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December 16, 2005

Happy Holidays!

I wish you and yours a peaceful, happy holiday this year. I'll be back on January 4, 2006 with new content.

Early next year, look for recipes and reviews of Donna Hay's Off The Shelf, Suzanne Goin's Sunday Suppers at Lucques, Sara Moulton's Sara's Secrets for Weeknight Meals, and continuing tests from Lindsey Shere's Chez Panisse Desserts.

If you've got ideas for cookbooks that you'd like to see tested, please let me know: Colleen@thecookbookcritic.com.

See you in 2006!

 

December 16, 2005

From My Kitchen: Christmas Spice Cookies

My family has made these spicy-sweet cookie-cutter cookies for more than 30 years. It's a very easy dough to work with, and decorating the cookies is a fun project for kids.

The dough scraps can be re-rolled several times. The cookies from re-rolled dough will be somewhat crisper than the initial batch of cookies, but I actually prefer them that way.

Place all your decorating items in small bowls on the table and let the kids design their own snowmen, Christmas trees, gingerbread people, and so on.

You can make the dough 1 or 2 days ahead of time and keep it in the refrigerator until you're ready to make cookies. The recipe can be doubled.

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 10 to 12 minutes
Yield: about 6 to 8 dozen cookies

3 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp ground ginger
1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground cloves
Dash salt
1 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup corn syrup

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Combine flour, spices, and salt in a medium bowl. In a large bowl, beat butter, sugar, and corn syrup with an electric mixer. Stir in dry ingredients and combine.

Roll the dough out to 1/8-inch thickness on a lightly floured work surface. Use cookie cutters to cut out shapes. Transfer the cookies to ungreased baking sheets and decorate with colored sugar, sprinkles, miniature chocolate chips, mini M&Ms, cinnamon hots, nonpareils, etc. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, or until cookies begin to turn golden. Cool cookies on racks. (If any sugar or decorations have fused to the cookie sheets, scrape them off with a metal spatula before placing the next batch of cookies on the sheet.)

Dough scraps from each batch of cookies can be pressed into a ball and rolled out to 1/8-inch thickness again. Let cookie sheets cool before you place a new batch of cookies on them.

Cookies can also be baked without decorations, then iced with powdered sugar icing or royal icing.

December 15, 2005

The Big Book of Breakfast: Autumn Pancakes

Crunchy apples and nuts make these pancakes special. As with the waffles, this recipe worked very well and needed no tweaking.

The apples retain their crispness and add a nice flavor to the pancakes. Try pecans instead of walnuts for a tasty variation.

Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 5 minutes per batch
Yield: 16 to 18 pancakes

1/2 cup quick-cooking oats
1 1/2 cups boiling water
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/8 tsp salt
3 Tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 large egg, beaten
1 cup milk
3 Tbsp melted butter
1 large apple, peeled, cored, and coarsely chopped
1/4 cup chopped walnuts

Place oats in a small bowl. Pour boiling water over them and let stand for 5 minutes. Do not drain.

In a large bowl, combine flour, baking powder, salt, sugar, and cinnamon. Add oatmeal, egg, milk, butter, apple, and walnuts and mix to combine.

Preheat a large nonstick skillet or griddle over medium-high heat. Brush with vegetable oil or melted butter. Pour 1/4 cup of batter onto griddle for each pancake. Cook until bubbles form on the surface, about 2 minutes. Turn and cook about 1 minute longer. Serve with maple syrup.

The Big Book of Breakfast: Poached Eggs on Polenta with Chunky Tomato Sauce

This is an interesting idea that works: bake polenta, then top the firm squares with tomato sauce and an egg for a filling breakfast entrée. The recipe needed a couple of minor tweaks, but it worked well and tasted very good.

The original recipe called for 1 egg per serving, but there's a lot of polenta and 1 egg didn't really stretch as far as I wanted it to. Two eggs would make for a more generous entrée.

For the tomato sauce, Maryana Vollstedt tells the cook to use a can of whole tomatoes and process them in a food processor or blender until chunky. This didn't make a whole lot of sense to me, since there's a handy-dandy product known as diced tomatoes that's available just about everywhere. Perhaps she wants the texture to be smoother than what you'd get by using diced tomatoes, but if that's the case, it seems silly to call the recipe "Chunky Tomato Sauce." Unless you really want to get your food processor dirty, make things easy on yourself and use diced tomatoes.

The polenta and tomato sauce can both be made ahead of time and then reheated as you're poaching the eggs.

Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 30 to 35 minutes
Yield: 6 servings

1 cup yellow cornmeal
3 1/2 cups cold water
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup ricotta or cottage cheese
2 Tbsp grated Parmesan cheese
1 Tbsp butter
6 or 12 poached eggs, below
Chunky Tomato Sauce, below
Extra Parmesan cheese

For the polenta: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray an 8-by-8-inch baking dish with nonstick cooking spray.

In a small bowl, mix the cornmeal with 1 cup of the cold water. In a medium saucepan over high heat, combine the remaining 2 1/2 cups of water and the salt and bring to a boil. Slowly stir in the cornmeal mixture. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring constantly, until mixture is thickened and smooth, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in ricotta, Parmesan, and butter. Turn the mixture into the prepared pan and bake until firm, 30 to 35 minutes.

To assemble: Cut polenta into 6 squares and place each on a plate. Top each square with 1 or 2 poached eggs and a few spoonfuls of Chunky Tomato Sauce. Sprinkle with more Parmesan cheese and serve immediately.

Poached Eggs
Crack one egg each into lightly sprayed ramekins or custard cups (about 3/4 cup capacity). Place the ramekins on a steamer rack in a deep pan with simmering water in the bottom. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and cook until eggs reach desired doneness, about 3 to 5 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of each ramekin and gently slide the egg out.


Chunky Tomato Sauce
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 small yellow onion, chopped
1 or 2 garlic cloves, minced
14.5 oz. can diced tomatoes
8 oz. can tomato sauce
1/2 tsp dried basil
1/4 tsp dried oregano
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1 bay leaf
1/4 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp salt
Freshly ground pepper

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, warm the oil. Add onions and garlic and sauté until tender, about 6 to 8 minutes. Add tomatoes, tomato sauce, and seasonings. Simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until sauce is slightly thickened, about 15 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings. Remove and discard bay leaf. Serve immediately, or cover and refrigerate for up to 1 week. Makes about 3 cups.

December 14, 2005

The Big Book of Breakfast: Mushroom Quiche

A problematic recipe for quiche from The Big Book of Breakfast. The flavor is good, but the balance between egg custard and mushrooms is way off.

There were far too many mushrooms for the amount of egg filling holding the quiche together. The original recipe calls for 1 pound of mushrooms, but I used a 12-oz. package of sliced cremini mushrooms, and that was still too many. The recipe didn't work until I reduced the amount of mushrooms by one-half. Once the balance between mushrooms and egg custard was better, the quiche was quite tasty. If you can find wild mushrooms (chanterelles, lobster, oyster, etc.) give them a try.

I usually don't bother to make pastry crust for quiche, preferring to use a quick and easy premade shell from Trader Joe's. I increased the oven temperature from 350 degrees in the original recipe to 400 degrees, and had better results with the texture of the quiche. I also cooked the mushrooms longer than the 3 minutes originally called for, since they weren't tender enough. 8 to 10 minutes of sautéing was necessary to fully cook the mushrooms.

