Sunday, July 25, 2010

Strawberry Cream Cake

I believe there is some saying that goes something like, "There is no substitute for the value of experience." In life and in cooking, this is paramount. I can read a textbook explaining how to solve a calculus problem, but until I actually do it myself, I will never master the steps. Similarly, I can read cookbooks and magazines and watch cooking shows, but until I actually make a dish, I will have no idea how to actually transform the ingredients into something. Reading and listening can only get you so far. I think they call people like me "kinesthetic learners" (rather than the audio or visual kind).

But I digress. This cake began with my search to find something all-American to make for a family gathering. Many desserts were offered up as options (peach cobbler, cheesecake, cream pie, red velvet cake, carrot cake, apple crisps, and the list goes on) and I, as usual, rejected them all. Not to insult any of the aforementioned dishes (or those who suggested them), but I was summarily uninspired by each of these desserts. While they are all undoubtedly delicious, none of them presented me with a challenge. That is, I have made them all, in one variation or another, and I wanted something new.

Enter the strawberry shortcake. Oh, I've definitely made strawberry shortcake before. It is, aside from the apple pie, one of the most American meal-enders I can recall (and we all know I've taken a bit of a break from ol' pie dough for a while). The only problem is that it's one of those things you must assemble at the last minute, lest the strawberries lose their freshness, the whip cream fall, or the biscuits become soggy. Yes, many components of strawberry shortcake can wreak havoc on the final product.

Enter Cook's Illustrated. Seriously, where would I be without America's Test Kitchen? The people there have taught me more about cooking, baking, and food in general than anything else. The editors at Cook's Illustrated offer a clever solution for serving old-fashioned strawberry shortcake to a crowd. It is decidedly fancier, a bit more grown-up, but in no way difficult to make. They replace the customary cakey biscuit with a chiffon cake, which allows you to present a gorgeous cake at a party or special occasion (not that you need a special occasion to make this) and not assemble a bunch of delicate biscuits at the last minute. They also bulk up fragile whipped cream with some cream cheese; the resulting topping can sit out for a long time (we're talking at least eight hours) without losing volume or that fresh cream flavor. Finally, as in their regular strawberry shortcake recipe, they provide a dual strawberry experience. About half of the berries are left unaltered, and the other half are macerated and mashed for a more intense strawberry flavor. Everything is layered and the result is no less than extraordinary. Don't believe me? Take a look:
Please, make this now, before strawberries are five dollars a pound and tart and tasteless. You won't be disappointed and neither will your guests (although I certainly won't tell if you choose to serve this to only a few, the more to savor later).

Strawberry Cream Cake
Adapted from America's Test Kitchen's More Best Recipes

Okay, I did a little research on blogs and forums before I made this and therefore chose to adapt it a bit freely to suit my tastes. The original recipe called for a full 8 ounces of cream cheese and 1/2 cup of sugar in the whipped cream filling, both of which I reduced. The filling was just sweet enough and perfectly delectable this way. Further, the directions to make the strawberry filling said I would have 1/2 cup of juice from the macerated strawberries and I had about a quarter that amount. I improvised a little (okay, a lot) to make sure I had enough yield to accommodate the entire cake. The actual cake can be made a day ahead and stored at room temperature (wrapped in plastic wrap if it's not so humid) or wrapped in a double layer of plastic wrap and frozen. Thaw the frozen cake, unwrapped, at room temperature for about two hours before proceeding with the rest of the recipe. This cake can be assembled a few hours beforehand, and it can also be left out at room temperature before serving. Really, I'm not sure there's much this cake can't do....

