Thursday, November 24, 2011

Cayenne Shortbread: a kickstarter appetizer

Cayenne & Chili Shortbread
The challenge for a Thanksgiving appetizer is to bring a big flavor but not to be an appetite-killer. Cayenne Shortbread fills the bill.

Truth in recipe writing: this shortbread has two kinds of chili, cayenne and red (Ancho preferred) and might also be called Double-Chili Shortbread.

Shortbread has an undeserved reputation for being fussy, requiring cutting and rolling, and obsessive pursuit of symmetry. Not so. It can be treated like a refrigerator cookie, giving it many of the characteristics of the Easy Peasy Food Group:


  1. easy to mix from pantry ingredients (sugar, salt, vanilla, flour, spices);
  2. simple to roll into logs for the freezer;
  3. can be baked frozen if your knife can cut the fully-frozen log; and
  4. can look "rustic," as perfection (perfectly round, obsessively even in height, exactly the same color) is not required.
Cayenne Shortbread 

3/4 pound unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 to 1 tsp cayenne
1/2 tsp red chili powder (Ancho, not the stuff you put into a pot of chili)
1/2 tsp salt
3-1/2 cups all purpose flour, sifted
  1. Cream the butter, sugar, vanilla, cayenne, chili, and salt for five minutes in a stand mixer.
  2. With the mixer on low, add the flour half a cup at a time. When all of the flour has been added, turn up the speed for about 10 seconds to incorporate as much flour as possible. 
  3. Dump the mixture onto a board or a silicone mat. If you have some dry ingredients that weren't completely mixed in, knead the dough for a minute or two and then roll into logs that are between 1-1/2 and 2 inches in diameter. Six-inch logs are easy to handle, but don't fret about the log's length. They will be cut into cookies.
  4. Wrap the logs in plastic and freeze for at least an hour.
  5. Pre-heat the oven to 350.
  6. When the logs are soft enough for your knife, cut the logs into cookies that are (more or less) 1/4 inch wide. 
  7. Place on parchment or on a silicone mat on a cookie sheet or rimmed baking sheet turned upside down. Bake for  between 20 and 25 minutes. Check them at 20 minutes.
  • Dry into wet? Usually dry ingredients like spices and salt are sifted with flour. "Why," I asked, "couldn't I add them to the creamed butter and sugar to give them a head start at mixing?" As the Boss of My Kitchen, I did it, and it worked out fine.
  • Uniform sizing? True, the more even they are sized, the more uniform they will look when fully baked. No fretting required, however, because these are forgiving and are delicious anywhere from pale yellow to light brown. Anyone who complains that they are not uniformly round, should be immediately assigned to wash all of the dishes.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Trifecta of Bad Baking: Mistakes were made

Not nearly ripe enough to be
Screaming Ripe Bananas
The four ripe bananas on the counter screamed “Banana Bread!!” I should have roasted them and stuck them into the freezer for another day.

Mistakes were made. Learn from them.

1. Don't bake when you are very very tired; 
2. Don't do discretionary baking when you aren't super-double-keen on the recipe or the intended result;
3. Don't re-read the instructions. Rely on your memory. It's always great when you are tired.

4. Don't set out a mis-en-place. Grabbing ingredients on the fly is so adventurous.

5. When substituting butter for shortening:
     (a)    If you must thaw frozen butter, slice the precise amount that you need because:
             (1) if you aren't paying attention, you will use one cup instead of 2/3 cup, and;
             (2) you may then try to adjust the ingredients without doing math so that you:
                  (i) forget to add more sugar, and;
                  (ii) forget to add more salt, baking powder and spices; 
    (b)    Don't be surprised that the result achieves a Trifecta of Bad Baking:
            (1)  Flat (not enough salt);
            (2)  Dull (not enough sugar); and
            (3)   Bland (not enough spices).

6. Don't bother with the usual fixes:
      (a) Toast: Even toasting, which you might expect could sharpen up the candied ginger and crisp up the almonds that you added instead of walnuts, will only make boring, bland, flavorless, heavy, and scary toast; or
       (b) Bread Pudding: This would be an insult to the custard, which, unless it contains an overwhelming amount of your best bourbon (a waste, which might then create its own problems), will never make up for the underlying failure of Bad Bland Banana Bread.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Last tomatoes: roast 'em

I was going to make tomato jam, but the idea of peeling all of the tomatoes that I bought from Erin Smith at the Hopkins Farmers Market on Saturday stopped me in my tracks. Fortunately, I had a better idea, and I roasted them in two large batches, the easiest thing in the world. Think duxelles (minced mushrooms cooked down to their essence), and know with a tiny amount of work, you will have the essence of tomatoes in a dish.

