Tuesday, June 29, 2010

This Cookie Stands Alone: Cornmeal Shortbread with Sweet Dried Cherries . . .

A coy little shortbread recipe has been beckoning to me for a while now, and I finally surrendered to its siren song. It's not just another run o' the mill shortbread, though. How does it differ? Well, it's characterized by a few ingredients that, while common, are each distinctive in their own right. Place them in combination and beautiful things start to happen. I'm talking about elements like exceptionally rich butter, the seeds of a fragrant vanilla bean, enough golden cornmeal to add an intriguing crunch, and  the tastiest dried cherries in the world.

When I gave in to the desire to make this shortbread, my first thought was to pair it with something cool and creamy--maybe homemade ice cream, panna cotta, or pudding. But occasionally, while in the midst of baking, it becomes crystal clear that a finished creation can, and perhaps even should, be allowed to stand on its own. This is one such recipe.

Good classic shortbread excels in showcasing a few basic components--butter, sugar, flour. But, used judiciously, additional items carefully chosen can raise a shortbread's profile in the finest way, and that's what we have here, most notably with the cherries. Now, though, let's talk specifically about the butter for a moment. Have you ever used premium butter in shortbread? The kind of butter that's a couple of percentage points higher in fat than regular butter? It's substantially more expensive than its lesser companions, but the difference it makes in a cookie like this is immediately apparent. In part because it contains less moisture than typical butters, it has not only a positive flavor impact but it also affects texture in certain baked goods, too. Fellow bakers, from the flavor standpoint alone shortbread is made for this stuff. Made for it. If you never use this kind of butter for anything else, at least try it once in shortbread.

I used Plugra, a domestically-made "European style" butter that, though obscenely expensive (in my neck of the woods it's over seven dollars a pound), is extravagantly buttery. Peel back the gold paper wrapping on a brick of this stuff and you'll see just what I mean. It feels especially slippery, and it smells . . . well . . . sort of clean and unadulterated. If butter can be lustrous, this is lustrous indeed. It's probably what the best homemade butter tasted like two hundred years ago, back when cows munched freely on untainted grass, and napped peacefully beneath big shady oak trees. So, if you've never tried any of the fancy high-fat butters on the market (and there are several brands to be found these days), you might want to consider saving your pennies and, just once, giving it a go.

About this recipe . . .

The sum and substance of this recipe is from pastry chef Karen DeMasco's gorgeous book, The Craft of Baking. The adaptations I made to it included doubling the recipe; adding in chopped, dried, Michigan cherries (of course from Michigan, where else?); pressing the dough thickly into two tart pans instead of chilling it, rolling it out, and cutting it with a cookie cutter; and, also, I didn't follow DeMasco's advice to stick the hull of the split vanilla bean in with the dough as it mixed (for some reason that concept didn't appeal to me at the time I was making this, though I have nothing against it in principle). And I reworded the instructions somewhat, as usual.

To gild the lily . . . or not . . .

I did follow DeMasco's suggestion to sprinkle the shortbread with demarara sugar (natural brown sugar produced from the "first crystallization" of sugar cane) prior to baking, but in the future I think I might do without a sugar topping altogether, or use coarse white sugar instead. I say this because the addition of the brown sugar flavor was truly unnecessary to this particular cookie.

Though I love the moist heaviness and unadulterated flavor of  demarara crystals in general, the sugar was superfluous here. It was gilding the lily. And, as I said before, this shortbread cookie stands perfectly well on its own. So there.

Cornmeal Shortbread Cookies with Sweet Dried Cherries

(For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Have ready two ungreased tart pans with removable bottoms, each approximately 9 inches in size.

1 and 3/4 cup All Purpose flour, unbleached

1 cup yellow cornmeal, coarsely or finely ground, as you prefer
1 tsp. kosher salt (I think this makes a difference in this recipe, so do use kosher if you have it.)
1 cup plus 3 Tbsp. of unsalted butter (I used Plugra, a high quality, higher-fat butter; I recommend you try this or something similar, though I have no doubt this shortbread is good even with regular unsalted butter.)
1 cup confectioners' sugar, not sifted
1/2 cup of chopped sweet dried cherries
Seeds scraped from 1/2 of a whole vanilla bean 
4 Tbsp. demarara, or coarse white, sugar, if you like (I used the demarara, but as noted in the post, I think next time I'd prefer coarse white sugar instead.) 

