Sunday, October 19, 2008

Tricks and Treats

Fall has definitely arrived!  Everywhere you look, you can see signs of it- leaves of orange, yellow, and red crowding the sidewalk, pumpkins decorating front yards, and halloween candy piled up in all the stores.  I love all of it!  Fall is my favorite time of year.

It was no surprise, then, that I jumped at the chance to attend Pastry Chicago's haunted cupcake decorating competition this Saturday.  Pastry
Chicago is a really neat organization that hosts competitions and other fun events to promote the Pastry Arts.  I figured that I'd visit with any of the Kendall College students attending and get a few decorating ideas while I was at it.

The event was held at Zagone Studios, a halloween mask factory on Chicago's North side.  It happens to be the only factory of its kind in the United States.  We were literally the production room that contained some of the creepiest masks I've seen in my life.  It was really incredible!  From the molds stacked against the wall to piles and piles of masks in varying stages of completion to airbrushed pieces on drying stands, it was certainly the perfect setting for this Halloween-themed affair.

Once I got over the initial shock and awe at our surroundings, I really enjoyed checking out each of the entries.  There were some amazing cupcakes- from a fun and simple fondant ghost to an elaborate "haunted hill."  I took pictures of my favorites (check them out here) and I left with some great ideas, as well as one of the haunted hill cupcakes that was generously offered to me as I was headed out the door.  Celebrating Halloween (and a Kendall College victory!!) is certainly not a bad way to spend a Saturday!

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Taste Test

There are certain people in life that you can just count on for good advice. For example, you know you can turn to your best friend when you're trying to decide if those jeans make you look fat or to your Dad when you need to sort out a problem with your car. When it comes to baking, I know I can turn to David Lebovitz for great advice! Yes, he lives in Paris and no, he does not know who I am. Is that even important in this great age of technology?? I absolutely adore his website for his funny narratives, gorgeous photography, and amazing recipes. When he offers up some advice, I take it! (Ok- not all of his advice. If I did, I'd probably be living in France trying to get rich quick by running a copier business. Yikes!)

Recently, he posted about the importance of aluminum-free baking powder. There are some health-related arguments that can be made, but his discussion of baking powder focused primarily on the taste factor. That using the aluminum-free variety could improve the taste of your baked goods. In my opinion, this was a theory worth testing out, especially since my grocery store carried both varieties of baking powder without a significant cost difference. Plus, a taste test sounded like a fun activity for the long weekend!

Before dinner this evening, my husband and I biked down to the grocery store for a can of Rumford aluminum-free baking powder and I set to work making two batches of Ina Garten's Outrageous Brownies- one using Rumford and one using the Clabber Girl already in my pantry. Using the promise of an extra brownie as incentive, I had convinced my husband to be my taste tester even though I'm pretty sure he's sick of giving "objective feedback" about my cooking. I was extra careful to make the two batches exactly the same and label the pans so I'd remember which was which. I was pretty excited to see what difference this new baking powder would make.

Then, when we finally sat down to try the two brownies, we noticed...nothing. From what we could tell, the batches were indistinguishable- same texture, same flavor, same everything. At first, I was a little disappointed that the brownies made with the old baking powder didn't seem to pale in comparison to the aluminum-free variety in the way I hoped they would. I, of course, convinced myself that there would be a huge difference and I'd never go back to the old stuff again. Sounds like someone's been watching too many late night infomercials, huh?? Yet even though we didn't detect a difference, I think I'll be sticking to the aluminum-free stuff. If the aluminum doesn't add anything to the baking powder, why use it? Plus, now that I have a whole can of it, thanks to David Lebovitz, I guess I don't have a choice!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Roasted Red Pepper Hummus with Lemony Pita Chips

Whenever I go to a party, I like to bring something yummy along with me.  After studying baking and pastry in school, it usually ends up being a dessert of some sort.  I'm lucky to have family and friends who let me test out new recipes on them!  However, when a sweet isn't needed, I usually turn to appetizers.  Hummus with homemade pita chips is always a good standby- everyone loves chips with dip and this is a recipe that you can change up to be new and different each time you make it.  For this occasion, I added in some roasted red peppers to give it a kick of flavor and color.  I also cut some of the fat in the dip by reducing the amount of Tahini I usually use and swapping the olive oil for plain, low-fat yogurt.  It turned out really tangy and delicious, plus the dip now had a boost of protein and live active cultures from the yogurt.  I brushed the pita chips in a lemon-infused olive oil to complement the tanginess of the dip.  If you don't have a flavored olive oil, feel free to use the olive oil you have on hand, or if you are super ambitious, make your own!  You can click here for some step by step directions.

Roasted Red Pepper Hummus

1 14-16 ounce can of chick peas, drained
2 peeled cloves of garlic
2 Tbs. tahini
1 Tbs. lemon juice
*1/4 cup plain low-fat yogurt*
1/4 cup chopped, roasted red peppers
Salt and pepper, to taste

-Put chick peas in the bowl of a food processor or blender.
-Add garlic, tahini, lemon juice, and yogurt.
-Process or blend until smooth.
-Add chopped, roasted red peppers.  Process or blend until smooth.
-Season to taste with salt and pepper.
-Serve with lemony pita chips.

