Wednesday, April 29, 2009


From-scratch cakes aren’t hard to make, but I only seem to do it about once per year: for A’s birthday. I’m just not much of a cake fan, particularly when there are cookies and candy around. Every now and then, however, cake really hits the spot—and this one was so good, it made me want to bake cakes all the time.

I made the banana cake, lifted from this recipe at The Smitten Kitchen, for A’s last birthday and mentioned it in passing here, but wasn’t quite satisfied enough to write a full post. That’s because I mucked up the frosting—the original recipe was a caramel-walnut-banana cake, but the Smitten Kitchen verdict was that the banana cake was the best part, and besides, A wanted chocolate banana cake. So I picked a new-to-me recipe for fudge frosting off the Web and it totally failed, leaving me no choice but to whip up an emergency batch of standard chocolate frosting from the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook. Nothing wrong with that, but when I tasted the cake it became clear that it was crying out for a more bitter counterpoint, like a dark chocolate ganache. I spent the ensuing year secretly (and, occasionally, not-so-secretly) hoping that A would pick banana cake for his birthday again so I’d have an excuse to take another shot at this cake. And he did.

I hadn’t made ganache before, but I’d heard it was easy, and it certainly lived up to that reputation. In the comments on the cake post, Deb recommended this ganache recipe as a nice pairing for the banana cake, so I used that as a starting point. I omitted the coffee, because we are not coffee people and I didn’t have any around or want to buy any, and I increased the cream just slightly. Then, although Deb said it hadn’t worked for her with this particular ganache, I used the lazy heat-cream-and-pour-over-chocolate method (well described in this Orangette post about a very similar cake) because the words “double boiler” in a recipe are always a huge turnoff for me. I slacked even more by heating my cream up in the microwave rather than on the stove. When it looked like my chocolate wasn’t melting into the cream enough, I even popped the whole bowl of cream and chocolate into the microwave for 10 seconds. Despite all these shortcuts, the ganache came together just fine—easy to spread over the cake, just the right amount to cover, firmed up admirably to a texture somewhere between fudge and frosting (so prettily glossy I had trouble photographing it!), and tasted amazing (use the best-quality chocolate you can, of course; I used the last of my fancy Callebaut chocolate chips from last year’s birthday gift card to Surfas).

In short: I will strenuously urge myself not to wait an entire year before making this cake again. Sure, it’s a great way to celebrate a special occasion, but it’s also simple enough for everyday eating. The cake itself is a cinch to make and well worth buying cake flour and a small bottle of rum for. It would probably be just dandy on its own, dusted with powdered sugar, garnished with strawberries, dolloped with whipped cream, or maybe with chocolate chips mixed into the batter—but why not make ganache when ganache is so ridiculously easy to make?

1¾ cups cake flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
¾ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
½ cup sugar
½ cup (packed) golden brown sugar (I used dark; no big deal)
2 large eggs
1 cup mashed very ripe bananas (2 to 3 large)
3 tablespoons sour cream
1 tablespoon dark rum
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 ounces semisweet chocolate chips or finely chopped chocolate
⅓ cup heavy cream

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Sift flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt into a medium bowl.

3. Using an electric mixer, beat butter and both sugars in a large bowl until blended. Beat in eggs one at a time, then mashed bananas, sour cream, rum, and vanilla. Beat in dry ingredients in two additions just until combined. Spoon batter into a buttered 9-inch cake pan.

4. Bake cake until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 40 minutes. Place pan on a cooling rack and let sit for 15 minutes. Invert cake out of pan onto rack and cool completely.

5. Place chocolate in a medium mixing bowl. Either on the stovetop or in the microwave, heat cream until it is steaming and about to boil. Pour cream over chocolate and whisk until most of the chocolate is melted; then cover and let stand for 5 minutes. Stir or whisk gently until the mixture is completely smooth. Drizzle or spread over cake and let cool.

