ALMOND PUDDINGS WITH BOURBON CHERRIES & WHIPPED CREAM

Sometimes you do something you are really, truly, genuinely proud of.  You want to do it, and then you do, and it turns out pretty much exactly as you had hoped.  And then you are unabashedly (or probably a tiny bit abashed, because you’re not super-great at taking compliments, even from yourself ) proud.

For example: I had this idea for a pudding, a cold, creamy, almond-flavored pudding topped with bourbon-y cherries and whipped cream.  I honestly have no idea where this idea came from, given that up until I made these, I have loathed, disdained, and completely eschewed puddings and all things pudding-esque in texture for my whole life.  But during my bout with bronchitis at the end of the school year, I found myself dreaming about the foods I would cook when I felt like eating again, and this was one of them.

Now, a pudding might not seem much to get all self-congratulatory over, except for two things: one, it turned out exactly how I had imagined, the flavors, textures, and temperatures all combining for a rich but not heavy dessert.  Two, the fact that these puddings turned out is for me a sign that I’ve reached a goal.

There are things I have wanted to do, very badly, without really knowing how to do them, or if I would be capable of doing them when it came right down to it.  I’m certain that you, reading this, know what I mean, though I don’t know what those things might have been for you.

Some of my goals have been more intense (deliver the eulogy at my father’s funeral in a way that would dignify him, care-take Jill without making her cancer about me) than others (shave my head just to see what it would be like, become the kind of person people refer to as “refreshingly honest”).  Some I’ve yet to accomplish (publish a book, become fluent in Hindi).

But one constant goal, somewhere on the middle of the spectrum between serious and silly, has been to improve my cooking skills.  Early in my cooking career, I set my sights on the idea of being someone who can take whatever was in the house and throw together dinner; I do that regularly now, with fun and ease.  I am a much more efficient cook (and a much more efficient cleaner of the messes I make, something I know Jill appreciates)—I have a repertoire of dishes, but I also feel confident enough to improvise, something that would have terrified me a few years ago.

Recently, I have been focusing on the idea of flavor combinations and expanding my knowledge of ingredients and techniques.  I want to be able to build a dish in my mind, imagining the component parts and steps that will be necessary, and then build that dish in my kitchen, perhaps with some trial and error, but ultimately have it turn out.  So that’s why I’m so excited about this damn pudding.

I still have a long, long way to go—so much I do not know about food, or what to do with it.  My butchering skills need work, and I’m a total stranger to the grill.  But I hope, in time and with practice, I’ll be able to one day say—“I wanted to do that, and now I have.”

ALMOND PUDDINGS WITH BOURBON CHERRIES & WHIPPED CREAM

Please note: the puddings need to chill for about four hours before you can eat them.  I know, I know, I know, but it’s worth the wait.  Plan accordingly!

You could also keep them overnight, and maybe longer than that, but in my house, they did not last.

for the puddings:

½ cup almonds
2/3 cup sugar, divided
2 T water
2 cups whole milk
2 egg yolks
2 T cornstarch
2 T unsalted butter
2 tsp. almond extract
1 tsp. vanilla extract
pinch salt

special equipment: 6 ramekins (you could also use mugs or small glass bowls)

Grind the almonds and half the sugar (1/3 cup) until the nuts resemble wet sand.  Add the water and blend until mostly smooth.  Turn the almond paste into a medium-sized, thick-bottomed saucepan and add the milk.  Whisk together and heat the mixture over medium heat until hot to the touch.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the remaining sugar, egg yolks, cornstarch, & salt until it’s smooth.  Pour in half of the hot milk mixture, whisking to combine.  Add the remaining half of the hot milk to the egg yolk bowl, whisking until completely incorporated.

Pour the whole thing back into the saucepan, and heat again over medium until it’s thick and bubbling.  Stir constantly with a whisk or spatula.  Boil for just a minute, until the mixture has thickened to a gloppy consistency.  (I know that sounds gross, but it’s going to be very tasty, don’t worry).

Remove the saucepan from the stove and stir in the butter and extracts until the butter has completely melted.  At this point, I passed the pudding mixture through a mesh sieve before spooning it into the ramekins; I wanted a smooth texture, but you might not.

