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1 out of 2 cats approve of blueberry crumble a la mode.

1 out of 2 cats approve of blueberry crumble a la mode.

The May Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Linda of make life sweeter! and Courtney of Coco Cooks. They chose Apple Strudel from the recipe book Kaffeehaus: Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Cafés of Vienna, Budapest and Prague by Rick Rodgers.

Every month, an intrepid group of plucky bakers take on a challenge… yes, a CHALLENGE! It’s called the Daring Bakers Challenge, to be dared by only the daring-est of daring bakers across the land! Well, actually you just kind of have to sign up for it…. BUT STILL, it’s a chance for a lot of people to tackle the same recipe at the same time, and see what kind of learning and chaos ensues. In other words, if you’re a fan of food blogs, you may see quite a bit of strudel hit the interwebz today.

Most months require you to stick to the recipe exactly, but this month was a bit different. The mission? STRUDEL! And though the actual strudel dough is set in stone, the fillings – oh, the FILLINGS – are entirely up to us. Considering the plethora of beautiful bountiful berries hitting my supermarket shelves these days, I decided to throw a bunch of ’em in a strudel dough and see what happens! That and I love berries. No seriously, I lurrrve them. Like, one-day-we’ll-run-off-together-and-illegally-marry-each-other-and-those-normal-people-won’t-ever-understand-us kind of love. Berries are where it’s at. An ex of mine kind of hated many types of berries, because of all the little worrisome seeds (bah, humbug!). I like to think I left him because of the berries. It’s a better story that way.

But back to strudel. Or non-strudel, as the case may be. You see, it helps to bake strudel on a day not made entirely of FAIL! It also helps to not, like, make the recipe for the first time on the day the blog posts are due. Yes, my friends, I have been humbled today. My swollen culinary ego has taken a good swift kick-in-the-stones. This is probably a good thing, in the long run. Everyone needs to be taken down a step every now and then, right? Because I fully admit defeat today, and my foe, thy name is STRUDEL DOUGH. What follows is a true and harrowing account of my epic fail of a baking adventure today:

So remember those berries? Those scrumptious berries I’d been salivating over for the past week, imagining them in light, buttery, flaky strudel dough? Yeah, uh, I should have baked this a few days ago, because a good third of them were now slightly fuzzy and un-bakeable. Grumblecakes! Okay, so scrap two of the berries and go for pure blueberry! I love blueberries! I’ll put in a touch of cinnamon and some walnuts for texture. It will be beautiful. It will be a work of art! It will be the envy of daring bakers everywhere!

The dough, however, was also not-so-fortunate. The list of ingredients was so small, so simple. How could I fail, I thought. Well, for starters I wrote down the recipe wrong. NOTE TO SELF: 7 teaspoons and 7 tablespoons are two entirely different amounts. No really. I was so confused when I should have had a dough coming together and it was still a crumbly mess. I started adding more water to make up the difference, and have no idea whether or not I hit the right amount eventually. But I know dough – I know what it’s supposed to feel like! A bit of kneading, and into an oiled bowl it goes to sit and mellow out.

A few hours later, I assemble a scrumptious blueberry filling and then turn “to the dough. “It’s SO EASY to stretch,” they all said! “Worked like a dream… so stretchy and pliable!” Uh…. not so much. My FAIL of a dough refused to act with any civility whatsoever. It stubbornly fought me at every turn, causing a bout of cursing not often heard in the TLB kitchen. After nearly 45 minutes of gruesome stretching and pulling, I had a lumpy hole-ridden mess of dough that wasn’t anywhere near thin enough to even attempt rolling.

“ENOUGH!” I said. I may be stubborn, but I know when to throw in the towel. Strudel dough, you’ve won. I managed to salvage two tiny pieces of dough that were almost thin enough to work with, and used them to make two tiny little mini-strudels of dubious quality. The remainder of the filling, which still looked delicious, promptly got thrown into a casserole dish and topped with a buttery crumble to bake alongside the sad little strudel wannabes. I’ll be damned if I’ll let a perfectly good pile of blueberry deliciousness go to waste because I can’t manage to stretch a strudel dough!

So the results? Thick, lumpy misshapen logs of sadness that break my heart. Yes, they’re that bad. They look less like strudel than pale, bleeding dough-fetuses, curled upon their weeping berry centers. Case and point:

Strudel-fetus is sad.

