Thursday, October 28, 2010

Cockroach Clusters: a Spooky Halloween Treat

I seem to be writing a lot about sweets these days, so I suppose it is fitting that I finish out the run with a Halloween post.

I would like to be the kind of blogger who is always anticipating holidays and events and has clever posts featuring interesting and unusual theme-related recipes. Alas, that's not how I roll. I always come up with the clever idea the day of the event, or even during the week after it. Some day that might change, but for now I consider myself lucky those times that I rise to the occasion, so to speak.

We just started up our end-of-the month company lunches this week after a summer (and fall due to circumstances beyond our control) hiatus, and since it was so close to Halloween I decided to make something appropriate for Halloween for dessert. It didn't take me long to remember these cockroach clusters. In truth, I believe they are actually more related to Harry Potter than to Halloween, but they seem tailor made for a spooky treat.

These are a snap to make, so if you need a last-minute treat for that last-minute party, they are a no-brainer. All you need are chocolate chips, pretzels, raisins, and decorative sugar or sprinkles.

The recipe calls for skinny pretzel sticks. I was shopping at Whole Foods, though, so I had to settle for the only pretzel sticks they carry, which were organic, and quite a bit thicker than I expected. They worked, but they don't look as spooky as they should. Instead of a cup of raisins, I used half a cup each of raisins and cranberries to add a little tartness.

For the chocolate chips, I used Ghirardelli 60% Cacao Bittersweet chips, so these aren't too sweet. The flash has made them much lighter in the picture than they are in real life. For such a child-like recipe, they are awfully sophisticated. I didn't have chocolate sprinkles and I didn't want to buy them, so I used some orange and black colored decorative sugar I had bought years ago instead, and I thought it worked just fine.

If you need something quick to get you in the spirit, you can't go wrong with these.

11.5-oz bag Ghirardelli 60% cacao chips
2 cups thin pretzel sticks
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup dried cranberries
orange and black decorative sugar, or chocolate sprinkles

Put chips in a large microwave-safe bowl and cook at 10-second intervals until the chocolate is almost, but not totally, melted. Remove from the microwave and stir until the residual heat has melted all of the chocolate.

Add the pretzels, raisins and cranberries and stir together until well mixed.

Drop by tablespoons onto waxed paper, then top with the decorative sugar or the sprinkles. Let set.

Store in the refrigerator.

Makes 30-35 clusters.

This recipe is all over the web, and as far as I can see there is no attribute.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Baking Class: Buttermilk Pie with Almond Meal Crust

I was recently gifted with a package of Bob's Red Mill Almond Meal/Flour, and I have been looking for ways to use it. I decided to start small, and went with substituting one fourth of a cup of it for an equal amount of the flour in what has become my go to pie crust for a buttermilk pie.

With so-so results. It wasn't bad, but I couldn't really taste the almond, and the crust did not brown as much as it usually does. It also didn't hold it's shape as well when I cut into it, but that might be because I couldn't wait for it to cool all the way before I cut into it. The piece I cut the next day, after it had been in the refrigerator overnight, held it's shape beautifully.

The pie itself was perfect, as you can see. The filling was smooth and creamy and not too sweet. I think this is how the buttermilk part is supposed to be, and not nearly as dark as the previous one.

I guess my main problem with the pie crust is that it did not really brown. It tasted all right, but all right is not usually what I am looking for in a pie.

I think the crust might have browned more if I had toasted the almond meal before adding it to the flour, and it might have added more almond flavor. I think I will also reduce the butter next time. The almonds add their own fat, and it was actually a little too rich for me.

I have it in mind this would make an intriguing apple pie. I will get back to you.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Baking Class: Chocolate Cake

This chocolate cake recipe has been in my family for years. I don't know from whom my mother got it, but it's the first cake I remember eating. I'm pretty sure it didn't come from my grandmother, because her signature cake was a yellow cake filled with jelly and covered with chocolate frosting. That was a cake I actually liked, but I think I was the only one. Everyone else in my family was grossed out by the jelly filling, which was a pretty common thing back in my grandmother's day.

Wherever my mother got it, the chocolate cake became THE cake for every family celebration (except for my younger brother and me, but that's a different story). Rich and filled with an intense chocolate flavor, it is one of the best chocolate cakes I have ever eaten.

In those days, women usually had one or two recipes that they did not share. It was the recipes that were show-stoppers, dishes that defined them, made them special. For my mother, it was this chocolate cake recipe. She guarded it carefully, and as each of my sisters and I came of age to make it ourselves, we had to promise not to share it with anyone else.