Chopped with garlic and chili
Roasted with a blackened chili
My first introduction to roasted tomatoes came from the late-but-never forgotten Laurie Colwin, who wrote rhapsodically about them in More Home Cooking. I use winter tomatoes and make it often.

Roasting large batches of tomatoes can take 3 hours. Settle in near your oven so that you can stir every 30 minutes or so. You'll know when your batch is finished when the tomatoes have gone from bright and juicy to dark and jammy.

Easy Peasy Roasted Tomatoes

Fresh tomatoes: chop up as many has you have
Fresh Garlic: 3-5 fat cloves
Dried Chili: As much or as little as you like
Fresh Ground Pepper: 1-2 tsp
Optional: 1/2 finely chopped onion (which I forgot yesterday)
Optional: any amount of thin sliced fresh sweet or hot peppers
1/4 cup oil (I like canola; olive oil lovers, have at it!)

Oven temp: I have a convection oven option, and I started at 450 for about 45 minutes, and then reduced the heat to 325.)

  1. Pre-heat the oil in your largest heavy shallow roasting pan. Unless you want to clean your oven, do not use a rimmed baking sheet. 
  2. Add the tomatoes, garlic, chili and (optional) onion and pepper.
  3. Roast for three hours, stirring every 30 minutes.

If you can resist eating this all at once, it will freeze nicely for 3 months.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

18 Pounds of Italian Plums

Italian Plums are oval
Italian Plums are my favorite fruit for making deep, dark, and dense plum jam, and an unfailingly elegant, foolproof, and uncommonly delicious Plum Torte.  I bought 18 pounds this morning, and I will certainly go back for more.  Why?

Dark Red Plum Jam
PLUM JAM  I owe this affection to the late and very-much-lamented Laurie Colwin, from whom I learned to make jam by following her instructions it in the “Jam Anxiety” chapter in More Home Cooking.  She wrote “Jam making is actually, a snap, and also very liberating, since once you know how, you realize it is not the project of an entire day or week (jelly making is quite another matter) but half an evening’s pleasant and rewarding effort."

That sentence was a gift and inspiration to me.I made my first batch of Plum Jam right after September 11, 2001, and jam-making became my outlet. When the going was tough, I made jam. There were perhaps two entire years when I had 6 dozen jam jars in the trunk of my car, and imagined that everyone else did, too.

I am not alone in having been inspired by her essay. Greg Atkinson blogged nicely about her recipe in 2008, and a Google search of “Laurie Colwin’s Plum Jam” nets 3,300 results.

I have already blogged about Marian Burros Plum Torte, which was the New York Times’ most requested recipe for years. It freezes well and when baked off in February perfumes your house with the sweet smells of summer. I have made it with beets, pears, peaches, apples, and a variety of plums, but the Italian Plums are the best.

Find the Plum Torte and so much more in the The Best of DeGustibus

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

The Sacred Literature of Fresh Tomato Deliciousness. Tomatoland: how modern industrial agriculture destroyed our most alluring fruit

It is almost time for the fresh Minnesota tomato, and of our local farmers markets will have loads of traditional and heirloom varieties -- soon, very soon.

Thanks to my friend Susan Marsnik, I have a new stash of Aleppo Pepper from Holy Land Foods in Minneapolis. Sprinkle this pepper onto your salad or onto your fresh tomato, and you will be very, very happy. You can also find Aleppo Pepper at Penzey's, either in a store or by mail order.

Thanks to James Beard Award winner Barry Estabrook and his new book Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit we can no longer kid ourselves that the "winter tomatoes" we all eat throughout the year are not just frequently tasteless, but an environmental trainwreck. But, to balance things out, those tomatoes are a billion dollar industry, supporting everyone from farmworkers (barely), to fast food workers (barely), and pizza and tomato soup lovers everywhere.

You'll find a great review in the New York Times, and a terrific interview with Estabrook at npr, and your favorite news outlet probably has a review, too!

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Toffee Waffles - what every waffle cone wants to be

Toffee Waffles: $5/four
If you have ever eaten waffle cones out of the box, Toffee Waffles will validate your suspicion that there might be a Really Amazing Member of the Waffle Cone Family out there somewhere. I found them yesterday at the Hopkins (MN) Farmers Market. Proper People's Toffee Waffles are what every waffle cone ever made wanted to be when it grew up.

These crisp and gooey treats are a perfect marriage of all of the food groups: flour, butter, sugar, cinnamon and vanilla, much of which is locally sourced in Minnesota: Swany White Flour Mills (organic unbleached flour); Hope Creamery (churned butter), Larry Schultz Organic Farm (eggs), Hastings Co-op Creamery (hormone-free milk and butter).

If you can bear to wait until you have a cup of coffee in your hand, one of Toffee Waffle's  highest and best uses is to sit on top of a hot cup of coffee until the center softens. Then, and only then, do you eat your Toffee Waffle. Bet you can't wait!

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Better than a Golden Raisin Cookie: Dried Cherry Cookies

Golden Dried Cherry Cookies
After finding the King Arthur Flour posting containing a remembrance and lament for Sunshine Golden Raisin Cookies, I decided to make them.

One problem: no raisins. One solution: Dried tart cherries.

These are easy to make, even for people with Fear of Pastry, because they are random and raggedy, and the cherries or raisins (or any other chopped, dried fruit) can stick out. One great tool: a bench scraper will fold the dough and  cut the the cookies before baking.

The King Arthur blog posting has excellent instructions and great pictures. Aside from the raisin/cherry difference between theirs and mine, I decided not to use the beautiful coarse sugar topping, sprinkling on regular sugar instead. I don't remember coarse sugar on the Sunshine cookies, and I also remember these cookies being  surprisingly not sweet.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Golden memories: Sunshine Raisin Biscuits make a comeback | King Arthur Flour – Baking Banter

Golden memories: Sunshine Raisin Biscuits make a comeback | King Arthur Flour – Baking Banter

Every time a candy or a cookie is dumped by the Dreaded Takeover Corporation, a souffle falls like a stone. Sunshine Raisin Biscuits were grown-ups' cookies -- chewy and not too sweet. I loved them and, thanks to the bloggers at King Arthur Flour, I am going to make some this afternoon.

To wallow in the history of lost candies and to be shocked! shocked! shocked! by the level of corporate and intellectual property security in the candy business, read The Emperors of Chocolate by Joel Glenn Brenner. 

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Mark Bittman's Quick Scallion Pancakes: fast, cheap, addictive

My Hero
Having conducted "Scallion Pancake Week" and revisited with Super Simple Scallion Pancakes, I was not prepared for the ease and deliciousness of Mark Bittman's "Quick Scallion Pancakes" from The Minimalist Cooks at Home.

Fast, cheap, and addictive In 20 minutes, you can make a pile of beautiful green pancakes with 4 bunches of scallions, an egg, flour, salt, and pepper. It is as easy as boiling water, which is the first step. You'll need a blender or food processor, a small bowl, and a non-stick pan.

These will stay warm in the oven at 300 F. If you are frying for company, these will have the same effect on your guests as potato latkes. They will hover around the pan.

Cooks' notes: Know your stove and frying pan. It is pointless to write "on medium high heat" because yours might be blazing hot or vaguely energetic.  The goal is to cook them through, with either lightly brown or deeply brown (my favorite) exteriors.

Lots of scallions

4 bunches of scallions, washed and trimmed
1 egg, slightly beaten
1 tsp soy sauce
1/2 cup of all purpose flour
Oil for frying, salt & pepper
Lemon slices
additions (see below and use your imagination!)


  1. Boil a pot of salted water.
  2. Scallions:  Mince one bunch and reserve. Rough chop three bunches.
  3. Add the chopped scallions to boiling water. Boil 5 to 6 minutes or until the thickest scallions are tender. Drain, but do not rinse.
  4. Puree scallions in a food processor or blender.  Remove to a medium bowl. Add the flour, slightly beaten egg, soy sauce, salt, pepper, and reserved scallions.
  5. Heat 2 T oil in a non-stick pan.
  6. For dollar-sized pancakes, drop the batter by tablespoons. For larger pancakes, use 1/4 cup or eyeball with a large spoon.
  7. Green in the pan
  8. Cook the pancakes 2 to 3 minutes per side, or until brown. I like brown-and-crispy, so I lean toward 3 minutes. Serve with lemon slices.
Unable to leave well enough alone, I also added:

Garlic: throw 2 or 3 peeled cloves into the boiling water with the scallions.
Ginger:  Process a 1-inch piece of fresh ginger before adding hot scallions.
Chili pepper: With the ginger, I processed skin and seeds of a jalapeno. Feel free to use some (a technical term, indicating as much or as little as you want, taking into account the Scoville rating of the pepper and your ability to cope with it) fresh or dried pepper.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

5 easy changes to improve your cooking

Five easy changes to your kitchen will improve both the quality of your food and the ease with which you make it. Whether you are an experienced cook or a novice, whether your kitchen is packed with tools or you are outfitting your first apartment, smartening up your organization and paying attention to basic tools will benefit your cooking for yourself, your friends, and your family.

1.  Move your herbs and spices away from the heat.
Resist the temptation to keep spices handy and to keep a peppermill on top of the stove. Purposeless-random heat does not improve your parsley. Extra credit: Alphabetize your spices on a rack. You will save time and rarely buy what you don't need. True confession: This habit dates from my days of selling Spice Islands spices to grocery and drug stores in Northern California.

My travel-size Peugeot Peppermill
2.  Keep your knives sharp. This is Rule #1 under the heading "Safety First." Trying to cut with a dull knife is frustrating and dangerous. Unless you are willing to invest in an electric sharpener, find a local professional knife sharpener (Eversharp in Minneapolis) and take your knives in once a year. Expect to pay between $1 per blade on sale, or $1 per inch. Buy a knife-steel from the sharpener, who will demonstrate its use, and remind you to use it every time you chop.

3.  Purchase a heavy-duty sheet pan.  Unlike the thin pans from the grocery store, a heavy duty aluminum pan will never buckle under extreme heat and will last forever. An 18x13 weapons-grade pan called "half-sheet," can be had for less than $20, from either a restaurant supply house (Hockenberg's, $7.30) or a cooking emporium (Williams-Sonoma, $19).  I bet you won't want just one.

4.  Buy (or beg for a gift) a good quality peppermill.  There is no substitute for fresh ground pepper.  I have one near-but-not-next to my stove, and a tiny Peugeot Peppermill that travels with me.

5.  Acquire one Microplane grater. In an entertaining history of Microplane, the New York Times reminds us that this handy tool was born in a woodshop. Now that Grace Manufacturing, Inc. has embraced its culinary functions, there are a dazzling number of choices. If you must pick just one, I recommend a long, thin one with small holes that grates mountains of fresh Parmesan in minutes. It will zest your lemons, grate nutmeg, and make short work of ginger and garlic, too.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Registration open for 2011 susan-cooks! season

The essence of susan-cooks! is “Fun with a side of skill-building.”  
Three dishes and their variations in each class will launch you with new skills into a new season Come to learn, to laugh, to enjoy great snacks and appetizers, and great food.  

Details.  Class size limited to 6. Secure registration through PayPal:  $45 per person; $200 for a 5-class pass. Cost of food will be extra. Location: St. Paul. Each class (except for Canning) begins at 6 p.m.

March 26, Knife Skills: Prep forever. Coconut Braised Beef, Cucumber Salad w/Carrot Brunoise & lots of chopping, Spiced Fruit Salad. Includes dinner.

May 21, Spring
: All about Fresh. Fresh Spring Rolls, Spring Vegetable Stir Fry, Fresh Fruit Torte. Includes dinner.

July 16, Creative Canning. Local, available fruit for jam. Dried Apricot Chutney. Includes appetizers. Begins at 4 p.m.

September 24, Fast. Easy. Healthy. Mom's Creole Sauce with Your Choice of Protein. Chili Shrimp. Smart Chopping for Fast Roasted Root Vegetables. Includes dinner.

November 19. Holiday Baking. Laurie Colwin's Black Cake. Spiced Pecans. Caramel with a candy thermometer. Includes appetizers.

To create a class for you and your friends, your book group or your special event, contact Susan Gainen at 651-917-0219 or