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

For the cake:
1 1/4 cups (5 ounces) cake flour, plus extra for the pan
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup (7 ounces) sugar
5 large eggs (2 whole and 3 separated), at room temperature
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
2 tablespoons water
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
For the strawberry filling:
2 pounds fresh strawberries (medium or large, about 2 quarts), washed, dried, and stemmed
4-6 tablespoons sugar

For the whipped cream:
about 10 tablespoons (2/3 of an 8-oz package) cream cheese (I used low-fat), at room temperature
scant 1/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon (about a pinch) salt
2 cups heavy cream (not whipping cream)

To make the cake, adjust an oven rack to the lower-middle position and heat the oven to 325 degrees F. Grease and flour a 9-inch-wide by 2-inch-high round cake pan or 9-inch springform pan (I used the springform pan) and line it with parchment paper. Whisk the flour, baking powder, salt, and all but 3 tablespoons sugar in a mixing bowl (that's 13 tablespoons of sugar, or 3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon). Whisk in 2 whole eggs and 3 egg yolks (reserving the whites), butter, water, and vanilla; whisk until smooth.

In the clean bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the remaining 3 egg whites at medium-low speed until frothy, 1 to 2 minutes. With the machine running, gradually add the remaining 3 tablespoons sugar, increase the speed to medium-high, and beat until soft peaks form, 60 to 90 seconds. (Soft peaks will droop slightly from the tip of the whisk but should still hold their shape; by contrast, firm peaks will stand high from the tip of the whisk.) Stir one-third of the whites into the batter to lighten; add the remaining whites and gently fold into the batter until no white streaks remain. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan, smoothing the top with a rubber spatula. Lightly tap the pan against the countertop two or three times to dislodge any large air bubbles. Bake until a toothpick or wooden skewer inserted into the center comes out clean, 30 to 40 minutes. (Start checking after 30 minutes, because mine was done in exactly 30 minutes.) Cool the cake in the pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes, then invert onto the wire rack and peel off the parchment. Invert the cake again and cool completely on the rack, about 2 hours.

To make the strawberry filling, halve 24 of the best-looking berries and reserve. Quarter the remaining berries; toss with 4 to 6 tablespoons of sugar (depending on the sweetness of the berries) in a medium bowl and let sit 1 hour, stirring occasionally. After 1 hour, mash the berries with a potato masher (or comparable tool) until almost completely mashed. You want mostly a smooth mash with some chunkier bits of berries in the mix. Strain the mashed berries, reserving the juice that collects. In the same bowl, combined the strained berry mash with enough juice to yield a total of 1 1/2 cups of berry mash. Set aside until the cake is cooled.

(Alternatively, if you have particularly juicy berries that have exuded a lot of liquid while macerating, follow CI's directions: Strain the juice from the berries and reserve (you should have about 1/2 cup). In a food processor, give the macerated berries five 1-second pulses (you should have about 1 1/2 cups). In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, simmer the reserved juice and 2 tablespoons kirsch (although many who made this left out the kirsch and you could, too) until syrupy and reduced to about 3 tablespoons, 3 to 5 minutes. Pour the reduced syrup over the processed, macerated berries, add a pinch of salt, and toss to combine. Set aside until the cake is cooled.)

To make the whipped cream, place the cream cheese, sugar, vanilla, and salt in the clean bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment (or use a hand mixer like I did). Whisk at medium-high speed until light and fluffy, 1 to 2 minutes, scraping down the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed. Reduce the speed to low and add the heavy cream in a slow, steady stream; when almost fully combined, increase the speed to medium-high and beat until the mixture holds stiff peaks, 2 to 2 1/2 minutes more, scraping down the bowl as needed (you should have about 4 1/2 cups).

