Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Not Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood
What’s cooking? Pasta in Cream Sauce with Smoked Salmon and Peas

I have a new neighbor this summer. Meet Mr. Crane.

By day, he’s fairly active at the construction site a block away from our apartment. Guys in hard hats go up and down the stairs that dangle inside each segment of the tower frame; then from the tiny cab at the top, they direct the hook to deliver piles of steel beams, concrete slabs, and heavy tools from the ground to the upper floors where more men in hard hats and neon safety vests move around the construction site like ants on an anthill.

At night, the construction site is empty, and the grid of the column holding Mr. Crane up disappears into the dark. But the long white arm remains, hovering eerily like a giant insect outside my window.

It’s fascinating to watch, really. In the beginning, I wondered why the movement of the working arm (the “jib”) was so slow, until I realized that if it went any faster, the stuff hanging from the hook would gain momentum and start to swing in a sort of high-stakes game of crack the whip.

I think knowing your neighbors is a good thing, so in my endless search for useless knowledge, I reached out to one of my darling nephews – a civil engineer whose projects frequently involve high-rise buildings in New York. He obliged me with a treasure trove of crane arcana, and even though you didn’t tune in here to learn about cranes, this stuff is too good not to share.

In addition to sending this diagram, he said, “The type of crane you are talking about is a Tower Crane. We use them here in NYC on nearly all of our jobs. The counterweights are usually steel plates, not concrete as in the label in this image.”

And then he threw in a few other fun facts about Tower Cranes:

■ Tower Crane Operators are almost always the highest paid workers on a construction site.
■ Nobody really buys the cranes. They rent them – at incredible prices – from crane companies. Tall, powerful cranes can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a month, so they are removed as soon as they are no longer absolutely necessary.
■ Tower cranes are on site to bring the structure of the building right to the top, then “pick” (the term for lifting something on the hook) the roof-top mechanical units to the roof.  After that, they usually get taken down.
■ On really tall buildings, a crane needs to “jump” (to be jacked up to raise its height) as the height of the building goes up. (The crane always needs to stay above the height of the building.) Jumping involves adding sections of mast; the cab and jib climb up the sections one by one as the height of the crane increases during the jump. The initial section of the crane can be up to about 200 feet; any building higher than that will have to jump, often in many stages. This also requires the tower of the crane to be braced back to the structure of the building for stability (again, many times at multiple elevations).

■ For the really tall buildings, rather than climb the stairs inside the mast, the operators go up to the level of the highest brace (within the building) and walk along the brace (or bridge) to the mast of the crane and climb from there.
■ The biggest and best cranes are nearly all made in Germany.
■ The New York Wheel project – a giant Ferris wheel now being built on Staten Island – will bring in the second most powerful crane in the world, from Dubai, on a barge. It will make a total of five “picks” before it’s disassembled and shipped back. The rest of the Ferris wheel will be built with smaller, cheaper cranes.
■ On windy days, construction crews are not allowed to use cranes in NYC.

Here endeth the lesson. But it’s good to learn something every day, don’t you think?

So while I’ve been spending my days watching Mr. Crane, I haven’t wanted to spend a lot of time working on dinner. Luckily for me and the hubby, one of the things I brought up from Texas was a package of smoked salmon. It was a Christmas gift from my sweet brother-in-law and his wife, and I hadn’t gotten around to using it in Texas, so I tossed it into my suitcase for our migration north. (And I would like to take just a moment here to say that I believe I hit the lottery in the in-laws category, and not just because they send us smoked salmon.)

Smoked salmon is one of those wonderful foods that keep forever. I once called a company that sells the stuff and asked how long I could hang onto some, and the guy said, “Oh, about 10 years.” Which makes it one of those foods you should always have around.

What can you do with smoked salmon, you ask? Consider:

1. Stir some into your scrambled eggs for breakfast. Top with a little sour cream or creme fraiche, and maybe some chives or fresh dill.
2. Put it in a food processor with some shallots, creme fraiche/sour cream, lemon juice and lemon zest, then stir in chives and serve on rye toasts/crackers or bagels.
3. Eat it as is on crackers or crostini, with a dab of cream cheese or creme fraiche/sour cream, a squirt of lemon juice, and capers.
4. Serve as canapes: toasted pumpernickel rounds with mashed avocado (add some lemon juice) and topped with a piece of the salmon and a sprinkling of fresh dill. Or spread some soft cream cheese on crostini, add a sliver of avocado, a piece of salmon, and a few drops of lemon.
5. Or serve it, as the Kitchen Goddess did, in a cream sauce with pasta. Here you go...

Pasta in Cream Sauce with Smoked Salmon and Peas

Serves 2-3.

8 ounces pasta, such as penne or fettuccini or farfalle (bow-tie)
1½-2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, chopped (about ½ cup)
1 cup heavy cream
6 ounces smoked salmon, chopped
juice of ½ lemon (about 1 tablespoon)
3 tablespoons capers, drained
1 tablespoon fresh dill or 1 teaspoon dried dill
1 cup fresh peas (can use frozen peas, thawed, or fresh asparagus, cut in 2-inch lengths and parboiled for 1 minute)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Kitchen Goddess note: Smoked salmon is salty, so go easy on the salt in the pasta water, and be sure to taste the sauce before adding more salt. Black pepper adds a nice flavor to this dish; use freshly ground. And if you are tempted to sprinkle a little Parmigiano-Reggiano on the finished dish, resist that temptation, as there’s even more salt in that cheese.

