Friday, April 21, 2017

Hot Spinach and Artichoke Dip


Artichokes came late into my life. How late? Well, I was well into adulthood. I would like to be able to tell you exactly where I first had them, how they were served, or how much I swooned over them. But honestly I can't remember. I vaguely recall wondering how it was that artichokes had never crossed my life path before. Or how I had managed to go through so many years of my life without them. Yet, once the artichoke door was opened, there was no going back to an artichoke-free life. Without being overly melodramatic over a vegetable of all things, it was kind of like the feeling one gets when meeting a 'causing your heart to race and stomach to have butterflies' soul mate. You immediately know you want them to be in your life forever.


Hot Spinach and Artichoke Dips have been around for a very long time. And understandably so. They are delicious, irresistible, slightly addictive, and pair incredibly well with wine. White wine, red wine, a rose, a prosecco. A Hot Spinach and Artichoke Dip befriends all of them. 


But let's be honest about something. Not all Hot Spinach and Artichokes Dips are the same. You have probably had your share of those ranging from not particularly endearing to your palate to ones you wanted to hover over. So what may account for the differences? With the exception of all them having spinach and artichokes as common ingredients, there are numerous 'other ingredient' options. All of which will have an impact on the taste and texture of the dip. Some are made with only one kind of cheese, while others have two or more kinds of cheeses. Some have a cream cheese/mayonnaise base, while others are made with sour cream, a bechamel (white sauce) or even a jar of canned sauce. The herbs used are fresh, dried, or a combination of both.  The garlic, if used, maybe be freshly grated or a powder. And sauteed onions are one of the many options added to them. Additionally the proportions of ingredients are all over the map. Which invariably leads to the variances in taste reactions. 


When looking at dozens of recipes for a Hot Spinach and Artichoke Dip, I came to discover there wasn't 'one' that spoke to me. So I did what I often do. Make some inferences about ingredient proportions, put together combinations that appeal to me, and cross my fingers the outcome will be as good as or even better than I had hoped. This would be my version of culinary science.

While I may be a bit biased, I am going to boldly suggest you abandon your favorite Hot Spinach and Artichoke Dip recipe and replace it with this one. Or at least make your version and this version, invite your friends over for a taste test and determine which one is 'best'. Of course, you should do this before they consume significant quantities of wine and after you give them your written statement verifying their 'best' choice decision will not in any way do any temporary or permanent harm to your friendship. 


If you are like me, you always have some frozen spinach in the freezer, cans of artichoke hearts, garlic, cream cheese, mayonnaise, and some Parmigiano-Reggiano in the house. Whole milk mozzarella and Spanish Onions are things I buy when I need them.  When a recipe calls a non-specified type of oregano, I usually decide whether to use the Mediterranean (Greek, Italian) or Mexican versions. Because Mexican Oregano has some citrus notes to it, I thought it would pair well with the artichokes and spinach.


Some of the Hot Spinach Artichoke Dip recipes I looked at called for the use of frozen artichoke hearts. But I tend to buy canned artichoke hearts. Use what you like. 

I wanted this Hot Artichoke Dip to have a strong cheesy flavor. So I opted for freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and Whole Milk (versus Part-Skim or Fresh) mozzarella. I know Parmigiano-Reggiano can be a little more expensive than other imported or domestic parmesan cheeses, but it lasts for quite a long time (wrapped well) in the refrigerator and brings an unparalleled dimension of flavor to any dish it is used in.


After all of the ingredients are combined, transfer to a oven-proof baking/serving dish and top with some additional grated cheese. I topped with both of the cheeses, but next time might only top with the grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. 


The Hot Spinach Artichoke Dip bakes in a preheated 350 degree (F) oven for 30-35 minutes or until the top is lightly browned and the dip is hot in the center. Your oven as well as the size/depth of the baking dish may affect your baking time.


You can serve the Hot Spinach Artichoke Dip with crackers, crostini, pita chips, or bagel chips. Note: I served with Garlic-Parmesan bagel chips. 


Invariably this dip will turn from hot to warm to even room temperature when you are serving it. Unless of course it is quickly inhaled because it is the only thing you are serving and everyone is starving. While some may like it 'best' hot or warm, I think was still delicious when it got to room temperature. In the event you have any leftovers, this dip reheats exceptionally well in the microwave a medium power. 

