Shingles, coffee, etc.

When I last wrote, I'd recently been diagnosed with shingles, and I opted to drown my sorrows in a warm chocolate cream (called lava cake at the Nasher Museum Cafe). It made for a nice-enough blog topic — a delicious, easy-to-make dessert that will impress friends and family.

But it wasn't a post that really reflected my life.

Just over three weeks have passed since The Scourge attacked (I spent two off of work, as I couldn't be trusted to do physical labor). And I've got to tell you, blog pickin's are slim these days. I just don't want to eat much.  Klonopin, Oxycondone, Gabapentin and Lidoderm patches will do that to you.

Truth is, I wash down the Oxy with a glass of Metamucil, take a deep breath before working with clients, and give thanks that my painful episode will soon end. Shingles hurts like hell but it goes away.

Which is why today's blog post photo doesn't feature a fabulous gratin or cake. Without The World's Greatest Fiance, I wouldn't be eating much at all (O is the Grilled Veggie King). But I would enjoy my coffee, as illustrated above. Each morning I break out the French press, grind beans, bring water to a boil, and settle down for a nice cuppa before heading out, prescription drugs in hand.

As you can see, I don't rearrange furniture for photo shoots, I'm having fun with the Hipstamatic App for the iPhone, and I treasure my mug from the original Peets Coffee and Tea shop in Berkeley, California.

My internist wants to know what's bringing my immune system to its knees and allowing the shingles to flair up. Hate to say it, but I think my upcoming nuptials may be to blame. Major decisions have been made but details remain, including the guest list (a point of contention). So I'm blaming The Wedding. Now I have to get better and balance my life. I get to marry my best friend February 25, and that's something to celebrate!


Warm chocoate cream cakes

Individual warm chocolate cakes, those delicate mounds of dark chocolate goodness that run onto your plate when pierced with a fork — they've virtually disappeared from restaurant menus. And I can't say I'm disappointed. They were everywhere in the nineties. I couldn't open a dessert menu without seeing a "signature" warm chocolate cream topping the list. How could it be a signature dish when it was featured on every menu in town?

Some chefs embellished the hot chocolate creams with more interesting elements than others (I was a sucker for the peppermint ice cream the accompanied Rialto's warm chocolate cream one winter). Even so, I got tired of funneling ramekin after ramekin of chocolate cream mix into the oven when I worked pastry service at the restaurant. Why wouldn't the guests branch out and try something new? A luscious fruit pie or elegant opera cake, a slice of pecan pie studded with dried cranberries, or a vibrant lemon tart?

Rant over. I must admit that I chose the warm lava cake at the Nasher Musem Cafe last week. Having just been diagnosed with shingles (don't look it up until you've finished reading), I swung by the cafe and decided to drown my sorrows in something sugary.

Dark Chocolate Lava Cake with Amarena Cherry Gelato sounded pretty good. Time to get over my dessert issues and enjoy. Sadly, this was not the best warm chocolate cake I've had. The chocolate wasn't particularly tasty or rich and the cake was slightly overcooked, so there wasn't much chocolaty goo to go around. But scooping the warm chocolate crumbs onto a spoon with a bit of cherry gelato, well, that was quite nice. Dessert and a handful of prescription drugs made me forget my sorrows for a while.

Making hot chocolate creams at home is a snap. If you're not afraid to offer them at a dinner party (maybe it's old enough to be retro rather than blase?), try my favorite version, taken from Jody Adams, chef of the restaurant where I once worked. This recipe appears in her cookbook, In the Hands of a Chef, a fabulous book that encourages people to spend more time in the kitchen.

Oh, and the next time you check a restaurant menu, know that warm or hot chocolate cake, hot lava cake, hot chocolate cream — these are usually the same thing. Just check with your server.

Hot Chocolate Creams from Provence
Adapted from In the Hands of a Chef
Serves 4

9 tablespoons of unsalted butter
2 teaspoons of unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 pound of semisweet chocolate, chopped into 1-inch pieces
4 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
6 tablespoons of sugar

Note: The chocolate mixture can be made a day ahead (we did this at the restaurant); prepare and refrigerate. Let it come up to room temperature before proceeding with the recipe.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease for 4-ounce ramekins with 1 tablespoons of butter and then dust each with 1/2 teaspoon of flour.

Melt the chocolate 8 tablespoons of butter in a small saucepan over low heat.  When the chocolate begins to melt, remove from the heat and beat until smooth. (If making ahead, cover and refrigerate for up to one night. Bring to room temperature before continuing.)

Beat the eggs and sugar in a large bowl until the sugar dissolves and the eggs are foamy. Fold this mixture into the eggs.

Pour the chocolate mixture into the prepared ramekins. Bake for 12 minutes, or until just set — the centers will be slightly liquid. Let stand for 3 to 4 minutes, then turn out onto warm plates and serve.


Curried chickpeas with coconut

A couple of weeks ago I toured my friends' new house. They recently built a stunning contemporary near Duke University — glass walls, high ceilings, gleaming surfaces — and filled it beautiful furniture and fantastic artwork. The house is thoughtfully situated on a wooded lot, taking into consideration the way the sun hits the building throughout the course of a day. The home has a geothermal heating and cooling system. And a lap pool.

I wanted to move in.

Instead, I got to eat dinner, a wonderful Indian-inspired meal that included chicken, rice, and all the condiments one would expect (mango chutney, spicy cilantro sauce, raisins). My hands-down favorite, however, was something Martha whipped up on her own, without a recipe: curried chickpeas with tomatoes and coconut. She was kind enough to share her recipe with me, though like many confident cooks, she doesn't follow written directions or measure. The dish changes a little bit each time she makes it, depending on her mood and the intensity of spices used.

I made a version of Martha's dish last week, and recently enjoyed leftovers for lunch. I think it's best served with a little plain yogurt — a nice cooling element against the Indian spices. I added a fresh ginger, diced jalapeno pepper and cayenne powder to her recipe, and as always, I eyeballed the amounts used. Please add them judiciously and taste as you go.

Curried Chickpeas with Tomatoes and Coconut
Serves 8

3 - 4 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 15 oz. cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 28 oz. can peeled, diced tomatoes or 6 medium fresh tomatoes, diced
1 very large white onion, diced
6 garlic cloves, minced
2 jalapeno peppers, seeded and diced
one 2-inch piece of fresh ginger, minced
2 teaspoons ground coriander
3 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons garam masala
2 tablespoons curry powder
large pinch of cayenne pepper
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 cups unsweetened grated coconut

Heat the oil in a very large skillet or saute pan over a medium-low flame. Add the onions, garlic, jalapenos and ginger, and cook for a few minutes, until translucent.