In a medium size bowl, whisk together the flour, cornmeal, and kosher salt.  

In the bowl of an electric mixer, using the paddle, combine the butter, sugar, and vanilla seeds for just a minute or so on low speed. 

While the mixer is still on low, add in the flour mixture in two additions, then toss in the chopped cherries. Again mix just until the ingredients are combined. Don't over-mix or let the dough get too warm. (If the dough does seem warm and extremely soft, put it in the fridge for a few minutes to chill.) 

Divide the dough in half and, with your hands, press the dough smoothly and evenly into the tart pans. Using the tines of a dinner fork, divide the dough into slender wedges, like a pie, pressing the tines down to the bottom of the pan. 

Set the tart pans on top of a flat baking sheet, and place the sheet on the middle rack of your preheated 350 oven. Check the shortbread after 15 to 20 minutes; if it appears to be browning too quickly, cover it lightly with foil. Bake until the top is lightly golden, however long that takes, perhaps 10 more minutes. 

Let each shortbread cool in its pan for about five minutes, then remove it from the pan and put it on a cutting surface. With a thin sharp knife, slice it while still warm. If you wait until it's cool, it could crack apart when you attempt to slice it.

(If you'd like to comment on this post, or to read any existing comments, please click on the purple COMMENTS below!)

Tripping the Light Fantastic

Quote of the Day:  I could have danced all night! And still have begged for more.  I could have spread my wings, and done a thousand things I've never done before. - from I Could Have Danced All Night from the musical My Fair Lady

This past week I was in Portland, OR visiting my little sister, Joy.  There she is cuttin' a rug with her friend.  Our cousin Angie and I traveled together from Minnesota to see Joy and have a West Coast experience.  She took us out dancing where we were stretched out of our comfort zone learning dance steps and being led around the dance floor with new partners.  We were taught the East Coast Swing at the lesson, so when the guy asked me to dance the Rumba, I said, "I don't know that one."  That didn't stop him.  He said, "I'll teach you," and off I went whirling and twirling, slow-slow-fast, or something like that. (I did not step on his foot.)

The first thing she did was make us eat with our hands off the same plate at a Moroccan restaurant.  It was delicious and messy, but they wash your hands.

We sang show tunes together, like I Could have Danced all Night and The Music of the Night where Joy hit that amazing B.  I still have goosebumps.

I found myself noticing feet.  These red suede shoes belong to a waiter at a lovely French bistro where we had lunch.

Nordlys dancers at the Midsummer Festival - Scandinavian festival to celebrate the longest day of the year, and our heritage.

Our toes in the sand on the Oregon coast at Lincoln City.  Beautiful, but cool, and full of shadow and light.

These feet have taken me out of Minnesota, out of my comfort zone, and into a new light.  This is just the first glimpse, folks.  Look for more of this fantastic trip, the food, the journey - inward and outward, the books, and the fun.

Journaling Prompt: Where have your feet taken you lately?  Where would you like them to go?

Monday, June 28, 2010

Warm Potato Salad with Bacon Blue Cheese Dressing

Potato salad in my house doesn't last long.  I typically stay with my usual recipe but occasionally I will get a wild hair and use Dijon mustard instead of regular, or even, GASP, different pickles.  But, for the most part the potato salad that this cook serves up is creamy, delicious and very predictable.

Yesterday, while I was contemplating what to serve with the grilled chicken we had, I started looking up potato salad recipes.  How is it that I never thought of putting bacon or cheese into it?  I also found versions calling for capers, vinaigrette dressings, and many other assortments of tasty ingredients.  I decided to make up a recipe of my own, something new that I could make and surprise my family.

The result was a fabulously flavorful, simple salad that paired wonderfully with the grilled chicken rubbed down in that tasty rub.  It is slightly reminiscent of a German Potato salad but the dressing is creamier from the blue cheese dressing, which adds a wonderful tang to the bacon dressing. 

I Linked this recipe to THIS WEEK'S CRAVINGS linky part over at Mom's Crazy Cooking
Warm Potato salad with Bacon Blue Cheese Dressing
Recipe Source:  Jenn at A Cook's Quest

2-3 pounds red potatoes
Chicken Broth or water
6 slices bacon (sliced thinly)
1 small onion
1-2 tablespoons flour (depends on how much grease is rendered from your bacon)
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2-1/3 cup apple cider vinegar (this will depend on how much flour you needed, and how thin you want the dressing)
3-5 tablespoons blue cheese dressing
Salt and Pepper

In a large pot, boil the potatoes in chicken broth or water until fork tender.  Drain and allow to cool for a few minutes while you make the dressing.

