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

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

Kristina’s Molasses Crinkles

molasses crinkles

I couldn’t believe the cookies were made with shortening. I’m an all-butter kind of girl. Until a week ago in fact, the thought of shortening, a product I reserved solely for seasoning cast iron skillets, sort of repulsed me. Until a week ago, I also would have told you I could detect the difference between a cookie made with butter and one with shortening. I mean, it’s a rookie skill, right?

So I thought. My cousin Kristina makes the very best molasses cookies I have ever tasted. And they’re not just the best molasses cookies ever; they’re one of the best cookies ever. Last December when I received Kristina’s recipe in the mail and discovered that her legendary molasses crinkles were made with shortening, my earth sort of shattered. I would have bet money they had been made with butter.

But perhaps this was an opportunity, I thought. I would substitute butter for the shortening and then blog about the nearly perfect cookie I had perfected with butter. But once again, my earth shattered. The cookies I prepared with the butter-for-shortening substitution were terrible. The texture lacked the softness and chewiness of Kristina’s, and the flavor, perhaps tarnished by over baking, was just not as I had remembered. Did Kristina in fact use shortening in her cookies? I was still in disbelief.

It was time for me to try shortening. And since I was venturing into the realm of repulsive ingredients, I thought why not try something truly repulsive? This past spring, a friend in CA introduced me to a little product called buttered-flavored shortening, an ingredient she had used in a batch of phenomenal chocolate chip cookies she was so graciously sharing with me.

Butter-flavored shortening. I mean, it doesn’t get much more repulsive than this. Have any of you ever opened a can of this stuff? Have you seen its color? Have you smelled it? Have you ever tried washing it off your hands? Have you reviewed the ingredient list? It’s filled with all of the worst sorts of things — fully and partially hydrogenated oils, mono and diglycerides, to name a few. It’s a list that might appear in Michael Pollan’s worst nightmare. Butter-flavored shortening. Truly, it doesn’t get more repulsive than this.

I couldn’t help but wish my butter-flavored-shortening molasses crinkles to fail. As they baked, I kept thinking, there’s no way my adorable cousin Kristina could use such a vile product. No way. But when I pulled from the oven a pan with nine perfectly golden domed mounds crinkling up at me, I began to believe. And then, after they cooled and I took a bite, and the soft and chewy texture was just as I had remembered, and the flavor, too, was buttery and not at all artificial tasting and spiced with those wintry flavors of cinnamon and cloves, I was convinced. These were Kristina’s molasses crinkles. I had never been so happy to have such a vile product in my pantry.

I had to call Kristina to discuss. “So Kristina,” I said when she answered the phone, “your molasses cookies and I have been on a long journey together, and I’ve finally accepted that you do in fact use shortening, right?”

“Shortening?” she replied. “No, I always use butter. I don’t know what shortening is.”

I had to laugh. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. What had gone wrong the first time I had attempted Kristina’s recipe? Was it just a terribly off day for me in the kitchen? And had I now gone crazy to welcome to my pantry such a product as butter-flavored shortening? What was going on? All of a sudden I heard myself trying to convince Kristina of the virtues of butter-flavored shortening. Kristina, rightly so, would hear nothing of it.

So where does that leave us? Well, I’m afraid, the conclusion to this long-winded post is that my quest to create Kristina’s molasses crinkles continues. The above- and below-pictured cookies were in fact made with butter-flavored shortening and truly were delicious. That said, I know my cousin’s cookies are better, and as soon as I can, I am going to make another batch of each — Kristina gave me some tips, which I enclosed below — and do a side by side comparison.

In the meantime, I guess I’m just going to have to embrace the repulsive yet remarkable ingredient that has entered my pantry. Butter-flavored shortening is here to stay.

molasses crinkles

dough balls

sugar coated dough balls

Molasses Crinkles
Source: Cousin Kristina via Betty Crocker’s Best Cookies
Yield = about 27 cookies

3/4 cup butter-flavored shortening (See notes below for Kristina’s variation made with butter)
1 cup brown sugar (packed)
1 egg
1/4 cup molasses
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt (table salt as opposed to kosher)
1/2 tsp. cloves
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. ginger
granulated sugar

1. Mix shortening, sugar, egg and molasses thoroughly. (I used a stand mixer, but you probably could mix this batter by hand.) Sift (I whisked) all of the dry ingredients together. Add dry ingredients to wet and stir until combined. Chill. (A time wasn’t specified, but I would imagine one to three hours would suffice. I chill the dough and bake off six to nine cookies at a time — the batter will stay good for days.)

