It's a Good Thing......

Michigan Memorial Day memories: it was the first day we were allowed to go swimming; the first day we could wear white shoes; the first day of summer….. well, we thought it was. We scrubbed down our porches and painted and put out the summer furniture. And I vividly remember something else for the gardeners among you: our porch was surrounded by bushes called viburnum carlesii. The wonderfully scented May blooms of this bush could be detected over 30 feet away- and it wafted through our home, perfuming the air. Sheer heaven and a welcome sign of summer after the long winter. Alas, it does not grow in Florida.

Then there were the picnics, parades and memorial services at the city cemetery, And the first swim of the season? Brrrrrr. The water in the lakes of Michigan is icy cold in May. OMG. But we were determined to take a dip- usually not much more than that though.

Florida's not all that different: we still celebrate with picnics, parades and memorial services. ( But, and I don’t mean to rub it in or anything, when we take a dip- it’s warm.) Anyway…this year I got an invitation to a barbecue and was asked to bring some cupcakes. I have to admit I don’t make a lot of cupcakes and maybe they don’t travel as well as cookies, but everyone loves a cupcake. So festive somehow.

Because it’s been raining like crazy down here all week I have been reading and watching a little more of the Food Network than usual which has resulted in my coming up with some novel ideas for my cupcakes. First of all: I actually do read Martha Stewart’s Living magazine. I’m fessing up because I’m going to tell you about one of her “good things”: parchment paper cupcake liners. But there’s a little more to this story. I also happened to catch Nigella Bites -a show I rarely watch. ( I had forgotten how funny Nigella is- cooking while giving slinky looks to the camera.) She made some cupcakes entirely in her food processor, baked them and then topped them with some royal icing and sugar flowers. They were smashing. I went right to the computer and printed out her recipe; really not like me because as I said, I don’t often even make cupcakes.

So now three coincidences came together: a novel idea for cupcake liners, a new cupcake recipe and an invitation to a barbecue with a request to bring cupcakes. And would you believe: I even had some red sugar roses in my pantry. Would rather have found some American flags or something, but let’s not get carried away. You’re going to love this idea, whether you use it for muffins or cupcakes. Take a look:

Let’s start with the cupcake liner idea. Instead of the boring old paper liners, Martha’s Living magazine suggested cutting white parchment paper into 5 inch squares. Then spray your cupcake tins with Pam and press the parchment squares into the muffin cup- folding in the sides neatly. It kind of ends up looking like a handkerchief.

Repeat for 12 muffins. You notice I say muffins because that is what was used in the article, ( see photo below, taken from the magazine) but I decided to make cupcakes, with frosting.

And now for the cupcake recipe; Nigella was telling the truth- it really was easily made in my processor.

Nigella's Cupcakes
(Adapted from Nigella Bites)

1 stick plus 1 tablespoon butter, room temperature
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
2 eggs, room temperature
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 to 3 tablespoons milk

Line your 12 muffin tin with parchment paper as described above. Preheat oven to 400°.
Put all your ingredients except the milk into your food processor. Pulse until smooth. Pulse while slowing adding the milk down the funnel to make a smooth dropping consistency. (I used the entire 3 tablespoons)
Using an ice cream scoop or large spoon, divide the mixture into the 12 muffin tins- about 1/3 to 1/2 full. It takes less than you would think- I used 1/2 an ice cream scoop- which seemed to be the easiest thing to use when dealing with the parchment paper liners.
Bake for 15 to 20 minutes. They should have risen and be golden on top. Let them cool in their tins before frosting.

Royal Icing

2 large egg whites
3 cups confectioners sugar
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

Combine the egg whites and the confectioners sugar in your electric mixer bowl. Beat on medium speed until opaque and shiny, about 5 minutes. Pour in the lemon juice and beat another couple minutes until spreading consistancy.


