IndriVanilla Beans & Buttermilk Panna Cotta

indri vanilla beans

Until about a month ago, I had altogether stopped purchasing vanilla beans. I couldn’t justify paying $12 for a single bean — a desiccated looking one at that — at the grocery store when I could substitute vanilla extract with little harm done.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered IndriVanilla, a source for Fair Trade, organically grown vanilla beans at beyond reasonable prices — I ordered 19 beans online for a grand total of $13.50 including shipping. The beans arrived just days after I placed the order, their beautiful fleshy bodies visible through the cryovacked pack.

I didn’t want to break the seal, but I couldn’t resist. I snipped the corner, releasing a waft of vanilla aroma, and pulled out the bundle of tightly nestled glistening beans. But holding the pods in my hands wasn’t enough, nor was inhaling their perfume as I ran them under my nose. I grabbed my knife and made an incision, prying open the seam with the blade to reveal the caviar. Vanilla caviar — it’s an incredible sight. How could these beans cost only 50 cents a piece?

I contacted the company to learn more. The owner of IndriVanilla buys the beans directly from a farmer in Indonesia at his asking price. Without a middleman involved in the exchange, prices stay low. What’s more, this family-run co-op practices sustainable growing methods, using sheep to fertilize the crops and to control insect populations, precluding the need for pesticides, insecticides or synthetic fertilizers. While this farm has been growing organically for over ten years, they are not yet certified, the high cost of certification prohibiting the process at the moment.

So many recipes — Balzano apple cake, vanilla ice cream, homemade vanilla extract — flashed in my mind as I stared at that split-open bean, but I decided on panna cotta, a recipe I’ve been meaning to revisit after recently discovering my go-to recipe to be too sweet. I found this Claudia Fleming recipe on Saveur.com and frankly can’t find a thing wrong with it. Creamy, beautiful and delicious, it’s a perfect medium for showcasing these beans.

I know it’s still January, and we really shouldn’t be thinking about creamy desserts just yet, but keep this one in mind for Valentine’s Day, which is right around the corner. Those of you who have already made panna cotta know that it doesn’t get much more simple than this in the dessert department. It can be made ahead — several days in advance in fact — and the only cooking involved is bringing a little cream to a boil.

And if you don’t have time to whip anything up for a special someone, I think these beans alone would make a lovely gift. A bundle of vanilla beans, perhaps tied with a red ribbon? It doesn’t get much more romantic than that.

buttermilk panna cotta

buttermilk panna cotta

indri vanilla beans

pot of cream

strainer

whisking

buttermilk panna cotta

This is how the vanilla beans arrive — in a nice cryovacked pack. After you break the seal and are ready to store the remaining beans you are not using, it’s important to get the beans back into an air-sealed environment. If you have a FoodSaver, that is ideal, but that could become a pain if you are planning on using the beans frequently. The owner of IndriVanilla advises coiling them up and storing them in a glass jar with a rubberized lid and coiled ring. I bundled mine up really tightly in plastic wrap and then stored them in a mason jar. They seem to be staying very fresh. Pictured below are the premium beans — I have yet to open these beauties.
IndriVanilla beans

empty ramekin

Buttermilk Panna Cotta
Source: Claudia Fleming via Saveur
SERVES 6

Notes from Saveur: This recipe is adapted from one in Claudia Fleming’s The Last Course (Random House, 2001). Panna cotta means cooked cream.

1 1/2 tsp. unflavored gelatin
1 1/4 cups heavy cream*
7 tbsp. sugar
1/2 vanilla pod, split lengthwise
1 3/4 cups buttermilk

*If you want to lighten it up a bit, you could substitute whole milk (probably even 1% or 2%) for the heavy cream. This might alter the texture a bit, but I imagine the flavor will still be nice.

1. Soften gelatin in 1 tbsp. cold water in a medium bowl for about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, put cream and sugar into a small saucepan. Scrape seeds from vanilla pod into pan, then add pod. Heat cream over medium heat, stirring until sugar dissolves, 3–5 minutes, then stir into bowl with gelatin. Stir in buttermilk, then strain into another bowl.

2. Divide custard between six 8-oz. ramekins and refrigerate until set, about 3 hours. To unmold, dip ramekins into a dish of hot water, then invert custards onto plates. (Note: I don’t invert — I prefer serving the panna cotta in their ramekins with a spoon.) Garnish with raspberries or other fruit, if you like.

empty ramekin

26. January 2012 by Alexandra Stafford
Categories: Desserts | 19 comments

Cauliflower and Apple Soup with Olive Oil-Fried Bread

cauliflower and apple soup with olive oil-fried bread

Cauliflower eluded my kitchen for far too long. I discovered it only about a year ago, in roasted form at high heat tossed with nothing but olive oil and kosher salt, a method which produces perfectly charred salty florets, addictive bites that lead me to eat heads of cauliflower in single sittings.

Today, while those crispy bits have lost none of their allure, I find myself most enjoying cauliflower in the form of a velvety smooth puréed soup. This recipe calls for simmering cauliflower in milk with an apple and a few strands of pasta, the milk and apple included to temper the cauliflower’s intensity, the pasta to provide just enough starch to ensure a creamy texture when the mixture is puréed. Interesting, right? Once again, I have Sally Schneider to thank for this recipe, which really is more of a method than anything, one that could be applied to a countless number of vegetables — turnips, carrots, rutabaga, celery root, to name a few.

