Monday, April 29, 2013

Mystery Cuisine: Pink Lemonade Cookies

In the past, I've written blog posts about my love of cozy mysteries that also include recipes. (See these posts for Wanmansita Casserole and Simply Crackers Candy.)

One of my favorite authors, Joanne Fluke, has a new Hannah Swensen Mystery out titled Red Velvet Cupcake Murder. In the book, I came across a recipe for Tickled Pink Lemonade Cookies that I immediately knew I’d have to try!

These cookies are made with frozen pink lemonade concentrate, though you can use regular lemonade concentrate if you can’t find the pink version. I made a couple of adjustments to the recipe to up the lemon flavor in the frosting. 

Also, the cookies were a little too pink for my liking. Next time I’ll use less food color gel so the cookies look more like the lighter pink of the frosting. I may also add some lemon zest to up the lemon flavor more,
but don’t get me wrong. These cookies taste great!

Pink Lemonade Cookies
Adapted from Red Velvet Cupcake Murder by Joanne Fluke
Makes approximately 2 1/2-dozen cookies

For cookies:
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 large egg
1/3 cup frozen pink or regular lemonade concentrate, thawed
Red food coloring or food color gel
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, un-sifted (use the scoop and level method*)

For frosting:
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
2 cups powdered sugar
4 teaspoons frozen pink or regular lemonade concentrate, thawed
2 to 4 teaspoons milk
Red food coloring or food color gel

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Set aside.

For the cake: Put the butter and sugar into the bowl of an electric mixer and beat until fluffy. Mix in the
baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Beat in the egg, and then beat in the lemonade concentrate until well combined. Add the food coloring or gel until the cookies reach the desired pink color. (Start with 3 drops of food coloring or 1/4 teaspoon of food color gel, and then add more if you want to darken the color.) Mix in the flour, 1/2 cup at a time, until well combined.

Drop teaspoon-sized dollops of cookie dough onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes until the edges are slightly brown. Remove from the oven and cool on the baking sheet for two minutes, and then place the cookies on a wire rack to cool completely.

For the frosting: By hand or with a mixer, beat together the butter and powdered sugar. Mix in the lemonade concentrate. Mix in milk, one teaspoon at a time, until the frosting reaches a spreadable consistency. Add food coloring or gel to get the desired pink color.

Once the cookies are completely cooled, frost each one. Allow the cookies to set until the frosting has hardened. Store in an air-tight container with the cookie layers separated by waxed paper.

*Scoop up the flour into the measuring cup and then level off by swiping a straight edge (like the back of a knife) across the top. The flour should be well packed into the measuring cup.  

Monday, April 22, 2013

Boston Cream Pie

A week ago, my cell phone vibrated in my pocket while I was teaching my preschool class. When I had a moment, I looked at the screen, only to discover the news about a bombs going off at the Boston Marathon. My mouth dropped open in disbelief.

From 1992 to 2009, I lived in the Boston area. I walked the city’s streets enjoying the historic architecture. I visited the wonderful museums numerous times. I ate cannolis in the North End and Italian food on Cambridge Street. I bought books in Harvard Square and sailed on a schooner in Boston Harbor. I cheered for the sports teams and even wrote about the food served at Fenway Park, complete with a behind
the scenes tour.

I was heartbroken that a city I love was going through such pain on a day that traditionally is filled with celebration and holiday revelry.

What do food writers do to cope with sadness? They cook, of course, and then write about it. I wanted to make something to honor Boston, so I decided to make one of my favorite desserts, the Boston Cream Pie. It also happens to be the official dessert of Massachusetts.

This sweet treat is actually a cake, not a pie. It originated at the Parker House Hotel (now the Omni Parker House Hotel) in 1856, though earlier versions have been around since colonial times. The dessert has
three components—two layers of sponge cake filled with a vanilla pastry cream and topped with a chocolate glaze.

A perfect dessert to sooth frazzled nerves and chase away the bad-news blues.

