Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Mole is all about being sauce.

I learned from Chopped judge and acclaimed NYC chef Aaron Sanchez, as he scolded a contestant who had made essentially a spicy chocolate sauce and called it mole, that mole isn’t about chocolate. Most sources would agree that it’s not really about any one flavor, but rather a complex marriage of a host of different flavors, with none being dominant. “Mole” originates from the Aztec (or Nahuatl) word mulli or molli, which means “sauce”.

So it’s really more about being a sauce in general, THE sauce, than being a chocolate sauce. However restaurants in my area of the world would have you think differently, of course. This *is* the US. My palate is trained for a sweet, somewhat thin, chocolaty, cinnamony sauce…and hence trained for disappointment.

But I didn’t really know that when I embarked on my mole adventure this past weekend. (Okay, I did.) I’d been sitting on a simple recipe (as far as mole goes) by food writer Jeanne Thiel Kelley that I found on Epicurious a while back that got great reviews. And maaaaaybe I should have READ those reviews before I started. Because if I had, I would have seen that almost ALL of them recommended going easy on one particular ingredient…much easier than recommended…the culprit?

Orange. Though we still managed to enjoy what we could taste through the somewhat bitter traces of orange in the dish, I can’t wait to make this again and leave that nonsense out! I should have known that pureeing the final mixture of cooked ingredients and not taking the called for orange peel out would yield an overabundance of citrusy flavor to the sauce. I need to start trusting my instincts more…but I felt way out of my usual territory with this one.

So here is my adapted version of Kelley’s recipe – leaving out the orange peel completely. With 2 cups of OJ already included, I think it's overkill. I also used different peppers because even Whole Foods didn’t have the ones called for (pasilla and negro, both dried). Though I clearly did make some substitutions, I would highly recommend using Mexican chocolate, as called for – it has a fantastic warm grainy texture that is completely unique and special.

We had the mole with shredded chicken, in warm flour tortillas with cotija cheese and a sprinkling of chives. Yum. Minus the orange I think they would have been perfect.

Chicken Mole
adapted from Jeanne Thiel Kelley

3 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
5 pounds skinless boneless chicken thighs
3 cups chicken broth or stock
2 cups fresh squeezed orange juice
1 1/4 pounds sweet onions, sliced
1/2 cup sliced raw almonds
6 large garlic cloves, sliced
4 teaspoons ground cumin
4 teaspoons ground coriander
4 ounces dried ancho chilies, stemmed, seeded, torn into 1-inch pieces, rinsed.
1/4 cup raisins
1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 3.1 ounce disk Mexican chocolate, chopped 
Warm flour tortillas
Cotija cheese (hard fresh cow's milk cheese from Mexico)
Fresh chives, chopped

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in heavy large pot over medium-high heat (preferably a dutch oven). Sprinkle chicken on both sides with salt and pepper and working in batches, saute in pot until lightly browned - about 3 minutes per side. Add more oil as needed. Transfer chicken to a large bowl.

Return chicken and any accumulated juices to pot. Add broth and orange juice, bring to just a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover and simmer until chicken is tender and just cooked through, about 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons oil in a heavy large saucepan (having 2 dutch ovens helps here!) over medium-high heat. Add onions and saute until golden brown, about 18 minutes. Reduce heat to medium. Add almonds, garlic, cumin and coriander. Saute until nuts and garlic get some color, about 2 minutes. Add chilies and stir until beginning to soften, about 2 minutes.

Transfer chicken to large bowl. Pour chicken cooking liquid into saucepan with onion mixture (reserve the pot). Add raisins and oregano to sauce pan. Cover and simmer until chilies are very soft, stirring occasionally, about 30 minutes. Remove from heat. Add chocolate and let stand until chocolate melts and mixture cools slightly, about 15 minutes.

Working in small batches, transfer sauce mixture to blender and puree until smooth. Return to reserved pot. Season sauce to taste with salt and pepper. Coarsely shred chicken and return to sauce. Stir to coat. 

This can be made up to 3 days ahead - chill until cold, then cover tightly and keep cold. Rewarm over low heat before serving. Serve with warm tortilla, cotija cheese and chives.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

On the subject of bread.

