South Carolina Shrimp and Grits

Within the first week of arriving in the South, I made it a priority to track down a hot serving of shrimp and grits. Fortunately, it wasn’t too hard to find a place producing this southern classic.

I was amazed by the flavor such simple ingredients can pack; it’s safe to say I’ve never tasted anything like it, having rarely encountered southern cuisine in my daily life until recently.

When I saw locally-sourced blue corn grits, I felt inspired to give this dish the old college try. I purchased my first ever container of Cajun seasoning (made in Louisiana!) and prepped my ingredients as I let my thoughts wander backwards to what it was that made that first forkful taste so…significant. Perhaps a splash of cream over the top added to the sweetness of the moment?

blue grits from the congaree milling company

There’s no shortage of dairy and salt in this take on the classic. Go easy on the Cajun seasoning if you are sensitive to spice. Don’t skip the bay leaves. Cut your peppers and onion uniformly. And remember: relax! Southern cooking and stress do not go well together (don’t ask me how I know !)

Best served immediately. A spicy red wine would be a divine compliment to this dish.

South Carolina Shrimp and Grits

I added quite a bit of Cajun seasoning because I like my food spicy–however, it's important to taste as you go.
Prep Time 20 mins
Cook Time 45 mins
Course Main Course
Cuisine Southern Cooking
Servings 4 people

Equipment

  • mandolin
  • Dutch oven
  • Cast iron skilled

Ingredients
  

Grits

  • 4 cups water
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1 1/2 cups corn grits stone ground
  • 2 whole bay leaves dried
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 7 Tbs unsalted butter cut into pieces
  • 1/2 cup parmesan cheese grated
  • 3/4 cup heavy cream

Meat Sauce

  • 1/2 red bell pepper large
  • 1 jalapeño large
  • 1 white onion small
  • 2 smoked sausages or andouille sausages
  • 5 pieces thick cut bacon
  • 1/2 can light beer
  • 1 tsp Cajun seasoning
  • 1 Tbs unsalted butter
  • 1/3 cup heavy cream
  • fresh watercress leaves for garnish

Instructions
 

  • Place water, milk, grits, bay leaves, and salt in a large, heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven and bring to a boil. Turn heat to low and cook, whisking attentively, 30-40 minutes, adding small amounts of water and lowering heat as needed if grits begin to stick to the bottom of the pot. Remove bay leaves, and add butter and parmesan and stir into the grits, tasting for salt. Stir in heavy cream and simmer about 1 more minute, or until the cream is incorporated. Cover until ready to serve.
  • Meanwhile, finely slice red bell pepper, jalapeño, and onion into uniform slices. In a large cast iron pan, sauté bacon over medium high heat until crispy, then drain on paper towels. Add the two sausages to the pan with reserved bacon fat and sear on both sides of the sausage until crisped and browned, about 4 minutes each side. Add sliced vegetables and sear, about 3 minutes. Add beer and Cajun seasoning and stir until vegetables and sausages are coated. Cover and turn heat to medium, leaving undisturbed for 5 minutes. 
  • Remove lid, remove sausages using tongs and place on the same draining plate as the bacon. Add butter and heavy cream to the pan and simmer until sauce has thickened, about 5 minutes. While sauce is reducing, snip drained bacon into 1” pieces and add to the pan. As soon as sausages are cool enough to handle, cut each lengthwise, then into half-inch-thick half-moons. Add to the pan and stir.
  • Partition grits into bowls and ladle meat and sauce over the top. Garnish with a pinch of watercress and serve immediately.
Keyword blue corn, Cajun, crumbs, crumbs on crumbs, crumbsoncrumbs, from scratch, grits, homemade, intuitive eater, intuitive eating, shrimp and grits, South Carolina, southern cooking

Dorie Greenspan’s Baked Apples

I rarely come across a recipe that I don’t adapt in the kitchen. Few and far between are the chefs I trust implicitly enough to blindly follow a recipe for the first time. Dorie Greenspan is one of those chefs.

My sister recently learned that she is intolerant to gluten. Rather than shower her in gluten-free approximations of traditional sweet treats, I decided to get a little creative (and a little seasonal) and see what the internet had to offer on the happenstantially-gluten-free-dessert front. (Thank you, internet, for always providing me with what I seek!)

The only modification I made to this recipe was the kind of apple I baked. Dorie recommends large baking apples (Rome Beauty, to be precise) but I had these smaller, Opal apples on hand which still tasted beautiful baked–I found the portion size for a smaller apple to be closer to what I could comfortably eat as well. (Sorry Dorie, for the slight deviation…)

Everything else about this recipe I followed to the letter, and was so pleased with the results. I’d never made baked apples (somehow!) and was frankly delighted with the whole process. Coring and stuffing the apples, basting them in high-quality pressed cider and butter, watching them puff and brown in the oven…the whole experience was part of the treat of eating them. To boot, this recipe is grain-free and refined-sugar-free, so flavorful, and feels so perfectly autumnal. The real sense of indulgence comes from the butter and whipped cream, which are beautifully complimented by the sharpness of the apple and the warmth of the candied ginger. I mean it when I tell you this recipe left a profound enough impression on me, it will probably become a yearly staple…and I’m sure I’ll make it again before fall is gone.

