Monday, April 29, 2013

Cinco de Mayo treat: Mexican chocolate angel food cupcakes

If you've ever had a cup of Mexican hot chocolate, you know that chocolate, almonds and cinnamon are delicious together. This angel food cupcake borrows that flavor combination for a dessert that's just right for Cinco de Mayo. Sure, it's not authentic -- but neither are huge Cinco de Mayo celebrations, which are a tradition north, not south, of the U.S.-Mexico border.

You can enjoy these cupcakes plain or top them with buttercream, as in the photo above, or dip them in a chocolate or almond glaze.

Making angel food cake from scratch isn't hard, but the process is exacting. To achieve the maximum airiness, make sure you follow the recipe exactly. Here are some tips to help you suceed:

• Separate the eggs as soon as you remove them from the refrigerator.  The most foolproof way is to break each egg into a slotted spoon and let the white drip through. If you don't mind getting your hands dirty, you can use one hand to break an egg into your other hand; let the white drip through your fingers as you cradle the yolk. Always break one egg at a time into a small bowl, then transfer the white to a larger bowl. That way, if a bit of yolk gets into the white, you can discard just that egg (or save it for another use). If any yolk gets into the whites, they won't whip well.

• Let the egg whites come to room temperature while you assemble the rest of the ingredients. If they're still cold, you can put a few inches of hot water in a clean sink, then add the bowl of whites and let them warm up a bit.

• When a recipe calls for sifting dry ingredients, I usually give them a good whisking instead. Not angel food cake -- triple sifting is essential for success.

• Finally, when you fold the dry ingredients into the eggs, be as gentle as possible. A silicone spatula is the best tool; move it in figure eights to incorporate the ingredients completely. I like to use a clear glass bowl for this step so I can make sure that no floury streaks remain.

Yield: About 30 cupcakes

1 1/4 cups granulated sugar, divided
3/4 cup powdered sugar
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 cup plus 1/3 cup cake flour
1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
12 egg whites, at room temperature
1 1/2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1 1/4 teaspoons vanilla extract
3/4 teaspoon almond extract
Chocolate Almond Buttercream (see recipe) or frosting of choice, optional

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line 30 cupcake cups with paper liners.

Sift together 1/4 cup granulated sugar, powdered sugar, cocoa powder, cake flour, cornstarch, salt and cinnamon into a small bowl. Repeat twice, sifting the mixture a total of 3 times. Set aside.

Place egg whites in the large bowl of a stand mixer. Sprinkle evenly with cream of tartar. Add vanilla and almond extract. Beat with the whisk attachment on medium-high speed just until the whisk leaves tracks in the foam and the whites no longer slosh around in the bowl. Reduce the speed to medium. With the mixer running, slowly add the remaining 1 cup sugar. Beat until the whites are shiny and hold stiff peaks.

Using a silicone spatula, carefully transfer the beaten egg whites to a large mixing bowl (preferably glass). Sprinkle one-third of the dry ingredients over the whites. Moving the spatula in a figure-eight pattern, gently fold the dry ingredients into the whites. Repeat twice, mixing gently until well combined.

Gently fill each cupcake liner with 1/2 cup of batter. (An ice-cream scoop is the perfect tool for this task.) Bake until cupcakes have browned slightly and are spongy to the touch, about 20 minutes. Remove from the pan immediately and let cool completely on wire racks.

If desired, frost the cupcakes.

Note: To make a cake instead of cupcakes, bake the batter in an ungreased 10-inch angel food pan for about 35 to 40 minutes. (Don't use a nonstick pan, or the cake won't rise properly.) Cool the cake in the pan upside down on a rack. When the cake is cold, run a sharp knife around the edges of the pan and carefully remove the cake.

Adapted from a recipe provided by Chris Leuther of Party Pastry Shop in Ballwin, Mo., and published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Pastry chef instructor Barry Marcus adapted the original recipe for home kitchens. (Marcus is the source of the helpful advice to beat the eggs initially until they no longer slosh in the bowl and the whisk leaves a track in the foam).

Yield: About 5 cups, enough for 30 cupcakes

1 pound (4 cups) powdered sugar
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 cup milk or more as needed
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at cool room temperature

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together powdered sugar and cocoa powder. Drizzle with 1/4 cup milk and almond extract. Cut butter into 1-tablespoon chunks; add to the bowl.

