A St. Patrick’s Day Feast


Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with a feast featuring three of Ireland’s most renowned products: Guinness, Cashel Blue cheese and McCann oats. While I have been familiar with Guinness and steel cut oats for years — I prepare the oatmeal recipe below almost every morning — I only learned of Cashel Blue these past few weeks while researching Irish cheeses. For the past month at DiBruno Brothers, the cheese mongers have been luring customers to a table showcasing five Irish cheeses: Gubbeen, Durrus, Coolea, Adrahan and Cashel Blue. I happily tested all of them, and although I must admit that I am easily pleased by any variety of a cheese, each was truly delicious. I am partial to blue cheese, however, and the Cashel was my favorite: it melts nicely, and makes a nice snack on crisp toasts, as in the recipe below, but is also wonderful on its own, at room temperature, spread onto soft bread or crackers.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Cashel Blue

In the late 18th century the Grubb family, members of an Anabaptist sect, fled to Ireland from England, to avoid persecution. They settled in Tipperary, a town in south-central Ireland, and became millers and buttermakers. A descendant of the family, Louis Grubb, and his wife Jane continued the dairy tradition with their creation of Cashel Blue cheese in 1984. Made from the highest quality milk taken mostly from the cows on their farm, a herd of Friesian dairy cattle, Cashel has received countless honors and awards. Creamy, tangy, salty and sweet, Cashel Blue is truly a treat.

These biscuits take only minutes to make and freeze beautifully. (Place unbaked biscuits on a cookie sheet and place in the freezer for 30 minutes, then transfer to a Ziplock bag. It may be necessary to increase baking time by 2-3 minutes.) Also, for a simple plain buttermilk biscuit, omit the cheese and herbs, increase the salt to ½ teaspoon, and increase the sugar to 2 tablespoons. For a festive treat, however, the Cashel Blue and chives are a wonderful addition.

Buttermilk Biscuits with Cashel Blue Cheese and Chives
Yield = 10 biscuits

2 cups all-purpose flour
2¼ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoons sugar
8 tablespoons cold unsalted butter
3¼ oz (a scant cup) Cashel Blue cheese
¾ cup + 1 tablespoon buttermilk
3 tablespoons finely chopped chives
2 tablespoons melted butter for brushing

Preheat the oven to 400ºF.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and sugar. Cut the butter into the flour and using a pastry cutter or fork, mix the butter and flour until the butter has broken into small bits and flakes. Crumble the blue cheese into the mixture and toss to coat.
Whisk the ¾ cup buttermilk with the chives then pour mixture into flour mix. Stir just until the dough comes together to form a mass — Do not over-mix. With lightly floured hands, gently knead the dough in the bowl to bring together, adding the extra tablespoon of buttermilk if necessary, then turn out onto a lightly-floured work surface. Pat the dough into a ¾ – inch thick rectangle. Using a 2½ -inch round cutter, cut the biscuits and transfer to an ungreased baking sheet, spacing the biscuits 2-inches apart.
Brush each biscuit with melted butter and transfer sheet to the oven, immediately increasing the temperature to 425ºF. Bake the biscuits for 15 minutes or until golden. Remove from oven, transfer biscuits to wire rack for 2 minutes before serving.

A nice snack: Blue Cheese Toasts Drizzled with Lavender Honey

To make the toasts, cut a baguette into ¼ – inch thick slices, place on a cookie sheet, drizzle with olive oil and bake at 400ºF for 8-10 minutes until golden. Remove from the oven, top with a generous portion of Cashel Blue and return to the oven for 3-5 minutes until melted. Meanwhile, place 1 tablespoon of lavender honey in a shallow bowl and submerge bowl into another bowl filled with hot water to help loosen the honey. When the cheese has melted, remove toasts from the oven, drizzle with honey and enjoy immediately.

Sautéed Cabbage and Radicchio with Bacon and Cashel Blue Cheese
Serves 4 as a side dish

1½ oz bacon, cut into ½-inch pieces
1 small head cabbage, halved, cored and thinly sliced
kosher salt and pepper to taste
1 small head radicchio, halved, cored and thinly sliced
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
2 oz Cashel Blue cheese

Place the diced bacon in a large nonstick skillet, cover, and cook over low heat for five minutes. Remove the cover, stir and raise the heat to medium-high. Cook for another five minutes or until the bits of bacon are beginning to crisp and brown. Remove bacon with a slotted spoon and transfer to a plate. Add the cabbage, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Cook for about five minutes or until the cabbage is slightly tender. Taste to test its texture, and cook a few minutes longer if necessary. Add the radicchio, and using tongs, mix it with the cabbage. Add the balsamic and sugar and cook until the vinegar has reduced and the radicchio has wilted, about 2 minutes longer. Remove from the heat, stir in the reserved bacon bits and serve. Sprinkle the Cashel Blue evenly on individual servings.

