Friday, February 26, 2010

easy indian dinner

Dan's father Larry loves Indian food, so that's immediately where my mind went when trying to figure out a menu for our recent dinner. I call this menu "Indian lite" because it's sort of a cheat. It is not authentic by any means, but it incorporates Indian flavors and techniques and is about as easy as can be.

We started off the meal with small cups of squash and carrot soup topped with dollops of cumin yogurt (more on that later), then ate yogurt-marinated chicken masala with roasted cauliflower and steamed rice. Dessert, well, you know about dessert.

The chicken, from a recent Bon Appetit recipe, was the star of the meal. Chicken is notorious for being bland and dry, but when you marinate it for a few hours in yogurt (adding some cilantro and spices doesn't hurt either) the bird remains juicy and tender. One of the best parts of this recipe that the chicken cooks atop a bed of onions, which soak up all of the delicious juices. The onions may seem incidental, but they are a side dish by themselves.

Served up with some roasted cauliflower, steamed rice, and raita, this dinner felt like a feast but was so easy to throw together--like getting a compliment on an outfit you've worn for years. "Oh, this old thing?"

Sunday night Indian dinner
Butternut squash and carrot soup with cumin yogurt
Chicken masala
Roasted cauliflower
Steamed rice
Chocolate caketastrophe
Chai tea
Easy chicken masala
From Bon Appetit
(Serves 6 to 8 people)

1 cup plain whole-milk yogurt (I used Greek yogurt)
1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro
3 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp. garam masala
2 tsp. coarse kosher salt
1 large garlic clove, pressed
1 4- to 4 1/2-lb. roasting chicken, cut into 8 pieces, backbone removed
2 small onions, cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices

Mix yogurt, chopped cilantro, olive oil, garam masala, salt, and garlic in 13x9x2-inch glass baking dish. Add chicken to marinade, 1 piece at a time, coating all sides. Cover with plastic wrap; refrigerate at least 2 hours. (Can be made 1 day in advance, keep refrigerated.) Position racks in top third and bottom third of oven; preheat to 400 degrees. Arrange onions in thin layer on large rimmed baking sheet to form bed for chicken. Top with chicken pieces in single layer, spacing apart for even roasting (chicken will still be coated with marinade). Discard remaining marinade. Roast chicken on top rack until cooked through and juices run clear when thickest portion of thigh is pierced with knife, about 1 hour. Serve chicken atop onion slices. Spoon pan juices around.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


Oh, boy. Let's begin at the beginning. My father-in-law was in town for work recently and came over to have dinner with Dan and me on Valentine's Day. In honor of the occasion and the holiday, I decided to make us all a chocolate cake. Nothing fussy, no fancy piping or heart-shaped cut-outs or sugary pink decorations. I envisioned something more homespun: two layers of cinnamon-spiced chocolate cake covered in a thick layer of chocolate frosting. I would serve the cake on my pretty scallop-edged plate. We would eat it with mugs of chai tea. It would be perfect.

And then I overfilled both cake pans and it all went to hell. Dear readers, don't overfill your cake pans. Let me be the cautionary tale.

I would hate for your apartment to fill up with smoke about two hours before your guest arrived. You might think the burning smell is coming from bits of old food at the bottom of your oven that you should have cleaned last week, but no, it's the damn cake.

I would hate to imagine you having to pull the pans of half-baked, still-oozy cake out of the oven, finding globs of burning batter at the bottom of the oven.

I know you'd probably want to wait for the oven to fully cool down before you cleaned up the burning mess. Really, I'd hate for you to reach into the hot oven and burn your wrist scraping up cake ash. And yell about it to no one in particular.

I'd hate for you to have to open all of the windows to air out your apartment, especially on a 20-degree day.

Once the oven has cooled off, you'd be smart to put the cakes back in to finish cooking. After you scrape off the batter that leaked over the sides of the pan, of course. Which I'd hate for you to have to do, chipping your nail polish and all.

And once the cakes are cooked through and slightly cool, I'd hate for you to try to unmold them in a hurry, leaving big chunks of cake sticking to the pan. The layers will be so uneven and have so many craters and cracks, there is no way they can be stacked on top of each other, even with the most skillful cutting and shaving with a serrated knife. I'd hate to see the look on your face when you realize this.
And I'd hate for you to start picking at the lopsided cakes in frustration, eating big pieces which make the layers look even more ragged. There is nothing worse than feeling gluttonous and like a failure. But at least the cake tastes good. A little too keep eating it.

