Friday, September 23, 2011

A Snapshot of This Morning

I am overwhelmed by all the cuteness that is my little monkey...

The tiny, ragged little monkey puppet he is clutching is his favorite toy. His Aunt Amy (Korson) gave it to him as a gift last Christmas and he has been attached to it ever since. He falls asleep cuddling with it, and waves it at me when I come to pick him up out of his crib in the mornings. He has also recently started demanding that I kiss the monkey goodnight. Silly kid.

It is very fitting that Paul and I picked out a monkey costume to dress him in for Halloween!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

As Seen On TV

My husband is a marketer's dream. Whenever he sees an ad in the paper or television for a fancy new gadget with a fancy new application that will make your difficult, tedious life so much more bearable, he will at first scoff at the product but then secretly pine for it. And eventually buy it. And eventually return it because whatever relief the particular gadget may bring, it can do nothing against the misery my anger over money wasted will cause him.

We were once shopping in an outlet mall outside of Columbus, Indiana where we came upon a store harboring all sorts of gadgets and gizmos that are sold on TV during a 30 minute infomercial segment. I believe the store was fittingly called "The As Seen On TV Store." Some of the items included Pillow Pals, the Ab Circle Pro, the Thighmaster, the Egg Poacher, and, my personal favorite of all the ghastly kitchen appliances, the NuWave Oven. While I wandered through the store, I could not believe that people actually pay good money for this crap. Everything was so cheap and flimsy. I had just about had enough of the store when Paul comes up to me, declaring: "This store is so great! Look what I found." He holds up a package containing what looks to be a very basic blanket with bold lettering across the plastic front: The Better Marriage Blanket. Apparently, it is a blanket that has a protective odor barrier that should eliminate some of the more embarrassing scents and odors that may precipitate after devouring a pizza, drinking some beer, and snuggling on the couch during a movie. Apparently, the elimination of such scents will no doubt elevate the previously stinky spouse (I'm going to assume this was targeted at the male counterpart) in the eyes of their lover which will no doubt result in a instant surge in their communication, affection, and admiration for one another. It is no wonder that 50% of all marriages end in divorce - most married couples have probably not ever heard of this miracle product. Perhaps they should be distributed to engaged couples along with the learning materials during Marriage Prep....

Obviously, Paul was kidding when he brought the blanket to my attention, but he was quite serious about purchasing The Grill Daddy which promises to clean your outdoor grill with "the power of steam!" I said no and then quickly ran out of the store. The smell of dust, plastic, and rip-offs was starting to get to me. And the salesman was starting to hover.

Just as Paul may easily be lassoed into buying some of those TV gadgets and gizmos, watching food programs and shows make me instantly run to the grocery store for the ingredients necessary to make the featured recipe. Shortly after we were married, I was watching a program (and I cannot remember which one) where a baker made an apple bundt cake and poured a warm caramel glaze over the top. At the time, I was unable to make that exact recipe because I did not have a bundt pan, but I did do some research and make a butterscotch apple cake in a 9x13 pan which is one of Paul's favorite desserts to this day. However, this fall, with all the different varieties of apples pouring into the farmers markets fresh from the Pennsylvania countryside, I wanted to bake an apple cake similar to the one I saw on TV a few years back.

And this time, I do have a bundt pan.

The recipe I chose comes from Dorie Greenspan's book "Baking: From My Home to Yours." It is my favorite baking cookbook of all time (so far) and was a gift from Paul after he saw me perusing it at the library. It has such beautiful photographs and the recipes are written in such a personal manner that you feel as if you are in Dorie's kitchen baking right along with her. This particular recipe calls for both raw, grated apples and apple butter to ensure that the end product is a moist, beautiful cake full of sweet apple flavor. I chose to use Sweetango apples, a crisp, sweet apple that is a cross between a Zestar and a Honeycrisp. Did I mention how I love the many varieties of apples available this time of year?

So does Matthew...

He stole this apple from the pantry and refused to give it up until I had cornered him behind the rocking chair and tickled him, forcing him to release the stolen good from his surprisingly strong grip. He will thank me later when he is munching on a slice of this cake.

Double-Apple Bundt Cake
adapted from Baking From My Home to Yours

2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 large apples, peeled and grated
10 tablespoons butter, room temperature
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 cup apple butter
1 cup walnuts or pecans
1 cup raisins (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a bundt pan.

Whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, spices, and salt in a medium bowl.

Beat the butter and sugar in a stand mixer on medium speed for 3 minutes, scraping down as necessary, until the mixture is smooth, pale, and thick. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each. Switch the speed to low and add in the apple butter. The mixture may curdle a bit - no worries! Mix well. Add in the grated apples. Mix well. Add the flour mixture and mix until the white bits just disappear. Fold in the nuts and optional raisins.

Bake for 50-55 minutes. Let cool before serving and decorate with a lemon glaze or a dusting of powdered sugar.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Baked Shrimp with Feta

This week has been a crazy haze of meetings, doctor appointments, and trip preparations. Paul is being sent for Austria to work on an engineering project and I plan to visit my parents in the meantime. I still have a hard time sleeping at night when Paul is not around. I have always been a restless sleeper - especially when I am first trying to fall asleep. I am constantly hearing creaks and groans that, at least to my psychotic self, sound very much like an intruder trying to break into our home and murder us in our sleep. At least a couple times each week, poor Paul has to drag himself out of bed and take a lap of the place just to prove to me that everything is safe and secure. When he is out of town, there will be nobody here to make those midnight security checks for naturally I plan to flee to my parents' house, where my Dad and Mom can protect me. Pathetic, I know, but I am unashamed to admit that I will never stop needing my parents.

I am really excited for Paul's trip. I wish I were going with him, but the long plane ride does not appeal to me at all. He is pretty pumped about it too. He has spoken of nothing else over the past two weeks. He has been researching the area, asking everyone he knows for travel tips, and even downloaded the German version of Rosetta Stone to try to see how much of the language he can absorb in the four days before he heads over there. He is actually sitting next to me, repeating German words after the computer prompt. Only when he pronounces the words, it sounds closer to Klingon than German. Earlier in the week, he asked if I find all his fussing about Austria irritating.

I do now.

He better bring me back a souvenir.

And hopefully not a t-shirt that is two sizes too big like last time. I was depressed for days knowing he must have held up that shirt (which was large enough to engulf a baby elephant) and thought it would fit me perfectly.

Anyway, whenever we are going to be out of the house for a week or more, I usually try to devour anything perishable that we might have in the refrigerator. I challenge myself to only use ingredients that we have and resist the urge to run to Wegmans (where I love to shop!). For dinner tonight, I cheated a bit. I had every ingredient except the fresh dill.
This recipe is very quick, very easy, and very delicious. It is composed of fresh Greek flavors, delicious shrimp, and gooey cheese. We love it over warm polenta but you could serve it over rice, potatoes, orzo, or pasta. There is a lot of liquid to this dish, so fresh bread is definitely a must to soak up all the juices. If you would like the finished dish to be a little thicker, add more tomato paste.

Baked Shrimp and Feta
adapted from Ellie Krieger

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 cans diced tomatoes
1/4 cup minced fresh parsley
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon tomato paste
1 tablespoon fresh dill
1 1/4 pound medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 cup kalamata olives, halved (totally optional - but I love olives so much)
2/3 cup crumbled feta (about 3 ounces)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Heat oil in an ovenproof skillet over medium high heat. Add the onion and saute until translucent (about 3 minutes) and then add the minced garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 additional minute. Add the tomatoes, oregano, and paste and let simmer until juices begin to thicken. Remove from heat and stir in remaining seasonings and olives. Stir in the shrimp. Sprinkle with feta.

Bake for 12-15 minutes until the shrimp are cooked through and the cheese is melted. Serve with crusty bread or Lemon-Parmesan Polenta.

Lemon Parmesan Polenta
recipe by Monica/Paul

1 cup instant polenta
2 cups milk
2 cups chicken broth
3/4 cup parmesan cheese
1 lemon, zest and juice
1/4 teaspoon salt
pinch of pepper

Combine milk and chicken broth in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Remove saucepan from heat and add the polenta in a slow, steady stream, whisking constantly. It is important that the polenta be added gradually in order to avoid lumps. Return to medium heat, cover, and let cook 2 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in cheese, salt, lemon juice, and zest. Season to taste with pepper.

On a separate note, today was Matthew Patrick's feast day. We celebrated by going to mass, visiting with our pastor Father Ted, playing at the park, and enjoying a delicious cookie from the bakery. I don't think he had any idea that today was particularly special, but that's only because EVERY day with Matthew is extra-special!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Husband CAN Cook!

