Six years ago, Jason built three raised garden beds in our backyard, and we planted our first garden. It proved to be our most bountiful crop to date – beginner’s luck perhaps – and tomatoes and peppers appeared on the vines for months and months until I was weary of them come October. (Oh, to have the problem now.) The garden project was inspired in part by Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,” in which she chronicles a year of growing, making and cooking her own food. One chapter discusses making cheese at home, and I overzealously decided I, too, would start making my own cheese. I bought a fancy kit that included everything you needed to make several soft and hard cheeses. I started with mozzarella, supposedly one of the easier cheeses to make. I tried different milks (the less processed and pasteurized the better), but all of my attempts lacked the desired texture and flavor. I never got around to trying any of the hard cheeses after reading they were difficult. Kingsolver herself admits this. Given my lack of success with the mozzarella, I decided to leave the cheese-making to the experts.
Today, I’m of the firm mind that, even if you love being in the kitchen, not everything needs to be made from scratch to create an exceptional meal, especially if you have a gaggle of children at your feet — my reality a portion of the day. Shortcuts are welcome and necessary. Dried, canned or fresh beans. Canned tomatoes or fresh tomatoes. Boxed or fresh pasta. We’re all doing our best, yes. Yes.
Last year, though, I made mental note of a homemade ricotta recipe circulating magazines and the web because it looked easy, as in no-fail easy. During a trip to Louisville in late 2014, two ricotta dishes inspired me to revisit cheese-making. At The Garage Bar, my friends and I enjoyed an afternoon appetizer of ricotta served alongside roasted beets and bread. At Proof on Main, we ordered a memorable baked ricotta dish topped with fresh horseradish and oregano.
The Garage Bar. Louisville. Basil gimlet in hand. Ricotta appetizer not pictured (probably already eaten).
Everyone needs a simple, elegant hors d’oeuvre in their repertoire, a recipe they don’t have to overthink and that doesn’t require a grocery store run. Gougères, French cheese puffs, are savory pastry clouds made of eggs, milk, flour, cheese and butter. For dinner parties, these airy, bite-size puffs are an ideal, light starter for guests to nibble on while you’re wrapping up your preparations. Adults and children alike love them, and they go beautifully with champagne. I often serve them alongside cake at my kids’ birthday parties.
Gougères can be elegantly piped (as pictured) or dropped in spoonfuls. They can also be made ahead – once baked, you can freeze and reheat them in the oven. I’ve found the reheated puffs taste as delicious as the freshly baked ones.
The quest for a homemade soft pretzel began when I was pregnant with Maxwell. As quirky pregnancy appetites go, the image of a specific food – in this case, a soft pretzel – appeared to me one morning and didn’t vanish until the craving was satisfied. I found a recipe from a trusted source. (All hail, Alton Brown.) To accompany the pretzels, I made a cheese sauce of the neon-orange, processed variety. I make no apologies in the name of maternal health. The combination was sublime.
Then I had the baby, winter turned into spring, and when summer hit, I longed to grill. But our grill bit the dust this year – RIP. So, pretzel rolls seemed like a good way to dress up a stovetop burger. However, I wasn’t blown away by the first pretzel bun recipe I tried even though it was a recipe specifically for pretzel buns. The next time around, I used Brown’s recipe and everyone agreed: the pretzel buns were perfect. No need to experiment further.
I began this post in May with the working title, “The Way My Kids Eat Eggs,” because for years those little whippersnappers would eat eggs one way and one way only. But in the months that followed, Walker and Esme expanded their egg repertoire. Impressively, I might add and with no coaxing from me. Walker’s taken a liking to scrambled eggs: on their own, nestled in a tortilla with sausage and cheese, or alongside toast. Esme now requests demands an “egg with yolk” (fried egg), preferably runny.
I am, to put it mildly, thrilled.
Several years ago when I was out of town, Jason tried to talk the kids into eating the eggs he’d prepared (with a little milk and scrambled) by marketing them as “Papa’s Fluffy Cloud Eggs.” Tough sell.
The method I’m sharing today, still a family favorite, produces an egg with a crepe-like consistency. The key is to whisk, whisk, whisk prior to pouring the egg into a hot, butter-glazed pan, where it expands into a paper-thin disc with a glossy, yellow finish.
Two months ago my friend Angela brought over the best vegetable soup I’d ever tasted. It lasted but a day or two, and I found myself scraping the bottom of the pot for the final spoonful.
I knew Angela had adapted the recipe from a cookbook we both own – “Around My French Table” by Dorie Greenspan — so I immediately set out to make another batch. I was concerned, however, that my soup wouldn’t taste as good Angela’s, figuring she used her husband Tim’s homemade stock. It’s challenging to replicate your own homemade stock let alone someone else’s, and I knew Tim’s was likely better than most. He’s a craftsman in the kitchen, paying close attention to detail and not one to rush the process. Exhibit A: this beautiful bread he made to go along with the soup:
They didn’t use homemade stock I was relieved to learn. It was the homemade pesto stirred in at the end that was (in large part) responsible for giving the soup such incredible flavor. (After making this discovery, I started craving pesto regularly and smothered it on everything from eggs to salami.)
