January 31, 2010

Cooking School: Pan Addiction

I cannot believe it, but Wilton has managed to pioneer yet another cupcake size.  As if mini, regular, and Texas were not enough, we now have the option of King-Size! These are not new; evidently, they've been around for a couple of years. But they are a new discovery here in Spoonfoolery land. The possibilities are endless! My favorite so far is this "soft-serve cupcake" from Wilton's site.

With these tulip paper liners (all the rage right now; just visit your local Starbucks, and you'll see more than things than you can imagine made with them), this tall cupcake pan certainly makes some cute food!

I must say, I'm addicted to collectible cake pans,, and I just can't seem to have enough varieties to do all the things I'd like to do. Another recent addition is this fun wonder--the Fanci-Fill cake pan--also from Wilton.
It comes in 8-inch and 4-inch sizes, so you could actually tier this for a super-special occasion. I made one big giant Hostess cupcake with this for a dinner party last night, filled with a standard Devil's food cake recipe, chai whipped cream, and melted fudge frosting poured over the top. Sorry, but I totally forgot to get a cross-section for you, but see the accompanying booklet photo above. It does slice very neatly with a complete cross-section of filling.

And you can also do savory with this; the recipe booklet has a "rice cake" of sorts, where you put whatever you planned to serve with the rice you just made inside the "fill" part of the cake pan. A new way to serve Indian food? I think so!

But all humor aside, baking pans, which ones to get (nonstick or commercial metal), and many other construction details befuddle home bakers nationwide. A friend from my Boston days recently asked me what was my preferred cookie sheet--the flat, insulated kind with the two upturned lips or jelly-roll style?

I prefer the jelly roll style, nonstick. They are much easier to remove from the oven with their surrounding lip, and they serve multiple purposes: cookie sheet, bar cookie pan, and cake pan. Chicago Metallic makes an excellent version, in a commercial-grade uncoated metal. With parchment paper, it's just as nonstick as nonstick, without the horrible burn factor that nonstick often unwittingly includes. I am rather against nonstick coating in cooking and baking in general (What is that stuff, and I just know it is getting in your food!!!), and I do think it instigates extra browning on the bottoms of your cookies more than it should. And I'm a big fan of parchment paper, as I really believe it's the only thing that's truly nonstick in this baking life.

However, sometimes you can't get away from nonstick coating. The Fanci-Fill pan I just bought and fell in love with has nonstick coating, as do many of my layer cake pans. But I always apply cake release to the pan and line it with parchment (also applied with cake release) to ensure things really don't stick (and to hopefully avoid little Teflon bits getting into any precious crumb).

Here is an excellent recipe for cake release that I picked up at a cake decorating convention last summer. You can make this in small batches and store in your dry-goods cabinet for up to 3 months.

Cake Release

4 tbsp shortening
4 tbsp neutral oil such as vegetable or canola
4 tbsp all-purpose flour

Mix thoroughly until no lumps. Apply to cake pans and/or muffin tins with pastry brush. Store in an airtight container in dry area at room temperature for up to 3 months.

Happy panning!

January 24, 2010

BBRP Bruschetta!

There's an awesome scene in the movie Julie & Julia where Julie Powell's husband Eric is stuffing his face with bruschetta and proclaiming with his mouth full how absolutely fabulous the dish is. Indeed! I'd have to agree with him. I cannot get enough of it, when it's done right, that is. Olive oil is the key, and in all the renditions I've tried, I've found that grilling the bread in a grill pan with olive oil produces the most flavorful and crunchy version. My sister-in-law made a roasted red pepper version this Christmas at my in-laws that was out of this world, and her brother (my main squeeze, of course) and I improved on it this weekend just a tad by deciding everything's better with bacon! Try our Bacon Basil Red Pepper Bruschetta and let us know what you think... (I included a link for roasting your own peppers--saves money and tastes better too!)

2 large red bell peppers, roasted and diced
1 bunch basil, finely chopped (about 1/4 cup)
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tblsp Balsamic vinegar
1 crusty baguette, sliced into about a dozen 1/2-inch thick slices
olive oil
3 strips bacon, fried to a crisp and crumbled
1/4 cup grated Parmesan
 freshly ground black pepper

Roast peppers according to linked directions. In medium bowl, combine peppers, basil, garlic, and Balsamic; set aside. Pour enough olive oil in medium skillet or grill pan until it just covers the bottom of the pan. Fry baguette slices 5 minutes each side, until slightly browned and toasty (you may need to fry in batches, so add olive oil accordingly). Remove from pan and arrange on serving platter. Place 1-2 tablespoons of red pepper mixture on each baguette slice; sprinkle with bacon and grated Parmesan. Garnish with black pepper and serve immediately.

