Friday, July 30, 2010

Blackberry apricot crisp

In spite of my cake love, I do have eyes for other desserts.

There was that blueberry crostata recently. And then last weekend, there was a blackberry apricot crisp.

I admit, it's a bit much in the span of a few days. But in my defense, I had no intention of making this dessert. My original plan last friday, when we were hosting some friends for dinner, was to make the upside-down cake, but with apricots. I had all the ingredients ready, including a pyramid of rosy-hued apricots on the counter, when our guests offered to bring cupcakes from Miette. See ya later, apricots.

And then these lovely friends arrived not only with four gorgeous cupcakes, but with a little container of blackberries they had picked. What's a girl to do?

Well, first: wolf down delicately nibble a cupcake. Then: create something worthy of hand-picked blackberries, foraged by friends.

This whole idea of urban foraging (or in this case, suburban foraging) has become quite a thing. I myself have been eyeing the blackberry patch up at Tank Hill near our house, where they grow wild. I'm just waiting for them to reach the perfect state for plucking. In the meantime, Scott and Stephanie brought me blackberries from a bramble in Marin, where it's much sunnier and things ripen earlier.

I considered lush blackberry ice cream, or a simple blackberry sauce to go over ice cream (or roasted duck). In the end, I opted for blackberry apricot crisp, since I didn't want my apricots to go to waste. In addition to the surefire crostata I posted about recently, I have a nearly foolproof recipe for crisp that can be adapted for any fruit. I did once make it with rhubarb and strawberries, which turned out terribly. But I learned from that mistake, and this time, I added a little more tapioca to thicken the filling. That was just the ticket.

Here is the fruit, moments before a crumbly cinnamon and walnut topping rained down on it. If you don't feel like diving right in, you must be made of stone.

But it gets even better after the topping is sprinkled over and baked to golden goodness. At that point, the only thing that can improve the dessert is vanilla ice cream, which, it must be said, can improve just about anything.

And there you are. Thanks to the kindness of friends, summer in a bowl.

Blackberry apricot crisp
Adapted from Baking Illustrated

6 T. flour
1/4 c. light brown sugar
1/4 c. granulated sugar
1/4 t. cinnamon
1/4 t. ground ginger
1/4 t. salt
5 T. cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2" pieces
3/4 c. coarsely chopped walnuts

5-6 cups of blackberries and apricots (apricots pitted and sliced)
1/2 t. lemon zest
juice of 1/2 a lemon
1/4 c. granulated sugar (or more or less to taste)
1 T. quick-cooking tapioca

Place flour, sugars, spices, and salt in a food processor and process briefly to combine. Add butter and pulse 10 times for about 4 seconds each pulse. The mixture will first look like dry sand, with large lumps of butter, then like coarse cornmeal. Add the nuts and process again, four or five 1-second pulses. The topping should now look like slightly clumpy wet sand. Be sure not to overmix or the mixture will become too wet and homogeneous. Refrigerate topping while preparing the fruit, at least 15 minutes.

Adjust an oven rack to the lower-middle position and heat the oven to 375.

Toss all filling ingredients together in a medium bowl, then pour into an 8-inch square baking pan (or pie plate, like I used). 

Distribute the chilled topping evenly over the fruit. Bake for 40 minutes. Turn the heat up to 400 and bake for another 5 minutes or until the fruit is bubbling and the topping turns deep golden brown. Serve warm.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

An (im)perfect blueberry crostata

Occasionally, a recipe enters my life for which I am supremely grateful.

Sometimes it's because the recipe, exactly as it's written, is perfection, such as Marcella Hazan's roasted chicken with two lemons, or Baking Illustrated's chocolate chip cookies. These are two recipes I will make my whole life.

Other recipes I love because they teach me a technique which I can then adapt to suit my whim. The raspberry buttermilk cake I've written about many a time is one such recipe. It's a good recipe--not necessarily a great one--but a good one that has simple ingredients, makes the right-sized cake for our household, and can take almost any kind of fruit, no matter what the season. The crostata I made recently is another such recipe.

I discovered it years ago and originally made it as written, with apples. But then I got tired of apples, so I moved on to pears. Pears gave way to pears-and-cranberries, which lead to straight-up cranberry crostata, and this week, I made it with blueberries.

