Sunday, August 23, 2009

Thank you Kris!

99% Cacao Dark Chocolate has recently received its first-ever blog award – the One Lovely Blog Award – from Kris at Bake In Paris! I am so excited and honored to receive my first award! Thank you for passing it along to me, Kris! You made my day!

Now it is my turn to choose the next recipients of the award. Because I am relatively new to blogging and I have a minimum amount of free time to surf the internet, the list of blogs I regularly follow is kind of short. I wish I had more time to read through a longer list of blogs, but such is life... Meanwhile, here’s some of my favorites - I am now declaring them the next winners:

The first blog I ever added to my feed reader was Definitely Not Martha...The Daily Struggles of the Domestic Un-Goddess. Leslie doesn’t post as often as she used to (she has a relatively new addition to her family), but whenever she does post, it’s always worth a read. Make her parsnip soup – oh it is GOOD! I served it in bread bowls last Thanksgiving. It is now in the rotation and will be on the Thanksgiving menu this year. Yum!

Then there’s Fairy Mi's blog. I believe the blog is called The Cookie Fairy, but because her blog is entirely written in Hebrew, I can’t understand a word of it without using Google Translate. Don't let that stop you from visiting, because her photos and ideas are mouthwatering. She’s a fellow member of the Daring Kitchen, and her pretty version of our Bakewell Tart challenge is what drew me to her blog.

For more inspiration in the cookie department, I read Bridget's blog, Bake at 350. She makes the cutest cookies ever. She also gives step-by-step decorating instructions so you can recreate the frosting designs at home. Well, for me, it would be an attempt to recreate the designs – I’m not that great with a pastry bag. I want to be better at cake and cookie decorating, though, so her blog is inspiring to me.

And speaking of inspiration, check out 17 and Baking. Elissa is only seventeen years old. Yes, seventeen. Her style of writing is so engaging and her photos are gorgeous – her blog makes me want to drop what I’m doing, run into the kitchen, and bake one of her cakes. I wish I had a friend like her when I was in high school. Elissa’s won this award before…but I couldn’t help but recognize her again.

I always enjoy reading Amanda’s blog Is This Thing On?. Some of her posts are food-related, and some are about her daily life. (I love her sense of humor.) I originally found her blog because she’s another Daring Kitchen member, and because she likes to bake cupcakes. I’m hooked.

Another blog I always enjoy reading is E. Lee’s blog, Bacon Concentrate. I thought I loved bacon, but then I saw that she once made a bacon cheesecake...'nuf said. She’s got some great recipes that don't contain bacon, too. In fact, she’s given me permission to post my version of her Sesame Noodle Salad on my blog...its delicious! Besides that particular recipe, she recently threw a Hawaiian Luau-themed birthday party, and pretty much everything she made for that event is now on my To Make list.

Thanks again, Kris, for passing the One Lovely Blog Award on to me!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Pasta with Sausage, Spinach, and White Beans

Do you pack a lunch to take to work or school each day? I go through stages: for awhile I'll be really good about packing my PB&J and applesauce, but after awhile I get kind of tired of the same old same old and end up eating takeout. I do better when I have leftovers packed up from the previous night's dinner.

So, when I plan what I'm going to eat for dinner, I try to choose something that I know will leave enough leftovers for me to take to lunch the next day (or two).

For my family of three, this recipe fits the bill.

This meal serves about six people, depending on how big your servings are. That's way more than what I need to feed the three mouths I currently have in my house, but that just means I have plenty of leftovers to eat throughout the rest of the week. We just packaged up leftovers from tonight's dinner and have enough for at least four lunches! It reheats pretty well in the microwave or on the stovetop, and I can't wait for lunch tomorrow!

And if you don't need quite that much food all at once, the recipe can easily be halved, or simply reduced slightly.

I like this meal because it's easy enough to make on a weeknight and it tastes great due to the spicy Italian sausage - buy a type that is labeled "hot" for the best flavor!

You'll need a large, deep skillet to make this dish.

