Friday, November 30, 2007

Presto Pasta Night: Happy 40th Chicken Parm

Ruth of Once Upon a Feast's highly successful weekly event Presto Pasta Night turns 40 this week! Make sure you head over there later today to see all the fabulous pasta dishes that everyone will have sent Ruth this past week. You'll surely find something in one of the round-ups to fix for dinner tonight or later this weekend.

To help Ruth celebrate I made one of my all time favourite classic American Italian restaurant dishes Chicken Parmigiana. I don't make this at home ever. Seriously too messy of a dish to make at home for me and besides, I never can get the breading for the chicken cutlet to look like the restaurant version. I end up with grease all over the stove and half the breading adhered to the bottom of the frying pan. So, I reserve this dish for when I'm out at a good "classic" American Italian restaurant. You know, the ones with the red velveteen wallpapers, gold flecked mirrors behind a bar with with a swag chandelier hanging over the candle wax encrusted Chianti bottle and a steady stream of Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and Tony Bennett on the muzak system.

However, I have recently discovered a treat at my local mom and pop grocery store/butcher shop, The Market Basket. They make the best breaded chicken cutlet I've ever had outside of a restaurant and they make them fresh each day for their deli sandwiches and to sell at the butcher counter for quick meal ideas.

I was standing at the butcher counter in the Market Basket chatting while I waited for one of the girls to get me a quart of heavy cream from the fridge case in back lamenting that I had no idea what to have for dinner other than toss some of my always ready in the freezer tomato sauce on top of the few left over cheese ravioli I had in the fridge. He laughed and said I should get one of the chicken cutlets and a package of mozzarella, heat the cutlet for 20 seconds in the microwave and then put it on top the ravioli and pour the sauce over and then zap it all for about another minute or so and I'd have almost homemade Chicken Parm that was just like you get at a good local Italian restaurant.

You know what, he was right!

Deli Counter Chicken Parm

Serves one

1 deli breaded chicken cutlet
1 cup cooked pasta (I used four cheese ravioli)
1/2 cup tomato pasta sauce
1/2 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

Cook pasta and heat sauce. Drain pasta and set aside. In microwave, heat chicken cutlet for 20-30 seconds until just about hot. Plate pasta and place warmed chicken cutlet on top of cooked pasta, top with sauce and cheese. Microwave for 1 minute or until cheese is melted.

Serve with slice of garlic bread, small salad and glass of red wine.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Surprising Things I Use from My Pantry

A little over a month ago I was in Cleveland to hang out with those two wild and crazy gals and my sisters of heart, Lisa and Helen for a weekend of baking, drinking, eating, and laughing. One of the weird things that happened that weekend was I discovered that I have this "twin" thing with Helen.

We were scaring each other with all the stuff we eat, foods we like, way we cook, and life experiences we had that were exactly the same or so close it was eerie. Almost from the minute I got into Lisa's cute purple car at the airport, Helen and I were finishing each other's sentences and having "Twilight Zone" moments. I was pretty sure that if we kept at it Lisa was going to tie large rocks around our necks and toss us into Lake Erie!

One of the many delicious things we cooked together that weekend was an incredible pot of corn chowder from the contents of Lisa's pantry. We wanted a hearty soup to serve with grilled cheese sandwiches made with the Asiago Cheese Bread we helped Lisa make. Rummaging around Lisa's fabulously stocked pantry, kitchen and fridge we discovered she had some great bacon from one of the butchers in the West Side Market, 1/2 a can of corn from the fridge, two cans of creamed corn, some grocery store grated Romano cheese (bought by accident), and lots of fresh herbs from Lisa's indoor herb garden. All the perfect ingredients needed for a great pot of chowder!

It was while we were in the kitchen chatting and each adding ingredients to the chowder and tasting for correct seasoning that we got into a discussion on what store-bought chicken stock was our "go to" chicken stock when we didn't feel like making it from scratch. Without hesitation and at exactly the same time Helen and I said "Emeril's" and burst out laughing. I think Lisa rolled her eyes at us and started laughing with us...

My favorite boxed stock

Now before you delete me from your reader let me tell you why I love this stock and keep at least one or two boxes in my pantry. The ingredients are exactly the same ingredients I use when I make it from scratch: chicken, sea salt, chicken fat, carrot, celery, onion, parsley and garlic and spices. There is a little corn starch added to make it stable for shelf life but there is no MSG and no long unpronounceable words; nothing but natural ingredients. There are no metallic tastes or strange flavours that don't suggest chicken stock. This stock actually tastes and looks like chicken stock, complete with little bits of chicken meat floating around. One last thing, Emeril's Chicken Stock is low in sodium at less than 600mg of sodium per serving; pretty darn good for non low-sodium chicken stock.

