A book and a bookplate

It has been so cold the past week that I have hunkered down and continuing to read and study La Varenne Pratique, the fabulous textbook of Anne Willan’s cooking school in France years ago. It is such a wealth of information, much of which I studied in culinary school, but it never hurts to read again about sauces (White sauce class is tomorrow night), how to truss a chicken, or blanch a bean. I did have the most exciting thing happen recently.  After reading that Anne has a new book coming out in March, I commented on her website about how much I loved her books and that I had done a book review of One Souffle at a Time for a book club last fall and that I also reviewed the book  here on July 15.  Her assistant contacted me and asked if I would like signed bookplates from Anne. Well, yes! A few days later, three book plates arrived with a sweet note from Anne.  That made my day!

La Varenne

 

Last week I also finished The Perfectionist:  Life and Death in Haute Cuisine.  Everyone wants to be the best at what they do. Some people can carry the pursuit of perfection to the extreme, and no where is this effort more apparent than in the restaurant business of France.  For decades, French chefs have pursued the Holy Grail of achieving three Michelin stars – the pinnacle of culinary success. This true story of Bernard Loiseau’s life and career, his world renown rise to culinary perfection and his sad spiral to suicide, is told by his friend and journalist Rudolph Chelminski. Read the rest of the story here.

Red Velvet Cake for Sweet Shark

 

Red Velvet Cake is Sweet Shark’s favorite and I try to make him one every year for Valentine’s Day.  (I did miss last year as we were packing to leave on a cruise.)  Over the years, I’ve used different recipes, but most for Red Velvet Cake are very similar; all have dark cocoa in the batter as well as some acid added, either vinegar or buttermilk or both.  And, of course, red food coloring.  Otherwise, the procedure follows a standard cake baking technique; that’s why Red Velvet Cake is a great cake for novice bakers as well as experts.  Usually, the frosting is a cream cheese one.  Making this cake is special because I use my mom’s heart-shaped cake pan. So follow along as I show you how I made this one.  The cake recipe is from epicurous.com and the frosting recipe is from Ina Garten.  Find the recipe on the Recipe Page.

Red Velvet Cake 1

I use a pencil to trace a heart on parchment paper. When you cut it out, cut inside your pencil line to fit the pan. Then cut 2-inch strips to go around the pan.

Red Velvet Cake 5

I use butter wrappers to grease the bottom and sides. Lay your parchment paper inside and then spray with cooking spray on top of the parchment paper. This makes removing the cake easy.

Red Velvet Cake 3

My mise place for the cake. Only thing missing is the buttermilk which was still the fridge. Notice that I have my baking soda and baking powder in air-tight containers – so much easier to measure out than out of the boxes.

Red Velvet Cake 2

The cake flour needs to be sifted BEFORE measuring. I like to use a fine mesh sieve. Since I don’t use cake flour often, I keep it in the refrigerator.

red Velvet Cake 4

After adding the cocoa,baking soda, baking powder, and salt, you will need to sift all the dry ingredients together with the flour.

Red Velvet Cake 6

The first step in most cakes is to cream the room temperature butter and sugar until thoroughly blended and smooth.

Red Velvet Cake 10

Next step is to add your eggs – in this case two – one at a time. This is when the batter gets a creamy consistency.

Red Velvet Cake 8

Whisk the wet ingredients – the buttermilk, vinegar, vanilla extract, and red food coloring to combine. I like to use a measuring cup which makes it easy to add to the mixing bowl.

Red Velvet Cake 12

Dry and wet ingredients are added alternately, dry, wet, dry, wet, dry.

Red Velvet Cake 13

Once all the dry and wet ingredients are added and blended, the batter comes together.

Red Velvet 15

Pour the batter into the prepared pan. The original recipe calls for two 9″ round pans baking for 27 minutes. Since I put all the batter in one pan, I increased the baking time to 40 minutes.

 

After the cake cools in the pan, take out of the pan, remove the parchment paper.  Using a serrated knife, I cut the cake in half horizontally.

After the cake cools in the pan, take out of the pan, remove the parchment paper. Using a serrated knife, I cut the cake in half horizontally.

Red Velvet Cake stand

On your cake stand or platter, place three strips of parchment paper. This will make icing the cake much easier.