Strudel-fetus is sad.

Strudel fetus bleeds for you.

Strudel fetus bleeds for you.

The crumble, however, is delicious!

The prerequisite food-porn shot.

The prerequisite food-porn shot.

This is a sad start to my Daring Bakers career, alas. Lets just say that from now on I’ll stick to making strudel with store-bought phyllo dough. But hey, at least I dared to… um… dare! I’m hoping next month’s challenge will be a bit smoother sailing?

The May Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Linda of make life sweeter! and Courtney of Coco Cooks. They chose Apple Strudel from the recipe book Kaffeehaus: Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Cafés of Vienna, Budapest and Prague by Rick Rodgers.
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EXTREEEME CLOSEUP!

EXTREEEME CLOSEUP!

Spring has finally sprung up here in my own private tundra, also known as southern Minnesota. We don’t call it the midwest – no! – it’s the Lower Mid-North. My grass is the most luscious, practically edible shade of green and the trees have started to burst out all over the place. In other news, I’ve started my FIRST EVAR! herb/tomato garden, in some planters on our sunny little deck. I’ve got two happy little tomaters (one regular, one “cherry”) and a whole bunch-o-herbs a-growin’ out there (if you must know, we chose mint, rosemary, parsley, cilantro, basil, and thyme). I gotta say, I’m a happy little plant mama so far. I seem to have inherited my mom’s brown-thumb when it comes to houseplants. I won’t even tell you how many lovely little potted flowers and spider plants and ferns and shrubbies I’ve brutally murdered in the course of my lifetime. It’s a sad tale. But I’m hoping that I also got my mom’s veggie-garden GREEN thumb!

Growing up in California, we had this randomly huge plot of land in the back of our suburban house (a double or triple lot, I think) which was turned into a gorgeous vegetable garden every summer by my mom. Of course at the time I thought nothing of it. I might have even resented it at times for taking away valuable play-space and supplying yet more dreaded vegetables for our dinner table. But my memories of it are vivid and strong (sometime I’ll tell you the infamous story of the “fuzzy zucchini”), and I’m trying my darndest to channel them as I coo to my little herbs and tomato runts.

My grandfather, who passed away early this year at the sh*t-kickin’ age of 93, was a mean old bird, but he grew one HELL of a tomato. Tomatoes of legend, they were. So juicy and flavorful, I was tempted to eat them right off the vine. Sadly, at times I’ve thought that his tomatoes are one of the very few things he really did right in his life (other than spawn my dad, of course). But I’m thinking happy thoughts of him every time I pass by the proto-tomatoes, hoping desperately that somewhere down the genetic line his tomato-growing gene may have passed on to me. Only time will tell… I’ll keep ya posted.

So ever since the weather finally started to turn, I’ve found myself (predictably) craving all sorts of lush, leafy green things. Salads, which I scoffed at in the sub-zero winter months, are now invading my foodie mind. In the grocery store I find myself passing by the delicious parsnips (love!) that I couldn’t get enough of a few short months ago, in favor greener, leafier pastures.

A month or so ago I came up with a salad recipe that was SO DAMN GOOD (!) that we haven’t been able to stop eating it ever since. So much so that we simply call it “THE Salad” – no fancy titles, no foo-foo names, it’s just THE Salad, as in the only salad I want to eat because it is full of my favorite things! At first look, you may think the combination of avacado, strawberries, and walnuts to be an odd one… but trust me on this one. It works. The sweetness of the strawberries is mellowed by the lush, buttery avocado, which in turn is sharpened by the musty, soft crunch of toasted walnuts, all wrapped up in baby greens, dressed with a sweet and sharp balsamic vinaigrette. Heaven, I’m telling you. Pure heaven. And you can pair it with all kinds of proteins! Though we often have this as a side-salad, if you want to make an entree out of it you could top it with shrimp (which we did here in these pictures), or grilled chicken… or even a seared jumbo scallop if you’re feeling decadent.

So please, do yourself a favor and make this salad for yourself this summer. I know I will…

THE Salad

  • 1 bag-o-baby greens
  • 1 package of strawberries, washed and sliced
  • 1 red, yellow or orange bell pepper
  • 3-5 scallions, depending on size and to taste, sliced fine
  • 1 avocado, halved, deprived of its pit, and cut into chunks
  • 1 cup (approx) walnuts, lightly toasted if you have the time
  • optional herb additions: torn basil leaves, torn mint leaves, or both!

