Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Basil Butter....with Corn on the Cob, Sockeye Salmon and a Quick Vegetable Sauté...

Our weather finally became hot and more Midwestern Summer-like a little over a week ago.  The warm weather brought on a growth spurt in my basil plants.  I wanted to give them a good pruning to encourage more branched growth, but cutting off enough basil for a batch of pesto might have decimated them.  Instead, I decided to make a little basil butter. It will keep for a while (can even be frozen) and will add a quick, fresh burst of basil flavor to whatever I choose to add it to.

Basil butter is a compound or flavored butter. Compound butters are wonderful flavoring agents—they can be used to dress vegetables, garnish a soup or finish a pasta or risotto.  They can also be smeared on a crostini or spread on a resting steak. They are quickly made and can include pretty much anything you like—minced herbs, citrus zests, reconstituted and minced/puréed sundried tomatoes or dried porcinis, finely minced olives, capers or anchovies, reduced liquids like port or orange juice, toasted and ground spices, finely minced shallots, smashed garlic, lemon juice or brandy.... Because fat carries flavor, any dish you add a compound butter to will be permeated with the flavor of your chosen additions. If you have never made a compound butter, and you have some basil plants that are beginning to come into their own, a basil butter would be a good place to begin.

For my basil butter I picked and then washed and dried a handful of basil (half an ounce? maybe less?). I minced it finely and added it to 2 or 3 oz. of softened, unsalted butter (you may use salted, but if you use unsalted, then you will be able to control the amount of salt that ends up in the butter). Because garlic is a good partner for basil, I added a small clove of garlic that I had smashed to a purée with a pinch of salt. I added more salt to taste and I was done. If I had wanted to, I could have added some lemon zest or maybe even some minced, toasted pine mimic the flavor of pesto.

The point is, you can add whatever you like to get the effect you want. But, having said that, there are a few tips for making a successful compound butter. First of all, everything you add to the butter should be finely minced or, if a liquid, reduced to a syrup (two exceptions to this that come to mind are lemon juice and brandy). The butter should be jam-packed with whatever you are adding—the basil butter for example should look almost green.

(Be careful with garlic though—one or two cloves should be plenty for a stick of butter.)  A small amount of compound butter should pack a solid punch of flavor. It shouldn't be necessary to add a ton of butter to something in order to taste the flavors you have added. Finally, when making a compound butter, always let it sit at room temperature for 20 to 30 minutes before correcting the seasoning—especially the salt. It will take some time for the salt to dissolve in the fat and for the other flavors to permeate the butter.

The night I made the basil butter, we had it brushed over hot corn on the cob:

The following night I smeared it on some Sockeye Salmon before baking it. This is one of my favorite ways to use compound butter. It is the easiest way I know of to prepare fish.

To begin, pat the fish dry. It is almost impossible to spread butter on a piece of meat or fish that is wet. Place a blob of softened basil butter on the fish filets.

Spread the butter in an even layer over the fish.  If you will be using the butter for other things, make sure that you don't contaminate it with the raw fish—use one implement to dollop the butter on the fish, making sure that it doesn't come into contact with the fish itself, and another to spread the butter.

Place the fish on a rimmed baking sheet or casserole and bake in a hot oven (400° to 450°) until it is done the way you like it. I like to cook my salmon until the white proteins are just beginning to be visible on the surface of the fish—for my 1/2-inch thick piece of salmon, this was about 6 minutes at 450°. A good rule of thumb for cooking fish is 10 minutes per inch of thickness. The finished fish is evenly covered with the herbs from the butter and the butter has basted the fish as it bakes. Fast, delicious and beautiful.

I served the salmon on top of a quick sauté of corn with zucchini and green beans (finished with a blob of my basil butter), and I topped the fish with some quick roasted cherry tomatoes. The acidity of the roasted tomatoes really lit up the dish, so if you don't want to make the tomatoes, maybe add some lemon zest and juice to the butter.

