Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A Treat for My Valentine: Pan de Polvo Pancakes

I feel so fortunate to have grown up in such a culturally rich part of the country; the biggest by product of this being the wonderful food that I grew up eating.  Chicken fried steak, enchiladas, tacos, kolaches and great barbeque were so abundant that I took them for granted as a kid.

It was not until I got a little older that I started to realize that food being great was not a given, even in Texas.  Then as I started to pay for it myself I realized that there were people who couldn’t or wouldn’t cook well and would gladly take your money for it with no apologies.  What a disappointment that was.  It was about this point that I began to really miss and appreciate the wonderful home cooking that I had been eating my entire life. 

Thankfully it wasn't long before I realized I wasn't the only one that felt this way about simple, down home food.  I even worked for a caterer who encouraged his cooks to make their pies and breads far less than perfect to send a message to diners that everything they were eating was lovingly made by human hands.  He was a real challenge to work for, but the man knew what people wanted.

One of the things that was ever present on the tables at his catering events were a selection of little homemade heart shaped bite size cookies and chocolates.  Usually the first things to go were the cookies known as pan de polvo or Mexican wedding cookies.  I have also seen cookies very similar in other cultures with names like Sandies and Danish wedding cookies.  Whatever you want to call them they are good. 

With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, I thought that maybe I would start planning what I would treat my Valentine with this year.  I did consider making some of these little cookies but I really want to do something unexpected this year.  That’s when I had a brainstorm.  I decided to make pancakes for my boys with the cinnamon and anise flavors of pan de polvo. 
Don’t be put off because Valentine’s Day is on a weekday this year.  This recipe is perfect for a quick breakfast since you can prepare the wet and dry ingredients the night before and store them separately, combining them just before cooking the next morning.   Besides, the longer the milk tea steeps the more flavorful the pancakes.

Pan de Polvo Pancakes

This recipe starts out by making a "tea" with the milk and spices.  If you are making this ahead, make the first step and let the tea steep covered in the refrigerator overnight for a stronger flavor or remove the spices before refrigerating for a milder flavor.

1 ½ cups milk
2 – 2” cinnamon sticks
2 star anise
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 egg, beaten
½ teaspoon vanilla extract (Mexican vanilla is my favorite)
1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 tablespoon sugar
½ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 ounces chopped pecans, toasted (optional)

Place the milk, cinnamon sticks and star anise in a small sauce pan over medium heat.  Bring to a simmer and cook for 5 minutes.  Remove from the heat and let steep until the milk is completely cool.  Remove the cinnamon and star anise.  Add the oil, egg and vanilla, stir well; set aside until ready to use.

In a medium size bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt.  While stirring constantly, slowly add enough of the milk “tea” to form a mixture that resembles thick paint.

Heat a non-stick pan over medium high heat.  Wipe pan with an oil soaked paper towel.  When the pan is hot pour enough of the batter to form a 4” pancake.   While watching closely, cook pancakes until bubbles form and begin to pop on the surface of the pancake (approximately 2 minutes).  Swiftly and carefully flip pancakes over to cook the other side for approximately 1 – 2 minutes or until they are golden brown. Transfer to serving plates.

Combine powdered sugar and ground cinnamon in a small bowl.  Transfer to a small screen strainer or shaker and sprinkle over pancakes.  Top with equal amounts of the toasted pecans.  Serve immediately.

*If pancakes are too brown or start to burn before bubbles start to pop, reduce heat in small increments until a golden brown color is reached. 

Serve with warm maple syrup.

Makes 12 – 4” pancakes.

I'm entering this in a Valentine recipe contest over at Very Good Recipes.  If you'd like to enter or take a look at who wins, just visit click on this link http://verygoodrecipes.com/be-my-valentine-challenge.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

An English Chip Shop Favorite: Mushy Peas

I often extol the virtues of English food in an attempt to counteract the bad reputation that it has earned over time.  Oh sure, just like any country’s cuisine, some of England’s unsavory food reputation has been well deserved, but let us not forget that we have Slim Jims and Spam ourselves.

As you can tell from reading my blog I am a real lover of unassuming, plain old simple cooking.  In England this spans the gamut from toad in the hole to bread and butter pudding.  Somewhere in between are some of my favorites, steak and ale pie, sticky toffee pudding and fish and chips.