Prep Time: 25 minutes
Cook Time: 35 to 40 minutes
Yield: 8 slices

9-inch pie shell
2 Tbsp butter
2 medium shallots, minced
8 oz. mushrooms (white or wild, or a combination), trimmed and sliced
3 Tbsp dry white wine, dry sherry, or dry vermouth
3 large eggs
1 1/2 cups half-and-half
1/2 tsp salt
Freshly ground pepper
1/2 tsp dried thyme leaves
1 Tbsp chopped parsley
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Par-bake the pie shell until set but not brown, about 7 minutes. Remove and let cool on a rack.

In a medium skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Add shallots and mushrooms and sauté until tender, about 8 to 10 minutes. Add wine, sherry, or vermouth and sauté until liquid evaporates, about 3 minutes.

In a medium bowl, whisk together eggs, half-and-half, salt, pepper, thyme, and parsley. Arrange mushroom mixture in the bottom of the pie shell. Pour the egg mixture over, then sprinkle with Parmesan cheese. Bake until puffed and golden, and the center looks set when the pan is gently shaken, about 35 to 40 minutes. Let stand for 10 minutes, then cut into wedges and serve.

The Big Book of Breakfast: Oatmeal Buttermilk Waffles

Hearty but not too heavy, these whole-wheat and oatmeal waffles from The Big Book of Breakfast can be mixed in one bowl and cook up crispy on the outside, tender on the inside. It's a very good recipe.

Maryana Vollstedt says that the recipe serves 4, but I got 6 waffles (3/4 cup of batter each) out of it. My family preferred maple syrup to the Blueberry Sauce (recipe below).

Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: depends on your waffle iron
Yield: Six 4-inch square waffles

1 cup whole-wheat flour
1 cup quick-cooking oats
1 Tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 Tbsp brown sugar
Dash salt
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
1/4 melted butter or vegetable oil
Fresh Blueberry Sauce (below), or maple syrup

Preheat waffle iron and spray lightly with nonstick spray.

In a large bowl, combine all the ingredients except Blueberry Sauce or maple syrup. Beat together with an electric mixer until blended. Pour 3/4 cup batter onto hot waffle iron. Close lid and bake until steam stops and waffles are brown and crisp. Keep waffles warm on a rack in a low oven, or serve immediately.


Fresh Blueberry Sauce
3 Tbsp sugar
1/2 cup water
1 Tbsp cornstarch
1 Tbsp lemon juice
2 cups fresh or frozen blueberries

In a medium saucepan over high heat, combine sugar, water, cornstarch, and lemon juice. Whisk until blended, then add blueberries. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring constantly, until juice is clear and sauce is slightly thickened, about 3 minutes. Cool slightly and serve warm, or cool completely and serve at room temperature. Store in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.

December 13, 2005

The Big Book of Breakfast: Coffee Crumb Cake

A very soft-textured coffee cake from The Big Book of Breakfast. The cake is spicy, and the streusel nut topping is crunchy and delicious.

This cake isn't as elegant as the Walnut Sour Cream Coffee Cake -- the crumb is rather coarse, and the cake itself is almost too soft. The flavor is very good, however, especially if you like spice cake.

Don't be put off by the 1 Tbsp of ground nutmeg. That may seem like a lot, but the cake needs it for flavor. I made this coffee cake with pecans and thought they worked very well.


Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 35 to 40 minutes
Yield: about 16 pieces

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp salt
2 tsp ground cinnamon, divided
1 cup packed brown sugar
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1 cup chopped pecans or walnuts
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 Tbsp ground nutmeg
1 egg
1 cup buttermilk

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Spray a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with nonstick cooking spray.

In a large bowl, combine flour, salt, 1 tsp of cinnamon, brown sugar, granulated sugar, and oil. Beat with an electric mixer until blended and crumbly. Transfer 3/4 cup of the mixture to a medium bowl for use as topping. Stir in nuts and set aside.

To the remaining mixture, add baking powder, baking soda, remaining 1 tsp cinnamon, nutmeg, egg, and buttermilk and beat until smooth. Pour batter into prepared pan and sprinkle the reserved topping over it. Press the topping gently into the batter with your hands. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes. Cool on a wire rack. Cover with plastic and store at room temperature for up to 3 days.

The Big Book of Breakfast: Chile Egg Puff

It's sort of a crustless quiche, and it's a rich, tasty entrée from The Big Book of Breakfast that would make a worthy addition to your holiday brunch table.

If you don't feel like messing around with pastry crust, but you'd like to offer a creamy, cheesy egg dish, try this egg and cottage cheese casserole. The flavor is outstanding, and it couldn't be easier to throw together. It's delicious all by itself, and also pairs well with avocados, or salsa, or sour cream. If you'd like a hint of heat, try adding the optional cayenne pepper.


Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 40 to 45 minutes
Yield: 8 servings

10 large eggs
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/8 tsp white pepper
3 cups grated Cheddar cheese, divided
16 oz. lowfat cottage cheese
1/4 cup melted butter
4 oz. can diced green chilis
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper, optional
Serve with: Fresh salsa, sour cream, sliced green onions, diced avocados, warm tortillas, optional

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray an 8-by-11-inch baking dish with nonstick cooking spray.

In a large bowl, whisk the eggs. Add flour, baking powder, salt, pepper, half of the Cheddar cheese, all of the cottage cheese, butter, chilis, and cayenne (if using), and mix well. Pour into the prepared pan. Bake, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Sprinkle remaining cheese on top and bake until eggs are set and cheese is melted, about 8 to 10 minutes longer. Let stand for 10 minutes, then cut into squares and serve with optional toppings, if desired.

December 11, 2005

Christmas Brunch: Menu Ideas

Here are my thoughts on how to put together a delicious and easy holiday brunch. Most of these recipes can be made in advance, which means that your morning preparations are simple. I hope you find some recipes here that you'd like to try. If you make any of these dishes, please let me know how they turned out for you: Colleen@thecookbookcritic.com

I'll be testing several more recipes from The Big Book of Breakfast over the coming week. If any of the dishes pass muster, I'll add them to this list.

Happy holidays to you and yours!

I've listed links to several recipes on the site which are perfect for brunch. Make sure you have a main course, such as quiche or strata, some sweet breads or cake, and some fruit; then you can embellish your menu as much as you'd like.

Beverages
Orange, grapefruit, or cranberry juice
Champagne or Champagne Cocktails, Wine Punch, Mimosas, and/or Bloody Marys
Coffee and tea

Try spiced coffee, for something festive: Put 1 or 2 broken cinnamon sticks, or 3 or 4 bruised cardamom pods, in the basket with the coffee grounds when you brew the coffee.

