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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Inspired by Ingredients

David and I receive a CSA box every other week.  When it comes time to look at what is in the box and decide on any changes, it goes something like this:

Krista:  Ooh, I've never eaten celery root before.  We should totally get that.

David:  What would we do with celery root?  Let's get some more kale.

Krista:  I don't know what I'd do with the celery root, that's why we have to get it!

I win only because I'm usually the one to remember to make the changes. 

In our last box, we received something referred to as "seasonal gourds."  They sure were pretty, but I had no idea what they were.  They have the coloring of delicata squash, but are round like kabocha squash.  If you can identify them, please let me know:

The mystery gourds

Right after Halloween, I remember another food blogger hollowing out small pumpkins (I wish I could remember who it was!) and using the flesh as the basis for a soup that was then served inside the pumpkins.  It looked great, and it was a lot healthier than the bread soup bowls I was really craving.  I was serious when I said that I was going to try to eat (mostly) healthy through the holidays, and sadly that means decreasing the number of carbs that I ate from last week's high.

The problem was that once the seeds were removed, the squash didn't have very much meat to them.  I was going to have to get creative.

All right, I missed a couple of seeds. So sue me.

The problem with cooking by the seat of your pants is that you (OK, I) don't stop to write down what I'm doing.  I've attempted to recreate the soup I made with the gourds, which was deliciously creamy and satisfying while staying low in fat.  Garnish the soup with a little something succulent and salty for extra flavor.  I used crispy pancetta for David's bowl, and a smattering of blue cheese for my bowl.  You'll never miss the meat.

I say that, but of course the bowl I took a picture of was the one topped with pancetta!

Creamy Squash Soup
Inspired by flavors from A16 Food+Wine

4 small round edible gourds
4 small red potatoes
4 tbsp. olive oil
2 cups 2% milk
1/2 poblano pepper, seeded and minced
1 small shallot, minced
2 tbsp. crumbled blue cheese
Kosher salt and freshly-ground pepper
 Pan-fried sliced pancetta or blue cheese crumbles for garnish

Preheat the oven to 500 degrees.

Slice the tops from the gourds and set aside.  Scoop the seeds from the gourds and rub all over with one and a half tablespoons of the olive oil. 

Scrub and quarter the potatoes and toss them with half a tablespoon of olive oil, some salt and pepper.

Place the gourds and their lids on a baking sheet and bake for approximately half an hour.  At the half-hour mark, the lids should be done and can be removed.

Add the potatoes to the baking sheet and bake for another twenty minutes, until the potatoes are roasted and the gourds are tender.

Remove the baking sheet from the oven and allow the gourds to cool enough to scoop the flesh out of them.

While the squash are cooling, saute the poblano pepper over medium heat in a tablespoon of the olive oil until it is lightly brown around the edges.  Add the shallots and saute until they are golden.

Scoop the flesh out of the gourds and discard any seeds.  Place the flesh in a food processor, along with the potatoes and a cup of milk.  Process for a minute or two until you have a very thick puree, then add salt and pepper to taste.  Add the remaining tablespoon of olive oil and process again. 

Transfer the puree to a small saucepan and add the remaining milk and the shallot/poblano mixture, stirring to combine.  Heat on low until the mixture is thoroughly warmed, then add the crumbled blue cheese.  If the mixture is still too thick, add a bit more milk. 

If desired, add more salt and pepper and serve immediately in the hollowed gourds with a side salad.  The dressing from this post went beautifully with the flavors in the soup (plus I had some left over in the refrigerator).

The soup may be garnished with either thin slices of crispy pancetta or blue cheese crumbles.

Serves four as a main course.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

'Tis the Season

It's almost the end of a four-day weekend, and last night as I went to bed I wondered I had a four-day weekend?  Really?  What happened to it?

Well, I got Inspecting Carol open to a sold-out house on Friday and a rave review that appeared online yesterday.  I couldn't be prouder of my hard-working cast and crew, particularly with the obstacles we encountered in the rehearsal process.

However, I'm feeling that usual start-of-holidays stress, which is probably multiplied by my not getting my usual amount of exercise over the last few weeks.  I'm resolving to spend the next few weeks getting lots of exercise (remember that promise about getting back to cross-country skiing?) and eating healthy.