And I never did. And friends would ask. They would be disappointed when I wouldn't give them the recipe, but they understood. The only exception my mother made was for my friend Mary, who wrote her the most lovely letter begging for the recipe and promising not to give it to anyone else. That is the only time that I know of that my mother allowed the recipe outside of the family. She even balked at giving it to my sister-in-law, although she finally did in the end.

The original recipe was for a single layer, and is actually quite similar to the chocolate cake recipe I found in Laurie Colwin's More Home Cooking and wrote about here. There's also a version of this cake that I found in James Beard's American Home Cookery. I'm pretty sure they are all variations of the same cake.

When my sister and I first decided to make the cake, we followed the recipe diligently, but the layers came out thin and barely rose. It tasted good, but just wasn't big enough. Same problem with the second attempt, at which time my mother said, "You doubled it, right?" and we said "What?" It turns out she had been doubling the recipe for so long that she didn't even think about it, so didn't mention it to us.

And then there was my whole wheat phase, which produced the heaviest brick of I don't even know what that swallowed up all of the chocolate and sugar and tasted worse than carob. I only made that mistake once.

I don't make it as often as I used to, since I moved away from home and family. But whenever the opportunity arises, I will whip it up for a birthday or other special occasion. My mother always made a layer cake with the recipe. I found that a sheet cake traveled better, and it also makes lovely cupcakes, which are excellent for Halloween with orange icing.

But I will always think of it as our family birthday cake. Which is why I baked it today. Happy Birthday, Anne.
3 cups flour
2 cups sugar
2/3 cup cocoa
2 tsp soda
1 tsp salt
2 cups sour milk, or regular milk with 2 Tbsp vinegar (let stand for a few minutes)
2/3 cup melted butter
2 tsp vanilla

Sift or whisk together the flour, sugar, cocoa, soda and salt. Add the rest of the ingredients and mix well, either with a hand beater or by hand. Pour into a greased 9 x 12-inch sheet pan. Bake 350 degrees for 20-30 minutes, until a toothpick stuck in the center comes out clean.

If desired, you can pour the batter about halfway up two greased 9-inch cake pans, and use the rest to make 6 cupcakes, and make a layer cake. Or, you can make cupcakes (about 24), in which case check them after 20 minutes as they will cook faster than the cake.

One stick softened butter
Powdered sugar (approximately a 1 lb box)
Cocoa (approximately 1/3-1/2 cup)
1 tsp vanilla

Place the butter in a large bowl to soften. When soft, add about a cup of powdered sugar, 1/3 cup cocoa, vanilla, and a few tablespoons of milk. Mix well and check for consistency and taste. Add powdered sugar, cocoa, and/or milk as needed to reach the desired consistency. It should be fairly thick, but spreadable.

Monday, October 18, 2010

How To Make Pasta

I have now successfully made pasta a number of times, a few different ways. It doesn't take long to make and can be enjoyed right away, put into the refrigerator for a few days, or stored in the freezer for a few months.

With the same basic recipe you can make pretty much any length/width of noodle, some shaped short pastas, and filled pastas such as ravioli, agnolotti, or tortelloni. I have even made lasagna.

I am still learning little tricks here and there, but I think I have reached a level of consistency that allows me to share my newly-found knowledge with you in the following tutorial. I hope after you see how easy it is that you will get started on making your own.

A word or two about hand-rolled versus machine-rolled. I always thought that I needed a pasta machine if I ever wanted to make decent pasta. But in the class I took the instructor used both methods so we could compare the two. I found the hand-rolled pasta to be the winner hands down, both in flavor and texture. The machine rolls the pasta out smoothly, so it has a slightly slick texture in the mouth, and does not hold the salt or the sauce as well. The slightly rougher surface of the hand-rolled pasta both feels and tastes noticeably better, and it also holds the sauce more easily. So now I don't even want a pasta machine. A pasta extruder is a different story however, but I am not ready to go there yet.
BASIC PASTA RECIPE (half batch):

1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 eggs
pinch of salt

According to my instructor, the best flour to use for pasta is your basic all-purpose. So far that is all I have used, although some day soon I will start to incorporate semolina flour to see what that adds. But for now I am using the all-purpose.

NOTE: You can make pasta by hand or with a food processor. If I am making a half batch, I will make it by hand using the method illustrated here. If I am making a full batch I use the food processor, which I will demonstrate in a future post.

The recipe calls for 1-1/2 cups of flour, but I have found that I need to have more than that to keep the walls of the well supported while I am mixing the dough. So I start with 2-1/2 to 3 cups of flour mounded on the board, and then I make a well deep enough to hold the 2 eggs.

