Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Gouda Mac and Cheese w/ Caramelized Shallots

As I watch the coverage of Winter Storm Juno out on the east coast I can't help but remember my own east coast blizzard experience two years ago. And the more time that lapses the more the story of this experience is embellished. But seriously, enduring the hardship of significant snow and brutal cold are one thing, significant snow, brutal cold, and no power are a completely different one. The incredible beauty of the snow covered landscape does not make up for the bone-chilling cold felt when the power goes out. After two days of no power, I didn't just want to take a shower, I just wanted to take the hottest shower my body would tolerate. Doesn't it always seem that when we don't have access to something, particularly those things we take for granted, our desire for it seems to disproportionately increase? We aren't thirsty for water until the well doesn't work. Suddenly our throats become parched and nothing but water will satisfy it. Guess this is life's way of reminding us the best way to appreciate something is to be without it for a while to truly appreciate its' value.

Have you often heard the saying 'there are three sides to every story: your side, the other side and the truth'? That was thought when I went on a quest to learn more about the history of macaroni and cheese. The most popular version of the origin of this American classic goes back to 1803 and is attributed to Thomas Jefferson. After dining on this dish during his travels to Italy, he brought back a pasta maker so it could be replicated and served in the White House. Years later, Jefferson's daughter, Mary Rudolph, included a macaroni with parmesan cheese recipe in her 1824 cookbook "The Virginia Housewife". The less popular version of the story has macaroni and cheese casserole dishes being served at new England church suppers in Colonial America using the recipes they had brought with them and ingredients they had available. Whether or not their recipes came from Elizabeth Raffald's book 'The Experienced English Housekeeper' (published in 1769), noodle casseroles made with cheese and topped with bread crumbs have endured over the centuries. Today the variations of this classic comfort food are limited only by one's imagination or cheese and pasta preferences.

This version of mac and cheese is made with the classic elbow macaroni noodles along along with aged gouda and some white sharp cheddar cheese. I initially started out making it with only with the aged gouda, but then decided the addition of some sharp white cheddar would add another dimension of flavor and slightly reduce the intense richness of the gouda cheese. The combination of these two cheeses worked perfectly together in this creamy macaroni and cheese casserole.

Two cups of dry elbow macaroni does not seem like it would be enough for this casserole, but it is.

To ensure your mac and cheese casserole still has enough texture to it when baked, the pasta noodles should be cooked until they are al dente or slightly underdone. Depending on the noodles you use for this casserole the cooking time will range. Most packages will give al dente times on them, but if they do not, you can always test for their doneness by tasting them. The cooked noodles are drained but not rinsed.

After making a white or béchamel sauce, the grated cheese is stirred in until the sauce is smooth and creamy. My most favorite gouda cheeses Rembrandt (one year aged) gouda. It is a deep, golden in color cow's milk cheese having flavors of butterscotch, honey, and caramel. With just the right amount of sharpness, it equally perfect for eating as well as for using in this casserole. You can find it in most stores with a large cheese department as well as at the large wholesale food stores we all have memberships to (the one's where we usually don't get out of without spending at least a hundred dollars).

While an ounce of white sharp cheddar cheese doesn't seem like much, it turned out to be the right amount. To ensure the creaminess of the mac and cheese, I added a quarter cup of heavy whipping cream after all of the cheeses had melted into the béchamel sauce. This amount of heavy whipping cream also kept the cheese/liquid balance of the cheese sauce. You could also use whole milk here.

The cooked elbow macaroni noodles are stirred into the cheese sauce and then poured into the prepared casserole dish. If your sauce does not look creamy (and it should) add just a little more whole milk or heavy whipping cream.

Some say bacon ramps up the flavor of everything it is added to. And it usually does. But for me caramelized shallots should be one of those foods ranked right up there with bacon. The added layer of flavor they add to this casserole make a significant difference to both its' taste and texture.

To even more texture and crunch to the Gouda Mac and Cheese with Caramelized Shallots casserole, panko bread crumbs tossed in some extra-virgin olive oil are the necessary finishing touch.

