Wednesday, December 31, 2008

FoodListing 2008

Some friends of mine gave me EAT: Los Angeles: The Food Lover's Guide to Los Angeles for my birthday (which is a GREAT book), and while using the book to plan out my foodscapades for the next year, I realized that New Year's would be a good time to reflect back on food highlights for this past year. So here's some of my favorite food fun of 2008!

Biggest food obsession in the kitchen: Marshmallows/Guimauve

Without a doubt, marshmallows (and gelatin, as a correllary) have been the food I have most thought about and experimented with in 2008. I have made them in all the flavors, colors, and shapes that have appealed to me, and have more ideas on the horizon (watch out for dessert sushi and vegetarian marshmallows!).

Marshmallow Posts:
Guimauve: Beginnings of an Obsession
Guimauve Part Deux: Some Kosher Fluff
Guimauve Part Three: Gelatin Sheets
The Amazing Gelatin Sheets
Marshmallow Baby Rattles
Guimauve Flavoring
Notes on Guimauve
Marshmallow Christmas Trees

Biggest food obsession in the bakery: French Macarons

This is not an obsession that has slowed down either, but I am running out of places to try macarons in L.A.! It may come down to my own baking efforts before long, but this past year was the year of Parisian inspiration and Los Angeles exploration. Truly, macarons are difficult to describe, but one taste and you'll be hooked (just look at all the exclamation points I use below...). Still the best in L.A.: Europane.

Macaron Posts:
Tasting Paris
Happy Fourteenth of July!
Paulette: Life is like this box of macarons
Europane: Mmmmacarons!
Boule: Another macaron attempt
Happy Foodie Halloween!

Favorite Food Experience
This is an incredibly difficult thing to decide; I've had a great time throwing food-themed parties with friends, going out to eat all over L.A. with new foodie friends (shout out to the AWC!), exploring food in Paris and Jerusalem, gorging myself at a chocolate buffet in Boston, rediscovering going out to eat alone, and just enjoying cooking in my own kitchen. On second thought, I'm not going to choose a favorite...

Favorite Dessert to take to a Party

Cupcakes! I can never resist the temptation to try something new for an occasion, but my method of flavoring boxed cake mixes has allowed me to play around a lot with cupcake flavors and decorations. I also happen to love how photogenic cupcakes are! "A Little More Cupcaking Around" has my favorites.

Cupcake Posts:
Cupcake Playdate
A Little More Cupcaking Around
Fall Cupcakes

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Mom's Christmas Cookies

Every December, my mother's kitchen - and living room, and den, and garage - gets taken over by thousands of Christmas cookies. She works for weeks to produce these beautiful platters of cookies that get distributed to business associates, friends, neighbors, and family members; they are given out to so many people that the cookies do, indeed run out! The following are a selection of the traditional repertoire of cookies that she has built up for our family.

Santa's Whiskers cookies: Mom's grandmother's recipe. Green and red candied cherries, pecans, lots of butter, all rolled in shredded coconut. Slightly chewy with nice crispness to the edges.

Gingerbread cookies, of course! Sometimes decorated, sometimes not, but always soft and well spiced.

Pecan balls: Many call these cookies Mexican Wedding cookies, or Russian Tea Cakes, but Mom's version of these buttery, pecany balls are small and light, ready for a quick pop in the mouth. It's a good thing we have cousins who love these enough to spend hours rolling the balls by hand! The powdered sugar that we store these in at Christmas is always left over in abundance, slightly pecan-flavored and ready for sprinkling on pancakes.

Pecan bars: Anyone who loves pecan pie is a sucker for these honeyed, buttery, nutty bars - a layer of shortbread on the bottom with the gooey sugary nut layer on top.

Chocolate peanut butter bars: These require no baking, just mixing, pressing in a pan, and covering with chocolate. Amazing what magic that can come of peanut butter, powdered sugar, more butter, graham cracker crumbs, and chocolate!

Ganache Cups
: My little brother's most recent addition to our selection, and the chocolatiest of chocolate treats. He creates the cups by painting the inside of small silicone baking cups with melted chocolate, and once they are hardened, he squeezes dark chocolate ganache (which is just heavy cream with chocolate) into the middle. Beautiful and so, so rich. The next generation is already making their mark!

To those who celebrate Christmas, I wish a happy and tasty holiday!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Swiss Chard Tart

Since I've made this tart four times in the last week, I feel like I need to share it with you all. I've made it so many times not just because it has a whole wheat crust, or because it's another way to get veggies on the table, or because it's a vegetarian entrée, or to use my new tart pan, but because it tastes so good! This tart is full of unexpected flavors and textures that bring something unique to any meal.

