Food is Love, Love is Food.

A blog devoted to the connection between meals, memories and the special moments in our lives.

Friday, May 20, 2011

A Cake for the End of the World: St. Louis Gooey Butter Cake

If the world comes to an end tomorrow, this is the cake I would want to eat tonight.  All this talk of  'The Rapture' this week has given me pause to think about what we should have for dinner on Friday night just in case we're not around to eat on Saturday. I mean, calories are not an issue, correct?  Since I made this cake last weekend for my husband's birthday, I'd have to be pretty certain about the calorie thing.  It is decadent enough to make you stop and think about the plaque buildup that may be happening in your arteries, but delicious enough to make you commit to a 3 mile run the next day to make up for it. It is like marshmallows and creme brulee.  So buttery. So gooey. So worth it.  So, if you're either feeling pretty certain about this whole rapture thing, or willing to go for a  run tomorrow morning if you happen to still be around, bake this cake tonight.  Either way, you will not be sorry!

St. Louis Gooey Butter Cake (from Smitten Kitchen):

For the cake:
3 tbsp milk at room temperature
1 3/4 tsp active dry yeast
6tbsp unsalted butter at room temperature
3 tbsp sugar
1 tsp kosher salt
1 egg
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

For the topping:3 tbsp  plus 1 tsp light corn syrup
2 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 egg
1 cup plus 3 tbsp all-purpose flour
Confectioner's sugar to sprinkle on top

To make the cake dough:
In a small bowl, mix milk with 2 tbsp warm water.  Add yeast and whisk gently until it dissolves.  Mixture will foam slightly.

Using an electric mixer with paddle attachment, cream butter, sugar, and salt.  Scrape down sides of bowl and beat in the egg.  Alternately add the flour and the milk mixture, scraping down the sides of the bowl between each addition.  Switch to a dough hook and beat dough on medium speed until it forms a smooth dough, about 5 minutes.  It will still be sticky.

Grease a 9x13 ceramic baking dish and spread the dough, stretching it evenly.  Cover the pan with a sheet of plastic wrap and put it in a warm place, allowing it to rise until doubled, about 2 1/2 hours.

To make the topping:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  In a small bowl, whisk corn syrup with 2 tbsp water and the vanilla.  In your electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter, sugar, and salt until light and fluffy, 5-7 minutes.  Scrape down the sides of the bowl and add the egg.  Beat until well mixed.  Alternately add flour and corn syrup mixture, scraping down sides of the bowl between additions.

Spoon the topping evenly over risen cake, and spread evenly with an offset spatula.  Bake 30-40 minutes, watching very carefully at the 30 minute mark. Cake will have a barely golden top when done, and will rise and fall in waves.  The center of the cake should still be quite liquidy, and will set up  while the cake is cooling.  I have made it twice, and the second time I overcooked it by a few minutes, and it made a very big difference, so don't let it go too long.  After cooling, sprinkle with confectioner's sugar.  Serve at room temperature.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

It is in Giving that we Receive: Corn and Black Bean Salad

I was taught well from a young age to practice what you preach.  My parents were not only involved in the church we attended, but were active in the community in which we lived.  They both had careers that were not focused on merely gaining wealth, but on serving others.  After my father died, my mother continued in this manner.  Though she was juggling working, going to college full-time, raising two daughters, and an active social life, she found the time and energy to volunteer for many causes.  She was in tune with the community around us, and realized that there were many families in the area that struggled with putting food on the table for their families each week.  She did some research, and began working with our parish priest to begin a food pantry in the basement of the rectory of the church.  She held food drives, collected non-perishable food items, organized the space, and drummed up many volunteers to man the new food pantry.  She worked with people to spread the word, and welcomed clients with grace and dignity. I spent many hours working there with my mother, and always marveled at her energy and her commitment to those in need.  She taught me to be thankful for the abundance of blessings in my life, and to share with those around me.

The high school I attended stressed the importance of doing for others as well, and I was fortunate enough to take part in many service projects aimed at helping others.  That, coupled with the tendencies of those people with whom my parents surrounded us, my grandparents, our friends George and Ellen, and many of our aunts and uncles, set the tone for my life.  The message in how they lived was clear:  when we give, we receive. 

My own daughters and some of their friends are involved in similar projects through our church.  They have spent a Saturday morning working at a food pantry preparing packages of food for others, they have, with the junior high youth group, made sandwhiches to be brought to a shelter, and several times they have volunteered to serve a meal at a homeless shelter in the city close to where we live. They go with positive attitudes and lots of energy.  And each time they return, I know that they have gotten the message loud and clear.  They are energized by the work they have done, and have gotten far more than they gave.