2. Heat oven to 375ºF. Roll dough into 1 1/4-inch balls. (I portion my dough into 7/8-oz (28g) balls using my Salter digital scale.) Dip balls in sugar and place sugared side up on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Sprinkle each with two or three drops of water. (This is sort of awkward — I dipped a fork in a cup of water and sort of pulled water from the glass to sprinkle it on top… if that makes any sense. Kristina in fact skips the water-sprinkling step.) Bake 10 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool completely on sheet pan before eating.

Notes: Kristina uses butter in place of the shortening. She also uses a little bit less flour but didn’t give an exact amount — so maybe do a scant 2.25 cups or a heaping 2 cups. She also bakes the cookies at 350ºF for about 8 minutes.

molasses crinkles

Pasta Carbonara — Easiest Weeknight Dinner

pasta carbonara

I know what you’re thinking. Pasta carbonara? The week after Thanksgiving? Who needs it? But, and forgive me if I’m wrong, I think you might be thinking of an entirely different dish, one containing cream and butter and vast amounts of cheese?

I had misconceptions, too. But true pasta carbonara is in fact light, containing no cream at all. And this recipe, from Everyday Food, calls for sautéed leeks, grated lemon zest and freshly squeezed lemon juice, flavors that make this carbonara preparation particularly fresh and light. What I love most about this dish is the sauce, made with two whisked eggs, 1/4 cup of the pasta cooking liquid, and 1/4 cup of grated Parmigiano Reggiano, an incredibly creamy mixture (despite containing no cream at all) that coats the pasta so well, making every bite especially tasty. Oddly, it tastes not the least bit eggy. Just creamy and delicious. Yum.

With bacon and eggs on hand, dinner can be assembled in a flash. I’ve made this dish once a week since my Everyday Food magazine arrived in mid-October. Nothing makes me happier than whisking that pasta cooking liquid with the eggs and cheese, watching it transform into a magically flavorful sauce, and throwing dinner on the table. I think you’ll enjoy it, too.

pasta carbonara

bacon, lemon & leeks

When my dear auntie was visiting last week, she brought me some goodies — eggs, bacon, sausage and chicken — from Kinderhook Farm in New York. Oh my gosh, what a treat! With the chicken — one of the best chickens I’ve ever tasted — we made Zuni Cafe’s roast chicken and bread salad; with the eggs and bacon, we made several batches of pasta carbonara (in addition to enjoying them on their own for breakfast); and with the sausage — so peppery and delicious — we made breakfast sandwiches on English muffins. Yum yum yum. Thank you Auntie!

eggs from Kinderhook Farm

Pasta Carbonara

Source: Everyday Food

Coarse salt and ground pepper
6 slices bacon, cut crosswise into 1-inch pieces
4 leeks (white and light-green parts only), halved lengthwise, rinsed well, and thinly sliced
3/4 pound short pasta, such as campanelle or orecchiette (I used gemelli and more like 1/2 lb.)
2 large eggs
1/2 ounce Parmesan, grated (1/4 cup), plus more for serving (optional)
1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest, plus 1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 cup fresh parsley leaves, coarsely chopped (optional)

1. Set a large pot of salted water to boil. In a large skillet, cook bacon over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until crisp, 8 to 10 minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer bacon to paper towels to drain. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons fat from skillet. (I did not pour off any fat… it looked too good to discard.) Add leeks, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring often, until leeks are golden brown, about 10 minutes.

2. Add pasta to pot and cook according to package instructions. Reserve 1/4 cup of the pasta cooking liquid. In a large bowl, whisk together eggs, Parmesan, and lemon zest and juice. Whisk 1/4 cup pasta water into egg mixture.

3. Drain pasta and immediately add to egg mixture, along with bacon, leeks, and parsley. Season with salt and pepper and stir to combine. Sprinkle with more cheese if desired and serve immediately.

