Sunday, January 25, 2009

Anything-But-Bland Birthday Cake

I'm starting to realize that, unintentionally, a lot of the foods I cook and then choose to blog on this site are rather bland in color (like this and this and this, for starters). And it doesn't help that the plates on which I serve and photograph the food aren't remarkably colorful themselves. As far as the plates go, I'll try to work something out. But where the appearance of the food is concerned, don't let a limited color palate influence your perceptions of tastiness; they simply are not related.

Case in point: this cake I made for my dad's birthday. Yes, color-wise it doesn't look that interesting. But I've tasted all the constituent parts (various shades of white to taupe), and they are yummy. The color does not make the cake, the flavors do. And this one is a winner.

Banana Cake with Praline Filling and White Chocolate Ganache
adapted from Sky High: Irresistible Triple-Layer Cakes

for 3 9"-cakes:
3 c cake flour
3 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 c milk
1/2 c mashed ripe bananas
2 sticks unsalted butter at room temperature
2 c sugar
7 egg whites

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter three 9" round cake pans, lining the bottom of each with a round of parchment paper and buttering that as well.
Sift together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt. Set the dry ingredients aside.
Blend the milk and mashed bananas in a blender until smooth. Set aside.
In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. On medium-high speed, beat in the egg whites 2 or 3 at a time until smooth, scraping down the sides of the bowl between additions.
With the mixer on low speed, add the dry ingredients and banana puree alternately in 2 or 3 additions, beating until just blended. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and beat on medium-high speed for 1 minute. Divide the batter among the cake pans.
Bake 20 -25 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean and the cake is beginning to pull away from the sides of the pan. Let the layers cool in their pans for 10 minutes, then turn them out onto wire racks to cool completely.

for white chocolate ganache:
8 oz white chocolate, chopped
2 1/2 c heavy cream
1 1/2 tsp vanilla

Put the white chocolate in a medium heatproof bowl. In a small saucepan, bring 1/2 c cream to a boil. Pour the hot cream over the chocolate, letting it stand for 1 minute before whisking to a smooth consistency. Let the white chocolate cream stand until cooled to room temperature.
In a chilled bowl with chilled beaters, beat the remaining 2 c cream and the vanilla until softly whipped. Stir in the white chocolate cream and beat until fairly stiff, taking care not to overbeat the mixtures, which would cause the ganache to separate.

for praline filling:
1 c pralines
1 1/2 c white chocolate ganache

Chop the pecans with a food processor or large chef's knife. Set aside about 1 tbsp of the chopped pralines, adding the rest to the white chocolate ganache and stir to mix well.

to assemble the cake:
Put a dallop of white chocolate ganache in the center of the cake stand or serving plate to keep the cake in place. Place one layer, flat side down, on the cake stand or serving plate. Cover the top evenly with half of the praline filling, leaving a 1/4" margin around the edges. Place the second layer on top, flat side up, and cover it with the remaining filling. Place the third layer on top, flat side up, and frost the top and sides of the cake with the white chocolate ganache. Sprinkle with the reserved tbsp of chopped pralines.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Movie Night Pizza

My friend with red hair and I have been rather into hockey as of late. We went to an Indiana Ice game on Friday night at the Pepsi Coliseum (that's right, the three-time home of the World Pork Expo!), where we found some pretty decent hockey, lots of children clapping along to the music, and great snow cones, all for half-price admission. It was a terrific outing.

So, naturally, we were in the mood for some more hockey come Saturday evening. In the spirit of movie nights all over the country (and probably the world, for that matter, if my time in Scotland was any indication), we picked our movie and decided to have pizza for dinner.

Our movie: Miracle
Our pizza: Chicken Alfredo on a Cornmeal Crust

I must confess I've watched this movie a few times in the last week and a half, but it's fun to watch again with a hockey-loving friend anyways. And mmm, that pizza was good. So good, in fact, I'm rather glad that I have leftover toppings and that the crust is so easy to make. I love this KitchenAid.

At the very least, I think everyone should add this pizza to their repertoire of homemade pizzas; really, it's deceptively simple. And if you want a little something more? Share it with friends and watch a movie. Satisfying evening complete.