Cover the ramekins with plastic wrap, making sure the plastic touches the pudding directly, preventing it from forming a thick skin.  Refrigerate until cold and set, about 4-5 hours.

for the bourbon cherries:

a dozen sweet red cherries, pitted & halved
3 T butter
2 T brown sugar
bourbon! (yes, it deserves an exclamation mark)

Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium low until it’s foamy.  Add the cherries and sauté until they become soft and a bit darker in color.  Stir in the brown sugar, letting it caramelize a bit before deglazing the pan with a generous hit of bourbon.  Turn the heat to low and let everything cook together for a few minutes, at which point you should have boozy cherries and a simple, burgundy-colored sauce.

to serve:

Mound some homemade whipped cream over each pudding.  Top with a few bourbon cherries and, if you like, some chopped, toasted almonds.

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ALMOND-ORANGE TEA CAKES

I’d like to make an exhortation, if you’ll indulge me.

Go have the conversation nobody wants to have; talk to the people in your life about how you do and do not want to die.  Get them to do the same for you.  Be clear, even if it’s painful.  Put it in writing and get that writing notarized.  Make sure everyone knows where the papers are.  Please.  Do it right now.

These things are hard to think about, or talk about, or plan for.  But I speak from experience when I say that they are among the greatest gifts you can give your family, even as you vehemently hope they will never have to use them.  Because four years ago, I did.

I miss my dad; I don’t think that’s ever going away.  But I also know that my mother and I were able to make the medical decisions that he would have wanted us to make.  We did not have to guess, or wonder.  And while there is much else painful about the way I lost my dad, that certainty is a clear patch of bright relief.

So there you have it—the only piece of advice I’ll ever dispense on this blog.  It is what seemed right, more than anything else, on this day.

Subhash Chander Mehra
April 27, 1942 – July 22, 2006


ALMOND ORANGE TEA CAKES

adapted from a recipe I clipped from Martha Stewart Living years ago

This may have been my dad’s favorite thing that I make.  These little cakes are decadent (hello butter!), a little fussy (you can omit the candied orange peel, but I wouldn’t), and go perfectly with a cup of tea, all qualities my dad valued.

1 2/3 cup powdered sugar, plus more for garnish
1 cup almonds, toasted
¾ cup unsalted butter, melted
½ cup flour
6 egg whites, slightly beaten
zest of 2 oranges, chopped fine
1 T orange blossom water, also called orange flower water (optional)
¼ tsp. salt

oven: 450˚
pans: mini loaf pans or ramekins, buttered & stored in the freezer

Grind the almonds to a near-paste in the food processor.  Turn out into a large bowl, then stir in powdered sugar, flour, salt, & zest.  Whisk in egg whites, then slowly stir in the melted butter and orange blossom water (if using).

Pour batter into pans, then place on a baking sheet for easy transfer.  Bake until the dough just begins to rise, about ten minutes.  Reduce the oven to 400˚ and continue to bake another 8-10 minutes or until the cakes brown.  Turn the oven off but leave the cakes in for another 10 minutes.  (I know this seems like a crazy method, but it works. Trust me.)

Cool the cakes on a rack, then turn out and serve warm or at room temperature, with a dusting of powdered sugar and/or strips of candied orange peel (recipe follows).

CANDIED ORANGE PEEL

zest of 3-4 oranges
sugar
water

Cover the zest with water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil.  Once boiling, drain the zest in a colander and repeat the boiling process.  Do this a total of three times, to remove the bitterness from the pith.

Rise out the saucepan, then add 1 ½ cups of water and 1 cup of sugar.  Bring to a boil, letting the sugar dissolve to make a simple syrup.  Add the zest and let the strips of orange simmer in the syrup until they become translucent.

Cool, then store the zest in the fridge, with or without the syrup.  I like to use the latter in cocktails, especially margaritas or Cosmopolitans.

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LAHMAJUN

Jill is the world traveler in our family.  Given the nature of her work, she finds herself among the air-mile elite, logging thousands of miles a year for book tours, speaking engagements, and a few times at the behest of Her Majesty Queen Rania of Jordan.  She has been four times to Turkey, to Israel, Jordan, & Egypt, and all over Europe—at the moment, as the scholar-in-residence on a group trip to Macedonia & Croatia.

There are things I don’t love about the frequency of her travel.  Our dog, Dolly, who is convinced that Jill is God & I am God’s secondary consort who will do if God is not around, pouts from the moment she sees Jill pack a suitcase to the moment Jill walks back through the front door.  Selfishly speaking, it’s inconvenient to go from a two-person household to a one-person.  I enjoy my alone time, but I hate doing all of the dishes, all of the cooking, all of the chores, all of the dog-attending.  And I miss Jill.  She is my favorite person to spend time with, my beloved, my sounding-board.  I feel a bit thrown when she’s away; I worry.

