Strawberry Fields

Sunday morning dawned hot, at least by Great Lakes standards. It was in the mid 80s by 9 a.m. and 90 degrees by the time I got to the strawberry fields on western Erie County. The road to the fields is dusty, so you need to crawl along at less than 10 miles per hour or you will choke on the dust – even with the windows rolled up. My black VW was more khaki in color by the time I pulled off to the picking fields.

Eight-quart basket in hand, the Mason Farms employee directed me to my row and then walked me to the pink flag. You pick between the row and move the flag to your final spot when the basket is full. As I followed him, the field smelled of strawberry jam. Not just sweet smell of strawberries, but of the more intense flavor of jam as the berries simmer on the stovetop.

Filling the basket can take anywhere from 20 minutes to and hour and a half, depending how late in the season it is and how picked over the fields. The fields are irrigated, so the fruit is still abundant. Some years, when the spring is late and the rains are frequent, the berries are big, but lack punch. The smell alone told me these berries were full of sugar, a guess that was confirmed by multiple taste testings along the row.

But unlike my first pick, these berries were very mature. Normally, you want to hear a snap as you pull a ripe berry from the vine with its green cap intact. These separated easily from the vine, coming away almost silently without their little hats. This means that they won’t keep as long, and need to consumed or cooked quickly.

This isn’t hard. The difficult part is finding which recipe to make, especially with the temperatures pushing my tolerance for turning on the oven.

Bread puddings are very simple and don’t require much work, or oven time if you bake it in a muffin tin. My sister-in-law Jenna sent me a link to Ree Drummond’s Lemon Bread Pudding, which was a big hit in her family. She skipped the bourbon whipped cream, and so did I. Instead, I used plain whipped cream and topped it with macerated strawberries – strawberries that have had about 20 minutes to sit in some sugar or other sweetener, such as honey, and create a fresh sauce.

If you make this in a muffin tin, you can freeze the extra bread puddings and serve any time. I split the top off, added whipped cream and strawberries for a riff on a strawberry shortcake. I like brioche for this bread pudding, but you can use any dense bread, such as a loaf of Bill’s Italian Bread.

lemon bread pudding with berries

Lemon Bread Pudding

1 loaf bread, crust removed, cut into 1-inch cubes
4 eggs, beaten
2 cups half-and-half
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
Zest of 1 lemon
Sugar for sprinkling on top of muffins
Whipped cream
Fresh strawberries

Allow bread to stale overnight or toast it. Place in a large bowl once staled or toasted.

lemon bread pudding

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease 1  muffin tin (12 large muffins).

Beat eggs and add half-and-half, sugar, lemon juice and zest. Mix to dissolve sugar. You don’t want a pile of sugar sitting at the bottom of this bowl. Pour over bowl with bread. Use your hands or a spatula to make sure all of the bread becomes covered with the milky egg mixture. Give it a couple of stirs.

Pack equal amounts into each muffin cup. Sprinkle with sugar, if desired. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes.

Remove from oven and allow to cool long enough so that you can handle them. These are best served warm. If you choose to freeze them, defrost and then warm up in the microwave. Be careful not to overheat in the microwave (I like 15 to 25 seconds for one, but it depends on the power of your oven). Cut off the top and serve with whipped cream.

 

Salads are always easy and I love pairing spiced pecans with strawberries and spinch or a mix of greens. You can make your own spiced pecans or walnuts with this recipe:

Skillet Spiced Nuts

½ cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 to 1  1/2 teaspoons spicy seasoning mix, such as one with ancho or cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
2 cups unsalted nuts (pecans, walnuts, or almonds)
2 tablespoons butter

Line a baking sheet with parchment or foil. Coat with cooking spray. You will use this to cool the nuts.

Mix the sugar, salt and seasonings in a small bowl.

In a large cast iron or nonstick skillet, toast the nuts over medium heat until you begin to smell toasted nut, about 4 minutes. Add the butter and stir to melt and coat the nuts.  Stir in sugar mixture and stir to coat the nuts. Keep stiring until the sugar melts, about 2 to 3 minutes. When it has, remove the nuts to the prepared pan and spread out to cool.

Do not put into a container until totally cool. They should keep for about 3 weeks.

 

 

 

Strawberries Take the Cake

strawberry layer cakeThis cake is so worth it. I’ve been known to indulge in the sport of cake making on occasion, usually to be disappointed in the results. Cakes tend to be a lot of work, what with the sifting, measuring and the like. Generally, I only eat the frosting. Sometimes the cake, too, but because it is glued to the frosting.

