Archive for January, 2010

I’ve got a drafty house with a high cathedral ceiling; when the nights are chilly, it sometimes takes more than just our little heater to get the living room to a livable temperature.  On evenings like that, one of which happened to be last night, I start thinking of a good reason to turn on the oven.  What better reason to whip up a batch of oatmeal cookies?  Not just any oatmeal cookies, but spicy, chewy, stuffed-full-of-fruit that I could pretend that would be a perfectly healthy breakfast kind of cookie (it’s got oatmeal!  And fruit!  Fruit is healthy, right?) I could chow down on with a big steaming cup of coffee the next morning. 

I hadn’t made oatmeal cookies in a long time, and I believe it was based on that the last time I made them, they were kind of uninteresting and bland.  I played around with a pretty standard recipe, adjusting the sugars to have more brown sugar, adding a blend of spices rather than just cinnamon, and adding two-and-a-half times the dried fruit than the original cookie recipe.   I also bumped up the salt–I’ve mentioned before my love of the sweet-and-salty combination, and I added more than some people would like.  With the increased brown sugar, it gives the cookie a flavor reminiscent of salted caramel, which I love, but I know is something of an acquired taste to others.  Of course, you don’t need to add the same amount of salt.

Over the years, I’ve learned some tricks to produce not only delicious, but attractive, bakery-style cookies made from drop cookie dough.  I’m feeling generous (and a little over-sugared), so I’ll share with you today: 

  • Everyone knows to let the butter get to room temperature, but also let the eggs come up to room temperature, too. 
  • When creaming the butter and sugars, beat them for a few minutes until light and fluffy.  This will help to beat in some air into the batter which will help the cookies rise.
  • Give it a rest!  The dough, that is–once all the ingredients are all incorporated, chill the dough for at least an hour.  This gives the flour a chance to absorb the moisture from the wet ingredients, and cold dough going into a hot oven will help create that ideal cookie texture–crunchy along the edges, chewy in the middle.
  • Invest in an ice cream scoop.  Scooping the dough into small balls will help create cookies of the same size and shape-it’s how bakeries are able to create their cookies looking so nice. 
  • In the vein of the last two tips, if all you want is just a few cookies out of a batch, drop cookie dough is easily frozen for future use.  On a sheet pan, line up scoops of dough and place the pan in the freezer until dough is solid–about 4 hours.  Fill up a Ziploc bag and stash those proto-cookies in the freezer.  Next time you have guests, all that needs to be done is preheat the oven and bake off just the amount needed.  Guests will think you’re the next Martha.  Or something like that. 

My precious stash of oatmeal cookie dough. 

Fruit-Loaded Oatmeal Cookies

1 cup butter, softened

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1 1/2 cups brown sugar

2 eggs

2 teaspoons vanilla

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 heaping teaspoon coarse salt such as kosher salt (if you’re not into the extra salt, use a level teaspoon)

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon cardamom

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon ginger

1/4 teaspoon clove

3 cups old-fashioned rolled oats

2 1/2 cups dried fruit (what makes this cookie special is using a mixture of fruit–I used cranberries, raisins, apricots and figs–use what you like, but use at least 3 different fruits)

  1. In an electric mixer with a paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugars together on medium speed until pale and fluffy.  Scrape down sides of bowl with rubber spatula.
  2. Add eggs and vanilla, beat until fully incorporated.
  3. Sift flour, baking soda, salt, and spices, and add to mixer; beat until incorporated.
  4. Slowly add oats and fruits and mix until just blended.
  5. Scoop dough onto parchment-lined sheet pans, leaving 2″ between cookies.  Cover loosely with plastic and refrigerate for 1 hour.
  6. Preheat oven to 350° while dough chills.
  7. When dough is set, place pans into preheated oven and bake for 14-16 minutes. 
  8. Cookies are done when the bottoms are golden brown, but the centers will still be a little soft.  Cool on sheet pan for 10 minutes, then transfer to wire rack to cool. 

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You know, I have a surfeit of bacon fat in my fridge–I keep it every time we make bacon for breakfast, and with the exception of using a spoonful now and again when I sauté vegetables, I don’t really use it.  I wanted an interesting way to get rid of it as Lent is on its way and since I’ll be going meatless for 40 days, it wouldn’t be a very good idea to have it hanging around until April. 

