Thursday, January 28, 2010

Calzones - An easy dinner

Last night I revisited an old dinner favorite: Calzones. We have all seen the calzones from pizza places that are stuffed with ham, pepperoni, and tons of cheese. But this is a “healthier” version I discovered a few years ago.

Basically, start with pizza dough. Last night I just purchased a ball of dough from my local pizza place but I have also made my own dough too. Roll about 2 ounces of dough out into a small circle. The original recipe included ¼ cup ricotta cheese, 1 ounce of mozzarella and ½ of a chopped tomato, sprinkled with Italian seasoning and oregano. I kicked mine up a notch last night by sautéing some green pepper and red onion then adding it to the calzone. I also added a few slices of pepperoni, that’s my not so healthy addition. When you have finished with your fillings, fold over and press the edges to seal. I usually roll the edges and press down to really make sure they are sealed.

You can add almost anything you want as a filling, just avoid adding anything that has too much liquid, which usually makes the calzone “leak” during cooking. For example don’t add any type of pizza sauce, save that for dipping after the calzone is cooked. For an extra special presentation you can brush the tops of the calzones with an egg wash and sprinkle with parmesan cheese and/herbs before cooking.

Bake the prepared calzones in a 375C oven for 20-25 minutes.

Add a salad and dinner is ready!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Chocolate Chip and Pecan Cookies

And for dessert.....

...some awesome cookies!  Again from the Williams-Sonoma American cookbook.  These are a great balance between crispy and chewy.  Use of ground and chopped pecans give them a great overall flavor.  This will definitely be in my recipe box! 

Now for a difficult I bring them to work to share or keep them all for us?  I don't really need to eat 4 dozen cookies, so I guess I'll share :)

Baking note:  I tried baking half the cookies on baking sheets with silicone mats and the other half on 'air insulated' non stick cookie sheets.  I'm happy to report both cookies cooked the same and were the same darkness.

Beef Tenderloin with Shallot Butter

Another Williams-Sonoma recipe.  The book gives a recipe for steak using a charcoal or gas grill.  We have a tried and true method for searing steaks in a cast iron skillet and finishing in the oven, so I tried the shallot butter.  Basically caramelizing chopped shallot and then mixing with butter.  I've tried herb butter before and they were pretty tasty.  The shallots added a 'grown-up' flavor to the butter and complimented the steak very well.  Would definitely do again as long as I can remember to make it beforehand. 

I added some wild rice and BirdsEye Steam fresh veggies:  Beans with a Twist.  Green and yellow beans with carrots, cranberries and a citrus butter.  You can microwave them in 5 minutes.  Love to have these on hand for a quick side dish.

And of course, a new red wine:  Wine by Joe Pinot Noir.  A perfect match!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Apple Tasting

Have you ever really tasted different types of apples?  I decided to buy a few different kinds and do some tasting.  I bought Cortland, McIntosh, Crispin, Gala, Empire and Red Delicious.  First I cut each apple in half and tasted the apples raw.  If nothing else this is an excellent exercise to realize the differences between apple textures and flavors.

With the remaining half of each apple I made a simple apple tart.  I used a store bought pie crust placed on parchment paper on a baking sheet.  I visually divided the crust into 6 slices and labeled the parchment around the crust so I could keep the the apples straight.  I sliced the remaining half of each apple into 1/4 thick slices and placed in a row down the middle of each "pie slice."  I then sprinkled sugar over the apples and dotted them with small dices of butter and baked in the oven until done.

I was actually surprised at some notable differences between raw and cooked for some of the varieties.  For example the Cortland seemed to have much more flavor when cooked and the Crispin seemed to have less.  The Red Delicious turned mushy while the McIntosh seemed to stay firmer.

This was a fun experiment for a lazy Saturday morning and I will definitely be repeating this fall during apple season!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Baked Macaroni and Cheese with Crumb Topping

This dish is from the Williams-Sonoma American cookbook.

I have always had problems making a roux.  I'm not sure what I have been doing wrong but this time it actually worked!  One of the reasons I think it worked this time was that I used whole milk.  Apparently a roux needs the higher fat content to cook properly?  Or at least I don't know how to adjust for using lower fat milk, but I have heard chefs say you should use whole milk for dishes like macaroni and cheese.  Another reason I think it worked is that I heated the milk to simmering before I added it to the butter/flour mixture.

The mix of extra sharp cheddar cheese and monterey jack was perfect.  The crumb topping added just right amount of crunch.  Would I make it again? Definitely!  The only thing I would do differently is add a little more hot sauce, I think I was too cautious and we could hardly taste it.  Next time I might try the recipe variation which adds mushrooms to the dish.  Yummy!

This dish receives 2 thumbs up.  Now I must go finish my glass of wine...

