Monday, October 29, 2012

Lasagna Soup with Herbed Garlic Focaccia Bread

When I started experimenting with cooking in my early 20s, I was in the midst of my English-teaching experience in China.  My little apartment was blazing hot in the summer and freezing in winter, so I didn't do much cooking in the summer, but made many pots of soup for warming lunches and dinners throughout the winter.

A pot of soup simmered on Sunday evening would easily see me through the week, and it never really occurred to me to get bored eating the same thing almost every day.

One winter, I was craving lasagna, but wasn't able to get some of the crucial ingredients in China, such as ricotta cheese (before I knew how to make it myself) and lasagna noodles.  So I came up with a soup recipe that incorporated all the flavors of lasagna, in a thick, savory soup.  Ground beef browned with onions, baby bella mushrooms and garlic, a rich tomato base, baby spinach, and lots of oregano and crushed red pepper.

I add the noodles at the end - this time we used a fun, trumpet-shaped noodle called Campanelle which Jamie picked out - and as soon as the pasta is cooked, the soup is ready.  Of course, since lasagna isn't complete without cheese, we topped off our bowls with a sprinkling of mozzarella.

The other English teachers and I would all cram into one apartment - 10-12 people squeezed around a table intended for 6 - and we'd finish off every last bit of the soup, along with stacks of buttered garlic bread and bowls of salad.

I made this soup for dinner the other night, it was every bit as wonderful as I remembered from those cold winters in China.  Instead of garlic bread toasted under the broiler, I tried a recipe for focaccia, adding minced garlic and chopped herbs to the dough, as well as a few sprinkled on top.  The bread was very soft, and so good warm from the oven.

Those years oversees made me realize how spoiled I was in the US.  In China, I learned how to make a comfy and inviting home in an apartment where the heat was regulated by the government, where I found icicles dripping out of my faucet one Christmas morning and ants inside my refrigerator, where I had no hot water in the kitchen for washing dishes.  A two-burner propane cook-top, a microwave and an oven only large enough to bake 6 cookies at a time were my only pieces of kitchen equipment.  These were the days when I didn't own a car or a cell phone, and neither seemed all that necessary at the time.

And yet, in spite of the lack of American comforts, we were treated much better than the Chinese teachers.  Better pay, better apartment furnishings (we had carpeting, real beds and privacy; they got concrete, rickety cots and an apartment they shared with 2-3 other teachers).  The longer I lived there, the more I embraced the culture and the less I had to complain about.

All of this makes me so thankful now that I have a cozy home, reminding me to be grateful for a beautiful condo when I find myself wishing we were in a house.  Thankful for a home where I can turn the AC or heat up or down if I'm hot or cold, a home free of ants and mice, hot water in my kitchen, and someone to come home to every day...

Lasagna Soup
printable recipe
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 pound lean ground beef (93/7)
  • 1 sweet yellow onion, diced
  • 4 baby bella mushrooms, chopped
  • salt and pepper
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 29-ounce can tomato sauce
  • 1 29-ounce can stewed tomatoes in Italian spices
  • 5 ounces (about 2 cups) fresh baby spinach leaves
  • 2 cups water
  • 1/2 pound bite-sized pasta, such as Farfalle, Rotini, Penne, Shell, Campanelle, etc...
  • 1 1/2 cups grated Mozzarella cheese

Heat the oil over medium heat in a large stock pot.  Add the beef, using a wooden spoon to break it up; brown for about 5 minutes.  Add the onions and mushrooms, with a good pinch of salt and pepper.  Cook until the beef is completely browned and the vegetables are softened, 7-8 minutes.  Stir in the garlic, spices and flour.

Add the tomato sauce, stewed tomatoes, spinach and water.  Bring to a boil, then cover, reduce to medium low and simmer for 30 minutes, until the flavors have developed.  Taste and adjust seasoning as you like.

Add the pasta and simmer uncovered, until the pasta is cooked al dente.  Serve garnished with the mozzarella.

Note: This soup is fantastic leftover.  Since the pasta will absorb moisture which will thicken the soup, you may need to add more water the following day when you reheat it, to return it to a "soupy" consistency.

Yields about 6 servings

Recipe from Curly Girl Kitchen

Herbed Garlic Focaccia Bread
printable recipe
  • 1/2 cup warm 2% milk (70° to 80°)
  • 2 tablespoons warm water (70° to 80°)
  • 1 teaspoon active dry yeast
  • 1 2/3 cup bread flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons butter, softened
  • 1 egg
  • 2 teaspoons minced fresh rosemary, sage and thyme, plus extra for sprinkling on top
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • Cracked black pepper

Combine the milk, water and yeast in a mixing bowl – let stand for 5 minutes until foamy.

