Friday, February 20, 2015

Corn and Black Pepper Crackers + The Quintessential Cheese Plate

Cheese Plate with Salami, Almonds, Fig Jam, and Homemade Crackers

I never really think to make crackers. I had made them once long ago-- I must have been in high school. My mom had a Pampered Chef cookie press, and the only other recipe included in the box aside from sugar cookies, were cheddar spritzer crackers. They turned out similar to cheese straws, but for the amount of effort they took, I was largely underwhelmed.

Last week, though, I was gifted a goodie bag of cheese samples and other hors d'oeuvres fixings, by the good folks at Whole Foods P Street. That prompted my goal of creating THE QUINTESSENTIAL CHEESE PLATE, which I figured must surely include something homemade-- whether crackers, pickles, or preserves. I went the baked goods route (surprise, surprise), making Melissa Clark's Corn and Black Pepper Crackers. Essentially savory cookies--both soft and crispy, these could be easily adapted to include a variety of different nuts and seeds. I'd keep the black pepper, though-- it adds a great spice.

Various Cheeses, Salami, and Fig Jam

Along with including something homemade, here are my other suggestions for that perfect fromage spread. This is essentially the simplest of dishes-- you're basically setting the stage for others to create their own pairings. Of course cheese boards are ideal for party snacks and appetizers, but they're also great for a weekday meal that's super fast yet feels decadent.

• Cheese (obviously): I like a good variety-- soft and hard, mild and piquant. Some of my favorites pictured here: Sartori Balsamic Bellavitano (hard white), Neals Yard Dairy's Borough Stilton (soft blue), and Reserve UnieKaas Gouda.

• Charcuterie (if you're a meat eater): Now this isn't a charcuterie plate, so the fromage should be the star, but it's nice to add a little salami or prosciutto to the mix. I opted for Creminelli's uncured bacon salami, which paired well with, well, just about everything.

• Nuts: Marcona almonds are the standout choice in my opinion, but any nuts will do. Chili or maple-spiced pecans or cashews are also a favorite.

• Fruits & Preserves: Fresh apples or pears, dried figs or dates, and/or any kind of preserves add a sweet compliment. Here I kept the Mediterranean theme going with an Adriatic fig preserves; this Apple Rosemary Jelly is also a cheese plate star.

• Honey: Another option for a sweet touch. Use orange blossom, lavender, or your local favorite.

• Pickles/Olives: As the Gordy's Pickle Jar gals pointed out, this cheese plate is devoid of any pickled goods. How could I forget?! Any and all olives are great in this context, as well as cornichons, pickled okra, green tomato pickles.... you really can't go wrong.

• Crackers or Bread: Make your own (recipe below) or use store-bought. I became a fan of Raincoast's Fig and Olive Crisps and also wondered what a puff pastry-esque cracker might be like?? Stay tuned...

Arrange everything on a cutting board, slate, or plate, using ramekins or jars for preserves, nuts, and pickles if desired. Set out some knives and cheese spreaders et puis voilĂ ! Let the pairings begin.

Corn and Black Pepper Crackers with Cheese

Corn and Black Pepper Crackers
Adapted from New York Times Cooking

3 Tablespoons unsalted butter, melted + more for greasing
1/2 cup cornmeal (I used Kentucky Heirloom Cornmeal)
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon black pepper, coarsely ground
3/4 teaspoon herbs and/or seeds, if desired (rosemary, sesame seeds, etc.)
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
3/4 cup milk
1 large egg

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Line 2-3 baking sheets with parchment paper and butter parchment (or use a Silpat).

2. Sift cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, pepper, salt, and any additional herbs or seeds into a large bowl.

3. In a separate bowl, beat milk with egg. Add to dry ingredients all at once and mix with a wooden spoon until no lumps remain. Stir in melted butter. Batter will be quite wet.

4. Drop batter by the tablespoonful onto prepared baking sheets. Bake until edges are a dark golden brown and crackers are quite crispy, 13-18 minutes.

Crackers with Soft Cheese

Related recipes:
Apple Butter
Apple Rosemary Jelly
Grapefruit-Ginger Marmalade
Rosemary-Raisin Bread

Tuesday, February 17, 2015


Homemade Beignets with Coffee

The history of doughnuts is intrinsically linked to the celebration of Mardi Gras. "Fat Tuesday" -- the Christian day of revelry and indulgence before the austere season of Lent -- features dough deep-fried in fat as its main staple.

Among the first foods to be fried were Roman scriblita, a precursor to today's doughnuts and fritters. Originating in the medieval era, most Christian European traditions have developed a version of fried dough for Shrove Tuesday (another name for the day before Lent starts). The rich treats presented a way to use up all of the butter, sugar and fat in the house prior to the self-denying diets of Lent. Traditionally it was an opportunity for indulgence, a day when, once a year, communities would go through the labor-intensive and expensive process of deep-frying in order to partake in a luxurious treat.

Beignets are the most widely known Mardi Gras doughnut. The recipe for the light and eggy pillows of fried dough was brought to Louisiana when French Acadians were deported there in the 18th century. But there is another, lesser-known Carnival doughnut in New Orleans — calas. Sweet, fried rice dumplings, calas originate from the West African enslaved people who were brought to the area in the late 1700s. The recipe was passed on among Catholic African-American families who served them at Mardi Gras and other celebrations, and they're making a comeback in New Orleans restaurants, where they're offered as both savory and sweet dishes.

As it goes with traditional recipes that have undergone many relocations, transitions and generations, there are many variations and not one definitive source for all of these varying Carnival delights. Whichever variety you choose, celebrate Mardi Gras the way it's supposed to be — with a hearty helping of dough and fat.

A longer version of this post was originally published on NPR's Kitchen Window

Homemade Beignets with Powdered Sugar

Adapted from What's Cooking America 

I recommend making the dough the night before so you can fry and eat them fresh first thing the next morning. 

Makes 18 to 24 beignets 

1 cup lukewarm water 
3 teaspoons active dry yeast 
1/4 cup white sugar, plus a pinch 
4 cups all-purpose flour 
1/2 teaspoon salt 
1 large egg, beaten 
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened 
1/2 cup evaporated milk 
Vegetable oil for deep-frying 
Powdered sugar for dusting 

1. In a medium bowl, place water, yeast and pinch of sugar. Whisk together and let sit to dissolve yeast, 5 to 10 minutes. 

2. In a large bowl or bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook, combine flour, 1/4 cup sugar and salt. Add yeast mixture and stir until incorporated. Add egg, butter and evaporated milk and mix until well combined and dough is smooth. 

3. Remove dough from bowl and roll out onto a lightly oiled surface. Form dough into a ball and place in a lightly greased bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until chilled, 3 to 4 hours or overnight. 

4. Once chilled, remove dough from the refrigerator and roll out on a lightly floured surface about 1/2-inch thick. Cut into squares and place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Cover with a cloth and set aside while you heat the oil. 

5. In a deep heavy saucepan with high sides, heat 3 inches of oil to 360-375 degrees F. Working in batches, fry the beignets for 2 minutes on each side, until puffed and golden brown. Using a wire skimmer or slotted spatula, transfer to a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Transfer to a baking sheet and let cool completely. Dust with powdered sugar and serve warm or at room temperature.

Homemade Beignets with Powdered Sugar on plate

Related recipes:
Apple Cider Doughnuts
Cardamom Doughnut Muffins

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Valentine's Sweets to the Sweet

Homemade Heart-Shaped Sugar Cookies for Valentine's Day

Oh, Valentine's Day. That yearly tension between refusing to succumb to vapid consumerism and the genuine desire to express your love. To me, the can't-go-wrong solution is to show your affection with a simple homemade or handmade token and then shower your loved ones with the real, sincere kindnesses that money can't buy. A good rule for the other 364 days, really. In any case, here are a few Valentine-y suggestions for an edible treat--rich and chocolatey, tart and fruity, or otherwise. Of course you can always find more via the Recipe Index.

Happy LOVE day & enjoy!

Chocolate Coconut Pie (gluten-free)
Chocolate and Peanut Butter Pretzel Tart
Milk Chocolate and Salted Caramel Hazelnut Tart
Nutella Icebox Pie

Blood Orange Chess Pie
Cranberry Hand Pies (heart shaped!)
Pistachio Blood Orange Tart

Hoosier Sugar Cream Pie
Maple Bourbon Buttermilk Pie
Salty Honey Pie

All of the Above
Chocolate Orange Pie with Mascarpone Cream
Cranberry Chocolate Chess Pie
Dark Chocolate Lavender Tart with a Lemon Cardamom Crust

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Cranberry Chocolate Chess Pie

Cranberry Chocolate Cheese Pie

HELLO FEBRUARY! Though I went on two long-weekend adventures during the first month of 2015-- one to a cabin in Virginia for New Year's and another cross-country skiing in West Virginia-- the rest of my free time has largely been spent at home-- reading and writing, knitting and watching movies, listening to podcasts and making food. I've really been feeling the winter nesting alone time vibes; honoring those feelings has felt both productive and relaxing. I'm not sure if February will prompt a changing tide, but I'm open to whatever it sends my way.

In the first few years after I graduated college, my friends and I self-published a collaborative literary journal/zine called The Dovetail Collective. The theme and concept was constantly changing, but each issue had a regular column where members shared what they were currently reading, watching, and listening to. In what were largely pre-social media days (most of us had Myspace pages, but that's about it), it was a good way to get reliable book, movie, and music recommendations. In the spirit of that and my especially bookwormish tendencies as of late, here's what I've been reading/watching/listening:

Reading: Carolyn Chute's Treat Us Like Dogs and We Will Become WolvesI've had the pleasure of getting to know Carolyn the past few years through NELP. She writes about a side of Maine-- her side-- that's not regularly depicted in the coastal tourist paradise stereotype we're often fed and her stories are raw and real and complicated. I also just started Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven and am totally enthralled.

Watching: Star Trek: The Next Generation. Yep, when I finally finish the sweater I'm knitting, there will be many hours of TNG invested in those stitches. Also, Broad City. For movies I recently enjoyed Selma and Iranian vampire movie, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night.

Listening: Serial and the new NPR podcast Invisibilia (one of the producers, Lulu Miller, was actually a member of The Dovetail Collective). Still blasting D'Angelo's Black Messiah in the work headphones and have been spinning Jake Xerxes Fussell's new self-titled album on Paradise of Bachelors.

Cranberry Chocolate Cheese Pie

What have I been baking? Along with MAV's Coconut Chocolate Chip Cookies, you're seeing it right here. Hoosier Mama Pie Company's Cranberry Chess Pie has become a go-to favorite, as I've said before and I was planning to make it for Christmas. When I got home, though, I learned that my mom had already made it for Thanksgiving, so I considered how I might alter the recipe for something new. I thought cranberries would pair well with a bittersweet chocolate and it turns out, they do-- resembling cherry cordials in flavor (another family holiday standby). The recipe whips up pretty quickly and is a good pick for Valentine's Day or for just sittin' at home watching Star Trek and knitting a sweater on a Sunday afternoon.

Cranberry Chocolate Cheese Pie with Slice

Cranberry Chocolate Chess Pie
Inspired by Hoosier Mama's Cranberry Chess Pie

Nothing in the House pie crust, halved
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate (60% or higher)
3/4 cup white sugar
1 Tablespoon yellow cornmeal
2 large eggs, beaten well
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon orange zest
2 cups fresh cranberries, halved

1. Prepare half of Nothing in the House pie crust as per the directions, reserving the leftover egg for an egg wash. Chill dough at least one hour before rolling and fitting into a greased and floured 9-inch pie pan. Let chill in the fridge while you prepare the filling. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

2. Place the butter and chocolate in a small saucepan over low heat, stirring occasionally. Cook until both butter and chocolate are melted into a smooth chocolate sauce, 5-7 minutes. Remove from heat and pour into a medium bowl.

3. Add the sugar and cornmeal to the chocolate mixture and stir until well combined. Then add the eggs, vanilla, salt, and orange zest. Stir with a wooden spoon until evenly mixed. Gently fold in the cranberries.

4. Pour the batter into the pie shell and smooth with a rubber spatula. Bake for 40-45 minutes, rotating pie 180 degrees halfway through. When done, filling will be puffed and set and crust will be golden brown. Remove pie from oven and let cool until warm, at least 30 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature with chocolate shavings, if desired.

Cranberry Chocolate Cheese Pie Slice with Cranberries

Related recipes:
Cranberry Chess Pie
Cranberry Hand Pies
Cranberry Pie
Chocolate Chess Pie