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12 posts from May 2015

05/30/2015

~ Delightfully Double-Vanilla Sour-Cream Frosting ~

IMG_8009Every great cake or cupcake deserves an equally great frosting.  The two must play off each other so well you can't imagine one without the other.  While vanilla, known for its enchanting scent and exotic taste, is indisputably the number one flavoring added to baked goods, when it comes to using it as the lone flavor enhancer in an otherwise flavorless cake, most published recipes don't add enough of it.  Be it vanilla beans, paste, extract or powder, I typically double the recommended amount and I have never once been disappointed.  There's more:  I'll bet a lot of you do the very same thing.  One teaspoon of vanilla might go a long way to enhance the flavor of a chocolate cake, but, in an all-vanilla cake or vanilla cake frosting, it's just not enough.

IMG_7881A bit about vanilla bean paste and vanilla powder:  Everyone who bakes stores high-quality pure vanilla extract (not imitation flavoring) in their pantry along with a few vanilla bean pods too. They're available everywhere, with extract being more economical than whole pods.  You'll find two other vanilla products in my pantry too: vanilla bean paste & vanilla powder.

Vanilla bean paste is a sweet, syrupy mixture full of vanilla beans that have been scraped out of the pod.  Like vanilla extract, it's full of IMG_7887natural vanilla flavor, plus, it's got all the pretty speckled beans in it too.  I think of it as a convenient cross between the extract and the pod, and, I like to add it to cake batters because the seeds distribute themselves evenly throughout the mixture.  1 tablespoon paste = 1 tablespoon extract = 1 bean pod.

Vanilla powder is a free-flowing sugar which may be used in place of pure extract in any recipe.  It stirs into beverages, and, gets sprinkled onto desserts.  I particularly like it for making vanilla cake frosting because it doesn't affect the color like extract does.  1 tablespoon powder = 1 tablespoon extract.

5 ingredients + 5 minutes of time = very very vanilla frosting 

IMG_8018The next time you consider a run to the grocery store to pick up a can of "rich and creamy" vanilla frosting (in an effort to save time), think again. You can have far better frosting made in far less time than it takes to get to the store and back! 

6  tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, very soft

6  tablespoons sour cream, at room temperature

2  teaspoons vanilla bean paste

2  teaspoons vanilla powder

3  cups confectioners' sugar, sifted after measuring*

IMG_8024*Note:  Confectioners' sugar contains cornstarch which can cause it to get lumpy -- especially over a period of time.  It's not imperative that it be sifted, I recommend it a trouble shooting tip. For example:  I opened a new box today and I did not sift it.  I finished off an old box last week (to make ~ Deceivingly Dark-Chocolate Sour-Cream Frosting ~) and I did sift it.

~ Step 1.  Allow butter to soften for 45-60 minutes.  Sift the confectioners' sugar and set aside.

IMG_7984 IMG_7696~ Step 2.  In a medium bowl over high speed of mixer, beat butter, sour cream, vanilla paste & powder until very creamy, 2 1/2-3 minutes.

IMG_7987~ Step 3. Turn mixer off. Add the powdered sugar.

IMG_7992~ Step 4.  Over low speed of mixer, scraping down the sides of the bowl constantly with a rubber spatula, blend in the confectioners' sugar. This will take about 1 minute. Gradually increase mixer speed to high and continue to beat for 3 full minutes.  You will have 3 cups of super-creamy decadently- delightful frosting.  Use immediately or refrigerate for up to one week. Return to room temperature, 2-3 hours, prior to spreading on cake or piping onto my recipe for:

~ For the Love of Vanilla:  Double Vanilla Cupcakes ~

IMG_8010Delightfully Double-Vanilla Sour-Cream Frosting:  Recipe yields 3 cups.

Special Equipment List:  mesh sieve; hand-held electric mixer; large rubber spatula

IMG_7867Cook's Note:  If you're one of my fellow "double-the-vanilla" foodies, I hope I've convinced you to add vanilla bean paste and vanilla powder to your pantry shelf. I encourage you to use them in conjunction with tried-and-true pure vanilla extract and real-deal vanilla bean pods too.  Our food world is a better place with all of them in it! 

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

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2015)

05/28/2015

~ For the Love of Vanilla: Double-Vanilla Cupcakes ~

IMG_8001Vanilla is easy to love -- its scent is enchanting, its taste is exotic.  It can be used in an array of sweet and savory culinary applications, but, it is indisputably the number one flavoring in baked goods. For my taste, most published recipes don't add enough vanilla.  Be it vanilla beans, paste, extract or powder, I typically double the recommended amount -- yes, I double it and I have never once been disappointed.  There's more:  I'll bet a lot of you do the very same thing.

IMG_7867Not being a professional baker does not mean I'm not a good baker -- it means I am a very good baker who doesn't love baking because I'm not naturally drawn to the dessert table.  That said, I do have a repertoire of excellent go-to recipes for when I am required or requested to bake, which, due to circumstances beyond my control, is several times a year.   Everyone who bakes needs to "own" a really good yellow "vanilla" cake batter.  One that bakes up moist, fluffy and full of vanilla flavor in cakes or cupcakes.  An excellent basic vanilla cake recipe is like an excellent basic chicken stock recipe.  I refer to my chicken stock as "liquid gold" and my yellow cake as "solid gold".  My recipe isn't top-secret rocket-science.  It is a combination of "all the right stuff" needed to produce a moist (cup)cake.  It delivers all of that and more.  You bake it, you decide.

IMG_7881A bit about vanilla bean paste and vanilla powder:  Everyone who bakes stores high-quality pure vanilla extract (not imitation flavoring) in their pantry along with a few vanilla bean pods too. They're available everywhere, with extract being more economical than whole pods.  You'll find two other vanilla products in my pantry too: vanilla bean paste & vanilla powder.

Vanilla bean paste is a sweet, syrupy mixture full of vanilla beans that have been scraped out of the pods.  Like vanilla extract, it's full of IMG_7887natural vanilla flavor, plus, it's got all the pretty speckled beans in it too.  I think of it as a convenient cross between the extract and the pod, and, I like to add it to cake batters because the seeds distribute themselves evenly throughout the mixture.  1 tablespoon paste = 1 tablespoon extract = 1 bean pod.

Vanilla powder is a free-flowing sugar which may be used in place of pure extract in any recipe.  It stirs into beverages, and, gets sprinkled onto desserts.  I particularly like it for making vanilla cake frosting because it doesn't affect the color like extract does.  1 tablespoon powder = 1 tablespoon extract.

Over the last few years, the USA experienced a cupcake phase!

IMG_7971Meet my easy-to-make light & moist, yellow cupcake recipe:

IMG_7982This one is for all of you "double the vanilla" lovers!

IMG_7900For the dry mixture: 

1  cup cake flour

1/2  cup unbleached all-purpose flour

1/2  cup sugar

1  teaspoon baking powder

1/2  teaspoon baking soda

1/2  teaspoon sea salt

For the liquid mixture:

6  tablespoons salted butter, at IMG_7894room temperature, very soft

2  tablespoons vegetable oil

4  large egg yolks, at room temperature

1/4  cup milk, at room temperature

1/2  cup sour cream, at room IMG_7897temperature

1  teaspoon vanilla extract

2  teaspoons vanilla bean paste

~ Step 1.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Line 1-2 standard-sized muffin pans, enough for 12 cupcakes, with cupcake papers.

IMG_7904~ Step 2.  In a large bowl, place and stir together the dry ingredients: flours, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt.  

IMG_7908In a small bowl, stir together the sour cream, milk, vanilla extract and vanilla bean paste, until uniform in color (it doesn't need to be smooth).

IMG_7920 IMG_7913~ Step 3. Add butter to dry ingredients and on low speed of mixer, combine until "sandy".  

IMG_7919Add the oil and combine until mixture resembles damp sand, about 1 minute.

IMG_7927 IMG_7926~ Step 4. Increase mixer speed to medium and add the eggs, beating until uniform in color, constantly scraping down the sides of the bowl with a large rubber spatula, about 30 seconds.  

Note:  At this point, the mixture will be very moist, pasty and rough looking -- not smooth and creamy.

IMG_7934 IMG_7930~ Step 5. Add the sour cream mixture and continue to beat over medium speed until thoroughly combined, about 30 seconds, again, constantly scraping down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula.  Increase speed to high and beat for 1 minute.  You will have 2 generous cups of spoonable cake batter.  Take a taste!

IMG_7941 IMG_7936~ Step 6. Spoon the batter into each cupcake paper, filling it halfway, about 3 tablespoons per cup.

