Sunday, November 28, 2010

- Don't forget the sweet potatoes: Another Thanksgiving recipe

Our Thanksgivings didn't include sweet potatoes until we started going to the Laroche family feast. Since then, sweet potatoes with butter, brown sugar, and marshmallows have been de rigueur. But as they did so many years ago, sweet potatoes have once again become a new tradition, this time thanks to Danielle and Cory. They said this was a dinner side dish, but I wouldn't hesitate to serve it with whipped cream for dessert. Just don't wait until next Thanksgiving to try it ...

Sweet Potato Soufflé
  • 3 lbs sweet potatoes, cooked and puréed
  • 1/4 cup butter (room temperature)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 5 eggs
  • 2 cups half and half
  • 3/4 cup flour
  • nutmeg and cinnamon to taste
Beat the eggs well and then mix everything else in until smooth.
Bake for 1 hr to 1 hr 20 minutes at 350 degrees.

- Winging it

Walking stick by Don
I've mentioned this before, but there's something magical about breads made near the shore ... kaiser rolls, bagels, and pizza always taste better to me on Long Island and the Outer Banks. Still, recent efforts in the Hill Country have yielded passable results, culminating in some pretty decent sandwich rolls yesterday. At least, that's what Meg told me, although I'm thinking it was the hiking outdoors that whetted our appetites.

Now it seems I may have created a monster, as Paul has decided the rolls would be the perfect platform for smoked turkey sandwiches at the beach next summer. Don't know if I'm going to be up for baking a dozen fresh rolls every day when I'm on vacation. So, here's my plan: I'll post the recipe now, which will give everyone time to practice between now and June 18th. Good luck with that, huh?

Hill Country Sandwich Rolls
  • 1 1/2 cups bread flour
  • 1 Tbs. olive oil
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 heaping Tbs. gluten
  • 1 cup lukewarm water
  • 1/2 Tbs. yeast
  • 1/2 tsp. sugar
Stir the water, yeast, and sugar together and let it work for a few minutes while you put the rest of the ingredients in a food processor. When the yeast is bubbling, pour into the flour and process, gradually adding more flour until the dough masses on the blade and no longer sticks to the sides of the processor bowl. Let 'er rip for a minute or so more, then turn out into a bowl. Work the dough with your hands, turning the edges under and adding flour as necessary to keep it from sticking to your fingers. Put the dough back in the bowl, cover with a damp towel and leave in a warm place for a couple of hours.

Divide into 10-16 rolls, depending on desired size. As before, roll the edges of the dough under and up, adding flour as needed, until you have little pillows of dough with smooth tops. Pour puddles of olive oil onto a sheet pan, dip the top of each roll in the oil, and then place each roll in the middle of some oil and sprinkle with kosher salt.

Let the rolls rise for another hour under a damp towel. Bake at 375 (convection) or 400 (conventional), checking after 10 minutes.  Watch for the tops to brown, and take the rolls out when the bottoms are crunchy and brown. Cool for at least 20-30 minutes before slicing and serving.

Friday, November 26, 2010

- New traditions: Thanksgiving recipes

Our second Thanksgiving in Austin resulted in a couple of wonderful additions to the Thanksgiving menu (which has already been enriched by the Levine family tradition of coconut cream pie and fried turkey). This year, Cory and Danielle contributed an amazing sweet potato souffle, while Heather and Taylor made broccoli salad (recipe to follow).

From left to right, our next-door neighbors
Smoked, Roasted, Fried, and See-You-Next-Year.

We also upped the diner:turkey ratio to 3:1, adding a smoked turkey to the roasted and fried versions. Of course, traditional sides abounded: cranberry (two ways), mashed potatoes, and green bean casserole (which Meg changed up by using fresh haricots verts instead of canned or frozen green beans). Gravy and stuffing (two ways) were piled on while Danielle and I discussed how we really don't understand why everyone else prefers the white meat, but ultimately decided we're totally okay with having the dark meat to ourselves.

Now, the morning after the day before, we're grazing on leftover pumpkin muffins and pecan pie as we work ourselves up to tackling turkey sandwiches for lunch. Life is good.

Broccoli Salad

  • 1 cup mayo
  • 1/4 cup white vinegar
  • 1/3 cup of sugar
  • 2 crowns of broccoli, cut into flowerets
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 4 slices of bacon (or more), crumbled
  • 1/2 cup slivered almonds, pan toasted

So these amounts are totally negotiable. After you whisk together the mayo, vinegar and sugar, pour them over the broccoli, onion, bacon, and almonds. Taste and adjust to your liking.

The amazing thing about this dish is how it grows on you as the meal progresses. Compared to all the other rich, warm sides, it adds a crunch and bright flavor that is absolutely perfect (especially if the planned carrot and celery crudités are left in San Marcos, as ours were yesterday). 

Friday, November 5, 2010

- Bliss: A new firepit

Friday is my Saturday, so today we spent the day playing in our backyard, and I still can't quite believe we're really here.

There are amazing little cacti only a few inches high ... poking up through rocks on the floodplain that look for all the world like they belong on the moon ... the intricate warp and weft of spines a net of protection over the tender innards that the deer would certainly eat if they could.

 And not 100 yards away are the dinner-plate-sized cacti next to our outdoor shower, perfectly happy to pick up the overflow from  Don's water play ... though with the weather dipping down into the thirties tonight, he may opt for the indoor shower tomorrow.

Even when the news is bad, it's good. Just after we closed on the house there was a terrible blow (Tropical Storm Hermine ... you might have heard of her), that brought down a red oak in the front yard. Don had good intentions of going at it with a chain saw, but ended up getting a hand from a guy he ran into at Ace Hardware. Ever obliging, his new friend cut the trunk into sections that could be made into stools to put around our fire-pit to be. Then Don sanded and sealed them, and they've been waiting in the side yard ever since ... until today.

Today we built our fire pit ... hauling limestone from the back of the property, digging out the rich soil around the bedrock in a corner of the yard ... rolling the tree trunks stools over on the hand truck ... then gathering dead branches from the live oaks to use in our inaugural fire.