the top right bowl contains raisins

There was definitely a steep learning curve in terms of coring the apples without an apple core-er. I used this cheese knife to pierce concentrically around the core, then used a small spoon to scoop out the flesh I’d serrated–a labor intensive process, but so rewarding. These apples are cute as a button when they’re all hollowed out with little lids for the top!

dorie recommends peeling away the topmost layer of apple skin and leaving the rest; this has the effect of adding a note of gastronomy to this simple and homey dessert!
the apples were stuffed with dried apple chunks, unsweetened raisins, and candied ginger, then topped with a generous pat of butter!

Apple cider and honey go into the pie dish and the whole thing bakes for about an hour, until…

my frankenstiened toothpick apple exploded, but that’s ok! the innards flavored the basting liquid and it still tasted delicious

I basted the apples three times over the course of the hour, spooning buttery cider into the hollowed cavity and over the tops of the apples.

apple cross section–don’t forget the whipped cream!!
serve with maple-syrup sweetened whipped cream, a dash of cinnamon, and buttery cider juices from the bottom of the pie dish. YUM.

Dorie Greenspan’s Baked Apples

Serves 4-6

Apples

  • 4 large apples or 6 medium ones
  • ½ lemon, cut into wedges
  • ¼ c dried apple rings, broken into small chunks
  • 4 pieces of crystallized ginger
  • 1/4 c raisins
  • 2 teaspoons honey per apple, + 2 more tsp for basting liquid
  • 3 Tbs butter
  • 1 cup pressed apple cider

Topping

  • ½ c heavy whipping cream
  • 1 1/2 Tbs maple syrup
  • Dash of cinnamon

Preheat oven to 375 and make sure a rack is centered in the oven. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or foil, and place a 9” pie dish on top.

Cut a small cap off the top of each apple, and keep it close to its mate so they don’t get confused. Use a small paring knife or corer to remove the core from the apples. (Note: sometimes perforating the apple flesh with a fork or cheese knife makes for easier work.) Peel the topmost layer of apple skin underneath the cap of each apple and reserve. Rub the peeled and cored apple flesh with lemon and squeeze some juice into each opening.

In a small bowl, combine equal parts ginger, dried apple chunks, and raisins to make the filling. Press down into the opening of each apple, and drizzle 2 tsp honey into each apple. Cut the butter into as many chunks as you have apples, and place each pat over the top of the cavity. Pop the lid back on the apple, and don’t worry if it feels very full!

Pour cider into the pie dish and mix in 2 tsp honey, two lemon wedges, and reserved apple peelings. (Chef’s note: the honey won’t dissolve evenly into the cider at first, but don’t fret!)

Arrange the apples in the pie dish and bake.

Baste the apples occasionally with the liquid from the pie dish as they bake, at least three times. When you can poke them with a fork and meet minimal resistance, 50-70 minutes, they are done. 

Let them cool for about 15 minutes as you prepare the whipped cream.

Add cream and maple syrup to a medium bowl with high walls, or a large bowl. Beat with an electric beater until fluffy and of desired texture, about 5 minutes.

When the apples have cooled slightly, top with whipped cream and a dusting of cinnamon. 

These apples keep 2 days in the refrigerator and can be reheated in the microwave.

I Can’t Believe It’s Not Boeuf Bourguignon!

Having made traditional boeuf bourguignon via Julia Child’s recipe, when I encountered this version on the New York Times’ cooking page, I was all in: there’s that slow-cooked beef that you crave with traditional boeuf bourguignon, ample wine added to the roux, mushrooms, and onions–but the recipe is dramatically simplified, and spiced very sparingly. I also found the wine flavor in the traditional version to be overpowering, whereas in this recipe, the positive flavors in the wine come through, but only just. In short, the beef is really taking center stage, as beef is wont to do.

I think all meat-eaters can agree, there’s nothing like slow-cooked meat. When meat is falling-off-the-bone tender, packed full of flavor and juicy, it’s terribly hard to resist. (So why would we? The answer is, we don’t.)

Of course, we can’t eat meat like this for every meal. Aside from being labor- and attention-intensive, meat like this isn’t always the most holistically nutritious thing we can put in our bodies for dinner. I wouldn’t say it’s bad for us, per se. But a head of broccoli probably has a little more to offer in the “nutrients” department…(I’m sure there are some meat fans out there ready to argue with me. Shower me in your meat stats, you carnivores!)

Additionally, and I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you this, reader, but it’s not the best for the environment. Unless you buy locally-sourced, organic, grass-fed-and-finished beef (costly and often not quite as convenient as the grocery store standard), it’s a little challenging to negate your carbon footprint on some delicious, delicious beef brisket.

I will say I could not find organic brisket at the grocery store. If you really want “guilt free” brisket, this may be an occasion to stop by your local artisan butcher! Support local, eat local, reduce the carbon footprint. Rock on with your bad self. Rock on!!

