Monday, September 19, 2011

Plum Cake

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Years ago, we made a plum cake using one of the zillion recipes we have on hand. Or maybe from one I found on online.  Of course it was divine. Of course, I have no idea where the recipe is.

I tried various others, but they were never quite as good. This time I set out to make a plum cake and to simply forget about finding that recipe and just make one that I might like and that, by writing down the recipe, maybe I’d be able to recreate the next time. Given my iffy track record with cakes, this was either a worthy stretch or a really stupid idea.

Fortunately, I really do like this cake. And now I can make it again. ‘Cuz it’s written down right here. To give credit, it’s a bit of a mashup of a Cook’s Illustrated recipe with an Epicurious recipe, with my own modifications (less sugar, cardamom) thrown in for good measure. Best of all, it’s pretty fault tolerant. I know that because it initially went into the oven without my having added the milk. Which meant pulling it back out of the oven, hastily pulling off all the pretty plums, stirring in the milk, slopping only some of it all over the counter and floor, then putting the plums back on top and the whole mess back into the oven before the cake decided to go completely flat, gummy and/or revolting.

For me, a cake that can survive that and still come out well and showcase the yummy plums that are in the market right now, that’s a cake to remember and to make again.

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Plum Cake

1 pound sugarplums or fresh Italian prunes
2 Tbsp red currant or black currant jelly
2 Tbsp brandy
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon salt 
3/4 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup milk

  1. Cut the prunes in half and remove the pits. Of course, you can use regular plums too – i just like the way the prunes look and fit in the pan.
  2. In a skillet over medium-low heat, melt the jam with brandy, then add the prunes and gently stir to coat. Cook until the jam is just thickening, maybe 4 minutes, then set aside to cool. baking 009
  3. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Prepare a 9” cake pan or springform pan.
  4. Cream the butter and sugar in a medium-sized bowl.
  5. Add the flour, salt, baking powder, and cardamom (don’t mix it in yet, just dump it on top of the sugar/butter).
  6. Beat the eggs in a small bowl, then whisk in the milk and vanilla and milk.
  7. Add the liquids to the bowl with your sugar and flour and mix until combined.
  8. Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Place the plum halves skin side down on top.
  9. Bake for about 45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the cakes part (not through a plum) comes out clean.
  10. Cool on a wire rack. Top with powdered sugar if you want to get fancy with it.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Consommé Achievement


When we joined the Daring Cooks, our hope was that we’d be urged to make the things that we’d otherwise never dare to make. This month’s challenge, consommé, certainly rose to the occasion. We do make stock routinely, and even stock so rich, it’s jellied when cold, but had never dared to try to clarify it beyond simply straining out the bones and vegetables used to make it.

To the uninitiated, clarifying stock is an exceedingly counterintuitive exercise: just when you’ve strained your broth, you add eggs whites and ground meat to it, making your semi-clear soup dirty again. Hmm.. And for us, it meant being patient and trusting the recipe - not exactly a strong suit in the Monkeyshines household. Then presto! Suddenly those bits you threw into your soup come together in a ‘raft’ and you have gorgeously clear consommé below.

We’ll start at the top to share the process we followed, and you can also visit the Daring cooks site for complete instructions and several recipes.

When we typically make stock, we use the bones reserved from chicken breasts used in some other meal. I then roast them with the onions, carrots and celery, add water, bay leaf, salt and pepper. This time, we used chicken wings and only lightly baked them as we wanted to experiment with a supposedly proper ‘white’ chicken broth. In the future, I’ll stick to my habits as it’s a) easier b) cheaper c) honestly, I like the flavor of the roasted chicken and aromatics more.

Light Chicken Consommé


2 lb chicken wings
2 stalk celery, diced
2 carrots, peeled and diced
1 large onion, diced
1 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 pound ground chicken
4 egg whites
1 cup crushed ice


