Saturday, December 27, 2008

Blini Toasts

Blini Toasts:
1 pkg 32 mini-toasts (TJs and Whole Foods have them)
1 3-oz pkg smoked salmon
Sour cream
Fresh dill

  • Lay out the toasts on a plate.
  • Smear a small dollop of sour cream on each toast.
  • Tear off a piece of salmon, about 1" square (two "ribs" worked), try to pile it on the sour cream smear
  • Drop another bit of sour cream on top
  • Stick a sprig of dill onto the sour cream
  • Serve on a simple white platter for max visual effect
  • What, am I writing my own recipe? Only by accident.

    It would be nothing short of startling if someone didn't think to get me a Barefoot Contessa book for Christmas, and sure enough, my thoughtful (and French) mother came through with Barefoot in Paris. I was thrilled to find that I'd already made at least 5 recipes in the book, two of which have become staples.

    I'd seen Ina make Blini with Smoked Salmon on her show once, and then as I sat down to pore over my new cookbook, came across it again. Great idea!

    On the surface, I picked an odd event to try a sophisticated appetizer. But a 5-year-old birthday playdate, with lots of kids and 4 other moms, is, believe it or not, the perfect venue. Most of the time at these things, the moms very rarely sit down, and at any moment might have to drop everything, so small bite-sized "grownup food" is a real treat for them. But they're a discriminating audience too: they don't have time to mess around with anything that's less than great. The proof is how empty the serving plate is in the end.

    Rather than making the buckwheat pancakes called for in the recipe, I cheaped out and bought mini-toasts. Ina herself points out, "No one will have less fun if you don't make everything yourself." After you decode the triple negative, that boils down to: "Go ahead -- buy stuff." The core of the recipe is the smoked salmon, creme fraiche, and dill sprig anyway.

    But my tub of unopened creme fraiche wasn't fraiche at all. With 20 minutes before guests arrived, I made a hasty switcheroo with sour cream.

    Ina calls for putting the salmon directly onto the blini pancakes. I found that the salmon doesn't stick to the dry toasts. You want the whole item to stay together if it gets tipped, so I modified it by putting the sour cream on first. But then, the dill doesn't stick well to the salmon, and the appetizer loses its visual punch -- the dill looks great against the white. The solution was a little dollop of sour cream on either side of the salmon. The downside to this is that the toasts get mushy by the end of the party, but this is worthwhile to have the appetizer stay together.

    I say "dollop," but sour cream isn't that easy to dollop. I imagine creme fraiche is worse. I had to use two spoons to push off a drop of sour cream onto the tiny toasts. Come to think of it, investing a moment to put the sour cream into a plastic bag and cutting off the tip to squirt it might have been worthhile.

    Modifications and all, these were a huge hit. Even my suspicious husband begrudgingly tried a piece when I pointed out to him that this really is just lox, bagels and cream cheese with herbs (he didn't like the dill though). Next time, I will try the plastic bag for squirting the dairy product of choice, and I think assembly will go much faster. This will be a party staple.

    Friday, December 26, 2008

    Blueberry Pancakes

    Blueberry Pancakes

    I'm only calling these "Blueberry Pancakes" because that's what the recipe says. I usually don't put blueberries in, since I'm the only one in my family who likes blueberries in pancakes (sigh). But the base of recipe -- and technique -- makes for the fluffiest, yummiest buttermilk pancakes I've ever made. The blueberries, to me, are a bonus, easily dropped in per-pancake after they're poured.

    This recipe, from a Cook's Illustrated magazine (and I lost the issue with the date, but it's sometime in 2007 or 2008), is fairly simple and has nothing radical in it. It pulls together various elements of good pancakes: some melted butter, a little sugar (my mother would be mortified, but it does add something), and buttermilk.

    The real epiphany is the basic idea of mixing wet and dry ingredients separately, then pouring the wet ingredients into a well made in the dry. Then a little verrry careful stirring, with lumps remaining -- that piece of old wisdom applies -- and within a few minutes, right onto a hot griddle. I used to make pancake batter ahead of time, but with this recipe, you can see the batter rising and later falling, so you want to pour it onto the hot griddle at the max rise moment.

    The syrup in the background is just for show; we don't even bother with it for these flavorful breakfast treats.

    My kids are an easy sell on pancakes, but my husband isn't. So the highest praise came spontaneously, when he called out to me from the kitchen, "These are so yummy!" Random outbursts of approval, especially when it comes to food, are rare indeed from him.

    With a great recipe under my belt, now my pancakes' weak spot is my cheap thin griddle, and temporary ceramic smooth electric cooktop. Blah. These are crying for a nice heavy cast-iron griddle with a ton of thermal mass and heat-retention inertia, and a pair of kick-*ss gas burners under it. It's a few months yet until I get my 6-burner DCS cooktop, but one of the first things I'll make is fluffy, yummy pancakes.

    Thursday, December 25, 2008

    Ciabatta Stuffing with Chestnuts and Pancetta

    Ciabatta Stuffing with Chestnuts and Pancetta

    I'm not a big stuffing fan. But on Christmas Day, with a carb-gobbling family, it seemed like the right thing to do.