 We even found a large flat stone to place on top of the tallest chunk of trunk, making a perfect platform for late-night noshing.

After a dinner of  "what's in the fridge" pasta and artichokes, with a hearty Malbec and homemade focaccia (light as a feather with a crust that crackled with olive oil and salt), we poured hot cups of coffee, put our flashlights in our pockets and headed out to the fire-pit. The hose was at the ready, just in case, but the night was calm so the smoke and sparks flew straight up to the stars. And as the fire dwindled down to embers, we toasted marshmallows, our backs gently chiding us about the day's labors, creaking in the cool night air. No doubt about it ... bliss.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

- Say cheese (cake)

I'm not sure why I don't watch "Good Eats" as much as I used to ... somehow it went off my radar when we moved to Texas. But Alton Brown, the Bill Nye of cooking, has been the source of many culinary successes over the years. So when I needed to figure out a birthday treat for a co-worker on a paleolithic diet, I turned to an Alton-inspired cheesecake recipe that worked well with Splenda in our South Beach diet days. Since said co-worker is partial to stevia-based sweeteners, I bought some SweetLeaf, crossed my fingers, and hoped for the best.

Now there are also several college students in our office who have no caloric concerns, which led me to make two batches of cheesecake ... one with stevia and one with old-fashioned cane sugar. And not knowing who liked what with cheesecake, I decided to use mini-cake pans so I could use a variety of toppings. In other words, I hedged my bets.

The unbaked batters tasted equally good to my sugar-addled tastebuds, and the final products disappeared from the office fridge in short order. A sure sign of success. So I kept the stevia in the cabinet for future use.  But I must confess, when Meg came by the following weekend, it was the cane sugar version that got the nod for a reprise of cheesecake four ways: with ganache, dulce de leche, strawberry jam, and cherry preserves.

And this time, the camera was ready ...

Cheesecake a la Alton 
  • 1/2 cup finely ground almonds
  • 1-2 Tbs. melted butter
  • 1-2 tsp. sugar (or 1/8 - 1/4 tsp. stevia sweetener)
  • 8 ounces cream cheese (regular or low fat)
  • 1/2 cup sugar (or 1 Tbs. stevia)
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • 1/2 - 1 tsp. almond extract
  • 1 egg and 1 egg yolk
  • 1-2 Tbs. cream (or half-and-half)
Preheat oven to 300. Spray Baker's Joy into 4 mini-cake pans.
Since a lot of this recipe depends on taste, the crust ingredient amounts are open to interpretation.  Just grind a handful of almonds in the food processor, stir in some melted butter and sugar, adjust to taste, and lightly press into the bottom of each cake pan.  Put in the oven for 10 minutes to toast the nuts while you mix up the batter. Then take out the pans and let them cool slightly. Lower the oven to 250 degrees.
Beat the cream cheese and sugar together, then continue to beat in the sour cream, almond extract (more or less, depending on your taste), eggs, and cream. The batter should be light and all ingredients fully incorporated.
Divide the batter into the mini-cake pans and put the mini-cake pans into a roaster or large cake pan with 2-3" sides. Put into the 250 degree oven and carefully pour hot water into the large pan to a depth of  1 inch, creating a water bath.
Bake for 1 hour. Turn off the oven. Open the door for one minute to release some of the heat. Close the door and leave the cheesecakes in the hot water bath for another hour.
Take the pans carefully out of the water bath to avoid dripping water on the surface of the cheesecakes. Cool for 15-30 minutes, then brush sour cream lightly on top of each cheesecake, cover with plastic wrap, and put in the refrigerator for 4-6 hours. 
To serve, run a thin-bladed knife around the edges of each cheesecake, then turn onto a serving plate. If you want the almond crust on the bottom, put plastic wrap over your hand, turn the cheesecake onto your palm, then carefully turn it crust side down onto the plate. Top with your choice of jam, ganache, dulce de leche, or all of the above.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

- Time flies: Old recipes in a new home

This is the best I can do for a picture since
I don't have any red velvet cake or birthday bites on hand
I recently ran across the planning sheet for Bridget's bridal shower, which featured 60 scones among other things. I must admit that I can't recall making half the stuff on the menu (which might have something to do with the mind-altering pharmaceuticals I was taking for my back at the time), but I do recall that everything was bite-sized ... 90 fruit kabobs, 90 shrimp cocktail, 72 crab tarts, 90 Smithfield ham tarts, 30 salmon pinwheels, 90 cucumber and chive finger sandwiches, 60 artichoke-filled phyllo shells, 120 birthday bites, 90 simnel cake bars, 90 lemon curd tarts (which I do recall did not work out very well), and 1 red velvet cake (which did).

Both the birthday bites and the red velvet cake recipes evolved as a result of requests for Bridget's birthday bashes over the years. The birthday bites had their genesis in a fudge pie recipe from my college roommate and bridesmaid, Jane Tucker. And the red velvet cake was concocted after comparing umpteen internet recipes and coming up with a a version that has stood me in good stead ever since.

Now Bridget is expecting her first child in December. Guess it's time to pass on those recipes so she can start practicing for future birthday parties.

Birthday Bites

  • 2 ounces unsweetened baking chocolate
  • 1/2 cup butter 
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/4 cup flour
Melt chocolate and butter in microwave. Cool slightly. Beat in sugar, eggs, and flour.
Scoop into 24 mini-muffin cups that have been prepped with Baker's Joy.
Bake at 350 until just set ... I start peeking at the 10 minute mark.
Best topped with whipped cream and raspberries.

Red Velvet Cake
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 2 ounces of red food coloring (no scrimping here)
  • 1/4 cup Droste cocoa
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 scant cup buttermilk
  • 1 Tbs. wine vinegar
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
Cream butter and sugar. Beat in eggs and vanilla. Combine the food coloring and cocoa in a cup, then blend into the batter.
Mix in flour and buttermilk alternately by thirds. Sprinkle baking soda over batter and beat in vinegar by hand.
Put in two layer cake pans or a 9x13 baking pan prepped with Baker's Joy spray.
Bake at 350 for 25-30 minutes, being careful not to overbake ... I usually turn off the oven and open the door for about five minutes or until the cake just pulls away from the sides of the pan so it won't collapse in the middle.

