Sunday, November 28, 2010

Pumpkin Cake with Whipped Cream & Pecan Praline

This cake was epic. It was a heart attack on a plate. A real treat. Not intended for everyday use.

But if you ever have an occasion that calls for it, this cake is more than justified in its richness.

A little more than a month ago (I'm not ashamed to say), I got out all of my food magazines for the months of November & December. I surrounded myself with them in the bed one Sunday afternoon & (like the pretentious foodie that I am) made a list of things I'd like to share with my loved ones over the holidays. This cake was one of them. It just looked so regal & impressive...and it was.

I made this cake on a Friday while waiting to hear back from a job my ideal public middle school, the school I student taught in, the only school I'd ever send my children, the best middle school in Nashville,in my opinion. I was beside myself. At times, I felt like Marsha Brady in that episode where she's waiting for a boy to call & calls the telephone operator to make sure her phone is actually working.

Well, I thought making this cake, my first ever cake from scratch, would make for a fine distraction. I won't lie to you. It was a lot of work & a lot of mess. Not to mention that I got two injuries in the process & two sinks full of dishes before I'd even thought of starting on dinner. But alas, I'd say it was well worth it.

Anything flour-based usually is deferred to my husband to make. It's his area of interest. I hate dealing with the stuff. It's so messy & impossible sometimes. I've never succeeded in making a cake from scratch. The past two attempts yielded disgusting and weird results. I'd never made pralines or had any luck with making candy in the past. In fact, my last experience was an inedible, grainy almond brittle. What a waste as nuts are so expensive.

But my pralines turned out well, except that they were a little too thick. I didn't smash them down good enough. They were fantastic, though. You really don't have to put anything in the skillet with the sugar. It takes a while, but it will eventually melt.

I burned myself while pouring the pralines onto the parchment paper, but I didn't let it stop me. You do have to act fast or you'll end up with a big blob of praline.

I also cut my thumb pretty badly zesting the orange. I haven't cut myself in the kitchen in a long time & I wasn't very happy that I'd been so sloppy, but baking intimidates me so much. It freaks me out. I'm so afraid I don't have it in me to be so precise.

Surprisingly, my cake turned out really well. It was really moist & delicious. I took it to Parsons and shared it with my friend Amanda, her baby, Patsy, and my sweet husband. Then I took it to feed other family members & friends, because one should never find themselves alone with this massive clump of goodness.

Pumpkin Cake with Whipped Cream & Pecan Praline
from Rachel Ray
  • 3 cups granulated sugar
  • 2 cups pecans (about 8 ounces)
  • 2½ cups flour
  • 1 tablespoon pumpkin pie spice
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 2 cups packed brown sugar
  • 4 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • Grated zest of 1 orange
  • One 15-ounce can pure pumpkin puree
  • 3 cups heavy cream, chilled
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

The cake layers can be wrapped and stored at room temperature up to one day ahead of frosting.


  1. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Butter two 8-by-2-inch round cake pans. Line the bottoms of the pans with parchment paper and butter the parchment. Flour the pans.

  2. In a large skillet, melt 2 cups granulated sugar over medium-high heat until light amber, about 7 minutes. Reduce the heat to low, add the pecans and quickly stir to coat. Transfer the pecans to the prepared baking sheet and, using a metal spatula, spread in a single layer to cool completely. Place the praline in a sturdy resealable plastic bag and crush into pieces; set aside.

  3. Preheat the oven to 350°. In a bowl, sift together the flour, pumpkin pie spice, salt, baking powder and baking soda. Using an electric mixer, beat together the butter, 1/2 cup brown sugar and the remaining 1 cup granulated sugar until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs, 1 at a time, beating until combined. Beat in the flour mixture in 3 parts alternately with the milk and orange zest on low speed until just combined. Add the pumpkin puree and beat until just combined.

  4. Divide the batter evenly between the 2 prepared pans and bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Transfer the cake layers to a rack to cool, about 10 minutes. Remove the cakes from the pans, invert and peel off the parchment paper. Let the cakes cool completely on the rack, about 45 minutes.

  5. Meanwhile, make the frosting. Using a standing mixer with a whisk attachment, whip the cream on medium speed until soft peaks form, 2 to 3 minutes. On low speed, gradually beat in the remaining 1-1/2 cups brown sugar and the vanilla until stiff peaks form. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.

  6. Assemble the cake: Halve each cake layer horizontally with a serrated knife. Place 1 cake layer on a platter. Spread the whipped cream frosting on top about 1/4 inch thick; sprinkle with about 1/2 cup crushed pecan praline. Repeat with three more layers, saving enough frosting for the cake sides and reserving the last layer of praline. Spread the remaining frosting evenly on the sides of the cake and sprinkle the reserved pecan praline on top. Refrigerate the cake for at least 1 hour before serving.

