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Confined Confection

For the past few weeks, it feels as if I’ve been camping out in my own kitchen. To acclimate a four-legged family member to our home, we gated off and puppy-proofed that room. We may come to regret the kitchen location, but it seems to make sense for the baby who needs easy access when heading outdoors on quick notice.

Already named “Denver” before he joined us, this puppy’s routine around the kitchen finds at least one of us playing with him, brushing his chocolate-brown coat, teaching him to sit with miniature milk bones, or bumping into each other while opening the refrigerator to search for treats for the trainers.

Now that Denver’s entertaining himself for longer stretches of time, he runs loose around the corner into the butler’s pantry—a safe puppy play environment with no carpets or butler to be found.

Denver, like our older dog Cammie, loves tiny pieces of raw carrot, which make great little training rewards for warm, furry creatures. A more mature pet now, Cammie trained with carrots starting at 8 weeks old and they remain her favorite puppy perk. It’s impossible to bring an orange bunch into the house without her waiting patiently in hopes that one will fall to the floor.

Though the carrots serve as rewards, tiny dabs of butter work well as diversions. When we were training Cammie, she wanted to nip at everyone, and we learned from a devoted dog lover to curb her mouthing and nipping habit with a slather of chilled butter. Within 48 hours, she received countless praises and stopped the nipping. We’re keeping the butter to a minimum with Denver, and he nips when seeking attention or alerting us to his needs. A little sweet creamy butter even helps prevent the rest of the household from nipping at each other, too.

Minimized gooey butter cake tasteWhen a cake appears around our place, we’re suddenly all on our best behavior. Just as with puppies, where behavioral experts advise to have a toy ready at all times, it could prove beneficial to have a slice of cake ready at all times for people. If there’s a stick or two of quality butter on hand, use them to make this dense cake-based crust that holds a gooey layer of cream cheese, butter and powdered sugar.

If you can call it traditional, original gooey butter cake may be made with basic staples stocked in home kitchens. Quality butter and cake flour are worth the extra effort of rounding up, though any will do to turn out a rich gooey butter cake. In St. Louis, where locals claim to have created the confection, commercial bakeries offer the cake laced with everything from chocolate chips to key lime. The recipe shared here resembles the original.

Gooey Butter Cake

Crust

1 cup sugar

2 cups flour

¼ teaspoon salt

1 ¼ teaspoons baking powder1 stick unsalted butter, melted

2 eggs, beaten

Filling

8 ounces cream cheese, softened

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 cups powdered sugar

Topping

¼ cup powdered sugar

  1. Sift dry crust ingredients together. Add beaten eggs and melted butter and stir until thoroughly mixed. Press thick, sticky dough into greased 9 x 12 baking pan.
  2. Mix cream cheese with eggs, butter, vanilla and powdered sugar. Beat at medium speed 2 minutes. Pour over unbaked dough.
  3. Bake 35 minutes at 350 degrees until puffy and golden. Cool completely and dust with remaining powdered sugar.

 

Text and photos by Mary Ann Ebner, Cook On: 1 part chaos, 2 parts calm

First published by The Highlands Current

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Mix up crisp cauliflower and apricot

Ideas for putting a new meal together crop up around fine dining tables, farmers’ markets and food trucks. There’s no shortage of inspiration whether from a bunch of baby carrots waving their green tops to an endless stream of tempting digital food photos just a swipe away on the phone.

Though traditional cookbooks may seem stodgy compared to a perfect post of pasta primavera on an Instagram feed, printed and bound works of cooking devotion share much more than how-to instructions. Story-driven cookbooks can introduce a world beyond the recipes and ingredients that they present.

