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!

Sweet Broccoli Magic

17 Aug

I saw you wrinkle up your nose at that title up there. Give me five minutes–I’m gonna change your mind about this vegetable, even if you think it’s bitter or limp or boring. Nothing could be farther from the truth when you use a really easy, hands-off technique to cook it.

We had dinner at a friend’s house this summer; she always makes something that’s simple and amazing, and this time was no exception. Steak and a really good salad (I need to ask her if I can share her salad trick with y’all, come to think of it), and broccoli. But this broccoli was sweet and crunchy and unlike any I’d had before, and I went back for a big second helping of just that. It was that good.

Her secret? Roasting. You know how if you cook a chicken or Brussels sprouts with a little oil and salt in a scorching hot oven, magic happens? The outside of the goodies caramelizes while the inside stays nummy and juicy and amazing? Same thing with broccoli. And why it didn’t occur to me before now to try it is a mystery. Doing it with my new favorite ingredient–garlic oil–makes it just about the perfect vegetable (Confession: The first time I made this, I left the pan on the counter for about 10 minutes while the rest of dinner came together. And at the end of that 10 minutes, the broccoli was almost gone. I picked at it the whole time. Seriously good stuff, and it’s a vegetable! Sweet!). It’s crunchy and sweet and perfect.

Even if you think you don’t like broccoli…even if you’re used to that frozen stuff or boiled stems that flop over on your fork like a wet washcloth…try this. You’ll be a believer, I promise. It could not be simpler or more delicious. You need:

Broccoli florets (I use about two cups)

A tablespoon or two of garlic oil (use regular olive oil if you don’t have this)

About a quarter-teaspoon of salt or No-Salt substitute

(That’s it. See?)

Heat your oven to 425 degrees and spray a rimmed baking sheet with oil or your nonstick goodness of choice.

Lay your broccoli on the pan and drizzle it with the oil. Toss with your hands to get every bite a little bit of oil (the broccoli will not be coated). Sprinkle with salt, pop in the oven, and cook it about 10-15 minutes, depending on your oven, until the tops of the florets are brown and crunchified. Tell me that’s not the easiest, most delicious veggie you’ve ever had.

Party Idea: DIY Brownies

14 Aug

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My daughter wanted a cooking party for her birthday this year, bless her heart. And the dessert she chose was so much fun and such a hit that I had to share it with you.

We thought about a cupcake bar, but that’s not really cooking (baking their own cupcakes wouldn’t have left enough time for them to cool to the point that frosting would have worked well), and we thought about making cookies, but that’s not very birthday-ish. We settled on make-your-own brownies, which were super simple and really fun for the girls.

We had a small handful of close friends for this party–trying to cook with more than four or five children at once sounded stressful. Each girl received a red apron and a white chef’s hat to wear during the festivities and take home later (check Amazon.com–they’re inexpensive). Together, we made individual pizza crusts and topped them with sauce, cheese, pepperoni, bacon, and veggies and baked them up for dinner.

After dinner, we all worked together to make a big batch of brownie batter–any one you like will work. I then ladled the batter into ramekin dishes. Each girl got a ramekin of batter and a spoon, and made her way to our stir-ins bar, with bowls of M&Ms, chocolate chips, white chocolate chips, peanut butter chips, mini-marshmallows, and crushed Oreos, to customize her brownie. The candy and cookie pieces were stirred in, the ramekins went onto a baking sheet (I put parchment on it and wrote each girl’s initials next to her ramekin), and the brownies were baked up. They cooled, we topped them further with whipped cream and sprinkles, popped a candle in one, and sang Happy Birthday.

The girls had a wonderful time, the party was super easy to put together, they all ate every scrap of the dinner they’d made, and everybody learned a bit about playing in the kitchen. Happy birthday indeed!

 

 

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14 Aug

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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! 😉

The Definitive Summer Grilled Cheese Sandwich

7 Aug

BOO!