Chocolate frosting might save this fugly cake. You would be smart to make some and set it aside in the refrigerator to thicken up. But don't leave it in there for too long--I'd hate for it to harden and turn grainy, leading to further frustration and freak-outs. (Luckily, re-cooking it over a double-boiler will do the trick, leaving the frosting shiny and satiny-smooth.)

You may quickly realize that slapping frosting on a busted cake won't really save anything. And I'd hate to see you contemplate throwing both layers in the garbage.

No, you will not throw it away. Instead, you will serve it forth by cutting the cake in the kitchen where no one can see. You'll cut slices only from the center of the cake, making almost passable squares that no one will question. And you will take a bite and say, "This tastes exactly like a boxed Entenmann's cake. All that work for a boxed Entenmann's cake."

Monday, February 22, 2010

what's for dinner, kelly carámbula?

Today's Q&A is with Kelly Carámbula, food blogger, graphic designer, and magazine editor extraordinaire. I met Kelly at the Bon Appetit Blogger Bake-Off at the end of last year. When she told me she and her husband and some friends just launched a new food magazine called Remedy Quarterly, I was blown away. Starting a self-funded (ad-free!) print publication during a desolate time in the magazine industry is not only brave, it's amazing. After immersing myself in Kelly's beautiful food blog Eat Make Read, I understood why she would want to expand into print. Her site is gorgeously designed and photographed, and she writes about the kind of recipes you want to rush home and try immediately. Remedy also includes personal stories and actual food remedies, many of which have rich and fascinating traditions. Here, her thoughts on dinner party playlists, Thanksgiving dinners, and her favorite desserts. Many thanks to Kelly for participating!

1. Name, occupation, and city
Carámbula, graphic designer, Brooklyn. In addition to my day job, I have a food magazine, Remedy Quarterly and a blog,

2. When was the last time you threw a dinner party, and who was invited?
Thanksgiving of last year we had my husband Aaron's parents and brother over for dinner.

3. What is the best menu you've ever made for company?
I have to admit, I don't throw many dinner parties, but I'm starting to realize it might be time to change that. I do really love to make thanksgiving dinner. There's just something so satisfying about pulling out a perfectly golden bird. I usually make some sort of cornbread and sausage stuffing, biscuits, sweet potatoes and green beans, totally indulgent but awesomely satisfying dishes.

4. What's your preference: wine, beer, cocktails?

Oh boy, I love them all! Hmmm, if I had to choose, cocktails, but Bell's Beer from Michigan comes in at a close second.

5. What's your favorite dinner party soundtrack?
My music skills are a little lacking. When my husband's not around to pick the perfect list, I'll just put my iPod on shuffle so you'd get a little Dolly Parton, David Bowie, the Avett Brothers, ESG and Hot Chip. Let's just call it an eclectic mix. [Ed: Sounds great to me!]

6. Some friends are coming over for a last-minute dinner. What do you make?

Corn cakes with fresh salsa, a salad on the side, some Negro Modelo to imbibe and I might just whip up a batch of brownies to bake while we're eating.

7. Do you usually cook everything yourself, or do you have help?
I do usually cook everything myself, it's soothing.

8. Do you ever buy store-bought food, or is everything on your table made from scratch?
I'm not opposed to store bought food...fresh ravioli from the store, totally worth the $5, but I'll whip up the sauce from scratch.

9. What do you like to serve for dessert? Oh man, I have the biggest sweet tooth. I looove brownies, but ice cream with a little homemade butterscotch or chocolate sauce is hard to beat. A nice fruit crumble is great in the summer. Oh, I could go on and on.

10. If you could invite anyone over for dinner (living or dead), who would it be?I would most definitely invite my mother who passed away when I was in college and a few years before I really learned to love food. I was the pickiest damn child so I wish I had to chance to sit with her and savor her favorite foods (things I would never eat growing up), talk about silly stuff, and just relax with her.

[Photo by Aaron Carámbula]

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

meatball sliders

The Little Owl is a pocket-sized restaurant in the West Village. Like lots of places in New York, it was very, very hyped after it opened and getting a table there was--and still is--challenging at best. I ate there a few years ago with some friends and really liked it, even in spite of the crowds. I don't remember what I ate but the atmosphere was what got me. It's the cozy, friendly type of place you wish was in your own neighborhood, even though it would be perpetually packed anywhere, due to its teeny dining room.

