Friday, January 16, 2009

Mom's Carrot Cake

I have to say, I very predictably loved the movie Waitress. I love how the main character invents pies to express her feelings. I love how she names them names that say something about life. I love how her creativity asserts itself in unexpected joining of flavors and vibrant colors. It brings to mind other favorite food movies of mine...Ratatouille's depiction of food experience as swirls of color curling around the taster, or the character in Bonjour, Monsieur Shlomi who bakes cakes for people as an offering of affection.

Cake has been one of my metaphorical pies, a creative outlet that I hope will be a gift to the person I'm baking for. This week a friend of mine had a birthday, so I took her request for carrot cake and put to work my mom's tried and true recipe. And since my mom is the one who showed me how to love people with food, this seems an appropriate sample of my food philosophy! You'll love this moist, texture-full cake that is both light and not too sweet. Frost with cream cheese frosting.

Mom's Carrot Cake

2 C flour
2 C sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 C oil
4 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
1 can (20 oz.) crushed pineapple, very well drained
2 C finely grated carrots
1/2 C nuts (optional)
1/2 C raisins, soaked in hot water for 15 minutes and then well drained (optional)

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. Stir together the dry ingredients in a mixing bowl or a stand mixer: flour, sugar, cinnamon, baking powder, and baking soda.
3. Add oil, eggs one at a time, and vanilla. When combined, add remaining ingredients and beat together.
4. Prepare the baking pan(s): this recipe makes either one 9" x 13" pan, two 10" round pans, or three 8" round pans. Trace each pan you choose on parchment paper and cut out the paper to line the bottom of each pan. Spray the bottom and sides inside each pan with a non-stick spray, and place the parchment paper liner on the bottom of each pan. Now spray the top of the parchment paper. Spoon a few tablespoons of flour into each pan, and over the sink tap and turn the pan to lightly cover the bottom and sides of the pan with flour. This technique will allow the baked cakes to come out of the pans without sticking, which is especially important for this moist cake.
5. Pour the batter into the pans, to an equal height in each pan. Bake one 9" x 13" for one hour, two 10" pans for 40 minutes, or three 8" pans for 30 minutes.
6. Cakes are done when the cake starts to slightly pull away from the side of the pan and a toothpick comes out from the center with only a crumb or two.
7. Let cakes cool for 5 minutes in the pans, and then run a butter knife around the side of each cake before turning cakes out onto cooling racks.

While the cakes cool completely, make your icing!

Cream Cheese Frosting

1 cube butter, softened at room temperature
8 oz. cream cheese (do not use low-fat cream cheese)
1 tsp vanilla
1 lb. powdered sugar, sifted (about 4 C)

Cream together the butter and cream cheese with a hand mixer or stand mixer.
Add vanilla and, gradually, the powdered sugar.
Whip until light.

Use 2 recipes of frosting for a single layer 9" x 13" cake. Use 3 recipes for a double layer 9" x 13" cake. Also great with spice cakes or fruity cakes like my cupcakes!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Making Vanilla Extract

Back in August I read this blog post and decided to make my own vanilla extract.  It sounded so easy - just throw the stuff in a jar, stick it in a cupboard for a few months, and voilà, vanilla extract!

The vanilla beans I ordered online were a great deal, and I've been able to add fabulous flavor to marshmallows and various baked goods with them.  

The extract, on the other hand, is taking a little longer than expected to produce results.  While the instructions I followed at the top link above said that the initial concoction of alcohol, store-bought vanilla extract, and vanilla beans should produce a useable extract after 6-8 weeks, I found that it was rather weak.  Well, weak on vanilla - but still very strong on the alcohol!  I have used the extract in a few baked goods since October, but only when I knew it would not greatly affect the outcome.

This slow development of my extract may be due to the slow rate at which I am adding vanilla beans as I use up their seeds in other cooking projects, but I have a feeling that this would not account for the still very powerful alcohol content that was supposed to have faded by now.  I have used a combination of vodka and brandy in order to develop a more complex flavor, but perhaps they have just strengthened each other's resolve to dominate the jar...

I will continue to add beans to the jar and let it sit in my cupboard, but I would love any tips about how to assist this development.  As I read online, this would make a great gift, and a continuous supply of vanilla extract would be immensely practical, but I'm still pretty far from that goal...any helpful ideas?

Monday, January 12, 2009

Beet Salad with Pecans

I have been exploring beets a bit recently, and I think I've found my favorite beet salad so far. For me, I prefer to mix the beets up with other vegetables rather than having the beets make up the bulk of the salad, and, thanks to a friend of mine, I've discovered that lemon juice and pecans are a great compliment to the beets.

I also find that a little beet salad goes a long way, so this is a small portion of salad. For one person, it could last up to several days if you eat a bit of it with the rest of your meals. It may sound odd, but in somewhat Israeli fashion I actually had some with breakfast one day, and its light sweetness and crunch was quite pleasant.

Beet Salad with Pecans
4 baby beets (raw or uncooked)
1 C broccoli slaw
1 daikon radish
handful of pecan bits
juice from 1/2 lemon
1 tsp olive oil
2 tsp Splenda or honey

If your beets are raw, cut the stems off about 1 inch above the beet, cover them with water in a medium saucepan, and boil them for 45 minutes. Then drain the beets, and once they are cooled use your fingers to rub off the outside skin - it should just slip off.

