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12 posts from December 2010

12/31/2010

~ Culinary Q&A & Kitchen Therapy Too (12/31/10) ~

Culinary Q & A #2

It is the last day of 2010 (New Year's Eve)!  It will come as no surprise to you when I say the biggest event of 2010 for me occurred back on August 10th when I published my first post on this blog.  Four and a half months and 102 posts later, I can barely remember my life prior to blogging!

I set out to create a blog for my family, friends and students that would be informative, educational and fun.  I did what I always do:  set the standards higher than I think I can reach, then drive my OCD self crazy until I attain them.  Based upon all of your comments on, interest in, and, literally thousands of "hits" (pageviews) to Kitchen Encounters, while there is always room for improvement, I must be doing something right, so, "thank-you"!

A.  Kitchen Encounters LogoI am really looking forward to cooking and blogging my way through 2011 with all of you, and in conjuction with that, I'm using this post to announce I've added a new act to my "bag of tricks":

WHVL-TV (channel 235 on our local Comcast cable system) will be visiting Melanie's Kitchen about once a month, filming here and then airing my cooking segment on their Sunday morning Centre of it All show.  We already have "one in the can" (you can watch me make my White Chicken Chili this coming Sunday morning) and we're scheduled to shoot our second segment in two short weeks.  With one click on the WHVL website, their viewers will have complete access to all of my Kitchen Encounters recipes.  Once all of the links are established, with one click on my blog, those of you who are out of the local viewing area will to be able to watch my segments right here.  What a fun way to start the New Year!!!

In the meantime, if you are looking for an easy and elegant breakfast to "ring in" your 2011 holiday, and an etheral, slow-braised traditional pork roast to end New Year's Day, try my:

Creamy Crustless Crabmeat Quiche #1 (Intro Picture) 6a0120a8551282970b0148c73912dd970c~ Creamy Crustless Crabmeat Quiche ~, found in Categories 9 & 20, or, ~ Apple-Braised Pork Pot Roast ~, found in Categories 3, 12 & 19!

Have a HAPPY, HEALTHY AND PROPEROUS New Year! 

Enjoy your holiday along with your weekend, and once again:  To leave a comment or ask a question, simply click on the blue title of any post, scroll to the end of it and type away! 

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen w/Logo Design  by Gary Sassaman/Copyright 2010)

12/30/2010

~ Kitchen Encounters/WHVL Video Segment #3: Easy & Elegant Creamy Crustless Crabmeat Quiche~

6a0120a8551282970b0148c810aece970c-800wiYesterday I posted my recipe for ~ Easy and Elegant Creamy Crustless Crabmeat Quiche ~. This elegant recipe can be made ahead of time and is perfect for breakfast or brunch entertaining any time of the year. You can find the detailed recipe, with all of my step-by-step directions and photos in Categories 4, 14 or 20!

If you'd like to watch my Kitchen Encounters TV segment, just click on the following link:

Easy & Elegant Creamy Crustless Crabmeat Quiche

6a0120a8551282970b0147e1232df4970b-800wiTo watch all of my other Kitchen Encounters/WHVL-TV cooking segments, go to the listing found on the left side of the home page of this blog, and, click on the blue title of any one or:

Tune in to WHVL-TV's Centre of It All Show, which airs every Sunday morning at 11:30AM on local Comcast chennel 14!

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"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary, Photo & Video courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2010)

12/28/2010

~ Orthodox Christmas Eve: Lenten Bread & Biscuits ~

Pipowcha #1 (Intro Picture)

Christmas Eve in the Orthodox church is a strict fast day.  Christmas Eve in the Orthodox home is celebrated with a traditional dairy-free meal referred to as Holy Night Supper.  It is the tradition that nothing gets eaten on Christmas Eve until the first star appears in the sky, which is symbolic of the star that led the Three Kings to the newly born Jesus.  The meal begins with the lighting of a single, tall, white candle, placed in the center of the table, which represents Christ as the light of the world.  The tablecloth is white, symbolizing the baby Jesus's swadling clothes.  Hay is often displayed to symbolize the poverty into which he was born.  Twelve courses are served, one at a time, in a common bowl, which symbolizes the twelve Apostles.  The supper begins with the father of the family leading the family in saying the  Lord's Prayer, followed by a greeting and a response, "Christ is born! Glorify him!".  The selection of foods served varies from region to region, household to household and cook to cook, with one common denominator:  the meal is meatless and prepared without using dairy products (which includes chocolate)!

PICT0393The meal starts when a loaf of flat lenten bread (rectangular or round in shape and resembling a thick pizza crust) is brought to the table. It is rubbed with garlic, sprinkled with salt, broken (not sliced), and passed to everyone at the table.  Each person dips their bread into a common bowl of honey.  The garlic symbolizes the bitterness of life while the honey symbolizes the sweetness of life, and, to newcomers at this celebration, this combination of bitter garlic and sweet honey is a surprisingly delightful way to start this meal!

Quite frankly, once you get past the basic rules and regulations (plus the ones instituted by your family or your host family), there is room for creativity with this meal.  If you are on your own, have never done this before and wish to start your own tradition, here is a list of approved ingredients (if I've left anything out, feel free to let me know and I'll add it to the list):

barley, beans, beets, cabbage (or sauerkraut), carrots, celery, fish, fruit, garlic, honey, horseradish, mushrooms, nuts, oats, onions, peas, potatoes, rice, seeds, turnips and vegetable stock.  Ingredients can be either fresh, dried, canned, bottled or frozen.  You can use sugar, flour, salt, pepper (and all fresh herbs or dried spices), yeast, cooking oils and/or margarine.  Wine, along with alcohol, coffee and/or tea is allowed (thank you Jesus)!  My grandmother allowed eggs, because they come from chickens and that means they are not dairy, so I do too... your grandmother might not agree if she considers chicken a meat and eggs come from chickens, etc.  You can chop, slice, dice or mince.  You can braise, roast, toast, simmer, saute and even deep-fry or grill if you want to! 

As long as you come up with twelve courses, you can use these ingredients singularly or in any combination or manner that you like, for instance:  my grandmother always served pirogi (potato stuffed dumplings), while yours always served parsley potatoes; my mom serves sauteed mushrooms as a course, while I'll serve mushroom soup; my dad doesn't like fish, so my mom doesn't serve any at all, while I'll serve a nice pan-fried or baked fish course; my son Jess doesn't eat fruit at all and dislikes most vegetables, so if he ever cooks Holy Night Supper for me, I won't be a bit surprised to see some sort of deep-fried fish and French fries on his table.  I think you get the idea.  Have fun and make your own tradition!!!

Onto the making of the Christmas Eve bread:  The following recipe is/was my Baba's (my maternal grandmother).  When she could no longer do the bread baking, she hand-picked me to do it,  because I baked bread with Baba all the time and was well-trained by her personally.  A couple of years later, in 1996 to be exact, I took it upon myself to adapt her recipe so I could quickly make the dough in my Cuisinart DLC-X Plus food processor.  Christmas is a super-busy time for all of us and my "modern" method takes most of the time and labor out of the process, and, produces really, REALLY great bread.  Baba tasted it, gave it her seal of approval and I've done it this way ever since.   I hope you will give my new-fangled approach a try!

10  cups unbleached, all-purpose flour

6  packages granulated dry yeast, NOT rapid-rise

3  tablespoons garlic powder

2  tablespoons sugar

1  tablespoon salt

3  extra-large eggs, at room temperataure

8  ounces margarine (2 sticks), melted (Note:  If you are not making this recipe for Christmas Eve, by all means, feel free to substitute butter!)

2  cups hot tap water, plus some additional water

no-stick cooking spray

3  tablespoons corn, peanut or vegetable oil, for preparing baking pans, the choice is yours (Note:  My grandmother used corn oil and so do I.)

8-12  very thinly sliced/shaved garlic cloves (about 1 head of garlic)

Pipowcha #5 (Wet Ingredients) ~ Step 1.  In microwave, melt the margarine in a 1-quart measuring container.  Remove from the microwave and set aside to cool, about 10 minutes.

Note:  the alternative is to melt the margarine on the stovetop.

Whisk in the eggs, and 2 cups of hot water, plus just enough of additional hot water to total 4 cups of liquid.  Set aside.

Pipowcha #6 (Dry Ingredients in Food Processor) ~ Step 2.  In the work bowl of a large food processor fitted with a steel blade place all of the dry ingredients:  the flour, yeast, garlic powder, sugar and salt.

Note:  If you do not have a large capacity food processor (mine is 20 cups), you can make half of this recipe, using 2 large eggs in place of 3 extra-large eggs.

Using 5-10 rapid on-off pulses, combine all of the dry ingredients until they are  just combined.  Do not over process.

