I currently live in Charlotte, NC and after spending 7 years as a personal chef and caterer, I am now happy to share my love of cooking with friends and family. My heart is in the kitchen, but my soul is in the stars!

Bake Well Or Not ~ You Decide

The June Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Jasmine of Confessions of a Cardamom Addict and Annemarie of Ambrosia and Nectar. They chose a Traditional (UK) Bakewell Tart... er... pudding that was inspired by a rich baking history dating back to the 1800's in England.

Prior to starting any previous DB project, I spend alot of time organizing my shopping lists & ingredients, researching the subject, and reading posts by other DB'ers to see their outcomes and experiences during the process. I'm always well prepared to begin the project and to achieve the best possible outcome. I took one look at this month's challenge and decided that I could do it with my eyes closed. And one hand tied behind my back. There was really no need to spend all that extra time preparing...this one would be a cinch!

Maybe I should have closed my eyes and tied my hands back. It couldn't have been any worse than what I wound up with as a final result.

The individual components came together with ease and presented no real challenge ~ my crust looked tender and crumbly all nestled into my tart pan. The luxurious frangipane completely engulfed a layer of strawberry lavender jam and all I had to do was wait out the baking time and my not-so-much of a challenge would be done. I figured I'd use that time to catch up on some gossip, so I dialed my best girlfriend on the phone.

But the proof is in the pudding...err...tart or whatever the heck this thing was starting to overflow its pan and smoke up my oven, that the easiest things aren't always as they appear. And that you should never distract yourself during a Daring Bakers project. My luxurious frangipane was overflowing like a volcano and turning into charcoal briquettes. My kitchen was filling with smoke and soon the detector would alert everyone that the girl who calls herself a caterer needed to put her gossiping on hold and call the fire department {should I mention here that this was the second time in a week that I've smoked the place up??} But have no worries...slide a baking sheet underneath to catch the burning goo and the gossip monger never misses a beat.

The timer announced that my easy peasy pudding/tart/whatever thing was ready to be unveiled and I must say it looked mighty pretty ~ I was so proud of myself at this point and still incessantly chatting away.

Some time later, after I'd gleaned all the juicy, dirty details about who said what to who I came back to the kitchen to admire my Bakewell Tart. Anticipating the taste of the crunchy almonds and silky lavender infused jam combined with a flaky shortbread crust, I slid my knife through the perfectly browned top {trying to ignore the burnt crusty stuff on the sides of the pan} and was met with a gushing pile of goo spewing forth from the innards of this now I'm cursing thing. Had I done my research, I would have known that the frangipane does turn a lovely golden brown, almost to the point of looking like what I feared was burnt, but a piece of foil over the top would have allowed it to continue baking until it was completely set. Also, had I not been yakking away about trivial stuff, I would have been smart enough to stick a toothpick in the thing and figure that out for myself.

Fearing my tart/pudding/total waste of time was a loss, I tossed it in the fridge to be dealt with, photographed, and cataloged here as a failure. But much to my surprise, after spending the night in those frigid confines, it wasn't that bad at all! The tart eventually set up and even though I knew it was a little underdone, I don't think anyone else would have known it. Although I would prefer this for breakfast more so than for a dessert course, it tasted great and will possibly make it into my files as a "try it again because you screwed it up the first time" project.

Thanks again to Jasmine and Annemarie for a wonderful challenge! Click the links above to head over to their blogs for the recipe and then spend a day or two reading about all the other creative concoctions from the Daring Bakers blogroll.

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Kissed By The Sun

There's nothing like the emergence of fresh fruits and vegetables that appear this time of year in residential gardens and commercial farmland to take me back to my farm girl roots. Milking cows, gathering eggs, putting up hay, working the tobacco fields....

Okay, the few of you who read my blog and know me personally can pick yourselves up off the floor and curtail the hysterical laughter now because I was going to add a disclaimer to that last sentence saying that I didn't ACTUALLY do all of those things myself. Instead, I have fond memories of all those things happening on my grandparents' farm in my youth and even though I was too young to help out, it's amazing at the things you learn just by being an annoying under-foot child.

