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Baking Beauty: Tips and Tricks

24 Aug

I made a loaf of chocolate chip banana bread yesterday and realized I hadn’t shared my favorite baking tips with y’all yet. Which is not good, because a few simple hints can make baking so much more fun for everyone.

Baking is zen, and I know a lot of people who feel that way–it’s about the process more than the result. Measuring and mixing and sifting becomes meditation. You can’t think about anything else and get baking right, so it’s a great way to give your brain a break, and a fantastic de-stresser. And at the end, you have something yummy to share, which is just as much fun. Having a few tricks up your sleeve boosts that fun even more.

Floating Mix-Ins

Let’s start talking about those chocolate chips up there. How many times have you stirred chips or berries or nuts into batter, only to have them sink to the bottom of the pan by the time the treat comes out of the oven? It’s a bummer, but there’s a really easy way to keep that from happening and getting baked goods like the one up there, where the mix-ins are mixed throughout. Here’s the trick: reserve a quarter-cup of flour from the recipe (so if you’re adding 2 cups of flour, only add in 1 3/4, and save the other 1/4). At the very end of the recipe, when you’re ready to stir in your chips, candy, berries, nuts, or whatever, gently toss them with that last quarter-cup of flour in a bowl, and then stir the flour and the treats into your batter. The flour on the outside of the mix-ins grabs onto the batter and holds tight, keeping them from sinking down to the bottom. Yum.

Room-Temperature Eggs

So you know you’re best off baking with room-temperature butter and eggs, right? The room-temp butter spreads better through your dough, and the room-temp eggs help keep the butter from getting cold in the bowl. Butter’s easy–a second in the microwave and voila. But you can’t nuke eggs, and (I, at least) rarely think to take them out of the fridge a few hours before I bake.

Easy solution: Put your eggs (whole–not out of the shell) in a bowl and cover them with hot tap water. After 10 minutes or so, you’ll have perfectly room-temperature, but not scrambled, eggs. Perfect for baking.

Trash Towel

I’ve never understood the garbage bowl that’s not ubiquitous on Food Network shows. Yes, it collects the trash, but it also gives you another bowl to wash! No thanks. Instead, spread two layers of paper towel on your counter near where you’re baking. Put your butter wrappers, banana peels, apple cores, egg shells, and other food trash on the towel, and use one end of it to rest spatulas, measuring cups and spoons, and other tools that might have food on them but aren’t finished being used yet. When you’re done, fold the whole towel into itself, put the dirty tools in the dishwasher, and chuck the trash in a compact bundle. Your counters are clean, and there’s nothing extra to wash. Awesome.

Tools

You’ve heard me go on and on about my KitchenAid mixer before–I really can’t live without it. Best baking tool ever. But there are other tools you should consider if you’re going to be baking: a sturdy set of metal measuring cups, a sturdy set of metal measuring spoons (don’t use your flatware–it’s not accurate and you’ll be disappointed). The new love of my life is that spatula you see up in the trash towel photo. It’s silicone from the bottom to the top, and it’s one solid piece. It’s dishwasher-safe, never gets hot, and won’t fall apart (I have a collection of silicone tops and wood or metal handles that have fallen apart–ugh!). I got mine at Target, but am seeing them all over the place, and I adore them. The right tools make such a difference.

Give these tricks a shot and let me know if you have more to share! Happy baking!

OMG Flank Steak (And Turning Your Oven into a Grill)

9 Aug

The kids and I visited our local warehouse club earlier this week and scored a big, heavy package of flank steak for less than half what it costs per-pound at the grocery store. Sweet, right? So after we came home, I carefully wrapped most of it up in single-pound portions, labeled it, and laid it in the freezer. The last pound, though, I kept out.

I have this file of recipes torn out of magazines that lives in a rack on my desk with my work files–do y’all keep one of these? The poor thing is bursting at the seams with all sorts of yummy potential, but there was a flank steak recipe in there I knew I wanted to try. So I flipped through the file and pulled it out and glanced it over, and sighed mightily. I didn’t have all the ingredients.