This recipe begins as a purée — the cauliflower and apple are strained from the cooking liquid and blended until smooth — which is delicious on its own and would be a nice accompaniment to duck or roast chicken or any meat really. To make the soup, the reserved cooking liquid is simply whisked into the purée, heated, and garnished. Both the purée and the soup are silky smooth in texture, and for containing just a few teaspoons of butter, taste incredibly creamy.

While this recipe does call for milk, apparently, I am learning, the milk is optional. After reading Food52′s post about Paul Bertolli’s cauliflower soup, made with nothing but a head of cauliflower, an onion and water, I questioned the necessity of milk. My friend Darcy, too, confirmed that a creamy texture can indeed be achieved with no cream at all. But I couldn’t resist. I almost felt guilty pouring that quart of milk into the pot, PB’s recipe flashing into my mind, but I rationalized that a little 1% milk never hurt anybody and that I likely could use the calcium. That said, next up on my to-make list is PB’s soup, and for those of you looking for a vegan option for creamy cauliflower soup, know that it’s out there.

For fun, I topped the soup with some olive oil-fried bread cubes, one of Schneider’s many suggested garnishes. I took her up on another as well: a light drizzling of truffle oil. I know the economy is in the dumps, so please don’t feel this ingredient is a must, but if you happen to have a bottle on hand, perhaps on lockdown for a special occasion, maybe consider breaking it out. There’s never been a better time to open it.

cauliflower and apple

cauliflower

cauliflower and apples in soup pot

olive oil-fried bread

Cauliflower and Apple Soup
Source: Sally Schneider’s The Improvisational Cook
Yield = 3 cups, 4 servings

For the Purée:
1 medium cauliflower (1.75 lbs – 2 lbs) (Mine actually was only 1.25 lbs and it worked just fine)
1 small apple, peeled, cored and chopped
1 quart 2% or whole milk (I used 1%)
1/2 oz. angel hair pasta (about 40 strands), broken into 2-inch pieces*
1 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt
pinch of sugar
2 teaspoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon crème fraîche or heavy cream (optional — I forgot to add this)
freshly ground white pepper (I never have white pepper on hand, and black pepper works just fine, though I didn’t add any pepper at all)

* I used spaghetti, not angel hair. Schneider notes that any other dry eggless pasta, broken into pieces if necessary, will work.

Make the purée:

1. Cut the cauliflower into florets and roughly chop. You should have 7 to 8 cups. (I didn’t measure and I didn’t even chop up the florets.)

2. Transfer the cauliflower to a medium saucepan and add the apple and milk. Bring to a gentle boil over medium heat and stir in the pasta, 1 teaspoon kosher salt and the sugar. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the cauliflower is purée-tender, about 20 to 25 minutes.

3. Strain the mixture reserving the cooking liquid. Transfer the solids to a food processor or blender and purée until smooth, at least one minute, adding a tablespoon or two of the reserved cooking liquid if necessary. (Alternatively, return the solids to the pan and purée them with an immersion blender.) Let the motor run for a minute or two, scraping down the sides several times until you have a fine purée. Add the butter and crème fraîche and season with a bit more salt if necessary, white pepper (optional) and another pinch of sugar (optional). Save the remaining cooking liquid for the soup (recipe below).

Note: You can prepare the purée several hours ahead of time and reheat it (or keep it warm for a shorter time), stirring occasionally, in a double boiler.

Cauliflower Soup with Many Garnishes
Serves 4

Schneider’s Notes: This soup lends itself to an endless number of garnishes such as crisp slivered or finely diced pancetta; diced olive oil-fried bread; a dusting of fennel pollen; crispy shallots; snipped fresh chives, chervil or flat-leafed parsley; a drizzle of roasted hazelnut oil. White truffle oil, used sparingly, adds an astonishing flavor note.

1. Place cauliflower and apple purée in a medium saucepan, whisk in an equal amount of the reserved cooking liquid or chicken broth (Note: I made the soup one day with chicken stock and another with the reserved cooking liquid. Both ways are good, but I prefer the reserved cooking liquid.), and stir in a little cream. Bring to a simmer over moderate heat and adjust the seasoning. Add any of the garnishes mentioned above to each serving.

cauliflower and apple soup

20. January 2012 by Alexandra Stafford
Categories: Appetizers, Soup, Vegetarian | 28 comments

Coffeecake Muffins, Coffeehouse Style

coffeecake muffin

I like these muffin liners. I like that they can stand on their own, that I can fill one or twelve with batter, bake off as many or as few muffins as I like. I like their shape — that they create straight-sided panettone-style loaves. I like peeling away the paper from the baked muffin, unveiling the straight sides, and I like scraping with my teeth every last morsel left clinging to the bottom round. And I like — I love — that they remind me of my first few years of being in Philadelphia, when I lived just steps from Metropolitan Bakery, where I first discovered these liners wrapping so many delicious breakfast treats, namely millet muffins, my favorite.

As much as I like these pretty paper wrappings, I can assure you they are optional, merely for creating that coffeehouse baked-goods effect. I can assure you that I like what these pretty paper wrappings hold even more, especially when it’s in the form of these coffeecake muffins, a Cook’s Illustrated recipe that never fails to please.

A dear friend’s husband, a private chef, in fact, tipped me off about this recipe several years ago, and I have made it countless times since. With or without a pretty paper wrapping, these muffins, made with a cinnamon-pecan-brown sugar streusel mixed into a sour cream batter, capture the spirit of breakfast treat. It’s the weekend everybody! Woo-hoo! Brew some coffee. Make some muffins. Pretend you’re at your favorite café. You won’t be sorry you did.

coffeecake muffin

Don’t be tempted to fill these liners too high. The batter will overflow and burn on your oven floor. One scoop (standard-sized ice cream scoop) works just fine, and the batter will still climb above the tops of the liners.

