Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Fennel Grapefruit Salad with Pomegranate

It is a great joy to cook for the people you love. 

It is a great pain in the rear to accommodate the many food preferences of the people you love.

So, in honor of my beloved grandfather, who left town to escape the bitter cold, I made a salad with some of his least favorite things.

He doesn't like fennel. The flavor is peculiar.

Or grapefruit. Interferes with statins.

Or endive. It's bitter.

Onions are okay. Especially fried.

 Or pomegranates. Are you supposed to eat the seeds?

Four generations sit around my table every single week. I do not take it for granted. Even if it means I have to serve green beans or zucchini every Friday.

But, this week, I'm grateful for a winter salad. 

Fennel Grapefruit Salad
2 large or 3 small fennel bulbs, sliced thin across the grain
2 pink grapefruits, supremed
1 head endive, chopped
1/4 small red onion, sliced thin
1/4 cup pomegranate arils

Mustard Seed Vinaigrette
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon dijon mustard with seeds
1/2 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon water
1/2 teaspoon of salt, or to taste

Plate the salad at your leisure and refrigerate it until half an hour before serving. Whisk the dressing ingredients together and pour over the salad 20 minutes before dinner.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Orange Chiffon Cake with Creamsicle Frosting

The kids were off of school again today because of snow. I don't mind, really. We're at that golden age where they still love me, but they don't need me every minute. I know it won't last. But for today, I'm grateful.

Also today, this.

A huge crate of juice oranges arrived in the mail. Which meant that I was totally lying when I told my husband at breakfast that I was making a chocolate-peanut butter cake. Luckily, we've been married a long time, so he never believes a word I say.

I still have plans to make a chocolate-peanut butter cake with ombre icing next week. But I watched the best instructional video ever on ombre icing yesterday, so obviously whatever came out of my kitchen today would be ombrelicious.

Because I am having a guest this Friday who cannot eat dairy, I was doing a dry run for a chiffon, layer cake. Chiffons are an old-fashioned cake with no butter or milk. People either love them, or think they taste like the kitchen sponge. If you don't love them, make any yellow or white cake you like and add orange zest to the batter.  It's a free country!

But do try the frosting, which tastes the way you remember Orange Creamsicle bars did when you bought them off a white truck on a summer day. Have you tried buying those bars from the grocery store lately? Gross! What happened? We tried six different brands in August, and each one was vile in its own, unique way. It's true, you can never go home.

But you can always bake cakes!

Orange Chiffon Cake
6 large eggs, separated
3 teaspoons orange zest
1/2 cup orange juice
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup sugar, divided
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
2 cups cake flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

two 9" round cake pans
baking spray with flour

Creamsicle Frosting
3 sticks unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup marshmallow fluff
zest of one orange (optional)
1/4 cup orange juice
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
5 1/2 cups powdered sugar
3 tablespoons milk

gel food colorings (optional)
offset spatula
glass of hot water
several paper towels

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 (325 convection) and cut out wax paper circles to line the bottoms of cake pans.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, orange zest, 3/4 cup sugar, and salt until the mixture is thick and slightly lighter in color. Mix in juice, oil and vanilla. Gently whisk in the cake flour, baking powder and baking soda.
  3. In the bowl of a stand or hand mixer, beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar on medium speed until foamy. Add remaining 1/4 cup of sugar, and beat the whites on high speed until they hold a stiff peak, about seven minutes more.
  4. Stir one third of the whites into to the yolk mixture. In two additions, gently fold in the remaining whites, trying not to beat out the bubbles. 
  5. Spray the cake pans with baking spray, divide the batter between them, and bake until the tops are light brown and spring back when touched, approximately 35 minutes. Unless your kitchen is miserably hot already, turn off the oven and open the door, letting the cakes cool down slowly for another five minutes. Invert onto cooling racks, pull off wax paper, and cool completely.
  6. Level the tops of the cake with a serrated knife.

*Note: A crumb coat is the thin layer of frosting applied to the cake before actual decoration. You let this coating harden for half an hour in the fridge to keep errant crumbs from marring the frosting. Do not skip this step! Chiffon cakes shed crumbs like mad! Take this time to tint the frosting, load the dishwasher, and make sure the kids haven't killed each other.

