Friday, April 24, 2009

Cookies for a Cause

When I heard about the first annual Walk for MS being held in DC last year, I jumped at the chance to participate. Unfortunately, my aunt is a victim of multiple sclerosis, and I thought this would be a great opportunity to help out a cause close to my heart. The second annual Walk for MS sponsored by Booz Allen Hamilton is tomorrow and I am so excited! I was a little leery about signing up for the walk months ago--I was afraid that whatever day the walk fell on would be sure to feature unseasonable blizzard-like temps or the monsoon of the millennium. But no! Tomorrow's forecast is a sunny 85 degrees and I hope this means a great turnout for the walk's organizers.

In addition to helping out a variety of worthy causes, another benefit of participating in charity walks and races in the nation's capitol is getting a bonus siteseeing tour. Kicking off at the Canadian Embassy, right next door to the Newseum, though the DC Walk for MS is only a quick 3.1 miles, its route meanders along the Capitol Building, the Congressional office buildings, the Botanic Gardens, and more. If you would like more information about multiple sclerosis, charity events in your area, or would like to pledge your support to this important cause, please visit my participant page.

The theme of of this year's event is showing your support for a world free of MS by wearing orange to this year's walk. Well, I don't actually own anything orange unfortunately, so I thought I'd show my spirit by decorating some cookies in honor of the walk's logo. I couldn't find any sugar cookie recipes for batches less than 6 dozen, so I just went with a packaged mix, BUT I'm very excited to say that I tried royal icing for the first time!

What is royal icing? Usually, whenever you see those beautiful, intricately decorated cookies on the covers of magazines around Christmas time, they've used royal icing. As opposed to frosting, royal icing dries to give a smooth, hard finish which allows you to better stack, wrap, freeze and decorate your cookies. Royal icing is simply a mixture of powdered sugar, lemon juice and egg whites. However, if you are concerned about salmonella, many recipes are also adapted for using meringue powder, which usually is found in a can in the baking aisle near the baking soda (my store was charging $6.99 so I went with the actual egg whites). One hazard of royal icing is that it dries out very quickly, so keep it covered with plastic as much as possible. Additionally, it can take several hours for the icing to dry completely, so keep this in mind if you're planning cookies for an event, or need to transport them. If your icing is too thick, simply add a little water, if it's too thin just add more sugar--simple!

I loved the outcome of these cookies and it's a great way to spread the message to my friends about the Walk for MS, and would be great for a bakesale to raise money for next year's walk. This type of icing is great for any type of cookie-writing you want to do--birthdays, baby showers, school sports teams, etc.

Royal Icing (egg whites)
2 large egg whites
2 teaspoons lemon juice
3 cups confectioners sugar

With an electric mixer, beat the egg whites with the lemon juice.
Add the powdered sugar and beat until combined and smooth. Use immediately or place in an airtight container. At this point add any flavorings or food color and stir by hand. Makes 3 cups.

Royal Icing (meringue powder)
4 cups powdered sugar
3 Tablespoons meringue powder
1/2 teaspoon extract (vanilla, almond or lemon)
1/2-3/4 cup warm water

With an electric mixer, beat the sugar and meringue powder until, combined.
Add the water and beat on medium speed until very glossy and stiff peaks form (5-7 minutes).
At this point add any flavorings or food color and stir by hand. Makes 3 cups.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Can you say Clafoutis?

Frequently I get a taste for a recipe I would like to make before I have any idea whether such a thing even exists or how to go about making it. Luckily, that doesn't stop me from experimenting, usually to the effect of combining my favorite parts of up to three recipes to varying degrees of success. Such is the case this time, having an inexplicable yen for a combination of almond and pear for the past couple of weeks. Though the inspiration, I suspect, may have something to do with the bag of almond flour peering out of the fridge balefully at me every time I open the door as if to say "You didn't pay $13 per pound just to let me sit here moldering in the fridge, did you?" Alas, this recipe still doesn't involve almond flour so stay tuned for more almond-themed recipes in the near future.

Though I knew I wanted some combination of almond and pear, I actually had a picture in my mind of some type of dessert that wasn't exactly a tart (with a cold, almond cream filling) but was warm without having any type of cobbler-like crust. Then it finally struck me that what I was looking for already exists, and is called a 'clafoutis.' No, it's not pronounced "cluh-fow-tiss" but "clah-foo-TEE" and comes from the word "clafir," which means "to fill." Clafoutis is traditionally a French country dessert from the region of Limousin and is typically made with cherries covered in a batter that, when baked, is somewhere between a cake and a custard. Clafoutis can be made with any fruit though, technically, if you use anything other than cherries the French refer to it as a "flognarde." (Again, this is pronounced "flo-NYARD" not "flog-nard").

There's something very satisfying about finding and preparing a recipe that is exactly the taste you've been looking for, and I encourage you to try out this recipe with whatever fruits you might prefer. Especially since I've chosen a combination that is decidedly out of season. This recipe can be adapted for any fruit by replacing the almond extract with vanilla extract, and here is also a link for the incomparable Julia Childs' cherry clafoutis recipe. Oh, and I almost forgot my favorite part of the recipe--even though you start by placing the fruit in the bottom of the dish, it magically rises to the top during baking for a gorgeous presentation! Yes, I am easily amused. Enjoy!

Pear-Almond Clafoutis
1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
3 ripe but firm Comice or Bartlett pears
peeled, halved, and cored
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons almond extract
3 large eggs
3/4 cup milk
1/4 teaspoon salt
(confectioner's sugar and slivered almonds, optional)

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees; butter a 9" pie plate. Slice the pears 1/4" thick lengthwise. Arrange the slice, overlapping slightly, in the dish.

2. In a blender or with a hand-mixer, process the melted butter, sugar, flour, extract, eggs, milk and salt until smooth.

