25 June 2011

Breakfast: It's not just for mornings anymore!

When I was growing up breakfast at home usually consisted of some sort of cereal, cream of wheat, or rice with milk, sugar, cinnamon and butter, my favorite. Rarely did we have a "sugary" cereal, but mom would let us get something on the sweeter side now and then. We also had a favorite breakfast place, when we went out, called the Cutten Inn. Anytime we went out I ordered the same thing every time. Diced ham and eggs (scrambled, the childhood standard) with sourdough toast. And the cinnamon rolls. Oh, those huge, warm, buttery, gooey beautiful cinnamon rolls, with a whipped-cream topped cup of hot cocoa on the side, were the most perfect breakfast a girl could ask for. None could rival those rolls, except, of course, for my mama's.

Some of my most cherished memories of breakfast time are Christmas morning with a tradition of the aforementioned cinnamon rolls, with a mildly-orange glaze and hot chocolate around the glowing warmth of the tree and my grandmother coming to visit and spending all day in the kitchen making fresh maple bars with the scent of fresh donuts and rich maple wafting through the house, and the best, most fun of all, breakfast-for-dinner day! We'd have waffles or french toast with homemade maple syrup all warm and sticky, with a nice tall glass of juice or ice-cold whole milk.

I must admit though, the breakfast hour was not my favorite time of day for waffles, bacon, french toast, etc. When mom would come in the door saying "Breakfast for dinner tonight!" my heart would beat a little faster, my taste buds would perk up and I was the first one in the kitchen to get things cooking! There's nothing like watching a little "Must-See TV" on a random weeknight with a belly full of fluffy butter-slathered waffles and salty, smoky bacon. Of course now, with brunch making a comeback and the enormous variety of breakfast foods, egg dishes and delicate pastries galore available at the everyday grocery, the possibilities for breakfast anytime are endless!

You may have gathered my favorite breakfast-for-dinner meal is waffles, but not just any waffles. Yes, I use a mix, but I enhance it and it's oh, so easy! Just start by making up your favorite batter, mix or homemade, and add flavorings like hazelnut or almond extract, cinnamon or pumpkin pie spice for a great Autumnal flavor, or even some good cocoa powder and espresso powder (the kind made for baking) to make yourself a mocha waffle batter!  You may not be a waffle-lover as I am so here are some other heartier, lower carb/higher protein options!

Try doing up the classic scrambled eggs or omelettes with fresh herbs and some nice rich cheese like a Dubliner, or even a good Bleu for some tang, maybe something little mellower for the kids who aren't ready for a strong cheese yet, like a good medium cheddar or havarti. Then there's a nice quiche or frittata, a very popular anytime dish these days! You can put just about anything you like in a frittata and it's basically a one-pan meal!  And for the less carb/calorie conscious, there's my favorite breakfast I nearly always order when we head out of the house ...Biscuits and Country gravy with 2 scrambled eggs and hash browns, but I only order this at certain restaurants because the biscuits, and the gravy must be homemade and a lot of the chain restaurants use mixes for the gravies. No thanks! Again, my mama's biscuits and gravy will always be the best, but I have found a few close seconds. Anecdote: When we lived in San Francisco it was shocking to find this meal so hard to come by, but finally after a long search we found it. In the Haight/Ashbury district there is a fabulous little hole-in-the-wall called The Pork Store (www.porkstorecafe.com, not sure if it's under the same ownership, but in any case, check out "the 49er" on the menu) where they had my perfect meal. It was a glorious day and completely lived up to my expectations.

Now, do I recommend eating something so heavy as b&g for a dinner-time meal? Well, no. I just needed to share my struggle with you all, and I thank you for listening.  I think as far as working in a nice, simple meal that can be enjoyed at any time of day, egg dishes are going to be the best bet because of the savory quality you palette is most likely used to in the evening hours. You might not want to consume a lot of syrup/nutella/powdered sugar bathed waffles or pancakes just before hitting the sheets, and it certainly wouldn't help the kids settle down to have all the sweet just before tucking-in time.

