Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Texan's Shortbread

First, just because it was beautiful and delicious:

All weddings should have towers of cupcakes, don't you think?

That's a champagne buttercream frosting with strawberries right there. 

Our cutting cake was cinnamon-chocolate cake with spicy chocolate ganache and Kahlua buttercream. I KNOW.

One of my favorites is this one: Guinness-chocolate cupcakes with Bailey's buttercream. Fine, they're all my favorite.

Wedding photos by Sweet Poppy Studios.

Our wedding was so much fun! We decided to have a brunch reception, and just happened to pick a gorgeous June day for it. Many people pitched in to make it great, including three people who loaned us cake stands to hold our seven zillion cupcakes.

In the months after our wedding, our conversations about food have started to change. Sure, we got some cookbooks as gifts and have found several new favorite recipes, and we are usually eating meatless twice a week instead of just once, but there's been another kind of change, too. The Texan, who literally didn't know how to hold a knife properly and has been known to take 15 minutes to cut up an avocado, took a knife skills class. So now dinner prep goes like this:

Me: Could you please cut up that bell pepper?
Texan: Do you want that diced or julienned?

And weekends sound like this:

T: What do you want to do this weekend?
Me: I dunno. Swimming, maybe. What do you want to do?
T: I feel like making shortbread.

Just this weekend, I come home from an out-of-town conference, and the next day happens to be my birthday. I walk in the house and smell fresh-baked brownies, which later get served to me with a side of lemon sorbet.

Me: You made brownies? For me? Wow.
T: Yep. With pecans on top. How do you like the sorbet?
Me: It's good. Where'd you buy it?
T: I made it.
Me: Seriously?
T: I squeezed the lemons by hand. It took forever! Guess what else is in it? Here, I'll just tell you. I added some of that tea you like. Plus a splash of bourbon.


Whoever he is, I decided to take him up on his yen for shortbread. A long-term substitute teacher at my school, who also happens to be a puppy raiser for Guide Dogs for the Blind, had come to the end of her assignment, and we wanted to throw her a mini party to say thanks for all her hard work. She has dog-themed everything: shirts, earrings, sweaters, socks, quilts, placemats, you name it. And she is raising her 19th puppy, who came to school each day, for Guide Dogs. So what better theme to use than Bone Voyage?

I didn't think of this theme on my own. I've been to one other Bone Voyage party, so I knew shortbread shaped to look like dog biscuit would be the perfect treat. There was a straightforward recipe on the back of the bag of flour, so the Texan jumped right in. My only contribution was blitzing some nuts for half the dough. The rest was all him.

Dog bones. In a jar. Get it?

And when he was done, he cut the fondant bones for my cupcakes. 

Coworkers specifically stopped me and told me how much they liked the shortbread bones. Not just the cuteness, but the actual shortbread. It was really simple, but really good. Possibly even the best ever.

And I have to agree with them.

The Texan's Brown Sugar Shortbread
adapted from our bag of Natural Directions organic AP flour

1 C butter, softened
1/2 C brown sugar
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp salt
2 C AP flour
1/3 C finely chopped nuts, such as pecans or almonds (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
2. Cream butter, brown sugar, and vanilla extract until fluffy. 
3. Add salt, flour, and nuts if using, and mix well.
4. On a lightly floured surface, roll dough into 1/2" thick rectangle.
5. Cut into shapes with cookie cutter, or cut into rectangles 
   1.5" x 2.5"
6. Place cookies onto baking sheets lined with parchment or silicone mats. Prick with fork.
7. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until light golden brown. Cool completely on wire rack.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Homemade Soda #1

The Texan and I don't drink much soda. We might order a glass to share once a month or so. But recently we've been eating lunch at a restaurant that makes its own fruit-plus-herbs soda, and we're hooked. So naturally when we found a book on the subject on our honeymoon, we snapped it up.

A couple of Christmases ago, the Texan received a Soda Stream machine as a gift, and has been making his own carbonated water for almost as long as I've known him. While I'm happy drinking still water, I appreciate the Soda Stream because it eliminates the waste of bottles, plastic or glass, of seltzer, and the carbonator tank is refillable. If there is such a thing as eco-friendly soda, this is probably the start of it.

I like weird and unexpected savory ingredients in sweet things. The Texan doesn't. So we made two batches of soda syrup: Basil for me, and ginger-lemon for him. Plus, we happened to have Mason jars we'd already repurposed in our wedding, and it's a well-known fact that soda-y things look best in vintage-y Mason jars, so we got all nostalgic as we poured.
Politely, the Texan tried one sip-- but not more-- of my basil soda. (Hey, I liked it.)

His ginger soda wasn't gingery enough, so we tossed another chunk of fresh ginger in the jar and let it infuse overnight in the refrigerator. The next day, the flavor was more intense, and the ginger flavor increased with each day. The same could be done with a slice of lemon if the flavor isn't strong enough for your taste.

We had some fresh blueberries and mint in the house, so the Texan also tried his hand at muddling the two together to add to his ginger-lemon drink. He was unimpressed: both the blueberries and mint leaves were chunky and needed to be chewed before swallowing. After swallowing, hello dental floss! I'm not ready to give up on that technique, though, so next time we will muddle, infuse, and STRAIN.

from Make Your Own Soda by Anton Nocito
Basil Syrup
2 C water
1 2/3 C granulated sugar
25 large basil leaves

1. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, bring the water and sugar to a boil. Remove from heat. 
2. Add basil leaves and cover pan. Steep for 15 minutes. 
3. Strain syrup through a fine-mesh strainer and discard leaves. Can be stored in airtight container in refrigerator for up to 4 days.
4. To make basil soda, fill a tall glass with ice. Add 3 TBSP syrup, top with seltzer, and stir.

Ginger-Lemon Syrup
2 oz fresh unpeeled ginger, grated
1 C water
3/4 C granulated sugar
2 strips lemon zest

1. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, bring water and sugar to a boil. 
2. Add ginger and lemon zest, and remove pan from heat. Cover pan and steep for about 45 minutes. 
3. Strain syrup through a fine-mesh strainer and cool. Can be stored in airtight container in refrigerator for up to 14 days. 
4. To make ginger ale, fill a glass with ice. Add 3 TBSP ginger syrup, 1 TBSP fresh lemon juice, top with seltzer, and stir.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

How to Roast a Chicken

Oops, it's been a while. A really long while. I'll spare you the details (it's nothing tragic), but I'll confess that part of it is laziness. And a full-time job. And a wedding to plan. And. And. And.

So the other day some colleagues and I were discussing the ins and outs of roasting a whole chicken. I said I thought it was super-easy and really delicious, but my colleagues had questions about the process, and had experienced failure enough times that they didn't think they were willing to take another stab at it. I hadn't planned to write about it, but I was suddenly feeling inspired by these women, so here goes.

Whether or not you choose to buy organic, free range chicken is really up to you. It costs more than conventional chicken for sure. But it is also never fed GMO feed, or ground-up animal parts, or feed with any vile pesticides or fertilizers. The chickens themselves are allowed to walk, run, preen, dust themselves, etc. You know, like real chickens. 

The ingredients for this dish are simple and you already have them in your kitchen: about a tablespoon of butter, and about a half-teaspoon each of salt, pepper, paprika, and whichever herb you like best. I used a pinch of thyme and some oregano here, but I have used rosemary, tarragon, and dried basil also. You can adjust the amount of each spice as you see fit. (I used to drizzle a little olive oil on the chicken, but then I saw a Julia Child episode where she roasted a chicken and rubbed, like, 20 pounds of butter on the chicken instead, so now I do it this way too.)

The process is also simple. No seriously, even the Texan can do it. He kept exclaiming how easy and delicious it was after his first attempt. I totally agreed.

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. 
2. Rinse the chicken (run a little water inside the body cavity too). Remove the bag of organs if included. 
3. Drip or pat the chicken dry. No need to be all OCD about this. Just blot a little and move on. Cut off any obvious blobs of fat, which usually occur at the tail end. Place in roasting pan, breast side DOWN. Julia Child says this keeps the moisture in the breast meat, which is right where you want it.
4. Rub the butter into the skin in chunks. My pats of butter don't always stick, so I usually wind up with several pats near the top. I figure this is fine because the butter is going to drip down the body of the chicken as soon as it goes in the oven anyway. Sprinkle some of the spice mixture on top. 
5. Place on middle rack in oven and roast for 90-120 minutes, depending on the size of your bird. It is safely cooked once the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees. You can baste the chicken once or twice if you like. More is not necessary. To do this, use either a large spoon or turkey baster and spoon some of the drippings onto the top of the bird, coating the skin. This will result in a crispy-on-the-outside-but-moist-on-the-inside skin.
6. I boil a kettle of water to pour in my sink after I've rinsed the chicken to kill salmonella and other creepy germs. You can also use bleach but bleach is so not environmentally friendly. 
7. I put the organs in a little pot with water, and cook them over very low heat for a while. My dog and cats love a bit of this in their dinner too.

You don't need all that fat rendered off into your pan, so remove the glob!

Buttered, spiced, and ready to roast.

I put a piece of tin foil under the pan so the fat splatterings don't spray all over my oven. Trust me, it's a pain to scrub later. Technically, you aren't supposed to do this because it interferes with even heat distribution, but I do it anyway.

I used to throw root vegetables in the pan with the chicken to roast, but I found that some pieces of potato or carrot or beet were done, while others were too firm. So now I toss them in a single layer on a baking sheet with a bit of olive oil, salt, pepper, praprika, and whatever herb I'm in the mood for. I stick them on that top rack for about 20-25 minutes, and they are done perfectly.

Digital thermometers are easy to use and inexpensive: this one was $10 at Sur La Table. Be sure to insert the probe far enough to measure the center of the meat, where it heats up slowest. Here I put it into the center of the thigh.

The bird will shrink a bit when it is cooking.

Add caption

Leave the meat you aren't eating on the body until you need it. Otherwise all the juices run right out, making your meat dry. I like to carve off (and eat) the legs first, then the wings, then the breast meat. We usually have some breast meat left for a meal the next night, such as chicken pot pie, chicken enchiladas, or chicken soup. The Texan and I can usually get 8 meals out of a single chicken, which makes this a great choice for weeknight meals with enough left for lunch.