Cooking the Books – The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook

The grande dame of home cooking Julia Child said, “People who love to eat are always the best people.” No surprise, they’re also the best people to start a cookbook club with.

I posted about the first cookbook club in November (Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Table). After this month’s meeting–a 15-dish extravaganza from the pages of the Smitten Kitchen Cookbook–I think this is the best thing I’ve done in the nearly four years I’ve been writing this blog.

We're an entertaining group

It’s all of what I love about dinner parties (great food, entertaining at home, not trying to split a check six ways or feeling rushed by a waiter trying to turn a table) and potlucks (trying lots of different dishes) without the not-so-great parts of each (paying for and cooking all the food yourself, that one person who always only brings a bag of Lay’s and a sleeve of Solo cups). Plus it’s a great reason to use the dozens of cookbooks I have overflowing my bookshelf.

The best part, though, is how quickly a group of strangers can become friends over a shared, homemade meal.

Dinner is served

Here’s how it works so far:

  • At each meeting, we pick a cookbook, date, and host for the next meeting. Many people in the group are willing to host to spread out the effort.
  • Everyone who’s coming adds themselves to a Google doc along with:
    • the name of the recipe(s) they’re planning to make
    • if oven or stove space is needed for reheating/keeping a dish warm
    • food allergies or other restrictions
  • We set a maximum of 15 for most meetings for the sake of space, conversation, and food (even with everyone only making a single recipe, we all go home with something for lunch the next day).
  • As much as possible, we stick to the recipe as written.
  • We meet, we eat, we drink (BYO, and the host usually has libations to share, too). We talk about the recipes we made, what worked and what didn’t, what other recipes we want to try (or have tried).

We picked the Smitten Kitchen Cookbook for January’s meeting. I’ve had this book since Deb did her booksigning in Chicago, but have only made a handful of recipes (though the red wine velvet cake and the carmelized onion and squash galette are two all-time favorites). To stay true to the spirit of the club, we decided recipes from her blog were off-limits; cookbook only!

February’s cookbook is the incomparable Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan. Want to play along at home? Pick a recipe, make it on February 20, and share what you made on Facebook! In Chicago and interested in joining the club? Send me an email!

A veritable Smitten Kitchen feast

When January’s meeting came around, these were the recipes at the table: Continue reading

So long, 2015!

It’s been quite a year. More travel than I ever imagined, growing and cooking delicious food, taking (and teaching!) my first paella class, starting a new group of like-minded foodies…As December 31 comes to an end, here are a few of my favorite moments from the past year.

One of my favorite pictures of the trip
First crawfish boil in New Orleans in January.

Feathers fly

Beachy keen

The only acceptable icy slushy white stuff I want to see
The only acceptable cold slushy white stuff I want to see on a beach in Aruba in March.
Mashed and infused
Garden chive flower vinegar.
Sarma
My favorite meal this year–Sarma in Boston in April with some of my favorite people.
Paella, ready for eating
Barcelona paella class in May.

Sant Pau Hospital

Yes, the bottom rack is a little overdone
Slow-smoked ribs to kick off summer.
London calling
London calling.
Tower Bridge
London’s Tower Bridge in July.
Talking
Teaching a sold-out class in August.
Digging in
Sharing what I learned about paella in Barcelona with my class in Chicago.
Tomato season
Glut of garden tomatoes.

Start to finish Eiffel

Paris by night
Paris by night in August.
Good people and good stories
First meeting of Cooking the Books in November. Can’t wait for the next one in January!

And no reflection on the year would be complete without mentioning the passing of my grandpa. I think about him often and wonder who I’ll send my paczki to this year…

My grandparents

Cheers to an incredible year past and a promising new year to come!

Peach-Plum Pie + Extra Flaky Pie Crust

Out of all the season transitions, summer-to-fall seems to bring the most incongruous pairings at the market: peaches and pumpkins, corn and apples, blueberries and plums. But when I have a bunch of end-of-season peaches languishing in the fridge from the market two weeks ago and come home with a 30-pound bag of plums because, well, I’m me, I need to figure something out PDQ. It’s a good thing peaches and plums share common ground with all the good fall spices–cinnamon, cloves, brown sugar, brandy–in one of my favorite pies.