Start cooking the pasta before you start the sauce, as the sauce takes almost no time at all. Reserve ¼ cup of the pasta water in case the sauce is too thick. Cook pasta only until al dente.

In a large skillet with sides, heat the oil and add the onion. Sauté on medium-low until the onion is good and soft, about 5 minutes. Add the cream and heat to a simmer. Add the salmon, the lemon juice, dill, and capers, and return the mix to a bare simmer.

Stir in the pasta, and when the mixture is well combined, stir in the peas and continue to heat until the peas are as done as you’d like them to be. (This won’t take but a couple of minutes – that’s 1-2 – especially if, like the Kitchen Goddess, you like your peas also a bit al dente.) If the sauce seems too thick, add some pasta water, a little at a time, to get to the consistency you want. Stir in a couple of good grinds of black pepper.

Taste the sauce and adjust salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.

And if you come across a tower crane in your neighborhood, be sure to say hello!

Friday, July 15, 2016

Happy Anniversary!
What’s cooking? You tell me...

Well, folks, it’s been SEVEN YEARS since I began intruding on your food thoughts. Seven years and almost 300 postings. Ye gods and little fishes!

When I started this blog, I thought it would just be a fun thing to do, a way to keep my writing “chops” up to speed. I’d been writing personal essays for various magazines and newspapers, and moving from New Jersey to Texas made me think I should try something new. My most recent essays in The New York Times (click here: Essays to read them) had been food related, and I’d heard about blogs, so I figured, “What the heck? I’ll start a food blog.” It wasn’t until too late that I realized how hard I’d have to work to find and test recipes, stage and take the photographs, and then make a story of it all.

But it turns out that I really like this gig. I’ve learned an incredible amount – not all of it useful, mind you, but most of it interesting. I’ve enjoyed learning about the staging and photography bits, and I’ve met a lot of really nice people who, as it happens, are also food bloggers. And I’ve connected with many of you even when I didn’t know you before.

So here I am, 298 posts later, and still going. The energizer bunny of the over-50 (let’s be kind) blogging community. I’ve covered everything from allspice to za’atar (oh, wait – that’s an upcoming post), and from asparagus to zeppole. When I wasn’t talking about food, I’ve elaborated on napkin folding and candles and table decorations, on cast iron and rasps and glasses for dessert wine. And while I try not to get stuck on any one style of cuisine – ok, I’ll admit to an extraordinary fondness for Italian cooking – it’s hard to know if I’ve overserved you on desserts or soups or... whatever.

So here’s your chance. Tell me if there’s something you’d like to hear about. More desserts? More veggies? Some odd substance – kombu? pumpkin seed oil? miso? dried lemons? – that you discovered in your pantry and have no idea what to do with it? My grandmother’s apricot tart recipe?

Food has long been a way I connect with family and friends. Now it turns out that writing about food is equally important in connecting with you, my readers. I’m truly thrilled when I hear that someone reads what I write or makes a dish I feature. So if there’s something you want to see here, jump in. You can comment below, or on the Spoon & Ink Facebook page. And on we go...

P.S. I do have a post with a recipe coming this weekend. So stay tuned...

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Celebrate the 4th with Fireworks and Bubbles
What’s cooking? Bubble Tea

2015 Fireworks in Jersey City, with NYC Freedom Tower at far left

What’s as much fun as fireworks? Bubbles. In fact, it feels like a natural sort of pairing: sparkles and bubbles. So let me introduce you to bubble tea.

Also known as pearl milk tea, boba milk tea, or just boba – bubble tea is a mixture of tea with milk, fruit flavoring and tapioca “bubbles.” It’s become increasingly popular among the under-30 crowd, with bubble tea cafes popping up in cities from Miami to Anchorage. And I read in the Huffington Post that McDonald’s now sells bubble tea, in Germany of all places. This is a global phenomenon, folks.

I first discovered bubble tea through a darling young Filipino friend who is wild for the stuff. She got some at a small shop in New Jersey, and gave me a taste. I liked it, and filed it away in my mental food encyclopedia as an interesting gimmick but not likely to take the place of Starbucks as my drink du jour. It didn’t occur to me that I might be able to make it myself.

Then I was asked to bring the dessert for an Asian-inspired dinner party. You may remember that I wrote about serving those molten chocolate cakes with a hit of Chinese five-spice powder and green tea ice cream. But I wanted to have fun with the dessert, and on my shelves, I discovered a book called The Sweet Spot: Asian-Inspired Desserts. Amazing what you can find in your own house. The writer, Pichet Ong, has been the pastry chef for a number of world-class restaurants, so I wandered into the index, where I found... three recipes for bubble tea.

So in a fit of pushing the envelope to complicate my life just a bit more, I added a small serving of bubble tea to each of the plates. And even though the guests were all over-30, they liked it!