Pipowcha #7 (Adding the Liquid)

~ Step 3.  With processor motor running, slowly and in a thin stream, pour the margarine/egg mixture through the feed tube, until...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pipowcha #8 (Ball Forms) ... a large ball of dough forms.  Continue to knead in the processor, about 30 seconds.  This means the ball of dough will actually pull away from the sides of the work bowl and rotate around in the processor for 30 seconds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pipowcha #9 (Ball of Dough in Bag)

 

 

~ Step 4.  Spray the inside of a 2-gallon food storage bag with no-stick cooking spray.

Carefully remove the dough from the processor.  The steel blade is very sharp, so please be careful not to cut yourself.

Close the bag and allow the dough to rise until doubled in bulk...

Pipowcha #10 (Dough Doubled in Bulk)

 

 

 

... about 45-60 minutes.  Using a pair of kitchen shears, cut the bag open. 

Isn't this  dough a beautiful sight?  And, how easy and quick was that?!?

Note:  Even if you are not making dough in the food processor, "the food storage bag" is a great method for rising any type of yeast dough.

While the dough is rising, oil each of three 13 1/4" x 9 1/4" baking pans with about 1 tablespoon of corn oil.

Pipowcha #11 (Divide Dough in Three) ~ Step 5.  You will have about 5 1/4 pounds of dough.  Using a kitchen scale, divide dough into 3 equal parts, about 1 pound, 12 ounces each.  Place dough on prepared pans and let it rest for 10 minutes.

Pipowcha #12 (Loaves and Babalki) ~ Step 6.  Pat, press and push two pieces of dough evenly into the bottom and toward the sides of each pan.  Unlike a pizza crust, this bread will be about 1/2" thick throughout with no high "sides" being formed.

Divide the third pice of dough into 40 equal-size pieces, each one weighing about 3/4 of an ounce.  Roll each piece between the palms of your hands to form a ball.  Place balls, slightly apart, on prepared pan as you work.

Pipowcha #13 (Loaves and Babalki Doubled in Bulk) ~ Step 7.  Cover bread with a large, dampened, cotton kitchen towel and rise until doubled in bulk, about 45-60 minutes.  While dough is rising, slice the garlic cloves.

~ Step 8.  Bake loaves on center rack of preheated 350 degree oven, 18-22 minutes, or until bread is lightly browned and has a hollow sound when tapped lightly with the knuckle of your finger.  Remove from oven, and, using a large metal spatula, immediately tranfer to cooling rack(s) to cool completely.  Using the tines of a fork, lightly prick the surface of the two flat loaves, about 12-16 times each.  While the bread is still very hot, randomly and evenly distribute the sliced garlic across the surface of the pricked loaves.  Allow bread to cool completely, then gently rub the softened/slightly steamed garlic over the top of each loaf.  The garlic cloves can be left on the bread or removed from bread at serving time (I prefer to leave the garlic slices on the bread):

Pipowcha #2 (Exit Picture)Orthodox Christmas Eve:  Lenten Bread & Biscuits:  Recipe yields 2, 13 1/4" x 9 1/4" flat, freeform loaves and 40 biscuits.

Special Equipment List:  1-quart measuring container; whisk; large-capacity food processor; 2-gallon food storage bag; 3, 13 1/4" x 9 1/4" baking pans; kitchen scale; large cotton dish towel; cutting board; paring knife; 3, 13 1/4" x 9 1/4" cooling racks; large metal spatula; fork

Cook's Note:  In my family, the lenten flat breads are referred to as Pipowcha.  I have also seen them referred to as Pagash (although in Northeastern Pennsylvania, the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area, Pagash is similar to a double-crust pizza that is stuffed with potatoes and cheese or cabbage).  Russia is a very large, diverse country, so I'm betting there are even more names attached to this delicious bread.  If you know of one, I'd love to hear from you!  As for the biscuits:

Pipowcha #3 (Babalki Picture)My family refers to these as Babalki and I've not heard of any other name attached to them.  If you have one, I'd love to hear from you!  My grandmother always placed them into the bowl with her piroghi then tossed them both with melted margarine and sauted onions.  Other families toss them with sauerkraut, and others toss them with poppyseed and honey!

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2010) 

12/22/2010

~ Toasted Pistachio Pillows (Russian Tea Cakes) ~

Pistachio Pillows #1 (Intro Pillow)The people of Russia have a passion for Russian tea, and the Russian tea-sharing ceremony.  Tea in Russia is traditionally served after a meal (unlike the mid-afternoon "tea time" break in Britain or "high tea" in Britain if it gets served in place of the evening meal).  Tea was introduced to Russia by the Chinese in the mid-1600's.  The Russian people, who for the most part lived in a harsh environment, quickly embraced it because it was storable, soothing and warm, and like most Russian beverages (and foods), they created their own strong, hearty, dark brew, which they sweetened with sugar or honey.  Almost every home had a special method and/or pot to brew their special blend of tea in, the most famous pot being the samovar: 

Russian Samovar #1 Russian samovars (large urn-shaped vessels that keep water hot all day long), have a designated place on the top of them to sit a small tea kettle.  So, while the water is kept hot in the samovar, a small tea kettle containing water and tea leaves is placed on top to brew a very strong blend of tea.  Tea from the kettle is poured into the tea cup and a spigot at the bottom of the samovar releases hot water into the cup, to dilute the strong brew to the liking of the tea drinker!

Samovars are festive, most being brightly painted with fruits, flowers, or pictures from Russian folk lore.  I would suspect that on the bleakest of Russian winter days, a colorful, steaming hot samovar of tea just might be the one comforting "bright spot" in a person's day.   The samovar in this picture was made in Russia and my father bought it for me several years ago while he and my mother were visiting the Nicholas & Alexandra exhibition in Washington, D.C.  

Tea-sharing time in Russia is pretty much any time any welcomed visitor shows up at your home.  Proper etiquette in a Russian houseshold is to ALWAYS offer food and drink to even a stranger. By the 18th century, very simple-to-make confections, now known as Russian tea cakes were a common offering to accompany a simple cup of tea.  Soon afterward, these crunchy, buttery, melt-in-your-mouth, pastry-like delicacies started being served at family celebrations and holidays.  Prior to baking, depending on the recipe, they can be shaped like little round balls or like cookies, with the cookie version being richer, because the extra butter content causes them to flatten out slightly. 

It goes without saying there are as many variations on this recipe as there are cooks, however, authentic recipes for Russian tea cakes DO NOT CONTAIN baking powder, baking soda, eggs or milk (try to keep in mind the ingredients available in that time period of history).  They are made from a simple English-middle-ages-type pastry mixture of flour, sugar, ground nuts, butter and water (or surprisingly, vanilla extract). At the time, baking powder and baking soda did not exist for them.  If they were lucky enough to have fresh milk, they drank it.  If they had fresh eggs, they cooked and ate them, usually hard-cooking them to give them a longer shelf life.  As for the vanilla extract:  Russian peasants made their own potato-based "hootch"... vodka.  In the 1800's, Tsarist Russia re-opened/expanded upon a grueling 11,000+ mile spice route which ran through Siberia to China.  One lowly vanilla bean, when soaked in vodka for 6-8 weeks, made enough of  wonderful flavoring to share with or sell to a lot people!  

I created the following recipe based on the ones my grandmother and mother always made using ground pecans or walnuts.   They are the best version of Russian tea cakes I have ever tasted.  Pistachio nuts have a delicate, subtle flavor that is wonderful either for eating out-of-hand or flavoring both sweet and savory dishes... toasting them makes them even more fragrant and flavorful.  These Russian tea cakes are perfect served with a piping hot cup of coffee or tea for breakfast, at the end of any meal, or, just as a treat after a long, hard day.  When they emerge from the oven, they really do look more like delicate little cakes (rather than balls or cookies, which is probably why they were named tea cakes to begin with), and, when lightly dusted with some confectioners' sugar, they really do look like little pillows (which is probably why they are sometimes called wedding cakes)!

Pistachio Pillows #4 (Ingredients)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6  cups unbleached, all-purpose flour

2  cups confectioners' sugar

1  pound shelled, roasted and salted, pistachio nuts*

1/2  teaspoon salt

2  tablespoons pure vanilla extract, not imitation

3 3/4  cups salted butter, at room temperature (7 1/2 sticks), very soft, no substitutions

1/4  cup additional confectioners' sugar, for lightly dusting tea cakes

* Note:  It is very likely the package or jar of shelled pistachios you purchased is going to say "roasted and salted" on it.  While that makes them ready to eat, it is still necessary to roast/toast the finely ground nuts in my recipe.

Pistachio Pillows #7 (Pistachios Ready for Oven) ~ Step 1.  In the workbowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade, finely grind the pistachios, using about 25-30, 1 second on/off pulses.

