Monday, April 26, 2010

Messing with Mom: Quiche semi-Lorraine

My mother's been in town, staying with us while she moves here from the Baltimore area. This week I had the pleasure of cooking with her for the first time since Christmas.

She offered to cook dinner one night, and because I married a man who could easily win the Picky Eater of the Century award, she suggested quiche. By the time I got home from work, she'd been through my kitchen bookshelf and settled on the New York Times cookbook’s recipe for quiche Lorraine.

What is that asparagus doing there? And where's the bacon?

As you may know, this recipe calls for bacon, which my lovely husband does not eat, so that was where the messing began. It continued in full force when she declared her allegiance to premade pie shells and I agreed to that semi-blasphemy because I have long been intimidated by the idea of making pie crust from scratch. And then we decided to use the pristine asparagus she'd brought home. So basically, we ended up making swiss-asparagus quiche.

Step one was a confab over whether to pre-bake the pie shell, for how long and at what temperature. Here I should explain that my mom is the eldest of nine, a former camp counselor who put herself through nursing school as a single mother of three when she was my age. Meanwhile, I went to college a year early, lived in a very small fishing and mining town in Northern Japan when I was in my early 20s, and once ordered breakfast in Poland using extremely rusty French. In short, we’re both used to doing things on our own, in our own way. But our respective mothers also taught us how to play nice, and soon enough we were laughing over our little episode of When Virgos Collide.

Once we started working with the properly pre-baked pie shell, we realized it was so shallow that we'd have enough liquid to fill at least one more. Since she'd also brought home some baby spinach, we hit on the brilliant idea of doing one pie with that, and one with asparagus. After a brief discussion about whether to precook the additional shell, we decided against it in the interest of time.

The resulting pies were tasty, though the texture of the top layer was not as dense as I expected (maybe because I’d also reduced the amount of cream and used 1% milk). We hadn’t cooked the baby spinach, so it floated to the top and acquired areas of brown crunchiness. These issues notwithstanding, the asparagus pie was gone within 24 hours (my hubs said it was better the second day).

I believe that's the pre-baked shell on the right.

Deliciousness: What’s not to love about eggs, cheese, cream and pastry?

Difficulty: Use prebaked crusts, and you won’t even break a sweat.

Do-Over: Yes, though I’ll try homemade crusts next time, and precook any spinach.


1 cup grated Gruyère or Swiss cheese (we used Emmenthaler)

¼ c. grated Parmesan cheese

1 ½ c. asparagus, washed, trimmed and cut into ½-inch pieces

4 eggs

1 ½ c. milk

½ c. cream

¼ t. grated nutmeg

½ t. salt

1/8 t. ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 375. Prebake 2 pie shells according to package directions.

Prepare an ice water bath. Steam asparagus until bright green, immediately cool in the ice bath, drain and pat dry.

Lightly beat eggs, add milk, cream and spices, and whisk together. Put this mixture into something with a spout (so you can pour it more easily).

Divide the cheeses and asparagus between the shells. Open oven and pull top rack out; place shells on rack and fill with egg mixture. Carefully slide rack back into oven and bake for 45 minutes or until a knife inserted 1 inch from the pastry edge comes out clean. Cut and serve immediately (a spinach-strawberry salad is a nice accompaniment).

Monday, April 19, 2010

Messing with Family: Warm Milk Chocolate Cakes

There are several recipes in my family that have entered permanent heavy rotation. Chruscik, the Polish Christmas pasrty commonly known as angel wings or butterfly wings, is one of them. Another is warm chocolate cakes, originated by my late aunt Antonia, who could make a gourmet meal out of an empty room. I wish I could say I originated that phrase, but it was her ex-husband who said it -- after they were divorced.

The messing begins to the right of the original.

I would love to know what she'd say about the blasphemy I've inflicted on her masterpiece, but I like to think that once she understood it was done in the name of love, she'd get on board. Surely she'd see that when one finds one has married a fantastic man who has very few flaws, one of which is a hatred of dark chocolate, it is better to adapt than attempt to convert.

All you need to make two ramekins of caramelly deliciousness.

The beauty of this recipe, regardless of the depth of the chocolate, is twofold. First, there is the elemental simplicity of the methods involved; second, the wow factor of putting it front of someone. Also known as lava cakes, much of the pleasure of eating them comes from the fact that they're only partially cooked, so you get gooey, liquid chocolate fun along with your crispy brownie-edge heaven. 

 Done to perfection, more or less.

Deliciousness: In spades.

Difficulty: The two tricks to these are knowing when they're done and getting them out of the ramekins in one piece, which is mostly a function of generously buttering them. The good news here is that eating your mistakes is not exactly a sacrifice.

