Sunday, February 26, 2012


The Oscar-themed feasting has begun! For lunch, we had Glazier dogs (unearthly red garlic franks ubiquitous at all sporting events around these parts) as a nod to both Moneyball and NYC street cart dogs (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close). Later this evening, we will enjoy some little Hawaiian meatballs on bamboo skewers as an appetizer in honor of The Descendants:

Dinner will be a classic Hollywood steakhouse meal a la The Artist: Pan-Seared Porterhouse Steaks with Béarnaise (the sauce adds a French twist as homage to Hugo) and Twice-Baked Potatoes.

Also, I will be making "Audrey's Salad," the original creation of my dear friend Jaymie's partner: Romaine lettuce (though I used the red leaf on hand), prosciutto crisps, vanilla roasted pears (I used Asian pears), blue cheese crumbles, and rustic french dressing.

Last but not least, we will have a slice of Minny's chocolate pie from The Help...with no unsavory "special" ingredients (though it cracked and looked like sh*t!).

Minny's Chocolate Pie
(Source: Food and Wine)

1 packaged pie dough crust, such as Pillsbury
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 large eggs, beaten
3/4 cup evaporated milk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
Whipped cream, for serving

1. Preheat the oven to 350°. Ease the pie crust into a 9-inch pie plate and crimp the edges decoratively. Prick the crust lightly with a fork. Line the crust with foil or parchment paper and fill with pie weights or dried beans. Bake for 15 minutes or until set. Remove the foil and weights and bake for about 5 minutes longer, just until the crust is dry but not browned.
2. Meanwhile, in a bowl, whisk the sugar with the cocoa powder, butter, eggs, evaporated milk, vanilla and salt until smooth.
3. Pour the filling into the pie shell and bake for about 45 minutes, until the filling is set around the edges but a little jiggly in the center. Cover the crust with strips of foil halfway through baking. Transfer the pie to a rack and let cool completely before cutting into wedges. Serve with whipped cream.

Make Ahead: The chocolate pie can be refrigerated overnight.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

50 Years Demands a Very Special Birthday Cake

Last weekend, after the dog shows at the Meadowlands, my lovely friends Jaymie and Audrey invited me to spend the night at their gorgeous Victorian mansion in Washington, New Jersey, about an hour west of NYC. And that evening, one of best friends, Tony, and his fiance', Larry, came for dinner, as did one of Jaymie and Audrey's neighbors, Jewels, who I was happy to meet in person, having only known her from an online book club on Facebook.

The dinner was nothing short of magical. We gathered at the table around 7pm for snacks and wine, and we didn't leave the table until midnight, having feasted and laughed and relished each other's company for hours. As a bonus, between Audrey and Jaymie and Tony and Larry's dogs, there was a tiny yapper to warm each guest's lap after the meal. (Tee hee.) The entree' was a terrific lactose-free beef stroganoff that was surprisingly good (Jaymie is off dairy these days). Audrey made it with cultured almond milk in place of sour cream, which added a delicious nuttiness that really complimented the earthy mushrooms and also gave it a hint of sweetness. And there was a green salad with a yummy citrus vinaigrette that Jewels made.

Over dinner, I learned that Jewels was a graduate of CIA in Hyde Park, NY and owns her own catering business called AngelFood. Even more exciting was the news that Jewels had also brought dessert, a cocoa nib, chocolate and berry dacquoise (from Chef Elizabeth Falkner of Citizen Cake and "The Next Iron Chef") that was among the best desserts I've ever had in my life! I had been stressing over what to make for my friend Lee Ann's 50th birthday, as it needed to be very special and something other than traditional cake and frosting, because she doesn't care for it. The light bulb went on, and I asked Jewels whether a mere mortal who did not attend culinary school might be able to replicate the dacquoise. She assured me it was possible, and guess what? It was!

In fact, this dessert really isn't all that hard. It just takes FOREVER! I think it took me about 10 hours from start to finish (actually, it was longer, as I made a stupid mistake on the meringue layers and had to remake them--UGH!). But much of that is passive time, such as letting the meringues dry in the oven overnight and letting the layers chill in stages. It would be a much more humane project if you did it over two or even three days in stages.  That will be my strategy the next time I make it. Ok, so let me break down the process for you...

