Substitutions happen. What else are you supposed to do when the plain yogurt isn’t in stock no matter how many times you look behind the rows of other flavors?

Instead, you impulsively grab a container of plain Greek yogurt. Then, you bravely add it to your banana bread batter before marching the loafpan off into the oven. When the loaf is cool and ready for consumption, you hesitantly slice off a piece and plop it into your mouth. That’s when you know you’ve discovered gold – banana bread gold.

Now, I’m not typically a bandwagon-er, especially when sports teams are involved (I’ve been a Steelers fan since birth and crushed on Tom Brady when he was the QB for Michigan), but you can’t go wrong with substituting some Greek yogurt for its non-strained counterpart in your banana bread recipe.  In fact, I’ve decided it’s a must.

I sweated this substitution more than the video poker machine at the Bellagio a few weeks ago.  I just didn’t know what to expect. I had eaten Greek yogurt before, and I recalled its tanginess, akin to sour cream.  For some illogical reason, I decided that its tart flavor would botch the bread’s overall sweetness. But, my ripe – almost rotten – bananas just couldn’t sit another day on the kitchen counter, and I had a momentary panic attack in the dairy aisle. My mind agonized over the act of substituting one ingredient for another – not an easy feat when it comes to baking. It took a good 5 minutes for me to put the Oikos container in my grocery cart.

This gamble paid big, definitely a gutsier move than the $2 I bet and lost in Vegas. (Yea, a lame $2. But, I knew that spending big bucks on a lavish dinner at Emeril Lagasse’s Delmonico had better odds. Take a look: Alaskan halibut with crab-stuffed squash blossoms and a Bolivian mojito garnished with a stick of sugar cane.) I have never eaten banana bread as moist and flavorful as this one. Each slice looks like an inviting crushed velvet seat cushion; you can’t help yourself from wanting to brush your hand across it. It’s worthy of your finest china.

What’s more is that for the past year or so I’ve patiently waited for bananas to shrivel and blacken countless times so that I could try the latest and greatest recipe. The latest was the Hallelujah Banana Bread. Each time I find that that the new loaf I’ve created is just not quite what I’m looking for. Either the banana flavor is muted or the bread does not have a soft, chewy bite.

For this Greek yogurt experiment, I tried the coffee banana bread recipe from Oxfam America. Printed on a 3×5 card and folded in half, I’ve held onto this recipe for a few years because I thought the addition of coffee was, rather, weird. But, I went with the Greek yogurt, so I went with the coffee. I even threw in a quarter cup of white chocolate chips, which was pointless because they melted into the bread. I did pair the white chocolate with dark chocolate chips, though, and they are the emerald and ruby studs that accent the crown. You would love the bread without them, but they make it just a smidgen more special.

How else can you explain my urgent need to get home from work every day as quickly as possible? Some people pour themselves a glass of Pinot, but I would have a slice of this stuff instead. It puts me at ease and tides my taste buds until dinnertime. I know I should freeze some of the leftovers but I conveniently convince myself that the water crystals will funk with the flavor and dreamy texture of this banana bread.

And, if you’re as much of a fan of and interested in bananas as I am, you should read Saveur’s article on the history of what was once considered by some a forbidden fruit. It’s a fascinating piece on the history and future of the banana.

Coffee Banana Bread

Adapted from Oxfam America recipe

I omitted the standard ½ cup of nuts because I prefer my bread without them. But, if it’s not banana bread to you without walnuts or whatever, go ahead and mix in as much as you like. Just don’t omit the Greek yogurt.

2 cups all purpose flour

3/4 tsp baking soda

1 1/4 cup light brown sugar, lightly packed

1/4 cup plain Greek yogurt

1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

1/4 cup very strongly brewed coffee

1/2 – 1 cup dark chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Whisk together the flour, baking soda, and brown sugar in a large bowl and set aside. Mash bananas in a medium bowl. Add the Greek yogurt, melted butter, beaten eggs, and coffee to the bananas. Then, mix the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients until just combined.

Grease loaf pan with non-stick cooking spray or butter and pour batter into the pan. Bake for 1-1 1/4 hours until a toothpick or fork comes out clean. Let bread sit in pan for 5 minutes, then remove from pan and finish cooling on a wire rack.


Chocolate and Asparagus

I ran into a coworker in the elevator the other morning, her hand gripped around a small cup of coffee and a – drum roll –  Hershey’s milk chocolate bar.  I think the rest of us riding to our respective floors were jealous because we laughed and made jokes. “Oh, are you going to mix the chocolate into your coffee and make your own version of a mocha.” “No,” she said, laughing, “I just break off a square and sip some coffee after I eat it.” Her tone gave the impression that she didn’t quite find it that unreasonable to have chocolate for breakfast, as I am sure many of us are guilty of splurging on a piece of pie on the morning after Thanksgiving. Then, the guy standing next to me goes, “I added a couple of scoops of ice-cream to my coffee, and let me tell you, it was good.”   No, I am not making this up. I just happened to step into the dessert-for-breakfast-elevator on this particular morning. It’s too bad I’ll likely never take that ride.

Everyday it’s oatmeal and coffee for me with a side of banana and peanut butter. I wish I had the kahonas to make my breakfast a chocolate bar and coffee. Even a pancake or waffle breakfast feels like a treat for me – one that weighs on my conscious sometimes. Still, thinking about Jodi’s breakfast made me smile in approval of her meal.  Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance” anthem comes to mind. Sometimes you can’t take life too seriously, so you might as well have a chocolate bar for breakfast when you feel like it.

