Saturday, March 27, 2010

Outrageous Carrot Cake

Who can resist a recipe that is billed as “outrageous”? I certainly can’t. I’ve been making the same carrot cake recipe for years. It’s from the Soft As Silk cake flour box. It tastes alright, but I would prefer something denser and moister. It was also my first taste of cream cheese frosting. Who knew it was that good?

At first glance, the two recipes are identical. A closer look revealed some differences. The outrageous recipe uses canola oil. The SAS recipe uses mayo. The outrageous recipe uses only cinnamon. The SAS recipe uses cinnamon plus allspice or ginger. The outrageous recipe includes carrots, pineapple, walnuts and coconut. The SAS recipe has no coconut. Although it wasn’t what I was looking for, I was intrigued enough to give it a whirl.

Looking over the baking directions, I was struck by the fact that you must bake the layers on different racks and then turn and reverse them. I understand that this is necessary to ensure that they bake evenly, but I was taught that you should open the oven door as little as possible to keep the temperature even. Uneven temperatures will prevent your cakes from baking properly.

I elected to bake all three layers on the same rack. When I checked them after the recommended 25 minutes, I discovered that the edges were rapidly overbaking and pulled away from the sides of the pans. 15 minutes of cooling in the pans later, I discovered that the layers were very greasy when I removed them from the pans. I’m not sure if it was because I elected to grease the pans instead of spraying them with nonstick cooking spray (banned in my kitchen) or because the recipe uses canola oil instead of my usual mayo.

The taste was too cinnamon-y and I intensely disliked the texture of the coconut in the cake. Add that to the greasiness of the cake and I see no reason to call this recipe “outrageous”. The frosting was really good, though.

Verdict: What were they thinking???

Outrageous Carrot Cake
(source: Cooking Club of America)

3 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
6 eggs
2 ½ cups sugar
1 ½ cups canola oil
2 ½ cups finely grated carrots (about 6 carrots)
2 (8-oz.) cans crushed pineapple in juice, well-drained
1 cup shredded sweetened coconut
1 cup finely chopped walnuts

12 oz. cream cheese, softened
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
6 cups powdered sugar
1 ½ cups finely chopped walnuts, if desired

Evenly space 2 baking racks in oven. Heat oven to 350°F. Spray bottom and sides of 3 (9x2-inch) round cake pans with nonstick cooking spray. Line bottoms with parchment paper; spray parchment with nonstick cooking spray.

Sift flour, baking soda, salt and cinnamon into medium bowl.

In large bowl, beat eggs and sugar at medium speed 1 to 3 minutes or until thickened and slightly lighter in color. Beat in oil at low speed. Stir in flour mixture until blended. Stir in carrots, pineapple, coconut and 1 cup walnuts until blended. Divide batter evenly among pans. Bake 25 minutes; turn and reverse cake pans. Bake an additional 10 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean and cake pulls slightly away from sides of pan. Cool in pans on wire rack 15 minutes. Invert onto wire rack; remove parchment. Cool completely.

To make frosting, beat cream cheese and butter in large bowl at medium speed 3 minutes or until blended and smooth. Beat in vanilla. Add powdered sugar; beat at low speed 1 minute or until blended and smooth.

Place 1 cake layer on serving platter or cardboard round; spread with 1 cup frosting. Repeat. Top with remaining cake layer; spread top and sides with thin layer of frosting. Coat sides with another smooth layer of frosting; spread remaining frosting on top. Press 1 ½ cups walnus onto sides of cake. Refrigerate leftovers.

Cake can be made up to 2 days ahead and refrigerated, or 3 weeks ahead and frozen. To freeze, place cake in freezer until frosting is firm; wrap in plastic wrap, then heavy-duty foil. To defrost, place in refrigerator overnight; remove wrapping. Serve at room temperature.

20 servings

Recycle: canola oil bottle, pineapple cans, vanilla extract bottle

Compost: egg shells, carrot peels

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Italian Sausage Meatball Rigatoni with Vodka-Tomato Sauce

When this recipe was delivered to my inbox, I bookmarked it immediately. I happen to have a bottle of vodka left over from my cocktail experiments. I was also intrigued by meatballs that are baked in the oven rather than fried on top of the stove.