Transfer ground nuts to a 13" x 9" x 2" baking dish.  Roast nuts on center rack of preheated 350 degree oven, until lightly toasted and fragrant, about 10-15 minutes, stopping to toss with a spoon about every 4-5 minutes.  Remove from oven and set aside to cool completely, 1-2 hours (or overnight if you'd like to get this out of the way ahead of time).

Pistachio Pillows #10 (Cutting in Butter)~ Step 2.  In a large mixing bowl, stir together all of the dry ingredients (the flour, confectioners' sugar, nuts, and salt).  Stir in the vanilla without trying to blend it in.

Note:  Confectioners' sugar, powdered sugar and 10X sugar are all the same.  10X simply refers to the number of times the sugar is processed make confectioners' sugar.

Pistachio Pillows #11 (Coarse Crumbs) Using a pastry blender and a paring knife, "cut" or blend the butter into the dry ingredients, until the mixture resembles coarse, rough lumps and crumbs. 

Depending upon how soft your butter is and quickly you work, this will take about 1 minute.  I like to let my butter sit out until it is very soft and spreadable before starting to mix.

Put down the pastry blender and paring knife, and... 

Pistachio Pillows #12 (Sticky Ball is Formed) ~ Step 3.  ... using the heel of your hand, gather and knead the mixture until an ooey, gooey, sticky, messy ball of dough is formed.

How easy was that?

 

 

 

 

 

Pistachio Pillows #13 (Scooping onto Pan) ~ Step 4.  Using a 1 3/4" ice cream scoop as a measure, place 35 balls of dough, slightly apart, on each of two 17 1/2" x 12 1/2" baking pans that have been lined with parchment paper.

Do not flatten the balls!

Pistachio Pillows #15 (On Pan Just Out of Oven) ~ Step 5.  Bake tea cakes, one pan at a time, on center rack of preheated 350 degree oven, 20 minutes.  Tea cakes will be just touching each other,  be just set and be very lightly browned.  Using a spatula, immediately separate and gently transfer tea cakes to cooling rack(s) to cool completely.

Pistachio Pillows #16 (Undusted Pillows Closeup) Now, be honest... don't they look more like little cakes than cookies?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Pistachio Pillows #3 (Exit Picture)

Toasted Pistachio Pillows (Russian Tea Cakes):  Recipe yields approximately 5-5 1/2 dozen tea cakes.

Special Equipment List:  food processor; 13" x 9" x 2" baking pan; pastry blender; paring knife; 2, 17 1/2" x 12 1/2" baking pans; parchment paper; 1 3/4" ice cream scoop; cooling rack(s); fine mesh sieve (for distributing/dusting tea cakes with confectioner's sugar)

Cook's Note:  Store cookies in an air-tight container in a cool dry place for 1-2 weeks.   Give them their first or second light-dusting of confectioner's sugar just before you serve them.  I personally like to lightly sugar them once before I store them and then again just before I serve them, but that choice is yours.  Just remember... a little bit of confectioner's sugar goes a long way and a light dusting will be plenty.  Please don't mask the buttery, nutty flavor of these delicate tea cakes by using too much sugar!

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2010) 

12/20/2010

~ Mel's French-Vanilla French Toast (Pain Perdu) ~

French Toast #1 (Intro Picture #4)The French words for French toast are "pain perdu", meaning "lost bread", because it is a way of reviving bread which becomes dry after a day or two.  The basics of any French toast recipe are pretty simple:  Thickly-sliced, 2-3-day old bread is dipped into a flavored egg/cream mixture, then fried in a skillet containing a coating of oil.  When executed correctly, it emerges from the skillet crisp and golden brown on both sides with a creamy, almost pudding-like center. 

French Toast #6 (In Pan, First Side)It is served immediately topped with butter, maple syrup, fruit preserves or powdered sugar (although, aside from it being pretty looking, I have never quite figured out the fascination with powdered sugar, as I find it overly, almost sickeningly, sweet).  Almost any type of bread can be used, but in my opinion, there are only two types that produce superior French toast:  brioche and egg challah (ha-la).  Both are yeast breads that are enriched with eggs and sugar, with brioche being the sweeter and more flavorful of the two, which makes brioche my first choice and recommendation.  This being said, almost any type of thickly-sliced white bread, like the kind used to make Texas toast, will work quite well too.  That being said, I've made it a few times using my ~ Bread Machine Basics and Cinnamon-Raisin Bread ~ and that is awesome too!

IMG_8257In Melanie's Kitchen, my French-Vanilla French Toast, for some reason, gets served between Christmas and New Years, then occasionally pops up  again for Valentines Day.  I think it is probably because at this time of year, Joe and I have some extra time to wrap ourselves around a leizurely breakfast... coffee, bacon, the Centre Daily Times, CNN, ESPN, The Sopranos, The West Wing  and maybe even some conversation (or not).  I am proud to report that I make kick-a** French toast.  Before getting started on this recipe, you really should read my recipes for ~ Bread Machine Basics & My Brioche Recipe ~, found in Categories 5, 15 & 18, and, ~ Warm Cinnamon-Orange Berry-Blend Sauce ~, found in Categories 6,7,8 & 20.

Beside using great bread and making an easy berry sauce to top my French toast, I've developed a luscious, unique, egg/cream mixture, that knocks this recipe out of the park:  In place of one cup of cream, I use one cup of flavored coffee creamer -- French vanilla is my favorite flavor, with Irish cream and hazelnut cream coming in a very close second and third!!!  

French Toast #2 (Ingredients) 6,  3/4"-thick slices, 2-3 day old brioche or challah

4  jumbo eggs, preferably at room temperature

1  cup International Delight, French vanilla-flavored coffee creamer, or 1 cup heavy or whipping cream

1  tablespoon Grand Marnier (an orange-flavored French liqueur)

1  teaspoon pure orange extract, not imitation

1  teaspoon pure vanilla extract, not imitation

1/8  teaspoon each:  ground allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg and sea salt

butter, pure maple syrup, preserves, powdered sugar or your favorite topping

peanut or corn oil, for frying

French Toast #4 (Sliced Bread) ~ Step 1.  Slice your bread.  This is a picture of my Bread Machine Brioche.  If you have a bread machine, I obviously encourage you give this recipe a try.  If you are not using my brioche:

I recommend that whatever bread you are using be sliced to the thickness of 3/4".  If it is thinner or thicker, it will affect the frying time I'm going to give to you later on.  In my opinion:  French toast starts with properly sliced bread!

French Toast #3 (Two Cups of Whisked Liquid)~ Step. 2.  In a 2-cup measuring container, using a fork, whisk the flavored coffee creamer, eggs, Grand Marnier, extracts, spices and salt together.

Feel free to be creative and experient by adjusting the egg/cream mixture to suit your palate, but:

Note:  For six slices of 3/4" sliced bread, the "magic measurement" is 2 total cups of liquid.

French Toast #5 (Bread Soaking in Dish)~ Step 3.  Transfer the egg/cream mixture to a 13" x 9" x 2" baking dish.  Place 3 slices of the bread into the liquid. 

Allow the bread to soak for 3 full minutes, then flip it over and allow it to soak for 3 full minutes on the second side.  For 3/4"-thick sliced bread, 3 minutes of soaking time per side works perfectly!

French Toast #7 (In Pan, Second Side)~ Step 4.  Place 3 slices of bread into a 12" skillet to which a coating (1/16") of oil has been placed over medium heat.  Waves will appear across the surface of the oil when it is hot enough to add the bread.  To test the oil temperature, drop 1/4 teaspoon of the egg/cream mixture into skillet.  If it sizzles immediately, the oil is hot enough.

French Toast #8 (All Bread Frying)~ Step 5.  The moment you place the first 3 slices of bread in the skillet, start soaking the second 3 slices of bread, 3 minutes per side, in the remaining liquid.

Cook the first 3 slices of bread 2 1/2-3 minutes per side, until golden brown, turning only once.  Remove the first 3 slices of bread from the skillet and place on a warmed serving plate.  Add a small amount of oil to the pan (1-2 tablespoons) and repeat the process with the second 3 slices of bread.

French Toast #9 (Just Toast, Finished Closeup)Mel's French-Vanilla French Toast (Pain Perdu):  Recipe yields 6 slices of French Toast or 3-6 servings.

Special Equipment List:  cutting board; serrated bread knife; 2-cup measuring container; fork; 13" x 9" x 2" baking dish; 3-minute egg timer; 12" skillet, preferably nonstick; spatula

Cook's Note:  While French toast really does need to be cooked and served immediately, a couple of steps can be done in advance:  Pre-slice and wrap your bread in plastic wrap 1-2 days in advance.  Whisk your egg/cream mixture together and refrigerate 1 day in advance.