Beautiful eggs from Kinderhook Farm:
eggs from Kinderhook farm

Red Wine Cranberry Sauce

red wine cranberry sauce

My sister LOVES cranberry sauce. And by LOVES I mean she enjoys a little turkey and stuffing with her cranberry sauce. When I think of Thanksgiving, I think of Lindsey mounding cranberry sauce onto every food group on her plate. And then I think of her finishing up her meal, dragging mom’s homemade bread across her plate, mopping up every last morsel of sauce. And then I think of the days following Thanksgiving, when she would assemble cranberry sauce sandwiches — yep, just two slices of bread flanking as much sauce as their structure will allow. And then I picture her sitting at the kitchen table, elbows bent as she holds her creation in front of her face, laughing as she bites into her favorite sandwich, giddy that this time of year has once again arrived.

My sister would not approve of the above-pictured sauce. If Peeps, Lindsey’s favorite candy (food?), are any indication of her sugar preferences, you understand why. She likes the traditional ratio of sugar to liquid to cranberries prescribed in most recipes.

I on the other hand feel otherwise. I do not love the sweetness of cranberry sauce, and I suppose I sort of feel indifferent to the sauce in general. But I like this recipe. It’s nothing mind blowing, but it takes no more time to prepare than traditional recipes — I certainly would not fuss over making cranberry sauce — and the flavors of orange zest, cinnamon stick and red wine are nice. It’s also a touch less sweet than traditional recipes.

If you’re a cranberry-sauce purist, this recipe is not for you. If, like me, you don’t really care one way or the other and want to spruce up your cranberry sauce a bit, give this recipe a go. Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!

cranberries

Sally Schneider’s Red Wine Cranberry Sauce
Yield = 1 3/4 cups

2/3 cup sugar
3/4 cup dry red wine
1/2 cinnamon stick (1 1/2 inches)
1 package fresh or frozen cranberries (about 12 oz.)
1 tablespoon slivered tangerine, clementine or orange zest, or more to taste

In a saucepan over moderate heat, combine the sugar, red wine and cinnamon stick; bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for about 4 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the sugar is dissolved and the wine is reduced slightly. Add the cranberries and zest. Simmer for 10 minutes, or until the cranberries are soft and the sauce has thickened. Serve at room temperature or chilled.

Cookbooks, Ranunculus & An Easy Little Craft Project

Ranunculus and Cookbooks

I had two goals when this project began: One, to bring order to Ella’s play area. And two, to find a purpose for three old farm crates collecting dust in my basement. By fastening wheels to the crates and fitting them with linen storage baskets, I had hoped to accomplish both. Alas, until I can locate baskets measuring 10x16x13-inches, it seems Ella’s play area will remain a disaster.

On the plus side, my kitchen looks a little brighter thanks to a bucket of ranunculus and a stack of my favorite cookbooks. For the time being, it’s a compromise I can handle.

So, ranunculus. Am I the last person on the planet to learn of these flowers? They are so beautiful! I have my aunt, a talented artist, florist, beekeeper and stand-up paddle boarder to thank for bringing by this arrangement. It’s such a treat to walk into my kitchen these days. I think I’ll have to get more for my Thanksgiving table. Incidentally, if you are interested in encaustic painting (or art in general), check out my aunt’s website: georgianassikas.com.

Happy Thanksgiving Week Everyone!

cookbooks and flowers

Farm Crate Bookshelf/Flower Pedestal

What you need per crate:

1 piece wood about 1/2-inch thick (measure the side of your crate and make sure the piece of wood is smaller than the side)*
4 wheels
screws for the wheels (I used 1/4-inch screws — just make sure they are smaller in thickness than the wood)
liquid nails
an electric drill makes for fast assembly

*I bought a big sheet of wood and had the people at Lowe’s cut it to fit my crates.

OK, this isn’t rocket science, and there are plenty of ways to craft this movable shelf, but this is what I did: Using my electric drill, I screwed four wheels to the bottom of the cut piece of wood. Once they were attached, I glued the piece of wood to the side of the crate using liquid nails. You could probably screw the piece of wood with the wheels directly to the crate, but I was afraid the wood on my crate would split, so I opted for liquid nails. And that’s it!

