8.27.2011

Your New Roommate: Blueberry Lemon Lavender Scones

I’m quite certain I have a pox on my apartment. Someone, somewhere is trying to do me in. And since I live by myself, that someone could very well be me.

I locked myself out of my apartment for the first time in my adult life last week. Not coincidentally, I also successfully completed my first adult break-in. Things only went downhill from there.

After the breaking and entering, I nearly set my place ablaze. And yes, I freely confess that it would have been nice to have someone gently suggest that baking off a scone at midnight—after being out at bar—was not going to win me any Mensa awards: perhaps just a visit from the fellas down at Ladder 24.

I awoke six hours later with a charcoal scone souvenir and a renewed appreciation for life. Later that day, it rained in my apartment. And then later still, my key broke clean off in my entrance lock.

So why mention all this? Well, it got me thinking that the joys of living alone run parallel to the annoyances. Having carte blanche on the dinner menu is great. I can eat a version of this corn soup for three days if I feel like it. (Though this is a moot point if you can’t get into your apartment.) And while a three night dinner trilogy of corn is fine by me, making something more communal, like a cherry pie, is out of the question. I can’t leave whole pies lying around.

These scones, on the other hand, work well as a dessert to be baked especially for one. And rest assured, this recipe falls wholeheartedly into the dessert category. It is not to be shuffled into the company of the dry breakfast scone. If fact, it’s really more of a buttery biscuit studded with blueberries. Which means you can still feel good about eating it for breakfast. And since I love lavender paired with lemon in the summertime, they find themselves partnering up with the berries.

So this is the perfect let-me-squeeze-out-the-very-last-bits-of summer recipe. And if you freeze some, you’ll be very happy come the first chilly fall morning when you pop one of these in the oven.

Though, I should clarify. While this scone does a lot of things, it won’t help you break into a locked apartment, nor will it fix roofs or know how to work a fire extinguisher. But if you are in need of a little calming from the evil forces that be, it does make for a pretty good roommate.

Blueberry Lemon Lavender Scones
Adapted from Joanne Chang's Lemon-Ginger Scone recipe from Flour: Spectacular Recipes from Boston's Flour Bakery + Cafe

Ingredients:

FOR THE SCONES
2 3/4 cup flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp kosher salt
1/3 cup sugar
2 tbsp lemon zest
3/4 cup plus 2 tbsp (1 3/4 sticks) unsalted butter, cold and cut into 10 pieces
1 cup buttermilk, cold
1 egg, cold
1 tbsp dried lavender buds
3/4 cup blueberries, fresh or frozen (do not defrost)

FOR THE GLAZE
1 cup confectioners' sugar
2-3 tbsp lemon juice, freshly squeezed
1 tsp orange blossom water

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, sugar, and lemon zest in the bowl of a stand mixer and mix for 10-15 seconds on low speed with the paddle attachment. Then slowly mix in the chunks of butter on low speed. This should take about 30 seconds; you want the butter to still be visible, in about grape-sized chunks.

In a small bowl, combine buttermilk, egg and lavender and then pour it into flour mixture and beat for 20-30 seconds more or until the dough just comes together. (Be careful not to over mix.) Gently fold in the blueberries until just incorporated.

Dump the dough onto lightly floured surface and roll it out until it is 1-inch thick. Using a ~3-inch cookie cutter cut out the scones. (I couldn't find my lone cookie cutter, so I used the top of a cocktail shaker and it worked just fine.) Reroll the dough scraps and continue to cut out your scones until you've used all the dough. (You should have about 10 circles in total.)

Place them on a cookie sheet (I slightly greased mine just to be on the safe side) and bake for about 40-50 minutes or until they are a light golden color. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.

While the scones are cooling, in a small bowl whisk together confectioners' sugar, lemon juice and orange blossom water to make a smooth, thick glaze that is still pourable. When the scones have cooled, brush the tops with the lemon glaze.

