Wednesday, February 27, 2013

February's Delights

February was a wonderful month filled with delicious and tempting sweets for all.  I developed a chocolate cookie made to be used with a multitude of cookie cutters for any type of celebration or baking project.  The cookies in that post were cut with a nice heart cutter that I use every now and then (it comes with a stamp made to imprint messages onto the surface of the cookie), because I wanted to ship them out to my niece & nephews.  What I love about the chocolate cookie dough is that, not only does it taste chocolaty and decadent, it is also wonderful to roll out and cut.  The cookies remain perfectly shaped when they come out of the oven, so royal icing decorations can be applied with ease.

Those beautiful heart cookies that were iced for my niece and nephews were such a hit with both you readers and my little ones!  I’m glad they were enjoyed all around.  Icing them was such fun over the weekend afternoon I set aside for them, but it wasn’t all perfection (keep reading!).  I’m not afraid to show my bloopers, because mistakes & accidents can happen, and do happen sometimes.  

The special Cakes & Cupcakes magazine published by Martha Stewart Living is such a nice special edition highlighting some of their best sweet edibles.  I love that particular issue and I hope many of you have had the good fortune of buying one.  They’re still available so don’t pass it up!

One word: Nemo.  I’m not sure when it happened, but it seems as if all of a sudden these winter storms of ours have gotten named.  Who knew?  I know that a lot of you in the New England states suffered power outages and large amounts of snowfall that took days to clear up.  I’m grateful that in our part of the mid-Atlantic we were spared that crippling snow.  Ours was a mere 3-4 inch snowfall which I captured the morning after.  

There were plenty of other posts I touched on during the month such as some healthy oat bran muffins, some very light hot milk sponge cake layers which were turned into a Boston Cream Pie and my favorite Meatballs Marinara.  Let's not forget some collectible Martha by Mail too!  The delights of February are sweet enough to get a second glance, so let's not waste another moment.  

I’m so pleased with this particular recipe because I love a good chocolate cookie that keeps its shape during baking.  If I’m going to ice them then they have to be level so that I don’t run into problems.  One could add a little bit of spice to the basic recipe, but if you want chocolate through & through, leave them as they are.  Flocking the cookies with sanding sugar before they get baked gives them a sparkly finish.  It’s up to you to decide how simple or elaborate you want them.

When I set out to ice these special cookies, I kid you not, I had no design in mind.  I first mixed a few shades of royal icing, applied the piping tips to my pastry bags and let my imagination run wild.  You don’t need me to tell you that my niece and nephews loved every last one of the hearts I sent them.  They shared of course! 

So while I was designing the cookies I did run into a small problem.  I was so busy icing them that I completely did not notice my sweater cuff resting on the icing of two cookies that were near me.  It wasn’t until I lifted my arm that I saw what I had done.  The icing flowed off the two cookies and my decorations were ruined!  Rather than getting too upset by this, I simply set them aside and brewed some hot tea.  I devoured one during this tea break and ate the other one the following day; I forged ahead with the rest of the cookies.  Waste not, want not!

The ruined cookies.
Thank YOU readers for making this particular post so popular.  The number of hits I received for this story went through the roof!  My hope is that all of you cookie bakers out there make beautiful heart cookies this year for a special celebration.  You can stick with one design and make dozens or you can make more personalized ones like I did.  

This special issue from Martha Stewart Living is still available at stores and newsstands so look for it.  It’s so easy to get inspired by a cake or two from the magazine when you go through it.  I’ve been in the mood to make one of the chocolate cakes or some amazing vanilla cupcakes.  We’ll see.  So much cake, so little time!

That snowstorm that hit the Northeast is nothing but a memory now.  We were so fortunate in our area to have gotten only a few inches of snow that weekend.  I’m already looking forward to spring and Mother Nature is certainly giving us hints of it here and there.  I’ve noticed the snowdrops peeking through, I’ve seen a multitude of crocus bulbs scattered underneath certain trees opening up now and the robins seem to be everywhere.  As much as I like cold weather, I also love the pleasant temperatures and breezes of spring. 

If you haven’t tried making these healthy muffins you really should.  Because they freeze so well, you can make one batch or two and have the rest at a later date.  I thaw the muffins overnight and then toast them in the morning to have with a cup of coffee.  Very delicious!  By all means, substitute raisins, dried blueberries, chopped up apricots or even chopped up dates if you want.  Make them your own and don’t feel one ounce of guilt eating a chocolate oat bran muffin.

