Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Aunt Mercee's Sour Cream Cake

While I have found many fantastic recipes in cookbooks, newspapers and magazines, some of the very best are passed from family and friends. And among family and friends, there are those who are - or were - great cooks, great bakers, or both, and probably had a "signature" dish or two that people always requested they make for gatherings. I know the my mom (who was not only a wonderful cook but also a terrific baker) received countless requests for her cheesecake, banana cake and something she called a "Mexican Wedding Cake." This is how it is; you make a dish that is a sensation and people want to come back to it again and again. It's a beautiful thing!

Ralph and his family have long talked about their Aunt Mercee's (short for Mercedes - she passed away in 2002) sour cream cake. Although Ralph's parents were Mexican, some of his mother's sisters married into Polish families. With these marriages came a wonderful sharing of culture and food. Sour cream, which is used in many Mexican dishes, is also prevalent in Polish eating. I often thought that one of the role of pierogies was to serve as a sour cream delivery system! But it also adds a great richness and moisture to baked goodies, which is why you see it in many recipes.

Ralph's family compiled a cookbook some years back with all the favorite recipes from family members - including Aunt Mercee's sour cream cake. After hearing about it for so long, we thought it was time to try to recreate it using her recipe. The cake came out beautifully - moist and well textured. I never got to try one that Aunt Mercee made, but Ralph says this one was right on - and a fitting tribute to his dear aunt.

Sour Cream Cake
2 sticks margarine
2 cups sugar
1 cup sour cream
3 cups sifted all purpose flour
6 eggs, separated
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. lemon juice
1/2 cup chopped nuts (walnuts would be good - could also use pecans) nuts are optional
3/4 cup brown sugar (combined with nuts if you are using)

Preheat oven to 350. Cream margarine. Add sugar and continue creaming until fluffy. Add six egg yolks and beat until well blended. Add sour cream, vanilla and lemon juice and beat until well blended. Add all dry ingredients (flour, soda, powder, salt) and beat until well combined. In a separate bowl, beat six egg whites until frothy. Fold egg whites into batter until combined.

In a 10 inch tube pan that has been greased and floured, pour in 1/3 of batter and top with 1/3 brown sugar and nut mixture. Put in another 1/3 of batter and top with 1/3 of sugar/nut mixture. Put final 1/3 of batter in pan and put the rest of the brown sugar and nuts on top. With a knife, swirl batter to incorporate the brown sugar and nuts throughout the cake. Bake for 1 hour at 350. Let cake cool in pan - remove and enjoy with coffee, ice cream or just have a big hunk of this moist, delicious cake! Sour cream rocks!!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Chicken Pepper Rigatoni - Pasta with Personality!

Here's a real "feed the crowd" kind of meal that goes beyond the same old pasta and meat sauce dish. Chicken Pepper Rigatoni has it all: a bright, flavorful sauce with a silky texture and a little zip, chunks of tender, juicy chicken and pasta that easy to manage! When I have a crowd coming over, Italian food is always a good option, as most people like it - and what's not to like?? Once you have all your ingredients, this dish comes together well, and  you can double it if you're expecting a big crowd.

This dish has some history in the Utica-Rome area of New York state. Called "Riggies" in its native area, I understand there is an annual festival that celebrates this dish and the local restaurants and bars compete for the "best" title. While I've never had it in New York, a wonderful aspect of cooking is that you can bring any part of the world to you by preparing certain foods.

A key ingredient is cherry peppers - either hot or sweet depending on your taste (or what you may be able to find at your local market). You actually use some of the brine from the jar of peppers in the sauce and as a marinade for the chicken. If you can only find sweet cherry peppers (that's all I could get up at the cottage, where I made this dish), then you can heat things up by adding some crushed red pepper flakes to the sauce (or not - your choice!).

Bring a big platter of this pasta to the table along with some good bread and a big salad and there will be smiles all around. If anyone leaves hungry then it's their own fault!!

Chicken Pepper Rigatoni
1 1/2 - 2 lbs. boneless, skinless chicken breast (cut into bite-sized cubes)
1 tsp. salt
1 TBSP olive oil
3 TBSP brine from jar of sweet or hot cherry peppers

Combine the above ingredients in a zip storage bag and refrigerate 30mins to 1 hour.