Guinness Draught

In 1759, shortly after signing a 9,000-year lease at £35 a year, Arthur Guinness began brewing ales from St. James’s Gate Brewery in Dublin, Ireland, a site that has since become Dublin’s most popular tourist attraction. Today, Guinness is Ireland’s best selling alcoholic drink and is one of the most successful beer brands in the world.
A dry stout, based on the porter style that originated in London in the early 1700s, Guinness is recognized by its thick, creamy, tan-colored head and its distinct roasted-barley flavor. A versatile beverage, Guinness complements both sweet and savory dishes as illustrated by these two recipes for Chocolate Guinness cake and Guinness-braised short ribs.

Guinness-Braised Short Ribs
Serves 4

3 lb short ribs (long cut), cut into 2-inch pieces
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoon olive oil
1 leek, stem removed
1 medium onion, peeled
2 medium carrots, peeled
1 cinnamon stick
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 11-oz bottles of Guinness
2 cups chicken stock, preferable homemade
zest of one orange
zest of one lemon
4-5 sprigs of thyme
1 bay leaf

Preheat the oven to 300ºF.
Place a large oven-safe soup pot or Dutch oven over high heat. Season short ribs generously with salt and pepper. Add 1 tablespoon of the oil to pot, let heat for a few seconds until almost smoking, then add the meat skin side down. Let brown for about five minutes, flip, and brown other side for another five minutes.
Meanwhile, cut the leek into big chunks and soak in a bowl of cold water, separating the layers to make sure each is well cleaned. Roughly chop the onion and the carrot into medium-large pieces. This should yield about 3 cups leeks, and 2 cups each of carrots and onions.

When the ribs have finished browning, remove from pan and place on a plate. Drain off all fat and discard. Heat remaining tablespoon of olive oil over high heat and add the vegetables and cinnamon stick. Season with salt and pepper to taste and let cook undisturbed for 2 minutes, then stir. Let vegetables sauté for 8-10 minutes. Add the tablespoon of tomato paste and stirring to coat the vegetables.
Deglaze the pan with the Guinness and the chicken stock, scraping browned bits from bottom of pan. Add the zests, thyme sprigs, bay leaf and short ribs, and bring pot to a boil. Reduce the heat so that the liquid is just simmering, cover and place in the oven.
Braise for 2 hours. Remove pan from oven and test one of the short ribs. If the meat is very tender and nearly falling off the bone, the ribs are done. If not, return the pot to the oven, testing every 15 minutes until done.
Remove the ribs from the liquid to a bowl or plate. Strain the braising liquid, discarding the solids. Pour liquid into tall narrow vessel and let chill in refrigerator for at least 10 minutes. Skim fat from surface and discard. Return ribs to pan, cover with liquid and bring back to a simmer. Serve immediately.
Note: Can be made three days in advance.

Chocolate Guinness Cake
Adapted from Nigella Lawson’s “Feast”
Hyperion (2004)

1 cup Guinness
1 stick + 2 T. butter
¾ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 cups sugar
¾ cup sour cream
2 eggs
1 T. vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
2½ teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt

8 oz cream cheese, softened
1¼ cups confectioners’ sugar
½ cup heavy cream

Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Butter a 9-inch springform pan.
In a medium saucepan, heat Guinness with butter until butter is melted. Remove from heat and whisk in cocoa powder and sugar. Whisk sour cream with the eggs and vanilla, then pour into Guinness mixture and stir until smooth. Whisk together flour, baking soda and salt, then add to batter, stirring just until combined.
Pour into prepared pan, and bake for 45 minutes. Test cake with a toothpick or paring knife. If utensil comes out cleanly, remove cake from oven. Let cool completely in pan.
Beat cream cheese until light. Add sugar. Add cream and beat until thick. If cream cheese mix is too soft to spread onto cake, let chill for 10 minutes or until firm
Spread cooled cake with cream cheese frosting.

John McCann’s Steel Cut Oats

Ireland’s fertile plains, humid climate and clean rivers have enabled it to grow high-quality oats since the fifth century. In 1800, John McCann built a mill on the east coast of Ireland in the town of Beamond, and began making steel cut oats. Several years later, in 1851, his product received two quality of excellence awards from exhibitions in London and Dublin, followed by first prize at the Philadelphia Exhibition in 1876 — an honor still proudly printed on its old-fashioned tin can.
Steel cut oats are whole grain groats that have been cut into small pieces. They are an excellent source of complex carbohydrates and protein, containing twice as much protein as brown rice, and 50 percent more than bulgur. Moreover, steel cut oats are nuttier and chewier than rolled oats, and create a creamier, more flavorful oatmeal. Low in fat and a great source of cholesterol-lowering soluble fiber, steel cut oats make a delicious and nutritious breakfast.

Steel Cut Oatmeal with Medjool Date and Cinnamon
Serves 1

¼ cup skim milk
¾ cups water
pinch of kosher salt
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ cup steel cut oats
1 Medjool date
1 banana
granola for crunch (optional)

In a medium saucepan, bring milk, water, salt and cinnamon to a boil. Reduce heat to low, add oats and stir. Gently simmer, stirring every five minutes for about 21-23 minutes. Watch closely at the end — add a splash of water or milk if oatmeal sticks to bottom of pan.
While oatmeal cooks, finely dice the date and slice the banana. Place fruit in a bowl, top with the cooked oatmeal and stir to combine. The date and the banana should sweeten the oatmeal sufficiently, but add a touch of sugar, brown sugar or honey if necessary. Top with granola if desired.