Tonight, Paul declared he wanted to make dinner. This announcement astounded me, thrilled me, confused me, and...yes...even frightened me. At first, I had to search through my calendar to see if I had forgotten any major anniversary or other relationship milestone that would spur Paul to selflessly venture away from his computer and into the kitchen. Finding a big blank spot by today's date, I then accusingly, and perhaps with a slight ring of hostility, asked him: "What do you want?!?"

And he told me.


Red meat.

Man Food.

You see, I really do not like red meat. I never have. This naturally means that when I am in control of the cooking, I tend to use recipes that are poultry or seafood based. This does not sit well with my overly-carnivorous husband, who dreams of rare steaks and slabs of bacon sizzling over an open flame. Paul knows that if he really wants a good steak, he just has to cook it himself. In fact, he already had a pound of nicely trimmed 1 1/2 inch strip steak reserved in the freezer for just an occasion.

I was quite flattered that Paul took some of my tastes into consideration when deciding upon how he wanted to prepare and present his prized slice of cow carcass. Knowing my love of vegetables, he decided to compose a salad - a steak panzanella, complete with arugula, capers, kalamata olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, and gorgonzola. He only asked that I make some sort of dressing for the salad - so I composed a basic red wine vinaigrette that I knew paired well with arugula. Of course this one single, request for help turned into "I have to light the grill - - can you chop the cucumber?"...."How do you chop a tomato? Actually...I gotta go check the grill, can you just chop it for me?"...."Shoot, I forgot to make the croutons. And now I gotta put the wood chips on the grill. Can you start that for me?"...."Time to put the steak on the grill! But I forgot to set the table! Honey, do you mind?"

Of course I didn't mind. The end result was a delicious dinner and a thoughtfully composed steak dish that I truly enjoyed!

And I made sure Paul did the dishes.

Steak Panzanella
adapted from Cuisine at Home, Grilling Edition

For Steak:
1 New York strip steak (approximately 1 pound), seasoned with salt and pepper

Preheat grill to medium high heat and grill 2-3 minutes per side for medium-rare (internal temperature should hit 130 right after removal from grill). Let rest 5 minutes before slicing into strips.

For Salad:
4 cups arugula
1 cup chopped tomatoes
1 cup cucumber, seeded and sliced into half-moons
1/4 cup red onion, thinly sliced
1/4 cup halved kalamata olives
1 tablespoon capers
Crumbled gorgonzola cheese (We like Mezza Luna)
1/2 french baguette, sliced on the diagonal into 1/2-inch pieces

Toss all salad ingredients together in a bowl. Brush the bread with olive oil and rub with a garlic clove. Broil until dry and toasted on each side. Let cool, then cut into crouton-sized pieces.

For vinaigrette:
1 1/2 tablespoon olive oil
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper

Whisk all ingredients together vigorously. Toss the salad ingredients with vinaigrette.

To compose salad: Place desired amount of steak on plate. Top with salad and garnish with croutons and crumbled gorgonzola.


And of course, straight after dinner, Little Man headed for his cabinet to put more of his tiny finger prints all over my appliances. I should probably note that tonight marks the first time Matthew has ever happily eaten red meat. He approved of the steak! Even though now Paul and I are a little worried that maybe we should have fed him well-done steak instead of medium-rare...

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Notre Dame Football and Thyme Drop Biscuits

Football season has not been kind to Notre Dame so far. My beloved Irish are starting the season 0-2 for only the 7th time in the history of the team. This afternoon, we are playing Michigan State and I hope that we can pull off a victory. As painful and embarrassing as the game against Michigan was last weekend, I hope the team can walk out onto the field with confidence and dignity and beat the tar out of those Spartans. Both Paul and I strongly dislike Michigan State. Hate them, actually. While we were undergraduates, the Michigan State fans who flocked to our campus for the game were extremely antagonistic and disrespectful, trashing certain portions of campus and uttering unsportsmanlike jeers at passing Notre Dame students. And of course there was that whole flag-planting business in the middle of our field during the 2005 season. Grrr. We have to win today.

