Saturday, October 30, 2010

Pumpkin Muffins

I just went with a friend to see Psycho at the symphony.
The movie was shown while the orchestra played the skin-crawling, screechy violin score.
I've seen it a few times before, but it was a different experience at the symphony/with the symphony and a large crowd of people.

I like Alfred Hitchcock very much- his movies are so interesting and much more of a psychological thriller-type than what you find, for the most part, today.

He's funny- so blase on the outside, so perfectly droll in personality, voice, and demeanor... you wonder what made him tick on the inside as he didn't really seem to fit what he did.

Anyway, when I told one of my aunts that I was planning to see Psycho, she started laughing and went on to tell a story about another one of my aunts...

As high schoolers they went with a couple of friends to the university to see Psycho. I'm sure they thought they were somewhat a big deal to do something like this. Anyway, at one of the final climactic points (*stop reading here if you're afraid I'll ruin the movie for you), aunt #2 stood up, pointed, and screamed at the screen, "He's his mother!!!"
Of course, by this point it was completely obvious to everyone in the theater.


Apparently she was really getting into the movie, and she seems to have a bit of a history with really getting into things.
Needless to say, they were mercilessly teased by the college boys attending the movie.
It's interesting, the stories you can hear about one relative by talking to another.

One of the take-home lessons from this particular movie is to stay away from men named Norman who run isolated motels, have a love for birds and taxidermy, and a strange over-fondness for their mother. I think one of the best lines ever comes from this movie, "Well, after all, a boy's best friend is his mother."
I just want to say, "Oh, no. No, no, no. Marion... really?"
Oh, dear... Marion? It's a thematic element known as foreshadowing... you should probably go.

Then again, maybe the issue really hinges on the surname Bates. Whether you're Kathy or Norman, there may be some problems. Poor James Caan, poor and Janet Leigh.
That must be it!

Perhaps I feel comfortable asserting my faux assumption in this case because I don't personally know anyone by the name of Bates, and thus am unlikely to offend anyone I know...

I thought pumpkin muffins might be appropriate here as it's the end of October and we're well into autumn, and these will lend a little autumnal flavor.

If you happen to find that you have some lonely cookies, such as amaretti, they might be good for this purpose also. Who wants lonely cookies? Put them out of their misery.

Canned pumpkin really isn't all that bad (and actually *strange to me*, I think it tastes better than whole, fresh, real pumpkin... it can be a tad troublesome to get the fruit from an actual pumpkin).

They can be topped with cinnamon sugar, chopped nuts, or maybe some crushed amaretti cookies before baking.

Pumpkin Muffins
makes 12 regular-sized muffins

1 1/2 c flour
1 t baking powder
1 c packed pumpkin puree (canned is easiest)
1/3 c melted butter
2 heaping T sour cream or plain yogurt
2 large eggs
1/2 t (heaping) ground cinnamon
1/4 t allspice
1/4 t ginger
1/8 t ground cloves
1/8 t freshly ground nutmeg
1 1/4 c sugar
1/2 t baking soda
1/2 t salt

OPTIONAL: cinnamon sugar, chopped nuts, or crumbled amaretti cookies, etc. for topping the muffins prior to baking

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a 12-cup muffin tin with muffin papers or grease the holes in the muffin tin well.
Whisk flour and baking powder together in a small bowl. Whisk the pumpkin, sour cream, butter, eggs, spices, sugar, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl. Whisk the flour mixture into the pumpkin mixture until just combined.
Divide the batter among the prepared muffin cups and sprinkle with cinnamon sugar (etc.).
Bake the muffins until puffed, golden, and a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean or the muffin top springs back when poked, about 25-30 minutes.
Cook on a rack a few minutes, then remove the muffins and either let cool completely, or eat warm.

*If you want to make mini-muffins, they should be baked somewhere between 15 and 20 minutes, just keep an eye on them. This recipe makes more than 24 mini-muffins.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Bleu Cheese Soufflé

This is a recipe I'd been wanting to try a while, but it never quite happened.
I like to make souffles a lot (as long as they happen to be cooperative souffles), and I happened to be on a cheese kick when I finally tried it.

You see, the only souffles I had made up to this particular point had been sweet, never savory.

I know bleu cheese isn't everyone's cup of tea- it can be fairly strong and sharp... another one of those "love it or hate it" types of foods. Penicillium cultures are added to give the cheese it's flavor as well as lovely veins and marbling (other than as a possible exclamation from a phlebotomist, this may happen to be one of the only times veins can be referred to as "lovely"... I just had to say that here, I think it might have been a requirement).

In the nineteenth century, Roquefort cheesemakers found that they could speed the production of bleu cheese ripening by baking loaves of rye bread and adding a little powdered mold. The moisture in the bread made it a good place to grow mold. The loaves were completely molded through after about two weeks, the loaves were dried and ground, and later added to cheese.
It sounds like a science experiment!

