Thursday, May 28, 2015

Cheese Sausage Strata

Cheese Sausage Strata - made May 16, 2015 from Taste of Home
We had our monthly potluck lunch at church a couple of weekends ago and I tried another savory dish instead of a dessert. I know, shocking, right? But I was still trying to make sure we had enough “real food” as opposed to a dessert table at the potluck. I was tempted to do pasta again since it’s so easy, especially since my level of cooking means you buy a jar of sauce, some fresh pasta plus a few other random ingredients and throw them together. (Italian grandmothers just rolled in their graves.)
But I made myself do something only just slightly more involved with this strata. Truthfully, it’s really a savory bread pudding but strata sounds more complicated so that’s what I’m going with. Like a typical bread pudding, you cut the bread into cubes, soak it in a egg-milk mixture and bake until done. For the savory element, there’s not only no sugar in this but you also brown some ground beef or pork and add some cheese. I took some liberties with the original recipe and did a combination of lean ground beef and ground pork sausage. The cheese was the Quattro fromaggio I had leftover from the Cheesy Tortellini Bake from last time.
To illustrate how infrequently I cook, when I was scouring the depths of my freezer before I started this recipe, I kept unearthing half-full bags of frozen shredded cheeses I’d used for other cooking attempts. Cheddar Cheese. Parmesan Cheese. Mozzarella Cheese. Sadly, the most “recent” one had an expiration date of July 2014. Oops. I had to chuck them all to avoid food poisoning for the church folks. How would that have gone over?? Fortunately, the Quattro fromaggio was recent and well before its expiration date. I used it all up too so I wouldn’t find it in my freezer a year from now.
I thought this turned out pretty well. I timed the bake so that it would be done right before I left for church, covered it in foil and wrapped it in a thick beach towel to keep it warm, and stowed it in my trunk while I sat in church. After the hour-long service, I was pleasantly surprised that it was still warm enough to make handling the baking dish with my bare fingers a little dicey. Savory bread pudding is best served somewhat warm and this survived the length of time from oven to table remarkably well.

From a taste perspective, it might be a bit bland for most people’s taste buds but for mine, it was fine. If you want it a little more spicy, I’d suggest using a hot sausage or adding more spice to the ground beef. I left off the dry mustard in the original recipe since I don’t like mustard and I thought it tasted good without it. It seemed like a hit with the church folks too as by the time I left, there was only 1 piece left.
1 1/2 pounds bulk pork sausage
9 eggs, lightly beaten
3 cups milk
9 slices bread, cubed (I used a 1-pound loaf of challah)
1 1/2 cups (6 ounces) shredded cheddar cheese (I used quattro fromagio)
1/2 pound sliced bacon, cooked and crumbled
1 1/2 teaspoons ground mustard, optional
  1. In a large skillet, cook sausage over medium heat until no longer pink; drain. Add the eggs, milk, bread, cheese, bacon and mustard. Transfer to a greased shallow 3-quart baking dish. Cover and refrigerate overnight,
  2. Remove from the refrigerator 30 minutes before baking. Bake at 350 degrees F for 60-65 minutes or until a knife inserted near the center comes out clean. If it appears to be getting too brown but still isn't done, cover loosely with foil then remove foil for the last 5 minutes of baking. Let stand for at least 10 minutes before serving.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Buttermilk Biscoff Pancakes

