Thursday, December 1, 2011

If You’re In France, Is It Still Called French Onion Soup?

I adore ordering French Onion Soup Gratinée on the rare occasion when we go out to eat at a nice restaurant. My love of FOSG came from childhood when we’d go to fancy restaurants and I felt oh so grown up ordering it! The problem is, rarely do I get what I ordered these days. What comes looks like FOSG but once I dig through that beautiful lid of browned and bubbled cheese, I am left disappointed by the salty, brown, usually flavorless broth filled with strands of onions underneath. What’s a girl to do? Learn to make her own of course!

I started by going straight to the master, or in this case mistress, of French cuisine, Julia Child. I liked the soup it produced but it was missing the depth of flavor from my childhood memories. Then I tried Alton Brown’s recipe and again, I liked the soup it produced but it was too much sweet, not enough savory. After trial and error took place several times, I finally hit upon the perfect soup by combining the two recipes.

FOSG is a labor of love and one of those soups that tastes BEST the day or two after it is made. I use sweet or yellow onions but NEVER Vidalia Onions (because they are just too sweet for this dish). I use Beef Stock, NEVER Consommé which is a soup in its right, typically is made by adding a mixture of ground meats, together with mirepoix, tomatoes, and egg whites into either bouillon or stock that is simmered for a very long time during which, if done right, the soup is clarified. It is a clear soup and wasted in this recipe. Most important in this recipe is that you use ingredients you know you like the flavors of and adjust the soup to your personal liking.

4 lbs onions, peeled and sliced –I prefer yellow, sweet or a combination
2 T olive oil
2 T butter
1-2 T sugar (optional)
2 T flour
½ t dried thyme
pepper to taste
1 ½ C apple cider or pressed apple juice
2 C dry white wine
2 nips cognac
6 C beef stock
2 cloves of garlic peeled & smashed

Peel and slice 4 pounds of onions. If you only have access to Vidalias, I suggest using 50/50 with yellow onions. I do not like white or red onions in my soup but if you like it, go ahead and use those. Uniformity of slicing is not important. You do not want them paper thin, nor do you want ½ inch thick slices, I find about a ¼ inch thick slice works best. I prefer to use a large skillet to caramelize the onion slices, I feel it works better than attempting to do it in the soup pot because it allows for better evaporation of the liquid the onions give off during this part of the process. Remember, you are cooking 4 pounds of onions all in one pan!
It takes a good 45 minutes to an hour to cook the onions. I place my skillet over medium heat, allow it to warm up then put my olive oil and butter in, once the butter melts I add all the onions and salt them liberally. It takes about 10-15 minutes for the onions to break down enough so you can stir them around. After than initial stirring I leave them alone in 20 minute increments to do their thing, stirring each time the timer goes off. In fact, during the long cooking period, I go do other things so I am not tempted to stir, poke or mash the onions.

I do not take my onions to a deep mahogany brown but rather a light caramel. If they “burn” it’s not a disaster but I just prefer them this way. If you are having trouble getting your onions to caramelize, sprinkle them with a tablespoon or two of white sugar and that should solve the problem. If they caramelize well on their own, I skip adding the sugar.

Once my onions are at the proper color, I sprinkle the flour, dried thyme & a few twists of black pepper over them, stir it in and kick the heat up to high and when the onions get a little darker & the flour disappears (about 1 minute) I add one cup of wine and stir constantly, scraping up the bits on the bottom for about 2 minutes or till you have a thick syrupy mass in the pan. I pour the mixture into my soup pot, if the skillet isn’t totally clean, don’t panic we’re going to take care of that. Add about 1 cup of the beef stock to the soup pot and stir well. This is a good time to point out that this is NOT a thick soup, the flour helps to create a silky mouth feel.

Now that it’s empty Keep your skillet on the high heat and use 1 1/3 cups of the apple cider/juice to deglaze the pan all the way. Cook and stir the juice for about 2-3 minutes, once the pan is completely deglazed, you are looking for a 50% reduction in the juice but not a thick syrup which can happen in the blink of an eye if you are not paying attention. Dump the contents of the skillet in the soup pot followed by the rest of the stock, 1 nip of cognac and another cup of wine. Drop in the 2 cloves of garlic and set the pot to simmer uncovered for about 2 hours, stirring occasionally. If you were to taste the soup at this point, it will be very weak, almost watery. Slow simmering will take care of that.