Yield: One 9-inch cake
Time: About 2 hours (including cooling time)
Leftover potential: High. I keep leftover cake in the fridge and eat it cold, washed down with a glass of milk. A even had some for breakfast.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


I have a lot of good pasta recipes. Enough, in fact, to make a different pasta recipe every week for a year. So I don’t acquire new ones lightly—they have to be pretty different from any in my archives if they’re going to make the cut. This one lured me because it has leeks. You may have noticed that I’m on a leek kick lately, and that keyword in a recipe title is enough to make me take a second look. Then, of course, there was the bacon, which would make it an instant winner with A. And I do like mushrooms, and wouldn’t necessarily have thought to put them with bacon and leeks. Most importantly, I had a few tablespoons of crème fraiche in the fridge just begging for a purpose.

Even though I like all the ingredients, I had an irrational fear that this pasta would be bland. (As if anything containing bacon has ever been bland. Ever ever. If it has, I don’t want to know about it.) I think, subconsciously, I was influenced by the pasta shell shape, not one of my favorites. I know all pasta shapes technically taste the same, but at some point in my cooking history I must have made a disappointingly bland dish involving pasta shells, and now I am prejudiced against them. Or at least, I was, until I tasted this pasta. It is simply delicious. It might be my new favorite pasta. I would like to make it again, right now. Something about the interplay between the smokiness of the bacon, the sweetness of the leeks, the earthiness of the mushrooms, and the saltiness of the cheese is just right. The crème fraiche provides a subtle, but not overwhelming, creaminess. And I actually, actively liked the texture of the pasta shells, and the perfect way they scooped up the little bits of bacon and leek. I really, really recommend this one.

I first saw this recipe at A Good Appetite, where it was scaled to serve two. It had been adapted from the original recipe by Gordon Ramsay (for whom I have an unjustifiable affection based on his TV shows, even though I don’t usually like shouty people and have never until now tasted any of his food), which was scaled to serve four and measured in grams in the European manner. So I had to do a bit of math and improvisation to create a version that would use a whole pound of pasta; as I’ve mentioned before, I have no use for recipes that use less, since I adore pasta leftovers—that is, the cooked, tasty kind waiting in the fridge to be eaten, not the uncooked half-empty box of noodles cluttering up my cabinet. I fudged the proportions a bit here and there, but was really happy with the result. This is an easy and pretty forgiving recipe. The only major change I made was not using olive oil—the original recipe calls for the bacon/pancetta to be cooked in 3 or 4 tablespoons of oil, which seems ridiculous to me, considering that most bacon (real bacon, anyway) is capable of rendering plenty of fat on its own. I just browned my bacon in an empty pan as usual, and it produced more than enough tasty, bacony grease to sauté my leeks and mushrooms in. Then, just to make sure the sauce wasn’t too dry, I added in some reserved pasta water at the end. The completed dish was the perfect consistency; I didn’t miss the extra oil whatsoever. Certainly 4 tablespoons would have made things too oily, so if you want to try the oil, I’d still recommend just 1 tablespoon or so. If you’re using fake bacon or turkey bacon or some other inferior product, maybe use 2 tablespoons oil.

1 pound medium pasta shells
Olive oil (optional)
4 ounces (about 4 thick slices) bacon, roughly chopped
3 large leeks, white and light green sections, sliced thin
8 ounces mushrooms, trimmed and sliced
Salt and pepper to taste
3 tablespoons creme fraiche
1 large handful fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
Freshly grated Parmesan to taste

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil for cooking the pasta.

2. Meanwhile, add the bacon to a large skillet and cook over medium-high heat until beginning to crisp. (If you like, you can heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in the skillet before adding the bacon, but I don’t think it’s necessary unless you’re using a low-fat version of bacon.)

3. Add the leeks and mushrooms to the skillet and season with salt and pepper. Cook for 6–8 minutes, stirring occasionally.

4. When the pasta water boils, add the shells and cook until al dente. Before draining the pasta, reserve 1 cup of the pasta water. Drain the pasta and add to the skillet. Stir in the creme fraiche and some of the reserved pasta water (a few tablespoons at a time until your sauce reaches its desired consistency). Stir in parsley and serve sprinkled with Parmesan.

