together the yolks, oil, clementine zest, lemon zest, clementine juice and vanilla until well-blended. Gradually whisk the flour mixture into the yolk mixture just until it’s smoothly incorporated. Set aside.

Add the lemon juice to the egg whites. With an electric mixer, begin beating the egg whites on low speed, them raise the speed to medium for about 2 minutes, or until soft peaks begin to form. Add the remaining 1/3 cup sugar to the whites as they are whipping, a tablespoon at a time. Once all the sugar is incorporated, raise the speed to high and whip for 1 to 3 minutes more, until the whites hold firm peaks that still have a moist appearance–do not overbeat or they will be very difficult to incorporate. Whisk about a third of the whites into the yolk mixture, then gently fold in the remaining whites, stopping at soon as there are no streaks of white left in the batter.

Scrape the batter into the pan and smooth out the top. Bake until a cake tester in the thickest part comes out clean, about 30 to 40 minutes. Immediately invert the cake onto a wire rack, or a countertop if the pan has feet, and let cool completely, at least 1 hour. Run a thin knife along the edges of the pan to release the cake. Cover a large plate with a sheet of plastic wrap and spray it lightly with cooking spray to prevent the top of the cake from sticking, and invert the cake onto the plate before turning the cake back onto a final serving platter or cake stand. Tuck strips of parchment paper under the cake to protect the platter from wayward glaze.

To make the glaze, whisk together the powdered sugar, clementine juice and lemon juice in a medium saucepan. Bring it to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, and boil for 4 minutes. Remove from the heat and whisk in the butter and vanilla. Let the glaze stand until it cools and thickens slightly, about 10 minutes. Slowly pour the glaze over the cake, letting it drip down the sides. This cake keeps well at room temperature in a covered cake dome for up to 3 days.

Jan 15, 2010

Cakey Sour Cream Brownies

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So are you a fudgy brownie person or a cakey brownie person? Because I fall into the former category, and these brownies fall into the latter. And to be honest, I am so on Team Fudgy that I considered not even mentioning them to you. But upon further mulling of the whole thing, I decided you really do need to know about this recipe. Because even though they are not my ultimate brownies, they are still very good and if you are on Team Cakey, well, they may end up being yours. And I can’t in good conscience deny any cakey brownie-loving POC readers that pleasure. I’m here for you, people.

For the rest of us, I will not call these brownies, rather I will dub this recipe Rich Chocolate Snack Cake and share its many virtues. Not the least of which is a deep, satisfying chocolate flavor that isn’t shrouded by a cloying sweetness. The chocolate flavor really does shine here.

Another bonus of this recipe is that it’s easy, easy, easy. Which, really, all brownie recipes should be, but who doesn’t love easy? Communists, that’s who. All it takes is a little bit of flour, some melted some butter and chocolate, dark brown sugar, eggs and sour cream.

Back it up now, sister–what?
Oh, yes, I said sour cream. That’s what drew me to this recipe in the first place. And it’s the magical ingredient that keeps these cakey brownies from being dry and boring. The sour cream adds moisture and an edgy flavor element that keeps the chocolate from tasting flat. If ever there was a cakey brownie that might seduce the die-hard Fudgies, this would be it.

I should also mention something about this recipe that has become an obsession of sorts for me lately: the texture and flavor of these brownies actually improves the day after baking them. Even more moist, maybe even a little denser, more chocolatey. I flippin’ love that. In fact, on the second day, I got to thinking about other things that could be done with this recipe because of their transformation after a rest on the counter.

Vanilla ice cream and hot fudge on top, well, yes, yes, of course, but I’m feeling like pouring this batter into two round cake pans and frosting it with a thin layer of Vanilla Bean Buttercream or more generous swirls of Seven-Minute Frosting might just make for the most orgasmic, do-ahead layer cake in the history of the universe. If anyone tries this and you can still speak or type, could you report back with your findings? Awesome, thanks.

Sour Cream Brownies (aka Rich Chocolate Snack Cake)
Adapted from Nick Malgieri’s The Modern Baker

I’ve made several changes to this recipe–most notably, I left out the generous amount of walnuts that the original recipe calls for because I don’t like my brownies walnutted (2 cups toasted and chopped; if you love nutty brownies, add them). I also added a bit of cocoa powder, which gives a much-needed punch of chocolate flavor, but really only works if you use a premium, rich, dark cocoa powder like Valrhona. Make these brownies a day before you want to serve them and wrap them well–the flavor and texture improve the next day.

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons premium cocoa powder (I love Valrhona)
6 ounces (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
7 ounces bittersweet chocolate, cut into pieces (chocolate chips work fine, I like Ghiradelli)
1 3/4 cup dark brown sugar
4 large eggs
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

Set an oven rack to the center position and preheat the to 350 degrees. Line a 9×13 pan with foil, and spray with cooking spray.

