Sunday, December 28, 2008

Garden Vegetable Risotto

How often do you travel to a relative or friends, or really any place you aren't free to cook your own meals, and are inundated with cheap, processed foods with caloric contents that negate all your trips to the gym for the last 8 years? I know it happens frequently, and though my family isn't too bad about it, and for some it's due to an infrequent access to reasonably priced produce, I often find myself longing for my own kitchen to whip up something fresh and healthy that won't cause my arteries to cringe in horror.

One place Mr. TA and I frequent is the MiL and sFiL's house in the D.C. area. Blessedly the MiL is just as concerned about putting healthy food on the table as I am, coupled with a palate that commonly outreaches my own. It's a pretty happening place to be.

Last night the MiL was kind enough to whip up a soy and dijon marinated King salmon with a Garden Vegetable Risotto. If there's any other way to taste this much spring in a dreary winter on the Eastern Seaboard I am unaware of it. There's obviously no shortage of root vegetables in the winter, and with the addition of some tail-end-of-the-season zucchini and winter hardy parsley this risotto just screams of warm, breezy days and sunshine on your face.

If winter's already starting to get you down, do not fail to ring in your January with this baby. It will assuredly get you through the bleak, snowy winter to the spring budding trees, fluffy bunnies and sunshine and rainbows.

Plus snuggly puppies.

And unicorns.

Garden Vegetable Risotto

1/2 lb. baby spinach leaves
1 quart chicken/vegetable stock, more if needed
1/3 cup butter
1 onion, chopped
2 carrots, diced
1 leek, trimmed and thinly sliced
2 celery stalks, diced
1 small zucchini, diced finely
1 cup arborio rice
3/4 cup white wine
kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper
1 tablespoon flat leaf parsley, minced, for garnish
grated Parmesan cheese, for garnish

Wash spinach and chop roughly. Heat stock in sauce pan on stove to just below a simmer and keep warm. Melt butter in heavy bottomed, shallow pan. Add onion and cook for 2-3 minutes, or until softened. Stir in carrots, leeks, celery and zucchini. Season with a pinch of salt and some pepper to taste. Cook 5-7 minutes or until nearly tender. Stir in the rice and cook until the butter has been absorbed and looks transparent. Add the wine, and stirring constantly, cook until all has been absorbed. Add in the spinach and the the stock, a ladleful at a time, cooking until absorbed before adding more, until rice is tender and creamy. This should take 20-25 minutes, and do not hesitate to use more stock if needed. Garnish with fresh chopped parsley and grated Parmesan cheese. Serve immediately.

Bûche de Noël

You'll have to excuse my reticence, I've been quite the busy bird lately. There's nothing like cross country travel to distract you from regular blogging, eh? Let's just say that there's been high levels of stress, anxiety and a great deal of money put out by the airline that was supposed to fly us to our intended destination. I'll be sure to fill you in on all the gory details at a later date...

But for now it's Daring Baker time!

This month's challenge is brought to us by the adventurous Hilda from Saffron and Blueberry and Marion from Il en Faut Peu Pour Etre Heureux.
They have chosen a French Yule Log by Flore from Florilege Gourmand

I remember checking to see what the challenge was in the beginning of the month and my tummy doing a little flip-flop in response. I'm always up for a challenge in the kitch, but when my month of December was dominated by a week of brutal final exams and two weeks spent on the opposite coast for the holidays - I wasn't hugely excited to spend my one free week attempting to conquer the Herculean feat that is the French Yule Log. But, I am a baker from time to time - and I'm most definitely Daring (some would just say kind of slow...) so I pulled myself up by my very whiny bootstraps and asked my MiL if I could make it in her kitchen while we were there. She, being the general bad ass that she is, agreed, and so my journey of general frustration, utter annoyance, and bubbling internal cursing was begun.

See, I kind of have this little problem of not being too fond of the sweeter side of the kitchen. I'm not a huge fan of cookies, cakes, candies, pastries, you name it. So it doesn't really make a whole lot of sense that I'm a Daring Baker, because every month it's something sweet (thank gawd for the two savory challenges) I immediately start wondering who I can pawn all this sugary goodness off on. Usually it's the men and women that work alongside Mr. TA. This challenge I was all set to foist the 20 million calorie behemoth off on my in-laws. Always a good plan, eh? But the point of my redundant rambling is that I don't get a huge amount of joy out of making something I'm not really going to eat, but it's surely expanding my repertoire of baked goods. And I guess that's a good thing. It's just an interesting balance of learning new things in the kitchen and not really giving a damn about what I'm making. But the challenge is fun, so onward I whine.

If I could sum up my feelings about this challenge in one photo, it would be this:

I don't think there's really any other way to feel about a concoction that requires 4 layers of gelatinous mousse, a wedge of crème brûlée, a sliver of crisp, a smattering of ganache and a base of dacquoise - all topped off with a coating of gelatinous icing. Especially when you're making all of this in someone else's kitchen. Thankfully the MiL has a very, very nice kitchen with all of the lovely accoutrement needed to accomplish such a grandiose feat. She even recently bought Trogdor Jr. So, it really wasn't all that bad, just a little discombobulating.

The challenge was that we had to incorporate all six elements of a traditional French Yule Log, and assemble them in a fashion resembling a log.

1) Dacquoise Biscuit
2) Mousse
3) Ganache Insert
4) Praline (Crisp) Insert
5) Creme Brulee Insert
6) Icing

The flavor combination was left to our discretion.