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2010)

12/16/2010

~ Mexican Chocolate Cinnamon-Orange Brownies ~

IMG_3692If you love chocolate brownies but have never tasted Mexican chocolate or used pure Mexican vanilla extract, you are in for a treat!  I won't lie to you, when my chocoholic son Jess was growing up, I did more than my part to keep the Duncan Hines company in business.  A couple of boxes of their "chocolate lovers" brownie mix was always in my pantry.  I even mastered the art of doctoring them up so they tasted really made-from-scratch, my favorite trick being to add some ground cinnamon and orange extract to the mix.  So many people (kids and adults) started asking me to make my cinnamon-orange brownies, I just stopped telling everyone the brownies came out of a box and continued to live quietly and happily, for years, perpetrating the sin of omission (which, as long as you don't profit from it, is probably ok).  Then:

Mexican Chocolate Brownies #4 (Ibarra Chocolate)About 12 years ago, while on my weekly visit to my favorite gourmet food shop in downtown State College, The Cheese Shoppe, I was introduced to Ibarra Mexican chocolate.  Bill Clark, the owner of the store, just happened to be stocking a shelf with it as I walked through his door.

I asked Bill what it was.  He explained that it was a grainy, cinnamon-flavored chocolate that was used to make Mexican chocolate (the hot chocolate drink).  He handed me a box and told me to take it home and give it a try.

Try I did.  That was known as the "hot cocoa period" of my life.  I even ordered a molinillo, a special whisk to froth it up!  Then:

Mexican Chocolate Brownies #5 (Mexican Vanilla Extract) About a year after that, my girfriend Kathy married my builder Ken and she brought me a bottle of pure Mexican vanilla extract back from their trip to Mexico.  The bottle in this picture is not the brand she gave to me (that is long gone), but once I started using Mexican vanilla extract, there was no going back.

Pure Mexican vanilla extract is imported from southern Mexico, which is known as the birthplace of vanilla.  The first people to cultivate vanilla were the Totonac people on the Gulf Coast of Mexico, which is present-day Veracruz.  This rich, smooth, highly-flavored extract is known to be the unrivaled KING of vanilla extracts.  Also worthy of note:  because of the extensive labor required to grow vanilla seed pods, vanilla is the second most expensive spice after saffron.

I'm sure you know by now where this story is headed.  With both of these wonderful products now on my pantry shelf, it was only a matter of time before I was compelled to come up with a very special recipe to showcase them.  "Out with the boxed brownie mix and in with the real thing!"

Mexican Chocolate Brownies #6 (Ingredients)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

9 3/4  ounces Ibarra Mexican chocolate, 3 discs, coarsely chopped

2  1-ounce squares Baker's unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped

6  ounces unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks), at room temperature

2  teaspoons pure Mexican vanilla extract, not imitation

2  teaspoons pure orange extract, not imitation

8  ounces light brown sugar (weighed, not measured)

4 large eggs, at room temperature 

9  ounces unbleached, all-purpose flour  (weighed, not measured)

1  teaspoon ground cinnamon

3/4  teaspoon baking powder

3/4  teaspoon salt

12  ounces white chocolate chips (optional)

12 ounces chopped walnuts (optional)

no-stick cooking spray (for preparing baking dish) 

Mexican Chocolate Brownies #8 (Chopped Chocolate in Double Boiler) ~ Step 1.  Place just enough water in the bottom of a double boiler so the water does not touch or make contact with "the bottom of the top" of the boiler when the top is inserted into it.  Over high heat, bring the water to a boil and then adjust (lower) the heat to a steady simmer.  Insert the top of the double boiler. 

Add the butter, then the chopped Mexican and Baker's chocolates. Whisk constantly until melted, smooth and shiny.  This will only take about 1 minute.  Remove from heat, transfer melted chocolate to a large mixing bowl and cool for about 10-12 minutes.

Mexican Chocolate Brownies #13 (Whisking in Brown Sugar) ~ Step 2.  Whisk in both extracts and the light brown sugar.  Vigorously whisk this mixture for about 2 minutes then walk away from it for 2 minutes.  This gives the sugar a bit of time to further dissolve.  Briefly whisk again.  

Note:  In a pinch, you can substitute dark brown sugar for light, but its fuller-flavor overpowers the flavors of cinnamon, orange and vanilla.

Mexican Chocolate Brownies #14 (Whisking in the Eggs)~ Step 3.  Whisk in the eggs, one at a time, taking the time to make sure each one is completely incorporated before adding the next.

After you have whisked in the fourth (the last) egg, vigorously continue to whisk the mixture for about 1 minute.  

Mixture will be silky-smooth and shiny.

Mexican Chocolate Brownies #15 (Folding in the Flour)~ Step 4.  In a medium mixing bowl, quickly stir together the flour, cinnamon, baking powder and salt.  Add all of this flour mixture to the chocolate mixture.

Using a large rubber spatula (the whisk will not work well for this) fold the flour mixture into the chocolate mixture.  Continue folding until all of the flour is incorporated and the mixture is thick and uniform in color.

Mexican Chocolate Brownies #16 (Add the White Chocolate Chips)~ Step 5.  Fold in the optional white chocolate chips and/or walnuts.  You do not have to add these, but I highly recommend that you do!

You can certainly substitute 12-ounces of other ingredients for the white chocolate, like peanut butter chips or even semi-sweet chocolate chips.  I have experimented with these and they are great, but I am here to tell you: white chocolate chips are "the bomb"!

Mexican Chocolate Brownies #17 (Ready for Oven)~ Step 6.  Spray a 13" x 9" x 2" baking dish with no-stick spray.  Transfer the brownie batter to the dish.  Using the spatula, spread it evenly toward the edges of the pan.  At this point, while keeping the pan flat atop my work surface, I give the pan a few vigorous back-and-forth shakes to level the batter out.

Mexican Chocolate Brownies #18 (Out of Oven) ~ Step 7.  Bake on center rack of preheated 350 degree oven about 21-22 minutes.  Brownie will be dry looking on top, puffed through to the center and just starting to pull away from the edges of the pan.  Do not overbake!  Remove from oven and place on a cooling rack to cool completely prior to slicing and serving:

IMG_3702

 

Mexican Chocolate Cinnamon-Orange Brownies:  Recipe yields  approximately 12-24 brownies, depending on what size you choose to cut and to serve.

Special Equipment List:  kitchen scale; cutting board; chef's knife; double boiler; whisk; large rubber spatula; 13" x 9" x 2" baking dish; cooling rack

Cook's Note:  When I make brownies, I like to get creative when it comes time to cut them.  By using cookie cutters you can quickly turn an ordinary presentation into an elegant one! 

6a0120a8551282970b0148c6d0c87b970c-800wi"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2010)

12/12/2010

~ Oatmeal & Savory Dried Sour Cherry Sensations ~

Oatmeal & Sour Cherry Cookies #1 (Intro Picture)I was either born loving oatmeal cookies or all of the oatmeal cookies I was initially introduced to as a child were spectacular.  Our neighbor Ruth Yacobenis always had small crunchy ones in the apothecary-shaped cookie jar in her kitchen.  Our other neighbor Agnes Starosta  made small chewy ones which she used to decoratively arrange on top of a pretty little dish containing one scoop of vanilla ice cream.  My Tettie (my great Aunt Mary) made large flat ones that were crunchy on the outside, chewy in the middle and had dark raisins throughout them.  All of the above were delicious, but I was never really present when these ladies were baking them, so I can't report any of their secrets to you.  I do, however, have some surprisingly sharp recollections of my Coaldale Baba baking her oatmeal cookies in her downstairs kitchen.  This would have been when I was around the age of 5, because my grandfather was still alive and well enough to be driving me around his big black car!

Oatmeal & Sour Cherry Cookies #16 (Finished Cookies)Coaldale Baba (my maternal grandmother who lived on High Street in Coaldale, PA) had two kitchens... one upstairs where the family resided and one downstairs to the back of her in-home, mom and pop, neighborhood grocery store.  Both kitchens had porcelain coal stoves, large porcelain kitchen sinks and large, enamel-topped work tables in their respective centers.  Baba seemed to bake an awful lot and she made a lot of cookies and rolls using various dried fruits like apricots, dates, prunes and raisins.  I don't know for certain if Baba actually ever sold any of her cookies in her store, but I would suppose she did.  I do know for certain that she donated a lot of her baked-goodies to our church.  Here is the scoop on her oatmeal cookies from the perspective of my then five-year-old mind:   

Oatmeal & Sour Cherry Cookies #2 (Single Cookie Closeup)Baba's oatmeal cookies were full of plump, soft raisins, and, were very thick and chewy, as well as pleasantly spiced.  As for the raisins, she used "white" raisins as opposed to Tettie's (her sister's) "black" raisins.  She would let me "dump" the raisins from the box into the appropriate size measuring cup and then she would pour boiling water from her whistling tea kettle to cover them.  By the time she was ready to fold them into her cookies, they were very plump and soft.  As for the thick and chewy part, I know she achieved that by putting both baking powder and baking soda in them, because she would ask me to pick out and bring her the "orange box" right next to the "red can" from her pantry.  The spice she used came out of a small, square, red-bottomed, white topped, tin can, which I learned later in life to be apple pie spice.  She used it quasi-liberally and just after it got mixed in, her oatmeal cookie dough was ready to taste!

