Caroline Cooks

A modest documentation of my culinary exploits.

Location: Alexandria, Virginia, United States

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

French Chocolate Cake

In cooking and in life, intensity should prevail. Without it, things become dull.

I am an aficionado of intense foods, whether it be the overwhelming complexity of Indian spices, the excruciating heat of a chili pepper, or the decadence of a shamelessly chocolate cake.

This chocolate cake, borrowed from a basic French cookbook, is sinfully rich and intense. Use it to seduce a lover; your efforts will not go unrewarded.

9 oz semisweet chocolate, chopped
1 cup unsalted butter, cut into pieces
5 eggs
1/2 cup sugar
1 tbsp cocoa powder
2 tsp vanilla extract
cocoa powder for dusting
chocolate shavings to decorate

This is one of those recipes where using high-quality ingredients such as Madagascar vanilla, European butter, and Valrhona chocolate really pays off.

Preheat the oven to 325 F. Lightly butter a round pan and sprinkle with a little sugar.

Melt the chocolate and butter in a saucepan over low-to-medium heat until smooth, stirring often. Meanwhile, beat the eggs and sugar together.

Beat the cocoa powder into the egg and sugar mixture until well blended. Stir in the vanilla extract, and then slowly beat in the melted chocolate until well blended.

Pour the mixture into the prepared pan. Place the filled pan in a casserole or roasting dish and pour in enough boiling water to come about halfway up the side of the pan. This creates a bain-marie.

Bake for 45-50 minutes until the edge of the cake is set, yet the center still soft. Remove the pan from the water and allow to cool slightly, then invert onto a wire rack.

Allow the cake to cool completely, then dust liberally with cocoa powder and sprinkle with chocolate shavings. Serve with a sly smile.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Seared Ahi with Avocado and Pineapple Salsa

Some people can't wait to dive into a hearty breakfast. Others live for haphazard snacking. And still others look forward to a nice dinner at the end of the day.

Me, I'm a lunch girl. I like my breakfasts to be small and substantial, my dinners light, and my lunches late, long, large, and luxurious. Unfortunately, American culture usually defines lunch as a can of soup heated in the office microwave and hastily devoured. And while my job allows me to take a 2-hour lunch break if I so desire, I honestly don't want to make up the time by working late into the evening.

I'm luckily enough to live a mere 5-minute walk from work, though the recent Moussaoui proceedings, taking place in the courthouse directly in front of my building, require a slightly longer route of navigation as I snake around news crews, police cars, and blocked roads. At least I can be thankful that I have access to my own kitchen, equipment, and ingredients, rather than the communal fridge and microwave at work. But my time is very limited.

This morning, as I fantasized about the marinated ahi steak I bought from Trader Joe's, which was forced to wait patiently in my fridge until dinnertime, it occurred to me: why not have it for lunch? Pan fried, it would take a maximum of 10 minutes to prepare. My mind wandered to the avocado and fresh pineapple that also awaited me in my kitchen. A plan formed.

At 2:00 I marched into my apartment and made a beeline for the kitchen. A frying pan was immediately placed on a burner, set at medium heat, to warm up. I removed a tuna steak from the vacuum-sealed pack and placed it in the pan to cook. Although I prefer my tuna to be only lightly seared, leaving the inside still red and raw, I am skeptical of the frozen Trader Joe's fish and therefore seared it for 5 minutes on each side so it was cooked all the way through.

Meanwhile, I attacked the avocado, slicing it into bite sized chunks, and then hacked away at the pineapple until I had an equivalent number of pineapple chunks. I combined them and mixed in a drizzle of honey to coat the fruit pieces and bind them together. By the time I was finished, the ahi was nearly done.

I even had time to snap a few pictures and admire my work before tearing into it. The smooth avocado complimented the acidic pineapple very well, and the fruit was an ideal accompaniment to the tuna. It reminded me of a trip to Maui last spring, where ahi and fresh pineapple were abundant and often paired. I was shocked to realize I'd eaten almost the entire steak in one sitting. So much for having it for dinner!

I think a formal recipe would be redundant since I just walked you through the whole procedure. If you're using sushi-grade fish and like it rare, you can cook it for less time on each side. If you're not lucky enough to live near a Trader Joe's, make the marinade ahead of time and marinate the fish in the fridge overnight. Trader Joe used olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, cilantro, red pepper flakes, salt, and pepper in his.