This Hot Spinach and Artichoke is destined to be one of your new best friend in the weeks, months and years ahead. It's creamy, cheesy, more than slightly addictive, and incredibly delicious. In other words, its everything a Hot Spinach and Artichoke Dip should be.

Recipe
Hot Spinach and Artichoke Dip  (inspired by multiple sources)

Ingredients
10 ounce packages of frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed to remove the liquid
14 ounce can of artichoke hearts, drained and chopped
8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1/2 cup plus 1 Tablespoon mayonnaise
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons dried Mexican oregano (or 1 teaspoon of Italian oregano)
1 clove garlic, minced
2 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated
4 ounces whole milk mozzarella, grated
1 small yellow or Spanish onion chopped (about 1/2 cup)
1 Tablespoon unsalted butter

Directions
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees (F)
2. Melt butter in small saute pan. Add chopped onion and cook until onion has become translucent (approximately 2-3 minutes). Remove from heat and set aside.
3. In a medium-large bowl, mix cream cheese, mayonnaise, salt, pepper, garlic, and oregano. Stir until mixture is smooth and free of any cream cheese lumps.
4. Add spinach, artichoke hearts, grated cheeses and onion. Stir until all ingredients are fully incorporated.
5. Transfer to a oven-proof container. Lightly grate some Parmigiano-Reggiano over the top.
6. Bake 30-35 minutes or until top is lightly golden and dip is hot in the center.
7. Serve hot/warm with bagel chips, pita chips, crackers, and/or crostini.

Notes: (1) This dip can be made early in the day or even the day before. Do not preheat the oven if transferring the dish directly from the refrigerator to the oven. Your baking time might increase slightly, but you won't risk cracking your dish. (2) When buying mozzarella, look for whole milk mozzarella as it does not release as much liquid as a part-skim or fresh mozzarella. (3) If you double the recipe, make it two different dishes (versus one larger dish) and bake them separately. This way you will always have a hot/very warm dip to serve.



April Spring Day (2017) at Morton Arboretum (Lisle, Illinois)


Monday, April 17, 2017

Sugared Jam Cake


"Don't take mirrors seriously. Your true reflection is in your heart." (Anonymous) Over the course of the past several months I have become slightly addicted to yoga. While I may never or rather will never master any of the poses, yoga has enabled me to come to the place where 'progress not perfection' matters more than anything. Considering I am a first born, perfectionist Virgo, this way of thinking is nothing short of a head spinning, 'who is this?', 180 degree shift. And almost nothing can keep me away from this newly discovered guilty pleasure. Not even the first pose in the restorative class, the extreme heat in hot yoga, or the angst causing, recycled circus mirrors lining some of the walls. Amongst my running-yoga friends it seemed I was the only one who viewed the mirrors in the same suspicious way. Until one day one of them decided to look at herself in one of the mirrors in her house before taking the three minute drive to the yoga studio. Before teasingly cursing me for bringing her attention to these mirrors, she said 'the person who left the house was not the same person who showed up for yoga'. Well, there are moments of redemption, and then there are MOMENTS of redemption. This was definitely the latter. Imagine how good it felt to have an incredibly fit, self-confident friend also believe there was something a little off with the mirrors! It felt almost as good as this what I believed was going to be a ruined Sugared Jam Cake!


For an Easter eve dinner I decided to make and bring this Sugared Jam Cake to my sister's house. Although I had never made the cake before I completely trusted the recipe. Yet in spite of reading the recipe a couple of times, I made what I thought was going to be one of those epic fail cakes. I had made one those mistakes you realize a minute too late you can't reverse.


Each of the elements of the Sugared Jam Cake was insanely delicious. The homemade Blueberry Blackberry Jam was better than any small or large batch jam you could buy in the gourmet section of any food store. The cake itself had great texture and an even better taste. But I worried using too much of the jam in the cake was going to the deal breaker. So I texted my sister to tell her I was bringing the cake, but would also back-up plan dessert, just in case. Why I was even bringing a cake I thought I ruined was completely out-of-character for me. But a small part of me held out hope that the parts of the cake would override the whole of the cake.

I could go on endlessly about the Blueberry-Blackberry Jam. It's relatively easy to make and should be something you have in your refrigerator all of the time. Yes, all of the time. There are two important things you need to know about it. First, it yields two cups of jam. Since you only need 3/4 cup for the cake, you will have plenty left to spread on toast, over peanut butter, over whipped ricotta cheese on crostini, or eat directly off of a spoon. Second, the process of making this jam takes almost 4 hours. Would recommend you make the jam at least one day before you plan on baking up this Sugared Jam Cake.