While it might not be wise to routinely make that your first meal of the day, you can certainly indulge on a side of asparagus seasoned with lime and thyme (couldn’t avoid that rhyme) any time you want. And, now might just be the occasion as asparagus is in season for only a short while longer – until about May. You know, those green shoots about the length of a pencil? They kind of look like a dainty monster’s finger — delicate structure but scaly exterior.  Or, thorny paint brushes. However, you choose to describe them, they are a versatile ingredient that should not be passed up at the market.

Case in point is this recipe (“It starts with the tip” – March 18, 2010) from the Sacramento News and Review, a free weekly news publication available in the greater Sacramento area. They’ve begun to feature seasonal produce from local purveyors along with a recipe that showcases its winning attributes. I couldn’t be more thrilled to see this as a regular staple. Residents of an agricultural epicenter should take advantage of the fresh and local bounty harvested for their consumption. Truly, it’s a luxury that I think many of us Sacramentans take for granted.

What makes asparagus special is that its flavor is that delicate that it’s adaptable. On its own, it plays a terrific host to garlic or butter. Marinated in an acid like lime, it perks up and takes in the tanginess of the citrus fruit as well as toning its loudness.   The thyme gives it some spiciness. I particularly like the method for cooking asparagus in this recipe because the shoots stay crisp but still have tenderness to them.

Apparently, the article’s author writes, asparagus does not pair well with wine because it will make the wine taste overly sweet. But, it says nothing about its effect on chocolate. If people are eating chocolate bars for breakfast, you might as well reward yourself for eating your veggies with chocolate or, dare I say, a bowl of ice-cream. I mean, if you really want to stretch the rules, I would assert that they cancel each other out.  Perhaps, just one day out of the week though. You don’t want to get too carried away redefining those three square meals now.

Pan Roasted Asparagus with Lime

Adapted from Sacramento News and Review article “It starts with the tip,” published March 18, 2010

What I also like about this recipe is that you can let the asparagus stew in the lime mixture for up to a day. This gives you time to plan a complete meal around this dish, or it just gives you a break from cooking if you’re not in the mood for some pan roasting. I ate my asparagus as a snack, but I would make it again with a poached egg or two.

1 bunch asparagus, about 24 spears

1 lime

2-3 tsp. olive oil

½ tsp. dried thyme

Parmesan, if desired, but I say it’s a must

Wash and drain asparagus. Snap off the ends at their natural breaking point and discard. Put 3-4 cups water on stove to boil. Meanwhile, cut each spear in half, separating the tops from the bottoms. Drop the stem ends into the boiling water and cook for one minute. Then, add the tip ends and cook for another minute. Take asparagus off the stove and drain.

In a shallow bowl fit for 24 asparagus spears, mix the juice of the lime with 1 tsp. oil and dried thyme. Add the asparagus and coat with marinade. Set asparagus aside for 15 minutes up to 24 hours.

Heat 1-2 tsp. oil in a large skillet (non-stick is ok in my opinion) over medium heat. Add asparagus and any lingering marinade and cook, stirring frequently, until asparagus is tender and browned, about 5-8 minutes.

THE Hot Cookie

The other night, I took my first drive through San Francisco’s Castro District. Even though I missed the store front of Harvey Milk’s Castro Camera shop, one business that I did spot was appropriately called Hot Cookie. I didn’t go in, but easily eyed the red and white briefs hanging above the counter from my car. Apparently, if you give boys in the Castro District some snicker doodle cookie dough, they transform it into male anatomical parts. How festive.

And, if you travel further south, you will eventually end up in Palo Alto where Debbi Fields opened her first Mrs. Fields shop in 1977. (And, in the real South, Insomnia Cookies sells fresh hot cookies from trucks that are cleverly parked outside of bars and other late-night eateries.) The northern California region, meanwhile, is one hot cookie zone. It’s where I’ve perfected my own chocolate chip cookie.

One fateful night, about a year ago, I discovered the recipe for divine chocolate chip cookies on the back of a bag of Ghiradelli semi-sweet chocolate chips. (Why did this take me so long?) Not too long before I attempted this recipe, the New York Times published an article and recipe for chocolate chip cookies that asserted they were “perfection.” Molly at Orangette made the “bold statement” that they were the best she’d ever eaten.  Those are some bold statements, but not everyone has the patience to wait three days for a batter to mature to its peak form. Nor, do they want to hunt for fancy chocolate disks, or fèves, when most grocery stores only stock Nestlé Tollhouse and Ghiradelli morsels.

I am sure these cookies turn out as wonderfully as its testers hail, but believe me when I say that a perfect chocolate chip cookie can be achieved by simply following the recipe on the back of the bag. I turned out a generous batch for co-workers and my boyfriend who did not hold back in declaring their satisfaction. (After finishing her first, Jill says, “I could die and go to heaven after eating this” where she would no doubt meet Ruth Graves Wakefield and her perfect batch of cookies.) Heck, even Monica on Friends pursued Phoebe for her grandmother’s recipe which turned out to be the one on the bag. So, there’s something to be said for taking the simple route.

There’s also something to be said for mixing a package of instant vanilla pudding into the chocolate chip cookie batter: it’s brilliant. A co-worker turned me onto this unsuspecting secret ingredient a couple of weeks ago. Intrigued, I immediately searched the internet for a recipe. I found a few versions, but oddly enough, none of the recipes I pulled called for an amount of pudding mix that’s available at the market. One said 102 grams, another ordered a 4-serving package. The closest I could find to either of those options was a 96 gram, 4 1/2 –serving mix.  I went with that; and wow, I’m glad I did.