'tis the season for food landmines for those of us trying to watch what we eat.  I did my share of eating unhealthy things over the last couple of days, but lately I've also fallen back in love with salad.  I'm not talking about iceberg lettuce and out-of-season tomatoes here, but composed salads with tangy homemade dressings and satisfying accompaniments. 

I made one of my favorite salads to take to Thanksgiving dinner, where it was decimated, perhaps because it seemed like the virtuous choice on the table.  As I try to eat healthfully over the next month, this salad dressing will be appearing on the table often.  Although my preference is to plate the salad individually, I dressed it in a large salad bowl for Thanksgiving and it didn't lose anything other than its composed prettiness.

I've used this dressing with baby arugula, a mixture of seasonal baby greens and an herb salad mixture.  It worked beautifully with all of them.  This recipe will provide ample side salads for four to six people.

Lemon-Shallot Vinaigrette
Adapted from the Mozza Cookbook by Nancy Silverton

1/3 cup finely chopped shallots
1/3 cup freshly-squeezed lemon juice
1.5 tbsp. champagne or white wine vinegar
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt to taste
1 tbsp. fresh-ground pepper

For the salad:

2 oz. thinly shaved pecorino romano cheese
8 cups salad greens
Maldon flaked sea salt, or other good finishing salt

First, marinate the shallots in the acids by placing them in a small bowl with the lemon juice and vinegar.  Stir and allow to sit for at least ten minutes.

Drizzle in the oil slowly, whisking thoroughly.  This dressing emulsifies when it is thoroughly mixed.  Add the salt and pepper and whisk it in, then taste and add more seasoning as necessary.

Add the greens to a large salad bowl and add the dressing bit by bit, tossing with your hands to combine.  You will want to add just enough dressing to thinly coat the leaves, but not leave dressing sitting in the bottom of the bowl.  Add a good pinch of the sea salt and toss again.

Thanksgiving's big communal salad
Mound the greens on individual salad plates if desired, and top with a few thin shavings of the pecorino cheese.

The salad individually plated a few weeks ago at home.

You will have a substantial amount of leftover dressing, which easily keeps for a week in the refrigerator.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Another Opening, Another Show

The day has finally come.  "Inspecting Carol" opens tonight, after a complicated (to put it nicely) rehearsal process.  We had our first audience on Wednesday night for a preview, and they had a great time.  On Thanksgiving morning, we had our last rehearsal, which went well.

Fingers crossed (and wood knocked) for a great opening tonight. 

The only good thing about rehearsing first thing on Thanksgiving morning was that the cast and crew had the rest of the day to enjoy the holiday.  Among the other things I was thankful for yesterday was the fact that I didn't have to clean my house and host Thanksgiving.

Our friends Warren and Diane invited us over, and all we had to do was bring a vegetable, a salad and a non-pumpkin dessert.  Piece of cake (literally).

In my humble opinion, the problem with many Thanksgiving desserts is that they're just so sweet.  This cake has a light sweetness with a hearty crunch from the polenta, and is just as suited to breakfast as dessert.  I've adapted the original Bon Appetit recipe to provide more of the wonderful amber-colored caramel topping and a retro garnish of maraschino cherries.

Pear Upside-Down Cake
Adapted from Bon Appetit Magazine, November 2011

9.5 tbsp. unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup plus 3 tbsp. all-purpose flour
3 tbsp. coarse polenta
1.5 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
1 lb. ripe medium pears, cored and cut into 1/8" slices lengthwise
1.5 tsp. vanilla extract
2 large eggs, separated
1/2 cup whole milk
3 good-quality maraschino cherries or 3 whole cranberries

Whipped cream for the garnish

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and butter an 8-inch round cake pan.  Add a parchment round to the bottom of the pan and butter that as well.

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, polenta, salt and baking powder.

Combine 1/2 cup of the sugar and 4 tablespoons water in a small saucepan and warm over medium heat until the sugar dissolves.  Once it does, increase heat to medium-high and boil the sugar syrup.  Brush down the sides of the pan occasionally with a wet pastry brush and swirl the sugar syrup, but do not stir it.  The syrup will be done when it reaches a dark golden color;  at that time, remove it from the heat.

