Category Archives: Project Food Blog

Project Food Blog: In Memorium

Well kids, I had a good run. Unfortunately, while I would have loved to make it all the way to the end, I have not advanced to the next round of Project Food Blog. But just look at how far we’ve come together.

This competition forced me to examine and define exactly what this blog is all about, and taught me so much about photography, and step by step photos, process shots, and great blogging. It definitely raised the bar around here. So instead of feeling sad, I am choosing to feel very proud that my humble little blog was able to make the top 48 out 2000 of the best bloggers in the world. That’s not too shabby, if I do say so myself.

I cannot even begin to thank you all for your amazing support, encouragement, and kind words. They have meant the world to me. Thank you for your votes, your comments, and for taking time out of your busy lives to stop by now and then to see what kind of mischief I’m stirring up in my kitchen.

I will be back up again and blogging more consistently right after Thanksgiving. But in the meantime, here is a look back at some of the great times we had together throughout the competition. . .

(…cue sad but triumphant music…)

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Filed under Other, Project Food Blog

Jacob’s Kitchen: Scone Secrets Revealed (Project Food Blog – Challenge 7)

This post is my seventh entry for Project Food Blog, foodbuzz.com’s quest to find the next food blog star. (Click here to see my contestant profile.) In this round we were challenged to create a video cooking demonstration. Voting begins Monday, November 15, 2010. Follow me on twitter, facebook, or through my RSS feed to keep up to date with my progress in the competition. Thank you to everyone who took the time to vote for me in the first six rounds, I appreciate all of your support more than I can ever express!

I have always been in love with scones; there is something about them that really speaks to me. I think it’s the perfect balance that they strike between being earthy and rustic while at the same time also feeling fancier than other standard coffee shop fare. It wasn’t until my early twenties that I first attempted making my own batch at home. And let me just say, it did not go well. They were dry and crumbly, and had no real flavor to them, beyond that of any ordinary day old biscuit.

Determined to master the art of the scone, however, I spent quite some time experimenting with countless different recipes. Over the course of the next year, I tried everything; alternately making them with milk, half n’ half, cream, buttermilk, shortening, butter, and sour cream. I experimented by adding more salt, or sugar, or less salt and more baking powder. I tried adding fresh fruit to the dough, and brushing the tops of the scones with milk, or cream, egg wash, oil, or butter before baking to ensure perfect browning. In the end, I finally reached what I personally consider to be absolute scone nirvana.

Since then I have made more of these scones, in every imaginable variation, than I could ever possibly count. Scones have now become one of my signature dishes, and over the last couple of years variations of this basic recipe have walked away with a best of class award, two first place blue ribbons, and one third place white ribbon in the baked foods division at the Oregon State Fair. And, up until now, I have never shared the recipe with anyone.

Unlike many of the scones that one encounters out there in the world, my scones are moist, flaky, tender and full of fresh flavor. They can be made days or weeks in advance and baked off right before serving, which makes them absolutely perfect for entertaining. In this particular variation dried strawberries, white chocolate chips, lemon zest, and a vanilla bean glaze all harmonize together beautifully to create a flavor reminiscent of a classic strawberry shortcake.

Preparing delicious homemade scones like these doesn’t have to be daunting. A few simple techniques are all that you need to be making scones at home like a pro. It’s easy, I’ll show you how.

Variations – It’s sometimes difficult to find dried strawberries in the stores these days. What I can typically always find, however, are dried berry medleys (often including blueberries, cherries, strawberries, etc.) which would make a perfect substitution for these strawberry shortcake scones. But swap out the dried fruit and the flavorings that you add and you can create any number of different scone variations using this same basic recipe. Let your imagination run wild, the possibilities are really endless (cranberry orange, lemon, ginger, apricot or cherry almond, blueberry lemon, currant, pumpkin, rum raisin, etc.). To boost the fruit flavor in the scones even further, substitute one egg for a generous fourth of a cup of good quality jam.

Glazing Glaze the scones right when you pull them out of the oven. This way the glaze stays very thin (so they aren’t too sweet) and it easily coats the scones, locking in their moist texture, while adding a nice shine. Depending on the level of humidity on any given day you might need to make adjustments to the final glaze. You can really be casual about it; if it’s too thick add a tiny splash of milk, and if it’s too thin add a little more powdered sugar. In the end, the glaze should be thick but still pourable.

Storage – The cut scone dough can be made and stored in your refrigerator for up to a week, and baked off right before serving. To prepare the scone dough up to one month in advance, place the cut scones onto a baking sheet and freeze (uncovered) until frozen solid, then transfer them to a freezer storage bag. Bake the scones from frozen, adding an additional three to five minutes to the baking time. Because of the glazing, leftover scones (not that there ever are any!) can be stored in an airtight container for up to five days without a significant change in texture.

Egg Wash – I find that I get the best browning without the addition of milk/water/cream to the beaten egg for the egg wash. But feel free to use whichever you most prefer, or to omit the egg wash step entirely.

I think that it’s only natural for us to feel the most attachment to the recipes that we spend the most time carefully cultivating. For many years I wouldn’t share any of my recipes, period. It was my hard work, and I honestly felt like my ability to make perfect scones, biscuits or pecan bars would somehow be diminished if everyone else then also knew how to do it as well. As I began writing this blog, however, I slowly came to the realization that having this knowledge was so much less meaningful than sharing it all with you; after all, food is so much less enjoyable when there is no one to share it with. I hope that you really will make some version of these scones and that this recipe becomes a part of your family’s traditions, just as they have become a part of mine. Perfect for a portable breakfast, early morning business meeting, tea party, or a leisurely Sunday brunch with friends, these decadent scones are (literally) a winner every time.

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Filed under Blue Ribbon Winners, Breads, Breakfast/Brunch, Project Food Blog, Snacks

Jacob’s Kitchen: Pumpkin Patch Picnic (Project Food Blog – Challenge 6)

This post is my sixth entry for Project Food Blog, foodbuzz.com’s quest to find the next food blog star. (Click here to see my contestant profile.) In this round we were challenged to create a portable meal on the go. Voting begins Monday, October 25, 2010. Follow me on twitter, facebook, or through my RSS feed to keep up to date with my progress in the competition. Thank you to everyone who took the time to vote for me in the first five rounds, I appreciate all of your support more than I can ever express!

