Try, Try Again

Have you ever had one of those weeks where it seems as though your kitchen is somehow telling you to give up and try again next week? Well, that’s the kind of week I’ve just had!  Perhaps my mind was still caught up in the fun of the previous weekend at my nephews wedding (congrats again to the new bride and groom!), or maybe I was stuck in daydreaming mode about trips to the beach and other fun summertime adventures.

Whatever it was, the wedding or the daydreaming, no matter what I touched this week in the kitchen, it didn’t seem to come out quite right.  My attempts weren’t outright disasters, but they certainly weren’t exactly where I wanted them to be either. As such, my blog entry this week took a different turn – the one where I still talk about what I’ve done in an effort to keep it real!

The week started out with good intentions as I eyed the nice-looking produce we had purchased, especially the peaches, nectarines, and blueberries. As I contemplated what to do with them, my thoughts turned toward ideas for the blog this week. The first idea that came to mind was grilling the nectarines and combining them with some blueberries to use as a filling for lemon crepes. I could almost taste the summery dessert idea in my mind before trying it out!

My idea was to create a shortcut crepe using pancake mix. I’ve seen other crepe recipes using pancake flour before, so I sat down to write out a recipe idea. When it came time to test cook the crepes, I ran into nothing but problems with them sticking to the pan, no matter what I tried. Clearly my mixture and recipe idea were not going to work well.  They tasted perfectly fine, but you can’t very well make a filled crepe with something that comes out looking like a narrow and flat rectangle! After a few attempts, I decided to table the idea for another time.

I took a break for the rest of the day while I mulled things over in an effort to get back in the kitchen the next day.  As I thought about new possible ideas, my mind again turned toward grilled fruit – this time, peaches. The idea for a grilled Peach pudding was then born. Part of my idea included blending the grilled Peaches into the milk so they would be smooth and all of the peach flavor would be infused into the pudding.

The idea worked pretty well and it was very flavorful, but when my wife and I were taste testing it, we both felt that something wasn’t quite right. We agreed that the problem was that the pudding hadn’t thickened properly. It wasn’t super thin, but it wasn’t quite as solid as a pudding should be either. Despite the very good flavor, I didn’t feel good enough about sharing the recipe yet.

Until we meet again grilled peach pudding….

I have been contemplating where I may have gone wrong, and my one thought is that despite blending the milk and the peaches together very well in the blender, there were still very fine bits of fruit fiber present. This led to not only a bit of gritty texture, but I also believe it was the main cause in preventing the pudding from setting fully as it should have.  Once again, I decided to table my idea and try it again in the future, with the added step of straining the liquid mixture through cheesecloth in order to filter out the remaining fruit fiber.

With 2 failed attempts under my belt, and the week drawing to a rapid close, I was left with nothing more than a story to share with you! That’s OK though. As I’ve always said, I feel it is important to share not only my successes on this journey, but also my failures – or in this case, my moments of mediocrity! Until next time, have a great weekend!

When to Leave Well Enough Alone

Ironically, I hadn’t read Ray’s response to the weekly Q&A until this morning. Why is it ironic? Because the very thing I was working on for this week’s blog post was that same potato salad that Ray told me was one of his favorite dishes made by his mother, Tina.

Shortly after getting engaged, Tom and I were invited to his parents house for lunch. I don’t remember everything we ate that day, but two things stood out. One was some delicious grilled vegetables that Ray had helped to make. The other was his mom’s potato salad. I love potato salad and had eaten it many times over the years in many variations, but had never had any quite like hers. Her potato salad did not contain any onions (Tom despises raw onion), and instead of the predictable cubed pickles, hers contained fresh cucumbers. To add another unique touch, her potato salad featured celery seeds, which I really love and had never had in a potato salad before.