I decided on a vanilla/white chocolate flavor combo for this challenge. The only way I like large amounts of chocolate is if they're infused with large amounts of mint, and we had members of the family who don't like mint chocolate. Enter the supposed-to-be-all-white vanilla French Yule Log. I'll explain the resultant appearance later.

I started off by making the dacquoise. Dacquoise is a French biscuit made of crushed nuts, sugar, flour, and egg whites. It's incredibly delicious and will assuredly be making another appearance in my kitchen. I chose hazelnut instead of the original almond flavor, because we all prefer hazelnuts. This was my favorite part of the recipe. Or, to be exact, the only part of the recipe I actually liked. Make this. Your mouth will thank you. Your hips...maybe not so much.

The next step was to make the Praline Crisp Insert. I wanted my log to be all white, and the recipe didn't allow for that, so I made a really thin rice crispy treat. Because I'm ghetto like that. I will have you know that it was pretty effin' delicious.

After that I made the crème brûlée, something I've made many times before but with different recipes. For some reason this recipe took forever and a day to set up, much longer than the stated hour in a 210 F oven. Closer to 2 hours.

After the crème brûlée I made the ganache and started on the vanilla mouse. The mousse was a pretty painless process that turned out nicely. I'm not a big fan of adding the gelatin to it though, it gave a funky texture and left little lumps because it wouldn't dissolve all the way. I realize it's required for structural integrity, but were I ever to take enough drugs to consider making this again I would omit the gelatin.

Assembly was pretty straight forward, line a loaf pan with plastic wrap and parchment paper, layer of mousse, crème brûlée, layer of mousse, crisp insert, layer of mousse, white chocolate ganache, tiny layer of mousse, dacquoise biscuit.


Then cover with the icing.

Sounds pretty painless, eh?

Not so much.

As soon as that icing hit the frozen mousse it turned into a rubberized nightmare, reminiscent of Gak. The annoying part was that I didn't notice until after I'd already started trying to embellish the top with some melted dark chocolate.

Freakin' outstanding.

So, instead I just covered it in some nice dark chocolate the MiL had around the house. No longer all nice and pretty and white all over, but at least there isn't any dilapidated, lame-ass looking, wannabe snowflakes on top.

Except I didn't think about the fact that the chocolate I melted was real nice and hot, and the log was still real nice and frozen. So it split all down the sides and you could see through it.


So I covered it in crushed walnuts.

And restrained myself from dumping the whole damn thing in the trash.

The recipe recommended leaving the yule log in the refrigerator for about an hour to thaw, but after being in the fridge for an hour and then transported in a car for about 45 minutes, it was still very cold and the crème brûlée was frozen solid. Not exactly the greatest textures in the world if you're not a fan of frozen desserts.

Final thoughts?

Mousse - meh.

Crème brûlée - meh.

Rice Crispy Treat - yum.

Ganache - meh.

Icing - GTFO

Hazelnut Dacquoise - Oh. My. Gawd. Get in my mouth.
(Mr. TA again; remember, that's "dah-koo-see".)

Everything as a whole - Not my cup of tea, but I am very glad I did it. If only so I can say that I have.

I'd like to thank Hilda of Saffron & Blueberry and Marion of Il en Faut Peu Pour Etre Heureux for giving all us Daring Bakers such a Daring Challenge this month. Even though I didn't like it, it was still a wonderful experience to be had. Please be sure to check out all the other lovely Daring Bakers this month, there are some beautiful French Yule Logs to be devoured with the eyes.

Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Mexican Lasagna

Have you ever planned on making a meal and found out halfway through preparation that you're missing an integral ingredient? You know, no baking powder for baking powder biscuits or no buttermilk for buttermilk pancakes? How about no tortillas for enchiladas?

Well, I'd planned on making some nice yummy enchiladas for dinner this evening, and right before the final preparation - you know, rolling everything up in the tortilla - I realized that some fiendish little kitchen gremlin had devoured all but three of the tortillas in the refrigerator. Such naughty little gremlins we have...

Exactly how, I ask, can you make enchiladas with only three tortillas?

And, a show of hands please, what would you do? Throw your hands up in despair and order pizza? Throw each remaining tortilla at said kitchen gremlin? Or ingeniously decide to make Mexican lasagna? If you're me, you seriously contemplated option B, but eventually settled for option C.

This actually ended up being muy delicioso if you don't mind me saying. After all, how can you go wrong when blending several fresh ingredients, adding shredded cheese, and baking it, eh?

The key part of this is having outstanding chili powder. I prefer not to use the commercial blends, but in a pinch they'll do. My favorite is a toned down guajillo chili, but really whatever your preference in chili is, it'll work in this application. It's very easy to prepare, especially if you've already got cooked chicken/turkey/beef or vegetables on hand.

It's easily a new favorite in our household. It's easy, it's fresh, it's relatively healthy - how could you go wrong?