So, why am talking about this today? Because I think sometimes as food bloggers and passionate eaters, we all get tied up in knots of guilt when we take short cuts and/or use products that the self appointed food snobs out there would vilify us for using, especially when it is a celebrity chef's product. Does this mean that I don't think you should make your own stock? No, all I'm saying is it's OK if you are too busy to make your own stock all the time. It's OK if you need to take a short cut or two to put a good dinner on the table when your night is crazy or you get home late from work. What matters is if you are going to use a short cut product, make good choices and pick the ones that taste good and contain the best ingredients!

Besides, it's hectic out there right now and wouldn't you rather have the time to bake more goodies for your care packages than stir a pot of stock?

Three Crazy Gals Chowder (Or Pantry Corn Chowder)

1lb bacon, diced
1 large yellow onion, diced
2 Tbsp fresh sage
1 Tbsp parsley
2 bay leaves
4 large Yukon gold potatoes, diced
2 1/2 cups water
1 cup chicken stock
1/2 can regular corn (We used Green Giant Super Sweet Yellow and White Corn)
2 cans creamed corn
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 cup romano cheese
salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

Brown bacon in large frying pan. Add onions and saute until translucent. Add sage and parsley and saute for 30 seconds. Transfer contents of frying pan to stock pot. Add pototoes, and water and stock to cover potatoes. Bring to boil and then turn down to simmer. Add bay leaves, creamed corn and corn and simmer until potatoes are tender. Add cream and romano cheese. Cook for 15 minutes until thick and creamy. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Makes 6 big bowl servings

Monday, November 26, 2007

Daring Bakers: Unleashing My Daring Baker and Bread Shaping Skills with Tender Potato Bread

You probably woke up this morning thinking how good a slice of homemade bread toasted spread with some homemade jam would be with that cup of coffee for breakfast or a good leftover Thanksgiving turkey sandwich on soft chewy bread for lunch would be didn't you? Can't you just smell that bread baking? Can't you just taste it as you bite down on puffy, pillowy bread? Don't just want some right now? You want to know why you woke up craving bread?

Well because over 300 Daring Bakers made you want some bread that is why!!

Yup, we're back at it again this month and we've tossed the sugar, frosting, and pastry cream right out the window to bring you the definitely not Atkins friendly, Tender Potato Bread from "Home Baking: The Artful Mix of Flour & Tradition Around the World" by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, courtesy of this month's challenge hostess, the always cooking up a storm with a smile and one of my favourite food bloggers, Tanna of My Kitchen in Half Cups!

Now, I have to admit that when Tanna announced she had picked potato bread for this months challenge I was pretty excited because well, you see, I make potato bread at least once very two weeks. It is in my "don't get bored with bread" rotation and with the craziness of the holidays approaching I was relieved it was something I could do in my sleep versus the normal scald myself with molten sugar creation we have become famous for in the Blogsphere.

Then, I read Tanna's instructions that were part of her post on our secret blog titled, "Unleashing the Daring Baker in You":
"Being a Daring Baker is about trying new recipes, techniques and taking risks. It’s reaching just beyond my comfort zone. This is a Daring Baker Challenge, not a contest and not a competition because at its heart and soul is support and sharing the how to of the baking we do."

After reading what I think should be the Daring Baker creed, I couldn't just approach this challenge as a walk in the park but had to listen to my inner bread baking demon. Tanna had given everyone the option of shaping and flavouring the bread anyway we wanted and the unleashed Daring Baker in me took this opportunity to play with shapes that have always been on my list to try: British Cottage Loaf and a decorative loaf shape, the classic Wheat Sheath.

Before I get into the shape making, let me tell you about this wonderful dough. The Tender Potato Bread dough is a moist dough that at first will make a novice bread baker think you need to add more flour but resist the urge. Bread doughs that have mashed potatoes as part the ingredient will absorb the flour as it rests and this results in a really moist but silky dough. This recipe was lovely in that way. After about 30 minutes, I sunk my fingers into the dough and it was sticky but I could feel that when it finished with its rest it would be a heavy and thick but smooth dough. It didn't disappoint me.

The traditional British Cottage Loaf is a solid and dense bread formed by placing a smaller ball of dough on top of a larger ball of dough and then making vertical slashes on the loaves in a manner so the loaf rises and bakes in a almost "corkscrew" appearance. The Tender Potato Bread (TPB) dough lends itself to this shape because good potato breads are dense with tight texture. After the TPB dough rested for the first rise, I divided it into two dough balls, one large and one that was approximately 1/3 the size of the larger dough ball.

Then I pushed my finger through the center of the dough balls until I touched the counter. This merges the two dough balls together at the center and helps with the "corkscrew" shape that will result. Then I made the slashes.