This recipe is based on Chocolate and Zucchini's Swiss Chard Pie, but I swapped out the pizza crust for the pâte brisée in the C&Z cookbook, which I made with whole wheat flour, and I used cottage cheese instead of costlier ricotta.

First, you make the pastry 30 minutes to one day ahead of time (it can be frozen for up to three days).

Pâte brisée
1 1/3 C King Arthur white whole wheat flour (white flour if desired)
1/2 tsp salt
8 oz chilled unsalted butter
1 large egg, lightly beaten
Ice cold water

In a mixing bowl, stir together the flour and salt, and then cut in the butter with a pastry cutter or a fork until the butter and flour together make a coarse texture (this may also be done in a food processor). Stir in the egg, and then mix in the water one teaspoon at a time until the pastry starts to come together and you can form a ball. Make it into a flattened ball, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator 10 minutes before you plan to use it. After the 10 minutes, roll it out into a circle the size of your 10-inch tart pan (with removable bottom, if possible) on a floured pastry cloth. Lay the dough over your tart pan and press it lightly around the bottom edge. Use your hands to even the edges of the dough with the pan, removing any extra dough and smoothing out the edges. Now your dough is ready for the filling.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees while you prepare the filling.

Chard filling
1 bunch Swiss chard
1 clove garlic, minced
1 handful raisins
1 handful pine nuts, toasted
1/2 C cottage cheese or ricotta cheese

Make a cup of tea and soak the raisins in the tea.

Prepare the Swiss chard by washing the leaves and stems. Separate the leaves from the stems and chop the stems to bite-size pieces. Gradually heat the clove of garlic in 1 tsp of olive oil in a saucepan, and then add the chard stems and cook them for a few minutes. Once they start to get translucent, add the chard leaves torn up into bite-sized pieces and cook for a few more minutes until wilted. Drain the cooked chard in a colander and then squeeze out excess moisture by placing cooked chard in a clean dish towel or doubled paper towel, twisting the towel around the chard, and squeezing out as must moisture as possible (if you skip this step, the tart will be watery).

Mix the drained chard with raisins, pine nuts, and cottage cheese/ricotta. Pour the mixture into the tart crust and spread evenly. Add more cheese if you'd like the tart to be more full.

Bake in the oven for 25 minutes and let cool before serving.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Mendiant Bark

Need a little last-minute holiday treat? Try this traditional French Christmas sweet that takes very little effort and time. Normally a mendiant is made as 1 1/2 inch disks of chocolate with a nut or two and a piece of dried fruit or two on top (also an easy option), but I made it into a big bar of chocolate that I broke into pieces after it hardened.

You can make this with dark chocolate, white chocolate, or any other kind of chocolate you can think of, and you can top it with any combination of dried fruits and nuts that you like. Here's my favorite version:

Mendiant Bark
12 oz. white chocolate (chips or a bar that you can cut up)
handful of dried cranberries
handful of dried apricots, diced small
a few pieces of crystalized ginger, diced small
handful of toasted sliced almonds
handful of toasted pecan bits
handful of pistachio meats

Melt the chocolate in a double boiler or in the microwave (no more than 30 seconds at a time, with good stirs in between) and pour out onto a piece of parchment paper on a baking sheet. Spread as thin as you like, and proceed to sprinkle the fruits and nuts randomly and thickly over the chocolate. Crowd the toppings together and cover all open areas of chocolate so that every bite is sure to get some goodies. Make sure that all the fruits and nuts are pressed into the chocolate so that they do not fall off when you break the bark into individual pieces. Once the chocolate has hardened, use a large chef knife to break it into random-shaped pieces, or break it with your hands.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Almond and Chocolate Cake

This is for those of you who are looking for a flourless option, a lower-carb and higher fiber option, or just a plain good dessert. It has more of a cake texture than flourless chocolate cakes that are mostly made of eggs, since it uses ground almonds to replace the flour.

