Sunday, June 26, 2011

Kentucky Butter Cake (aka Wedding Cupcakes)

Yesterday, my next-door neighborsand dear, dear friendsgot married. It was a lovely ceremony, on top of a defunct volcano up the hill from our house, full of green trees and a distant mountain and good friends and so much love that I think my heart exploded a little bit. And cupcakes.

I spent the last several weeks baking batch after batch of cupcakes, wrapping them well and stashing them deep in the freezer (and the freezers of others when I ran out of space). I learned more than I thought there was to know about frosting, from using an Italian meringue in the service of a not-too-sweet-and-meltproof buttercream, to white chocolate's ability to secretly stabilize a June-proof cream cheese frosting (thanks, Cake Bible!). I baked rich, moist chocolate cupcakes; tangy, summery lemon-yogurt-strawberry cupcakes; and the cake I hadn't had since I left high school: Kentucky Butter Cake.

This recipe comes from the bakery where I worked as a teenager, and tastes the way you remember childhood yellow cakes tasting (instead of the disappointing, one-dimensional sugar bombs they seem to have become). These are rich and buttery (natch), drenched in a syrupy glaze (when they're not also enrobed in buttercream), but light from careful preparation and the lovely lift of buttermilk. But who wants to talk about cupcakes? It's really about love.

But it's hard to find the words to capture that. So I'll leave you with those of James Salter:

Life is weather. Life is meals.
Lunches on a blue checked cloth on which salt has spilled.

The smell of tobacco. Brie, yellow apples, wood-handled knives.

Happy wedding, and happy happy life to my loves. And cupcakes for everyone.

Kentucky Butter Cake (aka wedding cupcakes)

adapted from The Baker's Cafe

yields a 9” bundt cake, or 24 cupcakes

3 cups flour
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
heaping ½ tsp salt
1 cup butter, softened to room temperature
2 cups sugar
4 eggs (best if these are at room temperature)
2 tsp vanilla
1 cup buttermilk (best if this is at room temperature)

½ cup sugar
¼ cup butter
1 ½ tsp vanilla
2 Tbsp water

Preheat your oven to 350. Grease and flour a 9” bundt pan, or place liners in 2 dozen muffin cups. Set aside.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.

Using an electric mixer, beat the softened butter until light and fluffy. Add the sugar, and beat until light and fluffy again, stopping a few times to scrape down the sides. Add the eggs, one by one, beating well after each addition and scraping down the sides regularly. Add the vanilla, and mix well.

Lower the speed of the mixer, and add 1/3 of the dry mixture, mixing on low until just barely combined (stop just shy of a uniform mixture to avoid over-mixing), and scrape down the sides/bottom to enure there are no un-mixed pockets. Add half of the buttermilk, and again mix until barely combined. Repeat the process, adding half of the remaining flour mixture, all of the remaining buttermilk, and then all of the remaining dries. Pour into the prepared bundt or cupcake pans, and bake until a tester comes out clean (~50 minutes for a bundt cake, ~20 for cupcakes).

While the cake is baking, prepare the glaze. Combine all of the glaze ingredients in a medium saucepan. When the cake comes out of the oven, stir and simmer the glaze until the mixture begins to bubble. Pour the warm glaze over the warm cake in its pan.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Vietnamese Turmeric Fish with Rice Noodles, Dill and Nuoc Cham

For many diners, all it takes to enjoy a meal is the right condiment. Some people (and, for convenience, we'll call them Midwesterners) douse any number of dishes with ketchup before consumption. Others carry around a small bottle of a favorite hot sauce in their purse. For me, the magic condiment is fish sauce and lime juice.

Okay, it's not quite as versatile as ketchup. And I realize that fewer Americans share this obsession. But I love, love, love this combination. Funky, salty, umami-rich fish sauce, mixed with a bright sour hit of lime? Perfect. Add a little sugar to sweeten out the edge, and some water to lighten things up (yielding nuoc cham, a favored dipping sauce), and there's nothing better. And lest you vegetarians feel left out, you can often find fish-free fish sauce substitutes at Asian markets (look for the Vietnamese word chay, which means vegetarian, and also look out that it doesn't use msg as a shortcut). Even if you're wedded to ketchup, you should give this combination a try.

I usually put together my favorite nuoc cham to dress rice noodle salads (or, if I must admit, frozen potstickers). But a few years ago I tried this amazing catfish dish at a local Thai restaurant. Catfish was dredged in a turmeric-heavy rice flour coating, then pan-fried and served on a bed of rice noodles. Some fresh herbs (including the I-didn't-know-it-was-used-in-Southeast-Asian-cooking dill) were sprinkled on top. And my beloved fish sauce dressing pulled it together beautifully. A basic fried fish, when it came down to it, with an exciting punch of flavors. I had to make it at home.