It was a lot easier than I thought it would be, which is why you’re reading about it here. Okay, I’d have written about it even if it had been ridiculously hard. But now you have to try it.

What is tapioca? Like the Kitchen Goddess, you may have warm memories of tapioca pudding from your childhood. Frankly, I’d have happily eaten it warm, cold, or room temp. And I’m pretty sure mine was Minute Tapioca, in keeping with my mother’s fascination with all things instant. So maybe it’s those chewy little tapioca balls that took me down the bubble tea path.

According to Wikipedia (and where would I be without thee?), tapioca is a starch, extracted from the root of the cassava plant. It’s ground and dried into a powder resembling corn starch, and from there processed into sticks, flakes, and pearls.

The bubble tea concept originated as a Taiwanese drink in the 1980s: a combination of hot Taiwanese dark tea, small tapioca pearls, condensed milk, and various types of sweetener. Over the years, it has morphed into a mostly cold drink, with variations using green tea, whole milk or coconut milk, large black tapioca pearls, fruit flavors, and some presentations that eschew tea altogether.

Coconut milk (lite) and small tapioca pearls
Kitchen Goddess note: As simple as it is to make, the only challenge is in finding the tapioca beads. I got the small (about ⅛-inch diameter) tapioca pearls in the bulk foods aisle of my local semi-gourmet grocery in Texas, but I’m pretty sure you can find them at any Asian grocery. Same with the large black tapioca pearls, the other type most commonly used in bubble tea. Large pearls are easier to find pre-packaged in the Asian foods aisle.

It may be that the texture is the best part of the drink. The bubbles are mildly chewy – harder than a marshmallow, softer than a gummy bear – with a neutral taste that can swing toward a fruit flavor if you cook them in juice instead of water. If that sounds unattractive to you, I say try it before you decide. And it’s really fun to drink. You must use a fat straw for the full experience: hoovering up the bubbles through the straw one by one is fun and tickles your mouth just slightly.

For the types of bubble tea here, it’s a three-step process: (1) make the fruit slushie (and the tea, if you’re using tea); (2) cook the boba (tapioca pearls – but I’m just going to call them boba because it’s less typing); and (3) combine the ingredients. The variations below should give you a start on concocting your own bubble teas, in a sort of Chinese menu style – one from column A, etc. You can play with proportions to your heart’s content. Just make sure to serve it well chilled. In fact, it’s a great idea to freeze the fruit before puréeing, to get a really good chill. And slurping with the straw at the bottom of the glass is absolutely acceptable.

Kitchen Goddess note on storing boba: They say that cooked boba should be used within 24 hours, but I’ve had some in my fridge for 4 days now and they’re still delicious. Sometimes I store mine in the coconut milk/sugar combo. But if you don’t plan to use coconut milk, you can store the cooked boba in simple syrup (½ cup sugar dissolved in ½ cup water and heated to a boil). Cool the simple syrup to room temp before adding it to the boba. Definitely hang onto any boba you don’t use, in case you get a late-night need for bubble tea.

Teas (optional): Taiwanese black tea, green tea, red zinger tea, or any other tea you like
Puréed Fruit (optional): strawberries, any kind of melon (honeydew is one of the most popular), kiwi, peach, mango, papaya (You can use grapes, blueberries, raspberries if you take the time to strain out the skins/seeds from the purée, but that’s way more trouble than the KG is up for.)
Milk: coconut milk (light), almond milk, non-dairy creamer, cow’s milk (whole, low-fat, fat-free), soy milk, or ice cream (!)
Boba (cooked): small white pearls, large black pearls

Melon Bubble Tea

Adapted from The Sweet Spot: Asian-Inspired Desserts, by Pichet Ong

Makes 8 medium-sized servings.

4 cups chopped, ripe melon (cantaloupe, honeydew, or other)
⅛ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons sugar
juice of ½ lime
1 cup small tapioca pearls
9 ounces unsweetened coconut milk

In a blender, place the melon, the salt, 2 tablespoons of the sugar, and the lime juice. Purée well – 1-2 minutes. Chill.

Bring 8 cups of water to a rolling boil. Add the tapioca pearls and stir well. When the water returns to a rolling boil, reduce the heat just enough to maintain a good simmer. Stir every 1-2 minutes so the boba don’t clump or stick to the bottom of the pan. Continue to simmer and stir the boba for 18-20 minutes, until the white centers are reduced to tiny dots. (They will continue to cook even after draining, eventually becoming clear globules.)

Boba after 2 minutes simmering.
Boba after 15 minutes simmering. Almost there.
Drain the boba. Rinse well in cold water and drain again. Combine the boba in a bowl with the coconut milk and remaining tablespoon of sugar and stir well to keep boba from clumping. Refrigerate the boba until ready to use. (They say boba are best used within 24 hours, but I’m still enjoying some I made four days ago.)

Pour the melon purée into eight glasses and top each with 2 tablespoons of the boba mix. Add fat straws and tell your guests to stir well before drinking.

Boba ready to use... or store in the fridge.