Every year a good friend and I make our annual pilgrimage to our favorite pumpkin patch. The farm itself is about a thirty minute drive, and over the years it’s become something of an agrarian amusement park. Her children  join in on the fun, and we end the day by each carefully selecting our own pumpkins from the field for carving. For me, the pumpkin patch is one of those rare experiences in life that really live up to the charm of the perfect Norman Rockwell paintings. Fall is my absolute favorite time of year, and there is something about that familiar chill in the air, all of those bails of hay, and the mounds of colorful leaves, winter squash and decorative gourds, that fill me with joy. Moreover, this time of year begins the long holiday season where we all, as a community, seem to collectively retain some sense of sentimentality; and people just seem kinder to one another. And on these days, traipsing through the corn mazes and produce stands, feeding the farm animals, and spending time together in the country I somehow feel most like myself.

The children always have their requisite hot dogs and apple cider from the farm stand, but this year I thought I would surprise my friend with something a little bit more special. So I decided to pack up a little picnic to share while the children played in their autumn wonderland. Nothing terribly fancy mind you, just simple, casual, delicious food among friends.

When planning the menu I wanted something light, something best eaten cold or at room temperature, and something that would ultimately travel well. I  decided I would stick to the fall theme and make individual pumpkin and blue cheese crostatas, an autumn inspired green salad, and finish it off with a little bit of seasonal whimsy with my favorite white chocolate dipped caramel apples. To go with our meal, I chose to make a sparkling pomegranate pear punch, and for something extra cozy with dessert I thought my coconut chai would pair beautifully with the apples.  All of the wonderful flavors of fall wrapped up together in one little picnic.

Packing – A few ice packs along the bottom of the cooler is all that I need to keep our food nice and fresh for the ride. I like packing the food in cylindrical deli containers which I purchase at my favorite restaurant supply store. They are inexpensive, sturdy, reusable, and I really appreciate the fact that all of the sizes use the same lid. Hand sanitizer and plenty of moist towelettes are a must for picnics. Not only are they great for keeping your hands clean, but they are also nice to use to wipe down your dishes before repacking them. I always like to use real plates, mugs, and reusable bottles whenever possible. It really isn’t that much trouble and it always feels a little bit more special; besides, it’s just the green thing to do.

Sparkling Pomegranate Pear Punch – This punch is refreshingly tart and sweet; the lemon and pomegranate add a delicious pucker, and the subtle hint of cinnamon, vanilla, and ginger really make the pear flavor come alive. In a blender, combine five ripe pears (peeled and cored), two cups of water, a third of a cup of vanilla sugar (or to taste), the juice of one lemon, a pinch of salt, and the tiniest dash of ground cinnamon. Blend until the mixture is very smooth, then pass it through a fine mesh strainer to remove the fruit pulp. Add one cup of pomegranate juice, and two cups of your favorite ginger ale.

Autumn Salad – This salad is the perfect mix of flavors and textures. The rich creamy goat cheese, sweet juicy pears, smoky bacon, crunchy pumpkin seeds, and the tart chewy cranberries all come together perfectly. The spiced apple flavored dressing rounds everything out, driving home the fabulous flavors of fall. To make the salad, toss baby greens with sliced pears (which have been tossed in freshly squeezed lemon juice to prevent them from turning brown), crumbled goat cheese, lardons of crispy bacon, dried cranberries, and toasted pumpkin seeds. To make the dressing, reduce one cup of spiced apple cider over medium heat until only one fourth of a cup remains. Add one finely minced shallot, three tablespoons of apple cider vinegar, a teaspoon of Dijon mustard, a third of a cup of extra virgin olive oil, and a dash of salt and freshly ground black pepper. (To take the salad on the road pack the lettuce in one large storage container, submerge the sliced pears into the dressing and place into another smaller storage container, pack the crumbled goat cheese into a separate re-sealable storage bag, and combine the remaining salad topping into one small container.)

Pumpkin and Blue Cheese Crostatas –  Pumpkin and blue cheese are a match made in heaven, and together they make an elegant filling for these crostatas. The buttery crust, sweet earthy pumpkin, subtle sweetness from the maple syrup, and delicious piquant creaminess of the blue cheese all harmonize together beautifully. The toasted pine nuts add a great texture and nutty flavor, and the sage leaves are the perfect savory compliment that bring it all together.

To make the pastry dough, combine one and a half cups of all purpose flour, one teaspoon of salt, and three tablespoons of sugar. In a food processor fitted with a steel blade, pulse this mixture along with twelve tablespoons of cold diced butter and one half of a cup of cold vegetable shortening until the flour is evenly coated with the fat (about twenty seconds).  Add another cup of flour and pulse to combine. Empty this mixture into a large mixing bowl and sprinkle the dough with one fourth of a cup of very cold vodka, one fourth of a cup of ice cold water, and gently fold to combine.  Flatten the dough (which should still be pretty tacky) into a disk, wrap it in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for one hour (or up to a week in advance).

Meanwhile, in a large skillet set over medium heat, sauté three cups of peeled diced fresh pumpkin in two tablespoons each of butter and extra virgin olive oil until it is soft and beginning to brown around the edges. Add two tablespoons of finely chopped fresh sage leaves, three tablespoons of pure maple syrup, a third of a cup of toasted pine nuts, one large garlic clove (grated on a microplane zester), three fourths of a teaspoon of salt, a fourth of a teaspoon of cayenne pepper, a fourth of a teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg, and a half a teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper. Continue sautéing for two to three minutes, then remove from the heat and allow the pumpkin mixture to come to room temperature.

