Project Wonderful

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Oven Baked BBQ Ribs with Heirloom Tomato BBQ Sauce

Angela came home with a rack of baby back ribs. But with the Summer heat, I didn't feel like stoking the smoker and tending to it for 4 hours, so I decided to do the ribs in the oven instead.

To be honest, I'd never done ribs in an oven before. I always do them on a smoker. But the principals are essentially the same: low heat over a long period of time breaks down and renders out the fat so that the meat is tender, juicy and delicious. And with the right rub, the flavors are amazing.

Because these were going in the oven, I came up with a rub recipe that's great for use with meat that's not being smoked. By adding smoked paprika and hickory smoked sea salt, you still get the smoky flavors, but don't have to worry about tending to the smoker every hour.

In addition to the ribs, our front yard tomato garden has given us quite a few beautiful tomatoes this Summer. We were gifted a ton of heirloom tomato seeds, so we planted several varieties. Growing tomatoes in Texas is always a challenge, but I've found that brute-force gardening seems to work. Starting with quality soil rich in nutrients (mostly compost) and watering every other day has been the best way to beat the Texas heat. As a result, we've got a thriving garden bed that is producing lots of tomatoes right now. And with more on the way, the kitchen counter was quickly filling up, so I decided to turn the whole first batch into BBQ sauce for the ribs.

Technically if you have a rub, you don't also need a sauce as the two things compete for flavors and muddle everything up a bit. But since the tomato garden was exploding, I made a sauce too. It's a little on the vinegar side, so if you don't like vinegar based sauces, feel free to come up with a different recipe. Also, depending on which tomatoes you use, the flavor is going to be different. This particular batch was a mix of whatever was ready for harvest, so there are San Marzano's a few Black Icicles, some Juanne Flamme's, and one or two tomatoes that I cant quite identify.

Here's the recipes:

Rob's Rib Rub:

1Tbs Smoked Paprika
1Tbs granulated garlic
1Tbs Cumin
1Tbs onion powder
1Tbs brown sugar
2Tbs Hickory Smoked Sea Salt
1tsp dry mustard
1tsp white pepper
1tsp ground coriander

Pre-heat the oven to 225 degrees.

Lay the ribs meat side up in a baking dish and liberally sprinkle the rub over every inch. Rub it in with your hand. That's the best tool for the job .I've found its good to have one clean hand to hold the container of rub and one dirty hand to rub the rub into the meat. Don't forget the sides of the ribs!

Flip the ribs over (meat side down,) sprinkle the rub on the bone side and rub it in.

Wrap the baking dish with a sheet of aluminum foil and place it in the oven in the middle rack. Let this cook slowly for 3 1/2 to 4 hours.

Once the ribs are in the oven, start working on the BBQ sauce below.

After the ribs have cooked for the scheduled time, drain off the drippings and flip the ribs over so they are meat side up. Spoon some of the BBQ sauce onto the ribs and return them to the oven for another 20 minutes.

BBQ sauce:

3 lbs of garden tomatoes.  - peeled, crushed and de-stemmed
1 tbs olive oil
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 large sweet onion chopped
3 cloves of garlic minced
1 tsp ground black pepper
1/8 tsp chipotle powder
1 cup brown sugar
1 Tbs paprika
2 tsp dry mustard
1 1/2 cups of apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup quality bourbon

First thing to do is to blanch the tomatoes. Score the bottom of the tomato with a knife and dunk them in a pot of boiling water for about 30 seconds. Then remove and submerge them in a bowl filled with ice cubes and water. This rapid heating/ cooling will cause the skins to wrinkle and they should come right off with very little difficulty.

Place the peeled tomatoes in a colander in the sink and start crushing them apart. You don't need any fancy tools for this, just crush them with your hands (It's a very rewarding process!) Remove any bad spots, along with the center stem of the tomato. Seeds are going to go everywhere. That's why you do this in a sink.

You could also place the colander over a large bowl to catch the seeds and juice if you want to save the seeds for next year.

Once all the tomatoes are crushed, let them sit in the sink to drain off any excess liquid.

While the tomatoes are draining, toss the onions into a pot with the olive oil. Cook them under medium heat till they're translucent.

Add the chopped bell pepper and cook till softened.

Add the garlic and cook till the kitchen starts to fill with the smell of cooking garlic. Don't overcook them or they'll turn bitter.

Add the black pepper, chipotle powder, brown sugar, paprika, mustard and apple cider vinegar. Let this mixture simmer for about 30 minutes, stirring frequently.

After 30 minutes, transfer the stewed mess to a blender - remember to remove the top fill cap of the blender and replace it with a loose paper towel. Hot ingredients when blended will expand rapidly. If the cap is on the lid, the whole thing could explode out of the blender. Blend the tomato mixture until its a fine puree and transfer this back to the pot. You may need to blend everything in batches.

Once the puree is back in the pot, add the 1/2 cup of bourbon. DONT USE THE CHEAP STUFF. You are going for flavor here, so use a whiskey that you like.

Set the pot on low heat and let this cook down for about 1 hour. You want everything to reduce to about half of its original quantity. This will thicken up the sauce nicely. If it starts getting too thick, add some more vinegar or water. If you think it's lacking anything, have a shot of whiskey until the thought subsides.

Serve the sauce in a bowl on the side.

And there you have it: oven-baked BBQ ribs with Heirloom BBQ sauce.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Toasted Sesame Seed Lemon Basil Pesto

I love pesto. That amazing emulsion of purred basil, pine nuts and Parmesan cheese is delicious on so many different kinds of foods. It originates in the Liguria region of Genoa Italy - the word Pesto comes from the Italian "pesta" which means to pound or crush. The original method of making pesto was to use a mortar and pestle. Thankfully the modern invention of the food processor makes this a simple process.

And if you don't have basil, you can make a pesto sauce with just about any greens you have. See my recipe for roasted carrot grilled cheese with carrot top pesto that I made up last year. Fantastic!