Coffeecake Muffins
Source: Cooks Illustrated
Yield = 12

Notes from the Magazine: Be careful not to overprocess the batter in step 4. If you don’t have a food processor, first chop the nuts with a knife. Proceed with the recipe, mixing the ingredients in a large bowl with a wooden spoon or spatula, but use a wire whisk to work the butter into the dry ingredients in step 3.

My Notes: I made the batter the night before and baked off the muffins in the morning using these pretty coffeehouse-style muffin liners.

1/2 cup pecans (2 ounces)
1/4 cup packed dark brown sugar (1 3/4 ounces) (I used light brown sugar)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (10 ounces)
1 cup granulated sugar (7 ounces)
1 teaspoon salt (I used table salt as opposed to kosher)
8 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 stick) + 1 tablespoon (optional, see step 3), cut into 1/2-inch pieces and softened
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 cup sour cream
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease 12-cup muffin tin and set aside.

2. Process nuts, brown sugar, and cinnamon in food processor until nuts are size of sesame seeds, about ten 1-second pulses. Transfer mixture to medium bowl.

3. Return bowl and metal blade to food processor, add flour, granulated sugar, and salt and process until combined, about five 1-second pulses. Sprinkle the 1 stick of butter evenly over flour mixture and process until butter is oat-sized, about eight 1-second pulses. Remove 1 cup of flour-butter mixture and stir with fork into reserved brown sugar mixture until combined to make streusel. Set aside 3/4 cup of streusel for muffin batter and remaining portion for topping muffins. (Note: At this point I added an additional tablespoon of butter to the streusel topping because in the past I have found the streusel topping to be too sandy — not buttery and crumby enough if you know what I mean? See picture below with two ramekins.)

4. Add baking powder and baking soda to remaining flour mixture in food processor bowl and process until combined, about five 1-second pulses. Whisk together sour cream, egg, and vanilla; add to flour mixture. Process until batter is just moistened, about five 1-second pulses. Add 3/4 cup reserved streusel to flour mixture and process until streusel is just distributed throughout batter, about five 1-second pulses.

5. Divide batter among 12 muffin cups and sprinkle with streusel, pressing lightly so that streusel sinks slightly into batter. Bake until toothpick inserted in center of muffin comes out with several crumbs clinging to it, about 18 minutes (mine took more like 25 minutes, but start checking after 18 min), rotating pan from front to back halfway through baking time. Cool muffin tin on wire rack for 2 minutes. Using tip of paring knife, loosen muffins and gently transfer from tin to wire rack; cool for 5 minutes and serve warm.

Top ramekin: Crumb topping as made with original recipe. Bottom ramekin: Crumb topping made with an additional tablespoon of butter — the additional tablespoon of butter helped create a better-textured crumb in my opinion, but this step is optional. The muffins are delicious no matter what.

13. January 2012 by Alexandra Stafford
Categories: Baking, Breakfast, Olallie Cafe recipes | 37 comments

Lentil Soup + Mini Loaves = Complete Goodness

Lentil soup and homemade bread

I’ve blogged about this soup once before, but when I did, it was summer, and I doubt I inspired any of you to run off and buy lentils. But this is a soup I really want you all to make, and I’m hoping with the holidays in the past, a winter chill finally in the air, and the spirit of detox ever present, you’ll feel more inspired.

It’s a good one. I promise. For me, it’s the bite of the sherry vinegar that makes this soup, but the virtues of it are truly countless: It is completely vegetarian, vegan in fact. It cooks in one hour and takes only as long to prepare as it does to chop up some carrots, celery and onions. No vegetables are sautéed; no stock is simmered. It costs next to nothing to make and couldn’t be more healthy — lentils are high in fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals, and one cup of cooked lentils contains just 230 calories. This soup is complete goodness.

Have I sold you? I hope so. Lentil soup, homemade bread, I can’t think of a better way to kick off the New Year.

lentil soup

lentil soup ingredients

lentil soup, uncooked

dough, rising

mini loaves baked in ramekins

Lentil Soup

Yield=3 quarts or 8 generous servings

1 1/4 cups French green lentils (If you can’t find French — I couldn’t — regular lentils work just as well)
1 8oz. can + 1/2 can of tomato sauce (12 oz total, about a scant 1 1/2 cups)*
2 large onions, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 bay leaf
½ cup red wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar or sherry vinegar**
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, chopped
3 carrots, peeled and diced (about a heaping cup)
3 celery stalks, diced (about a cup)
crushed red pepper flakes to taste

*I like Pomi brand for tomato sauce, but if you can’t find Pomi, Hunt’s is also good. Don’t buy a tomato sauce that has any sort of flavorings — not even a basil leaf.

** Don’t use a fancy bottle of vinegar here — for one, it’s unnecessary, and two, it might create a vinegar taste that is overpowering. Also, you might want to start with 1/4 cup on vinegar or 1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons of vinegar, and then add more to taste. Some people have found the 1/2 cup of vinegar to be too overpowering.

1. Throw all ingredients together in a pot. Add 1½ qts. plus one cup of water (seven cups total) and bring to a boil. Skim off any scum that rises to the surface. Simmer for one hour uncovered. Stir and serve with crusty bread.