Egg Dishes
Holiday Strata
Bacon and Green Chili Quiche
Strata with Potatoes, Rosemary, and Fontina
Strata with Spinach and Gruyère
Chile Egg Puff

Sweet Breads, Cakes, and French Toast
Sticky Bun French Toast
Walnut Sour Cream Coffee Cake
Caramel Fig Loaf
Cranberry Poppy Seed Loaf
Eggnog Quick Bread
Pumpkin Spice Bread
Bacardi Rum Cake
Caramelized Apple-Granola Timbales
Baked Apple Pouches with Cinnamon and Raisins
Coffee Crumb Cake

Fresh Fruit and Fruit Compotes
Fresh Fruit with Lime Syrup
Fresh Fruit with Creamy Poppy Seed Dressing
Warm Cherry, Orange, and Cranberry Compote
Breakfast Dried-Fruit Soup
Fruit Compote in Darjeeling Tea and Sauternes

Other Ideas
Sliced ham and turkey
Sliced cheddar, Jack, and Muenster cheeses
A platter of bacon and/or sausage
Hot chocolate
Eggnog
Purchased pastries, such as croissants (day-old croissants hold up quite well and can be warmed slightly in a low oven before setting them on the table)
Bagels, lox, and cream cheese
A platter of Christmas cookies

Have a wonderful holiday!

Christmas Brunch: Fresh Fruit with Lime Syrup

The easiest possible way to serve fresh fruit for Christmas brunch is simply to cut it up and toss it together in a bowl. To make fruit salad just a bit more festive, toss it with a lime-infused syrup.

Use whatever fruit is fresh, ripe, and looks good at the market. Kiwi, mangoes, and papayas are often good choices at this time of year. Some markets sell fresh pineapple already sliced, which can be tasty. Use fresh berries if they're available. Try to have at least 4 or 5 different kinds of fruit in the salad.

Make the simple syrup ahead of time and store it in the refrigerator. You can keep the lime peel in it, for a strong flavor. Or you can strain it out, for a subtler hint of lime.

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 10 minutes for the syrup
Yield: varies for the salad; about 1/2 cup for the syrup

Assorted fresh fruit, peeled and/or rinsed, as necessary
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup water
Zest of 1 lime

Bring the sugar and water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add the lime zest and cook, stirring occasionally, over high heat until the liquid forms a thin syrup, 5 to 10 minutes. Remove from heat and strain if desired. Cool, then cover and refrigerate for up to 5 days.

For fruit salad, cut fruit into bite-sized chunks, and toss with lime syrup in a large serving bowl. Vary the amount of syrup according to how much fruit you're using; a small fruit salad for 4 people needs only 1 or 2 Tbsp of syrup.

Serve within 30 minutes.

Christmas Brunch: Bacardi Rum Cake

A recipe that uses convenience products for an easy, festive Bundt cake that looks very pretty on a brunch table. As with most of these brunch recipes, this cake can be made the day before Christmas, if you like.

I got this recipe from my stepmother, Pat. The rum flavors seem very Christmas-like to me, and I think it's an easy, sweet offering for brunch.

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 45 to 60 minutes
Yield: about 12 servings

For the cake: 1 cup chopped pecans or walnuts
18.5 oz. package yellow cake mix (not "pudding in the mix" style)
3.75 oz. package vanilla pudding mix
4 eggs
1/2 cup cold water
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup Bacardi dark rum

For the glaze: 4 oz. butter
1/4 cup water
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup Bacardi dark rum

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease and flour a 12-cup capacity Bundt cake pan. Sprinkle nuts in the bottom of the pan. Make the cake: Mix cake mix, pudding mix, eggs, cold water, vegetable oil, and rum together until combined. Pour batter into the prepared pan and bake until a tester inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean, 45 to 60 minutes.

While cake is baking, make glaze: Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Stir in the water and sugar. Increase heat to high and bring the mixture to a boil. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring constantly, then remove from heat and stir in rum. Set aside until cake is ready to be glazed.

When cake is done, cool on a rack for 10 minutes, then invert out of the pan and set it back on the rack. Prick the top of the cake several times with a wooden skewer. Using a pastry brush, brush the cake with the glaze until it is all absorbed. Let cool completely, then slice and serve. Or wrap tightly with plastic wrap and store at room temperature for up to 1 day. If desired, dust the cake with powdered sugar just before serving.

Christmas Brunch: Cranberry Poppy Seed Loaf

Here's a moist, yummy quick bread that makes a nice addition to your holiday brunch table. Make it a day ahead, and when ready to serve, cut into slices and arrange on a pretty platter.

I cut this recipe out of a magazine several years ago. The finished loaf can be iced with a powdered sugar glaze, if you like. The bread is delicious with or without icing. If made ahead, wrap tightly in plastic and store at room temperature until you're ready to glaze it and/or slice it.

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 50 to 60 minutes
Yield: about 12 slices

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup sugar
2 Tbsp poppy seeds
1 Tbsp baking powder
1 cup milk
1/3 cup unsalted butter, melted
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 tsp grated lemon peel
1 cup fresh or frozen cranberries, rinsed, drained, and coarsely chopped
Lemon Glaze, below (optional)

Spray an 8-by-4-inch loaf pan with nonstick spray. Set aside. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a large bowl, combine flour, sugar, poppy seeds, and baking powder. In a medium bowl, mix milk, butter, egg, vanilla, and lemon peel. Stir milk mixture into flour mixture and stir until just moistened. Stir in cranberries. Spoon batter into prepared pan, spreading evenly. Bake for about 50 to 60 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool on a rack for 10 minutes, then invert the loaf out of the pan. Continue to cool until room temperature. If making ahead, wrap in plastic and store at room temperature for up to 1 day.

To serve, drizzle with Lemon Glaze, if desired. Slice into pieces and arrange on a platter.

Lemon Glaze
1 cup confectioner's sugar
1 1/2 to 2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice

Combine sugar with enough lemon juice to reach drizzling consistency. Spoon over cooled bread when ready to serve.

Christmas Brunch: Strata with Spinach and Gruyère

This recipe comes from the November/December 2001 issue of Cook's Illustrated magazine. It's an outstanding example of what strata should be: rich-tasting and hearty. And it's perfect for brunch, since the casserole is assembled the day before.

The recipe serves 6. If you've got a crowd coming for brunch, you can double the recipe, using a 9-by-13-inch dish and increasing the baking time by about 10 minutes. Or try making 2 different varieties; one of this recipe, and one Strata with Potatoes, Rosemary, and Fontina.

To dry the bread, slice it and leave it out at room temperature for several hours, or overnight. Or toast the slices in a 200-degree oven for about 30 minutes. Don't use fresh bread, which is too soft.

Weighting the strata really does make a difference in the final texture of the dish. Use 1-pound boxes of sugar, or cartons of soy milk or chicken stock, or fill a large plastic Ziploc bag with about 2 pounds of rice, and lay them on top of the strata before you refrigerate it.

Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 50 to 55 minutes
Yield: 6 servings

8 to 10 slices (1/2-inch thick) day-old French or Italian bread (or toasted bread, see note above)
5 Tbsp unsalted butter, softened
4 medium shallots, minced (about 1/2 cup)
10-oz. package frozen chopped spinach, thawed, drained, and squeezed dry
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup dry white wine or dry vermouth
6 oz. Gruyère cheese, grated (about 1 1/2 cups)
6 large eggs
1 3/4 cups half-and-half

When bread is cool, butter the slices on 1 side with 2 Tbsp of the butter; set aside.