The ancient Romans ate a paste called moretum, which was made by crushing cheese, garlic and herbs together. Basil, the main ingredient of modern pesto, likely originated in India and was first domesticated there. Basil took the firmest root in the regions of Liguria, Italy and Provence, France. The Ligurians around Genoa took the dish and adapted it, using a combination of basil, crushed garlic, grated hard cheese (a mix of parmigiano-reggiano and pecorino or just one of the two), and pine nuts with a little olive oil to form pesto. - Wikipedia.

So before the dog days of Summer start wreaking havoc on your plants, now is the perfect time to start reaping the fruits of your gardening labor. Here is my standard go-to recipe:

1-2  large handfuls of basil leaves, washed and dried.
1/2 cup sesame seeds, shelled and toasted.
3 cloves of garlic, peeled
2 pinches of coarse sea salt
4-6 TBS extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2 cup shaved Parmesan cheese

We grow a couple varieties of basil on the back porch. 
The afternoon sun is a little harsh, but we shade the plants and water them daily and they survive just fine.

That tall one in the middle is lemon basil and has an amazing lemony taste. It works great in my recipe. 

I cut a few of the branches off and plucked only the best leaves.
Anything that had spots or was a little yellow was discarded.
You could probably use them if you wanted, but I wanted to make this the absolute best tasting pesto I could, so I got picky. Plus there's still a lot of basil growing so I don't have to worry about running out. 

Plucked, washed and spin dried, the leaves are ready for the food processor.
This is about one good sized handful of leaves and makes about two cups of finished sauce.
Dont forget to use the flowers! Normally we pluck the flowers from the plant to help promote leaf growth, but occasionally a few buds remain. These have a great taste to them and work well in the sauce.

I didnt have any pine nuts and didnt feel like taking out a second mortgage to buy some
(seriously, those little buggers are crazy expensive!) so I used sunflower seeds instead.
You could also use blanched almonds, cashews or even peanuts if you wanted.
Each will give a slightly different taste, but any oily nut will work.
This is maybe half a cup of seeds. You can use more or less, depending on the flavor you like.

Toast the seeds in a large pan, stirring frequently. You can toast them to whatever level of toastiness you like, but the longer they toast, the stronger the flavor - until they become bitter.
This was after about 5 minutes on medium low heat. 

Here's a trick: pull the seeds out of the pan just BEFORE you think they're ready and transfer them to a cool plate.
They will continue to cook slightly while they're cooling.
Make sure they are completely cool before adding them to the processor.

Now the fun begins! Add the leaves, the nuts, about two pinches of coarse salt and a couple tablespoons of good quality olive oil to the processor and pulse everything till it starts combining.
Once it's combined, turn the processor on 
and drizzle in the olive oil as it's running.
You will probably need to scrape down the sides of the food processor once or twice during this process.

During the first scrape down, I add 3 cloves of peeled garlic and about a cup and a half of shaved Parmesan cheese and run the processor one more time until everything is blended together.
The longer you run the processor, the finer the texture it will become.
Personally I like mine a little chunky, but you can make this as smooth as baby food if you want.

The great thing about this sauce is that you really cant screw it up too bad. More olive oil will make it thinner, less will make it thicker. Either way, it's still awesome.

You could also add a squirt or two of lemon juice to help make the flavor even more bold. 

And there you have it: toasted sesame seed lemon basil pesto.
Essentially a pile of yummy green goo that can be used on grilled chicken,
topped on potatoes, corn on the cob, mixed in with pasta and shrimp,
or just smeared onto chunks of hearty bread and eaten with a good bottle of wine. 


Saturday, May 31, 2014

Blackberry Cobbler III

A couple years ago, I was gifted four blackberry saplings (primocanes) from a friend of mine. I figured they would be good as a natural home break-in deterrent, so I planted them in the front of the house, under a window to our laundry room.

This Spring, they really started to take off.

For me, the first thing I think of when I see blackberries is cobbler. I just love the combination of tart/ sweet and cakey dough.  The mind explodes with flavors and textures that instantly turn you into a kid. Served still warm from the oven with a little Vanilla ice cream and you'll quickly forget what you just had for dinner.

Blackberries are very good for you. 1 cup of blackberries has 7 grams of fiber and almost half the daily requirement of vitamin C. It ranks #1 in in-vitro anti-oxidants and its' compounds have been determined in scientific studies to help reduce certain types of cancer cells.

But let's be honest here:

We're making a cobbler. 
With a cup and a half of sugar and a stick and a half of butter. 
Don't eat this because you think it's healthy, 
eat this because it's AMAZINGLY delicious.

After the plant blossoms, the fruit starts growing.
Green at first, changing to a raspberry color, then shifting to dark purple.
The phytochemical Anthocyanin is what gives the fruit its dark purple color and also contributes a slightly tart taste.

Soon, little one.
Soon you will join your siblings in a glorious union of sugar and butter.  

The fruit is ready to pick when it's uniform in color and a little soft to the touch.
It should come off the plant with a gentle tug.

Little lumpy bombs of berry bodaciousness. 

There was more in this bowl before I thought to grab my camera. 
I combined the fresh picked berries with a couple of cups I had in the freezer, soaked them in cool water to defrost and started making the cobbler.

This is my third recipe for blackberry cobbler. The first recipe was a reverse-style, where the dough starts on the bottom, the second recipe was done in a cast iron pan and now this one: more of a traditional style, with a couple of twists thrown in.


For the filling:
3 cups of blackberries - rinsed and dried
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 tsp cinnamon
3 Tbs corn starch
1 cup cold water
4 Tbs butter

For the dough:
1 cup flour
1 cup sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup of butter - cold
1/2 cup cold water

Preheat oven to 350

To make the filling:
Place the blackberries, sugar, cinnamon and lemon juice in a large saute pan.

Add the cold water to the 3 tablespoons of corn starch and stir until it's dissolved.

Add this cornstarch slurry to the pan and bring everything to a boil.
Stir the mixture until it starts to thicken, about two minutes.
Pour the berry mixture carefully into a greased (brushed with butter) 8" x 11" baking dish.

