Articles in Cooking
Lime ought to show up more often in cakes; that’s my philosophy. Lemon is great, sure. But there are already plenty of lemon cakes and lemon frostings. No doubt lemon is a cheery and optimistic flavor. But lime is rich and exotic.
Following this line of thought, I ended up with a cake with a lime butterscotch cream cheese frosting and a filling of fried bananas. The palate just wants what it wants.
The evolution of cake experiments
My first step down the lime path was obvious — coconut cake with lime zest and a bit of lime juice in the frosting (because I believe fruit-flavored frostings should be sweet-sour). Lime in the coconut, get it? I’m referring to “Coconut,” that 1970s hit song about a woman who mixed lime and coconut juice, got a stomachache and called her doctor, who surprisingly prescribed drinking more lime and coconut.
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The doctor in the song sounded a little peevish because she’d called him in the middle of the night. Still, everybody in the song seemed fine with this prescription, and so did everybody who tasted my lime in the coconut cake.
Next I made a lemon poppy seed pound cake substituting lime juice and zest for the lemon. It was a big hit, because people who love pound cake love it passionately, and because I’d topped it with a cream cheese frosting. I’d noticed that people who love pound cake passionately also have a thing for cream cheese.
When I frosted a cake with lime butter cream and filled it with lime curd, it struck me that I might be binging on limes. Meanwhile, I’d gotten interested in ways to use bananas in cake, but not as banana bread, of which I’m not a big fan. However, I am a big fan of butterscotch, an unjustly neglected flavor in my book.
Finding flavors that complement each other
So I decided to make a lime butterscotch cream cheese frosting, just to check off all the possibilities. It was pretty good because this butterscotch cream cheese frosting takes other flavors, such as ground instant coffee, beautifully.
Cream cheese frosting is mostly used on dense cakes like carrot cake, rather than on butter cake, and the recipes tend to make just barely enough to frost a cake. Here was where my banana experimentation paid off, apart from the fact that banana and butterscotch go together beautifully.
Fry some bananas soft with butter and brown sugar, and they make a terrific filling, suavely giving you more cream cheese frosting to cover the outside of the cake.
In retrospect, this was all obvious, so obvious. I’m almost embarrassed to mention it. But just almost.
Lime Butterscotch Cream Cheese Banana Cake
Makes 1 two-layer cake
For the cake:
3 cups flour plus about 2 tablespoons for flouring the pans
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup milk
2 sticks butter, softened, plus more for greasing cake pans
2 cups sugar
For the banana filling:
3 ripe bananas
About ½ stick butter
2 tablespoons brown sugar
The juice of ½ a lime
For the lime butterscotch cream cheese frosting:
½ stick butter
1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese
¼ cup brown sugar
1 pound confectioner’s sugar
Juice and zest from ½ a lime
For the cake:
1. Turn on the oven to 350 F.
2. Mix 3 cups of flour, salt and baking powder and set aside.
3. Add the vanilla to the milk and set aside.
4. Grease two 9-inch cake pans. Put the remaining 2 tablespoons of flour into one pan and shake around until the interior is floured, then pour the remainder into the other pan and repeat.
5. Beat the butter until light and fluffy, then pour in the sugar in a thin stream while beating until the mixture is light and the mixer’s motor has reached its highest speed.
6. Add the eggs one at a time, beating 20 seconds after each addition.
7. Add 1 cup of the flour mixture and beat at medium slow speed, encouraging the absorption with a spatula, just until the flour is absorbed.
8. Add half of the milk and repeat, then another cup of flour, the rest of the milk and the rest of the flour.
9. Divide the mixture equally between the two cake pans and bake until the layers are lightly browned and pulling away from the sides of the pan, about 35 to 40 minutes. The tip should spring back if touched and a toothpick inserted in the cake should come back without any damp crumbs on it.
10. Set the cake pans on a cooling rack for 10 minutes, then remove from the pans and return to the rack until cool.
For the banana filling:
1. Peel the bananas and slice each in half lengthwise.
2. Melt the butter in a large frying pan and arrange the slices on it. Cook over medium low heat until the bananas soften, about 15 minutes. Turn them over with a spatula, sprinkle with the brown sugar and fry another 5 to 10 minutes.
3. Sprinkle with lime juice and leave to cool.
For the lime butterscotch cream cheese frosting:
1. Melt the butter in a small pan over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and cook until most of the foam has settled and the butter has a cooked, but not browned, flavor. Pour the butter off into a bowl and return to the refrigerator until solid, about 10 minutes.
2. Whip the cream cheese in a mixer until quite fluffy.
3. If you have a mortar, grind the brown sugar as fine as possible. Add the brown sugar to the cream cheese and whip until the mixture looks smooth. Add the butter and beat until smooth. Add the confectioner’s sugar and beat at the lowest speed until the sugar is incorporated. Add the zest and juice of the lime and beat until smooth; you may add more zest or juice to taste.
To assemble the cake:
Set one cake layer upside down on a plate. Spread a very thin layer of frosting onto the exposed side. With a spatula, transfer the fried bananas onto the cake layer, then top it with the other cake layer, right side up. Scoop all the frosting onto the top of the cake and work down over the sides with a spatula.