Using the paddle attachment of a stand mixer, beat on low speed until combined. Gradually increase speed to high. Beat until fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes, stopping the mixer each minute to scrape the sides of the bowl with a spatula. If the frosting is too dry, beat in milk as needed, 1 tablespoon at a time.

Copyright 2013 by Judith Evans. All rights reserved.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Toss asparagus, shrimp on the grill

Asparagus tastes like spring to me. I know that it's become a year-round vegetable, but the local shoots now appearing in markets really do taste best. I like to roast it, broil it, stir-fry it, add it to soups, scramble it with eggs ... just call me an asparagus addict.

Shrimp is a natural partner for asparagus. The flavors complement each other, and the contrasting colors make for a beautiful dish. For this dish, I cooked them separately on the grill in a perforated grill-wok, but you could stir-fry them instead. To serve, toss with pasta or spoon over rice.

Yield: 3 servings

1 pound shelled shrimp, thawed if frozen and patted dry
Olive oil
2 cloves garlic, forced through a press or minced
Coarsely ground black pepper
1 bunch thick asparagus (about 12)
Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon chopped chives
Sea salt
Cooked angel hair pasta or thin spaghetti

Prepare a hot fire in a charcoal grill or preheat a gas grill. In a bowl, toss shrimp with 1/2 tablespoon oil, garlic and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Set aside to marinate.

Snap the tough ends off the asparagus, then cut the stalks into 1-inch pieces.

Oil a grill wok. Place on grill; add asparagus. Cook, stirring every few minutes, until asparagus is crisp-tender, about 7 minutes. Transfer to a bowl. Add shrimp to grill wok. Cook, stirring occasionally, until shrimp is cooked through. Transfer to the bowl of asparagus. Add 1 tablespoon oil, about 1/2 tablespoon lemon juice, lemon zest, chives and salt to taste. Toss to combine. Taste; add more oil, lemon juice or salt if desired.

To serve, toss with hot cooked pasta.

Note: To time your meal properly, start the pasta water just before marinating the shrimp. Add the pasta to the boiling water when the shrimp is done. If desired, for a more liquid sauce, reserve some of the pasta cooking water and add as needed.

Copyright 2013 by Judith Evans. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Moist, chewy, flourless cookies are all about the chocolate

Not only is chocolate the star of this recipe, it practically is the whole recipe -- and the better the chocolate you use, the better the cookies will taste.

I used dark Belgian chocolate. Nuts are the other major component in these cookies. I used some of my stash of Missouri pecans, which I froze soon after they were  harvested last fall.

If you don't have local nuts on hand -- or Belgian chocolate, for that matter -- use whatever tastes good to you. You can even make this recipe with milk chocolate instead of semisweet or dark.

What's missing from this recipe is almost as notable as what it contains. These cookies are made without flour (meaning they're gluten free), vanilla or other flavorings, and egg yolks.

These are basically meringue cookies. Over the years, I've made several other versions, all made with cocoa powder. Those were good, but these are even better.

Yield: About 30 cookies

3/4 cup pecan halves
6 ounces dark chocolate, coarsely chopped
3 egg whites, at room temperature (see note)
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup granulated or superfine sugar

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line two large cookie sheets with parchment paper.

Toast pecans in a large ungreased skillet just until they become fragrant and begin to brown, stirring frequently and watching closely. Transfer to a plate and let cool completely, then chop finely. Set aside.

Place chocolate in a medium glass bowl. Place over a saucepan of barely simmering water, making sure the water doesn't touch the bottom of the bowl. Cook, stirring frequently, until melted. Set aside to cool. (Alternately, melt chocolate in the microwave at 80 percent power, stirring every 30 seconds and watching carefully to prevent burning.)

Place egg whites and salt in a large mixing bowl. Beat on high speed until soft peaks form. With mixer running, slowly add sugar in a thin stream. Beat until sugar dissolves and stiff, glossy peaks form, about 3 to 4 minutes.

Scoop about 1 cup meringue into cooled chocolate. Stir gently with a whisk until well combined. With a flexible spatula, scrape chocolate mixture into the remaining meringue. With the whisk, fold gently until no streaks remain. Sprinkle nuts over meringue mixture; fold gently with the spatula.