At the same time, I wouldn’t put a stop to her travel even if I could.  When I signed up to live my life with Jill, I did so with the understanding that it’s my job to broaden her, to cheerlead the pursuits to which she is so clearly suited, to celebrate the work about which she is so passionate.  To push her to be her biggest and most expansive self.  And that she would, as she so gracefully does, do the same for me.

Of course, there are tremendous benefits to Jill’s travel.  Frequent flier miles, a thousand stories and hundreds of photographs, and the sense of having contributed to the growth and expansion of all those whom she meets and inspires on her travels.  Not to mention—exposure to all kinds of food.  Jill has been lucky to eat at some incredibly drool-worthy places, from river cruises on the Nile to the humble kitchens of local hosts and hostesses, who generously treat her to sumptuous home-cooked meals.

Now Jill loves food, but she’s not obsessed with it the way I am.  She has, though, in one of those non-ostentatious but incredibly meaningful displays of affection, altered her travel habits to include regular pictures of and notes on the food she eats.  And she’s learned that the presents that thrill me most—like this Scandinavian honey—are food related.  (I’m still hording the homemade, mystery fruit preserves from her last trip to Jordan and a tiny bottle of mystery liquor from Latvia.)

We’ve also, as a family, adopted many of the tastes and preferences she brings back with her from various countries.  It pushes us to seek out restaurants, grocery stores, & home cooks here in Houston with whose help we can attempt to replicate the good stuff she has eaten, allowing me to taste along with her.  Lahmajun, a classic Turkish dish, is one of our favorites and I am proud to say that Jill declared my version “just as good” as the best ones she had eaten abroad.

LAHMAJUN

These make for a perfect weekend lunch or light dinner, especially when served with a green salad and cold, pale beer or white wine.  A bit labor intensive but well worth it—these flew off the serving platter on blog-recipe-test day!

Many recipes for lahmajun topping will call for the addition of pomegranate molasses or syrup, which you can pick up at most Middle Eastern grocery stores.  I didn’t have any on hand that day, so I substituted preserved lemon to add a similar tart edge to the dish.

dough:

1 cup bread flour (substitute all-purpose if need be, but bread flour truly does yield better results)
½ cup all-purpose flour
½ cup warm water
1 T olive oil
1 tsp. yeast
pinch of sugar
pinch of salt

Sprinkle the yeast & sugar over the warm water and leave five minutes.  If the yeast hasn’t bloomed, throw it out and start over.  If not, add the flours & oil and knead by hand or with the dough hook on a mixer.  Knead until dough is smooth and elastic.

Leave the dough to rise in an oiled bowl, covered with a cloth or plastic warp, for about an hour.  Place the dough in a warm place to help it double in size.

topping:

1 lb. ground lamb (substitute: ground beef or turkey)
½ onion, chopped
3 gloves garlic, minced
¼ cup flat-leaf parsley, chopped
¼ cup pine nuts, toasted
1 preserved lemon, minced (substitute: juice + zest of 1 regular lemon)
2 tsp. allspice
1 tsp. harissa paste (optional)
1 tsp. salt

Sauté the onion & garlic in a little olive oil.  When they become translucent, add the lamb and cook until it browns.  Remove from heat, stir in the remaining ingredients.

to assemble:

extra parsley, chopped
3 T melted butter

oven: 425˚

Once the dough has risen, punch it back down and divide into eight pieces.  A bench scraper is very handy for this step; just keep halving the dough until you get to eight.  You can also use a kitchen scale if you are a fanatic for equal-sized pieces of dough.  I’m not.

There are two ways to bake the lahmajun—all at once, on baking sheets or one at a time, on a pizza stone.  I used the latter method because it seems more authentic and because I like the crisp edges it achieves.  However, if you need all of your lahmajun to be ready at once, just assemble them all, move them carefully to greased baking sheets, and bake for 10-12 minutes, rotating the sheets halfway through.

If you plan to make them in succession, though, I suggest waiting to roll each piece of dough until you’re ready to top it & put it in the oven—it is likely to dry out otherwise.  Keeping the dough pieces covered with a damp cloth will help as well.

Roll each piece of dough into a rough circle.  Top with about a quarter-cup of the lamb mixture, spreading out evenly but leaving a half-inch border of plain dough.  Brush the border with melted butter.