Pasta with Sausage, Spinach, and White Beans
Serves about 6

3 links hot Italian sausage, casing removed
8 ounces bow-tie pasta (the pictures show mini farfalle)
5 tomatoes (you could substitute one 14.5-ounce can of diced tomatoes if your fresh tomato availability is nil)
1 medium onion, chopped (I give it a whir in the mini food processor)
2 carrots, peeled and chopped (I make little carrot sticks about the length of the pasta - you could use an equal amount of baby carrots sliced into sticks)
4 ounces portabella mushrooms, chopped
1/2 cup chicken stock
2 Tbsp heavy cream (approximately...I just eyeball it)
6 ounces fresh baby spinach, roughly chopped if the pieces are particularly large
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
One 14.5-ounce can Great Northern white beans, rinsed and drained

In a deep, large skillet, over medium heat, fry sausage, stirring and breaking it up as it cooks. When the sausage is mostly-cooked, but is still slightly pink on the inside, remove it from the pan to a plate lined with a paper towel, leaving the fat in the pan - set the pan aside. This picture shows the sausage at the proper level of doneness: mostly browned on the outside but still pink on the interior. (No worries, we’ll finish cooking the sausage later.)

Bring a separate large pot of water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook according to the package directions. Drain and set aside.

Meanwhile, if you like (and I highly recommend it), peel the tomatoes. If you don’t have one yet, I suggest you invest in one of these gadgets:

…a soft-skin serrated peeler! Besides being good at peeling tomatoes, they do an excellent job of peeling kiwis, peaches, and the skin off your fingers (so be careful!). They’re dishwasher safe, and happen to be ergonomic: they are pretty comfortable to use if you have a big peeling task ahead of you. Buy one, and while you’re at it, buy one of their standard peelers too. Your hands will thank you next time you peel a potato.

If you don’t have a nifty soft-skin peeler, you’ll need to peel the tomatoes using the boiling water method: Cut a shallow X into the bottom of each tomato. Plunge them first in boiling water for about ten or fifteen seconds, then rinse them under cold water to stop any cooking. The skins should come off more easily than they would otherwise (start peeling from the X). (A soft-skin peeler is much easier – no boiling water to deal with and one less pot to wash!)

(If its wintertime and your supermarket has terrible tomatoes, go ahead and use canned diced tomatoes.  No peeling or chopping necessary...)

Once you’ve peeled the tomatoes, roughly chop them and divide them into two approximately equal portions. Set both portions aside.

Add the onions to the leftover fat in the large skillet you used for the sausage. Cook on medium-high heat until onions just begin to soften. Stir in the carrots, mushrooms, and half of the chopped tomatoes and cook a few minutes longer until carrots are crisp-tender.

Stir in the chicken stock, reserved sausage, and the spinach, and allow the mixture to simmer for a few minutes to reduce the liquid slightly.  If you have a lid for your skillet, cover it for a minute to help cook the spinach more evenly.  No lid?  Don't worry, just stir it frequently until the spinach is all evenly wilted.

Add the cream, chopped parsley, and reserved cooked pasta. Stir to incorporate the ingredients. Once the sausage has cooked through, gently fold in the beans and the remaining tomatoes. Heat through, then serve immediately.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Better Than Church Lady Banana Bread

I had a banana left over from July’s Daring Cooks challenge…and what do you do when you have one leftover banana?

Make blueberry banana bread, of course!

And, actually, you don’t need to have a mushy, old, brown, yucky banana sitting around to make delicious banana bread. If you are short an old banana, but happen to have a fully-ripe (all-yellow, no-green) banana on hand, toss it in your mini food processor and whirl it into banana mush. Although the taste and texture of the bread is slightly better if you use an older, hand-mashed banana, this substitute works perfectly well in a pinch, and chances are no one will even notice the difference unless they have a chance to taste it side-by-side. So don’t let the lack of an overripe banana stop you from making banana bread.

After looking through a few of my cookbooks, I decided to modify a recipe from one of those church-lady compilation fundraising cookbooks. You know, those cookbooks where the ladies of a church submit their favorite tried-and-true recipe to a committee, who organizes them all, types them up, and sends the finished product in to some small publishing company for printing and binding. This particular cookbook is probably at least 25 years old – and before the days of computers, these cookbooks were a pretty big production!

Sometimes these types of cookbooks are hit-or-miss – I guess it depends on how much the parishioners like to cook. This book was from a small, rural community, was printed at a time when made-from-scratch cooking was the norm, and as it turns out, the cookbook has a few goodies in it. I’ll admit, I might be biased – my mom helped out with the production of this particular cookbook and most of the recipes I make from it are ones she submitted herself.

However, this particular recipe wasn’t one of hers – it was simply a standard banana bread recipe, which I picked specifically because it only called for one banana - that’s all I had on hand! As usual, I made a few changes to the recipe: I added berries, reduced the nuts, and rewrote it to make it easier to follow and more logical.

