Monday, November 29, 2010

Why Your Cream Cheese Frosting Was Lumpy

There is one way to avoid lumps in your frosting and hardly any cookbooks mention it. You must cream the butter very well in the first step. Almost every baker knows once you get lumps in your frosting no amount of mixing will smooth it out.

Most cookbooks instruct you to ensure the butter and cream cheese are at room temperature before mixing. If you did this to the best of your ability and still had lumpy frosting what happened is that your butter did not soften up enough first.  Since butter and cream cheese warm at different rates the best method is to cream the heck out of the butter before adding the cream cheese. Then it's foolproof. Creaming the butter for several minutes softens and warms it sufficiently so it combines smoothly with the remaining ingredients.

Cream cheese frosting is good on a variety of cakes and cupcakes, especially banana, carrot and coconut. This is a good time to address all the "cupcake hater" accusations I received over the weekend. I didn't explain myself well in the cupcake post. I only hate bad cupcakes. If someone is going to go through the trouble of opening a store and only sell cupcakes they ought to be well made. For a perfect seasonal cupcake bake up some Pumpkin Cupcakes and frost them with Cream Cheese Frosting. You will not be disappointed.

Cream Cheese Frosting
Print recipe only here

Makes 2 cups - or enough to frost a 9-inch, two-layer cake or 24 cupcakes

4 oz unsalted butter, softened a bit
1 # cream cheese (Philly's is always the best bet)
2 ¼ cups sifted powdered sugar
1-2 t vanilla extract

Cream the butter well, using the paddle attachment on a stand mixer. You want to spin it for about 3-5 minutes, minimum. Plan to stop and scrape the bowl with a spatula a couple of times so that the butter creams throughly. When it's ready for the next step it will have lightened in color and look fluffy. Don't proceed until it matches that description.

Add the cream cheese and mix well for another few minutes.

Add the vanilla extract and mix. Then add the powdered sugar and mix on low speed until just combined.

It's now finished. Just don't frost anything that's still warm or you'll have a mess on your hands.

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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

On Cupcakes

Before the advent of the cupcake our diminutive ancestors roamed the planet with no shops to cater to their hunger for a 500-calorie snack. They would peer into the windows of bakeries like little match girls, regular cake being much too big for their tiny hands.

The present thriving cupcake culture is surprising for two reasons. First, we're getting serious about obesity for the first time and second, most cupcakes are yucky. I'm all for an occasional celebratory indulgence, but make it an excellent one. We took a trip to Chicago's Sprinkles shop last week and left underwhelmed. The cake part was bland and the frosting part too sweet. The Red Velvet cupcake was the best but would have improved tremendously had they used better quality cocoa powder in the cake and less sugar in the frosting.

Hate the cupcake not the baker
The biggest problem with the cupcake is its design. The most visually enticing cupcake boasts an generous mound of frosting. This skews the important cake-to-frosting ratio. Take a bite and you're going to end up with too much of one and not enough of the other. The best cupcake-eating technique demands breaking the cupcake in half cross-wise and sandwiching the frosting between the cake layers, destroying the visual beauty of the dessert but making it taste a lot better. This assumes the cupcake is well-made, which is not often the case. I live down the street from a purveyor whose goods are flavorless, dense and greasy. There's no good way to eat one of those.

A better indulgence is the classic layer cake:  liquor or espresso-soaked cake layered with mascarpone mousse or rum-spiked chocolate ganache, a little hazelnut praline for crunch and enrobed in bittersweet chocolate glaze. The delicate balance of flavor and texture will make you never settle for a boorish cupcake again. And you'll be supporting a real craftsman, not some yahoo with a muffin tin and a pastry bag.

Bottom line
Over the years we've supported a long line of sweet fads: Mrs. Fields, TCBY, Krispy Kreme. The cupcake's days are numbered. What's next?

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Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Calorie is a Calorie?

The was a story recently about a Kansas State nutrition professor who ate only convenience store snacks for two months and lost 27 pounds. His cholesterol levels* went down, too, from 214 to 184. His blood pressure remained about the same.

How? He capped his caloric intake at 1800 calories per day. That's twelve Twinkies a day. And nothing else.

It would make one think that a calorie is just a calorie, that the body is a simple machine.  For those trying to lose or gain weight, calorie math is a useful tool. Both the over- and underweight need an accurate assessment of how many calories they are consuming in a day to know how much they need to add or subtract.