Add the 1/2 stick of butter in little dollops around the dish.

For the dough:
In a large bowl, mix the flour, sugar, baking soda and salt together.

Using a pastry blender (or a couple of forks)
cut the cold butter into the flour sugar mixture until it looks like driveway gravel
(coarse sand would be too small. you want slightly larger chunks)
Add the cold water to the mixture and stir just until everything is combined. 

Spoon the dough onto the top of the filling in random clumps.

Then place the cobbler into the oven for 35-40 minutes, or until the dough turns a nice golden brown color.

When ready, set aside to cool for AT LEAST 30 minutes.
Remember, this stuff is like lava, and when it touches your skin it will burn a long time, so be careful!

The dough comes out very light and cakey (it pays to use fresh baking powder)
The berries are perfectly balanced. Not too sweet, not too tart. 

Grab a spoon and dig in!

Monday, March 17, 2014

Irish Soda Bread

St. Patrick's Day is upon us here at the pillow fort, and we follow a traditional Irish meal of corned beef, cabbage and soda bread.

The corned beef and cabbage were just tossed in the slow cooker with enough water to cover everything and some beer. Traditionally I would use Guinness, but having none at hand, I went with a bottle of Shiner Bock. After all, this is Texas and you have to inject some Texas flavor in everything you cook. I think it's in a rule book somewhere.

Soda bread is a type of "quick bread" that uses baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) instead of yeast to make the bread rise. This recipe uses buttermilk, and for a couple of reasons: 1, the baking soda reacts with the lactic acid of the buttermilk to make bubbles which helps to give the bread a light, tender consistency. And 2, it's awesome for flavor.

Fair warning: If you've never worked with buttermilk, you would swear it's just nasty, spoiled milk. It's thick, clumpy and not something you'd want to drink. But for baking, this, my friends, is the nectar of the gods. Buttermilk is one of those little secret ingredients in baking that will make whatever you bake with it stand out from the rest. Trust me: it's awesome.  

Don't have buttermilk? No worries! You can easily make it at home with milk and lemon juice. Just mix one cup of milk (whole or heavy cream work best) with 1 tablespoon of lemon juice and let it stand for 5-10 minutes. The lemon juice curdles the milk - which, as gross as this may sound - is what actually makes this recipe work great for baking. 

This soda bread recipe is probably one of the easier breads to make. It doesn't take much work and you don't need to let the dough rise, knock it down, then let it rise again like typical yeast breads. Total time from start to finish is about 2 hours. 

So roll up your sleeves and let's bake some bread!

4 cups all-purpose flour
4 Tbs granulated sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1 Tbs baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 cup buttermilk
1 egg
1/2 cup dried currants (or raisins)
1/4 cup butter, melted
1/4 cup buttermilk

Preheat oven to 375º F. 

Cover a baking sheet with parchment paper. 

In a large bowl, mix together flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, salt and softened butter. 

Stir in 1 cup of buttermilk, the egg and the currants. It will be dry, slightly clumpy and a mess. Resist the urge to add more milk or liquid to the mix. This is the consistency you want. Seriously. 

Dump the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead slightly, just enough to get all the ingredients to combine. Any more kneading will only make for tough, heavy bread. 

Form the dough into a round and place on the baking sheet. 

Use a sharp knife to cut an 'X' into the top of the loaf. Some people say this is supposed to be a cross for a reminder of Christ or something. BALDERDASH. Cutting an X into the dough helps it to expand and rise when baking. That's all. Plus it looks cool.

In a small bowl, combine 1/4 cup melted butter with 1/4 cup buttermilk and brush the loaf with this mixture. You will have a lot left over. This is OK. Just brush the loaf with the buttermilk mixture as it bakes.

Bake in preheated oven until a toothpick inserted into the center of the loaf comes out clean, about 45 to 50 minutes, but check for doneness after 30 minutes. 

Brush any of the leftover buttermilk/ butter mixture on the loaf as it cools. 


Monday, March 3, 2014

Apple Goat Cheese King Cake

The other day I posted a recipe for a traditional king cake to share with office workers in the weeks before Mardi Gras. Most king cakes are a fairly simple, albeit a somewhat time-consuming endeavor: A sweet dough, rolled with cinnamon and pralines and doused in multi-colored sugary goo. Which is not to say that this isn't fantastic! But since tomorrow is Mardi Gras, I figured I should pull out all the stops and share a recipe for a king cake that truly tips the scales of decadent. If you really want to kick your Mardi Gras party up a notch, you have got to give this one a try.

On Chartres Street in New Orleans, just a few blocks away from Washington Square, there's a tiny little bakery called New Orleans Cake Cafe. Right about now, owner and head baker Steve Himelfarb and his crew are working overtime to meet demand for this, their signature cake. They make over 100 of these incredible confections per day as Mardi Gras draws near and the cakes go quick.

My recipe is a tip of the hat to Cake Cafe's wonderful creation, and if you are looking for a way to up your baking cred, this one will have people begging you to bring it to the Mardi Gras parties every year.

This recipe makes one seriously awesome king cake:

1/2 cup milk
2 Tbs. butter
1 (.25 ounce) package active dry yeast (or 2 1/4 tsp)
1/3 cup warm water (110 degrees F/45 degrees C)
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 egg
3/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. apple pie spice
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
2-3/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 (8-oz.) package cream cheese
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 pinch salt (about 1/16th of a teaspoon)
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
8 oz crumbled goat cheese
1 large or 2 small Granny Smith apples, cored and sliced

1 cup powdered sugar
1 Tbs. spiced rum
Green, yellow and purple sugar sprinkles
Toy baby

To make the pastry:
Scald the milk as I described in my previous king cake recipe, remove from the heat and stir in 2 tablespoons of butter. Allow this mixture to cool to room temperature. 

Dissolve the yeast  in 110º  water with 2 teaspoons of the white sugar in a large bowl. Stir gently and let stand until the yeast starts to bubble and look creamy, about 5 - 10 minutes.