Mexican Lasagna

Serves 2, with leftovers

3 flour tortillas, of the 8 in. variety
1 recipe enchilada sauce, or a 12 oz. jar of whatever brand enchilada sauce you like
8 oz. cooked, shredded chicken (I used 3 thighs, baked in the oven at 375 for 25 min)
shredded cheese (Monterey Jack and Extra Sharp Cheddar go together nicely)
black beans
baby spinach leaves
cilantro/fresh coriander
sour cream for garnish

Enchilada Sauce

Makes 2 cups

1/2 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 tablespoon garlic powder
1/2 tablespoon onion powder
1/2 tablespoon cumin
1/2 tablespoon smoked paprika
1 tablespoon chili powder
2 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 cups chicken stock

In a small sauce pan over medium heat mix the olive oil, garlic powder, onion powder, cumin, paprika, chili powder, and flour until it is a thick paste. Use a couple tablespoons of the chicken stock to make a slurry with the cornstarch. Add remaining chicken stock to saucepan and mix thoroughly. Add cornstarch slurry and heat to a boil, stirring occasionally. Boil for two minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat.


Add the shredded chicken to the saucepan with the enchilada sauce to soak. Cut the tortillas into quarters. In a round, 2 quart casserole dish cover the bottom with about three of the tortilla pieces. Top with 1/2 the chicken, removing from the sauce with a slotted spoon. Cover with torn cilantro/fresh coriander. Layer with baby spinach leaves and shredded cheese. Place another layer of tortilla pieces over the top. Lay the remaining chicken over the tortillas. Top with more torn cilantro and the black beans. Top with more baby spinach leaves and shredded cheese. Put a final layer of tortilla over the top, pour remaining enchilada sauce over the tortillas, and top with remaining shredded cheese. Bake in a 375 F oven for 20 minutes or until heated through and cheese is melted and browned in spots. Top with a dollop of sour cream and some fresh, torn cilantro.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Prodigal Bird

I promise that I have not fallen off the face of the planet.


It was close there for a while, but I've got strong fingers - this baby ain't gonna fling me off.

So, on with the news.

Mr. TA and I maintain a very tech savvy home. We have three computers and no TV - look at us go. I use one of the laptops, it's "my computer." Mr. TA uses his ridiculously expensive desktop computer with the monitor larger than many TV screens. That's "his computer." Obviously the two are interchangeable, for the most part. It's not like we password lock each other out of our computers. But I have everything organized on my computer just how I like it, as he does on his. When my laptop thought it would be the appropriate time to get infected with a virus I was a little lost. Sure I can use Mr. TA's computer, but I'm the ultra-creature of habit. I even park in the same spot every time I go to the grocery store. I have to put my left shoe on first or it's like my whole day is ruined. So when presented with using his computer to blog or not at all...well, you know the rest.

Thankfully my computer is all fixed now. It did require wiping the entire hard drive and reloading Windows, but at least I can once again use the internet. I can live without a TV. I don't know if I'd make it without the internet.

My second reason for being absent was the culmination of a very intense fall semester with several finals scheduled one right after the other. They were definitely intense, but after studying until my brain probably resembled oatmeal, I think I did quite well. The one I was most concerned about, math, I walked out of the exam room with the supreme confidence that I had at least not failed. Whooo. Then I found out today I actually got an 80% and a 90% in the class as a whole. If you know me and math - we go together like cats and rocking chairs - not so much. I'm very pleased with my ability to guess very accurately on multiple choice tests pull answers straight out of my butt take tests well under pressure.

So now I just wait on the results for the rest of my classes, relax until the beginning of February, and figure out how Mr. TA and I are going to pay for my tuition next semester. I think we're the only two people on the planet crazy enough to pay for full tuition out of pocket. We's crazee like dat.

In the meantime Mr. TA and I will be traveling East for the holidays to spend time with the lovely MiL and sFil, not to mention the gMiL and the gFiL, whom I love dearly (aren't acronyms fun?). I'm sure the MiL and I will be whipping up all sorts of awesomeness in kitch for me to blog about, so I'll be attempting to post regularly once again.

Until then I leave you with this photo

This is the corporeal form of MiL taking pity on me and my woeful whining a couple weeks ago. She's so BA.

Thank you for the olive oil. You rock.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Uno Momento, Por Favor

Hello my lovely peoples, I just thought I'd let you know that since a virus has deemed my laptop prime hacking grounds...the blog's going to be down for a while. I imagine that I'll get it all fixed within a few days, but next week is finals week and I was planning on taking a week off from the blosphere during that time anyway...

Guess my temporary leave of absence is going to start a wee bit prematurely.

See you all soon, and if you'd like to get me a Christmas present - next time you meet a hacker, slap 'em in the face for me, k?

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Celeriac Soup with Napa Cabbage and Bacon

'Twas the weekend after Thanksgiving and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a hobby-blogger in a tryptophan induced coma...

So, by now I'm sure you're all pretty much turkey-lurkeyed out. You've made turkey sandwiches, turkey hash, turkey pot pie, and some of you have probably attempted to feed it to the houseplants to get rid of it.

Just as a point of interest, knock it off.

That's going to stink in a couple days...

In an effort to continue using up your bounty of poultry, I present to you a distinctly un-turkey like application of turkey. I'm sure all of you good girls and boys used your super-duper cook powers after dinner and managed to break through the overindulgent haze from eating 2 lbs. of turkey, a mound of mashed potatoes you could have carved into Mount Rushmore and enough green bean casserole to power all the housewives of Indiana through Wal-Mart three times and saved the turkey bones from your weird house-coat wearing, dead cat smelling, hair curler bobbing aunt that you only see once a year and always tries to steal all the leftovers to feed to her eighteen cats (or you know, whoever) to make some delicious turkey stock - right? (I think that was the longest sentence in written history.)


Good. Me too.

And bo-oy was it tasty. (Use your best Flava-Flav voice impression on that one.)

