Monday, May 28, 2012

“Don’t Even Think About Eating This Food,” Plus the Mystery of the Missing Ladle

At some point almost everybody who has ever prepped food for an event—whether photographer, cookbook author, caterer, or home cook readying snacks for a meeting or family picnic—has issued a stern warning not to even think about eating what’s been prepared. It alerts spouses, or kids, or, in professional kitchens, associates that they absolutely, positively may NOT touch those brownies or that plate of confections, or even breathe on the succulent-looking ganache-drizzled Bundt cake waiting to be photographed.

Likewise, almost everybody can recount tragic, funny, or bizarre tales of when, despite the warnings, the prohibited food was nevertheless consumed. The French even have a phrase explaining this phenomenon—it’s “piece de resistance,” meaning that which is so desirable it is impossible to resist. Yes, Aunt Harriett had been told, but she was hungry and her blood sugar was low and she HAD to have a few cubes of that gourmet cheese. Yes, Bobby knew not to eat the peanut butter cookies marked, “Don’t Touch,” in big black letters, but his ravenous soccer buddies came in and egged him on.

My own most memorable Waterloo came years ago on St. Patrick’s Day, when I discovered the Paris green cupcakes my mother had made for the PTA bake sale. Yes, I knew she’d promised to provide twenty-four, but the gloriously gaudy color kept calling and calling, and I desperately circled the table trying to think of a way to disguise that I’d taken one from the box. By the time my mother discovered me there hovering and pacing, I was about to capitulate and was in tears from frustration and desire. She must have identified with my misery, because she bought back a half-dozen of those cupcakes and gave me one when she got home.

 It’s worth mentioning here along with the green cupcakes that one person’s piece de resistance may be another’s penance. One of my testing assistants, Linda Kirschner, who used to cater, was setting up a buffet at the county courthouse when she realized that although nobody had snitched any food, all the leafy garnishes she’d tucked around the dishes were gone. “I KNOW it was the lurking man who asked if I had any ‘rabbit food.’ Can you imagine?’” she said.

 Of course, neither signs nor verbal warnings are normally deterrents when house pets are involved. On two occasions when I’ve been in the middle of shooting photos, my mini-poodle has swiped the featured item right off the set. The first time, I returned from answering the phone to find that the napkin I’d artfully draped around a slice of bread was now on the floor. All that remained of the bread were several crumbs on the table.

 The second incident was even more disconcerting because when I came back and looked through the lens at my pretty violet sugar-garnished cupcake, it was suddenly just … NOT THERE!

 I learned two important lessons from this: First, poodles are markedly taller on two legs than on four. Second, always shut the door to the studio when leaving it even for an instant.

 The latest food thievery—which I’m betting is going to top my bizarreness list (and maybe yours, too!) forever--involves the jar of hot fudge sauce, which I was photographing on my deck last week. (The predatory poodle was locked away in the house.) I left the sauce, exactly as you see it, to go change the camera battery. When I returned, the jar was there, untouched, but the dripping, chocolate-coated ladle had vanished, literally without a trace. No smears on the table cloth, smudges on the wooden planks, or trail of drops leading to the culprit. I wasn’t really sure if it was a case of sleight of hand or paw. I looked further around the deck and bushes, but found neither ladle nor clues.

Part of the mystery was solved the next morning, when I glanced out to see a squirrel frantically searching the deck where the hot fudge had been. Not only had the chocolate not killed him, but he (or she) clearly wanted more. Since the critter was high functioning enough to work incredibly neatly; exit quickly; and remember exactly where he’d found the treat, I’m putting out a sign with an offer I’m hoping he can’t refuse: “Ladle can be exchanged for some hot fudge.”
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Monday, May 21, 2012

Breaking Bread Society-Inspired “Kneadless” Herbed Thin-Crisp Focaccia

When the newly-formed bloggers' Breaking Bread Society (details here) told me they get together virtually to bake a monthly bread and asked me to join in, I had to participate. The founding members, Shulie, of foodwanderings, Lora, of CakeDuchess and  Marnely of Cooking with Books hope their plan will encourage more people to find time for homemade yeast bread in their lives, a motion I heartily second!
If you follow my blog at all, you know I’m always advocating this myself. Not only does homemade bread fill the house with the most incredible aroma and add a special touch to even the plainest meal, but I think that working with such pure, simple ingredients as flour, yeast, salt and water is good for the soul. It certainly makes me feel renewed and righteous!

