Saturday, January 26, 2008

My chocolate adventure

Photo of Cardamom-pomegranate cheesecake chocolate brownies by Mental MasalaThe winners of the Scharffen Berger - TuttiFoodie Chocolate Adventure have been announced! Congratulations to all who won or made it to the final round!

Unfortunately, I'm not one of the winners -- with over 900 entries submitted, I can't say that I'm surprised.

My entry was a twist on the black and white brownie, that classic combination of a brownie base and a cheesecake topping.

I went on an "adventure" with the recipe by I adding cardamom powder to the chocolate layer and pomegranate molasses to the cheesecake. The spice provides an aromatic high note that sits above the deep chocolate foundation. The fruitiness and sourness of the pomegranate molasses work with the tang of the cream cheese, providing additional counterpoint to the chocolate.

Cardamom-pomegranate cheesecake brownies

For the brownie:
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate (61 to 72 percent cacao), chopped into small pieces
7 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup sugar
2 large eggs
Pinch salt
1/2 cup all-purpose white flour
1/2 teaspoons ground cardamom

For the pomegranate cheesecake:
8 ounces cream cheese
1 large egg
3/8 cup sugar
1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses (see note below)

Weights and Measures, Metric Conversion

Place an oven rack on a mid-level setting. Preheat the oven to 325 F.

Line the bottom of a 8" x 8" baking pan with parchment paper.

Melt the chocolate using a double boiler or microwave oven (at 50% or lower power). Set aside.

In a mixing bowl (using the paddle attachment if you are using a stand mixer), beat the butter and sugar together until fluffy and light. Scrape down the bowl. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating to incorporate after each addition. Scrape down the bowl. Add the melted chocolate and mix to combine. Add the salt and flour and mix to combine.

Reserve several tablespoons of the chocolate batter to put on top of the cheesecake.

Transfer the remaining batter to the prepared baking pan. Level the surface with an offset spatula or the back of a spoon. Evenly sprinkle the ground cardamom across the top of the batter.

In a clean mixing bowl (using the paddle attachment if you are using a stand mixer), beat the cream cheese, egg and sugar together until well-combined and smooth, a few minutes. Add the pomegranate molasses and mix on medium speed until combined, about 30 seconds.

Pour the cheesecake batter onto the chocolate base and smooth the top with an offset spatula or the back of a spoon.

Drop portions of the chocolate batter in a few places on top of the cheesecake topping. Using a knife, make the surface marble-like appearance by slicing through the boundaries of the two batters and lightly swirling the cheesecake layer and the dropped chocolate batter pieces. If the chocolate batter is so firm that swirling is difficult, it can be done a few minutes after the pan goes into the oven.

Bake for 50 minutes, or until a cake tester comes out clean.

Note: Pomegranate molasses is available from stores specializing in Middle Eastern products and some natural food stores.

Random link from the archive: More Snacks for the Ears
Technorati tags: Chocolate : Baking : vegetarian : Food

Sunday, January 20, 2008

When caramel doesn't turn out right, make pudding

Quite a while ago, I asked for ideas on how to use three of my failed kitchen experiments (rice-spice bread, overcooked apricot jam and too-hard caramel). The bread still sits in my freezer, awaiting its fate (I'm thinking of a savory bread pudding). The apricot jam is overcooked, but still delicious dabbed onto hot pancakes. The caramel is gone, having been used for three different creations:
  1. I melted a piece of it into milk for a tasty hot drink.
  2. I melted a piece of it into milk, then used the flavored milk as the base of a simple cocoa pudding (recipe for the cocoa pudding at Epicurious). The caramel seemed to enrich the pudding, but the caramel flavor was overwhelmed by the cocoa.
  3. Finally, and most successfully, I melted it into milk that was then used to make a vanilla-caramel pudding (recipe below).
Another potential use was suggested by Alice Medrich during the Q&A portion of her reading at Mrs. Dalloway's a few months ago: remelt the caramel and combine it with hot cream to make a caramel sauce.