When yeast mixture is bubbling, add the cooled milk mixture. Whisk in the egg and stir in the remaining white sugar, salt and pie spice. Beat the flour into the mixture 1 cup at a time. The dough is going to look crumbly and dry, but work it with your hands to get everything incorporated. When the dough starts coming together, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and knead it until it's smooth and elastic, about 8 to 10 minutes.

Spray a large bowl with a good cooking spray, place the dough in the bowl and turn to coat it. Cover with plastic wrap and let the dough rise in a warm place for two hours. A good suggestion would be to pre-heat the oven to "warm," then turn it off, put the dough in the oven, and turn on the oven light. This provides the perfect environment for the dough to rise.  

To make the filling:
Add the cream cheese, sugar, salt and vanilla extract to a medium sized bowl. With a hand mixer, (or if you are one of the cool people that have splurged and bought a stand mixer) beat the ingredients on high speed until everything is fully combined. Initially, it's going to clump and not do much of anything, but after a few seconds the cheese will start to soften and suddenly it will all come together. After about two minutes, set this aside.

In a separate bowl, stir together the brown sugar and cinnamon, and set aside.

When the dough is ready, preheat oven to 375º  and line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.

Roll the dough into a large rectangle about 8-10 inches wide and about 18 inches long.

Spread the cream cheese and sugar mixture evenly across the entire surface, then sprinkle the goat cheese crumbles over the cream cheese. You can use regular goat cheese if you want, but the crumbled stuff is so much easier to work with and covers the dough nicer. 

Lay the apple slices evenly down the center of the dough and sprinkle them with the cinnamon and sugar mixture.

Now the tricky part:
Fold the dough over the filling. To do this, take the front 1/3rd of the dough lengthwise and pull it to the center. Then take the back 1/3rd of the dough and pull it to the center too. Press the edges together to seal everything in. 

Gently roll the dough into a tube shape, being careful not to have the apples pierce the dough. Transfer the dough to the baking sheet and bring the ends around, pinching them together to form an oval shape. 

Here's a little trick:
When the dough is ready, place it on the oven rack in the pre-heated oven WITH THE DOOR OPEN for 3-5 minutes. This will give the dough a second rise, making it much more light and airy when it's finished. You don't have to do this, but its the little things like this that will really set the cake apart from the store-bought stuff.  

After 5 minutes, close the door and bake for about 35-40 minutes. You'll want to keep checking it to make sure that it doesn't over-cook. You're looking for a nice even golden color across the top of the cake.

When it's ready, pull it out and let it cool a bit, then carefully lift up the cake and insert the toy baby from underneath. 

To make the icing: 
Mix the cup of powdered sugar with the tablespoon of spiced rum until it's syrupy and pour-able. Drizzle this glaze over the top of the cake and, while its still wet, shake on the colored sprinkles.

We don't go for presentation too much here at the pillow fort, so I just served the cake as-is, on the parchment paper and used the baking sheet to support it. You will have curious fingers scooping up the pool of molten sugar and cheese that congeals at the base of the cake, but that will help tease people until the cake is ready to be served. 

BTW, you'll notice in the photo below that there's a plastic rooster in the center of the cake. I ran out of babies, so we decided to call this a "king cock."  Uh, you may not want to use that name.

This cake is amazing. The flavors combine together so nicely and while it is very sweet, the goat cheese adds a nice bit of tanginess that works great with the apples. It's a winner.

And if you're ever in Nola, go to Cake Cafe and give the folks there my regards.


Cake Cafe Photo credit, Jeffery Johnston,

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Mardi Gras King Cake

Mardi Gras is almost here, so I decided to try my hand at making a traditional King Cake.

The "king cake" takes its name from the biblical three kings. In Catholic liturgical tradition, the Solemnity of Epiphany - commemorated on January 6 - celebrates the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child. The Eve of Epiphany (the night of January 5) is popularly known as Twelfth Night (the Twelve Days of Christmas are counted from Christmas Eve until this night). The season for king cake extends from the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas (Twelfth Night and Epiphany Day), up until Mardi Gras, or "Fat Tuesday;" the day before the start of Lent. Some organizations or groups of friends may have "king cake parties" every week through the Carnival season. In Portugal and France, whoever gets the King cake trinket is expected to buy the next cake for these get-togethers.   -Wikipedia 

I'm still new to baking, so I researched several variations and decided to do a more traditional one for my first attempt. This recipe comes courtesy of and makes two king cakes, filled with a delicious blend of pecans, brown sugar and raisins.

Fair warning: this is a time-consuming process, as you have to let the dough rise for at least two hours, then punch it down, make the roll and let it rise again for about 45 minutes before you bake it for a half hour. So be sure to allocate enough time for this!

The recipe calls for scalding the milk before adding it to the dough. A lot of people have asked why this is necessary. The answer: science!

Scalding the milk first serves a couple of purposes:

  1. While all modern milk is pasteurized before being sold, the pasteurization process may not always eliminate all of the bacteria and wild yeasts that can reside in it, and these wild yeasts can alter the texture and flavor of the finished bread. 
  2. One of the enzymes in the whey protein of milk weakens the gluten in flour and prevents the bread from rising as high as it should. Scalding kills this enzyme.
  3. Scalded milk also helps to dissolve other ingredients added, like butter and speeds up the process of infusing flavor components like vanilla beans.

To scald the milk, use a heavy bottomed pan to prevent scorching and heat the milk over medium heat. Stir the milk frequently, as this will prevent a protein film from forming over the surface. Once bubbles start to form around the edge of the pan and the milk gives off steam, take it off the heat to cool. That's it.

So roll up your sleeves and let's get to work.


1 cup milk
1/4 cup butter
2 (.25 ounce) packages active dry yeast
2/3 cup warm water (110º)
1/2 cup white sugar
2 eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
5 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup packed brown sugar
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
2/3 cup chopped pecans
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup melted butter

1 cup confectioners' sugar
1-2 Tbs water

Scald the milk, remove from heat and stir in 1/4 cup of butter. Allow this mixture to cool to room temperature. 

