December 21, 2012

Old-Fashioned Gingerbread Men

I avoided this thing for so long. I cooked, I baked, I picked up my camera and even took photos. I never wrote about what I did. Various obstacles got in my way and the exhaustion of work took over. I ran and finished a half marathon. I sang the soprano role in The Messiah and made whirlwind plans for Christmas in Arkansas. The past six weeks have flown by as six weeks never have. And yet the events in Connecticut last week brought me to a standstill.

November 5, 2012

Balsamic-Roasted Brussels Sprouts

Well if this isn't just the craziest fall. It's the kind of fall that makes you really wish you could hit the pause button and bring everything to a merciful halt. But it's the kind of fall that is exciting in the midst of activity and challenges. I have sung in a world premiere, learned intense organizational elements in an international humanities conference, taught my 1st and 2nd grade choir anthems by Mendelssohn and Maurice Greene. And in six days, I run my first half marathon at the Outer Banks.

It's been a season of personal and professional and even soulful growth. Don't get me wrong - such growth definitely includes cooking. I baked banana bread with Tennessee honey whiskey and a pumpkin chocolate chip cake that sneaked its way into a carry-on bag and all across the country, to a conference in California. I made macaroni and cheese with butternut squash, and a huge pot of chili for my mother-in-law and my dear friend Katy, while all three of our husbands were out of town.

Sometimes you just have to make food for the love of making food. It's like making music for the sheer pleasure of it, rather than for a recording or performance or rehearsal. That's what I have felt like this fall. Undocumented cooking has had its day in the sun.
That said, you must have roasted brussels sprouts as soon as humanly possible. Throw in some shallots and bacon like I did and you have almost a complete meal (made complete ONLY by a side of butternut squash mac and cheese). Put these roasties in a casserole dish topped with parmesan cheese or serve them alongside a healthy piece of steak. Or stick with the vegetarian option, sans bacon (gasp) but with a dash of hot pepper or Tabasco sauce.

Balsamic-Roasted Brussels Sprouts

1 pound brussels sprouts, ends trimmed, cut into halves and quarters
6 strips bacon, cut into thirds
1 whole shallot, sliced

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
freshly ground pepper
1 teaspoon honey
Chipotle Tabasco sauce, to taste

Preheat oven to 425 F and line a cookie sheet with foil. Fry bacon slices until fairly crispy and set aside to dry on a paper towel.

Toss brussels sprouts with olive oil, vinegar, salt, pepper, and honey. Place in single layer on cookie sheet and roast 15 minutes, stirring once or twice to prevent burning. Add bacon and roast 5 minutes longer. 

Serve hot, with chipotle Tabasco sauce. Rejoice that brussels sprouts, bacon, and chipotle Tabasco have been combined and are in your life. 

October 7, 2012

Easy Caramel Sauce

It's glorious fall! Aren't you excited? 

I have noticed that one of the menu crazes these past several months has been all things salted caramel. Salted caramel this and salted caramel that. Salted caramel ice cream, brownies, cupcakes, mochas - everything is "salted" caramel. I'm not quite sure what this adjective "salted" does to caramel itself. Good caramel is salted already. I throw sea salt in mine. Fancy caramels you get at beachside fudge shops are often topped with coarse salt grains so maybe that's where this salted craze comes from. Still, it makes me laugh. I can't see "caramel" on an item without it being described as "salted." I'm sure it's just one of those words to make plain Jane caramel seem more gourmet.

Well, this easy caramel sauce is anything but plain Jane, and yes, it contains sea salt, and YES it is extremely easy. The only quasi-fahhncy thing you need is a candy thermometer. I only say fahhncy because I had to go to the store to get one.

I originally prepared this sauce to top homemade cinnamon ice cream; since then, we have graduated to Maple View Farm's maple and chocolate chip. But regardless of what lies underneath your inherently salted caramel sauce, the sauce itself is absolutely delicious. The texture is velvety and impossibly smooth. Warm it up ever so slightly before pouring or have at room temperature with apple slices.