January 18, 2010

Cooking School: Stocking Your Pantry

For today's post, I dug back into my cookie jar of comments from friends regarding my last blog. A friend from high school who lives and works in the D.C. area and has probably the busiest schedule of anyone I know asked a really great question: How do you put together a fun meal for friends when you have nothing in the fridge or pantry?

My first answer would be, order a pizza! But then, if you think about it, most people do get more creative when they're down to the bare bones of what's available at home. I once managed to put together a taco salad with the remnants of someone's pantry when even he had no clue his kitchen offered up such fare. I think it is when you're down to nothing that you can really get your game on!

The folks at OChef offer a nice comprehensive list of the ideal pantry, and in a perfect world, we'd all have this stuff lying around to whip up into something great when throwing an impromptu party. But really, if you've got a can of diced tomatoes, an onion, a lime, and even just garlic powder and salt, you've got salsa. I would say most people tend to have tortilla chips around the house, but even if you just have a stack of flour or corn tortillas, even those can be turned into chips in a hot oven in 10 minutes. Instant chips and salsa! Or, you can go a step further if you have shredded cheese and maybe a can of chili in that cupboard somewhere--oven nachos, one of mine and my husband's favorite dinner-and-a-movie menus.

Say you've got a box of spaghetti and two or three tomatoes, and maybe, just maybe, if you're lucky, there's a container of grated Parmesan from your last big Italian production. Nothing makes a better summertime dish than pasta with fresh tomatoes and a garnish of Parmesan. And remember, you can always make an unplanned get-together somewhat planned by asking folks to bring something. Even if you prefer homemade, a lot of people are quite willing to stop by the grocery store and pick up something ready-made.

Here are some other fast equations to calculating an impromptu party spread:

Box of instant pudding + thawed whipped topping + sliced bananas, apples, pears, etc. = fruit dip tray
Potatoes + cheese + deli meat + sour cream = TGIFriday's-like potato skins
Sour cream + dill, parsley, and garlic powder = homemade ranch dip for random veggies or potato chips
Ice cream + cookies = ice cream sandwiches

I suppose you do actually need something in your kitchen to get started, so if you really truly don't have anything, then maybe the pizza guy will have to come to the rescue, but I'm a big believer in stocking the kitchen forever and always with at least some of the following: pasta, canned tomatoes and black beans, shredded cheese (which keeps in the freezer for what seems like forever), sour cream, apples (Granny Smiths and Red Delicious keep a long time in the fridge), flour tortillas (also freezeable), and seasonings such as garlic powder, basil, oregano, cumin, and cinnamon. Our house is never really without ice cream, so we always have an instant dessert around here. And with all the two-fer deals grocery stores are always having on those, there's no real reason any home should be without it, I think!

Well, here's to a better-stocked 2010. Eating at home is always better for you than eating out (saves moolah and calories!), so I hope this little pantry primer helps you make out better with what you might already have!

January 15, 2010


It's comfort food season, and sometimes you find yourself craving things you shouldn't. Like sodium-infested SpaghettiOs. I am generally not a fan of Wikipedia for obtaining details on things you start wondering about, but it did provide a rather humorous timeline on the development of SpaghettiOs and their creator, Donald Goerke, who sadly, actually died this week at the age of 83. After I learned that, I decided to pay a little homage to him and see if I could replicate his masterpiece at home. I also wanted to try and make them somewhat better for you than canned-food-aisle quality, especially should the hubby and I decide to add munchkins to the mix somewhere down the road. (Yeah, all you parents out there are laughing your patooties off thinking, "She thinks she'll have time to make homemade SpaghettiOs with a bunch of rugrats running around screaming 'feed me, feed me'?" Well, I always said this was a bunch of Spoonfoolery, ya know...).

This recipe from Oven Love is a good solid start, but I found the noodles took a long time to cook using the cooking method there, and they absorbed nearly all the moisture in the pot, making for something resembling Sbarro's heat-lamp masses instead of the savory, soupy goodness of SpaghettiOs. Here's the recipe with my edits to cooking time, process, and measurements.

