Tuesday, February 22, 2011


After the banana cake of awesomeness, I was on an everyday-cake kick—plus I had an open container of buttermilk to use up—so it seemed like a good time to try this recipe from Pinch My Salt. It should have been a slam dunk, given that it’s just a slight adaptation of my old fave Berry Buttermilk Cake. And yet… Well, no doubt it suffered in such close comparison to the banana cake, with which I had become slightly obsessed. For one thing, while not difficult to make, the apple cake wasn’t quite as easy to put together, requiring the use of an electric mixer (since it’s butter-based instead of oil-based) and the peeling and chopping of an apple. For another, I didn’t care for the way the apple chunks retained their al dente bite, interrupting the tender cake I craved. But most notably, somehow everything I love most about the berry version—moist, sunny yellow crumbs; crunchy sugar top; delectable lemon-vanilla flavor—wasn’t present in the apple version. Sure, I like berries more than apples to begin with, but who knew I loved lemon so much more than cinnamon? Did I somehow flub the apple cake, or was all the magic of the berry cake really in that half-teaspoon of lemon zest?

Granted, this was only a letdown when measured directly against the banana and berry cakes. The cake was rustic but gorgeous and was devoured quite happily in a matter of days. I may simply not be as much of an apple-cake-type person as I thought I was, and that’s OK (at least as long as there are bananas and berries around). If you’re craving the warmth of cinnamon and baked apple in a simple, tangy cake, you should definitely give this a try.

1 cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon cinnamon, plus extra for sprinkling
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons unsalted butter (½ stick), at room temperature
⅔ cup plus 1 heaping tablespoon sugar, divided
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 large egg
½ cup buttermilk
1 cup peeled and chopped baking apple (I used Fuji)

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees and butter and flour an 8-inch round cake pan.

2. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, baking powder, ½ teaspoon cinnamon, and salt; set aside.

3. In a separate bowl, beat butter and ⅔ cup sugar with an electric mixer until pale and fluffy, about two minutes. Add vanilla and egg and beat well. With the mixer set to low speed, beat in about a third of the flour mixture. Add half the buttermilk and continue beating on low speed until incorporated. Scraping down sides of bowl as necessary, beat in another third of flour mixture, then the remaining buttermilk. Finally, beat in the remaining flour mixture until just combined.

4. Scrape batter into the cake pan, smoothing the top with a spatula. Scatter apple pieces evenly over the top of the cake batter, then sprinkle evenly with 1 heaping tablespoon sugar. Sprinkle lightly with cinnamon.

5. Bake until cake is golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes. Cool in the pan for ten minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack to cool until warm. Invert onto a plate.

Serves: 8
Time: 1 hour
Leftover potential: Good.

Friday, February 18, 2011


The only food I remember liking at my college’s cafeteria (besides the always-available salad bar, breakfast cereal, and ice cream, which made up most of my diet) was tortellini soup, which only made its appearance during select weekend brunch services. I recall numerous Sunday mornings on which my roommate, K, and I hauled ourselves out of bed at 11:00 and trudged across campus just in the hope that we might find tortellini soup waiting for us. (I believe I usually ate it with a side of Lucky Charms. Oh, college.) I doubt the soup was very good, but it was better than a lot of the other cafeteria offerings and even at my pickiest, I’ve always loved tortellini.

I hadn’t thought about that soup in years, until I saw this recipe from The Well-Fed Newlyweds featured on the Tasty Kitchen blog, and then I had to make it for old time’s sake. It’s basically a fresher, more flavorful update of the herby tomato broth studded with cheese tortellini that I dimly recall. There’s nothing particularly earthshattering about it, but we enjoyed it well enough to have it again. I like that it has some substance from the pasta, but it’s lighter than eating a big bowl of noodles with sauce, and there’s a generous hit of green goodness from the spinach (I love how easy it is to keep cramming greens into a soup, because they shrink down so easily to unassuming wisps). Best of all, it comes together in no time, making for a simple yet comforting weeknight meal.