In summary, a dish like this really calls for an occasion. In this instance, my sister and I ate this together before I take off to move across the country; this, of course, made it taste all the better.

This is one of the most comforting dishes I have prepared in a long, long time. Warming spices, slow-cooked beef, and mashed potatoes–I didn’t even make a vegetable to go along with dinner! It was all meat and potatoes, all dinner long. Who is complaining about this? I ask you!

Of course, if it’s not your bag to eat just meat and potatoes, add some green stuff on a separate plate. The world is your oyster! (Whatever that means.) But tuck in for a cozy, candlelit dinner with someone you love, maybe with a bottle of Beaujolais or maybe with some Amber O’Douls, and feast on the fruits of this 4.5 hour dinner. The wait is definitely worth it. Trust me.

i was really pleased with this beef broth i found at the grocery store–it’s made with grass-fed beef bones and tastes great. i even bought some of their lemongrass and ginger beef bone broth, which makes a great medium for a simple soup. don’t forget to heat low and slow, so the broth doesn’t boil and ruin all that wonderful collagen!

I seasoned the brisket with salt and pepper, trimmed a small layer of the fat cap, and cut it into cubes to be browned in vegetable oil in my cast iron.

Meanwhile, I sautéed chopped onions and mushrooms in rendered beef fat in my Le Creuset, then added spices, thyme, wine, broth, and the browned beef…

i’ve really been pushing the le creuset to its maximum volume capacity lately; somehow, this reduced with minimal spillage. thank you, guardian cooking angel

About 3 1/2 hours over low heat later, aaaand:

cue “heart eyes” emoji

Yes. Yes to all of this!! I was stuffed after one serving, but still wanted more…leftovers just got a lot more exciting.

yep, the only green on my plate came from the ceramic itself, and chives. oh, and those are cheesy mashed potatoes, in case you’re wondering

[This recipe adapted from Pierre Franey of the New York Times.]

I Can’t Believe It’s Not Boeuf Bourguignon!

Serves 6-8

  • 4 lbs beef brisket, trimmed to 1/4” fat cap and cut into 1 ½” cubes
  • Reserved brisket fat, for rendering
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 Tbs vegetable oil
  • 2 c chopped onions (about two medium onions)
  • 5 heads of garlic, pressed
  • 1 lb fresh mushrooms, preferably bella
  • 5 sprigs fresh thyme
  • ¼ c all-purpose flour
  • 1 bottle Beaujolais wine (Beaujolais Villages is a great low-cost bottle)
  • 1 c low-sodium beef stock
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 whole cloves
  • 2 whole allspice

Generously season brisket with salt and pepper, and rub spices into the meat. Heat vegetable oil in a cast iron skillet over medium-high heat and add the meat cubes in a single layer, with the fat side down first to render the fat. This will take several batches. Drain browned meat cubes on a plate lined with paper towels. (The point here is not to cook the meat all the way through, but to sear it on the outside.) 

While meat is draining, heat reserved beef fat in a heavy bottomed cooking pot, like a Le Creuset or cast iron kettle, until you have several tablespoons of liquid fat in the bottom of the pan. Toss fat chunks or feed to a lucky dog.

Add onions, garlic, and mushrooms to the first cast iron pan used to cook the meat cubes, and sautée about 5 minutes, or until onions become translucent. In the second pan with the rendered beef fat, add the flour and cook over medium heat, stirring well, for about 1 minute.

Add wine, beef stock, bay leaf, cloves, allspice, thyme, sauteed onions, garlic and mushrooms, and beef cubes to the second pan. Bring to a simmer, then lower heat and cook, covered, over very low heat for about 3 and ½ hours, or until the meat is tender and falls apart when gently squeezed with tongs.

Remove bay leaf and serve with mashed potatoes, noodles, or rice. Red wine or dark ales are wonderful compliments to this dish.

Chicken Cordon Bleu with Creamy Mustard Sauce

With the arrival of the weekend came another opportunity to cook a classic dish and scratch it off the list. Perhaps even better, I was able to throw some ingredients around it which sorely needed to be used up from the fridge, so the chicken really got to be the star of the show. Plus, any time you can eat meat wrapped in more meat, the feeling of indulgence is pretty inescapable. Not a bad way to end the week!

Chicken cordon bleu is credited to Switzerland but seems to have a rather mysterious, folklore-ish background. The only common “facts” I could find in my internet trolling about this infamous creation was that it did, in fact, originate in Switzerland, and “cordon bleu” can refer to any meat stuffed with cheese and panfried, deep fried, or baked.

Though I only used two chicken breasts, the addition of ham, Swiss cheese, and bread crumbs made it so that I could only comfortably eat half of one. This was by no means a bad thing (helloooo fancy leftovers!) but I think it is safe to say two breasts could easily feed four people, especially if there are other dishes on the table.

