Saturday, October 31, 2015

Whole Wheat English Muffins

For someone who adores baking bread and making homemade versions of things you'd normally get at the grocery store, homemade English muffins should have been a no-brainer. And yet somehow, it took a couple of years and the accumulation of three recipes before I got around to it. Yes, I was busy being educated and whatever, but I never let that stop me before. A couple of weeks ago, though, I finally got the bug and spent a nice weekend morning making the most delicious English muffins I had ever had, by several orders of magnitude. The kicker is that for some reason, I was surprised. I knew they'd be good, better than store-bought, but they were so good. I didn't even toast them after I split them, but ate three in rapid succession with just a smear of butter. My plans for a fancy English muffin egg sandwich went right out the window. Why would anyone ruin this heavenly perfection with eggs and bacon? (You know I'm serious when I say that bacon would not be an improvement).

I decided to use a whole wheat recipe I found over at the New York Times Cooking section, since I had recently bought some white whole wheat flour and was eager to see if I liked its milder wheat flavor (regular whole wheat flour is a bit much for me). Fortunately, NYT Cooking recently enabled comments, so I was able to avoid what would have been gargantuan English muffins (I know, a near-tragedy) and was also advised to cook them a bit longer than the recipe specified. In my version, I've tried to reflect these changes and clarify where I could. I also doubled the recipe because 8 muffins is not enough, not when reheated-from-frozen ones taste freshly baked. Enjoy.

Whole Wheat English Muffins
Yield: About 16 muffins
Adapted from Melissa Clark at NYT Cooking

Ingredients
4 tsp (1 tbsp + 1 tsp) active dry yeast
4 tbsp butter, melted, plus about that much for the skillet
1 cup plain yogurt
1 cup warm milk1
1 tbsp honey
2 tsp fine sea or kosher salt
2 cups whole wheat flour2
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
Cornmeal, for dusting

  1. In a small bowl or liquid measure, combine the yeast and 2/3 cup of warm water. Let stand 5-10 minutes, until yeast has dissolved and is foamy.
  2. In a large bowl, whisk together the melted butter, yogurt, milk, honey, salt, and yeast mixture.
  3. Add both flours and baking soda and mix until well combined. It will look more like batter than dough at this point. Set aside, covered with a towel or some plastic wrap, in a warm place for 1-1.5 hours, until doubled. The batter will start to more closely resemble a loose, sticky dough as it rises.
  4. Preheat oven to 350 degrees, and dust two large baking sheets with cornmeal.
  5. Heat 1 tbsp butter in a large skillet (I love cast iron here) over medium heat, until the butter has been melted for a couple of minutes.
  6. Plop rounded 1/4-cupsful of the batter/dough into the skillet and gently tease into into a roughly circular shape with a relatively flat top3. Make sure you leave them a little room, which will help you when flipping.
  7. Cover the skillet with a lid or baking sheet (honestly, by the last couple of batches, I didn't even bother with this step and didn't notice a difference), and cook for 3-5 minutes, until the muffins are browned on the bottom.
  8. Flip and cook another 2-4 minutes, until browned on the other side, then transfer to the prepared baking sheets. If you notice that the muffins start browning too quickly, as I did, turn down the heat a bit4.
  9. Repeat this process with more butter (as needed) and more dough, until you have a full sheet. Bake for 9-11 minutes, until the muffins are totally cooked through (I found 10 minutes to be just right, and split the fattest one to check if it was cooked through).
  10. At this point, you can must eat one right away, or you can let them cool completely and freeze in a single layer on a cookie sheet. Once frozen, they can be transferred to a ziploc bag. To eat, reheat in the oven (if frozen), then fork split and toast (or not). Spread with some butter and enjoy.

Notes:
  1. I normally brazenly ignore instructions like this. However, it's important to keep the milk warm so it doesn't force the butter to congeal. Ideally, the yogurt would be at room temperature, but they cancel each other out well enough that the butter stays liquid.
  2. I used white whole wheat flour here, since I had read it has a milder wheat flavor. They were delicious, but I'm sure they'd be great with regular WW flour, too. I wouldn't, however, recommend using all WW flour here, because it tends to be denser than AP flour.
  3. Note the qualifiers here. They're going to be lumpy and weirdly shaped, but no one is going to care because they will be too busy weeping at their flavor.
  4. Even if they look burnt (see my photo...), they don't really have a burnt taste. In fact, they're quite delicious. I suspect mine may have browned quickly because cast iron retains heat so well. If you're using stainless steel, nonstick, or aluminum, this may not be an issue.
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Thursday, October 8, 2015

Bacon Cheddar Tater Tots

Today, I make good on a promise I made a couple of weeks ago, and boy am I glad that I held myself to that promise. I don't know how/when I had the idea for these, but it was likely one of the more brilliant thoughts I've had in the last few months. These sort of evolved as I was making them. First, I decided that I wanted to make a big batch to have a homemade version of frozen, ready-to-bake tater tots. I've been trying to make meals and snacks to freeze, but not of the frozen-mystery-vegetable-casserole variety. I've made some pizza, now these tater tots, and hopefully soon some dumplings and/or pierogis. It'll be a nice way to avoid eating either fast food or cereal on nights when I get home late.