(Also, sorry for the dearth of entries lately. I was very busy and got off track for a few weeks, but I'm back now.)

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Lemon Rosemary Salmon

Forget diets. Forget counting calories. One of the easiest ways to lose weight and eat healthier is to only shop the perimeter of the store.

Generally, an American grocery store will have fresh produce along one wall, dairy along the other, and meats and seafood along the back. Assuming one has a kitchen well-stocked with spices, oils, nuts, and grains, the perimeter of the store contains all a person needs to buy to create delicious and satisfying meals.

And what's in between? Aisle after aisle of processed foods stuffed with empty calories,sugars, additives, preservatives, hydrogenated oils, and long lists of hard-to-pronounce ingredients. I've had people complain to me that they'd like to eat healthier, but they can't help but devour that entire bag of chips in the pantry. The solution seems clear to me: don't buy the chips in the first place! The grocery store makes things easy by stocking them all in one place, so you have no excuse to even go down the potato chip aisle and be tempted.

Ever since I've been old enough to buy my own groceries, I've mostly stuck to the perimeter of the store. Sure, there are times when I need to dip into the canned goods aisle for chickpeas or a can of crushed tomatoes, but generally my vegetables are purchased fresh. As a baker, I often need to go down the baking aisle to replenish my supply of flour or almonds. But usually I try to buy these raw ingredients in bulk, from Costco, so I only need to get fresh produce and dairy each week.

Like most of my recipes, this is a good example of a simple meal you can throw together with perimeter-of-the-store items. Assuming you already have olive oil, rosemary, salt, and pepper, you only need to grab a lemon and a filet of salmon from the store. Roast some vegetables on the side, or slice the salmon and toss in a salad as I did with the leftovers.

filet(s) of wild salmon (as much as you need), skin removed
equal parts lemon juice and olive oil
thinly sliced lemon
dried or fresh rosemary
salt and freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and place the salmon on it.

Combine the lemon juice and olive oil and brush over the sides and top of the salmon. Season with salt and pepper, and sprinkle on rosemary to taste. Arrange the lemon slices on top and pour any extra lemon-oil mixture over them.

Bake in preheated oven 10-14 minutes, or until flesh flakes easily with a fork. To serve, you could optionally have lemon juice or olive oil for dipping.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Pad Thai Sauce

Everyone has their comfort foods, and mine is a big bowl of freshly made Pad Thai. Coming from someone with no Asian background or upbringing, who didn't even know what Thai food was until high school, this might seem like a strange dish to seek solace in. But I've always been a bit strange.

Pad Thai appeals to me because it's simple, satisfying, and fairly light. The peanuts, tofu, shrimp and eggs provide lots of protein. Meanwhile, the rice noodles are filling, but not in the bloat-inducing manner of wheat-based noodles. The sauce brings it all together, and the lime juice and crunchy bean sprouts provide a fresh, clean finish. Unfortunately, Giant did not have bean sprouts the last time I made Pad Thai, so they're not pictured here.

I admit with some shame that, until recently, I had never made Pad Thai from scratch. Despite my aversion to cooking with kits, the Thai Kitchen products are just so convenient. The ingredients of the sauce packet are all natural, and since I have to scramble the eggs, saute the tofu, cook the noodles, crush the peanuts, and slice the lime anyway, it still feels like I'm cooking from scratch.

My eventual desire to make my own Pad Thai sauce stemmed primarily from curiosity. Wondering what the hell Pad Thai sauce was made of, exactly, prompted a flurry of internet research on the subject. As I delved deeper and deeper into the trove of recipes, I came across so many inconsistencies and variations that I couldn't tell what was authentic or "correct". Some recipes called for soy sauce, others for fish sauce, still others for nothing of the sort. Some relied on the tartness of white vinegar and others, on lime juice. Some recipes involved ketchup ::shudder:: and others suggested tomato paste. There were recipes with tamarind paste, recipes without, some had red pepper flakes and others used sugar.

