Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Upside Down Cherry Brownies and Blondies

You know how sometimes you get yourself backed into a corner? Like you offhandedly ask your husband whether he thinks chocolate or vanilla cherry cake is better. And the ninja-spouse, sensing weakness, pounces.

"Chocolate, but why are you asking me, since you're just going to do something else anyway?" 

Not actually what I was planning to make. I should have taken the advice of my friend Mr. Google and baked this fine cake calling for just one can of cherry pie filling, one box of cake mix, and a can of Sprite. Sadly, we're all out of Sprite. Plus, it occurred to me that all that fruit would make any regular cake wetter than French toast. So, I settled on a brownie batter, since brownies are supposed to be baked long enough to caramelize a layer of fruit. And then, since I'm kind of indifferent to chocolate, I made a blondie version.

Cherry Layer
4 T butter
1/4 C brown sugar
12-16 oz pitted cherries (however many come in the frozen bag, minus the number your kids eat during pauses in the Insane Nerf Battle, that's the exact right amount)

Brownie Layer
3 oz unsweetened baking chocolate
7 T butter
1 3/4 C white sugar
3 eggs
1/4 t table salt
1 t vanilla extract
1/4 t almond extract (if you have it)
1/4 t baking powder
3/4 C flour

Blondie Layer
1 1/2 C brown sugar
7 T butter
2 eggs
1 t vanilla extract
1/2 t almond extract (or not, don't make a special trip to the store)
1/4 t salt
3/4 t baking powder
1 1/2 C flour
1 C slivered almonds (omitted here because of whiny kids)

For the Cherry Layer, stir the butter and brown sugar in a skillet over medium flame for a few minutes to start melting them together, then add the cherries. I'm assuming you bought these cherries frozen, which means that they will develop a frosty white film when they hit the pan. Just put the lid on to trap some heat and defrost them for two minutes. (If you pitted fresh cherries yourself, you can skip this part. But feel free to pause for a few seconds to feel holier-than-thou.)

When the cherries have defrosted, take off the lid and leave them at a low boil for a few minutes while you get on with the brownie/blondie batter.

You want to reduce the syrup by about half, but not burn it off. Once you get there, turn off the heat.

For the Brownies, melt the butter and chocolate in the microwave, stirring every thirty seconds. You can also do this over a very low flame, as I did. Up to you, but take care not to scorch the chocolate on the stovetop. Beat in the sugar and then the eggs, one at a time. Your batter will be thin and shiny.

Then add the extracts, salt and baking powder, and finally the flour.

I used a pie dish here, but I would recommend you use a greased 9 inch square pan with sides at least 2 1/2 inches high. You could definitely use the pan you cooked the cherries in, but I get jumpy flipping a hot pot of molten syrup.

Pour the cherries and syrup into your choice of cooking vessel, and spread the brownie batter over the top as evenly as possible.

Bake at 350 for about 50 minutes. When it's done, the edges will be very brown, and poking it with a toothpick will yield moist crumbs, but no liquid batter. Because I remembered to put a cookie sheet under mine, it didn't boil over. If you forget this little insurance policy, you will certainly be blessed with the smell of sugar burning on the floor of your oven.

I must confess: This cake is no beauty. And I don't think powdered sugar would help. What might help, though, is baking it in a square pan and treating it like bar cookies. Something to think about while you're giving it ten minutes to rest before inverting it onto a platter. If it looks like it's not fully releasing, leave it there for a minute and see if gravity pulls it the rest of the way.

Otherwise, you can use your knife to scrape it back into place.

For the Blondies, melt the butter and sugar together over low heat.

Remove from the heat, and stir in the eggs, vanilla, almond extract, salt and baking powder. After you've incorporated these, add the flour and nuts (if using). Yeah, it's just like the brownie batter, only blonder.

Assemble and bake as with the brownies above.

Between Nerf skirmishes, I was able to conduct some polling. Chocolate edged Blondie by a narrow margin. Happy Baking!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Roast Chicken

75 Chickens a Year

Seriously. Three chickens, every other Friday night. At least I don't have to sear off the pin feathers the way my grandmother did.

