Giving Dad the Fingers

Gentle Readers of the female persuasion with children, I’ve got two questions for you.fa's dayI spent the last couple of weeks prodding The Kid to purchase a Father’s Day gift for paterfamilias Petey.

How about you?mo's dayIn the entire twenty-seven years that our offspring’s been on the planet, I’m guessing my spouse has spent a grand total of three to five minutes doing the same for Mother’s Day

How about you?

Ladies, you probably know where I’m going here.celebrationGuys are lucky.  They’re lucky we make a fuss for them, and they’re lucky that we, sadly, expect and accept much less fuss in return.

But I digress.  My point here was gifts for Father’s Day.  The Kid and I both got Petey gifts to fancy up his jeep.  He loved them.  To be honest, he never buys anything for himself, while I shower myself with unnecessaries quite often.  But, I’d still enjoy the occasional minor fuss.

Mobile family

I always thought my dad (in the yellow shirt), looks like Rock Hudson.  Big brother Homer’s on the far left, my mom is the blond va-va-voom, little brother Bud in green, and me.  

Like my husband, my dad is a man of simple wants and needs, so is very difficult to buy for.  This year, in addition to a visit from the entire Matthews family band (sans dog), The Kid got Grampa a special new shirt, and I made him a batch of homemade shortbread.

brown pecans

The pecans should be as deep and dark as these.

But this was very special shortbread, made with flavors that my dad especially likes.  I used brown butter and deeply toasted vanilla-tossed pecans.  On top I drizzled a novel take on white chocolate—I caramelized it.  Sounds weird, but it’s less sweet, nutty tasting, and makes the whole house smell like caramel-scented heaven.

Toasted Pecan Shortbread Fingerspecan shortbread1 cup toasted pecan halves with ½ teaspoon vanilla extract stirred in while still warm from toasting

1 cup all-purpose flour

3/4 cup confectioners’ sugar

½ cup cold butter, browned, re-hardened in the fridge overnight, and cut into pieces

DIRECTIONS

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 8-inch square baking pan with aluminum foil, leaving an overhang on all sides.

In food processor, pulse pecans until finely chopped. Transfer to bowl; set aside. In processor, blend flour, sugar, and butter just until moist clumps form. Add reserved pecans; pulse just to incorporate.  Don’t overwork dough.pecan shortbread doughPress it evenly into bottom of prepared pan. With straight edge cut down into dough for eight lines in one direction, and three on the other, making 24 shortbread bars. With floured fork, prick each finger length-wise down the center of each bar. Bake until lightly golden, 30-35 minutes.freshly baked pecan shortbreadCool 5 minutes in pan. Use foil to lift shortbread from pan onto cutting board. With serrated knife, carefully separate warm shortbread into the 24 pieces. Remove from foil; cool bars completely before drizzling.

Caramelized White Chocolatecaramelized white chocolate4 ounces white chocolate with at least 31% cocoa butter

1-2 teaspoons vegetable oil

Flaky sea salt (optional)creamy caramelized white chocolatePreheat oven to 250.  Place white chocolate in small, shallow oven-proof dish.  Cook 10 minutes, then remove and stir.  Continue cooking, stirring every ten minutes, until chocolate has turned the color of peanut butter (50-60 minutes).  If it gets stiff as it roasts, pour in a little oil, then stir some more.  Keep adding oil, a few drops at a time and stirring until it becomes silky smooth.  When chocolate is browned and smooth drizzle over the shortbread and let set before serving.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf desired, sprinkle a tiny pinch of the sea salt right after drizzling.  Keep covered in a cool place for up to one week or freeze for up to a month.

So, yes, guys can be frustrating.  But I’m keeping mine—he lets me warm my feet on his, and he’s really good at opening stuck jars.jar openerThanks for your time.

What Can Brown Do For You?

My mother would be convinced that the veggies were burnt and should be discarded.  This would result in my father running over to Food Lion to acquire more microwavable veggies as the family sits around the dinner table and Mom frets about everything getting cold and dried out.

It’s because she has the lowest of thresholds of what burned is.If her baked macaroni and cheese has brown spots on the top, it’s burned.  If rolls go beyond the lightest of caramel-color, they’re burned.  And if veggies get a barely perceptible touch of char, they’re burned and ruined.

Except.

Except, as Chef Ann Burrell delights in proclaiming in a fake, growly, bear-like voice, “Brown food tastes good!”.The Maillard (my-yard) reaction is when amino acids and sugars mix with heat and to a certain extent, pressure, making those delicious, delicious brown markings on food.

If you want to know how important and tasty the Maillard reaction is, think about a hot, melty grilled cheese, on limp blond, not browned, but crispy bread.  Or, flaccid bacon.  Enjoy grill marks?  Maillard reaction.Due to exposure to my mom’s brown food aversion, and my own, near-certifiable level of impatience, I came exceedingly late to the brown food fan club.

But I’m now recording secretary.

It’s easy to get a nice brown crust on meat, no matter how long it needs to cook, the recipe you’re using, or the method of preparation.All you need is a metal pan (a cast iron is best here) that’s screaming hot and a little oil.  Dry both sides of the meat, put the thinnest coats of oil on it, then season both sides.  Place the pieces in the pan without crowding them, which will steam them, rather than sear.  They should be no closer than ½ inch.  And the more contact meat makes to hot surface, the more of it will be brown.

Then cook the meat on each side until there’s a beautiful, deeply caramel-colored crust.  Flip, and cook the other side.  Finish cooking according to directions. Brown veggies though, are my newest obsession.

It all started with some frozen, multi-colored Trader Joe’s cauliflower.

The directions said to put a bit of vegetable oil in the pan to cook them.  But, we really love cauliflower with brown butter, so I put a few tablespoons in the pan and let it brown.  Then I put in the still frozen cauliflower, turned it down to about 4, and covered it.When the cauliflower was heated through, I uncovered the pan and turned it up to about 6.  There was a little water in the skillet from the veg which I wanted to cook off.  This is where I had the happy accident.

I was preoccupied with getting the rest of dinner put together, so I neglected the cauliflower, and it cooked longer than normal (for me).When I got back to it, it had developed beautiful browning.  In the past, I never cooked vegetables until they picked up color.  But, instead of deciding it was burned and discarding it, I just flipped it to expose another part to the pan.

The result was a side dish that Petey is still talking about.You can do this with both frozen and fresh.  But it must be a harder veg, like broccoli, cauliflower, or carrots.  A more tender veggie like peas, will turn gray.  So cook them gently, then roll them in brown butter.  They’ll pick up the maillard flavor without going all elementary school cafeteria food on you.

Chef Ann Burrell and chocolate can’t both be wrong.  Brown is good.And, not burnt.

Thanks for your time.

Get Down With Brown

My shopping philosophy is pretty simple, and it’s served me pretty well.

The higher the quality the higher the price.  So, buy the best quality you can afford, at the best price you can.

But there’s an exception to this theory: butter—but butter in a particular state.Growing up, at our house, we always ate margarine.  The only time I ate butter was when we visited family in either Pennsylvania, on my grandmother’s delicious homemade potato bread, or in New Jersey on a freshly baked breakfast roll.

Because of this, in addition to being way tastier than Parkay, I also associate butter which childhood and indulgence.  So, when I began stocking my own larder, it was butter, not margarine which had a place of pride in fridge, table, and belly.I don’t remember when I discovered the wonder that is brown butter.  But, it was the luckiest kitchen mishap ever.  I was melting butter for a veggie side dish, and my attention strayed.  Soon I smelled this amazing, nutty, buttery aroma.  By the time I returned to the stove, the light golden color of melted butter had deepened to a rich caramel.

Normally I would just utter a few rude oaths to my ineptitude, pour it down the disposal and start again.  But this stuff just smelled and looked too darn good.  And it tasted even better.

After that, I began experimenting.  At first, I used it like a flavoring.  I mixed it into Velveeta Shells and Cheese.  It tasted so good, I almost forgot that the resulting dish had enough fat and calories to kill an elephant.

You know, I don’t feel quite so guilty about the brown butter mac.  But Petey would happily eat this abomination seven days a week.

When I decided I wanted to live past my thirties, I cut back on the double fat mac, and began substituting it for regular butter; both in melted form, and solid (like for baking).

Brown Butter

Butter

Melt butter on medium-low in a shallow saucepan or skillet.  Once melted, let it continue cooking, watching it constantly.  It will start to foam, and then brown.  As it browns, swirl the pan to monitor the color.  The darker it is, the more pronounced the flavor, but burned it is inedible.  When the butter solids are the color of dark brown sugar, take it off the heat.To use as solid butter, let it cool slowly, stirring frequently to keep the browned solids suspended throughout.

One of our favorite things on which to pour melted brown butter is steamed cauliflower.  The nutty flavor works beautifully with the slightly bitter veg.  Lately, I’ve been using it as a sauce for simple pasta dishes.  It enhances the taste without covering delicate flavor.

Have the butter browned and waiting in a skillet when the pasta is ready.  Then just spoon the finished noodles or ravioli into the butter and toss.  Ravioli with a mild-flavored filling is made for brown butter.  For a sauce with more complex flavor, add the juice of a lemon and a handful of grated parmesan.  It’s a delicious, sophisticated sauce for fish and poultry.And this brings us back to where we began.

Although expensive European higher fat, lower water content butter is delicious (heck, I have a box of Kerry Gold from Ireland in my fridge right now), it isn’t the best pick for browning.

What browns in butter are the milk solids, and as you move up the price and quality scale, the amount of solids drop.  So, the cheaper and less clarified butter makes the best brown butter.

Would that it worked that way for shoes.shoe collageThanks for your time.

Brunette bombshell

It’s the singer-dancer-actor Gene Kelly of the kitchen.  A triple threat.

Beurre noisette.

It literally means hazelnut butter.  But it’s actually just butter cooked until the solids turn a deep, burnished, amber brown, and emits a rich, nutty aroma.  It’s then seasoned and a squidge of is lemon added.  This simple sauce can be used on meats, veggies, and starches.

But even more adaptable is its root—browned butter.One of the favorite meals in our family is roadkill.  It’s not what you think, though.  I have never served flattened possum, or sunbaked squirrel.  Roadkill is our name for porcupine meatballs.  But because I have trouble making meat spheres, I make patties.  And years ago The Kid decided the pressed shape with bits of rice poking out resemble the result of animal versus auto.The best, nay, the only side dish allowed when we dine on road kill is steamed cauliflower tossed with plenty of slowly cooked, chestnut-colored butter.

In another quick change act, brown butter imbues baked goods with nutty depth.

You can replace the fat in desserts with brown butter.  For oil or melted butter, brown it and use once it’s cooled enough to not interfere with the chemistry of the recipe.For softened butter, just brown the butter and let it re-solidify, stirring occasionally to keep the browned solids dispersed.

To brown butter, melt it over medium-low.  Watching constantly, allow it to keep cooking until it foams and brown solids rise to the top.  Let them deepen to the color of bourbon.

The brown butter in the following recipe adds an almost umami-like nutty warmth to an already delicious confection.

Orange brownies

Cook Time: 30 minutes

2 cups buttered vanilla nuts

Ingredients:sugared nuts2 cups nut pieces of your choice

2 tablespoons butter

Pinch of salt

1 teaspoon sugar

Empty vanilla bean pod

Put all ingredients into skillet and cook on medium-low until nuts are toasted.  Let cool.

Cake ingredients:orange brownies

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour

2 cups sugar

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup vanilla bean brown butter, cooled to softened

4 eggs

1/3 cup freshly squeezed orange juice, reduced to 1 tablespoon of syrup

1 teaspoon grated orange zest

Innards from 1 vanilla bean

1 ½ cup prepared nuts

 Glaze:orange glaze2 cups confectioners’ sugar

¼ cup freshly squeezed orange juice

2 teaspoon grated orange zest

½ cup prepared nuts

Preheat oven to 350.

Grease 13X9 pan and set aside. In mixing bowl or bowl of stand mixer, stir together flour, sugar, and salt.  Add butter, eggs, orange syrup, and orange zest and beat with electric mixer until well blended. Fold in 1 1/2 cups nuts. Pour batter into prepared pan and bake for 25-28 minutes, or until light golden brown and just set. Remove from oven and pierce top of entire cake with fork.

Glaze:

Combine all ingredients except nuts in bowl, whisking until smooth. Pour half the glaze over hot cake. Cool cake completely then pour on rest of glaze, adding a bit more orange juice if needed to loosen. Sprinkle on the rest of the nuts. When glaze sets, cut into squares. orange glazed browniesAs good as these bars are, The Kid has a real problem with them.  It has nothing to do with flavor; they are bright, moist, and sweet, but thanks to the brown butter, not too sweet.

No, they taste great.  But The Kid cannot abide the name.  In my child’s opinion, any food called brownies have to contain chocolate and they must actually be brown.

But orangies just sounds silly, dontcha think?Thanks for your time.

The Cupcake Column

The Kid has a pretty dim view of cupcake shops.

cupcake lady

After watching many episodes of “Cupcake Wars” on Food Network, a conclusion has been reached; a disheartening percentage of those batter and frosting folk are a mite squirrely.

While they may actually be perfectly nice people, many seem high strung and theatrical.  And worst of all, not very good bakers.

CCB.LogoLockup.RGB

But, The Kid (and The Kid’s mom) absolutely adores The Cupcake Bar (101 E. Chapel Hill St.).  I asked for an explanation for this exception.

“Because, they’re real.  They’re Durham.”

There is absolutely no higher praise that my born, bred, and Bull City super booster can bestow.  Besides, it’s true.

What sisters Anna Branly and Katie Braam have created in their odd little triangle-shaped space downtown is nothing short of miraculous.  They were pioneers of the downtown renaissance.

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Jessica (left) and Anna packing up a dozen minis for me–after my “shift”.

The space itself is a sunshine-drenched hybrid of history and sleek modernity.  It looks like a bakery and it looks like a slick martini bar, but it also looks like a vintage soda fountain.

The vibe is a combination of casual friendliness and efficient professionalism that works like a buttercream-covered charm.

Then there’s the always scrumptious baked goods.

Each day eight imaginative, playful varieties of cupcakes in both mini and standard-size are baked, frosted, garnished, and put on display.  Offerings such as Mexican chocolate, blueberry (!), or cosmopolitan tempt the senses.

Today I got up early to hang out with owner Anna, and baker Jessica Morek at The Cupcake Bar.  They kindly allowed me to slow down their well-oiled machine and “help” them.  I garnished every cupcake, except for the instructional samples and three  minis that I totally missed.  I only ruined four, or maybe it was five (don’t ask).

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…and I helped!

Here are a few things I discovered.

Anna’s vegetarian, and Jessica doesn’t eat wheat.  Every Wednesday, and sprinkled throughout the week, there’s a gluten-free option.  Vegan show up often, and they’re always meatless.

Co-owner Katie has come up with a genius idea.  When the buttercream’s been made, it’s spooned onto a piece of plastic wrap and then closed up into a large lozenge shape.  When it’s time to pipe, they just drop the whole capsule into a bag and go to work.  The plastic wrap opens inside the bag.  This means easier cleanup and no awkward, messy attempts to fill the pastry bag.  Plus, it saves probably 30 minutes per batch.

This recipe is inspired by the mad scientists at The Cupcake Bar.

Colonial cupcakes with brown butter frosting

Makes approx. 2 dozen standard-sized or 3 dozen minis.

Cake:

cupcake

2 ¼ cups cake flour

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons baking powder

½ cup butter, softened

¾ cup sugar

2 large eggs

1 cup milk

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 tablespoon lemon zest

1/8 teaspoon fresh nutmeg

Preheat oven to 375; line muffin cups with papers.

Cream butter and sugar until it’s light and fluffy. Beat in eggs one at a time.

Sift together flour, salt and baking powder.  Add to batter alternating with milk.  Beat well, then stir in vanilla, lemon zest and nutmeg.

Fill the cups ¾ full and bake for 18 minutes (10-13 for minis), or until toothpick comes out moist but clean.  Let cool in pan.

Brown butter frosting

brown frosting

4 cups powdered sugar

½ cup brown butter, softened

¼ cup milk (or as needed to thin to piping consistency)

To make brown butter, melt butter in small saucepan on medium-low. Keep cooking until butter smells nutty and the solids are caramel-colored.  Watch it closely; it will go from browned to burned in literally seconds. 

Put butter in a bowl and refrigerate until chilled solid.  When ready to make frosting, remove from fridge and let come to room temperature.

Mix the sugar and butter well.  Add milk a bit at a time and mix on high until fluffy (2-3 minutes).

Spread or pipe onto cooled cupcakes.

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I had a full-on blast today, and I shocked myself; rather than devouring a whole bowl, I only had one tiny taste of frosting.

And did you know they’ve only been in their building four years?

I can’t remember a time when there wasn’t a Cupcake Bar in my life.

Or maybe I just don’t want to.

Thanks for your time.

The great cauliflower compromise of 2016

Sadly, to many people, compromise has become a dirty word.  Concession is considered obscene.  And accommodation is beyond the pale.

After more than three decades of marriage, I have learned the vital importance of finding a middle ground.  Bargaining and accommodation is the reason why I’ve seen most movies on TV multiple times, in ten to fifteen minutes bursts.  Petey will turn on a show, and then wander off to another channel, returning later for another short burst.  Just as I get interested and begin to suss out the plot, I’m whisked away to golf, a religious service or a couple of guys trying to sell me a blender.

 

Wait…Who are those guys? Oh, this isn’t the movie anymore, is it?

 

It normally takes around eight showings before I’ve pretty much seen the whole thing.  But there are always gaps; sometimes they’re minor scenes, sometimes major plot points.

Compromise is also the reason Petey knows the difference between pumps and platforms, eats albacore tuna and uses name-brand toilet paper.

The air was thick with compromise the other night when I made cauliflower.

The Matthews family love cauliflower.   Normally I use frozen because it’s quick, easy, and I can always have a bag at hand in the chill chest.

The default preparation is heated in the microwave and topped with browned butter.  It’s the one half of a favorite meal; road kill and brown butter cauliflower.

 

Not actual roadkill.

 

Now let me disabuse you of the image of me on the highway with a shovel and a bag.  Road kill is Matthews-speak for porcupine meatballs.  They are morsels of hamburger mixed with rice and cooked in a tomato sauce.  Because keeping the orb shape of a meatball is my kulinary kryptonite, I make them into patties.  The Kid declared the sight of them resembled roadkill, and the name stuck.

Brown butter tossed cauliflower is a terrific counterpart to the beefy patties.

But I also really like cauliflower the way my Aunt Pollie cooked it.  She cloaked it in a rich buttery cream sauce, speckled with a dusting of nutmeg.  It’s delicious and addictive, but because it’s prepared with butter and whole milk or half and half, a dish I only enjoy infrequently

The evening in question I was making a pork tenderloin and black rice, cooked with a Caribbean citrus marinade called mojo.  Because of this, both protein and starch would be relatively light so I toyed with the idea of my Aunt Pollie’s creamed cauliflower.

 

Delicious, but maybe a bit heavy?

 

But…I really like it with brown butter, and that cream sauce can feel heavy.  Then my brain turned to compromise.

I decided to try making the cream sauce with brown butter.  The recipe for classic cream sauce is butter and flour cooked together with dairy whisked in.  But roux is just butter and flour.  And I normally use peanut better-colored roux, which coincidently is the color of the solids when I make brown butter.

Brown butter cream sauce

brown butter cream sauce

¼ cup butter

¼ cup flour

1 ¼ cup skim milk

Salt and pepper to taste

Melt butter in a saucepan and stir in flour.  Cook until over medium-low heat until it’s the color of caramel. 

Whisk in milk and cook just until it starts to bubble.  Season to taste.  Pour over 16 ounces of nuked cauliflower.  Serves 4.

It turned out tasty, and made with skim milk, felt relatively virtuous.

 

Normally when there’s a compromise, all sides get something, but nobody gets everything they want.  But in this case, I got my brown butter and ate my cream sauce too.

Thanks for your time.

The evolution of a cookie, or Darwin was right

A jillion years ago, when Seinfeld was still on, Us magazine interviewed the caterer that fed the cast and crew onset. She talked about the favorite dishes of Jerry and the other stars. And she mentioned a kind of a chocolate chip cookie that she made that everybody adored. The recipe was printed within the article.
As with almost everything that exists, I have an opinion about chocolate chip cookies. The naked cookie, sans chips, should be chewy and delicious, or don’t bother. Don’t make a miniature piece of chocolate be the sole savior of a cookie. It’s like having a baby to save a faltering marriage. It just ain’t right. And it usually goes wrong.
The nice lady used mocha chips. I’m guessing they’re some kind of chocolate/coffee chip. They sound good, but I have never in all the years between then and now, found them on a store shelf. There are many foods that professional cooks use that home cooks can not get their hands on. It’s a pet peeve of mine. I guess those chips are on that list.
So, I made the cookies with regular Hershey’s milk (don’t like semi-sweet) chocolate chips. They ran all over the cookie sheet in a frenzy. These cookies were more like a tuile, an extremely thin crispy cookie that is often rolled into cigars when warm and stuck into ice cream.
Imagine chocolate chip ice cream cones (you know, that actually sounds interesting).
The cookie had too much fat without enough flour. I tinkered with the flour for a few batches, and finally found the amount that would give structure, without becoming cakey. After I found the right flour ratio, I switched the all-purpose I had been using to cake flour, the measurement of which had to be adjusted, as well. The cake flour lightens the feel of the finished cookie, and made the texture more layered and distinct, while keeping the sticky, chewy mouth feel.
As for the chips, I put in all kinds of things. Chocolate chips, toffee chips. Coconut and dried fruit. In fact, in this incarnation, we called them, “Whatever Kind of Chip Cookies.” This cookie was also the beneficiary of the discovery of cheap abundant vanilla beans at Costco. Instead of two lowly teaspoons of vanilla extract, this recipe had two lowly teaspoons of vanilla extract, and the caviar of an entire vanilla bean.
Then one summer, The Kid went to camp. Like any American mother who’s seen her share of Leave It To Beaver and The Brady Bunch, I sent my child off to camp with a big box of homemade cookies. My Whatever cookies.
I offered to make another batch, and asked what kind of chips were desired. Since the cookie-eaters (The Kid’s entire dorm floor), couldn’t come to a concensus, chipless was requested. The spotless treats were a huge hit. Without the chocolate flavor competing, the cookie became all about the vanilla. The campers loved it, and renamed it, “Vanilla Explosion”.
The Kid and I were planning on making the cookies one day, and were thinking about what would enhance the rich, buttery, caramelized taste. Simultaneously, we had the same thought. Brown butter. We already loved the nutty, complex flavor that browning imparted to regular, old butter. It’s terrific on pasta, but we just adore it on cauliflower. We hadn’t yet tried it in a sweet application.
The butter in the cookie dough is used softened. First I scraped my vanilla bean, and put the caviar aside. The empty bean, I put in a pan with the sticks of butter. I melted, then browned it with the bean floating alongside. I poured the newly brown butter into a bowl. After it has cooled for bit, I stir in the vanilla caviar. While the butter is cooling to solid, I stir it from time to time so it won’t be separated into layers when it hardens again. I do this the day before I intend on making cookies, so the flavors can intensify with a night in the fridge.
When I’m ready to make the cookies, I soften the brown butter, and use it just like normal.
I would never offer someone else’s recipe as my own, but this recipe has been through so many permutations that I don’t think the original caterer would even recognize it. So, here you go, this is what happened when I cut a recipe out of Us magazine.
Thanks for your time.

Vanilla Explosion Cookies

1 Cup brown sugar
1 Cup white sugar
8 ounces butter, browned with vanilla bean, and resoftened
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 1/4 cups cake flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 4oo degrees (make sure the oven is HOT when the cookies go in). In a large bowl, mix butter and sugar. You can mix this cookie dough by hand, but a stand-up mixer makes it much easier. Add eggs and vanilla. In a separate bowl, sift together dry ingredients. Slowly stir together wet and dry ingredients. Make the cookies any size you like, baking all one size together. A large cookie bakes for about 10-12 minutes, a bite-size cookie may only need 7-8. Bake until golden brown, the darker the chewier. Makes about 3 dozen large cookies.