Tag Archives: cheese

All about eggs

It wasn’t until I was 18 and had declared myself a vegetarian that I learned to love eggs. They were cheap and they were easy. Besides, my mother had gifted me a handy little omelette pan with a Teflon surface and a hinge down the middle. With a little butter, a bowlful of beaten eggs and some grated cheddar, I became a master omelette maker.  You couldn’t really screw up.  I’d cook both sides of the pan until the eggs set, grab the handle and flip right over left to create a covered semi-circle pan with a perfect omelette hidden inside. Voila!

Once I moved to a real omelette pan, without the help of my hinged pan crutch, I discovered the complexity of omelette making. It was the fillings and my overwhelming greed for them, that was my ruin. The more onions, bacon, sausage, veggies and cheese I piled inside, the harder it became to make The Flip.

IMG_2092Truth be told, my problem was the eggs.  I really didn’t like them plain. If I’d practiced with a bowlful of very frothy, very beaten eggs, and had let them slide into a buttery, perfectly heated cast iron pan, they might have had a chance. They just needed time and singularity, so their eggy selves could focus on setting rather than accommodating all those interlopers.

But no.  I wasn’t liking that.

So I moved on to the frittata, which requires no flip and invites a lot of flavour pairings. Tomatoes, basil and goat cheese. Onions, potatoes and gruyere.  Spinach and feta.  Chorizo, sage and fingerling potatoes. The list is endless.  But still, we’re talking eggs which are either perfectly cooked or instantly ruined. The time between the two is a millisecond. I’ve made many a loaded frittata enwrapped in dry, rubbery, unappealing eggs. Ick.

IMG_2088So I moved over to poaching. Again, I was saved by a gizmo.  This time it was my grandmother Nonnie’s poaching pan, a lovely deep, copper bottom saucepan fitted with a rack in which four egg saucers nestle inside.  One fills the pan with water, covers with the egg rack and follows with a lid. Once the water comes to a boil, the hot little saucers are ready to be buttered and loaded with a freshly cracked egg.

Sensible cooks turn off the heat to manage this feat, but I preferred to dab a bit of butter inside each poaching, steaming cup, pick it up and swirl. I’d burnt my fingers doing this for serial years, swearing profuse profanities, believing all short order cookers made similar sacrifices.

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Credit: Nick Nausbaum

Then a plumber set me straight.

He had just repaired a toilet upstairs and was passing through my kitchen during a particularly raucous swearing and poaching event. He shook his head and asked,  “You don’t like to use a fork, huh?”

I shot him such a mean look of incomprehension, I’m not sure why he bothered… but he did.

“Here’s how ya do it,” he said, taking a fork and placing the middle two tines into the slot above each flat lifting surface. Woa, the fork became a handle. This mechanical feature had eluded me my entire poaching career with this pan!

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Credit: Nick Nausbaum

“I like my  yolks well done,” he said as he waved the hot poaching cup perilously close   to my face.

I, too, used to like my yolks dry and thoroughly cooked, encased by a jiggly, gelatinous white. But real egg lovers like their yolks runny, seduced by that golden, buttery elixir as it spreads over toast, rice or potatoes.

Thus, the hash.  Nick told me about his recipe the other day. It’s a hearty start to the day and makes great leftovers.  Besides, the pan is loaded with everything but eggs until the last five minutes.  Nick’s Hash needs a big, oven-safe skillet to take on all the ingredients. It must include potatoes to get dubbed a hash and doesn’t have to rely on sausage, bacon or ham. Plus, it stars black beans which call out for other southwest flavours like hot peppers, cilantro and even avocado.

Best of all, the egg cooking portion is a no-brainer. Make room in this hash for eggs by making little wells that can contain their roundness but are forgiving if it’s a bad break.  The eggs will commence cooking the minute they nestle into their wells but they will all come to the finish line at the same time thanks to your preheated oven. Just three to five minutes at 400 F promotes even egg cooking as the cheese bubbles up and turns golden brown.  Because it’s not all about the eggs, is it?

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Nick's Hash

It’s always a challenge to cook eggs for a crowd. Here’s a filling take on brunch that’s easy to assemble and finish in the oven. Sliced avocados are nice on the side.

2 tbsp olive oil

1 red onion, chopped

1 red bell pepper, chopped

2 roasted Yukon gold organic potatoes, skins on, chopped

1 jalapeno, chopped

10 grape tomatoes, quartered

½ tsp each ground roasted cumin, smoked paprika

1 cup grated Monterey Jack or Cheddar

2 cups black beans

4-6 eggs

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Fresh coriander, finely chopped

Avocado, sliced or cubed

Preheat oven 400 F.

