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Strawberry Syrup

Saturday, May 22, 2010@ 4:03 PM

Makes about 2 cups

We like this syrup mixed with seltzer water for a fizzy drink, drizzled over ice cream, mixed into a smoothie, stirred into yogurt or used for strawberry milk. If you want a thicker syrup, you can add several tablespoons of corn syrup. After you’ve tried this, you may want to make your own versions; try steeping a little lavender, cardamom, basil, or lemon verbena in with the sugar and water.

2/3 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup water

1 pound strawberries (3 to 4 cups; this does not need to be exact)

Pinch of salt

1 to 2 tablespoons lemon juice

Heat sugar and water in a large saucepan on medium heat, whisking, until sugar dissolves. Add strawberries and salt. Cook, stirring until mixture comes to a boil; simmer for about 10 minutes, stirring often. Pour syrup through a strainer, pressing hard on the berries to extract all their juice. Stir in lemon juice to taste. Refrigerate; keep chilled for up to 1 week.

Related column: Strawberries Solve Everything

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Strawberry Dreams

Thursday, April 29, 2010@ 2:30 PM
It may be that you are a person who can stay calm in the face of strawberries. I am not such a person.
Every week, we drive by our favorite strawberry field on the way to guitar lessons. For something close to forever, the signboard out front has held one pitiful word: Collards.
I like collards. I even figured out how to get my family to eat copious amounts of collards by putting them in a dip. But they’re not strawberries.
Collards are reality: a little bitter, a little tough, very tough-love good for you. Strawberries are fantasy: sweet, juicy, exuberantly good for you.
That is, at least if they’re local. Every year around Valentine’s Day, our groceries run buy-one-get-one specials on boxes of Florida strawberries. Freakishly big and rimmed in white, these “strawberries” can’t be helped even by cupfuls of sugar, no matter how many years you give that remedy one more try. And I’ve given lots of tries. Even this year, determined to wait until May, I broke down and bought some decent-looking berries at the store. One box was surprisingly good. Emboldened, hopeful, I bought more. “Gotcha!” those berries mocked me.

No more. I admit defeat, and we have waited patiently through a long, cold North Carolina winter. And finally, the sign sang out: Stawberries, May 3!

I’m stocked and ready. I have my baskets. I have my buckets. I have jars, and I have boxes of reduced-sugar Sure-Jell, tough to track down but worth the effort for the best freezer jam I know. I have rice and cream, because one of the best uses of that jam is as a rice pudding mix-in. I have powdered sugar for dipping. In the next few days, I’ll have pie dough in the freezer, whole milk for strawberry gelato (a new gelato book to review came just in time!), and yet more cream for strawberry shortcakes.

Certainly, we’ll eat many berries straight and in our supper salads, but I admit to unkind thoughts when I read yet another nutritionist’s warnings against celebrating the harvest with cream. Summer is coming, when we can eat unadorned melons, blueberries by the handful, and naked, dripping peaches. Spring is made for cream (they almost rhyme!) and no fruit goes better with it than strawberries. A week of bliss after what proved an especially hard winter, then back to moderation: Nutrition at its finest.

Recipe: Jammy Rice Pudding

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Jammy Rice Pudding

Thursday, April 29, 2010@ 2:29 PM

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

I like my rice pudding soft, super-creamy, with no eggs, served hot. I strongly prefer a baked pudding–so easy, so foolproof. You can, of course, leave the jam out for vanilla pudding, or melt in some chocolate instead at the end of the baking. Pudding means playtime when I get in the kitchen–it’s easy to go wild with flavors. A few other notes: I use a medium-grain rice from my Asian grocery. I have tried the pudding with short-grain brown rice; I’m still perfecting that version. If you try it, at minimum you have to cook the rice partway in water first. I use the freezer jam I make in huge batches every spring, using the reduced-sugar boxes of Sure-Jell. Also, I do tend these days to leave out the butter when I’m sensing that I might eat more than my share.

1 1/2 cups heavy cream

1 1/2 cups milk (any kind — I use 1%)

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1/2 cup arborio or medium-grain rice

1/4 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1/2 cup to 1 cup strawberry jam, preferably homemade, or other flavor, to taste

Preheat oven to 325 degrees and grease or butter a 2-quart or larger baking dish.

In the dish, whisk together cream, milk, butter, rice, sugar and salt (the butter will melt during baking). Cover and bake 45 minutes.

Stir, cover, and bake for 20 to 25 minutes more, until the pudding is still a little saucy and the rice is barely chewy. Let stand at least 5 minutes. Stir in vanilla and jam. Serve or chill; covered, the pudding reheats well.