Buttermilk Biscoff Pancakes - made May 17, 2015, adapted from The Biscoff Cookie & Spread Cookbook by Katrina Bahl
Continuing the cookie butter recipes. For a change of pace, let’s turn to breakfast food. I had high hopes for these pancakes because you know it goes without saying that it was another excuse to spread cookie butter onto something warm and let it melt before consuming. I do draw the line with my cookie butter obsession that I don’t eat it straight out of the jar. But that doesn’t mean I don’t look for something for the cookie butter to sit on while I consume it.
Unfortunately, these pancakes didn’t turn out the way I had expected. The first sign of trouble was how thick the batter was after I had mixed it. It had the density of a brownie batter. Not even the more fluid cake batter or the more liquid hallmark of a good pancake batter. Brownie batter. I knew it would come out too thick but I fried a pancake “as is” with how the recipe was listed even though I knew I should add more buttermilk to get a less dense pancake.
Turns out I was right. The pancake not only wasn’t thick because I couldn’t spread it thinly enough in the hot frying pan but it also cracked dry in the cooking. A thin layer of cookie butter hid those sins but because the batter was so dense and the pancake was so thick, I had to cook it awhile and it was a bit dry. Who the heck makes dry pancakes? Me.
2nd attempt
For the next try, I added more buttermilk to the remaining batter so I would guess I had doubled the buttermilk from the original recipe. The batter was still thick but not so dense. This one turned out more pancake-like but it was still pretty thick and came out more like a flat cake than a fluffy pancake. But the texture was still good. It just made for a generous portion and I couldn’t finish it all. The taste was good (c’mon, it’s cookie butter) though so this recipe is worth salvaging. I’d start with the buttermilk I’ve listed which is double the original recipe, then keep adding more until the batter is the consistency you want. Depending on how much you add, you might want to increase the baking soda by a ¼ to a ½ teaspoon as well to neutralize the acidity of the buttermilk and give the pancake a lighter texture.
I didn’t make the cookie butter syrup since I was good with just spreading a knife-ful of cookie butter over the pancake and letting it melt into gooey goodness. Either way, I think it’s a good complement to the pancake.
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup creamy Biscoff spread
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 eggs
  1. Whisk together dry ingrediens.
  2. Beat buttermilk, Biscoff spread, oil, vanilla extract and eggs until just combined.
  3. Add dry ingredients and mix until just combined.
  4. Heat frying pan or griddle over medium heat and spray lightly with nonstick cooking spray. Pour 1/2 cup of batter (more or less depending on the size of pancakes you want) into circle and let cook until edges are brown and bubbles form in the middle, 2-3 minutes,on one side before flipping over. If pancake is getting too brown, lower heat.
  5. Spread with cookie butter and serve warm.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Restaurant Review: Macaroni Grill

Macaroni Grill - lunch on May 11, 2015

For Mother’s Day lunch, I took my parents out to Macaroni Grill. We’ve been there before but don’t go that often since it’s farther afield than they normally like to go for lunch after church. Going out to eat on Mother’s Day is almost always an inevitably crowded affair since everyone takes their mom out for her day. We hadn’t made a reservation so I hurried over there after church to secure a table. Fortunately, it was only just past 11 so the restaurant was still fairly empty although every table would be occupied by the time we left.
What sucked us into Macaroni Grill the first time we’d ever gone there was the amazing bread they served when you first sit down. It was not too crunchy on the outside but nicely dense and mealy on the inside. It was served warm with a slathering of melted butter or oil lightly brushed on top, just enough to get your fingers greasy and your taste buds salivating. This time around, either their bread has changed or my taste buds decided to get picky but I didn’t think the bread was as good as before. Couldn’t tell you why though but a sure sign was I only had a small piece and didn’t hanker for more. Huh.
The menu, in conforming with local law, also listed the calorie count next to each entrĂ©e. Always a nice appetite killer. I appreciate the information so I can make an informed choice but seriously, a major downer that you can no longer kid yourself that the dishes you most want are more than half a day’s calories on a plate. I’m used to expecting high calorie counts at all restaurant meals but even I was thrown by Macaroni Grill’s numbers. Amongst the entrees, there were maybe 2 meals under a thousand calories. One proudly had an “LC” designation for Low Calorie and proud it should be for being a lone standout. The other one I could find that wasn’t LC-designated but still a rarity under a thousand calories was Lobster Ravioli for 860 calories. Everything else was in the range of 1200-2000+. Eeep.
Paste di Mare
I went with the Lobster Ravioli as the almost lesser of all calorie evils. Plus I like lobster ravioli. My mom got the Pasta di Mare (scallops, mussels, shrimp, fettuccine in a white wine sauce with pomodoro and garlic) and my dad got the sole. The high calorie counts on all of the entrees was partially explained by the generous portions that came out. No portion control served here. Fortunately my parents aren’t big eaters and, with their consumption, each plate was at least 2-3 meals for them. No cooking that night for my mom on her day.
Lobster Ravioli
Dessert was a warm chocolate cake with chocolate sauce poured over it, hold the whipped cream. It was a good, if somewhat unimaginative, dessert and as we spooned it up, my mom makes the same claim she always makes when we order dessert, “you can make this.” Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.
Warm Chocolate Cake
With chocolate sauce