In a small saute pan, brown your bacon and saute the onion.  When the onion is soft and bacon is crisp add the flour and make a roux.  Add the cayenne pepper, dry mustard and salt and pepper to taste.  Whisk in the vinegar making sure to smooth out any lumps from the flour. 

Slice your potatoes, which are still warm into a large bowl.  Add the bacon dressing, (if it has thickened up on you then add a little chicken stock or water), add the blue cheese dressing.  Stir to combine and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Total Cost-I have no idea!  It can't be too much, but the potatoes and bacon both came from Hubby's shopping trip.  I'm going to guess this at less than $2.00.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Rock Salt Rub for Chicken

My mom recently returned from a trip to Europe and one of the gifts she gave to me was this lovely assortment of goodies:
 Are you wondering why she gave me a grater, rocks, a wooden scoop and a bowl?  I sure was!  Then she explained that the rocks were salt from Salzburg.  You, grate the rocks using the little grater, into the bowl and then use the little wooden scoop to get what you need.  My friends have all heard of this rock salt but I must have been living under a rock because I thought it was just the neatest thing ever!  To top it off, the salt makes my food, especially meats, taste amazing.  I've been adding it to everything I can and loving the results.

Then while digging through my cupboards I found this little contraption,
also a gift, and also from my mom.  I believe it was given at Christmas and I had forgotten about it.  So I instantly knew what I was going to do...I was going to make a rub, using my new favorite salt, put it on one of the cheap whole chickens I bought and figure out this chicken roaster thingy.

I've had other versions of this chicken that were flavorful and moist, but this one tops them all.  The rub is sweet and a little hot, but not too hot.  The whole family ate this chicken like I hadn't fed them in a week, then wanted more later on.  This is a new summer grill favorite!

Now, if you don't drink, or don't have any beer in the house you can simply replace the beer for juice, broth, I've even heard of people doing it with Sprite.  This recipe/method for chicken is very easy, and very very tasty! Pair it up with some fresh corn, calico beans, or potato salad for a tasty meal idea!
Beer Can Chicken with Rock Salt Rub
Recipe Source: Jenn at A Cook's Quest

1 Whole Chicken-Cleaned and rinsed
Spice Rub (recipe below)
1 beer,  or 8 oz apple juice/broth/soda

Spice Rub
2 tablespoons rock salt grates or a coarser table salt will work too
1 tablespoon regular table salt
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon white sugar
3 tablespoons chili powder
2 tablespoons paprika
3 tablespoons garlic powder
1 tablespoon onion powder
1-3 tablespoons fresh ground black pepper

Combine inngedients for the rub in a bowl and set aside.  Wash and pat dry your chicken.  Rub the spice rub, on and inside the chicken, working the seasoning under the skin of the breast as well.  Let sit for 1 hour to overnight.  When ready to grill, cut the top off of the can you are using.  If you are using a beer, drink or pour out about 1/3 of the liquid, (I didn't have any beer in a can, so I rinsed out a soda can and poured the beer into that,) and if you want you can put seasonings, lemon wedge in the can for extra flavor.
Place the chicken on top of the can and grill over medium low heat until the chicken is cooked through. 

Remove the chicken from the can, and if you can do this without spilling all the delicious juices, pour what hasn't evaporated from the can over the chicken.  Allow to rest for 15 minutes, carve and then get out of the way or you might just get trampled on!

Total Cost-$3.51
Chicken $2.01
Rub $1.50 (estimating)
Beer-Free (I got it from my Mother in Law because we were out, normally it would be about $1-1.50 depending on brand)

I am completely estimating here because I have no idea what the costs of my seasonings were.  My hubby did some shopping when I was too busy with school and most of the spices were purchased by him.  He did buy on sale so I know they weren't too much.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Fruit Cobbler

The title of this recipe is a bit deceiving because it isn't really for a whole cobbler, just the crust.  You see, I have no interest in cooked fruit, unless the said fruit is an apple.  When served cobblers, my method is to eat a corner piece that is likely to have more crust than fruit and even then I'm not happy because most of the cobblers I have consumed didn't posses a crust worth remembering...now enter my friend Anisha's cobbler.