The potato salad that I have traditionally made is a typical southern style that uses mustard, those predictable cubed pickles and Vidalia onions. It has always been expected and enjoyed at gatherings of friends and family, but after marrying Tom, who you’ll remember (because I just told you) hates raw onions, that would mean that I would need to learn to make his mother’s potato salad. It would also mean that on every occasion that called for potato salad, I would be making two. After experimenting and a little coaching from Tina, I eventually got pretty good at reproducing her potato salad, at least good enough to make Tom very happy. It was also amusing to watch Tom as friends and family were given explanations about what this new second potato salad was. Most would look at it quizically, decide to take a small sample to taste, and inevitably return for a larger serving. Each time this happened, Tom became visibly tense, afterall, these people were eating the potato salad meant for him.

The one shortcoming of this potato salad is that with the addition of fresh cucumbers, it doesn’t hold well. If the potato salad is refrigerated overnight, the cucumbers will weep and the salad becomes soggy. So, this week I thought I’d solve that problem by salting the cucumbers ahead of time and sharing this recipe with the world. In my imagination I would solve the weeping cucumber situation and sit back and bask in glory of my achievement, but when does anything turn out like that? The reality is that what I produced was very substandard. Although I rinsed and patted dry the salted cucumbers, they were still quite salty and in the end, threw off the entire balance of the dish. In my opinion, what I produced was not good at all, but Tom disagreed with me. He said, “It doesn’t taste bad, but it is now a completely different dish.”

I held off writing my blog until today in the hopes that after an overnight stay in the refrigerator, by the magic of osmosis, the salad would taste better. I’m happy to report that the cucumbers did not weep, and the salad was not soggy. The taste, however? Still not good. So, my efforts to reinvent the wheel were unsuccessful. My confidence has been shaken, but as usual I now feel the need to prove myself. I will abandon the whole salted cucumber approach, and leave well enough alone so stay tuned to this channel for in a couple of weeks, I will have remastered Tina’s pototo salad to share with the world.

Book Recommendation – Carpathia: Food From the Heart of Romania

This month of February, I’ve spent a lot of time in the kitchen. Most of that time has been spent exploring a new cookbook – Carpathia: Food From the Heart of Romania by Irina Georgescu. This book was selected as the February challenge for the Rainydaybites Cookbook Club hosted by Deborah Balint. To be entirely honest, I resisted at first. Did I have space for another cookbook? Not really. Have I actually spent the amount of time I wanted with my newest cookbooks? Not even close. Did I have time? Well, yes. Was the book club fun? Of course. But still, I was thinking of taking a short break from the club. Then something happened… Deborah published the first challenge. It was anything from the “Breads and street-food bakes” chapter. She posted pictures of some of the choices, and that was it. I was putty in her hands. I was seduced, and it was so easy for her. Bread week was my weakness, and she had exploited that weakness. So, I quickly got on Amazon and ordered the book. Nearly a month later, I’m so glad I did.

The very next day I received the book which is absolutely beautiful. It is full of beautiful pictures of not only the food, but of Romania itself. The author grew up in communist Romania and shares her story and her love of her culture with the rest of us. Not only do we get wonderful recipes, but we also get a glimpse into the heritage of Romanian cuisine.

A few days later, Deborah hosted a live stream with author Irina. She demonstrated how to shape a Colac, which is a braided celebratory bread worthy of winning any episode of The Great British Baking Show. Irene talked about her life growing up in Romania, and Romanian traditions. She was warm and enthusiastic, which only served to enhance my enthusiasm for the challenge.

The first thing I made from the book was a cheesy polenta with sour cream and runny fried egg – a full Romanian breakfast. It was absolutely delicious. It reminded me of a breakfast bowl I’ve eaten many times at a trendy local restaurant serving southern cuisine which features goat cheese grits, but in this case I was at home, still in my pajamas, which made it all the more wonderful.

A Full Romanian Breakfast

When bread week came, I couldn’t choose only one thing for the challenge. I settled for three. I made Covrigi, which is a little bread that lies somewhere between a pretzel and a bagel. These little beauties were fun to shape, and Tom suggested that we use everything bagel seasoning on some of them instead of the traditional poppy seed, which was a good call. I also made “Salties” which are cheesy breadsticks topped with salt and caraway seeds and are the perfect marriage to a nice cold beer. Lastly, I made Scovergi, which is a yogurt and cheese flatbread that Irena calls “Romanian popcorn”. This is by far the best damned “popcorn” I’ve ever eaten! I caution you though, these are downright addictive.

