Recipes and Me

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Recipe for a Great Weekend

I recently went away for a long weekend to the majestic Blue Ridge Mountains.  Despite a couple of movie proportion hiccups, including a fire at our beautiful bed and breakfast (caused by someone, an idiot rather, flicking a cigarette into dry mulch beside the front deck) and white out snow conditions the day after the fire, of which my boyfriend and I were forced to drive through, it was an amazing weekend.  We met really lovely people, all from different states and towns and all with different life experiences.  The day of the white out I had to leave my car on the highway as the completely untreated roads which were free of any snow 25 miles east had easily, and quickly, become 4-5 inches of dangerous white powder on top of a thick layer of ice by the time we had almost reached the Inn.  It seemed like cars were skidding out the entire drive and we even passed salt trucks that were sitting idly by on the exit ramps, obviously not having received the green light from their higher power and of no help to the many cars on the dangerously icy roads.  I was a tightly wound ball of anxiety by the time I reached the highway near our Inn.  I didn’t even attempt the steep hill up to our little haven and just left my car on the highway between a deserted minivan and a station wagon, one of three cars facing the reality of the storm conditions.

And as we settled in, happy to be safe and warm back inside the Inn, we threw our clothes in the dryer, grabbed a glass of wine, and traded stories with our fellow guests by the great room fireplace, everyone with a glass of wine in hand, while the snow continued to fall inch by inch.  We all remarked how beautiful the snow is when you aren’t forced to drive through it.  Delighted to have guests snowed in for the evening, our gracious innkeepers prepared a wonderful dinner of hearty winter chili full of perfectly red kidney beans, rustic hunks of beef, and juicy stewed tomatoes.  Topped with a bit of cheese, bright green avocados, crisp green onions, a bit of sour cream, and a large crusty baguette for dipping, it was flawless.  You had your choice of toppings of course but I tend to be very un-picky when it comes to things like that, I love to have a bit of everything.  For dessert we had warm pineapple upside down cake and why stop at one cake?  Our wonderful hosts also prepared buttery pound cake underneath plump blueberries and strawberries.  My boyfriend and I agreed that for dessert the only right thing to do was to take a plate of each rather than to make it seem as if one dessert had been less appreciated than the other.  By now the snow had reached 8 inches and we all got up to get another glass of wine.  The evening was perfect.  It wasn’t at all what we planned but it was perfect nonetheless. 

So perhaps this isn’t a traditional recipe but I find it to be just as significant to file away in my favorites box.

A recipe for a great weekend
*Get out of town (even if only going an hour away and even if only for a day or two, get away from home).
*Stay at a bed and breakfast. Trust me, try it!  Most hotels just can’t compare to the kind of warmth you get from a good B&B: amazing breakfasts made from scratch every morning that often include multiple courses (you’ll hardly need lunch) and range from items like pumpkin or lemon poppyseed pancakes and vegetable omelet soufflés to golden Belgian waffles with locally produced sausages,  little extras like wine happy hours or daily baked treats (our innkeepers made homemade chocolate chip cookies, pictured left, every day!) guests that mingle and don’t simply pass one another in the hallway to get to their rooms (you can of course have solitude when you want it), and innkeepers that truly make you feel welcomed in a way that makes you want to plan your next trip right away.
*Go with someone you care about, it doesn’t matter which relationship, or go alone for some much needed peace and quiet that seems like a retreat.
*Listen to recommendations, try out new things and embrace new experiences.
*Eat. Eat. Eat.  Whenever I’m able to make these short getaway trips I’m always happily surprised that even the smallest quaint towns have some amazing places to eat and they’re often half the price tag of what you might pay back home. Take advantage.  And the really great thing about those places is that they are steeped in charm and tradition.  There are often wonderful stories behind the food and if you’re lucky you’ll get to hear those first. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

You Had Me at “Chocolate Dipped”

I love macaroons, in a very head over heels kind of way.  I love airy French macarons in all of their bright fun colors, and I love sweet chewy coconut macaroons The two couldn't be more different but both are absolutely delicious.  I’m going to tackle French macarons at a later time as they take quite a bit more technique and finesse to make and I don’t feel completely confident that I’ve really mastered them just yet.  By golly I will this year!  That’s my goal anyway.  So for this post I decided to dig my heels deep into a good coconut macaroon making afternoon.  I’ve tried what seems like a million coconut macaroon recipes over the last several years and all have been good with a few differences, so one day I just got in the kitchen and started experimenting (you will find from future recipes that I love doing that) to create my own perfect macaroon.  What resulted from my “add a little bit of this and why not add some of that” philosophy that day was a recipe that I happily stored away in my favorite recipes box.  