And as my family's land was a flutter of activity during the growing season, so was the adjacent farmland owned by the Scott family. Wayne Scott was the overseer for a massive strawberry operation that included acres and acres of fields worked by migrant families who were housed on his land. Over the years, the family integrated tomatoes and corn into their farming repertoire and today the Scott family is infamous throughout all of northeastern Tennessee, southwest Virginia and even parts of the Carolinas. My mother, aunts, and uncles spent their summers working in various aspects on the Scott farm. I can remember sitting in the offices while my mother answered phone calls from people wanting to place orders for the berries and sometimes I'd even get to help out in the shed where the berries were being sold. I mostly ate the berries, but nonetheless I was helping by offering quality control services. I have such vivid memories of plucking those scarlet red berries, still warm from the sun, from the carton and savoring each bite as the sticky red juice clung to my fingers and stained my mouth.

A few weeks ago, I found myself standing in the hot sun in the middle of a strawberry field waxing nostalgia about those childhood days gone by. Seeing those sun ripened berries just waiting to be picked brought back a flood of carefree feelings of standing barefoot in a strawberry shed, not having a care in the world. These days, most kids have no idea where their food comes from other than the grocery store shelf. They don't know that the plastic carton of strawberries started as a tiny plant in a far off field, totally dependent on the sun, rain and the land for nourishment, growth and its very existence in that plastic container. I'm so fortunate to know the amount of hard work, sacrifice, and sweat that goes into making a living off of the land and I know the personal satisfaction of harvesting the food and turning it into something special to be shared with friends and family.

Even before I headed to the strawberry field that morning, I knew some of my berries were destined to become this lovely Strawberry Mascarpone Tart with Port Glaze featured in the April 2009 edition of Gourmet. It was very simple to prepare and I loved the tangy-sweet addition of the port wine glaze drizzled over the berries. To me, strawberries are best coupled with a light and fluffy filling so I think next time I'll cut the amount of mascarpone and add some freshly whipped cream to make the filling just a bit lighter in texture. But pay no mind to doubt you will enjoy this just as it is!

Strawberry Mascarpone Tart with Port Glaze
from Gourmet, April 2009

For tart shell:
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
Rounded 1/4 teaspoon salt
7 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 large egg yolk
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons cold water

For filling:
1 1/2 pounds strawberries (about 1 1/2 quarts), trimmed & halved lengthwise
1/3 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup ruby Port
1 pound mascarpone (about 2 cups)
1/4 cup confectioners sugar
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest
3/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Equipment: a 10-inch fluted tart pan with removable bottom; pie weights or dried beans

To make tart shell:
Blend together flour, sugar, salt, and butter in a bowl with your fingertips or a pastry blender (or pulse in a food processor) just until mixture resembles coarse meal with some roughly pea-size butter lumps. Beat together yolk, vanilla, lemon juice, and water with a fork, then drizzle over flour mixture and stir with fork (or pulse) until mixture comes together.

Gently knead with floured hands on a lightly floured surface until a dough forms, then gently knead 4 or 5 times. Press into a 5-inch disk. Place in center of tart pan and cover with plastic wrap. Using your fingers and bottom of a flat-bottomed measuring cup, spread and push dough to evenly cover bottom and side of pan. Prick bottom of tart shell all over with a fork and freeze until firm, about 10 minutes.

Preheat oven to 375°F with rack in middle.

Line tart shell with foil and fill with pie weights. Bake until side is set and edge is pale golden, about 20 minutes. Carefully remove foil and weights and continue to bake until shell is deep golden all over, about 20 minutes more. Cool in pan, about 45 minutes.