Now, there are two possible things to do in that situation: haul the kids and me back out to the grocery store for another meander through the aisles and wait in the checkout line, or make do with what I have and wing it. I went with Door #2. Rummaged through my fridge and pantry, mixed some stuff together in a plastic bag, baptized Mr. Steak in there, and let him swim in the mixture overnight (in the refrigerator, of course) and all the next day.

About an hour before dinnertime, I yanked that steak out of the fridge and let it rest on my countertop, because room-temperature steak cooks better than cold. And about a half-hour before chow time, I heated up my broiler to high, wrapped a rimmed baking sheet in foil, laid a cookie cooling rack on there, and sprayed the whole concoction with olive oil.

You know this trick, yes? You know that a broiler is just an upside-down grill, and that cooking food on a cooling rack over a baking sheet underneath said broiler is just about as good as grilling? (And that if the person who used to own your house was a regular genius like the person who owned my house and installed a hardwired smoke detector six feet from the stove, you should crank that exhaust fan as high as it will go during this process?)

Of course you do.

The steak went on the cooling rack and into that oven, and in about five minutes was looking caramelized and gorgeous. I flipped him over, gave him another five under the flame, pulled him out, covered him with fresh foil, and let him sit for 15 minutes. And then we sliced him up, doled him out, crossed fingers, and waited for the reaction.

OMG.

That was my reaction, anyway. My son–the one who exists on air most of the time–got big wide eyes at first bite and ate two heaping plates of this meat. This is the very best flank steak I’ve ever had, and I am very happy that I didn’t have the ingredients to that other recipe (which I’m sure is very tasty, but seriously, this is amazing steak). It’s savory and just a little sweet and tender and I loved it.

Yet another reason to just follow your gut in the kitchen sometimes. Disaster befalls us sometimes, but then very good things happen too. This is one of those, and I really hope you’ll try it. You need:

1 pound flank steak

1/3 cup soy sauce (I use reduced-sodium Tamari, but use whatever you have)

1 large shallot, diced (shallot = onion + garlic. Substitute with those if you can’t find one in your market.)

2 tbsp garlic oil (or olive oil, and then chuck in a clove of minced garlic too)

1 heaping tbsp brown sugar

3 good shakes of Sriracha or other hot sauce

2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce

The juice of a lime

Dump all the ingredients but the steak into a  large zip-top bag, and use your fingers on the outside of the bag to mush it all together. Lay your steak in there, give him a little massage to get him good and friendly with the marinate, press the air out of the bag and seal it, and put it on a plate or in a bowl in your fridge overnight. Flip it every few hours.

Take the steak out of the fridge an hour before dinnertime. Heat your broiler to high. Cover a baking sheet with foil, lay a cooling rack on top of that, and spray it with olive oil or your nonstick goodness of choice. Carefully put the steak on that and broil for about five minutes per side (this is going to fluctuate with your oven) until the top sides get all crunchy brown and the inside is medium-rare.

Take it out of the oven, tent with foil, and let it rest 15 minutes before slicing.

 

Hey gang–I get a lot of questions about sharing and printing posts (LOVE that!!). If you look below each post, there’s a bank of buttons you can push to print, post to Facebook or Twitter or Pinterest, and do all sorts of other fun things. Easy and fun! 😉

Easier, Healthier Oven-Cooked Bacon

24 Apr

Y’all still here? Sorry I haven’t been around. We headed out of town for spring break and then spent last week playing catch-up, and I haven’t cooked anything new in awhile. But today, I have a great tip for you!

Bacon has been the hot food for awhile, and while stovetop frying is still a delicious way to cook it up, it’s hugely greasy and very, very messy. And I for one do not enjoy splatter burns all over my hands, which is what I get frying bacon.

You probably already know you can “fry” bacon in the oven. The problem with that, of course, is that you generally end up with bacon that’s submerged in a pool of grease on the sheet pan. Not great for crisping, and, quite frankly, disgusting to contemplate.

