Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Labor under no illusion

I know the turkey is the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving day meal. And I like turkey, especially when it's brined and golden brown and juicy. Don't get me wrong.

But I labor under no illusion that Thanksgiving is about anything more than mashed potatoes. Oh sure, the holiday is about giving thanks, being grateful for what we have, breaking bread with loved ones. But it is mostly about potatoes. Pounds of them. Mashed with full-fat dairy.

And so. In the spirit of the Mashed Potato Club -- one of my favorite restaurants (now closed) that we used to frequent when I lived in Chicago -- this year I sought something interesting and maybe unexpected to add to my potatoes. The Mashed Potato Club was fabulous for its flamboyantly gay waiters and its hi-hat bass-thumping dance music atmosphere. It was also fabulous for its menu: rich mashed potatoes topped with any combination of nearly limitless toppings. I used to order mine with tomato, chiffonade of basil, grilled portobello mushrooms and mozzarella cheese. Which I washed down with several (many) cosmopolitans. It was a scene.

Though my kitchen does not resemble a gay bar-slash-mashed potato restaurant, I can keep the decadent memory of the Mashed Potato Club alive nevertheless. All I have to do is whip up a batch of these caramelized onion, shallot and brie mashed potatoes. While listening to Rent. If I had a disco ball, a mural of a naked gent and a mesh-clad Boystown resident to serve me drinks, I'd be in business.

But I digress. I'm guessing the majority of you out there can eat a plate of mashed potatoes without thinking of the soundtrack to Evita. Most of you quite reasonably associate mashed potatoes with Thanksgiving or with a rustic home-cooked dinner. And that's wonderful, too, as these potatoes will add an unexpected flair to the traditional Thanksgiving meal. Your guests are most likely expecting potatoes. They might not be expecting a mash laced with deeply caramelized onions and the mild, smooth flavor of brie.

Go ahead: mix it up. Even though Thanksgiving dinner truly is all about the potatoes, there's nothing that says they have to be plain.



2 1/2 lbs. potatoes (whatever variety you like), peeled and cut into large cubes
2 T. olive oil
1/2 large white onion, thinly sliced
1/2 shallot, thinly sliced
1/4 t. kosher salt, plus more to taste
1/2 c. (1 stick) unsalted butter
3/4 c. skim milk
1/4 c. sour cream
8 oz. brie, rind removed, cubed
Freshly-cracked pepper to taste

Place the potatoes in a large pot of cold water, then place over medium-high heat. Cook the potatoes until they are fork-tender, which takes 10-15 minutes after the water comes to a boil.

While the potatoes are cooking, place the olive oil in a large skillet (I prefer cast iron) over medium heat. Add the onion and shallot and cook, stirring frequently, until the onions begin to take on color. About 15 minutes into the cooking, add the 1/4 t. salt to the onion mixture. Cook an additional 5-10 minutes, stirring frequently, until the onions are deeply caramelized but not burnt. (Turn down the heat if they begin to burn.)

Remove the onions from the heat and allow them to cool slightly. Place the onions in a food processor and pulse until they form a very smooth paste. Set aside.

In a small saucepan, combine the butter and skim milk and warm, over low heat, until the butter melts.

When the potatoes are fork-tender, drain them and return them to the cooking pot. Mash them using a ricer (my favorite method) or an old-fashioned potato masher. Add the butter mixture to the mashed potatoes and stir to combine. Add the brie and stir to combine. Add the sour cream and the pureed caramelized onions, stirring to combine. Season to taste with additional kosher salt and black pepper; serve immediately.

Makes 8 servings. Or, like, 3 servings, if you're wearing your traditional Thanksgiving spreadin'-out clothes.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Calorically Acceptable Thanksgiving Side Dish

It is November 10.

Somehow the calendar has advanced itself very close to Thanksgiving and nearly to the end of the year. Though it seems like the beginning of May was just a few weeks ago, alas, here we find ourselves...older, (perhaps) wiser, knocking on the holiday season's door once again. Where does the time go?

Well I for one know that I've spent the majority of this year baking bread. You'd be surprised at how quickly time flies while you're waiting for yeast to do its thing. But beyond that and a massive trip to Australia, I don't have much to show for 2009 -- except my home and my wonderful husband and my sweet dog. And now that I've written that down, it appears that I have an awful lot to show for 2009. An awful lot that counts. Here's hoping for a multitude of blessings in your life as well, dear reader.

And speaking of giving thanks, now's also the time to start talking about Thanksgiving dinner. It's time to order the turkey, to plan, to cook, to locate your spreadin'-out clothes in the back of the closet, to salivate in an inappropriate fashion. To help you plan for the big day, I've put together a collection of Stove With A House recipes that will fit in nicely on your Thanksgiving table -- whether you're hosting an army or need a dish to take to someone else's feast. Just click on the "Tasty Thanksgiving Recipes" link over there on the right and have a look. Happy cooking!

