3.29.2009

Maida Heatter

Do you have baking guru? I do. It’s Maida Heatter. She is the queen of desserts, hands down, no contest, end of story. If you love all kinds of desserts, cookies and sweet breads, then you MUST own every one of her cookbooks. It’s a necessity.

If the name Heatter rings a bell, that’s because she is the daughter of radio commentator Gabriel Heatter who became famous during World War II broadcasts with his: “There is good news tonight.” catch phrase.

Maida never started out to be a chef – she didn’t even attend a culinary school - but she credits her great baking talent to her mother, trial and error and her love of good cookbooks. Her favorite? Mildred Knopf's The Perfect Hostess Cook Book. I'd never even heard of it but am going to the library ASAP to see if I can get it. Maida actually has a degree in fashion illustration and was simultaneously designing and making jewelry as a hobby- which soon turned into a business. She married pilot Ralph Daniels in the late 40’s and in the 60’s when her father became ill, she and her husband came up with the idea of opening a coffee shop in a chic Miami Beach neighborhood.

The coffee shop was named Inside and Maida made all the pastries served there. It was quickly a hit and soon grew into a full scale restaurant. I didn’t move to Florida until 1970, but my parents lived here from 1958 on and my mother had heard about Maida Heatter through word of mouth- the best way to get inside info- and had been to her coffee shop. She became an instant convert. Maida was also teaching baking classes and at one point in the early 60’s, she taught at Burdines, a local department store. I am still amazed Mother did not drive to Miami Beach (which would have been about an hour away) just for Maida's classes because Mother was a superb baker- as was her mother before her (and, in fact, owned a bakery in Detroit in the 20's). As it was, Mother took every baking and cooking class available in the Ft. Lauderdale area.

Anyway, one day Craig Claiborne (who was then food editor of the New York Times) tasted Maida’s desserts and talked her into writing a cookbook. Her first was titled Maida Heatter’s Great Desserts and was published in 1974- the same year she and her husband sold the restaurant. She has since been the recipient of two James Beard awards and has written several more cookbooks, of which I have every single one. Now in her 80’s, she is still baking away in her Miami Beach kitchen, as energetic as ever.

Maida Heatter’s recipes are precisely written and a snap to follow. And I'm not kidding. There is usually a story behind each recipe-such fun to read- plus tips and options; her descriptions have you drooling and dying to try anything-no matter how involved the recipe. Complicated recipes that you might have found daunting are made simple with her detailed directions. It’s impossible to screw up the recipe as long as you do as she says. Exactly.

Do I have a favorite? Couldn’t possibly choose just one. I can narrow it down a little: I do love her sweet breads. And something else: she is a chocoholic (she has one book with nothing but chocolate recipes) so if you are a chocolate lover be prepared- you will go nuts.

A few weeks ago I made her Date Espresso Loaf for my daughter and then sat back and watched her face. It had two of her favorite things in it: chocolate and espresso. She did a double take as all the different flavors registered and then begged a second loaf to take back to New York. And this from someone who really is not a sweet bread aficionado. So you gotta know how good this is. Every single time I have served this particular loaf, people are intrigued and it’s always the first empty plate on my buffet. I have written out the recipe so much I know it by heart. While it’s not MY favorite of Maida's sweet breads, it appears to be everyone else’s.
I often serve it with cream cheese- which seems to top off the flavors nicely and a little tip when you do make it: it needs to be sliced when very cold. The good news? It freezes perfectly. Don’t you love it when you can freeze things? I usually make this in two small loaf pans, use one and freeze the other. In fact, my freezer has several of her sweet breads in it all the time. I'd give anything to know what's in Maida’s freezer!