But total health and fitness is not about calorie math. While our bodies need a certain number of calories per day, the balance of calories we consume from fat, protein, and carbs effects every internal sytem. Shedding pounds is usually a good thing, but the volume of refined carbs and absence of fiber involved in the professor's diet is a come-hither call for diabetes and colon disease. Let's face it - with one hand rooting around in a bag of Doritos, disease is the only thing that will end up on your doorstep.

Come on, Professor! There's more to health than prancing around in skinny jeans, chain smoking, and dating rock stars.

* I'm not well-versed in cholesterol math. Here's the stats from Haub's Facebook page:

Total cholesterol: Pre=214; wk10=184
LDL-C: pre=153; wk10=123
HDL-C: pre=37; wk10=46
TC/HDL ratio: pre=5.8; wk10=4.0
TG:HDL ratio: pre=3.3; wk10=1.6
Glucose: pre=94; wk10=75
Blood Pressure: pre=108/71; wk10=104/76

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Friday, November 12, 2010

Must. Have. This. Knife.

Yours doesn't have to be purple. It also comes in red, blue, yellow and green.

My orange Kuhn Rikon paring knife goes on every picnic, tucked away in my pretty neoprene lunchbox. The lovely orange is easy to find in the grass or in a crowded drawer at home. And the sheath is a lifesaver; the blades are wonderfully sharp for inexpensive knifes. You can toss it into a drawer and not compromise the blade or the hand that goes in search of it.

I've been coveting my sister's serrated version since I made its acquaintance last summer. Breaking bread is so much more civilized when cutlery is involved. If your idea of the best summer picnic involves a crusty baguette, a home grown tomato and a ball of fresh mozzarella then the serrated knife is your BFF.  Everyone knows that you need a serrated knife for bread, but it's also the best choice for a tomato and it will delicately slice fresh mozzarella without squishing it.

The mere existence of a serrated KR had eluded me. Now I find out there's a darling little cleaver. As if I needed hindrances to out-of-doors cheese parties. If any of my Chitown peeps find me huddled in the park clutching a sack from Pastoral and a crusty loaf from Bennison's they might consider keeping their distance, as I'll also be in possession of a purple cleaver and not inclined to share.

The knife's capacity for actual cleaving is untested. It may do well with a small wedge of Parmigiano Reggiano but if you want to chop up a 10-pound block of Cocoa Barry bittersweet, I suspect this is not your tool.

That's all.

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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Culinary delights in the City of Light

Stars in the sky over Luxembourg Gardens
I've been to Paris three times. The first time was when I was ten. On that trip I got sick from fois gras, indulged in glace à la fraise and café au lait and thought nothing could ever top a basketful of croissants. It was also when I began a lifetime fondness for mussels.

The second time was last summer. This time I was the parent of a ten year old. We trotted all over, sampled sorbet from a variety of vendors, swooned over Laduree macarons, and delighted in shady parks for picnics. One night after tucking our children into their beds, my husband and I opened the windows of our Juliet balcony, pushed two desk chairs up close and uncorked a bottle of Bordeaux, toasting our good fortune for that delightful moment.

When we started planning a trip to celebrate our anniversary this fall I think we both wanted to return to Paris but thought the other one would not. In my memory, we sort of floated it to each other simultaneously, without expectation. Whenever I make what I assume someone will think is a lousy suggestion, I sort of open my eyes really wide, raise my eyebrows, and grimace with one side of my mouth. It's not a good look. I suspect it disarms my opponent, who will not hear the suggestion but instead take pity on the wretch before him and just do whatever she said. This is how we end up at lots of parties.

Anyway, we went to Paris last month and picked right up where we left 14 months earlier with cool Beaujolais, fall picnics, and tromping from droit to gauche and back again. The best dinner was a monumentally savory Coq au Vin on the left bank. There's a story there; the Coq au Vin was actually my second choice. I owe a debt of gratitude to our waiter for translating my first choice, Rognons de Veau. I love veal (veau) so I assumed Rognons meant Chop-of-a-lifetime when, in point of fact, it means kidney. I made that same weird face at the waiter's suggestion that it was quite good (weird face can be also employed as a reaction to a lousy suggestion) and requested the Coq. That meal turned out to be the dish-of-a-lifetime. I've been trying to recreate it this side of the Seine but haven't come close to matching the depth of flavor of the Parisian masterpiece.

The other food take-away from Paris 2010: Medjool dates. I knew dates to be the sweet, chewy, flavorless nubs my mom added to oatmeal. I had never eaten a whole date. The Medjool ones I encountered in Paris were unbelievably delicate. The little pit inside surrendered its hold on the fruit without a fight, unlike the insouciant apricot pit whose aloofness toward his host is cause for one gentleman of my acquaintance to mistrust the fruit entirely.