1-lb package anelletti (ring-shaped pasta, available at Trader Joe's) or alpabets or even orzo, cooked separately according to package directions and drained
28-oz can tomato sauce
2 tsp garlic powder
1-2 cups extra water (as needed)
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
1/2 cup milk
2 tbsp butter
salt to taste

Heat the tomato sauce and garlic powder in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Add noodles and stir to combine. Add water as needed, depending on how "saucy" you like your SpaghettiOs. Stir in the cheese and heat through until melted. Add milk, butter, and salt to taste. Voila! Instant fourth-grade joy!

January 12, 2010

I Met Gale Gand!

One more idol down, probably a hundred more to go!

I met Gale Gand, pastry chef extraordinaire, savvy Chicago businesswoman, amazing artist of the tiny food movement, on Sunday at a talk she gave in Morris, Ill., on feeding families. I've been collecting and cooking from her books for years and was aware she has three children. She gave us  many anecdotes on feeding your family, how to include them in the daily shuffle, and how to make sure they continue connecting the good food dots their whole lives. Here are some tips and tricks she gave us that day:
*Compartment plates help parents ensure there are examples of everything at the meal: veggies or fruit, starch, protein, grain, etc. This way, kids get a variety of everything they essentially need, and you don't have to push "clean plate club" on them. (This notion is actually no longer a popular one in child-rearing, from what I understand; Gale said in their house, "Trying something is better than finishing it.")
*Have a make-your-own-pizza night. This way, everyone in the family gets something they want, and they get to help make it too.
*Keep smoothie kits in the freezer. If you have a banana with a few too many brown spots or a couple of strawberries on the brink of growing fuzz, slice them up and chuck them in single-serving freezer-safe Ziploc bags so they're ready to go into the blender with a dollop of yogurt and/or milk at a moment's' notice. Kids love working appliances (with supervision, of course), so again, this is another tasty treat where they can be the chefs!
*Set a real table. That means dishes, napkins, silverware, and even candles. And have your kids help set it all up each night. If they know dinner truly comes with all the fixin's (no less than they'd see while dining out), then it makes the table a really fun place to come to every night. In Gale's home, each family member gets to make a toast (even with just water glasses) every night, and it's definitely something they all have fun with every time.
*Come sit at the table with your kids. One of the biggest mistakes parents make is to hover around the kitchen after the meal is made, doing dishes, loading Tupperware, and so on. If you don't show respect to the work that was put in and to the food that was made by coming and enjoying it with your family when you want them to, then it's hard to expect that same respect from your kids.
*Teach your kids kitchen tasks year by year. One year, they may only be able to pour an egg cracked in a cup into the batter bowl. But the next year, they can probably learn to crack the egg. The year after that, they might be able to count and collect the eggs for the recipe from the carton in the fridge, and maybe after that, read the recipe and get all the ingredients out themselves! If cooking is taught in graduating steps, it makes for less frustration for everyone all around.
*And finally, if you're a loner in the kitchen and would rather not have too many cooks in there with you, take your kids shopping so they can learn to pick out healthful ingredients for themselves, or include them in the menu planning so they can feel a part of it all in some way.

So inspired by Gale was I, that I came right home and made a recipe from Chocolate & Vanilla, one of her best. Cake in a Jar has to be one of the most comforting dessert experiences around. These can easily be made ahead and refrigerated until ready to serve. They're portable too and lunchbox ready, and there are no cake pans or cupcake tins to wash up afterward. Just stick the jars in your dishwasher and make it again soon!

January 7, 2010

Cooking School: Defining Buttercreams

What is buttercream frosting? Well, what it's not is the stuff you see slathered on cakes at the grocery store or in the tubs on the Pillsbury/Betty Crocker aisles. Those versions are made with shortening or other vegetable-based oil suspensions and cannot legitimately be called buttercream. But what does qualify as such contains plenty of butter and sugar, sometimes milk and vanilla, and in European versions, eggs.

A good friend and former co-worker who is nurturing her young tween's growing interest in pastry asked me an awesome question yesterday: What's the difference between all the various buttercreams--from back-of-the-Domino-sugar-box (my personal favorite) to the ones that use eggs? Let's take a look...

Here is an excellent buttercream primer. The folks at PastrySampler.com define all the various ones and provide recipes for all of them. My take is that Swiss Buttercream is the easiest of the European buttercreams, tastes the best, and covers cakes marvelously. I use PastrySampler's standard Buttercream Icing for cupcakes. It's also good for adhering fondant to cakes.