I tossed in a fennel top, the celery leaves from the celeriac, garlic, onion, carrots, and the typical spice accoutrement - and I was gifted with some seriously delightful turkey broth. And this celeriac soup is the bestest thing ever to use some of it up in.

If you're unfamiliar with it, celeriac is a type of celery that is grown for it's big ol' root instead of the yummy negative-calorie stalks.

It's got a texture similar to a turnip and the flavor is definitely of the celery variety, only not quite as pronounced. It's really quite delightful and a nice change of pace from your typical root vegetable. It's also really good as a puree to substitute for mashed potatoes. And, according to this article from NPR, a 1/2 cup contains only 30 calories and no fat. Not too shabby, eh?

No worries though, I'm about to ruin any nutritional value his puppy has by topping with some good old fashioned bacony-goodness.

Why, you ask?

Well, for one, everything tastes better with bacon.

And for two, if my weight loss goal is going to get thrown off track from the holiday's yours.

Happy nomming!

Celeriac Soup with Napa Cabbage and Bacon

2 oz. butter
2 onions, chopped
1 1/2 lb. celeriac, roughly diced
1 lb. potatoes, roughly diced
5 cups turkey stock
15 oz. evaporated milk
salt and pepper to taste

1 small head Napa cabbage
8 oz. bacon, chopped
salt and pepper to taste

Melt the butter in a soup pot and cook onions until softened. Add celeriac and cover, steam for ten minutes without disturbing. Remove lid, stir in potatoes and turkey stock and bring to a boil. Boil for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until potatoes and celeriac are tender. Either remove half the solids to a blender to puree and return to the pot, or use an immersion blender to blend about half of the solid vegetables.

Meanwhile, prepare the cabbage and bacon topping. Discard the outer leaves of the cabbage and roughly chop the rest of the head. Cook the bacon in a small frying pan until crispy, add the chopped cabbage and cook until tender. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Add evaporated milk to soup, bring back up to a boil. Serve in heated bowls and top with cabbage and bacon mixture. Goes well with crusty bread for dipping.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Daring Caramel

It's that time again folks! No, not time to bug your eyes out over the stock market again - It's time for the November Daring Baker's Challenge!

This month was an adventurous return to sweets after a couple months of savory challenges. This months challenge was hosted by Dolores of Chronicles in Culinary Curiosity, Alex of Blondie and Brownie, and Jenny of Foray into Food. The ever-lovely Natalie of Gluten-a-go-go was fabulous enough to convert this recipe for all of our Alternative Daring Bakers.

The recipe this month is Caramel Cake with a Caramelized Butter Frosting courtesy of Shuna Fish Lydon of Eggbeater. This recipe was first published on Bay Area Bites. There was also the optional challenge of Alice Medrich’s Golden Vanilla Bean Caramels - with plenty of variations open to us.

I was very excited when I logged on to the Daring Bakers forum on the first of November only to find a recipe chock full of caramel. Generally I'm not too into sweets (makes ya wonder why I joined the Daring Bakers don't it?) but when it comes to caramel I am an absolute sucker. I can't get enough of it! OK, that's not true, but I can eat at least 4 pieces of it - which as my family knows is like a heroic feat. So, I was quite satisfied to find out we'd be making a caramel cake (which I didn't even know existed) topped with a caramelized butter frosting (I'd never come up with an idea like that on my own - go Shuna!) and optional cream caramels (which I'd attempted once before and burnt horribly).

The most difficult part of the challenge was actually the optional part - the caramels. Since that was the part I was most interested in - I persevered - even though it took 3 tries to get it right. That's right - 3 tries. I was about ready to pull my damn hair out. First off, the caramels are made with golden syrup, which although big in the UK, it's not exactly easy to find in the US. Though I did eventually find it at my commissary...after trying four other stores.

I do have to say, after finding Lyle's Golden Syrup I will never, ever again use corn syrup. The flavor is so amazing! It's so nutty and caramelized - much better than the saccharine sweet of corn syrup. I couldn't resist licking my fingers every time I spilled some - which over time I started 'accidentally' spilling more and more - if ya know what I mean.

And oh yes, you so do.

So, I was quite the happy camper trotting home with my treasured golden syrup. Making caramels - pshaw! So easy I could do it in my sleep.

...or at least I would've been able to do it in my sleep had my candy thermometer actually worked...which it didn't. (Although just as a point of interest I don't recommend cooking in your sleep - unless you have a burning desire to light your house on fire. Heh. Get it? Burning desire? OK I'll stop now.)

Let's just say burnt sugar smells really bad.

So, new candy thermometer in hand and another trip to the commissary later I was ready to attempt the caramels again. Only this time I didn't cook them to a high enough temperature...

But at least Mr. TA has plenty of caramel sauce for his ice cream...right?

After about a week I was ready to try again. I drove up to the commissary one more time, this time buying two bottles of golden syrup (and this stuff ain't cheap, yo). I mixed the golden syrup and sugar, patiently stirring until it was one homogeneous, wet-sand, ooky-yellow mixture. I heated it very slowly, gently stirring and wiping the sides with a wet pastry brush. Heated the cream to just the right temperature, made sure the butter was chilled...

Et voila! Creme Caramels!

I just didn't realize they'd make so much. Now I'm trying to pawn off caramel on the fellow slaves at Mr. TA's work. I cut it up into sticks and wrapped them up individually - and apparently one young buck thought it'd be a swell idea to gobble the whole thing down at once. Apparently he was on a sugar high for most of the day. Though I do believe this was the same chap that thought it would be a good idea to roll up all the fondant on a test cake I made for my sisters wedding and eat it like an apple.