Before game time, Paul declared that he was starving. Which is basically Paul language for "make me something." He is incapable of seeking out his own snacks. He may realize that his stomach is growling, but usually will choose to go hungry rather than expend the energy to pick himself up off the couch and make the long, treacherous journey to the refrigerator. So lazy. But to his credit, it can be quite dangerous to walk across our living room without attention since Master Matthew often booby-traps the place with various trucks, blocks, kitchen appliances, books, and magazines. I decided to spare Paul the trouble, especially since I had been planning to make some biscuits with the abundance of leftover fresh herbs we have in our refrigerator.

I chose to make some simple drop biscuits infused with fresh thyme and cracked pepper. Paul's favorite spices are thyme and rosemary so he was positively giddy to eat these. They were ready in less than 30 minutes start to finish - just in time for us to settle in to cheer our team to victory!

Thyme and Pepper Drop Biscuits
adapted from Cook's Illustrated

2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme leaves
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1 cup buttermilk, chilled

Preheat oven to 475 degrees.

Whisk together flour through thyme in a bowl. In another bowl, stir together butter and buttermilk. The mixture should be lumpy. Gently stir buttermilk mixture into flour mixture with a rubber spatula. Grease a 1/4 cup dry measure and use it to scoop and drop the batter onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. You should be able to form 12 biscuits.

Bake at 475 degrees for 12-14 minutes or until the top is golden brown. Brush with additional melted butter if desired and let cool on a wire rack for 5 minutes before serving.

The result? One happily munching husband.

As I type this, he's about halfway through the basket. I think he likes them.

Friday, September 16, 2011

My Favorite Little Guy

I just have to declare that my little boy is the BEST. We have had a great day so far and he is currently taking a peaceful nap upstairs in his crib. Check in another day, and I might not be so gleeful. However, for today, here are just a few of the things that I find so lovable about my baby boy:

1) He looks so much like his Daddy, my other absolutely favorite person in the world.

2) He loves to laugh and loves to be tickled.

3) He loves to help/watch me bake and is always the first person to try a piece.

4) He loves to give kisses and loves to hug my legs so tightly that it is nearly impossible to walk properly.

5) He is always asking me to read to him. He intently watches my mouth form the words to the story and then silently imitates the motion with his own lips. Too cute.

6) He has the sweetest little high pitch voice that makes any word sound so adorable. When he wants something, you can hear him say: "Me Me?"

7) He loves fruits and vegetables and turns his nose up at most cuts of meat.

8) He loves to watch the coffee pot brew in the morning while continually chanting "Caaawww! Caaaaawww?" We think he's trying to say coffee.

9) He loves to tear apart the cabinet that holds all the cooking appliances, such as the blender, the mixer, the espresso machine, and the waffle iron. As much as this habit annoys me from time to time, I actually find it super cute and comforting to know that he is perfectly content to explore that cabinet while I cook on the other side of the counter.

10) He is an absolute joy to watch as he plays, explores, and discovers. Watching him grow has been one of the greatest, most rewarding things I have ever experienced.

I love my little Matthew Patrick!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

A Dinner Party

I love to entertain.

I really do.

Then why do I freak out so much when I finally have the opportunity to throw a dinner party? I think my anxiety about dinner parties stems from my innate fear of displeasing people. What if I make something my guests will not like? What if I accidentally make something they are allergic to and one of them collapses on the floor due to anaphylactic shock? Or...and perhaps even more likely....what if I burn the house down in my attempts to present a fancy, company-worthy dish?

You may think my fear is not stemmed in some sort of reality - but really, it is. There actually was one occasion where the hubby and I almost rendered ourselves homeless as we set out to recreate our favorite Chicken Tikka Masala dish from a local Indian restaurant. While broiling our yogurt-marinated chicken breasts in our tiny kitchen, we carefully monitored the internal temperature of the bird with a thermometer with a rubber cord that enabled us to keep the oven door closed. Both of us were science majors at the prestigious University of Notre Dame and graduated with honors in our respective concentrations...yet, we both managed to forget the simple, commonly-known fact that rubber is flammable. So yes, the cord of our thermometer burst into flames and quickly ignited the chicken followed by the pan drippings and the rest of the oven. We opened the oven door quickly only to allow a huge, dark cloud of smoke to escape and large yellow flames to dance in our faces, as if mocking us for our stupidity.