The peach cobbler she brought to work shortly after starting in my office was amazing, phenomenal, superb, simply put, like everything else she cooks, Anisha's cobbler is legendary.  It is simple and straight forward, nothing fancy or overly hard to prepare.  I am told it works beautifully with any fruit filling you might want to put under it for the simple reason that the crust is so marvelous.  So go to the local market and buy whatever fruit you want (my kids wanted peaches), mix it with some sugar and cornstarch for thickening and pour this crust over the top.  It will scream fresh summer dessert at you the minute you take a bite!

Sugar Cookie Crust
Recipe Source: Anisha's Kitchen

1 cup flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/8 tsp salt
1/2 pound (2 sticks) butter at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1/2 tsp vanilla

fruit of your choice
2 tablespoons of flour
2 tablespoons of sugar

Cream butter, sugar, egg and vanilla.  Add dry ingredients.  Mix until well blended. Your batter will resemble a very soft cookie dough.

 Combine fruit with 2 tablespoons of flour and 2 tablespoons of sugar.  Pour/spread over fruit mixture.  Bake at 375 F until golden brown.

**Cook's Notes: I made this in a 9x9 pan.  I also covered my crust part way through because it was browning too quickly and inside wasn't cooking as fast.  You can easily double this recipe for larger pans.

Total Cost- $1.26 with fruit $4.41 (depending on which fruit you decide to use the final cost will vary)
Butter $1.08
Egg .08
Flour .08
Sugar .02

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Calico Beans

I don't think any backyard BBQ is complete without beans.  Now I love homemade baked beans but I had never tried to make them.  I had, until now, been content with eating canned beans that I doctor up a little bit, or even better the homemade versions that others so kindly bring.  That is until I found this recipe posted by Heather at Gourmet Meals For Less, when she guest blogged over at Eatin' on the Cheap.  These beans are hearty, sweet, and utterly delicious with any food cooked on a grill, not to mention easy easy easy on the budget! 

**Cook's Note-I am posting this exactly as Heather posted it originally. No changes or alterations were need by this cook!  Her pricing is close to what mine would be, check out the total at the bottom--I love a good deal!

Calico Beans

Recipe Source: Heather from Gourmet Meals For Less

Serves 12

3-4 medium onions, halved and sliced 1.00
5 bacon strips, diced 1.00
2 garlic cloves, minced .08
1 cup packed dark brown sugar .20
1/2 cup cider vinegar .10
1/2 teaspoon ground mustard PI
2 cans (15-1/4 ounces each) lima beans, rinsed and drained .50 (I used dried I cooked ½ of 1 lb. bag)
2 cans (15 ounces each) pork and beans 1.38
1 can (16 ounces) kidney beans, rinsed and drained .69
Salt and Pepper to taste PI

PI (Pantry Item)
In a Dutch oven, saute the onions, bacon and garlic until onions are tender.

Add the brown sugar, vinegar and mustard; bring to a boil. Reduce heat; simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes.

Stir in beans. Transfer to a large baking dish. Cover and bake at 350° for 1 to 1/12 hours or until heated through and beans are tender.

Total Cost: $4.95 (.41 a serving)

**Cook's Note-Lima Beans can also be labeled butter beans.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Strawberry Breakfast Bread . . . Wake Up and Smell the Berries!


You know strawberry season is coming to a rapid close in Michigan when you head to your favorite "u-pick" farm and the berry patch is almost deserted. One morning this week, my friend Cathy and I went  to Verellen Orchards, a nice spot about a half-hour's drive from Berkley, the small city where we both live.

It was a sunny, breezy day. As we stepped inside the open-air farm stand to check in, the sweet, humid scent of  strawberries saturated the air.

Empty berry baskets in hand, we made our way into the rows of low-growing plants. Aside from one lone woman a short ways away, intently working to fill her basket, we had the patch pretty much to ourselves. The few viable strawberries still in the field were well concealed beneath that distinctive bushy foliage.  I picked less than half of one flat, all in all, and most of the fruit I took was very small, blood red, and incredibly juicy. Many of my strawberries were almost past their prime.