15. March 2007 by Alexandra Stafford
Categories: Bread, Breakfast, Desserts, Meat | 2 comments

Flowerpot Beer Bread


At Django, a little BYO on 4th Street just north of South, the chef bakes his bread in a flowerpot. The warm pot arrives to the table along with softened butter served in an old-fashioned butter crock. Three years ago I enjoyed my first bite of this unique bread and have been meaning to test the baking method ever since. It could not be easier. Both yeast breads and quick breads bake equally well in the terra cotta vessel, but for simplicity I’ve provided a recipe for a no-knead beer bread. The dough takes no more than five minutes to mix and makes a fun presentation. Celebrate this last weekend of the Philadelphia Flower Show with a pot of this delicious bread. Enjoy!

Flowerpot Beer Bread
Yield = 1 standard 4” pot

1½ cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1½ teaspoons sugar
½ beer or (¾ cup beer) I like Magic Hat #9
1 standard 4” diameter flowerpot (lead-free)
2 tablespoons butter

Preheat the oven to 425ºF. Crumple a small piece of aluminum foil and stuff the tiny hole at the bottom of the pot. Generously coat inside of flowerpot with nonstick cooking spray.
Whisk together flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt and sugar. Add beer, stir until combined and place in prepared pot.
Bake for 10 minutes, then reduce heat to 375ºF and bake for 30-35 minutes longer, or until golden brown on top.
Remove from the oven and let sit for five minutes before attempting to remove from pot. Meanwhile, melt butter. After the five minutes, the bread should slide out easily from the pot. Turn out onto cooling rack and let rest five more minutes. Place loaf on a cutting board, turn upside down, and slice loaf in half vertically through the center. Holding the two halves together, make another vertical slice through the center, perpendicular to the previous slice to create 4 quarters. Return sliced bread to pot, pour hot melted butter over bread (careful, this makes a mess) and serve immediately with more softened butter. Enjoy!

08. March 2007 by Alexandra Stafford
Categories: Bread | 2 comments

Traditional Dumplings for the Chinese New Year


This past weekend celebrators of the Chinese New Year welcomed the Year of the Pig while consuming crescent-shaped steamed dumplings. The dumplings, or jiaozi, resemble ancient Chinese gold ingots and symbolize prosperity and good fortune. By eating the jiaozi at midnight, New Year’s participants hope to transfer wealth from the previous year into the next. The dumplings are traditionally steamed or boiled, as described below, but can be prepared as potstickers as well. While the initial celebrations have ended, many days remain in this two-week long Spring Festival to enjoy these tasty treats. For a fun, simple Oscar Night hors d’oeuvre, steam the jiaozi and serve with the scallion dipping sauce. Enjoy!

New Year’s Eve Dumplings
Yield = 30 Dumplings

3 cups minced Napa cabbage
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
¾ lb ground pork
5 scallions, minced
4 teaspoons soy sauce
½ teaspoon sesame oil
2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
1 clove garlic, minced
2 egg whites, lightly beaten
freshly ground pepper to taste
24 round dumpling wrappers

Scallion Dipping Sauce
Yield = ½ cup

¼ cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons mirin
1 tablespoon water
1 teaspoon hot chili sauce or Sriracha
½ teaspoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon sugar
1 scallion, thinly sliced

Toss the cabbage with the salt in a colander set over a bowl. Let sit 20 minutes. Meanwhile, mix pork, scallions, soy, sesame oil, ginger, garlic, egg whites and pepper. After the 20 minutes, gently squeeze the moisture out of the cabbage using a rubber spatula, then add to pork mixture. Mix thoroughly, cover with plastic wrap and chill 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the sauce: combine all ingredients except the scallions. Store in refrigerator until ready to serve. Add the scallions just before serving.

Fill a large, wide-mouthed pot with water and bring to a boil. Lightly dust a cookie sheet with flour. Fill a small bowl with water. Lay 5 wrappers on a work surface. Keep the remaining wrappers covered with plastic wrap. Place one tablespoon of filling in the center of each wrapper. Using your fingertip moisten the edge of one wrapper with water. Fold the wrapper in half. Pinch the center and work toward the outside edges, pressing out air pockets. When dumpling is sealed, place on floured pan and cover with plastic wrap or a towel. Repeat with remaining dumplings.
When all the dumplings are prepared, add 8-10 to the boiling water. Make sure none is sticking to the bottom of the pan—use a rubber spatula to release dumplings from bottom of pan if necessary. Boil for 4 minutes, check one, and cook for 1-2 minutes longer if necessary. Times will vary depending on the size of the pot and how many dumplings are being cooked at one time.
Remove dumplings from water with slotted spoon or spider, and let drain and dry briefly before serving. Serve with Scallion Dipping Sauce.

16. February 2007 by Alexandra Stafford
Categories: Appetizers, Asian, Hors d'oeuvres | 2 comments

Coeurs à La Crème


Happy Valentine’s Day!