I added basil to the ingredients because it’s pretty much a no-brainer when you’ve already got tomatoes, cheese, and oregano involved. I was thinking fresh basil would be great (I’d stir it in at the end with the spinach), but I didn’t have any on hand, so I just used some dried basil along with the dried oregano. I used Trader Joe’s cheese tortellini, but I’d be tempted to try the pesto variety to amp up the flavor even more next time.

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 small onion, minced (about ½ cup)
½ teaspoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon dried basil
4 cups low-sodium chicken broth (or vegetable broth)
1 15-ounce can whole or diced tomatoes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 9-ounce package fresh or frozen tortellini, any variety (I used cheese)
3 cups fresh spinach, chopped and loosely packed
Grated Parmesan cheese to taste

1. In a large pot, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and onion. Cook until the onion is softened, about 5 minutes.

2. Add the oregano, basil, broth, tomatoes, and salt and pepper to taste. (If using whole tomatoes, you can break them up with your fingers as you add them to the pot, or break them up with a spoon once you’ve added them to the soup.)

3. Bring the soup to a boil and add the tortellini. Cook according to the package directions.

4. One minute before the tortellini are done, add the spinach. Stir to combine. When the tortellini are cooked, remove the pot from the heat immediately so they do not overcook. Season with additional salt and pepper, if necessary.

5. Serve topped with grated Parmesan cheese.

Serves: 4
Time: 30 minutes
Leftover potential: Great—tastes even better the next day.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


Banana makes baked goods so tasty and moist, but I never quite know what I’m supposed to do with its usual manifestation, banana bread. It seems too sweet for a snack or a meal component, but not, well, desserty enough for dessert. Banana cake, though, is something I can get on board with, especially when it takes just 10 minutes to stir together. This beautifully simple recipe from Hogwash results in something magical: not overly sweet (not much sweeter than some banana breads, really) but with the springy, tender crumb structure of cake, which makes it undeniably dessert. I have a fancy banana cake I bake for A’s birthday, with rum and brown sugar and chocolate ganache, but this is an everyday cake, lightened by buttermilk and mellowed by cardamom (I’ll admit that as a cardamom obsessive I expected more of an overtly cardamom taste, but it plays more of a supporting role here and that’s OK—either that or my cardamom is getting old and weak), needing no frosting or other accompaniment (although you could gussy it up with whipped cream if you wanted to). And did I mention it’s incredibly, incredibly easy to make? You could whip this up on the spur of the moment if you had unexpected company, or, like me, you could just throw it together on a Tuesday night when the craving for cake hits you. I have a feeling that craving will now be striking fairly often, so I’d better stock up on ripe bananas.

Vegetable oil spray
1¾ cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
¼ teaspoon salt
2 very ripe bananas, well mashed
1 cup sugar
1 cup buttermilk
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ cup vegetable oil

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9-inch cake pan with the vegetable oil spray and set aside.

2. Whisk the flour, baking powder, cardamom, and salt together into a mixing bowl and set aside.

3. Mash the bananas in the bottom of another mixing bowl. Add the sugar, buttermilk, eggs, and vanilla, and whisk until well blended. Add the dry ingredients and the oil, and gently fold the batter together with a spatula, just until no dry spots remain.

4. Pour the batter into the pan and bake the cake on the middle rack for 35 to 40 minutes, or until lightly browned at the edges and just barely beginning to crack in the center.

5. When the cake is done, let it cool for about 10 minutes. Run a small knife around the edge. Using oven mitts, place a cooling rack on top of the cake pan and flip the cake and the rack together. Remove the cake pan, so the cake is upside-down on the rack. Place a serving plate upside-down on the bottom of the cake, and flip the plate and the rack together, so the cake is now right side-up on the serving plate.

Serves: 8
Time: 1 hour
Leftover potential: Good. We stored ours in the fridge for about three days and it was good even when eaten cold.