Related column: Strawberry Dreams

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Snack Attack: Frozen Yogurt

Thursday, April 22, 2010@ 2:53 PM

The Snack Attack is back, after a longer-than-intended hiatus (holidays, editing work, way too much volunteer work–but all such fun!). I’ve been testing recipes from various cookbooks I’m reviewing (see them at Dessert First), but that hasn’t all been baking, or all for the kids, and I’ve noticed my supply of snacks, cookies and bread getting seriously depleted.

It came clear to me just how low I’d gotten when I peered into my deep-freezer, reminding me just how much I rely on its shelves every day. When I bake for us, I rarely make one batch of anything. Doubling a recipe (as long as I know I can trust it) makes so much sense, giving me options for school lunchboxes and after-school snacks with friends. Because I poke around in it every day, I know what’s there, so not much food gets lost in the depths.

That’s not so true with the freezer attached to the fridge, where I sometimes forget what’s what. This week, though, it gave me the happy surprise of lemon frozen yogurt from David Lebovitz’s new book. I confess to eating some for lunch, knowing that I really ought to save some for the kids, or make them some of their own. It’s a perfect after-school snack.

Terrific frozen yogurt used to be tricky, with few really good yogurts for the base, requiring all sorts of tricks, such as adding gelatin or egg whites to the mix. Now, just whisk together some good Greek yogurt (I get mine from Trader Joe’s) and a few flavorings, freeze and eat.

I love my Cuisinart ice cream maker, an electric machine with a bowl insert that needs to be frozen before use. I have an extra bowl and keep both in the freezer at all times. If you don’t have that much freezer space, just plan ahead, as the bowl should be frozen for a solid 24 hours before using. If you don’t own a machine, turn these into popsicles instead.

Know that no matter what, if you don’t eat the yogurt right after churning, it will get fairly hard in the freezer. I don’t mind letting mine sit out a bit to soften (with the Greek yogurt, it will return to a nice texture). If you want it still softer, a few tips to try: add just a touch (a tablespoon or two) of alcohol, which keeps mixtures from freezing solid; add a tablespoon or two of corn syrup; add 1/4 cup to 1/2 cup cream.

How to flavor your yogurt? Start with full-fat Greek yogurt and enough sugar to keep your tongue from curling (remember that anything very cold or frozen will seem less sweet, so you want the unfrozen mixture to taste plenty sweet). I nearly always want some vanilla in mine, although I leave it out for lemon yogurt (for that, Lebovitz uses a pinch of citric acid, which you can buy in bulk at Whole Foods, to give the tang we expect from frozen yogurt–see his recipe here). But vanilla with the zest and juice of an orance, or some thawed orange juice concentrate, takes me right back to the Orange Push-Ups my mother used to buy me when she’d get gas at the tiny corner station on the way home from kindergarten. Other choices? Check your baking drawers: chocolate shavings, a swirl of caramel, some cinnamon-sugar, creamy peanut butter, or pureed blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, cherries or blackberries.

Recipe: Vanilla Frozen Yogurt, with variations

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Vanilla Frozen Yogurt, with variations

Thursday, April 22, 2010@ 2:48 PM

Makes 1 quart

Cook’s notes: This is the simplest ingredient list for frozen yogurt. To gussy it up, you have all sorts of options. Flavor variations are at the end of the recipe; you can also try adding 1/4 cup to 1/2 cup of cream to make the yogurt smoother (though with Greek whole-milk yogurt you’re less likely to need this); a tablespoon or two of something alcoholic to make a softer set (such as Kahlua, kirsch or rum); or a tablespoon or two of corn syrup to make it smoother. If you don’t have an ice-cream maker, pour the mixture into popsicle molds or cups.

3 cups cold whole-milk Greek yogurt*

2/3 cup to 3/4 cup granulated sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Tiny pinch of salt

*I like Trader Joe’s, and yes, you can use 2 percent, but it won’t be as luscious. I fear sugar more than fat in my food (though really, in moderation, I don’t fear anything). I wouldn’t use fat-free yogurt unless the store stocked nothing else, and then I’d add cream.

Whiz yogurt, 2/3 cup sugar, vanilla and salt in a blender until very smooth (or whisk very thoroughly, if you don’t have a blender). Taste and add more sugar if desired, remembering that food tastes less sweet when frozen than when just cold. If your mixture isn’t good and cold, chill it for an hour or so. Freeze according to your ice-cream maker’s instructions.

Endless variations, or nearly so; I haven’t tested all of these yet (I will!), so taste as you go:

Almost-creamsicle: Up the vanilla to 1 tablespoon and add the zest and juice of one large orange (you may also want a bit of orange extract), or try the vanilla with about 1/2 cup thawed orange juice concentrate, or to taste.

Key lime: Add the zest of one lime and the juice of 2 limes; for authenticity, you could also add about a half-can of sweetened condensed milk.

