Monday, January 30, 2012

Homemade Vanilla Extract: Tackling My DIY List

I’ve been bitten by the do-it-yourself bug and have created quite a list of kitchen ventures that I am eager to try. It’s an evolving list – the type of list where you cross one item off (bread) and add two (Worcestershire sauce, yogurt) thus ensuring I will never be without a new challenge. My DIY repertoire now includes sriracha, ricotta cheese, pickling, spice rubs, cocoa mix, zhoug and granola. As I happily fill my Mason jars with homemade goodness, thoughts of, “What else can I make?” dance in the back of my mind.

When I was graciously given a stash of vanilla beans last fall, I immediately knew what I would create with this valuable treasure. Homemade vanilla extract has been on my list for some time now. I go through a lot of vanilla and cringe a little each time I buy a huge bottle of pure extract with its equally huge price tag. Vanilla beans are not cheap either, which has deterred me from making extract at home. Did you know that vanilla beans come from orchids? That helps explain their high price tag. I’ve read numerous recipes for making vanilla extract and it’s quite simple – vanilla beans, alcohol, a jar and time are all you need.

The most traditional alcohol to use appears to be vodka, with rum and bourbon following. Since I had a generous supply of beans (and alcohol!) I decided to make two different vanillas and compare their tastes. I split some vanilla beans lengthwise and used a knife to scrape out the beans. I divided the beans and pods between two jars and filled one with vodka and one with bourbon. I popped lids on each jar, shook them up, labeled them, tucked them in a dark spot and proceeded to wait. I’ve read that you should wait anywhere from eight to twelve weeks so I split the difference and waited ten weeks. I also read to add anywhere from three to six vanilla beans per cup of alcohol, so I created some decadent vanilla with ten beans to each of my one and half cup jars of alcohol. As the vanilla is used, you can replenish it by topping off the jar with more alcohol and giving it a little shake.

To taste test our vanillas, I baked a batch of sugar cookies and split the batch in half, adding a different vanilla to each. Using minimal ingredients (flour, sugar, butter, salt and eggs) allowed the vanillas to shine. The cookies baked with bourbon vanilla were the unanimous favorite. With each bite, we got a little blast of bourbon flavor that quickly settled into a warm, fuller flavor of vanilla. The cookies just seemed more “vanilla-ey” and had a vanilla punch to them. The scent of the bourbon vanilla was warm and toasty – a pleasing mix of bourbon and vanilla.

In comparison, the vodka vanilla had a more traditional vanilla taste and fragrance and was quite delicious, too. Depending upon what you are baking, this one may be a more appropriate choice. I will certainly be happy to bake with the vodka vanilla and to use it when I want a more subtle hint of vanilla. Either way, you can’t go wrong with homemade vanilla and I encourage you to try it. A more cost effective source of vanilla beans than the grocery store is to order them online ( sells them fairly reasonably) and make a large amount of vanilla extract. The vanilla will last indefinitely in your cupboard - or not, if you bake as often as I do. And if you have a surplus of vanilla beans (a happy situation indeed) you can slip a split bean into a jar of sugar to create vanilla infused sugar. Happy baking!

Vanilla Extract
Makes 1 cup

6 vanilla beans
1 cup of your chosen alcohol (vodka, bourbon or rum)

Have a clean, dry jar and lid ready (I used 1 pint Mason jars). Split each vanilla bean lengthwise and use your knife to scrape the beans out into the jar. Add the vanilla pods (push them down or cut in half if needed). Pour in the alcohol, screw on the jar lid and gently shake. Label the jar with the date (and type of alcohol if using different ones) and place in a dark spot for ten weeks. Once a week, give the jar a little shake.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Wattleseed and Chocolate Peasant Boule

My house is still filled with the warm scent of freshly baked bread from this morning. One of my kitchen goals has been to bake more bread at home. I already bake challah each Friday for Shabbat but I’ve wanted to branch out and try a variety of breads. Bread making is meditative and adds a distinct rhythm to the day. I like that.

I’ve also been itching to make something using the wattleseeds I brought home from our visit in Australia. I appreciated finding something uniquely native to Australia and when I first opened my little bag they gave off a heady aroma I immediately loved. The seeds are roasted and have a coffee – nutty – toasty flavor. Enticing thoughts of chocolate floated by, too.

The bread baking plan: pair wattleseeds and chocolate. Out came the yeast and flour and Abby Dodge’s recipe for Peasant Boule (this month’s #baketogether recipe). This bread is a lovely one to get creative with. It yields a crispy, chewy crust and tender crumb - I intend to make it again and again.