I’m not eager to admit it but every summer the day arrives when I grow tiresome of certain characters in my weekly vegetable box. (Ahem, okra.) I can’t imagine displaying such spoiled behavior at this point in the year when my beloved CSA has yet to distribute its first box of spring vegetables and many of my northern friends are still shoveling snow. But I know the day will come when I will stare at a pile of okra and long for a new way to cook it, incorporate it, do something different with it, anything. In years past, I’ve relied on my 1970s French cookbooks for long-forgotten, delicious ways to cook prolific seasonal vegetables such as squash and zucchini.
I’m thrilled to have some new inspiration in the form of a recently acquired cookbook, The New Southern Table by Brys Stephens, which was nowhere on my radar until a few weeks ago when my friend Laura Kate (she, who recently gave a most inspiring Ted Talk) posted instagram photos from Stephens’ book signing. Not a week later, as serendipity would have it, I received this rad cookbook, a signed copy no less, as a birthday present from my dad.
The New Southern Table is divided into 13 sections, each focusing on a different southern food staple: sweet potatoes, okra, collard greens, watermelon, pecans and others. Summer can’t get here soon enough, as I plan to whip up Stephens’ Sicilian watermelon pudding, which is described as having an “almost candy-like quality…with slightly bitter chocolate, crunchy pistachios and chopped with pillowy whipped cream.” Yes, please. Thus far, I’ve made one recipe from the cookbook, the one I’m featuring today. I’d say that’s a telling indication I’m going to wear out this cookbook in 2014.
Most of my life I’ve preferred brownies made from a box mix to homemade brownies. Box-mix brownies have a consistently glossy, crackly top and chewy, fudgy interior while homemade brownies, mine anyway, have always come up short in the looks and taste department. Too dry. Too dense. I’m not alone in my preference. Several years ago, Cooks Illustrated published a feature on how to achieve a homemade version of — believe it or not — brownies made from a box mix. Yes, the kind you haphazardly sling off the grocery store shelf into your cart only to discover months later when you have a hankering for brownies that you have no vegetable oil.
Walker’s school held a chili and brownie cook-off* in January (about two weeks after this guy made his debut), and Walker wanted to make brownies. In search of the best brownies in the world (taking an internet search tip from my father), I landed on a brownie recipe tested and approved by several reliable food bloggers. Amateur Gourmet not-so-subtly hailed them as “The Best Brownies of Your Life.” With the base recipe decided, I began strategizing how to make the brownies stand out. Taking a cue from David Lebovitz’ dulce de leche brownies, I merged recipes, adding swirls of decadent caramel to the batter and a scattering of sea salt on top. The result? The best brownies of my life.
Tomato soup was a comforting lunch standard throughout my pregnancy. For the first four months, I wanted only the blandest version: a thin, brothy blend of tomatoes, vegetable stock, salt and pepper. But during the last trimester I craved something richer. A number of web searches led me to this creamy tomato soup, which caught my attention because it calls for shallots instead of onions (I will always take shallots over onions) and it involves roasting the tomatoes with brown sugar. The roasting intensifies the flavor of the tomatoes, thus bolstering the flavor of the soup.
I wish I had some of this soup in my fridge at the moment. I made a batch last week and it quickly disappeared while we were essentially trapped at home, all five of us, during a snow and ice storm that shut down Birmingham for several days. The city is up and running, but we (Jason and I) are currently in the zombie zone here at Chez Brouwer. Our son, Maxwell William (sometimes “Wells” for short), was born three weeks ago.
Photo by Jennifer Alsabrook-Turner
I have less than eight weeks remaining until the newest member of our family arrives. In the interest of full disclosure — since this is a food blog after all — I’ve had more food aversions than cravings this pregnancy. I’ve basically experienced seven months of general disinterest in food. A few weeks ago I even encouraged Jason to eat the bacon out of my salad. I willingly gave away bacon! I don’t get it either.
Here I am in our backyard at approximately 28 weeks — picture taken by my son, Walker. Bang trim, approximately 6 weeks overdue.
I have experienced a few cravings, although they certainly haven’t fallen into the kale or quinoa category: chocolate croissants from my favorite local bakery, donuts from wherever/whenever — just bring the pregnant lady some donuts, raw oysters (I have not partaken but am planning oysters and champagne as my first dinner on the town after baby arrives), bread and olive oil, and… the star of this post: lasagna Bolognese.
I was tempted to call this cheesecake “Ultimate Pumpkin Cheesecake” or something similarly over the top, but thought better of it. I’m skeptical of recipes with boastful titles. (Except when they’re my own, of course.)
My brothers and I like to tease our dad because whenever we compliment something he’s made – a cherry pie, for example – he’ll say, “You know how I found the recipe? I did a search for WORLD’S BEST CHERRY PIE.” A few weeks ago someone landed on my site after googling “best fish recipes in the world” and I seriously wondered if it was him. Growing up, Dad loved to contribute recipes to the church cookbook, but I think his enjoyment in developing the recipes was secondary to his love of naming them: “Pastor’s Precious Lasagna”… “Sumptuous Stir Fry”… and this gem:
I could argue this cheesecake deserves some kind over-the-top title. It is decadent. A spiced gingerbread crust serves as the base for a cream-cheese-pumpkin filling accented by cinnamon, cloves and ginger. Over the years, I’ve been disappointed in pumpkin cheesecakes that tasted more like pumpkin pie than cheesecake. This recipe has just the right pumpkin-to-cream-cheese ratio. The cheesecake is topped with tangy, vanilla sour cream and a salted caramel drizzle. It’s one of our holiday standards.