Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Celery Salad

Sometimes you go to war with the army you have. (I guess Rumsfeld was right about one thing.) Saturday night, my army had an entire battalion of fast-wilting celery hearts.
Who bought all this celery? Did the outer stalks get filled with peanut butter? Who remembers? But they were there. And we were there. Something had to happen.

So I chopped up a shallot.
And made a dressing of one part whole grain mustard, one part red wine vinegar, five parts oil, a tiny pinch of sugar and a huge pinch of salt.
And it was good enough to go missing when I rummaged through the cupboard for something to eat.
Yeah, we could have gone out for dinner on a Saturday without the kids.
But the need to be in my PJs on the sofa was pressing.
And sometimes, if you're with the right person, a fried egg and a thrown-together salad can be better than dinner at the fanciest restaurant in the city.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Overnight Babka Rolls

Babka is a traditional, Jewish sweet bread, made with a rich, egg dough and chocolate-cinnamon filling. It is awesome, but it takes for-freaking-ever to make. Once I woke up at 4AM to roll it out, so we could have it hot for breakfast. But only once. These rolls are a decent substitute, and you can do all the prep work the night before. You just have to get your mind around the yeast.

I get that yeast is a little freaky. You may remember it like those Sea Monkies from the 80s - little packets of powder that bloomed when you added water. You'd stand over the foamy bowl, wondering if they were still alive. All distant memories, because it's 2012, no one has Sea Monkies any more, and we all use instant yeast now. You don't have to proof the stuff in warm water to check if it's still alive - just add it in like any other ingredient. Not freaky, not complicated, and no longer expensive, since they sell it at the wholesale clubs for like $4.50 a pound.
I promise, these rolls are way easier than Sea Monkies.
(The plural of Monkey is . . .?)
Put a medium sized saucepan on the burner and melt together 5 T butter, 1 1/4 C milk, 3/4 t kosher salt, and 1/2 C sugar. When you start to see bubbles around the edge of the pan, remove from the heat and stir it up to make sure the sugar is incorporated. I find it easiest to pour everything back into the measuring cup, just to give it a chance to cool. Also, I've slopped a lot of milk down the side of the mixing bowl trying to transfer directly from the pot. Either way, put the saucepan in the sink with some water after pouring out the milk, since the milk protein gets gluey if you let it dry on there.
While you are waiting for the milk mixture to cool off a bit, put 3 C white flour and 1 T instant yeast in the bowl of your mixer. It's probably best to start the machine with the flat beater and use the dough hook later, but if you can't face washing both, just throw the dough hook in there and turn it on. After a few seconds, pour the milk mixture in slowly. As the dough is starting to come together, add 1 egg and beat for another minute before starting to add flour, 1/4 cup at a time.
Pretty much the only thing you can do wrong with this recipe is to add too much flour and end up with rolls that are a little harder than you might like. BFD, right? You're aiming to take the dough out of the mixer when it's still sticking to the sides, then knead in just a few more tablespoons to make the outside dry enough that it holds together in a ball. This took me about 4 1/2 C total flour. And then I added some more, which is why my dough is standing at attention. We still ate it all, don't worry.
Let your dough rest on the counter for 20 minutes. I just cover mine with the inverted mixing bowl, to keep it from drying out. This rest gives the flour time to absorb moisture, allowing you to roll it out without gluing it to the counter.
While you are waiting, melt 4 T butter in a microwaveable bowl and then stir in 2 1/2 T cocoa powder, 3/4 C sugar, and 1 t cinnamon. This is also a good time to get your 9x13" pan greased and ready to go.
Sprinkle a little flour on the counter and your rolling pin, then roll your dough out in a rectangle about 17x11". Spread the chocolate mixture evenly over it with a spatula.
 Starting with the long end, roll the whole thing up into a log. If it feels a little loose, use your fingertips to tuck the front end under as you roll.
 Using a serrated (bread) knife if you can, slice the roll in quarters.