Note: On day two, much of the liquid will have been absorbed buy the lentils and veggies. Just add a little more water to the pot as you reheat and adjust the seasoning as necessary — a pinch more salt usually does the trick.

Mini Loaves

I’m afraid I’m going to have to report back on this bread recipe. These mini loaves were delectable and sort of a happy accident, a combination of recipes that yielded a very wet dough, one that needed the support of ramekins during the baking process. I don’t have a precise recipe at the moment, but just know that any simple bread recipe — this one contained just water, yeast, flour, sugar and salt — will likely bake off nicely in ramekins.

mini loaves

Lentil soup and homemade bread

05. January 2012 by Alexandra Stafford
Categories: Soup, Vegetarian | 45 comments

Glogg + Parmesan-Rosemary Crackers = New Year’s Eve in the Making

rosemary and parmigiano crackers, stacked

My stepfather has a few tricks up his sleeve, two of which he breaks out every Christmas: cornbread stuffing and glogg. His stuffing deserves a separate post — it steals the show every year — but I imagine many of you are a little stuffinged out at the moment. Am I right?

Good, let’s focus on the glogg then. The word “glogg,” Scandinavian in origin, derives from a verb meaning “to glow” or “to warm,” which is just what this hot beverage is meant to do — warm you up, get you glowing. Coming from a land where the sun shines seldom in a long winter season, glogg is meant to work immediately, which is exactly what it does. In a sort of two-pronged attack, glogg enters the system: as vapors swirl off the hot liquid up into the nose making their way to the brain, the liquid itself — a mixture of red wine, port and brandy — pours through the blood stream. This is potent stuff. This is bone-warming, rosy-cheek inducing, party-starting stuff. It’s a beautiful thing.

In my family, it’s not Christmas without glogg. And this year, it won’t be New Year’s without glogg either. I need one more round before I start drafting my resolutions. Moreover, I need something to accompany these rosemary-parmesan crackers, my latest pre-dinner fix. I discovered these a few weeks ago when I needed to make something for a potluck hors d’oeuvres party. Never knowing what to bring to these sorts of events, I opened an old classic and soon found myself in a particularly enticing chapter: crackers.

Crackers. Why make homemade, you ask? Well, this isn’t the sort of cracker meant to be topped with cheese or pâté or any sort of party spread. This is both a cheese and a cracker in one entity meant to be enjoyed on its own. Topped with a teensy sprig of rosemary, these crackers, I worried, would be too pretty to eat. But that they were not. With both beer and wine drinkers alike, they were a hit. These salty discs beg to be washed down with a heartwarming libation, and in that sense become their own little party starters themselves. Hmmm, homemade crackers + glogg? This could be dangerous. Happy New Year everyone!

glogg and parmesan rosemary crackers

cracker dough and rosemary

rosemary and parmigiano crackers

glogg ingredients

House and Garden's Drink Guide

“Aunt Betsy’s Favorite” (Glogg)
Source: House and Garden’s Drink Guide
Serves: 6 to 8

Note: My stepfather has adjusted the original recipe over the years so feel free to adjust to your liking as well.

1 bottle dry red wine (use a bottle you like, one you would drink on its own)
2 cups Tawny or Ruby Port (Chip uses Ruby)
1 cup brandy
8 to 16 tsp. sugar*
peel of 2 oranges
13 cloves
4 cinnamon sticks

*Chip adds 16 teaspoons (which is 5 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon) but start with 8 (which is 2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons) and add more to taste.

Combine all ingredients in a heavy saucepan and heat slowly without allowing the mixture to reach simmering point. Pour into punch glasses.

Parmesan-Rosemary Crackers
Source: Martha Stewart’s Hors D’Oeuvres Handbook, also available online here
Yield = 20 crackers

**Notes: Plan Ahead! The cracker dough should chill in the fridge ideally for 24 hours — my dough basically just chilled overnight, but the recipe suggests 24 hours. If you forget to make this ahead of time, try popping the dough in the freezer for two to three hours.
Also: Bake these the day you serve them. They don’t keep well.

3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon coarse salt
Pinch of white pepper (didn’t have, so didn’t use)
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh rosemary, plus extra sprigs for garnish
3 tablespoons chilled unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 cup finely grated (2 1/2 ounces) Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
5 tablespoons sour cream
1 large egg white, lightly beaten (optional — this is if you want to do the pretty rosemary garnish)

1. Combine flour, salt, pepper, and rosemary in the bowl of a food processor; pulse to combine. Add butter; pulse until mixture resembles coarse meal. Add cheese; pulse until combined. Add 1 tablespoon of the sour cream at a time, pulsing each time to combine. (Note: I added the sour cream in 2 batches…not patient enough to do 1 T. at a time.) Process until dough comes together and is well combined.

2. Transfer dough to a work surface. Shape dough into a 2-inch-wide log. Wrap with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 24 hours. (Note: I chilled mine for about 18 hours. If you are pinched for time, try chilling the dough in the freezer for 2 to 3 hours.)

3. Heat oven to 325 degrees. Slice chilled log into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Transfer slices to a parchment-lined baking sheet. Dip a sprig of rosemary into egg white, and place in center of a cracker slice; repeat with remaining rosemary and crackers. (Note: The rosemary garnish is optional – it’s purely for decorative purposes.) Bake immediately, rotating sheet once, until crackers are golden brown and firm in the center, 25 to 35 minutes. (My crackers took 25 minutes.) Transfer to a rack to cool.

punch glasses

30. December 2011 by Alexandra Stafford
Categories: Appetizers, Baking, Cheese, Drinks, Hors d'oeuvres, Vegetarian | 17 comments

Rum Balls — So Easy, So Pretty, So Delicious

rum balls in gift box

It’s December 23rd. I’ll keep this brief. Rum balls are delicious. They are perfect for a crowd. They are perfect as a gift. They are perfect little bites of boozy goodness. I can’t think of a more perfect treat to have on hand this time of year.

