Sunday, August 30, 2009

Baking the Bake-Off: Project 1 Nut Twists

Ah the great Pillsbury Bake-Off! Something about that famed contest has always intrigued me, although I have never personally had the opportunity to join in the fun and excitement. Throughout my life, I have eaten several of the recipes that had once taken home the grand prize, without even realizing they had originated in that grande dame of American baking contests. I had no clue that recipes such as Peanut Blossoms, a bake sale classic, and the delicious Tunnel of Fudge Cake had gotten their start in the Pillsbury Bake-off. There are some fantastic recipes that have made their way through that contest!

My boxes of household goods have finally all arrived from London and I am currently digging my way through them unpacking. If I can ever get fully moved in, find a stable job, and my life is slightly less complicated than it is at the moment, I would love to enter the Bake-Off someday, especially since the competition is now held in, of all places,.. Florida! Yay! I have so many ideas that I would love to try out on the judges and see what they think. Well maybe someday .. at least it is a more realistic possibility now that I live closer to the event itself.

Recently, the Food Network has started re-airing the most recent competition, gearing up towards the next big event in 2010. Inspired by the show, I decided to do something I had been meaning to do for years... start baking the Bake-off recipes, one by one. I had already made some of the recipes in the past, but never sat down and methodically went through the prize winners, year by year, trying out each one and seeing for myself why each of them won that huge prize. Hopefully, I will be able to continue my quest to bake them all off and write about my journey.

The very first winner of the Pillsbury Bake-Off, back in 1949, was No-Knead Water-Rising Twists. The twists are somewhat like cinnamon buns, only without icing and they are of course shaped differently. Pillsbury's website has a modified version up that has "modernized" the recipe to make it easier for today's cooks. After making the recipe using the original version, I have a better understanding of why they did this. However, I still wanted to try the actual version of the recipe that won, tricky steps and all. It was, after all, the recipe that launched such a classic, massive contest... I really didn't want to try the quickie version. It just felt like cheating to me. Luckily for me, I happen to have a copy of one of the first Pillsbury Bake-Off cookbooks, a treasure picked up at a yard sale. If you would like to try the updated version, which I imagine is still quite good and for all I know, may indeed be an improvement, you can find the new recipe here.

As I began preparing my ingredients for the recipe, I immediately noticed some significant changes... the amount of flour was 3 cups in the original, and the modern version is 2 1/2-3 1/2 cups. The modern version uses more sugar, less salt, fewer eggs and nuts, butter or margarine instead of shortening, and more milk. That seems like a lot of changes to me! The methods used to mix the ingredients were updated as well, and some of those changes account for the simple fact that we have more gadgets and electric kitchen tools at our disposal than most home cooks would have had access to back in 1949, so I can see why such updates were suggested. There is no longer a need, in the US, anyway, to scald milk, as our milk comes pasteurized. It simply needs to be warmed up so that the fat can be melted and blended into it smoothly.

There was one change that did stand out to me though that made me scratch my head and wonder why they changed it, since it is quite possibly a huge reason why this recipe stood out from the pack in the first place... they had removed the "water rising" method. It seems to me a bit odd to call a recipe "water-rising" when the dough is actually left to rise in the usual way, in a bowl until doubled, covered with a damp cloth. Isn't that just normal "air-rising?" While I was perfectly happy to use an electric mixer for part of the process, I was determined to at least try out the old fashioned "water-rising" technique, a process that involves wrapping the dough in a tea towel, tying it up, and leaving it to rise in a bowl of warm water. Yes.. the dough soaks in water, yes the dough is and should be quite damp. It reminded me of the way a Clootie Dumpling is traditionally prepared. Perhaps this change was based on the assumption that not many cooks these days have a pile of clean tea towels lying around just waiting to be used to soak dough in. Realistically, this is probably a pretty accurate assumption.

The water-rising method was actually pretty cool. I found it fascinating seeing the wet mass of raw dough get tied up neatly into its cloth sack and left to soak in its warm bath. As the dough rises, it begins to float higher and higher in the bowl, until it is truly bobbing like a raft. Upon opening the cloth, I was delighted to see that the dough had really changed dramatically during its soak - it had grown and instead of just being a sticky wet mess, it had elasticity and although still a very wet dough, did not glue itself to my fingers like paste. It is still pretty sticky, but it is supposed to be, as the next step is scooping out blobs of the dough with a spoon and then dropping them into a dish of cinnamon, sugar, and nuts, and letting them roll around and get coated with all that yummy goodness. The dough then gets stretched into long twists or "S" shapes and placed onto greased baking sheets, ready to puff up in the oven. The original made 2 dozen twists, the modern version suggests only making 1 dozen, mine ended up being 1 1/2 dozen.