First, I always under bake my cookies because I prefer soft, chewy rounds as do most normal people I know. Under baking requires a heaping dash of faith because after 9 to 10 minutes at 375, the cookies are doughy and not, well, completely cooked. The edges should be firm, though, and a golden brown hue. This time, however, I worried I was overly premature in pulling them out of the oven. But, subscribing to my belief that under-baked cookies need time to settle, I let them sit over night.  The next day, you’ll find the chocolate chips burrowed within rich sediments of toffee-brown layers that are warm on the tongue.

“Do you have any leche?” Jonathan asked, stalking the fresh batch of his favorite cookie from the couch. He devoured three cookies within minutes. I admit that I cannot stop until I have had two.

These cookies are an indulgence that rank in the same class as a couple of dark chocolate truffles with a glass of red wine. Or, to keep things humble, it’s as if you walked up to a Mrs. Fields counter for a mouth-watering fresh cookie. There’s something commercial about this vanilla pudding version – flavorful and fluffy.

After a couple of weeks of disappointing dishes – a bland parsley pea pesto, runny tomato bacon sauce, and soggy lingonberry tartlets – it’s encouraging to know that I can still consistently turn out a blue-ribbon batch of chocolate chip cookies. Mrs. Fields, you might want to watch out, there might be a cookie truck with my name on it.  Beep beep!

Vanilla Pudding Chocolate Chip Cookies

I pulled the bare bones of this recipe from a comment chain from a website I located in my search. I fiddled with it based on the Ghiradelli recipe I adore. It was an experiment with surprisingly welcome results.  This recipe should make 3 dozen cookies. However, since I generously baked tablespoonfuls of batter, I managed to produce only 32 cookies, which is plenty if you ask me.

2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour

1 tsp baking soda

½ tsp salt

1 cup butter, softened

¼ cup granulated sugar

¾ cup firmly packed light brown sugar

1 tsp vanilla

1 96-gram package of instant vanilla pudding

2 eggs

1 12-ounce package of semi-sweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Whisk flour, baking soda, and salt in medium bowl and set aside. In another, larger, bowl cream the butter with the sugars until fluffy, about 3-5 minutes.  Add vanilla and pudding mix until smooth and creamy. Beat eggs one at a time. Gradually add flour mixture, making sure to scrape the sides of the bowl as you mix it in. Stir in chocolate chips, taking care not to over mix the batter. Scoop rounded teaspoonfuls of batter and place onto an ungreased baking sheet, about 1-2 inches apart. Bake for 9-10 minutes. Once out of the oven, let cookies set on baking sheet for about 10-20 minutes before removing and setting on a wire rack to cool.

Mellow yellow made magnificent

When I found out he hated pie – hated, mind you – it felt like a sharp jab, WEC style, to the rib cage. But, my heart sank down to my knees when I learned that my boyfriend favored yellow cake over any other kind of dessert. Even worse, he said he loved the boxed-mix cake and canned frosting. He’s a simple guy, with simple taste, he defends. Most desserts are so overwhelmingly sweet that he will take one bite and double over because of a side-ache.

I quizzed every guy I knew after this revelation and found that most of them were fans of the yellow cake, too. What?! How did I miss that memo?

There’s nothing fancy about yellow cake and chocolate frosting – especially when it’s from a box. Sure, it’s reliably always yellow cake with chocolate frosting, but there’s no wow-factor. No marzipan draped over it. No halo of whipped cream. There might be a sprinkling of multi-colored sprinkles. But, that’s ok, I’ve now accepted.

So, in celebration of Jonathan’s birthday a month ago, I wanted to lovingly bestow upon him a yellow cake with chocolate frosting made from scratch. As tempting as the $.79 boxed-mix special at Safeway was, I pulled my hair up into a ponytail and pushed back my sleeves and got to work on the recipe for “Best Birthday Cake” posted by Smitten Kitchen on her site.  It was my first cake from scratch.

Everyone’s favorite culinary blogging queen raves that her recipe produces a cake that is “consistently plush.” Maybe when it’s fresh out of the oven it’s “consistently plush”?  Perhaps, I’m the exception here, but my cake was dry, crumbly and dense.  It wasn’t horrible, but fighting a mass of grainy crumbs isn’t a pleasant dessert experience either. I had banked on presenting a perfectly luscious yellow cake where each bite sits on the tongue like a fluffy little pillow, inducing a dreamlike state.

Instead, after serving a crowd of five my seeming success, I took a bite – and another bite – of my own piece and my spirits immediately sank. No one said anything about the cake. Chewing and silence. And, no one finished it either. It was a disaster. I cursed my ambitiousness, and I cursed that recipe. My mind weighed every possible culprit that may have contributed to its fall.

I am not going to exaggerate when I say I turned into a drama queen over this foible. I shed a tear or two, and I swore I would never make a yellow cake from scratch again. My boyfriend pleaded that mistakes were the only way to learn and that I had to try again. No, I pouted, thinking that I didn’t make mistakes. COMPLETE DIVA.

But, a few weeks later, a persuasive and seemingly reliable source on the science of baking encouraged me to try again. (It also helped to hear my boyfriend say he wanted me to make him another cake.) I had checked out Shirley Corriher’s 544-page beast called Bakewise from the Sacramento County Library. While short on pictures, it provides problem-solving hints for those common baking hiccups. Collapsed soufflé? Lifeless puff pastry? Dry cake? I felt like a girl exasperated by her limp hair who perks up when she sees the Bump-It commercial for the first time. Internally, I jumped for joy: could I redeem myself with Corriher’s Magnificent Moist Golden Cake?