Then divide each quarter in thirds.
Place three rows of four rolls in your greased 9x13" pan, cover with plastic wrap and put it all in the fridge. Now go put your feet up and watch American Idol. Haha, just kidding! Go finish the dishes, move the laundry along, and pack all the lunches for tomorrow.
Does everyone in your house get up at the same time? The first person up has to remember to take these rolls out and put them on the counter to warm up a little. If he forgets, no biggie. About 35 minutes before you want to eat (to the extent that anyone really wants to eat at 7:15AM on a Tuesday), put the rolls in a cold oven and turn it on to 350 (convection 325). In about 25 minutes, they should be brown and puffy.
 Cool in pan 5 minutes before serving.
Try to excercise restraint when your children ask you for toaster waffles instead. More for you.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Fudge Frosting

Sometimes, I swear while I'm cooking. Okay, always. Recently, we had months of renovation on our house. Who do you think cussed more, the lady with the whisk, or the guys swinging hammers? (Hint: me.) Am I the only one who starts following a recipe, only to find myself muttering words that are not "fudge?" So, that's how this recipe came to be, in a hail of profanity, trying to fix a recipe that did not work.

Fudge Frosting
6 tablespoons butter
12 oz chocolate
5 tablespoons heavy cream
2 1/4 cups powdered sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 - 5 tablespoons milk
5 tablespoons chocolate syrup
pinch baking soda, if needed

Melt 6 T butter with 12 oz chocolate in a large saucepan. Semi-sweet, milk, dark, whatever kind, just not more than 2 oz baking chocolate. Here I used a chunk of leftover Passover candy and a handful of chocolate chips.
Whisk in 5 T heavy cream, take off the heat, and add in 2 1/4 C powdered sugar, 1 1/2 t vanilla and 3 T milk. Did it seize up and look horribly grainy? Now is the time for some cathartic swearing. Go on, get it out.
Okay, pull it together! Add about 5 T chocolate syrup. Do not go dirtying your measuring spoon - just squeeze a few good glugs of the stuff and whisk it in.
Smoothed right out, huh? Go figure! Now grab a spoon and taste. Sometimes inexpensive chocolate can be unpleasantly acidic.

Pop quiz:
1) To counteract an acid, you need a ___________?
2) What basic substance (other than soap) do you always have in your kitchen?
3) If you use more than a tiny pinch of baking soda, will the children hear you swearing from the other room when you have to throw out an entire batch of frosting?

Okay, pencils down. If you want to cut the acidity of the frosting, sprinkle a pinch of baking soda over the top and whisk it in. Add a little bit more milk to achieve an appetizingly gloppy, pudding consistency. This frosting will harden pretty fast, so have your cake ready to go.
This recipe makes enough for a two- or three-layer cake, although the one in the photo has strawberry filling between the layers. Pour most of the frosting on top of the cake and work it down the sides in sections. The finish will be shiny, but it won't fill in the grooves like spackle. Hey, most people get frosting out of a plastic tub - you get all the points.
Two thirds of a batch will cover 24 cupcakes.
 Sometimes they make it to the fridge to set up for an hour.
Sometimes they don't. What the fudge?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012


They say that my grandmother cooked two briskets every week during tax season. In  the 1960s, becoming one of the first female CPAs in Maryland did not excuse her from getting a hot dinner on the table. My mother reports coming home from school every afternoon to the same note: Set the table. Make a salad. Heat the brisket. Think of the discipline involved in training your family to eat brisket every night! Mine complain if we eat the same thing twice in a week. I do make a lot of brisket, though, for the same reason my grandmother did: it allows you to cook a decent meal when you have time, and serve it when you don't. BUT. . .

You know all those recipes that tell you brisket is as simple as dumping the meat in a crockpot with ketchup and soy sauce? You know the tooth fairy was actually your mom, right? Shortcuts will give you something edible, but no one's going to be asking you for the recipe, if you know what I mean. Be realistic: It's $20 worth of stringy meat and it feeds 10 people. You're going to have to put in some effort here. And it has to chill overnight in the fridge, or else you'll end up with jagged strings swimming in fat.