Top photo: Lime Butterscotch Cream Cheese Banana Cake. Credit: Charles Perry
On a cold, dark night on an isolated back road, a writer encounters four strangers in the kitchen of an old, drafty farmhouse. Knives flash. Hot oil splashes. Mayhem ensues.
For days I played out this scenario in my mind: The stress! The terror! The bandages required!
You might guess I was hard at work on a piece of crime fiction. Sadly, you’d be mistaken. This is simply what you do if you have a wildly overactive imagination and a Zester Daily contest winner and her three friends coming to your 1801 farmhouse for a seafood cooking class.
In-home seafood cooking class invites jitters
The contest and class were held in support of my first cookbook, “Fish Market” (Running Press, 2013). Named one of the top 10 cookbooks of 2013 by Weight Watchers, the book had propelled me into lecturing, hosting tastings and teaching classes all around the East Coast. Although I’d become fairly adept at these events, I had no experience with inviting strangers into my home to cook and chat about seafood.
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While my imagination switched into overdrive, grand-prize winner Erica Cheslock, a trained pastry chef from Philadelphia, approached the upcoming class with far more aplomb. “I never win anything, so it was a nice surprise to win a copy of ‘Fish Market,’ then the grand prize! It was quite a treat to be invited to Kathy’s home for a class, and I thought it was brave of her to have four people to her home that she never met,” Cheslock says.
Along with Erica and her mom, Lynn Cheslock, and Erica’s friends, Kelli Bowers and Rachael Sutliff, I invited sustainable lifestyle and food blogger Brande Plotnick, who reviewed “Fish Market” on her Tomato Envy site, and her foodie husband, Rob, to attend the class. If the conversation lagged or participation was lean, I could rely on this engaging duo to jump in and keep the evening moving.
Because I don’t own enough chef’s knives or cutting boards for six or even four, I opted to hold a demonstration class. If desired, the students could pitch in and grind spices, sauté shrimp and sear scallops. What they wouldn’t do was fillet, chop or dice a single ingredient. This greatly cut down the risk of bloodshed.
If the group craved a more relaxing evening, I had a backup plan. They could sit around the kitchen island and enjoy a glass of wine and amuse of homemade smoked trout paté while I talked and my husband, Sean, and I cooked.
With conversation and format covered and potential catastrophes averted, the last item on my list of worries was what to discuss. Because Zester readers tend to be quite food savvy, I had to go beyond the usual how-to-cook-fish class. Eventually I decided upon flavor affinities, looking at what ingredients pair especially well with fish and shellfish.
With a topic finally established, I compiled and printed out the flavor affinities for shrimp, scallops and monkfish. These three would be the featured seafood for the night.
Once I’d picked a theme, choosing the recipes was easy. We would make Spice-Peppercorn Shrimp, Vietnamese Scallop Boat Salads, Saffron and Cinnamon-Scented Monkfish Kebabs and raisin- and pine-nut-studded Moroccan Carrots. All came from “Fish Market” and included an array of tastes and textures.
On class night, I set six places at my kitchen island and draped six flavor affinity handouts over each appetizer plate. I then tied on a fish-adorned apron and paced the kitchen floor, waiting for Erica and the others to arrive.
Here’s the thing about an overactive imagination: Nothing ever turns out as horribly as you envision. In my case, hosting four strangers was not only disaster-free but also a delight.
As a graduate of The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College, Erica already possessed a wealth of culinary knowledge, but she was attentive and gracious. “Cooking fish takes me a bit out of my comfort zone, just as this trip to an unknown location was out of my comfort zone. The class showed me that there are fish types that I had never heard of and ways to prepare them that are flavorful and creative. I left feeling grateful for the experience and for being able to meet Kathy, Sean, Rob and Brande,” Erica said.
The feeling was mutual. Congenial, inquisitive and insightful, Erica, Lynn, Kelli and Rachael were the ideal students and guests. They helped out when asked and noshed and chatted when assistance wasn’t needed.
Thanks to them and the Zester Daily contest, I am confident I could host other cooking classes, with strangers, in my kitchen again. Who knows? Next time I might even keep my imagination off the guest list.
Top photo: Zester Daily contributor Kathy Hunt, right, talks with cooking class participants, from left, Rachael Sutliff, Erica Cheslock, Lynn Cheslock and Brande Plotnick. Credit: Sean Dippold
Broccoli was in the spotlight at the American Institute for Cancer Research’s recent annual conference, where global scientists shared their findings on the connection between diet and cancer. Had the researchers been giving out awards, broccoli’s baby sprouts, not just broccoli, would have snatched gold.
How you prepare broccoli, though, is the key to its cancer-fighting ability, said Elizabeth Jeffery, co-chair of one of the conference’s sessions and a professor in the department of food science and human nutrition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her latest research could dramatically change your culinary habits.
Queen of the crucifers
You know the stinky smell that fills your kitchen when you’re cooking broccoli? That’s because of healthy sulfur-filled compounds, which exist in all crucifers. An enzyme in crucifers — marked by that kick you get when you bite into a raw one — turns sulfurs into two cancer-fighting categories:
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– Indoles, which help break down hormones as well as target a group of genes that promote prostate cancer. (The latter finding was reported by Wayne State University scientist Fazlul Sarkar at the conference.)