The first step is to make the two meringue layers. Right out of the gate, it all went horribly wrong for me, as I accidentally added a tablespoon of baking soda to the whipped egg whites instead of corn starch (the boxes look the same)! Thus, the meringues didn't rise, and they ultimately tasted like, well, urine is a fairly accurate descriptor. So I shed some tears and put in an emergency call to Jewels who gently broke the news that I would have to start again. I was worried that I didn't have enough cocoa nibs to make a second batch, but she said that the 3/4 cup the recipe calls for was overkill, and she was right. I would use 1/2 cup at the most in the future.

By the bye, I found cocoa nibs at my local health food co-op, but of course, you could also acquire them from many sources on the internet. My last bit of advice on this part is to coat the pan and parchment paper liners with a generous amount of flour-added baking spray, and you'll have no problem releasing them later. And do NOT skimp on the overnight drying time, because if the meringues are moist at all, they may dissolve when layered next to the mascarpone cream. After all, they are mainly sugar and egg whites.

This is stage one of putting the cake together: the bottom layer is one of the meringues topped with some of the chocolate glaze. Then it goes in the fridge to set up for a half hour before continuing the assembly. I forgot to take a picture of the next step, but you spread on half of the mascarpone cream on top of the chilled ganache.

The next phase involves a chocolate chiffon cake layer topped with blood orange marmalade. However, I am not crazy about the chocolate-orange combo, and Jewels used blackberry jam on hers, which was scrumptious. So I topped mine with black raspberry jam instead. For those of you that don't think you like any kind of fruit with your chocolate, I encourage you to try a berry jam with this. It somehow gives the chocolate flavor more depth and richness and makes it...more chocolaty.

On top of the chocolate chiffon cake and jam, you add the other half of the mascarpone cream, and this is where it gets very scary! You must pray to the deity you serve, and somehow manage to get this very tender (and now heavy with toppings) layer on top of the bottom layers of meringue, chocolate, and cream. My cake broke on one side in the transfer, but I think once it all got squished together, no one was the wiser(she feebly tries to convince herself). I recommend placing the layer on waxed paper, and then using two wide but thin pancake turners to help you lift, move and place it. GOOD LUCK!

Once you have, by some miracle, transferred the chocolate cake layer (look closely, and you can see the big crack in mine), you put the other cacoa nib meringue on top of the whole shebang, and it should look something like this (with cream exploding out of the sides, naturally) before you commence with the frosting/glazing.

And this is what it looks like with a crumb coat of the chocolate glaze. Yes, yes, I realize that it looks like something a third grader might make, but bear in mind, it still needs a finishing coat of glaze once this has set up, and the last step (pouring smooth chocolate over the whole affair) will cover a multitude of sins.

And TA-DAH, here is the finished product! I guess I should have reheated the glaze a bit longer so that it poured over and smoothly coated the dacquoise, but I was afraid of getting it too hot and having to wait for it to cool down again (and I need to get myself to work!). So I basically just frosted the cake with one more coat of chocolate. Jewels suggested that I could have smoothed it all over with a hot spatula, but I didn't have time--I barely got to class on time as it was! Even so, I think it looked alright, and would have been that much prettier with a ring of fresh berries around the base. Oh time.

You need to chill the cake very thoroughly for it to slice properly, and Jewels recommends freezing it to make it easier (though I didn't have that much room in my freezer). At the restaurant where we had the birthday party, I tried slicing it with a large serrated knife that I wiped between each slice, but the top layer of ganache was fairly thick, and I ended up crushing it as I cut down and mashing some of the cream out. UGH! However, the taste was DIVINE, and none of the guests complained.

Jewels recommended that you cut the cake in sixteen slices (as it is so rich), and twelve people opted for a slice at the party. So I brought the last quarter of the cake home, and tried to figure out a different way to slice it so that you could see the pretty layers better when serving. The secret, as it turned out, was a HOT knife, reheated and wiped clean between each cut. That worked like a charm! Of course, I am a perfectionist, and it annoys me that I did not get the bottom layer of mascarpone cream spread evenly, but oh well...that will give me something to shoot for next time. However, someone is going to have to have another VERY significant occasion before I have the strength to attempt this cake again. And yet, all the labor was certainly worth it in the end. It truly is CRAZY DELICIOUS!

