Friday, November 30, 2007

Start trashy, end new motto.

Sometimes I get the impression that my associates think I'm all gourmet all the time--that I would never deign to eat the food of the common people. But I must confess, from time to time, I secretly enjoy trashy, processed foods like the ubiquitous blue box of mac and cheese or weiner wraps fashioned from hot dogs split and filled with cheese and baked in crescent rolls then dipped in a mustard sauce (of course). And a fitting dessert would naturally be...Rice Krispie Treats! (Try making them with half Cocoa Pebbles some time--DIVINE!)

But most often, I really do try to prepare "real" food from fresh ingredients with equal portions of thought and care. But not all of it is particularly sophisticated, and some of it is downright tawdry. For one such example, I give you the redneck cousin of the French-influenced, herbed and pampered roast chicken (think Barefoot Contessa); I give you, the BEER CAN CHICKEN! Oh, you fancy people can use your high-falutin' vertical roasters and such, but we country folk require no such airs or vanities. And recently, I discovered the ultimate version of this red-state delicacy courtesy of Guy Fieri (from "Guy's Big Bite"). I did not follow his exact recipe, but took tips from his method, and by gum, if I didn't end up with the juiciest, most flavorful and perfectly-cooked chicken that I have ever made. Here's the general idea:

Wash your chicken and pat him dry with paper towels. Then season LIBERALLY with your favorite spice rub. The secret is to loosen the skin (carefully!) with your fingers and work the rub down under the skin and also sprinkle a good bit in the cavities. Next, crack open a can of beer and drink half of it. At my house, we only have bottled beer (I know, too hoity-toity for this), so I half-filled an empty soda can with beer then added two peeled and smashed garlic cloves down into the can. Next I lined an oven-safe pan with foil (for easier clean-up), propped the chicken up/on/over the can, and then for the piece de resistance, stuck several pieces of bacon in the top opening, letting most of each slice dangle down to create a porcine umbrella of sorts that basted the chicken as it roasted in fragrant, porky goodness. I cranked up the oven to 450 for the first 15 minutes or so, then down to 325 for maybe another hour, until the leg joints moved freely and the juices from the thigh joint were running clear. Easy-peasy and YUMMMMMM-MY! And as a bonus, I saved the crispy bacon pieces, chopped them and used them in salads over the next week.

But I can't leave my readership thinking I am completely low-rent and uncouth, so I also want to share a couple of elegant desserts that I have made recently. To go with the beer can chicken dinner, we went uptown for dessert with Dorie Greenspan's French Yogurt Cake. It sounds very fussy, but it's as quick and easy as making a boxed cake mix. You can see unexpected guests coming up the drive and have this lovely, lemony cake in the oven before they've gotten their coats off! So this makes for a very handy recipe to have around the holidays. And it's pretty and impressive, and did I mention, EASY? In fact, it's stirred together in one bowl without a mixer. You can make it all the more attractive with a shimmering marmalade glaze as Dorie recommends, but I am out of marmalade at present (citrus season is just starting), so I made a quick powdered sugar-based lemon glaze and topped the cake with toasted blanched almonds (to echo the ground almonds in the cake). I think the finished cake looked gorgeous, if I do say so myself. And it was so delightfully lemony. With the cold winds finally blowing in, a little taste of sunshine would do us all some good.

French Yogurt Cake
(Source: Dorie Greenspan's Baking: From My Home to Yours)

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup ground almonds (or if you have no almonds, use another 1/2 cup flour)
2 teaspoons baking powder
pinch of salt
1 cup sugar
zest of 1 lemon
1/2 cup plain yogurt (I used vanilla because that's what I had)
3 large eggs
1/4 teaspoon vanilla (I think I used at least 1/2 teaspoon)
1/2 cup light-flavored oil

Preheat the oven to 350 and lightly grease your baking pan (Dorie uses a loaf pan but I used a regular cake pan lightly coated with a floured spray). Mix together the flour, ground almonds (if using), baking powder and salt.

In a medium bowl, rub the sugar together with the zest using your fingertips. Whisk the yogurt, eggs and vanilla into the sugar. Whisk the flour mixture in until just blended. Fold in the oil with a rubber spatula. (This may seem odd, and you'd swear it won't come together, but it does and makes a thick, smooth batter with a slight sheen.)

Scrape the batter into your prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake for 50-55 minutes, or until the cake pulls away from the sides of the pan and a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. (This took less time baking in a regular cake pan.)