Heat 2 Tbsp of the butter in a medium nonstick skillet over medium heat. Sauté shallots until translucent, about 3 minutes. Add spinach and salt and pepper to taste, and cook, stirring occasionally, until spinach and shallots are combined, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a medium bowl. Add wine to skillet, increase heat to medium-high, and simmer until reduced to 1/4 cup, 2 to 3 minutes. Set aside.

Butter an 8-inch square baking dish with remaining 1 Tbsp of butter; arrange half of the buttered bread slices, buttered-side up, in a single layer in the dish. Sprinkle half of the spinach mixture, then 1/2 cup grated cheese evenly over bread slices. Arrange remaining bread slices in a single layer over the cheese, then sprinkle remaining spinach mixture and another 1/2 cup cheese evenly over the bread.

Whisk eggs in a medium bowl, then whisk in reduced wine, half-and-half, 1 tsp salt, and pepper to taste. Pour egg mixture over the bread layers. Cover the surface flush with plastic wrap, and weigh down with boxes or cartons. Refrigerate overnight.

Remove dish from refrigerator and let stand at room temperature for about 20 minutes. Heat oven to 325 degrees. Uncover the strata and sprinkle remaining 1/2 cup of cheese evenly over the top. Bake until both edges and center are puffed and edges have pulled slightly away from sides of dish, about 50 to 55 minutes (60 minutes if you've doubled the recipe). Cool on a rack for 5 to 10 minutes, then cut into squares and serve.

Christmas Brunch: Strata with Potatoes, Rosemary, and Fontina

Another delicious strata recipe from Cook's Illustrated magazine. Assemble it on Christmas Eve, and next morning all you have to do is pop it in the oven. It's a great idea for brunch.

As noted in the recipe for Strata with Spinach and Gruyère, the bread needs to be dried out, either at room temperature for several hours, or toasted in a 200-degree oven for about 30 minutes. The recipe can be doubled; bake in a 9-by-13-inch dish and increase cooking time by about 10 to 20 minutes.

Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 50 to 55 minutes (60 to 70 minutes if recipe is doubled)
Yield: 6 servings

8 to 10 slices (1/2-inch thick) day-old French or Italian bread (or toasted bread, see note above)
5 Tbsp unsalted butter, softened
Salt and freshly ground pepper
12 oz. new potatoes (about 2 medium), cut into 1/2-inch cubes
3 medium shallots, minced (about 1/3 cup)
2 medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed
1 1/2 tsp minced fresh rosemary leaves
1/2 cup dry white wine or dry vermouth
6 oz. fontina cheese, grated (about 1 1/2 cups)
6 large eggs
1 3/4 cups half-and-half
2 Tbsp minced fresh parsley leaves

When bread is cool, butter the slices on 1 side with 2 Tbsp of the butter; set aside.

Bring 1 quart of water to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, add 1 tsp salt, and boil potatoes until just tender when pierced with the tip of a knife, about 4 minutes. Drain potatoes.

Heat 2 Tbsp of the butter in a medium nonstick skillet over medium heat and cook potatoes until just beginning to brown, about 10 minutes. Add shallots and cook, stirring frequently, until softened and translucent, about 2 minutes longer. Add garlic and rosemary and cook until fragrant, about 2 more minutes. Transfer mixture to a medium bowl and season to taste with salt and pepper; set aside. Return the skillet to medium-high heat, add wine, and simmer until reduced to 1/4 cup, 2 to 3 minutes. Set aside.

Butter an 8-inch square baking dish with remaining 1 Tbsp of butter; arrange half of the buttered bread slices, buttered-side up, in a single layer in the dish. Sprinkle half of the potato mixture, then 1/2 cup grated cheese evenly over bread slices. Arrange remaining bread slices in a single layer over the cheese, then sprinkle remaining potato mixture and another 1/2 cup cheese evenly over the bread.

Whisk eggs in a medium bowl, then whisk in reduced wine, half-and-half, parsley, 1 tsp salt, and pepper to taste. Pour egg mixture over the bread layers. Cover the surface flush with plastic wrap, and weigh down with boxes or cartons. Refrigerate overnight.

Remove dish from refrigerator and let stand at room temperature for about 20 minutes. Heat oven to 325 degrees. Uncover the strata and sprinkle remaining 1/2 cup of cheese evenly over the top. Bake until both edges and center are puffed and edges have pulled slightly away from sides of dish, about 50 to 55 minutes (60 to 70 minutes if you've doubled the recipe). Cool on a rack for 5 to 10 minutes, then cut into squares and serve.

Christmas Brunch: Bacon and Green Chili Quiche

Here's a tried-and-true quiche recipe that I've made numerous times, always with great success. I believe this recipe originated in Bon Appétit magazine, and I've made a couple of small modifications over the years. You can make quiche a day ahead of time, believe it or not.

Simply bake until golden, cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate. The next morning, slice the quiche into 8 pieces (since they are cold, they'll actually slice up more neatly than they do when warm), and place them on an ovenproof serving platter. Reheat the slices in a 325-degree oven for about 25 minutes, or until hot, then place the serving platter on the table. The individual slices reheat fairly quickly, since they are smaller than an entire quiche.

Of course you can also make the quiche on the morning of your brunch. This recipe is easy to put together, especially if you're lazy like me and use ready-made pie crusts for quiche. Trader Joe's market carries a tasty, flaky pie crust dough that's ready to fit into your own pie plate. If you have a deep-dish 9-inch pie plate, be sure to use it. If you don't, the egg mixture might not all fit into the crust. Don't worry, if that's the case. Fill the quiche to nearly the top of the pastry, and discard any extra filling.


Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 35 to 40 minutes
Yield: 8 servings

9-inch pie shell, or pastry for a 9-inch pie
8 slices bacon
4 green onions, sliced thin
4-oz. can diced green chilis, drained
2 cups shredded pepper Jack cheese
4 eggs
1 1/2 cups half-and-half
Dash salt
1/4 tsp garlic powder, optional
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper, optional

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Bake pastry shell for about 7 minutes, or until it looks set, but not brown. Remove and set aside.

Cook bacon in a skillet until crisp. Drain on paper towels, then crumble into the bottom of the pastry shell. Top with onions, chilis, and cheese.

Whisk eggs and half-and-half together in a medium bowl. Add salt and other seasonings if desired. Pour egg mixture into the pie shell.

Bake until puffy and golden on top, and the center looks set when the pan is shaken, 35 to 40 minutes. Remove from oven and cool for 15 minutes, then slice and serve. Or cool to room temperature, cover, and refrigerate. To reheat, see note above.

The Big Book of Breakfast: Champagne Cocktail

From The Big Book of Breakfast comes a definite oldie but goodie. It's a fun, festive drink for Christmas brunch.

Serve this cocktail in tall flutes. For a Christmas touch, garnish each glass by floating a frozen cranberry in it.

Prep Time: 5 minutes
Yield: 1 cocktail

1 sugar cube
1/2 tsp angostura bitters
5 oz. chilled Champagne
Lemon or orange peel twist, or 1 frozen cranberry, for garnish

Place sugar cube in a chilled champagne flute. Add bitters to moisten sugar cube. Pour in champagne. Garnish with citrus peel or a cranberry.