Savory Palmiers

Amazingly, May is upon us and my garden club is about to have their end-of-year luncheon, which always means pot luck. And believe me when I say pot luck I don’t mean you get to bring any old thing you want. The food committee is a group of lets-get-it-done organized women, which, oddly enough, is not something I can say about us the rest of the time. A very laid back group to say the least. Anyway...you don’t just sign up for say…a salad… but you have to describe exactly what kind of salad so there are no duplications. I signed up originally to bring a pound cake- always the easiest and serves lots of people- but I didn’t get away with it as everyone else had the same idea. So a phone call from the committee put an end to that; they requested I change my dish from dessert to appetizer. Guess salads were plentiful too as that was definitely NOT an option.

Now I had to mull over this appetizer situation for a while- it’s a luncheon and I was told someone else is bringing shrimp. My hors d’oeuvre repertoire is really geared for cocktail and dinner parties which are a whole different ball game. I thought of a dip- but no- too much like a cocktail party. Thought about my red pepper cheesecake and then remembered we need finger food to start with- that certainly isn’t. And then I didn’t want anything too heavy but I did want something yummy and not run of the mill. Maybe you thought of something right away, but I was stumped.

Ina Garten came to mind the next morning. She has a mouth-watering savory cookie recipe made with fresh thyme and Parmesan cheese, but I think fruit should be served with it and that is way too involved with serving pieces and extra bowls. Things will be bad enough without me adding to the mess. So I flipped a few more pages in her cookbook, and there it was: Savory Palmiers. I’d already made them a couple times so knew I could put them together the day before, stick them in the refrigerator overnight and bake them just before I go over the next day. With our humidity I have found these palmiers lose their crispness really fast so you need to serve them fairly quickly after baking. But as long as I could put them together the day before they would be fine.

Have you had a chance to make them yet? I’ve always been a sucker for sweet palmiers but the savory ones are way better. And best of all: a snap to put together. Is there anything easier than puff pastry? I think Ina has several recipes in this book using puff pastry- it must be this year’s special ingredient for her. Fattening, of course, as a lot of her recipes are but it sure makes life easier. With all the food be available at this pot luck luncheon I don’t think anyone is going to worry about calories of one appetizer- and most people will only eat one anyway. No problem using store bought pesto either, it works just fine. I love that these palmiers can be made ahead and you will love how they taste.

Update: They were a hit! Then right on the heels of that comment came another: “These must have been hard to make.” They couldn’t be more wrong.

Savory Palmiers(Adapted from Back to Basics, The Barefoot Contessa)

Ingredients:1 package frozen Pepperidge Farm puff pastry, defrosted
1/4 cup prepared pesto, store-bought or homemade
1/2 cup crumbled goat cheese, such as Montrachet
1/4 cup finely chopped sun-dried tomatoes in oil, drained
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts

Lightly flour a board and carefully unfold one sheet of puff pastry. Roll the pastry lightly with a rolling pin until it’s 9 1/2 x 11 1/2 inches. Spread the sheet of puff pastry with half the pesto. Then sprinkle with half the goat cheese, half the sun-dried tomatoes, and half the pine nuts.

Working from the short ends, fold each end halfway to the center. Then fold each side again toward the center until the folded edges almost touch. Fold one side over the other and press lightly. 

Place on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper. Repeat for the second sheet of puff pastry using the remaining ingredients. Cover both rolls with plastic wrap and chill for at least 45 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Cut the prepared rolls of puff pastry into 1/4-inch-thick slices and place them face up 2 inches apart on sheet pans lined with parchment paper.
Bake for 14 minutes, until golden brown.


Farro, Two Ways

Once upon a time there was a grain called emmer wheat. It was the original grain from which all other grains derive. It was the primary wheat grown in Asia, Africa and Europe through the first 5000 years of recorded agriculture, feeding the Mediterranean and Near Eastern populations for thousands of years. It was the standard ration of the Roman Legions and, ground up, it was also the primary ingredient in polenta which was eaten for centuries by the Roman poor.

However, farro (the Italian name for emmer wheat) was a low-yield crop and by the beginning of the 20th century, higher-yielding wheat strains had replaced farro almost everywhere, except in parts of Europe and Ethiopia. My tale might have ended here except- isn’t this a familiar refrain?- some savvy French farmers began to supply it to elegant restaurants and those chefs began to use the grain in soups and other hearty dishes. Their success sparked renewed interest in farro and now the grain is enjoying a resurgence in popularity especially among trendy health-conscious cooks.