While the bread dough was rising, I lightly crushed two teaspoons of wattleseeds (which pop and crackle delightfully) with a mortar and pestle. Let me tell you, the scent of warm, yeasted dough and wattleseeds together is divine. I also finely chopped two teaspoons of dark chocolate and quickly mixed it in so as not to melt the chocolate slivers.

I chose to bake the loaf in a cast iron skillet. My cake pans are nine inches in size and the recipe calls for an eight inch pan, plus I am enjoying cooking with cast iron these days. Before baking, I brushed (lots of) melted butter on top for a deep golden brown color.

When the bread emerged from the oven I had to show enormous restraint while waiting for it to cool enough to slice. The craggy top was appealing in a homey, rustic way (I think boules are supposed to be smooth, though!) and pretty flecks of wattleseed and chocolate dotted it. I quickly gave in to temptation and sampled the warm crusty heel spread with (again lots of) butter. Little tastes of wattleseeds popped in each bite and the chocolate complimented it well. I can see my boys devouring thick slices topped with Nutella.

It’s always fun and inspiring to cook with a new ingredient. If you do not have access to wattleseeds, I think a nice substitute would be ground espresso beans and a dash of cinnamon. When the wattleseeds are gone I’ll definitely be pining for another visit to Australia.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Chocolate Dipping with Oh! Chocolate

My weekend involved chocolate, lots of it. My fellow chocolate lover, Debbie, and I attended a much anticipated chocolate dipping class at Oh! Chocolate in Seattle and it was divine.

Our evening began with sipping little cups of French inspired hot chocolate. The drink was thick and intensely chocolate, with a dollop of whipped cream to enhance the richness. I would return to Oh! Chocolate for this bit of bliss alone, but there’s more.

Our gracious hosts, brothers Chris and Nick, were entertaining and informative as they shared their family’s chocolate history, spanning three generations and resulting in the creation of Oh! Chocolate. They learned to make their hand-crafted chocolates from their grandmother and their display cases are filled with an enticing selection of truffles and chocolate confections.

They also taught us the origin and process of chocolate making, from harvesting the cacao pods (which grow from the trunks of trees) to its arrival on our market shelves. We were all given a generous plate of different varieties of chocolate and tasted the spectrum of unsweetened, bittersweet, semi-sweet, milk and white chocolates. The unsweetened was so good – bitter, creamy, flavorful – I kept eating it and brought some home. I can’t wait to bake with it.

Chris made an interesting point – just because chocolate contains a certain percentage of cacao (i.e. 80%) doesn’t guarantee it will be good chocolate. There are many factors involved such as the quality of the beans, the roasting, etc. which influence the flavor and texture of the chocolate. I prefer dark chocolate, the darker the better, and tend to buy based upon the percentage of cacao. I have to say, though, I will be more particular now and not rule out chocolates with lower cacao contents, even milk chocolate. The milk chocolate I sampled is the best I’ve ever had ... the texture was creamy and almost cheese-like with a smooth caramel finish. I appreciate being exposed to more chocolate options.

The class then moved to the hands-on portion of the evening. Platters of biscotti, potato chips, pretzels, marshmallows, strawberries, raspberries, graham crackers and Oreos were set out, along with pitchers (!) of dark and milk chocolate to pour on the tables. Nick showed us how to mix and swirl the chocolate with our hand to temper it, bringing it to the ideal temperature and viscosity to dip in. And then the fun really began.

Dipping and chatting, dipping and tasting ... My favorite morsel to dip? The potato chips. The crunchy, salty, sweet combination is sublime. While we dipped, Chris and Nick shared funny anecdotes and tips and were delightful to hang out with. They clearly love what they do and they do it well.

I came home in a state of chocolate-coma happiness and shared my big box of dipped treats with Bob, Sam and Isaac. I look forward to popping in to Oh! Chocolate again soon for a cup of hot chocolate and to indulge in some tiger butter, or perhaps a habanero mango truffle.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Meyer Lemon, Radish, Cucumber and Tomato Salad with Citrusy Dressing

It’s another snowy day in Seattle! A new blanket of snow brought a peaceful, quiet hush this morning. Now the air is filled with the sounds of kids sledding and building handsome snowmen, snow being shoveled, and neighbors walking their dogs or cross-country skiing down the street. The schools are closed again, so snow football, cookie baking and a crackling fire are on our agenda. No complaints in our house (except perhaps from the chickens – they haven’t left their coop!). It’s a happy time.

I tromped through the snowy neighborhood to our local grocery store and wandered the produce section. Citrus called out to me and I found I was craving something light. Don’t get me wrong – nothing pleases me more than a warm, comforting winter stew. Something bright and tangy, though, was deeply appealing.

I selected vibrant Meyer lemons and a couple of limes, not knowing what I had in mind, only that I need a little hiatus from long simmering dishes. Some crisp cucumbers and radishes, fresh mint and colorful grape tomatoes found their way into my basket, too.

Once home, I began zesting the lemons and limes, inhaling their citrusy scent. I juiced some of the fruit and combined it with the zest, garlic and olive oil to create a jazzy dressing for the veggies.

I find the sour pucker of Meyer lemons to be refreshing, almost like grapefruit but with a lemony punch, so I decided to include segments in my salad along with the diced cucumbers, chopped mint, sliced radishes and grape tomatoes.

I sighed deeply when I took my first bite. The fresh flavors and crunchy textures danced in my mouth and satisfied my craving for crisp, bright tastes pefectly.

Meyer Lemon, Radish, Cucumber and Tomato Salad with Citrusy Dressing
Serves 4

20 ounces grape tomatoes, sliced in half
1/2 large English cucumber, diced
1 bunch of radishes, sliced
1/2 cup fresh mint, roughly chopped
3 Meyer lemons
1 lime
1 clove garlic
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 cup olive oil

Combine the tomatoes, cucumber, radishes and mint in a large serving bowl.

Zest one lemon and one lime and put zest into a glass jar for mixing. Juice one lemon and half a lime and add the juice to the jar. With a mortar and pestle, crush the garlic clove with the salt until smooth. Add the garlic mixture and olive oil to the jar. Cover and shake until well combined.

Slice the peel and pith off of the two remaining Meyer lemons. Cut the lemons into segments and remove seeds. Add to the veggie mix in the serving bowl.

When ready to serve, toss the dressing with the salad and taste for salt.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Simply Cheese Lasagna

Snow is falling! It’s time for sledding, hot cocoa with marshmallows, a roaring fire and all the pleasures that a white wonderland brings. Hiking countless times back up the hill with a sled works up quite an appetite, so it’s also time to think about hearty warm dishes.

Lasagna is one that is sure to please and quick to make. It can be prepared ahead of time and baked when needed, or you can keep a pan stashed in the freezer to pull out when the snow is swirling. I love lasagna and all its many varieties with roasted veggies, pesto or béchamel sauce. Sometimes, though, what hits the spot most is classic cheese lasagna.

Simple, quality ingredients - many of them pantry staples - combine to create a fresh tasting, deeply satisfying lasagna. The marinara sauce is an easy staple and can also top pizzas or be tossed with spaghetti. I’ve become a fan of the “no boil” lasagna noodles since I can keep them on hand for quick lasagna preparation if fresh noodles are not available. Add some fresh ricotta (you know my love affair with homemade ricotta!) and mozzarella and you have the ultimate comfort food, something guaranteed to delight eaters of all ages.

The warm lasagna emerging from the oven fills the house with an inviting scent, promising to fortify hungry bellies that come in from the cold. And when those bellies are full? Back outside to the sleds!

Simply Cheese Lasagna
Serves 8 (9x13 inch baking pan)

6 cloves garlic
2 – 28 ounce cans whole tomatoes (I use San Marzano)
Olive oil
1/4 cup fresh basil, coarsely chopped
2 pounds fresh ricotta cheese, store bought or homemade
2 large eggs
2 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, divided
1 pound fresh mozzarella, diced
2 cups grated Parmesan cheese
9 ounces (1 box) “no boil” lasagna noodles (I use whole wheat) or fresh lasagna noodles

To make the marinara sauce, pulse the garlic in a food processor until roughly chopped. Add the canned tomatoes with their juices, a long pour of olive oil, the fresh basil, 1 teaspoon kosher salt and 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper and whiz until mostly smooth. Pour the mixture into a medium saucepan, bring to a boil and then reduce heat and simmer for about 30 minutes, stirring a few times. Set aside until ready to use. Sauce can be prepared ahead of time and kept covered in the refrigerator.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a large bowl, combine the ricotta, eggs, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper.

Spread 3/4 cup of marinara sauce in the bottom of a 9x13 inch baking pan. Place a layer of noodles over the sauce. Spread 1/2 of the ricotta mixture over the noodles and sprinkle with 1/3 of the mozzarella and Parmesan. Place a layer of noodles over the cheese layer. Spread 1 1/2 cups marinara over the noodles. Repeat the layering (noodles, second half of ricotta, 1/3 of the mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses). Spread last layer of noodles over the top, spread the remaining marinara sauce over the noodles and sprinkle with the last 1/3 of the mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses.

Place the baking dish on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake until the cheese is golden and the sauce is bubbling, about 45 minutes. Cover with foil during the last 10-15 minutes if it is browning too quickly. Let stand for 20 minutes before serving.

** The lasagna can be prepared ahead of time and kept chilled. When ready to bake, let the lasagna sit out at room temperature while you preheat the oven. It can also be baked, cooled and frozen (be sure to wrap tightly in plastic wrap). If frozen, defrost and warm in the oven until heated through.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Bread Dumplings (Knedliky) and Cabbage (Zeli) from My Bohemian Mother-in-Law

I am turning to heavier foods right now, food that warms and comforts us and helps the outside chill feel further away. A festive winter meal that my husband, Bob, grew up with is his mother’s Bohemian Czech Bread Dumplings (Knedliky) and Cabbage (Zeli) served with a pork roast. Bob’s grandfather immigrated from Czechoslovakia in 1920 when he was 16 years old and Bob’s mother, Ann, was always very proud of her Bohemian identity. She kept her heritage alive in some of the foods she prepared (our family favorite is her peach dumplings – a summer staple) and knedliky and zeli were part of their holiday dinners.

The bread dumplings are tender and rustic looking, a perfect sponge to soak up the meat and cabbage juices. They are paired with shredded cabbage that is seasoned with caraway seeds and vinegar for an earthy, sweet tanginess. Bob’s love of caraway and vinegar flavors is firmly rooted in this meal!

These recipes are from my mother-in-law’s collection. Ann passed away almost 14 years ago and her recipe binder is something I treasure. Turning the pages filled with her handwriting evokes warm memories and the sound of her voice. Even though she is no longer here, she is still sharing with us and making it possible for her heritage to be passed on to a new generation.

This was part of the inspiration for me to begin this blog. It’s a place for me to gather our family favorites, new discoveries and my thoughts on food, a place for my voice to be heard for my sons and future generations.

Eating the knedliky and zeli with roast beef around our table and telling our sons stories about their grandmother warms my heart. It allows us to carry on family traditions and keep part of our heritage alive in a delicious manner.

Bread Dumplings (Knedliky)
From my mother-in-law, Ann Cordes
Serves 6

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 cup warm water
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon kosher salt
4 slices of dry or stale white bread, cut into small cubes (about 2 cups)

In a large mixing bowl, blend together the flour, baking powder, water, eggs and salt. Add the cubed bread and blend thoroughly (a flexible plastic scraper is helpful for mixing the dough). Using floured hands, form the dough into 2 logs about 6 inches long (the dough will be a little sticky – do the best you can and remember these are rustic dumplings).

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Drop the logs into the rapidly boiling water (not the whistling teapot – Ann’s note!) and boil for 20 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to gently turn the dumplings over a few times so they cook evenly.

Remove the dumplings with a slotted spoon to a plate. You can eat the dumplings right away, or chill overnight. The texture improves if made ahead and chilled so I recommend this method. When the dumplings are cool, wrap in plastic tightly and chill overnight.

When ready to serve, use a serrated knife to slice into 3/4 inch slices. Warm the dumplings in a steamer. I also warm by wrapping the sliced logs in foil and placing them in the same pot with the roast beef I am reheating.

Serve with cabbage (recipe follows) and a roast with lots of meat juices.

Bohemian Cabbage (Zeli)
From my mother-in-law, Ann Cordes
Serves 6-8

1 medium onion, chopped
Vegetable oil for sautéing onion (Ann used duck fat)
1 1/2 pounds green cabbage, shredded
1 cup water
1 teaspoon caraway seeds (or more to taste)
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 cup white vinegar
Salt to taste

In a large pot, heat the oil and add the onion. Saute onion over medium heat until soft and beginning to brown. Add the cabbage, water, caraway seeds, sugar and vinegar. Simmer and stir for about 20 minutes, adding some salt and tasting along the way.

Spoon into a serving bowl and serve with the dumplings.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Kale and Apple Salad

It occurs to me that I haven’t shared nearly enough kale recipes with you, especially given my love for this goddess of leafy greens. New varieties of kale recipes are emerging and I am delighted to see kale slipping into the spotlight.

Let me sing kale’s praises! Toss it into soups and stews during the last few minutes of simmering, sauté and top with a poached egg, enhance your pizzas or roast some kale chips. Combined with grains, legumes or root veggies it makes a hearty salad, side dish or meal. And kale happens to be a nutrition powerhouse - rich in vitamins A, C and K plus fiber, calcium and iron. But I digress from how good kale tastes ...

Our local Puget Consumers Coop makes an incredible kale salad that I adore ... I’ve eaten pounds and pounds of it over the past few years and love every bite. I have to admit I can’t think of a kale salad that I haven’t enjoyed, but what I particularly like about this one is the addition of wild rice with its nutty flavor and chewy texture.

Inspired by this salad, I created one at home that’s ideal for winter with crisp apples, fennel and red cabbage. The sweetness of the apple pairs well with fennel. Red cabbage provides a pop of color against the vibrant, rich green of the raw kale, making it a pretty salad in addition to being delicious. A bright, citrusy dressing pulls all these fresh flavors together nicely. And kale salad stands the test of time – it won’t wilt like more delicate salad greens – which makes it ideal to prepare ahead. I must say, I feel very virtuous eating this salad!

I’m not the only one who can’t resist kale ...

Kale and Apple Salad
Inspired by PCC’s Emerald City Salad
Serves 4-6

1/4 – 1/2 cup lemon juice (depending upon taste and amount of kale)
1/4 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 large crisp apple, diced (my favorite variety is honeycrisp)
3/4 cup fennel, thinly sliced and chopped
1 cup red cabbage, chopped
1/2 cup parsley, chopped
1 bunch organic kale (lacinato or curly green – I like to use a combination of both), ribs removed and finely chopped
1 cup cooked wild rice

Whisk 1/2 cup lemon juice, olive oil, garlic and salt in a large bowl. Add remaining ingredients to the bowl and toss (use your hands – it’s fun and will distribute the dressing more evenly). Taste for additional lemon juice, salt or pepper and add as desired.

The salad can be made a couple of hours ahead and chilled.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Beetroot Dip: An Aussie Favorite

We’ve been home from our holiday in Australia for a week now and I’m still basking in the post-vacation glow ... good thing since we are having our share of rain and wind! I am thinking back on certain moments – like digging my toes into warm sand – as I sit here watching the lashing tree limbs and rain on the window. Remembering glorious tastes, such as mangoes, ginger beer and curried vegetable pies, helps me hold onto the sun.

I have a deep love of beets and their earthy, sweet flavor so I was delighted to find a variety of beetroot dips in the Aussie markets, including ones with horseradish or pureed chickpeas. I’d never thought of beets as a dipping option before and was intrigued.

After sampling quite a few, I decided the one our friend, Bev, made and brought to Christmas dinner was the best (I’ve noticed she always appears with the most wonderful goodies!). This one included walnuts, garlic and red wine vinegar and she graciously shared the recipe with me. I couldn’t wait to get home and make it.

When shopping for beets this week, I found the largest I’ve ever seen – 2 1/2 pounds each! I bought two and have a lovely stash of roasted beets in my fridge now. The dip has a pure beet flavor with hints of garlic and brightness from the vinegar. This will be a staple in my kitchen now. It’s a wonderful vegan appetizer or unique salad next to grilled fish, and can be made gluten-free if you use cooked potato in place of the bread crumbs.

I indulged heavily in beet eating on this trip. I enjoyed the Aussie tradition of putting roasted beets and fried eggs on burgers, and when I popped into a fresh juice stand I couldn’t resist ordering the jimbo - beetroot, carrot, ginger, apple and pear juice (I was inspired to pull my juicer out this week and just made my own jimbo).

Creating favorites at home keeps a bit of Australia with us and makes me happy. My sons’ favorite beverage was ginger beer, so I’m fermenting a batch. They can sip it while watching cricket! And I have curried vegetable pies on my list to try my hand at. Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ll have the pleasure of eating mangoes as juicy and sweet as the ones we enjoyed in Australia, so that will have to wait until the next visit.

This wombat crossing sign makes me smile!

As did spotting an echidna (a spiny anteater).

Beetroot Dip
From Bev Reilly
Originally from the Ormylia Monastery in Macedonia
Makes about 1 1/4 cup

6 ounces beets, roasted and peeled
4 tablespoons walnuts, toasted
1 ounce bread crumbs or boiled potato (for gluten-free option)
1 clove garlic
6 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon salt or to taste (I used 1 teaspoon)

Place all the ingredients in a food processor. Blend until smooth. Serve as an appetizer with crackers or crudités, or as a salad alongside grilled fish.