I don’t know exactly what led me to making shortbread, but I’m glad I did it.  My favorite recipe for shortbread happens to come from Nancy Silverton’s Pastries from the La Brea Bakery–I did a little tweak in that I replaced half of the butter with some of that bacon fat to add that smoky-savory flavoring to the cookies.  Bacon fat has a tendency to be softer than butter, so the dough was a bit soft to work with, but not so much that it wasn’t a real issue.  With a little glaze made of powdered sugar, maple syrup and a bit of milk, and a generous sprinkling of finely chopped candied bacon, I ended up with this:

I think the next time I do this cookie, I may add a bit of chopped cooked bacon to the dough and perhaps add a bit of maple extract to the glaze to punch up the maple flavor in the glaze–it’s just a thin bit of glaze so it’s really only a hint of maple here.   As for the candied bacon, I think I would bake them for another minute or two in the oven, as the bits are still a bit chewy, and I’d rather have the crunch–but they’re otherwise perfect taste-wise.  The texture is fantastic with the right amount of crumble like a good shortbread.  I used a 1″ round cutter for a wee little button of a cookie; the picture I had in my mind from the start was to have a little delicate bite-sized rounds, and I don’t think I could do them any other way.  But, I could see someone else going the thicker bar or wedge route–those, in my opinion, would definitely require the addition of chopped bacon in the dough. 

Bacon Maple Shortbread


1/2 cup cold bacon fat

1 stick cold butter, cut into cubes

1/4 cup powdered sugar

1/4 cup granulated sugar

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

  1. With an electric mixer, using the paddle attachment, beat bacon fat, butter, and sugars together on medium for 3-4 minutes, until pale and fluffy.
  2. Add the flour in three batches, blending on low until flour is just combined with each batch, scraping down sides of bowl as needed.
  3. Turn out dough onto floured surface, press into a disc and wrap with plastic.  Chill until firm, for at least 2 hours (overnight is fine).
  4. Preheat oven to 350°
  5. On a floured surface, roll dough to 1/4″ thick.  Cut rounds with 1″ cookie cutter and place on parchment-lined sheet pans.  Pierce cookies with a fork (twice, parallel to each other–gives it a “button” look).
  6. Place sheet pans into refrigerator for about 20 minutes until dough is cold and firm.
  7. Place sheet pans into oven and bake for about 15 minutes, until lightly golden. 
  8. Slide onto wire cooling rack and let cool completely before glazing.

Candied Bacon

6 slices bacon, cut into 1″ strips

1/4 cup brown sugar

  1. Preheat oven to 400° and line sheet pan with foil.
  2. Toss bacon pieces in brown sugar, coating both sides.  Place pieces on foil.
  3. Bake  12-15 minutes, turning over halfway through.
  4. When bacon is dark and glazed-looking, remove from sheet pan and drain on brown/butcher paper (it will stick to paper towels).
  5. When cool, chop finely and set aside. 

Maple Glaze

1 1/4 cups powdered sugar

2 tablespoons maple syrup

3 tablespoons whole milk

  1. In a small bowl, whisk together sugar, syrup, and milk until smooth.
  2. Pour, spoon, or brush glaze onto cookies.
  3. While glaze is still wet, sprinkle finely chopped candied bacon on top, and let glaze set. 

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Back on the 18th, I posted my entry to the Top Chef It Yourself Challenge, and now it’s time to vote!  Take a look at all the contestants, and vote for your favorite!

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On Christmas, some families are turkey-eaters.  Some, dine on a Standing Rib Roast or Rack of Lamb;  under my roof, it’s all about Ham.  And, one of the reasons why I love to have a ham on Christmas is to take the bone and bits of meat left behind, wrap it tightly in foil and then again in saran wrap, and stash it in the freezer for a spate of cold and wet weather like we’ve been having here in Southern California. 

There’s two things I like to make when I have a handsome hambone in my possession:  either my mother’s Lima Beans (not those awful hard mealy things you get in frozen vegetables, but the fat white ones) or Split Pea Soup.  This time around, it was going to be the latter.   It’s a simple recipe–I don’t add anything out of the ordinary, but sometimes, that’s all you really want: good, uncomplicated food. 

And can I tell you how much I love the word “hambone”?   I think if I ever get a dog, his name will totally be Hambone.

Choo gets grumpy when it’s wet outside,  so he was happy to come home to one of his favorite soups with a batch of homemade Buttermilk Biscuits. 