Cooking With My Mama — Teddie’s Apple Cake

Teddie's Apple Cake

Is it sick that shortly after dinner, often when I’m still full, I start looking forward to breakfast? It is a little, isn’t it? Well, what can I say, it’s the truth. But it isn’t any old breakfast I go to bed dreaming about. It’s a little something called Teddie’s Apple Cake, a treat my mother introduced me to, and I think it’s something you’ll all enjoy.

The recipe for Teddie’s Apple Cake first appeared in The New York Times in 1973, and Amanda Hesser republished the recipe in 2007. Who Teddie is remains a mystery, but that’s beside the point. Teddie made a damn good cake, and for that we should be thankful.

Made with oil not butter, this cake is super moist and seems to get better by the day (not unlike another favorite cake of mine). But what I love most about this cake is the crispy top crust, similar to that of a really good brownie. I prefer this apple cake for breakfast — it’s such a treat with my coffee — but the recipe suggests serving it with vanilla ice cream, so it certainly could be served for dessert. Just know that whenever you serve it, it will be a hit, and don’t hesitate to make it a few days in advance if you’re planning on serving it for company — it stays moist and delectable days after it is baked.

I should note that the title of this post is a little misleading. I took no part in the preparation of this cake, only the eating. My mom came to town to meet Graham, her newest grandson, and to keep me well fed in the process. I could get used to this sort of thing. No cooking, no cleaning, just eating. Hmmmmmm.

Finally, if you’re looking for a yummy apple dessert, this is my favorite.

my mama

Teddie's Apple Cake

Teddie's Apple Cake

Mom in town to meet Graham, my newest bun out of the oven.
mom and graham

Note: This cake gets better by the day. If you’re preparing it for a weekend brunch, don’t be afraid to make it a day or two in advance. It will be delectable and moist days after baking.

Teddie’s Apple Cake

Source: Amanda Hesser and The New York Times
Yield = 1 bundt pan, serves 8 to 10

Butter for greasing pan
3 cups flour, plus more for dusting pan
1 1/2 cups vegetable oil
2 cups sugar
3 eggs
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 cups peeled, cored and thickly sliced tart apples, like Honeycrisp or Granny Smith*
1 cup chopped walnuts (I omitted — I prefer baked goods without nuts)
1 cup raisins (Also omitted — I prefer baked goods without raisins)
Vanilla ice cream (optional, definitely optional — I prefer this cake for breakfast)

*I used a mix of Fuji, York and Cameo — use whatever you have on hand or whatever variety you prefer to bake with

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a 9-inch tube pan. Beat the oil and sugar together in a mixer (fitted with a paddle attachment) while assembling the remaining ingredients. After about 5 minutes, add the eggs and beat until the mixture is creamy.

2. Sift together 3 cups of flour, the salt, cinnamon and baking soda. Stir into the batter. Add the vanilla, apples, walnuts (if using) and raisins (if using) and stir until combined.

3. Transfer the mixture to the prepared pan. Bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool in the pan before turning out. Serve at room temperature with vanilla ice cream, if desired.

Teddie's apple cake

Teddie's Apple Cake

Apple Hand Pies with Cheddar Crust— So Delicious!

apple-cheddar hand pie

This is the sort of discovery that inspires me to host a dinner party. After just one bite, I began envisioning the scene: my guests’ hands reaching to the center of the table; the plate piled high with steaming, half-mooned pastries slowly disappearing; the silence as first bites are taken. Just anticipating the reactions — “apple and cheddar?!” — makes me giddy. And giddy were we (my mom, my aunt and I) as we stood around the cutting board in my kitchen, tucking into one after another hand pie, analyzing the flaky cheddar crust, adoring the adorable shape, oohing and ahing over the whole package. These hand pies are a home run.

I’ve been wanting to make an apple pie with a cheddar crust for several years now. Hand pies of course are a little fussy — much more work than making a traditional-shaped pie – but oh so good, and oh so much fun for a party. The pies can be assembled ahead of time and baked just before serving — 20 minutes in the oven and these babies are done.