Romanian Popcorn

So far, I’ve made two of the main courses in the book. Ostropel de Oltenia is chicken in garlic tomato sauce with polenta dumplings. What struck me about this dish was just how much flavor it packed considering its limited amount of ingredients. A couple of nights ago I made an oven-baked pearl barley pilaf with chicken and mushrooms, which was so good it prompted me to go ahead and write this post now even though I have many, many things I still want to make from this book.

One piece of advice I would give when cooking from the book is to pay attention to what type of polenta you are using. There are several recipes featuring polenta as it is used a great deal in Romanian cooking. I used a coarse longer cooking polenta, but with at least one of the recipes, I think I would have been more successful using a quick cooking polenta.

Oven Bake Pearl Barleu Pilaf with Chicken and Mushrooms

All in all I would highly recommend this book to anyone. It is the ultimate in comfort cooking. Don’t resist like I did. Just get it.

Adventures In Coconut Flour

There are many things that I love about writing this blog. The sense of excitement that came from starting a new adventure after saying goodbye to my former longtime career, the satisfaction that came from finally doing something I had long dreamed about and recently, a new one that I had never even thought about before.

I began to realize just how much writing a food blog opens your mind to trying new ingredients. I think in general I do have a fairly good sense of adventure when it comes to trying new things, but there are many ingredients that have truly never crossed my mind before. When one of your main focuses becomes your blog and the topic is food, it happens organically quite often. Sometimes it happens because I seek out new things to try and on occasion, thanks to my wife Lori, a new ingredient just falls into my lap!

Ever since Karen and I started this blog, Lori has enjoyed shopping for random ingredients to stock in the house. She has told me that she likes seeing what they will magically turn into. It started last winter and continued this one with various vegetables that I found myself roasting and turning into soups to share on our lunch breaks – perfect for the cold winter days.

She doesn’t always just present me with veggies though, sometimes an ingredient I have never even thought about will appear. Last weekend after our grocery order was delivered and we finished unpacking and putting everything away, I sat back down to finish my morning coffee. As I grabbed my cup to take a sip, she placed a bag of coconut flour on the counter in front of me and smiled and walked away. I think she enjoys sitting back and watching me in the moments that follow because she knows more often than not the item she placed before me will get stuck in my head, much like a song can get stuck in there!

I took a few more sips of my coffee as I stared at that bag and I didn’t disappoint her as the show began! Two minutes later my phone was in my hand and I was reading about it. I learned about suggested amounts to use in place of regular flour, about how it absorbs a great deal of moisture so you need to add enough liquid to prevent what you’re making from getting dry and how depending on what you are making, some coconut flavor can come through in what you make.

With that bit of information in my head, I began to think about what I should make for my first time using coconut flour. It would need to be something that I didn’t think would end up being dry when done, while at the same time tasting okay if some coconut flavor did come through. Almost immediately I thought “brownies!”

Not too long ago in our most recent round of Angie’s Kitchen, we made brownies. I joked at the end of round 2 that I liked my changes to the original recipe, but there were other things I would also like to try and that perhaps it was time for brownies 3.0. I didn’t expect that I would be working on a 3.0 recipe idea so soon after that, nor did I even remotely think that using coconut flour would be one of the changes I made, but nevertheless, here we are!

I decided to work with my 2.0 recipe and tweak it just a bit. I lowered the amount of butter back to 4 tablespoons as it was in my grandmother’s original recipe, but I kept the extra egg for moisture. In our Angie’s kitchen post we also spoke about baking powder and how some brownie recipes use it and some don’t. Grandma’s recipe didn’t use it and I kept it that way in my 2.0 update. For this recipe, not knowing how coconut flour would act with no leavening agent, I opted to add a small amount. Finally, of course, the regular flour was swapped with coconut flour.

After I mixed up the batter, I found it to be a bit dense. That didn’t totally concern me as that is not unusual with brownie batter, but to err on the side of caution I went ahead and added a touch of extra moisture with a bit of oil. I decided at that point that it was time to bake them up and see what happened and off they went into the oven, less than 90 minutes after Lori put the bag of flour in front of me!

