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Real Mac and Cheese is BAKED!

Over Memorial Day weekend, we went to visit with my wife’s extended family.  Her saintly Aunt Debbie and Uncle Roger invited the forty or so people to descend upon their house and cause total havoc.  They were spectacular hosts and thought of every possible contingency.  Seriously, we had a great time and are eternally grateful to them.

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Both of these boys were more interested in pine cones than mac and cheese.

At one point, Aunt Debbie was concerned that the kids weren’t going to have the mac and cheese that she promised them with one of the enormous meals we had, so she asked me if I would help out.  I jumped in there, and judging my inability to find even a single noodle left out of the 3 pounds of macaroni that I made, people liked it.  Here’s a more normal sized recipe. 

Baked Macaroni and Cheese

  • 1/2 pound elbow macaroni
  • 2 tablespoons bacon drippings (you could use butter or canola oil, but why?)
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • 1 1/2 cups warm milk
  • 2 cups grated cheddar cheese (I like extra sharp)
  • 1/4 cup sour cream (I think plain yogurt would work too)
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper sauce
  • Salt and Pepper
  • 3/4 cup fresh bread crumbs (you could use panko or dried if you want)
  • 1 tablespoon bacon drippings

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Put large pot full of water on to boil.  Cook the elbow noodles to al dente and then drain well.

While the noodles are cooking, heat 3 tablespoons bacon drippings in a sauce pan over medium high heat.  When oil is hot (you’ll smell it), add the flour and stir to coat.  Cook for a few minutes and it should turn into a light brown paste.  Whisk in the hot milk and make sure to get into all the corners of the pan.  Reduce the heat to medium and it will thicken after a minute or two.  Adjust with a bit more milk if it gets too thick.

Add cheese and whisk until smooth.  Add sour cream, cayenne sauce, salt and pepper.  Taste it and adjust as needed.  When you are happy with the sauce, pour the cheese sauce over the drained noodles.  Mix well and don’t worry if it seems a little saucy.  Pour the mixture into a 9×13 pan.

In a small bowl, toss the bread crumbs with 1 tablespoon of bacon drippings (or melted butter) and hit it with a little kosher salt.  Sprinkle the bread crumbs over the top of the pan.  Bake for 25-30 minutes until the topping is nice and golden brown. 

It’s a Napoleon. Not THAT Napoleon…

I have gushed about my affection for different foods in previous posts.  You must believe me, though, when I share my absolute adoration for all things pastry.  Pastry is a last-meal-on-earth kind of thing for me.  (At least part of it, anyway.  It’s not all that exclusive a list, really.)

He looks like a real charmer, doesn’t he?

When I first tried this recipe out on my wife, I think she might have cried a little bit (and not like that time she tried the gumbo).  It’s not just me this time.  I brought it to her just minutes after the pastry came out of the oven, the cherry sauce was still warm and the cream was perfectly chilled.  It was as perfect as a non-chocolate dessert can be.

 

Mini Cherry Vanilla Napoleons

  • 1 package frozen puff pastry, defrosted (I use Pepperidge farm.  I can make the stuff, but it is a colossal pain.)
  • 1 recipe Vanilla Cream (see below)
  • 1 recipe Cherry Sauce (see below)
  • 1 egg beaten with a little water
  • granulated sugar
  • powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Take a 1 inch biscuit cutter and cut as many rounds as you can out of the puff pastry dough.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and space out the rounds evenly on it.  Lightly brush each of them with the egg wash and then sprinkle with some granulated sugar.  Bake for 8 or 9 minutes or until the are puffed up and golden brown.  Remove from oven and allow to cool slightly.

Cut 3 of the puffs in half horizontally.  Take one of the bottoms, spoon on a cherry, some cream and then top with one of the other pieces.  Then spoon on more cherry, more cream and then top with one of the tops.  Repeat this with the remaining pieces and you should have 2 completed desserts with 3 layers of pastry each.  Do this with the remaining puffs. 

Sift some powdered sugar over the tops of them and try to make them last more than 20 minutes, I dare you.

Vanilla Cream

  • 4 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 1 cup heavy cream, whipped to soft peaks
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla

Beat cream cheese with sugar until light and fluffy.  Fold in the whipped cream and vanilla. 