Luckily, we keep a fire extinguisher under our sink for just such an emergency. My husband quickly grabbed it and prepared to aim it at our flaming oven as I rushed outside with the child, yelling behind: "Save the chicken!" I did not see what happened next, but apparently Paul managed to reach inside the oven with some barbecue tongs and grab out each piece of flaming chicken before putting out the fire with the extinguisher. His act of bravery saved our dinner. We managed to clear the rest of the smoke out of the house, spray some air freshener about, and happily arrange our chicken on a beautiful serving platter right before our guests arrived. And you know what? It was delicious! And the extra char on the chicken was divine.

Even though that situation worked out for the better, my anxiety about dinner parties continues. Tonight, we are hosting my old boss for the night. He loves fine food, good wine, and friendly conversation. Basically, a casserole does not cut it. Not that I would ever serve a casserole. I decided for this dinner to set about making Boeuf Bourguignon, the famous French stew immortalized by Julia Child. I planned to serve this with a souffle of garlic mashed potatoes, some crusty rolls, and a fall salad. Dessert would be a Bittersweet Chocolate Mousse Cake served with fresh raspberries.

I made most of the stew as well as the dessert last night so that I am free tonight to focus on the side dishes tonight. This afternoon, I put the finishing touches on the salad I plan to serve and I am super excited with the dressing I just made. I am making a Harvest Salad with pears, Honeycrisp apples, dried cranberries, pecans, blue cheese, and a Maple-Dijon Vinaigrette.

Maple-Dijon Vinaigrette

1 Tablespoon Minced Garlic
1/4 Maple Syrup
1/4 Cider Vinegar
2 Tablespoons Dijon Mustard
3/4 Olive Oil
Salt and Pepper to Taste

Whisk all ingredients together! Be sure to whisk the mixture enough to completely emulsify the oil. It should be a pale yellow color.

Hopefully the rest of dinner tastes as good...

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Strawberry Cake in September

Ok, so maybe my thinking was a little backwards when I set out to make a Strawberry Cake in the middle of September. However, in my defense, the strawberries at the grocery store were:

A) On Sale
B) Pretty darn beautiful and delicious looking
C) About to go bad in my fridge because I had failed to use them for the salad that I had originally bought them for. Shame on me.

I actually had planned on just chopping them up and throwing them on the kid's tray to eat. He would have gladly gobbled them up - he loves anything that is red in color. Tomatoes, apples, red bell peppers, cherries...if he sees one of those on the counter, he'll point and squeal until one of us grabs a paring knife, chops the red object of desire into a couple chunks, and lets him munch happily. However, when my husband came home craving cake (which happens fairly often - the guy just likes butter), I decided to use those strawberries in a more glamorous manner than being squished and gulped by a toddler.

I had been eyeing a strawberry cake recipe from Martha Stewart that was posted on Deb's blog over at Smitten Kitchen. It looked like such an easy, breezy recipe and my hubby wanted cake SOON. The preparation took less than 20 minutes and the cake itself was ready another hour after that. It was so delicious...that between the three of us it was gone in 12 hours. I may or may not have had a slice for breakfast.

And lunch.

Strawberry Cake
adapted slightly from Smitten Kitchen

6 Tablespoons Unsalted Butter, room temperature
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1/2 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 pound strawberries, hulled and halved
2 tablespoons sugar in the raw

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-inch cake pan with at least 2-inch high sides.

Whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt. In the bowl of your stand mixer, beat butter and granulated sugar until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Mix in egg, milk, and vanilla until just combined. Add dry ingredients gradually, mixing just until smooth.

Scrape batter into prepared pan and place strawberries, cut side down as close together as possible all over the batter. Sprinkle berries with sugar in the raw.

Bake cake for 10 minutes and then reduce the temperature to 325 degrees and bake an additional 50-60 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean. Let cool on a wire rack.

Resist the urge to gobble this up in one sitting. It's tough not to.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A Fall Favorite

Ever since Labor Day rolled around, the gray cloud ceiling that defines Erie for my husband made its grand appearance and has refused to allow even a slight glimpse of the sun. My husband and I naturally try to cheer ourselves up by planning all the delicious fall treats. Every item on my list normally begins with "pumpkin" whereas his seem to all include "bacon." This is an example of the type of dish my husband would eat every night of his life if I would let him:

Disgusting, isn't it? His own creation: Shredded pork crisped in bacon fat, topped with fried bacon, and an egg poached in bacon fat. Serve with a stick of butter and a heart attack. This is the reason for my existence: to ensure that he and the other, shorter, cuter guy in the household survive and thrive. You should see the fuss he puts up when I suggest that we go for a jog (the hubby, not the baby...the latter would willingly jump in his stroller and go for a run with me!). Anyway, I digress...