Simple starch is a good sidekick here, as it acts as another medium for the delicious mustard sauce which is drizzled over the top of the chicken. But hey, use your imagination and pair anything with it that you think won’t upstage your efforts!

before
after (note: this is just one of two chicken breasts)

After the chicken was seasoned and then pounded to about 1/2″ thick, I rolled it up with ham slices and Swiss cheese. Next, it was breaded!

beaten egg, seasoned breadcrumbs, flour, oiled pan–note: a cast iron or heavy bottomed skillet could easily be substituted

I panfried the chicken in a little olive oil then transitioned the whole business to the oven to finish. Meanwhile, I prepared the sauce and made some side dishes. Turns out the fancy name doesn’t mean this dish is any harder to make.

baked chicken
thanks, Switzerland

Chicken Cordon Bleu with Creamy Mustard Sauce

Serves 2-4

Chicken

  • 2 chicken breasts
  • Salt and pepper for seasoning, to taste
  • 6 thin slices of high-quality deli ham
  • 4 slices Swiss cheese
  • 1 c breadcrumbs
  • 1 heaping Tbs dried parsley
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp freshly cracked pepper
  • ½ c flour
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 3 Tbs + 2 Tbs olive oil

Preheat the oven to 350°F

Lightly season and pepper both sides of the chicken breast. Using either a plastic bag or two sheets of plastic wrap to contain the meat, use a meat mallet or rolling pin to pound the chicken to ¼”-1/2” thickness. Lay three slices of ham over each breast, followed by two slices of cheese. If there is a longer end to your chicken, roll it into a tight spiral, keeping the ham and cheese tucked carefully within it. If you need to, use toothpicks to hold it together (mine stayed together just fine without them).

In a wide bowl, mix together breadcrumbs, parsley, salt, and pepper. Spread flour on one plate and beaten eggs on another. Roll the meat wrap in flour, completely coating all surfaces. Roll the floured meat in egg, then dredge in breadcrumbs, coating evenly both times.

Heat first measurement of oil in an oven-safe heavy bottomed skillet or cast iron. When hot, add both chicken breasts and cook over medium heat until browned, about five minutes. When the breadcrumbs are beautifully browned, add second measurement of olive oil and flip the chicken over using tongs. 

After five minutes on the second side, place the skillet in the oven and bake 20-25 minutes, or until meat thermometer inserted into the chicken breast reads 155°F or higher. While the chicken is baking, prepare the mustard sauce. 

Creamy Mustard Sauce

  • ½ c butter
  • ¼ c flour
  • 1 c whole milk
  • 1/3 c-1/2 c heavy cream
  • 1 Tbs whole grain mustard
  • 2 Tbs Dijon mustard, plus more to taste
  • ½ tsp salt
  • ½ tsp freshly ground pepper
  • Fresh squeezed lemon juice (optional)
  • Fresh parsley (garnish)

Heat butter in a medium skillet over medium-high heat until melted, but not browned. Add flour and cook 1-3 minutes, or until the flour has foamed and absorbed the flavor of the butter, stirring constantly.

Lower heat to medium and gradually add milk, stirring continuously until the mixture thickens. Add cream until sauce is of desired consistency. Add both mustards, salt, and pepper, stirring after each addition and tasting for seasonings. Add lemon juice, if using. 

Spoon sauce over sliced chicken cordon bleu. Finish with fresh parsley and serve with greens, simple starch like fingerling potatoes or rice, and a glass of white wine.

Salted Dark Chocolate Almond Butter Cups

So there’s good news and there’s bad news. The good news is, it’s Halloween candy season. The bad news is, it’s Halloween candy season. I don’t know about you, but my boyfriend and I have been having a really difficult time resisting some of our favorite candy bars when we head to the grocery store. Our pantry is currently hosting several half-eaten bags of the stuff.

This isn’t the worst thing we could do for ourselves. (After all, everything in moderation, including moderation, right?) But it also isn’t the best thing either…

So I’ve created a compromise: healthy fat, homemade, easily digested, “gourmet makes” style chocolate nut butter cups. Who’s complaining about this? Absolutely no one, that’s who.

Between you and me, reader, we like to get a little bit fancy. We are worldly and distinguished enough to know the difference between curated, fair trade cacao powder and the market brand stuff. However, because our heads are not too far up our derrières, we still appreciate the occasional gas station peanut butter cup. That’s our sweet spot. Right?

So in an effort to stay true to my sweet tooth roots while honoring how far I’ve come as an eater, I bought organic almond butter, but the kind that has coconut oil added into it in order to make it extra creamy. Mara Natha almond butter is the way to go for this recipe, and I say that as an experienced almond-product-eater. But as always, follow your heart.

First, I mixed together melted coconut oil, cocoa powder, agave and salt. (Honey or sugar would work here too, or your favorite sweetener.) I poured a few tablespoons of this solution into muffin liners and placed these in the freezer for a few minutes. After this, I dolloped in a few healthy spoonfuls of almond butter…

creamy nut butter makes all the difference for these sweet treats

Then I poured more chocolate mixture over the top and put this in the freezer to chill some more!

almost done!

