Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Word About Chocolate, and Some Crazy-Ass Brownies

It's been said (and established) that most chefs are slaves to their vices of choice. Entrenched in an industry focused on a carnal sensory pleasure like eating, the typical chef is usually a cigarette/cannabis smoker, intense drinker (hard alcohol, no light beer), dangerous and belligerent overeater, pervert/sex addict (especially with the revolving front-of-house staff) and/or closet tweaker. The great majority of chefs I've worked with were a colorful and unpredictable multi-combination of the basics. I am slightly outside the hard circle, not a smoker, monogamous, light occasional drinker (wine, girly cocktails, German or Belgian lights), not a drug experimenter and still eat like I did when I was 15 (moderate, homemade and snacky). Don't get me wrong though, I have a vice, and it's lifelong, cherished and hard-wired: Chocolate.

I eat chocolate every single day. Not a lot mind you, but unless I'm mostly unconscious and sick with the flu, I'm having a bite of chocolate at some point between breakfast and bed. Sometimes chocolate is breakfast. That 1-pound box of See's sitting on top of my mixing bowls? It has a 2-week lifespan at best. Sometimes it's one piece, sometimes it's three. Sometimes it's a corner of an organic Green & Black's almond bar scooping a sneaky bite from the peanut butter jar. Sometimes it's the ganache topping from a fleur de sel cupcake off the cupcake truck (yes, we have those, and yes, they are simultaneously evil and wonderful). But it's my only real vice, and it's mine, and it's passed on genetically. My daughter's first full sentence? "Want chocolate please, Mama!" She's obviously mine.

And the recent scientific declaration that chocolate is not only okay for you, but is actually beneficial to your health? That headline was like 20 Christmas and birthday presents all rolled together. Yes, I celebrated. Guess how.

Yes, that would be me. Not much has changed.

Although I gave up second-rate cheaply mass-produced Hershey’s milk chocolate a long, long time ago in favor of the good stuff, I've found that really good chocolate doesn't have to be expensive or hard to get. Lindt is good. Dagoba is a nice choice, and organic to boot. The aforementioned Green & Black? So delicious. Scharffenberger (recently bought by the evil empire but still close to my heart) is fantastic and easy to find in any supermarket on the west coast and beyond. After a class a few years ago where we blind-tasted and rated twenty kinds of boutique American and imported high-end and moderately-priced chocolate, and used them in identical recipes to compare them in different applications, which one came in first? Which one soundly trumped Callebaut and Valrhona? Trader Joe's pound-plus bar. For real.

So it's my own humble opinion that you can get great chocolate wherever you are, as long as you skip the checkout candy bar display and go to the specialty aisle, or the little chocolate shop on the corner (they know what they're doing), or the one-man stand at the farmers market, or pop into Whole Foods or TJs for something more deserving of your time and calories and money. By the way, those chocolate-covered pretzels at Trader Joe's, since you're already there? Those are pretty awesome too.

See these babies? Their days are numbered.

One day not too long ago, I got an excited call from my best friend. She'd just had lunch with her mom at a girlfriend's house, and being a good girlfriend, the nice lady had served brownies for dessert. But not just any brownies. Unbelievable, delicious, fudgy, rich, decadent brownies. The best brownies she'd ever had. And the kicker? They were made in a slow-cooker. Crock pot triple chocolate crack brownies. I begged for details. A slow-cooker? Really? They were that good? Really? Being my best friend, she not only had the skinny on the world's best brownies for me. She had the recipe.

As I write this, my house is filling with the blissful aroma of butter and chocolate. It's a good smell. Maybe it's like the heartwarming smell that a smoker experiences when she unwraps a new pack of cigs, or the woody sweet aroma of the first glass of Makers Mark from the new bottle that the drinker just poured himself, or the whiff of hair conditioner as the newbie waitress swings her shiny bob past the pervy executive chef. But I have four hours to wait for this chocolate fix to be ready, enough time for a healthy little lunch and a pre-emptive trip to the gym. I may be patient, but one thing that's typical of addicts is that they do like company. My name is Annie, and I'm a chocoholic. This is for you:

Slow-Cooker Triple Chocolate Brownies
Transcribed directly from the xeroxed page from a cookbook of so-far unknown origin. If I can figure out who the creator of this magnificent recipe is, I will let you know!
1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour (spooned and leveled)
¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
¾ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon coarse salt
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1 cup sugar
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup walnut halves, coarsely chopped (note from Annie: I lightly toasted my walnuts before adding to the batter)
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips (6 ounces)
Nonstick cooking spray