In a cast iron or oven-safe skillet heat oil, sauté onions, bell pepper, potatoes, jalapeno, cumin and smoked paprika for 5 min. or until potatoes are browned. Add tomatoes and sauté until the tomato juices release. Turn off heat. Distribute  cheese and black beans evenly over the surface. With a spoon, create a well for eggs and crack them in. Bake in oven for 5 minutes or until eggs have set.  Season with salt and pepper.  Serve garnished with fresh coriander and sliced avocado.

A tale of two quiche

You’d think at my senior age, I’d know not to burn down my kitchen in the name of quiche.

It was a dilemma only I could manufacture. Six people were about to descend on my home for dinner. As per usual, I was running on octane, wrapping up meal prep at 60 miles an hour whilst two, deep-dish quiche peacefully baked in my oven. I remember sighing with relief as I settled the eggy creatures in my oven, calculating the expansive hour ahead. There was lots of time to get to the finish line.IMG_2765

My list was short (for me). Set the table and shake up a fresh salad dressing. Deal with a sink full of dirty dishes, wipe all the counters and set out appetizers. Whirling through the kitchen and across the dining room and back again is a dervish act I habitually spin in the nth hour.

But this time there was a catch: I smelt something.

When I peered into the oven to check on my half-baked quiche, a torrent of smoke billowed out. Oddly, butter was dripping off the crust and pooling on the oven floor, right beneath the red, hot, oven burners. I slammed shut the oven and rushed to open the sliding glass kitchen door to air out the smoke.  Mid-pull on the kitchen door, my ears were assaulted by the high-pitch scream of the smoke alarm. Instead of turning off the oven, I hit and slammed the alarm’s reset button three or four times. But it continued to wail.  I ripped the alarm right off the ceiling.

Pure manic panic flowed like a drug. I raced to my front door and commenced fanning the door back and forth like an Egyptian slave with a fig leaf – Cleopatra-style. Surely this would staunch the smoke, I prayed. Nearly hallucinating, I opened the oven again, my face assaulted by a newer, denser wall of smoke. I dipped my oven-gloved-hand into the grey mass to gently jiggle the quiche. Was it done?

IMG_2764Now who was I kidding?  Both me and my saner-self had seen the timer.  It was just 30 minutes into the one-hour bake. One jiggle of the pie sent yellow, eggy waves a coursing. Dinner for eight was doomed. If the quiche didn’t stay in the oven, despite the smoke and my concurrent mania, I’d have nothing to show for.

I was a professional, for God’s sake!

A slew of obscenities suddenly spewed from my mouth. I should have listened to my gut yesterday when I read that outlandish instruction: “Mix the pie dough by hand, pinching the fat to the size of hazelnuts with your fingertips.”

Every baker knows that hazelnuts are way too big. No wonder my rolled-out dough had huge yellow, (buttery) polka dots marring its surface like birth marks.

Like a novice, I had done what Bo Friberg deemed right on page 62 of “The Professional Pastry Chef”. I followed his Flaky Pie Dough and believed in him when he wrote “Unless you are making a large amount, always mix dough by hand.”

Wasn’t this a large amount? Aren’t these recipes for professionals, I kept wondering as I filled a huge bowl with a pound and a half of flour then laboriously broke and pinched over a pound of butter into it for half an hour to create four (count them, four) crusts.

Why had I forsaken cookbook author Bonnie Stern – with her pea-sized morsels and quick, food processor method – that had guided my pie-making career for decades?  Now a sparkling pool of fat was at the bottom of my oven, glistening ominously.

IMG_2771Despite better judgement, I continued to bake and smoke and bake, making a frenzied relay from front door to back, swinging doors madly until I saw The Flames.

At that instant, I bolted upstairs making my tenth worst decision of the day: I grabbed my plant mister. I was sliding down the stairs, arms flailing, calling out to the walls “Fire, Fire!”  when my stepdaughter Emma walked in the front door.

“The oven’s on fire!” I screamed, then yanked open the oven door, stupidly squirted water on an oil-based fire and closed the door. The flames still roared.

Resigned, I looked at Emma and said softly  “Call 911” in the calmest, most intelligent voice I’d procured in the past hour.

But no sooner did Emma reach into her purse and collect her phone did the bright orange flickering subside! Completely. We both stood staring in disbelief, waiting a whole, long minute until I opened the door, coughed through the haze and gingerly removed our dinner.

Emma opened windows. I flapped the front door.  And we laughed a smoky laugh.