Cherry Sauce

  • 8 ounces sweet cherries (frozen works fine in this)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon cornstarch mixed with 1 teaspoon cold water (if needed)

In a small sauce pan, dissolve the sugar in the water over medium heat.  Allow the syrup to come to a boil and let it simmer and it will eventually thicken a bit.  Add the frozen cherries and lemon juice.  Some times this will thicken into a nice saucy consistency and other times I have to bring the mixture back to a simmer and then add the cornstarch and water slurry (don’t you love that word?).  The cornstarch will thicken it the rest of the way. 

Easter Strawberry Dessert

Strawberries are ridiculously cheap around here now, so I bought a whole bunch of them over the weekend.  This was one of the ways we dreamed up to use them all. 

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The photo’s not the greatest, but you get the idea.  I used Jacques Pepin’s (one of my cooking superheroes) Biscuit Roule recipe (see below) for the sponge cake part, and then threw some cream cheese, fresh berries, sugar and lemon juice in a food processor to make the filling.  I threw on some halved fresh strawberries and dotted it with vanilla whipped cream et voila. 

Honestly, the cake is the hardest part, and it’s not really that tough.  It will look like you put far more effort into it that it actually takes.

Rolled Cake (Biscuit Roule)

  • 3 eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla
  • 1/2 cup all purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons melted butter

Set oven to 350 degrees.  Combine eggs, egg yolk, sugar and vanilla in the bowl of a stand mixer or another stainless steel bowl.  Set the mixer on high and beat egg mixture for 5 to 6 minutes.  It should almost triple in volume and become pale yellow.  Sift the flour into the egg mixture and fold together, being careful not to deflate the eggs.  Fold in the melted butter.

Take a sheet pan and line it with parchment paper.  Grease paper with butter, then dust flour over the butter.  Shake off excess flour.  Spread the batter evenly over the parchment paper, trying to maintain a rectangular shape.  Bake for 8-10 minutes.

When the edges are barely brown, remove from oven and let sit for 5 minutes.  Remove the parchment paper to a cooling rack and let cool to lukewarm.  Then put another piece of parchment paper on the top of the cake and flip over.  Carefully peel the parchment paper from the bottom of the cake.  Then roll the cake up like a jelly roll between the two pieces of paper.  Wrap the whole thing up in plastic wrap until you’re ready to fill it.

If I wasn’t such a slacker, I would put up some pictures of this…the words make it sound harder than it is.

It’s FINALLY Here. So Now What?

I absolutely LOVE Thanksgiving.  Preparing this meal is something I look forward to all year long.  Don’t get me wrong, I like Christmas, but I particularly like this time of year to re-focus on all of the things we have to be thankful for.  For me the list has always been long and I am excited to share this time with my family and friends.

For some reason this year several people who will be making this spread for the first time have come to ask my advice, so I know that many will be stressing out over this meal.  To help out, I am going to post my menu for this year and give you the recipes.  This will be a monster of a post, but hopefully it will give you some inspiration for your own meal. 

The Side Shows

Mashed Potatoes

I always have to start here.  This is a must have for me, one of those things that define this meal to me.  I use Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and large diced which I boil until easily pierced with a fork.  Drain the potatoes and then take heavy cream and steam it (or heat it in the microwave).  Melt some unsalted butter (and I do mean butter, none of this fake crap – it’s Thanksgiving for cryin’ out loud) and then mash the potatoes a bit.  Pour in some hot cream and some butter, while whisking the mixture.  Add cream and butter until it gets to the consistency you like, then add salt and pepper.  You really can’t mess this one up.

Gravy

Gravy is one of those things that seems to strike fear into the hearts of many cooks.  Everyone has experienced the lumpy, floury, greasy failures that I think cause this fear.  Gravy doesn’t have to be hard, though.  You are going to get a fantastic flavor boost for free from the turkey drippings, so all you have to do is to get a good consistency to work with.  For me, a nice blond roux is the perfect start.  I usually sauté some onions in a decent amount of butter because I like the flavor that they bring to the party.  Then add about 1/2 cup of flour (sifting the flour into the pan helps reduce lumps) and cook it for 2 or 3 minutes.  Then add some hot chicken stock and whisk until it gets to a thick consistency.  When your turkey is done, strain out the drippings into a large glass measuring cup and allow the fat to separate out.  Skim off all of the fat and then whisk the remainder into the gravy.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