Add one and a half tablespoons of the butter to the sugar syrup and stir until the mixture is smooth.  Pour the caramel immediately into the prepared cake pan and swirl to coat the bottom of it.

Take the pear slices and arrange them in a fan shape over the caramel in the bottom of the pan, overlapping to fit them all in.  You may have some left over.  In the center of the pan, place either the maraschino cherries or cranberries.

This didn't look quite as perfect as I had hoped (and nowhere near like the magazine's), but that's nothing to get stressed over.
Using a hand mixer, mix the remaining sugar, butter and the vanilla in a medium bowl on medium speed until the butter is pale yellow and fluffy.  Add the egg yolks one at a time, beating between each addition.

You will then add the flour-polenta mixture in three installments, alternating with half the milk, beginning and ending with the flour.

Using fresh beaters and a fresh bowl, beat the egg whites with the hand mixer on medium speed until they reach the soft peak stage.

Fold a quarter of the egg whites into the rest of the batter until combined;  then add the rest of the whites and fold to combine again.

Pour the batter over the pears in the cake pan and smooth with a spatula to level.  Bake for thirty minutes and then rotate the pan, then bake for another thirty minutes or until a cake tester in the center comes out clean.

Cool the cake pan on a wire rack for thirty minutes.  Run a knife around the edge of the cake pan to loosen the cake, then invert the cake on the serving dish and remove the parchment.  Serve with a garnish of lightly sweetened whipped cream if desired.


Serves 10 to 12 people.

*The original recipe calls for peeling the pears;  I like the color contrast of the peel and skipped this step.

Monday, November 21, 2011

It Takes a Village

I meant to post this weekend, but 20 hours at the theatre got in the way.  "Inspecting Carol" opens on Friday, and between coordinating light and sound cues, dress rehearsals and making sure the special effects work, I don't recall doing much of anything this weekend except making lots of notes and trying to stay calm about things beyond my control.  It really does take a village to put on a play.

The show will be fine.  I just don't like it when things come down to the wire, which this one will. 

Way back the weekend before last when I had actually had free time, I made my second cake as part of the Cake Slice bakers.  Let me be clear:  cheesecake is just not my thing.  My mother, who is quite a good cook, used to make a New York-style cheesecake at least a dozen times a year--it was one of her specialties. 

Every December, my parents would host a huge brunch for all their colleagues that would last at least six hours, with more than a hundred people coming through through the house.  The preparations would start weeks in advance, as my parents would make and freeze various dishes on a nightly basis.  (Looking back, I don't recall being much of a help.)  The week before the brunch, they set up utility shelves in the garage, which became a large walk-in refrigerator.  This was Nebraska in December, so it was plenty cold enough to keep things.

Making this cheesecake, which was more elaborate if no better than the ones my mother made, made me think--hey, even with all the trials and tribulations of directing this play, it's still easier than making brunch for a hundred people--plus I don't have to make small talk for six hours. 

For someone who doesn't like cheesecake, this was shockingly good.  It has an airier texture than most cheesecakes, a great spicy quality and just the right amount of sweetness.  I skipped the original recipe's garnish of sugared pumpkin seeds, but am proud to say that I hand-whipped the cream.  Okay, David and I collectively hand-whipped the cream, because my wrist gave out two-thirds of the way through. 

I am absurdly proud of the hand-whipped cream, which was gorgeous and held up well for two days in the refrigerator.
Although David left for the North Slope for work the day after I made the cake, it did not go to waste.  Several hungry actors and technicians ate it for dinner one night last week. 

Spiced Pumpkin Cheesecake
Adapted from The Cake Book by Tish Boyle

For the crust:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup dark brown sugar, packed
1/8 tsp. kosher salt
1/3 cup shelled pecans
1/4 crystallized ginger, roughly chopped
1/2 cup unsalted butter, cubed
1 tbsp. cold water

For the filling:
1 cup canned pumpkin puree
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 tsp. almond extract*
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg**
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
20 oz. cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup dark brown sugar, packed
1 tbsp. cornstarch
4 large eggs

For the garnish:
1 cup heavy cream
1 tsp. almond extract
1 tsp. granulated sugar

Place a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat it to 350 degrees.  Prepare a nine-inch springform pan by spraying it with baking spray with flour, and wrap a piece of aluminum foil firmly around the outside of the pan.  This will prevent water from leaking in once the cake it in its water bath.

