Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Sweet New England Cornbread

Every time I open up the basket of bread brought to a table in a restaurant I secretly hope it will contain some freshly baked cornbread. There is something so comforting about eating some warm homemade cornbread slathered in a bit of butter or honey that I find myself craving it more often than I would like to admit. It is probably the choices of restaurants I frequent, but this hope of mine is usually a tad unrealistic (I have yet to come across an Italian or French restaurant serving a basket of cornbread).

The author of The Cornbread Gospels discovered after six years of research there are more than 200 versions of cornbread recipes. It should not be surprising that the cornbread preferences and recipes differ nationally and globally. Nationally the differences between cornbread preferences in the north and south are significant. Southern-style cornbread is made with very little sugar, while the northern-style cornbread is discernibly sweeter (as much as I am partial to certain regions of the south, I definitely skew to cornbread on the sweeter side).

Until I came across a recipe for Sweet New England Cornbread in Yankee Magazine I really didn't have a corn bread recipe I was crazy for. I can now go on record and say I finally have a deliriously delicious cornbread recipe. I no longer have to secretly wish for a basket of warm homemade cornbread brought to a table in a restaurant, because I can now satisfy that need at home.

Is it just me or do others go to grocery stores to seek out need local ingredients to bring back home when vacationing or visiting new places? On my list of the things I absolutely had to bring back from the east coast was some local stone ground yellow and white corn meal for pie and crostata crusts I was planning on making in the weeks and months ahead. It wasn't as if I needed another reason to buy some cornmeal, but coming across the recipe for New England cornbread using stone ground yellow corn meal only served to further reaffirm why I just had to bring back some with me. Food as a kind of souvenirs, who else imagines such things?

With the exception of stone ground cornmeal all of the ingredients for this cornbread are probably in your refrigerator or cupboards. This could not be a more simple recipe and one that comes together in less than 40 minutes (from beginning to end).

The flour, sugar, cornmeal, baking powder and salt are whisked together in a medium sized bowl. In a separate smaller bowl, the eggs are lightly whisked before the milk and melted butter are mixed in.

The wet ingredients are poured over the dry ingredients and folded in until just combined. There will be lumps, do not worry. If you over mix this, then you can worry.

In a nine inch square pan lined with parchment paper that has been buttered or sprayed with vegetable spray, the batter is poured in. 

The cornbread is baked in a preheated 425 degree oven for 20 to 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the bread comes out clean. My baking time was 20 minutes.

This cornbread is over the top delicious served warm out of the oven, however, it retains its' deliciousness even when served warm temperature. If you are looking to make your family and friends have a faint of heart cornbread eating experience, serve it to them warm with a side of butter or honey.

Sweet New England Cornbread (adaptation of Yankee Magazine's Sweet New England Cornbread recipe)

1 1/2 cups all purpose flour (recommend King Arthur)
1 cup stone-ground (medium grind) cornmeal (recommend Kenyon's Stone Ground Yellow Cornmeal) 
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 1/2 cups whole milk (or 2 %)

Note: The type of cornmeal used will alter the texture of the cornbread. A medium grind corn meal will yield a cornbread with a pleasant crunch while a finely ground cornmeal will yield a lighter in texture cornbread).

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Prepare a 9 inch square baking pan (line with parchment paper and spray or butter).
2. Whisk together the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder and salt in a medium sized bowl.
3. In a separate bowl, lightly whisk eggs. Whisk in milk and melted butter.
4. Pour dry ingredients over wet ingredients and fold just until combined (do not over mix).
5. Pour batter into prepared pan and bake 20-30 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Remove from oven.
6. Serve warm or at room temperature with butter and/or honey.

I was able to get a small dose of the east coast last weekend as I traveled to Rhode Island to visit some friends. During some of my discretionary alone time I sought to capture as many of my favorite images as possible, keeping my fingers crossed that the backdrop for all of my photos would be a beautiful blue New England sky (not that gray isn't a good color, there is just something special about the color blue). Whether or not my finger crossing had anything to do with influencing the color of the sky, the shades of blue were absolutely beautiful, the kind of energizing beautiful that makes you want to pinch yourself.

Of the many things I love about New England are its' diverse landscapes, each one of them having their own mesmerizing beauty. In a very small square mile radius you can view the ocean, historic homes, farms, vineyards, and wildlife (the kind of beauty that would make you never want to leave, except of course to live near the mountains).