Baked in a pre-heated 350 degree (F) oven, the mac and cheese casserole cooks for 25-30 minutes or until the panko bread crumbs are lightly browned and the casserole is heated through. While it can be a side dish, this version may be the more perfect main dish to serve for lunch or dinner on a cold winter day. And if you have not mac and cheese in awhile, make this one. It might even be better than the one you remember.

Note: You can make the Gouda Mac and Cheese w/ Caramelized Shallots early in the day, cover and refrigerate. Let sit out at least 30 minutes before placing in the pre-heated 350 degree (F) oven.

Gouda Mac and Cheese w/ Caramelized Shallots
2 cups dry macaroni shells (or any pasta of your choice), cooked until al dente
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
2 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups whole milk
8 ounces aged Gouda cheese (aged at least one year) grated (2 cups) (Recommend Rembrandt Gouda)
1 ounce grated sharp cheddar cheese, grated (or a generous 1/4 cup)
1/4 cup heavy cream (or whole milk)
salt and pepper to taste
2 large shallots, sliced thin and caramelized
3/4 cup Panko bread crumbs combined with 2-3 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees (F). Lightly butter a medium sized oval casserole dish or individual ramekins.
2. Melt unsalted butter, add flour and whisk constantly for one minute.
3. Slowly pour in milk, whisking constantly. When all milk has been added, put heat on simmer and cook until thickened (use the back of the spoon test to check for doneness). Remove pan from heat.
4. Stir in grated cheeses. Mix until all of the cheese has melted and the sauce is smooth. Stir in cream. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
5. Pour mixture into prepared pan.
6. Top macaroni and cheese with caramelized shallots and Panko bread crumbs.
7. Bake for approximately 25-30 minutes or until bubbling.
8. Serve immediately.

Capturing the morning sunlight at the Morton Arboretum and St. James Farm.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Homemade Fluffy Vanilla Marshmallows

The winter landscape can be a little harsh here in the midwest. For one of my photography class assignments we were supposed to take a photo of something representing a randomly picked 'Zen' word. I picked 'soft'. Call it a temporary lack of creative imagination but I couldn't find anything 'soft' out in nature at this time of the year. Beyond having my fill of taking snow photos, my ability to capture the 'white' of the snow seems to have been adversely affected by my inability to consistently figure out how to make the necessary adjustments to my camera settings (if only we could just shoot in auto and the camera would make all of those decisions for me) to take a 'good' crisp, white photo (or at least one that wouldn't be subject to too much constructive feedback during class). I thought the photo of a 'soft', fluffy food would give me a better chance of 'nailing' the assignment (a far better outcome than being nailed to the cross). And rather than take a photo needing 'a thousand words' to explain 'a single word', I decided I should go with taking one barely needing an explanation. For me nothing more obviously represents 'soft' than Fluffy Vanilla Marshmallows (homemade, of course).

'There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.' (Ansel Adams)  Bolding borrowing on this thinking, it would be safe to say there are no rules for making good marshmallows, there are only good marshmallows. This discovery came not as a result of making, but rather from looking at dozens of marshmallow recipes. Admittedly, the idea of making marshmallows from scratch can initially seem a little intimidating. However, once you have had the taste of a (really) good homemade, fluffy, springy marshmallow you will be forever spoiled and finding yourself becoming a fearless maker of marshmallows. Your mug of hot chocolate topped with homemade marshmallows will never taste better, your s'mores made with fluffy, springy marshmallows will become legendary, and, your rice krispie treats using melted homemade marshmallows will be worth their weight in gold. Are you ready to put your marshmallow making cape on yet?

Can making marshmallows be a little messy? Judging from the amount of confectionary sugar swirling in and covering almost everything in the kitchen in sugar dust, the answer is yes, but with a partial caveat. With my focus on taking 'the' photo, I wasn't paying attention to where the sifter was. And as a result I inadvertently knocked the sifter filled with confectionary sugar and corn starch onto the floor. Fortunately while actually making the marshmallows I didn't end up with marshmallow sticking all over my hands or in my hair or on every counter in close proximity to the mixer. Had I obsessed about getting every last bit of marshmallow out of the mixing bowl and into the pan, more than likely I would have made a 'sticky' mess. So don't obsess about trying to get every last bit of the marshmallow mixture out of the bowl. Unless of course you feel like making a mess.