Split Pea & Ham Soup

2 Tablespoons vegetable oil (or if you’re feeling dangerous, bacon fat)

1 large onion, medium dice

2 medium carrots, medium dice

2 large ribs celery, medium dice

1 hambone, with 1-2 cups of ham trimmed off (depending on what’s left that’s usable), chopped  and set aside

1-1 pound bag of dried split peas, picked through and rinsed

8 cups chicken stock

1 bay leaf

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

Salt & Pepper to taste

  1. Heat a 4 to 6-quart sized soup pot on medium flame;  add vegetable oil.
  2. Sweat onions, carrots and celery until glossy and onions are translucent.
  3. Add hambone, dried peas, chicken stock, bay leaf, and thyme.  Bring to a full boil and then turn heat to medium-low and simmer for 15 minutes.
  4. Add reserved chopped ham and stir.  Return to simmer and let cook for another 30-45 minutes until peas are tender.
  5. Season with salt and pepper to taste. 

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Over at Chef It Yourself, the lovely Anamaris has started a monthly Top Chef It Yourself challenge, and I decided to be a part of it;  I love a good challenge, and look forward to doing more of these in the future. 

This being the first challenge, it was really a “get to know you” experience–the only request for the dish to be made and blogged was that it had to be about me and my cooking style;  something that brings back childhood memories, or something that gets pulled out for special occasions–perhaps, something that I’m famous for in my circle of friends.  Growing up in Southern California with a Mexican stepfather and eventually marrying into an Ecuadorian family has left a definite imprint on my cooking style.  Many meals in our home reflect the Latin influences in our lives;  rice is ever-present,  holiday breakfasts mean tostones and panela on the table, and when it’s time to make desserts for a special dinner, that’s when I roll out the flans. 

I did a stint at Border Grill not too long after I graduated from Cordon Bleu, and spent my time there as a pastry cook making flans on a near-daily basis.  You know, after making flans after a few months, you get pretty good at it, especially when it’s expected for you to also make not only their signature vanilla flan, but to also make a weekly special flan of another flavor.  One of my successful flavors was this Chocolate Kahlua concoction (lest you think all were successful, the Mango one was an absolute disaster);  a few ounces of chocolate and a bit of Kahlua turns what’s a simple creamy dessert into something remarkably decadent.  

One of the key components of a flan is the caramel.  Don’t be afraid to let that caramel get dark, too–it’s that burnt sugar flavor that adds complexity and depth to the custard.  When preparing the caramel, I’ve found doing it in a skillet is easier and faster, rather than a saucepan, and start with a little water in the skillet, before adding the sugar.  I put in about 3-4 tablespoons worth of water, just enough to create a “wet sand” look once you’ve added the sugar.  Never stir the caramel, as that can cause crystalization, and rather having that smooth, glassy looking caramel, it’ll be a grainy mess–just slowly swirl the pan if the caramelization is happening unevenly (and it usually does–there will be a hot spot or two in the pan where the sugar darkens faster than the rest).  Once the sugar is a dark caramel brown, pour quickly and carefully into the cake pan.  I’m serious when I say to be careful.  This stuff is over 300° and unlike, say, boiling water, it’s sticky.  There’s a reason why pastry chefs have called caramel “napalm”.  I’ve come away with blistered fingers working with the stuff.  If you’re clumsy and new to caramel, keep a bowl of cold water close by if you get any on your fingers. 

Yes, I know, I need to replace my oven light. 

When it comes to baking flans, it is absolutely necessary to do it in a  water bath.  I know it’s an extra step, but the water bath buffers the custard from direct heat so the proteins in the milk and eggs coagulate slowly, creating that smooth texture–too fast and the proteins seize and the end result is rubbery, overcooked flan that tastes and feels more like sweetened scrambled egg.  All you need is a baking pan just a bit bigger than the cake pan, and fill with hot tap water (no need to boil it or do anything special) until the water reaches about 1″ to 1 1/2″ up the cake pan.  Of course, I don’t need to tell you that you need to be careful when you slide your pan in the oven after adding the water–having water splash into the flan kind of sucks. 

Flans are best done a day or two in advance, as they need a minimum of 6 hours in the refrigerator to set.  I think that’s one of my reasons why I like serving them at get-togethers, as all I need to do is take it out and turn it over onto a plate. 

It would be silly for me to say this goes incredibly well with a cup of coffee, wouldn’t it?

