Wednesday, September 28, 2011

How Much Is Too Much?

Lately, I’ve been thinking I need more. 
When I first thought I would start cooking, I had no idea what to buy, what was necessary, or how to proceed.  So I read and read and read. 
As I began to purchase, I was worried I was getting too much.  I doubted I would ever have the need for all this product.  I began to accumulate and get, wondering why?  I needed this pan for this recipe or this gadget for that one, but would I ever use it again?  Was I wasting my money?
It turns out, I wasn’t.  In fact, now I’m wondering if I need more.  After an exhaustive search, I bought a set of pots and pans.  A small and a large pot, a small and a large skillet, a bigger pan, a dutch oven, respective lids, even a pasta insert!  I am very happy with them.  In fact, the only thing I don’t particularly like about them is that they cannot go in the dishwasher.  And that isn’t even an issue.  They are super easy to clean!
I am considering buying another set of these pots and pans.  Is that excessive?  I do not know.  I find that I have, on more than one occasion, needed an extra large pot, that two large skillets would make my life easier than using the large one and the small one over and over.
I am leaving my research to you, my dear readers.  Do you have more than one set of pots and pans?  Do you use them?  Or have they just become more clutter in your kitchen?  Or would it just be smarter to buy an extra large pan and skillet rather than a whole extra set?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Oreo Cupcakes for Mom

My mom had been gone for nearly two weeks.  Her oldest sister has been sick for a long time now.  She flew home to be with my aunt for some surgery.  And the surgery didn’t go well.  So she stayed.  In the end, after a long fight, my aunt died.  That was last Monday. 
All last week, I was thinking that I needed to cook something for my mom upon her return.  Something simple, something delicious, something that will help her remember we love her.  Something dessert-y.
I went on a search.  I went through all my cookbooks (I have grown quite a collection in just one year!), the computer, and asked some friends.
I decided Oreo.  Oreo-something.  My mom loves Oreos.  Oreo cheesecake?  No, I just made a cheesecake.  And that is not simple.  Homemade Oreos?  Hmmm…maybe.  But I couldn’t find a recipe that sounded like something I wanted to do.  Oreo. Oreo. Oreo.  Oreo cupcakes!  Yes! That is it!
The Oreo on the bottom!
I found several Oreo cupcake recipes that sounded intriguing.  Now, I just had to narrow down my search.  I settled on one from Annie’s Eats, mainly because of the cute Oreo on the bottom.
These cupcakes would not be simple.  They would be fun.  But certainly not simple.
Now, there were a few issues that needed to be taken care of before making these cupcakes.  I would need a frosting dispenser.  I would need a cupcake carrier.  With frosting dispensed, not just smeared on, I would need a way of safe transport so as not to mess up the tops.  Oh, and there is a cookie on top!  Carrier is necessary.
Mom was coming back on Sunday night, so I would be able to make them over the weekend and take them to work on Monday.  I decided to break up the cupcakes into two days, Saturday for shopping for ingredients, the dispenser, and carrier; and Sunday to make them. 
Supplies on hand, I woke up Sunday morning with an excitement, ready to go!  After getting the puppies fed and myself showered, I ran up to Starbucks to get this day off to a good start.  I was feeling like I didn’t want to cook in silence, as I usually do.  I wasn’t feeling music.  I wasn’t feeling spacing out to the Game Show Network.  What could I put on that would continue through the whole process of these cupcakes, something I could fade in and out of, pick up on when it was time to sit down and wait, or ignore without consequence?
The hardest part.
Not eating these.
Great Scott!  I know!  Back to the Future!  And when one was over, I could just put in the next disk.  My sister and I have a habit of reciting movie lines to each other. I think it started as a way to pass the time on the long road trips we took as children. But it has evolved into just a random comedy routine now. As a result, I can recite most movies from the 80s front to back and then some. Back to the Future and the two that follow are definitely in my head. Forever.
Movie in, I ventured into these cupcakes, following every instruction. The first, and possibly most difficult (aside from not eating the entire package) was splitting the Oreos, ensuring that all the cream stayed on one side.

Once that task was tackled, I moved through the recipe like an old pro. One thing I am noticing as times goes on, is that the process becomes more familiar. I like this. I like the feeling of knowing that I am doing what is right, as if almost by instinct.

The same with the movies.  It is almost by instinct that I can yell "Great Scott!" at precisely the right time.  That I can tell the story of exactly how Doc Brown came to invent the Flex Capcitor, and even tell you that he did not invent the time machine for financial gain, he invented the time machine to travel through time.  All this without looking up at the television.  All this only by barely paying attention.