The use of a standing mixer is definitely what I would call an added advantage when making these Homemade Fluffy Vanilla Marshmallows. In addition to being able to walk away from the mixer beating on high for 8-12 minutes, the whisk attachment on the standing mixer helps to create the smooth, thick, tripled in volume mixture needed before the whipped egg whites and vanilla are added.

This recipe calls for the use of 3 1/2 packages of (1/4 ounce) unflavored gelatin or 7/8 ounce of unflavored gelatin. If you don't have a digital scale, this equates to 2 Tablespoons plus 2 1/2 teaspoons (thank you Smitten Kitchen for measuring this out!). In addition to replacing the salt with sea salt in Gourmet's recipe, I increased the amount of light corn syrup from 1/2 cup to 2/3 cup.

As I was pouring the marshmallow mixture into the prepared 9"x13"x2" pan, I wished I had prepared a 9"x9"x2" pan instead as I wanted the finished marshmallows to be cut into the 'thickest' squares possible. But in the end it all worked out because I decided to cut the marshmallows into larger squares. The 1" thick squares ended up being a more perfect size for s'mores.  Your choice of pan will depend on whether you want really thick marshmallows or you want to cut your finished marshmallows into shapes (other than squares). If for Valentine's Day you want to make marshmallow hearts or you want to make bunnies for Easter, definitely use a 9"x13"x2" pan. 

I let the marshmallows set up overnight at room temperature (uncovered). If I were making these marshmallows in the heat of the summer I have them set up in the refrigerator (again uncovered) for at least 3 hours before cutting them. If you have never made marshmallows before, you can find more tips on making and cutting them here.

Before turning out the pan of marshmallows onto the cutting board, lightly dust it with the confectionary/cornstarch. Many marshmallow recipes call for dusting the finished marshmallows in confectionary sugar only. Note: The use of confectionary sugar only can dissolve and make the marshmallows a bit damp (thank you David Lebovitz for sharing this tip!). But whatever you do, do not use cornstarch-only!

Once cut, the marshmallows are tossed in the sifted confectionary sugar/cornstarch mixture ensuring all sides are coated. In addition to adding another layer of flavor to marshmallows, it keeps them from sticking to one another.

I ended up with 24 large marshmallows, however, the number of marshmallows you end up with will depend on the size you decide to cut them. For s'mores these large marshmallows were the perfect size. For hot cocoa, the larger marshmallow will be cut into four smaller squares.

These were the springiest, fluffiest marshmallows I had ever made. As much as I thought the addition of egg whites (as recommended in recipes from David Lebovitz and in one from Gourmet) was just one more, possibly unnecessary step, they were most likely responsible for the creating these incredibly light, fluffy and just the right amount of 'soft' marshmallows. 

Whether you use these marshmallows to make s'mores, to add them to your hot cocoa, to use in another recipe, or to snack on, they make a great gift when packaged in cellophone bags and tied with a beautiful ribbon or bakery twine. Happy marshmallow making.

Homemade Fluffy Vanilla Marshmallows (Slightly adapted from Gourmet, December 1988)

About 1 cup confectionary sugar (or a mixture of cornstarch and confectionary sugar)
3 1/2 envelopes (2 Tablespoons plus 2 1/2 teaspoons OR 7/8 ounces) unflavored Knox gelatin
1 cup cold water, divided
2 cups granulated sugar
2/3 cup light corn syrup
1/4 teaspoon sea or kosher salt
2 large egg whites (beat until they just hold stiff peaks)
1 Tablespoon vanilla or vanilla bean paste

