Saturday, August 9, 2014

All Wrapped Up - Pretzel-Wrapped Bratwursts

Yep, this is the perfect football food
It's been a long time since I posted here.  Over a year.  Why?  Because I got in a food funk...making the same things over and over again.  Honestly, there's only so many times I could expect people to read about tortillas and fried rice.  Luckily for my family, I've started to branch out again.  What motivated me? Football!  Nothing screams for good, salty food like football season - things like giant soft pretzels with cheese sauce or bratwursts smothered in spicy mustard. While they're good individually, they're even better combined. 

The only drawback of this as a football food is that they take a couple hours to make.  Nobody has time to make these when football is on!  Luckily, they're just as good re-heated, so you can make them on Saturday and not miss a single Jim Harbaugh tantrum or Ndamukong Suh head stomp.

The main reason these take so long is the pretzel dough, which takes a little over an hour to prepare (mostly rise time)  I used Alton Brown's recipe, which makes eight pretzels, and doubled it, since I had 10 bratwursts. Honestly, it would have been better to just divide the dough into 10 parts, as the ratio of pretzel to bratwurst was a bit high for my taste - I wanted the grease from the brat and the salt of the pretzel in every bite, and it just didn't happen. 

Really, for all I've complained about the time commitment, the KitchenAid did most of the work here.  All I had to do was pour ingredients in and set timers.  KitchenAid Mixers are the world's best inventions.  I will cut anyone who tries to take mine away.

While the dough rose, I cooked the brats, so they had time to cool before I had to touch them.  I was pretty proud of myself for thinking ahead like this, because normally, I'm the chump who's trying to handle lava-hot food without burning herself.  

Also thinking ahead (not because of any marvel that made me suddenly more organized and thoughtful - I was getting hungry!), I remembered to boil the water and pre-heat the stove before the dough was done rising.  Usually, when I make pretzels, I shape them and have to stand around sighing impatiently while I watch water heat up.  Not today!  Today, I was all over that nonsense! 

The top two sides for bratwursts - combined
If you like onions with your bratwursts, now would be the time to start cooking them. I wasn't on top of it enough to think of that.  Probably because I'm not the biggest onion fan, although most people I know are. Slice onions, saute them in butter, add beer, and ignore except for the occasional stir.  If you time it right, they'll finish right when the pretzels do.  If not, say they're done anyway - they'll be cooked enough that nobody will know the difference.  I'd suggest using a light beer, since the IPA I grabbed ended up making the onions a bit too hoppy tasting.

I hadn't really thought out how I was going to cover the bratwursts with the pretzels, just that I wanted to.  I decided to go with an artsy spiral wrap that worked out really well, as long as the ends were sealed.  Some came out looking a little awkward, as I got to the end and realized I had a lot of dough left.  As I said earlier, if I had divided the dough into more pieces, I wouldn't have had this issue.  Live and learn.  

I added some green chiles to a few of them, just to see how they'd turn out.  Freaking awesome, that's how.  I highly suggest adding stuff.  I will make these again with jalapenos.  I also plan on making some with a stripe of mustard down the middle of the dough, and maybe some grilled onions for my husband.  Pretty much anything that would taste good and not fall out (sadly, I don't think cheese would withstand the boiling and baking) should be added here.

Then comes the least fun part - standing over the pot of boiling water in front of a 450 degree oven.  Each pretzel has to be boiled for 30 seconds before getting an egg wash and salt, and then they go in the oven.  Deciding to make these on an 80-degree day was not my smartest move. Except they were delicious, and I had a beer during the boiling, so it wasn't all that bad.  Plus, they came out looking pretty cool, so I felt like a rock star.
I'm not sharing. Make your own.

We only had one left, which I threw in the freezer to see if they freeze well.  If they do, I'll set aside a day to make a triple batch of these just to freeze for an easy game-day meal.

Serve hot with beer-braised onions and spicy brown mustard. Or cheese sauce.  Or both; I won't judge.


Pretzel-Wrapped Bratwursts
1 ½ cups warm water
1 T sugar
2 t kosher salt
1 T yeast
22 ounces all-purpose flour (4 ½ cups or so)
2 T melted butter
Vegetable oil
10 bratwursts
20 cups water, divided
2/3 cup baking soda
1 large egg yolk beaten with 1 T water
kosher salt or pretzel salt for sprinkling
Green chiles, jalepenos, grilled onions, garlic, mustard

1) Combine the water, sugar and kosher salt in the bowl of a stand mixer and sprinkle the yeast on top. Allow to sit for 5 minutes or until the mixture begins to foam.

2) Add the flour and butter and, using the dough hook attachment, mix until well combined.

3) Knead until the dough is smooth and pulls away from the side of the bowl, approximately 4 to 5 minutes.

4) Remove the dough from the bowl, clean the bowl and then oil it well with vegetable oil. Return the dough to the bowl, cover with plastic wrap and sit in a warm place for approximately 50 to 55 minutes or until the dough has doubled in size.

5) While the dough is rising, add the bratwursts to 10 cups of the water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Boil for 10 minutes, then remove the bratwursts from the water and set aside to cool.

6) 10 minutes before the dough is done rising, put the remaining 10 cups of water on the stove to boil and preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

7) If making beer-braised onions, start them now (recipe below)

8)Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper

9) When the dough is risen, divide it into 10 equal pieces (about 4 ounces each)

10) Pat each piece of dough into a 2”x10” rectangle. Add any additional ingredients in a thin strip down the middle of the dough.

11) Working from one end, wrap a bratwurst in each piece of dough, being careful to seal the ends.

12) Add baking soda to the boiling water (be careful – it will fizz up!)

13) Boil each pretzel-wrapped bratwurst for 30 seconds, then remove from the water with a large spatula or a strainer such as you'd use when deep frying.

14) Place on the parchment-lined cookie sheet, brush with egg wash, and sprinkle with kosher salt or pretzel salt.

15) Bake at 450 degrees for 12-14 minutes.

Serve hot with spicy brown mustard, beer-braised onions, and beer.

Beer-Braised Onions
2 onions
2 T butter
12 oz beer (lighter flavors are better)

1) Slice the onions as thinly as you can.

2) Melt the butter over medium heat

3) Add the onions to the melted butter and saute over medium heat for 10 minutes, until the onions are soft and starting to caramelize

4) Add the beer and reduce heat to medium-low

5) Cook, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid is gone, 20-30 minut

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

These Muffins are Jammin'

I love this book.
I own cookbooks. Many of them. I get sucked in by the pretty pictures and delicious looking recipes, then they sit on a shelf and don't get a lot of use. I blame the internet. It's just so convenient, and I can compare several versions of a recipe before deciding which to try.

There is one cookbook I use on a regular basis, however. My trusty Fannie Farmer's Baking Book. I have yet to make a recipe from this book that came out poorly. While I'd like to claim that this is all due to my rad-awesome baking skills, the truth is that the book is just full of wonderful recipes.

It also allows something the internet doesn't – the ability to browse when I feel like making something, but don't have anything specific in mind. I was in that mood this weekend; the only thing I knew was that I wanted something sweet-ish that wasn't a cookie.

I settled on jam muffins. A basic muffin with a delicious jam center? There was no way I could resist that,
especially given the simplicity of the recipe.
Yes, two muffins.  One just isn't going to cut it.  Trust me on this.

It should be lumpy still.
It's a very basic recipe – no fancy ingredients – that takes maybe three minutes to make. Three minutes is well within my acceptable morning effort range. Mix the dry ingredients in one bowl, mix the wet ingredients in another*, then mix until just combined. Then you get to drink coffee while smugly reflecting on what an awesome mom you are for making 
your kids fresh muffins for breakfast and blithely ignoring the fact that this means you can delay feeding them actual food for a couple more hours so you can drink more coffee and look at the internet.

The "hard" part is done.  Time to lick the jam spoon!
The only effort involved is getting the jam filling in, and that's really not any effort at all – a layer of batter, a dollop of jam, and top it with more batter. Actually, I was a little concerned about my ability to assemble the muffins without creating a mess; I'm not known for my delicate touch and the recipe specified not letting the jam touch the sides. Luckily, however, I had a nice thick blackberry jam that one of my co-workers gave me for Christmas. It held together in a ball, even when I put the remaining batter on top.

What? This isn't a muffin!
These came out beautifully. They're not cupcakes in disguise like so many of the modern "muffin" recipes; they have just a hint of sweetness in them...and then you get to the jam.  There is just enough jam in the middle to get a little bit with every bite.  There's probably less jam in each muffin than I'd put on them if I was adding it after they baked, but it feels more decadent to eat something with a pocket of jam in the middle.  The only problem is that the recipe only makes a dozen and Zoey and Parker insisted they get their fair share, also. We ran out way too quickly.

Mini loafs maximize the jam.
Then Randy had a wonderful thought. “I bet these would make great mini muffins,” he said. Brilliance! It was a hypothesis that I had to test. You know, for science. While I was at it, I decided to make a mini-loaf as well. They were every bit as good in those formats, also.  I'm pretty sure there is no shape that this recipe would not taste fantastic in.

Runny just doesn't cut it.
While the shape doesn't matter, the filling does.  Unfortunately, I ran out of the blackberry jam, and had to do with a runnier grape jelly for the last few mini-muffins.  It didn't work out nearly as well – the consistency of the jam is important. You need a thick jam that won't run out into a thin layer. A thinner jam or jelly won't stay in the center and you lose that element of fruity sweetness in every bite. Marmalade or preserves would be wonderful. 

The thinner jelly (right) just doesn't work.
And yes, we made two batches in one day and ate most of them that same day. I blame the kids. Zoey had “I need another muffin,” on repeat and Parker toddled behind her shrieking his agreement.  On the second go-round, I added a tablespoon of grated lemon peel to the batter.  Honestly, I didn't notice a huge difference.  I'm not sure if it's because my lemon peel is old (at least three or four years) or because I was in a bit of a muffin coma, but it didn't take away from the flavor at all.  I know I'll make these again and try with fresh lemon zest to see if I can't get a little bit of citrus kick in there.
Who needs Starbucks?  

Makes 12 muffins or 14 mini muffins and one mini-loaf

2 c flour
1T baking powder
1t salt
¼ c sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup milk
8T melted butter
1T vanilla
1T lemon zest (optional)
12 tsp thick jam or preserves.

Pre-heat oven to 400
Mix flour, baking powder, and salt in a small bowl*
Mix sugar, eggs, milk, butter, vanilla, and lemon zest in a large bowl.
Add dry ingredients to wet ingredients and mix until just combined.
Grease a muffin tin. Fill each cup 1/3 full of batter.
Put a teaspoon of jam in the center of each cup, being careful not to let it touch the sides.
Fill the cups the remainder of the way.
Bake for 20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean. (for mini-muffins, reduce time to 15-18 minutes)

*Full disclosure – I only used two bowls because I didn't realize what I had done until it was too late. Usually, I mix the wet ingredients first and then just dump all the dry stuff on top without mixing it together. If I feel ambitious, I'll put them through a sifter to mix them, but I hate dirtying a second bowl for three seconds of mixing. That's just silly. 
Two bowls? What was I thinking?  That's more to clean!

Monday, May 20, 2013

Pip Pip Cheerio! English Muffins 2.0

I know I've posted about EnglishMuffins before. And I know I've posted about sourdough before. I can't help myself. I love all things sourdough (even cookies!) and when you add in the low level of effort it takes to get hot, fresh English Muffins on the weekend, there's just no way I can resist these.

The best part about these – other than eating them – is that almost all of the work happens overnight while I sleep, thanks to the magic of the sourdough starter. Also, unlike many other English Muffin recipes, these don't require any special equipment; the dough is thick enough that you don't need rings to contain and shape it.

This is a wet starter
This is also a wet starter.

Friday night, mix your starter, flour, and milk. The only complicated part of the recipe is judging how much milk to use. The original recipe for these calls for a difference depending on whether your starter is wet or stiff. Unfortunately, “wet” is a fairly broad term – my starter varies from a pancake batter consistency to something closer to muffin batter. Both qualify as “wet” starters.

Yep, beer time!
Basically, I eyeball it, adding a little more milk or flour until the resultant sponge comes together in a loose ball when I stir it, but it's still visibly wet and sticky.

Then, cover the bowl with foil or plastic wrap and go enjoy your evening. Your work is done for the next 8-12 hours.

Salt, baking soda, and honey.
In the morning, the sponge should be quite a bit thicker than it was when you went to bed, but still fairly loose. Mix in the last three ingredients: salt, baking soda, and honey (or molasses). Spray a cookie sheet with Pam and sprinkle some cornmeal on it.

Seriously, don't skimp.  This stuff is sticky.

Now you are ready to cut out your English Muffins. Due to the consistency of the dough, it is essential to put down a good layer of flour on the counter. Use more than you think you need and cover a larger area than you think you should. Trust me on this. Sprinkle more flour on top of the dough and flatten out to 3/4” thick. Cut out in 3-inch rounds, using whatever you have on hand: biscuit cutter, water glass, mason jar ring, etc. Re-form the scraps to cut out more (make sure there's more flour underneath the dough!) until you've used all the dough.

Place the rounds on the oiled cookie sheet and sprinkle more cornmeal on top. Cover them with a towel and go drink coffee for an hour or so. You've earned it!

Just after cutting out
Nice and poofy!
After the muffins have rested and risen for about an hour, it's time to cook them. Heat a griddle to 350 or a skillet to medium-high (I turn the dial to 7). Once it's heated, cook the muffins for 4-5 minutes per side. They are done when the sides are firm and they are browned on both sides. You'll notice that these poof up quite a bit while they cook. Mine usually deflate once they cool off, but retain the soft, chewy texture they get from their griddle “spring”.

While you are cooking the English Muffins, fry up some eggs and bacon to stuff inside that little bit of deliciousness. Or skip the protien and go for butter and jam, which is Zoey's favorite. Breakfast is served!
A perfect breakfast sandwich, complete with Tapatio!
These are also a great size to use for hamburgers if you don't have buns.  I rarely have hamburger buns, and I'm still trying to find a recipe that I can consistently get good results from.  These, however, I almost always have on hand, and they work wonderfully!

½ cup active sourdough starter
2 cups whole wheat flour
1 cup milk (if using a stiff starter, use 1 ¼ cup milk)
1 T honey
1 tsp baking soda
¾ tsp salt
cornmeal for dusting

  1. Mix starter, flour, and milk until a loose dough forms. Cover and let sit 8 hours or overnight.
  2. In the morning, add honey, baking soda, and salt and mix well.
  3. Turn out onto a floured board, sprinkling more flour on top of the dough
  4. With your hands, flatten the dough to ¾” and cut out 3” rounds
  5. Place rounds on an oiled cookie sheet dusted with cornmeal, dusting the top with more cornmeal.
  6. Cover and let rise for about an hour
  7. Cook on skillet or griddle heated to medium-high (350 degrees or turn dial to 7) for 4-5 minutes on each side

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Homemade McNugget Meal - I'm Lovin' It!

I love cooking. That doesn't mean I always feel like cooking when I get home. And yeah, we try to keep some easy dinners on hand in the freezer, but sometimes we're out of them...or just sick of them. On those days, the following conversation occurs:

“We should just go get dollar menu food.”
“Perfect! You go.”
“Me? I'm not going, you go!”
“Screw that, I'm not going anywhere, but you totally should, it sounds really good.”
“You know, it really doesn't make sense to spend the money on fast food.”
“I suppose you're right.”
“It does sound good, though, if you want to go get it...”
“Nah. You're right, we shouldn't spend the money. Besides, it's healthier to eat at home.”

And then I make dinner. Not because it's cheaper or healthier, although it is, but because any amount of effort in the kitchen is somehow less than getting in the car and driving the mile to McDonald's.  Usually on these nights, I end up making chicken nuggets and fries. This isn't what we'd have ordered, but it's significantly less effort than making buns, grinding beef (if we even have any) and making hamburgers.
To distract you from my extreme levels of laziness, here's a picture of one excited birthday girl!

The best thing about this meal is that it can all cook at once in the oven. I can throw it in, and go sit down for a little bit. On the type of evening where I want to get fast food, sitting down is high on my priority list.

The process starts by pre-heating the oven to 420. Throw 2-3 pieces of bread in the oven to dehydrate while it preheats. My oven takes forever and a day to get up to heat, so it works out pretty perfectly. Your mileage may vary. You may prefer to buy bread crumbs or use cornflakes so you can skip this step. Really, whatever makes your night easier is the solution here, with the caveat that you need some sort of bread-type product.  

The less motivated I am, the bigger these fries get
While waiting for the oven, peel up a bunch of potatoes. How many depends on size and relative hunger, but my general rule of thumb is one mid-sized potato per person. I count Parker and Zoey as full people, both because Parker eats like Paul Bunyan and because I know Randy and I will clean house on any leftovers. And if we don't, potatoes are so cheap that it's only a waste of $0.07, which I'm willing to live with.

Anyway, once the potatoes are peeled, cut them into 1/4” (ish) slices, then rotate and cut those into strips.
Just like with the Brussels sprouts recipe, throw them in a gallon-sized Ziploc bag to season them. I love my Ziploc; they let me mix things up without making a mess or coating my hands with oil and spices. Here again, you have a lot of options. I try to mix up the seasonings, but I always use olive oil to coat the potatoes, then add salt and pepper and curry powder, or garlic, or parmesan, or...

All the extra oil sticks to the bag!
Give the bag a few good shakes to coat all the fries evenly – or, if you're brave, give the bag to your kid to shake, then dump it out onto a greased cookie sheet. After a quick shake to get the fries in an even-ish layer, toss the bag, and half the prep work is done.
There's no such thing as over-garlicked fries

The chicken nuggets are almost as easy, although a bit messier. Dice up about a pound of chicken breasts or
thighs. I personally prefer the flavor of thighs, but I'm more likely to have boneless breasts, so I go with the breasts. Nothing about de-boning a chicken thigh says “low effort” to me. After cutting the chicken up into bite-sized pieces, comes the prep for the only mildly effort-ridden part of the dinner – breading the nuggets.
Size varies with motivation here, too

By this point, the bread is usually nice and dried out. If not, I declare it dried out enough because I'm not waiting! A few quick pulses in the food processor creates nice bread crumbs. If the bread isn't fully dried out, some of the crumbs might be a bit on the large side, but hey, it just gives better texture, right? (It's really not hard for me to justify taking shortcuts here, if you haven't noticed). Two or three pieces of bread will create around a cup of crumbs. Add an equal amount of flour and some spices and the breading is done.
There's no way to avoid egg hands

Beat up a couple of eggs to dip the chicken in. Coat the chicken in eggs, then the bread crumb mixture, a few pieces at a time. Try to ignore the nasty buildup of egg and flour on your fingers. It's inevitable and there's no point in cleaning it off until the process is done.

I'm sure at this point, you are wondering why I don't bust out the magical Ziploc to solve the problem. Sadly, this is the one area my trusty Ziploc has failed me in. Not enough of the breading sticks, and what does stick does so unevenly, as the chicken pieces try to stick to each other instead of the breading. Momentarily putting up with hands that feel like they're turning into the Tree Man's is a small price to pay.

Go crazy with the breading; it's worth it
Once the chicken is breaded, it goes on a greased cookie sheet and both pans go in the oven for 15 minutes, while you sit down with a drink of your choice. After 15 minutes, pull the chicken out, and flip the fries. Cook the fries for an additional 15 minutes while you relax some more.

There's only about 10-15 minutes of active effort involved, which is about as long as it would take to go and get food from the drive through. And it comes with the benefit of being cheaper, healthier, and (most importantly) not requiring you to put on shoes and leave the house.
Mo-om! Quit taking pictures so I can eat!


Baked French Fries
4 medium potatoes
1 T olive oil
1 ½ tsp salt
1 tsp pepper (or to taste)
optional: 1 T curry powder (Seriously, try this. You won't regret it!)
1T chili powder
¼ c grated Parmesan cheese
1T minced garlic

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 420
  2. Peel the potatoes
  3. Cut the potatoes into 1/4” sticks
  4. Put potatoes, oil, and seasonings into a gallon-size Ziploc and shake until all fries are evenly coated
  5. Put fries in a single layer on a greased baking sheet.
  6. Bake for 30 minutes, flipping halfway through.

1 lb chicken
2 eggs
2-3 pieces of bread (or 1 c bread crumbs)
1 cup flour
2 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
1 ½ tsp chili powder
½ tsp cumin
½ tsp paprika

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 420 degrees.
  2. Put the bread in the oven to dry out as the oven pre-heats
  3. Cut the chicken into bite-sized pieces
  4. Beat the eggs
  5. Mix the flour and spices together.
  6. Remove the bread from the oven and pulse in a food processor until you have small, even crumbs
  7. Add the crumbs to the flour mixture and mix thoroughly.
  8. Working with a few pieces at a time, coat the chicken in the egg mixture
  9. Press the chicken into the bread crumb mixture until coated thoroughly and evenly
  10. Place the on a greased baking sheet
  11. Bake for 15 minutes

Monday, April 29, 2013

Simple Pancakes and Sinfully Easy Strawberry Syrup

Pancakes are one of those things that are ridiculously easy to make, but seem like they'd be a pain without one of those just-add-water mixes. Even though making them from scratch only involves a few ingredients, the thought of all that measuring first thing in the morning tires me out. What can I say? I'm just not a morning person.

Basic ingredients
Luckily, I found a recipe for a good pancake mix (along with several others). One batch of the mix makes enough for around five batches of pancakes. I can make the mix whenever I want and then just add the wet ingredients and have pancakes in the morning. That's an acceptable level of effort for me.

What? It fits..
I usually make a double batch of the mix; that's as much as the biggest bowl I own will hold. Actually, it's a little more than the bowl will hold, so I make a bit of a mess as I mix it all up. However, the end result is
enough mix for 10-11 batches of pancakes, so I don't have to make it all that often.

After I had made it a couple times – and had to look up the recipe each time – I got smart, and just wrote it down and taped it to the container. This also helps prevent me from thinking it's just regular flour and trying to make bread out of it...which has almost happened a couple of times.
This level of mess is not unusual for me
Children walking nearby may get messy as well

These pancakes are one of Zoey's favorite meals, so it made sense to make them for her birthday. I thought I'd get fancy and make them in shapes, using cookie cutters. That was a Bad Plan. It probably would have worked okay if I had chosen simpler shapes and thought to spray the cutters. However, it was morning so I did neither. A couple problems arose. First, because the batter couldn't spread out, it went up, making the world's thickest pancakes. I could adjust for that, however, and the pancakes cooked fine. Unfortunately, I had to mangle them to get them out of the cutters.
It started well...

What? It's OBVIOUSLY a stegosaurus...
Lesson learned; pancakes should be round unless made by someone with the talent to free-hand shapes. In case there was any doubt, I am not that person. It doesn't really matter, since both of my kids get their pancakes cut up before eating them anyway, but I feel like they should at least know the pancakes were cool at one point.

To compensate for the lack of neat pancakes, I made some strawberry syrup to go on top of the boring rounds.

The syrup was really easy to make – equal parts sugar and water, and about twice that in strawberries. I think. I didn't really measure the berries, just threw them in. They were frozen and stuck together, so measuring would have been a pain in the rear, and it was still morning.
Sugar.  With water.  MIB style

Since I used frozen berries, I didn't worry about chopping them up since I knew they'd get mushy when they thawed anyway (yay for less effort!). If it was later in the year, and local berries were ripe (curse you, people that live in areas that already have ripe strawberries...I'm looking at you, Californians!) I would probably cut them in half and/or mash them up a bit before adding them to the sugar and water.
And some berries

As is, however, I just dissolved the sugar in the water, added the berries, and stirred every once in a while as I made the pancakes. The berries were so soft, that I just had to mush them a little with the spoon to get them to fall apart fully. By the time the pancakes were done, so was the syrup. The recipe made a lot, so I have a pint jar of deliciousness left in the fridge; we didn't exactly go light on it, either! I'm sure Zoey will take care of that in short order. Unless Randy beats her to it, that is.
Who needs pancakes?  Just eat the syrup!


6 c all-purpose flour
2 c whole wheat flour
2 c powdered milk
½ c sugar
3 T baking powder
1 ½ T salt

Mix all ingredients together. And store.

Makes approximately eight 6-inch pancakes.
2 c pancake mix
1 ½ c water
2 T oil
1 egg

Pour pancakes onto a hot skillet. Cook until bubbles form and pop. Flip. Cook until pancakes puff slightly and steam.

1 c water
1 c sugar
2 c strawberries (10-15 large berries)

Create a simple syrup by combining the water and sugar in a medium saucepan. Heat over medium-high heat (between 6 and 7 on my dial) until all the sugar is dissolved and the liquid is clear.

If working with fresh berries, quarter the berries and mash them slightly with a fork or the back of a spoon. Frozen berries can be added whole.

Add the berries to the simple syrup and heat to a boil, stirring occasionally, and breaking up large clumps with the spoon.

Boil for 3-5 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent scorching. Remove pan from heat, and allow to cool and thicken for 5-10 minutes.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Simple, Wonderful, Sprouts (Brussels, that is)

My obsession with brussels sprouts started just about three years ago – shortly after Zoey was born. Before then, the fell into the category of “vegetable that I don't know much about” along with “what's with the spelling” and “things a lot of people hate for some reason”. Basically, I never ate them, but didn't have any reason why.
Delicious mini-cabbages!

Then, when Zoey was three weeks old, we went on a road trip. The main purpose was to surprise Randy's parents, which we did. However, we also visited my friends Lisa and Erik in San Francisco. They had also just had a baby, so we wanted to catch up and exchange oohs and ahs. On that visit, Erik made grilled Brussels sprouts and changed my world for the better.

Brussels sprouts have the advantage of being related to cabbage. I know that for many people, this isn't exactly a selling point, but since I only shop once a month, I adore vegetables that stay fresh a long time in the fridge. Cabbage relatives top the list. After I've eaten the salad greens, tomatoes (technically a fruit, but who cares), the summer squashes, beans, and peas, I come to the cabbage-types – broccoli, cauliflower, and brussels sprouts.
All cut up and severed-finger free

I always buy a huge bag of brussels sprouts because I know that no matter how many I get, we'll eat them all and go looking for more. They are that good.

They are also ridiculously easy to make. I don't care how bad of a cook someone is, these are within their grasp. The only danger is possibly cutting a finger instead of a sprout. However, I'm pretty accident prone and I've avoided it thus far, so I'm guessing the average person is more than safe.

Once you have trimmed the stem end off the brussels sprouts and cut them in half, you get to have some fun. Dump then into a gallon ziploc bag (or back in the bag you bought them in, if you used them all. Pour in some olive oil, salt, and pepper and then shake it all up.

Coated and ready
I love this method because it doesn't require me to dirty a dish or get my hands funky mixing it all up. I know what you're thinking...why do you have to use hands? That's what spoons are for! That's because you've never seen the disaster zone I can make with awkwardly sized food and a spoon. Bags are just better all around. Another benefit is that excess oil and seasonings stick to the side of the bag rather than the food, which helps fool-proof these.

After that, it's just a matter of tossing them on a broiler pan and broiling them for four minutes/side or so. Erik the Skilled made them on his barbecue. I am less talented, and also like to eat them year-round, which
precludes using the barbecue. My broiler is a good substitute.

Almost good enough to eat raw
Usually, I eat a good half-dozen before I get dinner dished up. While it's hard to call it the best part, since it's all good, I especially enjoy the single leaves that have fallen off – they are crispy and salty and wonderful in every way. I could eat them all day.


I dare you to eat these and not love them.  They are irresistible.

That's it! It's a nice, simple recipe that makes life better for all involved.

1 lb brussels sprouts
1 T olive oil
1 ½ t salt (or to taste)
1 t pepper (or to taste).

Trim the hard end of the stems, then cut each sprout in half lengthwise
Put in a bag with oil, salt, and pepper, and shake until evenly coated.
Place the top rack of the oven 6” under the broiler (second highest setting)
Broil sprouts for 3-4 minutes, flip, and broil for 3-4 additional minutes or until tender.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Pitas: Not Such a Pain After All

I have an addiction to pitas. I love that you can use them as a pocket (fun!), a thick tortilla, funny shaped bread, a utensil to shovel humus down your gullet, or even a pizza crust. Basically, they work for whatever I need at the moment, which lets me be an awful lot lazier about what I'm going to make on any given day. Anything that lets me be lazy is tops in my book!
"Failed" pitas? I don't believe they exist

As with most things, it took a few trials for me to feel comfortable making pitas. Since it seemed so complicated, the period between trials consisted of several in I moved multiple times between attempts. I was sure there was a reason that the internet abbreviation for pain in the ass is PITA. I was, happily, wrong about that.

Really, you only need two things – a flat cooking surface (cast iron griddle or pizza stone) and a hot oven. That's the big secret. Not too much to it, really. I had the hot oven, but not the griddle. I had read you could use a heat-proof frying pan or a cookie sheet turned upside down, but neither worked well for me. I had resigned myself to not making pitas...not really much of a loss, I thought. Then came my mom's birthday; we threw her a Greek-food themed party, mostly so she could eat lamb. She loves lamb, but my dad loathes it, so it's a rare treat for her.

All it needs is a little hummus.  Or a lot of hummus.
I couldn't go Greek without hummus and pitas, though, so I had to acquire a griddle. My first attempt was to
just ask my mom to use hers – she has owned a big cast-iron griddle for as long as I can remember. In my mind it will always be the Pancake Griddle (yes, in capital letters). Unfortunately, she forgot to bring it with her the one time we met up before her birthday, so she bought me one of my own as an early birthday present. I love it. It cooks all my tortillas and flatbreads and is one of the most wonderful things in the world.

I found a recipe on The Fresh Loaf, which I find is one of the more reliable places for all things bread related. Those people are serious about their breads, let me tell you! It is quite easy – only six ingredients, which I appreciate, and just under three hours start to finish.

They can rest now, while you sip wine
They start the same way most breads start – activating the yeast, then mixing in the other ingredients and kneading. As usual, I use my Kitchen Aid* to do this, so I don't have to put in any more effort than adding flour here and there to prevent sticking. I usually have to add quite a bit at this point, because the recipe I use calls to add more water if the flour isn't absorbing; I don't like adding liquid late in the game, because it always seems to make a mess. I just start with the larger amount and add as much more flour as it needs. Once the dough is a good form, knead it for 10 minutes. It seems like a long time to knead it, but hey – after it's done, you get to walk away for 90 minutes or so while it rises!

Once it's risen, put the griddle in the oven on the middle rack (make sure the other rack is below that) set the oven to pre-heat to 420 degrees, then punch the dough down, divide it up into 8-12 pieces, depending on how large of pitas you want, and then walk away for another 20 minutes to let the gluten relax. I suggest having a glass of wine and relaxing on your glutes as well. Symmetry is key.

This is a large pita
Once your wine, er, dough is done resting, comes the labor-intensive part. Sprinkle a little flour on the counter and roll the dough out to 1/8”-1/4” thick. Put it on griddle and let it cook for three minutes. If you have a large enough griddle, you can cook two at a time. While you wait, roll out another pita (or two, look through the oven door to see if the pita in the oven is puffing as it should – not that you can do anything about it if it's not – and sip some wine while you wait for the timer. Repeat until all pitas are cooked.

If the pitas aren't puffing, it's usually one of two things – they were rolled to thick or the oven isn't hot enough. I get about an 80% puff rate. There are always a few that don't work right, but I just use them for non-pocket purposes.
The Perfect Puff

These freeze really well, much better than most breads, in my opinion. That led me to attempt to make a double batch. While the recipe doubled easily, I didn't like how long I had to stand in the oven cooking pitas. I found that a much more effective way was to start a second batch when the first batch finished rising, so I got a nice break from being in the kitchen. And I got boatloads of pitas. Win-win!

3 cups flour*
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 Tablespoon sugar or honey
1 packet yeast (or, if from bulk, 2 teaspoons yeast)
1 1/4 to 1 1/2 cups water, roughly at room temperature
2 tablespoons olive oil, vegetable oil, butter, or shortening

*Can be any combination of flours – I use 2 cups all-purpose and 1 cup whole-wheat.

1)If you are using active dry yeast, follow the instructions on the packet to active it (see the note on yeast above). Otherwise, mix the yeast in with the flour, salt, and sugar. Add the olive oil and 1 1/4 cup water and stir together with a wooden spoon. All of the ingredients should form a ball. If some of the flour will not stick to the ball, add more water (I had to add an extra 1/4 cup).

2) Once all of the ingredients form a ball, knead the dough for approximately 10 minutes.

3) When you are done kneading the dough, place it in a bowl that has been lightly coated with oil (I just spray it with cooking spray) Form a ball out of the dough and place it into the bowl, rolling the ball of dough around in the bowl so that it has a light coat of oil on all sides. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a damp kitchen towel and set aside to rise until it has doubled in size, approximately 90 minutes.

4) When it has doubled in size, punch the dough down to release some of the trapped gases and divide it into 8-12 pieces.Eight pieces will result in 8”-10” pitas (as pictured above), while 12 will result in 6”-8” pitas.

5) Roll each piece into a ball, cover the balls with a damp kitchen towel, and let them rest for 20 minutes. This step allows the dough to relax so that it'll be easier to shape.

6) While the dough is resting, preheat the oven to 420 degrees. Put the griddle or baking stone in the oven to preheat as well.

7) After the dough has relaxed for 20 minutes, spread a light coating of flour on a work surface and place one of the balls of dough there. Sprinkle a little bit of flour on top of the dough and use a rolling pin or your hands to stretch and flatten the dough. You should be able to roll it out to between 1/8 and 1/4 inch thick. If the dough does not stretch sufficiently you can cover it with the damp towel and let it rest 5 to 10 minutes before trying again.

8) Open the oven and place as many pitas as you can fit on the hot baking surface. They should be baked through and puffy after three minutes.
Repeat until all pitas are cooked.

*Just after Christmas, we found a deal on a more powerful KitchenAid and pounced – it's big and shiny and way more powerful. The kneading hook seems to be much more effective at stretching the dough too. I adore it.
Look how pretty and red and shiny it is!