– Isothiocyanates (pronounced eye-so-thigh-o-sigh-a-nates), which counteract carcinogens in general and speed up their removal from the body. (Of course, broccoli also has many more healthy compounds.)
Broccoli bears the crown of queen of the crucifers because compared with other crucifers, it contains more of a particularly important isothiocyanate called sulforaphane.
Because heat degrades the enzyme that produces sulforaphane, many food scientists, until now, have recommended we eat crucifers raw or very lightly cooked. In her recent broccoli research, however, Jeffery has developed a more sophisticated approach to maximizing sulforaphane. Her work shows that how you make the broccoli and what you pair it with are vital.
Tips on handling broccoli
To capitalize on sulforaphane, first cook broccoli lightly, Jeffery said. Steam it in a little liquid for 3 to 4 minutes until bright green, using a steamer so that it doesn’t touch the cooking liquid. Or blanch it for 20 to 30 seconds, no more. Those methods are surprisingly better than eating it raw, she said, because when the enzyme acts on broccoli’s sulfur-containing compounds, the compounds can swing either way — and get turned into sulforophanes, which fight cancer, or nitriles, which don’t. “Every molecule of nitriles formed is a sulforaphane not formed,” Jeffery said. And just a little heat will keep nitriles from forming.
To counteract the enzyme reduction caused by heating Jefferey has a second suggestion:
Eat steamed broccoli along with a little raw crucifer — arugula, watercress, a little wasabi or spicy mustard, or perhaps even better, raw red radish. (The stronger the kick, the more enzyme you’re getting.) Red radishes contain sulforaphane and don’t have the inherent ability to produce nitriles. You don’t need much, Jeffery said — just two to three radishes or a ½ teaspoon of mustard or wasabi. And you don’t have to eat them in the same bite as broccoli, just in the same meal.
Here’s the final and most liberating finding for those of us chained to our kitchens: As long as you eat raw crucifers in the same meal, you can go ahead and cook broccoli any way you want, Jeffery said. The enzymes in the raw crucifers will act on compounds in the cooked ones.
Why broccoli sprouts?
While President George H.W. Bush was banning broccoli on Air Force One back in 1990, Johns Hopkins researcher Paul Talalay was busy exploring the crucifer’s newborn sprouts. What, he wondered, was the ideal number of days needed to germinate seeds to get the best sulforaphane content as well as taste?
The answer: three days. He and his son went on to develop a side business selling young broccoli sprouts. (Talalay, now 91, still collaborates on research and goes to his lab almost every day.)
In contrast to mature broccoli, broccoli sprouts have, on average, 20 times the amount of compounds that develop into sulforaphane, said Yanyan Li, a professor of food science at Montclair State University who is studying sulforaphane. Since the 1990s, researchers have been identifying cancer stem cells in many types of cancer, and Li has recently found that sulforaphane targets breast cancer stem cells at relatively low concentrations.
How much is enough?
To obtain that level of sulforaphane, however, you’d need to eat several pounds of broccoli — or, Li suggested, just a heaping cup of raw sprouts, lightly steamed and consumed along with a few raw radishes. Sulforphane is eliminated from the body relatively quickly, she said, so “eating them three times a day would be ideal to maintain the level.”
For the average person, that’s not really feasible, she acknowledges, and scientists at the conference agreed that eating crucifers four to five times a week is a reasonable goal for most — as long as you chew the vegetables well. By breaking the cell walls, you’re releasing those pungent enzymes.
Jeffery’s lab is now comparing the sulforaphane content in common varieties of broccoli, but that research is not yet ready for prime time.
Broccoli Sprout Salad With Synergy
(Recipe courtesy of Holly Botner, the Jittery Cook)
For the dressing:
½ lemon, juiced
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
½ teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper to taste
For the broccoli sprout salad:
2 containers broccoli sprouts
4 red radishes, ½ thinly sliced, ½ julienned
1 handful baby arugula
½ carrot, cut into slivers with a peeler
¼ yellow pepper, finely chopped
1 orange, cut into segments as garnish
1. Combine all ingredients for the dressing and mix well.
2. Steam the sprouts until bright green, then cut off their green tops to use in the salad.
3. Arrange salad ingredients on two small plates. Spoon dressing lightly over salad.
Top photo: Broccoli sprout salad. Credit: Holly Botner / jitterycook.com
Place a carbon steel pan on a stovetop burner on high heat and stand back. In minutes, the surface temperature will reach 600 to 700 F. When hazy smoke floats into the air, it’s time to drizzle a small amount of oil onto the pan. The oil scatters across the surface, looking for a place to hide from the heat. But there’s no escape. The oil accepts its fate, adds a bit more smoke and waits. Drop a piece of marbled meat or a beautiful medley of farm fresh vegetables into the pan and the sizzling begins. Smokin’ carbon steel is the alchemist’s apprentice, transforming fat and starch into savory sweetness.
To create beautifully charred meats and crispy skin fish filets, restaurant chefs use sauté pans designed to take high heat. Searing caramelizes the outside and locks in flavor. In the home kitchen, cast iron and stainless steel pans are favored by many, but carbon steel has advantages over both. No health issues are associated with using carbon at high heat and cleanup is easy. Like woks, once a carbon steel pan is seasoned, the surface turns black so there is no need to brandish a scouring pad and cleanser.