Lemony Pita Chips

4 rounds of pita bread
Meyer Lemon Olive Oil (Available at Olive and Well,
Sea salt ( I like to use a more coarse salt, such as fleur de sel)

-Preheat oven to 400 degrees Farenheit.
-Cut pita rounds in half and open up the pockets.
-Cut along the edges to separate the sides of the pockets so that you have thin pieces of pita.
-Cut pita halves into triangles of desired size.
-Spread on two foil lined baking sheets in a single layer.
-Brush each side with lemon olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt.
-Bake at 400 degrees for about 10 minutes, rotating and turning as needed to ensure even browning.
-Cool to room temperature and serve with roasted red pepper hummus.
*Unused pita chips should be stored in an airtight container to prevent softening.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Food for Thought...

I happened to come across this video when I was doing some research for the cooking classes I teach after school, and boy, am I glad that I did! The speaker is Ann Cooper, director of nutrition services for the Berkeley Unified School District. Two years ago, she was charged with the daunting task of overseeing the lunch program for 16 public schools. She has spent this time overhauling the programs to provide nutritious, locally grown, and organic food to the children, as well as running gardening and cooking classes to help change how kids view food. What she has to say about food and the way our society views and consumes it is incredibly interesting. It almost makes you want to pack up and move to Berkeley...

The video is a little on the long side (just under 20 minutes), but more than well-worth the time to view it. Plus, it gives you something to think about on a rainy Tuesday afternoon when you're stuck inside.
Learn more about Ann and her incredible work that is sure to shape the future of the school lunch here (

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Stuffed Portobello Mushrooms

When it comes to grocery shopping, I think we all get a little picky.  I know that I certainly do.  There are several grocery stores within a mile of my house, but there is a certain one I always go to do my regular shopping.  It just seems better than the others.  Despite the fact that I prefer this store over the others, there are still some items that are worth the trip to a specialty shop and the farmers market.  Or at least it seems that way.  I always buy my canned tomatoes from the Italian market because they are cheaper and infinitely better than what my grocery has to offer.  Pitas and stuffed grape leaves only from the Middle Eastern market near my house because they are out of this world!  And the portobello mushrooms for this recipe come from the farmers' market, naturally.

I've noticed, though, that certain items I'd normally go out of my way for are popping up at my local store.  I'm definitely glad about that.  Take Panko bread crumbs for example.  In the past, that would definitely be an extra trip.  With so many mentions of them on FoodTV, it's no surprise that mainstream brands have started offering them.  Panko are the light and flaky Japanese version of bread crumbs.  They're usually plain, and that's how I like to buy them so I can add my own flavorings.  On a whim, I picked up Progresso's version with Italian seasoning.  Although I was a little skeptical, I had great results.  They are buttery and full of flavor- so perfect for this recipe that I had to do little in the way of additional seasoning.  These stuffed portobellos are easy to make and a great dinner with a little pasta on the side.

6 Portobello mushrooms, with stems
2 Tablespoons olive oil, plus more for brushing on the mushrooms
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped bell pepper, any color (1 small or 1/2 large pepper)
1 package sweet Italian turkey sausage, about 20 ounces
1/2 cup crushed tomatoes
1 cup Progresso Panko bread crumbs, Italian style
3/4 cup parmesan cheese
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
Pinch of cayenne pepper
1 egg, lightly beaten

-Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
-Break the stems off the Portobello mushrooms and set aside.
-Lightly rub the tops of the mushroom caps with a damp towel to clean.
-Brush the caps with a little olive oil and set on a baking sheet.  Set aside.
-Wash the mushroom stems, removing any dirt and chop to add to the veggies.
-In a large pan, heat olive oil.
-Add onions, peppers, and mushroom stems.  Cook until vegetables are softened and onions are translucent.
-Remove casings from the sausage and add to the pan, breaking it up as you go.
-Cook over medium heat, stirring to break up and ensure even cooking.  When sausage is no longer pink, stir in the crushed tomatoes and cook for another minute.
-Remove from heat and stir in 1/2 cup of the bread crumbs, 1/4 cup of the cheese, salt, pepper, and a pinch of cayenne.  Adjust seasonings as needed.
-Carefully stir in the beaten egg.  The mixture is hot, so care and quickness will prevent the egg from cooking.
-Portion mixture out onto the mushroom caps.  Fill each cap with about 1/2-3/4 cup of filling.
-Combine remaining 1/2 cup bread crumbs and 1/2 cup cheese.  Top the filled mushrooms with this mixture.
-Bake in preheated oven until topping is golden brown and mushrooms are tender, about 20 minutes.
-Cool slightly before serving.
*I like to serve these set on top of a little tomato sauce and drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.