Use a large spatula to transfer directly to a well-preheated pizza stone and cook for 8-10 minutes or until the edges become nice and brown.  Remove from oven and garnish with extra parsley.  Enjoy when warm.

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SCALLOPS WITH CREAM & BASIL

I wanted something a little bit decadent, for celebration purposes.

You might, like me, be constantly setting aside recipes to try “at some point,” bookmarking blogs and clipping features from the paper, folding down the corners of magazines and dotting the edges of your cookbooks with those handy little sticky flags.  Even cooking as much as I do, all of those recipe ideas start to pile up and threaten to overwhelm.  Because, let’s face it, most of the time, we come home to cook and are tired, hungry, and working with whatever ingredients we have on hand.  We cook from the hip, or rely on tried-and-true standby recipes we practically know by heart.

I think that’s why it feels like such decadence, such a giddy experiment, to go to the store and buy ingredients specifically to cook a particular dish.  Especially if you are cooking with something for the first time, as was the case for me with scallops.

Scallops are a favorite of photographer Sonya, but I had always assumed they were a “fussy” ingredient best left to the professionals.  Turns out that isn’t at all the case; this dish came together in about twenty minutes but tasted incredibly decadent and restaurant-worthy.

And what are we celebrating?  Why the new, improved, shmancy-pants Blue Jean Gourmet, of course!  Website changes have been in the works for a couple of months now, but I tried to keep them a secret because there’s nothing that drives me crazy more than someone announcing “Big changes coming soon!  Stay tuned!”  Much more satisfying to just be able to SHOW you the big changes, no?

We’re still working out some kinks, which is kinda how these things go, so your patience, comments, and suggestions are all very much appreciated.  Please update any bookmarks or links—we are now, officially, www.bluejeangourmet.com

Heartiest thanks to all those who helped with this process: my friend Jason Prater, who created my beautiful logo, Gus Tello & Melanie Campbell-Tello, who dreamed up this beautiful design, & their CSS ninja Zane, who brought it all to life.

I think the new look will take some getting used to, like looking at pictures of yourself from a wedding or fancy event.  “Who is that person?”  It feels a little bit like that…my little blog, all dressed up.

SCALLOPS WITH CREAM AND BASIL

If your mom is a seafood lover, you might want to bookmark this one for Mother’s Day.  We served the scallops with crusty bread, but they could easily go over pasta, rice, or Israeli couscous.  A lovely Farmers Market salad on the side would complete things nicely.

ingredients :

8-12 sea scallops, dried well with a paper towel
¾ cup heavy cream
½ cup dry white wine
¼ cup chopped shallots (substitute red onion)
1 large garlic clove, sliced thinly
big handful of fresh basil leaves, cut into a chiffonade
a pinch of dried red chili flakes
salt & pepper

Melt 4 T of the butter in a skillet over medium-high heat.  (Don’t use nonstick, or the scallops won’t brown.)  Sprinkle the scallops with salt & pepper.  After the butter foams, add the scallops.  Brown the scallops on both sides, adjusting the heat as necessary.  The goal here is a nice crust on both sides of the scallops—don’t worry about cooking them all the way through.

Remove the scallops from the pan & set aside.  Turn down the heat & add the last 2 tablespoons of butter to the pan.  Add the shallots, garlic, & red pepper flakes.  Cook over medium-low heat for a few minutes, until the shallots soften.

Add the wine and raise the heat so that the mixture will bubble and reduce down by half.  Add heavy cream and again, reduce the sauce.  When the liquid is nice and thick, return the scallops, with any accumulated juices, to the pan.

Cook for a minute or two more, stirring in half of the basil, until the scallops are firm.  Taste and add salt & pepper if necessary.   Serve the scallops with sauce, garnishing with the remaining basil.

GUEST POST: CHALLAH

Jessie’s back!  And today she’s sharing a recipe for challah, a bread I had wanted to make from scratch ever since starting my Jewish day school job over three years ago.  Of course, I was hella-intimidated and never attempted my own until last weekend.  Though my challah did not turn out as beautiful as I’m sure Jessie’s professional loaves do, it still tasted incredible slathered with butter and/or jam.  And man, was I proud.  Earning that HinJew status!


Instead of making two loaves, I made one loaf plus a set of wee hamburger buns.  Not to be too self-congratulatory, but *that* was a very good idea (burger recipe coming next week).  Should you wish to make two loaves, Jessie has kindly provided a killer dessert recipe to use up your leftover bread; challah that’s a few days old also makes for great French toast.