White bread is not something that I normally have on hand so I used plain old bread crumbs from a can which I did soak in the milk for 5 minutes. Grating onions was an adventure. I haven’t cried that much since our first cat died. In the future, I may take a cue from a French movie I once saw where one of the characters was slicing onions while wearing a snorkel and mask. I wonder if you can rent snorkels like you can rent scuba gear? Unlike most of my experiences, this recipe did, in fact, yield 24 meatballs but they seemed awfully large to be fully cooked after 15 minutes in the oven.

Making the sauce was simple although I question whether the 15 minute reduction indeed reduced the vodka or merely boiled away the alcohol. The crushed red pepper and black pepper gave it a nice kick. And I really liked it over the rigatoni rather than the more usual spaghetti. The meatballs were a disappointment. They were nowhere near cooked through after 15 minutes. My guess is that they needed at least twice that much time.

Verdict: Not bad, but I don’t think I’ll be making this again

Italian Sausage Meatball Rigatoni with Vodka-Tomato Sauce
(source: Cooking Club of America)

½ cup fresh white bread crumbs
½ cup milk
¾ lb. bulk mild Italian sausage
¾ lb. ground beef (85% lean)
1 medium onion, coarsely grated
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese, divided
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
1 teaspoon salt, divided
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper, divided
12 oz. rigatoni
¼ cup butter
2 large garlic cloves, minced
⅔ cup vodka or chicken broth
1 cup canned crushed tomatoes
¾ cup whipping cream
¼ teaspoon black pepper

Heat oven to 425°F. Combine bread crumbs and milk in large bowl; let stand 5 minutes. Mix in sausage, ground beef, onion, ½ cup of the cheese, parsley, ½ teaspoon of the salt and ¼ teaspoon of the crushed red pepper until well-blended. Shape into 24 (1 3/4-inch) balls. Place on rimmed baking sheet. Bake 10 to 15 minutes or until cooked through and no longer pink in center. Cover loosely with foil.

Cook rigatoni in large pot of boiling salted water according to package directions; drain.

Meanwhile, melt butter in medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Cook garlic 30 seconds or until fragrant. Stir in vodka; reduce until slightly thickened, about 5 minutes. Add tomatoes, cream, remaining ½ teaspoon salt, remaining ¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper and black pepper; bring to a boil. Simmer 5 minutes. Spoon sauce over rigatoni; sprinkle with remaining ½ cup cheese. Top with meatballs.

Recycle: milk bottle, vodka bottle, tomato can

Compost: onion skin, parsley stems, garlic skins

Friday, March 12, 2010

Carrot with Ginger Soup

I still have some carrots from this year’s (or, more accurately, last year’s) garden, and I thought a good use for them would be to make a carrot soup for the Valentine’s dinner. Since the theme this year was “pairings”, we came up with ginger-carrot soup. But at first I had trouble finding a recipe. There are quite a few out there, but they all seemed to have one of two problems. Either they included so many other ingredients that they were actually “ginger-carrot-and-fifteen-other-things soup” and thus didn’t really fit the theme, or they had just a few ingredients but the reviews indicated that they were “bland”, “boring”, etc. Finally I found a recipe that contained few other flavor components, and that got good reviews.

As a bonus, this recipe contains detailed instructions about pureeing the soup. Follow these and you should avoid the type of disaster OldRoses suffered last Thanksgiving.

The ingredients were pretty much as in the recipe, except that I used light cream instead of whipping cream; in a recipe like this, I doubt many people would notice the difference. I also sprang for real ginger, since I also needed it for the chicken dish (more on that here).

