Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow (or When Hurricane Irene Is Gone)

The Gold Merchants' Bridge-Florence

I'm thinking of my recent visit to sunny Italy, but sitting staring out into the gloom at the rain brought by the season's first hurricane: There's good news and bad news. The good news is that at least so far we here in central Maryland have been spared strong winds. And we're told that Irene may be losing steam as she blows along the mid-Atlantic coast.

The other bit of good news for me personally is that we are inside dry and safe. I hope that if you're in Irene's path you are, too. Since I'm at the computer you can guess that the electricity is still on--yes! (And I hope yours is as well.)
The bad news is that I was supposed to fly to California tomorrow evening, and my flight was canceled. Last night it took 2 1/2 straight hours (literally) on hold with US Airways to get through and rebook a flight for Monday afternoon instead. After being entertained by the same tedious ads pitching Life Alert and a trip to Jerusalem every three minutes for an entire evening, I don't want to hear either one mentioned again any time soon (maybe never)!

I was supposed to be in LA to work with Todd Porter and Diane Cu, aka whiteonricecouple, who are shooting the photos for my next cookbook. Since their photography is always wonderful (take a look here), I know they'll carry on just fine on Monday without me. But it's still really frustrating to arrive a day late.

In the meantime, I'm continuing to make doughs and bake stuff to tote along to LA. And to brighten my spirits, I look through my pics of sun-soaked southern Europe, where I was happily vacationing this time last week. Just in case you're under the same weather where you live and could use a few cheerful rays, I thought I'd share several of the sunniest shots with you. Enjoy!

Overlooking Florence

The Gold Merchants' Bridge-Florence

Amalfi Coast, near Salerno
For some food pics of my trip, click here.

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Thursday, August 25, 2011

When Bad Things Happen to Good People--There IS Something You Can Do

If you're a food blogger, or food blog follower, you've likely already heard about the tragedy that's struck a popular member of the blogging community, Jennifer Perillo, of In Jennie's Kitchen.  Recently, her husband had a massive, fatal heart attack, leaving her with not only her own terrible loss but with two young children to raise and daunting financial obligations.

Some of Jennifer's blogger friends have initiated a fund-raising effort, providing a concrete, useful way for those of us who really want to reach out and help to do so. Through bloggerswithoutborders it's possible to make direct cash donations, or you can bid on food-related auction items and services donated by various individual food bloggers and authors on their websites. Already individual auctions include such tempting offerings as a dinner prepared by gluten-free girl, Shauna Ahern, and her chef husband, Danny; a cooking class taught by cookbook author Pam Anderson; and a set of quality baking pans from Chicago Metallic. For the current listing of items click here.

I haven't had the pleasure of meeting Jennie, but I have some slight inkling of her devastating loss and want to help in at least a small way. I have a close friend who suddenly lost her husband in a plane crash, plus I faced a scary ordeal of my own hubby unexpectedly needing open-heart surgery last year. I am blessed to be able to say that my story had a happy ending--he is still with me and truly is as good as new.

I am giving a cash donation to the Fund for Jennie myself, but to encourage you to participate, I'm also offering a special auction item you might enjoy bidding on. The minimum bid is $50. Whatever is earned will go directly to the Fund.  I'll post here every few days with an update of what the latest winning bid is, so you'll know what you have to top.

Update: As of Monday, Aug. 29 the winning bid is $75--do I hear more?  Sept.30--the auction is now closed. The winning bid was $100. Thanks for your interest.

Box of Handsome Autumn Leaf Sugar Cookies, Cookie Crafting Lesson, and 3-Cookbook Package: Two dozen of my autumn leaf  “hand painted” iced sugar cookies to be shipped anywhere in the U.S., plus a personal cookie crafting session to learn to create your own beautiful leaf cookies right here in my Maryland kitchen. (Cookie crafting class to be scheduled at a mutually agreeable time for winning bidder and  up to two other guests). Bonus items: Signed copies of my bread, cookie, and dessert cookbooks. Must take delivery of all items by August 25, 2012.

If you wish to participate in my auction, please contact me at with your bid.  Or, if you wish, make your own cash donation. This time, there really is something you can do.
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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Day-tripping to Sorrento & Salerno--Italy's Beautiful Amalfi Coast

Our latest excursion during our Mediterranean cruise took us to a land of lemons. It started at the port of Naples, when we boarded a bus and rode out to Sorrento and then Salerno, towns on the scenic Amalfi coast. I took the first photo en route to Sorrento; the coastal shot below from a small boat that took us along the shoreline past Salerno and provided spectacular views from the sea.
Hotel courtyard-Sorrento
Though it’s not really obvious from those photos, our guide on our day trip, Celestina, told us that much of the available land is put to use growing lemons. Even the steep cliffs are terraced and planted with lemon trees. Some growers also raise oranges, but most have now converted to lemons, which are in greater demand and command higher prices. Interestingly, the lemon plants are often just grafted onto existing orange rootstock, so the farmers don’t have to start over from scratch.