To assemble the cake, use a serrated knife to cut the cake into three even layers. Place the bottom layer on a serving platter and arrange a ring of 18 to 20 (depending on how big the berries are) strawberry halves, cut sides down and stem ends facing out, around the perimeter of the cake layer. Pour one-half of the pureed berry mixture (about 3/4 cup) in the center, then spread to cover any exposed cake. Gently spread about one-third of the whipped cream (about 1 1/2 cups) over the berry layer. Place the middle cake layer on top and press down gently (the whipped cream layer should become flush with the cake edge). Repeat with 18 to 20 additional strawberry halves, the remaining berry mixture, and half of the remaining whipped cream; gently press the last cake layer on top. Spread the remaining whipped cream over the top; decorate with the remaining cut strawberries and serve.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

On Cravings and Homemade Potato Chips

People who know me really well know that I am an extremely healthy eater. I generally eat fruits and vegetables during the week, and indulge more on the weekends. (However, I actually think this is quite common; people work during the week and can't cook as much, saving more complicated meals and preparations for the weekend.)

Nevertheless, just because I maintain a healthy diet doesn't mean I've totally forgotten all of my cravings (my favorite food is cheesecake, after all). I have childhood memories of eating peanut butter straight from the jar, on nothing but a spoon. Other times I'd be a bit more civilized and opt to make a peanut butter and banana sandwich, a snack that required a specific construction in order to get the taste just right (but peanut butter and bananas are a whole other story...).

My mom, in particular, absolutely loves homemade potato chips and blue cheese dip, so much so that she can make a meal out of them. But plunging potatoes into a vat of oil is not really our thing (is it anyone's?) and blue cheese dip can be pretty heavy. This healthier version of the classic combination was born out of my preferred technique for roasting potatoes in the oven (and a 5-pound bag of red potatoes from Costco). I sliced them very thin, about a quarter of an inch, so that they would cook fast and crisp up, and I seasoned them liberally with salt and pepper. And then into the oven they went. About 20 minutes later, they came out of the oven crisp and golden, reminiscent of slightly thicker potato chips. My mom took this idea and ran with it. These chips have all the flavor of deeply roasted potato chips, but they're baked instead of fried.

As for the other half of the duo, the blue cheese dip, nonfat Greek yogurt and some low-fat buttermilk combine to form a healthier base for the pungent blue cheese. The acidity of both complements the blue cheese, as well. There's really no getting around the cheese in the dip, but if you use a high-quality blue cheese, a little goes a long way.

There's a lot to be said for a snack (or, if you're my mom, a dinner's worth) that satisfies a craving and your conscience. I'm not the biggest blue cheese fan, but even I can appreciate these, and on a Tuesday night no less.

Homemade Potato Chips with Blue Cheese Dip

Okay, I'm going to say right off the bat that this "recipe" is not very precise. As much as I love to bake, when I measure willingly and often, when I cook, I hardly ever measure. But I made sure to pay extra attention to the method that my mom used to make the chips and to the ingredients that went into the blue cheese dip. The truth is, making the potato chips is more of a technique and, depending on your oven, times can vary somewhat. Don't be afraid to taste the chips. You can generally tell when they're done when they smell like potatoes. As for the dip, season it to taste. Try a little to make sure that it has enough kick from the hot sauce and that the blue cheese packs the perfect amount of punch.

Yield: 4 servings

For the potato chips:
About 10 small to medium red potatoes, scrubbed
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Garlic powder or other seasoning (optional; imagine rosemary or thyme, or even a barbecue seasoning blend if you're a fan of that famous flavor)
Vegetable oil spray

For the blue cheese dip:
About 1/3 cup of Greek yogurt, preferably nonfat (you can also use sour cream, but you will need less buttermilk if you do; to make homemade Greek yogurt, drain plain yogurt in a sieve lined with cheesecloth or paper towels for a few hours, until thick and creamy)
2-3 tablespoons of low-fat buttermilk
About 1/4 cup of crumbled, high-quality blue cheese (I used gorgonzola)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Hot sauce, to taste

Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. (Our oven has a convection roast setting, and that's what we use. If your oven does not have this setting, use the same oven temperature, but the chips will likely take longer to cook.) Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil and spray with vegetable oil spray. (I also think using a Silpat or silicone mat would work and you wouldn't even need the spray.)

