Friday, October 30, 2015

Taco Soup

Whenever I make something for the first time I will ask the person who shall remain nameless 'how is it?'. Of course you are probably thinking there is only right answer to that question. Actually there isn't. But there is, if I am being totally honest, a single word response I pray I will not hear. The word almost always causing me to cringe; make a 'you can't really be saying that face'; or, ask 'are there no other words in your a zillion years ago one point away from a perfect score on the ACT vocabulary?' is 'good'. An adjective that belongs in the same non-committal category of words that include 'nice and fine' or should be added to the list of those four letter 'bad words. Don't get me wrong, not everything that comes out of my kitchen is amazing, outstanding, incredible, to-die-for, over-the-top, last meal worthy, blue-ribbon-esque, unbelievable, best-ever, great, or even 'really, really good'. Sometimes it's a disaster, just okay, or simply just 'good'. However, there are those moments when the culinary stars are aligned and the dish deserves a rating better than 'good'. Those would be the occasions when my face reveals what I am thinking. Which is exactly what happened last week. I heard the word 'good', not 'really good' or 'really, really, really good'. But then after I made a face, and maybe I even whispered something audible, something else happened. We finally came to a really, really good understanding as to what that word meant to both of us. 'Good' has not been permanently banished from ever being spoken (particularly in the food review context) and it continues to remain an option. Because sometimes 'good' really is good enough. Except for when it isn't.

In the past week, I was reminded of the centuries old expression 'you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink'. Almost a year ago to the day, one of my friends had shared her recipe for Taco Soup with me. My 'how good can a soup made mostly with canned vegetables really be' snobbery trumped not trusting the recommendation of this 'I love everything she has ever made' friend. In spite of having savored every morsel of food she has ever served, I had been reluctant to make the soup. Then over the weekend, this 'old horse' sat down at the table where a bowl of the Taco Soup was placed in front of her. And she drank. Not just one bowl, but two. Three days, not three weeks and not three months later I was making this soup. Proving once again that I still have alot to learn.

Having friends over for a weeknight or weekend gathering? Having a chill and Netflix movie night? Having an open house for the holidays? Hosting a luncheon? Making lunch or dinner for family and/or friends? Going up to a cottage or cabin for the weekend? Wanting something to take the chill off of a cold, blustery day? Craving comfort food? Inviting friends over last minute? Feeling in the mood to binge watch a favorite show? Or hey, having neighbors and friends over for Halloween? There are an almost endless number of opportunities for you to make this incredibly easy to make, delicious soup.

From start to finish this soup comes together in about an hour. A lack of time or rather a perceived lack of time should not be used as an excuse to avoid making this Taco Soup. Because making this soup could turn out to be the one of best uses of your time for the week.

As I stood at the butcher's counter in the grocery store, I wondered which ground meat I should use. Ground Chuck (80/20), Ground Round (85/15) or Ground Sirloin (90/10). We all know it's the fat content is what gives ground beef its' wonderful, buttery flavor. Taking into consideration the meat wasn't taking center stage (i.e., needing the highest amount of fat), I ruled out the Ground Chuck. Knowing I wanted the browned meat to have some 'fat' flavor, I nixed using the Ground Sirloin. Which meant by process of elimination, the best option seemed to be the ground round. After that ground meat deliberation came the 'how much to buy' decision. The recipe called for only one pound of ground meat which should have made it a no-brainer decision. Yet I couldn't help but wonder about the soup's taste and texture if it was made with one and one half pounds of ground meat. That answer will come shortly. Keep reading.

The moisture or liquid in the soup comes from the liquid in the canned vegetables and from the can of nacho cheese soup. Nothing is drained.

Once the ground round has been browned, all of the other ingredients are added. Easy, peasy. The soup cooks for approximately 30 minutes on medium-low heat. With this being the amount of time necessary for all of the ingredients to be heated through, you can reduce the heat to a simmer and continue cooking for an additional 15 minutes to further develop the soup's flavor. Stir the soup occasionally to prevent anything from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Don't forget to season with salt and pepper.

The only garnish this Taco Soup really needs are some Fritos Corn Chips. Additional options include grated Cheddar/Monteray Jack cheese and sour cream. If you are making this Taco Soup a 'meal', consider serving with some cornbread (from scratch or your favorite mix) or a heated baguette.

