Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Spiced Sweet Potato Snack Cake

Now that the holidays have been over for a while, it's time to resume our monthly stitch 'n' bitch meetings. Every month my girls and I get together to work on knitting projects and to talk about life. All of the meetings so far have been at my house, so I have been supplying the snacks. Usually, there is one savory snack in the form of a dip of some sort, and a sweet treat. The sweet is usually a bar cookie or brownie, and I try to make sure I do something completely different every month.

I keep wanting to make a blondie that comes out with a chewy texture. Seems that the only way to do that is to make bar cookies with a Toll House cookie-type batter. Dry additions are ok, but adding wet stuff, like pumpkin or shredded carrots, changes the texture completely. But I do it anyway. I suppose it doesn't matter that the texture isn't exactly what I want--the end result of all of my various experiments has still been delicious.

I almost ended up with something close to what I was looking for last month. Lots of butter + sugar and not so much flour should make a rich, chewy, vanilla "brownie" sort of snack. But then I found that container of mashed sweet potato in the fridge, left over from something I had made earlier in the week. It was completely unseasoned, and would go to waste otherwise, so it went into the batter, too. I also tossed in the last of a bag of Heath bar chips and some pecans. For flavoring, I was lazy--hey, it was Friday night, after a looong week--so instead of measuring out individual spices, I just tossed in some instant chai mix.

The end result was pretty damn good. While not exactly chewy, the sweet potato-enriched bars were super moist, lightly spiced, with little surprises of nuts and buttery toffee bits. Great served a room temperature, but simply smashing served warm with a dollop of ice cream on top.

These might be a good way to sneak some nutritious vegetables into an item the kids will eat, too.

Spiced Sweet Potato Snack Cake

1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1 cup dark brown sugar
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup mashed sweet potato
1 cup all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons instant chai tea mix
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup toffee bits
1 cup pecans, coarsely chopped
Powdered sugar, for garnish (optional)

Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a 9" square baking pan.

Cream together the butter and sugar. Add the eggs one at a time. Stir in the vanilla and sweet potato.

Mix together the flour, chai mix, and salt. Stir into the butter/sugar mixture until well combined. Stir in the toffee bits and pecans. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 25-30 minutes, or until just a few moist crumbs cling to an inserted toothpick.

Cool completely in the pan before cutting into bars. Sprinkle a little powdered sugar on top to add a bit of contrast to the shades of mid-brown.

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Monday, March 02, 2015

French Bread

Yeah, so my bread turned out a little wonky-looking. But it was otherwise successful, so I'm very happy!

As I've mentioned here before, I'm not big on bread baking. Not that I don't want to be a master baker (get your mind out of the gutter!), but I've had some bad luck in the past. The only bread that has come out successfully for me is the no knead stuff from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. The recipes in that series of books is practically idiot-proof, and even my attempt at brioche came out spectacularly. But I don't necessarily want to wait for hours and hours or overnight to be able to make a loaf of bread. I want bread NOW.

Homemade bread isn't a NOW kind of proposition, but I did find a recipe that allowed me to produce a couple of loaves in less than two hours time. Because the bread was quick, it wasn't absolutely ideal - the crust wasn't hard and crunchy, but it did have some crispness. There were no air holes in the center, just fluffiness. But it wasn't tough and tasted pretty great with a smear of butter. And bone marrow. That's right - the whole reason I wanted the bread was to use as a base for a schmear of roasted bone marrow. Marrow and caramelized onions. Mmmm.

Easy French Bread

1 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
2 teaspoons sugar
1 1/4 cup warm water (100°-105°F)
1 teaspoon sea salt
3 to 3 1/2 cups flour

Place yeast and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook and stir in half the water. Allow to sit for 5 minutes until yeast bubbles. Add the remainder of the water, the salt, and 3 cups of flour. Turn on the mixer to low speed and beat until dough starts to come together, scraping down sides as needed. After 3 minutes, turn the speed up to medium and continue to beat dough until it pulls away from the sides of the bowl, about 4 minutes more. If it seems too sticky, add some or all of the remaining flour. (I didn't need any of the extra flour.)