(excuse the blueness of those two pictures, I think my digital camera is starting to have issues) Next I let the bread rise while I preheated the oven. I brushed the loaf with an egg wash and baked it until it was golden brown and the inside temperature was 190 degrees. The loaf came out perfectly shaped.

And when I sliced it after letting it cool completely, it had the texture that a good dense potato bread and a British Cottage Loaf should have and was the perfect compliment to a bowl of vegetable soup I had before I left for Michigan and Thanksgiving. I gave the remainder of the loaf to my trainer, C and her roommate K. I got an email from C the night before I left telling me that it was more than OK to make them more!

Next up was the Wheat Sheath. A Wheat Sheath is a decorative bread form in the shape of stalks of wheat normally gathered with a rope. It is intended to be used as centerpiece and not eaten. It is a difficult bread to form as there are lots of little pieces and the dough can dry out as you work with it, leading to flat and cracked looking bread instead of a wheat sheath.

You need to work from a pattern and I used a combination of the corn stalk pattern in Paul Hollywood's 100 Great Breads and a few other sources. Taking about 1/4 of the remaining dough, I rolled it out to about 1/4" thick and cut out the base in the form of a keyhole.

Then you take half the dough and make about three long strands about 20 inches long and twenty or twenty five little strands about 8" long. Set aside the little stands and cover them loosely so they don't dry out and braid the three 20 inch strands. Place the braid under the bottom part of the keyhole and leave the ends out and apart on either side.

Place the little strands in two layers in a random fashion. These form the "stalks" of the wheat. Fold the braid over the top so it forms a criss-cross.

Next, take the remaining dough and form the little ears of the wheat by making a long log and cut off little chunks in random shapes and sizes, rolling them into mini-torpedo and then making a little cut in the center with a razor blade. Attach these little ears to the top round of the keyhole shape by brushing the base with an egg wash. Start at the outside and circle around into the center alternating the direction the little ears of wheat lay on top of the outer layer. Let the bread rise for 30 minutes to an hour until the wheat ears puff up.

Brush the loaf with egg wash and bake for 1 hour at 375 degrees then turn down the oven and let it bake for an additional hour at 200 degrees. This completely hardens the loaf. The bread should be a golden brown. If it starts to get too brown, cover it with a layer of foil so it won't over brown. Remove from the oven and let cool completely, overnight if possible. It is OK to leave this bread uncovered because you want all the moisture to leave the bread so it will hold up for several days or even weeks. If you want to keep the loaf permanently you can brush the loaf with a clear varnish. The bread will stay good looking for several years as long as it is stored correctly.

I took the wheat sheath home to be the center piece on the Thanksgiving table. It survived the trip very well tucked in my suitcase in a shirt box and packed between my clothes. When I put it on the table, everyone oohed and awed over it and I have to admit, it did look fabulous.

Thanks Tanna for helping me stretch my bread shaping skills. I'll definitely be making the British Cottage loaf again soon to eat and I am ready to try another decorative loaf too! And thanks also goes to my Daring Baker Sisters in Arms who baked with me on IM! We had quite a party a few Satudays ago and you know who you are! Hugs gals, you made the time go by so fast and I learned something neat from each of you!!

If you want to try this wonderful bread, the recipe for the Tender Potato Bread can be found at Tanna's post here and to see what all 300+ of my other Daring Baker brothers and sisters around the world did with their Tender Potato Bread dough go check them out on our blogroll.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

WCB: Let the Holiday Madness Begin!!

Who spends almost $300.00 at the grocery store I ask you??!!

Yup, today after what can only be described as a fun filled seven hours yesterday waiting for my flight to arrive back home from Thanksgiving at my folks in Northern Michigan, I had to go to the grocery store to buy household necessities like milk, yogurt, fruit and bacon as well as cat food for the master of the house.

Of course that $300.00 bill wasn't only cat food despite what LB would have wished but also all the things I needed for my holiday baking: 4 dozen eggs, 8 four stick boxes of unsalted butter, golden raisins, currants, nuts, chocolate chips of all varieties, 15lbs flour and 10lbs sugar. Not only did I get all the holiday baking ingredients but also all the containers that my holiday care packages need to be shipped in to arrive whole. And then there were those "deck the hall" things like a wreath for the door, a little holly to deck the halls with, and the cutest little snow man thingy to put on the table and a new Santa cat toy for LB. OH, and then there were these just had to have bowls.

All that shopping meant there were lots of bags that needed to come in the house. I'm not sure why but the baggers at the grocery never seem to know what to do with your stuff when you bring your own bags. I always have to ask them to make sure they fill the cloth bags all the way and in fact "over stuff" them. How come this is such a strange concept because these are the same people who seem perfectly capable of over filling the flimsy plastic bag so it will break on the way to the car but when confronted with a heavy duty cloth bag seem to think that only a box of tin foil, two boxes of unflavoured gelatin, and one package of bacon will break the bag.