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Biscoff Mug Cake #2

Biscoff Mug Cake #2 - made May 9, 2015 from Something Swanky
I was so emboldened by my success on the last mug cakeI’d made, erasing my complete and utter failure on the first mug cake I’d made (that I never bothered to blog about since it was a serious disaster and I couldn’t even eat it or bring myself to take pictures of it) that I decided to try my luck again. My one-track taste buds were still on a cookie butter spree so I tried another Biscoff mug cake. This one was simpler and had fewer ingredients than the other one but was equally easy to make.

I don’t know that I was super impressed with this one or if it’s just the novelty of mug cakes wearing off but, similar to the other one, while this one turned out, it also had more of a spongy texture than a baked cake which has a softer crumb. It was still good and it’s hard to not like a warm cake with cookie butter melting over it but I have to admit, I think I only made this because I wanted the cookie butter to have something to sit on. Still a good option if you want a quick, easy, one-serving dessert for those impulse sweet tooth moments.
1 egg, beaten
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 heaping tablespoon flour
2 tablespoons cookie butter, Biscoff spread or Speculoos
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  1. Spray the inside of a mug with nonstick cooking spray. 
  2. Mix all the ingredients together in the mug, using a fork.
  3. Microwave for 30-45 seconds or until done.
  4. Spread with a dollop of cookie butter on top and eat while warm.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Kitty Kat Krunch Brownies

Kitty Kat Krunch Brownies - made May 10, 2015 from Extreme Brownies by Connie Weis
I’m now splitting my cookbook recipe obsession between my newest book Biscoff Cookie & Spread Cookbook and the recently new Extreme Brownies. For this post, we’re back to brownies. When I first bought Extreme Brownies, this was one of the (many) recipes I immediately wanted to try. It had all the elements I found interesting: candy incorporated into the brownie itself then crunchy stuff on top to provide further contrast to the chewy fudginess of the brownie and the creamy smoothness of the frosting.
First, let me tell you I have not bought Cocoa Krispies in….forever. When I was a kid, I used to beg my mom to buy those sugary cereals. They were totally bad for you (still are) but hey, I was a kid. It was my job to beg for the bad stuff. My mom only occasionally gave in to my begging so I do have memories of enjoying a bowl of Cocoa Krispies, the best part being the milk left in the bowl “turned into chocolate milk” by dint of the cocoa combining with the milk. I disliked milk even as a kid but chocolate milk was tolerable. Plus I liked the crunch of the cereal, so much more satisfying than cornflakes because, you know, it was sweeter and it was chocolate.
Second, once I did buy the Cocoa Krispies for this recipe and tasted it again, I decided my taste buds have matured a lot since then. Because I no longer had the palate that thought Cocoa Krispies were the bomb. Sorry, Cocoa Krispies lovers, but I’ve tasted real chocolate and this isn’t it. But, I was committed to trying out this recipe and I’d already bought the box so….
I usually don’t have the time or inclination to make brownies that are this involved. Meaning not just the brownie but you also make the ganache glaze and a topping. And I’m leery of anything that involves me making caramel from scratch because I’m paranoid about burning it and the few times I’ve made my own caramel, it’s been too sweet for my taste. But surprisingly, this was fairly easy to make. Don’t be put off by having to make the different elements of this recipe as each one by itself isn’t that hard. You just need a little time and even that isn’t a big deal.
Make the Cocoa Krispies crunch topping first so it has time to cool. I almost burned the caramel because my saucepan is dark colored and you know how hard it is to judge how brown a caramel is getting when you’re looking at a clear liquid bubbling in a dark pan? Yeah, it’s hard. And the caramel keeps on browning even after you turn the heat off. Fortunately, I caught it just 30 seconds before it would’ve been burnt. Whew. The topping turned out as crunchy as it was supposed to be, always a nice surprise.
The brownie and ganache topping couldn’t have been easier. I bought a bag of mini Kit Kats and dispersed them all in the brownie since I didn’t want spare Kit Kats leaping into my mouth later on if they remained in my pantry. Better to use them all in the brownies and give the brownies away. After my taste test piece, that is.
This was another fudgy brownie winner. I’m not big on ganache frosting but it did add a nice richness to the brownie and the crunchy topping was a great contrast. I’m not entirely sure the Kit Kats added a whole lot to the brownie other than their name but that’s probably because for my taste test, I ate half a piece near the edge with little Kit Kat in it so I might not have gotten the full Kitty Kat Krunch experience. But this is definitely worth filing away for Halloween time if you end up with spare Kit Kats.
2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter
3 ounces unsweetened chocolate
1 cup (6 ounces) 60% cacao bittersweet chocolate chips
4 large eggs
1 cup (7 ounces) granulated sugar
1 packed cup (8 ounces) light brown sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup (4.5 ounces) all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 (8-ounce) bag mini Kit Kats