Thirty minutes after you begin, you’ll end up with a treat even Claire Saffitz would be proud to serve!

bet you can’t eat just one

Salted Dark Chocolate Almond Butter Cups

Makes 12 cups

  • 1 c melted coconut oil
  • ¾ c cocoa powder
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • About 1 c creamy almond butter
  • Coarse sea salt for topping

Line a muffin tin with paper liners and clear out some level space in the freezer.

Whisk together coconut oil, cocoa powder, and salt in a medium bowl and transfer to a large liquid measuring cup. Pour about two tablespoons of chocolate mixture into each muffin liner and transfer to the freezer for about 5 minutes. Set leftover chocolate solution aside.

When the chocolate is mostly solid, pull the muffin tin from the freezer and dollop one to two teaspoons of almond butter over the top of each chocolate disk. Pour the rest of the chocolate mixture over the top of the almond butter so that it is entirely covered. 

Return to the freezer for about 5 minutes; when the nut butter cups are thickened but not completely solid, pull from the freezer and sprinkle coarse salt over the top. Return to the freezer for another 510 minutes, or until set. Enjoy as is. Keeps well in fridge or freezer!

Basic Tomato Soup with Herb Puree

What better way to kick off soup season than with that old fan favorite, tomato?

A truly great sendoff for even the most overripe of tomatoes, this vibrant soup is the perfect backdrop for cream, yogurt, grilled cheese, crackers, croutons, etc…but can also stand on its own.

Stewed, reduced tomatoes become a medium of sweet, tangy umami. Add some sautéed onions, some fat, and some time: and boom, you’ve got a delicious–and beautifully simple–soup.

these poblanos needed to get used up, so i threw them into the soup to stew before pulverizing everything in the blender.
broiled on high for about 5 minutes, these poblanos were easy to stem, seed, and chop

I cooked the tomatoes with sautéed onions and roasted poblanos in olive oil until some of the tomato juice had reduced, about 30 minutes.

i kept the heat between medium and medium-low to avoid scorching the tomatoes

After pureeing the cooked veggies in a blender and tasting to season with salt and pepper, I decided to get to work on the herb puree.

This puree became sort of a catchall for herbs and greens I already had on hand, so many substitutions or omissions could be made in terms of the greenery–after all, not everyone saves their carrot tops for just such an occasion!

ingredients: basil, parsley, carrot tops, fresh garlic, capers, an anchovy, olive oil, fresh squeezed lemon juice and salt

This puree integrates beautifully into this simple soup and offers an aromatic freshness to the buxom flavor of stewed tomatoes. Needless to say, I ate this bowl of hot soup straight from the blender within minutes.

the herb puree to tomato soup ratio is entirely up to the eater–fun!

Basic Tomato Soup with Herb Puree

Serves 4

Soup

  • 10-12 medium tomatoes, stemmed and cut into 1” chunks
  • 3 medium poblano peppers
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 2 Tbs + 4 Tbs olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Herb Puree

  • 1 bunch parsley, stems removed
  • 1 bunch carrot tops
  • 2 cloves fresh garlic
  • 1 Tbs capers, drained
  • 1 anchovy filet
  • Juice of ½ lemon
  • ½ c quality olive oil + more as needed
  • Salt, to taste

Roll poblano peppers in first measurement of oil and place on a baking sheet. Broil in the oven on high until skins are blistered and charred, about 5 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside until cool.

Add second measurement of olive oil to a heavy bottomed pot with salt, pepper, and onions. Sautee until onions over medium heat until they are translucent and tender, 10-15 minutes. Add cut tomatoes and turn heat to medium low, stirring occasionally to prevent the tomatoes for sticking. You are looking for some of the liquid to be reduced, about 30 minutes.

While tomatoes are stewing, remove the stem and seeds from the roasted poblanos. Dice the peppers and add to the cooking tomatoes.

After 30 minutes has elapsed and soup is of desirable thickness, puree everything in a blender or food processor until smooth. 

Set soup aside in a large, preheated serving bowl. Combine all of the ingredients into the rinsed out blender or food processor and puree until smooth. You may require more than ½ c olive oil to achieve this, depending on the size of the herb bundles.

Serve the soup hot with a generous scoop of herb puree, or yogurt, or both. Croutons or grilled cheese are advisable. 

Triple Decker Chocolate Cake

…seems simple enough, right? Well, with the help of Samin Nosrat, I’m getting a little more curious about the science behind what makes delicious cake just that.

Whether from a box or from scratch, it’s safe to say most households have made a chocolate cake at least once. Nosrat points out in “Salt Fat Acid Heat” that even boxed cake mixes call for some kind of oil rather than butter. Why might this be, you ask?

According to Nosrat, oil more evenly coats flour particles in comparison to butter. This inhibits gluten development which encourages a more tender, moist crumb. This does, in turn, create a cake that is a little denser when compared to butter’s capacity for aeration.