3. Pour the batter over the pears; bake until golden brown and firm to the touch, 40-45 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature, dusted with confectioners sugar and topped with slivered almonds, if desired.

*Note, this recipe is more on the "custard" side, if you want one that's a little more "cakey" then I'd suggest the Julia Childs recipe, or one that calls for more flour

Monday, April 13, 2009

Easter, Upside-down

This weekend I passed a cooking milestone by preparing my first Easter dinner. I've since realized that this might be more of a milestone not because I cooked a holiday meal for a group, but because I managed to do it by going back to basics. It's been a long time since I've entertained, maybe even since high school when my friends and I were fans of the "Murder Mystery" series of dinner parties in which each guest would receive a character to portray ahead of time and arrive in costume ready to unravel "whodunit" over the dinner's courses (definitely recommend if you've never done this). These were often ridiculously lavish for teenage dinner parties, and maybe that's why I've since shied away from cooking for a crowd, always assuming that it would have to be an elaborate, expensive "to do". But, really, when it comes to sharing food and fun among friends I've realized that comfort dishes will often get you further than Martha Stewart's latest seasonal creation (sorry Martha).

That's why, for last night's Easter dinner for 12, I had no second thoughts about welcoming my brother to town by serving his favorite dessert: Pineapple Upside-down Cake. It's not impressive, it's not difficult, and it's not even remotely associated with spring or Easter! So what? Last night helped to remind me that, although food brings people together, the purpose of the gathering is to enjoy each others' company. I was able to enjoy myself so much more knowing that my classic, 10-minute cake was baking happily in the oven instead of stressing about whether my homemade puff pastry would rise, or if my temperamental souffl├ęs would fall.

After a comforting meal of ham, mashed potatoes, deviled eggs and an unnecessary number of casseroles, the upside-down cake was a perfect ending to a great evening that made me thankful for great family, friends and food. Happy Easter!

Can anyone tell me why this is called an upside-down cake? Aren't all cake essentially upside-down cakes until you take them out of the pan?
Easy Pineapple Upside-down Cake
1/4 cup butter or margarine
1cup packed brown sugar
1can (20 oz) pineapple slices in juice, drained, juice reserved
1jar (6 oz) maraschino cherries without stems, drained
1box SuperMoist yellow cake mix

Vegetable oil and eggs called for on cake mix box

Print these coupons...

About Concordance™

1. Heat oven to 350°F (325°F for dark or nonstick pan). In 13x9-inch pan or 2 9-inch round pans, melt butter in oven. Sprinkle brown sugar evenly over butter. Arrange pineapple slices on brown sugar. Place cherry in center of each pineapple slice, and arrange remaining cherries around slices; press gently into brown sugar.

2. Add enough water to reserved pineapple juice to measure 1 1/4 cups. Make cake batter as directed on box, substituting pineapple juice mixture for the water. Pour batter over pineapple and cherries.

3. Bake according to times indicated on the box, or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Immediately run knife around side of pan to loosen cake. Place heatproof serving plate upside down onto pan; turn plate and pan over. Leave pan over cake 5 minutes so brown sugar topping can drizzle over cake; remove pan. Cool 30 minutes. Serve warm or cool. Store covered in refrigerator.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Olive Oil Desserts: Cookbook Review

When I recently picked up a second job as a hostess at a local restaurant, I have to admit that one of the first things I wanted to check out was the dessert menu. Along with the standard chocolate mousse and scoops of locally-made gelato, I was a little worried by one of the choices nestled inconspicuously in the middle of the list: olive oil cake. Um, what? Though served with a huckleberry compote, all I could picture was a greasy sliver of cake with the texture of cornmeal. And yet, this is by far our most popular dessert! Maybe because of this unexpected popularity, I took a second look when I saw this new cookbook devoted completely to Olive Oil Desserts.

In the world of desserts and baking, not much old is new again; there are only so many ways to rework a combination of flour, sugar, eggs, butter and vanilla. So, I guess I should be more open to unique ingredients like these. Additionally--these are actually healthier for you! By using olive oil, you are replacing the hydrogenated and saturated oils and fats usually needed for baking but without sacrificing any of the moistness you usually get from butter. Another preconception I had was that these desserts would be greasy or bland but, in fact, the oil affects the flavor no more than would a regular canola or vegetable oil (not at all). And with recipes like apple cinnamon rolls and chocolate sin cookies, you can bet these recipes are far from bland.

Finally, you know I would never recommend a cookbook if it wasn't accompanied by great photos--I need to know what my creations are supposed to look like! Filled with beautiful pictures, this unique new cookbook is a great addition for anyone that prefers heart-healthy baking or any baker looking to spice up their library with a little something different.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Brunch made easy?

How much would you be willing to pay for croissants? Warm, flaky, butter-infused crescents from heaven, striking the perfect balance between delicious chew and light-as-air texture.
When I received my latest e-mailed newsletter from Williams-Sonoma last week my attention was caught instantly by the issue's title: "Brunch Made Easy!" with this delightful picture of one of France's most famous exports. Now, I love brunch and I LOVE croissants (I think my love for France goes without saying at this point). I was very excited to see how I could make my very own croissants ("Easy!") at home.

But alas, this advertisement is for ordering pre-made croissants. FOR $40. That's right. 4. 0. $.

For ONLY $40 you can have the privilege of receiving 15 frozen croissants. What could be easier than thawing something on your countertop?? Perhaps waiting to then let them rise for 8-12 hours. Or waiting the full week it takes for them to ship.

This is ridiculous. I'm as sick as everyone else of hearing about the "economic crisis," but are there seriously people that don't bat an eye at $40 croissants? Maybe the same people that are ordering the $40 sticky buns.