Chocolate Kahlua Flan

1 cup sugar

4 ounces dark chocolate

1/2 cup heavy cream

5 eggs

3 cups whole milk

1- 14 ounce can sweetened condensed milk

1/4 cup Kahlua

  1. Preheat oven to 325°.
  2. In a small skillet, add a few tablespoons of water, and the 1 cup of sugar.  On medium-high heat, simmer sugar to a dark caramel brown and pour quickly into a clean 9″ round metal cake pan (2″ depth or deeper).  Set aside to cool.
  3. Break up dark chocolate into small pieces and place into small bowl with heavy cream.  Heat in microwave in 20 second increments, stirring each time, until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth.  Set aside.
  4. In a large bowl, whisk eggs until smooth, then add milk, condensed milk, and Kahlua;  whisk until incorporated.  Add chocolate and whisk until smooth again.  Strain custard base with a fine-mesh sieve to catch any possible lumps.
  5. Pour custard into prepared cake pan and place in larger baking pan for a water bath.  Pour hot tap water to reach at least 1″ high on cake pan, and place into oven. 
  6. Bake for about 1 hour 10 minutes.  To check doneness, give the pan a small wiggle;  a flan that is set will jiggle slightly like jello. 
  7. When done, pull flan from oven and let cool in water bath until cool to the touch.  Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for a minimum of 6 hours, and up to 48. 
  8. To serve, run a small knife along the edge of the flan to release.  Turn out onto a plate with a curved edge to hold the caramel.  Serves 8-10. 

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As you may or may not know, today happens to be Three Kings Day, and Three Kings Day means cake.  Ok, we’re lapsed Catholics and we’re not from Louisiana, so I’m not talking about King Cake;  it’s because it’s my mother-in-law’s birthday;  Reyna’s name comes from the holiday she was born on (Reina is Queen in Spanish… aaaaand now you get the title). 

My in-laws, being from South America, love the traditional kinds of desserts that come  from the homeland:  tropical fruits, flans, and Tres Leches Cake.  Buying a tres leches (“three milks”) cake from a market can be kind of a crap shoot–sometimes it’s overly sweet with a grainy cake and sometimes it’s perfectly rich and creamy, with the cake almost pudding-like, but still standing up to the long soak in the milk mixture. 

My first experiences with Tres Leches Cakes were sad affairs:  mass-produced pieces bought off taco trucks or slices of store-bought birthday cakes at parties thrown by the family, and I wasn’t particularly fond of it.  Then, came the day I sampled the Tres Leches Cake at Border Grill, and all of a sudden, I was a convert.  

I wanted to keep it simple and traditional, but with a twist that I knew my mother-in-law would love:  the addition of coconut.  Coconut works perfectly with a creamy dessert, and it was the absolute right amount of tropical flavor that the whole family loved. 

So, let’s break down the three components needed for a Tres Leches Cake:  the cake, the milk mixture, and the topping. 

The proper cake to use would be a sponge cake;  to tell you the truth, I’m not a fan of the stuff on its own–it’s dry and bland–but, that’s what makes it perfect for other uses, such as being sliced and soaked with liqueur-spiked syrups and layered with jams or pastry creams.  Or, in this case, being soaked in milk.  A traditional sponge cake is simply eggs, sugar, and flour–no extra fats, no chemical leavening, maybe a bit of vanilla;  the rise comes from the eggs being separated, whipped full of air, and gently folded together with the flour. 

Once the cake is baked and fully cooled, the edges are trimmed (I find them a bit too hard).  I line a cake pan with plastic wrap with plenty of overlap, poke the cake full of holes, and begin to pour my mixture of condensed milk, coconut milk, and half & half onto the cake.

When I start pouring the milk mixture onto the cake, I go slow and steady, taking about a third of the mixture and lightly covering the cake.  After about 2-3 minutes, it’s been mostly absorbed, so I repeat the process two more times with the rest.  With the overlap of the plastic wrap, I just lightly cover the cake, and refrigerate overnight. 

The next day, the cake gets turned out on a platter; lightly sweetened heavy cream is whipped and spread on top, and a good solid dusting of toasted coconut to finish off the cake. 

(Yeah, I know, that’s not a “dusting”… we like coconut, okay?)

Ah, there’s the glamor shot.