Another wonderful reason to give this whole idea of opposite meal time a try is because almost everyone can make at least one thing for breakfast which means the kids, mom, dad, anyone can lend a hand and make it their very own meal to share with the family! My husband is very open to learning how I prepare a lot of our meals, but is pretty good with breakfast on his own, and one dish in particular. Here's the super-simple recipe for....

Christian's Eggs and Toast Chips!
(This is the recipe for 1 serving, so duplicate as much as you need) 

In a buttered fry pan, fry 2 eggs gently (more of a sunny-sie-up, technically) to keep the yolks runny and in tact, seasoning with salt, pepper and basil, parsley or any of your favorite dried or fresh herbs. 
Meanwhile, toast lightly 2 pieces of whole-grain bread (could also be rye, sourdough or any other good, dense bread) and butter, then tear the buttered toast into "chips"(pieces about the size of a small potato chip) and put in a cereal bowl. 

Once eggs are done cooking, place them on top of the toast chips and mix them in with two table knives to make sure the yummy, runny yolks make their way to all those buttery chips. Add about a tablespoon of your favorite ketchup, mix in and enjoy! 

You can also add some cooked sausage or crispy bacon to this mix for some added flavor and texture. FYI-I omit the ketchup if adding a breakfast meat to the dish as sometimes the flavors don't mix well.

So now it's time to experiment and see what works for your family! Make it a special night where the kids can help crack and mix eggs, toast and butter the bread and of course, make sure to get those veggies in there by mixing some fresh spinach and mushrooms into you eggs, having a nice appetizer of fresh fruit while the meal is being prepared or making smoothie shots to go along with your breakfast-for-dinner adventure! Just think, everyone can "dress" for dinner by getting in their jammies, and then after your wonderful dinner you can finish off with some family game time or pop a family-favorite in the DVD player and get everyone on the couch to watch together!

Whatever you decide to have for your breakfast, whether you eat it at 9am or 6pm, enjoy the making of it, homemade or from a mix, and share it with your family! After all, sharing any meals is a greta way to enjoy one another and keep up on all your family's happenings! Happy Cooking! 

02 June 2011

Chocolate II: Lovin' from the oven!

Has everyone recovered from the chocolate extravaganza of my last rich a dreamy chocolate-related post? Excellent! Now it's time to talk baking!

Let's go over a few notes first though, to get you familiar with the types of cocoa and chocolate you'll most often see in recipes, as well as ways to enhance the chocolate flavor in your baked goods.

1. Cocoa powders: First, let me say, and I'm sure you all know this anyway but...it's never recommended to substitute hot-cocoa drink mix for pure cocoa powder because of all the additives. That being said, let's move on to the good stuff! When you're perusing that awesome baking aisle in your local market you'll find Cocoa Powder and Dutch Processed Cocoa Powder, both of which are derived from the extraction of cocoa butter (chocolate liquor) from the beans being dried and ground. The difference between the two is that Dutch Processed product has been treated with alkali, called "Dutch Process", to neutralize the natural acidity in cocoa. It can produce a smoother, richer, more pure chocolate taste. I've used both types and while the difference is minimal but noticeable, I always say, when it comes to baking use the best possible ingredients you can get your hands on. 

2. Chocolate: We went over most everything you'll need to know about the chocolate itself in the last post, but remember a lot of baking with chocolate will call for bar chocolate mixed for baking as opposed to chocolate chips because of stabilizers which can affect the consistency and texture of your pies, cakes, cookies, etc. When reading, or testing out one of your own, recipes, make sure you know what strength and type of chocolate you need, and if you aren't sure, do some test batches, taste various strengths and see what strikes you palette's fancy! 