Lightly coat a 5-quart slow-cooker insert with cooking spray. Line bottom with parchment paper and lightly coat with spray. In a small bowl, whisk together flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt.
Place butter and chocolate in a medium microwave-safe bowl and microwave in 30-second increments, stirring after each, until chocolate is melted. Add sugar; stir to combine. Stir in eggs. Add flour mixture, walnuts and chocolate chips and stir just until moistened (do not overmix). Transfer to slow cooker and smooth top.
Cover and cook on low, 3 ½ hours.. Uncover and cook 30 minutes. Remove insert from slow cooker and run a knife around edge to loosen brownies. Let cool completely in insert on a wire rack, about 2 hours. Turn out onto a work surface and cut into 14 brownies.
Cooks note: The center may look undercooked when time is up, but it will be perfect once cooled.
(Note from Annie: I learned through trial and error that my particular slow cooker – a round West Bend model - most likely runs a little hotter than the one tested in this recipe, as I had some burnt edges the first time. For my particular model I cook on low for the first hour, then turn it to the “keep warm” setting, and they do exactly as they should. If you have a hot-blooded slow cooker, you might want to try this and see how they do.)

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Will Work for Pie

I've had a bit of an obsession going lately. In an attempt to eat more fruit and generally live a little healthier, I've put sugar in the "sometimes" category rather than the "3 times or more a day" designation. This has mostly been a good thing, and my fears of midnight root beer float and brownie cravings have gone mercifully unrealized. However, there has been a manifestation of sorts... pie is haunting me. It is EVERYWHERE.

This is no joke! Pie on every magazine cover (except The New Yorker) for the last 3 months. A new (unfortunately terrible) pie shop that opened in my town square recently. Pie all over the Wednesday food section. It also seems as though every time I turn on a tv show people are either reviewing fantastic local bakeries that make spicy apple-green chili pie or little fried hand pies (pies that fit in your hand, not pies made out of hands. What kind of shows do you think I'm watching?), or they're eating and groaning while they shove some triple-chocolate banana caramel pie monstrosity in their pie hole (okay, that one was just Guy Fieri, who eats like a 600-pound pig. Although I'm sure he's a perfectly nice person, I do watch his show sometimes rather than take any kind of appetite suppressant). I'm sure it would help if I changed my channel from Cooking TV (182 in the Bay Area), but there's always a slight chance that Tyler Florence might appear on my screen, so it's staying on 182.

There are two major things working against me now, in light of the pie-centric media barrage:
One: I am a dedicated pie fiend, and used to spend 8-plus hours making beautiful pies for my friend Lisa's restaurant in Maine on my days off. I already had a 60-hour-a-week job as a sous chef someplace else, and chose to stand and make pies all summer rather than take a day off once in a while. I am in love with pie. I am also crazy. Obviously.
Two: There is a child in my house who is showing signs that she may begin following a similar pattern. She begs me, daily, to make a pie with her if it's been a week (sometimes less) since the last one. And I am a pushover. When you emerge from your morning shower, drying your hair, and the child greets you in the kitchen like this:
well, it's time to make another pie.

I've taught a few pie classes, and the one thing people seem to be really nervous about when it comes to making pie at home is the crust. Hence the popularity of mass-marketed, pre-made pie crusts, frozen or refrigerated. Most newbies don't even know where to start with the crust. I have to say that my Mom, who (to put it kindly) is "culinarily challenged", can actually make a kick-ass pie crust. The fillings have always been my responsibility since her notorious pumpkin-marshmallow pie fiasco of 1988, but you get the idea. You have to believe me when I say that if my mother, whose catch phrase is "the burnt part is good for you!" can make a pie crust, then so can you, my friend.

There are a few things you need to know if you want to make a good pie crust.
1) It's just flour, butter (or shortening, or lard... some sort of fat), a bit of salt, a bit of sugar, and cold water. I've seen recipes that throw in baking powder, eggs, flavorings, vodka, and all sorts of whatnot. You don't need all of this. Keep it simple. Later on you can get creative and throw in some cinnamon or grated sharp cheddar, but let's start with the basics and NOT turn into the mad scientist. Please.
2) The less you mess with it, the better your crust will be. Sometimes this also means that the least-photogenic crusts at the beginning are also the most beautiful when all is said and done. You can find a metaphor in here if you like, but it's just a crust.
3) You don't need to be afraid of the pastry. It actually works out well if you whack it around a little, roll it out quickly and don't fuss over it. Show that dough who's boss.
4) A pie made from scratch in your kitchen, with your hands, with real butter and real ingredients will always taste better than anything you can buy in a supermarket. Those sad excuses for pies won't even come close.