Enter your cooling rack. Yes, the same one you use for cookies and breads and baked amazingness. Note: if you don’t have one of these, they are a true multi-tasker and make a huge difference in the kitchen–great for baking but also good for many other things. They’re like $5, and I highly recommend procuring one or two.

Here’s the trick: Line your baking sheet with foil and put your cooling rack on top of it, just like you would if you were cooling cookies on it. Spray it with olive oil or other nonstick stuff; bacon has a lot of fat, but it’s all going to run off and if you don’t spray your rack, you’re going to be scraping bacon bits off it for a good long time.

Lay your bacon on the sprayed rack and bake it at 425 degrees for about 20 minutes–start checking on it after 10, because your oven is going to cook differently than mine. When it reaches its desired done-ness and crispyness, pull it out. See how all the fat is on the baking sheet where it’s not touching your yummy bacon?

Neat, eh?

I hope you’ll try this soon. And I have an amazing recipe for you later this week–I promise!

 

Toasted Oats

21 Feb

Just so you know, this isn’t much of a recipe. It’s more of a technique or an idea. But it’s well worth learning because it is so simple and you’ll find a lot of uses for it.

As part of my eating-healthier challenge, I’m trying really hard to like yogurt. It’s loaded with calcium and all kinds of good stuff, and the Greek variety has a ton of protein, which helps keep me full until lunch. It’s cold and creamy and comes in a ton of flavors, and in theory, I should like it.

Sadly, it’s a struggle. Plain yogurt does nothing for me except make me grimace. I’ve tried all the flavors and all the brands and all the varieties, and I just can’t do it. I’ve found, though, that stirring in other things helps a lot–fruit, granola, nuts. Unfortunately, my favorite is granola and that can be really calorie-dense and full of sugar despite the beautiful T.V. commercials with fit people crunching away on mountaintops.

I really like cold Swiss style oats in the morning (which is a mixture of yogurt and uncooked oats), but I’m not always good at thinking ahead far enough to mix it together so the oats soak up some of the yogurt and get soft. And if I don’t give it enough time, the oats are chewy. I don’t enjoy chewy raw oats.

This morning, I drank my coffee and smacked myself in the forehead. Because toasting the oats takes all of 10 minutes and makes them deliciously nutty tasting and wonderfully crunchy, which is the perfectly perfect thing to stir into Greek yogurt. Why didn’t I think of that sooner?

This is so super easy: You preheat your oven to 400 degrees and spray a pan with a tiny bit of olive oil. I used a 7 x 12 pan, but you can really use anything you have. Pour plain oats (rolled, not quick) into that pan and shake them out into a layer or two–you want as many individual oats touching the bottom of the pan as possible. Pop that into your preheated oven and let those oats toast in there for 10-15 minutes, giving the pan a good stir every five minutes so the oats trade places on the bottom and none of them burn.

See the difference between raw and toasted oats? The raw ones to the left are chewy. The toasted ones at the right are a gorgeous golden brown (channeling Anne Burrell–brown food tastes good!). No sugar. No preservatives. No fat. No billions of calories. Just toasty, crunchy goodness that’s perfect on vanilla yogurt with some blueberries, or whatever yumminess you like–these would also be delicious on pudding or frozen yogurt or anything else that needs a little crunch.

Toasted oats have rocked my world, y’all (or at least my breakfast table). I made up a mess of ’em and stored them in a container to use all week. So simple and easy, and such a nice thing to have around. Hope you’ll try it!

Oven Crunchy Kid-Loving Fish

8 Dec

If you live near a city as I do, you probably have food trucks racing around, parking on popular corners to dish out everything from enchiladas to cupcakes at lunchtime. At last count, my area had a salad truck, a frozen yogurt truck, and at least one sandwich truck on the streets. But my favorite one–the only one I really visit these days–is a fish truck. And the reason it’s my favorite is that I can either choose crab cakes or yummy prepared entrees, or fresh, sustainable seafood to prepare myself. Which is awesome for someone who enjoys playing with food.

Several weeks ago, I bought three pounds of rockfish from my friends on the truck. I cooked some that night and carefully wrapped the rest in portions and stowed it in my freezer.