One thing I always say I’m going to do when I have time off is bake bread. And then I don’t do it because a million other things come up. I’m pretty sure the idea of baking bread crosses my mind every single weekend. How I’ll look at the recipe and plan out exactly how much time I’ll need – if I need to make it over two days, if I need to get up early…can I leave it and go run errands? Is it warm enough in the house for a proper rise? Is it okay if I measure rather than weigh my ingredients? Is the yeast alive? Or too frozen? Did my dough pass the windowpane test? Is it the right texture? Did it rise enough? Or too much? Did it proof properly? Is the crust too brown? Burnt even?

You get the idea. Maybe bread stresses me out a little because so much of the science is out of my hands. I can only follow the basic directions and hope that my sense of when it’s right to move onto the next step is correct! The only other bread I’ve posted about here is anadama, and with that I swear I had beginner’s luck. Since then I’ve made a bunch of yeast breads, even donuts, and I feel much more comfortable. With bread it’s definitely true that practice makes perfect. But I still always question…

About to go in the oven...

The easiest bread I’ve come across is Michael Ruhlman’s basic recipe from Ratio (I’ve been on a Ratio kick lately). It’s got four ingredients and doesn’t take much time out of the rest of your life to complete. When I make this super basic bread I like to shape it into a boule, brush it with fruity olive oil and sea salt, and bake it in a dutch oven for a gorgeous crispy crust.
Yeah, you’ll ask yourself a lot of the same questions as above when deciding to bake bread and then actually doing it – but nothing bad will happen if you fail. And if you succeed, which you likely will, you will be handsomely rewarded with the best toast ever.

Basic Bread
my interpretation based on what I learned from Michael Ruhlman's Ratio

4 cups all purpose flour
12 ounces water
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon active or instant yeast
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
coarse sea salt

In a large mixing bowl, add flour, then salt, then water. Sprinkle the yeast on the surface of the water - this will allow it to dissolve. Give it about a minute.

Fit the bowl into your electric mixer and using the paddle attachment, mix until a dough is formed. (You should be able to peel the dough off of the paddle in a loose ball.) Replace paddle with dough hook attachment and mix on low for about 10-12 minutes, until it is smooth and elastic. You can also do this by hand, and if this is your first time you should. Kneading dough by hand is something everyone should try.

To test to see if your dough is ready for the next step, tear a chunk off and stretch it into a square. If you can stretch it to translucence without it tearing, it's ready for the first rise. (This is the infamous "windowpane test".)

Remove mixing bowl from mixer and cover with plastic wrap. Allow dough to rise to about twice its size. To check for doneness, when you poke the dough with your finger there should be some resistance, but it should not spring back. If it does, it needs to rise longer. (For me, with this particular bread it can take anywhere from 1 hour and 15 mins to 2 hours.)

Turn dough out onto a floured surface and knead a few times to expel gas. Cover with a dish towel and let it rest about 10-15 minutes.

After rest, form into a circular boule shape by pushing it around on the counter in a circular motion. Lightly oil the bottom of your dutch oven and place your newly formed boule inside. Cover with a dish towel and let proof for 1 hour. (It will rise and get a bit bigger.)

Preheat oven to 450˚. When dough has risen, coat with olive oil and top with a few grinds of coarse sea salt. Score the dough with an "x", place the lid on top and bake for 30 minutes. Remove lid and continue baking uncovered until done (internal temp will be 200˚- 210˚, will sound hollow when you knock on the bottom of the loaf), about 15-30 minutes.

Mine is usually done after about 15 minutes - I think my oven is a bit on the warm side. If your boule is starting to brown too much, just cover the top with a bit of foil. When you deem yours done, remove it from the dutch oven and let it cool on a wire rack. Then devour! It keeps fine, but after day 1 it will take a good toasting to bring the luscious crisp back to the with many homemade breads.

Thursday, March 17, 2011


Right now our world is in need of some comfort. That is probably a large understatement but knowing so many lovely people from a country experiencing an unimaginable amount of despair, I'm lost for words mostly about the heartbreaking situation in Japan.

So many bloggers have said it this week and I concur - how do we write about something like food, in the indulgent and luxurious way we go about it, without sounding like we have blinders on? I don't have the answer, so the best I can do is use my writing to offer some form of comfort, even if it comes in the trivial form of comfort food.