The increase in the amount of ground round made for an even heartier, soul-satisfying soup, kicking up its' deliciousness factor up even further. The addition of the extra half-pound of meat transformed into a cross between a soup and chili. If you prefer a more pure 'soup' feel, use only one pound of the ground round.

This soup will thicken up more if made the night before and chilled. To return it to its' original consistency, add some water. A little at a time until the soup reaches the desired consistency.

"Life is really simple. But we insist on making it complicated." Confucius I am the first to admit to being skeptical about making those 'quick and easy, not made from scratch, with promises of tasting better than homemade' recipes posted daily on social media. Yet, in spite of this skepticism, the Taco Soup was a reminder there are exceptions to all rules or should I say all perceptions. I am kicking myself for waiting a year to make this Taco Soup. Because it is really, really, really, really good. To be certain I avoid any misunderstandings between us, let me just say it's pretty gosh darn delicious. 

Taco Soup (an ever so slight adaptation to Randee Malmberg's Taco Soup recipe)

1 - 1 1/2 pounds of ground round (85/15) Note: For a thicker, heartier soup, use 1 1/2 pounds.
1 package of Taco Seasoning
1 can (15.5 ounce) dark kidney beans, undrained
1 can (15.5 ounce) small red (light) beans, undrained
1 can (15 ounce) black beans, undrained
1 can (14.75 ounce) fire roasted whole kernel corn, undrained
1 can (14.5 ounce) diced tomatoes, undrained
1 can (10.75 ounce) fiesta nacho cheese soup (recommend Campbell's)
Kosher salt and pepper for seasoning

Fritos Corn Chips or tortilla strips, sour cream, freshly grated cheddar/jack cheese, cornbread or warmed baguette.

1. In a deep, heavy bottom stock pot or dutch oven, brown the ground beef over medium heat.
2. Add all of the remaining ingredients (remember Do Not Drain any of them) and stir to combine. 
3. Reduce heat to medium-low and continue cooking for 30 minutes. Stir occasionally to prevent any sticking to the bottom of the pan. Note: For even deeper flavor, reduce heat to simmer and cook for an additional 15 minutes.
4. Season with salt and pepper to taste. 
5. Serve with Fritos Corn Chips, sides of sour cream, freshly grated cheddar/jack cheese, cornbread and/or a warmed baguette.
1. Soup can be made the day ahead. Cover and refrigerate. Reheat until heated through.
2. For serving soup to a large group, consider doubling ingredients. Transfer cooked soup to a slow cooker and put on warm setting.

Sculptures in the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Brown Butter Pumpkin Spice Cake

"Cooking is like painting or writing a song. Just as there are only so many notes or colors. There are only so many flavors-it's how you combine them that sets you apart." Wolfgang Puck For the past several years someone predicts there will be a canned pumpkin puree shortage. Whether or not this sets off a nationwide canned pumpkin hoarding frenzy is anyone's guess, as there is rarely a news segment showing a stampede of people running through the canned good aisles of the grocery store grabbing what precious few cans remain. Rarely have the shelves in my grocery stores been empty, leaving me to wonder why I continue to believe this yearly hype (gullible should have been my middle name). But it's doubtful an inventory of six cans of pumpkin puree would put me in the hoarding category. 

Once fall arrives I seem to have some kind of internal clock setting off an insatiable craving for the flavor of pumpkin. Pumpkin squarespumpkin pie, brûléed pumpkin pie, pumpkin muffins, pumpkin donuts, and pumpkin cake have been my go-to favorites. Being one of a handful of people in the world not falling into the 'drinks coffee regularly' category, I have yet to jump on the pumpkin spice latte bandwagon to get my pumpkin fix. If the day ever comes when canned pumpkin really does become scare, there might be a barista at Starbucks who will become my new best friend.

The end of October was looming and I had yet to bake any of my favorite pumpkin desserts. Considering how much canned pumpkin puree I had in stock, I needed to get moving. Originally I had planned to make a Pumpkin Spice Cake with Caramel Frosting, an untested recipe I had apparently cut out of a newspaper years ago (if you only knew how many of these newspaper and magazine cut-outs I have accumulated over the years, enough for someone to whisper 'hoarder'). Yet the more I looked at the recipe, there was something about it that wasn't sitting right with me. But I was bound and determined to make a 'new' Pumpkin Spice Cake so I set off on a cake hunting expedition. After going through some cookbooks, newspaper clippings, and old magazines, my eyes and taste buds were drawn to the Brown Butter Pumpkin Layer Cake shared in an old issue of Fine Cooking (it is would be sacrilegious to throw them away). I had the need to have my hunch about the cake confirmed. So I did what many of us do and looked to see if there were any on-line reviews for this cake. And indeed there were. Seeing it had an average rating of four stars was all of the validation I needed. However, even after reading some of the reviews I thought there needed to be a few minor tweaks to the recipe. Like a little more spice and definitely more frosting. 