Anyways, all that bag carrying sure made LB tired because half way between following me between the front door and the kitchen, he decided to lie down in the main pathway in what can only be described as the most uncomfortable position like he was in the middle of a game of Twister with his front paws on "red" and his back paws on "blue".

Ah the exhausting job of waiting for mom to get the new Santa toy out of the bag....

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Cinnamon Bun Bake Off: The Holiday Baking Warm-Up Lap

Note: I'm posting this from the Detroit Airport Northwest Airline World Club near Gate 74 waiting from my flight back to LGA (LaGuardia) using a very nice gentleman from Ohio's computer (I love the holidays, everyone is so nice).

Last Sunday, right before the Best Food Holiday aka Thanksgiving a few of us gals, Lisa, Helen, Sara, Laura Rebecca, Marce, Kelly, Chris, and I decided to get together for a little pre-holiday baking. You know, just to get our game on before the big bakeathon starts in December. This little "tea party" was the brain child of Lisa, who after we did the Peter Reinhart cinnamon rolls from "The Baker's Apprentice" for the September Daring Baker Challenge wondered out loud to us what the difference was between these rolls and those ubiquitous mall and airport Cinnabon™ rolls were. Wouldn'tcha know it but darling Lisa went out and found us a knock-off Cinnabon™ recipe and asked us if we wanted to bake them together using an IM conference (for the woes of seven of us trying to get THAT to work, go read Lisa ever and always hilarious post here).

We decided to start at 10AM East Coast time but since Marce and I both had brunch plans, we got up earlier and got the dough rising. We were joined by Helen, Lisa and Sara. Pretty soon everyone was on and all of us were chatting back and forth about dough and baking and you know, normal tea party chat. The only exception was Kelly who was experiencing technical difficulties (you read why right?? No, well go read about that when you are done here. It is a hoot and besides you get an inside tip on someone who will be staring in her own food programme very soon or should be).

Ever the engineer, I decided to truly do a side by side comparison as well as test how close the knock-off recipe really was to the Cinnabon™ rolls. I had gone to the local mall the night before to pick up a four pack of Cinnabon™ rolls as well as pulled the four leftover Reinhart rolls out of the freezer and popped then in the fridge to defrost. Also, since the knock off recipe called for margarine instead of butter (Ewwww...) I had to buy a box of margarine (Nothing that costs .99 for four sticks can be good). I decided to make two half batches of the knock off recipe. One with butter because I wanted to eat a roll that I knew would be good and one with the margarine because I suspect that mouth feel of the Cinnabon™ roll comes from trans fats found in margarine, oleo, or a Crisco™ wannabe. When I explained on IM why I was going to all the trouble, Sara chimed in "You really ARE a scientist aren't you??!!" (Nope, just play one on TV, ha-ha)

The doughs came together pretty well. My kitchen was really cold but that was OK because I was going to have to retard the doughs during their rise anyways. After I got the doughs made, I popped then in a fridge to rise slow while I went to New Haven to have brunch with some friends. I really hated to leave the party as I'm sure it was a riot.

By the time I got back, I had puffy doughs that needed about 20 minutes of rise time at room temperature before I could form the rolls. This gave me a chance to bake the thawed Reinhart rolls and make the frosting. I also got caught up on the days baking from Kelly, who was doing her best Food Network Host impression online via a live video feed of her kitchen (Um...Kelly can host a show let me tell you. Much better than a few of the bubbleheads we are forced to watch on Food Network) and Helen, who was on the video feed's chat. I found out that the rolls came out really well for everyone and that the consensus was that the knock-offs were gooier and more cinnamony than the Reinhart rolls and the frosting knocked it out of the park.

So, how did my head to head taste off come out? Here are my tasting notes:

Reinhart Rolls:

dough rose nicely, great flake in finished roll, good balance of flavor, lemon zing really nice, frosting OK but not my favourite

Mall Cinnabon™ Rolls:

very doughy, almost uncooked in middle, roll chewy and heavy, cinnamon to the max flavour, frosting one step above bakery cake frosting (i.e. I could eat a whole bowl of it).

Knock-Off Rolls with Margarine:

Dough rose nicely but slow, good flake but not as chewy as Cinnabon™, cinnamon flavour close but not quite as cinnamony as Cinnabon™, Frosting (with margarine as recipe called for) was almost exact replica of the Cinnabon™ frosting with same texture and same flavor.

Knock-Off Rolls with Butter:

Dough rose same as margarine dough, flake was very close to Reinhart dough with same texture and consistency, cinnamon flavour was same as knock off (I'll use more cinnamon next time I make them), and the frosting with butter was better than the Cinnabon frosting because it had the same flavor but didn't leave that weird film on the roof of my mouth (not that I don't like that in bakery frosting....)