These little cookies are dense and chewy and the taste of both sweet soft coconut inside and flakes that have become perfectly crisp on top is fantastic.  Add to that a dip for these guys into a sinfully smooth chocolate and you have a perfect ending to any meal, a thoughtful goodie bag for a friend, or a wonderfully indulgent afternoon snack.  I highly advise a little indulging.

Chocolate Dipped Coconut Macaroons
Makes 33-35 cookies

1 bag (14 ounces) sweetened shredded coconut
1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk
2 large egg whites (let the eggs sit out at room temp for an hour before cracking open)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon pure almond extract
Pinch of salt
8 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped (use a good quality chocolate –I’ve used Ghiradelli, Scharffen Berger, and Valrhona and all have worked well)

Preheat the oven to 325 °F.  Mix the shredded coconut, sweetened condensed milk, and extracts in a bowl.  Put the room temperature egg whites in the bowl of a very clean electric mixer (can use a hand mixer –better give that arm of yours a good stretch before starting) and start to whip on medium low speed.  After a minute or so it will start to become a bit foamy.  Throw in a pinch of salt (I use kosher salt, if you use table salt throw in an even smaller pinch) and increase the mixer speed to medium high (I usually settle somewhere around speed 7 or 8 on my kitchen aide depending on how fast the egg whites are whipping up).  Mix until the egg whites form medium firm peaks (when you pull the whisk out the egg white falls back on itself, like a little hook at the top, and it retains its shape).  Don’t be afraid to stop the mixer and check the peaks if you are unsure.  You do not want to overmix the egg whites.  See below for tips to instill confidence.

Take half of the whipped egg whites and gently fold into the coconut mixture, just until combined.  Gently fold the rest of the egg whites into the mixture.  Line a couple of sheet pans with parchment paper.  Using two teaspoons, form and drop the batter onto the parchment paper with a bit of space between each cookie.  Flatten the tops slightly with the back of the spoon (when they are too pointy, the coconut tends to burn on top).  Bake 22-26 minutes until golden brown. Only let the cookies sit for a minute or two so they can set before removing them from the pan (with macaroons, the longer you let them cool the more likely they are to stick, even to seemingly invincible parchment paper) and cool them on a wire rack. 

Chop the semisweet or bittersweet chocolate and put the chopped chocolate in a heatproof bowl (I use a glass bowl which works great).  

Place the bowl over a pot of gently simmering water.  You only need an inch or two of water in the pot (do not let the water touch the bowl of chocolate).  Stir the chocolate a few times as it melts.  Remove the bowl from the heat while there are still a couple of lumpy bits of unmelted chocolate and continue stirring until completely smooth.  I know you want to just dip your face in the chocolate right now, the aroma is that intoxicating, but resist the urge.  It’s that much better ON the cookies.  Line a large sheet pan with parchment paper.  Dip the base of the macaroons in the chocolate, so those wonderfully golden coconut flakes at the top are still showing, and place them on the parchment paper.  

Put the sheet pan in the fridge for an hour, until the chocolate is completely hardened, and enjoy!  Store leftover macaroons in the fridge.

Tip about egg white peaks: it took me some time baking to discern the difference between a soft, medium firm, and stiff peak.  Here are some tips that might be helpful.  A soft peak is when you pull the beater or whisk out and the egg white stands up and then starts to melt back into itself.  It isn’t committed to a particular shape yet.  A medium firm peak is when you pull the whisk out and the egg white folds back on itself; it's pretty obvious that it’s determined to stay that shape, no melting back into itself like the soft peak.  A stiff peak is when the egg white stands straight up and doesn’t like all of this folding back on itself business.  With egg whites I find it pays to keep checking the peaks if you are unsure, especially since no one can really tell you exactly how long to mix to get to each stage.  Mixers have different wattages and slightly different settings for medium and high speeds, so the time it takes will vary from mixer to mixer.  You don’t want to mix too far and if you do for the recipe you have, you may have to start over…or change your plans and make a chiffon cake (loves stiff peaks)!  Moral of the story –check the peaks!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like…Winter

I find no better way to start this off than with a recipe that's perfect for the cold winter season, and one not many of us could resist when confronted with accepting a spoonful….or two…or three (who’s looking?)