Using a food processor, pulse together the flour, sugar, salt, pecans and ginger.  You will want the ingredients ground to a fine powder.  Add the butter and pulse again until the mixture is in small clumps.  Add the water and process again--you will see the dough start to come together in a large clump.  Remove the dough and press the dough evenly in the bottom of the springform pan.  You may have a little extra dough.

Bake the crust for about 30 minutes, or until lightly golden.  Remove the crust from the oven and cool completely on a baking rack. 

Reduce the heat to 325 degrees.  With a whisk, combine the pumpkin, cream, almond extract, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and salt in a medium bowl.

Using an electric mixer with a large bowl, beat the cream cheese on medium speed until soft and creamy, for about a minute.  Scrape the bowl down and add the granulated and brown sugar and beat until combined.

Add the pumpkin mixture, and beat until just combined.  Add the cornstarch and beat briefly. 

Then add the eggs one at a time, mixing after each until just combined.

Here is the filling after everything is blended in--it's a gorgeous, glossy orange.

Scrape the bowl down one more time and mix again if necessary.  Pour the batter into the springform pan and place the pan in a water bath using a roaster or a very large baking pan.  Add hot water to the outer pan until it is at least an inch deep.
Bake the cheesecake for an hour and 20 minutes, or until the center of the cheesecake is totally set.  The cake will still have some wobbles, but as long as a skewer in the center comes out clean, the cake is ready to be removed from the oven.

That knife trick actually works--a crack-free cheesecake!

Take the cheesecake out of the water bake and place on a baking rack.  Remove the foil and run a paring knife around the edges of the springform pan.  This, miraculously, kept the cheesecake from cracking.

Cool the cheesecake completely and refrigerate if not serving immediately.***

When ready to serve, whip the cream by hand (if feeling masochistic) or with a hand mixer.  Sprinkle the sugar in when the cream starts to thicken.  Add the almond extract when the cream is at soft peak stage.

Serve the cheesecake with a dollop of whipped cream.  Serves at least 12 people, or 8 hungry technicians and actors.

*The recipe called for vanilla extract, which I forgot to buy (I know, what an insane thing to run out of while baking).  Fortunately, the almond extract worked great.
**The recipe calls for freshly grated nutmeg, but I was in a hurry and used good-quality ground nutmeg.
***The recipe recommends cooling the cake completely, and then refrigerating for four hours before serving.  I cooled the cake for an hour and then served a slice to David, and it was ready to go.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Don't Know What to Do with Myself

It's 9 p.m. on a Wednesday and I'm home.  I don't remember the last time that happened, and I especially don't remember the last time I watched television on, you know, an actual television. 

David makes fun of me because I say I don't watch television, but there are a few shows I watch on Hulu when I have time.  Over the last month I've gotten hooked on an ABC show called Revenge, which is just ludicrous soapy fun.  Plus I really like to mock one of the character's New England lobster fisherman accent (if that's what it is, in which case it seems like an insult to lobster fishermen).  And the clothes are fun.
Tomorrow we start the slog into technical rehearsals for Inspecting Carol, which opens the day after Thanksgiving.  I won't be home (or sleeping) much for the next eight days, which hopefully will pay off when the show opens.  I have to watch bad television while I can.

It strikes me that unhealthy (but tasty) food is the only accompaniment for bad television.  This fall, David received a fondue pot for his birthday, in memory of the terrific fondues we had in Switzerland this past spring.  It's surprisingly hard to find a good fondue recipe, because it's such a retro food.  Fortunately, one of my favorite food writers--Mark Bittman--had an easy one in his How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.  Bittman, who writes for the New York Times, is a terrific, no-nonsense arbiter of what people really want to eat.  This recipe is no exception.

Classic Cheese Fondue
Adapted from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman

2 cups dry Pinot Grigio
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tbsp. cornstarch
2 cups Emmenthaler cheese, shredded
2 cups Gruyere cheese, shredded
Fresh-ground black pepper

Accompaniments:  cubed crusty bread, cubes of medium-rare steak, baby carrots

Start with the fondue pot on the stove (if yours is stove-safe), combining the wine and the garlic over medium heat and bring to a simmer.  Combine the cornstarch with a tablespoon of cold water and stir thoroughly, until the cornstarch is incorporated.