Healthy lunch, no?

  1. Using the paddle attachment, beat the butter, fluff and zest on high speed for two minutes.
  2. Beat in 1 1/2 cups of powdered sugar, then half the orange juice. Repeat, using up the juice.
  3. Beat in additional 1 1/2 cups of sugar, then vanilla and 2 tablespoons milk, then one more cup of sugar.
  4. Adjust consistency with remaining sugar and milk. You're aiming for something smooth and spreadable, without huge air pockets.  
  5. Arrange three pieces of wax paper on your cake plate, and put one layer in the middle. Spread a thin layer of frosting on this, and put the other layer on top.
  6. Crumb coat the cake with a fine layer of frosting, evening out the sides as much as possible. Chiffon cakes do shrink into odd angles. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
  7. If you want to try the ombre decoration, divide the frosting among three bowls. Using gel colors, tint one orange and one pink, leaving the third white.

  1. Remove cake from the fridge. If you have a revolving cake stand, now's the time for it.
  2. Spread the orange frosting over the top of the cake, leaving a wide lip hanging over the side.
  3. Spread the pink frosting around the bottom layer of cake. No need to be neat here, just get it stuck on.
  4. Spread the white frosting around the upper layer of cake.
  5. Using a small, offset spatula held perpendicular to the plate, begin smoothing pink into white layers, scraping excess frosting off spatula, dunking it in hot water, and drying on paper towels every few strokes. This will stop your colors becoming overblended, and keeps the surface smoother.
  6. Repeat with orange and white. Don't get carried away trying to smooth it out or you'll end up muddying the whole thing.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Za'atar Semolina Cakes

Why are there pre-cooked tubes of polenta in every grocery store, while semolina remains that random stuff they throw under pizza to dry the crust? Both are finely milled grains with a mild flavor; both healthy and cheap to produce. Why does cornmeal get all the love, while wheatmeal is an also-ran?

I don't understand it, especially when semolina is so much easier to get right. Unless you simmer and stir polenta for 45 minutes, you have to drown the bitter, raw taste in copious butter and salt. Semolina is tasty in five minutes.

So why do my bags of semolina look like this?

Why do I have to use Google translate to figure out which sack of pulverized grain I'm looking for? I've bought Irmik at the Turkish market, Sooji at the Pakistani store, and Mahhar from the Russian grocery. Which is all well and good, since I love an ethnic store. Where else can you get food that is "Country Grown?"

Don't ask me which country. But, rest assured, wherever these sesame seeds were grown was in some country.

Seriously, though, the best Whole Foods can do is a Bob's Redmill bag of Semolina Flour? Lame.

To make basic semolina "mush" (for lack of a better word), boil three parts water and whisk in one part semolina. Season and serve. Like polenta, you can bake out some of the water to make it more slice and less mush. I'm not much of a mush-girl, to be honest. Squishy pudding squicks me out. So I made two variations of this recipe: one for pudding lovers, and one for those of us who fight for the corner brownie. Both are good - make the one that suits your preference.

And feel free to substitute whatever seasoning you like for the za'atar.

Za'atar Semolina
1 cup semolina (not semolina flour)
3 cups water
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon za'atar
4 tablespoons butter, divided
1/2 teaspoon sumac (optional)
3/4 teaspoon sesame seeds (optional)

Bring the water to a boil and whisk in the semolina. Mix in the salt, garlic, za'atar and 3 tablespoons of butter.

Pudding Lovers:

Pour into a well-greased 8- or 9-inch square pan. Dot the top with remaining butter slivers and sprinkle optional sumac and sesame seeds. Bake at 425 for 40 minutes. Rest for ten minutes on the counter before cutting into squares.

Crust Lovers:
Scoop into twelve well-greased muffin tins. Dot the tops with the remaining butter slivers and sprinkle optional sumac and sesame seeds over each. Bake at 425 for 40 minutes. Rest for ten minutes on the counter before moving to a platter.

Note: just because you can pick up these little disks  right away doesn't mean you should immediately chow down. The inside will be molten lava hot for a good while. Just saying.

I like to serve mine with tahini sauce. But I like everything with tahini sauce ...

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Pomegranate Flanken


Even the word makes you think of tiny, Formica kitchen where a little, old woman in a housedress toils over a dented roasting pan schlepped here from the old country.

