Proof is in the pudding

Each fall, for as many years back as I can remember, my mom made persimmon pudding. This was no small undertaking. First, you have to find a source for the persimmons. My mom had the hook up; always managing to know someone with a persimmon tree. Every October or so, when the dusky orange plum-like fruit would fall to the ground, my mom was right there, poaching. She swore you had to wait until the messy persimmons ripened, turned squishy and fell off the tree, otherwise they’d be tart enough to make you pucker if you made the mistake of biting into one too soon.

A full day of processing then ensued, washing the persimmons and straining them through a food-mill contraption mom reserved solely for this once-a-year purpose. After that came the ceremonial baking of the persimmon pudding, a recipe my mom gleaned from her mother, and very likely, her mother before that. You get the idea. Persimmon pudding was a fall tradition in my house, and one I’m ashamed to say I eschewed. I never ate the stuff. For some reason, I decided to turn up my nose at it when I was little, and stubborn as I am, I never tried it again.

Spring Mill Inn at Indiana’s Spring Mill State Park

So it was with no small amount of irony that I attended the opening Candlelight Tour that kicked off the annual Mitchell Persimmon Festival last night at Spring Mill State Park. Part of the package was a stay at the lovely Spring Mill Inn, and dinner at the on-site Millstone Dining Room, a buffet packed with all the good old-fashioned comfort foods you most likely grew up on, if you grew up in Indiana during the 1970s like I did. Think roast beef, fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, grits, cornbread, mashed potatoes, green beans stewed with chunks of ham… And the piece de resistance — while it’s typically just a seasonal fall dessert for many, persimmon pudding stays on the menu here year-round. They don’t always have it out on the buffet, which puzzles me, but all you have to do to score a piece is ask.

persimmon pudding at Spring Mill Inn’s Millstone Dining Room

In keeping with tradition, my pudding arrived in a cute little square topped with a generous dollop of Cool Whip. Grabbing a fork, I scooped up a big bite, toasted my mom and tucked it into my mouth. Tasty, I must say. If I didn’t know otherwise, I would have guessed it to be pumpkin – the consistency and flavor were exactly like a mild, creamy pumpkin pie filling. My friend Janet liked it, too, even in spite of harboring a pumpkin pie grudge of her own that went way back. We both cleaned our little plates, pleasantly surprised, and vowed never to judge a dessert by its cover again.

The Spring Mill Inn persimmon pudding is nothing like I remember my mom making, though. Mom’s was much more spongy and cake-like, nearly like a very moist gingerbread.

Sadly, the elaborate persimmon pudding-making process I never took part in was abandoned when my dear mom passed away ten years ago. I know I still have the family recipe somewhere, and I’m thinking I might just have to bring it out of hiding this year for old times sake. (Fortunately, it’s not hard to find pints of already-processed persimmon pulp for sale around Indy, if you know where to look.) Here’s hoping I’ll make my mama proud.

For more info about Spring Mill Inn (which is every bit as nice as the Abe Martin Lodge in Brown County, if not nicer, IMHO), visit http://www.in.gov/dnr/parklake/inns/springmill/

For info on the annual Mitchell Persimmon Festival, go to http://persimmonfestival.org/

Advertisements

Rockin’ Moroccan

I hosted my monthly book club this past Sunday night and, as it’s the host’s duty to provides some nosh, I spent a couple days prior scouring my cookbooks for ideas. It’s a very forgiving group of gals so there was no real pressure except what I imposed upon myself, but I still wanted to make something delicious and impressive.

The book du mois was “Cutting for Stone” by Abraham Verghese (an AWESOME read). Now, when I host the group, I sorta like to theme my snacks and appetizers around the book in some way. However, this story took place mostly in Ethiopia. Not being very familiar with Ethiopian cuisine, although I have eaten it a time or two, I was at a loss. To turn up the heat even more, one of the book club members has actually lived in Africa in Tanzania, so I knew she would have some idea whether the food actually tasted authentic or not.

