Monday, November 29, 2010

Light Cream of Celery Soup: a change of pace after Thanksgiving

There are two major problems I find after the Thanksgiving weekend passes: 1) all the feasting and indulging in rich food is beginning to catch up with you 2) you filled up your refrigerator with a huge turkey and all the trimmings and now its gone and you're stuck with a hodge-podge of ingredients that don't quite make up a meal...or at least a meal that doesn't look like more leftovers. I found myself in this predicament today as I stared into the now-bare-looking fridge. I had some celery and spinach that would be past their prime soon and a few pounds of potatoes that needed some attention, but these ingredients didn't look too appetizing on their own. I was really needing some carrots and peppers or something that could really round out the nice soup and salad meal that I was envisioning. It's days like this that I eagerly turn to my Mollie Katzen books as she always has great recipes that use simple ingredients to make something delicious - always helpful in utilizing lots of veggies!
As I thumbed through her soup book I already had a recipe in the back of my mind that I had come across numerous times while performing this same ritual. Found it! "Light Cream of Celery", yep, that's the one! I scanned the recipe and it fit the bill perfectly: it would use up some celery and potatoes real fast and provide a meal that wouldn't be rich and Thanksgiving-y.
This soup was very fast and easy to prepare, especially since I could be sloppy with my knife cuts knowing it was all going to be turned into mush anyways. Within two hours I had a nice, simple, wholesome meal on the table with my warm soup, spinach and greens salad, peaches and yogurt, and crackers with nut butter for something more filling. My parents really enjoyed the change of pace and especially liked trying small bowls of soup with different toppings including Parmesan cheese, crackers, plain yogurt, tortilla strips, green chili sauce, horseradish, and croutons. My mom said the soup reminded her of Christmas, gazpacho, split pea soup, and leek soup. How she got all that out of Light Cream of Celery I'll never know, but as long as she liked it, whatev.

Light Cream of Celery

- 2 average person's fist-sized potatoes, peeled and diced (I used 3 smallish potatoes)
- 4 cups chopped celery
- 3 cups of water (I added a tsp of vegetable stock concentrate to round out the flavor)
- 1 1/4 tsp salt
- 1 to 2 Tbsp butter (I used 2 because I had the perfect-sized chunk, but it would have worked just as well with less)
- 1 cup finely diced onion
- 1 cup finely diced celery
- 1 tsp celery seed (I used 2 tsp for some more flavor)
- 1 cup milk, warmed (I used 2%, warmed in the microwave for 1 min)
- white pepper to taste
- 4 to 5 Tbsp sour cream, half and half, or heavy cream, optional (I left this out because I had no more room in my pot and served plain yogurt on the side instead, still very good!)
- minced chives, parsley, celery leaves, to garnish (or the fun options that I mentioned above!)

(I added the celery tops and leaves to my 4 cups because they also contain flavor and their texture won't be noticed once its all pureed so it's a great way to utilize the whole vegetable with no waste!)

1) Place potatoes, 4 cups of celery, water, and salt in a medium-sized saucepan. Bring to a boil and cook until the vegetables are soft (5-10 min, depending on particle size and the strength of your stove)
 2) Meanwhile, melt the butter in a medium-sized skillet and saute the 1 cup of onions and the 1 cup of celery. Season with the celery seeds and some salt and pepper if you like.

 3) Puree all the ingredients in a blender or food processor in as many batches as needed and return to pot and heat to low.

 4) Stir in the cup of milk and the optional sour cream/heavy cream.

 5) Serve warm with your choice of garnishes and enjoy feeling light once again!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Jezebel Dip: Out of the ordinary appetizer ideas #1