Most every little village in the UK has their own jewel in the crown, the local fish and chip shop.  In addition to great fried fish, there are usually a few sides available here as well, most notably big chunky chips, and very often mushy peas and baked beans.  While baked beans are a big favorite a lot of times, it’s the mushy peas I really love with my fish and chips.  
In the UK mushy peas are most often prepared with marrowfat peas.  Marrowfat peas are peas that are allowed to mature and dry in the field instead of being harvested in their youth like garden peas.   You may recognize them as the peas used to make wasabi peas.  I found these giant super plump peas (sans wasabi coating) impossible to find here in the Denver area, so I set about replicating them with what I could find. 

I started out my hunt for the perfect American mushy pea recipe with frozen peas.  I cooked them per the package instructions, leaving a bit of the cooking liquid in the pan to add some additional moisture to my recipe.  I mashed them and whipped them around a bit and what I landed up with was pretty good, but it missed the mark.
Next I tried soaking and cooking dried peas.  I must admit from the start here that I found my plain old dried peas (not split peas which taste ok, but get too mushy) at my favorite rainy day hang out, my local Asian market.  You might have to do a little hunting to seek even these out, but it is worth the trouble if you are looking for great stateside mushy peas.

Dried Whole Green Peas

I soaked my peas overnight (or at least 8 hours) and then cooked them for close to 3 hours to get the right tenderness.  I removed the transparent skins that cooked to the top and then mashed them just a tad as they were already starting to breakdown.  I was so proud of myself for not spooning in a bunch of seasonings as I did have some fresh bacon drippings sitting right next to the pot.  I had to remind myself that it was simplicity I was after here not a spice rack full of ingredients.
The end result was the closest thing to English chip shop mushy peas on this side of the Atlantic.  Although time consuming, this was really a simple recipe. So if you love mushy peas as much as I do, or if you’d like to try something new, give this super simple recipe a try.

Mushy Peas
1 cup dried whole green peas
6 – 7 cups water, divided
1 to 1-1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
Black pepper to taste
Fresh lemon juice (optional)

Sort through the peas, place in a large sauce pan and cover with 3 cups of water.  Soak peas in water overnight or at least 8 hours.
Drain peas and cover with enough of the remaining water to cover by an inch or so.  Add salt to the peas and water and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat to a slow boil, cover with a tight fitting lid and cook until peas are soft, approximately 2 – 3 hours. 
Remove the cover and stir well.  Mash the peas until about 50% of them are mashed.  Continue cooking to reduce the amount of liquid until the peas have the consistency of loose refried beans.  Add pepper and just a squeeze of lemon juice if desired to brighten the flavor.  Serve immediately.
Serves 4,  or in our case 2

*Some recipes call for baking soda to be added to the cooking water to help speed up the breakdown of the peas.  I've also read that some think it cuts down on the gassiness of the peas.  I can't verify either of these theories as once I read it breaks down the beneficial thiamine (Vitamin B1) in the peas I just left it out.  I'll leave this experiment up to you.

Mushy Peas

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Abby Dodge's Bake Together Peasant Boule and My Italian Inspired Pull Apart Bread Variation

When I first joined in the monthly Bake Together I knew that Abby Dodge’s name rang a bell but I couldn’t put my finger on the exact reason.   I knew that she has contributed to many cookbooks and magazines but it was something more than that.  It gnawed at me and took me awhile to pin point it, but I finally realized that I have been cooking with her for quite some time now without even realizing it.

About 12 years back I was going through a pretty rough time.   We had recently moved back from the UK and were just getting settled back into our lives with my family when my father was diagnosed with cancer.  I was devastated to say the least.  My stepmother, sister and I jumped in and banded together to accompany him to his treatments and doctors’ appointments.  This included many long days driving back and forth to Houston and winding our way through M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

It seemed like I was always on the road which left my husband and children at home keeping things running on their own.  At first I would come home feeling proactive and optimistic about his treatment and their results, and would cheerfully throw something together for supper or bring home something fun from Houston.

Sadly, as the months passed it became obvious that he was going to lose his battle and preparing meals became a chore instead of something I enjoyed doing for my family.   Those were dark, sad days and putting on a happy face, much less being creative in the kitchen, became all but impossible.
As in all good families when one member weakens the others take up the slack, so my husband and children took over cooking for me and began making our meals from a children's cookbook that my daughter and I had purchased a few months earlier.  Even on the saddest of days I couldn’t help but be uplifted by the pride on my children’s faces knowing that they had done something nice for me.  These simple little meals and the delight that preparing them gave my children saved many days for us.