What’s more, the batter takes all of about 5 minutes to whip up (if you have a food processor) and shaping, about 20 minutes more. I’m certainly not trying to make more work for you, but if you’re still on the prowl for one more treat to add to your dessert spread or if you need a last-minute host/hostess gift or if you just plain forgot to make rum balls this year, there’s still time. Get busy. You won’t be sorry you did.

Happy Holidays Everyone!

Also, just a reminder, if you’re interested in winning Food52′s Holiday Recipe and Survival Guide iPad app and haven’t yet left a comment offering your entertaining advice, do so here.

rum balls

Feeding rum balls to small children is probably not advisable. Ella, however, was never happier:
Ella, sneaking a rum ball

Rum Balls
Yield = 40

3+ cups vanilla wafers (I ended up using a whole box (12 oz))
1+ cups confectioners sugar (plus more for rolling)
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
2 tablespoons white corn syrup
2/3 cup rum

1. Place vanilla wafers in a food processor and pulse into fine crumbs. There might be a few large pieces that don’t catch the blade at this step, but they’ll eventually end up getting pulverized, so don’t worry. (Alternatively, place vanilla wafers into a Ziploc bag and bash them with a rolling pin until they are fine pieces).

2. Add confectioners sugar, cocoa and corn syrup and pulse till combined. At this step, you could do one of two things:

A. Add all of the rum and pulse, which will likely leave you with a mixture that is too wet to form into balls, and which will require you to add more vanilla wafers and perhaps more confectioners sugar. This is what I did, and I ended up correcting the texture by adding all of the remaining vanilla wafers from the box as well as a 1/4 cup more confectioners sugar.

or B. Slowly add the rum to the food processor until the mixture comes together and you are able to form small little balls using a teaspoon. This is what I’ll do the next time I make them.

3. Using a teaspoon (I used a measuring spoon teaspoon), scoop out balls from the processor, roll them gently with your hands into irregular shaped balls, and drop them into a plate (or shallow tupperware) filled with a thin layer of powdered sugar. Shake the vessel to coat the balls, then transfer balls to storage container until you are ready to serve them. I store mine in the fridge — not sure this is necessary, but I like the texture the rum balls get once they are chilled a bit.

Notes: When I first began forming the balls, I used a mini scoop — it’s one that I find perfect for making truffles. It was not working so perfectly with this dough, which is a little stickier than truffle dough (batter? whatever you want to call it). If you have one of these scoops, you could try using it, but I had better luck just using a teaspoon.

rum balls

23. December 2011 by Alexandra Stafford
Categories: Desserts | 13 comments

Cheddar Biscuits + Food52′s Holiday Survival Guide iPad App Giveway

leftover ham & arugula sandwich on cheddar biscuit with mustard sauce

My family is arriving in 6 days, and I cannot wait. It has been too long since we have all been together — too long since I’ve heard my mother declare her beautiful dinner both over and undercooked and in any case ruined; too long since I’ve watched my sister excuse herself from dinner early, singing The Messiah as she curls up on the couch, signaling she is too, too tired to clean up; and too long since I have found myself in the kitchen, dish towel in hand, surrounded by the usual dutiful crew. Family, I love you so much and cannot wait to have you here.

What I’m most looking forward to, however, is not our big Christmas Day feast, but the days following, when the fridge will be stocked with the most scrumptious leftovers, and when out of the freezer and into the oven will go these buttermilk biscuits, the perfect vessel for housing slices of ham or turkey or roast beef, handfuls of arugula, and a slathering of mustard sauce (so delicious, a must-know sauce if you’re serving ham, see recipe below).

The biscuit recipe comes from Food52′s Holiday Recipe and Survival Guide iPad app, which is awesome and which, if you are interested, can be yours, too — just share your own holiday entertaining tips in the comment section below for a chance to win (Food52 is awarding five promo codes to the best entertaining tips, culled from everyone’s blog post comments).

Are you curious about the app? I was, too. Before I downloaded it, I wondered how it would differ from visiting the Food52 website — if many of the recipes in the app are available on the website, why would downloading the app be necessary? I’m probably stating the obvious for many of you, but for any of you app newbies, the difference is all about the experience. After just 15 minutes with the app, navigating from section to section became as natural as turning to my go-to recipe in a favorite cookbook, an experience you often don’t get with a website. Moreover, because the app is designed for the iPad, it’s lightning fast, so navigating from one chapter to another is instant. Truthfully — and I hate to admit it because I love my cookbooks — finding a recipe in the app is easier than finding one in a cookbook. And finally, because the app is a holiday survival guide, all of the content — recipes, videos, event checklists — is holiday specific. In other words, (and again, I’m stating the obvious) you’ve got it all in one place — how to carve a turkey, how to stock your bar, how to plan ahead — so you’re not wasting time jumping from one website to another, bookmarking various pages, printing recipes from this site and that.

I don’t need to tell you all how much I love Food52 — I’ve done it many times in the past (like here and here). I find their video clips to be very helpful. The first one I watched on peeling tomatoes led me to discover Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce (also known as the world’s greatest tomato sauce). The one included below — How to Make Three Minute Gravy — is another goodie.