Coeurs à La Crème
Yield = 6 individual hearts (4 oz)

1¼ cups heavy cream
½ cup sifted confectioners’ sugar
8 ounces mascarpone cheese, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon Grand Marnier
fresh strawberries

Special Equipment:
6 (4-oz) perforated heart-shaped coeurs à la crème molds

Cut a double-layer of cheesecloth into six 8-inch squares. Dampen and wring out lightly. Press one square into each of the heart-shaped molds and set aside.
In a large bowl, whip 1 cup of the cream with an electric mixer until soft peaks form. Add the confectioners’ sugar and beat until stiff peaks form. Transfer mixer to a separate bowl and store in the refrigerator.
In the same bowl used to beat the cream, whip the remaining ¼ cup of cream with the mascarpone cheese, the vanilla, lemon juice and Grand Marnier until thoroughly blended. With a rubber spatula, gently fold the chilled whipped cream mixture into the mascarpone cheese mixture. Spoon the finished mixture into the prepared molds and fold the edges of the cheesecloth over the tops. Lightly tap the bottoms of the molds on the counter to remove any air spaces between the mixture and the molds. Refrigerate on a baking sheet for a minimum of 2 to 3 hours.
When ready to serve, invert onto dessert plates, remove cheesecloth and serve with the fresh strawberries.

Note: Coeurs can be prepared up to 2 days in advanced.

14. February 2007 by Alexandra Stafford
Categories: Desserts | Leave a comment

Red Velvet Cupcakes


While I wish I could boast to my New York friends to having tasted a Philadelphia pastry shop’s Red Velvet cupcake that rivals one from their beloved Magnolia Bakery or Cupcake Café, I cannot. In fact, the inspiration to make these little treats stems from the cupcake connoisseurs themselves. When a group of my New York friends came to visit last weekend, and described these as “the best cupcakes ever,” I had to test a batch for myself. Indeed, the cake is moist and rich; the cocoa flavor, distinct; and the frosting, when soft and creamy, delicious. Impressive looking yet easy to prepare, these festive cupcakes make a wonderful Valentine’s Day dessert. Enjoy!

Red Velvet Cupcakes

2¼ cups (9¾ oz) sifted flour (sifted, then measured)
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup buttermilk
2 tablespoon red food coloring (2 1-oz bottles)
1 teaspoon distilled white vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1½ cups sugar
1½ sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
2 large eggs

8 oz cream cheese, softened
8 oz butter, softened
1 teapoon vanilla extract
2 cups confectioners’ sugar

1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Place liners in 12-cup cupcake pan.

2. Sift sifted flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, and salt into medium bowl. Whisk buttermilk, food coloring, vinegar, and vanilla in small bowl to blend.

3. Using electric mixer, beat sugar and butter in large bowl until well blended. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating until well blended after each addition. Beat in dry ingredients in 4 additions alternately with buttermilk mixture in 3 additions.

4. Spoon batter into cupcake liners only 2/3 or ¾ of the way full—don’t be tempted to fill them higher: they’ll bake into mushroom caps instead of nice rounded domes, and if they are filled too high, there will not be enough batter for the 24 cupcakes. Bake cakes until inserted toothpick comes out clean, about 23-26 minutes. Cool 10 minutes before removing from pan onto racks; bake remaining cupcakes; cool all completely before frosting.

Frosting: Beat butter, cream cheese and vanilla until smooth and combined. Add the confectioners’ sugar and beat until smooth.

08. February 2007 by Alexandra Stafford
Categories: Desserts | 3 comments

Valentine’s Day Linzer Cookies


For an easy yet elegant Valentine’s Day dessert try these traditional Linzer cookies. The thin, almond-packed, slightly sweet cookie perfectly balances the tart raspberry jam filling, and a light dusting of confectioners’ sugar surrounding a brilliant red interior looks striking on a plate. Bake the cookies days in advance and assemble at the last minute for a simply delicious Valentine’s Day treat.

Linzer Cookies
Yield=2 Dozen

2/3 cup finely ground almonds
2 cups all-purpose flour
½ cup almond flour*
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup (2 sticks) softened butter
½ cup packed light brown sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
raspberry or strawberry jam as needed
*another ½ cup of very finely ground almonds or ½ cup of all-purpose flour can be used in place of the almond flour

In a large bowl, whisk together ground almonds, flours, baking powder, kosher salt and cinnamon. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment beat the butter and brown sugar until light and fluffy. Add the egg and beat until combined and smooth. Add vanilla and beat till smooth. With the machine on low speed, add the dry ingredients to the bowl and beat only until just combined. Turn dough out onto a lightly-floured work surface and pat into two disks. Wrap each with plastic wrap and chill until firm, at least 2 hours.

Preheat oven to 350°F and put oven rack in middle position.

On a lightly-floured work surface roll one of the disks to approximately 1/8 – inch thick. Cut out as many heart shaped cookies as possible and transfer to an ungreased cookie sheet spaced about 1 – inch apart. Place in the oven for approximately 10-15 minutes, or until lightly brown around the edges and golden on top (closer to 15 minutes). Remove from the oven then transfer cookies to cooling racks to cool completely.