To make the tomatoes, halve or quarter some cherry, grape or pear tomatoes. Toss them with a little olive oil and a sprig or two of thyme, if you like. Spread them, cut surfaces up, in an oiled baking dish, season with salt and pepper and bake them in a hot oven (400° to 450°) until softened and beginning to caramelize in spots—15 minutes or so. I unfortunately didn't get any pictures of this, but they should not be too crowded in the pan, or spread too far apart. Also, 15 minutes is how long it took to roast 4 oz. of ripe cherry tomatoes in a small stoneware dish. The amount of time in your oven will depend on the size of the pan you are using, the ripeness of the tomatoes, how large a batch you are making, etc. When the tomatoes are done, remove them from the oven and drizzle with some white balsamic vinegar (or other vinegar of your choice). Serve warm or at room temperature.

My directions for the Basil Butter, Butter Baked Fish and Roasted Cherry Tomatoes may seem a little vague and loose. And that's because they are. For me, this was a quick evening meal, inspired by the ingredients at hand. If you try it, I encourage you to be engaged with the process, using my instructions from my experience in my kitchen as a guideline and then altering times, temperatures and ingredients to fit your pantry and your equipment.

The vegetable sauté that I made was loosely based on a succotash recipe out of one of my favorite cookbooks—The Art of Simple Food, by Alice Waters—so I have a more concrete recipe to pass along for that.

Sweet Corn with Zucchini, Romano Beans & Herbs

2 small or 1 large ear of corn, shucked
Olive oil
1/2 a small onion (about 2 oz.), diced
1 t. picked fresh thyme
1 small zucchini (3 or 4 oz.), diced
3 or 4 oz. Romano beans, cut in one inch pieces on the diagonal
2 to 3 t. minced chives
1 to 2 T. basil butter or plain unsalted butter
Salt & Pepper, to taste

Cut the kernels off of the cobs. Scrape the cobs to release the milky "scrapings". You should have about 1 to 1 1/4 cups corn. Set aside.

Heat some olive oil in a medium sauté pan over medium heat. Add the onions and thyme along with a pinch of salt and cook until tender—about 5 minutes. Add the zucchini and continue to cook until just tender—another 5 minutes or so. If the pan seems dry, add a bit more oil.

While the onions and zucchini are cooking, cook the Romano beans in boiling salted water until tender—5 to 7 minutes. Drain and set aside until ready to use.

Meanwhile, add the corn and corn "scrapings" to the onion and zucchini and continue to sauté until the corn is tender—this should only take a minute or two. Add the beans and cook for a minute. Add the chives. Add the basil butter and cook, stirring and tossing to coat the vegetables with the butter. If the pan seems dry, add a splash of water and continue to toss until the vegetables are just coated in a light film of butter and herbs. Taste and correct the seasonings and serve immediately. Serves 2.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

A Quinoa and Vegetable Pilaf—Good Food without a Recipe

In my cooking classes I frequently encourage people to think of the recipes that I teach as templates. The reason for this is that my goal is always to teach technique—not just recipes. I want someone to be able to go home with a recipe I have taught and use that recipe to feed themselves and their friends and family—whether they have the exact ingredients for the specific recipe or not.

I thought I would write a short post to illustrate what I mean by this in practice. Yesterday evening, I got home late and didn't have a lot of time to think about what to make for dinner. Furthermore, it was Friday. Which meant that I would be going to the farmers' market the following morning. I always want to use up, if possible (sometimes it isn't), any of my produce that is left from the previous Saturday when I make dinner on Friday.

When I got home, I pulled everything out of the produce bin and spread it out on the counter: a bunch of Swiss Chard, plus a few odds and ends of beets, turnips, summer squash, summer onions, green beans and peas. Obviously, I couldn't eat all of this in one meal. I decided to use the chard for sure—to basically use it as my starting point. I then put the beets and turnips back. They go well with chard, but they will continue to keep a bit longer and I was more interested in going in the direction of the quick-cooking beans and summer squash.

As I looked at what I had left on the counter, a grain pilaf began to take shape in my mind. I wrote about just such a pilaf a couple of months ago—Bulgur Pilaf with Chickpeas and Spinach.  A pilaf like this one is quick, nutritious, and takes well to a medley of vegetable additions (which is what I had in front of me).

The idea of that recipe is to make a grain pilaf and then garnish it with some cooked, chopped greens, sautéed/blanched/roasted vegetables, herbs and spices, as well as some dried fruits & nuts if you are so inclined. At that point, all I really had to do was settle on the grain. I thought about couscous and bulgur, but I ended up using quinoa, which I particularly like with summer squash.

