Friday, December 31, 2010

Pumpkin-Cranberry Scones

I began this month with the intention of posting a recipe for Pumpkin-Cranberry Scones. As always, December has raced by. So I thought that posting the recipe would be a good way to end the month. Admittedly it is a recipe more appropriate for Thanksgiving or Christmas, but I'm not quite ready to let go of the Christmas holiday—our decorations are still up (I always keep them up until Twelfth-Night). I also happened to have part of a can of pumpkin leftover from something else, and since the scones only use a small amount of pumpkin, they are useful (along with pumpkin pancakes and my dog) for using up the end of a can.


You may recall that I didn't post the recipe when I originally wanted to because of a sleepless night spent worrying about my cat. Even though he is still interfering with my sleep via ever new and various methods, I did manage to get all of the ingredients correctly measured and into the bowl this time. I probably shouldn't have blamed him for my original error, but it gave me the opportunity to share his picture. Who would believe this guy could ever cause any trouble?


My recipe for Pumpkin-Cranberry Scones is a variation on my Cream Scone recipe. The thing that makes the cream scone recipe unique is that all of the liquid and all of the fat are supplied by heavy cream. Since replacing some of the cream with pumpkin reduces the overall fat content in the recipe, it was necessary to add some butter to the recipe. The butter is added by rubbing it into the dry ingredients as for a traditional scone. The resulting pumpkin scones have a little less butterfat than the original cream scones.

Besides these changes to liquid and fat, I increased the sugar from 4 to 6 tablespoons—the pumpkin seems to require just a little extra sweetness. If you would like an even sweeter scone, you could add another tablespoon of sugar. I also increased the salt by fifty percent. I was surprised to discover during my testing that the pumpkin seems to demand it. Without the additional salt, the scones tasted flat and uninteresting—even with all of the spices that I added to go with the pumpkin.

When mixing these scones up, they will seem very dry. But this is deceptive. There is something about the thick pumpkin...the liquid it provides is slow to be absorbed by the dry ingredients. Once you have added all of the liquid called for in the recipe, poke the shaggy/crumbly dough that is forming. If it is very soft, there is enough liquid in the dough and it will continue to be absorbed by the dry ingredients. If the forming dough feels tight or firm, dribble in a little more cream. But be careful. It is surprising how quickly theses scones go from appearing to be dry and unmanageable to being wet and sticky and unmanageable.

Pulling the dough together is accomplished out of the bowl and on the counter. But the "kneading" process is not really a traditional knead. Because the initial dough is so shaggy, the process is really more of a gathering and pressing followed by a slight rocking motion—not the lift-fold-press-turn of a typical knead. Kneading as it is traditionally understood will overwork these scones, making them tough and dry. As soon the dough comes together in a cohesive ball, you should stop working the dough.


Finally, because the liquid in these scones is so slow to be absorbed, I like to give the scones a brief rest/chill in the refrigerator before baking them. This rest will allow the liquid to be more evenly absorbed, the developed gluten to relax and the butter to firm up. The finished scones will be more tender as a result.

I'm sorry to be so late posting this recipe, but I hope that there will be some bakers out there who, like me, are still in the mood for pumpkin baked goods. But if you are not among them, that's ok, there's always next year.




Pumpkin & Cranberry Scones

2 c. all-purpose flour (230 grams)
1 T. baking powder
6 T. Sugar
3/4 t. salt
1 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. ground ginger
1/4 t. ground cloves
1/4 t. nutmeg
4 T. Unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small pieces
3/4 c. dried cranberries
6 T. pumpkin purée (95 grams)
2/3 c. heavy cream, plus more for brushing the formed scones
Turbinado Sugar


In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, sugar, salt and spices. Using your fingers, or a pastry cutter, cut the butter into the dry mixture. Add the dried cranberries.


Whisk together the heavy cream and the pumpkin. Slowly stir the dry ingredients with a rubber spatula while gradually pouring in the cream-pumpkin mixture, continuing to stir until a soft, very shaggy dough is formed.


If necessary, add more cream to help the dough come together. But be careful, the dough will go from looking too dry to being too wet to handle very quickly. It is better to err on the side of too dry.

Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead 3 or 4 times, just to bring the dough together into a soft ball. Divide the ball of dough into two pieces. Use your hands to press each ball of dough into a disc that is 1-inch thick. With a sharp, floured knife, cut each disc into 6 wedges


and place the wedges an inch or so apart on an un-greased or parchment-lined baking sheet. Brush each scone with some cream and sprinkle generously with the raw sugar.


The scones may be baked immediately, but they are more tender and will be more well-shaped if chilled for 30 to 60 minutes before baking. This helps any gluten formed to relax and also firms up the butter.

Bake in the upper third of a preheated 425°oven until golden brown and springy to the touch—about 12 to 15 minutes.


Makes 12 small scones.



Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Process of Pre-Salting Meat




One of the reasons I started my blog was so that I would have a place to discuss in detail some of the basic techniques and processes of cooking. Often I am asked questions in class that I can't answer in as much detail as I would like...simply because there isn't time. Being able to refer people to my blog gives me a chance to be a better teacher.

For most of November and December I have devoted my blog to seasonal recipes rather than techniques—because that tends to be what people are in need of at this time of year. As we move into the winter months, I will again make an effort to occasionally post tutorial-type posts explaining basic techniques. Observant readers may have noticed that a few weeks ago I added a page to my blog that will index posts on basic techniques to make them more readily accessible.

Today I want to talk a little bit about a technique that will make any piece of meat that you prepare better—whether you are roasting, pan-frying or grilling...whether you are working with beef, pork, chicken (and other fowl) or lamb...and whether you are cooking a large roast, a whole bird or a smaller steak, cutlet or chop. Meat is expensive, it is important to be able to make sure the meat you buy tastes as good as it can.

The technique—pre-salting—is straightforward and easy to understand, execute and incorporate into daily food preparation. If you are a seasoned cook, you have probably already heard of and are using this technique. But maybe not. Too often I assume people know more than they do. I was reminded of this when I was helping a relative prepare some beautiful, prime quality rib-eye steaks that they had purchased for Christmas dinner. This was someone who cooks for their family—from scratch—regularly, but they were not familiar with pre-salting.

Pre-salting is exactly what it sounds like. It is applying salt to the meat ahead of time. For years the standard advice to cooks was not to salt until immediately before the meat went into the pan or oven. Some Chefs and cooking teachers went so far as to advise not salting until the cooking process had already begun, or was over. Salting before the last minute was thought to dry the meat out. If you have ever salted a piece of meat and allowed it to sit on the counter for a few moments you have noticed beads of liquid beginning to pool on the surface of the meat...the salt is indeed drawing the liquid out of the meat.

If cooked at this point the meat will in all likelihood be dry (much of its moisture is on the surface rather than the interior). Furthermore, the meat will not brown well—the moisture on the surface encourages steaming or poaching rather than browning. To obtain meats that are well-browned, the surfaces should always be dry before being put in the pan, in the oven, or on the grill.

If the meat is allowed to continue to sit for a longer period of time after it has been salted, it will begin to reabsorb the (now salty) liquid. The amount of time can be as short as a few hours....or as long as a day or two for very large roasts or birds. My relative was very surprised when he pulled his steaks out of the refrigerator, a day after salting them, to discover that the surfaces of the steaks were dry.

The obvious question of course is—why would you go to the trouble of doing this? Well, I find that meats that have been pre-salted are well-seasoned throughout and consequently much more flavorful. If you apply herbs or pepper and other spices to the meat when you salt it, you will also find that the salt helps these flavors to permeate the meat more fully. Ultimately, flavor alone makes pre-salting a worth-while practice as far as I'm concerned.

Judy Rogers in her Zuni Café Cookbook makes the case that pre-salting makes meats juicier and more tender. Because I don't have the science background to explain why this may or may not be so (I happen to think it probably is), I won't argue these points here. Rather, I would encourage those interested in a more extensive treatment of pre-salting to get her book. It is a wonderful cookbook—full of good recipes and written by a chef who wants her readers to understand what they are doing...not just blindly follow her recipes.

