Banh mi at home

My brother has said that I eat like a trucker, and when it comes to this particular sandwich that is probably accurate…

Even though I made them on Saturday night for fun, and even though Alistair’s birthday was only two days later, he still begged for banh mi for his birthday. As I like to be obliging about birthday dinner, and because banh mi are definitely high on my list of most delicious foods, I didn’t need any convincing to make them again. I would happily eat banh mi three times a week! So we had sticky pork banh mi two times in three days.

You might ask (especially if you live in Seattle) why would anyone make banh mi when you can get quite a decent one in the ID for $3? Yes, banh mi are practically a dime a dozen and yes, almost anyone I ask has their very favorite banh mi spot, but it doesn’t matter. I still love to make these little sandwiches at home. Homemade, the daikon and carrot pickle is tangier and crunchier, the meat more tender and caramelized, warm from the grill with glistening charred and sticky edges, and the herbs and greens are so crisp it might seem they are speaking directly to you in Vietnamese. Also, since nobody expects homemade banh mi – they’re such a takeout item – I love to surprise people by making my own.

Caramelized Pork Banh Mi serves 4 generously

Caramelized pork

  • (2) 3/4 lb pork tenderloins, sliced to 1/4″ thick on the diagonal
  • 1/4 c. sugar
  • 1/2 c. water
  • 4-5 tbsp warm water
  • 2 tsp Nước chấm (fish sauce)
  • 2 tsp soy sauce
  • 2 plump shallots, chopped and mashed in a mortar and pestle, or minced fine
  1. In a small heavy duty saucepan, combine the water and sugar over medium high heat. Simmer for about 15 minutes, or until the syrup has caramelized and is the color of an old penny – a rich deep reddish brown, not burnt though. You’ll know by the scent.
  2. Add 4 or 5 tbsp warm water – stand back a little! It will spatter and spit. Set aside to cool.
  3. When cool, put the caramel in a medium sized bowl and add the Nước chấm, soy and shallots.
  4. Start the grill.
  5. 20 minutes before you plan to start grilling the meat, toss the pork in the marinade and leave on the counter.
  6. Over hot coals or a with the gas set on high, grill the pork for 2 minutes on each side. As the slices come off the grill, stack them on a warm platter.

Daikon and Carrot Pickle

  • 1 fat daikon radish, peeled and trimmed
  • 2-3 medium carrots, peeled and trimmed
  • 1/2 cup + 2 tsp sugar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 1/4 c. white vinegar
  • 1 c. warm tap water
  1. If you love to julienne vegetables, go for it and cut the daikon and carrot into  3/32″ matchsticks. I used to do that. Now I use the fat grater attachment on my food processor. 
  2. Put the julienned or grated daikon and carrot in a colander and set it in the sink. Toss the carrot and daikon with 2 tsp of sugar and 1 tsp of salt. Let them sit for 10 or 15 minutes. Then rinse and shake the excess water out.
  3. Dissolve the sugar in the warm tap water and add the vinegar. Toss in the rinsed carrot and daikon and refrigerate until ready to use. This will keep covered in your fridge for a week.
To assemble you’ll need:
  • mayonnaise
  • Two good handfuls of washed cilantro leaves
  • shredded romaine
  • sliced green chili – jalapeño or serrano
  • 2 crisp baguettes (not too chewy!!), sliced into 6 -8″ lengths on the diagonal
  1. Slice the baguette down the length to make a long sandwich.
  2. Spread the bread with mayonnaise.
  3. In this order, stack sliced pork, romaine, carrot-daikon pickle, cilantro and sliced chili. They’re done!
There are people who might quibble that I didn’t include pate, much less head cheese, vietnamese sausage or braised pork belly. Knock yourself out – if that’s what you like. However, this pork is so sticky and smokily perfumed – it’s all I want.
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Birthday Cake

I’m trying to write about Leo’s birthday cake and what I’m finding is, I don’t really care about making cake as much as I used to.

However…this is such a great cake! So I’m sharing anyway. We all need a recipe as reliably lovely as this one. A  pure and plain expression of the ideal; the crumb sweetly, tenderly vanilla and so delicate. And still there is structure! Not many cakes strike that balance. Not only that, but a person who has baked nothing more than a brownie could easily whip this one out. I promise.

I know, I know. Too bad the frosting had to be blue. Not my choice.

What Leo said was “I want a white cake, vanilla, with blue frosting, also vanilla, covered with gum drops.”

I smiled at him, he’s so adorable, but I know this: he’ll take two bites, tops! No offense Leo. Food should not be blue. Not even cake. And hey! Are you really a vanilla/vanilla kid?! What’s with the gumdrops? Have you ever really eaten a gumdrop? Don’t you know they don’t taste very good?

It used to be that with birthday cakes, I would veer deeply into Martha territory but now that is in my past. I am finished with complicated. Plain and delicious is what I’m after. No fancy tricks or techniques. Who needs to prove they can make an Italian meringue or French buttercream? Not me. Kids like the butter and powdered sugar version better anyway and I want Leo to like his cake. Also, I want to like his cake. Like making it, like eating it. And this cake delivers all that.

As I couldn’t handle the gumdrops, I substituted India Tree Sparkling Sugar Confetti  but I did dye the frosting blue, against my better judgement. And then I broke out a secret weapon: Lemon curd. Leo loves lemons but he’s never had lemon curd.

He totally loved his birthday cake – he even ate a whole slice! I loved it too. My favorite birthday cake in years.

Although…blue frosting?

The Essential White Cake

Pay attention to the temperature of the ingredients – all dairy and eggs should be at room temperature.

  • 2 1/4 c. cake flour
  • 1 c. whole milk, at room temperature
  • 6 large egg whites, at room temperature (save 4 of the yolk for the lemon curd)
  • 1 tbsp vanilla extract
  • 1 3/4 c. granulated sugar
  • 4 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. table salt
  • 12 tbsp unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks), softened, this is best done by removing the butter from the fridge to the counter when you wake up in the morning
1. Set oven racks in upper-middle and lower-middle positions. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Spray two 9-inch round cake pans with nonstick cooking spray (I used olive oil as it’s all I had and it was fine) and line the bottoms with parchment rounds. Then, spray the rounds, and dust the pans with flour. Flip the pans over and tap them firmly over the sink to remove any excess flour.

3. Pour the milk, egg whites, and vanilla into 2-cup liquid measuring cup and mix with fork until blended.

4. In the bowl of an electric mixer, using the paddle attachment, mix cake flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt at slow speed.
5. Add butter; continue beating slowly until mixture looks like moist crumbs, with no floury streaks remaining.
6. Add all but 1/2 cup of milk mixture to the buttery crumbs and beat together at medium speed for 1 1/2 minutes. Add the rest of the milk mixture and beat  for 30 seconds. Stop mixer and scrape sides of bowl.
7. Beat at medium speed for 20 seconds longer. The batter will look slightly curdled.
8. Divide batter evenly between the two cake pans. With a rubber spatula, spread batter out evenly over the pans. Place pans on separate racks in staggered fashion to allow air to circulate. Bake  for 23-25 minutes. A thin skewer or toothpick poked into the center should come out clean.
9. Rest the cakes in pans for 3 minutes. Using a small sharp knife, loosen from sides of then invert onto wire racks. Reinvert onto additional wire racks.
10. Cool completely, at least 1 1/2 hours.
Lemon Curd
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1/2 cup + 2 tbsp sugar
  • 3 fluid ounces of lemon juice
  • 4 tbsp soft unsalted butter
  • the zest of an unwaxed lemon, finely shredded with a microplane grater
1. In a stainless steel or enameled cast iron saucepan, whisk the egg yolks with the sugar until creamy and smoothly blended.
2. Stir in the sugar, lemon juice and butter.
3. Stir over medium low heat, until thickened, so that it thickly coats the back of a spoon – draw your finger through the curd to see if it can hold that line. It should still be pourable.
4. Do NOT boil the curd as then you will have made oddly sweet, lemon-y, scrambled eggs. As soon the mixture has thickened, pour through a fine strainer and press  through with your spoon.
5. Stir in the lemon zest and cool. The curd will thicken significantly upon cooling.
6. To fill a 9″ cake you will need  1 cup of the curd. But if I were you I would steal a couple of spoonfuls before filling the cake.
Easy American Buttercream
You could find a buttercream recipe in any book, they’re all about the same. However, you will have to decide how stiff you want the frosting. Add a lot of powdered sugar and the frosting will hold a stiff little star piped obsessively from your piping bag. (Old habits die hard I guess!) Next time, I’ll use less sugar for a swoopier and creamier frosting!  If you are looking for a tutorial on how to frost a cake, look no further than here. Building the dam was life cake changing!
  • 2 cups unsalted butter, softened at room temperature for at least 2 hours
  • 6-8 cups powdered sugar, please sift it!
  • 1/2 tsp salt, fine table salt – not kosher
  • 2 tbsp vanilla
  • 2-4 tbsp milk
  • food coloring (optional)
1. Beat the butter on medium speed with the paddle attachment until it’s broken down into glossy peaks.
2. Add three cups of the powdered sugar and carefully restart the mixer on low. (start quickly and you and your kitchen will be covered in sugar) Beat until all the sugar has been incorporated
3. Add the vanilla, salt and and milk, then increase the speed to medium and beat for 3 minutes. Add the food coloring, if using.
You can add more sugar if you want a stiff consistency, but in my opinion, you will end up with a powdery mouth-feel and it doesn’t taste as good. It’s your choice. I think the frosting stars around the edge of my cake wouldn’t have looked so prissy, if I’d used less powdered sugar…
Here are a few photos on assembling the cake:

It looks sloppy before you frost, but leveling the cake is important

A tablespoon of frosting will help adhere the cake to the stand - no slipping!

Why did I not know about the dam before now!?

The crumb coat - don't skip this step!

Crumbs contained

It sure seems like a lot of frosting

Smooth and ready for sprinkles

First sprinkles, then piping

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A Tale of Two Posh Birds

I think I have said this before: I am very lucky to have such an excellent neighbor. We chat at least three times a day on a range of topics. On Friday morning, as usual,  I called her up.

“Mrs. Pierce?” I said.

“Lady Gannholm?”

“Yes, it’s me. It’s National Margarita Day. Will we be celebrating?”

“Yes! I have tequila and  Triple Sec.”

“I will get limes and make dinner. I’ll need another chicken!”

And so a small saga of two posh birds begins…

The Rain Shadow bird I had waiting in the fridge was petite – too small for all of us. So, I went to Whole Foods, where the butcher convinced me to take advantage of the sale, roasting chickens at $1.50 per pound, a suspiciously low price. (In contrast, the Rain Shadow bird cost over $20.) There was a vast pile of chickens, in green cryovac, rated Level Three. At Whole Foods, Level Three means they have access to the outdoors during the day. (I am not sure the chickens know they can actually go outside – they just have a door.) This chicken looked unappetizing, suffocating in its plastic wrapping, partially frozen, and enormous - a six pounder. I have a bias against large chickens, which may be somewhat unfair but the talk about growth hormones makes large chickens suspect. Sighing and with no time to dash off to my favorite butcher, I asked the meat guy if he would remove the plastic please, and rewrap it in brown paper. He rolled his eyes at me. Whatever! Cryovaced meat and the inevitable pink juices, ugh. I consoled myself. Really, how bad could a Whole Foods bird be?

At home, I pulled the paper from this wet, pinkish bird and it was hard not to compare it with its Rain Shadow cousin, a pampered, little thing from a small farm in Ephrata, that had spent its life pecking up bugs and grubs. Its skin was pale, yellowy cream, and dry to the touch. Look at them sitting there next to each other. Actually, in this photo, neither one looks bad. The one on the left, plump and pink, the one on the right, slightly wrinkled with a yellowish cast, a bird with a slightly better pedigree. But when I flipped them over, I discovered the sloppy butchery on the Whole Foods bird; its back gashed in two places.

Despite the obvious damage to the flesh of the chicken in the foreground, I got them ready to roast, first rinsing and drying, then gently pulling skin away from flesh and pushing sage and rosemary underneath. Finally I rubbed the skin with kosher sea salt and black pepper and left them in the refrigerator under parchment for several hours before sliding them into a very hot oven. (Kind of like a fancy spa treatment!) By this time, Mrs. Pierce had crossed our shared driveway bringing the tequila and Triple Sec, Martin was squeezing limes and I was in the middle of constructing a variation of the ridiculously good Green Couscous from Plenty. Dinner got later and later and I didn’t take any more pictures.

Mrs. Pierce and I discussed the birds over dinner. When they had rested after coming from the oven I cut them into pieces and piled them high on a platter – scattering their crisp salty skin with chopped parsley. By the time they were this burnished and  bronze, (also, perhaps because of the margaritas) it was hard to tell the difference between the two. Nibbling on a wing as crisp as a waffle-cut potato chip, I decided that this method of cooking a chicken is the best method and even a battery hen might taste ok with the same treatment.

So. Next time how will I choose? How does anyone? Convenience? Rain Shadow is closer. And QFC is even closer than that. Price? Nobody looks at Rain Shadow or Whole Foods for bargains. Flavor? It’s very important to me and when I’m paying attention (by that I mean NOT celebrating National Margarita Day) I can tell the difference between a posh chicken and a battery one, but I’m pretty sure I’m in the minority. Most people are concerned with other seemingly more important issues. I know one thing. Most people don’t have the luxury of swanning around town comparing chickens. Even I, an extremely discerning (picky!!) person with time on her hands, didn’t have time to cross town and buy another $20 chicken.  And most people can’t or at least don’t want to spend their money this way. I bet anyone would agree though, that chickens should be able to poke around for worms, flap their short wings and socialize. (Sort of like me and Mrs. Pierce.) Anyone who has seen the footage of life in battery cages, knows it’s the wrong way to treat living creatures, not to mention the environmental damage sustained from raising animals that way.

I have no idea what to do about the chicken problem except save my money for the occasional sustainably raised bird. While I am thinking about that, why don’t you try this Green Couscous. And if you can’t wrap your head or your wallet around a happy $20 chicken to go with it, that’s ok. Just toss in some crumbled feta.

If you haven’t bought a copy of Plenty, click here, and change your culinary life forever. There will be no problem with buying chickens as all the recipes are vegetarian.

Green Couscous – serves 4

I would double this, even if serving four, because the leftovers are so excellent and I write this as a person who is not crazy about leftovers.

  • 1 cup couscous or Israeli couscous
  • 1 red onion, sliced thinly
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/4 tsp ground cumin
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 cups parsley leaves
  • 1 cup cilantro leaves
  • 3 tbsp mint leaves
  • 6 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • large handful arugula leaves, roughly chopped
  • 1/3 cup toasted pine nuts (toast for 5 minutes in a 400 degree oven or in a small skillet on the stove over medium heat – watch carefully! These burn very quickly!)
  • 1 minced jalapeño, ribs and seeds removed – can be skipped if you have sensitive children
  • 2 thinly sliced small green onions
  • 1/2 cup crumbled feta (optional)
  1. Cook the couscous according to the package directions, spread on a large platter or sheet pan to cool.
  2. Sauté the onion over medium in 2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil with salt and cumin until golden and soft.
  3. While the onion is wilting, put the parsley, cilantro and mint and 6 tbsp olive oil in the food processor with a pinch of salt. Puree.
  4. Stir the herb puree into the couscous. Stir in the wilted onion. Toss in the arugula, pine nuts, jalapeño, green onion and optional feta. Season with salt as you see fit.
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The Neighborhood Butcher: Rain Shadow Meats

Hazelnut fed pork, the loin, Carleton Farms

While you’ve been spending time looking up your old boyfriends or girlfriends on the internet – wondering how they’ve aged or if they’ve ever managed to settle down – I’ve been looking up my grandmother’s old butcher, Michael Buckle. I wondered what happened to his little shop. Is it still at the corner, where Priest’s Lane meets Hutton Road? Are there still feathered pheasants hung by their leathery feet in the big glass windows? Are the wide baskets full of brown eggs really still sitting just to the right of the glass case? I’ll never forget his fat pork sausages, browned sticky and crisp alongside my grandmother’s cauliflower cheese. I hoped his business hadn’t been swallowed up by the local Waitrose or Tesco.

In as much time as it took to type “Michael Buckle butcher” into the search window though, suddenly, there was the photograph: L. Buckle, High Class Family Butcher in gold letters on the sign over the window, surrounded by glossy dark green tiles. I wonder if “L.”  might be his son. In the photograph I can see the low display cases through the window, shaded by a striped green awning outside. I can see also, that the excellent candy store that was next door, the one with the small white chocolate mice, has gone, replaced by a beauty salon. If I look down the road the other way, (oh – the beauty of the panorama view in Google Maps!) I can even see my grandmother’s red brick semi-detached house with crisply painted white trim, looking very English, three houses in from the intersection, just down Priest’s Lane.

Granny and I would walk over to the butcher after breakfast a couple of times a week, for a roast (roll the “r” lavishly please – my grandmother spoke English with a heavy Norwegian accent) or some bangers or maybe some mince. Michael was a big, moonfaced, funny man with curly brown hair in a bloody white cotton apron, standing behind the counter. Once he challenged me to find a white egg in his basket full of brown ones, promising I could throw it at him, if I ever did. I begged my grandmother to go to the shop daily until finally I found that one white egg, in the middle of the 1976 July heat wave. My grandmother, Michael and I went outside on the sidewalk. I threw that egg as hard as I could, and splat! I missed. Humiliating. The egg fried right on the sidewalk in a just a few minutes. It was that hot outside.

I used to bemoan the lack of a Michael-Buckle-style butcher here on Capitol Hill. I used to drive all the way to A&J on Queen Anne. Used to. The local butcher, Rain Shadow Meats, is a short drive from my house on a cold day or a long walk on a warm one and I head over there a couple of times a week. I’m glad to have a local place to buy meat, believe me, but there is no way anyone would be encouraged to throw an egg at one of the butchers at Rain Shadow. These guys are very serious. So serious, they even seem to lack the ironic poses adopted by so many people working in the Pike-Pine neighborhood.

There’s the guy with the knit cap, he’s actually pretty friendly if a little reserved. Then there’s the tall one, he’s super-serious and intense. The answers to my questions seem to be painfully obvious to him. Then there’s the girl. I might have stressed her out one day by asking too many questions about how to make sausage rolls. Sorry! (“But I’m just an apprentice butcher! she said nervously, when I encouraged her to give me her best guess on cooking time.)  It wasn’t really a fair question anyway. Sausage rolls are a British thing. I just miss good old Michael Buckle, or the idea of him anyway. As an old fashioned English butcher, he totally would have known about sausage rolls.

I’m not complaining. Not at all. Rain Shadow delivers all with a rare degree of excellence, from breaking down an entire whey fed pig to curing their own guanciale. Check out the statement I found on their website:

Our mission is to bring back the local neighborhood butcher with an emphasis on whole animal butchery, education, and the creation of community. We work with local farms to provide farmers with a means to reach the public through our customers and to guarantee the highest quality products….

Come by the shop to visit and check out your local, neighborhood butcher. We welcome your questions and comments.

Very admirable. And it is quite perfect. I’ve tried everything from whole pieces of meat to their charcuterie including beef tenderloin, pork roasts, ham (tremendous!), whole chickens and expertly broken down chickens, various fresh sausages, guanciale, pancetta and bacon. I saw a rabbit in the case the other day and I can’t wait to get one of my own and turn it into papardelle alla lepre.  The only odd thing I’ve noticed is that they didn’t tie my beef tenderloin roast at Christmas. It didn’t turn out to be  a problem as I can tie one easily, but lots of people can’t. And I guess they thought I wouldn’t want the chicken’s back when they broke down my chicken for me yesterday. If I didn’t want to deal with the back, I could’ve gone to a grocery store. It was destined for the stock pot. When I called to find out what happened though, they were very apologetic and promised to save it for me, although I can’t see running back over there for a back. Oh well. These are minor irritations. I may never darken the door of Whole Foods again, at least not the meat department.

If you’re in the neighborhood or even if you’re not, it’s worth looking in on Rain Shadow:

Rain Shadow Meats

1531 melrose ave
seattle, wa 98122

One thing to note, you will pay more to eat meat that has been this carefully and responsibly raised. Eat less meat of better quality and more greens, that’s my resolution. All I need now is a proper green grocer. And while I’m wishing, how about a baker too? Preferably within walking distance.

For those of you who are curious, here is the method for making sausage rolls. In England, we had them for Christmas although I bet they would be a hit while watching the Super Bowl.

Sausage Rolls

  • 1 1/2 pounds good quality, well seasoned pork sausage
  • 1 (17-ounce) package excellent quality frozen puff pastry, thawed (butter makes all the difference!)
  • 1 beaten egg
  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Roll out all the puff pastry into one long rectangle about 1/8 inch thick.
  3. Form the sausage meat into a log about 1 inch thick and long enough to fit the length of the pastry.
  4. Lay this log along the long edge.
  5. Carefully roll the pastry around the sausage, brush with beaten eggs where it joins, then cut so that the pastry has just enough room to slightly overlap.
  6. Repeat the process with the remaining sausage meat and pastry.
  7. Making sure the seam on each is at the bottom and not showing, brush the tops with the eggs and cut the sausage rolls with a very sharp knife in 1 1/2″ pieces.
  8. Arrange about one inch apart on a baking sheet, and bake until golden brown and the meat is cooked, about 15 to 20 minutes. Serve warm or cold.
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I laughed. I cried. I ate a lot of biscuits.

There are people who expect biscuits alongside their dinner and then there is everyone else.

We were not biscuit eaters growing up. We were popover people. We also had a thing for Yorkshire pudding.  There are good reasons to love popovers. You don’t need to worry about over-handling the dough (as with biscuits) or about yeast and timing as you might with dinner rolls. Popovers are so easy to throw together, as well as being rather elegant – why branch out? In comparison, I always imagined biscuits to be a little doughy and there is a mythology about what type of flour to use and dough handling that seems somewhat opaque. (I must confess that my only real biscuit eating experience came from sporadic visits to Kentucky Fried Chicken – perhaps not the ideal place to form an opinion.) Also, culturally, they belong in the south and we are decidedly not southern. Regularly making biscuits here in Seattle would make about as much sense as nicknaming your son Bubba. Aren’t biscuits a regional speciality? Something to dabble with when serving ham or catfish? We served ham with scalloped potatoes. Biscuits were never a consideration.

And then my friend Alicia sent me that book I told you about, Screen Doors and Sweet Tea, and all my carefully formed opinions (some might say biases) went flying out the window. I’m still not sure what inspired me to make Sweet Potato Biscuits. We don’t even eat sweet potatoes that often so it wasn’t like I had a lonely sweet potato sitting on the counter. Perhaps it was the photograph. Anyway, since last week I have made the Sweet Potato Biscuits four times! Actually, since I doubled the recipe three of those times, it might mean that I have made them seven times this week!

It was not a week without troubles. While the dough was gorgeous, flecked deep orange and webbed with airy bubbles, the biscuits did not always rise as high as I hoped they would, although the first batch was reasonable. That batch rose to a height of about 3/4 of an inch. Still, I felt they could be better. The next try, the biscuits turned out distinctly and disappointingly flat.  See below.

Ridiculously flat. They were edible - but only just.

I wondered if it was because at Trader Joe’s the yams were masquerading as sweet potatoes. (I knew from the beginning they were really yams but had forged ahead anyway) Or, was it because I simply don’t have the mythic Southern touch?!

I went out and bought a real pale fleshed sweet potato and this time they were about 3/4 of an inch again, but still no better than the first batch I made originally with yams. However, despite all my troubles with flat or flat-ish biscuits, I couldn’t walk away. Sweetly tender, enriched by the vivid starchy mash, these biscuits had such possibilities! If I could get them to rise just a little higher, the sky would be the limit, so to speak. Imagine adding a little crumbled bacon, or fried sage leaves? What about some chopped chili? Could there be a place for andouille sausage? Fried crisp and crumbled into the dough? How about a little candied ginger?…but that would have to wait. First I would have to find the right recipe.

I found recipes by Paula Deen and Southern Cooking (obviously), and Martha Stewart, but finally settled on one from Chow.com.  All the recipes looked excellent and from them I gleaned that everyone has trouble getting Sweet Potato Biscuits to rise as high as the plain kind. Some added baking soda in addition to the baking powder. Some used buttermilk. Most added more flour than called for in my original recipe. Many advised to make roll out biscuits as opposed to the drop kind, opining that if they were packed a little closer together they would lift and stabilize each other. The discussion sounded so Southern. Because there was a cup of leftover mashed sweet potato in my refrigerator from the last experiment, I got started right away.

30 minutes later: Success! Part of the fun of biscuits is that they are actually quite easy to whip up and this recipe doesn’t require hard-to-find White Lily or Southern Biscuit Flour – the traditional choice for Southern biscuit makers. When it comes time to knead, back off a little. This dough needs no man-handling. Just work on a well floured board. Initially, I made these to go with a beautiful baked ham but now, my family imagines that they go with everything. Although maybe not Chinese food or pizza…

Sweet Potato Biscuits (minimally adapted from Chow.com)

Imagine making a tiny version with chutney and sharp white cheddar to go with cocktails….

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 3/4 cup buttermilk or 3/4 cup whole milk + 1 tbsp cider vinegar
  • 1 cup baked, mashed sweet potato (about 1 medium potato) or yam
  • 8 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 stick), frozen
  • Heavy cream, for brushing the tops

  1. Preheat the oven to 400°F  with the rack set in the middle of the oven.
  2.  Using a large mixing bowl, whisk together all the dry ingredients.
  3.  In a medium sized bowl, whisk the buttermilk and sweet potato together until smooth.
  4. Using the largest holes in a box grater, grate the frozen butter. Toss with dry ingredients until butter is evenly dispersed through the flour.
  5. Pour in the buttermilk and sweet potatoes. Mix lightly until dough forms a shaggy mass.
  6. Flour the counter and turn out the dough. Knead gently – for about 30 seconds, – just until the dough hangs together. It will still be sort of shaggy.
  7. Pat into a circle  with floured hands to a thickness of about 3/4 inch. Using a biscuit cutter or a drinking glass, cut the dough into rounds.  Push the scraps together again and cut out the rest. Discard the rest of the dough as too much handling makes for tough biscuits.
  8. Put a piece of parchment on a baking sheet. Place the biscuits on top and brush them with heavy cream.
  9. Bake until golden brown, about 12 to 15 minutes.
To roast a sweet potato or yam for use in this recipe, set the oven to 375. Place either one large or two medium sweet potatoes on a baking sheet and roast for 40 minutes or so – until very soft. Cool, mash, and get started.

Now that that’s taken care of I will go make myself a ham and fried egg sandwich on a warm sweet potato biscuit…

For more on traditional biscuit making see this article.

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What To Eat for Christmas Dinner – in plenty of time for next year. Sigh.

Better late than never? I hope so. I almost survived Christmas. I could not finagle a single minute to write even a little line or take one yellow-cast nighttime photo. Oh well, I can’t stand those dim candlelit dinner photos anyway.

Right now, I am hunkering down on the couch with a blanket and my laptop. Outside it is neither bright and crisply cold nor white with snow. My hand is deep in one of the many little bags of cookies my sister dropped off for Christmas. You would not believe it. Cardamom horns, chocolate nib shortbreads, chocolate sparklers, chewy ginger cookies, teeny tiny chocolate marshmallows AND (!!!) pecan chocolate dipped butter toffee. They are so gorgeously packed up – each in its own small cellophane bag with a little printed label. I should have taken a picture. (I would accuse her of showboating but I could never jeopardize her taking me off her delivery list!!! Yes. They are that good. I may have to make her write a guest post sometime in November 2013.) I digress. I am so wiped out by Christmas I can barely move. I am just sitting around eating cookies, contemplating how on earth I can get up the energy to make something decent for dinner for the ravenous hoards. (aka my children)

Part of the reason for this slothfulness is that the weather is so particularly Seattle-ish. The mercury hovers around 40 during the day, dipping down to within 3 or 4 degrees of freezing at night. I am dying for a little snow but this will not be the year for it. It’s bleak, that’s what it is. A good time for a nap on the couch, slipping in and out of sleep with a good book. Like a cookbook. I have two new ones here, which are making for a fine escape from this dreary weather. Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem, so warmly Mediterranean and  Screen Doors And Sweet Tea, a gift from my very dear friend Alicia. I’m making the Sweet Potato Biscuits for a party tomorrow, New Year’s Day, to go with baked ham and scallopped potatoes and, for tonight, the open kibbeh pie from Jerusalem. Well actually my neighbor is making the pie. But I will be eating it! With a spinach salad with dates and almonds from the same book. Toasting for peace in the Middle East on New Year’s Eve! (and celebrating my newest Ottolenghi cookbook – naturally!)

Even though the recipes are shockingly late, please give my Christmas dinner a try anyway. It would make for a thrilling Valentine’s Day dinner party. In those carvery-sort of restaurants where you often find a French dip sandwich, every component is mediocre. Often, you get some sort of feed lot slab of beef, a salty chemical jus from a jug, a limp roll, maybe slightly stale. Certainly no onion jam. And they aren’t buttering that bread with French butter. I bought my tenderloin at Rainshadow Meats, my local butcher, so I know it’s responsibly sourced. I caramelized onions for an onion jam. I made crème fraîche and swirled in a little horseradish. Even though nearly every method for French dip online calls for canned beef broth, I made my own. The seasonings on the beef might seem unusual. Fennel veers away from your run-of-the-mill French dip. Be brave! The delicate licorice notes only add to more usual thyme and black pepper! It is not a misstep or excessive in any way. None of the parts of this sandwich take much in the way of time, skill or effort. The work is minimal considering many people consider Christmas dinner to be the highpoint of the year. This small amount of work pays off in a big way.

The sandwich photos were taken the day after Christmas, without jus, as we’d dipped it all up the previous day. The leftover French dip lost nothing overnight. We hardly missed dunking into hot peppery broth.

Top Shelf French Dip Sandwiches - for 8, with leftovers

The Components:

The day before Christmas:

Season the Beef (somewhat adapted from this recipe from Fine Cooking)

  • 4 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
  • 4 Tbs. finely chopped fresh thyme
  • 2 Tbs. ground fennel seed
  • 2 tbsp Kosher salt
  • Freshly cracked black pepper
  • (1) 4 pound beef tenderloin, trimmed and tied. If the roast includes the tapered end of the roast, fold it under and tie it in place so that the roast is the same diameter for the entire length
  1. Dry the tenderloin with paper towels. Combine the olive oil, thyme, fennel seed, salt and pepper and rub all over the tenderloin. If you can do this the day before and keep the roast lightly covered in parchment in the refrigerator overnight, so much the better.

Crème fraîche

  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 1/4 cup buttermilk
  1. Whisk cream and buttermilk together in a heavy medium sized bowl.
  2. Cover with plastic wrap.
  3. Set in a warm spot for 24 hours.
  4. If the cream doesn’t thicken, it probably wasn’t warm enough. You can set the cream in a warmer spot for a further 24 hours. I set mine on top of the stove as we were baking in the oven below at 475. It worked perfectly. The following morning the cream was very thick.
On Christmas Day, starting about 2 hours before you want to eat dinner, make:

Jus

  • 6 cups veal stock
  • 1 tbsp soy sauce or Worcestershire
  • splash of sherry
  • sea salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper
  1. Reduce veal stock by half over medium high heat
  2. Add soy sauce or Worcestershire, sherry and salt and pepper to taste.
  3. Keep warm over low heat.
Roast the Beef Tenderloin 
  1. Remove the beef from the refrigerator and let sit at room temperature for an hour before roasting.
  2. Half an hour before you want to start the beef, preheat the oven to 375°F.
  3. Place the tenderloin on a wire rack on a large rimmed baking sheet.
  4. Roast to 130°F for medium rare, or 135°F for medium, 40 to 50 minutes.  I recommend a digital oven thermometer so you can plug it in and walk away. There is enough going on at Christmas without having to worry about whether you are over cooking the roast or not.
  5. When the roast has reached temperature, allow to rest uncovered on a carving board for 10 minutes. Slice very thinly. (Make sure all the other ingredients are prepped before you start! Don’t let the meat  get cold)

Horseradish Cream

  • 1 cup crème fraîche
  • several tablespoons prepared horseradish, newly opened
Whisk horseradish into crème fraîche to taste. Refrigerate or serve immediately.

16 good quality sandwich rolls

  1. Preheat the oven to 200.
  2. Wrap rolls tightly in foil and warm in the oven for 15 minutes.
  3. Slice in half for sandwiches.

To assemble:

  1. Spread the warm rolls with unsalted French butter on both sides.
  2. After the meat has rested for at least 10 minutes, slice it as thinly as you can with your sharpest carving knife. I have one called Schinkenmesser (it means ham slicer) and it is nicely flexible and carves beautifully.
  3. Pile many slices onto each sandwich – you will have to judge how much. I would say at least 10 slices per sandwich for the grown-ups.
  4. On top of the meat spread 2 or 3 tablespoons of the caramelized onions. And on top of that, 2 or 3 tablespoons of horseradish cream.
  5. Serve with about 1/2 a cup of steaming jus in a small ramekin on the side.

These sandwiches are excessive in every way. Even so, people will eat seconds. It is quite possible that dessert will get the short shrift.

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What to Eat for Christmas Dinner, Part 1

Well, not this, obviously.

It used to be that Christmas dinner loomed over the whole month of December. I had ideas. Big ones. Paradigm shattering ideas about Bouillabaise or Paella or maybe even grilled quails with wild mushroom risotto.  Or, conversely, doing the whole traditional Roast-Beef-with-all-the-Trimmings, which means Yorkshire Pudding, three kinds of vegetables, mashed potatoes, mince pie and flaming plum pudding.  Or what about a full blown Swedish dinner with fifteen different kinds of meat, including a whole Swedish ham and meatballs, Jansson’s Temptation, red cabbage and apples, potatoes and several kinds of cookies and candies – all made at home? Too much!

Planning a huge Christmas dinner with the crummy Seattle weather, the slog of Christmas shopping, and the kids bumping around the house,  bored, with school being out and all, it is a bit much. Never fear. There is a better way. My aunt, the “Thanksgiving Queen”, has Christmas dinner all locked up. I have modified her method to suit my schedule and changed the menu to include some of my husband’s Swedish traditions. (Christmas is a great time to explore your family heritage!)

My Christmas Dinner Menu 2012

Loj rom on hot buttered toast with lemon*

 Champagne

French dip sandwiches made with roast beef tenderloin au jus with caramelized onions and horseradish cream

Shaved fennel, pink lady apple, white cheddar and toasted hazelnut salad with cider vinegar dressing

Pinot Noir – probably from our stash of Williams Selyem

Flaming plum pudding with hard sauce

*what is loj rom? It is a mild Swedish caviar, pale champagne in color  - considered by most Swedes (and me!) to be very festive and fancy. My father-in-law very kindly brings it to us, packed in ice, whenever he comes to visit.

The difference between my aunt’s Christmas Day dinner and mine, is that she makes her French dips from leftover prime rib. On Christmas Eve, she serves standing rib roast to our whole extended family –  a massive haunch of beef. Since I am not serving twenty four people the night before Christmas Day, I have no leftover prime rib to make my sandwiches. And yet sandwiches make sense since who wants to eat an elaborate meal the day after another very elaborate meal?! On Christmas Eve you’ll find me “making leftovers” out of a 4 pound tenderloin of beef! It is a little absurd to do this with such a luxurious cut of meat and yet this way I can play with my kids on Christmas Day instead of spending all day in the kitchen doing something complicated. Beef tenderloin and fancy condiments turn what could be a sandwich from a lunch counter into a meal that feels very celebratory.

We have to backtrack a little. Early in December (I did this yesterday) I buy 6 pounds of veal bones (hence the photo above), and roast them with carrots and onions in a hot oven. When they are the rich brown of a horse chestnut, I pull them from the oven and simmer them very slowly in a large soup pot for several hours. Then I cool, bag and freeze the broth. This deeply brown elixir will become the jus for Christmas day. Making the jus, the caramelized onions and the dessert in advance, will allow you to flop around in the living room with the toys, chocolates and piles of wrapping paper and maybe even squeeze in a little nap on the couch with “I’m Dreaming of White Christmas” playing quietly in the background. Hopefully your children will be entertaining themselves at this point and you won’t be refereeing any dumb arguments. Staying up after midnight  to fill the Christmas stockings and make sure Santa gets his cookies and port, is very exhausting after all.

Beef or Veal Stock

This recipe makes far more than you’ll need but you’ll thank me when you have quarts and quarts of frozen stock to make soup with after Christmas

  • 6 lb. beef or veal bones, have your butcher saw them into 3″ pieces (veal bones are very good because they have a lot of cartilage so the broth becomes thick and velvety because of it
  • 2 medium carrots, cut into big chunks
  • 2 medium yellow onions, quartered
  • a few sprigs fresh thyme
  • 1 bay leaf
  • a few parsley sprigs
  • 1 Tbs. black peppercorns
  • 1 Tbs. tomato paste
  1. Place a rack in the center of the oven. Preheat to 450°F.
  2. Roast the bones on a large rimmed baking sheet until just beginning to brown. This should take 20 minutes.
  3. Add carrots and onions (you can leave the skins on for color). Continue to roast until the bones and vegetables are deeply brown, perhaps 30 to 45 minutes more.
  4. Leaving any clear yellowish fat behind, move the roasted bones and vegetables to a stockpot.
  5. Add the parsley and thyme, which you should tie together, the bay leaf, peppercorns, tomato paste, and 5 to 7 quarts cold water (enough to cover the bones and vegetables by a couple of inches) to the pot.
  6. Slowly bring to a boil over medium heat. Then reduce the heat to medium low or low. Simmer uncovered, skimming the scum that collects on the surface occasionally with a shallow spoon.
  7. When the broth is flavorful and reduced enough to just barely cover the bones and vegetables – it’s done. Mine took about 5 hours.
  8. To quickly cool the broth so you can freeze it, line a colander with paper towels or cheesecloth.
  9. Using a ladle, pour the broth through the colander into a very large bowl or another stock pot.
  10. Fill an ice chest with all the ice from your freezer. I often buy a couple of bags of ice just for this purpose.
  11. Put a lid on the stock, and carefully submerge the pot in the cooler so that the ice comes up almost to the top of the pot.
  12. Close the cooler and go to bed. In the morning the stock will be so cold it is almost slushy and the fat will have congealed on the top.
  13. Remove the fat and throw it out.
  14. Divide the stock into two 3 cup bags and as many  8 cup bags as you can fill (I got three) and put it in the freezer. The two 3 cup bags are for Christmas Day and the rest is for any soup you want to make later this winter.
So that’s the first part done. A few days before Christmas, you’ll need to caramelize some onions and a few other things. We’ll get to that in a few days. For now, you’re done.

 

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Hindsight: Notes for Next Year

Always make the stock, pie crust and cornbread ahead of time – anything you can think of – don’t put it off until Thanksgiving Day if you can help it. Iron everything at least week in advance.

No matter how prepared you are, the last hour will be very busy and, unless you have nerves of steel, quite intense.

On pie:

  • Sugar on a pie crust makes it crunchy and sweet but also encourages over-caramelization (burning) – see maple leaf decorations above
  • There is a very fine line between caramelized and blackened - again see maple leaf decorations
  • Fraisage is the key to the perfectly flakey crust and it really is no big deal – notice the totally flakey (albeit slightly burnt) maple leaf decorations.

12 year old girls make excellent sous chefs.

12 year old girls make excellent table setters.

5 year olds can totally peel all the carrots. In other words, put your kids to work!

Perfectly polished sterling salt cellars and pepper shakers make the table look pretty but nobody actually ever uses them – is it worth polishing them? Consider this.

Masses of inexpensive carnation or daisy type flowers in a single seasonal color can make striking table arrangements.

Dressing/stuffing is one of my favorite foods but I can’t be responsible for eating the ten extra servings I produced in my zeal for stuffing leftovers. If serving ten people, there is no need to make stuffing/dressing for twenty. Stuffing for fifteen should suffice.

Fine grain cornbread is the better choice if you have to decide between fine and medium grind. Northern style cornbread is better for stuffing/dressing – as in the sort of cornbread that has some regular flour in it, along with the cornmeal.

I’m thinking that our ceramic fondue pot might make an excellent gravy boat – keep that gravy nice and hot! However if you have no fondue pot, don’t worry. If you need to hold the gravy while finishing up vegetable sides, set it in a double boiler, or a make-shift double boiler with a lid over water that has just reached a boil. Should be quite hot for at least 20 minutes. Then you can pour it into a warm gravy boat and bring it to the table when everything else is ready.

Shoving a brining bag into your largest stockpot is a good way to increase the volume of the pot and avoid having to use a cooler to brine the bird.

If you can commit to brining for 72 hours, then you can get away with significantly less salt and the gravy won’t be ruined by overly salty turkey drippings. 3/4 cup of kosher salt + 2tbsp per 2 gallons water is the right salinity.

Rinse and dry the bird before brining and afterwards. If you can manage it, remove the turkey from the brine the night before Thanksgiving, and having rinsed and dried it, inside and out, allow it to dry out overnight in the refrigerator, lightly covered with parchment.

Play a game of Monopoly or watch at least part of the football game. Don’t spend the entire day in the kitchen. You will be able to do this if you have a good plan.

Inviting a Thanksgiving expert makes a lot of sense. I asked “the Thanksgiving Queen” to come dine with us and not only did we have a wonderful time, but at key moments, I got really solid advice!

I had already made my turkey stock from the carcass when I found this recipe for making in the oven. I’ll have to give it a  try it next year!

Finally, it’s hard to believe, but Turkey Tetrazzini is actually pretty delicious. Use the turkey stock you made (you’d better have made some!) for the velouté. Sliced baby shiitake mushrooms sautéed in butter until brown and crisp are so much more compelling than the typical button mushrooms. (As if Turkey Tetrazzini could ever be compelling!) The recipe in the Joy of Cooking or Fanny Farmer will be just right.

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Thursday, I have your number.

Thanksgiving is only a day away and I am all caught up. I finished the pie crust this morning. There is some tidying and one more big trip to the store for the more perishable things like parsley, chives and celery. ( Imagine having bought celery on Sunday only to have it droopy by Thursday just because you couldn’t wait?!) My plan for Thursday has shaped up nicely.  The aim is to sit down at 6 PM, which is late enough not to feel geriatric and early enough so that the kids don’t start wigging out. This is the plan:

Thanksgiving Day Schedule

8:00 AM – Peel apples, and cook them down for pie filling (Joy of Cooking Method 2 – from 1997 edition) Remove pie crust from refrigerator so it will be just pliable enough to roll out. Do this about half way through peeling the apples.

8:30 AM – Roll out pie crust. Fill and bake the pie.

9:00 AM – Pare the carrots, trim then blanch the green beans, brown the almonds slowly  in butter, wash and finely chop parsley to be set aside for garnishing.

10:00AM – Set table. The linens are already ironed – whew! Put the cranberry sauce in appropriate serving bowls and put in the fridge.

10:30 AM – Put sparkling water, apple juice and champagne in cooler outside.

12:00 PM – Start the stuffing/dressing – chop and saute all vegetables and sausage and stir it all together – this should take about an hour.

12:30 PM – Preheat oven.

1:00 PM – Stuff and start the turkey. Refrigerate remaining dressing in an oven-to-table pan, wrapped in plastic wrap.

1:30 PM – Baste the turkey now and every half hour until it’s time for dinner

1:30-4:00 PM – Put your feet up except for the basting part. Now is the time for Monopoly, a puzzle, the football game or a walk with the dog.

4:00-5:00 PM – Peel and cut the potatoes and put them in a large pot covered with cold water.  Start the red cabbage at 4:30. It takes 1 1/2 hours to cook down. Pace yourself – the next hour will be intense!

5:00-6:00 PM:

  • Start the potatoes.
  • The turkey is ready to come out of the oven at around 5:15 PM. When the turkey comes out of the oven, pop the dressing in.
  • Remove the turkey from the roasting pan and set it on a large cutting board with a gutter to catch the juices. Cover with foil.
  • Make the gravy.
  • Start the carrots.
  • 5:45 PM - The potatoes will be done. Pull the dressing from the oven. and cover with foil.
  • Turn the oven off and put all the platters and serving dishes into it – so they warm in the residual heat.
  • Mash the potatoes and put them in a double boiler over low heat with a lid on top.
  • In a large heavy saute pan, heat the beans in olive oil and butter and season with lemon rind, salt and pepper. Toss in the almonds.
  • Finish the carrots.
  •  As you are doing the vegetables, ask someone to carve the turkey. I have Martin all lined up.
  • While the turkey is being carved, put the carrots, beans, and cabbage in the warm serving dishes, the potatoes in a hot bowl. Put the gravy in the gravy boat.
  • Set everything out on the table and call everyone to dinner.
It’s a little weird to write this without a set menu and recipes, so here is what I happen to be serving:
  • My neighbor is bringing an appetizer and I will serve the Cranberry Shrub cocktail with it
  • Turkey ( I bought a Heritage Bird and brined it.)
  • Cornbread Stuffing with Sausage, Apples, Pecans and Dried Sour Cherries
  • Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes
  • Maple Glazed Carrots
  • Haricot Vert with Brown Butter Almonds and Lemon Zest
  • Sweet and Sour Red Cabbage
  • Orange Cranberry Sauce
  • Apple Pie and whipped cream
  • My aunt is also bringing a dessert

And that is that. I just hope I remember to take a picture.

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Cranberry Shrub

Well, I didn’t quite get to writing up the Cranberry Shrub right away as I promised. Since Friday I have made cornbread and orange scented cranberry sauce though. And the brine for the turkey, although I still don’t have space in the refrigerator so I can store it. It’s going to have to stay on the back stoop, the lid tied on with kitchen twine, so the raccoons don’t try to wash something in it or tip it out. There was a huge one walking along the fence last week.

I’ve hung some pictures that have been leaning against a wall for months and scrubbed the revolting front hall rug. Dusted the bookshelves by the stair. Polished the fiddly silver salt cellars and pepper shakers, even though I-never-in-a-million-years would season something with pre-ground pepper. Then I washed something sticky from the pewter candlesticks. One good side effect of having a serious dinner at your house is that you see all the grubby parts and get around to dealing with them. One thing I haven’t gotten to yet is the pie crust. First thing tomorrow then.

You can fit the shrub almost anywhere in your plan, it’s quick.

Cranberry Shrub

  • 12 ounces fresh cranberries (a bag of cranberries is usually 12 ounces)
  • 1 cup of sugar
  • 3/4 cup red wine vinegar
  • 1 tsp grapefruit zest
  • 2 tbsp fresh grapefruit juice
  1. Put all the ingredients into a medium sized saucepan and over medium heat, bring to a simmer. Turn down the heat and keep at a gentle simmer for 5 minutes until most of the cranberries have burst.
  2. Strain and discard pulp. Chill. Keep for up to three months

What do you do with it?! For children, mix it with club soda or ginger ale – 1 part shrub to 2 parts fizzy stuff. For grown-ups, it’s even more fun. Substitute 2 parts prosecco for the ginger ale. Or go even more crazy. Add some gin and several muddled mint leaves and top up with ginger ale. Or add a squeeze of lime, some gin, a splash of club soda and garnish with a twist of lime peel. Make a version of kir with white wine. There’s a lot of room to play. Have fun!

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