Sorry for the quiet, gang. I really had no intention of taking the summer off like that. School ended and there were two business trips and the weather got hot and there were days at the pool and days out of town and playdates and work work work, and now here we are. August. I have ignored you for far too long, and I apologize and hope you’re still with me here.

I have a treat for you today, to try and make up for my inexcusable lack of yumminess lately. The first is my new obsession: garlic oil.

My kids and I wandered into World Market recently for some hazelnut coffee syrup, and this little bottle whispered to me from the shelf, next to a nearly identical big bottle. “I’m taaaaaaasty,” it said. “You’ll liiiiiiiike me.” I turned it over in my hand a few times, shrugged, and took it home to give it a whirl in my kitchen.

To say I’m addicted is a leetle understatement. This stuff is amazing. I roasted potatoes with it–brilliant. I dipped pita in it–delicious. And today, I made a grilled tomato, basil, mozzarella sandwich with it. Which rocked my world in ways that may not be legal. It was crispy and crunchy and garlicky and fresh and I am in love, my friends.

You can make your own garlic oil by simmering garlic in olive oil, but there’s a pretty good risk of contaminating it and sickening yourself. I have seen it in the grocery store with the olive oil. This bottle from World Market is divine, and I’m going back for his big brother in the next couple of weeks. Consider it endorsed.

More to come in the next few days, my loves. Thank you for reading–I’ve missed you all.

To make the world’s best sandwich, you need:

Bread. Anything you like–I used a honey wheat sandwich bread because that’s what we had.

Mozzarella cheese. I used shredded. Two half-handfuls.

Two slices of summer tomatoes.

A wee bit of basil, fresh or dried.

A sprinkle of salt or No Salt.

About a tablespoon of garlic oil.

 

Heat a small skillet over medium-low. Brush one side of each slice of bread with the oil. When the pan is hot, gently lay the first slice in, oil side down. Quickly top it with half the cheese, the tomato, the basil, the salt, the rest of the cheese, and the other slide of bread, this time oil side up.

Cook your beautiful lunch or dinner (or breakfast, really) until the bottom slice of bread is golden brown and delicious. Carefully flip, toast, remove to a plate. let cool for a few minutes, cut, and devour. But slowly–you’ll want to savor this one.

Dinner in Dante’s Inferno

30 May

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Well, hi there, summer!

We enjoyed an exceptionally cool and pleasant spring here in the mid-Atlantic, but summer showed up last week. All at once. Like, on Friday. You could almost hear the sound of millions of thermostats switching to cool simultaneously, and the peaceful quiet of my morning walk was instantly replaced with the hum of AC units.

This, I know, doesn’t do any of us any favors in the kitchen. I still have a pot roast in the freezer, and who wants pot roast when it’s a billion degrees and eleventy-hundred percent humidity outside? By the same token, cereal only sounds appealing for dinner so many nights in a row.

I don’t claim to have all the answers–hot is still hot–but there are a few simple strategies and meals that work particularly well when the weather goes all center-of-the-sun like it has:

  • Cook ahead. This is the time of year I have dinner going by 8 a.m. Lots of things reheat beautifully (roast chicken, meatloaf, all sorts of casseroles and such, most pasta sauces), and if you can get those dishes cooked and popped into your fridge early in the morning, the kitchen will recover its cool by lunchtime, and the microwave steps in to get hot food on the table without incinerating the chef in the process.
  • Cook even more ahead. Work in an office? Figure out a few dishes you can cook all at once and get hopping on Saturday or Sunday morning. Get one thing going in the oven and one or two on the stovetop with perhaps a third on your outdoor or indoor grill, and then package it all up into portions and freeze it all for the week. This takes planning, I know, but it can be done. Promise. (The other option, of course, is to cook at 9 or 10 at night, right before bedtime. Yes, the kitchen will heat up. But in most cases, the bedroom won’t, and you can run away right when the oven shuts off.)
  • Embrace your slow cooker. You can (I’ve done it) plug your slow cooker in out in your garage or on your deck or patio (watch for rain), and it works just as well as on your kitchen counter. Most of my Crockpot recipes work just as well in the summer as they do in the winter, and you can select that category in the drop-down menu to the right to see them all. If you then buy ready-cooked rice at your grocery store. you can even have a side without heating up a single burner (and stop looking at me like that–it’s fine).
  • Rethink leftovers. That chicken you roast on Monday will make fine fajitas, quesadillas, or tacos on Tuesday with just some salsa, cheese, guacamole, and lettuce. It’ll also be lovely in a big salad full of fresh veggies, and so will the fish you grilled or roasted, that pot roast that’s in the freezer (and that can be cooked in the aforementioned Crockpot outside)…just about anything. There’s no shame in a cold salad or sandwich dinner, y’all, and it’s a great way to get some extra nutrients in.
  • Embrace your broiler. Didja ever hear Alton Brown talk about broiling? Broiling is grilling upside-down (the man is a genius, I swear). Only most of the heat is contained in your oven. Beautiful. Think fish, steaks, burgers, chicken, veggies. Put your cookie cooling rack on a baking sheet (with sides), spray it with nonstick yumminess, stick your oven rack about 4 inches below the broiler flame or element, and grill away right there in your oven. If it’ll work on your grill, it’ll work under your broiler.
  • Think quick. I can have a pizza on the table in 10 minutes if I have dough ready at dinnertime. Ten minutes of oven is nothing. Crank that puppy up to 450, load up that crust with veggies and garlic, and enjoy a light summer dinner without a ton of heat. You can also make pizza on your outside grill, which is another option for summer.
  • Love your Foreman. I know. Infomercial city. But they do a decent job of indoor grilling and really generate almost no external heat. I use mine as a panini press, too. Tons of possibilities thanks to boxer George.

Finally, spend some time in your grocery store to see what possibilities exist there. Mine, which has shelves that are just this side of a third-world country, will steam seafood while I wait and offers hot rotisserie chicken every day of the week for something like $5. The gourmet market across the street has a beautiful steam bar and an entire deli counter of ready-to-go hot foods. It’s not an every day solution, but really, when it’s 10 billion degrees out, you use what you have, yes?

Any of you have hot-weather strategies? Leave them in the comments–we’re all looking for ideas!

Steakhouse Mushrooms

22 May

We had steak for dinner last night (marinate flank steak all day in soy sauce, Worcestershire, lemon zest, garlic, honey, sherry, and red pepper flakes, blot it dry, spray it with a little olive oil, and broil it 3″ from the flame on a cooling rack in a baking sheet until the meat hits 145 degrees in the center, flipping once). I didn’t eat beef for a long time–12 years–and rarely missed it, but I’m glad it’s back in my diet. Lots of iron. Lots of yummy. Moderation.

The thing I did miss all that time, though was sauteed mushrooms. And I don’t know why on earth I didn’t just make some. They’re traditional to serve with steak, sure, but it’s so easy to whip some up and they go with so many things (I may or may not have had a bowl as a snack this week, all on their own) that I really should have made them much sooner. Spoon some over a burger. Serve them up with roast chicken. Snarf them down right out of the pan. Whatever suits your fancy.

These are super easy and very economical–use whatever cheapie mushrooms are in your grocery store. Buttons, baby bellas, whatever. You can make them with larger ‘shrooms too, but cut them up first. And they are delicious. Beefy tasting and yummy-savory-garlicky in a subtle kind of way, and the kind of thing you’d likely get aside your steak in one of those chi-chi restaurants none of us can afford.

Pull out your pan and a few pantry staples, kids (speaking of, my kids wouldn’t touch these. Fine with me–pile my plate high, picky people). You’re going to love these mushrooms. You need:

1 pint mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

About 1 tsp olive oil

2 tsp Worcestershire sauce

1 tsp soy sauce

1 clove garlic, very finely minced (or a Dorot frozen garlic cube, which is what I used)

salt

Put a small saucepan or saucier over a medium burner and let it heat up for a few minutes. Pour in the olive oil and swirl it around to coat the bottom of the pan. Dump in your mushrooms, hit ’em with a pinch or two of salt, and stir for a second. Then leave them alone for stretches of about 5 minutes. You’re going to see a lot of liquid in the pan and think things are going wrong, but have patience. After a little while, your mushrooms are going to start to brown and then they’re going to soak up all that liquid like magic.