Frosting (aka Butter Overload)
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 1 cup milk (don't substitute cream, it doesn't work)
  • 1 1/4 cup butter (yes, that's two and a half sticks)
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 2 tsp. vanilla
Whisk flour into milk and cook on the stove until thickened. Put in a bowl and place plastic wrap over the surface to prevent a "skin" from forming (very unappetizing). Cool in the fridge.
Cream room temperature butter and sugar until thoroughly combined. Then beat in vanilla and milk/flour paste until light and fluffy.
Frost cake and keep in the refrigerator until ready to serve (or the butter will melt off the cake)

- Bit by Bittman: My take on scones

Mark Bittman's "Minimalist" in the New York Times Dining section is the column I love to hate. All too often he comes up with a recipe that is close to, but not quite like one of my own, which makes me thump the table and declare, "I could have written that!" and/or "No, mine is better!"

The cool weather had me thinking of giving the convection oven a whirl, so my mind was already on scones. Thus it was that this week's Minimalist merited a double thump because "Of course I use the food processor!" but "How could he have left out the demerara sugar?" So then I had to make some. Life is hard.

And no, I don't have a picture of the scones ... only the twice-thumped table, since we ate them all before Don could get out the camera.

Scones (with thanks to Mom for the 1997 edition of the Joy of Cooking on which this is based)
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1 Tbs. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 6 generous Tbs. butter
  • 1 egg
  • 2/3 to 3/4 cup heavy cream and/or half-and-half
  • Demerara sugar
Put dry ingredients in food processor, and slice in pats of butter. Process until flour resembles coarse cornmeal. Put into a mixing bowl.
Whisk egg white into cream and/or half-and-half. Pour 3/4 of the egg/cream mixture over the flour mixture and blend gently with a large fork. Add more cream if dough appears at all dry.
Scrape out dough with a rubber spatula and place on a lightly floured pastry cloth. Press gently to desired thickness (a generous half inch or so). 
Cut into small rounds (1 1/2"), place on an ungreased aluminum sheet pan, brush with cream and sprinkle with demerara sugar.
Bake in a 400 degree convection oven for 7 minutes. Then check and bake an extra minute or until scones are lightly brown on the bottom. Let cool on sheet. 
Worthy toppings include clotted cream, mascarpone or double Devon, plus lemon curd or strawberry jam.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

- A walk on the wild side: Hill Country fliers

Generally speaking, we much prefer two- and four-legged critters, but we have exempted the moths and the butterflies from our current campaign to discourage visits from anything with six or more legs ... or worse, anything with no legs at all. Besides, with wingspans in excess of four inches, these guys are more like birds than insects anyway.

Of course, we have deer in abundance, though fortunately they're far more skittish than their Garrison Trail kin. And one of our first drives into the neighborhood revealed what we thought to be a grey fox, but we've since decided it was more likely a coyote. Turkeys roost in the trees as the sun slips below the horizon and one late-night return from Gruene Hall featured a skunk, very much alive and well. I also got my first good look at an armadillo as I drove slowly through the low water crossing. It looked like nothing so much as an armored opossum and judging by his (or her) rather casual saunter across the road, it's no wonder that most of them end up rigor mortised.

Food continues to be a revelation ... and we're fortunate that the Sol de Mexico right up the road has local eggs for $3 a dozen. I've learned a thing or two about eggs since my clueless postings a year ago, not the least of which is that bright yellow yolks are not necessarily a good sign. Indeed, chickens that are able to eat what they can scratch out of the ground (grubs and bugs for the most part) produce pale yellow yolks. And the thin watery egg whites that surround the yolks are an equally good sign. When they're this fresh, the end products are exceptional: light airy popovers, tender cookies, and creamy scrambled eggs are givens. Not to mention the recent news of salmonella in factory farms which pretty much clinches the case for locavore eggs, IMHO.

Since I ran out of eggs yet again, Don picked up some more this afternoon. So 
in addition to the usual New York Times and Austin American Statesman, my morning-off breakfast tomorrow will feature leftover steak, scrambled eggs, pico de gallo, tomatillo salsa, and fresh grated Cotija on flour tortillas. Tomatillo salsa? Another revelation.

Tomatillo Salsa (see April 29, 2012 post for a better version)

  • 6-8 tomatillos 
  • 1 small onion 
  • 2-3 garlic cloves 

Remove the tomatillo husks, rinse and quarter. Peel and quarter the onion. Leave the garlic cloves in their paper skins.
Place the vegetables in a small baking dish, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt.
Oven roast at 400 degrees until the onions begin to brown around the edges.
Remove from the oven and cool for 15 minutes.
Squeeze garlic out of skins and  place with onions in a food processor. Pulse several times until roughly chopped.
Add the tomatillos, skins and all, to the food processor and finish with 2-3 more pulses.
Serve warm over whatever leftovers you choose to wrap in tortillas and serve for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

- And so we begin again: Home on the Homestead

"I'm Going to Texas" began a little over a year ago with a posting about a roadrunner photographed a few miles from our new home in Wimberley. A lot has happened since then, not the least of which is our recent relocation to a five-acre homestead in San Marcos ... which explains both the roadrunner in our new garden to the right and the extended blog subtitle above.  Moving twice in a 14 months has been a challenge, but we're finally settling in and looking forward to being at 700 Cascade Trail for the long haul.

The house is wonderfully eccentric, and I'm waiting for Don to take some pictures that show it to full advantage. For now, suffice it to say that I'm like a kid at Christmas with a kitchen that has both a gas cooktop and an electric convection oven, which vie for favorite toy status with the granite sink we splurged on after moving in. You'll notice there are two faucets, one of which delivers filtered water for drinking. Our first few days at Cascade Trail were marked by some dismay as we discovered how hard water can be when it travels through 900' of limestone before reaching the surface. We ended up needing both a new water softener at the well head and a new dishwasher as a result ... but the up-side is we no longer have glasses coated in milky white calcium.