I don't own a housedress. My roasting pan is of no particular provenance. My flanken is boneless and braised in pomegranate juice. But it still takes forever to cook. So goes the world.

On the off chance that you didn't have a little, Jewish (great-)grandmother, I'll tell you that flanken is a cut of beef from the back of the ribs. Jewish cooking usually features cross sections of four ribs like this.
Cooking with the bones in makes for a slightly better flavor, but boneless ribs were on sale this week at the kosher market. I prefer the boneless flanken anyway, since it annoys me to pay for something I'll be throwing away. But if bone-in ribs are what you have (or what's on sale!), then just buy five pounds instead of four. Do you think your Bubbe would have made it out of the shtetyl if she was so picky?

Pomegranate Flanken
4 pounds boneless flanken (or 5 pounds bone-in)
2 carrots, diced
2 ribs celery, diced
1 small onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups of pomegranate juice
1 tablespoon sugar
1 cup water
2 whole cloves
1 bay leaf
1/2 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
kosher salt
black pepper
1/4 cup pomegranate aerils

Day 1
  1. Adjust your oven rack to the second level from the top and pre-heat the broiler to 425. I do not recommend the convection setting here, since the blowing air just increases the likelihood of flare-ups (i.e. fires). Line a sheet pan with foil, arrange about four ribs to the area of your broiler element, and salt them to taste. (My meat happened to be kosher, so I salted it lightly. Conventional meat requires more seasoning.)
  2. Run the meat under the broiler for five to ten minutes until it develops a nice, brown crust. You'll have to use your judgement on the timing, based on your oven's size, the thickness of your meat, and whether you're cooking with gas or electric. Turn the meat over, salt the other side, and repeat. 
  3. When you've browned on both sides, remove the meat to the baking dish, and crimp one corner of the foil into a lip to pour the pan drippings into a frying pan. This gives the veggies a head start on seasoning, and minimizes the amount of fat waiting to catch fire in the oven. Season the second batch of ribs and get them started browning.
  4. Meanwhile, start sweating the carrot, celery and onion in the frying pan with the drippings. Salt and pepper them to your taste, taking into account the level of seasoning in and on your meat. After about ten minutes, the onions should be translucent. Make a space on one side of your pan, tip in a little bit more beef drippings from the second batch of ribs, and fry up the minced garlic. After a minute, mix the garlic into the other vegetables and take the pan off the heat.
  5. Arrange the roasting pan with half the vegetables on the bottom, then a layer of meat, then the remaining vegetables on top. Stick a clove, bay leaf or cinnamon stick in each corner of the pan where you'll find them easily to remove later. Pour over the pomegranate juice and water to come most of the way up the sides of the meat and cover the pan tightly with foil.
  6. Bake at 300 for three hours, removing the foil and turning the meat over halfway through.
  7. After cooling on the counter for an hour, remove the cloves, bay leaf and cinnamon stick. Cover and put the pan in the refrigerator overnight.

Day 2
  1. Break up the layer of hard, orange fat that has congealed on the top of the meat and throw it away. 
  2. Cover the flanken and return them to a 300 degree oven for two hours or more. The whole point of braised meat is that it will wait for you to be ready to eat whenever.
  3. An hour before you plan to serve the meat, take it out and let it rest for half an hour. 
  4. Remove the flanken to a platter, and cover with foil.
  5. Strain out 1 cup of the liquid and bring it to a simmer in a saucepan, whisking in the pomegranate molasses. 
  6. Dissolve the cornstarch in a tablespoon of cold water, then whisk it into the saucepan. Bring to a boil for a minute, then reduce to a simmer. You should have a slightly thickened, shiny gravy.
  7. Pour over the meat and decorate with pomegranate aerils before serving.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Barley with Roasted Grapes and Pomegranates

Here's another recipe for Tu B'Shvat. I'm afraid you can't fob this one off on the kids like the Magic Cookie Bars. But with barley, grapes, pomegranates, almonds and olive oil (still counts), you're knocking out most of the Seven Species for your scavenger hunt holiday meal.