The shops in Sorrento and Salerno are also crammed with lemon- and orange- scented soaps (see below right) and limoncello (above right), a potent digestif Italians usually drink ice cold and straight up. Some vendors also carried arancello, essentially the same brew made with orange peels instead of lemons.

Lemons are often celebrated on the ceramics, another major product of the region. Eye-catching dishware beckoned from many shops (yes, I had to buy a few pieces to take home and display in my kitchen), where the merchants always pointed out that the items were made and hand painted there, not in China.
Ceramics with lemon decorations

Celestina told us that many families take advantage of the abundance of lemons by making their own limoncello at home. She even gave us a recipe to bring back and try. It takes only a week—the yellow parts of the peels steep in pure grain alcohol (or, if you prefer, vodka). I’ll post the directions as soon as I test it out.

Though Italians don’t serve limoncello as an aperitif—it’s considered too strong to consume on an empty stomach—we cut it with orange juice (2/3 limoncello, 1/3 oj) and poured it over ice to create wonderfully refreshing before dinner cocktails.
Lemon- & orange-scented soaps

The bottle of limoncello we bought was just one of the many locally made small-batch brands to choose from. It was the best I've ever had and cost 6 Euro!  (Even useless little do-dads and souvenirs cost that much and delivered far less enjoyment!)

The shot below shows a limoncello cocktail right before we drank it! The view is of the Mediterranean as we sat on our cruise ship balcony. Yes, it was as peaceful as it looks.
My recipe for homemade limoncello is here.

If you're interested in some pics of the first leg of our trip, Barcelona, click here. The photo shows the rightly famous Sagrada Familia cathedral--don't miss it if you visit Barcelona.

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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Little Taste of Barcelona

I haven't posted for a few days, because I was on my way to--Barcelona! This was our jumping off point from a Mediterranean cruise on the huge ocean liner, the Norwegian Lines Epic.

I had no idea what to expect during my first visit to Barcelona, and was surprised that the look and laid-back vibe reminded me of Santa Monica! The weather feels similar, too, with lots sun, sea breezes, and a climate warm enough that orange trees were growing on our hotel patio.

Other discoveries that should not be missed if you visit here:

The rightly famous Iberian ham. The cure is uniquely smokey-salty, and the slices we've enjoyed have always served almost see-through thin. The pic below shows the ham shop of Enrique Tomas--all walls are lined from floor to ceiling with hams, some more than 200 Euros (or $250) each.  (I was told that some very special hams can cost up to a 1,000 Euros.) No, I'm not going to buy one!


To the right, you can see some of the beautiful tile work done by perhaps Barcelona's most famous artist, an architect named Gaudi.  This is only one of more than a 100 tile embellishments in a public park, called Park Geull. I took pics of many more similar areas--and will post a whole set of them some time. They inspired me to consider taking up tile work and creating my own decorative kitchen trays one day--just gorgeous!

Gaudi also spent nearly 50 years building what is certainly the most fantastical cathedral imaginable. Though the pic below doesn't really convey it, a lot of the decorations appear to be melting or growing. This strange look clearly influenced another later artist of the region, Salvador Dali. If you've seen his melting clocks painting, you know what I mean.

One aspect I did expect was the charming narrow city streets. You can see my granddaughter, son, and hubby warlking along ahead of me.

We're on the move, but will have a little more time later in the week. Check back then for some sights from Italy--including the breathtaking Amalfi coast.)

For details and pics of our day-trip to Sorrento and Salerno on the Amalfi coast, click here.
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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Protecting Perfect Tree-Ripened Peaches from Extinction, Plus a Homey Peach Crumb Cake

I grew up in Maryland farm country, where
my family raised strawberries, raspberries, grapes, apples (6 kinds), pears, and even some very puckery persimmons. But alas--no peaches! 

This was not as disappointing as it sounds  because a well-tended local peach orchard was only a few miles away. In the summer, every week or so my mother would pile my brother, sister, and me into our old Ford and we would head there. We had summer peach cakes and pies and even marmalade to make and needed to stock up on whatever variety was at its peak at that very moment

Harvesting at the peak of ripeness, is, of course, the reason local peaches are so succulent and full of flavor. They come to fruition as nature intended, growing sweet, fragrant, and heavy on their branches, not plucked green and hard and shipped a dozen states away. The lovely local farmers' market peaches at the top are exactly the sort I'm always looking for--their aroma as I moved in close for a shot was irresistibly potent. Frankly, I don't think peaches wrenched from their nurturing trees and sent off in trucks before their time are worth eating at all.
Due to the intense fruit aroma that wafts up and grabs you, perfectly ripe orchard peaches, in contrast, are impossible to resist. I can still remember the peachy scent enveloping us as we drove through the orchard front gate and past the groves. I can still taste the burst of sweet-tart flavor and feel the sun-warmed juice running down my chin as I stood by the brimming baskets we'd  just bought from the Sewell family. 