The berries, sugar, and freshly squeezed lemon juice macerate for 2 (yes 2) hours before the cooking process begins. After bringing the mixture to a boil at medium-high heat and cooking for 5 minutes, the heat is reduced to medium. It will continue to cook for 20-45 minutes. My cooking time was closer to 30 minutes. Due to the fact this isn't summer fresh berry season and berries are super summer ripe, it took a little longer for the jam mixture to thicken to the right consistency. The riper the berries, the shorter the cooking time. The recipe called for mashing the berries with a potato masher during the cooking process. However, I wanted the jam to be slightly textured with pieces of berries, so I didn't mash them to smithereens. After the jam thickens and cools (it needs an hour to cool before jarring), divide and put into 2 jars. Hint: I am helping you not make the same mistake I did.


The cake is one of those only two bowls and a whisk needed ones. While it calls for the use of freshly grated nutmeg, you can use ground nutmeg. It also lists vanilla bean paste as one of the ingredients, but you can use vanilla extract). Other than that, you should have all of the other necessary ingredients in your pantry and refrigerator. When it all comes together your batter should be on the thick side.


Half of the batter is spread over the bottom of the buttered-floured parchment paper lined 8 inch backing pan. The remaining batter is spooned into a pastry bag. After piping a ring of the batter around the edge of the pan, you will spread 3/4 cup of the homemade jam in the center of the ring. And not the full 2 cups of jam like I did! The remaining batter is piped over the top of the jam and smoothed with an offset spatula.


The cake bakes for 55-60 minutes in a preheated 350 degree (F) oven. To prevent the top from over-browning you may need to cover it loosely with aluminum foil for the last 30 minutes of baking time. Note: I didn't cover mine. The finished cake will have a slightly domed, beautiful golden brown top. Test the cake for doneness by inserting a toothpick along the edge of the cake. If you insert it in the middle, jam will come out and you won't be able to determine the doneness of the cake's crumb.


After the cake rests for 10-15 minutes, remove from the pan onto a cooling rack. Invert the cake before putting on a cake stand or platter. To give it it's jelly doughnut finish, the entire cake is brushed with melted butter and then sprinkled with a cinnamon sugar mixture. If there was ever a cake perfect for both brunch and a dinner party, this Sugared Jam Cake would be the one. 


So what happened when we finally cut into the cake? Well, the bottom layer of the cake was almost completely absorbed by the jam so it didn't have the cake/jam/cake layered look when it was cut. In spite of this, everyone devoured their slice. They were in jelly-jelly doughnut heaven. Although I was relieved it got rave reviews, next time I will definitely make this cake with only 3/4 cup (maybe a full cup) of the homemade jam. Not only will make this cake again and again, I will definitely make the jam again.

The finished cake photos may not cause it to be one to go viral or get hundreds or thousands of likes. But trust me, the recipe is one that should. Sometimes what we think we see with our eyes doesn't tell the whole story. If you love jelly doughnuts, you and everyone you serve it to will fall deeply, madly in love with this Sugared Jam Cake. If this cake were in a bakery, you should willingly stand in line to get it. It's that good.

Recipe
Sugared Jam Cake (inspired by the Sugared Jam Cake recipe from Bake from Scratch: Artisan Recipes for the Home Baker cookbook)

Ingredients
Blueberry-Blackberry Jam
1/2 pound fresh blackberries
1/2 pound fresh blueberries
2 cups (400 grams) granulated sugar
Juice of 1 medium or large sized lemon


Cake
2 1/2 cups (313 grams) all-purpose flour
1 1/4 cups (250 grams) granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg (or ground nutmeg)
3/4 cup whole milk
1/2 cup plus 2 Tablespoons (141 grams) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract
3/4 cup Blueberry-Blackberry Jam

Topping
1/2 cup (100 grams) granulated sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 cup (57 grams) unsalted butter, melted

Directions
Blueberry-Blackberry Jam (Makes 2 cups aka MORE than you need for this cake)
1. In a large saucepan, combine all ingredients. Stir with a wooden spoon and allow to sit to 2 hours.
2. Bring mixture to a boil over medium-high heat. Stirring frequently, cook for 5 minutes.
3. Reduce heat to medium and cook, while stirring frequently, until mixture thickens (ranges from 20-45 minutes, berry ripeness will affect cooking time). During this phase, use a potato masher to mash berries, leaving some berries still intact.
4. Remove from heat and let cool for 1 hour.  Divide and transfer to 2 clean jars. Jam will keep refrigerated for up to 2 weeks.

