Monday, April 30, 2012

Good Things in April

I was glad that the month of April was a good one in so many ways and that I was able to share some of my favorites with you.  Those chocolate chip cookies were a big hit with a lot of you readers here in this country and abroad.  It's exciting for me to hear from someone in another part of the globe who is not only reading the blog, but is also having success with a recipe or two.  Getting a nice note or email from a cookbook author I happen to look up to and admire is such an honor for me and it's a good feeling knowing that what I'm attempting to create & present on this blog is considered good; I'm humbled.  Thank You!

Every month is cookie month for me, so this past month I just had to share with you my new favorite roll out cookie dough.  The brown sugar cookie recipe that I use for sandwich cookies got reworked and altered; a few things were subtracted & other things were multiplied.  They turned out so well using a few of my collectible cookie cutters this month.  Speaking of collectible cookie cutters, let's not forget that adorable duo, Hatching Bunny & Barnyard Hen from the former Martha by Mail catalog.  I love making Easter cookies using those (I know some of you do too), so it's a Good Thing we all have a new recipe for them!  This month also marked the beginning of having a photograph behind the title header on the blog.  I had been wanting to put one up for quite some time, but just never got around to it until now.  A stack of perfectly shaped sugar cookies seemed appropriate enough and I'm happy the way it turned out.  It's going to be fun adding a different image every now & then.

I also showed you a delicious quiche recipe along with a simple lemon sugar one that are in heavy rotation at my house.  One gets baked whenever I get the craving for it and the other is stocked in my pantry for the days when I feel like adding a bit more lemon flavor to my baked goods.  Chicken stock is another essential item for me.  If I see my reserves running low I make sure to make some later in the week or over the weekend.  It's the easiest thing ever!

The month of April has given us plenty of showers in our area and the landscape has shown a complete transformation.  No longer are the deciduous trees bare or the lawns tinged with brown spots or yellow patches.  Some neighbors happened to mention having a 'bumper crop' of lilacs just a few weeks ago, so I hope the month of May proves to be a beautiful one.  Our ostrich ferns which seem bigger than ever this year have completely unfurled.  The dogwood trees are still in possession of their delicate blooms, I'm  happy to report, and the viburnums have come into their own at the moment.  Over the last two weeks or so, it's the azaleas that have become the showy beauties around the area.  The vibrant hues and bursts of vivid colors we're experiencing right now are quite something.  Perhaps I should capture images of them and show you soon.  

A quick look back at Good Things in April.

The cookies fresh out of the oven cooling on racks have such an enticing aroma.  I always "test" one at this point just to be sure.

My favorite way to eat a chocolate chip cookie is with a tall glass of milk.  The classic duo is loved by kids of all ages!  Make a batch this week and see for yourself.

These cutters make such beautiful cookies year round.  Don't use them only for Easter!

One word: Delicious!  This recipe is a keeper in my opinion. 

A tray of egg cookies using this recipe waiting to be flooded with royal icing.

I marbleized them for my niece and she loved each one.  So easy to make & so chic.

I took this photograph on one of my walks.  A patch of ostrich ferns is in the foreground and the primitive colonial is the center.

For me, the glade in the backyard is always breathtaking and always lush.  The ferns look so different now.

Tender baby spinach fresh from the market always makes a superior quiche.  The greens get sauteed briefly in the fruitiest of olive oils.
Right out of the oven, the quiche's crust has begun to pull away from the pan.

There's a reason I love Martha's perfect pate brisee.  It always bakes to perfection and the taste is out of this world!
See the flakiness? 

One of our neighbors centered this pink dogwood in their front yard.  It's still a young tree, but its showy blooms are spectacular.

 Down the road from our house is this lovely dogwood.  Its trunk is mesmerizing in my opinion.

Looking upward, the blooms are exquisite.

These cherry blossoms have nothing to do with the story, but I thought I would show you what we experienced a few weeks ago.  This is certainly one of those moments in nature we all anticipate every single year.

The spring house of that lovely farm I visited is such a nice piece of history.  It's a shame I didn't go in it.

Here's another spring house I visit quite often.

 A jar of lemon sugar should be in every baker's pantry.