After much deliberation, I finally decided I would make a lamb tagine, which is a meat or vegetable stew with dried fruit, olives and preserved lemons. Granted, this is really considered a North African dish more than Ethiopian, but I figured just being on the same continent would earn me some credibility. Technically, tagines takes their name from the domed clay cooking vessel they’re prepared in. The closest thing I had was a crock pot. C’est la vie.

The recipe came to me from my old trusty electronic files. Several years ago on a trip to Ireland, I happened to catch an episode of a BBC show called “Two Hairy Bikers.” (You think I’m joking. See for yourself — www.hairybikers.com.) This is a travel/cooking show that follows these two hirsute gentlemen around on their motorcycles to foreign lands where they introduce viewers to the regional cuisine. I had flagged a recipe for something called “Sultan’s Delight” that was sort of like what I had in mind, although upon closer examination, it was actually a Turkish dish. Dang. Can’t win for losing. At this point, my time for waffling was running out and I decided it would have to do.

As it turned out, the stew was darn tasty. Not all that different from a good beef stew, but the lamb gave it a richer, gamier flavor and the seasonings were more distinctive with cinnamon, cumin and allspice. I took a few liberties, as I usually do with recipes like this, and threw some chickpeas and chopped figs into the mix. They proved good additions, but as the figs cooked down and disintegrated, the seeds gave the whole dish a slightly grainy texture that I could have done without. The flavor, though, was delicious.

lamb tagine with creamed eggplant

On the side, the Hairy Bikers served their stew with creamed eggplant (or aubergines, if you want to explore your British side). And who am I to argue with the wisdom of a Hairy Biker?

I don’t know about you, but I’d eat an old shoe if it’s topped with cream and some cheese. This dish is really just roasted eggplant that’s been peeled, smushed and stirred into a béchamel sauce. I threw mine into a small Corning Ware casserole dish, topped it with breadcrumbs, browned it under the broiler and served it with crunchy pita chips as a warm dip. Yummy. One of my friends (the one who’d lived in Africa!) liked it so much, she said she could have sucked it up through a straw. I’d say I can safely chalk that up as a win!

A toast to the roast

At hubby’s suggestion, we have decided to institute a new weekly tradition this winter — the Sunday roast. While we usually sit down as a family to eat most of our meals, the Sunday roast takes things one step further by adding an increased sense of reverence and occasion.

(As if we needed more incentive, the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine states “frequent family meals are associated with a lower risk of smoking, drinking and using drugs with a lower incidence of depressive symptoms and suicidal thoughts; and with better grades in 11 to 18 year olds.” We’re starting our little guys young.)

The Sunday roast concept is nothing new where hubby comes from, and as we explore recipes and menus, I find it’s not much different than the family meals I grew up eating. Meat-and-potatoes-centric, heartwarming comfort food that’s perfect for cold winter days and nights.

For our first Sunday roast effort last weekend, we went the very traditional route of pot roast with potatoes and carrots. It turned out well, very much like the wonderful meals we’ve eaten at my mother-in-law’s house in Ireland, right down to the jus-based gravy.

In between the two Sundays, our Thanksgiving dinner consisted of a roast chicken (we had a very small crowd), stuffing, cranberry sauce and green bean casserole. No sooner did we get those leftovers polished off than it was time to think about the Sunday meal.

Yesterday, we branched out to try something more ambitious – stuffed pork loin with roasted potatoes and Brussels sprouts au gratin. For a little while, I was concerned we’d bitten off slightly more than we could chew. At one point, the kitchen was a total mess, every pot and pan was dirty, and hubby and I found ourselves up to our elbows in pork trying to butterfly, stuff and truss the loins. However, the beauty of a roast is that once you get all the prep work done, you have some time to chill while your dinner just hangs out in the oven for a few hours getting all tender and delicious.

spinach-stuffed pork loin with roasted potatoes

The pork loin was great, albeit the spinach/mushroom filling could have used a little more flavor punch and the meat was just the teeniest bit dry. Hubby made a good call by insisting we leave the outer fat layer on; I was all set to cut it off when he stopped me. In the end, the fat crisped up nicely to create a yummy, salty pork rind-esque crackling on top. Lesson learned. We’re already plotting our next pork loin attempt with a pesto/proscuitto filling.