Working with carbon steel
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Some additional care needs to be taken. Never soak a carbon steel pan in water or place in a dishwasher. Simply scrub with a little soap to remove particulates and grease, rinse, then heat the pan on a stove top burner until dry and the pan is ready to use again. Acidic ingredients such as lemon juice and tomatoes can affect the seasoning of the pan, but that is easily remedied by following the manufacturer’s directions.
Available in cooking supply stores, the pans are half the cost of stainless steel and twice the price of cast iron. Once seasoned according to the manufacturer’s directions, the pans are virtually indestructible and designed to last a lifetime.
The pan I use is a French-made de Buyer 12.6-inch Mineral B Element. A bit lighter than a comparably sized cast iron pan, the extra long handle never gets hot when used on the stove top. At high heat, the surface of the carbon steel pan becomes nonstick with the smallest amount of oil.
Very much like Chinese stir-frying, cooking at high heat requires all ingredients to be prepped before cooking begins. To avoid risking a burn, experts suggest using a pair of long metal tongs, 12 inches or longer to manipulate the ingredients in the pan.
Get ready for some serious heat
A good exhaust hood with a fan above the stove is also necessary. High heat’s sweet smoke can turn from pleasure to pain if unvented. Many a meal has been spoiled by the annoying screech of a smoke alarm.
Use an oil that can tolerate high temperatures. A proponent of high-heat cooking to prepare his signature crispy salmon filet, chef Taylor Boudreaux of Napa Valley Grille in West Los Angeles, Calif., recommends a blend of canola (80%) and olive oil (20%).
Keep a premixed bottle on hand in the kitchen and you’ll always be ready for a smokin’ good time.
Pan Seared Bone-In Ribeye Steak
I believe a little bit of steak goes a long way, so my preferred portion is 6 to 8 ounces. Quality rather than quantity makes the difference in this supremely easy-to-make, protein-centric dish. Buy the highest quality steak available.
A good steak deserves good accompaniments that are entirely personal in nature. One person draws pleasure from a side of fries, another prefers a baked sweet potato with butter. Some diners wouldn’t eat red meat without a glass of red wine. I enjoy a charred steak with caramelized onions and shiitake mushrooms served alongside garlic-parsley mashed potatoes, a carrot-broccoli sauté and an ice-cold perfect Manhattan up with a twist. But that’s me.
The times indicated in the recipe are estimates. The thickness of the steak will affect how long the meat needs to be cooked to reach the desired level of doneness.
1 bone-in ribeye, T-bone or Porterhouse steak
Sea salt and ground black pepper to taste
½ teaspoon blend of canola oil (80%) and olive oil (20%)
1 teaspoon sweet butter (optional, see variations)
1 garlic clove, peeled, root end trimmed (optional, see variations)
½ teaspoon finely chopped chives, or the green part of a scallion (optional, see variations)
1. Wash and pat dry the steak. Season lightly with sea salt and black pepper. Set aside.
3. Place the carbon steel pan on a burner on a high flame.
4. When the pan lightly smokes, drizzle the oil into the pan. In seconds the oil will smoke.
5. Using tongs, place the steak in the pan. Press down gently along the edges and the meat next to the bone. Pressing too firmly will force juices out of the steak which would diminish the flavors.
6. Allow to cook and sizzle. Steaks are best served medium-rare. Make adjustments as to time if you prefer yours less or more cooked.
7. After 3 to 5 minutes, turn the steak over. After another 3 to 5 minutes, press against the middle of the steak. If the meat feels solid, it is cooked. If it can be pressed down easily, then it probably requires more cooking. To be certain, use a sharp paring knife to make small cut in the middle of the steak. Inspect and determine if the steak has cooked to the state of doneness you enjoy.
8. Serve hot with your preferred sides and beverage of choice.
1. Use a combination of stovetop searing and oven baking, as many restaurant chefs do. To do this, sear the steak for 2 minutes on each side, then place in a 400 F oven for 5 minutes. To remove the pan from the oven, remember to use an oven mitt. The handle that rarely gets hot on the stove top will be very hot after spending time in the oven.
2. Test for doneness as before. If not cooked to your preference, place back in the oven.
3. After removal from the oven or the stovetop, drop a teaspoon of sweet butter and a crushed garlic clove (peeled) into the pan. Spoon the butter-garlic mixture over the steak, bathing it in the sauce. Discard the melted butter and garlic before serving. Place the steak on the plate with the sides.
4. Sprinkle 1 teaspoon finely chopped chives or the green part of a scallion over the steak just before serving.
Caramelized Farmers Market Vegetables
Perfect as a side dish or as an entrée with noodles or rice, the vegetables should be charred but not overcooked so their texture is al dente. Using the freshest, highest quality vegetables will create a better tasting dish. Butter is optional, but a small amount can add a level of umami that turns a good plate of vegetables into an outstanding one.