The Big Book of Breakfast: Wine Punch

A punchbowl recipe from The Big Book of Breakfast. This would also make a yummy nonalcoholic beverage with 7-Up or ginger ale.

Punch makes a fun centerpiece if you're serving buffet-style. And punchbowls are a really fun, kind-of old-fashioned accessory. To make the punch super-festive, freeze some of the diluted juice in ice cube trays, and add them to the punch just before serving.

Prep Time: 5 minutes
Yield: about 12 servings

12-oz. can tropical fruit juice concentrate, diluted according to package directions (to yield 48 oz.)
750 ml bottle dry white wine, chilled

Place juice in a punch bowl. Pour wine into bowl, and serve.

December 09, 2005

The Big Book of Breakfast: Walnut Sour Cream Coffee Cake

At last! A really excellent recipe from The Big Book of Breakfast. This moist, delicious coffee cake can be made the day ahead. At serving time, sprinkle it with powdered sugar and enjoy.

The cake can be baked in a 9-by-13-inch pan, or a Bundt pan, which looks particularly pretty. You can do a couple of different things with the streusel if you're using a Bundt pan: put half of it on top of the cake, as the recipe suggests, but make sure you press it into the batter so that it doesn't all fall off when you invert the cake out of the pan. Or, put all the streusel in the middle of the cake. Either way will be delicious.

A simple dusting of powdered sugar makes the Bundt cake look pretty. If you'd like to glaze the cake with icing, try the Brown Sugar Glaze, a recipe I cut out of a magazine about 10 years ago.

Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 30 to 35 minutes for a 9-by-13-inch pan; 40 to 45 minutes for a Bundt pan
Yield: 8 to 12 servings

3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 cup sour cream
1 tsp vanilla extract

For the streusel: 1/3 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 cup chopped walnuts
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9-by-13-inch baking dish or a nonstick Bundt cake pan (12-cup capacity) with nonstick cooking spray.

In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat together butter and sugar until fluffy. Scrape the sides of the bowl, then add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.

In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking powder, and baking soda. Add to butter-sugar mixture in 2 additions, alternating with sour cream. Beat well, and stir in vanilla.

Combine all the streusel ingredients in a small bowl.

Put half the batter into the pan (the batter is thick, so space even dollops into the pan and gently spread to even it out). Sprinkle half the streusel mixture over the batter, then dollop remaining batter over the filling and sprinkle with the remaining streusel. Using an offset spatula or your hands, gently press the streusel into the batter (only necessary if you're using a Bundt pan). Alternatively, you can put all of the streusel mixture in the middle of the cake.

Bake until a toothpick comes out clean when inserted into the center of the cake, about 30 to 35 minutes for a 9-by-13-inch pan, 40 to 45 minutes for a Bundt pan. Cool on a rack.

For Bundt cake, cool on rack for 10 minutes, then invert onto the rack and continue to cool. When completely cool, the cake can be wrapped in plastic and stored at room temperature for up to 1 day. To serve, dust with powdered sugar, or drizzle with Brown Sugar Glaze, below.

Brown Sugar Glaze
1 cup powdered sugar
2 tbsp brown sugar
2 tbsp butter, melted
1 tsp. vanilla
1 to 3 Tbsp milk

Combine sugars, butter, and vanilla in a medium bowl. Add milk, a little at a time, until the mixture is the proper consistency to drizzle over the cake.

The Big Book of Breakfast: Fresh Fruit with Creamy Poppy Seed Dressing

I've adapted Maryana Vollstedt's recipe for "Orchard Fruit Plate" (that name is just too twee, plus I've added some of my own suggestions for which fruits to serve together, and how to prep them for brunch).

The poppy seed dressing is slightly tangy with a hint of sweetness. Paired with fresh fruit, this is a nice dish for Christmas brunch.

You can make the dressing 1 day ahead. The fruit needs to prepped shortly before you serve it. The Big Book of Breakfast says simply to arrange assorted fruit on a platter and pass the dressing with it. I've elaborated slightly on that idea in the more-detailed recipes below. These are fruit combinations which I believe work well together. You can vary the types and quantities of fruit that you use according to your preferences, what's available, and how many servings you need. The ideas below are just suggestions.

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Yield: Varies

Winter Fruit Assortment
1 or 2 apples, sliced thinly
1 or 2 firm-ripe pears, sliced thinly or cut into chunks
1 or 2 bananas, sliced
1 to 2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
2 to 4 tsp sugar
1 cup pineapple chunks
1 cup red or green grapes
Creamy Poppy Seed Dressing, below
1/2 cup chopped walnuts, optional

Combine the apples, pears, and bananas in a large serving bowl. Mix the lemon juice and sugar, then pour onto the fruit and toss gently to combine. Add remaining fruit and stir gently. Serve within 30 minutes, passing a bowl of Creamy Poppy Seed Dressing on the side. Offer chopped walnuts to sprinkle on top, if desired.

Tropical Fruit Assortment
3 ripe kiwi fruit, peeled and sliced
2 ripe mangoes, peeled and cut into chunks
2 ripe papayas, peeled and cut into chunks
1 cup pineapple chunks
1 cup strawberries, hulled and halved or quartered
1 cup raspberries
1 cup blueberries
Sugar, optional
Creamy Poppy Seed Dressing, below
1/2 cup slivered almonds, optional

Combine all the fruit in a large serving bowl and toss gently to combine. If desired toss a couple of teaspoons of sugar with the fruit. Serve with Creamy Poppy Seed Dressing and slivered almonds, if desired.

Creamy Poppy Seed Dressing
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup plain yogurt
1 Tbsp honey
1 Tbsp poppy seeds
Dash of ground nutmeg

Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Taste for sweetness, and add more honey if desired. Makes about 1/2 cup.

The Big Book of Breakfast: Baked Blueberry French Toast

Well, I didn't love it. The ratio of good recipes to not-so-good recipes from The Big Book of Breakfast hasn't been great thus far, which is disappointing. I've got several more tests coming up, but my expectations have become rather low for this book, so we'll see how it goes.

Next week I'll post some other brunch ideas that I know are excellent.

The problem with this baked French toast casserole is mostly that it looks really ugly. The blueberries make the bread look mottled, and the cream cheese cubes on top don't do anything to help. The flavors are okay, but nothing to write home about. I'd skip it, if I were you. I'll have some other ideas for sweet brunch dishes coming up next week.

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 50 to 60 minutes
Yield: 4, 6, or 8 servings

6 to 8 slices (1-inch thick) day-old egg bread, French bread, challah, etc.
1 cup fresh or frozen blueberries
8 oz. cream cheese, cubed
10 to 12 large eggs
2 cups whole milk
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 cup maple syrup

Arrange bread in a lightly sprayed or oiled 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Sprinkle with blueberries and cream cheese cubes.

In a large bowl, whisk together eggs, milk, salt, and syrup, and pour over bread. Cover with foil and refrigerate overnight. Let sit out at room temperature about 30 minutes before baking.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake, covered, for 30 minutes. Remove foil and bake until lightly browned on top, 20 to 30 more minutes. Serve with maple syrup or Blueberry-Maple Syrup, below.


Blueberry-Maple Syrup
1/2 cup maple syrup
1 cup fresh or frozen blueberries

In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, bring syrup to a boil. Add blueberries. Reduce heat to low an simmer until slightly thickened, about 2 minutes.