Williams-Sonoma Cookbooks

Williams-Sonoma has a collection of cookbooks where each book focuses on a different type of food or cuisine.  A few years ago I purchased Mexican, Italian, and French.  They have been great inspiration for my themed menus.  Each book starts with a chapter called "The Classics" which includes recipes that anyone would consider traditional recipes for that food or cuisine.  Then chapters on starters, main courses, soups, veggies, desserts, etc follow.  EVERY recipe shows a beautiful color photograph of the completed recipe, one of the reasons I love this collection.  A few weeks ago I ordered Asian, American, and Hors d'ouevre and was again inspired.

After recently watching the movie Julie and Julia, I liked the idea of trying to cook my way through a cookbook.  But which one?  After receiving Williams-Sonoma American and reading the table of contents I thought... This might be a good book to cook through.  With recipes like Baked Macaroni and Cheese with a Crumb Topping, Blue Plate Meatloaf with Mushroom Pan Gravy, Cream of Tomato Soup, Buffalo Chicken Wings, New England Lobster Dinner, Yankee Baked Beans with Apple Cider, Wild Rice Pilaf with Dried Cranberries and Pistachios, Artichokes with Garlic-Basil Mayonnaise, Baked Acorn Squash with Pineapple-Mustard Glaze, Spiced Apple Pie, and Sour Cherry Pie, how could I go wrong?  All great recipes.  Some of these recipes are simple and some are more complex, and there isn't really a focus on low-fat or anything like that.  But why not learn how to cook some American classics?!

So my goal is to cook at least one recipe from this cookbook each week.  I won't be able to post the full recipes here due to copyrights but I'll share with you how they turn out and what I learn along the way.

Monday, January 11, 2010

SpongeBob SquarePants

This was my first character cake. The pan is shaped to the design and includes detailed directions how to decorate. I have had this pan for a few months now and just didn’t have the time to try it. A friend’s birthday is coming up and I know she’s a fan of SpongeBob so I decided to give it a try.

First of all, the directions say a 2-layer cake mix. This drives me nuts because all cake mixes don’t produce the same amount of batter and I have yet to find a cake mix that says '2-layer mix' specifically. What if I was making a cake from scratch? Why can’t they just tell me how many cups of batter? So I made up 2 cake mixes and figured I’d use any left over for a few cupcakes. It definitely needed more than the 4-6 cups of batter from one mix. I guesstimated and ended up pretty good, no overflows in the oven and there was just enough hump to trim off/level. Plus I got 8 cupcakes. It was only as I was placing the cake into the oven that I said, “Pineapple! I should have made a pineapple cake!”

I used Cake Release and made sure I coated all the nooks and crannies of the pan very well. I was very happy with the way the cake released and all of the features transferred from the pan to the cake.

After baking and cooling for 10 minutes they instruct you to trim the cake level while it is still in the pan. My only concern about this was the cake drying out but I think it turned out OK. If I left the hump and flipped the cake over to cool it would probably crack.

When the cake was completely cooled, I made the required 6 cups of frosting, prepped all my parchment bags for the frostings and prepped the cake board for the cake to sit on. At 6:30 pm I started mixing the colors into my frosting. 1/4c blue, 3/4c yellow, 1/2c brown, etc. OK, let’s start decorating…cover the sides with white (very difficult to do smoothly on a not so flat surface), fill in the sponge holes with green, outline the head with green, outline the body with black. I will admit at this point I’m thinking…this isn’t looking very good. OK, fill in the head with yellow stars. This seems to take forever! If I am ever going to do a character cake again I need a tip with three stars on it instead of one! But it is finally coming together and I push through the pain. The smaller areas seem to go much quicker and the details really finish it off. Definitely turned out better than I thought it would about 2 1/2 hours earlier!

Happy Birthday Erika!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Who wouldn't want a KIT KAT cake?

This is another one of those cakes that ANYONE can make. No special cake decorating skills required!

It starts with a plain round cake. I made a chocolate cake with chocolate buttercream filling, because that’s what was requested. Of all the cakes I have made for males, young and old, they always request chocolate! Hmmm, I thought women were supposed to be the chocoholics? But I digress….chocolate cake with buttercream filling. I then frosted the top and sides of the cake with chocolate buttercream as well. Next, open up about 100 packs of KIT KAT candy bars and start placing them on the sides of the cake. The buttercream will act as a “glue” so make sure it is not too thin. Honestly, I think I used 6 or 7 packages. I broke the bars into groups of 2, so they would conform to the round sides better.

The blue ribbon was added for some color to the cake. I used a small piece of double stick tape where the ribbon overlapped on the back of the cake to make it snug. I’m sure you could use a longer piece of ribbon and tie a bow, but I thought the colors/stripes were fitting for a man.