2 large carrots, washed, root and stem ends removed, peeled, cut into rounds or 1 -nch oblongs
1 medium onion, washed, root and stem ends removed, peeled, julienned
3 garlic cloves, skins and root ends removed, smashed, finely diced
2 cups broccoli florets, washed, sliced long ways into bite-sized pieces
2 cups Brussels sprouts, root ends trimmed, cut into quarters or julienned
1 cup shiitake or brown mushrooms, washed, stem ends trimmed, thin sliced long ways
1 teaspoon blend of canola oil (80%) and olive oil (20%)
Sea salt and ground black pepper to taste
1 teaspoon sweet butter (optional)
Pinch of cayenne (optional)
1. Assemble all the vegetables on the cutting board, ready to use. If serving with steamed rice or cooked pasta, have that prepared as well.
2. Set the burner on the highest setting. Place the carbon steel pan on the burner. Allow to heat until a small amount of smoke begins to form.
3. Drizzle in the blended oil. When it smokes, add all the vegetables.
4. Using the tongs, toss the vegetables frequently to prevent burning. Toss for 3 to 5 minutes or until the vegetables are cooked al dente.
5. Remove the pan from the burner. Because the carbon steel is still very hot, continue tossing the vegetables. Add the butter and cayenne (optional). Toss well. Taste and adjust seasoning with additional sea salt and pepper.
6. Serve hot as a side dish or with the pasta or rice.
– If caramelized onions are preferred, cook them separately until they take on a golden color, then add the other vegetables.
– Substitute or add vegetables you enjoy, such as zucchini, turnips, kale or kohlrabi. Since some vegetables cook more quickly than others, learn which ones need to go into the pan ahead of the others. For instance, small diced turnips and kohlrabi would go in first before adding the other vegetables.
– Instead of adding butter and cayenne (optional), add 2 tablespoons soy sauce or an Asian sauce (optional), and for added heat, add 3 tablespoons finely chopped Korean kimchi (optional).
Top photo: Carbon steel sauté pan on high heat, smoke rising from the blended oil. Credit: David Latt
Around our house, Valentine’s Day is about family and love. And when it comes to dessert my family loves chocolate, peppermint and marshmallows, though not necessarily in that order. I wanted to make a treat that would satisfy everyone’s dessert fantasies. After much contemplation, I came up with the idea for Chocolate-Covered Peppermint Marshmallow Pops.
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I had another requirement for our Valentine’s Day treat — it had to be a no-bake recipe. Anyone who knows me knows that I hate to bake anything except bread, and I’ll come up with any excuse possible to make sweet treats that don’t involve actual baking.
While thumbing through the dessert section of my personal “favorite recipes” notebook, I stumbled across my recipe for seven-minute frosting. I suddenly realized this could be the starting point for Valentine treats. I love seven-minute frosting. In our family, we eat coconut cake with seven-minute frosting for Christmas, Easter and birthdays. It’s a special occasion cake, but I figured it would be even better if I could get rid of the cake entirely and focus on the frosting. If you’ve ever made seven-minute frosting, you know it’s just a step away from marshmallow. I decided to take that step.
The joy of homemade marshmallows
For most people, marshmallows are unnaturally rounded cubes found in plastic bags in supermarkets. Yet there are an infinite number of ways to make marshmallows. Most call for some combination of sugar, gelatin and corn syrup.
I began my experiment with my traditional recipe for seven-minute frosting, but replaced my usual vanilla with peppermint. I added unflavored gelatin to the mix to give the final product its marshmallow-y sponginess. Once I had made the marshmallow, then let it cool overnight, I used cookie cutters to cut the marshmallow into Valentine shapes. The final steps: Shove it onto a popsicle stick, dip it in chocolate and decorate with candy sprinkles.
This recipe does contain egg, which is important to tell people who might have egg allergies. However, unlike most marshmallow recipes, this one has no corn syrup. I also did a double-check on the food safety situation of the egg whites. According to foodsafety.gov, the egg whites used in seven-minute frosting are cooked with a sugar syrup long enough to kill any salmonella bacterium that might be present.
But because I was planning to share these treats with the all the kids in the neighborhood, I decided to play it safe and make this recipe with pasteurized powdered egg whites. They’re handy to have when you run out of eggs, and I happened to have them in my pantry already.
Get messy and feel the love
Fair warning: this can be a messy affair, as powdered sugar tends to fly, especially if your kids are getting into the act. I experimented with several versions of the recipe, varying the level of sweetness, marshmallow thickness and pepperminty-ness.
This final version appealed to children and adults alike, assuming, of course, that the eater had a love of chocolate and a serious sweet tooth. The dessert is as pretty as it is delicious, and the finished chocolate pops can be used as Valentine Party table decorations or given as gifts.
They would never last that long at our house. I presented my first batch of chocolate peppermint marshmallow pops to my two daughters, which caused their outdoor play to screech to a halt as they snatched the heart-shaped suckers out of my hand. They were such a hit that when my youngest daughter dropped her half-eaten pop in the dirt of our front yard, a river of tears began to flow. The flood stopped when I sighed and told my daughter she could pick it up and eat it anyway. She dusted off the biggest specks of dirt and happily shoved it back in her mouth.
Love can be messy. Happy Valentine’s Day.
Chocolate-Covered Peppermint Marshmallow Pops
Makes approximately 12 to 15 pops
1 tablespoon butter
½ cup cornstarch
½ cup powdered sugar
3 tablespoons (three packets) unflavored gelatin
⅔ cups water to mix with gelatin, plus ½ cup water to mix with egg whites
Pasteurized powdered egg whites equal to two egg whites (I used Deb El’s Just Whites. If you use another brand, change the amount of water to whatever is required by the egg-white instructions plus five tablespoons of water.)