Anyhoo, Medjool dates have joined the ranks of Favorite Fruit. It's a short list - only cherries and blueberries occupy it. The criteria to make the list: it takes discipline (sometimes force) to make me stop eating the candidate. I bought myself a small carton at Whole Foods upon our return home. They were good. The Parisian ones were no doubt the Jumbo variety. Those are the cream of the crop. Santa takes suggestions, right?

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Monday, November 8, 2010

Lean, Green Braised Mexican Pork Tenderloin

Photo courtesy
I've been tinkering with this recipe for awhile and finally have it right where I want it, with tomatillos instead of tomatoes and adding a long, slow braise to the cooking method. The result is a fragrant and flavorful stew with lean pork that falls apart. I've honestly never had pork tenderloin that was this tender.

Rick Bayless wrote the original version. It's in his fantastic Mexican Everyday cookbook. We enjoyed his version, but it didn't deliver on its promise. The meat wasn't tender enough and the bland dish belied the flavorful ingredients that went into it. Sorry, Rick. But you'd agree that this is really good.

To make a bigger feast, I made Chipotle Shrimp as an appetizer (and chips and guacamole) and served the braised tenderloin with Black Beans and warmed corn tortillas. But you could omit all that for an easier weeknight meal.

This would cook up quite well in a slow cooker, too - but you still have to brown and saute. If you are a Dutch oven-user, a 3-quart covered pot is all you'll need.

Braised Mexican Pork Tenderloin
Print recipe only here

Serves 4

Note: Start this around 2:30 and enjoy a wonderful meal a few hours later. You won't be cooking that entire time - but the pork will.

1 to 1 ½ pounds pork tenderloin
2 T canola oil
2 fresh poblano peppers
1 medium onion
3 garlic cloves, pressed
5-6 tomatillos
3/4 cup beef broth OR 2/3 cup water
1 t hickory smoke
1 T Worcestershire sauce
1/2 cup cilantro, chopped
Kosher salt

Corn tortillas, to eat alongside

Preheat broiler.

Remove husks from tomatillos, rinse, and place on a sheet pan. Broil for about 5-6 minutes, turning midway, until browned.

Roast the peppers over an open flame or under a broiler under they are uniformly blackened and have softened a bit. You can do this right on your stovetop by setting the peppers directly above the flame.

When done, place in a bowl and cover. Allow them to cool.

Turn down oven to 200F

Peel and halve the onion and cut it crosswise into strips about 1/4-inch wide. Reserve.

Rub the blackened skin off the poblanos, remove the stems and seeds inside and rinse under water to remove the excess charred skin and seeds. Slice into long strips, about 1/4-inch wide, and then chop into pieces about two inches in length. Reserve.

Pat the tenderloin dry with paper towels and trim away all visible fat. Cut the tenderloin into 1-inch cubes and sprinkle liberally with kosher salt.

Heat the canola oil in a Dutch oven or large skillet (12 inches). And pork (do this in batches if necessary, to avoid overcrowding) and brown all over. Transfer to a plate and reserve.

Add the onion and poblano strips to the same pot and saute over a medium flame for 5 minutes or so. Add the garlic and continue to cook for another 2 minutes. Add the tomatillos, smashing them up with a wooden spoon. Add beef broth (or water), Worcesteshire, and hickory smoke and bring to a boil. Cover and transfer to the oven. Cook for 2-3 hours.

Add cilantro and taste for seasoning, adding more salt as needed. Serve with warmed corn tortillas.

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Sunday, November 7, 2010

Big Bad Brother: How the USDA is killing you

I'm so glad this got front-page coverage:  While Warning About Fat, U.S. Pushes Cheese Sales

Essentially, the USDA (the nutrition police behind the food pyramid) has been talking out of both sides of its mouth, advising Americans to cut dairy fat while their marketing arm works with restaurants to increase the amount of cheese in menu options. Turns out if Domino's has a pizza with 40% more cheese Americans will eat at Domino's.

If that wasn't sneaky enough, they have financed studies aimed at documenting how dairy fat can help a person lose weight (actually, it can't, according to other research). So we pour nonfat milk on our granola in the morning and then say yes to sour cream and cheddar at Chipotle at lunch.

