Sunday, April 29, 2012

Ponchatoula Strawberry Cupcakes

It’s strawberry picking season, and while I no longer have the knees for such a task, I do love going to the local farm and buying as many quarts of still-warm, fresh-from-the-fields strawberries as I can carry.  I also find this time of the year a great one to pluck Screen Doors and Sweet Tea: Recipes and Tales from a Southern Cook (one of my favorite cookbooks) from the shelves and page through in search of something new to put on the table.  Frankly, I find the title alone to be charming.  It reminds me of lazy summer days, refreshing glasses of lemonade, and cool salads for supper instead of a hot, heavy meal.

This recipe jumped out at me as a great way to use some of the rapidly ripening strawberries scenting my kitchen with their heady aroma.  These cupcakes just say summer to me.  The texture is wonderfully moist, the strawberry flavor truly fresh and genuine; the frosting that drapes itself over the sides of the cupcakes, I could eat with a spoon.

Ponchatoula Strawberry Cupcakes
(Makes 24 cupcakes)

2 ½  cups cake flour 
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt 
1/3 cup buttermilk
¼ cup canola oil
½ teaspoon almond extract
1 teaspoon vanilla extract 
½  cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 ½  cups granulated sugar 
2 large eggs
1 cup mashed fresh or frozen strawberries
1 teaspoon grated orange zest 
Strawberry Frosting (see recipe below)

Make the cupcakes:  Preheat oven to 350°F.  Spray a muffin tin with non-stick cooking spray or line with foil baking cups.
In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, and salt. Set aside dry ingredients.   In another bowl, combine the buttermilk, oil, almond and vanilla extracts; set aside. 

In an electric mixer, cream the butter and granulated sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Gradually add the buttermilk mixture. Beat for 1 minute at medium speed. 

Reduce the speed to low and add the flour mixture. Mix until just combined. Stir in the strawberries and orange zest. Spoon into prepared muffin tins, filling them two-thirds full. Bake for 18 to 20 minutes, or until cupcakes spring back when touched lightly in the center. Cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then invert the cupcakes from the pan and cool on racks. Let cool completely before frosting.

Strawberry Frosting

½ cup chopped fresh or frozen strawberries 
2 tablespoons strawberry jam
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 8-oz. pkg. cream cheese, softened 
1 ½  cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
4 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted

In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine the strawberries, jam, and lemon juice. Cook and stir for 5 minutes, or until the jam is melted and the strawberries are soft. Press any big pieces with the back of a spoon to mash. Let cool to room temperature.

In an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese and butter at medium speed until creamy. On low speed, slowly add the confectioners’ sugar and mix until combined. Add the strawberries and mix until combined.

When the cupcakes are completely cool, spread with the frosting.

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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Sweet Onion Bisque

It’s Vidalia onion season. Time to scoop up as many of these incredibly tasty, sweet onions as you possibly can.  There is just nothing like the amazing taste of a Vidalia; the texture, when cooked down, is surely the culinary version of velvet. I found this recipe on the Restaurant Hospitality website.  It is the easiest soup that I've ever made, with a taste and texture that is unsurpassable when it comes to the field of onion soups.
I followed the chef’s lead and topped mine with crumbled bacon, freshly chopped chives, and a mini grilled cheese made from Asiago cheese bread and brie cheese.  I don’t know which amazed me more, the taste of the soup, or the sinful deliciousness of the grilled cheese.  Either way, this was a meal to remember, and often repeat.
Sweet Onion Bisque
Chef Tyler Brown, The Capitol Grille at The Hermitage Hotel, Nashville, TN.
Yield: 6 servings.
4 sweet onions, medium diced large
5 Tbsp. whole butter
1/2 cup heavy cream
Salt and white pepper, to taste
Smoked bacon, crumbled
Freshly snipped chives
Brie grilled cheese sandwich

Simmer onions in butter over very low heat for five hours. Add to a blender and puree until smooth; add heavy cream to taste.
Season with salt and white pepper.
If desired, garnish bowl with smoked bacon, chives and triangles of Brie grilled cheese sandwich.  

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Foodie Friday at Simple Living

For more great soup recipes, I recommend this book:

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Baby Greens, Beet, Walnut, and Blue Cheese Salad

I was a beet virgin. To clarify, with the exception of my very early years when my mother attempted to feed me pickled beets (that horror remains with me to this day), I have virtually no experience with either cooking or eating beets.

Having said this to my husband not too long ago, he waxed nostalgic about his late mother's beets (obviously not of the pickled variety) going on and on (as only a professor of literature could) about how delicious, tender, and sweet they were.

I never met his mother, but figured that, surely, if she could cook a beet, so could I. So I bought one. It was a mess to peel, stained my hands and cutting board, and cooked up to a crunchy insipidness that made me certain that what I bought was not a beet, but a turnip.