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
2 cups refined white sugar
¼ to ½ teaspoon peppermint extract
Pinch of salt
24 ounces (two bags) good quality semi-sweet or dark chocolate chips
1 to 2 tablespoons canola oil
Assorted sprinkles, coconut, or finely chopped nuts for decoration
1. Butter a 9-by-13 inch sheet pan with at least a ½-inch edge and line with parchment paper.
2. Sift together ½ cup cornstarch and ½ cup powdered sugar. Use about half this mixture to completely cover sides and bottom of pan. Reserve the remainder.
3. Mix 3 tablespoons gelatin with ⅔ cup hot water in a small bowl. Stir until gelatin dissolves and set aside.
4. Heat about 1 inch of water in the bottom half of a double boiler. In top half of double boiler add egg white, cream of tartar, peppermint extract, sugar and ½ cup cold water (do this with top pan off the heat).
5. Place top pan into bottom pan of double boiler, which contains about 1 inch of hot water, still over heat. Use an electric hand mixer to combine ingredients, starting on low speed until combined, then increasing speed to high. Continue to beat ingredients over medium heat for seven minutes.
6. Remove double boiler from heat. Be sure that pan is on a stable, heat-proof surface, like a cool burner. Slowly add gelatin mixture to egg white mixture, beating with hand mixer starting on low speed, then increasing to high speed. Continue to beat for five minute. Do not worry if mixture gets watery and starts to deflate slightly.
7. Pour marshmallow mixture into 9-by-13-inch pan, dust with reserved powdered sugar-cornstarch mixture until marshmallow mixture is completely covered.
8. Let cool overnight.
9. The next day, cut into shapes using cookie cutters that are approximately 2 inches in diameter.
10. Brush off any excess powdered sugar-corn starch mixture.
11. Place marshmallow shapes on lollipop sticks and set aside.
12. Heat chocolate and canola oil in a double boiler over low heat and stir to combine until chocolate is completely melted.
13. Dip marshmallow pops in chocolate until the top and all sides are covered. Add sprinkles or other topping and let harden on parchment paper-lined sheet pan in refrigerator for approximately 10 minutes. (You can dip the whole pop at once, but it may leave a bit of extra chocolate pooling at the back side of the marshmallow unless you’re really careful to scrape off any excess before placing on tray to dry.)
14. When the chocolate has hardened on the front and sides of the marshmallow pop, coat the back side of the marshmallow with melted chocolate. (It is easiest to spoon about a teaspoon of melted chocolate onto back side of marshmallow pop and spread with the back of the spoon.) Place on parchment paper-lined sheet pan with back side up and return to refrigerator until marshmallow pops are completely cool.
15. Pack marshmallow pops in airtight container for up to one week. They also freeze well.
Top photo: Chocolate-covered peppermint marshmallow pops cool on parchment paper. Credit: Susan Lutz
A Valentine’s Day menu needs to include oysters. First, just because it is tradition. Also, our hero of love, Giacomo Girolamo Casanova de Seingalt (1725-1798), the famous Venetian adventurer whose reputation as a seducer of women was so great his name became synonymous with the art of seduction, says so.
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Casanova wrote in his autobiography that cultivating and pleasing the senses was his main preoccupation. “Ho molto amato anche la buona tavola ed insieme tutte le cose che eccitano la curiosità” (I very much loved a good table and everything that excites the curiosity), he remarked.
Casanova ate 50 oysters every day for breakfast. Several studies show that the amorous benefits of this might not just be an old wives’ tale. Oysters are rich in zinc, which is important for hormone production related to sexual activity. It is important to eat the oysters raw, though, as cooking reduces this aphrodisiacal effect. Casanova also suggested how to serve them: “I placed the shell on the edge of her lips and after a good deal of laughing, she sucked in the oyster, which she held between her lips. I instantly recovered it by placing my lips on hers.”
Here is a delightful little recipe that will tingle both the senses and the expectation. The recipe is for two, of course, because three’s a crowd on Valentine’s Day.
Oysters in Champagne Cream Sauce With Thai Chile
Serves 2 as an appetizer
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 tablespoons finely chopped onion
1 red Thai chile, thinly slivered
4 shucked Pacific oysters with their juice
3 tablespoons Champagne
¼ cup heavy cream
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1. In a small nonstick skillet, melt the butter over high heat and then add the onion and chile and cook, shaking the pan, until translucent, about 1 minute.
2. Add the oysters and their juice, pour in the Champagne and let it evaporate for 30 seconds.
3. Pour in the cream and cook over high heat, shaking the pan and turning the oysters until their edges curl up, about 4 minutes.
4. Remove the oysters to a plate or place back in their shell and continue cooking the liquid until denser and saucy, about 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Pour over the oysters and serve.
Top photo: Oysters on the half shell with a perfect white. Credit: Jon Rowley
Up on a tall peak of the Western Ghats mountain range in India called Sabarimala, a Hindu shrine lures hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from mid- November through the first half of January. The devotees undertake an arduous journey, the final few miles of it barefoot, over a rough and rocky terrain through low-lying fog accompanying a cold season’s chill, to worship at Sabarimala. The temples provide food offerings called neyyappam, made with rice, jaggery (Indian unrefined brown sugar) and cooked in ghee.