Slice the potatoes as thinly as you can, no more than 1/8 of an inch. Arrange about half on the baking sheet in an even layer and season liberally with salt, pepper, and garlic powder or other seasoning (if desired). Repeat with the remaing potatoes. There will be a lot of potato slices and they won't all fit in an even layer, but just make sure they are as spread out as evenly as possible with no large clumps of potatoes.

Bake in the oven for about 8 minutes; remove the potatoes from the oven and toss them. As they begin to cook, it will seem as if they are steaming. Because red potatoes are high in moisture content, the water must cook off before they begin to brown. Continue to bake, tossing the potatoes about every five or so minutes. Don't worry if the potatoes stick together, but try your best to break up any huge clumps. In our oven it takes about 25 minutes for them to cook completely. When they are done, they are nicely browned and crisped. Try a few to make sure they are done to your liking. Once they are cooked, turn off the oven and let the potatoes sit in the oven to evaporate off a little more moisture.

Meanwhile, make the blue cheese dip. Combine the Greek yogurt, buttermilk, blue cheese, salt, pepper and hot sauce in a bowl and stir to combine. The consistency should be thick but dippable. Add more buttermilk if you like a thinner dip. Cover and refrigerate for later or serve right away with the (still warm, yum) potato chips.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Summer Fruit Crostata, or Why I Hate Pie Crust

As much as I pride myself on being a baker, ogling cookbooks (even those without pictures) as I imagine fancy European chocolate tarts and old-fashioned, rustin Italinan hearth breads, I have a secret that may very well disqualify me from being a true baker: I absolutely despise making pie dough.

And how do I despise it? Let me count the ways. First of all, there's the whole shortening thing. Shortening really freaks me out. It smells funny, and it has the strangest waxy consistency. Plus, the notion of solidified vegetable fat is slightly nauseating. I just can't bring myself to use it in the kitchen. So when I read about all-butter pie crusts, they sounded perfect! Replace the shortening with butter, and the mystery fat is completely gone! But not so fast... pie doughs with only butter are maddeningly difficult to work with.

This particular fruit crostata beckoned from the pages of Barefoot Contessa At Home and didn't seem too hard to craft. But, with its all-butter crust, I should have known... something wicked this way comes (okay, enough with the literary allusions). While the dough came together seamlessly (little flecks of butter dispersed throughout the more cohesive dough is a promising sign of flakiness in the final product), it's the rolling out that's the real problem. Attempt number one began with rolling the dough between two sheets of plastic wrap, which was fast and simple. I felt like a serious baking all-star as I admired my pretty dough. Until I needed to actually transfer the dough round to the baking sheet. The plastic wrap and butter-filled crust were practically fused together. Before I knew it, my lovely 11-inch circle of dough was torn and quickly becoming sticky.

Pressure time: what to do? A torn baker, I wavered between my two baking personas, Lazy Sara and Cook's Illustrated Sara (otherwise known as Pretentious Food Snob Sara).

"Just roll it again! It's only been a few minutes, there's no way the butter has melted completely! Suck it up, flour the board and rolling pin, and roll it out like any other person would do! Come on, time's a wasting and you still haven't had breakfast!" Lazy Sara ordered.

"Not so fast! If at any time during the rolling process the dough becomes sticky or difficult to work with, transfer to a baking sheet and refrigerate until firm," Cook's Illustrated Sara warned, robotically reciting that wise America's Test Kitchen mantra.

But I was so hungry (so hungry I was snacking on the leftover--but tasty--peach peels). I needed to roll this thing out or I'd be eating breakfast at noon (late even by my standards). So I sucked it up and floured the board and pin, careful not to add too much, lest my pie dough become tough and leathery. Visions of "failed crusts" from Baking Illustrated vivid in my mind, I quickly re-rolled the crust and (somehow) transfered it to the baking sheet.

