Monday, December 28, 2009

Lentil Soup with Fresh Parsley & Garlic Biscuits

There's a little middle eastern restaurant near our house that has the finest and most fragrant lentil soup. My kids just adore it and so does my husband. This afternoon, as I was pondering what to make for supper, I decided to give lentil soup a try. The recipe that I used, torn from the Detroit Free Press, had been stuck on our refrigerator door with a magnet several months ago. I've probably glanced at that tattered piece of newsprint about a thousand times. Finally, who knows why, the spirit moved me to buy some orange lentils and cook up a big pot of the stuff. I'm pleased to report that the recipe is a keeper. It got a giant seal of approval from my guys. When my husband commented that he thought it tasted better than the restaurant's formula, I knew I'd be making it again.

The only liberties I took with this extremely simple recipe were to increase it, to be more generous with the spices (more cumin, salt, and black pepper), and to include a few squeezes of lemon juice. I also used an immersion blender instead of putting the soup into a regular blender (way, way easier--if you don't have one and you like to make soup, you need one!).

Of course, a soup like this, tasty though it is, does not an entire meal make. Okay then, what to serve with it? Well, I thought some savory biscuits might be just the ticket, and indeed they were. I used a recipe for a reliably fluffy, tender, buttermilk biscuit from the book Baking at Home with the Culinary Institute of America, but instead of leaving the biscuits plain I decided to add in some finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley along with a little fresh minced garlic. Perfect!

These were good biscuits, and they went along with the lentil soup like love and marriage. I placed a bowl of seedless red grapes on the table, alongside the biscuit basket, and we were good to go.

You'll like this combo!

Lentil Soup
(For a printable version of this recipe, along with the biscuit recipe below, click here!)

3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 x-large clove of garlic, peeled and chopped
1 medium yellow onion, coarsley chopped
3 cups orange lentils, rinsed
9 cups water or vegetable broth (I used water)
3 and 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
2 tsp. salt
3/4 tsp. fresh ground black pepper
fresh lemon juice to taste

In a large stock pot, heat the oil over medium heat. Saute the garlic for 1 minute, then add in the chopped onion and and saute until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the lentils and stir to coat them in the oil. Add in the water or stock and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium, cover the pot and cook, removing any foam that rises to the top, until the lentils are tender, about 30 to 40 minutes (mine took barely 30 minutes). Remove the pot from the heat and set it aside to cool for 15 minutes.

Once slightly cooled, puree the soup until almost smooth using an immersion blender (if you have just a regular blender, use that, pouring the unpureed soup into it in batches, then pouring the pureed soup into its own separate pot). Add in the cumin, salt, pepper, and lemon juice to taste. Bring the soup to a boil over medium high heat, stirring frequently. Reduce the heat to low, and simmer until ready to serve.

If you like, top each bowl of soup with a hefty pinch of chopped parsley and a wedge of lemon on the side.

Buttermilk Biscuits with Fresh Parsley & Garlic

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

3 cups of All Purpose flour, plus extra for dusting (I used bleached)
2 and 1/2 Tbsp. granulated sugar
1 and 1/2 Tbsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1 medium garlic clove, peeled and finely minced
1 Tbsp. finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
8 Tbsp. cold unsalted butter, diced
2/3 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup milk, plus more for brushing

Blend together the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. In a separate small bowl, mix together the parsley and garlic, then add that into the combined dry ingredients. Cut in the butter (I used a pastry blender) until the mixture resembles pea-sized pieces.

Add in the buttermilk and milk, mixing just to combine.

On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough to a thickness of 1 inch. Fold the rolled dough in half, turn it, roll it, and repeat this 3 or 4 times for a final thickness of 1 inch.

Cut the dough with a biscuit cutter. (Reroll the extra dough scraps only once if you can help it; more than that may lead to toughened biscuits.)

Place the dough pieces onto the covered baking sheet. With a pastry brush, lightly brush milk on the top of each one.

