Cheese Straws

June 29, 2012 7 comments

Cheese Straws

Today would have been my mom’s 76th birthday. Hard to believe it’s been almost three years since she died. Mom was my inspiration for starting this blog. She was a wonderful writer and gifted storyteller, though not the best cook. Mom was the first to admit it! She always said Dad was the better cook and she marveled at how Dad and I would cook without recipes. She urged me to write my recipes and share them with others. Hence this blog.

Mom had three favorite food groups – butter, salt, and mayo (it’s amazing she was as skinny as she was). Probably her favorite snack was cheese straws. Cheese straws have two of her basic food groups covered! It’s only fitting that I share the recipe today.

Cheese straws are a Southern party staple. We serve them at teas, birthdays, weddings, baby showers, open houses, gallery openings, and even at funerals. We give them as gifts and they are well-received.  I always look forward to a package from our friend Ursula during the holidays. I know it will include her delicious cheese straws.

There are many different types of cheese straws. The traditional kind that I grew up with is made with flour, butter, cheddar cheese, cayenne pepper, and salt. The dough is typically pushed through a cookie press into long thin crispy straws.  However, there are many other varieties:  cheese straw wafers, cheese straw “biscuits” with Rice Krispies, sausage (or soy) cheese balls, and even cheese straw dough wrapped olive puffs (the star of many 1970’s cocktail parties at our house!). The South loves cheese straws so much that there are bakeries that specialize in them and there are cooks who have a cherished cheese straw recipe handed down between generations. 

I have experimented with some healthier substitutes. Gluten-free flour blends are better now and can be used in the recipe. Spelt flour also works. Personally, I have not experimented with a vegan version, but I have heard it is possible to use almond or soy cheese and margarine (or a coconut oil blend).

This particular recipe is a tweaked version of several friends’ recipes with a few of my own twists. Special thanks to Dan Tatum, Ursula Vann, and Connie Ulrich for sharing their recipes over the years. I must give full credit to Dan for the technique. I have always used a cookie press but then I tried Dan’s cheese straws over the holidays. He rolled them out with a rolling-pin and then cut them with a pizza cutter. They were awesome! Like little crispy, French fry-shaped cheese biscuits of goodness. The cheese straws in the photos are a little short. We ate the long, pretty ones and then I decided to take photos for the blog. Oops, I’m still learning! Hope you enjoy one of my ma’s favorite snacks…

Cheese Straws (Print recipe)

2 cups grated extra sharp Cheddar cheese, softened at room temperature*

1 stick unsalted butter, softened at room temperature

1½ cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon cayenne pepper (or to taste)

Paprika

Preheat oven to 375º F. Mix all the ingredients – you can use a food processor, a mixer with a dough hook, or mix it by hand, the old-fashioned way (my preferred method!). You will end up with a thick dough. You can use either method to form your straws:

Traditional method: Use a cookie press with a star attachment to form the straws directly on a parchment lined cookie sheet.

-OR-

Dan’s method: Use a rolling-pin to roll out the dough on a floured surface. You want the dough about 3/16”. You can use chopsticks on either side as guides. Then, use a pizza cutter to cut long, thin strips. Transfer them carefully to a parchment lined cookie sheet.

Sprinkle with paprika. Bake for about 12 to 15 minutes, until golden brown. Cool on a rack. Store in an air tight container.

*Notes about the cheese: After grating the cheese, leave it out until it comes to room temperature. Whatever cheese you use, you want to grate it yourself! Store bought pre-grated cheese just isn’t the same in this recipe. Something must be added to keep it from clumping and it interferes with the texture of the cheese straws. Cheddar varieties: for the cheese straws in the photo, I used an extra-sharp aged white Cheddar cheese. They were delicious but not the same as when I use sharp or extra-sharp yellow Cheddar cheese.  They just didn’t look the same. Cheese Straw Purists probably won’t like my white Cheddar substitution, but it’s what I had. I thought they were good, even if they weren’t traditional looking! And finally don’t skimp on the cheese, you want 2 full cups.

 

Extra Sorbet

Scenario: you make sorbet for dessert. However, you eat too much dinner. So, what do you do with the leftover sorbet? Well, we ran into this situation over the weekend with extra berry mojito sorbet. Can you say too much pizza?

Sorbet needs time to ripen (firm up) in the freezer. However, it can freeze really hard. So firm, that it is difficult to scoop out of the container. The good thing is, sorbet is very forgiving – you can soften it and refreeze it without altering the texture (unlike ice cream which makes weird crystals). I kinda thought there might be too much sorbet on Friday evening, so when I was serving dessert, I made a few extra scoops and re-froze them. That way, they were in convenient serving sizes for repurposing into tasty beverages. First, I made a sorbet spritzer on Saturday evening. Then, on Sunday morning, I made a sorbet kefir smoothie. I think they were both good ways to enjoy the deliciousness that was the extra berry mojito sorbet. Hope you also enjoy them

Print Recipe Feature

I also hope you like that I finally have a print button! I know lots of folks who use tablets, smartphones, and laptops in the kitchen and I do too on occasion. Though generally, I am a Luddite and I like an old-fashioned printed recipe (often I add handwritten notes in the margins). But I do not want to print an entire blog entry because I try to be mindful of printing too much. Now, with the handy-dandy Print recipe link, you can print a plain version of the recipe. Thanks to Anastasia at While Chasing Kids for the inspiration. Her blog is awesome and she has used this feature for some time. So I peeked at the code and we figured out how to do it on my posts. Eventually, I will go back and add it to some other posts (especially long recipes).