Easy Caramel Sauce

1 cup water
2 cups sugar
1 cup heavy cream
Pinch salt (fine or coarse grain)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter

Pour water into heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add sugar to middle of water so that sugar doesn't stick to sides of pan. Cover, then bring to a boil over high heat. Once boiling, remove lid and insert candy thermometer into center of the liquid. This is where you really have to start watching it.

Continue boiling until thermometer registers 300 degrees. Syrup should be light brown and fairly clear. Reduce heat to medium and simmer until thermometer reaches 350 degrees.

Meanwhile, bring cream and salt to a simmer in a small saucepan over high heat. Do not let the mixture boil.

When syrup reaches 350 degrees, remove from heat completely and add a little of the hot cream. The mixture will bubble vigorously so make sure you add just a little at first. Add remaining cream and wait until bubbling subsides. Whisk caramel gently until very smooth. Add butter.

Let caramel cool in pan or transfer into a glass jar. This sauce is perfect just slightly warm so if you can wait a few hours before pouring over ice cream, that would be ideal! I did not, and it melted my ice cream. Luckily, there was plenty left over; this recipe makes about 2 cups of delicious, versatile caramel. 

 Welcome fall and welcome caramel- and pumpkin-flavored everything!

October 2, 2012

Pizza Bianca

Fall challenge? More like fall fail!

Friends, my life this fall has been, as the young folks say, cray. The blog gods knew that as soon as I started a Fall Challenge I would get a new job at a high-energy arts program. Near-daily posts? Whatever. Not happening. Near-daily exhaustion with no regard for Fall Challenges anywhere? That's more like it.

And yet this is life - the very essence of life, in fact. This is the life that sends us unexpected curve balls, laughs at our plans, and makes us tired in those warm post-lunch hours. This is the life that gives you half-marathon training programs with 7 AM Saturday morning runs and no hope for catching up on sleep until those precious, hallowed, nap-inducing Sunday afternoons. It's a busy life, but one that still provides opportunity for excellent food and good company.

I made this bread a couple of weeks ago for my husband and his parents, as we watched Arkansas' disgusting defeat to Louisiana-Monroe. (Little did we know that this was just the beginning of Arkansas' spectacular growing pains.) This bread may be the most versatile, comforting, sustaining recipe I have ever posted, with the possible exception of banana pudding. Adopt this recipe into your repertoire!

Pizza bianca is an absolute delight in my life and should be in yours too. I didn't adhere to my self-set rules of the Fall Challenge but I embrace the fact that life gave me some even sweeter challenges this fall. The recipe looks daunting but it is extremely easy. All you need is a few hours and a Saturday afternoon and you are set.

Pizza Bianca

3 cups (15 ounces) all-purpose flour
1 2/3 cups (13.5 ounces) water
1 teaspoon salt

1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 teaspoons yeast
1 1/4 teaspoons sugar
5 tablespoons olive oil

Fresh rosemary leaves
Parmesan or fresh mozzarella

Mix flour, water, and salt in a stand mixer on low speed for 4-5 minutes until no bits of flour remain. Scrape sides of bowl at least once during initial mixing process. Turn off mixer and let dough stand for about 20 minutes.

Sprinkle yeast and sugar on top of dough and mix on low until fully combined, at least a minute. Raise speed to high and knead for 9-10 minutes. Scrape sides once in the early stages of second mixing, to make sure yeast and sugar are fully incorporated.

Grease a large non-reactive bowl with 1 tablespoon olive oil and rub excess oil on rubber spatula. Transfer dough into greased bowl, scraping sides with oiled spatula. Cover bowl tightly with plastic wrap and let rise at least 2 hours, until tripled in volume. This is a pretty fluid dough so don't be surprised if it looks more liquid than your average bread dough or pizza crust. During the rising process, the dough will fill with bubbles and pockets of air, which makes for a light and crunchy bread.
If using a pizza stone, place in oven one hour before baking and heat to 450 F.