Date Espresso Loaf
Ingredients:
10 ounces pitted whole dates
3 tablespoons instant espresso granules
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 large eggs
1 cup boiling water
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 cups sifted unbleached flour
1 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
2 1/2 ounces raisins
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
6 ounces walnuts, broken in large pieces

Method:
Preheat oven to 350°. Adjust rack 1/3 up from the bottom.
I make this in two small loaf pans but Maida suggests a 10 1/4 by 3 3/4 by 3 1/2 inch pan. Butter the pan/pans and dust with bread crumbs.
With scissors, cut the dates crosswise into 1/3 to 1/2 inch pieces; make certain no pits escape. Put the dates into a bowl and in another bowl stir the baking soda into the boiling water. Add to the dates along with the espresso granules. Mix and let cool to lukewarm. Sift together the flour, salt, baking powder, cocoa and set aside.
In a large bowl of a mixer, beat the eggs only to mix. Add the oil, sugar and vanilla and beat only to mix. Add the date mixture and beat only to mix. On low speed, add the dry ingredients and beat only until incorporated. Remove the bowl from the mixer and stir in the raisins and nuts. Turn into the prepared loaf pan/pans and bake for 1 hour and 10 minutes. (If you use the two smaller pans, this time will be shorter.) Once during baking reverse the pan. Watch the color of the cake during baking; if the top shows signs of darkening too much, cover the pan loosely with foil. Bake until a cake tester, inserted in the middle all the way down, comes out clean. Let the cake cool in the pan for about 15 minutes. Then invert the pan on a rack, remove the pan and let the cake cool upside down on the rack.

3.21.2009

There's Always Room For Jello Gelée


Because I just can’t resist stuff like this, here’s some Jell-O trivia:
  • In Cecil B. DeMille's 1923 silent film "The Ten Commandments," Jell-O was used to create the effect of keeping the Red Sea parted as the Israelites fled Egypt.
  • In "The Wizard of Oz," the horse that changed colors was actually six horses sponged down with Jell-O.
  • The sound of E.T. walking was made by someone squishing her hands in Jello.
  • Five jello flavours that flopped: celery, coffee, cola, apple and chocolate
  • The most popular jello flavor is strawberry
  • Cranberry Jello is only sold in November and December and is the only jello flavor that comes from real fruit, not artificial flavoring
  • There is actually a jello museum: http://www.jellomuseum.com
( A Jell-O museum???)

Still, 72% of us use it regularly in our homes. I know I do. I always have several boxes of sugar free orange in my pantry.

And let's not forget molded Jell-O salads. Come on, fess up- you know you’ve made at least one. My Dad loved a bing cherry
Jell-O salad and I was obligated to make it several times a year for him. Then I found some other really old recipes: for a strawberry molded salad; a lime/lemon pineapple salad; a cucumber molded salad- well I’m not going to admit how many I found. We used everything imaginable (and even some things that were downright frightful) in those molded Jell-O salads. They were king in the 50’s. My sister used to make a dessert with a graham cracker crust using 3 Jell-O flavors, cubed, and combined in a sauce made with lemon Jell-O, pineapple juice and whipped cream. Kids loved it. Kids always love Jell-O. They still do. Some things never change.
I don't think many of us make Jell-O molded salads anymore– thankfully. And I haven't seen one on a buffet table for years. I guess we’ve become way too sophisticated. And aside from the sugar free I eat when I am in starvation mode, I don’t stock Jell-O in my pantry. Gelatin, yes. Regular Jell-O, no.

A few nights ago I was wading through the recipe folder labeled “to try” and guess what I found? A contemporary version of Jell-O: Gelée. The recipes and photos were in a June 2001 issue of Gourmet magazine. One was a Grape and Elderflower Gelée and the other was a Rosé-Peach Gelée (which sounded heavenly).
The photographs were supposedly of a summer tea party- the table looked luscious. 




And finally, one more gelée recipe, this one for a Passion Fruit Gelée with a basil-infused cream top. How divine. This one in Gourmet, June 2006. The powers that be at Gourmet must really be taken with gelées-all sorts. Or maybe it's just because they photograph beautifully.
In this case Gourmet referred to the recipe as an “old potluck-supper standby, gelatin goes haute”. Not having any elegant tea parties in the offing but admitting I do adore passion fruit-which is quite tart- I decided to give this a try. Unlike the large molded gelées in the previous photo, this recipe would be simple to cut in half without ruining the presentation, just in case I hated it and had to dump the lot. Of course, I didn’t have those magnificent tall glasses to work with but dug out some smaller juice glasses I thought might work. Gourmet suggested tilting the glasses in an egg carton in the refrigerator. (After all, we mustn't have this look like actual Jell-O.) I couldn’t quite get that to work with my footed glasses, so I just put some dishtowels down in the refrigerator, put the glasses on it and then tilted them against the side of the refrigerator. It worked just fine. So forget the egg carton, it's just an accident waiting to happen unless you have a set of perfectly shaped glasses.