The only thing missing was a napkin! Well, that, and a promise from my mother that she would bake us something with those peaches as soon as we got home.

Today, I'm on a private crusade to support my local orchards and farmers' markets, so real peaches and their kind won't become a thing of the past. Though I sometimes ride by "Sewells' Orchard," I can't stop for their fruit any more. A tidy subdivision has sprouted up and only a few token peach trees still stand at the entrance sign to prove an orchard was once there.

Now, I purchase most of my summer produce, including peaches, from a seasonal market that buys directly from Maryland and Pennsylvania farms and orchards. When I can, I also make forays out into the surrounding countryside to the few orchards and produce farms that do remain. (A post on our family visit to an apple orchard is here.) If you, too, treasure the endangered species, the tree-ripened peach, you may want to do the same. How about it--are you on board?

Peach Crumb Cake

This homey, fragrant cake cake isn't quite like my mother or grandmother made, but is definitely in the same vein. Moist, laden with succulent fruit, and topped with a buttery streusel, it is two parts coffee cafe, one part fruit crumble! In fact, the juices from the peaches gradually soak in and soften the cake, so plan to bake and serve it the same day.  Either white or yellow peaches are fine, but the yellow ones lend more color to the slices. 

Crumb Mixture 
1/2 cup all-purpose white flour
Generous 1/3 cup packed light or dark brown sugar 
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon 
 3 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces 
1/2 cup granulated sugar 
3 tablespoons all-purpose white flour (use a little more for very juicy peaches 
2 pounds fresh peaches or nectarines (10 to 12 medium-sized), peeled, pitted and coarsely sliced or chopped

1 cup all-purpose white flour 
1/2 teaspoon baking powder 
1/4 teaspoon baking soda 
1/4 teaspoon salt 
 6 tablespoons granulated sugar 
 1/4 cup softened butter 
1 large egg, at room temperature
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract 
1/4 teaspoon almond extract, optional
1/3 cup plain low-fat yogurt 

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Lightly grease a 9-inch springform pan or a deep-dish

10-inch or larger pie plate. 

For crumb topping: Combine flour, sugar and cinnamon in food processor. Process in 6-7 on/off pulses until well mixed. Sprinkle butter and oil over dry ingredients. Process in pulses until fat is cut in and mixture is consistency of very coarse meal. (Alternatively, if processor is unavailable, in a medium bowl stir together dry ingredients until mixed. Cut in butter and oil with forks or pastry blender until mixture resembles coarse meal.) 

For peaches and cake: In a medium bowl stir together sugar, flour and cinnamon until well blended. Add peaches, stirring until evenly incorporated. Set aside. For batter, stir together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. In a mixer bowl with mixer on medium speed, beat together sugar, butter, egg, vanilla and almond extract (if using) until well blended. Add half the dry ingredients, then the yogurt and stir just until evenly incorporated. Stir in the remaining dry ingredients; do not over-mix. Spread the batter evenly over pan bottom. Spoon the peaches over top. Sprinkle crumb mixture evenly over top. Set the pan or plate on a baking sheet. 

Bake in middle third of oven for 40 to 50 minutes, until nicely browned and a toothpick inserted in cake center comes out clean; it's better to overbake slightly than to underbake. Let cool before serving. If using a spring-form pan, if desired,  run a knife around the pan; remove pan sides; and transfer cake (and pan bottom) to a serving plate. Serve warm or at room temperature, cut into wedges; add a scoop of ice cream, if desired. 

Makes about 8 servings. 

Another summer dessert you may like--Blueberry Crumb Bars
 Or perhaps a Raspberry Crumb Cobbler.

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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

What Happens Wht a Recipe Flunks the Taster Test—Can (Should) It be Saved?

The last several months some volunteer home bakers from all over the map have been busily making, tasting, and rating sample cookie recipes I’m creating for a new cookbook  called Simply Sensational Cookies.  I arranged for them to test because it’s valuable, maybe even crucial to get a sense of how potential customers react to what might be going in my book. Notice the word might—testers actually help determine which recipes make the grade and which get cut!
In case you’re wondering, yes, soliciting brutally honest feedback from random testers can be hard on the ego (nobody enjoys criticism). But it’s a great way to determine what recipes are “good enough” for publication. (A previous  post on when recipes are “good enough” is here.)  Home testers help ensure that my work meets readers’ expectations and, ultimately, that buyers are pleased with their purchase. I’d rather learn privately that a recipe was a dud (when I can do something about it), than read this in a nasty on-line reader review!  (I’m not encouraging snide, snarky reviews, mind you; authors do have feeling, too!)