When parties or large get-togethers appear on the calendar, one of the first things I do is start looking for new, cool, fresh ideas for things to bring, usually dessert of an appetizer of some sort. Thanksgiving is one of these events and with large numbers of people bringing food for potluck meals, I'm even more anxious to find an unusual dish that will stand out from the crowd and yet thoroughly please the crowd.
Last year, during my exploration I came across a dip that caught my attention with its strange name: Jezebel Dip. Ever heard of it? I hadn't, so of course I went about reading the recipe and all of the reviews on it. I was intrigued and disgusted with what I found. The dip consisted of a block of cream cheese covered in a warm sauce of (ready for this?) apricot jam, Dijon mustard, and horseradish! The intriguing part of this was the reviews, not only were there many of them (meaning there were lots of brave people in the world who had tried it), but almost all of them were very, very positive with high marks!  Still, these comments were not enough to sway me and I went on to choose something a bit safer to bring to the party.
Now here I am, a year later, with another year of cooking under my belt and a widened taste bud horizon, and holiday parties arriving once again. Although our celebration this year took place in our own home, my immediate family was still enough of a crowd for me to find myself cooking up a few things in the kitchen. After making some favorite snacks like Muddy Buddies and Stuffed Mushrooms I thought it was time for something a little different...that Jezebel Dip had been in the back of my mind for a while.
Right off the bat I almost forgot the first step of the directions to mix up the ingredients the night before serving to allow the flavors to meld. Thus, at about 11:30pm I quickly, quietly whipped up the sauce, feeling very strange sneaking around in the dark kitchen with such odd ingredients. I had to resist the great urge to taste the smelly goo as I was about to go brush my teeth and had no desire to taste minty horseradish all night. Instead I put the mixture in the fridge and away to bed I went, wondering if I would find something magical or something horrific the next morning.
It turns out the orange glob was not much different after its over-night flavor-development period thingy. While the contrasting tastes of the horseradish and the jelly were much more unified, it still wasn't something I would consider delicious, in fact it was still in the "weird" category for me. But now that I'd gone this far with the experiment I certainly wasn't backing down so I followed directions and heated the sauce in the microwave until it was slightly more than warm, then I spooned that mixture over a block of room temperature cream cheese in a platter with slightly inclined sides. When all of the sauce was out of the bowl and into the platter, the cream cheese looked like an island in a sea of marmalade except that this definitely was NOT marmalade. This look was really not doing anything to advertise the dip, but I was not feeling very inspired so I just sprinkled some dried red chili pepper and paprika over the top and stuck a cracker in the side. It was far from beautiful, but it was better and if the reviews had been correct then the dip would be devoured so fast that the appearance would not be too much of an issue.
In the end, the results were about what I expected: the more daring of my family members who sampled the dip thought it was great...unusual, but still tasty. My not-so-open-minded siblings just gave it a few wary glances before reaching for safer snacks. Personally, I was somewhere in between these opinions as I thought it was interesting, but that it had lots of room for improvement. The sauce and the cheese went very nice together with the spicy, tangy, sweet and creamy all balancing out well, but the plating made it hard to get a good scoop on a cracker and of course lacked visual appeal. I also thought nuts would have added a nice element, texturally and flavor-wise, but these ideas will have to wait because my I've only got a few months left of holiday parties to try the other weird names on my list. In the meantime, if any of you wanna mess around, here's the recipe, have fun!

Jezebel Dip

- 1 (12 ounce) jar apricot preserves (some of the reviews also suggested peach and apple)
- 2 teaspoons prepared horseradish
- 2 tablespoons Dijon-style prepared mustard
- a few grinds of black pepper, to taste
- 1 (8 ounce) package cream cheese, softened

1) In a medium-size bowl, combine apricot preserves, horseradish, mustard and black pepper. Taste the mixture and add more horseradish, mustard, and pepper to taste. Cover and chill this mixture overnight.
2) When ready to serve, place the cream cheese on a serving plate gently warm the sauce in the microwave. Pour or spoon the apricot mixture over the cream cheese.
3) Sprinkle with dried red chili pepper or black pepper.Serve with a basket of your favorite crackers.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Nutella Experiment

One of my sisters is very limited in her eating choices. There are many things that she does not like for one reason of another and thus, when she finally finds a food that she REALLY likes, she eats it like it's going out of style! One of her latest fads is the famous Nutella hazelnut spread, which she likes on bread for breakfast or lunch.
One day while I was whipping up some natural peanut butter for myself, my mother asked me absentmindedly if I could make my own Nutella. Bing! A light goes on in my head. A challenge. Could I make my own Nutella? I could make my own peanut butter just hard could Nutella be? Just switch nuts and add some chocolate, no problem!...right?
This challenge was quickly deterred when I failed to find any hazelnuts at the grocery store, however, a new store opened about a week later...and THEY did! :) So, fearing it too good to be true, I quickly snatched up 2 bags of "large Californian hazelnuts" and hurried home to see what suggestions I could find on making my own Nutella. I was pleasantly surprised to find several recipes and blogs on the subject, but due to lack of various ingredients or tools I did not pick a single recipe to go off of, but rather decided to approach the matter like making peanut butter with with additions as I had originally planned. Again I asked myself, "how hard could it be?"

I realized my first problem right off the bat: the hazelnuts were not shelled. Ugh. This probably something I should have realized at the moment I bought them...but I'd never actually SEEN a hazelnut before (ok so there is a picture on the Nutella jar, give me a break!) So no big deal, right? I'll just shell these puppies real quick before I toast them and I'm back on track. While I did manage to locate the nutcracker successfully, the actual shelling process proved a bit difficult with shells flying everywhere and most of the nuts ending up in pieces, but after about 30 or so I finally got the hang of it and it was pretty smooth sailing from there.

The next step was to toast the hazelnuts as I always do with all my nuts for peanut butter, cookies, salads, whatever! It just brings out their flavor so nicely I didn't even think twice about it. Next was the tedious work of rubbing and scratching the flaky skin off of the cooled nuts, which I actually think was less fun than the shelling part, but I persevered nonetheless.