December 08, 2005

The Big Book of Breakfast: Holiday Strata

Strata is a savory bread pudding, consisting of layers of bread, cheese, and other ingredients, topped with an egg and milk custard mixture that soaks into the bread. It's a great dish for brunch because it requires an overnight stay in the refrigerator. Assemble it a day ahead of time, and the next morning all you need to do is bake it. This is a tasty version from The Big Book of Breakfast.

Strata recipes often suggest that the cook put weights on top of the dish as it rests in the refrigerator, to ensure that the bread is completely saturated. The Big Book of Breakfast doesn't suggest that step in any of its strata recipes, but I find that strata really does have a better texture if it's been weighted. Use a couple of 1-pound boxes of powdered sugar or brown sugar, or a few 1-quart cartons of chicken stock or soy milk. Place the plastic wrap flush with the surface of the casserole and then arrange the boxes or cartons on top so that the bread is squished into the custard mixture. It works, I promise.

I made this recipe with chicken sausage, and it was delicious. Pork or turkey links would work well also. I used the lesser amount and thought it was plenty of sausage; the original recipe calls for 20 oz. of links, but I believe that's too much. If you want a lot of sausage, use 16 oz. Any more than that is overkill.

Whole milk is tasty, and half-half even tastier. Don't use leaner milk; the casserole needs the richness that the milkfat provides.

To dry out the bread, you can either let it sit out for a day before assembling the strata, or you can bake it at 250 degrees for about 30 minutes. Don't use fresh bread, which will be too soft-textured.

Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 45 to 50 minutes
Yield: 6 to 8 servings

1 1/2 Tbsp butter
6 oz. button or cremini mushrooms, sliced
8 slices day-old sourdough bread, crusts trimmed, buttered, and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
12 to 16 oz. link sausage, cooked, cut into bite-sized pieces
2 cups grated Cheddar cheese
4 large eggs
2 cups whole milk or half-and-half
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground pepper
1 tsp dry mustard

In a medium skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Add mushrooms and cook until tender, about 5 minutes.

Place half of the bread in a lightly sprayed or oiled 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Add sausage, mushrooms, half of the cheese, and remaining bread.

In a large bowl, combine the eggs, milk, salt, pepper, and mustard. Pour over the bread mixture and top with remaining cheese. Cover with plastic wrap flush with the surface, and weight the strata down with small cartons or boxes. Refrigerate overnight.

Let the dish sit out at room temperature for about 30 minutes before baking. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Bake, uncovered, until set and bubbly, about 45 to 50 minutes. Let stand for 10 minutes, then cut into squares and serve.

The Big Book of Breakfast: Sticky Bun French Toast

Scrumptious sticky-bun flavor in a French toast casserole that can be assembled a day ahead, and then baked until golden on Christmas morning. I had a couple of issues with pan size and bread size, but they were really my fault.

The recipe calls for 8 pieces of day-old bread. My grocery store sells thickly-sliced egg bread that's labeled "French Toast Bread," and that's what I used. But the slices were too big to fit in one layer in the specified 9-by-13-inch pan, so I used a 10-by-15-inch pan instead. This was a mistake, since the layer of caramel and nut topping was stretched too thin. Don't use a pan that's bigger than 9-by-13-inches. If the bread slices you're using are too big to fit 8 pieces in the pan, use only 6.

Any thickly-sliced (1-inch is optimum) firm white or egg bread will work. Try challah, or sweet French bread, or cinnamon-raisin bread for a variation. If you don't have time to let the bread sit out for a day to get dry, you can dry it in a 250-degree oven for about 30 minutes. Don't try to make the French toast with fresh bread, as it will be too soft and the slices will fall apart in the egg custard. Don't skimp on the milk fat, either. Whole milk is the best choice, but if you just can't bring yourself to use it, 2% is okay. Whatever you do, don't use skim milk! It's Christmas; don't be a Scrooge when it comes to rich, tasty breakfast.

For a holiday brunch that features other selections, I think one slice of French toast per serving is sufficient, and you can count on being able to serve 6 or 8 people, depending on the size of the bread you use. For an everyday breakfast, 2 slices per person might be more appropriate.

As I've noted in the recipe, you need to work quickly to spread the sticky bun topping across the bottom of the pan, since it will set up very quickly and become difficult to work with. If you have trouble with it, set the pan in a low oven for a few minutes until the topping becomes spreadable again. Similarly, you need to remove all the slices of French toast immediately when the casserole comes out of the oven. When hot, the bread and topping slide easily out of the baking dish, but as soon as it starts to cool down, the topping will begin to stick stubbornly to the pan. If you can't serve the French toast immediately, remove the slices, invert them onto an ovenproof serving dish, and keep warm until you're ready to serve.

Check the French toast at about 40 minutes; don't let the caramel get too dark, or it will taste unpleasantly burnt.


Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 40 to 50 minutes
Yield: 4, 6, or 8 servings

1/2 cup butter
1 cup packed brown sugar
2 Tbsp light corn syrup
1/2 cup coarsely chopped pecans
6 or 8 slices (1-inch thick) day-old bread (French, challah, etc.)
6 large eggs
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp ground cinnamon
Dash of ground nutmeg

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine the butter and brown sugar and stir until melted. Add corn syrup and cook, stirring constantly, until mixture thickens, about 2 minutes. Stir in nuts. Pour into a 9-by-13-inch baking dish, working quickly to spread the caramel evenly across the bottom (it will start to harden as soon as it hits the baking dish, so work fast). Arrange the bread on top in a single layer.

In a medium bowl, combine the eggs, milk, vanilla, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Pour over the bread. Cover and refrigerate for several hours or overnight. Let dish sit out at room temperature for about 30 minutes before baking.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake, uncovered, until golden on top and crispy around the edges, about 40 to 50 minutes. To serve, remove each slice with a spatula and invert onto a plate so that the sticky bun topping is face-up.

December 07, 2005

The Big Book of Breakfast: Breakfast Dried-Fruit Soup

It sounds weird, but it's a very tasty compote-like recipe. Served warm or cold, with a dollop of sour cream or crème fraîche, this would make a spicy addition to your Christmas breakfast table. Prep it a day or two in advance to make your brunch preparations simple.

Be sure to slice the lemons paper thin. If you have a mandoline, this would be a great time to use it. Any mixed dried fruit will work, but I suggest that you make sure you've got some cranberries in the compote; they add a nice color and flavor to the finished soup.

I increased the amount of fruit slightly -- the original recipe called for 3 cups of mixed fruit, but I used a 16-oz. bag from Trader Joe's market, which was about 4 cups. I also used a 20-oz. can of pineapple chunks, which was nearly 2 cups instead of the original 1 1/2 cups. I liked the finished consistency of the compote with these proportions: not too soupy. If you'd like a thinner consistency, use the lesser amounts of fruit.