So, do you have any great entertaining tips? I’ve got one: use the freezer. These biscuits bake beautifully straight from the freezer. No thawing is necessary, just a few minutes more in the oven and you’ve got the makings of the best breakfast sandwich, an irresistible lunch, or a perfect dipper for any wintry soup or stew. Yum.

biscuits, cut, with eggwash

cheddar biscuits, just out of the oven

dough, just out of the mixer

dough and biscuit cutters

Bake these biscuits straight from the freezer — no thawing is necessary, just increase the cooking time by 2 to 3 minutes:

cheddar biscuit, baked straight from the freezer

Are you making a ham this holiday? If so, make this mustard sauce, too. It is so delicious and so simple to prepare — it’s a matter of bringing a few ingredients to a boil and then passing the mixture through a strainer. It’s fantastic for leftover ham sandwiches.

straining mustard sauce

totally delicious mustard sauce

sandwich ingredients

Cheddar Biscuits

Source: Food52

Below is the recipe from the Food52 website, but I encourage you all to read through the comments and questions about this recipe on the Food52 website — I found the comment section very helpful.

Makes 10 to 12 large biscuits

3 1/2 cups minus 1 teaspoon all-purpose flour, plus more for shaping
2 tablespoons baking powder
2 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt*
9 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon cold unsalted butter (use a good brand, like Plugra, with a high butterfat content)
2 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese
1 3/4 cup buttermilk
1 large egg

*Some people who commented on the food52 website found the biscuits to be too salty. We definitely did not, but if you are sensitive to salt, perhaps reduce the salt to 2 tsp or less.

1. Combine the flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl and put it in the fridge for 20 to 30 minutes. In the meantime, cut the butter into chunks and leave out at room temperature (you want it malleable, but not soft).

2. Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat it to 400 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Combine the chilled dry ingredients, the cheese and the butter in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Mix on low speed for a few minutes, until the chunks of butter are no bigger than a large pea – or a small bean. (In the oven, the water in the chunks of butter creates steam, which in turn will creates lovely pockets of air within the biscuits.)

3. Add the buttermilk to the bowl and mix on low just until the dough comes together. Turn the dough out onto a floured board, dust your fingers with flour and gently knead it a few times. Quickly and carefully pat the dough into a large rectangle about 1/2 an inch thick.

4. Dip a 3-inch round cutter with sharp edges in flour and then cut the biscuits using an even downward motion, without twisting the cutter. Transfer the rounds of dough to the baking sheets, leaving an inch or two of space between them. When you’ve cut the first batch of biscuits, gently pat the dough into another rectangle and cut a few more — discard the dough or add the funky leftover shapes to the baking sheets after the second batch is cut (if you shape the dough a third time, the biscuits will be tough).

5. Beat the egg with a splash of water (if you’re feeling fancy, you can then pass it through a fine mesh sieve to get rid of any clumps of egg white that might burn). Brush the tops of the biscuits lightly with egg wash* and bake for about 20 minutes, rotating halfway through, until the biscuits are a deep golden brown. Cool for a few minutes on the baking sheets but serve them while still warm!

*At this point you can stick your prepared pan in the freezer. Once the biscuits are frozen, transfer them to a freezer bag to store. When you are ready to bake, there is no need to thaw the biscuits. Just bake them straight from the freezer. I had to cook mine about 3 minutes longer when baking them from the freezer. And I did apply the egg wash before freezing them — worked beautifully.

Mustard Sauce

In my family, this mustard sauce is as essential as the ham on the holiday table. It’s another one of those sauces your guests will want to bathe in.

1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
4 tablespoons dry mustard
4 egg yolks
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup heavy cream

1. Place a strainer over a medium-sized bowl (able to hold about 2 cups of liquid). Combine all ingredients in a saucepan. Bring to a boil while monitoring closely and stirring often. As soon as the mixture comes to boil, pour it through the strainer into the bowl. Let cool, then cover with plastic wrap and place in the fridge.

leftover ham and arugula sandwich on cheddar biscuit with mustard sauce

19. December 2011 by Alexandra Stafford
Categories: Baking, Bread, Sauces, dressings, jams & spreads | 30 comments

Cranberry Buttermilk Breakfast Cake

buttermilk cranberry breakfast cake

I’m starting to panic. Family will be arriving any moment (9 more days), and I am so not prepared. The biscotti jar is empty; the granola bin, bare. No gifts have been assembled. The house is a sty, getting messier by the day.

Somehow, however, I’ve crossed one to-do off my growing list. In an effort to figure out what to bake on Christmas morning, I turned to an old standby and swapped cranberries for the blueberries, orange zest for the lemon, and increased the sugar a teensy bit. It worked beautifully! Not too sweet, festively studded with cranberries, this cake will be wonderful on Christmas morning. Best of all, I made the batter the night before and baked the cake in the morning. If you’re not a cranberry fan, you could stick to frozen blueberries, a substitution many of you have had success with — thanks for all of your tips and suggestions.

One last thing, I’ve made a new page, “The Essentials” (see above), where I’ve collected all of my favorite recipes, techniques, how-to’s, etc. The “recipe archive” page was getting a bit unwieldy, and my hope with this page is to provide an easier way to find just what you might be looking for.