Chicken Alfredo Pizza on a Cornmeal Crust

for the crust:
1/2 c warm water
1 tbsp unsalted butter
1 tsp lemon juice
2 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1 c flour
3/4 c cornmeal

Combine the dry ingredients in your mixing bowl. Melt the butter and pour it into the dry ingredients along with the water and lemon juice. Mix using the dough hook attachment of your mixer, or knead by hand, until the dough forms a ball. If the dough isn't forming a ball, add a bit more cornmeal to reach the desired consistency. Knead for 8 to 10 minutes. Wrap the finished dough in plastic, and let it rest for 30 minutes.

for the alfredo sauce:
1 stick unsalted butter
1 c heavy cream
1 c shredded Parmesan

Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the heavy cream and Parmesan cheese, whisking until the sauce becomes smooth. Continue cooking until sauce is reduced and thickened so it will coat the back of a spoon. Stir frequently to prevent burning.

for the chicken:
boneless skinless chicken breasts

Cook the chicken breasts in a 350-degree-Fahrenheit oven until done and juices run clear; the time will depend on the thickness of your chicken breasts. Use two forks to shred all the cooked chicken.

assembling the pizza:
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Roll out your cornmeal crust on a pizza stone or baking sheet; it does not have to be a perfect circle. Once the oven has reached temperature, bake the crust until the edges no longer look raw, 5-7 minutes. Remove the crust from the oven and set on a cooling rack while you assemble the toppings.
Spread about 1/2-2/3 c of the alfredo sauce on the pizza. Place the shredded chicken on top of the sauce. Top the entire pizza with a sprinkling of grated Parmesan. Return the pizza to the oven and cook until the edges are browning and the pizza toppings are bubbly, about 13-18 minutes. Slice the pizza and enjoy.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Indian Food Experiment

I love Indian food.

I've loved it since I did a group project in high school and another group member and I went to our local Indian restaurant to immerse ourselves in the cuisine. So what if the project was on Hinduism? Background information is important.

I only slightly burnt out on Indian food after I was in India for two and a half weeks my sophomore year of college. After eating nothing but Indian food for days and days, I thought it would be a long time before I craved it again. Wrong.

As I contemplated aspects of my own food life during the initial stages of my thesis preparation, I considered making a few changes to the ways in which I eat the foods I want. One of these considerations was making at home foods that used to be homemade -- crackers, cookies, cereals -- but are now uber-processed. A noble and doable idea, indeed, but for a college student working on a year-long thesis in addition to regular class commitments, the cost-benefit analysis turned out in favor of going to the boxed cracker aisle of my Kroger on the rare occasion I wanted these treats. While I know I can make my own crackers (I pretty much always make my own cookies anyway), it's just not practical for my life right now.

But then I got to thinking about the cost-benefit analysis of restaurant food, ethnic food in particular. I love going out for some good Italian or Indian food. Luckily there's a good Italian place in town, but in order for me to get a tasty Indian meal I'd need to drive to Indianapolis or Bloomington and then pay for food on top of everything else. Not practical, even though I love Indian food a lot. Making the Indian food, though? I could do that.

By the time I got around to buying an Indian cookbook, it was after Thanksgiving, which means I violated my family's no-buying-things-for-yourself-before-the-holidays rule. (Sorry, Mom.) By the time I actually tried out some recipes, though, it was already after Christmas, so I'm going to go ahead and say the rule-breaking was inconsequential. At any rate, the result was tasty indeed.

Makhani Murgh, or Velvet Butter Chicken
adapted from Classic Indian Cooking by Julie Sahni

1 1/4 lb Tandoori chicken, cooked (recipe below)
3 c canned tomatoes in puree, measured with puree
1/2 tsp red pepper
2 tbsp chopped fresh ginger
8 tbsp butter
4 tsp ground cumin
1 tbsp paprika
2 tsp Kosher salt
1 1/2 c whole milk
2 tsp garam masala

Cut the cooked chicken into 1"x1" cubes. Put the tomatoes, red pepper, and ginger in a blender and blend to a fine puree (an immersion blender would work, too).
Place 6 tsbp butter in a large non-stick skillet over medium heat. As the butter melts, tilt the pan in all directions to coat the bottom. When the foam begins to subside, add the chicken pieces and brown them. Remove the chicken when all pieces are browned.
Add the cumin and paprika to the butter in the skillet and cook, stirring rapidly, for 10-15 seconds. Add the tomato puree mixture and cook, uncovered, until the sauce is thickened, about 5-8 minutes, stirring constantly to prevent sticking and burning.
Add the salt, milk, and chicken pieces (with any juices that may have accumulated). Gently stir the chicken to coat the pieces evenly. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, about 10 minutes. Check and stir the dish often, but only 1 or 2 stirs at a time, to ensure the sauce does not burn.
Sir in the remaining 2 tbsp butter and garam masala. Turn off the heat and let the dish stand, covered, for half an hour before serving. The dish should still be hot enough to serve, but you can reheat just before serving if you want.
Serve with rice.
Tandoori Murghi, or Tandoori Chicken
adapted from Classic Indian Cooking by Julie Sahni