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 45 minutes
Yield: 6 to 8 servings

3 to 4 cups mixed dried fruit (apples, peaches, apricots, pears, prunes, cranberries, etc.) cut into bite-sized chunks
1 cinnamon stick
1/2 medium lemon, washed and sliced paper-thin
3 1/2 cups water
2 cups orange juice
1 1/2 to 2 cups canned pineapple chunks in juice
1/2 cup pineapple juice, reserved from the can
1/2 cup honey
Dash salt
2 Tbsp quick-cooking tapioca, uncooked
Sour cream, crème fraîche, or plain yogurt, optional

In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, combine dried fruit, cinnamon stick, lemon slices, water, and orange juice and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, for 10 minutes.

Add pineapple chunks, pineapple juice, honey, salt, and tapioca and let stand off the heat for 5 minutes, to soften the tapioca. Return to medium heat and cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until fruit is tender and tapioca has completely melted and thickened the mixture, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and discard cinnamon stick. Serve warm or cold with suggested accompaniments, if desired. Can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 2 days before serving.

The Big Book of Breakfast: Fresh Pear and Walnut Torte

I haven't had one of these in quite a while -- a recipe that doesn't just need some adjustment, but is an outright failure. This dessert bubbled over in the oven, pouring out of its baking dish and creating a blackened sugary mess. The texture was bizarre and the flavor was way too sweet. An utter disaster.

I think the proportions are off; there's too much sugar and not enough flour to make a cake-like batter. The leavening worked too well, foamy up the thin batter so that it poured out of the dish and made a big mess. The top of the batter formed a crisp shell on top of a mess of pear chunks that didn't have enough batter to suspend them. I tasted the resulting mess and thought that it was cloyingly sweet. Major changes would have to be made to the ingredients list of this recipe for it to work. If you've got a copy of The Big Book of Breakfast, do yourself a favor and skip this one.


Here's the recipe, just for informational purposes. If you're a baking pro and can spot what's wrong with it at a glance, drop me a line at Colleen@thecookbookcritic.com and let me know what you think the problem is. Thanks!

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 35 minutes
Yield: 8 servings

2 large eggs
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp salt
2 tsp baking powder
1 cup chopped walnuts
2 pears, peeled, cored, and chopped (about 1 1/2 cups) or 1 1/2 cups chopped canned pears

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a large bowl, beat together the eggs, sugar, and vanilla until light. In a medium bowl, combine flour, salt, and baking powder and stir into batter. Fold in nuts and pears. Pour into a lightly oiled 8-by-8-inch baking dish. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 35 minutes. Cool thoroughly on a rack.

The Big Book of Breakfast: Frittata with Smoked Salmon and Asparagus

A somewhat dry-textured frittata from The Big Book of Breakfast. If you like smoked salmon, this is a recipe you might want to try.

I have to admit that out of all the egg-based breakfast entrées, frittata is my least favorite. I prefer the creaminess of quiche over the somewhat thin, dry wedges of frittata. I found this recipe to be fairly dry and rather salty due to the presence of smoked salmon. It's okay, but it didn't exactly overwhelm me with its awesomeness. Try it if you're a frittata fan; otherwise, I'd hold out for some of the upcoming recipes such as strata or quiche.

Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes
Yield: 4 to 6 servings

8 oz. asparagus, tough ends snapped off, cut into 1/4-inch slices
6 large eggs
2 Tbsp water
1/2 tsp salt
Freshly ground black pepper
4 oz. smoked salmon, flaked into bite-sized pieces
1/2 cup grated Monterey Jack cheese, divided
1 Tbsp butter

Place asparagus in a small saucepan, add water to cover, and bring to a boil over high heat. Cook for 5 minutes, then drain and set aside. (You could also steam the asparagus until tender.)

In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, water, salt, and pepper to taste. Add the asparagus, salmon, and half the cheese and combine.

In a large ovenproof skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. When butter foams, add the egg mixture and reduce heat to medium-low. Cover and cook until eggs are set and top is nearly dry, about 10 to 12 minutes. While frittata is cooking, preheat the oven broiler.

When eggs are set, sprinkle the top with the remaining cheese and broil until cheese is melted, about 1 minute. Let stand for 5 minutes, then cut into wedges and serve. Can also be served at room temperature.

December 06, 2005

Christmas Brunch: The Big Book of Breakfast

I'm putting Off the Shelf on hold for the time being, to focus on ideas for Christmas brunch. Terry suggested that I take a look at Maryana Vollstedt's The Big Book of Breakfast. I'll be testing recipes from the book and posting ideas for brunch menus over the next several days, including lots of make-ahead recipes for a relaxed, easy Christmas morning. Look for strata, frittata, quiche, coffee cake, and fruit recipes, among others.

If you have recipes for Christmas brunch that you'd like to share, or to see tested, please let me know : Colleen@thecookbookcritic.com

December 05, 2005

Chez Panisse Desserts: Ossi Dei Morti

A cookie recipe from Chez Panisse Desserts. Italian for "bones of the dead," ossi dei morti cookies are traditionally served on All Soul's Day, at the beginning of November. The cookies taste very good, but they don't look especially attractive, although they do indeed look somewhat bonelike. These are very crisp cookies, not quite as hard as biscotti, but definitely designed to be dipped into coffee or wine before being eaten.

The recipe instructs the cook to roll out the dough into ropes, then cut the ropes into lengths. I assumed that the cookies would retain their bone shape, but the dough spread quite a lot in the oven, and my initial batch of cookies looked like big blobs. After some experimentation with thickness and length, I was able to create cookies that retained a hint of a bone shape after baking. But they still ended up being somewhat irregular in shape. An online search turned up several variations on the recipe for ossi dei morti, so I'm curious whether different recipes would make cookies that retain their shape better. Future testing may be in order.

Lindsey Shere instructs the cook to toast the almonds "lightly" (no specifics about what that means, exactly) and then finely chop them by hand. I can't discern any reason for this instruction, so I chopped my almonds in a mini-chopper. I figured about 8 minutes in a 350-degree oven was "lightly" toasted. She doesn't give the cook much in the way of instructions for dealing with the dough, saying merely that you should "roll it into ropes." I suggest working on an unfloured marble or wooden pastry board. Cut off a small amount of dough to work with at a time, and cover the remaining dough with a damp towel to prevent it from getting dry. Use a knife or a bench scraper to cut the rope into lengths. The recipe also specifies baking the cookies on buttered baking sheets. I tried one batch this way, and then made the rest on parchment-lined sheets, which worked just as well and is easier to clean up.

The cookies have a strong almond flavor and are intensely sweet. They'd make a nice accompaniment to a bitter espresso.

Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: about 15 minutes
Yield: 12 dozen cookies

2 cups unblanched almonds
3 cups sugar
2 tsp lemon juice
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/8 tsp salt
3 eggs
A few drops of almond extract (I used 1/8 tsp)
2 cups flour
Powdered sugar, optional

Toast the almonds in a 350-degree oven for about 7 to 8 minutes, or until they just begin to be fragrant. Don't let them get brown. Remove them and cool completely, then chop them finely by hand, or in a food processor or mini-chopper (you can add a tablespoon or two of the sugar to them if chopping by machine. This helps to prevent them from turning into nut butter). Set aside.

Reduce the oven temperature to 300 degrees.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle, or in a large mixing bowl, combine the sugar, lemon juice, baking powder, and salt. Add the eggs and almond extract and beat on medium speed until spongy, about 3 minutes. Add the flour and almonds and mix to combine thoroughly. Turn the dough out onto an unfloured work surface and press it together into a ball. Using a bench scraper or knife, slice off a piece of dough about the size of an orange. Cover the remaining dough with a damp towel while you are forming the cookies.

