comfort food

Puffs

by Caroline

There is something so 1950s about this recipe that I almost feel like I should wait until Mad Men starts airing again before posting it. But this time of year, with winter dragging on and spring not quite here, I need something new and fun (and yes, always quick) to get out of these cold weather doldrums. So I present to you:

Here’s what I love about puffs:
they’re versatile: the puffs can be round or oblong, big or small, sweet or savory
they’re easy to make ahead and keep until you want them
they’re fun to make
they require no special ingredients

Technically, these are pâte à choux, or choux pastry, but don’t let the French put you off. If you can boil water, you can make these.

Once they are baked and cooled, you can fill them with sweetened ricotta cheese, whipped cream, or jam; you can slice them in half and make ice cream sandwiches; you can dip them in chocolate syrup; spread them with Nutella; or sprinkle them with chopped, toasted nuts.

You can also make them a savory snack or appetizer by adding half a cup of grated cheese (Gruyere is traditional) to the batter, and/or a bit of lemon zest or chopped fresh herbs. Brush the unbaked puffs with egg wash and sprinkle them with sesame seeds, poppy seeds, grated Parmesan and/or ground pepper. Fill the baked, cooled puffs with herbed cream or goat cheese, or slice and spread them with a bit of cheese, a dab of roasted red pepper, smoked salmon… the possibilities are really endless.
Obviously the guests at your next cocktail party would be delighted to see these, but (and let’s be honest about where the bulk of our cooking energy is directed) so would your kids when they get home from school. Puffs can be fancy or familiar, depending simply on your imagination and presentation.

The recipe couldn’t be simpler:

½ cup butter
1 cup water
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
4 eggs

Preheat the oven to 400 and line a couple baking sheets with parchment.

In a medium saucepan, melt the butter in the water. Add salt and flour, and stir until the batter starts to pull away from the sides of the pan. Remove from the heat and beat in the eggs, one at a time, until the batter is smooth.

Pour the batter into a piping bag fitted with a large tip, or into a large ziploc from which you then snip open one corner. Pipe the pastry onto the baking sheets into whatever shape you like: small puffs, big puffs, or oblongs. If you like, smooth the tops with a fingertip dipped in cold water. Bake for 20-25 minutes (smaller puffs will bake more quickly), until golden brown, crisp and dry. Let cool before filling.

To fill, slice in half and spread with filling, or put the filling into a pastry bag fitted with a large tip (or a ziploc bag with its corner cut), poke a small hole into the bottom of the puff, and simply squirt in the filling.

If you want to keep some for later, let cool and then freeze (unfilled) in a ziploc bag; they’ll thaw and reheat quickly in a hot oven.

Triple Citrus Cream Cheese & Poppy Seed Coffeecake

by Caroline

Before my mom went back to work full-time, when I was in elementary school, she cooked dinner every night and baked bread every Saturday. She made birthday cakes for all four of us kids and thousands (I’m not exaggerating) cookies at Christmas. But the one thing I don’t recall her making on any regular basis, if at all, was coffeecake. We bought Entenmann’s. Most New Yorkers I know will sigh with happiness when they think of Entemann’s, the grocery store coffeecake in the windowed box. There were strudels and crumb-topped cakes, but my favorite was the cheese-filled danish.

I don’t make coffecake very often myself — pancakes and waffles are much more common — but for New Year’s Day and other brunch parties, this is the one I make, which is like a fresh update of those classic Entenmann’s cheese coffeecakes of my childhood. I found the recipe first in a Martha Stewart Living and noticed it also on Heidi Swanson’s 101 Cookbooks blog, so those are great bona fides if you don’t quite trust me: this is a delicious, moist, and easy to make ahead treat.

Note: you can leave out all the citrus zests, or just use one (orange or lemon) if you don’t have all 3. Zests keep well in the freezer (I have little waxed paper bags to store each kind) so you can always have a supply on hand.

For the dough:
½ c warm water
2 T active dry yeast (2 envelopes)
1 t sugar

½ c butter, melted and cooled (plus some more to grease the bowl)
2/3 c sugar
1 c orange juice
2 large eggs
zest of 1 lemon
zest of 1 lime
zest of 1 orange
1 t salt
5-6 c flour

For the filling:
1 pound cream cheese (room temperature)
1 c confectioner’s sugar
2 egg yolks
2 t vanilla
1 c dried cranberries, dried blueberries, dried currants (or a mix)
2/3 c poppy seeds

For the egg wash:
1 lightly beaten egg

Stir together the water, yeast and 1 t sugar in a large bowl until yeast dissolves. Let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes. Now whisk in juice, eggs, remaining 2/3 c sugar, melted butter, zests and salt. Stir in flour, 1 cup at a time, until dough pulls away from sides of bowl and forms a ball.

Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until just slightly sticky, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a buttered bowl and turn so that the dough is lightly coated with butter. Loosely cover and let rise until doubled in bulk, either at room temperature (about 1 ½ hours) or in the refrigerator overnight.

Meanwhile, stir together cream cheese, egg yolks, confectioners’ sugar and vanilla until smooth. Add poppy seeds and dried berries. Set aside (at room temp or in the fridge, wherever your dough is).

When you’re ready to shape and bake the coffee cakes, butter 2 baking sheets and set aside. If you’ve refrigerated the dough, let it come to room temperature before proceeding (usually an hour or so, depending on your fridge and kitchen!)

Punch down dough and divide in half. Roll out one half into an 11 x 15” rectangle. Spread half the filling evenly over the dough, leaving a 1” border. Beginning at one long side, tightly roll dough into a log, encasing the filling. Carefully transfer log to baking sheet, seam side down. With a sharp knife, make cuts about 2” apart along one long side of the log, cutting just three-quarters of the way across, like this:

Lift the first segment, turn it cut side up, and lay it flat on the baking sheet. Repeat with the next segment, twisting it so it sits on the opposite side of the roll. In my picture, the dough wasn’t quite laying flat, but you get the idea:

Continue down the log, alternating sides.

Roll out, fill and cut remaining dough.

Preheat oven to 350. Loosely cover dough and let rise until almost doubled in bulk, about 30 minutes. Brush dough with egg wash, avoiding the filling. Bake until cooked through and golden brown, about 30 minutes. Carefully slide coffee cakes onto wire racks, and let cool completely before slicing.

Strawberry Pop Tarts

by Caroline

The cooking division of labor in our household, as I have mentioned before, is basically Tony: stove; Caroline: oven. Or to put it another way, Tony: dinner; Caroline: dessert. It’s never more obvious than at our New Year’s Day party, for which I produce a line-up of cookies, muffins, coffee cakes and the like:

While this year, for example, Tony made a massaman curry, several batches of veggie spring rolls, a green papaya salad, plus a variety of fabulous chutneys and dipping sauces. He did suggest one thing for me to make, though: home made pop tarts. And I couldn’t resist. I found a recipe from Bon Appetit and it’s a great party snack since you prep them in advance and stick them into the freezer until you want them. Eli helped me with the assembly (and took to heart my caution to keep his warm hands off the pastry!):

They were gone so fast I couldn’t take a picture, but you know what a pop tart looks like. These are too good not to make again.

Here’s the recipe, with my notes in brackets:

* 2 cups plus 2 tablespoons all purpose flour plus additional for shaping and rolling
* 1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
* 1 teaspoon sugar
* 1 cup (2 sticks) chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
* 4 tablespoons ice water
* 12 tablespoons strawberry preserves

* Powdered sugar and fresh strawberries, for garnish [I skipped this step, given the dearth of fresh berries in January]

Preparation

Whisk 2 cups plus 2 tablespoons flour, coarse salt, and sugar in large bowl. Add butter. Using fingertips or back of fork, blend in butter until mixture resembles coarse meal. Add ice water by tablespoonfuls, tossing until moist clumps form. [You can do all this in the food processor: whisk together the dry ingredients, then add the chunks of butter and pulse until the mixture is coarse and grainy. Then add the water by spoonfuls and pulse until the dough starts to form clumps.] Gather dough into ball. Divide in half; shape each half into disk [or, shape into a rectangle to make your life easier when you roll it out]. Wrap in plastic. Chill at least 1 hour.

Line 2 large rimmed baking sheets with parchment. Working with 1 disk at a time, roll out dough on floured surface to about 13×11 inches. Trim to 12×10-inch rectangle, then cut into eight 5×3-inch rectangles.

Arrange 4 rectangles, spaced apart, on each sheet. Spoon 1 1/2 tablespoons preserves in row down center of each rectangle. Top preserves with second dough rectangle. Using fingertips, gently press all edges of each tart to seal; press all edges with tines of fork to double-seal. Using toothpick, poke a few holes in center of top dough rectangle. Cover; freeze tarts on sheets at least 2 hours and up to 1 week.

Position 1 rack in top third and 1 rack in bottom third of oven and preheat to 375°F. Bake frozen tarts uncovered until golden, reversing sheets after 15 minutes, 25 to 30 minutes total (some preserves may leak out). Immediately transfer tarts to rack. Sift powdered sugar lightly over. Serve warm or at room temperature [if they last that long] with fresh berries [in season].

Comfort Food Salad for Brunch

by Caroline

As I’ve written before, I love a salad for lunch, but when it’s rainy and cold, as it’s been in the Bay Area lately, something warmer is called for. Sometimes I make roasted potato and kale salad, but the other day I didn’t have quite the time, energy or ingredients to pull it together. So instead, I improvised with some dinner leftovers and one fresh market egg to make a warm and brunch-like dish that I will make again, even if I don’t have the leftovers with which to start. Here’s how it goes:

1 potato
1 handful of kale
1 egg
olive oil
salt & pepper to taste

Scrub and chop the potato and boil till tender, 5 – 10 minutes depending on the size of the chunks.

While the potato is cooking, stem, chop and rinse the kale. Steam in a saute pan (or, if you’re really efficient, in a bamboo steamer over the boiling potato) until tender, about 5 minutes.

Drain the vegetables. Heat some olive oil in a pan and add the potato, then fry until browned and crisp around the edges. Add the kale, plus some salt and pepper to taste, and heat until warm through. Off load the vegetables on to a plate and now fry an egg in the pan. When the egg’s just how you like it, slide it onto the vegetables. Drizzle with a bit of hot sauce if you like, and enjoy!

Braised Celery with Olives

By Lisa

This is one of those things that I never thought I would make–how many of you cook celery regularly (as a base of soups or sauces doesn’ t count)? I don’t. Or didn’t.   But then I saw this on tv at just the right moment, and I’ve made it twice in 2 weeks. A more simple, economical, versatile dish is hard to find. A more comforting cold weather dish is hard to find. It pairs beautifully with braised meat; it’s delicious over penne.  My eight year old loved it. My six year old was luke warm, but not totally opposed. I told him he had to learn to like it. We’ll see how that goes.

The dish basically involves slow cooking celery with a lot of onions, garlic, and olives in a very simple tomato paste sauce. The celery, as my daughter remarks, transforms into something tender-crisp, and golden.  If you don’t have olives–as I didn’t the last time–leave them out. If you like anchovies (we do) toss a few in with the onions. You can’t really mess this up.

Braised Celery with (or without Olives)

(very slightly adapted from Lidia Bastianich)

  • olive oil
  • 1-2 onions (more is better), halved, then sliced (not too thin)
  • 1 bunch celery, chopped into 1-2 inch slices, including leaves
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1-2 anchovies (optional)
  • cured black olives (you can get away w/o these, but it’s better with them)
  • 1/2 can tomato paste
  • 2 cups hot water
  1. Sautee onion and garlic in about 1/4 cup olive oil until they begin to soften
  2. Add celery (and anchovy if using) and sautee until it begins to soften and turn golden brown.
  3. Dissolve tomato paste in hot water, and add to the pan along with the olives.
  4. Simmer over low heat until celery is tender but not too soft–about 30 minutes.
  5. Serve warm, as a side, or over pasta with cheese.