Tuesday, September 29, 2009
One of my favorite comfort foods of all time is macaroni and cheese. When I was younger, still in high school or college, and didn't yet have any culinary skill to speak of, I only made generic “imitation blue box” macaroni (“generic” due to funding limitations and a general distaste for the Kraft company, and “blue box” due to a lack of culinary skill). Now-a-days, I usually make my mac & cheese homemade, but occasionally I’ll bust out a blue box (I like Annie's brand) if I’m having a particularly bad day and just need a quick, inexpensive, and fast meal. I like it served alongside barbecued sausage. I know Mom, it’s not exactly a healthy meal, so I don’t eat it very often!
I do love macaroni and cheese. I get excited when I see it on the menu at sandwich shops, but most of the time it’s a let-down once I’ve tasted it: it’s usually not all that great. It always seems to be too runny, too gritty, or the cheese sauce tastes too much like the flour used to thicken it. I want a silky, smooth textured sauce over perfectly al dente macaroni – pasta that hasn’t been cooking all afternoon in a giant sheet pan. The sauce shouldn’t be too thick, and nor should the pasta be swimming in it – there should be just enough sauce to coat the pasta.
So, like I said, I’m often disappointed.
I found this recipe in “The Best American Classics,” which is a Cooks Illustrated cookbook. I have a couple of their cookbooks, and while I don’t always agree with what their opinion of “best” may be (“best” is so subjective!), I do agree with them in this case…well, mostly. I’ve written my changes into the version you’ll find here.
This recipe is made on the stovetop. It’s almost as simple as blue-box macaroni (it does require a bit more stirring), yet it tastes so much better. There’s no long baking time involved, so like the boxed variety, you can make it on the spur of the moment. It makes more than a family-sized blue box, so I always have leftovers to take to work.
Speaking of leftovers, the best way to reheat any kind of macaroni and cheese is in a saucepan over medium-low heat, with a splash of milk or other dairy added to help recreate the sauce. I usually don’t put that much effort into reheating lunch at work, so I just stick it in the microwave and eat it even though the texture of the sauce has changed slightly. (It still has great flavor, though!)
The original recipe is written to include a toasted bread crumb topping, but I never bother with it. I like mine topped with chopped tomatoes instead. Not only is it better for you, but the sweet juicy tomatoes are a nice counterpart to the salty, cheesy pasta.
Creamy Homemade Stovetop Macaroni and Cheese
Serves 6-8, unless you are a big macaroni eater, in which case it might yield closer to 4 servings.
1 can evaporated milk
2 large eggs
1/4 tsp hot pepper sauce (like Tabasco sauce)
2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
1/4 tsp dry mustard
1/2 pound macaroni
4 Tbsp unsalted butter
12 ounces sharp cheddar (I used Tilamook Vintage White Extra Sharp Cheddar)
1 cup chopped tomato (either 1 cup of sliced "baby" tomatoes, or 1 chopped "regular" tomato should be about the right amount)
In a two-cup liquid measure, use a fork to whisk together 1 cup of evaporated milk, the eggs, hot pepper sauce, 1 tsp of salt, and the dry mustard. Set it aside.
Meanwhile, cook the pasta according to package directions. Use a large pot, and if you have a nonstick one, use it. (Tip: select a pot that’s slightly larger than what I used in these pictures, because I thought the pot was too small once I got to the last few steps. Oops!). Cook the macaroni only until barely al dente.
While the pasta is cooking, grate the cheese. For this much cheese, I use the shredding (grating) disc in my food processor.
Once the pasta has cooked, drain it and return it to the pot. Add the butter and stir over medium heat until it has melted.
Pour the egg mixture over the buttered noodles. Sprinkle about half of the cheese over the pasta. Stir constantly over medium-low heat until the sauce thickens and the mixture is hot and creamy, about five minutes. Yes, it’s a lot of stirring, but you’ve got to do it in order to properly cook the eggs. Don’t let the mixture boil; if the pan starts sizzling when you’re stirring, it’s too hot. (Remember, medium-low heat!) In general, if it seems runny, you haven’t cooked/stirred it long enough. Keep the heat on medium-low and keep stirring, and it should end up just fine.
As you near the end of the five-minute stirring time, add the rest of the cheese and the remaining evaporated milk. Stir it just long enough to incorporate everything and melt the cheese. Taste it, and sprinkle the remaining teaspoon of salt over the pasta (or salt to taste, because cheeses vary in saltiness). Stir to incorporate the salt, then taste it again just to be sure things aren't too salty.