I finally decided to buy a melange of ingredients and mix together something, through tastings and adjustments at frequent intervals, that made sense. The one caveat was that I would not go out of my way to buy something from a specialty store, since I still haven't found an Asian supermarket in the area that I like. This ruled out tamarind paste, which I suspected was a key ingredient, but I figured a mixture of tamarind juice and tomato paste would work in a pinch.

The ingredients I ended up with were soy sauce, fish sauce, white vinegar, tomato paste, tamarind juice, red pepper flakes, and lime. With them I concocted a Pad Thai sauce that mimics the kind found in restaurants and Thai Kitchen packets. Would I make it again? Probably not. As I mentioned before, the pre-made sauce is made with natural ingredients. On the other hand, an analysis of the ingredients I'd used revealed that both the fish sauce and the tamarind juice contained my arch nemesis, high fructose corn syrup. Yuck. I'm sure I could find organic fish sauce and tamarind juice if I sought it out, but for what it's worth I'll continue using the pre-made stuff. Still, making my own Pad Thai sauce was an educational experience that I recommend everyone try at least once.

1 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp + 1 tsp soy sauce
2 tbsp tamarind juice
2 tbsp white vinegar
2 tsp tomato paste
1 tbsp white sugar
juice of 1 lime
red pepper flakes, to taste

Mix the ingredients until completely combined. This amount of sauce should be enough to cover one pound of rice noodles, plus any extras such as egg and tofu.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Truffle Potatoes

My cousins were recently comparing our respective spending habits. The three of us are incredibly frugal-- a trait undoubtedly picked up from our beloved grandparents-- but we each have things we consider worthy of dropping money on. For my younger cousin, it's objects, such as fine china, decent clothes, and high thread count sheets. For my older cousin, it's experiences; she's more likely to pay for a cover at a club, coffee at a cafe, or tickets to a concert. My splurges-- and this should come as a surprise to no one-- are of the culinary kind.

A recent example is the white truffle oil I recently purchased. As a professed oil junkie, I'm drawn to the rich, golden, viscous liquid the way others are drawn to good wine. And I had never tried truffles in any form. So the tiny $10 bottle seemed like a good place to start exploring the exalted fungi.

Once the bottle had been opened, my senses were assaulted with an overpowering and interesting aroma. Heavy and cloying, the scent was garlic-like with an earthy base. As I stood in the kitchen, struggling to analyze the overwhelming scent coming from the delicate little bottle, I felt like I was trying a new fragrance at a perfume counter. Tasting it didn't help-- the flavor was just too strong to comprehend. Indeed, the flavor of the oil was as elusive as the fungi it came from.

Clearly, this oil needed to be cooked with. I had heard it was nice with scrambled eggs, so I whipped up a batch with the tiniest drop of truffle oil I could produce. The flavor was still so potent that I became nauseated and developed a headache from it.

My next experiment was to add the oil to mashed potatoes. I rarely cook with spuds-- I'm a hummus-and-tabbouleh, not a meat-and-potato, kind of girl-- but I can make a mean mashed potato when the occasion calls for it. I'd heard that a drop of white truffle oil will elevate ordinary mashed potatoes to divine status, and I could see the creamy, starchy potato acting as a counterbalance to the intensely flavored oil.

Unlike the truffle eggs, this dish was a success. The mashed potatoes were tasty, as far as mashed potatoes go. The truffle oil gave them a garlicky, and slightly mushroomy, flavor, and I didn't feel overwhelmed and sick this time. I will be adding the truffle oil to more dishes from time to time, as I try to get a firmer grasp on this special, yet tricky, ingredient.

1 1/2 lbs potatoes, quartered length-wise*
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 tbsp heavy cream
2 tbsp butter
1 tbsp milk or cream
salt and freshly ground pepper
a drop or two of white truffle oil

* I prefer to leave the peels on for the extra nutrition (besides, who wants to sit around peeling potatoes?). But you can peel them if you want. Use red or gold potatoes for the best results.

Add the salt to a large pot of water and bring to a boil. Add the potatoes and continue boiling for 15-20 minutes, or until done.