IMG_2769The guests arrived 10 minutes later.  The table wasn’t set.  The salad and its dressing had to be made. The kitchen was a disaster zone: dishes, food, crumbs everywhere, not to mention the air drenched in smoke. I needed a valium but found a glass of wine instead.

“Tonight, we are dining on rare, smoked quiche,” I announced during the toast.

We dug into creamy, cheesy contents bordered by an ultra-buttery, uber-crisp crust. Not one person detected any je ne sais quoi. Several hummed about the leeks, noting their subtle sweetness.

I admit, maybe Smoky the Bear or Sparky the Fire Dog wouldn’t recommend my actions, but satiated and full, my dinner party was unanimous: those two stellar quiches were a lot better than no dinner (or house, or kitchen) at all.

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Quiche with leeks and goat cheese

  • Servings: 12, or two whole quiche
  • Print

Quiche is quick to prep (especially for visiting vegetarians) if you have a frozen crust tucked in your freezer.

2 tbsp butter

2 small leeks*, sliced

½ cup crumbled plain goat cheese OR 1 cup grated old cheddar or gruyere

4 large or extra-large eggs, beaten

¼ cup cream or whole milk

¼ tsp sea salt

Big pinch freshly grated nutmeg

Freshly ground black pepper

1 frozen, deep dish pie shell

Preheat oven 400F

In a large frying pan, heat butter at medium and sauté leeks until soft and fragrant. Remove from heat and allow to cool before sprinkling over the bottom of your frozen pie crust. Distribute cheese evenly on top. In a large bowl, whisk eggs, cream, salt, nutmeg and black pepper until frothy. Pour into pie shell, leaving at least half an inch between this liquid and the top of the crust (as the egg custard will expand and balloon over the edges if there is no headroom). Just in case, place the uncooked quiche on a baking sheet (to catch any spills)  before baking.

Bake 20-25 min or until golden brown and set. (If you see the quiche balloon or dome up during the last minutes of baking, remove from the oven immediately to prevent a split in the cooled custard.) Let it cool on a rack for 15 min before serving.

* No leeks? Substitute with ½ cup sliced shallots or onion.

 

An ode to cheese bread

Long ago, when my kids were still in grade school and I rose early every weekday to make their lunches, cheese bread was The King. It was the kind of bread that didn’t need much more than a smear of butter. The sandwich filling didn’t really count. What counted was the bread itself and mine had big, hulking chunks of old, sharp cheddar cheese. It was the kind of bread that would grease up my kids’ hands as they anxiously clutched their gourmet sandwiches in a crowded lunchroom full of underage and drooling cheese bread-eating-wannabes.IMG_6187

It took me a while to get cheese bread down. My goal was Maria’s Mythic Cheese Bread: a soft, white marvel riddled with cheesy chunks the size of marbles. The crust was dark amber and rivers of melted cheese ran in streaks down its domed sides.

Maria was my grandparents’ cook and every summer she traveled up to Lake of Bays to their sprawling cottage to assume authority over the kitchen. When bread was in the making, she closed the kitchen down like Fort Knox. All windows and doors were clamped shut. But the kitchen’s one swinging door to the dining room was seductively lacking a lock. One day I thought I’d satisfy my eight-year-old curiosity and give it a little push.

“Oh no!” squealed Maria, her plump cheeks red and flustered. “The bread’s proofing!” she howled while snapping a tea towel like a whip in my direction.

A warm kitchen was Maria’s religious rite. If the bread failed to rise, it was obviously the fault of a no-good child who’d let loose a draft assaulting her dough. She did everything in her power to humidify and intensify the room’s heat, closing all the windows and doors, cranking up the heat in the empty stove and boiling endless kettles of water – all in the middle of summer. But our taste buds totally respected every iota of her madness, since Maria’s cheddar and chive loaf was pure alchemy.

Mine would be too, after a little tinkering.

IMG_1259Parmesan Chunk and Rosemary Sourdough

My bible was Great Breads by Martha Rose Shulman. This pivotal cookbook walked me page by page through the rites of bread making, eradicating my Maria-instilled terror of yeast. I learned to use little envelopes of Fleischmann’s yeast, pouring their contents into a small bowl of water with a pinch of sugar, waiting just a minute or two for the yeast to bubble up and tell me it was alive and ready to go. Then I’d measure the flour by spooning it from the bag and filling it above the edge of a dry measure cup, shaving off the excess with the edge of the spoon’s handle.

I could have used some help in the kneading department, for a cookbook was a lousy substitute for Maria’s strong hands and knowledge. I knew a little of its rhythm from quick peeks through the cracked door, but Maria always shooed me away. I had to learn it for myself, pushing and pulling what started as a crumbly, floury mass until it morphed into a flexible ball and eventually ballooned around my fingers. Every recipe warned against over-kneading and over-flouring the counter top and only through experience could I sense where that magical line was drawn. There were many of those lines, from the right kind of flour to the right amount of time.