Bake for approximately 10 to 15 minutes. Let the biscuits cool on wire racks, or serve them warm.

Recipe full disclosure!
This soup recipe came from the food section of the Detroit Free Press. I believe it was published in 2009, but I have no idea which month or day. I could not find the exact recipe on their website in order to confirm the date. At the bottom of the recipe that I have it says, "Adapted from Lila Amen, Dearborn. Tested by Susan M. Selaskey for the Free Press Test Kitchen."

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Sunday, December 27, 2009

Post-Holiday Contentedness & the Rebel . . .

So, did you survive the big day? I hope so. It's wonderful and all, but I'm kind of glad it's behind us. Not in a bad way or anything, but it's nice to have a few days to relax post-Christmas, don't you think? No fancy meals to worry about preparing, no more packages to wrap, no need to fret about getting all of those special tasks completed in a pressure cooker time-frame. In the holiday's immediate wake, I love having the opportunity to spend some extra time with my husband and kids, as we each wallow contentedly in the thoughtful and fun gifts we've received, with no imperative to rush about.

I must say I was fortunate to be the recipient of some fabulous cookbooks this year. The one that I'd hoped Santa would bestow upon me most of all was Rose Levy Beranbaum's newest tome Rose's Heavenly Cakes; now that's a beautiful cookbook. She must have sold about a million copies of that baby in the last month alone, don't you think? Another one I'd been yearning for was The Craft of Baking by Karen DeMasco (also new this year and jam packed with luscious-looking possibilities), and last but not least The Perfect Scoop by David Lebovitz, a book that seems to be legitimately de rigeur these days if you're interested in making sensational ice creams and sorbets from scratch.

Probably the most exciting item (for me at least!) that made its way into our household a couple of days before Christmas was a new camera, a DSLR from the Canon Rebel series. Not a present to ourselves exactly, but something that we'd wanted for a while but couldn't justify purchasing until we found it at an unbelievably discounted price. I'm just getting acquainted with the Rebel (I love having a camera that doesn't have a namby-pamby name) and there's a lot to absorb.

I readily admit that I know very little about "real" photography, and I've stumbled along as best I can trying to take pictures that are worth looking at. I'd wager that at least ninety-five percent of the digital photos I've taken since I started this blog were not worth saving let alone putting into a post. Do you suppose it's like that for most amateurs who take pictures regularly? I don't know, but I'm hopeful, in any case, that that percentage will begin to change as I eventually figure out how to take full advantage of this camera's more advanced features. We shall see.

The few photos you see in this post were taken today with my new friend, the Rebel.

Will bake again soon. Talk to you later!

P.S. See the squirrel ornament above? Yeah, that's a squirrel. Can't see his fluffy little tail in this shot. He's very small and he's my husband's favorite ornament. Funny! (The cupcake ornament below is one of my many favorites. I'm a complete sucker for ornaments shaped like baked goods.)

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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Merry Mocha Streusel Bars . . .

Someone stop me before I bake again.

On second thought, please forget I ever said that (what was I thinking?). At Christmas time that kind of talk is heresy, don't you agree? I think you do. In fact, your unwavering agreement on this point means the world to me. Without it, I don't think I'd feel quite right about sharing today's tasty contribution to the Yuletide cookie platter--mocha streusel bars--and that would just be a shame.

This is a minor variation on a cookie-bar recipe that my mom used to make once a year, without fail, at Christmas. We'd spend an entire mid-December day in her kitchen making perhaps eight varieties of cookies. My mom, my Aunt Lydia, sometimes my sister, and occasionally one of my cousins would be there, too. Just a bunch of girls. We'd have a regular production line going. It's still one of my favorite memories. We'd talk and laugh and drink tea and sample the cookies one by one. Can't buy memories like that in a store.