My cake was slightly taller than the KIT KATs so I could add the happy birthday message and I added the border at the top for some more color. I have also seen this cake done with the top of the cake slightly shorter than the KIT KATs and then the top was filled with M&Ms. I’m not sure about the ease of cutting a cake filled with M&M’s but it sure makes for a great presentation!

Now doesn’t that sound easy?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Pattern Transfer Cake

I began taking the Wilton cake decorating classes at Michael’s in December of 2008, which means I have been decorating cakes for about a year now. This is the first cake I made during Course 1.

I baked and frosted the cake at home and brought to class to learn how to do a pattern transfer. I still have problems getting the butter cream frosting smooth but I think I have definitely improved over my first cake! Because I didn’t want to do the standard rainbow with clouds, I decided on a different pattern before class. Pattern transfers are easy and coloring books make great patterns for transferring onto a cake.

 How to do it
  1. Decide on a pattern that fits the cake. Use a copier to shrink or enlarge your image.
  2. Draw or trace the image onto parchment or wax paper.
  3. Prepare your cake with a smooth frosting finish. Meringue powder in the recipe helps the frosting to “crust” and chilling the cake will help keep the frosting firm.
  4. Trace the pattern on the reverse side of the parchment paper with a thin line of piping gel or frosting. Tip 1 or 2 works best, or you can buy the piping gel already in tubes. (You will be tracing the reverse image of your design) Use a color that you will easily be able to see on the frosted cake.
  5. Carefully place the paper, with piping gel side down, on the cake.
  6. Trace the lines with a small brush to make sure the gel transfers to the frosting surface, careful not to smear the lines together.
  7. Carefully remove the paper. If you have used parchment, and your frosting is chilled and/or crusted, it should not stick.
  8. You now have an outline of your image that you can trace and/or fill in as you desire. Stars are the technique most commonly used to “fill in” a design.
For this cake I used a white piping gel (it comes in many colors and also clear). After I applied the pattern I outlined it with black butter cream, just outside the white to “hide” it. As you can see my pattern was fairly simple but I didn’t have to try to do free hand circles and rectangles. And the placement of the design was figured out in advance. My Wednesday night card group thought it was great. They asked how I managed to get such nice circles and straight lines…I guess the secret is out now!

Depending on your design you could also use cookie cutters to imprint a design in your frosting and trace or fill in as desired.

Wouldn’t it be great to draw your child’s favorite cartoon character on their plain rectangular sheet cake?

 Give it a try; it’s a lot easier than you think!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Happy 50th!

This cake was created for a co-worker's 50th birthday!  It is a 12" round cake on the bottom.  Four layers of white cake, two layers of strawberry jam filling and one layer of vanilla buttercream filling.  The top tier is an 8" round cake.  Four layers of strawberry cake with three layers of vanilla buttercream filling.  The entire cake was frosted with vanilla buttercream frosting. 

It is difficult to get a true black frosting without using A LOT of black coloring, even if you start with chocolate frosting, and then it just doesn't taste very good.  I know someone always wants to eat the buttercream roses so my plan was to make white roses and spray them with a black color mist.  That didn't work out so good.  The color came out purple and did NOT look appetizing at all.  So a late night trip to Wal-Mart was is order.  I purchased 3 black fabric roses for the top of the cake.  I decided to use black ribbon as a border on the bottom of each cake.

The topper was purchased at a party store. 

Happy 50th Birthday Svetlana!

I think without the topper the design would be pretty for a black and white theme wedding, don't you?

Friday, January 1, 2010

New Year's Eve 8 Course Dinner

Last night Doug and I attended a friend's New Year's Eve party at which they serve an 8 course meal.  This was our third year attending.  There are two guys (Jamie and Fletch) who plan and cook, and they have a group of friends who help them serve the meal. It started out at Jamie's house but has grown so much in size (and mess I'm sure) that they started renting a hall last year.  This year there were about 75 guests. They do charge a small fee per person, which is totally worth it and as usual, the meal was excellent. Here’s what we had….

1st course: Appetizer plate with shrimp scampi, prosciutto wrapped cantaloupe and a pot sticker
2nd course: Creamy tomato basil soup
3rd course: Tribecca salad
4th course: Stuffed shells with a pesto and tomato sauce
5th course: Seafood – lobster tail, mussel, clam and crawfish
6th course: Cherry-cranberry sorbet
7th course: Prime rib, baked potato and green beans
8th course: Red wine poached pears stuffed with mascarpone cheese

There was live music and a DJ for dancing after dinner, and a champagne toast at midnight.

I am always inspired after this party. One of these days I will serve an 8 course meal. The only problem is figuring out how to prepare and serve it AND be able to sit with my guests and enjoy it.

Happy New Year Everyone!