Serve immediately, topped with a handful of chopped tomatoes.
I mentioned earlier that I liked mine served with sausage… I love bratwurst, but it’s sooo unhealthy that I rarely serve them. I have found an alternative that I’ve been enjoying lately: chicken sausage!
Costco carries an andouille chicken sausage (sorry, the exact brand is not listed online, but it probably doesn’t matter because the available brands and flavors vary by location anyway. Over the years, I’ve tried several different brands of chicken sausage from both Midwestern American and Western Canadian Costcos, and I liked both of the varieties available from both regions, so maybe your nearest Costco has a brand you’d like).
I also found a different chicken sausage at my local grocery store: Al Fresco brand Sweet Apple Chicken Sausage (it has Maple Syrup in it – yum!). They have several other interesting-sounding flavors, which I haven’t yet tried. It’s more expensive than buying in bulk at Costco, but truthfully, I think it tastes better. (Maybe I just liked it because of the maple syrup. Me?!?!)
By the way, the sausage in the picture at the beginning of this post is the Costco andouille sausage.
Oh, and if you want to slightly lower the carbs in the dish (it is pasta, after all!), you could omit the bun, slice up the grilled sausage, and serve it mixed into the macaroni.
Sunday, September 20, 2009
The August 2009 Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Angela of A Spoonful of Sugar and Lorraine of Not Quite Nigella. They chose the spectacular Dobos Torte based on a recipe from Rick Rodgers' cookbook Kaffeehaus: Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Caffés of Vienna, Budapest, and Prague.
I know, I know, it’s not August anymore. It’s actually past time to do the September challenge already. Obviously I am really late this month! Between school, work, life, family, and the million-and-two other activities that seem to take up my week…you know how it is.
One thing about this torte: it’s not incredibly difficult to make, but it takes a fair amount of time to complete the entire process. (Don’t start this on a Sunday night if you’ve got to get up early for work on Monday morning!) Fortunately, the recipe can be broken down into several individual components, which makes things easier to manage. I made the individual cake layers one day and finished the rest of the cake components and assembly the next day.
The torte recipe was originally written to make one five-layer 9” cake. I like making individually-sized desserts, so I scaled the cake down and made several mini Dobos Tortes. And, I felt the layers would be more visually appealing if they were thinner, so I made twice as many layers that were half as thick. (Those decisions were a large part of what made the cakes so labor-intensive…it would have gone a lot faster if I would have only had to frost and stack five layers instead of 30.)
Before you get started, you’ll need a few specific pieces of equipment. You’ll need some cookie sheets that are decent enough quality that they won’t warp when they heat up – mine are the thicker insulated type, and they worked perfectly. Also, I’d highly recommend that you use two offset spatulas: one large one for spreading the cake batter, and one small one for frosting the miniature cakes. (I don’t own a small offset spatula, so I used a small butter knife serving utensil from my silverware…it worked, but a small offset spatula would have worked even better.) Also, stock up on parchment paper…you’ll need quite a bit of it…and you might want to have some less expensive waxed paper on hand for some of the steps that don’t involve baking. You will also need a circular cookie cutter. I used a 3-1/16” cutter; whatever size you select will be the size of the diameter of the finished cakes. And, while we’re on the topic of equipment, if you have a double boiler, get it out. If not, don’t run out and buy one just for this purpose - you can improvise with a bowl set over a pan of simmering water.
Mini Dobos Tortes
Makes 3 or 4 cakes, depending on how tall you want to stack them
Make the sponge cake layers first, as they need to be cooled prior to assembly. If necessary, they can also be stored the longest out of any of the components – just stack the cakes up between sheets of waxed paper and store them in an airtight container.
6 large eggs, separated, at room temperature
1-1/3 cups (162g) confectioner's (icing) sugar, divided
1 teaspoon (5ml) vanilla extract
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (112g) sifted cake flour
A pinch of salt
Position a rack at the top of your oven; preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
In a large mixing bowl, using clean beaters, (use your stand mixer and the wire whip if you have one) beat the egg whites until soft peaks form. Gradually beat in 2/3 cup (81g) of confectioner's sugar until the whites form stiff, shiny peaks.
While the egg whites are whipping, begin the next step: In a separate large bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, 2/3 cup (81g) of the confectioner's sugar, and the vanilla. Whisk until the mixture is thick and pale yellow.
Using a large rubber spatula, stir about 1/4 of the beaten whites into the egg yolk mixture. Then, gently fold in the remainder of the beaten egg whites, leaving a few wisps of white visible.