Combine all scrap dough into a ball, wrap in plastic and chill while rolling out the next batch. For this batch, cut out the same number of large heart-shaped cookies but cut out the center of each with a smaller heart. Transfer the cookies to another ungreased cookie sheet and bake for 10-15 minutes, watching more closely as these cook more quickly.

I like to bake off the little heart-shaped centers as well, but if you prefer to make more Linzer cookies, combine the centers with the scraps, chill and reroll as many as you are able. Experts might advise to only reroll the dough once because rerolling could cause the cookies to become tough. This may be true, but I find Linzer cookies to be very forgiving in regard to this issue—I reroll until I’m completely out of dough. Note: If I am rolling and cutting cookies and transferring to cookie sheets, I place filled cookie sheets in the freezer or refrigerator until the oven is free.

When the cookies have cooled completely, spread jam onto center of each solid heart-shaped cookie. Don’t spread all the way to the edge—when the cookies are topped the jam will be forced out. Using a fine meshed strainer filled with ¼ cup of confectioners’ sugar (to start), lightly dust the open-centered cookies. Add more sugar to the strainer as necessary.

Carefully sandwich the cookies together (they are very fragile and will crack if pressed too hard) and serve immediately. The cookies can be made days in advance and stored in an airtight container. The assembled cookies can also be made a day in advance but the presentation will not be as beautiful: the confectioners’ sugar gets absorbed and smudged and it is hard to re-dust without disassembling the cookies. They are still delicious, however. Enjoy!

28. January 2007 by Alexandra Stafford
Categories: Cookies, Desserts | 1 comment

Two Heart Tarts for Two


Frog Commissary Strawberry Heart Tart
Since purchasing my copy of The Frog Commissary Cookbook, a popular Philadelphia cookbook based on two legendary restaurants, I have been meaning to make its prized Strawberry Heart Tart for Valentine’s Day. At the height of The Commissary’s popularity, the restaurant allegedly sold 150 of these tarts daily and over 400 on Valentine’s Day. Indeed, the tart’s ingredients combine to make a truly perfect Valentine’s Day dessert: a hidden semi-sweet chocolate lining very nicely complements a Grand Marnier cream cheese filling, and beautiful whole strawberries make a dramatic presentation in a flaky heart-shaped shell. (Truthfully, the whole strawberries are difficult to eat—I would just as soon cut them).

Rhubarb Heart Tart with Vanilla Syrup
If I had to pick between these two desserts on Valentine’s Day, however, I’d chose the rhubarb heart tart. Poached in a vanilla bean syrup, the rhubarb tastes deliciously sweet and tart, against the strongly-spiked creamy base. The rhubarb’s shiny pink surface, speckled with vanilla seeds, set atop the brilliant white filling, makes a natural and striking presentation. And with “forced rhubarb”—rhubarb that is ultimately grown in heated sheds in complete darkness—currently in season, the opportunities to enjoy its distinctive and delicate flavor are numbered. The Commissary tart can always be saved for a romantic summer evening, perhaps at the peak of strawberry season?

Each of these recipes yields enough for two heart tarts, and the pastry yields enough for six tarts. Freeze the extra portioned dough and thaw as needed. Enjoy!

Flaky Pastry Dough
Yield=Six Heart Tarts

1¼ cups (6¼ oz) unbleached all-purpose flour, plus additional for the work surface
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1½ tablespoons sugar
8 tablespoons (1 stick) cold unsalted butter
1½ tablespoons sour cream
3 tablespoons ice water, plus more if needed

1 heart-shaped crème brûlée dish (or as many as you care to purchase)

Process flour, salt and sugar together in food processor until combined, about 5 seconds. Using a paring knife, quickly cut butter into small pieces directly into the bowl of the food processor. Pulse about 10 times until the butter is the size of large peas.
In a small bowl, whisk sour cream and ice water in small bowl until combined. Add half of this mixture to the food processor and pulse 3 times. Add remaining sour cream mixture and pulse 3 more seconds. Pinch dough with fingers, and if the dough is floury and dry, add more ice water one tablespoon at a time, pulsing and testing again after each addition. (Note: the dough might not appear moist enough, so pinching is important. The dough should not be wet enough so that it balls all around the blade; it should still appear crumbly)
Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface, pat into a disk, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for one hour.

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Remove the dough from refrigerator. Divide into 6 equal portions, each weighing approximately 2¼ oz each. On a lightly floured work surface roll each portion into a circle, as thinly as possible. Layer the rolled portions, separating each layer with parchment paper. Drape one circle over the back of the heart-shaped dish. Chill the remaining dough. Trim off any excess dough and prick the molded dough several times with a fork. Set the dish in the oven, dough side up and bake 20-25 minutes, until lightly golden and crisp. Remove from the oven and cool completely while still on the mold. Once cooled, repeat with remaining dough, making as many as desired, or freezing the additional dough.