At the two hour mark is when I generally start tweaking the flavors. I like to develop a nice rich soup, not too sweet. I have simmered this soup as long as 4 hours to get the flavor I want. If I am close and not serving the soup till the next day, I pop it in the fridge and tweak it again as I heat it up the next day.

Tips to adjust the flavor:

Not sweet enough? Add more cider/juice

Not savory enough? Add the other nip of cognac

Missing that acidic twang? Add more wine.

Did it reduce too much? Add more stock.

Of course you can adjust salt and pepper but be careful with the salt, especially if you are making this ahead as the salt will develop more over night.

For serving I top my ovenproof crocks of hot soup with garlic "croutes" that I also make the day before. ¼ - ½ inch slices of French bread, dressed in olive oil baked at 325* on a sheet pan for 15 minutes a side. While still hot and toasty I rub one side of each toast with a clove of garlic. It’s also yummy using pumpernickel or seedless rye bread! I float two on the top of the soup and cover with an ample amount of Gruyere and Mozzarella cheeses and put under the broiler till the cheese is melted and bubbly and brown but not burnt. Alternatively you can float croutons on top to cover with cheese but put enough in to create a shelf. If you use the croutons, you can use a mix of all the breads I mentioned above (heaven!!!)

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Better Late Than Never.... Pink Zebra Cke

Sometimes I use cake mix, this was one of those occasions. Since I knew I wanted a 3-layer cake, I knew I would have to bake a total of four 9" cakes. I also knew that light, fluffy, airy cake would not hold up to being stacked. So I used my tried & true doctored up cake mix cake. For each two rounds I used:

1 Duncan Hines French Vanilla Cake mix
1 4-serving Jell-O Instant French Vanilla pudding mix
4 large eggs
1/2 C vegetable oil
1 1/4 C whole milk

Follow the directions on the package to mix. Make sure you mix it on the correct speed for the amount of time called for. Once it's mixed, measure out two cups of batter in a measuring cup intended for liquid measure. Tint the 2 cups of batter whatever color you want but make it bold & bright!

I know a lot of people are confused about how to layer a zebra cake. It really is as simple as dumping scoops of batter on top of each other. I used ice cream scoops with the thumb release to portion out the batter. One thing I did note is that you need to make sure your prepared pans are on a level surface or the batter will not spread evenly. Also, I used pan release in a can to grease & flour my pans and it worked like a charm!

The first batch of cakes I made I did not measure out two cups of batter to tint, I eyeballed it and as a result had too much pink and not enough white batter. You can see it in the middle layer of the finished cake. If you want perfect zebra stripes, you need to make sure your scoops hold the same amount of batter. You also need to be mindful to dump each scoop of batter in the middle of the the last scoop of batter you dumped in.

After the cakes come out of the oven, cool them for 15 minutes before removing them from the pan. Then allow them to cool on racks until they are completely cool. Wrap them well in plastic wrap and stash them in the fridge to get cold before leveling, filling and frosting.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

I Am A Tease

I would like to tell you that I am gonna sit here and write out all the information on this cake tonight. I am not. I. Am. Exhausted.

What I will tell you is to check back Sunday for a Zebra Cake walk through....

How cute are those butterflies?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

If It Has No Sugar, No Dairy & No Gluten, Is It Still Dessert?

I am such a dufus sometimes. I made a totally rockin' dessert for Easter and failed to take pictures of it. Regardless, I wanted to share the "recipe" because it might help the next person who is tasked with making a sugar free, lactose free, gluten free dessert to take to a gathering without having any prior experience dessert making in any of those categories never mind all three at the same time.

I really had to do my homework on this one. It almost frustrated me to tears. When someone mentioned Coconut Cream Pie to me, I laughed. Uh, hello! Cream? But thanks to some really lovely and talented bloggers out there (too many to mention) I was pointed in the direction of coconut milk & Cool Whip for a lactose free alternative to milk and cream. I did a little more digging and found that both Jell-O and Cool Whip (both Kraft foods) could be purchased in sugar free varieties and both were gluten free.