To pre-salt a piece of meat: Remove it from its packaging, rinse and dry it, if necessary, salt the meat evenly all over, place it in a non-reactive container (glass or stainless steel are both fine), cover it loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate it until about an hour or two before you plan to cook it. Pulling the meat out of the refrigerator an hour or so before it will be cooked allows the meat to come to room temperature and will help it to cook more evenly. It is not necessary to rinse the meat right before you cook it. If there is any moisture on the surface, simply blot it with a paper towel. Pre-salted meat does not need to be salted again before it is cooked. Other than that, the meat may be cooked as usual.

The amount of salt you use when you pre-salt is really up to your palate. I like to use about 3/4 teaspoon of kosher salt per pound of meat—if part of the weight is bone, then perhaps slightly less salt. For smaller cuts of meat, salting can be done several hours ahead (maybe before you leave for work for a steak, chop or cutlet to be cooked that evening). For a large roast or a chicken (or turkey), a day or two is fine.

My habit and preference is to use kosher salt. You may substitute another salt—preferably a sea salt of some kind rather than iodized table salt. But since salts vary in saltiness, according to their source and how coarse or fine they are, if you choose to use something other than kosher salt, you will need to experiment with the amount per pound that you like to use.

You will notice that in all my discussion of pre-salting, I have never mentioned fish or shell fish. This is because I don't pre-salt fish. Judy Rogers says that she does—usually a few hours in advance. I have never had good luck with this. I find that pre-salted fish is a bit chewy—almost tough.

Finally, I don't always pre-salt. If I'm thinking ahead, or planning a dinner for a client, I always do because it always improves the flavor. Sometimes though, I'm just trying to get dinner on the table. In which case, I simply follow the time honored practice of salting the meat right before I cook it.

I can't close this post, which has been largely devoted to the use of salt, without adding one final thought about salt. Please don't be afraid of it! I firmly believe that the excessive level of sodium in the average American diet is not due to the salt that is added to meats and fresh vegetables that are cooked from scratch in a home kitchen.  If you salt your home cooked, fresh foods with a sufficient amount of salt to please your palate, you will enjoy your home cooked foods more and will be far less likely to consume prepared and processed foods that already have more salt in them than you can possibly imagine.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Last Minute Ideas for Christmas and a Simple Coffee Cake

Way back on Mother's Day I posted a recipe for Cream Scones. I mentioned at the time that several years ago I had given little bags of the dry mix as Christmas gifts to people who were certain that they could not possibly make a decent scone. Over and over I heard back enthusiastic reports of success. It made a great gift—and it was so simple to do.  It has occurred to me that there have been many recipes that I have posted over the past year that also have Christmas gift potential.  Additionally, there have been numerous posts for side dishes and desserts that would be appropriate for the holiday table.  Since tomorrow is Christmas Eve, today's post will be a brief review of some of those recipes, dedicated to those among us who might be out of ideas and who are most certainly about out of time.


One of the reasons the bag of scone mix made such a great gift was that it has a shelf life. So many of the food gifts that we give at Christmas need to be consumed fairly quickly. The bag of scone mix can be tucked away and pulled out in January...or March...when it will make a special treat in the middle of the doldrums of winter for someone in need of a pick me up.

To put the gift together, mix up all of the dry ingredients in a bowl. For the chocolate/dried fruit additions at Christmas time I like to use dried cranberries and semi-sweet chocolate—but anything you like will be fine. Transfer the mixture to small food-safe gift bags, attach a recipe card and tie with a ribbon or bow. All the recipient will need to do to produce beautiful, fresh scones, is to add some cream and then sprinkle some sugar on top of the scones before baking.

If you look at the pictures of my holiday cookie platter, you will notice small wedges of Scottish Shortbread. I posted this recipe last summer to go with fruit and ice cream. But they also make a wonderful Christmas cookie and I always include them in my holiday baking. I think they would be a particularly good gift idea for someone looking for a last minute hostess gift. Almost everyone has on hand the three ingredients needed to make these cookies (sugar, butter and flour) and if you are home doing other things, you can mix up a couple of pans, place them in the oven and go about other tasks while they have their long slow bake in a low oven. They make an elegant gift on a small decorative plate, in a festive tin, or tied with a bright bow in a small bag.