While I had prepared entirely too much fruit for this particular crostata, I mounded a generous amount on the dough and managed to pleat the dough somewhat attractively. A quick streusel-y topping, and into the oven it went. Out of my sight! Rarely do I get so irritated with recipes, but this one was especially frustrating.

Now, I know that I make this crostata sound like a real pain, and it can be, especially when you prepare it right after you wake up and haven't had coffee or eaten in 12 hours. Or if it's July in Georgia and therefore about 10 degrees warmer in the kitchen than normal. All of these things can make preparing this recipe sort of difficult. But I do think it's worth it, because the end product, impressive yet homey, is truly beautiful.

And I wouldn't want anything less as a birthday treat for one of my friends.
Summer Fruit Crostata
from Ina Garten

Ina's crust recipe is very straightforward: just flour, sugar, butter, salt, butter, and water. I think you can opt to use this recipe or your favorite pie dough recipe (by all means use shortening if you're not afraid of it like I am). Just be sure to keep the pie dough very cold, and your working surface and rolling pin floured at all times. All in all, this dough is pretty forgiving (I would know), and it bakes up wonderfully. I think a slice of this would pair perfectly with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, a dollop of whipped cream, or a spoonful of lightly sweetened yogurt.

Yield: 6 servings

For the crust:
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons granulated or superfine sugar
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 stick cold unsalted butter, diced
3 tablespoons ice water

For the fruit filling and topping:
1 pound firm ripe peaches, peeled
1/2 pound firm ripe black plums, unpeeled
1/2 pint fresh blueberries
1 tablespoon plus 1/4 cup all-purpose flour, divided
1 tablespoon plus 1/4 cup granulated sugar, divided
1/4 teaspoon grated orange zest
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) cold unsalted butter, diced

Place the flour, sugar, and salt in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Pulse a few times to combine. Add the butter and toss quickly with your fingers to coat each cube of butter with the flour. Pulse 12 to 15 times, or until the butter is the size of peas. With the motor running, add the ice water all at once through the feed tube. Keep hitting the pulse button to combine, but stop the machine just before the dough comes together. Turn the dough out onto a well-floured board, roll it into a ball, and form into a flat disk. Wrap the disk in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

Meanwhile, prepare the filling. Cut the peaches and plums into wedges about half an inch think. Place them in a bowl with the blueberries and toss with 1 tablespoon of the flour, 1 tablespoon of the sugar, the orange zest, and the orange juice. Stir to combine and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Combine remaining 1/4 cup of flour, 1/4 cup of sugar, and salt in a medium bowl. Cut the 4 tablespoons of butter into the mixture using a pastry blender (or your fingertips) until the mixture is crumbly. Rub it with your fingers until it begins to hold together. (Alternatively, you could prepare this mixture in a food processor.)

Remove the dough from the refrigerator and, on a floured surface and using a well-floured rolling pin, roll the dough into an 11-inch round. Carefully transfer the round to the baking sheet.
Mound the fruit on the dough circle, leaving a 1 1/2-inch border. Pour the streusel mixture over the fruit in an even layer. Working carefully, fold the border of the pastry over the fruit. It will form natural pleats as you fold.

Bake the crostata for 20 to 25 minutes, until the crust is golden and the fruit is tender. Let the crostata cool for 5 minutes before carefully transferring it to a wire rack to cool. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Bread Salad

I know "Bread Salad" is about as unglamorous a title for a dish as you can think of, but in our house, it always elicits excitement. But for those of you who want a fancier name, let me tell you about a dish that the Italians call "panzanella."

Thanks to my family's extreme fondness for vegetables year-round, as well as to the ingenious concept of wholesale food clubs, our house is rarely without the bread salad quartet of tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers, and bread.

This recipe, like so many of our favorites, is inspired by Ina Garten. As we've made the salad countless times in the past year or so (why we never decided to make it before, I have no idea), we have of course made a few modifications from Ina's original recipe.