Candied Chocolate Rice Cereal Topping
1 1/2 cups chocolate puffed rice cereal, such as Cocoa Krispies
1/2 cup (3.5 ounces) granulated sugar
1 tablespoon water
1 teaspoon light corn syrup
1/2 teaspoon salt

Chocolate Buttercream Frosting
1/2 cup and 1 tablespoon (5 ounces) heavy whipping cream
1 1/4 cups (7.5 ounces) 60% cacao bittersweet chocolate chips
10 tablespoons (5 ounces) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons unsweetened Dutch-processed cocoa powder
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line a 9 x 13" baking pan with foil and lightly spray with nonstick cooking spray.
  2. Melt butter and chocolates in the top half of a double boiler over hot water. Whisk together until melted and smooth.
  3. In a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs, sugars and salt until just combined. Whisk in the chocolate mixture and mix until combined. Whisk in the vanilla.
  4. Stir together the flour and baking powder then mix into the batter, stirring until just combined. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and spread evenly. Push the mini Kit Kats into the batter; do not place any within 1/2" of the pan sides. Use the offset spatula to cover the candy with the batter. 
  5. Bake for 28 minutes until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out with a few moist crumbs. Transfer the pan to a cooling rack.
  6. To make the candied chocolate rice cereal topping: lightly grease a quarter sheet pan with vegetable shortening then line with parchment paper. Measure out the cereal; set aside.
  7. Place the sugar, water, corn syrup and salt in a small, heavy saucepan; stir with a small silicone spatula just to combine. Bring to a boil over moderately high heat. Once the mixture comes to a boil, lower the heat to moderate and boil undisturbed until a medium amber-colored caramel forms, about 5 minutes.
  8. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the cereal. Spoon the caramelized cereal onto the prepared pan and spread it out with a small offset spatula. Let cool at room temperature.
  9. To make the frosting: place the heavy cream and chocolate chips in the top half of a double boiler set over hot water. Stir until melted and smooth. Remove from over the hot water and refrigerate until the mixture has cooled to the consistency of pudding, about 15 minutes. While the frosting mixture is chilling, cut up the candied chocolate rice cereal topping into 1/4" pieces, using a sharp chef's knife.
  10. Cut the butter into 1-inch pieces. Beat the butter pieces into the chilled cream mixture. Beat in the salt. Strain or sift the cocoa powder directly onto the mixture and beat in. Add the vanilla and beat in, starting on low and increasing to high speed, until the frosting is light and fluffy, about 1 minute. 
  11. Dollop the frosting over the brownie slab. Using a small offset spatula, spread the frosting evenly. Garnish the frosting with some of the chopped candied chocolate rice cereal topping, then use the back of a metal spatula to lightly tap on the topping pieces to slightly embed them into the frosting. Refrigerate pan for 7 to 8 hours or overnight. Cut into squares and serve.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Caramel-Stuffed Sea Salt Brownies

