Thursday, May 31, 2012

What Kind of Couscous?

When I first began catering regularly, I kept things pretty simple and relied on a few tried and true recipes.  Now that I’ve developed a little ‘system’, I’m starting to branch out more in terms of trying new recipes.  Some have worked better than others (I generally judge the level of success by how much, or little, is left over), but there have definitely been some hands down favorites, especially in the area of sides.

My approach has been to put myself in the shoes of the people I’m feeding.  I know when I walk up to a buffet line and see yet another tray of cold cuts with the obligatory potato salad alongside, I want to stifle a yawn.  So especially when it comes to side salads, I want to offer something a bit more enticing.

I had a number of people comment about this salad after the last lunch I did.  Several wanted to know what type of pasta it was (“I thought it was some kind of couscous, but I’ve never seen it that big before”, “Was that what’s-it-called??  Kwin-Oh-Ah??”).  Most just commented on how tasty it was.

As an added bonus, I reserved about half of the dressing I made for this and used it as a marinade for chicken thighs, which I grilled and put on skewers.

And the crowd went wild.


Greco Israeli Couscous Salad


1/2 cup light olive oil
1/4 cup canola oil
2 - 3 Tbs fresh squeezed lemon juice
1 tsp dried ground oregano
3 cloves fresh garlic, mashed into a paste with 1/2 tsp of salt
1 tsp dried basil
1 tsp finely chopped fresh mint
2 Tbs red wine vinegar
1 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp fresh ground black pepper

Place all ingredients in a glass jar. Cover and shake well.  Or, combine all ingredients in a blender and blend until emulsified.


3 cups water
1 ½ cups dry Israeli Couscous
¼ tsp salt
1 cup Chinese snow peas
½ medium English cucumber, cubed
½ cup sliced green onions
1 tsp lemon zest
¼ cup chopped fresh basil
1 tsp finely chopped fresh rosemary
¼ - ½ cup Dressing (to taste)
½ cup crumbled feta cheese

In a medium saucepan, bring the water to a boil.  Add salt and the couscous.  Stir and reduce heat to a simmer.  Simmer until couscous is just tender, about 10 minutes.  Drain into a fine mesh strainer and rinse with cold water.  Set aside.

Combine remaining ingredients, except for dressing, in a large bowl.  Add the cooled couscous and stir to combine.  Add ¼ cup of the dressing and toss.  Add more dressing if needed.  Season with more salt and pepper if needed.

** To make ahead of time, make dressing and store separately.  Combine all salad ingredients, except for the feta and basil.  Just before serving, add the feta, basil and dressing.  Toss to combine.


I haven’t run across a lot of store-bought cookies that I would actually pay money for, with the exception of a particular brand of ginger thins (no idea what the name is) that I’ll snag on occasion.  But the other night I was out to dinner, and the crème brulée I had for dessert was accompanied by 3 shortbread-like ginger cookies that were beyond amazing, and I have since become mildly obsessed with making my own crispy ginger cookies.

I see the makings of an odyssey of epic proportions ahead.

And while I was aiming for a shortbread-like cookie similar to what I had at the restaurant, my first endeavor ended up an exact replica of those ginger thins I love so much.

Keep in mind when baking these that they spread a lot.  I discovered that a mound of dough about the size of a cherry is a good size, but you could go smaller and still have a decent-sized cookie.  And I couldn’t even begin to tell you how many total the batch will make.  First off, I was trying so many different sizes that I couldn’t get a consistent count.  And somehow the dough and finished cookies kept disappearing.

Also, be sure to allow these to cool completely before stacking them (carefully) in an airtight container, or they will lose some of that delightful crispiness.

Ginger Thins

12 Tbs (1 ½ sticks) unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
1 egg
¼ cup molasses
1 tsp ground cinnamon
2 ½ tsp ground ginger
½ tsp ground cloves
½ tsp sea salt
2 cups flour
2 tsp baking soda
Turbinado sugar (or use sugar in the raw)

Preheat to 350°.  Line a baking sheet with foil or parchment paper.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the butter and sugar.  Using a paddle attachment, beat until thoroughly combined, about 3 minutes.  Add the egg and molasses.  Continue to beat another 2 to 3 minutes.  Add the cinnamon, ginger, cloves and salt and stir to combine.

Scrape the sides of the bowl and then add the flour and baking soda.  Stir slowly, just until combined. Measure teaspoon sized balls and place on cookie sheet, giving a couple of inches in between cookies to allow for spreading. Bake the cookies for about 10 to 12 minutes, or until they have spread, the surface has cracked, and they are firm to the touch. Remove to racks and allow to cool completely.  Store in an airtight container using wax paper or parchment in between stacks.

Makes…  a lot.  5 dozen maybe?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Epic Fail

In cruising the food blogs (something I seem to have less and less time to do these days), I kept running across references to ‘cinnamon chips’, which sounded like a brilliant idea to me.  I had never actually run across any in the markets I frequent, though.

During a trip through the bulk section of Market of Choice recently, I happened across a jar labeled cinnamon chips.  At last!  They were pretty little oval-shaped pieces, just perfect in size for scones.  So I put together a batch and added some chocolate chips as well (yum!).

The smell coming from the oven was intoxicating, and I could hardly wait to try them out.  I made my morning espresso, and almost as soon as I pulled these beautiful scones from the oven, I plopped one on a plate, slathered a little butter on top, and sat down to enjoy.