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With close to 70 million people making the pilgrimage annually, this is one of the largest in the world. To help make their important offerings, about 4 million neyyappams were sold to pilgrims as Hindu offerings by the end of the first 10 days of the pilgrimage season in 2013.
Sabarimala is one of hundreds of temples all over South India that prepare this sweet dish and several others as offerings. The enshrined deities of the Hindu temples are faithfully fed with formal offerings of food every day. The offerings at temples are always the most excellent food.
The favorite food of the gods
The priests and their helpers prepare them in the temple kitchen. The traditional cooks who prepare them do not follow any written recipes, nor are they trained at any culinary schools. They perfect their art through practice under the watchful eyes of senior priests. But the proof of their culinary skills is in the most delicious prasadam (food that has been offered to God), which devotees receive from the temples.
Those little morsels of prasadam have a very special taste, maybe because visitors receive only a small serving, or maybe because it is the gods’ favorite food. Biting through the dark brown crust, crisped by rice flour and savoring the soft and chewy middle of the neyyappam is sheer delight.
There are no written records of their origin, but sweetened cakes made of grains as Hindu offerings were prevalent since very ancient times in India. Apupa, a prototype of neyyappam, was believed to be a favorite food of the gods and it was offered in various sacrificial ceremonies. In “Food and Drink in Ancient India” Om Prakash writes that apupa possibly was the earliest sweet known in India. Apupa was believed to be a favorite food of the gods and it was offered in various sacrificial ceremonies.
It was made with barley or rice flour cooked in ghee on a low fire and sweetened with honey, and later with sugar cane juice. The cook made apupa assume the shape of a tortoise by cooking it on clay pot with a curved bottom. Even centuries later, the recipe and the method of cooking this ancient dish have remained practically unchanged.
A world of cooking vessels
Neyyappam is traditionally cooked in a bronze pan called appakara, about 8 inches in diameter, with three or more large cavities, giving the dish a tortoise-like shape. Recipes are varied, but sometimes the batter includes a softening agent such as ripe bananas. Sometimes the batter is flavored with coconut, cardamom, sesame seeds, dried ginger or poppy seeds.
Many cuisines use variations on this pan for similar dishes. An ideal substitute for an appakara is the utensil used for making the Danish pancake balls called aebleskiver, the tasty Danish dessert that looks like round puffy pancakes.
The Vikings also originally used damaged shields to cook a similar dish called ebelskivers.
Kevin Crafts, in his cookbook “Ebelskivers,” described: “The invention of ebelskivers is much debated, but one story tells of the Vikings returning very hungry from a fierce battle. With no frying pans on which to cook, they placed their damaged shields over a hot fire and cooked pancakes in the indentations.”
In the absence of these special skillets, neyyappam may be cooked on a griddle or a small skillet.
Makes 12 to 15
1 cup long-grain rice
1 cup jaggery
1 medium-sized ripe banana, peeled and sliced
1 teaspoon cardamom powder (optional)
1 tablespoon thinly sliced coconut pieces (optional)
½ cup ghee, divided
1. Soak the rice in water for two to three hours, and then rinse it in several changes of water until the water runs clear, and drain.
2. In a sauce pan melt the jaggery with ¼ cup of water. Strain through a fine sieve and cool.
3. In a blender, combine the rice, banana, and jaggery with just enough water to grind it into a fine, smooth, thick batter.
4. Stir in the cardamom powder and coconut slices if using. This batter should have the consistency of a thick pancake batter.
5. Heat an aebleskiver pan over medium heat.
6. Pour ½ teaspoon ghee in each cavity of the pan.
7. Pour in the batter, ¾ of the way in each cavity. Pour a ½ teaspoon of ghee on top of each neyyappam and cook over medium heat.
8. When the bottom of the neyyappam is cooked (in a minute or so), turn it over, and cook the other side.
9. When neyyappam turns brown in color, remove from the griddle, and drain on paper towels. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Top photo: Neyyappam prepared in appakara as an offering for the gods in Indian Hindu temples. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran
Sun, Sea & Olives: Pizza is health food? Yes, it is, at least in the Mediterranean, and that doesn’t mean pizza with beans and tofu, either.
Make dough with part whole-wheat flour, keep the toppings simple, don’t overload the cheese, and truly you will have something good to eat, simple to make and totally nourishing. Best of all, in my experience, rare is the child who does not love pizza. Even the pickiest eaters will happily munch on a slice of pizza fresh from the oven.
Incidentally, pizza is also a great way to introduce kids to the pleasure of making their food, especially if you give them a choice of toppings to play around with.
Good pizza starts with good dough
Sun, Sea & Olives
One in an occasional series on the Mediterranean diet.
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Basic pizza dough, according to Neapolitans who know more about it than anyone else, is nothing but flour, water, salt and leavening from dough made the day before — what we call sourdough, though it shouldn’t be sour at all. In the absence of sourdough, I make pizza dough with a very small amount of instant yeast and add a couple of tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil to make it supple.