Chocolate chip: Add 1/2 cup to 3/4 cup chocolate shavings or mini chocolate chips just before the yogurt is finished churning. I like the “pound plus” bars of dark chocolate from Trader Joe’s; I just shave chocolate from one corner of the block with a large chef’s knife, and periodically rotate the bar to shave from another corner. These are more pleasant when frozen than the chocolate chips.

Caramel swirl: Swirl in about 1/2 cup caramel sauce just before the yogurt is finished churning.

Cinnamon-sugar: You can add it with the other ingredients in the blender, but I like to add a few tablespoons of cinnamon-sugar, or more to taste, just before the ice cream is finished churning. (Cinnamon-sugar is nothing more than ground cinnamon mixed with granulated sugar to taste; I make mine heavy on the cinnamon.)

Peanut butter: Either add about 1/2 cup creamy peanut butter to the blender with the other ingredients, and taste after blending to adjust flavors (this may need a bit more salt), or gradually add small dollops of peanut butter just before the ice cream is finished churning to get little chunks in there.

Berry: Puree about 1 cup of blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, cherries or blackberries in the blender before adding the remaining ingredients; adjust the sugar as needed. (You can add the berries after blending the rest, but I don’t care for hard chunks of frozen berry in my yogurt.)

Coffee: Add either 1/4 cup cold, brewed espresso or 2 teaspoons instant espresso powder to the ingredients in the blender. Add 1 tablespoon Kahlua, if desired. Adjust sugar as needed.

Mint Julep: Add 1 teaspoon peppermint extract and 1 tablespoon bourbon to the ingredients in the blender; leave the bourbon our and add chocolate shavings for chips for mint chip yogurt. Adjust sugar as needed.

Grasshopper: Add 4 teaspoons creme de menthe and 1 tablespoon creme de cacao liqueurs to the ingredients in the blender, adjusting sugar as needed. For true grasshopper pie authenticity, you could swirl in a big spoonful of marshmallow creme.

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Tiramisu Parfaits

Tuesday, March 23, 2010@ 8:19 AM

Serves 8

I love tiramisu, but I like it even better done as parfaits: They look neater when served, and people always love getting individual desserts. You can, however, do this in a big bowl if you prefer.

12 ounces homemade mascarpone

1/4 cup granulated sugar

3 tablespoons dark rum

1 cup heavy cream, whipped until stiff

24 ladyfingers, cubed

1 cup brewed espresso or very strong coffee, cooled to room temperature

6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, shaved or very finely chopped

Gently stir together mascarpone, sugar and rum until just mixed. Fold in one-fourth of the whipped cream to lighten the mascarpone, then fold in remaining cream.

Distribute half the ladyfinger cubes among 8 wineglasses and drizzle with half the espresso. Spread half the mascarpone mixture over, then sprinkle with chocolate. Repeat the layers, then cover with plastic wrap and chill several hours to 1 day.

Related recipe: Homemade Mascarpone

Related column: Mama Mia Mascarpone!

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Homemade Mascarpone

Tuesday, March 23, 2010@ 8:18 AM

Makes 1 pound

I like to use a double boiler to bring the cream up to temperature, to avoid scorching the cream. It takes longer than placing the cream directly over the heat, but it saves a lot of stirring and worry. If the top of your double boiler isn’t large enough, nestle a medium saucepan into a larger saucepan, being careful that the top saucepan doesn’t touch the water below. Unlike other soft cheeses you can easily make at home, this leaves almost no whey after straining. You will drain it in a strainer, but you should have very little liquid in the bowl underneath. This recipe uses vinegar, following the ingredients in the book The Home Creamery by Kathy Farrell-Kingsley; you could use 1 tablespoon lemon juice instead (or tartaric acid, which I have not tried).

4 cups heavy cream, pasteurized but not ultra-pasteurized, very fresh, preferably from a local dairy

1 tablespoon white wine vinegar

Pour the cream into the top of a double boiler. Put a few inches of water into the base of the boiler; it should not touch the bottom of the upper pan. Bring the water to a boil, and periodically stir the cream with a heat-safe spatula or wooden spoon, until the cream reaches 190 degrees. Pour in the vinegar and stir until the cream seems slightly thicker and custard-like; curds will not form as in ricotta or other cheeses.

Remove from the heat, cover, and let stand 20 minutes. Meanwhile, set a strainer over a bowl and line it with several layers of moistened butter muslin (this is a cheesecloth with a very fine weave, unlike that you usually find in a grocery store — look for it in kitchenware stores or online).

Pour the thickened cream into the strainer and let stand until cool, then cover with plastic wrap and chill overnight to finish setting. This will keep several days in a covered container, but it is quite perishable.

Related recipe: Tiramisu Parfaits

Related column: Mama Mia Mascarpone!

Snack Attack: Quick, Bread!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010@ 8:01 AM

Banana bread makes the perfect argument for why no one should fear baking.