Do-Over: Yes, at least a thousand times yes.
(Amounts in parentheses are for the original dark chocolate version, which makes four cakes.)
3.5 oz. milk chocolate (4 oz. bittersweet or dark chocolate)
3 T. unsalted butter (6 T.)
1/4 c. sugar (1/2 c.)
1 egg plus 1 yolk (2 eggs plus 2 yolks)
2 T. flour (3 T.)
Pinch of salt (omit if using salted butter)
Preheat oven to 375. Chop the chocolate and butter into small pieces and melt, either in a double boiler over low heat, or in 10- to 15-second bursts in a microwave, stirring frequently until completely smooth. Please, please be patient if you go the microwave route and do not set the timer for longer, lest you explode the butter like I once did.
Whisk together the eggs, yolk, sugar and salt until foamy. Add the chocolate mixture a bit at a time, then add the flour and sitr until combined.
Pour into two large, generously buttered and floured ramekins set on a cookie sheet, and bake roughly 18 minutes, until tops are puffy and solid but have some give to them.
Carefully invert onto dessert plates (try loosening the sides with a butter knife if they don't fall out), split to let the gooey goodness run out a bit, and serve with ice cream, freshly whipped cream, caramel sauce, or whatever your little heart desires.
Note: Batter can sit in molds for up to three hours before baking, and any leftover cakes are delicious cold or warmed slightly.


Wednesday, April 14, 2010


Last weekend my older brother and I went through our father's earthly possessions. He died four years ago, and since he lived in Phoenix but none of us three kids do, this was the first opportunity to pick through every box, pile and folder. As an aside: Waiting that long might not be for everyone, but it did make the task more administrative than anguishing.

The first hour or so was spent digging through his clothes, from overcoats to underwear, while making faces at Huxtable sweaters and cringing at jokey T-shirts. A two-inch-long mummified scorpion clung to the furry lining of an overcoat, tail raised permanently over its back; we paused to remove it and take pictures. Between swallows of beer, we wondered aloud whether we'd finally find his will, and then let out short, knowing laughs.

We were sifting through a box of office things -- scratch pads, a stapler, a grown-up Trapper Keeper -- when I spotted a file marked "To be entered on computer." When I opened it, the first thing I saw was a stack of recipe cards with my dad's writing on them. The design on the left-hand side was not new to me; these were the cards he'd pull out when we cooked together.

If my dad had ever gotten around to typing all those cards up, I would never have received my inheritance.

Monday, April 12, 2010

A Guest Mess

This week's post is being ably handled by the lovely and talented Brandi Wills of The Good in Food. (And no, she did not pay me to say that. She's far too much of a nice Midwestern girl.) Enjoy!

Hello all! Sorry you had to wait a few extra hours to get your "Messing" fix, but I don't get up as early as Ms. H. 

On my blog, I chronicle my mission to be an educated cook and consumer of foods. Awhile back, I taught myself to make pancakes from scratch for the very first time. I used a recipe for Spanish Pancakes with Olive Oil from a Spanish cooking show. Later, while making cornmeal muffins, I realized that the recipes for Spanish Pancakes and cornmeal muffins were nearly identical. So when Heidi asked me to guest-blog for her, I decided this was my chance to create my very first recipe: Cornmeal Pancakes. I have never cooked something without following someone else's recipe, so merging these two into one of my very own was exciting.

I started with the Spanish Pancake recipe, turned 1½ cups of flour into 1 cup of flour + ½ c. cornmeal. Plus, I left out the chopped chocolate and omitted the olive oil on a whim.

As I worked with the pancakes in the skillet, I found that the cornmeal in the mix made the batter a little more cohesive than the Spanish pancake batter. It held together better during pouring and was much easier to flip and keep in its circular shape. Plus, they left less mess in the pan, meaning it didn't need to be cleaned as often between batches.

After the first batch was done, I took a taste. It had a very light cornmeal-y flavor and slightly grainy texture that was slightly weaker than your average cornmeal pancake, but I liked it. 

I could have happily stopped here. However, I didn't think this constituted enough "messing" to live up to Heidi's standards. So, with half the batter left, I added another tablespoon of cornmeal to see if I could match the expected flavor and consistency. Even thicker and grainier, you could really see the cornmeal in the finished product.

For my third and final trick, I decided to reintroduce the chopped chocolate from the Spanish pancake recipe just for fun. The result was an interesting mixture of flavors and textures. The gritty, earthy cornmeal paired nicely with the sweet, creamy melted chocolate. It was surprisingly good, yet unsurprisingly heavy. The weight of the cornmeal and the sweetness of the chocolate made it an alteration I would only consider if really in the mood for such a thing. 

