In the scone zone

I have a couple go-to recipes that I, uh, go to when it comes to baked goods. Through a long process of trial and error, I am proud to say I have pretty much perfected three treats – chocolate chip cookies, mini-cupcakes and scones.

My secret to great chocolate chip cookies is the use of brown sugar instead of white and the addition of a box of instant pudding mix to the batter. That and not overbaking them. I like my cookies soft, not crunchy, and these three things seem to do the trick. Plus, you can experiment with different pudding flavors for interesting combinations. Banana flavored pudding with the chocolate chips and some pecans thrown in makes for an especially tasty cookie.

For the cupcakes, I rely on Ina Garten. Any recipe of hers that I’ve made has been fabulous, primarily because she is not at all shy about butter. I was introduced to her delicious coconut cupcake recipe four or five years ago, the first time I assisted my chef friend Jennifer. She made them as part of a dessert buffet for a wedding dinner she was catering, and they were a relevation. The mini-versions were adorable, tasty and looked perfectly bridal with their little white caps of shredded coconut. I’ve been using the basic buttermilk-batter cake recipe ever since and tweaked it with all different kinds of additions – vanilla bean and coffee, crushed oreo cookies, peanut butter and mini chocolate chips to name just a few. It’s never let me down. I always make the mini versions because at parties and on buffets, a full-size cupcake can be something of a commitment. Plus, you can eat three or four of the mini-cupcakes without feeling guilty.

Thinking back, I’m not sure when I first became acquainted with scones. They’re still not always an immediately recognizable item here in Indiana, I find. Many people have only come across them in the glass counter at Starbucks. Having had real-deal scones in England, I can tell you that the versions you get here in America aren’t quite the same, as is usually the case. (My husband would argue that the European version is better, of course, but that’s a whole other blog…)

Basically, scones are like a triangular sweet biscuit. My default scone recipe comes courtesy of Semi-Homemade by Sandra Lee. Not one of my favorite Food Network shows or personalities, but I happened to spot her making these years ago, downloaded the recipe and have been using it to great success ever since. I don’t think I can post the recipe here due to copyright reasons, but you can find it under “Mocha Chip Scones” on the Food Network web site if you’re so inclined to look it up.

Sandra’s scones are pretty easy to make, as you’d imagine according to the name of the show. You use Bisquick baking mix to simplify things for yourself. Not that it’s exactly strenuous to measure out flour, baking soda and salt, but whatever. You simple create the dough, pat it out by hand into a large disk on a floured board, cut it into wedges and bake. You can brush the scones with egg wash and sprinkle them with sanding sugar to make them really pretty, if you’re so inclined. If you’re feeling lazy, you could probably just drop the dough by large spoonfuls onto the baking sheet. Either way, they turn out yummy and are perfect for dunking into a cup of coffee.

Again, once you get the basic recipe down pat, it’s super easy to tweak it according to your own tastes and preferences. Sometimes, I’ll leave out the coffee and throw in orange zest instead. Or drizzle them with sugar glaze or ganache. I once tasted a chocolate chip and rosemary scone at Tulip Noir that was fabulous. You can also make savory versions with cheese, herbs and spices for a great alternative to boring old garlic bread.

Here’s my latest scone effort – chocolate chunk and cranberry. Ever the purist, hubby turned up his nose at the cranberries and picked them out, but I thought they were great and very Christmasy.

Chocolate chip cranberry scones

Speaking of Christmas, still trying to decide what to make for dinner tomorrow… guess I’d better get to work scouring the cookbooks. Ta!

An ode to Melissa D'Arabian…

How do I love thee, Melissa D’Arabian? Let me count the ways… specifically, there are three: Crispy-skinned orange chicken, individual potato gratins, and now braised pork.

For those of you who don’t watch Food Network (and I can’t imagine why in the world you wouldn’t), Melissa recently won the most recent season of Next Food Network Star. The woman is a working mother of four girls (all under the age of 6, including 1-year-old twins), NOT a trained chef, yet she kicked the asses of much more qualified contestants up and down the stage. And in just a few short episodes, she has rocked the Food Network house. Most everything she makes looks delicious, and affordable. The premise of her show is that you can make dinner for four people for less than $10. I question some of the ingredients, but when you take into account the things already in your pantry, I would say she’s darn near right on the money. So to speak.

The first Melissa dish hubby and I tried to make was individual potato gratins. These are simply thinly sliced potatoes layered in a muffin tin with shredded cheese. You pour a little bit of cream over the top of each one and bake until bubbly and toasty. Genius. Sheer genius. They are so easy, tasty and utterly adorable. We are currently experimenting with different kinds of cheese, a touch of garlic here, maybe a few crumbles of bacon there…

Next up came an attempt at Melissa’s Crispy-Skinned Chicken A L’Orange. The secret ingredient here? Frozen orange juice concentrate. Again, GENIUS. The only fault I found with this recipe is probably my own.