While apple with cheddar is an age-old pairing, their union in a pie, for me at least, still came as a surprise. A most delicious surprise! I have a feeling you’ll all think so, too.

apple-cheddar hand pie

Mom and Auntie, in town for the weekend, reading to Ella
mom, auntie, ella

Cameo and Fuji apples from Catoctin Mountain Orchard The Cameo apples were some of the best apples I have ever tasted.
Local Fuji and Cameo apples

apple filling

I adore this cheddar.
Cabot Extra Sharp

cheddar cheese pie dough

hand pie assembly

apple-cheddar hand pie

Apple Hand Pie with Cheddar Crust
Dough and Filling recipes from Martha Stewart
Yield = 1 10-inch pie or 10 hand pies + 1 mini pie

Note: If you don’t feel like making hand pies, follow this Martha Stewart recipe for a traditional apple-cheddar pie.

Cheddar Crust

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
14 tablespoons (1 3/4 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
4 ounces white cheddar cheese, coarsely grated (about 1 1/2 cups)
1/2 cup ice water

1. Process flour, sugar, and salt in a food processor. Add butter; pulse until pea-size lumps appear. Pulse in cheese. With processor running, add ice water; process just until dough comes together.

2. Turn dough out; gather into a block. Wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate until cold, at least 30 minutes or up to 2 days.

Filling
Note: This amount of filling is for a traditional sized pie. If you are making hand pies, you will have way too much filling. Halving the amount of filling will yield enough for the hand pies. Or, if you are creative, you could find a way to use up that extra filling…perhaps a crumble or a crisp of some sort?

1 1/2 pounds (about 3) Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, and cut into small cubes*
2 pounds (about 5) Cortland apples, peeled, cored, and cut into small cubes*
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves (optional, I didn’t use b/c I didn’t have)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces (I forgot to dot filling with butter — so I would mark this as optional, too.)

1 egg yolk beaten with 2 tablespoons of water
turbinado or demerara sugar or regular granulated sugar for dusting

vanilla ice cream for serving (optional)

*These are the apples and amounts recommended in the Martha Stewart recipe. I used a variety of apples — Fuji, Gala, York — it came out beautifully. I think you could basically use any combination of crisp-textured apples.

1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Divide dough into two pieces. On a lightly floured work surface, roll out one half of the dough to 1/8-inch thickness. Using a 4 1/2-inch-round cutter (something about the size of a martini glass, which worked quite well in fact) cut five to seven circles out of the rolled dough. (I was able to get five circles initially and had to gather the scraps, re-roll and cut again to get seven out of one half of the dough.) Transfer the circles to a parchment-lined baking sheet, and place in the refrigerator to chill for about 30 minutes. Repeat the rolling, cutting, and chilling process with the remaining half of dough.

2. Make the filling: Stir together apples, sugar, flour, lemon juice, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, and cloves.

3. Remove the chilled dough from the refrigerator. Spoon about 1 to 2 tablespoons of filling onto one half of each circle of dough. Using your finger, brush a little cold water around the circumference of the dough. Fold the circle in half so the unfilled side comes over the filling, creating a semicircle. (You might need to let the circles stand at room temperature for a couple of minutes so they become pliable.) Seal the hand pie, and make a decorative edge by pressing the edges of the dough together with the back of a fork. Repeat process with remaining dough. Place the hand pies back on the parchment-lined baking sheet, and return to the refrigerator to chill for another 30 minutes.

4. Remove the chilled hand pies from the refrigerator, cut a small slit in each and lightly brush with the egg yolk wash. Sprinkle a pinch of the sugar lightly over the pies, and place pies in the oven to bake. Bake pie 10 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350ºF. Bake until the hand pies are golden brown, about 20 minutes. Remove the pies from the oven, and let stand to cool slightly before serving. Serve with vanilla ice cream if desired.

apple-cheddar hand pie

A mini apple-cheddar pie…yummmm.
apple-cheddar hand pie

Tartine’s Currant Scones

Tartine's currant scone recipe

Hi Everyone. Just a quick post here. This morning for breakfast I made the Tartine scone recipe with currants, which is what the original recipe calls for. So delicious! I’ve only ever made it with blueberries before, which I love, but on this chilly November morning, the currants were lovely. I have a feeling I’ll be making these all fall. Have a great week!