So first and foremost – this cake is the bomb. The cake itself is delicious and will probably become my favorite basic cake when I don’t cheat with mixes. Mainly I use mixes because I’m willing to trade the somewhat artificial flavor for ease of making the final cake, as a vehicle for frosting or ice cream. But this basic cake, in all of its mixing, is really, really good. But there’s not shortcuts. When the directions call for mixing for 6 minutes, it’s not kidding around. The recipe is from Saveur.com, via Christina Tosi at New York’s Milk Bar.

There are multiple steps here. You will be making a cake, a cheesecake (crustless), strawberry jam, frosting, lemon curd and something called milk crumbs (from the Milk Bar). This being strawberry season, I already had already made the jam. You just need to tweak it with some vinegar – yes vinegar – which helps downplay the sweetness. I had some extra lemon curd left over from a Barbara Kafka recipe in the NY Times.

I will include her recipe here, plus include with my modification. One major modification I made to the recipe involves the construction. I don’t own 6-inch pans. So I baked the cake in 2 9-inch cake pans and the cheesecake in a 9-inch nonstick cake pan. I will include directions on assembly below.

The cake itself can go into the freezer and come out on a nice warm day around 4 p.m. and be ready in time for serving after dinner.

Vanilla Cake

This will make 2 9-inch round cakes or 1 8×12-inch sheet cake.

Nonstick baking spray
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 14 cups sugar
14 cup packed light brown sugar
3 large eggs
12 cup buttermilk
12 cup vegetable oil
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 12 cups cake flour (I used White Lily)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt

Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

Prepare your cake pans by coating with cooking spray and then lining the bottoms with either rounds of parchment or a sheet of parchment – cut to fit the size of the pan. This will help your cake come easily out of the pan later.

You can use a stand mixer or hand electric mixer, but be prepared to beat for a while here.

In a large bowl, cream the butter and both sugars on medium-high speed for 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Crack eggs in a separate bowl, to make sure there are no shells, then add them, one at a time to the creamed sugar and butter, mixing on medium-high speed for another 3 minutes.

Put the buttermilk, oil and vanilla into one measuring cup, then, with the mixer speed on  low,  slowly drizzle in it in. Increase the mixer speed to medium-high, and beat until the batter doubles in volume and turns white – this will take about 6 minutes.