Add the dried spices and stir, cooking for a couple of minutes, until aromatic. Add the rinsed chickpeas and tomatoes. Cook for about 30 minutes, until thickened, tasting as you go. If the mixture becomes too thick, add a little water.

Add the unsweetened coconut, stir to combine, and cook for another 10-15 minutes.

Season to with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Serve the over rice with a dollop of plain yogurt; freshly chopped cilantro would be a nice garnish.


The homeliest dessert

I was relieved that Sunday night's dinner party didn't take place.

I wasn't happy about the reason why — O was sick in bed — but I was more than a little horrified with the looks of dessert. Amanda Hesser warns of "a slight appearance problem" in the descriptive blurb that accompanies the Huguenot Torte recipe in The Essential New York Times Cookbook, but I wasn't prepared for the forlorn, homely mess that emerged from the oven. The edges were crusty, the top cracked and brown, the center gooey.

The upside: it's mighty tasty, filled with apples and pecans, best served with a large dollop of unsweetened whipped cream.

This is the type of recipe you'll want to have on hand for a quick-and-easy family meal. It's almost too sweet for my taste, but when O pulled himself from bed later that night and wandered into the kitchen, he found a serving spoon, dove in, and declared it outstanding. Then he ate three servings.

I used the ubiquitous Granny Smith apple in this torte, but another tart cooking apple (like the Rome Beauty) would work well. I also toasted pecan halves on a sheet tray in the oven for about 5 minutes at 350 degrees Fahrenheit before adding them to the batter to enhance their flavor. A side note: the recipe claims it serves 6-8, but I would say those are very small servings.

Huguenot Torte
(Apple and Pecan Torte)
Serves 6
Adapted from The Essential New York Times Cookbook

2 large eggs
1/2 heaping teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 cup peeled, cored, and diced tart cooking apple (I used 1 large Granny Smith)
1 cup coarsely chopped pecans, toasted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup heavy cream, whipped to soft peak (for garnish)

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter a 9 x 9 -inch or 8 x 12-inch baking pan that's at least 2 inches deep and set aside.

Beat the eggs and salt in a large bowl until light and fluffy. Add the sugar gradually, beating steadily.

Fold in the apples and pecans with a spatula. Add the vanilla, flour, and baking powder. Pour the batter into the prepared pan.

Bake for 45 minutes, until sunken and crusty. Serve warm or chilled, with whipped cream.


Things keeping me from the blog + a Greek-style salad

A few things have kept me away from Cackalackyfoodie over the past 6 weeks. I spent some time traveling - sans computer - in the Amazon basin, for example. And I got engaged. To be married. This is no reason to completely neglect the blog, but I hit the ground running when my mother told me how disappointed she would be if I ran off and got hitched without inviting her. I had a wedding to plan.

The good news: most everything is done. As the event draws closer, details will need my attention, but the big stuff is out of the way. I can focus on other, more enjoyable aspects of life! And I can manage to cook now and then, which is good, because I'm tired of eating microwave popcorn for dinner.

I opted for a simple Greek-style salad for lunch yesterday, a beautiful pile of fresh veggies, feta cheese, olives, and pickled peppers dressed with oil and vinegar. It's a nice way to mark the end of summer produce (you can still find a decent tomato or two here in central North Carolina), and it travels well.

I'll try to manage a "real" recipe for my next post, but I've been streamlining my meals recently. Spending hours at party rental stores and florist shops will do that to you.

A Simple Greek Salad

2 large cucumbers, seeded and diced
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
1/3 red onion, finely diced
a chunk of feta cheese, cubed
a handful of Kalamata olives, rinsed and pitted
5 pickled peppers, cut into thin rings
2 tablespoons of parsley and mint, chopped
sherry vinegar
extra virgin olive oil

Combine the first six ingredients in a medium bowl. Sprinkle with sherry vinegar and olive oil. Add freshly chopped herbs and toss. Enjoy!


Tomatoes and paneer

When I bought a wedge of paneer at the Durham Farmers' Market, visions of a traditional Indian meal danced in my head: cubes of cheese suspended in spinach or nestled between green peas and tomato. Instead, the paneer was used to garnish a fabulous summer tomato salad, courtesy of my boyfriend, O. After a morning of cleaning and reorganizing the house (not fun, but necessary) I was happy to turn the kitchen over to him — he's a good cook — but I wasn't prepared for just how tasty lunch would be.

I shouldn't have been so surprised, as simple dishes are often the most delicious. Quality ingredients don't require much embellishment, and Sunday's lunch was a perfect example: slices of heirloom tomatoes drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and topped with crispy pan-fried cubes of paneer, straight from the cheese-making geniuses at Chapel Hill Creamery.

Paneer can be made at home, but I've never managed to create anything near as good as Flo Hawley and Portia McKnight's version. Seared in a bit of butter and olive oil, the crunchy brown exterior adds verve to any dish, and the warm cheese takes on a rich, nutty flavor. A dish this simple doesn't require a recipe, but a list of ingredients and basic instructions follow. 

O's Heirloom Tomatoes and Paneer

3 medium heirloom tomatoes, sliced
extra virgin olive oil
1/3 - 1/2 cup cubed paneer cheese
olive oil
unsalted butter
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
basil, cut into chiffonade

Layer sliced tomatoes on a platter, drizzle with extra virgin olive oil, and set side.

Heat a large skillet over medium flame. Coat the bottom of the pan with a film of olive oil and add a small pat of butter. When the butter foams, add the cubed paneer and allow to brown on one side. Toss and brown another side, about 5 minutes total.

Scatter the cooked paneer across the platter of tomatoes. Sprinkle with kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper, and freshly cut basil. Serve while the cheese is still warm.


Too hot + cole slaw

Thus far, July 2011 has been outrageously hot. The weather in central North Carolina is miserably muggy, and though I hate to devote another summer blog post to temperature, it does affect my appetite and my menus. Who wants braised lamb shanks when the thermometer is pushing 100 degrees? Give me meats and veggies on the grill, a salad, and a large iced tea.

Cole slaw is a traditional summer dish, an item that regularly appears on picnic tables and pot luck suppers when temperatures soar. I made a vat of slaw on July 4, served alongside grilled hamburgers and corn on the cob, and though it was good, it wasn't great. And I know why. I used commercial mayonnaise.

Homemade mayonnaise is a revelation. Light and fresh and not too sweet, homemade mayo doesn't contain the preservatives that make most commercial varieties taste so, well, processed. Last night I made my favorite cole slaw again, but this time I used mayo made by hand. Tremendous difference.