So now, with my hazelnuts nicely shelled, toasted, and skinned, I was ready to begin the real Nutella-making business that I had started 2 hours ago!! I placed the whole nuts in my food processor and they ground-up even nicer than the peanuts usually do and quickly formed a grainy paste.

Now I began the very unscientific method of adding small increments of flavorings until I achieved the taste I was looking for. It went something like this: mix, add a tbsp melted semi-sweet chocolate, mix, add a few drops of vanilla, mix, add a tbsp powdered sugar and a tsp cocoa powder, mix, scrape down the sides and bottom, add a little salt, mix, etc. I went through this sequence over and over, inching closer to that unique Nutella flavor. The problem I found when I tasted the mixture and when I had others taste it, was that the toasted flavor and the hazelnut flavor were coming in too strong and the texture was off. This wasn't necessarily a bad thing if you didn't mind that taste, but it just wasn't Nutella. Finally I took a sample to my Nutella-loving sister to try. She said it was close, but not the same, which I already knew. As I headed back to the kitchen to experiment some more she said "you could try adding some milk, Nutella has milk in it you know?" Hmmm...milk? Could that be the key to the ungraspable flavor and  perfectly smooth texture?? It was worth a try.
I thought it was quite an ingenious idea to use heavy whipping cream instead of milk, that way I would get a nice creamy flavor without making the spread too runny. I eagerly added about a tbsp of cream, flipped on the processor, and watched as it disappeared into the chocolaty goo. When I sampled the new creation I was disappointed to find little change. More cream. This time I added twice the amount thinking "it's all or nothing!" and I again turned on the processor to watch the magic. What I saw was actually quite horrifying as my slightly-gritty spread became a thick fudge, something I had witnessed years before when I unwittingly added milk to scorched chocolate. I looked into the bowl with dismay at the mixture that was now far from resembling the jar of Nutella next to it.
With a final act of desperation I trickled a few drops of canola oil into the processor and turned it on to see what the effects would be. The effects were pleasantly surprising! I watched with glee as the the chocolate glob gradually became a nice, glossy, mayonnaise-like consistency! When I sampled the new creation I found it was much smoother than before and though it still lacked a certain sweetness when compared with the Nutella, the distinct toasted flavor was greatly muted to more of a pleasant nuttiness. I decided it was time to stop experimenting before my luck ran out. I quickly toasted a piece of bread and smothered it with some of my still-warm spread and anxiously presented it to my sister. She chewed it carefully before turning to me and declaring: "Awesome!" So in the end, I did not discover the secret to the Nutella flavor *sigh*...but I can live with awesome. 

Friday, November 12, 2010

Deceptive and Delicious German Chocolate Cake

I'm really not much of a cake person. Don't get me wrong, I have plenty of great cake in my day and I make cakes often enough, but if I'm going to choose a dessert, cake is usually not my first pick. Maybe it has something to do with growing up on rectangle-shaped, sprinkle-encrusted cakes that came from boxes. I'm not sure, but I do know there are two types of people when it comes to cakes: cake people...and icing people. I belong in the latter group as I've always been one of those always-ask-for-a-corner-piece-because-it-has-more-frosting sort of people. But before I get too far off track, what I was getting at was that (in my opinion) you can't have a good cake, without a darn good icing to complement it! Thus, when a circumstance arises in which cake is the must-have dessert, I'm going to choose my cake AND icing recipe very carefully.
In this case I have picked a cake that I have had only once before (sadly): German Chocolate Cake. I fell in love with this cake a year ago after tasting the creamy, flavorful frosting which perfectly balanced the dense, chocolate cake beneath. However, at the time, I was too busy savoring the incredible tastes to actually figure out WHAT it was that made it so different from other dry and dull chocolate cakes. It was time to find out...
I chose the German Chocolate Cake recipe from my favorite baking source, After reading through the recipe once I quickly realized there was much more to this cake than meets the eye, which explains the intricate flavor combinations.
For starters, the cake itself has Dutch cocoa powder and milk chocolate going for it as well as coffee and buttermilk for the liquid agents (coffee and chocolate? now I know why I love it so much!). The coffee adds depth to the chocolate and the buttermilk makes for a wonderfully moist crumb. So far so good, but it gets better. The famous frosting is a combination of evaporated milk and sugar, cooked and thickened with egg yolks and then combined with coconut and toasted pecans for a flavor and texture combo that is out of this world! I absolutely love it!
*Short story time!* I had worked hard on making sure this cake was perfect, right? And then it finally comes time to serve it and it looks all impressive and great with its rich brown colors and three layers and all. Things were going smooth so far and I had everyone under the impression that I was all that as I suavely told them what was in it and how I came to create such a masterpiece. Then my friend innocently asks: "what is German chocolate anyways?" followed by a pause for thought. Now I had everyone wondering the same thing and all I could give them was this blank stare. How had I just made a German Chocolate Cake and not know what German chocolate was?! Woops. Well as soon as we started eating, I'm pretty sure we all could have cared less if there what German chocolate was (thank goodness), but I do plan to redeem myself now. Once again I turn to my trusted Deluxe Food Lover's Companion for the truth behind this mystery and here's what we find out: German chocolate is actually NOT from Germany, but rather it is named after its creator, Sam German who developed the chocolate for Baker's company in the mid-1800s. This chocolate is simply a sweet chocolate similar to milk chocolate and is best known for its place in German Chocolate Cake, which was first published in a Dallas newspaper in 1957.
So there we have it, the a story behind German chocolate and German Chocolate Cake that will surely impress any guests and save you from looking ...well like me.
This cake goes great with a nice vanilla ice cream or a cup of milk to balance the richness. Although it is difficult to cut due to being three layers and rather crumbly, do your best to slice it thinly as a little of this goes a long way. Hope you enjoy!
NOTE: My only troubles with this cake I had with the milk chocolate and the pecans.
The milk chocolate was more my own fault really. I melted the chocolate perfectly in my microwave and then was interrupted to watch Jeopardy! so when I came back I had to reheat it. This should have been no problem, but I must not have melted it well enough because when I "folded" it into the batter, it became stiff and clumpy. This meant the cakes were harder to invert because of all the chocolate pieces stuck to the bottom, but it just tasted like it had chocolate chips in it so that was OK.
As for the pecans, just watch them carefully while toasting. I had to do several batches to get them to come out right. Some of the problem was timing and some was quantity, it just depends. I would suggest sticking with the minimum toasting time and then adjusting from there. Whatever you do, DO NOT eliminate the toasting step, it does such wonders for the flavor of the nuts and the cake as a whole.