Turns out I only have one strike on my scratch cake belt because this recipe produced exactly what it promised: a moist golden cake. I wouldn’t charge that it’s magnificent, but it’s a major improvement over the first scratch cake I made. The method for achieving this plush consistency was rather unusual in that it instructs you keep the butter below room temperature and that if the bowl should ever get warm during the creaming process you should stick it in the freezer for 5 minutes in order to keep the temperature of the butter from rising. Also, you incorporate whipped cream into the batter before pouring it into the pan. This all contributes in keeping the cake light and airy, according to Corriher’s trials and errors. Overall, this book is quite something for those constantly searching for answers to their baking mishaps. It’s clear after one chapter on cakes, that this is an investment that no kitchen is complete without it.

While I could probably get away with buying the boxed-mix for any future occasions or cravings, the additional whipping and creaming all for a yellow cake is worth the bragging rights and worth making someone feel special on a big day or even just a Sunday. There’s no guy out there who wouldn’t inhale a slice or two with that pizza. He’ll be one happy camper.

Magnificent Moist Golden Cake

Since I don’t have permission to reprint the recipe here, I am going to urge you to seek out Shirley Corriher’s Bakewise at your local library. Here, in Sacramento, the libraries boast an extensive collection of new releases – from cookbooks to DVDs. It feels like Christmas when you find out your favorite new title is available on loan. I’m a zealous advocate for utilizing the library (it’s free!), so take the opportunity to preview a book or movie you’ve been eyeing without spending a dime.  Case in point: Bakewise.  Check it out!

Look at that!

You would think I would be the president of a Giada De Laurentiis fan club by now. My DVR is set to record every new episode of her new show. I am convinced I’ve watched every season of Everyday Italian.  I own two of her cookbooks. I pull every magazine she appears on the cover of. And, I almost ditched work once to get her autograph at the Sur La Table in San Francisco. Devastatingly, tickets were sold out. In so few words: I’m obsessed.

I’ve been an admirer since one lazy afternoon during college, circa 2006, no doubt putting off some paper or reading assignment. And, I would be lying if I said I didn’t want to be her. The woman looks like she could be Natalie Portman’s sister!!! (And, I’m not fazed by friends’ comments about her low-cut shirts or their “Giada-Big-Head” taunts.) Now, she has her own line of kitchen wares and pasta at Target. Swoon.

Surprisingly, though, I have prepared few of her recipes. The results have been a mixed bag – some were good, some not so.  Except for her turkey meatloaf with feta and sun-dried tomatoes, which is the stallion of the pack. It even leaves her raspberry brownies in its dust. It is a well-rounded dish that pleases for a number of different reasons, the first being that it will turn meatloaf naysayers into converts. That would include me.

I had never caught onto the idea that meat, ketchup, and other ingredients clumped together and baked as a “loaf” was good. Why don’t I just eat a burger, then? My Mom rarely served it for my siblings and me as kids because she didn’t think anyone liked it. (“There were too many pieces that you picked out,” she says.) But, when Giada made her turkey meatloaf in that fateful episode, I decided that it might be the time to give meatloaf another chance, especially since I needed a new arsenal of recipes for meals that would satisfy my hungry boyfriend. And, it wasn’t really meatloaf in the traditional sense.

The recipe is a no-brainer. Grab a knife and start mincing some garlic, parsley, and sun-dried tomatoes. This all gets mixed in with the seasoning, feta cheese, bread crumbs, eggs, and milk, followed by the ground turkey. Pack it into a loaf pan and bake. What you pull out of the oven is a steaming slab of Thanksgiving. The bread crumbs and parsley hit the tongue like a side of stuffing next to a drumstick. The incorporation of feta cheese provides pockets of unassuming creaminess with each bite. I was taken aback by its unusually subtle flavor in the meatloaf. The fragments of garlic and tomato give it some spice and obvious flavor. Giada, you outdid yourself with this one.

And, true to Giada’s cooking aesthetic, each slice is visually enticing with an Italian confetti of parsley, cheese, and tomato tossed throughout.  “Look how pretty that is,” she would say, grinning widely, pointing to the red and green pieces as she sliced it. However you want to look at it, it’s definitely a reinvention of the classic that is difficult to spare for leftovers.

That’s what I love about Giada. Her food isn’t revolutionary by any means (no vacuum-sealing venison on her show), but she improves upon the identifiable favorites with an Italian or Californian twist. She proves that minimal effort is needed to prepare a gourmet meal – no quail egg and brie in her fridge, just a pound of humble ground turkey.

Turkey Meatloaf with Feta and Sun-Dried Tomatoes

Adapted from Giada De Larurentiis’ recipe

You might as well call it a turkey-loaf, but speaking of turkey, Giada’s recipe calls for dark meat. At my grocery store, the light stuff was buy one, get one free, so I went with that, and it turned out just as moist as I imagine it would with dark meat. So, I’m calling for it in my version.

½ cup plain bread crumbs

1/3 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

¼ cup chopped sun-dried tomatoes in oil

2 cloves of garlic, minced

2 eggs, at room temperature, lightly beaten

2 tbsp. milk (whole or skim)

½ cup crumbled feta cheese

1 ½ tsp salt

1 tsp freshly ground black pepper

1.25 pounds ground turkey

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a large bowl, stir the bread crumbs, parsley, sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, eggs, milk, feta, salt, and pepper together. Add the turkey and gently stir to combine, being careful not to overwork the meat.

Carefully pack the meat mixture into a 9 by 5-inch loaf pan that has been oiled with cooking spray. Bake until the internal temperature reads 165 degrees F on an instant-read thermometer, about 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and let it sit for 5 minutes. Slice and serve with a side of steamed broccoli with a dousing of parmesan.

