Monday, August 30, 2010

Birthday cake: Need I say more?

I think birthday cake is the best food in the entire world, and my son would agree. We had our friends over for dinner last night and made a nice Italian feast - chicken piccata, risotto, grilled vegetables and homemade focaccia. Recipes to come someday, but in the meantime, I'm focusing on dessert.

Jack was ready for cake as soon as the dinner plates were cleared. It was our friend Steve's birthday but I couldn't take my eyes off of my son. That pure joy of watching the dancing light of the candles and singing along with everyone else - I wish I could bottle that sweet moment. That's why I do what I do. Food is great and nourishing but it's really the moments around the table - the memories created that make cooking so special for me.

Jack helped me make this cake; it really is so simple you might throw your Duncan Hines away:

Chocolate birthday cake
Adapted from The Barefoot Contessa

Butter, for greasing the pans
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for pans
2 cups sugar
3/4 cups good cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup buttermilk, shaken
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup freshly brewed hot coffee

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter 2 (8-inch) round cake pans. Line with parchment paper, then butter and flour the pans.

Sift the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, and salt into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and mix on low speed until combined. In another bowl, combine the buttermilk, oil, eggs, and vanilla. With the mixer on low speed, slowly add the wet ingredients to the dry. With mixer still on low, add the coffee and stir just to combine, scraping the bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula.

Pour the batter into the prepared pans and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean. Cool in the pans for 30 minutes, then turn them out onto a cooling rack and cool completely.
Place 1 layer, flat side up, on a flat plate or cake pedestal. With a knife or offset spatula, spread the top with frosting. Place the second layer on top, rounded side up, and spread the frosting evenly on the top and sides of the cake.

Now, as we know the Barefoot Contessa can be a vixen. Her complementary frosting recipe calls for one egg yolk. I wasn't going to go there so I instead used my mom's time-tested buttercream recipe that she has used for years and years on our family's birthday cakes:

Mom's buttercream frosting
1/2 cup shortening
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1 t. almond or clear vanilla extract
4 cups powdered sugar
1/4 cup half and half

Cream shortening and butter; add extract.  Gradually add powdered sugar and then half and half.  Scrape down sides of the bowl (add a few more drops of half and half, if needed). Beat on high until light and fluffy (about five minutes).

Jack and I dyed the frosting blue - I was going for manly blue, but we got Tiffany blue, which still looked very beautiful against the dark chocolate cake layers. Yummy!

Friday, August 27, 2010

A civilized ending to an otherwise crazy week

It's Friday afternoon, and the temperatures are cooler out. The window and sliding glass door are wide open, and Jack is pushing his trains around the wooden tracks. He's got colorful washable marker streaks up and down his arms from a recent art project. Roscoe the cat is asleep in the sunlight, and he has one orange streak on his fur from aforementioned art project. And I'm finishing up some computer work for the week while planning our Sunday dinner menu with guests. My cookbooks are spread across the kitchen island. I'll go searching for ingredients tomorrow morning at the Green City Market, The Spice House, and, yes, Costco. Happy Friday!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Sunny post

It's 1 p.m. so I say this cautiously: I am having a good day.

I feel like I've been using this blog lately as my therapy to complain about how tired and busy I am. But today is good. Two loads of laundry done this morning before work; set out the cleaning supplies for the cleaning lady (yes, it's my dirty little secret, I have a cleaning lady AND setting out my supplies does make me feel like I've achieved something AND Jack knows her by name and knows she comes when "Gack's house is dirty"); and was able to stop by the farmers' market on my way into the office. (This is my most favorite time of year for local produce - August tomatoes and squash, coupled with the early fall offerings of apples).

Got word my friend had a baby...yea! And having a good day at the office. We learned we got a nice grant for general operations (very rare these days in the funding world), and I had a funder call to see if they could give MORE for a project they're already funding. And just heard from Maria and am getting a good-behavior report on Jack. Thank you!

Fingers crossed and thanks to above for a good day so far. And tonight's taco night...

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Great weekend

Many thanks to my wonderful childhood friends - Amy, Jenny, Leigh and Rachel - for a great reunion of friends this past weekend. We met at Amy's house in Ohio (out in the country - think lots and lots of cornfields) with our husbands and children and just had the best time. Our kids got sucked into the vortex of toys and other kids, and the parents were free to visit, make meals, eat and repeat.

Corn on the cob, camp fires and lots of reminiscing - it was exactly the perfect summer weekend with dear friends.  Here's one of the only four pictures I took all weekend; Jack and his friend Max standing by their "campfire."

Thursday, August 12, 2010

You got me, karma!

So last night I was riding the L home (I feel like a lot of my posts start this way), hot, sweaty and tired. I am so ashamed to admit that I had the nerve to "tsk" a woman who had two small children with her, the youngest who just had spilled a million Fruit Loops near the exit of the train. Man, oh man, who am I to judge - here she is with two kids - one accidentally spills something and I "tsk" like I don't know what it's like???

Well, karma, you got me back. Flash-forward to 45 minutes later. Jack and I are at Whole Foods, and he's doing a great job sticking with me, even pulling the small rolling basket of groceries for his tired mama, which was very sweet. We head for the express check-out, which is located near a small massage station (this is Whole Foods, after all). Well, Jack decides to test the "relaxation factor" by pushing on the folding screens - and yes, they came crashing down on the massage chair. Luckily, no one was actually get a massage - that would be positively mortifying, but there was a very unhappy massage person who could only say, "tsk."

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Chicken and basil stir-fry

It's August, and I'm sad to say my basil plant has gone by the wayside. It's hot...really hot...and I just couldn't coax it to go on living.

Whether you get your basil from the back porch or the grocery store, here's a great, kid-friendly weeknight meal, courtesy of my friend Emily:

Chicken and Basil Stir-Fry
1.5 lb boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut crosswise into ¼-inch-thick slices
1 T. cornstarch
coarse salt and ground pepper
6 t. vegetable oil
1 small onion, halved and cut into ¼-inch-thick wedges
2 bell peppers, ribs and seeds removed, cut into ¼-inch-wide strips
6 garlic cloves, minced
3 T. rice vinegar
3 T. soy sauce
1 ½ c. basil leaves, larger leaves torn in half
cooked white rice, for serving (optional)

  1. Pat chicken dry with paper towels.  In a medium bowl, toss chicken with cornstarch, generously season with salt and pepper
  2. In a large nonstick skillet, heat 2 t. oil over medium high. Cook half the chicken, turning once, until browned, but not completely cooked through, 2 to 3 minutes total. Transfer to a plate.  Repeat with another 2 t. oil and remaining chicken. Transfer chicken to a plate.  Set aside.
  3. To skillet, add remaining 2 t. oil, onion and bell peppers, cook over medium high heat, tossing often, until beginning to brown, 3 minutes. Add garlic; cook until fragrant, about 1 minute.
  4. Add 1/3 c. water, vinegar, soy sauce and chicken to pan; cook, tossing until chicken is cooked through.
  5. Remove from heat.  Stir in basil leaves.  Serve immediately, over white rice, if desired.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Mustard-baked chicken with a pretzel crust

Jack and I are in Cleveland this week, visiting my family and my yummy little niece, who is three weeks old. As a treat to my middle sister, the new mommy, I made one of her favorites - inspired by a dish from Great Lakes Brewery - tonight:

Mustard-baked chicken with a pretzel crust
Food & Wine Magazine

1/2 pound hard pretzels, coarsely crushed (4 cups)
1/2 cup canola oil
1/2 cup whole-grain mustard
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1/4 cup water
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Salt and freshly ground pepper
6 large skinless, boneless chicken breast halves

Preheat the oven to 400°. In a food processor, pulse the pretzels until coarsely ground; you should have coarse chunks and fine crumbs. Transfer to a large, shallow bowl. 2. Wipe out the food processor. Add the oil, whole-grain and Dijon mustards, water and vinegar and process until smooth. Season the dressing with salt and pepper.

Pour half of the dressing into a large shallow bowl, add the chicken breasts and turn to coat. Dredge the chicken in the pretzel crumbs and transfer to a rack set over a rimmed baking sheet. Bake in the upper third of the oven for 20 to 25 minutes, or until cooked through. Slice the chicken and serve warm or at room temperature with the remaining mustard dressing.

Make ahead
The baked chicken and dressing can be kept at room temperature for up to 2 hours.

For a crisp topping, it’s essential to use thick, hard pretzels, such as the sourdough or handmade versions.