I like blueberry banana nut bread the best, but you can also make cranberry banana nut bread. You could probably substitute just about any moist fruit for the blueberries...raspberries, diced oranges, strawberries...

Better Than Church Lady Banana Bread
Makes one 8.5” loaf

1/2 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
1 3/4 sifted cake flour (I used White Lily brand All-Purpose flour and it worked fine)
1 3/4 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 c blueberries (or cranberries)
1 Tbsp all purpose flour
1 Tbsp granulated sugar (ONLY if you use cranberries…if you use blueberries, omit this)
1/3 cup butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
1 roughly mashed-up, slightly overripe banana

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8.5x4.5x3” loaf pan. I think the crust tastes best when the bread is baked in a light-colored pan, not a dark nonstick pan.

In a small skillet, toast the walnuts over medium-high heat until they begin to brown, stirring occasionally. Remove them from the pan; set them aside to cool. Chop any of the larger pieces (the nuts shouldn’t be any bigger than a small blueberry).

In a medium bowl, whisk together the cake flour, baking powder, salt, and baking soda. Set aside.

In a small bowl, toss the blueberries or cranberries together with the 1 Tbsp all-purpose flour (and the 1 Tbsp granulated sugar, if you are using cranberries) until the berries are evenly coated. Set the berries aside.

Cream the butter and sugar until fluffy and well-combined. Beat in the two eggs. Stir in the mashed banana. (It’s not necessary to totally mash the banana into mush – leave some chunks in the batter!)

Gently fold the flour mixture into the egg mixture, stirring only until the flour is nearly mixed in. There should still be flour on the sides of the bowl.

Add the floured berries and the toasted walnuts, folding them into the batter only until they are evenly distributed and the remaining flour has been incorporated. Do not overmix the batter.

Spread the batter into the greased pan.

Bake at 350 degrees for 50-55 minutes, or until the bread tests clean when a toothpick is inserted into the center of the bread. Cool the bread inside the pan until you can’t stand to wait anymore (at least wait until you can handle the bread without a hot pad!).

Turn the bread out to a wire rack to cool to room temperature (or eat it!).

The original recipe recommends waiting a day before eating the bread (to let the flavors meld) but I can hardly wait that long! I think the bread tastes best when it is cut into thick, still-warm slices and topped with firm, cold, unsalted butter bits – the warm bread contrasts nicely with the sweet, cool butter. Yum!

Pretty cranberry bread:

Monday, August 3, 2009

Homemade Marshmallow - Part of the July Daring Baker's Challenge

The July Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Nicole at Sweet Tooth. She chose Chocolate Covered Marshmallow Cookies and Milan Cookies from pastry chef Gale Gand of Food

I have been struggling with how to write this post. I don’t like to sugarcoat my writing to give a false impression of glowing success in the kitchen, but nor do I want to be a total downer when something didn’t turn out quite right.

To be totally frank, I thought the recipes weren’t written very well. Definitely great ideas, but it’s obvious that the Food Network didn’t take enough time to test and rewrite either of these recipes. I was hoping I’d have time to test and retest to give you a better recipe, but with that backache problem I had earlier in the month, I just ran out of time. (I actually made the cookies before my back acted up, but once the back went out, that was it for the month. I barely got through the Daring Cook's challenge, and as you can see by the lack of other posts, I wasn’t able to make much of anything else either. Although my back has mostly healed by now, I’m late on this post because I’ve been out of town for a week.)

I’m not entirely ruling out “baker’s error” on my part...but I see that a number of other Daring Bakers had similar results, so I’m less likely to think the problems I identified were due to our Bakers’ own mistakes. I was also very cautious to follow the recipes exactly (especially once I identified several red flags). But, maybe they didn't turn out because of something I did - there were a number of other Daring Bakers who were happy with their results.


The Milan cookies were two thin cookies sandwiched together by a ganache filling, mimicking the appearance of the Pepperidge Farm Milano cookies. I was really excited to make these cookies, as the Pepperidge Farm version (specifically the mint flavor) are one of my favorite types of store-bought cookies. I love their crisp, buttery texture, and couldn’t wait to try them at home.