I'd add the following notes of interest to PastrySamplers's definitions for buttercream:
  • Store-bought icing can be used for decorating (roses, piping, and other pastry bag techniques). Just add powdered sugar to achieve proper consistency for piping (flowing) or roses (stiff)
  • Filling is often qualified as whipped ganache, mousse, or custard, although another layer of buttercream between your cake layers works just fine. If using fillings with runnier consistencies, pipe an icing dam around the edges to hold the filling in before the weight of the next layers go on top. 

  • Because the European buttercreams use eggs, it's best to frost cakes with them when you know refrigeration afterward will be readily available. 
  • Bring frostings to room temp before working with them via pastry bag, otherwise you'll be arthritic before your time!
  • Making frostings of any type is easy with an electric handheld mixer or stand mixer. The key is to whip plenty of air in there, which is not always done sufficiently by hand. If you have neither and need to make frosting, may I suggest a bundt cake with powdered sugar glaze instead? (Sorry! I'm a bit of an electric mixer snob; it is a godsend in the cake baker's kitchen.)
Domino Sugar also provides an excellent how-to on frosting. Between this and PastrySampler, you'll be frosting like a pro in no time!

January 5, 2010

Meatballs and Muhummara!

There are few stranger things than the concepts of "loaf of meat" (meatloaf) and "ball of meat" (meatball). I once had a rather hilarious conversation with a dear friend and fellow bread baker about who was smoking what when the concept of meatloaf came about. We eat loaves of bread, thankyouverymuch. We prefer our meat in fillet, medallion, sliced, or shredded form. But even the foodie blowhards have to agree that a good meatball sandwich can make your heart all a-flutter with comfort-food satisfaction! Here are some good 411s on meatloaf and meatballs, in case you're wondering how exactly world cuisine comes up with this stuff (like I often do). And with everything going gourmet these days (from rabbit sausage to grilled Gruyère cheese sandwiches), it seems logical that loaves and balls of meat should follow.

Over the holiday weekend, I tried this absolutely fantabulous recipe from this month's Bon Appetit: Lamb Kofte with Yogurt Sauce and Muhammara. I made a few minor adjustments here and there (I think the Bon Ap test kitchen went waaaaaaay overboard on the spices; I cut it all down by half), and I did make pomegranate molasses from scratch via a comment posted on a pomegranate-related entry at Coconut & Lime in November (only because I was too cheap and it was too cold in Chicago that weekend to go out looking for some). I also favor the tzatziki sauce recipe I posted (with cucumber) in the Falafel posting earlier this week, so I used that instead of the yogurt sauce here. But as you can see from our photo gallery below, we enjoyed a grand spread to commemorate the end of a long, lovely and relaxing New Year's weekend.

January 4, 2010

Another Day of Legumes: Fala-FULL!

We love falafel. In fact, I simply love the word falafel. How awesome to eat something that's as tasty as it is fun to say! If we ever get a cat, I'd like a big floppy hairy one we could call Falafel.

But I digress... I found the perfect recipe for falafel in Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. Make sure you dry the chickpeas totally before processing in your blender or food processor. For this recipe, it's crucial that the mixture is fairly dry but can still come together to form patties. Drain and dry the chickpeas uncovered overnight in a paper-towel-lined bowl in your fridge. If you find yourself with a rather moist mixture, just add a 1/2 cup to 1 cup of chickpea flour (found at Whole Foods or ethnic markets). This recipe is a spot on the spicy side, so feel free to adjust seasonings to your tolerance level. I also add about 2 tablespoons of tahini (sesame paste) to my tzatziki sauce, but I've given you one here via hyperlink that works fine if you're not a tahini fan. Last but not least, I adjusted the falafel patty frying process so that you can use less oil, keeping it more healthful.

2 15-oz cans chickpeas, drained and dried overnight
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1 small onion, quartered
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1/2 tsp cayenne
1 cup chopped cilantro
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
Neutral oil for frying (canola or grapeseed work best)

Add chickpeas and all ingredients through lemon juice to a food processor and pulse until almost smooth. Scrape down sides of bowl as necessary; add one or two tablespoons of water if necessary to allow the machine to do its work, but keep mixture as dry as possible. Taste and adjust seasonings as necessary.

Heat oil to about 1-inch depth in a heavy-bottom shallow saucepan. Oil should be about 350 degrees F for frying, but you can also use a smidge of falafel mix to test. While oil is heating, form mixture into patties, about 1/2-inch thick and 2 inches across. Fry in batches and drain on paper-towel-lined plate. Serve hot or at room temperature, in pita pockets or flatbreads with tzatziki sauce.