Roll out the pastry dough on a floured board to one fourth of an inch of thickness and cut out four rough seven to eight inch rounds. In the center of each round add one fourth of the cooled pumpkin mixture and top each with two tablespoons of crumbled blue cheese. Bring the dough up around the sides of the pumpkin filling, forming a rustic pie. Brush the dough with a beaten egg and bake at 400° for twenty to twenty five minutes, or until golden brown. Garnish with fried sage leaves. (To take these crostatas on the road carefully stack them on a small plate, separating each with a piece of parchment paper, and wrap the stack tightly with plastic wrap. In a separate sandwich sized storage bag, separately pack the fried sage leaves for garnishing.)

Jacob’s Favorite Caramel Apples – These decadent apples are really just our childhood favorite dressed up for company. The tart apple, rich caramel, creamy white chocolate, and sweet cinnamon sugar all meld together in your mouth to create a flavor that really is very reminiscent of apple pie. Perfect for this time of year, I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t be happy to be surprised with one of these beauties.

To make them, begin by thoroughly washing and chilling your apples (if you suspect that your apples have been waxed, scrub them with baking soda as the wax can prevent the caramel from properly adhering). Insert a stick into the core of each apple (you can typically find these at bakery and craft supply stores).While I will often go to the trouble of making my own caramel for dipping, since I was in a bit of a hurry, I decided to take a fool proof short cut and use melted caramel candies instead. I start by melting one and a half pounds of soft caramel candies over a double boiler along with two tablespoons of whole milk, one tablespoon of pure vanilla extract, and a half a teaspoon of salt. Dip each of your apples to coat, and allow the excess caramel to drip off. Hold the coated apples upside down for forty five seconds or so to allow the caramel a chance to set up slightly before placing them on a baking sheet lined with lightly buttered parchment paper.

Once all of your apples have been dipped, place the baking sheet into the refrigerator for thirty minutes, or until thoroughly chilled (if your caramel covered apples are not cold enough, the melted white chocolate will not adhere to the caramel). Next, melt one and a half pounds of white chocolate chips over a double boiler with one tablespoon of canola oil, and allow it to cool slightly. Dip each of your caramel apples three fourths of the way into the melted chocolate, allowing the excess to drip off (holding each apple upside down just as in the caramel dipping step). Before returning the now chocolate covered apples to the baking sheet, carefully sprinkle each with a generous amount of cinnamon sugar (two cups of sugar mixed with one and a half tablespoons of ground cinnamon).  Once the apples have dried and hardened, transfer each to a small cellophane bag and tie with raffia. (While these apples are perfectly fine on their own, to aid in the ease of picnic eating I think it’s nice to pack an apple slicer.)

Coconut Chai – This chai is rich and flavorful. It has just the right amount of spice, and the honey and coconut milk take it far beyond just your ordinary cup of tea. To make it, in a sauce pan, combine six whole cloves, six allspice berries, six green cardamom pods, one half of a nutmeg nut, four star anise, and three cinnamon sticks. (Here I had the luxury of instead using one four inch length of real cinnamon which a fabulous friend sent to me from her recent trip to the spice markets of Dubai. In the United States you can often find it labeled “ceylon.”) Over a medium low flame, slowly toast the spices for two minutes or until fragrant.  Add six cups of water, one fifteen ounce can of coconut milk (whole or light), one vanilla bean split down the center, and two half inch slices of peeled fresh ginger. Bring this mixture to a boil, reduce the heat to low and simmer for seven to ten minutes. Add five and a half tablespoons of loose leaf black tea, and continue simmering for another five minutes. Add one fourth of a cup of honey (or to taste), and strain the mixture through a fine mesh strainer. Ladle it into a thermos to keep it piping hot and ready to serve whenever you are.

These days it seems like most of the food that we eat is on the go.  But just because we are on the move doesn’t mean that we can’t still enjoy the food that we love to eat with the people that we care about most. This pumpkin patch picnic is a perfect example of how investing a little bit of extra time can turn any ordinary meal into something really special. In this economy, where money is tight for all of us, a little thoughtfulness can really go a long way. Luckily, preparing someone’s favorite meal, surprising a friend with a beautifully wrapped jar of homemade jam, or baking something extra special is often even more appreciated than the most extravagant gifts.  This season brings out the best in all of us, and it makes me want  to spend as much quality time as possible with the people that I care about. Food sets the stage for our time together. And with a picnic like this, what a beautifully charming production it is.

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Filed under Beverages, Desserts, Project Food Blog, Salads, Side Dishes

Jacob’s Kitchen: Classic Reuben on Rye (Project Food Blog – Challenge 5)

This post is my fifth entry for Project Food Blog, foodbuzz.com’s quest to find the next food blog star. (Click here to see my contestant profile.) In this round we were challenged to put our own spin on pizza. Voting begins Monday, October 18, 2010. Follow me on twitter, facebook, or through my RSS feed to keep up to date with my progress in the competition. Thank you to everyone who took the time to vote for me in the first four rounds, I appreciate all of your support more than I can say!

Is there any food in the world more ubiquitous or more universally loved than pizza? I doubt it. No matter where you go around the globe you’re likely to find some local pizza specialty ranging from the more traditional to exotic flavors that you might never have thought to combine. And while we each certainly have our own preferences, in my world the perfect pizza has a thick crust that is crisp on the outside, and tender and chewy on the inside. It has just the right amount of toppings, all of which harmonize together, with no one ingredient overpowering the others. I think the reason that we all love pizza so much is because it’s so simple and casual. A few ingredients, thoughtfully prepared, flash baked, and enjoyed together with our hands; delicious, informal, and satisfying, pizza is the bread that we all break together.

This week, challenged to give you my own spin on pizza, I pondered the infinite possibilities. I thought of the incredibly delicious Philly cheese-steak pizza at the California Pizza Kitchen, and wondered how I might also reinvent a classic combination. Suddenly the idea came to me of recreating a Reuben, one of my all time favorite sandwiches, into pizza form. Yes! What a truly inspired concept. I could just imagine the great flavors, and the no doubt prestigious awards that would follow. “This invention will likely change the course of history,” I told myself, “I am the smartest human being ever to live!” Two minutes and a quick internet search later, I discovered that I was, in fact, no where near the first person to stumble upon this combination. But that’s just how it goes most of the time. It’s difficult to reinvent the wheel in the kitchen these days with such amazing foodies out there in the world.