I was watching Iron Chef as I made these (it's amazing how quickly I cook when vicariously afflicted with the anxiety of chefs who are asked to make 5 dishes in one hour), and as I was grating the cheese, I heard someone say "chives" and realized that I had a whole lovely chive plant just waiting for me to make use of it. So I threw some of those in and then realized I had basically created a baked potato in tater tot form (baked potater tots? Not my best). I also ended up going a bit heavy-handed when I was forming the tots, so they took a while to bake. No complaints on my part; my apartment smelled delicious.





The best thing about these is that they're homemade, which obviously means they're healthier, right? Feel free to serve yourself a double serving.






Bacon Cheddar Tater Tots
Yield: About two half-sheet pans' worth (~60 large tater tots)

Ingredients
2 lb red potatoes, scrubbed
5-6 slices of bacon
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup (~2.5 oz) grated sharp or extra-sharp cheddar cheese
2 tbsp minced chives
Salt and pepper, to taste
1-2 tbsp flour, as needed

  1. Pierce the potatoes several times with a fork and roast on a baking sheet at 400 F until easily pierced but not mushy.
  2. While the potatoes cook, chop the bacon and cook over medium-low to medium heat until crispy. Set aside to cool somewhat. Now is a good time to prep the rest of the ingredients (mince the garlic and chives, and shred the cheese).
  3. A few minutes before the potatoes are done (or once you remove them from the oven, if you didn't time it right - no big deal), prepare an ice bath in a large bowl. Plunge the potatoes in the ice bath, changing the water/ice as needed. You really want to make sure the potatoes are fully cooled before mixing everything. I did the first batch of these with warm potatoes, and they were super sticky. Of course, this didn't help them stick to each other to form tots, just to stick to my hands. For smaller potatoes, the ice bath will probably be enough to cool them. If you have large potatoes, like I did, keep them in the ice bath for a while, then shred them and allow to finish cooling1.
  4. Turn the heat up to 425 F. Shred the potatoes2 (no need to peel unless you're picky about that) on the large holes of a cheese grater, and combine in a large bowl with bacon, garlic, cheese, and chives. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Remember that bacon is very salty and your cheese may be as well, so taste before salting.
  5. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper. Form the potato mixture into little nuggets about 1.5 inches long and 3/4-inch tall for large tater tots, or about 1 inch long for regular sized tots, and place on the baking sheet. You don't need to leave much space between them since they won't expand. If you're working with thoroughly cooled potatoes and really can't get them to form properly, you can add up to 1-2 tbsp flour to bind them.
  6. Bake at 425 for about 30-40 minutes (until nicely browned on the outside), flipping halfway through. You may need to adjust your cooking time based on the size of your tater tots, so just use your judgment. There's no raw meat or eggs, so it's largely a function of how crispy you prefer them.
  7. Serve plain or with ketchup (a classic), sour cream (to complete the baked potato theme), or, my favorite, with garlic aioli.
Notes:
  1. Science fact! Smaller things cool faster than larger things (made of the same material) because they have a higher ratio of surface area to volume. The more surface area you have, the more contact you have with the cooler air, allowing you to lose heat faster. That's why the small potatoes can cool mostly/completely in the ice bath, and also why shredding the larger potato will speed up the process considerably.
  2. If you didn't peel the potatoes, you'll likely end up with most of a potato's worth of skin at the end (it seems to tend to just peel back as you grate). Don't chuck them! Season generously with salt and pepper and fry over medium high heat in the leftover bacon fat. Potato skin chips!
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Saturday, October 3, 2015

Roasted Broccoli & Cheddar Soup

Well, the heat has officially been turned on here and I am back to the fall I remember from growing up (Maryland fall is quite warm). I can't say I'm exactly welcoming it, since I'm already pining forlornly for ripe, juicy stone fruit and sweet, vibrant strawberries, but there are a few things I enjoy about fall. The cooler weather opens up the possibility of soup for lunch, which I love because it's one of the few things I can make in large batches without getting sick of, and it reheats like a dream. I generally dislike leftovers because I often find reheated food to be a sad imitation of its former self. What once was vibrant is muted, crisp turns to mush. Naturally, this makes lunch a challenge. In fact, a lot of the inspiration for this blog so far has been a desire for lunch foods that either do not require heating or stand up well to the microwave. I think this soup will certainly do the trick.


I adore broccoli in all forms, and cheddar is one of my favorite cheeses, making broccoli cheddar soup one of my favorites. However, I dislike that some people purée their soup so there are no (or few) chunks. It doesn't feel like a substantial meal to me without a little chewing. Another gripe I have is that both the broccoli and cheddar flavors can sometimes become watered down once heated and mixed with broth and milk or cream. If you're going to basically eat a bowl of cheese and cream with a few vegetables in it, I think you should really make it worthwhile.  To resolve these issues, I made a number of alterations to the standard picture:
  1. My absolute favorite way to prepare broccoli is to roast the living heck out of it, until it's dark brown and crunchy on top, just a hair away from being burned. If you haven't tried this, go do it. Now. I'll wait. Incorporating this flavor into the soup was a no-brainer, so I roasted the florets and tossed them in at the end. As an added bonus, I got the chunky component I craved.
  2. I learned not too long ago that broccoli stalks are completely edible (duh), and that they cook up nicely if you peel away the tough outer skin. I decided to use the stalks in the more traditional manner. I simmered them in the soup until tender, and they were puréed along with the soup base. In this way I still maintained the creamy, smooth soup base as well as a brighter, fresher broccoli flavor.
  3. To make sure the cheese flavor shone through without using an obscene amount (though no judgment if you go that route), I used extra-sharp cheddar. I actually almost always use extra-sharp cheddar since I like my cheeses pungent, but here I felt it was particularly important.
  4. Finally, I decided to switch up the aromatics a bit. I used far more garlic than most people probably would, and used leeks instead of onions. Nothing against onions, I just thought the leeks really worked here. This actually came about because I happened to have some leeks on hand the first time I made broccoli cheddar soup, and I was concerned that the recipe I was using would be too bland without them (which it most certainly would have).
The leeks also offered me the opportunity to have some fun with garnishes, so I julienned the dark green leaves and fried them in olive oil. That's right, we're using the whole buffalo today*.

This soup does take a little more time than some recipes might and probably generates a few extra dishes, but that makes it a lovely activity for a cold, dreary day like we have today in Ann Arbor. Plus, there's some downtime while the soup simmers, so curl up with a good book (or maybe a few episodes of Good Eats or Iron Chef, which I recently discovered are on Netflix!) and get ready to hibernate until at least April. Sigh.
* Do you think that expression means anything to non-Americans?
Roasted Broccoli and Cheddar Soup
Yield: 4-6 servings

Ingredients
2 medium heads of broccoli, with stalks
Few tbsp olive oil
1/4 cup butter
1 medium leek1, white and light green parts cut into thin half-moons, dark green part reserved
3 large garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup flour
1 cup milk
5 cups chicken or vegetable broth
Salt and pepper to taste
Cayenne pepper, optional and to taste
5 oz (about 1 1/2 cups) extra-sharp cheddar, plus a small pile for garnish
  1. Preheat the oven to 425. Peel the broccoli stalks to reveal the tender green flesh underneath. Slice the stalks into 1/4-1/2-inch disks, and cut each disk into quarters. You should have about 1 3/4 cups of stalks (anything from 1 1/2 to 2 cups should be fine). Chop the rest of the broccoli into little bitty florets.
  2. Toss the broccoli with enough olive oil to coat the florets in a roasting pan or on a rimmed baking sheet. Season with salt and pepper and place in the oven to roast for 20-25 minutes, until deeply browned and crispy.
  3. While the broccoli cooks, melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Once the butter is melted, toss in the leeks and cook for 3-5 minutes, until the white parts turn translucent. Add in the garlic and cook for about a minute, until the garlic is aromatic but not browned.
  4. Stir in the flour and cook for 4-5 minutes to cook off the raw flour taste. Add the milk and stir for a minute or two, until thickened.
  5. Dump in the broth and stir to combine. The soup may look kind of lumpy and gross at this point, but it'll all sort itself out. Just keep stirring and switch to a whisk if you need.
  6. Bring the soup to a vigorous simmer, then turn down the heat and cook at a bare simmer, stirring occasionally, for 15-20 minutes, until slightly thickened.
  7. Season the soup with salt2, pepper, and cayenne pepper, and add the broccoli stalks. Simmer for 15-20 minutes, until the broccoli is crisp-tender.
  8. While the soup simmers, julienne one of the dark green leek leaves and heat a tbsp of olive oil over medium high heat. Once hot, add the leeks and fry until brown and crisp, 1-2 minutes. Set aside to drain on paper towels.
  9. Purée the soup either with an immersion blender or a regular blender and return to the pot over medium heat. Add the cheese and stir until the cheese is melted and integrated into the soup.
  10. Stir in the roasted broccoli florets and heat through.
  11. Serve immediately, garnished with a big pinch of cheese and the fried leek greens3.
Notes:
  1. If we're being totally honest here, I have no idea what sorts of sizes leeks come in. I had a cup of chopped leek, so shoot for something in that vicinity.
  2. You'll need to use your judgment here. I used unsalted broth, and my cheese wasn't super salty. I probably added about 2-2 1/2 tsp salt, but if you're using salted broth and/or salted cheese, adjust accordingly.
  3. I used these as a garnish, as described, but I really liked them and I had plenty more leaves, so I'll probably add more when I eat the rest of the soup.
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