1. Lightly spray bottom and sides of a 13"x 9"x2" rectangular metal baking pan. Dust bottom and sides with confectionary sugar.
2. In a bowl of standing mixer, sprinkle gelatin over 1/2 cup cold water. Let stand to soften.
3. In a heavy 3 quart saucepan, combine granulated sugar, corn syrup, salt, and 1/2 cup cold water. Over low heat stir until sugar is dissolved.
4. Increase heat to moderate and boil mixture, without stirring, until a candy thermometer registers 240 degrees (F), approximately 10-12 minutes.
5. Remove pan from heat and pour sugar mixture over gelatin mixture, beating mixture on high speed until white, thick and nearly tripled in volume, approximately 10-12 minutes.
6. Beat in egg whites and vanilla.
7. Pour mixture into prepared pan. Sift 1/4 cup confectionary sugar evenly over the top.
8. Allow the marshmallows to set overnight (uncovered). In very hot weather, chill marshmallows (uncovered) in the refrigerator.
9. Run a thin knife around edges of pan. Invert pan onto large cutting board. Trim edges of marshmallows and cut into 1 inch squares. Toss cut marshmallows in additional confectionary sugar to ensure all sides are coated. Shake off excess.
10. Store marshmallows in an airtight container at cool room temperature for up to 1 week.

Winter 'snow' photo taken in Telluride, Colorado.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Baked Apples with Oat Crumble

"Patience and dedication will help you achieve greatness. Keep your dreams close to your heart and your eye on the prize." Remember back when you were learning something new for the first time and you wondered how long it would be before you finally experienced the 'ah-ha' moment. However long or short, any time spent in the learning curve can feel more like you are living in a virtual purgatory rather than experiencing the thrill of riding a roller coaster. But then comes the magical moment when everything suddenly comes into focus making you wonder how you could have possibly struggled with grasping the concepts. What was once perceived as difficult is viewed as simple, logical, bordering on ridiculously easy, and ultimately second nature. The feeling of exuberance experienced upon signing up for a photography class has been temporarily eplaced with a myriad of competing feelings. In other words, I am feeling a little bi-polar. What better way to soothe my anxious spirit and keep myself from falling off the slippery slope of the learning curve than a little comfort food. Like the Baked Apples with Oat Crumble shared in 'on list of everyone's favorite' newly published Huckleberry cookbook. Besides I needed to take a break from trying to wrap my head around aperture and shutter speed settings. 

The Huckleberry cookbook was a gift given to me from my childhood best friend right before the holidays. Not only is this book filled with great recipes for breakfast/brunch dishes, pastries, sweets and side dishes, the photographs make this book feel as if it should be placed on the 'coffee table' rather than on the bookshelf. With so many interesting recipes to choose from, I needed to choose a recipe I perceived as simple. Having just spent the morning outdoors in thirty something degree temperatures traipsing through the snow with my camera affixed to a tripod, a baked in the oven apple dessert was the perfect 'first' recipe to make out of this cookbook.

As an added benefit the aroma created by these Baked Apples with Oat Crumble is heavenly, almost intoxicating. 

With so many different apples to choose from when making a 'baked' apple dessert, I had wondered which one would work, taste best. The tart Granny Smiths or the tart with a sweet finish Pink Lady apples are two of my favorite 'baking' apples. Rather than picking one over the other, decided I would try this dessert using both of them. Unsure of what the baking time would be for these different apples, I baked them in separate dishes.

Both apples worked in this recipe, however, I think I preferred the taste and texture of the Pink Lady apples best. Although I wouldn't refuse these Baked Apples if made with Granny Smiths.

When reading this recipe I must have skipped over the part recommending the apples be halved, cored and peeled. I saw halved and cored but totally missed the peeled part. Every now then there are benefits to being distracted with other thoughts running through your head. This was one of them. Keeping the apples in their skins ended up creating a natural 'bowl'.

After the apples are dipped in a melted butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, sugar, and salt mixture, they are placed in the baking pan. The recommended liquid carefully poured in the pan before baking was apple juice, however, I wondered if apple cider would create a thicker, more flavorful 'sauce'. This wondering actually occurred after I realized I had bought apple cider instead of apple juice for this recipe. Again, this relative 'mistake' turned out to be a blessing in disguise. As the apples were baked in a preheated 375 degrees (F) oven in a dish tightly covered with aluminum foil, the cider was turning into a delicious syrup. Any fresh apple cider will work, although if you can find a Honey Crisp apple cider buy it.

The incredible flavor of these baked apples comes from both the butter/brown sugar/cinnamon marinade as well as from the oat crumble made with whole wheat flour. Beyond being a little more nutritious than all-purpose flour, the whole wheat flour added a heartier, almost nut like flavor to the crumble. From this point forward I will definitely use this flour for all of the desserts made with a crumble topping. Seriously, I never realized how much of an impact changing out the flour could have on taste and texture. I urge you to try this change in any of your recipes, even your most treasured ones.