Then a miracle happened. I was contacted by a representative of
Melissa's Produce asking me if I'd like to try some of their products and do a blog post. They were particularly interested in my trying their beets!

As I have long wanted to get beets into my diet (These colorful root vegetables contain powerful nutrient compounds that help protect against heart disease, birth defects, inflammation and certain cancers.), I readily agreed.

It seems Melissa's has done the dirty work for us. The beets are peeled, steamed, and ready for eating. How easy is that?  In no time I'd prepared a delicious, healthy salad thanks to this convenient package of beets. Most importantly, they are good!

As I sat eating my salad, shaking my head at how good they were and how heathy I was eating, I started to think about all sorts of other ways to prepare them.  More about that next week. For today, here's the recipe for the salad.

To your health (and palate)!

Baby Greens, Beet, Walnut, and Blue Cheese Salad
Adapted from a recipe from the Hot and Hot Fish Club, Birmingham, AL

Makes 6 first-course servings

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 medium shallot, minced
1 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
1/2 cup olive oil

1 5-ounce bag mixed baby greens
1 8-oz. pkg. Melissa’s Peeled & Steamed Ready to Eat Baby Beets
1 cup crumbled blue cheese
1 cup walnuts, toasted, coarsely chopped

Whisk first 4 ingredients in small bowl to blend. Gradually whisk in oil. Season dressing to taste with salt and pepper.

Toss greens in large bowl with enough dressing to coat. Divide greens among 6 plates. Top with diced beets, dividing equally. Sprinkle with cheese and walnuts. Drizzle lightly with remaining dressing and serve.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Pecan-Chocolate-Espresso Coffee Cake

I am really lovingThe Back in the Day Bakery Cookbook  I tried my second recipe from the book with, again, wonderful results. With my oldest son paying us an early morning visit to help us with some major chores, I thought a coffee cake was in order.  I’d been eying this one during my near daily perusals of the book, so made it this morning.  The interior is flavorful, dense, and moist; the topping is such a complex combination of flavors that your mouth won’t quite know what to think.  Suffice it to say that we all enjoyed it.

Pecan-Chocolate-Espresso Coffee Cake

2 cups unbleached flour
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
3/4 cup chopped pecans, toasted
3 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
2 teaspoons espresso powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup regular or low-fat buttermilk
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract

Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-inch square baking pan with nonstick cooking oil spray and line the bottom with parchment paper.

Combine the flour, both sugars, butter and salt in the bowl of a hand-held electric mixer or a stand mixer. Beat on low speed, then on medium speed until the mixture resembles coarse meal.

Transfer 3/4 cup of the mixture to a small bowl. Stir in the toasted pecans, chocolate and espresso powder to form the crumb topping.

Sprinkle the baking soda onto the remaining flour-butter-sugar mixture; add the buttermilk, egg, and vanilla and almond extracts. Beat on medium speed just until combined. Scrape the batter into the prepared baking pan, spreading it evenly. Sprinkle the crumb topping evenly over the batter.

Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, until the top is golden brown and a cake tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Set the pan on a cooling rack, and unmold when the cake has cooled.

MAKE AHEAD: The cake can be wrapped in plastic wrap and stored at room temperature for 2 to 3 days. 8 to 10 servings

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Saturday, April 21, 2012

Grow Your Own Leeks

As soon as I was old enough to pop a seed out of an orange and into the ground I became fascinated with gardening.  It was often to my mother’s dismay, as I had the windows and ledges in my bedroom full of little pots of dirt with various things growing in them.  The pots were small, so the cantaloupe vine, the pineapple top, the sprouted avocado, and the tiny little orange tree had no chance of bearing, but I stuck with them all the same.

When I moved into my own place the day after I graduated college I started digging an herb garden.  In the center of the garden I grew leeks.  Back then no one knew what a leek was, much less grew them, but they were easy to grow, heat tolerant, withstood my clay-like soil, and looked great in the center of my herb garden; I was the neighborhood pioneer!

I still grow them (thankfully they self-seed).  If you’ve ever found yourself shopping for them at the market and seen the high prices, you should consider growing them too.  They can be grown successfully from seed, but impatient gardener that I have become, I look for trays of leeks already sprouted, and well on their way.

I was thrilled to find these two six packs of leek plants when we went to historic Soulard Farmer's Market over the weekend. Those I planted years ago always come back, but I find myself using more and more with each passing season, and consequently needed to double my plantings. One of these six packs will go into the ground, the other into a container. 

If you’re a gardener and enjoy using leeks, I can’t encourage you enough to give them a try.  As with all homegrown vegetables, the fresh taste unsurpassable.