The little cookbook they cooked from was The Kid’s Cookbook written by Abby Dodge for Williams Sonoma.  Even though my husband and children made many recipes from this book, without a doubt our favorites were Abby’s smashed potatoes and couscous salad which we still make to this day.  So, here I find myself all these years later cooking with Abby again.  Thank goodness it is now under much better circumstances. 

This month’s #baketogether features a recipe for a peasant boule.  As usual Abby encourages the participants to put their own twist on her recipe.  I changed this recipe up by adding some herbs and Parmesan and using a method that I have seen many other bloggers use lately and made mine a pull apart bread.  The bread is delicious and the shape turned out fun and easy to eat.  Thanks for another great recipe Abby, and I just have to say that even though I have known your work for years, it is really nice to finally meet you.

For Abby's original recipe, please click here.

My twist on Abby's peasant boule is an Italian style buttery, cheesy, herbed pull apart bread.  To achieve my results, just follow my easy variation as follows:  

Prepare the original recipe as directed up to the point of the first rising.

After the first rising, punch dough down and roll out on a lightly floured surface to an approximate 16" x 16" square.  First I melted 3 tablespoons of salted butter and spread it evenly over the top of the dough.  I then sprinkled mine with about 4 tablespoons of grated Parmesan cheese and 2 - 1/2 teaspoons of my favorite Italian seasoning. Gently press in the cheese and herbs with a quick rolling of the rolling pin.

With a pizza cutter, cut the dough in six equal size strips.  Stack the strips one on top of the other and cut in 6 equal portions in the opposite direction making 36 squares.

Place the squares end to end in a greased loaf pan and let it rise for an additional 20 - 30 minutes.  I used a standard 9" loaf pan shown here.  I do wish my loaf pan would have been a bit bigger or I would have had 2 smaller pans in which to divide the dough.  Even though mine turned out just great, I imagine that it would have been a bit lighter with a bigger pan.

Bake bread in a preheated 375 degree oven for approximately 30 minutes or until it is golden brown. I misted my oven with water once when I put my bread in the oven and again after 5 minutes to make my bread a bit crustier.  I love this but it is totally optional.

This bread turned out soft, fluffy and crusty.  The pull apart (or I should say, peel apart) style of the bread made it something just a bit different and fun for our weeknight spaghetti supper.  

Sunday, January 15, 2012

A Really Good Egg: Soft Boiled Eggs with Crunchy Ham and Cheese Soldiers

I don't know what my deal is lately with egg dishes, but if you'll bear with me while I do one more, I think you'll really like it.

I’m not a big breakfast eater.  Oh sure I love a big cooked breakfast with a mimosa or a cup of strong coffee with friends at a restaurant, but short of that not so much.  I certainly don’t enjoy cooking it or cleaning up the mess afterwards. 

I usually don’t get hungry anyway for a couple of hours after I get up in the morning; then I usually just dig through the fridge for some leftovers of some sort and heat them up.  Since there’s not always enough leftover ravioli and diet Dr. Pepper for everyone in the house, sometimes I just have to break down and crack an egg or two.  So, to fix this little problem I have found an answer that seems to work for everyone.

My solution is a quick little breakfast recipe that is my take on an English favorite, soft boiled eggs with strips of toast for dipping called soldiers.   The difference here is that instead of cooking them in the toaster, I slow cook my soldiers in the oven so they are crunchier than usual and then top them with grated cheese and ham or bacon.  This is a little bit heartier than plain old soldiers and for some reason my family thinks that I go to a lot of trouble to make them.  Works for me.

Soft Boiled Eggs with Crunchy Ham and Cheese Soldiers

Soft Boiled Eggs
A really great boiled egg depends on a couple of factors.  As you may know, I live at 6,300 feet so water boils at a lower temperature here which means I need to boil my eggs a bit longer than those living at a lower altitude.
I always use large eggs that need to boil a bit longer, so you may have to adjust your boiling time for that too if you are using smaller or larger eggs than I do.   Before carefully dropping my eggs into enough rapidly boiling water to completely cover them, I set them out to allow them to come to room temperature.  This helps speed things up a bit to compensate for the other factors that slow down the cooking.  You also get more consistent results when you time your eggs when you start with room temperature eggs.