~ Step 7.  Bake cupcakes, all at once, on center rack of preheated IMG_7949oven 13-15 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted into the center of one or two comes out clean.  Cupcakes will be puffed through to their centers and just beginning to brown a bit around the edges.

Remove pans from oven.  Wait about 1 minute, then, transfer cupcakes from pans to a cooling rack to cool completely, about 1 1/2 hours, prior to frosting.

Cool completely prior to piping with your favorite frosting, or...

IMG_7964... try my Delightfully Double-Vanilla Sour-Cream Frosting!

IMG_7984In a medium bowl over high speed of mixer, beat for 3 minutes:

6  tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, very soft

6  tablespoons sour cream, at room temperature

2  teaspoons vanilla bean paste

2  teaspoons vanilla powder

Reduce mixer speed to low and thoroughly incorporate:

IMG_79873  cups confectioners' sugar, sifted after measuring

IMG_7992Increase mixer speed to high and continue to beat until frosting is aerated and very creamy, another 2-3 minutes.  You'll have 3 cups. 

Use immediately or refrigerate for up to one week. Return to room temperature, which will take 2-3 hours, prior to using.

Get out your pastry bag and insert your favorite star tip:

IMG_8010For the Love of Vanilla:  Double-Vanilla Cupcakes:  Recipe yields 1 dozen standard-sized cupcakes (or one 8" round cake layer), and, about 3 cups of frosting, which is easily enough to pipe the cupcakes with a small amount leftover.

Special Equipment List:  standard-sized cupcake pans, enough for 1 1/2 dozen cupcakes; cupcake papers; hand-held electric mixer; large rubber spatula; 1-quart measuring container; cooling rack

IMG_3513Cook's Note:  No vanilla-lover I know could or would ever pass up the opportunity to partake in a plate of classically prepared ~ Silky Smooth Creme Caramel (Crema Caramella) ~.  I am no exception. To get my recipe, laced with vanilla beans and vanilla extract , just click into Categories 6, 21 or 26!

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

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2015)

05/25/2015

~ Deceivingly Dark-Chocolate Sour-Cream Frosting ~

IMG_7843To even the trained eye, the appearance of this decadent cake frosting almost always fools folks into guessing it is made with milk chocolate -- it's not.  It's made with a full dose of quality bittersweet chocolate, then whipped with a good dose of dairy butter and sour cream, which gives it its light color and tantilizing tang.  When it come to this particular frosting, it is all about tasting it, and, it is happily full of bold dark-chocolate flavor, and thankfully lacking in the cloying sweetness of all-too-many frosting recipes (which is why I like it so much).  This rich, velvety, ultra-smooth stuff is a dream to spread on your favorite cake or pipe onto your favorite cupcakes. It is particularly at home atop one of my favorite all-time cakes, and, you can find my recipe for ~ David's Devilishly Dark and Dense Devil's Food Cake ~  by clicking on the related link below!

IMG_7746I grew up with sour cream added to all sorts of savory and sweet dishes -- it was used to make creamy sauces and stirred into soups, it went into salad dressing and dips, and, it was a secret ingredient in cake batters and pastry dough.  "Smetana" (the Russian word for "soured cream"), with its thick, smooth consistency and subtle tang has been a staple in Eastern European kitchens for generations.  From a taste and consistency standpoint, it's almost identical to cooking with yogurt, and in certain culinary applications, like mayonnaise too.

IMG_76876  ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped (Note:  Lindt is my favorite chocolate, but there are many to choose from, so, be sure to use your favorite.  Good old-fashioned chocolate morsels work fine too.)

1/2  cup unsalted butter, at room temperature, very soft (1 stick)

1/2  cup sour cream, at room temperature

2 1/2  cups confectioners' sugar, sifted through a mesh strainer after measuring to remove any lumps or clumps

1  teaspoon vanilla extract

IMG_7719~ Step 1.  In the top of a double boiler over a bit of barely-simmering water, whisk the chocolate until it is melted and silky smooth.

IMG_7723Remove from stovetop and set aside to cool until just slightly warm, about 30-40 minutes, taking a moment to stir it about every 5 minutes.  While the chocolate is cooling:

IMG_7693 IMG_7696 IMG_7701 IMG_7712 IMG_7728~Step 2.  Place the butter in a large bowl, and, over medium speed of mixer, beat about 30 seconds.  Add the sour cream and the vanilla extract and beat again, until smooth, about 1 minute.  Add the confectioners' sugar, in three-four increments, blending well after each addition and scraping down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula often during the process.

~ Step 3.  Add the cooled chocolate, and, over low speed of mixer, blend IMG_7731until uniform in color.  Increase mixer speed to high and beat until frosting is ultra-creamy and nicely aerated, about 2-2 1/2 minutes.

You'll have about 3 cups which is easily enough to frost 1, 8" or 9" layer cake, the top of a 13" x 9" x 2" cake, or, 1 1/2 dozen cupcakes. Store covered, at room temperature for 3-4 hours, or, in the refrigerator for 3-4 days.  Return to room temperature prior to frosting chilled cake layers or cupcakes.

Use immediately to frost a cake or pipe on cupcakes...

IMG_7837... or store in the refrigerator for up to 1 week!

IMG_7863Deceivingly Dark-Chocolate Sour Cream Frosting:  Recipe yields 3 cups.  This is enough to easily frost 1, 8"-9" layer cake, the top of a 13" x 9" x 2" rectangular cake, or 1 1/2 dozen standard-sized cupcakes.

Special Equipment List:  cutting board; chef's knife' double boiler; whisk; hand-held electric mixer; large rubber spatula

6a0120a8551282970b0192abfea064970dCook's Note:  Another great way to top some cakes and desserts is to spread them with ganache.  To learn about ~ Chocolate Ganache: What It is & How to Make It ~, click into Categories 6, 15, or 20.

IMG_4447In the event you'd like to ~ Treat Yourself to a Slice of Peanut Butter Cup Pie ~, click into Categories 6, 11, 15 or 22!

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

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2015)

05/22/2015

~David's Devilishly Dark & Dense Devil's Food Cake~

IMG_7821Tell someone to "name a chocolate cake".  Nine out of ten times, the answer will be devil's food. This iconic childhood-memory-of-a-cake has a place in the hearts and minds of everyone who loves a forkful of rich and moist chocolate cake.  I'll take it one step further:  I'm willing to bet that nine out of ten times, if you ask, "what was the first chocolate cake you baked from scratch", the answer will be the same.  It was indeed the first chocolate cake I baked from scratch, and, there was a period in time when I had the recipe committed to memory (almost).  Here's why:   

1 husband + 3 sons = 4 devil's food birthday cakes per year

Without exception, it was the most requested cake in our household and my "go to" recipe when I was asked to bake a cake.  Besides birthday celebrations, it got donated to school bake sales and charitable fundraisers, as well as taken to picnics and potlucks. Sometimes I made devil's food layer cake, sometimes I made sheet cake, other times I made cupcakes.  Now that I'm a grandmother, GrandMel appropriately renamed her Devilishly Moist Dark Chocolate Devil's Food Cake recipe after our Grandson David, as I bake one every year for his Memorial Day birthday (he's turning eight this year), and a high percentage of all the times we visit him too!

IMG_7794A bit about Devil's Food vs. Chocolate Cake:  "Devil's food" is a term than refers generically to any dark, dense baked chocolate item.  In the case of devil's food cake, it is said to be the polar opposite of the white, light angel food cake.  While devil's food is a chocolate cake, for a chocolate cake to qualify for devil's food status:  cocoa powder is used in place of melted unsweetened or bittersweet chocolate, and, hot coffee or hot water is used in place of milk. Devil's food cake also has an extra-bit of baking soda added to it, which raises the ph level, resulting in the signature dark color and moist texture.  Devil's food cake is all-too-often confused with red devil cake or red velvet cake, which is made with buttermilk and/or vinegar -- their acids chemically cause a reddening of the cocoa powder.  That natural red tinting has also, sadly, resulted in recipes that contain red food coloring for a more pronounced red color.

IMG_7579A bit about Dutch or Dutched cocoa powder:  Chocolate is naturally acidic, and so is its by-product: cocoa powder. Typical recipes call for one of two types of cocoa powder:  natural or Dutch-process. Dutch-process is natural cocoa powder that has been alkalized to remove its acidity and make it neutral, which darkens its color and give is a smoother, mellower flavor. Natural powders have a pH of 5-6. Dutched have a pH of 7 or 8.