At a point in my life when I had a lot of grade school bake sales to donate cookies to, I worked on duplicating Baba's oatmeal cookie recipe and I am here to cockily say:  I think I did a really good job.  Then, about 5-6 years ago, when I bought a bag of dried sour cherries from our towns beloved O.W. Houts &  Sons grocery store/lumber yard,  I decided to raise my oatmeal-raisin cookie recipe to a level of complete decadence.  So, the next time your thinkin' oatmeal-raisin cookies, I hope you'll consider giving my oatmeal-sour cherry cookie recipe a try instead!

Oatmeal & Sour Cherry Cookies #3 (Ingredients) 3/4  cup salted butter, at room temperature (1 1/2 sticks)

3/4  cups butter-flavored shortening, at room temperature (1 1/2 sticks)

1  pound dark brown sugar

1 1/2  cups sugar

2  tablespoons apple pie spice

1 1/2  teaspoons baking powder

3/4  teaspoon baking soda

3/4  teaspoon salt

6  large eggs, at room temperature

2  tablespoons wild cherry-flavored brandy

1  tablespoon pure vanilla extract, not imitation

4  cups unbleached, all-purpose flour

7 1/2 cups  old-fashioned, uncooked oats

2  pounds dried sour cherries, coarsely chopped to the size of raisins

Oatmeal & Sour Cherry Cookies #4 (Chopping Cherries) ~ Step 1.  For me, the moment I tasted my first dried sour cherry, I fell in love with them.  They are simply bursting with flavor that you don't get from some other dried fruits.

Because they are about twice the size of a raisin, I quickly run a chef's knife through them to coarsely chop them to about the size of raisins.

Oatmeal & Sour Cherry Cookies #5 (Combine Butter & Shortening) ~ Step 2.  In a large mixing bowl, combine the butter with the shortening, just until creamy and uniform in color, 30-45 seconds, then...

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oatmeal & Sour Cherry Cookies #6 (Add Dry Ingredients) ... add the sugars, apple pie spice, baking powder, baking soda and salt.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oatmeal & Sour Cherry Cookies #7 (Beat & Scrape until Combined) ~ Step 3.  On medium-high speed of mixer, beat the mixture until all ingredients are thoroughly mixed, "fluffy" and uniform in color, 1-2 minutes.

 

 

 

 

 

Oatmeal & Sour Cherry Cookies #8 (Add Wet Ingredients) ~ Step 4.  Add the eggs, brandy and vanilla extract, and...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oatmeal & Sour Cherry Cookies #9 (Beat Until Smooth) ... beat briefly, but thoroughly, about 30 seconds to 1 minute.  Mixture will be smooth and creamy.

Now, don't race around like a madperson, but remember:  your baking powder and baking soda have just been combined with the wet ingredients, so work at a steady, comfortable pace, without interruptions, until all of the cookies are baked... no phone calls please!!!

 

Oatmeal & Sour Cherry Cookies #10 (Beating in the Flour)~ Step 5.  With mixer on medium-low speed, gradually incorporate all of the flour.  The mixture will be very thick and uniform in color.

Using a large rubber spatula, meticulously scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl to make sure there are no pockets of flour that are not thorougly incorporated.

Remove the mixer from the bowl.  You will not be needing it anymore today.  

 

Oatmeal & Sour Cherry Cookies #13 (Cookie Dough Ready for Pans) ~ Step 6.  Alternately, fold in the oats and cherries, meaning:  oats, cherries, oats, cherries, etc., until all of both ingredients are evenly distributed throughout the batter.

A very thick and delicious cookie batter will have formed.  Go ahead, give it a little taste.

 

Oatmeal & Sour Cherry Cookies #14 (Scooping Dough on Pans) ~ Step 7.  I am using 4, 17 1/2" x 12 1/2" baking pans lined with parchment paper sheets along with a 2 1/4" round ice cream scoop as a measure.  I place 12 cookies, well-apart on each pan.  You can use any size pan you want, but make sure the cookies are placed well-apart.  Do not flatten the balls.

 

Oatmeal & Sour Cherry Cookies #15 (Out of Oven) ~ Step 8.  Bake on center rack of preheated 350 degree oven, 11-12 minutes, or until cookies are just browning on the tops and around the sides.  Do not over bake!  Remove from oven and allow cookies to cool in pan, about 2 minutes, prior to transferring to cooling rack(s) to cool completely:

Oatmeal & Sour Cherry Cookies #17 (Finished Cookies Closeup)Oatmeal & Savory Dried Sour Cherry Sensations:  Recipe yields 3 1/2 dozen large, gourmet, bakery-style cookies.

Special Equipment List:  cutting board; chef's knife; electric mixer (a hand-held mixer will work just fine); large rubber spatula; 4, 17 1/2" x 12 1/2" baking pans; 4, 17 1/2" x 12 1/2" parchment paper sheets; 2-3, 17 1/2" x 12 1/2" cooling racks or one full-sheet-pan size cooling rack (as seen in above picture); metal spatula

Cook's Note:  If you do not have the 4 baking pans, make sure whatever pan you have is cooled completely between batches  Rinse the pan under cold water if necessary to bring it back to room temperature.  If you place raw cookie dough on a warm or slightly-warm pan, the cookies will flatten out and you will have missed this fantastic cookie experience!

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2010)

12/09/2010

~ How to: Roast/Toast Most Nuts and Some Seeds ~

6a0120a8551282970b016303dc1dd1970dOven Roasting/Toasting Nuts & Some Seeds

Roasted nuts and seeds add both a wonderful flavor and a crunchy texture when baked in, added to or sprinkled on almost anything!  Try them:  baked in cookies, brownies, muffins, cakes or pies; added to your favorite poultry stuffing or sauteed vegetables; or, lightly sprinkled on top of garden and pasta salads, or, tangy chicken/ham or tuna salads.

Be sure to use only fresh nuts and seeds.  The best place to store them for a short time, 1-2 weeks, is in your refrigerator.  For longer storage, your freezer will keep them perfectly for a year.  Roast only as many as you need, as they can and will turn rancid quickly (this is because roasting releases all of the fragrant, flavorful oils) or, roast a large quantity and after they have cooled completely, return them to the refrigerator or freezer for longer storage.  There is no need to defrost nuts or seeds prior to roasting.  The following is a list of a few choices/possibilities:

Almonds, Cashews, Hazelnuts

Macadamias (pictured above), Peanuts, Pecans

Pistachios, Pine Nuts, Walnuts, or:

Whole:  Cumin Seeds, Fennel Seeds, Sesame Seeds 

Roasted Pumpkin Seeds #1 (Intro Picture) Read my post ~ How to:  Roast Pumpkin Seeds ~, found in Categories 2, 15 & 18 for a slightly different process, which can also be applied to roasting acorn and butternut squash seeds as well.

The above mentioned pumpkin seed post includes photographs and detailed instructions for how to clean and dry pumpkin seeds prior to roasting and eating them for a delicious snack!

Note:  The following is a guideline/method for roasting nuts and seeds.  Keep in mind that a few variables will affect the amount of time it will take each particular variety to roast/toast:

The quantity being roasted:  large quantities will take longer.

The size of the nuts/seeds:  small or chopped ones will roast quicker.

The amount of oil contained in each type:  determines how quickly they will burn.

Chow Mein (Untoasted Peanuts) Spread the nuts or seeds, in a single layer on a shallow baking pan.  The size of the pan is determined by the quantity of nuts being roasted.  Roast on center rack of preheated 350 degree oven, until lightly toasted and fragrant, 3-15 minutes, stopping to toss with a spoon about every 3-5 minutes.  The time is takes to toast them is determined by the size of the nuts/seeds being roasted.  In all cases, due to the varying amount of oil(s) contained in each type, nuts/seeds can and will go from lightly browned and fragrant to burned very quickly, so watch them carefully during the entire roasting process.  When you begin to smell them, that is a good indicator they are done or almost done. 

Chow Mein (Toasted Peanuts) Remove from oven and set aside.  Keep in mind that carryover heat will continue to roast all nuts and seeds (for about 1-2 minutes) once they are removed from the oven. Because of this, I like to remove them when they are lightly golden brown.  Unless a recipe directs you to use them while they are still warm, cool them completely, then use as directed in specific recipe .