Unwavering in my conviction, however, I scoured the recipes thinking of a way to make this dish my own. Most of what has been done with Reuben pizzas to date has consisted of a standard pizza crust, thousand island salad dressing, mounds of sauerkraut and corned beef, a mix of Swiss and mozzarella cheeses, and a sprinkling of caraway seeds. And while that all sounds perfectly delicious, most of what I found seemed more like an open faced sandwich than a pizza. I wondered how I might elevate these ingredients to create something even more special.

To start, I decided I would ditch the standard pizza dough altogether and make my own pumpernickel rye crust instead. And in lieu of using salad dressing as my sauce, I thought I could create a thick thousand island inspired béchamel. Building from there, why not throw in a little more flavor with the addition of caramelized onions, which I could sauté with the sauerkraut, laying a flavor packed foundation for the entire pizza. And what can I say? It was a tremendous success.

It really does have all of the great flavors of the classic Reuben sandwich, while still being a pizza. The flavors hit you in waves: first the tangy sauerkraut and corned beef, then the earthy crust, caraway, onions, cheese and sauce. It all comes together beautifully to create a really round, familiar flavor that we all know and love. The crust bakes up perfectly, with just the right consistency, and the thick sauce and sautéed sauerkraut prevent it from being too moist.

To make the Reuben pizzas, begin by preparing the ingredients (all of which can be made up to two days in advance and assembled right before baking):

The Dough – In the bowl of your electric stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or, alternatively, you can choose to mix the dough by hand), combine the dry ingredients (four cups of white bread flour, a fourth of a cup of cocoa powder, two tablespoons of granulated sugar, four teaspoons of salt, two teaspoons of onion powder, and two tablespoons of active dry yeast) and the liquid ingredients (two cups plus two tablespoons of prepared coffee, six tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, and six tablespoons of unsulfured molasses, warmed together for ninety seconds in the microwave) and beat for four minutes on medium speed. Gradually add two and two thirds cups of dark rye flour and enough bread flour (up to one and one third cups) to form a stiff dough. Switch to the dough hook and knead for seven minutes or until smooth and elastic. Add two heaping tablespoons of caraway seeds and mix until evenly incorporated. Place the dough in an oiled bowl, cover, and allow it to rise in a warm place for one hour or until it has doubled in volume. (This recipe yields enough to make four large, thick crusted individual pizzas.)

The Sauce – To make the sauce, melt eight ounces of butter in the bottom of a saucepan and whisk in one half of a cup of all purpose flour, cooking this mixture for two minutes to remove the raw flour taste. Slowly whisk in three cups of whole milk, and simmer until the mixture is thick. Off of the heat, add one third of a cup of Parmesan cheese, a half a teaspoon of granulated garlic, a half of a cup of ketchup, a half of a cup of sweet pickle relish, a teaspoon of Worcestershire sauce, a teaspoon of chipotle flavored Tabasco, three tablespoons of coarse grain Dijon mustard, and a half a teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper.

The Onions/Sauerkraut – In the bottom of a large saucepan add two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Over medium low heat, slowly cook three sliced, large yellow onions, a half a teaspoon of salt, and a half a teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper for approximately thirty minutes, or until the onions begin to turn a deep golden brown. Add fifteen ounces of sauerkraut with its liquid, and continue cooking until the mixture is dry, scraping up any brown bits on the bottom of the pan along the way.

The Meat – Purchase one pound of thinly sliced corned beef at your favorite local deli counter, and cut it into long strips.

The Cheese – Grate one pound of good quality Swiss cheese, and have two tablespoons of caraway seeds at the ready.

To assemble the pizzas, start by heating a pizza stone in a 500° oven. (Don’t have a pizza stone? Never fear. Turn a thick, stainless steel baking sheet upside down, and place it on the middle rack of your oven, and allow it to heat for fifteen minutes.) Divide the risen dough into fourths, and roll out each into approximately nine inch rounds (the dough should be thinner in the middle and thicker along the outside edge). Place the rounds on a rimless baking sheet sprinkled with cornmeal. Spread the dough with a generous amount of the sauce (three or four tablespoons), and a thin layer of the caramelized onion/sauerkraut mixture. Top that with a layer of corned beef, a fourth of the shredded Swiss cheese, and a sprinkling of caraway seeds. Brush the outside crust with extra virgin olive oil, and transfer the dough onto your preheated pizza stone (or baking sheet) and bake for approximately twelve minutes, or until the crust is golden brown, firm to the touch, and the cheese is melted. Serve it with a sprinkle of freshly chopped Italian flat leaf parsley, a frosty pint of your favorite beer, and dinner is served.

The rich flavors, brown bread and beer really say autumn to me.  And in a continuation of those flavors, inspired by all of the perfectly ripe fresh local apples filling up the farm stands, I decided I would drive home the tastes of fall by creating little apple cheddar dessert pizzas. But after making the Reuben from scratch, I wanted to give myself a break and so I took a little help from the store.

To make the apple cheddar pizzas, roll out store bought pizza dough to one fourth of an inch of thickness. Cut out four six inch rounds (I use a sharp knife and a saucer as my template) and line them up on a corn meal sprinkled, parchment lined baking sheet. Dust each round of dough with approximately a teaspoon of granulated sugar. Spread a tablespoon of good quality apple butter on the top of each, leaving a half an inch border around the edge. Top that with thinly sliced apples (which have been par cooked for about one minute in boiling apple cider and tossed with freshly squeezed lemon juice). Brush the apple slices with real maple syrup (preferably grade A dark amber), and sprinkle with chopped pecans. Add a handful of grated sharp white cheddar cheese to each, along with a sprinkling of fresh thyme leaves. Bake at 500° for ten minutes or until the crusts are golden and the cheese is melted and beginning to brown.