I cook my eggs for 5 minutes which produces a nicely soft boiled that I find to be just right.  Some people like them cooked a bit more, some a bit less.  I advise starting at 3 minutes and working your way up a minute at a time until you find what is just right for you.  I highly recommend spending a couple of dollars on a kitchen timer so you get the same results every time.  My kitchen timer is my favorite gadget.

Hard Boiled Eggs (since we are on the subject of boiling eggs)
These are a bit easier since the timing takes much less precision.  I put my desired amount of eggs into a pan and pour in enough cold water to cover the eggs completely.  I then put the pan over a medium high heat and bring to a rolling boil.  I boil for 5 minutes, cover and remove from the heat and set aside long enough for the water to cool completely.  Voila! Peel and enjoy.

Crunchy Ham and Cheese Soldiers

1 slice of your favorite bread (I love a heartier bread like oat and nut and if it is a bit stale, all the better)

2 teaspoons butter, softened to room temperature

1 heaping tablespoon sharp grated cheddar cheese

1 tablespoon ham or bacon (julienne sliced)

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. 

Butter both sides of the bread.  Place into the preheated oven and cook for 10 – 12 minutes or until it is brown on the bottom.  Flip bread over and cook for an additional 10 – 12 minutes on the other side.  Remove from the oven and sprinkle with the cheese then the ham; set aside.
Increase the oven temperature to broil.  Return the toast to the oven and cook, watching very carefully, until the cheese is melted and bubbly.  Remove from the oven and transfer to a cutting board.  Trim crusts and slice into strips.  Serve immediately with a soft boiled egg.

This recipe serves one but is easily increased to serve as many as you like. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Scotch Eggs for My Favorite Clock Setter

Most people I know look forward to changing their clocks and falling back in November regaining the hour they lost months earlier. Personally, I hate it. I wish "they" would just leave things alone because I can’t stand changing my clocks. My aversion to this usually leaves all of our clocks displaying the correct time, with the exception of five or so displaying the old time which always belong to me.

Even though I planned to get around to changing them eventually, I really had some good excuses for not doing it. The two clocks in my car need a paperclip or toothpick to poke a little tiny button to change them, which I never seem to remember unless I’m already driving.  Then there's my wrist watch which requires some secret combination of winding and pulling that apparently only a sadist named Tag Heuer really knows for sure how to do.

The projection clock on my side of the bed is a real tricky one because it has to be set twice; once for the main display and once for the display on the ceiling. Experience tells me that getting both of them in sync for an entire 60 seconds at once is a physical impossibility.

Compounding this problem is the fact that the projection display loses about a minute every other day forcing me to do some serious calculations before arriving at an approximate time. First I have to subtract the hour I neglected to fall back to before adding the 23 minutes or so that the clock has lost to arrive at the approximate time. Phew! Try doing that kind of math at 13:72 in the morning when you are half asleep.

Finally there’s the clock on my oven, the most obstinate of all.  Changing it requires a confounding sequence of tones and buttons that makes Tag Heuer’s look user friendly. I have stood at my oven for no less than 10 minutes pushing buttons and resetting without resolution before just walking away in disgust. Where are the instructions you might ask? As best as I can recall I put them somewhere for safekeeping until I got around to filing them in their proper place and now they’re gone. They are around here somewhere and some day I’ll get serious and look for them.

Since we had extra family time around here over the holidays, Mr. H, armed with paperclips and internet instruction booklet printouts, took pity on me and set my clocks as a stocking stuffer of sorts. Thanks to him I can now easily tell the exact time when my college student butt dials me at 1 am.

Since Mr. H did something special for me, I decided to do something special for him.  While living in the UK, we learned to love many dishes that aren't so popular here in the US.  We really miss mushy peas (recipe coming soon), really great fish and chips to go with the mushy peas, Yorkshire puddings (pretty much impossible to make at 6,300 ft.), and Scotch eggs, just to name a few.  Scotch eggs are one of the easier recipes to replicate because the ingredients (or similar ingredients) are readily available, but the preparation isn't so easy so I don't prepare them very often.  They are time consuming and tricky, but worth it for the occasional treat.

I use my deep fryer to cook mine, but if you don't have one you can pan fry them too; just be aware that you will have to fry them until they reach a dark walnut brown and then allow them to rest until cool to ensure that they are cooked through.  I also like to serve mine with spicy mayo (not very English at all) which I believe adds another flavor layer to this already addictive dish.

Scotch Eggs

Before making these I always say a little prayer that I can find very small, easy to peel eggs so I don't get too frustrated.  Also, I know that this might sound like a lot of sausage but don't skimp because if you get the sausage too thin they have been know to split open in the fryer, and even though deep fried boil egg is interesting it is not the desired result.  I have eaten these before when the yolk is slighty soft and they are fantastic.  I'm still working on that.

1 pound of your favorite sausage meat (I like sage, but plain and Italian hot or regular are great too)

5 small to medium size eggs, hard boiled and peeled

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup breadcrumbs

2 eggs, beaten

Divide the sausage into 5 equal portions. Pat them out into thin patties that are big enough to wrap around the boiled eggs. Place each patty in the palm of one of your hands. Center the boiled into the middle of the sausage patty and mold the sausage meat around it, pressing it gently with cupped hands to seal it; set aside.

Pour the flour and breadcrumbs into separate shallow bowls or plates.  Roll the eggs into the flour then dip them into the beaten egg before rolling each in the crumbs to cover completely; set aside.

Preheat a deep fryer or place a medium size frying pan over medium high heat and pour enough oil into it so it is 1” deep. When the oil is hot place each egg into it and fry until they are a deep brown on all sides. Remove from the oil and transfer to paper towels to drain. Cool to room temperature.  These can also be baked in a preheated 350 degree oven for 30 minutes or until firm and golden brown.

Serve at room temperature plain, with Spicy Mayonnaise (recipe follows) or with a salad and fries. These are great for snacks, picnics or lunchboxes.

Spicy Mayonnaise

1/2 cup mayonnaise

2 tablespoons hot sauce (I like sriracha)

Squeeze of lime

1 small garlic clove, crushed

Mix all ingredients together in a medium size bowl. Chill until ready to serve.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Happy New Year 2012!: Ham and White Bean Soup

Well, happy New Year everyone! I hope you all went out and partied like it’s 1999. As for me and Mr. H, we stayed home last night and watched the Twilight Zone marathon and texted with our 17 year old.  I know, pretty pitiful huh? 

After going to bed last night at 10:00 (that’s 12 o’clock Miami time), I woke up this morning refreshed and ready to start the new year off right by my mopping my floors (the glamour never ends around here). To fortify myself I had a wonderful breakfast of leftovers from last night (this is where it gets good).

You might remember that we were given a Honey Baked ham from some very thoughtful neighbors for Christmas. We have eaten on that ham for the past week without getting tired of it at all. We had finally eaten it down to the point where it was no longer spiral sliced, so last night I cut the remainder of the ham off of the bone, chopped it and made a soup supper for us.

This was such an awesome, easy supper I knew that this had to be my first post of the New Year. I served it with some French bread and butter and lots and lots of sparkling wine which was fantastic! So, for all of you out there trying to use up that Christmas ham, and from the length of the line in front of the Honey Baked store I know that there’s lots of you out there, this one’s for you.

Leftover Christmas Ham and White Bean Soup

1 tablespoon oil

1/2 medium size sweet yellow onion, finely chopped

2 celery stalks, finely chopped

2 large carrots, peeled and chopped into small cubes

1 large garlic clove, crushed

1 – 1/2 to 2 cups chopped ham

2 cups chicken broth

2 – 15.5 ounce cans great northern or navy beans, drained and rinsed (or feel free to cook your own from dried if you have the time or energy)

1 large bay leaf

1 large sprig fresh rosemary, optional (because dried rosemary tends to be "woody" if I don't have fresh I prefer not to use it)

Lots of freshly ground black pepper

Pour oil into a large saucepan over medium high heat. When oil is hot and shimmering add the onions, celery and carrots; sauté until the onions are slightly transparent.

Add the garlic and the ham to the vegetables and stir for a minute or two before adding the broth and beans. Mash the beans slightly with a potato masher, mashing about one half of them. Add the bay leaf, rosemary and pepper.

Bring the contents to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer and cook for approximately 15 minutes or until the vegetables are tender but still a bit crisp to the bite and the broth has thickened slightly.

Remove from the heat, discard the rosemary and bay leaf.  Serve immediately.

Serves 4