German Chocolate Cake

- 4oz semi-sweet or Baker's German chocolate, chopped
- 2 1/4 cups cake flour
- 3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (Dutch processed)
- 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp baking soda
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 cup hot coffee (or water, coffee heavily suggested though)
- 1 cup buttermilk (or milk with a little acid added)
1 1/4 cups (2 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 2 1/4 cups granulated white sugar (I only had brown and that worked just fine)
- 5 large eggs
- 1 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract

1) Melt the chocolate in a double boiler or in the microwave for 2-3 minutes, stirring after each minute until almost melted. Stir until completely smooth and set aside to cool.
2) Preheat oven to 350 F and place rack in the center of the oven. Grease 3 8" round cake pans with Wilton Cake Release or butter and dust with flour.
3) In a medium-sized bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. In another bowl combine the coffee and the buttermilk.
4) In a big mixing bowl or the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter until smooth and then add the sugar gradually and continue beating until the mixture is fluffy (2-3 min).
5) Scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed, add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each and then add the vanilla and beat to combine.
6) Add a little of the liquid mixture to moisten and beat until uniform. Add a little of the dry mixture and beat to combine until uniform. Continue this process with the rest of the liquid and dry mixtures.
7) Divide the batter evenly among the prepared cake pans and back for about 35 minutes, until toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.
8) Allow to cool completely on a wire rack. When cool, line 3 large plates or medium cutting boards with wax paper and invert the cakes onto them one at a time.
9) When ready to assemble the cake, Place the thickest, sturdiest cake on your serving plate and center it as best as you can. Cover the top (not the sides) of it with 1/3 of the frosting (about a cup). Continue with the other two layers and the rest of the frosting. Garnish with extra pecans or coconut.
10) The finished cake can be stored at room temperature for a couple of days or it can be refrigerated.

Coconut Pecan Frosting

- 1 1/4 cups raw pecans
- 1 cup granulated white sugar (again, I used brown and it was awesome)
- 1 cup evaporated milk
- 3 large egg yolks
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
- 1/8 tsp salt
- 1 1/2 cups sweetened flaked coconut
- 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract

1) Preheat oven to 350 F and place the pecans on a baking sheet and bake for about 8 minutes, watching carefully, until lightly browned and just becoming fragrant (if you can smell them outside the oven they will probably be over-done). Let cool, then chop into small pieces (about 1/6 the size of a pecan if you cut it in half lengthwise and then into thirds)
2) In a medium saucepan, combine the sugar, milk, egg yolks, butter, and salt. Whisk to mix in the sugar and beat up the egg yolks.
3) Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly for a few minutes until thickened (the mixture should boil for a little while) then add the coconut, pecans, and vanilla extract.
4) Let cool until spreadable and then assemble the cake (and try not to eat too much of the frosting while you are waiting!)
 First base
 Two layers of cake and icing
 Total construction: triple layer (yumm)
Finished product :)