27 December 2009

Not your ordinary grilled cheese sandwich

Cheese. It's delicious. And with so many lovely varieties available these days, it never ceases to inspire me. Take a tangy gorgonzola, or a creamy goat cheese, or a nutty comte, or a sharp aged cheddar, and a host of savory (and sweet!) culinary options are before you. This past week I've had a huge hunk of Fontina cheese in the house, thanks to a local purveyor of fine cheese (surprised at where I bought it? You should really take a look at the selection there!)

If you've never had Fontina before, let me tell you about it: it's a semi-soft cow's milk cheese and is pale cream in color. Originally made in the Italian alps--specifically in Valle d'Aosta--it is now made in other regions as well. Depending on who made the cheese, its flavor can range from pungent (those alpine Italians) to delicate (most everyone else). The kind I see sold here in Santa Barbara is on the milder end of the flavor spectrum, and it might remind you of a non-smoked Gouda that hasn't been aged for too long.

Inspiration struck today as I was madly rushing around the kitchen, trying to assemble some form of a lunch. I grabbed a couple slices of sourdough bread, slathered on some Dijon mustard, layered slices of the delicious Fontina cheese, sprinkled on some pickles and peppers, and added some warm pastrami. Topped that with the second sourdough slice and plopped the sandwich onto a hot pan. Covered said pan with a lid. Then I waited. And waited. Peeked at the bottom bread. Not quite the toasty golden brown I was wanting. Covered again and waited....ah yes, now that's what I'm talking about. Flipped it over and toasted the other side, then ...plate, slice... Oh wait, I have to show you guys how beauteous it turned out to be:

Mmm, gotta bite into this goey goodness...yummm....

See how nice and melty the Fontina gets? I just love how the sliced pepperoncinis and sweet-and-sour pickles and onions sink into the melted cheese, and then how the Fontina gets all clingy and hangs over the layers of that great pastrami. Cheese and I hit some rocks in our relationship a few years ago, but we've reconciled beautifully lately and I couldn't be happier.

I think you will go nuts for this hot sandwich, and with the chilly weather we're having lately you will love having something warm for your next lunch! And the pickle recipe I'm including below is absolutely fantastic...these tasty homemade pickles are so easy!

Pastrami Sandwich

2 slices sourdough bread
Dijon mustard
1-2 slices Fontina Cheese
1 large pepperoncini, well-drained and minced
3 sweet-and-sour pickles with onions, minced (see recipe below)
2-3 slices lean pastrami

Heat pastrami slices in a non-stick pan over medium heat. Meanwhile, spread a generous amount of Dijon mustard over each slice of sourdough. On one slice layer the Fontina, then the peppers, pickles, and onions. Fold the warm pastrami over, and top with the second slice of bread.

Place sandwich on hot pan and cover, toasting until the bread is nice and golden-brown. Flip sandwich and toast the second side, covered, until cheese is melted.

Sweet-and-Sour Pickles
Adapted from Artisan Restaurant in Paso Robles, CA

Makes about 6 cups

2 1/2 pounds pickling cucumbers, cut crosswise into 1/8-inch-thick slices
1 onion, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons coarse kosher salt
2 cups white vinegar
1 cup sugar
1 2-inch piece fresh ginger, thinly sliced
1/2 teaspoon celery seeds
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/4 teaspoon mustard seeds

Toss first 3 ingredients in large colander. Place in sink and let drain 2 hours. Rinse vegetables; drain. Transfer to kitchen towels. Gentle squeeze vegetables to dry. Place in 8-cup glass measuring cup or large bowl.

Bring vinegar and all remaining ingredients to boil in small saucepan, stirring to dissolve sugar. Reduce heat to medium and simmer 10 minutes. Pour vinegar mixture over pickle mixture, pressing on vegetables to submerge. Cool to room temperature. Cover and chill overnight. Can be made 1 week ahead. Keep pickles chilled.