Comfort calls to mind breakfast, and I think it’s time for another lovely, simple Michael Ruhlman recipe post. Because in case you haven’t noticed, I love breakfast. And brunch. Really any meal that allows me to smear jam and salty butter onto a warm fresh baked good.

Along that line of thought…biscuits. Yes, its true that you can buy them in that notorious terrible tube, arrange them on a tray and pop them in the oven. Minutes later you’ll without fail be treated to little unreasonably delicious nuggets of awesomeness. But – it’s almost as easy to just make them yourself. Seriously. I would not delude you on something as critical as a savory breakfast treat.

If you can do simple things like stir, roll, fold, chill, cut, wait, and bake, you can make biscuits. The fanciest piece of equipment you need is a rolling pin - they require being rolled out and folded over and chilled and rolled out and folded over again to create all their gorgeous layers. You can even start them the day before and chill them overnight – that way you’re not left with much work in the morning and can proceed much more quickly to eating them.

Chicago Biscuits (3-1-2 Biscuits)
from Michael Ruhlman's Ratio, slightly adapted

9 ounces flour (a scant 2 cups)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
3 ounces chilled butter, diced (3/4 stick)
6 ounces milk

Measure flour (on a scale or in measuring cups) and add to a bowl along with baking powder and salt. Add butter (weigh out if you fancy). Rub and pinch the butter into the flour with your fingers so that it is well distributed and in fragments and small chunks, the largest of which are not bigger than peas. Pour in milk and combine just until a dough if formed (Ruhlman notes that you'll see whole chunks of butter, and that's good). Form dough into a 4x6 inch rectangle, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate at least one hour.

Unwrap the dough and dust with flour. Roll the dough out to about three times its size on a floured countertop, board, or plastic wrap, maintaining the rectangular shape. Fold it into thirds and roll it out again (it will be springier). Fold it in thirds again, press it down firmly, wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour or until thoroughly chilled.

*If you are going to do part of this recipe the night before, this is where you would stop and let the dough chill overnight.

Take the dough out of the refrigerator, unwrap and repeat the procedure again (meaning fold it into thirds, roll it out, then fold it into thirds one last time). Roll the dough out this final time until it's about 1/2 inch thick and cut however you wish - you can either stamp out circles or cut it into squares like I did. (Squares have a more rustic look and you don't waste any of the dough.)

Bake at 400˚ until done - 20 to 30 minutes. (Mine were done in 15, so watch them!) Serve warm slathered with butter and jam.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Let's get weird.

Sometimes I like to try a recipe simply because it seems different. Putting olive oil in a cake, for instance. Or whipping cookie batter for 15 minutes on high in the mixer to completely dissolve the sugar. Or making marshmallows…at all.

It was that sentiment that led me to try this fantastic poppy seed lemon cake. I’ve made a zillion cakes…a lot of them with citrus and some even with poppy seeds. But Deb at Smitten Kitchen, one of my favorite bloggers, made this one seem crazy by citing its low sugar and flour content, one million egg yolks and a positive drug test’s worth of poppy seeds. I was super intrigued and upon trying it came away with a definite, if unlikely keeper.

One funny thing about this cake is that after I baked it, it shrank a little. I’m not sure if that was supposed to happen, but be prepared in case it happens to you. I followed the directions to the letter, and the cake was still perfectly textured and absolutely lovely when we devoured it...just smaller than we expected. 

Poppy Seed Lemon Cake
from Food & Wine, adapted by Deb from Smitten Kitchen (with my notes)

2/3 cup of sugar
8 large egg yolks
1 large whole egg
1 1/2 tablespoons finely grated lemon zest (from 2 lemons)
1/2 cup all-purpose flour (what!?)
1/2 cup cornstarch
pinch of salt
2 sticks (1/2 lb) unsalted butter, melted and cooled a bit
1/2 cup poppy seeds (from a 3-ounce spice bottle)

Preheat oven to 325˚. Butter and flour an 8 inch fluted bundt or tube pan *generously*. Butter the dull side of a 10-inch piece of foil.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the sugar and egg yolks and whole egg at med-high sped until the mixture is pale yellow and very fluffy, about 8 minutes. Beat in lemon zest. Sift flour and cornstarch over the egg mixture and fold in along with the salt, with a rubber spatula. At medium speed, beat in the butter, then the poppy seeds.