Tartine’s Buttermilk Scones
Adapted from Tartine
Yield=8

Notes:

• Tartine’s recipe calls for Zante currants, which should be plumped in warm water for 10 minutes, then drained.

• I made a half recipe, but if you feel like making a whole recipe, follow this recipe. I have frozen the raw scone dough, too, and baked the scones after thawing the dough overnight in the fridge. Worked beautifully.

2 3/8 cup all-purpose flour (3/8 cup = 6 tablespoons)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3/8 tsp. baking soda (a scant 1/2 teaspoon)
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp. salt (a heaping half teaspoon)
1/2 tsp. lemon zest, grated
1/2 cup + 1 1/2 teaspoons unsalted butter, very cold
3/4 cup buttermilk
3/8 cup zante currants

Topping
1.5 T. butter, melted
sugar for sprinkling such as demerara or turbinado (regular granulated is fine, too — this is optional, I omitted with the currant scones)

1. Preheat the oven to 400ºF. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

2. Whisk together flour, baking powder and baking soda. Add sugar, salt and lemon zest and stir to combine. Cut the butter into 1/2-inch cubes and scatter the cubes over the dry ingredients. Use a pastry blender or the back of a fork to cut the butter into the dry ingredients. When you are finished, the butter should be dispersed throughout the flour in pea-sized lumps (or bigger… mine always are).

3. Add the buttermilk all at once along with the currants and mix gently with a wooden spoon until the dough holds together. If the mixture seems dry, add a little bit more buttermilk.

4. Dust your work surface with flour and turn the dough out onto it. If you’ve made the whole recipe, divide the dough into two even portions. Using your hands, pat each portion into a circular disk about 1 1/2 inches thick. (Or, if you’ve made the whole recipe and want to follow Tartine’s instructions, pat the dough into a rectangle about 18 inches long, 5 inches wide, and 1 1/2 inches thick). Brush the top with melted butter. Sprinkle with sugar (I was being lazy and omitted the sugar sprinkling). Cut each disk into 8 wedges (or 12 if you’ve made the rectangle).

5. Transfer the triangles to baking sheet. Bake until the tops of the scones are lightly browned, about 25 to 35 minutes. Remove from the oven and serve immediately. (Mine were done at 25 minutes.)

Roast Chicken + Bread Salad, Zuni Cafe Style

Zuni Cafe's Roast Chicken with Bread Salad

Roasting a whole chicken used to feel like an ordeal to meal. It certainly was a process, one never attempted mid-week. After poking a lemon with a skewer 25 times, smashing garlic cloves, chopping up carrots and shallots, stuffing the cavity and pinning the neck closed, I would swaddle the dear bird with twine, a poor attempt at trussing. Geez Louise — just thinking about all of the steps makes me question why I ever attempted whole roasted chicken at all.

If you, too, reserve roasting a whole chicken for special occasions only, please know that a super moist, most delicious chicken can be achieved in 45 minutes. It’s true. Best of all, it requires no trussing.

Many of you already know about the much adored Zuni Cafe roast chicken and bread salad recipe. Some of you may have even had the luxury of enjoying it at the beloved San Francisco cafe. From oysters to wood-fired baked bread to ricotta gnocchi to chocolate gâteau and biscotti, the Zuni dinner my husband and I enjoyed there with two dear friends rates as one of the best ever.

And the roast chicken and bread salad for us (and many others) remains the most memorable course. The dish is a sort of roast chicken panzanella, a combination of spicy mustard greens, sweet currants, toasted pine nuts, and chewy peasant-style bread. And the bread. Oh the bread! Saturated with pan drippings and a light vinaigrette, these irresistible cubes are the star of the dish. Seriously, I could eat the whole batch of bread salad alone. The Zuni cookbook, one of my favorites for its stories and thoughtfully written recipes, offers detailed instructions on choosing a chicken, on salting the chicken (what they refer to as the “practice of salting early”), and on assembling this whole dish. (If you’re looking for a food-related gift, this book is prefect for any foodie — it’s filled with goodies.)