The combination of flavors was really delicious; tart passion fruit in the same mouthful with an herbal, slightly sweet, jelled cream. Of course, not only did Gourmet suggest you tilt the glasses for visual impact, but the flavors do need to be tasted together. I was lucky to find passion fruit nectar in the Looza brand as suggested by the magazine- because much of what my market carried either was a mixture of passion fruit and other juices or not really a nectar, therefore much too sweet- which defeats the flavor absolutely. So I really have to advise you not to make this without finding the Looza brand. This company makes several other flavors which you could substitute, but you won't find them quite as tart. Passion Fruit Gelée makes such a pretty presentation and all ages will appreciate the delicate meld of flavors. I bet you have some prettier glasses to use too.

Passion Fruit Gelée with Basil Cream




Ingredients:
2 teaspoons unflavored gelatin
1/4 cup water
2 cups passion fruit nectar (Looza brand is best)
1/2 cup loosely packed fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups well chilled heavy cream
1 teaspoon unflavored gelatin
2 tablespoons water

Method:
Make the gelée: Sprinkle 2 teaspoons gelatin over cool water in a small saucepan for 1 minute. Melt over low heat, stirring until gelatin dissolves. Remove from heat and add passion fruit nectar 1 tablespoon at a time until gelatin mixture is cool. Then whisk in remaining nectar.
Chill, stirring off and on, over ice cubes until it reaches the consistancy of egg whites. Take a dishcloth and put it in the refrigerator. Partially fill some glasses and then place them on the towel, tilting them against the refrigerator side. Let set until firm.
Make the basil cream: Pulse basil, sugar and a pinch of salt in a food processor. Tranfer to a bowl and add cream. Sprinkle gelatin over the cool water for 1 minute until softened. Heat to melt. Whisk in 1 tablespoon of the basil mixture at a time until the gelatin is cool. Then whisk in remaining basil mixture. Pour through a fine sieve. Chill over ice cubes.
This is an important step: hold glasses at an angle while filling with the basil mixture, slowly righting the glass. Chill until set.

3.15.2009

Mustard Ring

Well, it’s spring break month in South Florida. We are under siege- which is sweet for Florida’s economy but the driving is hell. A1A is barely a road this time of year- it’s solid people- on bikes, walking, running, going to the beach; you can’t make a turn at an intersection without practically getting out of your car to look both ways- bikes come out of nowhere, runners with headphones don’t even glance around- some even pushing babies along in strollers. Doesn’t matter if you have a green light. It’s all about defensive driving. OK. No more complaining; after all, this might just keep South Florida’s head above water until the long, hot summer. Then all bets are off.
Another sure sign Easter is nearly here: my darling granddaughter is coming down on HER break. She returns home on Easter Sunday so rather than making Easter dinner, we will be at the Ft. Lauderdale airport where we will practice patience.
As far back as I can remember my standard Easter dinner meant a Honey Baked ham. Trite, I know. But there are times when you’ve got to take the easy way out. Ham just plain goes with Easter, doesn't it? I even serve it on Christmas day because I want to spend time with my family rather than in the kitchen. Besides, Honey Baked hams are really good.
Christmas Eve with my parents used to be oyster stew and a filet of beef; then when my brother took over, it was turkey. So it was only natural I started serving ham on Christmas day- which everyone still requests with the lone exception of my daughter- who merely tolerates it. But whether Christmas or Easter, I do have an unusual side dish I serve that's a killer recipe- Grace’s Mustard Ring. Sounds really odd, doesn’t it? I thought so too… until the first time I tried it.
Years ago in Michigan I entered three recipes in a local cooking contest. I am embarrassed to confess my efforts did not even warrant an honorable mention. Oh well- life's little disappointments. Anyway…the grand prize winner of that particular contest was my friend Grace. Her winning entry was such a change of pace I couldn’t wait to try it. It was to be served with ham so I made it the following Christmas. Delicious! A pale yellow concoction that is so luscious in appearance nobody has a clue what they’re looking at. At first glance you’d guess it was dessert- a lemon chiffon something or other and then- surprise! It’s plated next to the ham on the dining room table. Describing it just meets with skepticism; you really need to taste it. It’s a sweet/sour mustard chiffon delight. I take it frequently to gatherings when I know ham is being served, but it needs a placard: “This is a mustard ring for the ham”. I’ve found it looks more like a savory if you garnish it with olives or parsley but at Christmas I can’t resist- I garnish it with holly.
So if you’re having ham this Easter, take leap of faith and give this a try- it’s such fun to watch everyone’s face as they taste this; I promise ham will never be the same without it. You can make it days ahead too. And if you detest ring molds, use any shape you wish.
Mustard Ring

