Saturday, May 14, 2011

Unsung Heroes of the Pantry

While reading on The Pioneer Woman website today, (if you don't know about PW yet, you are missing out. Go read about her life on the prairie as soon as possible....after you finish reading this humble entry, of course.) I discovered that she and I share a love of Nielsen Massey Madagascan vanilla paste. This sparked an idea...what other ingredients do I have in my kitchen that take my cooking to a whole new level? Here are some of my Manna Cakes approved, tried-and-true kitchen staples.

1) Saigon cinnamon. I add cinnamon to a host of dishes and baked goods, and recently discovered the magic of Saigon cinnamon. Up until the holidays last year, I always thought the basic cinnamon in the grocery was good enough. In fact, I would often buy the bulk "value" cinnamon at the store, re-filling my spice jar as I went. I bought the bottle above in November, and as you can see, it has served me quite well. There are many good brands that use Saigon cinnamon, but please please try some. The scent alone tells you this cinnamon is different from run-of-the-mill varieties, and the taste is seriously like cinnamon in hi-def when all you've known your whole life is an antenna. And for dishes where cinnamon is the star, like cinnamon rolls, scones, and cookies, spending the extra dollar per jar of cinnamon is well worth it. 
2) King Arthur bread flour. It's long been the gold standard of professional bakers and grannies alike, and for good reason. If you want perfect crispy homemade pizza crusts and bread that is chewy on the outside and tender on the inside, look no further than King Arthur. It's a little more expensive than the bread flours produced by other popular brands, but if you want great bread every time, go with King Arthur. And don't forget to sift!
3) Fleur de Sel. Translated as "flower of salt," this is one of the most clean, pure tasting salts available. I've rhapsodized about fleur de sel before, and I'll gladly do it again. A jar is pricey (about $15 for the jar I bought), but a year's worth of fairly regular use has only made a small dent in the jar. Don't use it to salt water for pasta or in your baking; instead, sprinkle on steamed veggies, chocolate truffles, seared steaks, or anything that could use a savory crunch. Because of its large grains and the pure taste, you definitely don't need as much fleur de sel to brighten up your dish as standard table salt. 
4) California Olive Ranch extra virgin olive oil. Working for a Fortune 50 grocery retailer has its advantages, one of which is getting samples from vendors. Several months ago a few bottles of California Olive Ranch EVOO ended up on my desk, and I've been in love ever since. It smells and tastes so fresh, with none of the off-putting peppery aftertaste or even rancidity of other brands. I use it for searing meats, sauteing asparagus, and I even found an olive oil cake that showcases the nice flavor of this oil.
5) Nielsen Massey vanilla bean paste....the real black gold. I found this gem on Amazon last fall after reading about Nielsen Massey vanillas on a website. I've never been quite talented at slicing vanilla beans lengthwise and scraping out all of those tiny seeds, and this product takes all that hassle away. It measures teaspoon for teaspoon with vanilla extract, is supremely smooth and aromatic, and you get the added benefit of all those pretty little flecks of vanilla seeds. Like the cinnamon I mentioned above, I use this paste for baked goods where vanilla is the star. Just this week I added a tablespoon to my cream cheese frosting for cinnamon rolls, and I use it for sugar cookies, vanilla wafers, and vanilla cake. 

6) Cane sugar. There is plenty of debate over cane sugar versus beet sugar for baking, and I have to side with cane sugar. Don't be fooled--unless the package clearly states "cane sugar," it likely came from beets. The same also goes for brown sugar; cheaper brands will use a white beet sugar and basically coat it with a molasses additive. Yuck.  I don't necessarily notice a major difference between beet and cane white granulated sugar in my cookies and cakes (I guess my palate isn't refined enough!), but I do notice that beet sugar caramelizes differently during candy making. Therefore, when I embark on my labor-of-love caramel-making mission, I don't take any chances. Cane sugar it is. 
7) Black pepper grinder. Nothing fancy here, but the inside of my spice cabinet has not seen a tin of ground black pepper in years. Not only does this nifty little grinder let me select the size of my grind (large and crunchy, thank you very much!), but it guarantees every dish will have a fresh, well, peppery, flavor. With a grinder you'll never be disappointed by heat and time reducing the potency of the pepper, and therefore you'll end up using less.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Easter for 15 in 20 Hours.....! The Outcome

With a great sigh of relief, Easter dinner came off without a hitch. It was the right number of guests (my Dad's living area is not large, and the logistics for 15 are a lot simpler than 25), the weather was gorgeous, and everyone seemed to have a great time. The smaller group also gave me the opportunity to spend time on the little things, namely extra little floral arrangements and the Easter pails for my nieces and nephews.
Flowers for the arrangements: daisies, pom-poms, carnations, hypericum berries, baby's breath
Tools of the trade: popover pans, cake pedestals, candlesticks, and serving pieces, all brought from my apartment for the occasion
The finished floral arrangements for the table. The humble, inexpensive flowers were long lasting, visually impactful, and so pretty!

Easter baskets are always a fun part of the holiday, and although my nieces and nephews are really too old for an Easter egg hunt, they will never be too old for a pail of candy. I bought inexpensive metal pails at Target, along with all of their favorite Easter candy. I also stumbled upon edible Easter grass, which was visually appealing, but definitely not very tasty! About 15 minutes' worth of work later, all 4 pails were assembled and ready to serve as placeholders at the kids' table. 

My first big task for Easter morning was preparing the au gratin potatoes. I love this au gratin potatoes recipe found at's simple and absolutely delicious! For my crowd I tripled the batch and baked it in a lasagna pan. I put it in about 4 hours before dinner, alongside the ham, so that it had plenty of time to cook at the much lower temperature (325).
the finely sliced potatoes, about 7 pounds in all

After church we dove into a loaf of banana caramel bread I had made Saturday night, fantastic with a slathering of butter. I cheated and used a mix from Williams Sonoma, but it was a real time-saver and allowed me to concentrate on lunch. 
In my experience, large portions of meat, such as ham and turkey, really taste best when cooked slowly and without a lot of fuss. I did a hickory-smoked shank ham and cooked it in my turkey roaster for about 4 hours. I made a simple glaze of about 2 cups of brown sugar, 1/4 cup of both molasses and pure maple syrup, a pinch of kosher salt, and a splash of water to thin out the glaze slightly. When the ham had about an hour left (I let it be for the first 3 hours, only checking the temperature once), I made a few slashes with a sharp knife into the skin of the ham and poured the glaze on. Once the ham was carved and plattered, I ladled the juices and glaze from the pan onto the slices. Delicious!
The "adult" table. Tablecloth and napkins found at Home Goods for a steal!

The kids' table. The tablecloth is the same toile runner my sister sewed for her graduation party last year

I nestled chocolate candies in pretty wine glasses and placed them among the centerpieces. It also added another shot of color to the table!
Later in the afternoon I brought out my coup-de-grace: a classic cheesecake with caramel sauce and roasted pecans. I have made many different kinds of cheesecake in my life, and if you're looking for a classic that is infinitely flexible, use this recipe from allrecipes. You will never need another cheesecake recipe again! Just make sure to follow the cardinal rules of cheesecake-making: 
  • always blind-bake your crust before filling
  • always beat the sugar and cream cheese together first for several minutes until light and fluffy
  • always add your eggs last, mixing them by hand and only enough to barely incorporate into the batter
  • never over-bake. Bake until barely set in the middle, turn the oven off, and allow the cake to cool for several hours (even overnight) in the oven before refrigerating.  
    The decadent final product....definitely a family hit!