Let me momentarily gush over this Brown Butter Pumpkin Spice Cake. Seriously, it may be the best two layer pumpkin cake I have ever eaten in my entire life. And I have lived a relatively long life thus far. This cake is dense, yet moist. The adjustment in the amount and types of spices created an incredibly flavorful, spice balanced perfect cake. The frosting was insanely delicious and complimented the cake beautifully (for those of you who are thinking of making your own tweaks to frosting recipe, considering leaving out the brown sugar, you would be making a BIG mistake. Just saying). The texture and taste of candied pecans and pepitas skyrocketed to a new level with the addition of crystallized ginger in the topping is pure heaven. If by any chance you are not deliriously happy after taking one bite of this cake or if you can resist the urge to have a second piece, then maybe you have had one too many pumpkin lattes and your taste buds have been permanently numbed. Okay, that wasn't very nice. Forgive me, but I am not taking it back.

The brown butter is what sets this Pumpkin Spice Cake apart from all others. The original recipe called for the use of cinnamon, ground ginger, ground cloves and table salt. This modified version added ground nutmeg, increased the amount of cinnamon (from 1 1/2 teaspoons to 2 teaspoons) and used kosher salt. The Fine Cooking recipe gave the option of making the pumpkin puree from scratch, but  honestly there are some things not worth the extra time and effort. Or I have yet to be totally convinced this is one of them. 

The cake batter comes together in a bowl (no mixer required) with the use of both a whisk and spatula. The result is a very thick, luscious batter.

The best way to ensure your prepared nine inch cake pans contain the exact amounts of batter is to use a scale. Not only does this almost guarantee your cakes will go and come out of the oven at the same time, your finished cake (especially if you make a naked version) looks 'bakery' perfect. If you don't have a scale, check the level of the batter using a toothpick.

The cakes bake in a preheated 350 degree (F) oven for 28-35 minutes or until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean. As a general rule, oven racks should be placed in the middle of the oven and both baking pans should be placed on the same rack.

I glossed over the directions for making the brown sugar cream frosting because, like, how or why would it be different than most other cream cheese frostings? Well it was. I made the frosting using room temperature butter instead of brown butter. But honestly, I loved the flavor, fluffiness, and creaminess of the frosting using just 'room temperature' butter. 

Once the cakes have cooled to room temperature you can frost them. I strongly recommend either increasing by 50% or doubling the amount of frosting, even if you choose to do a naked-like version shown in this post. 

You have two assembly options for this Pumpkin Spice Cake. The first is to arrange all of the topping mixture on the top of the cake (as shown here). The second is to divide the topping mixture, spreading half on the first layer and arranging the other half on the top layer.

If you make this cake the day before serving and if you choose the option of only putting the topping on top of the cake, you can make the topping the day you serve the cake. 

The directions for the cake, frosting, and topping are lengthy. For once, length and difficulty are not synonymous. This is a very easy cake to make. But unlike me, read through the directions before you start baking.

You don't have to wait for a dinner party, a birthday party, a holiday, a wedding, a luncheon, informal gathering, or celebration of any kind to make this cake. In other words, no reason is necessary. Well I take that back. Just in case this 'crying wolf for years' canned pumpkin puree shortage turns out to come to fruition (and you are not one to make your own), you absolutely must be able to taste this cake, this year. Sooner rather than later.

With the foodisphere filled with an over abundance of pumpkin recipes this week, you may find it hard to choose amongst them. Or maybe you already have your favorite sweet or savory pumpkin recipe, one you too have been putting off making for all sorts of reasons. So let me help make that choice easier for you. Choose this one. Call it your destiny. As this Brown Butter Pumpkin Spice Cake is going to be your most favorite, most requested cake without any regard for the season. Lobster rolls and  Brown Butter Pumpkin Spice Cake could be all the rage next summer.