Herbed Potato Gratin (serves 10)
*Those of us who have made gratins, or have at least attempted them, know they are heavenly things, both visually and with regard to taste.  Though a gratin is not something you can whip up in 30 minutes and is much more a labor of love, it is so fun and incredibly rewarding to make for a nice Sunday supper or a dinner entertaining friends or family.

4 large baking potatoes, peeled
1 medium onion or 2 small onions
2 garlic cloves, chopped
2 2/3 cups (2/3 pound) Gruyère Cheese (grated)
2 ¼ cups heavy cream
1 tablespoon chopped thyme
1 teaspoon chopped rosemary
2 tablespoons good olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter (cut in half)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
¾ teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 350°F.  Use ½ tablespoon of unsalted butter to butter your baking dish (9x13, 9x14, or a large round and deep dish will work well).  Heat the other ½ tablespoon of unsalted butter and 2 tablespoons olive oil in a pan.  Slice the medium or 2 small onions thinly and sauté them on medium low heat, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes.   You want the onions to get tender but you do not want them to brown.  If they start to brown just turn down the heat a bit and monitor them. 

In a saucepan add the cream, thyme, rosemary, and chopped garlic. Warm cream on medium heat.  Don’t let it boil, you just want it to get hot so you can infuse all of those wonderful herbs and the garlic into it, but you don’t need it to simmer or boil.  Meanwhile, slice the potatoes thinly with a mandoline.  If you don’t have a mandoline you can easily use a sharp knife and slice the potatoes by hand.  A mandoline just speeds things up a bit and ensures an easy even cut (I’m not into a lot of “special equipment” in the kitchen but a mandoline pays for itself in convenience).  Place the sliced potatoes in a large bowl.  Once the onions are done, remove them from the heat.  Remove the herb infused cream from the heat.  If the cream has formed a skin at all, just skim it off of the top and discard the skimmed portion. 

Add 2 cups of the grated Gruyère to the potatoes and give it a good stir.  Add the sautéed onions to the potatoes.  Separate 3 tablespoons of the herb cream and set aside in a small dish.  Pour the rest of the cream over the potatoes.  Sprinkle the potato mixture with 1 teaspoon kosher salt and ¾ teaspoon ground black pepper.  Stir well.  Pour the mixture into the baking dish and press down the potatoes (I do it with my hand to ensure it is smooth and even).  Combine the 3 tablespoons of separated herb cream and 2/3 cup Gruyère and sprinkle it over the top of the potatoes.  Bake 1 ½ hours until the gratin is browned and nice and bubbly.  Let the gratin sit for15 minutes before serving.

The Start

Starting a food blog is something I’ve wanted to do for some time and I can’t really say why it’s taken me so long to finally do it, but I’m glad I did.  Great food is one of my greatest passions.  It’s this amazing thing that brings people together, gets us to relax and share stories with one another, takes away the stress of a horrible day at work, and gives us a feeling of accomplishment in the kitchen on days when we so desperately need that feeling.  For me food has always had a great connection to valuable experiences in my life and to the people that I care a lot about, it is quite literally connected to the passion for life inside of me.  I have been cooking, baking, sharing, and learning about food since a very young age but only recently as a woman on the brink of 30 have I come to the realization that I can use all of this to connect to the world beyond my own, to connect with other interesting people who have something to say, to share stories about something I and so many adore, to truly live a life I love.  So here on this intimate electronic page of my life I want to share with you my love of great food, great friends, and an insatiable appetite for life and all its offerings.  I hope you find a recipe, or many, that you fall in love with and an experience or two that hits home.  In the end I imagine we’re all looking for the same thing: understanding from the world around us and a way to connect to those in it.

Welcome to The Picky Pantry!