Using your hands, roll out the piece of dough into a rope the thickness of a pencil. Cut the rope into 3-inch lengths. Place the cookies on a parchment-lined baking sheet at least 3 inches apart, as the dough spreads in the oven. Bake until just barely brown, about 12 to 15 minutes. Cool on a rack.

Repeat with the remaining dough, making sure that the baking sheets are cool before you place a new batch of cookies on them (if it's cold outside, you can put the sheets out for a few minutes to expedite the cooling process). Once all the cookies are baked and cooled, shake powdered sugar over them, if desired. Store in an airtight container at room temperature.

December 02, 2005

Chez Panisse Desserts: Fruit Compote in Darjeeling Tea and Sauternes

My first attempt from Chez Panisse Desserts. I'm not quite sure about the reasoning behind some of the instructions, but the end result is a tasty combination of dried fruits and syrup that would taste great with cookies or pound cake.

The recipe calls for 6 different kinds of dried fruit, and Lindsey Shere instructs the cook to poach each one separately, even though some of them need to cook for the same amount of time. I'm not quite certain what the reason is for cooking them separately, since there's plenty of syrup to cover more than one kind of fruit at a time. To simplify the instructions, I've combined the fruits that can be cooked together.

The recipe calls for Sauternes, a sweet French dessert wine. Don't use the inexpensive sauterne which you can find on the shelf at your supermarket for as little as $5 a bottle. The flavor of the wine is very important for the finished dessert, and the cheap stuff just won't cut it. You can easily substitute another sweet wine, if real Sauternes is difficult to find or too expensive. Black Muscat or eiswein would both make excellent subsitutes.

Similarly, while Darjeeling is the specified tea, I think any black tea would work in this recipe. Shere's recipe calls for 3/4 tsp of tea leaves. I opened up a Twining's tea bag and measured the amount of tea inside; it was a scant 1 tsp. Feel free to use a tea bag, rather than loose-leaf tea, if you wish.

Try to use unsulfured fruit, if you can find it. Health food stores often sell unsulfured dried pears and apricots. If you can't find them, make sure to blanch the sulfured fruit before poaching it in the syrup. It's just the pears and apricots which need to be blanched; the other fruit will not, in all likelihood, be sulfured.

The recipe calls for Muscat raisins, a specialty variety which can be difficult to find. Substitute regular black raisins if Muscats are unavailable.

Shere doesn't suggest any accompaniments for the compote. I think it's quite tasty, but needs to be served with something to cut through the sweetness. A slice of toasted pound cake or some almond biscotti would make excellent companions.

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: about 30 minutes
Yield: 4 to 6 servings

3/4 tsp Darjeeling tea leaves (or 1 Darjeeling tea bag)
3 cups water
1/2 cup Sauternes, or other sweet dessert wine
1/2 cup sugar
3 oz. dried pears
1/3 cup (1 1/2 oz.) golden raisins
1/3 cup (1 1/2 oz.) Muscat raisins (or regular black raisins, if unavailable)
2 Tbsp dried currants
3 oz. dried apricots
3 oz. dried pitted prunes
Sauternes or other dessert wine for serving, optional

If the pears and/or apricots are sulfured, blanch them in a medium pot of boiling water for 2 to 3 minutes, then drain.

Bring the 3 cups of water to a boil. Steep the tea in it for 3 minutes. Strain with a fine strainer if using loose leaves, or remove the tea bag. Bring the tea, Sauternes or other wine, and sugar to a simmer in a medium nonreactive saucepan. Add the pears and simmer in the syrup for 10 to 15 minutes, until tender. Remove them with a slotted spoon. Poach the golden raisins, Muscat or black raisins, and currants for about 4 minutes, or until they have puffed up slightly. Remove with a slotted spoon. Poach the apricots for about 4 minutes, watching carefully since they will be very soft and could lose their shape if cooked too long. Remove with a slotted spoon, then add the prunes. Simmer for 8 to 10 minutes, or until tender. Remove with a slotted spoon, then reduce the syrup to 1 1/2 to 1 1/4 cups, about 5 minutes over high heat. Pour the syrup over the fruit, cover, and refrigerate until completely cold, at least 4 hours and up to 2 days.

Serve with pound cake or cookies, spooning some of the syrup over the fruit. Add a spoonful of the dessert wine over each serving, if desired.

December 01, 2005

In Progress: Lindsey Shere's Chez Panisse Desserts

Susan in Berkeley, an avid baker, suggested that I try Chez Panisse Desserts. Since the Chez Panisse approach is so strongly seasonal, I'm going to take the long view with this book. I don't think it's fair to try to test a recipe for peach tart in December, so I'm going to be testing the recipes as they are seasonally appropriate, starting of course with winter fruits. Chez Panisse Desserts will be an ongoing project over the next year.

Giada De Laurentiis: Everyday Italian

book_delaurentiis_everydayi.jpg

A Good Book That Could Have Been Better

Giada De Laurentiis' first book, Everyday Italian, is a good primer on Italian-American cooking. None of the recipes are complicated or time-consuming to make, and the basic techniques are simple. Which makes the occasional problems especially annoying, because the book could have been excellent, but because there are numerous oversights, it's merely good.

The layout is clear and easy to read, and the ideas are strong (De Laurentiis' publisher does seem to think that she's awfully good-looking -- the book has a plethora of cleavage-tastic, soft-focus glam shot photos of her. More photos of the food would have been nice). De Laurentiis is writing for an audience of busy working people who want to make fresh Italian food without a ton of work or prep. Some of her recipes can be made with ingredients that come straight out of the pantry, which is perfect for a weeknight dinner. Dishes such as Lemon Spaghetti are extremely easy to put together, and taste refreshingly different from pasta with boring old red sauce out of a jar.

When De Laurentiis' recipes get a bit more elaborate, however, the book sometimes fails the reader when it comes to technique. I had issues with Braciola, White Bean Dip with Pita Chips, Chicken Parmesan, Vegetable Lasagna, and Almond Cake. Whether it was a sloppy description of how to prep something, or a failure to indicate the necessity of certain steps, or just a less-than-stellar end product, all of these recipes needed to be tweaked slightly in order to work, or to work better. That's a high ratio of problems to recipes tested. It's not that the recipes in and of themselves are failures; it's just that an editor needed to take another pass over this book before it was published so that errors of omission didn't make their way into the finished cookbook.

Despite all of that, I'm not actually panning this book. I'd recommend it for anyone who wants quick, fresh ideas for Italian food. The flavors of De Laurentiis' food are excellent, and there are plenty of outstanding renditions of old classics that have been updated for a more modern palate. I just wish that when it got down to the nitty-gritty, a bit more care had been taken with the details. No cook wants to feel frustrated that the picture of the finished recipe looks different from what's described in the text, or that it's necessary to look at every single cutlet recipe to figure out how thin you're supposed to pound meat. Those little frustrations add up, and they're the difference between "Outstanding, must-have book!" and "Well, it's pretty good, but..."

 

 

 

©2005 Colleen Flippo. All rights reserved. Contact the author.