In a small bowl, sift together the flour and cocoa powder and set aside.

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter. Allow it to bubble for about 10 seconds, then remove the pan from the heat and add the chocolate. Let it sit for a minute or two, and then whisk until smooth. Let cool for a minute while you prepare the rest of the recipe.

In a large bowl, whisk together the brown sugar and eggs until smooth. Whisk in the sour cream, salt and vanilla until well-blended. Stir in the chocolate and butter mixture, then fold in the flour and cocoa mixture just until it dissappears into the batter.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake the until the brownies just begin to pull away from the sides of the pan and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with a few moist crumbs, about 30 minutes.

Cool the brownies completely in the pan on a rack before cutting into squares.

Jan 12, 2010

Cheddar-Jalapeno Corn Biscuits

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With roughly 10 years of apartment dwelling in my personal history, I’ve come out of that stage of life with two things: an unshakeable urge to cringe every time I drop something heavy on the floor, and an arsenal of character profiles of delightfully wacky neighbors.

For instance, there was Maxine, the Squirrel Whisperer. With wiry salt-and-pepper hair, she’d rigged up the windows and doors to her apartment as to allow the local squirrels to let themselves into her kitchen. She had introduced herself to me by letting me know that her husband had left her “after 32 years marriage! Psshh. A doctor. You know how that is.” Of course I do, Maxine.

And Oliver, the handsome African-American fellow who lived next door and listened to maddening amounts of mambo at all hours while smoking cigars and drinking Cognac. When he wasn’t draped in stunning off-white linen separates, he could be found in a silk kimono and matching slippers. A smooth operator, that Oliver. He had a tempestuous relationship with Celeste, a friendly Earth Mother type about whom I always complained to my husband for being such a loud talker until I overheard her telling someone that she was deaf in one ear. Oops.

Sharon, the 60-ish overgrown hippie was really something. In short, when she wasn’t doing yardwork with absolutely nothing on from the waist down, she was an S&M enthusiast who would throw monthly parties with a very, very strange guest list. Like middle-aged, combed-over, tucked-in polo shirt, gym teacher-looking men strange. She was always courteous enough to let us know when a party date was approaching, lest we not be able to figure it out during the week prior, when all of her dingy plastic patio furniture, suggestive candles and skull ashtrays began appearing in some very questionable tablescapes on the front lawn. Once we were invited to one of her parties and in response I mumbled something about maybe being out of town that weekend and tried not to cry when she instructed me to “dress sexy” if I were to attend. No, thank you. No thank you at all.

But on the bright side, there was Joan. I loved Joan. I still miss Joan. She was of those jazzy, older single ladies who was probably in her 60s but looked a decade younger and drove a little red convertible that was nearly a match for her neat little bob haircut. She was super fit and stylish and had been working the Program for 12 years. It was always fun running into her at the Pottery Barn where she worked and having a chat with her in her apartment, decked out beautifully, most likely with her employee discount.

When Joan’s adorable grandkids would come to visit, she would take them swimming in the building’s outdoor pool looking like Esther Williams in a vintage one-piece with huge sunglasses and a polka-dotted headscarf. I called her Kicky Joan. And oh, was she ever kicky! Warm and fun and complex with a little extra spice, that Joan. Just like these Cheddar-Jalapeno Corn Biscuits. Which is the point I’ve been trying to get to for the last four paragraphs.

If you are still with me here let me ask you this: are you as obsessed with soups and chilis and stews of all sorts as I am around here lately? It’s January, people. Big warm bowls of savory are simply the right thing to do. But if I read one more recipe instructing me to round out a one-pot meal with a boring loaf of country bread and a green salad, I am going to cry. Enter these biscuits.

So much more exciting and substantial than your standard corn bread, these biscuits (muffins, whatever) are loaded with flavor–good, sharp aged cheddar, a pile of scallions and a smattering of jalapeno to make it all kicky. And easy, easy, easy, guys. Absolutely a weeknight thing while your soup pot is bubbling away. This recipe is one that you’ll willingly make part of your life. Unlike most apartment neighbors.

Cheddar-Jalapeno Corn Biscuits

Seek out a good, aged, extra-sharp cheddar here–it makes a huge difference in flavor. Lesser cheeses will just sort of disappear into the mix. I found a 3-year aged one in my supermarket for nearly the same price as the commercial stuff. These biscuits are best served warm from the oven, but a zap in the microwave will revive any leftovers the next day.

Makes 12

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup yellow cornmeal
3 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt
1 cup buttermilk, at room temperature
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 stick unsalted butter, melted and cooled
6 ounces grated aged, extra-sharp cheddar, divided
1/3 cup finely sliced scallions (about 3 large)
2 tablespoons seeded and minced jalapeno (about 1 large)

Position an oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 12-cup muffin tin with nonstick cooking spray.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder and salt.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, eggs, and melted butter until well-blended.