Sorbet Spritzer
(Print recipe)

2 scoops sorbet

Sparkling water, chilled (Pellegrino, club soda, seltzer, etc.)

Garnish: few berries (or whatever fruit is in the sorbet), mint leaves, and/or lime wedges

Serves: 2

Put a scoop of sorbet in each glass. Top off the glass with sparkling water. Garnish and enjoy!

Fruity Sorbet Kefir Smoothie
(Print recipe)

2 scoops sorbet

2 spears of fresh pineapple, sliced

2 fresh peaches, sliced (pits removed)

Splash of low fat plain kefir (or yogurt)

Serves: 2

Put all the ingredients in a blender. Cover. Process until smooth. Enjoy. 

Other ideas for repurposing sorbet:

  • Sorbet ice cubes: Just before you ripen the sorbet in the freezer, take some and freeze in ice cube trays. Then you can use the cubes for spritzers or smoothies. Probably easier than making scoops, freezing them, and then storing them. Just keep the cubes in a resealable plastic bag.
  • Sorbet popsicles: You can make little square popsicles by placing a toothpick into each cube once it is semi-set. Then freeze until firm and enjoy. Or, if you have popsicle molds, even better! I guess little jars or cups with popsicle sticks would also work.

Berry Mojito Sorbet

Here’s another recipe using the mint simple syrup recipe from a few weeks ago. Having simple syrup already in the refrigerator makes a quick sorbet since it saves a step. Also, there is no need for extra time to cool the hot syrup.

For this sorbet, I used a combo of frozen blackberries and blueberries because we had leftovers from last summer. Fresh berries would also be great in this recipe.

Berry variations:  You could use all blueberries or all blackberries. Just adjust the quantities. If you use only blueberries, use 4 cups. If you use a mixture of berries, use 2 cups blackberries and 2⅔ cups blueberries. If you use all blackberries, which I’ve never tried, use about 6 cups. The reason is that when you strain the puréed mixture, you will lose some purée the seeds are removed. The blackberries I used were very “seedy” so I had to supplement with some extra blueberries. You want to end up with just under 4 cups of puréed fruit.

I decided to make this Berry Mint Mojito Sorbet to take to our friends’ house last night. I’ve only made it one other time. Nothing like cooking experiments among friends! Marshall and Melanie recently built a brick pizza oven in their backyard and they invited us over to celebrate our recent job news with a pizza dinner. Matt received a promotion at work and I love my new part-time editing job. Woo hoo, job-wise it was a good week at the Smith-Jordan house.

Back to the pizza and dessert…we all provided different toppings and made our own pizzas (most of the toppings came from our gardens!). I knew we would eat a lot, so I wanted to make a light dessert. However, I had no idea we’d eat that much. Oh my goodness, the pizzas were incredible! Aside from the pizza in Italy on our honeymoon, these were the best pizzas I have tasted. They were so worth the gluten splurge. By the end of the pizza fest (or pizza feast), I was glad we had a light and refreshing frozen dessert. Melanie had sliced fresh peaches with honey and citrus, a perfect accompaniment to the sorbet. Fresh berries and mint leaves are also nice additions. Hope you enjoy this refreshing summer dessert:

Berry Mojito Sorbet

2 cups blackberries

2⅔ cups blueberries

¾ cup mint simple syrup

2 tablespoons lime juice (I only had lemon juice, but it worked)

1-2 tablespoons rum (optional, but the alcohol helps the texture)

Pinch of salt

Optional garnish: berries, sliced peaches, and sprigs of mint.

Serves: 8-10

Heat half of the berries in a saucepan on medium heat for about 3-5 minutes. You want to heat them until some of the berries pop. Remove from heat and add the other berries. Purée them in a blender or in a food processor until almost smooth. Strain the berries using cheesecloth, a sieve, or a chinois conical strainer to remove excess seeds. I strain the mixture directly into my large quart Pyrex measuring cup because it has a spout and this makes it easy to pour the base into the ice cream freezer. [Plus, this container fits perfectly in an ice bath (to speed up the chilling time). You can skip the ice bath step, just make the base and let it chill for several hours or overnight. You want the base as cool as possible before you churn it.]

Add the simple syrup, lime juice, rum, and salt to the strained berry purée. Taste and adjust as needed. Depending on the sweetness of the berries, you might want to add more simple syrup or more lime juice if they are very sweet. Place the Pyrex container in an ice bath for a quick chill. Then chill the mixture in the refrigerator for a few hours. Freeze in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Let ripen (firm up) in the freezer before serving. Serve with berries, peaches, and sprigs of mint if you want.

 

 

Magic Triple Berry Cobbler

June 16, 2012 7 comments

This is a new and improved recipe for Magic Blueberry Cobbler from last August. We had fresh strawberries but not enough to make a strawberry-only cobbler. It takes a lot of strawberries for a strawberry cobbler (5-6 cups)! Probably why you don’t find it on the menu at many restaurants. Since we didn’t have enough strawberries, I added fresh blackberries and frozen blueberries (need to finish last year’s bounty before we pick more). When I re-read the original recipe, it was confusing. So I simplified it.

I’ve used this basic recipe with blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, and peaches (various combinations). Probably my favorite is the triple berry. Not sure if the recipe would work with apples. I don’t think there is enough moisture in the apples to make a filling. Maybe if I added some water or apple juice??? It might be worth trying one of these days (maybe I’ll make a half batch just in case it doesn’t work).

Magic Triple Berry Cobbler

Fruit Filling:

3½ cups fresh strawberries, hulled and sliced

1 cup fresh blueberries (frozen berries also work)

1 cup fresh blackberries

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Preheat oven to 350°F.  Mix and spread the berries in a 9×13” buttered baking dish.  Drizzle the lemon juice over the berries and set aside.

 

Batter:

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon

1¼ cups sugar

1 cup milk (I use half-and-half with a little water or whole milk)

5 tablespoons butter, melted

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, salt, nutmeg, cinnamon, and sugar. Mix well. Stir in the milk, butter, and vanilla. You will end up with a thick batter. Spoon the batter over the berries and spread in an even layer. Use a light touch; otherwise you might end up with berries in the batter (similar to a muffin).

 

Magic Topping:

1¼ cups sugar

½ teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons cornstarch

1½ cups boiling water

In a small bowl, combine the sugar, salt, and cornstarch.  Use a whisk or fork to mix it thoroughly. Sprinkle this mixture evenly over the batter.  Pour the boiling water over the top of the cobbler.  Using the handle of a wooden spoon, poke about 6 to 8 holes in the batter so the water and magic topping can reach the berries.  Bake for 1 hour or until bubbly and golden brown. Serve it warm, at room temperature, or even cold!

Cocktails and Kale

June 9, 2012 3 comments

Three Cocktails + Kale Chips = Friday Night

Cocktails and Kale…Today’s odd sounding post is courtesy of  a lazy Friday evening spent at home on our patio. We bought some delicious fresh kale from Tune Farm at the Greene Street Market on Thursday night and we still had strawberries from Dennison’s Farm so it seemed like a natural fit. Well, not strawberries and kale together (but it might not be the worst combination). Instead, we had strawberry cocktails served with oven baked crispy kale chips. In the last post, I shared several recipes for simple syrup. Those recipes will come in handy in the strawberry cocktails. The drinks feature strawberries because they are still so plentiful, fresh, and delicious. However, the drinks would also be good with blackberries, raspberries, or blueberries. These recipes also make wonderful non-alcoholic spritzers.

The drink recipes call for a muddler  and muddling. So, what is a muddler? It is a bartender’s tool, similar to a pestle, used to mash things (muddling). If you do not have a muddler, you can use a fork, the back of a spoon, or even a potato masher (though it probably won’t fit in a glass). I’ve used my lemon reamer and the pestle from our chinois conical strainer to muddle the ingredients. I’ve also thought about using my porridge spurtle. Yes, we have a porridge spurtle. What is a porridge spurtle? A wooden tool of Scottish origin used to stir porridge. We bought a hand-carved spurtle several years ago at the Monte Sano Art Show. We have yet to use it to stir porridge :).

Note: Each recipe makes two drinks. You can muddle and make the drinks in individual glasses, in a cocktail shaker, or even in a large pitcher if you are multiplying the recipe. The directions are for making two drinks directly in the glasses; however, feel free to change if you are using a cocktail shaker or making a pitcher.

Back to the drinks and snacks…these cocktails are light and refreshing, perfect for this early summer-like weather. The crispy kale chips are a crunchy, earthy, and salty balance to the drinks. Enjoy and have a happy weekend…

Strawberry Basil Refresher

Strawberry Basil Refresher

8 strawberries, hulled and sliced (or mashed)

2 tablespoons simple syrup (plain, strawberry, basil, or citrus)

8 fresh basil leaves, torn

2 teaspoons lemon juice

2 ounces rum (I prefer white rum for this drink)

Crushed ice

Club soda

Garnish: 2 whole strawberries, 2 lemon wedges (or slices), and 2 sprigs of fresh basil

Serves: 2

Equally divide the strawberries, simple syrup, basil, and lemon juice between the two glasses. Use a muddler to mash everything together. Add rum and crushed ice. Stir. Then fill the glass with soda water. Stir again. Garnish with a strawberry, lemon wedge (I forgot the lemon wedge in the photo!), and basil.

Strawberry Mojito

Strawberry Mojito

8 strawberries, hulled and sliced (or mashed)

4 tablespoons mint simple syrup (or plain or berry simple syrup)

2 tablespoons lime juice

6 fresh mint leaves, torn

2 ounces rum (I prefer white rum for this drink)

Club soda

Crushed ice

Garnish: 2 whole strawberries, 2 limes wedges, and 2 sprigs of fresh mint

Serves: 2

Equally divide the strawberries, simple syrup, lime juice, and mint between the two glasses. Use a muddler to mash everything together. Add rum and crushed ice. Stir. Then fill the glass with soda water. Stir again. Garnish with a lime wedge, strawberry, and/or mint leaf.

Non-alcoholic version: Just omit the rum. You can add a few extra berries and lime if you want to intensify the flavor. Also, feel free to omit the syrup if you are watching your sugar intake.

Strawberry Mule

Strawberry Mule

This is one of my favorite summer beverages. I especially like how they make it at Amendment XXI; however, it is just as tasty when made at home. It might even be better! You will want to use a strong ginger brew if you can find it. I like Reed’s Ginger Brew. In Huntsville, you can buy Reed’s at Garden Cove, Earth Fare, Foods for Life, and The Fresh Market (I believe they carry it). If you can’t find Reed’s or you think it is too gingery, then regular ginger ale would be fine. 

8 strawberries, hulled and sliced (or mashed)

2 tablespoons fresh citrus juice (lime or lemon juice)

2 tablespoons simple syrup (plain, berry, ginger, whatever you prefer)

2 ounces vodka (plain or citrus)

Crushed ice

2-6 ounces ginger brew (or ginger ale)

Garnish: 2 whole strawberries and 2 lemon or lime wedges

Serves: 2

Equally divide the strawberries, citrus juice, and simple syrup between the two glasses. Use a muddler to mash everything together. Add vodka and crushed ice. Stir. Then fill the glass with ginger brew. Stir again. Garnish with a strawberry and a citrus wedge.

Non-alcoholic version: Just omit the vodka. You can add a few extra berries and citrus if you want to intensify the flavor. Also, feel free to omit the syrup if you are watching your sugar intake. If this is the case, then you can use sugar-free ginger ale. You can even substitute club soda for the ginger ale and add some freshly grated ginger if you prefer.

Kale Chips

Oven Baked Kale Chips

1 bunch of fresh kale

Olive oil

Salt*

Preheat oven to 350º F. Line a baking sheet (or two) with parchment paper.

Wash and drain the kale. Remove tough stems. Chop or tear into medium-sized semi-uniform pieces. I like a few “extra crispy” small chips so uniform is a relative term. Dry the kale – I roll the washed and chopped leaves in a clean kitchen towel. The drier the leaves, the crisper the chips.

Place the dry kale in a large bowl. Drizzle with olive oil. If you have an olive oil sprayer or mister that would be great (I need to replace our broken one). Toss so the kale is coated evenly. Spread the kale into a single layer on the pan(s).

Bake for 10 minutes. Remove pan(s) from oven. Don’t worry if the kale has shrunk and looks funny. It will be delicious! Stir. Rearrange in a single layer. Sprinkle lightly with salt. If you used two baking sheets, now would be a good time to rotate the sheets (especially if your oven is as uneven as our oven). Bake another 10 to 15 minutes until crispy (not burned). Sprinkle with a little more salt it you want. If they look a little greasy, you can drain them on a paper towel or a clean brown paper bag. Otherwise, you can cool them on a rack. I skip this cooling step, because I prefer them right out of the oven. As they age, they can get a bit soggy so please store in an airtight container.

*Note: I wait until half-way through to sprinkle with salt. If you add it too early, it can bring out water in the kale while it bakes. Actually, this could make it steam.

Variations:  sprinkle with cayenne pepper, cracked black pepper, finely grated Parmesan cheese, nutritional yeast flakes, lemon pepper, Greek seasoning, etc.

The End of a Nice Evening

 

Simple Syrups

June 3, 2012 2 comments

Simple syrups are great to keep on hand, particularly in the summer. They are perfect for iced beverages – tea, coffee, lemonade, cocktails, non-alcoholic punches, etc. You can also use simple syrups to moisten a dry cake, add a bit of sweetness to a fruit salad, or use to sweeten a frozen fruit granita, etc. There are many uses for simple syrups. They also make nice, simple gifts when you put them in a mason jar and tie them with ribbon or raffia.

The basic simple syrup recipe is one part water and one part sugar. You simmer it for about a minute on medium-high heat, just until the sugar dissolves. Remove it from the heat. Let it cool at room temperature. Store it in the refrigerator for up to one month.

The flavor possibilities are endless – mint, citrus, cinnamon, basil, ginger, clove, coffee, vanilla, lemon verbena, rosemary, rose petal, blueberry, lavender, strawberry, cardamom, peach, star anise, mango, pink peppercorn, nutmeg, habanero…See what I mean? There are tons of flavor combinations!

You can also make simple syrups without sugar – I’ve included recipes that use honey, agave, maple syrup, raw sugar, brown sugar, and a sugar-free Splenda version. I haven’t actually made and tried the Splenda simple syrup; but given the chemical properties of Splenda, it should work.

Coming soon to The Flaming Pot Holder:  what you can do with simple syrups. But for now, here are some simple syrup recipes to get you started…

Simple Syrup – Basic Recipe

1 cup sugar

1 cup water

Combine water and sugar in a medium saucepan. Stir. Heat on medium-high heat until it just starts to simmer. Simmer for about 1 minute or until the sugar dissolves. Remove from heat. Let cool at room temperature. Transfer to a container and store in refrigerator for up to one month.

Honey Simple Syrup

1 cup honey

1 cup water

Combine water and honey in a medium saucepan. Stir. Heat on medium-high heat until it just starts to simmer. Remove from heat. Let cool at room temperature. Transfer to a container and store in refrigerator for up to one month.

Agave Simple Syrup

1 cup water

1 cup agave

Combine water and agave in a medium saucepan. Stir. Heat on medium-high heat until it just starts to simmer. Remove from heat. Let cool at room temperature. Transfer to a container and store in refrigerator for up to one month.

Maple Simple Syrup

1 cup water

1 cup maple syrup

Combine water and maple syrup in a medium saucepan. Stir. Heat on medium-high heat until it just starts to simmer. Remove from heat. Let cool at room temperature. Transfer to a container and store in refrigerator for up to one month.

Raw Sugar Simple Syrup

1 cup Turbinado raw sugar (I use Sugar in the Raw)

1 cup water

Combine water and raw sugar in a medium saucepan. Stir. Heat on medium-high heat until it just starts to simmer. Simmer for about 3 minutes or until the sugar dissolves. Remove from heat. Let cool at room temperature. Transfer to a container and store in refrigerator for up to one month.

Brown Sugar Simple Syrup

1 cup dark or light brown sugar

1 cup water

Combine water and brown sugar in a medium saucepan. Stir. Heat on medium-high heat until it just starts to simmer. Simmer for about 2-3 minutes or until the sugar dissolves. Remove from heat. Let cool at room temperature. Transfer to a container and store in refrigerator for up to one month. Interesting note (at least I thought it was an interesting ah-ha moment): when you make a dark brown sugar simple syrup, it is like molasses. This makes sense because brown sugar has molasses in it. This simple syrup would be great in fall and winter cocktails. It would also be good on oatmeal or on grapefruit (as a child, I liked brown sugar on grapefruit). If you are out of molasses, this syrup would be a good substitute in a recipe.

Sugar-free Simple Syrup

1 cup water

1 cup Splenda

Bring water to a boil. Remove from heat. Add Splenda. Stir until dissolved. Cool. Refrigerate.


 

 Herb Simple Syrup

1 cup sugar

1 cup water

¼ to 1 cup fresh herbs (rosemary, lavender, basil, mint etc.) loosely packed*

Combine water and sugar in a medium saucepan. Stir. Heat on medium-high heat until it just starts to simmer. Simmer for about one minute or until the sugar dissolves. Remove from heat. Add the herbs. Let it sit for 25 minutes. Strain the syrup. Let cool at room temperature. Transfer to a container and store in refrigerator for up to one month.
*In general, use about ¼ cup of rosemary or lavender, ½ cup basil, or 1 cup of mint. This is just a basic rule of thumb, since some herbs are stronger and you need less. But feel free to use as much as you like.


 

Berry or Fruit Simple Syrup

1 cups sugar

1 cup water

½ to 1 cup of chopped fruit or berries 

Combine water and sugar in a medium saucepan. Stir. Heat on medium-high heat until it just starts to simmer. Simmer for about 1 minute or until the sugar dissolves. Add fruit. Stir. Remove from heat. Let cool at room temperature. Strain out the fruit (add to a smoothie or serve over yogurt). Transfer to a container and store in refrigerator for up to one month.


 

Other Simple Syrup Variations:

Vanilla Simple Syrup: Add a split vanilla bean to the syrup after you remove it from the heat. Let cool at room temperature. Transfer to a container. Keep the vanilla bean in the bottle to intensify the flavor. Store in refrigerator for up to one month.

Citrus Simple Syrup: Add citrus zest (lemon, lime, orange, grapefruit, tangerine, Meyer lemon, or a combination) to the syrup after you remove it from the heat. Let it sit for 30 minutes. Strain the syrup. Let cool at room temperature. Transfer to a container and store in refrigerator for up to one month.

Coffee Simple Syrup: Add 5-15 coffee beans to the syrup after you remove it from the heat. Let cool at room temperature. I leave the coffee beans in the syrup, but feel free to remove them if you prefer. Transfer to a container and store in refrigerator for up to one month.

 

 

Banoffee Pie

May 29, 2012 2 comments

What does a born-and-raised Southern woman make for a going away dinner for a friend from the UK? A banoffee pie, of course! According to Wikipedia, a banoffee pie is “an English pastry-based dessert made from bananas, cream, toffee from boiled condensed milk (or dulce de leche), either on a pastry base or one made from crumbled biscuits and butter. Some versions of the recipe also include chocolate and/or coffee.” I had no idea what I was getting into. I’d never tried a banoffee pie; I just knew that Conor mentioned that he liked them. I liked the idea behind it – crust, layer of soft toffee (a.k.a. caramel), sliced bananas, whipped cream, and grated chocolate. What’s not to love?!? Also, it sounded like it might be fairly easy to make.

So I turned to Google and searched for a banoffee pie recipe. I found several versions. Some used pastry crusts, others used crumb crusts. Some had homemade toffee made from scratch; others used a toffee filling made from sweetened condensed milk. Some included chocolate; others did not. The common thread was sliced bananas and whipped cream. Next time, I will try flavoring the whipped cream with some espresso powder. I only used vanilla this first time, but I think coffee would give it a nice flavor boost.

Dinner was rather spur of the moment. We originally planned to meet at Sam and Greg’s, a local pizza and gelato shop. But that just didn’t seem right. A home cooked meal seemed like a better send off for Conor before he moved to Richmond, VA. Conor was our co-worker from our days in Building 17 at Intergraph. I was the Betty Crocker of the group and cooked for the folks in the bay. That’s actually kind of how Matt and I started dating. When I’m stressed, I bake. When I started the job at Intergraph, I was stressed a lot! So, there was lots of baking. I would bring in food and Matt would stop by my cubical and we started hanging out together.

Back to dinner and the banoffee pie. I had my food preservation class earlier that day at Harrison Brothers Hardware. I completely forgot it was the same day as the going away dinner. So, I decided on something easy to prepare – homemade chicken and dumpling stew, a fresh picked salad from our garden, and a quick version of the banoffee pie.

Figured there was not enough time to make homemade caramel or toffee, so I used a can of  Nestle’s La Lechera (The Dairy) dulce de leche. This particular brand is made in Chile and it is awesome! You can find it at a Latin American market or in the international section of a large grocery store. Usually, Publix and Kroger carry it (in Huntsville and Madison). When I find it on sale, I buy a few cans and keep it on hand. It is almost as good as a homemade caramel and it is so much easier! It reminds me of the caramel we made as a kid by boiling unopened cans of sweetened condensed milk. This method produces great results but it can be dangerous. Cleaning caramel from the ceiling is not fun :(. I would not recommend this method! However, if you are inclined to make your own dulce de leche, I would recommend looking at Cooking for Engineers. A great website and they provide a safer method.

I liked the idea of a crumb crust since it is quicker to make than a pastry crust. I decided to go with the digestive biscuits recommended in a few recipes. This is my new go-to crumb crust; it isn’t as sweet as a graham cracker crumb crust. Digestive biscuits are easy to find in Huntsville. You can get them at Publix, Kroger, The Fresh Market, Earth Fare, and the European Market on the Parkway. TJ Maxx and Target also stock them on occasion. I like the McVitie’s brand. If you can’t find them, shortbread wafers or graham crackers would be fine. Or if you want to make a pastry crust, go for it!

The finished pie in the photo is a little thin. I should have used a 9” or 11” springform or tart pan. However, I made three pies (9”, 4½”, and cupcake sized). The cupcake was for testing (you need a sample when experimenting!), the small pie was for Conor to take home. That left me with either a 9” or 11” pan. I went with the 9” and the caramel layer was a little thin.

Bottom line, this is an easy recipe, though I’m not sure it is a true banoffee pie. But it was tasty and Conor liked it (high praise!).  So here is my version of a quick banoffee-like pie…

Crumb Crust:

2 cups cracker or cookie crumbs* (I used 16 McVitie’s Original Digestive Biscuits)

½ cup unsalted butter, melted

1 teaspoon sugar

Pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 350º F. In a medium bowl, combine the crumbs with the sugar and salt. Stir in the melted butter. Press the mixture into a 9” or an 11” spring form or tart pan lined with parchment paper (just to make slicing and removing the pie easier). Use the back of a spoon or a measuring cup to press the mixture up the sides of the pan. Bake for 10 minutes. Cool on a rack. Then refrigerate until firm.

Filling:

13.4 ounce can La Lechera dulce de leche

3-4 bananas (firm, not too ripe)

½ pint heavy whipping cream

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 teaspoon powdered sugar

pinch of espresso powder or instant coffee, optional

1 ounce chocolate, grated

Heat the caramel. You can heat it on the stove or in the microwave. Heat just until it is warm and soft. It can burn, so don’t overheat it. Actually, I just placed the entire can in the warm oven after the crust baked. Pour the warm caramel into the cooled crust. Spread it with a spoon. Try not to dig into the crust or you might get crumbs in the caramel. It tastes fine, but the texture gets a little funny. Chill for an hour or until the caramel is firm.

Slice the bananas into ¼-½” uniform slices (just depends on how much banana you want). Arrange in a single layer on the caramel. Whip the cream and add the sugar and the vanilla (and coffee if you want). Top the bananas with the whipped cream. Sprinkle with grated chocolate. Chill until you are ready to serve.

This pie is better served fresh. Even covered in whipped cream, the bananas can get a little mushy for my taste once refrigerated. I made it and served it on Thursday, it was great on Friday. The last slice on Saturday was not as good as the one on Thursday. Serves 8.

Veggie Medley

May 24, 2012 4 comments

I am not a fan of the summer heat in Alabama; however, I LOVE the food that such a climate makes possible! This week, we still have salad fixings in our garden. We also have the first of our hot peppers and we have lots of green tomatoes!  I’ve never seen so many tomatoes so early in the growing season.

The farmers markets are packed with people buying fresh produce. We went to the Madison City Farmer’s Market on Saturday and bought rainbow Swiss chard, new red potatoes, purple onions, green beans, peaches, and golden zucchini. We had fresh vegetables for dinner last night – sautéed chard with purple onions, a vegetable medley, and roasted asparagus (we bought that at Publix). And for dessert, we had sliced peaches and strawberries with a bit of whipped cream, sprinkled with gluten-free gingersnap cookie crumbs.

This vegetable medley recipe is my take on a classic Southern dish – green beans and potatoes. Typically, when you order green beans and potatoes at a Meat and Three (that’s what you call a restaurant that serves plate lunches), they are cooked with bacon and they can be a little mushy because they are cooked a long time.

More about Meat and Three restaurants…
At these restaurants, you often get a choice of a meat entrée and three side dishes (the choices can vary daily). Or, you can just get a veggie plate (my meal of choice). I thought these restaurants were all over the U.S., but then my husband Matt (“The Yankee”) told me it was regional. Who knew?!? Guess it is closest to a cafeteria, diner, or a dive in other parts of the country. Some of my favorite veggie sides include turnip greens, collards, black eyed peas, crowder peas, purple hull peas, squash casserole, green beans and potatoes, boiled okra, candied yams (a.k.a. glazed sweet potatoes), mashed potatoes, creamed corn, boiled cabbage, tomatoes and okra, fried okra, fried green tomatoes, and macaroni and cheese. I also love that at many Meat & Three restaurants, fruit cobbler (or banana pudding, a.k.a. nanner puddin’) counts as a vegetable. Also, congealed salad (a.k.a. Jell-O), tomato aspic (essentially, tomato Jell-O), and deviled eggs are also considered “sides.” Only in the South! Meals are served with an obligatory sweet tea. In this regard I am a Yankee and prefer unsweetened iced tea. There goes my southern cred (if there is such a thing!).

Unfortunately the food choices at many Meat and Three restaurants are not very healthy. Often, the dishes are cooked with lard or bacon, and lots of salt. In moderation and on rare occasions, these restaurants are fine. However, many people eat at these places every day. I think the sugar, salt, fat, and large portions are contributing factors to the obesity epidemic in the South. But you don’t need all the sugar, salt, and fat to have delicious Southern food. I am thankful there are nationally acclaimed chefs that are changing the perception of Southern cuisine. I am a big fan of two Southern chefs in the Birmingham area:  Frank Stitt and Chris Hastings. Both are James Beard award winners and their restaurants prove that Southern food can be delicious and not over-the-top unhealthy.