Serves: 6
Time: 30 minutes
Leftover potential: High. I ate it for lunch three days in a row last week. In fact, I wish I had some right now.

Friday, April 24, 2009


I’m not a huge proponent of salad recipes, although I have a few of them. It’s probably the last holdover from my years as a picky eater. When I was picky, salads were a minefield—lots of weird ingredients all mixed up together, usually cold (ugh), usually with too much slimy, oily, sour dressing. Now that I’m a grownup, I love vegetables, am more tolerant of different flavor combinations, and frequently find salads a light and refreshing component of a meal…though I’ll admit I don’t really embrace them as an entrée. And food that’s too chilled still gives me the willies. And I think salads are almost always overdressed—if I could apply the dressing with an eyedropper, I would. But besides, that, salads and I get along just fine!

Usually, if I serve a green salad with a meal, it’s just spring mix and homemade vinaigrette (I like 1 part lemon juice to 1 part olive oil, plus salt and pepper), usually with croutons thrown in at A’s request. If I feel like adding other ingredients, like carrots or mushrooms or broccoli or cucumber, I just…add them. No recipe needed, right?

Except I wouldn’t really have thought to put strawberries and arugula and pecans together with a balsamic vinaigrette. So I’m glad I saw this recipe (originally adapted from Everyday Food) at Ezra Pound Cake, and I’m really glad I tried it. The balsamic-soaked strawberries were a great sweet-tart combination in themselves, and they only got better when paired with the peppery arugula and the earthy nuts. Not to mention the fact that the deep red and green look just beautiful together on the plate. I’ll be making this regularly throughout strawberry season—which, in California, is practically all year round.

No edits needed for this recipe. I halved it, and I used candied pecans from Trader Joe’s because that’s what I had on hand.

½ pint strawberries (about 2 cups), hulled and quartered (mine were quite large, so I sliced them)
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, divided
2 tablespoons olive oil
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
2 bunches arugula, trimmed and thoroughly washed and dried
½ cup toasted pecan halves

1. In a large bowl, toss strawberries with 1 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar; let sit 5 to 10 minutes.

2. In a small bowl, whisk together another tablespoon of balsamic vinegar with olive oil, salt, and pepper.

3. To the strawberries, add the arugula, the vinaigrette, and the pecans. Toss to combine, and serve immediately.

Serves: 4
Time: 15 minutes
Leftover potential: Low; the dressing will make the arugula soggy

Monday, April 20, 2009


Yum. And also, YUM. While I do like asparagus and ricotta together (I have a good recipe for penne with asparagus and ricotta that for some reason I’ve never posted), it would not have occurred to me to add salami to the mix, or even to add salami to a pizza at all—even though I love salami, and it’s hardly different from that most ubiquitous of all pizza toppings, pepperoni. (While I was making this pizza, A told me that when he traveled to Germany in high school, he was dismayed to discover that ordering a pepperoni pizza got you a pizza covered in pepperoncini, and when he finally spotted a pizza that looked like it had American-style pepperoni, it was in fact salami. So there you go.) Anyway, I’m so glad I gave this recipe from Eggs on Sunday a try, because it’s more than just a way to use up the leftover ricotta in the container while taking advantage of asparagus season. I was a bit worried it would be bland, but instead it was just delicately, elegantly, awesome. Salami—salty, peppery, and prettily pink—is the perfect complement, both visually, to the milky cheese and sweet, grassy asparagus.

I just eyeballed all the quantities and I think I used more asparagus (and maybe more salami and mozzarella; maybe my pizza was larger, or maybe I just like it topping-heavy?) and less ricotta than the original recipe, but I was really happy with the results. Because my ricotta supply was meager, I ended up spreading it thinly and evenly over the dough instead of dolloping it, and because it seemed easier I grated my mozzarella instead of tearing it, both of which made for a nice, moist, creamy layer underlying the asparagus and salami.

Pizza dough for 1 pizza (about 1 pound)
1 bunch asparagus, cut into 2-inch pieces, steamed briefly and then rinsed in cold water
¼ cup salami, sliced into thin ribbons
½ to ¾ cup ricotta cheese
A good handful of fresh mozzarella cheese, grated or torn into pieces (I used maybe ¼ pound?)