Recipe: Vanilla-Caramel Pudding

1/2 cup hard caramel candy, chopped into small pieces
2 cups milk

1/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons (packed) cornstarch
1 teaspoon all purpose flour
Pinch of salt (don't use if the caramel is already salted)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Pour the milk into a saucepan or Pyrex container. Cut the caramel into small pieces and add to the milk. Heat the mixture on the stove (medium-low heat) or in the microwave, stirring occasionally, until most of the caramel has dissolved into the milk.

Mix the sugar, cornstarch, flour and salt (if used) in heavy medium saucepan. Add 1 cup of the milk-caramel mixture and whisk to dissolve cornstarch. Whisk in the remaining milk-caramel mixture. Whisk over medium heat until thickened and beginning to simmer, about 5 minutes. Be sure to reach your whisk into the corners of the pot. Simmer 1 minute, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. Remove from heat. Stir in the vanilla extract.

Divide pudding among custard cups (about 3 cups total volume is needed). Chill until cold, about 2 hours.

Adapted from New-Style Old-Fashioned Chocolate Pudding at epicurious.

Random link from the archive: A Technique for Pressing Tofu

Technorati tags: Dessert : Food

Saturday, January 19, 2008

An orange for pie chart lovers

The food industry is always trying to create products that appeal to various personalities. One of my work colleagues brought this orange for lunch the other day. Looks to me like it was created for someone who loves to make pie charts.

I'm not familiar enough with fruit science to know why the skin has two different hues. Temperature? Exposure to light? Contact with oxygen?

Random link from the archive: Ancient Folktales above a Los Angeles Street

Technorati tags: Fruit : Food

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Torta verde: a savory pie from Italy

Now and then a food magazine contains a recipe that becomes a standard in a household. Even more rarely, a single issue will contain two standards. The May/June 1998 issue of Saveur is one of those rarities, containing two recipes that I have made many, many times and consider critical parts of my cooking repertoire.

The first is clafoutis, a dessert of fruit embedded in a custard. The second is torta verde, a savory pie from the Liguria region of Italy.

Torta verde consists of an olive oil crust that is rolled very thin (1/16") and filled with a mixture of Swiss chard, feta cheese, onion, potato and eggs.

The torta was born out of necessity, according to the article that contains the recipe. The region in which it is a classic -- the rural areas of Liguria north of the Italian Riviera (e.g., the town of Triora)-- is a place where wheat flour has historically been quite expensive. That prevented pasta from being a staple food. The torta was created to allow families to stretch the flour budget.

I usually have too much filling for the torta, so I make the leftovers into a fritter by adding an egg or two, then cooking the mixture in a lightly oiled skillet. Some of such fritters are shown to the right.

Torta Verde
Adapted from "The Italian Torta," by Colman Andrews, Saveur magazine, May/June 1998

For the Dough
1 1/4 cups all-purpose white flour, sifted
1/2 t. salt
1 1/2 T. extra-virgin olive oil
Up to 1/2 cup cool water

For the Filling
8-10 large Swiss chard leaves, washed, stems removed, and finely chopped
2 medium potatoes, boiled, peeled and diced
1 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 T. minced fresh parsley
1 1/4 c. crumbled feta cheese
2 eggs, lightly beaten
4 T. extra-virgin olive oil

(Unit conversion page)

Make the dough: In a large bowl, combine the flour and salt. Drizzle the oil into the flour, mixing with a fork to combine. In measures of 1 tablespoon at a time, add water to the dough and mix. Continue adding spoonfuls of water until the dough to hold together -- try to add as little as possible because less water means a flakier crust. Knead the dough for a few minutes until it is smooth and elastic. Shape into a ball and wrap in waxed paper or place in a sealed container. Refrigerate for 2 hours.

Make the filling: Place the chopped chard in a colander, sprinkle with 1 1/2 T. salt, toss to mix, and set aside over a bowl or in the sink for 20 minutes. Squeeze chard to press out liquid.

Combine potatoes, onion, parsley, cheese, and drained chard in a large bowl. Mix in eggs and 2 1/2 T. oil and set aside.