The faded old index card that my mother typed out, decades ago, indicates she found this recipe in a print ad for Eagle brand sweetened condensed milk. The original is called simply "chocolate streusel bars." I changed it by omitting chopped nuts from the streusel, and by adding in a little bit of coffee to bring out the richer dimensions of the cocoa powder. Oh, and instead of using all regular unsweetened cocoa powder, I used half dutch-processed and half regular. You get way more flavor oomph from the dutch cocoa, and in a recipe like this, where acidity or lack thereof in the cocoa is not a factor that would have a negative impact on anything else in the recipe, why not use it?

These bars need to be refrigerated for longer storage, but the flavor is best if they're allowed to come to cool room temperature before you serve them. Very, very good!

Mocha Streusel Bars

(For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly spray or grease the bottom of a 9" x 13" baking pan. Line the pan with parchment paper so the edges come up above the sides of the pan (you'll use them as handles to remove the bars after they've been baked and chilled).

1 and 3/4 cups All Purpose flour (bleached or unbleached)
1 and 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
1/4 cup dutch processed cocoa
1 tsp. crushed freeze-dried coffee crystals or espresso powder
1 cup cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
8 oz. cream cheese, softened, and at room temperature
1 - 14 oz. can sweetened condensed milk
1 egg, large, lightly beaten
2 tsp. vanilla extract

In a large bowl, by hand, combine the flour, sugar, cocoas, and coffee. Cut in the butter pieces with a pastry blender until the mixture appears dry and crumbly, with no large chunks of butter remaining. Set aside 2 cups of this mixture.

Press the remainder of the mixture on the bottom of the prepared pan. Press down firmly to compact the crumbs. Bake for 15 minutes, then remove from the oven and set aside.

In the bowl of a mixer, beat the cream cheese on medium speed until fluffy and smooth.

Gradually beat in the condensed milk. Add in the egg and vanilla extract and mix well.

Pour this mixture over the baked crust and spread it out evenly. It will be quite fluid. Sprinkle all of the remaining crumb mixture over the top.

Very gently pat the crumbs down just a bit.

Bake for 25 minutes, or until slightly bubbly. Cool the bars in the pan, then chill them in the fridge for at least an hour. To remove the uncut bars from the pan, lift up firmly on the parchment. Slice the bars with a very sharp knife. Store them, well covered, in the refrigerator. These bars freeze really well.

Merry Christmas!

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Monday, December 21, 2009

Double Chocolate Cookie-Crumb Peppermint Bark . . .

Have you ever used peppermint oil in a recipe? Natural peppermint oil versus peppermint extract, I mean? I think it's a little like the difference between the taste of a really good candy cane and the taste of toothpaste. If you're going to use one or the other in a chocolate-based recipe I recommend a few drops of the oil. Tiny little bottles of flavoring oils--some natural and some artificially flavored--can be found in stores that sell candy-making and cake decorating supplies. Like miniature bottles of perfume, flavored oils are measured in drams and come in all varieties. They're just about as strong as real perfume too, so you don't want to spill this stuff!

Bark can literally be made in minutes and anyone can do it. For this simple festive treat I used one bag of Ghirardelli bittersweet chips and one bag of their milk chocolate chips. I melted the two types of chips in separate bowls and gently stirred until they were each completely smooth. Then I added two or three drops of Lorann brand natural peppermint oil to each bowl and mixed that in. Next, I poured the two chocolates, in alternate spoonfuls, all over a very lightly sprayed (with the smallest amount of a vegetable spray, like Pam) flexible plastic sheet that I'd placed on a cookie sheet with sides. I quickly spread the chocolate evenly over the sheet with an offset spatula, casually swirling it together.

Before the warm chocolate had a chance to start to cool, I sprinkled it with about one cup of crushed up chocolate cookie crumbs (I used Oreo cookie wafers, with the white filling scraped off), then I sprinkled that with the crushed-up pieces from two or three traditional, red and white, candy canes. I gently pressed the crumbs and candy pieces into the top, just enough to make sure they were well settled into the surface of the chocolate. The whole thing, on the cookie sheet, then went into the fridge for about an hour or more. Once it was completely firm, I lifted up an edge of the plastic and bent that back to start breaking the chocolate into pieces. (If you like, you can try cutting the bark with cookie cutters while it's not completely solid, but that's not foolproof. You might get a few perfect shapes, while others break apart. They'll all still taste fantastic, in any case.)

How easy is that? So easy, I'm not even sure it has the right to call itself a recipe!

P.S. Store your bark in the fridge, in a well sealed container, so it doesn't get too warm and it's not exposed to odors from other foods.

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Orange-Almond Butter Buttons . . . (Christmas Cookie Production Continues!)

And the Christmas cookie parade marches on . . . here comes another one! These unassuming little cookies are crisp, almondy, and permeated with the delicate zing of orange zest and fresh-squeezed orange juice--the perfect partner to a hot cup of Christmas tea. Adapted from a recipe called Lime Pecan Butter Cookies in the book Simple American Cooking by Chuck Williams (of Williams- Sonoma fame), I chose to substitute the fruit and nut of my choice. In addition to that, I thought they looked remarkably like diminutive buttons, and we all know that buttons require button holes. I did a little rewording of the instructions, and I added the possibility of a sweet orange glaze to top them off.

The base recipe is kind of unusual for a butter cookie in that it contains an egg white and it undergoes quite a long period of beating before the flour is added in. It's not rich in the way that shortbread is, but it does have a subtle buttery quality that's just right.

If you prefer a sweeter version than just the plain cookie, you can ice it easily with a quickly made glaze of confectioners' sugar and fresh orange juice. Mmmmm . . .

Orange-Almond Butter Buttons

(For a printable version of this recipe click here!)

2 cups All Purpose flour (I used bleached)
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/4 tsp. salt
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 cup unblanched almonds, coarsely chopped
1 small orange, unpeeled
3/4 unsalted butter, cut into cubes (I used slightly softened butter)
1 egg white (I used a large egg)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.

In a bowl, sift together the flour, cornstarch, and salt. Set aside.

In a food processor fitted with the metal blade, combine 1/4 of the sugar and all of the chopped almonds. Pulse until finely chopped. Set aside.

Using the fine holes of a grater, grate off the zest of the entire orange. Cut the orange in half and squeeze out the juice (remove any seeds). Set the zest and juice aside.

In the bowel of a mixer, combine the remaining sugar and the butter and beat on medium speed for about 5 minutes, until light. Add in the egg white, all of the zest, and about 2/3 of the orange juice. Continue beating on medium speed until fluffy, 8 to 10 minutes. Scrape the sides of the bowl as needed.

Reduce the speed to low and carefully beat in the flour mixture, a little at a time. Add in the ground almonds and beat until well blended.

Make balls of dough about 1" in circumference. Place the balls on your parchment-covered cookie sheet about an inch apart and press your thumb down across each one.

Using a pointed skewer, poke four little holes in each one, just as they'd be placed in a button.

Bake until they start to turn lightly golden around the edges, 12 to 18 minutes. Let the cookies cool on a rack.

To make a thin glaze: In a small bowl, stir together up to one cup of confectioners sugar and the remainder of the orange juice. Adjust the thickness as you prefer by adding more or less juice. If it's thin enough, it's easy to simply pour it over each cookie if they're placed on a rack over a cookie sheet with sides. Let the glazed cookies sit out to dry for half an hour or so before storing them.

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That's a Cookie with Character: Robust Molasses Cookies . . .

My hubby says he loves molasses cookies, which I, for some unknown reason, barely ever remember to make for him. The recipe below, which I zealously ripped from the latest Penzey's spice catalog, is a really, really good one. With a great combination of warm complex flavors, it somehow has more character than a typical molasses cookie. What kind of character am I talking about? Well, if this cookie could help a little old lady cross the street, I think it would do so without hesitation. One might say it's an Eagle Scout of a cookie, and that's exactly the kind of character you want in a molasses cookie--am I right?