And now that you have a stash of prepared boba, try this one:

Strawberry-Red Zinger Bubble Tea

The quantities here (Quantities? What quantities?!) are pretty loosey-goosey, depending on the number of servings you want and your tastes. Use the recipe above as a guide, and experiment. I like any recipe that asks me to taste frequently!

lemon juice (freshly squeezed)
pinch of salt
Red Zinger tea, chilled
boba in coconut milk (lite)

Purée strawberries with a pinch of salt, and sugar and lemon juice to taste. Chill well. Combine equal parts strawberry purée with the tea, and divide into glasses. Add 2 tablespoons coconut milk boba to each glass and stir. Don’t forget the fat straws!

* * *

You know, I said to myself, “Don’t start down this road,” but apparently, I can’t be stopped. I made another bubble tea for you, from blueberries, which I already warned you against because you need to strain the seeds out. So did I listen to my own advice? No. And a good thing, too, because it’s delicious, and the boba sit right on top for this one, looking like a bit of modern art.

Blueberry-Black Tea Bubble Tea

Makes four 5-ounce servings, or one big one if you decide to drink it all yourself, which you may be tempted to do. This one is just thick enough to serve as bubble tea with a straw, or as a cold soup, with spoons.

1½ cups blueberries, frozen
juice of ½ lemon
pinch of salt
2 tablespoons sugar
1 cup tea, made from Asian black tea, chilled
8 tablespoons boba in coconut milk (lite)

Purée the blueberries with the lemon juice, salt, and sugar. Pour the mix through a medium-grade sieve to remove most of the seeds/skin. (You’ll need to scrape it through the sieve; but don’t kill yourself on that part – just enough to separate out the really pulpy part. I ended up with just under a full cup of purée.)

Combine the purée with an equal amount of tea, and divide the mix into 4 small glasses or bowls (in case you want to try it as a cold soup). Spoon 2 tablespoons of the boba/coconut milk mix on top of each, and serve with fat straws or spoons. Encourage your guests to stir well before drinking.

And have a fun 4th of July!

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Shop til Whenever
What’s cooking? Beluga Lentils

In the hunting-gathering world, I know my place. I’m a gatherer-shopper. Whatever I’m looking for, I like checking out the options, evaluating the advantages or disadvantages of one choice over the other, noticing the nuances of color, texture, or taste. And I’m always up for the shopping experience, as long as I don’t have to try anything on. There’s something about the lighting (do I really look like that?), and the mirrors (do I really look like that?), and the need to get undressed and dressed and undressed and dressed.... So I’m okay with shopping for shoes and cosmetics and sunglasses and furniture, but not clothes, please.

Also food. Especially when I’m not pressed for time or have a specific list to fill, I enjoy just wandering the produce aisles to see what’s in season now, or stopping at the nibble stations in the cheese department or the bakery. In my search for new foods to write about, I’ve put real effort over the last couple of years into trying the unfamiliar. Not weird, mind you, just unfamiliar. The challenge is to make something of them before I forget they’re in my pantry.

So when I saw these cute little black lentils, I really felt compelled to buy them. They’re called Beluga lentils for their similarity to the caviar. Even cooked, they tend to glisten in the way that caviar glistens. But they still taste like lentils, so not weird – just different. They take very little effort (prep time plus cook time is less than an hour!), and they don’t get soupy – the desired texture is toothier than with most lentils, almost like a risotto – so they work well as a side dish for chicken or pork. I cooked them first as a vegetarian dish, with veggie stock and your basic onion-carrot-celery mirepoix – the holy trinity of soup flavoring.

The second time I made them, we’d just arrived in New Jersey for the summer and I forgot that I hadn’t stocked up on things like carrots and celery. But I had onion and some yellow bell pepper, so I sautéed those together and worked some Aidells Chicken & Apple Sausage and a little brown sugar into the mix. Wow – very nice! And now I see that Whole Foods has a salad of Beluga lentils with feta, endive leaves, and tangerine segments. Looks like I have to head back to the store...

Beluga Lentils

Adapted from Allrecipes.com

Serves 4.

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
½ cup diced onion
½ cup diced carrot
½ cup diced celery
1 clove garlic (roasted if you have it), minced
1 cup Beluga lentils
3 cups vegetable stock or chicken stock
6 sprigs fresh thyme or 1 rounded teaspoon dried thyme leaves
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley

In a large saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter with the olive oil. Add the onion and sauté, stirring occasionally, for 4 minutes, until the onion softens. Add the carrot, celery, and garlic, and sauté another 4-5 minutes until the carrot and celery soften.

Reduce the heat to medium-low and stir in the lentils until they are well coated with the oil, about 1 minute. Add the chicken stock, thyme, and 6-8 fresh grinds of black pepper. Set the heat to a gentle simmer and cook the lentils, covered, for 30-35 minutes, stirring occasionally until they are tender and have absorbed almost all of the liquid.

Turn off the heat and, if you used fresh thyme, remove the stems from the mix. Stir in the vinegar and parsley. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Kitchen Goddess note: These little lentils are endlessly flexible. You can add meat, or not. You can stir in fresh spinach at the end, or not. Here’s what I’ve done:

For the meat-eater’s version, start by sautéing 1 package of Aidells sausage (sliced in ½-inch pieces), OR 1 pound of mild Italian sausage, OR 3 slices of bacon, cut in 1-inch pieces, in a 10-inch skillet or small soup pot. If you choose the Aidells sausage, you may want to add a tablespoon of olive oil. When the meat is done, remove it to a bowl and proceed with the onion-carrot-celery sauté. Once the lentils have cooked to the tender stage, add back the meat and continue cooking until the meat is warm. Then remove the mixture from the heat and stir in the vinegar/parsley.