Once your mushrooms get a nice light brown on them, stir in the Worcestershire and soy sauce, and then stir in five-minute increments again. Your mushrooms are going to soak up the sauce and then start to caramelize on the bottom of the pan. Once they are a deep golden brown, stir in your garlic and keep everything moving constantly for about two minutes–you want to get rid of the sharp raw garlic taste, but you don’t want to burn it. Take it off the heat and sing a little song to the mushroom gods, because this, my friends, is heaven.

Spaghetti Sauce and Happiness

18 May

I’ve tried to be a runner over the years, and my body simply won’t do it. I can do 75 minutes of martial arts once a week (that’s something like 11 Weight Watchers points to give you an idea of the exercise involved), but I can’t run a mile. My knees scream and my shins threaten to splinter off and my lungs rebel and I get all kinds of grouchy and begin wondering why in the world a grown woman with a reasonable IQ is trying to hard to do something that makes me so miserable. And so then I don’t.

I do, however, walk. Fast. This morning, I walked 2.18 miles in 24 minutes, dragging an angry 94-pound labrador retriever behind me (SNIFF! Woman, I need to SNIFF!). I used to listen to music on these jaunts, but have recently become addicted to the NPR Ted Radio Hour podcast. And as soon as I heard today’s installment, I had to share it with you.

You all know Malcolm Gladwell, yes? Bestselling author of books about the economy and human nature and life in general? Great stuff. He was invited a year or two back to give a TED talk, which are 18-minute long addresses given by all sorts of fascinating people on all kinds of interesting topics. So Malcolm Gladwell gets up to do his TED talk in front of an audience of several thousand, and do you know what he talked about?

Spaghetti sauce.

Specifically, he talked about food and human nature and believing what we do about what we like, and how all of that makes us happy.

It is fan-flippin-tastic, and I have now listened to it twice in a row. Laughing, nodding along. It’s everything I love about playing with food, boiled down to real science and human nature.  Here it is for all of you–18 minutes of wonderful foodiness and how what’s on our plate relates to the joy in our hearts.

Enjoy!

Must-Have Gadget: Fish Spatula

17 May

Before you start whining about fish and how you don’t like fish and don’t eat fish and don’t want to deal with fish and your kitchen and smells and picky children…this has nothing to do with fish.

(Can you tell what kind of morning we had?)

I made cookies last night (and again this morning, thanks to my evil, evil dog figuring out after two years that she can actually reach the goodies on my countertop. Anybody want a dog who may or may not have gastro issues later? Cheap?) and realized that I’d never talked to you all about my fish spatula. Which, as far as I’m concerned, is about the best $12 you can spend in the gadget aisle at your local Target.

Fish spatulas were designed for seafood. They’re long and slim and wafer-thin, and were made that way to support flaky fillets between your pan and plate. But that same skinny, slender design makes them among the best multi-taskers in your kitchen. They slide right under all sorts of fragile things. Cookies, pancakes (oh my gosh, they revolutionize pancakes), omelets, poached eggs, tortillas…you name it. And because they’re much longer than normal spatulas, they’re super easy to handle without worrying about your sensitive fingertips, particularly when you’re working with a grill or griddle.

Most of these have metal business ends. Mine is plastic, and it works just fine. It’s a KitchenAid only because that’s what was on sale–you absolutely do not need any kind of fancy-schmancy brand. I bought it about six months ago and can’t believe I survived so long in my kitchen without one. They’re very reasonably priced on Amazon or in the gadget aisle of whatever store is near to you, and I highly recommend picking one up and putting it to use, even if fish doesn’t enter your house.

That’s my gadget o’ the day. So tell me: What’s your favorite?

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