One of the most talked-about dishes on the menu, other than a Flintstones-sized pork chop served with butter beans, is the gravy meatball sliders, which come three to an order, lined up in a cute little row. This gravy is not the brown stuff that goes over a slice of turkey. Even though I am half Italian, I had never heard the word gravy used to refer to a tomato-based sauce until I moved to New York. People said things like, "I love my gramma's Sunday gravy," and I was very confused until someone explained it to me. This is the type of gravy on these sliders, rich and fragrant from fennel seeds, basil, and garlic.

Like many restaurant dishes, this recipe takes several steps. You have to make the meatballs and brown them in a skillet, make the sauce and puree it, simmer the meatballs in the sauce until they are cooked through, and then assemble each tiny burger. I made the sliders as the centerpiece of our Super Bowl party, and they more than made up for all of that work. The meatballs were juicy and flavorful with parmesan, parsley, plus beef and pork, and the gravy was everything you'd want in a tomato sauce.

Everyone likes tiny food, and burgers are no exception. But tiny burgers require tiny buns. I thought about searching the city for them (because unlike some people, I will not bake my own) and then got wise and cut up hot dog buns into thirds. While homemade buns would probably elevate these sliders into a divine realm, sometimes you just have to know where to draw the line.

Gravy meatball sliders
Adapted by The Little Owl's chef Joey Campanaro for Bon Appetit. These would be a hearty start to a meal, or a meal in themselves, served up with some soup or salad. Or a bunch of fattening snacks, as we did for the Super Bowl.
(Makes 6 servings of 3 sliders)

1/2 lb. ground beef
1/2 lb. ground pork
1/2 lb. ground veal (I used an extra half-pound of beef instead)
1/2 cup panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)
1/2 cup water
8 Tbsp. freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese, divided (I used parmesan)
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 cup chopped onion
6 garlic cloves, chopped
1/4 cup (packed) fresh basil leaves
1 1/2 tsp. fennel seeds
1 28-oz. can whole peeled tomatoes
1 14.5-oz. can whole peeled tomatoes
Arugula leaves (I used spinach leaves)
18 small soft rolls, split horizontally

Mix all meats, panko, 1/2 cup water, 6 tablespoons cheese, egg, egg yolk, 1/4 cup parsley, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper in large bowl. Form into eighteen 2-inch-meatballs.

Heat vegetable oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. Working in batches, fry meatballs until brown all over. Transfer to plate. Pour off drippings from skillet. Reduce heat to medium. Add olive oil to skillet. Add onion, garlic, basil, and fennel seeds. Sauté until onion begins to brown, about 5 minutes. Add all tomatoes with juices. Bring to boil, scraping up browned bits. Reduce heat to low, cover with lid slightly ajar, and simmer, stirring occasionally, about 30 minutes.

Puree sauce in processor until almost smooth. Return to same skillet. Add meatballs. Cover with lid slightly ajar and simmer until meatballs are cooked through, stirring occasionally, about 30 minutes longer. Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover; chill.

Place arugula (or spinach) leaves on bottom of each roll, if desired. Top each with 1 meatball. Drizzle meatballs with some of sauce and sprinkle with remaining 2 tablespoons parsley and 2 tablespoons cheese. Cover with tops of rolls.

Monday, February 15, 2010

winners and losers

I am not one of those cooks who has a rotation of tried-and-true, company-tested recipes. Sometimes I'll re-run certain favorite dishes, but when I throw dinner parties, I tend to try out new things. Most of the time this works out really well, and sometimes it doesn't.

Take the Super Bowl for example. This year I took over hosting duties from my friend E, who normally has everyone over to his apartment to watch the game. Like most Super Bowl parties, it is basically an excuse to eat junky food, drink a lot of beer, and scream at the TV. I prefer doing these things while watching the Puppy Bowl, but that's just me.

Thinking about what would eat well with beer, I put together a snack-oriented menu with a few standbys (guacamole) and a few new recipes (meatball sliders, stout ice cream floats). Some ideas proved to be better than others.