1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Stretch out your pizza dough and lay it out on a pizza peel or baking sheet that’s been generously dusted with cornmeal.

2. Scatter bits of the ricotta all over the crust (or spread it evenly, if you are a neatnik). Sprinkle with the pieces of fresh mozzarella cheese, then with the pieces of steamed asparagus and ribbons of salami.

3. Bake the pizza for about 8 minutes, until the crust is golden brown and the cheese has melted.

Serves: 4
Time: 30 minutes
Leftover potential: Good

Friday, April 17, 2009


As soon as I saw this Ina Garten recipe mentioned as an aside in an Amateur Gourmet post, I knew it would be the perfect thing to accompany my planned Easter feast of creamy lemon chicken and roasted asparagus; potatoes are a must for mopping up any leftover lemon sauce on the plate, and dill is such a springy flavor. As a bonus, these potatoes are prepared on the stovetop, leaving the oven free for my other dishes—and as nice as potatoes, butter, dill, and salt and pepper taste together, that method is really the star of the show here. Cooking the potatoes in a covered dish over low heat (or lowish, anyway--more on that in a second) produces all the tenderness of a steamed potato with a bit of the roastiness of a fried or baked potato, all coated with what is basically a brown-butter dill sauce. In short, it is excellent.

The reviews of this recipe were generally positive, but they were split about evenly between people who had no trouble with it and people who simply could not get their potatoes to soften over low heat. One commenter suggested that this might be a divide between people with gas stoves and those with electric ones, and my experience bears this out—I have an electric stove, and after 20 minutes over low heat in a cast-iron Dutch oven, my potatoes barely seemed cooked at all; there was hardly even any steam when I lifted the lid. But once I raised the heat to medium, everything went smoothly and the potatoes came out perfectly done. So use your discretion here, but I’d recommend medium heat unless it starts to seem like your butter is scorching. Or maybe start low and then increase if you need to?

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1¼ pounds fingerling potatoes, rinsed but not peeled
1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 ½ tablespoons chopped fresh dill

1. Melt the butter in a Dutch oven or large heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Add the whole potatoes, salt, and pepper, and toss well.

2. Cover the pot tightly and cook over low to medium heat for 20 to 30 minutes, until the potatoes are just tender when tested with a small knife. From time to time, shake the pot without removing the lid to prevent the bottom potatoes from burning.

3. Turn off the heat and allow the potatoes to steam for another 5 minutes. Toss with the dill, and serve hot.

Serves: 3
Time: 35 minutes
Leftover potential: Unknown. I used more like ¾ pound of potatoes, and we ate them all in one sitting. I imagine they’d make OK leftovers, though.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


This recipe from Jamie magazine, which I found at A Good Appetite, is basically a deconstructed version of one of my favorite Jamie Oliver creations, Pancetta-Wrapped Chicken Breasts With Leeks and Thyme—but in pie form. How could I not love it? Especially when I had an orphaned sheet of puff pastry in my freezer and some leftover cooked chicken already in the fridge?

The filling was a cinch to make and tasted delicious, like a sophisticated version of creamed chicken. The pie-making was slightly more challenging, mainly because of my own anxiety and ineptitude. Since A is not a fan of pot pies and I am sucker for anything stuffed with something else (dumplings, ravioli, empanadas, calzones, etc.), I took a cue from A Good Appetite, which mentioned that this might make a nice filling for a homemade hot pocket, and made hand pies instead. It soon became apparent that my filling was too liquidy, no matter how much I cooked it down trying to thicken it (I didn’t have nearly 14 ounces of chicken, as it turned out, and it didn't help that in my desperate attempt to cook it down meant that the chicken chunks broke down into tender strands, so that even scooping it out with a slotted spoon didn't help much), and I had way too much of it; I was barely able to pinch the edges of the dough together without filling running out everywhere, and I had so much filling left over that if I’d had more puff pastry I could have made twice as many pies if I’d wanted to. By the time I threw the baking sheet in the oven, I was swearing up a storm and convinced that I’d ruined a perfectly good filling and doomed dinner by trying to experiment with these little pies instead of just going with the pot pie. I was sure that all the filling would drain out during baking, leaving me with a burnt mess on the pan and soggy, empty pastry shells.