Cake
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees (F). Line an 8 inch baking or springform pan with parchment paper. Spray with baking spray and lightly flour. 
2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and nutmeg.
3. In a large bowl, whisk together the milk, melted butter, eggs, and vanilla bean paste.
4. Add the flour mixture to the milk mixture, stirring until just combined. Batter will be thick.
5. Spoon half of the batter into the prepared pan. Use an offset spatula to smooth surface.
6. Spoon remaining batter into a piping bag.
7. Pipe a ring of batter around the inside edge of the pan.
8. Spoon 3/4 cup of the Blueberry-Blackberry Jam into center of the ring.
9. Pipe remaining batter on top of jam. Smooth with an offset spatula.
10. Bake for 55-60 minutes or until wooden pick inserted in side of cake comes out clean. Note: May need to cover with foil for the last 30 minutes of baking to prevent excess browning. 
11. Allow cake to cook in the pan for 10-15 minutes.
12. Run an offset spatula around the edge of the pan to loosen cake before turning out. Turn cake back over (to dome is on top).

Topping and Assembly
1. Whisk together the sugar, cinnamon and salt.
2. Brush top and sides of the cake with the melted butter. 
3. Sprinkle with sugar mixture, pressing into sides of cake.
4. Serve and enjoy.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Rocky Road Bark


If I share something with you, promise you won't abandon our love of good food friendship? You promised, right? Okay, well here it is. I haven't yet jumped on the current sheet pan dinner bandwagon. The one-pot, or rather one-pan wonders that are all the rage right now. I am neither one of the early adopters, nor one of the fast followers. This sheet pan craze has been around for at least four years. Maybe even longer. Which means I seem to be getting dangerously close to falling into the (gasp) laggard (aka embarrassing late to the party) category. It's not that I haven't been paying attention. I have been. And it's not that I have any aversions to convenience. I don't. The only savory thing my sheet pans have been making lately is Roasted Bacon. Which could be loosely described as a sheet pan side dish. Right? Truth be told, my sheet pans have been otherwise occupied lately. Not permanently. Just temporarily.


This Rocky Road Bark is it's own one pan miracle. Getting a text from your niece telling you it's the best thing she has ever eaten is yet another kind of marvel.

What is not to love about dark chocolate, roasted almonds, soft pillowy marshmallows, graham crackers, and a sprinkle of sea salt? Nothing. This variation of a Rocky Road Bark has the best of all textures.


Always use a good quality chocolate, one designed for melting. Sometimes I use the chocolate from a local confectionary, but this time I used the Ghiradelli dark chocolate. It would be equally delicious made with milk chocolate.


I know I will sound will like a broken record when I say 'always roast your nuts' before using them in your baked goods or confections. Roasting deepens their flavor and will take most anything from good to great.


I used a large (12"x18") sheet pan to make this Rocky Road Bark. If you halve the ingredients, it can easily be made in a half-sheet pan. The bark is simply a layered bar. The bottom layer is half of the melted chocolate; the second layer is made up of some of the graham cracker pieces, marshmallows and roasted almonds; the third layer is the other half of the melted chocolate; and the final layer made up of the remaining graham cracker pieces, marshmallows and roasted almonds. A sprinkling of sea salt and drizzling of any remaining chocolate are the finishing touches.


The Rocky Road will set up in less than an hour. But unless you are in a hurry to cut it up (and you probably should be), you can let it sit for several hours before cutting into bars or odd-shaped pieces. This is a use a knife versus your hands cutting kind of bark.


Many think of making a bark only around the holidays as they make great gifts and give a cookie platter more dimension. However, bark is something we should be making year-round. And like those one pan sheet pan dinners, you can decide your ingredients. Don't like almonds, use peanuts instead. Want to make a gluten-free bark? Eliminate the graham crackers. Like a bark with a little more sweetness, add some raisins (kind of like a Chunky but with marshmallows bark). The possibilities are endless. And like the early flowers of spring, this bark won't last long.