And don't give me the side-eye about the roasted grapes. They're actually pretty cool - halfway between grapes and raisins, but smokier. At least you can discretely eat around them if they don't float your boat. One of my kids has convinced himself that he doesn't like onions, though. Is there anything more annoying than having a child wrinkle his nose and pull an onion out of your cooking as if it were a human hair? I think not!

So, in my ideal world, the shallots would be sliced thinly. But in my less-than-ideal home, they get minced. Whaddaya gonna do?

Barley with Roasted Grapes and Pomegranates
3 cups washed grapes, off the stem
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
2 shallots, thinly sliced
3 tablespoons butter or olive oil
1 cup pearled barley
3 cups warm water
1/2 cup pomegranate arils
1/4 cup toasted, slivered almonds

In a large saucepan, sauté the shallots in the butter or oil for several minutes until translucent. Add the remaining 3/4 teaspoon salt and barley, cooking for an additional three minutes. Slowly pour in the water, it will steam up like mad, bring to a boil, reduce the heat, cover, and cook until all the liquid is absorbed, approximately 40 minutes.

Meanwhile, line a rimmed baking sheet with foil, spread the grapes on it, toss with the oil and 1/2 teaspoon salt, and put into a 375 degree oven. Toss every five minutes to prevent sticking, and remove when shrunken and wrinkled, but still plump.

When you're ready to serve, fluff the barley and spoon it onto your serving platter. Scatter the grapes on top, and garnish with the almonds and pomegranate.

Serves 6.

Tu B'Shvat Magic Cookie Bars

Remember Magic Cookie Bars?

Cookie crumbs + butter + chocolate chips + condensed milk = "Mom, I made cookies all by myself!"

If that's where you are in your baking development, well ... good for you, honey! But even if you've made macarons (I have, don't bother), you should still make Magic Cookie Bars this week for Tu B'Shvat.

Tu B'Shvat is a minor Jewish holiday referred to as the New Year of the Trees. Like many Jewish festivals, this one has its roots in the agricultural rhythms of the Middle East. Modern Jews celebrate this as a day to be grateful for the wonderful foods that come from the Earth. We often consume the Seven Species, plants which were staple crops in the time of the Bible: wheat, barley, pomegranate, olives, grapes, figs and dates. Because almonds are an essential part of modern, Israeli cooking, these are often included as well.

Putting together a meal with all of these is a challenge, all the more so when the holiday comes mid-week. Since Tu B'Shvat falls on a Wednesday this year, I figured on one recipe which knocks out three Species, requires no baking, and can be done by your children in ten minutes. Parents can get on with the barley, which is a bit more trouble.

I used kosher tea biscuits for the crumb layer, but feel free to use crushed graham crackers, chocolate wafers, or whatever you like. I also omitted the almonds, since the presence of delicious nuts causes my children to whine and ask for potato chips. What are you gonna do?

Tu B'Shvat Magic Cookie Bars
4-5 ounces cookie crumbs
5 tablespoons melted butter
3/4 cup chopped, pitted dates
3/4 cup chopped figs
1/3 cup slivered (toasted, if you have the attention span) almonds
7 ounces (half a small can) sweetened, condensed milk

8" square pan, lined with foil

Crush cookies with your hands, until you have some crumbs and some larger, pea-sized pieces. Mix with the butter, then press into an even-ish layer on the bottom of your foil-lined pan. In the same bowl, because why not?, mix the fruit and nuts with the condensed milk. Glop this over the crumbs, and put the pan in the fridge for a couple of hours to firm up. Lift out the foil to move the cold cookies to the counter to slice into bars.

With love, I must remind you that these delicious cookies pack a major wallop of dried fruit. Eat half the pan, and you might feel a little sick tomorrow. Just saying.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Grapefruit Pound Cake

Last month, when we were just starting to get sick of our winter fruit diet of oranges, oranges and clementines (for variety!), Cooking Light published a recipe for Grapefruit Pound Cake. Sounds weird, I know. And you can make it with orange or lemon if you want. Whatever. But how many lemon pound cakes have you eaten in your life? And how many grapefruit pound cakes? It's a new year, get crazy!

I generally have good luck with Cooking Light recipes. This may have something to do with the fact that I use full-fat cream cheese, leave the chicken skins on, eyeball the amount of olive oil for stir-frying, etc. This recipe worked pretty well, although something was very off with their icing instructions. Perhaps they made it water-thin intentionally? If all the icing drips off onto the plate, no calories! Never fear, I fixed it.