While the milk is cooling, It's time to resuscitate the yeast. Dissolve two yeast packets in warm water (about 110 degrees, no hotter) with 1 tablespoon of the white sugar in a large bowl. Stir gently and let stand until the yeast starts to bubble and look creamy after about 10 minutes. (I personally feel like Doctor Frankenstein every time I wake up yeast. The house is always filled with me shouting "It's alive! It's ALIVE!!" 

When yeast is ready, add the cooled milk mixture. Whisk in the eggs and stir in the remaining white sugar, salt and nutmeg. 

Use a hand mixer and beat the flour into the milk/egg mixture 1 cup at a time. Eventually your mixer will become inefficient so switch to a heavy duty spoon and hand mix the rest of the way. When the dough has pulled together, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 8 to 10 minutes. Shape the dough into a ball. 

If you've never kneaded dough for 10 minutes before, this is a great arm workout.
Spray some cooking spray into a large bowl, place the dough in the bowl and turn to coat it with oil. Cover with plastic wrap and let the dough rise in a warm place.

I set my oven to warm, placed the bowl in the oven and then turned the oven off. If you leave the oven light on, this should provide just enough of a warm environment for the yeast to do their thing of eating the sugar and releasing the carbon dioxide to make the bread rise. 

That's right: bread is nothing more than powdered wheat and fungus farts. True story. 

After about two hours, the dough will have doubled in size. When ready, punch down and divide dough in half.
Preheat oven to 375º. 

Line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper.

To Make the filling:
Combine the brown sugar, ground cinnamon, chopped pecans, 1/2 cup flour and 1/2 cup raisins. Pour 1/2 cup melted butter over the cinnamon mixture and mix until its a crumbly bowl of awesome.
Roll the dough halves out into large rectangles (approximately 10x16 inches). Sprinkle the filling evenly over the dough and starting from the wide side, roll up each half. 

Bring the ends of each roll together and form 2 oval shaped rings. Pinch the dough to seal it up. Place each ring on the cookie sheets. 

With scissors, make cuts 1/3 of the way through the rings at about 1 inch intervals. 
Let rise in a warm spot until the rings double in size again, about 45 minutes.

Bake in the preheated oven for 30 minutes, rotating the cakes half-way through the baking process.

Transfer to a wire rack to cool (but leave the parchment paper intact for now.) 

When cool enough to touch, push the toy baby into the bottom of the cake. If you are worried about someone chocking on the toy, you can either warn them or just place the baby on top, but that doesn't seem as much fun. 
 Frost while warm with the confectioners' sugar blended with 1 to 2 tablespoons of water.

Then sprinkle with the colored sugar. Tradition says it should be purple, gold and green, but be creative if you want. 

Laissez les bons temps rouler!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Catfish Etouffee

Experimenting with food is what makes things fun. Sometimes they work like this one, and sometimes they don't (like using kalamata olives instead of capers in a chicken piccata. I seriously don't recommend that one.)

With Mardi Gras just around the corner, I'm having fun researching and cooking up some classic dishes with a modern twist or two. Last night's dinner was Catfish Etouffee, using quinoa instead of rice. 
Now, before we get into the recipe, one question that people always seem to ask when it comes to cajun style cooking: What's the difference between Jambalaya, Gumbo and Etouffee? 

Honestly, it can be more than a little confusing. All three dishes use almost the same ingredients - meat, vegetables, stock and rice, but each one comes from a slightly different location and is prepared a slightly different way: 

Jambalaya got its' start in the Caribbean Islands and moved to the New Orleans area when Spanish settlers attempted to cook their traditional recipe for Paella using the foods available in the area. Saffron is a key ingredient to Paella, but was expensive to import, so the Spaniards substituted tomatoes.

Gumbo originated in Louisiana in the 1700's and is a little more soup-like and thickened with either okra, filé (ground up sassafras leaves) or roux.  Gumbo is more like a side dish to the main course. 

Etouffee is a more recent Cajun invention, sometime around the 1920's. It uses traditionally crawfish or similar seafood, thickened with roux and served over rice. 

I'm also a spicy food wuss, so this dish is pretty mild. If you want to kick it up a few degrees, add red pepper flakes or a good pinch of cayenne pepper at the end.


1 cup quinoa - you could also use white rice for a more traditional flavor
2 cups water
4 tablespoons brown roux
1 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup chopped bell pepper (I used red, but green is more traditional)
2 teaspoons of garlic, minced
2 cups beef broth
1 15 ounce can of crushed tomatoes
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon soy sauce (you could also use Worcestershire)
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
2 teaspoons salt
2 pounds catfish fillets, cut into chunks
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
red pepper flakes (to taste)

Add the water and quinoa together in a small pot. Bring to a boil, reduce to low and simmer for about 15 minutes.

While the quinoa is cooking, start your roux in a large pot. A roux is basically a thickening agent using equal parts flour and fat. Add two tablespoons of butter and two tablespoons of flour together over medium heat. You could also use bacon grease instead of butter, which makes for a really nice flavor. Stir this with a wooden spoon until the flour is cooked. You are looking for a light tan color.

As soon as you get the roux to the right color, add the chopped onion and bell pepper. Cook for about five minutes. Just enough to get the onions slightly translucent.

Add the garlic and cook for about 1 minute. Don't burn the garlic or it will turn bitter.

Add the beef broth and tomatoes and season with the lemon juice, soy sauce, bay leaf, pepper, thyme and salt. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer this mix for about 30 minutes.

Add the catfish and parsley and simmer, partly covered for 10 minutes - just long enough for the fish to flake easily with a fork.

Traditionally you would serve this poured over rice, but I like the idea of just adding the quinoa to the pot and mixing everything together.

Serve in a big bowl with some bread and you're good to go.


Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Review: Stuffed Cajun Meat Market and Specialty Foods

Located on Ranch Road 620, just a couple of blocks away from the Lakeline Mall sits "Stuffed." With all the charm one would expect from a strip mall storefront, this specialty market and deli more than makes up for its lack of ambiance by serving up a big ol' bowl of Big Easy bliss.