Cocoa Nib, Chocolate and Berry Dacquoise
(Source: adapted from Elizabeth Falkner, Bon Appétit, February 2009

Nonstick vegetable oil spray
1 cup powdered sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
3/4 cup cocoa nibs* (about 2 1/2 to 3 ounces), finely ground in spice mill or small coffee grinder
1/2 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
3/4 cup egg whites (about 6 large)
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/4 cup sugar

Chocolate chiffon cake:
Nonstick vegetable oil spray
1/2 cup sugar, divided
1/4 cup all purpose flour
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
1/3 cup canola oil or other vegetable oil
2 large eggs, separated
2 tablespoons water

Mascarpone whipped cream:
1 1/4 cups chilled heavy whipping cream
1 8-ounce container mascarpone cheese**
1/4 cup powdered sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped (use a high-quality chocolate, like Callebaut)
3/4 cup heavy whipping cream
3 tablespoons water
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature

Blackberry or black raspberry jam
Fresh berries (for garnish)

For Meringues:
Preheat oven to 300°F. Line bottoms of two 9-inch-diameter cake pans with 1 1/2-inch-high sides with parchment paper; spray parchment with nonstick spray. Sift powdered sugar and cornstarch into medium bowl; whisk in ground cocoa nibs and 1/2 teaspoon coarse salt. Beat egg whites and cream of tartar in large bowl until thick and foamy. Adding 1 tablespoon sugar at a time, beat until stiff but not dry. Fold in cocoa nib mixture. Divide meringue between prepared pans, spreading evenly.

Bake meringues 1 hour. Turn off heat. Keeping oven door closed, leave meringues in oven overnight to dry (meringues will deflate slightly).

Chocolate chiffon cake:
Preheat oven to 32 degrees F. Line bottom of 9-inch-diameter cake pan with 2-inch-high sides with parchment paper; spray parchment with nonstick spray. Combine 1/4 cup sugar and next 5 ingredients in medium bowl; whisk to blend.

Whisk 1/3 cup oil, egg yolks, and 2 tablespoons water in large bowl to blend. Stir in dry ingredients. Beat egg whites in another medium bowl until soft peaks form. Gradually add remaining 1/4 cup sugar, beating until stiff but not dry. Fold whites into yolk mixture. Transfer batter to prepared pan.

Bake cake until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 25 minutes. Cool in pan 15 minutes. Turn cake out onto rack; peel off parchment. Cool completely. DO AHEAD: Can be made 1 day ahead. Wrap in foil; store at room temperature.

For mascarpone whipped cream:
Combine all ingredients in large bowl. Beat just until mixture holds soft peaks (do not overbeat or mixture will curdle). Cover and chill at least 1 hour and up to 2 hours.

For glaze:
Place chocolate in large microwave-safe bowl. Combine heavy whipping cream, 3 tablespoons water, unsweetened cocoa powder, and light corn syrup in heavy medium saucepan. Whisk over medium heat until blended and just beginning to boil. Pour mixture over chopped chocolate; let stand 1 minute, then stir until smooth. Whisk in butter. Let glaze stand until thick enough to spread, 15 to 20 minutes.

Place 1 meringue on platter, flat side down; spread 1/2 cup glaze over. Refrigerate until chocolate is firmly set, about 30 minutes. Spread half of mascarpone cream (about 1 1/2 cups) over chilled chocolate. Refrigerate 10 minutes. Place cake layer on work surface; spread with 1/2 cup marmalade, then remaining mascarpone cream. Carefully place cake layer atop meringue on platter. Top assembled cake with second meringue, flat side up. Spread 1/3 of glaze over top and sides of cake in thin even layer. Refrigerate until coating sets, about 30 minutes.

Heat remaining glaze in microwave just until pourable but not hot, 5 to 10 seconds. Carefully pour glaze over cake, spreading to coat evenly. Chill cake until glaze sets, at least 1 hour. DO AHEAD: Cake can be made 3 days ahead. Cover with cake dome and keep refrigerated.