Unfortunately, the Food Network version didn’t taste anywhere close to the Pepperidge Farm version. Nor did they taste better (I don’t mind improving on something already delicious, but these cookies didn’t fit the bill). They were chewy and gummy regardless of their baking time (no, they weren’t underdone, I tried quite a few trays with a wide variety of baking times). The recipe called for an insane amount of lemon and vanilla extract (2 Tbsp each – that’s 1/4 cup total!), thus the dough reeked of cheap alcohol and didn’t taste any better. The baked, unassembled cookie reminded me more of a poorly-executed tuile cookie than the Milano cookies I’ve bought from the grocery store. The recipe’s suggested yield was inaccurate and the cookie size recommended in the original recipe was not authentic.

So, I am not including the recipe here because I don’t post things on this blog that I’m not reasonably confident about. (My rule of thumb is, if I wouldn’t serve it to houseguests, I’m not posting it on here. And if I can’t give a friend the link to the recipe and expect her to be able to recreate it herself, it’s not going on the blog.) You can click on over to the host’s blog or over to Food Network if you are dying to try the cookies out...

I will give you a photo – they looked good enough, they just didn’t taste good.

I did make multiple flavors of filling - shown from left to right are white chocolate/butterscotch, chocolate/orange zest, plain chocolate, chocolate/white chocolate, chocolate/mint, and a few duplicates: another straight chocolate, and another chocolate/butterscotch. The filling tasted good – it was simply basic chocolate ganache variations.


The marshmallow cookies were composed of three parts: a cookie base, which was topped with a homemade marshmallow “kiss,” all of which was dipped in a chocolate coating. My opinion of this recipe is varied: The “base” component of the cookie was dry and tasteless, and the recipe yielded twelve dozen cookies even though it indicated a yield of only two dozen. The marshmallow topping yielded enough to make four dozen cookies (that’s still twice as much as the suggested yield, but definitely not nearly enough to cover all of the cookies). And the chocolate coating yielded exactly the amount suggested in the original recipe: two dozen cookies. However, it was sticky and wet at room temperature, and bloomed as it sat to dry. Even after I popped the cookies in the refrigerator to set the chocolate up firm, the chocolate still did not have an appealing texture or appearance, and it melted once it was returned to room temperature. Tempering the chocolate would have solved these problems – and as I made a second batch of chocolate coating, that’s exactly what I did, with much better results.

Despite all the issues these cookie recipes presented, the marshmallow component was absolutely delicious, and it was a fun challenge - I’m glad I tried it, as I rarely make candy. I won’t give you the recipe for the entire completed cookie on this blog, but I will give you the marshmallow recipe, and you should make the marshmallow soon! Use it to top your favorite crispy sugar cookie recipe, or try a homemade graham cracker cookie, or a crunchy chocolate cookie, anything. Then dip it all in tempered chocolate, and you’ll have a delicious final product that’s similar to the intent of the original recipe. Or use the marshmallow to make homemade s’mores – toast them over your charcoal or gas grill if you don’t have plans to be near an open fire. You can pipe marshmallow “kisses” directly onto a piece of parchment paper dusted liberally with cornstarch.

I wouldn’t recommend that you double the marshmallow recipe because there’s a small window of time where it’s firm enough to not be overly runny, but soft enough to pipe into your desired shape. If you make too much marshmallow up at once, you won’t be able to pipe them all out before things set up and become too firm.

Another recommendation: I made my first batch of marshmallow with a stand mixer with the wire whip attachment. The second batch was made with a hand mixer with the standard beater attachment. Both worked well enough, but the best results were obtained with the stand mixer/wire whip setup - so if it’s available to you, use it!

Homemade Marshmallow
Makes enough to top four dozen 1.5” cookies
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup light corn syrup
3/4 cup (168.76 grams/5.95oz) sugar
1 tablespoon powdered gelatin
2 tablespoons cold water
2 egg whites, room temperature
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 Tbsp cocoa powder (optional)

In a medium non-stick saucepan, combine the water, corn syrup and sugar. Bring it to a boil until it reaches the “soft-ball” stage, or 235 degrees on a candy thermometer.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl, sprinkle the gelatin over the cold water and let it dissolve. It will turn into a glob of gelatin – if there is still dry gelatin, give it a quick stir to ensure all of it has a chance to dissolve.