The slaw recipe couldn't be simpler — it takes just a couple of minutes to put together after you've made the mayonnaise and cut the veggies. If you aren't confident about homemade mayo, read the label of the commercial varieties before you by, opting for the one with the fewest ingredients, all of which should be easy to identify and pronounce. I'm a fan of Duke's mayo in a pinch.

Oh, and please don't leave the celery seed out of the cole slaw, as it changes the flavor quite a bit.

Traditional Cole Slaw
Makes about 6 servings

1 1/4 cups homemade mayonnaise (recipe follows)
1/3 cup distilled white vinegar
4 tablespoons sugar
1 heaping tablespoon celery seed
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1/2 head green cabbage, finely shredded
1/2 head red cabbage, finely shredded
3-4 carrots, grated

Combine the vinegar and sugar in a small bowl, stirring to dissolve. Add the mayonnaise and celery seed. Season with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

Combine the shredded cabbage and carrots in a large bowl. Pour the dressing over the vegetables and blend well. Refrigerate for at least one hour before serving, allowing the flavors to meld.

Homemade Mayonnaise
Makes about 1 1/4 cup

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon cider vinegar or distilled white vinegar
pinch kosher salt
1 teaspoon Coleman's dry mustard or prepared Dijon mustard
1-2 large pinches sugar
2 egg yolks*
about 1 1/2 cups vegetable oil

Combine the vinegar, lemon juice, salt, dry mustard, and sugar in a bowl and whisk to dissolve the dry ingredients. Add the egg yolks and whisk to combine. Begin whisking these ingredients at a fast pace,
then slowly — drop by drop — add the oil. The mixture will thicken and lighten in color, at which point you can pour the oil in a slow, steady stream, whisking constantly.

Homemade mayonnaise will keep in the refrigerator for about one week.

* Consuming raw egg yolks increases your risk of Salmonella or other food borne illnesses.


Simple Rice Salad

Let's call it The Headache That Negatively Impacted My Appetite. A dull, throbbing pain emanated from behind my left eye and spread across the top and sides of my skull. Never sharp or searing, it didn't interfere with more test driving this weekend (the Volkswagen Golf TDI is the current leader)  but the pain was just unpleasant enough to make me feel sick.

Sunday night I scraped myself off the couch — cranky noggin be damned — and scrounged through kitchen, searching for something edible that was light, easy, and wouldn't require a run to the grocery. The result: rice salad with fresh herbs, a simple dish that I often serve as a side in the summer. 

Rice salad variations are endless, but I rely on a squeeze of lemon, minced shallots, a few ounces of good extra virgin olive oil, and freshly chopped herbs to produce a lovely summer side dish (or a light meal for those who aren't feeling well). To feed healthier appetites add a few cooked peas, chopped steamed asparagus spears, chicken, or shrimp. Use any long-grain rice you'd like — I often have basmati or jasmine in the cupboard. 

My friend Jeanne taught me to cook rice like pasta, in a large pot of boiling water. This method ensures fluffy, individual grains that don't stick together. Give it a try.

Rice Salad with Parsley, Chives and Mint
Makes 3-4 side servings

1 cup long-grain white rice
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 shallot, minced
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons of freshly chopped parsley, chives and mint

Fill a large stockpot with water, add a pinch of salt, and bring it to a rolling boil. Add the rice and cook until just cooked through, about 15 minutes. Drain in a sieve, then spread the rice on a baking sheet to cool.

Put the lemon juice and shallot in a bowl; sprinkle with salt and pepper. Whisk in the olive oil, creating a vinaigrette.

Place the cool rice in a medium bowl and fluff with a fork or your fingers. Judiciously dress with the vinaigrette — you don't want to drown the rice. Sprinkle with freshly chopped herbs just before serving, tossing well to be sure the herbs are evenly distributed. Taste and correct seasoning if necessary.


Honey-Nut Brownies

I've spent the better part of June obsessing about cars instead of food. New vs. used, diesel vs. gasoline, economy hatchback vs. substantial sedan, fun and sporty vs. somewhat boring but reliable. My 10 1/2 year old Subaru still runs, but it's silly to pour anymore money into it. Time to buy a new vehicle. I've gone on test drives, spent hours doing research, and quizzed friends about their cars every night this month. Very little cooking has taken place in my kitchen as a result; I've grown fond of munching on pistachios while reading online car reviews and calling it dinner.

I don't find car shopping fun — pressure from salesmen makes me want to bludgeon them about the head and shoulders with something very, very heavy. I took a break from the craziness last night and baked brownies. Cake-like brownies filled with nuts, brownies that deliver a light dose of chocolate and an interesting twist of honey that catches you by surprise.

I will enjoy one tonight, thinking about cars I can't afford, and tuck a few in my carry-on bag — tomorrow I fly to northern California. Cooler temps, no work, and a celebratory birthday dinner at Chez Panisse await!

 Honey- Nut Brownies
Adapted from Baking: From My Home to Yours
Makes 16 brownies

1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, roughly chopped
4 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup honey
2/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup roughly chopped nuts

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a 9-inch square pan with foil, butter the foil, and place the pan on a baking sheet.

Melt the butter and chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water (the bowl should not touch the water). Remove from the heat when the ingredients are just melted - be careful not to overheat.

Beat the eggs and salt together with a hand mixer or stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. When they are light and foamy, add the honey, sugar and vanilla and beat until smooth, about 2 minutes. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the chocolate-butter mixture. Add the flour and mix just until incorporated. Fold in the nuts with a spatula, then pour into the prepared pan.

Bake for 45-50 minutes. A knife or toothpick inserted into  the center should come out clean. Place the pan on a wire rack and allow to cool for 5 minutes.

Turn the brownies out onto the rack, peel away the foil and invert onto another rack. Cool to room temperature right side up. Dust with confectioners' sugar or cocoa powder just before serving if you'd like.


Buttermilk panna cotta

Friday was Knit Night. Tote bags overflowed with yarn and needles, food was served, general merriment was had. It's really just an excuse to get together with friends, but I find Knit Night inspirational — my knitting always gets a boost.

As hostess for this most recent event, I was in charge of the menu, and I knew exactly what to serve for dessert: buttermilk panna cotta. I recently celebrated a friend's birthday at Ben and Karen Barker's much acclaimed Magnolia Grill in Durham,  and though everything was tasty, this dessert was my hands-down favorite. Soft and creamy, the smooth taste of vanilla was followed by the slightest tang of buttermilk, accentuated by a buttery cornmeal shortbread cookie and the oomph of cherry compote. It satisfied my desire for something sinful-tasting without weighing me down.

