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I work at home which means I eat lunch at home almost every day. I very much like my quiet lunches on the days Ellis is in school. And recently, I’ve been incorporating tomatoes in all of them. This time of year is so wonderful because with a decently stocked pantry you can make so many wonderful things with tomatoes in a matter of minutes.  The above lunch was an impromptu fried egg, tomato, basil and soft cheese sandwich. The bread is toasted, the egg warm–which gives the basil even more fragrance–and the whole thing is gooey, messy and so satisfying.

I tend to have frozen chickpeas on hand. I cook them (and black beans, etc.) in big batches and then freeze them in a bit of cooking liquid in quart or pint  containers.  Every other week or so I put a container in the fridge to use as needed. The other day I mixed said chickpeas with diced tomato, arugula, feta, olive oil, a little red wine vinegar and salt and pepper. And I had myself a delicious and hearty salad.

And finally, I  made this tomato and goat  cheese tart from David Lebovitz’s wonderful collection of recipes for a recent brunch with friends. It was quick because I had pre-made tart dough in the fridge. The dough itself is quick and easy to make and this recipe doesn’t even mention letting it chill before using so if you’ve got company for lunch  or dinner or brunch, it’s a winner and far easier than it looks.

Finally, two photos just for fun. This is my yellow crookneck squash plant on overdrive even as most of its leaves have already succumbed to the powdery mildew of all summer squash plants at this time of year.

And my dear brother Ben who is getting married on Saturday! I can’t wait!

Last but not least, I am having a great time testing soups but a very difficult time narrowing down  which ones to choose for the upcoming Soup Class on Sunday, October 3rd. A few spots left in that one and the Savory Condiment one in which we’ll be making tomato and onion jam and preserving sweet red peppers. Let me know if you’re interested.

Happy cooking and eating!

Katherine

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Crepes

There's hope!

This photo has little to do with today’s post but I did want to share it to give hope to my fellow Portland-area gardeners. My tomatoes are really ripening and delicious!

So, I eat too quickly. I have ever since I can remember. I’m not sure whether it’s because I grew up in a large family and there was always a rush to get seconds before it was all gone or not. As you well know my mother is a good cook which meant we–us children, my father and whatever exchange student or visitor was at the table–always wanted more. I’d like to think I’ve slowed down a little bit over the years but it is something I really have to work on. I don’t like inhaling my dinner yet I often do, lately maybe even more now having a young child since meals aren’t quite as peaceful as they once were.

As involved as I am in Slow Food (even though we are NOT about cooking or eating slowly!) you’d think I’d ease up a bit and appreciate and savor meals more. The other problem with dinner is that by the time we sit down to eat, I’m already half full. I taste the food I make as I prepare it and I emphasize this almost more than anything else in the classes I teach. So with all that tasting and with my usually being really hungry by the time I’m putting dinner together, I taste a little more generously than I would need to.  Now it might follow that since I’m half-full already I would really not need to eat quickly when we actually sit down, but alas, this is not a rational issue. It’s funny how irrational I (we all?) can be about our food preferences, habits, quirks. . .. A topic maybe for another post.

Crepes sprinkled with cheese and a little cream about to go in the oven

In any case, a dinner I made last week inspired this confession. It was one of those truly last-minute what-do-I make-for-dinner? evenings. I looked around the fridge and the garden and came up with crepes filled with a mix of lots of onions, a few diced tomatoes and generous sprinkling of thyme that I stewed together for about 15 minutes. I didn’t taste the filling very often but the crepes were the problem. You know the first crepe always falls apart and another was just too thin to hold up, so hungry as I was at 6pm, I ate both of those mishaps flavored with the tomato bits clinging to the side of the stewed veggie pan.