I love the dough for two reasons: it comes together rapidly, and since it's a crostata, it's free-form. Maybe because I'm the daughter of an artist, or maybe because I lack the technical skills, I don't like rolling things out into perfect circles and tucking them tidily into pans. I like keeping it a little earthy and rustic. I'm OK with crust that's oblong instead of round, and 1/8" in some places and 1/4" in others. No one will ever accuse me of being a perfectionist, which is fine with me, because while I kind of admire perfectionists, as they seem so disciplined and focused while I'm haphazard and bedraggled, with flour on my face and blueberry juice on my t-shirt, I sometimes feel a little sorry for them too. There's something wonderful about embracing and not judging the messy but delicious results of your hard work.

I've found you can add nearly anything to the filling and even wing the amount of fruit, as long as you don't add too much. I've gotten overzealous with piling the fruit too high before and it's resulted in a runny crostata. Not only does this lead to a soggy crust, but it makes the pan a hassle to clean.

This time, I got it just right with the blueberries. I'm not sure how many I used. Maybe a couple of cups? I tossed them with a little sugar, lemon juice and zest, and a dash of almond extract. Simple, delicious, and summery.

I hope you try this recipe, using whatever fruit strikes your fancy. I don't think you'll be disappointed; after all, it's practically perfect.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Fettucine with asparagus, prosciutto, and smoked mozzarella

I made this Giada recipe the other night: spaghetti with prosciutto, asparagus, and smoked mozzarella.

Sounds great, right? It was speedy to throw together and contained some of my favorite ingredients. But after eating it for dinner, and then for lunch the next day, I still wasn't sure if I liked it or not.

The flavor was pretty good. But the jury is still out on smoked mozzarella. I can't believe I'm writing that. But ultimately, I prefer plain mozzarella. Preferably buffalo mozzarella. Well, let's lay it on the line: I like burrata best. Ever since I ate at Osteria Mozza in Los Angeles last year, I've been dreaming of the sublime burrata the husband and I devoured there. The whole dinner was divine but that cheese just floored me. In fact, I'm pretty sure any kind of last supper scenario would involve me eating a giant ball of that burrata and then dropping dead.

Anyway, admittedly, I made some changes to the recipe, but nothing major. For one thing, I bought cappellini by mistake instead of spaghetti. I don't know what other people use cappellini for, but to me it's useless. It's so thin, I just don't think it holds up to much. The husband doesn't care for it either. When I held up the box in dismay, he shook his head scornfully.

"It's so flimsy!" he said, scowling.

I agreed. Luckily I had some fettucine on hand. So, that was change #1.

Change #2 was that the recipe only called for 3/4 lb of pasta. Whenever a recipe says to do this, I go ahead and use a full pound. A few strands of leftover pasta rattling around in my pantry is ridiculous. I'd rather just use the full box. I realize this shifted the pasta-to-stuff ratio. But still, not a dramatic adjustment.

The pasta had potential, but seemed to be lacking something. Being a sauce hound, I wanted something liquid or creamy to bind the pasta together. Even the husband agreed, and he's usually not sauce crazy.

"Maybe some ricotta would help," he suggested. "You could also add some bacon. That would be good."

I like how we were talking about making the pasta moister and he brought up bacon. How can I not love this guy? Most people would think of cream, or a little tomato sauce--not another pork product. But I knew what he meant. Frying up bacon in place of the prosciutto would at least add some more oil to the pan.

I think in the end, I liked this recipe, but I felt it needed something more. I'm still ruminating on it. Any ideas? And next time I'm definitely using regular mozzarella.

Or maybe I'll just skip the pasta altogether, get myself a big ball of burrata, a baguette, and a bottle of wine. I'm pretty sure nothing could go wrong there.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Marriage advice from the Hungry Dog

Today I attended a bridal shower for my friend, Jen. It was a lovely affair, with Spanish food and plenty of sangria. To create a scrapbook for Jen before her big day, the hosts asked each guest to fill out a card that finished the sentence, "If I could give you one piece of advice about marriage, it would be..."

Well, that's a puzzler. People want different things out of marriage. Some want undying passion. Others might want a house and the promise of a comfortable life. Some just want the assurance that they won't be alone. Most of us want a combination of the three, with a bunch of other stuff thrown in. There's no formula for a happy marriage.

Plus, over time, things can change. You might live in different places, have lots of jobs, and welcome any number of children and pets into your lives. You may be tested by illness, infidelity, or financial woes. It's impossible to prepare for marriage, since marriage is just two lives tethered together as the days roll by. Who can know what the future will hold, or how either of you will embrace it?

The main piece of advice I can think of, which is both dumb and true, would be, Pick the right person. What I mean is, pick the person who is already who you want them to be. Don't marry someone that has any significant qualities you wish were different or that you hope will change. Newsflash, folks: people don't change much.