Anyway, while I rarely make the bread salad recipe — it indeed is a bit of a process — I make the roast chicken at least once a week. I can never find birds under 4 lbs. (Zuni recommends using a 2 3/4 to 3 1/2 lb bird) but even so, with a hot cast iron skillet and the oven at 475ºF, my chickens finish cooking in 45 minutes consistently. And they are the juiciest, most flavorful chickens ever to emerge from my oven — the dark meat, my favorite, nearly falls off the bone, and the white white, infused with the flavors of sage and thyme (or whatever herb you’ve tucked under the skin) remains tender and juicy. It’s hard to refrain from gnawing on the bones while carving.

This time of year, nothing tastes better to me than a whole roasted chicken. A whole roasted chicken smothering a bread salad that is. While there’s nothing tricky about the bread salad recipe, somehow it always becomes more of a process than I anticipate. Perhaps it’s the way the recipe has been written — I always find my eyes glued to the book, rereading every paragraph to make sure I’m not missing a step. The recipe does not lack details that’s for sure, but it pays. When you’re feeling up for it, take a stab at this recipe. You won’t be disappointed.

roast chicken in cast iron skillet

mise en place

Mustard greens from our Olin-Fox Farms CSA:
mustard greens from Olin-Fox Farms CSA

bread for bread salad

scallions and garlic

bread with pine nuts, currants, scallions and garlic

Note: If you are making the bread salad recipe as well, read that recipe before starting the chicken. If you only have one oven, you might want to start on the bread salad recipe first — the bread needs to be briefly broiled.

Zuni Cafe Roast Chicken
Adapted from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook
Serves 2 to 4

One small chicken, 2 3/4 to 3 1/2-pounds (I can only find chickens over 4 lbs., but I always dig for the smallest bird on the shelf)
4 tender sprigs fresh thyme, marjoram, rosemary or sage, about 1/2 inch long
kosher salt
freshly cracked black pepper
A little water

The Zuni recipe calls for seasoning the chicken one to three days before serving. I never am this organized and find the cooking method to work just as well when the chicken is seasoned just before cooking. If, however, you want to stick to the Zuni method, use about 3/4 teaspoon of sea salt per pound of chicken. Season the chicken liberally all over with salt and pepper. Season the thick sections a little more heavily than the skinny ankles and wings. Sprinkle a little of the salt just inside the cavity, on the backbone, but don’t otherwise worry about seasoning the inside. Twist and tuck the wing tips behind the shoulders. Cover loosely and refrigerate.

If you choose to season the chicken just before roasting, start here:

1. Remove and discard the lump of fat inside the chicken. Rinse the chicken and pat very dry inside and out. Be thorough — a wet chicken will spend too much time steaming before it begins to turn golden brown. Approaching from the edge of the cavity, slide a finger under the skin of each of the breasts, making 2 little pockets. Now use the tip of your finger to gently loosen a pocket of skin on the outside of the thickest section of each thigh. Using your finger, shove an herb sprig into each of the 4 pockets.

2. Preheat the oven to 475°F. Choose a shallow flameproof roasting pan or dish barely larger than the chicken, or use a 10-inch skillet with an all-metal handle (I use a cast iron skillet). Preheat the pan over medium heat. Wipe the chicken dry and set it breast side up in the pan. It should sizzle.

3. Place the chicken in the pan in the center of the oven and listen and watch for it to start browning within 20 minutes. If it doesn’t, raise the temperature progressively until it does. The skin should blister, but if the chicken begins to char, or the fat is smoking, reduce temperature by 25 degrees. After about 30 minutes, turn the bird over — drying the bird and preheating the pan should keep the skin from sticking. Roast for another 10 to 20 minutes, depending on size, then flip back over to recrisp the breast skin, another 5 to 10 minutes.

Note: Every oven is different, but I have found consistent results with cooking the chicken breast side up for 30 minutes and breast side down for 15 minutes. My chickens (all about 4 lbs.) are almost always finished cooking after 45 minutes total — in other words, I skip the final 5 to 10 minute recrisping of the chicken breast side up.

If you are making the bread salad, continue to recipe below.