A roasting tip from yours truly: invest in a good meat thermometer. I don’t know what I did before I bought my digital version. Overcooked a lot of meat, I suppose. Pull your roast out of the oven a few degrees shy of your target temp, cover it with a piece of foil and let it rest for 10 or 15 minutes before you slice in. You’ll have a juicy roast every time.

Brussels sprouts au gratin

The Brussels sprouts au gratin was another successful experiment, I thought. Much like my feeling that you can convert haters into believers by oven-roasting vegetables, drenching them in a cheesy cream sauce and baking until bubbly works well, too. The veggies, not the haters, of course.

We’ll be out of town this coming weekend, but we’re already discussing new roast ideas for the following Sunday. Haven’t done lamb yet, or maybe a side of salmon? You never know what you might find on our table next.

Give peas a chance

Think you don’t like vegetables? Think again. I’m of the mindset that you can take almost any veggie, drizzle it with a little olive oil, sprinkle on some s&p and roast it into a state of crispy deliciousness. Carrots, parsnips, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, asparagus… even if you hated them with a passion as a child, it might behoove you to give them another shot.

The only vegetables I can remember growing up with were canned corn and iceberg lettuce salad with a few cucumber slices. Tomatoes? No way. Green beans. Uh uh. I turned up my nose at anything and everything of the fresh-picked persuasion. My veggie phase began in college, when one day, I added some frozen broccoli to my beefy Ramen noodles just for kicks. It was a real revelation, let me tell you.  I’ve come a long way since then, baby. These days, I eat the heck out of some fresh produce, and the more colorful, the better. My salads are things of beauty. I love going to farmers markets and browsing the booths to see what’s fresh and in season, and am trying my darnedest to get my little guys on board with veggie appreciation as well.

Take kale, for instance. I don’t know much about kale. I can’t recall ever eating kale. But when I saw beautiful bunches of it at the opening weekend of the Indy Winter Farmers Market on Saturday, I couldn’t resist picking up some to experiment with. Lo and behold, I quickly located recipes online for kale “chips,” and I was off and running.

Basically, all you do is wash the leaves and use the above-mentioned technique to bake them off. After about 15 minutes in the oven at 350 degrees, they dehydrate into paper-thin crisps. They actually shrunk so much, I really could have afforded to do another baking sheet full, but then again, they only had to serve myself, a friend and the toddler as part of a bigger-picture dinner. So for a trial run, they worked out just fine.

crispy kale chips just out of the oven

I thought the chips were tasty, but they did have a very strong, earthy flavor that some people may not dig. The little guy was curious enough to eat one, but that was it. I was glad that, at the very least, he was willing to try it. There may be hope for him to become a veggie connoisseur after all…

an adventurous eater in the making?

Wham bam biscotti

My macaron mojo has apparently left the building. I hosted a book club meeting at my house on Sunday night and was intent on dropping a batch of these babies on my guests. If you’ll recall from my previous posts, my most recent attempt at macarons didn’t go so well.

The first few batches I made at the first of the year turned out beautifully, with little “feet” at the bottom of the cookies and everything. Must have been beginner’s luck, because the last time I tried to make them about a month ago, all sorts of things went wrong. First, the dough wasn’t loose enough and the cookies cracked and bubbled as they baked. Then, the dough was too wet and they didn’t rise at all. One thing after another, yadda yadda yadda. Three batches in a row – all disastrous.

On Sunday afternoon, I felt up for another go. Mixed the batter, piped them out and realized they were too stiff. Proud of myself for recognizing the problem while I still had time to correct it, I scraped them back into the bowl, whipped up a couple more egg whites, folded them into the batter and tried again. As they rested on the cookie sheets before baking, they looked much better. Even my piping was fairly consistent. I thought to myself “now that’s more like it! Finally!”