These were really light in texture and not overly sweet, perfect with a cup of hot tea or dunked into coffee. I would personally like more cinnamon, so next time I might add a bit more. These didn't keep very well, which was a shame as they were really great the first day. I think the leftovers would be really nice torn up and used in a bread pudding.

Here is the version I used, as found in Pillsbury's Best 1000 Recipes Best of the Bake-Off Collection, 1959:

No-Knead Water-Rising Twists, (based on the original version by Mrs Ralph E. Smafield)
(1-2 dozen breakfast buns)

1/2 cup shortening, butter, or margarine (original used shortening)
3 Tbsp granulated sugar
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 cup milk, warmed
1/4 cup water, lukewarm
2 packets of active dry yeast (each packet is 2 1/4 tsp)
3 cups all-purpose flour, sifted, divided
3 large eggs, unbeaten

3/4 cups chopped nuts (I used pecans)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon (or more to taste)

Combine shortening, sugar, salt, vanilla, and warm milk until smooth, allow mixture to cool to lukewarm. (The modern version suggests mixing these in a saucepan on the stove, which I think is a good suggestion).

Meanwhile, combine yeast with the warm water and allow to sit until frothy, about 5 minutes. Add this to the shortening mixture. Add in half of the flour and beat until smooth (you can use a sturdy mixer for this step if you prefer). Cover and allow to rest for 15 minutes.

Since I was sitting around anyway, I went ahead and mixed up the ingredients for the topping in a small bowl and set them aside. I also greased two baking sheets (next time, I would line them with parchment instead).

Add in one egg at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the remaining flour gradually until it is all combined and you have a smooth dough without any lumps or dry spots.

Get out a clean tea towel and a large, deep bowl. Now, since you will be soaking your dough wrapped inside a cloth, you want to be certain this towel is not only clean, but be certain you have not used any fabric softeners or dryer sheets when you washed it, as they tend to leave behind a residue that I doubt anyone wants to be ingesting. I have a pretty unreasonably large collection of clean cloths I specifically use only for baking, so for me this was not a problem. I suspect you would get similar results placing the dough inside a plastic airtight baggie, so next time I might test that out as an alternative. The modern version suggests allowing the dough to rise in a bowl covered with a damp cloth and plastic wrap.

Lay out your towel and place the dough in the center. The dough will be like a thick wet batter. Gather up two edges of the cloth and tie them together, leaving enough room inside for a large pocket of air; repeat with the opposite corners. The idea is to contain the dough inside the cloth, leaving enough room for it to grow inside the cloth. Set the dough sack into a large bowl and then pour in warm water all around the sides, filling the bowl nearly full. Allow the dough to sit in its bath for about 35-45 minutes, or until the dough has risen to the top of the water.

Preheat your oven to 375 F. Remove the dough sack from the water and set it into a clean bowl. Open the cloth - the dough's texture will have changed considerably, but it should still be a fairly soft and somewhat wet dough. Grab your prepared baking sheets, your cinnamon nut topping, and an ordinary flatware tablespoon. Scoop out a nice sized blob of dough and drop it into your topping bowl. Roll the dough ball around to coat it thoroughly, then lift it, shaking off the excess, and then stretch it to about 8" in length. Twist the dough like a corkscrew and then place onto the baking sheets - you can leave them straight like batons or curve the dough into "S" shapes or snail shapes as you prefer. This would be a great part to let kids do with you, as it was easy and quite fun to work with.

Pop the twists into the oven and allow them to bake for about 12-15 minutes (the modern version suggests 8-16). They should be puffed and lightly golden, and they may still appear slightly glistening on the exterior. Remove to wire racks to cool slightly and eat while still warm.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Chicken, the Orange, and the Great Big Messy Kitchen

Oh wow, so where do I begin on this one? This was supposed to be such an easy, inexpensive, just elegant meal. Hah! Have you ever had one of those nights when no matter what you do, everything just seems to be going against you. I started off with a great plan, a simple plan: Watch new cooking program, buy ingredients, cook incredibly easy recipes, enjoy relaxing meal. The show was the new $10 Dinners with Melissa D'Arabian, the latest winner of The Next Food Network Star. She made it look easy and promised everything was really cheap to make.