Some nuts, like whole almonds, hazelnuts and peanuts in particular, occasionally have skins that require removal.  After cooling the roasted nuts slightly, 2-3 minutes, transfer the nuts to a large cotton kitchen towel.  Gather the sides of the towel up around the nuts to form a pouch and vigorously rub the nuts together, about 2 minutes.  The steam and the rubbing will remove the excess thick skins from the nuts.  Open the pouch.  Using a slotted spoon, sift the nuts from the skins, gently shaking each spoonful.  Set the nuts aside and discard the skins.

Note:  The process of removing the excess skin from roasted nuts should be quick and easy.  Do not make it tedious and cumbersome by attempting to remove all of the small bits of skin that still remain on the nuts... that will make you nuts!!!

Skillet Roasting/Toasting Small Quantities of Nuts & Some Seeds

An alternative to oven roasting, in order to quickly roast a small quantity of nuts or seeds, is to place them, in a single layer, in a 10"-12" nonstick skillet over medium/medium-high heat.  Cook until the nuts or seeds are lightly browned and fragrant (again, when you begin to smell them they are done or close to done), about 2-4 minutes, tossing constantly using a nonstick spoon or a nonstick spatula.  Remove from heat and set aside to cool.  Use as directed in specific recipe.  All of the time variables discussed in the above recipe for Oven Roasting/Toasting Some Nuts & Seeds apply to skillet roasting/toasting them.

IMG_8785 IMG_8781Note:  In Asian cuisines, the method of quickly cooking an ingredient, be it nuts, seeds, meat or even seafood, without adding oil or fat to the skillet is referred to as "dry frying".  I mention this so if you come across a recipe that instructs to "dry-fry one cup of cashews", you will understand the process.

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2010)

12/07/2010

~ Mrs. Prizzi's Cookies (Italian Celebration Cookies) ~

Theresa's Cookies #2 (Intro Picture)

It was the Christmas of 1981.  Joe and I were newlyweds and this was my first holiday with Joe's family.   Joe's mother and her brother Stan, lived in Jessup, PA (very close to Scranton).  "Aunt" Theresa (Uncle Stan's fiancee of 25+ years) served her mother's cookies for dessert.  I can only describe these sublime 3"-round confections as:  subtly vanilla-flavored, puffy, soft-centered "cookie-cakes", drizzled with a silky-smooth pink-colored vanilla-flavored sugar glaze and topped with a sprinkling of crunchy sugar crystals.  I had never tasted anything like them, and after eating at least six, I was disappointed to learn that no formal recipe for them existed!

Theresa explained she watched her mother make them many times each year as everytime there was a family holiday or neighborhood celebration of any sort (weddings, christenings, funerals) her mom was always specifically asked to make her "celebration" cookies.  Theresa went on to tell me her mother (Mrs. Prizzi) would simply:  "Trow (the Scrantonian word for throw) a pound of flour on the kitchen table, add about half as much sugar, some baking powder, a touch of vanilla extract and then "cut in" a pound of Spry (a brand of solid shortening similar to Crisco).  Then, Theresa added, "she trows in some eggs, the biggest ones she can find, one at a time, until the surface of the dough is smooth, shiny and slippery".  This was one time that I made a mental note of each and every instruction that was relayed to me!

Prizzi and Nutroll and TrufflesAbout a week later, Joe arrived home from the office to find a tray of Mrs. Prizzi's cookies on our kitchen counter.  He asked me where I got them.  I told him, "I 'trew' a pound of flour on the kitchen table, added about half as much sugar, some baking powder and  cut in some Crisco.  Then I trew in some eggs, until the surface of the dough got shiny!!!"  You might think I am making a joke here, but that is exactly what I did.  Well, after about three more tries, I perfected the recipe using precise weights and measures, tweeking the amounts of baking powder and vanilla extract to achieve their airy texture and subtle flavor.  In her last years, Theresa often proudly told me she thought my cookies were even better than her mothers.  These cookies, fondly referred to as Mrs. Prizzi's Cookies, are indeed a Preschutti family favorite!

To date, I have never come across a recipe for this particular type of frosted Italian wedding/celebration cookie as delicious as these.  Most of the versions I have tried, seem to be quite small, crunchy throughout in texture and are topped with a thick, spreadable frosting... sadly, most of these seemed bland and tasteless to me after eating Mrs. Prizzi's.  The versions with a similar softness use ricotta cheese, which produces chewy, rather than crumbly cake-like, cookies that tend to get sticky and gummy in texture after a day or two.  Don't get me wrong, they are delicious (I make them myself), they are just not the same.  Like the smaller, crunchy versions, Mrs. Prizzi's Cookies have a long shelf-life and get better with each and every day.  What makes these so special is, even after a week or two, they still retain their soft cake-like center.  So you ask, what makes me a self-professed authority on the subject of Italian cookies?

Tabletop 3I grew up in the coal regions of Pennsylvania, where the cookie table is traditional, and is a particularly big deal at wedding receptions.  Folks in and from the The Steel City (Pittsburgh) get touchy on this subject, as they think they invented the cookie table, but  truthfully, it is pretty much a tradition in parts of New York, Ohio, the Virginias and New Jersey too.  Wherever you have blue-collar, primarily Catholic or Orthodox immigrants (Italians, Irish, Greeks and Eastern Europeans) gathering to celebrate just about anything, a cookie table is a given.  Don't roll your eyes darlin', most of these cookie tables are planned and mapped out months in advance of the celebration at hand and impress the pants off the snootiest of food snobs.   I'll be sharing a lot of these delightful and diverse ethnic cookie recipes with you in the future, but I wanted to start with this very unique and special one.  All of this being said:

Do as the Italians do:  dip these delicious cookies in your coffee for a breakfast treat or your red wine for an after dinner delight!!!

Theresa's Cookies #3 (Ingredients) For the cookies:

1 1/2  pounds unbleached, all-purpose flour, weighed on a kitchen scale

8  ounces sugar, weighed on a kitchen scale

2  tablespoons baking powder

1/2  teaspoon salt

1  pound butter-flavored vegetable shortening, cut into 1/2" slices or pieces

2  tablespoons pure vanilla extract, not imitation

8  jumbo eggs

Theresa's Cookies #4 (Glaze Ingredients) For the glaze:

1  pound confectioners' (powdered) sugar

2  tablespoons pure vanilla extract, not imitation

1/2  cup milk, more or less, until desired consistency is reached

1-2-3  drops liquid food coloring, color of your choice, I use red to produce a pink glaze

colored sugar crystals, for sprinkling over tops of cookies

Theresa's Cookies #5 (Mixing Cookie Ingredients) ~ Step 1.  Using a kitchen scale, weigh and measure the flour and sugar.  Place in a large mixing bowl along with the baking powder, salt, shortening and vanilla extract.

Using a pastry blender and a sharp paring knive, "cut" the shortening into the flour/sugar mixture, until the mixtures has a very coarse, grainy texture.

Do not overwork this mixture.  Error on the side of doing less.  This process should only take about one minute!

Theresa's Cookies #6 (Adding the Eggs) ~ Step 2.  Using one hand, start working the eggs into the mixture one at a time.  Trust me:  you will not get the same result if you use a rubber spatula or a spoon.  This was a double-yolk egg!

I'll be using 8 jumbo eggs because Theresa told me her mother used the "biggest eggs she could find."  I have baked these cookies successfully using smaller eggs, but you'll need more of them... 10-12 large eggs.

Theresa's Cookies #7 (Eggs Added)~ Step 3.  Using your hands, continue to blend in the eggs, one at a time, making sure that each one is incorporated before adding the next. 

If you are doing this for the first time, you are going to be as surprised as I was to learn that just as Theresa described:

When you add the last one, the surface of the dough will become smooth, shiny and slippery... it happens every time!

Theresa's Cookies #8 (Placing Cookies on Pan)~ Step 4.  I am using 4, 17 1/2" x 12 1/2" baking pans lined with parchment paper sheets along with a 2 1/2" x 1 3/4" oval-shaped ice cream scoop as a measure.  I place 12 cookies, well-apart on each pan.  You can use any size pan you want, but make sure the cookies are placed well-apart.  Do not flatten the ovals. 

Theresa's Cookies #9 (All out of Oven)~ Step 5.  Bake each pan of cookies on center rack of preheated 350 degree oven for 12-13 minutes.  Cookies will be just beginning to brown, soft, puffy and set.  You will have 3 1/2 dozen cookies.

Using a metal spatula, immediately transfer to cooling rack(s) to cool completely.

Note:  Because the cookies will be glazed after they cool, I place my cooling rack(s) over two layers of paper towels to catch the drips.  Be certain the cookies have cooled completely before glazing them, about 1-2 hours.