For my New Jersey version, start with the Aidells Chicken & Apple sausage. Then substitute ½ yellow bell pepper, diced, for the carrots and celery, and stir in 1 tablespoon brown sugar at the same time that you add the broth.

And let me know if you come up with any other great ideas!

Monday, May 30, 2016

The Power of Suggestion
What’s cooking? Molten Chocolate Cake

I’m so easily led. Our gourmet group met last week, and my course was the dessert. The theme was “something Asian,” which had me stumped for a while. Then an internet search yielded a recipe for a flourless chocolate cake with Chinese five-spice powder. That sounded good, and I figured I could serve some green tea ice cream with it.

Kitchen Goddess note: Five-spice powder is a warm and fragrant spice blend often found in Asian cooking, especially Chinese cuisine. Finely ground from fennel seed, Chinese cinnamon (milder than the cassia cinnamon generally available in the U.S), star anise, clove, and Sichuan pepper, the mix is most often used on all kinds of meats. But I’ve incorporated it in a breakfast dish of steel-cut oats, a fabulous cranberry sauce made with pinot noir, and this chocolate cake. The flavor is occasionally described as “haunting.” The Sichuan peppers are hard to come by [read: expensive], so they’re often left out of commercial blends. The mix from Penzey’s uses cassia cinnamon, and ginger instead of the pepper; Central Market in Austin offers five-spice powder in the bulk baking aisle, using cassia cinnamon and black pepper instead of the Sichuan.

I sent along the description of my dessert to our fearless leader, a highly organized guy who assembles the menu into a lovely document with photos and all. But I didn’t have a photo of what I wanted to do, and he really likes having photos, so he found one on his own – an individual-sized chocolate cake with a small scoop of ice cream next to it. (This guy isn’t just well organized – he’s resourceful, and relentless. Reminding me a bit of the Kitchen Goddess, only with better technical skills.) As it happens – and because I am the Kitchen Goddess – I could tell that the cake in the photo was a molten chocolate cake, which is a totally different texture than what I had planned to make. Ha! I said to myself. Then Hmmm... Then Mmmmm... The more I looked at his photo, the more I wanted what he had pictured. So I revised my plan, put the five-spice powder into Jean-George Vongerichten’s molten chocolate cake recipe, and that’s what I served.

This is why I often ask the waiter in a restaurant to take my order last. Unless I’m completely sure of what I want to eat, I’m very often swayed by what others at the table order. So if I say I’ll have the chicken, and the next person orders the filet of sole, I start thinking, Well, that sounds really good. Maybe better than the chicken. And before I know it, I’m saying, “Oh waiter, I’ve changed my mind. I’ll have the sole, too.”

And then I go through the same routine with each person around the table, unless someone orders steak, which I can usually pass.

The problem is that I mentally taste each dish, and if I start by tasting the chicken, well, then, by the time the next person orders the sole, I’ve pretty much done with mentally eating the chicken and am ready for something else. It’s a curse.

In the end, the molten chocolate cake with five-spice powder was extremely yummy. My good buddy, Jean-George (we’ve never met, but I just know we’d be friends if we did) – who is credited with inventing the concept – appears in a video on The New York Times website, in which he makes said cake faster than... well, pretty darn fast. And the concept is incredibly simple. No ball of chocolate truffle to insert into the dough. Instead, the trick is not to cook it long, and because there’s precious little flour in the mix, the uncooked insides are just rich, gooey chocolate. Also no icing, though you may want to sprinkle powdered sugar on top. Was it a success? Let me just say that the whole table went quiet as everyone cut gently into their cakes.

With only a few ingredients, the recipe is ripe for adding a bit of flavoring, as I did. But you could instead add cinnamon or candied ginger or espresso powder or orange liqueur or nothing – whatever strikes your fancy. Garnish with some fat raspberries or a sprig of mint, or whipped cream. Or green tea ice cream, which was a divine combo – as long as you like green tea. (My post with Green Tea Ice Cream will be coming up soon. Be patient.)

Today’s Brilliant Idea

One of the few issues you face in serving molten chocolate cakes is the problem of getting them out of the very hot ramekins and onto the plate. If you’ve adequately greased and floured the ramekins, all you have to do is put a plate on top of one and turn it over. But that means picking them up, and you can’t wait until they cool. The Kitchen Goddess has more than once burned her fingers in this process. But in my wanderings around the web, I came across Kitchen Conundrums with Thomas Joseph, on MarthaStewart.com. He suggests wrapping the business ends of tongs with paper towels, secured by rubber bands, at which point you can easily pick up a hot ramekin and invert it without hurting yourself. The internet is a wonderful place.