The Martha by Mail Apothecary Jars are must-haves for me.  I rely on them throughout the year to hold various pantry items, sometimes switching their contents depending on what I’m doing in my kitchen.  Since I do a lot of baking, I keep flour and sugar in a few of these so that I can scoop out what I need with ease.  If, for some reason, I need to clean the jars, I wipe the lids with a lightly dampened cloth and rinse the glass in my sink with lukewarm water.  The glass gets dried immediately with clean kitchen towels in order to prevent water spots.  

A reader wrote to me saying that he owned the versions that were sold at Macy’s when The Martha Stewart Collection was first introduced.  I remember seeing them in stores when I initially looked at the merchandise, but since I already owned the ones from Martha by Mail, I passed them up.  The ones from Macy’s are roughly the same size as the 3 gallon Martha by Mail ones.  These department store versions have light blue lids with gaskets underneath to make the jars airtight.  Thank you Kenn for the photograph!

Oh boy, sponge cake!  Those lighter than air cake layers are mouthwateringly good enough to use any number of ways.  Making them into a jelly roll is easy if you pour the batter into a sheet pan (watch the cake closely because it will be done in about half the time as a round cake layer).  If you’re a fan of genoise cakes, then you’re going to be a fan of hot milk sponge cakes.  It may seem daunting to pour hot milk into a cake batter, but in the end, it works marvelously.  Cover the layers in a light buttercream for an Easter luncheon or in softly whipped cream for a Mother’s Day dinner.  You can also make them into the classic Boston Cream Pie.  Keep reading...

How delicious is this cake?  A few of my friends found it so good to look at that they made one at home.  You have no idea how thrilled I was to hear this because the cake is a sure winner with anyone who likes cream-filled cakes.  A smooth custard that’s flavored with vanilla beans gets sandwiched between two lovely sponge cake layers, which are then covered with a wonderful chocolate ganache.  What could be better?

This cake was made by my friend Cheryl's mother.  It was baked for Cheryl's sister, Denise, who lives in the Bay Area.  I'm told they adored it!  

Turkey meatballs simmered to perfection in a rich marinara sauce is comfort food for me.  Whether I have them with spaghetti or on a roll for a sandwich, I love how tasty they are.  I’ve been known to eat them with a fork and nothing else.  They’re that good!  I suppose if you wanted to serve them as an appetizer, you could make them even smaller and serve them with toothpicks for guests.  The meatballs are savory, succulent, tasty and so gratifying.  You may not have any leftovers at the end of the day!

March is here and spring is definitely in the air.  I’m looking forward to the changes in the barren landscape in the coming weeks.  We may not get the full splendor of spring in March, but the harbingers of spring are surely going to make themselves visible quite soon.  I hope many of you have had a good winter and are looking to spring with as much anticipation as I am.  

Thank you all for your continued support,


Monday, February 25, 2013

Meatballs Marinara

Eating meatballs marinara is something of an affair for me.  I recently cooked some  for a birthday lunch and the subject of how to actually make them came up.  Our birthday guest (aunt Marg) had just been watching a ‘meatball showdown’ on one of the cooking shows which took place between two restaurants here in Philadelphia.  I told her step by step the way I like to make mine and she agreed that that was the way to make them if you wanted the best meatballs.  Mind you, Aunt Marg and my mother-in-law have been making spaghetti & meatballs for decades now, so it’s nice to know that I make them in the same manner.  

A meatball covered in delicious marinara.

Beef or a mix of ground beef & ground pork and/or veal is common if you like making them with those types of meats.  At home, however, I make mine out of ground turkey.  Dark meat or a mix of dark & light is preferable to light turkey meat because it is more succulent and flavorful.  What goes into the meatballs is typical (I don’t add onion to mine) of what you’d find in most recipes and browning them in delicious olive oil before putting them into the marinara is essential for me.  Some cooks will just drop them into the bubbling sauce (or gravy as some would say) without browning them first, which is completely fine, but I like to give them even more flavor.

The marinara is equally important and it’s not something which should be thought of as time consuming.  You only need a few ingredients to make a rich marinara and with the addition of the meatballs, you will have a sauce that is thick & rich when it’s done.  Worthy of any pasta to be sure.  A weekday dinner or weekend lunch in under an hour is what this dish is all about.  Check your pantry and refrigerator for the ingredients and make some this week.  There won’t be any left, I guarantee it.