Sweet Potato Casserole

No marshmallows in this one, sorry.  It’s full of butter and sugar, so quit your whining.  This one is best started the day before.  Bake 3 or 4 large sweet potatoes until they’re completely soft.  Let them cool.  Peel them and then put the insides into a large bowl.  Beat in about a cup of sugar, 1/2 tsp salt, 2 eggs, 3 tablespoons melted butter, 1/2 cup milk and a tsp of vanilla.  In a separate bowl, combine 3 tablespoons butter, a cup of brown sugar, 1/3 cup flour.  Once it’s all mixed up put this mixture on top of the sweet potatoes and then bake at 350 for 30 minutes or so.

Green Beans Almondine

I vacillate between this one and the green bean casserole (with homemade mushroom cream sauce and fried onions, of course).  My problem is that oven time is at a premium on Thanksgiving day as I only have a single oven, which is a sad thing indeed.  So I go with this simple skillet preparation instead.  I take a couple of pounds of fresh green beans with the ends trimmed and cut them in half for easier sautéing.  I boil them in salted water for a couple of minutes, then drain the hot water and dump the beans into an ice water bath to stop the cooking and prevent them from turning an ugly gray.  I then heat a heavy skillet over medium heat and drop a few tablespoons of butter into it.  Once the butter melts, add a minced shallot (or onion or garlic even) and cook for a minute or so.  Add the beans and toss to heat and coat.  Add sliced almonds and cook for another few minutes, then add salt and pepper to taste. 

Caramelized Corn and Mint

Every year, I do an experimental recipe.  Some times it works out, sometimes not.  My only requirement is that I’ve never tried to cook it before.  This year I was reading a food blog which I had never cooked anything from – The Wednesday Chef – and she really sold this recipe, so there you have it.

Dinner Rolls

This is one is from Cook’s Illustrated.  I am not the greatest baker, so I pretty much follow this one as written.

  • 1 1/2 cups plus 1 tablespoon water (12 1/2 ounces), room temperature
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons instant or rapid-rise yeast
  • 2 teaspoons honey
  • 3 cups plus 1 tablespoon bread flour (16 1/2 ounces), plus extra for forming rolls
  • 3 tablespoons whole wheat flour (about 1 ounce)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons table salt

Whisk water, yeast, and honey in bowl of stand mixer until well combined, making sure no honey sticks to bottom of bowl. Add flours and mix on low speed with dough hook until cohesive dough is formed, about 3 minutes. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature 30 minutes.

Remove plastic wrap and evenly sprinkle salt over dough. Knead on low speed (speed 2 on KitchenAid) 5 minutes. (If dough creeps up attachment, stop mixer and scrape down using well-floured hands or greased spatula.) Increase speed to medium and continue to knead until dough is smooth and slightly tacky, about 1 minute. If dough is very sticky, add 1 to 2 tablespoons flour and continue mixing 1 minute. Lightly spray 2-quart bowl with nonstick cooking spray; transfer dough to bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let dough rise in warm, draft-free place until doubled in size, about 1 hour.

Fold dough over itself; rotate bowl quarter turn and fold again. Rotate bowl again and fold once more. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise 30 minutes. Repeat folding, replace plastic wrap, and let dough rise until doubled in volume, about 30 minutes. Spray two 9-inch round cake pans with nonstick cooking spray and set aside.

Transfer dough to floured work surface, sprinkle top with more flour. Using bench scraper, cut dough in half and gently stretch each half into 16-inch cylinders. Divide each cylinder into quarters, then each quarter into 2 pieces (you should have 16 pieces total), and dust top of each piece with more flour. With floured hands, gently pick up each piece and roll in palms to coat with flour, shaking off excess, and place in prepared cake pan. Arrange 8 dough pieces in each cake pan, placing one piece in middle and others around it, with long side of each piece running from center of pan to edge and making sure cut-side faces up. Loosely cover cake pans with plastic wrap and let rolls rise until doubled in size, about 30 minutes (dough is ready when it springs back slowly when pressed lightly with finger). Thirty minutes before baking, adjust rack to middle position and heat oven to 500 degrees.