Crack the eggs directly into the well you made with the flour. Add a pinch of salt. Note that the well wall rises higher than the eggs, so that when you start mixing it together the eggs won't spill out over the flour.

With a fork, break the yolks and beat the eggs, moving in a consistent direction. You want to get the eggs mixed fairly well. Some flour will start falling into the mixture and you will see some lumps. That is fine - once you start incorporating the flour into the mixture the lumps should start smoothing away.

Once the eggs have been thoroughly mixed, start scooping a little bit of flour with the fork as you are stirring and incorporate them into the mixture. Grab the flour from the bottom of the well rather than the top, so you can maintain the integrity of the well wall.

Keep stirring the mixture together, moving in the same direction and incorporating more and more flour, until you have a substantial dough formed. It will still be very loose and wet, but it will be a discernible ball of dough and it will hold its shape enough for you to pick it up. Set the dough aside on a part of the well-floured board.

This next step is not one I have found in any recipes through which I have looked, but our instructor strongly suggested it and I have taken her suggestion and found that it does make for a smooth, easy to roll dough, so I would suggest that you follow it as well.

Put all of the leftover flour into a sieve, using your fork to scrape up any eggy bits that are stuck to the board as well.

Shake out the excess flour, leaving all of the leftover clumps of eggy flour that didn't incorporate into your dough in the sieve. Do not try to incorporate these into the dough, they will make it rough and cause it to break when you are rolling it out. Discard them and continue with the clean flour and your soft ball of pasta dough.

I was lucky this time and did not have too many clumps of eggy dough that needed to be tossed. Sometimes I have a lot more than that, so don't be worried if you have a bigger amount that needs to be tossed. It all works out in the end.

Start gently kneading your dough, adding generous amounts of flour at first, until it gets to the point where you no longer need to add any flour to keep it from sticking to your hands.

Continue to knead it until it is smooth, shiny and elastic. You will not use all of the flour. Shape the dough into a disk and wrap it in plastic. I usually strain out the remaining flour and store it in a small container for future pasta making.

Let the dough sit for at least half an hour to let it relax.

Unwrap the plastic and set the dough on a lightly-floured counter. Lightly flour your rolling pin and start by rolling back and forth in short quick steps to get the disk flat. Once it is about 1/2 to 3/4-inch thick, start rolling from the center out, turning the circle by a quarter after each roll.

When the disk is about 1/8-inch thick, stretch it out by rolling one edge of it over the rolling pin, then grab the bottom part and gently stretch it out. Turn the dough a quarter and stretch it again. Do this at least 4 times so you go all the way around the dough.

Continue to roll the dough from the center out until it is about 1/16-inch thick. Now you need to stretch it again by rolling the dough about a third of the way over the rolling pin and grabbing the rolled part on the ends and stretching it out sideways, continuing to stretch it as you roll the rest of the dough over the pin. Unroll the dough, turn it a quarter, and repeat. Do this also at least 4 times, and then continue to roll the disc from the center out.

Here it is all rolled out. If you click on the image, you will notice that you can see the marbling on the linoleum through the pasta. I have actually gotten even better at getting it thin since I made this batch, but it doesn't matter that much. It still tastes good, no matter how thick it is.

Let the dough sit for 5 minutes on one side, then turn it and let it sit for 5 minutes on the other side. With a sharp knife, cut the circle in half and roll each half lengthwise into a log.

Cut each log into the width that you want your finished noodles to be. I have done as thin as 1/8-inch and as thick as 1-1/2 inches (for lasagna). Try to be as consistent as you can so the noodles will cook at the same time.

After the noodles are cut, unroll each one and place it on a floured cookie sheet. I usually stretch each noodle out a little by holding the ends and gently swinging it before I put it on the sheet. Put the noodles in one layer, then sprinkle that layer with flour before starting the next layer.

Once the noodles have been unrolled and well floured, you can gather them back up again. This batch is ready to be cooked. Once the water has come to the boil, add plenty of salt and cook them for about 3 minutes.

If you don't want to cook them right away, you can put them in a plastic bag and keep them in the refrigerator for up to 3 days, or you can store them in the freezer for a few months.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Corn and Sweet Potato Casserole with Salsa

I love my corn casserole recipe, but for some reason I just can't seem to stop playing around with it. It's not that I want to make it better, because it is truly a delicious dish in its own right, but it is the perfect vehicle for a seemingly infinite range of vegetables to counteract some of the butter and cheese.