Basic Marinara Ingredients

  • Two 28 oz {800 g.} cans whole, peeled Italian plum tomatoes
  • 1 small onion {1/2 cup} finely chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons {30 ml} extra virgin olive oil

Note: I like a spicy marinara (arrabiata) so I add a 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes, but you can omit it entirely if you wish.

Something I learned a long time ago by cookbook author, Susan Spungen, is that you should remove the inner sprout of the garlic cloves if you should find any.  This is typical of older garlic.  Those sprouts are bitter and you do not want them going into your marinara.  Slice each clove in half and remove the sprouts with the tip of a paring knife.  Mince the garlic.

In a large dutch oven or sauce pan over medium heat, add the extra virgin olive oil and red pepper flakes.  Get the oil hot!

Add the onion and sauté until it is softened and opaque; this should take about 4 minutes.  Salt and pepper to taste.  While this is sautéing, crush the whole peeled tomatoes with your hands so that you have a chunky tomato sauce.

Add the minced garlic and saute until fragrant, only about 30 seconds.  Don't let the garlic burn or take on any color.  Watch your flame.

Add the crushed tomatoes to the pot and bring it up to a simmer over medium-high heat; stir well.  Salt generously and add freshly ground pepper to taste.  When it does come up to a simmer, lower the heat to low and cover the pot with a lid.  I like to let this simmer for about 20-30 minutes while I'm making the meatballs.

Onto the meatballs!

Turkey Meatball Ingredients

  • 1 lb. {454 g.} ground turkey
  • 1/2 cup {70 g.} plain breadcrumbs
  • 1 large egg
  • 4 tablespoons {60 ml.} milk
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2 cup {20 g.} grated pecorino romano (I use Locatelli)
  • 4 sprigs Italian flat leaf parsely, finely chopped (1/4 cup)
  • salt & pepper
  • extra virgin olive oil

Note: I love the sharp taste of Pecorino Romano in my meatballs, but you can use Parmigiano-Reggiano instead if you prefer it.

Yield: approximately 25-26 meatballs or 6 servings

In a large bowl, add all of your ingredients.  Salt well (I add 1 teaspoon of fine sea salt) and pepper to taste.
Mix the ingredients well to distribute them evenly.  

Using a 1 1/2" (1 oz) ice cream scoop, portion out the meatballs and roll them into balls.  I use gloved hands to do this, but if you use bare hands, simply keep them damp so that they don't stick to your palms.  Place the meatballs onto a platter or plate as you go along.

The yield will vary slightly if you have a little more than 1 lb. of turkey or a little less.  

In a large nonstick frying pan (I'm using a 12" one) over medium heat, add about 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil to cover the pan and add about half of the meatballs--don't crowd them.  Brown them evenly.

Flip the meatballs when they get well browned on one side and continue to give them a nice color.  Meatballs tend to flatten somewhat, so I brown them on 2 sides.

When browned, remove the meatballs onto a clean plate or platter and continue with the ones remaining.

Once they have all browned, add them to the bubbling marinara.  Carefully drop them in and stir them gently with a wooden spoon.  Make sure you cover them well with the marinara.

Ms. Kitty is keeping an eye on the cooking!

Lower heat and place the lid on the pot.  Simmer the meatballs and marinara for 15 to 20 minutes.  The sauce will thicken considerably and the meatballs will be cooked through and very tender.  

Boil your favorite pasta as these are cooking and bring it all to the table.  Make sure there is plenty of freshly grated cheese to pass around.  Pour the wine and mangia!

Meatballs Marinara

Meatballs marinara can be made ahead of time and frozen for up to a month in an airtight container.  If you wish, you can even cut the recipe in half for less servings, but why would you want to if you have a future meal already prepared?  I serve these meatballs with a good spaghetti, but they're also tasty with a farfalle or some rigatoni.  It's up to you, but you know, the little savories can also be stuffed into a roll to make a meatball hoagie.  Just heat up the bread and add some provolone or fontina to the sandwich (let it melt), and you have a great sandwich.  Treat your family to some healthy meatballs marinara this week.  Absolutely delicious!   