The Cake

With all these distractions, I don’t want you to miss the point of this post, which is to make this cake. OMG, you will not find another dessert that is simultaneously this mouth-watering and easy to make. It’s so popular in Jean-George’s restaurants, he says they make thousands each day. So even if you don’t trust the Kitchen Goddess (what??!!), you can trust all those customers. It’ll take more time on your first try, but on my third time making this recipe, the longest part of the process was waiting for my oven to get to 450º. Seriously. And then the little darlings cook in only 7-8 minutes!

Molten Chocolate Cake

Adapted from Jean-George Vongerichten, as seen in The New York Times.

Makes 4 cakes.

4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped into small pieces
4 ounces unsalted butter, plus extra for buttering the molds*
2 large eggs
2 yolks from large eggs
¼ cup sugar
2 teaspoons all-purpose flour, plus extra for flouring the molds*
Optional flavorings: 1¼ teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder, or 1¼ teaspoon cinnamon
Garnishes (any combination of these): powdered sugar, mint sprig, raspberries, ice cream, whipped cream

Special equipment: four 6-ounce molds or ramekins, buttered and floured or sprayed with Baker’s Joy.

*Kitchen Goddess note: You can save yourself time and a pain in the neck by purchasing a can of Baker’s Joy, a calorie-free non-stick baking spray with flour. Spray it on the insides of your molds, and in seconds, you are ready to roll.

Start by melting the butter and chocolate together in a saucepan or medium-sized bowl. You can do this using a double boiler with hot water, or a bowl set over a saucepan of hot water, or you can melt the butter in the microwave and stir the chocolate into it until the chocolate is completely melted. Or if, like the Kitchen Goddess, you are blessed with an induction stovetop, you can put the butter and chocolate into a saucepan on the “Melt” setting and wait for technology to do its work. However you make it happen, stir together the melted butter and chocolate until well blended, and set aside.

Put the whole eggs and the egg yolks into a mixing bowl with the sugar, and beat or whisk the mixture until it becomes lighter and thickens. If you are using a stand mixer, this will take about a minute and a half on the second highest speed setting.

Stir the flour and any optional flavoring you choose into the chocolate/butter mix, and slowly pour the egg/sugar mixture into the chocolate, stirring or whisking constantly as you pour. Continue to stir the batter until the mixtures are well combined.

Pour the batter into the greased and floured molds, leaving a bit of room for the cakes to expand. At this point, you can bake them immediately, or you can cover the molds with cellophane wrap and refrigerate them for up to 3 hours. With the latter, just let them come back to room temperature (give them at least 30 minutes) before baking.

When you’re ready to bake, heat the oven to 450º. Put the molds or ramekins onto a rimmed baking sheet, and bake at 450º for 8 minutes. The Kitchen Goddess prefers to set the timer for 7 minutes, then check to see if the tops are set, and continue baking for another minute if they are not. It’s better to undercook these cakes than to overcook them, as they won’t be “molten” if they’re overcooked. The cakes are ready when the tops are barely set – that middle spot on the surface is no longer wet. The cake will still jiggle slightly.

Let the cakes sit for 1 minute before unmolding. To unmold, place a plate upside down on top of the mold, and invert the mold and plate together. Leave the mold in place for 10 seconds before lifting it off. Garnish with powdered sugar, whipped cream, ice cream, or a sprig of mint. Scatter raspberries around the plate. Serve immediately.

Coming up: Green Tea (Matcha) Ice Cream

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night...
What’s cooking? Fusilli with No-cook Tomato Sauce

The first mystery of the day is what I named that file where I wrote the recipe for today’s post. I’m pretty sure I recall doing that, and I probably named it something clever and memorable.

Then there’s the question of where the time goes when I sit down at my computer. Because I made this pasta a week ago, took the photos, and planned what I’d say about it. That’s a mystery that haunts me daily.

But the mystery that started this train of thought was Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie’s classic novel. Published in 1934, it’s been adapted once as a movie (1974, starring Albert Finney), once for radio (1992-3 in a 5-part BBC series, starring John Moffat), and three times for television (2001 by CBS, starring Alfred Molina; 2010 by a British company and WGBH-TV, starring David Suchet; and 2015 by Fuji Television, with an all-Japanese cast). Another film version, starring Kenneth Branagh as Poirot, is expected out next year.

I’ve read it more than once, but most recently as my book group’s choice for the month of May. And even though I know the ending well, I always enjoy riding along with Dame Agatha as she unspools her clues. In fact, except for the Tommy and Tuppence Beresford books, I believe I’ve read almost all of Christie’s mysteries.

My fascination with mystery started with Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew, which I devoured in my preteen years. By high school, I’d graduated to Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason series, and when I finished that, I moved on to Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. I’ve since covered the landscape of Raymond Chandler, Colin Dexter, Elizabeth George, Sue Grafton, Dashiell Hammett, P.D. James, John D. MacDonald, Ross Macdonald, Ngaio Marsh, Robert Parker,  Dorothy L. Sayers, Rex Stout, and, of course, the delicious Arthur Conan Doyle. Whew! So I guess you’d say I like a good murder mystery.

Mostly what I think I like is the logic – the straightforward, linear storytelling with at least the chance that I might figure out whodunnit. And an unequivocal solution at the end.