Monday, February 14, 2011


It started so innocently, with vinaigrettes. Then there was a soup, some BBQ chicken, a quesadilla, and a bread pudding. And now here I am, having transformed from a Dijon-phobe to someone who sees this recipe at Smitten Kitchen, a recipe with “Dijon” right there in the title, and thinks, “That looks really tasty!” And promptly makes it. And slathers the sauce all over her potatoes and asparagus. And licks the plate.

What can I say? This is a simple yet sophisticated one-skillet recipe consisting of plain old roasted chicken (cut into pieces and browned on the stovetop for quicker cooking) and a bright, savory, well-balanced (and, I hasten to reassure my former self, not too overwhelmingly mustardy) white wine-Dijon-cream pan sauce. I served it with smoked paprika roasted potatoes and roasted asparagus (although steamed green beans would be lovely too; I’d actually planned on those, but then asparagus surprised me by already being in season at the farmers’ market—I love you, southern California!). I substituted crème fraiche for the heavy cream, just because I already had some in the fridge waiting to be used up (and also because it is delicious). I should have let the sauce reduce a bit more, but it was Saturday night and I was tired and impatient and sauce-greedy, so I decided to err on the side of plentiful and thin rather than scanty and thick. Unfortunately, while a sauce shortage is certainly a bad thing, sauce that’s so runny it won’t stay on the chicken but instead keeps escaping to your plate, depriving your mouth of many precious droplets, is no fun either. We both loved this regardless, but I’ll definitely strive for a saucier sauce next time.

3 pounds chicken parts (thighs, drumsticks, and/or breasts), with skin and bones
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 small shallots, thinly sliced
¾ cup dry white wine
¾ cup reduced-sodium or sodium-free chicken broth
¼ cup heavy cream (or crème fraiche)
2 tablespoons smooth Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon finely chopped chives or the green parts of scallions

1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

2. Pat chicken dry and season generously with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Heat oil in an ovenproof 12-inch heavy skillet (if you’ve got a cast-iron skillet, it is great here) over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Working in two batches, brown chicken, skin side down first and turning once, about 5 minutes per batch.

3. Return all chicken, skin side up, to skillet and roast in oven until just cooked through, 15 to 20 minutes. Transfer chicken to a platter, then add shallots, wine, and broth to pan juices in skillet and boil, scraping up any brown bits, until reduced by half, 2 to 3 minutes. Add cream and boil until slightly thickened, about 1 minute. To thicken the sauce further, turn the heat to high and boil it until it reduces to a consistency you prefer. Whisk in mustard, chives, and salt and pepper to taste, then spoon over chicken.

Serves: 4–5
Time: 1 hour
Leftover potential: OK.

Friday, February 11, 2011


Toasting coconut before you put it in a cookie would not have occurred to me, but it’s a genius idea; not only do you get that toasty flavor but a unique crunchy-chewy-melt-in-your-mouth texture that’s totally different from the moist stringiness of regular coconut. And combining it with dark chocolate is even better.

That said, I didn’t adore these cookies quite as much as I expected to, considering that they incorporate one of my favorite flavor combinations and come so highly reviewed. First off, they seemed too sweet to me, what with the normal complement of brown sugar plus the sweetened coconut. I would not have expected excessive sugariness from Cooking Light, usually a model of restraint in such things, but none of the other reviewers mentioned that—in fact, several specifically said “not too sweet”—so I must be crazy in the minority (A didn’t agree with my assessment either, but then he’s probably never met anything he’d call too sweet). Still, I kept wondering what these would be like if I tried using unsweetened coconut instead.

Second, I could have used a little more chocolate (a few poor cookies hardly had any), but that’s no surprise for a CL recipe that’s aiming for moderation. And there’s an easy fix for that: If I make these again, I’ll try 6 ounces instead of 4.

There’s no easy fix for the fact that the texture of the dough itself is a little unusual, probably because it has about half the typical amount of butter, resulting in a cookie that’s on the crisp and crumbly side. This befits CL but may have contributed to my vague overall dissatisfaction with the recipe. Although I enjoyed the flavors of coconut and chocolate, the cookie base itself tasted one-dimensional to me, as though it was missing something; maybe that something was the savor of butter, and its lack was what left me with the impression of oversweetness.