Remember to crack a window

I am convinced one could write a whole book on roasting a chicken. In fact, I’m sure there are several titles listed on Amazon.com right now that thoroughly cover this subject. It’s probably from Martha Stewart whose recipe I borrowed from a vintage 1997 issue of her magazine. Her mastery of roast chicken is highlighted in a recipe that is so painlessly easy that you’ll never ever want (or need) to consult a singular tome on how to accomplish this culinary feat.

For when I served the steaming slices of chicken, nestled snugly next to a helping of herb and butter Rice-a-Roni, to my boyfriend, Jonathan, I couldn’t stuff enough forkfuls of bird into his mouth to keep him quiet.

“You’ve outdone yourself,” he kept raving between bites.  And, then, a couple of days later to his buddy Luke: “It was the juiciest chicken I’ve ever eaten.” Who talks about what they ate for dinner unless it was a meal from a four-star restaurant or just a plain horrible experience?

So, get ready for the most prized roast chicken you’ll ever prepare and possibly the most complimentary praise you’ll ever receive for one of the most beloved dinner staples.

It all begins with a 5-6 pound defrosted bird that sits for 30 minutes at room temperature to assure even cooking. I advise you seek refuge in another room during this stage, as the odor from raw chicken may induce nausea and you may balk on going through with this undertaking. From there, dance the meaty guy over to the sink where you’ll want to rinse him off and clean out the cavity of any organs. It can be quite the event to have to handle the bird in its raw and slimy state, but for the sake of the winning product, you’ve got to muscle through it. As Glamour magazine might say to its readers, it’s ok to squeal the entire time, though.

After any vigilant hand washing, you’ll fill the hollow space with the aromatics. Martha keeps the ingredient list simple, but smart with her use of one herb. Anything more would mask the fresh earthiness of the chicken. Within minutes of placing the prepped bird into the oven, the fragrance of the rosemary and garlic begins to linger throughout the house and tease your senses. It takes a bag of baby carrots and Ranch dressing to await its arrival.

When it is finally done, a giddy feeling of excitement kicks in and patience becomes even more of a struggle. Then, once the 15-minute cooling period elapses, you get to taste of all your hard work – or lack thereof, really – and it’s invigorating because this is truly an effortless recipe that yields flavor and moistness beyond what you might anticipate.

But, as pretty of a picture as this roast chicken success is, there are some ugly parts not mentioned in the recipe and probably unreferenced in any book out there.  The painlessly easy part only refers to the preparation and cooking part of the entire production, as the clean up requires more elbow grease and stomaching than you may have ever exerted. When the instructions tell you to let your chicken sit on a cutting board so its juices can settle, it doesn’t follow with a warning that those same juices will gel and gross you out when you go to wipe it down.

Then, there’s the epic task of scrubbing the roasting pan where all of the fat has cemented itself to the bottom of it. Good luck. I’m not even sure if I took everything off, and I’m pretty sure the pan is warped from its lengthy exposure to the 425-degree temperature.

If I were to write a whole book on a roasting a chicken, I would first say this to my readers: crack a window, turn on a fan, or slide open the screen door. Why? Well, as satisfying as it is to take in the pleasing aroma of herbs and oil during the roasting process, it’s not as lovely the next evening. As logical as this advice sounds, it’s the last detail you’re likely to think about – I sure didn’t. And, the success of producing a perfect roast chicken should not be outdone by the annoyance of potent, lasting odors that won’t go away. There’s no way to escape them if you don’t whisk in any fresh air — unless you bake a cake.  But, that might just steal the chicken’s thunder.

The ’97 Roast Chicken

Adapted from Martha Stewart’s Living, September 1997

5-6 lb. defrosted chicken

6 sprigs of fresh rosemary

5 large peeled garlic cloves

1-2 fresh lemons

2 medium onions (optional if roasting pan has a rack)

1 tbsp. softened unsalted butter



Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Remove the chicken from the refrigerator, and let it stand at room temperature for a half an hour. Then, rinse the chicken inside and out with cold water. Dry with paper towels. Move to a cutting board and tuck the tips of the wings under the bottom to keep them from burning.

If your pan does not have a roasting rack, Martha’s recipe suggests slicing two medium onions in two rows to form a bed for the chicken to add flavor and provide a rack if there isn’t one. The onions can also support the chicken on the rack if you so choose.

Put 3 large peeled garlic cloves, 4 sprigs of rosemary, and 1 lemon inside the chicken’s cavity. Roll the lemon back and forth and pierce it with a fork to help release its essence.

Thinly slice the remaining two cloves of garlic and break apart the remaining 2 sprigs of rosemary into quarter inch pieces. Then, gently loosen the skin from both sides of the breast without tearing the skin and place the garlic and rosemary between the skin and meat.

Place the chicken onto the roasting rack or bed of onion slices breast-side up. Then bring legs forward, cross them, and tie them together with a bout 18 inches of kitchen twine. Spread butter over the entire exposed surface of the chicken. Season well with salt and pepper.

Roast chicken for about an hour and a half. The skin should be crisp and a deep golden-brown color, and the juices should run clear when the chicken is pierced. Insert an instant-read thermometer to ensure the chicken is finished cooking. The deepest part of the breast should be 180 degrees, and the deepest part of the thigh should be 190 degrees. Be careful not to touch any of the bones with the thermometer because they conduct heat and will give you a false reading.

When the chicken is done cooking, remove it from the oven and then the pan and place on a cutting board with a well to catch juices. Let it stand at room temperature for 10 to 15 minutes. The juices, which rise to the surface when cooking, will settle and redistribute evenly throughout the chicken.

Once cool, untie the legs of the chicken. Remove the lemon, garlic, and herbs from the cavity. Carve the bird and serve.