List in hand, I rushed down to my local grocery and was very pleased to see bone-in chicken breasts (for the Chicken à l'Orange) were on sale this week, at a mere $.99 a pound, a huge savings! The recipe only calls for chicken, honey, salt and pepper, oil, and some frozen OJ concentrate. Melissa made some crispy potatoes to serve as a side dish, I already had a nice big sack of Yukon Golds sitting in my pantry at home. The remaining items were for the salad, a fennel cole slaw. I wasn't really sure about that slaw, but I thought, what the heck, I will give it a try - it is supposed to be inexpensive and I do like the taste of licoricey fennel even if my daughter probably would not. $2.99 a pound for a vegetable! I dug through the pile and tried to find the smallest, lightest bulb.. plunked it into the scale and gasped ... it weighed in at 1 1/2 pounds. I just wasn't about to spend $4.50 on one vegetable for a salad I was likely going to be the only one eating. So no slaw, just a simple tossed salad instead.

Now you would think that with a recipe that only has 3 main ingredients, I would have easily remembered them all. I somehow managed to forget all about the orange juice concentrate, an ingredient I never usually buy. I had regular orange juice in the house, but I wasn't sure if it would really work in this case without reducing it far longer than I felt like bothering with. So back to the store I went for the missing OJ concentrate.

OK because I don't feel like writing this anymore, some key points: The pan I used to brown the chicken in was too small and I did the thing I have always been warned never to do - I crowded the pan. And alas, my poor chicken suffered miserably. It took forever for the skin to brown, since everything was basically steaming in the very small pot. I eventually gave up struggling with it and used the pan my potatoes had browned in to brown some of the chicken. It worked much more quickly that way, of course. Amazing thing following the directions is, huh? Once my chicken skin was nice and brown, I finally was able to pop it into the oven, glistening with the OJ sauce to bake for... did I read that correctly.. only 15 minutes at 375 F? Well, my potatoes were already roasting and I put my faith in the tv show's hostess and hoped for the best. The chicken was of course not done in 15 minutes. In fact, it took more like 35 minutes. By which point my lovely crispy potatoes had been sitting done on the counter for 10 minutes already and had gotten slightly soggy.

Then came the deboning part of the process. Oh my goodness what a task that was. Trying to remove a sticky orange sauce coated piece of chicken from its bone without destroying the shape of the meat itself was a tricky procedure. After much grumbling and a very messy cutting board, I did manage to pluck out the offending bones and sliced up my lovely looking chicken meat. The skin however did not survive the process, I am sad to report. Since I rarely eat chicken skin anyway, I wasn't exactly heartbroken, but it does look a lot more attractive with the golden crispy skin still on.

The chicken did end up tasting good and I am sure it would turn out even better if I had used the right sized pan. The potatoes were tasty too, if a bit oily and slightly soggy, but overall, no major complaints. Ah well, so much for getting right to the point and making this short.

Sorry for the grumbly mood. I really need to stockpile some chocolate for days like this. If you would like to try these recipes, they can be found here.

Monday, August 24, 2009

My Favorite Banana Bread

Banana bread is one those amazing recipes that seems to be universally loved, and for which there are thousands and thousands of variations. Everyone has their own spin on banana bread, and really - I can't think of a banana bread that I have tried and not liked. I am a huge fan. I have several favorite varieties - one has special additions like toffee and chocolate, another bakes into a batch of coconut topped muffins, yet another has a caramelly crumb topping, some are plain and some are chock full of nuts and fruit. This particular version is the recipe I make most often, and it is a real winner. I haven't met a soul who can resist eating more than one slice of this banana bread.

The first time I served this recipe to guests, the entire two loaves were gone in minutes. I had never seen banana bread inhaled so quickly. As soon as they ate a slice, they immediately went back for seconds, thirds, until every crumb was gone.

I can't claim credit for creating this recipe...that honor goes to Mysterygirl from Recipezaar, and the original version of this wonderful recipe can be found here.

My Favorite Banana Bread (adapted from Mysterygirl's version on
(2 loaves, 12 slices each)

wet ingredients:
2/3 cup canola oil or sunflower oil
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 cups mashed over-ripe bananas (the darker the better), about 4-5 small bananas

dry ingredients:
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups granulated sugar
1 small box vanilla instant pudding mix (4 serving size)*
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 cup chopped nuts, optional (I like walnuts or macadamia nuts)

Preheat oven to 325 F. Combine the wet ingredients in one large bowl, the dry ingredients in a smaller bowl. Slowly mix the dry ingredients into the wet mixture, mixing just enough to combine. A few stray lumps are fine, larger ones can be poked with the back of your spoon. Just make sure there are no dry patches in the batter. Grease and lightly flour two 9x5" loaf pans and line the bottoms with parchment. Bake until the loaves are golden and a toothpick poked into the center tests clean, about 1 hour to 1 hour 10 minutes. Cover loosely with foil towards the end of baking time if the edges are browning too quickly.

Now I know this next part is really hard to do at this point, because you have the delicious aroma of freshly baked banana bread wafting through your house and all you want to do is dig in. Have patience! Allow the bread to cool in the pans at least until the pans are cool enough to touch. Then force yourself to wait the agonizingly long time it will seem for the bread to cool fully on wire racks. Cutting into this ultra moist banana bread too early will just make the bread fall to pieces. And yes, this would be from personal experience.

*NOTE: If you can't get the instant pudding mix, try instant custard powder, such as Bird's. Just use the amount of dry powder that would make 4 servings.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Rethinking Soup in the Summertime

I absolutely love to eat a warm bowl of homemade soup for lunch. For most of my life however, hot soups have always been the sort of food I normally only eat on gloomy, drizzly fall days or to take the chill off in winter, especially after some mundane outdoor task like shoveling snow or chipping ice from my windshield. Hot soups are not usually the sort of thing I would make or even consider eating in the middle of a hot, humid day in August.

Someone recently pointed out to me that, living in Florida, there is really not much point in saving soup for the fall and winter, since it is essentially summery year round here. For some reason, this concept hadn't quite hit me yet; after all I have only lived in the Sunshine State for just under two months. It did make me rethink my hot-soup-is-cold & rainy weather food-only outlook. It does at least rain a lot in Florida, even if it is not a particularly cooling sort of rain.

Deb over at Kahakai Kitchen hosts a weekly event, Souper Sundays. Embracing the soup-is good-any-time point of view, I decided to participate this week for the very first time. I started looking through some soup recipes I had been thinking about making for a while, but that I had held off trying. I decided to make an Italian inspired vegetable soup with chicken that I had seen presented on an older episode of Paula Deen's cooking show.

The soup was really easy to make and was rather tasty. I made only a few minor changes to the recipe, although I think next time I might trying using some leftover roasted, shredded chicken instead of bothering with the diced chicken, and I might also add some tiny cooked pasta shapes.

Oh.. and guess what... it even rained for the occasion.

Italian Style Chicken & Vegetable Soup (adapted from Paula's Home Cooking)
(serves about 8)

4 skinless boneless chicken breasts, diced
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 small zucchini, thinly sliced
1 small onion, diced
3 small carrots, thinly sliced
1 tsp fresh garlic, approximately, minced
1 large can (28-30 ounces) chopped tomatoes (Basil, Garlic, and Oregano flavor)
3 1/2 cups chicken broth (about 1 broth box)
salt and pepper, to taste

Heat up a large stockpot and add a small amount of olive oil. Paula tends to add a lot more oil than I ever do, so be your own best judge on the amount - for me, just 1 Tbsp was plenty. Add the chicken pieces and toss around in the oil to coat, then let them cook over medium-ish heat until they are nicely browned on all sides, about 5 minutes. Don't cook them all the way through right now.

Add the zucchini, onion, carrots, and garlic to the pot and give everything a good stir. Paula didn't add any garlic, but I like garlic and I had some lying around, so in it went. Give it just a couple of minutes, stirring often, until you can just start to smell the onions and garlic cooking. At this point, add some salt and pepper to taste, the canned tomatoes and their juices, and the chicken broth. Raise the heat some and bring the soup to just a boil, then reduce the heat to a low simmer, pop on a lid (left slightly ajar), and allow the soup to cook for about 30 minutes to an hour. Give the soup a taste and adjust the seasonings if needed.

Paula served with this Parmesan breadsticks and sprinkled some freshly grated Parmesan cheese over the top of each serving.