In a large saucepan:

2 TBSP olive oil
12 oz fresh mushrooms, quartered
1 large sweet red pepper chopped into large pieces (1 inch or so)
1 large onion, chopped into large pieces (1 inch or so)
1/2 cup diced and seeded sweet or hot cherry peppers
5 cloves of garlic, minced
2 tsp dried oregano
1 28oz can crushed tomatoes
3/4 cup heavy cream
marinated chicken
1/2 cup kalamatta olives (sliced lengthwise)
1-2 TBSP brine from sweet or hot cherry pepper jar
1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes (if desired)
salt and pepper to taste
Grated cheese (Parm or Romano)

Heat 2 TBSP olive oil in large sauce pan. Put in mushrooms and sweet red pepper and saute until soft and brown, about 8 minutes or so. Remove mushrooms and peppers and set aside. If pot is dry, put in a little more olive oil and then add onions and cook until soft and translucent. Once onions are looking good, put in cherry peppers, oregano and garlic and stir constantly for about 30 seconds. Then add can of crushed tomatoes and heavy cream. If you are putting in crushed red pepper flakes, put them in now. Stir to combine. Once sauce is together, put in chicken that had been marinating. Bring sauce to a simmer and cover pot. Chicken will take about 25 minutes to cook. Once chicken is cooked, add olives and brine from the pepper jar. Taste and add salt and pepper accordingly. Cover pot and keep sauce warm.

In another pot, bring at least 3 quarts of water to a boil and drop in your rigatoni (a one pound box). Cook according to instructions of box or as you like. Drain pasta and transfer to large platter or bowl. Add sauce to top of pasta and top with as much grated cheese as you like. Tuck a napkin into your collar and dig in!!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Pork Chops in a Polish Style

What's not to love about a tender, succulent pork chop? It seems to me that some people are choosing pork more often these days over other meats. When it's on sale, pork is very economical and it has become increasingly more lean. As a matter of fact, I've had a lot of pork in restaurants that was very dry and lifeless - a casualty of being too lean and cooked for too long. But, thoughtfully and lovingly prepared, pork is good eating.

People have asked, "Besides these chops being prepared by a Pole, what makes them Polish??" That's a reasonable question, and one that I really don't have a good answer for. I would say that the inclusion of the fried onions probably push the flavor a little more in a Polish direction than they would otherwise have without the onions. Just the same, whether these chops are full-blooded Polish or only named so by association with the cook, they are a moist, tender, "cut with a fork" piece of pleasure on a plate. Hope you enjoy.

Polish Pork Chops

6 pork chops (these should be bone-in style and not too thick)
2 eggs, beaten with 3 TBSP of water
Seasoned flour (I use Fryin' Magic, which you can find in most large stores, but feel free to use your favorite brand or make your own)
2 medium or 1 really big onion, sliced into half-rings
Vegetable or canola oil - enough to fill skillet 1/4 inch deep

Preheat your oven to 350. Take your chops out of the refrigerator about 20 minutes before you begin - this will take the chill off of them. Using a couple of pie plates or cake pans, have your egg wash (beaten eggs and water) and seasoned flour ready to go. Dip chops in egg wash, then dredge in seasoned flour. Make sure the entire chop is well coated. Put on a plate to rest and continue until all the chops are coated.

Have oil in pan heated to 350-360 degrees. I like to use an electric skillet here, but if you have a large skillet and can regulate the temperature well on your stove top, then go for it! You may not be able to do more than four chops at a time - do not crowd the pan! Brown 4-5 minutes on each side until golden brown. Transfer chops to a baking dish that has been sprayed with Pam. When all the chops have been browned and are in the baking dish, pour in a little water (no more than 1/2 cup). This will help the chops from sticking and keep them moist. Cover baking dish tightly with foil and cut six air slits in the top of the foil.

Put in 350 oven for one hour. Then turn heat down to 300 and bake another 20 minutes or so at 300. Remove baking dish from oven and carefully remove foil. If you want to REALLY Polish them up, serve with dilled sour cream on the side. Enjoy!

A Coleslaw For All Times

Now that summer is in full swing, there is any number of occasions for backyard barbecues, picnics in the park and lunching by the lake. No such outdoor eating event seems complete without a full array of salads. Pasta salad, potato salad, macaroni salad, tossed salad, etc., all seem to make appearances at summer buffets. Many salads, especially those made with mayonnaise, need to be kept chilled. A baked in the sun potato salad has spoiled many a family reunion! But, properly care for, there are few things better with a fat, juicy burger than a good potato salad.

Salads can change their personalities simply by using a different dressing. Cool and creamy can turn to sweet and sassy in no time. Coleslaw has the advantage of being equally delicious dressed with a mayo-based dressing, a cooked dressing or a vinaigrette. If you're passive about cabbage then you probably aren't much of a coleslaw fan in the first place. But, if you love cabbage, then the possibilities are endless!