In a separate bowl, combine the flour, salt and sugar  Add the flour mixture, butter, egg, herbs and garlic to the mixing bowl.  Knead with the dough hook for approximately 5 minutes, until the dough is soft and elastic (it will be sticking to the bottom of the bowl and will not form a tight dough ball).

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and sprinkle lightly with flour.  Turn the dough out onto the baking sheet and shape into an 8-inch circle. Cover with a towel and let rise in a warm place until doubled, about 30-40 minutes.

Using the end of a wooden spoon handle, make 1/4-in. indentations in dough. Brush with oil, then sprinkle with additional chopped herbs and cracked black pepper.

Bake at 400° for 12-15 minutes or until golden brown. Cut or tear into 6 wedges.

Yields 6 servings.

Adapted from Taste of Home

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Tie-Dye Starburst Skittle Birthday Cake

My 30th birthday was memorable, but not for the usual reasons that most people might think of.  My second niece had just been born 3 days before, so with my sister still in the hospital, there was no party, no bar-hopping downtown, no night out with friends.  Instead we had dessert and a few presents with our parents and her in-laws, all crowded into her hospital room.  The focus was kind of on the baby, though, which was okay.  A new life is more important than my 30 years.  But It didn’t really feel like my birthday, and I definitely didn’t feel 30.

The very next year I met Jamie, and lucky for me, he likes to celebrate birthdays as much as I do, and always comes up with weekend adventures to mark the occasion, like wine tasting in the vineyards in southwest Colorado.  Since birthdays are usually a bigger deal for kids, it’s nice to still get a special day every year as an adult.

This week, a friend turned 30, so to celebrate, a group of us all went to see Jon Lovitz at Comedy Works in Denver, followed by a party in the lounge next door.  Her husband commissioned me to make her birthday cake, asking only if I could do something with Starbursts and Skittles – her favorite candy.

At first I had no idea what I was going to do, but then thought that a few square cakes, stacked and frosted different candy colors, would resemble giant Starbursts.  To actually incorporate the flavor of the candy into the cake, I melted some of the candy with water, then boiled it down into a syrup.  After cooling and straining the syrup (there is fat in the candy which will float to the top and solidify after boiling and cooling it), I added the syrup to the frosting for color and flavor.

For more color, I dyed the cake batter 6 different colors for a tie-dye effect; this technique is all over the internet, so I can’t take credit for this idea.  In retrospect, I would have used a darker color than yellow for the middle color, since when you cut it, the middle will be the most prevalent color, with all the other colors showing as stripes around the edges.  The only photo I was able to get of the cake after it was cut was in the bar, and it wasn't a great photo, but you get the idea!

And other than a crazy lady in the bar who thought that that my offer of Would you like some cake? meant Go away because I think you’re trying to steal my boyfriend, and a guy obsessed with my expandable/collapsible cake carrier (I eventually had to tell him it wasn’t a toy and take it away from him after he opened and closed it at least 15 times), it was a really fun night.

Happy 30th Birthday, Tani!

Tie-Dye Starburst Skittle Birthday Cake
printable recipe

  • Assorted Starbursts and Skittles
  • 3 square cake pans for the cake as pictured here, one 9-inch pan, one 6-inch pan and one 4-inch pan – NOTE: You will probably not be able to use all the batter between these 3 pans, so have another extra pan handy to bake the rest of the cake batter for either a spare cake for yourself, or to crumble and make cake truffles.  And if you don’t have the right sized pans, just bake the cakes in the pans you have and cut the cakes to the right proportions, keeping in mind, though, that a cut edge is more difficult to frost since it’s more crumbly.
  • 2 white cake mixes, plus oil, eggs and water (I use whole milk, though, instead of water, or sour cream, and add vanilla extract) called for on the box
  • Gel Food Coloring
  • 6 cups Vanilla Buttercream

Starburst Frosting:
If you want to incorporate the candy into the frosting like I did, then you’ll need to do this step a day in advance.  Separate all the candy by color/flavor.  You’ll need to select 3 different colors (about 20 pieces of each color) to make your syrup.  Unwrap the candy and place each color in a separate saucepan.  Add water so the candy is covered by about an inch of water.  Bring to a boil over medium heat, then boil over medium low, stirring occasionally, until syrupy and reduced, about 30 minutes.  Pour into heat-proof containers and cool on the kitchen counter overnight.