So, which of these will I make again? Probably none of them. I have my own recipe I've spent a few years perfecting that I think combines the best of all these rolls. I am however going to use this frosting recipe for my rolls and every once in a while add some lemon to my rolls because that little bit of citrus really does heighten the cinnamon flavour.

Thanks Lisa and gals for asking me to bake with you. I can't wait to do it again.... OH WAIT!!! Hum, isn't it about that time again?

Monday, November 19, 2007

Off to Stuff a My Face but Not a Turkey!

Tomorrow bright and early I'm off to my "favourite" airport, LaGuardia (you hear the sarcasm in my typing right?) to fly home to Michigan to spend Thanksgiving with my family. I was just home a few weekends ago for my Grandfather's funeral but I really wanted to be home again under much happier circumstances.

This will be the first Thanksgiving in almost seven years I'm not cooking a full Thanksgiving dinner. Thanksgiving was W's favourite holiday and I have to admit that this year I'm glad I'm not going to be cooking and more importantly not alone but surrounded by those that love and care for me. It will keep my mind off the careful plans and huge dinner I used to make.

This year, my family is heading to my step brother and his wife's house. I adore them and they have three of the most wonderful kids. I'm in charge of making the bread and rolls (surprise, surprise) and I am bringing a bit of my sourdough starter to make my sourdough cinnamon rolls. I had to dry it since I don't want the TSA to confiscate the liquid starter because as I've discussed here a few posts ago, bread flour is a national security threat (man, I'm really tempting the airport whammie to cause problems aren't I??!!)

What is all this rambling leading up to you ask? As my folks don't have internet access, well they do but it is 16K dial up and is excruciating to do anything but check in for my return flight, I won't be posting for a few days.

So, I guess I'm telling my readers in the US to have happy and safe Thanksgiving and the readers in the rest of the world to have a great next few days.

Just so you don't think I'm leaving you without a recipe to play with here is something I make for the holiday season entertaining and always keep in the fridge for those spur of the moment dessert and coffee get-togethers! Enjoy but safely and responsibly boys and girls...

Homemade Irish Cream Liqueur
Makes about 5 cups
1 3/4 Cup your favourite "brown" liquor from one of these: whiskey, brandy, rum, bourbon, scotch or rye (I use blended whiskey like Seagram's Seven or Canadian Mist)
1 14oz can sweetened condensed milk
1 C whipping or heavy cream (to make it a little more "diet" friendly you can use light cream too!)
4 eggs
2 Tbsp chocolate flavoured syrup
2 tsp instant coffee or espresso
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp almond extract

In a blender combine all the ingredients and blend until smoth. Server as you would any cream liqueur (over ice or in coffee or straight up!) Store tightly covered in fridge for up to a month. Stir well before serving.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Making a Cantina Out of My Kitchen with Isabel's Help

I have to admit to a huge hole in my cookbook collection and it is a hole that I haven't been all that anxious to fill. My cookbook collection is sorely lacking in the catagory of Latin foods. This hasn't been been because I don't like foods from Latin America because all you have to do is point me in the direction of the nearest restaurant serving food from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, or any of the countries that make up Latin American Cuisine and I'll race you for the door. But ask me to cook it for you??!! I would run the other way.

I have to admit I was a bit intimidated by all different spices and peppers and cooking techniques that Latin cuisine uses. Not to mention, until recently, I didn't live an area with good access to the fresh ingredients that are the hallmark of Latin American cuisine. That all changed when I was asked to review Isabel Cruz's new cookbook Isabel's Cantina: Bold Latin Flavors from the New California Kitchen .

When the book arrived I was immediately struck by the bright colors on the cover. I was then drawn in with the simplicity of the lay out of the book. There are nine chapters in the book covering starters; salads; soups; main courses; rice, beans, and other sides; salsas, sauces, and marinades; desserts, drinks, and breakfasts. Each chapter starts out with an explanation of the spices, flavors, and cuisines that Ms. Cruz took her inspiration from for the dishes she included in the chapter. The recipes are well written with hints about how to choose the best fresh ingredients you will be using for the dish, how to combine them to get the flavors just right, other dishes in the cookbook to pair the dish with, and serving suggestions. Sometimes she includes the cultural history behind the dish or a shares a family story about how the dish was served at a family function.