    This recipe caught my eye on a Giada de Laurentiis show a year ago. I even bought a bag of frozen chestnuts to make it, which languished in my freezer the entire year. Then my talented sister-in-law made a fabulous sausage and bread stuffing for Thanksgiving, and I was intrigued about the concept of meat in stuffing.

    I'm not sure this recipe would be possible without Trader Joe's ultra-handy tiny-diced pancetta. What a time-saver. I used a flaxseed ciabatta bread, left out the celery (have I mentioned before, I hate celery), and halved the recipe. To my surprise, the only ingredient I didn't love was the chestnuts. Maybe jarred ones, as the recipe calls for, are moister. And pre-peeled.

    When I do like stuffing, it's because it's loaded with apples and raisins, all dealbreakers for my husband. But this stuffing was GREAT. Really tasty, nicely balanced, full of flavor without bowling you over, I think because of the nicely distributed tiny pieces of pancetta. Of all the things I made for Christmas Dinner, this was the standout to me. And it was pretty easy to make, too.

    I've never baked stuffing before, so it'll take a little practice to tweak the moisture in it. It was crisp on top, and moist enough for me inside, but my husband would have liked it a tad moister. He missed the celery too, but I draw the line there. Maybe fennel next time. The way Christmas fell for us this year, only my immediate family served as the only testers, so I pretty much knew we would have leftovers. I can usually count on my middle son (my favorite sous-chef, who turns 5 tomorrow) to try things, and he liked it. My older son and daughter...oh, never mind.

    And there will certainly be a next time. This stuffing was really, really good. I especially hope to impress my inspiring sister-in-law next year!

    Monday, December 22, 2008

    Fig Clafoutis

    Fig Clafoutis

    Another favorite book that I haven't used enough is Simple Soirees, by Peggy Knickerbocker. I love how it lays out various entertaining menus, though I'm nowhere near well set up to actually follow them. Still, there are plenty of individual recipes to pick out. I'd been meaning to make this one for a while, then forgot about it.

    Until one day I had a hankering for a fig, but could only buy them in pints. I love figs, but can only eat so many. Your tongue stings after a few, what's that about? For an unrelated reason, I thumbed through Simple Soirees again, and stumbled across the fig clafoutis recipe I'd backburnered. So for no other reason than the coincidence that I happened to have a near-pint of figs not to waste, I made the clafouti recipe.

    I've made a Pear Clafouti before, and loved it. So much so that I searched high and low to find a white 10" round baking dish just for clafoutis, which I found in an unlikely place: a $10 quiche dish at Macy's. So I'm set.

    Clafouti (not sure if the 's' in this recipe is part of the name or a plural) is so easy to make there's little to say about it, though clafouti itself is very fun to say. Eggs, cream, sugar, and voila: custard.

    The only thing I found about setting fresh figs cut into disks atop the batter is that they sort of floated on the batter, and made for an odd appearance. The recipe says not to worry if they sink, but I wish they had sunk, so they looked less like a pizza topping.

    The recipe offers an alternative to fresh figs, which is to reconstitute dried figs in port. Mm! Now we're talking! I think that right there trumps the fresh-fig route. Not to mention, you can make this any time of the year, outside that short weeks-long window when you can buy fresh figs.

    Alas, but these are all nits. I love clafoutis, with their mild flavor and ambiguous use (dessert, breakfast, afternoon tea snack). Figs raise them to a new class level. Naturally, I'm the only one in my family who would dream of touching this, so it'll have to wait for a fig-appreciative audience.

    Sunday, December 21, 2008

    Cinnamon-Apple Walnut Torte

    Cinnamon-Apple Walnut Torte

    (Is it possible it's been two months since I've posted? It's ironic that overseeing a grand new kitchen remodel, baking once a week for the construction crew, and somehow hosting and cooking for parties at our temporary digs has kept me from blogging! Too much cooking, not enough writing.)

    I love this book: Coffee Cakes, by Lou Seibert Pappas. I think I picked it up at Borders one day, in one of those browsy moods when you just feel like buying something. Rarely do those purchases work out, but this book has become one of my favorites.

    So it's odd that I pick this recipe of all to post about, since it really didn't work out all that well. It's described as a "torte," and uses very little flour, only 1/4 cup. Perhaps I don't know what a "torte" is (OK, I don't), and perhaps I was fooled by the comment that says to bake until the "cake" is set. There was nothing cakey about it. In fact, it was much more like a gooey crisp than a cake, and needed a spoon to be scooped out.

    But the bones were unbeatable: how can you go wrong with cinnamon, apples, cranberries and walnuts? As with all the recipes in this book, the taste was unbeatable, and the instructions were clear.

    This photo makes it look like it held its shape, but that is the result of careful staging. The texture was more like that of a chunky pudding.

    Not that anyone complained -- it's hard to go wrong with cinnamon and apples in the winter -- but when I'm bringing something to a gathering at which most people are sitting on couches with plastic plates teetering on their laps, I like to bring treats that can easily be handled with fingers.

    I'll most certainly make this again, since I suspect user error above all else. Meantime, perhaps I'll catch a clue about what a torte is.

    And now, I have some more catching up to do!