The cheeses spend some time in dark, cool caves to age a little.
An interesting story about Roquefort deals with the fact that it's almost always shipped in half-wheels. It's traditionally believed to be this way because of Charlemagne. He stopped in the area and was served bleu cheese by the abbot. Charlemagne saw the blue bits in the cheese, took out his knife, and started removing them. The abbot gently told him the blue parts were considered the best parts. Charlemagne loved the cheese and asked to be sent two wagonloads a year. To ensure that he could see he had the most flavorful, best cheese, he instructed the abbot to split the wheels in half.

The flavor of a specific bleu cheese (Roquefort, Stilton, Maytag, Gorgonzola...) depends on the type of milk used as well as aging time and terrior. Two products from two different locations can taste very different from one another (depending on climate, soil, "air" or the general area something is produced in) although the steps taken to produce said things may be exactly the same.

Examples include coffees, chocolate, vanilla, wine, and cheese.
It's very interesting...

The production of bleu cheese requires humidity and moderate temperatures, so it can't be created everywhere. The mold was originally an accident that became purposeful.

This one is adapted from Ina Garten- very miniscule adaptations.
When you make souffles, you'll want to serve them as soon as possible. The cooler temperature outside the oven causes souffles to begin deflating as soon as they come out (a tip in case you plan to photograph your food). This is also the reason behind not opening the oven to peek at a souffle- the rush of cool air isn't conducive to a rising souffle.

Bleu Cheese Soufflé
serves 2-4

3 T unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing the dish
1/4 c finely grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra for sprinkling
3 T flour
1 c scalded milk
kosher salt and finely ground black pepper
pinch of cayenne pepper
large pinch of freshly ground nutmeg
4 XL egg yolks, at room temperature
3 oz good bleu cheese, chopped
5 XL egg whites, at room temperature
1/8 t white vinegar

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Butter the inside of an 8-cup souffle dish (7 1/2 inches in diameter x 3 1/4 inches deep) and sprinkle evenly with Parmesan.
Melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat. With a wooden spoon stir in the flour and cook, stirring constantly for 2 minutes. Off the heat whisk in the hot milk, 1/2 t salt, 1/2 t pepper, cayenne and nutmeg. Return to low heat and cook, whisking constantly, for 1 minute, until smooth and thick.
Off the heat, while the mixture is still hot, whisk in egg yolks one at a time. Stir in the bleu cheese and the 1/4 c Parmesan, and transfer to a large mixing bowl.
Put the egg whites, white vinegar, and a pinch of salt in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment. Beat on low speed 1 minute to incorporate ingredients, on medium speed 1 minute, then finally on high speed until they form firm, glossy peaks.
Whisk one quarter of the egg whites into the cheese sauce to lighten, and then carefully fold in the rest. You want it incorporated, but don't over stir.
Pour the mixture into the prepared souffle dish then smooth the top with a spatula. Draw a large circle on top with the spatula to help the souffle rise evenly, and place in the middle of the oven. Turn the temperature down to 375 degrees. Bake for 30-35 mintues until puffed and brown. Serve immediately.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Cheese Plate

Putting together a cheese plate can be kind of fun.
Cheese is fun.
They can be creamy, almost crunchy, nutty, salty, sweet...

A cheese course is a fantastic addition to a meal (between the main and dessert).
In addition, cheese is a nice, easy, no-cook party idea.
...well, some cheeses, such as halloumi, can be "grilled" in a frying pan- the cheese softens and develops crispy grill marks without completely melting (great as an appetizer or added to a plated salad).

When constructing a cheese board, it's nice to have a little diversity to choose from.
Three cheeses is good for a small party, and five is better for a larger group.

You don't want too many cheeses though, because you want people to be able to keep track of what they're eating without taste buds becoming too confused, but it is nice to have some variety of flavors, shapes, colors, and textures.

There are many specific cheeses, but they all fall into a few different categories (I'm sure they are categorized in many different ways though!)...

Soft cheeses are generally mildly flavored and include fresh mozzarella, chevre, ricotta, camembert and brie.
Semi-firm cheeses are more boldly flavored than soft cheeses and pair well with fruits. These include cheddar and gouda.
Hard cheeses are dense and flavorful, occasionally with small crunchy crystals that add to flavor and texture. They're wonderful for grating (or for breaking into shards to be snacked on) and are usually aged quite a while (asiago, Parmesan, romano, gruyere).
Blue/bleu cheeses contain veins of green or blue mold, can be very strong, and are certainly an acquired taste (Roquefort, Stilton, Gorgonzola).

When I buy cheese, I usually have a bit of an idea of what I want, but at the same time, I'm not at all opposed to changing my mind after I peruse a little.
Speaking with the cheesemonger can also be a good way to learn a little about cheese (they may be able to help you put a group of cheeses together) and about what's good at the time you're shopping.