I raced to my bookshelf after dinner that night and was thrilled to find the recipe in Sweet Stuff: Karen Barker's American Desserts, a book I've owned for years but never baked from. What was I waiting for? If the rest of the recipes are anything like this one, it's a book I'll be using for years to come.

In lieu of cherries, I tossed fresh strawberries and blueberries with a few tablespoons of sugar and a squeeze of lemon. Left to macerate for 20 minutes, the berries' juices formed a perfect sauce.

And just in case you're interested, I completed a waffle knit dishcloth Friday night. It looks like this:

Buttermilk Panna Cotta
Adapted from Sweet Stuff: Karen Barker's American Desserts
Makes 6 8-ounce servings

2 cups heavy cream, divided
1 tablespoon gelatin
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 vanilla bean
2 cups buttermilk

Pour 1/2 cup of heavy cream into a bowl and sprinkle with gelatin. Set aside for 5 minutes allowing the gelatin to soften.

Place the sugar in a medium saucepan. Split the vanilla bean and scrape the seeds into the sugar. Whisk in the remaining 1 1/2 cups of cream. Add the vanilla pod and cook over medium heat, whisking occasionally; cream should remain just under a simmer. Add the gelatin and cream mixture and sugar until dissolved. Remove from the heat and stir in the buttermilk.

Pour the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer into a pitcher (I used a liquid measuring cup). Divide the mixture among 6 8-ounce ramekins, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for several hours (or up to 2 days) until set.

To serve, loosen the panna cotta by dip the ramekins into hot water. Turn out onto dessert plates, garnish and serve.


Biscotti for Joy

This time last year I was planning a birthday luncheon for my mother, Joy. The menu was simple, but some of the items required a lot of time and effort (like Thomas Keller's illustrious spinach quiche). There is no party this year, no shrimp to pickle or lemon buttercream to master — my mother is cavorting at the beach with a friend. Lucky woman.

I'll take Joy to dinner at Watt's Grocery, one of her favorite Triangle restaurants, when she comes to visit the weekend after her actual birthday. In the meantime, I thought I'd send a hold-over gift, a little something that recognizes her special day, a package that will be waiting for her when she returns from the coast. She's a chocolate fiend, but mailing a box of truffles in 90 degree heat is asking for trouble. After rummaging through several cookbooks, I decided to try Alice Medrich's Whole Wheat Biscotti.

I know, I know — whole wheat biscotti don't sound terribly festive. They sound almost punitive. But Medrich's recipe uses whole wheat pastry flour, which is really quite refined, and biscotti hold well, which is important in this situation. I skipped the suggested flax or sesame seeds (it is a birthday after all), and used chopped pecans in the dough simply because I had some tucked in the freezer. The result is a very crisp, light cookie that would pair well with coffee or tea, as intended.

Now I just have to stop nibbling biscotti, pack them safely away, and get to the UPS store.

Whole Wheat Biscotti
Adapted from Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-in-Your-Mouth Cookies
Makes about 25 biscotti

2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
2/3 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 large eggs
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/4 cup pecans, coarsely chopped

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit, placing a rack in the center. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or grease lightly.

Whisk the flour and baking powder together in a medium bowl.

Using an electric mixer, beat the brown sugar, oil, eggs, salt and vanilla together in a large bowl until thick and pale in color. This will take about 3 minutes. Add the flour mixture and pecans and stir until just combined. The dough will be thick and sticky. Scrape the dough onto a parchment-lined or greased baking sheet and spread it into a 5-by-15-inch rectangle (I used my fingers rather than an unwieldy spatula).

Bake for 30-35 minutes, rotating the pan from front to back halfway though to ensure even browning. Remove from the oven when puffed and firm, and cool on a rack for 20 minutes or more.

Turn the oven heat down to 300 degrees Fahrenheit.

Place the slightly cooled loaf on a work surface and slice into 1/2-inch thick cookies with a serrated knife. Remove the parchment paper or liner from the baking sheet and arrange the cookies about 1/2-inch apart (I actually needed 2 baking sheets to hold them all).  Bake for another 20-25 minutes, until golden brown, rotating the pan(s) again halfway through the process.

Allow to cool on wire racks. The biscotti will keep for 2 weeks in an airtight container.


A continuing ed weekend + broccoli

I spent this past weekend in class. Continuing education is a great thing, and I really enjoyed this particular course — outstanding instructors, terrific classmates, new information — but the days were long and I didn't get much done at home. I was up at 4:30 a.m. Saturday to take my boyfriend (a relatively new development) to the airport; then it was a race home to shower, a trek to the neighbor's to drop off my dog for special keeping while I was away all day, and a mad dash for coffee, arriving at class at 7:30 a.m. Sunday was much of the same, minus the airport drive and extra-early arrival time.

Which is a very long-winded way to say that a) I didn't make it to the farmers' market this weekend and b) I didn't spend much time in the kitchen. I did, however, make one of my favorite go-to vegetable dishes after a long day in class, something so simple it doesn't require much of a recipe: roasted broccoli.

Please, stay with me.

Broccoli isn't exciting or sexy, but roasting it transforms this cruciferous veg into something far different from the limp, insipid specimen most of us grew up with. There's no need to joyously shove it down raw in an effort to eat more healthily, or to drown boiled broccoli in melted cheese (though I don't know how that ever became popular). Roasting broccoli caramelizes its sugars, intensifying the flavor and making it just a tad sweet. The edges get brown and crisp, red pepper flakes add a touch of heat — it's nothing like steam-table broccoli served in the school cafeteria.

This is a great side dish, though I've been known to eat it solo when I'm tired and not terribly hungry. Like I did yesterday.

Note: Be sure to put a metal baking sheet into the oven while it's preheating. Scattering the broccoli onto a sizzling hot baking sheet will help give the final product that caramelized crunch you're going for.

Roasted Broccoli

1 large head of broccoli
kosher salt
hot red pepper flakes
olive oil

Place a baking sheet into the center of the oven; preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

Cut the broccoli florets away from the stalk and place in a large bowl. Trim the tough outer layer from the stalk with a sharp knife and discard; cut the remaining stem into thin rounds and add to the bowl. Add a large pinch of kosher salt, a smaller pinch of hot red pepper flakes, and a few tablespoons of olive oil — just enough to coat the vegetables. Toss.

Scatter the broccoli onto the preheated baking sheet and roast until cooked through, about 20 minutes. Serve warm.