Put the greens in a big ol’ bowl. Top with everything else in whatever order your little heart desires. Freshy ground black pepper over the top of it all is a very good idea. The fresh herbs like basil or mint are optional, but every time I’ve added them to THE Salad it’s been marvelous.

Serve with THE Dressing:

  • apricot spread (the no-sugar jam type stuff, like “simply fruit”) – couple of big spoonfuls
  • balsamic vinegar, the best you can get – maybe 1/4 cup? I don’t measure
  • olive oil, extra virgin if possible, good quality works best – 3 tablespoons or so
  • orange juice – a splash!
  • pomegranate molasses or syrup – a spoonful
  • Dijon mustard – a spoonful
  • Salt n’ Pepa – to taste

Zap the apricot spread in the microwave for 10-15 seconds or so, until it is soft enough to stir easily with the other ingredients. (I like to do this all in a big pyrex measuring cup, because when it is done, it can be easily poured on to the salad from there.) Add all the other ingredients and whisk until smooth and delicious. The mustard should help sort of emulsify the oil & vinegar together, making the dressing less likely to break into its base components.

TOP WITH ANYTHING ELSE YOU WANT AND EAT IT ALL! As a side salad, this can serve 4-6 ; as a main course, 2-3.

Scallions, on the verge of death.

Scallions, on the verge of death.

That walnut looks almost pornagraphic...

That walnut looks almost pornagraphic...

You know you want it.

You know you want it.

THE ULTIMATE BITE! NOM NOM NOM!

THE ULTIMATE BITE! NOM NOM NOM!

Close-up shot of BerryMint mini cheesecakes.

Close-up shot of BerryMint mini cheesecakes.

I have always had a love-hate relationship with cheesecake. Really! It’s true! Despite the fact that in the past 6 or 7 years I have been come to be known as somewhat of a cheesecake artiste, cheesecake was for many years VERBOTEN! in my life. You want to know why?….. my big secret?….. I hate cheese.

I can hear the silence now. The confusion. (The horror?)

“All cheese?” you ask.

“Um… yeah… pretty much,” is my response. The short answer: there’s some sort of a taste going on in cultured/fermented milk products that, quite literally, tastes like vomit to me. Actual vomit. As in, if I get the slightest taste of it, it will trigger my gag reflex. Even strong cheese SMELLS will make me gag. Yeah, I know, crazy right? WTF? Trust me on this one, I wish with all my heart that I liked cheese. People hide it in things and don’t tell you. I have to quiz my waiter/waitress at almost every restaurant to make sure there isn’t any cheese hidden in strange places. I’m not a picky eater – dear god, I LURVE food. Cheese (and sour cream, and certain cultured butter) is the one thing everyone seems to love, but will make me retch. Life would be a lot simpler if I could just “get over it”, as some tactless people in my past have urged, people for whom my cheese-hatred was somehow offensive to their sensibilities.

Well, it’s not gonna happen. I’m 30 years old, and have TRIED numerous times to conquer this thing and every time, my taste buds and olfactory recepters revolt. If I were gonna grow out of it, it would have happened by now. Just call me a very specific supertaster!

So why, you may be thinking, do I make so many damn cheesecakes? HOW THE HECK DOES THAT WORK? Well, I have actually gotten better over the years when it comes to cheese. Certain cheeses in very small amounts in places where their noxious flavor is sufficiently masked is acceptable to me. Mozzarella on pizza is generally safe (heck, that cheese is barely a cheese since it isn’t left to culture/rot/etc. for any time at all). And cream cheese, though it tastes gross to me on its own, can be conquered if enough other mitigating factors are involved.

So finally, back to the topic of cheesecake. Many years ago, I came to realize that not all cheesecakes are inherently evil, despite the dreaded word in its title. Some cheesecakes, the ones I hate, basically taste like a brick of cream cheese with some sugar mixed in. Yuck. If I wanted to eat cream cheese, I’d freakin’ eat it already, and as y’all know, I don’t want to. Once in a while, however, I’d come across one that would be a bit creamier, a bit different, where the flavor of cheese did not prevail. I was intrigued. I took one of these recipes and started to tweak it. I was sure I could eventually come up with something that worked for me (I do like a challenge!). And lo and behold, I did. I blame the heavy cream. With a full cup of it in there, it manages to round out the flavor to the point that you taste DAIRY, not cheese. This is a Good Thing.

