Sunday, October 28, 2007

Pear Clafouti

Pear Clafouti

I saw Ina Garten make this on The Barefoot Contessa a few weeks ago, and had to try it, mostly because of its ultra-cool name. Clafouti! How fun is that? It looked easy, and I'm always on the lookout for non-pie fruit recipes.

It was easy to make, though I had to use a hand mixer since I don't have one of those big electric mixers. Ina cut larger slices of pears, and I took the advice of some of the commenters on the Web site, and cut thinner slices of pear. They stuck together and didn't allow the custard filling to get inbetween them, but that turned out not to be a problem.

Ina used a round dish and arranged the pear slices in a star shape, and then cut nice neat wedge-shaped pieces with a strip of pear in the middle of each wedge, but mine didn't work out quite so nicely. I don't have a round dish, so used an oval dish and a much more random arrangement of pear. Next time, I'll use a square dish, since it'd be easier to pull out rectangular-shaped pieces intact.

Some of the other reviewers complained that their pears didn't cook well, but my experience with steaming pears says that that depends greatly on the ripeness you start with. Mine were ripe enough to be hard to peel, but they cooked up beautifully.

I have no experience baking custards. This one came out runny at first, so I baked it another 15 minutes or so. In retrospect, I should have let it cool to room temperature and given the custard more time to set. Then again, it might still have been runny.

And who can wait for room temp? This was delicious, light and creamy and wonderful. I didn't bother with the confectioner's sugar or creme fraiche topping, I'll save that for when uber-decadence is called for. As it is, this one is a real treat, a wonderful classy grownup dessert, with a really funky name.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Herb Crusted Pork Tenderloin

Herb Crusted Pork Tenderloin and Shalloty Green Beans
(scroll to the end of that link for the recipe.)

I snagged this one from The Kitchen Illiterate. The description "pretty darn simple" was just too good to pass up.

And indeed, it was easy. Except for the fact that I don't know what marjoram is, and would have to make a special trip to find it. So to stay true to "herb-crusted", I tossed in some dried oregano, having some vague memory that I'd heard the word marjoram in the context of oregano once.

I'm not sure it made much difference; the overwhelming majority of flavor comes from the bread crumbs. That's not a bad thing exactly, but supposed you wanted to actually taste the herbs? I keep seeing Japanese panko bread crumbs come up in recipes or on cooking shows, and they're supposed to be lighter.

I loved the green beans though. I've made lemon and garlic green beans before, but the shallots were much better and cooked up nice and sweet. I took the author's advice and made the green beans in the same pan as I'd browned the pork, and that worked great. However, I did have a timing issue, as it took about 45 minutes to cook the tenderloin through, and the green beans were ready long before then.

The score: 3 out of 4. Literally. Both my sons finished all of their pork and green beans. Now there's an accomplishment! I even got a much-coveted "This is really good, Mom!" And, I liked both, though I'm not picky. My husband....not so much. He's always the weak link. I didn't take any chances with the youngest member of the family, who happily gobbled up a hefty portion of leftover Trader Joe's rice pilaf mix, with cauliflower chopped in.

I'm going to be making this again, for certain. Especially when the baby is past the "I refuse to try this JUST BECAUSE I CAN" phase, there will be one more mouth to outvote Dad.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Pumpkin Bread Redux

Pumpkin Zucchini Bread

Why, after all that pumpkin bread I made last week, would I make yet more?!

Because, dear reader, I had an open can of pumpkin, and I can't bring myself to throw away any pureed pumpkin. Not until it's been stored for weeks in the fridge and has started to grow things. Then I can throw it away.

The big conundrum of pumpkin-bread-baking is that recipes typically call for 1 cup, but pumpkin cans never come in convenient cup increments, resulting in weird amounts of leftover pumpkin. But thanks to my experimenting with half-recipes, I had just the right amount, roughly, for another batch.

I'd found this recipe for Pumpkin Zucchini Bread in an earlier search for moist zucchini bread recipes, and it was time to try it.