I always seem to have issues with defrosting frozen chicken. I thought I had completed defrosted my chicken breasts in the microwave, but it wasn’t until I’d already seared them and put them in the oven to take their temperature for the first check that I realized they were still slightly cold in the middle. Argh! Back into the microwave for a few more minutes on defrost, then back into the oven to finish cooking. So because my oven cooking time took a little longer than expected, the glaze slightly overcaramelized and got a little bit too dark in spots.

Still, the dish was super tasty. The chicken was very juicy and the glaze was absolutely delicious when it mixed with the chicken juices in the pan to create the sauce! I thought it might be a little too sweet when I read the recipe, but it was great. Awesome orange flavor. Hubby loved it, too. I will definitely try it again, with fresh chicken this time. I love how she is able to create such deep flavors and sophisticated food with simple ingredients and instructions.

Succulent Braised Pork is the third Melissa recipe I’ve tried, and it may just be my new favorite… I could only find pork shoulders at the store in the 8-pound range. Way too much for just my husband and I, so I used country-style pork ribs instead. They made the sauce just the tiniest bit greasy, but it was still delicious. The dish smelled soooooo good as it was cooking, hubby and I were practically pawing at the oven door waiting for the timer to go off. I served it with rosemary roasted sweet potatoes and baguette. Hubby and I stuffed ourselves silly. I seriously wanted to pick up the casserole dish and drink this sauce. The pork is so tender, and again, I am amazed how so few ingredients can create something that tastes so rich and complex.

Check it out for yourself. Her cooking show, “Ten Dollar Dinners” runs on Sunday mornings here in Indianapolis on the Food Network. In the meantime, you can find all of Melissa’s tasty recipes on the Food Network web site at http://www.foodnetwork.com/melissa-darabian/recipes/index.html. Go. Go now. Right now. I’ll wait…

I cannot wait for this woman to come out with a cookbook. All hail Melissa!

An ode to Melissa D’Arabian…

How do I love thee, Melissa D’Arabian? Let me count the ways… specifically, there are three: Crispy-skinned orange chicken, individual potato gratins, and now braised pork.

For those of you who don’t watch Food Network (and I can’t imagine why in the world you wouldn’t), Melissa recently won the most recent season of Next Food Network Star. The woman is a working mother of four girls (all under the age of 6, including 1-year-old twins), NOT a trained chef, yet she kicked the asses of much more qualified contestants up and down the stage. And in just a few short episodes, she has rocked the Food Network house. Most everything she makes looks delicious, and affordable. The premise of her show is that you can make dinner for four people for less than $10. I question some of the ingredients, but when you take into account the things already in your pantry, I would say she’s darn near right on the money. So to speak.

The first Melissa dish hubby and I tried to make was individual potato gratins. These are simply thinly sliced potatoes layered in a muffin tin with shredded cheese. You pour a little bit of cream over the top of each one and bake until bubbly and toasty. Genius. Sheer genius. They are so easy, tasty and utterly adorable. We are currently experimenting with different kinds of cheese, a touch of garlic here, maybe a few crumbles of bacon there…

Next up came an attempt at Melissa’s Crispy-Skinned Chicken A L’Orange. The secret ingredient here? Frozen orange juice concentrate. Again, GENIUS. The only fault I found with this recipe is probably my own.

I always seem to have issues with defrosting frozen chicken. I thought I had completed defrosted my chicken breasts in the microwave, but it wasn’t until I’d already seared them and put them in the oven to take their temperature for the first check that I realized they were still slightly cold in the middle. Argh! Back into the microwave for a few more minutes on defrost, then back into the oven to finish cooking. So because my oven cooking time took a little longer than expected, the glaze slightly overcaramelized and got a little bit too dark in spots.

Still, the dish was super tasty. The chicken was very juicy and the glaze was absolutely delicious when it mixed with the chicken juices in the pan to create the sauce! I thought it might be a little too sweet when I read the recipe, but it was great. Awesome orange flavor. Hubby loved it, too. I will definitely try it again, with fresh chicken this time. I love how she is able to create such deep flavors and sophisticated food with simple ingredients and instructions.

Succulent Braised Pork is the third Melissa recipe I’ve tried, and it may just be my new favorite… I could only find pork shoulders at the store in the 8-pound range. Way too much for just my husband and I, so I used country-style pork ribs instead. They made the sauce just the tiniest bit greasy, but it was still delicious. The dish smelled soooooo good as it was cooking, hubby and I were practically pawing at the oven door waiting for the timer to go off. I served it with rosemary roasted sweet potatoes and baguette. Hubby and I stuffed ourselves silly. I seriously wanted to pick up the casserole dish and drink this sauce. The pork is so tender, and again, I am amazed how so few ingredients can create something that tastes so rich and complex.

Check it out for yourself. Her cooking show, “Ten Dollar Dinners” runs on Sunday mornings here in Indianapolis on the Food Network. In the meantime, you can find all of Melissa’s tasty recipes on the Food Network web site at http://www.foodnetwork.com/melissa-darabian/recipes/index.html. Go. Go now. Right now. I’ll wait…

I cannot wait for this woman to come out with a cookbook. All hail Melissa!