Caramel-Stuffed Sea Salt Brownies - made May 2, 2015 from Extreme Brownies by Connie Weis
I almost forgot I had this brownie book. Okay, not really, but it was high time I went back to it to try out more brownie recipes before it joins the other baking books gathering dust on my bookshelves. I love making brownies and can’t get away from it. And really, I also love eating them so it’s a win-win.
Given the other recipes I’ve tried from this book, I had high expectations that this would be a rich, fudgy brownie and I was not disappointed. Bonus that it’s got a layer of caramel sandwiched in the middle, topped with a thin layer of milk chocolate and sprinkled with fleur de sel. The only surprise in this recipe was the flour that gets whisked into the caramel. Never had that before but it worked just fine.
Do be careful about covering as much of the caramel as possible with the top layer of brownie batter. Caramel, when exposed directly to high heat will harden when it cools and could be too hard and chewy to eat. Which would be a waste of good caramel…..we can’t have that. The other tricky part is the toothpick test is somewhat unreliable if you poke the toothpick straight down into the brownie. The caramel layer is gooey enough to give you a “false negative” that the brownie isn’t done when it could be but all you’re seeing is the goo from the caramel. I recommend angling the toothpick when you insert it so most of it is going through the top layer and not the caramel itself.
The milk chocolate layer on top is a nice touch if your teeth aren’t aching at this point and you’ve still got room in your waist band. It gives the sea salt or fleur de sel something to adhere to when you sprinkle it on top. Overall, loved this brownie. It’s rich, it’s fudgy, it’s decadent and it’s everything a brownie should be. And more.

Caramel layer
1/3 cup and 1 teaspoon (3 ounces) heavy whipping cream
2 tablespoons (1 ounce) unsalted butter
12 ounces caramel (I used Kraft caramel squares)
2 tablespoons and 1 teaspoon all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into slices
3 ounces unsweetened chocolate
1 cup (6 ounces) bittersweet chocolate chips
4 large eggs
1 cup (7 ounces) granulated sugar
1 packed cup (8 ounces) light brown sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup (4.5 ounces) all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder

Milk Chocolate Glaze
3 1/2 teaspoons canola oil
3/4 cup and 1 tablespoon (5 ounces) milk chocolate chips

1 to 2 teaspoons flaked sea salt
  1. Caramel layer: place the cream and butter in a 2-quart saucepan. Begin to melt the mixture over medium-low heat. Unwrap the caramels and add to the mixture. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until caramels are melted and completely smooth. While the caramels are slowly melting, make the brownie batter. Finish preparing the caramel once the brownie base is in the oven.
  2. Make the brownies: Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line a 9 x 13-inch baking pan with aluminum foil and lightly spray with nonstick cooking spray.
  3. In a small, heavy saucepan, melt butter with unsweetened chocolate and semisweet chocolate chips. Whisk until smooth and completely melted. Set aside to cool slightly.
  4. Lightly beat the eggs in a large mixing bowl. Whisk in sugars and salt until just combined. Whisk in the melted chocolate mixture until just combined. Whisk in vanilla.
  5. Add flour and baking powder and stir to combine. Pour half (1 pound and 4 ounces) of the brownie batter into the prepared pan. Spread evenly with a small offset spatula and bake for 15 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Transfer the pan to a cooling rack. Finish the caramel while the brownie base is baking. The caramel should be poured onto the very hot brownie base as soon as it is removed from the oven.
  6. To finish the caramel layer, once the caramels are completely melted and smooth, sift the flour directly onto the mixture and stir in well. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the vanilla. Pour the cooked caramel over the hot brownie base and spread evenly with a small offset spatula. Dollop the remaining brownie batter evenly over the caramel layer and carefully spread to the edges with the offset spatula, covering the caramel layer completely.
  7. Return the pan to the oven and bake for an additional 20 minutes. Transfer the pan to a cooling rack and let cool for at least 15 minutes.
  8. Milk chocolate glaze: Place the milk chocolate and canola oil in the top half of a double boiler set over hot water. Stir until melted and smooth. Pour the glaze evenly over the warm brownie.
  9. Using a small offset spatula, spread the glaze evenly and sprinkle the sea salt over the glaze. Let the glazed slab sit at room temperature for at least 30 minutes, then refrigerate pan overnight or for 7-8 hours. Cut into squares.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Pop Up Shop: Dragonfly Cakes

