Monday, September 23, 2013


I don't know about you, but I hate spending money on crackers. They're so expensive! But before you write me off as a cheapskate, Ivy Manning perfectly articulates the problem in her clever and tasty new CRACKERS AND DIPS*:  More Than 50 Handmade Snacks (Chronicle Books: $19.95; ISBN: 978-1-4521-0950-3). "The average box of crackers can cost as much as a good cheese, but turn that box around and look at the ingredients list, and you'll find they're all made with the same simple, inexpensive ingredients: flour, oil, and salt." How right Ivy is. In this her third cookbook, the Portland, Oregon-based food writer has given us a terrific collection of crackers that go with anything you want to put on them, and has thoughtfully added a group of her favorite "dips, spreads, and schemers" to give your homemade crackers the adornment they deserve." There are no preservatives, increased fat, sodium, and sugar in these crackers and every recipe is well within the skills of the average home cook.

CRACKERS AND DIPS covers many types and tastes:

*Familiar such as Tangy Cheddar Cheese Crackers or "Everything"       Flatbread Crackers        
 *International--Senbei (Japanese Rice Crackers with Furikake), Caesar's Sablés

*Healthful snacks and wheat-free crackers, i.e., Spelt Pretzel Rounds and Seeded Quinoa Crackers
*Crackers that can be made in minutes--Frico with Basil and Pappadams Three Ways and Perfect Crostini
*Dessert crackers for the sweet tooth--Animal Crackers with Zesty Lemon Frosting, Rosemary Graham Crackers with S'Mores Accoutrements and Cinnamon Pistachio Baklava Crisps

There is an equal specialness to the dips, spreads, and schemers.  Fresh Artichoke Dip, Smoked Salmon Crème Fraîche Dip, and Wasabi Edamame Schmear, would be three nice new additions to your snack or cocktail fare. Ivy says the Bacon and Caramelized Onion Jam "yields enough jam to share." Yeah sure--like I'm going to part with this fabulous recipe. Make your own!

Take CRACKERS AND DIPS with you when you're next in need of a creative hostess gift for your favorite cook. It is handsomely bound in a textured hardcover with Jennifer Altman's distinctive photographs, and is my favorite single-subject cookbook of the year. 

“Everything” Flatbread Crackers

My favorite morning treat is an “everything” bagel festooned with onion, garlic, sesame seeds, poppy seeds, and caraway; I’m hooked on their intriguing mix of flavors and textures. These elegant little crackers are an homage to those bagels, with all the delicious bagel decorations parked on top of flaky, tangy crackers made with crème fraîche. 

“Everything” Flatbread Crackers are great smeared with any creamy dip: the Cervelle de Canut (page 119) and the Smoked Salmon Crème FraÎche Dip (page 118) come immediately to mind.
2 tbsp fried shallots or dried onion flakes
2 tsp dried minced garlic
2 tsp sesame seeds
1 tsp poppy seeds
1 tsp caraway seeds
1 tsp sel gris, or other granular sea salt
2 cups/255 g unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling
1 tsp light brown sugar
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp fine sea salt
1/4 cup/60 ml crème fraîche, or sour cream
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
6 tbsp/90 ml water
1 egg beaten with 1 tbsp water
Preheat the oven to 350°F/180°C/ gas 4. Line two baking sheets with silicone baking mats or parchment paper. In a small bowl, combine the shallots, garlic, sesame seeds, poppy seeds, caraway seeds, and sel gris; set aside. 

In a food processor or large bowl, combine the flour, brown sugar, baking soda, and fine sea salt and pulse or whisk to combine. In a small bowl, whisk together the crème fraîche, olive oil, and water. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and pulse or stir with a wooden spoon until the dough comes together. Knead the dough by hand on a lightly floured surface until smooth, about 10 strokes.
Divide the dough into two balls, cover with plastic wrap, and let the dough rest for 30 minutes. Pat one ball into a small rect­angle and roll it out on a lightly floured surface until the dough is ⅟₁₆ in/2 mm thick, picking up the dough occasionally and rotating it to make sure it’s not sticking to the work surface. Alternatively, use a pasta maker following the method on page 13 until the dough is ⅟₁₆ in/2 mm thick, the number 5 setting on most machines.
Using a pastry wheel or pizza cutter, trim any irregular edges (save the scraps). Cut the dough into rectangles measuring 2 by 4 in/5 by 10 cm and trans­fer them to the baking sheet, spacing them very close together. Repeat the rolling and cutting process with the remaining ball of dough and scraps, using a second baking sheet.
Brush the crackers lightly with the beaten egg and sprinkle them with the shallot mixture. Using a flat-bottomed mea­suring cup, gently tamp down the toppings into the dough to adhere. Prick each cracker 4 or 5 times with a fork or comb.