I like to make a few different versions of coleslaw. This one is particularly a favorite, and every time I bring it to a summer shindig everyone devours it. You can eat it as a salad, put in on a pulled pork or barbecue sandwich. It's also great on a hot dog or grilled sausage. This coleslaw stands out because of its sweet celery seed dressing and infusion of fresh herbs...and you can make it in a jiff! Take this beautiful salad to your next party, whether it be summer, fall, winter or spring, and you'll be sure to take home an empty bowl!

Sweet Celery Seed Dressing
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup honey
1 1/2 tsp celery seeds
1 tsp dry mustard
1 tsp onion powder
1/4 tsp salt
1/3 cup vinegar (apple cider or white)
1 cup corn oil

Put all ingredients except for corn oil in blender. Blend ten seconds to combine. Turn blender on high and slowly drizzle in corn oil. You will see the mixture come together (emulsify). Continue to blend until all the oil is mixed in. Transfer to container and refrigerate at least two hours. Can be made a day in advance. Use about one cup of this dressing for one standard bag of coleslaw mix.

Coleslaw (ala Polska)

There's two schools of thought on making coleslaw.  You can buy a head of cabbage and slice, shred and dice it yourself, add in some carrots and red cabbage for color and let the good times roll. I tend to do this more in the fall when giant heads of cabbage are overflowing the farmers market and I buy three of them because they are only a dollar each.

However, there is something to be said for sheer convenience, too. There is a lot of good coleslaw mix in the salad section of the market that's washed, chopped and ready to go right out of the bag. If you are pressed for time or energy, as I was, by all means go this route.

Most packaged coleslaw mix is shredded. My preference is DICED cabbage, so I use a food chopper to make finer cuts to the shredded cabbage until it resembles a small dice. Then add in 8-10 sprigs of FRESH dill and a good handful of FRESH parsley (curly or flat, whichever you prefer). Combine herbs and cabbage mixture and then add the sweet celery seed dressing (above) and toss to coat. Serve immediately.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Viva Breakfast! Making Chilaquiles with Ralph

Whether it's for two or twenty, I love making breakfast at the cottage. But on Sunday I was glad to step back, sip my coffee and enjoy watching Ralph prepare a favorite breakfast dish - chilaquiles. This traditional Mexican breakfast is something that Ralph's mom made, and what makes his version particularly wonderful is the inclusion of his homemade salsa.

Ralph's salsa has a great smoked flavor rich with cumin, tomato, garlic, a touch of cilantro and just enough heat to make you pay attention. Using the salsa in the chilaquiles really makes it explode with flavor. But, for people who don't happen to make delicious salsa from scratch, one could use their favorite bottled brand.

Another component that really makes chilaquiles is the type of chip used. Ralph told me that sometimes his mom would make her own corn chips. We have found that the chips made at the Honey Bee Market in Detroit's Mexicantown neighborhood work beautifully. The chips are a little thicker than average and have a good hearty crunch - they hold up in the skillet with the salsa, eggs and cheese and don't get too mushy.

As much as I love waffles and bacon, I will ALWAYS sit out when Ralph offers to make his chilaquiles!


3 TBSP vegetable oil
1 large onion - diced
2 cloves of garlic - chopped
1/2 of a green or red bell pepper - diced fine
2 cups of your favorite salsa
5-6 handfuls of sturdy corn chips
6 eggs
2 cups shredded mild cheese (colby, cheddar, queso fresco, Muenster, etc)

Heat oil in electric skillet or large skillet on top of stove. Add onions and saute until soft - about 3/4 minutes. Add garlic and diced pepper - cook for one minute more. Slowly add in salsa (it will sizzle!). Mix ingredients. Add corn chips and mix to coat chips with salsa mixture. Add six eggs (you can add them whole or whisk them together in bowl before adding). Using spatula, combine ingredients well and cover skillet for a minute or so. Make sure eggs are cooked completely. Turn off  heat. Sprinkle shredded cheese over top and cover, let stand for a minute or two until cheese is melted. Cut into sections with spatula and serve. Can be topped with dollop of sour cream and sprinkle of fresh cilantro, if desired. Enjoy!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Rolling in Rhubarb? How About a Rhubarb Custard Pie?

Beside the weather FINALLY getting nice, the best part about late May and early June in Michigan is the annual harvest of rhubarb. It seems to be everywhere. Up in Michigan's Thumb, it's not unusual to see signs that say "Rhubarb" in front of homes. In one case, a sweet elderly couple had themselves a bumper crop of the tart red stalks and were selling them at the local flea market. They were bound in bunches of ten stalks - price: $1. Now, even if you don't like rhubarb you have to buy it with a deal like that!!