23 December 2009

Eating healthy during the holidays

The holidays are a fun time for eating, but I sometimes feel like the plethora of sweets and baked goods can become overwhelming. At this moment, there are packages of Christmas cookies, presents of fudge and toffee, and the leftovers of two pies and a turkey dinner lurking in my kitchen. During the holiday season, it is easy to eat too much starchy and sugary food and forget to feed ourselves the veggies and fiber that our bodies need--and crave. When I came across the inspiration for this salad recipe in Bon Appetit (my version here is a bit different from the one in the magazine) I thought it would be a perfect winter salad that could serve as a main course for a veggie-focused lunch or supper. If you are like me, you will relish this healthy salad right about now!

With tons of fresh arugula (packing in isothiocyanate, a natural cancer-fighting chemical), protein- and fiber-rich lentils, and flavorful roasted yam "croutons," this salad will fill you up when you're hungry and leave you feeling fresh, cleansed, and full of energy. After happily munching on this salad for two suppers in one week, I realized this was a recipe to share with you! So here it is, my recipe for arugula salad with lentils, goat cheese, and spice-roasted yam croutons. Hope you all are enjoying a happy and healthy holiday season!

Arugula Salad with Lentils, Goat Cheese, and Spice-Roasted Yam Croutons

Serves 6

3/4 cup green lentils
1/2 large onion, chopped
1 Tbs. red wine vinegar
1 lb. yam, peeled and cut into 3/4-inch cubes
2 Tbs. olive oil
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. paprika
1 tsp. sea salt
6 cups baby arugula
1 cup goat cheese, crumbled
1/4 cup thinly-sliced mint leaves
Favorite salad dressing (such as Bernstein's Restaurant Recipe Italian)

Cover lentils with cold water and soak 10 minutes, drain and rinse. Place in a medium saucepan along with the chopped onion and cook in boiling salted water until tender but firm, 30-60 minutes. Drain and rinse under cold water, then drizzle with red wine vinegar.

Place cubed yam on a large baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil. Mix together cumin, paprika, and sea salt, then sprinkle the spice mix over the yam cubes and toss to coat evenly. Roast at 375°F for about 20 minutes, until tender. Let cool.

Toss baby arugula with salad dressing, salt, and freshly-ground black pepper to taste. Divide arugula among plates and sprinkle with lentils, yams, goat cheese, and mint leaves.

17 December 2009

Dessert for a crowd

When I'm not enjoying the coziness of home or out with friends, I am most likely to be found in the lab, studying the embryonic development of worm intestines. Before anyone of you thinks "worms, yuck!" let me tell you that I work on elegant worms. They're even called C. elegans! Anyway, these worms have been sucking up more than their fair share of my attention of late, and as a result I feel like it's been a while since I've been here sharing with you what's been going on in my kitchen. If it gets quiet around here, let's blame it on the worms, or on writing of papers about worms. I guess all this to say, I've missed you! So I'm slowing down, and getting back to some of the more important things in life.

I really wanted to share this fantastic new recipe with you for Cranberry Crumble Coffee Cake. Just saying the name is kind of fun, isn't it? Roll your rrr's and try saying it again. Crrranberry Crrrumble Coffee Cake. I needed dessert for a crowd one evening a couple weeks ago, and I thought a nice big cake would work well. Then I had a ton of fresh cranberries left over from Thanksgiving (anyone else with me on that?) and this cake evolved from there. It comes out as a nice soft and fluffy cake with a layer of sweet cinnamon-spiced cranberries and a crumbly, crunchy topping of cinnamon walnut streusel. This is great served as dessert or at a holiday brunch, and it would be super cute cupcake-style, baked up in muffin tins! So enough talking about this cake, here's the recipe, so you can get in the kitchen and enjoy it yourself!

Using seasonal cranberries and adding the festive flavors of cinnamon and nuts, Cranberry Crumble cake is perfect for this time of year.

Cranberry Crumble Coffee Cake

Crumble Topping:
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 Tbs. cinnamon
1/2 cup butter, softened

1 cup flour
1 cup walnut pieces

Cranberry Layer:
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 Tbs. cornstarch
2 Tbs. cinnamon
4 cups fresh cranberries

3/4 cup butter, softened
1 1/4 cup sugar
2 eggs
3 cups flour
3 3/4 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
3/4 cup milk

Combine all ingredients for the crumble topping and mix until well blended and crumbly; chill in refrigerator while mixing the rest of the cake.