Once I got them home and had a chance to give them all a good close look, I realized I'd have to weed out quite a few and discard them. The next morning, feeling that familiar yen to bake and realizing there was no time to waste in making use of my limited haul, I briskly sorted, cleaned, and trimmed the remaining fruit, then spent a few minutes paging through cookbooks looking for a quick recipe to make good use of what I'd salvaged before it all turned into a fragrant bowl of rose-colored mush.

I soon found one that fit the bill. In adapting it from a formula for strawberry walnut bread, in The King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion, I made a number of changes. Chief among them, I left out all of the walnuts. Walnuts and strawberries don't always fraternize successfully, as far as I'm concerned. Flung together in a salad, they have a reasonable shot at getting along, but in baked goods I'm often doubtful about their compatibility.

Also, in terms of adaptations, I used about two-thirds mashed strawberries, along with one-third mashed ripe banana, instead of using strawberries alone. (That languishing banana was starting to resemble a  Dalmatian with no get-up and go. I had to put it to work somehow.) You could, though, use all mashed berries and no banana if you like. Bananas are not mandatory.

Oh, and you'll notice the recipe calls for a tiny bit of lemon oil; this, too, is not mandatory, so don't panic. I realize not everyone has this stuff laying around. If you like, add in a little lemon zest, lemon extract, or lemon juice instead. Or, nix that citrus aspect entirely.

I thought my 13-year old son, Nathan, wouldn't detect the pathetically small amount of lemon oil that I used, but I was wrong. As usual. He has no use for baked goods that contain anything citrusy, and he identified the barely perceptible presence of lemon after about two bites of this bread. He remarked to me, with mild adolescent disdain, "Mom, I can always tell when you put lemon in baked stuff. And I can always tell right away whenever you poison your baked goods with zucchini, too."  Yeah, okay dude. I get it. But no one said anything about zucchini so just simmer down.

Moving on . . . in addition to the alterations above, I adjusted the amount of salt upward (and I used kosher salt), added in a wee bit of baking powder to give the loaf some extra oomph, and last but not least I made the strategic decision to add in two generous tablespoons of whole ground flax-seed meal. You ever use this stuff? I'm kind of a newbie with it, but so far I like it.

Used judiciously, even a little flax-seed meal adds a rich golden color, ups the nutritional benefits (flax is  a mega-supplier of Omega 3, antioxidants, etc.), and lends an interesting dimension to the overall flavor of certain baked goods that white flour simply can't provide. If, though, you couldn't care less about using the ground flax-seed meal (I understand), just leave it out and add in a couple extra tablespoons of white or whole wheat flour. The resulting loaf will just be less golden brown throughout, but I'm sure it'll still be darn tasty.

When all was said and done, I was more than satisfied with this bread, and completely content with the alterations I made. It's a quick bread that's moist but not wet, mildly sweet yet not at all bland, and substantive without being heavy. I topped it off, right before it went into the oven, with a sprinkling of sanding sugar--always a nice touch on this kind of item. This baby can be put together in a flash, and the one loaf that I made finished baking in about 40 minutes.

Strawberry Breakfast Bread

(For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour, or spray with baking spray, a 9" x 5" loaf pan.

1 and 1/2 cups All-Purpose flour (I used unbleached)
2 Tbsp. whole ground flax-seed meal
1 cup sugar
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. baking powder
Scant 1/2 tsp. salt (I used kosher)
A pinch of nutmeg (I used whole nutmeg)
1/4 tsp. lemon oil
2 eggs, large
3/4 cup mashed ripe strawberries
1/2 mashed ripe banana
1/2 cup vegetable oil (I used canola
1 to 2 Tbsp. of sanding sugar (or granulated sugar)

Whisk together the flour, flax-seed meal, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and nutmeg in a large bowl.

In a medium bowl, mix together the eggs, lemon oil, mashed strawberries and banana, and oil.

Add the liquid ingredients to the dry ingredients, and fold with a spatula only until all the batter is just moistened.


Pour the batter into the prepared pan and sprinkle the top with several pinches of sanding sugar, or granulated sugar. Bake the loaf for about 40 minutes, until golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out mostly clean. Check the bread about 20 minutes into the baking time. If the bread appears to be browning too quickly, cover it lightly with foil.

Let the baked loaf cool in its pan, on a rack, for 15 minutes. Remove it from the pan and let it finish cooling on the rack,


(If you'd like to comment on this post, or to read any existing comments, just click on the purple COMMENTS below!)