Potato gnocchi

Monday was gnocchi day. It was hazy and damp outside, my energy level matched the weather, and I wanted to do a little knitting while cooking (more on that later). I'd purchased a bag of russet potatoes earlier in the week, inspired to make the delicate potato dumplings after a recent trip to New York. Along with world-class window shopping, outstanding theater, and some fantastic people-watching, my time in the city included a wonderful meal at Barbuto, Jonathan Waxman's homage to rustic Italian fare. The gnocchi there were perfection — cloud-like potato puffs served with spinach and snap peas in brown butter, all lightly dusted with parmesan. I knew I'd have to make gnocchi soon after my return home.

In the past, I've made less-than-success gnocchi. Gnocchi that were heavy and dull; leaden, clunky orbs that left the diner feeling unusually full. It's true that practice makes perfect, and many pounds of Idahos later, I'm consistently pleased with the results. Using a food mill or ricer is imperative when making gnocchi — you end up with a fluffier mashed potato to incorporate into the dough. I think baking the potatoes also lightens the result, but many respected food authorities instruct you to boil them. You'll need a couple of hours to complete the gnocchi from start to finish, but a good chunk of that time can be devoted to something else, as the potatoes need about 1 hour to bake (I opted to knit a heartbreakingly cute baby kimono for my neighbors' recent arrival during that time).

Now that my (light, delicate) gnocchi are cooked and cooled, I must decide what to do with them. A dollop of fresh basil pesto sounds just about perfect, as my herb garden is exploding after such a rainy spring, but I could toss them in a simple tomato sauce. Or saute them with brown butter and sage. Or spread them in shallow gratin dish, sprinkle with shredded parmesan, and shove the wonderful mess under the broiler.

I'll weigh my options while stitching up the kimono.

Potato Gnocchi
Makes enough for 8-10 servings

3 pounds russet potatoes, scrubbed
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 extra-large egg

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Prick the potatoes several times with a fork and place them on a sheet tray. Bake for 1 hour or until tender when pierced with a knife. Allow to cool slightly, but when still warm, then pass the potato flesh through a food mill or ricer.

Put a large stockpot filled with water over a high flame. Add several pinches of kosher salt and bring to a boil. Set up an ice bath in a large bowl; place it next to the stove top.

Create a well in the center of the riced potato — this can be done in a very large bowl or on a clean work surface. Sprinkle with kosher salt and 2 cups of flour. Crack the egg into the center of the well. Using a fork, work the egg into the potato, flour, and salt, creating a soft dough. Knead it gently for a couple of minutes, then divide into small sections (about 6 pieces). Roll each section into a long rope, about 1/2-inch in diameter. Cut the rope into short pieces, about 1/2-inch long, and roll each piece along the tines of a fork (the back side). Spread the raw gnocchi onto a parchment-lined baking sheet lightly dusted with flour.

Gently drop the gnocchi into the pot of simmering water and cook for about 1 1/2 minutes — they will rise to the surface when they're done. Remove from the pot with a slotted spoon and put in the ice bath to cool. Drain the gnocchi, then toss with a few tablespoons olive oil and store, covered, for up to 2 days in the refrigerator. Reheat briefly in hot water (this will take less than a minute), then toss with browned butter in a saute pan until heated through.

You may freeze gnocchi prior to cooking. Place the baking sheet of raw gnocchi in the freezer until each individual dumpling is hard. Transfer to individual freezer bags and store for up to one month.


Whole wheat naan

I find myself in sync with the food editors at The New York Times.

As I scrolled through photos of homemade naan last Wednesday night, searching for just the right shot to accompany this post on this traditional Indian bread, the newspaper was printing (and posting) a wonderful article on tandoor ovens.

While I won't be purchasing a $1299 tandoor anytime soon, I still found the piece interesting. Who knew that a ceramic artist now living in the Florida Keys made thousands of clay ovens for North America's Indian restaurants? Until a lot of extra money comes my way, my conventional oven will have to suffice. Happily, the results of my naan experiment were excellent, and pulling a baking sheet of puffed, zeppelin-like breads from the oven is pretty cool. If only I were as satisfied with the butter chicken I made that night.

I used a little whole wheat flour to assuage the refined-white-flour-guilt I sometimes suffer, but it's unnecessary (and not in keeping with a traditional recipe, from what I can tell). Feel free to use only white flour instead.

Whole Wheat Naan
Makes 12 breads

1 1/4 cups warm water
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
pinch sugar
1/4 cup ghee (clarified butter)
1/4 cup tablespoons plain yogurt
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 heaping teaspoon kosher salt
1-2 tablespoons vegetable oil (for greasing the bowl)

Dissolve the yeast and sugar in warm water. Let it stand for about 5 minutes, until foamy. Add the yogurt and ghee.

Whisk the all-purpose flour, whole wheat flour, and kosher salt together in a large mixing bowl. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and stir to combine. Knead the dough on a lightly floured work surface until smooth, about 7-10 minutes. Allow the dough to rise in a large greased bowl, covered with a dishtowel or plastic wrap, about 1 1/2 - 2 hours or until doubled in size.

Preheat the broiler.

Punch the dough down and turn it onto a lightly floured surface. Knead for about 5 minutes, then divide it into 12 pieces. Cover the pieces with a dishtowel or plastic wrap and allow to rest for 10 minutes. Roll each piece into a thin triangle about 7 inches wide.

Place the rolled doughs onto a baking sheet or broiler tray (you can probably fit 3-4 on one tray) and place them about 5-6 inches below the broiler. Don't get them too close — remember, the breads puff up, and you don't want to set them on fire. Cook for 1-2 minutes, then flip them over and cook the other side. The breads can be brushed with additional ghee if desired.


The potato and onion omelet

The potato-onion omelet is my secret weapon. Sort of.

I pulled one together for an impromptu meal a couple of years ago when my friend Beth was visiting. There wasn't a lot of food in the house, but a quick review of the fridge and pantry revealed potatoes, onion, eggs — just what I needed for a simple omelet. I sliced, sauteed and whisked while she entertained me with stories, and not long after we were enjoying a tasty lunch. Beth still praises that meal, and I rely on this dish several times a year for a fool-proof, comforting supper.

The potato-onion omelet is not a huge secret, of course; this classic Spanish tapa has been enjoyed for eons. But it is one of those easy-to-make, you-likely-have-all-the-ingredients-on-hand, scrumptious dishes that makes you look brilliant. Traditionally cut into small pieces served with other appetizers, this is terrific finger food for a cocktail party, though I'm more likely to eat a slice accompanied by a green salad for dinner.

This dish transforms humble ingredients into something unexpected. Thinly sliced disks of potato are browned in olive oil and combined with slivers caramelized onion, the components layered and suspended in egg. It requires a little more preparation time than my average weeknight meal, but the results are worth it.

If you don't own a cast iron skillet, this is your excuse to purchase one — I wouldn't dream of cooking this omelet in anything else. Skip the overpriced culinary supply stores and look for cast iron at your local hardware store.