And most of my adaptations have consisted of the addition of different vegetables, with palate-pleasing results. Carrots, zucchini, bell peppers (green and red), and onions have all found a place at the table. I have been careful not to combine too many, heeding the warning of the woman who gave me the recipe that too many additions can cause it to become too dry (which, after experiencing it once, I was careful to ensure that it never happened again). So usually, the addition of one vegetable has been more than enough to enhance the flavor.

I was in a little bit of a slump last night, but I needed to make something for work lunches. I already had most of the basic ingredients for the corn casserole, so I stopped at the grocery store on the way home from work to get yogurt and to look at the vegetables. For some reason I got it in my head that zucchini would be the thing, but they weren't in the best condition so I reluctantly turned my thoughts elsewhere. I wasn't too keen on any of my other usual options, so I tried to think outside of the box.

And saw some beautiful organic sweet potatoes. I thought that would work nicely so I bought one and brought it home with me.

At first I was going to slice it, saute it, and use the slices whole, which is what I have done with all of the other vegetables I add. But the slices were so soft when I put them in with the pureed corn, butter and eggs that I couldn't stop myself from giving them a round with the stick blender and pureeing it into the mix.

As soon as I had done it, I knew it was a smart decision. It added a warm orange tone to the usually yellow mixture, and it smelled lovely. It increased the level of liquid as well, so I added more cornmeal.

The result was wonderful. The sweet potato and cumin added a rich, smoky depth to both the flavor and the texture, with a delicate undertone of sweetness. And it still worked beautifully with the salsa.

Home Cookin Chapter: My Recipes


1/2 cup melted butter
2 cups corn, separated
2 eggs
2 Tbsp grapeseed oil
1/2 large or 1 medium sweet potato, peeled, quartered and cut into 3/4-inch thick slices
1 tsp cumin
1 cup plain yogurt
1 4-oz can diced mild green chilies
1 cup cheddar cheese, cut into 1/4-inch cubes
1-1/2 tsp salt
3/4 cup coarse cornmeal
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat oil in medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add sweet potato slices, then sprinkle the cumin over the sweet potato. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Stir once and then leave them to cook for about
10 minutes, checking for signs of burning. Turn the slices over and cook until they are tender, another 5 to 10 minutes, being careful not to burn them. Take the pan off the heat and let the potatoes cool.

Preheat the oven to 350 deg. F. and grease a 3-quart casserole dish.

Combine the butter, 1 cup of the corn, the cooked sweet potato and the eggs in a blender (or in a large bowl if you are lucky enough to have a stick blender.) Puree them together and pour into a large bowl.

Add the rest of the ingredients to the mixture, stir well, and pour into the greased casserole dish. Place in the 350-degree oven and bake for about 50 minutes, until the top has set and the edges are browned,
but not burned.

Let sit for 15 minutes before serving. Best served warm, with fresh salsa.

Exported from Home Cookin 6.46 (

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Ricotta Frittata

I know I just wrote this post about frittatas, but I just made a very special frittata that I just had to tell you about because it was so darned good.

It came about because I bought a pound of hand-packed ricotta cheese to use as a pasta filler, and then proceeded to make said pasta filling without using any of the ricotta cheese. That turned out to be a good decision for the pasta filling, but it left me with a pound of ricotta cheese which I needed to use up pretty quickly.

I do not use ricotta often, and I most often use it with baked pasta dishes. I really wasn't up to that - either the baking or the eating of it. So I started thinking about the things I am already making and wondered if there was any way to incorporate ricotta into the mix.

Pizza was the first, most obvious choice (and it worked out quite well, thank you very much). But I can only make so much pizza in a week and a pound of ricotta is a lot of cheese when you don't have a specific purpose for it.

The next logical step for me was to use it with a frittata. Once the eggs were almost set, right before I put it under the broiler, I dabbed about 1/4 a cup around the top, then covered the whole thing with parmesan cheese.

With amazing results. Soft and creamy, it added a smooth dimension to the eggs that was punctuated by the saltier crisp of the melted parmesan cheese.

As I mentioned before, you can pretty much put anything into a frittata. I highly recommend ricotta cheese.

For the basic recipe, see this post.

Monday, October 04, 2010

How To Make a Frittata

Ever since I made my first frittata a few months ago, I have been obsessed by them. And with good reason, I think. They are easy to make, you can put just about anything in them, they can be eaten hot or cold, so leftovers are not a problem. In fact, I have gotten in the habit of making one early in the week so I can have a quick breakfast I can grab and take to work with me on those mornings when I don't feel like making something before I leave, or I don't have time.