Super Bowl 2010
Pickle pinwheels
Guacamole and tortilla chips
Candied bacon peanut mix
Salami, prosciutto, gouda, and crackers
Meatball sliders
Cocoa brownies
Stout ice cream floats

The pickle pinwheels were gone by half-time. Everyone eyes them skeptically and then finds themselves going back for seconds, thirds, sixths. They are scary good. As in, scary and good.

Meatball sliders. More on those later this week.

Cocoa brownies. Just stop whatever you're doing right now and make these. Seriously, leave work if you have to. And add some chopped pecans while you're at it.

I'd say the candied bacon peanuts were almost a win. I came up with the idea for this nut mix after several friends saw the recipe for candied bacon on my site the other week and asked me to make some for the Super Bowl. Now I know the Super Bowl is not the occasion to eat healthily, but I was grossed out by the idea of serving a plate of bacon strips as a snack. So I made the candied bacon according to the recipe, then crumbled it and toasted it in the oven with salted peanuts, plus extra cayenne, brown sugar, and black pepper. I was really pleased with the results--the nuts were spicy and sweet and the chunks of bacon added a chewy porkiness. Everyone ate a few handfuls, but not as rabidly as I expected. After the party was over, I still had several cups of bacon nuts on my hands. I call this one a draw.

Guacamole. Even under duress, you could not make me speak ill against my guacamole recipe, but I overdid it this time, which, shockingly, resulted in a loss. I blame it on the supermarkets which mark down the price of avocados around the Super Bowl, tempting people into buying not one or two, but five. Yes, I made a vat of guacamole and about half of it went uneaten. And it turned brown and I had to throw it away and I was very sad. Dan has also been munching on an uneaten bag of TOSTITOS® SCOOPS!® all week, which is not a good thing.

Stout ice cream floats. Now this was surprising to me. I had an idea to get a few types of chocolate and oatmeal stouts and serve them with ice cream at the end of the night. So Tracy Porter had just made his awesome touchdown and I jumped up and exclaimed, "Who wants a stout ice cream float?" And no one said yes. Some people averted their eyes! Only my friend Colin raised his hand (his fiancee had just cut him off so this was a sneaky way to keep drinking, I suppose). I made a chocolate stout and vanilla ice cream float for each of us. Even though I bought a whole tub of ice cream and three bottles of beer for this dessert. And we took a sip and I hated it. The bitterness of the stout was not pleasant, it was just...bitter. "This isn't what I thought it was going to taste like," I said in my whiniest voice. Colin politely finished his, but I could tell it was an effort.

Not all dishes will turn out the way you imagine. It's sad and sometimes embarrassing when your plans don't come together as spectacularly as you envisioned. We tend to get high hopes about this dip recipe or that roasted pork loin. Every untried recipe has the potential to be life-changing, to win you friends and admirers. But it's the rare dinner party that hits all the high notes, that is perfect from beginning to end. I know I haven't gotten there myself yet. But if you invite fun people and most of the food is really good--or at least edible--it's impossible to fail.

Friday, February 12, 2010

link-o-rama, valentine's day edition

Valentine's Day is almost upon us. I don't put much stock in this holiday, but it never hurts to make a romantic meal or something chocolatey for someone you love. Or your best friend, or co-workers, or your Grandma, whatever. Showing affection is never a bad thing, especially if the sentiment is more handmade than Hallmark. I think the key is choosing something that is heartfelt without being cliched. If you're looking for food ideas, here are a few:

Sweets from the Dinner Party Archives:
Ambrosia macaroons
Best hot chocolate
Chewy amaretti sandwich cookies
Flourless chocolate cake with caramel sauce

Rice pudding with cherries
Straw-baby shortcakes
Strawberries with rose petal jam

Three-layer ice cream cake

And Dan's V-Day playlist. It might not get you laid, but it's an enjoyable listen.

Bon Appetit offers a Valentine's Day guide with stories including "17 Sexy Dishes," tips on cooking for two, and "Valentine's Day Do's and Don'ts" (ie: stick to what you know, watch out for bones in the fish) [via Bon Appetit]

And for pure menu inspiration, check out the Valentine's Day menu at Prune, one of my favorite Manhattan restaurants. Chef Gabrielle Hamilton's dishes are inspired by her personal memories of particular places and times, such as "West Yarmouth Mini-Golf Arcade, Cape Cod, Massachusetts, 1988" (cold mussels with bread and butter, grilled lobster with anchovy butter, sweet onion gratin). Could a menu be any more sexy and mysterious?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

omg fried rice

Fried rice isn't something I usually order in restaurants or give much thought to in general. It's just not my bag. Which is why I was a little surprised that Mark Bittman's recipe for ginger fried rice called out to me so much when I saw it in the Times dining section the other week. In the photo, the rice was topped with a fried egg, something I love, and crunchy brown bits, something else I also happen to love. I needed to know what those tiny bits were made of--somehow that was more interesting to me than the rice--so I printed out the recipe and decided to give it a try.