I’d like to thank Jessie again for the time and energy she devoted to make baking bread seem less intimidating.  If you plan to spend some time at home this weekend, might I suggest tackling one of these recipes & then basking in the satisfaction/carbohydrate aftermath?

CHALLAH
adapted from Better Homes and Gardens Holiday Baking 2008 issue.

Challah is an enriched bread, which means that in addition to the usual ingredients, it’s made with eggs, butter, and honey (my first chance to use the little jar of Norwegian honey that Jill brought me from her Scandinavian travels!).

Challah is a traditional Jewish bread and is most easily recognized by its braided form–Jessie includes instructions here for the proper braiding technique, but I have to admit that I copped out and did a three-strand braid, which worked just fine.  If you are a badass and manage a four-strander, I salute you.

ingredients:

¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons warm water (105°F-115°F)
¼ cup honey
1 package active dry yeast
2 eggs, lightly beaten
¼ cup butter, melted and cooled
½ tablespoon salt
4-4 ½ cups all purpose flour
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon water

In a large bowl, combine the ¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons warm water, honey, and yeast.  Let stand about 10 minutes or until the yeast is dissolved and foamy.  *If you do not see foam or bubbles, the yeast is dead and the process must be repeated.*

Using a wooden spoon, stir in the 2 eggs, melted butter, and salt.  Gradually stir in as much of the flour as you can.Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface.  Knead in enough of the remaining flour to make a moderately soft dough that is smooth and elastic (5 to 7 minutes total).

Shape the dough into a ball.  Place in a lightly greased bowl, turning once to grease the entire surface.  Cover and let rise in a warm place until double in size, 1 to 1 ½ hours.Punch the dough down (literally).  Turn out onto a lightly floured surface.  Cover with a clean kitchen towel and let rest for 10 minutes.

To shape the loaves, divide dough in half.  Working with one half a time and keeping the other half under the towel, divide the dough into 4 equal portions.  Roll each piece into a rope about 12-15 inches long.   Attach the ends of two pieces together to make one long rope.  Attach the ends of the other two pieces together to make another long rope.  Forming a cross, fuse all of the attached ends together.  Be sure there is one piece pointing towards you and one pointing away from you, one piece pointing to your right, and one pointing to your left.

The mantra of this folding technique is left over right….left over right….left over right.  Repeat that to yourself a few times before starting.  During the braiding process, if the ends at the top of the braid start to come undone, pinch those together tightly.

Step 1:  Hold the two horizontal pieces in your hands, the right piece in your right hand and the left piece in your left.  Moving the two horizontal pieces to the opposite sides that they are currently on, cross the two pieces you are holding over the strand pointing towards you, being sure the piece in your left hand crosses OVER the piece in your right.  Your left hand should literally cross over your right hand.  Lay the two folded pieces horizontally.

Step 2:  Now for the vertical pieces–Grasp the top piece in your right hand and the bottom piece in your left hand.  Moving these two vertical pieces to the opposite sides that they are currently on, cross these two pieces over the piece pointing to your right (it should cross naturally this way), moving the piece in your left hand OVER the piece in your right.  The piece that was pointing away from you should now be pointing towards you, and the piece that was pointing towards you should now be pointing away from you.

Repeat step 1, followed by step 2, until the ends are too small to be braided.  Pinch the remaining ends together and remove off a small chunk from both ends to make them less pointy.  Braid the other portion of dough.

Place the braided loaves diagonally onto lightly greased or parchment lined sheet trays.  Cover and let rest in a warm place until nearly double in size (about 30 minutes).  Preheat the oven to 350°F.

In a small bowl, combine the remaining lightly beaten egg and 1 tablespoon of water to make an egg wash.  Using a pastry brush or spoon, brush each loaf evenly and completely with the egg wash.  Bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until loaves sound hollow when lightly tapped and are a shiny, deep golden brown.  Immediately transfer the loaves from the sheet trays to wire racks to cool.

CREME BRULEE BREAD PUDDING
adapted from Butter, Sugar, Flour, Eggs by Gale Gand

ingredients:

½ a loaf of day old challah bread
2 cups half-and-half
2 cups heavy cream
Pinch of salt
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
6 eggs
1 cup granulated sugar
Sugar in the raw (for caramelizing the top)

oven:  350°
pan: 6 ramekins or a deep baking dish, well buttered

Cut the crust off the bread and dice into one inch cubes.  You should have about 3 ½ cups of bread.