Recipe
Rocky Road Bark

Ingredients
1 3/4 - 2 pounds of dark or milk chocolate, melted and divided
1 2/3 cups miniature marshmallows (divided)
3/4 cup whole almonds, roasted and coarsely chopped and divided
7-8 whole graham crackers, broken into pieces and divided  (I used almost one package of the rectangular shaped Nabisco Graham Crackers)
Sea salt 

Directions
1. Line a large (12"x18") baking sheet with parchment paper.
2. Melt chocolate in a double boiler (or carefully secure and position a bowl over the top of the pot of simmering water).
3. Pour half of the melted chocolate on the prepared pan. Spread with an offset spatula.
4. Using 3/4 of the graham crackers, lay randomly on the top of the melted chocolate. Next sprinkle approximately 2/3 of the marshmallows and roasted almonds on top of the graham crackers.
5. Pour the remaining melted chocolate over the top.
6. Scatter the remaining graham crackers, marshmallows and almonds over the top. If using dark chocolate, lightly sprinkle with sea salt. Using a fork, drizzle any remaining melted chocolate over the top.
7. Allow the bark to set for at least one hour. Using a sharp knife, cut into bars or random shapes. 
8. Serve and/or store in sealed container or tightly tied cellophane bags.


Spring crocus (April 2017)

Monday, April 3, 2017

Roasted Bacon


It is quite possible you think this might be a belated April Fool's Day post. It's not. Or maybe wondering 'Does someone really needs a recipe for Roasted Bacon?' That might depend on your definition of a recipe. However, if you have never roasted bacon in the oven before or have and keep forgetting (like I do) the oven temperature required needed to get perfectly crisp bacon, then the answer is definitely yes. We all should have or rather need a recipe for Roasted Bacon in our lives to put an end to the days of having bacon grease splatter all over the top of your stove. Better yet. We can all stop ruining our nails and sponges spending an inordinate amount of time soaking and scrubbing our favorite frying pans.  With a simple recipe for Roasted Bacon, nothing is standing in the way of you and a platter of delicious crispy bacon.


"If it's not broken don't fix it." Going the non-traditional route for making anything most of us grew up accustomed to making only one way can cause a bit of skepticism. But it's kind of like most things in life. Until you actually experience them you don't realize what you had been missing out on. Roasted bacon might be one of those things in your life.


This is a plain, simple version of roasted bacon. The only ingredient needed is bacon. Preferably a good-quality thick cut bacon. A large rimmed baking sheet, a baking/cooling rack and some foil/parchment paper to line the pan are the only things you need. Besides an oven of course.


Roasting the bacon on a rack, versus laying it flat on the pan, creates extra crispy bacon. Raising the bacon off the baking sheet allows the heat to circulate evenly around the bacon. If you like the edges of your bacon to be crisp, but love the center of your bacon to have some of that chewiness to it, don't roast it on a rack. Simply roast in on a baking pan lined with parchment paper or aluminum foil. Leave some space between the slices to prevent your bacon slices from sticking to one another.

The bacon roasts in a 400 degree (F) oven for 18-22 minutes, depending on the thickness of bacon slices. Place the baking pan on the lower rack in the oven and begin checking for doneness at around the 15 minute mark. If you are making two trays of roasted bacon, place one pan on the lower rack and the other on the upper rack.

Transferring the roasted bacon to a platter lined with paper towels allows any residual grease to be absorbed as well as finishes the crisping.


Whether you are making bacon for breakfast, for BLT sandwiches, or for any recipe calling for cooked bacon, try roasting it from now on. If you like your eggs or hash brown potatoes fried in bacon grease, you still can. Just drain the drippings from the baking sheet into your pan. Save your cast iron skillet for making Dutch Babies, cornbread, skillet cookies or brownies, and/or frittatas. You have more important things to do with your life than clean up after cooking bacon on the stove top.

Recipe
Roasted Bacon

Ingredients
1/2 to 1 pound of bacon (preferably a thick-cut bacon)

Directions
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees (F). Place an over rack in the lower third of the oven. Line a large baking sheet with aluminum foil or parchment paper OR place a cooling rack on top the foil/paper lined baking sheet.
2. Lay the strips of bacon in a single layer, leaving some space between each of them.
3. Bake for 18-22 minutes, or until a beautiful golden brown. Note: Baking time may vary based on the thickness of the bacon. Check for doneness at the 15 minute mark.
4. Using a fork or tongs, transfer the bacon to a platter lined with paper towels. 
5. Serve immediately. 

Dogwoods in bloom (April, 2017)