Remove dough from mixer bowl and form into a ball. Place in another bowl, dribble with a tiny bit of olive oil, and move the ball around in the oil to coat it. Cover bowl and allow dough to rise for an hour, or until doubled in size. Punch down the dough and divide into two pieces.

Roll each piece of dough into an 8" x 10" rectangle. Roll up the dough, jelly-roll fashion, and pinch the seam closed. Place each on a parchment lined baking sheet dusted with a bit of flour or cornmeal. Cover dough and allow to rise an additional 30 minutes.

While dough is rising, preheat oven to 375°F. Place a second baking sheet on the center rack. Put a small baking pan off-center on the rack below it. After the second rising, remove cover and cut four diagonal slashes into the top of each loaf with a razor blade or very sharp knife. Slide the parchment from the baking sheet onto the hot sheet in the stove. Pour 1/2 cup of water into the small baking pan on the bottom rack to create steam.

Bake for 20-25 minutes, until loaves are golden brown and sound hollow when you thump on the bottoms. Or, take their temperature with an instant read thermometer - they should be done at 190°F.

Cool loaves on a wire rack.

Easy Bone Marrow with Caramelized Onions

1 large onion, diced
Olive oil
Marrow bones
Chopped parsley
Flaky sea salt

Cook the onion over medium heat in a bit of olive oil and a pinch of salt. Once onion is softened, add a tablespoon or so of butter. Cook over medium low heat 30 minutes or so, until onions are very soft and brown. Remove from heat and set aside.

Preheat oven to 425°F. Place marrow bones on a foil-lined baking sheet. Bake for 15 minutes.

Remove bones to a plate. Top with caramelized onions and a sprinkling of parsley. Serve on fresh bread with a pinch of sea salt on top.

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Friday, February 27, 2015

Bonefish Grill Towson

We'd heard good things about Bonefish Grill; their Bel Air outpost has been an oasis for locals in a town that's practically a culinary wasteland. So when we heard that a Bonefish Grill was opening in the new Towson Square project across from the mall, we were pleased that northern Baltimore County would be getting another upscale restaurant, albeit part of a chain.

The restaurant opened on February 16th, but we were invited in for some pre-opening festivities on the 12th, a late lunch/early dinner that included a few of the restaurant chain's hierarchy as well as county executive Kevin Kamenetz.

We started our tour of the restaurant at the bar. This area takes up at least a third of the restaurant's space and includes both family-style high-top seating and some private booths in addition to the bar itself. The whole restaurant is done up in pale, warm, neutrals, with minimalist decoration that includes an abstract representation of the restaurant's fishbone logo on one wall, and a couple of curved wooden structures that resemble a fish's ribcage.

We tried two non-alcoholic beverages, a blackberry smash and a lemonade. As we sipped our libations, we enjoyed a few passed apps in the form of the restaurant's famous Bang-Bang Shrimp (crispy shrimp tossed in a creamy spicy sauce reminiscent of the sweet sriracha mayo used by sushi restaurants) and delicate roasted mushroom flatbreads with caramelized garlic and a hint of truffle oil.

After a time, we were seated and brought the first of four dinner courses. First was an ahi tuna taco served in a crisp wonton shell. (This dish, from the specials menu, would ordinarily include three tacos.) The tuna was very fresh, and we liked that it came with some pickled ginger and wasabi-infused guac.

Next up was a sample of the restaurants cilantro lime shrimp salad, consisting of greens tossed with corn, black beans, and feta, topped with two large shrimp. The shellfish-allergic can have the dish with grilled chicken, instead. In fact, Bonefish Grill is happy to accommodate diners with all sort of food allergies and even has a separate gluten free menu.

For our entree, we tried ahi tuna topped with "pan-Asian sauce," Chilean seabass with mango salsa, and a chunk of tenderloin with truffle butter. I'm not a tenderloin fan, but I did enjoy the aggressively-seasoned steak, which overshadowed its two more delicately-flavored companions.