And one very last thing, be sure to check back Monday if you are interested in winning a free download of the Food52 Holiday Recipe & Survival Guide iPad app. I’m partaking in this contest.

cranberry buttermilk breakfast cake

cranberries and orange zest

Cranberry Buttermilk Breakfast Cake
Serves 6-8

Notes: This recipe is essentially the Buttermilk Blueberry Breakfast Cake recipe but with cranberries swapped for the blueberries. I increased the sugar to 1 cup (from 7/8 cup) b/c cranberries are a bit tart and substituted orange zest for the lemon zest. If you don’t like cranberries, many people have had luck with frozen blueberries — glance through the comments over here for tips.

Also, this batter can be prepared the night before. Don’t store it in the pan you plan on baking it in — store it in tupperware of some sort, then transfer to a greased pan in the morning.

½ cup unsalted butter, room temperature
the zest from 1 orange zest
1 cup + 1 tablespoon sugar
1 egg, room temperature
1 tsp. vanilla
2 cups flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. kosher salt
2 cups fresh cranberries
½ cup buttermilk

1. Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Cream butter with orange zest and 1 cup of the sugar until light and fluffy.

2. Add the egg and vanilla and beat until combined. Meanwhile, toss the cranberries with 2 tablespoons of flour, then whisk together the remaining flour, baking powder and salt.

3. Add the flour mixture to the batter a little at a time, alternating with the buttermilk. Fold in the cranberries.

4. Grease a 9-inch square baking pan (or something similar) with butter or coat with non-stick spray. Spread batter into pan. Sprinkle batter with remaining tablespoon of sugar. Bake for 35 minutes, then check for doneness by touching the top gently or by inserting a toothpick. If necessary, return pan to oven, check every five minutes or so — it took my cake a little bit over 45 minutes to cook. (Note: Baking for as long as 50 minutes might be necessary, especially if you made the batter in advance.) Let cool at least 15 minutes before serving.

One of the most frequently asked questions about the buttermilk blueberry breakfast cake was if the batter could be prepared the night before. Several of you attempted and had success, so I tried it with this one. It worked perfectly — thanks!

Store batter in a tupperware overnight, then transfer to prepared pan in the morning:

batter for buttermilk cranberry breakfast cake

16. December 2011 by Alexandra Stafford
Categories: Baking, Breakfast | 105 comments

Date Night at Home? Seared Duck Breast with Port Wine Reduction; Duck Hunting at Pine Island in Louisiana

seared and sauced duck breast

Seared Duck Breast with Port Wine Reduction — it’s a dish fit for a bistro menu. Truly, the sauce tastes as if it took hours to prepare, as if pans loaded with veal bones had to be roasted, as if those bones then had to simmer into a rich stock, and as if that stock had to reduce to a syrup. It’s the sort of sauce that elicits comments such as, “I could bathe in this.” I promise you, anyone could make this sauce. It’s foolproof.

The sauce, incredibly, has only three ingredients — port wine, shallots and chicken stock. Admittedly, a 750-ml bottle of port — cheap port but port nonetheless — gets reduced by more than half. And making it does require a bit of love, by which I mean time, about an hour total. This is not a sauce you want to casually dip your grilled burger into (as fantastic as that sounds). It’s a sauce you want to reserve for a special occasion, perhaps a date night at home?

It’s certainly a good recipe to have in your repertoire. It comes from Sally Schneider’s A New Way to Cook, one of my all-time favorite cookbooks. The spice rub recipe, a mixture of orange zest, thyme, salt, pepper and sugar, is a must-know as well. It’s simple yet critical for tenderizing the meat and imparting a subtle orange flavor, which complements duck so well.

Until about a month ago, when my husband returned from a duck hunting trip at Pine Island in Louisiana, I hadn’t cooked a duck breast in years. Duck is so yummy! I had forgotten. It has been such a treat having such incredibly tasty meat on hand. And while these breasts hardly need additional seasoning, the spice rub and sauce transform a simple seared piece of meat into a bistro-style entrée.

Unfortunately, I can’t prescribe a foolproof method for cooking the duck breasts. With a poor ventilation system and a smoke detector located just inches from our kitchen, we’ve developed a cooking method that foremost prevents the house from burning down. We start the breasts stovetop in a cast iron skillet and finish them in a 450ºF oven, flipping them once, cooking them no more than five minutes total. When the breasts are resting, we finish reducing the sauce, pour some wine, and prepare for date night at home. It’s fun. I think you’d enjoy it, too.

seared and sauced duck breast

Bags of cryovaced duck breast from Pine Island Hunting Camp.
duck breasts from Pine Island Hunting Camp in Louisiana

The husband, surrounded by dogs, never happier:
the husband, with dogs, never happier

morning at Pine Island Hunting Camp

Pine Island Lodge

Some good southern cooking — fried soft shell crabs, fried oysters, fried shrimp. Apparently there were some incredible biscuits, too. I’m just a little jealous.

some good southern cooking

The rub — a mix of orange zest, thyme, salt, pepper and sugar — for the duck breasts.
the rub — orange zest, thyme, salt, pepper and sugar

the rub — orange zest, thyme, salt, pepper and sugar

breasts with rub

breasts with rub

shallots and port wine reduction sauce

Duck Breast with Port Wine Sauce
Source: Sally Schneider’s A New Way to Cook

Notes: I cannot give you a foolproof way of cooking your duck breasts. I’ve described what we do below to yield a perfectly medium-rare duck breast from our kitchen, but every piece of meat is different, every oven is different, every pan is different, etc. There are so many factors and truthfully, we ruined several duck breasts before we figured out just how to get it right. The rub and the sauce recipes below, however, are simple and foolproof.