Rinse and drain the cranberries, allowing some water to remain on the berries (this will help the sugar to stick). Place berries in a large bowl. Mix the brown sugar, cornstarch, and cinnamon in a small bowl, and then sprinkle over the cranberries, tossing to coat well.

For the cake, cream together butter and sugar; beat in the egg. In a separate bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, and salt; add dry ingredients to creamed mixture alternately with milk.

Spread dough in a lightly-oiled 9 x 13 - inch pan. Top with cranberries and then with the crumbly streusel. Bake at 350°F for 45-50 minutes. Let cool 30 minutes, then cut into squares and serve.

12 December 2009

Lebkuchen: a family Christmas tradition

Every Christmas, for as long as I can remember, my family has been supplied with freshly-baked Lebkuchen from the Sommermann Bäckerei in Lippertsgrün, Germany. I loved it when the big boxes, carefully tied with twine, arrived from Germany in early December. The first whiff from the newly-opened box--the fragrance of spices and smells from the homeland--was a treat in itself. My Opa and Oma tucked those boxes full of Christmas specialties from their bakery: traditional Bavarian Christmas cookies, chocolate, Lebkuchen, and sometimes even a Quarkstollen, all made by hand.
So what is Lebkuchen? Well, in its very basic form, it can be likened to gingerbread. Have you ever seen heart-shaped gingerbreads decorated with hard icing for sale in the outdoor markets of Germany? Well that is one kind of Lebkuchen. This same kind of gingerbread is used in making Hexenhäuse (witch houses), the original gingerbread houses based the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel. (How did the gingerbread house become so innocuous here in America?)

But that is just the basic form. The only kind of Lebkuchen I'm willing to call Lebkuchen is made of chopped nuts, candied citrus peel, spices, and minimal amounts of flour and spread over a base of oblaten. Oblaten are akin to communion wafers. In fact, the monks who developed the earliest Oblaten Lebkuchen recipes used actual communion wafers to keep the cookies from sticking to the baking sheets!

Lebkuchen were first made in the Middle Ages by monks living in Franken, a northern Bavarian district in and around the city of Nürnberg (a.k.a. Nuremberg, in American). The meaning of Lebkuchen is uncertain. "Kuchen" means "cake," but the "Leb" part of the word could be translated a number of ways. Laib = body, Labla = dialect for bread, Leben = life... I guess the name could be considered a fusion of words that all have a spiritual connotation, which is in keeping with its origin in monastic bakeries.

In 1808, the Lebkuchen bakers' guild gave the name "Elisen Lebkuchen" to the highest quality variety of lebkuchen and established regulations regarding what may be called an Elisen Lebkuchen. An excerpt from the German Fine Pastries Guidelines (Deutsches Lebensmittelbuch III. 3.c.aa)
  • finest Oblaten-Lebkuchen = Elisen-Lebkuchen
  • The dough contains at least 25% almonds and/or hazelnuts and/or walnuts.
  • Other oilseeds are not used.
  • The dough contains not more than 10% grain flour
There is also strict protection of the appellation; to be called "Nürnberger Lebkuchen," the Lebkuchen must be manufactured within the city boundaries.

My grandfather was, and since his passing my uncle now is, Der Bäcker aus dem Frankenwald. (In English, "the baker of the Franconian Forest.") The Frankenwald, a forest now predominantly composed of fir trees, is the forest of fairy tales, and the things my relatives have been baking are the stuff of dreams. Years ago, an old lady from Nürnberg gifted a recipe for Elisen Lebkuchen to my grandfather while he was still an apprentice. Over the years, he and my uncle have refined the recipe, adding a little of this and adjusting a little of that to make the most exquisite Elisen Lebkuchen ever. The recipe is a family secret, which only the master baker knows. Believe me, I don't know it, so I can't share it with you! What I do know is the general ingredients list, as stated on the packaging: "sugar, fresh eggs, hazelnuts, almonds, marzipan, fine flour, selected dried fruits, noble spices, lemon, salt of hartshorn, and melted chocolate."