Enjoy it with a relaxed cat.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Golden Chicken, Corn, & Orzo Soup

This soup was positively delicious, but the recipe was flawed...or maybe I only like to eat one kind of chicken soup. I added a bevy of spices in addition to the ones called for which made it sort of a Southwestern affair. I used homemade chicken broth which might not have been as flavorful as it needed to be. I was recently talking shop with a cousin and she said she "fortifies" her broth with a stick of butter. I did no such thing and therefore my broth might not have been altogether tasty.

A word about broths: I pride myself on the fact that I never ever buy the canned stuff (Well, I don't buy chicken broth. Beef broth is another story, but I don't use it that often and I have something in the works to that end anyway). I've become a fan of buying whole chickens and dispatching them myself. Err, I have Mark do that usually, but I think I could totally handle it these days. He'd feel useless if I stripped him of his "meat tech" title, though, so I let him have at it. Meat & handling meat turns Mark into a different person. His face just glows. I know how sick and sad this all sounds, but it is so very true. I felt I'd discovered something truly grand when I first put a big piece of meat in front of him. All was good in the world.

Anyway, back to the broth talk. When we cut up our whole chickens, all the "refuse" goes into a gallon-sized zip top bag. The backbone & marrow are supposedly really flavorful. I keep it in the freezer until I have a lazy Sunday or Tuesday (the life of a substitute teacher can be very glamorous, indeed). When I'm ready to make the broth, I pour the contents of the bag into my 5-quart dutch oven & add a quartered onion, a carrot or two, celery (if I happen to have it), several cloves of garlic, peppercorns, dried oregano, cumin & coriander seeds.

We also have a bag of veggie scraps: fennel fronds, onion skin (if it's organic. LRK says it's culinary gold), stems from greens, etc. If you invest in organic produce, you really should be saving your scraps. They make a delicious broth. You use the same method to produce a veggie broth.

If this idea interests you, here's a more thorough explanation by one of my favorite local food bloggers.

I have used her exact method before & perhaps I need to return to it. I got lazy when I made this particular batch of broth, so I didn't saute the veggies or anything. You could also roast them, which is more hands off, but produces flavorful results. Oh, and the addition of Madiera is nice. I don't keep it around, so I'll add white wine or vermouth. Marsala wine is also good.

Okay, so soup. We were talking about soup originally. This soup was really nice. We found ourselves adding lots of lemon juice at the table. This brightened it and made it super fabulous. Again, it was probably my faulty broth, but we found ourselves adding lots of salt. The lemon juice had a similar effect with less guilt.

Here's the recipe & I'll try to update our changes.

Golden Chicken, Corn & Orzo Soup

Adapted from Fine Cooking

olive oil celery onions thyme chicken broth chicken flat-leaf parsley lemons kosher salt black peppercorns

2 Tbs. olive oil (I used 2 T. of butter, because you know I can't help myself)
2 large ribs celery, finely diced

2 smallish carrots, cut into coins
1 medium onion, finely diced
1 pinch saffron threads (I didn’t have saffron, so I used paprika. They’re the same color, so they must have the same flavor, right?)
1/2 tsp. dried thyme
2 qt. homemade or low-salt chicken broth
2 cups finely diced or shredded cooked chicken (such as leftover roast chicken) (We used 2 chicken breasts that were trimmed & smoked on our grill by the meat tech. He'll have to share his tips with you, because, man, it was really good. He gets more flavor out of those paltry things that taste so much like sawdust sometimes. He put together a super cheap, diy smoker situation for our little gas grill. However, grill season is over, so perhaps it must wait.)
1/2 cup orzo (I think that cheese torts would be good too)
1 cup frozen corn
1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
3 Tbs. fresh lemon juice; more to taste
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Tip: You might wonder why the orzo is cooked separately. There are two reasons. If you boiled the orzo directly in the soup, the starch from the pasta would cloud the soup broth, and the orzo would also suck up too much of the soup broth as it cooked. Boiling the pasta separately solves both of these problems. (This is what FC has to say & I kinda agree, but I don't think boiling the pasta in the soup would be so bad either. I tend to like thicker soups. I guess that makes them stews or something, but whatev. However, I do think keeping the pasta separate would be a good thing if you weren't going to eat all this soup right away. We had several servings of leftovers and our pasta never got too soggy, but I worry that if this soup hangs around for more than 2 days, you'd probably want to keep the pasta separate.)