IMG_7577Occasionally you'll come across a recipe that calls for black cocoa powder.  This is dutch cocoa powder that contains 0% acidity.  It turns baked goods as black as you could hope for -- they use it to make Oreo cookies.  Because this cocoa powder contains 0% fat too, it tends to make baked goods dry or crumbly (which is why it's great for cookie baking), so, think carefully before substituting it in place of dutch process cocoa powder.

Cakes made with "dutched" cocoa powder are dark and dense.  Cakes made with natural cocoa powder are light and loose-crumbed.  The standard rule is:  use natural cocoa powder with baking soda and Dutch-process with baking powder, so, always follow the recipe, but know there are exceptions.  If you come across one, chances are there is an ingredient on the list that adjusts the pH level and overrides the rule.  In the case of today's cake:  it's the sour cream.  

IMG_7808David's Devilishly Dark & Dense Devil's Food Cake!

IMG_7583For the sour cream devil's food cake:  (makes 2, 8"-round layers or one 13" x 9" x 2" layer)

1  cup boiling water

1  cup + 2 tablespoons Dutch-process cocoa powder (4 ounces)

1 1/2 cups + 2 tablespoons packed (but not firmly-packed) light brown sugar (10  ounces)

1  cup + 1 tablespoon unbleached all-purpose flour (5 ounces)

1  cup cake flour (4  ounces)

1 1/4  teaspoons baking soda

1/2  teaspoon sea salt

1  cup vegetable oil

1/2  cup + 2  tablespoons sour cream, at room temperature (5 ounces)

2  large whole eggs, at room temperature

2  large egg yolks, at room temperature

IMG_7687For the dark-chocolate sour cream frosting:  (makes 3 cups)

6  ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped (Note:  Lindt is my favorite chocolate, but, be sure to use your favorite.  Good old-fashioned chocolate morsels work fine too.)

1/2  cup unsalted butter, at room temperature, very soft (1 stick)

1/2 cup sour cream, at room temperature

2 1/2  cups confectioners' sugar, sifted

1  teaspoon vanilla extract

Part One:  Baking David's Cake

IMG_7593~ Step 1.  Use 1 tablespoon of butter and 2 tablespoons of all-purpose flour to grease and flour two, straight-sided, 8"-round cake pans.  Set aside.  Position oven rack in center and preheat oven to a moderate 325 degrees.

IMG_7587~ Step 2.  In a large bowl, place sugar, flours, baking soda and salt.

IMG_7611~ Step 3.  In a small bowl, whisk water, cocoa and vanilla.  

IMG_7594~ Step 4.  In a 1-quart container, place oil, sour cream and eggs.

IMG_7602 IMG_7619                                            ~ Step 5. Whisk the liquid mixture until smooth. IMG_7627Pour cocoa mixture into the egg mixture and whisk until uniform in color.

IMG_7639 IMG_7634~ Step 6. Over low speed of mixer process dry IMG_7646mix to "grains of sand".  Turn mixer off and add all of the liquid mix.  Starting on low speed and working up to high, beat until uniform in color, about 1 minute.

IMG_7651~ Step 7.  Transfer to and equally divide batter between the two prepared pans.  I use a kitchen scale to make sure it is precise.

IMG_7653~ Step 8. Bake on center rack of 325 degree oven until cake springs back when lightly pressed in the center, about 30 minutes.

Place on a rack to cool, in the pans, for 30 minutes...

IMG_7654... before removing from pans to cool completely, about 1 hour.  Cover layers with plastic wrap and chill prior to frosting.

IMG_7663Part Two:  Making my Deceivingly Dark-Chocolate Sour Cream Cake Frosting (It looks like milk chocolate but it's not!)

IMG_7719~ Step 1.  In the top of a double boiler over a bit of barely-simmering water, whisk the chocolate until it is melted, thick and smooth.  

IMG_7723Remove from stovetop and set aside to cool until just slightly warm, about 30-40 minutes, taking a moment to stir it about every 5 minutes.  While the chocolate is cooling:

IMG_7693 IMG_7696 IMG_7701 IMG_7712 IMG_7728~Step 2.  Place the butter in a large bowl, and, over medium speed of mixer, beat about 30 seconds. Add the sour cream and the vanilla extract and beat again, until smooth, about 1 minute.  Add the confectioners' sugar, in three-four increments, blending well after each addition and scraping down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula often during the process.

~ Step 3.  Add the cooled chocolate, and, over low speed of mixer, blend IMG_7731until uniform in color.  Increase mixer speed to high and beat until frosting is ultra-creamy and nicely aerated, about 2-2 1/2 minutes.  

IMG_7740You'll have 3 cups (I made a double batch). Store covered, at room temperature for 3-4 hours, or, in the refrigerator for 3-4 days.  Return to room temperature prior to frosting chilled cake layers.

All we need now are the candles & the kid so we can cut it!

IMG_7746From first to last slice, it's a bite of childhood for everyone!

IMG_7767Devilishly Moist Dark Chocolate Devil's Food Cake:  Recipe yields 1, 8"-round two-layer cake (which serves 12), or, 1, 13" x 9" x 2" layer cake (which serves 12-16). 

Special Equipment List:  2, straight-sided, 8" round cake pans; whisk; 1-quart measuring container; hand-held electric mixer; large rubber spatula; kitchen scale (optional); cooling rack; cutting board; chef's knife; double boiler

Baking pan conversion chartCook's Note:  Every cake recipe makes a different amount of batter, and, putting it in the wrong size cake pan can cause a cake wreck. One of the most common questions I get asked (and often) is: "I'm using a recipe that makes a 13" x 9" x 2" rectangular cake -- how many layers will that make and what size pans should I use."  My answer is a standard one:  "It all depends on how many cups of batter you have." In case you don't have one of these Baking Pan Conversion Charts, it's invaluable -- it eliminates all guesswork.  I found this one on the internet (and it's ok for me and anyone else to use it and share it). Just click on it (to enlarge it) then print it out if you would like to add it to your recipe box or file!

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

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2015)

05/19/2015

~Eliot's Angel Hair Pasta with Creamy Vodka Sauce~

IMG_7545Eliot, our middle son, developed a somewhat serious interest in cooking around the age of fourteen (1985-ish).  I allow myself to believe it had something to do with me, but, if there is one thing I have learned over the years it's:  you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink.  Not the case with Eliot and cooking.  For the most part, he had a natural instinct for combining the right spices with the right ingredients.  When he got old enough to take on a Summer job, he became a waiter in an upscale, downtown Italian eatery.  Mr. Zangrelli was so pleased with Eliot, he allowed him to work as a line cook in all three of his restaurants, and, his Summer job turned into year-round part-time.  Since then, in Eliot's quest to become a paid actor, he has managed to support himself by bartending and/or cooking in fine-dining restaurants in New York, Raleigh, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Chicago and New Orleans.

Vodka sauce is considered to be a modern-day Italian sauce.

IMG_7516A bit about vodka sauce:  Vodka sauce is a quick-to-prepare, rich-flavored, pink-colored, tomato-cream sauce that goes well with a variety of stranded or fork-friendly pasta shapes, and, some stuffed pasta dishes too (ravioli, tortellini, etc.).  It contains hand-crushed tomatoes, a bit of tomato paste, cream, vodka, olive oil, onions and/or garlic and seasonings, as well as grated Parmesan, pecorino or Romano cheese.  

At the discretion of the chef, it can be silky smooth or slightly-chunky, and, more often that not, slightly-spicy too -- via the addition of red pepper flakes.  Some versions contain bits of meat like prosciutto or sausage too (but purists, like myself, don't like pork flavor in our vodka sauce).

IMG_7539Vodka sauce is not considered by experts to be an old-school Italian sauce -- when alcohol is required in the kitchen, Italians typically add a splash of red or white wine. Research reveals that vodka sauce itself is a modern-day specialty from northern Italy and was popularized in Bologna in the 1970's, in a restaurant named Dante (which makes me smile because the name of the restaurant in State College, where Eliot first worked, was named Dante's).  It's said that distilling companies promoting vodka sales in Italy, who were also sponsoring recipe contents amongst Italy's chefs, are responsible for the invention of this unique sauce -- and its being swept up in Italy's Nuovo Cucina movement.

"Pasta (penne) alla vodka" took America by storm in the 1970's. 

A bit about pasta alla vodka:  Penne alla vodka began being served in NYC in the late 1970's and 1980's, followed by upscale Italian-American restaurants and casual trattorias nationwide. We Americans adored it.  A law professor, Paula Franzese, claims her father, Luigi Franzese (born in Naples, Italy in 1931) first paired penne with vodka sauce, which he called penne alla Russia, because of the vodka. In the early 1970's, he began preparing the dish tableside at NYC's Orsini's restaurant (one of the most acclaimed restaurants of the period) -- which is how Eliot prepared and served it to me at Dante's, only with angel hair pasta in place of penne.