To kick off the season today, I'd like to share a recipe for twice-baked cauliflower that I dreamed up on my birthday. Husband took me to Downtown 140 for an amazing and absolutely filling multi-course extravaganza. There was an elaborate cheese course, and chicken curry spring rolls with a perfect cilantro sauce, and grilled heads of romaine with Parmigiano-Reggiano, and a rare steak for Husband, and Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee. Then there was my delectable entree: almond-crusted scallops with pomegranate served atop cauliflower mash. It was divine, and it got me thinking that I do not eat enough cauliflower.

I should be making more cauliflower mash at home, I thought while savoring my deeply caramelized scallops, especially since it is much healthier than mashed potatoes yet strikingly similar in taste and texture. But a few days later, after sending Husband to the store to pick up a head of cauliflower, I determined that I wanted something a little more exciting than a simple puree -- especially if I was to serve it during the holidays. I wanted to add just enough dairy goodness to elevate the humble cauliflower from Healthy Vegetable to Calorically Acceptable Thanksgiving Side Dish. You are planning on exercising that Thursday morning, right?

So I roasted the florets until they were brown and crispy, pureed them with butter and cream, then baked them again with panko and Manchego and a pinch of cayenne. Though Husband and I enjoyed the twice-baked cauliflower with coriander-dusted chicken paillards and a bit of sauteed spinach, it will also pair perfectly with a Thanksgiving turkey. And it will fit right in alongside the rest of the Thanksgiving side dishes, all gooey and crispy and browned in a casserole dish.

All gooey and crispy and browned in a casserole dish. I knew there was a reason I love Fall.



I like to make this dish in individual oven-proof dishes, but you can, of course, bake the whole thing in a large casserole and spoon out individual servings. I just like my tiny yellow Pyrex baking dishes and use them whenever possible.

1 head cauliflower, cut into florets
3 T. olive oil
1/2 t. black pepper
1 t. sea salt
1/2 t. dried thyme
1/2 c. heavy cream
4 T. unsalted butter
Pinch cayenne
1/2 c. panko
4 oz. Manchego cheese, shredded

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Place the cauliflower, olive oil, black pepper, sea salt and thyme in a baking dish and toss to combine. Roast until the florets are tender and brown and crispy on the edges, about 50 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool slightly; leave the oven on.

While the cauliflower is cooling, heat the heavy cream and butter in a small saucepan over low heat until the butter is melted. Remove from the heat.

Place the cauliflower and the cream-butter mixture in a Cuisinart
. Add the cayenne and process until the mixture comes together and the cauliflower is chopped into tiny pieces -- it shouldn't be completely smooth; I like a little bit of texture.

Divide the cauliflower mixture into 4 single-serve oven-proof dishes.

Top each dish with 1/8 c. of the panko and 1 oz. of the Manchego cheese. (Alternatively, if you aren't using individual baking dishes, add the entire cauliflower mixture to one large baking dish and top with the entirety of the panko and Manchego.)

Bake for 20 minutes, until the cheese is bubbly and enticing.

Makes 4 servings.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Not just on the last day of October

Halloween is over. My nephews -- one a ninja, one a wizard -- have multiple cavities. I've hung up my Sue Sylvester costume, tucking the whistle and stopwatch into a drawer. I've consumed every tiny Snickers in a tri-county area. (Aside: Why do they call the tiny Snickers "fun size"? It is less fun to have a small Snickers. From now on, I shall refer to them as "penalty size.") The battery-operated purple skull lights are now 75% off at Target. Tricks, treats: your time has gone.

Except. I made some candies on Sunday, the day after Halloween. I wanted to make them for Halloween, but didn't quite get around to it. Then I decided: candy is good each day of the year, not just on the last day of October. So I made them anyway and would like to share them with you today, even though you're probably now plotting and planning for Thanksgiving dinner as thoughts of jack o'lanterns and ghosts recede like the waning hours of sunlight.

These candies are sophisticated and grown-up; a peanut butter cup for the big kids. They look a little strange, and sound a little bit like they wouldn't be any good. But they are amazing.

The dark filling is comprised of toasted black sesame seeds, regular sesame seeds, caraway, rosemary, honey and powdered sugar. I experimented with the recipe a bit -- which originally called for dark chocolate to enrobe the filling -- discovering that milk chocolate complements the complex flavors of the subtle, vaguely Middle Eastern filling much better. The dark chocolate fights it too much; milk chocolate covers the filling with a sweetness that recedes on the tongue, allowing the eater to focus on the surprising flavors inside. And if there's anything I need from a candy, it's focus.

I was expecting to have these candies on hand for awhile, as the recipe makes 24 and they keep for several weeks. But then yesterday Sister and Nephews and Mom stopped by. More than half the dish was empty by the time they were done with them, my four-year-old nephew embracing the more sophisticated flavors like a little gourmand. "I like it, Aunt Dianne. I want another one." My seven-year-old nephew wasn't quite as into it: "No offense, but I don't like it. It's my taste buds." Never let it be said those boys can't honestly articulate their thoughts.

Even though they're incredibly rich, I'm finding myself reaching for these professional-looking candies more often than I'm reaching for the leftover penalty-size Snickers. I like that they're a little strange and dark, a little like a hallowed eve. But as I've already stated, I'd be just as happy to get one of these sweets in my Christmas stocking. Or in my Easter basket. Or on Tu B'Shevat.