The ingredient list was simple enough for a quick weeknight dinner: jasmine rice, an egg, some chopped leeks, garlic, and ginger, some pantry staples like oil and soy sauce. It almost seems too simple, right? Mark Bittman calls the recipe, adapted from chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, a "chef's recipe," meaning that there are a few steps involved in transforming these basic items into something surprisingly decadent.

So I chopped the ginger and garlic into tiny bits, and sauteed them in oil until golden and aromatic. Drained on a paper towel and sprinkled with a pinch of salt, I could almost eat the garnish on its own, it was so good.

I sliced two leeks into thin pale green and white slivers, and tossed them in the pan, cooking them until they softened. Next, I stirred in the rice (cooked the night before--it must be made in advance to prevent it from going mushy), combining it with the leeks. I fried an egg in a pat of butter, salted the rice, plated it in a bowl, and drizzled it with sesame oil and soy sauce. I slid the egg on top of the rice, and sprinkled the whole thing with the fried garlic and ginger.

And I took a bite and swooned. The leeks gave the rice body and a savory, oniony flavor, the egg yolk added richness, and the crunchy topping put the whole dish over the edge. This simple dinner was way more than the sum of its parts. You can eat it by yourself on the couch with a beer, or you could serve this as part of the most elegant dinner party, maybe with some roasted broccoli or sauteed bok choy on the side.

I first tried this recipe when Dan was out for the night having dinner with some friends. Usually when he gets home, one of the first things I ask about is what he ate. This time, I didn't even bother. I practically danced around the room, bragging about how good the fried rice was. Like, OMG good. The next day, we ate the leftovers and he agreed. Or rather, he scraped his bowl clean and immediately headed into the kitchen to sniff around for leftovers.

Ginger fried rice
From The New York Times. I only made one tweak to this dish: drizzling the soy sauce and sesame oil over the rice, not the egg. I think it looks nicer.
(Serves 4 people)

1/2 cup peanut oil (or canola)
2 Tbsp. minced garlic
2 Tbsp. minced ginger
2 cups thinly sliced leeks, white and light green parts only, rinsed and dried
4 cups day-old cooked rice, preferably jasmine, at room temperature
4 large eggs (mine were double-yolk!)
2 tsp. sesame oil
4 tsp. soy sauce.

In a large skillet, heat 1/4 cup oil over medium heat. Add garlic and ginger and cook, stirring occasionally, until crisp and brown. With a slotted spoon, transfer to paper towels and salt lightly. Reduce heat under skillet to medium-low and add 2 tablespoons oil and leeks. Cook about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until very tender but not browned. Season lightly with salt. Raise heat to medium and add rice. Cook, stirring well, until heated through. Season to taste with salt. In a nonstick skillet, fry eggs in remaining oil (or a pat of butter), sunny-side-up, until edges are set but yolk is still runny. Divide rice among four dishes. Drizzle each dish with 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil and 1 teaspoon soy sauce. Top each with an egg and sprinkle crisped garlic and ginger over everything and serve.

Monday, February 8, 2010

what's for dinner, michelle bernstein?

I feel a bit of hometown pride for today's Q&A subject, Miami-based chef Michelle Bernstein. Bernstein, a James Beard Award winner, describes her food as "luxurious yet approchable," and as you'll see in the Q&A, it's true. She's no stranger to a jar of tomato sauce--or foie gras torchon. Chef Bernstein has three South Florida restaurants: Michy's, a Miami bistro with a Jewish and Latin-influenced menu, Sra. Martinez, which serves tapas in Miami's design district, and Michelle Bernstein's, a new restaurant at the Omphoy Ocean Resort, a boutique hotel in Palm Beach. In addition to being a fantastic chef, she's also as nice as can be. I've had the pleasure of meeting her in person at an event, and she's as vibrant as the city from which she hails. Here are her thoughts on entertaining at home.