Ingredients:
4 eggs (room temperature)
3/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons dry mustard (like Coleman's)
1 envelope gelatin
1 cup weak vinegar (2/3 cup vinegar, 1/3 cup water)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup whipping cream
Method:
Mix the sugar, salt and dry mustard in the top of a double boiler. Make certain there are no large pieces of dry mustard left. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs and add the vinegar. Whisk this mixture into the dry ingredients in the top of the double boiler. Soak the gelatin in 1 tablespoon of cold water then melt it over hot water. Cook egg mixture slowly in double boiler, adding the gelatin when it becomes hot. Cook until creamy and thickened. Remove from heat, cool over ice cubes.



Beat the whipping cream and add to the cooled mustard mixture. Pour into mold of your choice and chill. When ready to serve, unmold on a platter and fill the center with black olives, parsley or small crab apples.

3.09.2009

Aunt Hat's Brownies

Sometimes you get lucky. Sometimes you're immediately accepted and welcomed into the magic family circle when you marry. I was one of the lucky ones. I adored my mother and father in-law and better yet, there were four siblings- 2 sons and 2 daughters and I loved them all. Three of them are no longer with us which makes me infinitely sad. There was so much laughter in that family. Not that we didn’t have our share of really noisy arguments, but nobody took them seriously.

Aunt Hat was one of my sisters-in-law. When I first met her, she and her family lived on Pine Lake in Michigan- in one of those wonderful old winterized lake homes that abound in that area. She loved nothing better than to have a houseful of people around in the summer. Along with her husband and sons she welcomed all her extended family (and there were a lot of us) to visit anytime we wanted. We spent many summer weekends gossiping, griping, eating, joking, lazing, swimming, water skiing, sailing- you name it- on the lake. I gotta tell you: this family was the craziest bunch of sun-worshipers I ever saw. No matter the season, they drank up every bit of sun available. They even used the old tin foil reflection trick in the dead of winter. In the snow. No kidding.

Being the youngest of the wives (also the most naive) I would listen with interest, shock, embarrassment, or amazement at their observations on life, family and friends. This was not exactly a fainthearted group so I had to learn fast how to hold my own. Hat’s house became both a refuge and an escape for all of us.

Odd the things I remember about that house; I always want to call it a cottage, because it was on a lake. But it wasn’t, it was a home. A big, old comfortable home. And what do I remember best? The dining room table. Seriously. It was an antique pine lazy susan table. I was mad for it. In fact, I searched all the local antique shops for years, never to find another like it. It sat 10 people at least. That twirling lazy susan center would whip around so fast it made your head spin. You really had to be on your toes.

The Pine Lake house was filled with fun AND the most gorgeous antique pine furniture I had ever laid eyes on- all done with Hat’s fabulous taste. But casual- not stuffy. I wonder now if she ever longed for peace and quiet on those summer weekends; although I sure hope I never went without an invitation.


Aunt Hat, circa 1955

Hat had help around the house- a long suffering maid named Abel (pronounced long A-bell) who pretty much ran everybody’s life. She often walked around with a cigarette dangling from her bottom lip. I remember being at a cocktail party once and we watched (making bets all the while) as the cigarette ash grew longer and longer to eventually drop in the middle of a plate of hor 'd oeuvres she was passing. She was a piece of work, everybody’s best friend, a Godsend, a hard worker, a love, famous for her fried chicken and a character to be dealt with- who gave as good as she got. She had to- we were a boisterous group, underfoot all the time- all ages from babies on up.
Aunt Hat never had (and I don’t think ever wanted) a reputation as a fabulous chef - nonetheless meals at her house were always a treat- often as simple as salad, steak and potatoes- standard fare for the 60’s- and lots of barbecues.