Our chat about fall cooking made me crave pumpkin bread! This morning, I woke up a little earlier than usual and decided to make some for my little cherub before he began to bang on the wall, demanding that I release him from the confines of his crib. Even though the stores have not yet begun stocking up on canned pumpkin, I have PLENTY of spare cans in our basement. During The Great Pumpkin Shortage of 2009 where canned pumpkin became scarce, I stocked up like crazy wherever I found cans for sale. Being a pumpkin fiend, I could not imagine life during the winter months without it! Unfortunately, I bought perhaps a few cans too many. So many that I haven't bought a single can in the last two years and still have plenty left in our basement.

Either way, I had some pumpkin to bake with this morning. I tried a new recipe from Christopher Kimball of Cooks Illustrated that involved removing some of the water in the pumpkin in order to produce a bread that has a more concentrated pumpkin flavor. The loaf was definitely not as heavy or spongy as some of the pumpkin bread I have made in the past. It was probably the UGLIEST loaf of bread I've ever made, but pumpkin bread is not normally known for its eye appeal. The bottom line is, it tasted great and the spice proportions were simply perfect! My little guy made his appearance right after I pulled the loaf out of the oven and immediately started pointing and demanding that I slice him a piece. Yes Sir!
And he loved it so much that he consumed half the loaf. In one sitting.
At least he got to practice using a fork. Although he's still not all that good at it. He has speared himself in the face one too many times. As long as he doesn't pierce an eyeball, it's all good.

Pumpkin Bread
adapted from Christopher Kimball

1-15 ounce can pumpkin
2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1 cup white sugar
8 tablespoons melted, cooled butter
2 large eggs, slightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease a 9x5 bread pan.

Spread pumpkin on a triple layer of paper towels and then top with another triple layer of paper towels. Press down gently to saturate the top towels with excess liquid. Remove and scrape pumpkin from towels into a mixing bowl.

Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and spices. Whisk together pumpkins, sugar, butter, eggs, and vanilla. Stir pumpkin mixture into flour mixture with a spatula and scrape into prepared pan, smoothing the top.

Bake for 55 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Let cool 10 minutes in the pan on a rack before turning the loaf out to slice and serve.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Challah Bread

I had so many egg yolks leftover from the tons and tons (and tons!) of Swiss Meringue Buttercream I made for all the cakes I have been baking lately. I hate for anything to go to waste and I wanted to use the egg yolks in some way other than Hollandaise Sauce (been there) or Creme Brulee (done that) or Flan (over my dead body!). While I do love to cook, baking is my true passion and there is no bread that I adore more than Challah. I love the rich taste of this slightly sweet bread. Slathered with a bit of honey or jam, it is my favorite breakfast to enjoy on a rainy day. My son also enjoys it. No surprise there. The kid will barely touch a piece of meat and would prefer to survive on a steady diet of peaches, bread, and oatmeal. No joke.

Anyway, I remembered a recipe for Challah a little different than my normal. It uses a whopping 10 egg yolks and no whites in the bread in order to create a soft, richly-colored loaf. Egg whites, while providing structure to the loaf, oftentimes can dry out the bread. This recipe comes from Peter know, the bread-making God. It was bound to be good - and it WAS. My loyal sidekick gladly jumped in on the action, helping me knead the dough and cheered me on as I put the braided loaves in the oven. I think he was ready for a snack because he became rather livid when I did not immediately slice into the hot bread. He did not seem to understand my explanation that you lose optimal texture and crumb when you slice into a fresh loaf of bread too early. And the finished project - well, after his patient wait, my little guy consumed half a loaf for dinner. That's my boy.

Peter Reinhart’s Challah

2 ½ cups lukewarm water

1 ½ tablespoons instant yeast

8–10 egg yolks

5 tablespoons vegetable oil

6 tablespoons white sugar

1 tablespoon vanilla extract (optional)

7 ½ cups unbleached bread flour

2 ½ teaspoons salt

1 egg yolk, for rich egg glaze

1 tablespoon milk or cream

Combine the water and the yeast in a mixing bowl or the bowl of a 5-quart mixer and whisk together to dissolve. Add the egg yolks, oil, sugar, and vanilla, if using, and whisk together to break up then add the flour and salt.