Farro is a barley shaped grain and has a chewy texture and nutty flavor. You can usually find it at Whole Foods or other health food suppliers and, surprisingly, at Amazon. I buy mine at Blue Bird Grain Farms.

If you've never tried farro before (or haven't even heard of it), this familiar salad is an excellent way to be introduced. Understandably, farro is very popular in Italy which certainly explains the origins of this particular recipe. You might be thinking: boiled grains? But the olive oil and creamy mozzarella make it rich and the tomatoes provide a fresh and juicy contrast. Besides, the very texture of farro lends itself well to salads; it travels well to picnics and it can be mixed with many ingredients to create a lot of flavor options. In this recipe, I simply combined cooked (and slightly warm so the mozzarella softened) farro with sweet cherry tomatoes, chunks of fresh mozzarella, chopped fresh basil and dressed it lightly with balsamic vinegar and olive oil. It is a perfect lunch: delicious, hearty and healthy.
Caprese Farro Salad(Adapted from Blue Bird Grain Farm's recipe)
Ingredients:1 cup farro
3 cups water
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup chopped shallot
2 medium tomatoes (or halve several cherry type tomatoes)
2 tablespoons slivered fresh basil
4 ounces fresh mozzarella
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Method:Place the farro, water and salt in a medium saucepan over high heat. Bring to a boil, then turn heat to low, cover, and simmer for 35 to 45 minutes. (Do not overcook, you want the farro to be tender, but chewy.) Drain excess water. This should make 2 cups cooked farro.
Place the warm cooked farro in a large mixing bowl and add the olive oil and balsamic, stir to mix well. Add chopped shallot, basil, salt and pepper and stir to combine all ingredients. Top with tomatoes and fresh mozzarella. Flavors are best when served warm or at room temperature

Simply because I became intrigued with farro and continued to search, I found this next scrumptious recipe in a cookbook called Whole Grains Every Day, Every Way by Lorna Sass. Served with a piece of grilled salmon it was a fabulous dinner. Fish seems to go beautifully with this hearty farro/mushroom dish, but I can see steak here as well.

Surprise your friends and family; they will be really impressed at this creative alternative for rice or potatoes- I can't begin to tell you how delicious it is- good for you too.
Farro with Mushrooms(Adapted from Whole Grains Every Day, Every Way by Lorna Sass)
Ingredients:3 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, cut in half lengthwise
1/2 cup diced shallots
24 ounces Crimini mushrooms (Baby Bella), stems cut in half lengthwise and caps sliced in 1/2 inch slices
pinch kosher salt
1/2 cup basalmic vinegar mixed with 1 tablespoon Marsala wine
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
3 cups cooked farro (see above salad recipe for directions)

Method:In a large skillet, heat the oil and add the onion and garlic. Saute until they begin to soften, remove the garlic and then add the mushrooms. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and saute until mushrooms have released their liquid and are well browned.

Stir in the balsamic vinegar mixture and cook until liquid is mostly evaporated. Add cooked farro and heat for about 2-3 minutes, stirring gently. Add the fresh thyme, correct the seasoning and serve warm.
Serves 4-6.


The Key Lime Pie Debate

Back in the 50's there was a restaurant in Ft. Lauderdale called Tuna Gardens. Odd name I know, but they made a Key lime pie to kill for. It was my first introduction to a “real” Key lime pie. Every Sunday we would have a baked, stuffed chicken from Keese’s and Key lime pie from Tuna Gardens. Those pies were made the way Key lime pies were supposed to be made: graham cracker crust, a yellow filling made with condensed milk, eggs, limes and topped with a meringue. One would think: end of story. Not really.

The Key lime pie became Florida’s official state pie in 2006 but very few people really know how to make one. Think about it: how often have you had a Key lime pie with a meringue topping? Bakers say a meringue pie takes too much time to make, is hard to make, takes up too much refrigerator shelf space and has too much waste potential etc. etc. Excuses, excuses.