I was excited to see that the basic recipe being featured by the group this month was a focaccia from Nick Malgieri’s How to Bake book. I have known Nick and admired his work for a very long time, and in fact, he even did me the honor of reviewing my Kneadlessly Simple cookbook manuscript and writing a very nice comment for the jacket. I knew his recipe would be a winner—and it definitely was!

That said, I generally prefer to put my own spin on another author’s recipe, so decided to take his traditionally-prepared formula and convert it to my favorite no-knead, cold-rise method. The ingredients are the same, except my method requires adding a little more water (for a moister dough) and a good deal less yeast. I also topped my version with my own herb-seasoned olive oil shown below left. In case you are new to “kneadless” breads and the cold water, slow-rise approach, here are a couple important facts you should know.

 First, no-knead bread is not in fact unkneaded, but rather it just kneads itself—really! Here’s how it works: The dough, which is on the slightly moist side, sits and bubbles from fermentation for a long time. Though you can barely see it, the natural bubbling and heaving action (shown in the photo below right) develops the gluten quite thoroughly. Trust me—if the dough is allowed to stand the 12 to 18 hours suggested, it will be as well kneaded as dough worked with a bread hook. While the dough is doing its thing, you can go off to work, or shop, or sleep and come back hours later and start the second rise when it is convenient for you. The other obvious advantage is that with NO kneading, you avoid virtually all the usual counter top muss and fuss.

The cold water, slow-rise approach, technically known as “delayed first fermentation,” is another key aspect. I first learned about it from another colleague and friend Peter Reinhart, who raved about the wonderful flavor and color it imparted in the Pain a l'Ancienne recipe (p. 191) in his seminal The Bread Baker’s Apprentice. (He and I actually met when that book and my All-American Cookie Book were competing for an IACP award. I knew, as soon as I saw his book that it would win, and told him so. It not only won the baking category, but both IACP and James Beard book of the year honors!)

This technique involves starting with ice cold water; using a modest amount of fast-rising, instant, or bread machine yeast (regular active dry yeast doesn’t work well); and allowing the dough to warm up and ferment very slowly. Due to the cold environment, the yeast activity is delayed for a number of hours, allowing a host of enzymes to positively affect the dough texture and color in many ways too complicated to explain. The long, cool rise—which takes no effort at all, just planning ahead and patience—also encourages loads of flavor development, so the resulting bread tastes and smells similar to true multi-stage artisan loaves, but involves none of their futzing!

 Kneadless Herbed Thin-Crisp Focaccia 

Puffed all over with tiny air pockets, crackly-crisp, and savory from the long cool rise and herb oil blend, this focaccia is hard to resist. My hubby and I dove in when it was still almost too hot to tolerate and couldn’t stop snacking. Note that this focaccia is very thin—about as thick as pizza crust. However, I’ve provided alternative directions should you prefer a thicker, less crispy (and more typical) version.

Tip: Don’t try to heighten the flavor by incorporating extra herbs into the dough. Some, like oregano and thyme, have yeast inhibiting chemicals that, in quantity, can discourage the dough from rising. Just brushing the dough top amply with the herbed oil will impart plenty of herbal aroma and taste. Also, while some of the herbs are optional, do be sure to include the fresh basil, chives, and thyme.

3 1/4 cups (16.5 ounces) all-purpose flour, plus more if needed
3 teaspoons sea salt, divided
1 teaspoon “rapid rise,” “quick-rise,” “bread machine” or “instant,” yeast
Generous 1 1/3 cups ice water (stir cold water with 1 cup ice cubes for 20 seconds before measuring), plus more ice water if needed
3 tablespoons olive oil, plus more as needed
Herbed Topping and Dipping Oil
1/3 cup good quality olive oil
3 to 4 tablespoons chopped or shredded (or chiffonade cut as in photo at right) fresh purple or green basil leaves
2 to 3 tablespoons snipped or chopped fresh chives
1 to 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley leaves, optional
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves (whole leaves pulled from the stems as in photo at right)
1/2 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano leaves
1 /4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
1 to 2 pinches dried hot red pepper flakes, optional