The omelet is lovely straight out of the oven, but it's equally enjoyable at room temperature. Leftovers keep up to 4 days, covered, in the refrigerator.

Potato-Onion Omelet
Serves about 8

1/2 - 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 1/4 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and very thinly sliced on a mandoline (about 5 cups)
1 extra large onion, peeled and thinly sliced
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
6-8 fresh thyme sprigs
9 large eggs

Heat a seasoned 10-inch cast iron skillet over medium flame with about 1/4 cup of olive oil. When it's hot but not smoking, add the potato slices (you will hear a sizzle if the oil is hot enough). Work in batches, putting only one layer of potato into the skillet at a time, adding more oil to the pan as needed. Fry on both sides until lightly brown, then place on a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Sprinkle with salt.

When all of the potatoes are cooked, lower the heat and add a little more oil to the pan. Cook the onion slices over medium-low heat until golden brown — this will take 10-15 minutes. Season with salt, pepper, and thyme leaves stripped from their stems. Set aside.

Crack the eggs into a large bowl and whisk. Add the potatoes and onions, another pinch of salt, and stir to combine. Over medium flame, pour this mixture into the skillet. Give the omelet a few shakes and press it gently with a spatula to even out the potatoes and onions. Reduce the flame and cook for a few minutes. When the edges are brown, flip the omelet onto a large plate, raw side up, then slide it back into the pan to cook the other side. Cook for a couple more minutes, then turn it onto a serving plate.


A fabulous strawberry and ricotta tart

The strawberry ricotta tart was worth it. I can't say this about every dessert I make (or eat). In fact, I can't say this about most of them. But Sunday's strawberry wonder was worth every calorie.

It began with a basket of just-picked berries from Lyon Farms. Strawberries were being unloaded from the truck when I walked through the Durham Farmer's Market early Saturday morning, and though my bags were already overflowing with produce, I couldn't help myself. A heaping basket made its way into the fold.

My dinner menu: cream of turnip soup, grilled leg of lamb with rosemary and garlic, sauteed asparagus with pancetta and lemon, Bibb lettuce with radishes and sherry vinaigrette, and the aforementioned, absolutely fabulous strawberry ricotta tart. Everything was delicious, but the tart drew raves. I had seconds that night, a sliver the following morning, another sliver for a snack Monday afternoon, and a full-size serving for dessert. I think a lot of undressed salads and extra-long dog walks are in my future, but I don't regret it. The tart is just that good.

The crisp short dough crust breaks when pierced with a fork, scattering flavorful crumbs among juicy berries and creamy ricotta-cream cheese interior. The recipe, adapted from Cory Schreiber and Julie Richardson's Rustic Fruit Desserts, is time-consuming but not at all difficult. It's one that requires a bit of planning, but you can streamline things by making the dough ahead of time. I plan to use other berries as they come into season — I've got my eye on one particular blackberry bush near my house.

Strawberry and Ricotta Tart
Adapted from Rustic Fruit Desserts
Makes 8-12 servings

1 recipe Short Dough, baked and cooled in a 10-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom (recipe follows)

1 cup whole milk ricotta cheese
2/3 cup room temperature cream cheese
3/4 cup sugar
seeds scraped from 1/2 vanilla bean
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
3 pints (about 6 cups) fresh strawberries, hulled; halved if large
1/2 cup strawberry jam

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Combine the ricotta, cream cheese, sugar, vanilla bean seeds, salt and nutmeg with a mixer (handheld or standing) on medium speed. Add the eggs one at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl to be sure each is fully incorporated. Add the vanilla and stir.

Pour the filling into the baked tart shell and place in the center of the preheated oven. Bake for 30 minutes, until the edges are puffy but the center of the tart is still a little shaky. Cool to room temperature on a wire rack, then chill in the refrigerator for at least one hour.

Immediately before serving, heat the strawberry jam in a small saucepan over low heat, being careful not to let it burn. Pour it over the fresh berries, being sure to strain the jam if it contains seeds. Toss the berries to coat evenly, then place on top of the tart. You could skip the jam altogether and simply serve fresh strawberries alongside the tart.

Leftovers will keep, covered and refrigerated, for 2 to 3 days.

Short Dough
Makes one 10-inch tart shell

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup cold unsalted butter, cubed
2 tablespoons half and half or heavy cream
1 egg yolk

Combine the flour, sugar, and salt in a bowl. Cut in the cold butter with a pastry blender or two forks. Alternatively, combine the dry ingredients in the base of a food processor, add the butter cubes, and pulse a few times. The mixture should resemble a rough cornmeal or very small peas.

Whisk the cream and egg yolk, then stir into the flour mixture with a fork (or pulse very briefly in a food processor). Don't over process — the dough should just come together into a shaggy mass. Press the dough into a 6-inch disk, wrap in plastic wrap, and allow to rest in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator and roll it on a lightly floured surface. Work from the center to the edges, turning the dough occasionally to create a (somewhat) even circle. Roll until the circle is 12 inches in diameter, about 1/8-inch thick.

Place a 10-inch tart pan with a removable bottom onto a baking sheet. Gently press the dough into the pan, tucking it into the bottom and sides. Line it with a piece of parchment paper or aluminum foil and fill with uncooked rice, dried beans, or commercial pie weights, and bake in the center of the oven for 35-40 minutes.

Take the crust from the oven and carefully remove the pie weights (lift the parchment paper or other liner). Return the crust to the oven and cook for 10-15 minutes, until lightly golden.

Cool the crust on a wire rack, checking for cracks. Repair cracks with leftover pie dough, then pour the filling into the crust and proceed with the recipe above. This short dough crust can be prebaked one day in advance and stored at room temperature, carefully covered with plastic wrap.


Ain't no cookie decorator - and turnip soup

A big bowl of turnip soup can cure a a myriad of woes — or at least help soothe a bruised ego.

I knew cake and cookie decorating wasn't my thing when I told C, founder of SpiceLines, that I wanted to participate in her first ever sugar cookie decorating contest.  I wasn't prepared, however, for just how humbling the experience would be. I tried to channel Martha and kept friends' helpful hints and creative suggestions in the back of my mind when I approached this project. (Kitty thought I should dress the camels in party clothes, Rhett suggested using butter icing for more control, Lisa voted for Indian-inspired garb, and Jane pointed out that Martha's staff would actually do the work). I made cookie dough and royal icing, broke out vials of food coloring, and made a big 'ole mess. Such a mess that I couldn't share it with anyone.