Yes, cheese is actually seasonal! It was originally a way to preserve milk for year-round consumption. However, things have changed a little for many cheeses so that they're produced year-round, or so that there's enough cheese produced for the whole year. Supply and demand, you know.

A cheese board could be created with a theme in mind: French, Italian, Sheep, Cow, Climate, Age...

There aren't necessarily any hard and fast rules about cheese boards (because I said so), however there are some guidelines that are occasionally helpful (like maybe choosing one cheese out of each of the "categories").

Here are some ideas for a cheese board:

Wenslydale with cranberries

Nuts: almonds, pecans, walnuts, pistachios
Fruit: apples, pears, grapes, figs (fresh and dried), dates, dried apricots, dried cranberries or cherries, membrillo (quince paste, but it makes me think of Don Quixote)

Jam, chutney
Sausage, prosciutto
Sun-dried tomatoes
Honey (it's good with blues and Parmesan!)

French bread (crusty! fresh!)


Remember to take the cheeses out of the refrigerator an hour or two before serving so they have a chance to warm up- the flavor will be better if they're at room temperature!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Pumpkin Gnocchi with Brown Butter and Sage Sauce

In the fall I really like pumpkin.

Pies, breads, scones, roasted squash with butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon, roasted with potatoes, olive oil, salt and pepper, in risotto, with pastas...

If you've never made (or eaten!) gnocchi, maybe it's time you did.
These little potato dumplings are great on a cool evening, and they're even better with the classic pumpkin/brown butter/sage combination.

Be careful when cutting the squash! It's harder than you might expect and you don't want to accidentally slip and cut yourself.

I will say that this is one of those things that if I decide to take the time for it, I go all out and make quite a bit of it. It's slightly time consuming, and a process (like tamales or Chinese steamed buns), so it's one of those things that's made only a couple of times per year- if that many times!

That said, they don't have to be perfect. In fact, they probably taste better if they don't look perfect.

The original recipe is from Bon Appetit, and this is my version of it.

When making the sauce, you want to cook the butter to a nice, nutty golden brown- beurre noisette. It will even smell nutty! The milk solids in the butter separate and sink to the bottom of the pan. Those are the bits that change color and give the flavor, not the oil part of the butter.

Beurre noisette is good for many things in cooking and baking, and adds another dimension of flavor to whatever you're making. You want the butter to reach the "nutty" color, so it will have a nutty flavor, but you have to be careful not to overcook and burn it!

Pumpkin Gnocchi
makes about 4 lbs.

1 butternut squash, about 2 1/5 lb.
1 T olive or vegetable oil
2 lb. russet potatoes
2 large eggs, slightly beaten
3/4 c Parmesan cheese
2 t (fresh) ground nutmeg
1 1/2 t salt
2 1/2 c flour

12 T butter
40 sage leaves, torn or chopped just before adding to melted butter
salt and pepper to taste
grated Parmesan cheese, for serving

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
Cut squash in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. Place squash, cut side up, on a sheet pan and brush the cut side with oil. Bake in the oven about 1 1/2 hours, until soft and browned in spots. Cool slightly. Scoop the flesh from the squash and puree in a food processor until smooth. If the squash is slightly damp and watery, transfer to a medium saucepan and heat, stirring constantly until the juices evaporate and the puree thickens, about 5 minutes. Cool and measure 2 packed cups.
While squash is cooking, cook the potato in a medium saucepan of boiling salted water until very tender, about 20 minutes. Drain. While potato is still warm, press it through a ricer into a medium bowl and let cool completely.
Measure 4 loosely packed cups of riced potato and place in a large bowl with the measured squash, 3/4 c Parmesan cheese, eggs, nutmeg, and salt. Mix. Gradually add the flour, kneading gently in the bowl until the mixture holds together and is almost smooth. If it is very sticky, add more flour by tablespoonfuls. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead gently but briefly until smooth. Cut the dough into 10-12 pieces.
Line 3 large baking sheets with parchment paper and sprinkle lightly with flour. Cut off a piece of the dough and roll into a 1/2 inch thick rope on a floured surface. Cut the rope crosswise into 3/4 inch pieces. Working with one piece at a time, roll gnocchi along the back of fork tines dipped in flour, making ridges on one side. Transfer the gnocchi to a baking sheet and repeat with remaining dough. Cover the sheets loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least an hour.
(*These can be made up to 6 hours ahead- keep chilled.)
Working with one baking sheet at a time, cook the gnocchi in a large pot of boiling salted water until very tender, 15-17 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the cooked gnocchi back to the parchment-lined baking sheets. Let cool.
(*The gnocchi can be cooked up to 8 hours ahead, re-cover with plastic after cooling, and refrigerate.)
Melt half the butter in a large, heavy skillet over medium heat. Cook, stirring often until golden, about 3-4 minutes. Add half the chopped sage and stir 1 minute. Add half the gnocchi, cook until heated through and coated with butter, 5-7 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer to a bowl and sprinkle with extra grated Parmesan cheese.