So here's a bit of pie history: the first key lime pies were made over 100 years ago in Key West with whole pelican eggs- without a meringue top. Later, Key West homemakers switched to chicken eggs and discovered that the whites ruined their pies. Since nothing was wasted, the homemakers added meringues to the pies to make use of the egg whites. Condensed milk (invented in 1856) was used because of the lack of fresh milk and refrigeration until the arrival of tank trucks with the opening of the Overseas Highway in 1930. But condensed milk turned out to be a successful necessity: it makes the pies really smooth.

Things suddenly changed. A hurricane in 1926 wiped out the Key lime plantations in South Florida; growers replanted with Persian limes which don’t have the thorns of the Key limes and are easier to ship with their thicker skins. The Key lime became scarce. The name survived on menus, but most of the pies were made from Persian lime juice, which lacks the acidic ying needed to balance the sugary yang of the condensed milk. In these photos, the Persian limes are obviously the larger ones.

We were in danger of losing the “real” Key lime pie. Enter the boom in New American cooking and once again, everything changed. As is always the case, the scarcity of Key limes led to a demand for them. Top chefs demanded fresh fruit, no matter what the price. And those little Key limes became important again, even if they were a pain to juice. Very few Key lime trees are grown in the actual Keys, and those that are, almost entirely in backyards, never leave the islands. Some 10% of Key limes sold in the U.S. are now grown in southwest Miami. And the other 90%? They are imported mainly from Mexico or Guatemala. Why? Money, basically. We couldn't compete with the Central Americans, who have cheaper land and cheaper labor.

So now that Key limes are available, what’s up with the debate? Well.....Key lime pie aficionados argue on and on about the proper way to make one. Graham-cracker or pastry crust? Meringue on top or whipped cream, or neither? Cooked or uncooked filling? These kind of debates are meant to be prolonged, not resolved, but among the Key West natives (also called Conchs), there is a basic agreement: a real Key lime pie never contains gelatin and never, ever contains green food coloring. There are only three essential ingredients for the filling: egg yolks, lime juice and condensed milk, beaten together. That’s it. Not quite as simple as boiling water, but close, which is part of the charm of the thing.

I had been making the real Key lime pie for years but much as I loved it, I always found the pie to be too densely sweet; the sweetness needed to be cut just a bit. One day I discovered another recipe in a fabulous old cookbook: A Jug of Wine by Morrison Wood. I baked it and was completely converted. My father, the purist, always sneered at my “new” pie because not only did it not have a meringue, it didn’t (scandalous!) have a graham cracker crust either. Mr Wood suggested beating the egg whites and folding them into the lime juice, yolk and condensed milk mixture making it more of a Key lime chiffon pie. Can't help it, I loved it. I guess that makes me a traitor.
Dad told me I should know better.
(Nonetheless, he ate my pies.)

Oh well, you can decide for yourself….. but Morrison Wood’s pie is better!

The Original Key Lime Pie

1 (14 oz) can sweetened condensed milk
4 egg yolks (reserve whites for meringue)
4 oz. Key lime juice
9" graham cracker pie crust

Meringue Topping:
4 egg whites
1 pinch cream of tartar
2 tablespoons sugar

Mix milk and egg yolks completely with paddle attachment. Slowly add Key lime juice and mix thoroughly. Pour into 9-inch prepared and baked graham cracker pie shell. Bake at 350° for 8 minutes. Place egg whites and cream of tartar in a mixer and beat egg whites until soft peaks form and then gradually add sugar and continue beating until stiff peaks form, Place meringue on the hot Key lime pie, sealing edges to the crust, then lightly brown in the oven.

Morrison Wood's Key Lime Pie

1 can (14 ounces) Eagle brand sweetened condensed milk
1/3 cup fresh Key lime juice
3 eggs, separated
1 prebaked pie shell
1 cup whipping cream
sugar to taste
1 tablespoon rum

Mix together the condensed milk, the lime juice and the beaten yolks of 3 eggs. Beat the whites until stiff and carefully fold in. Place the mixture in a good flaky prebaked pie shell and bake in a 250° oven for 10 minutes.
Cool and then place in the refrigerator. When ready to serve- whip the cream, add a little bit of sugar (not much), a sprinkle of cinnamon and the rum. Cover the pie with the whipped cream mixture. Should serve 6, but it is so delicious, 4 could finish it.


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