Daring Bakers Challenge: Julia Child's French Bread

When the most recent Daring Bakers challenge was posted, I thought it was a good one. I thought I'd learn from it, but not have too much trouble. Julia Child's French Bread -- how hard could that be? I took a great bread class several years ago, and since then I've baked many yeast breads with few failures. And then I looked at the recipe. All 14 pages of it. And I have to admit, I was a bit intimidated.

But when I read it, I realized a lot of the length had to do with the fact that there were instructions for mixing the dough by hand as well as a stand mixer (thanks very much to hosts Breadchick and Sara for their hard work in preparing the latter). In addition, there were instructions on how to form various shapes of bread. So I forged ahead with an equal mix of nervousness and confidence.

The dough was pretty straighforward. Four ingredients: flour, water, salt and yeast. I did everything in my KitchenAid stand mixer. I have a tendency to add too much flour to sticky bread doughs, and I don't know whether or not I did that. I would have liked it to look a little smoother, but I'm not sure why it wasn't.

The next step, when you cut the dough into three pieces and shape them, is where I started to lose some of my mojo.

I started by making a long loaf, or Batard. This is where I found Julia's writing to be wordy and confusing. This one was especially a doozy:
Being sure that the working surface is always lightly floured so the dough will not stick and tear, which would break the lightly coagulated gluten cloak that is being formed, seal the edges of the dough together, your hands extended, thumbs out at right angles and touching.

I didn't get the hand position. I didn't get why it mattered. But I approximated this step as best as I could, having no idea whether I did it right.

After that, I thought I'd try a shape that seemed easier -- plain old balls -- which Julia more elegantly called Pain de Menage, Miches, and Boules. In the end, it was a mistake to make two balls and one sausage-looking thing -- maybe it was the influence of that ever-present boy humor, but let's just say that arranging them for presentable blog photos was a bit of a challenge!

Anyway, the directions for the balls started with this explanation:
The object here is to force the cloak of coagulated gluten to hold the ball of dough in shape: the first movement will make cushion; the second will seal and round the ball, establishing surface tension.

Hokayyy ....
Place the dough on a lightly floured surface. Lift the left side of the dough with the side of your left hand and bring it down almost to the right side. Scoop up the right side and push it back almost to the left side. Turn the dough a quarter turn clockwise and repeat the movement 8 – 10 times. The movement gradually smooths the bottom of the dough and establishes the necessary surface tension; think of the surface of the dough as if it were a fine sheet of rubber you were stretching in every direction.

I literally could not do this movement -- at least the way I envisioned the movement -- 8 - 10 times. The dough just did not want to cooperate. I finally formed it into a ball my own inelegant way.
At the end of this whole process, it was late and my brain was fried. I took the whole baking sheet, chucked it into the fridge, and decided to deal with it the next day. I have always thought this was ok to do with yeast doughs (the cold temperature slows the rising, but it doesn't kill the yeast). Maybe this wasn't the ideal time in the process to do this. I don't know.

The next day, I took the loaves out of the fridge and let them rise. The dough just didn't want to rise, and I waited hours. At some point, I wasn't sure if they had risen enough, but I decided to put this challenge to bed and pop those babies in the oven.

Julia's technique is to flip the risen loaves over onto a pizza peel sprinkled with cornmeal, so that the top that was crusted over is now on the bottom, and the soft, smooth underside is on top. Hah! Easier said then done. Mine deflated a bit.

Then the loaves are slashed on top (not as hard as I anticipated), brushed with water, and slipped onto a preheated baking stone.

This kind of bread requires a steamy oven. Julia's recipe called for
Something that you can heat to sizzling hot on top of the stove and then slide into a pan of water in the oven to make a great burst of steam: a brick, a solid 10lb rock, piece of cast iron or other metal.

This struck me as going beyond the arena of Daring Bakers and into the arena of Dangerous Bakers. I'm curious to see whether any Daring Bakers actually did this (do tell me if anyone did). Wimpy me, I preheated the bottom part of a broiler pan on the lowest shelf of the oven. When I put the dough in the oven to bake, I put a cup of water in the pan, which steamed up a bit.

Having never been to France (boo hoo), I don't know how much this was like real French bread. They looked pretty good, although they could have been a bit taller. The crust was nice and brown.

They also tasted pretty good. The crust was very crunchy -- a little too crunchy for our liking. Inside, the dough didn't have the uneven holes that I think the bread was supposed to have. The flavor was a little salty, which some family members liked and some didn't. We ate the bread during three different meals and didn't have a crumb left, so all in all I'd say this Daring Bakers Challenge was a success.

It didn't really change my opinion of Julia Child, though. I have read plenty of books about her and admire her as a person, but I have always found her recipes to be hard to understand and follow. I own The Way To Cook, one of her later books, and can't say anything I've cooked from it has been a "wow." As a result, I was curious to see how this kind of bread would come out if I followed a recipe without Julia Child's fussy steps and wordy directions. So I found a recipe based on hers in a different cookbook. I'll post the results in a couple of days. In the meantime, here's a link to the full recipe that the Daring Bakers followed.

Desperation Citrus Tossed Salad

Last weekend, I was in a situation that made me wish I was Sabrina from "Bewitched."

A couple of families were at my house for a last-minute casual dinner, and the person who I thought was bringing a salad showed up empty handed. This meant the meal would be almost devoid of fruits and vegetables. Trying not to look panicked, I scrounged around in my fridge for salad fixings. What I found:
- carrots and celery
- iceberg lettuce, left over from tacos for dinner a few nights prior
- the last of a bag of romaine salad mix
- a grapefruit
- bananas

Slim pickings, wouldn't you agree? I wound up using several of those ingredients in a variation of a Mandarin Orange Tossed Salad that my mom has made for years. Since I only had one can of mandarin oranges, I added sections of the grapefruit as well. I served sugared almonds on the side, because some of my guests couldn't tolerate nuts. I would have preferred something oniony in it, but it wasn't half bad.

Nah, who needs witchcraft?

I'm contributing this to a food blog event with the theme of seasonal salads. In these snowy parts, "seasonal" is a relative term because there's just not much harvesting being done. The best produce tends to be flown-in citrus fruits, which are at their best at this time of year. The rest of the ingredients are either canned goods or those that don't vary in terms of quality or cost from season to season. It won't be the most exciting contribution to the round-up, but I think it works.

Desperation Citrus Tossed Salad

Do not feel like you need to follow this recipe precisely. The idea is that it was created out of desperation. Use whatever mild lettuces you have on hand. Use whatever citrus you have on hand (not lemons or limes, though). If you have something with a mild onion flavor, like scallions or red onions (which I didn't), add those to balance out the sweet orange and vinaigrette flavors.

1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup cider vinegar
1/4 cup white sugar
2 teaspoons dried parsley
1 teaspoon salt
1 pinch ground black pepper
1/2 cup sliced almonds
1/4 cup white sugar
3/4 head iceberg letttuce, chopped
1/4 head romaine lettuce, chopped
1 cup (or so) chopped celery
1 (11 ounce) can mandarin orange segments, drained
1 grapefruit, peeled and cut into segments

In a jar with a tight fitting lid, combine the oil, vinegar, sugar, parsley, salt and pepper. Cover and shake well. Refrigerate until use.

In a medium saucepan over medium low heat, cook and stir the almonds and sugar until the sugar is melted and the almonds are coated. Remove from heat and cool. Break apart if they stick together. Store at room temperature until ready to serve salad.

In a large bowl, toss together the lettuces, celery, oranges, grapefruit, and salad dressing until evenly coated. You can toss the almonds with the salad or serve them on the side.

Plain old brown rice. Perfectly cooked.

I'll bet I know what you're thinking. A post about BROWN RICE? How boring can she be?

Well, hear me out. Brown rice can be awful. The first brown rice I ever ate was cooked by my Aunt Mary, and as much as I hate to say anything negative about the dearly departed, it was ... er, not tasty. (Any family members who are reading this are probably ready to jump through the computer screen and wring my neck, because Aunt Mary was an amazing woman who we all adored.)

"You MUST eat my brown rice, because it's so good for you," she'd encourage, with her big, exuberant personality. "And it's so easy! You just put it on the stove and cook it forever!"

And oh my gosh did she ever. It was brown mush. And my biggest food issues have to do with things that have mushy textures. I so WANTED to love Aunt Mary's brown rice, because I loved her and wanted her to be happy, but I just couldn't choke down more than a mouthful.

I avoided the stuff for a decade or so, but the health benefits finally made me try to cook it for myself. And I didn't turn it into mush. No, I turned it into something that couldn't be chiseled off of the bottom of the pan.

And then I found quick-cooking brown rice, and that was my go-to when I was on a health kick. In fact, when I was concocting a recipe for a recipe contest a few years ago, I found that I actually preferred brown rice to white rice in a recipe that included collard greens. Whereas white rice made the dish taste bland, the nutty flavor of the brown rice complemented the strong flavor of the collard greens. (The resulting recipe got me to the Southern Living cookoff in 2006.)

Last night, I found myself with an unexpected bag of regular brown rice that a friend had brought over. I wasn't keen on ruining another pan, so I turned to my cookbook collection and found the perfect solution. Put it in a baking pan, dump on some boiling water, cover, and bake for an hour. Not only was it easy, the texture was nice and fluffy. No sign of mush anywhere. A side dish that's healthy, yummy and easy -- how could that be boring?!

Oven-Baked Brown Rice
Makes 4 cups

A ceramic baking dish with a lid may be used instead of the baking dish and foil. To double the recipe, use a 13 by 9-inch baking dish; do not increase the baking time.

1 1/2 cups long-, medium- or short-grain brown rice
2 1/3 cups water
2 teaspoons unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon salt

1. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Spread rice in 8-inch square baking dish.
2. Bring water and butter to boil, covered, in medium saucepan over high heat; once boiling, immediately stir in salt and pour water over rice. Cover baking dish tightly with doubled layer of foil. Bake rice 1 hour, until tender. Keep covered until ready to serve (up to 15 minutes or so). When ready to serve, fluff rice with a fork.

Winter Side Dish: Carrots and Brussels Sprouts

In the winter, I have a hard time getting inspired by veggie side dishes. Most of the stuff that's in season doesn't thrill me, and so many fruits and veggies are crazy expensive.

I spotted this recipe for carrots and Brussels sprouts in last month's Gourmet magazine and thought it looked promising. I served it to guests tonight and I'm glad to report that it was colorful and tasty. I liked that most of the preparation could be done in advance, and the cooking came together quickly. The photo doesn't do it justice, because when I'm serving food to guests I only have a chance to snap a quick photo.

The Brussels sprouts were tender and the carrots were fairly crisp -- maybe a bit too crisp. I used baby carrots because I had them on hand, but next time I'd use regular carrots and cut somewhat thin slices so that they turn out a bit more tender. I halved the recipe; that amount is below because that's the amount I'd usually make, and also because I think the smaller amount of veggies is more manageable in the pan.

I finally have something to contribute to the weekly ARF/5-A-Day Roundup at Sweetnicks! If you are looking for some good veggie recipes, check out the roundup that's posted each Tuesday night. (And if you're not looking for veggie recipes, just pop over to check out her beautiful new baby!)
Carrots and Brussels Sprouts
(Adapted from Gourmet, February 2008)

Makes 4 servings

1 tablespoon chopped shallot (from 1 medium)
1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1/2 lb carrots, cut diagonally into 1/2-inch-thick pieces
1/2 lb Brussels sprouts, halved lengthwise
1/3 cup water
1 tablespoon cider vinegar

Cook shallot in 1 tablespoon butter in a 12-inch heavy skillet over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, 1 to 2 minutes. Add carrots, Brussels sprouts, 3/4 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables begin to brown, 3 to 4 minutes.

Add water and cover skillet, then cook over medium-high heat until vegetables are tender, 5 to 8 minutes. Stir in vinegar, remaining 1/2 tablespoon butter, and salt and pepper to taste.

Cooks' note: Vegetables can be cut 1 hour ahead and kept at room temperature.

A way to a man's heart...

Waaaayyyy back in my single days, every now and then I'd have a young man come over to my place for dinner. If I let the occasion slip to my mom she'd always advise, "make pot roast. Men love pot roast."

To me, pot roast was something Marion Cunningham would make for Howard, Richie and Joanie (and Chuck, when he was around). It wasn't something you'd serve a hot date.

Instead, my roommate and I both favored a deeelicious chicken casserole that included cream of something soup and canned artichokes -- and we added our own gourmet flair by adding a half a can of wine (which was probably white zinfandel). How did it go over? Let's just say that the casserole was eventually renamed "Lose a Boyfriend Casserole."

I eventually wised up and learned how to cook a pot roast. By pot roast, I mean a chuck roast, cooked "low and slow" until it's fork tender, served with potatoes, carrots, and gravy. Sure enough, it's one of my husband's favorite meals. So if you'd like to cook your way into a good man's heart, I suggest this. (On the other hand, if you'd rather cook your way OUT of a guy's heart, I could probably dig up that chicken casserole recipe for you.)

The best pot roast is made in the slow cooker, but when I don't have my act together 10 hours before dinner is to be served, my fallback recipe is this one.

Old-fashioned Sunday Pot Roast with Vegetables and Brown Gravy
(Adapted from Heartland by Marcia Adams)

3 pounds chuck roast
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup coarsely chopped celery
1 cup coarsely chopped onion
3 large carrots, peeled and halved (or you can use a dozen or so baby-cut carrots)
4 cups beef stock or beef broth
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon ketchup
3/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more for seasoning beef
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more for seasoning beef
6 small starchy white potatoes, peeled and quartered
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
A few drops Tabasco (to taste)

Preheat oven to 325. Season the meat with salt and pepper. Heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium heat in heavy roasting pan; add the meat and brown on all sides. Transfer the meat to a plate.

Add the remaining tablespoon oil to the pan. Add the celery, onion, and carrots and saute for 5 minutes. Add the stock, bay leaves, and ketchup. Return the meat to the pan and bring to a boil. Cover and transfer to the oven. Bake for two hours.

Move the meat aside and stir in the thyme, salt and pepper. (At this point, the meat can be stored in the refrigerator until the next day.) Place the potatoes on the bottom of the pan, and rearrange the meat on top. Re-cover, and bake 45 minutes longer, or until the meat and potatoes are tender.

In a small bowl, mash the butter and flour together until a smooth paste is formed. Transfer the meat to a large heated platter (my favorite is Armetale, which can go in the oven), and using a slotted spoon, remove the carrots and potatoes and arrange them around the meat. (Of course, you can serve them all separately, as shown here.) Discard the onions, bay leaves, and celery. Defat the pan juices. Bring the pan juices to a boil over high heat, then whisk in the butter mixture by tablespoonfuls. Cook over high heat until the mixture forms a gravy, the reduce heat and simmer for 3 minutes. If desired, add Tabasco to taste. Ladle into a gravy boat and serve with the meat and veggies.

Banana muffins

True confession: I'm not good at making muffins. I can make every other kind of baked good. Crusty yeast breads, tender cakes, chewy cookies, gooey brownies -- no problem. My muffins certainly have been edible, but great muffins -- the kind with the high, rounded tops and fluffy insides -- have eluded me. I have tried recipe after recipe, and I'll keep trying until I've found "the one."

My latest try was banana muffins, the recipe from Pro Bono Baker, a blogger from (sigh...) Chicago. (Since I didn't modify the recipe significantly, you can get it there.) The picture on HER blog looked perfect, and the ingredients are always in my kitchen, so I thought the recipe looked promising.

Right off the bat, I made an inadvertent substitution. The recipe called for four egg whites, and I had exactly four eggs. When I separated the first egg, I broke the yolk. So I ended up using one whole egg and two whites, which should not have been a problem.

I was a bit confused when the recipe said to mix softened butter, sugar and egg whites. Usually recipes with softened butter call for you to mix the butter and sugar, then the egg. And usually the fat in muffins is in liquid form. So after doing this step by hand (I don't use the mixer for making muffins because I don't want to overmix them), my batter had little bits of butter in it. I wasn't sure if this was right but I forged ahead. I did the rest as directed, and really, REALLY tried to be careful not to overmix! I stirred until it was just combined, I think. The only changes I made were to substitute King Arthur white whole wheat flour for half of the all-purpose flour, add walnuts to half of the muffins, and sprinkle the tops with a little Turbinado sugar. The recipe said to bake for 40 minutes but mine were done in a little less than 30.

In the end, they were reasonably good -- my older son pronounced them "awesome." But they still didn't have that high dome top or fluffy insides. My gut feeling is that even though I try not to overmix, I probably am. I think I need Alton Brown looking over my shoulder to tell me, STOP .... RIGHT .... THERE!!! Or maybe the white whole wheat flour is too heavy for this kind of recipe? Anyway, don't let my experience stop you from trying this recipe. The problem probably is with the baker, not the recipe.

Sigh ... I'll keep trying ...

Tagged again: Five facts (inspired by "27 Dresses")

I was tagged by Sue at Food Network Musings for a MEME. The rules:
1. Link to your tagger and post these rules.
2. Share 5 facts about yourself
3. Tag 5 people at the end of your post and list their names (linking to them).
4. Let them know they've been tagged by leaving a comment at their blogs.

I've done a couple of memes already, so I thought I'd be creative with my five facts. Since I went to see 27 Dresses with some girlfriends this weekend, I decided to base my facts on things having to do with that movie -- New York City, dogs, family, and weddings. Here goes:

1. Call me unromantic, but I like rehearsal dinners better than weddings. At least in our family, rehearsal dinners are smaller, less formal, more creative, and a lot more fun. My brother's rehearsal dinner (almost a year ago) was at a pub that had karaoke, and this photo of my brother's bride, her sister, and my Uncle Dan tells it all -- doesn't that look more fun than a wedding? At cousins' rehearsal dinners, I've been to a Western Dutch Oven cookout and a South Carolina oyster roast. Our rehearsal dinner was at the Waukegan Yacht Club which overlooks the Waukegan Harbor on Lake Michigan. The food at that dinner (a choice of Filet Mignon or Planked Whitefish) was so much better than the boring, forgettable chicken at my wedding. See what I mean?

2. I feel very lucky that I have a grandma who is still around at the age of 92. She lives in Wisconsin. Grandma isn't able to do much cooking now, but she was a very good cook, and I still use a lot of her recipes. She has a "green thumb" and always had a big vegetable garden, plus lots of house plants. She has a quick wit and a memory that's better than mine. I love her dearly and wish I could see her more often.

3. I have 23 cousins. That's me with five of them at my cousin's Dutch Oven cookout rehearsal dinner in Idaho. I'm the tall, slender one on the left. Just kidding, that's Molly, who had given birth just a few months earlier, making it even sadder that she looks so much better than me. And even though most of my cousins are similarly tall and thin, I dearly love them all. I'm the oldest cousin on both sides of the family, so I've watched them all grow up. We are scattered around the U.S.A. (and, at times, around the globe), so it's always special whenever I have a chance to spend time with them and get to know them as adults. (This being a food blog I should mention that several are good cooks and we even have a chef!)

4. I love dogs. So do my husband and sons. I've written about our little white dog, Charlie. Our family's first dog was Charlie's opposite -- she was a black lab/husky mix named Darby. She loved the water and would find a way into every puddle, pond, baby pool, or lake she came across (we had to fish her out of our in-ground pool twice). She was a retriever that wasn't big on retrieving. We taught her how to play "fetch," but she'd only do it once. If you threw the object a second time, she'd look at you like she was thinking, "I just got that thing, and I'm not getting it again." She was sweet and gentle when each of my babies came into her life. She died in the spring of 2005 and I still miss her.

5. I can't get enough of visiting New York City (left) and Chicago (right). I love both cities' architecture, art, food, culture, history and overall energy. I especially like visiting them when someone else is picking up the tab. That's happened to me once in each city (one city per son), thanks to my cooking contest hobby.

I'm supposed to tag 5 people but lots of people have already done this one! I'm wimping out with four. You four, do this if you like, or don't worry about it:
1. Bibliochef
2. Laura at Lazy Susin
3. Barbara Bakes
4. Chou from Balance

Surf & Turf from Valentine's Day

What to make for a special Valentine's Day for my three guys? A dilemma, since they have different ideas of what a "special" meal is. The final decision: an easy surf & turf, accompanied by baked potatoes and salad.

The surf was Spicy Baked Shrimp from Epicurious.com, made as directed. I purchased Wegmans' farm-raised shrimp from Belize ($7.99 a pound). The shrimp is said to meet environmental and health standards. I am glad that Wegmans is paying attention to environmental issues, but I'm sorry to say that I didn't care for the flavor of the shrimp. I don't think it was the recipe, which had a nice spice to it. The shrimp had a strong flavor that I personally didn't care for. If anyone has purchased these shrimp from Wegmans, I'd be curious to know what you think of them.

My Filet Mignon preparation was based on this Tyler Florence recipe from the Food Network. Tyler's recipe called for a Pinot Noir Sauce, which I didn't make (my sinuses can't tolerate red wine.) Instead, I garnished it with blue cheese, which my husband loves on steak. It was pretty good. I would have liked the bacon to be less flabby, but Tom says that's how it is when it's wrapped around filet. And I would have liked the mushrooms to be sauteed more, but I used plain old moonlight mushrooms instead of the wild mushrooms I should have used.

Here's how I made it:

Bacon-Wrapped Filet Mignon with Blue Cheese
Adapted from a Tyler Florence recipe on Foodnetwork.com

2 (8-ounce) filet mignon steaks
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 bacon strips
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 pound sliced mushrooms
1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
Blue cheese

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Season both sides of the filet mignon generously with salt and pepper. Wrap a piece of bacon around the sides of each steak and secure with butcher's twine. In a large heavy, ovenproof skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat until almost smoking. Place the steaks in the hot pan and cook until well seared on 1 side, about 3 minutes. Turn the steaks over (there should be a nice crust on top). Add the mushrooms and garlic; give everything a good stir. Transfer the pan to the oven. Roast for 10 to 12 minutes or until the steaks are cooked medium-rare. Garnish with blue cheese.

Heart-y treats from around the world

One of the reasons I enjoy watching Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations is that underneath Bourdain's sarcasm and snarkiness is an optimistic perspective that food, fun, family and friendship are universal to the human experience.

Apparently so are hearts and love and sweet desserts. I know so because of the latest blog event in which I participated, "A Heart for Your Valentine." Bloggers who participated were from Italy, Australia, the UK, Germany, Belgium, India, Poland, France, the Netherlands and so on. Most of the heartfelt creations were sweet, but there are some interesting savory submissions as well. Many of the blogs aren't even in English, but it's fun to see what they made. So check out part one and part two of the roundup.

I don't want to mention Bourdain's name and then just let it drop, so here's a link to a cool interview with him.

Valentine's Day Pop T'hearts!

Happy Valentine's Day! Here's what my guys will have for their special breakfast: Pop T'hearts! I was inspired to make these by a post on the blog of a 17-year-old cook. I figured if a 17-year-old could make them, so could I!

When I saw that her recipe was baked at 450 degrees, I was concerned I'd burn them. I also wasn't sure how many it would make, considering she was starting with just 1 1/2 cups of flour. Then I recalled that Alton Brown had made them on "Good Eats," so I turned to his cookbook, I'm Just Here for More Food.

I've ranted about recipe formats before, but this book takes the cake when it comes to making me nutso. I don't mind the premise, that he's trying to teach different methods of baking, but the execution doesn't work for me. The general baking instructions are on a flap at the beginning of each chapter. The idea is to fold those instructions over the page of the recipe you are following, but the ingredients of the recipes aren't listed in the same order as the instructions, so it's an effort to go back and forth.

Anyway, my biggest change from his recipe was to use some white whole wheat flour. I also rolled the dough (probably not thinly enough) and cut it with cookie cutters, instead of following his technique to use wax paper to fold the dough into rectangles.

So I'm going to post the recipe in such a way that you can actually follow it. Am I saying I'm a better recipe writer than Alton Brown? Well, yes I am.

Pop T'hearts
Adapted from "Pop Goes the Tart" in I'm Just Here for More Food by Alton Brown

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups white whole wheat flour (can use all all-purpose flour)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup shortening
1 cup plus 2 Tablespoons sugar
2 large eggs, beaten (plus an additional egg for an egg wash)
1/4 cup milk

Fillings and glaze, as desired (see end of recipe for ones I tried)

Whisk together flours, baking powder and salt.

Using a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, beat the shortening on medium speed for one minute. Add the sugar and beat until mixture lightens in texture and increases slightly in volume. Reduce the speed to "stir" and slowly add the eggs, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl as necessary.

Add the flour mixture in three installments, alternating with two doses of the milk.

Divide the mixture into two disks and refrigerate for one hour. Beat an egg with a little water to make an egg wash. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

One disk at a time, roll dough between sheets of waxed paper and cut out with cookie cutters.

Place the filling on one piece, leaving a 1/2-inch border on the outside. Brush egg wash on the edges. Place another piece on top. Press down around the outside edge with the tines of a fork to seal. Dock the top with a fork; do not pierce the bottom layer.

Bake 18-24 minutes, or until edges are just starting to brown. Remove from the oven and place on a rack to cool for about 15 minutes. Glaze, if desired.

FILLINGS/GLAZES: I tried two fillings, but didn't measure for any of them:
1. I did a filling of a little melted butter, some brown sugar and cinnamon. For the topping, I did one glaze that was just confectioner's sugar and milk, and other glaze that had cinnamon added. I drizzled the cinnamon glaze over the plain glaze. It would have looked nicer if I had used less, but we all like lots of glaze! This one was yummy.
2. I tried to duplicate S'more Pop Tarts. I spread marshmallow fluff on the bottom, then topped with melted chocolate. For the glaze, I combined confectioner's sugar, cocoa, and milk. This didn't work. For some reason the tarts got overcooked. In addition, the fluff seemed to disappear and the filling just didn't taste like much. I wouldn't do this one again.
3. I still have some dough in the fridge and may try some jammy fillings.

I am sending this to "A Heart for Your Valentine" blog event! It will be fun to check out all the different hearts that people make!

My husband's idea of a joke (but it's on him).

So I was uploading photos from my camera onto my computer, and this beauty pops up. Huh? I don't remember taking a photo of an English muffin with cinnamon on it. I would have at least wiped off the plate.

Well, it was my husband being funny. He finds no end to his amusement with me taking pictures of food.

"I hear the sound of the camera," he cracks. "Dinner must be ready."

Well, the joke is on him. I'm actually going to make a productive post out of his homely photo. I'm going to tell you about a couple of products in the photo that I really like.

The first is the English muffin. They are Thomas' 100 Calorie English Muffins. They have 100 calories and five grams of fiber in each muffin. I'm sure the original ones are a tad tastier, but the 100-calorie ones haven't received any complaints from the family, so that's what I buy.

The cinnamon is from Penzey's. I started ordering my spices from Penzey's at the recommendation of a friend who is a really good cook. This also was met with mirth from my husband, so I did a blind taste (well, smell) test. The usual supermarket cinnamon in one bowl. The Korintje Cassia Cinnamon from Penzey's in another. My husband and two sons smelled the bowls and decided which they'd rather have on their toast. All three picked the same bowl without hesitation -- the Penzey's cinnamon. Whereas the supermarket stuff smelled dull and musty, the Penzey's smelled sweet and spicy. Penzey's makes a good cinnamon sugar, but I usually prefer to make my own combination.

So there, honey. Nyah, nyah...

A "Sweet" Heart of Kahlua Fudge

Here's a Valentine's Day gift idea from the kitchen. I like putting fudge in cookie cutters. Just make a batch of your favorite recipe and pour it into cookie cutters. Put each cookie cutter in a decorative bag, tie it on top, and you've got a nice little gift. But not for teachers.

I used to make fudge in cookie cutters for my sons' teachers, but then I found out that many teachers don't eat gifts from other people's kitchens, so I don't do teacher gifts from my kitchen any more. It's sad, if you ask me, that home cooking has become suspect.

This Kahlua Fudge recipe is taboo not only from the home cooking standpoint, but also from the standpoint of nuts and booze. Nuts, because so many kids are allergic these days, and teachers are wary of any nuts in the classroom. And booze, because it just wouldn't seem appropriate to send something boozy into school.

Which is funny, because every year my mom's Christmas gifts for my teachers were loaf of banana bread and a bottle of bubbly, like Cold Duck. Even the thought of me sending my kids into school with a bottle of booze makes me laugh out loud. How times have changed.

So anyway, make this easy and delicious fudge - for yourself, for your sweetie, but not for your kids' teachers!

Kahlua Fudge

1 1/3 cup sugar
1 jar (7 oz) marshmallow creme
2/3 cup evaporated milk (5 oz can)
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup Kahlua
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups semisweet chocolate pieces
1 cup milk chocolate chips
2/3 cup chopped nuts (I like walnuts)
1 teaspoon vanilla

Line an 8-inch square baking pan with foil. In a 2-quart saucepan, combine sugar, marshmallow creme, evaporated milk, butter, Kahlua, and salt. Bring to a rapid boil, stirring constantly for five minutes. Remove from heat. Add all chocolate. Stir until melted. Add nuts and vanilla. Turn into prepared pan. Refrigerate until firm. To serve, cut into squares. Makes about 2 3/4 pounds.

Chicken soup to the rescue!

I've been fighting a cold for the past few days. I can usually tough out a cold, but this one comes at an especially bad time because CRB has a big gig tonight. We're playing at the annual Teddi Dance for Love, a 24-hour dance marathon at St. John Fisher College. I want to sing well not only because there will be about 500 people there, but more importantly because it's a fundraiser for a wonderful organization called Camp Good Days and Special Times. Chicken noodle soup to the rescue!

This is an amalgamation of various recipes. I'd tell you how the recipe tasted to be honest, my taste buds are obscured by my stuffy nose. But it was comforting to eat last night, and I'll be slurping some today and tonight. Hope it does the trick!

Hearty Chicken Noodle Soup

Rah Cha Chow note: This is best done over two days. If you're doing it in one day, give yourself about 90 minutes to prepare it.

1 whole frying chicken
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1 medium onion, chopped medium
2 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 quarts boiling water
2 bay leaves

3 large carrots, peeled and sliced 1/4 inch thick (or 8 ounces from a package of sliced carrots)
3 medium celery ribs, sliced 1/4 inch thick
1 medium onion, chopped fine (optional)
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
2 cups (3 ounces) wide egg noodles
Ground black pepper

Preferably a day ahead, prepare the stock.

Remove breasts from bones. Cut the remaining chicken into pieces. Heat the oil until just smoking and add the chicken breasts. Cook both sides until lightly brown, about 5 minutes. Remove the chicken from the pot and reserve.

Add the onions (if using) and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a large stockpot. Cover and cook over medium-low heat, stirring often, until softened, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer onion to a large bowl.

Add half of the chicken pieces to the pot; cook over medium-high heat until no longer pink, about 5 minutes. Transfer the cooked chicken to the bowl with the onion. Cook the remaining chicken pieces. Return the onion and chicken pieces (not the breasts) to the pot. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook until the chicken releases its juices, about 20 minutes.

Add the boiling water, the boneless chicken breasts, the remaining 2 teaspoons salt, and bay leaves. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat; partially cover, reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer until the stock is flavorful, about 20 minutes.

Remove the chicken breasts from the stock. Strain the stock into a large bowl; discard the solids in the colander. Defat the stock. Either refrigerate the stock until the fat has solidified and scrape it off with a spoon, OR put it in a gravy skimmer and pour it out through the spout at the bottom of the skimmer, stopping before the fat is poured out. When the chicken breasts are cool enough to handle, remove the skin and shred the meat into bite-sized pieces. (The shredded chicken and stock can be refrigerated separately in airtight containers for up to 2 days.)

To finish the soup, combine the carrots, celery, onion (if using), oil, and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a large Dutch oven. Cover and cook over medium-low heat, stirring often, until the veggies have softened, 8 to 10 minutes.

Stir in the stock, shredded chicken meat, and thyme. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat; reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until the vegetables are tender, about 10 to 20 minutes.

Stir in the noodles; continue to simmer until the noodles are just tender, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.

(My note: if you are not going to consume the whole batch in one serving, cook the noodles separately and stir them into each serving. They will absorb a lot of broth and get very soft if the soup is refrigerated overnight.)

Pralines for Mardi Gras

It's Fat Tuesday! Like many people, when I think of Mardi Gras, I think of New Orleans. I have only been there once, on business, but I remember the food being fantastic. Plus, my fun and crazy Uncle Kenny and his good natured wife Anne live there. "Go to New Orleans for Mardi Gras or the Jazz Festival" is on my list of things I'd like to do someday.

Since I can't get there this year, I decided to make a food that reminds me of New Orleans -- pralines. After a little online hunting, I chose Gale Gand's recipe from the Food Network site. Gale Gand has written lots of cookbooks, had the show "Sweet Dreams" on the Food Network, and appeared on "Iron Chef America" with her business partner, Rick Tramonto (they lost). She and Chef Tromonto actually got their start here in Rochester, at the Strathallan Hotel. And I can't resist mentioning that I met her and she's friendly and down to earth.