Bring a medium saucepan of well-salted water to a boil over high heat. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. Add the celery, onion, saffron, and thyme. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables start to soften, 5 to 6 minutes. Add the broth and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to a simmer, add the chicken and cook until the vegetables are tender, about 15 minutes. While the soup simmers, cook the orzo in the boiling salted water until tender, 8 to 10 minutes. Drain.

Add the drained orzo, corn, and parsley to the soup and cook just until the corn is heated through, about 2 minutes. Stir in the lemon juice and season to taste with salt, pepper, and more lemon juice, if needed.

nutrition information (per serving):
Size: based on six servings; Calories (kcal): 250; Fat (g): 10; Fat Calories (kcal): 90; Saturated Fat (g): 2; Protein (g): 22; Monounsaturated Fat (g): 6; Carbohydrates (g): 19; Polyunsaturated Fat (g): 2; Sodium (mg): 440; Cholesterol (mg): 40; Fiber (g): 2;

So, I ended up adding Worcestershire sauce, chili powder, oregano, shoot, I don't know what all. After my first initial tastes, it was just so limp. & I started craving Patsy's chicken soup. Patsy's chicken soup recipe will have to make an appearance here at some point. It's spoiled me for all other chicken soups. Patsy is the mom of one of my oldest & best friends, Amanda. She & Amanda are the reasons I love food as much as I do (you know I didn't gain an appreciation for anything but restaurant leftovers living at Peggy French's house).

Anyway, her chicken soup recipe is a lot less fussy & much tastier, so next time, my friends. We'll pick up this chicken soup convo when I have a decent recipe to offer.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Only Mac & Cheese Recipe that You'll Ever Need

Speaking of religious experiences, I’ve got Oprah’s “Favorite Things” episode on mute. It’s been on for about 4 minutes & people are already on their knees crying.

Well, I can’t give you a diamond-encrusted watch, but I can make your holidays just a little better by bestowing on you this magnificent macaroni & cheese recipe. It’s that good, I tell you. It’s the only recipe for mac I’ll ever use again. I’m not even gonna look at other recipes, I promise.

The recipe that I started with is from the Everyday Food cookbook (the first one). I’ve made the recipe several times, but each time I made it, I was looking for something more. I found myself having to doctor up the leftovers with hot sauce, etc.

Be advised, however, that this mac & cheese is not the custardy, soupy kind you find at some places. That particular brand of mac is quite disgusting to me. You know how I hate eggs, so I’m finicky when it comes to custard. This version might seem dry to some of you. I wouldn’t take mine any other way, but if you are so inclined, you could add more milk or even some eggs (a 14 oz. can of tomatoes maybe) to your mix just before you mix in the pasta & bake it. However, to me, this recipe is perfect as written.

Shane is jockeying between the dishes of the night
French-Barrett Mac & Cheese
Adapted from Everyday Food

Serves 8
• Coarse salt and ground pepper
• 1 pound elbow pasta, cooked and drained
• 4 tablespoons butter
• 1 small onion, chopped (I used a medium-sized onion)
• 1/4 cup (spooned and leveled) all-purpose flour
• 4 cups milk
• 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper, (optional)
• 4 ¼ c. of cheese (I used a mix of 3 c. white Cabot cheddar, 1 c. mozz, and about a ¼ cup romano which has a lot of character. I highly recommend it.)
• ¼ or ½ c. panko
• 8 sundried tomatoes, drained of excess oil & chopped
1 heaping T. Dijon mustard


1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Cook pasta, and drain; reserve. Meanwhile, in a 5-quart heavy pot, melt butter over medium heat. Add onion; cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, 3 to 5 minutes. Whisk in flour to coat onion. In a slow steady stream, whisk in milk until there are no lumps.

2. Cook, whisking often, until mixture is thick and bubbly and coats the back of a wooden spoon, 6 to 8 minutes (mine took about 15 minutes to get to a good consistency). Stir in cayenne, if using & mustard, and the cheese mixture. Season with 1 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. As cheese mixture melts, stir in chopped sundried tomatoes. (If you wanted to add spinach or any other veggies, this would be the time to do it.

3. Toss pasta with cheese mixture. Spoon some out into a ramekin & taste for seasoning (& to make sure it’s not poison, hehe. This is always my excuse for sampling.). Transfer to a 9-by-13-inch baking dish or individual dishes. Set aside.

4. Toss panko together with remaining 1/4 cup cheese mixture, and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Top pasta with breadcrumb mixture. Bake until top is golden, about 30 minutes

Be sure to sample the sauce/mac before you transfer it to the baking dish. I added quite a bit more salt & some more seasonings. Just keep adding things until it tastes right for you. I’ll try to remember to pay closer attention next time I make it & I’ll update this with the additional stuff I added.