Another pleasant surprise was how Ms. Cruz also draws influence for her dishes from other cuisines like Japanese in the "Mahi Mahi with Jalapeno Ponzu Sauce" or Thai in the "Budda Bowl" recipe. I made both of these dishes and while I found the jalapeno a bit over powering for the Mahi Mahi, I have used the ponzu sauce with bluefish and it brought out all the things good about the meaty bluefish. I have the "Budda Bowl" in regular rotation for a quick but delicious dinner that leaves enough leftovers for a good lunch the next day. I also always have a small container of the "Balsmatic Dressing" found on page 153 in my fridge. I've used this on salads, to marinate figs in for an appetizer, and to deglaze a pan I used to caramelize onions and then poured the reduction over a rare steak. That reduction made my $5.99 sale steak from the local butcher taste every bit as good as the $68.00 steak I had at Ruth Chris a few weeks ago and I'm already dreaming about using it on oven-roasted pork tenderloin this winter. The only recipe I tried that I wasn't that fond of was the recipe for Sweet Plantains and it wasn't the recipe but rather I discovered that despite really trying to like them, I just don't like plantains. But, the recipe that is on the very next page, 132, will knock your socks off literally and figuratively. It is for "Firecracker Corn" and I love this so much I've made it as a main dish for dinner a few times. It is simplicity in ingredients, only containing olive oil, red jalapeno, corn and kosher salt. The last warm weekend of the late summer I grilled the corn before making this and the combination of the spice of the jalapeno and the smoky corn made a great base for corn salsa.

After living with this cookbook for the past few months and cooking out of it at least once a week I have a few Latin American techniques that I am much more comfortable with performing. I skin and seed hot peppers with more confidence and now make sure the Latin American aisle is on almost every trip to the store. I also have cooked two of the recipes so much that I have committed them to memory. The first is for "Cumin Panko Chicken". I love the way the cumin takes what can be a boring evening meal of breaded chicken cutlet and elevates it to a dish worthy of being served at a dinner party and the panko bread crumbs give the chicken breast a wonderful texture.

The other recipe that I know by heart is the "Pina Colada Pancakes". These pancakes are some of the best pancakes I've had and the recipe for the pancake batter is the best recipe I've ever worked with; even when I cut it in half. I love these so much that I've had them for dinner twice this week! Each bite is filled with the tastes of a beach vacation in the Caribbean. I am definitely putting these on the menu when I next have my girlfriends over for brunch and I'm serving them with the "Ginger Yogurt Breakfast Parfait" and the "Star Tea" found on page 203 and page 195 respectively.

All in all Isabel's Cantina: Bold Latin Flavors from the New California Kitchen by Isabel Cruz, has helped me overcome my fear of cooking Latin American food and helped me start what I hope will soon be an ever growing collection of cookbooks that feature the tastes of Latin America and beyond.

Pina Colada Pancakes

Serves 4 to 6

2 cups AP flour
1/4 cup plus 2 Tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
3 tsp baking powder
1 cup canned coconut milk
1 cup milk
3 Tbsp melted butter, cooled slightly
2 large eggs
3/4 cup fresh or canned pineapple chunks, thinly sliced
1/2 cup shredded sweetened dried coconut

In large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, salt, and baking powder. Combine coconut milk, milk, butter and eggs in a medium bowl and whisk to combine. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and whisk until just incorporated.

Heat an oiled griddle or large skillet over medium high heat.

Working in batches, use a laddle to spoon 1/4 cup of batter for each pancake onto the hot griddle. As the pancakes cook, drop some pineapple and a sprinkling of shredded coconut onto each pancake. When air bubbles form on top and the undersides are golden, 2 to 4 minutes, depending on the heat under griddle, flip the pancakes and cook for 2 minutes on the other side.

Serve Hot

Note: I have added a splash of dark rum to the last two batches I made with amazing results!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

On a Cake Kick

I'm not sure what it is but it seems like cake is the only thing coming out of my oven the past week...

Here is a tally of all the eggs, flour, sugar, and butter goodness baked since last Tuesday:

* German Chocolate Cake
* Barefoot Contessa Coconut Cupcakes
* Mini Chocolate Chip Cheesecake
* Yellow Butter Sheet Cake with Coconut Icing (I had left-over cream cheese coconut icing from the cup cakes to use up)
* Triple Chocolate Birthday Cake with the left over chocolate ganache frosting from the German Chocolate Cake (This is being consumed today in the office for a birthday)

and tonight I'm going home to make not one but two pistachio cardamom poundcakes!!

Not to mention I received a special package from a friend in NYC yesterday containing a cookbook full of more cakes that are just dying to be made...and soon.

When will it end?

Monday, November 12, 2007

I Get By with the Help of My Friends

I ask you, is there anything better in the world than coming home to find a box propped up against your door when you weren't expecting one?

I think not... and I'm starting to think that Christmas DOES start in September!!

