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Sunday, March 27, 2011

SNAP Cheese Crepes

with Asiago, Goat Cheese and Love from Georgetown:

I'm trying to make friends at work, and the fastest way to do that is to break down and buy a candy jar. Personality alone, no matter how sparkling, won't bring people to your frigid little corner of the second floor. This week I filled said jar with Tootsie rolls of wondrous variety. Who doesn't like Tootsie rolls? But, there is steep competition around the cubes - the man behind me brings cupcakes from his soon-to-be-retired-bake-aholic wife almost every day. Maybe my motivation for making friends is a little self-centered (e.g. I'm rushing to build bridges and secure a constant personal supply of cupcakes). Well, maybe. But I get lonely too.

Last weekend, to cure one such lonely spell, I met with two of my old roommates from undergraduate for a luncheon in Georgetown. After an hour of wandering, and one harrowing ride up the Metro escalator, we arrived at a sunny street corner and a sign that read "SNAP - Cutest Cafe in Georgetown". At first we were skeptical, we didn't seen anything particularly adorable in the general vicinity. But the orange cartoon fox had peaked our interest. Although, I may have been reminded of Dora the Explorer, we followed the arrow pointing down the side street. The menu, pea green walls and low-prices were visible through the open door - obviously, they typically cater to students who aren't willing to commit to an expensive menu. There were smoothies (of course), a few vegetarian plates, one or two carnivorous paninis, but the main fare was crepes.

The cafe itself was what you'd expect from a college town, even one like Georgetown: small, sparsely furnished, chalkboard menus subject to unexpected changes and a friendly, talkative staff of 2-4. Was it the cutest cafe around - probably not. The wobbly plastic table and chairs were quaint at best, and the narrow, cobblestone garden and rickety space heaters were just short of Spartan. But, I forgave every paper napkin and plastic basket when I spied this gem on the menu: Goat cheese and Asiago Crepe.

There are very few things that I have absolutely zero tolerance for, but goat cheese is one of them. If there is goat cheese in a twenty mile radius I'm going to find it, ask to eat it, and then talk about it for the next 24-48 hours. There is no way that isn't going to happen. In this case, I obsessed over these crepes all week and promised so profusely that I may have been ruthlessly made fun of if I didn't make them Sunday morning. The creamy goat cheese was a given, but the sharp, firm Asiago was so unexpected I couldn't get enough of it. Originally, I had seen it as a mere sidekick to the obvious hero of the dish - the goat cheese. But, every bite was laced with a little Asiago, a few thready chives and, in some cases, a bite or two of tomato. They all danced around in wild pagan homage to the goat cheese - quite beautifully. I may even be inclined to say that the Asiago stole the show a little bit in the second act.

The crepe itself, I think, was buckwheat because it was starchier and a little more firm in texture than the crepes I make at home. Whatever it was, it was bigger than my hand, dripping with cheese and only about $5. After that first bite, I knew I was going to have to make this crepe at home - I had to. The flavors were so clean, so unassuming, I knew I could recreate it. The only difficult part would be making the crepe itself, and we both know that isn't very difficult if you are in possession of a little butter and a non-stick skillet. Since I don't have my Julia Childs baking handbook at the moment - how dreadfully shameful of me, but I choose to fill the last quarter of my suitcase with extra pairs of underwear instead of a large and cumbersome cookbook - I went to Martha instead. My only beef with the recipe was that the amount of butter and oil they suggested for cooking the crepes was absurd. Using 2 tablespoons in the batter itself worked beautifully, and brushing the pan (non-stick) once with a little more melted butter was sufficient. My first crepe was a dud since it separated the oil and and butter and just seethed up at me from the pan. After that disastrous waste of batter, I could see absolutely no reason to dredge the pan with more butter and oil between crepes. I stopped short of the actual recipe, which is for a blintz, and therefor did not fry the filled crepes in butter afterwards. A shame? Maybe, but not really.