Toast the pecan bits in a frying pan on the stovetop; add a few teaspoons of brown sugar if you want to caramelize them a bit. Stir continually over medium-high heat for a few minutes. When they start to brown, remove them from the heat and spread the nuts out over a piece of foil or parchment paper. Allow the nuts to cool while the beets finish cooking. When the nuts are cool you'll want to break them apart from each other with a wooden spoon.

Take the cooked beets (either purchased cooked, like the small package of baby beets at Trader Joe's, or the ones you just cooked) and slice them into thin shreds.

Wash the daikon radish and shred it (with a grater or in a food processor with a grater attachment).

Combine all the ingredients in a small bowl. Adjust to taste.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Veggie Pizza Bowl

This recipe is something simple that will satisfy those who both love pizza and limit carbs - or are simply trying to get more vegetables into their diet. All you need to do is keep a few pizza ingredients in the freezer, and you can pull them out anytime for spur-of-the-moment pizza flavor without pizza crust!

This idea came to me in a post-holiday carb avoidance period when I was craving pizza. I had made myself my roasted cauliflower chicken salad, but it wasn't hitting the spot the way I hoped it would. But then it occurred to me - why not throw my favorite pizza flavors on the cauliflower salad? I liked it so much that I had it for three meals in a row...minus breakfast.

So, here's the items I prefer from Trader Joe's; you can add them to any roasted/steamed/baked/sautéed vegetable dish. It's a great way to spice up leftovers!

Veggie Pizza Bowl

a bowl of cooked vegetables (cauliflower, broccoli, celery, onion, zucchini, green beans, etc.)
a few Tablespoons of pizza sauce
a generous sprinkling of parmesan cheese
a few shakes of red pepper flakes
a thin slice of mozzarella cheese (or soy cheese, in my case)
4-5 slices of pepperoni (the Volpi brand at TJ's has nice thin slices that crisp up fast)

Layer the ingredients in a bowl in the order listed, increasing or decreasing the proportions to your preference (more veggies and less cheese equals a healthier bowl). Microwave for about two minutes. If you prefer to toast or broil this, you'll need to put everything in an oven-proof container.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Caramels au Fleur de Sel

Introducing the recipe that caused me to finally buy a candy thermometer ($10 at Target!): Caramels au Fleur de Sel. I was watching the Barefoot Contessa's show, and I loved the idea of individually wrapped caramels served at a party. She made the recipe look easy, and I love fleur de sel, a French sea salt that I have been using in all my salted brown sugar caramel concoctions.

So I bought the thermometer and ingredients and went to it. The caramels turned out chewy and soft, with just the right amount of salt to compliment the sweetness.

Caramels au Fleur de Sel

1 1/2 C sugar
1/4 C corn syrup*
1/2 water
1 tsp fleur de sel (at Trader Joe's you can buy a similar Coarse Sea Salt for this)
1 C heavy cream
5 T butter
1/2 tsp vanilla

Prepare an 8x8 inch square pan by lining it with parchment paper on the bottom and sides and greasing the parchment paper (it will be sticky, so you won't be sorry you did this step).

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine the sugar, corn syrup, and water. Stir until it is a warm brown caramel color as in the picture below. If you keep the stove burner at a low heat, this will take up to 30 minutes, but if you're willing to take a slight risk with your sugar syrup (which burns easily) you can speed up the process by turning the fire up to medium-high.

Once the caramel has reached the desired color, add the fleur de sel and the heavy cream. The cream will bubble violently when you add it, so be prepared to stir vigorously until it calms down. Stir in the butter and vanilla once the bubbling dies down.

Place the candy thermometer in the caramel according to the thermometer's instructions, and leave on the heat without stirring until it reaches 248 degrees. As soon as it gets to 248, turn off the heat, and pour the caramel into the prepared pan. Do not ever line the pan with foil as in the picture above - this caramel fought a fierce fight with the foil, and the caramel won!

Once the caramel has cooled, you can either cut it up into squares, or roll it into pieces by cutting the pan down the middle, and then rolling up the strip of caramel into a log. Sprinkle more fleur de sel lightly over the log or squares. If using the log roll method, cut the log into the size pieces you desire. Cut parchment paper into squares large enough to twist around each caramel piece, and serve!

By the way, this caramel went really well with my homemade marshmallows...

*I tried using agave syrup instead of the corn syrup once, and the caramel was slightly different in flavor (but still good), and much softer. That was great caramel to wrap around marshmallows!

Monday, January 5, 2009

Café Santorini

As the next year of foodscapades begins, I have to mention my favorite restaurant in Pasadena: Café Santorini. I started my New Year's weekend with the Ultimate Chocolate Martini (pictured in the center above), and capped it off with dinner at Santorini.

As someone who loves food, it's a bit difficult to admit that my favorite restaurant in this restaurant-full city is not my favorite because of the food (even though it's quite good) but because of the atmosphere. I'm just a sucker for a warm Mediterranean interior, what can I say? Who wouldn't find these fairy lights or the outdoors patio magical?

The Mediterranean food is tasty and filling; three of us were not even able to finish the two appetizers and pizza we ordered: Kubbe (meat filling encased on the outside with fried bulgur pockets) and Baba Ganoush with pita.

The Santorini pizza was excellent! Topped with tender lamb, fresh basil, and mild goat cheese.

Don't forget to make reservations, or you may not get in...

Café Santorini

70 W. Union Street
Pasadena, CA 91103