The whole brisket is composed of a long, flat piece called the first cut, and a triangular piece attached to it by a thick layer of fat, known as the second cut or deckel. Typically, stores present a first cut trimmed of the fat as the most desirable way to purchase brisket. If that's what you get, your brisket will still be good. But I think you're better off getting a whole brisket with some of the fat left on. This isn't a ribeye steak that you can just salt and sear; it has to cook for four hours. Without a fair amount of fat, it will dry out and never become tender. I try to buy the whole piece, and defat it to my own requirements.

I wish I could tell you that grass fed brisket is better for the earth and better for you. That would be a total lie. Sorry. Even if the rancher didn't supplement the feed with fishmeal (not tasty), the grassfed meat will still be much stringier than meat from a feedlot cow. You may be happier with meat from a happy cow, which I totally respect. I'm just putting it out there.

Five fist-sized yellow or white onions
1/4 C oil
kosher salt
Black Pepper
6 oz can tomato paste
3-4 whole carrots
6 cloves garlic
2 bay leaves, if you have them around
1 5-lb brisket

Slice the onions in thick half-moons and brown them with the oil and a teaspoon of kosher salt in the largest skillet you can find.  Despit what many authors will tell you, it takes about 35 minutes to brown the onions. Longer if you double the recipe and the pan is crowded. And I totally recommend you make at least two and freeze what you don't need -  you're already going to have to clean the pan, you might as well get two meals out of it. If you can stand to wash another dish, you can speed the process by browning the meat in another pan at the same time. Or just get on with something else, since you only have to give the onions a stir every few minutes. And if you don't feel like going to the trouble, just throw the onions in with the brisket raw - that's what my grandmother did.

When the onions are brown, move half of them to a bowl, and the rest to the pan you'll be baking in. I recommend a rectangular casserole that will also look pretty on the table, but a 9x13 pan will also work fine. Return the skillet to the burner, sprinkle the meat with kosher salt, and sear it fat side down in the hot pan. Once you get a thick, brown crust, flip it over and do the same to the second side. While you're waiting peel the carrots, slice the garlic thinly, and arrange them around the edge of the onions.

Put the brisket on top of the onions, and spread the tomato paste over the meat like frosting. Yes, I know this seems like a crazy amount of tomato paste. But I haven't lied to you yet, so give it a try. Sprinkle salt and pepper over, and then put the rest of the onions on top of the tomato paste. If you skip this, the acidic tomato paste will eat away at the aluminum foil when you cover the meat. And not in a good way.

If you have bay leaves, stick them in the corners, cover the pan tightly with foil, and bake for a couple of hours at 350. As long as you are careful to seal the edges well to stop the juices evaporating, any time between ninety minutes and five hours is fine, so don't rush home to take it out of the oven. When you do get around to it, cool the meat on the counter for a couple of hours and then chill in the fridge overnight. In the winter, I just leave mine on the porch under something heavy to keep raccoons out. By morning, your brisket will be covered in an unappetizing layer of orange fat. Contemplate the fact that, in the Old Country, they worked hard enough to spread this on bread like butter. Thank your lucky stars you're here and now, then spoon off as much of the stuff as possible.

Not going to convert any vegetarians with this picture. 
If your brisket was already trimmed of most of the fat when you bought it, just slice the meat thinly on a cutting board (I aim for 1/4"), removing any huge chunks of white fat. Return it to the pan, cut the carrots in chunks and arrange them around the meat, and take a bite to check for seasoning. Add salt to your own taste and put the foil back. If you had a very fatty whole brisket, you may want to scrape off the tomato paste and onions, defat the meat, slice and arrange it in the pan with the carrots, and re-cover it with the onions and tomato. This is a total pain in the a**, I know. But now you're finished and you can plastic wrap the whole thing and freeze it, or refrigerate it for a couple of days. All the work is done.