But not so! There was some filling leakage, but thanks to my use of a silicone mat, it didn’t make much of a mess. The pies still baked up near-perfectly, crisp and brown with plenty of tasty filling left inside. They still looked a little homely, but we both loved them—and I ate the leftover filling for lunch the next day with a spoon, which was just as tasty as the pies had been. I’ll certainly be making these savory little morsels again, and while I’ll try to improve on my first attempt by using the correct amount of chicken and maybe having more puff pastry to make more pies with, it’s comforting to know this recipe will work even if I think I’ve effed it up.

IMPORTANT UPDATE: I did a much better job making this for the second time, with some adjustments to the recipe: I had closer to the correct amount of chicken (still more like 12 than 14 ounces), cut it into bigger chunks (1/2-inch cubes, whereas before the chicken had been more shredded), and cooked it less long. It helped that I used about 1/2 cup less broth, so the filling was much less runny. Then, remembering how much leftover filling I'd had before, I went ahead and used a whole package of puff pastry--two sheets instead of one (I still had a bit of leftover filling, but more like a spoonful than a bowlful). So I got twice as many pies for my efforts. Fewer of them leaked in the oven, and the leftovers didn't get soggy--they were nice and crisp even days later. All these changes are noted below.

1 slice bacon, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
1½ teaspoons olive oil
1½ teaspoons unsalted butter
2 large leeks, washed, trimmed, and thinly sliced (white and light green parts only)
Salt and pepper to taste
14 ounces cooked chicken, cut into chunks
1 heaping tablespoon flour
1½ to 2 cups chicken broth (use less when making hand pies)
1 tablespoon creme fraiche
1 sheet puff pastry for pot pie, or 2 for hand pies
1 egg, beaten

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees if making pot pie, 400 degrees if making hand pies.

2. Over medium-high heat, add the bacon and thyme to a large skillet. Add the olive oil and butter and cook for a few minutes. Add the leeks and stir for about 3 minutes to coat everything. Season with salt and pepper. Cover and reduce heat to medium-low. Let cook for 30 minutes, stirring from time to time.

3. Stir the chicken into the leeks. Add the flour and stir again. Pour in the broth and the creme fraiche. Turn the heat up and bring to a boil. Season again if needed.

4. If making a pot pie: Pour the filling into a large pie pan. On a floured surface, roll the puff pastry out until it is at least 1 inch bigger on all sides than your pie pan. Trim to fit over your pan with a 1-inch overhang. Carefully place over the top of the pie and press down the sides. Brush with the beaten egg. With a sharp knife, add a few slits in the top. Bake for 35–40 minutes until the crust is golden brown.

5. If making hand pies: Using a rolling pin, roll the puff pastry dough out to make it into a little bigger rectangle. Cut into four rectangles. Brush a little beaten egg onto two adjacent sides of each rectangle. Using a slotted spoon, place a heaping spoonful of the sauce into the middle of each rectangle. Fold over to make a triangle and press the edges together to seal (you may need to stretch the dough a little). Place on a baking sheet lined with a silicone pad or parchment. Brush each pie with beaten egg. Use a sharp knife to poke two slits in the top of each. Repeat with the other sheet of puff pastry and the rest of the filling (you may still have a little left over), for a total of 8 pies. Bake for 15 minutes. Turn the heat down to 350 degrees and bake another 10–15 minutes until golden brown. Let cool a few minutes before serving, because the filling will be really hot.

Serves: 4–6 (The pot pie will serve 4; if you make hand pies, you’ll get 8, but you'll likely eat more than one pie in a sitting—we ate 1½ apiece with a side salad at dinner.)
Time: 1½ hours
Leftover potential: Better than expected, at least for the hand pies. I don’t like reheated puff pastry because it seems to get soggy and greasy, but the leftovers I ate remained crisp and nearly as tasty as the first time around. I wouldn't say they improve with age, but they hold up.