Why I don't always believe everything the experts have to say:

IMG_7449A bit of vodka sauce logic from Melanie:  At risk of criticism, I find it hard to believe that someone wasn't making vodka sauce in Italy prior to the 1970's.  I'm Eastern European -- I know a thing or two about vodka:

"Don't leave home without it."  

Russian vodka began being exported to Sweden in 1505, and, because Russian soldiers marched across Europe to fight in several wars leading up to the WWI -- early vodka may have come in cruder form, but it was available.

From any savvy cook's standpoint, when a sauce combining acidic tomatoes and sweet cream is in need of alcohol, adding crystal-clear, flavorless vodka (to release and neutralize the acids in the tomatoes, which in turn enhances the sweetness of the cream) makes perfect sense -- I find the thought of using any type of sweet, dry or tannic wine to brighten the flavor of this sauce extremely unappealing. Past that, I seriously don't care if vodka sauce or pasta alla vodka is Italian or Italian-American. 

Over the years, I've tasted lots of pasta with vodka sauce recipes.  I can't recall any one in particular that I did not like, but I can talk about the one that I like the best:  Eliot's (and there is no nepotism involved).  It's got clean, bold flavor, and, truthfully I love it tossed with delicate angel hair pasta.  What is slightly different about it is:  when the vodka is added, it is not ignited, it is allowed to simmer gently.  Don't roll your eyes, there is science to back this up.  In the case of this dish, simmering, rather than flaming, allows the alcohol molecules (which are similar to sugar molecules) to develop a sweet taste rather than a bitter edge -- trust me on this point.

IMG_7570Get organized:  Including prep, this goes from stovetop to table in about 20 minutes!  

IMG_74522  tablespoons olive oil

1/4 cup minced yellow onion

1  teaspoon each:  dried basil and dried oregano

1/2  teaspoon each:  garlic powder, red pepper flakes and sea salt

1  28-ounce can imported Italian peeled tomatoes

1  tablespoon tomato paste

2  ounces 100-proof vodka

1  cup heavy or whipping cream

4  tablespoons finely-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese + additional cheese at tableside

12  ounces angel hair pasta

1  tablespoon sea salt, for seasoning pasta water

IMG_7467~ Step 1.  Drain and reserve the juice from the tomatoes.  Place the drained tomatoes in a colander, and, using your hands, crush them into pulpy pieces.  This will result in about 1 cup of tomato bits and 1 cup of flavorful tomato juice.

Note:  The tomato juice is IMG_7465not an ingredient in this recipe, but, it can be.  In the event you wish to thin the sauce down a bit, this is what you want to use to do it.  I freeze mine, to use in a host of other recipes!  

Mince the onion and set aside. Grate the cheese and set aside (I always grate more than I need to keep on hand -- your looking at a 1 cup here).  Measure and have ready all other ingredients.

IMG_7488 IMG_7482~ Step 2.  In a 12" skillet, heat oil over medium heat.  Add the onion, spices and salt.  Increase heat to saute, until onion is just beginning to soften, about 1 minute.  Lower heat to medium.  Stir in the tomatoes, tomato paste and vodka. Adjust heat to simmer gently but steadily, about 2-3 minutes.

IMG_7497~ Step 3.  Slowly stir in the cream, and, when the mixture returns to a gentle but steady simmer, continue to cook until it slightly reduced and nicely thickened, 3-4 minutes.  

IMG_7520Stir in the cheese and simmer for 1 minute. Cover and turn the heat off, but, allow sauce to IMG_7524remain on warm stovetop.

~ Step 4.  In an 8-quart stockpot bring 5 quarts of water to a boil over high heat and add the salt.  Add the pasta and cook until al dente, about 1-1/2 minutes.  Do not overcook pasta.  Drain into a colander, give it a good shake (to remove excess water), then, immediately add the steaming-hot pasta to the warm sauce in the skillet.  Using one or two forks, toss like a salad, until pasta is enrobed in the sauce.

Don't wait one moment:  twirl it up & serve w/a bit more cheese:

IMG_7561

I simply adore a tightly-wound mound of heavenly pasta!

IMG_7547Eliot's Angel Hair Pasta with Creamy Vodka Sauce:  Recipe yields 2 main-course serving or 4 smaller side servings servings.

Special Equipment List:  cutting board; chef's knife; colander; microplane grater; 12" skillet w/lid, preferably nonstick; ; large spoon; 8-quart stockpot; one or two large forks

IMG_5124Cook's Note:  Besides pizza, angel hair pasta with vodka sauce is one of two Italian dishes I get late night cravings for.  Don't ask me why, I tend to crave spaghetti at midnight!  

Click into Categories 3, 4, 12, 14 or 21 to get my recipe for ~ Mel's Got Spaghetti "a la Carbonara" on Her Mind ~.  Another simple dish with fond memories and a rich history!

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

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2015)

05/17/2015

~My Mad Men Last Supper Menu: Chicken a la King~

IMG_7424In the 1950's, '60's and '70's, New York City's Madison Avenue was ground zero for the advertising industry -- for almost all of those years, it was an elitist club of all-male executives. These Madison ad men, cavalierly referred to themselves as Mad Men.  Unless you've just beamed to earth from another corner of the universe, you know, that for the past six years, Mad Men has been a period drama television series about this business and the bizarre lifestyle of the people working in it.  For those lucky enough to remember the realities of this time period, it's a lot more than entertainment.  For those too young to "get it", it's a surreal learning experience.  

Mad_men_fallThe moment the theme song begins, the free-fall through the looking glass into this recent-past world begins, and we viewers get to experience, in crystal-clear detail, for better or worse, how we got to where we are today:  a full-blown media-driven, money-talks society. It reveals social bias, double-standards and power-lust in such a crafty, powerful way, we crave to watch it, and, openly discuss it too!

IMG_7352It all ends tonight when the finale airs at 10:00PM, and, for us foodies, it's been a particularly fun ride. From a culinary standpoint, "what's old is new again":  Mad Men cookbooks have been written, Mad Men themed parties have been given, and, fancy cocktails are back in vogue.  To accommodate the movement, I added an entire Category to Kitchen Encounters entitled:  ~ What would Don Draper do?  Retro Recipes from my past to your present! ~.  I'm not going to lie, when Mad Man is airing, even in reruns, Category 26 is a busy place indeed, with a lot of Man Men fans visiting there for "new" old ideas.

IMG_3798For me, the perfect ending to this show would be an announcement telling us they're renewing the show for six more years (or even one), but, that's clearly unlikely.  In lieu of that delusion, I pondered what I'd serve for my Mad Men Last Supper. Surprisingly, it came to me quite quickly.  The leap from "a retro recipe fit for the kingpin of the show" to "chicken a la king" only took me a few sips of my favorite cocktail!

A bit about classic chicken a la king vs. chicken pot pie -- Chicken a la king is not pot pie & vice versa.

In its purest form, chicken a la king is a refined, American restaurant dish consisting of perfectly-poached white-meat chicken stirred into a silky sherry-cream bechamel-type sauce containing mushrooms, and, green peppers (although peas are commonly substituted by people who don't care for peppers).  Classically, it's served served over toast points, puff pastry or rice (with noodles or pasta being acceptable substitutions).  Pot pie is a very thick, gravy-like stock-based chicken stew that contains noodles or is topped with a pastry crust.  Worst case pot pie recipes are made using cream of chicken soup.  For those of you who disagree with my assessment:

IMG_7370In 1980, in a New York Times article, Craig Claiborne shared the original recipe for chicken a la king (reprinted from a brochure given to him by a reader).  Here is the original ingredients list:

butter, chopped green pepper, sliced mushrooms, flour, salt, cream,  poached chicken, egg yolks, onion juice, lemon juice, sherry, pimiento (for garnish), toast points (for serving)

Notice:  The original recipe contains no chicken stock, it is made with a cream-based bechamel-type sauce, and, pimientos are a garnish, not a stirred in ingredient (all of which are common misconceptions in modern day chicken a la king recipes.

At the beginning of the 20th century, chicken a la king was the pinnacle of upscale comfort food in New York City.  In that era, almost anything with a vaguely-sounding French name was adopted by appetites of the rich and powerful.  That said, it's not French, and,  there are several NYC restaurant chefs claiming the origin of the dish, most notably:  Delmonico's, the Brighton Beach Hotel, and, the Plaza.  The most credible account, however, is that it was created in the 1890's by a hotel cook, William "Bill" King, of the Bellevue Hotel in Philadelphia, as it appeared in his obituary in 1915, as well as a New York Tribune editorial written shortly thereafter.