Of course, as we unpacked the boxes that were hidden away in the closets at Garrison Trail, we unleashed a flood of memories from Shelter Island, Williamsburg, and Avon ... and couldn't help but think of those we miss back east. Still, this is home now. We can only hope the bits and pieces of stuff that we've accumulated over the years will serve as talismans for the future.

So too does food serve as a reminder of good times past, with always the promise of the next memorable recipe ... like the buttery cookies we discovered at Austin's Central Market.


1/2 cup butter
2/3 cup sugar
1 egg and 2 yolks
1 tsp. vanilla
2/3 cup flour
1 1/2 cups corn starch
1/4 tsp baking powder
a pinch of salt
Canned dulce de leche (if you can find it)

  • Cream butter and sugar. Beat in eggs and vanilla. Carefully mix in flour, corn starch, baking powder and salt.
  • Roll 1/8" thick, cut into 1 1/2" rounds. Bake on parchment paper in a 325 degree oven for 9-10 minutes (you don't want to brown them, so I don't use the convection oven for this recipe).
  • Cool and fill with dulce de leche (to be authentic), or jam, or lemon curd, or ganache ... the list is endless. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and try not to inhale.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

- Corn on the 4th of July: Melting pot hot dogs

We've been enjoying a rolling feast of corn this year.  The first batch arrived fresh from Mexico in May, followed by east coast corn on the Outer Banks in June, Texas corn from Fredricksburg in July, and Briermere corn on Shelter Island in August. Me a locavore? Not when it comes to corn ... I'm forever in search of the tiniest, sweetest kernels that come with the season's first ears, wherever they may be. 

Fresh corn on the cob is best savored by boiling it for a few minutes, slathering on butter and then adding a  sprinkling of salt. But when it's more than a day old, corn just isn't the same. So to help out store-bought ears, I've become a fan of Mexican-style grilled corn which is coated with a thin sheen of chili-spiced mayo, a sprinkling of grated Cotija cheese and a squeeze of fresh lime juice. 

Which brings me to the past 4th of July. Now the 4th is one of three All-American holidays calling for burgers and hot dogs on the grill, the other two being the summer bookends: Memorial Day and Labor Day.  Of course, a proper cookout must have the full cast of supporting sides: deviled eggs, cole slaw, sweet pickles, and potato salad. Which is to say, lots of time in the kitchen. But with only two of us in the house, I couldn't muster the requisite energy for preparing a full cookout spread.  Thus was born the Mexican Corn Dog: a kosher hot dog topped with savory corn-off-the-cob and wrapped in a flour tortilla. Now if that's not melting pot Americana, I don't know what is.

Last I checked, there was fresh sweet corn from Colorado at Brookshire Brothers and Labor Day approaches. Let the feasting begin ...

Mexican Corn Dogs

Grill or boil some corn.  Cool, then cut the kernels off the cob.  Depending on how much you have, spoon in a little mayo (I use Hellman's), squeeze in some fresh lime juice, then sprinkle on grated Cotija cheese and a dash of chipotle chile powder (optional, but it adds a wonderful smoky heat). Taste and adjust seasonings to suit.

Grill kosher hot dogs (Nathan's if you can find them, or Hebrew National) until gently charred.

Nuke a stack of flour tortillas in the microwave (freshly made if you can find them, or even make your own).

Assemble hot dogs, Mexican corn-off-the-cob and shredded jack cheese on warm tortillas. Best served with Fat Tire or Skinny Dip (but you'll have to go to the Outer Banks or come out to Texas to find those).

Sunday, May 30, 2010

- A little bit of smoke: Learning to love the heat

It's really great when your kids grow up ... especially when they get you cool toys for Christmas. We've been having fun playing with two in particular: the web cam that Meg and Paul gave us, which lets us watch Max the Weimeraner puppy grow before our eyes even though he's hundreds of miles away in St. Louis. And then there's the mini-panini press that Meliss and Jake gave us, with griddles that can be popped in the dishwasher and a surface area that's just right for two.

I must admit we did have some struggles at first. Piling too many ingredients onto bread sliced a shade too thick resulted in no little consternation as our creations ended up slip sliding away when we tried to close the press. But necessity is the mother of invention, so invent we did. Today's lunch was the logical culmination of a series of experiments. It's time to share.

First, you must find wonderful bread. We're fortunate to have found a bakery called Phoenix Rising, where they bake organic breads in a wood-fired brick oven. And there was some leftover rotisserie chicken in the fridge that, along with red pepper, bi-colored squash, avocado, red onion, and fresh mozzarella, seemed just the thing for lunch. Now you can see the problem already ... how to balance all this stuff onto a slice of bread?

Easy. Mush it all together. First grate the veggies, then the cheese. Chunk up some chicken and avocado. Peek out in the garden to see what the deer have left. Rosemary today, other days cilantro, basil or chives. Throw in some toasted pine nuts, salt, and pepper. Then wonder ... what else?

Thin slices of bread, brushed with olive oil and heaped with the filling go onto a hot press, which doesn't get pressed at all, but gently tucked on top of the sandwiches. Then we wait and Don is tasting the leftover filling, saying, "What's in here?" And I smile, because there's something new ... just a little bit of smoke, and a little bit of heat.

The sandwiches come off the press and they taste just right, though odds are we won't have exactly this mixture again. Next time there will be different veggies in the fridge, some other leftover meat to use up. But the smoke ... I won't leave out the smoke: finely diced heat from the tail end of a chipotle, it's better than bacon.

Gotta love Texas.

Friday, May 28, 2010

- Whisking away in Margaritaville: The best salad dressing ever

One of my co-workers left her salad dressing at home the other day, so I shared some vinaigrette that I had stashed in the fridge at work. When she said she'd like the recipe I was shocked (shocked!) to find that I didn't have it posted on the blog. Known in our house as Trellis Vinaigrette, it's loosely based on a recipe from the Trellis in Williamsburg, but it's been ages since I looked at the recipe; I know it by heart.