Brownies 3.0 – aka Coconut Flour Brownies

After cooling and cutting them, it was time to dive in and have a taste. You never know what you will end up with when you try something new, but this one was a pleasant surprise. Everyone in the family loved them – they were moist and chewy and the brownie flavor came through perfectly.

My wife and son both said they tasted just like a regular brownie and they didn’t really taste the coconut. I agreed that the taste was very much like a brownie, but for me, there was a bit of coconut flavor that came through. I like coconut, so I didn’t mind it and chocolate pairs well with coconut which was in part what influenced my decision to try brownies first.

Later that night, I still had coconut flour on my mind and I started to think about how that flavor also pairs nicely with almond. I remembered a delicious coconut almond macaroon that we used to get a long time ago in college when we used to go to Atlantic City. I wondered if I could create a cookie that was similar in flavor to those macaroons by using the coconut flour, pulverized almonds and some almond extract. The next morning I was back in the kitchen writing out a recipe to test and mixing up the dough. It smelled very much like it would have the flavor I was hoping for, but you never really know until the taste test. I rolled up the cookies and into the oven they went.

Coconut Almond Cookies

For my brownies, I think a combination of wise ingredient choices contributed to their success along with perhaps a touch of beginners luck. For my second attempt, the coconut almond cookies, it appeared as if that beginners luck had run out! I wouldn’t necessarily say that my ingredient choices were bad, but rather that the amount of each ingredient used did not add up to a great success.

I was hoping they would flatten out more during baking, but they retained the ball shape. That certainly is not the worst thing though, many cookies remain that way after they are done baking. While I would still like to change that, the bigger issues with the cookie were with texture and flavor.

The almond flavor was there, but it felt a bit like it was hiding just under the surface waiting to fully come out. When I create a new recipe idea, I am generally of the mind that less is more. Why dump in a half a cup of sugar, when a third will do? Sometimes that gamble pays off, and other times it doesn’t. In this case, using less sugar resulted in a cookie that just plain wasn’t sweet enough, and I think that lack of sweetness is what also caused the full almond flavor to not come through.

The other big issue I had with the cookie was the lack of moisture. From my research I knew that this can be an issue when using coconut flour and while I successfully hit the nail on the head in that area with the brownies, I fell short with the cookies. They weren’t completely dry, but they were dry enough to make the eating experience somewhat unpleasant. I’ve mentioned in past entries that when I create a new recipe, I generally rate it in one of three ways:

  1. An instant keeper!
  2. Try, try again – it didn’t hit the mark, but there is good potential there.
  3. Throw away this recipe idea and never speak of it again!

I rate these cookies a 2 – there is definitely potential there. One day they will hopefully make a triumphant return to blog. In the meantime, I am happy to share the brownie recipe with you today. While a rating of 1 is often a little more elusive than a rating of 2, I am happy to say that I would rate them a 1.

Brownies 3.0 – Coconut Flour Brownies

  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 2 ounces 72% dark chocolate
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 eggs, slightly beaten
  • 2 teaspoons oil
  • 1/2 cup coconut flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking powder

Slowly melt together the butter and chocolate in the microwave until smooth and just melted. I like to use the defrost setting in 30 to 60 second increments for melting butter and chocolate. I feel like it gives you more control in getting there slowly without making the mixture too hot for adding the eggs.

Stir the sugar, vanilla, eggs and oil into the melted butter and chocolate mixture until well combined, then add in the coconut flour and baking powder and stir until the dry ingredients are just moistened well.

While the mixture sits for a few minutes to allow the coconut flour to begin to absorb some of the moisture, grease a 7 inch square pan. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and spread it out evenly. Bake in a preheated 325 degree oven for 25 to 27 minutes, allow to cool and then cut into 16 squares and serve.

If you have worked with coconut flour before, I would love to hear about some of your experiences or tips you have found helpful when using it. Also, if you try the brownie recipe, please let me know what you think. Until next time, I hope you have a great weekend!