The wind coming off the ocean on the day I tried to capture some images of the water was so wicked I had to keep going back into the car to warm my fingers (taking photos with gloves wasn't working too well). But enduring the icy cold ocean wind was a small, insignificant price to pay for being able to take in and capture the water, the waves, and the rocks that were illuminated by the sun. On the day I was out taking photos in the town I had lived for the past couple of years, the weather was crisp, sunny and still with the skies remaining blue. They were both 'be still my heart' photographing moments.

If you looked at my camera you would find many similar images to the ones I had taken this past weekend. And even though it may seem to some there is little diversity in the landscape photos I take (although anyone thinking this would not have a very good eye), the color of the sky, weather and the seasons makes each of them unique. So whether I stood in the same place everyday for a year taking a photo of the same landscape no two would be the same. I have always wondered why I am so drawn to taking photos of landscapes (versus photos of people). Whatever the reason I hope I never tire of my passion for trying to capture some of nature's beauty. Because if one gives up trying on anything or anyone they are passionate about/for, one never knows what they might miss out on.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

French Onion Soup

I don't know about you but I remember 'firsts'. I may momentarily forget the name of an author of a book I just read or not remember if there is brown sugar in the pantry, but firsts, well they seem to be permanently etched in my memory. However, truth me told there are a few firsts I would like to permanently forget. But definitely not on the first forget list was my first taste of French Onion Soup. It could not have been in a more memorable location, the restaurant on the breath taking grounds of the Domaine Chandon Vineyard in Yountville, California on a beautiful sunny November day more than twenty-five years ago (I could probably be specific as to the actual year but I like being in a state of semi-denial with regard to my age). The experience the tastes of French Onion Soup covered in melted gruyere cheese and a glass of Champagne on my palate could only be described as pure bliss.

What is not to love about a soup originating in the kitchens of 18th century France? For some reason many of us don't think of French Onion Soup as peasant food (it was). Maybe because caramelized onions, a rich beef or chicken stock and gruyere cheese don't seem anything like common ingredients. Yet, indeed onions, beef stock and cheese easily and magically transform into something extraordinary. A timeless, classic dish. If you have been reluctant to make this classic soup, it is time to get over your hesitation and trepidation. And if making French Onion Soup for the 'first' time, it should prove to be a memorable not forgettable experience. Or in other words a first worth repeating.

In the compilation of Julia Child's 100 most beloved recipes, French Onion Soup (Soupe a l'Oignon) ranked 88. Not that one needs a reason to make any one of Julia Child's 3,700 recipes, but why make anyone else's version of French Onion Soup?

One and a half pounds or about 5 cups of yellow onions (not enough to bring tears to your eyes as you cut them) are thinly sliced. Four relatively large yellow onions yielded a little more than 1.5 pounds of sliced onions. I decided to go with the weighing on the scale versus the measuring in the measuring cup method.

In a deep heavy saucepan melt three tablespoons of unsalted butter with one tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil. When the butter has melted, add the sliced onions. Cover the pan and on a low heat cook for 15 minutes. The onions will have wilted beautifully but will not yet begin to take on any color. Add one teaspoon of salt and 1/2 teaspoon of sugar (Julia recommended 1/4 teaspoon of sugar), raise the heat to moderate and cook for 35 to 45 minutes or until the onions have turned an even, golden brown color. You will need to stir these onions frequently to ensure they do not burn. I found the caramelization process was a little easier if the pan was partially covered with the lid. Just remember, you cannot walk away from this phase of the cooking process. The caramelization of the onions is where the depth of flavor is developed. Be patient, you will be rewarded.

Once the onions have caramelized, stir in three tablespoons of flour and stir for 3 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and slowly add in the half cup of white wine. The wine helps to deglaze the pan and removes all of those wonderful bits of flavor from the bottom of the pan. Add in the 7-8 cups (Julia recommended the full 8 cups) of boiling beef stock and season to taste. Go easy on the salt as you will increase the saltiness of the soup when you add the cheese later on. With the pan partially cover, return the pan to the stove and simmer for 30 to 40 minutes.

The perfect time to make the croutons is while the soup is simmering. In a 325 degree preheated oven, place 1/4 to 1 inch slices of french bread on a baking sheet and roast for up to 30 minutes or until they have completely dried out and lightly browned.

Julia's recipe calls for 1 to 2 cups of grated swiss cheese. I love the nuttiness of gruyere cheese so this is what I used. You can also use a combination of swiss and parmesan cheeses or a combination of gruyere and comte cheeses.