Brown Butter Pumpkin Spice Cake (several adaptations to Fine Cooking's Brown Butter Pumpkin Layer Cake, Issue 107)

1 1/2 cups pumpkin puree (from a 15 ounce can) Note: Measure out the puree as there will be more than 1 1/2 cups of puree.
6 ounces (3/4 cup) unsalted butter
9 ounces (2 cups) all-purpose flour (recommend King Arthur)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
2/3 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
2 large eggs, room temperature
1/3 cup buttermilk

1 1/2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
2/3 cup pecan halves
1/2 cup pepitas (salted or unsalted) Note: I use salted pepitas.
2 Tablespoons light brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 1/2 Tablespoons chopped crystallized ginger

Frosting (recommend increasing by 50% or doubling)
4 ounces (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, room temperature
8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1/4 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
5 ounces (1 1/4 cups) confectionary sugar, sifted

1. Position rack in center of oven. Preheat oven to 350 degrees (F). Butter and flour or spray with cooking spray two 9-inch round cake pans. Line with parchment paper, butter and/or spray parchment paper. Set aside.
2. Melt butter in a heavy duty 1 quart saucepan over medium heat. Cook, swirling the pan occasionally until the butter turns a nutty golden-brown (about 4-5 minutes). Pour into a heatproof bowl and let stand until cool, but not set (about 10-15 minutes).
3. In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves and set. Set aside.
4. In a large bowl, whisk together 1 1/2 cups of pumpkin puree, granulated sugar, brown sugar, eggs and buttermilk until well blended.
5. Using a rubber spatula, stir in the flour mixture until just combined.
6. Gently whisk in the cooled brown butter until completely incorporated. Note: Batter is very thick.
7. Divide batter evenly between the two prepared pas.
8. Bake for 28-35 minutes, or until a tester inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean.
9. Let cakes cool in pans for 10 minutes. Turn cakes out onto racks, remove parchment paper and cool completely.

1. Melt the butter in a heavy duty non-stick 12 inch skillet over medium heat.
2. Add pecans and pepitas. Cook until the pecans brown slightly (about 2 minutes).
3. Sprinkle in brown sugar and salt, stirring until sugar melts and the nuts are glazed (about 2 minutes)
4. Stir in chopped ginger. Remove from heat. Transfer mixture to a piece of parchment paper and allow to cool.

1. Using a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat together the butter, cream cheese and brown sugar on medium speed until the mixture is light in color and brown sugar has dissolved (about 2 minutes).
2. Gradually beat in sifted confectionary sugar. Continue beating until light and fluffy (about 2 minutes).

1. Put on cake layer on cake plate or platter.
2. Spread almost half of the frosting on the layer. Note: Can also use a pastry bag and offset spatula.
3. Place second layer on. Frost top of cake with the same amount of frosting used on the first layer. 
4. Thinly spread remaining frosting on sides of cake.
5. Arrange the topping on the top of the cake and serve.

1. Assembled, frosted cake can be covered and refrigerated for up to 2 days. Remove from the refrigerator at least 1 hour before serving.
2. Topping can be divided equally between the bottom and top layers or sprinkled completely over the top layer.
3. If completely frosting the cake, double the amount of frosting ingredients. 

Autumn in Rockford, Illinois.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Brown Butter Caramelized Apple Crisp

After an unusually humid, gray October Saturday in the midwest, Sunday was sunny and crisp. One of those perfect fall days. The leaves on the trees are almost at peak. The rich tapestry of colors in the landscape are so beautiful I could almost cry. If it weren't for the running path's autumnal views on Saturday morning, the short three mile run would have felt more like a marathon, one with rolling hills and steep elevations. In just two weeks, I will be running my second 5k race this year. It has been five months since I ran the first one, the amount of time it has taken me to recover from a stress fracture in my leg. Ten weeks ago when I returned to my running group I was walking as much as I was running. Gradually, my running time increased while my walking time decreased. While I may never run at the same speed (which wasn't really fast) or the same distances (not sure I have another marathon left in me) as I did years ago, I am getting closer to again considering myself a 'runner'. Of the many decisions I have regretted over the years, giving up running ranks pretty high up on the list. Fortunately though, I have been able to reverse that 'bad' decision.

My plan this week was to post the recipes for a Sweet and Spicy Ragu and a Brown Butter Pumpkin Spice Cake. But after making this Brown Butter Caramelized Apple Crisp (twice in the past week), I changed my plan. Decided it would be a much better decision to make this pre-Halloween week a 'dessert' and 'brown butter' blog posting one. As excited as I am to share this crisp recipe with you (and I am pretty gosh darn excited), I can hardly wait to share the pumpkin spice cake recipe. 