I'm always nervous making recipes that mention "soft ball" and "hard ball," but this was pretty easy. The candy thermometer seemed to stall at 220 degrees for several minutes, but eventually it inched up to the desired temperature. I admit that they didn't turn out all that pretty -- while they were cooling, I couldn't help but mentally compare them to doggie diarrhea -- but they actually were yummy. The flavor of the butter cut through the sweetness.

By the way, if you're trying to find something worth watching during the writer's strike, I highly recommend Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations. The current episode is, of course, about post-Katrina New Orleans. It's understandably more serious than some episodes but Bourdain always keeps things interesting.

Gale Gand's Pralines
Adapted from The Food Network

1 cup sugar
1 cup brown sugar (I used dark but I think I'd use light next time)
1 cup cream
2 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 cups toasted halved pecans

In a heavy saucepan combine the sugar, brown sugar, and cream and bring to a boil. Cook on medium heat to softball stage (238 degrees F). This will take several minutes. Add the butter and pecans. Continue cooking until hardball stage (245 degrees F). This will go fairly quickly. Working quickly, spoon large dollops onto a silicone mat or parchment lined baking tray. The pralines will spread and crystallize as they cool.

My Super Bowl goodies

We're going to the annual Super Bowl party at the home of good friends. I'm rooting for the Giants but I honestly don't care all that much about the outcome of the game. Everyone is bringing an appetizer or a sweet to the party, so I think I'm looking forward to the food more than the game.

My contributions to this year's gathering are two Pillsbury Bake-off finalist recipes: my Jalapeno Popper Cups and Mexican Chocolate Crunch Brownies.

I could use practice making the cups, and I hope everyone likes them. I think they are just right for a Super Bowl party. The jalapeno rings are spicy, but I think the biscuit base and cheesy filling balance them out. If you don't like spicy foods, just pick off the jalapeno ring (or make some cups without one).

The Mexican Chocolate Crunch Brownies are the creation of Val, an online pal who I look forward to meeting in person in Dallas. I made them with D. yesterday and they were easy to put together. Val tells me that the secret of the crust is to process the cereal very finely. Mexican chocolate is a combination of cinnamon and chocolate. I've messed around with the flavors, and I find that it's tricky to have enough cinnamon so that it comes through, but not so much that it overwhelms the chocolate. I think these are just right.

I'm submitting this to a Gameday Gourmet roundup! To check out other fun football fare, click on the link the week of February 10!

French Toast two ways

After yesterday's whining about my family's divergent food preferences, I thought I'd admit that are actually a few items that everyone will eat -- breakfast foods, like pancakes, waffles and French toast. I have excellent recipes for all three. I serve them with some kind of breakfast meat and fruit -- not terribly healthy, but it's easy and it makes everyone happy.

French toast can be made from just about any kind of bread, but my favorite is made from cinnamon swirl bread, specifically the cinnamon swirl bread from a chain called Great Harvest Bread Co. The bread originated at a nice local bread chain called Montana Mills, which was very popular here in the 90s. Since then, the chain has gone through a few owners, but most recently was taken over by Great Harvest (although Montana Mills still appears online). Their cinnamon swirl bread is a heavy, round loaf, with a thick swirl of cinnamon.

One day, I thought I'd try something easier so I decided to make Baked French Toast, which calls for you to soak the bread overnight, then bake it the next day. My cousin, Kristen, served it to us once when we stayed with them in Crystal Lake, Illinois. It was delicious, and it sounded convenient and easy. I didn't have the recipe she used, so I found a recipe on Epicurious that had received good reviews.

When it came out of the oven, I thought it looked as good as Kristen's.

But when I went to serve it, the bottoms were completely soggy and uncooked. Ick. If there's anything I'm squeamish about, it's undercooked eggs (unless they are in cookie dough). I flipped the French toast and finished it in the oven. It ended up being ok, but I didn't think I saved myself very much time, and the results are better on the griddle. I wonder if the bread was more dense than the bread called for in the recipe. If you want to try it, here's the recipe on Epicurious.

For now, I'll stick with my tried and true recipe:

Cinnamon Swirl French Toast

1 egg
3/4 cups milk
2 Tablespoons melted unsalted butter, plus more for cooking
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 Tablespoons sugar
2 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
Pinch of salt
About 1/2 loaf of Great Harvest Cinnamon Swirl Bread (I also love challah bread for French toast, but sandwich bread will work too.)

Heat an electric nonstick griddle to 350 degrees. Preheat oven to 250 degrees.

Meanwhile, beat egg in a shallow bowl or pie plate. Add milk, butter, and vanilla, then sugar, flour and salt, and whisk until smooth. Soak bread without saturating. Pick up bread and allow excess batter to drip off.

Place on nonstick griddle and cook until golden brown. Transfer to oven until all pieces are done. Serve immediately.