I'm going to show you a few tricks for a good crust and then set you loose. Below you will find recipes for both a (great) pie crust and the apple-raspberry pie with hazelnut crumble topping that the obsessed child coerced me into making yesterday. I'm not sorry. That pie was delicious. I just wonder what I'll be baking for her (with her) the day after tomorrow...

When you roll out your crust, always start at the middle and roll out to the edges. Don't worry about making it perfectly round. Make sure you can always move your dough around on your board or rolling surface, and if it starts to stick, pick the dough up a little and toss a little more flour under there. Leave a little bump in the middle of the dough (like an "outie" bellybutton), run your hand lightly over the surface to make sure it's smooth and even, then roll over the bellybutton. This will keep you from over-working the dough.

This is your crust close up. See the light streaks of butter in the dough? That's good. Streaks = flaky crust. You are now going to flip one edge of the dough on to your rolling pin and just roll the dough up with it. Go ahead, do it!

Here's the rolled-up crust next to your pie plate. Sprinkle a little flour into the plate (or tin, or whatever you're using); This will help the crust release easier after it's baked. Now just pick up your rolling pin and unroll the crust right over the pie plate. Try to center it.

Gently ease the crust into the dish, then get a pair of kitchen shears (or clean scissors) and cut off the excess dough, leaving between 1"-2" around the edge.

Go all the way around the pie plate, folding and tucking the dough under, then pinch a fluted pattern into it. I use my knuckles, but you can use your fingertips, or a fork, or even cut decorative shapes from the extra dough and stick them all around with a little water or egg wash. Now stick the dish into the freezer or refrigerator to chill for 10-15 minutes before you fill and bake it.

This time we filled it with sliced pink lady and jonagold apples, fresh raspberries, lemon, cinnamon, a little sugar and a little flour. Then we topped it with a streusel of hazelnuts, flour, brown sugar and butter. That's right.

Now bake it (45 minutes)... cool (for 30 minutes)...

... and get a big fork! Guilt? Guilt is for suckers. Enjoy your pie.

Flaky, Buttery Pie Crust
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into ½ -inch pieces

Fill a one cup liquid measuring cup with water, drop in a few ice cubes and set aside. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, sugar and salt.

Sprinkle the cold butter cubes over the flour and begin working them in with a pastry blender or your fingers, using it to scoop and redistribute the mixture as needed so all parts are worked evenly. Stop when all of the butter pieces are approximately the size of peas.

Start by drizzling ¼ -½ cup of the ice-cold water over the butter and flour mixture. Using a fork or rubber spatula, gather the dough together. You’ll probably need an additional tablespoon or two of cold water to bring it together, but add it just a tablespoon at a time. Dough will have a shaggy appearance, but should not seem wet.

Bring the dough together into one mound on a large piece of plastic wrap, patting it together. Use the sides to pull in the dough and shape it into a disk. Let the dough chill in the fridge for at least ½ hour before rolling it out.

Makes enough dough for 1, 9”-10” pie

Apple Raspberry Pie with Hazelnut Streusel
3 pounds apples, peeled, cored and sliced ¼ -inch thick (combination of golden delicious, jonagold, pink lady, pippin, granny smith and/or rome beauties)
1 cup fresh raspberries

1 T fresh lemon juice
½ cup raw or granulated sugar
1/3-½ cup flour (depending on how juicy your apples are; more juice, more flour)

1 cup chopped hazelnuts
1 cup all-purpose flour
¾ cup brown sugar
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
½ cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cubed

1 unbaked 9"-10" pie crust
Preheat oven to 375F degrees.
In a large bowl, combine apples, raspberries, lemon juice, sugar and cinnamon and toss to mix. Allow apples to macerate for 30 minutes while you make the streusel.

For streusel, combine all dry ingredients in a food processor and pulse 4 or 5 times to combine. Add butter and pulse 10 to 15 times, until butter is fully incorporated and mixture is crumbly. Transfer to a bowl and set aside in refrigerator.
Add flour to fruit mixture and fold in until evenly dispersed. Transfer mixture to the pie shell and top with the streusel, spreading it evenly to the edges. Place in oven and bake for 45 minutes, until crust and streusel are deep golden and juices are bubbly. Remove to a rack to cool for 20 to 30 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

On the Brink of Summer

There's a change in the air today. The rain stopped. The sun burst out and turned my cheeks pink at the park. School's out for summer tomorrow! And I'm making some PLANS:

(look at that coast... isn't it amazing?)

(the pizza there... that's from Apizza Scholls. It's actually worth the 10-hour drive from home)

Santa Monica
(My best friend lives here, lucky girl... I fortunately get to spend a lot of time here, hanging out, cooking, playing, celebrity-spotting, drinking ridiculously expensive, anal-retentive coffee and just being ME, one with my other better half. It's really fun. You wouldn't want to leave either, would you? Also, I get to eat these - )

Tito's Tacos
(These are quite bad for you, crunchy and cheesy and full of fat. And I love them. I looove them!)