So SpiceLines isn't getting photos of my camel cookies — my messily marbled, polka-dotted, and sort-of-geared-up-in-a-circus-outfit camel cookies. I broke the news to C this Friday afternoon, and she was incredibly gracious, confiding that she can't decorate cakes and cookies either. That made me feel better, but I needed a culinary win to really turn my day around. The win came in the form of turnip soup.

This soup is a simple puree — it's a meal when paired with salad and bread. You can use another root vegetable in place of the turnips. Use vegetable stock in place of water for a more flavorful soup.

I think this soup tastes better the day after it's made.

Cream of Turnip Soup
Serves  6

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 medium leeks, white parts only, thinly sliced
4 garlic cloves, minced
4 large turnips, about 2 pounds, peeled and chopped
2 small yukon gold potatoes, about 1 pound, peeled and chopped
3 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
6-7 cups water or vegetable stock
kosher salt
freshly ground pepper
about 1/3 cup half-and-half or heavy cream
minced chives for garnish

Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed soup pot. Add the leeks and garlic and cook over medium-low heat for about 5 minutes, until softened. Add the turnips, potatoes, thyme leaves and water, a pinch of kosher salt, and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes, until the vegetables are tender.

Puree (I used an immersion blender), adjust seasoning, and add half-and-half or cream if desired. Garnish with minced chives.


What Would Martha Do?

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Decorating camel-shaped sugar cookies sounds like fun, doesn't it? Make a few cookies, break out the royal icing, and spend a few hours playing with sanding sugars. It could, it should, be fun. But right now I'm suffering from some sort of sugar cookie paralysis.

Last month, Chapel Hill food blogger C. of SpiceLines decided to hold a cookie decorating contest. She provided the fabulous camel cookie cutters (the camel is the SpiceLines mascot) and inspiration (the lucky winner will receive a copy of Alice Medrich's Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-in-Your-Mouth Cookies). April 25, the deadline for entry photos, looms. Baked, naked camels sit on a cookie sheet in my kitchen, sanding sugars and bottles of food coloring gels at the ready. And I have no clue where to start. My initial impulse: camels-masquerading-as-other-animals. Zebra stripes, tiger spots. Purple sanding sugar doesn't really work with this theme, though.

I can't remember the last time I tried to decorate a cookie. So I'm up the proverbial creek, asking myself, "What would Martha do?" Suggestions welcome!


A birthday, a coconut cake, and neglecting the blog

Over the past few weeks I've taken lousy photographs of a marvelous chocolate pound cake, accidentally deleted photographs of a to-die-for chocolate raspberry layer cake, and given up trying to photograph my favorite chicken under a brick recipe in a dim room. In other words, I've totally botched my blog responsibilities.

As much as I enjoy this blog, life often gets in the way. The fact is, I have a full time job in another arena, and food blogging takes more time than I realized. I recently resolved, however, to devote more energy to Cackalackyfoodie than I have in the past few months. I just hope someone is still reading.

It is with renewed vigor that I present you with coconut cake — a spectacular white coconut cake made to mark my friend Kirstin's 42nd year. The birthday girl opted to gather friends at a local bar for the big event, so I toted the cake (and forks and plates) to a pool hall, where the bartender graciously allowed me to use his knife to slice up dessert midway through the festivities. This recipe, found in pastry chef Joanne Chang's book Flour, is a full-on coconut celebration. Coconut milk makes an appearance in both the cake batter and the frosting it's swathed in, the entire creation covered with fistfuls of finely shredded coconut. Kirstin was thrilled with the cake, her husband even more so — he put down his pool cue for seconds.

I made the cake components in stages, baking the cake layers 2 days in advance, making the frosting 1 day ahead, and assembling everything the day it was served. I love the snow-puff look of a coconut cake. It's especially good for those of us who find cake decorating to be, er, a challenge.

You can find coconut milk in the Asian section of most supermarkets. Be sure to purchase coconut milk,  rather than coconut cream, used to make sweet, sticky adult beverages (and usually found in that section of the grocery store).

White Coconut Cake with Coconut Frosting
Adapted from Flour: Spectacular Recipes from Boston's Flour Bakery + Cafe
Serves 8 to 10

2 1/4 cups cake flour
1 1/4 cups sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into pieces
6 egg whites
1 cup coconut milk
2 cups sweetened shredded coconut
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise

1 1/2 cups sugar
6 egg whites
1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into pieces
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
2/3 cup coconut milk

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, placing the rack in the center. Butter and flour two 8-inch round cake pans, or line them with parchment paper.

Sift the cake flour into a large bowl or the bowl of a heavy stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add the sugar, baking powder and Kosher salt. Combine for a few seconds, setting the mixer speed on low. Add the butter and beat for about 1 minute, until coarse and crumbly.

Combine the egg whites, coconut milk and 1 cup shredded coconut in a medium bowl. Scrape the vanilla bean seeds into this mixture.

Add half of the coconut milk mixture to the flour mixture and beat on medium-high until combined, about a minute. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the remaining wet ingredients at beat for 30 seconds, until the batter is light and fluffy. Divide between the 2 prepared cake pans.

Bake for 35-45 minutes (mine took 40 minutes), until the tops are firm and golden. Allow the cakes to cool completely in the pans on a wire rack.

To make the frosting: Whisk the sugar and egg whites together in a small heatproof bowl. Place the bowl over a pot of simmering water (the bowl should NOT touch the water) and whisk for 6-8 minutes, until hot to the touch. The sugar will melt, thinning the mixture.

Remove the bowl from the heat and scrape the contents into the bowl of a stand mixer. Using the whip attachment, set the speed to medium-high and whip for 6-8 minutes (mine actually took 9-10 minutes), until a light color and cool to the touch. Reduce the speed to low and add the butter a few chunks at a time. Turn the speed up to medium and mix until completely incorporated, about 4-5 minutes. The frosting will look curdled at first, but keep whipping — it will come together.

Add vanilla extract, Kosher salt, and coconut milk to the frosting and whip another 1-2 minutes; the frosting should be smooth. Use the frosting within 30 minutes or store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 day, though it must be beaten until smooth before using. It can also be refrigerated for up to 2 weeks. Bring to room temperature and beat with the stand mixer using the paddle attachment until smooth before using.

Remove the cakes from their pans and level the top of each cake with a serrated knife. Place one cake layer onto a cake plate or pedestal (I put mine on a cardboard round and placed it on a revolving cake stand for easier decorating). Put 2 cups of frosting on top and spread it evenly to the edges using an offset spatula. Place the second layer top-side down on top of the first. Smooth about 1 cup of frosting on top and down the sides of the cake. Refrigerate for 20 minutes (this sets the crumb coat).