First, in September, there were some lovely house warming gifts including a visit from talented bread bakers disguised as crocheted eggs courtesy of my "sister" Helen of Tartlette. Then my other twin sister of different mothers and the Queen of Dorkdom, Lisa from La Mia Cucina sent me a care package in the form of salt rising bread yeast and a baker's couche. This was followed by my wonderful friend from the British Columbia, Sara of I Like to Cook sending me a copy of Educating Peter: How I Taught a Famous Movie Critic the Difference Between Cabernet and Merlot or How Anybody Can Become an (Almost) Instant Wine Expert and a surprise cookbook, Preserves (Company's Coming) by Jean Pare.

The week before last I received a completely out of the blue package from the incredibly sweet and talented Veronica of Veronica's Test Kitchen. Inside was a collection of all the kitchen gadgets a home cook never has enough of like measuring cups, spatulas, and kitchen towels!

Not to mention something near and dear to a bread baker like me...more yeast!!! I so "heart" Veron because some of the things I didn't take in the great escape from Cambridge were the good spatulas.

Then this week on Saturday morning, when I was craving chocolate glazed donuts with sprinkles (I was either channeling Homer Simpson on my run or it was the Dunkin Donuts down the street that was "making the donuts" that caused this) I got home to find a white package with an air mail label on it propped up against the front door of my building. Sitting down in the light rain and kicking off my shoes, I ripped open the package to find this from my favourite Creampuff, Ivonne!

I had asked Ivonne, who was culling her immense cookbook collection, for this book, The Donut Book. I love donuts and have never had a really good recipe for those puffy glazed yeast raised donuts for which small mom and pop donut shops are famous. I've been dying to try my hand at making them lately to take into work.

Now, I have a good reason to pull out the flour and sugar and a perfect use for the extra chocolate ganache from the German chocolate cake I made for my friends party this past weekend and use some of that SAS yeast and those nice green spatulas from Veronica!

But more importantly, every time I use the kitchen towels from Helen, roll out the perfect baguette with Lisa's baker couche, make walnut marmalade with Sara's lovely gift, measure bread flour in the green measuring cups that match my kitchen from Veron, or dip a crueller in honey from the book Ivonne sent me I will get a smile on face because I have some of the best friends in the world.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Sweet Smell of Success (or Oh My Aching Back...)

Last night was my dear friends anniversary party that I spent the last week preparing for since I was catering the food. It was a great time for everyone, including me! Well, it was a great time most of the time for me and there were really only two kitchen disasters; one at home and one that involved a Rachel Ray recipe (heaven help me).

A few months ago, my two friends took me out to dinner and asked me if I would mind helping them celebrate their anniversary or more specifically the ceremonial opening of a massive bottle of French Bordeaux they received on their wedding day. They wanted me there as a guest foremost but also wondered if I would do the food as well because they couldn't think of anyone else they would would rather have cater their party. I was honoured and agreed to do the party. My friends wanted something simple that their family and friends would enjoy and allow everyone to mingle and mix; especially since it would be an eclectic mix of people. They wanted a large spread of appetizers and desserts with only three specific requests: no red meat, nothing to pedestrian with the exception of two or three dishes for a few family members who weren't too "worldly", and there had a be a re-creation of their wedding cake; German Chocolate Cake. A few dinners or meetings at their house over a bottle of wine and here was the menu we came up with:

Fried Polenta and Chorizo (and some plain with dipping sauces)
Sesame Ginger Grilled Prawns
Buttermilk Oven Fried Wings
Grilled Eggplant Stacks (rounds of marinated grilled eggplant layered with fresh mozzorella, roasted red peppers, and sprinkled withe capers)
Fig and Blue Cheese Stuffed Phyllo cups
Baked Brie with Fruit

Mixed Cheese Platter (nothing too exotic: Extra Sharp NY Cheddar, smoked gouda, dill havarti, herbed cherve, English Farmers, Cambert)
Homemade Potato Chips
Proscuitto wrapped honeydew and cantalope
Oven Fried Ravioli with homemade marinara
Wasabi Potato Balls (courtesy of Je Mange La Ville)
Smoked Lake Superior Whitefish Pate

German Chocolate Cake (the same one we made in Cleveland)

Barefoot Contessa Coconut Cupcakes (another request from my friends and so good I had the left over batter and frosting for dinner Friday night!)

Mini Chocolate Chip Cheese Cake
All American Cookie Platter: chocolate chip, oatmeal scotchies, blondies
Italian Cookie Platter (provided by the couple, she comes from a large Italian family and she knew she had to have this or face the family!)
Jordan Almonds

Coffee, aperitifs, and wine; including the imperial bottle of 1989 Chateau Talbot St. Julian Bordeaux that was the guest of honor.