Red beans and Rice, Etouffee, Gumbo, Jambalaya, Po-boys, Boudin sausage and more are all made from scratch and the ingredients change based on the season. We asked about crawfish, but because the weather has been rough in the Gulf Coast recently, the little buggers aren't quite big enough yet. Stuffed told us that they should have them in by the truck full in the next couple of weeks. Give them a call to find out when they come in.

In the meantime, are you looking for something quick for lunch? You'd be hard pressed to find a sandwich better than the classic muffuletta. It's basically a New Orleans/ Sicilian submarine: round sesame bread - crisp on the outside, soft on the inside - is filled with salami, ham, mortadella, provolone and mozzarella cheese, then smeared with a savory green/black olive salad spread and heated slightly to make everything melt together. It's warm, melty, crunchy, sharp, and just downright awesome. 

In addition to the great food they serve in the deli, Stuffed also has a variety of prepared foods in their freezers that you can't find anywhere else: Chicken breast stuffed with jambalaya, alligator fillets,  frog legs, whole rabbit, and duck are part of the usual faire. The ever popular "turducken" can be ordered for holiday entertaining and now that Mardi Gras is just around the corner, Stuffed is working overtime making king cakes. But order early, as they sell out quick. 

They also have a new location on Brodie Lane, if you are looking for more of a sit-down-type restaurant.

If you are craving for Cajun cuisine, and you want quality food without any pretense or fanfare, give Stuffed a try.

12226 RR 620 N Austin, TX 78750


(512) 918-1600

Photo courtesy: WayOutWest Austin

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Easy Chicken Piccata

Chicken Piccata is one of those dishes everyone should know how to make without needing a recipe. It's an easy and fairly quick dish that is sure to impress.

The word "piccata" comes from the Milanese word "picchiare" which means to pound - which is what is done with the meat. A traditional Italian piccata would be done with veal chops, pounded thin, dredged in flour or bread crumbs and pan fried with a sauce made from the drippings and Marsala wine. But the beauty of this dish is that there are a multiple number of ways that it can be made. You can use veal, or chicken, bread crumbs or flour, cook the whole thing in butter or olive oil, use garlic or not, parsley or basil or tarragon, shallots or onions, white wine, Marsala wine, or all lemon juice. The possibilities and combinations are endless.

My particular favorite is with parsley and a lemon/ caper sauce, which is what I made here. Anyone that knows me knows I'm a fan of garlic, but this is one dish where I didn't include it. I may make a variation of this with basil and garlic some time in the future, though.

The ingredients for this one are not very exact and that's another benefit of making this dish: you don't need to be incredibly strict about the amount of each ingredient you use, as just about any combination will work together well.

2-4 Chicken breasts pounded to about 1/4" thickness
2 tbs flour
Juice of 2 lemons
Lemon zest
1 cup white wine
1 bunch of Italian parsley
4 Tbs butter

Take your chicken breasts and slice them horizontally in half. You can sometimes find "thin cut" chicken breasts at the market, but either way, you're going to want to get them thinner.

Sandwich the breasts between two sheets of plastic wrap. You can use wax paper sheets instead, but I like being able to see the meat and gauge its thickness. Pound the breasts to about 1/4" thickness with the smooth side of a meat tenderizer, or anything with a flat surface, (On particularly bad days, I use my head, but I don't advise this method).

Sprinkle about 2 tablespoons of flour onto a plate and dredge each breast in the flour, shaking off the excess. Just a light coating will do.

Add a couple tablespoons of olive oil to your favorite saute pan under medium high heat.

When the oil is shimmering (just before it starts smoking) you are ready to add the meat.
Carefully lay each breast in the oil and cook on each side about 3 minutes.
The meat wont take long to cook. You want a nice golden brown color.

While the chicken is cooking, prepare your other ingredients. 

This is Italian flat leaf parsley, but just about any herb can be used. (basil works great.)

Once the breasts are browned, remove them from the pan to rest on a plate.

Once the breasts are removed, reduce the heat to medium/ low and add the lemon juice and capers. I used about 3 or 4 tablespoons for this one, but go with whatever you like. I also crush a few of the capers with a fork to get them to release some of their great briny flavor.

Add about a cup of white wine to deglaze the pan. With a wooden spoon, use the wine to help you scrape up all the browned bits left in the pan. That's pure flavor!

I have a standing rule when it comes to using wine for cooking: Garbage in, garbage out. If you wouldn't drink it, don't cook with it. The so-called "cooking wines" you sometimes find are garbage. This is one of those little gimmicks wineries sometimes use to unload their bottom-of-the-barrel junk they wouldn't normally sell under their own name. Avoid them at all costs and go with what you like. For this dish I used a semi-dry Riesling.

Let the wine reduce slightly and add about half of your chopped parsley.  You could add other ingredients like garlic, shallots or onions at this point, but for this dish, I chose not to.

Once things have mixed together, add about 4 or 5 tablespoons of butter to the pan. This thickens everything into a nice sauce.

Add the chicken breasts back to the pan to re-heat them.
Season with a little salt and pepper, then add the lemon zest.

Spoon the sauce over the breasts as they heat back up.

For a side dish, I made honey glazed baby carrots.
I steamed them till they were fork tender, drained the water, then added a couple tablespoons of honey, some butter and some lemon juice and stirred till the liquid was mostly gone.

To plate, place the breasts on the plate, spoon some carrots and sprinkle everything with the rest of the fresh chopped parsley.


Thursday, February 13, 2014

Cast Iron Blackberry Cobbler

I've got this great cast iron pan that a dear friend gave me a while ago. I'm always trying to find ways to use it more often. Once its seasoned right, it makes for an awesome cooking tool. 

Here's a recipe I used for making Blackberry Cobbler with the skillet. 

A WORD OF WARNING: when baking this thing, be sure to put the skillet on a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil before putting it in the oven. This cobbler can (and most likely WILL) overflow the top of the skillet, spilling over in a sticky, third-degree-burn-inducing mess. The pan catches that blackberry lava and makes cleanup MUCH easier.