The next morning, you should see a layer of fat on top of the surface that separates from the syrup as it cools.  Scrape the fat solids off, and pour the syrup through a fine mesh strainer to remove the rest of the solids.  The syrups are now ready to use.

For this cake, I made about 6 cups of vanilla buttercream, and whipped in the syrup in place of the milk.  I was able to add a lot of syrup, but just start with a little and keep adding it to achieve the flavor and color you want.  If you like, you can enhance the color with some more food coloring as well, if it’s not dark enough.  Plan on making about 3 cups of 1 color for the bottom layer, 2 cups of a second color for the middle layer and 1 cup of the 3rd color for the top layer.

If you don’t want to make the Starburst syrup, then you can make other flavors like Lemon, Lime and Raspberry, using the tips in my Buttercream post.

Tie-Dye Cake:
Making a tie-dye cake is really simple, and it’s an idea that’s been around for a while.  First, mix up your cake batter according to the instructions on the box.  I like to substitute milk or sour cream, and add vanilla, which greatly improves the flavor of boxed mixes.  Divide the batter between 6 bowls.

Tint each bowl of batter with a different color of food coloring.  Take one bowl of batter and spoon it into the center of the pans.  Take the second color and spoon it directly on top of the first; the batter you add on top will spread out the batter underneath, so there’s no need for you to try to spread it out.  Continue with all the colors, noting that the last color you add in the middle will be the most prevalent.

Bake the cakes and cool completely.

Level the cakes with a sharp knife or leveler.  Place the 9-inch cake on a 12-inch cake board.  Frost all over with one color of buttercream.  Place the 6-inch cake on top, at a diagonal.  Frost with the 2nd color of buttercream, being careful not to mix with the color on the bottom layer.  Repeat with the 4-inch cake on top.

Use any extra buttercream to pipe decorative edges on the cakes, then decorate with candy.

Yields 25-30 servings.

Recipe and Design from Curly Girl Kitchen

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Walnut Cranberry Puff Pastry Swirls

When perusing the assortment of cheese at the “fancy” cheese counter at our grocery store, I’m smitten by the jars of preserves and honey on the shelf above the cheese, where they also sometimes have samples of cheese for tasting under domed lids.  Specialty fruit pastes and chutneys, nut butters, orange blossom honey, crackers and summer sausage gaze down temptingly, and the only thing stopping them from jumping into my shopping cart are the steep price tags.

The other day, though, a jar of Artisan Walnut Preserves caught my eye, and I needed to know what it was.  I’m not really a walnut person – I think they’re a little bitter – and I prefer pecans.  But this sounded unusual, and, I hoped, delicious too, so I brought a jar home.

When I opened the jar, it wasn’t at all what I was expecting.  I thought it would be thick and pasty, maybe like almond butter, but inside the jar was an ultra sweet, dark syrup, with whole preserved soft walnuts floating in the syrup.  It was a little weird.

I dumped the contents of the jar into the food processor and pureed it until it was as smooth and pasty as I could get it, so that at least it was in a form that I would be able to use.  The flavor was rich and intense, walnut-y, and sweet (if not a little too sweet), but I knew the texture and taste would be fantastic with pastry.

On a cold Saturday a few weekends ago (one of those wonderful “pajama days” at home that you know I love...), the day after our first snow this fall, we ate a late breakfast, followed by a movie marathon of all three Matrix movies (which is a little too much Matrix for me, so I read a book during most of it).

That afternoon, it was too late for lunch and too early for dinner, but we were hungry again, so we snacked on pickles and sliced deli turkey while I thawed out a sheet of puff pastry from the freezer.  When the pastry was ready, I spread it with a thin layer of the walnut paste, followed by a handful of dried cranberries and a slight sprinkling of bittersweet chocolate.  Rolled up and sliced like cinnamon rolls, they baked up golden and puffy.  Hot from the oven their crisp exterior and creamy swirled layers melted in our mouths.

Jamie happily ate a few before I told him I’d made them with the walnut preserves that he had thought were so strange.  But at least I didn’t try to sneak beets into them, like he has done with braised beef and vegetable dishes…  I always detect the beets.

These puff pastry swirls would be a wonderful appetizer at a party, as long as they’re served right away, and there are so many possible variations.  Any type of fruit or nut paste can be used, and I’ve also made a savory version with spinach, herbs and feta. 

Later that evening after the sun had set, and the streetlights outside reflected on the shiny pavement dampened from a cold, fall rain, we made spiced pumpkin potato soup for dinner, along with grilled sandwiches with chicken, sliced green apple, Parmesan cheese, shallots and bacon.  It was a warm, relaxing end to a quiet day.