The Rub

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground pepper (Schneider does a mix of 1/4 tsp each of black and white peppercorns)
4 allspice berries (I didn’t have any so didn’t use any)
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon grated orange zest (I used the zest of one whole orange)
1/4 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

2 duck breasts*

Port wine sauce (recipe below)

*Schneider recommends boneless Moulard or Muscovy duck breast halves (3/4 to 1 pound each) or 4 boneless Pekin duck breast halves (about 6 ounces each). She also recommends removing the fat, which I have to disagree with — I think the fat adds nice flavor and helps protect the meat during the cooking process.

1. Schneider’s recipe calls for a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder because she started with whole peppercorns and allspice berries. I simply stirred my salt, freshly ground pepper, sugar, zest and thyme in a small bowl. It worked just fine. The mixture should look like sand.

2. Place the duck breasts on a platter and rub the spice mixture into them. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight. About 20 minutes before cooking, remove the duck breasts from the refrigerator and return to room temperature. Preheat the oven to 450ºF. Pat dry with paper towels. With a paring knife, remove the tenderloin, the thin strip of meat that runs lengthwise down the underside of each breast.

3. Heat a cast iron skillet over high heat. When the pan is hot — it doesn’t have to be smoking — put the duck breasts in fat side down. Let the breasts sizzle for about a minute (or longer if your kitchen isn’t getting too smoky) or a minute and a half, then place the pan in the oven. After two and half minutes total have passed, open the oven, flip the breasts over, close the oven and cook for another two to two and a half minutes. Remove the pan from the oven, transfer the breasts to a platter, and let rest for five minutes. Turn your oven off.

4. While the breasts are resting, finish reducing the sauce. (See my notes below with the sauce recipe — I make the sauce a day in advance, and then heat as much as I think we need for the two of us while the breasts are resting.) Place your sauce in a small sauce pan or frying pan and heat over medium-high heat. In no time, the sauce should start to thicken up, at which point you should remove the pan from the stovetop. Slice the breasts, if desired, and pour your beautiful sauce over top. (Or, don’t slice the breasts, just pour the sauce over top.)

Port Wine Sauce
Yield = 1/2 to 2/3 cup, about 4 to 6 servings

Notes: I make the sauce a day in advance and in the final reducing phase, I only reduce it to about a cup versus a half cup. Then, when I am serving the duck, since it is usually just for my husband and me, I pour about a half cup of the sauce into a sauce pan and reduce that amount to a syrup, which is more than enough for two servings. And then, on a subsequent night, I have more sauce with which to do the same thing. Am I making sense? Please contact me if you have questions.

One 750-millilter bottle Ruby Port (I couldn’t find Ruby Port, so I just bought the cheapest port I could find at the grocery store.)
2 shallots, thinly sliced
1/2 cup unsalted homemade or canned low-sodium chicken stock

In a heavy medium saucepan, combine the port and shallots and bring to a gentle boil over moderately low heat. Cook until the port has reduced to 1 cup, about 30 minutes.

Strain into a small saucepan and add the chicken stock. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer, and cook until reduced to about 1/2 to 2/3 cup, about 15 minutes longer. Serve hot.

The sauce will keep up to 1 month refrigerated in a tightly closed jar.

The duck, pre saucing:
seared duck breast

09. December 2011 by Alexandra Stafford
Categories: Entrees, Meat, Sauces, dressings, jams & spreads | 10 comments

Baker’s Twine, Wreaths & Preparing for the Holidays

baker's twine from Paper & Linen

One year, in preparation for the holiday baking season, I ordered a case of stationery boxes. A case consists of one hundred stationery boxes. One hundred stationery boxes takes up a lot of space, especially when you’re living in a one-bedroom Philadelphia apartment. One hundred stationery boxes, too, is a lot of boxes. What was I thinking? That case traveled across Philadelphia (moving into an equally tiny apartment) and then moved 3,000 miles across the country with us to CA. Seeing the movers unload that box in sunny CA was a bit troubling for my husband.

But the boxes were fantastic. They’re a perfect size for packaging homemade truffles, toffee, biscotti, chocolate-dipped peanut butter balls, you name it. If storage weren’t an issue, I would always have stationery boxes on hand.

But there’s something else I find even more valuable to have on hand this time of year: baker’s twine. I love this stuff. A little baker’s twine is all a Ball jar or a cellophane bag or a metal-ringed gift tag needs to become holiday-ready. I ordered mine last week on Etsy from Paper and Linen. It arrived on Saturday and made my day. What’s more, it will likely last as long as the stationery boxes and can be stored in my desk drawer — that made my husband’s day.

One last thing. I’ve made a pin board for homemade food gifts. I think I’ll be making the usual this year: rosemary shortbread, granola, and boozy chocolate truffles. Fun fun.

Oh, one very last thing. I just saw that Gilt Taste is offering 5-cent shipping throughout December on a bunch of items. This could be dangerous.

Over the weekend I made a wreath. It’s a little wonky at the moment — definitely needs some tending to — but it was a fun little project and didn’t take too much time. I basically just wired bunches of fresh greens (I forget what they’re called — they were in the wreath section of Home Depot) to a straw wreath I had purchased at Michael’s. And then in various places I wove in some fake holly berries (also purchased at Michael’s).

my wreath

Here’s a wreath I made a few years ago while working at Cafe Mimosa in San Clemente, where I had access to an endless supply of corks. This was also a fun project, just a bit more time consuming. Here’s how to do it.

cork wreath

05. December 2011 by Alexandra Stafford
Categories: Baking, craft | 6 comments

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