Coat a rectangular cookie sheet or pizza pan with about 2 tablespoons olive oil and turn dough out onto oiled sheet. Press dough into corners of pan. The dough should be fairly elastic, so if it resists being formed, let it rest for a few minutes and try again. Let formed dough rest in pan for about 5 minutes before baking.
Prick surface with a fork and sprinkle with sea salt. Bake for 20-30 minutes. Halfway through, add rosemary leaves and parmesan or mozzarella (if using). Crust should be golden brown and toasty. When bread is done, brush lightly with olive oil and let cool slightly before cutting into wedges.

Serve this with anything - steak, chicken, marinara sauce, or add your favorite toppings for a pizza. This recipe is truly one of the most versatile ones in my repertoire. It's up there with cornbread in terms of its uses so be creative!

September 16, 2012

Eggrolls and Arkansas

This week defeated me in terms of posting to Magnolia Cooks. I have a few recipes typed, photos edited, partial texts written, but a new job this week and a long weekend trip to Fort Smith, Arkansas steamrolled all my creative efforts. When I vowed to myself that September would be the beginning of the Fall Challenge I didn't factor in the job start or the absolutely wonderful time I had in Arkansas, despite being a physical witness to the Hogs' most ignominious campus loss in 93 years. But I did remember something about the Fall Challenge - it only requires writing and not necessarily writing and recipes. Of course, recipes are my goal, but after having flown halfway across the country in the late afternoon, I find myself this Sunday night wanting to write about food without supplying a recipe.

Like all good weekends in Fort Smith, our weekend was filled with a melting pot of international cuisine. Fort Smith is one of those mid-south towns that is blessed to have a generous international population and we have never lacked for amazing Mexican, Chinese, and Vietnamese food. This time, we enjoyed spicy tikka masalas at R&R Curry Express, traditional cheeseburgers at George's (which incidentally occupy some of my earliest and tastiest memories), margaritas at La Huerta, and my friend Terry's incredible homemade egg rolls.

Now, I wish I could write a review and provide pristine colorful pictures of these Fort Smith institutions but that may have to wait until Christmas. Back home in North Carolina and thinking about all the food we had in Arkansas, I realize just how diverse are our eating experiences there. And these are humble, unassuming, salt-of-the-earth eating experiences: R&R Curry is in a converted gas station and La Huerta in an old garage and patio. George's is a 4-cornered gray block building that you'd miss if you didn't know what was there (make no mistake: the best burgers and fries in the entire world).

Top that with the fact that my mother is an excellent cook. Homemade granola chilled in the refrigerator all weekend and rich apple spice cake (featured in Magnolia Cooks last December) followed every meal. Creamy chicken spaghetti, homemade yeast rolls, deviled eggs and pickled cucumbers occupied us for Friday's dinner hour. We ate lemony tabouli and fresh chicken salad with apricots for every lunch. And of course, there were Terry's eggrolls. Terry and I have been friends since junior high, played violin together in the school orchestras, and kept our friendship going through academic stints in Europe (me) and Asia (her).  She was a bridesmaid in my wedding and remains a favorite of my family's. During this visit, she made us egg rolls and talked about her parents' astounding journey from Vietnam to Arkansas (which I will surely turn into a book one day). Together with Terry's egg rolls, Mom's consistently delicious home cooking and Fort Smith's diverse restaurant offerings made this trip a delightful eating and social experience.

Going to Arkansas always inspires me to cook, and not just the recipes that I've known all my life. Mom's chicken spaghetti puts any potluck casserole to absolute shame yet freezes easily and warms beautifully for a rich family meal. Snickerdoodles can be chilled and baked just one pan at a time so there are always fresh cookies on hand. And big bowls of chicken salad and tabouli keep a full house of company completely satisfied for several lunches. So these are not just slave-over-the-stove meals. These are clever, expedient, thoughtful ways to present food to company while maximizing social time as much as possible. I'm still figuring out how to do this.

I leave this Sunday night not with thoughts about Southern food per se, but rather thoughts about the diverse South. The authentic international restaurants in Fort Smith are just as part of my Southern experience as any for an Arkansan-turned-North Carolinian. After all, the Fall Challenge is just as much about thinking about food as it is about reiterating recipes. I call that a win!

September 9, 2012

Fall Challenge Week Two: Easiest Chocolate Pie

There is something about simplicity of familiar recipes that almost gets overlooked. I sometimes forget about the easiest and loveliest of foods because they don't present the adventure and practice of making something new. One of these days I'll write about the little wooden recipe box I have, filled with recipes from family members and friends. I have scanned duplicates of the originals, so I can still make my great-grandmother's pumpkin pie written in her handwriting.

I wanted to make this pie this weekend for its simplicity, but it made me think about the things that are constant in my life. Things you don't even have to think about because they are already there. Things like family, friends, and music. (A winning football team is not among those constants, but I'm told you can't have it all.) And tomorrow I start a new job. It's been a whirlwind these past two weeks, setting up appointments, filling out forms, gathering all the information I need to start, getting used to my status as full time and not student-employee, enjoying the beautiful colored lilies my husband brought home to celebrate. So I needed this chocolate pie. That's right, needed. 

My grandmother has been making this pie for ages. She has been known to make several at a time to feed large crowds and bring them to many a family holiday or Sunday dinner gathering. My mom started making it too, years and years ago, so this chocolate pie is nearly synonymous with visits home to Arkansas. I can almost count on one chilling in the refrigerator or still warm from the oven. And the thing is, it's so incredibly simple to make. You can actually whip up this pie in no time, and if you already have a pie shell in the freezer, so much the better!

I make my own pie dough. Always have and always will. However, I'm told that there are some truly lovely frozen options out there so I won't push the homemade crust agenda. But try this one out if you have the time and patience. It is truly simple.

Easiest Chocolate Pie

Adapted from my grandmother Carolyn

Pie Dough

3 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup shortening, chilled
1/2 cup (or more) ice water

Combine flour and salt. With a pastry cutter, cut in shortening until flour and fat are fully incorporated. Make sure your hands are very cold before handling dough. 
Add ice water about 1/4 cup at a time, paying close attention to texture of dough. It should be neither too dry nor too gummy. Knead with hands no more than a minute, until water is incorporated into the dough.
Turn out on a well-floured surface and divide into two discs. (Freeze one disc for later or form it into a pie shell then freeze.) With a floured rolling pin, roll dough until about 1/8-1/4 inch thick. 
Fold lightly into quarters. Transfer folded dough to pie plate and unfold from the center. Cut off excess dough from sides using a knife, and reserve the extra strips for later (or toast them with cinnamon and sugar!).

This pie plate is an original piece of pottery from Seagrove, North Carolina and is pre-fluted. I found it a bit difficult to cut off the excess strips of dough, and then the dough tended to slump down the sides of the pie plate. So as beautiful as this plate is, I might prefer a straight-edged plate and dough that is hand-fluted.


6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
3/4 cup evaporated milk, any fat content
2 cups sugar
5 tablespoons cocoa powder
3 eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla
Mix ingredients and pour into unbaked pie shell. Bake at 350 for 50-60 minutes, or until center is set. 

At the very end of baking, sprinkle lightly with kosher salt if desired (I did; it was delicious). 

Let cool at least 2 hours and serve warm or cold with lightly sweetened whipped cream.

September 8, 2012

Geri's Chicken Parm

Of of the many delightful things Andrew has brought into my life, our friends Bernie and Geri have to be among the top. They were Andrew's neighbors during his childhood in New York, watched him grow up from 18 months old, and have been practically family ever since. They are full of New York experiences and have the colorful stories to go with them. So during these visits to the beach, we spend less time at the beach and more time on Bernie and Geri's screened porch, listening to mullets jump in the lake and talking about friends and family.

Before I even met Bernie and Geri, Andrew was swooning over Geri's chicken parmesan. She makes it in an old electric griddle that has no doubt enjoyed many a chicken parm before she was making it for me and Andrew. And this chicken parm is indeed swoon-worthy. The cutlets are so thin and uniform, the breading crispy but in no way distracting from the chicken, the mozzarella fresh and whole, and the sauce homemade by Bernie himself.

While I could never presume to provide a recipe that duplicates the chicken parm goodness that I now associate with my dear friends and Hilton Head Island, I can provide gorgeous photos of the process itself, including Geri's countertop griddle. Whatever your chicken parmesan recipe may be, try it one day in a griddle with a lid and make your own sauce.

Geri's Chicken Parm

4 or 5 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 eggs
Breadcrumbs (Geri uses Progresso)
8 ounces mozzarella
Tomato sauce
Spaghetti, cooked al dente right before serving

Prepare cutlets by making two horizontal cuts in each chicken breast. So you should end up with about three cutlets per chicken breast. Place cutlets in a plastic bag and pound with a meat pulverizer until thin. (We weren't around for the chicken far as I know, they showed up magically in the freezer, perfectly cutlet-ed and ready to cook. But Bernie tells me this is how he does it.)

Beat eggs and add a little water. Pour about 1 cup of breadcrumbs onto a plate. Dip each cutlet into the egg wash and then into breadcrumbs for a light coating. No need to have any more breading than that. 

Head a grill pan or griddle to about 400 F (medium high) and cover with about 2 teaspoons olive oil. When oil is melted, you're ready to go!

Cover oiled grill pan with cutlets, cooking for about 2-3 minutes on each side until golden and crispy.

Once all the cutlets are golden brown, transfer them to a plate and start with a new batch.

Freeze any extra cutlets for quick preparation later. Or give them to someone who really needs chicken parm in their lives. (We now several cutlets in our home freezer.)

Cover top of cutlets with sliced fresh mozzarella. Make sure each cutlet has a good chunk of mozz on top.

Thinly spread tomato sauce on top of cutlets, again making sure that each piece has a good amount.

(Oh heavenly goodness.)

Now you're ready to bake! If cooking these in a regular pan, bake around 350 for 15-20 minutes. When the cheese bubbles and gets toasty and golden, you're done.

The smell will be ridiculous.

Serve with spaghetti, extra sauce, and a light green salad. If possible, chicken parm is even better the next day, made into a toasted sandwich. 

September 3, 2012

Sara Foster's Salt and Pepper Cornbread

I've eaten cornbread all my life but have rarely stopped to think about its significance on the dinner table. It wasn't until I moved to Germany during my junior year in college and discovered that students from other areas of the country baked cornbread like a sweet cake and ate it with honey. No, that's not my experience. Our cornbread was baked in a cast iron skillet and served savory with chicken and pot roast. It was sometimes slathered with salted butter but more often crumbled into bowls of chili and winter soup.

There are three things that I think make a superior cornbread: first, that cast iron skillet. The heaviness of the skillet gives the cornbread a delicious golden bottom and crunch. Second, bacon grease. Ever since I started keeping a jar of bacon grease in the refrigerator, I've used it mainly for pans of cornbread. Bacon grease melts beautifully as you prepare the hot skillet, and during cooking, it settles richly into the cornbread itself. Third, good quality corn meal. I am sometimes dismayed at the lack of cornmeal quality on grocery store shelves, and I try to buy mine from local country stores that feature coarse, stone ground meal. I baked with a good Arkansas cornmeal for a couple of years until I moved to North Carolina and found that the local cornmeal here is as good as anywhere.

Sara Foster's cornbread recipe is one that I've tried only once but one that I'll keep in my repertoire for years. I love the way this cornbread has a balanced flavor of peppery and sweet, and I love that Ms. Foster does not skimp on ingredients. After all, a thick, high wedge of cornbread is much more satisfying than a short little sliver.

Sara Foster's Salt and Pepper Cornbread

Dry mix
2 tablespoons bacon grease
1 1/2 cups good, stone-ground cornmeal
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon baking soda

Wet mix
2 cups buttermilk
2 large eggs, beaten slightly
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly

Preheat oven to 425 F. As the oven is heating, add bacon grease to skillet and set it in the oven to melt.

Whisk together all dry ingredients until well combined. Add the wet ingredients together until smooth then add to dry mix. With a wooden spoon or rubber spatula, combine dry and wet ingredients until just incorporated. Do not overmix.

Remove hot skillet from stove and pour in cornbread mixture. Sprinkle top with salt and freshly-ground black pepper. Bake about 25 minutes, until the top is golden and a knife inserted into the middle comes out clean.
Serve warm with chili, soup, chicken, or pretty much anything you are having for supper. My mom has her cornbread with buttermilk but I haven't gotten that far yet. 

September 1, 2012

Fall Challenge Week One: Chocolates By the Sea

Friends, it is here! I've been thinking about the Fall Challenge for about a week now. I had visions of writing preparatory posts and taking tons of pictures in advance, ready to churn out post after post of ripe, beautiful content.

Well, life sort of got in the way. And now, suddenly, I find myself in lush, Spanish moss-covered Hilton Head Island, eating chocolates and drinking red wine, recovering from a six-mile run through the thickest humid air I believe I've ever experienced, exhausted from a powerful' long week, and finally - finally - reveling in the first weekend of college football.

September, as I discovered after I established the Fall Challenge, is national Pediatric Cancer Awareness Month. Back in March, the White House slated September as Pediatric Cancer Awareness Month in an effort to celebrate fundraising efforts for childhood cancer and to raise awareness for these often-ignored childhood diseases. Efforts to raise awareness for these diseases have been in place on the national scale for over twenty years, but each year brings a new commitment by government and community alike. What a perfect day to start a blogging challenge in tandem with Chapel Hill's Get Heeled race! Throughout September, I will seek to tie in food narratives with childhood cancer awareness, in hopes of raising support for this outstanding charity opportunity in my community.

Thinking about food narratives as running parallel to community charity causes has been sometimes easy, more often challenging. Naturally, I'd want to write only about healthy living - low-calorie this and low-fat that. But I'd rather write about living as both body and spirit: the enjoyment of things like wine and chocolate after dinner, the celebration of a day well spent and six miles completely run some fifteen hours ago. So tonight, in the spirit of such soulful life enjoyments, I give you an absolute gem of a store on Hilton Head Island, Chocolates By the Sea.

Chocolates By the Sea is a tiny, bright shop nestled in a strip of stores just outside the Sea Pines gates in Hilton Head. The owner, Paula, is a Bostonian and one of the island's most reliable small business owners. And her dedication shows: row upon row of chocolate and caramel varieties, creams and jellies, peanut clusters, mint chocolate bark, handmade buckeyes, sea salt caramels, all varieties of toffee. Aside from the traditional chocolate fare - and in an effort to cater to the island's love of golf and dogs - molds of golf balls, carts, clubs, and dogs of all varieties may be bought as gifts, carefully wrapped, pristinely molded, but still with the feel of island locality.

We bought boxes of these chocolates, in a variety of shapes and concoctions, and had them after dinner with red wine and college football. An unlikely combination, to be sure, but life is full of these things. Early this morning, as I struggled through the curtain of thick South Carolina air that met me on my run, all I could think of was making it through those six miles upright. And here I am at the end of the day, eating chocolates from Chocolates By the Sea. I'm not sure what kind of life metaphor I can draw from this other than the balanced goodness of health and spirit, life enjoyed with friends, loved ones, and, of course, chocolate.

The scale will tell me otherwise next week.