Strawberry Heart Tart
Yield=2 Heart Tarts

Cream Cheese Filling:
4 oz softened cream cheese
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons Grand Marnier
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract

In the bowl of a stand mixer cream all ingredients until smooth. Refrigerate until ready to assemble.

Simple Syrup:
2 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons sugar

Heat together in small sauté pan and gently simmer until thick and syrupy. Set aside to cool.

1 oz semisweet chocolate, chopped
1 pint of strawberries

Melt the chocolate in a small bowl set over simmering water. Set the two heart tart shells upright and divide the chocolate between the two, spreading to make a thin layer across the bottom.
Stem the strawberries and trim the edge to create a flat surface.
Remove the cream cheese filling and divide between the two tarts. Top with the strawberries and drizzle with the syrup. A light dusting of confectioner’s sugar is a nice touch but unnecessary. Enjoy!

Rhubarb Heart Tart:
Yield=2 Heart Tarts

For the rhubarb:
2 cups sugar
2 cups water
1 vanilla bean, halved and scraped
1 lb 10 oz rhubarb, approximately (1½ lbs once trimmed of dead ends)

Place sugar, water and vanilla bean and seeds in a small saucepan and bring to a boil.
Meanwhile, trim ends off rhubarb stalks and cut stalks into 1-inch pieces. Place in a large bowl.
As soon as syrup boils, pour over rhubarb, cover bowl with a plate and let sit for 1 hour. After the one hour, taste a piece. If the rhubarb is still too crunchy and tart, strain the poaching liquid back into the saucepan, bring to a boil, and pour over the rhubarb again, this time leaving the bowl uncovered.
Test again, after 1 hour. This should be sufficient. Strain the rhubarb reserving the poaching liquid. Chill until ready to serve or keep at room temperature if serving within a few hours.

For the filling:
2 oz cream cheese, softened
¼ cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons Grand Marnier

In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the cream cheese until slightly lightened. Add the cream, sugar and Grand Marnier and beat until nicely mixed and slightly thickened. Do not overbeat. Store in refrigerator until ready to assemble.

For vanilla-bean syrup:
6 tablespoons of reserved poaching liquid

Place liquid in small sauté pan and reduce by half or until thick and syrupy. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.

To assemble:
Set the two heart tart shells upright and divide the filling evenly between the two shells. Top with the poached rhubarb. Drizzle with the vanilla bean syrup and enjoy!

26. January 2007 by Alexandra Stafford
Categories: Desserts | Leave a comment

Grand Marnier Chocolate Truffles


Truffles, while not difficult to make, do take planning. With Valentine’s Day now two and a half weeks away, there is ample time to make these delicious, perfectly boozy bites of chocolate. This basic recipe can be adapted to satisfy all likings: toasted coconut, chopped nuts or confectioners’ sugar can replace the cocoa powder, as can any type of alcohol replace the Grand Marnier. Personally I find the classic cocoa-covered truffles to be the most satisfying. Paired with some fresh strawberries these bittersweet chocolate truffles are a truly delectable, if clichéd, Valentine’s Day treat.

Grand Marnier Chocolate Truffles
Yield 35

10 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ cup Grand Marnier
12 oz candy-making chocolate disks (dark), Merckens brand works well (*see note in directions below)
½ cup Dutch process cocoa powder

Place the bittersweet chocolate and the butter in a microwave-safe bowl and heat for 30-60 seconds, stirring after the first 30 seconds. Alternatively, melt chocolate and butter together in a bowl set over (not touching) gently simmering water.
In a small sauté pan or saucepan, heat cream, corn syrup and salt until simmering. Pour over melted chocolate mixture and let stand 1-2 minutes. With a spatula gently stir mixture until evenly blended. Pour the alcohol, about a tablespoon at a time, into the chocolate mixture, stirring well after each addition. Pour mixture into an 8×8 inch baking dish, preferably glass or Pyrex. (Glass or Pyrex is best because eventually you’ll be scraping the bottom of the pan with your truffle scoop, and these two materials won’t be harmed.) Let chill in the refrigerator for at least one hour or overnight.

Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Using a truffle scoop (also called a #100 scoop) or a melon baller, gently drag the balled end across the surface of the chocolate. Release the ball of chocolate onto the cookie sheet and repeat until all of the chocolate has been scooped. These balls should not look perfect—don’t worry if they look irregularly-shaped, and don’t try to reshape them into perfect balls—in fact, they should appear slightly misshapen. Let chill in the refrigerator for at least another hour.