The crumble can be made before you begin baking the apples or while the apples are baking. The important thing to remember is that it goes on the apples after they have baked for 40-50 minutes. An additional 15-20 minutesof baking time at 425 degrees (F) is enough to brown and crisp the crumble. 

Served warn with some softened (Ben and Jerry's of course) vanilla ice cream or sweetened whipped cream the Baked Apples with Oat Crumble were sinfully delicious. This is the quintessential perfect fall or winter dessert. Yet even more perfect to serve when you or any one you know needs a little comforting. Because every now and then we need more than words of reassurance ('You can do it!", 'You will do it!') from the cheerleader in our life to help us stay on the path toward realizing our dreams.

Important Note: Le me go back and talk about baking time. The recipe recommended the apples bake for 60 minutes with the caveat baking time may change based on the type and size of apples used. In both cases my Granny Smith and Pink Lady apples were on the 'large' size. I would recommend you check the doneness of your apples beginning at the 35 minute mark so you don't end up with a 'mush'. Use a sharp knife to test for doneness. The Granny Smith apples actually cooked faster than the Pink Lady apples. Both were done in less than 45 minutes.

Baked Apples with Oat Crumble (inspiration for recipe came from the cookbook Huckleberry: Stories, Secrets, and Recipes from our Kitchen written by Zoe Nathan)

3/4 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 heaping teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 1/4 cups rolled oats
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 Tablespoons honey
1/2 cup plus 2 Tablespoons light brown sugar

6-7 apples, halved and cored (recommend Pink Lady, Granny Smith and/or Gala)
4 Tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
3 Tablespoons granulated sugar
2 Tablespoons light brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1 3/4 cups apple cider (recommend Honey Crisp apple cider)

Optional: Vanilla Ice Cream and/or whipped cream

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees (F).
2. For the crumble, combine unsalted butter, cinnamon, vanilla, wheat flour, rolled oats, kosher salt, honey and light brown sugar in a medium bowl. Mix together using the tips of your fingers or a fork. Blend until completely combined. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.
3. Mix together 4 Tablespoons melted butter, granulated sugar, light brown sugar, kosher salt and cinnamon in a small bowl. Dip the tops of each apple into the mixture. Place dipped apples in a baking dish large enough to accommodate the apples (9"x13"). Pour any of the remaining mixture over the apples.
4. Carefully pour apple cider into baking dish. Cover dish tightly with aluminum foil. Bake for 40-50 minutes or until tender.
5. Remove baking dish from oven and remove foil. Increase oven temperature to 425 degrees (F).
6. Top each of the apples with a generous amount of the crumble. Return the dish to the oven and bake for additional 15-20 minutes or until the topping has nicely browned.
7. Serve warm with ice cream or whipped cream.
Note: Apples can be covered and refrigerated for several days. Reheat before serving.

Winter shadows and reflections at the Morton Arboretum.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Baked Eggs with Chorizo and Potatoes

Have you noticed how the "Theory of Everything Breakfast' has been challenged over the years. Pancakes, eggs and bacon, once perceived as morning foods only have now found their way onto our lunch or dinner time plates, up ending everything we had once believed, everything we learned about which foods should be served when. Whoever is responsible for causing this seismic shift in our thinking or revisiting the hypothesis of this theory should be considered a genius, a genius on the Stephen Hawking level. And if you have not yet seen the movie about Hawking's life, you absolutely MUST see it on the big screen so you can be further drawn into the story and the mesmerizing performances.

As a kid growing up we considered it 'strange' if any of our friends had eggs, hash browns, or pancakes for dinner (something usually occurring on no-meat Fridays during Lent when the rules about what we could and could not eat were strictly enforced). In retrospect, I should have been envious. Had I known we really could have had breakfast foods instead of things like salmon patties (with salmon made out of the can) or tuna fish casserole (made with cream of mushroom soup out of the can) for dinner I wouldn't have cared if we were considered one of those 'strange' families. Heck, I would have hidden the cans of salmon and mushroom soup leaving us with no choice but to have pancakes or eggs. Oh, the wisdom of age.