Reduce the heat and add the cheese, stirring constantly over low heat.  Keep the mixture at a simmer--do not boil--and cook for approximately ten minutes.

Add the cornstarch mixture and stir thoroughly to combine.  Cook for another five minutes and continue stirring.  It may look like the mixture won't come together.  If the mixture remains clumpy at that time, add wine by the tablespoonfuls until the fondue thins out.  Transfer the fondue pot to its burner and watch to ensure that it doesn't burn.  Add a little fresh-ground pepper to taste.

Serve with desired accompaniments.  Sure, it isn't vegetarian anymore if you serve chunks of steak, but it sure is delicious.

Serves 4 as a main course;  6 as an appetizer.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Chasing the Blues Away (Carbohydrates Edition)

As anyone who read my last entry knows, the last few days have been difficult ones.  Fortunately, the "Inspecting Carol" cast seems to have rallied and perhaps even thrived by having some of the (offstage) drama removed from the show.  The rest of the fallout--my friendship with the departing actor, in particular--is going to have to wait.

I don't know about everyone else, but I'm a carbohydrate addict.  When blue, I have two modes with respect to food:  either my appetite disappears altogether, or I want as many starchy, bready things as you can pile on a plate.

Has anyone ever been to the Zuni Cafe in San Francisco?  It's run by Judy Rodgers, who has been there for almost twenty-five years and has turned it into a combination of neighborhood hangout, foodie destination and upscale Parisian bistro.  It features a long zinc bar and is incredibly loud, and according to my friend Stacey, crammed at all hours.

Photo from the Zuni Cafe website,
The Zuni's signature dish is its roast chicken with bread salad and a side of lightly dressed frisée.  The chicken is wonderful--its skin is thoroughly salted and the bird is refrigerated overnight, which leads to perfectly crisp skin--but the real winner is the bread salad. 

If made correctly, it has a combination of crispy and soft pieces, the tang of vinegar tempered by the sweetness of the dried fruit, and is utterly irresistible.  The ideal bread to use is a hearty country white loaf, and you should avoid French and sourdough breads.  French bread doesn't have the right crumb to crust ratio, and the tang of the sourdough will overwhelm the flavor balance of this dish.

When I handed David the grocery list, I obviously failed to mention the "no French bread" aspect (oops), because that's what he brought home.  It wasn't ideal, but this recipe is solid enough to survive it.

It won't chase the blues away, but it might help.  I've adapted it for the season by swapping out the currants for dried cranberries, if you can find unsweetened craisins.  If they aren't available, use the currants.  I've also substituted leeks, which are readily available and look great right now, for the traditional scallions.

You will have leftover vinaigrette, which can be used for a side salad.  The Zuni primarily uses frisée, but the dressing would be delicious on any kind of baby greens.

Zuni Cafe Bread Salad
Adapted from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook by Judy Rodgers

1 lb. chewy bread, preferably a fresh country-style white bread
8 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
3 tbsp. Champagne vinegar
2 tsp. red wine vinegar
2 tbsp. dried unsweetened cranberries (craisins)
2 tbsp. warm water
4 tbsp. pine nuts, toasted
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1/2 cup leeks, green and pale white portions, thinly sliced
4 tbsp. low-sodium chicken stock
Kosher salt and fresh-ground black pepper, to taste

Slice the majority of the crust off the bread, being careful to leave as much of the loaf intact as possible.  (If you feel like it, eat some of the crusts.  I know I did.)

Preheat the broiler.  While it is heating, cut the bread into about four chunks, and rub them all over with two tablespoons of the olive oil.  Place them on a cookie sheet and broil them until lightly brown all over, turning as necessary.

Remove the bread from the oven and let it cool briefly.  Then tear the bread into irregularly sized chunks.  Don't make the chunks uniform, because the texture of the salad depends on some pieces getting really crisp while others remain soft.  Place the bread chunks in a large bowl.

This is how the crumbs should look, although use a larger bowl, because you'll need the space to toss the bread with the other ingredients.

In a small bowl, combine four tablespoons of olive oil with the Champagne vinegar and whisk together.  Taste and add salt and pepper as needed.  If the mixture is too oily, add a bit more vinegar.

Drizzle half of the vinaigrette on the bread chunks and toss to coat well.  Taste a chunk of the bread and adjust the seasoning again as necessary.  Add additional vinaigrette if needed.

In a ramekin, combine the craisins, red wine vinegar and warm water.  Leave to soak.

Preheat the oven to 475 degrees.  While it is heating, warm two tablespoons of olive oil in a small skillet and add the leeks and garlic over low heat, stirring until they are softened and slightly golden.  This will go fast--don't let the garlic burn.

I had green onions in the house, so used them for the photos. 
The next batch I make will have the leeks.

Add the leek-garlic combination to the bread salad.  Drain the craisins and add those as well, folding these items into the bread.

Drizzle the chicken stock over the bread and fold again.  If the mixture is dry, add a little more vinaigrette. 

Pour the bread into a large round baking dish, ensuring that it is not spread shallowly.  The magic of the salad is that some portions remain soft, while others get crispy.

Place the salad in the oven and bake for approximately 30 minutes, until the salad is lightly golden and thoroughly warmed. 

Serves four to six as a side dish.

And a P.S.--thanks to those both in Anchorage and here in cyberspace for the good thoughts and sympathy over the last couple of days.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Cold Comfort

It's been a long week over here in Cucina49-land.  Not because of work, which is fine, or even the fact that I'm hardly home between work and rehearsal--I expect that. 

We were always meant to be at an awkward phase with the play, which opens two weeks from tonight.  The actors put down their scripts at the beginning of the week, which always leads to trainwrecks and uncertain acting.  We're going through that ugly duckling phase, which is worrisome but usually works itself out.

It's not even that I lost another actor last night, which I did.  It was the manner in which the actor exited, refusing to take direction or give his fellow actors his best work.  It was the actor yelling at me that this was not an enjoyable experience, leaving several of the actors and my inimitable stage manager wondering what they had done or if it was their fault.  It was the yelling at me that their emotional instability was being caused by the show.  It was the fact that this actor was a good friend and managed to make me feel a combustible combination of angry, deeply sad and worried, questioning my own abilities.

The fact that it wasn't either true or fair isn't much of a comfort. 
There are times that you have to be professional when you really want to be a mess.  A few weeks ago, before I started rehearsals, when I said that I didn't always want to be a leader--well, this is why.  Staying calm and reassuring the cast when I don't feel assured costs something.  Even with a good cast and a supportive husband and a fabulous stage manager, it's lonely to be in this position.

So, on this cold and snowy night, when I go to rehearsal to talk to the cast and crew and encourage us to move on, I am taking a big box of cupcakes from a place called Cake Studio.  It won't make everything better, but it's a start.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Hello, Neighbor

I live in one of the older neighborhoods in Anchorage, by which I mean my house was built in the 1950s.

It has real character.  There's a crotchety guy across the street and two doors down who is one of the neighborhood's original residents.  You hardly ever see him, though--he's like Boo Radley.  Maybe he even looks like Robert Duvall, but I wouldn't know.

When David and I moved in just over two years ago, one of our neighbors immediately brought us a homemade apple pie.  They explained that the former residents of our house had brought them baked goods when they moved in a year earlier.

We grew to like this couple, a lot--and not just because they wooed us with baked goods.  A friend of mine called them the "J. Crews" because they had a healthy, outdoorsy but preppy look.  Sadly, the J. Crews moved back to Oregon this past summer and we've been without new neighbors until just over a week ago.

I revived the pastry-giving tradition this past weekend for the new neighbors.  They seem like fitting successors to the J. Crews--both scientists in their 30s, very outdoorsy if maybe slightly less preppy.  Nothing says "I hope we'll be good neighbors" like a good cake.

Thank goodness this bundt cake needed to be evened off on the bottom to get it sitting sturdily in the cake carrier.  Otherwise, I fear I might not have been able to taste it.  It's just the right degree of sweet, with a bit of tang from the sour cream and good crunch from the almonds.  I highly recommend it for wooing whomever needs/deserves to be wooed in your life.

David was also grateful there were crumbs of cake left for tasting.
 Hello, Neighbor Cake
Adapted from Paula Deen

1 cup sliced almonds, toasted
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 3/4 cups granulated sugar
1 cup sour cream
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
6 large eggs, at room temperature
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. almond extract
Powdered sugar to garnish

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.  Butter and flour a twelve-cup bundt cake pan, or spritz it with baking spray with flour.

Cream the butter with a hand mixer at medium-high speed.  When it starts to look light and fluffy, gradually add the granulated sugar and beat for an additional minute.  Add the sour cream and beat to combine.

Here's the ideal look for the butter before the sour cream is added.
 In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together, the baking soda and flour together.  Add 1/2 cup of this to the butter mixture and beat to combine.

After the initial 1/2 cup of the flour mixture is in, add an egg and beat to combine.  Add the flour mixture in five remaining installments, alternating with the eggs.

I'm not going to lie to you--this step is totally tedious, the only slow part to this cake. 
It's worth it, though.
Add the extracts and beat the mixture until just combined.

Fold in the sliced almonds.  Pour the batter into the cake pan and bake for an hour and twenty minutes or until a skewer/cake tester comes out clean.

Cool on a baking rack.  Run a knife around the edges of the pan to loosen the cake and invert it onto the serving plate.  Trim the bottom if necessary to get the cake to sit properly onto the plate (and to get a good snack).

Sift powdered sugar over the cake for a decoration--trust me, it's all this baby needs.

Take the cake to your neighbor if you're feeling generous. 

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Snow City

During the night, it began to snow heavily here in Anchorage.  Snow makes me want to cook.  Of course, as my friend Paul says, so does rain.  And sun.  But never mind that.

Despite all the warnings, I managed to forget that daylight savings time started this morning.  This made my early awakening an extra-early awakening, and I found myself in my kitchen before 7 a.m. preparing to bake a cake for our new neighbors and start a pot of something warm and filling for lunch today that I can continue to eat for lunch into the week.

I have to tell you, no one is at my neighborhood grocery store at 7 a.m.  It's apparently the time to go if you want to miss everyone, particularly if you happen to still be wearing your pajama pants under a long coat and with a polka-dotted pair of Wellington boots.

The cake I'll blog about another day.  The main event was a Moroccan-influenced slow cooker chicken dish.  David hates the slow cooker with a passion (I have yet to figure out why;  maybe because he likes the idea of big casseroles simmering on the stove?), but even he had to admit this dish was a hit.

Serve this over couscous or brown rice, and add a dollop of plain yogurt to the top or--if you're feeling fancy--a mint raita.  While savory, this dish has an interesting acidic tang thanks to the stewed lemons.

Slow Cooker Moroccan Chicken
Adapted from Slow Cooker:  FoodMadeFast

1/2 cup all-purpose flour
3 lbs. boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tsp. ground cumin
1.5 tsp. cayenne pepper
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1/2 cup chopped Italian parsley
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 yellow onion, sliced
1 shallot, chopped
1 can crushed tomatoes with purée
1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 lemon, quartered
Kosher salt and fresh-ground pepper

Combine the flour, one teaspoon of kosher salt and an equal amount of pepper in a wide, shallow dish.  Pat the chicken thighs dry and dredge them in the flour;  set aside--don't discard any leftover flour.

Make sure to shake off any excess flour;  otherwise, the chicken will have a gummy coating.
 Warm the olive oil in a large, shallow skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the chicken thighs in a single layer;  this may mean you make more than one batch.  Brown the chicken on one side for seven to ten minutes until it is a deep caramel color.  Turn the chicken over and cook for another two to three minutes.  Make sure the chicken is well browned.  When it is all done, add the chicken in a single layer in the pot of the slow cooker.

Add the remaining flour to the frying pan, along with the cumin and cayenne pepper.  Stir until the spices are fragrant, about one to two minutes.  Add the chicken broth all at once and deglaze the pan, loosening the browned bits.  Pour the contents of the skillet over the chicken thighs.

Top the chicken with the onion, shallot, parsley, garlic and tomatoes.  Distribute the lemons in the corners of the slow cooker pot.  Cook on the high setting for four hours;  then add the chickpeas and cook for approximately another hour.  Remove the lemon quarters when you add the chickpeas, and taste for seasoning, adding additional salt and/or pepper if needed.

Serve with brown rice or couscous.  Serves 6 as a main course.