Coconut Tres Leches Cake

6 large eggs, room temperature

1 cup vanilla sugar (or, 1 cup sugar and 1 tsp. vanilla extract)

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk

1 14-ounce can light coconut milk

1/2 cup half & half

2 Tablespoons Coconut Rum

1 1/2 cups heavy cream

3 Tablespoons sugar

2 cups shredded sweetened coconut

  1. Preheat oven to 350°.  Line a 13 x 9 metal cake pan with parchment paper and lightly spray with non-stick spray.
  2. Separate eggs;  beat yolks with 3/4 cup of sugar (add vanilla if needed) until pale yellow and leaves a ribbon when the whisk is pulled from yolks. 
  3. In a separate bowl (or transfer yolks to another bowl and wash mixer bowl, if using a KitchenAid), beat egg whites until just frothy, then add 1/4 cup of sugar and whip egg whites to a stiff peak.
  4. Gently fold egg whites into yolks until streaky, then sift in flour.  Continue to gently fold in flour and egg whites until flour is absorbed into batter.
  5. Spread batter into prepared pan and smooth top.  Bake until golden, approximately 22-28 minutes.
  6. Cool in pan for 10 minutes, then turn out onto wire rack and cool completely.
  7. Line a clean 13 x 9 cake pan with plastic wrap, leaving plenty of overlap (enough to gently fold extra plastic over cake, but well-lined so all the milk stays with the cake).  Trim edges from cake and set into pan.  With a fork or skewer, poke plenty of holes over the surface of the cake.
  8. In a pitcher, whisk together the condensed milk, coconut milk, half & half, and coconut rum.  Pour mixture over entire cake in thirds, waiting 2-3 minutes between each pouring to let the cake soak up the milks.  Fold over the plastic wrap to lightly cover the cake and refrigerate for at least 3 hours, up to overnight.
  9. When close to serving, toast coconut in a 350° oven for 7-10 minutes, stirring every few minutes, until golden brown.
  10. Unwrap cake and gently turn out onto a platter.  Whip heavy cream with sugar and spread on top of cake, and sprinkle the coconut on top of cream. 

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You should know by now that I wouldn’t invite people over for dinner and not serve dessert.  So, in following yesterday’s entry of A Winter Dinner for a Crowd, this is the cake I prepared for our guests. 

Since I was going with a rustic Italian theme for the dinner, I turned to one of my well-loved cookbooks:

I knew there would be a perfect dessert recipe here that would be the right sweet ending for the evening, and the Torta di Mele fit the bill.  It was an unusual cake recipe–most cake recipes start out with creaming butter and sugar, or whipping eggs–this starts with blending flour, sugar and butter together, as if you were making shortbread, and using a portion to press into the bottom of a springform pan to create a thin, crunchy crust.  The rest of crumb mixture is blended with the rest of the wet mixture, leavening and apples which creates a fluffy but moist texture; plenty of lemon zest keeps the flavor light and fresh.  The cake is topped with a very light coating of meringue, when after the cake is baked, creates a crackly sweet top–there is absolutely no need for icing or confectioner’s sugar to finish it off.   All it needs is a big dollop of lightly sweetened whipped cream on the side, and maybe a cup of coffee. 

Torta di Mele (Apple Cake with a Crackly Meringue)

from The Italian Country Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper

2 cups plus 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons sugar

Generous pinch of salt

1 1/2 sticks (6 ounces) cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

3/4 cup milk

2 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Shredded zest of one large lemon

1 tablespoon baking powder

2 large apples (Granny Smith, Braeburn, Gala are good choices), peeled, cored, cut into 1/2″ pieces

1 large egg white

  1. Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 375°.  Grease and flour a 9″ springform pan.  In a large bowl, with your fingertips, rub together the 2 cups flour, the 1 1/2 cups sugar, salt, and butter until crumbly (note:  I just used a pastry blender).  Remove 1 cup of the crumbs and press them over the bottom and about 1/2″ up the sides of the springform pan, making a crust about 1/8″ thick.
  2. Make a well in the remaining crumb mixture.  Add the milk, eggs, vanilla, lemon zest, the remaining 3 tablespoons flour, and the baking powder.  With a whisk, blend this mixture thoroughly without incorporating the crumbs.  Then, with a wooden spoon, stir in the crumbs until well blended but still a little lumpy.  Fold in the apples and scrape batter into prepared pan.
  3. In a small bowl, beat the egg white until foamy.  Beat in the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar and beat until the whites barely stand in peaks.  Spread over the top of the batter.
  4. Bake 65 to 75 minutes or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.  Remove from oven and cool 30 minutes on a wire rack.
  5. Slip off the sides of the pan and finish cooling the cake.  Serve at room temperature.  Covered in plastic wrap, the cake holds well at cool room temperature up to 2 days, and up to a week in the refrigerator. 

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