It came time to throw them in the oven, but when the timer went off and I took them out, they looked pathetic. Bubbly and full of holes, barely risen. Disgusted, I tossed them straight into the trashcan without even sampling one and started looking for other cookie recipes to make for my gals. You win, macarons. I give up.

After some consideration, I came across a butterscotch biscotti recipe I’d made once before several years ago. Hm. I had all the ingredients on hand, and it required no sifting or electric mixing. I was suddenly back in business.

The recipe I was using as a blueprint called for a few tablespoons of bourbon and the additions of butterscotch chips and almonds. I can’t make anything like this without putting my own individual stamp on it, so I replaced the bourbon with coffee and left out the chips and nuts, figuring I’d work them in as toppings later.

After I’d mixed the dough, the directions said to shape it into two flat logs. Only problem with this was that the dough seemed very wet and sticky, so every time I tried to flatten it into the requisite shape, it soundly refused to go quietly into that good night. It stuck to my hands like glue and was impossible to form correctly. I somehow figured out to wet my hands in between pats to coax it into the right shape, stuck it in the oven and nervously hoped for the best.

Lo and behold, after the required 20 minutes, the dough had risen into little flat domes just like it was supposed to. I breathed a huge sigh of relief and took the loaves out of the oven. Once they are cool enough to handle, you slice them thinly to make the biscotti and then stick them back in the oven to toast on all sides, turning every few minutes or so until they’re golden brown and crunchy all over.

You can either mix stuff into the dough to flavor it from the get go – chocolate chips, spices, nuts, etc. – or you can follow my lead and dress up the cookies once they’re baked. I melted some chocolate chips in the microwave with a tiny bit of cream to make a quick ganache, which I then used to frost the biscotti on one side. It still needed a little something to increase the wow factor, so I sprinkled chopped almonds on some and toasted sesame seeds on others. You may think sesame an odd choice in this instance, but I’m telling ya, it was awesome.  Almost like a peanut flavor, and a great combo with the chocolate.

All in all, the biscotti went over well. In fact, I just whipped up another batch this afternoon. Take that, macarons.

Basic biscotti

(Makes about two dozen)

Ingredients:

1/2 c. butter, melted

1 cup brown sugar, packed lightly

4 tablespoons strong coffee, cooled (or replace with bourbon or brandy if you want to get a little crazy!)

4 eggs

2 tsp. Vanilla

2 1/2 c. flour

1 1/2 tsp. Baking powder

1/4 tsp. Kosher salt

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

In a large bowl, mix the melted butter, brown sugar and coffee until smooth. Add the eggs one by one, mixing well to incorporate between each addition, then stir in the vanilla. Add the flour, baking powder and salt, mix well to combine.

Line two rectangular baking sheets with parchment paper or Silpat. Divide the dough evenly between the two cookie sheets and shape each into one long flat log around 1/2 inch high. Try to spread the dough as evenly as you can, wetting your hands lightly as you go to prevent sticking.

Bake the logs for 18 to 20 minutes, rotating the pans once at the halfway mark, until dough is solid and has risen slightly. Remove the baking sheets from the oven and let cool slightly.

When the dough is cool enough to handle, transfer each log onto a large cutting board. Using a long, serrated bread knife, slice the dough on a diagonal into 1/2 inch widths. Return all the cookies back to the baking sheets, placing them on their sides and spacing them out as far as possible.

Put the cookies back in the oven for another 15 to 20 minutes, flipping all the cookies over once halfway through the baking time. When they’re light golden brown and toasted on both sides, they’re done.

(As I mentioned before, there are all sorts of ways you can jazz these up:  mix chocolate chips, butterscotch chips or nuts into the dough before baking; or frost/glaze them with icing of your choice, then sprinkle with chopped nuts or jimmies.)

Buon appetito!

chocolate almond and chocolate sesame biscotti

Puff daddy

One word strikes fear into the heart of cooks and chefs everywhere. And that word is… soufflé.  When made correctly, it’s sublime, but there is perhaps no other recipe so fraught with potential for disaster.