Ok, time for the Ds—

Deliciousness: All three versions yielded different results, though all were tasty.
Difficulty: Actually, easier than your average pancake.
Do-Over: Next time, I’d stick with the original recipe I created and top it with butter and powdered sugar for a lighter version of a classic.

1 c. flour
½ c. cornmeal
2 T. sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. baking soda
touch of salt
1 ½ c. buttermilk
1 beaten egg

Stir gently from the middle outwards, just until the ingredients are blended. Don’t over-mix.

Drizzle olive oil in skillet (or on griddle if you have one) and heat to medium-low. Use a ladle to drop batter onto skillet and spread into a circle with the back of the ladle. When tiny bubbles appear along the edges of the pancake, it is ready to be flipped.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Two Composed Salads

Above, we have the salad that came as part of the Valentine's Day meal at Aya Sofia. Simple, beautiful, delicious, and I won't lie, I gave a little gasp of delight when it arrived. Not being familiar with the precise definition of "composed" when it comes to food, I don't even know that it counts as such, but to my mind, this is a gorgeous, logical way to arrange a salad. Top it off with olives, a slice of grilled summer squash, and one of the best house dressings I've ever had, and it's a lovely way to start a meal, romantic or otherwise.

Below, the Crossings roasted beet salad at The Terrace View, the Fiala venture that overlooks downtown's Citygarden sculpture park. No gasp, because for $8, I was expecting it to look as good as it tasted. And it was indeed delicious -- both varieties of beets were roasted to their full glory, and I'm convinced that the roasting made it easier to appreciate the differences between the two. The goat cheese and sprouts provided a gentle tang and crunch, both necessary counterpoints to the earthy-sweet beets.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Week 10: Double Lemon Chicken

Ah, Christmas. Fraught with the perils of gift-giving etiquette and emotional landmines. Also one of my favorite times of year because oh dear Lord the pounds of butter, the rivers of heavy cream, the mountains of kielbasa and potatoes. Last Christmas, I gained five pounds in the space of a week. About two years before that, my older brother bestowed a most excellent gift: A box of Penzeys spices.

It was my first Christmas as a newlywed, so it, um, took me a while to get around to using all the items in the trip-around-the-world box of wonder. Penzeys' soothing, clean typeface adorned bottles of Indian peppercorns, Dutch process cocoa, French thyme, and what I think of as an American favorite: lemon pepper.

I don't think I had ever purchased a bottle of the stuff; I just wondered what people did with it when I encountered it in the spice aisle. Thus, it languished the longest of all the spices in that box, until I was looking for something to enliven my never-ending hunks of of lean protein, i.e., chicken breasts. Somewhere in my reading and Food Network watching, I had picked up the idea that chicken and lemon are good friends, so it seemed only natural that chicken might at least like to meet lemon pepper.

Sprinkled over a few pinky-beige slabs of poultry, it saved me from being bored to death by my diet. And when I paired it with lemon juice, the chicken went from yay-it's-not-bland to oh-wow-this-is-delightfully-zingy. I use it on pizza, in salads, and for sandwiches, and I'm not sure I'll ever get tired of the flavor. Which is good, because I'm in a wedding Labor Day weekend and I have more than a few pounds to go before I reach my goal weight.

The Hipstamatic app makes even raw chicken look fab.

Deliciousness: It's tangy, versatile, and low in fat. What more do you want?
Difficulty: None to speak of.
Do-Over: At least once a week.

1. Preheat oven to 425.
2. Juice one lemon and remove the seeds. Briefly rinse as many frozen chicken breasts as you want to make (and will fit in a single layer in your baking dish). I only do this because it helps the lemon pepper stick. Sprinkle one side of the meat with a fair amount of lemon pepper and drizzle with half the juice. Turn over and repeat.
3. Bake for 25 minutes, turn over, and start checking for doneness 10-15 minutes later. Most cookbooks will tell you that you want the juices to run clear when you cut into the thickest part of the meat, and who am I to argue with experts?
NOTE: Next week I will be unable to post due to a prior engagement, but my friend Brandi, who happens to be a fellow food blogger, has agreed to take the reins. You'll be in good hands. Thanks, B!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Oranges at Mizu

A while back I met a friend at Mizu for a sushi lunch. I was seated against the wall and noticed the staff's constant attendance and contribution to a line of plates. They turned out to be what every patron receives for dessert -- an end-of-meal amuse-bouche. Each cross-section slice was peeled and sliced into quarters for ease of consumption, and the fruit itself was perfectly ripe.