Parmesan Breadsticks (adapted from Paula's Home Cooking)
(about 8-12 breadsticks)

1 tube of Pillsbury breadstick dough or crescent roll dough
2 Tbsp melted butter
2 Tbsp grated Parmesan cheese
2 tsp dried mixed Italian seasoning or Greek seasoning or any dried herb blend you prefer

Preheat oven to 400 F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Set the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and press any seams together with your fingers, so you have a nice big flat rectangle. Get a pizza cutter and cut out 8-12 long narrow strips of dough. Brush some melted butter over the top of each strip, then sprinkle each with some cheese and whichever herb seasoning blend you like. Pick up a strip and twist it slightly so it looks sort of like a long thin corkscrew, then place each strip onto the prepared baking sheet. Bake for 10-12 minutes, or until they are puffed and golden. They will still look quite soft when they are done. Carefully remove to a wire rack to cool slightly before serving.

NOTES: Paula actually used a sheet of puff pastry for these, but at nearly $5 a box for a mere two pastry sheets vs the ~$1.35 for the tube of Pillsbury doughboy dough, I went with the more reasonable option

The breadsticks were really soft on the inside, crisp on the outside and not too cheesy, just right with the soup. Pretty good for essentially a doctored up tube of dough.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Cookbook Review: And now for a bite at the Berghoff Cafe

As you may recall, I recently reviewed The Berghoff Family Cookbook. The latest book, The Berghoff Cafe Cookbook (by Carlyn Berghoff with Nancy Ross Ryan), will be released this September, and contains many of the recipes made popular in the Berghoff Cafe, as well as additional recipes from Carlyn Berghoff's personal collection.

As in the previous book, there are many beautiful photographs of the recipes. As the title would suggest, many of the recipes are lunch and snack oriented, although there is also a chapter that includes some of the "Berghoff Plates" (a selection of their daily specials) such as Classic Salisbury Steak with Mushroom Jus Lié and Spaetzle and Turkey Meat Loaf, as well as a chapter on pizza. The main focus of the book, however, is on soups, sandwiches, salads, and there is also sampling of their delicious looking baked goods and desserts.

Dishes such as Sausage Wellingtons, Fresh Baked Pretzels, Alsatian Onion Soup, Homemade Chicken Spaetzle Soup, and the Westphalian Ham Panini with Granny Smith Apple and Applesauce all stood out to me as dishes I would love to try. I thought the chapter on salads had some really delicious sounding choices, such as the Berghoff Buffalo Cobb, made with homemade Ranch Dressing and Grilled Chicken Breasts. Desserts such as The Chip Cookie, Walnut-Applesauce Coffee Cake, and Vita's Oatmeal Cookies all sound very tempting as well. I am really looking forward to trying them out.

The first recipe in the cookbook is actually three versions of the classic deviled egg, with a Berghoff spin on the fillings, Deviled Eggs with Three Fillings (page 3-5). Since my daughter thinks deviled eggs are one of the greatest appetizers of all time, I decided to try making all three variations: Caper Deviled Eggs, Smoked Salmon Deviled Eggs, and Horseradish Deviled Eggs. I thought they all turned out very good, especially the horseradish version, which will now become my new go-to recipe for deviled eggs.

Since I am an avid baker, as well as a huge fan of rye bread, I was immediately drawn to the recipe for Berghoff Sandwich Rye (46). While the flavor and texture of this bread was really quite good, I did have a bit of difficulty with it falling on me after the second rise, giving it a bit of a misshapen look. The dough itself was easy to work with and rose beautifully. I live in Florida and it is extremely hot and humid here, so it is quite possible that I really don't need the second rise. I made a second loaf and shortened the duration of the second rise, and it was a bit better, but sadly still fell slightly. The flavor is good enough to keep trying to get it right, and it did make nice sandwiches. I think this bread will also make very nice croutons.

The next recipe I decided to make was the Cream Cheese-Almond Coffee Cake (page 146) and this recipe alone is worth picking up a copy of the book. This was so tender and perfectly sweet without being overbearing. I used a mix of dried cherries and cranberries instead of just the cherries, and I think dried blueberries would also be great in this. The crumb topping was just right, light and crispy and nutty. This is the kind of coffeecake that begs you to eat another slice. This will also be added to my short list of favorite coffeecakes to make again and again. Absolutely delicious!