I like mine on the thick side, so it can be difficult to cook it long enough for it to set without burning the bottom, but I have learned a few things. I cook it low and slow, and periodically lift up the edges and let some of the raw egg spill over to the bottom of the pan. I do that a few times until there is just a little big of egg still unset on top, and then I flip it and cook the top.

I am happy with the recipe I used from James Beard's American Cookery and posted about here. I have made some adjustments since then, mainly to accommodate the thickness of the frittata and the size of my pan, which is a little too small to hold the 8 eggs called for in the recipe. At some point, I need to get a bigger pan, but in the meantime I have adjusted the recipe and am coping just fine. I will say this, though: when I do get a new pan, it will be oven-proof.

While the James Beard recipe is a good one, I thought it might be helpful if I provided a little how-to for anyone who might be a little nervous about trying this for the first time.

I won't repeat the recipe now - you can find at my original post. If you haven't made one yet, I highly recommend you try it. It's also perfect for weekend brunch.


The first thing to do is heat a combination of oil and butter in a medium-sized skillet. The original recipe calls for olive oil, but I have found that a combination of grapeseed oil and butter gives me the best flavor profile. You can use whatever works for you, but you do need to use a fair amount, at least 3 tablespoons. If not, you run the risk of the egg sticking to the pan, even if you use a non-stick pan.

Once the oil is hot enough, lower the heat and add the onion and the garlic and cook until it just starts to turn translucent. Add whatever vegetable you are using, season with salt and pepper, and let it cook until it has softened. How long you let it cook at this point depends on what you are adding. When I am adding thinly-sliced potato (which I have started doing with much success), it can take a little while to soften. If you are using more than one vegetable, start with the longer-cooking one, then add the faster cooking ones a few minutes later. Here I added Swiss Chard, which takes only a few minutes to cook.

Keep the heat low for this process. You want the vegetables to cook, but you don't want them to caramelize. Low and slow is the way to go in this case.

A few minutes before the vegetables are ready, crack the eggs into a medium-size bowl. Add salt and pepper (and any herbs/flavoring you want to use - I have found tarragon, or oregano, or even a teaspoon of Worcestershire sauce to work quite well) and whisk together until the eggs are well mixed.

Spread the vegetables evenly around the pan. Slowly pour the egg mixture over the vegetables. Make sure the heat is low.

I have been hearing a lot lately about how important the sounds of cooking are to the success of a dish. That is true here. You want to monitor the heat to make sure your eggs aren't setting too quickly on the bottom of the pan. If you can hear them cooking, then the heat is too high.

Once the eggs have set around the edges, take a spatula (silicon is best) and work it around the edges to loosen them and make sure they are set enough to hold. When they are set enough, lift up one section and tilt the pan so that the raw egg mixture pours over the edge to the bottom of the pan. Gently set the lifted part back down into the raw egg.

Wait a few minutes, until the raw egg has had a chance to set, and then lift a different section and pour more raw egg over the edge to the bottom of the pan. Do this a few more times, until there is just a little bit of raw egg left on the top. There should not be enough raw egg to spill off of the frittata when you transfer it to a plate, if that is the method you are going to use.
You have two options now:
1. If your pan is not oven proof, you can take the pan off of the heat and, using the spatula, gently transfer it onto a plate. Then take the skillet and lay it over the frittata and turn the whole thing over so that the top of the frittata is upside down in the pan. Cover it with the grated cheese, then cover the pan and let it cook for another five minutes, long enough for the bottom to set and the cheese on top to melt.

2. If you have an oven-proof pan it is much simpler. You simply cover the top (there will still be raw egg there) with the grated cheese and pop it under the broiler for a few minutes so the top sets and the cheese melts.

Both methods are successful, with slight differences. The main difference is that the cheese will not brown on the stove top the way it will in the broiler.

A word about the cheese. The recipe calls for Parmesan cheese, but I have successfully used whatever cheese I have in the refrigerator, including cheddar and mozzarella. Any cheese that melts will work here.

My non-stick skillet is not oven proof, alas, and the eggs stick to my cast-iron skillet, so I most often use the first method. But sometimes I will take the frittata and transfer it to my cast iron pan instead of a plate, and then finish it off under the broiler.

Whatever method you use, the end result is delicious. For leftovers, I just take it out of the refrigerator and let it sit for about half an hour while I go about my business. Once it's at room temperature, I eat it as is. A quick, easy, delicious breakfast, and one of the most versatile, considering the limitless ingredient possibilities.
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