Yeah...they grow 'em smart where he comes from.

So, caramels accomplished I waited until the day before Thanksgiving to whip up the caramel cake and browned butter frosting. Mr. TA and I had Thanksgiving with our neighbor N this year. We would've loved to visit Mr. TA's dad and his wife B, but it just wasn't in the cards. Dinner with N was very nice and relaxed - I say any Thanksgiving that gets you with a gin and tonic in hand by 2 pm is a success, eh?

Both cake and frosting came out very well the first time. Many of my fellow DBers thought the cake and frosting were tooth-achingly sweet, and combined it was just too much for them. So I was a little wary about the recipe, and only made half a batch of the frosting. The cake was sweet, but not a whole more so than I find most cakes. I made cupcakes for easier distribution to Mr. TAs coworkers, so as single sized portions they weren't too bad. The frosting was very sweet as well, but no more so than any other frostings I've had. I mean, after all, isn't frosting just a fattening binding agent and sugar? It's pretty much supposed to be slap-in-the-face sweet. The browned butter in it was out-friggin-standing though. I will definitely be trying browned butter in more sweets in the future.

The one thing I really didn't like about the recipe was how incredibly dense the cake was. I tried the batter before cooking and it was delicious, but once cooked into my little cakes it was just dense and chewy - not really my type of cake. The only thing I like dense and chewy are brownies - and Chewbacca

Heh...Chewbacca. I'm a riot, aren't I?


Caramels? Lots of work but totally worth it in the end.

Caramelized Butter Frosting? Oh heck yes.

Caramel Cake? Meh, not so much.

But I'll let you be the judge on it...


10 Tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature
1 1/4 Cups granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 Cup Caramel Syrup (see recipe below)
2 each eggs, at room temperature
splash vanilla extract
2 Cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup milk, at room temperature

Notes from Natalie for those of you baking gluten-free:

So the GF changes to the cake would be:

2 cups of gluten free flour blend (w/xanthan gum) or 2 cups of gf flour blend + 1 1/2 tsp xanthan or guar gum
1/2 - 1 tsp baking powder (this would be the recipe amount to the amount it might need to be raised to & I'm going to check)

I'll let you when I get the cake finished, how it turns out and if the baking powder amount needs to be raised.

Preheat oven to 350F

Butter one tall (2 – 2.5 inch deep) 9-inch cake pan.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream butter until smooth. Add sugar and salt & cream until light and fluffy.

Slowly pour room temperature caramel syrup into bowl. Scrape down bowl and increase speed. Add eggs/vanilla extract a little at a time, mixing well after each addition. Scrape down bowl again, beat mixture until light and uniform.

Sift flour and baking powder.

Turn mixer to lowest speed, and add one third of the dry ingredients. When incorporated, add half of the milk, a little at a time. Add another third of the dry ingredients, then the other half of the milk and finish with the dry ingredients. {This is called the dry, wet, dry, wet, dry method in cake making. It is often employed when there is a high proportion of liquid in the batter.}

Take off mixer and by hand, use a spatula to do a few last folds, making sure batter is uniform. Turn batter into prepared cake pan.

Place cake pan on cookie sheet or 1/2 sheet pan. Set first timer for 30 minutes, rotate pan and set timer for another 15-20 minutes. Your own oven will set the pace. Bake until sides pull away from the pan and skewer inserted in middle comes out clean. Cool cake completely before icing it.

Cake will keep for three days outside of the refrigerator.


2 cups sugar
1/2 cup water
1 cup water (for "stopping" the caramelization process)
In a small stainless steel saucepan, with tall sides, mix water and sugar until mixture feels like wet sand. Brush down any stray sugar crystals with wet pastry brush. Turn on heat to highest flame. Cook until smoking slightly: dark amber.

When color is achieved, very carefully pour in one cup of water. Caramel will jump and sputter about! It is very dangerous, so have long sleeves on and be prepared to step back.

Whisk over medium heat until it has reduced slightly and feels sticky between two fingers. {Obviously wait for it to cool on a spoon before touching it.}

Note: For safety reasons, have ready a bowl of ice water to plunge your hands into if any caramel should land on your skin.


12 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 pound confectioner’s sugar, sifted
4-6 tablespoons heavy cream
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2-4 tablespoons caramel syrup
Kosher or sea salt to taste

Cook butter until brown. Pour through a fine meshed sieve into a heatproof bowl, set aside to cool.

Pour cooled brown butter into mixer bowl.

In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle or whisk attachment, add confectioner's sugar a little at a time. When mixture looks too chunky to take any more, add a bit of cream and or caramel syrup. Repeat until mixture looks smooth and all confectioner's sugar has been incorporated. Add salt to taste.