The recipe calls for 2 pounds of carrots. I wasn’t sure I had enough of my home-grown ones, so I bought a one-pound bag and used a pound of my own. Now, I should explain that the ones I grew are a purple variety. So when the carrots were simmered, the purple color leached out into the broth. When it was all pureed (without accident, I might add - I used a blender rather than a food processor), the whole thing took on a mauve color, which was perfect for Valentine’s Day. Oh, and the garnish in the picture is a particularly pretty carrot slice that I reserved for this purpose.

When I first tasted this soup, I was disappointed. The chicken broth flavor came out more strongly than I had expected, and I didn’t detect the ginger at all. But, by a day or two later, things had improved. The chicken broth flavor had receded and a lemony flavor from the ginger was present now. If you didn’t know there was ginger in it, you might think it was lemon instead, yet there’s the hint of a bite to it. I’m wondering whether the ginger level should be upped just a bit…

Verdict: Not bad...I might make this one again.

Ginger Carrot Soup

2 tablespoons sweet cream butter
2 onions, peeled and chopped
6 cups chicken broth
2 pounds carrots, peeled and sliced
2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
1 cup whipping cream
Salt and white pepper
Sour cream
Parsley sprigs, for garnish

In a 6-quart pan, over medium high heat, add butter and onions and cook, stirring often, until onions are limp. Add broth, carrots, and ginger. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until carrots are tender when pierced.

Remove from heat and transfer to a blender. Don't fill the blender more than half way, do it in batches if you have to. Cover the blender and then hold a kitchen towel over the top of the blender*. Be careful when blending hot liquids as the mixture can spurt out of the blender. Pulse the blender to start it and then puree until smooth. Return to the pan and add cream, stir over high heat until hot. For a smoother flavor bring soup to a boil, add salt and pepper, to taste.

Ladle into bowls and garnish with dollop sour cream and parsley sprigs.

*When blending hot liquids: Remove liquid from the heat and allow to cool for at least 5 minutes. Transfer liquid to a blender or food processor and fill it no more than halfway. If using a blender, release one corner of the lid. This prevents the vacuum effect that creates heat explosions. Place a towel over the top of the machine, pulse a few times then process on high speed until smooth.

Recycle: broth can, sour cream tub

Compost: veggie peelings/trimmings

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Tuscan Rabbit Ragù

No, I haven’t lost my mind and eaten the Easter Bunny. I’m still caught up in recipes from the New York Times. They had an article on slaughtering and cooking rabbit. I kind of enjoyed the image of urban hipsters attending a workshop to learn how to kill and butcher animals. One attendee even brought her own knives.

Naturally, the article was followed by recipes, of which this one sounded really good. Except for the rabbit, of course. I decided to try it using chicken instead.

I was intrigued by the use of red onion, which tends to be sweeter than yellow onions, and by the lack of garlic. Seems like most everything I cook has garlic in it. I was disappointed when I couldn’t find pancetta or prosciutto at my local grocery store and had to settle for bacon. Ditto the Parmesan cheese rind. I’m still scratching my head over the “nonreactive” pot. I’ve never seen a pot that reacts. Reacts to what? How? Must be an urban hipster thing.

Olive oil that “shimmers”. Interesting concept. I didn’t see any “shimmering”, but it did get hot. Cooking veggies in oil for 25 minutes is okay. Not so much the bacon. Bacon cooked in oil gets soft and greasy. I think I would have preferred cooking the bacon first until crispy, removing it and then adding the olive oil and veggies, adding the bacon back in with the rabbit/chicken.

After simmering for two hours, I was pretty hungry. So hungry, in fact, that I forgot to add the thyme and rosemary at the end. Served over my usual rice (what I had in the house), it was pretty good. Then I remembered the thyme and rosemary and added it for the following night when it was even better. I’ll definitely be making this again. With chicken.

Verdict: Yum!! This one’s a keeper!!

Tuscan Rabbit Ragù

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 red onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, peeled and finely chopped
1 stalk celery, finely chopped
¼ pound pancetta, bacon or prosciutto, diced
One 3- to 4-pound rabbit, cut into 6 or 8 pieces
1 cup white wine
A Parmesan cheese rind, optional
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 bay leaves
2 to 3 cups chicken stock or water
Black pepper
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh thyme
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary.