It's a sign of progress that Americans now prefer lowfat and nonfat milk. Whole milk isn't even used at Starbucks anymore; 2% is the norm.  But all that skimming leaves dairy farmers (and the government that subsidizes them) with an excess of cream on their hands. That excess is turned ino butter and cheese. And it's got to go somewhere.

The article reports that the nutrition committee of the USDA this summer released new guidelines on saturated fat intake that affirm the way I've been cooking along for as long as I've had a family to cook for: that saturated fat not exceed 15 grams per day for a 2,000-calorie diet. If  2,000 calories is about 500 calories too many for you, you really should not be exceeding 10-12 grams of saturated fat in a day. Allow me to put that into perspective for you:  one large Chipotle chicken burrito on a 13-inch flour tortilla with black beans, rice, cheese, sour cream, and salsa has 18 grams of saturated fat (per Livestrong/The Daily Plate). By either caloric guideline you've already maxed out your saturated fat allowance and it's only lunchtime.

Read more about caloric intake and longevity here.

And I don't mean to harsh on Chitpotle. I really like Chipotle. I use them as as example because they seem like a reasonable lunchtime option. Take that burrito, remove the tortilla, sour cream and cheese and you're down to 3 grams of saturated fat. That's more like it. (I used as source.)

Bottom line, Uncle Sam has cream all over his hands. We've got to take nutrition into our own.

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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Fajita Peppers and Tips for Making Leftovers Taste Better

There's no microwave in the Pinch kitchen, so leftovers go straight to the skillet for reheating. I'm a fan of the skillet and have become adept at resurrecting meals. The best trick I figured out was a means of reheating pasta that didn't leave it fried or pasty. It's water. Heat about 1/4 cup of water in a skillet. Bring it to a boil, then add your leftovers and stir until nicely hot. You can add more water if you need, but go slowly. Overcooked pasta is blechk. Anyway, today's lunch featured leftover fajita peppers and flank steak from the other night's fajita party. And a smidgen of the cotija I snagged at Trader Joe's recently.

Cheese sidebar: For my favorite domestic and imported cheeses I usually go straight to Pastoral. Whole Foods revamped their cheese department when they moved into the super sized location south of North Ave - and for the better. I had sworn off their old cheese department because everything I bought was stifled and off-tasting. But they're now a reliable source when the need arises for a supple triple creme.

Where were we? Cotija! If you haven't ever crumbled some on your fajitas, I highly recommend it. Most versions are pretty firm, you basically grate it. It's really a whole heck of a lot like Ricotta Salata, which I also recommend giving a try. The latter you would sort of crumble or peel atop an open panini, or a serving of pasta. Finding cotija at Trader Joe's was a total treat since that's my source for all regular cheese - gorgonzola, cheddar, fontina, gruyere, all cheeses that appear as supporting flavors in healthy meals. Examples? The Pinch House Salad features a bit of gongonzola; Chanterelle Pizzas - a great fall meal with chanterelles in season now - feature a light sprinkle of fontina; Ham & Gruyere panini are a favorite weekend lunch, especially in the colder months. The cheddar  - Tilamook medium - is around for the kids.

But we were really talking about the Fajita Peppers.  I've been making my peppers the same way for several years. They're smokey and sizzle up nicely in a cast iron pan. I serve them along side grilled chicken or flank steak, with a bowl of guacamole and some lightly charred fresh corn tortillas. Or atop a small bowl of black beans for a scrumptious and hearty lunch. Today, I just heated them up in a hot skillet with nothing added - and they were as glorious as they were the other night.

Fajita Peppers
Serves 4-6

1 green bell pepper
1 red bell pepper
1 yellow onion
1 jalapeno
Optional: 2-3 Roma tomatoes

2 T canola oil
1 t liquid smoke (I like hickory)
>1 T Worcestershire sauce
Few turns fresh ground pepper
Pinch of kosher salt

First, combine the canola oil, liquid smoke, Worcesteshire, salt and pepper in a mixing bowl:

Then, preheat a medium to large cast iron pan over medium high heat. Note - I don't have issues with tomatoes in my cast iron pan. If you do, use a different skillet.

Prep your veggies:

Halve the onion, peel, and slice crosswise.
Trim red and green bell peppers to thin strips (about 1 ½ inches long and about 2-3 mm thick).
Trim jalapeños a bit thinner so that they can be avoided if necessary.
Quarter the tomatoes. Remove the seed gunk and slice quarters in half, lengthwise

Transfer all the veggies to the mixing bowl and toss to coat.

Add the veggies and saute over a good flame for about 4-6 minutes until softened and a wee bit caramelized.

Serve and savor.

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