Souffle can be a finicky little bugger. If you don’t give it the love, attention and respect it deserves, it can pout and refuse to rise to the occasion, so to speak. It will show you who’s boss by emerging from the oven sad, flat and floppy instead of heavenly light and pillowy — a mere baked omelet instead of the puffy, fluffy masterpiece it was intended to be.

Hubby just got home last night from another work trip. When we got up this morning and saw the snow blanketing down (AGAIN. Ugh.), we decided to skip our planned yoga class and hole up inside for the day instead. Our thoughts turned to food, and hubby mentioned a “soufflé omelet” one of his colleagues enjoyed during a breakfast meeting the other day. Then he said, “Why don’t you ever make stuff like that?” I immediately bristled at this passive-aggressive comment and took offense. You want a soufflé, buddy? You got it.

I’ve made soufflés a couple of times before, but haven’t banged one out for a long time. And I have made them for hubby in the past, which he’s conveniently forgotten. No matter. I was up for the challenge.

The only soufflé recipe I’ve ever used is a Julia Child cheese version. Now, those of you who’ve ever prepared a Julia recipe know right away that her directions are going to make everything sound ten times more complicated than it needs to be, and you’re going to dirty every pot and pan in your kitchen before it’s all said and done. On the upside, your finished product is going to be delicious.

Souffles are one of those dishes that go a long way on just a few ingredients. Basically, all you need are eggs, milk, butter, a little flour and any ingredients you want to use as flavoring — cheese, sugar, melted chocolate, Grand Marnier, what have you. Since our soufflé was intended to serve as a late breakfast, we included shredded sharp cheddar cheese, slivered ham and a little diced red pepper. (Some sautéed onion would have made a nice addition, but you all know my audience…)

You start by greasing up an oven-safe casserole dish with butter and dusting it with grated parmesan cheese. This gives the eggs something to grab onto as they rise so impossibly high up the sides of the dish.

Next, you make a thick béchamel sauce on your stovetop by melting butter into flour to make a roux and adding milk, salt, pepper and a little nutmeg. Take it off the heat and stir in your egg yolks (just the yolks, mind you), shredded cheese and other flavoring ingredients.

Meanwhile, the egg whites come into play in a separate bowl (told you this was labor-intensive). Whip the heck out of them with an electric hand-mixer until they reach the stiff peak stage. As I’ve learned the hard way, you have to be painstakingly careful when separating your eggs. If there’s even the tiniest hint of egg yolk in the mix, they won’t whip up.

Once that’s done, fold the whipped whites into the béchamel, ever so gently so as to avoid deflating the whole concoction, and pour the whole mess into your casserole dish. Transfer it into the oven, set your timer for 30 minutes, cross your fingers and hope for the best. If all is well, you’ll see your soufflé slowly making its way up the dish as it bakes, but you’ll have to content yourself with watching it through the window. Don’t open the oven door, no matter how tempting it is. You’ll let in a rush of air that can disrupt the steady temperature and screw it all up.

When the timer goes off, if your culinary prayers have been answered, you should open the door to find a lovely, browned dome of feather-light eggs.

cheese souffle just out of the oven

Serve immediately to achieve maximum oohs and aahs; the soufflé immediately starts to sink back down the second it comes out of the heat. Tap into the crusty top and scoop out a big steaming serving. Don’t be shy. The consistency is so light and airy, you can eat a ton of this without stuffing yourself.

just look at that eggy lusciousness!

If you want to cut corners or you just don’t have the patience, stick to making an omelet or a frittata. But if you really want to impress your guests at brunch or turn out something truly romantic for a special-occasion breakfast, a soufflé is a great way to go.

Macaron madness

According to the food media, macarons are the new cupcake. I, for one, am completely happy to jump on this bandwagon in support. When I say macaron, I’m not talking about those outdated mounds of coconut and egg white your grandma used to make; I’m referring to the beautiful little silver dollar-sized mouthfuls of deliciousness you find in France. These little beauties have made their way across the pond, and are steadily making a name for themselves right here in Indianapolis. You can find them around town without too much trouble — Circle City Sweets and Taste are two locations that immediately come to mind.