Whisk together the flour, baking powder salt. With the mixer speed on low, add the dry ingredients and mix until just combined. Scrape  batter into the prepared pans (pan) and smooth the top. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean, 28 to 30 minutes. Transfer to a rack and let cool completely. Remove from the pans (pan). Wrap the pan in plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to 5 days.
This is the recipe from Saveur.
My take on it would be to use 12 ounces of your favorite jam, homemade or purchased (buy the best you can, making sure strawberries are the first ingredient). In a small bowl, combine jam, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 3 to 4 teaspoons balsamic vinegar.
12 ounces strawberries, hulled
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons pectin
34 teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons sherry wine vinegar
1 12 teaspoon white wine vinegar
In a blender, puree the strawberries. In a small saucepan, whisk the sugar with pectin and 12 teaspoon of the salt. Put purée into the saucepan along with both vinegars. Stir to combine. Bring to a boil , and then reduce the heat to medium-low, and cook the jam, stirring, until thickened , 10 minutes. Remove the jam from the heat and let cool completely.
Strawberry Frosting
1 stick butter, softened
1/4 powdered sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons pickled strawberry jam
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
In a mixing bowl, beat with electric or stand mixer cream butter, sugar and salt until light and fluffy. Mix in 5 tablespoons pickled strawberry jam and the lemon juice. The rest of the jam will be used in the cake.
Cheesecake
1 8-ounce package cream cheese, softened
1 large egg, beaten
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 cup sugar
Heat oven to 325 degrees.
Coat a nonstick cake pan with cooking spray.
In a medium-sized bowl, beat cream cheese and egg until light and fluffy. Add salt and sugar and beat for 2 more minutes. Scrape into prepared pan.
Bake for about 20 minutes. The top will not be brown, but the edges will have started to pull away from the edges.
Let cool on a rack.
Lemon Curd
 2 sticks butter
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon lemon zest
6 large eggs, room temperature and beaten in a small bowl
In a 2 1/2-quart souffle dish or 8-cup glass measuring cup, place butter, sugar, lemon juice and lemon zest. Cover with microwave plastic wrap and cook for about 4 minutes.
Remove from microwave and carefully uncover.
Add about 1/4 cup of the melted mixture to the eggs and whisk together (you are tempering the eggs, so work quickly). Scrape egg mixture into souffle dish and whisk constantly so you don’t get scrambled eggs.
Place back in microwave, uncovered, and cook for about 3 minutes. Whisk again. Cook again, uncovered, for about 2 minutes. Finish in a blender for a very smooth lemon curd. For this cake recipe, I don’t bother with the blender.
Don’t skip this. Some people like to snack on them. I wasn’t keen on the flavor by themselves, but in the cake, it is a great complement.
34 cup instant nonfat dry milk, such as Carnation
14 cup flour
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons sugar
12 teaspoon kosher salt
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
3 ounces (chips are OK) white chocolate, melted
Heat  oven to 250. Line a baking sheet with parchment or foil.
In a medium bowl, whisk 12 cup of the dry milk with the flour, cornstarch, sugar, and salt. Add the melted butter and stir with  until the mixture forms small clusters. Spread the baking sheet and bake until dried and sandy, 20 minutes. Allow to cool.
Return the clusters to a bowl, break apart any that are larger than 12 inch in diameter. Add remaining 14 cup dry milk and toss until evenly coated. Pour the white chocolate over the crumbs and stir until evenly coated. If not using that day, refrigerate for up to 1 week.
To Assemble
Now that you are exhausted … This recipe really is a 2-3 day exercise. I baked the cake, cheesecake, and milk crumbs the night before.
While the cheesecake was still warm, not hot, I crumbled it into a medium size bowl with the lemon curd. Then beat until creamy. Cover and refrigerate.
The next day I mixed the vinegar into the strawberry jam and used 5 tablespoons to make the frosting. I pulled the lemon curd cheesecake out of the fridge to get to room temperature.
Now all you need is 1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice.
1. Cut your cake into 2 6-inch rounds. Find a small bowl with a flat bottom that is 6-inches in diameter. Put the cake scraps into the bowl, pushing down and together so it forms a somewhat cohesive layer. Invert it onto a serving plate. Brush with 3/4 teaspoon lemon juice.
2. Spread with half of the leftover pickled jam and top with 1/3 of the milk crumbs.
3. Take a sheet of parchment paper that is long enough to go around the bottom of the cake. You want to cut it so it will be about 18-inches tall. Wrap the parchment around the cake and secure with tape in several places. This will become a form to keep the layers from falling over. This step is important.
4. Now spoon 1/2 of the lemon curd cheesecake over top and spread to the edges.
5. Top with 1 of the cut cake layers. Brush with remaining lemon juice, remaining jam and 1/3 of the milk crumbs.
6. Dollop and spread remaining lemon curd cheesecake on top. Place remaining cake layer on top. Spread frosting on top. Sprinkle with remaining milk crumbs.
7. Freeze for at least 12 hours.If you are going to freeze for longer, make sure to wrap in plastic and foil to protect the cake from freezer burn.
8. Remove from freezer at least 3 hours before serving. Remove parchment. Revel in its beauty. Slice and serve.
Best eaten outside, with candlelight and stars.
dinner outside
Best,
XOXO
Marnie

Choose Chuck for Better Burger

burgerYou are tantalized by building a better burger. My inbox is filled with promise. But essentially, it centers around four elements: the meat, the cheese, the grill and the bun.

First up — the meat aisle. Most of you will notice that ground meat often isn’t labeled ground chuck or ground sirloin. The packaging indicates the fat content: 80 percent, 90 percent and 95 percent lean being the typical three.

A meat department employee at Wegmans on  West Ridge Road store explained that more than one type of beef can be ground together to create the different percentages, such as sirloin and round in the 90 percent. You can go to the butcher shop and ask to have either chuck (typically 80 percent lean) or sirloin (typically 90 percent lean) ground, but that requires some planning. Personally, I love Urbaniak Brothers and buy ground chuck there. But I live about 25 minutes away, so it’s not always convenient.

If you are in a hurry, buy the 80 percent at the grocery store. That means 20 percent fat, which equals flavor, but also means shrinkage. So keep that in mind when forming your patties.

I’m in love with Wegmans new onion rolls, so those typically go into my cart. Aldi has lovely brioche rolls that are on all the trendy menus. Be sure to toast both, otherwise they can dissolve with the juicy burger.

Then there is the cheese. So many varieties, so little time. Poll your guests or make sure to buy a variety, such as cheddar, Swiss, bleu and one of my favorites, Muenster.

Finally, there is the fire. Go charcoal all the way, baby. For great grilled flavor, it has to be charcoal. If it’s a weeknight or there are more than a dozen people and assorted salads, I would use the gas grill.

To get a 4-ounce cooked burger (quarter-pound), you need 5 ounces of ground beef. For a 5-ounce cooked burger (just shy, actually), you will need 6-ounce patties. This accounts for the shrinkage from the 20 percent fat. To shape them, I like to use the top of a mayo jar. I put an indentation about the size of a quarter into the center each patty to help keep it flat (you’ll notice if you don’t, the middle peaks and the sides slope down) when it is cooked.

Then salt and pepper both sides before cooking.

Place onto the grill. If you need to check doneness by temp, they make these cute little thermometers that indicate rare, medium, well done. Put it in after the first flip otherwise you will burn your fingers trying to pull it out when flipping. My general rule of thumb is to flip after the first 2 1/2 to 3 minutes. Cooking time is going to depend on the heat of your grill.

mini thermometers
You can find these on Amazon for about $10.

Finally, let it rest. Give the burger about 5 minutes to finish cooking, collect its juices back an sit for a minute. Use that time to gently toast your rolls.

Serve with sliced tomatoes, lettuce, onion and condiments you like.

If you are feeling up to more of a burger challenge, I suggest a mixture of 1/3 ground chuck, beef short rib and bison. More on that in another posting.

Happy grilling,

Marnie

Getaway Includes Local Flavors

 

For years I promised my best friend in Chicago I would come visit. But parenting, work, etc. always seemed to get in the way. Summer and a career change, cleared the runway for a trip to the Windy City for the weekend to visit Claudette.

The 6 a.m. direct flight from Erie to Chicago makes the trip a breeze – especially since we land before traffic becomes a nightmare. A shared ride on Uber (my first) dropped me at my friend’s door about an hour after landing. I packed lightly, except for a bag of frozen pepperoni balls (no longer frozen). Pepperoni balls, apparently, are a very local food, specific to our shores of Lake Erie. Claudette wanted to share the secret to this treat with her friends in Chicago who had opened a pizza place downtown, Robert’s Pizza Company. It gets rave reviews from both Claudette and the local reviewers – be sure to stop in if you are in town.

My trip was timed, in part, to coincide with the Lincoln Park Farmers Market being open. It’s worth a stroll through even if you are staying at a hotel. You can pick up breakfast, flowers, fruit and ideas (lots of vendors ship). We both wanted to try fava beans, which are in season, but a pain to peel. With two friends and time, neither of us minded the process of first shelling the beans, then boiling in salted water for about 1 minute so you can then remove the outer white layer of the bean to reveal a nutty and buttery bright green bean. It’s a lot of work for not a lot of produce. So we weren’t going to waste these beauties by smashing them up into a puree. Instead, we paired them with fresh arugula, some sweet cherry tomatoes tossed with the juice of half a lemon, a drizzle of fresh local honey and some delicious extra-virgin olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste.

 

The market did feature spring peas, already shelled, for $6, which seemed a bargain considering we were going to be shelling the favas. So that went on our dinner menu for that night. We were about a month too early for the spring lamb from one of the local vendors, so we wrapped up our shopping trip with fresh summer butter, zucchini flowers, a breakfast sandwich, ramps, and a brown butter something that was so delicious that I am going to have to find a recipe this week. In the meantime … we headed to Whole Foods to round out the meal.

claudette with crabsSince we were likely to be starving soon – breakfast was less than an hour old – we picked up some soft shell crab for a recipe that Claudette had from the New York Times, which you can find here. It involves broiling the crabs (which thankfully have already been cleaned) until crunchy and then placing on a toasted baguette that has been spread with butter seasoned with jalapeno, parsley, garlic and lemon.

Because it was Father’s Day weekend, there were lots of specials. I grabbed two racks of lamb for dinner that night. The farmer’s market didn’t have any because it will be another month, the vendor explained.

The lamb marinated in the juice of 1/2 a lemon, about 1/4 cup olive oil, salt, pepper and some Lake Shore Drive seasoning. I love to buy spices from my various visits, so I bought some from The Spice House . It is a mixture of  salt, shallots, garlic, onion, chives, ground green peppercorns, and scallions. When I was ready to grill, I cut them into individual chops. They only take a couple of minutes to cook.

The zucchini flowers are easy and should be cooked at the last minute. You can make a simple batter, good for fish too and zucchini sticks too, with 1 bottle of beer, 1 1/4 cup flour and a pinch of salt. Mix together and dip flowers in. Have about 2 inches of vegetable oil in a heavy pan at 350 degrees and fry flowers for 2 to 3 minutes. The basic recipe is from Epicurious.com. For a lighter batter, try a 50/50 ratio of cake and rice flour and 1 beaten egg white. I wasn’t feeling particularly ambitious since we had a lot of food.

lambchops

If I had been smart, I would have snipped a few mint leaves and sprinkled on the plate. This would have completed the dish because it would have been pretty (we eat with our eyes) and it complements the lamb and the peas.

But it had been a long day exploring the zoo, Restoration Hardware, the lily ponds, cooking and catching up. But it will be a meal I will remember sharing with my friend.

claudette

XOXO

Marnie