1 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/4 cups white sugar, divided
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons cold butter
1/4 cup boiling water
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/4 cup cold water
2 tablespoons lemon juice
4 cups fresh blackberries, rinsed and drained
2 tsp cinnamon

Preheat oven to 400º
In a large bowl, mix the flour, 1/2 cup sugar, baking powder, and salt. 
Cut in butter until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. 

Stir in 1/4 cup boiling water just until mixture is evenly moist. (you could also use milk here)

In a separate bowl, dissolve the cornstarch in cold water. 
Mix in remaining sugar, lemon juice, and blackberries. Mix carefully so you don't break up the berries too badly. The longer it sits, the more juice will be produced. This is known as maceration. The sugar and is literally breaking apart the connective tissues in the berries and releasing the juice. This makes the berries sweeter and softer. 

Transfer to a cast iron skillet, and bring to a boil, stirring frequently. 
Keep an eye on your mixture as it boils.
You dont need to boil it too long, just enough to get everything mixed together.

Drop the dough into the skillet by the spoonful. Sprinkle lightly with the cinnamon. 

Place the skillet on the foil lined baking sheet and bake for about 25 minutes, until the dough is golden brown.

You are going to want to dive in right away but I would STRONGLY recommend letting the cobbler cool a little before digging in. The roof of your mouth will appreciate it. 


Friday, January 24, 2014

Baconberry Muffins

January 24th, 2014: The date of the great Austin blizzard. Nearly a WHOLE QUARTER INCH of frozen rain fell and the entire city came to a screeching halt. 

So since I was trapped (TRAPPED!) in the house, a thought occurred to me over breakfast: 

"You know, bacon and blueberries taste pretty good together."

And with that spark of inspiration came... 

the Baconberry Muffin: an overloaded blueberry muffin, topped with a candied bacon streusel. 

There's a few steps to this treat, but the results are pretty mind-blowing. This should make about 9 regular-sized muffins.

  • 5 slices thick-cut bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup (half stick) butter, cut into pieces

  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup white sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 egg
  • 1/3 cup milk
  • 1 1/2 cup fresh blueberries

    For the streusel:

    In a large skillet, cook the bacon pieces over medium-low heat until crisp. 

    Transfer the bacon to a plate with paper towels to drain. 

    Pour off the bacon drippings from the pan, (save that!) and wipe the skillet clean with a paper towel. 

    Return the bacon to the pan.

    Sprinkle 2 tablespoons of brown sugar over the bacon and cook over medium-low heat until the sugar has melted and has coated the bacon pieces. 

    Transfer the bacon to a baking sheet or a large bowl to cool a little.  
    CAUTION: molten sugar can be incredibly excruciatingly hot.

    Once it has cooled to the touch, dump the sugary bacon onto a cutting board and chop it into small bits.

    In a medium bowl, mix together the flour, granulated sugar, and the remaining 2 tablespoons of brown sugar. 

    Then using one of those pastry cutter/ dough blender thingies, add the butter pieces and cut everything together until its a coarse, crumbly mix If you dont have a pastry cutter, a couple of knives in a scissor-style will work.
    Fold in the bacon bits and set the mixture to chill in the fridge.

    For the Muffins

    Preheat oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C).

    Line the muffin tin with muffin liners.

    Combine 1 1/2 cups flour, 3/4 cup sugar, salt and baking powder.

    Place vegetable oil into a 1 cup measuring cup; add the egg and enough milk to fill the cup. Mix this with flour mixture.

    Fold in blueberries.

    Fill muffin cups right to the top, and sprinkle with crumb topping mixture.

    Bake in the middle oven rack at 400º for 25-30 minutes until the a toothpick stuck into the center of the muffin comes out clean.

    Pull them (carefully) out of the muffin tray and set them on a wire rack to cool.


    Sunday, January 19, 2014

    The Clemenza Sauce

    42 years ago, a relatively obscure Italian director made a little movie.

    “Come over here kid, learn something. You never know, you might have to cook for 20 guys some day.”

    A lot has been said about this scene from "The Godfather" and Peter Clemenza's spaghetti sauce. A kitschy gimmick from a superb film,  gastronauts have scrutinized the scene for decades. Tons of foodie blogs have posted their versions of this thing. Everybody seems to have their own unique way to do it. Mario Batali has his own version of it. One guy wrote a book about it (and for $2.99 you can have it on your Kindle.) One blog tried to fancy it up by using rapeseed oil and adding carrots, celery, bay leaves and sprigs of thyme. Seriously: Rapeseed oil and sprigs of thyme. You won't find a more effective example of how to tear the living soul out of a cultural icon's body than that.

    Apparently the scene appears in Mario Puzo's original novel, but the recipe is only in the film. Director Francis Ford Coppola explains:
    "I wanted to get an entire recipe in so people could learn how to make tomato sauce. First you put in some olive oil and some garlic and you brown some sausage. When the script came back to me, Mario had crossed out 'brown some sausage,' and changed it to 'Then you fry some sausage.' He wrote, 'Gangsters don't brown, gangsters fry." 
     - "The Godfather Legacy" by Harlan Lebo

    The main problem with this scene  - performed beautifully by Richard Castellano -  is that while it's a great piece of cinema, it's actually terrible when it comes to cooking instructions. They left something out. A crucial step to getting the most flavorful, richest sauce possible. Most people completely overlook it, but it improves the sauce one notch better. You wanna know the secret? OK, but I'm only telling you because we're friends:

    In the scene, Clemenza is seen dumping the meatballs and sausage into the pot already cooked. This implies that the sausage was fried up in a separate frying pan and then added to the stock pot. Now, do you really think they would dirty up a separate pan for this? Of course not. This is one pot cooking here! Clemenza fried the meat in the pot, then took it out and used the grease from the sausage and a little oil to help fry up the garlic and start the sauce.