Let me say this before I go any further–having a stash of raw fish in your freezer is such a huge time-saver that I can’t recommend it enough. It thaws and cooks much faster than chicken or beef and is a snap to prepare in no time. Nights that follow crazy hurricane days almost always find me pulling seafood out of the cold box for dinner. It’s easy and delicious and so good for you that it’s a complete no-brainer, and sustainable fish is a fantastic food trend I hope sticks around awhile.

Anyway. We had one of Those Days last week and I pulled out some rockfish and made it like my mom used to, with breading and Italian seasoning and Parmesan cheese. Only I used Panko bread crumbs (yes, I’m on a Panko kick. Ride along with me–it’s a super fun ingredient), so my fish went into the oven instead of a fry pan, and there was nary a drop of fat involved.

The result: Dinner was done a half-hour after I pulled my fish out of the freezer. My kids gobbled it down just like I did back in the day. Cleanup was super easy, and everyone wins.

Sound good? Find a good purveyor of fish and get together:

1 pound (ish–a filet for each person) rockfish or other white fish. You want thin cuts for this.

2 eggs

1 cup Panko bread crumbs

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

2 tbsp Italian seasoning

1 tsp garlic powder

salt and pepper

Heat your oven to 400 degrees. Line a cookie sheet with foil and spray it with something non-stick (I used olive oil).

Skin your fish (use a paring knife and just slice the skin off, holding the fish flat and skin-down on a board with your non-dominant hand while your dominant hand gently slides the knife under the skin).

Beat your eggs in a bowl. In another bowl, mix together your dry ingredients.

One by one, dip your fish in the egg mixture, and then toss it gently into the bread crumb mixture to coat. Lay the filets on your baking sheet. When they’re all lined up, bake them for about 15 minutes or until they’re done (white all the way through and flakey when you stab one with a fork). Watch your kids devour fish and rock on with your bad oven-baking self.

Warm Pumpkin (or any) Breakfast Muffins

15 Nov

I promised my daughter pumpkin bread last night.

Of course, that was before piano lessons and basketball practice, and shuttling everyone through late-for-a-school-night showers and teeth brushing and reading time and bed, and it was definitely before all Hades broke loose with a client project in the late afternoon and dinner had to be made and then the kitchen had to be cleaned. It was also after a full day of work and home-running nuttiness.

All of this is a long way of saying: I made the promise and then I did everything else on my list and then I fell asleep on the couch.

Oops.

Thankfully, I avoided catastrophe (you do not want to break a promise to my daughter. Hell hath no fury, y’all). DH exercises with a neighbor on Tuesday mornings and wakes me up before he goes, which is quite early by normal-people standards. After I came-to and realized I’d forgotten her bread, I poured myself some coffee, mixed the ingredients together (in four minutes–I timed it), doled the bread batter into greased muffin tins, and headed up for my shower. Twenty-five minutes later, the kids were getting up to the scent of hot pumpkin muffins wafting up the stairs, which is not the worst way in the world to awaken.

The pumpkin bread/muffin recipe I love is here–I posted it last year, but it’s worth revisiting because it is so good and keeps so well and takes so few minutes to toss together, and it’s relatively healthy to boot. And the good thing is that you don’t have to completely space on a promise to your kid to also enjoy fresh-from-the-oven yumminess in the morning– I have a few tricks to make that happen even if your brain isn’t slowly leaking out your ears like mine apparently is.

First, find a quick bread recipe you love and can make easily. Pumpkin bread, banana bread, oatmeal bread, blueberry bread, lemon bread–whatever. Convert it to muffin size–a loaf equals a dozenish muffins, depending how large you want them to be.

The night before you want hot baked awesomeness for breakfast, get out two bowls–make one the bowl from your mixer. In the mixer bowl, stir together your dry ingredients–your flour, sugar, salt, spices, etc. In the second bowl, stir together your wet stuff–your eggs, milk, oil, vanilla. Cover both with plastic wrap. Leave the dry on the counter and put the wet in the fridge. (If you don’t do this, it really takes no more than 5 minutes to gather everything together and give it a whir in the mixer in the morning. Don’t sweat it.)