I love these colors
Peach-Plum pie

Any discussion of pie also has to include my new favorite pie crust. If there was a graph to measure the likelihood of pie based on “How badly I want pie” and “How much energy I want to spend” (…I had a whole witty thing here but it started to involve terms like “inverse proportionality” and “negative slope” and then I was looking for graph paper and made a literal pie chart in Excel and started debating if it was more appropriate as a bell curve and getting high school math class flashbacks. Let’s just pretend this paragraph was as infinitely clever as it was in my head. But I’m still including the pie chart.)

Pie chart

In any case, sometimes I’m just too lazy to get out eggs and vinegar and baking soda and ice and pastry cutter and a bowl, and then I don’t have pie (and for those who say “food processor!”, I hate cleaning the thing more than I like using it). And no pie on account of laziness is sad. This recipe is flour, butter, salt, water, a pastry board, and my hands and feels like markedly less effort. Less effort required=more pie.

Butter, lard, flour, water, salt
Butter, lard, flour
Flattened fats

The method is somewhere between traditional pie dough (cutting the butter into the flour until it’s in small bits that turn into small layers in the dough when it’s rolled out; also known as a short dough) and puff pastry dough (many, many thin layers of butter are created through many, many rounds of careful rolling, folding, and chilling; a.k.a. laminated dough).

Fraisage/short dough
Crumbles of butter, flour, and lard

In this process, big chunks of butter get mashed into the flour with your hand, creating large flakes (a variation on a technique called fraisage–my French lesson for the day) followed by a few rounds of rolling/folding to create more flaky layers. It’s even easy to work with as an all-butter crust, which has always given me trouble because the butter gets soft so quickly. I still like using a bit of lard in place of some of the butter for flavor, though.

Nice big butter piece
Laminating

The beauty of this method is that it’s nearly impossible to overwork, rolls out beautifully, and creates the flakiest pie crust I’ve ever had, a delicious, edible lovechild of traditional pie crust and puff pastry. Which is to say, it’s really, really good.

As for the filling, it’s is based on one of my favorites from a few years ago. Peaches were such an obvious addition that I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me sooner. As much as they’re a sign of summer, peaches are also the perfect fruit to transition to fall as they work so well with all the flavors associated with the season: cinnamon, ginger, cloves, cardamom, brown sugar, brandy. This recipe has them all, plus streusel. Everything is better with streusel.

This smells so good
Simmering
Sweet, spiced chutney to thicken the pie

For whatever reason, peaches and plums aren’t a fruit combination I see much, but it’s a shame as they work so well together. It’s definitely a pairing I’ll be using more often.

Pretty fall colors
This is going to be good
Peach-plum pie

(And as for that 30 pounds of plums? There’s been plum gin (of course), plum-vanilla vodka, Chinese plum sauce, pickled plums, plum jam, plum cake (more on that next week), and, of course, pie.)

Extra Flaky Pie Crust and Peach-Plum Pie Continue reading

Chive-Cheddar Biscuits

Now that the flowers of my chives are put to work, on to more immediate gratification–biscuits.

Cheesy, chive-y layers Chive bouquet

I will eat biscuits (really, bread in any form) with anything and love them flavored with everything. For my overload of chives, I finely chopped a good handful of the chives I cut back along with two big handfuls of grated cheddar cheese and a few of the chive flowers for good measure, the hard blossom end plucked off and the flower sprinkled in. They were spectacular, perfect under a layer of spinach and an over-easy egg.

Curlicue of cheese Chopped chivesand an errant blossom Layers of color Biscuitt dough

With all the herbs I’ve planted, herb biscuits are going to be a great option to stash in the freezer for any future biscuit emergencies (…don’t look at me like that, that’s a real thing). I plan on doing at least one sweet biscuit with the lemon verbena (doesn’t that sound good as the base for a strawberry shortcake?) and another cheesy variation with the thyme (gruyere, perhaps?). Rosemary and black pepper biscuits would be amazing along side lemon chicken.

Baked biscuitChive bouquet

Chive Biscuits Continue reading

Vive la Madeleine

What dessert or sweet treat defines Paris? The internet is littered with lists, debates rage, and more often than not, the macaron is crowned king (or queen, perhaps not an enviable role given Paris’ history). I would argue the madeleine, quietly observing from the wings, deserves its moment to shine.

A little bump

Delicious and beautiful and delicate as they are, macarons are also known for their fussiness and fanciness; they have a notorious reputation for tempermentality should you take on the challenge of making them yourself. Madeleines are confident in their simplicity, needing nothing more than a dusting of powdered sugar or basic sugar glaze.