Using the paddle attachment, mix the dough for 2 minutes on the lowest speed. Let the dough rest for 5 minutes.

Switch to the dough hook and mix on medium low for 4 minutes.

Use a floured bowl scraper or floured hands to transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface, sprinkle the top lightly with flour and knead by hand for a couple of minutes until the dough is soft and supple. It should be tacky but not sticky.

Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, or divide the dough in half or in as many portions as you plan to bake, and place in oiled bowls. Cover and immediately place in the refrigerator. The dough should rest at least overnight and can be kept refrigerated for up to 4 days.

On Baking Day, remove the dough from the fridge approximately 2 hours before you plan to bake. Transfer it to a lightly floured surface and cut it into the desired number of braids you want to use or shape into loaves, or dinner rolls.

If you are braiding, flatten each piece with your hand, then roll into cigar shaped lengths. Roll each piece once, then return to the first piece to roll it into a rope. Roll each piece to the same length then braid. Place the loaves on sheet pans lined with parchment paper.

Make the egg wash and brush each loaf with the wash. Reserve the rest of the wash in the fridge, and let the loaves rise uncovered for about an hour. They will not have risen much at this point. Brush the loaves again with the egg wash and sprinkle with poppy seeds or sesame seeds or a combination of both.

Let the loaves rise for another hour until they increase to about 1 ½ times their size.

15 minutes before baking, pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees F./177 degrees C. or 300 degrees F./149 degrees C. for convection.

Bake for 20 minutes, then rotate the pan and bake for another 15 to 30 minutes, until the loaves sound hollow when thumped on the bottom and the internal temp is around 190 degrees F./88 degrees C. in the center. If you used a whole egg wash, the crust will get darker than with the egg white wash, so don’t be fooled into thinking the bread is done until it passes the thump and temperature test.

Cool on a wire rack for at least 45 minutes before slicing and serving.

An Anniversary Cake

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure to host my parents and 8 of my brothers and sisters during a summer visit to Erie. They stayed at a cottage located near the lake
front in North East, PA and had a wonderful time enjoying the beautiful Pennsylvania countryside. Erie really is quite beautiful during the summer months. It almost (ALMOST) makes up for the dreary winters that seem to drag on endlessly for months.
While my family was in town, Paul and I planned a surprise anniversary party for my Mom and Dad. Their anniversary was technically the month before, but it fell on the eve of my older brother's wedding and was largely forgotten about in the chaos and panic characteristic of wedding preparations. To make up for this oversight, I wanted to surprise them with a few desserts and maybe a bottle or two of wine at
my home. Paul and I worked tirelessly to create the desserts: an elegant 6-layer Coconut Cream Cake for my Dad, a Root Beer Bundt cake for the chocolate-crazed little kids, and a Triple Layer Blueberry-Lemon Cake for my Mom. We decorated the house with roses and candles, and saved a bottle of Riesling from our favorite winery in North East. All in all, the party was a success and the cakes were very well received.
The Root Beer Bundt cake was courtesy of the boys from Baked in Brooklyn, New York and it was probably my favorite dessert of the evening. Served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, it was a slice of heaven. The rest of the family swooned over the layer cakes -especially the coconut cake. I actually obtained that recipe from a chef of a restaurant Paul and I dined at while on a business trip in Columbus, IN. It was actually served to us as an apology from the restaurant staff for mixing up our dinner order. They absolutely insisted on serving us a slice of this cake, and I am so glad that we finally gave in. Paul and I were literally fighting for the last bite - and Paul is NOT a fan of coconut. I ended up emailing the restaurant the next day requesting the recipe, and they promptly replied with the recipe in its entirety! I am already planning on serving this for Christmas dessert!

As loved and praised as the Coconut Layer Cake was, I actually found myself eating bite after bite of the Lemon Blueberry Cake. Noticeably more subtle in flavor and infinitely less rich than the Coconut Cake, this gem was a beautiful slice to behold and, at least to me, had the appearance of summer on a plate! I was also very proud of the new ruffle decorating technique I tested out on this cake. It wasn't perfect, but it was very forgiving.