It's definitely sweet enough, though not remotely cloying. And it doesn't bombard you with its spiciness, despite the fact that it contains a healthy amount of ginger, cinnamon, and--that bad boy of the baking-spice rack--ground cloves. The only aspect of the recipe's ingredients that I want to note for you is that I used "robust" molasses instead of light molasses, Grandma's brand Robust variety to be specific. It's described on the jar as being slightly less sweet than their light molasses and, of course, it's a deeper shade of brown. (Note that "robust" molasses does not equal blackstrap molasses, the latter of which is substantially more bitter.)

If you want these cookies to be a bit soft and chewy, bake them the absolute minimum amount of time. I found that there's an extremely fine line here between raw-on-the-inside and baked-just-long-enough to make them come out chewy but not too crunchy. My intention was to go for chewy, but the first couple cookie sheets I baked were in the oven just a wee bit too long. Crunchy or chewy, though, they will be delicious.

This recipe gets a big seal of Jane's Sweets approval. (Yes, I reworded the instructions just slightly here and there. Nothing big.)

Molasses Cookies

(For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)

1 and 1⁄2 cups vegetable shortening, melted and cooled (I melted the shortening slowly in a sauce pan on very low heat, then poured it into a glass-pitcher type measuring cup and put it in the fridge for maybe 15 minutes to speed the cooling. In the original recipe, they say,"Butter does not work well for this recipe, as the cookies won’t get the traditional crinkly look." So, don't substitute butter!)

2 cups granulated sugar
1⁄2 cup molasses (I used "robust"; you could use light instead, but don't use blackstrap)
2 eggs
4 cups All-Purpose flour (unsifted)
4 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. ground cloves
1 tsp. ground ginger
2 tsp. cinnamon (I used Vietnamese/Saigon Cassia cinnamon--intense and wonderful!)
1 tsp. salt
1⁄3 cup extra sugar for rolling

To the melted, cooled shortening add the sugar, molasses, and eggs. Beat well.

In a separate bowl, sift together the dry ingredients. Add the dry ingredients to
the wet ingredients, mixing with a spoon (or on the lowest speed with your mixer, which is what I did) to incorporate. Chill the dough for at least an hour or more.

Preheat oven to 375°. Using about a tablespoon of dough, form into balls.

Roll in sugar and place on ungreased cookie sheets lined with parchment, about 2 inches apart.

Bake for 7-9 minutes. Check at 7 minutees. You want them to flatten out but still be soft. Let the cookies cool for 1-2 minutes before removing them from the pan.

Recipe full disclosure! -- This recipe appears in the December 2009 Penzey's spice catalog and is credited to Linda Aukerman of Findlay, Ohio, who notes that it is "an old family recipe that we've been making for years."

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Friday, December 11, 2009

Raspberry Rugelach . . . and that's just for starters!

Well, it's two weeks until the big day and there's no denying that bakers of all stripes are now in the thick of hardcore cookie-production. Can't you just hear the well-oiled gears of the Christmas cookie-baking machine churning away all over America? I can. I've been hearing them rev up for weeks now. Sometimes they're so loud they keep me up at night. Who's out there baking at 3 in the morning anyway? (Honey, whoever you are, just back away from your sanding sugar and go get some sleep. Don't argue with me.)

Until this morning, I hadn't yet put my own cookie-making pedal to the metal (forgive the mixed metaphors . . . you know I how I love to mix things). I am obligated to crank out a lot of cookies over the next few days. A few dozen for a church fundraiser, probably at least eight dozen for my husband's office holiday event, not to mention cookies to keep at home and freeze for the actual holidays themselves. Oh, and can't forget some for my 82-year old dad and my older brother. And let's not leave out my sister, Joanie, who has an annual craving for our late mom's old thumbprint recipe. She'll be blowing into town from Connecticut on the 23rd (she's always been one to cut it close).