IMG_7420In the 1950's, this dish was a staple on the menus of elegant wedding receptions, expensive banquets, and, fancy sit-down in-home dinner parties all across America.  Sadly, as James Beard lamented in his 1972 book, James Beard's American Cookery, "chicken a la king, now usually prepared in a mediocre fashion, can be quite good if prepared with care, using fine ingredients."  

That can be said of many things Americans eat, but, since I'm in the business of writing and publishing really-good, high-quality recipes I'm stealing a quote from Don Draper:

"If you don't like what's being said, change the conversation!"

IMG_7482For the chicken:

6  cups water

2  cups white wine

4  medium-sized dried bay leaves

juice from 1 lemon, cut in half

2 pounds chicken tenders, chopped into 3/4" chunks (Note: Boneless, skinless chicken breasts can be substituted with some compromise in taste and texture.)

IMG_7375 IMG_7361~ Step 1. In an 8-quart stockpot, bring the water, wine, lemon juice, lemon rinds and bay leaves to a boil.  Add the chicken.  

Start timing immediately, and, cook until chicken is tender and just cooked through, about 6 minutes.  

Drain into a colander, squeeze any juices and pulp remaining in the lemons over all, give everything a toss and set aside until cool enough to handle.  Chop chicken into bite-sized 3/4" pieces and set aside.

************

IMG_7511For the sauteed vegetables:

3  tablespoons salted butter

12  ounces white mushroom caps, sliced

1/2  teaspoon garlic powder

1/2  teaspoon salt

1 1/2  cups frozen peas and diced carrots combo, unthawed

~ Step 1.  Slice the mushrooms as directed.  In a 3 1/2-quart chef's pan, melt the butter over low heat. Add the mushrooms.

IMG_7532 IMG_7519~ Step 2. Add garlic powder and salt, increase heat to medium-high & cook until 'schrooms are losing moisture & mixture is juicy, about 6 minutes. Add frozen vegetables.  Cook until almost no moisture remains, 5-6 minutes.  Transfer to a medium bowl and set aside.

************

IMG_7544For the silky sherry cream sauce:

4  tablespoons salted butter

4  tablespoons all-purpose flour

1/8  teaspoon nutmeg

1/2  teaspoon:  garlic powder, cayenne pepper & sea salt

3  cups heavy cream + up to 1/2 cup milk, to control consistency

2  cups finely-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (optional)*

2-4  tablespoons sherry, to taste

*Note:  Parmigianno-Reggiano cheese is not a classic ingredient, but, when I'm serving a la king w/pasta I've gotta have it's tang, and, my family demands it.  When I'm serving it with anything else, I do not put it in.  Feel free to omit it with zero compromise in flavor or texture to the sauce.

IMG_7563 IMG_7559~ Step 1.  In a 3 1/2-quart chef's pan, melt the butter over low heat.

Increase heat to medium and stir in the flour, nutmeg, garlic powder, cayenne pepper and sea salt. Using a large spoon or a small whisk, stirring constantly, cook until mixture (roux) is thick, smooth and bubbly, about 30-45 seconds.  This happens really fast.

IMG_7576 IMG_7573~ Step 2. Add the cream, in a slow steady stream, stirring or whisking constantly.

Carefully adjust heat to a gentle simmer (not too high or it will scorch) and continue to cook until smooth, thickened and drizzly, about 2 minutes. Turn the heat off.

IMG_7587 IMG_7586~ Step 3. Sprinkle in the optional Parm-Regg. Finely-grated cheese melts almost instantly.  Stir until mixture is smooth and ribbonlike, adding milk if necessary, or, just because you want the sauce a little thinner.  Add the sherry to taste.  With or without cheese, you will have 3 1/2 cups of silky-smooth sherry-cream sauce.

IMG_7379~ Step 4.  Turn heat off and fold in the chicken and vegetable mixture. Cover and allow to rest, on the warm stovetop, for 10-15 minutes, to allow the flavors time to marry. Serve scooped atop toast points, in puff pastry shells, or over steamed rice, cooked noodles or pasta. Garnish each portion with a a few pimientos, a sprinkling of cayenne pepper and/or a parsley sprig. Reheat leftover a la king mixture over low heat on the stovetop, adding a bit of milk, as necessary to control (thin) the consistency.

Taste & admit:  real-deal a-la-king exceeds all expectations!

IMG_7385Today's classic choice:  over rice with brioche toast points!

IMG_7436Mad Men Last Supper Menu:  Chicken a la King:  Recipe yields 2 generous quarts, 8+ cups of a la king mixture, or, 6-8 hearty main-course servings.

Special Equipment List: cutting board; chef's knife; 8-quart stockpot; colander; 3 1/2-quart chef's pan w/straight, deep sides & lid; large spoon or small whisk 

IMG_7798Cook's Note:  Another iconic recipe of mine ~ Untangling an American Retro Classic:  Tettrazzini (Stranded Pasta baked in Parmesan Cream Sauce) ~, is nothing more than a variation on the a la king theme.  To get this recipe, just click into Category 26!

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

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2015)

05/14/2015

~ It's the Little Things: Homemade Graham Crackers~

IMG_7342A graham cracker dunked into a glass of milk.  Said with certainty, once I was removed from my high-chair and placed at the table, this is the first store-bought snack I was allowed to sink my baby teeth into.  Then, when I got to kindergarten (back in 1960 there was no such thing as daycare or preschool and kindergarten was limited to a five-hour half-day), one big graham cracker, which each one of us kids carefully cracked into four parts, was the snack the teacher handed out every morning at 10:30AM with our half-pint of milk.  After snacks, we got to color.

IMG_7335Graham cracker:  the cracker childhood memories are made of!

IMG_7213A bit about graham crackers (and graham flour):  This popular snack was invented in 1829 in New Jersey by Presbyterian minister Sylvester Graham, a controversial dietary reformer.  He touted his slightly-sweetened with honey and/or molasses, whole-wheat crackers as a health food as part of his Graham Diet.  Nowadays, whether commercially produced or baked-at-home from scratch, to qualify for real-deal graham cracker status, a recipe must contain graham flour (named after and marketed by Rev. Graham). Graham flour is a high-protein wheat flour in which the bran, germ and endosperm are ground separately, resulting in a coarse-textured, brown-colored whole wheat flour with a nutty flavor.  

If you bake a lot of whole-grain breads, or want to experiment with adding a bit of unique texture to some of your baked goods, keeping a bag of graham flour on hand is something to consider. Due to the oil in the wheat germ, this flour is best kept stored in the freezer to prevent rancidity.

IMG_7234For the dry mixture:

1 1/2  cups graham flour (8 ounces)

1/2  cup all-purpose flour (2 ounces)

1/2 cup + 1 tablespoon lightly-packed dark brown sugar (3 ounces)

3/4  teaspoon aluminum-free baking powder

IMG_72371/2  teaspoon baking soda

1/2  teaspoon sea salt

1/8  teaspoon ground allspice

1/8  teaspoon ground cloves

1/4  teaspoon ground cinnamon

3  ounces unsalted butter, cut into 1/4" cubes and kept chilled (3/4 stick)

IMG_7228For the wet mixture (a total of 1/2 cup of liquid):

1 3/4 ounces whole milk

1 1/2  teaspoons vanilla extract (1/4 ounce)

1  ounce honey

1  ounce mild-flavor molasses

Note:  I love my mini-liquid-measure.  It makes measuring in ounces, tablespoons, teaspoons and milliliters really easy.  

IMG_7241 IMG_7244 IMG_7247 IMG_7250~Step 1.  Place all of the dry ingredients, except for the butter, in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade.  Using a series of 8-10 rapid on-off pulses, thoroughly combine.  Open the processor lid and add the cubed butter.  Using a second series of 20-25 rapid on-off pulses, process until the mixture resembles small, mealy crumbs.

IMG_7257 IMG_7253~ Step 2. Using a small spoon, give the wet mixture a thorough stir, so that it is uniform in color. With processor motor running, through the feedtube, in a slow steady stream add the wet mixture to the dry mixture and process until the dough forms a ball, then stop.  

Important note:  If the mixture forms a ball and you haven't added quite all of the wet mixture, stop adding it.

IMG_7261 IMG_7267~ Step 3.  The dough will be slightly sticky but quite manageable.  Carefully remove dough from the processor and place it on a 12 1/2" x 8 3/4" IMG_7269                             piece of parchment placed on top of a length of plastic. Using fingertips, pat dough into a 1/2"-thick rectangle.  Wrap and chill 1 hour.