Lately, cooking prompts arrive by text from a friend who shares an interest in sampling good eating at hole-in-the-wall restaurants while a host of menus and meal propositions finds a way to my email inbox from food news subscriptions. Some draw a quick look while others move to a list of saved recipes to consider. But even with constant access to a vast selection of online food pages, menus and quick-tip videos, I still linger over traditional cookbooks, not only for cooking’s sake but to soak up an author’s connections to farming, gardening or composing a repertoire of ethnic family favorites. It’s not instructional guides that I love, but tapestries of recipes woven together with scenes of life and illustrated with artful design and photography presented on paper.Storied Cooking

One of my prized treasures weighs several pounds and claims a generous space on the pantry bookshelf. Written by John Besh, My New Orleans: The Cookbook piles on pleasure with cooking, culture, history and a dash of food tourism.

When we sold our family home in Austin several years ago, the buyers were making their relocation from New Orleans. Shortly after the sale’s closing, the cookbook arrived at our new home with a note from the buyers about their appreciation of Besh and the chef’s respectful nod to New Orleans tradition and progressive invention of contemporary tastes. It’s a beautifully written book paying tribute to friends, family and the freshest finds in food. I may never make his crawfish agnolotti with morels or dewberry streusel pie, but Besh won me over with descriptive narrative (“waist deep in a cypress swamp”) from his crawfishing adventures. Two years ago my family hosted a Mardi Gras dinner using Besh’s big book, breaking in the pages with a few smudges of buttermilk and corn meal. Cooking together ended up becoming a cultural awakening of Louisiana cuisine thanks to Besh. We honored the recipes but had a little fun making them our own. If a copy of Besh’s cookbook that includes 200 of his favorite recipes and stories from his hometown presents itself, make room for it in your collection.

I try to limit new cookbook acquisitions in my own collection to one or two a year simply due to space restrictions. But when there’s a chance to borrow or browse a new publication, it’s a joy to find more than something to eat in a cookbook. One recent rainy evening, I found a shelf of cookbooks at the Desmond-Fish Library in Garrison. The selection kept me out of the rain and engaged with a range of good reading. Some featured step-by-step instructions while others centered more on food travel and finding the choicest raw ingredients. In Pure & Special: Gourmet Indian Vegetarian Cuisine by Vidhu Mittal, a tangy lettuce wrap presented a possibility to include the nuances of Indian vegetarian cooking in spring’s rotation. I stumbled on a few pages of brilliance with Diana Henry’s “healthy meets delicious” cookbook, A Change of Appetite. A great read because the images and layout help tell the story, but Henry’s work suggests a year of feasting on inventive healthy food, organized by seasons and showcasing dishes like yogurt with honeyed saffron syrup, almonds and apricot compote. Not too intimidating and who doesn’t love apricots?

Minimized crispy cauliflower with apricotThe combination inspired me to put apricots on my shopping list and I’ve been testing salads in my home kitchen. The recipe shared here combines crispy cauliflower and tangy toasted sesame seeds to create a somewhat nutty flavored medley. Try sharing a small portion as a side salad or just a tasting to welcome hungry guests before breaking out more substantial fare. For this simple combination, dip in to your premium extra-virgin olive oil and the best sea salt on hand. The ingredients are all everyday finds and inexpensive, but together they’ll please on any plate.

Crisp Cauliflower with Apricots

1 head cauliflower

1 tablespoon sesame seeds

1 cup dried apricots, chopped

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

4 scallions, chopped

1 teaspoon sea salt flakes, crushed

Cut cauliflower into small florets and set aside. In preheated oven, bake sesame seeds on flat ungreased baking sheet at 400 degrees Fahrenheit about 5 minutes or until lightly golden. Remove seeds from oven and place baking sheet of cauliflower florets on top rack. Bake 20 minutes until florets begin to brown. Toss cauliflower, apricot pieces and chopped onion in mixing bowl. Mix sesame seeds with olive oil and add to mixing bowl ingredients. Stir mixture and sprinkle generously with salt. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Text and photos by Mary Ann Ebner

First published at The Highlands Current

Berried in Pumpkin

 

For all its warmth, silky smashed pumpkin, mildly spiced and tucked into flaky crust, might as well be classified as health food.