Remove plastic wrap from cake pans, spray rolls lightly with water, and place in oven. Bake 10 minutes until tops of rolls are brown; remove from oven. Reduce oven temperature to 400 degrees; using kitchen towels or oven mitts, invert rolls from both cake pans onto rimmed baking sheet. When rolls are cool enough to handle, turn right-side up, pull apart, and space evenly on baking sheet. Continue to bake until rolls develop deep golden brown crust and sound hollow when tapped on bottom, 10 to 15 minutes; rotating baking sheet halfway through baking time. Transfer rolls to wire rack and cool to room temperature, about 1 hour.

 

Orange Cranberry Sauce

This is another one to make the day before.  First, use a microplane or zester and get all of the zest off of one orange.  Then finish peeling off the pith and chop the orange into pieces (remove any seeds).  Take a couple of packages of fresh cranberries, put them in a sauce pan and add 1/2 cup of sugar, the chopped orange and a cinnamon stick.  Simmer all of this together until the cranberries start bursting and the sauce thickens.  Then mix in the zest and add a little freshly grated nutmeg.  Let cool and put it in the refrigerator, overnight if possible.

 

The Main Event

Turkey

I have nothing against ham.  Or beef.  Or pork.  I am truly an equal opportunity glutton.  For Thanksgiving for me, though, it has to be turkey.  Look at this bad boy from a few years ago:

DSC01118Turkey is pretty simple really.  I soak mine in brine for a couple of days before hand.  I get a cooler, put the defrosted bird in it.  I try to guess how much water it will take to completely cover the bird (usually 4-6 gallons) and then I dissolve 1 cup of kosher salt per gallon of water, a couple of cups of brown sugar, a palm full of whole allspice, 4 or 5 dried bay leaves, 2 or 3 palms full of whole black peppercorns in a gallon or so of water.  I pour this mixture along with the rest of the cold water over the bird, and then add a bag of ice.  Let it sit in the brine for 24-48 hours and then take it out and rinse it off. 

Then take the bird and put it on a roasting rack inside a deep pan.  Let it sit in the refrigerator overnight.  On Thanksgiving morning, melt a couple of tablespoons of butter and brush the bird all over with it.  Then sprinkle on kosher salt and pepper.  Take some chopped onion, celery and carrot and some fresh thyme and put some inside the cavity of the turkey and the rest in the bottom of the roasting pan.  Also, add about a cup of water to the bottom of the pan.  Roast the turkey, breast side down at 400 degrees for an hour or so.  Then flip the bird with one wing up, baste it and roast for about 15 or 20 minutes.  Then flip the bird to the other wing baste it and roast for 15 minutes.  Then flip the breast side up baste it again, and roast until the breast gets to 160 degrees or so (start checking after 30 minutes or so).  Take the bird out and let it rest for 10 minutes or so, then it’s ready to carve.

The After Party

Pumpkin Mousse Parfait

I really like Ina Garten.  She is very classy and yet down to earth.  This recipe is from one of her cookbooks and I don’t really change anything about it.  It’s fantastic!

Apple Pie

My wife is actually the pie maker in our house.  She does a spectacular job and this is her recipe for a most excellent apple pie.

  • ½ cup plus 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
  • ¼ cup packed light brown sugar
  • ¼ tsp table salt
  • 1 tbsp juice and ½ tsp grated zest from 1 lemon
  • 1/8 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 2 ½ lbs firm tart apples (about 5 medium), peeled and cut into ¼ inch thick slices
  • 2 ½ lbs firm sweet apples (about 5 medium), peeled and cut into ¼ inch thick slices
  • Mix ½ cup sugar, brown sugar, salt, zest, and cinnamon in large bowl.

Add apples and toss to combine. Transfer apples to dutch oven (do not wash bowl) and cook, covered, over medium heat, stirring frequently, until apples are tender when poked with fork but still hold their shape, 15 to 20 minutes. (Apples and juices should gently simmer during cooking). Transfer apples and juices to rimmed baking sheet and cool to room temperature, about 30 minutes. While apples cool, adjust oven rack to lowest position, place empty rimmed baking sheet on rack, and heat oven to 425 degrees.