2 lb boneless skinless chicken breasts
1/3 c lemon juice
2 cloves garlic
1 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1/2 tsp red pepper
1 tbsp paprika
1/3 c plain yogurt

Prick the chicken all over with a form and make diagonal slashes on the meat without cutting through it. Place the chicken in a bowl with the lemon juice, rubbing the juice into the slashes. Cover the chicken and marinate 30 minutes.
Put the remaining ingredients into a blender and blend until reduced to a smooth sauce. Pour this marinade over the chicken pieces and mix to coat all the pieces well. Cover the chicken and marinate in the refrigerator overnight (you may want to transfer the chicken to a plastic bag to marinate).
Take the chicken from the refrigerator at least 1 hour before cooking to bring it to room temperature. If you are roasting the chicken indoors, roast for 25-30 minutes in a very hot oven, at least 500 degrees Fahrenheit. If you are using an outdoor grill, make sure the grill is very hot. Let the chicken cook about 10 minutes per side, longer if needed to fully cook the chicken. Serve the chicken immediately.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Thesis Namesake

The way I see things, what better way to begin 2009 -- the year in which I will (happily) finish my thesis and shortly afterward graduate -- than with a food that I love and that is integral to at least the idea of my food thesis (which was the impetus for this blog)? I really cannot think of a better food for a first post of 2009 right now. Mmm, pierogi.

That's right, the Polish dumpling dish that seems readily available where I live (thank you Eastern European immigrants to the Chicagoland area) but that I've heard is a mere myth in other regions of the United States. Trust me, you don't know what you're missing if you're from one of these pierogi-free regions. Especially if you love all things noodle-y.

The concept is simple, really: pierogi are dumplings stuffed with fillings, traditionally things like potatoes, sauerkraut, or sweet cheese. The beauty of making pierogi yourself is that you can choose WHATEVER FILLINGS YOU LIKE. In my house, when I'm the pierogi-filler, that means some sweet cheese and some mashed potato with a little piece of Velveeta mixed in. I'm rather sure the possibilities are near endless; you have only your personal tastes to limit you.

Yesterday my mother and I took my Christmas-new Kitchen Aid mixer out of the box and gave it its inaugural task. The pierogi dough is so easy with that thing! So easy, in fact, that with two people working to mix dough, cut shapes, fill pierogi, and boil them, we made two modestly-sized batches in an hour. Beautiful.

When you've made your pierogi, you can cook them any number of ways: reboil; microwave; fry in a little bit of butter; fry in butter and onions. And you can serve them in a number of ways, too. Some people like potato pierogi with some sour cream; some people like sweet cheese pierogi with a sprinkling of powdered sugar. Honestly, go to town. Really make the pierogi yours. They're so easy to make and so tasty to eat that you'd be remiss not to.


2 c flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 egg
1/2 c warm water

Beat the egg into the water, then add the wet mixture to the flour and salt to make a soft dough. (A dough hook works well.) Remove the dough to some plastic wrap (so it won't dry out) and let it stand for ten minutes.
Roll the rested dough thin on a floured pastry cloth or clean surface. Use the open end of a cup to cut your pierogi shapes. Put a small amount of filling in the center of each dough circle, wet the edge of the dough with warm water, and fold the pierogi into a half circle and seal. Make sure your seal is tight, otherwise the pierogi can split and leak in the cooking water.
Drop the sealed pierogi into salted boiling water in small batches. Cook until the pierogi have come to the water's surface, which shouldn't take more than a few minutes. Drain them in a collander, and then remove the boiled pierogi to a cooling rack to completely dry and cool. Keep them from touching, as they can stick.
Choose your preferred method for cooking the pierogi when you're ready to eat them. The last about five days in the refrigerator, or up to three months in the freezer. As if you have that much patience.
Note: Boil a few batches of your dough scraps for some tasty, plump homemade noodles. Hey, you could even use them to make this tasty dish!


Potato and cheese: Make a small batch of mashed potatoes according to your preferred method, then spoon a bit of the potatoes into each pierogi along with a small slice of Velveeta.
Sweet cheese: Mix 1 c dry cottage cheese (farmer's cheese), a dash of salt, 1 tsp lemon juice, 1-2 tbsp sugar, and 1 egg yolk.
Pie cherries
Sweet cabbage and cheese: Saute shredded cabbage in butter until cooked, then spoon a bit of the cabbage into each pierogi along with a small slice of Velveeta.