Red Velvet Cake slicing

A large cake mover makes placing the two cake layers on the cake plate.

Red Velvet Cake 11

After icing the cake, I added red sprinkles to give the cake a little sparkle. Sweet Shark couldn’t wait to have a slice.

 

 

The elegant egg

Humans have been eating eggs for thousands of years, for good reason:  high protein content, low cost, and chickens are small and easy to raise.  In the kitchen, we can hardly cook or bake without them since eggs provide texture, flavor, structure, moisture to everything from cakes to soup to sauces, custards, ice cream, pastries, and breads. But, for my money, nothing tastes as natural as a good old fried egg.  How quick can you say “meal”?  A fried egg cooks in about 5 minutes.  For years, I’ve made my fried eggs the way Julia recommends in How to Master the Art of French Cooking, using butter (with Julia, what else would you fry an egg in?).  Her method was to put a pat of butter in a skillet, heat until it melts and the foaming subsides, add the egg, salt and pepper, and cook.  Always worked for me.  In the January 2015, Bon Appetit, an article about frying an egg in olive oil grabbed my attention. I love olive oil and we use it more than butter.  (Years ago I replaced butter with extra virgin olive oil on my popcorn – I’m a popcorn fanatic! – and I’ve never gone back to butter.)  Since olive oil has less than half the saturated fat grams of butter (2 versus 7), and raises our good cholesterol and lowers our bad (calorieking.com),  all the more reason to try this method.  Fortunately, our friends Mike and Wende have chickens in their backyard and occasionally we are the lucky recipients of their – do you say harvest?  They have eight chickens, but only seven lay eggs; Wende explained that one has not gone through chicken puberty; who knew that chickens have puberty?  Nothing is as good as an unadulterated, straight from the chicken, egg.  They really taste better than store bought and usually the yolks are more orange than yellow.

eggs home grown

Mike and Wende’s eggs. Aren’t they pretty? Notice the different colors of the shells? That doesn’t have any bearing on the taste or freshness of the eggs.

I always crack my eggs into a ramekin first.

egg 1

Isn’t this the prettiest, most perfect thing on the planet?

Now, I like my fried egg a little crisp around the edges and sunny side up which was exactly how this method described the resulting egg.   So, to fry an egg in olive oil, you need a non-stick or cast-iron skillet.  Make sure it’s big enough for you to move the egg(s) around. Heat the skillet over medium-high heat until very hot.  Add about one or two tablespoons of olive oil.  Add your egg and immediately season with salt and pepper.  The oil should bubble a bit around the egg. Cook until the edges of the white start to brown a bit, about two minutes.  Use a spatula to rotate the egg around the skillet.  You can add red chili flakes or cayenne for an added pop of flavor. Remove the egg to a plate and enjoy.  As expected, the egg tasted delicious and so natural.  I like to tear a slice of whole wheat bread into pieces to sop up the yolk.

egg frying

Notice how the yolk stays in the middle of the white? That’s the sign of a good, fresh egg.

egg frying 2

After adding the salt and pepper, the edges are starting to crisp.

Even if you don’t have access to fresh eggs, do try this method.  Your heart and your taste bugs will thank you.

 

Slice and dice your way to culinary perfection

“Having sharp, great knives will enable you to cook very precisely. Knife skills are essential in cooking.” – Eric Ripert

On Monday I taught one of my very favorite classes: Knife Skills 101.  Julia Child said that the only tool you need in the kitchen is a chef’s knife.  I wouldn’t go that far – I couldn’t live without my food processor, Kitchen Aid mixer, or microplane – but I’ll be the first to shout out that a good, sharp chef’s knife is the most essential tool in the kitchen shed.  When I was in culinary school, proper execution of correct knife skills was emphasized in every class.  Proper knife cuts were praised and sloppy knife cuts were severely criticized. Knowing how to properly care for and use knives should be the goal of every cook, no matter how much or how little you cook.  Ironically enough, in Wednesday’s Dallas Morning News Arts & Life section; the featured article is called “Blades of Glory”.

There is nothing secret or mysterious about Knife Skills.  You don’t have to chop or dice fast, just accurately.  You just have to practice.  So, here in a nutshell are ten lessons that I teach in Knife Skills 101.  As a caveat, nothing takes the place of attending a Knife Skills class where an instructor can demonstrate cuts, you can practice and be critiqued, ask questions, and, of course, eat the fruits of your labors.

Lesson 1 – this is a chef’s knife.  It is the go-to knife for most tasks in the kitchen.  The distance from the spine to the heel, about 1 1/2 inches allows you to wrap your knuckles around the handle to chop, dice, and slice.  The slightly curved cutting edge allows you to rock the knife for chopping.  Most of the time, you use the middle and front half of the knife for chopping and dicing.  The length of most chef’s knife is 7 1/2 – 9 1/2-inches, but some can be longer.

anatomy of knife

Lesson 2 – this is how to properly hold a knife: the thumb is on one side of the blade and the index finger is curled around the other side.  Your last three fingers are curved around the handle.  This method gives you maximum control, and the knife becomes an extension of your hand. Do not be tempted to put your index finger on top of the spine.  You lose control.

holding a knife

Lesson 3 – one of the most common questions I am asked is what brand of knife to buy.  And, I always answer that I can’t tell you. With so many good brands of knives on the market, you should choose the one that feels the best in your hand.  That’s why I recommend going to a reputable cooking store and hold several different brands.  The size of your hand and the weight of the knife should be a factor in the right knife for you. Do not buy a knife online.  Do not buy knives in sets.  It’s a waste of money and you won’t use half of them.   Don’t buy knives that claim to cut pennies – you’re not cutting pennies, you are cutting food.  Buy the best knife you can afford. A knife is an investment.  If you take proper care of it, a good chef’s knife will outlive you. Just this morning I received a message from Sur la Table that they are having a knife sale this weekend; great prices so check it out at Sur la Table.

Lesson 4 – take care of your knives.  Never, ever put them in the dishwasher.  Never throw them into a drawer.  Never use them to open a can or turn a screw. Wash and dry them as soon as you use them. After cutting proteins, always sanitize to prevent cross-contamination.  Do not scrap them across your cutting board to pick up cut items.

Lesson 5 – keep your knives sharp.  The saying “the sharper your knife, the less you cry” is true.  A sharp knife is a safe knife.  The more you use your knives, the more often they need to be sharpened.  Use a steel to hone the knife  and keep it on edge.  A whetstone can be used on a periodic basis to give a really sharp edge.  Do not have your knives sharpened except by a reputable and trusted source.  Once metal is taken off the edge, it can’t be put back.  Our Dallas Sur la Table charges $5.00 per knife.  Well worth it. Check with your local Sur la Table about its sharpening services.

steel

a steel is used to hone the knife, keeping the edge straight

whetstone

a whetstone is used to sharpen the knife by running both sides of the blade across the surface at a 20° angle

Lesson 6 – knives are dangerous.  When walking, hold the blade facing back and close to your side, never facing forward.  Never put them in a sink of soapy water where they can’t be seen.  If you drop your knife, let it go; don’t try to catch it.

knife safety

Lesson 7 – only use wood or plastic cutting boards.  I use my Boos wood cutting boards for everything but proteins.  I use the flexible cutting boards for all proteins.  Keep the board clean, washing after each use with hot soapy water.  Never put a wooden cutting board in the dishwasher, but plastic is O.K.  placed away from the heating element.  Never cut on your counter top; it will dull the knife edge. Place a damp paper towel under the board to hold it in place.

a wooden cutting board provides a large surface on which to cut

a wooden cutting board provides a large surface on which to cut

flexible plastic cutting boards are good for working with proteins

flexible plastic cutting boards are good for working with proteins

Lesson 8 –  Proper knife cuts are essential to the aesthetics of food presentation, especially in items like salsas, garnishes, soups, stews, and salads.  The size and shape of food affects cooking time.  Learn the proper technique for dicing and slicing onions. Speaking of onions, don’t put them in a food processor to dice; they will get very watery and not pretty.

Lesson 9 – Have your own knife.  Everyone has their own way of cutting.  I’m left-handed and Sweet Shark is right-handed.  I guarantee: after years of using our knives, they have a different edge.  Usually, women like a shorter knife than men.  In short, try not to share.

knife comparison

Sweet Shark’s knife is on top; the blade is 10 1/4 inches. My knife is on the bottom; the blade is 8 inches.

Lesson 10 – When using your chef’s knife, stand directly facing your cutting board.  Relax your shoulders and keep your elbows against your sides.  The work is done from the elbow to the hand.  Keep your knife on the board.  I had an instructor say that if your are making alot of noise with your knife, you’re doing something wrong.

These lessons are just the beginning – even before you start practicing actual technique.  We’ll save that for a later time.  If you can’t make it to a knife skills class locally, check out videos on the web.  I discovered one from The French Chef on PBS circa 1960’s, Julia Child Knife Skills Video; I’m happy to say Julia and I agree on just about everything.  Julia also makes French Onion Soup in the video.  We made one in my Knife Skills class and you can find my recipe for French Onion Soup on the Recipe page.

 

 

New year – time for clean up and a new class

What do you do on a very cold day when you do not want to leave the house?  I clean-out, re-organize, and throw-out.  I cleaned out a couple of cabinets (crumbs, crumbs, crumbs), cleaned out our freezers, rearranging and throwing out stuff that I was sure was too old to use again.  Everything looks so nice; breads and veggies in the top freezer drawer, meats and nuts in the bottom drawer.  I combined items (why did I have three bags of pecans?) in the freezer and pantry (two bags of the same type of rice), and moved around items to make more sense of how often I use them, such as flour and sugar.  I feel so good. Tomorrow I may do some more. But, for now, I can share the first class of the year on January 21st.  This always makes me feel good, too.  Planning and anticipating for new classes always gets me excited.  Please check out the Cooking Classes Page and let me show you how much fun cooking classes can be.

New year and happy anniversary

Happy New Year!  I hope everyone survived last night.  Sweet Shark and I had a lovely evening with our older daughter, son-in-law and granddaughters (well, the girls were in bed), watching football, sharing cocktails, and cooking a fabulous dinner – roasted broccoli and baby potatoes, and rack of lamb.  We munched on a super simple, but delicious appetizer that daughter and SIL made. See the Recipe page for Roasted Tomatoes and Goat Cheese. We watched the ball drop in New York at 11:00 our time, had a glass of champagne, kissed and hugged, and were in bed by 11:30.

Today is the 1st anniversary of this website.  Exactly one year ago, I finally took the culinary plunge and jumped into the world of blogging.  It’s been a blast and I thank everyone who is following, visiting, and commenting.  I hope to become more proficient, more prolific, and more “photographic” this year.  Blogging is a learning process and I still have so much to learn.  Any suggestions are welcome.  I know that you love recipes and reading about travel, so I hope to bring you more of both in 2015.

Enjoy your day.  Be grateful and thankful.  Make 2015 be filled with wonderful food to eat (and thanks that we have plenty), new recipes, and dear friends to share with.  I’ll be sharing with you.

 

A year of reading

For the past twenty or so years, I’ve kept a record of all the books I’ve read.  Recently, I made a list of the books I had read in 2014.  I read fiction and non-fiction, travel, history, mystery, memoir, and food books.  Some stories made me laugh and some made me cry, such as Kalid Hosseni’s A Thousand Splendid Suns. I read several that were being made into movies (The Book Thief, Monuments Men) that also made me cry.  Well, alot of books make me cry with stories and characters so touching that your heart breaks.  I read three books by Andrea Di Robilant based on the life and times of his great-great grandmother in Venice. Speaking of Venice, I fell in love with Vivaldi’s city of music and the story of young girls who lived to play and sing.  I read the latest Daniel Silva novel, The Heist, featuring his Israeli spy Gabriel Allon, which caught me up on the series.  From historical fiction based on true stories (The Invention of Wings) to page-turning stories of historical figures (Killing Patton and Killing Kennedy).  I laughed out loud to Gayle Metcalf’s account of being a Southern mother.  I read two books about iconic culinary figures (both books reviewed here earlier in the year). I salivated reading Tom Fitzmorris’ history of restaurants in New Orleans.  I read my first book – actually three – on my IPad – all three Hunger Games books in one week.  It was a nice experience, but I’m still a paper book kind of girl.   On the Books Page, check out my entire list.  Maybe we’ve read some of the same books.  I’d love to know what you’re reading.  Like most avid readers, I have a stack of books waiting to be read and savored.  Happy reading to all in 2015.