Let the cake cool on a rack for 5 minutes, then using a thin knife to loosen the edges, remove the cake from the pan to cool completely. In the meantime, melt a tablespoon of butter in the microwave, then whisk in the juice of the zested lemon, a splash of vanilla, and enough powdered sugar to reach the desired consistency for a drizzly/pourable glaze. Glaze the cake and finish with a couple of handfuls of sliced, blanched and toasted almonds on top.

Lastly, I will begrudgingly share the tale of the cake that I made for trivia night a few weeks ago. It was the Brown Sugar and Chocolate Chip Pound Cake with Maple-Espresso Glaze from last month's Bon Appetit. I thought it was just okay, so I didn't even bother to blog about it. But I took the leftovers into work the next day to share with others, and one of our wonderful librarians liked it so much, she asked me to make another one for her to take to a family Thanksgiving celebration. I was grateful for the opportunity to remake the cake and improve upon the flaws that I perceived in the first version. Mainly, I wasn't thrilled with the texture, which was a bit coarse. It also wasn't quite as moist as I would have liked. And though the brown sugar imparted a nice caramel flavor, it just wasn't sweet enough overall to suit me, even with the maple syrup and sugar glaze.

So using my faithful old pound cake recipe as my trusty guide, I reworked the recipe a little. First of all, I added 1/3 cup shortening to cream with the butter. Then I upped the sugar to two cups total, using half brown sugar and half white (suspecting that the brown sugar, though tasty, was contributing to the texture problem). I also used one additional egg (so 5 total), and once they were all incorporated, I beat the mixture on high for four minutes until very light and fluffy, getting a lot of volume from the eggs to further improve the texture. Then I followed the original recipe from there. It turned out GREAT the second time--moister with a much nicer texture and a better flavor from the added sweetness. Problems solved! (Bon Appetit may now add me to their payroll if they wish...tee hee.) The one thing I thought was perfect as it was was the fantastic maple-espresso glaze. But the first time I made it, the instant espresso bits didn't dissolve completely, so I ended up with a freckled glaze on my cake. Still, I thought it was kinda pretty (see photo below). But the second time, I dissolved the dried espresso in a little warm water before whisking it with the other ingredients, and that solved my last issue with this cake. Many people loved the original recipe and the resulting cake, so feel free to follow the link(s) to the Epicurious website. But I prefer this version:

Brown Sugar and Chocolate Chip Pound Cake with Maple-Espresso Glaze
(Source: adapted from
Bon Appetit, October 2007)

nonstick vegetable oil spray
1 12-ounce package semi-sweet chocolate chips
3 cups all-purpose flour, divided
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/3 cup shortening (I used butter-flavored Crisco)
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon maple extract
5 large eggs
1 cup buttermilk

1 cup powdered sugar
2 tablespoons pure maple syrup
2 tablespoons (or more) whipping cream
1 1/2 teaspoons instant espresso powder (may dissolve in a little warm water if needed)

For cake:
Preheat oven to 325°F. Spray a 12-cup Bundt pan generously with nonstick spray. Dust pan lightly with flour. Mix chocolate chips and 2 tablespoons flour in medium bowl. Sift remaining flour with baking soda, baking powder, and salt into another medium bowl. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter and shortening. Add sugars and beat until fluffy. Beat in vanilla and maple extracts. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. When all the eggs have been incorporated, mix on high for four minutes. Blend in flour mixture in three additions alternately with buttermilk in two additions, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Fold in chocolate chip mixture. Transfer batter to prepared pan, spreading evenly.

Bake cake until tester inserted near center comes out clean and cake begins to pull away from sides of pan, about 1 hour (up to 1 hour and 15 minutes). Cool cake in pan on rack 30 minutes. Invert cake onto rack and cool completely before glazing.

Mixing the chocolate chips with a little flour before adding them to the batter helps the chips stay evenly suspended in the batter and evenly distributed throughout the baked cake (otherwise, they may sink to the bottom).

For glaze:
Combine powdered sugar, maple syrup, 2 tablespoons cream, and espresso powder in medium bowl. Whisk until smooth, adding more cream by 1/2 teaspoonfuls if glaze is too thick to drizzle. Spoon glaze decoratively over top of cake; let stand at room temperature until glaze is firm, about 1 hour.

DO AHEAD: Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover with cake dome and let stand at room temperature.

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