While on the subject of cookies, both the biscotti—posted a few days ago—and the molasses crinkles—posted in November—would make excellent gifts. And, if you happen to have a cookie monster in residence who has been raiding the stash of holiday goodies you have been amassing for your cookie platter, both of these cookies would be a quick and easy way to replenish your supply.


If you prefer to give miniature breads or cakes, the Brandied Fruit & Almond Pound Cake posted earlier this month bakes up beautifully in miniature (2 cup size) loaf pans. Start checking them for doneness at about 35 to 40 minutes. The Chocolate Gingerbread from an October post also makes fine miniature loaves. And if you know someone who will be having overnight guests, a breakfast basket filled with Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Muffins would be a welcome gift.

If you are looking for last minute ideas to round out your Christmas dinner, there are many side dishes that I have posted over the course of the year from which you could choose. Several of my November posts were holiday side dishes—Green Bean Casserole, Sweet Potato Gratin with Turnips & Yukon Gold Potatoes, Brussels Sprouts with Chestnuts & Savory Chestnut Bread Pudding.  But the one dish I particularly want to draw attention to is a recipe I posted around Easter time. It was for a potato side dish that could be assembled the day before and reheated for the holiday dinner. Loaded with buttery leeks and sour cream, it is basically a big twice-baked potato baked in a large casserole instead of potato skins. It's easy and delicious.

Finally, I wanted to draw attention to a coffee cake that I discovered early on when I was beginning to explore the food blogging world. It is a recipe for Chai Coffee Cake. I love this cake made exactly as published at Tartelette, but because the combination of spices reminds me of holiday baking, I began to think about it again a few days ago. This time when I made it I added some dried cranberries and chopped candied orange peel to the batter. If you don't have any candied orange peel, you could increase the amount of dried cranberries, or substitute golden raisins. To get a touch of orange flavor, I would then add the zest of a large orange to the creamed butter and sugar.


When I made the cake, I cut the amount of streusel in half, omitting the layer of streusel in the middle of the cake—I thought it would be too much when combined with the dried and candied fruit. But I think that when I make it again, I will make the full amount of streusel. So, even though my pictures show the cake without the middle layer of streusel, I've written the recipe to include it. If you prefer less streusel, simply cut the amount of streusel in half and only put it on top of the cake. Either way, it would make a nice coffeecake to serve as part of a Christmas breakfast or brunch.

No matter what your state of preparedness for the holidays, I hope that today's post has given you a few ideas—if not for this year, then for next. And no matter how you are spending your holiday this year, I hope that your Christmas is filled with good things to eat.  But mostly I hope that you get to celebrate in the company of those you love.  Merry Christmas.


Spiced Cranberry-Orange Coffeecake

1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. ginger
1/2 t. cardamom
1/2 t. allspice
1/2 t. salt
2/3 c. brown sugar
1/2 c. butter, melted

1 3/4 c. all-purpose flour (200 g)
1/2 t. salt
3/4 t. baking powder
1/2 t. baking soda
10 T. plus 2 t. (150 g.) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 c. sugar (200 g.)
2 eggs, at room temperature
1 1/2 t. vanilla
2/3 c. sour cream (160 g.)
1/2 c. dried cranberries
1/3 c. dice candied orange peel

To make the topping, combine the flour, spices, salt & sugar in a small bowl. Stir in the melted butter until thoroughly blended. Squeeze the mixture into clumps. Set aside.


Combine the flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda in a small bowl and set aside. Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Beat in the vanilla. Stir in half of the flour mixture. Stir in the sour cream, followed by the remaining flour mixture, adding the cranberries and candied peel with this final addition of flour.




Spread half of the batter in a greased and floured 9x9-inch baking pan. Scatter in half of the streusel. Add the remaining batter, spreading evenly. Scatter the remaining streusel over all. Bake in a 350° oven until golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean—35 to 45 minutes. Serve warm. Serves 9 to 12.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Salted Mixed Nut Brittle—The Best Nut Brittle Ever

Lest you think that I'm tooting my own horn, let me assure you that "Best-Ever Nut Brittle" was the exact title of this recipe when it was published in a December issue of Food & Wine a few years back. I love this remarkable recipe and think more people should know about it. The recipe is an adaptation of a recipe by Karen DeMasco, the pastry chef at New York City's Craft. I would be interested in seeing the original, but I have a hard time imagining that it is any better. As is, it truly is the best brittle I have ever made or eaten.