Cut cold cake into wedges. Serve with fresh berries.

* Bits of shell-roasted cocoa beans; available at many specialty foods stores and from
** An Italian cream cheese; sold at many supermarkets and at Italian markets.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Chili's Chicken Enchilada the Crock Pot!

I went on a little road trip down to the Meadowlands in Secaucus, NJ last weekend to the PBGV specialties that take place every year on the Saturday before Westminster. And for lunch between the two shows (parent club in the morning, New Jersey club in the afternoon), a gang of us went to Chili's. As chains go, it's one of my favorites, and I'm sad that we don't have one in my town.  This time, I decided to try some different things on their menu. I ordered a chicken club quesadilla which was nothing to write home about, but I also got a cup of their chicken enchilada soup, which was FABULOUS!

Since the closest Chili's is over in Burlington, I knew I needed to work up one of my copycat versions, and of course, convert it to be made in the crock pot. If I do say so myself, this soup turned out GREAT, and because it makes use of several "convenience" ingredients, it can be thrown together for a weeknight dinner. I also think this would make a terrific potluck dish that people would just love. In fact, as this recipe makes at least four quarts of soup, I will be taking my leftovers into share with my lucky co-workers! ;-)

Crock Pot Chicken Enchilada Soup

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 medium onions, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 quart chicken stock
1 tablespoon chicken soup base
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons chili powder
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, to taste
1 (8 oz). can tomato sauce
1 (19 oz.) can enchilada sauce (or two 10 oz. cans)
6 small corn tortillas*, minced
16 oz. Velveeta, cubed
1 cup co-jack cheese, shredded
1 22 oz. bag Tyson roasted and diced chicken, thawed
1 can whole kernel corn**, drained (optional)
Garnishes: pico de gallo, sour cream, shredded cheese, crunchy tortilla strips

In a skillet, heat the vegetable oil over medium heat, and saute' the onions until they are tender. Add the minced garlic and cook another minute or two, then scrape the onions and garlic into your crock pot. Add all the other ingredients, except the chicken and corn. Cook over high heat for two hours or low for four. Whisk until smooth (you may wish to use a stick blender). Add the chicken pieces and corn and heat through, maybe another 30 minutes to one hour. Check seasonings, and garnish as you like before serving.

*Most of the recipes that I found online called for one or two cups of masa harina to thicken the soup. The store I was shopping in didn't carry that, so I got the brilliant idea to just chop up some corn tortillas and let them dissolve in the soup. it worked perfectly, and gave the soup great flavor...just like chicken enchiladas!

**Chili's chicken enchilada soup doesn't have corn in it, but it's delicious in this, amplifying the corny flavor of the tortillas. You could even go crazy and also add a can or two of black beans. That would be yummy, too.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Celebrating my officemate...with PIE!

Today is my dear friend and officemate's birthday, and even though we're going to have a bigger celebration later on this month (because it's a very significant birthday, ending in ZERO!), I thought it only right that we have small workplace gathering at lunchtime.

I love to make treats to share with Lee Ann, but when it comes to her birthday, she always throws a wrench into the plans because she doesn't like cake. In fact, when she got married, she had an ice cream sundae bar instead of a wedding cake! Tee hee. But she loves pie, so that's what I thought I'd make for her.

Because I had to cook on a school night--after getting home from choir practice at 9pm--I had to take some shortcuts. I started with frozen pie crusts (ACK!) which I tried to partially blind-bake (as juicy berry pies can often make the bottom crust soft), but I accidentally baked them all the way! What to do, what to do? Then I had a flash of genius: maybe I could make the filling on the stovetop, then add the crumbly topping and bake just long enough to brown the top? Well, folks, I'm pleased to report that it worked like a charm, and I think this is how I will make berry pies from this point forward!

Stovetop Triple Berry Pie

1 pie shell, blind-baked until pale golden brown

Fruit Filling:
4 cups frozen berries (blackberries, blueberries, and raspberries)
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons corn starch
2 tablespoons quick tapioca
1 teaspoon vanilla

Crumb Topping:
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup sliced, toasted almonds or walnuts
6 tablespoons softened butter
pinch of cinnamon

In a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat, cook the berries, sugar, and lemon juice with the corn starch and tapioca until it comes to a boil and the mixture fully thickens, stirring frequently so that it doesn't scorch. Remove from the heat and add the vanilla. Pour this mixture into the baked pie shell.