This recipe is stupid-easy - it's pound cake, not osso bucco. So here are just a few tips to make it go even smoother.
  • If, like me, you soften your butter and cream cheese on low power in the microwave, start the butter thirty seconds before the cream cheese, which turns to liquid before the butter is soft.
  • Run some warm water into a bowl and put the eggs in there to warm up first thing. Cold eggs tend to make the butter form lumps, and you'll be beating it forever to get it incorporated.
  • Use the paddle attachment of your mixer, not the whisk, which will comb the strips of rind right out of the batter.
  • Use your dish scrubber to rub off some of the sealing wax on the skin of the grapefruit. Or don't, if you can't be bothered. But definitely wash it.
  • Do not start out by greasing the pan, since the baking spray will simply run down the sides into the bottom while you are busy running the mixer.

Grapefruit Pound Cake
6 tablespoons softened butter
6 ounces softened cream cheese
several shakes of table salt
1 2/3 cup (14 ounces) granulated sugar
2 eggs 
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup canola oil
rind of 2/3 grapefruit
2 cups (10 ounces) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup milk

baking spray with flour
10-cup bundt or tube pan

Beat the butter and cream cheese together for two minutes on medium speed, then add the salt and sugar, and beat on high speed until they are fluffy and white. Scrape down the sides, and add the eggs, one at a time. On low speed, mix in the vanilla, oil, rind and baking powder. Finish by adding the flour alternating with the milk. 

Spray the pan, fill it with batter, and place it in your oven heated to 325 (300 convection). Bake for approximately 70 minutes, until the center is dry in the cracks and feels solid when you push on it. Rest in the pan for five minutes before tipping out on a rack to cool for at least an hour.

Grapefruit Glaze
1 tablespoon very soft butter
rind from 1/3 grapefruit
2 cups powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons milk
3 tablespoons grapefruit juice

Use a small whisk (or fork) combine the butter, rind, half the sugar, and vanilla. Whisk in milk, remaining sugar, and two tablespoons juice. Add juice by half teaspoons until you get to the consistency of cold honey.

Drizzle by spoonfuls over the cake, working your way around twice, nudging the icing down the sides. This icing is astonishingly tasty, and you'll probably have a bit left. Don't make yourself sick, now.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Coconut Buttercream with Toasted Coconut Topping

Q: If you put chocolate chips on top of a vanilla cake, does it become a Chocolate Cake?
A: No.

Q: Then, why is a vanilla cake covered in coconut flakes a Coconut Cake?
A: Uhhhhh........

Until recently, American bakers had no way to get coconut into a cake other than the flakes. Sure, there's coconut extract, but have you ever tried baking with that stuff? Even 1/4 teaspoon of the "natural extract" makes everything taste like sunblock. I've served a cake that tasted like Hawaiian Tropic covered in pencil shavings. There were leftovers. 

Today, every supermarket in the country stocks canned coconut milk. Time to up our coconut game! Start by making it with chocolate cake - why is white cake the law of the land?

Coconut Buttercream
1 can of coconut milk
1 stick of unsalted butter, softened
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
6-7 cups of powdered sugar

Some cans of coconut milk are topped with a coagulated lump of fatty solids that you can simply scoop out. Some are more homogeneous and need to be strained through cheesecloth or a coffee filter, which takes half an hour. You won't know what kind you have until you open it. Sorry.

Scoop or strain the solids out of the can of coconut milk. Beat the butter and coconut solids in a stand mixer for several minutes. Add the vanilla and then the powdered sugar, one cup at a time. You may need a little more or less, depending on how watery your coconut milk is. This recipe makes enough for a three-layer cake.

Toasted Coconut
1 cup sweetened, flake coconut
your full attention (this stuff burns if you get distracted)

Heat your oven to 350, and line a baking sheet with foil. Spread the coconut in a thin layer on the foil and put the pan in the oven. Every two minutes, toss the coconut around - I find it tends to burn around the edges first. Ideally, in 8-10 minutes you'll end up with a range of shades, some almost white, and some dark brown. Let it cool for at least two minutes before decorating your cake.