Heat the half-and-half, heavy cream, salt, and vanilla in a saucepot over medium heat, stirring occasionally.  When the mixture starts to come to a simmer (do not boil), turn off the heat and allow to infuse for 10 to 15 minutes.

Whisk the eggs and sugar together in a large mixing bowl.  Whisking constantly, slowly pour the hot cream mixture into the eggs.  Do not pour too fast, otherwise the eggs will scramble.  Strain into a large bowl to remove any cooked egg and the vanilla bean.

At this point, feel free to include any desired add-ins to the custard: dried fruit, nuts, chocolate chips, coconut, etc. Then add the bread cubes to the bowl, toss well, and let them soak in the egg-milk mixture until it’s all absorbed.  Fold the mixture occasionally to ensure even soaking (it’s okay if there’s custard left in the bowl).

Divide the cubes among the ramekins or dump it all into the baking dish and pour any remaining custard over the top.  Arrange the ramekins or baking dish in a roasting pan & create a water bath by pouring boiling water into the pan until it comes halfway up the sides of the custard cups or baking dish.  (I like to do this while the pan is on the rack in the oven, which I’ve pulled out slightly).

Bake until set and golden brown on top, about 30 minutes for individual puddings and 40 to 45 minutes for one big pudding.  Allow to cool before serving.  You can make this dish ahead of time, cover & chill in the refrigerator.

Right before you serve the pudding, sprinkle the top evenly with the sugar in the raw.  If you happen to have a kitchen torch, caramelize the sugar on top.  Otherwise, set the broiler to high and put the pudding(s) on a rack as close to the heating element as you can.  Keep a close eye on the pudding(s) and rotate them as necessary as certain parts will caramelize more quickly than others.  Remove from the oven and serve.

For a quick sauce, combine confectioners’ sugar with any liquid.  I use anything from milk to fruit juice to alcohol or even coffee syrups.  Start with a cup of confectioners’ sugar and slowly add my liquid of choice until the sauce is to the desired consistency.  If you make it too soupy, add more sugar.  Ladle over slices of the bread pudding; you can also garnish with fresh fruit or nuts.

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CINNAMON ROLLS

You, like Jill, may be one of those people who is mystified by my love for this:

Yes, that’s right, I am a Von Trapper, a girl who counts Christopher Plummer among her first crushes, who knows every word to every song and squeals unabashedly when the camera first opens onto the Viennese countryside.

I can’t rightly say how many times I have seen “The Sound of Music,” but I do know that every time I go back to it, I discover something new.  Like the first time I was old enough to understand that my beloved Captain Von Trapp wasn’t just a handsome military widower who could sing and dance BUT ALSO a radical who resisted the Anschluss and stood behind his political convictions.

Or the first time I realized I had outgrown any affection for the cheesy gazebo scene (“sixteen going on seventeen”) between Liesl and Rolf in favor of the cheesy gazebo scene (“must have done something good”) between Maria and the Captain.  Or this most recent encounter, in which I decided that there was maybe something to this “favorite things” business after all.

Cream colored ponies and crisp apple strudels
Doorbells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles
Wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings
These are a few of my favorite things

Or my version:

Babies with Afros and top-shelf margaritas
Rothko and Rilke and freshly-made pitas
Baristas who flirt with a glint in their eyes
These are the things that help me get by

So I’m not meant to be a songwriter–the sentiment still holds. Perhaps it’s ridiculous, but I think that conjuring up the memory or thought of things you like best can actually be rather useful.  Or you can actually conjure up some cinnamon rolls in real life.

Your favorites?

CINNAMON ROLLS

Cinnamon rolls from scratch do not a quick breakfast make.  Patience, grasshopper.  They are SO worth it.

For the dough:

1 package yeast
¼ cup warmer-than-your-finger water

Pour the water into a large bowl, then sprinkle the yeast on top with a pinch of sugar.  Let it stand for a few minutes—if it doesn’t foam, try, try again.

Now you’ll need these things:

¼ cup whole milk
2 T butter

Microwave them together for 30 seconds or until the butter is melting and it’s all warm (but not hot).  Toss the warm dairy into the bowl with the yeast, then add the following:

3 ½-4 cups all-purpose flour, added 1 cup at a time
¼ cup sugar
½ tsp. salt

I like to hand-mix but you can use a dough hook.  Knead until springy but still soft (you may not use all of the flour).  Don’t over-knead; you want a dough that’s loosely hanging together.

Butter the bowl you were just using & let the dough rise there for at least 1 hour, or until doubled in size (may take 1 ½ hours).