I filled the rest of the crepes with the onions and tomatoes, sprinkled each with a bit of Asiago Stella (my regular aged, grating cheese I use instead of Parmesan–much cheaper and very tasty and similar enough to fool some folks–and available at Pastaworks and City Market). I packed them in a casserole dish, sprinkled the whole thing with more cheese and drizzled on about 3 tablespoons of heavy cream and baked the whole thing for about 20 minutes until heated through and the cheese was melted and bubbling. It was a really good dinner! Despite all my snacking I managed to enjoy it and the green salad we had on the side very  much and may even repeat it.

That’s the funny thing about this cook-with-what-you-have method. I find myself inventing things that sometimes turn out really well but then I rarely repeat them. The blog is a good tool for cataloging these though and in choosing to share it with you all I will also remind  myself to repeat and adapt this as the months go by. I’m thinking that they would be equally good with a mix of winter squash and leeks (one of my favorite fall/winter veggies combos); or caramelized onions and sausage; or sweet versions with stewed apples and/or plums with a bit of ginger and cinnamon. . . .you get the drift.  Oh and I did make enough crepe batter so that we had the leftover crepes for breakfast with greek yogurt and strawberry jam. So I got two meals in one this time.

I don’t think you need a recipe for the filling, just remember to taste for salt add more herbs or a little lemon juice or balsamic vinegar if it’s bland. But here’s my crepe recipe. This will make about 15-18, 8-9 inch crepes.

Crepes

4 eggs

3 cups whole milk (2% works in a pinch)

1 1/3 – 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

5 tablespoons melted butter

pinch of salt

Put all ingredients in a blender and blend for about 15 seconds, scrape down the sides of the blender and blend again briefly until smooth. Let sit on the counter for half an hour (or in the fridge for longer and up to a day or so) if you have the time, otherwise, start cooking. I use a non-stick crepe pan but a well seasoned cast iron pan works well and you get more of a fore-arm workout:) like my mother! For the first crepe I add a little bit of oil or butter but after that it never needs any (especially with the non-stick) since it has butter in the batter. Ladle in about 1/3 cup of batter and lift the pan off the heat and rotate and jiggle the pan until the batter more-or-less evenly coats the surface. Cook briefly on both sides until golden around the edge and in spots. Stack them on a plate (and don’t bother separating them with wax paper or some such if you’re not going to use them immediately). I’ve never had a problem getting them apart again.

Fill the crepes, sprinkle with cheese and drizzle with cream and bake at 400 degrees, if you’re in a hurry as I usually am, for about 20 minutes or until bubbly and heated through.

Happy cooking and (slow) eating!

P.S. I may not blog for the next 10 days or so but will resurface after my brother’s wedding. I did just buy 7-dozen eggs, that’s 84 eggs, which will be turned into deviled eggs next week. Photos will be taken and posted . . . .

Wedding Cake

Vanilla Velvet Cake with Strawberry Curd and Strawberry-Kirsch Buttercream

More than three months after the wedding for which I made the above cake, I am finally going to share some photos and stories. Now, as I gear up for my brother’s wedding it’s fun to reflect back on the last wedding in which I played a small culinary part.

I had never before made a wedding cake. And I didn’t hesitate for long when Margo asked if I would make hers. She’s a very good friend, the wedding was not going to be huge and I had plenty of time to test, learn, fail, test again. . . .The wedding, however, was going to be populated by foodie/wine types with sophisticated palates so the pressure was on. In hindsight, the pressure was all entirely and needlessly self-induced and Margo never contributed to it whatsoever. The guidance she gave me was that the cake be centered around strawberries since the wedding was going to be in late June in Oregon. Fair enough!

Margo, Me, the cake, and Ian

I’ve made strawberry rhubarb pie; roasted strawberry and balsamic tart; strawberry ice cream; strawberry shortcake; and strawberry jam, but I did not realize at the outset of this project how challenging it is to get a true, strong strawberry flavor into a layered cake. Luckily the Cake Bible came to my rescue on this matter. The best way to accomplish this strong, fresh strawberry flavor is to pick the best berries you can find–not an easy task during this cold, water-logged spring–freeze them whole, then thaw them (this helps break down the membrane), then strain them, then reduce that juice significantly and finally mix with the blended pulp, a little lemon juice and touch of sugar. And voila! you have a super concentrated puree. I substituted this puree for the lemon juice in a classic lemon curd recipe to make the cake filling. It was delicious! I had tried both stabilizing the plain puree with gelatin and mixing it with whipped cream but neither of those fillings held up well enough with the size and weight of the cake layers and would not have cut or transported well.