Beat the remaining frosting with a spoon to keep it creamy. Spoon it on the cake, spreading it on the top and sides. Press the remaining shredded coconut (1 cup) onto the top and sides of the cake.

The cake can be stored in a airtight container in a cool place for up to 3 days.


Nancy's Cheese Souffle

Friday evenings used to be a night out, an opportunity to let off steam at week's end. Just a few year ago I'd leave work promptly at 5 p.m. and meet friends for happy hour, welcoming the weekend with a glass of wine and a few fancy bar snacks. These days I'm far more likely to sit on the couch with the DVD remote and a large glass of seltzer water at the end of the week. Is it a sign of age or good sense? I'm not sure, but I know a slower Friday routine seems to suit me. 

That said, I hate to be anti-social, and curling up alone on the sofa can be isolating. When my friend Cathy invited me to dinner last Friday night I happily accepted. It was a great break from my stay-at-home routine, low-key but entertaining. We caught up over a delightful homemade meal — cheese souffle served alongside a crisp green salad. Rich but not heavy, the souffle was warm and comforting, its golden brown top rising a few inches above the rim of the casserole dish, wobbling oh-so-softly when removed from the oven. 

I love cheese souffle as a main course, but it would make a lovely starter to a larger meal. Experiment with different cheeses — I'm fond of Roquefort souffles accompanied by a salad of peppery watercress dressed with lemon.

Cathy followed her mother Nancy's recipe. It's wonderful.

Cheese Souffle
Recipe from Nancy Bryson

1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
4-6 eggs, separated (depending on how many you're feeding)
2 cup grated cheese (Cathy used cheddar)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit

Melt butter in large saucepan over medium heat.  Whisk in flour.  Add the milk, stirring constantly. Beat the egg yolks and add to the white sauce. Take off heat and stir in grated cheese.  Whip egg whites until stiff and fold into cheese sauce. Place in lightly greased souffle dish and bake for about 30 minutes. Serve immediately.


An emergency vet visit, general exhaustion, and a coddled egg

Tired and cranky. Those words best described my mood before I discovered that my dog, Gus, had scratched a couple of sutures out of his face Sunday morning. Stitches that were oh-so-carefully put into place after a biopsy last week. After parting with a gazillion (more) dollars at the emergency veterinary clinic that morning, I returned home pretty much exhausted. I wanted nothing more than to crawl into bed, but it was after noon, my stomach was empty, and I knew I needed to consume something moderately healthy if I had any chance of making it to Monday.

My refrigerator's contents determined the midday meal, though I was interested only in warm, comforting dishes, things that would make the world seem a little less topsy-turvy. Eggs were the only available protein source, but a quick scramble or omelet wasn't special enough. I needed a mood-changer, something outside of my regular routine. Enter the coddled egg.

As the name implies, coddled eggs are cooked very gently, almost indulgently. Cracked into a coffee cup or ramekin that's placed into a larger dish filled with hot water, coddled eggs cook slowly with this  until the whites are firm and yolks straddle the line between set and slightly runny. Plain coddled eggs are nice, but I always tart them up a bit, placing cooked vegetables or a piece of toasted bread and cheese in the bottom of the container. The result? A more interesting, flavorful dish, one that's worth a little bit of effort.

I made creamed spinach to accompany my egg, but any cooked vegetable will do. I've used sauteed mushrooms, quickly cooked tomato tossed with cracked olives,  even a few tablespoons of leftover mashed potatoes sprinkled with fresh herbs. Just spoon a bit of the selected veg (or meat) into the bottom of a buttered ramekin, crack an egg on top, and create a bain marie — breakfast (or lunch, or dinner) will be ready within 30 minutes.

Coddled Egg with Creamed Spinach
Serves 1 (with lots of extra spinach)

1/2 cup cream
2 garlic cloves, smashed
1/2 small onion
1 large bunch of spinach, stems remove, finely chopped
Kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
nutmeg, grated

1 egg
soft butter

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Scald the cream with garlic and onion in a small saucepan (small bubbles will come to the surface  — shut off the heat and set aside).

Cook the spinach in a few teaspoons of butter until the pan is dry. Strain the cream and pour it into the pan with the spinach. Bring to a simmer and allow it to thicken. Season with salt, pepper, and a few gratings of nutmeg.

Place a few tablespoons of creamed spinach in to buttered ramekin. Crack an egg into the ramekin, then place it in a small ovenproof pan (Pyrex is a great choice). Bring water to a boil in a kettle, then pour just enough of it into the pan that contains the ramekin to come 3/4 way up its side. Place the pan into a preheated oven and baked for 20-25 minutes, until the egg is set. The white will be firm, the yolk still runny when broken into. Serve with toast.


Hoppin' John

My friend Caroline saved me from a year of poor luck and bad finances.

I've been making (and enjoying) Hoppin' John on New Year's Day for some time, but this year I zoned out. Hoppin' John, a tasty melange of black-eyed peas and rice, is said to bring good fortune to those who consume it on January 1.  When we spoke on New Year's Day, Caroline asked if I'd eaten the requisite foods, and I realized I'd spaced out. I promptly turned the car around and drove to the grocery. Within 30 minutes I was back home, black-eyed peas and tomatoes in hand, ready to whip up a batch of Hoppin' John.

Recipes for Hoppin' John vary wildly. Some versions call for the tomatoes (and sometimes other vegetables, like peppers) to be cooked with rice; others simply combine black-eyed peas and onion with plain rice. I stick with a slight variation of Bill Neal's version — soft, somewhat mushy, ham-flavored peas served atop white rice to create a joyous starch-on-starch medley punctuated by fresh tomato and green onion. It's a fabulous combination of warm, earthy carbs and bright vegetables that should be eaten throughout the year.

Hoppin' John
Adapted from Bill Neal's Southern Cooking
Serves 4 to 6

2 cooked cooked black-eyed peas
2 cups cooked white rice
1 cup fresh tomato, chopped
1/2 cup scallions, finely sliced
Kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
Cheddar cheese, grated (optional)

Black-eyed peas:
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
3 cups fresh black-eyed peas
2 ounces country ham or pork sidemeat
2 bay leaves
2 dried red chiles
water to cover

Heat the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pan over medium flame. Add the onion and garlic, a pinch of Kosher salt, and cook gently until softened, but not browned. Add the remaining ingredients and cover with water by 2 inches. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, skimming away any scum that initially floats to the surface. Cook until the peas are tender; this will take about 25-30 minutes, depending on the freshness and quality of the peas.

Combine the cooked rice and black-eyed peas in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the tomato and scallion, season with Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Stir, cover, and allow to heat through. Add grated cheddar cheese if desired.