I really enjoyed The Berghoff Cafe Cookbook and I encourage you to pick up a copy when it appears in stores in your area. It is a really nice book. I know I will be trying out many more of the recipes, especially some of those unique sounding soups and salads. Recommended.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Credit Crunch Gourmet: Garden Omelette

After yesterday's teaser with the peppers, I thought I would show you what I did with them. Weekends for me are often a time when I take a look through my fridge and pantry to get an idea about what needs replenishing before I do my weekly grocery shopping. I try to use up any odd bits of vegetables, herbs, meats, and dairy that need to get used up.

One easy way for me to use up any leftover bits of raw veggies and cheese is to make garden omelettes, which by their nature are never quite the exact same thing twice. You do need the basics, of course, 2-3 eggs or at least egg whites per omelette, some seasoning, some veggies, and either a bit of cooked meat or cheese (or both). If you like neither meat nor cheese, then you just leave that out. Oh yes, and you need some butter.

As you can see from the photo, I don't use a huge knob of butter for this. I have a good quality nonstick pan and only add a tiny pat, maybe a teaspoonful at the most. It is there to add a bit of flavor, a little will go a long way.

I had some gorgeous baby bella mushrooms in my fridge that had been an impulse buy at the store. As most impulse buys tend to go, they sat all week in my fridge waiting for some spark of inspiration. I dumped the entire package into my pan, gave them a sprinkling of seasoning and a couple of grinds of Italian dried mixed herbs. I let them cook over fairly low heat for a few minutes until they looked like this...

Mushrooms really do shrink so much, don't they? Anyway, once these had cooked down I scooped them out and set them aside in a small dish. Next, I tossed in some diced red onion, along with some red, yellow, and green bell peppers. I gave them a tiny bit of seasoning as well, and let them saute a few minutes until they were soft and slightly golden. Then I added them to my mushrooms.

Normally, if I have enough eggs to spare, my ratio for a nice puffy omelette is 2 whole eggs and 1 egg white per omelette. Sometimes I just use 1 yolk and 3 whites. Today I was running low on eggs, so I was only able to use two eggs per serving, which meant a thinner and more fragile omelette, but still tasty. Regardless of how many eggs I have used, I beat them together in a bowl, one omelette's worth at a time, adding no seasoning at this point. I also add a drop of cold water to the beaten eggs.

After another small pat of butter has melted in the same pan I cooked the veggies in, I then pour in the eggs and swirl the pan around to get a nice round circle of egg. Drop a lid on and give it maybe 30 seconds to a minute, then take a peek. If there is still liquid on top, give the pan another swirl to allow the liquid to move around the surface of the egg. By now the edges should be firm enough to slide a spatula underneath, so you can carefully flip the egg over.

At this point, if I am using cheese, I drop a couple of slices on one side of the egg, and as soon as it starts to melt on the edges (after only a very short time), I top the cheese with my veggies. Using the spatula again, I carefully flip over the empty side of the egg on top of the filling, give everything a few more seconds to heat up and melt together, then slide the entire thing onto a serving plate.

Here is another shot of the finished omelette, garnished with a bit of my bell pepper top garnish I made previously.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Credit Crunch: Salvaging Bell Pepper Tops

One ingredient I often stock in my fridge is a colorful variety of bell peppers. I use them in so many different ways - chopped and added to soups, sauces, stir fries, casseroles, sauteed and added to eggs and quiches, or fried in tempura. Raw peppers can be diced and tossed into salads, sliced into crisp rings and served on sandwiches, cut into strips and dunked into a creamy dip, or even minced up as used as a garnish. They are so versatile and I just can't imagine cooking without them.

Something I have always found slightly amusing is how often I see people on cooking programs struggling to core a pepper properly. I think coring a bell pepper is one of the easiest veggie preps out there, but then again, I core mine very differently from most other methods I have seen. I really dislike wasting food, so I do whatever I can to salvage every bit of goodness from any ingredient. For me, the easiest way to core a bell pepper is to quite simply slice off the top of the pepper, leaving you with a pepper top and a pepper cavity. I then simply yank out the entire seed core from the cavity, all in one neat and tidy piece. The remaining cored pepper is then ready to be used as a bowl to hold dip, stuffed with a meat or rice filling and baked, turned on its side and sliced into rings, or halved and cut into strips, chunks or dice.