Usually the process goes something like this:

"You know we have all the stuff to make bread salad, right?" I'll tell my mom nonchalantly. She'll nod, and we'll agree to make it for tomorrow's dinner. The better for me to mentally prepare myself for the deliciousness.
At around 7:30, I'll come downstairs and wash the vegetables. Two large tomatoes (we usually have beefsteak, but five or six Roma tomatoes would be fine, as well.), one whole English cucumber, and two bell peppers are about right. Then I'll dice up five or six slices of bread (my favorite is whole wheat).
Usually right about now my mom, inevitably knitting at the kitchen table, will chime in with "Can I do anything to help?" Now, while I strangely enjoy chopping vegetables and those kinds of menial prepwork tasks, I really can't stand to wash and dry greens and make salad dressing. So I let my mom do my leftover tasks, and she is always happy to do so (plus I am convinced that she makes amazing salad dressing, which is just as important a component in this dish as the bread and vegetables).

The whole meal comes together very quickly. I always toast the bread in the oven (rather than in a skillet on the stove), and I sprinkle it with salt and pepper to make sure it's seasoned well. While the bread toasts, the vegetables are sitting happily in a huge (and I mean huge - way too big for just my mom and me) salad bowl, soaking up all that delicious vinaigrette. Once the bread is toasted, it goes straight into the bowl, and the warm cubes of bread readily absorb the dressing, too.

And, finally, a shout-out to the behind-the-scenes star of this dish, the capers, which at first glance can seem insignificant. After all, how can such a tiny berry make that great a difference in this sea of vegetables and bread? But they add a welcome brininess to the salad and a little pop of acidity that wonderfully complements the sweetness of the tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers. I say it almost every time we make this salad, and I'll say it again: the capers make the bread salad.

And even though this dish is redolent of summer's bounty and bursting with bright colors, it is secretly dangerous. If you're not paying attention, you will quickly find yourself four bowls deep, wondering to yourself where all that bread salad went. I've found this out the hard way, because we used to place the bowl right on the table, where it would practically call out to you. The last time we made this, I made the wise decision to leave the bowl in the kitchen, away from view. Somehow, we ended up with leftovers, but, of course, those were quickly devoured, too.
Bread Salad
Adapted from Ina Garten

If you like, you can also add half of a diced red onion (or sweet onion) to this salad. The onion adds a nice crunch and pungency. I like to soak the red onion in some cold water for about 10 minutes, which can mitigate that "Whoa, raw onion!" heat. But if you're not into raw onion, the salad will be no less delicious without it.

Yield: 4 servings

2 large beefsteak tomatoes (or 5 to 6 Roma tomatoes)
1 large English cucumber
2 bell peppers (red, orange, or yellow but not green)
5 or 6 slices of hearty bread, cut into 3/4-inch cubes
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
7 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons champagne or white wine vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 1/2 teaspoons mayonnaise
1 garlic clove, minced (or 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder)
2 tablespoons choppped fresh herbs (preferably basil but a mixture of leafy green herbs like parsley, mint, or chives with the basil also works)
3 heaping tablespoons capers
Enough lettuce greans for four (about two heads of romaine or 4 cups of greens)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F and line a baking sheet with foil.

Cut the tomatoes, cucumber, and bell peppers into about 1/2-inch pieces. Place in a large salad bowl.

Place the bread on the baking sheet and season with salt and pepper to taste. Toast the bread until golden brown and fragrant, about 10 minutes.

While the bread is toasting, make the dressing. Combine the olive oil, vinegar, mustard, mayonnaise, garlic and herbs in a jar or container. Seal the jar or container and shake vigorously to mix the dressing. Pour the dressing over the vegetables to coat (you may have extra; save some for salad later). Add the capers and toss the vegetables to distribute the dressing evenly throughout. Add the toasted bread to the salad and toss again to distribute the bread, making sure that the bread is coated with dressing.

To serve, place a handful of greens in a bowl and top with as much bread salad as you like.