So, what makes it the best? I am inclined to think that it is the unusual use of salted, roasted nuts. The salt is a wonderful addition, complimenting the flavor of both the caramelized sugar and the nuts.  And since most nut brittles use raw nuts, I can only assume that the use of roasted nuts also contributes to the superiority of this brittle.  In typical peanut brittle recipes the raw nuts are added in the early stages of the cooking process. They are effectively cooked as the sugar syrup cooks, imparting their flavor to the candy brittle in the process. You would think that this would produce the best flavored brittle...but apparently this is not true. Of course, the presence of cashews, almonds, pecans and hazelnuts in addition to the more usual peanuts doesn't hurt the final product either.


Another important difference in this recipe is the amount of butter used. Most brittle recipes that I have come across use very little butter...and some don't use any. The relatively large quantity of butter in this recipe pushes its flavor and texture in the direction of toffee. Although, I don't think someone tasting this for the first time would think they were eating toffee. They would just think they were eating the best brittle they had ever put in their mouth.

I have only made one small change to this recipe. Since the nuts are added at the end, if they have been kept at a cool room temperature, their addition causes the brittle to become very stiff immediately. I place the nuts in a 300° oven when the sugar syrup starts to boil—this way, when they are added to the syrup, they are the same temperature as the syrup. The brittle stays fluid for a longer period of time and is consequently much easier to spread out into a thin layer.

I would only emphasize a couple of other things for the novice candy maker. Every time you make candy from a recipe that begins with dissolving sugar in water (alone or along with other ingredients), always make sure that all of the sugar is dissolved before you begin to boil the mixture. And always brush down the sides of the pan with a pastry brush dipped in water (or a folded paper towel dipped in water if you don't own a pastry brush) to dissolve any remaining sugar granules. Do this even if the recipe doesn't direct you to. Even one undissolved granule of sugar left in the pan can encourage the entire batch of candy to re-crystallize—either while it is cooking or while it is cooling. As a further protection against crystallization, I never put my candy thermometer into the pan until all of the sugar is dissolved. To protect the thermometer from possible damage caused by a rapid change temperature change, I hold it in a glass of very hot water until I need it. 


I have been making and giving this brittle for Christmas gifts every year since I discovered the recipe. I encourage you to make a batch (or two...or three...) and give it away to your family and friends. In the coming years you will experience a surge of pleasure when you give it to someone again and see a pair of eyes light up when they recognize "the" nut brittle.



Salted Mixed Nut Brittle

2 c. sugar
½ c. water
4 oz. (1 stick) unsalted butter
1/3 c. light corn syrup (110 g)
½ t. baking soda
12 oz. roasted salted mixed nuts (peanuts, cashews, pistachios, hazelnuts, pecans and/or almonds)
Fleur de sel (or substitute another coarse sea salt)



In a large saucepan, combine the sugar, water, butter and corn syrup and cook over moderate heat until the sugar dissolves. Wash down the sides of the pan with a pastry brush dipped in water. Increase the heat to medium high and bring to a boil.


Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the caramel is light brown and registers 300°F on a candy thermometer—about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and carefully stir in the baking soda. The mixture will bubble and foam. Stir in the nuts, then immediately scrape the brittle onto a large rimmed baking sheet—either non-stick or well greased (grease the sheet before you begin to cook the brittle so it will be ready when the candy is). Using the back of a large, oiled spoon or heat-proof spatula, spread the brittle into a thin, even layer (the mixture will be stiff, so you’ll have to work at it a bit). Sprinkle with the fleur de sel. Let cool completely, about 30 minutes.


Break into pieces and store air-tight.



Makes slightly less than 2 pounds brittle.

(From Food & Wine, December 2007)

Note: The brittle goes together more easily if you place the nuts in a 300° oven while the syrup boils—that way the nuts don’t bring down the temperature of the candy syrup when they are added.




Friday, December 17, 2010

Cranberry Pistachio Biscotti—a Favorite Christmas Cookie


The month seems to be getting away from me a bit. I had intended to post several recipes for Christmas cookies and candies and have just been too busy to do it. I have been baking...just not taking pictures. This week I taught my annual Christmas cookie class at The Community Mercantile in Lawrence. I did manage to take some "in process" pictures of the Christmas version of my biscotti, so that's the recipe I will share here today.


I have always loved to bake and share Christmas cookies—long before I ever considered cooking for a living. As a chef, I have in some years been way too busy to do much personal baking for friends and family. This class gives me a chance to satisfy my desire to have an annual holiday cookie baking extravaganza whether I have time for it or not. Even in years when I don't get to make all the cookies I want to for my family and friends, by teaching this class I get to share eight of my favorite recipes with people who will in turn make them and share them with others.

Here are all of the doughs, ready and waiting to be rolled, molded and other-wise shaped and baked during class:


Even if you aren't teaching a class, setting aside a day to prepare all of the different doughs for all of your cookies before beginning to bake will help you to use your time more efficiently.

Here are the cookies left after the second night of class—ready to be packaged and wrapped air tight:


The biscotti recipe that I teach in my class is the best that I have ever found. Biscotti are supposed to be dry—they are baked, sliced and then baked again (the word biscotti means "twice baked") in order to insure that they will be dry. They are then meant to be dunked and softened (in espresso, tea, coffee or Vin Santo) when they are eaten. Because they are dry, they will keep for long periods of time. Unfortunately, I find traditional biscotti to be too hard. My recipe has a higher percentage of fat than is usual. Although most modern versions use some butter (or oil), in the most traditional recipes, there is no fat at all other than the fat that is provided by the egg yolks. The extra butter in my recipe gives the cookies a much more tender crunch.  They are still dry and thus perfect for storing and dunking, but they are also pretty nice to munch on when you don't have any coffee or tea handy.

I'm not quite sure of the origin of this recipe. I believe that I got it from my friend Kathy—a truly gifted pastry chef who worked at The American Restaurant at the same time I did. But since she went on to open her own pastry shop, and this isn't the recipe that she used there, I'm not really sure that this is her recipe. Unfortunately, the origins of recipes are frequently mysterious. Since this is an exceptional biscotti recipe, I would have liked to credit the source.

The original version of the recipe as I received it included the pistachios and orange zest. The dried cranberries were my Christmas addition. At other times of the year I replace the pistachios with blanched almonds and the dried cranberries with chopped semi-sweet chocolate. You could of course come up with your own combinations of nuts, dried fruits, chocolates, spices and citrus zests. But no matter how you vary the "additions", I think that you will find, as I have, that even people who declare that they don't like biscotti, will like these.


Cranberry Pistachio Biscotti

2 1/4 c. all-purpose flour (270g)
1 1/2 t. baking powder
1/4 t. salt
3 oz. (3/4 c.) toasted pistachios, coarsely chopped
3 oz. (2/3 c.) dried cranberries
1/2 c. (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 c. plus 2 T. sugar (175g)
Zest of 1 large orange
2 eggs
1 t. vanilla extract
milk for brushing
Turbinado sugar for sprinkling


Combine the flour, baking powder, salt, nuts and cranberries; set aside.

Cream butter, sugar and orange zest until fluffy. Beat in the eggs one at a time. Beat in the vanilla. Stir in the dry ingredients just until incorporated.


Divide the dough into three pieces. On a lightly floured work surface, form each piece into a 1- to 1 1/2-inch log—each log will be about the same length as the cookie sheet. Set the logs on the parchment lined cookie sheet about 4-inches apart (you may need to bake in 1 batch of 2 and 1 batch of 1 log). Flatten slightly. Brush the logs with milk and sprinkle generously with Turbinado sugar.


Bake in a 325° oven until set & golden brown—about 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool for 5 minutes. Slice on the diagonal into 1/2-inch slices.   (Note: The cookies must be sliced while they are warm, or they will crumble.)


Lay the slices on their sides and return the sheets to the oven for another 5 minutes. Turn the cookies over and bake for another 5 minutes. Cool completely before wrapping air tight. Makes about 50 small biscotti.

Note: For larger biscotti, divide the dough in two and form two fatter logs. You will have about 3 dozen medium-sized biscotti.