Once the syrup is at the “soft-ball” stage, remove the pan from the heat, add the gelatin, and mix. The pan will sizzle and bubble and glop up a bit, not too dissimilar from how it does when you make homemade caramel. Keep stirring and it will all smooth out. Note that in this picture, which was from my second batch of marshmallow, I ended up cooking the syrup a too long. (Sigh…distractions!) So it’s a little more golden than your results should be. It didn’t end up being a problem – the marshmallows still tasted great. And I was planning on making chocolate marshmallows for my second batch anyway, so the golden color didn’t matter once the cocoa was added.

In a large mixing bowl, whip the whites until soft peaks form. If in doubt, whip slightly more rather than slightly less – but don’t whip it so long that your whites are at a stiff-peak stage just yet.

With the mixer off, scrape the still-warm syrup into the whites.

Add the vanilla. If you want to make chocolate marshmallows, flip the mixer back on high for a few seconds to begin to incorporate the liquid, then turn it back off and sift 3 Tbsp cocoa powder over the whites. Next, whether you’re making plain marshmallows or chocolate ones, continue to whip the marshmallow mixture on high speed until it is stiff.

Transfer the marshmallow mixture to a large pastry bag fitted with a wide tip – a large star Wilton #2110 (1M) makes a pretty shape. A large plain circle will work too. Don’t overfill the bag. I twist the top of the bag tightly closed and rest the pastry bag upside-down on itself in a tall liquid measuring cup so it won’t leak out of the top or bottom. Let the marshmallow mixture cool until it sets up enough to maintain an attractive shape during piping.

The marshmallow stuff sets up pretty quickly. Work fast because once it gets too firm you won’t be able to scrape it up or pipe it out nymore. But you can’t use it immediately – it does need to cool slightly or it will be too runny to hold shape. Pipe it onto cookies or graham crackers, or whatever your desired use is. Let the piped marshmallow dry until it is firm to the touch before you try to do anything else with it.

The syrup is difficult to clean up. Use dishwasher-safe implements and a non-stick pan. My non-stick pans won’t go in my dishwasher, so here’s how I clean them out: Fill the dirty pan about half-way with water. Put it on high heat and use a wooden spoon or other no-scratch utensil to scrape the sides and bottom of the pan as it heats up. As the pan gets warm, the sugar will dissolve into the water and rinse away. It might take a couple of tries to get the pan entirely sugar-free. The pan can then be washed by your usual method.

If you’re going to use a chocolate coating, I highly recommend that you take the time to temper the chocolate. It’s one of those things that sounds complicated, but is really super easy as long as you have a thermometer.

Tempered chocolate has a prettier appearance and won’t “bloom” (the lighter brown spotty swirls you sometimes see on chocolate). If you want some advice and background information on tempering chocolate, read Michael Chu’s article, Tempering Chocolate. I always use the Seed Method, which he describes at the point where the pictures begin. Remember, different types of chocolate temper at different temperatures, so be sure to adjust accordingly (broad suggestions on temperature ranges are included further down his article).

For what could potentially produce the best results, check out your chocolate manufacturer’s website, there’s a good chance they will list the exact temperature that should be used when tempering their brand of chocolate. In my case, since Scharffen Berger chocolate is what’s most readily available where I live, I have always referred to their website for tempering instructions when working with their brand of chocolate. However, they apparently changed their website recently – actually, it was three days ago, as of the time of this writing. Their new site doesn’t list tempering instructions, but their old site (which may or may not work by the time you read this) recommended the following instructions:

To temper chocolate, first chop up the chocolate you want to temper. Save a few chunks for later in the process. Then, melt all but the few chunks of chocolate over a double boiler to 110 degrees. By melting chocolate to 110 degrees F, you dissolve all crystals and start from scratch.

Take the chocolate off the heat. Add the chunks of chocolate you held back and, stirring, let it cool to about 80 degrees F.

Reheat the chocolate using a flash method over the hot water in the double boiler. Heat it 3 to 5 seconds at a time, take it off the heat, put it back on, rather than just sitting the bowl back on top of the hot water, until the mixture reaches 91 degrees F.

(During that last reheat step, I stir the chocolate five strokes while it's over the heat, then five strokes off the heat (then repeat). I think it's easiest when I get into that 1-2-3-4-5, 1-2-3-4-5 rhythm.)

I find it easiest to coat the cookies using two forks. I put the coated cookies on a wire rack to allow any excess coating to drip off, then transfer them to parchment or waxed paper until they can completely firm up.

Although the cookies were dry tasting, they were cute!

The cookies below were made according to the original recipe, with untempered dark chocolate.