This can be used to sweeten & flavor a cup of tea.  I often do.

Another of those items I can't live without.  I don't consider it a chore to make a batch every couple of weeks, because I know it's so much better than store bought & a lot better for my wallet.

My three favorite knives of all time.  Read that blog entry and pick what's best for you.

Let's make May a good one! 

Friday, April 27, 2012

Kitchen Knives

Having the right tool for the task goes a long way toward making your life a lot easier.  When it comes to setting your mise en place of ingredients before cooking a meal, using the correct knife will undoubtedly facilitate food preparation and will give you the results you want.  Ask any restaurant chef and they will tell you that knives are probably the most important tool for the kitchen.  They carry their own wherever they cook.

Owning a good set of kitchen knives should be at the top of your list if you like to cook & eat well.  Although there are many choices available to the home cook, not all knives are created equal.  In order to chop, dice, slice & mince with ease, a knife must be razor sharp, have good balance, be solidly constructed and above all else, it must fit in your hand like a glove.  When you hold a knife over a cutting board it should feel like an extension of your arm, not at all anything cumbersome or clumsy.  Sold in sets or as individual blades, it's important to know what to look for.  Any knife purchase will be an investment and one should never compromise on quality.  The brand is completely your choice.  Some of the most popular are made by W├╝sthof, J.A. Henckels, Sabatier, Global & Shun.

Storing them is another issue.  There are many options for kitchens these days and it really is up to you and what you think is most suitable for your kitchen.  Knife blocks are nice because they hold everything in one place and they sit on your countertop, but they do take up quite a bit of room.  There are also drawer blocks made to fit inside a drawer with separate slots for various-sized knives; you must dedicate a drawer for such a block and make sure it fits.  If, however, space is at a premium in your kitchen, consider buying a magnetic strip which hangs from a wall.  A blade will attach itself very securely and will be out of the way of anyone that shouldn't be handling them.  Under no circumstance must you allow your beautiful knives to sit haphazardly in a kitchen drawer amongst other implements where they can bang against one another, because over time they will dull & damage. 

My daily food preparation requires sharp knives.  I happen to own a set that has helped me prepare thousands of meals over the last years and I would be lost without them.  I cherish these knives.  I take good care of them, because I want to protect my investment.  Do you want to see what I use?

These three knives are the ones I use the most in my kitchen.  A large 8" Chef's Knife, a 7" Santoku and a 3" Paring Knife.  They're made by Henckel's International and were purchased well over a decade ago.  The triple riveted knives are hand forged out of carbon, no-stain steel and are well balanced; they're made to last a lifetime.

Chef's Knives:  An essential piece for any home cook.  This type of knife will chop just about anything with ease.  A good, all-purpose size is an 8" chef's knife.  If you prefer a 6" knife it will perform just as well. 

Look for a Chef's knife that has a full bolster.  That is the piece that divides the actual blade from the handle.  This area will be the heaviest part of the knife & if constructed well, it will center the knife's weight perfectly.  You don't want a knife that has a heavy handle or a heavy blade.  The entire implement should be well-balanced.

A top view shows a smooth handle which makes gripping an effortless & comfortable task.  Any reputable housewares store will allow you to handle a knife before purchasing.  Hold it in your hand and ask yourself if it's comfortable.  Hold it over a display cutting board and imagine yourself using it.  Will it hurt your hand or your forearm?  If so, choose another one until you find one that feels right. 

An overview of the knife shows a full tang.  What this means is that the entire knife (the steel part), from blade tip to the end of the handle, is one solid piece.  This provides the best balance for any knife.  Many lower-quality, less-expensive knives will have stamped handles.  A stamped handle encases only a small part of the steel.  It will not extend to the end of the handle, thus making for a poorly balance knife.

Santoku Knife:  This all-purpose knife, which stands for 3 benefits in Japanese, has a hollowed edge and acts very much like a chef's knife.  The three benefits/uses are: fish, meat & vegetables.  It's curved blade allows for a rocking motion when slicing or chopping and is much lighter in weight than a Chef's knife.  I love this knife.  It is perhaps the knife I reach for the most.  It comes in several sizes.  A 7" blade is perfect for any task.  Those hollowed indentations reduce drag when cutting.