Note: Caramelized butter frosting will keep in fridge for up to a month.
To smooth out from cold, microwave a bit, then mix with paddle attachment until smooth and light

(recipes above courtesy of Shuna Fish Lydon)

- makes eighty-one 1-inch caramels -

1 cup golden syrup
2 cups sugar
3/8 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 cups heavy cream
1 1/2 teaspoons pure ground vanilla beans, purchased or ground in a coffee or spice grinders, or 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into chunks, softened

A 9-inch square baking pan
Candy thermometer


Line the bottom and sides of the baking pan with aluminum foil and grease the foil. Combine the golden syrup, sugar, and salt in a heavy 3-quart saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring with a silicone spatula or wooden spoon, until the mixture begins to simmer around the edges. Wash the sugar and syrup from the sides of the pan with a pastry brush dipped in water. Cover and cook for about 3 minutes. (Meanwhile, rinse the spatula or spoon before using it again later.) Uncover the pan and wash down the sides once more. Attach the candy thermometer to the pan, without letting it touch the bottom of the pan, and cook, uncovered (without stirring) until the mixture reaches 305°F. Meanwhile, combine the cream and ground vanilla beans (not the extract) in a small saucepan and heat until tiny bubbles form around the edges of the pan. Turn off the heat and cover the pan to keep the cream hot.

When the sugar mixture reaches 305°F, turn off the heat and stir in the butter chunks. Gradually stir in the hot cream; it will bubble up and steam dramatically, so be careful. Turn the burner back on and adjust it so that the mixture boils energetically but not violently. Stir until any thickened syrup at the bottom of the pan is dissolved and the mixture is smooth. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, to about 245°F. Then cook, stirring constantly, to 260°f for soft, chewy caramels or 265°F; for firmer chewy caramels.

Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the vanilla extract, if using it. Pour the caramel into the lined pan. Let set for 4 to 5 hours, or overnight until firm.

Lift the pan liner from the pan and invert the sheet of caramel onto a sheet of parchment paper. Peel off the liner. Cut the caramels with an oiled knife. Wrap each caramel individually in wax paper or cellophane.

Be sure to check out all the other lovely Daring Bakers!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Salted Focaccia with Rosemary

In early October MiL and sFiL visited for MiL's birthday. Since MiL is by far the coolest and most thoughtful MiL ever, she brought me an awesome little tasty treat.

But not just any tasty treat. You see, whenever time happens upon a traditional gift giving occasion most people seem to fall back on the tradition gender role-type gifts. Men get ties or tools, women get bath stuff. And ya know, bath stuff is great. But I've got a hole shelf-full at this point. (OK, not anymore. I've used it all up by now. I'll take more bath stuff now...but that's not my point.)

Sure it seems appropriate, and we chicks always react the same way, "Oh thank you! You shouldn't have. No, really, you shouldn't have! Oh yes, it does smell amazing! Wherever did you find such an intoxicating scent?"

But you want to know what we're really thinking? "Holy crap this smells like someone dipped road kill in gardenias/vanilla/lavender."


But that's not what kills me about generic gift giving - it's the complete lack of originality. (And because some bath stuff really does smell freakin' awesome.) It's that people won't take the time to think of a gift someone might really appreciate. Now, I'm not one of those people that rushes out to buy a gift at the slightest hint of an occasion. I do birthdays and I do Christmas, and even then it's pretty tame - but the gifts I do buy I buy for a reason. It's not - oh hey, that's cute and less than fifteen bucks, I'll buy them that. It's truly something I think they will really enjoy, it's me showing them how much I appreciate who they are and what they mean to me. Or it's something that they really wanted and asked for explicitly. That always makes gift giving crazy easy.

Now, all that rambling was about MiL bringing me a pretty little present when she visited, because MiL takes the same care and attention to gift giving (just like my mother, I'm blessed to have so many lovely ladies in my life) that I do. It's obvious that she's really thought about the person she's purchasing for. Now, obviously this was a 'just because' gift and completely unnecessary (I never think a gift is mandatory, not for any occasion. Not even birthdays or Christmas. I'd much rather just have the company of good people.) and for that it was even more appreciated, because MiL is just such a nice person.

Now, what is this fabled gift you may ask? Actually, what you're probably thinking is "Get the frig on with it SB before I go do more important things like check my Facebook page for the eighteenth time today." Well, her lovely gift was this:

Oh yeah, that's right - 18 year balsamic. This shit hits your tongue and angels sing. It's a pedicure and someone cleaning your house for you at the same time. Oh yeah. It's that good.

So at this point you must be asking, "What the crap does all this gift giving and vinegar gots ta do with focaccia, SB?"

Well, I'll tell you.

It's freakin' tasty ass vinegar and I had crap for olive oil. Everyone knows when you've got prime balsamic you can't bastardize it with a bunch of other garbage. (Mr. TA likes to dip french fries in balsamic...odd, but tasty.) So, my plan was to buy some choice olive oil and make some homemade focaccia. And then, I would sit down in a completely silent kitchen, the scent of fresh baked focaccia lilting through the air - sunlight in my face and a song in my heart and I would eat the whole goddamned loaf of bread in one sitting, dipping every morsel into the vinegar of the gods.

Only problem was I couldn't find a decent olive oil. I'm not mixing my precious baby balsamic in some friggin' Bertolli. No sirree. So, when Mr. TA and I went down to Paso Robles for our anniversary this month I was elated to find a whole store completely dedicated to olive oils. I tried about 5 and settled on one that was perfect. Fresh and crisp with just a little grassiness. It took Silver in some competition in Los Angeles this year. It was outstanding. It was hugely out of the price range I'd usually consider for non-essential items, but I'd been looking forward to this for a really long time.

So, I bought a bottle and carted it home, anticipating my gluttonous encounter with bread and vinegar.

How was it?