Of course, that's not useful advice by the time you're a few weeks out from the wedding. Presumably, you've gotten that part right. So for Jen's scrapbook, I settled on: Always remember what drew you to each other in the first place. The routine of life can wear away at love, but if you can continue to enjoy the qualities you initially found so charming in each other, you've got a good chance at a long and happy marriage.

I was reminded of a third one when considering a dinner I made last weekend.  I had rustled around in the fridge and unearthed a few ears of corn, some grape tomatoes, and a bunch of chives. The combination cried out for a risotto, its flavor deepened by shallots and a splash of white wine.

The risotto was delicious on its own, bursting with the flavors of summer. But the husband doesn't enjoy a big bowl of risotto, unless it happens to come studded with prawns or scallops or something else of the animal variety. So I decided to top it with a little bit of...

pork chop.

The husband was very pleased with the dinner, which in turn pleased me. And, as you know, I'm a fan of pork in all its forms, so it wasn't exactly a sacrifice. Except for the pig, I guess.

So, I guess my third piece of advice is: Do nice things for each other. Often. After all, you chose each other out of all the people in the world. Make it count.

What say you, readers? Any marriage advice to share with the masses?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

My very own Pancake Breakfast

As you know, I'm deeply, deeply obsessed with the TV show "Friday Night Lights." It has nothing to do with football, everything to do with the great writing and acting, and a little to do with one Tim Riggins. And sometimes it has a tiny bit to do with food.

"FNL" (as it's called in our house) is set in the fictional Dillon, Texas, so BBQ is big. There are quite a few references to ribs and pulled pork, which never fail to make my mouth water. Even seeing the sundaes served up at Dillon's Alamo Freeze make me want to ditch fancy city ice cream for the pleasing, symmetrical swirls of soft serve topped with jimmies.

The other food frequently referenced is pancakes--specifically at the Pancake Breakfast, an annual fundraiser for the Dillon Panthers.

If you know me, you know I'm not really a breakfast food person. I don't like eggs, and am not too keen on pancakes or waffles. French toast I can get behind (although apparently I don't know how to make it). But for the most part, I'm a toast, bagel, or baked  goods girl: give me a good scone or muffin and I'm happy.

Since watching "FNL," though, I've latched onto the idea of a Pancake Breakfast. Because the show is in the midst of its fourth season and the subject of a great deal of conversation in the Hungry Dog home (the husband is equally obsessed, due to one Lyla Garrity), pancake breakfasts have been on my mind. On Sunday, I decided to have one of my own.

Pancakes are no big deal, but I've never made them from scratch. Turns out they couldn't be easier. I used Mark Bittman's recipe and threw some cinnamon, cardamom, and blueberries into the batter. I served up stacks of them, smothered in maple syrup, with an extra handful of berries tumbling over the top. With a couple of strips of bacon on the side, I may officially be a pancake convert.

Adapted from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything

2 c. flour
1 T. baking powder
1 T. sugar
cinnamon to taste
cardamom to taste
1/2 t. salt
1-2 eggs
1 1/2-2 c. milk
2 T.  butter, melted and cooled
1 c. blueberries

Whisk dry ingredients together in a  large bowl. In a smaller bowl, combine milk, eggs, and butter. Mix the wet ingredients into the dry, being careful not to overmix. Don't worry if there are some lumps.

Heat up a griddle and melt some butter over medium heat. Ladle pancake batter onto the griddle, whatever size you like. After they've cooked for a minute or two, drop some blueberries onto each cake. When they are nicely browned on the bottom and bubbly on the top, flip and cook for another 3-4 minutes on the other side. Serve with butter, syrup, and more berries.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Pan-roasted chicken with tomatoes and olives

While there are advantages to being the younger sibling (parents are more lax, you don't have to babysit anyone, and you can usually learn from your older sib's social and fashion mistakes), there are disadvantages too. For one thing, you're rarely the first to do something. You pretty much have to watch your older sibling give something a go, and then later, sometimes much later, depending on your age difference, try it yourself. Second, hand-me-downs. And third, your tastes are often overrun by your older brother or sister.

My sister was very nice to me growing up, especially considering that we are four years apart and she could have completely ignored me. Rather, she would frequently include me when she and her friends played together. Our favorite activity in elementary school was dressing up as vampires and roller skating around the neighborhood--a game wittily named, you might have guessed, "Roller Skating Vampires." Since I was the littlest, I was cast as Baby Vampire, a role I like to think I played with great aplomb.

But she did dominate me in the food department, particularly when it came to pizza. We would always,  always get olives and salami as toppings.

I don't know why I didn't speak up more, but I never liked either olives or salami. I would have much preferred sausage or mushrooms or even what passed for exotic in the 80s--Hawaiian pizza bearing canned pineapple and Canadian bacon. So for many years, probably until I reached junior high, I did not like pizza, because I associated it with olives and salami, two ingredients I found overbearingly salty.

I did eventually come around to pizza, but it took me longer to like olives and salami. Salami, I realized at some point in high school, was pretty good, but only cold. I still don't like it hot. Olives began to interest me in my 20s, when I discovered there were actually countless varieties, the majority of which are not shiny and black, and do not come in cans.

Now I eat olives all the time. I like mild, pale green ones stuffed with blue cheese, inky purple kalamatas, and my favorite: wrinkled oil-cured olives. They are delicious plain, or served alongside some Cowgirl Creamery Mt. Tam cheese. Or, they provide a fabulous, salty bite to pan-roasted chicken with rosemary and cherry tomatoes.

Pan-roasted chicken with rosemary, cherry tomatoes and olives
Adapted from Marcella Hazan's Marcella Cucina

8 pieces of chicken (I use thighs)
2  T olive oil
2 t. minced rosemary
4-5 whole peeled garlic cloves
1/4 t. red pepper flakes (or to taste)
1/2 c. white wine
24 cherry tomatoes
12 oil-cured black olives
salt and pepper

Sprinkle both sides of the chicken with salt and pepper.

In a large skillet that can accommodate all the chicken pieces, heat oil, rosemary, and garlic over medium-high heat. Once the rosemary and garlic begin to fry, add the chicken pieces, skin-side down. Brown well on one side, then turn and brown the other, about 5 minutes per side. Add red pepper and toss the entire contents of the pan.

Add the wine and scrape the pan as it bubbles away. Turn the heat down to low, cover the pan, and cook for about 25-30 minutes, stirring occasionally. If at any time there seems to be insufficient liquid, add a few tablespoons of water.

When the chicken is done (it should be nearly falling off the bone, according to Marcella, although I stop cooking it before it reaches this stage), add the tomatoes and the olives. Cook for another minute or two until the tomatoes burst. Serve at once with rice or polenta.

Friday, July 9, 2010

A hiatus, a flop, and a winner

What a bad blogger I am! A week goes by and I've got nothing for you. Not even a photo. In my defense, a few things have contributed to my empty-handedness. One, our oven died. For those of you who live in hot places, an oven crapping out in the summer would be no big deal. Here, where it's coldest in July (I just walked the dog wearing my wool beanie), I use the oven a ton in the summer. Turns out it will take 2-3 weeks to get fixed. I guess this is what it takes for me to quit eating so much cake.

We also spent part of the week at my mom's house while she is on vacation. Where she lives is warm and flat and there are no stairs to carry the dog up and down. It's an exceedingly nice place to visit, although living in suburbia is not for me.

Although I did some cooking while we were there, I neglected to document any of it. The one thing I did make that I hoped to blog about, some little berry shortcakes for the 4th of July, didn't turn out well, and the photo was a joke (I'm nothing without my EGO light). The biscuits were flat and dry, and that was all there was to the recipe. Mixing berries with a few tablespoons of sugar does not really add up to baking. I enjoyed the whipped vanilla cream though.

I do have a winner to announce from last week's contest. I loved all of your comments, as always, and would have liked to send each of you that gift certificate. But ultimately, I chose the response that my mind kept returning to. DS wrote:

"As in the example of Midnight’s Children, this may not count as a food-related book, but I always think of the decadent and nostalgic description of coffee in George Orwell’s 1984. I love coffee. And if I found myself in an apocalyptic age, I might also consider risking my life for real coffee, bread and sugar. When I’m brewing a cup, I often think of Orwell’s coffee description and how grateful I am that while we may not have a single-payer universal health care plan, our government has yet to impose “Victory Coffee” and saccharine on the masses. For Orwell, coffee is so good that in his imagined autocratic state, it was considered contraband."

Full disclosure, DS is a friend of mine in real life. But that's not why I chose her response. I just found it to be very thoughtful and intelligent (like DS herself) and it did make me want to reread 1984. Not a food book, but still. I almost didn't choose DS because it seems like you're not supposed to pick your friend as the winner. But, doesn't that seem discriminatory in its own way? And hell, it's my blog. So congratulations, Deborah, the gift certificate is yours.

And happy weekend to you all!

Friday, July 2, 2010

A book, a cake, and a giveaway

First off, I've got a giveaway for you! This one is particularly good, because the prize is a $60 gift certificate to CSN stores, where you can find any number of fabulous kitchen goodies. Yes, that means if you win, you can buy whatever your hungry little heart desires. The sales rep appealed to my vanity by telling me I was a preferred blogger based on the success of my previous giveaway.  So here I am, plugging their website, mostly for you but a little for me.

More about the giveaway in a moment. I also want to talk about a book, and a cake.

I recently read Molly Wizenberg's A Homemade Life. I'm sure this book needs no introduction to most of you; she's every blogger's envy. Who doesn't want their humble blog to take off like wildfire and lead to a book, a  column in Bon Appetit, and her very own restaurant?

I enjoyed the book, although I've never gotten hooked on Wizenberg's blog, Orangette. I know I'm in the minority here. It's probably more a reflection of my idiotic need to resist what has been deemed great by the masses than anything else. But I was hesitant about the book for other reasons: I'm still young enough to be skeptical of someone younger than me writing a memoir. But she pulls it off neatly enough. I can't say I liked the book as much as some other food-related books I've read, like Heat or  The Sweet Life in Paris, but I finished it. That means something, because I'm not afraid of putting a book down and walking away forever. You might think this is terrible, but I see it as cutting my losses. I already have to work for a living; shouldn't the rest of my time be spent doing things that are fun?

Beyond the writing, a sensible test for a book like this is: do the recipes work? Wizenberg doesn't plug A Homemade Life as a cookbook, but sprinkled throughout are lots of recipes, some of them unusual, and many of them delicious-sounding. I decided to give her  chocolate cake a try.

The cake only calls for five ingredients, which wooed me right away. And it didn't require anything being at room temperature, which made it possible for me to throw it together on a whim the other night as I was heating up leftovers for dinner. Nothing gets you through a plate of reheated roast chicken like the promise of warm chocolate cake for dessert.

The cake turned out very nicely indeed, although I underbaked it by a sliver. For my taste (and the husband's) it was a little too gooey. Next time I'd let it go another 2-3 minutes. But it was delicious nonetheless and pushed over the edge of decency with a scoop of coffee ice cream. I shall certainly be making this simple, rich cake again.

Now, for the giveaway. Tell me what your favorite food-related book is and why. Don't forget to be clever, because I will be judging you, fiercely. Winner gets a $60 gift certificate to CSN. Ready? Go.

Molly Wizenberg's chocolate cake
From A Homemade Life

7 oz. bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped (I used a combination of bittersweet and semisweet)
1 3/4 sticks (7 oz) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2" cubes
1 c. plus 2 T. granulated sugar
5 large eggs
1 T. flour
Lightly sweetened whipped cream, for serving (or ice cream)

Preheat the oven to 375 and butter an 8-inch round cake pan. Line the bottom of the pan with a round of parchment paper and butter the paper, too.

Put the chocolate and butter in a medium microwavable bowl. Microwave on high for 30 seconds at a time, stirring often, until just smooth. Alternatively (this is what did),  melt the chocolate and butter in a double boiler or heatproof bowl set over, but not touching, barely simmering water. When the mixture is smooth, add the sugar, stirring well to incorporate. Set the batter aside to cool for 5 minutes. Then add the eggs one by one, stirring well after each addition. Add the  flour and stir to mix well. The batter should be dark and silky.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for about 25 minutes, or until the top is lightly crackled, the edges are puffed, and the center of the cake looks set. Molly recommends setting the timer for 20 minutes to start with and then checking the cake every two minutes after until it's done. She says: "At 20 minutes, the center of the cake is usually still quite jiggly; you'll know it's done when the center only jiggles slightly, if at all. " I took mine out after 25 and wished I'd left it a bit longer; it will depend on your oven and how gooey you like your cake.

Remove the cake from the oven to a cooling rack and let it cool in the pan for 15 minutes. Carefully turn it out using the following method: Place a sheet of aluminum foil over the pan and place a large, flat plate (not the serving plate) on top of the foil, facing down. Hold the cake pan and plate firmly together and quickly flip them. The pan should now be on top of the cake with the foil between them. Remove the pan, revealing the upside-down cake. Peel off the parchment paper. Place the serving plate atop the cake, flip and remove the foil. Cool completely before serving (or don't.)