I make a starter dough a day or so in advance to give it plenty of time to develop flavor. But this recipe works just as well if you make it all at once, just giving it an hour or so to rise. While the dough is rising, you can caramelize a couple of big, fat onions sliced very thin and make a simple tomato sauce.
What else will you need? Olives — black or green or both? Anchovies if you love them (most kids don’t)? Fresh mushrooms to slice and sauté briefly in olive oil? Fresh, ripe tomatoes sliced not too thin? Garlic sliced the same way? Sweet peppers or perhaps a little chili pepper? Thinly sliced sausage or ham? Cooked greens (kale is wonderful on pizza if handled right)? Ricotta or fresh goat’s cheese? Mozzarella (only the finest kind — not that rubbery stuff from the supermarket)? Flaked tuna? And hard cheese — parmigiano is preferable but a well-aged cheddar will do — to grate on top.
The possibilities are endless; just don’t make pizza a catch-all for what’s tucked in the back of the refrigerator. Remember, fresher is better, and simpler is best of all. The most famous pizza in the world is pizza margherita, made with garlic-enhanced tomato sauce, mozzarella and fresh basil, the leaves torn over the top of the hot pizza when it comes from the oven. Red, white and green, the simple colors of the Italian flag.
Makes enough for four 8- to 10-inch pizzas.
2 cups whole-wheat flour
1 teaspoon instant yeast
1½ to 2 cups warm water
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons plus ½ teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon sea salt
1. Combine in a bowl 1 cup of whole-wheat flour with the yeast, then stir in 1 cup warm water. Don’t worry if it’s pretty sloppy. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside in a cool place to rise overnight.
2. The next day (or that evening) add the remaining cup of whole-wheat flour. Set aside ¼ cup of all-purpose flour to use on the board and add the remaining 1¾ cups to the dough along with ½ cup warm water, 2 tablespoons of the extra virgin olive oil and a good big pinch of sea salt. Mix all together, then knead in the bowl.
3. When everything has come together, turn it out on a board lightly floured with the remaining ¼ cup of flour. Knead, gradually incorporating the extra flour, until the dough has lost its stickiness. (If necessary, add a little warm water.)
4. Rinse and dry the bowl and smear the remaining ½ teaspoon of oil around the inside. Turn the ball of dough in the oil to coat on all sides, cover once more with plastic and set aside to rise until doubled — about 1 hour. While the dough is rising, make caramelized onions.
1½ to 2 pounds fresh yellow onions, peeled, halved and sliced
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Combine the sliced onions and olive oil in a deep, heavy sauté pan or skillet. Set over medium-low heat and cook very slowly, stirring frequently, for about 30 minutes, until the onions are thoroughly melted and almost dissolved in the oil.
2. Stir in salt and pepper. You may use the onions as-is on the pizza, but if you want to caramelize them, pulling out more of their natural sweetness, raise the heat to medium and continue cooking and stirring another 15 to 20 minutes, watching constantly to be sure they don’t burn. When the onions are done to your liking, remove from the heat and taste, adjusting the seasoning. While the onions are cooking, make tomato sauce.
Use top-quality canned tomatoes with no added seasonings beyond salt.
2 garlic cloves, sliced very thin
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 (28-ounce) can of whole peeled tomatoes
1 tablespoon minced fresh herbs (flat-leaf parsley, basil, rosemary, thyme)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Combine garlic and oil in a saucepan and set over low heat. Let cook very gently just until the garlic is softened, but do not let it brown.
2. Add the tomatoes with their liquid and raise the heat to medium low. Add in the minced fresh herbs. Simmer while breaking up the whole tomatoes with the side of a spoon as they cook down and the sauce thickens.
3. When the sauce is very thick (after 20 or 30 minutes of simmering), remove from the heat and purée the contents of the pan in a food processor or blender or using a vegetable mill or handheld blender. You should have about 2 cups of sauce. Taste and add salt and pepper.
1. Preheat the oven to 500 F.
2. Punch down the dough, knead it again briefly, then cut into four or five pieces (if you’re using a kitchen scale, each should weigh about 8 ounces).
3. Roll a piece into a ball then, using a rolling pin, roll it out into a disk. Don’t be concerned about rolling a perfect circle — your disk can be oblong or even totally misshapen. The important thing is that the dough should be roughly the same thickness throughout the disk. If you want to be Neapolitan, you can raise a dough edge around the disk, but it’s OK to have it perfectly flat too.
4. Lightly oil a cookie sheet. Stretch the dough on the sheet and dribble a little oil on top. Spoon on the tomato sauce in a thin layer, not trying to cover the dough entirely with sauce. Spread some caramelized onions over the top. Then add other toppings, perhaps dabs of goat cheese, feta or ricotta, maybe a few little cherry tomatoes sliced, or thinly sliced red and green peppers, or some anchovies or squares of bacon or ham. But don’t try to put all of this on top — just experiment with the different pizzas you have available.
5. When the topping is finished, sprinkle some grated cheese over it and dribble on more oil. (Note: If you use cooked kale, spinach or another green vegetable on top, cover the vegetable well with grated cheese and/or oil to keep it from burning in the hot oven.)
6. Slide the sheet into the oven and bake 10 minutes, by which time the dough should be cooked through and everything on top sizzling merrily. Remove, slice and consume immediately.
Top photo: Cooked pizza. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins