Friday, December 31, 2010

The Orange Blossom Special

It's New Year's Eve. Having had my fill of both 2010 and drunken New Year's celebrations, I am staying home tonight. A dear old friend is in town and will be stopping over for a visit with his new wife and I am looking forward to a calm and relaxing evening!

When Grant first mentioned that he was coming to town, I (half-jokingly at the time) said "Since I know that you're coming I can bake a cake!" As he and Nicole are newlyweds, a cake seems appropriate for their visit. As fate would have it, there just happens to be a cake I've been just dying to make ever since the first time I experimented with the recipe. It's a very simple Mandarin orange cake. The thing that makes it special is the orange blossom frosting!

The first time I made this cake, I was in someone else's kitchen. One ingredient they happened to have on hand was Orange Blossom Water, an item usually found in Middle Eastern Halal markets. It's got a very strong and wonderful flavor and just a little goes a long way. I added a teaspoon or so to the cream cheese frosting I was making and discovered one of the most amazing flavored things I'd ever tasted! It wasn't exactly orange tasting though it had that quality. It was kind of flowery and was just different enough to make your taste buds really sit up and take notice!

I also recommend using a real vanilla bean, if you can. I actually got mine on the internet. There are several places to get them and remember, they're cheaper if you have friends to split the order with!

Note: the following recipes are the high-fat, high-calorie versions of the recipe. If you would like the low-fat version, go look on another blog. That ain't how I roll.

Mandarin Orange Cake
Preheat your oven to 350°. Grease and lightly flour a 9"x13" pan and set it aside. Take out two large mixing bowls. In one, combine:
2-1/2 c all purpose flour
1-1/2 t baking soda
1-1/2 t baking powder
1/4 t salt
Whisk everything together and set aside. In the second bowl, mix:
1-3/4 c sugar
1/2 c softened butter
1/2 c vegetable oil
4 eggs
2 t vanilla extract
Beat together on medium speed until combined. Add:
1 15 oz. can Mandarin oranges, drained, liquid reserved
1/2 c reserved orange liquid
Mix on medium to combine and, in 2 or 3 increments, add the flour mixture. Beat at medium speed until well combined. Pour into pan and bake for 35-40 minutes. I find it is always best to spin the pan 180° about halfway through the cooking process to insure even baking. The cake will be done when it is golden brown and spongy, and pulls away from the sides of the pan. You may also test it by inserting a clean toothpick into the middle. If it comes out clean, it's done! Remove the cake from the oven and cool completely before frosting.

So far, so good. Make sure you don't throw out the reserved orange liquid yet - you're going to need it for the frosting! Usually, about the time you put the cake into the oven it's a good idea to set out the cream sheese and butter for the frosting, giving them ample time to soften. The last thing you want to deal with is cold butter and cheese! Once the cake has completely cooled, you're ready for the next step.

Orange Blossom Frosting
In a large mixing bowl, combine:
8 oz cream cheese, softened
6 T butter, softened
Beat at high speed until light and fluffy. Add in:
3 c powdered sugar (one cup at a time)
2 T reserved liquid from oranges
Beat until the desired consistency is obtained, adding a little more orange liquid if needed. Add:
1 t orange blossom water
the seed paste from 1 vanilla bean (or 1 t vanilla extract)
a dash of salt
Mix well. Spread on the cake and merrily consume!

Remember, when dealing with orange blossom water - it is very strong stuff! Don't use too much or it will overpower the other flavors! You may of course substitute vanilla extract for a bean if you can't get one but if you can, it's well worth the effort. In addition to a cleaner vanilla taste, the visual effect of the specks of vanilla throughout the frosting is very appealing!

Happy New Year everyone!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Apple Cranberry Pie

Winter Solstice is officially taking place on Tuesday the 21st but, seeing as how it is the weekend, the party at Sekhet-Ma'at Lodge will be held tonight. We will all be gathering for a ritual celebration followed by a pot luck feast. This means I'm going to have to cook something and, after waking with a slight hangover from last nights birthday festivities, food was not exactly high on my list.

By this afternoon, however, I was feeling much better and that's when I got the inspiration to bake a pie for the party. Reviewing what I had on hand, I decided to make an apple pie. I remembered that I had some cranberries stored in the freezer and opted to throw them in as well.

I started by making my favorite pie crust, a recipe I got from America's Test Kitchen for all butter crust. It always comes out wonderfully flaky and delicious so I've never felt the need to make a different crust. Here is the double crust recipe.

In a small mixing bowl, whisk together:
1/3 c ice water
3 T sour cream (I always use plain yogurt)
Set this mixture aside. In a food processor combine:
2-1/2 c flour
1 T sugar
1 t salt
Pulse to mix and then add:
2 sticks unsalted butter, cut into small pieces and frozen for 10-15 minutes
Pulse several times until texture looks crumbly. Add the water/yogurt mixture and continue to pulse. You may have to add a tablespoon of ice water though I usually don't. The crust should not be over-mixed or over-handled. It is done when you pinch a small amount and it sticks together. When it is done, pour it out of the processor bowl onto a large piece of plastic wrap. Gently press the dough together into a flat disc, wrap and refrigerate for 10 minutes.
Once the dough has cooled down a bit, remove it from the fridge and split it into 2 batches. Roll out one half into a disc about 10 inches across and carefully place it into the pie dish. Roll the other half out into a 9 inch disc and place it on a parchment lined baking sheet. Cover both halves with plastic and return them to the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

As I mentioned, this crust is incredibly flaky and tender. If you were using it for a prebaked pie crust, you would bake it at this point. Since I'm not doing that, I put it back in the fridge so the butter could harden back up.

Making the pie filling is simple enough. Once the crusts are back in the fridge, peel, core and slice:
8-10 medium apples
Granny Smith are always best for pie but I did not have any. Instead I used Fujis and a couple of Cameos. Place the apples in a large bowl. Add in:
1 c fresh or frozen whole cranberries
1 T orange juice
Combine and set aside. This is a good time to get your oven warming. Place the oven rack on the lowest setting, put an insulated cookie sheet on the rack and set the temperature to 500°. (Be careful using non-insulated cookie sheets as they may cause the bottom of the pie to burn.) In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together:
1 c sugar
2 T flour
1 t cinnamon
1/4 t allspice
1/4 t ground clove
1/4 t nutmeg
1/4 t salt
Add the above ingredients to the apples and combine until the fruit is well coated. Remove the pie crusts from the refrigerator. Carefully transfer the fruit into the bottom crust, mounding the fruit to get all of it into the dish. After the apples cook and cool, they will shrink a bit. Cover the apples with the top crust, rolling it out a little more if needed. Pinch the edges of the crust together and, if you like, make a decorative edge by either scalloping the dough with your fingers or pressing down on the dough with a fork around the edge of the dish. Brush the top of the crust with:
1 egg white, lightly whipped
Make a few slits in the top of the crust to allow for venting. Place the pie on the hot cookie sheet and reduce the temperature to 425°. Bake the pie for 25 minutes. Rotate the cookie sheet, reduce the temperature to 375° and bake for another 30-35 minutes. Allow the pie to completely cool before cutting.

The pie, as you can see from the picture, came out wonderfully! The crust was crispy (as the butter crusts always are) and the cranberries added a delightful dimension to a classic favorite. The comments from the party-goers seemed to agree. This is quite definitely a pie I will make again. And again.

A Happy Solstice to you, one and all!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Easy Sunday Night Marinara Sauce

The holidays are nearly upon us again and things are beginning to get hectic. It's been tough to find the time to cook, much less write about it afterwards! Today, I am baking more holiday cookies and snacks to be given as gifts. I'm starting the day with Orange Spice Oatmeal Cookies (see last week's post) and am following that with Ginger Snaps (see A Perfect Day for Gingersnaps) and Candied Pecans (see Thursday's Spread - The Aftermath). As it turns out, we have some friends that will be dropping by this evening and I'll be adding dinner to that list. What to do?

With all the mess I had going in the kitchen I wanted something I could put together easily and quickly, preferably something I could cook on the stove since the oven would be in use. I figured a marinara sauce would be best and easiest.

For this recipe, I am not getting all fancy with fresh tomatoes or anything, I'm pretty much sticking to the pantry staples. I sometimes add olives and/or bell peppers to this recipe but today I'm keeping it to what I have on hand.

Start by taking a large pot and sautéing:
1/4 c olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
When onion begins to sweat, add:
1-1/2 c sliced crimini mushrooms
Cook over medium heat until the mushrooms begin to brown. Add:
4 cloves garlic, minced
Stir together for about 1 minute and add:
2 c water
1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
1 14 oz. can diced tomatoes
2 6 oz. cans tomato paste
Stir well until tomato paste is well incorporated. Add in:
2 bay leaves
1 T sugar
2 t salt
2 t oregano leaves (2 T if fresh)
1 t basil (1 T if fresh)
1 t thyme (1 T if fresh)
1 t parsley (1 T if fresh)
1 t fresh ground black pepper
Bring sauce to a simmer and reduce heat to low. Cook for at least one hour. If you choose to take the sauce away from Marinara and toward a Bolognese, you can add meat at this point. At about the time you're going to start the water for the pasta, add in:
1/2 c dry red wine
1/4 c grated Parmesan cheese (if needed to thicken)
Continue to simmer until pasta is done. Serve with Parmesan and garlic bread.

Sunday night dinner made easy. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a plate of spaghetti to eat!


Sunday, December 5, 2010

Krampus' Orange Spice Oatmeal Cookies

Today is December 5th and in some parts of Europe this evening holds a special meaning. Celebrations are held with fur-covered goat-men parading through the streets, frightening children. Sound like no holiday celebration you've ever heard of? Welcome to Krampus Nacht!

For those of you who are still wondering what this is all about, let me give a brief explanation. Krampus is a mythical devilish creature originating in the folklore of Austria and Hungary. Krampus is said to be a counterpart to Saint Nicholas and would accompany the latter on Yule. Good little boys and girls would get gifts from Santa while all the brats would be whipped with birch branches and carted off in a large sack. To this day festivals are held around the world to celebrate this darker aspect of the Christmas season, including here in Portland, Oregon - a city that is always more than willing to embrace the bizarre and unconventional.

In light of it being Krampus' special day, I decided it was high time to get started on some of my holiday baking. The first recipe I always reach for at this time of year is my favorite holiday cookie - in fact, one of my favorite cookies ever - Orange Spice Oatmeal Cookies with Cranberries!

I came up with this recipe a few years ago when I was considering a batch of Oatmeal Raisin Cookies. It was around the holidays and I had recently made my Orange Spiced Cranberry Sauce (see post for November 11, 2010) and still had oranges and cloves on my mind, as well as a large amount of dried cranberries. The rest is history and now I pass the recipe on to you, my foodie friends, so you may enjoy them as well!

The one thing I did a little different this time is that I used vanilla bean instead of vanilla extract, just because I had some and...well, why not? In the recipe below, I left it as 1 t vanilla extract. I used 2 vanilla beans, sliced lengthwise and scraped out with the edge of the knife. The leftover pods I cut up and toss in with coffee grounds when I'm making a pot - YUM!

To begin, preheat oven to 350°. In a medium mixing bowl, sift together the dry ingredients:
1-1/2 c all purpose flour
1 t baking soda          
1-1/2 t cinnamon
1 t ground clove
1/2 t nutmeg
1/2 t salt
In a large mixing bowl, beat together: 
1/2 lb (2 sticks) butter, softened
1 c firmly packed brown sugar
1/2 c granulated sugar
When creamy, add:
2 eggs
1 t vanilla extract
2 T grated orange peel
Beat well, until smooth and creamy. In 2 batches, add in the dry ingredients above and mix well. Stir in: 
3 c uncooked oats
1 c dried cranberries
Drop by rounded tablespoonfuls onto an ungreased insulated cookie sheet and press lightly to flatten. Bake 10 -12 minutes or until golden brown. Cool for 1 minute on the cookie sheet, then remove the cookies and cool them completely on a wire rack.
Makes about 3-4 dozen cookies.

I have dreams about the orange flavor of these cookies! In my dreams, when Krampus comes to take me away, I entice him with my cookies and he forgets all about me for another year. I feel confident in saying that you will no doubt be able to ward him off as well if you offer him a plate of these delicious cookies. Try it and see! You have absolutely nothing to lose! In the meantime...

Friday, December 3, 2010

My Favorite 1970's Casserole!

Today's post is dedicated to my good friend Paul Weir, a true aficionado of classic American cuisine.

If you are in your late 30's or older, I'm willing to bet you have a favorite - even if you won't admit it! I'm talking 1970's casserole dishes, that monstrosity of cuisine that came close to scarring an entire generation. Looking at some of these old recipes, with all their processed food ingredients like Velveeta "cheese" and hot dogs, it's no wonder that the following generation embraced fast food the way they did!

Still, for those of us who grew up in that period, there is almost always one favorite, that one dish that you still make even if your spouse thinks you're completely nuts. For many it's Green Bean Casserole, with condensed cream of mushroom soup and those crispy onions that come in a can. For me, it was always what in my family was called "Tater Tot Casserole". 

The beauty of Tater Tot Casserole is its absolute simplicity. There are 4 ingredients. A 12 year old can make this casserole and, as I can vouch, has on many an occasion! It's hamburger and tater tots and there is not a kid anywhere that will not think this is the most incredible thing they've ever had! Which is why this recipe has stuck with me for all these years and is still one of my most favoritest comfort foods!

Making Tater Tot Casserole is easy. Simply take:
1-1/2 lbs. ground beef
and press it into the bottom of a 9x13" baking dish so that the raw hamburger completely covers the bottom. Then spread over the top of the beef:
1 can cream of mushroom soup
Over the top of this pour:
1 can French onion soup
Working in rows, arrange:
1 32oz package tater tots
over the top of the onion soup. You may wish to leave a 1/2" space around the top between the dish and the tots, as the burger will shrink a bit when it cooks. Sprinkle the tots with salt and pepper. Bake the casserole at 425° for 40-45 minutes, until top is golden brown. Remove from the oven and allow to sit for 5 minutes before cutting. Serves 4-6.

As you can see, this recipe is painfully easy. One of the best things too is that, because this recipe is so simple with minimal ingredients, you can style it to your own taste! Try adding mushrooms, peppers, garlic, bacon, and/or cheese to the recipe. Flavor it with herbs, spice it up with chili powder or curry. Or keep the kids happy and just leave it plain. Anyway you go, this casserole has a good chance of ending up on your "favorites" list and, if you're like me, will be one of your guilty pleasures for years to come!