Scatter the pinch of salt evenly over the surface of the egg mixture. Then, sift half the flour over the egg mixture. Gently fold it in; repeat with the remaining flour. (The only sifter I own qualifies as a decorative antique, so I just use my fine mesh sieve to shake the flour over the cake batter.)
Line a cookie sheet with a large piece of parchment paper. Using an offset spatula, spread about 200g of batter over the surface of the parchment paper into a big rectangle. (If you don’t have a scale to weigh the batter, don’t worry, just start with about 1 cup of batter and work up. Actually, I didn’t bother weighing the batter every time; I only weighed it so I could give you an idea of the approximate amount of batter you should use.) Spread the batter out into a large rectangle, approximately 12x15 inches. The length and width of the rectangle is not as important as the thickness of the batter: the batter should be spread out to somewhere between 1/8” and 3/16” thick (1/4” is thicker than I wanted my cakes to be). Try to make it as uniform in thickness and as smooth as possible. But, caution: if you can see the parchment paper through the batter, it’s too thin.
Bake the cake on the top rack until the top of the cake is lightly browned and the cake springs back when you touch it, 4 to 6 minutes. I found the baking time really varied depending on whether or not my gas oven happened to be actively working to heat the oven during the time the cake was inside…there’s a pretty good variation in temperature there that’s not normally noticeable over a 20 or 30 minute bake time. In short, keep an eye on the cakes – they’re so thin that they can overbake in a matter of a minute.
Once the cake has baked, slide the parchment and cake together off the cookie sheet. Let it sit flat on a heatproof countertop for a minute until the cake has cooled slightly: it should still be warm, but it should have cooled enough that you can handle it. (Don’t let it cool too long, or the cake will become too crisp and will break during the next step.) Rest a piece of parchment paper on top of the cake and flip the entire cake over, upside down. Peel the parchment paper off of the underside of the cake. Replace the same parchment paper back on the cake, then flip it all back over. Remove and save the top parchment paper – if it’s not too dirty you can reuse it. (These steps of flipping and peeling paper off will greatly aid in removing the cake during the next step.)
Use a round 3” cookie cutter to cut circles out of the baked cake. I pushed the cutter into the cake, pulled the cake circle and cutter away from the cake as one unit (with the cake still stuck inside the cutter, I mean).
Then I pushed the blade of a flat spatula against the outside of the circular cookie cutter, which trimmed the ragged edges off of the cake.
Once I pushed the circle out of the cookie cutter, I had perfect little cake circles. The cake would gum up the cookie cutter after 3 or 4 cuts, so I just used my fingernail to scrape the cake residue off of the blade.
I got 35 circles out of the entire recipe. While I was cutting out cake circles, I stacked up some of the scraps to gauge their thickness, and decided I wanted my cakes to be 10 layers thick. So my yield is three 10-layer cakes, with a few extra circles to account for breakage during assembly. You could also make four 8-layer cakes.
Set the cut circles out on a cooling rack. Don’t let the edges touch or they’ll stick together. You’ll notice that the one side of the cake is stickier than the other side – don’t let the cakes rest on their sticky side.
The cakes can be made ahead up to this point. Once the cakes have cooled completely, you can stack the cakes between layers of parchment paper. Store in an airtight container or wrap the stacks well. If you’re only storing the cakes overnight, they can be left at room temperature. If you refrigerate the cakes, let them come to room temperature before you attempt to unwrap them.
The next step is the chocolate buttercream. Although it can be stored at room temperature overnight, I made mine the same day I served it.
4 large eggs, at room temperature
1 cup (200g) caster (ultrafine or superfine white) sugar
4oz (110g) 70% cacao dark chocolate, finely chopped
2 sticks plus 2 tablespoons (250g) unsalted butter, at room temperature.
First, prepare a double-boiler: fill the bottom half of a double boiler about 1/3 of the way with water and bring it to a boil. Once it begins to boil, back the heat down so it is at a simmer.
Meanwhile, off the heat, in the top half of the double boiler, whisk together the eggs and sugar until they pale and thicken. Once the water is at a simmer, fit the top half of the pan onto the bottom half and continue whisking the egg mixture over the heat another 2 to 3 minutes. Whisk constantly. The mixture will continue to thicken and will become somewhat foamy. Whisk in the finely chopped chocolate and cook, stirring, for another 2 to 3 minutes more.
Scrape the chocolate mixture into a mixing bowl and leave to cool to room temperature. (If you have a stand mixer, use its bowl!)