Almond and Chocolate Cake
From Paris in a Basket

5 oz/150 g unsweetened chocolate or 6 T cocoa
5 oz/225 g sugar (2/3 C)
7 oz/200 g butter, room temperature
10 oz/300 g ground almonds (found at Trader Joe's)
3 T flour (eliminate if you need this to be gluten free)
5 eggs, separated
1 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt

1. Grate chocolate by hand or in a food processor (or measure cocoa). Mix with the sugar, the egg yolks, and the butter until blended and smooth.
2. Add the almonds and flour and mix well.
3. Beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt, at soft peak add the baking powder and continue beating until firm. Carefully fold into the other ingredients. Do not overmix.
4. Preheat oven to 375 F (190 C). Rub an 8-inch pan (springform works well) with butter and sprinkle with flour. Pour the mixture into the pan, smooth even with a spatula and place in oven. Bake approximately 30 minutes or until a toothpick placed in the center of the cake comes out clean.
5. Let cool, remove from pan and sprinkle with confectioner's sugar. Serve with a spoonful of creme fraiche/whipped cream and/or fresh raspberries (or at least defrosted frozen fresh raspberries!) on the side.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Marshmallow Christmas Trees

After my foray into marshmallow baby rattles, I knew I could get more creative with my guimauve/marshmallow creations, so here's the newest: Marshmallow Christmas Trees.

To summarize, I made mint marshmallow and cut out three sizes of circles, which conveniently left small pointy sections that could act as the top of the tree, and glued it all together with chocolate (one of my recipes made 7 trees like this).

To give more detail, I shook green sprinkles over the marshmallow after I poured it into a pan, and after it sat overnight I cut out the shapes and rolled them in powdered sugar. After those shapes sat overnight, I dipped each piece in dark chocolate and stacked them together. They held beautifully once hardened (while melty they threatened to avalanche), a process I sped up with 30 minutes or so in the fridge.

And there you have a Suess-ical, snow-tipped Christmas tree marshmallow. As close to snow as I'm going to get in Southern California this Christmas!

Saturday, December 13, 2008


On my trip to Boston last month, I had a fabulous time at a chocolate buffet, but I also re-discovered another luxurious pleasure: taking myself out to lunch. It was my last day in town, and I still hadn't made it to Sonsie, where I'd been trying to go all week, so I decided to use my last few hours there to take myself out.

I had been there once in 2003, and still remember vividly the gingerbread waffle with cinnamon ice cream and caramel sauce that I had that time, so I knew I had to go back. In addition to the great food, it is located on beautiful Newbury Street, and is known as a place to see and be seen. Indeed, I saw two members of the Office cast come in while I was there for a late lunch, so that and the meal made my day!

I felt like a burger, so I got this sirloin burger with yummy pickles and fries. And I ate it very slowly, savoring each juicy bite and enjoying the peaceful table to myself. As much as dining with other people is fun, I find it quite relaxing to be able to enjoy my food without making a social occasion of it. Food is versatile, after all - it is good for a party and for your personal enjoyment!

I wasn't ready to leave after my entrée, so I ordered an espresso and this lovely Pear Hélène: a pear peeled and cored, poached in a vanilla syrup that soaked through all the pear flesh, and served with dark chocolate sauce and vanilla ice cream. The chocolate sauce was so good that I was scooping it up with my little coffee teaspoon when the waiters' backs were turned, trying to not embarrass myself in this nice establishment.

The wait staff were wonderful, giving me a place to set my suitcase, and letting me sit as long as I liked. I enjoyed the experience so much that I took myself out to brunch on my birthday, and it was equally fabulous. I may have to work up to going out to dinner alone, but at the present I plan to reserve breakfasts, brunches, and lunches out alone as a special treat. Take a book or just sit alone with your thoughts and the bustle of the restaurant - you'll love it!

Whole Wheat Pita Pockets

During my time in Israel I got hooked on the fresh, soft pita we had every day (with PBJ, or tuna salad, or lunchmeats, or pickles...), and the experience really made it difficult to go back to packaged pitas here in the States. So, upon my return I asked one of my bread expert friends for a pita recipe, and you see the result here! This was the third time I made them, and they finally came out with satisfactory pockets:

They may be a little funny looking on the outside, but they are soft and very stuffable. Next time you make lemon garlic hummus (or buy it, fine), try whipping up a batch of this dough. It's not hard, really! You mix it up, let it sit overnight or even more, and then shape it and bake it. The shaping takes a little longer than you expect, so take that into account. But do not be intimidated by the length of this post!

The one part I find difficult (which impeded the development of my pockets a bit) is getting the pitas onto the hot pan; I kind of end up throwing each pat of dough into the oven, praying that it does not fold over on itself when it lands. Until I get a cool tool like the Super Peel or even a simpler wooden version of a peel, or until I decide to use a piece of parchment for every pita to transfer it into the oven, I'll probably just continue throwing the pitas in the oven one at a time.