Make filling while tart shell cools:
Stir together strawberries and granulated sugar in a bowl and let stand, stirring occasionally, 30 minutes. Strain in a sieve set over a small saucepan, reserving berries. Add Port to liquid in saucepan and boil until reduced to about 1/4 cup, 10 to 15 minutes. Transfer to a small bowl to cool slightly.

Meanwhile, whisk together mascarpone, confectioners sugar, lemon juice, zest, vanilla, and a pinch of salt until stiff.

Assemble tart:
Spread mascarpone mixture evenly in cooled tart shell, then top with strawberries. Drizzle Port glaze all over tart.

Cooks' note:
Tart shell can be baked 1 day ahead and kept at room temperature.

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The Greek Goddess

I vaguely remember studying Greek mythology in high school and I can still vaguely remember some of the better known Greek Goddesses. Heck, my whole recollection of high school in general is rather vague because let's face it, I had boys other things on my mind during those four years!

Let's see....there was Athena and Artemis, the Goddess of Wisdom and the Goddess of the Hunt, respectively. And of course the well known Aphrodite, Goddess of Love and Beauty. But there is one Greek Goddess who you may not be familiar with....Angela, the Goddess of Inspiration.

You may remember my friend Angela from this post but if not, let me give you a refresher course in her mythology.....

I've bestowed the title of "Goddess of Inspiration" upon Angela for two reasons. First of all because she has unbelievable zest for life. A few years ago, Angela was dealt a serious blow to her health ~ something that no woman wants to even think about, let alone endure. But the Goddess of Inspiration did not wallow in self pity, pain, depression, or any of the ugly things that sometimes accompany illness. Instead she tossed caution to the wind, bought herself a convertible and continued to kick life in the butt with a smile on her face.

Secondly, Angela is also deserving of the Goddess title because every time I'm around her, I feel inspired. Spending just any amount of time with her causes me to do things like start digging up my back yard with plans to extend my patio or drag out the ladder and start redecorating the kitchen. You can't even imagine how many ideas started floating around in my head after we spent a girl's weekend in Charleston ~ so many of them that I had to get a pencil and paper and write them down!

And one of the ideas born was this pizza. Wrestling with ideas of how to perfect a pizza recipe to be submitted for a recipe contest, I asked Angela for help. And she did not disappoint. My pizza quickly turned from a jumbled mess of ideas into this fresh, tasty Meditteranean creation loaded with Greek flavors. The recipe may look intimidating but don't let it scare you. The dough comes together in just a matter of minutes and while the recipe makes enough for four crusts, you can either freeze the others or break them up into pieces and serve them flatbread style with the leftover tzatziki. The tzatziki will take a bit of time to mellow out in the refrigerator, so make sure you start that early in the day. And the toppings are fresh and simple...very little preparation needed.

Hopefully this will be the grand prize winner for the recipe contest but no matter, it's the perfect summertime meal and certainly a winner in my recipe book! And much, much thanks to the Goddess of Inspiration for helping me....this recipe is dedicated to you Angela!

The Greek Goddess Pizza

Pizza Dough:

¼ ounce (7 gram) package of active dry yeast
1 Cup warm water
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
3 Tablespoons melted butter (or oil)
2 ½ to 3 Cups flour
Zest from 2 lemons
2 Tablespoons dried dill
Olive Oil

In a large bowl, stir the active dry yeast into warm water and let dissolve. While continuing to stir add sugar, salt, lemon zest, dill and butter and begin adding the flour slowly, half cupsful at a time. When dough starts coming together and forms a ball, begin kneading by hand on a lightly floured surface. Knead until dough has a uniform and consistent appearance and elastic feel, about five minutes.

Divide dough into four balls. Cover with a dry cloth and let them rest for ten minutes.

While dough is resting, preheat oven to 400-degrees.
Roll each ball into a very thin 12-inch crust and place on a greased cookie sheet or pizza stone. Brush the crust with olive oil and
bake between 10 and 15 minutes, depending on desired color.