As for the pepper top, a gentle tug on the stem and it easily pops out, leaving a ring of pepper flesh with a hole in the center. You will be amazed at just how much pepper you can get out of a simple little pepper top. If you look in the photo, I sliced the tops off of three peppers and the little rainbow of minced pepper is just the amount I salvaged from the three tops.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Cookbook Review: The Berghoff Family Cookbook

For me, and I suspect the same holds true for most foodies, there is great pleasure to be had in leafing through the pages of a brand new cookbook, especially if it is a really good one, chock full of page after page of delicious sounding new recipes to try. There are so many cookbooks on the market, it is difficult to find a real treasure, one that you will find yourself turning to over and over. Many cookbooks have some great recipes hiding inside them, but it is rare to find one that makes me want to cook nearly every single recipe. I am talking about a keeper - the sort of book you never want to lend to anyone, even your family, for fear of not getting it back and being deprived of its wonderful recipes. The sort of cookbook you like so much, you buy several copies as gifts for all of your closest foodie friends.

I knew I was going to enjoy The Berghoff Family Cookbook (by Carlyn Berghoff and Jan Berghoff with Nancy Ross Ryan) from the moment I first read its description. It is just the sort of cookbook I typically enjoy, with well presented and beautifully photographed homestyle recipes that have been treasured, honed, and shared through generations, representing the cultural influences of the authors' heritage. The Berghoff Restaurant was a Chicago institution for 107 years, serving many classic German and Italian specialties. The cookbook contains many of the restaurant's most requested recipes, including several that had been kept secret for years. The book also includes many of the popular recipes from Carlyn Berghoff's catering business and even some personal family recipes.

There are so many recipes in this book that I want to try. The very first recipe in the book made me smile, as it is for Chef Matt's Spinach Dip and not only do I love dips, but spinach dip in particular is a personal favorite. Their version contains some unique and unusual seasonings that make it stand out from the ordinary, so I am really looking forward to tasting it. Also a must for me is the Creamed Spinach, a Berghoff specialty, which was one of their most popular recipes of all. Any restaurant that can manage to make the general public crave its spinach dishes has to have been doing something right. Authentic versions of Red Cabbage, Sauerkraut, and Potato Pancakes are also recipes that stood out immediately to me. Other tempting traditional dishes such as Pork Jaeger Schnitzel (pork in a rich mushroom sauce), Schlacht Platte (German sausages with sauerkraut), Sauerbraten (beef marinated for several days and served with a rich wine based gravy) are all on my "must try soon" short list. I can't wait to get my baking supplies so that I can give their amazing looking Black Forest Cake (a unique version with both chocolate and vanilla cake layers) and Apple Strudel a try.

Deciding on which main dish to test first was a very simple choice for me. I absolutely had to try out their classic Wiener Schnitzel, (page 130) with German Potato Salad (page 31) on the side. Not only are these two dishes I have always enjoyed, but they were also two of the most requested recipes and most ordered at the Berghoff restaurant.

The Wiener Schnitzel (crispy breaded veal cutlets) was so very easy to prepare and came out very light and crisp. I can't recall having such delicious Schnitzel outside of Germany. In fact, this was even better than the best I had eaten while living in Germany. I was able to prep the veal cutlets earlier in the day, breading them and then popping them into the fridge to chill as directed. They cooked in only a few minutes once I was ready to serve them. I only wished I had made more, as this was definitely something you want seconds of.

The German Potato Salad was a bit different from the types I have had before, most notably in the use of oil instead of bacon drippings, as well as far less sugar, making this version a bit healthier. I served this two ways: warm the first night, to accompany the veal, and then cold the next day. I used red skinned potatoes and left the skins on. The authors recommend letting this salad marinate overnight, and I wholeheartedly agree. While it tasted good the first night, it was far more flavorful and tender the next day. My one criticism was the amount of vinegar, which seemed a bit too strong. I would use less next time, although it did tone down considerably by the second day.

For lunch, I decided to try the interesting sounding Brie and Raspberry Grilled Cheese Sandwich (page 117), one of Carlyn's own recipes. I used homemade rye bread; a teaser actually, as I used a recipe from Carlyn's next book, The Berghoff Cafe Cookbook, which I will be trying out next, so keep posted. This was such a simple sandwich - just crusty bread, butter, raspberry jam, and brie cheese- but it was oh so decadent. If you are a brie fan, this is a great twist on the old grilled cheese.

Overall, The Berghoff Family Cookbook is a really great find, and I am so glad I had to opportunity to try it out. This exceeded my expectations by a mile, and I really am looking forward to trying out more of their recipes. If the rest of the recipes are as enjoyable and authentic as those I have tried so far, then this will be a serious contender for my keeper shelf for sure. Highly recommended.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Comfort Foods: American Meatloaf and Homestyle Carrots

There are some recipes that just bring me back to my childhood, and a good meatloaf always seems to do the trick. My mother made such wonderful meatloaf; just the thought of it makes my mouth water and my tummy grumble with longing. She didn't add lots of extras to hers.. it was just a plain, simple, yet delicious, all meat meatloaf. Sometimes she made some gravy to go with it, but usually she served it just as is. It was so tender and moist, it didn't really need gravy anyway. Ketchup was served on the side only if requested, never as a topping, at least not that I can ever recall. I thought all meatloaf tasted this way, and I was perfectly content.

Alas, as time went by, Mom, for one reason or another, stopped making meatloaf. I am not sure if Mom ever had the recipe recorded on paper or if the recipe came from a cookbook or if it had been always just something she made from memory. Whichever the case may have been, as time passed without her making the recipe, it eventually became lost. I tried many, many meatloaf recipes over the years, trying to recapture that lost taste. I found plenty of good recipes, and just as many duds, but none that quite filled that empty niche in my childhood recipe hall of fame.

That is until I found this recipe, and although it might not be exactly the recipe Mom used, it definitely satiates my longing for a truly good, homey, comforting meatloaf. The original version does calls for a light brushing of ketchup on top, which I use very sparingly, just to give it a nice glaze. It tastes perfectly wonderful without it, but the glaze does make it look slightly prettier.

Old Fashioned Meatloaf (as adapted from litldarlin's version on Recipezaar)
(makes 2 meatloaves)

2 large eggs
1/2 cup grated red onion
4 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1 cup milk (I use skim)
1 cup breadcrumbs or cracker crumbs (or a mix of both)
salt and pepper, to taste
2 pounds lean ground beef
ketchup or BBQ sauce, optional glaze

Preheat oven to 350 F and have ready two 9x5" meatloaf pans (the kind with a drip pan to drain the juices.. handy for making gravy later and for removing any excess fat) or ordinary bread loaf pans. You can also just free form the loaves into oblong shapes and plop them side by side in a baking dish, whatever works for you.

Add the eggs to a large mixing bowl and give them a quick mix with a whisk or a fork. Grab your microplane grater and grate your onion right into the bowl. I don't accurately measure the onion here; I simply cut off a wedge that looks about 1/2 cup sized and grate up that amount. Grating is a key step here, as it provides moisture to the loaf and also makes the onion bits so miniscule that even picky onion haters will not have anything to whine about. Next add the Worcestershire, milk, and bread crumbs/cracker crumbs to the bowl and give everything a thorough mix, adding some salt and pepper as well. Add in the meat and gently mix everything together by hand.

Divide the meat mixture into two equal portions, form into meatloaf shapes, and place into the pans of your choice. Bake, uncovered, for 45 minutes. (Brush with about 1-2 Tbsp of ketchup or BBQ sauce during the last 10 minutes of baking time if you would like a glaze). Allow to rest for about 10-15 minutes before attempting to remove from the pans and slicing.

I made some mashed potatoes and homestyle carrots to serve alongside the meatloaf. The mashed potatoes are simply Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and boiled until tender, then mashed with some butter, salt and pepper, and a bit of milk. The carrots are a wonderful version I found on several years ago and have since made numerous times. I have reduced the quantity from the original, and also made a few slight changes:

Homestyle Carrots
(adapted from Satisfied Kris' version on Recipezaar)
(4 servings)

1 pound carrots, cleaned and cut into thick slices, or baby carrots
2-3 Tbsp butter or margarine (I use olive oil based margarine)
1/4-1/3 cup minced red onion, approximately
2 tsp sugar or Splenda
salt and pepper to taste

Melt butter in a small saucepan, then add the onions and saute a few minutes, just until they begin to soften. Give carrots a good rinse in a colander, leaving them damp, then toss them into the pan. Add the sugar and some salt and pepper, give it a stir to coat, then drop on the lid and allow to cook over low heat for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. The carrots are ready when they look glazed and you can cut them with a spoon.