These apple cheddar pizzas strike  just the right balance between sweet and savory. The sweet maple syrup, spicy apple butter, crunchy pecans, tangy apples, grassy thyme, and salty cheese all compliment one another beautifully; and the crispy thin crust provides the perfect platform, and a terrific contrast of textures. They are simple, rustic, easy to prepare, and make for the perfect, delicious end to any autumn meal.

I am reminded at times like these that food doesn’t have to be groundbreaking in order to be delicious. When I am looking at recipes I often find that I am not searching for a dish to prepare as much as I am looking for inspiration for a dish that I’m making. Recipes are like road maps. You can follow them, and they will certainly get you to where you need to go, but it’s when you finally put them down that the real fun of the adventure begins.  By re-imagining ingredients, mixing and matching flavors, juggling spices, and tasting along the way, you can create your own fantastic new spin on any recipe.  Here in my kitchen, this is how I spell delicious. In your kitchen, it’s entirely up to you!

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Filed under Breads, Desserts, Jams/Spreads/Sauces, Meat, Project Food Blog

Jacob’s Kitchen: Fruit Crisps 101 (Project Food Blog – Challenge 4)

This post is my fourth entry for Project Food Blog, foodbuzz.com’s quest to find the next food blog star. ( Click here to see my contestant profile.) In this round we were challenged to create a step by step photo tutorial. Voting begins Monday, October 11, 2010. Follow me on twitter, facebook, or through my RSS feed to keep up to date with my progress in the competition. Thank you to everyone who took the time to vote for me in the first three rounds, I appreciate all of your support more than I can say!

As that familiar chill creeps into the air and the first of the autumn leaves begin to fall, I always crave the warm comfort of simple, satisfying food. It’s around this time of year when I start to long for big steaming mugs of apple cider, and hearty bowls of my favorite soups and stews. And what could be warmer or more comforting than a freshly baked, individual fruit crisp? Beyond their ease of preparation and delicious flavor, the baking crisps themselves envelop the house in their soothing, sweet, spicy aroma like a giant hug, and make it feel just a little bit more like home. These nostalgic smells and flavors bring me right back to my childhood, and when warm crisp meets cold vanilla ice cream, something magical happens.

Crisps can be made with a variety of fruits. The possibilities are really endless; you’re limited only by your imagination. I have been making fruit crisps all of my life, and once you master the simple process of making them, you can mix and match the ingredients that you use and create a multitude of desserts all using the same basic recipe. They are an easy, versatile, universally loved comfort food classic that everyone should have in their kitchen arsenal. This is fruit crisps 101: My inside scoop.

When preparing fruit dishes, I like to visit my favorite local farm stand to see what looks best, and allow that to guide my decision of which fruit combination to prepare on any given day. Here in Oregon, because of the amount of rain that we received early on in the season, the majority of our summer produce was delayed. So I was excited when I went to the farm stand yesterday and discovered masses of fragrant, local peaches and discounted pints of ruby red raspberries. What a perfectly delicious combination. Selecting peaches, like many other fruits, should be based largely on their smell. They should be firm, and, when ripe, smell strongly of what they are. These peaches were perfect, and the air was thick with their intoxicating aroma, making my choice very easy: a gingered peach raspberry crisp it was!

To make the crisps, start by buttering six individual ramekins (or up to eight, depending on their size) and line them up on a parchment lined baking sheet. Next, chop one half of a cup of crystallized ginger, and set it aside.

You will want about four and a half pounds of peaches in total, and peeling them is quite simple. (If you are not offended by the peach skin, feel free to skip this step entirely.) Using the tip of a sharp paring knife, score a large “x” into the bottom of each peach (without piercing the flesh too deeply), and carefully place them into a pot of boiling water. Boil the peaches for about sixty seconds, then remove them and place them into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. This process loosens the peels, and once they are cool enough to handle the peel easily slides right off.

Next, slice each peach in half, remove the pit, and then slice each half into six to eight wedges (depending on the size of the peach). Place the sliced peaches into a large mixing bowl; add one pint of fresh raspberries, and the crystallized ginger.

To the peach mixture, add one half of a cup of brown sugar (here I used dark brown but light brown would work equally well), one fourth of a cup of granulated sugar, one fourth of a cup of all purpose flour, the zest of one orange, one half teaspoon of ground cinnamon, and a third of a teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg. Mix to combine.

To make the topping, combine one and a half cups of all purpose flour, three fourths of a cup of granulated sugar, three fourths of a cup of dark brown sugar, one cup of old fashioned oats, a fourth of a teaspoon of salt, and two sticks of cold, diced butter. Using a stand mixer, your fingers or a pastry blender, cut the butter into the other ingredients until it is fully incorporated and the mixture is crumbly.

(Tip: Whenever I make a crisp, I always double the topping recipe and freeze half of it for the next time I want to make a quick dessert; it is the same amount of work today but it will be a huge time saver on a busier day in the future.)

Divide the fruit mixture between the ramekins, and top each with a generous amount of the crumble topping (keeping in mind that the crisps tend to shrink slightly while baking). Place the crisps on the middle rack of your preheated 350° oven and bake for one hour, or until the tops are golden brown and the juices are bubbling. (Alternatively, you can also assemble the crisp in one larger baking dish, following the same process and cooking time.)

Remove the baked crisps from the oven and allow them to cool slightly before serving. Serve them up on their own or with a scoop of your favorite vanilla bean ice cream, and you can literally taste the flavors of fall in every spoon full. The sweet peaches, slightly tart raspberries, and spicy crystallized ginger all harmonize together beautifully, echoed gently by the cinnamon and nutmeg. The orange zest simply makes the peaches taste peachier; and the soft fruit filling, crunchy topping and creamy vanilla ice cream offer an exciting mix of temperatures, tastes, and textures. It’s perfection: easy, comforting, earthy, rustic, and chic.