For me, the funnest part of this is that the pockets just form of their own accord - well, really, they form because the oven or pan is so hot that steam forms quickly on the inside of the bread and puffs it up all together - but it looks like magic when you don't know what's causing it. Bread is so fascinating!

So flour your hands and throw this dough together from the ingredients you know you already have; why not have fresh pitas ready for your holiday leftovers? (hm, pita with shredded turkey thigh, a little stuffing and gravy, lined with cranberry sauce, maybe some pesto...remember that idea...)

Whole Wheat Pita Pockets
From The Bread Bible

Minimum rising time: 1 hour
Oven temperature: 475 degrees or higher
Baking time: 3 minutes per pita
Makes: 12 four-inch pitas or 8 six-inch pitas

3 C and a scant 1/4 C White Whole Wheat Flour (King Arthur brand)
2 tsp salt
2 tsp instant yeast
2 T olive oil
1 1/2 C water at room temperature

Mix dough at least 1.5 hours before shaping, or up to 3 days ahead (dough will keep in the refrigerator).

If you have a stand mixer/Kitchen Aid: Place all ingredients in mixer bowl and mix on low speed with paddle attachment (speed #2 for Kitchen Aid) for about 20 seconds until flour is moistened. Change to the dough hook attachment and knead for 10 minutes at a medium speed (#4). The dough should clean the bowl and be soft and a little bit sticky to the touch. Scrape down the sides and bottom at least once during the process (turn the mixer off first!) in order to ensure that the flour on the bottom of the bowl gets incorporated. Add a little flour or water to adjust the stickiness.

If you are mixing the dough by hand: Combine all the ingredients except for the scant 1/4 cup of flour. With a wooden spoon or your hand, mix until the flour is moistened. Knead the dough in the bowl until it comes together. Sprinkle a little of the reserved flour on the counter and pour the dough out onto it. Knead for 5 minutes, adding as little of the remaining flour as possible to prevent sticking. Use a dough scraper to scrape and gather the dough together as you knead it. It will be very sticky. Cover the dough with the inverted bowl and let it rest for 5 to 20 minutes so that it will become less sticky. Knead the dough for another 5-10 minutes until it is soft and smooth and just a little sticky to the touch. Add a little flour or water if necessary.

After either mixing and kneading the dough by mixer or by hand, let the dough rise in a large greased bowl. Press the dough into the bowl and spray or oil the top of it. Cover the container with a lid or plastic wrap. With a piece of tape, mark the side of the bowl at the height to which the dough should rise, about double the original height of the dough. Refrigerate the dough overnight or up to three days, checking every hour for the first 4 hours and pressing down if it starts to rise (I often forget to check and it turns out fine).

When you're ready to shape the dough, preheat the oven to 475 or 500 degrees one hour before baking. Have an oven shelf at the lowest level with a baking sheet, baking stone, or cast iron skillet on it to heat with the oven.

On a lightly floured surface, cut the dough into 8 (for bigger) or 12 (for smaller) pieces. Work with one piece at a time, keeping the rest covered with a damp cloth. On a lightly floured counter, with lightly floured hands, shape each piece into a ball and then flatten it into a disk. Cover the dough with oiled plastic and allow it to rest for 20 minutes at room temperature. Roll each disk into a circle a little under 1/4 inch thick. Allow them to rest, uncovered, for 10 minutes before baking.

To bake the pita, quickly place 1 piece of dough directly on the baking surface and bake for 3 minutes. The pita should be completely puffed but not beginning to brown. The dough will not puff well if it is not moist enough. See how the pita puffs, then, if necessary, spray and knead each remaining piece with water until the dough is soft and moist; allow to rest again and reroll as before (but even if they don't puff they taste great). Proceed with the remaining dough, baking 3 or 4 pieces at a time if using a baking stone or sheet. Using a pancake turner, transfer the pita breads to a clean towel, to stay soft and warm. Allow the oven to reheat for 5 minutes between batches. The pitas can be reheated for about 30 seconds in a hot oven before serving.

To cook the pitas on the stovetop, preheat a griddle or cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Lightly grease the surface and cook the pitas one at a time. Cook for about 20 seconds, then turn the dough and continue cooking for 1 minute or until big bubbles appear. Turn the dough again and cook until the dough balloons. If the dough begins to brown, lower the heat. The entire cooking process for each pita should be about 3 minutes.

Both oven-baking and stovetop cooking are easy, so take your pick!