Mix the crumb topping ingredients with a pastry blender, breaking up the nuts as you go. Pile the crumbly topping evenly on top of the pie. Cover the edge with a pie shield or tin foil and bake about 40 minutes at 350 until the filling is bubbling up and the topping is GB-n-D. Let cool for at least two hours before cutting and serving.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

No Need for Take-Out

I made some teriyaki chicken the other day, as I often do. No real recipe--I just grabbed random things to fashion an Asian-style marinade: soy sauce, rice vinegar, vegetable oil, brown sugar, grated ginger, minced garlic, black pepper, and a squirt of sriracha. But then I needed something to go with, so I created some spicy noodles that echoed some of the ssame flavors as in the chicken marinade. The zippy dish that I'm calling Firecracker Lo Mein turned out REALLY delicious, both as a hot side dish, and cold leftovers for lunch the next day. These noodles are super-easy to prepare, and tastier and cheaper than calling out for delivery!

Firecracker Lo Mein

1 lb. lo mein noodles
4 cubes chicken bouillon in 2 quarts water
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 jalapeno, seeded, minced and finely chopped
1/2 large carrot, shredded
6 scallions, sliced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon grated ginger
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons teriyaki sauce
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 tablespoon Hoisin sauce
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
1 teaspoon Thai fish sauce, optional
squirt of sriracha hot sauce, optional
1/4 cup cilantro leaves, roughly chopped

Cook the noodles in boiling chicken broth for the time indicated on the package. Drain. Meanwhile, in a large skillet or wok, heat the oil and stir-fry the jalapeno, carrot and scallions for a few minutes, then add the ginger and garlic and fry for another minute. Pull from the heat and add everything else except the cilantro.

Mix in the drained noodles until everything is well combined. Garnish with the cilantro just before serving.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

It's that time again...

Back to school time, that is. I've had a month off, and I managed to see most of the Oscar nominees, so I am ready for the new semester to begin. It just kills me that it always has to start with an opening day session at the CRACK OF DAWN after keeping some obscenely late hours over winter break. The one bright spot in the day was when lunch was provided for us, and they served this delicious, creamy chicken soup with tortellini in it. I complimented the Sodexho staff and asked them for the recipe, but I was told that they couldn't give it out. This is very humorous, as I don't think anyone has ever asked for a food service recipe in the course of human history, and then they are too high-falutin' to share? Whatevs. So I made my own version--in the crock pot, of course, as I am back to work and already harried. Naturally, mine turned out better, and unlike Sodexho, I am happy to share my recipe with you.

Crock Pot Creamy Chicken Tortellini Chowder

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
2 medium carrots, diced
4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 teaspoon dried oregano*
1 teaspoon dried basil*
1 teaspoon dried parsley*
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme*
1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary*
(*Or use a generous tablespoon Italian seasoning instead)
1 large bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
pinch of red pepper flakes
4 cups chicken stock
1 teaspoon chicken soup base (I like Better Than Bouillion)
4-5 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into small chunks
2 cans cream of chicken soup (or one could be cream of celery)
1 lb. frozen cheese tortellini (spinach would be prettier!)
1 cup sour cream
1/4 cup corn starch, optional

In a large skillet over medium heat, add olive oil and saute the onions, celery, and carrots until the onions are translucent, about ten minutes. Add the minced garlic and seasonings and cook for another minute or two. Place this mixture in the bowl of a crock pot, pour in the chicken stock, stir in the chicken soup base, and the pieces of chicken. Cook for three hours on high (or perhaps six on low?).

Stir in the two cans of soup, and then add the frozen tortellini. Cook for another hour on high (two on low?) until the tortellini is cooked through and tender. Remove the bay leaf, and stir in the sour cream. You can serve it as soup at this point, or you may thicken it further for a chowder. Whisk together corn starch and a couple of cups of the soup broth ladled from the crock pot in a small sauce pan. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently until bubbling and thick. Stir back into the crock pot until everything is blended together, then serve.