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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Glorified Brownies

I had a hard time coming up with a name for these brownies.  Killer Brownies?  Anyone with even a hint of high blood sugar would surely end up in an early grave.  So Sickeningly Sweet That You'll Want to Hurl Brownies?  Perhaps making these after coming off of a bout with the flu was not such a good idea.  The real name for this sweet confection is Glorified Brownies and the recipe dates back to the early seventies and probably earlier than that. They did make me the darling of the football team (this was back in the days when the way to a man's heart was truly through his stomach).  Here's the story:

When I was in High school, every fall, we had what were called "Pep Pals."  These were girls who each were assigned a member of the football team for whom they would bake a sweet treat and deliver it anonymously to a specified location for collection later.  The idea here was to spur the team on to football victory through an excess amount of sugar and carbs.  Mystery and chocolate fanatic that I am, I loved the whole cloak-and-dagger aspect of this, so I signed up every year.  This was the treat that I made.  It was easy to prepare, I loved them, everyone I knew loved them, so certainly a football player and his pals would love them too.  They did.  So much so, that, against the rules, my assigned football player bribed the Pep Pal Committee, hunted me down, and showed up on my doorstep late one afternoon with a plea from this mother for the recipe.  Flattered, I handed it over.  Need I say that the football team had a winning season that year?

Yesterday, while rummaging through the pantry, I found a bag of marshmallows, waxed nostalgic about my High School days, and made this batch.  I could hardly wait to dig in. Hmmm.  Sweet.  Very sweet.  Could it be that, in my old age, I'm no longer the sweet eater that I once was?  Dear Lord, am I just moments away from a high fiber/low sodium diet?  Apparently.  In the old days of a flat stomach and buns you could bounce quarters off of, I could eat half a pan of these.  This morning, after pinning up my drooping eyelids so I could see, I ate one and was able to set the rest aside.

So, I'm going to let you decide.  If you have teenagers, you'll probably be crowned queen.  If you live alone with your husband, have some fat free yogurt and call it a day.
Glorified Brownies
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
3/4 cup sifted flour
1 cup butter divided into 1/2 cups
9T cocoa
1 cup chopped nuts
1/8 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp vanilla flavoring
4 cups powdered sugar
8 T evaporated milk
 Preheat oven to 400° F.
In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream 1 cup sugar and 1/2 cup butter until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add eggs, mixing until blended. Add all at once flour, 3 T cocoa, nuts, salt and 1/2 tsp vanilla.  Beat just until blended.

Pour mixture in a greased 8 X 8 and bake for 18 to 25 minutes until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

While brownies are baking, cut 15 marshmallows in half; set aside.

In a medium sauce pan over medium-low heat mix remaining ½ cup butter, 6T cocoa and 1 tsp vanilla with 4 cups powdered sugar and 8T evaporated milk to make topping. Stir until butter melts and topping is smooth.

When brownies are done, cover with cut marshmallows and pour chocolate topping over all.

Cool before serving. Best when made a day ahead.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Asparagus, Mushroom and Artichoke Quiche

Tonight’s dinner was the delicious result of trying to get rid of the seemingly massive amounts of fresh vegetables clogging our fridge.  You see, my husband loves to shop.  When he does, he buys lots of fruit, lots of vegetables, lots of yogurt, and jams it all into the fridge.  He never has anything particular in mind for these purchases, mind you, he just figures that I’ll come up with something to justify his many bargains.  Not a lover of fruit – I’ll take a green bean over an apple any day -- I do tend to use up all of the vegetables.  Here is the result of my latest endeavor.

Asparagus, Mushroom and Artichoke Quiche
1 tablespoon butter
6 ounces button mushrooms, sliced
Coarse salt and ground pepper
1 bunch (1 pound) asparagus, tough ends removed, thinly sliced on the diagonal (save some whole spears to decorate the top, if desired)
½ can artichoke hearts, thoroughly drained and quartered
2 cups shredded Gruyere cheese (8 ounces), divided
4 large eggs
1 1/4 cups half-and-half
¼ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1 deep dish pie shell

Preheat oven to 350°F.

In a large skillet, melt butter over medium heat and sauté mushrooms until tender.  Remove from heat and allow to cool. 

Place pie crust on a rimmed baking sheet.  Once the mushrooms have cooled, place them in the bottom of the deep-dish pie crust, and top with a third of the shredded cheese.  Place artichokes on top of the cheese and press down lightly.  In the same skillet that you used for the mushrooms, sauté asparagus until tender crisp, about 6-8 minutes; season with salt and pepper.  Allow to cool. Layer cooled asparagus on top of the mushroom-cheese-artichoke-cheese mixture and top with last of the cheese.

In a large bowl, whisk together eggs, half-and-half, ¼ teaspoon salt (more or less to taste), gratings of freshly ground pepper to taste, and nutmeg.  Carefully pour egg mixture over the top of the vegetables and cheese.

Bake until center of quiche is set and golden, 50 to 60 minutes, rotating sheet halfway through. Let stand 15 minutes before serving.

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