We took this mac to Shane & Sarah’s Southern-themed potluck on a Saturday night. We had about half a pan left. By Sunday night, the pan was empty, in the sink, ready to be washed. So much for eating this through the week. Truth be told, we did get a few lunches out of it, but dang, it went fast. It was truly the best mac ever. I’m taking it to my family Thanksgiving feast next week.

I haven’t ruled out the idea of making some for this weekend. Sarah’s coming over. She’d asked me for the recipe & I feel like I should give her a tutorial, hehe.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Chicken with Forty Cloves of Garlic

Well, according to this blog it has been almost a year since I last cared about food. That’s simply not true. So much has gone down (pun intended) that I should have documented here. I started a butter business, for example. That was really fun…while it lasted. My dreams were shattered by the U.S. Department of Ag, but who hasn’t had that happened to them, right?

Here's the evidence:

I still have some hope for my little butter idea, but it’s not for right now.

As I look through my photo uploads, I’m overwhelmed with the amount of dishes I need to write about. Food is really one of the most compelling aspects of my life. I wish it could work out that somehow it would parlay itself into a career. Teaching English just isn’t working out, if you haven’t heard. I blame the economy.

Enough with the heavy stuff, dear reader: what I mean to say is that there will now be talk of food here at this domain.

First up, Ina’s Chicken with Forty Cloves of Garlic.

I’d written this dish into the meal plan as a special treat for having Randy & Sam over for dinner mid-week (the weekends fill up so fast!). However, I got a call for a job interview the next day & decided it was just too much to pull off on a weeknight when I needed to prepare my talking points for 7th grade reading strategies that night.

Two nights later, on Friday, when I was waiting to hear back from the interview, I decided I needed lots of projects to keep me busy that day so I wasn’t just waiting by the phone. Prepping for this dinner was one of them, but it surprisingly didn’t require too much work.

As a result I ended up making a cake from scratch that day & you’ll hear all about that soon enough.

Mark had already cut the chicken into 8ths with our snazzy new poultry sheers. All I had to do was prep the sides. And it turned out like this:

Ina's Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic

  • 3 whole heads garlic, about 40 cloves
  • 2 (3 1/2-pound) chickens, cut into eighths
  • Kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons good olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons Cognac, divided (Ina + Hennessy = a visual I love)
  • 1 1/2 cups dry white wine
  • 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves (I used a pinch of dried)
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons heavy cream


Separate the cloves of garlic and drop them into a pot of boiling water for 60 seconds. Drain the garlic and peel. Set aside. (I did this way earlier in the day)

Dry the chicken with paper towels. Season liberally with salt and pepper on both sides. Heat the butter and oil in a large pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. In batches, saute the chicken in the fat, skin side down first, until nicely browned, about 3 to 5 minutes on each side. Turn with tongs or a spatula; you don't want to pierce the skin with a fork. If the fat is burning, turn the heat down to medium. When a batch is done, transfer it to a plate and continue to saute all the chicken in batches.

Remove the last chicken to the plate and add all of the garlic to the pot. Lower the heat and saute for 5 to 10 minutes, turning often, until evenly browned. Add 2 tablespoons of the Cognac and the wine, return to a boil, and scrape the brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Return the chicken to the pot with the juices and sprinkle with the thyme leaves. Cover and simmer over the lowest heat for about 30 minutes, until all the chicken is done.

Remove the chicken to a platter and cover with aluminum foil to keep warm. In a small bowl, whisk together 1/2 cup of the sauce and the flour and then whisk it back into the sauce in the pot. Raise the heat, add the remaining tablespoon of Cognac and the cream, and boil for 3 minutes. Add salt and pepper, to taste; it should be very flavorful because chicken tends to be bland. Pour the sauce and the garlic over the chicken and serve hot.

We amended our recipe because we only had a 5 lb. chicken. We multiplied everything by 2/3rds & approximated the amounts accordingly.

All I've got to say is "Hennessy Gravy!" (It doesn't really taste like alcohol, but it sure is nice)

Since you're cooking the garlic, it becomes sweet and very mild.

The mashed potatoes were simple and accommodating: just potatoes with 2% milk, butter, salt, and pepper.

The asparagus was tossed with olive oil, salt, and pepper, & roasted in a 425 degree oven for 15 minutes. Then I added some parm/romano and let it cook in the oven on low (200 degrees) until everything else was done. It might have gotten a little over cooked, but it was still good (I should have turned the oven down sooner).

So that's it: food that incites a religious experience.