Thawing Strawberries

Strawberry Puree

My next challenge was cake flour. I tested cake after cake made with cake flour–the hyper-processed, bleached , soft white flour that gives typical wedding cakes and other special occasion cakes that signature fine crumb. However signature it is, it often reminds me of grocery store sheet cakes. My test cakes tasted sort-of fake and like the smell of the plastic trays they come on. Then came the color. I wanted a really pale, almost white cake to create a nice contrast to the strawberry curd filling and buttercream and, however, tasty some of the cakes I tested were, they were too yellow. After testing half-a-dozen base cakes, I landed back on the first one, Grand Central Bakery’s Vanilla Velvet Cake. It uses just egg whites and all-purpose flour and holds up very well, both in structure and flavor.

My dear pastry-chef-friend Ellen not only lent me her cake pans and ideas (the strawberry curd was her idea) but her sophisticated palate and showed up with her husband–an excellent eater and critic in his own right–on a regular basis for taste tests.

The buttercream was actually the least complicated part of the cake. The Cake Bible once again had the answer in Neoclassic Buttercream that I also flavored with the strawberry puree and just a touch of Kirsch. The puree lent the buttercream a wonderfully marbled, reddish-pink hue and the Kirsch cut the richness just a bit. I’d make another wedding cake just to have an excuse to test and eat that much buttercream.

Strawberry/Kirsch Buttercream

The trickiest part of the whole wedding cake project I think typically is baking perfectly flat cake layers. The instant give-away of the cake made by the novice is the sloping, slanted look noticeable even with the slightest asymmetry.  The Cake Bible has elaborate tables with equations for  avoiding such slanting affairs. It all has to do with the leavening and how to decrease it in proportion to the other ingredients as the cake layers get bigger. I was careful and followed her instructions–by far the most complicated math I’ve found myself doing in my adult life. I weighed the batter for each pan precisely and ended up with very even layers.

I also had done lots of research on the assembly and how best to support the layers: dowels, drinking straws, etc. I had purchased my cardboard cake circles at the Decorette Shop as well as an off-set spatula (the most important tool of all) where I had seen all sorts of crazy things I didn’t know existed including shelf-stable strawberry cake filling in a plastic bag. I did not ditch my strawberry curd plans for said, bright red filling. . . .And I happened to have a beautiful red glass cake plate from my grandmother that just fit the cake so I was able to avoid the foil-wrapped board.

I filled, frosted and assembled the cake the day before the wedding in a house all to myself. Ellis was at my mother’s and Brian was off watching a World Cup Soccer game and I cranked up the music (Bruce Springsteen I think) and went to work.

Assembly!

All the research and prep paid off. Everything worked and at the last-minute I remembered a trick I had seen on one of my favorite baking blogs to create a marbled effect with the buttercream. I left a bit of buttercream plain and gently mixed in some of the strawberry puree in the pastry bag and used that to pipe on my borders. Finally I decided against the flowers the wedding florist had set aside for the cake and went to my back yard and picked real strawberries with their stems and leaves and used those for the final touch.

Marbled Buttercream

Voila!

To make a now very long story a bit shorter, the trip to the location of the wedding (actually two trips since the restaurant sent us back home with the cake as they supposedly didn’t have anywhere to keep it for the few hours until the wedding!) was by far the most stressful part. But the buttercream held up despite the warm weather, the bride and groom loved it and we had plenty to go around.

And yes, I would make another wedding cake but again only for someone I know and love. I will not be going into the wedding cake business. The Cook With What You Have philosophy is a bit at odds with all those structural and visual needs of a wedding cake!