Pour the batter into the butter pan and cover tightly with buttered foil. Bake for 45 minutes, or until the cake pulls away from the side of the pan and a cake tester inserted comes out clean. Remove the foil and let the cake cool in the pan on a rack for 15 minutes. (This is when the cake may shrink! It's almost comical.) Invert the cake onto the rack (gently especially if it shrinks!) and let cool completely before serving, at least 30 minutes. Keeps wrapped in plastic and foil at room temperature for 3 days...but it won't last that long!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Should have tried this years ago.

I have a pretty extensive recipe collection. I’m always hoping to get better at making things up, and I think I’ve come a long way. But the reality is that recipes are where I learn, and where I can flex my creativity within the confines of a formula I’m reasonably sure will work.

The collection is divided into “waiting to try” and “tried and true”, organized by season, bound with giant paper clips and snuggled into an indestructible mailing envelope that will never crumble or disintegrate amidst the slings and arrows of my outrageous cookbook drawer. When it comes time to trade out a fading season’s recipes for a season just dawning, I get ridiculously excited. With the start of March I got out my spring recipes, and it was nice to see them again.

But before I stashed the hearty winter recipes away, I tried one that has been sitting in my collection for 3 YEARS. Crazy. I found this recipe in January 2008 in Bon App├ętit, and somehow have been sitting on it all this time. It’s a ridiculously amazing Thai chicken soup with curry, sweet potatoes, snow peas and coconut milk. The curry broth starts out with a gorgeous Asian mirepoix the fragrance of which will knock your socks off. The whole shebang is served over chewy rice noodles and topped with fresh chilies, red onion and lime.

I can’t believe it took me so long to get around to trying this sensational dish – I suppose the one deterrent is that there are 20 ingredients and most of them you won’t likely have on hand unless you have a pretty beefy Asian pantry (sambal oelek, fish sauce, curry paste, curry powder, coconut milk, lemongrass, etc). I think it always sounded like a pain to me. But sometimes those recipes turn out to be the very best.

Spicy Curry Noodle Soup With Chicken and Sweet Potato
adapted from Bon Appetit

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 tablespoons chopped shallots
3 garlic cloves, chopped
2 tablespoons minced lemongrass (from bottom 4 inches of about 3 stalks, tough outer leaves discarded)
2 tablespoons minced peeled fresh ginger
2 tablespoons Thai curry paste (I used red because I couldn't find yellow, and would use it again)
2 tablespoons curry powder (I used yellow)
1 teaspoon hot chili paste (such as sambal oelek)
2 14-ounce cans unsweetened coconut milk
5 cups chicken broth
2 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
3 cups snow peas, trimmed
2 cups 1/2-inch cubes peeled red-skinned sweet potato
1 pound dried rice stick noodles
3/4 pound chicken breast, thinly sliced (*using my special technique)
1/2 cup thinly sliced red onion
1/4 cup thinly sliced green onion
3 red Thai chilies thinly sliced (If you can't find these, red Fresno chilies work just fine)
1 lime, cut into wedges

Heat oil in a heavy large saucepan over medium heat. Add next 4 ingredients, stir until fragrant, about 1 minute. Reduce heat to medium low. Stir in curry paste, curry powder and chili paste. Add 1/2 cup coconut milk, scooped from the thick liquid at the top of the can. Stir until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add remaining coconut milk, broth, fish sauce and sugar. Bring broth to a boil. Keep warm. (Or do 1 day ahead and refrigerate.)

Cook snow peas in a large boiling salted pot of water until bright green - about 20 seconds. Using a strainer remove peas from pot and rinse under cold water. Bring water in same pot back to boil, then add sweet potato and cook until tender, about 7 minutes. Remove using strainer and rinse under cold water to cool. Bring water in same pot back to boil and cook noodles until just tender but still firm to bite, about 6 minutes. Drain, rinse under cold water to cool. Let stand at room temperature. (Can be made 1 hour ahead if desired.)

Bring broth to a simmer. Add thinly sliced chicken, simmer until chicken is cooked through. (If you cut the chicken my way, this will take 1-2 minutes - thicker chicken strips will take up to 10). Add sweet potato and snow peas and stir to heat through, about 1 minute. Heat noodles if they're not already warm and divide among bowls. Divide hot soup among bowls. Scatter red onion, green onion and chilies over soup. Garnish with lime and serve.