IMG_7273~ Step 4. Line a half sheet pan with parchment.  Get out a rolling pin, a 2 1/4"-square cutter for cutting, and, a chocolate chopper to give the crackers their classic "dots on top".

IMG_7279 IMG_7283 IMG_7287~ Step 5.  Remove the dough from the refrigerator, unwrap it and invert it onto a pastry IMG_7297board that has been lightly-sprinkled with all-purpose flour.  Sprinkle the top of the rectangle with some store-bought Sugar 'n Cinnamon (or your own homemade blend of 3 tablespoons sugar and 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon that has been placed in a salt-shaker-type container).  This recipe uses very little of the shaker mixture so I'm opting for the more convenient store-bought stuff today. Roll the dough to a thickness of IMG_7300less than 1/4" and more than 1/8".

~ Step 6.  Using a spatula, transfer crackers to prepared baking pan.

Note:  A square cutter leaves me with almost no dough scraps.  If you have enough for an extra cracker or two, reroll and bake them too.

IMG_7308~ Step 7.  The tines of my handheld chocolate chopper makes short work of putting the classic dots on top of store-bought graham crackers.  Feel free to substitute a fork or a wooden skewer, just don't poke the holes too deep -- do not pierce through to the bottom.

IMG_7315~ Step 8. Place the pan in the refrigerator IMG_7325to chill for 30 minutes.

~ Step 9.  Remove chilled pan of crackers from refrigerator and bake on center rack of preheated 350 degree oven until edges of crackers are just starting to turn deep brown, about 20 minutes.  Remove from oven and place pan on a cooling rack to cool completely.  They are going to crisp up and darken as they cool, so do not overbake them.

Graham cracker:  The little thing in life that will change your life! 

IMG_7336It's the Little Things:  Homemade Graham Crackers:  20, 2 1/2"-square graham crackers, with two crackers being roughly the size of one standard graham cracker.

Special Equipment List:  kitchen scale (optional); mini-liquid measure (optional); paring knife; food processor; plastic wrap; parchment paper; 17 1/2" x 12 1/2" baking pan; small rolling pin; 1, 2 1/4"-square cookie cutter; thin spatula; chocolate chopper or wooden skewer; cooling rack

IMG_6750Cook's Note:  Making these homemade snack crackers is not much different (or any harder) than baking cookies.  That said, when we think of crackers, we mostly think of salty crackers rather than sweet ones, and, I bake several kinds of those too.  Click into Categories 1, 2, 11 or 18 to get three of my recipes for ~ Home for the Holidays:  The Cheese Cracker Tray ~ Pictured on this plate are: cheddar logs, gorgonzola wafers and Brie shortbread!

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

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2015) 

05/11/2015

~ Chicken, Shrimp or Steak Chop-Chop Taco Salad ~

IMG_7145Chop-chop salad, or chopped salad, can contain anything your heart desires, as long as the ingredients play well together.  Whether it is well-planned in advance, or a casual melange of leftovers, all of the ingredients get chopped, sliced or diced into similar-sized, fork-and-mouth-friendly morsels, then judiciously drizzled, not drenched, with with some sort of cuisine-appropriate dressing or vinaigrette, tossed together, placed on a plate or in a bowl, and, served immediately.  Try not to confuse "chop-chop" with composed salads of chopped ingredients that are meticulously lined up side-by-side (like the famous Cobb salad), or, carefully layered.

IMG_7147The "chop-chop" is a colorful melange of "healthy harmony"! 

IMG_7094The basic, "chop-chop" is a flavor-packed mixture of cooked protein, fresh or marinated vegetables, crispy lettuce or a mix of greens, and, an optional herb or two.  Past that, the list of optional "toppings" (that is what they're called when ordering a chopped salad at a chopped-salad bar) is lengthy.  To name a few:   cheeses, eggs, beans, lentils, dried fruits, crunchy nuts, seeds, toasts or, croutons.  Chop-chop salad can be served as a starter course, a side-dish or the entree, but, unlike its cousin, the tossed salad, where you pick and choose each forkful:  

A well-conceived chopped salad is like eating a sandwich sans the bread.  The components are evenly distributed and they're not overdressed.  There's a taste of everything in every bite.

IMG_7180If it doesn't belong in a sandwich, it doesn't belong in a bowl!

IMG_7114Every culture that eats salad has their own ethnic version of the chop-chop salad. Chopped salads have been around for a very long time, but, they became epidemically popular here in the Northeast  in 2001 when a chain called Chop't was launched in NYC.  As a salad lover, I hopped on-board that train, and, for a while, if a restaurant had a chop-chop salad on their lunch menu, I was inclined to order it in place of the my usual favorites: a grilled chicken Caesar salad, or, an all-turkey chef's salad.  Then, as it is goes with many things in the food industry, the foodie powers-that-be couldn't leave a good thing alone. Instead of me enjoying a carefully-chopped, flavor-packed, colorful melange of "healthy harmony", I found myself eating over-chopped, pre-digested-looking mounds of unappetizing ingredients (that looked like they were run over by a lawnmower).  Nowadays, I stick to making my own chop-chop salads.

Since I cook all sorts of cuisines, sometimes my chop-chop salad takes on an Asian twist, an Italian flair, a Mediterranean tang or an Eastern European earthiness.  In the case of today's chop-chop, thanks to more than a few leftover ingredients from an entire week's worth of Tex-Mex blog posts, it's the bold flavors of the American Southwest we're eating tonight.

IMG_7099For the chop-chop salad:

12  cups 3/4"-1" chopped crispy iceberg or romaine iceberg

3  cups cooked and 1/2" cubed chicken breast, shrimp or steak

1  1/2  cups 1/4" cubed Montery Jack, white or yellow cheddar cheese, or, 1 1/2 cups crumbled Cojita or queso fresco cheese

1 1/2  cups cooked and well-drained corn kernels (Note:  If using corn shaved from the cob, take a moment to separate the kernels so they are not in clusters.)

1  cup well-drained, sliced black IMG_7094olives, or, 1 cup rinsed and well-drained black beans, your choice

1 1/2  cups 1/2" diced avocado

1 1/2  cups 1/2" diced cherry or grape tomatoes

1 1/2  cups peeled seeded and 1/2" diced cucumber

1  cup 1/4" diced green or red bell pepper, or a combination of both

3/4-1  cup 1/4" diced red onion 

3/4-1  cup chopped cilantro leaves

For the dressing and garnish:

1  cup chile-lime mayonnaise (Note:  To get my detailed recipe for ~ A Very Versatile Tex-Mex Condiment:  Chili-Lime Mayo ~, click the Related Article link below.)

12  6"-round corn tortillas, cut into quarters, quarters cut into 1/4" strips, for tortilla wisps

corn oil and sea salt, for frying

6a0120a8551282970b01b7c7827468970b~ Step 1.  Prepare the chile-lime mayo first, and place it in the refrigerator, to allow it time to to chill and thicken.  To prepare it, in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade, puree until smooth (about 30 seconds):

1 cup mayonnaise, 1 cup minced cilantro, a well-drained 8-ounce jar pickled jalapenos, the juice and zest of 1 lime, 1 teaspoon sugar, and 1/4 teaspoon sea salt

~ Step 2.  Prep all of the ingredients, as listed and as directed, except for the avocado, placing each one in a separate container, then, cover and chill everything for about two hours.  

Note:  Because the avocado turns color, from pretty green to unappealing gray, as much as I love it in this salad, I do not dice it or add until just before I am ready to serve this meal.

IMG_7084Tip from Mel:  When making a chop-chop salad, the name reveals:  be prepared to chop.  Besides the size of the chop and the recommended quantity, there is little more to say in the instructions.  That said,  in a chopped salad, I like my cheddar cubed, not shredded, and, I like it about the same size as the corn kernels.  If you have a wire butter slicer (which can be purchased on-line for $6.00-$10.00), it makes short work of "cutting the cheese"!

IMG_9555 IMG_9564~ Step 3. While the ingredients are chilling, cut tortillas into quarters. A few at a time, stack and and slice into thin strips.  Add 1/4" of corn oil to a 12" skillet and heat over medium-high until wavy lines appear across the surface of oil.

IMG_9579Add all of the tortilla strips to the hot oil in the skillet.  Fry until golden brown, about 4-5 minutes, using a spatula to keep the strips moving around in the oil the entire time.

IMG_9591Transfer to a paper towel lined plate and sprinkle generously with sea salt.

IMG_7115 IMG_7102~ Step 4.  In a large bowl, place all of the salad ingredients, except for the lettuce and the avocado.  Using two large spoons, toss everything together, cover and refrigerate one more hour,  to give flavors time to marry.