Big Sur
(So. Freaking. Beautiful. and it's not just this incredible spectacle, but these too...)

(Redwoods that go on forever. You never felt so small and so big at the same time.)

and, last but not least...

Newport Beach
A beach that stretches to the horizon, bikes and family, cocktails and lobster rolls. What's not to love?

But since summer unofficially starts with Memorial Day weekend, there's important business at hand right now... grilling!
Truthfully, I like to grill all summer long, and I have a lot of favorites that go beyond the same old piece of chicken. Lately I've been grilling every vegetable under the sun (carrots are ridiculously good), and instead of burgers or hot dogs, it's been (drumroll...)...

Try these, and shake up the family barbecue a little. Then pull out your flip-flops, because summer's here!

BBQ Grilled Meatballs
1# ground chuck
1# ground pork
4-5 green onions, sliced thin
1 egg
½ c. soft, fresh bread crumbs
½ c. favorite bbq sauce, plus extra for basting
1 tsp. prepared yellow mustard
1 T seasoned salt
1 tsp. ground black pepper
½ tsp. smoked paprika

bamboo skewers, soaked in water for 20 minutes

In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine ground chuck, pork, scallions, egg and bread crumbs. Mix at medium speed for 20-30 seconds to combine. In a small bowl mix together bbq sauce, mustard, seasoned salt, pepper and paprika. Add sauce to the meat mixture and mix 20-30 seconds more to combine all of the ingredients thoroughly. (If you don’t have a mixer available, combine all ingredients well by hand.)
Scoop out about 2 tablespoons of meat mixture for each meatball, and set on a standard cookie sheet once formed. Once all of the meatballs are made, thread 2-4 per skewer (depending on how long your skewers are) and place on a hot grill. Cook for approximately 10 minutes, turning the meatballs once or twice in order to sear all sides well. Brush the meatballs with additional bbq sauce about a minute before removing from the grill, and serve immediately. These are great on toasted garlic rolls, or alongside coleslaw, baked beans and grilled sweet corn.
Serves 4-6

Monday, May 2, 2011

Celebrating Spring

There are a lot of reasons that I love Spring.
1) Maypoles. Do you remember way back when we were kids, and the first of May meant that we would stand in a circle around a pole with ribbons in our grubby little hands (I remember my class even dressed up for it), and then we'd weave in and out, going in circles, while the ribbons braided themselves down the pole? Yeah, that happened. For real. It was cool. Do little kids still do that?
2) My birthday is in Spring. Birthday! That means my parents had sex around September the year before. Hmm...ew. Sorry, TMI.
3) Strawberries! To me, local strawberries mean that Spring is really here, and I get to put them in everything. Fresh strawberry pie? Yes. Strawberries on my waffles? Uh, yeah! Strawberries in my Kashi Go-Lean Crunch? Ridiculous how good that is (is it just me, or does that cereal taste exactly like Sugar Smacks? If you're too young to remember that cereal, forget I said anything). I always, always spend the extra money on the organic berries (organic = no pesticides = no poison to ruin that awesome strawberry experience), and I absolutely wash them first, every time, just in case. If you grow your own berries, and don't spray them, you can probably throw caution to the wind.

clean berries = happy belly

Just to be frisky, today I decided to make a refreshing, frothy drink with my strawberries, some super-sweet fresh pineapple, and fresh mint, which is happily growing in my yard with abandon. The fruit is so ripe and naturally sweet I decided not to add any extra sugar or honey, plus they already look so pretty together, I decided not to ruin a good thing.

Lastly, in addition to a little crushed ice, I threw in this... more interesting and flavorful than plain water, not as sugary as juice:

Coconut water! It's sorta fabulous, like me (ha).
Although I know you don't need an actual written recipe for this, here's one anyway, since I'm trying to be as cool as this frosty glass of wonderful. I say, drink in Spring!

Strawberry-Pineapple-Mint Frappe (or Smoothie, or Shake...)
5-6 ripe, clean strawberries, chopped
1/2-1 cup ripe pineapple, chopped
6-8 fresh mint leaves, torn into pieces
1 cup crushed ice
1 cup coconut water (you can substitute plain water, or unsweetened juice of choice)

Put these all in a blender. Puree until smooth. Drink immediately, while sitting in the sun (under a maypole, if available).
Note: if you don't love pineapple, this is also smashing with fresh mango. You can also sub fresh basil for the mint with pretty spectacular results.