I was first taken with les belles macarons during our visit to Paris nearly two years ago, and was happy to make their reacquaintance during a long weekend there in November. Within the windows of every patisserie we walked past, and there were MANY, there they were. Mouthwatering rainbows of the tempting gem-like little cookies in all flavors and colors. I only wish I could have tasted them all, but at a euro or so each, I had to be somewhat selective about sampling.

In simplest terms, a macaron is a flat meringue cookie sandwich. The cookies themselves have a shatteringly thin glassy surface that gives way to a slightly chewy interior and some sort of sinful filling in the middle. Chocolate cookies with chocolate ganache, pistachio, lemon, berries, mocha — the possibilities are endless, as you saw if you watched the inaugural season of Top Chef Just Desserts. Morgan turned out a “red hot” macaron with chocolate filling, and a blackberry version that looked divine.

Last night, we ended up hosting an impromptu New Year’s Eve get-together with our neighbor friends down the street, and I decided macarons would be a lovely addition to our hors d’oeuvres table. Since I’d already put together some chocolate custards as a sweet treat, I chose to create a vanilla bean macaron with raspberry filling. Armed with a recipe from the current issue of Bon Appetit and encouraged by two YouTube macaron demonstrations, I started plotting my approach.

On paper, macarons look deceptively simple to make, but hold your horses. It’s not as easy as it sounds to pull them off and come away with the elusive “foot” on the bottoms that allows you to correctly sandwich the cookies together.

There are really only three ingredients for the cookie part of the program — powdered sugar, egg whites and almond flour — plus whatever flavoring agents you might want to incorporate. Now here’s the first challenge: almond flour is not a commonly available ingredient. In fact, I wasn’t even sure what it was, although the Bon Appetit recipe said it was sometimes just labeled as ground almonds. A trip to the Marsh baking aisle uncovered barley flour, spelt flour, buckwheat flour, rice flour and several shelves full of other specialty flours, but no almond flour. Hmph. Fortunately, Trader Joe’s came to my rescue. I quickly located a bag of almond meal that I assumed was what I wanted. $3.99 later, I was appropriated supplied and ready to bake.

Here’s the drill, you sift the almond flour/meal with the powdered sugar (not as easy as it sounds because the almonds tend to gunk up the sieve), then you whip the room-temp egg whites with a tiny bit of sugar until they hit the medium peak stage (I added the vanilla bean here). Fold the almond-powdered sugar into the egg whites in stages until just combined, then carefully spoon the batter into a pastry bag. (A Baggie with the corner cut out will do in a pinch if you don’t have a pastry bag in your culinary arsenal.)

Pipe the batter onto a parchment paper-covered cookie sheet in 1/2-inch blobs about an inch and a half apart and then leave them be for about 30 minutes. They will spread out and become very flat, but don’t worry. This is what you want. Don’t be tempted to cut corners and put them in the oven immediately – the YouTube demo said to wait until the surface is slightly hardened and you can touch it with your finger without it sticking. Something about doing this helps them bake up the right way.

While you wait, you can prepare your filling. In my case, I simmered fresh raspberries with sugar, cornstarch and a little orange juice until thickened, then strained the mixture to remove the seeds.

Once they’re “gelled,” the macarons bake at 290-300 degrees for about 15 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through. When they come out, cool them on the sheet and then carefully peel them off the parchment paper. Spread a little filling on each side and stick them together to create the sandwiches. Voila – macarons!

my vanilla bean macarons with raspberry filling

I definitely need more practice piping so all my cookies come out consistently the same size, but overall, I was pretty darn pleased with my first shot at macarons. The texture seemed appropriately delicate and the flavor was good, although the almonds kinda overpowered the vanilla beans. I’m already daydreaming about new combinations to try next time.

Wishing you all a deliciously happy 2011!!!!

Happy New Year!