Today, the Elisen Lebkuchen in the Sommermann Bakery are finished off in one of two ways. Some, as pictured here, are covered by a thin layer of bittersweet chocolate; others are hand-decorated with three almond halves and brushed with a thin sugar glaze. My Opa used to put extra almonds on top the sugar-glazed Lebkuchen he sent us, and he used to arrange some of them to spell out the initials of his grandchildren. I was always so excited to discover a Lebkuchen with a big "E" on it as we went through our canisters. Then there'd be an "A" for my sister and a "D" for my brother. I knew that far away in Germany, he was thinking of us out here in California. These Lebkuchen, tasty as they are, represent far more than just something yummy to nibble on this time of year. They remind me of my family's heritage, the history of my people, and the love my grandparents have always shown me. So for me, it is never Christmas without these Lebkuchen, a taste of the homeland.

02 December 2009

Mountain of pie

This pie, I think, is the best homemade apple pie I've made yet! What is it that makes it so good? For one, I used a sweet pie crust recipe instead of my usual pate brisee. For another, I used an abundance of great apples (mostly Pippins, with a couple of Galas thrown in), mounding them into my pie shell to make a mountain of pie. Mmm. Mountain of pie. The crust came out nice and flaky, with a little extra crunch of raw sugar sprinkled on top. The apple slices were soft, yielding a luscious syrup spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg, and finely grated lemon zest.

Every Thanksgiving, my family expects a trio of pies (apple, pumpkin, and pecan) to be served after the main meal. This year, I think I shocked them by serving only pumpkin creme brulees and that Ruby Red Pecan Pie I wrote about before. Feeling a little guilty for not indulging them in accordance to tradition, I pulled out all the stops in whipping up this pie a couple days later. Ooohs and ahhhs came pouring forth when my family saw this beauteous pie fresh from the oven. My pie-guilt has been dispelled! Next time you want to please your loved ones, I recommend making this pie of impressive stature and taste.

Best-ever Apple Pie
Adapted from a Bon Appetit recipe

3 cups all purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) butter, cut into 1/2" cubes, chilled
6 tablespoons (or more) ice water

2 1/2 pounds assorted apples (such as Pippin and Gala), peeled, quartered, cored, cut into 1/2-inch-thick wedges
1/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons corn starch
1 1/2 teaspoons (packed) finely grated lemon peel
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg or ground nutmeg
1 1/2 tablespoons flour

Milk (for glaze)
1 tablespoon raw sugar*

For crust:

Blend flour, sugar, and salt in a food processor. Add butter; cut in using on/off turns until mixture resembles coarse meal. Add 6 tablespoons ice water and blend just until moist clumps form, adding more ice water by teaspoonfuls if dough is dry. Gather dough into ball. Divide dough in half. Flatten each half into disk. Wrap in plastic and chill at least 3 hours. Soften dough 15 minutes at room temperature before rolling out.

Roll out 1 dough disk on its plastic wrap to 12- to 13-inch round, dusting top with flour as needed to prevent sticking to the rolling pin. Transfer dough to a 9-inch pie dish and press dough onto bottom and up sides of dish, allowing overhang to extend over sides. Roll out second dough disk on its plastic wrap to 12- to 13-inch round; transfer dough to baking sheet. Refrigerate both crusts while preparing filling.

For filling:

Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 425°F. In a small bowl, combine sugar, cornstarch, salt, spices, and lemon peel and mix thoroughly. Combine apple slices and sugar mixture in a large bowl and toss gently to coat all slices thoroughly with the sugar mixture. Let stand at room temperature until some juices form, tossing occasionally, about 15 minutes.

Place crust-lined pie dish on rimmed baking sheet. Sprinkle flour over bottom of crust. Transfer apple filling to crust, mounding filling slightly in center. Brush crust edges lightly with water. Using a small sharp knife or shaped cutters, cut out a steam vent at the center of the second dough round. Invert dough round atop filling; carefully peel off the plastic wrap. Trim dough overhang on both crusts to 1/2 inch. Press crust edges together, then fold under. Using fingers, create decorative fluting around the edge of the pie. Brush top crust lightly with milk, then sprinkle with raw sugar.

Bake pie 15 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 375°F and continue to bake pie until crust is golden, apples are tender when pierced, and juices are bubbling thickly, covering crust edges with foil collar if crust is browning too quickly, about 1 hour longer. Transfer pie to rack and cool to lukewarm or room temperature.