I'm giving you guys the brand and a link to the coconut because I had a really tough time finding unsweetened flake coconut for this dessert. You can use whatever brand pleases you. To toast ANY coconut. Pre-heat your oven to 350*. Spread unsweetened coconut shavings, or sweetened shredded or flaked coconut on a rimmed baking sheet and bake, stirring once or twice, until golden, about 5 to 10 minutes. If toasting sweetened coconut, check and stir more frequently because the added sugar causes irregular browning.

A note about the prepared crust. If you don't need gluten free you can use any store bought shortbread crust you want. If you need gluten free you may have to make your own by crushing up some gluten free shortbread and mixing it with melted margarine.

Coconut Custard Pie

2 4-serving box Jell-O* brand sugar free cook & serve vanilla pudding
1 13.5 oz can Goya coconut milk
1 8 oz tub of Cool Whip free
1 prepared 8" shortbread crust

Follow the directions on the boxes of Jell-O for pie filling EXCEPT replace the milk with the 13.5 oz can of coconut milk. It will be thick but you want it thick. Just before you pour it into the prepared crust, stir in about 1/4-1/2 cup of the toasted coconut. Lay a sheet of plastic wrap straight down on the custard and place in the fridge for 4 or more hours.

Before serving slater the pie with the Cool Whip. I could lie and tell you that I only used half the tub but it was Easter and the pie screamed for loft! Scatter the remaining toasted coconut over the pie to garnish and serve.

Those that ate the pie, loved the pie! The rest of us (those without dietary restrictions) ate Chocolate Pudding Pop Pie (that was good too)!

*JELL-O is a registered trademark of Kraft Foods. Kraft Foods is not affiliated with this blog.
* Bob's Red Mill is not affiliated with this blog.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Better Than Take Out

T-minus three days and counting till the birthday caking begins so I thought I would share another recipe I made over the winter. It's no secret that we do not eat out very much and even that is an understatement. If we eat takeout twice a year that's a lot for us but we kept seeing commercials for the Olive Garden's Vino Bianco Pork Scallopini and it looked so yummy! The problem is, neither one of our stomachs do well at Olive Garden. Yeah it tastes good going in but an hour later both of us have tummy aches and rumbles and well, you get the idea. I figured that I could make a reasonable facsimile here at home that tasted great, was less expensive and more easily digestible by our finicky tummies.

Tortellini With Spinach & Mushrooms

1 package frozen Cheese Tortellini, cooked & drained
4 T butter
8 oz sliced Crimini Mushrooms
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 C white wine or chicken stock
1 C half & half
1/2 C milk
4 T Parmesan Cheese, grated
1 lb bag frozen leaf spinach, thawed and well drained

Melt butter over medium heat then add mushrooms, stir to coat with butter. Allow mushrooms to cook for 1-2 minutes then add garlic. Cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Raise heat to high, continue to stir and when you begin to see brown bits on the bottom of the pan dump in all the wine and stir to deglaze. Bring to a hard boil and allow to boil for about 3 minutes or until slightly reduced. Add cream all at once, bring to a boil again and continue to stir while mixture reduces about 4 minutes. Lower heat slightly, add cheese and continue stirring and cooking until sauce coats back of spoon. Remove from heat and stir in spinach and tortellini.

After making this the first time (pictured above) we decided it would have been nice to have it a little more saucy so I suggest (and accounted for it in the recipe) adding the 1/2 cup of milk. Of course, if you like it thick feel free to omit it.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

While You Wait For Cake, Eat Pork

Even though I haven't been blogging we certainly haven't gone hungry around here...

I perfected the look of my peanut butter cake by practicing patience.This is my 2nd attempt at this cake & it came out so much prettier because I took the time to crumb coat and chill before I ganached it! I also used different brands of butter, cream cheese and peanut butter and I like the flavor of the finished frosting and ganache much more!

I came up with a ripoff recipe for Olive Garden's Pork Scallopini (I will post recipe at some point). The side dish is tortellini with spinach and crimini mushrooms! I made this on one of the long, snowy weekends we survived up here. It was a huge hit!

But the thing I am most proud of was the perfection of my pulled pork sandwiches! I love pulled pork but have never been able to make it in my crock pot where it didn't turn out like sawdust! I am convinced that I am a Southern Soul stuck in a New Englanders’ body. I adore Southern foods; buttermilk biscuits, fried chicken, pimento cheese, sweet tea and any variation of pork. There is nothing more satisfying to me than smoked pork ribs or a pulled pork sandwich laden with coleslaw both dressed in a smattering of tangy sauce. I'm sorry Texas, I love beef; steaks, burgers and roasts but when it comes to BBQ make mine pork please! So with more foul weather on the radar for the winter weekend I found myself in again and a sale on pork shoulder, around midnight I loaded the crock-pot with pork, onions, garlic and ginger ale set it on low and went off to bed.