Before ladling the soup into bowls, add the three tablespoons of Cognac (you will not be sorry, actually you will be sorry if you don't). If you don't have Cognac you can use French Brandy. And if you don't have either, well this would be a reason to buy some.

Once the soup is ladled into the bowls add a tablespoon of grated cheese to each one and stir until it has melted.

Top each bowl of soup with three or four croutons. Top each crouton with the a small dab of butter before sprinkling on the grated cheese. Place the soup filled oven proof bowls in a 325 degree oven and bake for 20 minutes. Set the bowls under the broiler for 1 to 2 minutes in order to lightly brown the top. Serve and enjoy. 

This French Onion Soup is a first course or a meal all by itself (maybe along with a small salad, some wine and, of course, a little more bread). 

French Onion Soup (adaptation of Julia Child's Soupe a l'Oignon Gratinee in Volume One of Mastering the Art of French Cooking)

1 1/2 pounds thinly sliced yellow onions (about 4 to 5 large onions)
3 Tablespoons unsalted butter
1 Tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon Kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar

3 Tablespoons all purpose flour

7-8 cups of beef stock 
1/2 cup dry white wine  (suggest a Sauvignon Blanc)

Salt and pepper to taste

3 Tablespoons of Cognac or French Brandy (optional but highly recommend)

Rounds of a tasted baguette
1 to 2 cups finely grated swiss cheese (recommend Gruyere cheese) 
additional softened butter

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
2. Place sliced onions in a heavy saucepan with three tablespoons of melted butter and one tablespoon of olive oil. Cover pan and cook on low heat for 15 minutes.
3. Add 1 teaspoon of Kosher salt and 1/2 teaspoon of granulated sugar to onions, increase heat to moderate and cook onions for 35 to 45 minutes (until onions are a deep golden brown).
4. Add 3 tablespoons of flour to onion mixture and continue cooking for 3 minutes.
5. Remove pan from heat and add 1/2 cup white wine slowly, stirring to scrap up the caramelized bits of onion on bottom of pan. Pour in 7 to 8 cups of boiling beef stock. Season with salt and pepper.
6. Return soup mixture to stove and simmer for another 30-40 minutes.
7. Add three tablespoons of cognac (or French Brandy) to soup. Ladle soup into four to six soup bowls.
8. Add one tablespoon of grated cheese in each bowl, stir until cheese has melted.
9. Top each bowl with three to four croutons. Top each crouton with a small pad of butter and grated cheese.
10. Place soup bowls on a baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes in a 325 degree preheated oven.
11. Add another tablespoon of grated cheese to soup bowls and place under broiler for 1-2 minutes or until the top is lightly browned. Serve and enjoy.

I have been in the (ugh) learning curve in the last week, more specifically a (double ugh) physical learning curve, which for me is much more challenging than an intellectual one. Not to infer that I consider myself smart (yes I have the doctorate book smarts, yet the jury is still out on the common sense smarts), however I would with a rather high degree of confidence characterize myself as a bit of a wimp (in my world wimp means my head convinces my body to give up sometimes more often or sooner than it should). But the time finally came for me to change my wimp status, thus explaining why I got myself into this initially difficult (hard on my ego) learning curve status.

For years I have heard other speak (in a somewhat zealous sort of way) of the benefits yoga has on one's mind, soul and body (aren't we sometimes just a little skeptical of those who speak with about anything with such intensity). But then again who does not want this holy trinity functioning at high levels? Getting my body to shift from being tight and inflexible to loose and flexible is temporarily getting in the way of experiencing that trifecta. I don't know where this 'first' exposure to and experience with yoga will ultimately take my mind, spirit or body (hopefully to a place of great balance). However, as much as I am looking forward to this journey, I can hardly to wait to forget what the initial 'first' exposure feels like.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Milk Chocolate Chip Cookies

What better reward for having to do the grueling work of shoveling five inches of snow from the driveways and sidewalk than a plate of freshly baked cookies and a glass of milk? Well maybe a piece of jewelry.

I have shared before that I have made various iterations of chocolate chip cookie recipes over the years. But I was in a milk chocolate and toasted walnut cookie mood so I decided not to make the sea salted chocolate chip cookies but to make a recipe I had not made in a very, very long time. Not only because it contained milk chocolate chips but because it was 'a one bowl no need to pull out the mixer' cookie recipe (shoveling snow is exhausting work). Other than needing access to a bowl, measuring cups and spoons, a baking sheet, a spatula and an oven, you can make these milk chocolate chip cookies pretty much anywhere. Don't we all pack measuring cups and spoons (and a corkscrew) for an extended vacation stay in a rental just in case we need a non-jewelry reward or have a craving for a really good chocolate chip cookie?