Makes 10 scones

Notes:
-You'll notice these scones are not glazed. The scones taste best the day they are made, but can be brought back to life by popping them in a 300 oven for a few minutes. These scones were not intended to be eaten the day they were made, but they were still worthy of a photo: hence the picture sans glaze. Don't neglect the glaze before you eat them: it brightens them up in a way words can't really describe.

-Prior to baking the scones, you can also wrap them individually in plastic wrap and store them in an airtight container in the freezer, to be baked off at a later date. They'll go directly from the freezer to the oven and the baking time will increase a good 5-10 minutes or so.

-The glaze can be made ahead of time and stored in an airtight container at room temp for up to a week.

-Warning: don't forget about these scones and let them bake in your oven overnight. (Please refer to above.) Though, kudos to the scones and to the cleanliness of my oven: we did not have any kitchen fires that evening.

8.17.2011

Full of New England's Finest Blueberry Jam

Okay, I’ve been sneaking straight spoonfuls from the jam jar all week. Can’t help it really. This blueberry jam is addictively indulgent in small doses. It’s also a deep purple color that really shouldn’t exist in nature. I’m starting to think it shouldn’t exist in my fridge, either.

It’s definitely special: rich with a hint of spice and a blueberry flavor that’s deepened by balsamic vinegar. I’ve been finding excuses to have it all week. It’s pretty easy, see:

Soap scum on your shower curtain screaming, “clean the bathroom?” Have a procrastination spoonful. Lose at bingo? Have a B48 consolation spoonful. Looking for love in all the wrong places? Have a lonely hearts club spoonful. Out of whiskey? Have a drunkard’s spoonful.

I first made this jam with a friend a few weeks ago. It's now waiting, rather patiently, to be the wedding favor for her nuptials next year in Vermont. We took the recipe and times ten-ed it. (If you have 80 plus friends you plan on giving this jam to, go ahead, give yourself a spoonful.)

Did it take long to sterilize the jars and can the multiple jam batches? Yes. Was it worth it? Oh, yes.

So much so that I decided to make another batch, just for me. This time I divided the recipe in half and stuck most of it in the freezer. New England’s finest berries and a lot of love went into both batches, but—sweet heavens—it certainly helps when you can finish up and have the dishes washed in well under an hour.

While the blueberries in Massachusetts this season seem even better than usual, sadly summer is ... slowing. So it helps to know I already have a pint of jam stowed away in the freezer. Like a squirrel, I’ve started stockpiling frozen blueberries and other related goods for the colder months. I’m relying on them to get me through.

So if I say all I need to get by is this recipe, am I a little full of it? Yes. But at least some of it is blueberry jam. I guess you could say I’m full of New England’s finest.

New England Blueberry Jam
Adapted from The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook by Rachel Saunders

Ingredients

2 pints blueberries
2.25 cups sugar
2 oz freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 oz balsamic vinegar (preferably aged)
1 cinnamon stick
pinch of kosher salt
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Instructions

Combine all ingredients, except the vanilla extract, in a large pot; cook on medium-high heat, stirring constantly, until the juice starts to run from the berries; once this happens, stop stirring and cook the mixture for 1-2 minutes more. Then increase the heat to high and continue to stir frequently until the mixture boils.

Once the mixture boils, cook it for about 10 minutes, reducing the heat if the mixture starts to stick. Begin testing the jam to see if it is done after about 10 minutes more of cooking. (See first note below.) Once the jam is ready, stir in the vanilla and place the jam in a container to store in your freezer until you are ready to use it.

Yields 1 pint (2 cups)

Notes:
-The jam will continue to firm up after it has finished cooking, so you'll want to test the jam for doneness prior to when it looks like it is at a "jam consistency" on the stovetop. To do this, place a small plate with a few metal spoons on it in the freezer a bit before you'll want to test the jam (an hour or so). When you are ready to test to see if the jam is at your desired consistency, place half a spoonful of jam on one of the freezer spoons and return it back to your plate in the freezer for a few minutes (3 minutes or so, until the bottom of the spoon feels like it is at room temperature). Tilt the spoon to see if the jam runs; if it doesn't run it is ready. If it runs, continue cooking and retesting the jam every few minutes.

-The jam should last a few months in your freezer. If you are planning to go through it rather quickly, you can just store it in your fridge. (You could certainly can the jam too.)

-The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook is a wonderful investment if you are "into jam." Worth every penny. It was also nominated for a 2011 James Beard award for photography. The photos are fantastic, but the recipes are beyond.

-Saunders notes this recipe is a spin-off of more traditional, old-timey blueberry jams, which mainly utilized balsamic vinegar instead of lemon juice. Including a little lemon adds brightness to jam.

8.10.2011

Ricotta Gnocchi with Basil Oil to Make Your Mama Proud

There comes a time in life when roles reverse and you start feeling proud of your parents. For me this happened about a month or so ago, when my mother and I took a mini retreat to New York City for her birthday. The whole trip was spot on.

We arrived for happy hour at precisely 5:29 pm at The Mermaid Inn in the East Village. (To sweeten the deal, they also serve tiny espresso cups of chocolate pudding with your check.) We ate soft shell crab sandwiches at The Dutch. We stayed at the fancy pants Mondrian hotel in Soho. And we had one of the best meals of our lives at Torrisi Italian Specialties.

Torrisi is a 20-seat restaurant that only serves a prix fix dinner with a menu that changes daily. You can choose between surf or turf for your protein. The rest is up to the kitchen.

We sat at window seats covered with lace curtains and drank red wine, while they served us a parade of little dishes, which included a warm, oozy homemade mozzarella that was better than any fresh cheese I've ever tasted. It was also at Torrisi that a sense of pride bubbled up as I sat, a bit wine-eyed, and watched my mother—notorious sushi-hater—bravely eat raw scallops. And like it.

I could have wept. Over my daughterly pride. Over the uncooked mollusks. And over the goat cheese gnocchi that appeared for the pasta course.

Lucky for me, no tears would be needed over the gnocchi. This was a course I was pretty certain could be replicated, with a few minor tweaks. For my first attempt, making goat cheese gnocchi seemed a bit ambitious without a recipe, so I opted for Barbara Lynch’s guide for homemade ricotta gnocchi.

While the recipe is fairly simple, it requires some steps, a gentle touch, and care and patience. Given the meal and service we received at Torrisi, I’m fairly certain this is how they view their food as well. This ricotta gnocchi is worth the time it takes, as Torrisi alone is worth a trip to New York.

And it was over a pastel-colored birthday cupcake from buttercream institution, Magnolia Bakery, that my mother revealed that our trip had been one of her best birthdays; noting she felt similarly on her eighth birthday, when she received a sweater dress with a dog on it (it was the first dress she owned that wasn’t homemade).

With the passing of a half-century, things have come full circle. 'Homemade' is a prized commodity these days. And I’m fairly certain my mother would be tickled to see the stacks of homemade gnocchi in my freezer. There they lay waiting for the moment to be called into duty: to be joined with a summery tomato sauce or, like today, celebrated in basil oil. They are light, wispy creatures. They also standby, ready to be cooked in minutes and are worthy of a special occasion (or of an occasion to make special).

So with a tear in my eye, I say: make the gnocchi. Or perhaps just do something to make someone you love proud. It could be eating raw shellfish for the first time. Or buying someone a sweater dress with a dog on it. Whatever the gesture—and especially if there is homemade gnocchi involved—it will likely be a special moment.

Ricotta Gnocchi with Basil Oil

RICOTTA GNOCCHI
Adapted from Barbara Lynch

Ingredients:

1 pound (2 cups) fresh ricotta, drained if wet (recipe follows)
3/4-1 cup flour, plus additional as needed
1 egg, beaten
1/3 cup grated pecorino cheese
1.5 tsp kosher salt

HOMEMADE RICOTTA
1 gallon of milk
3/4 cup white vinegar
1 tbsp kosher salt

Instructions for the ricotta:

Line a strainer with a cheesecloth and set it over a large bowl.

In a large saucepan combine all ingredients over low heat. Clip a candy thermometer to the pot and, while stirring constantly, bring the mixture to 140 degrees. (This should take about 10 minutes.) When the temperature reaches 140 degrees stop stirring and allow the mixture to come to 180 degrees. (Stay close by and do not let the mixture boil.) When the mixture hits 180 degrees, remove it from heat and ladle the white cheese curds out of the pan and into the cheesecloth-lined strainer. (You may have to drain the bowl of some of the liquid during this process.) Discard the liquid and allow curds to drain in the cheesecloth for about 1 hour, or until desired consistency is achieved.

Ricotta yield: 2 cups

Instructions for the gnocchi:

In a large bowl combine ricotta, 3/4 cup flour, egg, cheese and salt and mix ingredients together. Lightly flour your work surface, as well as a baking sheet. With floured hands, knead the dough briefly until it just comes together (it will be wet and sticky).

Dump the mixture onto your floured work surface and cut off a piece of the dough and try rolling it into a 3/4 inch-sized log. If you can't get it to roll, add a little more flour to the dough. (You want as little flour as possible to keep the gnocchi light, so only add as much as you need.) When the dough rolls fairly well, begin to cut off chunks, shaping them into 3/4 inch logs and then cut the logs into 1 inch pieces.

If you have a gnocchi board, this is when you roll the 1 inch pieces down the board to create ridges in the dough. Alternatively, you could roll the dough pieces on a fork to form the ridges.

Repeat until all the dough is rolled, cut, and marked with ridges. Place pieces on the floured baking sheet and freeze the gnocchi for at least one hour. (They are much easier to handle when slightly frozen.) After this, you can cook them in boiling water for 1-2 minutes, or until they float. You can also freeze the gnocchi in an airtight container or ziplock bag and boil them for a quick meal, as needed.

Makes about 8 servings

BASIL OIL

Ingredients:

15-20 basil leaves
About 1/4-1/2 cup olive oil
Salt and black pepper to taste
A few drops of freshly squeezed lime juice
Toasted pistachios for garnish, if desired

Instructions:

Combine all ingredients together in a food processor and blend until combined, with little bits of basil remaining. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed.

Yield is roughly 1/4-1/2 cup, depending on the amount of oil you add (which is absolutely "to preference")

TO FINISH: toss cooked ricotta gnocchi with basil oil and garnish with pistachios, if desired.

Notes:

-The amount of basil oil will depend on how much you desire on your serving of gnocchi (and how big your serving is). Since I very rarely cook for 8 people, I didn't make enough to cover 8 servings of gnocchi. You could always make extra oil and drizzle leftover oil on top of tomatoes, grilled fish, you name it. It's super easy to make and great to have on hand for quick summer meals.

-When making ricotta, I often pull the edges of the cheesecloth up around the draining cheese and tie the tops of the cheesecloth together with a rubber band around the sink to let the liquid (whey) drain out. With this method you must remember not to use the faucet during the draining. Remembering this is always a little dicey for me.

8.03.2011

S'more Cupcakes S'more Fun

I’ve never been one for kumbaya-ing around a campfire. But if you ask me to camp out, I’ll travel far and wide bringing gifts of graham, fine chocolate, and marshmallow. Or—as it happened last weekend—I’ll come by train with dark chocolate bars shoved into my suitcase and a few pounds of finely ground graham crackers stashed in my purse.

Now, there are a lot of s’more cupcake recipes with chocolate cake bottoms, but—in my humble opinion—if you are making a s’more-styled dessert there should be a fair amount of graham action going on to be paired with good quality chocolate bars. (Hence the toting of said contents over state lines.)

And so the s’more cupcakes were born soon after my arrival home. They were for my sister’s bridal shower, which I keep telling people was “camp-chic” themed because it sounds better than “campy.” (I suppose it’s also a more accurate description if you have white linens, s’more-themed desserts piled onto cake platters, and twigs that have been spray-painted and used as table centerpieces.)

So the shower was only loosely Adirondack mountain-themed, which is where she’ll be getting married in about a month. The Adirondacks are a magical place that smells of pine once you hit the mountains; the scent wafts into your car even with the windows rolled up. The lakes are calm enough to see the reflection of forest trees on the water. And the summer nights offer up clear, constellation-lit skies.

It’s also the perfect place to park yourself in front of a campfire, in the company of at least one bag of marshmallows, a solid gang of graham crackers, and a stack of chocolate bars. Should it be unlikely that this scene will happen anytime soon—and should this depress you—I suggest making these cupcakes.

Browning the marshmallow topping is almost as entertaining as toasting marshmallows, if you have a gas stove. You simply hold the top of each frosted cupcake until it licks the flames on the range and you achieve your desired stage of browning. If you don’t have a gas stove, you could use the broiler though I caution it’s not as fun. And for the love of all things woodland, don’t hold back on the frosting: it should be piled high, it’s marshmallowy nature will hold everything in place.

Some may say the cupcake trend has run its course, but it only makes sense to have an individually portioned dessert if the s’more is your inspiration. S’mores ain't for sharing. Neither are cupcakes. And they both tend to follow where the fun is.

So if you’ve ever longed to sit at a campfire holding a long twig with a marshmallow stuck to the end of it, you’ll likely enjoy this little dessert number. They are guaranteed to bring you back to your childhood or at least off up some youthful fun. And—kumbaya or not—it’s okay to laugh when you get a little marshmallow frosting on your nose.

S'more Cupcakes with Marshmallow Meringue
Adapted from Bon App├ętit

Ingredients:

FOR THE CUPCAKES

1.5 cups finely ground graham crackers
1/2 cup flour
2.5 tsp baking powder
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp allspice
1/8 tsp ground mace (or nutmeg)
1/2 cup unsalted butter (1 stick), at room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
Pinch of salt
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
3/4 cup half and half
6 oz of a good quality dark chocolate bar (such as Scharffen Berger)

FOR THE MERINGUE FROSTING
1.5 cups sugar
6 egg whites
Pinch of kosher salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
Dash of coffee-flavored liqueur, such as Kahlua

Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line a muffin pan with cupcake liners. Sift the ground graham crackers, flour, baking powder and spices into a medium bowl. In a stand mixer, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add salt and then add eggs, one at a time, while continuing to beat the mixture; add vanilla. Add graham cracker mixture in 3 additions, alternating with half and half and ending with the graham cracker mixture.

Spoon mixture into lined muffin cups and fill until the muffin cups are only half full. Break up your chocolate bar(s) into large pieces and divide between the half full batter cups. Top with remaining batter so that no chocolate is showing. Bake for about 20-24 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. (Try to stick it in a spot that isn't filled with chocolate)

While cupcakes are cooling, make the meringue by whisking sugar, egg whites, and a pinch of salt together in a small heat-proof bowl. Place a small amount of water in a saucepan big enough to allow your bowl to fit in it. When the water is simmering, place the bowl with the sugar and egg whites over the water; ideally, the bowl should not be touching the simmering water. Whisk the mixture for 6-8 minutes or until the mixture reads higher than 140 degrees on a thermometer.

Pour egg white mixture into the bowl of a stand mixer and whip on medium-high speed for 6-8 minutes, until it becomes a stiff, white meringue; whip in vanilla and coffee liqueur. Pipe meringue frosting onto cupcakes or just frost them with a knife, making wispy, cloud-like patterns.

Hold cupcake over the flame of a gas burner on a stovetop for about 15-20 seconds or until desired toasted marshmallow doneness. Alternatively, place a few cupcakes at a time under a broiler, checking every so often to prevent scorching.

Makes about 12 cupcakes

Notes:
-It takes about 15 crackers to make the ground graham and a food processor makes fast work of it.

-You could flavor the marshmallow with whatever you like. The coffee liqueur added a nice depth of flavor. I have also tried Cointreau.

-Sadly, these cupcakes don't fair too fabulously in the fridge. Best to frost and eat, though they are certainly still edible the day after.

-Check out my interview on The Mighty Rib, done by fellow foodie and blogger, Kevin Shalin; he's newly transplanted to Boston and serves up a new food feature on his blog daily.