I pulled a piece off, popped it in my mouth, and bit down... on a chunk of cinnamon the consistency of tree bark.  Turns out that the cinnamon chips I bought, although they looked nothing like pieces from a cinnamon stick, were just that.  And try as I might to salvage the situation, there was just no getting around the ‘ick’ factor of having to pull little rock-hard pieces of cinnamon out of my teeth.  I ended up tossing the entire batch.

All is not lost, however.  I figure these are a terrific size for the spice grinder the next time I’m making some mole.

Live and learn, I guess.

Monday, May 21, 2012

No Moaning Allowed

I just have to say from experience that hearing guttural moaning while at work is just… disturbing.  Even if you are well aware of where the sound is emanating from and the reason for it, it is just not something that is ok.

One of our VPs is retiring, and although I wasn’t able to take on the task of providing lunch for the group attending, I did volunteer to do some cupcakes.  I wanted to come up with something special but not terribly labor intensive.  I came up with two options:  Chocolate Covered Strawberry Cupcakes and Vanilla Bean Cupcakes with Amaretto Buttercream.

The chocolate cupcakes featured a fresh strawberry gelée inside the cupcake, and a strawberry cream cheese frosting.  And these are what caused the majority of the commotion.  They were made using my go-to recipe for chocolate cupcakes, which are unbelievably moist and delicate.  Once baked, I carved a cone shape out of the center, cut off the bottom portion of the ‘cone’ and then replaced the cap back on the cupcake once I had filled the void with the gelée.  Don’t worry if they turn out a little ugly.  That’s what the frosting is for.  J  You will definitely need to pipe frosting onto these, though, rather than trying to frost them with a knife.  They’re just too delicate and would fall apart.

For the amaretto cupcakes, I used a vanilla bean cupcake recipe, topped them with a buttercream spiked with a little amaretto, and studded the tops with an almond brittle.

Ok, now you know all of my secrets.  Go forth and elicit your own moaning.

Chocolate Covered Strawberry Cupcakes

 2 sticks of butter (room temp)
2 1/2 c sugar
4 large eggs
1 3/4 c flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 c cocoa powder
1 c milk
2 tsp vanilla

Preheat oven to 350°.  Line cupcake tin with liners (this will make about 24 regular sized cupcakes).

In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the butter for several minutes light and whipped.  Add the sugar and beat on medium speed for 2 or 3 minutes until sugar is fully incorporated into the butter and the mixture is fluffy.  Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.  Stir in the vanilla.

Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cocoa powder.  Add the dry ingredients a third at a time to the butter mixture, alternating with a third of the milk.

Scoop batter into lined cupcake tins about halfway.  Bake for 22-25 minutes, or until tester comes out clean.  Allow to cool completely.

* * *

Strawberry Gelée

1 cup strawberry purée
1/4 cup sugar
1 Tbs fresh lemon juice
2 Tbs cold water
1/2 envelope unflavored powdered gelatin
1/2 cup diced, fresh strawberries

Heat purée and sugar in a small saucepan just until it begins to bubble, stirring to dissolve sugar. Stir in lemon juice and remove from heat.

Put water in a small bowl and sprinkle gelatin on top. Let sit for 5 minutes.

Add fruit purée mixture to the bowl and stir until gelatin is completely dissolved.

Stir in diced strawberries and chill until set.

* * *

Strawberry Cream Cheese Buttercream

1 8 oz package cream cheese, softened
1 stick butter, softened
3 cups confectioners’ sugar
¼ cup strawberry jelly (I used freezer jam I had on hand)

In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the cream cheese and butter until well combined.  Add the jelly and beat until incorporated.  Slowly add the sugar, about ¼ a cup at a time, and mix until frosting is creamy.  Frosting can be made ahead of time and chilled.  Bring to room temp if piping.

Vanilla Bean Cupcakes

2 cups flour
1 c sugar
3/4 c milk
1 stick butter, at room temperature
1 egg, at room temperature
1 vanilla bean
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt

Cut the vanilla bean lengthwise.  In a small saucepan, heat the milk and vanilla bean together until the milk begins to steam. Remove from heat and let cool for about 1 hour, then remove the vanilla bean. Scrape out the seeds from the vanilla bean and add them back to the milk. Discard the remaining bean pod. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350°.

In a medium bowl, sift together the salt, flour and baking powder.  In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add egg and beat well. Alternately add the flour and milk mixture until well combined. Divide batter into about 18 lined or greased cupcake tins. Bake 15-20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack.

* * * 

Amaretto Buttercream

2 sticks butter, room temperature
½ tsp salt
½ cup cocoa powder
3 cups confectioners’ sugar
2 – 3 Tbs milk
2 tsp Amaretto liqueur

Beat the butter with a mixer until light and fluffy.  Add salt and cocoa powder, and slowly stir to combine.  Add the confectioners’ sugar a small amount at a time, mixing in between additions and adding the milk, about a Tablespoon at a time once the mixture starts to stiffen.  Stir in the Amaretto.

* * *

Almond Brickle

1 cup sliced almonds
1 cup sugar
½ tsp salt
¼ cup water

In a skillet over medium heat, toast the almonds just until they begin to turn golden.  Remove to a bowl.  Add the remaining ingredients to the pan, turn the heat up to medium high, and allow the mixture to come to a boil.  Allow the sugar to cook, only swirling the pan on occasion, until it turns an amber color.  Add the almonds.  Pour hot mixture onto a greased cookie sheet and allow to cool completely.  When it is completely cooled, break into small pieces.