3. Enhancements: When you are creating anything in your kitchen you should do anything possible to enhance every layer of flavor in your dishes. With baking there are a few ways to go about that. Small additions can make enormous difference in the depth of flavor found naturally in chocolate and a few of those additions are: 
Salt: A really simple way to boost flavors in almost and dish weather it's a fudge cake or poached fish! A dash of salt in a brownie or fudge recipe goes a long way, and a sprinkle of smoked salt or champagne salt on top of a truffle or caramel brings about an incredible surprise to your palette! 
Coffee & Espresso: Whether you use instant coffee crystals, the morning's brewed coffee or finely ground espresso powders specially made for baking, a little goes a long way and it really doesn't take much to amplify the taste! If you add just a teaspoon or two to nearly any recipe I think you'll taste a noticeable difference from what used to be!
Spices: These days you will often see chocolate recipes calling for cayenne, anise, paprika, chipotle, etc. and when used in moderation these non-trdtional spices can add a fantastic, modern kick to truffles, brownies and more!
Oils: I adore adding extracts and natural nut, spice and fruit oils to chocolate to enhance its natural tones and bring out new notes of flavor that might have otherwise gone unnoticed.

Now it's time in the kitchen and make friends with the mixer. One of my favorite chocolate treats for in-home baking is easily the classic brownie. My go-to brownie recipe, which doesn't actually require a mixer, and is all put together on the stove top, is perfect for a late night craving satisfier, and quick pot-luck hit or last-minute dessert for unannounced guests! It's quick to make, fast to bake and can easily be modified with any combination of nuts, fruits, a variety of chips and flavorings or even nut butters, and it's sure to make you the talk to dessert time. One last trick before we get into the recipe is to make sure you don't over-bake! I always go for the minimum recommended baking time, check doneness and then give just another minute or two at a time until you achieve desired texture. I prefer a chewier, most moist brownie where you might like a cakier result meaning you would bake a bit longer and go for a bit of a drier recipe.

Yes, I'm aware there are baked goods far beyond brownies, and I encourage you to seek out a great, simple chocolate cake recipe, as well as a fudge and a cookie that you really enjoy sharing and that is  a good, simple, delicious recipe you can keep at hand as your favorite go-to. Brownies are my favorite for their simplicity and mass appeal, but stick with what you end up liking, and creating, best and you're good for the long haul! And of course, once you find a recipe you adore as much as I do with my brownies, begin experimenting with additions to add new, unusual but pleasantly surprising flavors and textures!

Courtney's Favorite Brownies 
for all occasions!

Preheat oven to 350
1 1/4 cup (plus 1 1/4 cups reserved) semi-sweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup canola oil
2 tbsp butter
3 eggs
1 1/4 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1 cup superfine sugar (regular sugar or even brown sugar works, also!)
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 tsp espresso powder (extra-fine, for baking or can also use instant coffee/espresso crystals)
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp baking soda

Mix-in ideas: 1/2 cup to 1 cup in any combination of the following: favorite chopped nuts, mini-marshmallows, dried fruit, butterscotch/white/milk chocolate chips, broken pretzels, peppermint candy or toffee pieces...

In a medium sauce pan over medium-low heat, melt 1 cup chocolate chips with canola oil and butter, being sure to keep and eye on this and stir often to avoid scalding.
Once melted, remove from heat and add 3 eggs, and mix well. 
Add all remaining ingredients (except remaining chocolate chips and other chosen mix-ins) and mix very well by hand until completely incorporated.
Add remaining 1 1/4 cups chocolate chips and any desired mix-ins, get into pan (see below) and pop them in the oven! You can also sprinkle the top with a little of your chosen mix-ins to show what awaits inside the tasty morsel!

You can bake these in one of two ways:
9x13 greased/floured pan for 18-20 minutes
In greased/floured (or lined) mini-muffin tins (to create brownie bites) for 14-18 minutes

Bake in desired capacity then cool to room temp and enjoy! 

Time to get to the store, get in the kitchen and begin to discover your own favorite chocolate baked treats and treasures! Still not sure where to start? Let me know what more you want to know about best ways to bake with chocolate in your own keen kitchen, and I'm happy to provide more detail, more ideas and delve into the world of cakes, cookies, pies and more. I promise also, in the near future, to dedicate and entire post, or three...to baking goodies of many varieties so don't be discouraged if this one post doesn't cover all your inquiries regarding baked delights!

NEXT TIME: Breakfast: It's not just for mornings anymore!