Tzatziki Sauce:

1-1/2 cups Greek yogurt
1-1/2 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 small garlic clove, chopped
1 medium cucumber, seeded and diced
1/2 Tablespoon kosher salt for salting cucumbers
1 Tablespoon finely chopped fresh dill
Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

Peel cucumber, then cut in half lengthwise and take a small spoon and scrape out seeds. Discard seeds. Dice cucumbers, then put in a colander, sprinkle on 1/2 Tablespoon salt, and let stand for 30 minutes to draw out water. Drain well and wipe dry with paper towel.

In food processor with steel blade, add cucumbers, garlic, lemon juice, dill, and a few grinds of black pepper. Process until well blended, then stir this mixture into the yogurt. Refrigerate for at least two hours so flavors can blend. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Pizza Toppings:

1 Roma tomato, thinly sliced
3 Tablespoons capers, drained
1/2 cup feta cheese, crumbled
¼ cup Lindsay Olives Greek Kalamata Olives, sliced in half
Fresh dill, separated into small sprigs
1/2 lemon
2 Tablespoons fresh oregano, chopped
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
8 oz. fresh baby spinach, washed and dried
olive oil, for sauteeing

In a medium skillet, add about 1 tablespoon olive oil and heat on medium high heat. Add onion, and lightly saute until onions turn translucent but do not brown, about 2 or 3 minutes. Remove from skillet. Add more oil if needed and lightly saute spinach until just wilted, about 1 or 2 minutes.

Spread tzatziki sauce over pizza crust (about ¼ cup or so). Layer tomato, spinach, and onions on top. Toss on feta cheese, capers, and Kalamata olives. Garnish with dill sprigs and fresh oregano. Give a good generous squeeze of fresh lemon juice over the whole pizza, slice and enjoy!

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Simplicity and the Symphony

The first Sunday in June kicks off one of my most favorite summertime activities known as Pops In The Park where the Charlotte Symphony performs a series of free concerts every Sunday for five weeks. When I lived here before, Pops was a smaller affair taking place on a section of lawn on the grounds of the SouthPark Mall. Over the years, the concerts have grown to encompass a permanent summer home called Symphony Park and the crowds have grown into the thousands. The estimated attendance for last night's performance was between 8,000 - 10,000!

The years that I lived away were always particularly hard during the month of June. In my mind, I could recall the fun times that the Captain and I shared sitting on a blanket surrounded by good food, wine, and good friends listening to the mellow sounds of the music. Back then, I would spend days conjuring up a menu and countless hours preparing everything from scratch....dips, appetizers, desserts. Last night would be my first attendance at Pops in nearly seven years and I can't tell you how beside myself I was with anticipation! It was also another one of those bittersweet affairs that brought about a flood of emotions as I glimpsed someone walking in the crowd who vaguely resembled the Captain, and for almost a split second I was caught in a time warp. But we all know that time machines don't exist and we must plug along in this vast amount of time and space that we have and create new and fun memories.

My mentality toward preparing picnic fare for Pops has changed during my absence. What used to take days and hours to plan and prepare for took all of about one hour from start to finish this year. Having made my living in the food industry for several years, I now completely value the concept of stress-free entertaining. A quick trip to the grocery and a few flips of the wrist produced the makings for a gorgeous and delicious antipasta platter to be shared with old and new friends alike.

The great thing about antipasta platters is that you can put whatever your heart desires on it, place it any way you want it, and it always turns out to be a true work of art. Here we have sopressata, a cured Italian meat, several types of cheeses ~ feta, manchego, rosemary goat cheese, cream cheese topped with a hot pepper peach preserves, and provolone are some of my favorites. Throw on a few marinated vegetables such as roasted red peppers, olives, heart of palm, capers and artichoke hearts, and call it done! I served this up with sliced sourdough bread, red grape clusters, and a nice chilled bottle of wine.

My friends Angela, Mark, George and I are looking forward to the rest of the Pops concert performances, so stayed tuned to see what next week's menu will be!

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