Any flavored rice dish pairs well with roast chicken. I simply cooked a box of herb and butter Rice-a-Roni. You could also prepare a couscous box mix. Or, you can go the traditional route and serve potatoes and carrots with your chicken. Any kind of comfort food will enhance the overall effect of the meal.

Just not the pulp

I’ve been purposely dodging the orange for quite a while now. I sort of awkwardly avoid them, kind of like spotting a former fling from afar and then pretending you did not see them.

I met and fell in love with the orange as a kid, especially when its center was stuffed with sugar cubes so that when you squeezed it, a sweet syrup would erupt forth. But, over the years, I grew tired of the peeling, the separating of the seeds from its flesh, and the tendency for its tart nectar to gush everywhere, resulting in a sticky residue on anything it splashes onto. For me, most times, it’s more work than it’s worth. (I’m not the girl who watches movies with a bag of Sour Patch Kids in her lap.) Nowadays, I pass by them in the grocery store for less fussy fruits like apples or pears. It is a rare occasion that I sit down to an orange. I am put off by its airs. Still, I like oranges, I just don’t love them anymore. Hence, the premeditated exit strategies at the market.

But, then, I saw recipes for candied citrus peel and an orange tart in the January/February issue of Martha Stewart’s Everyday Food digest, and I couldn’t wait to tear open an orange and let its juices run between my fingers as I pulled it apart. I became even more excited about oranges when my grandma saddled me down with five fruits from her tree. When you don’t have a yard of your own, any homegrown fresh fruit is a rare treat that deserves a worthy use of its flavors.

Well, after almost two weeks of idling on the kitchen counter, I finally (Yes, it would seem that I am somewhat of a lazy cook) pared those oranges into its parts. I really wanted to make the tart. I really did. But, I knew no one else would eat it but me. And, for time’s sake, I did not want to waste it for a tart that no one else would eat but me. So, I committed to making the candied orange peels as I had originally planned and decided to make a fruit salad with the leftover meats.

After almost two hours of peeling, slicing, boiling, and ladling, I had a bowl of fruit salad with apples, bananas, pears, and oranges that was fit to feed a family of five and three jam jars stuffed with candied orange peels. And, I can boast that not one part of the orange was wasted, except for the membrane that contains each segment. The fruit salad was a winner, while the candied orange peels were an overall disappointment. Martha’s recipe instructs you to pare the peel from the fruit, while taking care to avoid shaving off any of the white pith. I’ve pared oranges before, but I’m no master, and I will bet that most readers of Everyday Food are no surgical wizards either. So, admittedly, during the process, I took off some of the pith with my peel, and as a result, just as the recipe warns, my candied peels were bitter and mushy. I had expected something more sweet – like candy – but these guys are like sad, wilted flowers or just unappetizing gummy words.

I haven’t thrown them away, yet. I am hopeful they can be saved by mixing them into an oatmeal cookie batter. Coincidentally, I just discovered a wonderful recipe at Smitten Kitchen for a batch that will serve as a solid host for this experiment.

Also, I think this recipe could have turned out better if I had used a vegetable peeler, instead of ambitiously and proudly believing I could thinly slice the rind off. It’s certainly an “A-ha!” moment. And, if I do return to this recipe, I might try to sprinkle the glazed strips of peel with some sugar, cayenne pepper, and paprika a la Trader Joe’s dried chili spiced pineapple bites. They are like potato chips, you cannot eat just one. I mean it. The bag is gone within a half-hour sitting of The Big Bang Theory. Unlike the three jars of candied orange peel currently sitting on top of my refrigerator –  you only want to eat just one.

Candied Orange Peel

Adapted from Everyday Food, January/February 2010

4-5 oranges

1 ½ cups sugar (1/2 cup reserved)

With a sharp paring knife, or vegetable peeler, cut away peel, leaving most of the white pitch on the fruit.  Slice peel lengthwise into ¼-inch-wide strips.

In a medium pot of boiling water, cook peel until tender, about 10 minutes.  With a slotted spoon, transfer peel to wire rack set over brown paper shopping bags or anything to catch drippings.  Spread in a single layer to dry slightly, about 15 minutes.

In the same pot, bring 1 cup sugar and 1 cup water to boil over high, stirring to dissolve sugar. Add peel and boil until it turns translucent, and somewhat glassy, and syrup thickens, 8-10 minutes. With slotted spoon, transfer peel to wire rack, separating the pieces as needed.

Let peel dry 1 hour. Toss with ½ cup sugar to coat. To add a touch of spice, add ¼-1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper and ¼-1/2 teaspoon paprika to sugar, then toss with peel.

Store peels in an airtight container (i.e. used jam jars) at room temperature for up to 3 weeks.

Fusilli, it’s Lasagna.

Fusilli, it’s Lasagna. How are you?

Fantastic, I’m just here with my brothers.

I have called to tell you that I will be at dinner tonight, stacked upon layers of tomato sauce and cheese.

Well, la-dee-da.  Last week, the Barefoot Contessa tossed me in duck fat with capers for a pasta salad that Jeffrey gobbled right up.

Yea, he ate it up for the cameras so the Barefoot wouldn’t banish him to the couch for eternity.  Besides, we both know the people love a slab of toppling lasagna noodles drenched in a hearty red sauce with a crusty layer of cheese on top.  We are on a first name basis.


Oh Fusilli, now don’t go throwing yourself into a pot of boiling water.


Yea, no fusilli in any dishes cooked here tonight. And, I know pasta would never speak to each other, but sometimes it’s fun to play with your food (or imagine them in a dialogue).

I have called on lasagna, as he will no doubt brag about.  The flat noodle with a generous surface area really does make for a satisfying casserole dish.  Plus, the no-boil option is hard to resist when you’re looking for a shortcut.  But, I will add that I do like how fusilli rolls off of the tongue – right out of Donnie BrascoFusilli. Fuguesi.

