Saturday, April 25, 2015

Game of Scones

What comes to mind when you think of the wildly popular HBO series Game of Thrones? Sex, darkness, blood and surprise top my list. Also blonde hair envy...damn. So what does any of that have to do with baking scones?

For my part, scones and I have a love-hate relationship. I love eating them, I hate making them. I always make a gigantic mess while rolling out the sticky dough, invariably spilling flour everywhere which forces my nails into the palms of my hands with surprising force--blood.

The darkness comes from the fact that scones should be baked blind: as in, leave that oven door shut. Opening and closing it over and over again to check the doneness of the scones changes the temperature inside and can reduce fluffiness.

Scones are not really a sexy food either. They're more of an old British grandma drinking tea with her ankles crossed prettily. These scones, however, combine tart lemon and sweet berries in a way that could only be described as food porn. Sex on a scone.

And finally surprise: when I take the first bite of a steaming hot scone fresh out of the oven, I'm instantly inspired to bake more, even though I know it makes me crazy.

These lemon berry scones use greek yogurt which makes them a little bit lighter than normal scones which use cream. That's not to say they're healthy in any way--they're not. But who cares? They're so good it really doesn't matter. And they're too much work to make with any sort of regularity. The trick to good scones is to not handle the dough very much. As with any flour-based baked good, the more you mess with it the worse it will be. Feel free to use blueberries, raspberries and blackberries in any combination for this recipe. There's no way it can be bad.

2 c. flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. lemon zest, finely grated
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. turbinado (large-grain) brown sugar
Scant 6 tbs. unsalted butter, cubed and chilled
1 c. greek yogurt
Milk for extra moisture (if necessary) and brushing.
1 heaping cup mixed berries

For the icing:
3/4 c. powdered sugar, sifted
1 tbs. lemon juice
1 tsp. lemon zest

1. Preheat oven to 415F.  Line a flat baking pan with baking paper and set aside.

2. Add flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, sugar and lemon zest to a large glass or ceramic bowl. Add the butter and use your fingertips (or a food processor) to incorporate it into the flour until the butter is incorporated throughout the flour in the size of small peas (same as making pastry dough).

3. Gently stir in the berries and then add the yogurt. Fold through gently. Add a splash of milk if mixture is too dry.  Do not over-mix.

4. Form the mixture into a ball by kneading gently and place onto a flat, clean, lightly floured surface.  Pat into a round of around 2 inches thick. Slice into triangles and place onto the prepared baking pan, putting the triangles back into the round shape.
5. Brush the tops with extra milk and bake for around 20-25 minutes or until light golden brown on the top and cooked through.
6. While the scones are baking, combine all the ingredients for the icing and whisk hard until they are all incorporated and the glaze is smooth.
7. Transfer scones to a wire rack to cool.  Once completely cool, ice tops with lemon drizzle.

This recipe is originally from A Splash of Vanilla.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Jessica Does a Juice Cleanse

Did this title get your attention? It should, because if you know me even a little bit you know that
a. I do not subscribe to food trends (see: my aversion to anything advertising truffle butter)
b. I would never voluntarily give up food for an extended period of time, and
c. I think juice cleanses and, frequently, those who swear by them are dumb and need a shot of good ol' science.

What I meant when I said "juice cleanse" was actually "dinner with an entire bottle of wine in it." Tonight we're making coq au vin, fancy French for slow-braised chicken in red wine sauce. It requires some work but the results are truly fantastic and it freezes incredibly well. As far as the chicken itself goes, have your butcher cut it up for you. That's part of their job, so don't be afraid to ask. If you don't want to buy a whole chicken or aren't able to, use a mixture of BONE-IN, SKIN-ON breasts, thighs and drumsticks. Boneless, skinless mush will not cut it for this recipe.

I used the Barefoot Contessa's recipe for this (all hail the Queen) and aside from the fact that I didn't brown my chicken quite enough, it turned out fantastically well. Why is it important that I didn't brown my chicken enough? Because the skin was still very porous and soaked up all the wine and turned purple. Tommy said it looked like zombie meat. I was not amused. But it tasted good as hell so eventually he shut up and ate his dinner and was grateful to have such a lovely girlfriend who cooks beautiful meals.

A further note: when you cook with wine, use wine that you would also want to drink. If you think it tastes bad in a glass, you probably won't like it much better in a recipe. Apart from that, you're all ready to go. It's not a hard recipe but it does require about an hour of active prep and cook time so keep that in mind. Bon appetit!

4 oz. good bacon or pancetta, diced
1 (3 or 4 lb.) chicken, cut in 8ths
Kosher salt and fresh black pepper
1/2 lb. carrots, sliced
1 yellow onion, sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 c. Cognac or good brandy
1/2 bottle good dry red wine, like Burgundy
1 c. chicken stock
10 fresh thyme sprigs
2 tbs. unsalted butter, divided, at room temperature
1 1/2 tbs. all purpose flour
1/2 lb. frozen pearl onions
1/2 lb. cremini mushrooms, stems removed and thickly sliced
2 tbs. EVOO

1. Preaheat the oven to 250F.

2. Heat the olive oil in a large Dutch oven. Add the bacon and cook over medium heat for 8 to 10 minutes, until lightly browned. Remove the bacon to a plate with a slotted spoon.

3.Meanwhile, lay the chicken out on paper towels and pat dry. Liberally sprinkle the chicken on both sides with salt and pepper. When the bacon is removed, brown the chicken pieces in batches in a single layer for about 5 minutes, turning to brown evenly. Remove the chicken to the plate with the bacon and continue to brown until all the chicken is done. Set aside.

4. Add the carrots, onions, 2 teaspoons salt, and 1 teaspoon pepper to the pan and cook over medium heat for 10 to 12 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onions are lightly browned. Add the garlic and cook for 1 more minute.

5. Add the Cognac and put the bacon, chicken, and any juices that collected on the plate into the pot. Add the wine, chicken stock, and thyme and bring to a simmer. Cover the pot with a tight fitting lid and place in the oven for 30 to 40 minutes, until the chicken is just not pink. Remove from the oven and place on top of the stove.

6. Mash 1 tablespoon of butter and the flour together and stir into the stew. Add the frozen onions.

7. In a medium saute pan, add the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter and cook the mushrooms over medium-low heat for 5 to 10 minutes, until browned. Add to the stew. Bring the stew to a simmer and cook for another 10 minutes. Season to taste. Serve hot.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Undercover Lovers

Here's the thing about most foods -- they are at least 46% tastier when dipped or coated in a sauce. That's a verifiable, scientific fact. Look it up. I'm an expert when it comes to sauces. From tangy-sweet balsamic glazes to blow-your-head off curry sauces to unrepentantly garlicky dips, I love a good dunk.

But sauces shouldn't be limited to the savory realm of foods. In fact, I would like to take it upon myself to help reinvent the sad state of the dessert sauce. I feel like every time I get a dessert in a restaurant it comes with some sad, jarred "caramel" sauce that tastes more like fake vanilla flavor than anything resembling true caramel or a pathetic swatch of raspberry jam that's been reduced with a splash of lemon juice. PUH-LEEZ (insert Liz Lemon eye-roll here).

This whole issue is part of a larger theme in the restaurant industry of laziness and boredom when it comes to the dessert menu, a topic I will touch upon at a later point in time.  But I am here to rectify, in a small part, that hideous trend of jarred pseudo-creativity.

And therefore I bring you a quick and easy dessert that combines a trio of nature's most compatible flavors, perfect for a quick snack or as an indulgent breakfast topping. Easy enough that you could make it right now, healthy enough that you won't feel bad about not sharing, tasty enough that you won't even think it's healthy: frozen banana slices nestled under a dark-chocolate peanut butter sauce.

I know this doesn't push the envelope all too much in terms of sensationally creative thinking but at least everything here is made from scratch. I highly recommend making your own peanut butter if you have a blender or a food processor; it's incredibly easy and, if you can buy nuts in bulk, far cheaper than store-bought.

Make sure you cover the baking sheets with parchment or waxed paper before freezing the banana slices or they will stick to the metal forever. Additionally, feel free to top the banana slices with your choice of add-ons: crushed nuts, shredded coconut, cacao nibs, carob bites -- the choice is wholly yours. Just make sure you freeze them through completely before eating. You can also use milk chocolate if you aren't vegan or skip the peanut butter if it's not your style.

With hot weather right around the corner, these are a fantastic alternative to calorie and preservative-laden ice cream treats. I won't tell Ben and Jerry if you don't tell Häagen and Dazs.


2-3 ripe (but not mushy) bananas, sliced into 1/2 inch rounds
1/2 c. smooth, unsalted peanut butter
8 oz.  bittersweet chocolate, roughly chopped
3-4 tbs. your choice of toppings (see above)

1. Arrange the banana slices on a large baking sheet covered with waxed or parchment paper.

2. Melt the chocolate over medium-low heat in a double-broiler until completely smooth. Alternatively you can melt it in 30-second intervals in the microwave, but watch it carefully so it doesn't burn.

3. Carefully whisk in the peanut butter until completely incorporated.

4. Using a fork or whatever kitchen implement you find easiest, (kebab skewer? toothpick?) dunk the banana slices into the chocolate mixture and coat evenly. Shake off any extra chocolate sauce.

5. Sprinkle banana slices with your choice of toppings and freeze until solid, about 2 hours.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Now You Sear Me, Now You Don't

Searing food is about as close to magic as the average home cook can get without the use of molecular gastronomy. The ability to make something so perfectly crunchy on the outside and yet still juicy and tender on the inside, is, in my opinion, nothing short of Houdini-esque.

While my knowledge of traditional magic is limited to what I've experienced at Disney World and its College Park counterpoint, R.J. Bentley's Filling Station, my knowledge of kitchen magic is pretty extensive. And the ability to sear a protein well is one of the best tricks I can pull out of my hat.

Searing, in which the outside surface of a food is cooked at high heat until a crunchy, caramelized crust forms, is ridiculously easy and has the added benefit of making your food look much fancier than it actually is. The trick is getting your sautee pan extremely hot so that the outside of the food begins cooking much faster than the inside, resulting in that crunchy, intensely flavorful outside.

For this recipe, I used two gorgeous tuna steaks and crusted the outsides with a cumin-heavy spice mixture before searing them in a little oil. I would have used coconut oil if I had it, but sadly sunflower seed oil had to do. I served the tuna steaks with a traditional mixture of rice and green peas and the result was a totally Caribbean vibe that made me want a piña colada and a hammock. Super yum. Super fast. Super healthy (so you can eat more cookies after dinner, duh).

Some quick tips:

- Avoid a nonstick pan for this. Cast iron or stainless steel are better.

- Use just about tablespoons of canola oil to lightly grease the pan. It has a much higher smoke point than EVOO and won't begin to burn before you put your food in.

- Pat the meat/fish/poultry dry before you put it in the pan. This will help it to sear properly instead of just steaming.

- DON'T FUTZ WITH IT. Seriously, you will be much happier if you leave your dinner alone to do its own thing instead of poking at it every five seconds. Just let it be for a few minutes, flip it and repeat. The meat has to stick to the bottom of the pan to get that coating; it will naturally release when it's ready to be turned.

2 tbs. crushed cumin seeds or ground cumin
1/4 tsp. garlic powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. cayenne or crushed reds
4 tuna steaks
2 tbs. coconut or canola oil
2 tbs. lime juice
2 tbs. cilantro or parsley, roughly chopped
Lime wedges for serving

1. In a small bowl, combine the cumin, garlic powder, salt and cayenne. Stir well to blend. Sprinkle evenly over the tuna steaks, coating completely. Shake off any extra.

2. Heat oil in a large skillet over high heat. Place tuna in skillet (do it in batches if you can't fit them without crowding) and partially cover.

3. Sear for about 3 minutes, then flip the fish and sprinkle with the lime juice. Continue to cook until lightly browned on the outside and opaque in the center, about 3 more minutes.

4. Transfer tuna to plates and sprinkle with the chopped herbs. Serve immediately.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

French Kisses

Tonight, after eight long days of misery and matzoh meal, Passover ends. At sundown, I will be forking seafood pasta (with shrimp, mussels and clams -- oops, sorry #treyf) into my mouth with hideous abandon.

And to celebrate, I highly recommend you make this disgustingly good baked french toast. It's a Paula Deen original so you KNOW it's chock full of butter, racism and sugary goodness. Wait what?

But seriously, just 20 minutes of prep plus a sleepover in the fridge tonight equals gooey, cinnamony breakfast tomorrow.

Because the grocery store was low on the french bread supplies on Saturday evening (everything is closed on Sundays here), this is what I bought:

Because pecans don't exist in Spain I used walnuts in the streusel topping and it still tasted fantastic. Additionally, this kept well in the fridge for several days. Tommy was overheard to have said that it's the best french toast he's ever had.

And because I'm an intrepid journalist I told him to say that.

In my opinion, this french toast doesn't need any maple syrup (ack, gag) or other toppings. Just serve it piping hot out of the oven and it will make its own buttery, cinnamony sauce. It's okay to lick the plate. You deserve it.

Pairs well with: an exceptionally strong latte, a good Bloody Mary and the knowledge that Passover won't come again for another whole year. L'chaim to that!

1 loaf French bread or slightly stale challah (13 to 16 ounces)
8 large eggs
2 cups half-and-half
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Dash salt

For the Praline Topping:
1/2 pound (2 sticks) butter
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1 cup chopped pecans
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg


1. Slice French bread into 20 slices, 1-inch each. (Use any extra bread for garlic toast or bread crumbs). Arrange slices in a generously buttered 9 by 13-inch flat baking dish in 2 rows, overlapping the slices.

2. In a large bowl, combine the eggs, half-and-half, milk, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt and beat with a rotary beater or whisk until blended but not too bubbly. Pour mixture over the bread slices, making sure all are covered evenly with the milk-egg mixture. Spoon some of the mixture in between the slices. Cover with foil and refrigerate overnight.

3. The next day, preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

4. To make the praline topping, combine all ingredients in a medium bowl and blend well.

5. Spread praline topping evenly over the bread and bake for 40 minutes, until puffed and lightly golden.

Monday, April 6, 2015

I Can't Believe it's Not (Peanut) Butter!

Here is a true fact about me: I am wholly, unabashedly, potentially dangerously, unrepentantly addicted to peanut butter.

I have been known to eat it with a spoon straight out of the someone else's house.

Seriously, I might have a problem.

So much so that I made Tommy bring a 1 lb. jar of Whole Foods All Natural Crunchy to Spain with us (taking the place of several very important things he intended to pack). NOT SORRY.

My sainted mother sent me another jar just a few months later and we had been portioning it out (read: I was not allowed to stick a soup spoon in there for breakfast) until further supplies could be located.

But then Tommy got me/us a blender for Valentine's Day. Romantic, I know. No seriously, he knew how much I wanted one. And in between hummus and velvety-smooth soups, Tommy decided to make peanut butter.

And make peanut butter he did. This is without question the best peanut butter I've ever tasted. Between the two of us we were taking "healthy fats" to a whole new level. It was getting somewhat worrisome. Everything went out the window when he added a whole bar of dark chocolate to the last batch. I don't even have words for it. I was almost mad at him, it was that good.

Then Tommy decided he was going to make almond butter. I am a big fan. Not only is it a fun change from my BFFPB but it is also crazy delicious in its own right. Huge shoutout to MaraNatha which makes my current favorite basic almond butter.

We decided to get fancy with it and make vanilla almond butter with cinnamon and while we nearly set the blender on fire, the butter was DEFINITELY worth the squeeze. Would we make it again without a proper food processor? No, probably not. It was a pain. But once I get back to Chicago, all bets are off.

Also fun fact, almond butter is Kosher for Passover whereas peanut butter is not. I know. Worst holiday ever. At least Yom Kippur is only one day of torture.

A quick note: be patient with the poor almonds. It takes about 15 minutes for the butter to really get going. Don't give up on them.

2 c. raw almonds
2 tbs. honey
1 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. sea salt

1. Carefully toast the almonds in a large saucepan over medium-low heat until fragrant, about 5 minutes. Watch them carefully so they don't burn. Let cool.

2. In a blender or a food processor, combine all the ingredients.

3. Pulse until the almonds are grainy and pretty finely ground, about 1-2 minutes. Scrape down the sides as needed.

4. Let the blender/food processor run for about 10-15 minutes until the oils start to release. Again, scrape down the sides as needed, and again BE PATIENT.

Enjoy on toast, apple slices or a spoon.