Little Black Dress of Desserts

We love our nuts in the Pacific Northwest, especially hazelnuts. When you throw in a little chocolate even the French would agree life doesn’t get much better.

Here’s a chocolate-nut torte I have been making for so long, I have no record of the original source.  What I do know is this combination has been making folks happy for quite a while.  A chocolate center is surrounded by a bottom citrus laced cookie crust and crowned with a gooey, crunchy, layer on top.

choc-nute-torteIt is easy on the cook because it is made in three simple steps.  The crust is a snap with the help of a food processor. It’s pressed into the bottom of a springform or other easy access pan and briefly baked until set.

Hot out of the oven, a few handfuls of excellent chocolate are scattered across the crust, left briefly to melt, then spread evenly across the bottom.

Meanwhile, the top layer is whizzed up in the same food processor bowl. A couple of eggs are whipped well, brown sugar, a few dry ingredients are added to stabilize the batter, and chopped nuts are thrown in to pull it all together. In the blink of an eye, it is spread over the chocolate and back in the oven it goes for a brief 20 minutes.

Beyond this simple execution, the torte is nearly indestructible—especially if kept in its protective pan for transport. It does not need to be refrigerated for a day or so. Take it down the road to a potluck or dessert at a friend’s house. Unmold to a platter, give it a light dusting of confectioners’ sugar, and finish with a sprinkling of nuts. You’ve got a dessert for all occasions.

Chocolate Hazelnut Torte

Ingredients
Crust
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons grated orange rind
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup chilled butter, cut up
1/2 package semisweet chocolate chips (6 oz.)
Filling
2 large eggs
1 cup light brown sugar
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 cups hazelnuts or walnuts, chopped (6 oz.)

Additional:  powdered sugar for dusting,  toasted nuts for garnish

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 375° F.
  2. For crust, combine flour, sugar, grated rind and salt in food processor; cut in butter and whirl until crumbly.  Press evenly on bottom of 8″ or 9″ springform or tart pan.  Bake at 375° F for about 10 minutes, until firm to touch.
  3. Sprinkle with chocolate chips, let stand 2 minutes to melt the chocolate; spread evenly over the crust with spatula.
  4. For filling, beat eggs until frothy; add sugar, flour, baking powder, salt and vanilla, and stir until smooth.  Fold in nuts.  Spread over chocolate.  Bake at 375° F for 20 minutes longer, until the top is firm and golden.
  5. Cool completely.  Remove from pan and dust lightly with powdered sugar and top with nuts. Store in cool place up to 24 hours, do not refrigerate.  Serves 8.

Magic Moments

It was early evening. An impromptu visit for tapas at La Rambla Restaurant in historic McMinnville turned out to be an utterly magical experience.  Their small plates of brilliantly flavored dishes are aptly described as Northwest inspired cuisine from Spain.

La Rambla is well known for their Wine Spectator award winning regional and Spanish wine list. It’s a thoughtful volume expressly selected to enhance a varied and robust spread of foods. The restaurant is a welcoming place: gorgeous luminary pendants suspended from the high ceiling cast a warm ambiance while guitar music drifts by in the background. It’s all beautifully orchestrated for conversation and fine cuisine.

As you would expect, the seafood is mouth-watering.  Consider Grilled Local Oysters with cava gastrique, truffle snow, and roasted garlic snow, or Fried Calamari served with red aioli, onions, peppers and chives.  There’s even an assortment of paella offerings to mull over (allow 45 minutes lead time).

la-rambla-tapasWe nibbled on house smoked almonds while awaiting the arrival of Pork Migas, a bonanza of house smoked pork, bacon and chorizo, filled in with fried bread and pimenton. The Sautéed Green Beans showcase al dente beans topped with melting Valderón blue cheese and hazelnuts. Both are rich and shoutingly good!

I always appreciate the thoughtful addition of alternative beverages. Offered here, an assortment of lightly sweetened fruit flavored house sodas. I opt for the rhubarb with bitters and soda water, a balanced blend well suited for lively tapas.

Darkness had settled as we left the building and headed out into the rain soaked night. The starlight sky was actually a magical light show amid the profile of historic buildings. Above, a network of twinkling lights dotted the web of tall trees, then the sparkles seemed to dart and dance their way down the street and disappear into the distance.

Happy Birthday, Oregon!