Putting all this together was hard work but even with the long nights this week, being on my feet for over sixteen hours yesterday including both morning prep and the actual working the party and the two snafus, it was so worth seeing how happy everyone with the food. I got complements all night and except the aforementioned Rachel Ray Fried Polenta with Chorizo that everyone liked but I thought fried up like crap and weren't that spectacular tasting (the polenta got oily from the Chorizo and left a mess in the pan. Maybe I should have bought the yucky store made polenta her recipe called for instead of making my own?), by 9pm people were walking around with that happy face of a successful party.

When most of the guests left at 10pm there were hardly any leftovers with the exception of a few baskets of potato chips and a few cupcakes (the recipe makes twenty-four) and 1/2 of the cheesecake and that was when the best part party happened. After most the guests had left, leaving a few former colleagues and I including the host and hostess, we gathered up the remnants of the feast and sat around the kitchen until 1am chatting about old times and catching up while drinking the last of the very drinkable, very smooth Bordeaux.

The winning foods you ask? The grilled eggplant stacks, the fig and blue cheese stuffed phyllo cups, the wasabi potato balls (yes, yes, yes!!) and the German chocolate cake.

Fig and Blue Cheese Stuffed Phyllo Cups
Serves 30

4 packages frozen phyllo cups
2 8 oz packages of dried figs
4 Tbsp Butter
3 medium yellow onions, diced
1 cup balsamic vinegar
2 tsp kosher salt
3 tsp thyme
1/2 lb Blue Cheese

Day Before: In food processor, chop figs until fine and place in medium bowl and set aside. In large pan and on medium heat, melt butter and caramelize onion (add more butter as needed but not too much) and add to figs. Mix salt, thyme, and vineagar and deglaze pan. Cook down to 3/4 cup on low heat. Stir sauce into fig and onion mixture and let sit overnight for flavours to marry.

To assemble: Using 1tsp of fig mixture, fill phyllo shells and top with little chunk of blue cheese, place on large rimmed cookie sheet. This can be done a couple hours ahead of party but don't do this any sooner or the mixture will soften the phyllo shells.

To bake: Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Bake on cookie sheet for 7-10 minutes or until cheese is melted. Serve immediately

Other serving ideas: The fig spread is wonderful served cold on slices of crispy French bread along side a salad

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Bread Flour as a Weapon

This morning a few of my fellow Daring Bakers and I were comparing notes about the differences between flours in the US and Europe (European flours tend to have a lower gluten content than the US flours because the different types of wheat used). I mentioned that one of my dreams was to get a sample of bread flour from the US, Canada, and a few countries in Europe and Asia and then come back home and have a "bake off" to compare and contrast the differences using the same bread recipe.

After signing off to actually do some work, I got a surprise email from fellow uber-bread baker, Ulrike at Kuchenlatein. She was offering to send me my German sample of bread flour. I was so excited and touched by her kindness, especially since she said that if she got the flour in the mail today I would have it for Christmas. So with visions of bread baking dancing in my head, I emailed back my address and got back to the project I was working; all the while excited that I was one flour closer to my world-wide flour head to head bake-athon.

I shouldn't have baked my loaves in my head too fast because this evening I received an email from Ulrike not telling me my flour was in the mail but rather that she couldn't send me the flour at all because it wouldn't be allowed into the country. No shipping company would allow Ulrike to ship the flour to the US of A because it was a "white powder" and/or the flour might be a threat. HUH?

Apparently the US Government, with all its spare time since everything is going so well here and abroad, has placed bread flour from Germany on the "terrorist watch list".

Um, yea... I feel safer already...

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Let Them Eat Cake....Or Not

It isn't often that I share my kitchen disasters with you. Not because I don't have any because I do and often. But rather I'm normally too flustered when they happen that I don't have a camera at hand and if there is one thing in the kitchen that a picture really is worth a thousand words it is the kitchen disaster!

This weekend I'm catering some dear friends wedding anniversary celebration. There will be over twenty guests and the only thing they wanted for their celebration is a buffet of appetizers and desserts, including a re-creation of their wedding cake, a three layer German Chocolate Cake. Luckily, a few weeks ago, when I was hanging out in Cleveland with those two wild and crazy gals Lisa and Helen one of the many sugar laden things we made was just about the best tasting German Chocolate Cake ever!

So, tonight after work, I went home to make the cake layers to pop into the freezer until Thursday when I would begin assembling the desserts for the Saturday party. The batter went together easily and made enough for four layers of cake. Since my oven is pretty small, I baked in two shifts of two pans. The first two cakes came out with no problems and even the the second batch baked well. It was the removing from the pans that well...not so much. The first cake of the second batch came out the pan nicely and I flipped it out and back onto the cooling rack. I guess I was feeling cocky about the success of the cake but what ever happened the second cake decided to flip out of the pan, off the cooling rack and onto the floor on the other side of my kitchen island.