Place a large, heavy-bottomed, nonreactive pot over medium-low heat. Add olive oil and when it shimmers, add onion, carrot, celery and pancetta. Sauté, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are soft and caramelized (about 25 minutes).

Raise heat to medium-high. Add rabbit. Brown lightly on all sides. Add wine and stir, scraping bottom of pan. Add cheese rind if using, tomato paste, bay leaves and stock or water. Stir well, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil, stir, and reduce heat to low.
Simmer, lid slightly ajar, until meat is tender and nearly falling off the bone, about 2 hours.

Remove rabbit from sauce. When cool enough to handle, shred rabbit. Return meat to pot. Add thyme and rosemary, and season with salt and pepper. Reheat gently before serving. Ragù may be spooned over warm polenta or tossed with pasta, butter, more fresh herbs and grated Parmesan or pecorino Toscano.

Yield: About 4 cups, or 4 to 6 servings.

Recycle: olive oil bottle, wine bottle, tomato paste can

Compost: onion skins, carrot peels, celery leaves, bay leaves

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Peanut Butter Cookies

I have totally outdone myself. Always on the lookout for interesting recipes and taking great pride in finding them in the most unlikely places, I found a delicious recipe for peanut butter cookies on a blog written by a poet on Got that? Blog? Poet? Writing site? Nothing to do with cooking except that poets cook too and apparently blog about it.

I used to make peanut butter cookies. This recipe intrigued me because it is made with creamy peanut butter whereas I had always used chunky peanut butter because that is what I had in the house. And it uses shortening instead of the butter I was accustomed to using. The big question was whether or not these cookies would be as rich and peanut-y as the cookies I used to make.

I’m not sure if it is appropriate to discuss why I stopped eating peanut butter and making peanut butter cookies. Being an omnivore and an omnivorous reader, I came across an article many years ago that talked about the amount of rodent droppings and insect pieces that were allowed in the manufacture of peanut butter. After reading that, I was rendered incapable of consuming peanut butter.

I decided that I would attempt to put aside my aversion to peanut butter and try out this recipe. The recipe is originally from the Crisco site. Although it calls specifically for Jiff, the blogger assures us that we can use any brand that we want. She uses a store brand. I bought Jiff because it was on sale. She does insist that only Crisco brand shortening and Gold Medal Flour be used but that’s not a problem for me. I use both. I will share her directions exactly as she wrote them because they are, like her, delightful.

I did make one critical error. I had a bag of Heath Milk Chocolate Toffee Bits in my freezer that were just crying out to be used. I was wavering between the peanut butter cookies and whatever cookie recipe was on the Heath bits envelope when I discovered that the recipe was in fact, a peanut butter cookie recipe that was nearly identical to this recipe. Problem solved! Or so I thought. Turns out that the Heath Milk Chocolate Toffee Bits added nothing to the cookies.

My initial question was answered in the affirmative. Not only were these cookies as rich and peanut-y as the recipe I used to make, but because they are made with creamy peanut butter, they taste a lot like Reese’s Peanut Butter cups. But without the chocolate. So you know what I’m going to do next time I make them, right? Add milk chocolate chips to them, of course.

Verdict: Needs a do-over

Peanut Butter Cookies

¾ cup creamy peanut butter
½ cup shortening
1 ¼ cups firmly packed light brown sugar
3 tablespoons milk
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 egg
1 ¾ cups flour
¾ teaspoon salt
¾ teaspoon baking soda

Heat oven to 375°F.

Combine peanut butter, shortening, light brown sugar, milk and vanilla in mixer bowl. Beat at medium speed of electric mixer until blended. Add egg. Beat just until blended.

Combine flour, salt, and baking soda. Add to creamed mixture at low speed. Mix just until blended.

Drop by heaping teaspoonfuls 2 inches apart onto ungreased Air-Bake cookie sheet. Flatten slightly in crisscross pattern with tines of fork.

Bake one baking sheet at a time at 375°F. Set timer for 7-8 minutes. Bake until set and just beginning to brown. Underdone is better than overdone – experiment on the timing to get them the way you like them.