The best course was dessert. We each received a veritable tub of chocolate creme brulee that would ordinarily be a generous portion for two diners. The creme, which was touched with Grand Marnier, had a more milky pudding-like consistency than the creamy richness of the usual creme brulee, and I was more than ok with that. Alongside, we had a not-too-sweet espresso martini with a tasty sugar-and-chocolate-shavings-encrusted rim.

Overall, the meal was a good representation of the restaurant's offerings - a little fish, a little meat, pretty good beverages and desserts. Bonefish Grill's ambiance is upscale, but the prices are reasonable. We think it will be a popular addition to the Towson restaurant scene, and will definitely be giving stiff competition to Bahama Breeze across the street.

Bar Menu Special Offer

From now through March 15, you can get a complimentary taste of one of the IN + ON bar bites (which start at an affordable $4) Bonefish Grill. Download the coupon at this link:

Bonefish Grill on Urbanspoon

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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Pretzel Rolls

While I'm a pretty adventurous cook, baking still scares me a little. I'm not a scientist by any means, and baking is a pretty science-y thing. If one doesn't follow directions exactly, chances are, things might not turn out the way they should.

I bake bread now, but only with the almost fool-proof technique found in Artisan Baking in Five Minutes a Day. My first attempt at bread, 20 years ago, was so bad, I haven't tried any other recipe. Until I decided to put on my big-girl apron and tackle soft pretzels. The dough required very little handling, so maybe I couldn't mess it up too badly. And I thought it might be nice to eat sandwiches on homemade pretzel rolls while we watched the commercials during the Super Bowl.

The recipe, which I found in an old Better Homes and Garden special baking magazine, called for twisting the dough. That part didn't turn out so well. When I lowered the twists into a pot of hot water with baking soda, they untwisted. The end result was a bit uneven-looking, as you can see from the photos. And, they fell apart once we crammed a sausage into them. But...they tasted pretty damn good.

We ate them with smoked kielbasa topped with a honey pickled mustard seed mayo, fennel slaw, caramelized onions, and tomato jam.

I'd make them again, but wouldn't bother with the twist part. I'd just shape the dough into 6 long rolls before the 30 minute rise and leave them that way for the dunk in soda water.

Pretzel Rolls (adapted from Better Homes & Gardens Fall Baking 2013)

3/4 cup whole milk
1/4 cup water
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
2 1/3 to 2 1/2 cups flour
2 tablespoons butter, softened
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
3 cups hot water
1/2 cup baking soda
1 egg yolk lightly beaten
1 tablespoon water
Coarse salt

Heat milk, water, and sugar until just warm (110°F). I used a microwave, but you can use a saucepan over low heat. Pour into the bowl of a stand mixer equipped with a dough hook. Sprinkle with the yeast and let stand for a few minutes until foamy. Add 2 1/3 cups of flour, the butter, and salt and beat on low speed until combined, 2-3 minutes. Turn speed to medium-low and beat an additional 8-10 minutes, until a soft dough forms. Scrape bowl as necessary. If the dough seems too sticky, add the additional flour. When the dough comes away from the sides of the bowl, turn it out onto a dry surface.

Knead dough a few times, shape into a ball, and place into a bowl that has a bit of olive oil in it. Turn the dough to coat with oil, cover bowl, and set aside in a warm place to rise until doubled in size.

Line a large baking sheet with parchment.

Punch risen dough down and divide into six portions. Roll and stretch each portion into a 12" rope. (OR, just make fat 6" - 8" long rolls.) Place each on prepared baking sheet. Cover and let rest for 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 425°F.

Fold each piece of dough in half, then twist twice. (OR, just skip the twist if you made the fat rolls.)

In a deep dish or pot, add the water and the baking soda, stirring to dissolve soda. Using a slotted spoon, lower dough twists into water for 10 seconds, then drain on paper towels. Arrange drained twists on prepared baking sheet.

Beat egg and water together in a small bowl. Brush over dough twists and sprinkle with coarse salt. Bake for 12-15 minutes until deeply browned. Cool on a wire rack.

Makes 6 rolls.

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