Boston Cream Pie

Adapted from The King Arthur Four Baker’s Companion and

Note: Be sure to make the pastry cream first so it can chill while you make the cake and glaze.

For the pastry cream:
1/2 cup cream
1 1/2 cups whole milk
6 large egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
Pinch of salt
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold and cut into four pieces
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

For the cake:
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cornstarch
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup sugar
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 large eggs
1/2 cup whole milk

For the chocolate glaze:
1/2 cup cream
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
4 1/2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
Pinch of salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

To make the pastry cream: In a medium saucepan over medium heat, bring the cream and milk to just a
simmer. While waiting, in a medium bowl, whisk together the yolks, sugar, and salt. Then whisk in the flour until well mixed. Take the milk-cream mixture off the heat and poor 1/2 cup into the egg mixture, whisking all the time, to temper the eggs. Then whisk the egg mixture into the saucepan with the milk-cream mixture.

Place the saucepan back on medium heat and whisk while it thickens for 1 minute. Turn down the heat to medium-low and continue to whisk for 8 more minutes. Then bring the heat back up to medium and whisk until bubbles pop on the surface, about another minute. Remove from the heat and whisk in the butter until it melts and is blended into the mixture. Whisk in the vanilla.

Strain the pastry cream through a fine-mesh strainer over a bowl. Press plastic wrap gently onto the surface of the cream to cover, and then refrigerate until needed.

To make the cake: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter a 9-inch cake pan that is at least 2-inches deep. (I used a springform pan.) Place a parchment paper ring in the bottom and butter the paper. Then dust the pan lightly with flour and set aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, cornstarch and baking powder. Set aside.

In the bowl of a mixer, blend together the sugar, butter, salt and flavorings until fluffy. Add the oil, and then the eggs, one at a time, and continue to beat until well combined and fluffy. Beat in 1/3 of the flour mixture, then half the milk, another 1/3 of the flour, the rest of the milk, and the rest of the flour. Beat until well combined, about 2 minutes.

Pour the cake batter into the prepared cake pan. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean. Allow the cake to cook in the pan for 15 minutes, and then remove the cake from the pan to a cooling rack to finish cooling.

To make the glaze: Place the cream and corn syrup into a small sauce pan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Remove from the heat, add the chocolate and salt, and stir until the chocolate melts and the glaze is smooth. Stir in the vanilla and set aside. The glaze will remain fluid until needed, just do not refrigerate.

To build the cake: With a large serrated knife, slice the cake in half horizontally. Place the bottom half on a cake place, cut side up. Scoop the pastry cream into the middle and spread out almost to the edge of the cake. Place the top half of the cake, cut side down, on top of the pastry cream. Pour the glaze over the top, allowing it to spill over the edge of the cake and drip down the sides. Refrigerate for a few minutes to set the glaze. Keep refrigerated until ready to serve. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Grandma’s Noodles with Chicken

I've written many times about Mamaw, my mom’s mom, who was a wonderful cook but hated the process. On the flip side is Grandma, my dad’s mom, who loved to cook. She passed that love on to my dad, who also loves to cook, and she's where my cooking gene originated.

If Grandma knew you were coming to visit, she always had something for you to eat, such as cookies, pie, or cake. If she didn't know you were coming, one of the first things she would say was, “Let me make you something to eat.”

Grandma loved feeding people. And since my dad is the oldest of six, there were always a lot of people to feed. This sign that was in her kitchen offers the perfect explanation.

Grandma was a country cook. I remember the tub of lard that sat in her kitchen. Most of the meals featured fried chicken or pork chops…sometimes both…mashed potatoes and pan gravy, and lots of desserts.

But Grandma was best known for her homemade noodles. They were similar to the frozen noodles found in the grocery store, which my research suggests is thanks to her German ancestry. They were a staple at every family meal. To this day family members will close their eyes in reverence at the memory of those delicious noodles cooked in chicken broth. The noodles were coated in so much flour the chicken broth became a thick gravy while they cooked. 
I watched Grandma make them from time to time, but of course, I never wrote down her recipe. When she died years ago, the recipe went with her. My Aunt Mary told me she had one particular spoon she used to measure the flour, and the only ingredients were flour, eggs, and water.

A few years ago, my sister challenged me to recreate the noodles for Thanksgiving. I did! When I bit into the noodles, all of the memories of Grandma’s kitchen came flooding back.

This time I decided to add chicken and vegetables to the mix to make a complete meal. The Picky Eater liked it, and even ate the leftovers!

I think Grandma would be happy.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Farmer’s Market Season Begins

I’m thrilled that today marks the opening of my local farmer’s market. I can’t wait to walk around the stalls to scope-out the early season produce (wonder if there will be radishes and snap peas yet?), baked goods, meats, eggs, and crafts, plus jams and honey. Local musicians will preform throughout the market, which gives the day a festive feel, and I usually run into a person or two that I know. Include the food aromas from the many food trucks and stands (I hear a breakfast burrito calling my name!) and it becomes a perfect day. The market's allure is one of the only reasons I’ll get up early on a Saturday morning.

Here are a few tips to make a visit to the local farmer’s market more enjoyable:

  • Bring your own tote bag. Most vendors have plastic bags for your use, but it is much easier to have one large canvas bag to hold your purchases–especially if it can go over your shoulder. Many people bring compact personal grocery carts that fold up nicely in the car, while others bring mini coolers on wheels. As heavy as my tote bag gets, I’m thinking wheels would be a good thing!
  • Put an insulated bag in your tote, or have a cooler ready in the car, to hold perishable purchases.
  • Walk around the whole market first before making a purchase. That way you can see what is available and compare prices. There’s nothing
    worse that buying tomatoes and then finding ones that both look better and are cheaper at another stand. After a couple of visits, you will pick your favorite stands to visit each week.
  • Talk to the vendors! Ask them where and how their produce is grown. Some stands ship in their produce from far away, so you may think your buying local when your not.  Also, ask for recipes. Most are happy to share their expertise.

To find your local farmer’s market, visit the Local Harvest website. There are listings not only for the markets in your state, but also many other locally-grown food spots such as farm stands, community supported agriculture opportunities, restaurants, and more

I’ll be posting farmer’s market-themed recipes throughout the summer, but here are some lovely ones from years past:

Monday, April 8, 2013

Baked Ziti to Fight Hunger

Three to four dollars a day: That is what a person on SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps) gets to spend for food each day. Now, take a minute and think about it: $4 to buy food for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Could you do that?

When I first heard that number, I was astounded. As a food writer, I've always supported organizations that work to feed hungry people, mostly by writing about their efforts so the public would become more involved. But when the Great Recession of 2008 cut into my income, I became very much aware of how hard it is to feed yourself well on a tight budget. Still, I managed to squeeze my fair trade, organic coffee and favorite fresh produce into my weekly food budget while buying budget-friendly beans, pasta and eggs to create my meals.

I would never make it on $4 a day. I can’t even begin to imagine trying.

According to Share Our Strength, 48.8 million Americans struggle to have enough nutritious food on a regular basis. Worst of all, many are children—16.2 million. That means 1 in 5 children aren't getting enough to eat. Many are able to get meals at school through free and reduced cost breakfast and lunch programs, but what about when they aren't in school?  

Frankly, it is incomprehensible that in 2013 there are people going hungry in this country.

Today a community of more than 200 food bloggers is raising its collective voice against hunger in the United States. There is a wonderful film out now, A Place at the Table, starring Jeff Bridges, Chef Tom Colicchio, and many others, that explores hunger in this country. You can check out the trailer for the film here, and watch at a theater near you or On Demand through iTunes and Amazon

Please, please, please, take 30 seconds to click on this link and let our government leaders know we will no longer stand for hungry kids in America. I did! At this time of budget cuts, don’t let programs that feed hungry children fall under the knife. 

Let’s make our voices heard!

Now, here’s my favorite budget-friendly meal. This Baked Ziti recipe is adapted from one I saw in the New York Times in 2004. I paid $7.72 for the ingredients. (I had the oregano, onion, and garlic in my pantry.) Since it serves 6, that amount is within the SNAP budget for dinner to feed a family of this size. When I was cash-strapped, I would make up a batch and freeze it in single serving sizes.

Baked Ziti
Adapted from a recipe in the New York Times, November 10, 2004.
Serves 6

1/2 pound Italian sausage
1/2 pound hamburger (I used ground chuck.)
1 large onion, diced
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes in puree
1 teaspoon ground oregano
1 pound ziti or penne
1 2-cup bag grated mozzarella
Oil for cooking
Salt and pepper, to taste

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Turn on a large pot of water to boil. Grease a 9- by 13-inch baking dish and set aside.

If the Italian sausage came in links, squeeze the meat out of the casing so you are left with the ground meat. In a large skillet over medium high heat, brown the sausage and hamburger. Lower the heat to medium and add the onion and garlic. Cook until the onions are translucent and tender. Add the tomatoes and oregano. Simmer on low.  Do not let the sauce become too thick.

While the sauce simmers, add a good amount of salt to the boiling water. Stir in the pasta and cook until it is just tender. Don’t over cook—you want it to still be slightly too hard to eat. Set aside 1 cup of the pasta water and drain the pasta. Toss the pasta with the sauce and 1/2 cup of the mozzarella, adding some of the pasta water if the sauce is too thick. Pour the pasta and sauce into the baking dish. Top with the rest of the mozzarella and bake until the cheese is melted and brown, about 20 minutes.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Conquering Pie Crust Phobia

Do you like to make pie crust? No? I once felt the same way. No matter how I tried, my crust would look terrible! So I bought refrigerator crust instead.

Today I have an article in the Topeka Capital-Journal on how I overcame my pie crust phobia. It's full of great tips from Susan Miller, the director of the King Arthur Flour Company’s Baking Education Center. She gave me a lot of wonderful information on how to make delicious and flaky pie crusts.

Perhaps the best advice was to relax! Give yourself time to work (Thanksgiving morning isn't a good time to start!) and don’t worry if the pie crust doesn't look perfect. It will still taste great!

The article features my blueberry pie, made from berries I bought last summer at the local farmer’s market and kept in the freezer. I also wanted to make a cherry pie, but I discovered I didn't have enough frozen cherries from last summer to fill a pie. So instead I put the filling into the middle of a pie crust and pulled up the edges to make a rustic pie. It tasted wonderful, though I'm sure it wouldn't win any beauty contests!

Just follow this link to see the recipes for the pie crust and the blueberry filling. I put the cherry pie filling recipe below. It is for my smaller rustic creation, but feel free to double the amount for a regular 9-inch pie.

Cherry Pie Filling
Makes 1 rustic pie

3 cups pitted cherries
1/4 cup sugar
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
Pinch of salt
2 1/2 tablespoons instant tapioca

1 9-inch pie crust
Egg wash (1 egg and 1 tablespoon water, beaten together)

Mix together all of the filling ingredients and allow to stand for 15 minutes.

Roll out your pie crust as if you would place it into a 9-inch pie pan. Place the dough onto a parchment lined baking sheet. (The dough will drape over the sides of the baking sheet.) Spoon the filling into the middle of the circle. (If the filling is runny, drain off the juice before putting it into the crust. Save the juice.)

Fold the edges of the pie crust up and over the pie filling, using egg wash to “glue” the crust folds together. Pour some or all of the saved juice into the filling. Use the egg wash to brush the outside of the crust.

Bake at 425 degrees for 15 minutes, and then lower the oven temperature to 350 degrees and continue to bake until the crust is nicely browned and the filling begins to bubble, about 30 minutes.