    And this is a classic cooking technique. Those browned bits (or fried bits if you're a gangster) that get stuck to the bottom of the pan are pure flavor. When you pour in a liquid like broth or wine and stir with a wooden spoon, it lifts those stuck bits off the pan and dissolves them into the liquid. In French cooking, they call this a "fond", which means "foundation" and that's exactly what this is providing for this recipe: a starting point for a great sauce.

    Clemenza knew this. Coppola knows this. Now you do too. Welcome to the family.

    Here's another little trick:
    Whenever you make a sauce for a main course, use a wine in the sauce that's similar to the wine you'll be drinking with the meal. This is known as a flavor bridge and it's a common trick used in wine pairing.

    And now that you're armed with the secrets, go forth and make this fantastic sauce.

    2 (28 ounce) cans crushed tomatoes - Get good stuff. San Marzanos are great.
    2 cans of tomato paste
    1 28 ounce tomato can of filtered water
    3 garlic cloves, chopped
    4 sweet Italian pork sausage
    1 lb of meatballs (from my classic meatball recipe)
    1 bottle of good (drinkable) dry red wine. (Chianti works great)
    1/2 tsp dried oregano
    1 tsp dried basil
    1 tsp onion powder
    1/4 cup sugar

    "You see, you start out with a little bit of oil..."
    In a large sauce pot, add a little olive oil and grill the sausage links. Don't cook it completely at this step: you're just browning it on all sides.

    Slice the sausages into 3/4 slices. At this point you can leave them on a plate, ready to go back in with the sauce, or you could go one step further and brown the cut sides in the pan as well. Turn them over after a minute or so and THEN pull them out onto a plate 

    "Then you fry some garlic..." 

    Toss the garlic into the pan and sweat it till it's aromatic and just starting to turn translucent. Don't over-brown it or it'll turn bitter. 

    Add "a glug" of the wine to the bottom of the pot. You want to hear it sizzle. 

    With a wooden spoon, scrape/ rub off those cooked bits that are stuck to the bottom of the pan. This is known as "deglazing" and its a great way to add flavor to the sauce. 

    "Then you throw in some tomatoes, tomato paste, you fry it; ya make sure it doesn't stick."

    Add the tomatoes tomato paste and one can of filtered water to the pot and increase heat to high.

    "You get it to a boil; you shove in all your sausage and your meatballs; heh?"

    add the sliced sausage, meatballs, the dried oregano and basil.

    "...And a little bit o' wine. An' a little bit o' sugar, and that's my trick." 

    Add another "glug" or two of wine to the pot
    Add the sugar and let everything come to a boil.

    Reduce to a simmer and stir frequently for the next 3 hours. Yes, THREE HOURS. The longer it slowly simmers, the more the flavor of the sausage and meatballs are going to mix with the wine, sugar garlic and tomatoes. Everything compliments each other in a little tarantella of awesome.

    There's a couple of ways to serve this. My mom always just dumped the cooked spaghetti into the sauce and stirred it around. Some people like to put the un-sauced pasta in a bowl and let people pick and choose.

    But for me personally, I like to add just a little sauce to the pasta to get it all coated and keep it from drying out or getting sticky.

    To plate, I put a serving of pasta in a warmed dish, add three meatballs and a few sausage slices and then a big spoonful of sauce over everything. Finish off with some freshly shaved parmigiano reggiano or Pecorino Romano cheese and one or two whole leaves of basil for garnish.  Serve with some nice crusty bread and a bottle of wine and you're done. 


    Sicilian Style Meatballs

    I'm not going to say that this is my Grandmother's recipe. She was old-school Italian and either had an encyclopedia of Italian culinary knowledge in her head or just made it up on her own. I don't know. But her food always came out amazing. So while this recipe isn't exactly hers, it's one that she would have definitely approved of.

    Using pine nuts in the meatballs is apparently a Sicilian variation, although Francis Ford Coppola's mother says its Neapolitan. Wherever it came from, its a great addition to the mix and makes the meatballs really stand out as something special. Especially since pine nuts are ridiculously overpriced.

    This recipe makes about 18 golf ball-sized meatballs.

    1 lb lean ground beef (85% is good)
    1 cup plain bread crumbs (you should make these yourself, but store bought will work in a pinch)
    1/4 cup milk
    2 eggs
    1 tbs onion powder
    2 tbs fresh parsley, chopped fine (or 2 tsp dried)
    2 cloves garlic, minced (or 1tsp pre-minced from a jar)
    1 tbs fresh oregano (or 1tsp dried)
    2 tbs pine nuts - lightly toasted
    1/2 tsp kosher salt
    1/2 tsp black pepper
    2 tbs grated Romano cheese (fresh is best, dried if you must)


    Soak breadcrumbs in milk aprox 15 min.

    Mix everything together in a big bowl. 

    Roll into golf ball-sized balls. Not too firm and not too loose. Too loose and they fall apart in the sauce. Too firm and they come out tough. 

    Refrigerate for at least an hour, up to 24 hours. 

    When ready, heat some (1 tablespoon) olive oil in a large cast iron pan on medium high heat until it shimmers. 

    Place the balls into the pan. Turn occasionally to brown on all sides, about 8-10 minutes. Don't over-crowd em; You'll have to do this in batches. 

    Transfer meatballs to a plate with paper towel.

    When all the meatballs are drained, transfer to your spaghetti sauce or serve em just the way they are.

    Good meatballs begins with good bread. Cut it into cubes and run it through a food processor, then toast them on a baking sheet. 

    Here's a trick to help blend fresh ingredients: chop the oregano and garlic together with the salt. 

    This mixes everything together and the coarse salt helps to reduce the ingredients even finer. 

    Kinda pretty like this. Right up to the point when we mash it all together with our hands in an carnival of meat-squishing bliss. 

    Look at my balls. Seriously. Just look at those delicious balls!

    Brown them on all sides about 10 minutes and place them on a paper towel to dry 
    and you are all set.

    From here, the meatballs are ready to go into the spaghetti sauce. And for a great sauce, I recommend my take on Clemenza's sauce from "The Godfather."