The all-time Ackert family favorite application for Trellis Vinaigrette is Grilled Chicken Salad ... a bed of leaf lettuce greens topped with bite-sized pieces of grilled chicken (fingers of boneless, skinless chicken breast marinated in white wine and lemon juice for 15 minutes before grilling over a hot charcoal fire), toasted pecans, sliced scallions, boiled (or nuked) red bliss potatoes, and crumbled bacon (a dry cure is best). Some sliced strawberries on top and a generous dose of vinaigrette will do you.

Trellis Vinaigrette also adds great tang and ably moistens deviled egg filling, cole slaw, and potato salad , all of which will no doubt make an appearance on our Memorial Day dinner table, along with burgers and Nathan's hot dogs.

Trellis Vinaigrette 

Juice of 1 or 2 lemons
An equal quantity of apple cider vinegar
Safflower oil, one and a half times the lemon/vinegar quantity
1 heaping teaspoon of Dijon mustard for each lemon
Kosher salt

This recipe is all about proportions.  Since you can't control how much juice is in a lemon, that quantity becomes the basis for the rest of the recipe. So juice the lemon(s) and put the juice in a measuring cup.  Eyeball an equal quantity of apple cider vinegar then make note of the combined quantity. For example, if I squeeze 2 lemons, it usually yields about 1/3 cup of juice, to which I add 1/3 cup of vinegar. Place in a steep sided bowl or a lidded glass jar and add 1/4 tsp salt (you can add more later depending on your taste) and one heaping teaspoon of Grey Poupon Dijon mustard for each lemon ... two in the example we're working on here.

Now measure 1 1/2 times that quantity in safflower oil (which is light, wonderful, and hard to find) ... so, 2/3 cup of lemon and vinegar requires 1 cup oil.

Here's where I part ways with cookbook orthodoxy: I do not slowly drizzle the oil into the lemon and vinegar while whisking away (gasp). Instead, I either shake everything together in a lidded glass jar or I put the whipped cream whisk attachment on my hand mixer and beat until the vinaigrette turns thick and creamy.

If it seems watery, I plunk in a little more mustard and/or oil. If it's bland, I throw in a little more salt, maybe even some pepper.

All of this is greatly facilitated if I have a Margarita in hand as I make the vinaigrette. Fresh lime juice, agave nectar, and a good tequila, shaken in crushed ice. Yum ... think I'll go whisk some up right now.

Friday, May 7, 2010

- Do it yourself Potstickers

I well remember the first time I had potstickers at a Munson family wedding in northern Virginia.  They were a revelation: soft dumplings caramelized on the bottom and filled with savory pork. But they were impossible to find in 1990s Williamsburg, so I was overjoyed to see them on a TGIF menu in Orlando, Florida when we took a family trip to Disney World. As I recall, the company of our hosts, Cathy and her son Alex, was the highlight of that particular meal, the potstickers turning out to be deep-fried and less-than-revelatory.

Continuing to seek out potstickers over the years yielded a string of less-than-memorable dining experiences, with the end result that I finally decided to try making my own. The Food Network recipe I printed out over the Christmas 2004 holidays and served to the girls and my folks is riddled with strikeouts and the ever-present beverage recommendation "good with beer." They were a lot of work and the end result never quite reached the level of that first magical taste so many years before. The packaged wonton wrappers that I used were too thick and doughy, often cracking and always overpowering the filling. After a couple of tries, I gave up on the recipe.

So potstickers were the last thing on my mind this past weekend when we were flying back to Austin after attending the funeral for Don's mother, Betty. Having exhausted my reading material (Eat, Pray, Love and Ruth Reichl's For You Mom, Finally), Meg filled the breach with the May issue of Food & Wine magazine. In addition to some intriguing recipes for oatmeal pine nut bars, semolina pancakes, pork and pineapple tacos, and hummus, there was a recipe for do-it-yourself dumplings.

Stopping to pick up some groceries as we drove out of Austin, I was primed to look for potsticker ingredients. Central Market did not disappoint. Fresh ginger, garlic, scallions, cabbage, and shitake mushrooms, along with freshly ground pork, made their way into the basket. Too travel weary to tackle making the "easy five minute dough" promised by Food & Wine, I cooked up an improvised pork filling and stuck it in the fridge, where it languished for a couple of days.

When I did get around to making the potstickers two nights later, we had eaten our way through three quarters of them before I realized they were worth a picture ... and a recipe.

Potstickers (serves two)

2 Tbs safflower or peanut oil
3/4 pound ground pork
1/2 cup rough chopped shitake mushroom tops
1 garlic clove
1 inch peeled fresh ginger
1/4 cup thin sliced scallions
1/2 cup finely shredded cabbage
Sesame oil
Soy sauce
Microplane box grater (this thing scared the heck out of me when I first got it, but now I use it all the time)

Slice green scallions into thin rounds.  Finely shred the cabbage using a medium-sized microplane blade.

Heat the oil in a saute pan, throwing in the pork and shitakes first.  As the pork begins to cook, gently break it up with a wooden spoon (I used an old bamboo paddle that came with a wok that has long since departed ... it's one of my favorite cooking tools).

Grate the garlic and ginger on the finest microplane blade and toss them into the pan, turning the heat down to medium high if things look like they're moving too fast.

Taking care not to overcook the pork (which will get more cooking time in the dumplings), add the sliced scallions and grated cabbage, then cook for another half minute or so. Season with sesame oil and soy sauce to taste. Remove from heat and let cool while you make the dumplings or refrigerate the filling for another day.

BTW, this is more filling than you need to fill 16 dumplings, but the leftovers are a great way to pass the time while the potstickers are cooking.

2/3 cup bread flour (the better to develop gluten)
1/3 cup water
1/4 tsp safflower oil floated on the water
Pinch of salt
1 cup chicken broth (homemade, of course)
2-3 Tbs. safflower or peanut oil for frying

Put the flour in a food processor with 1/4 cup of the oil/water mixture and a pinch of salt. The goal is to make a "raggy dough" according to Food & Wine magazine. As the food processor whirls, add water until the dough masses into a ball. Stop and feel the dough. If it feels dry, restart the food processor and drizzle in more water. If the dough sticks to your finger when you poke it, give it another whirl and sprinkle in a bit more flour until it is just past sticky. 