The state capitol was abuzz with activity yesterday in celebration of Oregon’s 158th birthday.  oregon-flagWe were one happy family: visitors, locals and various groups gathered shoulder to shoulder with our legislators.  Smiles were broadly shared and cake was enjoyed by all; a far cry from the chaos running concurrently on the federal level.

Here’s a little bit of trivia I unearthed, a claim unique to our state. It’s one more reason why this is such a special place to live. Did you know the humongous fungus of eastern Oregon is regarded as the largest single living organism in the world? That’s right, the ancient fungus has tentacles that can spread underground for acres and has been known to weigh well over 20,000 pounds!

Disclaimer: since Culinary Distractions is primarily a place of food topics and interest, there will be no shared photos of this humongous fungus here, just the facts.

buffalo-beanballsOn the food side, I’d rather focus on the prettier more edible mushroom that reside in Oregon. Many have been discussed previously here, so today we will stay with the ubiquitous cremini.

Creminis are great all-purpose mushrooms; they are firm, throw off little liquid when cooked, and have superb flavor. This vegetarian meatball variation was a surprise hit at a recent Super Bowl spread.

The combination of cremini mushrooms and cannellini beans holds together amazingly well, creating a flavorful canvas for other sauces. The tasty balls are bathed in a zippy Buffalo Wing Sauce and the standard chicken element is hardly missed!

Mushroom Buffalo Balls

Inspired by Veggie Burgers at Betty Crocker.com
Ingredients:
1-1/2 cups cooked cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
8 medium fresh cremini mushrooms
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 egg
3/4 cup panko bread crumbs
2 teaspoons canola oil for baking pan
Buffalo Wing Sauce
2-3 tablespoons butter, melted
½ cup Franks Wing Sauce
1 tablespoon Kikkoman soy or noodle sauce 

 Directions:

  1. In food processor bowl, place beans, sliced mushrooms, garlic, smoked paprika, coriander, cumin, salt and pepper. Cover; process with on-and-off pulses about 45 seconds, until coarsely chopped.
  2. In bowl stir bean mixture with egg and panko bread crumbs. Shape into about 24 – 1 inch balls with hands. Can be chilled at this point up to 1 day ahead; pack balls tightly together to hold shape.
  3. Oil a baking sheet and arrange the balls close together; bake at 400° F. 25-30 minutes, turning once or twice until firm and cooked through.
  4. Meanwhile prepare Buffalo Wing Sauce: heat butter until bubbly, add the wing sauce and soy sauce, stirring until bubbly and smooth.
  5. Place the hot balls in a large bowl, pour the sauce over and gently toss to coat well. Serve with blue cheese dressing and fresh vegetables.  Makes about 24 balls.

An Honest Loaf

Playing with my tiny slow cooker is much like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates.  You never know what you are going to get.

Yes, it’s definitely the surprises that keep me coming back.  If you are a fan of the English muffin loaf style of bread or New England brown bread, then take a look at this chewy, highly nutritious, richly flavored brown bread.  Did I mention easy?brown-bread-slice

Its unusual approach begins by soaking rolled oats in yogurt for several hours. Once the baking soda and flour mixture is combined with the yogurt mixture the batter goes wild. Random baby bubble emerge during the baking process to create a moist and fascinating texture.

The brown bread element comes chiefly from a hint of buckwheat flour. I keep a small stash on hand for its dark robust characteristics that make everything taste better—from noodles to crepes and breads. Of course, whole wheat or rye flour will work, too.  An addition of egg helps to stabilize and provide a hint of richness to a seemingly bland composition. oat-brown-breadThere’s enough sweetness from the brown sugar to tie it all the together, admirably offset the tang of the yogurt, and complement the oats, buckwheat, and whole wheat flours. Once ingredients are combined, the results are somewhere between a dough and a batter: there is no shaping, just carefully spoon it into the pot.

It may seem silly to be ‘baking’ in a crock pot, but I love the idea of using a mere 95 watts of power to create a substantial loaf in only two hours. Since this is not a firm dough, I butter my 2-quart crockery pot and run two folded strips of parchment crisscrossing in the bottom and up the sides to act as handles for lifting out the bread.

A common problem with bread baking in the slow cooker is that the top does not brown. One solution is a quick toasting under the broiler, which seems at odds with the whole premise. Instead, for an inviting crunch here, I opt for a light dusting of grainy cornmeal in the bottom of the pot and a sprinkling across the top before baking.