1. Name, occupation, and city
Michelle Bernstein, chef/restaurateur, Miami

2. When was the last time you threw a dinner party, and who was invited?
A month ago with family (husband, parents, sister and husband, uncle and some friends).

3. What is the best menu you've ever made for company?
Foie torchon paired with a homemade marmalade a neighbor made; linguine with shucked clams, pernod and roasted tomatoes; Meyer lemon pound cake with fresh cream and berries.

4. What's your preference: wine, beer, cocktails?
Do I have to pick one? I like to have a variety of beer and wine. Cocktails are something we serve when throwing parties, not with dinner.

5. What's your favorite dinner party soundtrack?
Triste, Tito Puente, Cole Porter.

6. Some friends are coming over for a last-minute dinner. What do you make?

I can do anything if it’s a day ahead! I guess if I wanted to go simple – roast chicken over root vegetables, quick salad of leafy greens, tomatoes, crumbled blue cheese, quick cobbler of whatever fruit I can scrounge up.

7. Do you usually cook everything yourself, or do you have help?
I do it myself. My hubby helps clean, but I’m pretty neat in the kitchen.

8. Do you ever buy store-bought food, or is everything on your table made from scratch?
I love to use good-quality tomato sauce, for those really quick fixes. Sometimes we get hungry and need to eat and run (I’m talking 20 minutes) so I boil really good pasta, sauté garlic and onions and add it to store-bought sauce, grate fresh parmesan over the top and toss a quick salad.

9. What do you like to serve for dessert?
Really simple stuff, upside down cakes with fruits of the season like mango with honey. Cobblers are simple and delicious. Pot de crème is also another easy one.

[Photo: Courtesy of Brustman Carrino Public Relations]

Friday, February 5, 2010

link-o-rama, super bowl edition

So what is everyone making for the Super Bowl this weekend? Cocktail weenies? Hmm...maybe you should check out these links for inspiration:

From the Dinner Party archives:
Charred onion dip
Bacon-wrapped dates with parmesan

Queso fundido
Sausage rolls
Chili-lime peanuts

Main dishes:
Chili dogs
Ham and bean soup

Baked mac and cheese

Twice-baked potatoes


Peanut butter brownies

Chocolate pudding pie

Super Bowl menus, dips, snacks, and more from Bon Appetit [via Bon Appetit]

Epicurious's chili, wings, and sandwich ideas [via Epicurious]

Homemade chips and pretzels and cookie bars from Saveur [via Saveur]

File this under bizarre, yet (sort of?) useful: UFC fighters' favorite snacks. Mike Swick likes a "layered dip consisting of refried beans, guacamole, and cheese" which he eats with Wheat Thins. Frank Trigg suggests a Trigg-tini: "Take a martini glass, mash potatoes in the bottom, top with ground beef, cheese, a dab of sour cream and chives. It's an easy way to feed your guests and make them feel special at the same time." How thoughtful, Frank! I'm actually kind of obsessed with this article. [via UFC]

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

big crumb coffee cake

Do you like to pick the crumbs off coffee cakes, doughnuts and other crumbly-topped baked goods? Yes? Why, me too! Well, look no further, this is the coffee cake for people like us. (Even if you're not the crumb-picking type, you'll still probably like this cake.)

I first saw the recipe for this big crumb coffee cake over at Smitten Kitchen. The topping looked so buttery, so delicious, so crumbly, I almost pawed at my monitor. Like many other recipes, I bookmarked it for a later date. And forgot about it.

And then a brunch date rolled around and it was the first thing that came to mind. What could be homier than a slice of coffee cake in the morning? With big crumbs you can chase around the plate with your fingers?

The original recipe calls for rhubarb, but Deb suggests blueberries, sour cherries, or raspberries in other seasons. None of these things seemed right for January, so I decided to skip the fruit and go with pure, unadulterated cake. The end result was a fine basic coffee cake: moist from sour cream with a nice vanilla flavor. But the cake really isn't the point. This recipe is all about the topping: golden, bite-sized boulders of butter and sugar spiced with cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg. Heavenly.