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Boston Cream Pie

Boston Cream Pies are delicious cakes made from sponge cake layers that are filled with ultra-rich pastry cream and topped with the smoothest of chocolate ganaches.  It is thought that the cake was originally called a pie, because back in the 1800s, cakes were usually baked in pie tins (these were called Washington pie plates).  Washington Pie was another tender cake which was split and filled with a pastry cream, although some versions used jam or jelly instead of cream.  It wasn’t until the mid 20th century, however, that the idea of adding a rich ganache topping came into play.

Boston Cream Pie

If you’ve never had the pleasure of baking a Boston Cream Pie then I think you should treat yourself to one very soon.  The cake layers which I showed you in a previous post are perfect for this this type of cake.  Most recipes for Boston Cream Pie give you one cake layer to split and fill, but my recipe produces two wonderful layers that are thick and light.  This version of the classic cake is a bit taller than most you will ever encounter, but that’s because I happen to love cake.  My delicious Pastry Cream recipe is suitable for sandwiching the layers, and the ganache I’ve provided below is also equally tasty.  Actually, all ganache recipes are scrumptious and not difficult to make whatsoever.  

Enjoy baking this cake! 

Cake is served on Wedgwood Queen's Ware.

Boston Cream Pie Ingredients

Ganache Ingredients
  •  4 oz. {110 g.} bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
  • 4 oz. or 1/2 cup {120 ml.} heavy cream

The cake serves 10-12 

Check your cake layers for domed tops.  If they are slightly domed, trim the tops to make them level.  Those scraps can be put into a zip top freezer bag and be used as a topping for ice creams and sundaes.

Center one of the layers on a cake stand or cake plate.  

Remove the pastry cream from the refrigerator and give it a quick stir with a rubber spatula to smooth it out.  Pastry cream solidifies somewhat under refrigeration.  

Spread 1 cup of pastry cream on top of the layer and bring it to just about 1 inch from the edge (my recipe makes approximately 2 1/2 cups; reserve the remaining cream for another use).

Place the other cake layer on top of the bottom layer and center it.  Don’t press too hard or you risk having the pastry cream ooze out the sides.  

NOTE:  if you plan on serving this cake right away, continue with the ganache.  If you want to serve it several hours from now, refrigerate the cake (well covered) until you’re ready to top it with the ganache.

I love Scharffen Berger chocolate.  For this cake I decided to use their bittersweet variety.

To make the ganache, chop your chocolate bar into shards using a serrated knife.  Hold the handle with one hand and the tip of the blade (blunt side) and cut down.  The chocolate will shave off easily.

Place the chopped chocolate in a heatproof bowl.  Heat the heavy cream in a small saucepan and bring it up to a boil.  Watch the cream!  

As soon as it does come up to a boil, quickly pour it over the chocolate.  Wait a minute or so and then begin to stir it with a heatproof spatula to melt the chocolate.  You want to melt every single piece of chocolate.

As you stir and combine the ganache, it will go from a milky consistency to a smooth chocolate sauce.  Once the chocolate is completely melted, let it sit to firm up.  

For a Boston Cream Pie, you want don’t want the ganache to be a runny and pourable glaze.  It should be firm enough to spread, but not too stiff that it solidifies and tears the cake layer.  

Don’t panic if your ganache does harden.  It can be reheated and melted once again, until you have the right consistency.

Spread the ganache over the layer and let some of it run down the sides (or not).  The cake is now ready to be served.  

Note: Sponge cakes and any foam style cakes should be cut with a serrated knife, using a sawing motion.  Don’t attempt to cut it with a chef’s knife or you will compact it.  These cakes are much more delicate than butter cakes.   

Any leftovers should be stored in the refrigerator since the cake is filled with pastry cream.  The cake is best on the day it is assembled.

A generous wedge served with cafe au lait.  Delicious!

What I love about Boston Cream Pies is that they are perfectly suitable for a weekend luncheon as they are for a more formal dinner.  One cake will generously serve 10 to 12 people and since it’s such a simple dessert to assemble, it’s wonderful for the busy host.  I would love for you to bake a Boston Cream Pie for your next gathering, dinner party or whenever you have a craving for some cake.  You don’t need to spend a lot of time putting the cake together as long as you’re organized.  Make the pastry cream and the cake layers the day before you plan on serving it.  Leave the ganache until the last minute and voila.  Have it with a glass of milk, a cup of tea or some wonderful espresso.  You’re going to fall in love with Boston Cream Pies all over again I can assure you!