Stir in the wet ingredients into the dry, folding gently with a rubber spatula just until no dry pockers remain–don’t overmix. Fold in half the grated cheddar, the scallions and the jalapeno. Let the mixture sit for 15 minutes.

Using a standard ice cream scoop, portion the batter into the prepared muffin tin. Sprinkle the remaining half the the grated cheddar over the tops. Bake until the biscuits are lightly golden and a toothpick comes out clean, 20-25 minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes in the pan before removing them. Serve warm.

Jan 11, 2010

Brown Sugar Vanilla Pudding

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You know what’s less fun than taking care of a sick baby? Oh, wait, that’s right. THERE IS NOTHING LESS FUN THAN TAKING CARE OF A SICK BABY. I-yi-yi. Little C got a case of something nasty a while back (just a bad cold, thank God, a small bright spot of the whole ordeal in our H1N1-fearing times), and the frustration and exhaustion was akin to the early weeks of motherhood. And by that I mean the time period during which half of my waking moments were spent devising a plan to crawl unnoticed into a dark closet with a bottle of Wild Turkey so I could sob and question why I decided to become a parent in peace.

Yeah, taking care of a sick kid is no fun, indeed. Night wakings. Crying, whining, crying, whining (from mother and child). Child vibrating with overtired energy, screaming and struggling violently with pudgy limbs against a mother wielding the thermometer/Tylenol/Kleenex/nose suction thing–roughly one hundred times per day. Child sobbing and desperately wanting something she can’t express, mother frantically trying to guess what that thing might be just to make something better for at least five flipping minutes so I don’t lose my ever-loving mind. Repeat.


And on top of all of that drama comes the not eating. Naturally, when we’re sick, we don’t feel much like eating, but to a worried mother of a sick baby, this logic goes out the window. I was convinced my daughter was going to wither away and die from starvation if this vicious, exotic illness didn’t take her first. So I inanely pushed food in my child’s poor, snuffly, puffy face every chance I got, driving my own stress levels higher as the child refused all of my lame attempts. So much untouched food went into the trash in our home during those few days, I started looking over my shoulder for Sally Struthers to come read me the riot act.


In the interest of getting some calories in my poor babe, any at all, really, I gave up on forcing the “right foods” and just went for what I hoped would be a Sure Thing: a silky, homemade vanilla pudding with lots of comforting milk and eggs and an all-ages-palate-pleasing dose of brown sugar.

Like peace and quiet and the general wellness of my family, I’m kind of obsessed with homemade puddings of all sorts. They’re just so delightfully real–the most basic ingredients, so simple, everything coming together with little fanfare, right on the stovetop with a wooden spoon. It just feels right. If there’s a chicken soup of desserts, a sweet tooth’s tonic to cure all ailments, homemade vanilla pudding has to be it. I would bet my Mommy Card on this claim.

So sure was I of the magical powers of this pudding, I was going to send this child back from whence she came if this tactic didn’t work. But lo, it did. In fact, it was all she ate for two days straight. And if we’re being honest here, it made up the bulk of my diet, too. Not a bad way to ease the suffering, for all parties involved. And even if you find yourself in gloriously good health this winter, there’s really nothing like hunkering down with a cozy bowl of homemade pudding, maybe slightly warmed, or just straight from the fridge with a serving spoon.

Brown Sugar Vanilla Pudding

Using brown sugar in this recipe gives a really lovely caramel note and a great depth of flavor to the dish. But if you prefer a more straightforward vanilla pudding, just use all regular granulated sugar. You can also jazz up this recipe even more by scraping half a vanilla bean into the pot, and dropping the scraped pod into the mix as well.

Makes about 2 cups

3 tablespoons lightly packed light brown sugar
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (or 1/4 teaspoon table salt)
2 cups whole milk
3 egg yolks, lightly beaten
2 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

Whisk together brown sugar, granulated sugar, cornstarch and salt in a medium saucepan. Whisking constantly, add about a third of the milk to the pan until the mixture is smooth. Whisk in the egg yolks, and then whisk in the rest of the milk.

Set the pan over medium heat and cook the pudding, whisking often, until is is thickened and just begins to bubble, about 6 to 7 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and switch to a rubber or silicone spatula to stir the pudding constantly for another 5 minutes or so, scraping the bottom and sides of the pan as you go. When you can run a track through the pudding on the back of the spatula with your fingertip and the track remains, remove the pan from the heat. Stir in the butter and the vanilla.

Set a sieve over a large bowl and strain the pudding to catch any wayward lumps of cooked egg yolk or cornstarch, using the spatula to encourage the pudding through the sieve. Lightly press a sheet of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the pudding to prevent a skin from forming, and refrigerate until the pudding is completely chilled and set, at least 2 hours.


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