Don’t get me wrong, I can cook unhealthy Southern fare; Paula Deen has nothing on me. However, I am making an effort to prepare healthier versions of the dishes I loved as a child. So, I decided to make a lighter version of the green beans and potatoes side, using fresh produce from the farmer’s market. It’s not the same as the side you might get at Mama Annie’s, G’s Country Kitchen, or Blue Plate Cafe, but it is good. I hope you will agree.

Farmer’s Market Veggie Medley:

¼ to ½ cup chopped onion or shallot (I used 1 small purple onion)

1 tablespoon butter (or olive oil)

6 cups water

1 teaspoon salt (feel free to use less or omit if you are watching your sodium intake)

3 cups green beans, in 1-inch pieces (I think it was a pint container)

1½ cups chopped new potatoes (I used red and left most of the skin)

1½ cups chopped golden zucchini (or green zucchini, patty pan, or summer squash)

Salt and pepper (black or red), to taste

Chopped parsley or dill, optional garnish

In a frying pan, sauté the chopped onion in butter or oil. In a large pot, bring 6 cups of water to a boil. Add the salt. Stir in the green beans. Cover and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the potatoes and stir. Cover and simmer 5 minutes. Add the zucchini and stir. Cover and simmer for 5 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to strain out the veggies and add to the onions in the frying pan. Stir. Add a little of the cooking water (a.k.a pot likker or pot liquor) if you prefer more “sauce.” Add some more salt and pepper to taste (if you want). Serves: 4-6.

 

Spring Salad

May 19, 2012 2 comments

We are novice organic gardeners. We buy organic seeds and plants when we can and we don’t use pesticides. Instead, we use cayenne pepper, Dr. Bronner’s peppermint soap, garlic, and diatomaceous earth. We also plant marigolds, mint, onions, and nasturtiums for bug control. We still have more bugs than we’d care to have, but the birds don’t seem to mind. There are lots of baby birds at the Smith-Jordan house and we’re enjoying bird watching. This photo includes our blue jay, chickadee, and woodpecker babies. The baby titmouse and cardinal are too elusive to capture on film.

We’ve been in our house for 2½ years. Since it was a new home, with a cleared lot, we have lots of sunshine and a blank canvas. We are slowly transforming the back yard into an edible landscape. So far, we have five raised vegetable beds (yay Matt!), one herb bed, one sweet potato straw “cage” (my summer experiment), two fig trees, and two containers of tomatoes. We are currently transitioning from our spring garden to our summer garden. We still have sugar snap peas, several varieties of lettuce, radishes, and purple mustard greens. The carrots are coming in slowly. Soon, we’ll harvest tomatoes, peppers, onions, leeks, cucumbers, and patty pan squashes. We’ll have to wait until the end of summer for the sweet potatoes and butternut squash.

We are enjoying lots of fresh salads. This week, we went to a birthday party for a friend. We brought a spring salad with a strawberry habanero balsamic vinaigrette. It was tasty with an interesting combination of flavors – sweet, bitter, and spicy. We picked the carrots, radishes, peas, and greens from our garden and bought the strawberries at the Madison Farmer’s Market. It doesn’t get much fresher than that!

The strawberry balsamic vinaigrette recipe is originally from Rachael Ray (http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/rachael-ray/green-salad-with-strawberry-balsamic-vinaigrette-recipe/index.html). I used the strawberry jam and strawberry habanero jam I made a few weeks ago in the dressing. I also made a few more changes to the original recipe to suit our tastes. This recipe is scalable, you can make it for two or twelve people, just adjust the quantities in the original recipe which serves 6-8. Be flexible with the fruit and vegetables that you add to the greens, use whatever you like, that is in season. Hope you enjoy experimenting with different flavor combinations…

Spring Salad

2 tablespoons strawberry habanero jam*

3 tablespoons (1.5 ounces) balsamic vinegar

½ cup oil**

2 teaspoons water

Salt and pepper, to taste

8 cups mixed greens

½ cup pea pods, strings removed

½ cup carrots, sliced thinly

½ cup radishes, sliced thinly

1 cup strawberries, sliced thinly

Place jam in a measuring cup or in a small bowl. Whisk in the balsamic vinegar. Then add the oil and water. Whisk until you get a nice thick dressing (you might need to add a bit more water if it is too thick). Add salt and pepper to taste. Pour over the greens and veggies in a large salad bowl. Toss. Add the strawberries at the end to prevent them from breaking into pieces. Serve. Makes 6-8 servings.

Notes and Variations:

*Jam:  If you only have strawberry jam, that is fine. The habanero just adds a little extra kick. Raspberry preserves, orange marmalade, or blueberry jam would also work.

**Oil: You can use extra virgin olive oil or a combination of olive oil, sunflower oil, canola oil, or vegetable oil. Whatever you prefer is fine.

Possible variations: Add toasted pecans, slivered almonds, walnuts, dried cherries, or dried cranberries (especially if fresh strawberries are not in season).