Bake until the crackers are golden brown and crisp, 15 minutes, rotating the baking sheets once from top to bottom and from back to front while baking. Cool on racks and store in an airtight container for up to 5 days. 

*Blogger seems to be having trouble creating an ampersand symbol without additions cropping up. Must be some trouble with the HTML must be awry. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

SERIOUSLY SIMPLE PARTIES: A Worry Free Guide to Make the Season Bright!

I've recently gotten back to my blog. Working on the creation of The Oregonian Cookbook put me out of the habit of writing about other cookbooks and I've been really rusty of late. Some great cookbooks got overlooked, and one of them is my good buddy Diane Rossen Worthington's SERIOUSLY SIMPLE PARTIES, published last fall.  My bad--but I'm hoping you'll notice that we're entering the biggest time of year for parties. If any one planner/organizer/blueprint/elf-on-your-shoulder-cookbook can get you through the rigorous party, from simple to the elaborate, this cookbook takes care of every contingency.

As far as entertaining is concerned, Diane is not about stress at all, which is why she created her Seriously Simple series.  The latest in this expanding library is SERIOUSLY SIMPLE PARTIES:  Recipes, Menus and Advice for Effortless Entertaining (Chronicle Books; $24.95; ISBN: 978-0-8118-7257-7). Like Seriously Simple and Seriously Simple Holidays, this new cookbook is meant "show you how to pull together a festive meal for a small or large group that is tasty and beautifully presented, but doesn't require hours of preparation." Diane's formula really is seriously simple and if you plan any type of social event with food from a sit-down dinner, a family-style event, a buffet or potluck gathering to an outdoor party, Diane provides attainable solutions.

Once you've decided what kind of event you'll want to host, follow the SERIOUSLY SIMPLE PARTIES blueprint:  choose your menu; select your beverages; check and replenish your pantry; make those lists; prep your kitchen a week or two before the party. "The Seriously Simple Party Pantry is all about having straightforward, uncomplicated ingredients on hand that can make a bold impact," writes Diane. "Even when you are putting together only a few simple dishes for an impromptu get-together." From syrups, broths, flour, pastas and marinades to olive oils, preserved meats, soy sauce, sugar, vanilla extract and various vinegars, here is everything you'll need to have on hand. With that out of the way, Diane gives advice on the kinds of plates, glasses, linens, serving pieces, and lots of other important details that count. Stocking the bar is essential to ensure a successful event--the more done in advance, the less anxiety in the execution.

There are twenty four menus in SERIOUSLY SIMPLE PARTIES with helpful sidebars on such things as crudités, doubling recipes, or serving cheese, with mix and match menus for other events such as birthday parties, a vegetarian dinner, a seafood menu for six, a birthday shower or luncheon or a dessert party for twelve or twenty-four. Then there are Diane's Seriously Simple recipes.  Today's artisanal cocktails often mean having way too much going on in the glass.  The Red Carpet Cocktail has three ingredients and it's delicious. The Mini-Corn and Crab Cakes with Grilled Tomato Aioli, pair beautifully here. Or in season how about the Prosciutto-Wrapped Figs with Burrata, Port and Balsamic Syrup? Cucumber, Pea and Mint Soup served in cups, is a good choice for a buffet. Diane's entrees always include a spectacular baked pasta dish, and this time, it's Baked Greek Pasta, which features lamb, eggplant, red wine, and the fragrant addition of cinnamon. Oven-Baked Paella, means no last-minute stirring on top of the stove. A Butterflied Dry-Brine Turkey with Maple Butter is a tenderizing way to ensure moist breast meat with crisp skin. Grilled Tri-Tip of Beef with Herb Rub, will feed a crowd for a barbecue. The cold leftovers are just as delicious.