Lo and behold, my cheesecake was born. Lots of cheese for body, lots of cream for flavor, eggs for texture and binding, vanilla for unctuousness, and last but not least, lemon and booze for balance. Not flavor – at a tablespoon each you’re not going to really taste them in there. A good cheesecake is all about balance of cream and tang, depth and simplicity, heavy and light. The lemon and alcohol, I discovered, was my key to making the flavor really POP. There’s somethign about citrus and alcohol that just cuts through the heaviness of the cheese and the cream, brightens it, like that squeeze of lime over your pad thai. I truly believe that the little tinge of sour that they bring is what takes the flavor over the top.

Anyway, enough about cheesecake (I really could rhapsodize forever… I’m such a prose-slut). Or I should say, enough about cheesecake in general – and more about THIS cheesecake. The one I baked last night, styled this morning, and quickly snapped photos of before running off to work (where they were instantly devoured, of course)

After browsing through hundreds of renditions of my cheesecake recipe, I was filled with blog-envy. All those gorgeous photos! The flavor combos! Oh, for shame! It’s my recipe, yet I didn’t even make one of my own. The least I could do, as a brand spankin’ new member of Daring Bakers, was add my own humble rendition to the fray. I needed a flavor combo that was new to me, and wasn’t like any of the hundreds of recipes I’d already perused (even though many of them seemed to have stolen flavor combo ideas right out of my brain!). I’ve always kind of been enamored of the mixture of berry flavors with mint. It sounds weird to some, but it really, really works if you balance it right. You don’t want the berry to be too sweet, nor the mint to be too spicy. I thought the mellow, creaminess of cheesecake would be a perfect platorm on which to balance those two flavors. AND BOY WAS I RIGHT! So here goes, my official UNofficial first Daring Bakers post

The April 2009 challenge is hosted by Jenny from Jenny Bakes. She has chosen Abbey’s Infamous Cheesecake as the challenge. The full recipe can be seen there – I won’t bother posting the full thing here. My (re)interpretation resulted in BerryMint Cheese(cup)cakes with White Chocolate Ganache. My changes/additions are tallied below:

* The heavy cream was heated briefly in the microwave, then a handful of torn mint leaves were left to steep as the cream cooled. The leaves were strained out prior to incorporating it into the batter.

* The crust was made with buttery shortbread crumbs and less melted butter.

* The liquor I used in the batter was white Creme de Menthe

*A vanilla bean created lovely little specks in the batter, rather than extract.

*I opted to make cupcake-sized cakes (so cute!), baked in a water bath for about 30 minutes, which when chilled were perfectly cooked and not cracked!

* Each cheese(cup)cake was topped with a quick white chocolate ganache: splash of cream was heated in the microwave, then a bar of good quality white chocolate was broken into the cream. Mix with a fork until smooth and dreamy… and no, I didn’t measure any of these amounts!

*Atop the pool of ganache I placed a single blackberry, which I then coated in a puddle of berry glaze. The glaze was simple: I took a couple of spoonfuls of seedless blackberry all-fruit preserves and a tablespoon or two of pomegranate molasses and microwaved them together for about 20 seconds. Stir until smooth, and again, no measuring! This glaze can also be used for presentation – just make a little extra and drizzle on the plate.

*Garnish with more blackberries and mint leaves, as desired. Voila!

And last but not least, the pictures!!

A silver platter of BerryMint mini cheesecakes.

A silver platter of BerryMint mini cheesecakes.

Another close-up shot of BerryMint mini cheesecakes.

Another close-up shot of BerryMint mini cheesecakes.

An army of BerryMint mini cheesecakes marching.

An army of BerryMint mini cheesecakes marching.

Mini BerryMint cheesecake plated, image 1

Mini BerryMint cheesecake plated, image 1

Mini BerryMint cheesecake plated, image 2

Mini BerryMint cheesecake plated, image 2

Bite taken out of the mini BerryMint cheesecake.

Bite taken out of the mini BerryMint cheesecake.