As usual, I instructed testers to grade very hard and to point out any problems with both the written recipe and the end results. They were asked to rank taste, texture, appearance and overall appeal of the cookie they made.  Even more important questions: Would they make the recipe again and was it worth the trouble?  No’s to either of these last two and a recipe automatically flunked.
Here are the kinds of recipes sent out to testers and why:  Some included a tricky, unusual, or complicated step, and I wanted to verify that a typical enthusiastic home cook could successfully make them.  Some seemed easy to me and my assistants, but I want to know if a home baker will consider them “easy,” too.  Some had gotten mixed ratings from tasters during development, so I wanted another completely independent assessment. 

Most of the recipes I sent out received good, or great grades, but—ouch—a couple did flunk!  I was mortified but also grateful for the truth. A full run-down (with pics) of what testers liked and disliked is here.

What happens when a recipe fails? It depends on what the tester had to say.  Sallie, the tester of the peanut crisps recipe, wrote:  “The texture and appearance I felt was good. The color and crispness appealed to me. The flavor was just not there.She rated the taste a 3 out of 10—yikes!

But because Sallie saw some promise in the recipe—nice texture and looks—I decided to give this one another chance. Originally I’d wanted to keep the crisps low in fat for healthful snacking, but to banish the blands, during revamping I more than doubled the amount of peanut butter and also increased the peanuts, sugar, and salt.  (Which just shows how hard creating tasty low-fat treats is!)

Here’s the totally reworked recipe, which  is now passing taste tests with flying colors! The texture is as outstanding as in the beginning, the flavor has been cranked up so these are very hard to resist. So, yes, it's going in the book.  I think you can now see just how valuable tester feedback can be. 

Sweet and Crunchy Peanut Crisps

These crisps are really a cross between cookies and crackers and are great for snacking. Though slightly sweet, they are thin and rectangular like crackers, and, due to slow toasting in the oven and coarse sugar garnish on top, they are crunchy crisp. The peanuts, peanut butter, and oil all contribute fat, but it’s mostly the monounsaturated, cholesterol-lowering kind, plus peanuts are a good, economical source of protein. And the crisps also contain some whole wheat flour, a markedly better source of fiber and nutrients than white flour.  
1 1/3 cups unbleached all-purpose white flour, plus more if needed
2/3 cup whole wheat flour
6 1/2 tablespoons packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup peanut oil or other flavorless low-saturated fat vegetable oil
3/4 cup smooth or chunky peanut butter
2 tablespoons molasses
1 cup finely chopped, roasted, salted peanuts for garnish
About 1/4 cup turbinado sugar or other plain coarse crystal sugar for garnish

Baking Preliminaries: Position a rack in the middle of the oven; preheat to 350 degrees F. Set out two large baking sheets and 4 long sheets of baking parchment. Also line a very large rimmed pan with baking parchment.

In a large bowl stir together the white and whole wheat flours, the brown sugar, baking powder, and salt until well blended; mash out any sugar lumps with the back of the spoon. Whisk together the oil, peanut butter, molasses, and a generous 1/2 cup warm water until very well blended. Immediately stir the mixture into the flour mixture until evenly incorporated. If the dough is dry, stir in enough more water until the mixture holds together when pinched between fingertips. 

Divide the dough in half. Roll out each portion between sheets of baking parchment into a (thin) 12-inch square. If necessary, cut and patch it to make the sides fairly even. Peel off the top sheets of parchment. Sprinkle each dough layer evenly with a quarter of the coarse sugar and a quarter of the peanuts. Lay the parchment over the dough, then roll the pin back and forth to imbed the sugar and the peanuts. Turn over the dough, peel off the top sheets and repeat the garnishing and rolling with the pin on the second sides. Remove the top sheets of parchment.

Using a pizza cutter, pastry wheel, or a large knife, cut each sheet of dough lengthwise and crosswise into 10 equal strips to form a grid of squares.One at a time, slide the paper and dough (leaving the scraps in place) onto the baking sheet.

Bake (middle rack) one pan at a time for 13 to 15 minutes or until the dough sheets are set and browning at the edges, but still not firm in the center. Let cool. Reset the oven to 225 degrees F.

When the crisps are cool enough to handle, remove and discard the edges and scraps (or nibble on them!). Separate the squares with your hands and spread them on the rimmed parchment-lined pan. Toast (middle rack) for 20 to 25 minutes (the longer, the crisper); gently stir to redistribute the crisps about halfway through. Turn off the oven; let the crisps stand at least 30 minutes and up to an hour or more to toast them further. Then remove them from the oven and let stand until completely cooled. Pack airtight. 

Yield: Makes about 100 1 1/2-inch crisps.
Storage: Store these airtight at room temperature for up to 2 weeks; or freeze airtight, for up to 2 months.

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