Big crumb coffee cake
Check out the original recipe (from The New York Times via Smitten Kitchen) for the version with rhubarb. I'd like to try it with blueberries next time.
(makes 6 to 8 slices)

For the crumbs:
1/3 cup dark brown sugar
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp. ground cinnamon (I also added 1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg)
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
1/8 tsp. salt
1/2 cup (1 stick or 4 oz.) butter, melted
1 3/4 cups all-purpose, or cake flour

For the cake:
1/3 cup sour cream
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose, or cake flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons softened butter, cut into 8 pieces.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease an 8-inch-square baking pan. To make the crumbs, place sugars, spices and salt in a large bowl and whisk in melted butter until smooth. Add flour with a spatula or wooden spoon. It will look and feel like a solid dough. Leave it pressed together in the bottom of the bowl and set aside.

To prepare the cake, in a small bowl, stir together the sour cream, egg, egg yolk and vanilla. Using a mixer fitted with paddle attachment, mix together flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Add butter and a spoonful of sour cream mixture and mix on medium speed until flour is moistened. Increase speed and beat for 30 seconds. Add remaining sour cream mixture in two batches, beating for 20 seconds after each addition, and scraping down the sides of bowl with a spatula.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Using your fingers, break topping mixture into big crumbs, about 1/2 inch to 3/4 inch in size. They do not have to be uniform, but make sure most are around that size. Sprinkle over cake. Bake cake until a toothpick inserted into center comes out clean of batter, 45 to 55 minutes. Cool completely before serving.

Monday, February 1, 2010

stress-free sunday brunch

Making brunch is all about choosing your battles. If you pick wisely, you will triumph. I'm talking about making a Dutch baby (yes) over pancakes (no), scrambled eggs (yes) over omelets (no), coffee cake (yes) over made-to-order crepes (uh, no). My philosophy is: you just got out of bed, go easy on yourself.

A few weeks ago we invited two of Dan's former co-workers along with their partners and their little girls over for Sunday brunch. I've written before about not quite knowing what to do with kids, especially what to feed them, but luckily, both moms came prepared with snacks and toys and a whole bag of tricks, as moms do. An important thing I learned is that when you offer new parents the choice of mimosas, beer, tea, or coffee, they all want coffee. Which makes complete sense. I also learned that one-year-olds like mini bagels.

For the grownups, there were scrambled eggs, lox spread and the aforementioned mini bagels, coffee cake, the prettiest citrus salad I have ever made, special pastries from a Greek bakery, and a little something called candied bacon. Can you guess what everyone liked the best? (Hint: the bacon.)

The recipe is dangerously simple: you take your favorite plain old bacon and sprinkle it with a mixture of brown sugar, cayenne pepper, and ground black pepper. Bake the strips in the oven at 350 degrees for 20 minutes, flip the strips over and cover the other side with the spicy sugared topping, then bake for about 20 more minutes. The bacon emerges from the oven with a deep red, sticky, caramelized glaze. And it is as delicious as it sounds.

Another brunch trick to keep in your back pocket: homemade lox spread. It's a step up from plain cream cheese and a little more surprising than the traditional lox-capers-red onion-tomato platter you serve with bagels. All you have to do is chop up some smoked salmon (about four ounces) into tiny pieces and mix it into eight ounces of softened cream cheese, maybe add a handful of chopped chives. Mound it into a pretty bowl and serve with toasted bagels.

I was very pleased with how this brunch turned out, although as I've noticed before, the food is totally secondary when you've got cute kids running and crawling around the room, gumming mini bagels and doing other adorable things. But candied bacon and a mimosa won't hurt.

Sunday brunch for six (plus two)
Coffee and mimosas
Scrambled eggs with sour cream and chives
Candied bacon
Lox spread with mini bagels
Citrus salad
Big crumb coffee cake

Candied bacon
Gourmet calls this recipe "sweet and spicy bacon" but I think candied bacon is more fitting. I found that the original recipe did not yield quite enough topping to cover all of my bacon, so I doubled the proportions below.
(Serves about 6 people)

1 1/2 Tbsp. packed light brown sugar
Rounded 1/4 tsp. cayenne
Rounded 1/4 tsp. black pepper
1 lb. thick-cut bacon, about 12 slices (I cut mine in half, for more manageable pieces)

Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350 degrees. Stir together brown sugar, cayenne, and black pepper in a small bowl. Arrange bacon slices in 1 layer (not overlapping) on rack of a large broiler pan. Bake 20 minutes. Turn slices over and sprinkle evenly with spiced sugar. Continue baking until bacon is crisp and deep golden, 20 to 35 minutes more (check bacon every 5 minutes). Transfer to paper towels to drain.


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