First rise: In a 3 to 4-quart bowl thoroughly stir together the flour, 2 1/2 teaspoons sea salt, and rapid-rising yeast. Vigorously stir in the water, scraping down the bowl and mixing just until the dough is thoroughly blended. Vigorously stir in 3 tablespoons olive oil or work it in with your hands. If the mixture is too dry to blend together smoothly, stir or work in enough more ice water to facilitate mixing and to yield a slightly moist, but not at all runny dough. If the mixture is too wet, stir in enough more flour to firm it slightly. (The dough consistency is right when it forms a slightly stiff mass that slowly over 5 minutes spreads out in the bowl.) Evenly brush the top lightly with more oil. Cover the bowl with nonstick spray-coated plastic wrap. Let rise at cool room temperature (about 70 degrees F) for 12 to 18 hours.

Meanwhile, ready the herbed topping and dipping oil by stirring or whisking together the oil, basil, chives, parsley (if using), thyme, oregano, black pepper, and hot pepper flakes (if using) in a medium bowl. Cover and set aside.

Second rise: For thin focaccia like that pictured, generously oil two 9- by 13- (or similar) metal baking pans with olive oil; for a thicker focaccia use one 10- by 15-inch (or similar) metal pan. If dividing the dough in half, cut it in two with oiled kitchen shears. Turn the dough out onto the pan(s). Drizzle it with a generous 2 tablespoons of the herbed olive oil; use 1 tablespoon for each pan if baking in two pans. With well-oiled hands, lightly pat and press out the dough until it nearly fills the pan and is evenly thick all over. (If it springs back and resists, let it rest a few minutes and then continue. Or simply stop after it is spread out fairly thin and evenly thick all over.) Using a fork lift out most of the herbs and spread them evenly over the dough top(s). Tent the pan(s) with nonstick foil. Reserve the rest of the herbed oil for serving with the finished focaccia.

 Let rise using any of these methods: for a 1 1/2-2 1/2 hour regular rise, let stand at warm (74-75 degrees F) room temperature; for a 1-2 hour accelerated rise, let stand in a turned-off microwave or regular oven along with 1 cup of boiling hot water; or for an extended rise, refrigerate, covered, up to 48 hours, then set out at room temperature. Continue the rise until the dough has almost doubled from the deflated size, a generous 1/2- to 1-inch thick.

With an oiled thumb, make deep indentations, or dimples, all over the dough. If the oil is standing in little pools, tip the pan(s) from side to side until it is evenly dispersed into the dimples. Sprinkle evenly with 1/2 teaspoon sea salt just before baking. (I like to use a pink or red salt for a little extra color, but plain white will do if that’s what you have.)

Baking Preliminaries and Baking: Twenty minutes before baking time, place a rack in the middle of the oven; preheat to 500 degrees F. Also, place a large, heavy flat baking sheet on the oven floor or on the rack just above the oven coils. Reduce the temperature to 450 degrees F. Immediately place the pan(s) of dough on the preheated pan; put it on the middle oven  rack. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, then rotate the pan and bake 6 to 12 minutes more or until light golden brown all over.

Serve directly from the pan(s) or lift the focaccia slab onto a board and serve from it. Set out the remaining herbed olive oil to serve as an optional dipping oil. The focaccia is best when fresh: cut into rectangles and serve warm or at room temperature. Keeps, draped with a tea towel, at cool room temperature for 2-3 days. It may be frozen, airtight, for up to 2 months, but should be crisped in a preheated 400-degree F oven before serving.

Yield: 12 to 24 servings.

Another bread you might like--my no-knead whole wheat-bulgur pot boule.

Or perhaps you're interested in my very popular crusty white pot boule from Kneadlessly Simple.

Or for a complete change of pace, try my kneadless chile-cheese bread loaf.
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Monday, May 14, 2012

The Presentation Power of the Pedestal, Plus a Fresh Lavender Buttercream Frosting

My maternal grandmother, the cake and cookie queen of her bridge club and hospital auxiliary set, knew a thing or two about not only baking, but about how to create a huge stir when presenting her treats. She was fiercely proud of her baking prowess, and thrilled that her contributions to the annual church bake sale were always  spoken for before they reached the display table.