Friday, April 03, 2009


This is the perfect pasta dish for times of the year when not much exciting produce is in season, or (in my case) when you’ve been unable to make it to the farmers’ market and must rely upon the less-awesome offerings at the grocery store. It’s also the perfect pasta dish for bridging winter (hearty roasted potatoes, garlic, and rosemary) and spring (arugula, lemon, and no sauce to speak of). Oh, and it’s easy to make, it’s a well-balanced meal in a bowl (starch + salad, anyway), and it tastes really good, too.

The recipe is via the Smitten Kitchen, adapted from Chez Panisse Vegetables. Deb remarked that she thought it called for too much garlic (4 to 6 cloves), considering it’s not cooked very long, but I didn’t find it overwhelming; I used 4 cloves and maybe I cooked it a bit longer than the recipe called for, because the garlic didn't have that raw edge that makes it overpowering. Or maybe I just like those "unmistakeably all-American doses of garlic." If you’re worried, you can cut it back to 2 cloves, but I think a better solution would be to add it to the pan earlier, with the onions, to mellow out the flavor with a bit more cooking.

I made a few additional tweaks to the recipe: Originally, it called for ¾ pound penne, but who wants to be stuck with ¼ of a bag of pasta in the cupboard? I prefer to use the whole package and call it a day, so I just upped the amounts of potatoes and arugula to compensate. I also cut way back on the olive oil—the original recipe called for ½ cup, which seems excessive; mine turned out plenty tasty with about half that amount. To further moisten/flavor things up, I threw in some reserved pasta water and doubled the lemon juice. I would also recommend being really generous with the salt; potatoes cry out for it, and the dish risks being bland otherwise. I didn’t add quite enough the first time around and thought the pasta was nice but lackluster, but then when I sprinkled a little extra on my leftovers the next day, they perked right up and tasted awesome. For further flavor enhancement, we garnished with a little Parmesan, and A suggested adding bacon in a future experiment. OK, granted, A always suggests adding bacon to everything (did I tell you that I made him bacon chocolate-chip cookies for Valentine’s Day?), but since bacon goes quite well with arugula (see: Corn, Arugula, and Bacon Salad) and, of course, with potatoes in breakfasty goodness, it’s actually not such a crazy idea. If I try it, I’ll let you know how it turns out.

P.S. I just realized that with this recipe, arugula has scored more than enough mentions on this blog (we're up to five arugula-centric recipes) to earn its very own sidebar category! Congratulations, arugula! I guess I like you more than I thought I did.

1 to 1½ pounds firm boiling potatoes (I used small red potatoes, but Deb suggests fingerlings), sliced ⅓ inch thick
About ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
Coarse salt and pepper
10–12 ounces arugula, washed and drained
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 sprig rosemary leaves, chopped
1 pound penne pasta
Juice from 1 lemon
Grated Parmesan cheese, if desired

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Toss the sliced potatoes with about 1 tablespoon olive oil, plus generous salt and pepper to taste. Spread them in a single layer in an ovenproof dish or on a baking sheet (for easy cleanup, line with foil or parchment) and roast in the oven until golden brown and cooked through, about 15 minutes (I flipped mine over midway through). When done, remove from the oven.

2. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil for cooking the pasta. Add pasta and cook until al dente. Reserve about ½ cup pasta water, then drain.

3. While the pasta is cooking and when the potatoes are done, heat a sauté pan, add about 1 tablespoon olive oil, and sauté the sliced onion until soft and translucent and starting to brown, about 5 minutes. Add the arugula and garlic, and sauté until they just begin to wilt and soften. Lower the heat, add the potato slices and rosemary, and toss together for a minute or two. When the noodles are done, drain them and add them to the potatoes and onion. Add the lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle with a little olive oil and add pasta water if the sauce still seems dry. Toss well. Sprinkle with Parmesan if desired.

Serves: 6
Time: 1 hour
Leftover potential: High.