The first time the Brown Butter Caramelized Apple Crisp I added oatmeal to the topping, the second time I had inadvertently left it out. As much as I really liked both versions, going forward I will definitely leave out the oatmeal as it was a distraction to the flavors of the toasted walnuts and english toffee bits in the topping. In the words of my apple crisp aficionado friend, the crisp without the oatmeal was declared 'crisp perfection'. After hearing such high praise, I secretly hoped the taste of the crisp would be enough to override or at least help to minimize the memory of the crisp making chaos I had caused in her kitchen a couple hours earlier.

I will go out on a limb and say there doesn't seem to be one apple unanimously declared as perfect for a crisp. Flavor, texture, and personal preference seem to influence which apple is recommended. I love using an apple having an intense sweet-tart flavor and the ability to hold its' shape when baked. In other words I am not big fan of apples that turn to mush. At the moment, my current hands down favorite is the Granny Smith.

The rich, nutty taste of brown butter significantly enhances the flavor of pretty much everything. It's transformational, almost magical quality begins when you start melting the butter over medium heat. To ensure the butter browns evenly, swirl the pan often. The butter will begin to foam as it melts while its' color will progress from a 'lemony-yellow to golden-tan to a toasty brown'. Once you begin to smell a nutty aroma, remove the pan from the heat and/or transfer to a heat-proof bowl. 

The thickly cut apple slices are first tossed with the brown butter and fresh lemon juice your baking pan/dish. The coated apples are then tossed with a cinnamon-sugar-flour mixture before being covered in the toasted walnut-english toffee bit topping.

The Brown Butter Caramelized Apple Crisp is placed in a preheated 350 degree (F) oven. Baking time ranges from 45-55 minutes. Baking time is affected by where you place the crisp in the oven (longer baking time if baked in the center of the oven, shorter if baked in the bottom) as well as how your oven bakes.

The crisp is done when the topping is a deep golden brown, the apples are tender when pierced with a knife, and the cooking liquid is thickened and bubbling. If serving immediately, allow the crisp to set for 10-20 minutes. If serving within 2-3 hours of baking, lightly cover with aluminum foil and a heavy towel. 

Slightly softened vanilla ice cream is the proverbial 'icing on the cake'. In other words, it is not optional.  However, lightly dusting the baked crisp with confectionary sugar is. If you have not yet made a baked apple dessert this season, make this one. It really is 'crisp perfection'. It's definitely my new favorite way to eat a baked apple. Another reason to keep running. And for those of you with pie making phobias, the Brown Butter Caramelized Apple Crisp may keep you from ever having to deal with them.

Brown Butter Caramelized Apple Crisp (more than a slight change to the Caramelized Apple Toffee Crisp recipe printed in the Chicago Tribune, December 2005)

Base of Crisp
3 - 3 1/2 pounds Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and cut into 3/8"-1/2" slices (approximately 6 to 7 large apples)
5 Tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, browned and cooled slightly
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
pinch of sea salt

1 cup walnut halves, toasted in oven, then chopped
8 Tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
1 cup english toffee bits (recommend Heath Bits'O Brickle Toffee Bits)
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
pinch of sea salt

Vanilla Ice Cream
Optional Garnish: Sifted confectionary sugar

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees (F).
2. In a medium sized bowl, mix together chopped walnuts, butter, flour, light brown sugar, toffee bits, cinnamon and salt until mixture resembles coarse meal. Set aside.
2. Mix apple slices, browned butter and lemon juice in a deep 9"x12" baking dish or cast iron pan until apples are coated. In a small bowl, mix together sugar, all-purpose flour, cinnamon and sea sat until blended. Add sugar mixture and toss to coat apples.
3. Top buttered/sugared apples with walnut/toffee bit mixture.
4. Bake for 45-55 minutes until apples are tender, topping has browned, and juices are thickened/bubbling. 
5. Remove from oven. Allow to set 10-20 minutes before serving with vanilla ice cream.
Optional finish: Sprinkle with sifted confectionary sugar.

Notes: Crisp can be prepared 2 hours ahead. Cover loosely with aluminum foil and a heavy towel to keep warm. If crisp sits out longer than 2 hours, can rewarm in a 350 degree (F) preheated oven for 15 minutes.

Horses grazing in a northern Illinois pasture.