All this is not to say that we didn’t thoroughly enjoy these cookies; A loved them and I happily scarfed down my share. I just thought they’d rock my world and they didn’t, quite, so I’m a little perplexed by them.

I’ve doubled the recipe, on the recommendation of many commenters; I feel like if I’m going to bother making cookies I’d might as well make a lot of them since they keep so nicely in the freezer (I actually prefer eating them frozen), and apparently CL made them really tiny, which I didn’t want to do. So this will give you about three dozen normal-sized cookies.

2 cups flaked, sweetened coconut
9 ounces all-purpose flour (about 2 cups, lightly spooned in and leveled with a knife)
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
1½ cups packed brown sugar
½ cup unsalted butter, softened
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 large eggs
4 ounces dark chocolate (70% cacao), chopped
Cooking spray

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Arrange coconut in a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake for 7 minutes or until lightly toasted, stirring once. Set aside to cool.

3. Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl; stir with a whisk until blended.

4. Place sugar and butter in a large bowl; beat with a mixer at medium speed until well blended. Beat in vanilla and egg. Add flour mixture, beating at low speed just until combined. Stir in toasted coconut and chocolate.

5. Drop dough by rounded tablespoons 2 inches apart onto baking sheets coated with cooking spray. Bake for 10 minutes or until bottoms of cookies just begin to brown. Remove from pan, and cool completely on wire racks.

Yields: About 3 dozen
Time: 1 hour
Leftover potential: Great; I liked them even better frozen.

Thursday, February 10, 2011


When I saw this recipe at Annie’s Eats, my first thought was Hey, I don’t have a broccoli pizza in my repertoire yet! My second thought was how nifty it is that Annie and A share a hometown, Bloomington, Indiana, and that this pizza is based on a beloved specialty of a restaurant I’ve heard A speak of, Mother Bear’s. (I think I’ve eaten there once myself.) Obviously, we were fated to give this a try. A admits he’s never tried Mother Bear’s spinoccoli pizza, not having been the type in his youth to order an all-vegetable pizza, no matter how alluringly cheesy. So I can’t compare Annie’s creation to the original, but I can definitely vouch that this is one tasty pizza. I usually avoid recipes that rely on white sauces—haunted by too many experiences with heavy, pasty, bland spinach lasagnas, mac and cheeses, and vegetarian casseroles—but this one was subtle and blended with the cheese to give the pizza a just-right chewy texture, not too moist or too dry or too creamy. The cheese (the cheddar is a nice touch) and the green vegetables, perfectly balanced, are the stars here; there aren’t really any other flavors except for the gentle garlic infusion in the sauce (which as a garlic-lover makes me want to experiment with mincing the garlic and just leaving it in there for a stronger hit). But really, when you’ve got cheese sauce and broccoli, who could ask for anything more?

Since I was using Trader Joe’s crust and a rectangular baking pan, I think my pizza was a little larger than the recipe was written for, so I amped up the vegetable quantities slightly. (I am a fan of amping up the vegetables when they will go unnoticed beneath a blanket of cheese, particularly when it’s spinach, which cooks up so much smaller than you expect that you can always fit in a little more.) Afraid of the heavy/pasty/bland curse of bad white sauce, I didn’t quite use all of it when topping the pizza, which I regretted later when it turned out to be so pleasant and unobtrusive. The thin layer I used was fine, but a tiny bit more moisture wouldn’t have been unwelcome. Next time (which will be soon; I’m craving spinoccoli again just from writing this) I’ll use it all.

1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon flour
¾ cup heavy cream or half-and-half (I used half-and-half)
1 clove garlic, smashed but left whole
Salt and pepper, to taste
6 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 pound pizza dough
¾ cup packed baby spinach leaves, torn
1¼ cups very small broccoli florets
2 ounces shredded mozzarella cheese
2 ounces shredded cheddar cheese

1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

2. To make the sauce, melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Whisk in the flour and cook, whisking constantly, until bubbling and light golden, about 1 minute. Whisk in the heavy cream and garlic, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Cook, stirring frequently, until the mixture thickens and bubbles. Remove from the heat and whisk in the grated Parmesan until completely melted and smooth. Discard the garlic clove.