IMG_7111Just prior to serving, dice the avocado and gently fold it into the mixture.

Note:  Why do I refrigerate the prepped ingredients separately and then a second time after they are mixed together.  The first chill gets each one of them cold quickly, the second chill allows just enough time for the flavors time to marry.  If you mix them all together first,  it will take too long to chill them as a whole, resulting in a compromise in their texture -- it will be like eating leftovers.

~ Step 5.  To serve, place 1 1/2 cups of lettuce in each of eight shallow salad bowls or make a bed of lettuce on eight plates.  Generously portion the chopped topping mixture over the lettuce. Drizzle or dollop a bit of dressing over each salad and garnish with tortilla wisps.  Serve immediately, allowing each person to toss their own, with additional dressing at the table.

IMG_7225Chicken, Shrimp or Steak Chop-Chop Salad:  Recipe yields 8 main-course servings.

Special Equipment List:  cutting board; chef's knife; food processor; a variety of 1-cup and 2-cup food storage containers w/ lids; 12" skillet; paper towels

IMG_9617 IMG_2137Cook's Note: I enjoy using corn tortilla wisps to garnish more than a few things.  One of my favorites, another meal with a Southwestern edge to it is:  ~ Cod Cakes w/Creamed Corn & Crisp Tortilla Wisps ~.  Just click into Category 19 or 20 to get this recipe along with  ~ Country-Style Downhome-Delicious Creamed-Corn ~!   

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

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie'e Kitchen/Copyright 2015)

05/08/2015

~Fun with Flour Tortillas: Sugar 'n Cinnamon Snacks~

IMG_7010When I first tasted these easy-to-make sweet snacks, my heart skipped a beat.  It was back in the 1970's and leftover, made-from-scratch flour tortillas were cut into strips and deep-fried.  When they emerged from the hot oil, all curled up and crunchy and resemblant of Fritos, they were immediately tossed in a mixture of cinnamon and sugar.  My girlfriend Toni, a Mexican-American, served them with cinnamon ice-cream.  "Totopos de azucar con canela" ("sugar and cinnamon chips") are, what I suppose to be the Mexican-American version of what us American grandmothers do with leftover scraps of pie pastry -- we make snacks for our grandkids!

Minor rant from Mel:  Do not confuse these graham-cracker-esque snacks with Mexican bunuelos (fried yeast dough drizzled with syrup or honey), or, sopaipillas (fried pastry dough that puffs up like hollow-centered pillows and sprinkled with powdered sugar).  Buneulos and sopaipillas, either of which can be anise- or cinnamon-flavored are considerably different and much more sophisticated.  Recipes that refer to, or equate, these snacks to either:  are wrong. 

IMG_6929For years, I deep-fried these snacks exclusively, then, baked versions started appearing.  These were so good the way they were, I would never have thought to bake them, but, it's an alternative with no compromise in result, plus, because they don't curl up when baked, if you've got a fun selection of cookie cutters, the tortillas can be cut into shapes to suit any occasion!

Today's fun and kid-friendly Tex-Mex theme is:  

IMG_6991Cowboys and Cacti -- How cute is that! 

IMG_6931The number of snacks you'll get depends upon the size of the cookie cutters you use.  No matter what their size, for each standard-sized 1/2 sheet pan (1 batch) figure on needing:

3  soft 8" round flour tortillas

3  tablespoons salted butter

2  tablespoons Sugar 'n Cinnamon (Note:  This recipe is kid-friendly -- I allow them the pleasure of using the fun, store-bought, well-known: Sugar 'n Cinnamon.  In the case of this recipe, it's a lot more convenient too.  But, if you feel the need to mix your own, the ratio is  3:1 (3 tablespoons granulated sugar to 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon.  If you mix your own, transfer it to a small salt-shaker type container.)

IMG_6935Step 1.  Line a 17 1/2" x 12 1/2" baking pan with foil, then a sheet of parchment paper.

~ Step 2.  Using cookie cutters of choice, cut the tortillas into desired shapes and sizes.  

IMG_6937~ Step 3. Melt butter in microwave. Using a pastry brush, paint the parchment paper with a thin, but even coating of butter.

IMG_6946 IMG_6949~ Step 4. Arrange the tortillas on top of the buttered parchment.  Using the pastry brush, IMG_6953paint their tops, then sprinkle Cinnamon 'n Sugar generously over all.  

IMG_6966 IMG_6957~ Step 5. Bake on center rack of preheated 350 degree oven, 12-14 minutes until nicely-browned, slightly-shrunken and crispy.  To test for doneness,  slide a thin spatula underneath one, if cracker-like, remove pan from oven and immediately transfer to a cooling rack to cool completely, then store in an airtight container.

Dunk 'em in real-deal Mexican hot chocolate for breakfast...

IMG_7011... or, a giant scoop of salted-caramel ice cream for dessert!

IMG_7052Fun with Flour Tortillas:  Sugar 'n Cinnamon Snacks:  Recipe yields approximately 1-3 dozen snacks, per batch, depending upon the size of the cookie cutters.

Special Equipment List:  17 1/2" x 12 1/2" baking pan; aluminum foil; parchment paper; pastry brush; small spatula; cooling rack

PICT0019Cook's Note:  These addictive little snacks go well with another one of my favorite homemade ice creams:  ~ Sweet Heat:  Strawberry & Guajillo Chile Ice Cream + Strawberry & Guajillo Chile Sauce ~.  This easy-to-make concoction of fresh strawberries, real-deal cream, buttermilk, lime juice, plus, just the right amount of subtle guajillo chile powder and spicy cayenne pepper is not one you are likely to forget.

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

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2015) 

05/05/2015

~ Deep-Fried & Crispy Corn Tortilla Chips (Totopos) ~

IMG_6871Oddly, I learned to cook Tex-Mex food in authentic fashion right here in Central, Pennsylvania.  The year was 1974 and I was a new bride.  The day after our wedding, my husband and I moved into a brand new, garden-apartment complex in State College.  It was so new that we were the first residents, except for the manager and his wife, who lived directly above us:  Tom and Toni.  We four became immediate friends -- not because were the only inhabitants, because we four really enjoyed each other.  Tom was an all-around, hat-and-boot-wearing Texas cowboy.  Toni was a beautiful Mexican-American woman, born and raised in San Antonio, TX.  They had moved to State College (where Tom's mom and dad had retired), to manage the apartment complex until they could afford to move back to San Antonio and open their own bar/restaurant.

IMG_2671In the three years that Toni and I were neighbors, I learned to cook Tex-Mex food from scratch.  We made our own tortillas and taco shells from masa harina, our chili and burritos using cooked, shredded meat or poultry fillings, and, our salsa from fresh tomatoes, chile peppers and cilantro we grew in pots on our patios.  We made refritos (refried beans) by cooking, mashing and frying the pinto beans. We marinated flank and skirt steaks in tequila and drank our margaritas on-the-rocks (those stories remain confidential).  The list goes on, but I'm sure you get my point.

6a0120a8551282970b01761784b915970cFreshly made-from-scratch tortillas have a short shelf life, becoming "tough" after just a few hours.  One of the things Toni and I did with leftover corn tortillas was deep-fry them (in lard) to make our own totopos (tortilla chips).  For those of you who love to eat and cook your own Tex-Mex food, I'm going to suggest this:  the next time you make a pot of your favorite chili or a bowl of chile con queso, take 20 extra minutes and deep-fry some tortilla chips (in corn oil).  

IMG_6919Because Joe and I always fry our own chips, I've come to take these addictive snacks for granted. Whenever I serve them to friends, their excitement catches me off-guard, as, I can't believe everyone doesn't make them at home -- I can't believe restaurants, with deep fryers bubbling away all day, don't do it either.  I can understand why many home cooks are hesitant to deep-fry in a pot with a candy thermometer (it's an awkward, messy, hassle), but, the purchase a deep-fryer, which makes the process completely safe, extremely clean and very easy, is, in my opinion, one of the best $50-$100 investments a serious home cook can make.  Tortilla chips deep-fried at home are head-over-heals better than any that come out of any $4-$6 bag of any generic to gourmet brand. 

Tortilla Chips #1 (Sliced)~ Step 1.  This is your ingredients list:

30  fresh, 6" round,  yellow or white corn tortillas

freshly ground sea salt

Using a large chef's knife, cut the entire stack of tortillas into six parts or triangles.  This package of 30 corn tortillas weighs 1 pound, 12 ounces and will make 180 totopos (15 dozen) in 20 minutes.