The crock-pot recipe I use for pulled pork is easy but takes around a total of 18-20+ hours. The first round of cooking takes 12 hours on low and it’s during this twelve hours that the real magic takes place. If I want to serve this for Saturday supper I start my crock-pot around midnight Friday. Slice a sweet onion, smash 5 cloves of garlic and put in the bottom of the crock, put the meat in next (I use either a “Picnic Shoulder” or a pork butt), pour 1 cup of a not too sweet ginger-ale (I like Canada Dry) over all, salt and pepper liberally and top with another sliced onion. Do not, do not, do not open the crock-pot lid for 12 hours (hence why I let it cook overnight).

When you hit the 12 hour mark open the crock and check the meat with a fork if it starts to fall apart you are good to go, turn off the crock. Remove the meat, onions and garlic into a 9x13 pan. I use a gravy separator to remove the fat from the cooking liquid and then put most of the juice back in the crock along with the cooked onions and garlic, the pork that I shredded with 2 forks, a freshly sliced sweet onion and about a cup and half of my favorite BBQ sauce (I like Sweet Baby Ray’s). Plop the lid back on and cook on low for 6-8 additional hours or until it’s tender. During the last 6-8 hours I do remove the lid and stir it, check to make sure there is enough liquid and sauce and occasionally I end up turning my crock-pot down to the lowest setting.

Trust me when I tell you that it is moist and tender and tasty. If it’s not, you did something wrong!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

I'm Back & There's Going To Be Cake

Despite my best efforts, I never managed to get regular blogging back into my schedule. Recently I was tapped to make our niece's birthday cake (Pickles is turning 6!! Where does the time go?) and I thought what better way to rejuvenate this labor of love? So without further ado let's jump back in, shall we?

One of the more frequent questions I am asked is how I come up with the ideas that we eventually turn into cakes or candies. Sometimes it's because we have seen something similar in a book or blog but most of the time it's because we are given some direction by the person hosting the event. For Pickles' 6th birthday we have been provided with a napkin from the already purchased party supplies and a photograph that inspired the birthday girl's choice of theme.

Isn't it cute?

Not terrible for a grocery store cake. See the inspiration napkin in the upper left of the photo?

The hostess only had a few simple requests, no chocolate cake and she didn't want a ton of leftovers. The rest of it was up to me! So, non-chocolate cake for 20, based on the garden party theme and something a bunch of kids will love. Hmmm...

I am a very visual person and I like to have a plan. Having a plan is good because it decreases the chance that you are going to run out of ingredients (like candy melts -a hem) at 10 PM the night before the party!

The first thing I did was think about the actual cake and settled on a French Vanilla zebra cake although I haven't decided on batter colors yet. I am leaning towards hot pink! Once I had that established, I needed to figure out how much cake was needed. After scouring the internet it seemed a two-layer, 9" round would fit the bill and just because I wasn't entirely convinced I traced my 9" cake pan onto a sheet of paper (which I was going to have to do anyway) and made sure it could be cut into 20 pieces. I'll be honest, it's tight but you can cut a 9" round into 20 pieces as long as you keep them on the small side (and I don't know anyone who cuts cake into pieces that small). The more I thought about it, the more I became concerned about having enough cake because until the cakes are baked, you have no idea how much you are going to end up cutting off in the leveling process. To alleviate that problem I decided on making a three-layer cake. With that settled (and yes, baking the zebra cake will be it's own post in the coming days) it was on to design!

I already had my 9" pan traced onto a sheet of white paper so it was easy to begin visualizing the finished cake. I knew I would be using elements from the napkin on the cake The next thing I did was draw out the elements on a separate piece of paper (using the napkin as a guide for size) and cut them out. Doing this allows you to design a cake as easy as playing with Colorforms (remember those?) and in my case will eventually provide the pattern for chocolate crafting the butterfly and any other elements I choose. I'll spend the next few days working out a design so I can go shopping for ingredients and start baking on Thursday. Wish me luck!