Don't worry about over-processing ... by forming gluten, you end up with a stretchy dough that handles beautifully. However, you will need to give the dough a rest so that it doesn't act like a rubber band when you try to roll it out. Remove the dough ball from the food processor, gently form it into a disk shape, adding just enough flour to keep it from sticking to your hands, and leave it in a small bowl for 15-30 minutes.

Divide the dough in half, divide the halves into quarters, the quarters into eighths, and stop dividing when you end up with 16 little nuggets of dough. Lightly flour a pastry cloth and rolling pin, then coax the little balls into 3-4" rounds. You'll be amazed how thin you can make them by stretching the dough rounds after rolling them out.

If you made the filling in advance, this would be the time to gently warm it in the microwave (please don't use a high setting ... 40-50% power is much better).  If it seems dry, a splash of chicken broth will help it along.

Put out a sheet of waxed or parchment paper. Dip your finger in water and run it around the edge of a dough round, place a tablespoon of filling in the middle, pinch the dough closed and put the dumpling on the waxed or parchment paper. When you get halfway through filling the dumplings, which look like fat little purses, check the first few and turn them over if they are starting to stick to the paper. If any holes open up, gently pinch them closed.

When the dumplings are filled, heat a few tablespoons of safflower or peanut oil in a skillet large enough to fit all sixteen. Fry the dumplings on high for a minute or two, then add 1/2 cup chicken stock and put a lid on the pan.  Cook another minute or so, then take the lid off and let the stock boil away, gently coaxing the potstickers to keep them from sticking too firmly.  Peeking to see if the dumplings have caramelized on the bottom is allowed. BTW, when Don asked why the potstickers weren't cooked on top, I defied orthodoxy by flipping the dumplings at the last minute to caramelize them on both sides.

Serve immediately, dipping the potstickers in soy sauce to taste ... you can even make a wonton soup of sorts by plunking them in hot chicken broth if you're so inclined. I think we drank a light pinot noir the other night, but an unfiltered sake would be even better (although nigori can be hard to find). Side dishes of rice and/or slaw with an oriental dressing are logical accompaniments if you're really hungry, but as a light supper, potstickers can stand alone.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

- Idyll: Pedernales Falls

We headed out to Pedernales Falls last Sunday ...  which is pronounced per-duh-nal-ess for some reason. Not having much experience with rivers and falls, I guess I expected sort of a miniature Yosemite ... all verticality and plumes of mist. But that wasn't what we found. The falls were flatter and wider than I expected. And when I closed my eyes, I could hear the echo of breakers from the Outer Banks, though there was no gull-cry or salty tang in the air.

Coming to the bottom of the rocky slope, we stepped out onto a dusty sandy ... beach?  Well, not exactly. Still, I couldn't help but think of Ram Island as I found my way to the edge of crystal clear water lapping over rounded river rocks that looked ever so much like cobbles deposited by a long-ago glacier. There was even a tiny Hay Beach tower that begged to be imitated. So while Don clambered over boulders taking pictures of lizards and exotic plants (you'll have to visit his blog to see those), I played at making rock castles and had my day in the sun.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

- Waffles Four Ways

I just spent the past four days with four guys in the house ... three of them imports from Stonehouse Elementary School in Williamsburg, come to check out the Texas Hill Country. Don took Mark, Scott, and Jeff to Austin and beyond, averaging two bands a night while they liberally sampled the local beverages, braved the heat of various chili peppers, ate all the barbecue a body could hold at the Salt Lick, watched the bats fly out from under the Congress Street Bridge, climbed Mount Bonnell, and ... well, you get the idea.

Austin trailer-made breakfast tacos and migas made a particularly big impression, so I was under heavy pressure to come up with an impressive final meal this morning. Fortunately, I went to Brookshire Brothers last night with a notion to get some fried chicken to go with waffles. Better than chicken, I found poblano sausage made on-site by Norman, who is our local butcher par excellence. Don fired up the grill in order to bring out the best in the beef, pork, and cumin-laced links. Meanwhile, I prepped a couple of quarts of strawberries, nuked some hot fudge sauce, and whisked up some waffles.

Waffles used to be a regular weekend offering in the Ackert household. Made with a quarter pound of butter per batch and tricked out in Haagen Dasz vanilla ice cream and hot fudge, they were pretty popular ... until we found out that Don's cholesterol level had climbed into the upper stratosphere. So it was nice to have an excuse to put them back on the table.  Besides, there are no calories in Texas, at least not when you're on vacation.

In the end, I gave the guys a choice of waffles four ways: with fried chicken and maple syrup, poblano sausage and agave nectar (with thanks to Meliss for introducing us to its subtle sweetness), ice cream and strawberries, or ice cream and hot fudge sauce. When I asked them what they wanted, the answer was, "Yes."

Wimberley Waffles

1/4 pound melted butter 
2 eggs
2 cups milk (whole milk, preferably)

Melt the butter by nuking it for a minute.  Whisk the eggs and milk together.  Then whisk in the butter and just enough Bisquick to make a thin batter.

My waffle iron takes exactly 2 minutes and 40 seconds to make the perfect waffle ... but you'll need to experiment with batter and times until you hit what works best for you.  This recipe yields a light, crisp waffle that is best eaten hot off the iron.  Just keep 'em comin' and don't be worrying about leftovers.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

- Don't take a picture ... remember this in your heart

Once upon a time there was a little church.

As with most little churches, it was rather humble and not very well to do. But it was led by a gentle man named Father Jim+ who reassured my long-ago-young-mother self that offerings of time and talent would be valued as highly as monetary treasure. So it was that I offered my time to the cause of baking Simnel (var. Simnal) Cake.