Amazing. It was everything I hoped and dreamed it would be. I'd never paid that much money for a bottle of olive oil in my life, but it was the perfect accompaniment to the sweet balsamic and salty focaccia. A luxury I'm so glad I allowed myself. The flavors melded together yet remained independent, mingling on my palate so cleanly. It was vinegary-olive oily-bready nirvana.

Then I cleaned up my kitchen later that night and knocked the bottle of olive oil off the counter and shattered it on the floor.


I was speechless.

But hey, my floors are hella shiny now.

And the focaccia? The best, easiest bread in the universe. Light and fluffy, crunchy with salt - perfect for dipping and easy to whip up in under two hours. In fact I've already made it again today.

And hey, it goes really well with balsamic vinegar and olive oil...just so you know.

Salted Focaccia with Rosemary
Adapted from King Arthur Flour

1 1/2 cups (12 ounces) warm water
3 tablespoons (1 1/4 ounces) olive oil (plus additional for drizzling)
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
3 1/2 cups (14 ¾ ounces) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1 tablespoon instant yeast
2 teaspoons course Kosher salt, for sprinkling on top
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary

1) Lightly grease a 9" x 13" pan, and drizzle 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil in the bottom.

2) Combine all of the ingredients, and beat at high speed with an electric mixer for 60 seconds.

3) Scoop the sticky batter into the prepared pan, cover the pan, and let it rise at room temperature for 60 minutes, till it’s become puffy.

4) While the dough is rising, preheat the oven to 375°F.

5) Gently poke the dough all over with your index finger.

6) Drizzle it lightly with olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and rosemary.

7) Bake the bread till it’s golden brown, 35 to 40 minutes.

8) Remove it from the oven, wait 5 minutes, then turn it out of the pan onto a rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Sesame Beef Buns

Have you ever been surfing the interwebs, minding your own business, ignoring the laundry to be folded, and run across a recipe that just screamed "Make me! Put me in your tummy!"? Well, such was the case with this recipe.

I know, what you're thinking, "SB, what in the heck were you thinking? It's MSN! Those people don't know a recipe from a cup of playdough!"

And you know what?

You'd be right.

Whoever developed this recipe obviously never tested it.

In conception this recipe sounds pretty delicious, savory beef mixture wrapped in a very slightly sweetened yeast dough and baked to perfection. Right? Wrong.

I realized this while I was making the dough. I don't know why I didn't think about the fact that 1/3 cup water, plus 2 eggs, plus 3 tablespoons oil is way too much liquid for 1 3/4 cups flour...but I didn't. Cuz I'm fun like that. So, after tinkering away and fixing the dough ingredients and totally changing the filling recipe I made my own.

Cuz I'm fun like that.

Sesame Beef Buns
Makes about ten buns


1/3 cup warm water
1 package (2 1/4 tsp.) active dry yeast
3 1/2 tablespoon(s) sugar
2 cups plus 1 tablespoon unsifted bread flour
1/2 teaspoon(s) salt
2 large eggs, warmed to room temperature and beaten
2 tablespoon(s) vegetable oil
1 tablespoon sesame oil


1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 tablespoon peeled, finely chopped fresh ginger
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3/4 pound ground beef
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
2 tablespoon soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 cup finely chopped green onions
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds

Black sesame seeds, (optional)

Egg Glaze

1 egg, beaten
2 tablespoons milk

In small bowl combine water, yeast, and 1/2 tablespoon sugar; stir to dissolve yeast. Let stand until foamy -- about 5 minutes.

In medium-size bowl, or bowl of your stand mixer, combine 1 1/2 cups flour, the remaining 3 tablespoons sugar, and the salt; stir in yeast mixture, eggs, and oil, mixing until combined. Add remaining flour 1/4 cup at a time until a soft dough forms.

Turn dough out onto floured surface. Knead dough, adding as much of remaining bread flour as necessary to prevent stickiness, until smooth and elastic -- about 8 minutes. (Or switch the the kneading hook on your mixer and let it go to town for about 5 minutes)

Place dough in oiled bowl and turn to bring oiled side up. Cover with plastic wrap and clean cloth and let dough rise in warm place, away from drafts, until double in size -- about 1 1/2 hours.

Meanwhile, prepare filling:

In large skillet, heat oil over medium heat; add ginger and garlic and cook 30 seconds. Stir in beef, oyster sauce, soy sauce, and red pepper flakes. Cook until beef browns. Remove from heat and stir in green onions and sesame seeds. Set aside.

Grease 2 baking sheets or line with parchment paper. When dough has doubled, punch down and shape into a 10-inch-long log. With serrated knife, cut log crosswise into ten 1-inch-thick slices. On lightly floured surface, roll out one slice to a 4-inch round. (I found it easier to weigh each piece of dough. Mine were 65-70 grams each.)

Roll out or press just around the edge of round so that the middle is slightly thicker and the round is 5 inches wide. Fill center of round with 1 heaping tablespoon beef filling; gather up edge to form a pouch and pinch together tightly to seal bun. Turn bun over and gently shape into a ball; place seam side down on greased sheet.

Repeat with remaining slices and filling. Cover beef buns with clean cloths or plastic wrap and let rise 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare Egg Glaze.

Heat oven to 350 degrees F. Brush buns with Egg Glaze and sprinkle, if desired, with sesame seeds. Bake 15 to 20 minutes or until well browned. Cool buns on wire rack; serve warm.

Friday, November 21, 2008

DIY Macro - Lightbox

There once was a bird in California.

(Some might even say she was sweet)

All summer long she chirped and sang, enjoying the bounty of the abundant crops surrounding her home and taking pictures of all she could find.