Thirty five years ago today, my father died at age 38 of a sudden heart attack.  As he was a man who helped others, and helped stress upon me the importance of practicing what you preach, it is fitting that my family is spending this evening working at the shelter.  Members of the community have planned and cooked a meal, and we along with others are going to deliver and serve this meal.  It has been a crazy week.  We are tired, and looking ahead to another crazy week, and I want nothing more than to plop on the couch and relax, but I know that we will return tonight rejuvenated by our work. It is important for kids to do this kind of thing, I believe;  to see the world around them, to find some small way to be of service, to use the gifts they have been given. Tonight, we work in memory of my dad.

The recipe was given to me by the woman who organizes the meals for the shelter, and looked so good, that I wanted to share it. It makes a large amnount of the salad, and can be made for a crowd, or can be scaled back for a smaller gathering.  It goes well with barbecue, and in the summer, can be made with fresh corn.  I have made a similar saled in the past which included avocado, so add that in small cubes if you like.

Corn and Black Bean Salad:

4 15-oz. cans of black beans, drained and rinsed
4 cups frozen corn kernels (3 16-oz. bags)
3 red bell peppers, seeded and chopped
3 orange or yellow bell peppers, seeded and chopped
1 large sweet onion, finely chopped
2 large tomatoes, chopped
4 small jalapeno peppers, seeded and very finely chopped
1 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
1/2 cup fresh lime juice
2 cloves garlic, very finely minced
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1/2 cup olive oil

Place all ingredients in a large serving bowl and fold to mix well.  Chill before serving.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Asian Inspired Green Beans

I can't believe I haven't shared this green bean recipe yet. It is another one of those recipes that I started making after having green beans like these at a Chinese restaurant. We loved them so much that we started experimenting with how to make them at home, and came up with this recipe. They are great with a roast chicken, or as a side dish with any Asian-inspired meal.  You can make them as spicy as you like, or not at all, and they are easy to cook ahead of time and reheat.  Even my mother, who really only wants to eat Italian food, loves them.  They are best when you find the really skinny french green beans, called haricots verts. Make a lot, because they are also great as leftovers.

1 pound green beans (the skinnier the better)
2 tbsp vegetable oil
4 large garlic cloves, minced very fine
3 tbsp low sodium soy sauce
1/2 tsp (or more if you want them very spicy) Asian chili paste (such as Sambal Oelek)

Depending on the thickness of the green beans, trim the ends, then wash.  Blanch them for about 3-4 minutes in a pot of salted boiling water.  Strain and run under very cold water for a few minutes.  Place the oil and green beans in a large frying pan (a cast iron skillet works particularly well, and I often split the beans up into 2 pans) over medium high heat. Cook them, moving them every several minuted, until they become brown on all sides.  This will take up to 20 minutes, depending on how many green beans you are making, and you may think you are burning them.  You can add a few tablespoons of water to the pan as the green beans are browning to help the process along.  When the are well-browned,  turn down the heat to medium low, and add the garlic.  Sautee for 2 minutes, constantly moving the green beans and garlic around to avoid burning the garlic.  Add the soy sauce and chili paste, turning the heat off, and stirring the beans to coat them evenly.  Serve and enjoy!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Happy St. Patrick's Day: Madelyn Durkin Brennan's Irish Soda Bread

I am half Irish and half Italian.  My coloring is very fair, like my father, who was Irish, whereas my sister has darker hair, eyes and skin tone, like my Italian mother. Subsequently, growing up, she was referred to as 'The Italian One,' and I was 'The Irish One.'  At the time I liked this, because it was another connection to my father, who was beloved by everyone who knew him, and who died when we were young. My mother embraced all that was Irish, and helped us to get to know our Irish heritage and celebrated it always.  As a result, she loves St. Patrick's Day better than anyone I know. 

Growing up, we attended Catholic school and wore uniforms each day.  St. Patrick's Day was the one day of the year that we were allowed to embellish those uniforms.  As there were many kids of Irish descent in our school, there was a lot of embellishing.  We wore green carnations, green socks, boys wore green ties, and just about everyone, it seemed, had a button that said "Kiss Me I'm Irish."  Imagine my surprise, when in sixth grade, Sister Francis Claire actually did just that!  It was perhaps to that point in my life, my most embarrassing moment.