One important weapon in my grandmother's never-ending dessert shock and awe campaign was the pedestal plate. She has been gone more than fifty years now, and I can still picture her triumphantly lifting the dome from her crystal pedestal server and blowing us away with her towering, white satin-cloaked Lady Baltimore cake. Just the sight of her billowy, mile-high meringue frosting made my mouth water and my addled brain wonder if I’d suddenly died and gone to heaven! I loved that cake so much, I sometimes requested that she make it (minus the shredded coconut) for my birthday.

Alas, Nana passed away without ever sharing her dessert presentation secrets with me. She willingly provided her file boxes of cake and cookie recipes, and I even inherited several of her pedestal serving pieces. But she never mentioned how she exploited their power; perhaps, she thought it was obvious—any fool could see that if you put an angel food or orange sponge cake up on a throne it would appear regal and wondrous.

I have to admit, I didn’t catch on to this right away. Gradually, I reclaimed Nana’s cake stands from the back of the closet, at first using them when recreating her glorious dessert repertoire, then later to add flair to my own creations. I found that they instantly raised the poshness factor; even a humble cake, like the applesauce spice one shown below right and featured here, seemed fancy perched on a pretty pedestal plate.

Food photographers, stylists and high-end caterers have a lot of presentation tricks up their sleeves, and they all understand pedestal power well. From them I’ve learned that a pastry buffet with cake stands of varying heights and shapes will have far more pizazz than one set with all low, round plates, and that, wow, pedestals can effectively display not only whole cakes and pies, but cupcakes, tartlets, confections, cookies, and French macarons.

These folks have also taught me that cake stands in graduated sizes can be stacked to form an elegant tier, and other items, from fat candlesticks and chic soap dishes to assorted flared goblets and stemmed bowls, can deliver nearly as much drama as actual pedestal plates.(The cupcake stands below left are in fact inverted martini glasses.)

There is one downside (note this word carefully) of the pedestal server, though. It will prove that gravity is not always our friend. On occasion, tallish, top-heavy goodies, such as cupcakes overloaded with icing, will tumble off their platforms, and when they do, they will inevitably land frosting-side down. Furthermore, if nothing hinders their rapid downward progress, when they hit, the icing will flatten and will likely stain the tablecloth too. The good news about the contact with the cloth (as opposed to a floor), is that most people will still retrieve and eat whatever is left of the treat, especially if it's the very last one.  

Fresh Lavender Buttercream Frosting

This slightly unusual, totally delectable buttercream frosting calls for finely pulverized fresh lavender flowers. If you have a mortar and pestle thoroughly grind the blooms to a paste; otherwise mince them as finely as you can. To add a bit of natural color, I like to incorporate a little thawed cranberry or Concord grape juice concentrate, which will yield either a pink or pinkish-purple hue shown on the cupcakes. For the brighter lavender shade shown on the lavender buttercream-filled lavender French macarons at the top, you can incorporate drops of red and blue food color. I used purchased botanically-based alternatives to the usual petrochemical-based dyes; see my information on brands of natural botanical food colors here, and as you can see, they are very pretty indeed.)  For the recipe for the beautiful dye-free daisy cookie icings shown above, go here.

To gild the lily, I sometimes like to garnish the lavender frosting with tiny fresh lavender blooms just before serving. They lend not only color, but a very pleasing little hit of lavender flavor every time you bite into them. The lavender flavor actually intensifies upon standing, so it’s best to ready the buttercream at least a day ahead and let it mellow in the refrigerator. Allow it to warm up slightly before spreading or piping. The recipe may be doubled if you wish.

Tip: While the lavender heads are graceful and full of aroma and flavor, to ensure a creamy-smooth frosting, pluck off and use only the tiny purple flowers, called corollas, and the little bases, or calyxes, they are growing from for garnishing. Reserve the whole heads for infusing berry compotes, fruit punches, sorbets, and ice creams, or for garnishing serving plates. For more on making the most of lavender, go here.

 2 3/4 cups powdered sugar, plus more if needed
 1 1/2 teaspoons fresh lavender flower heads (corollas and calyxes,  no stems), very finely minced, or pulverized using a mortar and pestle
1 teaspoon finely grated fresh lemon zest (yellow part of the skin)
 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold and cut into pats
 3 to 6 teaspoons frozen (thawed) Concord grape or cranberry juice concentrate, as needed for color (or a tiny dot of blue and red food color mixed with a tablespoon of water)
 Lavender blooms for garnish, optional

Combine the powdered sugar, lavender, and lemon zest in a food processor. Process 3 or 4 minutes; stop and scrape the bowl sides and bottom to redistribute the contents 3 or 4 times. For smoothest buttercream texture, don’t under-process.