When I saw Food and Wine's recipe for Baked Eggs with Chorizo and Potatoes I knew it was something I would make. It was one of those perfect eat for breakfast, lunch or dinner kind of foods as well as one of those to make on a weekend morning or for a late supper. The Baked Eggs with Chorizo and Potatoes are a kind of 'hot mess', a 'delicious hot mess' that is. When we think of anything being referred to as a 'hot'' mess, we are usually inclined to perceive it as having a negative connotation. Maybe it is also time we shift our 'theory of the hot mess'. Truth be told a hot mess generally refers to a person or thing in a complete disarray yet still maintaining an undeniable attractiveness and allure. If we use that definition then maybe being a 'hot mess' isn't such a bad thing, maybe it is more compliment than judgment. However, unless you like to live recklessly, I would caution you from universally applying that term as the definition may limited applicability. So if you decide to call anyone you like a 'hot mess' in all likelihood their ability to focus in on the undeniable attractiveness and allure part of the definition won't be their first thought. Trust me.

Referred to as a Mexican-California twist to a Swiss rosti, this dish is definitely more than hash browns with chorizo sausage and eggs. Like a rosti, the potatoes are pan-fried and then baked in the oven. Unlike a rosti, these potatoes are not roughly grated but roughly chopped. Although now having made this, I would either cut the cooked potatoes into smaller cubes or roughly grate them the next time I made this. I think it would taste even better with a crispier finish.

There are basically four ingredients in this dish: Yukon Gold potatoes, a large Spanish onion, eight large eggs and fresh chorizo sausage. A little extra-virigin olive oil along with some salt and pepper complete it.

Once the Yukon gold potatoes are cooked until tender in a pot of water, they are drained and cooled before being 'cut' up. I went with the rough chop, however, at this size they did not get as crispy as maybe they should have. So like I have already said, I would cut them into small cubes or roughly grate them (with a leaning toward the roughly grate). Note: The potatoes need to be prepared first and can be made the day/night before.

With the exception of preparing the potatoes, the entire dish is made in one pan, preferably a 12 inch cast iron skillet (or a pan that can be put in the oven). Once the fresh chorizo sausage is cooked through and lightly browned, the finely chopped onions are added. The entire mixture is cooked until the onions have softened (approximately 5 minutes). The sausage/onion mixture is removed from the pan and set aside. After simply wiping the pan clean with a paper towel, two to four tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil are added and heated before the chopped/grated potatoes are added. Seasoning the potatoes with salt and pepper, they are cooked over moderate heat until golden and crispy. Once crispy the pan is removed from the stove and the sausage/onion mixture is stirred in.

Using either a sauce spoon or small ladle, eight indentations are made into the potato/sausage/onion mixture. The indentations should be deep enough to hold a large egg and spread out enough so the eggs don't spill into each other. In a preheated 375 degree (F) oven the pan is placed in the oven. Bake until the whites of the eggs are just set but the yolks are still runny (approximately 12-15 minutes). You definitely want the yolks to be runny.

Sprinkle the finished dish with a little more salt and pepper and serve with some hot sauce and thick slices of toast.

Paired with a salad the Baked Eggs with Chorizo and Potatoes would make for a great lunch or dinner. This is definitely one of those 'not for breakfast only' dishes. Because nowadays the new 'normal' is having those once breakfast only dishes for lunch or dinner. Nothing strange about it.

Baked Eggs with Chorizo and Potatoes (inspired by Food and Wine's Baked Eggs recipe)

1 3/4 to 2 pounds small to medium sized Yukon Gold potatoes
1 1/2 pounds fresh chorizo, casings removed
1 large Spanish onion, finely chopped
2-4 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
8 large eggs
Salt and pepper
Toast and hot sauce for serving