If you’re not making the bread salad:

4. Remove the chicken from the oven and turn off the heat. Lift the chicken from the roasting pan and set on a plate. Carefully pour the fat from the roasting pan, leaving the lean drippings behind. Add about a tablespoon of water to the hot pan and swirl it. Slash the stretched skin between the thighs and breasts of the chicken, then tilt the bird and plate over the roasting pan to drain the juice into the drippings. Set the chicken in a warm spot (which may be your stovetop) and leave to rest while you finish preparing your dinner (or the bread salad (recipe below)). The meat will become more tender and uniformly succulent as it cools.

Set a platter in the oven to warm for a minute or two. Cut the chicken into pieces; arrange on the warm platter. Tilt the roasting pan and skim the last of the fat. Place over medium-low heat, add any juice that has collected under the chicken, and bring to a simmer. Stir and scrape to soften any hard golden drippings. Taste — the juices will be extremely flavorful.

At this point, drizzle the chicken with some pan drippings if you wish (taste the drippings first — they tend to be very salty, which is perfect for the bread salad, but maybe too much for the chicken alone) or add to bread salad (see recipe below).

Zuni Cafe Bread Salad
Adapted from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook

Generous 8 ounces slightly stale open-crumbed, chewy, peasant-style bread (not sourdough)
6 to 8 tablespoons mild-tasting olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons Champagne vinegar or white wine vinegar (I use white balsamic — love it)
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper
1 tablespoon dried currants
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar (or any vinegar, I used white balsamic again)
1 tablespoon warm water
2 tablespoons pine nuts (or more)
2 to 3 garlic cloves, slivered
1/4 cup slivered scallions (about 4 scallions), including a little of the green part
2 tablespoons lightly salted chicken stock or lightly salted water
A few handfuls of arugula, frisée, or red mustard greens, carefully washed and dried

1. Preheat the broiler. Carve off all of the crusts from your bread. Cut into a couple of large chunks. Arrange on a sheet pan and drizzle with olive oil. Broil very briefly, to crisp and lightly color the surface. Turn the bread chunks over and crisp the other side. Tear the chunks into a combination of irregular 2- to 3-inch wads, bite-sized bits, and fat crumbs. You should get about 4 cups.

2. Combine about 1/4 cup of the olive oil with the vinegar and salt and pepper to taste. Toss about 1/4 cup of this tart vinaigrette with the torn bread in a wide salad bowl; the bread will be unevenly dressed. Taste one of the more saturated pieces. If it is bland, add a little salt and pepper and toss again.

3. Place the currants in a small bowl and moisten with the red wine vinegar and water. Set aside. Toast the pine nuts in a dry skillet over medium heat, checking frequently and stirring every so often to make sure the nuts do not burn. Remove skillet from heat when nuts are golden.

4. Heat a spoonful of the olive oil in a small skillet, add the garlic and scallions, and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until softened. Don’t let them color. Scrape into the bread and fold to combine. Drain the plumped currants and fold them in, along with the pine nuts. Dribble the chicken stock or lightly salted water over the salad and fold again.

Taste a few pieces of bread — a fairly saturated one and a dryish one. If it is bland, add salt, pepper, and/or a few drops of vinegar, then toss well.

Pile the bread salad in a 1-quart shallow baking dish and tent with foil. Set the salad bowl aside to be used again later. Place the bread salad in the oven after you flip the chicken the final time, for about 5 to 10 minutes. (Note: I skip this step. I prefer the texture of the bread at room temperature. When I heat it, I find it loses some of its crisp texture.)

5. Remove the chicken from the oven and turn off the heat. Lift the chicken from the roasting pan and set on a plate. Carefully pour the fat from the roasting pan, leaving the lean drippings behind. Add about a tablespoon of water to the hot pan and swirl it. Slash the stretched skin between the thighs and breasts of the chicken, then tilt the bird and plate over the roasting pan to drain the juice into the drippings. Set the chicken in a warm spot (which may be your stovetop) and leave to rest while you finish preparing the bread salad. The meat will become more tender and uniformly succulent as it cools.

6. Tip the bread salad back into the salad bowl. It will be steamy-hot, a mixture of soft, moist wads, crispy-on-the-outside-but-moist-in-the-middle-wads, and a few downright crispy ones. Drizzle and toss with a spoonful of the pan juices. Add the greens, a drizzle of vinaigrette, and fold well. Taste again. Arrange bread salad on a platter. Top with carved chicken.

prepped chicken

carved chicken