My husband is 100% Irish, so our children, of course, are mostly Irish.  My cousin Kerry moved to Ireland many years ago, and was married outside Cork City in 2008.  It was kind of her to provide us with an excuse to make the trip to Ireland.  All of my aunts, uncles and every single cousin on the Irish side of my family made the trip, all of us on the same airplane.  We went to pubs together, we saw the city and the countryside, we had T-shirts made.  We were quite embarrassing, but it was the trip of a lifetime because we were all there together (more than 28 of us)! We missed those who were not with us; my Nana and Grandpa,  my Auntie Nancy, my Uncle Jimmy and Auntie Kathy, and my dad, but we toasted them well and often, and we carried them in our hearts then and always. 

When we were younger, we usually visited with my Irish Nana around St. Patrick's Day, and although I loathe corned beef and cabbage, I always looked forward to the Irish soda bread she made. As a kid, I did not appreciate the caraway seeds, but as an adult I have come to enjoy them. Here is her recipe.  It is a very moist bread, and with or without the caraway seeds, delicious. Serve with Irish butter for a real treat. These days, my husband and I have Reuben sandwiches for dinner on St. Patrick's Day (corned beef, cabbage in the form of sauerkraut), but I still make Nana's Irish soda bread.

Madelyn Durkin Brennan's Irish Soda Bread
3 cups flour
2/3 cup sugar
1 tbsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
2 tbs caraway seeds (Unless you don't like them)
1 cup of raisins (I like a mix of regular and golden raisins)
2 eggs
2 cups sour cream
2 Tbs melted butter

Hand mix dry ingredients / liquid ingredients in separate bowls. Combine and add a bit more flour to form 2 mounds. Form the mounds, smooth a bit.  Sprinkle some raw or demerara sugar on top, if desired (this will give it a bit of a crunch on the top).
Bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes or until golden brown on top.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Taste of Summer in Winter: Pappa al Pomodoro (Tomato Bread Soup)

If you have ever dipped a piece of bread in a pot of spaghetti sauce, this recipe is for you.  It is apparently the typical after school snack of children in Tuscany, and let me tell you, it beats milk and cookies by a mile. I have run across similar recipes, and have always been intrigued, but until now, have never made it.  It almost seemed too delicious to have for supper, a guilty pleasure for an adult in the same way that having pancakes for dinner might be for a child.  With the right tomatoes, it is a bright taste of summer in the middle of this drab winter, and it is exactly what we needed last week.  I used tomatoes that I had canned last summer, and they were perfect.  You could wait until summer to try pappa al pomodoro, or you could spend a few dollars extra and buy some San Marzano tomatoes, which I think would be almost as good as really good home-canned ones.  Add some fresh basil and some fresh ground pecorino romano, and it really is seriously awesome.

Pappa al Pomodoro (Tomato Bread Soup)
Adapted from Cooking with Italian Grandmothers by Jessica Theroux

1 medium loaf day old rustic Italian bread, crust removed and cut into cubes
2 pounds fresh tomatoes, or canned plum tomatoes
5 large garlic cloves, sliced very thin
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2-2 cups chicken stock
1/4 cup fresh torn basil leaves
extra virgin olive oil for garnish

Put the tomatoes through a foodmill or in a blender to create a chunky puree.  In a large saucepan, saute the garlic slices in the olive oil for a few minutes.  When it is just about to turn golden, place the bread in the pot, and sprinkle about 1/2 cup of the chicken stock over the bread cubes.  Stir to coat the bread in the garlic and oil.  Add the pureed tomatoes, a large pinch of salt, and another cup of chicken stock.  Stir every five minutes or so as the soup comes to a simmer,  After 30 minutes, taste the pappa, add salt if necessary, and add more chicken stock if the consistency is not right.  It should be a mush; not too liquidy.  When ready to serve, add the basil, and serve in small bowls, sprinkled with pecorino romano cheese and drizzled with olive oil.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Better Than a TV Dinner: Chicken Pot Pie

The first pot pie I ever ate was a frozen one from the supermarket, probably Swanson's or something like that.  Shortly after my father died, my mother began working at a bank in the neighborhood, and although she was nearly always home when we got home from school, she worked until 7 PM on Friday nights.  We lived in the same house as my grandparents, so this was no problem.  We arrived home to the warm greeting of my grandmother.  My sister and I were about 10 and 11 years old, and my mother had taught us how to do a basic, decent cleaning of the house.  Our home was on one level, and we had a finished basement as well, so each week, Betsy and I would take turns: one of us would dust and vacuum the upstairs, and the other would dust and vacuum the downstairs.  The upstairs was larger, and there was more to do, but the basement, as it was our domain, was inevitably messier and dirtier, so it was really a toss up as to which one would take longer.  On the week I cleaned the basement, I could have the TV on, which made the cleaning seem to go by a little faster, but on the week I cleaned the upstairs, there was time to look closely at the beautiful pieces of china and crystal my mother had, all of which she had taken such good care of over the years.