1. Place potatoes in a large pan, cover with cold water, bring to boil over medium-high heat and cook until tender when pierced with a knife (approximately 25 minutes depending on the size of the potatoes) Drain and cool. Once cool, roughy grate or cut into small cubes. Note: If you don't want or like the skins of the potatoes, peel them before grating/cutting. Set aside.
2. In a 12 inch cast iron or enamel skillet, cook the chorizo until cooked through and lightly browned, breaking up into chunks while cooking. 
3. Add the finely diced onion to the sausage and continue cooking until the onions have softened. Transfer mixture to a dish and set aside. Wipe the pan/skillet with a paper towel.
4. Heat 2 to 4 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil in the wiped clean plan, and then add the grated/cut potatoes. Season the potatoes with salt and pepper. Cook until the potatoes are golden and crispy. Remove from the heat and stir in the sausage/onion mixture.
5. Using a sauce spoon of small ladle, make 8 indentations into the potato-chorizo mixture. Note: Make indentations deep enough to hold a large egg as well as spread out enough so the eggs don't spill into each other.
6. In a preheated 375 degree (F) oven, bake until the egg whites are just set and the yolks are still runny (approximately 12-15 minutes). Season with salt and pepper and serve immediately.
7. Serve with hot sauce and thick slices of toast.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Banana Cake with White Chocolate Cream Cheese Frosting

We are having a heat wave, a reward for five consecutive days of below zero temperatures. With temperatures in the upper twenties on Sunday, I thought it was 'warm' enough to explore the beauty and wonder of the Morton Arboretum, a 1,700 rolling acre outdoor landscape museum. All of this outdoor enchantment is about a twenty minute drive from my house, yet I had never been to this arboretum before (if this was sin-worthy, it would be rank up there with the cardinal sins, maybe it would be the eighth one). Even on a gray winter day, the landscape was so compelling I ended up spending more than three hours exploring, taking photos, and listening to the silence of nature. As if this wasn't intoxicating enough, I discovered the arboretum offers an array of photography classes. For years now I have been wanting to learn how to use, how to really use my camera. And now my long overdue desire to enroll in photography classes is finally going to be satisfied. The first one begins later this week. I am so giddy with excitement I probably will not get any sleep the night before.

From my perspective, any success I had in taking photos has generally been attributed to a little bit of luck, a little bit of being in the right place, in the right light, at the right time. When I launched this blog two years ago (it's second birthday went without fanfare, without a cake), it was because I wanted to combine my passions for cooking/baking and photography. In my world having a passion doesn't mean you are great or an expert at something, it only means it's something that energizes, excites you. Pretty soon now and with more of a reliance on knowledge than luck, my photos might actually turn into the ones I see in my head (and not the ones that show up in the camera). This new learning adventure is nothing short of being cake worthy celebratory. In other words, reason enough to make this Banana Cake with White Chocolate Cream Cheese Frosting.

This is one seriously delicious cake. Yet, for some reason I thought the finishing touch should have a bit of whimsy to it. And what could be more whimsical on a banana cake than three marzipan monkeys?

The key to a great banana bread or banana cake is ripe bananas. Bananas so ripe they look as if they should be thrown out. Bananas so ripe their 'rotting' aroma can be detected the moment you walk into a room. What all this means is that you either have to wait days for bananas to get perfectly ripened or you have to find a grocery store selling overripe bananas in order to make this cake.

Have you ever struggled to understand what a large banana looks like?, a medium banana?, a small banana? It isn't like they have size tags on them, although maybe this is something the banana growers of the world should consider. When I come across recipes calling for 3 large bananas or 4 small bananas, I slightly hyperventilate as I have absolutely no idea what a large or small banana is supposed to look like, let alone how many cups they turn into when mashed. So before making this cake I decided to do some research, hoping there were some out there who converted the mysterious sizes of bananas into measurable mashes. The results of this search pretty much validated my belief that no one really knows what a large, medium or small banana should look like. But for better for worse, I decided the one large banana equating to a half cup of mashed bananas made the most sense. Fortunately this decision turned out to be one for the better (this was an incredibly moist cake). From this point forward whenever I see any recipe calling for 3 large bananas, I will immediately think it really means 1 1/2 cups of mashed bananas. (Banana) Size will not matter and I will no longer become unnerved when I see recipes specifying the number and size of bananas.

The tenderness of this cake comes from the use of pastry flour. Yes, it is a little more expensive than all-purpose flour, but don't let that dissuade you from making this cake. Just make this cake for people in your life you really like.