Slicing Knife:  I use this knife, which has a somewhat straight blade, whenever I need to slice or carve any type of meat.  A roast chicken, duck or turkey slices beautifully when you use this knife.  It will make perfect, paper thin slices or more heartier ones every single time.  If you want to slice a steak to place on a platter, reach for this particular slicing knife.

Serrated Bread Knife:  Thick, crusty artisan loaves of bread or lighter-than-air brioche that I love, get sliced with this knife.  The razor sharp serrations shouldn't compress or crush your bread.  This knife also makes good work of chopping up bars of chocolate.  It will break up the biggest chocolates into delicate shards without much effort.

Serrated Utility Knife:  This knife is multi-purpose.  I use it to slice tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and various other vegetables into thin delicate rounds.  It's also great for slicing & splitting up smaller loaves of bread (think ficelles, baguettes & rolls) or for cutting a sandwich in two.  If your little ones are fussy about crusts on their sandwiches, reach for this knife & remove them.  If I have a piece of cheese I want to slice, this serrated knife will do the job (troublesome mozzarella is no match for this knife).

Paring Knife:  Every cook needs to have a small paring knife.  It quickly slices garlic, pickles, cornichons or anything diminutive in nature.  It can peel a tomato that's just been plunged in boiling water or can trim a number of fruit into those elaborate party presentations that people love to make.  Hulling strawberries or seeding spicy, hot peppers can be done with this little helper.  No cook should be caught without a paring knife.  Be prepared to spend around $50 for a well made paring knife.   

Kitchen Shears:  Although not technically a knife, a good pair of kitchen shears that are used only for food preparation will see many years of use.  You will reach for them when trimming excess butcher's twine after you've trussed that chicken or turkey or if you want to spatchcock the bird itself.  Keep them clean and never let these wander out of the kitchen.

Honing Steel:  Over time, a knife's blade will begin to lose its edge.  To correct the angle of any blade, a honing steel is a must.  This doesn't sharpen a knife, it merely sets the blade straight.  Make sure it has a comfortable handle and is long enough for you to use.

I hope you find this information useful and informative.  Keep in mind that you don't need to have every single one of these knives, so buy what you need.  There are many other specialty knives available to the home cook and many do help out in the kitchen.  It's up to your cooking style and budget what you ultimately purchase.  Sharpening knives is another issue.  Certain stores do provide sharpening knives for people, but many require outsourcing this service (not a good thing in my opinion).  In a future post, I will show you how I maintain the sharp edges on my knives.  In the meantime, enjoy preparing your next meal! 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Chicken Stock

I need to have homemade chicken stock in the freezer at all times, because it adds a lot of flavor to so many dishes.  It's one of the easiest things to make and requires little effort, so there is no excuse to be caught without some.  After I've roasted a chicken, so long as the seasonings aren't too strong, and have picked the bones clean, I drop the carcass into a freezer bag if I'm not going to use it right away.  This is something I like to do on the weekends early in the morning, because the minimum preparation that goes into making stock can be completed while the coffee brews.  You will need a good stockpot (with an 8qt. capacity or bigger), a fine mesh strainer, a large bowl to strain the stock, some cheesecloth, a ladle & some freezer containers.  The stock can be frozen in 1-2 cup portions or it can be frozen as ice cubes if you prefer to use stock by the tablespoon.   

The Ingredients 
  • 1 large yellow onion (skin intact) quartered
  • 2 large carrots chopped in 1" pieces
  • 3 celery stalks chopped in 1" pieces
  • 1/4 cup celery leaves
  • 4 sprigs of Italian parsley
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
  • 1 whole chicken carcass (or 2), leftover from Roast Chicken or saved from Cutting up a Chicken
Tie the peppercorns & bay leaf in a small square of cheesecloth.  Add all of your ingredients in a large stockpot & cover with cold water.  Set it on your stove & bring to a boil.  As the stock comes to a boil, skim any impure foam that floats to the surface and discard.  Lower your flame as it begins to boil & simmer your stock for one hour or 2 hours for a richer stock.  Remove any impurities along the way and don't let the stock maintain a rolling boil.  A high flame & boiling your chicken stock will cloud it up.  Simmering is best.