This one was pretty easy to make, and turned out absolutely yummy. Not ultra-fine, somewhat dense and heavy, the sort that would support gobs of raisins and nuts. I'm not really sure what the zucchini added; moisture perhaps, but this was already pretty moist.

I made some changes though. I put in less sugar than called for, and used some brown sugar instead of only white sugar. It just seems criminal not to have brown sugar's molasses in anything pumpkin.

And, I was back to my old ways of dumping in spices with blithe disregard for measurements. I've yet to hit the limit of nutmeg or cloves, always called for in teeny 1/4 teaspoon increments. (As an aside, I'm grateful to cloves for curing my son of sneaking in a taste of unmixed batter. Whoo-wee is that harsh!)

Mm-mm. Never fails at a potluck.

Now, can I find a zucchini bread recipe that's anywhere near as moist as a pumpkin bread? (And is it even worth trying?)

Friday, October 19, 2007

Pumpkin Bread-Off

Pumpkin Spice Bread (USA Today Magazine, Sunday Oct. 14, 2007)
Pumpkin Bread (C&H Brown Sugar recipe)

The dinner we hosted this week was a perfect excuse to make one of my all-time favorite baked good: pumpkin bread. Fortuitously, a recipe for Pumpkin Spice Bread appeared in the otherwise crummy USA Today Sunday magazine, and that inspired me to make three recipes and foist them upon our hapless friends.

The three contenders:

A: The All New All Purpose Joy of Cooking, Pumpkin Bread (p. 774). (Never sure where to draw the line at copyright violation, but I'm pretty sure scanning the recipe straight out of the book counts.)

B: Pumpkin Spice Bread, from USA Today Sunday magazine, Oct. 14 2007.

C: Pumpkin Bread, from the back of a bag of C&H brown sugar, a potluck-standby I've used for years.

I made a half-portion of each recipe, and used the same can of pureed pumpkin and spices for all three. I stayed absolutely true to each recipe, rather than my usual random tossing in extra pumpkin pie spice, testing the limits of nutmeg, or letting my son shake in cinnamon with abandon. All three went into the same-sized mini-loaf pans (marked with a Sharpie on aluminum foil) and were baked at the same time. So, for the most part, variables were controlled.

(A, B and C are left to right in the photos.)

It was immediately apparent that not all pumpkin bread is created equal! Recipe A used butter instead of oil, white sugar instead of brown, and made for the lightest batter, and the only one that held its shape. Recipe B called for cooking the pumpkin slightly, accounting for its darker color, and the batter was liquidy enough to pour. Recipe C is the easiest: just throw everything in a bowl and mix it, but the batter was the heaviest.

The baked loaves were different too. Recipe B needed a little extra baking time, but I think I put a little more batter in that pan anyway. Recipe A seemed the driest to cut, but that's relative; they were all moist. Recipe B had the most even texture to it, and Recipe C was the chunkiest, if that's a term to describe cake texture.

So I cut them into columns of easy-to-grab pieces, labelled them with A B and C placecards, and set up a sign encouraging people to taste-test and write comments.

And the winner was? By a narrow margin, Recipe A.

The A stack was the first to go, though the numerous trips my sons made with plates loaded down with pumpkin bread could have had something to do with that. Comments indicated that Recipe B had the best pumpkin flavor, C was the driest, and A was the sweetest, but also the best-liked. Things people said directly indicated A as a favorite too, though even a foodie-baking-expert friend (who wouldn't dream of using canned pumpkin and grows her own instead) said she couldn't tell that one had butter in it. One interesting comment said "B has a rich pumpkin flavor like in India."

Ironically, I'm the worst pumpkin bread judge, because I absolutely love pumpkin bread and would just as soon choose between my three children than have to pick a favorite pumpkin bread. For the future, I'll choose a recipe based on the situation: how much time do I have (Recipe C), who is my audience (Recipe B for grownups), do I feel like cleaning beaters (Recipe A).