Pumpkin Potato Soup
printable recipe
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 medium or 2 small shallots, minced
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 4 small red potatoes, diced
  • 3 cups chicken broth
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried orange peel
  • 1 can (14 ounces) canned pumpkin
  • 1 can (12 ounces) evaporated milk
  • 1 tablespoon molasses
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

Heat the olive oil in a stock pot over medium heat.  Add the shallot and cook for 2-3 minutes until softened.  Add the garlic, potatoes, chicken broth, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves and orange peel.  Bring to a boil over medium heat and simmer until the potatoes are softened, about 15-20 minutes.

Add the pumpkin, evaporated milk and molasses, then season to taste with salt and pepper.  Simmer over medium low (don't boil) for 10-15 minutes, until the flavors have married.  If desired, puree with an immersion blender, or leave the potatoes chunky.  Just before serving, stir in the apple cider vinegar.

Garnish with slices of tart green apple and a drizzle of cream.

Yields 4 servings.

Recipe from Curly Girl Kitchen

Grilled Chicken and Parmesan Sandwich
printable recipe

  • 2 chicken breasts, butterflied into 4 thin pieces and cooked, seasoned with salt and pepper
  • olive oil
  • 8 slices bread
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil mayonnaise
  • Parmesan cheese, grated or thinly sliced
  • 1 tart green apple (Granny Smith), cored and thinly sliced
  • 1 shallot, thinly sliced

Heat the olive oil on a griddle over medium heat.  Spread one side of each piece of bread with the mayonnaise.  Place half the Parmesan on the bread, then the shallot, green apple, chicken and the rest of the Parmesan.  Top with the other slices of bread.  Secure with toothpicks if needed.

Grill the sandwiches on each side until golden brown and crisp.  Serve immediately with the soup.

Yields 4 servings.

Recipe from Curly Girl Kitchen 

Walnut Cranberry Puff Pastry Swirls
printable recipe
  • 1 sheet frozen puff pastry, thawed
  • 1/3 cup walnut preserves
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried orange peel
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup dried cranberries
  • 1 ounce dark chocolate, finely chopped
  • 1egg
  • 1 teaspoon water
  • freshly grated nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 400.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

On a lightly floured surface, roll the puff pastry to 1/4 inch thick.  In a small bowl, combine the walnut preserves, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, orange peel and salt.  Spread over the pastry.  Sprinkle with the cranberries and chocolate.

Roll the pastry up, and slice into 8 slices.  Place the slices, cut side up, on the baking sheet.

Whisk together the egg and water, then lightly brush over the top and sides of the pastry.  Bake until puffed and golden brown, about 18-20 minutes.

Serve immediately, sprinkled with freshly grated nutmeg.

Yields 8 swirls.

Recipe from Curly Girl Kitchen

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

My Boyfriend Cooks Too...

Beautiful and fresh shrimp spring rolls for dinner, with carrots, purple cabbage and sunflower greens, and a hoison lime dipping sauce...

I'm so lucky.  :)

Monday, October 22, 2012

Melted Witch Cake for Halloween

Halloween is a holiday that my family didn’t acknowledge or celebrate when I was growing up, but with my love of all things holiday-ish (except for St Patrick’s Day – I really couldn’t care less about that one), Halloween is something that I really love getting into now, with the pumpkin carving, the ghoulish, but not too scary, decorations and treats, and all the kids in cute costumes.

My idea of Halloween is more Martha Stewart-ish – a more charming, autumn-inspired Halloween than a creepy gory one – but I think Jamie’s just waiting for when we have a house and he can do things like plant fake skeleton bones in the yard alongside my pretty pumpkin flower planters.

The scary movies playing on TV throughout all of October, though…  I could totally do without those, but Jamie loves them.  Since he’s agreed to go to The Nutcracker at the Denver ballet this December, he says a fair trade is for me to see Paranormal Activity 4 with him.  Sigh.  The things I have to do to see a ballet.

For a while I’ve been mulling over an idea for a cake for Halloween – a melted witch cake, with ganache poured over an upside down sugar cone placed on top of a cake, to look like a witch melted all over the cake leaving nothing but her hat.  On impulse, I also bought a package of gum paste with no idea how to use it, but thinking I might be able to create a few little pieces like a broom, a bucket and her shoes, to place on top of the cake and add to the illusion of her melting and leaving these things behind.

The cake, for starters, was phenomenal.  I baked my favorite homemade chocolate cake recipe and frosted it with a creamy, fluffy peanut butter buttercream, that despite its richness, tasted surprisingly light.  I could have happily eaten that chocolate peanut butter cake with no need for ganache on top, but the ganache was the foundation of my whole melted witch idea.

For the ganache, I used a dark, bittersweet chocolate to avoid it being too sweet, although for the look I was going for – all drippy down the sides – I should have thinned it out with more cream.  So my melted witch ended up oozing over the sides instead of dripping, but that’s okay.  :)

The gum paste was surprisingly easy to work with, and only requires a few tools:  a smooth silicone mat, cornstarch, shortening and food coloring.  Work with small pieces of paste so that it doesn’t dry out, and to keep the gum paste from sticking to your hands and everything else, dust the silicone mat lightly with cornstarch, then lightly grease your hands with shortening, so that you can knead and shape the paste.  I didn’t wear gloves to knead in the food coloring and it washed off my hands just fine.  After kneading in food coloring – a tiny drop at a time until the color was right – I just rolled and shaped it with my hands to make the broom, bucket and legs/shoes you see.  It was a lot like playing with Play Dough!  And while this stuff is technically edible, it doesn’t taste good, so these pieces were really just to look at.

The funny thing was, while I’d been wanting to make this cake for months, I could not have a whole cake sitting on the counter, so after Jamie and I shared the piece I cut for the photos, I cut the cake in half and wrapped it up to take to work.  Our coworkers were grateful!

Melted Witch Cake
printable recipe

Chocolate Cake:
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
  • 3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 tablespoon espresso powder
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla
  • 1 cup boiling water
Peanut Butter Buttercream:
  • 1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
  • 4 cups powdered sugar
  • 2 tablespoons meringue powder
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 4-5 tablespoons milk
  • 3/4 - 1 cup heavy cream
  • 6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
  • 1 small sugar ice cream cone
  • candy or edible garnishes (I molded the witch's broom, legs, shoes and bucket out of gum paste)

Make the Cake:
Preheat the oven to 350.  Prepare three 8-inch round pans by spraying the bottoms only with non-stick spray.  Line the bottom with a circle of parchment paper, then spray the parchment with non-stick spray.  Set aside.

In the bowl of your electric mixer, mix the flour, sugar, cocoa, espresso powder, baking soda, baking powder and salt on low speed with the paddle attachment, to combine.  Add the eggs, milk, oil and vanilla.  Mix on low speed for 30 seconds to combine, then beat for three minutes on medium speed.  Scrape the bowl down and gently stir in the boiling water – the batter will be very thin.

Divide batter between the pans.  Bake for 22-25 minutes, until the center of each cake springs back when gently touched and a toothpick comes out clean.  Set the pans on wire racks and cover loosely with a clean kitchen towel.  Cool completely in the pans.

Make the Buttercream:
In the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, combine the butter and peanut butter on medium low speed until smooth and combined.

In a separate bowl, combine the powdered sugar with the meringue powder.  With the mixer on low, add by spoonfuls, mixing to combine.  Add the vanilla and milk; increase speed to medium high and whip for 4-5 minutes, scraping the bowl down once or twice, whipping until very light and fluffy.  Set aside.

Frost the Cake:
Level the tops of the cakes and peel the parchment paper off the bottom.  Place one layer of cake on a 10-inch cake board (or directly on a serving pedestal).  Spread a ¼ inch layer of peanut butter buttercream on the cake.  Top with the second layer of cake, more buttercream, and the 3rd layer of cake.  Frost the cake all over with a thin crumb coat of buttercream, and refrigerate for 15 minutes.  Finish frosting the cake with the buttercream, swirling the sides as desired (the top of the cake will not show).

Make the Ganache:
Place the chopped bittersweet chocolate in a bowl and set aside.

In a saucepan, heat the cream gently over medium low heat, just until the edges begin to bubble.  Pour the hot cream over the chocolate; let stand for 3 minutes, then stir with a spatula until smooth.  If the ganache is too thin, let stand at room temperature for 5-10 minutes to thicken.

Final Assembly:
Place the sugar cone upside down, centered on top of the cake, gently pressed into the frosting.  I first placed a wooden skewer down the center, with the cone on top of the skewer, just to be sure that the cone wouldn’t topple over.

Pour the warm ganache over the cone and the top of the cake, letting it drip down the sides of the cake.  Let the ganache set for a few minutes at room temperature before garnishing with candy or other edible garnishes.  Refrigerate for 30 minutes to finish setting the ganache, then store, covered, at room temperature before serving.

If you have any leftover ganache, you can refrigerate it until firm, then roll it into balls and coat in cocoa powder or melted chocolate for truffles.

Recipe and Design from Curly Girl Kitchen