For a classic chocolate cake, I’ll happily take a dense, moist crumb and save the fluffy stuff for another time. And when I found this recipe for a three layer chocolate cake made with oil, I knew I was in for a decadent treat.

i chose to use canola oil for this cake, but vegetable oil or some other neutral oil would work well too

This cake baking endeavor posed an excellent opportunity to test out my new cake strips, which you can see pictured above as the thick, purple strips of fabric.

If you don’t know what cake strips are, you aren’t alone! I only learned of them recently. The idea is simple: buffer the heat between the temperature of the oven and the outermost ring of cake batter in order to more evenly heat the cake as it bakes. This makes for a more homogenous rise across the surface of the cake, which prevents doming.

To test this, I used two cake strips on two cake pans, and baked the third without.

about 3 cups of batter went into each cake pan

Here’s an aerial shot of both the independent variable (no cake strips) and dependent variable (with cake strips).

can you tell the difference? (l: no cake strips; r: cake strips)

Here you can see the dome from the layer baked without strips:

dennnng, check out that dome

Versus a close up of a layer baked with the strips:

in the background is the hump of the layer baked w/o strips–but you can see the outer rim of the cake pan, unique to those layers baked with the strips

The overall height of the layers of cake strips versus no cake strips was different as well, even though each layer roughly had three cups of batter prior to baking.

no cake strips–dense, tight crumb at the edges
with cake strips–fluffier crumb throughout

What do you think?

I have to admit, I am a new cake strips convert. You can purchase them here, if you are moved by this testimony. (And no, they are not paying me to say this! 🙂

After the exciting reveal of the cake strip experiment, I whipped up some buttercream frosting and layered my cake.

dark chocolate shavings make everything better

I was good and waited until after dinner to dig in to this cake…we’ll see if I can follow suit tomorrow!

a thin layer of frosting on the bottommost layer prevents the cake from sliding away from center on the cake plate, which is helpful if your cake is destined to travel places

Yum!

Basic Chocolate Cake with Chocolate Frosting

Generously serves 12

Cake

  • Butter and all-purpose flour for coating the cake pans
  • 3 c all-purpose flour
  • 3 c sugar
  • 1 ¾ c unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 Tbs baking soda
  • 1 ½ tsp baking powder
  • 1 ½ tsp salt
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 ½ c buttermilk
  • 1 ½ c near-boiling water
  • ½ c canola oil
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter three nine-inch cake rounds and dust with flour, tapping out the excess. If using, soak cake strips for 5 minutes and apply to the exterior of the cake pans without ringing out the water. 

Slowly mix dry ingredients in a stand mixer until combined.

Add wet ingredients and beat for two minutes on medium speed, until everything is thoroughly incorporated.

Divide the batter evenly into the three cake pans, just over three cups worth.

Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.

Cool for 20 minutes before running a knife around the outer edge of the cake and inverting each layer onto a wire cooling rack. Allow cake to cool completely before frosting.

Frosting

  • 1 ½ c butter (3 sticks), room temperature
  • 3.5-4.5 c powdered sugar (taste as you go and make it as sweet as you like!)
  • ¾ c unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 3 Tbs heavy cream or whole milk
  • Dark chocolate bar for shaving on top

Beat softened butter with an electric mixer until soft and fluffy. 

Add vanilla, cream, and cocoa powder and mix until incorporated. Add powdered sugar in increments, tasting as you go, until frosting is of desired sweetness. Frost in between each layer, the top of the cake, and the sides. 

Shave dark chocolate using a vegetable peeler on top of the freshly-frosted cake. Keeps well plastic wrapped at room temperature or tightly sealed in the fridge. Serve with a glass of your milk of choice.

Simple Chickpea Ricotta Pasta

Are there things in your pantry that you tend to hoard? How about cans and dry goods that sit on the shelf for months at a time?

For me, one of those items is pasta. It’s hard for me to say “no” to a new experience, especially one costing only a few bucks–so when I pass by a new shape or brand of imported pasta in the grocery store, it usually ends up in the cart.

When the pandemic first started, like many people, I stocked up on nonperishable foods. This, coupled with a frankly obsessive amount of time spent scrolling through the New York Times’ cooking app, yielded some fruitful results, alerting me to recipes which I will no doubt be riffing off of for years to come. This is one of those recipes.

This dish is simple, so if one makes too many substitutions in terms of ingredients, it’s essentially a new dish–that being said, it could be made gluten-free by subbing wheat-alternative noodles. I have yet to come across a vegan ricotta substitution out there, unless one were to spring for some vegan cream cheese and whip it up with a dash of sugar.

But if you are a full-time or even part-time dairy eater, I say go for it and eat the dang ricotta! It’s a truly remarkable, natural compliment to pasta of any sort.

This recipe is great for easy weeknight dinner, or for a meat-free meal. Makes for an excellent lunch, also.

one item i’ve tucked away: squid ink pasta…

Cook the pasta in heavily salted water until al dente. While that’s boiling, “bloom” the red pepper flakes along with a few cloves of garlic in a skillet with olive oil. Once the oil starts to change color and become fragrant, add drained chickpeas and sauté for a few minutes, until chickpeas are coated in spiced oil and warmed through.