Most of the recipes come with party prep--savvy advice, such as when to prepare a recipe--even if it requires advance multiple steps, how to store, etc. As in all of Diane's Seriously Simple cookbooks, many of the recipes also feature "The Clever Cook Could," tricks which are loaded with ingredient substitutions, advice on doubling the amount of a recipe, ideas for ingredients that enhance a basic recipe, serving hints, or tasty accompaniments, as well as presentation tips.

There is section on lighter entrees, which make for more casual events. Side-dishes, such as Israeli Couscous with Caramelized Leeks, Carrots and Zucchini and Roasted Brussels Sprouts and Winter Squash, offer fresh ideas for this category. For a party finale, every good host needs a grand chocolate cake in their rep, and Diane has found it with the Mocha Celebration Cake. The cake and the frosting are easy to prepare and make a stunning presentation. Basics such as Roasted Tomato Jam, Romsesco Sauce, and Seriously Simple Seasoning Salt make excellent pantry staples.

SERIOUSLY SIMPLE PARTIES ought be the go-to guide we all need to make our fantasies of entertaining a reality this season.

Mocha Celebration Cake

Mocha Celebration Cake
 serves 12 to 16

My dear friend Denny Luria shared this recipe with me, and now it has become our family tradition for many celebrations. This cake consists of one large round layer, which makes it easy to frost and serve. It looks beautiful sitting on a large cake platter. I have also served it for summer buffet luncheons and at dessert parties. You will need a 12-inch round cake pan, which you can find at any cookware or restaurant supply store. Look for the chocolate covered
espresso beans at a gourmet food shop. If you have any of this left over, you can freeze it and slice it after it has defrosted.

Ganache frosting
3/4 cup baker’s or ultrafine sugar
3/4 cup whipping cream
5 ounces good-quality unsweetened chocolate, cut into pieces
1/4 cup strong coffee
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small cubes and chilled

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup plus 3 tablespoons good quality unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup boiling coffee
3 large eggs
2 cups baker’s or ultrafine sugar
1 1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Chocolate-covered espresso beans for garnish

1. To make the ganache frosting: Combine the sugar and cream in a large
saucepan over medium-high heat, stir to combine, and bring to a boil. Reduce
the heat to medium-low and simmer for 3 minutes. Remove from the heat.
Add the chocolate, coffee, vanilla, and butter and blend together, stirring
constantly until the chocolate and butter are completely melted. Let cool
and then cover. Refrigerate until the frosting has thickened, at least 1 hour.

2. To make the cake: Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease and flour a 12-inch round
cake pan. Line the edges of a 14-inch round platter with 3-inch-wide strips of wax
paper, which you will remove after frosting the cake.

3. Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt into a medium bowl. Sift the
cocoa into a small bowl so it has no lumps, and then transfer to a heat-proof 2-cup measuring cup. Pour the boiling coffee over the cocoa and stir to dissolve.

4. In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the eggs and sugar and beat on
medium speed until the sugar is dissolved, about 2 minutes. Add the butter and
beat for another 1 minute, until blended. Add the buttermilk and vanilla and blend
again for 1 minute. Add the cocoa mixture and beat until incorporated and no streaks
remain, about 1 minute. Add the flour mixture and mix until blended, about 1 minute.

5. Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan and bake for about 40 minutes, or
until a cake tester comes out clean.

6. Let the cake cool completely in the pan on a rack and then invert it onto the
serving platter.

7. With a metal spatula, frost the top and sides of the cake very thickly with half
of the ganache frosting. Let sit for 10 minutes to firm up, and then frost with the
remaining ganache. Remove the strips of wax paper and use a damp paper towel to
remove any excess frosting from the platter. Let the frosting set. Arrange a pretty
design of chocolate espresso beans on the cake, and serve at room temperature.

Party prep:
The cake may be prepared up to 1 day ahead, loosely covered, and left at room

And for more in the SERIOUSLY SIMPLE series try these: