Sunday, June 30, 2013

Summer Pasta Salads

I realize that talking about the weather is nobody's idea of interesting conversation. But people, it's hot. If we are to be eating anything other than sorbet or chips and guacamole (both of which made up a substantial portion of my diet yesterday), then it needs to be cool and slurpy and delicious. Like pasta salad.

I know what you're thinking. Pasta salad? Doesn't that tend to be, well, kind of awful? Agreed. But it doesn't have to be. And so, on this sweltering day, I present a better pasta salad — a mayo-free pasta salad. A pasta salad filled with summer vegetables and punchy dressing. In fact, I present five of them. You can read about them (and about my pasta salad credo in general) over at NPR's Kitchen Window.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Orange and Cardamom Cold-Brewed Coffee

I've been in a bit of a cooking lull lately. Well, a bit of a lull overall. After a busy spate of days (Making a radio story about beloved childhood books! Seeing an amazing past-my-bedtime rock show from an old friend's band!), I came down with a nasty summer flu. And not the kind where you have an excuse to snuggle up in bed and watch trashy programming. The kind where you're painfully reminded of what it's like to have a bad fever (spoiler alert: it sucks), where you feel like you don't fit in your own skin, where you spend the hours alternating between napping and moaning in self-pity. OoooOOOOoooh.

For a few days, I was pretty much off food entirely (save for a few handfuls of cereal, and the quart of homemade matzo ball soup that my sent-from-heaven friend dropped off to see me through). I thankfully regained my appetite, but still seemed to just be trudging through my days. Sure, there's the long tail of recovery. But I also realized there was something else in play: the lack of caffeine.

Over the past several months, my coffee habit has been gradually nudging up. Maybe I've grown dependent. Or maybe it's just that, well, stimulants are stimulating. Whatever the reason, I have noticed that the belated reintroduction of caffeine has had a marked effect on my productivity, ability to maintain a grown-up bedtime, and general good cheer. Hooray for coffee! And, specifically, hooray for orange and cardamom cold-brewed coffee!

I adore cardamom, with its piney-clean savory-sweet scent. I love it in curries, in chai, and in this insanely addictive ice cream I went through several pints of after I discovered it. And, it turns out, I love it in coffee. Combined with orange zest, it's subtle enough that it doesn't scream I AM FLAVORED COFFEE! It's just gently perfumed, with slight floral notes that keep you reaching for the next taste. And, as a bonus, the whole process couldn't be easier: just toss cardamom, coffee and some orange zest in a jar. Let sit, strain, and pour over ice (and, if you're me, stir in a dollop of sweetened condensed milk). Then take a sip, and wait for your self to be restored.

Orange and Cardamom Cold-Brewed Coffee

inspired by 10th Kitchen
yields ~2-4 servings, depending on how much caffeine you need

1 orange
1 cup medium-grind coffee
a dozen cardamom pods, lightly crushed
1 quart water

zest the orange, and combine with the coffee, cardamom, and water in a jar with a lid. That's it. Let sit for 24 hours, then strain through a coffee filter. Serve over ice (you can also water it down if it's too strong for your taste), and a well-stirred dollop of sweetened condensed milk if desired.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Roasted Strawberry Basil Muffins

Oregon's beloved Hood strawberries are in, and they are lovely. But, as much as I'd love to get all puffy with regional pride, there are probably lovely strawberries coming in all over the country. Tinier than the supermarket behemoths, red and juicy throughout, begging to be eaten out of hand (or, if we must, with shortcake).

But even in the height of this ruby-red season, we get some not-so-great berries. Maybe they've gotten so waterlogged as to become flavorless (last week's rainstorms, I'm looking at you), or they're a bit dulled and shriveled after you, say, forgot that last pint in the back of the fridge (umm... no comment). But in times like these, we've always got roasted strawberries.

Roasting concentrates strawberries' juices, turning even lackluster berries into flavor punches. And it also dries them out a bit, so they don't sog up your baked goods. I gave a recent watery batch of berries a good turn in the oven, then decided to fold them into some muffins (and yes, I do still have leftover sour cream — this is what happens when things are on sale). A little sprinkle of fresh basil gave them a bright herbal edge, keeping them from one-dimensional sweetness (I imagine many other herbs — mint, tarragon — could do a similar job). It's like springtime, but intensified a bit. And served up for breakfast.

Roasted Strawberry Basil Muffins

1 1/2 pints strawberries
1 tablespoon sugar

1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon coarse salt
1/2 stick butter, melted and slightly cooled (if you fancy, brown the butter in a small saucepan, melting it until it takes on a toasty color, for an even more delicious depth of flavor)
1/2 cup sugar, plus additional for topping
1 egg
3/4 cup sour cream
1/4 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
a few sprigs fresh basil leaves, cut into strips

Preheat your oven to 375° Fahrenheit. Wash the strawberries, and halve any large ones (or quarter them if they're truly mammoth). Toss with the tablespoon of sugar, transfer to a rimmed baking sheet or casserole dish, and roast until the berries shrink and the juices come out and thicken, ~45 minutes (you can use a large sheet tray, or a smaller square baking dish, which will take a bit longer). Set aside and let cool slightly, but leave the oven on. Grease 10 muffin cups, and set aside.

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

In a separate bowl, mix together the melted butter, sugar, egg, sour cream, milk, and vanilla until well combined. Add the wet ingredients to the dries, give a turn or two, until  just barely combined (better to under- than over-mix), then sprinkle in the strawberries and basil leaves, and give an additional turn or two until barely combined.

Quickly divide the mixture into muffin cups, coming just a bit below the lip of the cup. Sprinkle a dusting of sugar over the batter (you should need just a few spoonfuls for the whole tray). Bake until lightly golden and a tester comes out clean, ~15-20 minutes. Let cool slightly, then pop out of the muffin tin, and enjoy.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Sour Cream Twists

I have a fairly predictable response to stressful life events. I become insomniac (because 5 am is always a good time to mull over your worries), I forget to eat, and I become surly and short-tempered with those who are only trying to help. I am well aware that these strategies could use a little work. But, on the somewhat more productive side of things, I do try to make some time to exercise and clear my head. And I bake.

Baking is perfect stress relief. It's mindless yet productive, helping pass the time while you wait for events outside of your control to unfold. It's comforting. It's delicious. And, as a bonus, you end up with a batch of cookies to, say, gratefully share with the surgical team who fit your dog in for a last-minute Saturday appointment. And really, how can things be bad in the world when there are cookies as perfectly delicious as these?

I've been baking batches of rugelach lately, inspired by some time I spent at a local Jewish retirement home recording a recent audio project. And so, looking for a change of pace (yet still in possession of leftover sour cream), I came upon this recipe.

As best as I can tell, these cookies come from a long-ago Pilsbury bake-off (though some sources say the recipe was printed on a yeast package). Like rugelach, it starts by cutting butter into flour, then binding everything together with a plop of sour cream. But it's also got an egg, for a bit of cookie-like structure, and yeast for a surprising bit of loft. After rising, the unsweetened dough is rolled out with vanilla sugar, folding in flaky, flavorful layers (which, as with rugelach, leaves sugar that caramelizes deliciously around the edges).

The resulting cookies are ridiculously addictive. They've got a bit of the feel of a sugar cookie, but with a softer lightness from the yeast and layers, a caramelized crispness around the edges, and a slight tang from the sour cream. They're rich yet airy, perfect for enjoying with a cup of tea or coffee, or setting out with a dish of those juicy little strawberries that have just come to market. If you're looking for a delicious way to process your anxiety (or just looking for a delicious treat to accompany your coffee break), these cookies are highly recommended.

Sour Cream Twists

adapted from what, if the internet is to be believed, are the Starlight Sugar Crisps from a long-ago Pilsbury Bake Off
yields 32 cookies

1/4 cup room temperature water
1 package (2 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast
3 1/2 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt
1 cup (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into pats
2 large eggs
1/2 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Sugar topping:
1 1/2 cups sugar (I tried both regular and coarse sugar, and they each worked nicely)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Pour the water in a medium bowl, and sprinkle in the yeast. Set aside for a few minutes to allow the yeast to soften and bloom.

In a large bowl or food processor, whisk or pulse together the flour and salt. Cut or pulse in the butter until particles are the size of peas (don't overwork!). If using the food processor, dump into a bowl at this point.

Whisk the eggs, sour cream, and 1 teaspoon vanilla into the yeast mixture until well combined. Pour this liquid into the flour mixture, and using your hands or a wooden spoon (and then your hands) mix until the flour has been moistened and the mixture forms a cohesive dough (you still want to see smears of butter — the mixture will be rolled out many times, so no need to overwork). Form the mixture into two equal portions, and cover the bowl (or transfer to a bag), and chill in the refrigerator for at least two hours (and up to four days).

When you're ready to bake, preheat the oven to 375º Fahrenheit. Remove the dough from the refrigerator, and line two cookie sheets with parchment. In a small bowl, combine sugar and 2 teaspoons vanilla, stirring well to combine.

On a clean counter top, sprinkle 1/2 of the vanilla sugar mixture. Take half the dough, place it on the vanilla sugar, and press it down. Flip the dough over, then roll out to a 16-inch x 8-inch rectangle (if needed, flip it again, or sprinkle sugar from the counter onto the top to keep the dough from sticking. Fold the sides into the center, like an envelope. Rotate 90º, and roll and fold again. Fold and rotate a third time, and roll out a final time into the 16-inch x 8-inch rectangle. All of the sugar should have been worked into the dough during this process.

Trim the edges of the rectangle, to neaten off the ends (and reveal the layers in the folds). Cut the rectangle through the middle, to form two 4-inch high rectangles, and then cut each one into 4-inch x 1-inch strips. Take each strip, twist twice, and place on the parchment-lined baking sheet, with a bit of space between them. You may need to press the ends of the cookies down to the sheet a bit to keep the fold (I found it easiest to shape the cookies, place them on the sheet, then then flip them all after I finished shaping the last one — maybe this is unnecessary, but it seemed to help them keep their shape).

Bake 15-20 minutes, until the cookies are light golden brown. Remove from the oven, and transfer immediately to a rack (before the caramelized sugar solders them to the sheet, or they darken too much. Repeat the entire process with the remaining dough.

These cookies are best within a day or so — they're nice and crisp on the edges as soon as they cool from the oven, then soften a bit but are still delicious. If you want to keep them more than a few days, I'd recommend freezing them.