Got my work cut out for me . . .

I waded buoyantly into the cookie-making fray at 8:00 a.m. this morning, mere minutes after my youngest son left for school. Clutching a recipe for raspberry rugelach, I felt compelled to get my foot in the holiday-cookie door largely because I knew I could throw the dough together really quickly, toss it in the fridge for its mandatory chill, and then go about the business of my non-baking life for a while and do the assembly and baking later on today (yes, I do sometimes engage in non-baking related pursuits, contrary to popular belief; woman does not live by baked goods alone, you know).

As for the particular recipe that I chose, I read through a handful of them for rugelach last night and thought this one seemed a little more logically structured than the others. It's from the book Baking at Home with the Culinary Institute of America. (This is a great resource; the very first blog post I did was for blueberry muffins, from this book, and they were exceptional.) I made no changes at all to the formula. It sounded really good to me as is. I did, though, do some of my usual editorializing in the instructions, along with a little rewording here and there.

I'm glad I picked this recipe because the combined flavors meld together beautifully. We have raspberry (always a hit), a barely perceptible hint of chocolate (who could complain?), pecans (yeah, like those too), and cinnamon (nothing negative to say about cinnamon . . . it's so lovable). Rugelach is actually a pretty simple item to make, but it looks deceptively time consuming. That kind of deception is a good thing at Christmas. It gets you way more "ooohhs" and "ahhhhs" than a run o' the mill sugar cookie (though I have nothing against those either . . . you guys know I don't discriminate). So go ahead. No more procrastinating. Get your cookie engine running and go make some rugelach!

Raspberry Rugelach

(For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)

2 cups All Purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1/4 tsp. salt
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
8 oz cream cheese at room temperature
1 and 1/2 cups pecans, toasted
1/3 cup chopped semisweet chocolate (optional; I used mini chocolate chips)
1 cup raspberry jam (I used seedless)
1/3 cup cinnamon sugar (1/3 cup sugar mixed with 1/2 tsp. cinnamon)
egg wash (1 large egg, beaten with 2 Tbsp. milk or cold water; I used water)

Sift the flour and salt into a bowl and set aside.

In a mixer, using the paddle attachment, cream together the cream cheese and butter on medium speed for about 2 minutes. With the mixer on low speed, mix in the dry ingredients just until combined, scraping the bowl as needed to evenly blend. Tightly wrap the dough and chill it for 15 to 20 minutes, or until it's firm.

Roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface until it's 1 inch thick all over. Fold the dough over into thirds, like you'd fold a letter. Wrap the dough and chill it for at least 1 hour, and up to 24 hours.

To prepare the filling, combine the pecans and chocolate in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse repeatedly until the mixture forms a coarse paste. (I pulsed until a bit of it held together when I pressed with my fingers; it was not truly like "paste" for me, but it worked just fine the way it was.) Dump it all into a bowl, add in all of the jam, and stir until it's well combined.
When you're ready to assemble and bake, preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Line your cookie sheets with parchment paper. Divide the chilled dough into 4 equal pieces. Return three of them to the fridge while you work on the first one.

On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough into a 10" circle. Spread 1/4 of the filling evenly all over the circle, extending almost right up to the edge. Sprinkle 1/4 of the cinnamon sugar evenly over the filling.

Cut the circle evenly into wedges; 16 if you want very small rugelach, 12 if you'd like them slightly larger (I used a sharp pizza wheel to cut them; I made mine into 12 wedges and they were still small). Roll the wedges up, starting at the wide end. Curve the ends in slightly, like a crescent, if you wish.

Place them on your lined cookie sheet. Brush them gently with the egg wash, and sprinkle each one with cinnamon sugar.

Bake them until light golden brown, for approximately 25 to 30 minutes (mine only took about 22 minutes). Transfer the finished rugelach to wire racks and cool them completely before storing or serving them.

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