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 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.

Alfajores

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.