Once the chocolate mixture has completely cooled to room temperature, beat in the softened butter on high speed, one a small piece (about 2 tablespoons/30g) at a time. For best results, use a stand mixer or an electric hand mixer. Once the butter has been completely added, continue beating the mixture until you end up with a thick, velvety chocolate buttercream. (There is a period in the mixing process where it looks very soupy and nothing like buttercream. Keep beating, it will come together eventually. Don’t give up.)
The next step is to begin assembling the Dobos tortes.
If you haven’t already done so, count your cake layers and decide how many cakes you’ll make. Choose several of the least wrinkled, most evenly baked, best-looking cake layers from the selection of mini cakes you baked earlier. These layers will be the topmost layer on your finished tortes, so you’ll need one layer per finished cake. You might want to grab an extra one or two to account for potential breakage. Set the good cake layers aside from the others; save them for later.
I assembled my cakes directly on their serving plates. To keep the plates clean, I cut up little strips of waxed paper and put them under the edges of the cake. Once they were entirely iced, I pulled the strips out. Voila, clean plates. I recommend you do that.
Place a small dab of frosting on the center of your serving plate. Top with one cake layer – press it flat to create a good foundation for your cake. Thinly ice the top of the layer, then top with another layer and repeat the icing/stacking process until all of the layers are iced and stacked except for the top cake layers you set aside earlier (leave those off for now, they will be added later). As you’re working, take care to build the cake up as evenly as possible to avoid a “leaning tower of Dobos.” If your tortes start to lean, toothpicks inserted vertically might help. Keep your icing thin and your “tower” will probably be just fine.
Once the layers are stacked (except for those reserved layers), frost the top and sides of the torte. Set the frosted tortes aside.
The last step is the decorative sugar toppings. It is best to make sugar topping and any other decorations as close as possible to serving time. They should be made the same day they will be served and should be kept in a cool, DRY place (not a refrigerator – it’s too moist). If you absolutely must store the sugar decorations, store them in an airtight container with a packet of desiccant enclosed. Don’t place sugar decorations directly on top of the cake until immediately prior to serving, or moisture from the cake and frosting will harm the sugar.
If you’ve never worked with sugar, you might be surprised to learn that working with sugar is actually very easy. It is kind of messy, so use waxed paper or newspaper to keep it from getting all over your countertop. I encourage you to try it out…the candied hazelnuts are much easier than you might think, and are very impressive-looking. They taste pretty good too.
Candied Hazelnuts and Cake Tops
The reserved unfrosted, unstacked mini Dobos torte cake layers
6-8 whole hazelnuts (or, whatever the quantity you need to top your cakes, plus a few extras to account for breakage), for the candied hazelnuts
6-8 additional hazelnuts, to be chopped for the side of the cakes
1 cup sugar
12 tablespoons (180 ml) water
First, the setup for the candied cake tops: Use newspaper or waxed paper to cover your countertops. Over a piece of waxed paper, place a wire cooling rack. Place the unfrosted, unstacked cake layers on the cooling rack. Set them out so they don’t touch each other, and leave a decently sized gap between them. For best results, use a cooling rack with larger gaps.
Toast all of the hazelnuts in a dry skillet over medium heat until they barely begin to change color. Don’t let them burn. Turn them out onto a paper towel; let them cool slightly until you can handle them. Divide them back into two portions: those to be candied and those to be chopped.
We’ll get set up to candy the hazelnuts next. You’ll need to devise a way to suspend the hazelnuts. I suggest you come up with something similar to what I did: I used an open cabinet which hangs overtop my countertop. I stuck a skewer into each hazelnut and weighed the skewer down with small but heavy plates. I covered my countertop with waxed paper. Get everything ready to go.
Gently insert a skewer partway into each hazelnut. Don’t insert it too far, or you’ll break the hazelnut into pieces. (That’s why you have a few extra to account for breakage. If you break one, swap it out with one from the reserved pile of nuts to be chopped for the sides of the cakes.)
Next, make the candy syrup. Once your syrup has cooked, you’ll need to move quickly so go ahead and read ahead in the recipe before you begin…so you know what’s coming…
Stir the sugar and water together in a small saucepan – nonstick will give you the easiest cleanup later. Bring to a boil over a medium heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Once the sugar has dissolved into a smooth syrup, turn the heat up to high and boil without stirring, swirling the pan by the handle occasionally and washing down any sugar crystals on the sides of the pan with a wet brush until the syrup has turned into an amber-colored caramel. (We’re boiling until we reach approximately 340 degrees F. Caution: Your thermometer must be clean and dry every time you insert it in the sugar syrup. Another caution: Although it takes awhile to cook from the first step to the perfect stage of golden, it will change from a beautiful caramel color to burnt in a matter of seconds, so don’t let your guard down - stay on top of it!)
Once the syrup has turned to caramel, immediately pour a thin layer over the top of each cake. Work quickly – the longer the syrup is in the pan, the more it will continue to cook due to residual heat. Also, try to conserve the syrup as you pour – you will still need to use part of it to dip the hazelnuts. Depending on how good you are at metering out the syrup, it might just be easiest to plan on making two batches of syrup. Another tip: try to avoid overpouring because an excessive amount of syrup will “glue” the cakes to the cooling rack (that’s why you have extra cakes – in case some break as you attempt to remove them from the rack.) Don’t try to remove the cakes just yet because you need to dip the hazelnuts while the syrup is still hot...
After you’ve poured the syrup over the cakes, immediately begin dipping the skewered hazelnuts. Gently dip each one into the pan, then suspend it so the excess syrup drips off of it in a long string.
Some of it will break off and collect on the waxed paper. You can gather this excess up into a loose “birds nest” and save it to use as a cake decoration, too.
Note: Avoid getting any moisture in the syrup or it will seize up into a gritty unattractive mess. If that happens, or if you run out of syrup, you’ll need to caramelize more sugar…
The candied nuts and cake pieces need time to cool to firm up. Meanwhile, chop the reserved, uncandied hazelnuts. Gently press the chopped nuts onto the sides of the frosted cakes.
The sugar syrup on both the cake tops and the hazelnuts should harden up fairly quickly. (If they don’t firm up into brittle sugar pieces, you didn’t cook the sugar syrup long enough.) Once they are completely firm, you can gently handle them. Try to avoid touching them any more than necessary because you could leave fingerprints or moisture marks on the sugar. Use scissors to trim the hazelnut “drips” to your preferred length – you can leave them long and dramatic or you can trim them to several inches if you prefer. Gently twist the skewers out of the hazelnuts. Remove the candied cake pieces from the cooling rack – you might need to turn the rack upside down and pop the pieces off from the underside if the sugar was poured on too thickly.
Immediately prior to serving, top the Dobos tortes with a piece of candied cake. Garnish with the candied hazelnuts. Serve immediately.
I love Saturday mornings. I don’t usually sleep in – I have learned that keeping a consistent daily schedule makes it easier to get up on weekday mornings. Not everyone else in my house has the same theory though, so I usually have a few hours to myself before anyone else wakes up. I occupy my time in the early morning by going for a nice long bike ride, or by making something special for breakfast, or sometimes both!
Depending on what I have in my kitchen, I’ll often make pancakes, waffles, French toast, or something similar, especially if I have weekend house guests. If it’s just me eating breakfast, I’ll often make a quick veggie omelet or chop up some fresh fruit. Sometimes I’ll make up some biscuits and jam, and recently I made some boysenberry jam-filled cornmeal muffins.
These muffins can be made with any color of cornmeal. I used blue cornmeal, but if you don’t have blue cornmeal, just use the more common yellow variety. They taste the same. You can fill the muffins with your favorite kind of jam. I used storebought jam because it’s what I had in my fridge, but it would be delicious with a homemade pan jam (let it cool before you use it!).
Cornmeal Jelly Muffins
Makes 12 muffins
1 1/4 cup flour
3/4 cup cornmeal (I used a blue variety)
1/4 cup sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup milk
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 egg, beaten
Approximately 3/4 cup jelly or jam, your choice of flavor
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees F. Grease 12 muffin cups, or line the tins with paper.
In a medium mixing bowl, combine the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.
In a 2-cup liquid measure, add the milk and vegetable oil. Drop in the egg, and whisk it together with a fork to combine the ingredients. Pour the mixture into the dry ingredients and mix only until the dry ingredients are all moistened. Fill the muffin tins 2/3 of the way full.
Spoon approximately 1 Tbsp of jelly or jam on top of each unbaked muffin. (The jelly will sink in during the baking process.)
Bake 15-20 minutes, or until they are golden brown. They may take a few minutes longer than you are used to due to the jelly centers. You can use a toothpick to test the muffin – no raw batter should cling to the toothpick when they are done. The jelly will be soft and liquidy.
When the muffins are done, turn them out to cool. Caution, the jelly is very hot. Don’t attempt to eat the muffins until they have cooled, or you risk burning your mouth.
If you want the muffins to be less messy than what’s shown in the pictures here, bake them inside muffin papers or use slightly less jam.