When you wake up, turn your oven on. Get your muffin tins out and butter or spray them with your nonstick goodness of choice (I am partial to Baker’s Joy, but whatever floats your boat). Get your cold bowl out of the fridge, dump it into your dry bowl, mix it up, and dole it into your muffin tins (and by the way, an ice cream scoop works beautifully for this job).

Put your bowls in the dishwasher (or into a sink of hot soapy water), let the oven tell you it’s preheated, slide your muffins in there, and give them a little less than half the time you’d bake a loaf of bread. Enjoy your coffee, take a shower, hit the treadmill. Whatever your morning entails–go ahead and do it. My pumpkin bread recipe takes an hour, so I started checking the muffins after 20 minutes.

Once they’re done, pull them out. Gently, gently slide a knife around the edges of the muffins you want to eat immediately, slide them out of their tins, and put them on a plate to cool for a few minutes (so they don’t crumble into oblivion or toast your tongue off when you bite into them). You’ll have warm comfort just when you need it the most, and your house will smell awesome all morning.

Let your remaining muffins cool all the way and store them in a plastic container with a tight lid.

Enjoy your warm breakfast muffins, y’all!

De-Rutting the Chef

14 Nov

It happens to the best of us: we love cooking, but just aren’t in the mood. For a few days or a week or more. Maybe we’re tired of serving a delicious meal and listening to complaining from picky family members (spouses included, and what’s up with that, anyway?). Perhaps we’re frustrated by climbing grocery bills, persnickity appliances, or hard-to-find ingredients. And maybe we’re just tired. Work and school and activities and bills and car issues and home projects, and it never seems to end.

I hear you. Want my confession? I made two meals last week (old standbys) and we had leftovers twice and then had cereal for dinner the rest of the week. Time was short and I was in a mood and the stove wasn’t singing its sirens song to me, and that’s the way it was.

We all lose our kitchen mojo, and it’s OK. I can tell you that the more you stress about it, the longer it’s going to go on. And I can offer a few tips that have helped me climb out of the rut:

  1. Chill. It’s totally fine to take a week or two off. Cook some family favorites–meals you know everyone likes and that you can put together easily. Try breakfast for dinner–scrambled eggs, oatmeal, pancakes and even cold cereal are totally fine for your evening meal and are simple to put together and clean up afterwards. Ditto for grilled cheese or turkey or peanut butter sandwiches, French toast, a rotisserie chicken from the market, quesadillas, omelets, and even that mac n cheese out of the box. It’s all good! Take a break and let it go for a bit.
  2. Go visit your local kitchen store and just wander around. Flip through the cookbooks, touch the pots and pans and gadgets, look at the samples that are out. I find a ton of inspiration even in the cooking department at Macy’s, where I see something and think, “I can do that,” and find myself re-energized.
  3. Park the kids in front of a TV for a few hours (nobody’s brain will rot that quickly, I promise), park yourself in front of another with a soft blanket, a cup of something hot to sip, and a comfy pillow, and settle in for a food movie. The two that are sure to get me re-jazzed about my own kitchen are Julie & Julia (the movie is so. much. better than the book–and that is the only time you’ll ever hear me say that about any movie, ever), and No Reservations, which didn’t get a lot of attention but is wonderful. Watching other people cook is fun, and you see their frustrations too, which helps with your own.
  4. Take yourself out for a really nice meal. Pick your favorite cuisine, get a date, and go enjoy. Sometimes the great stuff someone else makes for you inspires you to get back to making your own fabulous meals.
  5. Pretty up your kitchen! Make the room somewhere you want to be. Hang up something you love on the walls. Rearrange your countertops. Add a music system to the room. Whatever you need to make your kitchen a magnet for you.
  6. Bake something. Seriously. Bread or brownies or cookies or whatever. Something about sifting and mixing and measuring is very zen.

We all hit ruts. You can’t rush your way out, either. Let it work itself out, give yourself a little boost, and you’ll be back at the stove in no time!

 

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