For years, I brined them because Cooks Illustrated told me to. And it does work. But . . . How’d you like to open your fridge and see this?
Not digging the heads in the freezer vibe.
Or, worse, this . . .
I think she's coming for us!
(Apologies to my vegetarian friends. Did I mention,75 chickens?)
Also, they took up too much space in the fridge. And sloshing the brine all over the sink made me paranoid about salmonella. So I needed a different method.



1 4-6 lb. chicken
2 spring onions, or green tops from 4 spring onions
4 garlic cloves
ground black pepper to taste
1/2 t mustard seeds (optional)
2 1/2 t kosher salt
1-2 t dijon mustard
3 T olive oil

(You might also add half a lemon, seeded and chopped, if you're up for lemon chicken.)

Put the onions, garlic, pepper, optional mustard seeds and salt in the bowl of your food processor. I use the small bowl on my processor, but the large one will work. Pulse a few times to chop and combine. Scrape down the sides if you have big chunks of garlic or unincorporated salt.
Add oil and mustard, and pulse several more times to make a creamy paste.
Now, don't be squeamish! It's just chicken, and you'll wash your hands after. But before you're elbow-deep, take off your rings.

First, remove the giblets. (Try not to dwell on the fact that all chickens sold by the pound have two livers, three hearts, and four gizzards.) Usually, there is also a pad of fat inside the thigh. Here's your chance to make schmaltz! Or not. Anyway, you don't need it, so pull it out.
Take your fingers, and slide them under the skin. You are making space to spread the seasoning on the meat, so try to separate the skin from the breasts, thighs and legs as much as possible without tearing it.

Scoop up a bit of the onion-garlic paste in one hand, hold the skin away from the bird with the other, and push the seasoning under the skin of the bird.

Hold the flap down, and squeeze the paste under the skin over the meat. Make sure that the breasts have the most seasoning, since they are most prone to drying out.

Once you have spread all the seasoning under the skin, you can leave your chicken covered in the fridge for a day, or cook it right away.

Maybe you are the kind of person who just loves to do dishes. Maybe you put your roasting rack right in the dishwasher. Personally, I would rather have another side dish than wash the rack. So I put a couple of carrots worth of chunks per person in the bottom of my pan and throw a little salt on them. You could use celery, onions, potatoes, whatever. It's basically going to braise in the chicken drippings.

Put the chicken on top of the carrots (or veggies, or roasting rack) breast side down. Supermarket chickens are bred to be busty, not tasty, so you have to protect those big bosoms from drying out in the hot oven.
Okay, so how long should you cook this chicken? Until it's done, of course. No two chickens are the same. No two ovens are the same. We might have the same pan . . . but probably not. Here's what I do.

Roast at 400 for one hour and thirty minutes. Then take tongs or a fork and flip the bird over so that the breast side is up. When the breast gets brown, reach in and wiggle a drumstick. If it feels like it's still standing at attention, keep cooking. If it's relaxed, you're there. If this provides you with insufficient information, the USDA would like you to reach 168 on a thermometer stuck into the thickest part of the thigh.

Remove the chicken to a platter and cover with foil. Pour off and save the drippings and return the carrots to the oven. Kick the temperature up to 425 to brown the carrots, keeping an eye on them so that they don't burn. I like carrots a little charred on the edges, but take them out earlier if you prefer them soft. When the drippings have separated, do your best to pour off the fat and put the rest in a little pitcher with a saucer under it (if you have better things to do than spend tomorrow spot-treating the table cloth).

While I am absolutely positive that your guests are always on time, around here the dinner hour is kind of a moving target. If you have a double oven, you can leave the chickens in there on the lowest temperature possible, ideally 175. Once you carve it, the chicken starts to dry out, so try to slice just before serving. If people are late, put the carved chicken under foil back in the oven. Give them dirty looks and sigh loudly.

Note: Cut the salt in half for a kosher chicken, which is already salted.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Meringue Swirls

Adapted from Martha Stewart Living, May 2012

I bet five years ago you didn't own a microplane, but you've got one today. We all bought them, and now every recipe calls for a teaspoon of lemon zest added with the vanilla. (Looking at you, Martha!) Lemon is lovely, but can we all agree to take a little break from it? How about freeze dried fruit?