I've been stocking up as this really is a seasonal thing. I wash the stalks and trim them, cut them up into inch sized pieces, put them in bags and in the freezer they go. If you have room between the Cool Whip and peas and carrots for a few bags of rhubarb, you'll be glad to have them in the freezer in September when you have a hankering for warm rhubarb sauce.

Over the weekend, I thought I'd put some of my recently acquired rhubarb to use and put together a pie. There are lots of variations: rhubarb-strawberry, rhubarb-blueberry, rhubarb-pineapple (sounds crazy but it's wonderful). I decided on a rhubarb-custard pie. The rhubarb provides the tart, the custard brings home the sweet. Much like life, a fine balance of the two tastes.

Of course, this pie starts with making a crust. Most people who bake with any regularity have a go-to crust recipe. Or, some folks who bake don't want all the fuss and like the ease of unrolling a Pillsbury crust from the supermarket. This is a 9-inch double crust pie - so make your dough any way you like. Here's my recipe:

2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
2/3 cup shortening (Crisco, lard or a combination of the two)
4-5 TBSP ice cold water

Mix the flour and salt. Add a little more than half of the shortening. Cut it in with a pastry blender. When flour is looking like very coarse meal, add the rest of the shortening and continue to cut in until it is incorporated and the pieces are small - about pea size. Add cold water a tablespoon a time until dough comes together with a fork and can be formed into a ball. Cut ball in half and flatten each half into the shape of a disk. Wrap in plastic wrap and put in fridge for 30 minutes to an hour.

Rhubarb Custard Pie Filling

I can't take any credit for this recipe. It comes out of the 1950 edition of the Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book. This book was a gift from my dear cottage neighbor who always seem to find things that she knows I will love, like this classic cook book. With the shelves and shelves of cookbooks in my library, I come back to this book perhaps the most (with the possible exception of the 1953 edition of the Better Homes & Gardens Cook Book). I made a few modifications to suit my own tastes, so feel free to make it to your liking.

3 eggs
2 and 2/3 TBSP milk
2 cups of sugar (if you don't want it super sweet - cut this back to 1 1/2 cups)
1/4 cup flour
3/4 tsp. nutmeg (I replace this with 1/2 tsp cinnamon)
4 cups rhubarb, chopped
1 TBSP butter

Preheat oven to 400°F
Line pie pan with bottom crust.
In a large bowl, beat the eggs. Add the milk and mix well.
Stir in sugar, flour and spices.
Add rhubarb, stir.
Pour into pastry-lined pan.
Dot with butter.
Cover with top crust. Make a number of vent slits in top crust - make a hole in center for venting.
Bake @ 400° F until set and nicely browned, about 45-50 minutes.

It's wonderful with vanilla ice cream, but then most things are. Enjoy!

A Pot Roast In Paradise - Sunday Dinner at the Cottage

Few things really say "comfort food" better than pot roast, I think. It is certainly not new-fangled or trendy, but anyone who appreciates a meat-and-potatoes kind of meal understands that a pot roast can represent slow-food at it's best. On Sunday, with the beautiful early June weather rolling off the lake, the weekend was topped off with dinner that was as satisfying as the weekend was wonderful.

I'm lucky to have a good market in town with its own butcher who always puts out a fantastic array of offerings. When I caught eye of the wonderful chuck roasts on display, I knew what I had to do.

Sunday (or any day) Pot Roast

3-4 lb chuck roast (you could also use an "English" roast)
salt and pepper
2 TBSP vegetable oil
2 medium onions, quartered
4 whole cloves garlic, smashed
2 lbs potatoes (Yukon gold, redskins, white, peeled russets)
1 lb carrots
8 oz mushrooms, sliced
1 can beef stock/broth
water (as needed)
1 mushroom bouillon cube
1 packet of G. Washington's Rich Brown Seasoning & Broth (or a beef bouillon cube)

In a roaster pan (that has a cover) heat oil on top of the stove. When oil is hot, put in chuck roast that has been seasoned on both sides with salt and pepper. Let meat sear for about 4-5 minutes until a light brown crust is formed, and then flip and repeat on other side. When the other side is seared, take off heat. Add can of beef stock and enough water so liquid come up halfway the thickness of the roast. Add bouillon and/or seasoning mix to liquid and add onions and garlic to liquid. Cover and put in a 350 degree oven for 1:45-2 hours. Remove from oven and open cover (careful there will be a lot of steam). Add potatoes, carrots to liquid. Scatter the mushrooms on top of roast and other vegetables. Cover and return to a 300 degree oven for another hour.