A Cool Sauce on Hot Pasta

As the hostess for my book group’s mystery night, I wanted to serve something that wouldn’t require a lot of last-minute attention. In colder months, I often serve soup; but May in Texas isn’t soup weather. Then I remembered a dish that an Italian friend used to make in New Jersey – one that required only the heat of the just-cooked pasta to warm up the sauce. I found several variations on the web, and most of them credited my old favorite – The Silver Palate Cookbook – as the originator. So that’s where I started, too, and only added a couple of tweaks of my own.

The best thing about this sauce is that you need to assemble it hours before the guests arrive – so there’s really no way to run late. Allow however much time you need to heat the pasta water, and once the pasta is cooked, you toss it with the sauce and the dish is ready. It really couldn’t be easier. And my book group declared it “delicious!” No mystery there.

Fusilli with No-cook Tomato Sauce

Adapted from The Silver Palate Cookbook (Workman Publishing, 1982)

Serves 8 as a main course.

4 pints sweet cherry tomatoes
1 pound good Brie cheese
1 cup fresh basil leaves
½ cup oil-cured black olives, halved
zest of 1 lemon
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 scant cup olive oil
2½ teaspoons kosher salt, plus salt for the pasta water
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1½ pounds fusilli
garnish: freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

To make the Brie easier to slice, put it into the freezer while you cut up the tomatoes.

Cut the cherry tomatoes into quarters or eighths, depending on the look you want. (The Kitchen Goddess cut hers into eighths.) Place them in a large mixing bowl.

Trim the rind off the Brie and slice it into ½-inch dice. Scatter it on top of the tomatoes.

Make a chiffonade of the basil leaves: Stack 8-10 leaves into a neat pile. Roll the leaves into a fairly tight cigar shape, and slice across the cigar in strips about ⅛ inch wide. Sprinkle the basil strips on top of the tomatoes and Brie. Repeat with the remaining basil. [Kitchen Goddess note: For the KG’s demonstration of chiffonade technique, click here.]

The sauce after less than one hour.
Add the olives, lemon zest, garlic, olive oil, salt, and pepper to the bowl, and stir gently to combine the ingredients. Cover the bowl and set it aside for 3-4 hours at room temperature, stirring gently about once an hour.
The sauce after 4 hours.

Set a large pot of well-salted water on the stove for the pasta. When you are almost ready to serve, cook the pasta according to package directions. Once the pasta is tender but still a little al dente, drain it and add it immediately to the bowl of sauce. Toss well and serve with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Kitchen Goddess note: The KG has specified fusilli here, because she likes a pasta with some shape to it, to help trap the gooey cheese in the sauce. But other types of pasta will do as well, such as gemelli (twists), radiatore (radiator shapes), or farfalle (bow ties). 

Saturday, May 7, 2016

A Treat for Mom Any Day
What’s cooking? Pâté Maison and Strawberry Pâte de Fruit

Pétanque. It’s French. Rhymes with kebonk. The Kitchen Goddess was recently invited for an evening of pétanque. I know, I hadn’t ever heard of it either. It’s a French lawn bowling game, much like the Italian bocce, in which the object is to toss or roll heavy balls at a smaller, target ball. All these games – in the larger category of boules – are played in open-air rectangular courts made of flattened earth, gravel, or crushed stone, surrounded by wooden or stone borders.

Our friends have built a pétanque court in their backyard, and they invited a small group for a “friendly” tournament. I put that word in quotes, because it turns out that guys can get charged up over a game of tiddly-winks. We all know women are much more reasonable.

In any case, it was a fun idea, made even more so by the hostess’s choice of a country French theme to the food. Guests brought cheeses, fruits, various dry sausages, and liver pâté; the hostess provided a bakery’s worth of baguettes, a gigantic salad, more cheese, and dessert. And of course, everyone brought wine. A great way to spend an evening with or without the pétanque.

The Kitchen Goddess was asked to bring a chicken liver pâté. As luck would have it, she has a great one in her repertoire, a tried and true recipe adapted from the original Silver Palate Cookbook (which, thankfully, is still available). Even if you don’t like chicken liver, or think you couldn’t possibly eat a dish made from chicken liver, you should consider this one. The KG tried it the first time because the book’s authors claim to have sold some two tons of it in their shop, and that sounded like endorsement enough.

Creamy, smooth, and slightly nutty tasting from the blend of spices, with so much butter that it’s almost more butter than chicken liver. And, of course, that makes it irresistible. There’s also a hint of sweetness from both the Calvados and the currants. I have friends who can’t believe how good it is, and it disappears completely every time I serve it at a party. The recipe makes two small pots of the stuff, and the good news is that you can freeze it for the next time the boss or your mother-in-law or anyone else you’d like to impress will be dropping by for cocktails.

But the Kitchen Goddess has never been known to leave well enough alone, so she wandered onto the interweb to see what other kinds of pâté might be available. There she discovered a darling dessert that is also a pâté, known as pâte de fruits. [Translation note: pâté – pronounced “pa-TAY” is a meat dish; pâte – pronounced “pot” – is a fruit paste. Or so I’m told.] The bigger challenge: purse your lips together, and try to pronounce f-r-wee – the sound you must make to say “fruits” in French. It’s spelled the same way as in English, but in French, you need to let your upper lip curl up in that truly Gallic fashion.

Pâte de fruits is an elegant and gorgeously simple type of confection – a French favorite for hundreds of years. Tiny cubes of pure fruit gelée dusted with sugar, they’re pretty and light and a great dessert bauble. Also très easy to make. Put out a plate of them with coffee or champagne, and watch them disappear.

So what does all this have to do with Mother’s Day, you might ask? What nicer way to celebrate than with a tray of goodies and a glass of wine? Happy Mother’s Day!!

Kitchen Goddess timing note: The pâté maison takes less than an hour, but needs to set for at least 4 hours. The pâte de fruit will take about 2 hours. It sets up very quickly, but you’ll want to wait a few hours until it’s completely cooled before cutting it into cubes and rolling it in sugar.

Pâté Maison

Adapted from The Silver Palate Cookbook (1982), by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins.

Makes about 3 cups pâté.

2 small celery ribs, including leaves, cut in 2-inch lengths
4 whole black peppercorns
1 teaspoon salt
1 pound chicken livers, drained, rinsed, and patted dry, and trimmed of stringy membrane bits
pinch of cayenne pepper
½ pound unsalted butter
2 teaspoons dry mustard
½ teaspoon grated nutmeg (freshly grated is best)
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ cup coarsely chopped onion (about 2 ounces or ½ small onion)
1 small garlic clove
¼ cup Calvados
½ cup dried currants
Optional garnishes: sage leaves, fresh raspberries

Put 6 cups of cold water into a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the celery ribs and peppercorns, and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer, and cook for 10 minutes.

Add the chicken livers to the pot and simmer gently for an additional 10 minutes.

Drain the livers and discard the celery ribs and the peppercorns.

Into the bowl of a food processor, place the livers and the rest of the ingredients, except for the currants. Process until very smooth, at least a minute.

Transfer the paste into a small mixing bowl, and stir in the currants. The KG then divides the mixture into two 1½-cup terrines, but you could also use a single 3-cup serving dish. Smooth the tops with a spatula, then cover the dishes with cellophane wrap and refrigerate at least 4 hours. (If you taste the pâté before it has had time to set, you won’t like it. It needs that time for the flavors to meld.)

When ready to serve, garnish (if you want) and allow the pâtés to stand at room temperature for at least 30 minutes. Serve with water crackers or fresh or toasted baguette slices.

Pâté de Fruits

Adapted from Elizabeth LaBau at About.com.

Makes 64 1-inch squares.

1 pound fresh strawberries (can use frozen if they have no sugar added), hulled
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 cups granulated sugar, divided
2½ tablespoons liquid pectin

Special equipment: candy thermometer, 8x8" baking pan (glass or metal)

Spray your baking pan with non-stick cooking spray. (Ms. LaBau recommends first lining the pan with foil or parchment, but I sprayed a glass pan with PAM – no lining – and had no problem removing the finished gelée.)

Process the strawberries in a blender or food processor until very smooth.

Pour the strawberry purée into a large saucepan. Stir in the lemon juice and ½ cup of sugar. Stir well to combine. Set the pan over medium-high heat and attach your candy thermometer.

Kitchen Goddess note: The minutiae of these temperature instructions may seem anxiety-producing. Do not fret. The KG herself spent a few worried moments in adjusting the heat up and down, and the results were great. Just do the best you can. The KG found a similar recipe – for a pear-cranberry pâte de fruit at marthastewart.com, where the process was much more loosey-goosey; but I give you the directions I tried to follow.

Stirring the mixture constantly with a spatula to make sure it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan, bring it to a temperature of 140°. Add the remaining 1½ cups of sugar and the pectin, and stir to combine.

Lower the heat slightly and continue to cook, stirring constantly, until the temperature reaches 200°. Be patient – this part could take 30 minutes or more. Once it reaches 200°, adjust the heat to maintain that temperature for 2-3 minutes.

Return the heat to medium/medium high until the temperature of the mix reaches 225°, and let it cook at 225° – still stirring! – for another 2-3 minutes.

Immediately pour the liquid all at once into your prepared pan, using your spatula to scrape it all in. This stuff sets up quickly once the heat is off and if you pour it in stages, you’ll find that the second stage simply sits on top of the first.

Set the pan on a cooling rack for several hours, until the mixture has cooled completely. (If you have the time, you can leave it out on the counter overnight.)

Using a sharp knife, cut the pâte de fruit into 64 1-inch squares, and roll them in your choice of sugar: superfine, regular granulated, or large-crystal sanding sugar.

Pâte de fruit keeps best at room temperature. If you choose to keep it in the refrigerator, you may need to re-roll it in sugar before serving.

* * *

Kitchen Goddess note about strawberries: The KG has posted about the most fun and amazing way to quickly hull strawberries, here. But if, when you hull your strawberries, you simply throw away the hulls, you are missing out on a great treat: strawberry water.

To make it, add those hulls – leaves intact – into a mason jar of plain water. (You’ll need about a pound’s worth of strawberries to get the full flavor.) Refrigerate overnight, then drain out the hulls. You’ll be left with a truly wonderful, strawberry-flavored water – light and so refreshing, you’ll want to buy more strawberries just to make another batch.