Prepare second cookie sheet to have ready to put in oven when you take the first one out.

Cool first batch two minutes on baking sheet.

While cookies are cooling, put second batch in oven. Set timer.

Place sheets of foil on counter top or table. Remove cookies with pancake turner to foil to cool completely. Keep a paper towel handy to clean off pancake turner when it gets cookie “residue” on it. You need a good clean turner to move the cookies without messing them up.

Rinse off cookie sheet in cool water and dry before putting next batch of cookie dough on it. (This is her tip, not Crisco’s instruction. She says that it gives each batch of cookies the same starting point – clean, cool cookie sheet.)

Prepare cookie sheet to have it ready to put in oven when you take out the second batch.

Eat some of the first cookies. You have to test them to know if they are done to perfection or if you need to adjust the time.

Repeat steps the above steps until all cookies are baked.

Recipe makes about 3 dozen cookies of which you will have eaten at least one per baking cycle, so you will be a few short up final count. Cookies go wonderfully with a freshly brewed cup of Folgers French Roast Coffee – no additives like sweetener or creamer, natural or artificial – drink it stout and black.

To make Heath Bits Peanut Butter Cookies, reduce flour to 1 ½ cups and add 1 cup toffee bits. Use remaining 1/3 cup toffee bits (from 8-oz pkg) for topping, sprinkling on each cookie before putting in oven.

Recycle: peanut butter jar, milk jug, vanilla bottle

Compost: egg shell

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Baked Frittata with Green Peppers and Yogurt

I saw this recipe while I was perusing the New York Times. Yes, I know, NYT recipes never work out for me but this one was irresistible. It was described as “…an Iranian-style omelet.” I saw “Iranian” and had to try it. I’ve never eaten Iranian food. I also had no idea what a frittata was.

I took one look at the price of saffron in my local grocery store and decided that it wasn’t really necessary. Probably only used for coloration. Although I would have preferred chives (and I think they would have added more flavor),I bought scallions because there were no chives available. I bought two medium green peppers, as directed, and ended up with so much diced green pepper that I found myself wondering why the option of using large ones was even offered.

Heating a casserole dish before using it was definitely novel. I don’t know what I did differently, but this recipe came out perfectly. I was disappointed with the taste, or rather the lack of taste. The yogurt gave it an interesting texture and a slightly different flavor. But on the whole, this dish is rather bland. Very disappointing.

Verdict: Not bad, but I won’t be making this again.

Baked Frittata with Green Peppers and Yogurt

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 medium to large green bell peppers, seeded and diced
2 garlic cloves, pureed in a mortar with a pinch of salt
Salt to taste
6 large or extra-large eggs
¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
⅛ teaspoon powdered saffron, or a pinch of saffron threads dissolved or soaked in 1 tablespoon hot water
1 teaspoon all-purpose flour
¾ cup drained yogurt
½ cup chopped fresh chives or finely chopped scallion

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a large, heavy skillet and add the peppers. Cook, stirring often, until tender, about eight minutes. Add the garlic and salt to taste, and cook, stirring until the garlic is fragrant, 30 seconds to a minute. Remove from the heat.

Place the remaining tablespoon of oil in a 2-quart casserole or a 9-inch cast iron skillet, brush the sides of the pan with the oil and place it in the oven. Meanwhile, beat the eggs in a large bowl and season with salt. Add the pepper, saffron water, flour and yogurt, and whisk together. Stir in the cooked peppers and the chives or scallions.

Remove the hot baking dish from the oven, brush the sides with the hot oil and pour in the egg mixture, scraping every last bit into the an with a spatula. Bake 30 to 35 minutes until puffed and lightly colored on the top. Remove from the heat, and allow to sellte for 10 miutes before serving. Serve hot, warm or at room temperature.

Serves six to eight.

You can make this dish several hours before serving.

Recycle: olive oil bottle, yogurt container

Compost: pepper seeds and membranes, garlic skins, egg shells