You don't have to make this a three layer cake using 6 inch cake pans. Nope, you can make it a two layer cake using 8 inch cake pans or you can make it one layer in a 9"x12" inch cake pan. I just happen to have a new affinity for making six inch round three layer cakes.

Many years ago I took a baking class with Mindy Segal when she was the pastry chef at MK (one of my favorite restaurants in Chicago; she now has her own restaurant, Hot Chocolate). Of the many takeaways from this class was this white chocolate cream cheese frosting. There are no words to adequately describe this frosting. You just have to make and eat it. Then you will understand why I cannot seem to find the right adjectives. However, if no one comments on this frosting after tasting it, they are missing the 'taste' sense.

If you decide to frost the entire cake (more is better here), refrigerate the cake for 10-15 minutes after you put a very thin layer of frosting on the sides and top of the cake. This thin layer (sometimes called the crumb coat) will make it easier to spread the finishing frosting layer on the cake. Note: When I made this cake I didn't think I needed as much frosting as was in the original recipe, but I was wrong. If the amount of ingredients listed below seems like too much, please know that it isn't.)

If I could time travel back to my childhood, this would have been the cake I would have wanted. Not just for my birthday but for my half-birthday and my quarter-birthdays. I would have wanted it frosted in the white chocolate cream cheese frosting or frosted in a fluffy chocolate frosting only because sometimes you need to mix things up a bit. In other words, I don't think I would ever or could ever tire of this cake. Which is saying quite a bit, especially coming from someone with a bit of an (admitted) addiction to most things chocolate. If you are a big fan of banana bread you will fall in love with this cake. If you are not a big fan of banana bread or even bananas for that matter, this cake will convert you. 

Banana Cake with White Chocolate Cream Cheese Frosting (barely an adaptation to the cake recipe from Clementine Bakery and frosting recipe from pastry chef and restaurant owner Mindy Segal)

2 2/3 cups of pastry flour
2 2/3 cups granulated sugar
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/2 cups mashed bananas (coming from 3 large very ripe bananas or 4 medium very ripe bananas)
3 large eggs
1/2 cup buttermilk
3/4 cup canola oil
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

24 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
12 Tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
3 cups confectionary sugar, sifted
4 ounces white chocolate, melted and cooled slightly
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon vanilla

Optional: Marzipan cut-outs

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line three 6" cake pans with parchment paper, spraying well with cooking spray. Set aside. Other option: Line two 8" cake pans with parchment paper, spraying well with cooking spray. Set aside.
2. Sift flour, baking powder, baking soda, and kosher salt into medium size bowl. Mix in granulated sugar, stirring until well blended.
3. Place mashed bananas in bowl of a standing mixer. Add eggs in one at a time, mixing until each is well incorporated.
4. Add buttermilk, canola oil and vanilla. Mix until smooth and well blended.
5. Add in dry ingredients, Mix on low until they are fully incorporated. Divide batter equally amongst cake pans.
6. Bake 6" cake pans for 40-50 minutes or until cake springs bake when lightly pressed with your finger. Bake 8" cake pans 40-50 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool before turning out on a wire rack. Allow to cool completely.
7. For icing, place cream cheese and butter in bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a paddle blade. Mix until smooth and creamy. Blend in sifted confectionary sugar, salt and vanilla until fully incorporated and icing is smooth (about 2-3 minutes) Add melted white chocolate mixing until fully incorporated.
8. Place one of the layers on a cake plate or platter. Spoon or pipe icing on bottom layer. Place second layer on icing, spoon or pipe icing on second layer. Place top layer on. Put a thin layer of icing on sides and top of cake. Refrigerate for 10-15 minutes. Finish icing the cake with the remainder of the icing. 
9. Affix marzipan shapes on sides and/or top of cake (optional). If using sprinkles, add when final layer of icing has been applied. 
10. Serve immediately or store in the refrigerator (loosely covered) until ready to serve. Allow cake to sit out of the refrigerator for at least one hour before serving. Cake is equally delicious slightly chilled or at room temperature.

Photos taken at the Morton Arboretum on a gray wintery day in January.