Theresa's Cookies #9 (Glaze Mixed) ~ Step 6.  In a medium mixing bowl, combine all of the ingredients for the glaze except for the food coloring.  Stir constantly until thoroughly combined.  The mixture should be smooth and somewhat thin, but if you want the glaze to be thicker, use a little less milk, that is fine with me (but not with Mrs. Prizzi).  Add and stir in the food coloring, one drop at a time, until desired color is reached.  My pastel pink color comes from 2 drops.

Theresa's Cookies #11 (Dipping Tops) ~ Step 7.  Invert and dip the top of each cookie into the glaze, just deep enough to coat 3/4 of the top surface of each cookie.  Remove from the glaze and allow excess glaze to drizzle back into the bowl.  Return each cookie to the rack, where they will continue to "drip".  After you have dipped a series of 6-8 cookies, sprinkle the tops of them evenly with the sugar crystals.

Theresa's Cookies #12 (Dripping Cookies) ~ Step 8.  Allow the cookies to remain on cooling rack until the frosting dries and hardens, about 3-4 hours or overnight.

Store cookies in an airtight container, separating the layers with wax paper, in a cool dry place for up to 2 weeks.  Once the frosting hardens, the tops will stay firm and pretty as long as they are stored in a cool place.

Theresa's Cookies #15 (Finished Fullpan Shot)

Mrs. Prizzi's Cookies (Italian Celebration Cookies):  Recipe yields 3 1/2 dozen large, gourmet, bakery-style cookies.

Special Equipment List:  kitchen scale; pastry blender; sharp paring knife; 4, 17 1/2" x 12 1/2" baking pans; 4, 17 1/2" x 12 1/2" parchment paper sheets; 2-3, 17 1/2" x 12 1/2" cooling racks or one full-sheet-pan size cooling rack (as seen in above pictures); paper towels; 2 1/2" x 1 3/4" oval-shaped ice cream scoop; metal spatula; 1-2 air-tight food storage containers; wax paper

Cook's Note:  If you do not have the 4 baking pans, make sure whatever pan you have is cooled completely between batches.  Rinse the pan under cold water if necessary to bring it back to temperature.  If you place the raw cookie dough on a warm or slightly-warm pan, the cookies will flatten out and you will have missed this fantastic cookie experience!

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary & Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2010)

12/06/2010

~ Baking Basic: Baking Soda & Baking Powder ~

Baking Soda & Baking Powder #1

'Tis the season to start baking, so I am posting this right next to/above another post today for :

~ Baking Basic:  Evaporated Milk & Condensed Milk ~, also found in Category 15.

I cannot begin to count the number of times I get asked, "what is the difference between evaporated milk and condensed milk", along with, "what is the difference between baking soda and baking powder"!

Baking soda (also known as bicarbonate of soda or sodium bicarbonate) is a slightly salty alkaline that comes to us in the form of a fine white powder.  It releases carbon dioxide gas when combined with an acid liquid, such as buttermilk, sour cream, yogurt, honey, cocoa, any citrus juice or vinegar.  This gas is what causes some doughs or batters to rise.  Baking soda is also used a lot for cookie baking.  Baking soda is single-acting, as opposed to double-acting (like baking powder), which means its gas is released just once... immediately when introduced to moisture.  Unless it is used simultaneously with baking powder (which will give dough or batter a second rise in the oven), it must always be mixed with all of the dry ingredients before adding any of the acidic liquid.  Then the resulting batter must  immediately be transferred directly to the prepared baking pan and placed immediately into the preheated oven.  I know this sounds frenzied, so let me explain it to you this way:  work as quickly as possible without getting sloppy or messy and it will be ok.

Note:  Always follow your recipe and use the amount of baking soda recommended.  The decision to use more should be considered carefully as it is not necessarily the right one.  More baking powder will definitely result in a bigger rise, but too much will neutralize the flavorful acidic liquid, resulting in your end product tasting flat and boring.

Baking powder is a leavener containing a combination of baking soda, an acid (such as cream of tartar) and a moisture-absorber (such as cornstarch) to keep the mixture dry, preventing a reaction until liquid is added to it.  It too comes to us in the form of white powder.  When mixed with any liquid (unlike baking powder which requires an acidic liquid), it releases carbon dioxide gas bubbles that cause quick breads, biscuits, muffins, scones or cakes to rise (batters that lack the structure to hold gas bubbles for more than a few minutes).  There are three basic kinds of baking powder:  1) double-acting (the most common), which means it contains two acids which release gas at two different times in two different ways (once, very quickly when it first becomes wet, then, a second time, when exposed to oven heat); 2) single-acting tartrate, and; 3) phosphate baking powders.  The latter two, which release their gases as soon as they are moistened,  are very hard to find in American markets because of the popularity and reliability of double-acting baking powder.  While batters using double-acting baking powder do allow the baker to relax somewhat (as time is not as critical as it is when using baking soda alone), for best results, they should still be placed in the hot oven within 5-10 minutes of mixing.  To repeat what I said above:  work as quickly as possible without getting sloppy or messy.

Note:  Baking powder is perishable and should be stored in a cool, dry place.  Always check the expiration date on the the can before purchasing or using it.  To test if baking powder still packs a punch, combine 1 teaspoon of it with 3-4 tablespoons of hot water.  If it bubbles/fizzes enthusiatically, it is just fine to use.

You can substitute baking powder for baking soda but you cannot use baking soda when a recipe calls for baking powder.  Be aware that when substituting baking powder for baking soda, you will have to use more of it and this might affect the taste of the end product.  Also, in a pinch, you can make your own baking powder by mixing two parts cream of tartar with one part of baking soda.

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Commentary and Photo courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2010)

12/03/2010

~ Culinary Q&A & Kitchen Therapy Too (12/3/10) ~

Culinary Q & A #2

I truly hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving weekend and delicious feast.  I was pleased to receive feedback from some of you who tried my recipes, thrilled that you and yours enjoyed them,  and, are finding my detailed instructions and step-by-step pictures of great value.  After today, I'll be devoting December to as many recipes as I can post for elegant hors d'ouevres, festive meals and, of course:  cookies!

Since our last Friday Q&A (we didn't have one last week because of the holiday weekend), Kitchen Encounters has had two great questions and one lovely comment!  Here goes:

Q.  Gretchen asks:  My pumpkin pie recipe called for evaporated milk and I did not have any, so I used condensed milk instead.  My pie was too sweet to eat.  What is the difference between evaporated and condensed milk, and what should I have substituted?

Evaporated Milk & Condensed Milk #1 A.  Kitchen Encounters:  Gretchen, nice to hear from you again!  I'm sorry your pie didn't turn out for you.  We all make mistakes and that is how we learn!  Evaporated milk is a canned cow's milk product that has about 60% of the water removed from fresh milk.  Sweetened condensed milk (also refered to as condensed milk), like evaporated milk, has the water removed from it, but has quite a bit of sugar added to it as well.  These two products cannot be used interchangeablySubstitutions for evaporated milk are:  equal measures of light cream, half and half or cream, with cream being my first choice.  I have read that buttermilk can also be equally substituted, but the tangy taste of buttermilk may not bode well in certain applications.  If you happen to keep dry milk in your pantry, you can mix it with 40% of the water required.  Substitutions for condensed milk, if you do a quick search are "out there", but they require some messy, time-consuming machinations that don't consistently result in an admirable product, so  my recommendation on this one is:  hop in the car and go buy the condensed milk. 

Both products have a unique flavor, creamy texture (with condensed milk being much thicker) and on the shelf, physically take up half the space of milk.  Evaporated milk was invented by dairy farmers over 100 years ago, because fresh milk, without refrigeration, had a very short shelf life and could not be shipped very far.   In the 1920's and 1930's it gained favor as a baby formula.  Evaporated milk is still used widely in many countries were no refrigeration is available.  Sweetened condensed milk was invented in France by Nicolas Appert in 1820.  In 1853, Gail Borden, Jr. was the first to market condensed milk in the USA.  The US Government ordered huge quantities of it during the American Civil War, handing out its 14-ounce/1,300 calorie cans as field rations to soldiers.  By the 1860's the soldiers had spread the word and condensed milk became a major product in the American marketplace. 

All of this being said, once the cans are open, both must be refrigerated or they, like fresh milk, will spoil.  Even though both products have a long shelf life, with condensed milk lasting longer than evaporated milk, you still need to check the expiration date on the can before using either of them.  Condensed milk should be thick, yet drizzly and cream-colored.  Past the expiration date, it tends to seize up or crystallize and darken to a caramel-color, which does not necessarily mean it is spoiled, but if in doubt, throw it out.  In the case of evaporated milk, if it does not pour smooth and uniform in color, or has any lumps in it, throw it away immediately. 

When using either of these products for making desserts, which we all know relies on weights, measures and precise ingredients, remember to read your labels and check your expiration dates before even getting started!   

Q.  Jesse asks:  For those of us who are cooking Thanksgiving dinner and have only one oven, how is my oven temperature affected if I am baking casseroles at the same time as my turkey?