I made my quinoa pilaf by sweating a small summer onion in some butter. I added cumin and cayenne before adding the quinoa (make sure you rinse quinoa to rid it of the bitter saponin). As the onions and then quinoa were cooking, I blanched the green beans and then steamed the chard until it was tender over the water the beans had been blanched in. After the chard cooled, I squeezed it out and chopped it coarsely. I sautéed some sliced zucchini and yellow squash in some butter. Mint from the garden, chopped toasted pistachios and golden raisins pulled it all together.

Incidentally, you may have noticed that the peas did not make an appearance in my pilaf. I think it's important to always make an effort to combine ingredients with care and not just throw things in because they are there—it is easy when cooking extemporaneously, so to speak, to get overly exuberant and end up with a hodgepodge that has little coherence. The peas just didn't seem like a great fit for this particular combination. Besides, they can be frozen or made into a quick pasta, or side dish, in the next day or two.

To prepare my pilaf, I didn't really measure any quantities. I could have pulled out the "original" recipe, but it probably wouldn't have changed my results too much. I had what I had, so that is what I used—a handful of green beans, what looked to be 2 or 3 servings of squash, one bunch of chard and a small onion. I used enough quinoa to support my chosen additions (in this case 2/3 cup—but the only reason I measured it was to know how much liquid to use). We had more than we needed for dinner, but there was just enough leftover pilaf to make a nice lunch for someone the next day.

My goal—and this should always be your goal when cooking—was to produce food that tasted good. And if you have learned and practiced the basic techniques of good cooking—and paid attention to flavor combinations that you have liked in the past—it isn't really necessary to pull out a recipe to be able to cook food that tastes good. This is really what cooking is all about—applying good techniques to ingredients that have been chosen and combined with care.

While I was cooking my pilaf, I pulled my beets back out of the refrigerator and threw them in the oven. They made a great little side dish to accompany my leftover pilaf for lunch on Saturday.

Basic Cooking instructions for Quinoa:  Rinse the quinoa well.  Simmer, covered, for 12 to 15 minutes in 1 1/4 times the amount of liquid as you have quinoa.  Remove it from the heat and let it rest, covered, for 5 minutes.  Fluff and serve.  Use these quantities and times whether you are simply boiling the quinoa or are making it in the pilaf style.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

More Corn...this time in a Risotto with Summer Squash

Even though there are only two of us, and it is only Wednesday, we have already managed to eat our way through 5 of the 6 small ears of corn that I purchased at the market on Saturday.  As I mentioned, the ears are quite small and are only yielding about a half cup of kernels per ear.  But those kernels are unbelievably sweet and tender and I don't want even this small amount to languish, unused, in the fridge. 

If I am not testing recipes for a class, or a private dinner, our weeknight meals tend to be pretty streamlined and simple.  So when I found the lone ear of corn I began to toss about in my mind for something along the lines of a quick, one-dish meal in which to use it.  As I mentioned in my previous post, corn goes well with summer squash--something I also have and will continue to have on hand for the remainder of the summer.  Since I also have the first of the sweet, juicy summer onions, I felt like I had the makings of a nice risotto. 

There has been much written on how to go about making the perfect risotto, and I doubt that I can add anything new to the conversation.  What I can do is define what I think constitutes a good risotto and discuss the things that I focus on when I make risotto in order to achieve that result. 

To me a good risotto is characterized by grains of rice that still have discernable texture, but are not in any way crunchy.  Furthermore, the grains of rice are suspended in--almost one with--a thick, creamy liquid that tastes of the rice, sometimes cheese and the vegetables, herbs and/or meats that have been used to garnish the risotto.  Sometimes the effect is a blended, harmonious whole and others it is an interplay of distinct flavors and textures--depending on when and how the garnishes have been added.

To achieve the desired result, the first thing I focus on is the cooking of the onions in the fat.  The onions should be cooked until they are completely tender.  The juices that the onions release will contribute to the creaminess of the final result.  The rice (I prefer carnaroli or arborio) is then added and cooked in the fat so that it too will begin to release its starches.  After that the liquid should only be added in small increments--allowing each addition to be almost fully absorbed before adding the next.  The rice should never be swimming in a thin broth, but always cooking in a minimal amount of an increasingly creamy liquid.   The risotto should be frequently and regularly stirred throughout the cooking process, as this too increases the creaminess of the final dish.  Finally, the final addition of butter is important--don't skip it--it helps to pull the risotto together into a creamy, fluid whole.

Every now and then you come across an explanation of a cooking process that is so clear and informative that it seems complete--there is no need to look anywhere else.  Paul Bertolli's description of how to cook risotto in Chez Panisse Cooking is such a text.  It is, hands down, the best explanation of how to cook risotto that I have ever come across.  I highly recommend seeking it out.

As I pulled together my ingredients for my zucchini and corn risotto, I thought it would make a simple and satisfying midweek meal...and it did.

 Risotto with Zucchini, Basil & Sweet Corn

12 oz. small zucchini and/or summer squash, trimmed and cut into small cubes or thin slices
5 T. unsalted butter, divided
1 to 1 1/2 cups fresh corn (plus pulp and "milk" scraped from the cob)
1 medium onion, finely diced
1 clove of garlic, minced
1 ½ c. Arborio or Carnaroli rice
½ c. white wine
About 6 c. hot chicken stock
1 T. chopped thyme
2 to 3 T. butter
2/3 c. grated Pecorino or Parmesan
1 to 2 T. basil chiffonade
Salt & Pepper, to taste

Heat 2 tablespoons of butter in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Increase the heat and add the zucchini. Quickly sauté until the squash is beginning to color. 

Add the corn and continue to sauté until the corn is tender and the squash is golden brown.  The squash should still have some texture. Set aside.

Heat 3 tablespoons butter in a heavy medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and sweat until very soft, but not brown—5 minutes or so. Add the rice and continue to cook for a minute or two. Add the wine and cook until the pan is nearly dry. Begin to add the stock. Add enough so that the stock is at the same level as the rice in the pan. Adjust the heat so that the rice cooks at a slow simmer. When the pan is nearly dry,

add more stock and season lightly with salt & pepper. Continue to stir and cook the rice, adding more stock as each addition is absorbed.

When the rice is almost cooked (after about 15 to 20 minutes of cooking), stir in the cooked squash and corn along with the thyme.

Continue to cook, stir and add stock until the squash is tender and the rice is al dente—another 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the butter, cheese and basil.

Taste and correct the seasoning and serve immediately. Serves 6

Note:  This recipe is easily divided--for my batch for two, I divided it by three (and I used a heaped 1/2 cup of rice...I was hungry).

Printable Version

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Beginning of Corn Season and a Corn, Mushroom & Caramelized Onion Strudel

The first corn of the season appeared at the Farmers' Market this past Saturday. The ears were very tiny (it has been an odd year, weather-wise), but they were juicy and sweet. As I purchased them, the farmer said apologetically that there were probably a few worms. I told him that was fine, I would just cut the ends off. (Okay, actually before I said that, I smiled and said that worms were just extra protein.) He looked relieved and said that he wished more people had that attitude. Apparently in the past he has had people tell him they "had to" throw away entire ears of corn because there was a worm in the end.... 

I didn't ask, but I'm guessing he doesn't spray chemicals on his corn to prevent worms. If I am given the choice, I would rather cut off a few worms than eat corn that has been sprayed with pesticides. But I imagine a worm or two gets through, even on sprayed corn. In any case, be assured that the portion of the ear that the worm has enjoyed can be cut away (along with the worm itself) and the rest of the ear safely eaten. Here is one of the beautiful ears that I brought home:

I love our Midwestern corn. Not only is it juicy and sweet, but as the season progresses the ears we get are large and plump. One ear will usually produce at least a cup of corn kernels, plus a tablespoon or two of milky corn "scrapings". I always have to laugh when I pick up a cookbook that tells me I need 2 ears of corn to get a cup of kernels. Clearly these authors have never experienced Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa corn.

The corn I buy at the market will find its way into pastas, risotto, polenta, salads, succotash, as well as other side dishes. During the height of summer, corn goes with beans (green and shell), tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, and summer squash. Since our season is long, I mix it with the last of the peas in early summer and the beginnings of the sweet potato and winter squash crop in the fall. No matter the season, it is good with cheese, onions, garlic, bacon, thyme, sage, rosemary, marjoram, oregano, basil, cilantro, parsley, chives, dill and cumin.. It compliments beef, pork, and chicken as well as many different kinds of fish and shellfish. It will probably make frequent appearances on my blog during the next few months.

Left off the list above, and in a special class by itself, is the combination of corn and mushrooms. Truly a match made in heaven, I serve it on potato gnocchi or pasta, in salads, and as a side dish or stuffing. When I came across a recipe for Corn & Caramelized Onion Strudel in Maria Helm Sinskey's The Vineyard Kitchen, it seemed to be begging for the addition of some nicely sautéed mushrooms.

One strudel can be served with a small salad as a first course.  Also, since it can be made ahead and baked at the last minute, it works well for a summer dinner party:

Two strudels would make a nice entrée portion along with a more substantial summer salad—spinach with tomatoes and grilled, sliced Italian Sausage.  I unfortunately didn't get a picture of the salad with the sausage, but it was quite tasty.  Without the sausage, it made a satisfying lunch:

Sweet Corn, Mushroom & Caramelized Onion Strudel

4 large ears of corn, shucked
1 medium onion (8 oz.), cut in a 1/4-inch dice (1 1/2 c.)—use sweet summer onions if you can get them
4 T. olive oil, divided
1 T. butter, optional
Salt & Pepper
1 1/2 t. minced fresh marjoram or 1 T. minced fresh thyme
2 small or 1 large clove garlic, minced
3/4 lb. crimini or button mushrooms, halved a thinly sliced
8 to 9 oz. Fontina cheese, coarsely grated (about 2 cups)
18 9x14-inch sheets defrosted phyllo dough—about half a box
6 to 8 T. butter, melted

Cut the corn kernels off of the cobs. You should have 4 cups corn. Set aside. Using the back of your knife or a large spoon, scrape the cobs to release any remaining corn pulp and/or milk; reserve separately.  (In the picture, the cob at the top has been scraped and the one at the bottom has not.   The "scrapings" from the top ear are between the two cobs.)

Heat a large sauté pan over medium high heat. When hot, add enough oil to coat the pan. Add the onions and sauté until tender and beginning to caramelize—about 5 minutes for sweet summer onions. Regulate the heat as necessary to keep the onions from burning.

When the onions are tender add the corn to the pan, adding some butter if the pan appears to be dry. Add a pinch of salt and continue to sauté until the corn is tender and just beginning to caramelize—2 to 3 minutes.

When the corn is tender, add the garlic, herbs and reserved corn "scrapings" and continue to sauté until the garlic is fragrant and the liquid from the corn "scrapings" has evaporated—about a minute. Remove from the heat, season with salt & pepper and cool.

While the corn and onions are cooking, heat another sauté pan (preferably non-stick) over medium high to high heat. When the pan is hot, add enough oil to coat the pan. Add the mushrooms and sauté until tender and browned. Season with salt and pepper and set aside to cool.

In a large bowl, combine the corn and onions, mushrooms and cheese. Taste and correct the seasoning with salt & pepper.

To form the strudel: Lay a piece of plastic wrap on the counter. Lay the stack of phyllo on top of the plastic and cover with another sheet of plastic, lightly pressing the edges to seal. It is important as you work with the phyllo that you keep it covered at all times. It dries out very quickly and is impossible to work with once it dries out. Some people cover the phyllo with a damp towel instead of plastic wrap, but I think this makes the phyllo soggy.

Lay one sheet of phyllo on your work surface with the long side parallel to the edge of the counter. Brush the sheet lightly with butter (don't overdo it or the strudels will be greasy instead of crisp and light). Place another sheet of phyllo on top of the first. Brush lightly with more butter. Repeat with one more sheet of phyllo for a total of 3 layers.

Using a pizza wheel or a sharp knife, cut the phyllo lengthwise in half into two 9- by 7-inch rectangles. Place 1/2 cup of cooled filling (1/12 of the recipe) in at the end of each if the rectangles of phyllo nearest the edge of the counter, leaving a 1 inch border at the end and sides free of any filling. Starting at the end closest to you, fold the edge of the phyllo over the filling and begin to roll the strudel away from you, forming a slightly flattened roll. Half way up the sheets (after the filling has been completely covered by the phyllo), fold the edges of the phyllo in and continue to roll.

Place the strudel seam-side down on a parchment-lined baking sheet and brush lightly with butter. Repeat with the remaining phyllo and filling. You will have 12 small strudels.

Just before baking use a sharp knife to cut 3 or 4 diagonal slashes in each strudel so that they won't blow open in the oven. Bake in a 400° oven until golden and crisp and the filling is bubbling—about 20 minutes.

Cool slightly before serving. Serve one per person with a small salad as a first course. Serve 2 per person as a light entrée.

(Recipe adapted from The Vineyard Kitchen, by Maria Helm Sinskey)

Thursday, June 17, 2010

A Rhubarb Coffeecake as Rhubarb Season Draws to a Close

As the rhubarb season winds down I need to make my favorite rhubarb coffeecake one more time. After that I'll probably have to wait for another year to have it again. I really do love eating seasonally, but I'm always sad when one of my favorites fades off of the stage. And although I make liberal use of my freezer, rhubarb isn't something I freeze. Prone to exuding lots of liquid when fresh, frozen rhubarb produces a flood when cooked.

One of the reasons I like this cake so much is because of the cake itself. It is a tender yellow cake—the kind of cake that I think of when someone mentions a "crumb cake". It lacks the structure of a traditional layer cake (having one instead of two eggs) so it doesn't slice into neat, crumb-less slices. For this reason, it wouldn't make much of a layer cake—even though it's sweet, tender and moist—pretty much everything a cake should be. These qualities make it just about perfect for a coffeecake. I'm sure it would be good with other fresh fruits—sliced peaches, or maybe a scattering of blueberries or raspberries—but the layer of tart rhubarb topped by a sandy streusel is really the best.

In my rhubarb cornmeal cake post I mentioned the difficulties of using raw, fresh rhubarb in a cake. Its aforementioned tendency to release water as it cooks can make for a cake that is a gooey mess. There are several techniques for dealing with this, but one of the more interesting that I have come across was in a recipe for a rhubarb custard tart by Paula Wolfert, published in an issue of Food & Wine several years ago.

As you can imagine, rhubarb releasing its liquid into a custard as it bakes would be a disaster. To prevent this, Wolfert draws off most of the liquid ahead of time by cutting the rhubarb, tossing it with a small amount of sugar and letting it sit overnight.


The next day, so none of the rhubarb flavor is lost, the liquid is drained into a pan and reduced to a syrup.

 If memory serves, Wolfert then adds this syrupy liquid to the custard base for her tart (subtracting an equal volume from the cream or milk, I would imagine). I thought this was brilliant and wanted to use it when I was working on my coffeecake recipe.

Adding the reduced liquid to a cake batter didn't seem like a great idea.  Instead, I expanded her method a bit by adding the rhubarb to the sauté pan with the reduced liquid.

Doing this pulls out any remaining liquid that the rhubarb wants to give up—and if done over high enough heat reduces this remaining liquid at the same time. When you are done, all you should see is glossy, glazed rhubarb. If there happens to be any liquid left in the pan, you can just drizzle it over the cake. But try to avoid this scenario, because too much liquid tends to make the rhubarb sink into the cake. The cake won't look as nice if this happens, but it will still taste good.

Another important thing to remember when treating the rhubarb this way, is that the rhubarb and juices must cook rapidly (over high heat) and without stirring too much. The longer the rhubarb cooks, the more likely it is to become a purée. A few smashed pieces are okay, but a compote is not.

I love this cake.  It is everything a coffeecake should be—tender and sweet and streusel-y with the added kick of rhubarb. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I do.

Rhubarb Streusel Coffeecake

2 c. all purpose flour
1/2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. baking soda
1 t. salt
1/2 c. unsalted butter, room temperature
1 c. granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 t. vanilla
1 c. plain yogurt (preferably not low-fat or non-fat)
Rhubarb topping (see below)
Streusel (see below)

Preheat an oven to 350ºF. Butter and flour a 13x9-inch cake pan.

Whisk the first four ingredients together in a small bowl and set aside.

Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg; beat in the vanilla. Stir in the dry ingredients in three additions, alternately with the yogurt in two additions.

Spread the batter in the prepared pan and scatter the rhubarb evenly over the batter (drizzle any rhubarb syrup left in the pan over all).

Scatter the streusel topping evenly over the cake.

Bake until a wooden toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes. Serves 9 to 12

Rhubarb Topping:
1 lb. rhubarb, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch pieces (about 3 cups)
1/4 c. sugar

In a large bowl, toss the rhubarb with the sugar. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Drain the rhubarb in a colander set in a sauté pan large enough to hold all of the rhubarb in a single layer. Press on the rhubarb to squeeze as much liquid into the pan as possible. Set the colander of rhubarb aside on a plate.

Bring the juice to a boil over high heat and reduce to a syrup. Remove from the heat and add the rhubarb; toss to coat. Return the pan to high heat and cook without stirring until any remaining liquid exuded by the rhubarb has evaporated. Set aside and cool to room temperature.

3/4 c. all purpose flour
6 T. sugar
3/4 t. cinnamon
3 T. unsalted butter

In a bowl, combine the flour, sugar and cinnamon; rub in the butter until the mixture looks like sand.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Scottish Shortbread

In the last couple of days I have made two batches of cookies. This is not an unusual thing to be doing if you are someone who cooks and bakes for a living. But I can't really claim that these cookies were made entirely for professional reasons. I will use one batch for a dinner class—but they were not really necessary for the class and to tell the truth, I just wanted to have some on hand for myself. I guess I am just in the mood to make...and eat...cookies. Besides being a great afternoon treat to go with my coffee, cookies seem to hit the right dessert note for summer—they go so well with fruit or ice cream (or both) at the end of a meal.

Yesterday I made a batch of peanut butter toffee cookies. I'll admit that peanut butter is not the first cookie that comes to mind as a companion for summer fruits. But I had marked this recipe as one I wanted to try some time ago and I happened to have a bag of milk chocolate toffee bits—purchased for something else, now languishing in the back of a cupboard. The cookies, as it turns out, go very well with ice cream:

The cookie I made for my dinner class (to be served with Butter Pecan Ice Cream and Peaches "Foster") is one of my all time favorite cookies. Scottish Shortbread. It is a good all around cookie—great with coffee or tea and simple enough to go with whatever flavor ice cream or type of fruit that you might be serving. I make them every year for Christmas. It's nice any time of year to have a stash in the freezer.

Almost all cookies freeze very well and they thaw, setting out on a plate, in about the time it takes to brew a cup of coffee or do the dinner dishes. Every kitchen I have ever worked in has utilized the freezer to maintain their supply of fresh baked goods.  At home I started to keep cookies in my freezer so that I would have to think about thawing a cookie in order to eat one. The idea being that keeping them there would curb the tendency to eat them mindlessly. But I have unfortunately discovered that some cookies are pretty good when they are still frozen. Peanut butter cookies are one such cookie—one of the reasons they work so well in the ice cream sandwich....

The Scottish Shortbread recipe was given to me by a British woman that I worked for in Provence. If I recall correctly, this was the recipe she grew up with—probably fairly common in the British Isles. Even though I had lived in London, I hadn't acquired a good shortbread recipe while I was there. I am so pleased that she shared her recipe with me.  It has become a permanent part of my repertoire.

Her recipe was called Two-Four-Six Shortbread after the weights of the ingredients: 2 oz. of sugar, 4 oz. of butter, 6 oz. of flour. The original recipe calls for rubbing the butter into the flour and sugar by hand, as for a pie dough, until the dough begins to come together in clumps. I use a traditional creaming method instead—simply because it is faster. As it turns out, I think the cookies are a bit less dense and more tender when the creaming method is used. The other change I made was to add some salt. If you are using salted butter you don't need to add any salt.

Scottish Shortbread

8 oz. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at a cool room temperature
4 oz. (1/2 c. plus 1 T.) sugar
12 oz. (3 c.) all-purpose flour
1/2 t. salt

Cream butter and sugar. Using your hands or the paddle attachment on your mixer, work in the flour and salt until the dough holds together when squeezed. Divide the dough between 2 ungreased 8-inch cake pans.

Press into a firm, even layer. Score the dough into 12 or 16 wedges and prick each wedge with a fork, pricking all the way through the dough. Use the tines of a fork to press ½-inch lines radiating like the rays of sun all around the edge of the dough.

Bake in a preheated 275° oven until set and beginning to turn a light golden color—about an hour. Cool the cookies in the pan for 10 minutes. Carefully tap the “cake” out of the pan onto a cutting board. Cut into wedges along the markings while still warm. Cool completely on racks. Store air tight.

Makes 24 to 32 shortbread fans.