Notes: The first crepe is usually a flop; however, it is useful for gauging the temperature of your pan. I used a rather small 8" pan, so I ended up making a ton of crepes. Use a larger pan for a more substantial crepe - all the same rules apply. Ideally, your crepe is silky smooth and soft without any crispy edges. If these happen, certainly don't throw the crepe away, but you may want to turn the crepe sooner or turn down the heat, very slightly. Be sure to get a good and tangy goat cheese. The flavor profile of the crepe is really dependent on the quality of the cheese. With so few ingredients splurge on something really scrumptious. Plus, if you have leftover cheese you can toast up some bagels with a little Asiago, or mix in some goat cheese with your next platter of scrambled eggs. You can't go wrong.

Savory Crepe Base:
Variation of "Blueberry Blintzes" from MarthaStewart.com

3/4 cup milk, plus 2 tablespoons
2 eggs
1 cup, plus 2 tablespoons
1/4 teaspoon coarse salt
2 tablespoons melted butter

Inspired by Snap! of Georgetown's "Goat cheese and Asiago Crepe"

5 ounces crumbled Asiago cheese
6 ounces tangiest Goat cheese
scant 1/4 cup chives, finely diced
1 plum tomato seeded and diced, optional

**To our European Friends - you probably already have a great crepe recipe, but if you want this one I can make an attempt at a conversion soon.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Chicken Sausage and Gruyere Strata

+ a trip to Trader's:

On Saturday, I took an hour and a half stretch class at a ballet studio in Rockville. As I grumbled along, hitting pot holes and red lights, I took the time to scout out a Trader Joe's I had heard was nearby. In the web of small Asian groceries, yoga studios, gas stations and "high rise" apartment buildings, I found it. Sure, we had a Trader's back home, but I had only been there once in a feverish panic looking for mochi: I had bulldozed through the first frozen food isle, found the last three boxes of green tea mochi, and b-lined for the check-out. I can't remember why I was in such a hurry to begin with, but I am glad I was.

My first real Trader's experience was, probably, made yet more blissful by the brilliant sunlight, and rush of endorphins and lactic acid being released from every fibrous IT band and tendon in my body. Although I was on a mission to acquisition sausage, plum tomatoes, bread and Gruyere cheese for the Sunday breakfast I was planning for my house mates, I took my time browsing the isles. I was in 7th heaven. The layout of the store itself was not quite what I was expecting, but less than five minutes in the cereal isle, and a quick peek in the dried fruit section sold me. They could suspend boxes of bow-tie pasta from the ceiling for all I care. All those hard to find ingredients like flax seeds, high fiber cereals, dried (un-sweetened) mango, Bartlett pear and even strawberries were right out in the open. No more searching bottom shelves or settling for the only brand available. Here, there were choices, and considerably low prices. I was so engulfed in my discoveries, I almost forgot one of the key ingredients I was looking for: sausage.

Luckily, I remembered before I got in the check-out line. There were 5 different flavors of chicken sausage lined up, and every packaged was made with pasture-raised chicken! No artificial ingredients, preservatives or even sausage casings! Amen. Rapture ensued, but I managed to make it out of the store in good time. I even enjoyed an all-nature fruit and fiber bar on the way to car. It was glorious, and I highly recommended a trip to your local Trader's as a means of dismissing the winter weather blues. I think it even helped ward off sore muscles.

Why did I go to Trader's to being with? Well, I have been enjoying the generous culinary efforts of my house mates/hosts for two full weeks now, without preparing a single dish. Since I was planning on staying in town this weekend, I vowed to whip something up for Sunday brunch before my trip downtown. This strata (a layered egg and bread dish) caught my attention immediately. I loved the idea of big cubes of bread soaking up eggs and milk and then being baked, much like a savory bread pudding. Although the recipe said it was a crowd pleaser (and it was), I did make some alterations. Firstly, the idea of using a spongy wheat sandwich bread didn't sound very appealing. I am all about fiber, but I just couldn't imagine it with anything less than eggy and barely sweet like a brioche or challah. But, since I couldn't find either brioche or challah, I picked up a crispy loaf of French bread. I also used a chicken sausage infused with sun-dried tomatoes instead of the turkey the recipe called for - it was just what struck my fancy. When Sunday morning rolled around, things went swimmingly. The strata is dense and moist but with a lot of structure. The cheese creates a crispy web on top of the eggs and bread, helping it keep it together and making it much easier to serve. And, unlike most breakfast casseroles, the strata comes out moist, but not greasy. I attributed this to the chicken sausage (with 60% less fat than pork sausage); which, I drained after cooking, and the absence of the traditional cheddar cheese.

Notes: The recipe was very warmly received, and could be eaten for dinner (with a nice tossed salad), reheated for lunch as well as for breakfast with some fresh fruit. I prepped the dish the night before, so Sunday I could sleep in. If you can't find a sun-dried tomato infused sausage, you're probably not shopping at Trader Joe's... But, you could always substitute some sliced roasted red pepper or soft sun dried tomatoes sliced finely and tossed in with the bread and sausage. In fact, you might want to do that anyway. The strata cooks for 30-45 minutes, leaving just enough time to slice up a nice bright fruit salad to serve with it. Definitely, worth a trip to Trader's.

+ a trip to Trader's:

Chicken Sausage and Gruyere Strata
Variation on the "Sausage, Cheese and Tomato Strata" from "Betty Crocker Whole Grains"
Serves 12

1 lb chicken sausage
1 French baguette, cut into 1-inch cubes (about 7 cups)
2 cups Gruyere cheese
2 cups chopped plum tomatoes (drained slightly)
6 eggs
2 cups milk
2 teaspoons dried basil leaves
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon salt

The night before (or at least 2 hours before baking)
1. Spray a 9x13" baking dish with cooking spray, or rub with butter.
2. Dice the bread into 1" cubes and place in the prepared baking dish.
3. Slice the sausage and cook in a sauce pan with a little butter or olive oil until it is browned. Drain on a paper towel before adding to the bread.
4. Sprinkle the bread and sausage with 1 1/2 cups of the cheese. Dice the tomatoes, pouring off most of the liquid before adding the bread mixture.
5. In a bowl mix the eggs, milk, basil, mustard and salt. Pour evenly over the bread mixture and season with black pepper. Cover tightly; refrigerate for no longer than 24 hours (but at least 2 hours before baking).

To bake
6. Heat the oven to 350. Uncover the dish and bake for 35-40, or until a knife inserted in the center of the dish comes out clean.
7. Let the strata cool slightly before serving.

*Photos to follow shortly; as soon as we find Burrito's camera cord. Again.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Strawberry Swiss Buttercream

It is that nasty pre-bikini time of year again, when the blog circuit shorts out thanks to an overload of "good for you", "fat burning" dishes. Recipes for mac 'n cheese, lasagna and banana bread all but disappear as the comfort food revolution comes to a quick volatile end.

But, not at SPUDS. As an individual, I understand the importance of bikini-body cooking. Two weeks in the workforce have left me feeling like an exhausted, gelatinous blob by the end of an 8(eight) hour work day. Sometimes, it makes me appreciate the nights my parents had short cranky tempers and dinner was just a box of boxed mac and warmed up green beans when I was younger. But mostly, it makes me wish I still lived within walking distance of my workplace, and that I wasn't begging to be in bed by 10:30 every night. But this weekend's warm weather has energized me. With warm weather comes the allure of Jordan almonds, clouds of dreamy cream and meringue, tangy curds and breathless butter creams that are all but impossible to resist. For all the resolution fuss, spring isn't the ideal time to deny oneself the luxuries of the season. Luckily, SPUDS has an excellent reason (as if we needed another one) not to support the healthy body building movement - at least not yet.

Friday March 12th marked SPUDS 1 year anniversary! You will forgive me for not posting that day, but I was enjoying a dinner of left-overs, pajamas and NEW SuperMario Brothers and couldn't be bothered with celebrating successes outside of wall-kicks and spitting fireballs. You have to understand that SPUDS has, and continues to be, a bit of a surprise for me. Firstly, I can't believe I've been posting recipes for a year - I'm usually far too critical to stick to something as easily criticized as a blog. I suppose it is for that same reason I can't help but feel a little saddened my success, however, sweet, remains crepe like in depth. Don't we all want a follower list as bottomless as the most sinful chocolate chocolate torte - the kind you buy because you don't really want to know what is inside. That said, I'm awfully glad you're here. I have this feeling, we're going to be fast friends.

The first SPUDS post was the unassuming, all-occasion "Hot Milk Cake". I am glad to say that, despite the passage of time, the cake remains an excellent no-brainer that is easy on the mouth as well as the wallet. But, a year later I am happy to imagine that SPUDS has grown. Take this Swiss Butter cream recipe for example - neither easy nor extraordinarily cheap. It comes from an amazing blog called C&C Cakery. If the recipe wasn't enough in and of itself, the fact that they do some amazing fantasy baking (they have a "Nerd" label) would be more than enough reason to flag the page as a favorite. This was one of many forays I've made in the past five years into the wide world of butter cream, but by far the most successful. The fact that it doesn't include confectioners sugar it what makes it a "Swiss" butter cream - don't ask me why. It will taste intensely of butter and a little less sweet than most shop butter creams that come piped on by the quarter pound. I love this butter cream not just for its unassuming, but beautiful, color, richness and over all amazing texture (and did I mention richness) but especially for the bright, springy flavor and flecks of strawberry. Cheeky. Burrito and I had a great time piping, smearing and eating it right out of the bag - or at least I did, just a little bit. I was coerced.

Notes: This is the second time I've made this recipe, and it is still as good as it was that first sinful bite. Matcha is a green tea powder, and widely available in Asian markets and specialty stores; however, it isn't cheap. For that reason I've elected to only post the Swiss Butter Cream (which is insanely delicious). For now, at least. The hard part about this butter cream, if it can be called hard, is going to involve your hand mixer. Just bite your lip and admit to yourself that you are going to get mixeritus. Don't worry - it is worth it. Or, you can just rope in a friend. The extra set of hands is really helpful. If you use frozen strawberries, thaw and drain them thoroughly before you begin making the butter cream. You don't want a lot of excess water mucking things up. Also, I just mash my berries with a fork since they get pulverized with the blender and things turn out swimmingly.

"Kaylee's Cupcake" Strawberry Swiss Butter Cream
C&C Cakes - SPUDS didn't change a thing about this recipe. It's that delicious.

1/2 cup sugar
2 egg whites
3/4 cup softened butter, cut into cubes
1/2 teaspoon vanilla (clear preferably)
3/4 cup pureed strawberries

1. Place the egg whites and sugar in a double boiler - I use a microwavable glass dish - with the water simmering (but not boiling). Whisk the whites until the sugar grain have dissolved. They will be frothy and gorgeous.
2. Remove from the heat and pour into a bowl - I carefully wipe the bottom of the bowl off to ensure no water infiltrates the new bowl with the egg whites. With an electric mixer, beat the eggs until they form stiff, glossy peaks on high. This will take a while. To test the egg white turn off the mixer and lift it out of the bowl - if the eggs don't drip off and form a soft serve like curl they are ready.
3. Reduce the speed of your mixer and add the butter cubes one at a time, mixing well. (This is where a friend comes in hand). Mix until the mixture has begun to curdle (just how it looks) and then keep mixing until it is smooth. This will take a while, but don't give up!
4. Once smooth, slowly add the vanilla and pureed strawberries. Use immediately.

*If you have to, refrigerate your butter cream after you decorate with it. It will change the texture slightly, so only use as a last resort. When I have to do this I let the butter cream come to room temperature again before consuming.

For our European Friends... (attempt II)

"Kaylee's Cupcake" Strawberry Swiss Butter Cream

180 g butter
splash vanilla
2 egg whites
100 g sugar
110 g pureed strawberries

1. Place the egg whites and sugar in a double boiler - I use a microwavable glass dish - with the water simmering (but not boiling). Whisk the whites until the sugar grain have dissolved. They will be frothy and gorgeous.
2. Remove from the heat and pour into a bowl - I carefully wipe the bottom of the bowl off to ensure no water infiltrates the new bowl with the egg whites. With an electric mixer, beat the eggs until they form stiff, glossy peaks on high. This will take a while. To test the egg white turn off the mixer and lift it out of the bowl - if the eggs don't drip off and form a soft serve like curl they are ready.
3. Reduce the speed of your mixer and add the butter cubes one at a time, mixing well. (This is where a friend comes in hand). Mix until the mixture has begun to curdle and then keep mixing until it is smooth. This will take a while, but don't give up!
4. After smooth, slowly add the vanilla and pureed strawberries. Use immediately.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Best Ever Cake

The Best I Ever Had:

Burrito: "Whatcha doing?
Fajita: "I'm making a post about a cake."

Burrito: "What kind of cake?"
Fajita: "The Best Ever Cake."

Burrito: "Is it really the "best ever" cake?"
Fajita: "Yes [definitively]; well, it is pretty damn close."

But how to describe it... Let's start with an alternative history. Imagine a small coastal village, long ships bobbing in the harbor, smoke belching from a dozen smoke holes in a dozen mud and thatch huts. Now imagine the heart of this seaside village pulsing with men and women in hide and fur and leather. Then, imagine those crusty vicious men and women beating wooden spoons and long-handled baking paddles against copper pans and bowls and tin dishes black from sooty fires. Imagine them spooning mouthfuls of sweet pineapple cake into greedy, bearded mouths instead of ransacking churches, pillaging abbeys and scourging the better part of every coastal town in England, Ireland and parts of France. If the Vikings had ever seen pineapple, much less tasted it, or the sweet ambrosia of cream cheese frosting, no doubt this scenario would be a little less absurd. As it stands, it is my sincere belief that this cake - with its simple instructions, delightful ingredients and minuscule price tag - could have changed the course of history with little more than one whiff of the barely sweet, fruity decadence that is "The Best Ever Cake".

There is something utterly undeniable about pineapple, walnut and cream cheese in a moist, sweet cake. Luckily, my Mom made some for her office party a few months ago and I, being very savvy, took a photo of it for future use. It was unprecedented of me - especially considering the turn my camera took back in February. (Nothing good to update there). The downside: I am really regretting not being able to eat a homely slice right now. I think it would really improve the post, and provide an honest to goodness description of just how amazing this cake really is.

Don't believe me yet? Trust me, you can afford to give this recipe a try. I love icing the cake while it is warm, but be sure to let the cake come to room temperature before you store it. If you put the cake in the fridge while it is hot it will sweat and become too moist. That said, the cake is great either straight out of the fridge or still just barely warm.

Notes: I'd love to write more, but I've been up since 6:00am (and 3:45, 4:50 before that) and I'm afraid I couldn't come up with any more adjectives or witty, helpful advice if I tried. But, honestly, there isn't much else to say about this cake. Everything really does get mixed up in the same bowl, and it does matter that everything goes into the bowl in the order listed in the recipe. But, that's about it. After all, doesn't the name tell you everything you need to know?

Best Ever Cake
Recipe from Mom

1 cup chopped walnuts
2 cups granulated sugar
2 cups unsifted flour (not self rising)
2 teaspoons of baking soda
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 regular sized can of crushed pineapple (do NOT drain)

8 ounces softened cream cheese
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar, sifted
1 stick of margarine, room temp

1. Grease and flour a 9x13 baking dish. Preheat the oven to 350.
2. Combine the ingredients (in the order listed) in a single bowl. No sifting is required.
3. Bake at 300 for 45-50 minutes. Prepare the icing while the cake is baking.
4. Remove the cake from the oven, let sit for 5-10 minutes, then spread with the cream cheese icing. Once the cake is room temperature, cover the cake and refrigerate until ready to serve.