Incidentally, this is what makes brisket superior to other pot roasts. When you slice brisket, you cut the muscle fibers short enough that diners don't have to chew through them. Even a tender chuck roast has fibers an inch long.

The day you  want to serve the meat, just cook it at 350 for a couple of hours, or however long is convenient. Don't forget to make the foil tight so your brisket doesn't dry out.You'll want to add an extra hour if you put it in the oven frozen. I leave mine to cool on the counter for half an hour before I serve it, so that the meat is still hot, but I can put the pan on the table. All you have to do is set the table and make a salad, and you're good to go.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Slow Roasted Tomatoes

Because I can't be the only one who looked at the Club Pack of grape tomatoes and made that leap of faith. Yes, this would be the week that the kids embraced tomatoes as a delicious snack.

It wasn't. The tomatoes wrinkled reproachfully in their plastic packaging for five days. Oh, FINE. I guess the person who threw the chocolate chip granola bars in the cart has to deal with the wilting produce.
Halved in a pan with a couple of sprigs of thyme and a few garlic cloves. Plus copious amounts of salt and olive oil. Two hours at 275.
Lunch for one.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Dried Fruit Bars

I know this has happened to you.
There was definitely a reason you bought those dried blueberries. And dried cranberries make great stuffing at Thanksgiving. But now it's May, and you have a dozen open bags of dried fruit, getting crunchier every day. Surely the kids will be thrilled to eat those figs in their lunches! Hahahahahaha. Get out a big saucepan; you can have these cookies baking in fifteen minutes.

Dried Fruit Bars

1 stick of butter
1 C white sugar
2 eggs
1 C flour
pinch salt
2 C dried fruit,  chopped
1 C chopped nuts
2 t vanilla extract OR 3 T Amaretto

Since there is still a little space left in my freezer, I doubled the recipe. I can't make more hours in the day, but I can make sure that this one is more productive.

One batch had figs, dates and pistachios.
The other had apricots, raisins and almonds.
Obviously, I go grocery shopping on my way home from the gym when I'm starving. Why else would I have such a ridiculous variety of dried food? Anyway, don't go out and buy anything special for this recipe. Just chuck in whatever you have to get rid of. And if you don't have nuts or just don't like them, use another cup of dried fruit. Everyone else is making Duncan Hines -  your family ought to be bloody grateful that you are baking at all!

First, melt the butter and sugar together in your saucepan for about four minutes, or until it's not too grainy. Remember, my recipe is doubled.
Take it off the heat and let it cool for a moment. Then stir in the eggs one at a time. Now is not the time to answer the door for the HVAC man, because you will end up with lumps of scrambled eggs in there - trust me on this one. Lastly, stir in the rest of the ingredients to make a thick batter.
I think Amaretto is great in baked goods. My husband thinks it tastes like Ladies Night at a cheap bar. So, I use vanilla, but sometimes I sneak in a quarter teaspoon of almond extract. Consult a marriage counselor if you have to spend more than 45 seconds weighing this decision.
Line a 9" square pan with foil and spray the foil with cooking spray. Or an 8" square, or a round pan - don't get hung up here. Just dump the batter in and spread it out.
Bake at 350 for about 45 minutes, or until the top crust is brown, but still gives a little when you press your finger into it.

If you want to serve this to company, cool on the counter for an hour, and then put it in the fridge for several hours, since cold bar cookies slice evenly. Otherwise, I recommend doing some aggressive quality control testing soon after you take it out of the oven. BUT, remember that this has substantial quantities of dried fruit in every bar. If you eat six of them, you might feel it later. Just sayin'. On the plus side, it's easy to convince yourself this is health food. A person might even eat them for breakfast. Hypothetically.

I think these are prettiest if you divide the pan in thirds, and then slice each section into finger-widths that show the fruit and nuts.