No matter how plentiful the turkey and Brussels sprouts, there’s always room for a velvety slice topped with whipped cream or served a la mode. Few Thanksgiving hosts challenge the pastry’s status as a given for holiday spreads which is how the traditional pie will manage to keep its place on our table this year, even as we break from family custom and add another dessert — pumpkin cranberry bars.

Minimized fresh cranberries

Fresh cranberries

Combining pumpkin with cranberries brightens any dish with splashes of crimson. Sweetened dried cranberries offer convenience, but they don’t do a baked good justice. A baking occasion calls for the fresh plump sort, the kind that make baked goods pop with color along with bits and pieces of tarty-sweet fruit and skin.

Pick up fresh cranberries just about everywhere this time of year, packaged in small bags at many local markets including Foodtown. Organic cranberries are also available locally, and Beacon Natural Market carries them in the fresh produce and freezer sections. If you’re cooking for one or two, a bag of berries goes a long way, but if you’re feeding the neighborhood, stock a supply to last the rest of the year. For those with a true cranberry crush … Beacon Natural Market is offering their own fresh organic cranberry sauce spiked with orange and a medley of spices.

To modify my own holiday menu, I’ve adapted a pumpkin bar recipe with the fresh berries and chia seeds. When I set out to include the seeds, I didn’t intend to create a superfood to overshadow the pie. I unexpectedly found myself with a supply of raw seeds on the doorstep — in a box from Amazon. One of my kids received a birthday gift from family friends and when the gift giver closed out his online shopping cart, the gift and a 2-pound bag of chia seeds were on the way to our address. Once discovered, there was no chance of redirecting the seeds to their rightful recipient, a master when it comes to blending morning smoothies with yogurt, fruit and chia seeds.

Minimized chia seeds

Chia seeds

Beacon Natural Market carries a selection of chia products ranging from vacuum-packed seeds to miniature single-serving packets in seed and ground form. Kitty Sherpa, market co-owner with her husband LT Sherpa, said the store stocks many brands and quantities of the tiny chia seeds, which according to the Mayo Clinic, date back to ancient Mayan and Aztec civilizations as a dietary staple.

“The health benefits of chia have become popular over the last 10 years,” Kitty Sherpa said. “It’s high in protein and fiber and provides omega-3 fatty acids. It’s also high in antioxidants and a good source of calcium, magnesium and copper.”

With their healthy reputation, I couldn’t bear to let the seeds age on the kitchen counter, and they’ve been making their way into brownies and biscuits. When chia seeds sit in liquid for a short time, the combination thickens and takes on a gelatinous form that folds into batters just as naturally as eggs with a much lower dose of fat and cholesterol.

“With chia coming into prominence,” Kitty Sherpa said, “for things like baking, as an egg replacer, it’s a great way to use it. And it has such a mild flavor that it’s almost a hidden ingredient.”

Minimized pumpkin barsIt may take more time for chia seeds to land on the average shopping list and pumpkin bars could never replace pumpkin pie, but cranberries — packed with their own nutritional benefits — remind us to count our blessings, sweet and savory.

Cranberry Pumpkin Chia Bars

Yield: 3 dozen bars

1 ¾ cups flour

1 cup sugar

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

1 ½ cups mashed pumpkin (use sweet sugar pie pumpkins or canned pumpkin)

½ cup canola oil

¼ cup buttermilk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

*2 tablespoons chia seeds

*½ cup water

3 cups fresh cranberries, rinsed and dried

½ cup butterscotch chips

Choose a 3- to 4-pound sugar pie pumpkin. Cut pumpkin in half and remove seeds (save seeds for roasting). Place split pumpkin on baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Cool. Scoop out pumpkin and mash or puree.

In a small bowl, add water to chia seeds. Let stand 10 minutes and stir. Seeds and water will take on a gelatinous consistency. In a large bowl, mix flour, sugar, baking soda and salt. In another bowl, combine chia seed mixture, pumpkin, oil, buttermilk and vanilla. Add to flour mixture, stirring just until moistened. Fold in fresh cranberries and butterscotch chips. Pour into a greased jelly roll baking pan or cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until the surface bounces back from touch. Cool completely and cut into single-serving bars.

*In place of chia seeds and water, substitute 2 beaten eggs.

By Mary Ann Ebner, first published by Philipstown.info

Jarring jam … why small-batch jam tastes best

Small-batch jam from Coyote Kitchen

Small-batch jam from Coyote Kitchen

Preserving fabulous fruits results in the best jams and jellies. Lynne Goldman of Coyote Kitchen doesn’t overlook any of the fine produce of the Hudson Valley when she makes her small-batch products. When there’s little time to make your own, sample a jar of artisan jam by slathering it on a cracker, using it as a glaze or folding it into a simple cake. Check out the jam lady and this recipe for blackberry jam cake.

St. Louis romantics, please pass the pork butt

Firing up the grill for graduation season and summer suppers takes me back to my youth and brings on a yearning for grilled pork. Dinners growing up along the Mississippi River centered on preparing food influenced by early European settlers, but the most memorable meals in warm weather were often anchored with St. Louis barbecued pork steaks.

Barbecued pork steaks

Barbecued pork steaks

My family rarely ate high off the hog, as the top choice was typically priciest. But in place of fine ham and luscious loin, we splurged on pork steaks — not year round — but for summer grilling. If there was a sure thing for a meal around our family picnic table, this was it. And it was nearly impossible to keep the grilling a secret. Neighbors and passers-by on the sidewalk would slow down to wave when they sniffed that blend of fiery sweet sauce and sizzling pork drippings in the air.

Now with my own family, as we’ve moved across the country, we’ve explored many regional foods. There’s always room in the repertoire to add new discoveries but we also rotate deeply rooted recipes from the past. Not too many years ago, it seemed appropriate to prepare St. Louis-style pork steaks for my son’s kindergarten graduation. After all, his godmother, Jenny, and her daughter, Sam, traveled to New York from St. Louis to visit for a few days. Until then, I’d never purchased pork steaks in my adult life. Once out of college, I moved out west and as a newly minted young adult, I sampled a world of food choices. Now that I’ve matured into adulthood (wrinkles and all), childhood memories of a pony-tailed girl devouring an enormous pork steak, licking sauce from her fingers without fear of reprimand, comes clearly back to me.

For our festive meal, I made a special order at the meat counter and brought a choice cut home to my husband, Greg, for grilling. He grew up in Michigan and until preparing them himself, he didn’t think much of pork steaks. Hand him his favorite Coney (a hot dog with natural skin casing, onions and brown chili) and he’s back home again. But he agreed to slow-grill the pork steaks, even brushing them precisely with tomato purée.

Steaks on the grill

Steaks on the grill

I told Greg that every backyard chef in my memory added beer to the sauce. He had a few bottles of his favorite on hand, which appeared to work fine — one bottle for the recipe, two bottles for the chef, according to legend. Greg slowly grilled the meat and then placed it in a pan of sauce to simmer.

When we sat down at the patio table to enjoy the graduation feast, Jenny smiled with delight when Greg presented the platter of pork steaks.

“Fabulous!” she exclaimed with genuine appreciation. “You made pork butt.”

Well, our young sons, who had been pre-conditioned by their preschool head mistress to use bottom in place of butt at all times, jumped in their surprise. If a godmother could say pork butt, why couldn’t they give it a shout? “Pork butt! Pork butt! Pork butt!” They shook up the conversation, and we tried to camouflage our own laughing outburst. At that shining moment, bottom took a back seat and butt emerged from backyard barbecue chatter to the kindergarten playground.

I could just imagine the look on the headmistress’s face at the chanting. “You are role models for your children,” she always reminded parents. “We’d like to leave the four-letter words out of our environment.”

The pork steaks, though commonly regarded as pork butt, are cut from the upper shoulder blade, nowhere near the … bottom. But young boys are hardly fooled when it comes to table etiquette. “Would you care for barbecued pork shoulder?” or “Please pass the pork butt.” It tastes the same but sounds entirely different.

Grilling rights in the family were turned over to me a while back, and sunny skies recently inspired a pork butt dinner. Cold Spring’s Marbled Meat Shop was the only stop needed to pick up a few pounds of pork. Shop owner Lisa Hall confirmed over the phone that she had pork shoulder in the meat case. I made my way there directly and found Hall and her husband, shop co-owner Chris Pascarella, taking care of customers buying everything from pickles to pastured beef cuts. Pascarella presented a selection of pork shoulder before slicing my choice into ¼-inch thick steaks.

“This is pork shoulder from a Berkshire pork whole hog,” Pascarella said. “It’s actually a cut from the Boston Butt.”

The local purveyors sent me away with pork ready to prepare and confirmed the origin of the meat: Autumn’s Harvest in Romulus, New York.

For every kind of meal from reunions to graduations, from peppers to pineapple, the season calls for grilling. There’s a menu in the making for my eighth grader’s June graduation and in keeping with tradition, we’ll mark the occasion with another backyard barbecue. Bottoms up!

Barbecued Pork Steaks

Serves 8

Kosher salt and pepper for seasoning steaks and sauce

4 to 5 pounds pork shoulder sliced into ¼- to ½”-thick steaks

2 tablespoons bacon grease (substitute with canola oil)

2 medium yellow onions, chopped

4 cloves garlic, diced

4 cups tomato-based barbecue purée

12 ounces bottled beer

2 tablespoons sugar

  1. Rinse pork steaks with a cold, lightly salted water wash. Pat dry. Generously salt and pepper steaks on both sides. Set aside.
  2. To prepare sauce, cook chopped onions and diced garlic over high heat in bacon grease until browned. Add tomato purée, beer, sugar and salt and pepper to taste. Stir thoroughly and keep warm on lowest heat.
  3. Slowly grill steaks on low to medium heat, browning on both sides until fully cooked. Brush steaks with sauce and grill an additional 2 minutes.
  4. Place grilled steaks in pan of sauce and simmer 2 hours until tender.

By Mary Ann Ebner

First published at Philipstown.info: Cook On: 1 part chaos, 2 parts calm

Tortillas and guac any day in May

Tortillas on the Griddle

Back in her homeland of Mexico, Eva Rojas grew up on corn tortillas made with fresh masa. She learned to love the textured tradition of the family diet, and ate tortillas dressed with everything from avocados to tomatoes.

She still savors warm tortillas, and prepares them at home in her Cold Spring kitchen. She also keeps them on hand to share with the children she cares for at ABC Soup Day Care. Not only are the corn tortillas gluten free, but they’re not messy or sticky, and the children shine when she offers them as an occasional snack.

“When I make tortillas, I make a lot of them,” Eva said. “I always made them for my children when they were growing up.”

It was right about this time last year, with a nod to Cinco de Mayo, that she shared a batch of her tortillas with a few staff members at The Paper. Fellow scribes in attendance at that Monday morning staff meeting — sorry Tuesday staffers — finished these off while they were still steamy. Eva’s guacamole and salsa vanished quickly as well.

To recreate the traditional food she learned to make in Mexico City, Eva prefers fresh masa. It’s prepared through a process where corn seeds are dried and treated with a powdered lime and water solution, then boiled to loosen and remove skins to prepare this stage of the corn, the nixtamal, and finally ground. But the fresh corn dough isn’t readily available at every corner market in New York like it is back in Mexico so she uses masa harina, corn flour, as a substitute.

Eva Rojas uses a tortilla press in her Cold Spring kitchen.

Eva Rojas uses a tortilla press in her Cold Spring kitchen.

“In Mexico, in many places, they make the masa freshly ground every day. You can buy tortillas or one or two pounds of the masa,” she said. “It’s fresh and if you buy it, you are usually going to use it right away.”

She’s taught me how to replicate her tortillas using a small tortilla press. Ambitious cooks who want to start making tortillas right away can get by without a press by using standard kitchen plates to help flatten the dough. She recommends cooking tortillas with a comal, a flat griddle which is typically used in Mexico. If you don’t have a comal, any griddle or cast-iron pan will do. And with dough in general, consistency is paramount.

“You have to add the water little by little,” Eva said. “But it has to be warm, not too hot. You keep adding until the consistency is good.”

Once the consistency is right, form the dough balls and press on. Depending on the size of your griddle, cook one or several tortillas at a time. The tortillas also take on a crunchy dimension when fried, and fried tortilla strips serve as the foundation for another revered Rojas family dish: caldo de tomatoes (tomato soup). Using three tomatoes, one garlic clove, the juice of half a lemon, a sprinkle of salt and just a pinch of fresh cilantro, blend ingredients. In a small saucepan, heat the tomato mixture until it bubbles and reduce the heat to low. After grilling several fresh tortillas, allow them to cool to the touch, then slice the tortillas into strips. In a few tablespoons of canola oil, fry the strips for two minutes, and remove them from the pan. Layer the fried strips in a bowl, top with the tomato mixture, and add a spoonful of sour cream to the broth-covered tortillas.

The caldo is a miniature feast but tortillas and guacamole make the perfect match. Everyone seems to have their own recipe for the bright green dip, but to turn out her own Mexican guacamole, Eva leans to inspiration from the Mexican flag which is green, white and red and emblazoned with an eagle.

The colors of the flag of Mexico — green, white and red — inspire a classic recipe for guacamole.

The colors of the flag of Mexico — green, white and red — inspire a classic recipe for guacamole.

“The white is the onion, the green is the avocado and the red is the tomato,” she said, “and you have the colors of the Mexican flag.”

With three medium Hass avocados, one medium onion and tomato, juice of half a lime, three quarters of a bunch of cilantro and salt to your liking, mix up colorful guacamole. (After pitting the avocado, don’t toss the seed. If placed in prepared guacamole, it will prevent browning.) Eva recommends mashing avocados with nothing but a fork. Mash, mix and pass the tortillas.

Tortillas

Makes 1 dozen

2 cups corn flour (masa harina — Eva uses the Maseca brand.)

¼ teaspoon salt

1 to 1 ¼ cups warm water

  1. Thoroughly whisk corn flour and salt in mixing bowl. Gradually add warm water and mix. Dough should be moist with elastic consistency. Knead dough in bowl. If dough is too dry, add warm water by the tablespoonful.
  1. Divide dough into 12 pieces and form into 1- to 1 ½-inch balls. Cut two pieces of plastic wrap large enough to cover a plate of 6 to 7 inches in diameter. If you have a tortilla press, place a sheet of the plastic wrap on the opened press and position a dough ball on the plastic. Place the second sheet of plastic on the dough ball and close the top plate and apply pressure with the handle. (If using plates in place of the tortilla press, place a small plate on top of the dough ball covered by plastic and press the plate firmly to flatten the dough ball.)
  1. Open the press, remove the top sheet of plastic and lift the tortilla using the edges of the remaining plastic. Holding the plastic side in your palm, gently remove tortilla and flip it onto a hot ungreased griddle or pan. Cook tortilla on one side, 1 to 2 minutes, until edges begin to brown. Turn tortilla over and cook on other side.
  1. Remove tortillas from griddle and set aside to keep warm in a covered dish or wrap in a towel. Best when served warm.

Cook On: 1 part chaos, 2 parts calm

By Mary Ann Ebner

 

Cook on with Egg Drop Soup

Egg Drop Soup

Egg Drop Soup

Dinner plans? Pick up a dozen eggs and cook on with this egg drop soup.