Using two spoons, drop mounds of meringue on cookie sheets, leaving about 1 1/2 inches between cookies. Bake until cookies are set and no longer shiny, about 10 to 12 minutes. If baking two racks at once, switch them from the top to bottom shelf and rotate the sheets from front to back after 6 minutes.

Slide parchment onto wire racks; let cookies cool completely before removing from parchment. (Cookies will be fragile.) Store in a tightly sealed container.

Note: Eggs are easier to separate when they are cold. Let the whites warm to room temperature before you beat them.

Adapted from a recipe created by Dierbergs.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Pressure cooker makes quick work of mole chicken chili

I've used a pressure cooker for years with no problem. Sure, the rattling weight on top was noisy and a bit unnerving, but the quick cooking time and tender, flavorful results were worth the clatter.

When America's Test Kitchen turned its attention to pressure cookers, I couldn't wait to try a recipe from its new cookbook, Pressure Cooker Perfection: 100 Foolproof Recipes That Will Change the Way You Cook.

I followed the initial instructions, simmering and pureeing the sauce in the uncovered pot, then adding skinless, bone-in chicken thighs. I put in the rubber gasket and sealed the cooker the way I've done hundreds of times and set it over medium-high heat. But instead of hearing the familiar rattle as steam escaped, I heard the liquid boiling -- hard. That had never happened before. Then steam started to stream out the side, where the lid met the pot. I pulled it off the heat before it could flip its lid, literally.

Because I was afraid to use my pressure cooker, I transferred the ingredients to an ovenproof casserole and baked it at 350 degrees until the chicken was tender, about 40 minutes. It took longer than the pressure cooker, but the results were still delicious. The combination of sweet, savory and spicy flavors make this recipe a keeper. I served the thick chili over hot brown rice, not a traditional preparation but a delicious one. You also could put it into tortillas or ladle it into a bowl, as in the photo.

And while the chicken was cooking, I consulted the book again -- not for another recipe, but to study the chart rating many pressure cookers now on the market. (And by the way, the rattling weights on the top are no more. Current technology has incorporated the pressure regulator into the lid.) With those recommendations in mind, I got online and ordered a new pressure cooker. My new cooker just arrived, and I'll be dipping back into Pressure Cooker Perfection for many more recipes and ideas.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

3 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
2 tablespoons chili powder
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons minced canned chipotle chile in adobo sauce
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
2 ½ cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes
1 cup raisins
¼ cup peanut butter
4 pounds bone-in chicken thighs, skin removed, trimmed
Ground black pepper
1 onion, halved and sliced 1/2 inch thick
1 red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded, and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
¼ cup minced fresh cilantro

To build flavor, heat 2 tablespoons oil in ­pressure-­cooker pot over medium heat until shimmering. Add chili powder, cocoa, garlic, chipotle, cinnamon and cloves and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in broth, tomatoes, raisins and peanut butter, scraping up any browned bits. Bring to simmer and cook for 5 minutes. Working in batches, puree sauce in blender until smooth, about 30 seconds. (Hold a folded kitchen towel over the lid of the blender to prevent hot sauce from splattering.)

Season chicken with salt and pepper. Heat remaining 1 tablespoon oil in ­now-­empty pot. Add onion and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in sauce, then add chicken to pot.

Lock ­pressure-­cooker lid in place and bring to high pressure over ­medium-­high heat. As soon as pot reaches high pressure, reduce heat to ­medium-­low and cook for 25 minutes, adjusting heat as needed to maintain high pressure. Remove pot from heat. ­Quick-release pressure, then carefully remove lid, allowing steam to escape away from you.

Transfer chicken to cutting board. Let cool slightly, then shred meat into ­bite-­size pieces, discarding skin and bones. Meanwhile, bring chili to simmer, stir in bell pepper, and cook until tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Stir in shredded chicken and cilantro, season with salt and pepper to taste, and serve.

Variation: Chicken breasts shred into thinner strands and soak up more sauce, making  a fantastic filling for tacos or burritos. If you substitute an equal amount of bone-in breasts for the thighs, reduce the pressurized cooking time to 15 minutes. 

To use a 6-quart electric pressure cooker (instead of a stovetop cooker): Quick-release the pressure immediately after the pressurized cooking time; do not let the cooker switch to the warm setting. Use the browning (not the simmer) setting to simmer the chili.

Adapted from "Pressure Cooker Perfection." Photo and recipe used with permission of America's Test Kitchen.