Sounds weird, right? Well, it's definitely less weird than whatever nasty stuff they put in raspberry extract. Trader Joe's sells several kinds, including blueberry, mango, raspberry and strawberry for about $4 per 1.2 oz bag. Whole Foods carries them too, and charges more. (Don't faint.) Either way, it costs about the same as a bag of decent chocolate chips. You can pulverize the stuff in a coffee grinder or food processor and use the powder to flavor anything.

For instance, you can make blueberry meringues that actually taste like blueberries.


There are two ways to go about this.

The Inspector Gadget method:
Paint brush, pastry bag, plain pastry tip, gel-paste food coloring.

And the MacGyver method:
Gallon zipper-top bags.
The cookies will taste the same either way, but the baking supplies will give you a prettier cookie.


3 egg whites
3/4 C sugar
pinch salt
1/8 t cream of tartar (don't worry if you don't have this, it will still work)
1 t vanilla extract
3/4 oz freeze dried fruit (except use only 1/2 oz blueberries), ground to powder in a coffee
         grinder or food processor
Gel-paste food coloring (optional)

Preheat your oven to 200 and line a baking sheet with parchment or foil.

Put about an inch of water into a pot, and set the pot over a low burner.

Combine the egg whites, sugar, salt and cream of tartar in the bowl of your mixer. Set these over the pot of water. Use your mixer attachment (fewer dishes) to stir every thirty seconds or so. Do not go and check your email, or you will end up with sweet scrambled eggs.

When the sugar is dissolved, and you think the egg whites might just be turning slightly whiter, about three minutes, remove the bowl to the mixer and crank it up.

All the cookbooks refer to beating egg whites to "stiff peaks." This is not stiff peaks. This needs to be beaten another two minutes.

Stiff peaks will look like this. It will not drip off the mixer.

Now add your powdered fruit and vanilla extract.

And beat for another thirty seconds or so to combine. If you want to add a little food coloring to improve the appearance, you can do that here. I'll admit to liberally enhancing the pigment in this strawberry batch.

Go, Go Gadget Girls will want to put a plain tip in a pastry bag and use a clean paintbrush (not one swiped from your daughter's watercolors!) to paint three stripes up from the tip to 2/3 of the way up the bag.

Carefully spoon half the meringue into the pastry bag, so as to minimally disturb the stripes. Sorry to tell you, but you'll have to repeat this with another bag for the second half of the batch.

MacGyver, you can just dump the meringue right into that zipper bag and snip off a corner. You could probably do the stripes, but it won't affect the taste at all. I'd skip it.

Pipe 1-2 inch swirls onto the parchment about 1 1/4 inches apart. Don't worry, properly beaten meringue will not spread.

Note that the first few will have garishly bright stripes, and the last few will be barely pigmented. Let's call it proof of craftsmanship - at least no one will think you bought them!

I wish that baking were less like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure story - at least recipes would be more concise. But you will have to decide if you're going to eat these today, or sometime over the next week. Baked for a briefer period, the meringues will be deliciously creamy for twelve hours, before turning to damp rubber. Or you can thoroughly dry them out and keep them for a week. In any case, please don't take these times as absolute measurements! Your oven may be hotter than mine, your egg whites may be smaller, your cookies may be larger - there are a hundred different reasons you could open the oven door and find your meringues underdone. So please use judgment.

To eat today, leave them in the low oven for about an hour and forty-five minutes. You should be able to peel them off the parchment without losing too much of the middle. Cool on the pan.

To eat at leisure, bake for two hours and fifteen minutes, and then turn off the oven and leave them in there with the door shut to cool for at least three hours. Overnight is fine. The cookies should feel hard and dry, and crack when you bite them. If they don't, turn the temperature back up to 175 for an additional fifteen minutes, turn the oven off, and check again in another half an hour.

One final note - you may be wondering how to get the powdered fruit out of your coffee/spice grinder. Wipe it out with a paper towel, and then run two tablespoons of raw rice through it to scrub the fruit out. Repeat with another batch of rice if necessary. During Passover, I had to make a modification.