Project Wonderful

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.