Oat Brown Bread

Inspired by Fix-It and Forget-It, Baking with your Slow Cooker by Phyllis Good

Ingredients
1/2 cup yogurt
1/3 cup milk
1/2 cup rolled oats
1 egg
1 tablespoon oil
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/3 cup mixture of buckwheat and whole wheat flour
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2-3 tablespoons coarse cornmeal for dusting

Directions

  1. Combine yogurt, milk, and oats; cover and chill for 6 to 8 hours.
  2. In a mixing bowl combine egg, oil, and sugar with yogurt; blend and mix well.
  3. Combine the flours, baking soda, and salt and stir into the liquid.
  4. Preheat 2-quart crock pot set to high; butter the crockery liner and fit it with 2 strips of parchment crisscrossed and running up the sides. Dust the bottom with cornmeal.
  5. Pour batter into the crockery pot liner and sprinkle top lightly with cornmeal. Cover the top with 3 layers of paper towels tucked under the lid to absorb moisture.
  6. Bake for about 2 hours rotating liner every 30 minutes to brown evenly, until bread pulls away from sides and tester inserted in middle comes out clean. Lift out with parchment straps onto cooling rack. If it sticks, run a knife around edges. Let cool before slicing.  Yield: 1 small loaf.

Fluffy Scrambled Eggs in a Flash

Given a breakfast choice, I tend toward poached or soft-boiled eggs, but easy scrambled eggs have their place, too. Especially if they are moist and creamy.

I suspect I’ve been influenced by my dad who preferred his scrambled eggs gently cooked in a double boiler, untouched by the heat of the simmering water below. In this slow luxurious process they gently form moist, fluffy, glistening curds. They were always outstanding, but it could have been due to the generous amount of butter and cream he used.scrambled-eggs

In my microwave tinkering, I have discovered this highly satisfactory version of scrambled eggs. Even though they are cooked on high heat, the practice of brief heat spurts followed by gentle stirring seems to make a difference. The curds don’t have a chance to form dry blocks of lifeless eggs.

The results: an individual portion of soft, moist, glistening egg curds made in two minutes. Please note that microwaves vary, use this as a guide and adjust accordingly. Also, suggestions for larger quantities follow.

Personal Fluffy Scrambled Eggs

Adapted from Not Your Mother’s Microwave Cookbook by Beth Hensperger

Ingredients
½ teaspoon butter, melted in a microwaveable mug
2 large eggs
1/4 cup milk or water
dash salt and pepper
optional: 1 teaspoon chopped green onion, 1 teaspoon grated cheddar cheese

Directions
1. Spread the melted butter around the interior of the mug.
2. In a small mixing bowl beat the eggs with liquid, salt and pepper and pour into the buttered mug.
3. Microwave uncovered on high for 45 seconds. Remove and stir with fork, mixing the set portions from the outside edge into center, then pushing the center back out to edge.
4. Microwave on high another 30 seconds, then if using add the onion and part of the cheese and stir gently.
5. Resume cooking for 20 seconds more, give a light stir and top with more cheese. Eggs should no longer be runny, but moist, glistening and puffed. Let stand 50-60 seconds to firm the eggs.
Yield: 1 serving.

Note: For larger quantities, use 2 tablespoons liquid per egg. Add herbs, meat, cheese, vegetables etc. 30 seconds before the eggs are done and still runny. Cook 4 eggs for 1 3/4 – 2 minutes, 6 eggs for 2 1/2 – 3 minutes.

Mysteriously Marvelous Pear Italian Soda

About a month ago I wrote about the amazing pear butter that my slow cooker effortlessly pulled off while I wasn’t looking.

In the simmering process an incredible amount of liquid accumulated, which I ultimately elected to drain off rather than dilute the jam. The reserved syrup tasted so good I strained and decanted it, then set it aside to refocus on the hot pears. Armed with an immersion blender, a quick blast was all that was needed to render a silky-soft near creamy puree. But I still had no idea what I had. Did all the flavor escape into the syrup?

Once cool enough, I gave the pear butter a taste and was thrilled with the results! It needed absolutely nothing: the lemon, coriander, and cardamom all worked in perfect harmony with the pears. So thrilled was I with my good fortune, the jam became my go-to topping and the decanted syrup shifted further to the back of the fridge, pretty much forgotten until recently. That’s when I got a sudden hankering for an Italian soda.