Remove 1 disk of dough from refrigerator and roll out between 2 large sheets of parchment paper or plastic wrap to 12 inch circle, about 1/8 inch thick. (If dough becomes soft and/or sticky, return to refrigerator until firm.) Remove parchment from one side of dough with one hand while pressing into plate bottom with other hand. Leave dough that overhangs plate in place; refrigerate until dough is firm, about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, roll second disk of dough between 2 large sheets of parchment paper or plastic wrap to 12 inch circle, about 1/8 inch thick. Refrigerate, leaving dough between parchment sheets, until firm, about 30 minutes.

Set large colander over now-empty bowl; transfer cooled apples to colander. Shake colander to drain off as much juice as possible (cooked apples should measure about 8 cups); discard juice. Transfer apples to dough lined pie plate; sprinkle with lemon juice.

Remove parchment from one side of remaining dough and flip dough onto apples; peel off second piece of parchment. Pinch edges of top and bottom dough rounds firmly together. Cut four 2 inch slits in top of dough. Brush surface with beaten egg white and sprinkle evenly with remaining teaspoon sugar.

Set pie on preheated baking sheet; bake until crust is dark golden brown, 45 to 55 minutes. Transfer pie to wire rack and cool at least 1 ½ hours. Cut into wedges and serve.

Sometimes the French REALLY get it Right

I am a huge fan of potatoes.  (Carbs in general, actually).  I adore mashed, baked, fried, hashed…anything really.  The one potato dish that has never really done it for me was “O G-Rotten”, as it is usually either a box/mix and the potatoes are dehydrated and the sauce is a gloppy mess or it’s undercooked and greasy.  That is a crying shame because a proper gratin (gră-tăN) can be a fantastic buttery creamy comfort sensation. 

Here’s my take on the classic french “Gratin de Pomme de Terre”.  Why yes that is bacon on top of there…everyone knows that bacon makes everything taste better.

potato-gratin

Potato Gratin

  • 4 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, sliced as thin as you can get them
  • 1 medium white onion, diced fine
  • Kosher salt and pepper
  • 4 ounces sharp cheddar cheese
  • 3 or 4 tablespoons butter
  • 1 cup half and half
  • 1/2 pound of bacon

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Cook bacon in a heavy skillet until crispy.  Remove to paper towels to drain.  Roughly chop after bacon is cool.  Drain off all but 1 tablespoon of the bacon grease and set over medium heat.  Add onion to skillet and cook until translucent, about 6 minutes. 

Grease a 9×13 pan with a tablespoon of butter.  Lay the potato slices, slightly overlapping in the bottom of the pan.  Sprinkle with a decent amount of salt and pepper.  Then put on about 1/3 of the onions and 1/2 the cheese.  Repeat with a new layer of potatoes.  You should be able to get a third layer, which will get a sprinkling of onion, but no cheese.  Pour the half and half over the potatoes and then dot with small chunks of butter.  Put in oven for about 45 minutes.  Take out of oven and sprinkle the bacon pieces evenly over the top, put back in the oven and cook for 15 to 20 minutes more, depending on how thick those potatoes are.  You want a fork or knife to slip very easily through them.  Take them out when they’re done, and try not to fight over the delicious corners!

What’s this all about?

So I’ve been thinking about doing this blog for a long while now.  I put up my first blog as more of an experiment than anything else, so I have wanted to do this one right.

My name is Dave Purdon and I work in the IT industry by day (and night sometimes) but one of my real passions is for food and cooking.  I do most of the cooking for my wife and three children and it seems that we’re always trying to come up with ideas for dinner.  So this space is hereby dedicated to the quest for dinner under the following criteria:

1. It has to be relatively quick.  I get home in the evenings and usually don’t have much more than a half hour to get something on the table.  60 minutes will be the max.

2.  It can’t be too “weird”.  My most excellent and supportive wife will try almost anything I concoct, but I have a 9 year old girl and a 5 year old boy who think good food is from McDonald’s (shudder).

3.  I’d really like for someone to look at one of these recipes and say “That looks great and I’m going to try it”.  I think they’ll find that it is not very hard and so much more satisfying than eating prepared food.  I want others to get a sense of the pleasure that comes from gathering with family/friends around food that you’ve made for them. 

So, with those things in mind, I hope you’ll try the recipes because I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy them!