Dragonfly Cakes - Pop Up Shop on May 7, 2015
So….I’m a sucker for supporting local, small foodie businesses. I’ll twist myself into pretzel contortions trying to decide if I should pay $14 for a cookbook but not think twice about forking over $5 for a croissant made with European butter at a local bakery. I implement the 24-hour rule and do mental gymnastics over a blouse that’s been marked down and is another 40% off and I have a $10 reward certificate to defray the cost even further but apparently I’ll shell out $32 for a box of petit fours without much thought or restraint if it meant supporting a local small business. I’m not even a particularly big fan of petit fours, mind you.

But Dragonfly Cakes came to our pop up shop in the days leading up to Mother’s Day so my Pavlovian response was to hotfoot it over, wallet in hand and make small talk with the very nice vendor lady who proffered me samples of their wares, told me about their business in Sausalito and how they did mostly a mail order business and talked about the different flavors they offered: chocolate, coffee, apricot, lemon and vanilla. Not two minutes had passed before I was opening up my wallet and leaving with a box of lemon and vanilla petit fours.
Petits fours are basically small layer cakes covered typically in fondant icing and nicely decorated. They usually come in a variety of flavors, colors and decorations. Because of their typical box square shape, they can easily be made to look like little presents. We made them in culinary school and you basically bake thin oblong cake layers, frost each layer, stack the layers, cut into perfectly even squares then glaze them evenly and perfectly all at once by having the squares very close together on a wire rack and pouring the glaze over all of the square pieces. If you do it right, the glaze covers them neatly, evenly and completely; when it hardens, you have perfect petit fours ready for decorating.
I’ll be honest – one of the reasons I’m not fond of petit fours is because perfect and even would not describe my efforts when I made them. It takes some skill to cut each piece the same shape and size and even more skill to glaze them evenly. On top of that, decorating skills including precision piping and fondant work serve a petit four maker well. I possess none of these skills. Seriously, none. Wait, I can bake a cake and I can fill them between layers. Then my skills hit the glass ceiling.

Fortunately I don’t work at Dragonfly Cakes and they don’t have that problem. Their petit fours are beautiful. I tried a sample of the coffee petit fours and the lemon one. I didn’t need to try both but I had started with the coffee and as I was perusing the display at the pop up shop, was considering the box of lemon and vanilla petit fours to buy. So then I had to taste the lemon, right? I didn’t want to be a total pig and have two samples but the Dragonfly lady assured me she had plenty of samples and that I should help myself. Okay then. I mean, I wanted to be polite, right?

Both samples were good and if I was a petit fours gourmand, I would probably have appreciated them more. As it was, I thought they were nice little cakes, not too sweet. And they were pretty. Petit fours must be pretty because if you’re going to go to all that trouble to make and decorate them, they need to look cute. I bought a box, more to support the business, than because I wanted a dozen petit fours. Fortunately, I could share them with friends and my mom for Mother’s Day. Go small biz.