But in the end- everyone loved her brownies. In all these years, this is the one recipe of hers I still use. And a simpler recipe you couldn’t find. For some reason, none of us really liked nuts in our brownies so these are rich, dark, moist on the inside, crunchy on the outside type brownies. Not a fancy gourmet brownie, just a simple treat everyone loved. If I am asked to make brownies for my family, I make these. I have tons of other recipes- Maida Heatter’s Palm Beach Brownies come to mind- which I would make if I wanted to really impress a group. But if it’s just a basic brownie- this is it. You can make them with a hand tied behind your back- which is pretty much the way Aunt Hat made them- probably holding the phone with the other hand and holding off the dog with one foot. Better yet, you can make them by hand in one bowl. Leave the mixer in the cupboard.



Aunt Hat's Brownies

Ingredients:
1/4 cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
2 eggs, room temperature
1/2 cup flour
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, melted
1/2 teaspoon vanilla


Method:Preheat oven to 350°. Butter and then flour a square 8 by 8 by 1 1/2 inch baking dish.Cream the butter and sugar and add the eggs one at a time. Add the flour, vanilla and then the chocolate.Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and bake for 25 minutes. Cool before cutting.Makes about 9 brownies, depending on how you cut them.

3.04.2009

A Warm Duck Salad

My daughter flew down for a long weekend and we wandered out to the mall for the first time since November. Amazing, but I can’t say we were all that surprised to find few customers and even fewer with shopping bags. Of course, it’s nearly spring so the department stores have their summer wear on display. Which means no sale racks. Or at least no sale racks until they grasp there will be NO SALES at all if they don’t reduce prices. I really feel for them, but feel for the rest of us more.

The one area we did splurge on this weekend was food. Are you finding that too? We went to a couple of our favorite restaurants; one was crowded (Saturday night), one was not (Sunday night). I don’t think it has occurred to them yet to consider cutting prices a bit. My daughter tells me some New York restaurants are doing just that- even the higher end restaurants. Smart of them. Florida is still hosting spring breakers until Easter, so it probably doesn't count. The dining-out shock may not hit us until after Easter. Hard to gauge anything in vacation land. Wait until the long, hot summer is upon us. That’s when I will start to worry about some of my favorite restaurants.

All this boring penny pinching means we aren't eating out as much and doing more home cooking; so I say this is a great chance to sample a few new recipes, which is even more fun when family is here to share. I have been dying to try a duck salad which I printed out ages ago and while my daughter is visiting, it's the perfect time to sample it. Because she is a foodie she loves trying something new and I get immediate feedback which is great. I love new salad recipes.

It's a simple enough recipe and everything went smoothly until the first bite. Oh oh. It looked beautiful. The duck was absolutely delicious. But we both agreed the dressing was a disaster- tasteless, bland and it didn’t compliment the dish at all. This salad has oranges and raspberries along with the duck and it badly needs some oomph in the dressing. I recalled a lovely salad I used to make with watercress and oranges. It had a perfect dressing, so I dug it out, compared the two and found the only difference was my old recipe added a little honey and Dijon mustard. Well it made all the difference. So I have rather re-invented the recipe to share with you. It makes a wonderful luncheon salad-pretty and unusual- and now that I have perked up the dressing, very flavorful.

Warm Duck Salad

Ingredients:
2 boneless duck breasts, skin on (about 12 to 14 ounces each)
Kosher salt
2 tablespoons minced shallots
2 1/2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1 teaspoon grated orange zest
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
3 heads Belgian endive
3 ounces mache or other delicate baby lettuce
6 oranges, peeled and cut in sections
1/2 pint fresh raspberries
1 cup toasted whole pecan halves

Method:
Place the duck breasts on a foil-lined sheet pan, skin side up. Sprinkle with salt and roast ina 400° oven for about 20 minutes. Remove from the oven, cover tightly with aluminum foil, and allow to sit for 10 to 15 minutes. Remove and discard the fat and skin on top and slice the duck. Mix together the salt, shallots, sherry vinegar, zest, olive and vegetable oils, honey and mustard. Tear the lettuces and slice the Belgian endive diagonally in 1/2 inch slices. Place in a salad bowl, top with the orange sections, raspberries and toasted pecan halves. Add the sliced duck. Gently toss with the dressing.
Serves 4.

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