Trolling around the internet, I discovered that this recipe is famous in Vietnam, originating in Hanoi's Chả Cá Lã Vọng restaurant. Recipes vary -- some with fried shallots, some with grilled instead of pan-fried fish -- but the basic model of turmeric-scented fish, rice noodles, fresh dill and nuoc cham remains the same. I've made it several times, barely following a recipe, adapting to the fresh herbs on hand (as long as dill is in the mix), and often tossing in some totally non-traditional broccoli or spinach to green up the meal. Sometimes I fry whole fish fillets and break them into the rice noodles as I eat, other times I cut the fish into bite-sized pieces before dredging and frying. It's always great. It's also a lovely summer choice, as there's no oven involved, just a bit of pan-frying. So when I had some fresh dill left over recently after cooking up a pile of Swedish midsommar food, and when I realized I had never told you about this dish, it was the logical dinner choice. Perhaps it'll win over some new nuoc cham devotees.

Vietnamese Turmeric Fish with Rice Noodles, Dill and Nuoc Cham

serves 4
adapted from several sources, notably Mai Pham's
The Flavors of Asia

1/3 cup lime juice
1/2 cup fish sauce
1-2 Tbsp sugar
1/2 cup water
1 clove garlic, minced
4 small fresh chilies (or more or less to taste), sliced into rings

Noodles, Fish and Herbs:
6 ounces rice vermicelli (1/2 package)
1/2 cup rice flour
1 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp salt
2 large fillets (~1 lb) catfish, tilapia, or similar fish (I'm currently smitten with the cheap-and-delicious Swai), left in fillets or cut into 2" pieces, as you prefer
2-3 Tbsp high-heat oil for cooking, such as canola
1 bunch scallions, thinly-sliced (~1/2 cup)
1 bunch dill, roughly chopped (~1 cup), divided
1 handful basil leaves, roughly chopped
1 handful cilantro, roughly chopped
1/4 cup roasted peanuts
hot sauce, such as sriracha

Prepare the dressing by mixing together all of the dressing ingredients in a bowl. Adjust as needed to get the hot-sour-salty-sweet balance to your taste. Set aside.

Cook the rice noodles according to the directions on the package, and set aside at room temperature.

Heat a large frypan over a medium-high heat. On a plate, mix together the rice flour, turmeric and salt until well-combined. Place the fish on the plate, and press into the rice flour coating so that it adheres. Turn the fish over over and coat the other side.

When the pan is hot, add ~2 Tbsp oil. Add the fish, and fry on each side until done, ~3-5 minutes per side, depending upon the size of your pieces. Remove from the pan and set aside. In the same skillet (adding another Tbsp of oil if it's dry), add the scallions and half of the dill. Saute for a minute or two, until the herbs soften and just begin to cook. Turn off the heat, and add the remaining dill and the other fresh herbs.

To serve, place a pile of rice noodles into a bowl. Top with a portion of fish and some of the herb mixture. Sprinkle with peanuts, dress with the fish sauce dressing, and add hot sauce as desired.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Chocolate Cinnamon Cookies

Recently a reader expressed an interest in a vegan version of this rich pistachio pudding. Despite its dairy-filled indulgence, that recipe actually lends itself fairly well to veganizing: the ground pistachio contribute a richness that compensates for any less-than-creamy faux-creams you want to swap out, and it's thickened with a cornstarch slurry instead of eggs. But the problem comes in putting together the whole package: part of the pudding's perfection comes in pairing it with bittersweet snappy-crisp chocolate cookies, to offset all that smooth. And so, here's an alternative: a dairy-free, egg-free, snappy-crisp chocolate cookie. Don't say I don't aim to please.

The recipe comes from the doyenne of vegan cookies, Isa Moskowitz. She introduced these as Mexican hot chocolate snickerdoodles, but due to my disagreements with cayenne, I ended up just adapting them as a regular ole chocolate cookie. But they are still quite exciting. The texture is perfect, crisp-but-not-too-crisp, and they crackle beautifully in the oven. The bit of cinnamon in the dough (and in the cinnamon-sugar dusting it gets before the oven) doesn't overwhelm the cookie, but nicely complements the chocolate flavor. They're perfect for enjoying with a cold glass of milk (or soymilk), sandwiching with some summer ice cream (or soycream), or dunking into a dish of rich, smooth pudding.

Chocolate Cinnamon Cookies

adapted from Isa Chandra Moskowitz, from her book Vegan Cookies Invade Your Cookie Jar
yields ~4 dozen cookies

1/3 cup sugar
1 tsp cinnamon

1 2/3 cup flour
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp cayenne (optional, for a spicy cookie)
1/2 cup canola oil
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup maple syrup
3 Tbsp milk (or soymilk)
1 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper, or grease well.

Mix together the cinnamon and sugar for the topping in a small dish, and set aside.

In a bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and cayenne (if using). Set aside.

In a mixer or large bowl, mix together the oil, sugar, maple syrup, milk and vanilla until well combined. Add the dry ingredients, stirring until dough comes together.