Add cooked noodles, ricotta, some reserved pasta water, and a splash of quality olive oil to the pan and mix.

I added some cherry tomatoes–the last of the season!

Finish with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and torn basil, adding salt and pepper to taste.

this made for a very satiating fall lunch

Simple Chickpea Ricotta Pasta

Serves 2

  • 8 oz pasta, or enough for two servings
  • 3 Tbs olive oil for sauteeing, plus 1 Tbs for final assembly
  • ½ tsp red pepper flakes
  • 3 cloves of garlic, peeled and smashed
  • 1 can chickpeas, drained
  • 1/3 c ricotta cheese
  • 1 pint cherry tomatoes, cut in half
  • ½ small lemon, for final assembly
  • Handful of fresh basil leaves, torn, for final assembly
  • Salt
  • Pepper

Bring a pot of heavily salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook until al dente, 8-12 minutes. Reserve ½ cup of the pasta water and drain. 

In a large skillet over medium-high, heat the first measurement of olive oil and red pepper flakes until the pepper has “bloomed” in the olive oil, about 2 minutes. (Oil should change color and become fragrant.) Add smashed garlic cloves and lower heat to medium, cooking just until they begin to lose their pearly white look, about 3 minutes. Add drained chickpeas and halved tomatoes and stir, coating everything in oil over heat for 3-5 minutes, or until the garlic has changed from white to translucent beige. 

Change heat to low and add drained pasta, ricotta, a squeeze of the half lemon, and salt and pepper to taste. Add remaining 1 Tbs olive oil and stir everything together.

Plate with torn basil leaves and serve immediately. Pairs excellent with a buttery white wine or plain bubbly water, whichever you prefer.

Sesame Beet Salad

One of my favorite things in this world is enjoying a perfectly cooked beet. (Can I get a show of hands for all you beet lovers out there?) Over the years of cooking beets, I have come to love the messy endeavor of processing them, from staining my hands magenta to turning the bottom of my sink into a kind of Pollock painting.

If I were to ever create a manifesto, I think it would probably have to include a clause about the importance of avoiding overcooking one’s beets. (If this has ever happened to you, you have probably realized what a tragedy this is.)

Beets are humming with vitality, from their color to their natural sugars and minerals. They can be both refreshing and comforting, placed in both sweet and savory contexts. While I love each and every vegetable I’ve ever put into my mouth (except maybe turnips, which I am still learning to love), I have to say that I think beets may be my favorite.

In an effort to welcome in the cold weather and simultaneously give a nod to the last wave of summer, I dreamed up this recipe one morning over a warm cup of coffee. Simple, fresh ingredients, variety of texture and flavor, maximum nutrients. I’m pretty happy with this side dish–and, it paired wonderfully with the ginger miso glazed halibut I had for dinner.

i didn’t end up using the ginger, but if you’re looking for a little bit of spice, i recommend grating it very fine and tossing it raw into the warm beets

The beets were trimmed, wrapped individually in foil, and placed in a shallow water bath, otherwise known as a “bain marie.”

i like to bake my beets so that they are still slightly firm; they taste more “alive” this way. for these medium-sized beets, this took just over an hour.

While the beets were baking, I cut my carrots into matchsticks and soaked them in vinegar for a “quick pickle,” sliced my scallions, and toasted my sesame seeds.

once cooked to my liking, i ran the beets under cold water, peeled the skins off, and cut them into strips

The drained carrots were tossed into the beets crumbled feta cheese and the other add ins, and the whole thing was finished with a drizzle of sesame oil and a squeeze of lime.

earthy and fresh, this dish felt light, comforting, and nutritious.

Sesame Beet Salad (GF)

  • 3 medium sized beets
  • 2 medium carrots, cut into matchsticks
  • ¼ c white wine vinegar
  • ¼ c rice wine vinegar
  • 2 tsp white sesame seeds, toasted
  • 1 tsp black sesame seeds
  • 1 oz feta cheese
  • 3 scallions, sliced 
  • 2 Tbs sesame oil
  • Juice of ½ lime

Preheat oven to 450°F. Wash beets and trim both ends with a knife. Wrap each beet individually in foil and place in a baking dish with roughly two inches of water in it. Bake beets for an hour and 15 minutes or so, or until a fork can be inserted with minimal resistance the full length of the prong.

While beets are baking, place carrot matchsticks and both vinegars into a small bowl until the carrots are submerged. Leave them at least 30 minutes, but closer to an hour is ideal. 

In a small pan over medium low heat, heat white sesame seeds until they just start to take on color and emit a pleasant odor, about 5 minutes. Mix warm toasted sesame seeds with black sesame seeds in another small bowl and set aside.

When beets have finished cooking, carefully unwrap them in the sink and run cold water over them until they are cool enough to handle. The skin should easily come off in your hands, but some will be more difficult to peel than others. Don’t be afraid to use a knife to cut off any stubborn bits. 

Once cool, cut beets into strips about 1/4” thick and place in a medium bowl. Drain carrot strips and add to the bowl along with sesame seeds, sliced scallions, and crumbled feta cheese. Finish with sesame oil and lime juice. Pairs great with white fish for a full meal.