Homemade candy knows no season.


Adapted from Karen Solomon, The San Francisco Chronicle

I found that the best way to get a really smooth and professional look for these candies was to use a squeeze bottle to dispense the chocolate.

About the black sesame seeds: If you can't find them, you can substitute regular sesame seeds. But the resulting candies won't be as dark and cool-looking. You can also use any mix of black and regular sesame seeds, as long as it adds up to the full 1 1/3 cup measure. There's a specialty spice shop in my town that carries the black sesame seeds and I was able to buy about a cup's worth for a little less than $5.

1 c. black sesame seeds
1/3 c. sesame seeds
4 t. honey
2 T. canola oil
3 T. powdered sugar
1 t. dried rosemary (or 1 1/2 t. fresh rosemary, finely chopped)
1/2 t. caraway seeds
1/2 t. kosher salt
26 1/2 oz. milk chocolate (I used 6 of Hershey's 4.4-oz. milk chocolate bars)

In a large heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat, toast the sesame seeds for about 3 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from the heat when the seeds start to pop; take care not to burn the sesame seeds. Allow the seeds to cool to room temperature.

In the work bowl of a food processor, combine the toasted sesame seeds, honey, canola oil, powdered sugar, rosemary, caraway seeds and salt. Blend until extremely smooth, 5-8 minutes, frequently stopping to scrape down the inside of the bowl with a rubber spatula. The filling will come together into a black paste.

Place mini cupcake liners into the wells of a muffin tin.

Take about 1 teaspoon of the sesame filling and roll it into a ball between your palms, then flatten it into a disc that will fit into the bottoms of the paper liners without touching the sides. Set the discs on a cookie sheet while you roll and shape the rest of the filling.

Place the chocolate in a heat-proof bowl set over a simmering pot of water. Allow the chocolate to melt, stirring occasionally, until it is smooth. Remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly before transferring into a squeeze bottle.

Squeeze enough chocolate to coat the bottoms of the paper liners, tapping the pan gently to smooth out the chocolate. Then squeeze a "border" of chocolate around the perimeter of the bottom of the liners.

Nestle one piece of filling into each liner.

Pipe chocolate around the sides and top of the filling. Lightly tap the pan to smooth out the chocolate; pipe in a little more chocolate to level out the candies, if necessary.

Allow to set at room temperature until the chocolate is completely firm, 12-16 hours. Do not refrigerate or freeze. Your patience will be rewarded.

Makes 24 candies that can be stored at room temperature for up to 2 weeks in an airtight container. If they last that long!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Bread Baker's Apprentice 15/43: Italian bread

Today I bring you a very special episode of the Bread Baker's Apprentice challenge. No, it doesn't involve Meredith Baxter Birney and has nothing to do with that one episode of "Family Ties" where Alex P. Keaton's friend died and he spent most of the episode reciting a monologue into the camera while the kitchen set behind him faded to black.*

No, this Italian bread is very special because Husband baked it.

OK, he didn't really bake it. But he did divide the pre-ferment (in this case, a biga) into 10 equal pieces that I then could incorporate into the bread dough. When I arrived home and the biga pieces were cut and ready to go, Husband stated plainly, "See? I'm baking. You're welcome."

And am I ever glad he decided to bake. Peter Reinhart's Italian bread is amazing...simply amazing. I do not wish to overstate it, but really, this is (so far) my favorite recipe from The Bread Baker's Apprentice, hands down. It's so good that I've already made it twice this week. It is my new go-to homemade bread.

The method involves making the aforementioned biga, letting it proof, then allowing it to chill in the refrigerator at least overnight. Then you ask your husband to cut it into 10 pieces for you. Then you mix those pieces with bread flour, salt, sugar, yeast, diastatic malt powder, olive oil and water. Some mixing, some kneading, some proofing, some hearth baking, some magic.

This Italian bread is crusty on the outside, tender on the inside. It's wonderful to eat spread with soft butter, toasted with oil, black pepper and garlic powder, fried in a skillet with an over-medium egg or just torn off the loaf in big, unseemly hunks. I took two loaves to Sister's house last night to serve with her trick-or-treat night feast (this year she made chicken noodle and winter vegetable soups). Husband couldn't come along, as he was working, and it was all I could do to save him a few pieces. I've not seen two loaves of bread disappear so quickly in quite some time.

I'm very pleased Husband's foray into bread-baking turned out so well. Next, he shall learn to shape Kaiser rolls.

*I did not fully appreciate this in the 1980s, but the Keatons had a really bitchin' stove.


The Bread Baker's Apprentice challenge does not wish for us to share Reinhart's recipes. However, even if you don't have anyone to divide your biga for you, get yourself to page 172 of the book and start working. I'm even thinking of starting a few more loaves today -- even though I baked two yesterday. Peter Reinhart's Italian bread = seriously addictive.

And I'm not the only one who thinks so. Check out some of my fellow Bread Bakers' takes on delicious Italian bread:
PS. I'm submitting this post to Yeastspotting, because of all the yeast I've personally spotted in the past year, this has been my favorite.