For the filling:

1 cup butter, completely softened
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 cup chopped pecans
1 ½ T cinnamon

Whip all of the filling ingredients together with a fork or spoon until fluffy.  Roll the dough out into a large rectangle about ¼-inch thick.  Spread the filling gently atop the dough, going out to the edges on all but one of the long sides.  Leave a ½-inch border along that final edge so you have something to seal the roll with.

Roll the dough up into a log, starting with the edge opposite the border.  When you get to the border, wet the dough a bit, then pull it up and over the log and press down to seal.

Line a jellyroll or spring form pan with parchment (cleanup is a nightmare if you skip this step, trust me).  Using a serrated knife, cut the dough log into inch-thick rolls, placing them swirl side up in the pan.  Don’t space them too closely together, as they will expand.  Cover the pan with a damp towel and let the dough puff up again, about 30-45 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 325˚.  Bake the cinnamon rolls for 20-25 minutes or until golden brown.

While they’re baking, whip up a simple icing: a whole lot of powdered sugar thinned with a little bit of liquid.  You can use just plain milk or milk  + some kind of flavoring (orange juice, vanilla, almond extract, etc.)

Once the rolls have cooled slightly, drizzle them generously with the icing.

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THE FOOD OF MY PEOPLE: LAMB KOFTA

One of the hardest things about losing my dad is that there are just so many things I’d like to cook for him.

After a certain passage of time, the distinguishable presence of a loved one begins to fade—the distinct quality of their voice, the shape of their face in three dimensions, the particular quirks and habits.  It becomes more difficult to guess what they might have said in a particular situation, how they would react to a comment or a joke, what books you might recommend to them now, or what movies you would take them to.  I find it terrifying, in fact, the way passage of time seems to make it increasingly difficult for me to conjure up my father the way he was, the way he might be now.

Difficult, too, because the more time that goes by, the more different I am, perhaps unrecognizable to him.  My dad died before I earned a Masters degree, before I got my first full-time job, before I bought myself a car and did my own taxes and grew my hair out long and then cut it again.

I hate that he has missed all of this, and I have missed him in it.  I have wondered, doubted, that I might be forgetting him, losing him.

But the one place I still feel certain of him is in the kitchen.  I know, instinctively, the dishes he would want, the moment he would sneak a warm treat from the oven, the recipes that would dazzle him and make him proud.  This is one of them.

LAMB KOFTA

These lamb meatballs are rich, satisfying, and incredibly flavorful.  They also freeze well, so feel free to make a big batch!

meatballs:

1 lb. ground lamb
½ basin (chickpea flour)
½ cup crumbled paneer*
¼ cup cilantro, roughly chopped
½ onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 T garam masala
2 tsp. ground coriander
2 tsp. cumin
½ tsp. red mirchi (pepper)

Sauté the onion & garlic in a bit of vegetable oil until soft.  Once they cool, toss them into a big bowl with the rest of the meatball ingredients.

Using your hands, form meatballs about an inch in diameter.  (I like to keep them on a sheet pan until they’re all ready.)  Once you’re ready, heat a cup of vegetable oil in a deep saucepan over medium-high heat.  Fry the meatballs until light brown, approximately four minutes on each side.

If you want to freeze or keep the meatballs separate from the gravy, you can finish them in a 350˚ oven, which should take only 10-12 minutes.  If you’re planning to serve them, just keep them to the side or in a low oven while you make the gravy.

gravy:
2 large (28 oz.) cans diced tomatoes
1 pint sour cream
½ cup whole almonds
½ large red onion, sliced
3 T ginger, chopped
3 T garlic, chopped
2 tsp. whole cumin
2 tsp. whole coriander

In a large, heavy bottomed pot, heat a quarter cup of vegetable oil over medium-low heat until it shimmers.  Add the cumin and wait for it to crack before tossing in the garlic, ginger, & onion.  Cook for a few minutes, then add the almonds and whole coriander.

Cook it all down until soft, and the onions are translucent, adding more oil during the cooking if necessary.  This whole process will take about fifteen minutes.

Toss in the tomatoes and stir everything together.  If you have an immersion blender, go ahead and put it to work.  If you’re using a conventional blender, allow the mixture to cool before blending it in batches.  Process until the mixture has reached your desired texture (I like mine a little bit chunky).

Add the sour sour cream to the gravy, mixing thoroughly until it turns light pink.  Reheat the gravy over medium heat until bubbling—be sure to stir regularly so it doesn’t stick to the bottom.  Add the partially cooked meatballs to the gravy and let them finish cooking there.