A Take on Tom Douglas’ Creamy Seafood Chowder

Think about it: when was the last time you had a really delicious clam chowder? Can you picture where you were when you ate it? What was the weather like? Who were you with? What was it about the flavors in the soup that worked for your palate? Did you make it from scratch or were you dining out?

While the word “chowder” becomes something of a catchall for a conceptual bracket of “soup,” there exist many specific styles of approaching this comforting dish. Wikipedia touches on eight or nine clearly delineated versions of “clam chowder,” each with its own personality; in 1939, just five years after clam chowder reached notoriety in the United States, Maine’s state legislature took its clam chowder identity so seriously, it was posed that the use of tomatoes in the stuff ought to be banned. (Fortunately for Mainers and tomato-lovers alike, this motion did not pass.)

But something that unifies even those variants of “chowder” which hang on the periphery is the fact that sitting down to eat a bowl is usually something of an event. Whether taking a boardwalk stroll and eating from a cardboard cup or settling in on a wintry night for an intimate meal, clam chowder marks a momentous moment. How often does one casually have clams in their fridge, after all?

it’s safe to say I’ve been wanting to make this soup for years

Making this soup successfully is all about prep and timing.

chopped potatoes and thick cut bacon, and disassembled crab

First, the minced onion, carrot, celery, and fennel are sautéed in a modest amount of olive oil until they start to turn translucent and soft. Add garlic and bacon, cooking until the fat of the bacon becomes clear, but doesn’t brown. Add wine, tomato puree, fish stock, and potatoes and simmer…

it already tasted amazing at this stage

When potatoes are just tender, stir in cream, herbs, salt, pepper, and hot sauce. Rather than chopping thyme as Tom Douglas suggested, I tied a few sprigs in a bundle with the stems from my parsley leaves and dropped that in the pot.

seafood goes in next, and the pot gets covered to steam thoroughly

Then the assembly line of seafood goes: clams, shrimp, cod, and crab, in that order, accompanied by handfuls of hearty spinach. Add an optional squeeze of lemon, garnish with fennel fronds and cream of some kind, if you like (I used about 1 Tbs creme fraiche) and eat with good company.

don’t forget those herbed scones!
the table went quiet as we ate–a sign of success!

A Take on Tom Douglas’ Creamy Seafood Chowder

Author’s note: Tom advises us to heat the bowls before pouring the chowder in, and don’t forget the herbed scones!

Soup

  • 3 tablespoons 
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1 celery rib, finely chopped
  • 1 large carrot, peeled and finely chopped
  • ½ bulb of fennel, cored and finely chopped
  • 5 medium cloves of garlic, pressed or minced
  • 1 cup thick cut bacon
  • 2 cups dry white wine
  • 2 cups canned tomato puree
  • 5 cups ham hock stock or fish stock
  • ¾ pound thin-skinned potatoes, cut into ½ inch cubes
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • ¼ cup finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh thyme or 4 large sprigs of thyme, tied in a bundle
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 teaspoon Tabasco sauce, or to taste
  • 1 lb small steamer or baby clams, scrubbed and rinsed
  • 1 lb large shrimp, shelled and deveined, with tails on
  • ½ pound white fish fillets, such as halibut, cod, etc, cut into 1½ inch pieces
  • 8 cups loosely packed spinach leaves (about 12 ounces)
  • 3 cooked king crab legs (1-1½ pounds), thawed if frozen, each leg cut into 3 sections crosswise and split in half lengthwise OR 1 previously cooked Dungeness crab, disassembled with meat reserved

Finish

  • ½ lemon
  • Sour cream or crème fraiche (optional)
  • Fennel fronds 
  • 12 parsley scones and butter (optional)

Heat the oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add the fennel, onion, celery, and carrot and sauté until the vegetables start to turn translucent, 5-7 minutes. Add the garlic and bacon and sauté a few more minutes, until bacon fat turns clear rather than white, but does not brown. Stir in tomato puree, wine, stock, and potatoes, and bring to a gentle simmer. Cover the pot and cook until the potatoes are just tender, about 12 minutes. 

Stir in the cream and herbs, season to taste with salt, pepper, and hot sauce. Add the clams, cover the pot, and cook until they open, about 4 minutes. Season the shrimp and fish with salt and pepper, then add them to the pot, taking care the seafood is submerged as much as possible in the simmering liquid. Cover and simmer for 2 more minutes. Open the lid, stir in the spinach. Cover and continue to simmer for 1 minute. Add cooked crab meat, turn off the heat and let the pot sit, covered, for 5 minutes. 

Remove the lid and check that the shrimp and fish are cooked through and that the crab is warm. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and hot sauce. Using a slotted spoon and ladle, divide all the fish, shellfish, and chowder among 6 large shallow soup plates, discarding any clams that have not opened. Garnish with a squeeze of lemon, a spoonful of crème fraiche, yogurt, or sour cream, and/or fennel fronds.