Onion and Thyme Tart

Want a recipe for a quiche-like tart that tastes like French onion soup? Well, this onion and thyme tart might be for you. It is a perfect vegetarian dinner or brunch when served with a nice mesclun salad. We had a fresh-picked salad with our dinner. This was not the prettiest tart I’ve made, but it was good. Looking forward to having the leftovers for brunch. This is the dish I served when we had a blind installing party at our “new” house. Matt and I bought our house when it was at about 85% completion. There were no window treatments when we moved. Matt put up darkening shades in the bedrooms and a stained glass window in the kitchen. But other than that, naked windows – not pretty. A year later, still no window treatments. To be fair, we had lots of stuff happen the first few months after we bought the house – had major surgery, Mom died, we got married(!), had frostbite (yes, in Alabama), had a pseudo femoral aneurysm, broke my foot, etc. Decorating wasn’t exactly our top priority. After a year, when things finally settled down, we decided it was time to change that.

We looked into buying wooden shutters to match the style of the house. Wow, those are expensive and not easy to install when you have goofy sized windows (many thanks to our builder!). We then looked at Costco and we were shocked at the price of blinds plus installation. That’s where they get you – the installation! We knew two couples who had just bought blinds and they suggested we look at J.C. Penney. They even offered to help us install them (did I mention that Matt and I are not the handiest folks?). We went to JCP and picked out the perfect Levolor top down/bottom up blinds. About a week later, the boxes arrived! It was time for installation. Marshall, Melanie, Richard, and Sherry came over with their drills. I made us dinner: an onion tart, salad, dessert, and Prosecco. I cooked while our friends worked with Matt to install the blinds. In two hours they were all hung! It is so nice having handy friends with drills (and the extra privacy is nice too)!  Hope you like the recipe; it is great for serving at “work parties.”

Onion and Thyme Tart

Crust for 9-inch tart pan (your favorite recipe)*

2 tablespoons butter (or canola oil)

2 pounds onions (about 6 cups sliced)**

2-3 sprigs fresh thyme (I removed the leaves and chopped them)

1 teaspoon kosher salt

2 large eggs, beaten

½ cup half-and-half

½ teaspoon ground black pepper (or ¼ teaspoon white pepper, if you prefer)

Dash of grated nutmeg

¼ cup grated Gruyère cheese (Swiss, Emmentaler, or Parmesan cheese also works)

Preheat the oven to 375º. Grease a 9-inch tart pan with butter or nonstick cooking spray. Place the tart pan on a sheet pan. If there are any gaps in your pan, it will prevent a mess in your oven and it also promotes even baking. You might even want to cover the sheet pan with parchment paper or aluminum foil as an extra precaution. My pan isn’t very nice and it leaks. Line the tart pan with the crust. Finish the edges so it looks pretty, I’m not very good at this, so I won’t offer any suggestions :).

Blind-bake (pre-bake) the pie shell. Cut a piece of aluminum foil that is larger than the tart pan. Lightly grease one side of the foil. Gently press the foil, with the greased side down, into the tart shell. Fill the shell with pie weights. What are pie weights? They are little ceramic or stainless steel balls that are sold for blind-baking pie crusts. They are fairly expensive so I keep a bag of dried peas just for this purpose.

Bake for about 25 minutes on the middle rack of the preheated oven. Remove the tart shell from the oven. Carefully gather the edges of the foil and remove the foil with the weights (dried peas). Return crust to the oven and bake another 5 minutes until lightly golden brown.

While the crust is pre-baking you can work on “sweating” the onions. They aren’t quite caramelized but they are a nice golden brown. In a large skillet that has a lid, melt the butter. Add the sliced onions, thyme, and salt. Stir to “break up” some of the large pieces of onions. Cover with the lid and cook on medium high heat for about 15 minutes. You want the onions to sweat out any excess liquid. Stir. Turn the heat to low, cover, and cook another 20 minutes. Stir a few times during this process and see how much liquid there is remaining. If there is a pool of liquid, then keep uncovered and cook until golden brown. If there is no pool of liquid, you can keep it covered. If you are like me, you might get impatient with this step, please resist turning up the heat. In an instant, 30 minutes of work can turn into a burned goo. I turned the temperature up to medium, turned my back to fiddle with something else, and almost burned my onions!

Once the onions are golden, remove from the heat and cool. To speed up the process, I remove them from the pan, and put them in a bowl that is large enough to hold the onions, the eggs, and the half-and-half.

After the onions cool, add the eggs, half-and-half, pepper, and nutmeg. Mix until just combined. Pour into the baked tart shell. Sprinkle with grated cheese. Bake for about 20 more minutes. You want it golden brown and not too jiggly. Cool on a wire rack for 10-15 minutes. Once cool, remove the tart pan ring. Slice and serve. Makes 6 to 8 servings

*Crust: Homemade crust is the best, but sometimes you just want a shortcut. When I want a quick tart, then I use a refrigerated pre-rolled crust. I like Immaculate Baking Company’s pie crust. Locally, in Huntsville, you can get them at Earth Fare and sometimes The Fresh Market. When I see them on sale, I buy a few and keep them in the freezer. If you want to make this really simple and you do not have a tart pan, you could use a regular pie plate or frozen crust already in a pie plate. The result would just be more quiche-like than tart. But it would still be tasty.

**Onions: Use plain yellow or white onions. It is tempting to use one of the sweet varieties that is abundant now, but they don’t work as well. I’ve tried this tart with Vidalia onions and they are too sweet with too much moisture. Not sure about purple onions, haven’t tried them. Two pounds of onions is about five medium onions. To be sure, just weigh them at the market and buy between 1½-2 pounds. Sounds like a lot of onions, but they cook down. You want uniform onion slices so they cook evenly. The easiest way I’ve found to do this is to cut the onion in half from root to stem. Then you get a nice level surface that makes cutting easier. After cutting in half, peel the onion, and slice into ¼-inch slices.