Serve over basmati rice, garnish with cilantro.

*Many of you may be able to buy paneer, which is a mild Indian cheese, at a specialty grocery store.  If not, you can make your own (it’s actually very easy!) or substitute a similar soft, mild cheese: farmer’s cheese, queso fresco, or a ricotta.  If you’re using ricotta, which can sometimes be watery, squeeze it out in a cheesecloth first.

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NO-FAIL POPOVERS

I’m feeling nostalgic for Memphis.  Always happens at about the three-and-a-half-month mark.  After that much distance, I start craving all the regulars:  pulled pork sandwiches, dry-rubbed ribs (which I attempted to make myself last week, with surprising success, whee!), fried catfish, everything my mother makes, and popovers with strawberry butter.

popovers

Hmm.  These not exactly what you think of when you think of Memphis?  Let me explain.

Growing up, there was a “default” fancy restaurant, reserved for birthdays, anniversaries, and graduations: Paulette‘s in Midtown, an oak-paneled kind of place with a live pianist and French-inspired menu of crêpes, steaks, and other old-school fare.  Just the kind of place to make young girls feel very grown-up and sophisticated; an excuse to wear your party dress.

I haven’t been to Paulette’s in many years, and really the only reason they occupy an important place in my arsenal of culinary memories is because of their popovers.  Instead of a basket of bread, Paulette’s would (and I hope they still do) offer up baskets of hot popovers with strawberry butter.

Oh yes oh yes oh yes.

Have you ever had a popover?  Or is it just a Memphis thing?

popovers 2
Conventional wisdom on popovers has long argued that they are fussy and high-maintenace, but that’s never been the case for me.  In a stroke of what I can only classify as foresight genius, I clipped the Paulette’s recipe for popovers out of the local Memphis paper while I was in high school.  I didn’t even cook then!  In fact, it was probably about four or five years until I even tried the recipe–by then, I was far from home and nostalgic for its tastes.

This recipe has never failed me.  You do have to follow the specifics (pre-heating the pan, using room temperature eggs), but it’s not necessary to use a popover pan the way some people think (a muffin tin works just fine, thankyouverymuch) and the finished product is supremely satisfying.

What does a popover taste like, you might ask?  Like a very eggy-but-not-chewy pastry, crusty on the outside and airy on the inside.  Serve them with strawberry butter, like they do in Memphis.

In just about a week, Jill and I will be driving up to my hometown for a visit.  When we cross the bridge from Arkansas to Tennessee over the big, muddy, ugly Mississippi where my father’s ashes were spread, I will cry.  I’ll weave through the streets of Memphis, which I can navigate like I can’t anywhere else.  Jill and I will eat our way through the city, and through my mother’s two (count them, two!) refrigerators, which she will have stocked for our arrival.

That’s how I’ll know I’m home.

Coming up Tuesday is the next installment of our Summer Classics Series: key lime pie.  Ohhhhhh yeah.  Until then, try these popovers for a lovely weekend brunch.

NO-FAIL POPOVERS546958620_dsc_0032
Paulette’s Restaurant, as printed in The Commercial Appeal many years ago

1 cup all-purpose flour, sifted
1 Tbsp oil
3 large eggs, AT ROOM TEMP
¾ tsp. salt
1 cup milk

pan: muffin tin, well-greased

oven: 415° F.

Place muffin tin in hot oven.  Sift together flour & salt.  In a separate bowl, whisk milk and oil together.  Slowly mix milk-oil into dry ingredients with a spoon until creamy smooth.

Add eggs one at a time; this will take some patience!  What you want to achieve are ribbons of egg in the batter.  After all the eggs have been incorporated, stir mixture for 2 additional minutes.  Remove warm muffin tin from the oven, filling each cup ½ full.

Bake 25-30 minutes or until golden brown.  Remove the popovers while still hot or they will stick to the pan!  Perfect served with strawberry butter.*

buttered popover 2
*Strawberry Butter

Mix together equal parts softened butter & strawberry preserves.  It really is that easy!  Of course, with strawberries being so lovely right now you could do something more homegrown: wash & chop strawberries, pat dry.  Place them in a bowl & sprinkle sugar over them, letting the mixture sit for an hour to release the juice.  Blend the strawberries with an equal amount of softened butter.

Either version of strawberry butter will keep in an airtight container in the fridge for a few days or in the freezer indefinitely.  Just make sure you soften it again before you want to use it

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