No matter how talented of a baker one might be, I am one who believes the ingredients one uses can make a significant difference. This difference is usually discernible in both the taste and look of the baked good. As much as I love the rustic look of a homemade cookie, I love even more the bakery-like rustic look (and taste) of a homemade cookie.

Sometimes I need to over measure the walnuts for a recipe because when they are roasted their aroma is so enticing I am compelled to eat a few before chopping them up. In a preheated 350 degree oven walnuts are transformed after they are roasted for 8 to 12 minutes. Some cookies are good with or without nuts, this a cookie where the nuts make it taste absolutely delicious.

Most chocolate chip cookie recipes call for some combination of granulated and brown (light or dark) sugars. This recipe calls for superfine sugar (sometimes referred to as Baker's sugar). These cookies have a larger brown to white sugar ratio which only adds to their depth of flavor.

You forget to take the butter out of the refrigerator the night before. Not a problem for these cookies as it is melted, not room temperature butter that is mixed into the sugars. Using either a spatula or wooden spoon the butter and sugars are mixed until blended.

Two large eggs and three tablespoons (yes tablespoons there is no typo here) of vanilla are stirred into the butter/sugar mixture just until well blended.

The sifted flour, baking soda and salt mixture is added next. The key to these cookies is to mix until blended as over mixing will lead to a less tender, tougher textured cookie. The recipe called for two cups of milk chocolate chips and one cup of roasted walnuts. I think I had forgotten that the last time I made them (years ago) I increased the amount of chocolate chips (personally I like a very chocolatey chocolate cookie). At a minimum these cookies need two cups but if you too lean toward a chocolate in almost every bite, increase the mount of chocolate chips to two and one half cups.

I am all about the perfectly sized shaped cookies, not only for how they look but for how they bake in the oven. So using a 1 to 1/14/ inch ice cream scoop place the cookie balls on a parchment paper lined baking sheet allowing for at least 2 to 3 inches between each cookie. Lightly press down on each cookie ball before placing In a preheated 350 degree oven. The cookies are baked for 12 to 14 minutes or until lightly browned on the top and edges. Begin checking the cookies at 10 minutes (sometimes ovens bake differently). I cooled these cookies on the baking sheet as I wanted a slightly crispier cookie. If you want the cookie to have a softer texture, remove baked cookies from the baking sheet and place on a cooking rack.

I put a dozen of these milk chocolate chip cookies in a ziploc bag in the freezer. Unfortunately I am anticipating there will be more snow to shovel in the weeks ahead. These cookies will either be the motivation I need to get out there to shovel or a source of instant gratification or both. If there is no snow shoveling in your immediate future, these frozen cookies are perfect for ice cream sandwiches (it is always good to have a dessert ready for an impromptu gathering).

Milk Chocolate Chip Cookies (slight adaptation to Radical Rob's Chocolate Chip Cookies)

1/2 cup superfine or Baker's sugar
1 1/4 cups light brown sugar
1 cup unsalted butter, melted
3 Tablespoons vanilla
2 large eggs, room temperature
3 cups all-purpose flour (recommend King Arthur flour)
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon Kosher salt
2 to 2 1/2 cups milk chocolate chips (recommend Ghiradelli milk chocolate chips)
1 generous cup walnuts, roasted and coarsely chopped

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.
2. In a large mixing bowl, combine sugars and mix well.
3. Mix in melted butter to sugar mixture until blended.
4. Add eggs and vanilla stirring until well mixed.
5. In a separate bowl sift flour, baking soda and salt. Add to wet ingredients, stirring until just combined (be careful to not over mix this batter or the result will be tough cookies).
6. Stir in milk chocolate chips and walnuts just until mixed.
7. Using an ice cream scoop (approximately 1 to 1/14 inch in diameter), place balls of dough on parchment paper lined baking sheets (allowing at least 3 inches between each cookie). Lightly press down on each dough ball before placing baking sheet in the preheated oven.
8. Bake cookies for 12-14 minutes or until cookies are lightly browned. Cool cookies on cookie sheet.
9. Remove cooled cookies and store in a covered contained.