 Sprinkle the butter over the powdered sugar mixture. Process in on/off pulses just until it is cut in and no clumps of it remain; stop before the mixture starts coming together. Continuing to process, through the feed tube add the fruit juice concentrate or water-food color blend until the mixture is tinted and has a smooth, spreadable consistency. If necessary, gradually add more powdered sugar to stiffen the mixture; however note that it will stiffen a bit as it stands. Thin it with a little more water as necessary.

Place in an airtight, non-reactive storage container and refrigerate for up to 4 days. Let it warm up slightly at room temperature before using. The frosting can also be frozen for up to a month. Allow it to return almost to room temperature and either process or stir well before using.

To spread the frosting: Using a table knife swirl on enough frosting on cookie or cupcake tops to yield a 1/4-inch thick layer, or as desired. To pipe the frosting, put it in a pastry bag fitted with a ½-inch diameter open star tip and pipe out single stars, rosettes or as desired. Serve the treats immediately or place in a single layer an airtight container. Store at cool room temperature for up to 3 days or freeze for up to 10 days. Let come to room temperature before serving.

 Shortly before serving, garnish with lavender blooms, if desired.  Makes about 1 1/2 cups frosting, enough for topping 12 to 18 mini-cupcakes or 30 small cookies. The recipe can be doubled if you like.

You also might like the additional garnishing and presentation ideas here.
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Monday, May 7, 2012

Cookies Inspired by the Garden--My Story in Country Gardens Magazine

Last year about this time, Country Gardens magazine sent a photographer and their art director to my garden and kitchen to photograph me and my grandchildren making cookies inspired by the garden. (I posted about their visit here.)

I'm happy to tell you that the current issue of Country Gardens contains the story, several recipes, and some wonderful pics. I'm posting several of them just to pique your curiosity. The issue, Spring 2012, is now on newsstands; you can learn more about the magazine here 

Yes, those are my grandchildren, Charlie and Lizzie, standing in my shade garden. They're holding a plate of painted daisy cookies that we had just made and decorated (see the pic just below and at the very bottom).  (It looks as if we planned for my granddaughter's dress to match the cookies, but it was just a happy accident--really!)  The magazine includes the recipes for the dough and frostings. I've also posted the completely "au naturel" icings and how to make daisy cookies for you here. The icings dry with a sheen and flow nicely, so my grandkids were able to do most of the decorating themselves. (I helped pipe the center rounds on the cookies.)

The technique I used (and highly recommend) for rolling out cookie dough is to place it between two sheets of baking parchment, then roll it out in an evenly-thick layer. This minimizes clean-up, but more important, eliminates the possibility of over-flouring the dough. The dough, still between the sheets of parchment, then goes onto to a baking sheet and  is chilled in the refrigerator or freezer. Finally, the top sheet is peeled off and the chilled dough is cut out using cutters. When the dough starts to soften too much to cut the cookies neatly, it can be slid onto a baking sheet again and returned to the refrigerator until firm, another reason I love the method.
The pic at left shows some lavender-flavored frosting and lavender meltaway cookies I created for the magazine--striking looking don't you think? As you can see, I used edible flowers--in this case, lavender blooms and dianthus (also called pinks) petals--to decorate as well as flavor the dough and icing. This is just another example of what you can do with naturally beautiful decorations if you wish to avoid synthetic food colors. It's one of many "au naturel" ideas I'm serving up in my new book, Simply Sensational Cookies, which you can now pre-order on Amazon here.

Both the lavender cookies, which are published in Country Gardens magazine and the painted daisy cookie recipe, also posted here on my site, would be prefect for serving for Mother's Day or another festive spring or summer occasion.  I took some daisy cookies to a family birthday bash for my sister and niece last June, and everybody loved them!

For another pretty, summery cookie recipe, check out my raspberry buttercream-topped butter cookies here.  You can also learn more about "au naturel" botanical food colors and how to decorate cookies with them here.

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