For tonight’s lasagna (also, fun to say), I took a gamble with the sausage, basil, cheese version off of epicurious.com, which received a commendable four-fork rating.

I wanted a recipe with a sauce made from scratch, and this one incorporates basil for some added brightness.

When it came time to do the deed, I continuously tweaked the recipe as I assembled my dish.  Let me rephrase that, I tweaked it so that it wouldn’t take as long to make.  For instance, instead of Italian sausage, I opted for Italian-seasoned ground turkey to save time. (The recipe says to break up the sausage meat from its casings – I eliminated a step.)

For the cheesy mixture, the recipe calls for 1 and ½ packed cups of basil finely chopped in the food processor. I don’t own a food processor, so I knew I would have to manually mince my basil for the ricotta filling. Though, in an effort to save time (and a result of pure laziness), I settled for 15 large-sized leaves. Needless to say, one of the headlining ingredients hardly made a showing in the finished product. In the age of 30-minute meal preparation, I just did not have the desire chop the entire batch of basil by hand. I suppose it’s time to leave frugality at Target’s front door and purchase the 10-cup Black & Decker Power Pro.

But, lack of basil flavor aside, this lasagna is simply sinful.  It oozes with a cheesy creaminess that floats on your tongue.  The sauce is a perfect balance of herbs and spice.  I should have broken up the ground turkey into more miniscule pieces so it’s less noticeable when the lasagna is sliced, but I wasn’t plating this for a panel of Top Chef judges.

And, one of my favorite things about lasagna, including this one, is that it tastes just as sublime cold as it is warm.  I find myself cutting slivers of it while I wait for my larger serving to heat up in the microwave.  But, to avoid concerned and perplexed looks from neighboring cafeteria patrons, I will reserve this dining behavior for the confines of my kitchen only.

Hurried Homemade Lasagna

Adapted from the February 2000 Bon Appetit recipe on epicurious.com

It’s worth trying with basil if you own a food processor, but I’ve omitted it from my version since I didn’t think it made much of an impression.  And, frankly, I didn’t miss it.  I, also, wanted this recipe to be no-kitchen-gadget friendly, and I doubt anyone wants to mince 1 and 1/2 cups packed basil.

I, also, substituted ground turkey and reduced the baking time.


2 tablespoons olive oil

1.25 pounds package of Italian seasoned ground turkey

1 cup chopped yellow onion

3 large garlic cloves, chopped

2 teaspoons dried oregano

1/4 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper

1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes with added puree

1 14 1/2-ounce can diced tomatoes with green pepper and onion (do not drain)


1 15-ounce container part-skim ricotta cheese

1 1/2 cups (packed) grated mozzarella cheese (about 6 ounces)

3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese (about 2 ounces)

1 large egg

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper


12 (or more) no-boil lasagna noodles from one 8-ounce package (Pasta Barilla is one option)

3 cups (packed) grated mozzarella cheese (about 12 ounces)

1 cup grated Parmesan cheese (about 3 ounces)

Nonstick olive oil spray


Heat oil in heavy large pot over medium-high heat. Add ground turkey, onion, garlic, oregano and crushed red pepper and sauté until turkey is cooked through, mashing turkey into small pieces with spoon, about 10 minutes. Add crushed tomatoes and diced tomatoes with juices. Bring sauce to boil. Reduce heat to medium and simmer 5 minutes to blend flavors. Season with salt and pepper. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Chill until cold, then cover and keep chilled.)


In a medium bowl, mix ricotta, mozzarella, Parmesan, egg, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper until blended.  Texture should be chunky.


Preheat oven to 375°F. Spread 1 1/4 cups sauce in 13x9x2-inch (or 13x9x2.5-inch) glass baking dish. Arrange 3 noodles on sauce. Drop 1 1/2 cups filling over noodles, then spread evenly to cover. Sprinkle with 3/4 cup mozzarella cheese and 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese. Repeat layering of sauce, noodles, filling and cheeses 2 more times. Top with remaining 3 noodles. Spoon remaining sauce atop noodles. Sprinkle with remaining cheeses. Spray large piece of foil with nonstick olive oil spray. Cover lasagna with foil, sprayed side down.

Bake lasagna for 40 minutes. Transfer to work surface, carefully uncover, and let stand 15 minutes before serving.

Cake Bosses Crumb Coat

  I have a deep-seeded desire to own a bakery someday.  So, in an effort to sort of test my abilities, I signed up for a cake decorating class hosted by the Learning Exchange    based  here in Sacramento.  Sure, I’m no stranger to the boxed mixes and canned frostings.  Funfetti, anyone?  Once, I even prepared chocolate frosting from scratch.  I know cake decorating isn’t  rocket science, though Duff and his Ace of Cakes crew turn out some breath-taking edible creations, but I wanted to learn some tips and tricks of the trade. 

 Believe it or not, but a cake’s crumbs can be held hostage and barred from infiltrating the frosting!  All it takes is a protective crumb coat.

 It acts like a primer before a coat of paint.  An initial, light frosting of the cake (bald spots are allowed), followed by a 15 to 20 minute time-out in the fridge keeps those crumbs  suspended and, hopefully, unable to sneak into the final layer of butter cream. 

 The entire class kept a close, competitive watch on their neighbor’s crumb-coating skills.

 “Oh, yours looks very good.” 

 “Oh, no. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ll probably feed it to my dog later.”

 Once the crumb coat sets, the rest of the frosting gets loaded onto the cake.  This is the time to go overboard, apparently, as I ended up with a three-feet thick layer of butter  cream.  It was too much by my standards, and I have a borderline addiction for frosting.