Ciabatta On A Snowy Day

In this week’s Q&A Karen asked me if I had any goal cooking projects this year, and the immediate thought that came to mind was making ciabatta. I have made several kinds of bread, but ciabatta is a favorite of mine and I have always wanted to try making it. I didn’t necessarily expect to achieve that goal so early in the year!

As they say, sometimes the perfect storm comes together and in this case it was literal! We were under a snow warning for last weekend and ahead of the storm they upgraded it to a blizzard warning. Ciabatta takes quite a bit of time to make as it calls for a starter and since it appeared as if we’d be locked inside for a day or two, I thought it would be the perfect time to give it a try!

There are many recipes for ciabatta out there, but I had been eyeing this one for Rustic Italian Ciabatta from King Arthur Baking company for quite awhile as the process seemed a bit more simplified and easier to follow than other recipes I had seen in the past.

The type of starter used in ciabatta is called biga which is a fairly wet, but simple mix of flour, water and a little yeast. The biga requires a long and slow rise over a 12 to 16 hour period in order to fully develop. I mentioned in my Q&A answer that I did try once many years ago to make ciabatta. That one and only attempt ended in failure as I awoke to find that my yeast was clearly too old, which resulted in my biga being an unrisen soupy mess! That’s all it takes to bring an attempt at making this bread to an abrupt end!

I started my biga at 7 pm (right when the blizzard warning kicked in) so it would be ready early the next day for me to start the second part of the dough – or at least I was hoping that would be the case! Surely the same thing wouldn’t happen again after all of these years of walking away from my first attempt, right? I’m happy to report the answer is no! I woke to wild snow whipping around with about 8 inches already on the ground and also to a biga that had risen and was light and bubbly, as it should be!

With the fear of another possible failed attempt behind me, I was ready to move on to the next part of the process. The main dough is very similar to the biga, with the addition of salt and a larger amount of yeast, and of course, the biga! The dough came together very nicely with the use of the dough hook on our mixer.

After two rises, the dough was ready to be formed into loaves. I was most concerned about that part of the process because ciabatta dough is very hydrated and I had not worked with such a wet and sticky dough before. I followed the simple instructions carefully and was surprised at how quickly and easily they came together. The gallery below shows the journey from fully risen dough to fully risen, oven ready loaves.

It was time to bake the loaves. The recipe calls for them to be baked in a steamy environment which helps promote the best rise and crust. You can achieve this to some degree by simply spritzing the dough with water, but for the best results they recommend a full steam environment. This requires placing some type of pan in the oven while it preheats and then when placing the bread in the oven, pouring boiling water into the hot pan and quickly closing the door to trap the steam.

This was another first for me, but I know that Karen spent quite a bit of time last year elevating her bread making skills into something of an art form, so I reached out to her for a bit of advice. King Arthur recommended using a cast iron frying pan for the steam bath, but I only have enameled cast iron Dutch ovens and they wouldn’t work for what I needed to do.

Karen told me that the bottom of a broiler pan would do the trick and she also warned me to use something with a long spout when adding the water because the initial burst of steam is pretty dramatic. She wasn’t kidding – thanks to her warning, I successfully added the water without getting burned from the steam!

The bread was delicious – crusty on the outside and chewy inside. It reminded me very much of a ciabatta that my mother and I used to pick up from a local bakery back when I was in college. They only made it on the weekends because of the amount of time it took to make. We would sit in the kitchen, talk, have coffee and eat way too much of it!

I no longer live close to that bakery, and unfortunately my mom has been gone for almost 16 years now. I still miss those simple moments of visiting with her over a cup of coffee and a slice (or two, or three, or four….) of that delicious ciabatta. I am always so thankful for the many happy memories that came from those days – they bring a smile to my face and a bit of extra warmth to my home when I share them with my wife and son.

The bread is long gone and the snow is melting, but the sense of accomplishment lives on and now I know that making ciabatta is not an unrealistic or impossible task. It’s only the start of February – I’d better start contemplating a new cooking goal for the year! Until next time, I hope you all have a great weekend!