Here are just a few ideas of other variations on this recipe, each made with the same crumble topping:

Apple or Pear- To four pounds of prepared fruit, add the juice and zest of one lemon and one orange along with a half of a cup of granulated sugar, a fourth of a cup of all purpose flour, a teaspoon of ground cinnamon, and a half a teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg. (Combine apples and pears for a different variation, and to really drive home the flavors of fall toss in  three fourths of a cup of dried cranberries as well.)

Plum- To two pounds of sliced plums, add the juice of one orange, one third of a cup of granulated sugar, one fourth of a cup of all purpose flour, and a fourth of a teaspoon of ground allspice. (Combine with peaches, raspberries or apricots for additional variations.)

Blueberry- To six cups of blueberries, add the zest and juice of one lemon, a half of a cup of granulated sugar, a fourth of a cup of all purpose flour, a teaspoon of ground ginger, and a fourth of a teaspoon of ground cinnamon.

Strawberry Rhubarb- To four cups of prepared rhubarb and two cups of strawberries, add one cup of granulated sugar, one fourth of a cup of all purpose flour, a teaspoon of pure vanilla extract, a third of a teaspoon of ground cinnamon, and a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg.

Blackberry/Marionberry- To four cups of berries, add the juice of one lemon, a third of a cup of granulated sugar, a fourth of a cup of all purpose flour, and a fourth of a teaspoon of ground cinnamon.

Sour Cherry- To four cups of pitted sour cherries, add the juice of half of a lemon, one cup of granulated sugar, one fourth of a cup of all purpose flour, and an eighth of a teaspoon of both ground cinnamon and freshly grated nutmeg.

Sweet Cherry- To six cups of pitted sweet cherries, add the juice of one lemon, one third of a cup of granulated sugar, one fourth of a cup of all purpose flour, and a fourth of a teaspoon each of ground cinnamon and freshly grated nutmeg.

Topping Variations - Add one half of a cup of sliced almonds or other finely chopped nut of your choice to the topping ingredients before cutting in the butter.

(Note: When using frozen fruit, which is perfectly acceptable, I find that the fruit can often become excessively watery. To counteract this effect, I add an additional two tablespoons of corn starch to the fruit mixture before baking. And, if baking from frozen, add an additional fifteen minutes to the baking time.)

Fruit crisps are quintessential comfort food, and simple recipes like these are really what drive me in the kitchen. Imagine that you know ten recipes by heart, and that you can make five variations of each. That’s fifty different dishes at your finger tips on any given day, and for most people, most of the time, that’s plenty. Whether it’s a dinner party, potluck, barbecue cookout, or romantic meal for two, these individual fruit crisps are a winner every time. I know that people often say that they don’t want dessert, but I can’t remember anyone ever turning down one of these crisps at my house. This one recipe is all that you need to make these delicious desserts all year long with whatever fresh, seasonal produce is available.

The first fruit crisp that I ever made was in my grandmother’s kitchen when I was only a small child. It was apple, I think, and my grandmother always used just the right amount of spice. Baked fruit desserts like these are so comforting and so well loved because we all remember these flavors from our childhoods. That’s the great thing about food: it lingers. For me, these crisps are much more than just a sweet treat to serve after dinner; they are a part of who I am. As cooks, we often forget that we are not simply preparing recipes or planning menus in the kitchen. We’re making memories. And what could be more delicious than that?

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Jacob’s Kitchen: Entertaining with Ease (Project Food Blog – Challenge 3)

This post is my third entry for Project Food Blog, foodbuzz.com’s quest to find the next food blog star. Click here to see my contestant profile. Voting begins Monday, October 4, 2010. Follow me on twitter, facebook, or through my RSS feed to keep up to date with my progress in the competition. Thank you to everyone who took the time to vote for me in the first and second rounds, I appreciate all of your support!

Round three of Project Food Blog challenges us to host a luxury dinner party. And, while some people may think of entertaining as burdensome or stressful, it is one of my absolute favorite things to do. Entertaining is my passion. It’s in my blood. There is something so special, so personal about inviting people into your home to share a meal. Dinner parties can be as simple or as elaborate as you choose. Your friends won’t have a better time if you spend a week, and half of your pay check on extremely complicated cuisine. The truth of the matter is your guests are there to spend time with you; the food is just the excuse to get together, not the focus. A big bowl of spaghetti and meat balls, a perfectly cooked meatloaf, or your grandmother’s famous enchiladas served with a cake or tart purchased from your favorite bakery can be even more enjoyable than lobster and filet mignon. For me, it is a luxury whenever I invite my friends into my home. And I want to spend our time together enjoying their company, not slaving in the kitchen.

In my early adulthood I hosted dinner parties where I made every single thing from scratch, and worked tirelessly to ensure every last detail was beyond perfection. But when the time came to actually sit down with my friends and enjoy the spoils of my hard work, I found myself exhausted and just waiting for the evening to be over with. And while the food was delicious, I can’t imagine that I was much fun to be around. Now I take a more lighthearted approach to entertaining, allowing myself to be a guest at my own party.

No matter what they say, your guests want to believe that you threw all of this together in the twenty minutes before they arrived. And luckily, because of the make-ahead strategies I now use, that isn’t far from the truth. As a caterer I have cooked for groups of various sizes, and I can tell you that entertaining doesn’t have to be scary. Whether it’s this luxury dinner party for six, or you’re cooking for six hundred, the exact same rules apply. This is dinner parties 101: my entertaining manifesto.

Step 1 – Get Organized:

Have an action plan. Break down what you need to do day by day on the days leading up to the event, and hour by hour on the day of. Mark down when you will set the table, which dishes will be used for serving, when you will shop for your ingredients, when you will prepare different components of the meal, which recipes you will be assembling on the day of the party, all the way down to the exact times that your food needs to come into and out of the oven for final service. A little bit of advanced thought and planning will make your parties infinitely less stressful.

Step 2 – Set the Stage:

Candles- Candles always make any meal feel special, and the more the better. I prefer small votive candles in glass holders over their taller, tapered cousins. And while scented candles around your home can serve to set the mood for the party, one should never use scented candles on the table itself. All they do is steal the spot light from the aroma and flavors of your carefully prepared food, and no one likes to be upstaged.