I suppose I could have shaved more frosting from the cake, as our instructor expertly demonstrated for the class by holding her spatula in place while spinning her cake stand.  On my first try, I just couldn’t trim my cake to perfection using this technique.  Surprisingly, the sides were decent while the top became decidedly domed and dimpled.  I twirled and I twirled that cake so it would flatten like a pancake, but it stubbornly remained bulbous.  Perhaps, subconsciously, I gave up so I could move onto the piping and rosettes.  

Overall, I am proud I frosted a cake with more diligence and precision than I ever have in my life.  As for the cake itself, I’m not especially fond of it.  Its crumb is dry, the frosting is not paved as smooth as I would prefer, and it looks like it should sit on top of a prim and proper wedding cake. 

The class and my cake convinced me that if I ever open a shop, I want to offer a product that is as appealing to the stomach as it is to the eyes and taste buds.  Most people leave a considerable amount of frosting behind, anyhow.  Patrons should leave my store strolling merrily, free of any side aches, and their plates left with only a tidbit of crumbs. 

As for recipes for the cake and frosting, I’m not going to post them.  I wasn’t all that impressed with either.  Go frost your favorite cake, instead.  Or, get started on that pie…   


My Bloody Cupcake

What they don’t tell you is that it’s messy – and pricey.  No matter how careful you work, the cutting board will end up a masterpiece of abstract art and the surrounding appliances will become splattered with remnants of a bloody good batter.  Then again, Halloween is an occasion that calls for a murderous baking scene that leaves you with a cupcake so vibrantly red and lush that it’s worth the stains and the $8 for two miniature – we’re talking nano-sized – bottles of food coloring.

Whining aside, it’s easy to understand why all of red velvet’s pitfalls are left unmentioned from the many recipes and blog entries that fuss over its grandness.  It’s a dense matrix of finely woven red crumbs that surprises you with its cocoa-flavored bite.  Or, does it?  I’m not sure how it is determined how much cocoa is needed to achieve the appropriate hint of chocolate, but I’ve never found red velvet cake to taste particularly chocolate-y, and the Magnolia Bakery recipe I used is no different.  To me, red velvet’s reputation results from whatever creamy frosting is sitting atop of it.  The taste buds become too overwhelmed by the soft, delicate cake and its sweet, buttery topping that they struggle to find those fudge-y flavors.

Red Velvet Cupcakes II

With that said, I still wanted to produce an adequate canvas for the eyeball cupcakes I had seen on Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP blog.   Just like the finished product, the assembly process does not disappoint.

The recipe requires you to first patiently complete the ho-hum tasks of sifting the flour and creaming the sugar with the butter before reaching for the red food coloring.  I wasn’t prepared for how much damage two 1 oz. bottles could do, so I’ll do my best to warn you here.  This stuff stained my hands, the cutting board, the small porcelain vessel I poured it into, a spatula, and probably a few other undiscerning objects.  You’ve been warned.  When it finally tinted the butter, sugar, and egg batter, it transformed that grainy mixture into a bowl of the cherry ICEE slush you slurp at the movies.

Red Velvet Batters

Then, my roommate walked into the kitchen, peered into the bowl and couldn’t decide what the vat of fire engine red goo would be.  “Are you making candy?”  No, Anna, no cherry lollipops here – just two dozen eyeball cupcakes.

Its distinctive color makes the red velvet cupcake fun.  And, the addition of Lifesaver gummy rings and some red frosting gel squiggles turn red velvet into great eyeball cupcakes – especially once you peel away its wrapper.  It’s one bloody cupcake.

Now, onto a blue velvet cake.  Or, green.

Red Velvet Cupcakes

Adapted from More From Magnolia: Recipes From The World-Famous Bakery and Magnolia’s Home Kitchen as presented on Epicurious.com

3 1/2 cups cake flour (not self-rising)

3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

2 cups sugar

3 large eggs, at room temperature

6 tablespoons red food coloring (2  1 oz. bottles)

3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 1/2 cups buttermilk

1 1/2 teaspoons cider vinegar

1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

For the eyeball details:

2 packages of Lifesaver Gummy Candies – separate the green candies from the red and set aside

1 tube of red gel frosting

1 tube of black gel frosting

Arrange the oven racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven, and preheat oven to 350°F.

To make the cupcakes: In a small bowl, sift the cake flour and set aside. In a large bowl, on the medium speed of an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar until very light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. In a small bowl, whisk together the red food coloring, cocoa, and vanilla. Add to the batter and beat well.

In a measuring cup, stir the salt into the buttermilk. Add to the batter in three parts alternating with the flour. With each addition, beat until the ingredients are incorporated, but do not overbeat. In a small bowl, stir together the cider vinegar and baking soda. Add to the batter and mix well. Using a rubber spatula, scrape down the batter in the bowl, making sure the ingredients are well blended and the batter is smooth.

Line muffin pan with paper liners and fill each cup about 3/4 full with batter.  Bake cupcakes for 20 minutes, switching positions halfway through baking, or until a tester comes out clean.   Let cupcakes cool before frosting.  (I used Duncan Hines Classic Vanilla frosting, but you can use whatever suits your palate.)

To decorate the cupcakes as eyeballs, frost the top and add a Lifesaver candy in the center.  Affix it so the smooth side faces you.  Insert black gel frosting to the candy’s center for the pupil.  Then, draw zig-zag lines away from the Lifesaver center – about 5 or 6 in total.

This batter produced 3-dozen cupcakes for me, but the recipe says it should produce 2-dozen.  So, distribute the batter according to what size cupcakes you desire.