A.  Kitchen Encounters:  This is is a great question, as most people have only one oven.  It is also not the first time I've been asked this.  Keep in mind that each and every time you open your oven door you are losing heat to some degree, so you must strive to minimize this activity and have a pre-planned strategy:

#1)  Make sure your oven racks are properly positioned and in place before you preheat your oven, meaning:  know where your turkey is going (I recommend a rack positioned at the lowest third of the oven) and where your casseroles are going (I recommend a rack positioned at the highest third).  Do a "run through", meaning:  place your roasting pan and casseroles in the cold oven to insure eveything will fit.  You don't want any surprises once your turkey has started roasting.  

#2)  Remember that your turkey has resting time after it comes out of the oven, so account for that and wait to add your casseroles until the last moment possible.  I rest my turkey for 45-60 minutes, which allows most casseroles time to bake properly on their own once the turkey has been removed from the oven.

#3)  Most importantly:  NEVER add a cold casserole to the oven.  Remove any cassseroles that have been prepared in advance from the refrigerator and return them completely to room temperature before placing them in the hot oven.  This could take 2-3 hours.  This will insure minimal heat loss.

C.  Jeanne says:  Mel, I followed your instructions for cooking the turkey and making the gravy and I am so happy to say this is the FIRST Thanksgiving that I got rave compliments on everything.  My turkey came out beautifully browned (camera worthy) and was incredibly moist!  I used to think that gravy was a pain to make (as it always came out lumpy), but not this year.  It was rich and smooth and those hot turkey sandwiches the next day were fab!  Thanks for all of your great recipes, which make trying new things that one might perceive to be difficult easy.

A.  Kitchen Encounters:  Jeanne, this is such gratifying feedback.  I especially like your last sentence!  I always feel successful when someone says, "I always thought that meal would be so hard to prepare, but you've shown me how easy it actually is"! 

Enjoy your weekend everyone, and once again:  To leave a comment or ask a question, simply click on the blue title of any post, scroll to the end of it and type away!

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Commentary and Photo courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/2010)   

12/01/2010

~ Shiitake Mushrooms in White Wine Sauce ~

6a0120a8551282970b0147e04a71d6970bJoe and I moved into our newly built home here in Boalsburg, PA, on schedule, on October 31st, 1996.  As planned, that gave me three weeks to get unpacked, settled in and four days to prepare Thanksgiving dinner for 22 guests coming to celebrate our holiday housewarming.  Sound overwhelming?  Not really.  At the end of the first day of moving in, all of my furniture was in place, thanks to several very big, strong, Penn State college guys (all friends of my son).  Then, working nonstop, with the help of my good friend Bonnie, during the next three weeks:  Each and every one of my carefully packed and well-indexed boxes were unpacked, each and every item was put in its designated place, all of my cookbooks were on their appropriate shelves in my research library and my new house was sparkling clean.  To put this in perspective, I had spent the previous nine months packing and indexing boxes myself, so, Bonnie and I were able for work relatively quickly.  Finally, our builder sent two of his workers over to spend a day hanging artwork throughout our new home.  All of a sudden the long-awaited moment was upon me.  There I was, alone in my beloved, glorious new kitchen.  It was finally show time!

I sliced, diced, chopped, sautéed, baked and roasted.  Every year I try to introduce one new dish and 1996 was no exception.  I prepared the following recipe for shiitake mushrooms in white wine sauce, which has the distinction of being the very first recipe I developed in my new kitchen.  My mushrooms were such a hit, they've appeared on my Thanksgiving table every year since, as well as whenever I am serving my standing/prime rib roast, which is often on Christmas day.  Thanksgiving is always a big celebration at our house, but 1996 will aways be my favorite.

Shiitake Mushrooms #2(Mushrooms In Boxes)Yes, you are going to need quite a lot of shiitake mushrooms.  I always preorder them which insures their freshness and my getting them on the day I plan to use them (so they don't take up any precious refrigerator space).

Can you believe these are all going to fit in one 3-quart casserole?  Well, they are.  Since shiitakes have a very hard, woody stem that is not used or eaten, right off the block, you're going to lose about 1/2 of their weight and volume .

4-5  pounds shiitake mushroom caps from 3, 3-pound boxes of whole mushrooms (pictured above), use all of the caps from all of these boxes 

2 1/2  pounds thinly sliced (or medium-diced) shallots or sweet onions

1  pound butter

1/2  teaspoon ground nutmeg

1  tablespoon sea salt, more or less to taste

1  teaspoon white pepper, more or less to taste

2-2 1/2 cups dry or sweet white wine, the choice of wine is yours

Shiitake Mushrooms #4 (Shallots Sauteed)~ Step 1.  In chef's pan, melt the butter over low heat.  Stir in the nutmeg, sea salt and white pepper, to evenly season the butter.  Turn the heat off.

Prep the shallots as directed, adding them to the pan as you work.  Adjust heat to saute, stirring occasionally, until the shallots are soft and transluscent, about 10-12 minutes.  Turn the heat off.

Shiitake Mushrooms #5 (Sliced & Heaped in Pan) ~ Step 2.  Remove and discard the stems from the mushrooms.  Slice the caps into 1/4"-1/2" strips, placing/heaping them in the pan as you work.  The pan is going to be very, very full.

Adjust heat to saute, stirring frequently, until mushrooms have lost most of their moisture, about half of their volume and almost no liquid remains in the pan, about 20-30 minutes.

Shiitake Mushrooms #6 (Liquid Evaporated Isn't it amazing how much volume and moisture the mushrooms have lost?  As you can see in the picture, when I run my spoon through this greatly reduced mixture, the black bottom of the pan is almost dry.

This is exactly what you want.  And, as with many cooking processes, it is "not so much" how much time it actually takes.  As long and it looks the way it is supposed to, the end result is going to be fab.

Note #1.  Never rinse or soak  mushrooms in water in order to clean them because:  they will absorb the moisture like a sponge, making them mushy when cooked.  If you find dirt on them, simply brush them (using a very soft brush or specifically a mushroom brush) or wipe them with a damp towel or paper towel.  In the case of these shiitakes, they required no cleaning whatsoever.

Note #2.  Both the mushrooms and the shallots can be pre-prepped 1-2 days in advance of cooking them.  How convenient is that.  Store them, separately, in two very large food storage bags in the refrigerator.  Important tip:  Using a sharp knife, pierce the bag of mushrooms in numerous spots -- this allows air to circulate, which prevents them from quickly deteriorating.

Shiitake Mushrooms #7 (Wine Added) ~ Step 3.  Add the wine.  I know, I know, this seems like we're headed backwards because the mushrooms are technically cooked.

Add 2 cups of white wine if the weight of the caps is closer to 4 pounds and add 2 1/2 cups of white wine if the weight of the caps is closer to 5 pounds.

But, even that doesn't matter very much...

Shiitake Mushrooms #8 (Wine Reduced) ~ Step 4.  Adjust heat to a gentle but steady simmer and continue to cook, stirring frequently, until a smooth, slightly-thickened white wine sauce has formed evenly on the bottom of the pan, about 20-30 minutes.

The amount of time this takes will depend how many pounds of mushroom caps and white wine you have added to the pan.  Taste and adjust seasoning with sea salt and white pepper, to your liking.

Serve immediately or transfer mushrooms to a 3-quart casserole, cover and refrigerate up to 3 days prior to serving.  Return to room temperature, then gently reheat in microwave until steaming, stirring occasionally throughout the reheating process.

Shiitake Mushrooms #9 (Mushrooms in Casserole)

Shiitake Mushrooms in White Wine Sauce:  Recipe yields 3 quarts or 24, 1/2-cup side servings.

Special Equipment List:  cutting board; chef's knife; 14" chef's pan w/straight, deep sides; large spoon; 3-quart casserole or 13" x 9" x 2" baking dish

Cook's Note:  These mushrooms are a wonderful accompaniment to almost any roasted poultry, pork or beef.  As I mentioned earlier in this spot, I serve them every year with turkey at our Thanksgiving feast and whenever I am making my standing/prime rib roast, many times on Christmas day.  If you are serving an elegant buffet dinner party, this easy to prepare and absolutely delicious side dish will serve and please a lot of happy mushroom-loving guests.

Extra Cook's Note:  These mushrooms are also delicious served at my family's Orthodox Christmas Eve celebration.  Christmas Eve is a strict fast day in our church and the entire twelve-course meal must be served without using any meat or dairy products.  Under those circumstances, I do what my grandmother taught me:  I prepare my mushrooms using margarine instead of butter.  To read more about our Orthodox Christmas Eve feast, please read my post, ~ Orthodox Christmas Eve:  Lenten Bread & Biscuits ~, found in Categories 5, 11 & 12.

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2010)