I’ve been baking bread for 20 years now and still perplex over the many variables of baking, but the one that made Maria frantic, turns out to be the one I choose to ignore. Bread does not need a warm kitchen to rise, unless you want to make bread fast. Over the years, I’ve chosen to make my loaves slower and slower because they taste better that way.

But let’s get back to cheese bread and the magic of Maria’s loaf. Every single bite delivered a mouthful of cheese spiked with garden-fresh chive. My grandmother grew chives as high as hay at the cottage and an addictive, confetti of chives was doused over new potatoes, devilled eggs and chicken salad all summer long.

But chives in bread are difficult to calibrate. In fact, all herbs are. Too much, you wreck the bread. Too little, it’s lost and indiscernible. Maria knew exactly how much was right but it still eludes me, so I focus on the cheese, instead.

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Most bread recipes will tell you to knead grated cheese right into the dough. Once baked, it disappears into the crumb – lunch bag letdown!

I like to cube and coarsely grate it. If it’s a straight-yeast dough, I will roll it out into a rectangle, sprinkle it with a cup or two of cubed cheddar then roll it into a loaf. A liberal sprinkling of grated cheese goes on the top of the loaf just before it enters the oven and parchment paper is a must! If your baking pan isn’t lined with this true friend of baking, all that yummy cheese will melt and attach itself to the pan rather than the loaf.IMG_1819

Once my kids were growing into full-fledged cheese bread-aholics, Maria and my grandparents were no longer coming to the cottage. Those days were gone, but I dared to fill some mighty shoes and bake bread in the same kitchen, with the windows wide open and the floor scattered with sleeping dogs and crawling toddlers. I’d whip up a sponge starter in the morning in my KitchenAid mixer adding less than a teaspoon of instant yeast to the mixture. After an hour or two at room temperature, the surface would be riddled with holey bubbles, looking like its namesake. I’d toss cupfuls of white and whole wheat flour into the bowl and let the dough hook do what Maria never taught me: knead. Once the dough had proofed once, rising up into twice its size, I’d ask my eight-year-old niece, Jessie to perform one of her favourite tasks – punching down the dough. Then Jessie and I would roll out the dough and nestle it into two parchment-lined pans.

There was always a big smile on her little face and mine when we put the loaves into that oven, the same one Maria blessed with her baking 30 years earlier. We knew some magic was about to transpire when we closed the door. And no matter how many times we did this, we always sighed in utter amazement at the beauty and achievement of our cheesy loaves emerging from the oven knowing full well they’d be wolfed down in hours and we’d be doing it all over again, soon.

IMG_1825Seven-Hour Whole Wheat Cheese Bread
Makes 2 large sandwich loaves
For best results, use organic, hard flours for this bread.

In a large mixing bowl combine:
3 cups whole wheat flour
2 cups warm milk
1 cup water
1/3 cup honey
1 scant tsp instant yeast

Using the paddle attachment, mix on low for 1 minute until smooth. Leave in bowl (covered with plastic wrap) at room temperature until sponge has lots of small bubbles on surface, about 2 hrs. Add:
1 cups whole wheat flour
1 cup rolled oats

Mix until it forms a shaggy mass and leave at room temperature for 15-30 min. Add:
1 tbsp kosher salt
1 ½- 1 ¾ cups whole wheat or white bread flour

Add flour by the ½ cup until it forms a ball. Mix at med-low speed about 6 minutes or until the bread starts to balloon around the dough hook.

Transfer to big plastic container or large bowl covered with plastic wrap. First rise 2 hours.

Divide dough in half. On a floured counter, roll one piece of dough into a 12 inch x 8 inch rectangle. Evenly scatter one cup of diced cheese on top. Roll up then shape into a loaf and place into a parchment-lined pan. Sprinkle over with half a cup grated cheese. Repeat for second loaf. OR make into cheese spiral buns by cutting one-inch thick slices from the cheese roll. Place on parchment-lined baking sheets, sprinkle over with grated cheese.

Second rise in loaf pans or as spiral buns: 45-60 minutes (or about ¾ inch over top of loaf pan). Cover lightly with oiled plastic wrap.
Preheat oven to 425 °F (30 minutes before baking)
For loaves, bake 15 minutes, reduce heat to 375°F and bake 40 minutes more or until bottom of loaves sound hollow when tapped.
For spiral buns bake at 375 F for 20-30 minutes or until golden brown. Continue reading