  1. Heat oven to 425 degrees F.
  2. Roast the chicken wings until they’re just turning golden (or richly gold for a stronger chicken-y-er broth)
  3. While the chicken is roasting, heat the oil in a large stockpot and gently cook the vegetables.consomme 002
  4. Add the chicken wings to the stockpot, then cover with water – you want the water to be about 1” above all the other ingredients. According to the challenge tips, you should always use cold water to start your soup – this way it’s less likely to get cloudy.
  5. Add a bit of salt and pepper – less than you think you’ll want.  Simmer the stock over medium-low heat until the broth tastes chicken-y. You don’t want the stock to boil – bubbles should just lazily and slowly break on top. This may take 2-6 hours depending on how low your heat is, how roasted the meat was, etc. Over time, the broth will be reducing, which is why you don’t want to over-season it at the start.
  6. Skim off any fat or scum occasionally as the broth cooks, but don’t stir your soup or you might make it cloudy.
  7. When you’re happy with the taste of the broth, strain it into another pan and remove the meat and veg. Some people re-use this stuff, I usually find it’s too flavorless to want to use at this point. consomme 010
  8. Clean your stockpot and return the broth to it. Return to a simmer.
  9. Now simply disengage what you think you know about cooking and play along. This is a very important step.
  10. Cook the ground chicken in a skillet until just cooked. Don’t brown it, but you don’t want any more draining juices. Let cool before proceeding.
  11. Whip the egg whites to soft peaks. Add the crushed ice (we just whacked a few ice cubes in a baggie with our meat mallet). Add the ground chicken to this. consomme 012
  12. Pour your egg white concoction into the stock and slowly stir 3 times. consomme 013 
  13. Let it return to a simmer and don’t stir it any more. Remember to trust the recipe. It’s helpful to just go away for a while and read or watch TV or something.
  14. Maybe 15 minutes later, come back and check – suddenly you’ll have a raft forming! Using your ladle or the back of a spoon, gently push a hole in the center of the raft. consomme 014consomme 015
  15. Maintain the hole in your raft, and spoon off any scum or foam that rises through it. You need this hole to see that some how by magic, your broth is becoming clear. consomme 018
  16. Keep cooking until you’re satisfied with the taste and clarity of the stock. Then carefully ladle the consommé through the hole in your raft – this way you don’t get any dregs from the bottom of the pot or from the raft. consomme 020
  17. Pour it into a nice clear bowl so that you can marvel at what you just made! It’ll probably be lighter in color than what you started with, but have all the richness of flavor. Be sad since you refrigerated it overnight and you can’t get a decent picture as condensation is forming on the bowl, yet you’re too impatient to just wait.

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Peta also challenged us to serve the consommé with our favorite accompaniments. For us, that meant a loaf of Country bread made from the Tartine cookbook:

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and also tiny agnolotti stuffed with veal, prosciutto and cabbage:

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We garnished our agnolotti en brodo with a leaf of fried sage.

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Peta, thanks for a wonderful adventure! Will we actually go to the work to made consommé again? doubtful. But are we glad we gave it a try? Absolutely. Did this whole adventure persuade us that recipes are made to be followed? Umm.. maybe. Old habits do die hard.

Peta, of the blog Peta Eats, was our lovely hostess for the Daring Cook’s September 2011 challenge, “Stock to Soup to Consommé”. We were taught the meaning between the three dishes, how to make a crystal clear Consommé if we so chose to do so, and encouraged to share our own delicious soup recipes!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Savory Bacon, Potato and Cheddar Muffins

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On holiday this year, we were treated to some marvelous, groundbreaking, dare I say earth-shattering savory muffins. These muffins boldly went where no muffin had ever gone before. These muffins were bursting with crisp bacon and oozing cheddar. If we weren’t in in a place where I was wearing swimwear for most of the day, I’d have probably eaten the entire tray.  So naturally, as soon as we were home, in the safety of swirling fog and figure-hiding sweaters, we had to try to re-create them.

The basic recipe is noted below. Certainly there will be variations over time – the addition of onions, perhaps, or spinach if it’s on hand. But I am confident we’ll return to this version just as often.

I’d meant to add a but more cheese on top (gilding the lily anyone?), but the filling was so cheesy that we decided to forego that extra step. No matter, the muffins rose exuberantly and the cheese did manage to escape just a bit, both on top and on the sides, to create it’s own individual garnish. So they aren’t elegant, but the crispy cheesy bits are, of course the best part.

Bacon, Cheddar and Potato Muffins
makes 8-10 muffins

2/3 cup bacon – about 3 thick slices
1 medium russet potato
1 cup cheddar cheese
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
1/2 cup milk


  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Grease muffin tin.
  2. Cut the bacon into small bits and cook gently until just starting to crisp. Set aside to cool.
  3. Cut the potato into 1/4” dice, then cook in the microwave 2 minutes to par cook. If it’s easier, you could shred them and then pre-cook too or maybe use leftover mashed potatoes. Set aside to cool.
  4. Dice the cheese into 1/4” dice
  5. In a medium bowl, mix the flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda.
  6. In a small bowl, whisk the eggs until they’re combined, then whisk in the milk.
  7. Working quickly, add the eggs, milk, cheese, bacon and potato to the flour and stir until it’s all just mixed.
  8. Spoon the mix into your muffin tin, then bake for 18 minutes or until cooked through.


Serve piping hot.