This next step is the only tricky part. Chocolate seizes very easily. This means that if a drop of water happens to get into the chocolate mixture, the chocolate will form into a grainy mass precluding it from being able to coat the balls. So regulating the temperature of the chocolate is important: it needs to be warm enough to easily coat the balls, but it also cannot be overheated.
*Note: 12 oz of chopped semisweet or bittersweet chocolate can be used in place of the candy-making chocolate disks, but I find the candy-making chocolate disks to be more forgiving in regard to seizing and they also give a crisper coating than regular semisweet or bittersweet chocolate.
Follow these steps carefully:
Place the coating chocolate in a large stainless-steel bowl (larger than you think necessary for the amount of chocolate.) Fill a pot large enough to accomodate the bowl with a few inches of water. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a very gentle simmer and place the bowl with chocolate over the pot being sure that the bottom of the bowl is not touching the water. After a a few minutes stir the chocolate with a heat-proof spatula, not a wooden spoon (supposedly wooden spoons can carry moisture). Place the cocoa powder in a shallow vessel—a small rectangular-shaped Tupperware works well. Have a clean Tupperware ready for the finished truffles.
When the chocolate is smooth and melted, remove the bowl from the heat. Remove the chocolate balls from the refrigerator. Place a large stainless-steel spoon (not a dinner spoon but a large cooking spoon) in the bowl and using the spatula push chocolate into the spoon to fill. Working one at a time, place one ball into the chocolate-filled spoon. Quickly coat the ball using the spatula, then remove using a small stainless-steel “dinner” spoon, and transfer to the cocoa powder. Gently shake the vessel back and forth until the truffle is coated, and let sit while you move to the next one. Repeat with two more before removing the first finished truffle. After 3 or 4 of the truffles have been coated, remove the first completed truffle to the clean vessel. Eventually you will work out your own system, but the truffles do need to rest for about 15 seconds before they are transferred to the clean vessel—the chocolate coating needs to set briefly. Towards the end of this coating process, you may need to place the bowl back over the water to gently warm the chocolate again so it more easily coats the chocolates. Just follow the same procedure as above—the key is to melt the chocolate slowly and to keep moisture out of the inside of the bowl. Keep the un-dipped chocolates cool in the refrigerator while you reheat the chocolate.
Once all of the truffles are coated, store in the refrigerator until ready to serve. If you prefer to eat them at room temperature, remove them from the refrigerator one hour prior to serving.
Note: After the chocolates have chilled in the refrigerator for a few hours and are firm, taste one. If the cocoa-powder coating is too strong, try this: set a cooling rack over a sheet tray and working with a few truffles at a time, shake them back and forth with your hands to remove excess cocoa powder. Return to the refrigerator in a clean Tupperware.
Note: You may have left over cocoa powder and coating chocolate. You can store the remaining coating chocolate in the refrigerator and use for another project or use in a recipe for chocolate sauce or hot cocoa. The remaining cocoa powder can also be saved for hot cocoa.

25. January 2007 by Alexandra Stafford
Categories: Cookies, Desserts | 1 comment

Stir-Fried Quail with Balsamic Caramel, Basil & Wilted Frisée


I could eat this balsamic caramel with anything: fresh strawberries, vanilla ice cream, sliced tomatoes, or shaved Parmigiano Reggiano. I recently spotted the recipe in my new Sally Schneider cookbook, “The Improvisational Cook,” and lamented not having discovered it a few weeks ago when I was attempting to recreate the “Alta” Brussels sprouts—this formula resembles that of the restaurant’s much more closely. Schneider’s version, just as simple to prepare, tastes like the thick, aged, artisan balsamics available in specialty stores for fifty dollars a bottle. I’ve now enjoyed this molasses-textured glaze drizzled over pan-seared duck breasts and grilled skirt steak. When the balsamic caramel is paired with basil, however, as in this stir-fried quail dish, the combination is especially delicious. Here I’ve used sturdy frisée as the base for this salad, which loses much of its bitterness when wilted under the heat of the quail. Once in the pan, the quail takes no more than five minutes to cook making this elegant salad of wilted greens, goat cheese, toasted pine nuts and orange segments simple and easy to prepare. Enjoy!

Stir-Fried Quail with Balsamic Caramel and Wilted Frisée
Serves 2

Balsamic caramel:
½ cup Rainwater Madeira
1 cup commercial balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons dark brown sugar

Balsamic Vinaigrette:
2 tsp. honey
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 cup balsamic vinaigrette
6 tablespoons grapeseed oil

1 package semi-boneless quails (or 4 each)
kosher salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons butter
1 large bunch fresh basil, roughly chopped

1 head frisée, (enough for 2 people)
2 oz goat cheese, crumbled
2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
1 orange, peeled and sectioned, preferably removed from its pith

To make the caramel, place Madeira in a small saucepan and simmer over medium heat until reduced to about 1 tablespoon. Add the balsamic vinegar and boil until the vinegar has reduced to about ¼ cup and is very syrupy and big shiny bubbles are forming at the surface. Watch the mixture very closely at this point—it will burn very easily. If it appears too thin, be assured that it will thicken upon cooling. Remove from the heat and stir in the brown sugar until dissolved. Pour into a clean jar and cool before using.

To make the vinaigrette, whisk together the honey, salt, pepper, garlic and balsamic vinegar in a small bowl. Slowly drizzle in the oil, whisking constantly. Taste, adjust with more salt, pepper or oil if necessary. Store until ready to use.

Remove quail from package and cut each into four sections: remove each leg from the body then split the breast down the middle into two pieces. Season liberally with salt and pepper.

In a large non-stick skillet over high heat melt the butter till hot and bubbly. When it is about to turn brown, add the quail pieces, skin side down first. Let the quail cook undisturbed for 1-2 minutes. Flip and cook for about 2 minutes longer.