Flowers/Centerpieces- Flowers are certainly not essential for any table. A bowl of fruit, vases filled with fresh herbs from your garden, some artfully arranged autumn leaves and decorative gourds can all be equally dramatic. Let your imagination run wild. There are probably items around your house right now that, when repurposed on your table, can create a visually interesting centerpiece. With that said, however, flowers are classic, easy, and always beautiful. I personally enjoy arranging my own flowers, first buying larger bouquets like these pink roses for this evening at my local warehouse store (for a fraction of the price!), and then separately purchasing a few filler flowers from the florist to pull everything together. If you, on the other hand, find yourself unsure about which flowers to purchase or how to arrange them, keep in mind a couple of steadfast rules. When in doubt, buy one flower in quantity and it will always look great. You can never go wrong with roses, peonies, hydrangea, or tulips: they are simple, beautiful, and elegant. Keep your arrangements small (which is to say short). I prefer to keep them under ten inches, allowing your guests to look into each other’s faces rather than catching a passing glimpse of one another through a dense, albeit beautiful, floral jungle. I like using small vases grouped together on the table. They are easier to arrange, cheaper to fill, and you can always play around with spacing to create a variety of looks.

Table Setting- I like to mix and match traditional items with newer modern pieces, and set the table in whichever way I feel looks best, and not how any text book tells me that I should. This can change dramatically from day to day, and therein lies the fun of it. Here I mixed together my everyday white dishes and flatware, silver chargers, and silver rimmed crystal wine glasses that I inherited from my grandmother. Simple white napkins with festive napkin rings, and a neutral, corresponding table cloth all come together beautifully, none overpowering the other. In setting the table what you are really doing is setting the stage for quality time with your friends and family. Do it carefully. People really appreciate every little detail. I choose to be more elaborate with my table setting because I enjoy doing so. If you do not, don’t fret. Simple, everyday dishes, silverware, and a few wine glasses are all  that you really need for a fabulous presentation. In your house you get to make the rules, so if having to wash and iron cloth napkins will prevent you from ever having friends over, by all means use paper. Some of the most enjoyable parties that I have ever been to have also been the most casual.

Music- For dinner parties, what I want is background music, and for this I find music without lyrics to be the most appropriate. A quick search online will yield a variety of instrumental versions of most of your favorite music. In this way, the songs are familiar, but not distracting. The music should serve to enhance the mood, not be the evening’s entertainment.

Step 3 – The Food:

When planning a dinner party, select food that you know how to make well. Never test out a new recipe on the day of an important event, or you might find yourself ordering pizza while the fire department airs out your house. Make things in advance whenever possible. And choose menu items that can be made at least one day prior and only assembled on the day of the party. This will keep you from going crazy, and allow you the time to really enjoy your friends and family.

Here, for example, I selected pomegranate cosmopolitans that can be mixed the night before, and a delicious appetizer that requires no cooking whatsoever (halved fresh figs, salty prosciutto, and shards of Parmesan cheese). I follow that with my signature salad (baby greens tossed with sliced fuji apples, dried cranberries, glazed walnuts, crumbled blue cheese, and a tangy balsamic blue cheese dressing) which can be assembled the night before and dressed right before serving. For the entrée I selected my pumpkin ricotta ravioli with sage brown butter (made with my homemade ricotta cheese) which can be made and frozen up to six months in advance, and boiled for two minutes right before serving along side my simply sautéed spinach. And what could be more decadent or more luxurious than an individual chocolate soufflé? With my make ahead version, you can assemble them two days in advance, freeze them, and toss them into the oven as you are sitting down to dinner for an inexpensive, yet show stopping end to any meal. (In the interest of space saving I have not included the recipes, but you can click on the links to see my full description of each.)

Two of my guests are vegetarian, and instead of driving myself mad making two separate entrées, I simply designed a menu that we all can enjoy, which makes life a lot easier for me. I have also selected two wines from my favorite local winery to pair with the meal, one red and one white, both of which pair nicely with the entire meal from start to finish (the pinot noir being especially great with chocolate). If you are unsure about wine pairings, simply select wines that you and your guests enjoy drinking, and you can never go wrong.

Part of the luxury of dinner parties is your ability to linger over the food, and really take your time from course to course. After the salad is served and enjoyed, I excuse myself for a couple of minutes (my dining room is attached to my kitchen, so I needn’t actually “leave” the fun of the party), drop the ravioli into the already boiling salted water (which I remembered to put on before my guests arrived, leaving it over medium low heat), and set the dishes out for plating. I take this opportunity to refill wine and water glasses, to collect the salad plates and forks, and to segue into my hilarious story (pantomime included) of how I once accidentally set myself on fire. The ravioli take very little time, and when they are done, I slide them into the warmed, pre-made sage brown butter sauce, plate them, place the soufflés into the preheated oven, and I’m back at the table with my guests in no time.

Dinner parties shouldn’t have to be cost prohibitive, stressful, or intimidating. A few simple preparations and some careful planning is all that you really need to be an entertaining superstar. It doesn’t have to be elaborate or exceptionally fancy, it’s the little touches that can make every meal feel like a vacation. This challenge was just another excuse for me to invite the people that I care about most for a delicious homemade meal, and to spend a leisurely evening enjoying each other’s company. Luxury doesn’t have to mean trying to impress people. It means thoughtfully preparing your food, and investing your time and energy into really pampering your friends and family. If they were impressed I hope it was not by the difficulty of the menu, or the cost of the ingredients, but by the fact that it all seemed to come together so effortlessly. More than anything, my goal is always for each of my guests to leave my parties thinking, “Wasn’t that fun!” I know I always do.

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Jamun in Jacob’s Kitchen (Project Food Blog – Challenge 2)

This post is my second entry for Project Food Blog, foodbuzz.com’s quest to find the next food blog star. Click here to see my contestant profile. Voting begins Monday, September 27, 2010. Follow me on twitter, facebook, or through my RSS feed to keep up to date with my progress in the competition. Thank you to everyone who took the time to vote for me in the first round, I appreciate all of your support!