Here is the finished stock.  You can either let it cool completely in the pot or you can strain it while it's hot.  Personally I prefer to let it cool in the stockpot, because there is less of a risk getting burned by scalding stock. 

I usually use a chinois for straining my stock, but in a pinch a regular sieve can be substituted.  To get a clear stock, I like to line my strainer with cheesecloth held by clips. 

I'm straining into a large, vintage 12 qt. enamelware bowl that is capacious for the task.  Pour your stock carefully, especially if it's hot.

Note: I always let the stock cool down in the pot before I strain it.
As you strain the last of the stock, be careful that you don't let the chicken bones fall into the bowl.  If those ingredients do fall in the bowl, you risk clouding it up.

Give the strainer a final tap to extract every bit of stock.
This golden color is what you want to see.  Leaving the onion skin, not letting the stock boil and using cheesecloth helps achieve a well-colored, flavorful stock.

Strain your stock carefully into freezer containers.

Containers awaiting the freezer.  As soon as they're cool, refrigerate for several hours or up to overnight.  Remove any fat that has accumulated and freeze the stock for up to one month. 

As you can see, making chicken stock is pretty effortless.  Having some homemade stock like this in your freezer is not only a good thing, it's an essential thing.  If I didn't say so already, there is no salt in this stock whatsoever.  The next time you're at the supermarket, look closely at the sodium levels of the chicken stocks available and think about the prices as well.  My stock uses leftover chicken bones and just a handful of ingredients that you probably already have in the refrigerator or on the kitchen counter.  Save yourself some money by making some homemade chicken stock and do your body some good while you're at it.  Why not try making my chicken stock this weekend?   

Monday, April 23, 2012

Lemon Sugar

Lemon sugar is one of those essential, must-have pantry items for any baker.  Having a jar of it at your fingertips enables you to enhance a number of desserts, from cakes & muffins to cookies & pies.  I love substituting some or all of the granulated sugar in my sugar cookies with this delicious ingredient if I'm making them for a lemon aficionado.  The Blueberry Cookies with Lemon Icing I enjoy eating would benefit from such a substitution.  A few tablespoons sprinkled into some juicy berries for a summer pie always adds a layer of flavor that is unexpectedly good.  I encourage you to change that blueberry muffin recipe you do so love by using some lemon sugar in it; you may never make them plain again!  If you like making pancakes from scratch for your family on the weekends, use this sugar in the batter and serve the lemon pancakes with some fresh fruit and perhaps some local honey for pouring.  It is also good sprinkled over crepes.

Lemon sugar is so easy to make that you're going to want to whip up a batch as soon as you're done reading this.  Grab a lemon (I love using Meyer lemons), some sugar, a fine citrus zester & your food processor.  

The Ingredients
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • zest of 1 well washed lemon (about 2 tablespoons), preferably organic
Yield: 1 cup lemon sugar.
Note: Recipe can be doubled.

In the bowl of a mini-food processor, add the sugar and finely grated zest.   If you feel like making 2 cups of this citrus sugar, make sure the food processor is large enough.

Pulse the sugar several times until the zest begins to be absorbed into the sugar.  I prefer to pulse rather than letting the machine run, because I don't want the sugar getting too fine.  You'll notice it turn the consistency of wet sand.  The whole process shouldn't take more than 15 seconds.

Place the sugar on a platter, cookie sheet or plate and spread it out in a thin layer.  Since it's quite wet at this point, you want to let it dry out for about 1 hour.  However, if you want to proceed with a recipe, the sugar is ready to go!

Once dry, place the Lemon Sugar in a jar with a tight fitting lid.  I love using an antique Ball jar from the early 1900s. 

My only advice to you is that you make this sugar in small batches (I never make more than 2 cups worth) and replenish the jar as needed.  The essential oils in the zest of any citrus will degrade over time and lose its potency; a jar like the one above will still be lemony for about 2 weeks if stored in a cool, dry pantry.  Make some this week and use it to flavor whatever you desire.  Lemon sugar a Good Thing?  I think so.