Madeleine prep Lemon sugar

Madeleines, like Paris, have a bit of je ne sais quoi about them, just enough to make things interesting, but not intimidating if approached with the right attitude. Madeleines are, in fact, very approachable and not particularly complicated–you probably have every ingredient in your cupboard or fridge.

But they require a bit of dedication and a dedicated pan (madelelines are not madeleines if they’re baked in cupcake tins), a little patience, and some home-cook magic to create their iconic little bump. Madeleines also will not wait for you; once baked, their window of perfection is short, and it’s really best to cede to their schedule for the best experience–you’ll really be glad you did.

Whisk until right before your arm falls off Adding butter

The buttery, lemony, sweet little cakes themselves are pillow-soft but sturdy enough to stand up to a dunk in a cup of tea (memorably so, if Marcel Proust is any authority). If you look at a macaron sideways, its delicate shell might crack and crumble. The madeleines traditional shell shape is their one nod to decoration, but even that is relatively simple by necessity–too intricate and the detail is lost or they stick to the pan.

Flour-y shells Post rest

On the other hand, maybe the madeleine is best left out of the spotlight to be enjoyed by those who know what to look for. Maybe it doesn’t need a chain of ultra-high-end stores, fancy boxes, or a cult following, but just a pretty little plate and a pot of tea at a beat-up wooden table surrounded by friends and good conversation. Sounds like perfection to me.

Odd man outPerfect petite madeleines

And simply because no discussion of the madeleine would be complete without it:

No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. … Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? … And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.

Madeleines Continue reading

What’s Cooking Wednesday: On the Grill

On the spectrum of grills and grilling, this is how I view things:

Charcoal grill > Any grill > No grill

Whisps

A few years ago, I moved into my first apartment with a porch and my first must-do was learn how to grill. Happily, I got a little cast iron Lodge hibachi grill as a housewarming gift (you know what’s really smart? giving a person who likes to cook stuff to cook with because they will often use it to cook for you).

Salad on the grill Grilling

For four years, I used the hell out of that thing. It’s just the right size to cook for one or two people, but I easily had enough space to grill a whole pizza or a few burgers when I needed to. It was fast to heat up, holds just enough charcoal for one meal (with enough left over to melt a few marshmallows), and took briquette (the kind most grocery stores sell in summer) and lump (the kind that looks like chunks of burnt wood) charcoal. I can guarantee there were weeks in summer I did not touch my stove in favor of cooking on my porch (yes, breakfast too–do you know how good grilled bacon is?).

As much as I love that grill, it has a few drawbacks. The lack of a lid is the biggest one, making it a challenge to cook larger pieces of meat for longer periods of time. Foil or a pot lid worked to melt cheese on a burger, but not so well for cooking, say, a whole chicken, or smoking anything. A little Weber or tabletop/tailgating grill would have solved this, but I really like how the cast iron maintained heat. That’s why my housewarming gift to myself with my new place (after I made sure there were no rules about grilling, and yes, being able to grill was one of my “must-haves” when I was looking to buy) was a small ceramic grill, a Kamado Joe Jr.

My baby

I love my new baby for a lot of reasons but it came with a bit of a learning curve. The biggest selling point for me: it’s easy to get temperatures really low (180º F), really high (900º F), and everything in between and hold that temperature steady for a very long time–the whole thing is essentially a brick oven with grill grates. The lid and the steady temperatures also mean I can cook larger things like chicken; smoke salmon, or even bake (some people get excited about a pulled pork on the grill, I’m excited about baking cobbler. Ok, and the pork too.).

Perfect way to end a warm spring day, strawberry rhubarb cobbler from #americastestkitchen cooked on my #kamadojoe. #atkgrams #grilling #bringonspring

Compared to my cast iron grill, the ceramic needs a little more attention and takes a little longer to get the hang of. It’s slower to heat up than my cast iron, and only uses lump charcoal. Also, with the cast iron I could see my food as it cooked and so was quicker to figure out how much charcoal to use, how to set my hot and cool spots, when to turn or otherwise fuss with the food. With the ceramic, the cooking is mostly hidden under the lid, so I’ve had to learn a bit more by trial and error (and a few overdone burgers). But as I figure it out, I realize how much I will be able do–baking pizzas at near-professional pizza-oven temperatures and smoking my own bacon, for instance.

Still smoking "Sasquatched" Don't forget to grill a few lemons

The difference between my two grills is essentially the difference between having a stovetop and having a full stove with an oven. I can cook nearly everything with just the first, but having the flexibility of the second gives me so many more options that it’s worth dealing with the learning curve.

If I had a porch big enough to have both grills out at the same time, I would, but for now I’m defaulting to my ceramic. My next place though…both grills.

Salted Pecan Squares with Bourbon and Chocolate

Believe it or not, there are actually two things better than eating a dessert that includes chocolate, nuts, and booze. One: using said dessert to help raise nearly $900 for a local food charity. Two: catching the look on this cutie’s face while she was chowing down on one.

Should I? Yep.

How did I learn this? The Hideout’s Soup and Bread dinner. Every Wednesday from January to the first day of spring for the past four years, The Hideout, a funky little bar and music venue in Chicago, hosts a community dinner where six or seven people (chefs and home cooks alike) each volunteer to make different kind of soup–the night I was there choices included roasted tomato, chicken and dumpling, sausage and artichoke, and French onion. The dinner is open to anyone and everyone, and is “pay-what-you-can” with the money going to that week’s chosen charity (usually food-related).

Circle of pecan bars

Since I couldn’t get there early enough to contribute a soup, I was happy to find out they welcomed other treats too. What better excuse to try a bar version of one of my favorite Christmas cookies? With bourbon. And chocolate. I found a recipe from Cook’s Illustrated that was perfect–a salty, nutty shortbread-ish crust topped with a gooey, caramel-y layer flavored with bourbon and vanilla and studded with pecans. As for the chocolate (my own variation), well, if you’re going to gild the lily, you may as well gild it with chocolate.

Crust is almost ready Whisking in the butter Three components

By the time I got to The Hideout around 6, dinner was in full swing and it was packed! I had no idea how many people to expect–20 maybe? It was nasty and snowy and just generally the beginning of February in Chicago and who wants to go out in that? A whole lot of people, it turns out, filling every seat in the place. It reminded me so much of big family dinners–everyone loud and happy and brought together by the promise of a good meal, the kind that warms you up from the inside out.

I barely had time to set my tins down before the bars started disappearing, and they were completely gone within the hour. People must have enjoyed them, if the woman who rolled down her car window and yelled “Your pecan bars were great!” at me as I was leaving was any indication (thank you lady in the car, that made my night!).

Pecan bars Soup and Bread at the Hideout Nothing like a bowl of soup on a snowy night

The best part though? To quote the email I got on Thursday: “We raised an amazing $849! That definitely surpassed our expectations and we’re thrilled to put the donations to use in our Consumer Choice Food Pantry, and for those in need of emergency food.”  A little sugar buzz never hurts to open wallets.

If you’re looking for a good dinner with good people for a good cause, check it out. I’m hoping to go at least once more before they’re over for the season, so you never know, there might be pecan bars to go with the soup and bread!

Snowy day, great for baking
What’s better than soup, bread, and pecan bars on a day that looks like this?

Salted Pecan Squares with Bourbon and Chocolate
Continue reading

Winter Comfort Bread

One of my long-time food quests has been to make a really good, crusty, crunchy loaf of bread. A loaf of bread that’s sturdy and solid and meant to stand up to a lengthy dunk in a steamy bowl of soup or stew. Not a soft, sweet, buttery sandwich bread, but winter comfort bread. I think I finally found it, and it’s the easiest bread I’ve ever made.

The most gorgeous loaf of bread to ever come out of my kitchen

In the past, I’ve tried using two different kinds of baking stones to get the heat of a wood-burning hearth oven, adding a pan of boiling water to my oven or spraying down the walls with water to replicate its steam, and plenty of other tricks. They all work, sort-of. But I didn’t want a sort-of loaf.

You'll need a lot of flour and some really big bowlsGluten-y

This is a loaf to be reckoned with. It uses four pounds of flour, first of all. It will take your biggest mixing bowl and the better part of two days. It’s easiest to cut into hunks and chunks, perfect for serving warm, slathering thickly with butter, and soaking up a rich broth.

Bread dough, post salt waterPretty round bread babies

Conveniently, this is also one of the easiest breads I’ve made. The two days is mostly just waiting. There’s no kneading; you don’t need a mixer. The timing works on your schedule–the pre-ferment can probably wait an extra day; the dough, after the first rise, can be put in the fridge until you’re ready to bake it (I didn’t get around to baking my second loaf for nearly a week–it was still delicious, though a little denser than my first loaf).

Scored and ready to bakeJust a quick peek!

Fair warning: this recipe makes two humongous loaves of bread–if you didn’t guess from the aforementioned four pounds of flour. Unless you have a giant cast iron pot, or just want a more wield-y option, I’d suggest splitting this into four loaves.

Perfect with soup

Crusty Bread Continue reading

What’s Cooking Wednesday: Cookies and parties and tiny pies

My head is a bit all over the place this week. I’ve been trying to get a head start on cookie-making, planning cookies for baking this weekend, plus thinking about what I’ll be bringing to a cookie swap hosted by one of my local spice shops. I promised myself I wasn’t going to overdo it on cookies this year–the problem is picking my favorites! Biscotti, pecan tassies, peanut butter blossoms, chocolate snowcaps, maybe one or two others, and then I’m cutting myself off.

Boxed up

I’m also thinking about what to make for my holiday party. Salmon, definitely; red pepper dip, likely; the rest of the menu is still in draft mode. As with the cookies, I keep having to reign myself in–but there’s so many recipes that sound so good! I figure as long as there’s plenty of wine (mulled and non-), beer, and perhaps some of that plum gin (which should be just about ready), I should be pretty well set.

Finished smoked salmon

I also realized I never shared with you my two contributions to my mom’s Thanksgiving table. I made tiny versions of Smitten Kitchen’s cranberry pie in tiny mason jars that were completely adorable and essentially the fall version of sour cherry pie (and we know how much I love sour cherries). I also contributed some pretty amazing (if I say so myself) Parker house rolls.

Baby pies in baby jars

Perfect rolls

Even with all the cookies and parties and food and planning, I’m not quite feeling like it’s really the holiday season yet. Maybe once I pick up a tree and do my decorating (and figure out how to turn on my new fireplace! I’m inordinately excited about that part) and do my annual viewing of Merry Christmas Charlie Brown! it will sink in.

Happy baking season: The perfect chocolate chip cookie

It’s kind of adorable when cookie recipes say “Cool completely before serving.” Who are they kidding, really? They’re lucky if the dough makes it to the oven before disappearing by the spoonful in the name of “taste testing.” And let’s be honest, a warm cookie oozing chocolate may be one of life’s small perfections. “Cool before serving”–bah, humbug.

It's all worth it

So starts December, month of cookies and baked goods coming at you from every direction. (I know, we’ve barely finished the last bites of turkey and pie. Time flies when you’re having fun eating all the things.)

Simple ingredients
Butter, browned

I’ve said before I’m much more a fan of savory than sweet (pretty obviously so if you look at my recipe archive), but I’ll make an exception on occasion. And an exceptionally good chocolate chip cookie is just one of those occasions.

Add the egg
And we whisk

These cookies also happened to be the first use for the 6.5 pound bag of bittersweet chocolate I brought back from Paris. While you can of course use whatever chocolate you like, I’ve found I like the less-sweet dark chocolate. And while chips are traditional, I also prefer chopping up a big chocolate bar instead. I love how the pieces end up in varying sizes so I get a mix of nice chocolate chunks along with shards that melt into thin chocolate layers throughout the cookie. If you can find these fun little coin shapes, use them, or simply chop up a thick chocolate bar (I like Trader Joe’s Pound Plus bars).

This smells exactly like caramel Flour goes in Don't over-mix

And of course chocolate chip cookies require nuts (preferably walnuts). If you leave them out…well I just don’t know why you’d do such a thing (barring a deathly allergy, in which case you get a pass).

More good stuff It is physically impossible not to sneak a bite at this point Nearly cookies

What I absolutely love about this recipe though is the browned butter. I know, browned butter has become as irritatingly trendy as pumpkin spice or the cronut (a terribly obnoxious word that will keep me from ever eating one, by the way), which is unfortunate as toasty brown butter just so damn good. Honestly after you mix the butter with the sugars, salt, and vanilla, it smells exactly like the best caramel on earth. (I will not admit to pretty much huffing the dough as I was stirring it. Nope.) And then come the aforementioned chocolate and nuts, and why are you still reading? Go. Make cookies. I won’t tell if you eat them before they’re cool.

Best chocolate chip cookies

(I also won’t tell you that it’s super easy to freeze this cookie dough in balls so you can bake one or two cookies at a time, because do you know how good frozen cookie dough is? Just trust me, the cookies will be even less likely to make it to the oven.)

Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies
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