Growing up, our family’s diet was very all American: meat and potatoes. Our meals offered very little in the way of exotic flavors beyond that of our favorite Chinese restaurant. And while as a child I certainly had no complaints, it wasn’t until college, when I was first out on my own, that my palate really began to expand. Living so close to San Francisco, I was able to discover food from all over the world: Thailand, India, Japan, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Peru, and many other places. These were new flavors. Exciting flavors. Flavors that, even to this day, remain some of my very favorite. It was as though up until then, I had been eating my way through a black and white world and suddenly stumbled upon a Technicolor buffet.

Since I genuinely enjoy cooking and baking so much, I find that I very rarely eat at restaurants these days. When I do, I am attracted to those dishes that I don’t venture to create with much frequency in my own kitchen: most often, Sushi, Thai curry, and Indian food. And while I have certainly tried my hand at some delicious homemade curries, rolled my own sushi, and explored North African, Middle Eastern, and Southeast Asian cuisine at home, I have rarely experimented with international desserts. It’s ironic, because as you can no doubt tell by my posts here on Jacob’s Kitchen, desserts are typically what most inspire me. Ina Garten always says that people will often not remember what you served for dinner, but they will always remember what you served for dessert. I agree. And so, challenged to create a dish from another culture, I figured the time had finally come to venture out into the exciting new world of international sweets.

After much deliberation, I decided upon my very favorite Indian dessert, gulab jamun. Which are, if you have never had them, much like Indian doughnut holes, soaked in a rose water and cardamom flavored sugar syrup. The dough is rich, moist and spongy, and it has a deep milky flavor and aroma. The syrup is sweet and fragrant, and together they make for the perfect end to any Indian meal.

I scoured my cook books and the internet and came up with five or six different gulab jamun recipes that were, essentially, all the same. The only difference seemed to be that some called for a pinch of saffron, and some did not. While the saffron does add a beautiful color, since I found myself almost out of it, I decided to exclude it from my recipe. The rose water is a key ingredient, however, that really cannot be omitted. (“Gulab,” after all, being the Hindi word for rose.) Luckily, having made baklava only last month, I had a nice big bottle of it in my pantry.

I began by mixing together the dry ingredients: two cups of non-fat dried milk powder (which you can typically find in the cereal or baking section of your grocery store), one half cup of all purpose flour, one fourth teaspoon baking soda, a half a teaspoon of ground cardamom, and a large pinch of salt.  To that, I added six tablespoons of room temperature butter, and, using my fingers, gently blended the butter into the dry mixture. When it was thoroughly combined, I added half a cup of warm, full fat milk, mixing the dough together with a fork. Once the dough came together and everything was fully moistened, I covered it and set it aside, allowing the dough to rest for ten minutes.

Meanwhile, in a saucepan, I combined two cups of granulated sugar, four cups of water, one half teaspoon ground cardamom, and a splash of rose water. The rose water I purchased isn’t as concentrated as others that I have used in the past. Here I used roughly a fourth of a cup, which is a shocking amount, but you will want to add a few drops incrementally, and decide after sampling if you would like more. In the end, you want the syrup to be fragrant without tasting like perfume. Once the syrup reached a boil, I reduced the heat to low, and allowed the mixture to gently simmer while I tended to the making of the balls.

In a non stick skillet, I added enough canola oil to reach approximately one inch up the side of the pan, and set it over a medium low flame to slowly heat. I removed the rested dough from the bowl and kneaded it by hand for four or five minutes until it was very smooth (the dough should still be very soft and relatively sticky at this point). The dried milk powder absorbs a lot of liquid, so if you find that your dough has become too stiff, that it is cracking, or no longer holding together, don’t be afraid to add an additional splash or two of milk until you reach the desired consistency. Once the dough is very smooth, pinch off portions of dough about the size of a ping pong ball, and roll them in your hands until smooth. All of the recipes I referenced stressed the importance of the balls being very smooth before frying, and I found this step to be particularly troublesome. And while, in the end, I didn’t arrive at perfectly smooth balls, I discovered that dipping each ball halfway into milk, shaking off the excess, and then rolling them more easily facilitated the formation of blemish free balls.

To test the oil, carefully place a small scrap of dough into the pan. If the oil is hot enough, the dough should sink to the bottom, slowly bubble, and rise to the surface in approximately twenty seconds. If it rises much faster than that your oil is too hot; if it takes much longer your oil is too cold. Gently place the formed balls into the heated oil, and fry for six to eight minutes, periodically turning them to ensure evening browning. Don’t rush this step, as you want the balls to be deeply golden brown and fully cooked through. Remove the finished balls from the pan, place them on a paper towel lined baking sheet to absorb any excess oil, and allow the balls to cool to room temperature. Place the cooled balls into the warm syrup (now taken off of the stove) and soak for at least fifteen minutes but for up to four days. Serve the galub jamun warm with a little bit of extra syrup. Optionally, you may also choose to garnish with a sprinkling of finely chopped pistachios, almonds, cashews, or even some toasted coconut.

One of the greatest things about food, which never ceases to amaze me, is its ability to transport you all the way to the other side of the world. All you need is a fork and a healthy sense of adventure. With a few simple new techniques and exotic ingredients, you might find yourself whisked away to Morocco, Paris, or Dubai, exploring the flavors and traditions of Bangkok, Brussels, or Bangladesh, without ever having to leave your kitchen. Little mini meal vacations, with no passport required. I hope the ease of making these simple, but delicious Indian treats has inspired you to pick up a new ingredient or experiment with some new flavors in the kitchen. You don’t have to be intimidated by the idea of having to recreate numerous courses of international cuisine. Start small, test the waters, and soon enough you’ll be cooking your favorite foreign classics like a pro. The most important attribute to have in the kitchen is fearlessness. After all, it’s just food, what’s the very worst that can happen?

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