Until then, I'll begin a delicious quest for Recipes D, E, and F.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Return of the Grill Pan


I've used my Calphalon cast-iron enameled panini grill pan only three times, only with a rubber spatula, and only cleaned it with scrubbie-things that are intended for nonstick surfaces. Which this one isn't exactly; it's some sort of baked-on enamel over cast iron. Not teflon, but not straight cast iron either.

But whatever the coating is developed a chip right atop one of the ridges. Then I noticed a little red flake in the pan also. After some visual scouring, I found that the red flake belonged to the edge of the pan, where the colored part meets the inside of the pan.


So I took it back to Bed Bath and Beyond, where the customer service lady agreed it was damaged and kindly told me to go get another one, honey. But I didn't want another one, they apparently aren't made very well. Receiptless, I got a store credit.

O, Le Creuset, forgive me for straying from thy faith. I beseech thee, take me back!

Tiramisu Layer Cake

Tiramisu Layer Cake

One of my greatest regrets in life is marrying a man who doesn't share my vice for baked goods. Fortunately, most things Italian pass muster with him. With a group dinner and his birthday coming up in the same week, it was a perfect opportunity to attempt making a tiramisu cake.

So I found a recipe on for a "simple" tiramisu layer cake, and decided to surprise him with it.

I had a lot of fun with this, though I encountered numerous technical difficulties.

To start, since this cake was a surprise, I had to make it in stages and store the components. This may be why the mascarpone-cheese filling was so liquidy that I pretty much had to pour it over the cake and use a toothpick to keep the layers from sliding off each other. The filling wasn't that liquidy until I'd followed the step to fold in some of the whipped-cream frosting. I'd skip that step next time.

Making chocolate curls was quite the challenge. I had to experiment with several different kinds of chocolate, finding that white chocolate worked the best. Fortunately, I have a friend who's starting a cake-decorating business, and she pointed me to this video: How to make chocolate curls. (My sons made sure the outtakes didn't go to waste.)

My cake-making friend also said that white cake is among the hardest to make well from scratch, so I went with Duncan Hines. I also followed advice in's "comments" section to freeze the cake to make it easier to spear it (and to hide it from my husband), as well as to double the amount of coffee and Kahlua pretty much everywhere it was called for, and to make two coffee-flavored cake layers instead of one.

I also doubled the amount of the mascarpone cheese filling, based on more "comments" advice. That turned out not to be necessary, but also, depending on your source for mascarpone cheese, that could get expensive! Two 8-oz containers from Whole Foods can run you over $12. However, one 8-oz container from Trader Joes for under $3 is a far more economical way to go.

The result was something of a mess until I sprinkled the cocoa on, unifying and transforming its appearance, capped it with a random assortment of can't-go-wrong chocolate curls. The filling spilling out over the edges made something of a base around which to sprinkle some of the chocolate-curl outtakes. Suddenly the cake looked much much yummier!

The coffee-and-white layers looked nice on the inside, too.

I doubt this would get past a tiramisu purist, but anything with that much whipped cream, mascarpone cheese and Kahlua can't be all bad. My husband even ate a piece!

Monday, October 15, 2007

Plum Cake

Cinnamon-Sugar Plum Cake

A friend and I split a subscription to Frog Hollow Farm, a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm, from which we get a box of ultra-fresh fruit every week, and an insert describing the fruit and its history and origin, often with recipes. This recipe for Cinnamon-Sugar Plum Cake was in one of the inserts that comes with the fruit every week.

Oh my goodness, is this a good recipe.

The first time I made it, I set the plum slices into the batter vertically, peel side up, then discovered to my delight that the batter bakes up, around and over the plum pieces. The second time, I set the plum slices down on their sides horizontally, like you would with a pie. It was still tasty, but it didn't leave as much space around the plum slices for the batter to magically surround them as it bakes.

The only hard part is getting it off the bottom of the springform pan. I run a knife under it, but since my springform pan bottom has texture to it, the cake doesn't slide off easily.

Before baking, without the cinnamon sugar, just to show the plum pieces. Pretty, but don't put too much effort into a perfect pattern, because it won't be visible anyway.

(Later addendum: this turned out to be not nearly enough plums. My first stumbling efforts weren't as pretty, but had more plums crammed in, and made for a much better and ... well, plummier cake. Use more plums!)

Sprinkle cinnamon sugar on top.

The final result. Not very tall, and with a slightly coarse texture, but very flavorful with a perfect balance of cake and fruit.

A grownup cake, and a staple for entertaining. And so, so good.

Sunday, October 14, 2007


Ah, autumn. I love autumn flavors: cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, especially with pumpkin and apple.

And now, persimmons are back in the stores. I've actually never tried the better-known Hachiya persimmons, but I love the Fuyu variety. I've always peeled them, but apparently the peel is as edible as that of an apple. Inside, it's firm and crisp, and looks like it's flecked with cinnamon. I find the flavor very mild -- too mild for a persimmons pie I made once.
Half of this one made it into a Sunday morning fruit bowl and henceforth consumed by children (mistaken for mango, helped along by a tiny little harmless mommy-lie-of-omission); the other half didn't even make it past the cutting board before it got happily munched away.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Trader Joe's Salads

Most are $3.99, a few are more. There are Mexican ones, Asian ones, and green-y type ones, like one of my favorites with pomegranate seeds, feta cheese, red peppers and almonds over greens.
I have half of some or other Trader Joe's salad just about every day. Perfect excuse to visit TJs 2 times a week. As if I needed one.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Slow-cooked chicken

I can't find it now on, but I stumbled across a little video of:

Baked Slow Cooker Chicken

that inspired me to try it. It's really not much of a recipe, more like a method. But I had a whole chicken in the freezer, and a neglected slow cooker on a shelf. It was time the two shall meet.

(Of course, I defrosted the chicken first. Why freeze it to begin with? It's an Aaron's Best whole chicken from Trader Joe's. They're wonderful and tender, but go bad very quickly in the fridge. I've had to throw two away. So unless it's going straight from my grocery bag to the dinner table, it's a trip to freezerville first.)

The result? I loved how absolutely tender and moist the chicken came out. I didn't have to cut it at fact, as I pulled it out of the slow-cooker, dangling precariously between two large spoons, it slipped and fell onto the cutting board I was aiming for, splatting into a convenient heap of chicken parts. That's the easiest chicken-carving I've ever done!

However, as compared to stuffing, seasoning, and roasting it at 450, much was lost. There was no tasty crispy skin, and no stuffing, though I could have made that separately. Slow-cooking was more convenient in every way: less cleanup, less tending, less preparation, less cutting (splat!). But roasting made for a tastier chicken, fewer leftovers and higher ratings from the family.

I'm not done with this yet though. Slow Cooker Honey Garlic Chicken, anyone?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Steak and Zucchini

Score one for me. The grill pan and I made peace tonight, with the help of some steak and zucchini.

Introducing new things around here, even new preparations of old standbys like steak, is tricky. So the rest of the family got their steak salted, peppered, rosemaried, and broiled, as per usual. Mine broke new ground on the grill pan.

And you know, I came out the winner on this one. It was a lot easier keep close track of how quickly it was cooking, and I think it was different cooking one side and then the other, rather than being in an overall ultra-hot oven as with broiling. It was just shade rarer in the middle, perhaps because of less carry-over cooking?

Then the vegetable. Kids got the broccoli standby (and let me acknowledge my gratitude that I can consider broccoli a staple), grownups got salted and grilled zucchini. Welcome to my new favorite way to prepare zucchini. I think I turned off to zucchini for a while after a steaming phase. But grilled, there's nothing mushy about it; indeed it's got a nice crisp aspect to it.

I still have to scrub the darned thing though.

I'll have to try Georgette's Greek Zucchini next time. And according to that recipe, zucchini is a low-carb vegetable. Good news for diabetics and dietetics alike!

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Grilled Cantaloupe

Grilled Cantaloupe

It looked like a great idea when Rory Schepisi did it on "The Next Food Network Star." She got her recipe landed on the cover of Bon Appetit magazine (Rory's Ribs with Grilled Corn, Cantaloupe, and Fresh Herb Salad), and it launched her into the finals of the competition. I love cooked fruit, and there I was, with a new grill pan.

So I scored myself a cantaloupe, and the experiment was on.

I web-surfed and found two other grilled cantaloupe recipes, consolidated them into one recipe file (Grilled Cantaloupe), and tested all 3. I omitted the cayenne pepper in Rory's, though. I have no business getting near cayenne anything.

The first problem was flipping the skewered chunks. Cantaloupe is slippery and fragile, so it just spins around on the skewer when you try to turn it.

Rory's half-inch slices worked better, and looked great with the grill marks.

But cooked, I thought the cantaloupe took on an almost sweet-potato-like flavor. And despite the different preparations (honey-butter, honey-balsamic, plain), I couldn't taste the difference at all. Just more sweet potato. And once again, it made a huge sticky crusty mess in the grill pan that took over a day of soaking, scrubbing, soaking and more scrubbing to clean the pan.

I'm sure grilled cantaloupe could work, with the right melon texture and ripeness, grill heat, and chef. But for now, I'm shelving this idea.

Monday, October 8, 2007

The Mix Contradiction

At Sur La Table last week, they had samples of a Barefoot Contessa brand chocolate frosting mix, with Ina Garten's pretty face featured prominently on the display.

But Ina would never use a mix!

(My son made sure to prominently feature the sample frosting on his pretty face, unconcerned by the enigma.)

Sunday, October 7, 2007

The Grill Pan

I went to Bed Bath and Beyond today to exchange
one of these: Le Creuset 9 1/2" Skinny Square Grill

for one of these: Le Creuset 10 1/4" Square Grill

...and ended up with one of these: Calphalon Cast Iron Enameled 11" Panini Grill

The skinny square grill seemed perfect, easy to store. But its handles are too small and put your fingers too close to the flame. Back it went in favor of one with a nice big honkin' handle you can wrap your fingers around.

BB&B didn't have the Le Creuset 10-1/4" square grill, but they did have the panini grill with the heavy lid (I guess to squish sandwiches?). I didn't realize until I was at the checkout that it was the Calphalon brand, not the Le Creuset (what will my mother say!). That explained the price difference.

(The Le Creuset skinny square grill pan's instructions seemed to be a cut-and-paste from other Le Creuset products though, which I think is a little inexcusable given their reputation. The instructions said to use the product only on low and medium heat, and not to put it in the oven above 350. I can see that for a French Oven with a plastic lid knob, but a grill? The whole point is high heat. The Calphalon instructions said oven-safe up to 500 degrees.)

I initiated my new grill pan on something I've never found a great way to cook: turkey burgers. And, they didn't disappoint: another huge crusty, caked-on mess, made somewhat worse by sticking to the pan, and tearing apart when I tried to flip them. I guess I'll be non-stick-pan-frying those turkey burgers again, but I did like using the heavy lid to compact them.

I have a lot to learn about pan-grilling, but I can't wait to try sea scallops. At least, it looked easy on a cooking show...!

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Yellow Cupcakes

Scarfed from a recipe printed in a newspaper, from "Mom's Big Book of Baking" by Lauren Chattman:

Classic Yellow Cupcakes

I have a long-lasting childhood habit of eating batter. After all, in the Old Days, there were no foodborne illnesses in raw eggs. (er, right?) Well, I haven't gotten over that habit. It's just too much fun. I'll stop the first time I, or anyone else I know, gets sick from it.

Anyway, thanks to extensive experience licking spoons, beaters and bowls, I can tell a lot from batter. The light fine fluffy batter for these cupcakes was a perfect predictor for the wonderful baked version. It must be the cake flour.

I made them in my fabulous
Williams-Sonoma Nonstick Goldtouch 24-cup Mini-Muffin pan (promise, no product placement here, I just really like this pan), added some cream cheese frosting and a few sprinkles.

The excuse for these was that my daughter turned 1 yesterday, though thanks to a bug that made the rounds of all the male stomachs in the house, we had to postpone the frosting festivities.

This recipe goes a long way toward my new lifelong devotion to finding scratch cake recipes that are better than the mixes. Much batter will be sacrificed toward this cause.

Friday, October 5, 2007

A food blog?

Who, me? I'm so not a foodie-type. I've never been that interested in good food or cooking, until recently.

Several events converged to inspire this.

In 2006, I suffered through a painful pregnancy that involved intense stomach pain. I learned that cutting back tremendously on how much I ate made a big difference in managing that pain. Less quantity sowed the seeds for more quality.

Not long after the baby was born, my sister was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, and a pretty bad case of it. Immediately, her outlook on food changed, and in sympathy, so did mine. We are food kindred spirits. We used to bake a batch of brownies every day together in high school, and eat the whole thing that day! We'd also conferred a lot about food when we had babies; together we learned to make baby food, feed toddlers and get dinner on the table for the rest of the family. So this huge change in her relationship with food affected me tremendously, and made me think about everything I ate.

After my miserable pregnancy, I discovered that watching the TVs attached to treadmills at the YMCA was a great distraction. One day, I caught a bit of the show "30-minute meals" with Rachael Ray, and was really intrigued. Simple, accessible, pretty fast, all ingredients I, can I do that?

I started watching Food Network, then got hooked on "The Next Food Network Star" reality show. I didn't like the usual reality-show formula, but I really did like how resourceful and creative the contestants were. I realized that with the right skill and knowledge, even the dull things in my own pantry could be combined into a nifty meal. This could be fun!

Food Network became my favorite thing to flip on while nursing. Though nursing a baby is supposed to be a warm bonding nurturing experience, my baby turns it into a session of "how many new ways can I abuse mom." When she's not scratching my teeth, pulling the skin on my neck or picking my nose, at best it's just boring, hence the TV-watching. Cooking shows are easy to jump in and out of. Though 30-minute Meals is still right up my alley, I also like watching Everyday Italian, Quick-Fix Meals (notice a theme going there?) and Barefoot Contessa, a little ritzier but very informative. If Ina Garten can use a strainer for a sifter, then by golly, so can I! One day I caught a few minutes of Jacques Pepin on PBS, demonstrating numerous ways of cooking eggs. I was an instant fan (note to self: get his DVD on omelettes).

A few other things contributed to set the stage. Some of my mom-friends are really good and knowledgeable cooks. My husband is a famously fussy eater, but he does like really good restaurants, and that helped elevate my interest. My mother is an excellent cook, and every time we visit each other, I'm always inspired.

I have a tough audience at home, however. My husband doesn't like fruit, cheese, olives, tomatos, salads, soups or combination-type dishes ("casserole" is a real bugaboo with him). My sons are decent eaters, for kids, but they're still just kids. My daughter is almost a toddler, with the usual lack of rhyme or reason when it comes to food. I'm grateful that everyone likes steamed broccoli, cauliflower, green beans and spinach, but if I try to do anything different, forget it.

So why a food blog?

Well, because while my interest in cooking and scratch-baking is new, my compulsion to write has always existed. I just can't get things out of my head sometimes if I don't write them down. I need the purge. And a blog is a nice harmless way to do that. Friends and family can subject themselves to my ramblings -- and retreat -- at will.

So, here we go with my experiments, learning moments, failures and small fires, all in the search of the occasional "ah-HAH!" And just in case, I keep the Domino's 800 number posted on the fridge.