Scoop out tablespoons of dough (a mini ice-cream scoop makes this ridiculously easy, though it can also be done with two spoons), and plop them into the dish of cinnamon-sugar. Roll around to coat, then transfer to the prepared cookie sheets. Repeat with the remaining dough, leaving ample space for the cookies to spread. Press on each cookie to flatten it into a not-too-thick disc (a little thicker than the finished cookie, as they will continue to spread in the oven). Transfer to the preheated oven and bake ~10 minutes, until the cookies have spread and gotten crackly on top (they won't be entirely set). Remove, and let cool on the cookie sheet for 5 minutes, until firm enough to transfer. Move to a cool rack to cool completely.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Tomato Biryani

There's an old piece of advice regarding good hostessing and housewifery: never try out a new recipe with company. I'm not fully on board -- sometimes produce-driven inspiration strikes, or you find the perfect recipe right before a party (or you just want something special and new to excite you). But I understand the reason for the rule. As someone who cooks a lot, I've had my share of culinary flops. And I wouldn't want to subject my guests to these sorts of sunken cakes, crumbly breads, and underwhelming entrees. So for the most part, when others are involved, I stick to known commodities.

But sometimes I just don't take my own good advice. A few years ago, I took a bad idea even further: instead of cooking a strange recipe for a dinner guest, I brought it along for a bulk cooking project with a friend. The plan was to bust out her shiny new food-storage machine (the kind that seals food in plastic and sucks the air out), and make 10x a few recipes, and thus be set with insta-meals for months to come. We made my beloved spanikopita, a tomato-chickpea curry I'd tried before, and then, against better judgment, a new recipe for biryani. I knew it was dicey to end up with pounds upon pounds of an untested recipe, but c'mon, it's biryani! Just Indian seasoned rice and vegetables! How could it be bad?

As you may have figured from my dramatic lead up, it was bad. Really bad. So-bad-even-thrifty-me-threw-it-out bad. The seasonings were wrong, the vegetables didn't work together, and the rice was mushy. I tried to choke down a bit of the awful mixture, but ended up moving the contents of those neatly-sealed bags from the freezer to the compost. Thus scarred, I avoided both bulk cooking and biryani for several years. But now, biryani has been redeemed.

When I first saw this recipe, I thought it was almost boring. Just tomatoes? No saffron or other such excitement? But it works, and it's perfect. Warm spices like cinnamon and cardamom combine with savory garlic, onion and tomatoes, creating the complex spicy interplay of flavors common to dishes from India's Moghul tradition. It's a simple thrifty pantry meal, easily dressed up if you want (I freestyled a spinach raita, which made a lovely complement). I prepared this for a potluck, where it stood out alongside grilled asparagus and a Greek egg-lemon soup, and was promptly devoured.

And if you're interested in exploring bulk cooking (with a well-tested recipe), I direct you towards this recent article on making your own freezer burritos (I've tasted the results of this recipe, and can vouch for its deliciousness). And, while I'm sending the links, I'll direct you to an NPR story I produced about a new type of training program at the local women's prison. Here's to delicious success, in the kitchen and in life.

Tomato Biryani

adapted from Pauljoseph via Food52
serves ~3

1 cup basmati rice
2 Tbsp butter, ghee, coconut oil, or canola oil
1/4 tsp whole cloves (don't overdo this one - cloves are potent)
6 cardamom pods
2 cinnamon sticks (~3 inches each)
2 blades mace (if you don't have this, no worries)
1 small red onion, cut in half and sliced thinly into half-moons
1 tsp julienned fresh ginger
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 hot red or green chiles, cut into thin strips or slices
into thin strips (seeds included -- I used two frozen red Thai chiles, and they provided a good amount of heat)
1 can (14.5 ounces) diced tomatoes
1 tsp coarse salt
1/4 tsp turmeric
1/4 cup minced cilantro

Place the rice in a bowl, and cover with water. Swish around, then drain, and repeat until the water no longer turns cloudy. Cover the rice with fresh water, then let sit for 20-30 minutes until the grains soften.

Heat the butter or oil in a pot over a medium-high heat. Add the cloves, cardamom pods, cinnamon sticks and mace (if using). Let sizzle until fragrant, ~15-30 seconds. Add the onion, and saute until brown around the edges, 5-7 minutes.

When the onion slices have browned, add the ginger, garlic and chiles. Cook, stirring, for 1 minute
(the garlic won't be fully cooked, but that's fine), then add the tomatoes, salt and turmeric. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes are softened, ~5-7 minutes.

When the tomatoes are soft, drain the rice and add to the pot, stirring well. Add 1 1/2 cups water, and cook, uncovered, over the same medium-high heat, until the water cooks down to the surface level of the rice, and craters are beginning to appear in its surface. At this point you can give it a stir to mix, then reduce heat to its lowest possible setting and cover the pot. Cook, undisturbed, for 10 minutes, then turn off the heat and allow to sit for another 10 minutes.

When the rice has cooked and rested, remove the lid, and fluff with a fork. Remove the aromatics if you like (trying not to mush the rice overmuch), or just make sure to warn diners about them. Sprinkle with cilantro and serve.