3. Roll out the pizza dough and place it on a baking sheet dusted with cornmeal. Spread the sauce over the crust. Sprinkle the torn spinach leaves over the sauce, then evenly distribute the broccoli florets. Top with the shredded mozzarella and cheddar cheeses.

4. Place the pizza in the oven and and bake until the cheese is melted and bubbling and the crust is lightly browned, about 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool slightly before slicing and serving.

Serves: 4
Time: 30 minutes
Leftover potential: Good.

Friday, February 04, 2011


I’ve never had Hamburger Helper or any other chili mac in my life, but as soon as I stumbled upon this gussied-up homemade version (after following a random assortment of blog links regarding something else entirely) at The Well-Fed Newlyweds, I suddenly had to have it. How could I resist a cheesy, beefy, spicy skillet pasta? What actually attracted me—after the cheese—was that the recipe cleverly adds corn, green chiles, and cilantro for a fresher twist on the classic, and inspired by some remarks in the comments, I snuck in a few more healthy additions: red bell pepper and zucchini. I also swapped in a jalapeno for the canned chiles and dialed back the cheese a little bit. All of these were good changes, but then I had to go ahead and make one more inadvertent adaptation: I misread the recipe and used two 15-ounce cans of tomato sauce (to be fair, that’s the only size they come in at Trader Joe’s, so the existence of a smaller size wasn’t even on my radar), nearly double the amount called for. As you might expect, my finished product was plenty delicious, but decidedly saucy. Considering I’d bulked up the solid side of things by adding more vegetables, using a bit more liquid probably wouldn’t have been a bad idea, but I’m guessing 14 extra ounces was overkill. Granted, If I hadn’t known there was supposed to be less sauce, I don’t think my first remark upon tasting it would have been, “Why, this chili mac has too much sauce!” But knowing I’d made an error, I couldn’t shake the suspicion that I’d thrown the flavor balance and texture out of whack. In other words: We enjoyed this easy, friendly, and unpretentious meal, and I’ll be making it again—but with the correct amount of sauce. Only then shall I render my final verdict.

1 tablespoon canola oil
1 pound lean ground beef
1 medium onion, minced
1 small red bell pepper, finely chopped
1 small zucchini, finely chopped
2–3 teaspoons chili powder (depending on your desired level of spiciness; I think I used 2 teaspoon regular chili powder plus ½ teaspoon chipotle chili powder)
¾ teaspoon ground coriander
¾ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon salt
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon light brown sugar, lightly packed
2 8-ounce cans tomato sauce
2 cups water
8 ounces (2 cups) elbow macaroni
1 cup fresh or frozen corn kernels (if frozen, no need to defrost)
1 4.5-ounce can chopped green chiles (or 1 large jalapeno, minced)
1½ cups shredded cheese (I used cheddar and pepper Jack), divided
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped

1. Heat the oil in a large (12-inch) skillet over medium heat. Add the ground beef, onion, red pepper, zucchini, chili powder, coriander, and cumin. (If you’re using a jalapeno instead of canned green chiles, add it now too.) Cook the beef until it is no longer pink, then drain off any accumulated grease, if necessary. (If the beef is really lean, you probably won’t need to drain it.)

2. Add the garlic and brown sugar. Stir constantly for 30 seconds. Stir in the tomato sauce, water, and macaroni. Cover the skillet and cook, stirring occasionally, until the macaroni is cooked through.

3. Remove the skillet from the heat and stir in 1 cup of the cheese and the corn and green chiles (unless you’re using a jalapeno, in which case you already added it in Step 1). Top with the remaining cup of cheese, and cover the skillet. Let the skillet sit for a minute or two until the cheese melts, then sprinkle the cilantro over the top.

Serves: 6
Time: 45 minutes
Leftover potential: Good.