After we had done the cleaning, our 'chores' on Friday, the deal was that we were allowed to cook a TV dinner for ourselves.  My grandmother, who was right upstairs, and had cooked dinner for herself and my grandfather, was beside herself on a weekly basis.  Why didn't we just eat with them?  Why would we want these frozen meals in an aluminum pan when she had made a homemade, delicious meal of which there was plenty? More than one argument arose out of that scenario. Now, of course, the idea of eating a TV dinner is less than appealing, but at the time, it seemed very exciting.  We got to choose our own meals when we went to the grocery store with my mother during the week.  We could each have something different.  I remember my sister being partial to the Salisbury Steak, whereas I liked the Stouffer's mac and cheese, or the turkey dinner, or eventually, I discovered, the pot pie.  Chicken (or turkey)? Gravy? Pie crust?  Why had we never had this before? 

Looking back, I understand that what we really wanted was not the TV dinners so much as the independence and responsibility that came with them.  Two almost-teen-age girls allowed to be home by ourselves (okay, Gram and Grandpa were right upstairs), given the charge of cleaning the house and then allowed to 'cook' and eat dinner together on the couch, in front of the TV at the end of the week, and enjoy the feeling of satisfaction that comes from doing a (pretty good) job.  Perhaps it is why Friday evening is still my favorite time of the week; the work week is done, and nothing but the prospect of two days of freedom lies ahead.

This recipe takes a few liberties; it is by no means a classic pot pie. I also cut a few time-saving corners, using puff pastry instead of making pie crust, so if you are a purist, by all means, make the crust.  I was looking at this as a pot pie you could make after a day at work.  Not too difficult, but still a treat for a Friday night, or any night for that matter.

Chicken Pot Pie  (makes 6 individual pot pies, or you can make 1 large one in a 9x13 inch pan)

1 box (2 sheets) frozen puff pastry, thawed
The meat from a medium roasted chicken (confession: I used a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store)
3 large carrots, chopped
1 medium onion, diced
3 stalks celery, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp thyme
salt and pepper to taste
4 potatoes, peeled, and chopped into  1/2 inch cubes
1 1/2 packages Green Giant petite peas (or any frozen peas that you like)
2 tbsp butter
4 tbsp olive oil, divided
3 tbsp all purpose flour
32 oz good quality chicken stock
1 tsp chicken demi-glace, optional
1 egg, beaten

Toss the potatoes in 1 tbsp olive oil and some salt, and put them in a cast iron skillet or a baking tray covered in foil. Roast at 375 degrees for about 40 minutes, until golden brown.  While they are roasting, put the celery, onions, garlic, and carrots in an oven proof skillet with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and sautee on medium heat until transluscent, 4-5 minutes.  Pop the whole skillet into the oven for about 10 minutes, just to get a little color on the vegetables.  In the meantime, melt the butter in a large saucepan.  Add the remaining olive oil and the flour.  Turn the heat to medium, and with a wisk, mix the fat and flour, cooking them until the roux turns a deep golden brown.  Add the chicken stock gradually, wisking constantly to avoid any lumps. Add the demi-glace, if using.  Bring the mixture up to a boil while wisking.  Return to a simmer, and add the onion, celery, carrot mixture.  Add the fresh thyme and let simmer for about 20 minutes. Taste, and add salt and pepper if needed. after 20 minutes, add the peas and stir.  Bring back to temperature.

Roll out the puff pastry and cut circles as large as the bottom of the pot pie container you are using.  I used large soup bowls, so I cut 1 small circle and 1 larger one for each pot pie.  Lay the puff pastry circles on a baking sheet, and poke several fork holes in each. Brush the beaten egg on the circles that will serve as the lid of the pot pies. Bake according to the package directions until the pastry is just barely golden.