Jim supplied both the recipe and the following explanation to the bakers who were charged with feeding the hundred or so souls who were expected to attend church the following Sunday:
Simnel Cakes are traditionally prepared on the fourth Sunday in Lent, called Mid-Lent or Mothering Sunday. The name Mothering Sunday originated from the medieval custom of visiting the Mother Church, or cathedral, on this Sunday. In parts of England, it was also the tradition of servants and apprentices to make a special visit to their parents on this day. Whatever the occasion, especially popular was the gift of Simnel Cake. It is a very rich cake shared during a brief break from the Lenten fast. Simnel Cake can be given as a gift: cut into small pieces, wrapped in shiny foil, and tied with a bit of colorful ribbon or string.
Merriam-Webster's (at, my favorite online dictionary) defines simnel as "a rich fruitcake sometimes coated with almond paste and baked for Mid-Lent." As with most Simnel Cake recipes, Jim’s called for currants and citron. And indeed it made sense that any mid-winter confection made centuries ago would have dried fruit in it. Unfortunately, a fruitcake is a fruitcake. And though I followed Jim’s recipe to the letter, I watched as most of the gifts were unwrapped and then surreptitiously trashed after a single bite.

Not being a great fan of dried fruit myself, I reasoned that my medieval predecessors would certainly have used fresh fruit had it been available. It didn’t take much of a mental leap to conclude that the candied lemon and orange peel in the recipe could be replaced with freshly grated citrus rind. I self-servingly passed over the issue of dried currants and reworked the recipe to my liking. The resulting new-style Simnel Cakes were offered at the little church for many years, with more than one parishioner requesting an “extra to take home.” If any ended up in the trash, they were few and far between … victims, no doubt, of stalwart fruitcake aficianados.

Fast forward twenty years. My younger daughter, now twenty-four, dropped in from St. Louis last weekend. Since eating well is de rigueur at any Ackert family reunion, I had stocked up, adding almond paste and fresh fruit to a shopping list heavy on tortillas, avocadoes and chipotles. Though I didn’t wrap them in foil, the Simnel Cakes made for a proper Mid-Lent celebration … a welcome break from the fast of missing Meliss.

Simnel Cake

3/4 cup butter
2 cups sugar
3 eggs (or 3/4 cup Better’n Eggs)
1 Tbs. grated lemon peel (one lemon)
1 Tbs. grated orange peel (one orange)
1 ½ cups flour
7 ounces almond paste (I use Odense)

Use a 13" x 9" baking pan with sides. Spray the pan with Baker's Joy or Pam cooking spray. Line it with parchment paper. Spray the paper with more cooking spray.

Grate the orange and lemon peel, with a microplane if possible. Cream butter and sugar. Beat in eggs and grated peel. Stir in the flour. The dough will be like a thick cake batter.

Warm the almond paste in the microwave at 20-30% power (warm) for 30-60 seconds, until soft and pliable. Roll out the almond paste on parchment paper. The idea is to roll the paste thin enough to cover 13" x 9", but since it won't show, it doesn't have to be perfect. It can even be in pieces, which is actually easier.

Spread half the dough in the pan (the trickiest part). Lay almond paste on top of the dough. Spread the remaining dough on top of that. Don't fuss with it too much ... it will spread out as it cooks.

Bake at 300 degrees for 50-55 minutes, until golden. Cool slightly before inverting onto a cutting board. Peel off the parchment and trim the edges (great for nibbling!)

Ice with 1 to 2 cups of confectioner's sugar, 1 Tbs. melted butter, and enough lemon and orange juice to make a thin glaze.

Cut into bars. Wrap in foil and colored ribbon to make a proper gift.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

- Oh fudge!

I am absolutely, undeniably, no-doubt-about-it addicted to chocolate. Gotta have it … every day … just a little bit. Okay, sometimes more than a little bit. Hey, I’ve heard chocolate is actually good for you and until it’s proven otherwise, I’m inclined to believe it.

And so, in a conversation over dinner at the Cool Mint Café last night (a wonderfully spontaneous trek to San Marcos with our Garrison Trail neighbors), I mentioned my Mom’s hot fudge sauce with a fair degree of enthusiasm. Incredibly easy to make, it was the topping of choice on Hildebrandt’s hand-dipped vanilla ice cream when I was growing up. These days, I must confess that I sometimes make microwave ganache as an even quicker route to chocolate bliss when the vanilla Häagen-Dazs is looking lonely.

Then there’s the fudge I made for the first time this week. Inspired by a New York Times Dining section recipe, which I changed of course, it received rave reviews when passed around to my colleagues at the Alkek Library. So, without further ado, I present chocolate three ways: sauce, ganache, and fudge. May you eat them all in good health.

Mom’s Hot Fudge Sauce

2 ounces unsweetened (baking) chocolate
¼ cup sugar
1/3 cup water

The original recipe calls for cooking the sauce slowly over medium heat until satiny smooth (5-10 minutes of constant stirring). It can also be made in the microwave by alternately nuking it on high for one minute, then stirring, nuking for another minute, stirring, and finishing with another 30 seconds if needed before stirring it to its final satin glory.

Lazy Ganache Sauce

2 Tbs. heavy cream
1/3 cup Ghirardelli 60% Cacao bittersweet chocolate chips

Nuke the cream for 30 seconds. Stir in the chips until melted. Done.

I-did-it-my-way Fudge

12 ounce bag of Ghirardelli 60% Cacao bittersweet chocolate chips
4 ounces unsweetened (baking) chocolate
4 Tbs. butter
14 ounce can of sweetened condensed milk
Generous ½ cup of walnut pieces

Line an 8x8 pan with waxed paper. Melt the first four ingredients over hot water in a double boiler (you must own one of these … they are indispensable … more recipes to follow). Stir constantly (having a phone conversation at the same time is not recommended).  Fold in walnuts, pour into 8x8 pan. Refrigerate until set. Take out of pan and peel off the waxed paper. Cut into ¾” squares (they’re too rich to be any bigger … besides, you can always eat two).

And though I haven’t tried it yet, I’m thinking that toasted hazelnuts could substitute for the walnuts. Another possible variation: a sprinkling of grey sea salt. Ah … life is good when you have something to look forward to.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

- Channeling Mom: The best oatmeal cookies ever

I was slowly sinking into the sofa, getting more horizontal and closer to sleep by the minute … a common enough occurrence after a long day of work and a good dinner.  But something kept tugging at the edges of my consciousness, much as I tried to ignore it.  It became an irresistible impulse, and I found myself heading into the kitchen to make cookies.