Meanwhile, place frisée, goat cheese, pine nuts and orange segments in a bowl. Toss lightly with some of the vinaigrette, err on the side of under-dressing—the frisée will release moisture when wilted and the salad will ultimately be flavored with the balsamic caramel as well.

Arrange frisée mix on a large platter, or keep in the bowl (the platter is only for presentation purposes). When the quail is finished cooking, drizzle 2 tablespoons of the balsamic caramel into the pan then throw in all of the chopped basil. Immediately remove the pan from the heat and transfer the quail to the frisée platter, arranging the pieces on top of the greens, so that it wilts nicely. Serve immediately with a crusty baguette.

18. January 2007 by Alexandra Stafford
Categories: Entrees, Meat | 2 comments



Every New Year my family and I celebrate with a Greek tradition, the Vasilopita Observance. This custom began in the fourth century when a bishop, Saint Basil the Great, wanted to distribute money to the poor members of his flock. To avoid demeaning this proud people, St. Basil commissioned the ladies of his church to bake coins into a sweet bread, thereby hiding his offerings. When the families cut into the nourishing bread they surprisingly found gold coins as well, and the New Year’s tradition of baking coins into a sweet yeast-risen cake-like bread was born. While my mother never baked a traditional vasilopita, nor ever baked the coins directly into the cake, she would, true to custom, hide a variety of coins into a finished cake—whatever cake she felt like making that year. Today, the head of household divides the cake equally for each member of the family, and in traditional households, in commemoration of St. Basil’s love and concern for the poor, an additional piece of cake is cut to represent the unfortunate of the world. The one who receives the piece containing the special coin—a silver dollar in my home—allegedly will have an especially lucky year. Since leaving home I have introduced many friends to this Greek tradition and each year I am reminded of the fun generated by anticipating and hoping to receive that lucky coin. This year, in an effort to avoid sharing a whole cake with my husband, I have baked mini Rum Bundt Cakes, the preferred New Year’s cake in my family, and will give the extras to friends. While I cannot promise that partaking in the Vasilopita Observance will bring health and happiness to all who participate, as hoped by St. Basil the Great, I can attest that the ritual of making New Year’s resolutions is more fun while eating a rum-soaked coin-filled cake. Happy New Year!

Mini Rum Bundt Cakes
Yield=6 mini cakes Serves 12

For Cake:
10 tablespoons (5 oz) unsalted butter, room temperature plus more for the pan
¾ cup + 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 yolk
2 eggs
1 cup + 2 tablespoons (5.5 oz) all-purpose flour plus more for the pan
¾ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon table salt
2 tablespoons milk
3 tablespoons rum
¾ teaspoons vanilla extract

For Glaze:
8 tablespoons (4 oz) unsalted butter
½ cup sugar
¼ cup rum

For a fun touch, or a festive Valentine’s Day dessert, add a pink glaze:
1¼ cup confectioners’ sugar
3 tablespoons brandy
3 tablespoons rum
1-2 drops pink food coloring

Position oven rack in center of oven and heat to 350˚F. Butter the mini Bundt pan and lightly dust with flour, shaking out excess.
In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the yolk, and beat until smooth. Add the eggs one at a time, blending after each addition. In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. In another small bowl combine the milk and rum. Add half the flour mix to the mixer and blend until just smooth. Add half the milk mixture and blend until smooth. Add the rest of the flour and again blend only until just combined. Add the rest of the milk mixture and blend until smooth. Finally add the vanilla and blend until smooth.
Divide the batter evenly among the six molds and place in oven. Bake the cakes for 25 minutes.
Meanwhile prepare the glaze. Gently heat butter, sugar and rum until butter has melted and sugar has dissolved. Set aside.
After the 25 minutes, remove the cakes from the oven and test for doneness. It may look wet and spongy but still test with a paring knife. If the inserted knife emerges clean, the cakes are done. If not, return pan to the oven, checking every 2 minutes.
When cakes are done, remove from oven and spoon about 1 tablespoon of rum glaze (the first glaze listed above) on top of each cake. Let cakes cool in pan for 20 minutes before turning out onto a cooling rack. Brush a layer of glaze on top of each bundt cake, let harden (about 10 minutes) and then paint another layer on. Repeat until all of the glaze is gone.

Cut a small slit in the bottom of the cake and insert a saran-wrapped small coin into the slot. When ready to serve, divide the cake equally between the number of participants (hopefully no more than 2 per cake), enjoy your small portion and discover who is the lucky recipient of the coin. Make New Year’s resolutions and enjoy!

At this point, if desired, the pink glaze can be added on top of the first rum glaze. Whisk all ingredients together until smooth. Spoon glaze into center and gently push out with the back of the spoon so that the glaze falls down the sides of the cake.

Note: To make a normal sized Bundt cake, just double the ingredients for the cake, not for the glaze.
For more information about the Vasilopita Tradition visit: http://www.stbasil.goarch.org/about/vasilopita.asp

31. December 2006 by Alexandra Stafford
Categories: Desserts | 4 comments

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