So many good cooks profess to tremble before a baking book. Sure, I wouldn’t start out making a macaron, the latest cookie trend, but so much of baking allows more leeway than we let on.

Proof? Just try the first quick bread recipe you see — banana, carrot, zucchini, pumpkin — and in short order, you’ll have something tasty. You may not produce the most stellar loaf, but it’s hard to really mess these up (though I did once find a way, when I worked in a bakery and made 60 mini loaves of pumpkin bread, only to discover when they failed to brown that I’d completely left out the sugar).

I love all quick bread, especially carrot, but banana bread wins my heart for its ability to use up my over-eager grocery purchases. Gardeners feel the same way about their over-eager zucchini, though I tend to use my baseball-bat specimens for “zapplesauce” (recipe coming this summer).

I choose quick breads that use oil instead of butter, just because they keep things truly speedy, and for a change I don’t find these suffer for the lack of butter’s flavor. After you’ve made a recipe once or twice, you may want to try reducing the oil a bit; carrot and zucchini recipes tend to be plenty moist even with somewhat less oil.

And when you need something beyond quick, just turn one of those breads into muffins, baking them for less than half the time of the bread (20 to 25 minutes at 350 degrees). Sweeten them with chocolate chips, or be a responsible mom and improve them with white-wheat flour. Or be the extra-popular mom by making them into good-for-you cupcakes, topped with a swirl of cream cheese frosting, plain or mixed with peanut butter for those banana gems.

Recipe: Zucchini Bread

Zucchini Bread

Monday, March 22, 2010@ 9:40 PM

Makes 1 loaf

This can also be made as muffins; a recipe that fills a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan makes about a dozen to 18 muffins. Bake them for 20 minutes, then check to see if they need a few minutes more — the tops should spring back when lightly pressed with a finger. Feel free to spruce this up with chocolate chips, nuts, dried cranberries, raisins, grated lemon or orange zest, or a little minced rosemary or lemon verbena. Or spread softened cream cheese on slices of bread and drizzle with honey.

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/3 cup canola oil

3 large eggs, or 2 eggs and 2 egg whites

1 cup granulated sugar

1 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 1/2 cups grated, unpeeled zucchini (1 large zucchini)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan.

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cinnamon. In a large bowl, whisk together oil, eggs, sugar and vanilla. Add flour mixture and fold in with a spatula. Gently fold in zucchini.

Spread batter in prepared pan. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center tests clean. Let cool 5 minutes, then remove bread from pan and cool on a wire rack.

Related column: Snack Attack: Quick, Bread!

Mama Mia Mascarpone!

Friday, March 19, 2010@ 10:22 PM

Since our ricotta and mozzarella successes, my son and I have been feeling pretty confident in our cheese-making skills. We’d moved on to cream cheese and sour cream, and even my classic stupidity couldn’t ruin the latter. Still, when we mixed cream and white wine vinegar and came up with amazing mascarpone, we were awed (and utterly lacking in humility) by our prowess.

I always thought of homemade cheeses as being especially tricky, with the cook needing to be extra-super careful about cleanliness and precise temperatures.

Well, maybe so, and especially for hard cheeses (we’ve stuck to soft ones). But when even the sour cream worked, after my mistake of putting the jar in the (turned-off) oven overnight in an attempt to provide it a protected spot to set, then, naturally, preheating that oven the next morning for a batch of cookies … I started getting cocky.

But I know better. Food writers always harp on using the best ingredients , but there’s often more wiggle room there than we let on. Not so for cheese: my skill takes a backseat to my ingredients.

I remember years ago testing the combination of buttermilk and cream to make creme fraiche; with ordinary supermarket cream, this just doesn’t work. Ultra-pasteurized cream won’t make decent cheese. The creme fraiche took forever to set, and when it did, it was a nasty, slimy blob.  Now a local dairy gives us easy access to very fresh, pasteurized cream (not ultra-pasteurized, which gets a higher-heat treatment). Rich, mouth-coating and thick, this cream does all the work.

Mascarpone mixes 4 cups of that cream with a tablespoon of white wine vinegar (or lemon juice). The cream heats slowly over hot water, and when the vinegar goes in, at first nothing much seems to happen. This isn’t like making ricotta, where clumps of cheese form right away. Instead, it just gets a bit thicker, creamier, custardy. You’ll think there’s some mistake when the recipe instructs pouring it into a cheesecloth-lined sieve — won’t it all go through? But it’s thicker than you think. Almost nothing drains, and after it chills, the sieve is filled with the best cream cheese ever.

Use it in tiramisu, of course, or cheesecakes, ice cream, tarts or cake frostings. Or just spread it onto terrific bread with a slight smear of jam or drizzle of honey — and amaze yourself.

Related recipes: Homemade Mascarpone, Tiramisu Parfaits