Although the truth is, cookie making has been something of a disappointment since we came out to Texas.  I miss my convection oven, and the chocolate chip cookies that were my pride and joy in Virginia just don’t come out the same since we moved.  Still, I love chocolate and what I craved was my Mom’s oatmeal cookies with chocolate chips.  Just one problem:  I have yet to succeed at making them.

Mom’s cookie recipe came from a 1959 cookbook created by the gentle women of the Shelter Island Presbyterian Church.  The brown-edged pages betray its age, and page 70 in particular is covered with spatters of butter, eggs, and vanilla from years gone by.  

The red penciled notes still visible in Aunt Libby’s recipe for Oatmeal Coconut Wafers leave one to wonder if Mom’s “excellent” refers to the original recipe or her variation on it.  She never went back to insert a note about adding chocolate chips, but one thing’s for sure: her substitution of wheat germ for coconut was inspired.  Mom’s oatmeal cookies were always lacy thin, with a crisp finish that eluded me every time I tried to duplicate them. 

“Just bang the pan halfway through baking them,” she would say when I called to bewail my latest failure.  And so I’d try again, slamming the pans against the oven door to no avail.

“Maybe it’s the weather,” she said on yet another attempt. “You really should only make them when the weather is dry and it’s awfully humid down your way.”

Well, with the recent Texas hydrology report of rainfall at 150-450% above normal, I figured I was doomed to failure yet again.  Flipping open the cookbook, I pondered how to adjust the recipe and tossed ingredients into the bowl.  Tasting the end result, I decided that it wouldn’t much matter if the cookies didn’t come out … the dough was delicious.  I wrote down the recipe, just in case it was worth keeping.

It was, and it is.

Garrison Trail Granola Cookies 
(makes 3 dozen)

1/3 cup Land O Lakes Spreadable Butter with Canola Oil
1/3 cup white sugar (scant)
1/3 cup brown sugar (generous)
½ tsp vanilla (more or less)
Revised 8/28: 1/6 cup beaten egg (half of a 1/3 cup measure)
1/3 cup flour
1/3 cup Kretschmer Original Toasted Wheat Germ
1/3 cup chopped Ghirardelli 60% Cacao Bittersweet Chocolate Chips
¼ tsp. baking soda
¼ tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
1 cup Garrison Trail Granola (see recipe index to the right)

Cream butter and sugars.  Beat in vanilla and egg.  Fold in dry ingredients.  Batter will be quite moist.  Scoop ½ tsp. portions onto parchment paper (trust me, you don’t want to bake these directly on the cookie sheet, no matter how well you butter it).

Bake 6 minutes at 350:
When cookies have puffed up, slam the pan on the oven door to flatten them:
Bake 2-3 minutes longer until dark golden brown:
Slide the cookies, parchment paper and all, onto a wire rack to cool.  BTW, these are insanely good broken up and sprinkled over Haagen Dazs vanilla ice cream.

Bigger Batch

1 cup Land O Lakes Spreadable Butter with Canola Oil
1 cup white sugar (scant)
1 cup brown sugar (generous)
1 tsp vanilla (more or less)
2 eggs
1 cup flour
1 cup Kretschmer Original Toasted Wheat Germ
1 cup chopped Ghirardelli 60% Cacao Bittersweet Chocolate Chips
3/4 tsp. baking soda
3/4 tsp. baking powder
3/4 tsp. salt
3 cups Garrison Trail Granola (see recipe index to the right)

Sunday, February 14, 2010

- Comfort Food: Chicken Pot Pie

Long ago and far away, I traveled to Wisconsin a fair bit. Strange, but the integrated library system that we used at Colonial Williamsburg was licensed from a firm in Brillion, so trips to users group meetings in the Green Bay area became an annual event. One of the earlier jaunts lasted several days, and I soon tired of restaurant food and motel accommodations. By the time we headed back to Virginia, all I could think of was a home cooked meal and my own bed.

Flying into O’Hare late in the afternoon, facing a fairly extended layover, we decided to get an early dinner … one last meal out. Fortunately, we found our way to a diner where I ordered chicken pot pie. It was the ultimate comfort food. A buttery brown crust broke open to reveal a rich chicken broth, shreds of real chicken, chunks of floury potato, and nuggets of sweet carrot. Granted, it did have some tired peas, but they were easily fished out and put aside (peas should never be subjected to extended cooking, imho). The pot pie was so good that I tried to imitate it when I got home. And I’ve been refining the recipe ever since.

The most recent version got us through a rainy gray day, with leftovers to spare. Give it a try next time you find yourself debating what to do with a leftover rotisserie chicken.

Chicken Pot Pie

½ rotisserie chicken
2 small to medium potatoes
2 small or 1 large carrot, shredded
A handful of mushrooms, sliced relatively thin
1 shallot, sliced fine
1 cup Bisquick
1/3 cup milk
Butter and flour for roux

Take the meat off the chicken and set aside. Cover the leftover bones and skin with 6 cups of water and simmer for an hour or so until you have about 4 cups of rich broth.

Make a roux by melting 2 Tbs. of butter and adding 2 heaping Tbs. flour. Whisk in the broth and cook until thickened.

Nuke the potatoes until tender, leave the skins on and cut into rough dice. Put in the bottom of a 2 quart casserole. Top with shredded carrot, sliced mushrooms and sliced shallots. No need to cook the veggies … they will be get all the cooking they need in the oven. Layer on bite sized pieces of chicken.

Pour in warm, thickened broth until it just covers the chicken. Top with a biscuit crust made by quickly mixing 1/3 cup of milk into 1 cup of Bisquick with a fork. Handle the dough gently … rolling it out on a pastry cloth, flouring the rolling pin a bit to keep it from sticking.

Bake at 425 until the crust is golden and the sauce is bubbling (easy to see if you use a clear Pyrex casserole dish) … about 15 minutes, give or take.