Thursday, June 30, 2011

Cakes for a Good Cause

Every Father's Day weekend, my church holds its annual summer bazaar (or Festivale Italiano, if you will), and for the past couple years I've done my part by making cakes for the cake booth.

I love our summer festival, because aside from getting to see people and eat really good chicken barbeque, it's for a good cause - the proceeds go towards our town's Catholic school, which serves kids from all over the county (as it's the only Catholic school in the county).

This year, I made a lemon Bundt cake with lemon icing, a dark chocolate fudge Bundt cake with chocolate frosting, and devil's food chocolate cupcakes with chocolate frosting and caramel frosting with chocolate sprinkles.

I apologize for the beyond bizarre way these cakes seem to have anti-gravity properties in this picture.  Their only superpower is deliciousness.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Kitchen Gadgets ~ A Few of My Favorite Things

Every cook and baker, whether professional or amateur, probably has certain tools and gadgets they simply couldn't live without.  These are tools and kitchen gadgets that make life in the kitchen easy and enjoyable.  They help get the job done right, whether the job is Thanksgiving dinner or pizza night.

Here are my kitchen essentials.  My forays into food would be far more challenging without them.

  1. Farberware Classic Forged 22-Piece Knife Block Set - This knife set is amazing. It comes with eight steak knives, 6-inch and 8-inch chef's knives, 7-inch Santoku knife, 6-inch cleaver, 3 and 1/4-inch paring and bird's-beak paring knives, a 5-inch serrated utility knife, a 6-inch boning knife, kitchen shears, 6-inch fork, and an 8-inch sharpening steel.  The only two knives in this set I haven't used are the boning knife and the cleaver.  But they're awesome.  Amazing.  And the wood block makes for great storage.
  2. Calphalon Non-Stick 10-inch and 12-inch Skillets - I've mentioned these before, but they're worth mentioning again. They're the best skillets I've ever used.  They cook evenly, and are the correct shape for making omelets and sauteing vegetables, stir frying, and everything in between.
  3. Pampered Chef Pizza Stone - Okay, so the pizza stone I have is a couple years old and doesn't have the handy handles on it.  But I just leave it in my lower oven most of the time. The pizza I've made with this thing is the best pizza ever - the crust is so much crisper than on a standard pizza tin!  And if you're going to have a pizza stone, be smart and get a...
  4. Wooden Pizza Peel - The days before I got this item were fraught with danger when it came time to taking pizza out of the oven (and off the pizza stone).  This pizza peel is a life saver.
  5. Calphalon Wooden Utensils - This seems ridiculously simple, but the best tools in my kitchen are my three hefty wooden spoons.  What can I say... I'm Italian.
  6. Wilton Bakeware - Okay, I don't have every piece of bakeware from every category from Wilton, but I wish I did.  All of my metal bakeware is Wilton. It cooks evenly, and every cake I've ever make in a Wilton pan comes out perfect after the minimum baking time has passed.
  7. KitchenAid Artisan 5-Quart Stand Mixer - This is my mixer. Isn't it a beautiful thing?  Perfect batters, the stiffest egg whites I've ever seen - ever!  Any serious baker should have one of these.
  8. OXO Good Grips Chopper - This thing is fun, easy, and awesome to use.  A few good "smacks" and you've got minced garlic, onions, olives - whatever you need, as fine as you need.  Plus, it comes apart for easy cleaning.
  9. OXO Good Grips Wire Balloon Whisk - Okay, so it doesn't have to be OXO, or necessarily a balloon whisk in particular.  But if you want to make smooth sauces or batters by hand, you need a good wire whisk. The loops shouldn't touch each other, either, because food can get stuck in between, which makes cleaning a pain, and it should be sturdy enough to stand up to the sides of any bowl or pan you're cooking in.
  10. Cuisinart Mini-Prep Food Processor - I don't do a whole lot of food processing, at least not in large amounts, so this little food processor is perfect for my needs.  The blade orientation can be changed depending on whether you're processing soft foods or grinding nuts.  Plus the whole assembly comes apart for easy cleaning, and it doesn't take up much storage space.
I'm sure I have many more gadgets and tools in my kitchen that I simply "can't live without", but this is truly the short list.  Without these items, my cooking and baking adventures wouldn't go over nearly as well as they do.

Friday, June 24, 2011

A 12-Layer Cake ~ An Amazing Dessert!

My cousin's 19th birthday was a couple weeks ago, and after I showed him the completely awesome and amazing 14-layer cake made by the talented Bakerella, he asked me, "Can you make a 19 layer cake?"

I considered it for about a month before his birthday rolled around.  It was going to be a challenge, because I would have to double any recipe for such multi-layer cakes as this one.  Then he said just a 14-layer cake would be fine.  Then I got to thinking about it, and decided just to make a 12-layer cake.

Please wipe the drool off your keyboard.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Chicken Marsala with Oven Roasted Thyme Potatoes

I absolutely love Chicken Marsala.  I love it in restaurants, I love it at home.  I love that there are about a dozen different variations on the recipe.  It's a fantastic example of Italian cooking that wows just about anyone you serve it to.

Normally Chicken Marsala is served over pasta, either angel hair or linguini.  Last time I made it for dinner, I decided to deviate from the "norm" - probably because I was out of pasta. (A Sicilian out of pasta?  Sacrilege!)  Instead, I served it over oven roasted thyme potatoes.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Artichoke ~ One of Nature's Most Misunderstood Vegetables

Think you're an expert on vegetables?  

Have you ever eaten an artichoke?

As far as vegetables go, the globe artichoke is probably one of the weirdest ones people have ever eaten.  No one really knows where they came from, but once they found their way into Europe, they spread throughout the land - Italy, France, Holland, England....  And of course, they ended up coming to the New World.

Most of the artichokes you'll find in the produce section of your grocery store probably come from California.  They're a bit strange to eat, a little fussy to prepare, and many people shy away from this strangest of strange vegetables.  It's much more common to see people using canned artichoke hearts in cooking rather than attempting to eat the entire thing.   

However, I'm going to show you a very easy way to prepare artichokes, step by step. And all you need is a couple of these strange vegetables, a clove of garlic, pepper, olive oil, and a 3-quart saucepan.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Jen's Spicy Secret Stir Fry

I'm a big fan of stir fry for dinner as it tends to be a quick meal that can feed several people - or two people for several days.  I generally use various stir fry kits, but if I don't have one on hand, I get a little experimental.

I got experimental one evening and created my own stir fry recipe.   It's spicy. It's secret.

But I'm willing to share.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Have Some Dessert ~ Crème Plombières aux Chocolat

My aunt and uncle are up visiting from North Carolina this week, and as a big "Hey, we haven't seen you since December and you've never been to my house at all" celebration, we had my entire maternal extended family over for dinner Sunday.  I made teriyaki marinated kebabs with shrimp, chicken and beef, plus a couple vegetarian skewers for my aunt.  26 skewers in all, along with grill-roasted veggies, homemade cornbread (and the standard cookout fare of baked beans and pasta salad), accompanied by spicy orange teriyaki sauce.

The best part of the meal, not surprisingly, was dessert.

I love when I host family dinner at my house, because it gives me a really good excuse to make a new dessert (or an old favorite on occasion) because I'll have upwards of eight people to eat it.  It's very bad to make desserts for just me and Aaron.  Because we eat it.  All. Ourselves.  Like the brownies I randomly made on Friday night.  Because I wanted brownies.

I needed a dessert that was awesome, impressive, and easy, and made with stuff I already had on hand.  I pulled the "bible" off the shelf - Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child.

I love Julia.

I perused the dessert section for probably an hour or so, flipping back and forth.  I was torn between Crème Anglaise, Crème Pâstissière (which I've made before and is awesome, by the way), and Crème Plombières.  I also waffled with flavorings.  Julia often recommends rum, kirsch (whatever that is) or cognac as flavoring, but I had none of those.  Not even rum.

("Why's the rum always gone?")

It was going to be either chocolate or vanilla flavoring.  I even posted my dilemma on Facebook and had some friends weigh in on the decision.  Or rather, declare that all three sounded difficult, but delicious.

In the end, I decided to make Crème Plombières with chocolate flavoring, top it with a layer of sliced strawberries, and then whip up some Crème Chantilly (whipped cream, it's that simple) for the top.  I went to bed rather pleased with my decision.

It was light.  It was fluffy.  It was delicious.  It was gone in less than five seconds.  I've already had a coworker request it for his birthday next year, after viewing this photo on Facebook.

The total time it took to make the Crème Plombières was forty minutes, start to finish.  I even had time to curl my hair before heading off to church.  Here we go, step by step.  

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Once upon a time, in a kitchen far, far away....

Or maybe a little closer than that.

I'm not a true gourmet chef, not a trained baker.  Everything I know is based on practice and experimentation.  So here we go on some cooking adventures!

My husband and I got married in July 2009, and one of my aunts gave me a box of cookbooks for a wedding present.  I love cookbooks; I think the box from my aunt brought the number I own up to at least a dozen, maybe more.  I haven't counted.  There are general purpose cookbooks, dessert cookbooks, healthy cooking cookbooks, ethnic cookbooks...  I've got gazillions of recipes flagged in them.  Some I've tried, other's haven't made it past the wishful thinking stage.  And there have been some flops, either because I misjudged a flavor or a measurement, or the recipe itself just didn't strike us as more than, "Eh, it's okay."

Not surprisingly, most of the "winners" have been desserts.  I have a terrible sweet tooth.  I come by it honestly - both my grandfathers could sniff out sweets from a mile away.

I've got thirteen days of work left before school's out for the summer, and aside from some travel plans with my husband and some professional development midway through the summer, I've got plans for some major cooking and baking experiments.  I need to expand my repertoire; I seem to cook a lot of the same stuff during the week for dinner, especially when life gets busy and I don't have the time, energy or inclination to be creative.

Aside from that, it's just going to be fun.