It is these instincts, this sense of the familiar, that cooking is slowly bringing to my life.  As I continue, things become routine, and I barely have to look up anymore.  While I know I still have a long way to go, I feel as though I am getting there.  I mean, seriously, Back to the Future has been part of my life for 26 years now.  Of course I know it.  In the very same way, a year has passed since I entered the kitchen, and I am beginning to feel as though I know it, as well.

Practicing with the
Frosting Dispenser
As for the frosting dispenser I bought for this cooking project, it is pretty basic, very cheap; however, effective and very cool. I have not really had a chance to play much with all the different designs, but I am completely motivated now to make more desserts that require frosting! I played around with it a little, just to get the motion down.

The cupcakes turned out beautifully. I was proud to take them to work on Monday for my mom. But more than that, I was honored to have the feeling of loving someone, of wanting to show someone that love, and bring a little bit of joy to someone who has not had much lately.

Oreos, inside and out!
After all, if Oreos can't cure you, nothing can.

Cookies and Cream Cupcakes
Yield: 24 cupcakes

For the cupcakes:
24 Oreo halves, with cream filling attached
2¼ cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
8 tbsp. unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 2/3 cup sugar
3 large egg whites, at room temperature
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup milk
20 Oreo cookies, coarsely chopped (I quarter them)

For the frosting:
8 oz. cream cheese, at room temperature
6 tbsp. unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 tbsp. vanilla extract
4 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted
2 tbsp. heavy cream

For garnish:
Oreo cookie crumbs
24 Oreo cookie halves 


Preheat the oven to 350˚ F.  Line the wells of two cupcake pans with 24 paper liners.  Place an Oreo halve in the bottom of each liner, cream side up.  In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and salt; stir together with a fork to blend and set aside.  In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the butter and sugar and beat together on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes.  Blend in the egg whites one at a time, beating well after each addition.  Blend in the vanilla extract.  With the mixer on low speed, beat in half of the dry ingredients just until incorporated.  Add the milk and beat just until combined, then mix in the remaining dry ingredients.  Gently fold in the chopped Oreos with a rubber spatula until evenly incorporated, being careful not to over-mix.

Evenly divide the batter between the prepared cupcake liners.  Bake for 18-20 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through baking, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.  Allow to cool in the pans 5-10 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

To make the frosting, combine the cream cheese and butter in the bowl of an electric mixer and beat on medium-high speed until smooth, about 1 minute.  Blend in the vanilla extract.  Beat in the confectioners' sugar until incorporated and smooth, 1-2 minutes.  Add the heavy cream to the bowl and beat on medium-low speed just until incorporated, then increase the speed to medium-high and whip for 4 minutes until light and fluffy, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.

Frost the cooled cupcakes as desired.  Sprinkle with Oreo crumbs and garnish with Oreo halves.   

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Power of Living

We all have our 9/11 stories. I know where I was. I remember the slow-motion of the day. And every year since, I know where I was and what I was doing on that day.

This year, I cooked.
I heart NY
I woke up at 7am to go to the grocery and Starbucks so I could be home in time to watch the event on television. I got home with enough time to put everything away, get the dogs out one more time, and get settled into the couch.

It was an emotional morning, as every September 11th is. This year, with the unveiling, it seemed more emotional. I am more determined than ever to get up there sometime within the next year. I have watched every special on television about it. I care about New York City with everything in me. The city is part of me, my love for it, exhausting at times, comes from a very real place, a place I cannot describe or put into words. It started way before I had ever visited. It started way before the internet, so New York in my mind was the only New York I knew, and I loved it. When I finally got there for the first time, it did not disappoint. It connects and inspires me.

Even if it never is my residence, my hometown will always be New York City.

After the ceremonies were gone, the television done telling us what was happening, I proceeded to get dinner ready. The roommate was working, and wouldn't be home until 8, so I had plenty of time. Good thing, because for once, I read the recipe ahead of time, and the pork had to marinate for six hours.

Pork chops.  Sans Apple Sauce
I have been throwing around the idea of making something pork (other than bacon) for a while. I never have. I keep going back and forth with it. I am kind of on the fence with pork chops. It isn't that I don't like them, it's just that I don't exactly like them. I don't know. I think they lack flavor or something. Maybe they just need a pop. I have browsed other recipes for pork. They are all huge. Pork loin, pork roast, pork expensive, pork HUMONGOUS.

Browsing the Publix ad last week, I saw that boneless pork was on sale. Ok, I got the hint. It was time to stop tossing the ball around and actually make pork. I found a recipe from my friend Chef Dennis that sounded like it actually had pop, so why not? If it is gross, well, I can always have some cereal.

For a side, I chose Macaroni and Cheese Muffins. I found these on Emily's Bites. They look amazing. And since I have had a love affair with Macaroni and cheese for, well, my whole entire life, and muffins and I are the best of friends, how could this be anything short of perfection? Mind you, these are not muffins. It is macaroni and cheese baked in a muffin pan so they look like muffins. But cute!

Ready for the oven!
I made the marinade and let it go. Sit and soak for six hours. I have never made marinade before, and although in the end it was easy, it was a lot of focus. (After all, if you mess up the marinade, you are pretty much screwed!) Focus was good, I needed the therapy of it.

Six hours later, I was ready to go!

I put the macaroni and cheese together. Another focused process! One of my favorite things about cooking is the process and the focus. I am getting more comfortable as days and dishes go by, but I am still hyper-focused on everything. It just happens when I start cooking. The zone.

As dinner was finishing, the house was smelling delicious, and it was all ready within minutes of the roommate getting home. Maybe I’m learning something about timing, too.

All in all, it was a good September 11. And I think that is what we need. Yes, we need to take time out and remember. We need to mourn for the loss. But we also need to do what gives us joy. They tried to take the joy away ten years ago, and nothing, absolutely nothing, is more powerful than living.

It has been a hard week to remember that.  Late in the evening of September 11, I learned a friend of over fifteen years had passed.  He battled stomach cancer for a long time.  And then, a few days later, my Aunt died.  The joy of living comes from the memory of those who have touched our lives, in both indirect and direct ways, of moving in spite of the desire to stand still (or curl up in bed), and do the things that bring us joy.  Honoring those who have gone before us is truely displayed by being true to ourselves.

I've been working on the list of recipes to get on this autumn.  Hopefully, I'll have a good list soon.  If you have a recipe to share, please pass it on!
Dinner is served!

Grilled Maple-Brined Pork Chops
Maple Brining Solution (for 6-8 pork chops)

6 cups Water
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1 cup Maple Syrup
1/2 cup Sugar
1/4 cup Dijon Mustard
12 cloves of Garlic crushed
1/2 cup Kosher Salt or Coarse Sea Salt
1 tsp Red Pepper flakes
2 sprigs of Fresh  Rosemary (or herbs of your choice)
1.  In a large pot, combine the water, salt, brown sugar, maple syrup, sugar, vinegar, garlic, mustard and red pepper flakes. Bring to a boil and remove from the heat.
2.  Let the brine cool to room temperature, then refrigerate for 1 hour.
3.  Add the pork chops to the brine and refrigerate for 7 to 8 hours, turning the chops after 4 hours. (don’t let them brine for more than 12 hours)
4.  Remove the pork chops from the brine and pat dry
5.  Lightly coat the pork chops with Olive Oil and sprinkle a liberal amount of black pepper on them.
6.  Sear the chops directly over the hottest part of the open grill for about 2 minutes on each side. Then move the chops to the medium area of the grill, cover the grill, and cook to the desired doneness.
7.  Make sure to use  an instant-read digital thermometer to check the internal temperature of the chops. A reading of 145° will give you a pink, moist chop (that temp was just approved by the federal government for pork)  If you want them more well done, let them cook until 160° but no more.
Serve the chops immediately with your favorite sides and enjoy!

Macaroni and Cheese Muffins

4 c cooked whole wheat or high fiber macaroni
1 T butter
1 T flour
1 c skim milk
1 garlic clove, minced
3 oz sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
3 oz Gruyere cheese, shredded
1 egg
1 egg white
1 (10 oz) package of frozen chopped spinach, defrosted, drained and patted dry (or you could use 1 cup cooked fresh spinach)
Salt & pepper to taste

1.    Pre-heat the oven to 400. Lightly mist a 12-cup muffin tin with cooking spray and set aside.
2.    In a small sauce pot, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the flour, mixing it into the butter until thick. Stir in the milk and garlic and raise the temp to bring the mixture to just under a boil. Add the cheese and whisk mixture together until thoroughly combined into a cheese sauce.
3.    Remove the cheese sauce from heat and then mix in the egg and egg white (binding agents) until combined.
4.    In a large bowl, combine the pasta, spinach, cheese sauce, salt and pepper and mix together. Spoon the mixture evenly into the cups of your prepared muffin tin.
5.    Bake for 10-15 minutes until the tops slightly brown. Let cool 5 minutes before removing from muffin tin.


Thursday, September 8, 2011

Finding the Muffin at the End of the Rainbow

Lately, I've been doing more reading than writing. Which is not an entirely bad thing, with the small exception, of course that I’m not writing. I also haven't been cooking as much. I've been reading, both about cooking and some good fiction.
Recently, I found myself lost in the food blog world. It is a hard place to escape from, and I can't say I want to escape. Amazing writers, ideas, and deliciousness abounds on the internet. I have joined groups and sites. I am learning tons from your experience, made lists of future projects, and am find the passion that we share comforting and encouraging.

Last weekend was Labor Day (as I’m sure most of you know), and I did not cook. Not because it was a holiday, but just because I was l-a-z-y lazy. As nice as that was, to just lay around and read, I did miss the kitchen. I can see the kitchen from the couch, but I still missed it.

Yesterday, I got motivated again. I wanted – no, needed – to get back. I went back and forth about what to make for dinner. I read recipes I had been saving for the last week. I wanted something new, something yummy, something I had not made before. I found what I wanted to make for dessert – Peanut Butter and Jelly muffins, that I found on the Eat, Drink, and Be Merry blog. Not only dessert, but a good breakfast to bring for the office. (Which, by the way, I did, and they were a big hit!)

I made bacon pancakes and the muffins. I made a waffle for my roommate and her mom. Breakfast for dinner. I can't help but think of Paulie Bleeker's mom in Juno, “...we're having your favorite, breakfast for dinner!”
A beautiful bacon pancake.
Sans grease.
As the bacon was finishing up on the griddle, I began to move things around, to get ready to make the pancakes and waffles. I very carefully removed the bacon from the griddle.  (Bacon being the delicacy that it is, you must be delicate.)  As I was wiping the griddle down, CRASH!, the drip tray landed on the floor. Bacon grease everywhere! All over the floor, my jeans, shoes, shirt, and left arm. I made a noise, and dove into the sink to rinse off my burning arm. Kelly jumped into action with the burn spray. (I bought the burn spray when I started cooking, knowing it would be the first of many, many cans. I am proud to say this is the first time I have actually had to use it!) After a few seconds, I realized that, although the grease was hot, it wasn't as hot as I had originally thought. In our minds, we know what something is supposed to be. And that seems to override reality at times. Do not get me wrong, the grease was hot. But thankfully, it had been sitting in the drip tray for a while, it was not the grease from the top of the griddle. So nothing severe. Nothing life-threatening or disfiguring. Just a nice red mark on my arm. 
A muffin.
In all its glory.

I forged on. I cleaned up the mess and continued to cook dinner. And after dinner I made the muffins. I love muffins. I do not know what it is about muffins, but they are so good, every kind. I have never met a muffin I didn't just absolutely fall in love with.

I think I love muffins more now that I am making them. Again with the process. It feels so good to start with flour, eggs, butter, and other ingredients and end with something solid and delicious. It is the joy of cooking. The pride of the end result in the enjoyment of getting there.

As I was winding everything down from cooking, wiping counters and starting the dishwasher, I began to think of perseverance. Following through. Moving forward. This whole year in the kitchen has been about just that. Obstacles, no matter what they may be, have the capacity to keep us from our dreams and goals. If I choose to stop when the unexpected happens, I never get to the end result, to that yummy muffin.

Today, as I did last night, I will choose to move forward and get to the yummy muffin. Or whatever the dream or goal I set for myself is for today.

All the muffins.
In all their glory.
Peanut Butter and Jelly Muffins
adapted recipe by Sabrina W. for eat.drink.and be merry.
original recipe by Paula Deen
makes 12 muffins or 6 large muffins

    2 cups all-purpose flour
    1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
    2 tablespoons baking powder
    1/2 teaspoon salt
    1/2 cup plus 1 teaspoon creamy peanut butter
    1 cup buttermilk
    1 egg, lightly beaten
    3 tablespoons butter, melted
    1/4 cup thick jam, such as seedless raspberry
    1/3 cup peanuts
    1 teaspoon honey
    1 tablespoon brown sugar
    1 stick butter at room temperature
    1 tablespoon of your favorite berry preserves 
    Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
    Spray a 12-cup muffin tin with cooking spray or line with paper muffin cups.
    First make the compound butter: Mix together the 1 stick butter that is at room temperature and a tablespoon of your favorite berry preserves. Refrigerate.
    In a food processor, pulse peanuts, honey, and brown sugar a few times until they are chopped.
    Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. With electric beaters, mix in the peanut butter until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add the buttermilk, egg, and butter and beat until combined. Gentle mix in jam with a spoon.
    Spoon mix into muffin pan and top with the chopped peanuts. Bake until the muffins are light golden, 15 to 20 minutes. Transfer them to a wire rack to cool. Serve warm or allow to cool completely. Spread on compound butter.
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