But then, as Fall set in, a terrible thing started to happen - the sun started setting earlier and earlier until one day it was only a quarter after five in the evening and it was so dark she had to turn on the light in her kitchen to cook dinner.

The bird was very upset you see, because she could no longer take pictures of her food without the natural light of the sun.

(The bird had an intense loathing of yellow pictures and flash photography.)

But then she had an amazing idea! A light box! Then the bird could take lovely photos all winter long without a need for that silly old sun!

But could she? Would it be too hard or expensive to create such a lovely contraption?

She never should have worried - it was easier than pie! With a nice big cardboard box, some tissue paper, and a light - ta da! Pictures!

Alright, now that I'm finished being a complete jackass I'll tell you how to make one too.

I was born and raised in Washington - the lovely state that gets 8 hours of dark in the summer, and 8 hours of light in the winter. It's a pain in the ass come November and it's dark by 4:30 pm. You feel like you live in a cave. So, when Mr. TA and I moved down to California I figured that it wouldn't be nearly so bad. After all, we were a thousand miles farther south.

Yeah...not so much.

Now it's dark by 5:15.


45 more minutes.

Mr. TA doesn't even get home from work until 5:30 most of the time, and I'm sure as heck not going to serve him a cold dinner I prepared an hour earlier just so I could take a picture of it. Mr. TA works a very long day and he deserves a nice hot dinner when he gets home. Unfortunately by that time it's so dark I can't even get a decent photo with my tripod. Mr. TA thinks I should just use the flash or turn on a light...Mr. TA also just doesn't really get my aversion to doing that. Even if my aversion is simply that I think it looks like ass when people do that.

My first attempt at salvaging some photos was to try to take a picture of the leftovers the next day.

Yeah...not so much.

I don't care if you're goddamn Thomas Keller - you can not make leftover Lentil and Orzo Soup look any better than dog poo the next day. (OK, that's a lie. Thomas Keller can do anything.)

And then it hit me - build a light box you stupid bird. Duh. It's cheap, it's easy, and it works.

Because who wants to take a picture like this:

When you could take a picture like this:

I've slowly been improving my photography over the last few months, so now that I can continue to take photos through the winter hopefully I'll be able to really get better.

How to Make a Light Box

1 large cardboard box
6 sheets white tissue paper
heavy duty tape
knife/razor blade
a light source
ability to not shank oneself while making the box

1. Cut off two of the flaps of the box, opposite each other.Set the box on it's side so that the two remaining flaps are vertical. Cut out the sides and top of the box. Your finished product should look like this.

Also, if possible, you should include a shot of the dirty ass rug on your kitchen floor. I think it really adds to the photo.

2. Using two sheets of tissue paper per side, cover the cut out sides and tape in place. Your finished product should look like this:

3. Cut a piece of white, non-reflective poster board to the width of the your box. Secure one side to the inside bottom of your box, and the opposite side to the back of the box. It should look like this:

I'm fricken ghetto so my posterboard doesn't reach all the way up the back of the box to the top like I want it to, but this isn't really a big deal. Most of my shots are really close up anyways.

4. Now you get your light source. I went to my local hardware store and picked up this baby for $9.49 + tax.

It's pretty sweet. (That's my Napoleon Dynamite voice)

It uses a regular light bulb and has a clamp.

Which is sweet.

Then you clamp it on to something and shine it either from the side:

In which you're cow shaped salt shaker from your grandmother will look like this:

But, you have to make sure you alter the white balance on your camera. That's the difference between a yellow cow and a white cow. And no one wants a yellow cow.

Or you can clamp your light on the chair you're using for support because you have to do all of this in your second bedroom which really isn't a bedroom at all it's more of a repository for all Mr. TA's GI junk that won't fit anywhere else and because there's no room to put it anywhere else you have to use the stupid chair. Whew...

In which your cow shaped salt shaker from your grandmother will look like this:

Pretty snazzy, eh? I was impressed myself.

Don't forget to change your ISO setting though. I was using a really high setting previously because I was operating in really low lighting, but if you keep a high ISO you'll end up with a lot of noise. Here's the difference between ISO set at 400:

And ISO at 50:

They may look the same, but if you click on them to look at them full size you'll see the difference. The clarity is so much better at 50.

Long story short, a light box will really save you through the winter if you rely on sunlight for your photos. I know I will very happily get back to blogging my little heart out now that I can take decent photos again.

In fact, tonight I made Lettuce Wraps.

There are so many things you can do with such a simple project. Obviously this is the amateurs solution, but I don't think there are too many hobby bloggers like myself that are willing to run out and buy hundreds of dollars worth of equipment or take a damn flash photography class just to snap a couple shots of whatever culinary delight they're shoving in their mouth at the moment. This is the perfect solution for me, it may not be for you.

I do urge you to give it a try though.

I know I'm going to have fun taking pictures of all sorts of things this evening...

Like the tea tin I brought back from Disney World when Mr. TA and I went to Florida

Or the naughty little secret I keep hidden inside

I know, isn't it wrong? Candy corn? It's so awful...and sooo good...

Well, you know what happens when someone can't keep a secret right?

They get their head bitten off...

It's the candy corn version of sleeping with the fishes.

Oh, what's that? You can't keep a secret either?

Well, I can fix that!

Oh, well...I guess I shouldn't leave any evidence, huh?

Surely he'll never tell of my indiscretions...