Pear Italian Soda

Pear Italian Soda

The reclaimed pink-tinged pear syrup is a revelation. Its mysterious essence is not cloyingly sweet, it is exotic yet well-balanced with all the elegance of fresh pears. In a blind tasting I would put this syrup up against anything else on the market. Of course, I do wonder if I will ever be able to replicate it again!  But that’s another story.

Lacking this fabulous elixir, find the best pear syrup available and create your own divinely refreshing Pear Italian Soda.

Pear Italian Soda

Ingredients
cracked ice
3 – 4 tablespoons excellent pear syrup
1-2 dashes bitters
6 – 8 oz. sparkling or soda water
1 lemon slice
Directions

  1. Fill a tall glass with cracked ice.
  2. Pour in 3-4 tablespoons pear syrup, add a dash of bitters, a light squeeze of lemon, top off with sparkling or soda water to taste and stir.  Garnish with lemon slice.  Serves 1.

Slow Cooker Strategies for the Impatient

Slow cookers have had a resurgence in popularity, thanks to the slow food movement and technology.  Once referred to as a crock pot, the new breed can have all manner of shapes from oval, oblong, and round, and a variety of settings from browning to completely programmable.

In my current small space living, I was attracted by its size and the minimal power it demands. My 2-quart cooker uses a maximum of 95 watts—a light bulb can draw more than that!  In this small size, I can plan on 3 to 5 servings, depending on the menu.

Many drop a concoction of odds and ends into their slow cooker, set it on low, and 8 to 10 hours later dinner is served. Give me time, I haven’t reached the dump mode yet.

Admittedly, I’m impatient, and watching the slow cooker perform is up there with watching grass grow.  Nothing seems to be happening—especially if you keep lifting the lid.  Some warn that every time the lid is removed you lose 20 minutes of cooking time. Yes, I have learned that this can set you into a deficit mode where nothing is happening at all.

If I’m home for an afternoon, I love firing up the slow cooker mid-day and let homey aromas waft about as dinner simmers away ‘unattended’. I theorize, I’m up for just about anything that will cook on high in 4 hours or so.  Even tough country pork spare ribs become fork tender in that amount of time!

To make that happen requires a little advance planning. Avoid placing ingredients in the pot that are extremely cold or frozen. Bring them to room temperature in advance.  If working with extremely perishable items like meats, remove from fridge 20-30 minutes ahead.

Begin by preheating the slow cooker while prepping ingredients.  Lead off with items that take the longest to cook and add as they are prepared.  Pre-heat liquids before adding to pot. I keep a microwave-safe measuring container on hand for a quick reheat in the microwave.

One afternoon recently this warming Navy Beans and Kale Soup simmered away on my counter.navy-bean-kale-soupIt is nearly a no-brainer, but not quite in the ready-set-dump genre.  A couple slices of chopped bacon were added to the pot first, just enough flavor to get things going.  Once the bacon softened, the onion, garlic, and fresh dried herbs were ready for the pot. By the time they were aromatic the carrot and green pepper were prepped and dropped in. Then, the rinsed, soaked beans and about 2 cups heated chicken stock were added. This was left to simmer away undisturbed for about 3 hours (except for a quick peek/stir once an hour). Depending on the pot, more hot liquid may be necessary.

About 45 to 60 minutes before serving the cut up kale was added. Thirty minutes ahead the sausage or any pre-cooked meat items was stirred in.  Shredded Parmesan makes a terrific topping.

Navy Beans and Kale Soup, Slow Cooked

Ingredients
2 slices bacon, chop
½ small onion, chop
1 clove garlic, mince
½ teaspoon dried herbs each or your choice: rosemary, thyme, savory
1 bay leaf
1 dried hot red chile pepper, seed and crush
1 small carrot, chop
1 small pasilla, poblano or other pepper, seed, chop
1 cup navy beans, soaked overnight, rinse and drain
2 cups simmering chicken stock or chicken bouillon plus water, more as needed
salt and pepper to taste
½ bunch kale, stem and chop
2 pre-cooked andouille franks, cut into chunks
½ cup shredded Parmesan cheese, for topping if desired

Directions

  1. Heat slow cooker to high, adding ingredients as they are cut up.
  2. Add the beans, pour in the boiling stock or bouillon and simmer about 3 hours; half way add salt and pepper.
  3. About 45 to 60 minutes before serving stir in the kale. Thirty minutes out add the andouille, simmer and adjust seasoning. Serve with Parmesan cheese if desired. Yield: about 4 servings.