Preheat oven to 375 F.

Roll the dough: Lightly oil and flour a 14" pizza pan (or cookie sheet). Divide dough into two unequal pieces: one-third and two-thirds.

Roll out the bigger piece on a floured surface to about 15" in diameter. For a perfectly round torta, cut the dough into a circle using the pizza pan as a guide. For a more rustic preparation, leave it as is. Place bottom crust into the pan. Spread filling across the dough, leaving 1" of exposed crust around the edge. Roll the top crust to a 13" circle. Place atop the filling so that it drapes slightly over onto the bottom crust. Lightly wet the edge of the bottom crust, fold over the top piece, and crimp to make a seal. Use your fingertips to press down the filling and make indentations in the torta. Drizzle 1 1/2 T. oil over the pie. Using a fork, poke some holes in the torta to allow steam to escape during baking.

Bake the torta for about 35 minutes, or until the top is golden brown.

The dough can be filled with many things. Here are two based on mushrooms.

Torta di funghi 1
1 1/2 pounds fresh mushrooms, trimmed and thinly sliced
3 T. extra-virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 c. crumbled feta cheese
1/4 cup minced fresh parsley

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over low heat. Add the garlic and cook until slightly golden, a few minutes. Add the mushrooms and cook until tender. Transfer to a colendar and allow to drain for 15 minutes. Add parsley and cheese. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Use as a replacement for the chard filling in the recipe above.

Torta di funghi 2
2 pounds fresh mushrooms, trimmed and thinly sliced
3 T. extra-virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup minced fresh parsley

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over low heat. Add the garlic and cook until slightly golden, a few minutes. Add the mushrooms and cook until tender. Transfer to a colendar and allow to drain for 15 minutes. Add parsley. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Use as a replacement for the chard filling in the recipe above.

Random link from the archive: Durian

Technorati tags: Italy : Baking : vegetarian : Food

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Me against the ants: one green way to keep them at bay

Note: At the beginning of December, I thought that shorter days and stormy nights would increase my posting frequency, but as one month without a post indicates, that was not a correct assumption. I have a pile of posts to get through this month and will start with something that isn't directly about food, but is still related to my kitchen, and is especially useful this rainy weekend.

Photo of ant from Snap(R)'s flickr collectionThe basement of my house and backyard are home to numerous colonies of Argentine ants, a species of small ants that is enormously successful in California (their colonies have multiple queens and their diet is especially flexible). Now and then they decide to relocate into my kitchen, using cracks and pinholes as their points of entry.

To be sure, Argentine ants are a lot less trouble than the fire ants of the Southwest, but because they are so relentless and numerous -- scouts always looking for new sources of food or new places to set up a colony, a speck of food or few drops of water triggering hundreds to rush in -- it can be a frustrating battle.

Some time ago, my upstairs neighbor gave me one of those "green tips" that we see everywhere. The tip suggested that peppermint oil (or probably essential oil from chili, cinnamon, spearmint, or wintergreen) could be an ant deterrent. The peppermint oil interferes with their senses and obscures the chemical trails that ants leave behind. (here is an interesting story about how ants use chemical signals to decide whether they should go looking for food, and a fascinating radio program from WNYC's Radiolab that includes some notes about how ants behave)

To apply it in the war against ants, I put a few drops on a cotton swab and wipe the oil along the ants' entry points into the house. I usually need to reapply it every few days until the ants stop coming inside.

Peppermint oil only works, however, if you can figure out where the ants are entering the house. If they are coming through a crack in the back of your deepest cupboard or underneath your refrigerator, you'll have trouble applying the oil in the right place. But since the oil is non-toxic, not too expensive, and leaves a strong peppermint aroma in the air, it might be worth trying to swab it where you see ants.

So until there is something better, like a commercially available naturally-occuring chemical that causes ants to attack each other, I'll keep swabbing the peppermint oil.

Photo of an ant from Snap's flickr collection, subject to a Creative Commons License.

Random link from the archive: Eating Locally Helps Me Understand a Far-Away Cuisine

Technorati tags: Ants : Nature