Drain the water from the pot and begin mashing the potatoes, adding as much butter and milk as needed for a smooth, creamy consistency. Stir in the truffle oil and add salt and pepper to taste.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Goat Cheese Spread

With the weekend temperatures creeping up in Washington DC, thoughts of picnicking come to mind. Of course, a picnic is never as simple or as idyllic as it sounds; the logistics of transporting food, drink, plates, utensils, glasses, and people can get hairy, and it puts huge contraints on the menu planning. Anyone who enjoys cooking and entertaining can become overzealous, and subsequently, overwhelmed, by the organization of a picnic. To keep things unfussy (which is in the true spirit of a picnic, after all) requires a good deal of self control. To keep yourself from getting carried away, plan your picnic basket so it contains only five types of items.

Here is a good example:
1) bottle of wine
2) wine glasses
3) corkscrew
4) apples
5) a baguette, wrapped in a linen, that has been sliced lengthwise and filled with goat cheese spread

The goat cheese spread is easy to prepare and transports well, and it's versatile, too. At home, use it as a savory crepe filling. Or make a hearty sandwich by adding baby spinach leaves and fresh sliced pepper to the filled baguette. I'll bet it would make a nice replacement for cream cheese as well. The spread is also a good friend to have at parties-- use it as a vegetable dip, or swirl it on a cracker and garnish with capers or fresh parsley.

1 bulb of roasted garlic
10 oz log of chevre
fresh lemon juice
good olive oil
freshly ground black pepper
(optional) finely chopped herbs such as dill, parsley, or mint

Transfer the chevre to a small bowl, and allow it to soften at room temperature for about 10 minutes. Mash it with a fork a little, and then add the garlic (you might want less garlic depending on your preferences). Stir the mixture until it becomes smooth and creamy, drizzling in the lemon juice and oil as you see fit. Grind the pepper over it, give the mixture a taste, and add more lemon juice or olive oil if needed. Fold in the herbs if using.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Lemon and Kiwi Tart

March is here, and springtime no longer feels so distant. Truly, this has been one of the milder winters I've experienced, either because I'm living further south or because the weather's been abnormally warm this year.

Nevertheless, it wasn't until recently that the coming of spring could be sensed. Springtime has been forecasting its arrival as it always does, with fleeting, teasing moments: the wafting smell of fresh growth here, a balmy breeze there, perhaps a few golden seconds where the air is still and the sun is beating down so cozily that you're tempted to pull off that heavy wool coat and curl up like a cat in a sunbeam.

It's these transitional times that are most challenging for the seasonal cook. The spring fruits and vegetables aren't quite ready to make their debut, yet the winter squash and lingering pears seem old and tired.

But sometimes, a burst of color is all you need. Instead of filling a tart crust with Creme Patisserie and apples, I opted this time for a cheery yellow lemon curd paired with vibrant green kiwi. After all, lemons and kiwi aren't particularly loyal to any season. And a fruit tart is a classier way to greet spring than with Cadbury Eggs and Marshmallow Peeps.

shortcrust pastry (see below) blind baked in a tart pan or tartlet pans
a cup or two of lemon curd
4 kiwis, peeled and thinly sliced
(optional) apricot jam

Spread the lemon curd evenly in the cooled tart or tartlet crust. You only need about an inch of it.

Arrange the kiwi slices on top. If you prefer the fruit to be glazed, heat a couple tablespoons of apricot jam with a bit of water over low heat, and brush the warmed jam over the arranged kiwi slices.

You may have to chill the tart, so the lemon curd sets, before slicing into it.

Sweet Shortcrust Pastry

A few weeks ago I got a frantic call from my sister around 1 in the morning.

"Hey Caroline...this is kind of an emergency. I feel like baking a fruit tart but I don't have a recipe."

Only we would have such emergencies.

Here is the shortcrust recipe I sent her.

1 cup flour
pinch salt
3 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp lemon zest
1 egg yolk
7 tbsp butter, softened

Sift the flour and salt into a mound on the work surface. Make a well in the center and drop in the sugar, lemon zest, and egg yolk. Draw in the flour from the edges to mix with the egg mixture, then add the butter in pieces. Gather into a ball and chill for at least 30 minutes.

OR zap the ingredients in a food processor until they form a ball.

Roll out the crust and line the pan with it. Prick all over with a fork and chill.

Blind bake the crust (line with paper or foil, and weights, and bake at 400 degrees for 10 minutes, then remove the paper and weights and bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes, then brush with lightly beaten egg white and bake 5 more minutes).

Let the crust cool completely and then fill as instructed above.