Tortilla Chips #2 (Fried)~ Step. 2.   Heat oil in deep-fryer, according to the manufacturer's specifications, to 375 degrees.  I like to use corn oil when frying corn tortilla chips (to me that just makes sense).  When the deep fryer is preheated:

Fry 1 stack (one sixth) of the corn tortilla triangles, exactly 3 minutes.  The chips will be very, very lightly browned and puffed up in spots. 

Immediately remove from the deep-fryer and:

Tortilla Chips #3 (Salted) ~ Step 3.  Transfer to a large baking pan that has been lined with 3-4 layers of paper towels. Using a spatula, quickly and randomly separate the totopos into a single layer.  Immediately, while they still look wet with oil, salt the tops of them (generously).

When the deep-fryer returns to temperature, fry the second batch and continue this process until all totopos are fried.

Store, uncovered in a basket, for 2-3 days -- if they last that long:

IMG_6860Deep-Fried & Crispy Corn Tortilla Chips (Totopos):  Recipe yields 180 (15 dozen tortilla chips).  This is about the same amount you'll get in a 13-15-ounce bag of restaurant-style tortilla chips.

Special Equipment List:  cutting board; chef's knife; deep-fryer; 3-minute egg timer (optional but helpful); paper towels; 17 1/2" x 12 1/2" baking pan; spatula

IMG_2678Cook's Note:  Completely cooled tortilla chips can be stored in an air-tight container for up to one week.  They also stay crispy, if left uncovered, for 2-3 days.  I put mine in a bowl on my counter for passers-by to munch on at will!

Extra Cook's Note:  When cut into strips, instead of triangles, they are used as a crunchy garnish for Mexican soups.  Simply cut the stack of torillas into quarters, then slice each stack of quarters into strips, 1/4"-1/2" wide, and deep-fry!

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

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2015)

05/03/2015

~ Sweet Heat: Strawberry Salsa for Cinco de Mayo ~

IMG_6832Strawberries to make salsa?  If you are a skeptic, all you'll need is one taste and it will make perfect sense to you.  Just like tomatoes, they are full of naturally sweet and tart flavor which makes them terrific used in savory ways.  Simply substitute them for tomatoes in almost any Tex-Mex-flavored salsa recipe, and, add the usual suspects:  a bit of acid (lime juice), an herb (cilantro), spices (salt and a bit of sugar to bring up the flavor too), and, of course, the always-necessary onion (or green onion).  If it's heat you're craving, mince up a jalapeno pepper or two. Bell peppers are usually added to salsa too.  I add them when I'm using tomatoes, but, I don't think bell peppers and strawberries are the best combo, so, I'll leave that option up to you.  

IMG_6792Try strawberry salsa on an omelette at breakfast, in a fish taco for lunch, atop a grilled chicken breast or pork chop for dinner, or, with deep-fried tortilla chips alongside your favorite Cinco de Mayo cocktail!

PICT0002There's more:  When strawberries are used to make salsa, they actually hold up better than their more watery counterpart:  tomatoes. You can use slightly-underipe, perfectly-ripe, or slightly-overripe berries to make salsa, with  slightly-underripe strawberries being my favorite.  Why?  I can make my salsa a day ahead of serving it (allowing plenty of time for the flavors to marry), and, after that, it holds up in the refrigerator for two-three more days of sweet-heat enjoyment, meaning:  the riper the berries the shorter the shelf life.

I wish I could report I'm using locally grown, or our backyard-grown strawberries, but, here in Central, Pennsylvania, we have a very short 4-5 week dependent-upon-the-weather season, lasting approximately from the end of May to the end of June.  That said, our stores are full of ripe, red, very-tasty beauties -- I couldn't pass up buying a 2-pound box of Driscoll's yesterday!

IMG_67512  pounds strawberries, hulled and 1/2" diced (about 6 cups)

3/4  cup diced sweet onion

1/2  cup minced fresh cilantro

1-2  jalapeno peppers, seeded and very-finely diced

3-4  tablespoons lime juice, the riper the berries = less juice used

1-1 1/2  teaspoons sugar, to taste

1/2  teaspoon sea salt

IMG_6761 IMG_6754~ Step 1.  In a large bowl, place all ingredients and stir. Set aside to macerate, at room temp, for about 30-40 minutes, stopping to stir about every 10 minutes. Taste and adjust lime juice and sugar.

~ Step 2.  Transfer to a food storage container and refrigerate until well-chilled, several hours or overnight.

Resist the urge to serve immediately -- give the flavors time to marry!

IMG_6767Deep-fry some totopos (deep-fried corn tortilla chips)...

IMG_6871... pile 'em high and serve 'em topped w/sweet heat!

IMG_6856Sweet Heat:  Strawberry Salsa for Cinco de Mayo:  Recipe yields 6 cups salsa.

Special Equipment List:  cutting board; chef's knife; large spoon; 2-quart food storage container

Cinco-de-mayoCook's Note:  "Cinco de Mayo" (meaning "fifth of May" in Spanish) is not Mexican Independence Day (September 15th).  This modern holiday began in 1967 when a group of California State University students invented it because there were no Chicano holidays to commemorate their heritage.  They decided that the Battle of Puebla in 1862 (a symbol of the Mexican peoples unity and patriotism) could be connected to their own struggle to create a Chicano Studies program.  They succeeded!

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

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2015)

05/01/2015

~ A Versatile Tex-Mex Condiment: Chile-Lime Mayo ~

IMG_6608Today is the unofficial start to barbecue and grill season here in Central Pennsylvania.  Whether your preference is the low-and-slow barbecue pit (Eastern or Western North Carolina-, Texas-, Kansas City-, or Memphis-style), or, the fast-and-furious charcoal or gas grill, from Cinco de Mayo to Labor Day, there will be plenty opportunities for all of us to show off and share our smoke and fire skills.  We Americans love to cook, eat and drink in the great outdoors.

IMG_6742Joe and I don't pretend to be pit-masters or grill-masters, but, we do turn out some very tasty stuff, and, amongst our favorite recipes are those containing the bright, bold flavors of our American southwest, affectionately referred to as "Tex-Mex".  For the next few months, the vegetable bin of my refrigerator will never be without bell and jalapeno peppers, tomatoes, cilantro and fresh limes.  In my pantry, you'll find a reusable jelly jar full of ~ Jesse's Smokin' Rib Rub a la Jesse's Mom (Mel) + (My Tips & Technique for Gas Grill Smoked Ribs) ~.  Just click in Categories 8, 10, 13, 15 or 17 to find out what goes into this flavor-packed concoction!

Consider this easy-to-make all-purpose condiment recipe your Tex-Mex version of French aioli (a garlic-flavored mayonnaise hailing from Provence).  It can be used as a dip, a dressing or a spread, and it goes great with all sorts of meat, poultry, fish, seafood and vegetables. 

IMG_64022  cups mayonnaise

1 1/2-2 cups minced, fresh cilantro (Note:  Since the cilantro is going to be processed, including more stem in your minced cilantro than you normally would in other recipes is just fine.)

1  12-ounce jar sliced, pickled jalapenos, well-drained

1  large lime, all of its zest and all of its juice (Note:  You want to add 2 tablespoons lime juice.  If the lime is not particularly juicy, make up the difference with bottled concentrate.)

2  teaspoons sugar

1/2  teaspoon sea salt

PICT0031~ Step 1.  Place all ingredients in work bowl of food processor fitted with steel blade.  With motor running, process until smooth, 30-45 seconds.  Transfer to a food storage container and refrigerate 2-24 hours, and, up to one week.

Note:  This mayonnaise thickens as it chills, and, its flavor intensifies if the flavors are given time to marry, so, if you have the time to make it in advance, do it.  Suggested uses:

(Just click on the Related Article links below to get the following three recipes.)

A DIP for my appetizer:  Batter-Dipped Avocado Bites

IMG_6726A DRESSING for my side-dish:  Russet & Sweet Potato Salad

IMG_6627A TOPPING for my entree: Chili Cheddar Cheeseburgers

IMG_6481A Versatile Tex-Mex Condiment:  Chile-Lime Mayonnaise:  Recipe yields 3 generous cups.

Special Equipment List:  cutting board; chef's knife; microplane grater; food processor

IMG_7624 20131206-235707Cook's Note: My philosophy is, "if you're going to make your own rib rub, you ought to make your own BBQ sauce too."  My ~ Kansas City BBQ Sauce:  Sweet, Spicy & Smokey ~,  found in Categories 8, 10, 17 or 20, is so good, it's on the menu, served with grilled chicken, at the Happy Valley Brewing Company in State College, PA!

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

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2015)