When all the components are done, beging to assemble the pot pies.  First, put the small circles of puff pastry in the bottom of each container.  Add some potatoes and some shredded chicken.  Then pour the gravy and pea mixture.  Topwith one of the larger pastry circles.  Repeat until all the ingredients are used up.  Place the pot pies on a baking sheet and return to the 350 degree oven for about 20 minutes, or until the insides are bubbly and the top pastry is a deep golden brown.  Serve immediately.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A Birthday Cake For Mom: Orange, Almond, and Olive Oil Cake

If I learned to cook by watching my grandmother, I learned to squeeze every ounce of joy from life by watching my mother.  She truly enjoys life more than anyone I know.  This week she celebrated her birthday, and to watch her in action, you would never guess her age.  She goes to the gym almost every day, travels extensively with friends and family, attends plays, movies, concerts, and is in the stands at all the home games of the UCONN men's and women's basketball teams.  She volunteers her time for several worthy causes, she helps those in her community, and in my house, we couldn't live without her.  She runs my girls to many of their activities, attends their soccer or basketball games, picks them up after school from time to time, runs errands for us, stays home with the girls when they are sick.  She is like a third parent in so many ways.  She has taken her lead from her own mother, my grandmother, in terms of being intimately involved in the day to day aspects of our lives.  She lives with a vibrancy and joy that I admire greatly, and she passes it on to everyone around her.

My mother's life has not been easy; she was very sick as a child, in and out of convalescent homes until she was about 9 years old.  She survived a sickness that one of her friends did not.  She married my father, gave birth to my sister and to me, and after just 16 years of marriage, lost my father to a sudden heart attack.  She was faced with the task of raising two daughters on her own.  Like everything else she does in life, she faced her new role with grace and joy.  She did not feel sorry for herself, nor did she ever allow us to feel sorry for ourselves.  The message was clear:  life would go on, and we would be happy. My father would have wanted nothing less. Even as a kid, I marveled at her strength, and as I got older and became a wife and a mother of two girls myself, I was more and more in awe of this amazing woman.

One of the best decisions she made was to return to college, earning her Bachelor's degree while working and raising us.  She had lots of help; she knew the benefits of surrounding us with our extended family.  My grandmother and grandfather, who lived just upstairs from us, and my Nana, were always there to support us, as were our aunts, uncles and cousins who lived so close by (several on the same street!). When Mom finished school, she worked hard to put my sister and me through college, and she always managed to find time for fun.  She continued to travel, and spend time with her friends and family.  She was active in our church, starting a food pantry for families in need, volunteering her time and energy wherever she saw a need.  She continues to be willing to try just about anything, which is one of the secrets to staying youthful.

I have not often written about my mother, and the reason is this:  it is hard to find words to fully express the depth of love, respect, and gratitude I feel for this woman.  She is my mentor, my sounding board, and my friend, and I cannot find words adequate to express all she means to me, to Michael, and to my girls.

Though my mother claims not to be a good cook, the truth is that she just doesn't enjoy it.  She loves having people over, and is the very best at organizing and presenting a heck of a dinner party.  For her birthday this week, Michael and I had a dinner party in her honor.  We had several of her dear friends, and my Aunt Judy and Uncle Bobby.  Auntie Judy, my father's younger sister, has the same birthday as my mother, so it turned out to be quite a party. While my house is not nearly as immaculate and organized as my mother's, the food and especially the company were quite fabulous. I wanted to bake a cake as unique as my mom, and I stumbled across this recipe I had cut out some time ago from a newspaper.  I made a few changes, added some whipped cream, and it was delicious.  A great ending to a wonderful celebration!

Orange, Almond, and Olive Oil Cake
1/4 cup sliced almonds
6 ounces blanched almonds
1 cup flour
1 tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
4 large eggs at room temperature
1 1/2 cups sugar
Zest of 1 large orange
Juice of 1 large orange (about 1/2 cup)
1/2 cup fruity extra virgin olive oil

Heat the oven to 350 degrees.  Grease the bottom and sides of a 9-inch spring form pan, and spread the sliced almonds in the bottom.  Finely grind the blanched almonds in the food processor until they look like bread crumbs.  Beat the eggs in the bowl of a stand mixer until frothy.  Add the sugar slowly, and beat the mixture until it is lemon colored. Add the ground almonds, baking powder, and salt.  Mix quickly, and then add the flour in slowly.  Add the orange juice, the orange zest, and the olive oil, and mix just until combined.  Pour batter into the prepared baking pan.  Bake until a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean, about 50-60 minutes.  Serve with whipped cream.